The web and other fables

Last Sunday morning I walked down the mountain to meet the woman we buy eggs from on her way back home from 8:00 a.m. mass. As I crossed the tracks, I heard her tires on the metal decking of the county bridge. She rounded the bend and stopped; a helmet with legs stood in the road between us. We hurried over and crouched on either side of it with our cameras, admiring the bright red eyes and orange markings and its apparent fearlessness as it continued on over the gravel and into the high weeds. However it had managed to survive to adulthood in the tiny strip of woods between the tracks and the river, it knew better than to look for sanctuary in the dark night of its shell.

*

Does place matter? Are online spaces truly analogous to real-world places? Do the connections we forge through blogging reinforce or compete with our connections to real-world communities and natural places? I emailed a bunch of blogger friends to get their opinions, and as you might expect, everyone had a different take on it. “What I like about place-specific writers (though I am definitely not among them),” wrote Siona, “is how I come away appreciating the nuances of my own particular corner of the planet that much more as a result.” Lorianne noted that for her main interest — nature writing — the blogosphere was a gold mine.

Whereas published nature writing might clue me into a handful of interesting (usually spectacular) wild places, place blogs allow me to check in on a greater number of places, most of them quite ordinary: places where folks actually live. Instead of seeing ‘nature’ or ‘place’ as being something that happens somewhere else away from people–Abbey’s deserted desert, Thoreau’s tranquil pond–I learn from blog-reading that ‘nature’ and ‘place’ transpire in the real world, in places where people are reading books & doing laundry & getting drunk & falling in love.

*

Below the old corral, I remind myself to quit walking so fast. Stop and look around, Dave! I take three steps back in the direction I just came, and a ruffed grouse family flushes from the weeds. The half-grown youngsters burst into flight, careening off to all points of the compass. The mother stays behind to do her broken-wing act, weaving drunkenly through the dry leaves and calling piteously. “Oh, stop your grousing!” I say, and she does.

*

Places are no less real for being imaginary, Beth wrote.

I think imaginary places have great power, and when we (on purpose or unwittingly) are presented with a real life substitute, the fantasy is diminished or even destroyed. I don’t much like seeing movies of books, for that reason, because I rather like the people and places who are created by my imagination when I read. In the case of REAL people (bloggers), the temptation to actually meet is too great, so it has been a tradeoff I’ve been glad to make. But I am sorry for some of the diminishment of the power of that virtual place and its inhabitants.

Marja-Leena offered a visual artist’s perspective, saying that for her, familiar blogs quickly become very place-like. It occurs to me that the element of evolution in a blog — the fact that it is constantly growing — adds to its feeling of spaciousness.

*

The black raspberries are ripening. The decline in our local deer herd has meant that, for the first time in over a decade, there are enough canes around the houses to yield a cup or two a day. I feel sorry for people who have to keep their lawns mowed, or feel that they do; it’s a nice feeling to be able to go outside and gorge on something one didn’t even have to plant. It’s odd, though: picking berries into a pot always seems like work, but eating them as I go, a handful at a time, is pure pleasure. I feel like a bear circling my house, glancing into all the windows.

*

Early in the discussion, I had mentioned that I didn’t think that immersion in online activity was such a great issue; the invention of writing systems had precipitated the original leap into abstraction, and that leap is still unsurpassed by anything that’s happened since. The blogger known as whiskey asked,

I want to know why it’s (potentially) unhealthy to live in an abstract state – as a writer, or as any kind of an artist? After all, it seems a bit of a prerequisite to live there, in the spaces between imagination and reality, memory and creativity, but is there really ever a conscious choice in the matter, or are we just drawn that way?

I think that creative individuals have a more heightened sense of reality – not in an abstract sense – but in the capacity to shift perception, to see otherwise, to move a little deeper in and out of what surrounds them than someone who stays on the surface of things.

To me, this is an infinitely healthier state, more flexible, less subject to rigidity and thus breakage. The benefits seem to far outweigh the risks – although it’s true that the risks take quite a few of us out. Is that pathological or is it evolutionary?

Several other bloggers answered, and a consensus seemed to emerge that, as Beth put it,

Abstract thinking […] can be informed by the concrete, day-to-day world, and our gift (I’d dare suggest) is to describe or translate the day-to-day world with added meaning because of that ability to think abstractly. So I think the two are best if in some sort of conscious balance, not that one is healthier than the other.

*

I get up from my writing and go out. It’s a beautiful morning, the nicest in a couple of weeks: clear and cool, like autumn in July. I climb the hill past the lilac bush — the path I take a dozen times a day. Just as I step onto the veranda of my parents’ house, a sunbeam passes through the front porch and all the way through the living room to light up a potted geranium that sits in the middle of a round table next to the door. This is its second blossoming, pink streaked with white, as obvious as a five-dollar whore. But the sun’s spotlight, filtered by several layers of glass, lends the flowers a brief, otherworldly radiance, and half a minute later, when it fades and goes out, I find I have forgotten whatever it was I came up for. Newly inspired, I go back down and return to my writing.

*

The email discussion began to ramify, making it difficult for me to keep track of who said what. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Dale weighed in about the importance of the quality of one’s attention, and questioned the relevance of “the natural” to our ability to stay focused on the present. Siona’s response resonated with me.

To me, physical embodiedness is a necessary part of attention. It’s all fine and good to examine the quality of attention from a spiritual or psychological point of view, but I somehow think that, unless the body is included, something is missing. And much as I’d like to think I can capture the same meditative quality in my squared-off office quarters, I know that unless the pores of my skin are soaking up the richness of a landscape, that unless the bronchii in my lungs are breathing in the respiration of plants, that unless my body is settled in the earth, where it belongs, there’s no way I can presume to be as present as truly possible. We are all connected to the planet, and the deepest present awareness, I think, demands this connection to “the natural.”

Other people jumped in to differ with or expand upon points already made. It occurred to me that, instead of using email, we should all be blogging and linking to each other. Only interconnected, hyperlinked text, with multiple nodes and no center, can begin to fairly represent a real-world conversation.

*

I went out for a walk one evening right at dusk during a break in the rains, and chose a foot path that winds through the hundred-year-old oak woods on what we call Laurel Ridge. The wood thrushes as usual were singing their heartbreaking songs. I started noticing mushrooms beside the trail, though it was hard to tell how many in the dim light. A deerfly found me and began blundering around in my hair. The humid air had a rank and fungal scent.

By the next morning, a cold front had blown in and the rains seemed to be over for a while. I took the path again, and was astounded. Yellow-brown toadstools were everywhere, pushing up the leaves, opening their cracked umbrellas. Here and there I saw amanitas and coral mushrooms, and clusters of Indian pipes — ghost flowers, as someone aptly nicknamed them — offered counterpoint to the lurid fungal display. I sat down on a patch of moss. It’s one thing to realize intellectually that a dense network of fungal mycelia extends for miles beneath one’s feet, and that without it, most of these trees could barely gather water or nutrients, but it’s another thing to see direct evidence of it.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi are mutualistic symbionts living in the roots of 80% of land plant species, and developing extensive, belowground extraradical hyphae fundamental for the uptake of soil nutrients and their transfer to host plants. Since AM fungi have a wide host range, they are able to colonize and interconnect contiguous plants by means of hyphae extending from one root system to another. Such hyphae may fuse due to the widespread occurrence of anastomoses, whose formation depends on a highly regulated mechanism of self recognition. […] The root systems of plants belonging to different species, genera and families may be connected by means of anastomosis formation between extraradical mycorrhizal networks, which can create indefinitely large numbers of belowground fungal linkages within plant communities.
–Manuela Giovannetti, Luciano Avio, Paola Fortuna, Elisa Pellegrino, Cristiana Sbrana and Patrizia Strani, At the Root of the Wood Wide Web: Self Recognition and Nonself Incompatibility in Mycorrhizal Networks

Like an Internet user clicking on “page source” for the very first time, I sat uneasily among the fruiting bodies of the wood-wide web.
__________

For a much more thorough and academic look at the relationships between blogging and place, see Tim Lindgren’s paper, “Blogging Places: Locating Pedagogy in the Whereness of Weblogs.

13 Comments


  1. The creation of “virtual places” online certainly predates the Web… some examples that come to mind are the mailing list Bandykin, the newsgroup alt.callahans, the Well, and an assortment of text-based multiplayer role playing games that regularly drifted well away from their original “game” concepts. And of course all of these were preceded by the era of dialup Bulletin Board Systems, which likewise developed individual personalities and atmospheres.

    I’d say this simply reflects the point that to humans, the social environment can be as important, or even more so, than the strictly physical environment. Of course, the same principle supported generations of tiny shtetls, churches, bars, and other gathering places, tucked into whatever scraps of space were available to their members and patrons. Likewise, the “community of letters” existed generations before the letters leapt from their wood-fiber substrates, and took flight along the wires and wavelengths of electronic communications.

    Reply

  2. I would argue that, as in the underground interconnected web structure you talk of, which is very Deleuzian, rhizomatic and all that, that communities, while retaining some similarities to pre-internet days, are different. They are more amorphous, wider-ranging, crossing boundaries of all kinds, countries, religions, race, education and income levels, you name it and the rhizomatic roots reach to each person hooked up to a computer chatting, blogging, group emailing.

    Communities are created and die away easily and often. Members of more stable groups come and go. A person can travel the internet highway endlessly, discovering ever new buddies and multitudinous interconnected networks of communities.

    Many of the same things go on in online communities that go on in small towns, dalliances, arguments, gossip, progeny (yes! new projects). But it’s all language isn’t it. It’s disembodied communication.

    Oh, we include photographs of our surroundings, of ourselves, making it more ‘bodily,’ but it’s an emulation of the embodied that exists perhaps more in the imagination than in ‘reality.’

    What do we look for? In our interconnected communications? Our online communities?

    The people who brought me to Blogger originally are all gone. Oh, still blogging no doubt, but we don’t read each other. They were all mothers of young children, and I’ve moved past that stage…

    How many communities have I dipped into, sometimes even for a fairly long while, before finding another, fascinating one, and drifting off?

    It’s so easy to do. In the traditional community you lived in a house and so did all your neighbours and those were the people you socialized with. And you went through all the life stages together…

    Now it’s like trajectories of currents, or a large brain firing. That’s what gets me the most about it – it’s disembodied, especially in comparison to groups that meet in cities or towns, and it’s like it’s becoming ‘pure mind.’

    I hope to say that is not too contentious!

    Reply

  3. David – You provide valuable context here. I would agree that the difference between the web and these earlier manifestations is one of degree, not of kind.

    Brenda – If I read you correctly, you feel a little conflicted about your participation in online communities. I share that sense of ambiguity. The contemporary philosopher Al Lingis wrote a book called The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, which I read too long ago to even begin to summarize. But when I think of real-world community, its non-elective nature is one of the fundamental characteristics that comes to mind. I suspect there’s something very healthy about being forced to interact with people who are very different from ourselves. But I am personally short on experience in such real-world communities, being essentially a hermit, so I think I’ll get out of the way and let other people weigh in if they have a mind to.

    Reply

  4. Another fine last line, Dave.

    Most of the people I interact with at work, home, and other offline settings are not like me. One of the neatest things about blogging is the disproportionate number of people who are like me. That is, they share certain personality traits and interests: people who enjoy abstraction, writing, and self-publishing.

    It has been interesting watching myself as I’ve blogged for two years. My tendency to binge, to throw myself at a project until all hours, and to work for an unhealthy and dull perfection have all come out online. There is far less accountability online as there sometimes is offline. Criticism doesn’t work well online — emoticons don’t begin to put a remark in the perspective one might put a remark in person — so I could be left to my own devices if I lived too much of a virtual life.

    But blogging and commenting has clarified my thinking so much and have given me so much joy. I guess balance is all.

    Reply

  5. Thanks for the comment. Your experience sounds much like mine. But I didn’t understand what you meant by “…come out online”: they expressed themselves in your online activity? Or do you mean you got rid of them?

    Reply

  6. The former. (That was right ambiguous.)

    But to return to the positive side, blogging has often helped to clarify my thinking, sometimes by enlarging it. Tonight I added a search engine to Firefox’s search bar named “VN Search.” (I used Rollyo.) When I type in a query and select VN Search, I get every instance of the word(s) on Via Negativa’s new and old web sites. For instance, I typed in “apophatic,” the biggest word I know, and was attracted to a post named “Without a net.” This article has helped to broaden my understanding of apophatic thought.

    My other search engines are for answers. VN Search is for when I want questions, or at least when I want my own questions to be better framed.

    Reply

  7. Dave, just goes to show what a city-dweller I am:
    When I read “…helmet on legs…” (your description of what stopped you on the road) I immediately imagined a motorcycle-rider and something vaguely ominous about to happen.
    It took some re-adjusting of my inner camera to work out that you were talking about a turtle.
    You are very fortunate to be living in a place where turtles can stop traffic.
    I’d love to see a picture of your house and the mountain it’s on.

    See, this is why I love the blogging community. Instant and direct rapport/reaction/responses along chosen paths. In real life, communication is not usually like that.

    Reply

  8. Peter – Whoa buddy. I don’t know whether to be flattered or frightened that you are using Via Negativa that way! I guess I’m glad my prolixity is proving to be of some practical (?) value.

    Natalie – Of course I could’ve made it clearer, but I wanted to make people stop and concentrate. Guess it worked!

    I published a photo of my house here.
    Additional photos of the mountain can be found by clicking on the Plummer’s Hollow category in the sidebar.

    Reply

  9. Peter: “Most of the people I interact with at work, home, and other offline settings are not like me. One of the neatest things about blogging is the disproportionate number of people who are like me. That is, they share certain personality traits and interests: people who enjoy abstraction, writing, and self-publishing.”

    Well… those folks are “like you” in very particular ways — indeed, in the ways that are highlighted by the ‘Net. And (trust me on this one) it’s not that everyone out there has these characteristics, it’s that you’re finding and “hanging out with” such people.

    I actually consider that a mixed blessing of the ‘Net — it’s really easy to find people who agree with you in any given fashion. In contrast, in “meatspace”, you need to physically encounter unknown people, engage in conversations, and keep chatting with them until you find your similarities. (Of course, there are various “signals” that can help, such as clothing etc.) In the process, though, you also will meet folks who are very different from you, and to keep up the conversation, you need to deal with them *right there*, in some way short of flipping them the bird. That can be the most interesting part of conversations, or the most frustrating — sometimes even physically dangerous. In my own case, I have enough social difficulties in the real world to make the business of “meeting people” quite frustrating.
    I probably wouldn’t ever have met our host in the real world, for a number of reasons, not limited to his own hermitage. Not to mention that even in much of my own country, my social and political background would make me somewhat less welcome than a tentacled monster from Mars. On the ‘net, you can usually just “disappear” from anyone who you find too alien, or if you prefer, harangue or insult them with little consequence. Note that I’ve been mistreated by folks both on the ‘net and in “real life” — given my own talents, I’m much better at defending myself online.

    I find that my own complexity means that even on the ‘net, nobody is “exactly” like me…. but I can find people who share *some* elements, and explore the differences we *also* have. I can “browse through” dozens of people’s discussions in search of something interesting, leaving passing shots at the “nutballs” or confusing insights at friendlier forums. Much more fun, and less stressful, than wandering through parties of people I barely know, or trying to make sense of semi-coherent folks at bus stops….

    Reply

  10. What I find fascinating here (well, *one* of the things I find fascinating here…) is that a discussion of *place* very naturally evolved into a discussion of *relationship*.

    Dave, I resonate with what you say about living almost as a hermit…although my teaching brings me into contact with lots of folks, when I come home to my apartment, it’s pretty much me & the dog. I’m not very well connected here in Keene: my closest friends are in Ohio, Massachusetts, and various other far-off places. I’m right now reading *Bowling Alone*, and it’s hitting very close to home: for all I write about Keene, I don’t know my neighbors, don’t belong to a church, don’t have a local social network, etc.

    So, why is it that an otherwise outgoing person is so much of her time online: “What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”

    I think Peter hits it on the head: it’s difficult to find like-minded people if you’re at all “unusual” in your tastes, proclivities, or lifestyle. I don’t have kids or a TV, so right there I’m radically different from many of my neighbors; when you add Zen to the mix…well, the results aren’t pretty.

    As much as I don’t want online/virtual places to supplant or replace actual places, I should make a greater “play well with others” in the real world. I mean, if I fell & broke my leg tomorrow, none of my online friends could rush over to lend me a hand…

    Reply

  11. Yeah. As David says, it’s a mixed blessing. I am, like you, fairly gregarious. I’ve lived here a lot longer than you’ve lived in Keene, so I do know a fair number of people, though not nearly as many as I could. Still, as a result of growing up in this area, which is culturally and politically quite conservative, I feel comfortable with it — to the point where I actually get a little nervous on rare occasions when I’m around too many people who are weird in the same way I am. It just feels wrong, somehow!

    Reply

  12. “What I find fascinating here (well, *one* of the things I find fascinating here…) is that a discussion of *place* very naturally evolved into a discussion of *relationship*.”

    Well yes. Much of our host’s writing is about relationship *to* place, and to the things about us. Note above how he doesn’t merely “drink” his beer, but “groks” it (ala Heinlein’s _Stranger_ in a _Strange_ _Land_). Whenever we go “to” or “from” a place, we are seeking to change our relationship to both the place, and whatever might reside within that place — objects (perhaps objects of need), people (ditto), or “the unknown” (and this blog by its nature asserts that this too, can be an object of need).

    Reply

Leave a Reply