Saturday 3 September 2016

The Starship and the Canoe

Unique among sympathetic remedies, reading lets you go where you please. After Antarctica, something warmer, less heroic and differently fraught. The Starship and the Canoe, Kenneth Brower's double biography of the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson and his son George, describes two senses of wilderness and frontier. Freeman wants to go live on an asteroid (wants his estranged son to go?) propelled by a series of nuclear explosions. George lives 95 feet up a Douglas fir near Vancouver, and builds kayaks, far from Princeton, where his father lives; his is the last tree before you get to the ocean.
It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilisation that small groups of men can escape from their neighbours and from their governments, to go and live as they please in the wilderness.
Says Freeman in defence of going to live on an asteroid; but not yet in defence of his son high up in a tree.

George needs to spend time in his tree house, he needs to be sequestered to see what kind of mind he has—not unlike his father's, as it turns out, they have the same eyes, the same face, the same laugh. It's the similarities that are the most painful to absorb. After rebelling against his father, George rebels against George in the tree house, he cuts his hair and moves closer to the rest of society.

You don't have to rebel for ever. And you don't have to join (your father). You can find your own way. Build your canoes. Listen to your whales. Googling reveals that present-day Freeman is a climate change sceptic and George sells canoes. Freeman thinks humans have been kind to the planet. He lives on hamburgers and coke. Kenneth Brower can't think how anyone can be so stupid. His sympathies are with George. He has a refreshing chapter called My Opinion.
Resting in the wan sunlight, I thought about the Dysons, father and son.
Sometimes it seemed to me that both were caught up in a kind of ghost dance. Both were hoping, like the plains Indians of the 1890s, for resurrections of ways of life that are past recall. George hadn't realised that the day of the Indians was over; Freeman hadn't seen that the white man's day was in its twilight.
The first time I read The Starship and the Canoe was pre-internet. The starship was the starship and the canoe was the canoe. The father and the son, asteroid and ocean. I understood the son and his habitat, his slow move into companionship in wild places; I had grudging patience for the father, looking out from his astrophysics, eating his hamburgers. So painstaking is Kenneth Brower's observation of a father-son dancing party in British Columbia and beyond. He interprets and makes it feel like a luxury we can ill afford to miss.

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