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An Alaska summer beats any screen. But screens are where we live now.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: 6 days ago
  • Published 6 days ago

A view of the Herring Islands in Kachemak Bay, 2010. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

The chainsaw cut a 1-inch slice from a driftwood log that was so wide my arms could barely encompass it. We watched as fire curled the disk into an inverted bowl the shape of an animal's chest. Smoke streamed through its cracks like last breaths.

This was our entertainment on a Kachemak Bay beach one recent, benevolent summer night. The sensuous flow of the flames, the scent of salt steam and bubbling sap, the colors harmonizing with the bright embers of the northern sky. No one was bored.

Now I'm back in Anchorage. Transition here — I can't say coming home — is so much harder than going there.

Maybe you've experienced it yourself when you come in from the Alaska wilderness, when the beeping of incoming messages spoils the music of the tide and sun.

With a jerk you re-engage in the global digital machine.

On the beach, the story of the weather develops each moment through learned patterns, a storm presaging the plot with cat's paws blowing cold over the water. Here, behind glass, the weather's story is shrunken and irrelevant, another picture competing with the flashing images on screens.

There the day begins with bright, cool dawn and the sounds of jays walking the roof and waves rippling ashore.

Here the morning comes when the smartphone plays its wake-up tune, just like a ring when someone calls. This call brings attention to a stream of messages, images and videos that never ends.

As in the jump between waking and dreaming, presence in one world soon erases knowledge of the other. But in that moment of discontinuity, I think I can see the future.

Assimilation to technology is changing the experience of being human. It did so long ago. But now that change is accelerating and becoming irrevocable.

What's gained is vast power. We are defeating time and space. In the knowledge economy, material things recede to afterthoughts.

What's lost is the sense of what we truly are — biological beings with bodies that emerged from the world and remain inseparably akin to it.

Surely the madness of our age comes partly from that rapid divorce.

Children huddle in their rooms on smartphones rather than meeting in the midnight sun, where they would perhaps get in trouble, but would at least live. Surveys say teens are abandoning risky behaviors — the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that worried earlier generations of parents.

Instead, an epidemic of anxiety weighs down young people. Fewer car crashes, more suicides. There's a cost to splitting up with your physical self.

Critics of this kind of critique — teens first among them — point out that every generation of parents sees the culture's demise in the behavior of the young. It's true, culture always changes and never dies. But this change is as consequential as any in a lifetime.

It comes at the same time as the Earth's sixth great wave of extinctions, a transformation to the natural world larger than any in humankind's existence. Our species is causing it with climate change, habitat loss, pollution, overfishing and overhunting, diversion of water and movement of species.

Alaskans may have been among the last of the developed world to think of the environment as inexhaustible. I don't think many do now.

Mussels and clams are now scarce on a shore near Bear Cove in Kachemak Bay on Sunday, July 9, 2017. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

On the bay, conversation often turns to what's missing. Those who are older or know a bit of history have more to say. Rocky shores that teemed with life now seem vacant.

The reasons are various and complex, but they lead back to the human use of resources and the direct and indirect pressures we place on our environment.

As with human cultures, ecosystems always change and never die. But rapid change tends to flatten them, removing the complexity and reducing the productivity of natural systems.

Humanity will not perish from these causes. But as our population increases, our wealth expands and our technology improves, we're likely to domesticate more wild places, turning the planet into a machine for making food and energy.

I discussed this several years ago with Geerat Vermeij, of the University of California, Davis, who studied ancient ecosystems to understand the future path of human ecology.

"It's going to look a lot like what we have today, but more so," he said. "A completely human-dominated Earth and biosphere where most of the diversity is in human artifacts and human occupations rather than biological ones."

Cyberspace will replace real space. It has to if everyone is to fit on the planet.

We're already far beyond the point where all of humanity can live as Alaskans do. Sitting on the beach at a campfire is an immense luxury — there aren't enough beaches and driftwood logs for everyone.

But Alaskans may resist longer than others, because many of us know so well what's lost in the slide into the digital world.

Human minds are amazing, but not compared to the genius of the natural world. A human mind is a small thing even compared to a whole human being.

No computer will ever give me a moment as fulfilling and complex as simply watching that sliver of wood burn.

The tree had 150 rings or more. It had grown slowly in a thick, shady forest before propellers churned Kachemak Bay, when the waters remained thick with herring and shellfish and the big trees had not been brought down by spruce bark beetles, an agent of climate change.

Those changes progress. But for now, eagles still wheel on the updrafts of the steep shoreline. Devil's club leaves open like big hands where sunlight falls through the trees. Birches rattle in the wind.

Down in the heather a clam shell deposited long ago by a feeding seabird erodes slowly back to white dust.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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