Category Archives: Bring nature into your digital world

How to bring nature into your digital world 6. Pay attention to the view from your window

I wrote most of Technobiophilia at home in a cottage in the English Midlands, sitting in front of a back room window overlooking a small courtyard containing potted plants. I had arranged the plants so they looked good when you were in the courtyard, but my window looked out onto only part of it, so most of the time I could not even see the beautiful greenery I had curated.

The view from my desk featured only a single white clematis bush, but clematis is a deciduous climber which booms gloriously for a few months and for the rest of the year looks like a drooping clump of dead sticks. And I was so deep in my work that I did not even notice the paucity of my view. It was only towards the very end of my research that it suddenly dawned on me that all the plants I had spent money and time on were at the other end of the courtyard and invisible from my window. Feeling rather foolish, I realized that not only would a simple rearrangement of the pots bring colour and greenery into my view all day long, but they would also be a working application of biophilic design. I moved them right away. From then on, as I sat writing, I could raise my eyes and enjoy brilliant red geraniums, multi-coloured mesembryanthemums opening to the sun and a succession of other beautiful and renewing greenery.

So here is a question: what kind of view do you have from the places where you work and relax?

English cottage window
My cottage window 2012

One aspect of my window view which was already biophilic was the fact that at the time I was living in an old country cottage where the mullioned windows of the sitting room had eight panes apiece. According to architectural designer Kent Bloomer, the large picture windows we so enjoy and which reinforce that sense of bringing the outdoors indoors are actually provoking a damaging level of cognitive dissonance. This is because, he explains, ‘we possess a psychological boundary around our bodies (and by extension around our houses) that divides, or separates, our sense of a personal, possessed interior space from an exterior extra-personal space.’ This boundary is vitally important to our experience of the world because it conditions our perceptions of the environment; it appears at places of entry and exit, providing visual information about ‘social rank, safety, cultural belief and the occupants’ relationship to nature’. Passing through the boundary indicates the near-possibility of touching and that haptic experience is, says Bloomer, ‘fundamentally critical in establishing a firm connection, a “contact” with the natural environment. Yet’, he goes on, ‘touching is precisely what is negated by the pure picture window!’

His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in ‘the liminal transitional space of the window’ and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, ‘you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside’. Examples of such interventions include thicker or tinted glass, mullions connecting small panes, old-fashioned bottle-glass, leaded and stained glass, or even just patterned curtains or blinds. You can also buy large transfers of life-sized flowers and shrubs to stick onto picture windows, and various kinds of sun-catchers and mobiles to hang in front of them. All of these can establish a ‘visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside’.

If that sounds a little far-fetched, consider this: Bloomer ends by pointing out that the ‘naked’ picture window ‘provides a sanitized vision and might even promote a false feeling of fulfilment predicated upon an illusion of experiencing and being connected to the natural environment’. His proposition does not seem to have been scientifically tested, and it rather contradicts the general belief that big picture windows strengthen our sense of the outdoors, but it is an interesting thesis and worthy of some experimentation.

For more see Kent Bloomer. ‘The picture window: The problem of viewing nature through glass’. In Biophilic Design, by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin L. Mador, 253– 262. New Jersey: Wiley, 2008.

How to bring nature into your digital world 5. Stone and wood in your workspace.

Roger Deakin at Walnut Tree Farm
Roger Deakin at Walnut Tree Farm

How to bring nature into your digital world 5. Stone and wood in your workspace.

I’ve been reading Roger Deakin’s wonderful book ‘Wildwood: a journey through trees‘, and was thrilled by his descriptions of Walnut Tree Farm, the moated farmhouse where he lived for many years before his untimely death in 2006.  He bought the house in 1969 after spotting it nestling in neglected woodland, its ruined chimney rising above the trees. In the years that followed he slowly and lovingly renovated it piece by piece. He slept in every part of the property, including its fields. He swam joyously in its weed-filled moat.

Deakin was a nature geek and a craftsman. We can learn from him and combine his sensibilities with our online lives to create workspaces with his world in mind. And of all the things he made, it is his desk which most fascinates and inspires me.  He wrote in his journal:

Building the new desk under the window in the study, looking south across the garden to the moat. Perfectionism kicks in and all the same self-critical criteria that go into a piece of writing. I make a yew bracket to peg to the oak wall post and support the top, a slab of fine-grained Oregon pine, and a careful wooden sub-frame or chassis. I fill some open cracks in the grain with plaster, smooth it down and carefully stain it pale blue using a delicate watercolour brush. I hollow out one of the old bolt-holes in the top to accommodate a smooth, round flattened pebble from the Hebrides, like a tiny curling stone. It is a sort of worry-bead. (p17)

a stone from the beach

Try it.

Make some space on your desk for stone, wood, or shells that you have cleaned and shaped yourself.

Set aside a few minutes each day to enjoy the feel of them in your hands – the surface, the weight, the coolness, the warmth.

You may even choose to work colours and materials into the surface of the desk, as he describes above.

A treat, perhaps, for fingers more accustomed to keyboards and screens.

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

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