Friday, April 13, 2012

Lonely for ...

So yesterday I get in the mail the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and it's a double dose of loneliness in one day. The Atlantic has an article called "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" while in the New Yorker it's "The Disconnect." I read these with interest, partly because I've been writing similar things about how we don't tell each other stories as much as we used to.

Even though I'm generally in the choir on these things, I can't help but notice something is missing, and it's the same thing I see missing from every prominent declaration of the new loneliness. Consider this quote from John Cacioppo, "the world’s leading expert on loneliness."
“Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need,” he writes. “But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.” The “real thing” being actual people, in the flesh. 
Wait: "the real thing" means people, and only people? Every non-human contact can only be a "surrogate" for human contact? Do these people realize what they are saying?

The human species has been around for at least a million years. Up to about a hundred years ago the majority of people were habitually conversant with the natural world, or, as it was then known, the world. If we redefine loneliness in terms of human contact only -- by saying we can only be considered lonely if we are lonely for people -- we risk ignoring a source of loneliness that might be even more powerful.

Imagine a world full of people, a world in which nobody is ever lonely ... for people. But in this new world it is possible to live an entire life without seeing one leaf, hearing one bird, touching one pebble, feeling one raindrop or gust of wind. If we can no longer be lonely for life itself, are we still alive?

The frog interview

I just got back from a social outing. Our pond is a frog pond, and it's getting to be time for the frogs to lay their eggs in the water. Every year I try to catch the frogs in the act of laying their eggs, and every year I miss the event and discover the egg sacs already there, anchored to branches under the water. So this afternoon, mindful of the time, I started out walking from the house.

Halfway there a red squirrel sounded the alarm: large animal coming! But this guy didn't just sound the alarm: they never do. He conversed with me. He stared straight at me, chittering, stamping, running up and down the tree, defying me to come closer. To each move I made he responded, escalating the tension. Finally I moved away (toward the pond, where I was going in the first place) and he sounded a triumphant call. I've been accosted thus by many a proud squirrel, and I defy you to say they intend nothing communicative by it. When we started on our project to build a playhouse a few years ago, I was leveling the space and laying out concrete blocks for the foundation when a squirrel came within a few feet of my face and delivered a five-minute lecture on the proper occupation of space in the forest. I listened with respect, and I have recalled that lecture many a time as I made sure our construction avoided presenting any hazards to our neighbors in that part of the woods.

Getting back to today. As I approached the pond I could hear the frogs going at it: a complicated chorus of calls was sounding back and forth as they negotiated the deposition of eggs and sperm into the right places. I was excited to have gotten closer than ever to the event of egg laying. I stood for a long time just listening. I could see little ripples on the pond where the frogs were dancing together; but I wanted to see more. I tried to advance quietly, but of course they heard me and stopped singing. I knew what to do next. I walked up quickly and sat down in my pond-watching spot, ready to participate in the frog interview. Time passed. A different squirrel started up a different confrontation, not towards me but towards some other ne'er-do-well, perhaps a deer, off somewhere past the pond. Flies buzzed around. Trees sung songs.

At some point I realized the interview had begun. A frog had swum up right in front of me and was staring directly at me. Now we began the formal process. I knew that I was to prove myself by remaining stock still for as long as was required; meaning, until the frog moved. Frogs are the absolute masters of stock-still, so I knew the challenge was difficult. The first frog that came up was a young, small one. After a relatively short staring session it swam off, apparently satisfied with my performance. Then a larger, more authoritative frog swam up and began the stare. This time I simply could not make it. Three times I tried and three times I failed. My fingers got numb, or my toe got jammed into my boot tip, and I simply had to move. The interviewing frog immediately spun around in the water and disappeared: interview over. By the way, to the uninitiated the interviewing frog would have seemed to be doing nothing but floating in the water, seemingly dead or unconscious. When the wind moved the water the frog moved with it like a floating twig. But I noticed that no matter which way the wind blew, the frog carefully and subtly bent its body so that its eyes never strayed from mine. During these three failed interviews I could see other frogs off across the pond, waiting and watching to see how the interview would turn out. A few times they even started up with a few hesitant croaks, but the interviewer declined to respond with an all-clear, so they continued to wait. Finally, sensing their rising impatience with my ineptitude, I rose to leave. I'll come back tomorrow, ready to try again.

I don't blame the frogs for being suspicious; I've seen what happens to them. Every year there are millions and millions of tadpoles. You can pick them up and run them through your fingers. Later in the year the numbers thin to thousands, and a year later there can't be more than twenty or thirty frogs in the pond. Some of them go elsewhere: we find the travelers roaming about looking for new ponds to settle, and sometimes give them a lift across a dry spot. But many must be eaten. That's another event I've wanted to see. I'm sure some kinds of birds must eat the tadpoles, and I've come to the pond at the time when this should be happening, but I always miss it. I see birds coming and drinking, but never dining. To cross that boundary I must surely endure additional interviews of an even more demanding nature.

I defy anyone to claim that the social experience I just described contains nothing but "surrogate" forms of sociality. For nearly the entire run of human existence, interacting only with other human beings has been an aberration, a deadness, a loss: loneliness.

Strange games

Here's Henry David Thoreau in Walden:
You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns. 
Later he describes a game of tag he played with a loon that sounds a lot like my frog interview.
He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he coolly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.
I'll bet you twenty dollars that when Thoreau wrote that, any random person would have had a dozen stories to tell just like it in response. Not so today. But nobody ever says anything about that kind of loneliness.

You may have seen news articles about a man named Robert Biggs, who claims to have been saved from an attack by a mountain lion ... by a bear. A wild bear. According to Mr. Biggs, he had known the bear for a long time, having hiked the same trail for decades. He believes the bear saved him because it knew him and considered him a friend. There have been documented cases of wild animals helping people before, mostly dolphins and apes; so while I can't possibly know what happened to Mr. Biggs I concede the possibility. What I find amazing about this story, though, is the nasty tone of the many deriding comments about it. Here are a few fairly representative comments:
This is a really cool story. But he left out the part aliens fought off the bear before he time travelled from la la land.
So he was attacked by a duck, and a rabbit saved him? I don’t blame him for embellishing, the last time I was attacked by a duck I had to use martial arts. They are blood thirsty.

If I ran across a mountain lion and a bear, I would use my secret Dim Muk Kung Fu moves to immobilize them for 30 minutes with my deadly one finger touch. 
One thing I've noticed about the comments on this story are that many of them involve fantastic or gaming elements: aliens, magic, mind-altering substances. The idea of interacting with wild animals is evidently so far outside of "normal human" experience that people have to refer to things they know better: movies and computer games. As a visiting kid said one time while we splashed in our local river, "This is just like a movie!" High praise indeed.

Visitors in our own world

The stories of my frog interview, Thoreau's loon game and Mr. Bigg's bear all contrast with the presentation of nature I see in campaigns imploring people to "visit" and "see" nature. Have you noticed those ubiquitous posters in which children stare wide-eyed at butterflies? Have you noticed that the children are never doing anything? It's almost as if nature has turned into a museum of nature, an abstraction of itself, an idea without a reality. People who "visit" nature expect to see things, and they might even hope to see things happen, but they don't expect to have things happen to them.

Even though I grew up in the country and should know better, I have found this nature-as-theatre idea taking root in my own expectations. I find myself constantly surprised to discover that nature doesn't just sit there as I watch it. It jumps up and plays with me. Squirrels chastise me, birds surround me, hawks survey me, deer watch me, grouse fly from me (from me!), bears assess my motivations. I can't stand back and watch: I'm drawn in, engaged, included. It's not a zoo, it's a world. It's the world. It is the same world as it was before. The only change is that we have somehow got the idea that we don't belong here anymore, that we are visitors in our own world. It's no wonder we are lonely.

People say people are lonely, and they think people are lonely for other people. But what if people are lonely for more than just people? What if they are lonely for life itself? And what if life is lonely for us, and misses us?

Which is worse: the loss of the gift you miss, or the loss of the gift you have forgotten you ever had?

P.S. David Abram's book The Spell of the Sensuous says much of what I said here, and better too.

P.P.S. Having finished this post, I went to have dinner and noticed my copy of The Atlantic sitting open to the picture for the article "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Guess what the picture shows. It's a man and woman holding hands while looking away from each other at computer tablets. But look beyond the man and woman. Guess what they are standing in. Are they in a yard? In a forest? On a hill? Near the sea? Nope. They are in an empty space, blank, devoid of all life. Seems pretty lonely to me, people or no people.

P.P.P.S. The next morning this post sounds all show-off-y, holier-than-thou, I have a pond and you don't. But you don't have to live in the woods to reconnect to life. The world is so lonely for us that even a little potted plant will be your friend if you let it. My favorite cartoon of all time (surpassing even the Far Side explanation of dinosaur extinction) is one I saved from a newspaper a long time ago. It showed a very old man sitting on a bench in a giant concrete city, conversing happily with a tiny flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk. Nature is good company.


Anonymous said...

I fairly recently started living on my own again and found a few spiders in the house - they sprinkle themselves offline around the physical spaces and do their thing. It is familiar story but they do seem to make a nice analogy for some of the online connectiveness and self-architecture where they choose the geometric shape of how walls, corners, beams become connected in seconds with webs.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Anonymous commenter, thank you so much for your insightful comment! My first thought when I read it was, online connectiveness makes a nice analogy for spiderwebs! They got there first and deserve the merit of first place. A question: if the world had no spiderwebs in it, would we have built the internet?

Also: I used to think the spiders in my house were a sort of natural overlay, an ongoing nature program having nothing to do with me. Then I realized that the spiders WERE interacting with me, only I was too blind to notice it. Try this: take a bowl of old fruit and put it somewhere in your kitchen. Fruit flies will gather around it, and spiderwebs will gather around the fruit flies. Are the spiders paying attention to what you do? Of course they are. Do they build webs where you sit? Of course they don't. They know all about you and your habits. There is nothing strange about that. What's strange is that we have forgotten it happens. It's almost like people think they are living on some kind of virtual overlay layer that lies against yet separated from the world, which is now called not "the world" but "the natural world." Strange.

At least that's the way it seems to curmudgeonly me. When I talk to people about the weather these days, they talk about rain like it's a nuisance, even in the middle of a drought. I say what about this weather? And they say, yeah, hope it's sunny today; I'm planning to go out on the boat. And I say but we desperately need rain! And they say, we do? To their minds, "we" is people using machines, and people using machines never need rain. The idea that "we" includes the dry ground and the thirsty plants seems to be dying out. Strange. Hopefully I'm just over-reacting. :-)

Thanks again for the conversation!


Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for replying. That is so true about spiders being aware of us and our habits. When I went away for a few days recently, I finally got to the point where I had faffed around with packing and taking everything down to the door. And one spider suddenly springs out and goes racing up the wall in the opposite direction as I was going down the stairs - it seemed to know I was going and it was going to have the house to itself and its friends/relatives.

That's a brilliant point re internet and spider webs, I don't think we would, I wonder who made the initial connection - maybe there's something for a future internet or whatever it's going to be that is nothing to do with webs at all.

I'm reading An Ancestor's Tale at the moment and got to a point where we've gone back past chimps, gorillas and now at an ancient rabbit and we're shortly heading back towards birds, so I don't know how we think we have become so separated from everything either when we seem to be a part of so many species.

We talk about trips where we get reconnected and grounded, but our understanding of gravity has us pinned down anyway. It is strange talking about the natural world as if it was something different - tv maybe helps shape that too - I remember a natural world series being on since I was a child. Machines are boxy - getting into a box and going in a series of lines and getting out of a box into another box - it's very odd how we have imposed some kind of linear order on everything around us.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Wow, a conversation! Glad you replied, anonymous. Have just ordered Ancestor's Tale, which sounds fascinating.

Another thing you might find interesting is the "carpentered world hypothesis" and the Mueller-Lyer illusion. Here is an interesting lecture on the topic:

I find this sort of thing makes me rethink everything. If even the way things appear to the "unaided eye" has been changed by (as you so well put it) the boxes and lines we get into and travel on, what are we now? And what are we becoming?

I also found (in looking for the carpentered thing) the work of Sue Thomas, which seems related and also fascinating.

I like how she said (somewhere on her blog) that technology and nature can be synergistic rather than at odds. I'm all for that. It also reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin's book _Always Coming Home_ which makes a related point.

Thanks for chatting ;)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful links. I hadn't heard of the hypothesis before. My ex was a great carpenter, I remember he used to help build yachts at one point and he had to do a lot of bathrooms because many colleagues found them difficult - they could use saws to make rounded cuts but fitting them was down to perception and angles.

I liked this Grand Designs show , about Ben Law

I only recently discovered biophilic design from this video (

Going to read Ursula LeGuin's book - sounds a perfect autumn read,

Thank you again

Cynthia Kurtz said...

The "biophilic design" video is amazing. Thanks for that link. At first I was confusing "biophilia" with "biomimicry" which, to my mind, is somewhat mistaken. The stuff I've seen on biomimicry seems to take only a few bits of what nature does and translate into something much less natural. Biophilia, on the other hand, is more complementary than extractive.

I could not watch the Grand Designs video in the link you sent (not available in your country) but found it on vimeo here: It is so VERY good that I had to stop watching it so I can share it with my son. We have been building our own small playhouse in the woods for years (a bit each year), but this makes me want to start all over again with logs rather than "dimension" lumber. I'll just queue up another five-year project ;)

As to the ability to work with rounded (real) wood, my guess is that this is another of the skills people have lost without knowing it (some more than others). I have a new dream vacation: to help build a house with Ben Law. (Curious, I looked up his Prickly Nut Wood and found it's ten acres. Apparently that is a large plot for the UK, because our 15 acres is an embarrassingly small plot around here. Most of my neighbors have 50-100+ acres. I wanted 100 acres but on our budget could either get that or a house. My husband, to his credit, said let's live in a tent, but I said I need a kitchen. I wish I'd gone for the tent and built THAT house!)

Thanks again for the great info! Tell your spiders hello for me!