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Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, Forest Scene, 1874

“I didn’t realize, I didn’t articulate at the time, that I had this reverence for trees,” Suzanne Simard explained in a recent interview with Emergent Magazine.

Simard, who was recollecting her childhood experience in familiar forests, went on to become a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia. Her pioneering research showed that forest trees are connected by vast underground mycorrhizal networks.

“They were a cathedral that was one, with all of its disciples and pews,” Simard went on to say of the forests she knew as a child, “and to me it was just this integrated place.” But, she added, “when I went to university, the professors had picked apart the forest. There were the trees, there was the soil, there were the plants, so it was a reductionist way of seeing this place that I had already grown up knowing was whole.”

Out of college, Simard began working as a silviculturist in the forest industry. “Take the trees and clear-cut them and sell them on the market and then plant trees again”—this was standard operating procedure for the industry as she knew it. “I became part of that machine,” she acknowledges, “that clear-cutting, planting machine.” The main problem as she came to see it was that “the forest that was clear-cut was not at all what was put back.”

“We were creating forests that were not connected and entwined,” Simard explained, “that we were creating forests that put the parts back, but didn’t actually meld together as a whole, as I knew it should.”

In time, Simard realized that many of the replanted trees were getting sick. This prompted her research, based on intuitions derived from her early experience of forests, which demonstrated that forest trees are connected by elaborate networks of fungi and roots through which they communicate and support one another. You could replant the trees you cut down, but you couldn’t recreate the unseen network that kept them healthy. As I read Simard describe her experience with trees, I came to see the story she was telling as an apt allegory for social life in the digital age. 

The story of modernity is the story of disintegration. Across a number of fields, the modern world learned to take things apart. Some of this was done in the interest of an ostensibly better understanding of the natural world, some of it was driven by the desire for greater degrees of technical precision or economic efficiency. In other cases, the separations were philosophical in nature, or they reflected changing social realities. Specialization was the order of the day. Nature was dissected. Church and state went their separate ways. Science and philosophy parted. Work was detached from the home and family life. Fact and value, human and non-human, individual and community, body and mind, object and subject—what was once whole was now separate. 

Of course, such differentiations were never total or complete. The anthropologist Bruno Latour famously argued that we have never been modern precisely because we never really achieved the strict separations (he calls them purifications) we imagined to be the defining features of the modern world. Religion and politics, science and belief, nature and culture have always blended and intermingled.

Nonetheless, to be modern was to believe that such separations were necessary and good, and, while never complete, some ruptures were real and consequential. I have the rise of the individual chiefly in mind. Under the guise of freedom and liberation, the individual was unencumbered and disembedded. Ties to family, tradition, and community were gradually loosened, and the self was ostensibly freed to fashion itself at whim. The result, through much of the 20th century, was widespread angst about alienation, anxiety, and loneliness. The faceless person lost in the crowd became a recurring trope. 

If we live in a postmodern world, it is not because we have become relativists with regards to truth but because the old separations that constituted the modern world are no longer tenable. It is increasingly evident that the philosophical differentiations were never complete, and individuals find themselves increasingly re-connected. In both cases, it is possible to draw a line between the advent of digital communication technologies and inability to sustain the separations that were so critical to modernity’s self-understanding. While modernity isolated the individual, the digital world promised to re-forge communities and reconnect us. But the total effect has been something akin to the replanted forests Simard described. What was torn down into its constituent parts  has been reassembled, but it has not been made whole. Communities, like old forests, cannot simply be re-fabricated. 

Digital tools have brought us closer together in some respects, and they have connected us to many people we never would have known otherwise. And they have provided genuine solace and consolation to many, who, apart from them, might have found themselves alone and unheard.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that these new forms of social life will function in the same manner as older communities, which had disintegrated under the economic, technological, and ideological forces of the modern world. They are, most obviously, indifferent to place, unlike the older forms of communal life, which were almost always locally rooted. They make different, perhaps less stringent demands of us. They tend to be communities of affinity and antagonism. They do not tend to foster the virtues required to live well and peaceably with those who are unlike us. And this is to say nothing of the power these new networks posses to unsettle, confuse, and overwhelm by virtue of their design and architecture. Their scale and temporal rhythms are inhospitable to the often, slow deliberate work that truth and trust require. 

Just like the engineered forests with which we began, something is amiss with the engineered re-integrations that digital media makes possible. Networks built on metrics and data cannot account for the often intangible forces that bind people together, not unlike the mycorrhizal networks Simard identified.

It may be best for us to appreciate our digital forms of connection for what they are, while recognizing that they are ultimately an inadequate substitute for the more robust forms of membership and belonging that we naturally crave. Ultimately, there will be no technological shortcuts for the time and virtue required to build new and life-giving forms of community. 

 

***
 

Michael Sacasas is the associate director of the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, and author of The Convivial Society, a newsletter exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and the moral life. 

Can we recover the more organic, embedded forms of community that we've lost? 

Do you agree that digital forms of connection are like "engineered forests"?


Email me your thoughts on Michael's piece, and I'll include some excerpts in the next newsletter.
Thomas Cole, Tornado in an American Forest, 1831
 
in other news
  • In a time of historic drought, farmers in California are making difficult choices—and revealing much, one might argue, about both water usage in the West and the incentives established by federal farm policies. This New York Times article profiles farmers who are selling their water, letting land lay fallow, and ripping out almond trees. This Civil Eats article notes that big ag producers get relief in hard times, while small produce farmers are often ignored by aid programs. 

  • Inhabitants of Ethiopia's Tigray region are suffering "the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade" as troops prevent them from receiving humanitarian aid. "Taken together, experts and observers feared this would balloon into a crisis of mass starvation," Jen Kirby reports. "Now that crisis has arrived."
     
  • Norm Van Eeden Petersman reveals the way modern zoning promotes transience: "I’d like to have options when downsizing or changing rentals (if the need ever arose) or buying into a co-op or purchasing a home for our family. There aren’t many choices in our neighborhood at present."
     
  • I love these profiles: one of "the world's most accomplished heirloom apple-hunter," the other of an ordinary English gardener whose vegetable photos with went viral on Twitter.
      
  • A delightfully "low-key summer checklist."
essays
 
  • Three essays in the latest edition of Plough Magazine you shouldn't miss: Ian Marcus Corbin on beauty and belief, John Kempf on the promise and difficulties of regenerative agriculture, and Leah Libresco Sargeant on the bodies (and the pain) that we choose to ignore
     
  • Nathan Beacom considers the power of the names we give ourselves, and the names we've forgotten or abandoned. "To forget our true names, the ones that God calls us, if you will, is to be cast into outer darkness, to be exiled from our memories of who we ought to be," he writes. "Put another way: when we forget that we are brothers and sisters, each with our own dignity, we invite enmity in the place of fellowship."
     
  • If you're not reading Paul Kingsnorth's Abbey of Misrule, I encourage you to check it out. Here, he considers Simone Weil's call to rootedness: "we find ourselves rootless, rudderless, unmoored in a great sea of chaos; angry, confused, shouting at the world and each other. We have made of our world a nihil. We are both perpetrators and victims of a Great Unsettling."
     
  • Wendell Berry's advice and writing may not provide us "a strategy for winning," Brad East writes—but perhaps it offers "a vision for living with integrity whether or not one wins."
books
  • The Round House, Louise Erdrich
    I've been meaning to read this (beautiful) novel for quite some time—and now that I have, I want to spend the rest of the summer reading Erdrich's work. Her prose is stunning, her descriptions of place and ecology make every page come alive. But her characters that move me most: they're poignant, complex, and incredibly funny—even amid the great tragedy in this novel. I hope you'll read this book, if you haven't yet.
George Inness, Sunset in the Woods, 1891
recipes
listening
  • The Scientific American has a "National Park Nature Walk" podcast, and I loved listening to Yellowstone National Park's bison and marsh birds. Incredibly relaxing and lovely.
     
  • Listen to Nicolas Visconti read aloud his poem, "The Place Nobody Wanted." (h/t Doug Sikkema)
     
  • Joy Clarkson's summer book club features Susanna Clarke's Piranesi! Listen to her discuss the book (which is fantastic, IMHO) with poet Malcolm Guite.
     
  • Is communal living and interdependence becoming fashionable? In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller suggests that the pandemic prompted lonely individuals to spurn traditional single-family living, and to "rush into" intentional communities.
Feedback for the last edition of Granola: 

"I’m a priest and pastor who has served in both a 'church plant' and 'established church' setting, so I know the danger of prioritizing growth above other things. In my current church, we struggle with both a fallow period in our attendance and an uncertainty about post-COVID life together. Our current lack of growth makes it easy for us to despair. Thanks for the reminder that this obsession with growth can be an idol which needs renouncing, and that there is dignity and purpose in maintaining 'what is good and worth preserving.'"
– Steve
 
"'Maintenance mindset' is exactly how I would describe the approach my husband and I have taken towards providing for our children. Both my husband and I were so fortunate to be raised by loving parents who could provide for us; all our needs were provided for and some (but not all!) of our wants as well. The American Dream says that each generation should 'do better' than the one that came before, but we question this; should we work ourselves to the bone so that our children can have fancier vacations, or a bigger house to sleep in? What does 'better' look like when we think that our parents did a wonderful job? Instead we've chosen to seek a middle ground; we want to give our children a similar level of material comfort to what we enjoyed, and we want to provide them with enough support to launch them into the wider world without excessive burden. In short, we hope our children will maintain our standard of living, and in order to live our own lives unburdened by the strictures of the gospel of growth, we cannot promise them more than that."
– Amy
 
"I really think that much of the time, periods of wintering can contribute fantastically to our growth. But we don't get to harness it as we desire. They can be times of transformation, but it's not like 'I chose to transform myself by learning a particular foreign language that I selected,' or 'I attended x grad school, seeking transformation in y discipline.' It's 'I don't know what I'll be when I come out the other end, but probably humbler.'"
 
– Vikki
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I am a writer, bookworm, mother, gardener, and sourdough fan. I've written a book about the farm community where I grew up in Idaho—it's titled Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. To quote C.S. Lewis, "You'll never find a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
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