Between ourselves and actual experience and the actual environment there now swells an ever-rising flood of images which come to us in every sort of medium—the camera and printing press, by motion picture and by television. A picture was once a rare sort of symbol, rare enough to call for attentive concentration. Now it is the actual experience that is rare, and the picture has become ubiquitous. ~Lewis Mumford
It is my habit to wake up multiple times in the night. On most nights I will see at least once every hour on the clock. Usually I drift back to sleep, but not this time. I’m not certain what prompted me to slip out of my sleeping bag and walk out into the desert, bathed in the blue light of a half-full moon at this late hour. Maybe it was again feeling the pleasant sensation of desert air on my skin, gentle and without the cruel bite of below-freezing temperatures. Winters are long here.
I surveyed the ghostly scene. It was quiet and blue and bright enough to see a long ways out. No artificial light or sound. I sat on a rock and considered how incredibly improbable it is for me to be here, now. Despite having been born on the other side of the globe, having experimented with different careers and interests, and having experienced many serendipitous events throughout my life, I still can’t help feel—against logic and reason—that my being here is not entirely coincidental, that something innate brought me here, perhaps not necessarily to this place, but to a desert on a silent blue night.
How odd it is that I get to experience this tiny slice of reality, in this place, at this time, from this vantage point on the outer crust of this little planet, a member of this strange species, with these means of sensory perception and this mind capable of abstracting, examining and philosophizing, gazing into the blue depths of eternity and wondering what may be out there.
Of course, this is but one of a great many moving experiences I am fortunate to have had in wild places. Feeling perfectly imperfect, immersed in beauty and melancholy, sharply aware of my fortunes and tragedies, my gratitude and sadness, the life I lived and the hourglass of my days draining away, a grain at a time. My senses elate me, and my thoughts taunt me. The grandeur calms me down and assures me that I am of little consequence, while my inner turmoil—the demons and memories and doubts—burn me from the inside. I can say unequivocally that my most meaningful times on this Earth are those I can describe not just as beautiful, but as painfully beautiful.
On a recent visit to a favorite place I was surprised to realize that the once-bumpy dirt road has been smoothed and widened. A once-obscure trailhead flattened, graveled, fitted with a pit toilet and a sign that prohibits camping. To some these may seem like conveniences, but to me it is the end of the place I used to know. Its location is the same, its features as I remembered them, but its experience of solitude and wildness is no longer. It is no longer the same place, and no longer a place I will likely return to. I have lost several of them in the last few years to similar “improvements,” and a couple to being “discovered,” ironically by fellow photographers.
We often express concern for the welfare of future generations, using it (at least partially) as reason to justify ongoing technological progress, larger cities and corporations, more jobs, more roads, more gadgets, more houses, more means of interaction and communication. And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that we are also taking a great risk on behalf of future generations, robbing them of both places and experiences available to us that they may never be able to partake in.
I am quite certain that our physical and intellectual powers, impressive as they are in the progression of life on this tiny planet, will never be capable of unraveling the greatest mysteries of existence. I also believe that we cannot persist with the attitude of perpetual growth for much longer. Technology run amok may ultimately prove to be a sharper blade than our greedy, power-hungry species can be trusted to yield.
It seems to me that some generation will have to make the painful transition from growth to sustainability in order to persist. Some generation will have to knowingly decide when enough is enough, when it’s time to hit the brakes. I’m convinced that this generation should be us. Not because we have accomplished the knowledge or wisdom to do so, but because we are close to the point when such a transition can no longer be made. In fact, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that we may already be past that point. But then again, this is exactly how new and more fit species are allowed to rise to the top spot. It’s how we got here, as did many species before us, and most likely, many more will after us.
As we leap to the defense of endangered species and communities, endangered industries, endangered cultures, etc. We should not lose sight that many profoundly valuable experiences are also endangered, and may soon no longer be possible.
I am a firm believer that the true measure of life is in experience. The more numerous, emotional, meaningful and profound one’s experiences are in the course of living, the grander their life. If we are indeed to be held honest about caring for future generations, are we truly doing right by them? Or are we leaving them with material comforts but with a much more limited span of powerful experiences than we are privileged to have? With more means but fewer ends?