Monday, December 21, 2020

Humanity Needs The Frontier

 130 years ago, my great-great grandfather hauled himself and his young family from Prussia to western Canada.  My great-grandfather was three years old at the time.

There were no trees here suitable for building houses - nothing one could make planks with, just willow and the like in the river valleys and coulees. So, for three years they lived in a sod house.  The floor was dirt, the walls and roof were sod.  For three Canadian winters.  There was a railroad but no roads.

There was no help out here, except for the neighbors, who all lived miles apart.  All of them immigrants, they often didn't even speak each other's languages.  There were police back then, North West Mounted Police, but they were only a handful of men responsible for an area the size of Europe.  And forget about telephones; fifteen years later when Alberta became a province, the Premier had a telephone.  His telephone number was 5.

Why?  Why did they leave Europe in 1890, leaving behind roads and houses and established farms and civilization to sail across the Atlantic and then take a train out to the middle of nowhere, and then walk for miles to their land?


Back in Prussia, it was pretty easy to see which way the wind was blowing.  Much like today. Both my GGGpaw and his brother had heard about the free land they were giving away in Canada, if you would only make improvements to the land.  The government of Canada needed people and infrastructure.

(There was a problem for GGGpaw, though.  He had two sons and a daughter.  His brother had three daughters.  At the time, if someone chose to emigrate from Prussia and they had young sons, then an exit tax on each boy was applied.  It amounted to a small fortune, because each boy was a potential future soldier for the army.  So, the legend goes, there was a poker game and the three nieces' birth certificates became part of the pot, and great-great-grandpaw cheated and took the pot, dressed the boys up as girls (2 and 3 years old), and passed them off as girls until they got to Canada.  Great grandpaw had a hell of a time proving he was entitled to a pension when he was 75.  But I digress.)

It was worth it, coming halfway around the world to one of the harshest climates in the world, miles and miles away from neighbors and civilization and government.

By the time he died in 1935 at the age of 75, my great-great-grandfather helped turn what was once a sea of grass into houses and farms and roads and cars and a growing city of Edmonton.  He built the mill after which the Millwoods area of Edmonton is named, and that area is itself was built in the 1970s on his son's - my great-grandfather's - farm.

If you knew where to look, it was still possible to see where the original sod house had been up until the 1990s, when that was obliterated by the need to widen a road. There are still some buildings standing and in use today that were built by my great-great-grandfather, including a blacksmith shop that has been used by auto mechanics for decades, and a bank that has been in use continuously since he built it.

Humanity needs a place like Edmonton was 130 years ago.  A place for people to build anew. A place for people like my great-great-grandfather.  If you took the same man, and transported him in a time machine from 1920 to today, and showed him what had changed, he would marvel at first at the wonders of the future.

But then he'd have started reading the newspapers and the internet and watched the news. And he would have realized that the place he had fled in 1890 had followed his descendants here in 2020..

And, if Elon Musk succeeds in getting people to Mars, I'll be fleeing Earth the same way great-great-grandpaw fled Prussia circa 1890.  I won't be living in a sod house, but that's a technicality: sod contains grass.  I'll still be living under the dirt, in a can, breathing canned and recycled air.  But I'll be free.

And if I and others like me succeed on Mars, the same lumbering beast that crept from Prussia to Canada will follow humanity to Mars and beyond - except right on the edge.  That frontier will be the only place The Karens won't be.