Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Memory Of Grass I

 One thing that struck me on my recent hike was the grass.

Native grasses are ubiquitous in Old Home, as they are The Ranch.  They appear every year:  green waves that grow and ripple in the breeze, only to dry out and turn golden, lying to the outside observer that they are anything more than effectively ornamental retainers of the soil at that point.  Every place that civilization has not touched, there you will find the native grasses.

What struck me this time, as I hike over the hills, was that I was assigning to grass something it simply did not have:  history.

Native grasses, at least where I am from, are annuals.  They grow and die off every year.  To the outside observer, the grass can appear exactly the same as it did in previous years - certainly, there are years where things may grow less high because of drouth or higher because or an abundance of rain, but generally it appears the same.  To my mind, I suppose I "associated" this with the fact that at some level, the grass is a constant.

It is a constant.  But it has no memory.

Every year, 100% of the annual grasses die off.  It is a cycle as literally as old as this climate has been established:  around late October or November, the rains come, and the seeds that were cast abroad the year before begin sprouting up amongst the skeletons and bodies of their parents.  They continue to grow and flourish through November to February before reaching peak green in March or April, when they begin dying off.  It happens in the valleys first and then slowly works its way up the mountains to where The Ranch is.  By June, there is nothing left but the golden burnt yellow stalks, rustling in the breeze waiting for the cycle to being.

The grass grows where it has grown every year.  But it has no memory of what it was or why it is there.  Every year it starts off with no knowledge of its past (if plants had knowledge, I suppose).  If it were indeed sentient, what would it think about those stalks that first towered over it until they were consumed by it?  What or who were they?  What did they do?  The grass cares not and if it does think such things, expresses them only as the wind blows past in words I cannot understand.


Back in the wilds of the 1980's, one of the most influential films I saw was, of all things, Tron.  The concept of a world within the computer - at a time when personal computers were really just being released on a large scale and the wonders of 1980's video games was a thing - was one that was mesmerizing to young teenage me.  Imagine the worlds that could exist!  Imagine the sights one could see - sights that simply physically could not exist in the "real world".

Many years later, I now live in an age where literally the breadth of human knowledge is either on-line or getting there as fast as possible.  Entire imaginary worlds actually do exist now on the InterWeb in the form of Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORG).  And now, thanks to the growth of the Blockchain, there are now new online worlds where individuals can "purchase" real estate (with crypto or real money, of course) and "earn" money.  All on-line, of course.  All not viewable with a computing device.

The charitable part of me looks at it with amusement.  The less charitable part of me looks at it with a sad self knowing.

I love the fact that old books are available online- thousands of them.  I love that we can see old movies or clips, even things from the early 1900's.  I love that dying languages are preserved and I can learn how to graft a fruit tree with a video.

But that is also the problem.  It is all online, and more and more content is only online.  When the online fails - be it a power outage, be it the one server or hard drive on which it was stored, be it a media form that can no longer be accessed - it is gone.  Perhaps for a while, perhaps forever.  

It occurs to me - as I watch the images and words flash on my screen - that I am watching a version of the native grasses on the hillside.  And were the power to fade or the data to be unavailable, we would find ourselves as a civilization with the memory of grass in  relatively quick order, with little knowledge of what went before us beyond what we can see and no understanding of how we got there.


  1. Our native grasses are perennials with roots boring ten feet down in the earth. The top part however dies off every year.

    I think digital information will be like a true recession. Most have never experienced a true recession that can last for a decade. Those that have never forgot. When we have an event where all digital information is lost, it will be an event of such magnitude that nobody will forget.

    I’m trying to prevent a catastrophe by creating analog reading devices of family history for just such an event.

    1. Interesting Ed. Here everything bakes into the soil, more or less.

      I had not thought of the loss of digital information as a recession, but I think you are exactly right. When it happens - when it truly happens - it will be so scarring it will change the way we view knowledge and perhaps technology (in the knowledge sense, perhaps not all that different as the collapse of the Roman Empire and what remained). The sad part is that we will likely never realize everything we lost because we will not know everything that was there - like ourselves now looking at the classics that remain, we will find references to websites and blogs and knowledge repositories that will no longer exist: we will know they were there and perhaps some direct quotes from them, but nothing more.

      My version of fighting this is books of the things that should be saved as well.

  2. I would submit that in SPITE of having the trove of human knowledge at our finger tips, all we do with the tech is watch stupid people hurt themselves in the latest tiktok fad. We as a culture have already forgotten who we are and how we got here.

    I figure the information recession that Ed speaks of has started with a lack of focus and purpose. I go there to learn, and get side tracked with all the shiney stuff. I get disgusted at myself pretty often, too.

    1. STxAR - You make a good point: we are literally throwing away our legacy through a need to be entertained and amused. I wonder what history says about states and societies that lose their historical and cultural underpinnings.

      I have the shiny issue object as well.

  3. Nylon1210:21 AM

    As long as there is electricity then all is well and good BUT if there is no juice then.......... If you don't physically possess, say a book you don't own it. Of course, not having electricity meant you couldn't play an LP either even if you owned it. With the increasing divisive political/social divide something "going away" online will happen more and more often......"We've always been at war with Eastasia!"

    1. Exactly Nylon12. Anymore, that which we do not own, we do not really have (and thus the alarming trend in the idea of owning nothing and renting or borrowing everything.

      I do think that there are people that are conscious of this and are building essentially monasteries of online knowledge when "the usual sources" go dark.

  4. Anonymous10:56 AM

    Our institutional knowledge is fading fast. I met a retired shipyard worker, he ran the foundry. The foundry is gone now, out sourced to somewhere. Who will retain the knowledge? The books? Books are a useful adjunct, but even they are being discarded-life long collections, unwanted by the heirs, thrown away, the book stores gone too.
    Our knowledge hangs by a thread. When things go bad, some think we will be back to 1880. I think that would be a hopelessly optimistic guess.

    1. Institutional knowledge is a huge problem at many companies, including my own. I have only been there 6 years and in some ways I have knowledge no-one else has.

      And books are indeed useful, but they can never replace hands on training for hands on activities.

      I have read - and I agree - that we would not just fall to the level of the 19th Century or even the Middle Ages. Given how dependent we are on machines and technology and how little knowledge of ordinary living skills we now have (how many can weave a cloth or forge a chain or shear a sheep or butcher a pig) we would fall all the way at least to the Roman Republic era, if not farther.

  5. Anonymous8:33 PM

    This post is quite profound, and hopefully not prescient. I have recently found myself viewing power tool purchases with regards to how it works if the battery fails and cannot be easily replaced.

    We take so many basic necessities for granted. Power, clean water, indoor plumbing, quality food, effective health care, affordable transport etc.

    I was toying with the idea of replacing my current vehicle recently, as she is getting a few miles on the odometer, and having a few niggling glitches, related to the electronics. The 4WD diesel utility I was considering (F150) actually boasted about regular software updates over the air. NO. Just NO ! My old truck will keep getting repaired & I'll buy another old tech truck when she cant be repaired.

    I think the electrical grid & computer networks are an extreme vulnerability. My wife & I watched "Terminator Genesis" again last night. The scenes where "Genesis" was on countdown to start were like looking around anywhere today. Literally everything was connected and run by computers. Way too close to our present reality.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words.

      I hope it is not prescient - but, as the saying goes, neither is hope an action plan. And it feels like - in so many ways we are the apex of a civilized world with all of the things you list as readily available.

      I am holding on to my 20XX Mazda for the very same reason as you describe. With the current mileage I am driving - perhaps 5,000 miles a year - I can literally go another 20 years before the car turns over another 100,000 miles, and if it can last another 20 after that, it will either be the end of civilization, the end of internal combustion vehicles, or the end of me.

      The power grid represents a huge weakness, something that is not hardened nearly as well as it could or should be from random unexpected events, let alone a coordinated attack.

  6. What a powerful post to which all I can really add is "Amen!"

    1. Thank you Lady Locust. Three days of hiking gives one a lot of time to think.

  7. The empheral nature of so much of current life has been brought home to me recently - we have been researching family history and find it amazing that we can pick up records from the early 1830s, but that similar records from the late 1990s are just not available. Also, having had conversations with archivists some are seriously worried about how they can preserve the current for the future in the way that paper and photographic records did for the past.

    1. Will - That is not an aspect I had thought of before. That said, I think where the information is has changed. I suspect that, for example, the search engines have a great deal of information on us (the timing is about right with the growth of the InterWeb) that would have before been tracked or stored in some other fashion by the government, and therefore far more publicly available. Being private companies there is no requirement for them to provide that sort of information.

      I suspect that for the archivists, they will have to find a way to take the electronic data that exists and find permanent storage and reading methods.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Anonymous2:36 PM

      TB - you are so polite and hopeful.

      In my work place ( a small govt dept), we are in the middle of a transition to hot-desking. Our personal cubicles are all going, instead we will have shared desks and you have to grab the first available and work there. All your personal stuff goes into a locker. We are not allowed to have paper records as we have ZERO storage space. Everything must be electronic.

      I have personally watched as politically unflattering records have been deleted from our public databases. And no one said or did a thing about it because your career was over if you did and we all have mortgages.

      We ha massive buildings absolutely choc full of paper records going back to 1900. They are all going to be scanned and destroyed as it is too expensive to keep them.

      It is frightening how much power will be held in those databases, and how vulnerable they are to shenanigans. I strongly suspect having independent back-ups of everything we do in these modern workplace environments is going to be essential skill, bordering on a superpower.

      Food for thought.

    3. Anonymous - Thank you. That I come across kindly is what should be expected (or at least, what my mother would expect of me). Of hopeful...worthy of another post, but I am perhaps in the category of long-run hopeful, not short term hopeful.

      Just prior to the shutdown due to The Plague in 2020, our company went to a hot desking mode as well which sounds very much like yours: no assigned places, no personal items, only a locker - and no storage space. There are still things that must be paper due to regulations - but almost everything else went to electronics.

      I am not surprised that this is happening at the government levels as well. And that in the great rush to convert, things which perhaps should see the light of day never will - shoving things down the Memory Hole Once again, Orwell as prophet.

      As you suggest, the power of those databases - and the people who run them - will be both terrifying and immense. At the same time, we are becoming incredibly vulnerable. Hackers have already cracked governments for ransom - what happens when national governments start hacking into each other as an act of war instead of tentative checks of ability.

      We are rapidly reaching the stage that nuclear destruction will be considered crude. All that will be needed is to kill the power grid or simply delete the underlying data and controls, and wait.


Comments are welcome (and necessary, for good conversation). If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!