A walk in the woods

email no. 3

It’s been snowing in Calgary for the past few days, which isn’t entirely unusual for late March, but has put a damper on my daydreams of spending my afternoons traipsing in the woods. Although that finally looks to be turning around this morning, I’ve had to remind myself more than a few times this week that a snow-covered Spring isn’t some sort of betrayal on nature’s part. Spring is a process of transition, not a switch that’s flipped, but knowing that doesn’t always make it easier to wait patiently for the seasons to turn.

That desire to be surrounded by greenery probably explains why I’ve been watching so many nature videos lately—as with everything these days, screen time is the default solution. The most satisfying approximation of a good walk in the woods came from Stephen Axford’s Planet Fungi, and especially Axford’s half-hour introduction to his fungal obsessions. Axford isn’t the most obviously charismatic host, but he has this calm enthusiasm that sort of recalls Bob Ross, and it perfectly suits the sense of unhurried discovery that I’ve been craving. It also helps that his photos and videos are absolutely jaw-dropping. The video below might seem like a long introduction, but when it comes to these kinds of timelapses, intricate miniature landscapes, and bio-luminescent wonders, half an hour isn’t nearly enough.

Last year’s lockdown summer encouraged me to explore my own neighbourhood more, and maybe the most pleasant surprise was just how much I enjoyed the Douglas Fir Trail just outside Calgary’s downtown. It’s not really a wild space—it’s an inner city walking path—but it’s impressive how much it still carries that sense of being a place that isn’t made for humans. It feels like it exists of its own accord, more like a rupture in the city than a carefully manicured park, and the run-down nature of a lot of the trails only help with that.

I found the Douglas Fir Trail at around the same time I first read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, an examination of the attention economy that was easily the most essential book I read last year, and the two are tied together to me. In the book, Odell talks about the importance of experiencing places that aren’t trying to be comfortable or useful or anything other than alive. The things that exist outside our definitions of useful and purposeful can be a reminder of what reality actually is when we aren’t stuck in the gears of a culture obsessed with productivity:

In that sense, the creek is a reminder that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock whose other life-forms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic. Snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away—all just on the other side of the chain-link fence.

One of the ironies of modernity (modernity in the broadest sense) is that, at the same time we were building an intellectual reality around the idea that humans aren’t the centre of the universe, we were also finding new ways to erase every physical reminder of that fact from day-to-day life. Living in a city, you can go days or weeks without seeing anything that wasn’t built with human convenience in mind; nature is mostly treated like public art, an aesthetic enhancement that’s meant to be seen and not felt. Light pollution has even done an impressive job of erasing the stars for folks who live downtown. It’s like we decided that if this world wasn’t made for us, we would have to get rid of it and create one that was.1

(Bot in the Woods, a Twitter Bot that shares procedurally generated strolls)

It’s not that the woods are somehow real and the city isn’t. It’s more that the woods contain so much that the city leaves out. As much as we like to think of urban environments as sophisticated and complex, they’re also very much simplifications, stripping out everything from the environment that isn’t obviously useful and productive. There isn’t really anything in an urban environment that someone doesn’t fully understand: someone, somewhere can tell you what it is, how it’s made and what it’s for. But to walk in the woods is to surround yourself with things that are alive and interrelated and familiar but still utterly alien to us. Things like trees, and mushrooms, and moss, and mosquitoes—living things whose processes and relationships we’ve barely begun to understand. Simple as they seem, they become infinitely more complex and more strange the more deeply we look at them.

The Cryptonaturalist’s Twitter feed provides an unusual take on the majesty of nature

That’s an idea that Emily Scaife explores in her short film Attraction, which seems like as good a place as any to end this ramble. It’s a film about what it’s like to be a bee rummaging through the “most intimate parts” of a flower, “imagining the sensations of attraction and pleasure in insects, and the seduction methods of the plants and fungi that beckon.” It’s beautiful but unsettling, the forest floor as perceived by a set of senses that don’t easily map onto our own, an alien world by virtue of perception instead of location.


Misc. recommendations

Listen

  • Hannah Peel’s Fir Wave is a brilliant listen, an engrossing blend of contemporary classical and analog synth sounds that’s inspired by nature and connected to earlier electronic experiments from the classic KPM music library

  • Free-jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, composer/musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra came together for an unlikely but transcendent collaboration on Promises

  • To stick with a particular mood: Canadian neo-classical group Bell Orchestre just released their first album since 2009, and their first on the always-great Erased Tapes label. It’s every bit as good as I hoped.

  • Before this month, I had no idea Allen Ginsberg had several attempts at recording a folk album, including contributions from Bob Dylan and Arthur Russell. The results are hit and miss, but Father Death Blues is lovely.

Read

Watch

  • Speaking of parts of our world that we can still barely imagine, the Journey to the Microcosmos YouTube channel is packed with fascinating videos. I really loved this year-old one called Microbes Don’t Actually Look Like Anything


The A.M.

I host a weekly radio show on campus/community station CJSW, playing offbeat easy listening, experimental electronics, cosmic jazz, dream pop, shoegaze and other songs that sound good to wake up to. A few of the most recent episodes are embedded below, and older episodes are available at https://theam.ca or https://cjsw.com/the-a-m


Monday Shorts

Each week, I write about an independent animated short for the Quickdraw Animation Society. Here are the most recent selections, with links to the short essays.

River Lethe, dir. Amy Kravitz (1985)

2, dir. Kim Anderson (2006)

1

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a race of aliens whose planet is surrounded by a dust cloud that hides any trace of an outside universe, at least until a spaceship crash lands on the planet and shatters their view of reality. Their response is to try to destroy the rest of the universe, so they can be alone again. I wonder if he was picking up on a similar impulse.