Two years ago I moved to Austin with any possession that fit into a VW Bug and nothing else. A few days ago I drove back to Virginia Beach with the same amount of stuff. It just goes to show how little you need, and also how easily it is to acquire things. God bless America.
I’m endlessly introspective and anything long and potentially boring I try to use as an opportunity for reflection. I love road trips. This was the last time in the foreseeable future that I’d travel such a long distance by myself. I had made the Virginia trip a few times, always in a hurry, and this time was no exception. A friend had invited me to a wedding in West Virginia, and never having been there it was a great way to put another state on the list. I needed to fill my car with as much stuff as would fit, sell/donate the rest, then leave with enough time to be in the mountains of west virginia by Saturday afternoon in order to sit with a bunch of strangers and watch two other strangers get married. My answer to invitations like these is always “sure, why not?”
My departure was delayed (thanks again John) and I couldn’t make it on time. So while I was driving out of Austin, at the last possible minute I decided to not take the interstate. I cut across two lanes of traffic—in Texas that’s called driving—and headed east toward the Nachez Trace.
The Natchez Trace is a national park/highway that begins in Natchez, Mississippi and ends just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It was one of the most beautiful drives I’d ever taken. Miles and miles of instagram-ready views but you don’t take out your phone and start snapping away because, yes you’re driving, but mostly it felt disrespectful. This journey was very symbolic for me and I didn’t want to ruin it by not being present.
There were other sports cars, beat up trucks, cyclists, bikers, and even a fleet of Model Ts driving in the opposing lane, I must have counted 30 or so, and then something dawned on me. This road is much more than getting from one place to another, and it means something different to each person I saw. This beauty, and the road itself is a vessel. A vessel for travel, recreation, a place to relax, a place of passive enjoyment or active exploration, a road completely absent of billboards and semi trucks—the inelegant signifiers of our consumption-based world.
Consumption, in order to maintain itself, requires sacrifice. It needs resources, people to acquire the resources, the infrastructure to transport the stuff made by the poorer people to the not so poor people, whose job it is to buy it. You need a salesman to convince the not so poor people to buy this thing. You need inventors to create things that rely on the original things’ shortcomings as a basis for that new things’ existence. It can become so huge in your mind that you think participation is the only option, and on top of that, if you aren’t really good at consuming you live a kind of diminished existence.
Consumption is necessary to maintain a certain level of American comfort, and I would be the last person to suggest that we all give it up for a Talking Heads Style paradise, but what is necessary to a system is not necessarily what is good. And we have people at the helm of our modern age that believe that the consumption system is God.
In the western tradition (shout out to my boy Abraham!) God is the source of what is right. God’s ways are the ways to true happiness, and the way to heaven is by modeling God’s behavior. However, what keeps God God is that he is perfect and you will always fall short of the mark by not living up to His rules. By design. (Oh by the way these rules include your thoughts.) So not only must you follow God’s rules, you will never succeed at following them all. You will never be done with God.
In the mind of so many of our leaders, both political and financial—oh, you think that just because we didn’t elect him Mark Zuckerberg isn’t your leader?—the economy is God. Every act is an act of acquisition, manufacture, infrastructure, selling, or providing a method to do those things more efficiently. These are the people that think it was a good idea to use your smartphones microphone to record your conversations in order to serve up ‘personalized’ ads. These are the people that think it’s Ok to use slave labor to make cheap clothes, and these are the people that think opening up our national parks to mining, pipelines, and development is brilliant.
A significant aspect of natural beauty is sustainable. Divorce that word from every ad you’ve seen touting environmentally friendly fast food packaging or efforts from oil companies to portay themselves as Mr. Rogers and focus on things that require no intervention. The natural world works just fine without us and the only thing you have to do to sustain it is…nothing.
And the world has come up with some pretty fantastic things. I’ve cried upon seeing certain famous paintings, I’ve had movies inspire me, I’ve read books that have changed by life, but nothing has the impact of surrounding myself in nature.
I can see a piece of art and get something out of it, but if I went and saw the same painting week after week it would lose its’ lustre; the same cannot be said of natural beauty.
But it’s delicate. It’s a lot more delicate than anything we can make, and once something natural is gone it is not coming back. Even if we brought back every single extinct species, the world will have been changed by us so much that the effort would merely be an exercise in scientific curiosity.
So watch out for people who advocate for consumption at all costs and an attitude of hostility toward people who would erase parts of this world in order to sell you things is completely appropriate.