When I first moved to Knoxville, I lived in a relatively rural suburb north of town, driving through a gorgeous series of little southern towns on my way to work. Green pastoral settings lined both sides of the road, broken only by a modern filling station or new subdivision full of behemoth new houses.
“Why doesn’t anyone care about the views?” I asked a friend. “They orient their houses toward each other with not a single picture window facing the view.”
“What view?” he replied, honest in his confusion.
I’m sitting on a plane, flying in this somewhat illogical little hunk of metal through the skies across the country, looking down at the types of terrain that once took lives on a regular basis. I can see mountains with puffy little clouds hovering near their peaks, the funny little patterns humans make in the land when they farm or mow or build clearly visible.
I read books about mountaineering, at first pulled in by the compelling storytelling of Jon Krakauer, now for the sheer incredulity of it all. I spend my days typing on a little computer, making money by trading skills no pioneer would recognize, much less value. “I bring people together” is the cheesy reality of what I do, but without the kumbaya overtones. It’s not really that fun, most days. Most days I’m simultaneously frustrated and pissed off that such great ridiculousness comes from simple misunderstandings; despite being grateful for the great paycheck and very relatively easy way I make a living, I’m also pissed off about it. So, while waiting out the hours in the sky or hotel room, I read about men who do things for sheer fun (if you can call it that) and challenge that modern people don’t have to do anymore.
Once upon a time, it took a mountaineer’s determination (and willful disregard for risk and comfort) to see these kinds of sights. The payoff for days of deprivation and pain was to be able to survey the land from a vantage point unparalleled. Grueling physical effort was rewarded by a vision of beauty. (Really.) Now? A swipe of a corporate credit card and you get to see as much as you can manage — if you even remember to look — before tearing your eyes away to type something on a laptop.
I consider myself a verbal person. I like words. I think in words. I prefer to spend my time with words. I want to say there’s little room for misunderstanding with words you can edit and read and reread, but of course, that’s not true. If it was, I wouldn’t make a living doing what I do. But when I’m reading or writing words, I can breathe.
In contrast, when I look outside the little window of this big hunk of metal, my breath hitches. I can’t explain it but it happens every time. I’m not sure what to see, where to look, how to ingest a picture so broad and vivid, so I look away. Because I don’t think in pictures, I struggle to interpret what I see in a way I can later recall. Inevitably, I fail.
What a strange situation we’re in as humans. Most of our awareness comes from our visual senses while we’re left completely lacking in any accurate way to regurgitate that awareness without translating into a completely different medium – words. If we were a software program, reviewers would bemoan the disparity between input and output, overwhelmed with concern about our ability to succeed.
And yet we’re built like this and we’ve survived. Maybe life would be a little too easy if we could just show each other mental pictures? Maybe we need the constant challenge of communicating through translation – even before various languages are taken into account! Do people of different cultures see things the same way?
Malcolm Gladwell writes of the human capacity to literally slow down the processing of significant events based on experience. The more familiarity you have, the more slices you can accommodate in your sensory input. If I keep studying visuals, will I eventually be able to store them in my brain more accurately?
I hope so.
We orient ourselves to the horizon without ever taking the time to comment on the particularly beauty of the clouds. We board a rather fantastic apparatus to be carried thousands of miles through the sky to another part of the world, but we spend the time reading words someone else has written. If we’d hiked to a vantage point like this, we’d be snapping pictures as fast as our overpriced cameras could comply, but because the physical cost of getting here is so minimal, we value it not at all.