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GP 22 March 2006: Climb Another Mountain

The Last Frontier.  In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner gave a talk in Chicago heralding “The Significance of the Frontier in American System,” claiming that the frontier was the prime force in shaping American character and just about everything else in the still young country.  “Free land” and the push West across the ever receding frontier had made the nation what it was.  But, of course, at the same time, he proclaimed that the last frontier had been crossed, and America would no longer enjoy the continuous re-invigoration that the West afforded. 

Of course, the World’s Colombia Exposition, the 400th birthday party of Columbus’s discovery of America (also known as the Chicago’s World Fair), that was going on as he spoke, hardly suggested that the sun had set on any aspect of the American experience.  In fact, Hubert Howe Bancroft, as renowned a historian of America’s West as Turner, did a Book of the Fair, which probably said to his contemporaries that we were at the beginning, not the end, of everything. 

The Great Out There.  But we know in our souls that Turner had seized on a philosophical truth.  Nations and societies depend on infusions from other places to overcome the inertia and provinciality that is the natural estate of self-satisfied nations.  Outbreeding enriches species, institutions, and societies; inbreeding leads to countless afflictions.  Hence, the name of this website.  We are all condemned to live in provinces, but our ambition must be to let the globe tear up our borders. 

Moby Dick.  Right from the start, Melville’s novel reminds us that too much time in one place corrodes the spirit.  When one’s walking along, and feeling like plunging a knife in the back of the fellow in front of you, then it’s time to be getting to sea again.  Moby begins: 

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.  There is nothing surprising in this.  If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. 

Expeditions.  Perhaps that’s why we have peopled the Global Province with all sorts of expeditions where the pilgrims have all increased their store of knowledge and refreshed their spiritual organs.  Right now one of our number is off to Veracruz, Mexico to see vanilla grown at its best.  Paplanta, Mexico is the home of vanilla, and that nation was long the biggest exporter, though the crown now belongs to Madagascar. The main species is Vanilla Planifolia. 

But you can range much further afield.  Horace and Marisa Giotto treat us to high-end Rome in “La Dolce Far Niente.”  Colin Goedecke has just afforded us a gustatory tour there in his “Rome in Four Courses.”  Rebecca Otto captures the cadences of Cuba in “Looking for History and Better Bread,” while Alston Beinhorn recounts some of the grim exigencies of life there in “Cuba Libre,” where we encounter a people forced to act against their natural, graceful impulses.  In “Paris the Invincible,” we learn that France is timeless, but, even so, it is being overwhelmed by its changed demographics.  “Wayfarers along the Santa Fe Trail” and “New Mexico: Asi Es Nuevo Mexico” explore our most extra-terrestrial state. 

Mexico.  With all its persistent troubles, it’s a wonder that Americans can still feel such intense happiness there.  “Happy in Oaxaca” speaks of the intimate relationships in that city that beget a sense of closeness.   Steven Page shares the camaraderie drivers in “La Carrera Panamericana” experience as they race through the breadth of Mexico up to Nuevo Laredo. 

Hats off to Hatteras.  Canada’s fascination with the American South is singular.  It ranges well beyond Florida, where frostbitten people from the provinces go to seek warmth and dazzling sunlight to free themselves from their solar night of the mind.  Grant Carter of Ontario, who has lived all over the continent, has regularly made his way to Cape Hatteras, as you will learn in “Family Vacation—Hatteras” in our Best of Triangle section.  We know several Canadians who have a special fondness for parts of America and who illuminate things in our landscape that we tend to miss.  As we said in “Canada’s Shrinkwrap Comedians,” Bruce McCall has a special ability to see us as we are. 

Pilgrim’s Progress.  It’s expeditions, not mere travel, that are interesting.  We can sense that people grow when their journeys are endowed with theme and purpose.  Flitting about the globe only touches the surface, and that’s the reason why newspaper travel sections and travel magazines are rather dull, despite the surfeit of delicious scenes.  When the globe is conceived as something that the active mind must constantly try to understand, then there is no Last Frontier, Turner to the contrary.  On each journey, there is a mountain to be climbed, and when we do, we see something brand new that nobody before us has ever quite seen before. 

It’s on expeditions that the Clark Kents of the world shed their steel rim glasses, halting speech, and grey flannel weeds and burst forth as Supermen, capable of flights of fancy, emblazoned by technicolor adventures.  At last they find their way out of the daily maze. 

Expeditions were more of a 19th-century idea, an underpinning to imperialistic ambitions of the nation state. Victorian conquistadors always were looking for the unknown, seething with the ambition of making it known.  In the 20th, we have decided to live with the unknown, and the Germans in particular have waxed lyrical about the limits of knowledge.  It’s hardly thrilling to thus see modern man get his wings clipped! 

New Ideas.  As we have said in several other spots, the really bright, original ideas now are coming from countries out of the mainstream.  In “Just One Fish in the Big Pond,” we refer to America’s diminished status in the world, as it becomes just one country in the globally interdependent network that must collaborate to share in the economic and intellectual ferment beyond our borders. 

These days a great deal of thought is being given to creativity.  Nancy Andreasen is trying to explore the neurological roots of creativity, which she begins to explore in The Creating Brain.  Paul Johnson , a broadbrush historian at Yale, is just out with Creators.   It would be a stretch to say that either knows much about creativity, but there’s still time enough for them to make a contribution.  That people in several disciplines are focused on creativity only highlights the fact that the nation is in a mindless slough at the moment, and that creativity is probably the only way in which we can recharge our political and economic system.  It was an unusually broad swathe of creative leaders that won for this nation its Revolution and its Constitution.  People now have begun seriously working on the problem of creativity, because it is a problem. 

Our own thought is that high-order creativity in America is, above all, the result of successful importation from abroad.  Of people and thoughts, not fragile notebook computers.  We’re great because of our very diverse immigrant stocks and our ability to assimilate them.  Now we must travel with purpose in order to bring back the little seeds that may grow into tall trees.  It seems self evident, as in the oyster, that it will take an irritant from outside—a grain of sand—to create a new pearl. 

P.S.  A new book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey has turned our head.  We had thought that TR, vanquished at the polls by Wilson and Taft in 1912, had slunk off in bitterness, a much shrunken figure for the rest of his life.  Not at all.  He went off on a grand adventure, first for a speaking tour in Brazil, and then a rather perilous 1913-1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition down the River of Doubt in the Amazon.  He chronicled this in Through the Brazilian Wilderness.  At times his survival was in doubt. 

We owe it to ourselves to get a handle on Brazil, which promises to become quite a colossus in the next 20 years.  President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva has surprised everybody by bringing economic stability to the country.  And, internationally, he is proving the most interesting statesman in the world, trying to get fractious leaders talking to one another, since the fallout from their disputes is hurting all of South America. 

P.P.S.  In Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, we read a high-born ship-hand’s account of his journey on the Pilgrim around South America, to the West Coast, and back to Boston.  Despite his successful career thereafter as lawyer and in government, this journey is said by some to have been the high point of his life.  There’s an insistent need in men and women, no matter how repressed, to break out of their cubicles in order to discover the destiny that is hidden from them by the shroud of society.  We know a chap who did a career of forty years in New York City but who feels life only really began when at mid-life he worked in Kazahkastan and other points in Central Asia. 

P.P.P.S.  We have made 3 new additions to the Global Province Network.  To join the Network, merchants and institutions have to offer very high-quality products and services.  But that’s not enough.  We make a point of meeting with the leaders to make sure they are good people who won’t cut corners at work or in their lives.  Read about Mrs. Hanes’ Handmade Moravian Cookies, Hixo, Inc., and Rick’s Picks.  As Cole Porter says, “They’re the tops.” 

P.P.P.P.S.  Bring Back Yahoo.  Not bloody likely.  Yahoo, Amazon, Google—they all had very good beginnings, each in their own way defining ways to find things on the Internet.  Like some of the elements, we are learning that they have very short half lives:  first you see them, then you don’t.  Yahoo is testing a new homepage that is absolutely disastrous, as it tries to press more advertising on its front door.  It and Google are allowing paid-for items to creep to the top of their search results.  And they are helping hamfisted censors in the Chinese hierarchy clamp down on the Internet.  The plus side in all of this is that there will now be entry points for new Internet enterprises with a better moral compass. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Nativists of all sorts, from every nation, have always been loopy, or loony, if you prefer.  The Chinese attempt to ban verboten thoughts and exotic religions is just one example.  Various fatherland parties in a host of countries have sought to bar all manner of thing foreign.  George Ball, president of W. Atlee Burpee, a seed company, writes of the ludicrous “Border War,” New York Times, March 19, 2006, p 13.  Native plant purists, posing as environmentalists, campaign to exclude all manner of exotic, foreign plants, no matter what.  Of course, it would have been nice if they could have stopped kudzu, an import from Asia that has spread like wildfire and is strangling the South  In fact, there are a host of Asian imports—the star thistle and the chestnut fungus, to name two—that we could have done without.  But, as Ball points out, our lives are richer for the potatoes, apples, onions, garlic, etc. that came from abroad.  While demonstrating prudence, we would be wiser to avoid the non-invented-here syndrome, whatever form it takes.  We ourselves are not about to give up our yoshino cherries or evergreens, or the graceful small Japanese maples that are so complimentary to gardens.

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