I’ve been thinking about a growing dichotomy in our experiences–those that are “real,” and those that are mediated by the internet (in other words, “not real”). The internet started as a mere enhancement to the world we all knew was the world that mattered. But now the real world has begun reflecting the internet meta-world. I sometimes play a game with myself in which I look around wherever I happen to be and try to find evidence that the internet exists. It’s rare that I don’t see a something.com or, worse, one of those square bar codes printed on some product or package or newsletter or advertisement. The internet has colonized our kitchens, our bathrooms, even our outdoor spaces.
As a writer and a student, I now spend perhaps half my waking life in the “real world” and half in front of a computer screen. This seems odd to me, since the ostensible purpose of studying is to learn about the actual world, not the cybernetic projection of that world, and likewise it is the real world that I wish to write about. I insist that my computer is merely a tool, like a hammer or a salad spinner. A very useful tool, but still a tool (n) — “A device…used to perform or facilitate manual or mechanical work.”  Because what is a computer but a tool for manipulating electric charges and magnetic moments?
But it’s not convincing. The hammer and the salad spinner don’t present me with an alternate world; they just allow me to manipulate specific aspects of the real world (nails, lettuce). They don’t exert a pull–I never feel compelled to get out my hammer and check the latest anything. I don’t feel guilty when I spend hours or even days without using my salad spinner.
I’ve been trying to learn to identify trees. My whole life I’ve loved going to the woods to hike, to get sweaty, to attain a good view, to listen to bird songs, to eat a good trail meal, and sometimes to camp. All this would be meaningless without trees–they provide the backdrop, the texture, the structure to the whole experience–not to mention the basis for the entire ecosystem known as “the woods.” But until recently, I’d barely paid any attention to what kinds of trees the woods are made of.
Now, I’ve always done well in school, and I’ve had my intellectual aptitude affirmed by various dreary tests over the years. But I feel like a complete idiot at identifying trees. I can tell an oak and a maple, when they have their leaves. If it has smooth white bark it’s most likely a birch; if it holds onto its leaves through the winter but is not an oak, it’s probably a beech. Identifying redwoods is a cinch, but of little use if you’re not on the west coast. I know a pine, unless it’s a fir. Beyond that, I’ve been pretty useless at trees most of my life.
I could ask several questions. One is why I’ve been able to advance so far in my education without mastering something as basic as the composition of the natural communities around me. But I’m more interested in why my mind, which can discern pretty subtle variations in algebraic equations or Shakespearean sonnets, strains at arguably less subtle distinctions between species and families of trees. I find myself wanting an app that will just tell me the type of tree I’m looking at. But that would short-circuit any actual change in my brain–i.e. learning (and besides, I don’t want to get a smart phone). So I struggle with an old field guide and try to match a flat image of a leaf on a page with a real fluttering leaf in front of me.
The other day I went to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, Wisconsin for the grand opening of its new climate change exhibit. Walking into the exhibit I passed an impressive bank of perhaps 20 or 25 computers (I can only assume they’re cooled by a hyper-efficient solar-powered fan system). The exhibit itself buzzed with human and cybernetic activity. In any place I stood I could hear eight different computerized voices and see 20 glowing displays. There were things to touch, spin, slide, push, pull. The sensory stimulation was almost overwhelming.
One interactive panel showed how much different parts of the world have warmed over the past century, with blobs of orange and red displacing earlier blobs of blue; another did something similar for the century to come. Yet another showed the areas of eastern Maryland that will be flooded by different amounts of sea level rise, and for some reason the exhibit makers had decided to feature prominently the retreat of a particular glacier in Washington state. Numerous displays played videos, though any sound was immediately lost to the surrounding din.
The piece de resistance was Science on a Sphere — a six-foot diameter animated globe suspended in the center a dark round room, with a circular bench running around the perimeter. I found the narration of the show to be somewhat jumbled and jargony, but the visuals were stunning, and I mean just utterly stunning. It was the beauty of nature pixellated and enhanced a thousand times. It was color so intense it saturated your eye, and your brain. It was impossible to look away.
I wondered, though, what happens when we provide ourselves and our children with such hyperintense images of nature on TV and the computer, and impoverished natural communities in the real world? Are we losing our ability to discern the subtle variations of actual natural environments? Do we risk finding meta-nature more real than nature itself?
The answer may be no.
I escaped the exhibit and joined a nature walk around the center’s modest but pleasant grounds. The naturalist asked us to identify a stand of trees, and I accurately recognized basswood. (yes!) We smelled and tasted the evil garlic mustard. Later, while we were standing around a bird box, one of the children picked up a small nest that had fallen out of it. Another noticed that an egg, perhaps the size of an almond, had rolled onto the ground. A third picked up the egg and remarked that it was still warm. None of us adults noticed these things, but we were moved to see the children doing so.
A bit later we came to a pond, where the naturalist debated a boy about whether a floating object was a turtle or a log. Some of kids put their hands in the pond and remarked that it was cold. Walking on, a girl found a snail shell no larger than my thumbnail in the mud. The naturalist encouraged us to hum into the shell, to encourage the snail to come out. Finally we came to a table where pond water had been scooped into various containers. Children fished out various beetles, skaters, and tadpoles from the weedy muck. It was a delightful, messy free-for-all.
I looked across the pond and saw a stand of small and intensely green conifers. A tamarack swamp! For an article I’m writing, I’ve been looking for trees in southern Wisconsin that will be chased out by climate change, and the tamarack is the most dramatic example I’ve found. I’m from the south and have rarely seen a tamarack, but I’ve come to feel some affection for this noble tree since moving here. I’d read–on the internet, of course–that these swamps are likely to dry up and be invaded by other species over the next century.
Leaving the group, I walked over to the tamaracks and felt their downy needles–the only coniferous leaves that are shed come fall. The muddy ground oozed slightly beneath my feet, and some assertive birds sang in the canopy. This was obviously a young stand, no more than the size of a modest urban backyard, and hardly likely to save the tamarack in southern Wisconsin. But still it thrilled me, the bright-eyed tree student.
I have just labored over a computer keyboard and a glowing screen to distill some real and internet-mediated experiences into a small succession of words for anonymous, and perhaps imaginary, readers. These words have been encoded as a set of electric impulses, sent over some wires, and stored as magnetic spins on some computer server in a warehouse somewhere (perhaps New Jersey).
You, dear reader, have directed your computer tool to decode these spins back into words, and you have now spent a few minutes of your life reading my humble post. If nothing else, I hope it has made you want to turn off your computer, get out of your chair, go outside, look at things that are growing, listen to animal songs, smell the scents of pollen and decay, feel the wind and sun on your skin, forage a wild edible…
Go ahead and go. Seriously. Now. STOP READING THIS.
 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. Accessed April 22, 2012 at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/tool