Alone in the woods

[24 May 2009]

By Rob Horning

I have been on a road trip to Idaho for the past week or so, which is why there have been so few posts lately. I haven’t had much time to keep up with my RSS feeds or even read the newspaper; all my news has been coming in fits and starts from NPR. I am up to speed on local news in Nebraska and Wyoming but not much else for the time being. The past few days I have been in Yellowstone National Park, the first of America’s national parks and something of a prototype for the entire concept. The sights were suitably amazing; it’s hard to fathom geothermal sites even when you are standing before them. The earth is simply not supposed to be smoking. Yellowstone is full of smoking holes belching out a sulfurous stench in a haze of mist, and abject, gurgling sinks spewing mud in unseemly clods. And of course there were geyser spouts, which seemed strangely fake. With all the tourists who had flooded in for the Memorial Day holiday standing around, it seemed to me that it was all rigged, as if the presence of spectators automatically indicates human choreographers who have carefully plotted what is being observed. My habit of being skeptical about entertainment has made this instinctive in me, to look for the strings even when there can’t be any. (I have a whole series of observations about the peculiarities of nature tourism, but I’ll save them for the next post. I’m still unpacking, and I have yet to dig out the envelope I wrote them down on.)

Though not as singular and uncanny as the geyser basins and whatnot, the park’s alpine scenery was impressive as well—lots of snow-capped peaks rimming the rolling sagebrush meadows. But it all left me feeling weirdly oppressed. I had expected it to be restorative to be out in nature for a while, unplugged, but instead it seemed to throw me into a kind of existential confusion. I had expected that the time away would allow to forget about online sharing and all that, but instead it brought out how much it had been lurking int he background, shaping my social self and the ways I’ve come to stabilize it and even recognize its existence. Contra Thoreau, retreating into nature, instead of bringing me back to myself, made me feel like less of a self and a bit more like one of the many undifferentiated bison one encounters out there. I don’t feel replenished for the assault on the backlog of posts I intend to read and write. Instead, as I was out hiking, I would think of this dormant blog and wonder how I’ll ever manage to catch up, a nagging thought that filled me with vague, unshakable uneasiness. Being adrift in the natural world had come to feel very unnatural; the serenity seemed like a taunt. This seems to me the inverse of the interconnected feeling I take for granted in the time I spend online, and I understood for the first time why people would do something as inane as Twitter their hikes from their iPhones or something. I tried to feed this anxiety by taking lots of pictures with the idea of sharing them later, but this only aggravated the feeling. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures. Eventually I had to try the opposite tack and take no pictures at all.

I’m not much of a social networker, but its very existence has come to be something I take for granted at a much deeper level than I realized. I have this sense that experiences need to be shared in a much more mediated way to register to myself as having happened. And this is despite the fact that I don’t make an effort to share all that much and am aware that the audience online is small, primarily imaginary. Once I might have been content thinking about what I would tell people about what I did; now I automatically draft much more ambitious multimedia plans for conveying what I want to share. But since online sharing has become a way of translating my own experiences to myself, without that process readily available to me, I felt dulled at times, alienated from myself to a degree.

All of this is to say that I think that the internet has suddenly brought us a much denser experience of interpersonal relationships and sociality that forces us to reshape the way we think of ourselves, as being potentially social at basically all times. We are perpetually present everywhere, with a ubiquity wireless connectivity supplies. The result of this thick intimacy, this perpetual sociality, is that we may have much more difficulty achieving harmony with the natural world, where presence is momentary and fragile, and sociality is limited to the distance our voices can travel.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/traveling/