Sometimes my brother built log cabins for others in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and when I was nineteen I gave him a hand. It seemed like the manly thing to do, an opportunity to learn how to survive in the great outdoors and forgo the establishment and live off the grid. It was one step closer towards the romanticized life I’d seen in the movie Jeremiah Johnson, minus grizzly bears and ticked off Native Americans.
Then fantasy met reality. Before cutting notches into the logs and lifting them onto the steadily growing walls, I had to peel the bark from the fallen trees, which caused nature to release her hordes: deer flies and horse flies and mosquitoes emerged from the depths of the forest. They came from miles away, from every niche and nook and cranny, like the indigenous of the planet Pandora, to thrash the invasive human before he destroyed their Hometree. The party was on, and I lacked an Avatar to hide in. I was covered in sweat and sap and my bones ached from head to toe, as nature protested the unnatural death of one of its own. The hair on my head became command central for the attacking flies, and with both hands occupied by tools and the tree’s corpse, I was completely at the mercy of their relentless attack. I needed a tail, like a lion or horse, to snap them away. Meanwhile all of my high school friends were spending their summer partying on the beach, and thoughts of them plagued my mind. Finally I could take it no more and made an excuse to leave and escaped the woods to return to civilization and rejoin the post high school celebration. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the life of a woodsman. Jeremiah Johnson I wasn’t.
The movies often depict the solitary man as heroic, riding off into the sunset after the great gunfight to be alone with his pain after vanquishing the helpless town-folk from the unforgiving evil of tyrannical bullies. The effort takes a lot out of him, so he must be alone. Overcoming evil comes with a price. He knows too much; he’s seen what the innocent must be shaded from, and so he can’t join them. He would have to cease being his heroic self and become something he knows needs his protection. The fantasy of society holds nature and its wickedness at bay. It dresses itself up in fine clothes and perfumes and sweeps the bugs away. For the hero, it would be living a lie. But like Superman, he lives to protect the vulnerable masses.
Maybe this is why I’ve always been torn between the two worlds, loving the spiritual presence felt in nature as well as the romantic vision of the lone heroic figure, aware of the artificial façade of city life, and yet also pulled toward the culture and vitality and energy of the metropolis. Even the hero, the hunter, the solitary man eventually wanders into town for a good time, finally giving into his true nature as social animal.
A few decades ago, when I first drove past Chicago on a distant highway, seeing the city skyline miles away, small-town me looked at all the urban sprawl and massive buildings and thought anyone living within that mess must be insane. How could they live in such a rat’s nest? Now I’m one of them, enjoying the madness. Maybe it’s the steady creep towards old age and my appreciation for convenience, but after decades of indecision I’m finally embracing city life. I’ve settled for Lake Michigan outside my window as my nature fix, its many moods and window-shaking wildness acting as a constant reminder that the thriving city on the other side of the building is a bit of a fantasy, protecting us from nature’s dark side, at least until the next damage-causing storm rips through, or a drought causes a rise in the cost of food.
Or the years continue to heat up and global fires keep raging and droughts parch the earth. In Chicago, we have not seen an accumulation of at least an inch of snow in over 300 consecutive days.
Living in the city, I’ve come to appreciate it as just another form of nature. It’s the greatest of ant colonies using stronger materials created by a sophisticated animal. Whether you believe that or not, our dependence on nature cannot be denied. So what are we waiting for – the movie hero to swoop in and save the day against the tyrannical bully of climate change? How many films have we seen where the world waited for the American hero to come up with the solution to save the planet – Will Smith bringing down the aliens, Bruce Willis blowing up a meteor? Unfortunately the subsequent result appears to be that we sit in the theater lost in the throes of fantasy while waiting for someone else to come along and fix the problem. It isn’t going to happen. This isn’t a fantasy. There are no solitary heroes. It’s a true world war, only it’s against ourselves. We need to demand action, we need to change, because the bully isn’t some unseen wicked force, it’s how we live.
But this doesn’t have to be so difficult.
How about a government program where solar panels or windmills can be purchased through loans to be paid back through our utility bills, with the monthly increase of expenses partially offset by the lowered use of fossil fuels while continuing the tax breaks for the purchase of such equipment? Between the manufacturing and subsequent installation, the demand would create the green jobs we’ve been waiting for. The government already makes investments in green energy (Solyndra being the infamous example). Why not financially support the retail industry instead so they can sell and install solar and wind panels on loan over a ten-year period?
Being a business moron, I’m no doubt being naïve. Special interest money is always in the way. And it’s not like there’s any pressing need or anything. Maybe it’ll snow tomorrow, or maybe all of the carbon dioxide lingering in the atmosphere will get sucked out through a puncture wound created by the next satellite launch where it’ll get sipped up through the maw of a hungry black hole. Anything is possible in the movies.