I stood in my kitchen yesterday afternoon making lentil soup and listening to NPR’s new show “Spark”. As the host and her guests discussed technology, new gadgets, iphones and apps, I thought to myself, I am so happy to be chopping garlic. Outside the blue sky shone for the first time in days, bringing with it a drop in temperature to 8 degrees and a yearning inside me for the simple satisfactions that come with cooking on cold days.
One of the men on the radio admitted that, although he never used the web application on his phone until he switched to the iPhone, he now feels anxious whenever his iPhone is turned off and he doesn’t have access to instant internet. How does that happen? I wondered. I pressed the garlic between the wooden cutting board and the knife, releasing its oils onto my fingers, and peeled the skin away before rocking the knife quickly up and down, mincing the cloves. How does one go from interacting with the world through the body to fearing interaction without the intermediary of technology? I slid the garlic into a bowl with chopped carrots and celery, and moved on to the onion. The lentils simmered on the oven, and steam rose steadily from the pot. I smiled, content to be “switched off” from my computer, iPod touch, and phone, and to be switched on to the smells of chopped vegetables, the warmth of the stove, the feel of the knife and my Nana’s old cutting board beneath it.
I must admit that I am not immune to the lures of technology–I appreciate the incredible amount of information I have at my fingertips, the connections I make and sustain through networking sites like Facebook, the ability to write this blog and post it for anyone to read, and the instant gratification of downloading music. I am amazed that I am able to Skype with people halfway around the world, that my brother can send me a song through instant messaging and I can play it immediately though we are separated by seven hours and 350 miles. Would I give this all up? I have before.
During the fall semester of my sophomore year, I lived with thirteen fellow students in a small yurt village called Arcadia as a part of St. Lawrence University’s Adirondack Semester. For three months we immersed ourselves in the natural environment, wrote papers and completed research projects without computers, bathed in the lake instead of a shower because we had no running water, chopped wood instead of turning up a thermostat, and wrote letters home instead of calling. As a part of the Adirondack Semester, each student agrees to give up technology like computers and phones, and learns to interact with the world on a much more intimate and basic level. It is in the Adirondack State Park where I learned to cook, to create community, to explore the environment with wonder, and to find the quiet with myself that led to the discovery of how I fit in the natural rhythms of the world.
After those three months, I did return to using technology. I emailed and called my friends, I watched movies, I took hot showers. But something had changed in me. More often than not, I chose to snowshoe instead of turn on the TV, to run outside instead of on the treadmill, to move slowly and deliberately through my days instead of rushing to the next thing. Giving up computers and internet for a semester did not cut me off from critical information, instead it opened me up to a way of learning that pulls me into the subject. Suddenly I could understand that an esker is not just a long ridge formed by streams flowing under a glacier, but it is also the path that led me to Arcadia; the question of ‘how much is enough’ isn’t just part of philosophy class, but a way of building my life in tune with my surroundings; a paper for Nature and Environmental Writing didn’t only hone my skills as a writer, but made me more observant and aware.
What I strive for now is balance. I do not want to feel anxious when I am disconnected from technology, but I do want to use it and take advantage of what technology allows me to do. There are some experiences, however, that cannot be improved by computers or internet or gadgets: the feel of the pen moving across paper, the smell of garlic and onions sizzling in olive oil, the plunk of a canoe paddle propelling me across an Adirondack lake. What it comes down to is this: the moments I hold most dearly are the ones where I am fully a part of my surroundings, feeling, smelling, seeing, hearing, and tasting. What brings me most alive is nature and all its elements; in the hot summer I run, swim, and grow a garden. In the cold winter I pull out the root vegetables and chop, warming myself with soup and enjoying the process of creating it.