The phone rings. I do not answer. It is an alert without nuance.
“I called three times and no one picked up,” someone admonishes.
“And three times I was not in the mood to talk,” I think, but do not say.
Another ignored caller tells me over tea, “You should get Caller ID.”
I should go to Alaska.
It is said that before the white man came and trading towns sprang up and offered cheap food in cans or boxes, a Native could travel across the icy landscape in search of food and not get lost. Disorienting to the untrained eye, the landscape would swallow a novice in no time, but to the eye that understood nuance of shape and shadow, the endless white posed no extra danger. A Native could find his way.
My inbox is Alaska. My Facebook alerts: Alaska, Alaska, Alaska.
After the white man came—and the food in cans and boxes—the Natives grew numb to the landscape’s nuance. It was a matter of being out of practice, of forgetting (or not “needing”) to travel the land. It did not take long for established baselines to get lost and reference points to be erased. Even a Native who had once known how to plunge into the vast terrain, to go “there” and back, was now at risk. His world became narrower, though perhaps he did not understand it that way; such was the supposed freedom and allure of the trading post shelf. To the Native, Alaska became my inbox. It became the red alert on Facebook. Every icy plateau became equal, a source of potential tension or isolation. Nothing could be ignored, nor paid deep attention. That is the paradox of flatness.
Recently, I went to visit Cape Cod. I am not a GPS user, but I tried the technology out, because my traveling companion had a GPS handy and because I am not a native of the region.
“Turn left onto Cape Cod Rails Trail,” said the GPS. I looked for a road sign but did not see one.
“In 1,000 feet, turn left onto Cape Cod Rails Trail.” I could not parse 1,000 feet. I looked for the sign. “Turn left in 100 feet.”
“Turn right onto…” Apparently, I had missed the turn, and the GPS was finding me a new way. I drove in a circle, or maybe a zigzag. I ended up eventually hearing the same, “Turn left onto Cape Cod Rails Trail.” Each command was without nuance. Each held the same importance and the same emptiness. I may as well have been in Alaska, the icy landscape receding without signage or landmark. My traveling companion noted about the GPS, “Everything’s the same level. You can’t tell when something’s an urgent command.” It was true, and a real source of frustration. I could feel the tension rising in my body. Finally, I found the sign I was being told to look for; I think I’d been ignoring it because of my internal signals about landscape. But now, I dutifully followed the command and turned my hulking Volvo onto a narrow grassy lane that seemed to lose itself towards distant marshes. The dissonance—large car hugged by small trail—stirred my senses in an eerie fashion. I felt displaced, disoriented. I stared into the merging blues and greens and browns. Then I laughed. “I think this is a bike trail.”
The GPS, without nuance, had not understood my companion’s accidental switchover to bike route directions and was senselessly suggesting a pastoral foray for the Volvo. I backed the car out and started searching for our relative position to the sun. We were needing to go south, and I know something about navigating by the day’s light.
If you leave the flat dimensions of your computer screen and spend a year out doors (just 15 minutes a day), I can promise you’ll learn something about light—the way it leaves and comes far earlier than you’ve been fooled to know by electric bulbs and alarm clocks, the way it can lead you across a perplexing terrain. You will learn to trust your body, to read the nuances of a landscape, to realize when it is time to respond or time to drift away. The light will teach you about depth of life, as will the breezes that whisper the pines. The birds will teach you; they do not sing spring in the same way they sing fall. You will know the difference between peace and danger and will relearn what a true alert is—and is not. I can almost guarantee you’ll experience a physical recalculating. You may find yourself refusing to answer the phone. If I call, and you don’t pick up, I will wish you well and understand that maybe you are finding your way.