Vacation’s over. Heat is on. Emails ferment in heaps. Reentry is so hard.
I’ve just returned from about 10 days in the Adirondacks where I, in 19th century fashion, took the cure and recuperated from the travails of modernity. Flippant, but true. Where I go—and the location will remain undisclosed, lest I have to track you all down and, you know, take care of you—has no land line in the cabin, no TV, no cell service, and no internet except at the public library. Instead, it offers clear water, crisp air, local beer and North Country Public Radio.
Now after 6 summers at the same cabin, on the same lake, in the same town with the same weathered and uncalculated charm, I have come to need that time and place like I need oxygen. I’m just another Adirondacks patient, in a sense, stretching back to those who started seeking a cure for tuberculosis at Saranac Lake in the 1880s. Consumption, another name for tuberculosis and other vaguely wasting afflictions, was the trendy disease of the 19th century city-dweller. It also became the easy way to dispatch any number of heroes and heroines in the literature or opera of the time.
We have our own disease of consumption resonating like a perfect octave with its 19th century predecessor. Its wasting is of a different magnitude and order. The toll on body and mind that consumption exacts from overworking, over-indulging, over-buying, and over-eating is by now familiar to us, but that doesn’t mean we do anything about it. But we’ve also become the parasite itself, in our wasting of energy, resources and, worst of all, opportunities to cure ourselves and the planet. And so, those who can, flee, take the cure and resume the countdown until next year. I live quite differently there. When water comes from a spring, the flow of which is sensitive to rainfall, I don’t take my water for granted. When every scrap of refuse has to be taken to the transfer station, I’m careful about what I use and re-use. Every dish gets washed by hand. Every bit of firewood carried in by hand. A small bit of my conscience warns me not to romanticize my Thoreaun week, or play at being a peasant like Marie Antoinette. That’s a different kind of consumption. We summer people—and this is surely the great common trait of modern tourism in general, eco-tourism in particular—experience aesthetically a landscape indifferent to our delight in it. Our leisure; others’ labors.
I saw a bumper sticker on a truck in town: “It’s not a damn park. It’s where we live. It’s where we work. It’s our home. Although it delights and reassures me that my Brigadoon never seems to change, that is the outsider’s perspective. What is striking about areas like the Adirondacks is that Nature herself is not shy about reminding us of that fact, if we’re attentive enough to pay attention. Disrespect her at your peril. The month of August appears benign. Come on back in January.
I suppose it’s this sort of reflecting that sent Thoreau into the woods in the first place. In the end it isn’t just the gazing at the shimmering lake or the dome of stars but the chance to think about the problematic of nature, culture and settlement that is rejuvenating. I’m humbled by the place; I treasure my time there even as if it means steaming piles of unread email upon returning. The therapeutic landscape works on body and mind. Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., one of the contributors to the Green Community book (which will be available next month, so get your checkbooks ready!) opens her essay with the following reminder:
The World Health Organization has defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” In this regard, the built environment is as important as any other physical factors that might trigger disease, such as infectious or inflammatory agents or toxins....Through the emotions, the physical environment can trigger or worsen stress-related diseases, or it can do the opposite: calm and prevent stress and thus enhance healing and health. Healthy environments must, then, be those that sustain both the emotions and physical health.