The Platform of Nature
Prior to the industrial revolution, and especially prior to discovery of electricity, a person's life was lived within the confined space of their village. Social experience happened within the community of family and neighbors. People would gather in their homes, around the backyard fence, in church and community pot-luck dinners. Their world was small and confined to the close proximity of their town.
My grandfather once told me that the most significant invention he saw in his 94 years of life was the radio, because it opened up the world beyond the small town where he grew up. Listening to what was happening in Europe gave him the idea decades later to take my father to Paris on an American Legion trip. The medium of radio opened up the world to my grandfather, and the impact was felt by my father and later by me and my sisters.
This experience of openness to the world beyond that which we can walk or ride on the back of a horse in day is new in human history. While the radio began this trend, its technology matured into what today we know as computers and the interwebs. This has changed us socially, and it has changed how we relate to the natural world.
Ms. Tippett: ... Marilynne, you grew up in Idaho, which you describe ... as a place of more austere but intense beauty. ... how do you trace the roots of your sense of mystery ... as something that came to be an animating force for you as a novelist and a writer.
Ms. Robinson: Well, my grandparents had a house in the mountains not terribly far from where I lived. It was in the western side of the Rocky Mountains, near Canada, and the proportion, or the disproportion, of nature on the one hand and human settlement on the other was really striking. I mean, even — as a child I grew up with the idea that human beings were a fairly trivial presence in the environment and that the mountains, you could hear them all the time. You could smell them. There was pine in the air or snow or whatever.
My grandparents had a house built actually by my great-grandparents, which was modern by the standards of the late 19th century and so it had a sleeping porch. You were supposed to sleep out there so that you wouldn't get tuberculosis. There was no ambient light. And it was amazing because at night you would hear the mountains. You would hear coyotes, you know, and there was no other light. There was no sense of human presence aside from my grandparents' house. (Emphasis mine.)
Robinson's description of her childhood experience with the "platform" of the Idahoan mountains points to how a place or a setting or an environment affects our sense of who we are and our sense of meaning and purpose.
As seen in Robinson's story, in the past there was a clear distinction between people and the natural world. It gave proportion to the place that a human being fits into the natural world.
For me, riding on the back of a horse in the wilderness south of the Yellowstone border gives me a sense of my smallness in the midst of the vast grandeur of nature. It does not diminish me as a person, but provides perspective to see that I am not the center of the universe. Proportion is an important perspective to have. It can open us up to a much larger, wider world, if we choose to see it that way.
This sense of proportion is not limited to those of us who love the mountains. It is also a product of immersion in the life of the sea. My friend and colleague David Pu'u is a man of the water. I've learned much about life from his life-long love of the ocean. I've come down from my vantage point in the mountains to join him and the circle of surfers, artists and scientists involved in the Ocean Lovers Collective. When I asked David to describe the impact of the ocean as a platform, in the way that Robinson speaks of the mountains, he directed me to this video that he produced several years ago. It captures what I was seeking.
When Nature is a platform, like any social or organizational structure is a platform, it influences what we value and desire. Or in the words of James K A Smith, what we love. To live in nature is to love it, but not in the abstract sense of love, but in the deeper sense of understanding, of respect, and of a relationship that requires listening and giving.
To live outside in the natural world is to experience something different than what one feels driving through a natural setting in an automobile.
Traveling through the NorthWest Frontier Province of Pakistan in 1981, our experience walking was quite different than riding in a Jeep. Walking, we encountered people. We saw little things along the road that we would have missed. And without the noise of the engine, we could here the wind and the sound of the water rushing down from the glaciers that we passed.
Humans in Nature
Some of my perspective has been formed by German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg who wrote that human beings were the most physically vulnerable and the most intellectually creative of all animals. To survive the physical harshness of nature, human beings had to use the creativity of their minds to develop clothing, shelter, tools and sustainable food sources. This human vulnerability was true throughout the pre-modern era, before electricity, in-door plumbing and central air-conditioning. And away from the technology that we've developed to support human existence, we are still the most physically vulnerable.
In earlier times, people understood that life was fragile, and depended upon others for support and safety. Creativity was not just in creating tools for survival, but also social structures to support human existence.
Victor Davis Hanson writes about how the cities of ancient Greece grew up as a place for agrarian farmers to gather to sell their crops and support one another.
The material prosperity that created the network of Greek city states resulted from small-scale, intensive working of the soil, a complete rethinking of the way Greeks produced food and owned land, and the emergence of a new sort of person for whom work was not merely a means of subsistence or profit but an ennobling way of life.... The wider institutions of ancient Greece --military, social, political--embodied the subsequent efforts of these small farmers to protect their hard won gain....The original Greek polis is best understood as an exclusive and yet egalitarian community of farmers...."
In the pre-modern world, the land was the platform for civilization. Today, the virtual world of electrons, bits and bytes and social media is that platform.
In the next post in this series, I'll look at how technology has changed the experience that we have. And look at the mediating role that the various platforms of technology and human institutions, like social media, have upon us. And how these platforms affect the formation of our human desires for meaning, for companionship and our ambition to create impact as human beings.