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Twitter, Notes and Sacred Wildflowers
Social media versus the sanctity of nature, where I am the algorithm.
ON THE DAY that Substack launched its social media feed called Notes, the woods here in Vermont were exploding in the crimson flowers of hazelnut. Although Notes had drafted me in the war for your attention (and for mine), I opted instead for those tiny spring fireworks on their twigs.
Like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and their ilk, Notes is a fusillade of information — in this case a feed generated by Substack writers. Its intent is to enhance Substack’s lofty mission: connecting independent writers and readers. Hard to argue with that.
Even so, I am cautious about this new battlefront in the digital invasion of our brains. Like many of you, I strive to keep people and nature centered and lofty in my life. Instead of consulting the myriad of self-help books about coping with the digital life — about how the internet has addled our brains for distraction and about the myths of digital productivity and goodness — my default redress is simple: Go outside. Meet those little red flowers. Walk. Sit. Think. Sense. Be. Write.
The inconvenient truth is that we will always be bombarded with too much information — not only the garbage of the glowing screen, but too much worthy content as well. As a result, unfortunately, we must judiciously say no to even the best reading or even the best intentions of our friends. To dwell online with sanity, even part-time, is to recognize that we cannot drink ever more and more from this digital firehose.
I myself have no novel advice for you on the perils of social media, perhaps other than the message of Chasing Nature: What is most sacred is not to be found online. The sacred is love and ideas among people, expressed and experienced together, in art and discussion and celebration, in the force of the written word and in the sanctity of nature. There may be sacred scrolls, but there is nothing sacred about scrolling.
As a reader like you, I’ve come to Substack to curate my own stable of writers — the like-minded and those who challenge my biases. While online anywhere, never do I allow or read anything I do not welcome, which means no social media “news” feeds — none of their outrage and speculation and distraction. I am my algorithm. That’s the beauty of Substack.
As a writer, yeah, I’ve got an ego and expenses — more readers would be welcome, including paying subscribers who make Chasing Nature possible. Notes can help me with that. But not if it demands that I be possessed by my Notes feed. Writing takes enough time. So rather than ever more subscribers, I’m content with enough subscribers, engaged subscribers. For now, to Substack Notes I shall wander with caution and with an open mind (and a request to Substack’s leadership to allow us to filter the feed).
After all, I would rather wander to those hazelnut flowers. And it is safe to say that the majority of you — and millions more living in temperate regions of North America and Europe — live not far from these tiny blooms, which erupt in early spring on a dozen or so species of hazelnut shrubs in the genus Corylus around the world. Many of you walk past them unaware.
The crimson explosion is the tiny female flower. We’re seeing not petals in that image above beside the paper clip, but only elongated and luscious ruby stigmas, which receive pollen from separate male flowers. The male (pictured below) is a traditional catkin, elongated and pendulous, emitting puffs of yellow pollen that drifts on vernal breezes. This wind pollination happens without insects, indeed before most insects are on the wing, hence no need to lure pollinators with petals. And yet I myself am lured every spring by those ruby stigmas.
Here in Vermont, where we enjoy more than four seasons, the flowering of Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) marks a pivot in our subseasons of spring: we begin to shift from Mud Season (which I wrote about earlier this month for) to Ephemeral Wildflower Season, which features woodland plants going about their reproduction before the forest trees breaks out in leaves. It generally coincides with our Amphibian Sex Season.
In other words, currently in Vermont, plants with lovely flowers are procreating in woods while salamanders and frogs are getting it on in vernal pools — all of it as migrating songbirds begin to arrive. With all that action, I’ll take the Twitter of American Goldfinches, the Notes of Spring Peepers, and the Insta-gratification of Beaked Hazelnut flowers any day over the maelstrom of the glowing screen.
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These might appear to be studio shots of Beaked Hazelnut flowers; I instead photographed them outside with a Canon 6D camera, a 180mm macro lens, a flash and a purposely clean background (no other twigs or vegetation nearby) for effect.
A distribution map of nearly 40,000 hazelnut shrub sightings around the planet, thanks to that wonder of the human world called iNaturalist. Zoom and click for individual sightings.
If your hazelnut plants have leaves by now, you’ll have to wait until next spring for the flowers. And, yes, these shrubs do produce hazelnuts, which often get eaten by wildlife before we can get to them.
For my Practical Nature Photography seminar students: Our final lecture will “drop” in about a week. Stay tuned.
Finally, from a distance hazelnut shrubs resemble your run-of-the-mill woodland thicket plants. Because that’s tough to capture in an image, I give you instead my botany companion Odin near some hazelnut.