Friday, May 23, 2014

Musings: The Nature of Distractions

Lainey Piland photo

You're cruising down the highway at a comfortable sixty miles per hour.  The sun is shining, skies are blue--it's a beautiful day. Glancing out the window of your vehicle to take in the scenery, you instead find yourself staring at a technicolor blur of unending billboards and advertisements; a confining corridor of consumerism doing its best to convince you that whatever products they're hawking are more deserving of your attention than the natural scenery concealed at their backs.

Thankfully, in real life, these grotesque scenes do not exist along our highways.  We aren't facing "a wall of civilization between us  and between the beauty of our land and our countryside," in the form of advertisements, as President Johnson remarked in his speech at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.  I recently read this speech in an anthology of nature writing, and found it to be rather thought-provoking.  Further along, the President commented that the bill was designed to "control advertising and junkyards along the billions of dollars of highways" in our country. 

How awful would it be to drive along the highway with the view of our beautiful Pacific Northwest nature completely blotted out by advertisements?  To drive along the coast and not see the ocean?  To drive over the passes and not see the snowy mountain slopes? To drive along I-5 without views of Mount Baker, Rainier, or St. Helens? To drive to a State or National Park in the area without experiencing that gradual melting away of civilization as buildings become forests the closer you get to your destination. What if you only knew you had arrived by the sudden absence of billboards?  I'm not sure that the situation ever would have come to this had the Highway Beautification Act never been put in place... but regardless, I'm thankful that someone had the foresight to ensure the preservation of our connection with nature as we travel the highways.  We do not have to contend with intrusive and uninterrupted advertisements.  Or do we?

As I read the speech, I couldn't help but think... what about the radio? What about commercials?  The majority of the population--myself included-- listens to the radio, or an iPod, or maybe even CD's when we're driving. The Highway Beautification Act only takes into consideration visual distractions from nature... what about auditory ones? Do these have the same effect, form the same distraction, the same disconnection from our natural scenery as would a sign or billboard? As you drive down the highway, would you be focused more on the incessant babble of obnoxious radio commercials, or on the blurred trees flashing by your window?

I did a little experiment.  On a recent drive, I turned off the radio. There was silence inside my vehicle, with the exception of the rushing sound of tires on pavement, and the occasional blinking of the turn signal. Was it an earth-shattering experience to silence the ever-present radio chatter? Not really.  I'll admit, I was actually bored.  I did find myself looking out the windshield, trying to find something interesting in the scenery around me, so I suppose in that way I was more connected with the natural landscape through which I was driving at perhaps just a bit over the speed limit...

Perhaps auditory distractions do not interfere much with our connection to nature as we drive.  If we can see the trees, mountains, and hills, and maybe roll down a window to catch a whiff of fresh air, that may be as connected as we can get from inside a vehicle. However, the situation changes immensely when you have your boots on the ground and are walking or hiking in the great outdoors. I find it maddening to pass people on the trail with headphones stuffed into their ears and music blaring so loudly that I can clearly identify from several paces away the song which is assaulting their ears... and at that point, mine as well. 

If you're going to make the effort to be in nature, then you should be fully in nature. No headphones.  No electronic devices. No distractions.  When you're blazing along, conquering the trail while listening yet again to the same song you've probably heard a million times before on your radio/iPod/ etc. etc., you are missing out on the unique sounds of the natural world all around you. You cannot hear the trilling of birdsong, the whisper of a breeze through leafy branches above, the rustling of a squirrel in the dry leaf litter, the rushing of water through a rocky streambed. Or a branch snapping underfoot of that cougar quietly stalking you in the shadows. Just as a highway cluttered with billboards can disconnect us from nature, so can the noise blaring through your headphones.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 placed limits on advertisements along our highways which detract from, or blot out, the visual beauty of the natural scenery.  Almost exactly one century prior to President Johnson's 1965 speech, P.T. Barnum wrote a piece on the same topic of nature being despoiled by advertisements. In the space of just five paragraphs in which he uses every conceivable iteration of the word "vulgar," Barnum argues of nature that "The pleasure of such places depends upon their freedom from the associations of every day concerns and troubles and weaknesses". Most of us step outdoors to be inspired, refreshed, relieve stress, and find peace, so why not implement that same ethic of connecting with the beauty of nature when it comes to the auditory experience as well?  There are peaceful and beautiful sounds to experience out there, if we only allow ourselves to be free of distractions and listen.

...if you need proof, take a listen to this.

This already comes with a built-in soundtrack! Lainey Piland photo

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