Riverboats and Bone Yards I

By Stu Whitley

This is the first post in a five-part series.

As a young boy growing up in
England, I was consumed with tales of the ‘Dark Continent’. The memoirs
and descriptions of Burton, Speke, Livingston and Stanley enthralled
me, especially their references to the fabled graveyard of elephants,
where the fading behemoths of the Serengeti went to die. Trying to
conceive of a place like this was such an effort that it faltered on
the steps of my young imagination. The African elephant can live as
long as 70 years or more: the idea that this intelligent beast should
know its time nears and be drawn to a resting place with its kin seemed

These thoughts eventually released their hold on me
till nearly half a century later. I was on a canoe trip down a stretch
of the Yukon River known as the ‘Forty-Mile’, where the broad Teslin
River has its confluence. Suddenly, on the riverbank, there loomed the
enormous remains of several paddlewheel steamers. It was still easily
possible to imagine these vast engines of commerce, now in various
stages of decay, carrying freight, passengers, and hope to and from the
goldfields in their heyday. This was truly a graveyard of modern
monsters, and, as such, it evoked something of the same thrilling but
competing sensations of awe, loss and keening for a simpler time as
those feelings I had experienced as a boy. Later, as we camped in the
presence of these silent, mouldering giants, I wondered why.

occurred to me that our orientation to time is almost always toward the
future. Next assignment, next coffee break, next weekend, next holiday,
next year—we are almost constantly living in a time that has not yet
occurred. I wondered if this is simply a function of our limbic system,
our ‘lizard brain’, millions of years old, that requires us to be
chasing the next meal, worrying about the next predator, or
anticipating the next challenge to suzerainty of the herd. Foraging for
carrion on the open veldt put humans very close to the bottom of the
food chain: I think worrying became hard-wired into us even before we
knew we were ‘us’. Hence, the forward-looking agenda. Life, or the
continuance thereof, depended upon it.

When we are moved as
adults to think of a time before the present, it inevitably evokes an
appreciation of our fleeting existence on this earth. And because we
have fought, despoiled and clawed our way to the summit of the natural
world, our sense of invincibility has been perfected. Anything that
diminishes this appreciation of grandeur threatens us, so we avoid,
ignore or romanticize it. I wonder if this is why aboriginal cultures
do not seem to have had the same dread of aging as we do.

those cultures, experience, the critical applied knowledge that needed
to be transmitted to successive generations for life to continue, only
came with age. This, of course, was most true and highly valued before
the invention of the written word. The designation of ‘elder’ was
desirable: a man or a woman could aspire to no greater status. But it
could not be sought by stratagem or artifice—it was simply conferred in
recognition of life lived in the moment. Life lived, in other words, in
a manner that extracted all the wisdom possible from each breath, from
the chances taken and the risks survived.

Simone de Beauvoir
wrote that old people live in a modern world which they’re no longer
part of. Contemporary societies glory strength and fecundity: they
dread sterility and decrepitude.

old people show the same desires, the same feelings and the same
requirements as the young, the world looks upon them with disgust: in
them, love and jealousy seem revolting or absurd, sexuality repulsive
and violence ludicrous. They are required to be a standing example of
all the virtues. Above all, they are called on to display serenity; the
world asserts that they possess it, and this assertion allows the world
to ignore their unhappiness. The purified image of themselves that
society offers the aged is that of the white-haired and venerable sage,
rich in experience, planning high above the common state of mankind; if
they vary from this then they fall far below it; the counterpart of the
first image is that of the old fool in his dotage, a laughing-stock for
his children. In any case, either by their virtue or by their
denigration, they stand outside humanity.
—Simone de Beauvoir, Old Age (1977)

don’t think de Beauvoir was overstating the case. Such a dismal view of
the world perhap explains our obsession with youth. This in spite of
the obvious fact that those who cling desperately to their youth miss
an enormous part of their lives—a time of consolidation, reflection and
the attainment of the most essential wisdom, that of ourselves.