The Importance of Bear by Brandon

Even if I can't see them, it is important that this landscape contain bear. Not because bear are a top-level predator necessary for a healthily functioning Rocky Mountain ecosystem; the definition of healthy function is entirely arbitrary, and for most people it's irrelevant whether the Rocky Mountain ecosystem even exists, much less functions. Neither is it because bear, as individuals or a species, have intrinsic value; that principle is true, to me, but again arbitrary, and also easily violated. It's because the bear is : because it's wild, not human, a symbol and reality of otherness. Just as religion affirms, even to an unbeliever, the possibility of a belief system outside the dominant, so does a bear say that humanity is not everywhere, all-encroaching, all-conquering, inescapable. As it is for a person, so it is for a species: there is no worse fate than to be trapped inside yourself.

Note: Religion in the context of America at the turn of the 21st century, where the dominant belief system is disembodied, at the time of these thoughts, in a PA system request that airplane windows be closed so passengers may better see tiny retractable TV screens that unfold above every third row, running an NBC variety loop at 8:30 in the morning.

Image: Somewhere over the foothills of the Rockies, flying west out of Denver, from this set .

Thoughtlessness by Brandon

On Saturday, as I descended the stairwell leading from the locker rooms to the pool at my YMCA, I was brought up short by a child who made a tent with his fingers and stopped to waggle them, oblivious to the person walking just behind him.

His mother shouted at him and apologized, but the incident touched a nerve rubbed raw by life in the city. In a place where the slightest task can hardly be accomplished without entering a press of people, where you mingle with thousands of strangers every day and the only solitude comes in your own apartment -- though, unless you are single and rich, you likely share that with a stranger, too -- consideration is vital.

Not engagement, necessarily, but an awareness of self and other. Small, common-sense acts -- a held door, a hand with a cart -- are what keep everyday routines from becoming a trial, if not from breaking down altogether. Yet I seem to notice, now more than when I arrived four years ago, acts of thoughtlessness.

Standing in front of subway doors without letting passengers off, pushing in as they exit, not giving seats to the elderly; refusing to move to the back of the bus, though the front is crowded; leaving carts in the center of narrow grocery store aisles; loud cell phone conversations in quiet places; and so on. Such trivial things, they require no special effort, no break from routine, only the most rudimentary level of empathy. In some ways their omission bothers me far more than other mistakes and cruelties which can at least be considered personal.

Nevertheless, as the  boy descended  I wondered if there might not be something unhealthy in my sentiments. What does it say that I become so annoyed? Might I not be taking it personally, seeing myself as the target of these small unkindnesses -- my dismay a reflection of supreme self-centeredness masquerading as public concern?

I entered the pool and did my laps. In my lane was an old woman who swam slower than everyone else, but instead of letting us pass on the turns she’d push off again, causing delays behind her. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about the society we live in: one marked by a radically unfair division of wealth and dwindling social services, by short attention spans and rats-on-a-ship reality television, by unbridled consumerism, reflexive power worship, home theater systems, friends walking side-by-side with headphones in their ears. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about our culture. No wonder people are such assholes.

Back and forth I went in the pool. After a while I rested and realized that a loud, repetitive shout I’d unconsciously ignored was coming from one of a group of children playing in the lanes next to mine. Looking closer, I realized they were mentally disabled. Among them was the boy from the landing, a stack of multicolored floats strapped to his back like so many candy wafers. He paddled tentatively as his mother held him, her face gentle and radiant with love and pride.

Image: David Sim

Here Be Tygers by Brandon

I had one of those odd I-live-in-NYC experiences today, when after covering a press conference at the Explorer’s Club I spent the day working from their board room, accompanied by, among other things, a stuffed emperor penguin and the mounted tusks of an elephant shot by Theodore Roosevelt. (A friend once gave me a tour of the Museum of Natural History’s back scenes; on the roof is a rusty iron room containing the floor-to-ceiling remains of Roosevelt’s hunts.) In the fireplace were statues of a lion and an elephant, on the bathroom walls were 19th century drawings of English boar hunts, in the foyer a stuffed polar bear. It was alive, however sleepily, with the magic of storybook tales of grizzled men drinking cognac and planning to illustrate the blank spots on their maps. And that provided an interesting contrast to the morning’s events -- the announcement by Space Adventures, a private space travel company, that Google co-founder Sergey Brin reserved a seat on the next ride to the International Space Station.

Brin’s reservation cost $5 million, with another $30 million or so to come later. The company’s CEO told us that his company didn’t provide space tourism, but space exploration -- a piece of branding that didn’t sit quite right with me, though I’m not sure why. Resentment, perhaps, because I realize that I’ll almost certainly never fulfill the dream of Earth from above and the stars in their perfection, and such realizations remind one of other dreams not likely to be attained.

That aside, though, the age of exploration whose scent still lingered in the Explorer’s Club seemed to celebrate something else, something nobler and relatively more egalitarian. Some explorers, such as Charles Wilkes and Roald Amundson and Meriweather Lewis, were well heeled. But others were not. George Comer was the orphaned son of immigrants, first visiting the Arctic as a 17-year-old deck hand. Hiram Bingham was the son of a missionary and discovered Macchu Picchu during his travels as a history professor. Edmund Hillary worked as a beekeeper so he could climb in the winter. Robert Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, was an immigrant and a journalist.

None could now afford to explore space, such as it's actually exploration. And that's another issue: explorers didn't simply transfer funds and go for a ride, staying out of the pilot's way and maybe conducting a few experiments that a trained chimpanzee could run. They went to little-known places; they found new species, met new races, filled in the blanks; they survived and discovered. They possessed a certain vision, discipline and élan. Of course they were often abhorrent as human beings; but their mythology is admirable, and depicts a life to which one could conceivably have aspired.

But except for Earth's 1,100 billionaires, who can hope to explore space? Space Adventures' CEO insists that Dennis Tito, their first customer, financial consultant to "an international clientèle representing assets of $12.5 trillion," showed the world that to be an astronaut one didn't have to be superman. Instead you need courage, free time and $35 million in disposable income. I'm not sure this is progress.

After the conference, though, I heard another company official describing the company’s place within a larger pattern: the expansion of humanity's economic sphere to include the solar system, mining near-infinite quantities of raw materials. He compared it to the Wild West, and his own projects to the building of railroads; and of that expansion, myths will no doubt be born, and hopefully they will again be lived by teachers and traders and, if we still have honeybees, beekeepers.

And, with any luck, by journalists.

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