One thing that I’ve noticed about myself and others over the years is that I as a human and we as a species do not notice what we do not “have” until it is gone. Only after the thing is gone do we look around as if amazed that we’ve lost it, the very thing that sometimes we actually worked very hard, albeit unconsciously, at eradicating. We as a species have been repeating this pattern ever since the glaciers thawed, after we slaughtered all the mastodons and then looked around in wonderment at their disappearance.
Who hasn’t felt that strange nostalgia for a difficult time in their lives, when we had to plow through hard times in order to get to where we are now? At that moment in time we would have never thought that we could possible treasure them for the life-defining times that they were. At that moment in time we could only know that we needed to move through time in order to get to a better place.
It is tricky to bypass that hardwired instinct to keep moving in those instances, but when we gain some perspective, perhaps in later years of our lives or with the loss of loved ones, we can start to see how each moment is more then a simple point that we need to pass through.
With that same premise, we can begin to understand that our private lands, like our farms and gardens, and our public lands, like our parks and wilderness areas, are all infinitely rich and boundlessly alive, as much a living thing as we ourselves are.
Our main instinct as living organisms is self-preservation, but after a while, when we have met the basic needs that allow us the comforts of self-expression and exploration, some of us find that our own lives can only be so deep a source of happiness, and that most of the joy in the world may come from recognizing the “others” that share our lands, the lives that live beyond our own.
In Aldo Leopold’s seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, he talks about a land ethic, which put simply in his words is: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold’s greatest gift to us perhaps was his insistence that we are all part of a community, and in no way are we as humans alone on this planet.
I would say, without hesitation, that I am extremely glad that I did not grow up in an age permeated with smartphones and lightning fast internet connectivity anywhere at any time (although I could also say that I am endlessly enthusiastic at the ability to do research online and share information). I am glad because I grew up in the real world, in the world of creeks filled with catfish and spring thaw mini-lakes and gravel pit fossil finds. I grew up in a world filled with the sights and smells of nature, immersed all day in the buds of spring and the crimson leaves of fall. These days instilled in me a love of the actual planet, and while not ingratiating me to my fellow man as a social creature, I became aware that I was not alone by myself in nature, and for quite a large portion of my life I’ve been repelled by the manmade cities that produce stink and pollution in quantities that I find abhorrent.
Now, I have a more lenient approach to all the silly ways of men, but I still prefer the woods or wilds or streams or prairies. My preference, I must acknowledge, most likely arose out of not just my love of all things wild, but also my upbringing on farms and countrysides. I thank my parents for there insistence on raising their children close to nature, even if it was there own need for quiet and beauty that inspired them.
Nowadays we find ourselves enmeshed, on a daily if not hourly basis for some, in a thing called Social Media, especially for those younger then 30. This young generation has never experienced a life without selfies or Snaps or Instagram shots that makes them look glamorous.
I posit that all of that, all of interaction in the Social Media landscape, is all useless for a life well-lived, and should be, if one is interested in living a life full of love and adventure and meaning, set aside, or at least used impartially without significant investments of time or energy. Social Media will be know in the future as one of the greatest detriments to our collective consciousness. Social Media is wrong according to the Land Ethic, and thus should be used sparingly if at all. Or perhaps, to word it more accurately, Social Media can infect all interactions with it’s own type of viral contagions.
What does social media have to do with creating a sense of place, or the overwhelming lack thereof in this generation under 30?
In this day and age, it has a lot to do with that.
If our value system is wholly dependent on community, whether it be our local township or the biota of our lands, then we need to examine what social media can do for that community. Otherwise, like any drug, we use it at our own peril and for our own addicted ends.
I have seen social media do wonderful things for meaningful causes, and so I see a place for it in that realm. Can we have a social media that is not selfie-dependent and encourage social media to be primarily about communities? That remains to be seen.
My personal set of values is rooted deeply in the landscape. As humans we need to take care of our basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, water, heat, and power, and after those basic needs are met, we are all on our own, in many ways, to go find our own ways to a meaningful life. We are all on our own journeys to understand and fully encapsulate what it means to be alive on this planet.
Some turn to religion, or science, or art. I find all of those things fascinating, but at the end of the day, I also know, as a farmer and outdoorsman, that natural resources is what allows all of our human created distractions to ebb and flow. Nature is the source of all of our riches and our very lives the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil that grows our food. From nature we pluck the lumber that builds our houses, the ore that becomes our metals, even the natural gas that warms our homes in the middle of a freezing cold winter night. Nature provides us with all so that we need to make our homes, eat, sleep, procreate, and finally allows us to create “meaning systems” that fulfill our endlessly complicated brains desire to see patterns in the landscape.
But as someone who is connected to the land on a daily basis I know that all riches ultimately come from the planet, and for me in particular, the small piece of the planet I call my farm.
When our national psyche is constantly bombarded by what Tweets certain people in power are sending out into the universe, we know that we are infected by the social media contagions in ways we don’t understand yet. Certain friends of mine would argue that they in particular are not ill, and not like those millions of humans that engage with Twitter and the “news” on a daily basis to hourly basis. Even so, regardless of those bastions of sanity in an insane culture, what does it say about our overall populace, that social media is what people need or want to do? If any society on the planet had half of it’s populace hooked on heroin, you can be assured that we would question certain aspects of that cultures health and stability.
In the same way, we are addicted to staring at our phones, for hours every day, in order to feel more connected, and soothed by the digital morphine hit. But connected to what, to whom, digesting what information, and why?
I think that we become so absorbed in these artificial worlds, these hells of our own making, because we, the majority of Americans, are disengaged from the natural world and without an intense and deep sense of place.
Having a sense of place doesn’t mean that you have to own a piece of property. Long before I even imagined owning property I engaged in the real world, IRL, and cultivated a sense of place on friend’s or family’s properties, in parks and public areas, as well as towns and other places that I lived.
Let me tell you about a time when my sense of place was uprooted.
I was getting a divorce after a handful of years of marriage on a farm — I had become attached to the landscape, and my sense of self was wrapped up in the very trees and boulders and soil and grass that surrounded me, as well as the frogs and toad and sand hill cranes that croaked in the wildflower fields.
To be honest, at the end of our relationship I was far more tied to the landscape then I was to my marriage. We were not a good fit. But as the divorce was finalized, I realized that it would be better for me to move on from that land and let my ex-wife live there. She was as enmeshed in that place as I was, and she needed that farm for her livelihood.
Afterward I moved to a rental farm with the same acreage, an absolutely beautiful parcel 30 miles to the west of my old farm, on sandy land that was closer to larger bodies of water then then the creek and stream filled rolling glacial hills of my original farm. I moved my farm and my animals there, and began to be more invested in living there for a few years, but found out very quickly that I had to move by the end of that year, again.
I really, at that point I had to make a decision, and decide how I wanted to live my life for the foreseeable future. I decided that it was time to invest of all my energy into buying a piece of property that I could really call my own. Luckily, I was able to find that property and take out a mortgage to buy it, I then I moved all my farm equipment and animals there. It was a busy and stressful year.
What drove me forward then, and what always has in the past, was my love of nature. In one year I said goodbye to a commitment of marriage to both a person and a piece of land, began to fall in love with an attractive community and area around my rental property, only to uproot once again to finally plant my feet in a farm that I believe I will live on for the rest of my life. Each step was difficult, but I each step was filled with the enjoyment of place. In fact, that was one of the primary things that gave me peace and joy, because everything else in my life was a stressful and frantic.
Instead of simply pursuing survival on a personal level, I was following my love of the natural world and trusting that love to lead me to the right place. I knew that abandoning that love meant I would abandon everything that is meaningful to me, and so I always kept that in sight as I moved forward.
Most likely I will never move back to a city to live because of this. If I became destitute, I would rather live simply in a shack in the middle of the woods tending a garden and hunting for food. This is an option that is almost always available to anyone, but in this day and age it has become a mocked and derided idea in contemporary society.
“That hermit is so anti-social!’ They might say, pointing a judgemental finger at my cabin as they stare down at the glow of their phones.
Is the hell of social media the cause or a symptom of our society’s inability, in this modern age, to focus on just one thing at a time, our collective attention deficit? Everything, including life events like weddings or raising a child, is mere fodder for social media attention-grabbing, and thus all life is reduced to images that we can capture instead of experiences that we can share IRL. In this day and age, both quantity and quality can gain you followers and likes but quantity is by far the most attractive method for those who are looking to build credibility as a social media star, per se. Regardless of followers and likes, which in the end results in nothing concrete and is as ephemeral as a milkweed seed floating in the wind, in order to fully experience life, we need to step out of that stream of social cues and robo-likes and learn to focus on one thing at a time.
Some say we are at a place in history where we are so divided as a nation that we can’t even have a meaningful dialogue. I disagree, considering history clearly shows us the intense rifts between different groups that have gone on in the past, such as slavery and the civil war. No, I think we have all become so excitable by the seemingly endless distractions available on our devices that we don’t retain he ability to focus on one experience at a time and hold conversations, period.
In nature, we learn to follow a track, a trail, a river, a task. It seems that the storyline of the wild is always along a line forged in the land, and when we immerse ourselves in whatever outside activity that we do, we find our selves, hiking, biking, kayaking, foraging, or even gathering sticks in lines that, like fractals, are recursive and branch out into tree limbs shapes.
We learn that being focused too long on one thing isn’t helpful, rather a broad-based taking-in of sensory information can help us navigate the waters or paths of nature to the best extent that we can. And we learn that, unlike in the hell of social media, nature doesn’t care about endlessly catering to our dopamine addicted psyches in order to keep us trapped and stoned in a mall of mirrors. Instead we have to cultivate our own awareness in order to appreciate nature for what it is. We have to take responsibility for our lives, our bodies, our souls, and not simply hang out in an ethereal space that is literally tweaked very hour of every day to become more adept at tapping into our psychology, trapping us in hell.
This particular hell is a vacuum where only what we want to hear exists, until our thoughts become nothing but a roar of self-congratulation and back-patting praise, where life is a series of selfies taken next to Lucifer and his devils on a tropical beach.
No matter how many selfies we take or updates we make, we know it is basically an empty experience. We find ourselves devoid of gratitude and simply seeking the hits of pleasure that the next like or follower will give us.
You can be sure that a person who steeps themselves in the ways of the woods or rivers or fields will always be filled with the gratitude that imbues us all when we work within a framework of beauty and difficulty, blood and guts, exercise and survival. Without that perspective, we flounder around looking for meaning in a world that is full of meaning but only if we can open our eyes to nature, and stop being such a myopic self-centered species.
But that probably won’t happen. So what then is the answer to a society slowly morphing into device zombies and consumer data collection? Is this a fad, or is this just a stepping stone to something completely different, a more healthy relationship with this new endless information highway?
For a second, seriously ask yourself; why did I post that thing on Facebook or take a selfie and put it on Instagram? Why do we do these things at all? Is it all social reinforcement, all simply a way of screaming into the void that “I exist too, dammit!”.
Perhaps that is one of the overriding reasons that cause us to desire to be on these so-called platforms, meaning, basically, a website owned and controlled by a corporation that is collecting as much of our data as possible in order to sell advertising directly psychotically directly at us to other corporations. The very moments of our lives are being scavenged by corporations in order for them to feed and grow bigger and stronger and exert more control over our every day existence.
I just watched an old South Park episode where some kids were getting off of social media for good, reaching out to the counselor as if they were contemplating suicide. When a kid finally does get off social media in the episode, everyone acts like she has actually commited suicide, shedding tears and holding grief counseling meetings to address everyone’s feelings about the situation. This is all supposed to be hilarious, but it struck me that it was actually a bit too close to the truth nowadays, in the same way that the Onion has ceased to be able to top the ridiculousness of actual headlines in the news.
So somehow, sneakily and behind our backs, social media has allowed our national conversation to become crude and simply based on one-upmanship. Long form “content”, which is what the kids call words and pictures these days, is relegated to sleepy Sunday afternoons, and we all increasingly lack the ability to focus and make our way through a complete article or novel. We’re literally killing off our ability to focus, and turning into giant adult toddlers.
No doubt I will get angry responses to my views on this, anger being the de facto reaction to any viewpoint that is different then your own in the social media environment. With the proliferation of the easy ability to be a jerk anonymously online, we have lost the ability to allow others to have other opinions that differ from our own WITHOUT chiming in on how wrong they are about such and such.
The natural world isn’t full of right or wrong answers, or moralizing about what is the right and wrong action or stance or viewpoint. Nature is a world full of cause and effect, a world as socially rich as any town or country club, but it’s just that we don’t know how to be in those communities any more. We can’t see the hawk or skunk or squirrel and understand that they are all part of our land community, and instead we flick on our phones and vanish into fantasy communities filled with like-minded humans. And in this sense we are impoverished while being surrounded by riches beyond our understanding.
We will not overcome this screen addiction by downloading another app or purchasing another technological whizbang device. My entire point here is that there is no app that will literally help us to experience life itself, no platform better then the woods or the meadows or lakes in the parks that dot our landscape.
We need to reawaken our senses in order to shun the dullness that social media platforms inspire within our souls, the sameness that can spread out into our real life social circle, the ability to conversate and commerce without getting out of our underwear, without putting in the effort to be a real human being sometimes.
There will be no “better, more upfront UX (User experience design) that will help us make more informed decision on how we spend our device time” or some other techno babble speak. That is techno babble rallying itself to pretend there is something other then zombiehood at the end of this long social media haul for our souls.
We don’t become zombies, exactly, We become enmeshed in a false world that does nothing to increase our life experience and this our enjoyment of life itself. And life is a beating heart and pumping lungs, life is a seedling sprouting from the warm earth, and life is a burbling creek running over moss covered rocks.
I do believe, heartily, that reengaging in the natural world and developing a sense of place is the antidote to the viral contagion of social media. Passing though beautiful scenery and taking a selfie there is not the type of engagement I am talking about.