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.”