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Time Traveling

February 27, 2012

I have a confession to make. For all my rustic hearkening and pioneering dreams and allusions to the times of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I haven’t actually read all of her books. In fact there are two I’ve never opened – and two left unfinished.

My plan was to read them aloud to Eva, thereby allowing us both to absorb a snapshot of history. But midway through ‘On the Shores of Silver Lake’ she learned to read on her own! And while she hasn’t jumped ahead like my sister did with ‘The Hobbit’ at the same age, our progress has faltered as Eva soaks up more age-appropriate material.

I may have to finish the series on my own. I don’t remember the stories from childhood. In fact I was shocked to find – at the beginning of the first book – vivid descriptions of Pa’s gun and his animal skinning techniques.

Truth be told, the books have been consistently surprising. It seems my idealized version of history is a modern construct – an improbable portrayal of the past filtered through contemporary values and current scientific theory. This quote in particular touched me:

‘“Well, I don’t know,” said Pa. “Trees spread, and you know what it was like back in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, grubbing out stumps and breaking our backs on the sprouting hoe to keep a little land clear for crops. It’s restful to have clear prairie land like this, if you’re going to farm. But Uncle Sam don’t seem to look at it that way, so don’t worry, Caroline; you’re going to see plenty of trees all over this country. Likely they’ll stop the wind and change the climate, too…”’(Silver Lake p.270)

What’s this? A hundred and fifty years ago there were too many trees? The pioneers were cutting them down while the government was exercising sustainable practices? And folk were already aware that their actions precipitated climate change?

Living in a time when little in the way of sustainability comes from our government and climate change is both prevalent and denied, I find Pa Ingalls’ words to be poignant and ironic. As a prophet he may have missed the mark, but as a historical figure he provides an excellent gauge for examining our own worldview. What other misconceptions do we have about the past?

I’ve often wondered what Pa Ingalls – or Henry Thoreau – would say if they could visit the modern world. I’d assumed they would scorn city life and our softness and yearn to return to their own time. Now I’m realizing this is a value judgment based on my own feelings about society. For all I know they might prefer our present.

No malaria. A polio vaccine. Antibiotics. Smooth roads. Increased life expectancy. What frontiersman wouldn’t want a more secure life for his children?

Or would they judge the cost too great? Would they point to HIV and ebola and traffic congestion and rising health concerns and say that nothing has improved? I would be particularly interested to hear Charles Ingalls’ take on deforestation.

Until recently I’ve known exactly which side of the fence I stood on. Give me the means and I’d go back in a New York minute. But I’m finding that I need to amend this statement. And since this is only a thought experiment, I can. Give me the means – and a bag full of modern supplies – and I’d be very happy to travel out of this day and age.

For those of us stuck in the present there’s Modern Pioneering. It’s another way to get in touch with the past. And it’s better, because when you get there you’re still here. You can spend the day farming and building and doing – and then retire to a warm memory-foam mattress. You can use a shovel or a roto-tiller to work in your yard. And if you get sick you can expect to recover.

Here’s another thought experiment: make a list of all the things you would want in a time-travel pack. Then see how many are lying around the house. Can you purchase the other items?

If something ever does happen to interrupt this age of plenty, there will be a period of time in which we’re all zapped back to the past. Those of us with travel packs will land running. And that’s a good thing when you’re being chased by a bear.

Or a pack of desperately starving suburban soccer moms.

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