LittleField Notes Spring 2018
by Ryan Foxley
And if I had a boat I’ d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat – Lyle Lovett
The day’s persistent clouds parted and Rosa Mystica surged forward as the wind rose, grateful to be free of the light airs which had plagued her for the last hour. The waters of Puget Sound roiled along her graceful waterline while the late summer sun bathed my nephew Andrew and me in its welcome warmth. The rays of the setting sun slanted down from the west over Lummi Island where we had camped the previous night. With the sun setting behind, the island now rose dark and featureless like a giant whale set to dive. The wind picked up another notch and the 20 foot wooden yawl healed and gained speed. I set a southerly course for the headland which sheltered the bay where we had launched the day before. Rosa felt alive as she glided through the water with the grace of a French minuet- a dance of wind and current led by my hand on the wheel. It was a moment of perfection; a moment to be savored.
Even so, having sailed all day, we were tired and thinking of home.
With the rising wind I sensed a glorious finish. As we weathered the headland and the boat launch came into view, I was surprised to see a crowd of maybe 15 or 20 people standing on shore looking our direction. “We’ve got an audience,” I thought, “a welcoming crowd.” And I stood up smartly, dusting off my imaginary epaulettes and adjusting my imaginary bicorne hat just so. I fancied that I was the triumphant Lord Nelson riding a flood tide with a following vento secundo up the Thames after a daring victory at sea. Trimming the sails in seamanlike fashion for the greatest effect, we raced through the water and I imagined what those on shore must have seen: a beautiful two masted wooden yawl, varnish and paint shining, making good time under full sail.
As I came ever closer, I planned how best to reduce sail in order to gracefully complete a landing under sail, sans motor. I doused the main, spilling most of my wind, and continued for the last hundred yards or so under jib and mizzen alone.
It was at this moment that the bubble of my fanciful glory burst asunder. Suddenly I became aware of a presence behind me, a distinctly unnatural presence. I was instantly disoriented and confused as I caught the whirring, buzzing sound of an object in the air off our starboard quarter. I turned, my eyes darting this way and that for some kind of small power boat that I had missed. My heart nearly fell out of my chest as I saw a black flying object, with four little whirring propellers and what looked like ominous, lidless eyes on its front, hovering and turning this way and that above our little ship. It was a drone. I turned and looked at the people waiting on shore. Not one glance passed our way – all eyes were fixed on the flying robot. Looking around, I quickly took in the scene: three or four black SUVs, 15 or so young urban professionals with hip haircuts wearing “casual Friday” clothing: narrow cut slacks with dress shirts untucked, some staring at laptops while the others stood importantly on the dusty gravel at the top of the boat launch speaking to each other in hushed tones, all the while never taking eyes off the drone. As I walked up to the truck, neither friendly word nor pleasant nod did I receive. And certainly not a word regarding the beauty of the scene: a classic boat coming in under full sail with the glorious westering sun of a late summer afternoon setting over a distant island. I have seen old men practically fall over themselves in their rush to talk about my Rosa Mystica, to yarn about rope and wind, wood and weather. Similar to what I have experienced when pulling into a gas station towing a beautifully restored #9 mower on a flatbed trailer. “Wow! Haven’t seen one them in years! My dad used to use one. She’s a Beauty.” Now don’t misunderstand, I don’t drive horse drawn-mowers or sail wooden boats for the compliments. My ego wasn’t bruised because they neglected to shower me with compliments about my boat. Most people don’t say anything. This was somehow different in a way that is hard to describe. These people acted as if the whole scene had not happened at all. As if right under their noses, a boat had not just sailed into their midst; as if I, a fellow human being had not just walked passed them at an arms length. And buzzing surreally above it all, was the menacing presence of the Drone, the hovering Eye: watching, watching.
Later that evening after driving back to the farm, I lay in bed wide awake, flat on my back, staring into the blackness and I reflected on the strange event at the cove. I puzzled over my rather severe reaction to the presence of the drone. After all we are surrounded by new technology all the time: we are dazzled by special-effects in movies; the smart phones in our pockets have startling capabilities; some cars are now driving themselves; people live for months on end in a space station miles above the earth; life saving surgeries use lasers and tiny cameras to making minute, precise incisions. Why then, did I experience such a profound and primitive fear accompanied by feelings of disquiet and unease at the site and sound of that flying object hovering so close? I found myself thinking about basic values such as privacy, autonomy, independence and the place of technology in our world.
Here is how I felt that afternoon: imagine you are sitting in your living room with your family on a quiet winter evening. There is a fire on the hearth. Perhaps you’re reading a book, sipping a cup of tea, or playing a game with the children. Suddenly you hear a rustling outside. You look up and see a person standing, nose to glass just outside your window. All you see is a disembodied head with eyes wide, unblinking.
The face shows no emotion, it only watches. If you’re like me, simply imagining such a scene will give you the jitters. We like to feel that when going about our daily business we are generally not being watched. And fortunately, for the most part people do not go around peering into windows. And creeps who would like to are discouraged from doing so because in order to peep, one must bring along one’s body. With physical presence come the inherent risks that accompany such behavior: getting caught and hauled off to jail, or getting shot.
Enter the drone: an anonymous peeping Tom that doesn’t have to walk through the flower bed to get to the window. Not only can it see into your home, it can record and relay information with no risk of bodily harm or capture.
I am not by nature a paranoid individual. I do not spend endless hours on the internet reading conspiracy theories. Nor do I harbor a host of irrational fears. To think that I was deeply upset at the sight of the drone because I fear peeping toms does not tell the whole story. The disturbing nature of the situation that day was not isolated to the drone itself. Part of it was the way the people in charge of the drone acted. They appeared almost disembodied, utterly disconnected from the natural environs in which they stood – yet completely connected to their unnatural robotic creation. It was like a scene out of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” Were these human beings or replicants – robots more “human than humans?” Science fiction made real before my very eyes.
Still I was not satisfied that this explanation alone could explain my intense disquiet at the sudden appearance of the drone. As I lay in the dark now tossing and turning, I continued to replay the scene in my churning mind. “What does it signify?” I wanted to know.
Our modern era has been described variously as post-industrial and post-modern (whatever that means). It seems to me that we are now entering a post-biological world, or perhaps a post-natural world or maybe a post-experiential world, certainly a post-agrarian world. We live in a time where children no longer play outside, where people, even in restaurants, look at their smartphones instead of each other. And when they do communicate it is through the untested medium of a digital screen. In this post-everything era, food comes from the grocery store, not the farm; cows are milked by robots; kids don’t know that carrots grow underground; families hook up mini cameras connected to smart phones in every room of the house to spy on each other; “alternative facts” are conveyed instantaneously in the digitocracy of the internet where they are lapped up by the greedy vacuous minds of those looking to justify their own bigotry and insecurity. The internet itself has become a sinister feedback loop of yelling and screaming, of misinformation fueled by a self serving, self aggrandizing disregard for the welfare of our planet and people and the creatures who dwell here.
Finally I arrived at the crux of the matter:
We are entering an era of unprecedented disconnect, where privacy is dead and the real connective tissues of humus, humility and humanity are being severed by the false promise of digital connectivity in the service of profits, pop culture and power.
I felt the embodiment of this sentiment that day at the waters edge. What made it different, and what kept me up at night, was the way in which I felt my deepest human instincts violated. This was no intellectual exercise worked out in a Seattle coffee house over a capuccino. This was gut level stuff.
Of course farmers know that to live in a post-biological, post-agrarian world is an impossibility. The whole notion is a fantastical house of cards built on a foundation of sand and maintained in the short term by the false gods of wealth, leisure and digital indulgence.
We are told that our lives will be better for all this. That our card house will provide comfort and shelter and a life of ease, that the drone will be useful, and indeed necessary. To farmers they say, “Imagine being able to monitor your fields from the comfort of your living room.” Of course, if the field was bathed in a carcinogenic cocktail, then perhaps sending a pair of digitalized eyes over fields would be wise. It certainly renders useless the old adage that the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps through his fields.
We are entering a time of profound and deeply altered human consciousness due to our increasing reliance on so called “smart” devices. Everything can be monitored always: your phone can count your footsteps and your heartbeat; it knows what you’ve searched online in order to sadistically target advertising directly to your interests; it knows where you are, knows where you were and can predict where you’ll go next. This is a profound and deep change in the way humans interact with each other and the world around them.
As I felt the presence of the drone above me that late summer afternoon the fear I felt was primeval, like the archetype of the Big Bad Wolf hiding in the Deep Dark Woods.
Our ancestors knew this fear: of the dark, of the unknown. The fears of our forebears however were rooted in the natural order of life on Earth: fear of something outside themselves, something bigger and more fierce, something hungrier. We now live in a world largely free of those fears. The frontier is settled, the jungle has been tamed and the Deep Dark Woods have been paved over. This new fear comes not from outside, but rather from ourselves, from the fear of our own creations. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster now flies through the air and stares into the lives of men and remembers with malignant malice.
For years I’ve tried to check myself in my growing concern for the future, to not exaggerate the dangers of the time in which we live. After all, things could be a lot worse. A third of our population could be dying from the Black Plague. Thousands of our fellow citizens could be losing their heads to the guillotine; or six million of us could be shipped off to the unspeakable horrors of concentration camps.
In every age there have existed hazards and challenges unique to that time, none of which is made manifest quickly and plainly. Every scourge of the earth comes creeping, small and slow at first then crescendoing to some calamitous event that eventually becomes the stuff of history. All we can do is sound the Clarion call of truth when we see it, taking action when we hear the canary in the coal mine.
Sometimes I wake in a cold sweat, afraid I may be blown away on the winds of change and sucked irrevocably into that modernist maelstrom. It is then that I must reach down and grab a handful of earth, or cling to the 600 year old trunk of Old Man Cedar down by the Waterfall, or reach both arms around the gargantuan neck of Sir Don and bury my face in his warm, sweet smelling summer coat and hold on, and just keep holding on – while tears of gratitude well up unbidden for the wonder and beauty of it all.
And so it seems we need a revolution. Or rather an anti-revolution, a de-revolution, an agro-de-revolution. One which starts when swords are turned into plowshares, smart phones into seed drills, laptops into legumes, Tweets into birdsong, Facebook into furrows, and drones into dreams: dreams of soil and seeds, manure and milk, harness and hay, wind and waves, frost and sunshine and lilacs in spring; and laughing children running barefoot through green pastures.
Let us dare to dream…
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…” – J. Masefield
“I’m going out to clean the pasture spring… you come too.” – R. Frost