Suburban Soliloquies # 10


A very old story goes that in Persia there once lived a great and magnanimous King who wished to show his subjects his appreciation and gratitude. He looked out upon his people and saw how they suffered in their feet because of the harsh world through which they had to trek. Bringing together his wise men, he proposed to carpet every inch of his land, that his subjects might walk about more comfortably.  Applying to his wise men as to how this might be accomplished, they did some simple calculations and demonstrated to his majesty how such an endeavour would impoverish the goodhearted ruler long before the task could be completed. But the wise men truly were wise, and they countered with an alternative plan. Instead of carpeting Persia, it would be simpler to cut out little pieces of carpet for every subject to tie around their feet. The people were thus able to walk anywhere and find carpeting beneath their soles, and the good King had satisfied his noblesse oblige. Thus were shoes invented.

The suburbanite is not satisfied with comfortable shoes.

For the little patch of suburbia in which I reside, we have accomplished something similar to what the Persian King had originally intended. Nearly every house has wall-to-wall carpeting. Comfort for the people goes further still. Most houses in this community are equipped with central air-conditioning and central heating. It is comfortable enough to stroll about in any room of one's home, not merely shoeless, but entirely naked, summer or winter. Is there not something grand in this achievement? More people than ever before live in these perfect yet artificial environments. I hate imagining how it must have been for our ancestors before toilet paper and plumbing.

Nor is this control of our environment limited to the interiors of our homes. If we don't have garages, we need only make a short dash through the heat or rain to climb into sealed systems on wheels. Fashionable now are these Sport Utility Vehicles designed to defy bad climate, comfortably transporting the suburbanite through wind, rain, and rush hour. Four-wheel drive takes care of snow and eliminates the need to continue on foot where the roadway ends. If not still naked, we at least arrive dry and happy to immense human-specific biospheres, these being our offices or the local shopping malls. We endeavour to park our cars as close to the mall's entrance as we possibly can.

Humans having paved over and built on so much of this area, the countryside has receded. From my house it has become very difficult to reach the country on foot. When I was a kid it was only a two mile walk. Now there are highways on every side with no crossings for pedestrians. Beyond are narrow roads without shoulders along which flows a constant traffic. Hiking along the roadside in the litter and debris, broken glass, discarded cans and bottles, it is a long way to get beyond the exhaust fumes, dodging cars and trucks, to reach the "country."

What do we do for the suburbanites who want to experience the vagaries of nature? For them we have set aside parks to which most people will have to drive. Within the parks there are paved paths for walkers, riding trails for equestrians, brick grills for eaters, and places to swim or row. Maps are posted telling walkers where they can and cannot walk, the bicyclist wear helmets, the rowers wear life jackets, swimmers do not swim beyond the designated area, fires are only at the grills, and everyone must be out of the park by sunset.

About five years back there was a wide protest when the State decided toallow for deer hunting in Tyler State Park, not far from where I write, an area of 1,711 acres of mostly woodland. A quarter of it is given over to crops (leased to the highest bidder). The area, with the wide Neshaminy Creek meandering through it, is beautiful, hilly country. Still the park is bounded on every side by suburban landscapes, and suburbanites hate the prospect of their beautiful Bambis being annually slaughtered.

Every year the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is plagued with an abundance of deer that will starve come winter. Their numbers increase despite the filtering effect of a zillion automobiles. One encounters numerous roadside carcasses in the course of a month of commuting to and from work. The last year for which I remember statistics, the beginning of this decade, Pennsylvania licensed two million hunters to take to the woods, for which the State added to their coffers almost $750,000,000, all for the privilege of chasing one million deer across the scenic landscape.

A quick calculation might worry the reader. "There were two hunters for every one deer," you might wish to point out. But the State had reckoned that so many proud hunters would only bring down about 150,000 deer, the rest having to content themselves with cows, horses, large dogs, and the occasional other hunter.

Automobiles and men with guns is not how nature intended to bring about a balance that would keep deer in check. But the suburbanite does not want to see hunters replaced with the deer's natural predators. Dare I suggest the reintroduction of wolves, large cats, and bears. They would add colour to the environment. They would add spice to a mere walk in the woods. There would, of course, be the occasional loss of a pet or child, but then we have an abundance of them too. I am confident their deaths could be kept to a tolerable level. Our society has already accustomed itself to accepting a percentage of human deaths in exchange for higher speed limits, the right to bear arms, and the privilege of smoking.

Still, it is to be considered that humans, especially the suburbanite, are the only species that has a good chance of dying in a comfortable bed, and in a controlled environment. We've come to expect it.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the tenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.