Monday, February 4, 2013

Pioneer Journey

Old men’s memories were once young men’s adventures.

I had the roof on my house replaced a few years ago by a crew of young, high spirited men in their 20’s.  They seemed to be having fun working 25 feet in the air, and amazingly, they finished it in half a day.  Similarly, I have watched the men’s varsity crew at Harvard seemingly lift their boat out of the water with each stroke.  There was joy in action.  Dangerous jobs and sports are where the ‘rush’ is, but is it where the pioneers are?

In my post entitled War and Architecture, I mentioned the attitude of the pioneer: “talk is cheap; get it done”.  I did not mention the challenge of the frontier; the unexplored, untried, untamed frontier.  Humans, especially young men, live for the adrenaline of the dangerous challenge (as an old man, I only remember the rush, and can live without it now).  The channeling of that energy into order, invention and construction is what civilization is all about.  

The internet start-ups are filled with young people who are creating a business against steep odds in a city far from their hometowns.  You can see the exhilaration in their faces.  They are high from the excitement of it.  But eventually, the excitement will grow cold, and the business will be routine.  There will be less camaraderie and energy, and more back-biting and politicking.  The bureaucrats will stay.  The pioneers will move on.

The quintessential frontier is the physical edge of civilization.  The human race has the characteristics of the pioneer in a certain percentage of the population, and the pioneer is synonymous with freedom of movement and self-sufficiency.  Mark Twain noted this visceral freedom in Huck Finn’s need to "light out for the Territory."  When the physical frontier ceases to exist, the pioneer gene gets boxed in.  It looks for an outlet in violence, sports, danger, gambling, drugs, etc.  The healthiest thing any society can have available to its people is a frontier.  When the frontier is gone people start to focus their energy internally in an attempt to secure their fortune and self worth by taking it from their neighbor, or externally in an attempt to take land and wealth from an ancient enemy; the ‘other’.  

Frederick Jackson Turner noted this shift in his essay, The Frontier in American History, analyzing the years following the closing of the American frontier: “With the passing of the frontier, Western social and political ideals took new form.  Capitol began to consolidate in even greater masses, and increasingly attempted to reduce to system and control the processes of industrial development.  Labor with equal step organized its forces to destroy the old competitive system.”  Internal conflict was exacerbated in the decades following the closing of the American frontier around 1890, and imperial wars became a political bone of contention in those same years.

We have channeled the pioneer spirit into a number of institutions such as the military, industry and sport, but these are poor substitutes for the real frontier.  The problem is that the pioneer can only build; build with skill, exuberance and vision, but only build; routine maintenance is for someone else.  In time the institution will become corrupt, the market will fill with cronies and cheats, and the building will be treated like a pig sty.  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Yet…   I would still prefer to be an architect building the future.  A small cottage, well made, will eventually be recognized for its craftsmanship.  And long after the architect/pioneer has gone on to his reward, the building will whisper its maker’s message.

“Bury me at sunrise dressed for a journey, for the frontier calls.”

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