Sunday, December 31, 2017

Somebody's watching you

Don't look now: someone is almost certainly watching you.

This year alone, according to estimates published by Business Insider, we humans--at least those of us able to afford some kind of camera--will take some 1.2 trillion photos, the majority of them with smartphones. That's an average of 500 photos for every one of the nearly 2.3 billion smartphone owners in the world, or approximately 133 images for each person on the planet. We add this number of digital records to the 1.1 trillion photos we took in 2016, the 1 trillion we took in 2015, the 800 billion we took in 2014 and so on. 

I've written about trillions before on this blog--see "Counting Trillions"--and 1,000,000,000,000 remains an almost unimaginably large number, whether we're talking about debt, stars, digital images or intestinal flora, all notions that we currently measure in the trillions.  For example, 1 trillion seconds ago was 31,546 years ago, which is to say well before the end of the last ice age, and possibly before humans lived on or in the Americas, although new evidence suggests that humans or humanoids just might have been cracking mastodon bones along the Pacific coast around 1 billion hours or 115,000 years ago. But 1 trillion hours, which is to say nearly 115 million years ago, dinosaurs were roaming the earth, and some 43 trillion hours ago, the earth was a spinning, gaseous lump.

I am, of course, doing my part to contribute to the global glut of digital data: I estimate that in the last six or seven years, I am personally responsible, for some 10,000s of photos, most not taken with a smart phone, but with that now apparently obsolescing instrument, a stand-alone camera.  The majority of these thousands of photos reside on my (various) hard-drives, and will never be seen by anyone.  Why keep them then? Because they are? Because I think I can? Because they might matter? Because I haven't had time to look at them yet long enough to decide if I will keep them--and I think that someday I will?!

Time may do its work and corrupt these drives, or make the file systems in which the photos are recorded unreadable if I don't do something else to fix or translate them. This has already happened to videos I shot less than a decade ago.  I feel a pang of loss all out of proportion to the content of those files; memories of dozens of 8mm home movies of my mother, as a baby, being bathed, fill my head, valuable proxies for the sort of content that might be lost when such files disappear.  If I am being honest, however,  I must note that I only once watched a few minutes of that apparently endless maternal footage, much to my mother's relief; I suspect that no one has any idea where those reels are now. My own files recorded walks along the Nova Scotia coast and up to the summit of Coronados Island in the Sea of Cortes. I remember these walks well; why isn't that enough?

Why do we need to capture ghosts of ourselves and our experiences everywhere we go? What are we preserving thus? What losses do we imagine we might forestall with our clicking and posting or filing? Do we really think we're so evanescent that all traces of us will disappear when we die, leaving behind our mountains of stuff, our digital data, our gyres of plastic and debris? Perhaps it's simply a fear that we will (or do) disappear when others don't see us--that certainly seems to be what facebook and the other organs of social media would like us to believe. And so we continue to log our lives, at greater and greater pace, arriving at the point where the logging very nearly coincides with, or even sometimes replaces the living.

But think about this: we now live in such a ubiquitously recorded world that surely, often, many of us regularly show up, ghosts in a host of records we know nothing about.  Not only are we billions snapping anything and everything and everyone, but cities, shops and work places are full of closed circuit cameras; certain professionals now regularly wear bodycams; many people set up web surveillance of their houses and yards;  and of course there are ever more versions of Google Street View.  Sometimes we know we are being captured by these cameras; often we do not.  Often we live our lives utterly unaware of the cameras all around us.

Would we live it differently if we noticed them? I wave sometimes to the surveillance cameras on neighbours' houses, or jump out of the way of a tourist's lens along the Halifax waterfront, but most of the time I remain blissfully ignorant of any record of my passing. I think I prefer it that way, although perhaps I ought to smarten up.

I always feel like somebody's watching me.
And I have no privacy.

Rockwell, Somebody's Watching Me 1984

For a time in the late 1980s, in Baltimore, not long after a friend had been found bludgeoned to death in her own apartment, I was subjected to some sort of watching. Often, as I entered my apartment, after a run or a day at school, the phone would ring.  If I answered,  someone who clearly knew I'd just come in would say something to me about my arrival. My watcher never explicitly threatened me, but they clearly meant to be menacing.  I found them very terrifying, particularly in the wake of my friend's unsolved murder.  I contacted the police; they put a trace on the line, but never discovered who was stalking me.  I ultimately paid to have an unlisted phone number, although I worried sometimes that this meant that whoever had been watching might have to confront me then to reach me. Within a year or two I'd moved away, and I forgot the whole incident. Until yesterday, when I was thinking about just how many cameras are clicking and clacking and recording all around us.

My friend Martha, from whom I'd rented a room in Halifax in the fall, wrote to tell me that she'd seen something peculiar on Google Street View:

Eventually I got around to taking a look. Yes, there it was, my car in Martha's drive.  But I didn't think that's what she meant, so I zoomed in for a closer inspection. Yes, there I was, at the door, bag in hand, coming or going.  It was a warm day; September; I'm wearing a crumpled white blouse, open at the neck. Google has blurred my eyes, just as they'd blurred my license plate, still I recognize myself, or a version of myself: faded, blurry, unselfconscious, but recorded. How many millions and billions of these sorts of photos exist of we billions as we wander about in our daily lives? 

In 2015, Rose Eveleth set out to try to figure out the answer to that question for the Atlantic magazine; what she found is that no one knows. No one even knows how to estimate how many such "accidental" portraits exist. Apparently many. As I began to talk about my image with others, the stories began to pour back about this or that friend, snapped while walking the dog, or mowing the lawn. Weird, because when I've seen Google Street View, it's almost always been like Daguerre's early images, streetscapes devoid of humans. And yet here, in the photographic shadows, we are...


Caroline Cakebread, "People will take 1.2 trillion digital photos this year--thanks to smartphones"

Number of smartphone users world wide from 2014-2020:

Karin Cope, "Counting Trillions," 

Jessica Schladebeck, "Humans may have arrived in America 100,000 years earlier than thought," 

Carrie Sylvester, "2017 Camera wrap-up: where have all the cameras gone?" 

Rose Eveleth, "How Many Photographs of You are Out There In the World?" The Atlantic 2 November 2015:

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Unusually warm again: on the peculiarly temporary sensation of enjoying climate change

I wrote this on October 28, but it is still true in November, this humid unseasonable weather that clings to the days and makes our nights sweaty and confusing.

A band of clouds gathers over the outermost islands, but here, closer inland, the sky is blue and the sun warm, the air sweet and gentle, hot even, if you're in the lee of the breeze. Dragonflies fall into the sea; you notice them because they spin in the water in their death throes, their wings still revolving. The great blue herons still fish from the pond and at the backs of the coves, and the loons still gather and linger, floating silently some distance offshore.

It's still so warm that some of the lupines have burst into bloom again; likewise the thistles, and at night, here and there, we can hear a few frogs creaking and singing from the mud, as if we might skip winter and it were spring all over again. Mosquitoes still gather and slow moving flies bumble into our hair as we walk at the forest edge. Meanwhile, the apples ripen and drop from the trees, the cranberries redden and sweeten,  and the ferns have turned brown and begun to crumble.  Wild rosebushes gleam yellow and scarlet; rose hips jewel along the path by the shore. The tamaracks (or larches, as they are called in the US,) yellow and begin to drop their needles. These are all sure signs of autumn; nevertheless, no one can be sure that it has arrived.

We walk and stretch and snooze in the afternoon sun, eat carrot salad for lunch, sip green tea. Golden light halos the yellowing leaves still clinging to the trees, and porcupines mumble in the underbrush.  The dog flushes pheasants and young grouse; deer droppings pebble the yard. The grass is still green. We sit on the porch and read, stare out over the water, and puzzle over when the cold will come. A spate of warmest, record-breaking days unfolds week over week. Every denies it, but we all love it. I think Canadians like climate change, says Elisabeth, who at nearly 83 is our household elder.

And so do we, even as the dwindling numbers of returning ducks and strange and sudden appearance of exotic fish in the water and razor clams along the beach alarm us. We all catch what feel like summer colds, but enjoy walking barefoot through the house and wearing t-shirts and shorts at the end of October. Where will it all end?

We don't want it to end, but this ongoing spate of warm weather makes us nervous.  It is as if we are holding our collective breath: the world has gone unpredictable, and we do not know what will come next. 

Meanwhile, the usual rapaciousness of superextractive industries continues and everything we touch turns to waste.  Every day brings idiot pronouncements from Washington, along with increasing rollbacks of environmental protections. The poor are ever poorer, the rich richer.  Insects are dying in unprecedented numbers; new wars break out nearly every day, and the number of global refugees tops 65 million. Nothing we have thoughts immutable is going to stay the same and we here, we privileged denizens of the global north, are largely to blame: this is the truth from which we frantically turn, as we thumb through our facebook feeds, liking, liking, loving, weeping, again and again.  (Look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Poem trying to get in out of the rain

Autumn rattles at the windows of the night, rips
leaves from looping trees, punches
gustily against the wall.
I waken to creaking roofbeams, peer
sightless into blacklit night. Nothing
to see, but everything that is is sounding:
such a rush and crash of waves on rocks;
the clothesline sings a one-note samba,
the chimney turns to didgeridoo.
Only the dog sleeps, silent, beside me.
If I open the door to let the poem in,
it can sleep all night on the bench by the fire and
I'll return to bed then to wake you, slipping
frigid feet behind your knees.

Photos are of Usnea, or "Old man's beard" lichens in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Journey's End, or Reflections As One Thing Passes Into Another

Sky passes into sea, Rose Harbour, Kunghit Island, Gwaii Hanaas

4:30 am Atlantic Daylight Savings Time Sunday 27 August, 2017  West Quoddy, Nova Scotia

Just a week ago we were in British Columbia, preparing for our last day on the boat for the year.  We'd moved into the launch slip, for the boat was to be hauled for some repairs, and eaten a quiet meal in the cockpit as darkness dropped over the Fraser River.  Overhead, dozens of airplanes streamed in on the same route: a sharp turn over the towers of the Alex Fraser Bridge, and then the lock onto a final approach over the river; they rumbled overhead to the airport, lights like a searching beam coming right at us. Our bags were half packed; the next morning I'd strip the bed, wash the sheets, defrost the freezer and scrub down the remainder of the living spaces on the boat, while Marike stowed lines and investigated the persistent and worrying flow of water over the top of the rudder, among dozens of other vital details. Cushions were clean and stacked in the salon, bedding and blankets bagged, charts rolled up, guidebooks put away. And just like that, the journey, which had unfolded gradually across time and space, embedding landscapes and experiences in our flesh and memories for months, rumpled closed; its urgencies began to dissipate.

Rising tide. Hakai Luxvabalis Recreation Area, Queen Charlotte Sound

Did it happen? Of course it did--finally, we'd made it to Haida Gwaii and back--but the marks the voyage left on our bodies, the habits of vigilance and care that it instilled in the rhythm of our days, had begun to disperse.  Before long we would be embedded in the life of the land again, unconscious of each fluctuation in barometric pressure, unconcerned about the exact times of the tides or the force and direction of the wind. Before long we'd be in another geography, on another coast, in our house. Then the question in the middle of the night would no longer be 'how strong is the wind? or 'does the anchor hold?' but something more diffuse and existential: 'who am I; where am I; and what must I do that matters next?' 

A lengthy and demanding voyage relieves us of such questions in many ways by giving us a trajectory and many clear parameters: the goal each day is to make good enough judgments about when, where and how to go a certain distance, that we may arrive safely. The consequences of failing to do this are fairly immediate and significant. Why one goes is not at issue: the meaning of life is to be alive and to stay alive, to become a resonating body, attuned to the wind and waves, other creatures, the landscape, the tides, and to the sounds of the boat. You ask, 'did we make the right call there?' 'is the raw water pump working?' not 'who am I and why do I exist?' You move from chart to chart, asking how best to get from here to there; such efforts, for the time one makes them, seem to preclude the feeling that one has gone astray--above all these days, for thanks to the extreme precision of Global Positioning Systems, it is almost never necessary, while underway, to puzzle out painstakingly where you are. 

Fog lifts and smoke remains. Entering Johnstone Sound from Blackney Passage.

But back on land, reinserted (however fitfully) into the news cycle and various pressing human concerns as we attend to the circuitry--the communications, the appliances, the vehicles, the yard work and habits of cleanliness and order--that sustains our carbon-rich lives, the absence of charts, of an evident trajectory across the repetitions that structure each day, makes existence itself feel heavy, tenuous, puzzling.  Without a map to mark the way, questions about the meaning of life surface: "why am I doing what I am doing? Is it worth it? What am I building as we move from day to day?" Bare existence seems never enough.

And it isn't--not for anyone, and certainly not as a meaningful narrative about living. Elaboration is crucial. So too, a sense of direction. Somehow, always, we want the sense and unfolding self-evidence of the journey, even if that can only be played, on the one hand, as risk, and on the other, as retrospection.

Stars spangle the night sky and a thick dew settles over every surface. Sometime in the day to come, it will rain and we will sit indoors at our computers, writing, searching, replying, seeking contact, affirmation, revelation. But for now, to look out at the Milky Way just might be enough. The dog curls at my feet. I drink a glass of water and go back to bed.  

Grey light of early morning rises, blotting out the stars. I know that another night soon, I'll be up again to weigh the anchor of my soul, and find it wanting.

Carved cedar mortuary pole returns to the earth, K'uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), Haida Gwaii.

All photographs were taken in British Columbia during the course of a voyage to Haida Gwaii aboard Quoddy's Run (June 3-20 August 2017).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Today I will different

You wake, you say
today will be different, today
I will do what I do what I must what I will
today I will          efficient        today
tasks completed      today       organized    today
my desk in order.
Today I will          different.
Do today as if some other un-waylaid by wind
or whim or want.  Someone of will, not wanton
wondering. What song will you sing then when
samba flings you circumsolar when
lightslant leaps across your foot when
urgency, like sucking sand, slips seaward and
beckons you to swim?

This poem was written for my friend, Gary Markle; I've rewritten it for Poem in Your Pocket day.
The photo is of a cardon cactus blooming near Salinas Bay, on Isla Carmen, Baja California Sud, Mexico in early April 2017. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

How beautiful the snow blasted world

Snow falls quietly at twilight
gathering flakes whisper as they hit the window

How beautiful the snow blasted world. 

After dinner the snow stops falling and the dog and I go out to walk the territory. The moon glows faintly behind a scrim of clouds; clumps of snow cling to every branch and bush and the tops of the flattened grasses.  The apple trees thrust their branches at the sky like so many gnarled and knobby fists; there's a gaping hole where the barn door has blown off--better call for help to fix that one. 

We circle the gardens, step through the weeds to the pond's edge, where a fallen tree covered in snow casts strange shadows on the ice.  No footprints but ours anywhere to be seen. 

We walk along the dyke at the sea edge, each rose hip a huge ball of snow on a spindly branch. There's just enough wind that we can hear the water ripping and rushing into the shore and out again.

The wind is biting. It nips my cheek, hurries the dog to the door, slips through the stitching in my gloves to freeze my fingers. But I'm not ready to go in yet.

Clouds scud across the sky.  I look out over the grey water towards the islands, invisible in the darkness, then turn to scrape off the cars and clear the drive in front of the garage, savouring the sharpness of the air, stamping my feet to keep them warm.  Why must every pair of boots leak? Time to goop them up again.

I am remembering one night when I was about nine. The snow had been falling all evening. The streets were quiet and huge drifts covered the yard.  My siblings and I were sure that when our mother came into the room, she was going to tell us to get ready for bed. It's time, she said, pausing as we started to moan, then all in a rush--to get your coats on and go play in the snow! Shrieking with delight, we tumbled out into the darkness and the drifts, the world magical and thick with surprise and permission. 

It wasn't until I moved to Montreal and learned to cross-country ski twenty years after that--and more than twenty years ago--setting out across the fields of the Chateauguay Valley beneath a full moon, that falling snow occasioned such delight and anticipation again. But now it does.  

I watch the snow mount up higher and higher and hope the thermometer drops, rather than rises, so that I can ski across the bog, over top of the little lakes and streams, the sheepskill and the insect-eating pitcher plants onto the bushy ledges where the coyotes circle and sing.  There, I'll clamber up to a point where I can stand and look out at the sea rolling unimpeded over the horizon; from there, it rolls all the way to Spain. 

I can only ever get to that place on skis, when the bog is frozen and overlaid with deep snow.  How glorious it will be if that's what tomorrow brings.

Photos taken 3 January 2017 in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia