The Silence of The Past Speaks Loudest to Our Presence
The other day I watched an early 90’s promo video for a backpacking outfitter I worked for off and on over 14 years. You can watch "Jeremiah Johnson" or any 70’s outdoor film and pretty much get a sense of what the promo looked and sounded like, complete with some bluegrass soundtracking. Not much has changed when it comes to mountaineering images in the Rio Grande National Forest. The gear was a bit dated, the colors were washed out and not as crisp, but the landscape is still the same. What is absent from the images are digital devices and close ups shots with one arm extending to the edge of the frame. What is behind the absence is a simplicity of presence. There was less broadcasting of one’s life so there was more of it to give in the moment. It is the absence of noise, visual or digital, that sticks out in those images. In the space between those absences a lot of listening and sharing of life happened.
There was little in the way of a digital universe when I worked in that remote section of Colorado. The Internet was limited to military services and some Universities and thus not even a thought on the horizon. Music was heard on tapes or CDs with clunky Walkmans or portable CD players the size of a large hamburger. The radios we used to communicate with Base Camp were the size of a shoe box with a lightning-rod antenna and only reliable about 50% of the time. The valley where Base Camp is located used to have a party line for telephone service. Yep. A party line. That’s when you share one phone line for numerous residents. You can pick up the phone and hear old man Hank talking about the fish he caught to some static-filled voice on the other end. Calls were limited to a few minutes because a party line starts to back up like a girl’s restroom at a sporting event when someone chats too long.
For years, before liability became an issue, we drove to and from trailheads with our trips in the back of an old logging truck named John Wayne’s Horse. (It was called such because nobody could remember what John Wayne’s horse was called when suggestions were taken for the new truck). Some of those trailheads were an hour and half, bumpy, open-aired drive one way. Heading out early mornings at the beginning of a week, the bed of that truck was filled with nervous, if not sleepy, anticipation about what was to come over the next six days on the trail. Conversations were limited and the more veteran of us slept until our turn came to unload. The return trip in that truck at week’s end was full of stories about adventures had, laughter at how bad we all smelled, with plenty of talk about what food we couldn’t wait to eat. There were plenty of hopeful promises about living better lives, making more time for getting out of the grind and being closer to friends.
I once stood in that steel truck bed huddled against the rain with a few other guys as one recited Robert Service poems from memory. He would gaze out at the wind and rain as we bounced down a four-wheel-drive road, singing out “ The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “Comfort” or “The Men That Don’t Fit In” A few years later, for an independent study in my undergraduate degree, I used this as a launching point to research Service’s life and poetry.
Imagine that mobile device in your pocket as a megaphone stitched to your head such that it amplifies every little thought and moment you experience...That’s a lot of noise and very little of it is ever heard the way silence brings about listening.
As I watched these images it stirred memories – and this surely is a faulty memory – of a lot of silence, human conversation face-to-face, long drives in old trucks because everything was almost an hour or more away, a limited population because the Rio Grande Valley had yet to be taken over by tourists and second homes for Texans; evenings guitar-picking songs over mint cocoa and a fire in the hearth, books being read with the turning of paper pages reverberating in the dining hall – the one large space we could all be in at once – and plenty of presence.
I am not waxing nostalgic for more luddite friendly times. Nostalgia can be a sad longing to replay the film over and again, missing the life we have here and now. Those images and memories are a reminder to me of the drastic changes technology can bring in such a short period of time.
When I consider how much information we shell out via social media, photo apps, text messages, and the like, it begins to look like a bunch of broadcasting. Imagine that mobile device in your pocket as a megaphone stitched to your head such that it amplifies every little thought and moment you experience. Now imagine that everybody else has one of these megaphones doing the same. That’s a lot of noise and very little of it is ever heard the way silence brings about listening.
What if the draw to gaze on images of faces – sometimes strangers, plenty of times friends – is a longing to see and be seen?
I read recently that “selfies,” and images posted online with faces in them, get a greater number of views than images that don’t have people in them. This could be brushed off as narcissism at its worst, but I wonder if it is symptomatic of something deeper. What if the draw to gaze on images of faces – sometimes strangers, plenty of times friends – is a longing to see and be seen? What if the world we digitally occupy has us so longing for humanity, analog connection, and presence that we settle for whatever semblance of a "human" we can get?
These words may be added to the numerous others ranting against the ills of technology or the need for technology sabbaticals. I don’t miss the irony that they are written and broadcast in a digital medium. I have to wonder, though, if the nostalgic cries for less complicated times are, at their heart, longings for more presence and human touch. We race forward at faster speeds into a future that has plenty to be amazed at and pursued. And all along the way, we ache for faces and to be seen by those sitting next to us, bumping along the road to a destination that still takes plenty of time to get there.