I walked through one of our city’s urban wild spaces several weeks ago instead of participating in something quaintly referred to as an active shooter drill. The phrase reminds me of playing army in our backyard when I was a boy. (Bang! You’re dead: now fall down.) That used to be a thing children did innocently when such a thing was possible.
I felt the need to disconnect from the alienating hive mentality we seem to live in increasingly these days. In an attempt to find myself, I had to lose myself high above the madding, maddening, crowd. I walked across a bridge and up a hill in one of Pittsburgh’s historic districts a mile or so from downtown and found a path. I followed it – drawn to greenness and space.
While my colleagues practiced hiding under their desks in the new workplace normal, I came upon a community garden waiting for the first shovel of earth to turned over for planting. My schedule is too fraught with change and busyness to take on a new project, but I thought I could stop by later in the season and offer to weed and hoe someone’s plot in exchange for a few tomatoes.
I helped in our garden as a kid. There’s something about turning over fresh soil, kneeling down and feeling the clots of dirt and clay crumble in our fingers that recalls some essential part of us.
We spend our time lately connected with people virtually near and far. Our conversations, if I can dignify these stunted exchanges with that word, are severely attenuated. We decipher the texts and e-mails, codes of our existence, like entrails for portents of hope and meaning, anger and desire, interest or indifference. 19th-Century correspondents sent telegrams shorn of definite articles and prepositions to save money. (Arriving 8 AM train. Hope see you. Stop. ) We do it today because we’re impatient or lazy. (LOL CU L8R.) We shout our urgencies and frustrations standing in vacant lobbies or on crowded buses among strangers over medical tests, jail sentences, kids to pick up and dogs to walk. More often, we settle for garbled, aphasic voice messages left over a bad connection.
On my sojourn I encountered a young woman walking a large shepherd -mix dog. We exchanged greetings and walked on – having observed the social niceties. I guess I didn’t look too threatening: a skinny guy on the downward slope of my fifties with gray in my beard. It was a refreshing change from days with colleagues in cubes barely acknowledging each other. At the start of work I encountered a colleague I think of as a friend. She has a small dog, a husband who recently had his hip replaced, and a singing voice that could make angels weep. She also has a chronic illness she’s afraid to tell her employer about. Her reply when I wished her a brief good morning was ‘I don’t have time to talk.‘
At the top of the hill I turned looked out over a view once obscured by smoke and flame from Satanic steel mills. The mills provided the blessings of livelihood to the people who worked in them.
The smoke and flame are long gone, banished by the demise of the steel industry and the ‘Burgh’s urban gentrification. Instead, further on, I came upon a small crab apple tree starting to bloom pink and white.
Apples trees carry a Medieval symbolism related to the Fall and the gift of redemption. I saw a source of beauty and shade this summer that will allow me to sit in quiet and peace (not silence – that would be too much) away from cell phones and conference calls and a thousand voices calling out our urgencies and hopes together.
When I first encountered Tony Judt’s phrase connected Isolation, I took it as a judgement of the many ways we have to communicate, share, like and stay in touch contrasted with the emptiness of the messages transmitted and received. In our search for comfort and assurance, we seek to distract ourselves from the triviality, vanity and chaos around us. The messages we receive from corporate, governmental and media sources around us usually emphasize a lack within ourselves to be fixed, improved or soothed by being a better consumer – as though all can be made well by purchasing the right service, product, therapy or medication. When these fail, as they always seem to, we buy more, or different or turn up the volume. And still we still live in fear and confusion, hiding under our desks.
Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately and transact some private business. That business was himself. For someone so antisocial, Thoreau wrote a lot about society. Walden contains references to traveling on the Fitchburg Railway, of going into town and meeting with friends and family. Contrary to his popular role (I will not say brand) as a prophet of bucolic solitude, Thoreau advocated for a human and collective relationship with nature. For him nature was not something to be walled off and kept segregated from human beings and the civilized world, but a place we could retreat to and connect with a wild part of ourselves. Today Thoreau might text from his cabin, keep a Walden blog and tweet about hoeing beans in his garden. Some folks argue that he was a poseur. I think he was human. Although Life Without Principle contains snarky comments about someone in town hiring a laborer to move a stone from one location to another, throughout Thoreau’s work is a craving for company; whether of birds and squirrels or his human neighbors.
My solitary walk connected me to myself and the earth: the leaves on the trees, the insects on the ground – even the trash or leaves bagged up. The detritus we leave behind is not bad, but part of who we are. We live on this earth, all six billion-plus of us. We occupy space and affect the ground we walk on. How can we presume to stop global warming, reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet when we can’t save what some of us call our souls? For that we have to let go of our urge to control the world and connect periodically with that part of ourselves not for sale – talked about, squawked about, tweeted, branded, scrutinized weighed and displayed in the marketplace like melons in a grocery store.
Doing so requires practicing a radicalism that is actually not so radical, but part of our DNA as humans. It requires us to withstand all the slings and arrows that our society, despite our claims to embrace diversity and individual liberty, throws at its members who dare to step to their own drummer and dance to their own beat. It requires us to risk being called egocentric, self-centered and antisocial. But when we are alone with ourselves away from the noise, we can connect with who we are and decide where to put our time, energy and talent toward being part of something more. — CDL
‘Only Connect’ is a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.
And proto-environmentalist and naturalist, according to author Stephen Railton