Notes on the Hinterland

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

-Canto I, Dante’s Inferno

When you’re an explorer sailing into uncharted territory, the first thing you do is map the coastline.

The coastline is easy, and relatively safe. It has a clear contour, you can see it from the security of your boat, and you can always sail away if you discover danger.

Inland, though, is another story – you never know what you’ll discover beyond the treeline, in the dense and unfamiliar forest. It’s possible that humans have an instinctual sense of unease many thousands of years old that arises when we can’t see the horizon – vivid fears of unseen predators pouncing from the treetops and devouring us.

The term “Hinterland” describes the geographical status of the forest dark – “hinter” is German for behind or beyond, and it originally described the land set back from the sea or the river, which could only be explored on foot, at great risk to explorers and settlers alike.

In metaphorical and psychological terms, the idea of land “beyond what is known” is rich with possibility for describing mysterious inner states of the heart and soul, which are often also shadowy and risky, awe-inspiring and fearful.

It seems especially significant to me that this is inland that we’re talking about – not an island beyond the horizon, but something relatively near in distance, but obscured from view by the thick living canopy of forest.

In terms of American history, once the East Coast was thoroughly settled, some attention was certainly paid to cultivating the middle of the country, but the collective imagination, I think, headed quickly for the vistas of the open West, and ultimately the Pacific Coast.

The ease of migration and relocation in the 20th Century led the majority of the population to leave the middle regions of the country for both coasts, and I think we’ve been stuck there, psychologically, since at least the Cold War.

What’s not to like about the Coasts? It’s awfully pretty out there, both East and West – the climate is mild, and you get to look out across all that sparkling blue, and listen to the waves crash on the rocks and the beach…

It also seems safe, on some level – even if you don’t have a boat, it feels easier to orient oneself when you know in which direction the water lies. Socioeconomic orientation is easier, too – the rich, in the nice neighborhoods, have the best access to beautiful views, beaches, and sea breezes. When in doubt, go towards the water.

In LA, even people who don’t see the ocean for months at a time seem somehow invested in being near it. LA is LA because of the Pacific, otherwise it’d be Orange County, or Phoenix.

There’s nothing wrong with the coasts, per se – as a geography, a place to want to inhabit, to feel at home. But the Coast is not the whole story, the whole of human experience: to stay on the Coast and ignore the Hinterland is both limited and limiting, and on some level I’m sure, perilous – because whatever is up there, watching you from the forest dark, will eventually come and find you in the night, on the beach, when your fires have gone out and everyone is fast asleep under the stars.

Coasts are for traders, for the rootless, for the exchange of culture, ideas and products. All of this is valuable. But meanwhile, important things are happening in the Hinterland, upon which the Coasts depend – and I feel that culturally we’ve forgotten this for at least a generation. Far too long.

It’s a truism and a cliche that most of the art and the culture in the US is produced coastally – New York and LA, certainly, and to a lesser extent, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston. For visual media, the appeal is obvious – so many pretty surfaces and bright colors.

Up to a point, surfaces offer plenty to explore – textures, colors, delicate nuances of how light interacts with contour and motion. Even surface psychology can provide drama, conflict, emotional catharsis, resolution, even the subtleties of human relationship, to a certain degree.

But you can only sail up and down the coast, or find creative new angles from which to photograph it, for so long, before things start to get repetitive, before the uncharted becomes fully, exhaustively charted. And then you’re just telling the same story again in a slightly different way. And then I begin to wonder, as an audience member: what more can be known about human existence on earth? What further depth and insight is possible?

Some years ago it occurred to me that Steven Spielberg has shared everything he knows about life in the world – no new insight will come from him, at least nothing that interests me. Likewise Scorcese, Woody Allen, even Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams. It’s not that these people haven’t contributed something valuable and meaningful – it’s that they’ve said what they have to say, and they seem, for the moment anyway, unwilling to go deeper, to venture further into the forests “savage, rough and stern” of their own souls, to take new risks, plumb new depths, and share what they discover there.

In short, they’re stuck on the Coasts.

As tempting as it is for a native Minnesotan to go out there seeking fortune, seeking trade with merchants of culture, I really believe that there are no new answers to be found out there. The Coasts at this point represent fully, thoroughly charted territory.

The real frontier is here in the Hinterland, the land beyond and within, into the forest dark of the soul.

Exploring the Hinterland is not glamorous. It’s slow progress with a machete, hacking through the underbrush. It’s thick with bugs and muck, and creatures in the trees, eyes watching you in the dark. It would be easier, safer, more pleasant to stay on the coast. The sole reason to go inland is simple: the desire to know what’s in there.

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