Overlooking Lake Windermere in northern England are the ruins of a viewing post used by ladies and gentleman of an earlier period. These 18th century visitors, our guide told us, climbed the hill across from the town so as to get a better view of the countryside. Upon reaching the selected site, they were ready. Turning their backs on the lake, they held a convex and dark mirror, called a Claude-glass, in front of their eyes, thereby looking at the scenery over their shoulders. Hikers viewed nature in this strange, mediated way because they believed that the lake and hills were so wild that to view them directly would cause one to go mad.
This amusing bit of nonsense made me think about those things we do which, to future generations, will seem equally absurd. Two come to mind, although, I’m certain, each of us can extend the list.
First, I think about Long Island’s green lawns. Our land was never meant for the grass of which we are so fond. Indeed, there is a species of cactus that is native to this area. Lawns require much water, fertilizing and cutting. I don’t understand valuing lawns over other types of vegetation that grow quite well without our constant efforts. Lawn maintenance would only be quaint if it weren’t for its side effects. Every town now enforces water regulations, and wells, from which we get our drinking water, in many places are severely polluted, in part due to chemicals put on lawns to keep them green and full.
Second, I think about which foods we find acceptable and which not. Not long ago lettuce was the mainstay of salads. Today kale and seaweed are high on many lists. Still, one of the world’s most bountiful supplies of good, inexpensive protein is reviled as a food source. When I tell people that friends of mine in Kenya eat termites as a delicacy, they hardly believe it. But eating bugs is no more intrinsically revolting than lawns are inherently more beautiful than ivy and cactus.
The unexamined life is not worth living, it is said. Perhaps so.
The problem is that we often don’t know that it hasn’t been examined.