Back to the Woods

On an idyllic childhood and the desire to shape the world…

On a break today, I talked with one of my fellow American coworkers and, as conversations are wont to wend, we got onto the topic of treehouses.  When I stop and play back the mental films I have of my childhood, some of the fondest memories I have are of times spent in the forests around my homes and my friends’ homes.  When I would read fantasy novels, the smells of leaves, of vineflowers in the evening, of moldering leaves, of a fresh creek were pervasive and real for me, because I could close the pages and go out to experience them firsthand.

But what struck me today more than the bucolic nostalgia of the rambling paths and rays of leafy sunlight dappling buzzing Virginia afternoons was something that my coworker pointed out.  I had described to him how even as a very small boy, my biggest dream was not to mystically melt into the trees and live like a forest spirit, or to preserve the stately trunks for all time.  Instead, my friends and I would endlessly talk of building things – creating a kingdom in the wood of forts, treehouses, platforms, stone walls, crayfish weirs, catapults, clifftop towers, bridges, tunnels, and every conceivable other architectural feature we could think of, besides houses, schools, or shops.  What struck me today was my friend’s comment that “it’s in man’s nature to homestead.”

That was really, at the core, what we all wanted to do as kids.  It is a different instinct than “playing house” or simply wanting to go on adventures.  There was this almost fundamental drive to enjoy the landscape, to be sure – I could and did wax poetic about the beauties of nature.  But what I most loved was mapping the creeks and paths, forts and rock cairns, and naming things.  There is a kind of plant, fern-like, that I have never learned the name of, but it carpeted the forest floor in a wide swath in the woods with broad, star-shaped fronds.  That area I named “the Valley of the Stars.”  The small cascades that bubbled with drifting sticks each got a name, as did the earthworks we dug into the creek banks.  It was thrilling to give names to these landforms and imagine that they were part of a larger world we could build and inhabit without authorities and without the sense of overweening responsibility that crept in as we got older.

Again, I am not writing a long enough piece tonight to go into all of the likely significances of this drive to tame the wilds and make a frontier, but it still pervades my life and my imagination, even after long journeys through the halls of college and the streets of hundreds of cities and towns.  The world has shrunk for me even as the possibilities within it continue to multiply, and I am not sure what all I have lost in growing up and growing old.  Somewhere under the new subdivision that they built on that vast swath of forest there is still the land that used to be the Valley of the Stars.  Somewhere in those leafy afternoons there is a world that I will search for a way back to for the rest of my life.

Victory Not Vengeance

On post-apocalyptic fantasies…

In college, I lived in Pittsburgh. You may know Pittsburgh from being the setting (or at least location) for such films as The Mothman PropheciesDogmaWonder BoysSmart PeopleDawn of the Dead, and The Road.  In the early 2000’s, the “zombie” fad was in full strength. Well before The Walking Dead captivated people’s TV screens and sometimes even their imaginations, my friends and I would always talk about what it would be like to survive in the “post-apocalypse.”  That theme remains immensely popular today, but the idea of it, to me, is very old indeed.

In tonight’s blog entry, I want to explore both the personal ways in which my friends and I would fantasize about that whole milieu, and about why such imagery is perennial in Western, especially American, culture.

Well before I actually arrived at college, it was always a motif in playing pretend while I was kid. My little sister and our friends would imagine that we were children taken from our families, forced to work as test subjects and researchers for big corporations, or a vaguely realized ‘government.’ It was a life and death situation, rife with melodramatic deaths and sneaking through pillow-forts and bed-sheet mazes in the basement to find freedom at the back door to the basement. But outside was not a return to home and family, so much as another game in which we had to survive on our own with no place particularly welcoming to hide.

Out in the woods, we would play as though we had to rebuild our own tiny society, scavenging for food, constructing shelters in trees, building retaining ponds for fish in creeks that barely even supported minnows.  From a mash-up of The Boxcar Children, the flashback scenes in The Pretender, Joan Aiken’s Is Underground, and a whole host of British literature about children in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. What all of our games had in common was either a lost family, a dead family, or a kind of childhood ex nihilo. You may make whatever judgments you wish as a reader, but I had a truly benign childhood compared to most, even in the United States. These were all the dark products of young imagination, not a manifestation of some greater trauma we were all trying to escape.

So moving forward through high school, where the games we played varied much more widely, until I got to college in a city that had declined from a roaring furnace of one million people to a sprawling masonry-and-metal maze hosting 250,000 remaining souls.  It is easy to imagine the world ending in a city like Pittsburgh in 2004.  The crowd of friends I found myself aggregated into was a raucous bunch. We deemed ourselves a tribe, and even self-consciously created rituals to welcome new people like wearing face paints to lunches and exploring the Cathedral of Learning from its cyclopean column bases to its openwork stone balconies and rooftops, attained by ducking under cracked-open windows.

One thing that we would talk about, a theme revisited like a tongue to a loose tooth, was the idea of our band of students surviving in a Pittsburgh truly devastated and without the niceties of free bus fare, electricity, or hot food. Sometimes it was a zombie apocalypse, sometimes it was aliens, sometimes the world just up and had ended leaving us behind as a remnant, having to do battle with other survivors and, again, found our own society out of the re-pounded rubble.  In every case, we imagined that not everyone we knew would have made it, and we would future-tense mourn our losses before moving on to deciding how to get clean water and which pocket valleys offered the best place to set up a bivouac that could eventually become a settlement.

I think what was most striking about all of these worlds after civilisational collapse was that we were not hoping to become barbarians, able to live like Lost Boys or Amazons, but rather an intense desire to develop order after a fashion – as much playing house as playing savages.  We talked about what knowledge we would have to preserve, and what music we would want to find some way of playing as the ‘soundtrack’ to our survival.

I think that is one of the conceits that underlies any fantasy of the world-after-the-end. It is not, in point of fact, the end of the world.  But rather than go into a long semantic digression about the finer points of the term “post-apocalypse” or “end of the world” I wil leave it as a general term that I think we can agree means nearly all of humanity have been wiped out, possibly even a great deal of our infrastructure as well.

Another critical factor is the idea that, despite statistics, our general nerdiness, and overall historical examples of the fall of civilizations, we would, naturally, have survived in a more or less intact group.  The fantasy was to essentially escape the larger constrictive world of post-industrial civilization by surviving its sudden and extensive demise. One of the things I find noteworthy about the whole idea is that in every single one of these games, imaginary discussions, or fantasies, we were all acutely aware of just how terrible things could very well become. There was not an idea that we would be plucky survivors who just happen across whatever we would need like characters in a scripted television show – the plans always included sometimes agonizingly detailed accounts of how we would have to hunt and preserve meat, purify water, and take up much of our days more or less functioning as highly-educated hunter-gatherers. The Fight Club idea that “when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

In scenarios where some of civilization survived, that was always the goal – to get back to the comfort zone, even if that “comfort zone” was more Book of Eli or Mad Max than the megacities of Judge Dredd or the glittering Shanghai of Code 46.  There was still, at least, an attempt at creating meaning for our lives that felt impenetrably purposeless in their ease.

You can see wider echoes of these specific examples in the United States. It makes sense for a society that was founded on the idea of a constant frontier to have sociocultural fantasies of having to yet again re-conquer “wilderness.” I am not writing here to hash out arguments about the ethics of Manifest Destiny or weep tears for the injustices of European colonialism, but rather want to explore the imagined and idealized concept of taming wilderness with few or no people to oppose.  European stories are ones of ancient nations pitted against each other with roots that can be measured back before there was a solid idea of just how far into the ground roots could extend, conceptually.  American stories, speaking generally, are about reaching for the unknown and mastering frontiers. I am not writing here for nuance, so humor this discussion.

Joseph Tainter, in his work The Collapse of Complex Societies, analyses how many cultures change rapidly in the face of existential challenges, some becoming more and more complex and others by atomizing into smaller, less intricate societal subgroupings.  It is not an all-encompassing theory of history, but it does provide a useful framing for considering “post-apocalyptic” fantasies.  In short, the fantasy is that being the members of the society to survive an external event that destroys the “system” beyond the control of your band of friends or family, you now are not mere puppets to a vast iterated chain of beings well beyond your Dunbar’s number, but instead can stop feeling outcast and uncertain how to fit in when you do not exactly conform to societal norms or expectations.  It is a more merciful fantasy than the murderous drive of a revolutionary or an activist who demands conformity to their ideal world, in that as a fantasy, you yourself are not the agent of mass deaths and destruction.

I will return to this idea at some later point in this blog, as it is a recurring theme in both my personal writing and in popular culture of the past fifty years, but I will close this entry with a word-picture.  We imagined ourselves striding along Fifth Avenue armed to the teeth, carrying what we needed to go take over and hold the potential fortresses of European-style churches and their walled yards around the city of Pittsburgh.  The tame trees of Forbes bolted, the Phipps Conservatory a riot of desperate hothouse flowers straining to make it through one more summer, and the architecture school at Carnegie Mellon a museum of lost technological construction engineering and futuristic imagination. But we were free.