Blessed Boredom Afield

Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon bristling with technology that is invading the outdoor advertising fields. Because it is a virtual bandwagon though, when you jump on, you just fall to the floor. The bandwagon is “Tech-bashing” and it is a popular 15-minute hate-on. For hikers, hunters, sailors, mountain bikers, fishers, canoeists, and rock climbers we see high tech clothing, electronics, ropes, boots, weapons, outboards, action cameras and location devices everywhere. The too-much-tech criticism often flows from pious people furiously typing on their computers and smartphones about the importance of getting away from, well, computers and smart phones. Hypocrisy got no legs but really now, who wants to be a judgmental, holier-than-thou prick? Even though I harbour misgivings about modernization, I try to only judge my own choices. Yes, I will be the old guy in a tattered 20-year-old wool shirt-jacket and carrying a wooden — cellulose baby!- hiking pole. I am Boomer codger, hear me roar! . . . wait a minute though, I gotta turn up my hearing aid first.

There is a theory in the discipline of recreation and leisure studies — yes, that is an actual university curriculum- called specialization theory. The gist of it holds that with time and maturation of an outdoor activity, participants will further and further refine their tools, actions and goals. For example, surfing has morphed into wind surfing, kite surfing, stand up paddle boarding, and boogie boarding. Another example, archery hunting has morphed from recurves to compound bows, to crossbows. Now the interesting thing is that the adherents to each specialized type of surfing or bow hunting identifies strongly with their tools and activities and too often, vehemently detests those with similar but different styles. There is moderate distain in the mountain bike clan for the new e-bikes; the free-climbers sneer at the full-piton protection climbers; the sailing crowd detests motorboats with a special rasher of hell for jet skis, and don’t ever put a bait fisherman in a truck with the Orvis dry-fly-catch-and-release trouters lest they devour him and spit out the bones. Do the actions of others who choose slightly different gear or approaches threaten or de-legitimize our choices? Do their specific actions communicate “You are doing it wrong.”? Clearly nobody likes to hear that.

The real casualty of this internecene outdoor battle is fragmentation of effort toward beneficial shared goals. The surfing community could jointly fund an outhouse or maybe a weekend lifeguard but not as four separate groups; the archers could join forces for special archery areas or longer seasons, but only if they can work together.

Really now, the actual tools of hiking, fishing, camping matter little. Far more important concept is their effect on what is going on in our heads and our hearts. Neither my parka, truck nor outboard speaks to or directs me, although my outboard could teach a master class on impromptu cursing.

May I grind my metaphorical heel into digital devices for a moment. Again, speaking only for myself because I actually LIKE it when my hunting companions can direct us to a key location digitally. My cell phone in my pocket is a different thing though; it actually can divert my attention and largely unbidden, distract me into an alternate universe. Some information like location and weather are just fine when I query it. What I don’t need are cat videos, public alerts, Hollywoodized bear attacks; or unrealistic expectations for the size of fish I should catch. The marketers are hard at work too telling me that some colonic clense will let me spring lightly from my chair. I assure you, a dude approaching me with a hose and a clense bag will indeed make me spring lightly from my chair and run like a sixteen year old! On another, XYZ brand of polypropylene long johns will convert me to a buff male model. Now THAT is truly fake news.

Screen surfing while in a fishing boat is like bringing anxious office distractions to the very place I go to escape my anxious office. Writer Denis Crouch found an 1899 article in Punch magazine where a genius asks a boy “Isn’t there a clerk who can examine patents?” The boy replied “Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented.” While a laughable hindsight premise, with the insertion of a few words it moves closer to the truth “. . . Everything essential to the outdoors. . .” . Clearly I would cherry pick though and exclude electric cars and viral immunizations . . . Bur really now, electric fish de-hookers? Ultraviolet blood detectors? NEW! super magnum rifle cartridges, and decoys so realistic you can pluck and eat them?

Author and artist Jenny Odell wrote pointedly on the beauty of boredom and takes these sentiments a step further. It matters little whether the tools occupying us are a stone axe or an iPhone 13. She suggested we take time to put them down and let boredom seep in. So I imagined sitting still in a ripple-less perch lake with a cork bobber so still the lake surface’s pollen clings. I put down my rod and dip my hands in the cool green water enjoying that absolutely nothing is happening, and I am feeling happy. There are no banner lines, no pop-up sunglasses adverts, no ringtones. I am just sitting, being and glad of it. I am bored and inactive and undistracted as the time afield resets something in me. It is like bone-healing repair but for my head. Lots of bone there.

Boat time, woods walking time, or quiet marsh-sitting time are special. The dusty shards and chips of a work-shattered psyche can merge, reconnect and make us whole again. Expanding an attention span requires escape from the incessant pounding of messages so instantaneous that they seem frantic to get our reply message lofted into a void of nothingness.

Maybe we need more down time to reverse the attention scatter. Many of us need shelter from the hail storm of information pings. Outdoor time has taught me to crave that un-plugged and un-reachable status of staring at an un-moving bobber, or drifting in and out of sleep with white clouds bunching over a swinging hammock while a book flops on my chest.

People who love the outdoors tend to know and love these reconnection times more than those who never leave the business of urban places. Four hours sitting in a September tree stand, 10 km walked behind a dog’s thrashing tail; a half day of saddle time swinging rhythmically up slope toward sheep; a silent float down an un-peopled river changes us. At day’s end, we become a different, more authentic, person. We may be hungrier, more interested in talking, and capable of guilt-free slumber. Maybe a little drunk on the elixir of disconnection.

Blues guitarist BB King once famously said that the spaces between the notes were more important than the notes themselves. Sometimes in those periods of crystalline nothingness, wonder splashes down on us. I may forget ducks shot on some time-obscured hunt but I will never forget the transition from echoing nothingness into a feathery eruption of wonder. In the gloaming stillness, hot coffee in hand and a great absence of ducks set a perfect stage for that unexpected event; the rush and flash of some 1000 shorebirds -Dunlins possibly?- that careened around our blind just meters away full of peeps and carving wings. That image will be with me until I die.

Odell quoted Robert Louis Stevenson as saying “busy-ness” is a sort of “dead-alive” and multi-billion dollar industries of apps and platforms are dependent on our busy-ness in buying and selling our attention while building an addiction to their proprietary delivery system. Marketers strive to embed an itch that can only be scratched with a credit card, thereby pulling time, resources, work, investments across the ether to be lost into their holdings.

I have a perfectly functional 6-year-old cell phone. I am also joined to a wife who wishes it was turned on whenever I am in the back country. Thankfully, she begrudgingly respects my going off line but still shakes her head. The day will likely come but not yet, becasues I am never fully immersed in boredom or inactivity when that the phone buzzer could vibrate insistently at any moment prompting me to leave my hard earned escape for re-entanglement in modernity. Who know, maybe at full draw on something important or drifting off into a woodland slumber in a pile of autumn leaves. However, a few hours after sunrise and having heard some optimistic gunfire, I may fire up the little flat screen to see who needs help. By then my solitude quota is filled and can tolerate some incursion, especially if it is me requesting assistance.

I do take photos of events and a prey animal taken is an event. We should all be duly warned that poorly done, such photos land in public digital space with an awkward thump. So out of context are they that they become weapons of dismantlement in the hands of those who would oppose hunting. Don’t give such images away without careful discussion and explanation. If viewers want to disagree with the actual, fine, but don’t throw gasoline on a mis-information fire.

I just read this to my 17-year old daughter who knows everything, at least for the next few years, and she agreed it accurately depicted me, which I took as high praise. She is doubtful she can break the suction of connectivity. However, a seed was planted and she plans to try, admitting that a funny sense of relief appears in times she is disconnected by distance or a dead battery. I foresee this seed growing into her deliberately seeking places without cell coverage or “accidentally” forgetting her phone sometimes. Maybe the nut doesn’t fall too far from the tree after all.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Lee Foote

Lee Foote


Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.