Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A universal Walden
   Moving farther out

I overheard a conversation in a cafe in which a young woman was praising a friend’s house that she had just visited.  “It’s fantastic!” she said.  “You can’t see or hear any neighbors!”

Thoreau had his cabin at Walden Pond.  Aldo Leopold had his shack on the Wisconsin River. Both lived when most people thought the good life was to be found in town, among other people. The places they chose were valued by few, and most of the world was open space. 

If they lived today, maybe they would say that those who love wild places need to preserve them by building their houses someplace else.

Today everyone, it seems, wants a Walden Pond. When you find such places, they are ringed not with cabins and shacks but with landscaped mansions. We have come a long way from the time when people built their houses, by choice, on streets with front porches facing each other. They knew that neighbors could be as interesting as owls and foxes.

Today, even when we build our houses together in clusters, as in housing developments, it is done in a spirit of denial and without much joy--street after street of houses that present only facades to the the world, decorative patches of lawn made not to be sat in or worked in but to be glimpsed from the road. 

Real life goes on in the back yard, behind fences and privacy screens and hedges, or, more likely, in the entertainment room where people peep in on the lives of others through the safe medium of television talk shows and documentaries and reality programs. The popularity of these shows, with their gossipy emphasis on real people suggests a hunger for companionship, to see and hear from others, but muted through the prophylactics of digital distance that allows us to indulge without fear or hope of actual contact. 

In much of our lives, strangers congest the intersections we want through, they bottleneck the cash registers where we want to hurry, and each day a few of them make headlines by breaking free from any pretense of civility, killing or raping then scowling or grinning for the camera.

The ideal house now is a mansion on a mountain top where we can neither be observed by or inconvenienced by others but with a satellite dish that beams simulations of human life into a refuge, where no one can be seen or heard.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/09 at 05:11 AM
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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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