Monday, February 20, 2017

Cyber Terroir: Life in the Non-place

View of pond and sea beyond, from Yepton Cottages, Antigua

[*Note this post was written in January, later edited, and posted in February.]

We’re in Antigua now, our first time in the Caribbean. It’s January, and we wanted to celebrate my partner’s birthday someplace warm. We also sought to escape the United States and its non-stop coverage of the inauguration of that guy. You know the one. I’m not going to say his name.

The weather does not disappoint. We have bright sunshine and warm breezes. For lodging, we picked a place with sunny yellow cottages with ample porches, hammocks, a small pool and a large salt water pond, over which pelicans and the occasional frigate bird glide effortlessly on warm currents of air. At the far edge of the pond, just over a sandy embankment, is the Caribbean Sea, a slice of turquoise visible from in front of our cottage, its soothing sound, omnipresent.

At night, tree frogs sing us to sleep, and a brief but powerful rainstorm last night plinked then pounded on the metal roof; a different kind of music, but no less awe-inspiring.

View from cottage kitchen

View of cottages from pond

Though my year-long WWOOF trip is over, I’m still trying to hold to the theme of Terroir when I revisit this blog in subsequent travels. Here in Antigua I’m thinking not only of how the land and the environment shape us, but how our separation from it also shapes and diminishes our lives.

It is a simple yet profound experience, to suddenly allow into awareness the feel upon one’s skin of an unexpectedly warm breeze in January while enjoying breakfast on the porch. For me, it set into motion a chain of awareness.

That is, next I noticed the direction of that breeze.
Then I noticed its sound.
Then I shifted awareness to try to catch the difference in its sound as it passed through the small leaves of the tamarind tree next to the porch.
Then through the larger palm fronds.
On other parts of the island, I would notice it slapping the banana leaves together.

How long has it been since I paid attention like this?
Too long, I’m certain.
I’m noticing how awake I feel. How alert and fully present.
All this, a gift arriving on that first warm breeze.

My routine here is simple. It starts with breakfast on the porch and some time with one of the books I brought with me.
It’s a real book, made of paper. It doesn’t involve a screen blasting light into my eyeballs.
It has a soft, flexible cover, yielding in my hands. It’s a gentle and generous object.

Breakfast on porch with feathered friend

Right now I’m reading “Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer”, by Peter Turchi. So far, so good. It’s an interesting extended metaphor linking mapmakers and storytellers in ways that should have been obvious to me, but weren’t. 
Early on, the book talks about what we leave out of maps. It talks about how selective the information on a map really is, how it can be (and often is) a political document.
It talks about the blank spaces that are often pregnant with meaning, and the increase in a map’s utility when we leave out the inessential (think of your nearest subway line map--colored bars, with stops in sequence and not at all to scale. Has all the basic info you need, and nothing more).
I hadn’t really thought about all that before.
Historically, mapmakers have often left out what is unknown, or what is known but off-limits, what is dark and uncharted, terrifying or dangerous. We’d maybe put a sea monster on the margins of that map.

I know it seems like I’m rambling here, and maybe I am a little. But there’s a point to this, even if my own mind charts a circuitous route to it.

Valley Church Beach, Antigua

As I’m on this porch, more in touch with my senses than I have been in a long time, I’m thinking about where I’ve been, and possibly where a lot of people I know have been . . . lost in a virtual world, a world relying on a screen, the only visuals existing in a space constrained by pixels and the limited colors of a monitor, the only touch the sensation of a keyboard.
The deficits of this virtual world became ever more clear to me when we went out for an eco-tour the other day.
I snorkeled for the first time.
I grew up on an island, for the most part, so it’s a little embarrassing to admit what a lousy swimmer I am and that I waited this long into my stint on planet earth to try this (though, let’s be clear that the island of my childhood has no coral reefs or crystalline waters. Try swimming there in January and you'll quickly die from hypothermia).
I’ve watched a lot of documentaries and nature programs over the years. Some even on the big screen in a theater.
But I hadn’t seen the sea.
I hadn’t entered that aquamarine world, felt the buoyancy of salt water cradling my body, seen rays of light piercing the surface and reflecting off silvery scales swimming about me like living gems. I had never before had curious Ballyhoo swim up to my face to examine this intruder, making me laugh into my snorkel and setting off a chain reaction of laughter in those above the surface who had heard me and wondered what comedy was playing out below.

Ballyhoo fish. Photo by Jeff Duprau
The virtual life, the virtual world, is a pale, ghostly, pathetic facsimile of the real thing. I think most of us know this, but are so enraptured by its relative newness and wizardry, its convenience and comforting distraction, that we allow ourselves too easily to forget it is a ruse. 

It’s a colossal ruse.

Turchi is right to remind us of all that maps leave out. A true “map of the world” wouldn’t just show you the roads and the rivers. It would give you their sounds, their vistas, their cool relief. It would show you not only where the orange grove is, but give you the taste of the juice, the scent of its flowers in spring. But of course, such a map might not get you far, providing so many experiences to distract you from your mission.

I recently created a bike route map of Rovinj, Croatia for some friends who plan to visit there this summer. It’s a route I took nearly every day when I lived there. I know it well enough to dream of it, vividly, on a regular basis.
On that map, I put points of interest as I marked the route along the coast piece by piece.
There is one marker I hope they’ll pay attention to. It says “Breathe. It smells like lavender and rosemary here”. If my friends enter that world I grew to love, I hope they’ll enter it completely, and perhaps come to love it, too.

Our social media presence is a lot like a map of ourselves. These highly curated snippets leave out so much of who we are, hopefully steering a viewer along the shortest, most efficient route to our preferred image of ourself. Be sure to stop at this lookout point to see just how fabulous we are. Ignore the swamp.
Let’s be honest, shall we? This online map to our idealized self tends not to include the dark, unexplored, scary places; the wrong side of the tracks within us. This perhaps (though not always) makes our friends less annoying, but sometimes also less interesting, less real. But then, maybe the darkest, or most interesting and edifying stories are still best reserved for what remains of face-to-face intimacy, of real-world Friendship with a capital F.
We still have that . . . don’t we?

Colorful palm

Umbrellas at day's end, Valley Church Beach, Antigua

This post was first written with a pen and a piece of paper. It’s been a long time. 
The weight of this instrument between my fingers feels strange, foreign, though once familiar.
It’s important though. It seems like I’m holding up this pen, but really, it’s holding me, lifting me up above the internet haze and restoring feeling in places long numbed, firing up neurons that have been parked in the garage under a tarp.
I walk across this porch now to refill my coffee cup, and feel the boards beneath my feet. I notice the emerald skin of the lizard who scales the wall. I smell something both sweet and salty in the air. Even my sense of time has altered. It's slower, not slipping away out of control. It belongs to me, to savor or relinquish as I see fit.
The birds have joined me on the porch, the finches and bananaquits. They take bits of lemon cake from my hand. They pay me in their currency of color and chirps. I think it’s a fair exchange.
We’re sharing the world on this sunny morning, aware of each other. Trusting each other.
How lovely, how novel.

For me (and perhaps for you, too, Reader), the privilege of traveling to a place of beauty offers an opportunity to create a map that directs you back to yourself. To travel to a novel environment is to suddenly restore the sense of sight, of touch, of smell, of taste, of sound, as everything is new again. It wipes off the dust of daily life and allows the ordinary to be once again extraordinary. The world expands beyond the familiar and beyond the screen, is made large, and real, and wondrous again, no longer binary, no longer a two-dimensional space filled with compressed audio files.

The irony of posting this online is not lost on me. But then, I’m not advocating a return to the stone age. Caves were likely uncomfortable and damp. And I prefer my food processor to a piece of flint almost any day of the week. I’d be lost on this island of few street signs, too, if not for GPS. I’m talking about balance.

I miss seeing and hearing each other up close. I miss the full-bellied laughter over personal exchanges, rather than subdued chuckles from shared links of professional “content creators”. I miss the messy and difficult conversations over a cup of tea, the complicated accidents of communication, the warm hand extended across a table in compassion and understanding, or forgiveness, in a real world where we can’t simply “block” the people and things that aren’t easy.

Handsome visitor

Inviting beach at Jackie O's

Can there be real intimacy in a virtual arena belonging to everyone and no one? In a realm that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? It is a non-place, where we go deeper into imbalance, into the abstract, neurotic zone of the mind, of curated personae, selective and restricted feedback, where all that reminds us of the discomfort and ambiguity of being human can be eliminated with a click.
Do we now risk developing mistrust of our own senses, denial of the evidence of the physical world of all that is most truly alive?
While shouts of “fake news” proliferate, Cyber Terroir is the biggest fakery of our time.

I sound like a retrograde alarmist, I know.
And I don’t care.
I believe we pay a steep price for our alienation from the full experience of our senses interacting with the natural world and with each other.
I happened to be reminded of this while traveling. But you don’t have to go far to make a similar discovery.
A simple shift in awareness, a decision to pay attention can make the familiar once again novel and fascinating and alive.

Even if you live in an urban space, look up. The sky is there for you. The changing weather. Maybe even a bird, another human. The ground beneath your feet. You have a choice. You can be more fully in this world.

We have a choice.

Thanks for reading.
Now, close the browser.
Go outside.

Snack at The Nest, Valley Church Beach, Antigua

The Nest, and a Sea Grape tree