By Richard Telford
On December 28, 1959, Life Magazine released a special bonus issue to usher in a new decade, titling it “The Good Life.” Life’s editors declared, “The new leisure is here. For the first time a civilization has reached a point where most people are no longer preoccupied exclusively with providing food and shelter,” adding, “there was a time when only the rich had leisure [….],” but “Then came mass production and automation—and suddenly what used to be the small leisured classes became the big leisured masses.” I learned of this special issue last summer while reading The Hampton Journal, one of four 500-page journals kept by naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale from 1959 until his death in 1980, while he lived with his wife, Nellie, at Trail Wood, the Teales’ private nature sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. I thought of this special issue once again, and of Teale in his boyhood days, when I read last week of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, two Swiss aviators attempting the first trans-global, solar-powered flight. The two are piloting Solar Impulse, which their team characterizes as “the only airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night on solar power, without a drop of fuel.” Though the subjects above might seem disparate, their strong connections offer important lessons in a time when our present mass production and automation strip us of true leisure and replace it with an illusory leisure defined largely by material goods and social media. Though seemingly paradoxical, the loss of true leisure undercuts exploration, inquiry, and innovation, and, as a byproduct of these losses, it likewise undercuts long-term sustainability across all scales and dynamics, ranging from personal wellbeing to the survival of much of the world’s biodiversity. To understand this sequence of loss multiplying loss, we must begin in the Indiana dune country of Edwin Way Teale’s boyhood.
Edwin Way Teale in his 1943 memoir of his childhood summers, Dune Boy, writes, “And so it came about, when I was ten years old, that I determined to fly.” Six years after the Kitty Hawk flight of the Wright brothers, the first public air show, or air-meet, occurred in 1909 in Rheims, France, and it was quickly followed by hundreds of others in a short span of time. Teale notes in his first published book, The Book of Gliders (1930), that by 1914 he “had built a hundred models and four gliders—two monoplanes and two biplanes. The first ended a brief career with a nose-dive from the chicken coop. The fourth, a huge biplane that ran along on wheels, was pulled kitewise several times across the lower meadow, with my grandfather galloping ahead, shouting encouragement to old ‘Dolly,’ the family carriage horse, that furnished power.” Teale documents the construction and flight of the latter biplane glider, The Dragonette, in chapters sixteen and seventeen of Dune Boy, and these chapters serve to illustrate the critical value of true leisure, which I define for my purposes here as the opportunity to do what we want or need without the demand to do what others insist we must.
True leisure allows us to explore, observe, and inquire. True leisure allows us to think, to hypothesize, to rethink, and, ultimately, to grow. While these processes are most critical in childhood, and their effects potentially most long-lasting, it is a mistake to accept as a given that we shed them in adulthood. For at least a decade, a dedicated contingent within our society has sounded the alarm over the dwindling sense of connection children feel to the natural world, or to any world beyond the confines of LCD screens and over-programmed lives. We have, as a society, stripped our children’s lives and our own of true leisure, in great part due to the meteoric rise of mass production and automation which, according to the editors of Life, held such promise fifty-five years ago. How many of us feel a part of “the big leisured masses” in 2015? How many of us can proclaim without reservation that we are living “the good life” these days?
Edwin Way Teale, in his December 26, 1959 entry of The Hampton Journal, notes the arrival of Life’s “The Good Life” issue largely with disdain. He is especially appalled by a three-page fold-out spread advertising Swift’s Premium meats. He copies the text of the ad in his journal: “Can you imagine any better expression of The Good Life than rare and juicy roast beef labeled—Swift’s Premium.” To this, he adds the following commentary:
When life is really mirrored by Life, the highest good that people will be able to imagine will no doubt be a slice of roast beef. Thus words are degraded, language erodes. The good life of the holy man, the good life of Thoreau’s simple ways are replaced [by a] world of materialism.
To be fair to the then-editors of Life Magazine, the December 1959 special issue does not exclusively focus on the material gains for the “leisured masses.” An unsigned editorial on page 62, for example, notes that “it will be necessary, and probably inevitable, that Americans discover the internal quest for happiness, which is the highest use to which leisure can be put.” Still, this kind of reflection is largely overshadowed by the issue’s dominant focus on the external quest for happiness through material accumulation.
So, when I recently read about Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg and their endeavor to pilot Solar Impulse around the globe, I could not help but think of the thirteen-year-old Edwin Way Teale gliding for several glorious seconds over the Indiana dunes, the whistling of warm air mingling with Grampa Way’s encouraging shouts and Dolly’s hooves thundering against the taut tow rope. I imagine Piccard and Borschberg to have had leisure time, true leisure time, as young boys—time to imagine, to observe, to wonder, to fail, and to succeed. What is striking about their work and that of their larger team is that it represents innovation rooted in simplification, in taking less from the earth and from future generations. Throughout Life’s “The Good Life” issue, one advertisement after the next extols the value of newly cheaper goods that promise a better life: RCA color televisions made $500 cheaper by automated production, Chevrolet Guide-Matic auto-dimming car headlights, Creslan acrylic fiber…“born of a magic molecule.” In that version of “The Good Life,” everything is easier, cheaper, and more plentiful. But then, and now, having more often leaves us with less—a reality that so often seems to elude us. Still, the aimed-for trans-global flight of Solar Impulse offers hope. It offers a different model for progress, rooted in sustainability-based innovation, and it is one of many such models taking shape today.
Perhaps it is the growing realization that our material goods, no matter their sophistication and abundance, cannot themselves yield happiness. Perhaps it is a greater cognizance of our overflowing waste stream. Perhaps it is the increasingly unavoidable reality that anthropogenic climate change is yielding a cascade of deleterious effects. Perhaps it is the growing awareness of catastrophic and often irreversible biodiversity losses. Whatever the reasons, we seem poised at the dawn of an era that will be marked by real gains in innovation aimed toward sustainability. In that sense, the flight of Solar Impulse, the progress of which an be monitored here, is simply a noteworthy and imagination-capturing example of broader change already underway. Whether or not the gains we make can outpace, and possibly temper, our consumer culture remains to be seen. Still, reading Life’s “The Good Life” issue, there is the overriding sense that the consumer at the dawn of the 1960s wore a corporate veil that obscured any and all downsides to progress. Reading those pages, it is hard to reconcile that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was only two years from serial publication. Thanks to Carson, Teale, and many others, for us the veil has been lifted. It is only a question of what we do with our new and clearer vision. Realizing that true leisure is a fundamental need, while the latest iteration of smart phone is a want, is a good place to begin.
The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.