Stanford likes to call itself a farm. Yes, the campus is vast and green and littered with fruit trees. But windmills, plows and tractors power farms, while Stanford is propelled by ambition, caffeine, textbooks, computer code and some more ambition. While it is reasonable to desire to take full advantage of the innumerable opportunities at Stanford it is also the enormity of it all, the perpetual lack of a clear end in sight, that can become discouraging. There is always one more email to send, one more p-set to finish one more program to apply for. And then just when it seems you have waded through the murky waters of deadlines and can finally take a breather, Axess opens again for enrollment.
It is easy to miss the bigger picture when daily life is devoted to tending to an ever-growing checklist and sometimes it is necessary to take a step back to realize really put things into context. Last week I attended to a four-day festival on a farm in Pescadero. As we took a right off the highway onto a dirt path, which was dilapidated even by rugged hiking trail standards, we waited for the GPS to confidently announce our next move. Instead there was an eerie silence accompanied by two deceptively small words in the corner of the iPhone home screen. No service. I had suddenly found myself in a reality that I had apparently too hastily consigned to history books. I then proceeded to realize that my cellphone no longer had any practical use beyond the flashlight feature.
First there was the denial, the flicking of various switches in the vain hope that this might just be a case of harmless confusion. But it quickly became clear that this was no brief technological glitch and the defiant statement on the top left corner of my phone screen was as deliberate as an ATM in a mall. And then there was the internalization of the implications of this new development. There would be no texting or calling or, gasp, emailing. There would essentially be no capabilities to connect to any part of the world beyond where I could will my legs to carry me. And then there was the acceptance of the possibility that all the things I had labeled as incredibly urgent and decidedly necessary might actually be able to wait. And then came the relief; the evaporation of plans and schedules and deadlines and expectations. There was an assurance of place, which was incredibly freeing. I could truly be present because I had nowhere else to be. I had no obligations tied up in other places or other people. Everything I could interact with was within physical reach, was real and tangible. I was struck by the realization that life could exist without calendar confirmations. It was a reminder that presence, both of time and place, is indispensable and so overlooked today when there is very little you cannot access at the touch of a button.
Writers and philosophers throughout history have expressed their ardent love and awe of nature and asserted that without nature man cannot reach his or her full potential. Thoreau was one of the most passionate advocates of venturing into the wilderness and he recognized the importance of embracing nature about a century and a half before the invention of devices that allow us to be everywhere without actually going anywhere. But in a sense these innovations make our interactions with nature more necessary; nature that is not in the palm of our hands but rather nature that consumes us and gathers all the parts of ourselves that technology has scattered and reminds us of our place in the universe.
While Silicon Valley might be the tech capital of the world, it is surrounded by some of the most breathtaking natural sights that still remain blissfully unaware of the technological revolution and remain as a testament to the fact that there are some things that still cannot be experienced on a 6 by 3 glass screen. And despite not having been engineered or generated or coded, the resolution is still amazing.