Concrete Jungle

Part Two: The Boundary Waters

In July, Liz and I canoed for four days through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—a million-acre tract of boreal forest, glacial lakes, and Precambrian bedrock that covers most of Northern Minnesota and elides into Canada’s even larger Quetico Provincial Park.

I sold my car in 2007 to spend more time outdoors. The decision has worked out, but it’s meant that nearly of all my outdoors time must occur within a bike-ride of where I live. It had been two years since I’d spent more than a night in the woods, which probably explains why I was inordinately impressed by one of the wilderness’s most basic features: everywhere I looked, nothing was the same.

Of course, mechanical repetition was one of the major things Liz and I had come to the Boundary Waters to escape. But the randomness of the wilderness did not come as a complete relief. For one thing, perfect randomization is pretty much indistinguishable from perfect repetition. Liz can identify most trees in the North Woods, but to me the forest was a multi-million-acre mass of slightly different shades of white and green. On a long paddle, the shore became monotonous.

But some simple patterns gradually emerged from the general ecological hum. After two nights at one camp, we began to recognize the habits of our neighbors: the loons, the eagle, and the industrious beaver, whose daily commute brought him past our campsite each morning and evening. I think it’s no coincidence that we liked the animals with the most recognizable lifestyles: the career-oriented beavers, the loons who mate for life. The things that engaged me most in the wilderness were the things that reminded me most of being human.

And then there were the sunsets. Can anything in the city rival the grandeur of nature? Hath man in all his works created a display with definition sharp enough, color contrasts bright enough, or big-screens big enough to rival the water and sky?

Sunsets like this were the reason Liz and I drove six hours to the edge of the Boundary Waters, rented a canoe, carried it a mile and a half on the first portage, then paddled for two days. While Liz sat down to watch, I rushed around the rock slab in front of our camp, adjusting my camera settings and trying out different angles. It was a satisfying activity. I loved the solid density of my new camera, and I was glad I’d invested in one with above-average display resolution: that sunset looked fantastic on its little screen.

I was already thinking about how we would convey this trip to our friends back home, and I knew this sunset would be one of the iconic photos we would use.

But when I finally put away my camera and sat down to watch one of the great sunsets of my life, I became distracted after only a few seconds. I had to resist the urge to pick up my camera again. I can’t deny that despite all the effort I made to get out of the city, I’d have been more engaged by a new iPad 3 with patented Retina display (“Four times more pixels… Razor-sharp text. Richer colors… So everything looks and feels incredibly lifelike and perfectly detailed”). Even the desktop computer in my cubicle consistently holds my attention longer and more profoundly than anything I found in the Boundary Waters.

For some reason, our eyes are drawn to the things we’ve made. When I ride in a car with a GPS unit on the windshield, I can’t resist following the little white arrow down its smooth gray stripe even though I know that outside the car window a 3-D flow of information more diverse, complex, and potentially beautiful than anything that will ever appear on a GPS screen is going by unheeded. Novelist Nicholson Baker recently spent a year playing the most popular video games on the planet (being assassinated by his own son hundreds of times in the process). He conceded the visceral thrill of their ultraviolence, but ultimately decided their appeal stemmed from a more basic aspect of their gameplay: “Somebody has thought about the weather, a lot,” Baker says.

“Those plants have been placed there; the actual angle of the sky has been the subject of discussion at a meeting…”

“The whole thing has been constructed. It’s a human creation that ends up looking real and chaotic and random and yet beautiful and that’s something new.”

When I came across Reeves Wiedeman’s recent post about the final publication of Nintendo Power magazine, I discovered that I was not the only eight-year-old boy in the 1980s who would read the latest issue cover to cover, even though I didn’t own an NES. Like Wiedeman, I loved to study the foldout level maps that came out every month. There was something wondrous in the publishers’ ability to push beyond the side-scrolling view constrained by the boundary of the TV screen and offer a unified, coherent map of a perfectly self-contained world that not only showed you how to navigate but magically reproduced the graphics of the game on paper. In fact it might be fair to say I was often more intrigued by these high-fidelity, man-made reproductions of an artificial world than I was by the artificial worlds themselves.

I’ve written here and here about my attraction to stories, especially ones with imaginary maps. A clear pinnacle of my achievement as a reader came in 1990, when, during a six-month stretch following our family’s move from Richmond to Petersburg, Virginia, I spent about six hours a day on our new screen porch, reading Brian Jacques’s violent tales of anthropomorphic medieval animals and projecting myself into the maps that accompanied each book. By October I was wrapping myself in blankets and completely dissociating from my surroundings for hours at a time, emerging from the waking dream of quests and loyal comrades with a sick sense of disappointment. I didn’t put away the books and come inside until November, when my parents finally sent me to see a psychologist, who taught me to play backgammon.

I’m sure there are thousands of Buddhist monks who can project themselves into Nirvana with greater concentration for even longer hours and more days in a row, but I’m still awed by my younger self’s capacity for focused reading. And yet, I was obsessed with Nintendo games (and Nintendo Power) because I considered them a superior immersive experience. They supplied a world and a narrative that did not require any of the naturally endowed (and therefore clearly inferior) powers of my own imagination. I could enter a world brought to life through someone else’s intention and displayed on the TV with eight entire bits of processing power. And the game that best exemplified these feelings of absorption, escape, and wonder was Rygar.

I played Rygar only once, when I was eight years old, at the home of my friend Franky Kelly. Even then I knew this game—with its medieval-y armored warrior jumping from platform to platform killing hordes of repetitive monsters with a bizarre battering weapon—was neither extremely fun nor very original. But it did have dramatic backgrounds: mountain ranges at sunset that moved with mesmerizing monotony, slightly slower than the hero’s progress in the foreground. Was this careful rendering of the scenery what satiated, for one afternoon, the old, vague desire to escape the overwhelming ordinary and find the place, the adventure, and the feeling of purpose that has been, now that I think about it, the story of my life? It seems quaint, now.

I hadn’t thought about Rygar in years. But when I read about the demise of Nintendo Power, that afternoon with Franky came rushing up at me, preserved with miraculous clarity in the black muck of my deep memory. I not only remember Rygar; I remember the apartment where Franky lived. It must have been on the second or third floor. It had the white walls and vaguely modern open plan that are standard in most apartments but were new to me then. When my mom came to pick me up, we went down to meet her in the parking lot: Franky, his mother, and me. I don’t think his dad was around. All these things—the apartment in a building with a parking lot, Rygar, the single parent—were unfamiliar. It would be ten years before my own parents got divorced, and, like all my other friends and every adult I’d ever visited, I lived in a normal house with a yard.

With hindsight, I wonder what other dynamics were in play that afternoon. Had a separation just occurred? Had I been sent to show Franky that normal life would carry on? As an adult I instantly and instinctively construct a narrative around the details I think I remember. But as an eight-year-old, the broader context was as vague to me as the Boundary Waters Wilderness is today.

A kid’s life is basically a succession of small and sunlit clearings surrounded by a million-acre forest. Whatever limited understanding I had of the wider world came through stories. I didn’t understand what was happening in my friend’s life. But I was deeply affected by Rygar’s quest to fight his way across the transformed land of Argool until he reach the floating palace of Liger, the lion-headed enemy who’d stolen the Door of Peace and let in the monsters from another dimension. All Rygar wanted was to make his kingdom normal again.

Today as I look at the screenshots from the game and read fans’ nuanced and well-researched descriptions, it occurs to me that medieval, or even classical, is almost certainly the wrong era for Rygar. He is clearly a hero of the Bronze Age, the era of Gilgamesh, fifth king of Uruk, first hero of the fertile crescent, and the archetypal hero with a thousand faces: a mortal who defeats lions and scorpion people, crosses the waters that bound the world, and swims to the bottom of the cosmic sea to pluck the watercress that can stop death.

This is what is missing from the Boundary Waters Wilderness, the reason even the most glorious sunset, not to mention miles of lake and forest, failed to hold my attention: they lack a story. The knowledge that no matter how far we paddled or how deep we bushwhacked we would never find a single thing like any other was certainly thrilling, but it was also oppressive. Nothing was repeated, but nothing was intentional. With no story to bind the wilderness—to give it time, direction, purpose, and limit—it became more difficult to distract myself from the unsettling, subconscious awareness that every phenomenon in the Boundary Waters is a variation of a single mindless theme: the struggle between the growing, grasping, splitting, straining, decomposing, reproducing language of the genetic code and the second law of thermodynamics.

Like every living species, human beings have succeeded in the struggle for survival. We have done so by creating techniques to pass on knowledge far beyond the encoding capacity of our genes. A story is just as unnatural as a Nintendo Entertainment System or a desktop computer. Language was our first technology, and we used it to shape the elements of our world as surely as we shape them today in steel mills, chemical plants, and silicon wafer factories. Language allowed us to encode information, and stories were the most sophisticated storage device that existed for a couple hundred thousand years, until the recent invention of writing. They allowed oral cultures to transmit vast amounts of knowledge over time to be accessed when necessary.

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram uses the work of Walter Ong and Milman Parry to explain why people remember stories better than lists. Action and setting allow us to graft facts onto our lived experience in ways we will remember, the same way we remember a route through a familiar landscape, or remember a violent accident or hilarious pratfall. The ancient people who lived between the Tigris and Euphrates recited Gilgamesh’s adventures not only to entertain themselves, but to remember lessons of geography, philosophy, politics, flora, and fauna that were too complex to be passed on through the four-letter alphabet of DNA, but were invaluable for survival. Gilgamesh explains things like the origins of the city of Uruk, the shedding of a snake’s skin, and, like the story of Noah, the catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus Straits and created a temporary waterfall two hundred times more powerful than Niagara.

Of course stories are more than glorified PowerPoints; they reassure us that the world is knowable. The Epic of Gilgamesh provides a map of the universe that extends beyond the world’s boundary waters to the bottom of the cosmic sea. In the narrative, Gilgamesh fails to defeat death when a serpent steals the watercress of life, but the narrative itself defeats death, in a way, by explaining and ordering the mysteries of our lives. Stories still distract us almost as well as hand-held games, and they clearly do a far better job of comforting our existential distress.

It is only in the last, tiny fraction of our existence that humans have had any separation from nature beyond a shelter and a hearth. After hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in which survival depended on our ability to interpret, predict, and influence the natural world, our brain is exquisitely attuned to the messages in the wilderness. “We are human,” David Abram claims, “only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” But for the first time in history, most people on the planet can sever their contact with wilderness. And many are choosing to: the median age of visitors to the Boundary Waters was twenty-six in 1969 and forty-five in 2007. Today more than half the world’s population lives in a city, where we interact almost exclusively with objects created by humans for human use. Abram says this is making us crazy.

This argument makes sense when I think about the crazy guy talking to himself on the sidewalk, completely dissociated from the world around him. He’s clearly trapped inside a sealed mental ecosphere, interacting exclusively with explanations and compulsions entirely of his own creation. He lives in a world where his greatest desires and deepest fears are constantly being reflected back to him and reinforced in a cycle of escalating intensity. There is an obvious appeal to inhabiting a world so responsive to your needs. But none of us walking past him on the sidewalk—running our mundane little errands, heading to our mildly satisfying jobs, or home to our beloved, frustrating family—spend more than a fleeting second wanting to trade places with the crazy guy on the street corner. We understand that although the wider world can be disconcertingly indifferent to our needs and sometimes feel devoid of meaning, it offers tremendous opportunities, surprises, and rewards. It ennobles our struggle. And besides, losing touch with the real world is one way that we define insanity.

Yet most of us spend nearly all our time in an environment where our greatest desires and deepest fears are constantly being reflected back to us and reinforced in a cycle of escalating intensity. Our everyday world has been been transformed over dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of years by other humans in response to our common human compulsions: to consume caloriesprotect our offspringpass on our genesdominate our enemiesreinforce social bonds, and recognize crucial patterns. Evolution programmed us with these compulsions because the individuals who focused on them most single-mindedly were the ones most likely to survive in an environment that was utterly indifferent to our needs. Now our economic system depends on our propensity to buy products and services, so our environment is exquisitely attuned to our compulsions, or at least what the latest algorithms take them to be.

Psychologists have learned not to force people with schizophrenia to confront a world outside the one they’ve constructed for themselves, because the experience of having their worlds shattered can be profoundly traumatizing. Even the most paranoid worldview implies that our lives are important: the woman with the tin foil hat is having thoughts that the aliens are just dying to know; the man hiding from the black helicopters knows a secret that the the president of the United States is desperate to conceal. In the same way, the car, the cubicle, the television, the Facebook Timeline were built for us. Someone thought we were important enough to create millions of objects that shape to our bodies and exactly fit our needs. And even the storytellers who terrify us still make the world knowable. To go into the wilderness requires us to give up all the things that make us feel like ourselves (though it also gives us an excuse to buy awesome new things). And if we truly enter the wilderness, as I struggle to do, we must accept that real engagement with even the most benign and beautiful places requires us to confront a version of the world completely void of explanatory stories, and even of language itself. And of course this is really what every story is all about.

 

Joseph Campbell explains that myths are metaphors for personal transformation. The hero defeating the endless succession of Wyrms, Ammolums, Sunyougis, Rolphers, Bargans, Belzars, Epolcons, Erugas, Kinatarnos, Kinobles, Kuzeelars, Molgolins, Olbis, and finally Ligar himselfis actually confronting and overcoming his own hurts, habits, and hang-ups. Every hero must travel into the unknown. When he reaches the boundary waters, he finds the ferryman who will take him across; he climbs the ladder to the floating palace; or he ties stones to his feet and sinks to bottom of the cosmic sea. He begins the quest in search of the same stuff we all seek: the watercress of longer life, the weapon that bestows power, the golden fleece. But as he defeats every monster set before him and crosses the river, the desert, and the mountains, he finds his goal has changed. “The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth,” Campbell writes.

Every heroic quest is the story of someone who finally pushes past the comfort of her most terrifying story—discovering your father is your own worst enemy, that you must destroy the thing you love most, that the world is an illusion created by sentient robots—to confront what seems most terrifying of all, that there is no story: the universe is a mystery that doesn’t have a point but that you’ll leave one day and never get to see again. Accepting that is called transcendence. Freedom from language, desire, and fear.

So is this quest the reason all the roads out of the cities are jammed by noon on summer Fridays? Is it the reason we take on second mortgages to own lakeside cabins, or motorhomes that get eight miles to the gallon? Is it the reason we drive hours on the highway, rent canoes, carry them on our shoulders through the woods, then launch them into the wilderness? Yes.  

This is the second in a four-part essay.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.