From crushing distance to opening space - a meditation on speed and local consciousness
I drove south on Interstate 75 after dinner last night to help a friend with yard work some 29 miles from my home. We’re in the last days of August here in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and that only gave us a couple hours of useful daylight. However, that was no problem. With a relatively small amount of gasoline, I could use my car to cover that distance in a 40-minute drive, accomplish the tasks, and be home before my wife had fallen asleep.
But as the pavement blurred under my tires and the soft August air howled with hurricane force on the other side of the auto glass, this is the thought that occurred to me: I’m crushing distance with fossil fuel. I was suddenly filled with a sense of awe at what was really going on there, the terrific forces and amazing engineering involved in the feat, and both the exhilaration and the violent hubris of it. I’ve heard about longtime prisoners newly released, and how as car passengers they will sometimes grab the dashboard in a reflexive panic as the vehicle accelerates and the world warps around them with increasing velocity. For most of us, of course, it’s rather mundane. We forget, until we gawk at a twisted heap of metal in the ditch, what it is we’re really doing when we drive. And even then, are we really remembering, or do we just momentarily go dumb as the gears of cognitive dissonance grind in our heads?
With this revelation still fresh in my mind, and so many people in the Peak Oil / Climate Change / Transition community beating the drum of “relocalization,” I think it’s time to review the basics if we are really to awaken from the fossil fuel dream. Some friends and I were joking recently about people jetting in from all over the country to attend a relocalization conference, but underneath the humor is something even more worthy of our attention.
As we approach highway speeds in a motor vehicle, the terrain thus covered flattens out. This flattening happens in several ways, all of which are related in the subjective experience of speed. For one, the physical dimensionality of space itself is squished. The driver’s focus narrows down to a kind of tunnel vision, and the surrounding landscape becomes, in effect, the wall of the tunnel on which play images of things that progressively lose their reality in the mind of the speedy one. Second, the significance of our surroundings undergoes a parallel loss of depth as actual landscape features become mere symbols. Physical objects are actually always rich in meaning, but how could one explore that when one is passing them by at such a clip? With these two forces of compression at work, the net effect is that by crushing distance with fossil fuels, we flatten our experience of inhabiting space.
I am certain there are those who would deny this. There are also those who still argue for the educational value of television. Big picture, though, what we see in societies now several generations into watching screens is that the medium is indeed the message, and it is a physically pacifying one, incompatible in a half-dozen or more important ways with a healthy society. McLuhan’s contribution to discourse on communications media applies also to our various mediums of conveyance; the medium is the message not only for TV’s, but cars and jet aircraft as well.
Now, it’s true that we can open and experience space, and the spacious generosity of significances that flow from the living world, and still drive cars. Such reasoning does little to persuade me that the broad effects I’m seeing are not real. It’s a bit like climate change deniers who take a particular cold winter’s day as refutation of global warming. I would argue that on aggregate, the tradeoff of becoming a society inured to crushing distance with speed is a relentless pressure that flattens human experience in all its dimensions.
The grand experiment in overcoming the tyranny of locality by progressively extending our mobility with motors has landed us in but another kind of provincialism, with new fetters to replace the old, and feelings not of freedom but of frustration, servitude, impatience, and captivity seeming to predominate among motorists. And we don’t need to look to the social stratification and physical impediments that result from our collective motor mania as described by Ivan Illich to reach the conclusion that these things no longer serve their intended purposes, although these observations are persuasive enough. Nor do we have to look to the homogenization of the constructed landscape, as many other observers have noted, to conclude that for all our moving about, we Americans, in particular, seem not to wish to really go anywhere new, preferring the same predictable fast food places, stores, and motels from coast to coast.
But with these contributions to the discussion already logged and accounted for, I would narrow the focus to emphasize this: We do not really cease being drivers when we step from our vehicles. Like television, automobile travel strengthens some of the more pernicious habits of the egoic mind: positioning self as separate from the living environment, seeking to control experience by external means, and generally in many ways reaching for levers, pushing buttons, and forever seeking control. Bottom line: motor travel is addictive, and the effects of the addiction are likely to persist even if we can no longer afford to drive.
Assuming this is true, I would go further and suggest that consciousness shaped by the influence of speed may have difficulty with the very capacity that is most needful in relocalization: the ability to open space, or to put it another way, the ability to open to space, and thus actually inhabit a locality. Flatness becomes a habit of the mind, and so in every way we careen helplessly from image to image and word to word. The world becomes a magazine rack.
For Exhibit A, consider what passes for landscaping in car-centered, suburban USA: the flat expanses of green lawns extending from the street to the foundation plantings of geometrically-trimmed shrubbery, the lollipop trees set off by themselves. What is this, if not a place converted into a symbol, a symbol that moreover always seems to hover on the brink of having the last of its meaning wiped away like a film, leaving nothing at all? No wonder such places are seldom occupied by people – they are practically meaningless, flat, and devoid of experiential content. However, I suppose such designs do have the merit of offering no distractions for drivers whose endless forward plunge carries them by.
In communities with sidewalks and where pedestrian traffic is significant, by contrast, my experience is that the landscaping is almost always richer, more varied, more interesting, and more idiosyncratic in design. Space opens up in such places, and we are invited to slow down even further to appreciate it, thus coaxing yet more opening from it as we do, since as we open, things indeed open up to us. People occupy such spaces because they have meaning, and as they occupy those spaces, dimensions of significance, depths of feeling, and the richness of the physical environment grow in unison, encouraging human occupation, shared experiences, and growth.
All of which is to say something you might hear in any seminar on developing consciousness, whether the topic is Zen meditation, high-level business management, or tantric sex: slowing down matters.
Of course, it is also a little scary for many people to slow down enough to actually occupy and open space, which is perhaps an unacknowledged reason for the challenge of getting relocalizing efforts started while the current paradigm persists. One of the dimensions of experience that suffers in this cultural milieu is that of feeling and emotional depth; to slow down is to reacquaint one’s self with it. I take some comfort, however, in the knowledge that the process of rediscovering space can happen fairly quickly when circumstances slow us down, and what we will find there is likely something many people been feeling the absence of in their experience.
I used to drive a ’74 Volvo with then-new fuel injection technology, and on hot summer days sometimes the car would stall I would have to raise the hood to let the system cool off for a while before I could be on my way again. This happened once on I-94 and the rusty old vehicle happened to roll to a stop just outside my old hometown near a creek. Seeking refuge from the noise and heat of the expressway, I clambered down the embankment some distance away, sat down in the shade and cool soft grasses near the little watercourse, and looked up to see a kingfisher light upon a branch over the creek just overhead. I’d never seen one before. Although I was on my way to the wedding of a childhood friend, more than thirty years later that remains the most memorable event of the day.
So, it’s quite possible for space to start opening up for us, and very quickly, once we stop crushing distances with fuel. And fortunately, we weren’t born this way, so the path to our rehabilitation may be as simple as remembering. Children instinctively know how to open up and occupy space. As parents, we fight it, of course. Mystified by speed, our heads spinning like the wheels so often turning beneath us, we wonder why our children are so difficult to manage when they’re strapped into the car and the world goes by in an inaccessible blur. It really should be kind of obvious: as recent arrivals, children live to occupy and open space, and everything about the experience of motor travel militates against it. That the recent solution to this problem is another bad idea – mounting DVD players in the back seat to pacify the children and distract their minds – simply shows how insane our culture has become.
I have a photograph of my older daughter and niece in our back yard at about age 7. They are peering out from under a forsythia bush whose overgrown and arching branches conceals a hiding place they’ve outfitted with a kitchen and a bedroom, all made from sticks, leaves, and other yard debris, artfully arranged. The little girls had made a world in there—rich in meaning, full of feeling, and open to endless possibility. To the relocalization movement I offer this as an inspiration and a model. We don’t need to fly to a conference or drive ourselves crazy, we just need to slow down and play in our back yards.
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