Years ago, my boyfriend and I took a dream vacation, backpacking around England. A couple of days into the trip, we were walking through downtown Oxford one morning, trying to find the train station. We were a little lost, a street map flapping in my hands, when a scruffy man approached us and asked if we needed help. I sized him up—grizzled, unshaven, in very dirty clothes—and politely waved him off, saying we were heading for the train station and were fine. In my big-city California brain, it was obvious that he was about to ask us for money. But he didn’t; he pointed out an easy route to the train station, nodded pleasantly, and walked away. That was when I got a better look at him and realized his clothes weren’t dirty, but were in fact dusty—he was a workman in overalls, maybe a carpenter or bricklayer, clearly on his way to work. I’d made an assumption based on a quick glance. I was wrong.
You’d think that that experience would have taught me not to judge people from a distance, but it’s turned out to be a hard lesson to learn. I still do it, even though I live in a small, eccentric town where the disheveled man sitting on the curb could be a business tycoon, and where the ridiculous-looking contraption in that woman’s yard could be a new mode of transportation that everyone will be using in a few years. Still, I often fear what looks strange. I fear people I don’t know.
I started thinking about that man in Oxford again a couple of years ago, when my sister sent me some video footage that she and her partner had filmed with their drone, a toy-size remote-controlled helicopter that they fly over their rural property. I was skeptical; drones, to me, are all about privacy violations and remote warfare, a prime example of our technology outrunning our ethics. But then I watched the footage, an airborne view of farmland, mountains, dry washes, and even—there! look!—my sister walking with a tool belt around her waist, her dog running toward her. It was…well…beautiful. Lyrical. Transformational. The camera on the flying ’copter vibrated slightly, as if someone held it in excited hands.
OK, so I’m a poet, and that was one of those moments that are just made for poetry. It got lodged in my mind, the idea that this innocent little machine was flying around filming that gorgeous landscape, much as a military drone flies over potential targets. The machine is only relaying the information; it’s the human operator who interprets it. If I were looking for targets, for “hostiles,” what would I have seen in that bucolic landscape? Bunkers, fortifications, tracks of troop movements? And what if the drone moved in closer and showed me something I wasn’t expecting to see, like a bricklayer in overalls on his way to work? That dance between distance and familiarity, between fear and recognition, is something that plays out all the time, but even more so now when there are such deep divisions in our country. This person sees a terrorist; that person sees a teacher. This person sees a terrorist; that person sees a gardener. This person sees a terrorist; I see my sister.
Read Amy's poem To the Drone All Objects Are Beautiful.
Amy Miller’s full-length poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis
Award from Concrete Wolf Press and will be published in 2018. Her writing has appeared in Gulf
Coast, Nimrod, Raleigh Review, Willow Springs, and ZYZZYVA. Her latest chapbook is I Am on a
River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press). She lives in Oregon.