Middle of nowhere

“Middle of nowhere.” This is one of those phrases that have gradually gotten more annoying to me over time, and I realize now that it subtly says a lot about our society, and perhaps even influences our reactions.

The middle of nowhere tells us that it’s far from roads, and restaurants, and telephones, and people overall – this is, supposedly, the “nowhere” bit. Nowhere has nothing of any interest to it, no reason to want to go there. What would you do there? What’s there to see?

As you might imagine, I try to get to the middle of nowhere for photography every chance I get, and images from such places are pretty popular – I’ll even selectively compose some shots to make them appear to be more isolated. While our anthropocentric thinking portrays the lack of human influence as the lack of anything important, that’s really the only thing that we use to define nowhere. There could be anything, from lush forests to sculpted sand dunes, pristine snowfields to wide-open water. And you’ll notice that just choosing the right descriptions changes the idea from nowhere into something attractive ;-)

BlueRidgesObviously, there is no place that’s nowhere – there’s an implied following word: nowhere good, nowhere nice, nowhere interesting, nowhere important… whatever. (Reading that last string of phrases makes me feel sorry for anyone trying to learn this language, because they really don’t make sense, do they?) But how much are we affected by using such terms? When we’re isolated from so much of our human accoutrements, are we feeling alone, desolate, or abandoned? Does this make us, even subtly, fail to appreciate what we’re actually surrounded by? Do we ignore that the lack of trash, of industrial noise, of exhaust fumes is actually a remarkably pleasant thing? Are we conditioned to miss the interactive system right at our feet, millions of lives playing out in the dance of energy and ecology that encompasses the planet? Or, can we actually enjoy the lack of human contact for a while and drink in the sound of the grasses and the taste of the air? Do we, however subtly, recognize that we’ve taken our technology and ‘civilization’ a bit too far and need to leave it behind, if only for a few minutes or hours?

I’m not getting all Nature Boy here, advocating a return to log cabins and earwax candles, and I appreciate many of our conveniences as much as the next person. I don’t view the entirety of nature as pleasant; I actually hate cold weather and don’t sleep well on the ground, not to mention how technologically oriented the photography and website are. But I hate cities more, and feel more desolate surrounded by streets and concrete and shops than I have ever felt when far from human influence. I’m willing to admit I’m kind of anti-social and don’t get much out of large groups of people, nor feel the need to ‘fit in’ or any of that jazz – maybe that’s rare. Or maybe not, when I see how travel agencies advertise their vacation spots, and hear how often the term “get away from it all” is used when the conversation turns to relaxation.

Like so many things these days, I start examining this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. As a species, we have strong tendencies towards social interaction, which likely had a lot to do with how we arrived where we are today – cooperative species derive a benefit from multiple individuals working towards the same goals. Imagine if we had no roads or paths and had to get everywhere by making our own trails; imagine no cooks at the restaurants and we had to go into the kitchen and prepare our own meals (okay, I’m probably mangling the idea a bit now.) Suffice to say that cities are the extended manifestation of our social drives. Yet at the same time, we take a certain delight in vibrant landscapes, possibly from recognizing good places to live, hunt, and farm. And we seem to have a drive to explore too, seeking new places with this inherent idea that they will be even more interesting than where we are now, though this sounds rather peculiar when you think about it – there’s just as much chance, if not more, that such places will be worse. Regardless, we still delight in the majestic vistas, sometimes even because they’re the “middle of nowhere” and far from others.

So there’s a conflict. Like much of our lives, conflicts do not immediately get resolved in favor of one or another, but wobble back and forth, taking turns in which gets appeased at any given time, and sometimes abandoned when the hankering for another state of affairs gets too strong. Work or family or convenience may keep us deeper in the urban sprawl than we prefer, but we offset this with the efforts to distance ourselves whenever we can. It’s admittedly hard to pay the bills by traipsing around the wetlands (though I’m trying damn hard to accomplish this,) so we accept the bad with the good. Yet it still seems odd to call it “nowhere.”

Then again, maybe this subconsciously helps to keep such places from getting overrun, letting humanity concentrate in urban areas so some expanses of inhumanity remain in nice shape, providing us with the means to get away. This suggests that I may be working against us all here by reminding anyone about such areas, encouraging them to spend more time there and thus contributing to the number of people therein. Damn I’m so confused right now, but I take solace in the fact that my readership remains low. And now maybe I have to leave and go sit by a stream somewhere all alone, while I still can ;-)