As those who know me know, nature isn’t my only interest: I’m also a big fan of music. Often when I go hiking in wild places, I like to put in my ear buds and find a soundtrack for my adventures on my iPod. However, when hiking at Sunol Regional Wilderness with the Davis Hiking Club a few days ago, the only things filling my ears were the sounds of camaraderie, laughter, and birdsong. Some people there I already knew; some of them I had just begun to know. But being in that moment there with them and sharing the bright sunshine in those familiar hills made me feel truly present and fully alive.
I didn’t miss my iPod one bit. I didn’t need it to feel like I was really connected. There wasn’t even service where we were, and it’s easy to see where people get the idea that we have a “better connection without wi-fi.” Anyone who’s been out in the woods and has spent quality time with friends there will find it an attractive notion. I have a friend who chooses to use a flip phone instead of a smartphone in order to try to be more in touch with the moment and the people around him, and another who elects not to have a phone at all for that same reason. Yet another ] always shushes me when we’re out there and I’m playing guitar, because he wants to hear what the true natural scene is singing.
These are attitudes and lifestyles I’ve always admired. To forego the attractive distractions of modern consumer culture for the deep essence of the moment is a noble endeavor. In fact, it is my belief that for the preservation and health of our souls, it is absolutely necessary that we find time to unplug and detach ourselves from our artificial materialism. Never having a chance to unplug would drive me crazy.
Now, what my friends have drawn from this idea is that it’s better to go without these artifices altogether. As an avid fan and user of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and a host of other apps and social sites, I must confess I’ve never been fully comfortable with their conclusion. This discomfort has forced me to examine my motivations closely. Is it that I prefer everything in moderation, or is it that I am more enthralled to consumer society than I realize? Maybe an exception can be made for listening to music? Or could they simply be wrong?
I’ve come to the conclusion that none of the above is the case. I’m not a slave to my materialistic ways, I’m not a particular fan of moderation, and my friends aren’t entirely wrong. But to think that connection can only come with detachment from material things is to miss many elements of what connection can mean. Sure, you can be connected in and with yourself if you feel the moment, but there are so many others ways that we humans connect. We connect through friendship, we connect through familiarity with the ecology around us and we connect through the internet.
What I’m trying to say is this: technology doesn’t have to stunt our spiritual growth or separate us from each other and from the present. In some cases, technology can do the opposite. Maybe listening to the right music on my iPod when I’m out in the forest will help me connect emotionally with the scene on a deeper level than I could otherwise experience. Maybe playing my mass-produced Yamaha guitar through the deep stillness of an open field can lend peace to my soul that I can instill into my music and let others feel when they listen to it. Maybe that Instagram or snap I send from the top of a mountain will allow me to share in a joyful connection with whoever’s on the other side, or better yet will cause them to seek out the connection of the mountain for themselves.
In short, although we have a basic need to occasionally unplug, there’s also nothing wrong with plugging in sometimes when we’re in nature because it may help us experience a kind of connection that we would otherwise miss. That’s why as I took pictures on this past weekend’s hike, I knew I wouldn’t regret spending that time behind the camera. The pictures captured my friendships, and the memories they preserved are connections deep and wonderful in their own right, no matter how dull and artificial my little Apple phone may be in comparison to the awesomeness of the world around us.
So don’t worry about what the nature hipsters may say. Sharing your memories and tuning into your music are an integral part of what connection is all about.
Look up, look out, look around – connection is in our nature.
Nick Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.