Are we as human beings essentially destructive forces within nature or are we exclusively destructive to nature? Nature’s paradox appears whenever our feet alight on soil alive with life; crushing and maiming, even bare toes cause fronds to break and insects to cower. The metaphysics of humanity as unnatural occupant of our planet strains credulity yet every time we see a discarded Tim Hortons’ cup we tend to think of ourselves as a species who sullies nature’s beauty. Maybe our AU studies can answer this quandary as we learn to nurture our inborn intellectual curiosity.
To begin with we’re not the only species whose existence has inevitable consequences for earthly neighbours. We’d have to include willow trees in the cadre of catastrophizing influences on nature. In my orchard, a huge old willow tree utterly abnegates all vegetal comers to its leafy domain. Like creeping suburbia, the more it grows, the less life thrives in its vicinity. Beneath its boughs exists a blank footprint under which its root mass produces an apartheid realm of loam, soil belonging only to its stately willow self and whatever wee beasties it deigns to be to its benefit. The willow’s domain is larger than the floorplan of a recently-demolished farmhouse a few metres away; nature itself is held at bay by the willow’s towering fortitude and ability to repel intruders to its micro-climate.
Swamped by years of dry branch debris, the willow creates ecosystem barriers akin to when driveways are paved over a field or lawn turf homogenizes a meadow. We humans can swing and cavort under the willow’s branches, our feet never touching soil as the deep thatched layer provides even greater protection to the offspring-less mother tree. But even if we removed the years of detritus that accumulate under the great willow the soil itself is poisoned, so to speak, by the leafy monolith’s allelopathic chemicals produced and secreted at the behest of its inborn desire to abide unmolested by competition. No guard dog better protected the home of a paranoid family in their McMansion—allelopathy excludes unwanted newcomers greater than any herbicide or border wall. Even beyond the willow’s pale a row of once-buxom lilac bushes has largely succumbed to the great leviathan’s sovereignty—like semi-willing subjects to some new King, a vast area falls under the willow’s swaying domain.
Given the autarky of a single tree, one might wonder why we as a culture tend to see humanity’s actions (pavement, for instance) as inherently unnatural? Are we not doing what any tree would do to attain supremacy such that our existence may be assured? Yet, even as trees throughout the forest seem to grapple for dominance, with some attaining almost complete hegemony over their surroundings, the overall picture of nature differs from the technology of civilization because the latter, at the behest of biped movers and shakers, can in a moment legislate or develop great swathes of green out of existence in a manner only approached by elemental forces such as forest fire? Perhaps humans have attained a godly visage akin to flood, fire, and famine (not to mention plague)?
As we plant ourselves at our study desks, we students must overcome the tendency to cut corners in our studies. Just as plants grow to the sun, and some even are heliocentric and follow the sun through the day, the fact that we wouldn’t choose to ask Alexa to write our essays for us, even if it were possible, shows that we know ourselves to be superior to the tools of our trade – superior and better served by our minds than our tools. As means to an end, typewriters differ from laptop keypads in style more than substance, and a case can be made that an internet sheared of superficial effluvia would serve scholars just fine. Where digital technology is concerned, however, we might note that reading and typing within the confines of our course work requires us to make some vital choices about our future. While AU is now using the digital cloud for research, the larger footprint of online culture and gaming, social and otherwise, can easily swamp our brains and drain away nutrients needed for effective study and sturdy learning.
There’s a parallel to technology in non-human nature too: the digital Cloud requires factories with their own cooling systems to keep the computers from overheating, akin to a mountainside dependent on groundwater runoff from annual snow melt. “Like a pasture, server farms are irrigated. In many data centers today, chilled water is piped through the latticework of server racks to more efficiently cool the facility, liquid being a superior convective agent than air.” In a sense, the Cloud is an ecosystem in itself but, then, one might wonder how much of it really aids in our learning and how much is so much flotsam and jetsam in the surfable yet non-too-friable landscape of the webosphere. Toronto sociologist, Marshal McLuhan, famously claimed that technology becomes us, perhaps in the manner of nutrients becoming a tree and the fruit it creates. “The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, clothing an extension of the skin, electric circuitry an extension of the central nervous system” (online). Soft boundaries abide between self and other, mind and textbook, and ideas and their germination.
Of course, good substantial growing conditions require us to read and write far more than to merely surf the web; it remains for us to define what connotes quality learning environments and outcomes for ourselves at AU and maybe, just maybe, what humanity’s role vis a vis digital technology is in the natural world. What sort of ecosystem best benefits the distance student? After all, willow trees can live for centuries but when McLuhan wrote The Medium is the Massage a single computer humming away was the size of a house. Time is the great paradox of modernity; our technology seems to leap far ahead of our instincts and the non-human realm. Maybe it’s brevity, that soul of wit, that allows our species to transcend nature while also becoming unmoored from the evolutionary mindset of living within a consistent and nurturing ecosystem where niches are found and kept and innovation takes a back seat to traditional knowledge about food, shelter and danger.
We certainly want to put our best foot forward here on earth, knowing that nothing we as a species create, not even computer programs, is as substantial as our essence. As McLuhan reminds us, “when this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” To allow computers to overcome us would be to break the one cardinal rule of nature: that each species protects, or at least creates, offspring of its own type, not of a different species. Digital technology, Turing tests notwithstanding, is something we can all agree is at best a helpful buddy and at worst a soul-destroying dalliance. So next time your studies seem maddeningly difficult you can at least remember that it’s in our nature to learn and grow and that we’re not simply programmed to dominate the world around us.
McLuhan, M. (1967/2001). ‘Book of the Week: The Medium is the Massage’. Designers and Books. Retrieved from https://www.designersandbooks.com/blog/book-week-marshall-mcluhan-s-medium-massage
Monseratte, S.G. (Feb 14 2022). ‘The Staggering Ecological Impacts of Computation and the Cloud’. The MIT Press Reader. Retrieved from https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-staggering-ecological-impacts-of-computation-and-the-cloud/
—The above article is dedicated to my Father, whose career in zoology and forestry has inspired many of my social science inquiries at AU…Happy Father’s Day to all!