Divya Ramesh | Playing with fire

Through My Eyes | Turning the natural world into a digital one might be Norway’s (and our) secret to happiness

· February 24, 2013, 11:30 pm

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Divya Ramesh
Through My Eyes

Watching firewood burn is all the rage in Oslo.

The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (abbreviated NRK in Norway) just released a 12-hour program that has riveted the nation. The first four hours involve occasional comments about firewood and are followed by a captivating eight hours of flames licking wood on the screen. According to the NRK, phone calls streamed into the station as people debated the position of the logs.

In the United States, such a show would probably get a score of -5 on Rotten Tomatoes (if the site rated television shows) and get cancelled before the pilot. My brother’s religious following of “Hawaii Five-0” and a friend’s love of “Breaking Bad” show me that our culture needs action.

The nature channels that we do have in the United States — Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, for example — don’t show hours of dew dripping from leaves or spend airtime on silent carpets of prairie grass. The lion always chases the gazelle as the audience anxiously awaits the outcome. The hapless cat always hits its head on the banister in America’s Funniest Home Videos.

And sometimes, when even that action isn’t enough, we revert to our instinctive state of channel flipping. Many of us jump from CNN to ABC or from Disney to TBS so rapidly that it often seems as though Jerry Seinfeld finished the sentence that Anderson Cooper began.

However, stepping away from our compulsive need for action to adopt a version of the NRK’s digitized natural world might be a healthy choice. After all, with Norway recently ranked first on Forbes’ list of the happiest world nations, the country might have something to show beyond its magnificent fjords.

There is one place where NRK-style repetitive and monotonous programming airs — the local community access channel. Even I can never sit watching that channel for more than five minutes before hitting the arrow on the remote — five hours of Fur Elise on perpetual loop would be a bit too much for me to handle.

At first, I couldn’t understand it. How could eight hours of digital firewood captivate thousands of people? Curiosity led me to try it for myself.

Over the past week, I kept the fire going on my laptop screen while I read for class or folded laundry. I took a break when I had to type, but the wood came back on the screen when I cleaned my floor. The average American has 34 hours of screen time in one week, and for one week, I filled about 10 of those hours with the perpetual flames.

I hate to admit it, but it was cathartic. The crackling wood formed a sort of rhythm and the hissing flames added color to the occasional indecipherable Norwegian sentence. Fire charring wood was captivating in a way that five hours of Beethoven on repeat hadn’t been.

A recent study conducted at the University of Sheffield shows us that “scenes containing natural features … cause distinct brain areas to become ‘connected’ with one another whilst man-made environments, such as motorways, disrupt the brain connections.”

Many generations have seen nature as calming. Emerson escaped civilization to rejuvenate in the woods. Modern-day tourists escape stress by spending time on the beach or hiking in mountainous regions.

But, according to the 2012 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, only about 50 percent of Americans actively enjoy an outdoor lifestyle.

Assuming that this phenomenon isn’t completely unique to America, there should also be indoor-types in Oslo, Hamar and Arendal too. But the NRK has brought some of the health benefits of nature to even its non-hikers, non-bikers and agoraphobic audiences. Televised fires are a soot-free, non-fire hazard for those who prefer marshmallows in milk to marshmallows on a stick.

If digital nature has become trendy in the happiest country in the world, why can’t it satisfy us too? Maybe making nature go digital is the 21st century path to contentment.

Divya Ramesh is a College freshman from Princeton Junction, N.J. Her email address is divyaramesh20@gmail.com. You can follow her @DivyaRamesh11. “Through My Eyes” appears every Monday.

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