Jared RosenbaumComment

The Flattening of Experience

Jared RosenbaumComment
The Flattening of Experience

There's a waterfall nearby that my son Beren and I like to visit, near the northern end of the Milford Bluffs.

It downcuts a resistant wall of conglomerate that looms above the narrow road, the train tracks, the ebbing shore of the river. To get to the waterfall, we follow a thin stream over rock through a screen of bladdernut shrubs. The falls are some fifty paces back from the bluff walls, the road and the river. One can imagine the small stream at the top of the falls slowly etching back the conglomerate by pencil widths a century, the pace like giving a haircut one hair at a time, one a year.

At the base of the falls is a small pool shelved on hard rock, which overflows to a lower streambed. The pool is flanked by the beginnings of caves, which lead nowhere, one containing an angled seep.

The first time Beren tried to scale the edge of the falls he was three years old -- at most. I followed him up a nearly vertical chute of leaf litter and fallen trunks, imploring him to turn. He always has had the urge to climb whatever is in front of him. We got about halfway up, until the ground below leered up in such a way that I got stern enough to turn us around. Down we slid on our butts, riding the slick rotting leaves back to the base.

This spring, we visit the falls again, check the caves, admire the columbines and alumroot springing from hidden cracks in the conglomerate where the weld of the ancient rounded stones and the shaley medium has been loosened by the eons, each pebble prised from the surrounding cementation leaving a small rounded declivity.

Beren's now six and a half and can climb, hike and trail run at a pace competent to (if not exceeding) mine. Once again his eyes fix on the slope which runs upwards along the lip of the conglomerate, and we begin clambering, sometimes grabbing roots, trunks, outcroppings to pull our way up with the leaf litter and dark humus churning underneath.

Beren looks up. "It looks like the Pine Barrens!" He's hardly been to the Pine Barrens, but likes the name (it sounds like his own).

And he's right. We're heading into an open woodland of Virginia pine. Crowning the rounded hill is a small glade of lowbush blueberry and black huckleberry.

Ascending, we've passed from a world of moisture, soil deposition, deep leaf litter -- the waterfall's miniature cove in a misty keyhole in the bluff. Upwards onto a steep rounded slope with small rock outcroppings like dormers on a farmhouse roof. In places, a talus of round stones, shed by the eroding shaley matrix of the conglomerate, spreads in fans on the slope. Beren and I pause at one of these rocky tumbles, connecting for just a moment with the staggering thought that these stones had been rounded in the tumult of a long-extinct river hundreds of millions of years ago, and just recently rebirthed onto Earth's surface, girding this hill. We reel in deep time for a moment, then grab the next protruding root for a handhold.

We meander until Beren decides "we should go back now", oddly safety-conscious here on the hilltop after our steep climb. We zigzag down the hill, picking out tree trunks at diagonals to run for. We traverse the steepest third on our butts, causing a mini avalanche of river stones and humus until we reach Virginia waterleaf and Solomon's plume at the base of the slope. We've completed our topographical meander through space and time.

*          *          *

I love music, it channels energy into my body, does what I imagine cocaine must do for some people, makes me manic with ideas and movement. Last year I saw Royal Thunder in Philadelphia and the hair stood on the back of my neck, wolf-like, as the singer screamed, pulling back from the microphone to fade her howl, playing with space.

Like most people now, I listen to music from a digital music service. I can freely hop from Tuvan throat singers Alash to Appalachian anthemic metal The Sword to Sun Ra's untrammeled space jazz. Awesome.

At least in terms of auditory experience. The rest of it is gone, the other senses scooped out in favor of digital delivery. Music, the ultimate human social experience... flattened. Purified of the flailing hair, strings popping, the faded skin of a drum head pocked by a million strikes, the urge of the crowd to act as one social beast. Before recorded audio there was no way to experience music without the smells, the brush of flesh with a neighbor dancing her way through the forest of drum strikes, even the annoyance of a cough in the hall giving counterpoint to the violin soloist. We move closer to a simplified perfection, bodiless, without sin, a fantasy of science and God, a Platonic ideal.

Experience is flattened into a two-dimensional realm, the screen, the ears. Sometimes the feeling of keys or screen on the tips of the fingers.

*          *          *

Even in communicating to each other, we send texts - curt telegrams, pecking out simple phrases. The telephone seems a robust sensual experience by comparison. Teens are afraid to ask each other on dates in person, even on the phone. "Wsup"? reads the screen.

I hear this is just a transitional phase. Soon robust virtual reality will replace all the senses we're currently trimming. The world will unflatten. The flat field will undergo a sensual upheaval, an orogeny of 3D virtual features. So our incompetent and senseless bodies can revel in fake experience.

*          *          *

Beren is falling asleep upstairs so I slip outside to take a piss, instead of waking him by climbing the creaky old farmhouse stairs. I open our front door and my eyes adjust to a darkness punctuated by lights.

First, the green glow of fireflies against the black silhouettes of trees. Then, where the trees give way to sky, the fixed lights of the stars above.

I seldom see the stars. I imagine that seeing the stars would have been an everyday occurrence for most of humanity through most of our history as a species and before. Looking up at the stars, drifting off to sleep beneath an open sky.

As moderns we possess an astonishing science of the stars. So much information is available, online and in books. Yet for most of us, this science is data, facts without context, stories flattened.

The ancients had a daily experience of the stars, we moderns have a scientific knowledge of the stars. The difference is between information and experience. One is flat, the other embodied.

I look up at the stars but I know that the light pollution of nearby cities and suburbs dims the stars I can see. Our technology occludes the stars rather than bringing them closer.

Experience or information? It seems to me that the ancients knew the stars better.


*          *          *

People sometimes ask me about various apps that enable your smartphone to identify plants for you. I think they're taken aback when I get bristly.

I like identifying plants in the wild because the process brings me into intimate contact with them. I look at leaf arrangements, smell crushed foliage, lick the underside of leaves, taste flowers, dig down into the soil and examine roots and rhizomes. Getting the plant's name is a good result but the real goal is the elemental proximity, the excuse to linger, the chance to get to know another being.

Or you can stare at your screen, like you've been doing all day already. An app will give you the species name but bypass all the messy sensual parts. No need to touch, smell, taste, manipulate, or even remember. There's an app for that.

I do get bored, I get bored

In the flat field.

I get bored, I do get bored

In the flat field

            --Bauhaus, In The Flat Field, 1980