Last week my partner described to me a phenomenon that seems to have totally passed me by. The Pokemon Go thing. I am still unsure what kind of “thing” you’d call it. A game? A challenge? A way of life?
Anyway, just in case you too are living under a rock, Pokemon Go overlays the real world with a virtual world of Pokemon characters that you go about finding. You look at this world through your mobile phone and see how many characters you can find. It has been hailed as an amazing invention that has got people out of the confines of their homes and on to the streets. Walking. Which is indeed amazing. Because as I recently explained, I love walking. And anything that gets people outside, especially in the colder months of the year has got my tick of approval. And you know how reputable that is.
But it also makes me feel a bit queasy and a bit sad. And then I feel a bit mum-ish, with my old-fashioned ideas of good wholesome fun.
Because I wonder if we have truly forgotten how to be outside without all our trappings of technology? I can’t go on the five minute walk to get milk without wanting to put headphones over my ears to listen to a podcast or music. And when I do that, I miss out on the sounds of life going on around me–the seagulls attacking rubbish bins, neighbours arguing, wind blowing through chimes in a garden, cars zooming too fast around a corner. Some of this aural information is beautiful or astounding, some is critical to my safety, and some is important to my belonging well to society. But how will I make that decision and respond appropriately if my ears are covered and my brain is prioritising extraneous stuff?
Then I think of my 4-year-old who manages to find enough conkers to fill his pockets (and then the washing machine). We were traveling home on the bus last week, and all of a sudden he exclaimed: “BEEEEEEAUUUUTIFUUUUL!” and pointed to the west. Roughly twenty pairs of eyes lifted from their smart phones and turned to see the orange and pink sky flickering in the gaps between buildings. To think we all might have missed out on that because we were gazing at our phones.
Obviously, when we are looking at our screens, we are not seeing the world around us. And when we can’t see our world, I worry it starts to disappear. By which I mean, that when we don’t see it, we lose our ability to find words for it. And, as Robert MacFarlane has described in his recent book Landmarks, when we lose our vocabulary for nature then we stop seeing it. When we stop seeing it, we stop communicating about it, and it thus it spirals out of our imaginations and out of existence.
We also lose a part of ourselves. When we are not seeing or hearing (nor touching or smelling, for that matter) the world around us, we don’t filter information and make decisions accordingly, as our ancestors have done for thousands of years before us. I wonder how many Pokemon Go-ers have stepped in dogshit as they navigate our poop-ed pavements with a screen in front of their faces? We trip over the edges of pavers lifted slightly by linden tree roots, and, as in my neighbourhood, the trees are cut down and replaced with something less offensive, less grand. And our urban environment becomes a little less interesting, a little less worth keeping our eyes open for. When really, these interesting surfaces and moments remind the human body how to be a well body. Our environment literally shapes our bodies, as we shape it.
I have lived in beautiful and dynamic places and I have lived in, well, less obviously beautiful and dynamic places. But to be sure, we can find nature and beauty in any environment. And whether or not we perceive it, it impacts us on many levels. But we have to get out in the world. This is why it is important to walk without–and with, if we really must–our devices and our Pokemon Go.
In the end, I am fairly certain that Nature will have her way with us, one way or another. If we are around for this eventuality, I like to think that some of us might be mindfully present for it. Hopefully, for the rest of us, our sensory systems will have adapted sufficiently so that, device in hand, we can safely navigate the world around us. Which I hope looks a little like these places.