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How to Quit Your Phone and Change Your Life By … Doing Nothing

Anxiety about tech dependence—how social media is rewiring brains and worsening lives, or how tech companies are building monopolies and spying on users—is as old as the iPhone itself. A new book by artist and author Jenny Odell suggests a radically simple solution.

Alycea Tinoyan

Jenny Odell’s preferred time for a hike is on a weekday in the late morning, when the trails are empty and she can really listen. When we meet—on a Thursday—in March, most of the other people on the wooded Oakland, California, path are retirees or professional dog walkers. Several decades younger than the retirees and dog-free, Odell is a 32-year-old artist, writer, and lecturer at Stanford University, and also the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Packed with big ideas and calls to action, her first book is a proclamation of why we need to rewire our goals in these digitally enmeshed times.

But as Odell unfurls her thoughts as she walks, she keeps getting distracted by the birds around us. While describing her childhood internet habits she stops the conversation mid-sentence to point out a spotted towhee blithely chirping on the top of a bush. “It has a red eye. You can see it, it’s evil-looking,” she says. “They have this other sound they make that sounds like Marge when she’s annoyed.”

When talking about the process of writing How to Do Nothing, she gets waylaid trying to identify what type of hawk is perched on the side of a craggy hill. “I need to get a zoom lens on my phone,” she says after she lowers the binoculars hanging around her neck. “I’m always like, ‘I’ll remember it and I’ll look it up later,’ and then I don’t remember it.”

Odell was raised in Silicon Valley in an era before Silicon Valley; her mother was a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard, and her father was an electrical engineer who “had the prototypical Bay Area tinkerer garage.” Computers were always around the house and she remembers repurposing some forgotten PowerPoint precursor to make rudimentary animations. She majored in English at UC Berkeley, then studied design at the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduation she found herself lumped together with other creators whose work combined art and technology, but she grew frustrated with this classification when she realized that most of her peers were more into fetishizing than critiquing the technology part.

In How to Do Nothing, Odell describes herself “as someone who gets invited to tech conferences but who would rather be out birdwatching.” It’s a relatively new interest for her, one that blossomed after the collective psychic trauma of the 2016 election. Still, it’s gotten to the point that she carries a peanut in her pocket in case she has the opportunity to feed one of the neighborhood crows that now recognize her face. She talks frequently about birdwatching in her writing and interviews, almost as if she’s trying to pry the hobby out of Jonathan Franzen’s pretentious claws.

Odell isn’t that interested in spotting rare birds or traveling to natural wonders to see them. She’s prone to taking the ignored, steeper paths in public parks, away from the morning exercisers and the after-work casual strollers so she has the space to relax her brain. “In my calculation of where I want to go, lack of people actually figures very largely in that,” she says. “If no one is there, I’d rather be there than Yosemite.” She has her reasons. “If you like crows, then you don’t really need to go anywhere that is a crazy birdwatching place. Similarly, if there’s stuff growing there, I’m happy.”

Odell thinks that a better term for what she does is “bird-noticing.” It vibes with Odell’s larger approach to life (and the major argument of her book): making a deeper consideration of what’s around us and how we function within it. It’s also one that runs in opposition to the type of shallow understanding that the modern digital world demands. With How to Do Nothing, Odell presents herself as an ardent and analytical voice in the growing movement to limit the demands that technology and the capitalist forces that propel it have on our corporeal lives. Recently, these warnings from her and others have started to feel less like push notifications and more like Amber Alerts.

The tethering of humans to our digital devices has been cited as a major factor in all kinds of bummers that plague us—gentrification and the manipulation of the political system, a lack of empathy and a distrust of the press, the degradation of meaningful work and environmental destruction, and so on. It also diminishes day-to-day life experiences, from ruined meals with distracted partners to spoiled concerts spent trying to see through a phalanx of screens capturing it for Instagram Stories. Waiting in the parking lot before I met up with Odell, I got an email from a publicist announcing the first algorithm to sign a major label record deal. Its initial releases would be stress-reducing sound skills available on Amazon devices. For the 20th time that week I debated whether to toss my phone in a toilet.

After Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, Odell began spending hours alone sitting in Oakland’s Morcom Municipal Rose Garden, a space built in the 1930s that’s a short walk from the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, the writer Joe Veix. The Eyeo Festival, a creative technology conference in Minneapolis, asked her to give a presentation in the summer of 2017. Inspired by her time in the Rose Garden, she titled it “How to Do Nothing.” Out of that talk came her book.

Odell admits that the title is misleading. Inside its pages readers won’t find a treatise on lethargy or a call to throw up a middle finger and say peace out to the rest of society. Instead, she describes the negative impact that the constant messaging promoting productivity and progress has done to our outlook on life. She recounts what can be learned from people who previously tried to opt out from society’s expectations of what a valuable existence looks like—from the back-to-the-land communities of the 1960s to Diogenes of Sinope, an ancient Greek philosopher with a proto-Dadaist sense of humor who gave up all possessions except for a stick and an old cloak. For Odell, the decision to disentangle from the expectation to always be connected, to always be ready to receive more information, is a personal, political act. As she explains in the book, “To do nothing is to hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there.”

What was actually there for Odell were deeper realizations about the true forces that govern planet Earth and her relationship to them. For instance, she believes that the identity of her hometown, Cupertino, is not defined by Apple (currently the city’s most famous property owner) or the architecturally unremarkable shopping centers that she roamed as a teenager in the early 2000s. She argues that Cupertino’s real character comes from the creek, usually ignored and kept behind a chain-link fence, that runs through it.

That creek, she realized, is part of a journey that takes water from Table Mountain in the Santa Clara Valley to the San Francisco Bay. She writes, “The creek is a reminder that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock whose other lifeforms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic. Snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away—all just on the other side of the chain-link fence.” The thinking can take on a certain “the last time I did shrooms” quality at times, but it’s also unexpectedly grounding—a way to find some measure of peace in a world that often feels like it’s barely holding itself together.

When Odell was studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, she used Google Maps to construct a virtual cross-country road trip and made a book filled with images and information gleaned from online sources like Yelp reviews and YouTube videos. “The name of the project was Travel by Approximation, so obviously it’s not a replacement for travel. It was kind of a gimmick,” she says on the trail, navigating a wide patch of mud. “I do remember asking myself at the time, ‘At what point can you say that you know a place? How much and what kind of information do you need to know? How long would you have to be there for? Who can lay claim to a place and why?’”

But to orient one’s mind toward this type of outlook also means denying attention to the pings, prods, likes, requests, buzzes, and blather that our devices have been designed to bombard us with. As Odell writes in How to Do Nothing, “There is nothing to be admired about being constantly connected, constantly potentially productive the second you open your eyes in the morning—and in my opinion, no one should accept this, not now, not ever.”

It’s one thing to decrease the number of hours in a weekly screen-time notification or to use mindfulness to fight through the urge to immediately check the phone every time a new text vibrates through. The next essential step is figuring what to do with the energy that’s left over.

When Steve Jobs delivered his famous keynote address introducing the iPhone in January 2007, one of the device’s key selling points was that a person would no longer have to carry around a cellphone and an mp3 player at the same time. This was a practical concern that I had legitimately forgotten about, even though 12 years ago my Levi’s pockets were packed with both a four-year-old Nokia and a 60-gig iPod. But at the beginning, as Cal Newport notes in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, the iPhone was a practical device. “Our core mission was playing music and making phone calls,” Andy Grignon, one of the original members of the iPhone team, tells Newport. The App Store—which would introduce Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other time vampires to our home screens—opened 18 months later. With this change, software developers began framing the smartphone as a remote control for the world—an essential way to experience a life free from major hassles, like going to an actual grocery store or walking our own dogs.

Such bright-eyed visions (or more likely, sales pitches) are now met with increased skepticism. In 2019, the smartphone is increasingly compared to a slot machine—an addictive device designed to occasionally reward users, but mostly bring them disappointment. Instead of quarters, it sucks attention. The malaise is widespread: Pop stars like Drake and Shawn Mendes sing about phone anxiety; shows like Portlandia skewer the fact crucial communication now usually happens through distracted texting, not talking. And while horror movies like Unfriended use ghost metaphors and grisly murders to comment on the danger of online life, last year Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade showed that the emotional reality of a teenager engrossed in social media can be just as terrifying. Phones are a horrorshow we can hold in our hands.

Still, they’re so hard to give up. “We have emotional connections with our devices,” says Catherine Price, the author of 2018’s How to Break Up With Your Phone. “We’re reaching to them for emotional reasons. It’s similar to Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—her success is in part because she actually acknowledges that we have emotional relationships with our college T-shirts.” This phone relationship can be even stronger than our feelings toward the CDs we never play anymore or the rice cooker we don’t really use, because the communication goes both ways. “We have interactions with our phones,” Price says. “Your phone actually prompts you to do stuff. It interrupts you. It does things in response to things that you do.”

Tech companies have long espoused the idea that their products are value neutral, that it’s the users who decide whether they’ll be utilized for good or bad. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey expressed a slightly more developed outlook, comparing the platform to a public square, like New York’s Washington Square Park. “The park itself is completely neutral to whatever happens on top of it,” he said. “But if you stop there, you don’t realize what I believe the park actually is. It does come with certain expectations of freedom of expression, but everyone is watching one another.” Along with this idea that it’s the users of the park who monitor each other’s behavior and call out transgressions to keep everything under control, he adds, “There are the park police as well, who maintain the standard of decency.”

Besides the hilarious idea of Twitter and decency having anything to do with each other, this perspective doesn’t acknowledge all the resources the tech companies invest to bring people to the park in the first place. There are thousands of incredibly intelligent people working and millions of dollars being spent so tech products will be turned to as much as possible. “Twitter in 2008 was different than Twitter today,” says Newport over the phone. “A lot of the social media platforms re-engineered themselves around that time, led by Facebook, when they had to start thinking about their IPOs. They had to start thinking about being a return to [their] investors. They re-engineered the experience to be much more aggressively compulsive, to be much more algorithmically driven to try to get engagement above all else. Before that, they were just trying to make the platform interesting and get as many users as possible. So the right analogy would be if there was a certain food that you used to really like, and then at some point the food manufacturer started putting an addictive substance into the food without you knowing.”

Gary Small, the director of UCLA’s Longevity Center and the author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, has been a part of two studies that look at the impact of the internet on the brain, one with teenagers and one with the elderly. “I’m convinced it affects our behavior. It affects our mental health, depending how often and what context we use the technology,” he says. The internet and social media have negative effects on attention spans, according to Small, and can also cause depression and insecurity. (He does acknowledge that the internet has a both a negative and positive impact on memory since “the device becomes an extension of your biological memory.”) At this point, however, Small says there has not been enough information collected to warrant government legislation. “The National Institutes of Health goes after medical conditions,” he says. “They don’t see this as a real problem, as yet. The only place where there’s been laws has been in texting and driving, but we have a long way to go with all this stuff.”

As a result of the 2016 election, with the social media manipulations and Facebook privacy invasions that came with it, tech companies are treated with far more skepticism than they were even a decade ago. Behind every move these companies make is a possible conspiracy. Is the 10-Year Challenge an innocuous play for viral engagement or is it a secret way to mine facial recognition data for nefarious reasons that won’t be clear until it’s far too late? Did Instagram change its algorithm so that posts from certain accounts reached only 7 percent of their followers, as many contended earlier this year, or was that an urban legend meant to boost user engagement on the participating accounts? There’s a growing level of irritation and distrust inside each status update.

Meanwhile, the concern about tech addiction has a steady presence in the mainstream. Since the start of 2018, The New York Times has written about getting thumb tendinosis from texting too much, switching phones to grayscale in order to look at them less, Silicon Valley parents’ fear of tech addiction in their children, nannies having to become screentime gatekeepers, and how the possibility of enjoying a screen-free life is turning into a luxury that’s available only to the wealthy. (And those were just the stories by tech writer Nellie Bowles.) The days of playing up the benefits of a brief digital fast to recharge and be more productive back at work now seem out of step. As Tanya Schevitz, a spokesperson for Reboot and the National Day of Unplugging, says, “We’re at the beginning of the time where we’re acknowledging that we’ve gone over the edge and now things have to change.”

In response, individuals from within the tech industry who have witnessed its ill effects—often on themselves—have become the central figures in the narrative about the need to disconnect. All the optimized meditation and microdosed LSD in the world isn’t enough to find the right work-life balance in an inherently unbalanced system. Instead, a network of options has emerged, offering paths out of our information overload.

Before he died from brain cancer in 2017 at the age of 32, Levi Felix founded Digital Detox, a company that puts together tech-free events to help attendees, as their website promises, “reevaluate our paths, take stock in life, strengthen our relationships, and move forward with a sense of purpose and belonging.” After crashing in his 20s while working for the philanthropy website Causecast, Felix traveled the world before creating Camp Grounded, a Burning Man–inspired summer camp where digital devices and networking were banned, and attendees could participate in activities like laughter yoga, spoon carving, and pickling. Of course, companies like Airbnb soon began hiring Digital Detox to put together corporate retreats for their employees.

Similarly, while stressing out as he tried to launch his website RecordSetter in 2009, Dan Rollman created the Sabbath Manifesto. Its 10 principles, which include “get outside” and “avoid commerce,” attempt to modernize and individualize the principles of the Jewish Sabbath, where the use of technology is forbidden from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The Sabbath Manifesto became one of the ideas supported by the Jewish organization Reboot, and out of it came the National Day of Unplugging, an annual initiative started in 2010 where they partner on upbeat events like bike rides to “interfaith landmarks” in San Francisco and acoustic concerts at Detroit’s Third Man Records. It also comes with its own hashtag (presumably the unplugging happens immediately after the post with the hashtag).

Even Arianna Huffington, the founder of the click-hungry Huffington Post, which broke many a young journalist, has started Thrive Global, which cheerfully brands itself as “on a mission to unlock human potential.” In 2017 the company released the Thrive app to help users step away from their phones.

There are also those who, like Odell, traffic in big ideas, offering mental frameworks that create a rationale for systemic change. Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked virtual reality innovator from the 1980s and ’90s, became a leading voice cautioning against the current trends in tech development. He now writes theoretically minded books like You Are Not a Gadget and says things like, “The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant. And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.” Then came Tristan Harris, whom The Atlantic described in a 2016 profile as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” He has become the poster boy for calling out tech companies for their unwillingness to make meaningful changes to their products.

A 34-year-old Bay Area native and Stanford alum, Harris’s complaints have extra juice because he’s also a former insider. He went to work for Google after the company bought his search-related content startup Apture in 2011. Working on the Gmail team, he began to question the morality of the design aspects of Google-owned products, like the pull-to-refresh feature on Gmail or the litany of related video options listed on YouTube. He put together a digital slide presentation called “A Call to Minimize Distraction and Respect Users’ Attention” that went viral within the company’s internal communications network. It asked whether a company primarily filled with white men between the ages of 25 and 35 living in San Francisco was doing its best to adequately consider the actual needs of the global community it serviced. In response, Google anointed him its Design Ethicist (yes, his actual title), but despite his efforts to get the company to adjust, he didn’t see much change in its products. Harris left his position and subsequently cofounded the Center for Humane Technology and the nonprofit Time Well Spent.

Harris has stated that he thinks there is a need for government to step in and regulate the methods of the tech world, but that ultimately the responsibility is on the controllers of the technology to address these problems. “There’s really two companies that can actually change this system,” he told Kara Swisher on the Recode Decode podcast. “It’s Apple and it’s Google, because they’re the mediators.” (For her part, Swisher recently wrote a requisite NY Times op-ed about how tech addiction, for her, is just fine.)

But Harris acknowledges that the two behemoth companies are unlikely to make any adjustments out of the good of their hearts. There instead needs to be a concentrated demand from users, like how the Ralph Nader–led push in the 1960s and ’70s resulted in car safety requirements. “I tried to change Google from the inside for two years, couldn’t do it,” Harris said on The Ezra Klein Show podcast. “And it wasn’t because I ever got a response like, ‘Hey, we just need to make money and we don’t care about what you’re saying.’ People cared, it just never got to the top of the priority list. Changes have to be driven with real pressure and real consumer movements. That’s what this is about, saying, ‘This is Team Humanity fighting back for humanity.’ Saying, ‘We want you, the technology companies, to actually serve our best interests.’”

Digital Minimalism author Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown, has always had a nearly nonexistent social media presence. Bless his heart, he’s one of the few remaining proud bloggers. Newport teaches those courses seen in college movies where the professor writes incredibly complex math equations on a whiteboard, meaning his students can’t really spend too much time scrolling Instagram in class. He’s also written several advice books about how to succeed in school, so his charges frequently come to him for help. “One of the things I often tell them is that cultivating the ability to focus—which requires cognitive fitness, which requires that you don’t spend a lot of time distracted—is a huge competitive advantage right now, especially as compared to your peers,” he says.

The inspiration for Digital Minimalism came while Newport promoted his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He found that people wanted something that would help them realign their concentration in their personal lives, not just in their jobs. Newport’s solution is a hardline approach: to unsparingly break the interpersonal rules of social media, even if it means alienating old roommates or a former coworker who has gotten really into ceramics. “Instead of seeing these easy clicks as a fun way to nudge a friend, start treating them as poison to your attempts to cultivate a meaningful social life,” he writes. “Put simply, you should stop using them. Don’t click ‘Like.’ Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No ‘so cute!’ or ‘so cool!’ Remain silent.”

More fundamentally, he questions the perceived need to establish a personal brand and maintain a social presence for either work or personal reasons. “We were too quick to tell ourselves that the story lines were organic and emergent,” Newport says over the phone. “We’ve underestimated the degree to which the story lines were, in some sense, invented because they got us using our phones a lot more.”

Newport sees it all as part of an ongoing manipulation of perception and priorities. Companies like Facebook and Twitter are focusing most of the public debate on subjects like privacy concerns and fake accounts because those are problems that they can fix. They want to steer the discussion away from addiction and over-engagement because their targeted ad-based revenue system means that the more time that users stay on their product, the more money they make. “When I’m out on the road and talking to people’s unease about social media, it’s not these issues [about privacy] that come up again and again,” Newport says. “What seems to be upsetting people is the fact that they use it too much and that it’s addictive and that they feel like it’s reducing the quality of their lives.”

In other words, maybe we should all take up birdwatching.

In the introduction to How to Do Nothing, Odell writes, “At some point, I began to think of this as an activist book disguised as a self-help book.” Then she admits, “I’m not sure that it’s fully either.”

How to Do Nothing can be unrepentantly academic in its tone, even when Odell is parsing why Tom Green becomes a heroic figure to viewers during a sketch called “The Dead Guy” where he lies facedown in the middle of a Canadian sidewalk. It offers no easily digestible breakdowns of our current technological nightmare or checklists of how to get out of it. It does, however, offer plenty to think about when you’re waiting in line to pick up bagels and realize you forgot your phone in the car.

As Odell began doing press for How to Do Nothing, a magazine asked her to contribute “suggestions for how to cut the digital cord” as a part of a larger story. “I was very tempted to say, ‘Just think about your own mortality. Like no. 1, just think about how you’re going to die someday,’” she recalls. “I think that’s actually really effective.”

Odell finds the focus on getting people to put down their screens or log off from social media limiting; fixating on changing an individual’s behaviors ignores what can be done collectively. She sees this new kind of consciousness-raising as a vehicle for political action. As she writes in How to Do Nothing, “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.”

Odell is not a technophobe. She uses the iNaturalist app on her phone during hikes to identify plants, and in her research-heavy writing, the internet is an indispensable resource. Without it she wouldn’t be able to go down rabbit holes on subjects like the “free” watches advertised on Instagram, a journey into the world of dropshipping that reveals cascading levels of capitalism based on dishonesty and shoddy information.

She describes her artistic medium as “context,” which means that she doesn’t exactly make anything new, but instead aims to redirect the viewer’s thinking about what is presented to her. When Odell was an artist-in-residence at Recology SF (a fancy name for the city dump), she rescued 200 items from destruction and cataloged their manufacturing, corporate, and cultural history. Odell then exhibited them onsite on display shelves for a project called The Bureau of Suspended Objects. She wants people to continuously zoom in on the granular details of the world and zoom out to understand how they all function together. “A big part of what I was trying to do in the book was just step back from [ignoring your phone] and just see it as a node in a much larger network of influences and problems that are at the end of the day tied to things like physical space and history,” Odell says as she finishes climbing a rocky incline. “You may think that it would be overwhelming to view the problem from that scale instead, but it’s actually a relief because it means that you can approach the problem from all these different entry points, not just this one.”

Last year Odell wrote a feature for The New York Times about the disorienting, byzantine business practices of a Christian group known as “the Community.” Its endeavors included buying Newsweek, turning an abandoned psychiatric hospital in New York’s Dutchess County into a satellite campus for its evangelical college Olivet University, and seemingly orchestrating an Amazon shipping scam using hundreds of companies with names like Bropastures. (Two of their businesses, IBT Media and Christian Media, have been charged with fraud.) In the Oakland Hills, Odell compared that piece and How to Do Nothing—one a story about being lost deep inside the internet and the other an explanation of why it should be kept at a distance. “Both of them to me are about the human-embodied subject that feels disoriented and is trying to find gravity again,” she says.

Odell has been teaching at Stanford for six years. She now leads one class on design and another about digitally created art. Most of her students sign up for them to fulfill the school’s breadth requirement. (At Stanford, it can feel like the entire student population is just biding time until they get their startups funded.) Many of the kids Odell teaches have already spent their summers interning at tech companies and some have jobs lined up at Facebook or Google once they graduate. “In those cases I feel like I have this one little sort of last chance to plant some seed of … not subversion, but some sort of different way of thinking,” she says.

In her Intro to Digital/Physical Design class, she gives assignments like having one student go outside to use Periscope as a remote camera for another student who stays inside and gives instructions. The final project is to create a walking tour about a hidden aspect of campus. “I try to push against the idea that design automatically equals innovation or putting new things in the world,” Odell writes in an email, a few days after our hike. “I’m trying to shift the idea of ‘newness’ from ‘shiny new object/image’ to a new experience that you can give someone simply by designing a path and directing someone’s attention.”

To Odell, the problem with rewarding only disruption is that it obscures the utility of what we already have. She says her “favorite example of successful technology” is a common door key. She still thinks Craigslist is great because its design has basically never changed; then she compares it to a pay phone as a compliment. It upsets her that the necessary phenomena that we take for granted are becoming seen as expendable. “We don’t value things like sleep because we don’t really understand what’s happening in there, and it’s not very exciting and isn’t very palpable. Or things like incubation time for ideas,” Odell says. “There’s all these things both in literal ecology but also in culture that are so important for the thriving of the things that we do see. We don’t need to understand those things; I think we just need to appreciate them and make space for them.”

Odell isn’t the only person to sound the alarm that technology dependency is ruining lives, and she doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But what she does believe is that maybe if we become more conscious of our relationship to the physical world around us, some answers might reveal themselves. It’s a remarkably simple approach, as long as you can manage to create the time to do it.

After I asked Odell the last of my questions, I suggested we do nothing for a while. We ended the interview by sitting in silence on a bench above what had once been a quarry used for extracting volcanic rock. It is now the home of a low stone labyrinth that appeared in the 1980s and that the East Bay’s parks department has allowed to remain for decades. I looked out onto Mount Diablo in nearby Contra Costa County, which would soon be covered in wildflowers, their presence sure to attract visitors determined to get the same Instagram picture that everyone else has. An airplane emitted a high squeal as it passed through the bright white clouds overhead. The valleys below vibrated with green after the region’s rainy winter. A bird that Odell later described as “an unusually blue” scrub jay flew in front of us. A pair of small sparrows pecked at the ground nearby.

Spend any time in nature and you’ll soon realize that if you want to see a living creature that isn’t a human, the first step is to just shut up and not move. As the minutes passed on the bench, the sounds of birds whose names I don’t know and who don’t recognize my face got closer. Then closer. Then closer still. It felt good not to be bothered. It felt better to not be bothering anyone.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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