Being there

A good look around the weird world.

Nov 18, 1998 at 12:00 am

Remember Rod Serling's line, from the old "Twilight Zone." "Imagine, if you will ...," he'd say, walking onto the set each week to introduce some weirdness or other. Well, imagine -- if you will -- the average, increasingly overweight American, commuting to work on the interstate, alone, in a sports utility vehicle -- our national object of desire -- big enough to hold a family of six, geared to climb naked rock faces. With windows rolled up, temperature controlled to a comfy 72 degrees, industrial-size drum of coffee in the cup holder, an audio book playing on the studio-quality sound system, cell phone on standby, our commuter speeds through the never-attended-to environment.

And what would our citizen be listening to while coming and going each day, in such expensively produced, high-tech solitude? How about Thoreau? He'd fit nicely with our four-wheel-drive commitment to rugged individuality. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," Thoreau wrote, in Walden, nearly 150 years ago. "A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind." That, as it turns out, is an audio-book bestseller, the majority of which are listened to by single commuter drivers.

Yada, yada, yada, so what else is new, right? We like to think in all-or-nothing terms -- either a hermit's shack in the woods or else total yuppie capitulation -- because that makes it easier to justify our collective ignorance and giving in. Sure it sucks, but whaddaya gonna do?

One thing you might do is read John Stilgoe's book, which is a perfect antidote to either-or passivity. What he advocates is not throwing it all over for a hut in the Himalayas, but a kind of postindustrial travel, by foot or by bicycle, "exploration" he calls it, not avoiding the built environment, but engaging it, visually, historically, directly.

One of the great paradoxes is that, in this insistently visual culture of ours, so few people know how to see -- at least how to see anything except what they are shown in prearranged form, through a windshield or TV screen. "The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things," Stilgoe writes, "the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted -- all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in ... Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic."

OK, so he gets a little poetic, but his heart -- and his eye -- are always in the right place. Stilgoe, who is a college professor, is writing here -- a lot like Thoreau -- simply as one American talking to the rest of us, about what we might do to make our lives richer, better, more individually sane. His explorations address a variety of everyday terrain -- interstates, strip malls, the roadside, main streets, parking lots. Each investigation occasions certain questions -- about the cultural politics of roadkill, for instance -- that he proceeds to unravel charmingly. His history of power lines, or his revelations about the U.S. Mail, and how to get free next-day delivery are alone worth the price of the book.

And his point? To teach us how to live -- individually engaged -- in the country that we've otherwise been alienated from by the various technologies that sustain it. It's a Rod Serling kind of gambit, to embrace the weirdness of what we've created.