Data Humanism; New photos from 2020; Strava Stats and The Fate of the Pando Clonal Colony
Happy New Year! I’m Bryan and this is my newsletter on walking, art, photography, creativity, mindfulness, and how they all intersect!
Last week I shared a few of the articles and ideas that have stuck with me over the last two years. As I mentioned, I’m going to turn it into a monthly feature called ‘Connecting Ideas,’ to experiment with the format and see where it takes me.
Building on that idea, I’ve had this list of concepts taped next to my door over the last six months. I’ve tried to make a few mind maps this year but they weren’t effective so I decided a list of concepts would be a good start. Keep it simiple.
I pulled a bunch of ideas and concepts from my notes, and then edited them down. The goal is to see how they mix together and synthesize through the generation effect. I’m dreaming up new ways to visually represent the ideas, and building on the simple process of writing them with color pens.
This year I’d like to explore more ideas around data humanism and visual storytelling. If you have any tips, let me know!
I’ve had the paper with the concepts taped up by my door so I can glance at them as I leave. It’s been an interesting experience to catch a glimpse at the different ideas each day as a reminder.
I’m going to try to summarize what they currently mean to me and where they might take me next. I’m hoping you find something in these ideas that can inspire action or provoke your own ideas. It’s all about making these connections.
Walking is the Fountain of Youth
There’s enough evidence to firmly support that walking and physical activity are key to longevity. When I take that a step further in my imagination, I say walking is the fountain of youth. As a metaphor, it helps me centralize the importance of walking to stay healthy, both physically and cognitively. The one caveat here is that it also idealizes youth which I think has some harmful effects on our culture. I haven’t worked out that contradiction yet. Perhaps the phrase will evolve with new insights, something along the lines of ‘walking is the fountain of health & wisdom.’
Rituals, habits, random connections
Walking is a habit and a ritual for me. My long walks are the time when I get into a deep flow state. Over the last few years, I’ve focused on other areas where I can develop good habits. I have a morning routine that has stuck, and worked for me. Habits are tough to create, which is why I’m interested in turning them into rituals. With a ritual, the meaning behind the action has a different purpose. For example, walking for me is more than a health habit, it’s a spiritual and creative ritual that connects me to the world around me and helps me stay creative.
Random connections are the third part of this equation. I’ve found that a structure built upon good habits allows for new random connections that might not be expected. It’s the small deviations that can lead to new creative insights.
Out Gathering Intelligence
When people ask what I’m doing on my walks, I like to say I’m ‘out gathering intelligence.’ It works two ways. First, walking provides us with the time for divergent thinking and meditation. This one way we get smarter, and wiser. The second part is that as a visual artist and photographer, I’m gathering visual intelligence, sometimes in the direct form of a photograph, in other ways I’m storing visual ideas for use down the line. I’ve wanted to branch out from photography in the last few years, so this process of looking at the visual landscape in new ways has helped me think creatively about the medium I choose to communicate ideas.
Lastly, I’ve been curious about foraging. I believe some of us are natural foragers. It’s in our DNA. In our modern world, we’re not needed to collect food, so perhaps the instinct has evolved and now we’re needed to forage for ideas and insights. Intelligence.
I have been tracking this for the last year. I’ve noticed that the first 90 minutes of a long walk (5-6 hours) are when I get into flow state. Typically once I get warmed up, the insights and ideas start to flow, and oftentimes I’ll solve whatever small daily riddles that have been bothering me. Now I focus on optimizing those first 90 minutes.
I have not always succeeded. I’m often also distracted at the start of a walk so I’ve been focusing more on the preparation to make sure I can optimize the first 90 minutes. Interesting development here is that I read somewhere (sometimes I’m bad with bookmarking!) that meditation and flow are not the same. Of course I understand this but now I’m wondering which part of the first 90 minutes is meditation and which is flow.
Maybe flow is only when I’m actively making photographs, and the ideation part of the walk is just meditation. Then again, I’m also writing in my mind so there’s a certain flow to that process.
This one is important. The more steps, the more time I’ve been out walking, the more time I’ve been thinking, and creating, or gathering intelligence.
Dreams of Colorado
I’ve been fascinated with Denver since my trip in 2018. I think it would be an interesting city to explore on foot because of the trails that connect the city and lead into the mountains. I’ve been studying the map of the city, and at some point I’ll probably start mapping some walks. It’s a place I can envision living some day.
I look for the small variations in what I create. These are often the clues to something new. I think about how I can weave the variations together to form something new. I don’t know how successful I’ve been and it’s probably that the variations are only apparent to me.
I don’t like the word sidewalk. Walking shouldn’t be on the side. It should be the main activity. This is a bit of a curmudgeonly take but I think it’s important philosophically for cities to put the needs of pedestrians and cyclists ahead of automobile drivers. We have a long way to go, at least in New York City. So, I use mainwalk as a reminder that we should prioritize pedestrian infrastructure.
I don’t often get lost on a walk, but sometimes I take a wrong turn, and it ends up being a detour. One afternoon on one of these detours, I thought it would be interesting to plan them out before. But how can I do that? I haven’t figured it out yet, but the concept is something I’ve had on my mind, and I plan on trying an experiment on one of my walks this year to see what happens.
Move to Think
I pulled this from a tweet I came across after a controversy in the UK. They created a campaign that showed a ballet dancer with a message that her next job could be in cyber. The implication being that dancing is not a viable career. The tweet led me to a Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson where he discussed a young girl that was having trouble learning in a typical school setting. He said she needed to move to think. It hit home for me since I sometimes have trouble focusing when I spend too much time seated in front of a computer. When I get out walking, I feel I can think again.
Walking a Desire Path is Like Visiting an Oracle
When I was living in Minneapolis in the aughts I bought a copy of the I Ching. I’d been reading a lot about philosophy and it came across my radar, so I was curious. It was around that time that I was thinking about moving to either LA or NYC. I decided on LA and it was partly based on an I Ching divination (I was probably going no matter so whatever reading I got would just confirm it). Nevertheless, I’ve always been fascinated by oracles and divination. Over the last few years as I’ve walked more paths and desire lines, I’ve started to feel they contain wisdom we can tap into.
So, this year I tried an experiment. Before I walk a desire path, I’ll ask myself an open-ended question. And it works! The focus stimulates new ideas and random phrases will pop into my head. It’s a good mind trick to play and helps connect with the paths. Desire paths are endlessly fascinating.
I remember when the idea of the quantified self emerged a decade ago. It never struck me as something I wanted to do. Then in 2015 I installed a pedometer on my phone and began tracking my steps. That’s when it all changed. It took me a few years to understand the importance of the step count.
And then last year when I started with the epic walks, I realized the goal of finishing a walk was a powerful motivator. I was partly interested in the data aspect, but also what the data represented. I knew if I walked 20,000-30,000 steps I likely had a good day, both making photographs, and for creative thinking. I’ve tracked my walks with Strava the last two years and have started to build my projects partly around the data and the maps. In fact, it’s all data collection: steps, photos, ideas, words, ephemera. Interestingly, I recently started following designer Giorgia Lupi on Twitter, and was introduced to #datahumanism which I love.
Sleep is vitally important to creativity. But when are we the most creative? Morning lark or night owl? I never knew my chronotype and still don’t for sure, but as I’ve aged, I know that the morning is when I have the most creative energy, and when I get my best ideas. But I also have some very productive nights. So I’m not sure where I fit in but I know for certain that in the next decade we’re going to learn more about the impact chronotypes have on productivity and creativity. This article from Caspar does a good job explaining the different types.
The times article on ‘The Social Life of Forests’ made a big impact on me, especially when I came across clonal colony again. I remember first learning about them from Rachel Sussman’s book ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World.’ She has a great photograph of the Pando Clonal Colony in Utah. During my research, I came across an article in the Smithsonian.
Sweeping across 107 acres of Utah’s Fishlake National Forest is one of the world’s largest organisms: a forest of some 47,000 genetically identical quaking aspen trees, which all stem from a single root system. Pando, as the organism is known (its name is Latin for “I spread”), has been growing for at least 80,000 years. But according to Yasmin Tayag of Inverse, the grove’s health has declined dramatically over the past few decades. Pando, a recent study has found, is dying.
I’m an photographer, writer and editorial strategist in New York City. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Instagram & Twitter