It was a feeling of liberation, the same kind when you get home and unzip your pants and take off your bra. Except I wasn’t at home and running around half-naked. I was on a hill farm, decently clothed.

It had rained overnight. The land was covered in a damp, piercing coldness, reeking of fresh manure critter. In the henhouse nearby, the poultry clucked a rousing cacophony, as if trying to adapt to this plight no better than I could. I sped up to preserve as much warmth as possible. By the time I reached the top of the hill, wet mud was covering my sneakers, just as shades of pink and orange were beginning to cover the sky. A few minutes later, the fog dispersed before a looming half-boiled egg, and I was looking at the most beautiful sunrise ever in my life.

That day progressed rather comically. I lost track of time, missed a lecture and caught a cold that kept me bedridden for days. The warm blankets reminded me that being mentally unchained was as important as staying physically warm. I fell asleep in a state of gratitude for both privileges.

It wasn’t long before this feeling of wild liberation vanished in the practicalities of life, when something called digital technology started to control the beauties I saw, the words I spoke and the sounds I heard. When the first lockdown ended, I went on a hike with my boyfriend. What was supposed to be a recovery from cabin fevers that had bred prolonged screen times and subsequently eye pain, I turned into a photography tour by snapping nearly everything I came across. From the glittering ocean to the trees that waltzed in the wind, then to the fishermen who gathered on the rocks awaiting a fisherman’s fruitful moment. I knew. My social media would later remind me of all of these.

So, it seemed extremely ironic that a few months later, I had to work on a marketing campaign that aimed to bring local travel to new heights. We launched a publicity stunt, a cabin up north overlooking Sydney’s coastline. Two things drew our target audience’s attention: the evocative concept of a cabin with nice views, and the fact that we had decked it out with a range of exclusive personal tech gadgets.

Throughout the campaign, I bore the ordeal of travelling to the cabin to tidy things up before the next guest arrived. Each time I visited, it was a place of creative living at its finest. Bathrobes would be separated from their ties. Phone stands would somehow end up as doorstands. Branded pamphlets would dry into warped sheets still smelling like yesterday’s coffee.

Back in the office, media coverage and social posts flourished like there was no tomorrow. It was there that we learned that people had jogged on the flora-hugged pavement while listening to their favourite Spotify playlist; that they souvenired breathtaking sunrises in the new phone they got to keep as a gift; that the cabin took on the quality of a dream too good to be true by alchemising them into lifestyle and tech experts.

Maybe it was because my experience with the cabin was the furthest from anything positive and I was bitter about it. Or maybe the traffic was just getting on my nerves as I was making my last trip to the cabin. Through my Uber’s window, I saw the city in constant motion and frenzy, as if saying too little of our lives was reserved for exploration and too much for calculation. Calculation measured in views, likes, click-through rates, to the last ounce of every golden hour and smile. That’s right, even in front of the things that were best left untouched, we refused to switch off.

The cabin was an exemplar of this lifestyle. At that moment, I wished it was instead nothing more than a place to unwind from the network. A place where you could put away the phone and watch and earphones, dream your best dreams and rise to a sky dawning tenderly pink, and that this token of happiness would live in your memory and in your memory only like a childhood dream that shines brighter with time.

But the reality lay there naked. How can a generation like us, so accustomed to the recording, formation, digitisation and projection of experiences, ever re-learn how to appreciate things for what they truly are? Can we really feel what the natural world has to give when there’s an invisible wall in the way?

I arrived at the cabin with these questions weighing on my mind. A group of school kids were taking turns diving into a lake nearby, too gleeful to even take their shoes off. A boy was finishing off his sandcastle. His friend rode past on a bike, whose leg with a swift blow knocked the artwork into a mini Colosseum.

“Argh! I’m telling on you, Thomas!”

A juvenile rage ensued.

But Thomas just pedalled off towards the dipping sun in a burst of laughter. The poor kid chased after with his shovel high up in the air. Their figures grew smaller and smaller until I could only spot a pair of silhouettes. Then, I was taken back to three years ago, on that farm, where the smell of manure and rain-washed sunlight decided that all of this would simply be enough.

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