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The Last Frontier

05/17/02 12:00AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been burning brush in his swamp lately and reflecting on the myth of The Last Frontier.

(Lange) I've been burning brush lately - tag alder, blue beech, and hackberry. But now, with the wildflowers blooming, I can't put my feet down without looking. I murdered a few purple trilliums before I decided to give it up for a few weeks. Increasingly - maybe because I'm getting older - I notice the meek silence with which the less hardy citizens of the earth disappear from the scene and then from living memory.

America was discovered and explored by people excited by the promise of fabulous wealth and illimitable resources. That promise was realistic 400 years ago. Today it's a myth. Our most serious problem is we still believe it. Our concept of the nation as limitless is a hangover from Lewis and Clark. In that myth, the land stretches out forever, from sea to shining sea.

But taking off from Boston and swinging toward the west coast, you cross the Hudson River before you reach cruising altitude. A few minutes later, Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes pass by. The Great Plains take less time to cross than to read Newsweek, and you can miss the Rockies unless the captain mentions them. The whole thing spreads out beneath you like a pull-down map in a high school classroom. That which from childhood has seemed limitless and bottomless suddenly seems all too finite.

Both the land and its people have changed. But the people don't know it yet; our species is still tromping through the trilliums. The mythic frontiersman is today a cosmic hoodlum.

Alaska is the most dramatic example of the collision between myth and reality. A friend of mine who spends a lot of time there says, "When you land in Alaska, the laws of physics are suspended." And he's right: somehow, 20 below in Anchorage is worse than 20 below in Island Pond; cultivation of the tough-guy image is a full-time occupation; and all restraints upon individual freedoms are considered wimpy.

It's largely a farce. Alaskans cruise the wilderness of the Last Frontier on snowmobiles, ATVs , airplanes, and big trucks. Almost everybody thinks he's John Wayne - or Jane Wayne - and hollers bloody murder when the state considers reducing the annual oil check. The early frontiersmen did it all with muscle power, so it took a lot longer. There were fewer of them; so it wasn't unrealistic of them to assume there were no limits. But there are.

A recent fishing tournament in Texas ended in threats of lawsuits when the winning entry was found to be packed with lead sinkers. Polygraph tests (which apparently are routine) failed to find who did it. It's a battle of Neanderthals, clubbing each other over the head with attorneys.

When are we going to begin to measure success by the fish we don't bring home, the size of the pelts we don't tack to the barn, and the wildflowers that we don't step on? The last frontier still exists. But it's not on a map. It's in our individual and collective minds.

This is Willem Lange in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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