Summer 2011
what does your digital self look like?

I raced home to toss together the ceviche. Sure, meeting up at a potluck wasn’t quite the same as the concert date I had envisioned. But, it’s a start, right? Pity no one told me to prepare for a) being ignored by my host all night in a room full of strangers and b) for her being there with another man.

Let’s face it: the odds are not good. If you believe that there is only one person out there that is your true love, this is worse than finding a needle in a haystack. There are almost 7 billion people in the world. And they speak over 6,000 languages. Even if you and your mate are tri-lingual geniuses, the odds of sharing a tongue are slim. And what about age? What are the chances that you and your mate would even find each other?

Even if we allow for there to be many great mates out there for each person, what are the chances of running into the best matches in your own city? How many people do you meet every day? 10? 15? 25? (Stud!) Maybe you meet a few hundred people every year. And there are how many people in your city? 1 million? 2 million? Do you like those odds 500:1,000,000? Wouldn’t you want to up the odds a little, get some help browsing through all the possibilities, and extending your network beyond your school, your work, your friends, and friends-of-friends. I know I would.

Ten minutes after the time we had agreed to meet, I got a text: Can we go somewhere else instead? I’d already grabbed a drink, but wasn’t worried. I’d enjoy my $12 cocktail and then meet her somewhere else. I sent a quick response, surrendered the empty stool next to me that I had been guarding, and turned back to my drink. Only for her to arrive a minute later and have our first meeting awkwardly pass as she impatiently stood behind me while I guzzled and grabbed the check.

Romance is supposed to be an art form. Passion. Energy. Electricity. Chemistry. Yet, there’s nothing sexy about trolling bars for hook-ups or blind dates with a coworker’s roommate. Nor is there in the prospect of online dating. Let’s be honest, this is an equation (or maybe a game) and you have to figure out how it works. Tweak the inputs, alter the process, toss in a few buzz words, take a few more photos… You’ve got to not only find the right match for you — you also have to be right for them. You’ve got to attract and woo them with text messages and “winks ” and “flirts ” and superficial chatting. Help, please! Search engine optimization and marketing consulting never sounded so sexy.

Meeting at 6pm was tough, since I had to race home for a quick shower before heading out. Still drying off, I saw the message: Can’t make it tonight. Worried about the snow… Had it started snowing while I had frantically been getting clean? Nope, and there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky.

Some may fear the techno-pocalypse, as we become ever more dependent upon our phones, computers, robots. To them, online dating is the next step in the demise of human culture. “Turn the fate of our love life, our hearts, our emotional well-being over to algorithms? Crazy!” But think about this: even if it is an evil, self-interested computer running these sites, it’s still going to work out for you. The site’s success is entirely dependent on you finding a true match.

There will always be a demand for love and matching. There will always be a steady stream of customers. But, today’s customers will only come to your site if people are having success there — if people are finding matches, if they no longer need the site. So, even if online dating is a plan for eventual world domination hatched by robots, it still wants you to have a hot date. Pretty much a win-win.

Smiles, laughter, and hugs on the first date? Check. Hours-long conversations about anything and everything over the next few meetings? Check. Wondering whether I should start adding her to one side of the leave-for-New-York vs. stay-in-Seattle equation? Check. Listening to her explain that she didn’t really want to be dating anyone and wasn’t sure why she had a profile in the first place? Check. Wait … what?!?

Sure, it’s been a bumpy road so far, but I can’t give up yet. Any new technology takes a little while to get used to. Would you expect to tie your hover-shoes with your bionic arm on the first try? No. And anyone who says they were like Lance Armstrong the first time they jumped on a bike is an asshole.

It takes time, but it’ll be worth it. Online dating is like a futuristic ice cream machine that has the ability to make any flavor you could imagine. All you have to do is type in a 4-digit code. Problem is, it didn’t come with a manual, just told you 0001 is chocolate and 0002 is vanilla. Now you’re left playing trial-and-error. 3958? Cookie dough, damn. 5869? Coffee, shit. 4857? 0192? 5867?… Eventually you’ll find your mint chocolate cookie, it just may take a few hundred failed concoctions first.

I had a crush. He was a bearded Slovenian, notably disheveled usually. He would never know my name, but I read his work with the thrill of knowing I was too far out, over my head, getting in on a secret I didn’t yet understand. When he came to speak at Powell’s, my god what a thrill. I now know a bit more: what it would have been like at ages 11 or 12, front and center, Back Street Boys Into the Millennium Tour. Enter fanboy.

He fidgeted and spouted, filling the air with intricate, babbling theory, with confident paranoia, with dirty Balkan jokes (How does a Montenegrin masturbate? He digs a hole and waits for an earthquake). We listened, almost comprehending, like infants used to Motherese talking to an unbending father. Children in the audience tried to ask questions, parroting His difficult language, but not quite breaking through. I wanted to tell Him: write everyday write down every thought that crosses your mind write and send it to me. I wanted to be closer to Him, my philosopher.

What could have made me happier than the day I found His Twitter: @[He]speaks. A digital window! An extended hand! A place to just check in once in a while (everyday). It was all there: endless references, his favorite youtube videos, heady banter: I fed off it. Maybe I should have known what would come next. After all, his last book jacket showed him seated before a mirror that reflected only the chair. The book’s title: [He] does not exist.

I was still sighing over a particularly charming post, “Writing an essay on the potato, the first postmodern vegetable.” when something went wrong. We were back where we started, it was all beyond me: the curt message from Twitter, the standard robin’s egg background, that’s all there was. Oh and the bird, that infuriating bird, that unwelcome, unspeakable, tweeting little bird.
``When I heard the sound of the bell ringing, there was no I, and no bell, just the ringing."

I'm writing this piece with my toes in brilliant white sand.  I'm on a flawless beach in Thailand, with a noisy jungle to the back and overhanging limestone cliffs to the sides.  My netbook is picking up five bars of wireless internet.  

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In January 2011, Barack Obama declared that internet access is a fundamental human right.  Also in January, students in Tunisia and Egypt, using cell phones and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, started political revolutions.  These revolutions have been successful, and have spread to other dictatorships in the Middle East.  In February, Egypt's President Mubarak shut down some cell and internet service, in an attempt to interfere with the protesters’ ability to organize.  But it was too late.

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In Thailand, I've been working on math research for my PhD, averaging 35 hours of research each week.  Today I'm posting and reading questions on the forum Math Overflow; I'm emailing and fleshing out a wiki that some U.S. west-coast grad students and I are using to organize a summer school in August; I've downloaded some articles to read later.  In a few days, I'll video chat with my PhD advisor, using a meeting room that allows us to share screens as we pore over my uploaded notes.  And I do all this with my toes in the sand.  Most of my research is done with a pen and notebook, but mathematical concepts are so interconnected, and the practitioners so interdependent, that without internet resources I would get nowhere.  

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Cell phones and Facebook accomplished in Egypt what $400+ billion dollars of American meddling  could not accomplish in Iraq.  Empowered citizens took control of their own destiny, and brought about revolution by the people and for the people.

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This beach, Railay,with more of a tourist presence , has a few beachside restaurants with free wifi.  But I'm staying on the next beach down, Tonsai.  Both beaches can be reached only by boat from the mainland.  There are no cars or hot showers.  On Tonsai, accommodation is in jungle treehouses or thatch beach bungalows, visited nightly by monkeys or iguanas, respectively.  We get electricity, from a generator, only between 6pm and 6am.  There are a handful of restaurants serving spicy Thai food and fresh fruit smoothies.  My only expenses are food and lodging, and these add up to about $12 each day.  I'm very happy.

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A recent Wired article interviews John Arquilla, a leading military futurist, discussing the tremendous political power that internet access affords both a citizenry and a ruler.  In the Egyptian example, the US military considered several covert options that would've restored connectivity to the Egyptian protesters.

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Tonsai supports a small international colony of rock climbers.  People come from all over (I've counted over 20 countries...), and stay for months.  We climb on cliffs by the beach, climb up through caves, climb over 50-foot stalactites that are growing stalagmites that are growing stalactites, climb over deep water without ropes and jump in.  The rock is white, black, red, orange, and green.

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For example, suppose you have been using cell phones, Twitter and Facebook to organize your revolution - planning protest logistics, spreading the word, checking in with co-conspirators.  But the ruthless dictator then pulls the plug, and you become disconnected and helpless.  

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Every day, a few climbers make a pilgrimage from Tonsai to Railay, to sit down with their electronics and bask in the invisible waves.   This 20-minute hike consists of scrambling over a rocky and slippery headland, or, if you're lucky and it's low tide, wading around

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But then, suddenly, your cell phone beeps to life.  Your smartphone has full 3G coverage, and starts receiving texts and updating your status.  Even the GPS works.  In fifteen minutes, you've had enough time to do your part in moving the revolution forward.  A triad of unmanned drone planes has been flying low, circling above you.  On their bellies are high-power antennae that beam down wireless coverage.  The planes move on, and again you are disconnected.  But not for long. From Moldova and Iran to Egypt and Tunisia, these new-school revolutions require reception, not guns and tanks.

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The mathematician, the climber, the revolutionary - all practice a solitary art, and all are dependent on the thin threads .

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Wahnoh oh wahn oh 1998 dialing in

In a house of glass with tint inverted
Esc now, leave the desk deserted.
A new car wreck leaks a decrepit crescent,
Another warm war: East, reshape our present.

Wahnoh oh wahn oh 2010 waiting …

#Change again! Leave nothing the same.
Rocks to the panes but keep the frames
Refill now the broken spaces,
Deliver me those silhouette faces!

Wahnoh oh whan oh 2011 connected

We glisten underneath the marbled rays
of sunshine-scattered currents pushing us,
together synced in a unique display,
emboldened by the drive to coalesce.
For bound are we into a vibrant one,
that amplifies what’s hidden deep within
and razes self, no longer mothers’ sons.
Displays of gall and might today begin.

But in a sly, macabre plot, I fear.
Today, tomorrow, swarmed from right and left,
Escape, I wish. I’m told to persevere.
The taunts, the lies perform a nimble theft
of heart, of spirit, essence–I’m adrift.
Oh, Poke me till I bleed: a twisted gift.

Welcome to Minecraft Beta, a multi-player web browser video game that lets you join with friends and family from anywhere on the globe to build your virtual collective world. My brother bought me a gift code to the game for Christmas, which gives me access to his and his friends’ server.

He walks me through their kingdom-of-sorts. It all starts with harvesting trees and mining cobblestone, and a special thing called a crafting chest, which allows you to mix basic materials in specific patterns to create more complex tools or materials. From theses first resources available for use, my brother has somehow created an elaborate glass house with large pieces of framed artwork and an indoor vegetable garden. The more you create, the more you can harvest and the more you harvest, the more you can create. Basic materials combine and form tools and tools help you harvest previously un-harvestable items. You can also harvest fire and use heat as the catalyst for creation.

My brother leads me through an adjoining room, where he has built a museum to showcase the items one can make in the game (the display wall seems infinitely long). On the opposite wall he has painted a rainbow. His friend Mario, who built a castle, is his closest neighbor and together they constructed a long, narrow stone bridge that joins their two homes. Of course, no game would be complete without a dark element to provide a little danger. Chris, who has just joined the tour, reminds me to beware of the zombie monsters that come out at nightfall.

Minecraft sets a framework where social organization must be choreographed, regardless of the level of intention. I asked my brother a series of questions to find out how his world actualizes that organization:

Are there any distinctly community structures?

We built a “safe house” that people can stay in when they first come to life. It provides shelter from the monsters at night and has a stash of basic living supplies. A path of torches leads you from the spot where you first generate to the door of the house. I also built a giant roller coaster that stretches from the top of a mountain and winds around the land. Anyone can ride it if they have a friend to give them a push at the start.

Do you ever build projects at the same time?

Everyone’s schedule is different, so it’s difficult to be in the world at the same time. Usually, you’ll just log on and see what others have done in your absence. Consequently, there aren’t many structures that we build collectively, although Chris and I recently started building a collection of skyscrapers together. Maybe verbal communication would help, but it’s hard to communicate with only text chatting. Not everyone agrees on details and aesthetics either, so people usually avoid a potentially hairy situation.

Does your group have a forum?

We send text messages before we are about to play to see if the other person can meet us in the world. We also leave short notes in each other’s homes.

Do you share resources? Do you have a collective resource storage area?

We initially had public chests of resources, but it was hard to remember to fill it, so they often ended up empty. We built them so people who weren’t prepared could have basic living supplies in emergency situations. That fell by the wayside, but it’s an understood rule that everyone’s personal stash in their home is open to anyone. For rare items it’s courtesy to ask or to leave an “IOU” note by the chest().

Is there a decision-by-consensus approach to new structures?

Right now Chris and I are collaborating on building a collection of skyscrapers, which took some planning, but usually no, and it’s caused problems in the past. One time, my friend built a giant monster-harvesting machine in the sky(), but he unknowingly built it over Mario’s house, which caused a deep shadow to fall on the property. Monsters materialized in this darkness and roamed the property, and trees couldn’t grow. Both individuals refused to destroy their creations, and for a while Mario stubbornly lived in perpetual danger. He eventually left and started building a castle, but it caused some drama for a bit.

Monsters and roller coasters aside, this virtual world resembles the idealistic musings my friends and I have about forming an intentional community. I have always been fascinated by all things civic, the dynamic that occurs when individual minds come together to create something beyond any one person’s potential and the social organization that must take place. This game offers many of these possibilities for collective investment in a shared community ideal, for creating through combined efforts by like-minded individuals. Minecraft accesses a deeply buried and very real desire we all share about communal living.

I play because I get to participate in this vision, and because I can spend time with my brother, who lives 2,000 miles away, and the friends we grew up with that are scattered across the nation. Although there is nothing tactile about our interactions, my mind fills in the gaps from past memories: he might have cat hair on his clothes or smell like grilling meats. These projected memories are satisfactory and there are enough outlets in the game for individual idiosyncrasies to be expressed. All in all, I can run around this virtual world with a semblance of a brother. His friends’ personalities are likewise accurately portrayed by their creations in this game that offers limitless creative potential.

Clear plastic lenses
sit in my myopic eyes
hidden in plain sight

My family was okay
but TVA shut the nuclear plant down.
The tsunami in Japan was too recent
to take chances with such things.
The region will be out of power for five to ten days.

I looked up their local news online
it seemed like the damage was on the North side of town.
I worried a little, anyways.
My parents were both at work that day.

No phone towers connected us,
even the land line didn’t work.

I finally thought to call my sister’s fiancé
to make sure they were alive.
He lives far away.
They are constantly updating one another.
If she could call anyone it would be him.

She finally called me the weekend after the storms,
in Atlanta coaching volleyball
and glad to have service and power again.
Being without the internet was hard.

She tells everyone that I am
the most independent person she knows.
There are undertones:
I left the place we grew up, she chose to stay.

“Is it not good enough for me?”
No, the place is not,
but that doesn’t mean that they are not.
A distinction.

We all stay in touch, in our own ways:
Mom and I talk on the phone.
I call her when I am going on walks.
Dad and I stay connected through Flickr
and short emails.

I have a website for photos and essays.
The posts give them a sense of our life here,
our climbing trips and projects and books.
We often jump in
right to the heart of the conversation.

When the tornadoes came
and the cords connecting all of us
went away temporarily
my heart was tender.

The knowledge that we couldn’t connect
anytime we felt like it:
that knowledge was visceral.
A loss that it was hard to anticipate
until it happened.

Like New Yorkers who need to know
that anything and everything is happening nearby,
even on nights they have take out and stay in,
I am able to live far from my family.

Any screen will connect us, any time.

nothing is sacred
and fear?
read about it in a magazine
slippery bricks in red square
where the echos of wood slamming stone
ricochet under the feet of islamic scarfed girls on skate boards
and evolution occurs before the tips of my fingers
and the little snakes of light that wriggle through timespace
before my eyes.
Where fringe hangs from the pipes snaking across the ceiling of my basement
and subterranean poets mingle methods of vibrations
bike lights and timpani
we’re transfixed.
We’re mic’ed and we’re broadcasting
we’re open doors
if you come around back and
make a donation and
promise not to be a dick
you can lick brownie batter off my finger tips
you can use a wooden spoon
where we’re leaning against counters
and through the thin soles of our sneakers
on never-clean linoleum and
splintered hard wood floors
there is potential here
and magic
for the open palmed and shivering
moving icons across screens — cross referencing pointless trivia
the essence and the root
a generation pixelated, mashed up and collaged with no limit of influences
in fear of NOT finding neglecting to look
and draping our images behind hung sheets like curtains
bargain shopped and paid for by the pound.
Where christmas lights don’t have a fuck to do with christmas
but we can’t afford lamps
and an apple grown down the road costs 2.50
and an apple grown on the other side of the world is seventy cents
makes sense
and our religion is WE HATE MONEY but WE DEPEND ON MONEY
and THANK HOLINESS for the money that does come
cause we’ll do anything to do it on the cheap
but we appreciate beautiful things
and hand crafted things
like flat light on the attic of the wind
and if we had money we’d have
sharper knives and
more plates to eat from
but we haven’t had anyone go hungry yet
and I’d rather eat outta my mug anyways.
If I had money I would buy clay
and a wheel to spin it into vessels
from which all of my friends and their friends could sip.
Where some of us smoke cigarettes sometimes
and some see ghosts in the smoke
and some live with heroin addicts and drink bourbon
bought by older brothers
to the extent of poisoned livers
and passed out on couches with a little brown haired head
in a salad bowl
and some have two year olds named after animals and plants
like the names we wish our parents gave us
like the names of the world around us
or the world we dream around us
under pen tips and through howls
and clips from commercials filmed twenty years ago in japan
and kittens
and bass that vibrates your insides
where we sleep curled up and naked
and awake in pale light
horny and hungry
into reaching out limbs
long and lean
and scruff like sandpaper that leaves my skin, ravished, red
and feelings get hurt
and dough rises
and we talk for hours about how we can be good to each other
and jump on bikes and ride furiously
to a place where our insides are on our outsides
and we’re broadcast to the world
and everything is nothing
and we’re small and inconceivable
and tender and fearless
to where we are not separate
and to where we are all HOLY
and we’ll practice our religion
like its everything we’ve got and
like our only chance in a vibrating snowglobe of soundless fear
and the magazines preach that nothing is sacred.
I will make you breakfast.
I will worship.

The Carmena Waltz, composed in 1902, features a smitten girl caught up in delirious infatuation. The song is staged at a soiree where music and moon beams intoxicate.

Amid the throng,
many, many are fair.
Bright flowerets twined in raven hair!
Dark eyes sparkle and gleam,
soft lips breath tender sighs…

We imagine ourselves swooning in chorus amid the lush pageantry; the plot thickens.

Ah! Now rings a voice I know from every voice apart!
Through the orange grove he hastens, he is coming…
O, my heart!

I have a friend who’s been seeking a lover. She utilizes dating sites and does a certain amount of Facebook stalking. Often our conversations meander to the next step in her mission to retrieve a lover. True to our culture of immediate satisfaction, she wants the dirt tout suite. Even before the first date, when she’s merely examining prospects, she seeks the richest caches of information. Who are they? What are their goals? How much investment are they willing to put into a relationship? What are their insecurities?

One can so quickly discern multiple layers of a person’s personality in today’s digital representation of societal networks. The weeks, months, or even years-long work of asking around with the barkeep, your mother’s cousin, your neighbors, or the town gossip has taken a back seat to the digital gossip reel. When my friend signs in, she reacts to these potential lovers’ images, statistics, general outlook, sense of humor. At once you can see several styles of a person’s two dimensional facsimile, their body and gestural stance in photo. You can see the intertwined streams of their histories: employment, family ties, unnamed relationships. You’ll see towns they visit, hobbies they pursue. Some list pockets of information as teases, while others still inflate their positive traits with bias. Some chose to reveal the very crux of their personalities: their hubris, their deepest desires.

It’s not that the majority of humanity now starts the great romances of their lives digitally, but the internet is a tool we now use for love among so many other interactions. We talk, plan, and scope each other out via the internet. We have the option to see our social network through a filtered view unavailable to our lady in Carmena. If she did filter out people in her community (he should love the smell of orange blossoms, adore my sparkling eyes, be between the ages of 23 and 35, identify as a ‘casual social drinker’ and non-smoker, have no children, and live within 100 — no, no — 150 miles of zip code 98501) would she have had anybody left? How many people did she have to look through to find love? How many different partners and cities did she live in as a single independent woman? Could her choices have included four hundred new “friends” she made after attending a year at a university?

When I sing the waltz, my senses volunteer themselves to interpret the lyrics. I am excited by the sensual fragrance of the orange grove, my eyes delight in thinking of ornately styled black locks. I imagine the moon’s beams seeming to highlight the elegant designs of human faces. When I am using all of my senses to be present in a moment, my emotions swell and it seems natural that love would follow, or so we are told in songs like Carmena. But through the advent of dating websites and digital society I have to wonder: is it antiquated to have to be physically present with someone to have the biochemical interchange of falling in love? Will we even will judge our next mates with the physical world as primary criteria?

Ultimately it takes a mix of every sensual and logical interpretation mechanism working in a mad frenzy to fall in love as humans. We know that soft lips breathing tender sighs are infinitely more swaying than a poke, an email, or a sext. But the digital society and our digital presence allows us to flirt and showcase our charms like no other species or generation of human has ever been able to.

Seven days in the bottom. Land of the hoodoo stone, the Colorado River, and nothing much of human form or function. Down the Bright Angel, quickly leaving those mule-shit stained and well-trampled miles behind, off over the rolling Kaibab Plateau, with a distant notion of exiting up from through the wild boulders of the New Hance canyon. Afternoons in the cool creek beds worn smooth by ages of slow seasonal trickle, idling in the shade while our clothes dry in the sun. Mornings spent climbing the same rocks to greet the warming sun. We could live here, all agreed, at each camp. Nights spent watching the distant cliffs flare up and then fade to reveal a star strewn sky bounded only by the dark lines of the canyon’s distant rims.

The top. We wander the Grand View Point Grocery and Gift like lost children of some never-contacted tribe on an acid trip. Our eyes flicker madly from brightly colored object to shiny doodad. We stand frozen at the doors of the refrigerated cases. We occasionally stop in the middle of the aisle to gape at the florescent lights while the midwestern tourists stare at us. (But there is music coming out of the ceiling here). They found us in the eddies between the oversized tshirt racks and led each of us out by the hand to the bus bound for Phoenix. I don’t think anyone managed to buy so much as a candy bar.

On the bus ride across the steaming asphalt slapped over the rolling desert plain most of us are still a little out of sorts. Except Josh, who only yesterday was cheerily leading us all through an endless afternoon of waterless canyon. At the moment I’m in no great shape myself, but across the aisle of the bus Josh is dying. His heart is still down in the canyon and he is staring out the window toward it with mournful eyes and a pulse that is getting fainter by the mile. Due to some vagary of time and bus schedules we hadn’t gotten a chance to say a proper goodbye to the canyon, and it seemed that this sin of omission might be mortal.

By evening we are talking with gusto over food (and water, with ice) of the trials civilization had in store for us. Josh, however, remained in critical condition through the evening and the whole trip home. Only momentum carried him back to his life in the city, where his heart returned to him a few days later.

Climbing out of the canyon seven years ago began my fascination with the question “Why do we return?” to the human-built, the technology saturated (and pollution and strip-mall ridden) thing we call civilization. We are seeking something in the wilds that cannot be found in our cities and towns — much has been thought and said about this among the semi-feral. But why do we return? I began to hunt for answers in books and conversations. I watched the process of return more closely in myself and in friends. I left behind my own heart a few times. (I couldn’t tell you where — you’ll have to go and find it for yourself). I began to see the patterns.

At first the answers I found focused on some restriction of the wilds:
We are out of food. –Ed Abbey
Mother nature’s quite a lady but you’re the one I need. –Johnny Cash
Wilderness … where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. –US Congress

and while these answers are pragmatic and poetic, they are responding to extreme cases. Abbey couldn’t get more food in his sheer-walled river canyon, but certainly there are wild places where humans can obtain food (say by hiking to the store in the nearest town). Cash’s crooning brings to mind the cowboy era, but today there are plenty of examples of companionship in the wild. My wife is my partner on most rambles. Josh’s sweetie was with us on the Grand Canyon trip. Ray and Jenny Jardine have been adventuring together for decades. Wilderness has a fixed definition for the US government but there are plenty of semi-wild, non-public lands that are not included However, note that stays on National Forest land are limited to 60 days in one place. This regulation has been used to evict (among others) Russian homesteaders in Alaska trying to stake their claim in 2003.

After more serious thinking I realized that we return because civilization pulls us back, not because the wilds push us out. We are drawn to the bits of human beauty in the city, the beacons of the future, even though they are nested amid human-wrought destruction. The wilds have merely sharpened our artist’s eye, refreshed our hope, topped off our soul’s ability to believe in a place where we can live in close proximity and in a future of well made and useful inventions.

On the great mountain (or desert plain or deep forest) we experience a place so untouched by people and majestically indifferent to mankind that by sheer contrast it brings us into focus. The wilds wipe clean the canvas of our imagination (sponging away an overflowing gray-tinted mess of roaring traffic, the old man with hat-in-hand on the corner, the war on tv, and other powerful images of worldsickness), and give us the ability to start dreaming a new masterpiece. We are ready to find a better use for asphalt, to re-channel the the flows of power, to remix our mythology. We return because we belong in both worlds: the wild and the future we are building. Why-do-we-return-sarah-stephens

I cannot talk to people; what I need has outpaced the spoken language. I compensate by dropping words, building sentences like airplanes or beer cans, hand gestures all the time, a new apocopation. Linking verbs, prepositions, articles, and most adverbs have disappeared from my speech. I talk in nouns and guttural intonations. The communication age has left me unable to communicate.

I’m not sure anyone understands our technology anymore; everyone I’ve met who said they did was trying to sell me a cellphone. I think we’re overdue for a dark age; I cannot be the only one who feels this. People who slept through history are doomed to have nightmares about it. People like me. I used to dream about car crashes and now I dream in ringtones. Maybe this is the year we go back to living in caves.

I went to the river park to take the auspices. The pigeons were obese, the geese were disoriented and honking at terriers, a murmuration of starlings was shitting on everything. I wanted to spread the entrails, examine the hidden parts, but there were some children, and a cop.

When I read the paper, I feel like a credit assessor looking at the balance sheet for the Heaven’s Gate cult the day before the comet passed. Like Cassandra pacing behind the crenelations. The Ouija board directs me to websites whose domains have lapsed. If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to keep my prophesies a little vague.

Trial by seaweed. Trial by bedbug. Trial by surrounded by wolves.

Scenes from a Bruckheimer movie. Emetic tableaux. The skyline will even itself out, the works of man and dirt will converge, and it will happen very quickly. There will be a lot of screaming. A lot of screaming.

I’m compiling a handbook for the people who come out of the ashes, a Foxfire for the disconnected. The first chapter will be a lesson on phonetics, pictures of dogs and frogs and logs and hopefully a speaker can become a reader. Medicinal uses for cayenne pepper and super glue. Synthesis of algarot and alcohol. Semaphore and the hobo cant. Nutmeg and Aqua Dots. Germ theory might not make the cut. The last page will be Elizabeth Bishop.

If I survive, I’m going to adopt the bootstrap vernacular, the redneck trochee, the hay in the corner of the mouth. I’m going to preface everything I say with “Now I think.” The overalls I bought at Roses will no longer be inappropriate. I will not become a warlord. I will not become a warlord. I will be Kevin Costner in the Postman. I will not be Kevin Costner in Waterworld. I will try to be Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves but I will lack aplomb, though I will see all my pets shot in front of me. I may also be accused of treason.

I will show up at a high school, pretending to be making court appointed amends, here to bear personal testimony that yes, methamphetamine is a terrible life decision. When I get up to that lectern, I’ll break from the script. I will tell them about Savonarola, Quisling, Tina Turner in Thunderdome, things you’d think they ought to learn and that you know they aren’t learning. The precedent for the abuse of power in times of crisis. This is my community service, and I’ll be escorted off the grounds for it.

I’ve been reading up on turnips because you can grow them in the middle of winter when there’s snow on the ground if you really have to. Recipes for dandelion soup; which mushrooms won’t kill you or make you freak out. I’ve been buying up hand tools at garage sales; I’ve been hedging against the future.

I will be Mel Gibson in the Road Warrior. I will not be Mel Gibson in real life. I will be Sellers in Strangelove. I am Dr. Emanuel Bronner in Chicago in 1947. I am Howard Beale, resurrected for another season, come to make my witness. The currency will be blood, meted out in plastic shopping bags with ‘THANK YOU’ printed on the side. No-escape-starring-ray-liotta-eric-ehrnschwender