There are interesting parallels between the world of today and the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons. When I say, “interesting,” I mean ironic, sometimes amusing and often discouraging, as in the subtle and sardonic Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, wealth was concentrated in just a few hands, as it is today. Conspicuous consumption and ostentatious materialism stood in stark contrast to abject poverty, as it does now.
The “gild” of the age referred to the popular use of a thin layer of gold plating to disguise inferior quality and workmanship, as the economic expansion of the times masked serious social problems. Today our gilding is pixelated, but the workmanship is Chinese plastic.
The social problems of today are a slightly distorted mirror image of the challenges our ancestors faced 125 years ago. Immigration, race, voting rights, money supply and tariffs occcupied the headlines then, and the urbanization of America began in earnest, shifting political power and transforming ideologies.
The wheel of history turns, and it is not particularly mindful of what or who it runs over on its journey. It is said that history repeats itself, but I think it may be more accurate to say that the wheel bumps recurrently like that Walmart grocery cart.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, short of war, the majority of human life is lived away from the grind of the wheel or the bump of the cart. It is tempting to think otherwise when we study history, which reduces the depth and detail of human life to broad brush strokes of, at best a few primary colors, but usually black and white.
Here at home, where the morning mist is lifting from the valleys on a beautiful spring day, we are blessed to be able to live, if we so choose, off that beaten track, and in fact, is that not why we are here?
It was also true 125 years ago. Those of us who have ancestors who lived here then know that the great social and political upheavals of the time were far away. My own forefathers moved here when the area around Asheville became “too crowded,” the government, too meddlesome and the taxes, too high.
Granted, war can reach out with its long tentacles and pluck anyone from their hiding place, but here the struggle of their time was the daily agreement with the earth to yield sustenance for labor spent.
Life here could be hard then, sometimes brutal. The old cemeteries around us hold more than their share of infant burials and the fading memories of lives lost to the lack of medical technology.
However, the stories of my own grandparents are lacking in any mention of problems sleeping at night. Certainly they had their ailments, but there were no stories of depression, or stomach ulcers, or the long list of modern obssessions which plague the youth, and the politics, of today.
Their lives were rich in spirit and in satisfaction, sustained by faith, purchased with calloused hands and the sweat of the brow.
Every life lived with discernment can be as rewarding , whether it is lived in the most populated city or the most remote hollow, and I’m not advocating an exodus of neo-Luddites from the entanglements of civilization. Rather, my concern is the preservation of places not civilized, not assimilated by the juggernaut of this urbanizing technocracy bumping along history’s rutted road.
We need to keep our small towns. We need to preserve our wild places. There must be somewhere left, if not to hide, then to get out from under the wheel. There must always be an exit, an escape if you will, if not physically then at least in our hopes and imaginings.
This is a challenge today. The hive mind reaches out for us from every angle, compelling us to connect, to be at all times a part of the narrative. This is a new twist in the story of humanity, but the age old forces are still at work as well. Someone wants to build a house to sell on that beautiful ridgeline you gaze at over your morning coffee. Someone wants to widen the road. Someone believes that “if you build it, they will come.”
Every small town has these “someones,” the developers, the visionaries. They often do improve the living conditions of their communities, stimulate the economies, create jobs, all the things they say, every single time, they want to do.
But rarely do they stop to consider how much is enough. Rarely are the voices which say “enough,” sufficiently loud to be heard. “More” is at the core of human nature. It is the fuel that powers the wheel.
Consider the once small town of Gainesville to our south, now part of the fourth largest urban area in Georgia, where traffic can be at least as frustrating as the slow moving parking lots of Atlanta. Consider the once sleepy mountain valley of Gatlinburg. It’s a fun place to visit, but if we wanted to live inside a pinball machine we would be there.
Some growth is inevitable on a planet with an increasing population. That growth has slowed considerably, but like an oil tanker at full steam, it takes a long time to stop, and it will not stop within the lifetime of anyone reading this. Vast migrations of humans are occurring, not just at our southern border, but all across the planet as people flee from the grinding wheel of globalism and great power conflict.
We will grow here. That fact is baked in. But as we grow, we need to consider the state of the world. We need to realize what we have here, and understand how quickly that can be lost. Careful as we grow.