Friday, April 10, 2015
Guest Essay: Seeing
We've all watched the videos of people walking and texting, the ones where the texter falls into a fountain or splats into some wet cement. I see it around me when neighbors walk by, absorbed in their phones when they're walking their dogs or, worse, strolling with their children, missing the opportunity for connection. My friend, journalist, hunter, forager and author Hank Shaw, recently published an essay on this phenomenon, and has given me permission to post an excerpt. I encourage you to click through to read the entire piece.
I went for a walk today, and found myself surrounded by zombies.
One of the places where I wander around to read nature’s news also happens to be a spot that on any given sunny weekend is choked with walkers, runners and bikers. On those rare weekends when I venture out into this, I feel oddly out of place, like those people who stand still in Times Square while being photographed in time lapse: a rock in a raging torrent of humanity.
This is not to say that I sit motionless on a bench like some octogenarian feeding pigeons. I actually do end up walking five miles or so on a given day, but it can often take me several hours because, well, to read the signs of the natural world you must slow yourself down. Slowing down: A concept so alien to most modern Americans that they view it as a sign of weakness. On the contrary, an overly regimented life is one empty of wonder. And wonder is no weakness.
I honestly have no real way of gauging the inner lives of those earnest exercisers around me, but their exterior isn’t pretty. At best their eyes appear vacant, their minds focused on whatever it is they are listening to on their headphones. At worst they look like the damned in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
As I walk through this bustle, noting the comings and goings of flowers and fruits and leaves, checking to see what schedule life seems to be taking this year, I am almost never noticed, even though I might be picking up pine nuts off the ground or collecting seeds or elderberries or mustard greens in full view of the good people of the path. I used to think everyone just thought I was a crazy homeless person and were consciously avoiding eye contact. That does still happen, but I’ve learned to recognize the difference between that and those who truly don’t register my existence.
This obliviousness fascinates me. Why, if you are so intent on whatever it is blaring itself into your skull, are you out in nature at all? Wouldn’t a treadmill suffice?
Of course it won’t. I was once a runner. A competitive one, even. So fast there was no possible way I could truly appreciate my surroundings. But I did, or at least I told myself I did. Nature exerts a sort of osmotic pressure on us all, seeping into those who lack nature within themselves even if ignored, much the way a salt brine works in meat. Even something as simple as sun on your head and a breeze in your face makes a world of difference.
Yet to me, a forager, they all still seem zombies. The difference is one of degree, I suppose, a sliding scale ending with the wild animals who live along this path. As intimate as I am with nature, my life does not depend on it the way a squirrel or goose or scrub jay’s does. For those of us who slow down and take the time to really look at their surroundings, we at least get to borrow that sight a wild thing possesses permanently — a sight the cyclist or runner can never attain (at least while they’re hurtling through nature rather than looking at it).
So what, exactly, did I see? (read the rest of the essay)
Photo of ithuriel's spear by Hank Shaw.