Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why Things Are: Achenbach's Final Answer

By way of introduction, I will say that I spent another day at the library researching ancient Key West history (relatively ancient: the Miami Herald online archive goes back to 1982 and that's good enough for my purposes). After a few hours of diligent on-task effort, my attention strayed a little bit. I did some Tropic browsing (that's the Herald's now-defunct, formerly fabulous Sunday magazine) and came up with this little gem, Joel Achenbach's final "Why Things Are" column. I lost track of Achenbach's career for a couple of years when he left Florida, but I have a vague impression that the "Why Things Are" column was reincarnated for a time in the Washington Post. I could be wrong, though--the online Post archives don't show it. At any rate, this was the swan song for "Why Things Are" in Tropic, and a case could be made that it was the beginning of the end for the magazine, too.

Date: February 4, 1996

Why are we here?

Is there a point to it? How did we get here and what are we supposed to do with ourselves? Why should we do anything? Why bother?These are some big questions, but we think we have a very good answer, bordering on the irrefutable. It may not be comprehensive, but it'll have to do, because this is our last column. At sundown we dynamite the Why bunker.

The key to the answer is: the Bering land bridge.

About 25,000 years ago, during one of the Ice Ages, sea levels dropped so dramatically that water receded from the Bering Strait. It became possible to walk from Siberia to Alaska.

And so people did. They walked to a new continent. For a while they were stymied in Alaska by a glacial ice wall, an impermeable barrier. They chilled out for about 10,000 years. Then the glaciers melted a little. Gaps appeared in the ice wall. The first Americans went south.

According to Bill Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, archaeologists have found tools in southernmost South America roughly as old as tools found in the Pacific Northwest. You know what that means: People rapidly explored and inhabited all of the Americas.

These Asian-American hunters went everywhere, over mountains and across deserts,
through the Isthmus of Panama, atop the Andes, down the Amazon, out to Caribbean islands -- a dramatic, but forgotten, Age of Discovery.

Why did they do it? If they were so antsy, why didn't they head south directly from Siberia and go some place warm, like Thailand?

The answer: There were animals here, and no people. The hunting was fabulous! No one told them to go away. It was doable, and so it was done. Life fills every environmental niche; humans can adapt to almost any landscape.

The Bering land bridge saga inspires us to come up with an initial, if superficial, summary of why we are here: Because we can be.

Then again, when you wake up in the morning, and are faced with another day, you don't say to yourself that you are going to fill some environmental niches. You seek something more. Your plans are grander.

We bet the first Americans felt the same way. Imagine the reaction of the first human to walk into Yosemite Valley, the first to hear the roar of Niagara Falls, the first to walk the beaches of Jamaica. They must have been awed.

Keep in mind that these hunters were, biologically, modern human beings. They had as much ability to feel wonder, reverence and fear as anyone today.

The Why staff likes to think that not so much has changed: that the world is still full of new terrain. Call us dreamers! But we think there are new Yosemites out there for all of us.

And this, we think, is ultimately why we are here: We are part of a journey. It's the journey of a single species with a weirdly large brain. (It's almost as strange as those tiny male suckerfish who disintegrate except for their testes. Remember that column?)
In a world thriving with creatures living off instinct, human beings are a bizarre and thrilling combination of intelligence and emotion. The human mind is surely one of the Seven Wonders of the Known Universe (along with the rings of Saturn, the Crab nebula, the supergiant star Betelgeuse, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, the Automatic Teller Machine and the ready-to-eat instant salad kit).

We are going to resist the temptation to get all weepy and blubbery and quivery-chinned about this being our last column, but we have to give thanks to our immediate (and we use this term ludicrously) supervisor, Gene Weingarten, who, though a madman, is one of the great unsung geniuses in American journalism; and to the countless people who have served nobly on the Why staff or as invaluable sources, including Mary Stapp (the Why goddess), Tom Shroder, Beth Barry, Doris Mansour, Elisabeth Donovan, Brian Dickerson, Pat Myers, Mary Hadar, Katherine Wanning, David Jackson, Dana Hull, Cristina Dragomirescu, Elizabeth Schandelmeier, Bebe Gribble, Jeanne Smith, Bob Park, LeRoy Doggett.

Most of all, thanks to our readers for asking great questions, catching our mistakes, making us think. Your curiosity created a market for our little column, with its mix of fact and humor and total nonsense. You made the world safe for the question Why.
Keep reminding yourself: Every time you read a book, or take a class, or write a poem, or watch a sunset, or teach something to a child . . . every time you love someone or find something beautiful . . . every time you advance, however incrementally, the cause of intelligent civilization . . . every time you pump a little warmth into this big, cold universe . . . you illustrate the real reason why we are here.

You solve the mystery. You don't need to ask anymore.

You know the answer.

Author: JOEL ACHENBACH Herald Columnist
Section: TROPIC
Page: 4
Copyright (c) 1996 The Miami Herald


Anonymous said...

Neat. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Joel has continued to facilitate the means for what he wrote a decade ago. And that's good. The light of knowledge and light of humor are the footlights, the lamps unto our feet. Anodynes for SAD, as well. Thanks for sharing that, Karen.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, my mid-1960s days in Key West - and your definition of the early 1980's as "ancient" is disquieting. I prefer to think that 1982 to the present is "recent" history. Ancient? I ain't dead yet. A dinosaur, perhaps, but a living dinosaur.

yellojkt said...

That's a great article. Haven't we talke about pre-clovian (or whatever they are called) people on the Achenblog before.

Good hunting indeed. The land bridge migration sure wiped out a lot of species.