Traveling recently in the Istanbul airport, I saw a lone man in a fez. In a day’s walk in Tbilisi, the capital of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, I spotted one man in a fantastical Orthodox monk’s habit, a black cape cantilevered away from his shoulders like a vampire’s cloak. To see these solitary figures was like glimpsing ghosts haunting the uniform present from a queer, costumed past, a mysterious time when different people actually wore different styles of dress and didn’t all carry cell phones.
How the same the world has become, and how fast. Every time I travel, more downtowns I visit look like airport departure lounges, the same Burberry shops and Cadbury bars; more taxis play Katy Perry; more restaurants serve pizza and fajitas; more people wear hipster glasses and distressed jeans. A few months ago, I sat in a craft beer bar in Johannesburg a few hours before I flew to America; thirty hours later I was in the exact same bar in Seattle. Our differences are increasingly, and sharply, of class; the rich everywhere go for sushi and drink single-malt scotch, while the poor drink Coke and eat candy bars.
It’s why, more and more, I love nature. Like a canyon wall echoing and amplifying a dying human cry, nature holds the memory of the fast-vanishing differences in human culture, gently reminding us what is wonderful about particular places and variety of appearance even as we let it go. Where we used to gild ourselves in feathered headdresses some places, beads and leather in others, she still crowns herself in pine forests here, tundra there, and elsewhere swirls herself in a lacy cape of sea. Behind every identical shopping mall is a tree or a mountain that’s like no other. Every lake has its own distinctive form.
Maybe that’s why nature is so comforting. Within it we are reminded of the simple pleasure of being simply ourselves. The more alike we become, the more singular our idea of success and good taste becomes, too, and the harder it is for anybody different to respect himself. (It used to be some travelers wandered abroad to find the country that most suited their own peculiar souls; this is becoming harder and harder to do.)
But nature’s defiant variety resists this sameness. It tells us there’s another way: tells us the pine, the wildflower, and the willow can — and must — coexist, without yearning to be like each other.