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We all have forests in our minds
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to look at my home compost under a microscope. A soil scientist named Lynn pinched a fingerful of the fluffy, dark brown humus into a beaker of distilled water, shook it vigorously, and placed a single droplet onto a slide.
For an hour, we sat together, traveling its vastness. We met thousands of life-forms: jagged spirochaete bacteria, tight as mattress coils, gossamer threads of fungal mycelium, amoeba, bacteria, and protozoa, and one microscopic predatory mite, as monstrous as any ancient beast.
In the enormous quiet of another pandemic summer, I’ve spent a lot of time at the compost heap. I claw through it with a hand rake, inviting oxygen between layers of dried leaves and potato skins. I flick earwigs off my gloves as panicked pillbugs stream back into the comforting darkness of the black plastic dome.
What can I say, it breaks up the tedium. When I leave the compost, I head back to my screens. In my office, my laptop splays itself across a second monitor; my iPhone bleats insistently. Constellations of working documents, half-finished online chess games, Instagram DMs, and emails need tending to as well.
In the cool of my overworked air conditioning I rake over my apps, giving them oxygen, fulfilling the functions they require of me—functions dictated by tech companies whose designs to grow ever-larger ignore the fecundity of decay. Tending to this heap, I experience pings of dopamine as vivid as the emerald fig beetles hovering around my garden. Here, though, I’m not the gardener; I’m a mite, an amoeba, eating scraps, turning garbage into something valuable.
In April, I gathered with a group of friends for a garden tour. The garden was my friend Rebecca’s homestead in Stardew Valley, the popular agricultural roleplaying game. During the pandemic, Rebecca built an expansive farm in the game, a wholly personal place populated with pixelated animals, crops, and fruiting trees. She takes enormous pleasure in tending to this corner of cyberspace, harvesting her crops and taming the edges of the virtual wilderness beyond her gates.
During the tour, another friend mentioned that she’d been watching a lot of YouTube gardening videos, and had noticed an uptick in comments from people who had decided to take up “real” gardening after falling in love with growing things in games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. I was struck by the idea that these games can serve as rehearsal spaces for care; I felt hopeful that some people were turning that gesture outwards, towards the living world.
Of course, it goes both ways. In a 2018 essay for The Creative Independent, the artist Laurel Schwulst suggests that a website can be like a shelf, a puddle, or a garden. “Plants remind us that life is about balance,” she writes. “It’s nice to be outside working on your garden, just like it’s nice to quietly sit with your ideas and place them onto separate pages.”
Inspired by Schwulst’s essay, Willa Köerner teaches a workshop about “strategic digital gardening,” encouraging attendees to reframe how they manage their online presence in horticultural terms. She asks, “How could you treat your digital marketing as a garden you look forward to tending each day?” A growing number of people have begun to answer this question by treating their websites as "digital gardens,” pruning, pollinating, and stepping away from the demands of social media to think of “content” as a slow, generative process that bears fruit over time.
Many of us seek refuge from the internet in wild places, in gardens, or in the infinity of a compost heap. But since we can’t stop thinking about the internet, these sites become metaphors. Gardens and compost heaps require precisely the kind of mindful, quiet, productive tending that seems to be most lacking in our online lives. Their generative nature and quiet harmony seem to suggest new approaches for mindful internet use. I often return to my work from the garden filled with good intentions. I’ll plant some seeds here and there, I think, and wait to see what grows. These intentions are quickly swept away in the feed, which makes its own demands of me.
The living world has so much to teach us. I’ve written about what AI researchers are learning from biological evolution and what computer scientists are learning from slime molds. This week, in the inaugural issue of New_Public Magazine, I published “The Word for Web is Forest,” a new piece exploring what the builders of the decentralized Web might learn from old-growth forests.
You might be familiar with the wood wide web: the network of roots and symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi that allows trees to communicate and share nutrients with one another. Researchers mapping these networks in the wild have found that tree species long thought to be competitive with one another, like birch and pine, actually help each other thrive by sharing resources through the fungal linkages between their roots in the soil. They’ve also shown something that indigenous people have known for generations: that the oldest trees in the forest are the most deeply connected.
These elders, which the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard calls “mother trees,” are vital to the health of the forest. Thanks to their deep taproots, they’re able to share water in periods of drought. They pump carbon to the seedlings in their shade. When they die, they give all of themselves, pulsing every last bit of carbon to their kin. A single mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees, and in a healthy forest, multiple mother trees with overlapping connections ensure that a single elder isn’t responsible for the genetic continuity of the forest—forming a natural, and highly resilient, decentralized network.
In the New_Public piece, I argue that the wood wide web can serve as a blueprint for our transition away from the centralized, predatory, unsustainable Web we currently call home. Mother trees seem to be a key metaphor. A healthy network requires institutions that preserve cultural memory, distribute resources according to need, and—most importantly—bear a responsibility of care. Could we build “mother nodes” to fulfill this role in the Decentralized Web?
^ Illustration by Josh Kramer.
More fertile reading:
The entire Decentralization issue of New_Public is worth a read. I really enjoyed this conversation with the brilliant Amelia Winger-Bearskin about decentralized storytelling in Native tradition. Amelia (among other things) created the podcast Wampum.Codes, in which she interviews indigenous technologists about the cool things they build.
My writing about the wood wide web is indebted to Dr. Suzanne Simard. Her new memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, traces her journey from young forester to pioneering forest ecologist. She’s currently running the Mother Tree Project, a first-of-its-kind research project into forest renewal practices centered on these elder trees. Her TED talk will blow your mind.
“The Word for Web is Forest” is, of course, a riff on Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” one of the great arboreal science fiction books. As Le Guin once said, “We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplained, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.”