Wind tracks

Last night as I was making supper, I heard a story on NPR about Steve Fossett’s successful completion of the first, solo, round-the-world jet flight without refueling.

He guided his single-engine jet to a flawless landing in Salina [Kansas] on Thursday and triumphantly disembarked on a brilliantly sunny day as thousands cheered. Elated but a bit wobbly, he hugged his wife, Peggy, and Richard Branson, the flamboyant chairman of Virgin Atlantic, the airline that financed the trip.

Branson promptly hosed Fossett down with champagne before the pilot swigged from the bottle. He looked perky for someone who had flown 37,000 kilometres crammed into a two-metre cockpit for 67 hours with only fortified milkshakes for sustenance.

“Well, that was something I wanted to do for a long time,” Fossett, 60, told spectators and reporters. “It was a major ambition. I’m a really lucky guy.”

Asked if he wanted to take a shower, he replied: “I wouldn’t mind finding a toilet.”

That’s from the Sydney Morning Herald (reporter Matthew Wald), which I chose just now from the Google News page because of its headline, “High drama, but a landing that went to script.” I wonder if it would occur to any newspaper editor in the United States to allow a critical note to sour a headline about such a self-evidently great achievement?

But my own reaction, upon hearing Fossett’s words on NPR, was even grumpier. The guy just completed a solo, round-the world flight, and the first words out of his mouth are about how happy he is to have achieved his fucking goal?! What about about the flight? Might it have been just a wee bit amazing, incredible, beautiful, perhaps even awe-inspiring? Who the hell knows! In fairness to Fossett, perhaps he had these feelings and simply chose not to express them – or perhaps he did express them, and the reporters simply didn’t deem them newsworthy. But I was struck by the reaction of the crowd: they cheered ecstatically at the banal words of this adventurer, as the media calls him. They actually cared that he had accomplished “a major ambition”!

Except when they behave badly or fail spectacularly, heroes and athletes are boring. Michael Jordan was boring until he decided to play baseball in the minor leagues. Tiger Woods was ungodly boring until he fell in love and his game started to slip. Dennis Rodman was never boring. The all-American success story of triumph over adversity is slightly interesting the first time you hear a version of it – for example, in Pilgrim’s Progress – but thereafter quickly becomes not merely boring but alienating, even offensive. Most of us don’t live lives of such easily scripted linearity, and many don’t even aspire to it. There’s a hell of a lot more to life than self-actualization, the pinnacle – as I understand it – of Maslow’s vacuous and morally bankrupt hierarchy of human needs.

Sometimes I think I would be better off returning to my English or Dutch roots, moving back to Old Europe where so many people seem to have learned the lessons of over-weening ambition and would-be heroism on the battlefield. I long for the fellowship of folks who (forgive the stereotype) understand nuance and satire, like to putter about in gardens, hang in out in neighborhood pubs and who are, above all else, easily amused. I was confirmed in this stereotype of the British recently when I read Bill Bryson’s charming travelogue, Notes From a Small Island (Avon Books, 1995). Bryson was from Iowa originally, but married an Englishwoman and made Great Britain his home for many years.

I used to be puzzled by the curious attitude of the British to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies – “Mustn’t grumble,” “It makes a change,” “You could do worse,” “It’s not much, but it’s cheap and cheerful,” “Well, it was quite nice” – but gradually I came around to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier. I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold café on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and tea cake and going, “Ooh, lovely!” and I knew then that the process had started. Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities – asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool-rich socks at Marks & Spencer, getting two pairs of pants when I really needed only one – as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer.

High adventure for me yesterday was an hour’s snowshoe around the trails, right before I started supper. Perhaps that’s partly where my strong reaction to Fosset’s victory speech came from. It was nice and cold, the snow was firm from two days of drifting, and the low sun kept winking in and out behind fast-moving cumulous clouds in an otherwise deep blue sky. Most tracks had been erased by drifting snow, but I noticed strange, shallow markings all across the trail in front of me, too precise and not quite random enough to have come from stuff falling off of trees. In one spot there’d be a series of parallel hash marks like the graffiti of some lonely, ethereal prisoner keeping track of the days. Somewhere else, a strange, skipping, meandering line maybe six feet long, as if a bird drunk on fermented berries had tried briefly to land, and then thought better of it.

The author, I finally realized, was the wind, writing its name with whatever instruments came to hand. I found a couple of its styluses, dead oak leaves curled up like fawns in shallow depressions that once had been bootprints, before the wind went to work.

Why Salina, Kansas? Because, they said, it has an unusually long runway at its airstrip, originally built for bomber pilots in WWII. I take Fossett at his word when he says he isn’t in it for the publicity – it’s not like he needs the money – but from a p.r. standpoint, he couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to take off from and return to than the state of Kansas. I mean the Kansas that we’re not in anymore, Toto, but eventually come to wish that we were, because when you get right down to it, “there’s no place like home.” The hero, hag-ridden by ambition, must always long for his dull-but-happy former life in Ithaka.

But for me, Salina, Kansas has other associations: it’s the home of the Land Institute, where botanists, agronomists and others have been working for a couple decades to breed perennial grains, develop more accurate systems of ecological accounting, and in general to pioneer new ways of inhabiting the once-mighty tallgrass prairie of the American middle west. As it says on their website,

Because this work deals with basic biological questions and principles, the implications are applicable worldwide. If Natural Systems Agriculture were fully adopted, we could one day see the end of agricultural scientists from industrialized societies delivering agronomic methods and technologies from their fossil fuel-intensive infrastructures into developing countries and thereby saddling them with brittle economies….

The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring.

If they succeed, I doubt that they will be mobbed by cheering fans or filmed for the six o’clock news. Not too many folks think of Land Institute co-founder Wes Jackson as a hero, though perhaps they should. News reporters tend to refer to guys like Jackson as a visionary, which is on a level with adventurer, but is nowhere near as prestigious as expert with the XYZ think-tank – let alone anonymous source. Visionary has a whiff of unreliability about it, like activist, Palestinian spokesperson, drifter, or even – god forbid! – poet.

UPDATE: The online environmental magazine Grist just published a great little overview of Bill Bryson’s writing, A Short Review of Nearly Everything: Bill Bryson’s books offer environmental ethics with a light touch, by Sarah van Schagen.

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