In his famous 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner lamented the 1890 Census Report’s conclusion that the “frontier line” beyond which large tracts of unbroken land could still be found had ceased to exist. “Therefore,” the report concluded, the frontier would “no longer have a place in the census reports.”
Turner believed, not without good reason, that America’s character was substantially if not entirely a product of its first century of westward expansion. He summed his thesis up early, writing in the second paragraph:
The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people — to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.
With the frontier more than a century and a quarter behind us— at least according to the US Census Bureau — American institutions were perhaps never as challenged by the physical presence of a frontier as individuals are now by its absence. Without a landscape to test and define us, we are left to shape our own lives without the former environmental constraints imposed by a hostile natural world that needed taming. That’s a great luxury few before us have enjoyed, but not one that comes without personal cost.
Modern humanity has largely forgotten that not so long ago Mother Nature was a much greater imminent threat than it is today. We set aside “wilderness areas” and engage in activities like skydiving in large part because contemporary society is so safe it’s now necessary to seek out opportunities to experience a little bit of danger. From vaccination and seatbelts to chlorinated water and coffee cups with temperature warnings, civilization has successfully marshalled its resources to protect us from disease and injury. Distances that brought the pioneers of the 19th century weeks of hardship we typically travel in a weekend in air conditioned comfort with time to spare for camping, hiking, mountain biking, or rafting. If we return to the office from these excursions Monday morning with a couple of visible scratches we feel we’ve proved our courage to our often envious co-workers.
The obstacles we must overcome no longer exist out there. Now it’s our own internal demons that must be conquered. The threats these pose are more subtle than mountain ranges or vast advances of desert. They play upon our capacity for self-deception and our skill as architects of elaborate rationalizations. Toying with our emotions they cause us to fear the other while assuring us that our own faults are really strengths in disguise.
The unknown remains, as it always will. But on our home planet the places remaining to be discovered tend to be nooks and crannies rather than lost cities or unexplored canyons. To the extent we pursue it the thrill of discovery is now much more personal than it is public. Those looking for fulfillment climb the peak because they have never climbed it before, knowing full well that hundreds if not thousands ascended it before them. It is their own curiosity more than humanity’s that they’re attempting to satisfy.
But for most of us the experiences we settle for typically perform a much baser function. Instead of seeking meaning and sharing what we learn from the search, we record experiences as a means of keeping score. Selfies taken here and there serve to advertise things we got to do that others we know perhaps didn’t. Our smart phones provide both the sound track and the camera for a movie about ourselves we hope will get more clicks than whatever the proverbial Joneses may have posted. Many of us no longer even bother to edit the content we share, speaking whatever pops into our head or photographing ourselves whenever the mood strikes. Even our “leaders” are now increasingly getting in on the act. What we write isn’t as important as how often we write and how many people we get to follow us while we do it.
In a race that’s won by the person or group receiving the most attention, easy and shallow pastimes are a far more efficient means of generating material than activities requiring effort, planning, research and other forms of deep engagement. Unfortunately, attention will always be a poor substitute for meaningful relationships and banality will never be as fulfilling as pursuits that expand our horizons.
Frederick Jackson Turner concluded that the frontier had rendered “Movement” the “dominant fact” of American history during the country’s first century of nationhood. He argued that “the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise…in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.”
Today there is no longer an opportunity to escape to fresh unsettled territory, but there are still frontiers galore left for each of us to explore. In the absence of blank places on the map enticing us onward we are faced with empty spaces within ourselves. It is our fear and ignorance that we must strive to overcome to find our “new field of opportunity.” For each of us this frontier will offer somewhat different challenges and take unique shapes. But if we can transcend the easy narcissistic fixes that consumerism and social media invite us to indulge, who knows what we might be able to discover that’s truly worthy of sharing along the way.
Other recent stories by Craig include: Epigenetics: Where Biology And Culture Meet & Are You Getting Enough Awe In Your Experiential Diet?