What does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world
is crumbling before our eyes?
—Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing
Walking between terminals A and B of the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, I find myself suddenly immersed in dimmed light, something resembling a forest canopy above, sounds of animals around me. It’s an art installation along the corridor, above and among the carpeted pathway and moving sidewalks and concrete walls.
I slow down. The light filtering above through green aluminum “leaves” is gentler. The sounds are the calls of familiar friends, and my naturalist brain searches for names and images to match: that’s a Northern cardinal, there’s a red-headed woodpecker, here’s a meadowlark. Is that a great blue heron? A bobwhite? Absolutely. Friends all around.
In this installation, “Flight Paths,” artist Steve Waldeck tries to transport us from a bustling, brightly-lit flight hub into the forest where flight paths are those of birds. Not everyone has the same response I do when they enter this place. A cluster of people chattering in Korean on the moving sidewalk seem not to notice at all. A woman in a slim grey suit and heels eager to make her connection skitters like an ant down the carpet, talking on her cell phone anxiously, her bag bouncing against her hip. A pair of Atlanta Fire and Rescue workers in red and black jackets pass me slowly on their bicycles.
Being in no hurry, I walk the corridor slowly, and then turn around and return through it, and again once more. Three times I pass through, slowing my step more each time until the path becomes a walking meditation, and I pay less and less attention to the people around me, and more and more attention to each song or call or trill or chirp that weaves through the terminal like threads in a woven shawl.
I notice the differences in hue of the leafy canopy panels above–emerald, cyan, jade, hunter—and the lights tucked in each nook and cranny. The exhibit description says there are around 4,000 panels and about 24,000 LED lights involved, which are overwhelming numbers, but then I think of the reality it is attempting to invoke—how many branches I would pass under in a real forest path, how many stars above in a real sky when darkness is enough to see them—and these numbers, I understand, pale in comparison to the real abundance of the forest.
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Moments before, I deplaned from a connecting flight to Atlanta after days of field work in the Sonoran Desert where our research team scrambled around to find, measure, and check into scores of individual cacti, many of which we know as individuals, some that we have known for over 25 years. We’ve watched them grow, blossom, hover over their young struggling to get a hold on the landscape. Too often we’ve returned the following year to find them dead or vanished.
I look forward a bit giddily to these few days each year. Along with my colleagues, Lucinda, Betsy, and Margrit, we annually converge in Tucson from east and west to spend two days in the Waterman Mountains to collect data on—and, indeed, to pay homage to—this little endangered cactus. Our project documents its population fluctuations to understand its precipitous decline in our study plots.
The Waterman mountains are part of the Ironwood National Monument and are not easy to get to. Most people would consider the road to our study area completely impassable and nothing more than boulder-ridden, rutted path through the desert. But Betsy seizes the steering wheel of the big truck, telling us to “talk among ourselves” when things get hairy and she suspects the vehicle may tip right over or get irretrievably stuck or suffer a broken axle. Somehow, we always make it to our parking area, beyond which it would be impossible to drive, and then we hike the rest of the way in to find the plants.
Sometimes, it’s terribly hot. Almost always, the desert sucks moisture out of us faster than we can guzzle it down. This year, it was cold and windy, and we shivered while stooping to measure and observe the plants. Now and then one of us brushes up against something prickly and curses, or even bleeds, and above us the border patrol helicopters regularly buzz around and hover over us like giant irritating mosquitos.
But no matter what the conditions, and even in the face of the grief we feel watching our population decline, the most common feeling we share is utter joy. To be out in this rare and magical place, to look out over the landscape from the ridgeline and see for miles and miles and spot almost no habitations or roads—for that we are so grateful.
We chose our careers in part because of this time in the wild—time to be surrounded by weird and wonderful desert plants, to smell the creosote, to hear the metallic croaking of the curious ravens flying above. To notice the tiniest wildflowers sticking up defiantly out of the dry soil. To be away from other people, from cities, from technology for a little while and focus instead on leaf, spine, rock, scat, pawprint. Our senses fill up, and when we sit and have our lunch and look out over this little-known landscape, we always share our feelings of being lucky to be there.
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In one passageway of Steve Waldeck’s airport installation, “Flight Patterns,” the light grows dimmer. Tiny lights twinkle below the “leaves.” At first I think they are meant to be stars, but then I realize with the blinking and their position within the forest rather than above it means they are mimicking fireflies. In this section, the sounds around me shift to those of the night—cicadas, crickets, green tree frogs, barred owls.
Along the tile floor, light plays tricks and makes it seem raindrops are dimpling a watery surface. Above, the soft pattering of rain and bullfrogs harrumphing. A little later, thunder rumbles and the sounds of rain come harder and faster.
In a gap in the canopy above, birds fly over, in shapes and movements of blue jays and hawks below clouds. These birds are not real, it turns out, though they are quite convincing and could easily be films of real birds flying. Instead, the artist chose to create anatomically specific 3D virtual models of each bird species, and then manipulate them like puppets by pulling digital “strings” to make them move.
A variety of artists and ornithologists were recruited to choreograph a convincing video of a flying-bird dance. But I’m left wondering why Waldeck made the much more difficult choice of creating fake videos of fake birds flying, rather than incorporating real ones. I imagine that he was deliberately trying to walk that edge between reality and virtuality; however, he chose to use audio recordings of real birds, frogs, and insects instead of generating those artificially, so inconsistency exists. Why do we do this and not that? How often is the artist even aware of those choices, or their implications? The choices that artists—or any creative people—make are so very specific, sometimes subtle, often interesting.
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And what is the value of the “artificial wild,” of those in-between spaces that are not completely artificial and not completely real? Years ago, I worked part-time in an elementary school in Tucson, engaging kids in experiential science activities. This particular school was built as a square around an open courtyard, classrooms opening onto this airy space, and there was a lot going on in that courtyard. About a third of it was made up of rectangular raised vegetable beds, each planted and tended by a particular class. Near these gardens, a hefty pig dwelled in an enclosure, the beneficiary of many a carrot or piece of celery brought in by the children, along with much of the food waste from the cafeteria. A weather station perched above: rain gauge, thermometer, anemometer.
Much of the courtyard space, though, was devoted to a “natural” garden, planted with native desert plants. Through that garden wandered a little “creek,” starting with an artificial waterfall on one end and meandering through a concrete creek bed to the other side of the garden, where the water then recycled back into the waterfall. Shrubs and wildflowers hung over the water, and kids often made a point of wandering through that part of the courtyard on their way from office to classroom, from classroom to cafeteria, just to see what was happening in that place that day.
In my time at the school, we often used that creek to do some simple environmental field studies, keeping track of temperature, pH, nutrients, and looking for whatever might be living there. Because even surrounded by a brick school building, this green space with flowing water attracted all manner of things from outside: mosquitoes, lizards, bees, dragonflies, water striders. It may not have been the wild spaces to which I would have loved to have taken these city kids, but it did give us a way to experience some little wildness, some life that came to dwell there on its own, little beings that had not been brought in by people.
Those kids in their concrete stream didn’t get to experience river mud squishing through their fingers, but they did get to watch the dappled sunlight on the water. They didn’t get to see a great blue heron vigilant for fish, but they did get to have a damselfly land on their notebook—a damselfly that wouldn’t have been there if the creek had not. I watched kids taking a few extra minutes getting back to their classroom after running an errand for the teacher. Did they lose a bit of whatever was going on in their class in those moments? Yes. Did they gain something from slowing down and taking the longer path through the branches, perching for a moment on a rock to look down at the water? Absolutely. I saw it happen time and time again, their distracted buzz becoming, just for a moment, attentive connection.
That schoolyard garden was not as fully artificial as the tunnel between terminals A and B in the Atlanta airport, but both are liminal spaces, places where the artificial and the wild converge for a moment, allowing us the opportunity to consider the difference, to stand in one and glimpse the other, to remember what being connected to the wild might feel like.
Children I have watched grow up in recent years have no interest in zoos. Why go and watch a captive animal snoozing in the corner of its enclosure when you can pull up exciting close-up videos of that species doing the very most interesting things it does in the wild? And certainly, why go out into the wilderness where the animals live when you’re almost certain to never see one yourself, as they are cryptic or nocturnal or avoiding human contact? The video experience is so much better, they say, and it’s an argument that is hard to counter.
Certainly, I am grateful for great nature videography, for those who spend incredible numbers of hours out in the field waiting for just the right moment. I would never otherwise see blind shrimp foraging on deep-ocean volcanic vents, or watch a tiger chase and catch a muntjac, or observe penguins holding their eggs on their feet in the Antarctic winter. I’ve been fortunate to watch sloths in the wild but will almost certainly never see in person a sloth giving birth, though I’ve been able to see that on film. As a biologist and naturalist, I find that the best films of wildlife and the natural world are absolutely treasures to behold.
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Similarly, I’ve remained intrigued by “Flight Patterns” ever since and have revisited it several times over the last few years when flying through Atlanta. Once, the sound system wasn’t working, which completely diminished the experience. Another time, the sound was on, but I noticed that the videos of birds above were gone. The importance of each piece of the virtual experience proved integral in its absence.
Ultimately, I found that I valued the chance to step out of the blatantly artificial world of the airport—the stores, screens, tile, fluorescent lights with nothing alive but the hive of people all anxious to get where they are going—and connect with nature through a less obviously artificial environment. The exhibit brings a welcome sense of calm, of softness, of beauty to a place that is overwhelming and harsh. I’m not alone, either; reports show that during times of widespread flight delays, the corridor is dotted with people reclining under the artificial canopy, catching some sleep or just relaxing where they can hear the birds.
But “Flight Paths” also leaves me a bit unsettled. As nice as it was to be reminded of nature, it was not at all the same as being in nature. What will happen if we get to a time when these kinds of virtual experiences are the only experiences of nature remaining for us? When all the real songbirds and frogs have vanished, and we only get to experience them through recorded versions? When the shapes of hawks flying overhead are only seen by our children through artificially generated puppet videos? This would be a devastating loss, because these experiences are not thoroughly rich or complete; they lack the details, the subtleties of colors, the dimensionality of smells, the feel of the air in that place.
Even the best artifice of nature is not equivalent to real-world experience. These moments captured on film and shared with the world are so much more exciting and poignant only when you yourself have had the experience of waiting, and pursuing, and planning, and waiting longer, with no real guarantee of success. They are also more full in person, because you feel the air in that place on your skin, the sun, the rain, the cold. You smell the volatile compounds being omitted by tree and soil and fungus. You hear what’s around and possibly not directly relevant, but part of the full environment of that moment, and the time leading up to and following that moment. You know what it took to get there, and just how unlikely the encounter has been.
I value the moment of personally seeing the not-so-unusual events like the ground burbling up on the trail in front of me as a mole burrows underneath, or a beaver carrying sticks to reinforce its dam before dusk, or a squirrel nibbling on the inner core of tulip poplar flowers, much more than the extraordinary, exotic moments I see on the screen. The moments I observe may be in my ordinary place and may be things that are happening all the time (though perhaps I never saw them before), but because they are full, real experiences, touching my whole self, they are more treasured, more deeply felt.
Despite all our future advances in creating virtual realities, in generating animations that look real, in immersing ourselves in experiences that try to replicate something we cannot truly experience, I believe the real will always be distinct, and richer. I may love to “walk through” the Louvre with a pair of VR glasses and imagine that I am there, but I do not for a moment think it comes close to replicating the real experience of sitting quietly in front of The Intervention of the Sabine Women, seeing the details of the brushstrokes and the light playing off the glowing figure of the peacemaker in the center, her body pale against the dark soldiers around her, but strong and powerful. I’ve never seen it in person and there’s a very good chance I never will, but I know that seeing photographs of it, or even “approaching” it virtually in three-dimensional unreal space, is a thin shadow of what it would be like to be present with the actual painting.
My walk through “Flight Paths” was a real experience, but it was a real experience of a work of art. It calmed and refreshed me because it invoked my encounters with the sounds and sights of real natural places, but it does not in any way replace, or come close to replicating, those natural places or my experiences in them. And yet, there is a place in our world for, and a value of, the things we do to evoke, mimic, or try to replicate the wild.
During a recent writer’s retreat, I sat in my institution’s library while contemplating such in-between places. Not much in that library is natural: buzzing of air conditioning, hum of mowers outside the windows and cars on the road. Carpet, chairs, tables, computers. Fluorescent lighting. But over to my right, a philodendron climbs the rock wall. Someone made the choice to fill this library with dark oak beams and pale maple paneling, to purchase furniture made of wood and fabric rather than plastic and vinyl, to put in that one rough stone wall over there where the philodendron wanders. Someone unseen regularly tends a pot of ranging Schefflera to my right shoulder, a floppy Sansevieria over there across from me at the end of the bookcase. And downstairs, in one corner of the quiet stacks, there is a forest mural, not far from where one might find books about forests. No smell of leaf mold here, no song of wood thrush, no rustle of leaves or sensation of breeze across your neck. Even so, one might nestle into the hammock chair that hangs there suspended between the shelves, and one might open a book and read about flying squirrels while gazing at painted foliage and birds, and for a moment, enjoy the liminality and strangeness of being human in this wildish world.
Amy Boyd is a professor of botany, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Warren Wilson College. Her previous work has been published in Mutha Magazine, Whole Terrain, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Eunoia Review, Consilience Journal, Birds of Firle Project, and various scientific journals. Scientist by training, educator by profession, and artist by nature, she lives in Swannanoa, North Carolina, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.