For the past couple of days, my younger son and I have been trying to cure our nature-deficit disorder. Right now, I’m sitting in bed in a Bishop, California motel that, well, isn’t the Ritz. Matthew, who is 23, is still asleep, and deeply. A few hours ago we staggered across the clumped grass and mud along the Owens River, struggled to keep our balance as 40 mph gusts tangled our fly lines. We froze and sweated in the sleet as the snow line crept lower on the Sierra. Fishing was terrible, we were miserably cold, and perfectly happy.
A decade ago, the year the Twin Towers burned, Matthew was 13. That afternoon, I bundled him into the VW van and took him to this very place. His brother was off at college by then, otherwise I would have done the same with him. We fled from the great pain that would lead to greater pain, and drove the six hours from San Diego to the banks of the Owens River, and parked next to the current that washed out all the sound and all the fury. That night, inside the van, we flipped down the table and ate granola bars and drank hot chocolate and watched the window screens grow opaque with a late hatch of insects. And all the next day and the day after that, we cut the electrical cord to the outside trauma, and found a sense of equilibrium.
Recently, Sven Lindblad, who heads Lindblad Expeditions, which works in partnership with National Geographic, told me that, even as other cruise ship companies took a dive following 9/11, his ships, which focus exclusively on the wonders of nature – of the Galapagos, the Antarctic, and other points of interest – filled up with clients. In days following the trauma, families with children were especially drawn to the natural world, and he credits them with saving his business. One must acknowledge the inequity; the people of the drowned parishes of New Orleans or the irradiated mud fields of post-tsunami Japan found no solace in the natural world. Still, in dark times, one human impulse is to find kinship with other species.
At the saturation point, the rush of water on a trout stream is preferable to the inundation of media coverage that, hour after hour, only repeats itself, until our response to the pain on the screen seems to move beyond empathic to gratuitous. How much of our lives is spent adrift in vicarious experience, in second-hand reality: the pain of Libya brought to you by liquid cleansers. I have been a journalist for most of my life, so I understand that the professionals have an important job to do. We do need to know about world events and tragedies manmade and natural, but we also need respite from excessive media static that so often seems drained of reality.
In a virtual world where information overload is more accurately described as information underload, a little raw authenticity and gratitude can be a welcome relief. So perhaps some of us can be excused for escaping the bad news for a few hours or days, as we lean into the wind slashing across a stream, and see the trout begin to rise, and watch a Harrier Hawk glide close along the field, and on the long walk home step over the perfectly white bones of a cow that has not survived the winter, though we did, and not only survived but thrived.