With this essay, I hope to resolve two related questions that I’ve struggled with throughout my 30s. First, why do I feel so much more authentically me when I’m in nature, even though I choose to spend 97% of my time in cities? Why do I become more observant, appreciative, and relaxed when I’m in the forest, outside of civilization? Is the same true for others? The second question: What do I think about capitalism? What are my environmental politics? Do I think that the current pace of technological innovation and wealth creation is a good thing? Or would we all be happier if we returned to simpler lives more closely connected to nature?
These are not new questions, I realize. Rousseau pondered the same questions in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, step by step across a rapidly industrializing, 18th-century Europe. And they are the same questions that a 20-something Henry David Thoreau asked himself at Walden Pond when he wrote, “my greatest skill has been to want but little” and that “we can never have enough of nature.” Surely, ever since humans decided to settle in cities some 12,000 years ago, skeptics have pondered whether it was the right move. It is a question that deserves to be revisited with each new generation as the machine of capitalism advances along with the machines themselves. What follows is my attempt.
Pablo and I had just hiked over Buchanan Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park, our bodies leaning slightly forward into the dry wind rising from the valley spread out beneath us. We snapped a few photos of the shiny, dripping ice that makes up the last of the disappearing Saint Vrain Glaciers to our right; it will surely melt into the rocky morass it sits atop over the next decade. And then, the steepest ascent now behind us, we ambled down the trail with our thumbs tucked comfortably behind the straps of our backpacks.
I was overcome by a sense of calmness that I hadn’t experienced in months. I can more easily describe the sensation by what it lacked than how it felt. All anxiety had dissolved. Nowhere in the back of my mind, for example, did I wonder if I may have offended someone. There were no contradictions for my subconscious to wrestle with; I was simply walking down a trail with a friend. I wasn’t reminded of the dissonance inherent in my day-job: allegedly pursuing greater equality from the elitist perch of private philanthropy. There was no running to-do list of checkboxes to be crossed off during the coming week. I felt no impulse to assert my ego, no distasteful desire to seek higher social status through wit or intelligence, athleticism or salary. For what? Why the insecure search for meaning through a sense of superiority? No, I was walking down a trail, right foot, left foot, surrounded by sublime alpine peaks, occasionally stopping by a gurgling stream to eat a snack and drink some deliciously cold mountain water.
So what, then, was my mind thinking?
It was merely observing and appreciating. Appreciating, for example, the contrast of the Facebook-blue sky with silver clouds lit up by the slanting rays of the afternoon sun, as if each cloud was made of the reflective material on my running shoes. I observed the basketball-sized boulders lining the trail, split by glaciers over millennia into grapefruit-sized rocks and then crushed into khaki-colored sand by the boots of thousands of hikers like us, escaping the numbing errands of city life to recall what it is like to simply observe and appreciate.
I was reminded of a throwaway line from an interview with the author Robert Wright: “Once you empty your mind of its constant analyzing, worrying, and desire for social prestige,” he offered, “you realize that at its foundation, the default state of being is one of appreciation.”
It occurred to me that this is why I evangelize nature to others. It’s not just the smell of the pine needles, the views from each pass, the gurgling streams, or the luminescent colors of springtime wildflowers and autumnal leaves. No, it is the way that all of these things conspire like a psychedelic experience to change our mindset from anxious analyzing (Am I happy? Do they like me? Am I attractive? Am I a failure?) to calm appreciation (Ooh, look at that owl).
So why, then, do I spend so much time in the city and so little time in nature? Pablo and I were still descending into the valley below in comfortable silence, the occasional blast of wind whistling between rocks and shrubbery, the granola crunch of sand shifting beneath our boots.
“If you had total freedom to choose how much time you spend in nature and how much in the city, what would it be?” I asked. He was quick to reply: “70% in nature, 30% in the city.” I nodded along, that sounded about right to me. So why were weekends like this so rare? Why did I spend roughly 97% of my time in the city and only 3% — about 10 days each year — in nature?
The more I thought about it, the crazier it seemed. And by “it” I mean the way I lived my life, the way I allocated the hours of my day and the days of my year. In a single month: the hundreds of emails, dozens of meetings (often to plan future meetings!), the annual goal plans, quarterly reviews, board memos, conference panels, grant reports, and mailing lists.
I can look back at these things and they grant me the comfort of accomplishment. I am a productive worker in the knowledge economy and I am checking things off my to-do list. But don’t ask me to describe the accomplishment itself, what it all adds up to, for that I do not know.
Soon, Pablo and I were hiking up the final ascent of our trip, just a couple of hours from the parking lot where we started three days earlier. I began to sympathize with the “anti-civ” movement, short for anti-civilization, which advocates for dropping out of industrialized society.
No cell phones to constantly distract yourself from your own thoughts and surrounding beauty. No more constant tracking by surveillance capitalism and targeted advertising. No more corn-starched fast food to make you obese only to lull you into spending more money on a faddish diet and personal trainer. No more selfie-enhancing plastic surgery and teeth whitening. No more grinding through traffic while listening to the familiar strangers of your personalized podcast echo chamber while polluting the planet. No banks to inspire paycheck anxiety because you haven’t paid off your student loans, mortgage, car loan, credit cards, while they charge you fees you don’t understand.1
Why work so hard for this? No wonder millions are dropping out, living half-way off the grid, trading in their mortgages for so-called tiny houses. No wonder “Mr. Money Moustache” has amassed millions of followers desperate for the path out of the urban grind. No wonder #vanlife and #minimalism.
Why not join the anti-civ movement and drop out of society? Why not experience this elevated attentiveness to the beauty of nature every day instead of the constant social posturing and brown-nosing to get ahead in the city, to get more money, more followers, more fame, more power?
Because modern civilization is such a tremendous, awe-inspiring achievement despite its many flaws. Because analyzing and evaluating are precisely what allow for human consciousness, conversation, and creativity. (Sure, you could argue that modern capitalism is an especially enjoyable achievement for wealthy, White men, but it’s noteworthy that the most vocal advocates for dropping out of modern society are often wealthy, White men like Mr. Money Moustache while the most expensive and consumerist cities are also the most diverse.)
I have no doubt that I would be more content if I were to spend more of my time in nature and less in the city. I’d be far happier if I spent more of each day in a mindset of observant appreciation and less in critical analysis. But I would never want to give this up, typing away on my iPad while drinking an espresso, reflecting on the previous year, inspired by the essays I’ve linked to above, emailing drafts of this text to friends for their feedback and reactions. The impulse to choose one or another extreme — cosmopolitan consumerism or back-to-the-earth mindfulness — is rooted in the impossibility of finding the perfect balance between, the pendulum’s natural place of rest.
As we approached the parking lot, the trail thickened with day hikers and trail runners from Boulder. Our rental car was waiting for us with its heating and Bose speakers. Pablo connected his iPhone to the stereo; after three days of near silence, we now had access to an infinite library of music on Spotify. Every song sounded clearer and better as we careened down the black, freshly paved road through yellow and orange Aspens on our way to Boulder.
Downtown Boulder was sunny and crowded with beautiful people wearing expensive sunglasses. We ate an overflowing plate of BBQ ribs in an old tavern, ordered coffee at a bookstore with writers scribbling into their notebooks and pecking into their laptops. Fully caffeinated, we made FaceTime calls to our friends and loved ones to check in on them. And we popped into a few stores, tempted by the consumerist fruits of industrialized society. The sensorial rush of downtown Boulder was just as satisfying as the stripped-down simplicity of the mountains.
I am looking back over the books I read in 2018. The one that has stayed with me the most is Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. Superficially, it is a book about psychedelics, weaving together first-hand accounts of Pollan’s own trips with a survey of psychological research. Unexpectedly, though, the book also offers its readers a theory about how the mind works and the mental forces that cause depression, anxiety, and the rare glimpses of spiritual rhapsody, when we’re overcome by a feeling of love and connectedness with everything around us. Borrowing from Aldous Huxley, Pollan describes ordinary consciousness as a “reducing valve” that filters out 99% of emotions, sights, and sounds so that we can focus our meager minds on whatever 1% we’ve prioritized: securing a promotion, or getting a girl’s phone number, or planning a future vacation. We become depressed and anxious when we narrow our reducing valve to obsessively analyze any one thing while ignoring the 99.9% of wonderment all around us.
The magic of psychedelics is that they force open our mind’s reducing valve. Our compulsion to analyze any 1% dissolves, and we become aware of the 99% that we had unintentionally ignored: the interlocking patterns of the tiles beneath our feet, the playful exchange of a rhythmic bass and a melodic piano on the stereo, the ridges and crevasses of an almond’s skin between our tongue and teeth, the electric touch of a lover’s fingers intertwined with our own. If we were to pay attention to the immense beauty of each of these things all day, every day, we’d never get anything done. We would be complex sensorial receptors, marveling at the overwhelming beauty of the world, but never creating art nor constructing meaning.
The act of writing is a reducing valve. We construct meaning through curation, by contrasting, filtering, and deleting. This is the time of year, after a restful week of doing nothing on the beach, that I tell myself I want to write more next year. I want to experience the pleasure of practicing a craft and the meaning that I derive from the process. But I’m increasingly aware, like so many writers before me, of the tension between writing and experiencing, between making meaning and appreciating beauty. I‘ll never find the perfect balance between the two, but I know I can take more control over the reducing valve by my simple awareness of its existence.
1. In 1975, the average American household owed about 60% of its annual income in debt. If your family made $100,000 per year, then on average you had $60,000 in total debt — everything you owed on your credit cards, car loan, student loan, and mortgage. By 2005, just thirty years later, and that number doubled to 120%. If you family makes $100,000 per year, but you have $120,000 in debt, well, good luck paying that off while trying to save for retirement much less a summer vacation. Good luck just paying off the interest.↩