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.


jean said...

I fall into the same trap, and the hot weather has taken away the walks I am so used to--- but I am determined to get back out there. I spent a day out in the country last week and felt so refreshed when I got home!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Right, Jean. I find the more I can institutionalize my walks and canoe paddles -- same time every day/week -- the more likely I am to stay with it. Kind of like taking medicine (Vitamin N!!)

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