Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Wild or tamed?
One of my favorite poets, Lisel Mueller, describes in her poem "Animals Are Entering Our Lives" how, in Illinois, "the Canada geese grow fat/on greasy leftover lunches/in the fastidious, landscaped ponds/of suburban corporations." (From Alive Together: Louisiana State University Press, 1996--highly recommended!)
I don't know if the geese of Bloomington are fat, exactly...or if they'll eat greasy leftovers. (Crows will. Crows will eat anything!) They will descend upon a discarded apple core quicker than you can blink, in my experience (and not share a bite with their goslings, either!), and I once had them rushing at me from all directions as I crackled the wrapper of a granola bar. The point is, the Canada geese of Bloomington are very acclimated to humans and human environments. As the Old Guy I met at White Oak Park pointed out, unlike the migrating ducks and grebes, the geese aren't really "wild animals" anymore.
I started thinking of all this when Greenturtle and I were strolling through Wakonda State Park in northern Missouri last Saturday. We were wondering what to eat for dinner. I suggested that Chinese food would really hit the spot.
Whipping out his new android phone, Greenturtle looked up restaurants over the Internet and saw that in Carthage, IL, on our way home, there was a restaurant called "Taste of China." At first he was cackling with glee over his high-tech product (I hate to be the one to say it, but my husband is a real technology geek), but a few paces on, he mused, "Is this taking the sense of adventure out of our lives? We're not exploring to see what we find, we're looking it up."
I thought about it. Finally I said, "Once you got that phone, the adventure was gone. Even if you didn't look it up, it would be a deliberate choice not to. So the adventure's gone either way."
At first Greenturtle didn't see my point, so I elaborated: "It's like that guy in Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless. He hated the fact that everything was already mapped out, and he wanted to be an explorer. So he went to Alaska without a map, and he died. But that didn't make him an explorer. It made him a fool."
In case you missed both the book by Jon Krakauer and the movie, Into the Wild is the true story of a young man who, disillusioned with the modern world and disappointed by his family, takes off on the ultimate road trip as a vagabond, earning his way across the country by odd jobs and the friendship of strangers. A trip to Mexico helped build up his confidence to explore the Alaskan back country, where a couple of tragic miscalculations of the landscape led to his death...unbeknownest to him, within easy walking distance of some cabins and a ranger tower that may have saved him.
Was Chris McCandless a heroic figure in the spirit of explorers and philosophers of our country's past, or a dunderhead of epic proportions? Greenturtle and I are of differing opinions. I have read the book three times, and really enjoyed it, and seen the movie once (meh...the book is better!) I think that his misadventures were marked with the naivete and over-confidence of the young, but otherwise well-meaning and almost noble. Greenturtle thinks he was an idiot.
Maybe I can feel sympathy for him because I would have loved to be one of the early explorers. I love reading about the coureurs du bois and the Mountain Men, and my all-time heroes are Lewis and Clark. And if I had one wish, it would be to be transported back in time so I could see this land as it once was before the European settlers arrived en masse. I want to see the vast forests and the expanses of native prairie, and the birds in their unthinkable multitude flying overhead.
As I once told Sunwiggy, if the science fiction character Doctor Who arrived in his time-traveling machine, the Tardis, I would beg to be taken back in time to see the flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky as they flew overhead. More than any other point in history, I would want to see that.
"But wouldn't it bum you out," asked Sunwiggy, "since you would know for a fact they were going to go extinct?"
I thought about it. "Yes, it would bum me out. But no more than seeing birds does today. Because even though I can't know for a fact which species or exactly when it will happen, I still know that some of the birds I am seeing now just won't be here in 100 years."
But they deserve to be seen. Here's where the mystical side of me comes out. At some level I don't feel that all this birding I do is just a hobby or a personal quirk so much as an act of gratitude. Seeing the bird is a blessing--for me, not the bird. And what I feel upon seeing a common yellowthroat or a Blackburnian warbler or a roseate spoonbill is that I am at the threshold of the ultimate mystery. It is a moment of perfection. A sliver in time where nothing is lacking.
And I really wish I could see those passenger pigeons darkening the skies with their flight! Again, to quote from a poem by Lisel Mueller, "Sometimes, When the Light," if I could see this, I "would die, or be happy forever."
Perhaps I am projecting, but I wonder if Chris McCandless -- though not a birder -- might have been motivated by this sort of longing. So much is lacking and stressful and false about our post-modern, post-natural, post-everything existence. Am I the only one who feels that my half hour pond walk before work is the most authentic moment of my day? And as for the rest of it...I hate to be so tamed, growing fat on my greasy lunches and paddling endlessly around my suburban pond.
I really wish there was something wild left, something a bit bold and unsettling. (That damn smart phone was the final nail in that coffin...but if I learned anything in graduate school, it's that as soon as you have that choice, the whole playing field has changed. Thank you "Structuralism and Semiotics"!) We have the map. There's nothing left. Except the chance sightings of the birds, while we still have them to see.
If I were a decade or two younger, and not married, I might do a McCandless and tear off into the wild. He never had the chance to grow a little wiser, or a little more tired. I don't admire what he did, but I understand it.
What about you? If you've read the book or seen the movie, were you sympathetic towards McCandless? Or did you find him selfish and foolish?
Also, if you could visit one point in history, what would it be?