I am walking along the shores of lovely Walden Pond outside of Boston, a natural site made more serene and significant for me by my awareness of the role it played in the life and reflections of Henry David Thoreau, philosopher of nature, peace, and resistance. But the magic of the moment is broken by a man who is walking along the beach in my direction, talking on his cell phone.
I am on a hike on the New York slope of the Berkshires with the Appalachian Mountain Club. We are ascending across a forest floor of red leaves, as the trees have begun to drop their autumn apparel. The trail gets steeper, and the trees shift to more birch and fir, fewer hemlock and maple. When we get to a plateau in the trail, the nine of us are ready to pause to catch our breath and look out over the beginnings of a view, which in another hour will have opened up wide and beautiful. Almost immediately, three or four members of the group whip out their cell phones and try to make calls or check messages. The conversation in the whole group changes to the subject of qualities of reception in different places and with different phones.
I am on an airplane flying safely outside of the reach of a thunderstorm, but with a stunning view into the canyon-like world of the huge clouds to the north of us, with forks of lightning flashing inside the depths every few seconds. There are tunnels, castles, mountain peaks, caves and labyrinths in the world of the storm, and we have a wide view of the entire celestial drama. The man sitting next to me is playing a hand-held video game, never removing his eyes from the tiny screen. I glance around and see that the other passengers are mostly watching the TV shows being broadcast on the screens above us. I don't see a single person watching the miracle out the window, to which I soon return.
I am on a wide, soft beach on the Long Island Sound, looking out over the sparkling water and running down to play in the waves. The sky is cloudless on this day. Two teenage girls (I'm related to one of them) are on a blanket lying down, their backs to the ocean, playing together with their cell phones, looking at photographs, sending text messages to friends, experimenting with different ring tones. An osprey flies by a little ways out over the blue water, soaring the entire length of the beach before disappearing in the distance.
Technology sucks the magic and wonder out of the world. A natural place is not the same place anymore once we are talking on a cell phone or checking our GPS, or even when someone near us is doing so. We get disconnected from our senses and our physical pleasures, and brought back to the world of machines and pollution; and for me, I get brought back to the awareness that nature is being destroyed.
I am reminded of Philip Slater, writing years ago in his indispensable book The Pursuit of Loneliness, words that were something close to, “Superhighways are making it possible for more and more of us to get faster and faster to places that are less and less worth going to.”
This insight, I believe, tears the cover off of one of the most ecologically and spiritually destructive myths of our times: That we can transform the earth, and human life on it, through the creation of technologies that have no relationship to nature and no respect for it, and yet somehow leave the world the same beautiful place that it was. This is a common theme in the ads on the walls of airports, countless images of technology as a source of freedom: We see a woman working on her laptop at a gorgeous lake, because the technology allows her to work from there and not have to go into the office; we see a man getting excellent cell phone reception at the top of a set of Mayan ruins. We pretend that these places are the same, that this laptop has not sucked the essential life out of this woman’s experience of the lake, that this man can still feel the awe of the ruins he has ascended.
Watch your experience carefully. Notice what creates distance, distraction, and superficiality, because these forces make us feel the gnawing emptiness that so many people struggle within the modernized world. Notice as you talk on your cell on the phone whether the landscape passes differently from how it does when the phone is turned off. Notice how time passes as you look at your laptop screen. And then, pay attention each day to what you can do to make a pretty place, a human interaction, a walk -- even a drive -- more deeply satisfying, more joyful, more connected, more ecstatic, more euphoric, more real.