After a certain amount of friendly persuasion, my husband and I agreed to accompany our cousins on a trip to the Dordogne Valley in France.
Why the persuasion? Because it was a lot of travel for a short stay, and these days flying is no fun at all. Then why go? Because we wanted to test ourselves, to prove we weren't too old to cope with packing, security checks, uncomfortable accommodations and lengthy travel times, a day and a half in each direction; nor were too set in our ways to share close quarters with another couple.
Time spent in another culture, even briefly, provides space for reflection and self-assessment.
We stayed in a small apartment in Le Bugue in the Perigord Region where many of the Paleolithic caves are located. Some date back as much as 17,000 years.
We visited one of the most famous, Lascaux where ancient man covered the walls with detailed paintings of bulls, horses and reindeer. Descending into the earth and seeing with one's own eyes artwork created by men who lived so long ago is a humbling experience. (Disclosure: The Lascaux open to the public today is a re-creation. Once opened, the original Lascaux began deteriorating due to human traffic. The re-creation is about 90 percent accurate in every detail).
The cave in Le Bugue, however, the Bara Bahau or Bear Cave, is original and perhaps even older. There are no paintings in Bara Bahau but many engraved drawing of bears and reindeer. Nobody can be absolutely sure why Paleolithic man left his mark this way, but indications are that it wasn't art for art's sake. Most likely it was related to some ancient religion, a way to honor the gods or the animals themselves.
In any event, these ancient ancestors were human in heart and soul. And they lived thousands upon thousands of years ago. The evidence is there and verified by scientists the world around. Yet according to various polls, as many as half of American adults believe the earth itself is less than 10,000 years old. Why?
It's not an educational failure. Children are exposed to geological history by middle school. They've seen pictures of these cave paintings. They know who Darwin was and what evolution is. Rather, it's bad science encouraged by bad politics.
The fact that so many people accept the pseudo-science of creationism is part of the anti-intellectual mood in America today, and it's fed by ambitious politicians who should know better. As candidates, these men and women seek votes by waffling on global warming. They pander to religious fundamentalists and attack EPA science-based standards.
Ironically, these very same politicians praise America's Founding Fathers and hold them up as roll models, ironic because our Founding Fathers were highly educated men. Most were taught Greek and Latin at an early age. They were trained in reason and logic. They not only read the Bible, many could translate it from the original Greek and Hebrew. They were not good old boys. They were rationalists. They were scientists.
A few years ago, I spent a short time in New York City after a visit with my family, and I wrote what I thought was a very positive column about the vitality of the city. People were friendly. The streets were clean; even the Hudson River was significantly less polluted than just a few years before.
I was shocked at the response. Apparently I offended certain readers by speaking well of a big international city in the North. One critic even suggested I was anti-American and should leave the country. Now I hesitate to report on the positive things we saw in France. This is what I mean by American anti-intellectualism, and it is truly frightening.
A nation that rejects reason in favor of fundamentalism and is too arrogant to learn from others is at a huge disadvantage in today's global society.
Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.