Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Escaping The Deluge

Yesterday, we spent our morning hours observing children from the Krokur school located in the small fishing village of Grindavik playing on the local "lava," the volcanic rock and spongy moss landscape that is characteristic of much of Iceland. From a distance is looks like a rugged, relatively flat terrain, but once you're in it, you find that it's choc-a-bloc with deep cracks and crevices, falls and rises, jagged edges and thick pads of spongy moss, making it a challenge to traverse for both children and adults alike.

It's an alien and harshly beautiful place, the backdrop for the "magic" of Iceland, a place of trolls, elves, and fairies who exist as "hidden people," typically only making themselves visible in the corner of your eye, disappearing the moment you turn to look directly at them. In this place, tragically, a young troll named Colli was turned to stone when she didn't heed her parent's warnings and ventured from her dark cave during daylight hours. As I stood admiring Colli, wondering, the children, after a brief moment to greet her, unceremoniously piled their belongings against her flanks, and scampered off into the lava, discussing their plans and projects.

We talk a lot about our information age, how modern humans are bombarded from all directions and at all times, how all this information is making us anxious and stressed, but as I stood there taking in my surroundings, I realized that there was just as much information here on the lava as there is in the city. Everywhere I looked, I spied something new: small black berries growing from the moss, fungus, dampness, darkness and light, sharpness and softness, hot and cold. There was sun and wind and cold and clouds. Everywhere I looked, there was something new to discover, to contemplate, to taste, feel, smell or hear. Indeed, there is every bit as much information in nature as there is in the city, but this information didn't stress me out at all. On the contrary, I found it calming.

As I watched the children and their teachers chatter with one another out there, away from day-to-day life, I appreciated that there were no ringing phones or dinging texts or blathering screens or bold solicitations. What was missing wasn't information, but rather the usual deluge of communication, or at least attempts at communication. It occurred to me that it's not information that is causing our anxiety, but instead it is this excess of unwanted and unsolicited communication that drives us slowly insane.

For the better part of two million years, the human brain evolved to make us successful hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, brains that thrive on information, brains designed to notice and interpret and wonder and deduce. We need information. We thrive on information and lots of it. The past couple thousand years since we stopped being hunter-gatherers can't possibly have changed that in any significant way. Our brains have likewise evolved for communication, but not of the bombardment variety. No, we've evolved to communicate as members of tribes, sharing face-to-face interactions about the here and now, communicating with one another by way of working together toward common, concrete ends the way the children were doing there on the lava.

This, I think, is largely why we find nature so soothing: it's where we find meaningful information without the bombardment. Here we can open ourselves to it, take it in, interpret it, and play with it without also having to fend off all that buzzing, dinging, and ringing that is the hallmark of unwanted and unnecessary communication. Nature is where we can finally return to the people we've evolved to be. This is why being in it makes us so happy.

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