At least life on the frontier wasn’t boring

  I began thinking about the phenomenon we call boredom while watching public-television reruns of a provocative series called Frontier House. Its creators took three American families and placed them in the Montana wilderness for five months, from late spring to early fall. Then the families pretended it was 1883.

They built log cabins and corrals, cut and chopped wood, gathered wild hay, milked cows, raised chickens for eggs and meat, a pig for slaughter. They grew gardens and constructed root cellars.

As the months progressed, they discussed their problems and insights on camera, while watchers like me sat in comfortable living rooms. Initially, the teenage girls were upset about leaving makeup, shampoo and other amenities behind. They were "grossed out" by the outhouse, by the urgent daily routine of milking a cow even during a snowstorm. The young boys missed their computerized PlayStations, but soon, every child became involved in the biggest game of all: Survival.

Because there were no packaged foods or microwave ovens, the women’s cooking skills became important and appreciated. Children had real work to do; they saw themselves as more than waiting to be set free in the "real world."

"I found my imagination," said one boy to the camera. The camera followed him when he wasn’t doing chores, when he roamed the woods with sticks in hand, absorbed in his own world.

I don’t want to romanticize frontier life, or any period of genuine hardship. I enjoy my hot baths and central heating, but I can’t help criticizing what has become, for many of our children, a vacuous American lifestyle. Instead of creating satisfying work, many of us have come to worship leisure. Our houses have become little more than sleeping stations in which we’re mesmerized and lulled to sleep by the blue lights of television and glare of computers.

Not surprisingly, when Frontier House ended and families returned to life in this century, the participants had some problems adjusting. A wealthy businessman didn’t like being away from his family for long periods, nor did he like the lack of physical labor in his job. Meanwhile, he and his family had moved into a huge house, built while they were living in their one-room cabin.

"It feels too big. Somebody can be in the house, and I don’t even know it. I never felt that our cabin was too small," the wife and mother said.

The teenage girls, interviewed as they lounged in the family swimming pool, described their lives as "boring" compared to their wilderness experience. They said they’d gained strength of character during their time in the woods.

"I feel strong, and nobody’s going to tell me what to do," one girl said.

And what about the boy who discovered his imagination? In the comfort of his luxurious house he became obsessed with his PlayStation. "It’s boring here," he said.

Maybe human evolution hasn’t caught up with culture, as some theorists put it. They say we possess hunting and nesting instincts that are outdated and irrelevant in the modern world. I see a different problem. When I look at humans as I do other animals, I note a point at which populations peak and then there’s a decline, whether from disease, starvation or migration. Archaeologists and historians theorize about the demise of ancient civilizations such as the Maya and the Roman Empire; in both, excessive self-indulgence seemed to have played an important role.

Boredom is what our children call the current decadent peak, a pinnacle from which there is nothing to strive for, just lists of empty rules and laws that have lost their meaning. Escape from this emptiness drives us humans into desperate behaviors, from taking drugs to eating and drinking too much.

You’d think as Westerners — and some of us are descended from hearty pioneer stock — we’d have survival skills to cope with anything, including too much of everything.

What does it take to free ourselves? We can choose to turn off our anesthetizing machines and do other things. We can play with sticks, read books and write letters with ink on paper. The Post Office still sells stamps. We can plant gardens and harvest some of our own food. We can cook for friends and family and learn to play the fiddle; we can feel independent enough to paint our front doors purple.

Penelope Reedy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She teaches English at Idaho State University, plays a piano her pioneer grandmother bought instead of a cow in 1910, and lives in Pocatello, Idaho.

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