A confession: I start every day digitally. Consistently.
Greetings all, I’m Tim Parsons, the landscape horticulturist on the Vermont campus of Middlebury. At work, I’m a landscape designer, arborist, horticulturist, turf manager, urban forester, and weed puller.
Waking up, I plod downstairs, throw a threatening glance at the coffee maker, and let the dog out. I walk over to the computer, shake it awake, and then load a carefully curated collection of browser tabs with weather forecasts. Not one, but several. Different forecasts with opposing computer models, a radar map, a National Weather Service forecast discussion, and an ASCII text-only forecast, the only place I can find an accurate prediction of precipitation quantity. The old adage is true: A person with one clock always knows the time. A person with two, never knows.
Not only do I need to know what the weather is for our landscape, but is it a long john or t-shirt day? Wet, dry, hot, cold, or, being Vermont, all of that? It’s great to have an outdoor job, for at least eight days out of the year.
It’s easy to take the landscape for granted, a strictly transactional relationship, passing through the environment to get to your next destination. But you’re outside, in an actual place–not in cyberspace–passing over solid ground.
How important is ‘ground’? You can be grounded; can have both feet on the ground; can put your ear to the ground; things are grounded in fact. You can have the moral high ground; worship the ground someone walks on; prepare the ground; lay the groundwork; stand your ground; and, most important, find common ground.
Nature, and our landscape, is our common ground. The outside environment gives context, a placement in the universe. This common ground is our shared reference point together. When the farmers from Monument Farms drive past my house and see me out pulling weeds, they’ll stop and we’ll chat out in the road. It usually starts about the weather. It’s not small talk—it’s talk, and can be important talk.
How are the trees responding to drought? (Slowly, like they always do, ask me next year.) Is it too wet to get the corn in? Is the wind calm enough for manure spreading? (Rookie mistake, one year we left our laundry out on the clothesline.)
The weather, and by extension the landscape, is our shared reality, our neighborly relationship. They and I together identify with our place, with the geology around us, the forest cover type of our nearby hills, and with our basin draining towards the Lemon Fair River, making its way to the Otter Creek, Lake Champlain, St. Lawrence seaway, to the Atlantic. It’s our local shared bioregion, as Jenny Odell points out, but it’s our home, too. We share the good times and the bad. In How to Do Nothing, Odell reminds us that “in a time of increasing climate-related events, those who help you will likely not be your Twitter followers, they will be your neighbors.” (p. 132-133)
I, too, get lost down the rabbit hole of Twitter, will sometimes stop and take a picture strictly with Instagram in mind. But all this digital information is lacking any context—cyberspace makes a poor common ground. In the digital world, I don’t have a real community, don’t have relationships, only transactions. The internet has made me a better person, thanks to Lifehacker, and it’s saved me a ton of money just on appliance repair (YouTube!). I’ve found old friends, free knitting patterns, and recipes. Oh, the recipes.
So what’s my digital detox recommendation? Personally, this year, I’m trying to slow down (I can be a bit all over the place). Odell has a great section in her book about the value of maintenance (p. 25) , that in striving for innovation–for novelty and growth–we’re neglecting our maintenance of our selves, and our relationships. Maybe just slow down a little bit. Go hug a tree, roll around in the grass, make a snow angel. Write down the weather forecast in the morning longhand on a post-it note, and read it at night to see how the forecaster did.
Or maybe, just maybe, leave your phone in your pocket the next time you walk somewhere.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. A master class in what it feels like to pay attention
iNaturalist.org, good tool to avoid bringing 20 field guides in your backpack
Alltrails.com, new places to go, wherever you are
National Tree Benefit Calculator, I bet you didn’t know trees do all this
My Instagram feed, come for the plant and landscape pictures, and allow me to brag about my kids occasionally
The Middlebury Landscape, I’m going to start writing again (thanks to DLINQ, this has been fun!), so here’s what we’re doing on campus