Something of Value

Aug. 28, 2009

If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them. – Robert Ruark, quoting a Basuto proverb in Something of Value.
   Perhaps there’s no moral standard that can be applied to what a civilization or a culture values. Perhaps, in the end, the moral standard is established by the importance and emphasis the culture sets forth. In a universe where all generalities are generally false, who’s to know?
   How some of you have looked across the span of your long lives without weeping, I don’t know. I’m half the age of some of my dearest friends, and when I look into their eyes, I see a world I wish I had known. Even the landscape of my childhood pales in comparison.
   I love reading stories about the South from around the turn of the twentieth century. Despite the blatant and unforgivable bigotry, the South was also a place of romanticism, tall tales and gallantry.
   Oh, the landscapes they roamed! Havilah Babcock writes of a South Carolina where the quail swarmed like mosquitoes, where the woods were tall and old and stretched on for miles and miles and miles and you could walk them forever.
   In Babcock’s world, “Every country boy is entitled to a creek. If no creek’s handy, maybe a meandering branch will do for a while. But it must have a few holes that he can’t see the bottom of. That’s an absolute requisite, and there’s no getting around it.”
   I read again and again Fielding Lewis’ Tales of A Louisiana Duck Hunter and though I’ve never shouldered a shotgun to track a duck in my life, my departed friend lived in such a world as Babcock, a world that was right here, under our very feet. A world where flocks of mallards blocked the sun, where marsh – like woods – went on for miles and miles and there was, above all, a sense of sportsmanship.
   But I’m not just speaking from an outdoorsman’s perspective. I am talking about something of value. At some point the government urged farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” and the quail lost their habitat. At some point, the engineers moved water from here to there and the waterways dried up or stagnated. In every case, the value was money, and the most of it that could possibly be obtained.
   Those of us who valued a meadow of so-called “idle land” understood its value. Those of us who valued a hardwood forest with hardly any underbrush understood the value of its wildlife, its solitude and its ancestral wisdom, moreso than its lumber and fertile soil as a field plot.
   “You never get to point at a meadow full of browsing mule deer and say, ‘You know, all this was once condos,’” John Gierach said. Because the value never backtracks, never retraces its steps to see if it took the correct path.
   I wonder, sometimes, how we made the transition from peas and beans and corn and squash that had been in the fields that morning and in the market by afternoon…to vegetables stuffed into an aluminum can. How we went from fresh fruit to dried, from real lemon juice to artificial. Didn’t it just feel wrong? Did the convenience overshadow the lost taste, the lousy texture?
   All that’s of value any more are belching smoke stacks, thousands of monoculture acres of farmland to feed our seething cities. Living in the city has become something of imagined value, because that’s where the money can be made. A city is not sustainable – it must be spoon-fed all its resources, its food, its water, its building materials, everything. These things are trucked in, moved by rail, delivered by cargo planes in quantities that stagger the imagination. Cities are unable to tend to their own needs, so we must ravish small communities and wilderness to support their existence. They provide nothing in return except money, violence, smog and loneliness.
   I read an interesting thing about cell phones the other day: It seems that something good has come from those damnable devices after all. For several years now people like me have bemoaned a world where parents arm their children with cell phones to track their every movement, keep them somewhat safer in a world gone amok.
   I wish I could remember the source, but there was a study that says this maneuver on the part of moms and dads has had an unexpected benefit: Kids are actually going outside more. The cell phone, a technological concoction, has loosened the tether, and kids are actually realizing there is a fascinating world beyond the game controllers. There may be hope, after all.
   Someone said to me that “driving is not a right, it is a privilege” and that struck me as oddly fatalistic. Driving is a privilege only because it generates cash for government coffers. By that same reasoning, then, watching television, cutting grass, washing the car, listening to music and all such things are not rights. Fishing and hunting have become privileges, too, rather than rights. In an odd way, government determined there was something of value in globbing some earthworms on a hook, or bagging a rabbit for supper: cash, in the form of fishing and hunting licenses.
   Progress has redefined value, and like sheep we accepted it. Personally, I’d prefer my fields full of quail again, my lakes and rivers unharassed by engineering, my woods full of wildlife and adventure. Despite the inevitability of the life I’ve come to accept, deep inside me are still the powerful stirrings of wooden sailboats crashing through waves at sea, mountains with cold, fast water, vast prairies full of fair game.
   But like it or not, something of value now is money. It is the means to an end that has by osmosis adapted its own phony value: Retirement. Nice stuff. Credit. Savings. Good schools for the kids. Something of value is based on how much we can consume, believing it makes us happy. I sit here with my fancy-dancy new cell phone on my hip, my mega-fast computer before me, and realize I’m as callused and indifferent as anyone. I struggle through 50 weeks of work in a year, aching for the two weeks I can take to the river, to the wild places where value is defined entirely another way. There is no true wilderness anymore. That’s why you often find me referring to the places I go as “wildness.” That’s all that’s left, really.
   I tell myself, if I had it to do all over again, things would be different. Maybe I would be so lucky, but chances are the inescapable trap of modernity will ensnare me all over again.
   Honestly, one day, I’ll probably leave you. Sadly, only if I can make enough money. If I can pry the iron bars apart and slip through. I know that’s the way it has to be, for now, the only way left to people like me. But much as I love you all, if my girl and I can ever escape, we’ll find a place of solitude, near a river that I can hear from inside a little house night and day, and live out our lives there.
   Simon Peter said, I go a’fishing: and they said, We also will go with thee. (John 21.3.) One day, we might go a’fishing and not come back. Don’t worry about us, if so. We’ll have found something of value, some place where there’s no good spot to hang a clock. All you’ll find to mark my passing is my cell phone, abandoned. The cities can crumble, their skyscrapers turn black and desolate, their overpasses cracked and leaning; their glass windows can shatter and their lights go dark, but there was no value there, anyway, to some of us. No value at all.