Ones and Zeroes
“This day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.” – Emerson
I came home last Monday from another round of changeovers, the twice-yearly switching of landing gear from floats to wheels (or skis) in October, and from wheels (or wheel-skis) back to floats sometime in June. It was a thousand-mile round trip to Fort Nelson and back. Since in the eye of officialdom we are, in effect, running a miniature airline, we must do these things according to the rulebook Long gone are the days of doing the changeovers ourselves with spruce-pole tripods and cable come-alongs.
It was high time to be done with water flying. On Election Day in Canada, October 21st, Kristen and I were near town (Yellowknife) on an aerial photo flight for a customer, and we decided to land and go to the polls. We found, sadly, that we weren’t properly registered to cast our ballots, owing to our unusual and remote residential address, but that’s a story for another time. As we taxied into the fuel dock that day, the Husky floats shattered brittle panes of skim ice for the final 200 yards. On Monday I finally bounced the same Husky down on its fat rubber tires, and parked it on the little patch of sand and grass we have grandiosely dubbed “the airstrip.” It will sit up there grounded for a week or more, until we get at least four or five inches of solid black ice on the inland lakes.
Another float-flying season done and gone. As years go by I find I enjoy the seven or eight months of ski and wheel flying more than the summer float flying, especially after a windy and unsettled summer like the one just past. When I switch back to wheels and skis, I relish being able to just sit quietly in the cockpit for a second or two with the engine off and the gyros winding down, and to skip all the rope-in-hand gymnastics of float-plane docking, fending off of rocky shorelines, or grabbing the paddle and jousting with the wind. It’s nice to just land the plane and shut it off. Solid gravel, grass, pavement, or snow are a pleasure after a summer and autumn of touching down on roiling acres of ice-cold liquid.
I came down the hill and through the front door of the workshop, to the smell of woodsmoke and the welcome warmth of cast-iron heat. Went through the familiar ritual of transition from that workaday part of my life to this one. Took wallet and flip-phone out of my trousers pockets, and noticed that the phone‘s tiny screen was still lit up. “No Service.” Sounds fine to me, I thought, as I turned it off and stowed it away for a few weeks.
Don’t get me wrong, people. I am not trying to beat a dead horse here, every autumn, in nattering country-mouse amazement and dismay. I love communication as much as anyone. More than many. I love to hear from people, talk to people, and listen to people. I am not a hermit, nor a recluse, nor a “One Man’s Wilderness” wooden-hinged (wooden un-hinged?) misanthrope. Robinson Jeffers of the sub-arctic? Not this bushed pilot.
It’s just that I do look forward to turning it all off, and I get skittish and weary when the steady barrage of input, message, and reply never does turn off. Humanity’s burgeoning billions now navigate every hour of their lives like pilots on the flight deck, or sea captains up on the bridge, with all channels tuned, dutifully maintaining what the air regs call a “listening watch” on all the designated frequencies, and steadily tapping out responses. Dit-dah ditt-ditt-dah-dah…
Unlike seasoned aviators and mariners, though, people seem more and more oblivious to anything real and direct and un-digital. Ask any cyclist dodging distracted drivers in a busy city, for starters. Or ask yourself if there is a wind today, where you are? If so, where from? Are the clouds flowing in the same direction as the surface wind, or oblique to it? How quaint, to remark upon such things, and in real time too!
Text, phone, e-mail, streams, pods, pads, blogs (!), chats and tweets. Dashboard phones and earbuds. I keep wondering, as I did almost exactly one year ago, after a similar return home to silence and woodsmoke, Does no one else find this ‘new normal’ utterly exhausting? The incessant streaming – for that is exactly what it is – of electrons, ones, and zeroes. Digits, yes, but are we now reduced to only two? Forever? I mean, after all, most of us were lucky enough to be born with twenty. And now we’re down to just two? This is progress?
I came late to this thing called internet. The outbacks of the north, from Shishmaref to Stony Rapids, all came late to it, for obvious reasons. But it came. At first I was confused as to what it was, and even more confused as to what it was properly called. Was it internet, interweb, or intertube? I kid you not. If someone twenty years ago had sidled up to me and said, “Yeah, sorry I missed your e-mail – my inbox was full of spam ‘cause the firewall on the Google accounts in my i-Pad went down,” I would have stared at them in bafflement.
Gradually it dawned on me that, as the happenin’ Hebrew from Hibbing put it, the times really were a’ changin’. On an evening in 1999, sitting at a tech-savvy friend’s place in Yellowknife, I sent my first e-mail, to a friend in northern Minnesota (No, not Bob.) I was suitably awe-struck. Whoosh. No postage. No delay. Message sent? You mean, he’s got it right now? Yup, my friend said, he’s got it right now if he’s online.
A few years later, messages from a fellow bush rat and lifelong comrade of mine began to pipe up on the screen, instead of via paper letters scrawled in ink and folded into stamped envelopes. The Hoarfrost River had a very slow and very expensive satellite connection to the interweb back then, but it did send and receive straight e-mail without attachments, and my old friend encouraged me to use it, saying, “C’mon, man, shoot me some ones and zeroes.” So I did. So I do. And as we all now will, until the next lane of the highway appears, somewhere just off the shoulder of the lanes we’re all hurtling down tonight. What is new today will be old tomorrow.
It is early morning. Earlier than I thought. 4:30 by the dim green glow of my wristwatch. A new moon night, and when I step outside there is nothing but starlight filtered through thick cloud. With fresh snow on the ground, there is just enough light drifting in from some unimaginably distant source in the galaxy that I can make out the horizon to the south, and the rocky hilltops to the north and west.
Home again from nearly a week of treading water among all those steadily streaming ones and zeroes, I consider some ones and zeroes of my own, ones and zeroes that directly influence my Hoarfrost River life and times. To wit:
- The temperature minus one-zero; there will be some ice thickening tonight on the lakes up top.
- The one-zero minutes of daylight we lose every two or three days, for another two months.
- The one moose I’d like to find in the three months before the season ends.
- The zero moose I’ve seen so far.
- The one-zero-zero fish we’ve hung for the dogs, before we pulled the net for the season.
- The one-zero neighbors (ten!) we had within 10 miles of here, when we first came here to live, in 1987.
- The one neighbor we had, within those same ten miles, last winter.
- The zero neighbors we have now, as we go into this winter.
- The zero understanding I have as to why this change has happened, and is happening, in remote places and rural areas around the world.
The one day that now lies ahead of me, with all its possibilities, and the zero other places in the world that I’d rather be at the start of this new day, awash in faint starlight, barefoot on these cold rough planks, with “No Service.”