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In the summer of 2020, after the initial panic of the pandemic gave way to a certain grim practicality, I took a road trip to the primeval Redwood forests of Northern California. Even in August, the roads cutting through the trees were dense with fog. We drove through the mist, passing parking lots clustered with four-wheel drives and rental RVs. The turnover in these lots is rapid; visitors pull over, take photos, and move along, eager to visit sites of special interest named after historical figures of the 19th century—Amelia Earhart, Lady Bird Johnson. The National Park guide suggests itineraries for a half-day or a full day. If we follow them, it suggests, the forest will made knowable and finite.
On this particular road trip, I had my own list of must-see trees. I’d taken pains to secure a hiking permit to Tall Trees Grove, a stand of ancient Redwoods a six-mile drive and a four-mile hike beyond a locked gate. The Tall Trees Grove, accessible only to those granted the gate’s four-digit passcode, is home to the Libbey Tree, a 368-foot Redwood that was—until its crown died back in the mid-90s—the tallest tree on Earth.
The hike winds along a steep series of switchbacks cut into the hillside, and occasionally through the trunks of the mighty trees themselves. All the Redwoods along the trail are, by any definition of the word, tall. The effect of hiking among them is to feel doll-like, bug-like, pleasantly and cartoonishly diminished. Unsure where “the” tall trees begin, an earnest hiker might stop to marvel preemptively, admiring some impressive but ultimately minor tree.
That error is made clear after a mile and a half, as the Redwoods stretch and widen, splaying open to reveal living caverns, hefty burls, and complex knots of rot and growth. They are all astounding, but only the Libbey Tree seems to warrant the honor of narrative. A placard at its base shares an account of the National Geographic surveyor who “discovered” the tree in 1963, and whose “discovery” prompted the creation, in due course, of the National Park itself, a bureaucracy to which the tree itself, as its benefactor, remains blessedly indifferent.
I’ve always struggled with the way signposts like these turn living beings into objects, marking them as something to be consumed rather than co-existed with. On this same road trip, I’d also visited California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where the forest service keeps the exact location of a nearly 5,000 year old tree named Methuselah concealed from the public. I was grateful for this. If Methuselah had been signposted, I know I would have trudged through the forest just to see it, and once I’d arrived at its trunk I would have agonized over my feeling, or lack of feeling, about it. But when any tree in a forest might be the oldest tree on Earth, in a sense, they all are.
I was thinking about this as I stood at the foot of the Libbey tree, feeling unable, or perhaps unwilling, to single out this one ancient tree from its forest-spanning network of fellow travelers. Losing focus, I found myself distracted by the murmur of a nearby creek. I followed the sound to a small footpath forking from the main trail. Unmarked but well-worn, this desire path drew me away from the trees like a somnambulist.
As I stepped out from the dampness of the ancient grove, I found myself in a bright open clearing cut through by a stream. The air was warm, and along the water was a rocky beach of black stone, dotted with patches of reedy mountaingrass and plain purple cornflowers. I felt the contrast between the deep forest and this gentle creek as a full-body shock so intense that I had to sit down by the water. After a moment of perceptual adjustment, I became aware that I wasn’t alone: everywhere I looked were small grey frogs, as breathtakingly tiny as the Redwoods were large.
In that moment it felt like the frogs and the trees created one another. The grove could not be so dark and solemn without the open brightness of the creek. The trees could neither be imposing nor ancient without the presence of these ephemerally-lived, perfectly small frogs. It wasn’t until after I sat in the chatter of the creek, with the frogs, that I felt I could even see the Libbey Tree, or the Redwoods. Big things aren’t just meaningless without the small things—they can be, in a way, invisible.
Last month I was in New York, promoting Terraform: Watch Worlds Burn, the science fiction anthology I co-edited with my friend Brian Merchant. Killing time in Brooklyn the morning after our book launch, I wandered into a bookshop and picked up Embrace Fearlessly The Burning World, a new collection of essays by the late naturalist-writer Barry Lopez, which I sat and read for hours in a café near the Gowanus canal.
In an essay called “An Intimate Geography,” Lopez writes about the intensity of perceiving a place from the middle ground, seeing the very big and the very small at once. He describes spotting caribou in the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska, along the Anaktuvuk River. “The impression of distance in the valley of the Anaktuvuk that night was intensified by seeing the brilliance of a few lichen-covered rocks close to my hand, by being able to make a connection, in that same instant, between the near and the far,” he writes.
I was comforted to read one of my favorite writers reveling in this same experience: not just the collapse of scales, but the way in which they rely on each other to create meaning. To feel truly rooted in place, you need to become the intermediary between intimacy and vastness, bridging them through attention—a practice, which Rebecca Solnit, in the book’s introduction, likens to an attending-to, a form of care. I suppose it’s also what I hope to do with my work: attend to the big and small at once.
But scale is relative. The more-than-human world unfolds at the scale of individuals and entire populations, across ecological and evolutionary time; there is no single scale at which the natural world can be observed, no vantage point from which to stand watch. In population biology and ecosystems science, this is known as the “problem of pattern and scale.” For scientists, the only way around it is to create models, multiple and overlapping, each revealing a glimpse of the world’s many faces.
Maybe I’ve just been thinking a lot about models. I was recently invited by the Serpentine Gallery’s Synthetic Ecologies Lab to participate in Compendium, a collective archive produced by a group of thinkers across art and science. Given the theme of “fermentation,” my cohort produced a remarkable compendium of images, reflections, and references. My contribution to this Compendium is a companion essay, published last week, called Fermented Code: Modeling the Microbial Through Miso.
The essay tackles a few weird vectors simultaneously. I was inspired by new research indicating that fermented foods can help us to understand the enormous complexity of natural microbial communities. A pot of miso, self-contained and debugged by centuries of human culinary ingenuity, is an interface between the artificial simplicity of a laboratory experiment and the diverse communities of microbes flourishing around—and within—us all. As I write in the piece, “fermentation is a way of capturing the complexity of microbial ecology, literally drawing it from the air, rendering it knowable, and ultimately domesticating it.”
Of course, there will always be something a model—edible or computational—misses. Making a model requires elision: choosing to represent the signal and shave out the noise. This is complicated by the fact that what appears to be noise at one scale can look like a signal at another. And so the model must exist suspended like a pearl in time; model-makers talk of ‘sweet spots’ and ‘Goldilocks points,’ those just-right balances between complexity and simplicity. Which brings us back to the frogs and the redwoods, the lichens and the Anaktuvuk valley—and my sense that understanding is a form of mediation between the vast scales of the natural world.
Finally, I have a few Big Things of my own to share.
My science fiction anthology Terraform: Watch Worlds Burn has hit bookstores—that’s nearly 500 pages of visionary speculations from writers like Jeff VanderMeer, Ellen Ullman, Omar El Akkad, Tochi Onyebuchi, and many more, co-edited by yours truly. It’s a treat to join the anthologies shelf, where first contact between readers and writers has been brokered by the great editors of science fiction for nearly a century.
The Computer Accent, a documentary film following my band’s experiments with Artificial Intelligence, just made its debut in the Americas, opening the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico City. As AI art accelerates, I feel more and more confident in the film’s core assertion that a song is the document of an experience—and that the role of technology shouldn’t be to streamline or erase that experience, but rather to enliven and complicate it. The film is playing at Gray Area in San Francisco on September 29th, at New York’s Metrograph October 21-23rd, and at the Portland Art Museum October 25th, with more screenings across the US still to be announced.
I loved James Bridle’s new book, Ways of Being. It’s an earnest, omnivorous exploration of planetary intelligence, and a vital antidote to both the hand-wringing and bluster that dominates the contemporary discourse about AI. Last month, James and I talked about old growth forests and crab computers on NPR; listen to our conversation here. A second, more extensive conversation is forthcoming in the next print issue of Grow magazine.
Elvia Wilk’s collection of essays, Death By Landscape, is another of this year’s must-reads—a brainy, weird survey of literature, compost, Medieval art, and LARPing, among other things. To celebrate the publication of Death by Landscape, Elvia and I had a great, rangy conversation about science fiction dystopias for Pioneer Works; read it here. Both Elvia and James are contributors to Terraform, too—everything is connected.
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