When Marco Polo saw a crocodile for the first time, he described them as “serpents” with “two short legs, having three claws with eyes larger than a fourpenny loaf and very glaring.” They are so scary looking that “no man…can approach them without terror.”
Well, that was 1269. Pre-Crocodile Hunter. We’ve seen crocodiles – we’ve seen them wrestled by various Australians, we’ve seen them as beloved children’s book characters, and we’ve seen them, most probably, in zoos. To us, there is nothing particularly unknown about them, nothing mysterious or striking.
But when Marco Polo wrote his Travels, he had seen things that only a few other Westerners (and those few were his father and uncle) had ever set eyes on. He saw animals that there were no European names for, saw plants that had yet to make their way over to Europe, and watched people make wine out of, gasp! rice. His thick and matter-of-fact prose was the closest many people would ever get to seeing those things. Those modern readers, like myself, might regret that he was such a pragmatic man, more interested in how silk was made or what Chinese ships looked like, than in describing ancient Buddhist ceremonies or the wonder he must have felt when he saw Kublai Khan’s menageries.
But there are traces of it anyway, like in his description of the crocodile, or his weird obsession with non-European marriage practices (in case you’re interested, he cannot get over the fact that some people don’t want to marry virgins). He’s still feeling a kind of shock from such a culture shift, from seeing things that he has never had any reason to expect to see.
Look, I have a point here, a point that I think has been made most elegantly by Kirin’s beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald. From the end of Gatsby:
…gradually I became aware of the wold island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
We have National Geographic. We have NOVA. We have a map of the human genome. Since we in the United States of America have seen everything there is to see before we were ten years old, we may never be surprised by anything again. We might never come face to face with something that measures up to our own capacities for wonder.
So what are we supposed to do? There’s GPS. There’s Google Earth, where you can virtually take a walk around the North Pole. What exploration, what discovery, is left to us?
We are alive at a time when everything is changing. Maybe we can’t see it, because we’re too busy complaining that only change between the iPhone 4S and 5 is a slightly larger screen. Maybe we can’t see it because from the outside, 2008 and 2012 don’t look that different. There are more apps. People care a little bit more about Twitter and a little bit less about Facebook. The ocean is still deep, there’s still an enormous national debt, and people are still mining coal. No new planets have been sighted and it looks like Mars is probably just another orbiting rock.
But guess what? Doctors have recently begun using muscle cells to rebuild simple organs and tissues. New tests are teaching us things about genes. Studies in the nature of matter go father every day.
The new world is internal these days. Discovery, in the truest sense of that world, comes from within. This is not a trite argument in favor of self-indulgent self-help, but an invitation to the flexibility of our brains. We will never discover a new country. We will never see a crocodile for the first time. But we have been given the gift of centuries of knowledge, through which we will make connections and, yes, discoveries, more profound than ever before. We won’t just run a ship in to a rock and realize it’s a new hemisphere. Now, when we find, we create.