About 20 years ago, we went travelling in Canada, and part of our time was spent driving across the prairie in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is a fascinating landscape and so very different from ours here in the UK. It was also a disconcerting experience, and much as I enjoyed it I also found it oppressive. I put this down to the geography. In the UK you always know more or less where you are. Our landscape is such that there are visible landmarks and features all around. If you do get lost, a bit of map work and it is fairly easy to get a good idea of your location.

Not so on the prairie. I found the lack of landmarks disorienting. I knew we were moving and I knew the direction, but with little in the landscape to act as reference point I quite literally lost my bearings. I guess I am used to being able to mentally triangulate my position.

Which brings me to The Current Situation. I have previously mentioned that I am lucky enough to be able to continue travelling for work, and to an extent the novelty of driving on near empty roads has been fun. I have imagined living in a post-apocalyptic Wyndham-esque world(yes, I know I should be careful what I wish for!). But over the last week a feeling of oppression has crept in. What started as a novelty has turned into an awareness that the cues of everyday life are absent. The normally expected numbers of road users going about their day to day business. The sounds of traffic. The walkers and cyclists who I regularly encounter and know by sight. They have all but gone.

And like travelling without any physical landmarks, I am now travelling in a landscape without the usual mental landmarks. It is a kind of culture shock, a cognitive and emotional unmooring. Cheri Baker, describing a silent Seattle, calls it a ‘cultural amputation’;

You listen for signs of life – the traffic noise, the sound of a truck backing up with tinny beeps, a burst of conversation at the corner, the low thrum of a Metro bus sliding by – but all you hear is emptiness.

I find myself looking and listening for the once familiar in a new way. Whereas prior to the lockdown the traffic noise in the distance was constant and I didn’t notice it, I’m now very aware of every vehicle I hear. If I hear voices or laughter or the sound of a lawnmower I almost stop what I am doing just to listen. Because it means Somebody Else is about.

For the time being at least, this is the new normal. We will adapt.


Stephen James

Minding the gaps


© Stephen James 2021

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