Saturday, February 24, 2007

John-o'-Birds -- again

John Burroughs was astute enough to know that the local, agrarian life he extolled was doomed by the rise of science and technology. Wendell Berry is one of the few writers of our own era who has taken up Burroughs' mantle to rail against "scientific barbarism" and urban chaos. We should listen to these voices -- these Jeremiahs rooted in the land -- but creating a civilization that will encompass science and technology, yet nourish the best of the human spirit, will require a different vision and different gifts.

Burroughs saw the future when he visited the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia -- an event that was attended by one out of every five Americans. The exhibition sprawled over 450 acres in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park and celebrated the 100-year-old nation's scientific and industrial might. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a linked pair of four-story-tall steam engines that supplied electricity to eight thousand machines of every sort. Burroughs walked through the Machinery Hall and was repulsed -- not enchanted -- by the hissing and banging and whirring and thumping. A bird had somehow gotten into the hall, a cardinal, and flew frantically above the machinery, seeking a way out. Burroughs felt no less frenzied than the bird, and could not wait to escape the "Hellish cacophony." Where eight million Americans saw a glorious future, he sensed the end of all he held local and dear.

More than a century has passed. Is humankind better or worse off than we were in 1876? It depends, I suppose, on who you are and where you are. There are certainly too many of us now for each one of us to sit on a rocking chair on a rustic front porch and watch the seasons roll by, as Burroughs was wont to do. But maybe we can still achieve a kind of locality. The internet makes every place a center. Solar energy might yet make every home energy sufficient. The old dream of garden cities might still have some life in it, but only through the wise application of science and technology. The key to the future is not to turn our backs on knowledge and know-how, which is impossible in any case, but to subdue the barbarism of consumerist greed. What we can learn from Burroughs is that sometimes, among plenty, less is more.