joshua bellI have “lifted” this fascinating story from GreenTeam Australia’s excellent blog, because it is speaks so clearly to the power of perception – a theme that runs through so much of my thinking and speaking.

The story takes place in Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later: the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. Suppose, for a minute, that this was a story about a place and not a famous musician:

  • what determines beauty and value?
  • why travel if have we lost the childlike wonder that would enable us to appreciate the everyday?
  • how come the same experience can generate just $32 to the provider in one context and thousands in another?
  • how can we possibly live in harmony with nature, if we see it merely as vibrations to be measured and not something sacred to be revered?

If I had to design a sustainable tourism curriculum from scratch – on a blank piece of paper – I would not start with climate change and carbon emissions; or even how ecological footprints vary and are calculated; or the ROI on alternative energy etc etc. No, I think I would start with the poetry of Wordsworth, Thoreau or Walt Whitman, or to be more contemporary, Drew Dillinger; or the cosmology of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. I would  leave my students alone in an old growth forest long enough that the blinkers fell from their eyes and they could begin to see what lay hidden from those determined to do doing over being; I would encourage them to become tortoises rather than hares and ask them to devise rituals that honoured the passing of the seasons…..

Until we are prepared to slow down, stop and drink in the magical tones of Joshua Bell’s violin when the music emerges unexpectedly  from the pavement of an underpass on a drizzly November day, we will continue to gallop towards sustainability and it will recede further to the horizon. Until we have switched our perception of earth as lumberyard or ever giving ATM machine to earth as our sacred home that nurtures us; until we have mastered Wonder 101 and can articulate how a place pulses to its own unique beat; until we can feel “her” and feel one with her, why travel at all?

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