Saturday, July 30, 2016

BALKING THE WALK – How I’ve Let My Devotion to Nature Get "Screened" Out

I write about Nature all the time—about its countless wonders, small and large; its wise counsel in ways of patience and knowing; and its many coincidences with my brand of spirituality. I promote closer connections with Nature for everyone, especially children.

But I’m a hypocrite.

I actually don’t spend as much time outdoors as it may seem. Too often, I fall victim to the very temptation I urge others to resist: the lazy cosmopolitanism, the false presence, afforded by digital technology’s instant “connections” with people, places and information.

It started, I’m afraid, with the publication of my first book, Under the Wild Ginger; my publisher told me I had to put myself out there and promote, if not actual sales, at least a point of view that would attract like-minded readers.

              Cyberspace is a wily seductress.

But cyberspace is a wily seductress. At first the allure was something like the one I felt as a boy when, no longer fooled by that old tin-cans-and-string ruse, my fondest wish was for a real walkie- talkie. Or later when I’d spend hours with my ear pressed against the speaker of our tabletop Emerson radio, fine-tuning among the stronger signals and static for distant stations. This communicating beyond the range of my own, unelaborated ear and voice struck me as nothing short of mystical.
ILLUSTRATION: Quint Buchholz

There’s a certain boundless freedom in sending and receiving messages over untold expanses, across geographic, political and cultural boundaries. The same kind I experience during my favorite, recurring dream: being able to fly. It feels like the very essence of spiritual connection, a magical oneness with time and space and all of creation—not to mention its striking awe and envy into every onlooker.


Well, blaming the medium for its abuse is a pretty poor excuse. What first brought this line of reflection to mind for me was my wife’s and my annual sojourn in a lovely seaside town in Guerrero Mexico. Last March, the nice little TV in our villa never once blinked on.

Sure, we spent some time on our devices most days, doing some necessary work, keeping in touch with loved ones, sharing a few photos. But those times were quite limited. And, even when our minds may have been in cyberspace, physically we were still in direct contact with Nature during all our waking hours.

Even inside our villa, where there’s no wall separating us from the view over Zihuatanejo bay, delicious warm breezes waft in day and night, carrying the sounds and smells of the neighborhood and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Critters—ants, butterflies, geckos, bats and the occasional tarantula—become our constant companions. And our relationships with our Mexican friends seldom abide the quick phone call, email, or—God forbid—text. No, more folks there take the time to come calling, to spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and just being…well...nice.

         It’s not really the physical walls that are 
         holding me back. It’s the virtual ones.

How quickly such wonders soak into one’s skin; by the end of our stay, we were already taking this sustained communion with Nature, including these unhurried visits with people, for granted. But now, with the singular clarity of hindsight, I know why this annual month in the tropics is so restorative in so many ways.

It’s exactly what I’ve been letting slip away, bit by bit, in my life here in the “real” world: the close presence of Nature in my life every day. Paying attention, not just to a little screen, but to the countless small wonders playing out around me in real time and real space.

Now, I realize it might prove impractical here in Minnesota to remove one side of our urban townhouse and let in the air, light (and mosquitos). And winter…well, come on, this is Minnesota! But I’m thinking it’s not really the physical walls that are holding me back. It’s the virtual ones. I’ve been allowing others—content developers, marketers, fellow screen addicts…whomever—to limit what I can experience, to steer the direction and extent of my vision.

This is not what I want. Is it what you want? Don’t we have our own vision, an outlook which belongs to no one but us? Shouldn’t we be the ones deciding what will surprise and delight us, who will become our next good friend, and, in the thick of this surreal presidential election, what and whom we should fear?

       I must make time for the cure before I 
       can recover the time spent on the disease.

Now that summer’s just beginning to yield to fall, I aim to reclaim my birthright—the birthright of every human being—my connection, my belonging, to Nature. And the way to start is to, as I like to put it, get off the screen and into the scene. Like surmounting any bad habit, this will require being thoughtful and deliberate, more disciplined in how I spend my time.

What makes it hard is that I must make time for the cure before I can recover the time spent on the disease. For example, if I’m to take a walk every morning, I’ll have to let go of the time I’m wasting on television or the Internet the night before. Or I may have to re-prioritize the short list of friends I correspond with most often, adding Nature to that inner circle.

And I most certainly will have to change my point of view. I must learn to use all my senses, not just taking in the wisdom and beauty of Nature, but giving something to the transaction too. I call it seeing generously.  It’s a mindset in which we stop trying to impose our will and way on Nature and life, instead vesting in them the power to have their way with us.

That is what we do in Mexico when we stop during our daily walks and cool off in accustomed shady spots. It is what I do when I remember to let life astound me—from those little “floaters” that punctuate my vision from the inside, to whatever horizon the weather defines that day, to the stars on a clear night, to the still-further reach of my imagination.

It is what we all must do if we want to reclaim the sacred bond with Nature that originates deep in our bones and so yearns to be honored once again.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

CAST IN A NEW LIGHT – The Real Reason for the Blue-mination of City Streets

An opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the the day caught my eye. It's by Paul Bogard, a fellow Minneapolitan, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

The piece is Bogard's reaction to a July 17 Strib news article headlined "LED streetlight change puts cities in new (harsher?) light." The essence of his commentary is that the growing embrace of high-color-temperature LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology for street lighting by cities across the U.S.—including his and my home base, Minneapolis/St. Paul—is an ill-considered, shortsighted decision with far-reaching effects on those cities' inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

Click on image to see Madrid street lighting 2011 vs. 2015 – IMAGE: Tech Insider

He cites research by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization showing that light emitted by the types of LEDs being adopted— those with the bluish-white light of Kelvin color temperatures over 4,000 degrees—compromises human health, causing sleep disorders, confusing circadian rhythms and even increasing risks for some types of cancers.

He makes an equally compelling argument for the adverse effects on non-human nocturnal critters, including 30 percent of vertebrates, 60 percent of invertebrates and insects we depend on for pollination.

All this in the name of safety—one of several LED selling points Bogard refutes.

   Are there really folks who 
   enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those 
   slashing swords of ice?

What Bogard fails to mention is the effect the icy stare of high-Kelvin-color lighting on the human psyche. It would be bad enough if we were choosing it just for city streets. But the soulless glare also emanates from folks' back-yard security lights, lighting in public spaces and transit vehicles, and even from newer LED flashlights.

One evening this past spring, as I drove home from work well after dark, I passed a city bus. The lighting inside it was that cold, bluish color. I imagined myself riding that bus, and, barring an exceptionally friendly conversation with a fellow passenger, how utterly alien it would feel.

And don't get me going on car headlights. Are there really folks who enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those slashing swords of ice? I know it's judgmental, but the easiest answer is that, along with the renewed trend toward bigger, "badder" cars and trucks, this is an act of pure aggression. In your face, buddy!

PHOTO: PaulTech Network

Back in my college days I flew quite often back and forth between Minnesota and the East Coast. I witnessed, from the air, the first mass experiments in mercury vapor street lighting, another technology challenged by unfortunate coloring.

In the New York City megalopolis, one city or borough might have been awash in indifferent, blue light; another, separated by just a street, train tracks or river, in much warmer, supposedly color-corrected, but still unnatural-looking pink or yellow. And a few neighborhoods still basked in their good-old, cozy incandescent lights. I remember how those stood out, like islands of humanity in a dead sea. I thought that's where I'd live if I were down there.
   The fear has reared its Chicken-Little head 
   in advertising, music, politics, and a seemingly 
   endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels 
   and films.

Perhaps it will shed some, well, light on this "blue-mination phenomenon to see it in its larger context.

We’re living in a world the media, along with some shameless, demagogic politicians, has convinced some of us is more dangerous than at any time in memory. Radical Muslims beating down our door; immigrants stealing our jobs and corrupting our culture; cops (or African Americans, if you're on that side of the "war") making a mockery of Amurican justice.

It seems anyone with an outsize ego or a buck to make is trying to capitalize on the amorphous, baseless fear. It's reared its Chicken-Little head in advertising, where folks are portrayed lying, intimidating and stealing—even from loved ones; in music, with aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound and lyrics, in neurotic, polarizing politics, and in a seemingly endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels and films.

Yep, it’s us versus them or else…or else I guess it doesn't sell.

               Warm light makes us feel close, 
               welcoming and secure.

Be afraid, be very afraid, they say. Close the borders; keep your daughters home; lock every door…and kick some serious ass with those ruthless blue lights. Call me a wimp; call me old-fashioned. But in an insecure, paranoid world, keeping warm lights burning—like the proverbial home fires and candle in the window—might just go a long way toward salving the savage beast.

There's a reason human beings soften in candlelight, turn to song round the campfire, and take amazing, glowing photos is that precious light just before dusk. Warm light makes us feel close, welcoming and secure. Feelings I do not fear.