By Land and Leaf
Plants tell us where we are. They have the inherent ability to identify a region, to give it character. But plants can root us in place, and help us find our way, in a much more literal sense as well.
I bring this up because I don’t own a cellphone — “smart” or otherwise. I have a landline and an answering machine (digital because the tape machines are fairly expensive “vintage” items these days). People tend to find this pretty fascinating. I get reactions from jealousy to awe to complete confusion as to how I survive on a day-to-day basis.
Contrary to a common, understandable assumption, I am not a Luddite. I spend most of my working life at a computer, with an absurd number of browser tabs open, simultaneously communicating via Skype, various emails, a project management app, Facebook and more. I am, like most office-based professionals, online constantly. But, unlike most, this is true only while I am working. I realize I am lucky to be in a position where this is acceptable (or at least tolerated).
There is one thing in particular that, I gather, people find very valuable about smartphones: navigation. Let me acknowledge that I lived for a year on a 27-foot sailboat and relied on GPS navigation over an entire trip from Oregon to Mexico, though I did have old-school paper nautical charts as backup. I understand the value of this tool. But in my everyday life, I don’t want it.
I enjoy finding my own way. I don’t want to be told by a robot voice to turn right in .5 miles; I want to look for a street sign or — better yet — a landmark. I’d rather study a Google map before leaving or sloppily jot down the appropriate steps on scratch paper than have a portable minicomputer tell me what to do. In case of emergency, I keep an honest-to-goodness roadmap in my glove compartment.
I studied geography in graduate school, so I am admittedly more map nerdy and spatially curious than the average person. I do also occasionally print directions, earning playfully snide comments from friends about “Amy and her MapQuest printouts.”
Another of my reasons has to do with memory — and learning. The natural world is full of great, useful orienteering tools; we just have to be open to observing and employing them. I feel that if I navigate to someplace new my way, informed by environmental markers I’m experiencing with my own senses, I’ll remember how to do it again.
I’ll know that left turn I need to take is on the corner with the giant live oak tree, the one where red-tailed hawks often perch among the branches. I’ll know that my street is the one flagged by a patch of marsh obedient plants: a hovering sheet of purple petals in spring, right next to where a sumac turns to fire every fall.
I like knowing, when I go to my dad’s in small-town Illinois, that I’ll see four large sugar maples well before I see the house itself, let alone the address. When I was new to Austin, the epic mustang grapevines taking over the nearby elementary school’s chain-link fence signaled my neighborhood as much (or more) than the words “Hyde Park.” A towering pecan tree became a symbol of home, a shade-bearing sentinel I spent countless hours under with loved ones canine and human.
Everywhere we are — and everywhere we go — we have the opportunity to take cues from land and leaf. If we remain open to it, we’re likely to be guided by familiar trees, seasonal blooms, living landmarks of routes old and new. I’d like to keep doing that as long as I can.