Solitude and Presence: Photo Reflections on Natural and Digital Ecologies

My academic work, which touches on media, religion, and digital culture, is all the richer for having spent countless hours walking, sitting, and reflecting in the small oasis that we’ve come to call home.



On an infrequent visit to the nearby Fox Run shopping mall, I came across a backlit billboard featuring a public service ad from the Ad Council’s Discover the Forest campaign. The ad depicts two images: one of a young boy sitting cross-legged while staring at a hand-held screen, and the other of the same boy sitting in a forest, intently studying a fern that he holds in his hands. The caption reads simply, “Unplug.”

It is, of course, unsurprising that the rare message imploring children to step away from networked screens and into the natural environment is funded by a non-profit public interest organization. Typical rhetoric from technology leaders and marketing campaigns touts the benign, if not salvific, powers of connectivity. A commercial from Verizon’s “Revolve” campaign, for example, depicts a young family surrounded by a glowing ring of screens that descends from the sky and offers – apparently – untold joys. Such messages ask us to believe that to be connected is to witness the presence of that which truly deserves our attention.

And what of the fern held in the boy’s hand? Sherry Turkle observes that connectivity often calls us away from the embodied present, even in spectacular settings. We walk the dunes, but we are not fully present to their beauty. Echoing Verizon’s marketing call to “share everything,” the scene becomes fodder for a future upload or update. More wryly, comedian John Oliver wonders aloud what scenes might have unfolded had witnesses of the crucifixion been equipped with video-capturing smart phones. In each case, the allure of connectivity violates what Oliver calls the “dignity” and “poetry” of otherwise sacred moments.

In natural settings, solitude becomes paradoxical when one becomes comfortable enough in one’s aloneness to realize the commanding presence of life that surrounds us. We believe we are alone amid the trees until we realize the imposing presence of the trees themselves. As Jewish theologian Martin Buber describes, in such moments the “it” becomes a “Thou”:

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer it. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. ((Martin Buber, I and Thou, 2nd edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 7.))

To be seized in this this way requires that we extricate ourselves, at least for a time, from the pressing demands of networked devices. This explains some recent, eloquent calls for a return to the institution of the Sabbath—the intentional respite from both commerce and state power. Jewish theologian Michael Fishbane explains that “On the Sabbath, the practical benefits of technology are laid aside, and one tries to stand in the cycle of natural time, without manipulation or interference.” ((Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Illinois: Chicago University Press, 2008), 125-127. Quoted in Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), xi.)) As David Levy and Walter Brueggemann argue, it is a practice that may serve not merely as a stress reliever but as a form of political and social resistance.

For the past sixteen months, the fifteen acres of woods surrounding our oddly-shaped home have served as a sanctuary, and my brief but frequent meditations among the trees have served as a Sabbath of sorts. Now, rounding the corner on my fortieth birthday, my family and I are preparing to move out of our rented home to a house that we will own. While just a few minutes away, the new space is tucked in a family neighborhood close to the center of town, seemingly far from the solitude of the forest.

I will miss these woods. But they are a luxury to which many have no access. It is fitting that we should move away from the forest, if only to remember that while its sanctuary deepens our capacity to appreciate the commanding presence of life, our most pressing obligation is to turn to family, neighbors, friends, and enemies and resolve to recognize in each the eternal Thou. That is an obligation from which we ought not be distracted, and which we realize most deeply when eye meets eye against the soft beating of an analog heart.

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