When it comes to his innate desire to explore, the modern man may be left feeling as if he’s arrived to the party a bit too late. Recent ancestors blazed the American frontier; now, the tallest mountains have been summited, the seven seas charted and that favorite secluded hike has likely been documented, photographed and mapped online for all to see. Our options for new discoveries seem restricted to the outermost reaches of space.
The unsettling assumption that every last square inch of the earth is not only discovered, but also viewable from an app, has more profound implications than banal lament; it shakes the foundation of the American man’s rugged identity. As historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893, it is to the frontier that we owe “our striking characteristics.”
“That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic, but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil; and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier,” Frederick writes.
With that in mind, imagining the consequences of living in a frontier-less world – where most of our “adventures” would be more accurately categorized as “vacations” – could lead one to despair.
Fortunately, Alastair Bonnett has stepped up to confront this collective sense of loss head-on. In his new book, Unruly Places, the English professor of social geography advocates not for the colonization of Mars, but a mere change in mindset.
“When the world has been fully codified and collated, when ambivalences and ambiguities have been so sponged away that we know exactly and objectively where everything is and what it is called, a sense of loss arises,” Alastair writes. “The claim to completeness causes us to mourn the possibility of exploration and muse endlessly on the hope of novelty and escape. It is within this context that the unnamed and discarded places now – both far away and those that we pass by every day – take on a romantic aura. In a fully discovered world exploration does not stop; it just has to be reinvented.”
Each of the 47 locations profiled in the book were chosen because they forced Alastair “to rethink what I knew about a place.” They include lost cities, a desert that has only recently come into being with the drying up of the Aral Sea, the “Pacific Trash Vortex,” and a parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport.
Some obviously are more exotic than others, but each underscores the fact that exploration is more than merely arriving and planting a flag. He challenges readers to dispense with the melancholy and embrace the fact that there are no limits to discovery when you pack your intellect, perspective and creativity.