Tuesday, August 3, 2010

We do not Take a Trip; a Trip Takes Us: Reveries on the Upcoming Steinbeck Festival

In preparation formy upcoming talk at the Steinbeck Festival, I've been reviewing John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley along with my own travel reveries from last summer. It would seem the more things change, the more they stay the same...or, in some cases, the more things change, the more they REALLY change.

The Way Things Stay the Same:

1) We continually worry about the influence of technology on the future of our world. In conversing with a man in Maine, Steinbeck noted the confusion they faced about the future due to technology. The man noted that his parents knew how to DO things, like build a table or sow the land. In 1960, Americans were moving away from farms and into cities: "Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time man got his fingers burned on a lightning-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit--how long?" (p.27). Steinbeck also worried that the influence of mass media would lead to an American monoculture: "Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech." While Steinbeck worried that TV would destroy American dialects and cultures, we worry that the Internet will destroy the media. On my trip, I reflected on the fact that I learned of Michael Jackson's death over Twitter a full two hours before the news reported it. Meanwhile, Iranian democracy seekers were using Twitter to post video and images of protest. In Chapter 7 of my manuscript, I ask, What is the future of the Information Age? Human extinction?

The Way Things Change:

2) Cities emerge; cities die. Driving through the Rust Belt, Steinbeck commented on "the great hives of production--Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Pontiac, Flint, and later South Bend and Gary--my eyes and mind were battered by the fantastic hugeness and energy of production, a complication that resembles chaos but cannot be." Of course, those areas today are not quite the hives of production that they once were; instead, our great industrial cities are emptying in exodus. As I write in my manuscript, "The Arsenal of Democracy" and "The City of Homeowners" has now been labeled the "City of Holes" due to the scale of abandonment and demolition. Detroit was home to two million people at its height in the 1950s. Today, that number is less than a million--and dropping fast. In the middle of Detroit, empty land occupies a space equal to the size of San Francisco, a living embodiment of what our cities will be when we no longer are." I did, however, find reassurance in the art community of Detroit, a resurgence of energy amidst decay.

The Way Things Stay the Same:

3) We all mourn the loss of places we love. Traveling through 1960s Seattle, Steinbeck wrote, "Set down there not knowing it was Seattle, I could not have told where I was. Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lum
ber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction" (p. 138). Similarly, I bemoaned the loss of my hometown in early drafts of my manuscript with the disappearance of my local drive-in. More recently, the "harvesting" of old growth forest near my mother's house echoes Steinbeck's observation about progress's tendency towards destruction.

The Way Things Change:

4) Waves of immigration change faces. In Maine, Steinbeck encountered a French Canadian family that had crossed the border for harvest season. Of the experience, he wrote, "...Just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat" (p. 50). During my travels, I spent time in the Arizona desert where a largely invisible humanitarian crisis has been occurring for a number of years; dozens of undocumented workers trying to come to the US for seasonal work die of thirst and starvation each year.

The Way Things Stay the Same:

"We, or at least I, can hove no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years" (p. 83).

When Steinbeck set out on his journey, gas cost $.31/gallon and peak oil and climate change were distant dreams.
Today, any eco-conscious individual has to consider the impacts of his/her choices. As I traveled around the country on biodiesel last summer visiting ecovillages, volunteer organizations, national parks, and roadside attractions, I was well aware that much had changed since 1960. Like Steinbeck, I cannot see 50 or 100 years into the future, but I do know this: We have to change the way we do everything if there are to be future journeys for anyone.

At the Steinbeck Festival, I'll be chatting it up with Charlie Faye and Jane Fitzgibbon, a woman beginning her journey around the U.S. during our panel discussion on Friday, August 6th from 3:30-4:15.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


Blog Widget by LinkWithin