The forgotten corners of our landscapes: Exploration, discovery, and a journey to Prague Lake by creek bed
I often think about how little of our landscape we really know, even around our own homes.
The fact that we're spending ever-increasing amounts of our time in front of digital screens- televisions, computers, and phones- is well documented and doesn't need to be discussed in detail here. Yet these screens follow and haunt us. A moment isn't complete until it's been thoroughly captured via photograph and video and shared on social media.
Many of us spend a good portion of our day staring out of the car's windshield, itself a screen that insulates and separates the viewer inside the vehicle from film roll outside. Only instead of the projector turning the film, the car turns us. We move freely where we wish, but usually on the fastest or most convenient roads- and in the process watch the same movie frames roll by the windows as everyone else, everyday. Box store, liquor store, shopping mall, gas station.
We eventually tune out our commute. We know the movie inside and out, so it becomes background noise. After all, we care more about doing, not seeing or travelling. Why else would budding international travellers say, "I've done Rome and Paris, but not London." Replace the city names with people's names and this same statement sounds vulgar. Instead of an act of discovery and exploration, travel becomes an act of achievement, a monument to our deified Lists: The Bucket List, The Wish List, The To Do List... ah, but we must cross off the next task on our tyrannic To Do List: a sort of holy scripture in whose name we mentally flagellate ourselves for our inevitable failures.
And so our travels become distractions that stand in the way of doing something more useful or shareable on Instagram. To pass the time and avoid boredom, we zoom around in our vehicles as fast as we can, seeing as little as possible in between, listening to music or audiobooks or talking on the phone.
To be clear, despite the slanted language, I think the great mass of human civilization functions just fine for the most part. Highways, for example, are wonderful: road trips that took a week now take a day. We can maximize our precious time in this expanding universe. All I've mentioned isn't necessarily bad in and of itself, it just is, a byproduct of how we live. For the most part, I happen to like how I live. In fact, notice the use of the pronoun "our" in most of the above statements I wrote.
But I do wonder what we lose in the bargain. As Emerson said in Self Reliance:
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. Its progress is only apparent like the workers of a treadmill. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts.
In this case, we maximize our productivity while losing our spontaneity. We seek control and achievement and lose curiosity, wonder, and discovery.
Even were we to be mindful in these circumstances, we're unlikely to discover much that is new or spellbinding. Instead, we see the trivial, the obvious: exactly what the city planners, highway designers, and marketing experts have designed the road to show us.
"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything."
Know where the word obvious comes from? Latin obvium, or a crossroads where two major highways intersected. Trivial? Latin as well- a trivium was a crossroads where three major highways intersected. Because they were natural points of convergence and encounter, everyone knew what happened there. There was no discovery- everything at an obvium and a trivium was obvious and trivial. Incidentally, a trivium was also what Romans called the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Since the educated class all learned this canon of common knowledge, you could also say that for them, it was trivial.
I mentioned these etymologies previously in my article on journeys of self-discovery. A quote I used in that article bears repeating here:
To travel the paths that everyone travels gives existence to obviousness and trivialities, to abandon the well worn paths and explore paths lesser known to most is usually considered to give valuable knowledge and experience... It was a means of acquiring experience, knowledge, and prestige, and while it was dangerous it was also an adventure, and a daring challenge for the audacious.
Discovery and learning occurs off the main roads, where few, if any, have trod before. Or, if not arriving at new destinations, then learning follows from attempting on our own and in our own way to arrive at the known destination. The best teachers are those that show you where to leave the trodden path of past thinkers and doers and give you a compass to navigate your own way to the end. Discovery presupposes the act of exploration.
When we delegate 100% of our discovery potential to the engineers, designers, and marketers that have designed our roads, products, and media then we relegate ourselves to triviality.
I like how Joseph Campbell expresses this idea:
The Grail Knights thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path it is someone else's path and you are not on the adventure.
How can we make the time to discover and explore without churlishly turning our backs on the tools and trappings of the 21st century? How can avoid becoming "men [who] have become the tools of their tools", as Thoreau put it?
I don't know yet. I'm still trying to figure it out, as I'm sure most of us are. But I think it's a problem worth solving.
I note with alarm my inability to sit and observe when I have nothing else to do: instead I sit anxiously fidgeting with my phone. It distresses me to try and remember when the last time was that I let myself consciously enter a daydream, instead of always having something productive to do.
I would like to share a particular circumstance in which I did abandon myself to whim and exploration during the winter holidays with my family.
I was exploring the rocky woods behind our pond- a couple acres of oak, pine, and scrub that I've slowly been developing with a very rough system of foot trails.
As I followed the mostly dry creek bed that led from the pond, I thought (rather obviously) that the creek must come from somewhere (the neighbor's pond) and it must go somewhere. I had a suspicion that it might lead to Prague Lake, the local reservoir. A quick look at a map confirmed my suspicion.
The idea came over me: what if I followed the creek to the lake?
So a couple days later I went. In doing so, I certainly explored parts of my home and landscape I never thought I would see. I can't say I accomplished anything terrific or great by tracing the creek bed to the pond (about 5 miles, if I had to guess), but I certainly feel the richer for having done so.
Enjoy the pictures below- and I hope they inspire acts of exploration in your own life!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much