Would Henry David Thoreau have written Walden if he’d had an iPhone? I think not.
This random thought occurred to me one afternoon when I discovered, on a routine run to the store (for sundries) and then to the lake shore (for sanity), that I had left my cell phone behind at the house.
I felt unnerved. I felt anxious. I felt unmoored from my familiar electronic tether. I briefly considered turning the car around to retrieve it, but discarded the idea. For heaven’s sake, I’m from a generation that grew up not only without smart phones, but without phones that traveled any distance further than the spiral cord they were plugged in to the wall with. If I wanted to have a phone conversation with my best friend when I was in grade school, I had it while talking on the black rotary dial phone in my grandparent’s foyer, about ten feet from where my grandfather sat smoking his pipe and doing the crossword puzzle.
I pressed on, crossing my fingers that no disaster requiring my immediate response would happen before I got home and go to voicemail. God only knows, I have initiated and received my share of awful news on my portable phone over the past couple of decades—illness, death, auto accident, arrest, house fire, elderly relatives in distress. Some involved family members, others were calls from friends in my orbit. But there have been many, many times I have blessed the advances in technology that have made us instantly reachable in times of disaster and emergency.
I made it through Walmart without phone and without incident, my valiant quest for what… Dog food? Toilet paper? Bananas?…both successful and short. And then I turned my attention to the state park nearby, whose sandy beaches and tossing birches and aspens have always been balm to my soul.
Time was, even when I had my phone along, the reception quit before I reached the shore, putting me in a zone of splendid unreachability and physical and emotional seclusion. But that was a couple of smart phones ago. Either the coverage has improved or this new iPhone gets better reception, to the point that the only problems I have being instantly available involve Instagram and Twitter.
I parked the car, pulled the plaid beach blanket out of the back, and parked myself near the water’s edge. It was all I had hoped for. The rhythmic lapping of waves. Sunlight dancing and glinting on the water’s surface. The call of seagulls and songbirds along the coastline. The rustle of wind through nearby branches and grass. It is a vital and necessary replenishment in my life, a detachment from the mundane and artificial and a reconnection to the magnificent, mysterious whole.
And yet…I realized as I sat cross-legged at the beautiful shore, if I’d had the phone along, I would have surely by now snapped a couple of shots and uploaded them to Facebook to share the beauty with my friends. And possibly tried to tweet one or two as well, complete with hashtags. I quelled my impatience, and dug my fingers into the sand, still damp from the rain the night before, feeling the smooth, cool texture. Phone-less, I quit thinking about angles of light and framing shots and instead stretched out full length facing the water. It rolled toward me in slow, undulating waves like molten glass. It was hypnotic.
Eventually I dragged myself and the beach blanket back to the car and reentered “reality.” And as I drove home, I thought about how life with a smart phone has changed the way I respond to nature. In the days of yore, if I visited someplace beautiful and inspiring like Washington Island, Wisconsin, or Lassen Volcanic National Park, I thought about it and then wrote about it later, hoping to share its grandeur and its effect on me through vivid descriptions.
Now, as I walk through a forest and admire a stand of birch trees I may eventually write about it…but half of my passion and enthusiasm has already been shared by “mobile uploads” to my Facebook page, posted instantly from some solitary spot deep in the woods.
I stewed on that thought for the rest of the ride home, and tried to imagine Henry David Thoreau out there in the glorious solitude of Walden Pond with an iPhone. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Would he have, instead of meticulously studying the battle of the ants, taken a few photos and then started comparing the two varieties of warring insects on Wikipedia? Would he have possibly become more fixated on capturing a good back-lit photo of a woodchuck in his bean field than reflecting on the give and take of nature and the eons of habitation that had preceded him? Would he have developed a minor obsession with taking a good “selfie” with his hoe? And would his distraction have derailed his focus and reflection that resulted in Walden?
Perish the thought.
I pulled the car into the driveway, entered the house, greeted the dog, and checked the phone. No voicemails, no texts, no emergencies, no loss. I thought back to the feel of the sand under my fingers, and the mesmerizing appearance of the molten glass waves in the sunlight, rolling slowly and repeatedly toward me, drawing me into the whole of nature and the world. It was a gift.
I have got to return to the past and leave that phone behind more often.