The following is based on remarks delivered for the 2013 Oregon Legacy Author Series in Lincoln City, Oregon, January 2013. Speakers are asked, “How does the Oregon landscape influence your work?”
One evening recently at a family gathering, I found myself alone in the living room, my four-year-old son asleep on my chest, while the rest of the family socialized in the nearby kitchen. On an end-table, well out of arm’s reach, a book caught my eye. I didn’t want to wake my son, but I didn’t want to fall asleep myself, and that book looked interesting. Finally, after a quandary of several minutes, a solution occurred to me. I fished the cell phone from my pocket and dialed a number on my “contacts” list. Beyond the living room wall, in the kitchen, I heard another phone begin to bleat. Then my sister-in-law’s voice: “I have a call from Mark Cunningham,” she announced to the people in the kitchen. “Isn’t he in the living room?”
She answered. We were both holding our phones to our ears, but we could hear one another through the wall. Quietly, I asked my sister-in-law to ask my wife to come into the living room.
A second later, my wife appeared. At the sight of our sleeping darling she gave a lovely, mothering smile. Then she handed me the book. Our boy could go on sleeping, while I read contentedly.
The wonders of technology.
My short-distance call was at heart a satirical gesture. My anecdote about it here is meant to be equally satirical. It’s absurd, of course, to phone a relative who’s sitting in an adjacent room. I’m reminded of some words from our late great Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin. “Technology,” Boorstin said, “insulates and isolates. While [it] seems to bring us together, it does so only by making new ways of separating us from one another. … The future will be a world of millions of private compartments.” Boorstin was writing in 1978, but we of the present, living as we are in the age of the office cubicle, the home PC, the blue-tooth-enabled commuter car, and the Facebook profile, know very well what he means about “compartments.”
Our technologies have always promised in some way or other to regenerate us. This is precisely their allure. With a faster car, we will travel farther, have greater freedom and more adventures; with a good e-reading device, we will read more; with a better smartphone we will extend our social and professional reach — and be reached more often.
In my new novel, The Silent Generations, the main character Benjamin Lorn, growing up in a tiny Iowa town in the late 1800s, finds this promise of technological regeneration in the Internet of his day: the telegraph.
At the copper-edged counter in Perpetua’s Wabash depot Benjamin had stood with his father, sometimes his mother, and watched Mr. Mueller, depot man, postal clerk, and operator, tapping signals into the wire by use of a trim lever key. The key made glottic clicking sounds and Mr. Mueller’s green visor glistered as he canted his head to listen. His tapping formed no clear pattern but a body could speak to anyone in the country — even as far as California — by that method. Or so Benjamin had learned. It seemed pure conjuration. It offered wonder even grownups could not foreswear. The boy could think of no other thing with such a claim, whose magic would not die no matter how aged or wise a person got.
The humming wires followed King Street along Perpetua’s town square and continued west to the track by the depot. From there they trued themselves to the railroad. Standing in his father’s store or at the depot platform Benjamin watched them bellying pole to pole and onward to distances unreckoned. Twice, three times a day the trains thundered through that way, to vanish at the narrow place on the horizon. It always left the wires swaying overhead, droning sorcery. “Wind makes em hum,” his father told him, but Benjamin would not believe this. At heart he knew the sound to be voice of a secret energy. Already he felt eternity in the wires.
And so Benjamin, seven years old here, resolves to become an operator, to live a railroading life of adventurous travel from station to station, a “boomer’s” existence — Westward Ho! — working the wires as he goes, outpacing the forces of time, geography, and his dark family history by essentially uploading himself into a wire.
Always going, purely present, blind to all preceding. … He wants to be the humming wire,
outside time. To let nothing cling to him.
Late in his travels, arriving in Pendleton, Oregon, Benjamin meets — and enters the employ of — a lesser tycoon of the railroad and telegraph, a mad prophet of the new. (I wholly invented this character, incidentally). “The railroad and telegraph shatter,” the man tells Benjamin,
wholly shatter our tidy conceptions of time. To wit, the locomotive has carried us in a few short decades from life by crop to life by clock. Can we yet comprehend the implications of such a shift? The immense consequences in our history, the very consciousness of our race? Think of it, my friend, for the man awake in India this very moment is a different day. It is tomorrow. Yet we may touch him by wire in a matter of moments. We may reach from this day to that futurity. What have we done then but overthrow time? — and geography, time’s confederate. Even mountains needn’t encumber us.
The same man tells Benjamin: “We have learned irreverence toward sun and season.” And this last statement is borrowed — repurposed — from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, a landmark and, yes, amusing work of cultural commentary, published in the 1980s, about television’s effect on American culture. What beautiful and disturbing words Postman’s are. They’ve haunted me, those words, since I first read them years ago. How could I resist smuggling them into my own work? — putting them into the mouth of a frontier technologist, a character meant to suggest the first inklings, here in the West, of the consciousness that would give us Silicon Valley. It’s as a Westerner, as a native of this edge of the continent, that Postman’s words really get to me. We have learned irreverence toward sun and season.
Some friends of mine, parents of a five-year-old girl, once told me of their daughter’s confusion while driving around Pennsylvania during a family visit there. Her parents had pointed out some Pennsylvania mountains. “Where are they?” the girl kept saying. “I can’t see them. I can’t see them!” She was looking right at them. But this was a girl who had grown up in view of Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Rainier (11,250 feet, 8,400 feet, 12,300 feet, and 14,400 feet respectively).
The native Westerner (the one who stays anyway) enjoys a special inheritance. We tend to understand a thing or two, down in our bones, about mountains and canyons, landscapes and long views, the vastness of the natural realms. “I have never been able to refrain,” wrote Wallace Stegner, one of our greatest writers, “from telling easterners that Mount Washington, their pride, could be set down in the Grand Canyon — in a ditch — and never show above the rim. … Whatever he may not know, a Westerner is bound to know geography.”
I’d put it a little more starkly: the Westerner is well acquainted with the naked, grand, unnerving face of the earth — and what that suggests about our place in the order of things. Beyond any actual wilderness experiences (which I’d guess most of us have had in lucky abundance), we’re well acquainted with the experience of driving for five, six, ten hours and seeing out our window far more landscape (often stunningly scenic) than buildings. I remember being rightly horrified, in a deep existential way — being reduced nicely to size, you might say — the first time I crossed the agoraphobic deserts of Nevada. On Washington’s Highway 14, as you head east from the Columbia River Gorge into the forbidding glacial scablands on your way to Walla Walla, you pass a sign I particularly like: “Next gas 87 miles.” Stylistically, existentially, that’s a remarkable message: a little forlorn, but straight-up, no apologies.
“Destinies, outlined against the basic earth. That is the story we all write in the American West, whether in memory or on the white canyons of paper.” That’s Ivan Doig, another great writer from this side of the Missouri.
We live, out here, in almost daily consciousness of what you might call the irrevocable reality of human remoteness. The wildnerness, should it find you inadequately prepared, can eat you up — quite literally if you happen to be, say, in Grizzly country. After a point, it will not matter that you started out in a road-ready SUV with a full tank, a GPS, and a smartphone.
The writer Sven Birkerts, in his magnificent 1994 book, The Gutenberg Elegies, prophesied of our technological future:
It will be harder and harder … to step free of our mediating devices. There will be people who will never in their lives have the experience that was, until our time, the norm — who will never stand in isolated silence among trees and stones, out of shouting distance of any other person, with no communication implement, forced to confront the slow, grainy momentum of time passing.
Most of The Gutenberg Elegies, read today, shows Birkerts to be an uncannily accurate prophet. Our daily lives in 2013, over-connected and short on focus, bear out many of his predictions from almost twenty years ago. But in this particular passage he writes like an easterner (which, as a citizen of Boston, he is). What I mean to say is Birkerts has forgotten, as urban easterners tend to do, that he lives in just one tiny, non-representative patch of the continent. People who will never in their lives stand in isolated silence among trees and stones? Certainly there are already such people in the U.S. — hordes of them, probably, in the urban northeast. But the daily consciousness of the person living in this part of the country, here in the West (more specifically perhaps, it comes of being born here), often endows that person with a certain exceptionalism when it comes to the technological totality that Birkerts forecasts. Our expansive, still largely unsettled Western landscapes are unlikely to be wholly subjugated to our communication technologies any time soon. And the Western consciousness is one awake, for the most part, to a natural majesty and magnificence that abides, in glorious indifference, amid and around our screen-addled, electronic, technologized lives.
Even from the swarming city of Portland, where I live, I can be in that wild, isolated silence whose absence Birkerts mourns — in less than an hour. It’s a short walk along a mostly deserted forest path before my cell phone ceases to do me any good. Only a little farther on, and I’m well out of shouting range, unlikely to see another person for hours, if not days.
In an open country everyone is a traveler; most Westerners develop that habit of covering ground in gargantuan chunks. I suspect that the man who contemplates empty landscape while he drives his own car has something of a spiritual advantage on the one who, boxed in a subway or bus, contemplates tomorrow’s news in the five o’clock final of some tabloid. I have no statistics on ulcers, but I have convictions and some evidence.
Here’s another slice of The Silent Generations, in which a sickly Benjamin Lorn travels by train through the Western barrens, on his way back to Iowa:
Eastward by rail across country fit to pry the soul agape, along brindled deserts and on against long horizon seas of sage star thistle soapbrush fireweed — volcanic cinder piled up in cones to block the sun. Elsewhere along morainal slopes the queer red pumice reposes in fingerlike crags, a sort of petrified desert Christmas tree — mantled, these scenes, with dusting of snow.
A body goes with senses armed. A body misses nothing for everything leaps. Finding you sick or tired the country insists no less. In shuddering seat, in heat and torpor, Benjamin tries to dim his eyes. No use. He is a flexing eyeball. Ringing eardrum. The country stands in a shout. All emptiness and yet no oblivion. It throws you back on yourself.
That could be a description — and maybe it is, after all — of my own response to the geography of my native West. A body goes with senses armed. The landscape throws you back on yourself.
The writer Wendell Berry has said: “There is an intimacy the mind makes with the world it awakens in.” As I feel it, the West, which for me meant Northern California until I was 27, and now means our grand Northwest, is a world to prime the imagination. One becomes a flexing eyeball, a ringing eardrum. My ideas, as a writer, never flow with quite the same fluidity and magical appeal as they do while on a long, long drive through the open country of Oregon.
My main point here has, I think, something to do with the question of proximity. The proximity, for each of us, of the vast, magisterial, and often forbidding wilds and open spaces of the West — this proximity unites us in a special kind of understanding, and with that comes an instilled skepticism concerning the faux-proximity our technologies promise. (While mindful of the various types of Gold Rush the West has forever been heir to, I’ve always found it interesting and ironic that the Internet revolution — an entirely indoor revolution, irreverent to sun and season — should have originated here.)
As Westerners we are, despite our devices, inhabitants of a world so much larger than ourselves; the evidence is in those long views, punctuated with towering mountain peaks, that we find on our very doorsteps. And I submit that we are acquainted with things — remoteness, aloneness, vast superhuman forces and presences, the silence of trees and stones, the ancient mysteries of the wild — that are the quintessential opposites of what we have come to understand in our technologized, hyper-connected age, as “progress,” or as pragmatic, profitable human “evolution.” What does a forest path have to do with one’s tally of Facebook friends or hits per day?
If we are not, at heart, different out here, then at least our geography, being as different — as distinctive — as it is, would have us be so. The land itself implores us to stand apart, if only in a spiritual way, if only in the sense of seeing a larger picture. Call it Outsideness, this special consciousness. The terrains of the West manifest a geological scale that utterly decimates human chronology, and so also, to an extent, the significance of human industry, etc.
“What are we in such wastes?” asks the mad tycoon in my novel. “Where can we be bound? We creep small and wayward like flies on a billiard table.” His own answer is to proselytize: the telegraph will save us from ourselves and our geographical condition! The telegraph will “ease the ravages of time!” Through that magical wire, “we may unstick ourselves and crawl no more!” It’s a message very much alive in the evangelizing of today’s technologists, those partisans of the compartmentalized life Daniel Boorstin described back in 1978. Salvation via fiber optic cables!
Well, we know better. In the shadow of our snow-capped volcanoes here, on our rugged Western cliff-edge above the sea, we look not as much to the ambitious Europe that so molded the culture of our eastern seaboard, as to the inward-directed ancient East, and like good Buddhists we know that we are small. Yes, and then in spite of (or perhaps because of) this humbling, this clearing of vision, we feel, also, that this West — more spacious than a dream — is a world to unlock our potentialities.
And what potentialities are those?
Amid the hubbub of jangling cellphones, of 700 million online tweets per day, of revved-up search engines and frantic status updates, we Westerners, we Oregonians, are only too well acquainted with no-coverage zones. While we stand before a thundering waterfall, or tread the icy waters of a mountain stream in the heat of summer, or watch the spray on the haystack rocks offshore, our phones say simply “Searching … searching.”
And we smile. For once, our gadgets have got it truly right. Our geography reminds us of the greater search to be had — greater values, greater visions, more clear-sighted, more substantial ways to spend the short time we’re given.
M. Allen Cunningham is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, named a #1 Indie Next Pick, and Lost Son, about the life of the poet Rilke. His story collection, Date of Disappearance, was released in illustrated limited-edition last year, and his first nonfiction volume, The Honorable Obscurity Handbook, came out this spring. His writing has appeared in many publications, and he’s a frequent contributor to the Oregonian. The recipient of a 2013 Artist Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission and prior fellowships from Literary Arts and Yaddo, Cunningham is the founder of the Portland-based micro-press Atelier26 Books. Visit www.mallencunningham.com.