Since moving to Vermont last summer I have seen stars I hadn’t seen in many year just walking out of my front door. I have watched summer change to fall and now to winter in a way not possible in Boston. With the leaves mostly gone, I could see the Connecticut River as I walked into town this morning. And it is not that I didn’t notice stuff when I lived in the city. I was a regular walker around Jamaica Pond, the Fenway, Boston Common and the Public Garden. I lived across from a 2 acre city park. And I did notice things. There was a spot on Jamaica Pond where there were almost always turtles and in the spring you could see the young ones. There were always birds to identify, plants to watch as they changed season. I could track planets in the Western sky from my bedroom window. But somehow it was different. Perhaps it was the fact that one could rarely get away from road noise. Or maybe it was just the feel, the pace of life clearly said “city”. But I was still seeing nature first hand.
Last Sunday’s New York Times Review section had a wonderful article by the nature writer and essayist, Edward Hoagland. I first came to know Mr Hoagland’s writing reading his collection of essays, “The Courage of Turtles”. His New York Times piece begins
“LIFE is an ecstasy,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called “The Method of Nature,” a founding document of American transcendentalism. Life is also electricity, as our minds’ synapses and heart muscles would testify if they could.
Living molecules bear a charge and thus can intersect with others of their kind, as molecules of rock do not. We marveled at electrical displays plunging from watery clouds in the sky as perhaps divine until we finally learned to manufacture and wire electricity ourselves, lighting the dark, then muzzling it for mundane use, to the point of blotting out the sky.
To forgo seeing the firmament, as many of us do, for Netflix and the blogosphere, is momentous — nature “unfriended,” enjoyment less impromptu than scripted.
Does life become secondhand when filtered through a tailored screen? Text unenriched by body language or voice box timbre, film omnivorously edited. Is our bent straightened or warped more deeply? That’s our choice in what we Google, but in the meantime, will we notice the birdsong diminishing?
I think life can become secondhand but that doesn’t stop any of us from watching the news or movies or internet streaming of important events. I am addicted to NASA videos of events in space that I know I will never experience first hand. But Hoagland fears that we are becoming more and more estranged from live experiences.
I live on a mountain without utilities for a third of every year, so for nearly half a century I’ve swung back and forth to and from electrification. In the summer, living by the sun couldn’t be simpler. There’s more daylight than I can use, and I revel in the phases of the moon, the conversation of ravens, owls, yellowthroats and loons. The TV and phone calls resume before winter, though life itself does not seem richer than when I listened to the toads’ spring song or watched a great blue heron fish, amid the leaves’ ten-thousand-fold vibrancy.
The difference of course is that leaves, heron, loon and toad would not remain as glories when I returned to electricity. They are “electrifying” only when Vermont is temperate. I appreciate the utility of power in the winter, but many people seldom see a sunrise or sunset nowadays; they’re looking at a screen. What will this do? The Northern Lights, the Big Dipper — are they eclipsed like the multiplication tables? There was a magnetism to aurora borealis or a cradle moon, to spring peepers’ sleigh-bell sound or spindrift surfing toward shore under cumulus clouds, that galvanized delights in us almost Paleolithic.
Are we stunted if we lose it, a deflation associated with migrating indoors to cyberspace, Facebook instead of faces? It’s lots of fun, but will ecstasy remain in play in front of a computer screen? With microscopes and telescopes we are able to observe unscripted reality, or (if you prefer) Creation.
Something is lost when everything is experienced secondhand. Unfortunately most of us do not have the kind of double life experience Hoagland has had. Most of us live in urban or suburban areas. But we can be more mindful of the small things, get off our phones and our computers, turn off the television and experience things first hand for some part of everyday. You can do this no matter where you live.
Photograph by FortRight.