Cole Hersey reflects on ecological thinking, social media and the importance of place through his daily walks during the coronavirus lockdown.
Most often when I walk around my neighbourhood unthinking, looking at the suburban homes, the care or neglect of gardens, each holding their own particular beauty. Usually these walks have to do with nothing. It’s not a time in which to look into myself, to understand something I’ve been toying with in my head, or to find a moment of peace in order to work better, to be more “productive.” Sometimes these may be the outcome of the walks, but they are not why I go out walking. I walk to see with no intention — to leave the space of my computer and phone, get away from the avalanche of news and social media that longs for my reaction which I give without thought, and wander with no point — to feel the calm that comes with getting away from what environmental philosopher Timothy Morton calls “Information Dumps.”
When I begin to walk in this way, idly yet curiously observing, the world noticeably begins to alter. The walk becomes a practice in patience, in empathy, both of which I find lacking in the everyday interactions I have on social media — the one truly communal place within the pandemic. I see weeds stitched through the cracks of concrete sidewalks growing with a kind of ambition. I walk by a fence where iris leaves grow through the slits between wood planks. I see juncos fly up into a Norway spruce behind a house and wonder what they’re trying to do up there, in this truly foreign tree. I’ll laugh, admiring the lives of changing things around me. The world shifts, becoming a place where everything is pulsing with a depth, a great complexity, an intimacy that I cannot really fathom. The houses I pass, just like the small groves of bay, oak, madrone, and redwood, no longer feel like places separate from my own mind and body, or even from each other — they are alive on the same hills that everything around here, including myself, live.
In his book, Being Ecological, Timothy Morton describes an interview he had with a somewhat combative journalist. The journalist seemed to not like the idea of ecological thinking, and so described the term to the journalist this way:
“Do you have a cat?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, somewhat taken aback by the oblique and simple question.
“Do you like to stroke her or him?”
“Oh, yes of course.”
“Well, so you’re already relating to a nonhuman being for no particular reason. You’re already being ecological.”
Because we are inevitably linked to the people, places, and other animals and plants that surround us, we are inevitably thinking ecologically. As Morton says, “I think we are already being ecological—we just aren’t consciously aware of it.”
Ecological thinking is an act of patience, of regaining your attention to the things that surround you and to which you are integrally linked. What is that tree on the street? What kind of bird is that in the trash? Where were your shoes made? If you, like myself, love fancy coffee, preferring to buy beans made in one country versus another, you are being ecological (while ironically being ecologically damaging). There is an awareness that the flavour, the heat, altitude, and humidity, create different and distinct experiences, in the same way that going for a walk on one street you may experience something totally unique and distinct from another street, even though both streets are in the same city.
However, this line of thinking is hard to accept for many people, having the hubristic body odour of overly ideal hippies during the 1960s and 70s. For others, it almost might sound religious, close to a spirituality that some atheists disdain for its perceived idealism. And I get that gut impulse, because, yes, ecological thinking is trying to make you understand that the world is, as Morton would put it, “sticky.”
Looking for examples of this kind of stickiness in our world is fairly easy. Track red dye number five and you will find yourself looking at a small cactus eating insect that lives in the Southwest of the United States or the subtropical areas of South America. Look at your sneakers, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up in Thailand. Look outside and you might even see a bird passing through on its way to warmer climates, thousands of miles away in completely distinct forests. However, the climate crisis is the most obvious example of our connectedness, or stickiness, to everything around us. How else could you describe it? When oil is burned in Europe, or the United States, it creates massive floods in Bangladesh. Take oil out of the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, and you have forest fires in Brazil. Examples of stickiness are endless so I’ll stop there.
While I was reporting on wildfires in the Sierras, I heard about a bird called a black-backed woodpecker. This somewhat elusive bird almost exclusively lives within severely burned forests in the Sierra Nevada and the Boreal forest of Canada, feeding largely on wood-boring beetles live in burned trees, finding their way to the fires by detecting small traces of smoke from miles away, and so are most plentiful in burned areas. If it wasn’t for fires these birds would not exist. They are one of the first animals to move into burned areas, creating large holes for their nests in the trees, which in the years to come will be vital homes for many squirrels and other birds that cannot carve into the wood. The black-backed woodpecker even passes along fungi to the dead trees from its beak, further aiding in the decomposition of the trees which invites more animals to come to these burned sights, helping bring even more life into a place we, as western humans, believe is dead and barren.
In Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Odell recounts a time, just after the 2016 election, when she would pass a roosting pair of night herons beside a KFC in Oakland, “I remember specifically feeling comforted by the presence of these strange birds, like I could look up from the horrifying maelstrom of that day’s Twitter and they’d probably be there, unmoving with their formidable beak and their laser-red eyes.” From this curious moment, she learns that, like much of the Bay Area, Oakland was marshland, a place that night herons prefer to live. Because of this, she is struck by the night herons’ presence in the city, decades after most of the Bay Area coastline has been dredged: “Knowing this made the KFC night herons begin to seem like ghosts to me, especially at night when the streetlights would make their white bellies glow from below.” Through the night herons, Odell is witness to a history of the land she exists on, a history that is often forgotten. She is starting, slowly, to see how things are sticky. In a similar way, when I go for my walks, I am searching to see the deep roots that make up and stick myself to this land, its other residents, and vice versa.
On my way home from a walk one night, I watched an endangered spotted owl fly over telephone lines just as the sun was setting. It eventually perched, making its haunting call. My brother, an ornithologist, told me later that spotted owls live in the highest density here in my county of Marin, far away from any old growth forests, where they are commonly thought to thrive. This baffles many scientists. No one has a clue why they’re so common here. Why would they live here, in this place, so far away from the forests of their ancestors? Perhaps, like Odell’s KFC night herons, this spotted owl, and the others I have seen, are like ghosts, memories of what this land, not too long ago, used to be — a marker of history and at the same time a prediction of one potential future.
Because of this walking, seeing many small and large, beautiful and haunting, things in my neighbourhood, I’ve begun to look at my phone less, have less desire to enter into its anxious world, and instead sit in the presence of the baffling things that lay in front of me. After reading Odell’s How to Do Nothing, I realized what it was that was pushing me further and further outside on these walks. I was not only walking in order to gather myself and do nothing, to give myself space, but I was in the midst of a small act of resistance, giving back time to myself, and bringing my attention into the world that I physically exist within.
At the beginning of lockdown, it was hard for me to do this. I would spend most of the morning and afternoons writing and reading, then spend the final half of the day looking into my phone, desperately searching for clarity in the avalanche of the news cycle. Or, on the other hand, I was searching for a reason to hope. Maybe there would be a video of a cute dog, or some random act of kindness that would help me to turn off my phone, and bring that hope into the world I have in front of me. But this never worked. For a while it became harder for me to hold onto the world I was actually living in, with spring and summer here, and the passing of warblers and passerines going by my window unnoticed. Instead of living in my town, I would aimlessly wander the curated walls of an app, hoping it would give me understanding of the world. It never seems to do that. All it seems to do is take my attention without my knowing.
These kinds of social platforms give us only a passing glance over a thing, creating for us a world without context. Odell writes, “This new lack of context can be felt most acutely in the waves of hating, shaming, and vindictive public opinion that roll unchecked through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.” There is no time to contemplate between each piece of information given, therefore no way to really understand, to think deeply in a way that may create a new form of understanding. And while we may know that it is a toxic space to exist in, we still come back for more. We still desire to know, to find a way to validate our feelings, and so we return, again and again.
Frankly, the news was making me crazy. It was happening at such a rate that thinking, the act of making sense felt permanently balked. Every crisis, every catastrophe, every threat of nuclear war was instantly overridden by the next. There was no possibility of passing through coherent stages of emotion, let alone thinking about responses or alternatives. It seems as if people were stuck in a spin cycle of terrified paranoia.
I had entered this sense of paranoia in a quite literal way at the beginning of the quarantine in California. I was honestly scared to go out. But when I did go out, I walked by people and instead of seeing them walking there just like me, perhaps just as scared of these uncertain times as myself, I began to wonder which side they were on, or why they weren’t wearing their mask as they ran by me. Each interaction was made into a small fight in my head, something similar to the soundbites on TikTok, or some inflammatory meme accounts on Instagram. And in these fights, there was only good and bad. There was no room for explanation or complexity, only impulse, distrust, and grief. I was experiencing life as a waterfall of fun-sized chunks of provocations, leading me into fear, anger, resentment, and loneliness. In such a space, there is little to no room to wonder, to contemplate, to make sense of things, and to debate in a truly constructive manner. These social platforms are built on reaction. The commonplace is in impulse, never intention. Because of this, I was beginning to see that even the physical world I lived within was skewing toward gut feelings, rather than the patience needed in order to understand and move positively through this world. I was going nuts, and I needed an out, so I started walking.
While I was attempting to escape out of the same terror, the same hyper-speed timeframe of social media, instead of moving toward novels and visual art (which I had already done, but found too wound up within my mind, too separate from my body) I went to walking, to observing things, small and large, that surrounded me. There, within those walks, I saw a different kind of space, one that also showed me, through a new timeframe, “patterns and consequences that are otherwise invisible.”
I wasn’t only attempting to find space out of the chaos that news and social media were making of my head. I was also looking for a connection, any kind of tether to this world. As I started to walk, I would look up and see tall trees — redwoods, oaks, and bays mostly. In the trees I would see oak titmice, chestnut-backed chickadees, acorn woodpeckers, and the occasional pileated woodpecker. I had almost forgotten how much I loved to go bird watching. And I started to remember things — how spotted towhees seem to love dry bushes on hillsides, usually sifting through the leaf litter of coyote bush, or how flycatchers, just like kingfishers, love to be close to water, perched on long dead branches reaching out over streams. Re-learning, remembering that the world exists outside of myself, ourselves, that humanity is never the singular force on the world, and while we may have a seriously disastrous impact on the world, it doesn’t mean we are the only ones affected by our hubris.
For some reason, when I go for these walks, I worry less about making things afterwards, about being productive in the way our society would like all of us to be. By sitting for a few minutes, watching an Anna’s hummingbird float from branch to branch, I remember a quote that my dad loves to bring up from Gary Snyder, “The joy in being is in being.” I also then run over to my favourite ancient proverb from Lao Tzu, “In doing nothing, nothing is left undone.” Both these prophetic statements hit home something that we have forgotten. Within our world, we are constantly focused on pushing forward toward something we call progress. But what is progress? What’s the point of that? Perhaps it says something telling that both Snyder and Lao Tzu left for the mountains. Maybe progress is meaningless, or at the very least is an impossible thing to define, like consciousness. Maybe creating without intention, speaking without motivation, is not worth it, and is better not done at all.
But, because of quarantine, I feel as though I’m in a constant state of waiting. As I sit in my house, the scent of smoke outside is leaking in, omnipresent. I still hear house finches outside, oak titmice, chickadees. The dry milky-oat covered hills are now turning the colour of rust from the grey smoke. The dry grass looks ready to spark. Even in the smoke, I continue on my walks, wearing a mask of course. The air has a different sound. Things are quieter. The calls of squirrels and birds seem to echo further through the smoke. At night, the moon is bright orange on the horizon. When I walk up a ridge, I see streaks of smoke. I am afraid this place will burn, just as I am sad that so many places have already burned this year. But I’d rather walk these streets, my home. I’d rather listen to the landscape, watching animals passing through trees and houses made with wooden roofs, these animals knowing no borders, because these neighbours are who we need to listen to, now more than ever, in the last years where we might be able to do something about this dying, endangered earth.
Cole Hersey is a writer and graphic designer in the Bay Area. His works largely focus on place, human/non-human interactions, and generational history. Much of his nonfiction focuses on environmental topics. He has been published in many journals across the US and abroad. His current nonfiction work can be read on Medium where he is a frequently featured writer.