Creating Time and Space for Just Being.

No Stone Unturned

It has taken me nearly 32 years of living, but I’m finally coming to fully appreciate the importance of stillness. Just being. Doing nothing.

When I start class, students are invited to participate in a mindful breathing meditation.  When I drive home from work now, the radio is turned off. I’ve even begun practicing a simple breathing exercise for 15 minutes a day.

 So far, count me in as someone who believes in the power of mindfulness, which is covered in depth in this story from The Atlantic. For fifteen minutes every day, I lie down and pay attention to my breath. There are times when I’ve gotten restless and don’t quite reach 15 minutes. There are times when I have to gently redirect my thoughts to my breath hundreds of times (or so it seems that way). But more often than not, I feel refreshed, calm, and focused after the practice, even after a stressful day mentoring and teaching my 110 students.

The initial results of structuring this simple, but challenging, contemplative quiet in my life has been overwhelmingly positive: I’m sleeping better, generating more ideas, and feel less busy: for many of us, myself included at times, I’ve fallen into the trap of allowing thoughts of busyness manifest themselves as reality.

Think about the last time you felt like you had too much on your plate: to what extent were your emotions and thoughts causing feelings of being overwhelmed? Right now, maybe you’re skimming this blog post, wanting to read it carefully, but automatically triggered impatience or anxiety causes you to think about the e-mail you must compose. Or what happened yesterday in a frustrating meeting. Or what you’re going to cook for dinner.    

While I do have dozens of items on my “to-do” list most days, it doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you’re truly tackling one thing at a time. Some days, I’m tempted to tell myself I don’t have time for this. But the truth is: if I’m able to be calm and focused with whatever I may be going, I’m more efficient. I’m less worried about what isn’t being done and more in tune with what I am engaged in.

It might seem trite, but the idea of being in the moment, aware of what’s going through your mind, is at the heart of being mindful. It’s certainly easier said than done. The practice is cognitive exercise; if I wanted to run a mini-marathon, it’d take weeks of training for me to simply be in a position to finish the race.   

Liz Kulze concludes in The Atlantic: “The practice may have great potential, but its advocates are quick to note that it will only do for people as much as they decide to put into it…Like fitness of any sort, seeing benefit from meditation takes time, discipline, and dedication.”

Readers, do you have any experience with meditation? How’d it go? If not, are you intrigued?

Wealth As Community, Time, and Freedom

No Stone Unturned

I’ll be the first one to admit it: I value financial security and material comfort, I save for retirement, and I sometimes worry about finances.

But after reading Ben Hewitt’s book Saved: How I Quit Worry About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, I’ve been inspired to blog.  Like Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, the text challenged me to ponder just how unsustainable the modern paradigm of constant corporate and economic growth is, urging us to examine what it means to be wealthy.   Let’s consider community, time, and the freedom to think and act outside the realm of money as undervalued measures of wealth.

Community

Valuing wealth based on massive accumulating of material goods and services is a historical anomaly for most of the world’s inhabitants, yet it has become the norm. Hewitt writes:

Of course, the economic and social arrangements we know today have scant historical precedence, and it was not long ago that our investments were not primarily fiscal in nature. We invested in property, to be sure, but also in less tangible assets, like trust and community. We understood that we could not stand separate from others in our communities, nor from the natural world that provided the foundational essentials for day-to-day survival.  

If this doesn’t echo Wendell Berry, I’m not sure what does. Berry writes in The Agrarian Essays, “A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members – among them the need to need one another.”

Community membership offers measures of wealth, of course, that are vastly different than accumulation and six figure bank accounts. If you can trade handmade material goods or services with a neighbor, is that not a form of wealth? If you can strengthen relationships with others by borrowing tools, or counting on someone to feed your pets while away, is that not wealth? Hewitt contends that to be wealthy is to maintain interdependent relationships that allow us to skirt the impersonal transactions of corporate America.

Time

We are all offered 24 hours in a day. No more, no less, no matter our lot. I consider myself wealthy in this regard, despite the fact that I have a demanding job as a high school teacher. I take active steps to ensure I work efficiently and have ample time at home, hours spent bow-hunting in the woods, and time to simply be, to relax, to read, to write. Hewitt writes, “Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend out time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth.”

I thought about this quote the other day, as I sat in the school cafeteria for an extra three paid hours for parent-teacher conferences and department meetings. Most of my colleagues said they’d rather be with their families, pursuing a hobby, or simply choosing how to spend their time. I was in complete agreement.

Thinking/Freedom

Hewitt’s most interesting idea regarding the modern wealth paradigm of material consumption is that it can detract our ability to be more mindful about the world around us, to be critical thinkers, to be artists, to feel unburdened from thinking about bills and acquiring more stuff. Consider this: if you spend all of your time working to earn money, then worrying about how you’ll spend, invest, and save your money, how much time is left over to think about other things?

“We tend to think of freedom in the context of flesh and blood, but of course our thoughts can be shackled too…How often, I wonder, do we deny ourselves the pleasure of offering our gifts to others, be they intellectual, artistic, or of pure toil? I can’t afford that, we say, and we believe it…” Hewitt continues.

This post probably doesn’t do these ideas justice, but I’m hoping to hear from y’all.

Is someone wealthy who has a 4,000 square foot house but is a slave to their mortgage payment, having to work 60-hour weeks to make house payments and fill up every room with furniture and gadgets? Is someone wealthy if they have a huge nest egg, but hasn’t been able to–or chooses not to–pursue hobbies or take vacations? To what extent do you value the aforementioned ideas as wealth? Is the old maxim “time is money” problematic in any way to you?

What Do You Do Without A Screen?

No Stone Unturned

I’m not sure when I realized a determination to continue to learn and do things that do not actively require a digital screen.  

This desire to be present and hands-on could have been fostered at an early age; I remember putting on a plastic hard hat and hammering away on rocks, shards of stone rocketing off into the grass, while my uncle fixed the foundation to our barn.  I remember constructing forts out of plywood and potato guns out of PVC piping (sorry, mom).  My friend Chris once allowed me to borrow his stick-shift Honda Accord for a week so I could learn how to drive a manual.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

With each passing year and new gadget becoming the latest rage, it’s far too easy to let convenience, leisure, and screen time consume all waking hours. I’m victim to bleary eyes from staring at a screen, checking my phone too often, and defaulting to mindless internet browsing.

But I check myself. I don’t feel good if I fail to step away from technology on a fairly regular basis.

While I’m an active Twitter user and blogger, my students don’t understand what I do when I’m not teaching.  “Do you have a life?” they inevitably ask, when I tell them I haven’t seen the latest viral YouTube clip, or TV show, or haven’t heard that a pop star has gone into rehab.  I’ve got hobbies, I tell them.  I like to try and build things, cook, brew beer, hunt deer (although this past season was my first shut out, to my dismay).  They shake their heads.  They are truly perplexed, but they don’t do much questioning when I tell them I’m glad I grew up right before the smartphone revolution. 

Is it becoming a norm in society to not know how to do anything of disengaged from digital connectivity? Is it the norm to pursue as much leisure and convenience as one can?

Sure seems like it. Effort becomes devalued, as does work, in favor of instant gratification, a point Wendell Berry makes in The Art of the Commonplace: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.”

With Berry’s quote in mind, I suppose a lot of what I like to do might be considered work or not worth the effort. But here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this. I wonder if, at some point, they’ll have their own epiphanies and start to engage themselves, with others, and the world around them in different ways.

What do you take pride in being able to do without a screen?  What are some pros and cons to the relentless onslaught of technologies that promote leisure and entertainment?  How well would you cope without your phone or internet for 48 hours?

Would You–Or Do You–Monitor Your Child’s Digital Activity?

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

In 1994, when I was 13 years old, I did what I suspect many 13 year-old boys might do.  I snuck into my younger sister’s room, found her colorfully-bound private journal, read it, dusted off my fingerprints, and smirked, knowing I now possessed information to get under her skin.  It seemed like the best way to torment my sister, who didn’t deserve the heckling that ensued after I teased her about a boy she clearly liked.  She’d devoted several pages to him in her journal.

Fast forward to 2013.  I’m not sure how many students keep a traditional journal, but many students use social media and the internet to broadcast their thoughts by the day, hour, and even minute.  Many students either don’t think their parents know what’s going on, or they think their parents are oblivious to belligerent online activity.  Many parents are.

Given this fact, to what extent should parents monitor, curtail, or even spy on their child’s cell phone or internet use?

I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I’m completely aware of the innocent and nefarious ways kids and teenagers use their digital devices.  I’ve heard students talking about Snapchat, where they can take a picture of themselves then send it to a friend or acquaintance, with the file being supposedly self-destructing after 10 seconds.  You can imagine the type of photos some reckless and hormone-riddled teens send to each other.  Some students bully each other to the point of tragedy, described here by blogger Caitlin Kelly over at BroadsideThen there’s Twitter and Instagram, tools many teenagers use to supply the world with endless streams of narcissistic drivel, trash-talk, and “selfies.

On the other hand, students engage in positive online communities relating to their interests.  I’m thinking about my students who are self-described “nerds,” using social media to connect with other anime or gaming aficionados.  “

Here’s some hypothetical scenarios to consider:

  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 15 year-old boy and suspect drug-use, bullying, or other reckless behavior.  Your son has left for the afternoon to hang out with some friends at the bowling alley, and, surprisingly, he left his phone on the kitchen counter. Would you search through your his cell phone records or Twitter feed without he or she knowing it?  What would you do if you found incriminating evidence?
  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 13 year-old girl, and you’ve been in a year-long battle with her over how she dresses.  Despite your best efforts to keep her from dressing in what you deem as racy attire, you suspect her exhibitionist streak is manifesting itself online.  While she heads to living room to complete some algebra homework, you notice her laptop is open and the screen seems to show a picture that can’t be your daughter in a skimpy bathing suit.  Except that it is, and you sneak into her room and scroll down to find other photos more fit for a 21-year old aspiring model.  What do you do?
  • Your child has just received his driver’s license.  You require him to check in whenever he gets to his stated destination, but you’re suspicious that he isn’t always where he says he is.  You’re also aware of small GPS tracking devices that can be affixed to cars.  Do you install a device, to keep secret tabs on where your teen is headed, given his new freedom?

A couple years removed from college, I helped a former sociology professor with field research for her book.  I interviewed parents about their own surveillance.  After conducting and recording 8-10 extensive interviews, it became apparent that those parent-child dynamics based more on trust, versus spying and surveillance, seemed to spawn healthier relationships.  At the time, the ubiquity of cell phones was on the verge of manifesting itself, but the prevalence of digital tools in our lives wasn’t as intense as it is 8 or so years later.  There are certainly new challenges and considerations for parents, regarding the choices about access and surveillance.

As parents and would-be parents, I’m wondering how you might respond to the scenarios above.  Or do you–would you–not allow a teen to have his or her laptop?  How about cell phones–at what age should a child have a phone?  What restrictions or monitoring do you–or would you–employ?  

Maintaining a Blogging Presence, Catalysts, and Inspiration

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

As much as I love being online, blogging, Tweeting, and the like, I don’t like how demanding it feels sometimes.  How, if I don’t write a captivating post or send out X number of Tweets, then I’m somehow falling behind.  How, if I don’t read and respond to some loyal Stew’ reader’s posts, then I’m giving them the short end of the stick.  How you might feel like you’re missing something if you’re not checking your Twitter feed.  Sometimes, I’m excited to publish a post–I just know it will resonate with readers–and then there is marginal response.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather "sparks" for new writing.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather “sparks” for new writing.

Maintaining a blog is a challenging endeavor, and I don’t recommend it if you’re not passionate about the writing process and discovery of new ideas.  The process of finding, refining, and revising my place in the real and digital world is what keeps me blogging.  If readers comment, great.  If readers don’t comment but I’ve enjoyed the process of composing a post, I’m cool with that.

For new bloggers out there, take heed: Melissa over at Freeing Imperfections blog has some solid realizations for new bloggers.  Here’s what she wishes she’d known when she began blogging.  Highlights include:

1. Blogging is not easy and it’s incredibly time-consuming – at first.

10. Not everyone will care that you have a blog. But if you care, the people who want to read your blog will follow.

14. Social media is good for blog growth. Before I started my blog, I thought being on it more would be a bad thing. Without social media, my blog would still be in the dark with no readers, reaching no one.

I’m conflicted, at times, over how much time I spend in front of a screen; this concern has appeared here and here and here in Mindful Stew.  Regarding Melissa’s point about social media, I don’t like to feel obligated to promote blog posts on Twitter or Facebook, but I do enjoy ensuing dialogue when folks leave comments.  It’s exciting to know that something you put out there strikes a chord with readers.  And now that I’ve dropped my number of posts to three or four a month, I try to be deliberate about publishing.

I want to write about what matters to me with a connection to more universal ideas and experience.  I want to write on Saturday mornings over several cups of coffee, and I want to write after experiencing an idea itch when I witness something out there in the world or online, whether it be a quote, a visit to the Farmer’s Market, or a news blurb.   I’m always fascinated by what great bloggers and writers out there like Caitlin KellyAnnie Murphy Paul, and Terry Heick encounter as catalysts for their own posts.

Soon, the school year will begin and I’ll have a deluge of new experiences and faces to provide sparks for reflection and analysis, and my own desire to balance digital and “analog” life will be put to the test.

I know I’ll have students who are constantly connected–many seemingly addicted–with their iPhones and Androids.  Part of me wants to tell them to disconnect, to observe the world around them and slow down their thinking, without mediating life through a screen. Another part of me knows it’s my job to help students navigate and use the digital world more productively.  

Although it’s not a new calendar year, the start of the school year marks a major shift for writing/blogging educators out there–we might have a ton to say, but finding time is tricky.  I look forward to continuing blogging on the ‘Stew, in addition to a blogging gig over at the Center for Teaching Quality.   Happy blogging, everyone.

What shifts have you experienced in maintaining your digital presence?  What tips would you give to beginning bloggers?  What are your “go-to” sites, experiences, or observations that often spark your own blog posts?

Europe, 10 Years Later: In the Moment

No Stone Unturned

I strolled through the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent, Belgium, last Sunday morning, still slightly hungover from a sprawling bike scavenger hunt through the city the previous day.  A veteran farmer with white hair and red, calloused hands hawked different breeds of laying hens to the city folks.  Sidewalk cafes slowly became magnets for those looking for caffeine, and the sun emerged from behind the great towers and cathedrals of Central Ghent–it’d be another warm day.

Like the last time I was in Europe, in 2003, I’ve traveled and studied this summer without a phone.  My mind feels much more at ease without the expectation of constant communication and instant response.  And as my sister noted to me in a written note, isn’t is somehow easier to be “in the now” when everything is new?

Yes, it is.

And whether we’re in a new country–I’d never been to Belgium–or within ten miles of our hometown, I’m reminded that one of the best ways to create mindfulness, to relax, and to be present is to observe.  To let, seek, or give a chance for the endless, amazing diversity of sensory experience to captivate you in different ways.

I’ve attempted to allow myself to be in the moment this summer: to hear the Wood Pigeons cooing in the 14th century courtyards of Lincoln College; to see the egalitarian cyclists of all shapes, colors, and sizes jockey for position on narrow Oxford streets busy with double decker busses; to taste braised pork cheeks cooked in brown beer sauce in a local restaurant in Ghent; to feel the vibrations of the oncoming trains at Paddington Station in London; to read and reread 16th century English Literature without the rhythms and demands of multitasking that can become commonplace during the teaching year.

Unlike when traveling alone in 2003, I felt like I had my voice this time around–10 years of life will give you that confidence.  I attempted to strike up conversation with anybody, anywhere, despite my utter lack of Flemish/Dutch language skill, the main reason how I ended up having such a glorious day in Ghent, interacting with bartenders, baristas, chefs and patrons, each taking a chance to scrawl on my tattered map pictured above.

Ghent residents are justifiably proud of their city; some say it’s the most underrated destination in Europe.  If you’re interested in history, food, and drink, as I am, put it on your list.  It’s not too expensive…yet.  

Here are some of my recommendations:  Cafe Labath and Simon Says are great cafes with welcoming staffs, head to De Lieve for great beer and authentic Belgian food, and check out The STAM Museum for fascinating civic history.  There is a huge pedestrianized area on the central part of the city, where I experienced a new take on a somewhat-familiar sight.

It nearly took my breath away walking into the Cathedral in Ghent.  10 years ago, as a 21-year old undergraduate “studying” abroad, I strolled into many of the great churches and cathedrals of Europe: La Sagrada Familia, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, etc.   They were impressive buildings to me at the time, but I felt less awe.

My coursework this summer on literature during the English Reformation has refreshed my knowledge of the great Catholic and Protestant schism–all over Europe, the various churches and cathedrals tell the history through stained glass, altars, and other iconography (or lack of).  Catholicism won out in Ghent, but religious strife, among other factors, prevented the city from continued ascension towards status as one of Europe’s Great Cities (it was Europe’s second largest city behind Paris for several hundred years).

I’m completing this blog post after hearing a graduate school colleague, 40 years removed from literature study, discuss the experience of rereading classic texts after accumulating so many joys, sorrows, worries, and wonders over his adult life.  He’s been blown away by the power of the same words given his new perspective.  Based on just a few days away from studying in Oxford, I can relate.

Like revisiting art, travel at different points of our lives can spark different passions, interests, and memories, creating experiences rich in new ways. 

Can you be alone and content, in a new place, where cultural or language barriers might be an issue?  Are you willing to let your five senses take in as much as you can–without digital distraction–and not worry about what time or day it is?   Have you returned to a place/book and had a completely “new” experience?

Dispatch from Oxford

No Stone Unturned

I like the feeling of being in a different place, traveling and exploring where slight discomfort and the need to discover language, food, colloquialisms, and public transit, among other things, is a regular part of the experience.  These places don’t need to be physically far from home; plop me down in a small mountain town in Appalachia, for instance, and much of my criteria will be met.

I remember 10 years ago, during college, doing the whole backpack across Europe thing–without a phone, imagine that!–and making a stop in Florence, Italy.  Beautiful city.  But I remember hearing too much English and feeling like I was in an Americanized version of Italy, rather than in a more challenging or authentic locale.

Looking back, I probably judged Florence too quickly, and I didn’t give myself enough time to explore the place.

Now I find myself in Oxford, UK, finishing up a Master’s Degree through Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.  I began this graduate school journey in 2007 in Asheville, North Carolina, and the program also enabled me to go to Santa Fe and the Green Mountains of Vermont (twice).  You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more rigorous, exciting graduate program.

Oxford is a bustling city, and I didn’t realize what a tourist destination it is.  I suppose having libraries and prestigious colleges that are hundreds of years old helps, in addition to stunning architecture and plenty of places where you can consume clotted cream.

 

I’ve got one outcome in mind for my travels and studies: degree completion.  Other than that, I don’t know what discoveries I’ll make.  I know I’ll miss my wife, and I hope I’ll feel rejuvenated for the following school year.  I’m glad to say I already feel like a traveler and student, and not a tourist, a distinction Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison made in a New York Times opinion piece from last year:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

I have no qualms with tourism–I’ve thoroughly relished being on a few family cruises, with every expedition, port call, and meal laid out for us.  But my most memorable trips have certainly fallen under the category of travel as defined above (Caitlin Kelly over at Broadside chimed in last year about lessons we learn when traveling alone after reading the same NY Times piece, and it’s worth a look).

I remember being alone in Madrid, haggling over a scalped ticket to a Real Madrid soccer match, then witnessing a sporting spectacle unlike any I’d seen in the states.

I remember riding in a mini-van with 15-or-so other passengers in Guatemala, piled on top of me and one another, riding up a treacherous dirt road to a mountain plateau where my buddy was stationed for the Peace Corps in a cinderblock hut.  I learned about altitude, humility, and hospitality on that trip.

There will undoubtedly be some “ah-ha” and poignant moments in Oxford, and I’m ready to face some disorientation and discovery in this place.  Wish me luck as I tackle some seriously dense course material regarding politics, religion, and literature during the Tudor era:).  

Do you consider yourself more of a tourist or a traveler?  What have been your most powerful travel experiences?  Have you ever traveled alone?

Why I Can’t Romanticize The Lives Of Our Chickens

No Stone Unturned

I awoke this morning to feed and water my hens, only to find two of them mangled by an unknown assassin.  Both heads were missing.  There was no sign of forced entry.   Somehow the third had managed to escape; I found her frantically hopping around near the alleyway behind my house, and it looked like she was missing some tail feathers.

IMG_1260

The two barred rock hens were great egg-layers, quasi-pets, and cheap entertainment, providing plenty of smiles while watching them take dust baths, dig for worms, and squawk for no apparent reason.  As for the third hen, pictured above, my wife and I will find her a new home.  Chickens are social creatures and prefer to be part of a group.

As a gardener, hunter, and keeper of chickens, there is no end to learning, epiphanies, and opportunities for reflection.

I’ve learned which sections of my small yard seem to have the best soil for growing a variety of crops.  I’ve learned blackberries can grow anywhere.  I’ve learned to heavily prune fruit trees in the winter, that catnip tea makes a great natural sleep aid, and that green beans are amazingly prolific, as long as you keep picking them.  And I’ve had to reevaluate why and how I eat animals.  The list goes on and on.

Over the years, I’ve also had similar insights as fellow blogger Issac, who eloquently reflects on Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education in this post.  He writes, “The gardener accepts contingency, his/her own and nature’s: He/she focuses on the task at hand, acknowledges and learns from the past, but does not lament or philosophizes too much about why things happen.”

I’m saddened by the death of the chickens, but it’s over and done with.  By keeping the hens, I accepted dealing with their life cycles, whether predators, disease, providing meat, or old age leads to death–you shouldn’t romanticize the life of a chicken, although I suspect it is happening a lot now that backyard coops are gaining popularity.

I’ll undoubtedly face more challenges with future chickens, plants infested with slugs, lost deer trails, and droughts in the brutal Kentucky heat.  But these hobbies enrich my life in meaningful ways, and I can’t imagine dropping them for more sedentary activities that do nothing to bring me closer to life cycles, the soil, and the balmy air on a June morning in Louisville.

Nature and Manufactured Landscapes: A Quintessentially American Vacation?

No Stone Unturned

What kind of crazy society would allow—and nourish—such a ridiculous manufactured landscape?

Do we desire vacations to escape or embrace consumer culture?  Or both?

“Our ability to shut the destroyed areas from our minds, to see beauty around man’s degradation, is considerable.”  –Bill McKibben

I wrote the following Cultural Geography paper at Middlebury College roughly ten years ago today, and I’m pleased to reread it, post the text, and perhaps create an opportunity for dialogue on the ‘Stew.   Before I became an “adult” and graduated from college, a trip to Southeastern Tennessee led to my investigation on what it means to both embrace and destroy the environment simultaneously.

Driving through endless stoplights on US Route 441 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, I fumbled for my camera.  “Take a few pictures,” my buddy Drew, a senior at University of Tennessee Knoxville, told me from behind the wheel.  We were cruising in a silver Volvo station wagon past wax museums, arcades with neon-lighted facades, indoor skydiving facilities, rickety looking steel bungee towers creaking in the breeze over asphalt, $15 scenic helicopter tour outposts and countless single-story eateries like the Number 1 Chinese Restaurant and Scruggs Real Pit Barbecue.  I was laughing so hard that I had to hold back the tears, but still managed to snap a few shots from the passenger seat of the car.  Something was peculiar about this place, I thought.  Or maybe some poignant insight into American culture was being revealed.

1-pigeon-forge-aerial-img_1848

Perhaps nowhere in America lies such a striking juxtaposition of landscapes as in Southeastern Tennessee.  To the south of these tourist meccas of frivolous consumption—Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge—the Great Smoky Mountains rise up into the troposphere with their majestic steep ridges amidst the trademark haze.  The sheltered valleys—known locally as coves—provide rich habitats for an astonishing range of flora and fauna.  Home to more than 100 species of native trees, 1,400 flowering plant species, and record diversity of mollusks, millipedes and mushrooms, the park has been recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations.  There are more native species of trees in this 800-square mile area than in the entire continent of Europe.  But I hadn’t done a single thing to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Like thousands of other visitors to the park, I had stayed behind the windshield to consume nature.  I got a sense on US Route 441 that the national park was a secondary attraction to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. 

In 2002, more than nine million tourists visited the Great Smoky Mountains. Cheap admission cost—it’s free to enter—and accessibility by road helped to inflate the numbers at the most-frequented national park in the United States.  It is said that the Smokies are within one and a half day’s drive of 50% of the country’s population.  I was surprised to learn that the staggering numbers of tourists do not have a dangerously detrimental effect on the local environment.  Park Spokesman Bob Miller told me that occasionally bears and deer need to be relocated or euthanized after people feed the animals or leave garbage unsecured.  And fragile vegetation is impacted by erosion from horseback riders and hikers.

The most pressing environmental concern is air pollution and the Smoky Mountains are currently living up to their name.  The park has air quality comparable to Los Angeles—it is the worst of all the national parks—but this is not due to the millions of vehicles that enter the area.  “If all the visitors were to park outside the boundary and walk in there would not be a measurable improvement because the sources—power plants and industry are regional and external to the park,” Miller stated in an e-mail.  The massive traffic flow does create one problem, however. “An animal crossing roads in a park with 4.2 million vehicles a year stands a better chance of becoming road kill than a critter in a less congested place,” Miller added. 

Drew and I were in one of the thousands of cars in the park that Sunday afternoon and we didn’t hit any animals, but something about the “windshield” experience felt inauthentic to me.  Being in the Smoky Mountains while trailing a line of vehicles was a bit anti-climatic.  Sheer numbers of tourists, while not greatly harming the environment, nonetheless change an individual’s experience in the Great Smoky Mountains.  I couldn’t really complain, however.  I hadn’t planned on visiting; I was staying at a well-used off campus college house in Knoxville and Drew offered up the quick trip to the mountains the morning before I returned home to Vermont. 

As my friend drove us through the park, I got only a superficial glimpse of the beautiful landscape, partly due to a time constraint.  Smeared windows and the scruffy voice of John Hiatt filling up the station wagon’s interior tainted my views of the steep ridges and changing leaves.  But hadn’t I gotten used to a generic, ‘beaten path’ intake of nature throughout my life?  When my family and I visited the Grand Canyon back in junior high school, we didn’t venture beyond the lookout station at the North Rim or past the visitor centers swarming with Japanese tourists.  We might have taken a few half-hour hikes.  In retrospect, I have an excuse: my sisters were little.  The Grand Canyon is such an amazing spectacle.  I wish we had been more adventurous then, and I would have appreciated more time to explore the Smokies.  That is not to say I am highly skilled at hiking or overnight camping, but I would certainly saddle up and try.  Many visitors to the Smokies do not share my idealistic sentiment.

In an interview with the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, Knoxville resident Bob Ely stated, ‘“You know, I read the other day where the Park Service said that if you walk a half mile from the road you’ll leave 50 percent of the people behind,’ said Ely, still hiking the Smokies at 75. ‘Well, that’s crazy. You hike a half mile from any of these roads, you’ll leave 99.9 percent of the people behind.’”

After Drew and I pulled into a large parking lot at a lookout point lot near the Newfound Gap (elevation 5046 feet), Mr. Ely’s comment made perfect sense.  Harley Davidsons, motor homes, sedans and other vehicles were in constant motion coming and going.  Backpackers and hikers seemed to be very scarce.  According to a 1996 survey on the use of the Great Smoky Mountain national park, nearly two-thirds of the visitors spent less than one day in the park, and the most popular activities were viewing scenery and wildlife/wildflowers, photography and visiting historic sites.  At Newfound Gap in October 2003, the survey still seemed to accurately portray the tourist crowd. 

My forest green Jansport school backpack was just about the largest bag around.  The exception: one tall, bearded middle-aged man wearing big ole’ hiking boots, gray wool socks, and a sweat-stained red bandana.  He humped a huge pack and, perhaps, was challenging the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies, which entails traversing sixteen peaks that exceed 6,000 feet in elevation.  The backpacker was not the rule, but the exception, and I was consuming nature the same way that millions do in the Smoky Mountains.  In the year 2000, for example, only 380,000 people spent a night in the Smokies, mostly campers during the peak summer tourist months.  Compared with the total number of visitors, the amount of over-nighters is miniscule.

The disconnect most Americans have with nature is striking, and journalist Bill Bryson points out that the “windshield” consumers of nature in the Smoky Mountains have provided a plethora of anecdotal follies.  One woman smeared honey on her toddler’s fingers so that a bear would lick it off for a video camera.  The bear ended up eating the baby’s hand.  Real nature signifies danger—Bryson comically delineates several terrifying scenarios that could happen to you out in the woods.  “I heard of a man who had stepped from his tent for a midnight pee and was swooped upon by a short-sighted hoot owl—the last he saw of his scalp it was dangling from the talons prettily silhouetted against a harvest moon…” 

One way to escape the peril is to not risk it at all.  When many Americans vacation—the developers of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge must have realized this—the desired escape is not to nature but to culture.  To fully experience nature is just not a mainstream desire anymore.  The woods make us feel small and confused.  Instead of being the center of the universe—according to advertisers—when plopped in front of a computer or television set, the world of consumption is literally pulled right out from under our feet.[8]  Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “what one escapes to is culture—not culture that has become daily life, not culture as a dense and inchoate environment and way of coping, but culture that exhibits lucidity.”[9]  Should one be surprised, then, that Gatlinburg draws more visitors than the Great Smoky Mountains on an annual basis? 

The landscape of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge could hardly be more lucid to the consumer.  It is what most of us are used to, times one hundred.  Driving through the heavily commercialized area is like being submerged in one gigantic, freakish advertisement.  A billboards screams Come to Dollywood, the Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre begs for you to salivate over a rib dinner and a live honky tonky show, and Ranger Bob’s Trading Post beckons for you to buy a stainless steel jackknife with a lifetime guarantee.  Tuan’s observation about escaping culture that has become daily life is partly applicable to the experience of visiting Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.  For most of us, daily life requires making product choices.  Boy, is this process ever so magnified down there in the gateway towns to the Smokies.

 In Southeastern Tennessee, nature has often become second fiddle to zealous binges of superfluous consumption and amusements.  In 1997, the Germino family of Texas held a reunion with 41 people in Pigeon Forge.  They converged upon the town from six states.  ‘“We chose it because it’s not too expensive, it’s centrally located and it has something for all our family’s ages, from 10 months to about 70,’ said Debra Feinstein of Hicksville, N.Y., a granddaughter of the family patriarch who emigrated from Italy to New York in 1923. ‘This whole area’s great for a family vacation.’”  Dotty Germino, planner of the reunion, did not visit the nearby Smokies because she ran out of time.

Mrs. Germino might have run out of time because she was just so content acting as a super-consumer in Pigeon Forge.  The center of the universe.  In his essay “Consuming Nature,” Bill McKibben writes of his prolonged study on cable broadcasting.  After examining 2,400 hours of television programming, one overriding message dominated.  You, the consumer, are the most important thing on earth.  It didn’t matter whether it was the shopping network channel, MTV, Bravo, Lifetime, or Comedy Central.  The conditioning we receive to become consumers is ubiquitous. 

For many visitors to Southeast Tennessee, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge puts them in that very position of importance.  The range of products and goods is so immense that some people must, whether consciously or not, feel empowered by the smorgasbord spread out on each side of US Route 441.  Continuing the drive, Drew and I certainly bypassed all sorts of appetizers, trinkets and gifts that we wouldn’t have minded purchasing, or at least checking out.  But we eluded the Boston Shrimp Bucket, Ranger Bob’s Trading Post, Cracker Jacks tattoo parlor and the Lots of Christmas outlet store.  The eclecticism of the area allows for everyone to find something that tickles his or her fancy.

Despite the unparalleled tackiness in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, many people find the commercial landscape to be more real than the Smoky Mountains.  Tuan points out that only humans, out of all organisms, have created culture.  We have manufactured a world that makes us withdraw from facing nature, and part of the reason for constructing culture is surely biological.  “A human being is an animal who is congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is,” Tuan writes.  Venturing off the main roads in the Great Smoky Mountains would signify a return to barren reality, the reality of nature as it is.  Nature can be unsettling, so we choose to gaze at it from paved roads and built up picnic areas.  It takes an adventurous soul nowadays to rough it in the woods. 

McKibben, an environmentalist and nature lover, writes of a personal experience that awakened him from his consumer dream.  “I saw a grizzly bear one recent summer in Alaska, not far away on a muddy bank on a foggy night, and the sheer reality of that encounter shook some small part of me out of the consumer enchantment into which I was born.”  Luckily for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains, the world of the consumer does not have to be shattered.  Many picnic areas and lookout towers in the Great Smoky Mountains allow for benign consumption of nature just yards from the parking lot.  According to journalist Bob Warren, worthwhile scenic and sensory experience is highly accessible.  “Take a few steps from the car, and feel as if you’ve walked right into a painting, under and inside a huge, green canopy of giant trees. A painting that smells of damp dirt, fallen leaves and evergreens.”

Well, I didn’t feel like I had walked right into a painting after hopping out of the car at Newfound Gap.  Standing on a well-maintained sidewalk next to a garbage bin full of empty plastic Pepsi bottles and other debris did anything but make me feel like I had really escaped materialism.  I was conscious of the people around me, clusters of tourists Bill Bryson might describe as  “throngs of pear-shaped people in Reeboks.”  As I posed for a ‘look I was in the Smoky Mountains’ picture, the chilly breeze caused goose bumps to rise on my arms and my new orange and tan Tennessee Volunteers baseball cap nearly flew off my head. 

Heading back towards Knoxville, the density of the super strip mall, miles and miles of it, waned until we again reached large-scale commercial development on the outskirts of the city.  Images of some of the 819 restaurants—including 25 Chinese eateries and 25 barbeque joints—269 gift shops, 19 tattoo parlors and 12 Christmas outlets were burned into my mind.  What kind of crazy society would allow—and nourish—such a ridiculous manufactured landscape?  Current generations of Americans, as Bill McKibben has argued, are so conditioned by conspicuous material consumption that the Great Smoky Mountains, in a sense, are the anomaly on our landscape while Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are manifestations of our great desires.  “We have grown up in a culture so devoted to consumption—grown up so solid in the understanding that we define ourselves through certain patterns of consuming—that I doubt very much we can truly shake our conditioning.”[15]  The visitation patterns to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge show no signs of a trend of waning consumption.   But it is not the favorite landscape of all. 

Take Ashwin Dave, a quality control manager for Coca-Cola in Baton Rouge, La. After driving some 700 miles with his wife, Geeta, and their two children, he stopped in Gatlinburg to ask directions to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Our purpose isn’t to see artificial things, Mr. Dave said softly. “I can play miniature golf back home.”

Fifty years ago, Mr. Dave wouldn’t have had the choice to mini-golf in Gatlinburg, as retail outlets in the area numbered in the single digits.  The present orgy of tacky commerce was nowhere to be found.  As long as industry, commercialization, and other human degradation don’t overwhelm the national park, it will remain an attraction.  Even if pollution and other human impacts marginalize the park’s environmental quality, people will probably still come, according to McKibben.  “Our ability to shut the destroyed areas from our minds, to see beauty around man’s degradation, is considerable.”  Conservation is not a pressing concern if the imagination is able to continue to seek out natural beauty in different or selective places.

Back in Knoxville at the Tyson McGee airport, I waited for my flight back to Burlington, Vermont, reflecting upon the weekend’s activities while seated in a black vinyl chair.  I had thought that the Tennessee Volunteers football game against the Bulldogs of Georgia would be the most interesting event of the weekend excursion.  Little did I know that a several hour road trip would spark so much thought.  The Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge region is a peculiar place for its magnification of our cultural values.  Perhaps it is only a transient place, a strip of eclectic buildings and attractions that entice millions of tourists to the area, and I’d like to think that what will endure in American culture is not the desire to visit the From Russia With Love discount store but to find something redeemable in nature, regardless of whether or not that experience is from behind the windshield of a silver Volvo station wagon. 

Do you vacation to embrace or escape consumer culture?  Or both?  Is true wilderness intimidating to you?  Have you experienced any similar travel experiences to mine?

WORKS CITED

Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

Marshall, Bob. “Want to enjoy the Smokies? Take a hike; Part of experience is veering off the beaten path.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). 5-08-2002.

McDowell, Edwin. “Nature is Second Fiddle to Dolly’s Theme Park; Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Attracts Tourists and Money, as Well as Traffic Jams.” The New York Times. 8-14-1997, pg. D1

McKibben, Bill. “Consumption of Nature,” in Consuming Desires, edited by Roger Rosenblatt.  Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Anchor Books, 1999

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Escapism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Warren, Bob. “Let’s go to the Smokies.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). 7-06-2003, Travel section, pg. 1.

Bob Miller. Personal e-mail. 12-03-03

Great Smoky Mountains government homepage. http://www.nps.gov/grsm/pphtml/nature.html 12-2-03

Visitor Services Project: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Summer and Fall Report Summary (1996). http://data2.itc.nps.gov/parks/grsm/ppdocuments/survey.htm  12-03-03