Volume 19: Editor’s Note — Net Works

by Michael Metivier, Editor

Flying west from Hartford to Milwaukee, forehead pressed against the airplane window, I watch the landscape change miles below as the plane shoulders into the earth’s rotation. The Adirondacks and Great Lakes make impressive signposts along the way, but I am struck more by the evolution of the nation’s roadways. In little over two hours, the jumble of gussied up deer- and cowpaths of my native Northeast gives way to the orderly grid of the Midwest, where my wife was born and raised.

The shift from haphazard layout on the East Coast toward geometric latticework farther west was due in large part to the relative flatness of topography in the continental interior, as well as to advances in surveying and technology. It also reflected a growing desire for efficiency: to connect two points by the shortest distance possible, to maximize the amount of work the nation could accomplish in the least amount of time.

In Austin Feldbaum’s essay on New Orleans, “The Neutral Ground,” the Louisiana native reflects on the societal and environmental consequences of mid-twentieth century urban planning, which sought to streamline the city’s commercial traffic system, sacrificing the health and vitality of inner city neighborhoods in the process.

Susan Pollack writes in “A Complex of Occasions” about current attempts to transform the economy of Gloucester, Massachusetts from a robust, interconnected community centered on the fishing industry to a more exploitative tourism-based model. Both essays highlight how attempts to iron out complexity in the name of pragmatism or short-term financial benefit often come at the expense of what is most meaningful and sustaining in our lives. To this end, economist Rich Grogan introduces his concept of Net Work Life in an essay of the same name, as a counterpoint to conventional measurements of the net worth of our lives’ works.

Gazing down through the clouds, I wonder if our neural patterning is tied in some way to our formative landscapes. We all have moments of both straight-line and spiral thinking, reflecting the inexhaustible number of routes to get from here to there. As the crow flies, sure, but also the kinglet. Laird Christensen’s journey in “A Tree Falls In The Forest” is toward an understanding of his beloved Oregon forests as places of “dripping, sprouting, swallowing, crumbling, incessant becoming,” where decaying material is as important as living organisms for the health of the system. Luc Phinney’s poem “On the Way to Catoctin” sings of the merging of interior and exterior landscapes during a single morning commute. Both essayist and poet seek clarity through complexity, and vice versa.

Societal desire for clarity of thought and action is evident in the way we visualize the complexity of networks. For example, the maps in the back of the airline magazine I’m reading depict blue lines arcing out of hub cities like fireworks, representing direct, intentional links between locations. Cell phone advertisements work much the same, with friends and relatives serving as the hubs and their conversations as flight-lines, reinforcing the idea of networks as weavings of deliberate choices. It can be comforting to think of ourselves as voluntary nodes in the midst of complex systems, to think that we can switch our connections with the world on and off, even live “off the grid” if we have the will and means. But the way our world appears to us is as much the result of indirect action and consequence as it is purposeful and planned. Near the end of “The Worth of a Mountain,” Gregory McNamee explains how seemingly innocuous individual desires can threaten places of inestimable cultural and ecological value, such as the La Cienega Creek watershed.

Poet Jaswinder Bolina’s “Coda,” which concludes this volume, is a different spin on intentionality, stringing together text message responses to an inquiry about how to conclude a collection of poems. He reminds us that inspiration and creation radiate out from our lives in unforeseen ways. Similarly, Philip Hoare’s “Twenty-First Century Cetology” considers the exchange of influence, both historic and ongoing, between human and whale societies in the Pacific. The imaginative landscape architecture of Kathryn Foley and Colleen Tuite foresees the need for creating intentional new ecosystems in a dystopian future, including the fungus-harvesting lunar terrariums depicted on the cover, resulting in utilitarian and aesthetic constructions that blend stewardship, survival, and strange beauty.

The omnipresent challenge of environmental practice involves charting the ecological ripples our human activities create, where they cross, join, connect, oppose, harmonize. In “Practicing With Indra’s Net,” Stephanie Kaza helps us visualize the title concept from Mahayana Buddhist teaching, which describes the profundity of connections not only within the ecological processes that inspire our work, but also in our relationships with them and with each other. Kristen Przyborski’s “Between the Lines” considers the literal work of nets, as well as the limitations of scientific ways of knowing, from her time spent collecting and studying copepods in the Gulf of Mexico.

When the flight attendant announces our approach into Milwaukee, anticipation begins for the precise moment when we are once again permitted to turn on our cell phones and other handheld devices, to communicate in all of the novel ways we are beginning to take for granted. After selecting this volume’s theme, the editorial board and I discussed downplaying language that might lead to an overabundance of social-network-themed writing. Yet those omnipresent technologies not only played a crucial role in the process of assembling the issue, but also surprised us with creativity and subtlety when they did appear. In ten lines, Lisa Olstein’s “I Want To Save This Whale” juxtaposes online activism, in the form of a chain e-mail, with the very real and tangible endangered animal in question. At the Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange, Massachusetts, farmer Ricky Baruc composes non-electronic “blog posts” that are affixed to the farmstand’s produce refrigerator. In an age dazzled by inventions and innovations, these pieces remind us that how we communicate is tantamount to what we communicate.

On the ground driving northwest from Milwaukee, nearing the town of Horicon, Wisconsin, I have a strong urge to stop and visit the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. This 22,000-acre marsh is a critical node of habitat, a crossroads for millions of birds migrating along the Mississippi Flyway every year. I think back to seven years ago, when my wife and I stood there on a wooden boardwalk on a frigid December day in the first few months of our life together, watching thousands of Canada geese flapping and honking en masse in an avian metropolis fringed by frozen cattails. I think of all of the connections we made in that one moment, to the place, to the birds, and to each other, that cannot be erased by time or distance, by wherever we’ve come from and wherever we’re headed.


Michael Metivier received a Master of Science degree in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England, with a self-designed concentration in natural history and writing. A songwriter, poet, and essayist, Michael is fascinated by the influence of natural communities on creative culture.