Yo, Thoreau.

Image“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived [….] Our life is frittered away by detail […] Simplify, simplify.”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

A few days ago, I read this story about a new app that appears to do nothing but text the word “yo” to somebody else who also has the app installed.  This was enough to attract more than a million dollars in venture capital that might have, I don’t know, gone to a girl’s orphanage in Honduras.  Investor Moshe Hogeg, who kicked in $200,000, justifies his reasoning thus: “I like to do things in the easiest way. We are always looking for the easiest way. My secretary, I love her, but I hate to tell her to come…. My wife, she complains I don’t call her enough during the day. Now I can send a push notification anytime I want.”  Author Sam Biddle’s analysis is right on — “If money still means anything anymore—and I’m not sure it does!—we need to insist that a million dollars is not a trifle, and that giving this amount of money to an app that does literally one thing is worth scrutinizing” — but I like his story’s first line even better: “This week, a group of otherwise mentally sound adults agreed to go fucking insane all at once.”

I said “appears to do nothing” because, as the first commenter observes, “It’s easy to see where they’re making money with the app. This isn’t an app – It’s a wiretap.”  (Click through to the story, then the comments, for the list of data-accessing permissions “Yo” asks for when you install it.) Another commenter seconded this with a picture of the Trojan Horse. Ironically, that day I also learned about a free program called Ghostery, which identifies and lists the tracking devices running silently alongside the webpage you’re looking at so you can see them and turn them off. I’ve been using it ever since. The average webpage runs anywhere from 10 to 20 of these things.  The majority of them are, of course, for advertising.

Blog readers know I’m writing a book about (among other things) the way that “fun” and “convenience” are being used by corporations and marketers, through our omnipresent Internet-ready devices, to short-circuit our capacities for ecological thinking, civic engagement, and sustained attention.  My first reaction to Yo! was similar to Biddle’s: Are you kidding me? Is this really worth a million dollars? Is this what all the power and promise of the Internet comes down to – another incarnation of the Facebook “poke,” that design vestige (as Zadie Smith has pointed out) of a nerdy boy’s difficulty engaging with other people? And are we really so deluded about the meaning of “simple” that we will spend more than a million dollars to send an elaborately casual semi-greeting, via expensive little electronic devices made possible by bee-threatening cellphone towers and mountaintop-removal-coal-powered servers, to our secretary in the next room?

As those who already knew about Ghostery may have guessed, I’m a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant technology user (pace Jane Austen), and I like being just this much outside it. I don’t tweet. Knowing my own capacity for distraction and for absorption in even that professionally justifiable online discussion group that nevertheless siphons an hour or two of time, and being tethered to email enough as a tenured professor about to add some big administrative work to my teaching load, I choose not to have a smartphone because I need to be able to say enough.  I use a landline and a pay-as-you-go fliphone. (Yep, it’s a burner. Just like on “The Wire.”) Those who try to convince me otherwise point to what they see as the “convenience” and “simplicity” of always being hooked to their smartphones, without ever really saying what those words mean.  To be clear, this smartphone skepticism is not just hating: I’m obviously using the Internet right now.  But I get troubled when I look up from my desk after an hour, or two, when I step away from the writing project that is also keeping me at my desk for hours at a time, and I realize I haven’t been outside much that day, or really paid attention to anything in the physical, actual world. My work argues that an ethic of attention, awareness, and care has the potential to renovate our thinking in a way we’ll need to address global warming and all its sad alarming realities from now on. But what happens to us when we are constantly turning back toward the onrushing river of online-life, running onward on our devices, which ask to be thumbed and glanced at and typed-into and checked, checked, checked, so that our whole selves are never actually present in real time, where we are, right now? What if we get so taken over by the “pleasure” and “convenience” of online-ness and what-happens-when-I-press-this-button that we dull our own ability to notice the physical place where we are, and to notice that these little rectangular screens (sticky from being mashed against our cheeks) are mediating our own experience of our brains, and our lives? And — so sadly, when you think about it — when we lie to ourselves that all this is really just “convenient” and “simple?”

I’ve just finished reading an impressive, engrossing new book that has pointed me at this issue from a new angle: Richard Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes To Thoreau’s Woods. Primack, a Boston University botanist, and his research team carried out a decade-long project that was fueled by a brilliantly simple idea: what would they find if they compared their own notes on the first blooming/budding/leafing/appearing/hatching dates of plants, birds, insects, and frogs in the early 21st century with amateur botanical observations from the last 150 years — particularly the famous journals of Henry David Thoreau?


As in the work of any great writer, every time you go back to him you find a different Thoreau – and a different version of yourself. In high school, Thoreau’s the companion of furious, wordless rebellion against all the fakeness and phoniness you feel around you but can’t name. In college he’s the older brother for your Birkenstock-wearing passion for nature, which is so important, and why can’t people see that?  You get close to 40, and your conversation with Thoreau deepens (and your respect grows) with every reading, because you’ve seen how hard his real project is — disentangling yourself from politics and corporations that would take your soul and try to sell it back to you, trying to establish some ground for what is true and good and worth trusting and what is not in this, the one life you will ever have.  You see that because you are enmeshed in a project like that yourself, and it is really hard.

Thoreau’s famous efforts to “simplify” are really about stripping away illusions and inessentials to find a bedrock of what is real, deeply informed by the Eastern philosophy he was one of the first “intellectuals” in America to read.  Lots of people know the quotes I led with, above, and lots of people know about the 10-by-15-foot cabin Thoreau built himself in the woods at Walden Pond (with timbers he cut and boards repurposed from an Irish railroad shanty he bought from its owners for $4.25) and began to occupy on July 4, 1845, but fewer know this passage, from the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter:

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and company go, let the bells ring and the children cry, — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses.  If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like.  Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition,  and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

The marvelous layering of thinking here about the way we buy into social illusions — where Plato, the Bhagavad-Gita, and New England common sense meet — can perhaps be summed up in this way: “‘I have to?’ Why?”  Think about the Hydra-headed consumer world we live in, where necessity shades into whim with frightening ease as last year’s jeans/handbag/haircut/sofa just won’t do anymore, you have to get a new one.  (Thoreau gets irritated elsewhere in Walden when a tailor tells him “they aren’t making jackets like this anymore,” asking, “who’s ‘they?'”)  He’s not saying don’t ever have anything — he’s saying provide for your needs, but be sure they really are your needs, and your decision about how to provide for them.

Thoreau’s project took him into socially uncomfortable places (he famously spent a night in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes that he saw as supporting national reliance on slavery), and it can take us there, too.  “Our inventions,” Thoreau writes, “are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.  They are but improved means to an unimproved end, and end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.”  What good a telegraph between Maine and Texas, he asks, if “Maine and Texas…have nothing important to communicate?”  (Yo, that sounds familiar.)  Or, as you know if you’ve almost been hit by a texting driver (as many of us have), what’s so allfired important that it can’t wait till you’ve parked?  As Thoreau writes above, “If the bell rings, why should we run?”

Seeking a “realometer” can be uncomfortable, but so is every process of self-examination and growth worth the name.  When it comes to technology, the “have to”s of consumerism becomes downright dangerous for people and for air and groundwater, as discarded cellphones, computers, and flatscreen TVs that used to be the have-to-have thing are too often discarded to leak toxins into ground, air, and human bodies at some dump far away from you.  If we really asked ourselves “Why do I ‘have to’ buy this? How long will I have this? And what will happen to it when I’m done?,” we’d buy and discard much less than we do, and we’d be taking some steps toward our own internal “realometer” that would let us find our own bedrock of integrity and fact amid the shrieking voices of consumerist culture we are all too apt to mistake for truth.

Primack adapts Thoreau’s “realometer” to the problem of global warming, writing, “Despite the clear evidence that the world is already warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of tropical forests, most Americans still do not regard climate change as a priority.  They […] believe that the effects of climate change will only be felt in the future and at some faraway place and not where they live today.”  Yet when we “[use] Thoreau’s own observations as a realometer to test for the truth of climate change,” we find some surprising facts, as this apparently distant phenomenon has some highly local instantiations.

Walden Warming teems with case studies of plant, animal, insect, and amphibian species in the Concord, Massachusetts area whose first and last appearances of the year, numbers, habitats, and general health have been affected by a warming climate.  (You can read more about the team and their work here.)  Salamanders, frogs, butterflies, lady’s-slipper orchids, and hummingbirds are among the many species studied, and the conclusions are similar across the board: the species that do survive are blooming or arriving earlier (more than three weeks in some cases) than in Thoreau’s time, and are being affected by the changes global warming and other human activity is wreaking in the ecological web that includes them: earlier ice-melt on Walden Pond, rising pond temperatures, fewer “vernal pools” (temporary rainwater ponds) for amphibians in a drought or too much water in a flood, meadows cut or planted with trees or covered with buildings, pesticides or lawn chemicals that harm beneficial wild plants and insects, and many more.  “[A] quarter of the species Thoreau saw are botanical phantoms, plants that have vanished from the landscape,” Primack writes.  “And since rare, native species are most likely to go extinct, and a lot of the smaller populations we recorded were both rare and native, we could speculate that within a few decades, if nothing is done to prevent it, those species we saw only in a few populations — a third of Thoreau’s original list, remember — could also disappear.  That would mean that around half of the species that Thoreau observed in Concord will no longer be present in a few decades from now; they are destined for local extinction.”  Temperature fluctuations also affect the complex system of cues by which birds arrive and depart during migration cycles, meaning that late arrivals may be able to find only marginal sites and may fall prey to starvation, heat, or other animals and early arrivals may freeze.  Amphibians could be affected by this too, as “[t]emperatures just a bit warmer could dry up [vernal pools] in the early summer before the amphibians have completed their life cycle, causing the death of all juveniles for that year.  This is particularly true for spotted salamanders, which have a long development time.”  (In one of the many personal anecdotes that further enliven this accessible book, Primack describes a nighttime family outing to a golf course where a parking lot and a dangerous road stood between salamanders and a vernal pool at the bottom of a hill; as the excited children “gently gather[ed] up the salamanders in cupped hands and carr[ied] them across the parking lot and access road” to get safely down to the pond for breeding, Primack notes, “This was a night to remember: a night for salamanders, and not one of the hundreds of typical nights of homework, computers, television, and reading.”)

Primack’s pleas to address global warming are direct and heartfelt: aside from preserving this web of life for our children and grandchildren to know, we should care about it not only for the sake of the individual creatures but also for the network of relationships that sustains them and sustains us.  Professor and eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has written extensively on “the ecological thought,” a way of being in and seeing the world that is grounded in the interconnectedness of people, creatures, plants, and objects.  In such an interconnected world, there is no “away,” as in “throw it away” — our actions always have consequences for us right here.  “The ecological thought doesn’t just occur ‘in the mind,’” Morton writes. “It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, or mineral.” To illustrate this, Morton borrows “Indra’s net,” an image of interdependence from Buddhist scripture: “At every connection in this infinite net hangs a magnificently polished and infinitely faceted jewel, which reflects in each of its facets all the facets of every other jewel in the net. Since the net itself, the number of jewels, and the facets of every jewel are infinite, the number of reflections is infinite as well.” Reality, seen through the lens of truly ecological thought, looks like Indra’s net; everything reflects, affects, and is reflected and affected by everything else, as biology, quantum mechanics, philosophy, economics, and other fields have their own ways of explaining, and as Walden Warming clearly demonstrates.

Thoreau, always bigger and stranger than we think, got to this place more than 150 years ago in striving to stake out a “realometer,” some place to stand to see what is and to properly assess human’s place it in as one of the myriad – not the dominion-holder, not the sentimental painter-of, but as fellow creature, looking with a factuality that opens, lightly, into wonder.  To dismiss him as a “nature writer” is to misunderstand him and the human project in which he was engaged — the renovation of one’s vision of everyday life, the acceptance of ethical and ecological responsibility — and into which we can follow him. As essayist Rebecca Solnit has written, “This compartmentalizing of Thoreau is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought, a fence built in the belief that places in the imagination can be contained. Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us (so few have been able to find Thoreau’s short, direct route between them since). This makes politics dreary and landscape trivial, a vacation site. It banishes certain thoughts, including the thought that much of what the environmental movement dubbed wilderness was or is indigenous homeland—a very social and political space indeed, then and now—and especially the thought that Thoreau in jail must have contemplated the following day’s huckleberry party, and Thoreau among the huckleberries must have ruminated on his stay in jail.”

What sets Primack’s book apart from many other calls to action on global warming is his solution, expressed in the wonderful term “citizen science:” the marvelous simplicity of looking carefully at your local ecology, observing, and writing things down to provide a “realometer” for future studies and fuel for change.  This meshes with what any good gardener or farmer or birdwatcher or butterflywatcher already knows: as my gardening mentor taught me, you don’t have to be a professional scientist, you just have to be observant, and you have to get out and look at things so you know what’s normal and what’s not.  Primack muses on the possibility that maybe among young members of his audience is a “new Thoreau,” eager to observe and act on those observations.  And “citizen science” can renovate perceptions at the local and national level and beyond, as Philip Cafaro (quoted in Primack) states: “In itself, one individual consuming less is trivial, in the context of global climate change. But that person freed from the desire for ever ‘more’ is now in a position to ask for a new kind of politics from his leaders and his fellow citizens: a politics of ‘enough’ rather than the current ‘more more more.'”

Thoreau’s realometer is challenging but inspiring, and, I argue, achievable for each of us if we want it — a practical and ethical position we arrive at within ourselves, a place we can stand to see what is and to properly assess our role in it.  Not as dominion-holder, not as sentimentalist-about, but as fellow, looking with a factuality that opens, lightly, into wonder. This is the “simplicity” that will let us examine our human systems and adjust them to meet our real human needs — with or without the latest devices and toys that only seem so necessary.

In the evening, after I finished Primack’s book, I went into the woods on a high limestone bluff above the river.  Molten sunset striped through the trees onto the stone as the rain melted away.  A raccoon scrambled past.  All around me, rich wet smells rose from the tangled banks of green stretching up the hillside above the river.  A woman in an SUV went by: in the passenger seat sat a kid with head down, texting.  Passing puddles in the road, I thought, vernal pond.  Frog song came up the hill from the river and fireflies — the first of the year, I am prepared to say — blinked on, and on again, under the trees.