All the News That’s Shit to Print (on Nature)

We can hardly call this news anymore. This is just how it is. Turn on phone: check “the internets”: find new revelation in scandal and graft: outrage: stress: keep reading to find new element of Republican thuggery and treachery: read more about ultimate Democratic ineptitude and corporate kowtowing in the face of fascism: stress, hopelessness.

Turn off the damn phone. Or, if you’re like me: continue cycling through news stories until you’ve exhausted every new piece of information. By the time that happens, at least 200 more tweets will be ready for your review and the cycle begins anew.

To say this is unhealthy is obvious. But amidst this storm of shit I’m looking for a counterbalance, some sort of contextual weight to stretch out the wrinkled mess of stressful minutes into a longer arch that spans days, years, even centuries. Our culture doesn’t value tradition. We don’t have many stories passed down to guide us in this time. Whiteness erased much of that. This construct of our being, a completely false sense of identity forged in enslavement and the centuries afterward, trivialized and erased indigenous and traditional knowledge. Not that we deserve access to that knowledge in the first place. But we, as white people, are not a people. We aren’t uniform. We aren’t an identity. Whiteness cannot be detached from its hateful roots. We don’t have universal white ancestors who can guide us. So my search for wisdom in this barren land looks to nature and the world we’re currently killing at an unfathomable pace.

“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.” — Edward Abbey

But we know there’s more to it. There’s a richness right here whose value cannot be quantified in tweets. It can’t be easily digested in tiny, meaningless bites. And its wonder is nearly limitless. The context I’m looking for is right here. It’s idle in ourselves and outside.

Jack Turner is a luminary on this thinking. Including some excerpts below from his interview with The Sun Magazine. I recommend the book “The Abstract Wild” if you’re looking for an intellectual justification for throwing your computer in a trash heap and marching into the woods.

Tonino: What exactly do you mean by “wild”?

Turner: I mean something that is self-willed, autonomous, self-organized. Basically it’s the opposite of controlled.

You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or you can track it in star-forming regions in the Orion Nebula. Wildness is everywhere. It starts with microscopic particles, and it goes more than 13 billion light-years into the cosmos. It’s in the soil and in the air, it’s on our hands, it’s in our immune systems, it’s in our lungs — where there are two thousand bacteria per square centimeter! In a certain respect, much of what we consider us is in fact not us. We breathe, and wildness comes in. We don’t control it.

Tonino: You’ve called wildness “an endangered experience.” What do you mean by that? If we’re steeped in wildness, is it just a matter of perception?

Turner: It has to do with scale. On one scale you’ve got the Orion Nebula, which is twenty-six light-years across and two thousand times the mass of the sun. At the other extreme is the scale of quantum physics and subatomic particles, zooplankton and proteins. The scale that Henry David Thoreau and the American conservation movement focus on is that of voles and coral reefs and redwoods and whales. We’re particularly interested in wildness at that scale — and for good reason — but that scale doesn’t include all wildness. And here’s the problem: nowadays very few people directly experience voles, coral reefs, redwoods, and whales. You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve asked my environmental-studies students how much time each day, on average, they spend in contact with raw wild nature. Thirty minutes, they say. And what are they doing then? Walking between classes. They’ve told me they look at a screen eight to twelve hours a day, on average. These kids have not spent much time hiking in remote areas. They don’t have much personal experience with wild creatures. They also don’t have much experience with isolation. These days parents can hardly get their children to participate in an outdoor program, such as a backpacking trip, because it will cut them off from Facebook for two weeks.

At Exum Mountain Guides Climbing School we forbid our students to bring music into the Tetons. They hate not having music. They don’t want to be alone. They are hive creatures now, far more so than generations past, fiercely attached to their social network, which is a large part of their identity.

I’m part of the amateur astronomy community here in Jackson Hole. Our club has more and more trouble getting young people to come out in the dark — the cold, scary dark — and look at stars. They want to watch the night sky through video cameras. They want to use computers to connect to a telescope in Chile. They want to look at the stars on a screen. But the immediate, raw experience of being out in the dark, of being in the ocean with sharks, of seeing a bear, is far different from any simulation on a screen.

If you don’t have contact with a wild place, a wild animal, or a wild process — and I mean experiential, bodily contact — then why would you ever vote for conservation and environmental measures? That’s a long-term problem for the American conservation movement. Sure, there are still Sierra Club trips and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and families who cherish the outdoors, but in terms of a general population trend, it doesn’t look good. In Japan they have a word for people who won’t leave their rooms: hikikomori. It’s estimated that there are up to a million such people in Japan! This doesn’t bode well for the natural world, let alone the quality of these people’s lives. I fear there will come a day when people won’t understand the writing of Thoreau and John Muir. It will be unintelligible to them. They just won’t get it.

Getting people to slow down — young people, in particular — is important to me. I’m not saying that anybody needs to formally meditate. A far less loaded word is contemplate. What’s going on in your life and your relationships? Think about it. Reflect. Most people don’t contemplate anymore. They just go, go, go.

Most visitors to Grand Teton National Park never leave their vehicles. Nature is a movie that goes by outside the car window. There’s absolutely no intimacy with it. Intimacy always has to do with the body. It has to do with what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you touch, what you taste. It’s like sex: you can’t have it abstractly. And you certainly can’t have intimacy with what’s going by the window of a moving car. At best what you’ve experienced is scenery through a window, which is really not much different from looking at a screen. You can’t smell a bear through a television. You can’t look a moose in the eye and know it’s looking right back at you. You certainly don’t have to worry about a moose hurting you.

Digital strategist, writer & politico in Maine