Getting closer to things that really matter

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.

He asks

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.

Dried Queen Anne's Lace seen on a recent walk.

Dried Queen Anne’s Lace seen on a recent walk.

 

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.

Hitting reset

A few weeks ago, my husband and I both noted an article in the New York Times Week in Review section called “Hit the Reset “Button in Your Brain.”  The authors argued the need for a true vacation from work.  In other words not one like President Obama had where according to a news report I heard he talked to at least 9 foreign leaders and held at least 4 press conferences.  This would be in addition to the normal routine of daily briefings, etc.  Some of the rest of us call work and read email while ostensibly on vacation.  They argue

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

0810BRAIN-master495

 

So what helps us reset and overcome the overload?

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

I suspect that by moving to Vermont with cleaner air, quiet, and lots of space to walk and appreciate nature even within a few blocks of our house, we have hit our reset buttons.  Being able to sit on the screened in porch and watch daylight fade as I did last night or taking a walk to see the stars tonight provides time to think and reflect.  We did try to do this in Boston by walking around Jamaica Pond for example, but even there you could hear traffic.  I used to walk over to Boston Harbor at lunch and look at the water.  These are urban dwellers solutions which people in cities can employ.  But they need to do so without cellphones and other devices.

I know it is a privilege to be able to retire to a place where we can so easily hit reset.

Illustration by Matthieu Bourel