I recently commented on a blog by my pal Emily who had reported on the novel The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Emily wondered aloud if perhaps humans have lost their contact with the earth, and I cited the example of the modern farmer sitting high atop his twelve-wheel tractor, air-conditioned and navigated by computers in which the farmer sits listening to country/western music. I exaggerate for effect — he may listen to Beethoven or Vivaldi for all I know. But you get the picture — the farmer is probably hired by a corporation, and that is not an exaggeration.
In any event, one does wonder what has been lost when humans ride in huge machines and never touch the earth from which we draw sustenance and from whence we all came and to which we will all eventually return. The great writer Joseph Conrad wondered aloud about the same sort of thing — except that he was reflecting on the replacement of the sailing ships he worked on for so many years by the steamships that rudely shoved them aside.
In his reflections on his life at sea, titled The Mirror of the Sea, Conrad mentions “affectionate regret which clings to the past.” Indeed. He himself served briefly — the last time as captain — on steam ships, but he hated them and left the British merchant marine, which he served for twenty years, primarily because he could no longer find a sailing vessel to command. They were declared redundant, as the English would say. Conrad’s loss is our gain as he then became one of the greatest writers of English prose who ever set pen to paper (and he a Pole who never spoke English until he went to sea with the merchant service as a 17 year-old boy!). Conrad, who waxes poetic in several chapters about the wind, reflects on the changes he saw:
“Here speaks the man of the masts and sails, to whom the sea is not a navigable element, but an intimate companion. The length of passages, the growing sense of solitude, the close dependence upon the very forces that, friendly today, without changing their nature, by the mere putting forth of their might, become dangerous tomorrow, make for that sense of fellowship which modern seamen, good men as they are, cannot hope to know. And, besides, your modern ship, which is a steamship, makes her passages on other principles than yielding to the weather and humoring the sea. She receives smashing blows, but she advances; it is a slogging fight, and not a scientific campaign. The machinery, the steel, the fire, the steam have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway. The modern ship is not the sport of the waves. Let us say that each of her voyages is a triumphant progress; and yet it is a question whether it is not a more subtle and more human triumph to be the sport of the waves and yet survive, achieve your end.”
As we grow older we do naturally tend to reflect on old times, though in his superb movie “Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen shows us the dangers that lie in thinking that everything was truly better “back then.” However, at the risk of falling into the trap Allen warns us about, I find myself drawn to the profound remark of one of my other favorite writers, George Eliot, when she wishes nostalgically for a time when “reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”
Not only have we lost touch with our Mother Earth, we have lost touch with the world itself in our hurried pursuit of material success in the conviction that faster and bigger are better when they are not and that all movement forward in time means progress when it assuredly is not. Perhaps we might all slow down a bit and look around to appreciate what a beautiful world we humans seem to have grown apart from.