Outdoorsmen know the importance of situational awareness (SA), defined as “knowing that you’ve just wet your pants.” Wait, that’s saturational awareness, which comes right before it in The Big Book of Stupid Things. While that book does not yet exist, a number of publishers have contacted me, saying that I’m the man to write it.
SA is simply being aware of what’s going on around you at any given moment. These days, it’s circling the drain. This is because we spend our days staring at screens with white lima beans in our ears. I, for example, can no longer locate certain body parts without Google Maps. For most of our 200,000 years on this muck ball, SA was the difference between life and death. If, say, you felt stickier-than-usual rain on your head, you could correctly infer that it was saliva from the open mouth of a T. rex standing above you and that the remainder of your day would be unpleasant but brief. A less aware person would only have realized this as the beast’s large, serrated teeth closed on his throat. So that’s not a great example. Let’s say you noticed a flock of birds startle and take wing just as you felt a sort of rhythmic earthquake. A person with SA could interpret these seemingly unrelated events and conclude that a T. rex was approaching. Armed with a head start, he still couldn’t escape the big lizard, which could run 27 mph. So that’s not a great example either. Right now, my own SA tells me that you have a growing sense that I have no idea what I’m talking about. So let’s move on, shall we?
These days, SA is really only a necessity for those in truly life-threatening occupations—active military, the police, and preschool teachers. Like any unexercised skill, it has atrophied. This is why the driver ahead of you at the gas station pulls forward and stops at the first rather than the second of two pumps. This gives you an opportunity to practice one of the skills that made human society possible, which is to refrain from strangling stupid people. Atrophied SA is also why the shopper ahead of you buying groceries waits for the total before opening her pocketbook, as if being asked to pay for foodstuffs could not possibly have been anticipated.
The release of Pokémon Go marked a worldwide low in situational awareness. You had people who regard the outdoors as a place in desperate need of roofing actually going there anyway in search of imaginary creatures. In California, two men walked off a 90-foot cliff. In Michigan, a man in pajamas rode his bicycle right to a police station, where he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for both breaking and entering and failure to appear for sentencing. The police chief said that the guy seemed more upset at having to stop playing than at being detained. Pokémon-playing drivers have hit pedestrians, other vehicles, and trees. Pedestrian gamers have walked to their deaths in busy intersections, been hit by subway trains, robbed, and shot as trespassers. You know it’s bad when the San Francisco police feel the need to publicly remind players that they are “still in the real world.”
I was basking in my superiority until I remembered some of my own lapses. I once left a mountain hunting camp in the dark and walked 2 miles before realizing I wasn’t wearing pants. Another time, I arrived streamside with a 5-foot spinning rod and a 6-weight fly line. The outfit was accurate to about 8 feet—and that was without a lure. Just last month, hustling to make a last-minute goose hunt, I nevertheless showered and donned unscented clothes before remembering that a goose’s nose is about as sensitive as that of a claw hammer.
Despite this, I remain convinced that no video game will ever rival hunting and fishing for sheer fun. What’s more, you needn’t be skilled to enjoy them. They also increase your situational awareness in ways you may not notice at first. Undifferentiated woods now become alive with game trails and sign. Streams you once walked by now beg you to stop and read the endless braiding of currents, pools, rapids, and eddies. You are more aware, more alive. You realize that we’re hardwired for this connection, that we hunger for it. And best of all, the mystery of this world is endless.
I have a recurring daydream. I’m an Indian boy 200 years ago, with the entire world as my classroom and elders teaching me a level of woods knowledge that we can scarcely comprehend today. Some Indians would test a stranger by asking the direction from which the last bird call or cricket chirp came. If you couldn’t answer, you were considered a danger to the tribe and shunned.
I wouldn’t have made the cut, but that’s not important nowadays. The point is to plunge in, to find the joy that comes from paying attention to the world around you. And to revel in learning to read a bit of nature’s infinite book. I can now show you the secondary trail that an old buck would use instead of the main trail. I can see the tiny pocket of still water hard by the current where a big smallmouth lies waiting for his dinner and how to drift a lure past him. And I’m almost never wrong about whether I’ve wet my pants.