When dinosaurs roamed the earth, chewing the leafy treetops with the aid of their towering necks and soaring above the rivers teeming with life on their reptilian wings, was when the plankton and algae that now power my car swam in the oceans. Dying by the generations, the tiny bodies of these organisms floated down to the ocean floor and collected and compressed over time. Given enough time (millions of years) this biomass under pressure turned into what we now call crude oil.
I sometimes get grief from my friends for driving an old car. My propulsive method of choice is an automobile manufactured by the venerable Ford Motor Company, the make being Escort Sports Wagon, the vintage 1995. The sands of public opinion have shifted and my auto is not in 2011 the strapping beast that it used to be in its heyday, but I still find something odd about this criticism lodged by some at my noble steed. For in the grand scheme of things, the automobile itself is such a curious contraption that my particular specimen of it is not nearly as interesting as the species as a whole.
The Chicago Auto Show came to the vaunted convention halls of our city this weekend and displayed its lovely stock of new machines. Sparkling under electric lamps like a river does under the sun, the parade of autos flaunted the latest fashion in sculpted forms and boasted too of new feats of agility, power, navigation, and cabin architecture. Machinery so alive with centuries of cumulative human inventiveness that it would make even the most proud and accomplished cavalryman blush in shame and hide his mare behind the nearest tree.
Why is it that we find the newest cars so attractive? Perhaps it is a kind of survival instinct: we are used to our tribe striving to acquire the fastest and healthiest herd of horses in the valley. When horses were first domesticated thousands of years ago, the armies of humans that rode them must have become mighty in their lands, killing from their chariots and saddles the bands of other humans who couldn’t figure out the mount. The genes of those not inclined to the equine arts would have found their eternal end in the blood spilled upon the sands and the steppe.
Then horse-flesh gave way to the pistons, shafts and axles of the auto, for it was not the animal itself that we loved and cherished but its functional value. We must be as fast as Hermes the great messenger and as unfettered in movement as Zeus himself, no matter if we have to strain the backs of horses to do this or fill our tanks with the liquefied bones of millennia-old fish.
And this brings me back to what I said before, that I can’t quite see the ugliness of my Ford automobile that my friends do. We make our cars sparkle and shine and cut them into beautiful forms like veritable Michaelangelos at the marble, but this makes us forget how crude the things themselves are, how crude our existence is in general. How can you criticize the obscenity of the touches of rust upon my noble steed’s trimmings when my car, like yours, literally runs on dinosaur fish exploding in its belly?
And not just cars. Perhaps the other things that we design that seem so beautiful, so new, so unprecedentedly postmodern are just copies of the objects that we have loved and experienced all along. The latest iPhone shimmering on a snow-white stand at the Apple store: where would your liquid-crystal display be if us humans did not love the silken stillness of calm water or the sparkle of a brilliant gem? Your beauty comes from theirs. And likewise the furniture at the IKEA store atoning with its clean lines and simple elegance for Europe’s centuries of unrestrained decorative opulence: does your beauty owe nothing to the simple human joy of having an uncluttered and well-lit cave to live in (the sight of which doubtless warmed the hearts of many thousands of generations of our ancestors)?
And have you ever experienced the utter relaxation bordering on docility that passes over the human mind when staring into a campfire on a warm summer night? Humans look entirely different, perhaps their most beautiful, when seen by the flickering light of a small fire (much more so than under an electric bulb). The lighting of choice for romantic encounters is still fire or candlelight.
Maybe, like the author of Ecclesiastes writes, there is nothing new under the sun, and the same impressions and experiences from nature are combining in novel ways before our senses. It’s hard to tell, but it is somewhat of a liberating thought. There is nothing in an iPhone to warm the human soul that is not found somewhere else in nature. And though the tribesmen will ever strive to have the fastest cars in the show, one can always appreciate the beauty of the horses roaming freely in the valley.