The Web versus “the remembered earth”

cottonwood tree

One of the big cottonwood trees beside the Elkhorn River at Yellowbanks Wildlife Management Area, near Battle Creek, Nebraska…

“Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to its sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions in the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.”
—N. Scott Momaday, “The Man Made of Words”

I enjoy blogging, and I love the web, but I want to talk about a few of its downsides before getting back to this quote. I have three things in mind. Each is both a strength and a weakness of the web:

termite-eaten cottonwood

Some of the trees are dead, though still standing. This one is home to a termite colony.

1) It’s a virtual experience, not a physical one. Granted, one could say the same about reading books, but the web adds lots of pictures and video and interactivity. Every year it seems richer and more “real.”

2) The web (and blogs!) tempts us into superficiality. It isn’t that the web forces you to be superficial, it’s just that, if you’re like me, the sheer amount, variety, and quality of material entices you to bounce from one cool thing to another, skimming the surface.

3) On the web, every place is as close as every other place. Locality and distance can lose relevance, because you can sort of experience any place without truly being there. Smart phones amplify this because they make the virtual world portable, allowing you to pass through a physical space without fully being there.

Again, these three things come from some of the web’s wonderful features. But, as a psychology professor of mine used to say, “A weakness is an overused strength.”


Some trees are taken by the river at flood stage, and are then piled here and there on sandbars.

Momaday’s words have stuck with me for years because they distill something important about place, something that’s only grown in importance since he published this essay in 1970. “The remembered earth” is only possible if you’ve experienced a place deeply in a prolonged and physical way.

I’ve moved around a fair amount in my life, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve made more of a point of paying close attention to my surroundings (whether in town or out of it), and also seeking out natural places that I can visit repeatedly and get to know in detail.

vegetation beside river

Lush new growth fills the gaps where fallen trees once stood.

Technology has tended to remove us further and further from the land. That’s not all bad (I’m really glad that I don’t have to live and work on a pre-industrial farm), but we’ve lost something valuable in the process. How many of us today really understand the kind of connection to land that Momaday is talking about? Most of us have to go out of our way to do so. But we can, if we choose, cultivate that kind of experience.

Do you have special places that you’re getting to know deeply?

4 thoughts on “The Web versus “the remembered earth”

  1. Melinda

    Good points. They remind me of some of the things Gerry Mander wrote in his ‘Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television’. Similar issues, different media.
    I love the rivers, woods, hedgerows and countryside which surround the town where I live in Devon.

  2. poetjena

    You are right. Our lives are filled with too many distractions.
    Such thoughts as these must serve to awaken us to the consequences of our choices, what we choose to see, what not… albeit real, or virtual…..

    “Stones have a characteristic that is beyond reason..” – Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, Island and other prose (2000)

    The importance of this wise and insightful post cannot be underestimated.
    I sincerely appreciate the valuable contribution you make here!


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