Sunday, May 27, 2012

Turning 28

Today I turn 28 years old. Not a big milestone, by any means. To reflect on it too deeply seems self-centered, indicative of this social-media-mad, self-promotional time in which we live. But I also think that any birthday is a good time to look inward – and to gaze outward, to consider the rest of the world, the future and the past. When I turn 56, twice the age I am now, will these times seem quaint? Will our politicians still be playing the same meaningless games, while the real issues (overpopulation, species extinction, climate change and an overdependence on finite fossil fuel extraction, as Orion's editors succinctly put it) are largely ignored? What will our media and entertainment be like? In the 28 years I've been alive, we have moved from Atari to iPhones at an astonishing pace, and I wonder: in another 28 years, will new technologies enrich our lives, or will they make us ever more dependent on invisible systems and fragile, distant satellites?

Many of our politicians, economists and innovators promote growth in all its forms. In my lifetime, this attitude has brought us advanced medical care, unprecedented access to information and skyrocketing incomes in the developed world. It has not, however, brought any more happiness to the world. It has worsened living conditions in some developing countries, created pharmacological dependencies and high levels of depression in some wealthy countries, and decimated jungles, boreal forests, oceans, plains and just about every other ecosystem on the planet. To paraphrase Ed Abbey, growth for the sake of growth is simply cancer.

On my 28th birthday, I stay in bed late and sip my coffee and look out the window at the towering snowy mountains of the Kenai peninsula. I hope that the next 28 years will see a slowing in our blind insistence on growth and progress. This year is an election year in the United States, and though I try to scan the New York Times and NPR headlines once in a while, I am blissfully unaware of the political nuances that define the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. I am in a beautiful, wild place, but already, we have the internet at our fingertips here, and if I hike less than a mile away I can stand on a rocky point and get cell phone service too. I fervently hope than in another 28 years there will still be wild places on this earth, places where cell phone service and internet access are still a joke; where you cannot whip out your iPhone to look up the tides or how to start a fire in a cold northern rainforest or which direction is north but rather must know those things, in the core of your being, to survive. While the rest of the world stares glassy-eyed at an endless assembly line of smartphones, I hope that for my lifetime, at least, I will more often feel the sting of campfire smoke in my eyes. I hope that the wild places will remain free of satellite signals and data plans, open only to those who have made the effort to learn their secrets, to those who have paid their dues by crouching in the rain on a wet, rocky beach, trying to ignite the handful of dry tinder found under a downed log while all around the gray sky closes in and the seagulls reel through the fog and the barnacled rocks keep the world at bay.

I think back on previous birthdays. Last year (27) I spent the day working at the newspaper, but the weekend before my birthday, my dearest and oldest friend came up to visit me in Vermont. We sat on the rocks above a swimming hole, walked over covered bridges, ate at an old farmhouse. The year before (26) I stood on the sandy banks of the Stikine River in British Columbia teaching teenagers about river dynamics, then slept in a tent next to another dear friend, listening to the endless whisper of the river sliding past. The year before that (25), I sat in a class with hotshot firefighters in Idaho learning from the United States Forest Service how to use a chainsaw. At night, I painted my face with charcoal and crept through the dark for a game of capture the flag.

My mid-twenties were good. My late-twenties, which I have now officially entered, are still a mystery. I wonder whether I should start saving for retirement, whether I will ever have a family of my own, whether I am making good career choices. I wonder whether I should stop wondering about such things and focus instead on what the varied thrushes in the alders are telling me this morning or whether the tidal lagoon rising beneath the pilings of my cabin will be high enough to drag a kayak to by the time I finish writing this.

May 27 is nearly halfway through the year, close to the summer solstice. Yet for me, at least, it is the start of a new year. On New Year's Day five months ago, I was too busy trying to grasp a dying relationship that was slipping out of my hands to reflect much on the previous year, or to define my dreams for the upcoming one. Instead, today will be the day in which I welcome in a new year, a new time. Self-centered? Maybe. But too bad. I ended my mid-twenties with a heartbreak more difficult than anything I'd previously endured. A single night of coming home alone to a dark house was more difficult than an entire year in a developing country, or months of camping in the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter. I discovered a dark part of myself that I hadn't known existed. Today, as summer shoots begin to emerge and trees bud in the north, I find that I, too, have emerged on the other side, not whole, but still intact. My dreams are my own again. As I begin anew, I can see my life stretching out ahead of me like the ocean from the bow of my kayak: rippling, shimmering, full of possibility. 

Birthdays: like jumping into a blue abyss!

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