Finding a Home Somewhere between Tangible and Intangible


Havre de Grace. -- Most of us live in two worlds, and th contrast between them is especially sharp in an election-year October.

One is the intangible world of ideas and theories, news and views, emotions and politics. It's a world we experience for the most part in our own heads. We're in that world when we watch Dan Quayle and Al Gore have at each other on television, or when we read the latest dispatches from Bosnia.

Many American jobs in 1992, maybe most of them, take place in this cerebral world. So does an increasing amount of recreation, films and computer games being obvious examples. It's become possible to spend most of one's life in the world of intangibles, and a lot of people do, quite cheerfully.

The other world is the physical one. It's where the sun shines and the cold rain falls, the rockfish spawn and the geese come slanting down against the sky. It's where hammers strike nails and combines move through cornfields. It's a world full of life, not just images of life, with real births and real deaths, real exultation and real pain.

Once the physical world was where almost everyone in The Baltimore Sun's circulation area lived most of the time, but that's no longer so. It's a world that's getting steadily smaller and harder to get into, and where the world of intangibles increasingly intrudes.

Stuck on the wall of my office, near the telephone and the computer and other symbols of the dominant world, the intangible one, is a line from John MacPhee's great book about Alaska, "Coming Into the Country." It's a quote from a homesteader named Jack Boone, who told MacPhee that "I have the ability to earn my living completely with my brain, but I don't want to." I understand exactly what he means.

In 1934, T. H. White, whose writings on the Arthurian legends would be published years later as "The Once and Future King," started keeping a journal of his life in the English countryside. As he wrote, he found it turning into a celebration of the tangible. Eventually published as "England Have My Bones," it's a book about the physical things -- hunting, fishing, snakes, flying airplanes, darts -- that fascinated its author.

White's great fear was that as modern life became increasingly urban and increasingly focused on the intangible, important knowledge that had once been commonplace would slip away and be lost. Soon, he worried, no one would be able to tell a grain of wheat from a grain of oats, or a crow from a blackbird.

That hasn't happened. The instinct to cling to the physical world is too strong. It's what motivates weekend farmers, amateur ornithologists, backyard gardeners, backpackers, bicyclists, sailors and sky-divers. Out on the Chesapeake this month, in good weather and bad, you can find thousands of people in small boats. Many are fishing for rockfish, but the real reason they're there has nothing to do with food. They're seeking something tangible, and they'll find it whether or not they catch fish.

It's true that even those of us who live in the country aren't as directly connected to the physical world as we once were. Few of us raise all our own food or make our own clothes. Like anyone else, we watch the presidential debates or Murphy Brown, follow sports teams from far away, and worry about the deficit.

But old skills are still in demand, and using them remains one of the chief satisfactions of rural life. It may be irritating or inconvenient to have to fix the waterline from the spring to the barn, or patch the fence where the cows broke through, or repair a piece of equipment, but it's good to know how to do it and even better to get it done.

All this relates to politics too, although only peripherally. As politics is an activity conducted primarily in the intangible world, it's encouraging if a candidate seems to have some experience in the physical world as well. It's unlikely that their farming experience made either Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter better presidents, but it did make them seem more appealing than candidates -- Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton come to mind -- who appear to have had no significant life at all outside of politics.

George Wallace, who for all I know couldn't himself drive a six-penny nail into soft pine, understood this. His angry constituency included a great many working people who worked with their hands, and he used to inveigh with great effect against "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park a bicycle straight."

This implies a natural conflict between the two distinct worlds, the tangible one of hammers and bicycles and the intangible one of words and ideas. But while the conflict exists, the distinction is blurry. Most of us live in both worlds, and wouldn't have it otherwise. A life lived entirely in one would be a life much diminished.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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