Ladies and gentlebeings, have you ever looked up at the stars? I mean, really looked at them? A million pinpricks in the blanket of night. Fireflies encased in a dome of obsidian. The night sky has been described, both poetically and scientifically, countless times, and yet, so few of us have ever stopped to just… look at it.
Of course, even if we did, the majesty of the moment would be circumvented by the sudden appearance of a small 4 inch piece of glass and plastic. This’ll be an awesome Instagram post! The image is saved for posterity, but that fleeting moment of infinite beauty, the primeval sense of being part of something far greater, far more incomprehensible is irretrievably lost.
In my salad days, when I was green in judgment and tossed in a light vinaigrette of faith, I had an experience I can only describe as magical. Well, that’s not entirely true I suppose. I could describe it as morose, carbonous or even as “Murray,” but that would be inaccurate and frankly, rather silly. I’m surprised you would even suggest such a thing. Ah well, onward and upward.
At a temporal increment quite a bit previous to this one, a pilot friend of mine had recently gotten authorization to fly with a passenger. She kindly asked if I would be willing to accompany her on a night flight in a single engine plane. Being the man of adventure and derring-do that I am, I of course agreed, and we ventured forth into the dark and chilly autumn sky.
Dear reader, I’ve always been fascinated by flight, both the physics of it and the unique perspective of the world it provides. As you can imagine, I was quite excited during this flight. Seeing the world through the windows of a single engine plane is an experience I would recommend to anyone. It’s far more raw and visceral than the antiseptic, contained environment of a commercial plane. On a standard aircraft, you almost have the illusion you’re in a very high office building – though it must be said, a very badly designed office building with a lousy cafeteria. A small plane is an intense sensory experience. There is little if any climate control, and every sound of the structure shifting and flexing during the flight is heard, and felt.
I spent most of the flight gawking at everything I could see, which in the dark, wasn’t a heck of a lot. Far in the distance the glow of the city was visible, a blanket of yellowish light covering the landscape like millions of fireflies. At one point I looked up at the night sky and saw something that my brain did not immediately register. I stared at it for a few moments before the language center in my cranial cavity rummaged through its files and found the words with which to describe the wonder before me. I turned to my friend who was busy doing some inexplicable pilot activities that I did not entirely understand. I pointed out the sight in front of us and after a moment, she grinned at me with shared amazement.
We were flying into the shimmering multicoloured curtain of iridescence that is the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights.
I would love to say that this was just one in a long list of amazing encounters I’ve experienced in this life. I’d love to tell you of my adventures standing on the tip of Antarctica, visiting Gripsholm castle in Sweden, or sharing a laugh with my Inuit friends as I try (with limited success) to speak inuktitut. I would love to, but I cannot. Because I haven’t done these things.
I have, like so many other people on this big, beautiful and beknighted blue marble, experienced the world by proxy. I’ve spent the last four decades of my life watching the world pass me by through a 13-inch glass window. The wonders of the Earth have been reduced to a collection of digital signals and pixels. Two-dimensional representations that convey some of the beauty and majesty, but none of the visceral essence.
Don’t misunderstand me here my long suffering reader, I am in no way disparaging the world-wide-inter-web-net or for that matter the photographic or video arts. Some of the most amazing encounters on this beautiful blue-green orb are difficult, occasionally even impossible, to experience directly. Recording events for posterity is a noble profession, and serve to enlighten and edify those who are unable to experience such things themselves.
No, my lament has nothing to do with the ability to see the world through a screen, but our apparent preference for it.
In my particular case, I have physically seen very little compared to the experiential cornucopia that exists just outside the door. My reasons are varied, from the frankly absurd – laziness, fear (of what I have no idea), etc. – to the somewhat understandable – finances, logistics. I’ve made attempts to change this behaviour and my goal is to see as much of this world as I possibly can in the few years remaining to me.
However there is a far scarier scenario, one that we’ve all experienced and, it grieves me to say, participated in. I’m of course talking about our apparent inability to experience any event without looking at it through a five to six inch rectangle of glass and electronics.
For many people these days, it appears impossible to experience an event, enjoy a special moment or observe a thing of beauty without perceiving it through a smartphone camera and Instagram filter. Concert crowds are now festooned, not with a sea of flickering lighters, but tiny glowing squares from a million mobile phones.
Now I absolutely understand why someone would want to record an event for the future. Photography is a artform in and of itself, and those frozen moments in time have a value that is often beyond measurement. But these days, no one really sees anything anymore.
I know I must sound like a grouchy old man kvetching about the proliferation of “new-fangled gadgets” spoiling everything. I assure you this is not meant to be a tirade against smart-phones, smart-cameras or smart-underwear for that matter. My concern is that we’re not really experiencing anything anymore. We spend so much time recording things for sharing across social media that we no longer enjoy the beauty and majesty of the moment.
We’ve recorded the event, but the essence has been lost. No device can record that. No image or video could have captured what I felt that chilly night flying into the Northern Lights. Even my own medium – the written word – cannot truly capture the emotions that ran through me as nature put on her best finery and danced through the sky.
When you sally forth on your various adventures through this amazing world, by all means record and share it for the edification and joy of others, but try something for me if you would. Every so often, put down the phone, and just experience the event through all your senses. Don’t just let it happen around you, become part of it.
Maybe it’s time to look up at the stars. Not to see them, but to experience them. Because the view from here… is pretty magical.