How to bring nature into your digital world: 4. Create a virtual garden

In those early days when the internet universe was tiny, the World Wide Web not yet born, and there was no such thing as Grand Theft Auto, hundreds of text-based virtual worlds were scattered across the net. They offered no movies, no pictures, no sound – only words. If you wanted to show people what you looked like you typed a command and wrote a description. If you wanted to build a home, or a vehicle, or a meeting place, you built it in lines of code and decorated it with words. Many of these worlds were used for role-play games but some, like LambdaMOO, were simply social spaces where people lived virtual lives parallel to their IRL (in real life) existences. They met up in places like The Living Room, the Hot Tub, and the notoriously intimate Sensual Respites. And they built their own homes, objects, gardens and landscapes, many of which were beautiful and all were highly improbable. LambdaMOO still exists today. Learn how to visit it here.

In their 1989 book The Experience of Nature, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan describe their notion of Attention Restoration Theory (ART), four ‘settings’ which each provide different kinds of restorative experience. The first of those is ‘being away’, ‘involving oneself in cognitive content different from the usual’. The human, they say, is a conceptual animal, and the experience of being away involves what is going on in the head as well as what is going on in the environment. So mental distance can be as important as literal distance. Even if you travel no further than your own garden, making the rounds to find new buds and make sure all is well ‘can feel like being quite distant from the world of pressures and obligations’. LambdaMOO, I think, is typical of the kind of virtual place where you might go to experience ‘being away’.

In Technobiophilia I tell the story of Yib, aka programmer and teacher Elizabeth Hess, who joined the LambdaMOO community in 1993 and set about creating The Formal Gardens.

Formal Gardens, Elizabeth Hess, LambdaMOO

When you enter this space, sentences scroll before your eyes like vertical ticker tape.  Things are happening around you. First:

A spider quietly works on her web in the silk tassel bush.

As an experienced MOO user, you know what to do.  Typing @examine here you discover which commands will work, and it appears that the garden flowers are perfumed, so you type smell flowers and the system immediately responds:

You smell a cascade of milk-white saxifrage.  The scent is lovely.

Stimulated by the description, your imagination releases a burst of sweet odours into your brain.  Then

A cricket chirps from somewhere in the greenery.

Hess programmed the Formal Gardens with embedded messages which changed in response to day and night, and to the passing of each month. She added extra touches, so that visitors could actually ‘pick’ the flowers and even ‘take them away’.  Today, she laughs about the fact that the flowery prose of their description was based not on her own experience, but that all of it – even the scents – were ‘fabricated from a bunch of flower gardening books.’

She had fun creating the Formal Gardens, but she also created a scene which was much closer to her heart, and this is something I noticed when I interviewed players at LambdaMOO for my book Hello World: travels in virtuality. There is a lot of play in such places, but also the freedom to build very personal creations inside the safety of a virtual world which is invisible to almost everyone else you know. So Elizabeth Hess told me about ‘The Green Cathedral’, It is ‘a description of a real place,’ she told me, ‘or a place that  *was*  real, before houses got built there’.

The Green Cathedral
You are in a tiny clearing nestled deep in the woods, surrounded by beech trees.   The branches overhead form an arched canopy of green, their leaves intertwining one with another, giving shelter to a carpet of soft, dry moss below.   The soft light of morning filters through the trees.   There is a stillness here.
A narrow path leads to the south, though it is almost completely overgrown.

‘The  name  came from the name of a clearing in the woods at a summer camp I attended,’ she explained.  ‘The description is based on a very secluded mossy clearing in the woods behind the house I grew up in, in Maine.’

We were type-talking together in the MOO and there was a pause at this moment, as there often is when the database checkpoints, but this felt like a different kind of pause, more pensive.

‘It’s worth walking to or from,’ she typed after a few seconds of silence. ‘There are nice exit messages.  The path to the green cathedral was one of my favorite parts.’

It was clear that the Green Cathedral meant a lot to her. The Formal Gardens were created from idealised catalogue descriptions, but the Green Cathedral came from her heart. It was the perfect example of the Kaplans’ notion of ‘being away’ — entering a place, either mentally or physically, which allows the mind to rest. It also relates to another of their settings, compatibility, of which more later. In Hess’s case, she finds compatibility in The Green Cathedral because it so closely connects with who she is.

You could wander in LambdaMOO forever. There are thousands of these virtual rooms, some public, some private, some connected by pathways, but most simply floating free in the ocean of data which is in turn contained within a box securely tucked away in a server farm somewhere.  There are thousands of locations, all of them both real and not real.

I built my own landscapes there. Years ago, I designed a room for the English fields I drove past every day on my way to work. With that window open on my screen but hidden behind project files and a browser full of web-pages, I would leave my office and fly a few miles south, where I could spend a minute or two now and then just being away.

The Fields, Sue Thomas, LambdaMoo
The Fields, Sue Thomas, LambdaMoo