Friday, March 13, 2009

Are You Sure You're Not a European?

A year and a half ago I was in Paris on business, and decided to take the weekend off so I could get a little history tourism in. I went for a run on the Camino Santiago in the country where Charlemagne's boy Roland was killed while retreating from the Moors' Basque mercenaries. In looking at the map ahead of time, I noticed that I would be driving through a French national park (le Parc Naturel Regional des Landes de Gascogne) on the way from Paris to the Pyrenees, just south of Bordeaux.

I spend a lot of time hiking and climbing and recreating in America's national forests, so I thought experiencing a French one would be interesting. When that afternoon I pulled off the French highway in Gascony, I found that it was interesting, but not in a positive way. The forest, as far as I could see, was all 100% planted, for kilometers and kilometers in neat rows along the highway. Have you been to Yosemite? Have you been hunting anywhere in the wilderness? The trees do not grow in neat rows. They grow wherever and however they damn well want to, like everything else out there. That's why it's wilderness; that's why we like to go there, because it reminds us the world is what it is whether or not you're there, and it doesn't care much about you, either, so everything is up to you. Granted, I was looking at a forest in Europe where all the trees were cut down centuries ago by a dense population, and it's to their credit that they replanted managed forests; but it's not what I was hoping for, and I felt bad for the kids growing up around those parts. You can zoom in just about anywhere in Europe, for example on the comparatively unsettled west coast of the Danish mainland, Jutland - and see that the land is all planned and cultivated. Standing in the neat rows of French trees, obviously arranged by the hand of man, was very disappointing. Creepy, even. I jumped back in the car and didn't stop until I was in Spain. Fortunately, the Pyrenees were better; mountains usually are.

No, I'm not turning this into a comparative forestry blog. There has long been a trend in American political writing toward picking out aspects of European culture and government that reinforced subtle stereotypes and inferiority complexes, and the cultural artifacts those writers choose to focus on are increasingly mystifying. Somehow small cars or urban living or philosophers unrepresentative of the European man in the street get the attention. What prompted me was the recent article that soccer, with its endless back and forth and low-scoring games, is somehow the logical extension of an aimless, nihilistic culture, and we best gather our children close to us lest they be infected by the menace of gray socialism creeping into American sports. Very strange, the aspects of Europe that people choose to focus on. And the writer is also forgetting about hockey.

It's worth remembering that NATO exists because western Europeans (and Turks, and now eastern Europeans) share enough democratic values with us that they saw the benefit of joining a common defense alliance. So what if they have higher tax rates or take the train more or drink tea and take long lunches? But if you're going to pick on tell-tale differences between Americans and Europeans, is it soccer that really worries you the most?

What I fear that Americans are losing now is a sense of self-reliance and confidence and responsibility that sets us apart from Europeans, and that Europeans often cite as reasons for emigrating to America today. Why? So much of our history and spirit is bound up in the open frontier, in pushing through the forests and deserts and mountains, working in the open air and elements, knowing that if you forget something or screw up - it'll be your head, and you'll have no one to blame but yourself. Not only that, but having fun in those places. It's a big part of what sets us apart from the Old World. And be honest - when was the last time you got out into a wilderness or national forest and hunted or fished or hiked and enjoyed this fantastic piece of real estate we have, and on its own terms?

I love visiting Europe, but I couldn't live there - because there is no such thing as a wilderness. Even my wife, a transplant from Japan, commented that she missed the wild open spaces during her three week trip to the continent a few months ago. You can't get away from people and hear your own thoughts. The world there is handed to each generation already made safe by the previous one, and there's a certain fatalism that comes along with that, a sense that the whole world is artificial. And the kicker is - if you spend your whole life in the suburbs, can you claim you don't share that sense? Can you really claim that you're more like Lewis and Clark than you're like the unchallenged, comfortable-enough citizens of western Europe? More and more Americans are agglomerated in these already-tamed places, and fewer of us spend any time in parks and forests. We're losing one of the things that has made our values what they are.

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