I’ve read a number of books in the last year that seem to run a common theme. (Side note, I’m not smart enough to monetize this, so clicking these links won’t get me paid, and I’m not too concerned about that.)
The first two make sense together. Trees. Real and fictional. The Overstory won a Pulitzer, and I am a fan of reading good writing. In all honesty, the first third was poetry and the rest seemed like the author was trying to develop characters and finish his story line.
The Hidden Life was hard to read. Not that the content was difficult, but I just had a hard time working through it, even though I was fascinated by the topic (says more about me maybe than the book). It was information-heavy, disguised in casual prose. Every paragraph seemed to weigh with information.
From both of these books, I walked away with two new ideas (to me) that change everything I know about the world. (Not a bad deal really – this was what reading has promised since day 1.)
Here’s idea #1: In very large forests (like BC’s rainforests, or the northern Boreal, etc.), it is more accurate to think of them as one tree, and not a bunch of trees. Because of the intertwining of root systems and a fungal network that connects everything below the surface, the individual sticks we see above ground, and innocently label as “trees” are in fact a single organism. Let that one sink in a bit.
Idea #2: Trees live in a different flow of time than we do. Their lives, their interactions with the environment, their lifespans, are measured in seasons, years, decades, centuries. Compare that to most of us whose lives are measured in minutes, days, weeks.
Hold onto those ideas for a moment. We need a not-so-brief detour.
How to do Nothing, I’m only part-way through right now. It falls in line with other books I’ve digested on digital minimalism, surveillance capitalism, and deep work. In essence, the (digital) world we live in today is designed to rob us of our attention, and somehow “they” (you know, Facebook, Twitter, etc) have managed to monetize attention. “They” really don’t want you doing nothing. That doesn’t pay the bills (or the mortgage on the new yacht.) And us, now conditioned to this way of being, can’t stand the moments when there is nothing. Standing in line at the grocery store? Peek at your phone. Doctor’s office? Read some emails. As one ad once said (can’t recall, Samsung maybe?) ‘I want to be the last thing you look at before you go to sleep, and the first thing you look at when you wake up.’ Signed, your phone.
One proposed antidote comes from a guy named Richard Louv, in the form of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. (not kidding) His pitch is that the attention economy (ecosystem?) has disconnected us from nature and the result is attention deficits (when not hooked up to an attention-generating/rewarding device), depression, hyperactivity, and so on. He is not without his critics for sure, but in essence, he is suggesting that we are lacking our unstructured time outdoors. (And when I say “we” I am referring to those of us who live in the industrialized world, highly interconnected digitally, and are within the wide net cast by those who are intentionally crafting attention scooping technologies.) During one of our walks, my wife noticed a family of mainly boys, all of whom had gathered sticks as they walked. Her comment was that it has been so long since she’d seen a kid play with a stick!
Louv’s critics suggest that he’s missed the point. He’s trying to depict ailing humanity as divorced from nature and the cure is a return to it. The critics suggest that we are never not connected to nature, but they seem to miss the one element that makes the difference – yep – attention. A recent study in a Canadian behavioural science journal noted that during the restrictive times of the pandemic, youth especially, made more use of social media to remain connected to their peers, but this was associated with increased anxiety and depression, not decreased. Time doing homework (!) and time with family decreased depression. Close Facebook (or Tik Tok or Snapchat) and go play with a stick!
In other words, sitting on a park bench, scrolling your phone is very different from sitting on a park bench and watching the world go by. What do the do nothing people recommend? Nature. The Real. Or to return to Piet Hein’s famous Grooks:
The soul may be a mere pretence,
the mind makes very little sense.
So let us value the appeal
of that which we can taste and feel.
A WORD TO THE WISE
Let the world pass in its time-ridden race;
never get caught in its snare.
the only acceptable case
for being in any particular place
is having no business there.
But if this is too much – too much nothing – you’ve become totally lost in the act of doing, of having your attention robbed by the next item in an endless scrolling feed of pathos, well then, there is help for you! Two genres of books emerge. The first is the modern version of self-help – yoga, breathing, meditation, daily Zen. The second are treatises on grit, or perseverance, or efficiencies like the GTD system, apps like Evernote or Notion, and so on.
The first category seems to suggest solutions for the weariness and damage the attention economy does to us. You guessed it, in order to heal, you must continue to ‘do’. In this case, twist your body, calm your mind, breathe. Not bad advice generally, but hidden in plain (pain?) sight in this is that the solution is still your problem. You need to do the yoga. You need to adopt lifestyle changes. You, the victim, are blamed and then tasked with providing your own solution. And yes, there are apps for all this, with timers… and scoring so you can compare to others, and poof… there goes your attention.
Category two also blames the victim, but for not doing enough, efficiently, or not having enough grit to do the task. What you need to do is get an app or two, read a book or two about how to better organize yourself, (you, yes you, the victim, need to work harder) and if that’s not enough, then we will disparage your character by suggesting that you don’t have enough grit, or will power, or (ironically) focus…
And to loop back to the start… time and interconnectedness, the things we learn from trees.
I read a scifi book a while back (I looked for it but couldn’t find the title to reference here.) It was about a colony ship headed to a new planet. The ship was designed to be a full Earth ecosystem to sustain the colonists. As the story progressed, and as they got farther from Earth, the ship slowly deteriorated. The underlying theme was that we, as humans, are just as bound and connected to the Earth as the trees are. And to remove us is to kill us. Just like transplanting a tree from its forest home to a backyard. We kill the tree doing that. We just don’t always see it because the tree dies over the course of decades. Maybe a bit like each of us dying over the course of decades when pushed to work beyond healthy human capacity.
Decades. Centuries. What happens to us if we take the (very) long view of life, looking well past our brief span on the planet? What happens to our attention when we take a big view? The attention economy doesn’t want us to do that because that Facebook post you want to rant about is unlikely to matter 1 year… 5 years… 100 years from now. But if you step away into deep time, you’ll miss the ads served on your page and someone (like Jeff Bezos) might dip below a trillion dollars valuation. I wonder what my boss would do if I suggested that we move our faculty initiatives forward in pace with the seasons?
Finally, to conclude this long ramble, this post began with an odd title. Here are the things I have forgotten while my attention was stolen:
- The presence of many things, none of which depend on my attention to thrive. On a wall in a classroom in a school in Oyen Alberta, there was a poster I stared at every time I was there to test kids. It was a poster of life on the prairie. Life, as in snakes, birds, flowers, grass, furry creatures from mice to antelope. The vast empty prairie turns out to be a very busy place, teeming with life. Driving down the highway, lost in thought about work, I see only grass. I forgot it was alive.
- Being blindingly drunk. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve drank. No, I’m not in AA. I react very badly to alcohol in my system, combined with some of the medication I am on for life. It was easier to stop drinking. Less painful too. Altered states basically. I’ve joked that I’m not built to go through life sober. Reality sucks. Or at least the reality our attention is being sold. Not being able to alter my state to turn it all off for a while has been a real challenge. That said, I’ve been forced to face attention and the passing of time. I forgot what it was like to be here, now.
- Sounds of nature. I sat, recently, outside while reading about trees, and stopped and listened. The rustle of leaves. The flowy river-like sound of wind in countless pines. And the realization that I didn’t have to do anything about it all except listen. I forgot what it was like to simply experience the flow of the world.
- People. At the end of this week, I’ll have a (fake) beer with a friend whose partner died in July. I read the obit late – a month later, and immediately sent a text (because we are still on our phones, right?) His response was that the support network he thought he had, hasn’t come through for him. Why? I’m guessing no one thinks they have the time to sit and listen to something that isn’t resolvable, and which for him, is going to hurt for a long time – much longer that it would take someone to click a sad emoji on a Facebook post. Much longer than we’ve been trained to think we have to spare. When in fact, there is only now, and now can last forever, even if forever occurs between 2 and 4pm some afternoon, just listening. Could I really have forgotten people??