BBC Travel is running my photos from a trip to Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska. It’s a corner of the US once occupied by Russia and whose residents were interned after the Japanese invaded the region during World War Two. Click here to see more.
I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time of late. When I’m deep in my more regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same friends and family under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter, contracted, and devoid of a certain pithiness. Time ticks-by evermore briskly. During these periods, it even seems to vanish or disappear when gazed at in retrospect. “Where did all that time go?” I sometimes ask myself. It is something we all experience.
On the other hand when I travel to new places, or when I see and do new things, time feels expanded, stretched, and lengthened in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and elapsing, than is usual. It unfurls like the volume of surface territory in a mountain range if one were able to flatten and stretch it out. No matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a period of months, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.
I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in a new city I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a pleasant and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.
We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning there are many versions of time. The way we experience it depends on numerous factors and circumstances.
Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”
“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.
“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”
Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most at present is within the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – taking much of our lives with it.
I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.
While I was in the U.K. I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home, a few things stood out. My partner and I were constantly problem solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail we were following would sometimes fade or vanish). Our visual background was constantly changing as we moved through many landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that soon changed to hilly, windswept moors which then gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we met and conversed with. And there was loads of conversation between the two us – and silent thoughts to occupy us when we weren’t speaking. In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn.
It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next – as Aristotle defined it – then the more visual and mental stimuli one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.
When we travel it feels like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans because we, in a sense, are actually doing more living. We are using our brains differently, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. This is when the feeling comes that time, and our lives together with it, are slipping away.
This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.
The rumours had been circulating for weeks: the announcement of a royal engagement was in the offing. Preparations went into high gear at the television news station to cover the announcement. We were all in a state of red-alert.
And then, with little more warning, the big day came.
At the morning editorial meeting it was one story to rule them all. Coverage would run all-day and include interviews with royal watchers, pundits, commentators, members of the excited public – anyone willing to speak.
Meanwhile, a massive fuel barge loaded with three million litres of diesel had become disabled in a bad storm off the Pacific coast of British Columbia, threatening an environmental disaster. That and other important stories had received scant mention, or had fallen under the radar in the early morning hours, because of the news of the upcoming nuptials.
“Would we run any other stories?” I asked a colleague.
“Not a chance. We’re going with wall-to-wall coverage. It’s a royal engagement!”
Hours into the show, the broadcast went live to reveal the happy couple stepping outdoors to face the paparazzi. The would-be bride nonchalantly raised her hand and flashed her diamond ring as the cameras simultaneously zoomed-in. A collection of high-pitched shrieks and sighs rose from several women in the newsroom. The lengthy on-air analysis which followed that moment was accompanied by a breaking news banner in red at the bottom of the screen that read:
“The One-of-a-Kind Royal Ring”
It was all very surreal – but also part of a larger and now familiar trend. When I considered our news coverage from the weeks, months and even years prior – whole daylong cycles of national news devoted to local murder trials, celebrity deaths, and the various scandals de jour – it was clear that the trend over time was to run with stories that were ever more sensational and emotionally loaded. The more I thought about it, the more I could see that society as a whole seemed to be in the grip of the same condition: a preoccupation with high emotion.
Our popular movies have become faster, more violent and peppered with terse dialogue spoken rapid-fire. Extreme division and polarization has hobbled our politics and negated the art of compromise. The tabloidization of even our most respected media organisations continues unabated: political and celebrity scandals have become de rigueur, eliciting disproportionally emotional responses from an entranced public. Social media has amplified our willingness and ability to share our opinions and oppose others – raising the emotional pitch even further.
Traditional Eastern psychology has long warned of the negative consequences of emotional overindulgence – and its distracting and blunting effects. The Sufi writer Idries Shah often wrote that people seek excitement, stimulation and emotion over truth – regardless of what they might otherwise claim. The idea that excessive emotion can interfere in our ability to observe subtleties, make nuanced discriminations and appreciate a wider reality was a major theme of his work.
“Emotion is a powerful consideration in human life,” he writes in Knowing How to Know. “It must be understood.”
It is not hard to appreciate the seductive power of emotionalism. Emotions serve the purpose of drawing and fixing our attention to important circumstances in the environment. They can be visceral and deeply stimulating – evidence that something important is happening – often eliciting a clear-cut reaction rooted in self-certainty. But high emotion, tied as it often is to various forms of self-preservation, causes us to think in the shortcut of absolutes. This black-and-white thinking turns our minds into obtuse instruments incapable of registering subtler shades of the truth.
Nothing seems to summon this very human proclivity to feel and react (as opposed to the more sober and measured effort to understand) as much as the news media. Though news serves an important function in keeping us informed and abreast of developments in the world, as well as being a check on political power, it can often come at a heavy price. It’s a common refrain that the majority of the stories covered in the news are negative. Bad news stories capture audiences because our minds evolved to perceive dramatic and threatening events in our environment. However, this incessant drumbeat of negative and pessimistic stories and images ripples out across society, setting a bleak emotional tempo for our lives.
As a freelance writer and journalist I periodically work at a national television news station where I am able to see how programming and story decisions are made. After the arrival of the Internet, the competition among more and more media for less and less advertising revenue has made news organisations desperate to attract the largest audiences possible. Though they have always sought to grab, hold and monetize our attention, most news companies have crossed a new threshold that have them going for the emotional jugular whenever possible.
The standard approach is to excite, anger, titillate, sadden and entertain audiences using the easiest and cheapest-to-produce stories. More virtuous, investigative, slower, truth-telling journalism – always hard to come by in the best of times – has become that much rarer.
Polemical debates and celebrity stories dominate the news cycle. If the two can be combined, all the better. Crime stories, mostly pertinent to local audiences, are now lifted from their narrower contexts and given national or international coverage. Because our brains are story-processing machines, news is often shaped and framed in a way most easy for us to consume: into archetypal tales in which a good person, suffering at the hands of a villain or exploiter, struggles to find justice. In addition to goading audiences to take sides in a conflict, this tactic also simplifies issues into easy to understand binary positions.
Though excellent and laudable work continues to be produced by some news organisations, they still tend to warp reality through exaggeration, simplification, and excessive repetition – often giving the impression that their stories define all of life and the world at any given moment. But of course the map is not the territory. Our world, in its great complexity and immensity, bears little resemblance to its news-born caricatures. And like the fish that has no idea it is in water because it is surrounded by it, whole newsrooms have become largely unconscious of what they are doing: sewing large scale anxiety throughout society.
We need to recognize these dynamics and their influence on our individual and collective emotional states.
So, how do we avoid having our emotions manipulated without tuning-out of media completely – or cutting ourselves off from the world?
A two-pronged approach might be taken. The first is to be parse and nimble in our consumption of information, an approach which could include:
1. Choosing news sources that are more likely to look at the bigger picture, and less likely to harp on the petty and trivial.
2. Periodically attaching and detaching our attention from the news instead of incessantly monitoring or binging on it.
3. Trying to see any story from as many different perspectives as possible, as opposed to just the one or two sides that tend to actually be represented.
4. Questioning the accuracy, relevance and importance of any given story – even those from the most reputable news organisations.
5. Combining, contextualizing and hedging any news with our own personal observations and experiences – and those of informed contacts. Sometimes our experiences, and those of people we know, will provide exceptions to, or will contradict, what the news is telling us.
6. Discovering other “news” in the world that we’re not hearing about in the mainstream – including, and especially, developments that are positive.
The second approach is to find ever-more satisfaction in our own lives – in our work, hobbies and projects. When we are healthily engaged in undertakings that are genuinely satisfying and stretching, we are less prone to pettiness and seeking stimulus from elsewhere – including from sensational news stories that are fundamentally not relevant to our lives.
Polemical, fear-inducing and/or sensational news media stories are the “bread and games” of our age. The more we can free our thoughts and emotions from the loops of neuroses they might induce, the more capacity we might have for seeing and appreciating the less thrilling, yet more holistic, weaves of nuance about our world that might more accurately depict it.
The L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.
To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.
Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.
“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”
Last fall I visited the Valais region of Switzerland near the border of Italy to work on a magazine assignment about Swiss Wine. In the city of Sion, after one of many wine-tasting sessions and a light lunch of raclette, my local guide and I (both a bit tipsy) hiked down the mountainside towards our next destination in the centre of town. Along one of the main thoroughfares we came across a huge workers’ tent pitched atop a former parking lot. When I asked about the tent, my guide said it was the site of an archaeological dig and suggested we go look inside.
We discovered there a team of archaeologists digging up an Iron Age necropolis containing numerous graves. Flamur Dalloshi, the lead archaeologist from Albania, told us the burial ground dates from prehistoric times. But the skeletons of interest, he added, were from circa 1,000 B.C.
Several months earlier Dalloshi became a minor celebrity after unearthing the remains of a male warrior that was laid to rest with his weapons, a razor, pottery vessels and bronze jewellery. Most of the skeletons, he told us, belonged to women and children of the elite ruling class, leading him and his team to believe that the society may have been matriarchal.
He invited us to take a closer look a the remains still being excavated. If you look closely at this skeleton on the left, you can see bits of clothing and jewellery just behind the back of the skull – and to the left of the mid-section (a belt).
When I asked him what was the most surprising thing he’d discovered, he replied that in some graves his team had found pottery with hoses running into them extending upwards to the surface. It was so that the living could provide the dead with water in their eternal repose.
While on an assignment in Northern British Columbia, I was introduced to a group of people working for a mining company prospecting for gold. Like most big city people, I know very little about mining beyond the occasional bad press those corporations garner when they cut corners and cause damage to the environment.
The geologists and technicians took me on a tour of their small warehouse, showing me their collection of ‘core samples’ – cylinders of rock that have been cut with a diamond drill and then and extracted from below the ground.
The samples are taken to find concentrations of gold in a given location. If enough of the metal turns up in the cores to justify the high cost of extracting it, a mining operation ensues. The below photo shows a core sample with trace amounts of gold, tiny flecks, in the rock on the top left edge of the core.
The mining company employees were nonchalant about their work, which they described as very regular and even mundane; not unlike how archaeologists sometimes demystify their undertakings to laypeople. But like archaeologists, I could discern the slightest sense of repressed excitement hanging in the air.
When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture and considered all of the physical, organizational and emotional effort going into finding and extracting a metal with little intrinsic worth beyond its human-endowed monetary value, the operation seemed a bit surreal.
As I was leaving, I asked a senior manager of the company what the next step was if, and when, they found enough gold to justify mining it. He told me that they would likely sell the claim to another company that would do the actual mining.
When I inquired as to what other locations they planned to prospect after hypothetically selling this location off, the man looked at me with a bit of surprise.
“Well, none,” he said, taken aback as if the answer were obvious. “The point of doing all this is that we hope to never have to work again.”
Read about my traipse up the remote Moose and North French rivers with cohorts Jean-Pierre Chabot and Mike Naponse during a visit to Moose Factory. This feature appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Explore magazine.
One of the unintended consequences of spending a lot of time working and travelling in a place like British Columbia – a region of mind-blowing physical terrain – is that one becomes de-sensitized to attractive, but less dramatic landscapes in other places.
The unavoidable reality is that our minds are constantly comparing. The west coast of Canada with its big mountains and vast rainforests, elevated in my mind to a sort of gold standard of nature, has acted as a spoiler for other worthwhile spots. Time outdoors in Ontario and Quebec has sometimes fallen flat.
We’re all familiar with the situation in which bold and sensational things can sometimes drive out the fine: a powerful experience makes such an impact that everything subsequent seems to pale in comparison. It is one of the larger pitfalls of travel. Some people spend years, and sometimes their entire lives, trying to recapture a dramatic period spent, or experience had, while travelling or living abroad.
I decided to ditch that addictive, defeatist thinking and to get out to appreciate the wilder areas near where I live in southern Ontario, without feeling the need to place them on some experiential scale of the epic.
This spring and summer I hiked a few short sections of the 900 kilometre long Bruce Trail Conservancy – something I’d never done before. I was hugely surprised. Those daylong rambles were among the nicest and most interesting I’ve done.
I’ve attached here a few Instagram shots of some views along parts of the trail.
Author David Rains Wallace, in The Wilder Shore, a book about California’s landscapes, demonstrates the silliness and inaccuracy of certain clichés:
“‘Making the desert bloom’ is as great a misnomer as the ‘Bureau of Reclamation.’ The desert blooms without civilized help when ample rains bring out its considerable diversity and abundance of native wildflowers. It is not the desert that blooms in the cotton and melon fields of the Imperial Valley or the Gardens of Palm Springs. The desert no longer exists in such places; it has been replaced.”
One of the largest, most advanced, and today least known cities in antiquity was the oasis centre of Merv, located in Central Asia, on the Silk Road, near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, Merv was the largest urban area in the world in 1200 A.D., with a population of more than half a million people.
Merv’s magnificence, unfortunately, must be left to the imagination as it was pulverized by the armies of Genghis Khan; its entire population put to the sword. Only a few dusty, sun-baked remains still stand.
Of its many reported qualities – including its colossal wealth and architecture – it is the city’s hydraulic system and waterworks that perhaps give the best indication of its astounding degree of advancement.
Because Merv was located on a desert plain, water was extraordinarily scarce. The inhabitants managed to divert and channel any and all water sources, near and far, into the city and surrounding countryside via a series of dams, catch-basins, canals, pipes and underground tunnels with access shafts – all built with complex changes of gradients. Even the morning dew was collected and used.
The entire system was an engineering marvel. Not just in terms of its construction, but also its maintenance.
To appreciate how complex and expansive the operation was, consider that Merv’s waterworks staff numbered 12,000 to maintain and repair the hydraulic system. Among them were 300 divers!
It may very well be that the need to cooperate on water issues helped to unite and gel Central Asian society, creating a kind of harmony of purpose that allowed them to succeed at so many other endeavours.
Like its neighbouring cities of Balkh, Bokhara and Samarkand, Merv was a node of high learning whose residents included savants and geniuses. It was also part of the wider Islamic renaissance that reached from China to Spain, and whose contributions, we now know, made possible much of the knowledge and advancements we enjoy in the West today.