Douglas Rooks: Reflections on a smartphone and a giant tree

Douglas Rooks: Reflections on a smartphone and a giant tree

As we head toward Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of summer, at least in New England, it’s worth taking stock of where we are.

Last year at this time, I expressed some guarded optimism about the possibilities of working people getting a fair shake from employers, and from their fellow laborers. It was already clear that the pandemic was fulfilling a longtime labor union dream: a de facto $15 minimum wage.

We were reckoning, of course, without the return of inflation, yet we may — for once — achieve a soft landing, without higher interest rates leading to a major recession. If we do, it will be because, for the first time since World War II, we’re rebuilding the economy from the bottom up, and not the top down, as President Biden likes to point out.

Yet I ended that piece with a rhetorical question beloved of columnists: “We have vastly more knowledge and technical ability than our forbears. Will we use it to improve life for all those now under the sun, or will the favored few prevail?”

The jury is still out, despite the news that, in its most important feature, we finally raised taxes on the rich with the Inflation Reduction Act.

Yet it’s also worth shifting our perspectives away from wages and inflation rates and toward what people do when they’re not working. Labor Day, declared by Congress in 1894, was originally a day off — a rare one when many worked six-day weeks, logging 72 hours without overtime pay.

I’ve never understood why New England schools, starting in Massachusetts and spreading to parts of Maine, shifted to starting in late August. We had a date punctuating summer vacation: those long, slow days on the lakes and at the shore we’re now missing.

Each morning, before heading to my screen, I take my Labrador for a walk in the woods. It’s not exactly remote; there are traffic and plane sounds. But there are also moments of silence.

The trails we traverse vary, but we always take a moment to stop by Old Abe, a monumental white pine that might be the largest in the township. Its girth is enormous, and while it wouldn’t have stood out in the 1700s — before the Royal Navy started culling the “King’s pines” for masts — it surely does today.

Abe has suffered losses, including one of its great tripartite branchings that towered above the surrounding hardwood canopy; it was a boundary tree in the days when cattle and sheep grazed. The fallen trunk is monumental, too; it came down in a windstorm long ago and even now has hardly decayed.

It seems an apt metaphor for the president I’ve memorialized, and for our own losses from the pandemic — griefs we’ve hardly begun to understand.

Yet it also strikes me that this natural wonder is 70 yards from the road, and I’m not sure if anyone other than me and a few guests has ever seen it. Neighbors own the land, but they rarely seem to use it, or even visit.

Though I’m often preoccupied on my walks, the calls of birds and the flash of a deer’s tail, the scat from a coyote or a colorful leaf fallen out of season claim my attention.

I spend a moment just observing, and appreciating what it is about Maine I have always loved. I wonder why it is that so many of us, having spent our work days in front of a screen, use screens for much of our leisure time, scrolling and texting, streaming and gaming.

A well-written but discouraging article in a current magazine chronicles the exploits of Stanley, a video game phenomenon that both represents and reflects back to the user the online world in which too many now live. For Stanley, and the player, there’s no way out except to crash the game.

It’s pervasive; instead of reading the newspaper, we check the news feed. Instead of engaging our friends out dining, we sneak in a few games. When I worked on a campaign some years ago, my lack of a “smartphone” was often ridiculed.

I still don’t have one, and I believe I’ve come out ahead. If we walked in the woods more often, and spent less time jousting with anonymous adversaries online, we might take a small step toward healing our wounded parts.

We could understand more about our relation to the planet, and not just its climate — important as that is — and begin to know our place in the larger scheme of things.

We might even enjoy talking with each other in public, once more.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at [email protected]


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