What have you done with your attention lately? Where have you given it? Where have you paid it? How much of it has been sacrificed to a screen? How much to that ever-present lesser-noticed world of sustaining wild “out there”? Did you ever think your awareness would be so fervently commoditized? Do you feel in control of it? Or have you surrendered to the gnashing jaws of that highly personalized, aesthetically pleasing, emotionally appealing world wide web of all ads all the time because what else is a citizen consumer to do in the face of such an overwhelming tidal wave of unregulated information force fed to us on every device all the time?
I know. I hear you. AND, it’s time to reign it in, turn it off, and (re)turn ourselves into conscientious wielders of our own attention. We must recommit to gifting our awareness to the world of wonder that is the world around us. The time has come and gone. And now it is a matter of life and death.
The American poet philosopher Robinson Jeffers distinguished between two ideals of freedom: one in which a person believes themselves to retain freedom to, the other in which a person retains freedom from. I think about this discernment all the time in the face of a technological revolution that has cracked the code of human psychology in order to leash our need for attention in service of a steady grip on attention. I think about it when the 34th ad for specially formulated curly hair products flashes through my Instagram feed, or when the same but different yoga pants appear for sale on my Facebook sidebar. I have the freedom to spend all my dollars on a perfectly curated version of my stretchy, styly, ringlet-ed self to post on social media. But at what cost? Have I perhaps given up my true freedom to be liberated from hawkish advertising that uses carefully manipulated algorithms to appeal to my deepest, most narcissistic desires in order to have the freedom to bankrupt myself attempting to be something the internet tells me will make me happy, more likeable, more post-able? And what does any of this have to do with my life as a large landscape conservationist?
Well, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we got here. How the self-proclaimed “most intelligent” species on planet Earth finds itself responsible for the rapid onset of the sixth mass extinction wherein more than half of the world’s populations of creatures have been extirpated in the past 50 years, while simultaneously facing a climate crisis created by the rapacious consumption of fossil fuels that is wreaking havoc on biological systems the world over. The wryly cynical bumper sticker sums it up nicely, “Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?”
I know there is no simple answer to our current predicament. And we may never agree on the precise combination of evolutionary, cultural, psychological and biological ingredients that have landed us here. But as a person advocating on behalf of the land, who spends time on the land, sitting with it, asking it questions, striving to know it and understand its story, I can’t help but feel like one possible remedy for our isolation, loneliness and fear, is to reclaim our attention, to demand a freedom from technology’s incessant demands, and to generously give the power of our awareness to that world which is truly sustaining us. I have learned so much from simply attending to the pinyon-juniper woodland that surrounds my home. I have been profoundly affected by the return of the pinyon jay that so succinctly accompanied the ripening of the pinyon nut. I have grieved as 800 year old trees struggled under the duress of an extraordinary drought that has left them vulnerable to the Ips bark beetle, killing 90% of trees in some regions of the state. I have come to recognize the varieties of chickadee chick-a-dee-dee-dees, the trio of crows that arrive at the feeder in the afternoon, the canyon towhees in their dusky gray-brown feathers in the evening.
I know that prescriptive advice is rarely productive, but I’m going to offer it anyway. If I am to be successful in my campaign to protect one of this country’s last, big, wild places, where Mexican Gray wolves roam and old growth stands of Ponderosa pine reach for the sky, I know more of us must leave our screens. We must smell the toffee citrus of warm sap melting in the sun, we must slow and sometimes stop to feel the smallness of our bodies in mountain space, to breath the sweetness of the air provided by the forest and the sea. We can’t do it without this world. And why would we want to? Revisit the intrinsic freedom from provided by your nearest wild space. And recommit to giving it the attention it deserves.