by Emrys Westacott
Earlier this month I visited Florida for the first time in my life, staying for a few days with relatives who own a house in Vero Beach on the Atlantic coast. The good company, mild January weather, enjoyable outings and excellent grilled fish dinners made for a pleasant trip. My brief glimpse of this bit of the country was also most thought-provoking.
The house we stayed in is situated in a gated community, an extensive complex of large detached houses, each one different, but all built in a similar style surrounded by similar, highly kempt, low-maintenance landscaping–palm trees, shrubs, spiky green grass, brown bark mulch. Nearby are tennis courts for use by community residents. The gates to the complex are set back from a busy main road. Residents open them by punching a pass code into a machine at the entrance. Across the road is another set of gates leading to a private beach, also for the exclusive use of the community's residents.
One afternoon we took a walk along this beach, which was long, narrow, straight, and largely deserted. Big handsome waves came churning in, but no-one was to be seen swimming, or paddling. Nor were there any children playing on the sand. Not a bucket or spade in sight.
On another occasion I strolled all around the complex, exploring every cul-de-sac that branched off from the principal street. It was certainly peaceful. The speed limit throughout is 15 mph, and the few cars that passed me were sticking to that. There were hardly any other people on foot: in the course of an hour I encountered only one or two. And strangely, given the number of trees, I neither saw nor heard any birds. Not far away is the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge which we visited one morning to observe pelicans, herons, egrets, and cormorants. But here among the houses there seemed to be no birdlife at all. Perhaps it was the time of day, or the time of year. Perhaps the birds didn't have the pass code needed to enter the complex. Or perhaps it was connected to the pesticide warning signs that dotted the lawns throughout.
Behind the house I was staying in was a small swimming pool, the water kept at an amiable 88 degrees. To be sure, the ocean itself was only a few minutes away; but the pool was warmer, safer (no undertow; no sharks), more convenient, and much closer to the fridge. It was also entirely screened in, so any bugs not killed off by the pesticide on the lawns would still be kept at bay. For further protection from anything undesirable, a guy came one morning to spray ant repellent (or poison, I'm not sure which) around the base of the house.
All this led me to reflect on the insulated lifestyle which has become the norm, or at least the ideal, for so many today. In Florida's wealthy retirement communities, where people go to escape the discomforts of Winter, this ideal is perhaps most perfectly realized, but the trend is apparent everywhere. Of course, to some extent this trend is just a continuation of a trajectory that people have pursued from time immemorial. Sleeping in a cave close to a fire rather than out in the open; wearing clothes rather than going naked; storing food to help one get through lean times; vaccinations; elevators; pension plans; all could be placed under the same umbrella; they all shield us from danger or discomfort.
The trend seems inevitable, almost irresistible; yet I find it disconcerting. And two further aspects of this tendency toward insulated living are also troubling. One is the desire to be insulated from other people, expressed and realized by gated communities, private beaches, and so forth. To be precise, though, this is mainly just the rich seeking to separate themselves from people not like them. Hefty housing association and country club fees are as effective as a bug screen for keeping undesirables at bay.
The other dubious aspect is the drift away from doing things for ourselves. In the gated community, the gardens are maintained by gardeners; the ants are killed by the ant-control guy; houses are cleaned and dusted by cleaners. Again, some division of labour makes sense and is nothing new. Many tasks require knowledge, skills, capacities, tools or time that we don't have. Most people don't change the tires on their cars, rewire their houses, or install a new furnace themselves. But as living standards rise for many, one marker of affluence is to pay others for doing tasks that one could perfectly well do oneself, or which are, in truth, not necessary at all. Perfect exemplars of this lifestyle currently before many eyes are the aristocrats of Downton Abbey who have servants to brush their hair, help them on and off with their clothes, and pour their drinks. The popularity of the TV series is commonly attributed to nostalgia for a way of life that has vanished. Yet its concept of the good life, which includes the upper class ideal of leisured dependency, still flourishes among the sufficiently affluent.
My awareness of all this, and my sense of insulation, was heightened, as I lounged next to the pool, by the novel I was reading: Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Set in the Midwest after the Second World War, Lila is the story of a woman who spends her formative years in fairly dire circumstances. Neglected from birth, as a small child she is rescued by another woman, Doll, with whom she wanders around for many years, eking out an existence among fellow migrant workers, dressed in rags, sleeping rough, eating berries, catching fish, often hungry, always fearful. After Doll is arrested for killing a man in a knife fight, Lila goes off on her own, works in a brothel for a time, and eventually winds up in the town of Gilead, where her story connects up with the plot of an earlier Robinson novel.
The contrast between the lifestyle I was reading about and the kind I was living was marked. But the same could probably be said with respect to most fiction that is set in earlier times. To take just a few examples from my own recent reading, Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country, Peter Carey's True History of the Ned Kelly Gang, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, and Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, all describe much rougher, tougher forms of life than those that most readers experience today.
Like the preference for comfort, the contrast in question here is hardly new. Few readers of Alexander Dumas or Robert Louis Stevenson have ever had any interest in actually fighting duels or running with pirates. Most of us who read books like those just mentioned would not choose to trade our relatively comfortable existence for the sort of lives they depict. Yet it's hard not to feel that such lives contain something vibrant and important that the insulated lifestyle lacks; that although we obviously and naturally prefer a life with anesthetics, antibiotics, social security, air conditioning, and so forth, there is still something to envy in the lives of those whose relationship to the elements of life was more immediate.
One afternoon in Vero Beach we went to an art gallery that was hosting an antique fair. Presumably most of the people buying the antiques, some dating back two or three centuries, were planning to place them around their clean, spacious, modern houses. I see an analogy between this practice and my reading about gritty living while lounging by the pool. In both there is a kind of nostalgia for something we feel has more character, more substance, and greater significance on account of what has been known and endured. But although the novels and the antiques are meant to put us in touch with a lost reality, they arguably do the opposite. Recreational and ornamental, they become, in effect, part of the insulation.