(Virtual) reality

Walking composition

“I want to be where all the ground is friendly.” —My Ántonia, Willa Cather

I went up to a Forest Service cabin last week, by myself, just me and a pile of books and notebooks, a few gallons of water, and a cooler of cheese and carrots and leftover ribs so I didn’t have to use the stove for anything but coffee and tea. Forty-eight hours of focused work and deep realignment, the sunrise coming slow over the still snow-covered ranges in Glacier. I walked down to the North Fork of the Flathead River, just preparing for the widening of spring runoff, and got startled by raven call.

No human voices for forty-eight hours. Sometimes when I’m up before sunrise at home, I step outside and watch my neighbor’s tall spruce. Are the trees relieved at night, I wonder? Released for a few hours from the press of human noise and human demands? I imagine them so, limbs resting in relief, never able to otherwise escape us. What demands we make of this world.

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When I came home and went online, a conversation thread in a newsletter steered toward the excitement of virtual reality, of some company making its VR responsive to our neurological signals, what a thrilling mind-altering experience that is, to be immersed so completely in a world.

Maybe some people need help to see the world the way it is, its vast complexity. Maybe for some people VR is like that time I watched my two college friends drop acid, and when I asked what it was like, my kindred spirit, the girl who always knew what I was thinking, said, “It’s like our world, only more.”

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I thought back to that cabin, the swift ice-covered creek, the river starting to swell with snowmelt, the pink alpenglow hitting the snowy peaks for a brief window, the raven call, how surreal that clear star-smothered sky might be to someone who’s never seen it, crisp with white lights like a billion spaceships about to descend, and I wonder if we’re all living in the same world.

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Some stuff to read, watch, or listen to:

  • I don’t really have words to describe this 16-minute video of a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and his former guard.

  • Learning to Walk Again,” an essay by Hugh Crawford (who teaches seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking) about long-distance walking again after getting a knee replacement — a reminder of all the reasons walking fascinated me as a subject in the first place.

  • This series of philosophy talks, starting with “Total Eclipse of Descartes—the Inheritance,” by British comedian Rob Newman, was sent to me by a relative and I’ve listened to it a few different times. It reminded me of why British humor crossed with philosophy can be get everything so right, especially about capitalism and the long influence of patriarchal and class-dominated philosophy on British (and probably American) society. And yet making me laugh out loud at the same time.

  • A wonderful essay in Audubon by John Moir, about field biologist Jan Hamber, who led the charge to save condors at a time when there were very few other women working in field biology: “‘In those days women were expected to be homemakers or possibly teachers or nurses,’ she says. ‘No one imagined we could be out tramping around with backpacks.’ Much less play an important role in saving America’s largest land bird, while inspiring a generation of younger women following in her footsteps.”

  • Finally all caught up on Orion, and was particularly impressed with the four-essay series on plastics edited by Rebecca Gasior Altman. David Farrier’s piece on medical gloves and the history of soft plastics; Max Liboiron on researching marine plastic waste in Newfoundland, and how hard it is to consistently sample beaches across the world; and Meera Subramanian on what is happening between plastics and life in the unmonitored ocean. Which all made me want to go back and read Altman’s incredible original Aeon essay on plastics, “Time-bombing the future.”