The Effects of Going Off the Grid and Exploring Nature

Is going off the grid and retreating into nature sure to be relaxing and rejuvenating? Not for Rob Horning, who spent some time in Idaho for a nature trip awhile back. He reports:

Contra Thoreau, retreating into nature, instead of bringing me back to myself, made me feel like less of a self and a bit more like one of the many undifferentiated bison one encounters out there. I don’t feel replenished for the assault on the backlog of posts I intend to read and write. Instead, as I was out hiking, I would think of this dormant blog and wonder how I’ll ever manage to catch upa nagging thought that filled me with vague, unshakable uneasiness.

Being adrift in the natural world had come to feel very unnatural; the serenity seemed like a taunt. This seems to me the inverse of the interconnected feeling I take for granted in the time I spend online, and I understood for the first time why people would do something as inane as Twitter their hikes from their iPhones or something. I tried to feed this anxiety by taking lots of pictures with the idea of sharing them later, but this only aggravated the feeling. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures. Eventually I had to try the opposite tack and take no pictures at all.

There are two points here. The first is that if you take a vacation but spend the vacation time worrying about all the work that's piling up, it may cause more stress than you had in the first place. A valid point, which is why off-the-grid vacations need to be long enough so that you pass by that anxiety, so that you get you a point where so much work has piled up that you essentially say, "Screw it, time to relax." 6-7 days a couple times a year seems a good number for formal vacation; a couple days of stress, a few days of relaxation.

His second point is that being disconnected from technology–and out in nature–makes you feel adrift, perhaps lonely. I think this is a benefit from unplugging for stretches of time. Something that feels unnatural in the modern age is not necessarily a bad thing.

I wish I spent more time in nature and off-the-grid. That, and meditating, are two things I aspire to do more of in the year ahead in order to lower stress, improve health, and improve clarity of thought.

3 Responses to The Effects of Going Off the Grid and Exploring Nature

  1. DaveJ says:

    First, Walden (at least) is not at all about being off the grid – it’s about living frugally and simply. Thoreau regularly goes into town, and of course he’s writing the book the whole time.

    Second, I don’t think it’s technology that the writer craves, it’s the connectedness. He should use the opportunity to recognize a neurosis – that he is uncomfortable being alone and away from the chatter. A good experiment would be to go to another city for a few days and ALSO stay offline.

  2. Lucas Oman says:

    This is so sad to me. The natural world is such a beautiful place and, contrary to contemporary belief, is conducive to happy life. That is the “real life”, not this digital facade we pretend is real. Disclaimer: I’m a web developer, as steeped in this modern world as anyone else. I just appreciate the benefits of stepping back from it all on my frequent wilderness trips.

    The fact is, people are so obsessed with fleeting, modern distractions, like social networking and text messaging that they no longer take the time, as we were once forced, to sit in deep, quiet contemplation. Many of my life’s problems have found their solutions, not in advice from friends on Facebook, but from solitary thought.

    It sounds like Mr. Horning is more of an addict in need of an intervention than simply a “fish out of water”.

  3. Horning doesn’t mention if he was alone in nature, which another factor. On a remote jungle hike in Columbia, totally off the grid, I found myself to be far more “present” with my hiking companions. For one thing, there were no interruptions; no text messaging during conversations, no one running to meetings, no breaking news. But also, my mind stopped wandering around so much. I could get totally lost in the story of a dinner companion without those background thoughts of, “I need to email X later” or “How should I answer that text message from Y?” Everyone was simply and fully paying attention to each other.

    It was a good reminder of how communication and relationships can be. And it wasn’t really so bad to catch up on email when I got back!

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