This column originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2018 edition of the Jackson Hole News&Guide. Absolon will return with new Mountainside columns beginning Oct. 30.
I anxiously watched the storm build. Dark clouds massed along the canyon rim and bolts of lightning flashed across the sky.
As I drifted downstream I counted. One, one thousand; two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four. The count reached 10. The storm was 2 miles away, according to my calculations. Close.
I was floating in an armada of rafts, kayaks and duckies along a section of flatwater on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The air smelled sharp and clean, as the storm pushed away the smoke that had dulled our skies for days.
The first raindrops fell gently, and then they grew in size and began to pound down on us, creating craters in the river and bouncing off the sides of our boats. Huge gusts of wind pushed us along, driving the rain in sheets along the canyon sides. We laughed and shouted, fear mixed with exhilaration as we relished the power of the storm.
My body tingled, electrified by the intensity of the wind, rain, lightning and rolling thunder that echoed around us.
A couple of weeks later I drove back from Lander to Teton Valley in a similar thunderstorm. Outside my car window trees thrashed in the wind, their tops swaying violently to and fro. Flashes of lightning danced across the sky, and my windshield wipers smacked back and forth, clearing my view from the blur of water.
That second storm was as fierce as the first, and yet, cocooned in my car, it felt different to me. On the river I’d been overwhelmed by a crazy sense of exhilaration and fear that made me want to whoop and holler.
In the car, protected from the wet and cold, I felt only a gentle sense of awe. The second storm seemed safer and less powerful despite its obvious violence. No rain soaked my skin. The wind didn’t push my boat forward nor could I smell the sagebrush, its fragrance heightened by the moisture.
The contrast between these two experiences reminded me that there is a difference between looking at nature and being in nature.
Later I thought about that difference and wondered, Was looking at the world through a camera similar to looking at it out my car window? Did cameras create the same sense of separation and detachment?
I chose not to carry a camera on my adventures this past summer. My travels took me to familiar places, so I did not feel the need to document the journeys again. That absence freed me. No longer was I compelled to capture every beautiful scene or exciting moment to remind myself of where I’d been.
I could just watch, listen, feel and smell the world around me. One minute I found myself focused on a pile of emerald green moss-covered rocks jumbled around the base of a waterfall, the next it was the squish of my wet socks that occupied my mind.
Many of the sensations I experienced were fleeting, and I’ve lost a lot of them, but at the time they made me feel connected to the world around me in a way I don’t feel when I’m trying to figure out what will make the best picture. Did that make one experience more powerful than the other? I’m not sure.
As I think about the difference I realize that during much of my life I tend to rely on only two senses: vision and hearing. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, staring at a flat screen trying to come up with sentences that sing. During these long hours my world narrows, shrinking down until there’s only me, the glow of the computer and the pressure of the chair I sit on.
It could be raining, snowing, hot and dry or perfect outside and I wouldn’t know. Sure, I can smell food cooking or my cup of coffee as it cools on my desk. I can feel the scratch of a wool blanket or the heat of the sun pouring through a window, but it’s different. Those sensations are secondary, lost to the messages coming from my eyes and ears into my brain.
The result feels like a flatter world, and in some ways I think looking at everything through a camera has the potential to have a similar effect.
Humans are increasingly an indoor species. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that most Americans are inside 93 percent of the time. Europeans fare only slightly better with 90 percent of their time spent indoors.
What do we do during that time? Most of us consume some form of media. Recent studies show that people in the United States are on an electronic device 10 hours and 39 minutes a day, according to the book “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Qing Li.
Our media addiction brings a lot to our lives — convenience, entertainment, community, careers — but it also has the potential to take away from our relationship to the natural world with all its power to heal and sooth our souls.
Furthermore, that addiction is creeping into the little time we spend outdoors. On two treks I led this summer phones were omnipresent. Most people used them as cameras, which is no big deal, but then they shared photos with each other and watched the videos they made, and because the phones were out some of them checked texts and posted images to Instagram.
The effect was insidious. Without thinking about it, we let our lives back home invade our experience in the moment, creating a sense of separation from the world around us.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate photos. It’s not that I, too, didn’t enjoy the quick check-in with my daughter. I did. But I kind of wish I hadn’t had the option. It would have been so much easier to stay in the moment if I couldn’t check my phone.
And it seems to me that the act of composing a photograph changes your relationship to the world around you. In many ways it adds something. Creating beautiful photographs requires artistry. Often when you frame your shot you tune in to subtle details that are easy to overlook, such as the texture of the grass, glints of light on a lake’s surface or shadows dancing across a mountainside.
Without the camera to narrow your focus, it’s easy to miss those things. On the flip side, cameras have the ability to shift you out of the moment. Your experience becomes more about how you interpret the landscape and less about just being there in the moment, watching, feeling, listening and smelling.
You find yourself thinking about posting the shot on social media. You think about how many likes it might generate. All these distractions have the potential to dilute the actual experience.
Ultimately it’s about balance. Modern life is full of excitement, energy, creativity and beauty, but it can also be stressful. Stress, as everyone knows, leads to poor health, shorter lives, violence and unhappiness.
Nature, in its full expression complete with beauty and grace as well as violence and fear, helps us counteract the negative effects of stress, but only when we truly immerse ourselves in its power. That means getting out of the car and away from the phone to actually feel what’s out there.