On Progress

On Progress
21W735 Paper 2
Erik Nygren
Instructor: Prof. Klingenstein

It has been over two years since I arrived in this city. For over 750 days I have lived 14 stories above the ground. As I write this, I look out my window, a portal to the sprawling web of streets below.

A car alarm wails in the darkness, unanswered. Thousands of windows cover cold, concrete walls of buildings rising from between streets. Thousands of lonely, unseen faces look out from these windows onto the same streets and the same walls that I see. Hundreds of cars swarm down streets over pavement damp from rain. Oil accumulated during the summer makes these roads slick as headlights lead the cars towards their unseen destinations. Smoke, glowing orange with the light from the city, rises from factories. Millions of people, hidden from my view only by walls, go about their business: eating, sleeping, working, and enjoying the pleasures of life. In one house, a woman sweeps cobwebs from the corners of her ceiling. Elsewhere, a man places mouse traps around his apartment, hoping to catch the filthy vermin which have infested his home. It is a land under the occupation of man. Building after building rises from the flatness of landfill. As far as can be seen, it is the land of man. There is not a horizon but a skyline, a string of lights surrounding and encompassing. There are no stars, no moon, just buildings and a polluted river which mirrors the lights of a city encased in the darkness of night.

What was my world like before I came here? Sometimes I take my mind back to dwell on the hills and the sky and the wind and the streams. A sky which stretches from mountains to forests, from hills to hills, and under which days pass into each other under the warm sun and the bright stars and the kind moon. At the foot of mountains are the golden hills which roll on and on to the cool forests and the sandy beaches upon which the frothy waves of the great oceans lap. Gulls fly over a rocky coast and hawks trace idle circles over inland valleys as a small field mouse rests in the shade on a hillside, his moist pink nose raised in the same wind which caresses golden blades of grass into waving their slow dance. In the valley below, a spider admires its intricately woven web which glistens in the morning dew as it suspends between two horsetails growing out of a marsh where the cycle of life continues as tadpoles hatch in the rain of spring and grow into frogs whose songs turn the dark night into nature's symphony. For millions of years it had been this way with life being born and growing and living and dying and decaying into nutrients from which new life sprung.

But that is past. In those days I looked at the world in awe and wonder, but now I do not know how to see it. Beauty can not last forever and one day the developers came. Man must expand they said. Man needs space. They came with their steel machines and filled the marshes with dirt torn out of the hillsides. Forests were cut and processed to construct buildings where those forests had once been. Only street names like Willow Road and Juniper Lane were left as memorials to trees which once stood in their place. The mouse and the spider lost their homes so that humans could have living space. Nothing was left for them but to move in and live along with man.

Has man forgotten what the world once was before structures of steel were raised up to hide him from his past? In the ancient times, man lived along with nature. He hunted and foraged and hid in caves with only a small flickering fire to protect him from the night. Now he hides behind glass and concrete while flickering florescent lights suppress the darkness outside.

Those same walls which protect me from the world also serve to suffocate me. Beyond my door is a hallway filled with people. Beyond my window is a city filled with people. Up and down and in all cardinal directions there are crowds moving to the beat of a civilization which has forgotten its roots. I might travel beyond the city for a day or a week or a month to places man has not yet conquered, but the city will remain and eventually even my retreat would be engulfed by progress as well. But what is the purpose of man? Should we return to the caves and the plains and the hills? Should we destroy our cities and forget our knowledge? Should we maintain the status quo and stagnate until civilization is crushed under its own weight? Or should we continue to expand on land, into our oceans, and even towards other planets? At times I think man has a manifest destiny to expand across the galaxy, but as I look out through the glass into the darkness I can not help but long for the beauty of a world where the wind blows through the grass and the hawks trace lazy circles in the sky.

Erik Nygren (nygren@mit.edu)