It's a cool, cloudy morning, and I am about 2 miles into what will be an 8 mile hike on the Apple Orchard Falls and North Creek River trails in the Jefferson National Forest of Virginia. The forest and hiking are therapeutic for me, and I am excited to be alone in the woods without a soul in sight. Maybe this form of quiet and isolation will allow me to relax, focus and connect with nature.
“Connected.” There’s a word that’s become quite convoluted. One is supposed to be connected in so many aspects of life. There are articles every day about how we’re too connected to some things and not connected to others. I’m supposed to be connected professionally (but only to the right people), socially (but not too much digitally and definitely more personally), to nature, to my inner thoughts and feelings, to my community, and on and on. Just thinking about it is a little stressful.
Back to the trail. It's been a good hike so far. It's so quiet I can hear each breath and every movement and sound within the forest. I round a corner and see my destination: Apple Orchard Falls. It's more of a trickle than a waterfall, but I don't care. It's beautiful. I snap a couple of pictures on my iPhone and then set it down beside me. I get comfortable on a wooden bench that the Forest Service has built at the base of the falls. I open my backpack and pull out Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It's a book I've started and never finished, and at this point in my life I'm determined to relax and give it a read.
Just as I begin the first chapter, which I'm already thoroughly enjoying, my phone bings twice. Somehow an errant signal must have found my phone here in the dense forest, and I have received a text. It's quite comical, sitting on a bench alone in the woods, reading Thoreau and then hearing the sound of an iPhone. Of course, I'm now distracted. I'm holding the book and staring at the big Apple logo on the back of my phone while listening to the water rush down, ironically, Apple Orchards Falls.
Now, to make the scene more ironic I must point out that the night before I watched the film, Jobs. It's the story of Steve Job's life from the time he cofounded Apple Inc. until his dramatic return years later. While it didn't garner rave reviews, I was enthralled with the movie and in awe of Job's passion and energy as he reshaped the world through technology. I was struck by his love of meshing art and technology and his vision of devices as extensions of humans rather than separate entities. Sitting on the rock, I ask myself a simple, amusing question: Would Thoreau have owned an iPhone? My hunch is that one’s initial response would be “No." I’m alone in the woods, as Thoreau and Jobs would appreciate, so I contemplate the question.
"Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary." - Steve Jobs
I turn over the phone, wondering if Thoreau is groaning at me, to check my message. I’ve received a text from my mom. Attached are three photos from the prairies of Missouri. She and my dad are driving across The Great Plains on their way back home to Virginia, and my mom is in awe of the vastness of the land. I smile at the phenomenon that is life. I’m sitting in the middle of the forest. I’m reading a book published in 1854 while holding one of the world’s most extraordinary pieces of technology. My mom and I, over 500 miles apart, are connected. We are both sharing an experience with nature, marveling at its beauty and the sense of awe it can instill. Maybe Thoreau would have owned an iPhone.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that modern devices are dominating our attention and, as a result, we are losing our vital connection to the natural world. Articles and studies have been written and conducted pointing out the dangers of the increasing amount of time we spend indoors and away from the mountains, forests, and bodies of water that surround us. As a country, our physical and mental health are deteriorating and our disconnect with nature is likely playing a major role. These devices distract us from the things that are truly important. After all, in this moment, I have shifted my attention from the quiet and solitude of the trail to my phone. Maybe Thoreau would have chucked the iPhone in the trash.
Thoreau believed in carving one’s own path in life. He urged people to follow their dreams and not be afraid to challenge the norm. So did Steve Jobs. They were both innovators, and they both used their artistic talents to impact the world. So, holding my phone, Walden resting gently on my lap, I gaze at the photos of the Missouri prairie with the relaxing sounds of Apple Orchard Falls in the background. Then, I shut off the device and continue my reading.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
I’m not sure what Thoreau would have thought of this technology or what he would have said to Jobs. It’s fun to think about because in some ways they were very much alike. I know that I’m grateful to both men. On this day, in the middle of the beautiful Jefferson National Forest, I am connected to both nature and my mother. The latter just happens to be gazing out across the vast prairies of Missouri and decided she wanted to share that moment with her son. That is truly amazing; a tribute to the things that make life in our time such a gift.