The Memetic Forest

     Winter Island Trail, Salem, 2021

Over the last several years I’ve noticed the woods become populated by these awkward and sometimes monumental structures. They are made from materials gathered from the landscape, mostly long branches and dead saplings. The purpose of these structures is mysterious, or rather, I feel that the purpose of these structures is to be mysterious. Long branches leaned up against the hull of a tree to create a tee-pee-like facade. The dark entryway blends into its surroundings, the moist and dark interior providing little in the way of actual protection from the elements.

Whenever I am in one I cannot help but to delight in the novelty of the experience. It is not often that I get to  engage with art without the benefit of context. I enjoy these odd folk sculptures which stand out like toadstools rupturing from a bed of dead pine needles. They seem to seek engagement with the forest, while also disrupting its natural processes. To blend into the woods while simultaneously denying the woods altogether.

I imagine making these. I imagine the feeling of cold and moist bark upon my fingertips. I imagine the pleasure of upending a branch only to discover a salamander, or colony of grubs beneath it. I imagine the fun of searching the woods for the right material. I imagine this process feeling very primitive, even as it might feel very social. I imagine the artist photographing the product of their labor, before returning to the parking lot and posting it to instagram.

There is something deeply memetic about them. Like mushrooms, they seem to appear suddenly, and in bursts. As soon as one is created, it is reproduced by copycats, at least until there are so many that it starts to feel silly to make anymore. Like memes, the visual language of these structures is familiar, if only a bit cliche. They mimic indigenous architecture while otherwise disregarding the purpose and craft behind that architecture. They become simulacra by virtue of their non-use. Simulations of structures, themselves simulated for film and for storybooks.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate what they represent. It’s easy to criticize memetic culture when we are able to pretend that we are not ourselves suspended within memetics. But, there are few cultures more memetic than that of the art world after all. What is curious here are questions of desire and of origin. Why do people want to make these?


              Tree Following Storm #1, Southaven, 2021
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out if I am a communist. I have vacillated, as have many “academics” with the privilege of vacillation, between the poles of Anarchy and Marxism. Though this, of course, is a false dichotomy, both ideologies having related origins and both working in pursuit of a non-hierarchical and classless society, it’s hard to put both in your bio when both carry such different baggage. Which would I like to carry? Is perhaps the most appropriate way to approach this question.

To that I answer Anarchy, since it feels obvious to me that civilization, language and even human consciousness or language itself might be the problem. That civilization robs us of our most animal selves, that language draws borders along otherwise borderless spaces, and that consciousness removes us from the eternal. I’d call myself an anarcho-primitivist, except that it all seems like a fantasy.

Maybe then communism makes more sense? Maybe there’s no going back, or maybe the fantasy of going back is fundamentally flawed. As nice as it is to imagine a world of nomadic families surviving together, the problem with this vision will always be the presence of emergent imperial states. So long as there are Empires there can be no true anarchy. Even beyond the borders of their “wilderness” the mere existence of an empire will always have a destabilizing effect. What if they attack tomorrow? How are we supposed to compete?

Centuries of resistance to those empires which currently dominate the Earth offer much wisdom for how we might compete with, challenge, or even topple those empires. What is disheartening is the frightening way in which empires have proven to be successional. When the French and Spanish empires collapsed in North America, the larval United States was quick to appropriate much of their range and resources. The same appears true of the collapsing British Empire, which, in the face of the existential threat of an emergent fascist state, ceded its influence to the nymphal Empire of its former colonies.

Even now, as the influence of the petro-imperial United States begins to wane, moving slowly from adulthood to old age, evidence of new Empires emerges. It is hard to speculate where exactly these Empires will draw their lines except that I suspect that, at least to some degree, they will not. The Empire of capital, the vectoralist hellhole that is revealing itself now, may well finally transcend borders altogether, collapsing the “wilderness” of old into the definite boundaries of its digital domain. This is a world sincere McCarthiests feared, though they cast their suspicions upon exactly the wrong system. It is one free of individuals and populated only by algorithmic automatons.


A related phenomenon to that of the woods is perhaps that of canyons, mountains, beaches and trails. What I mean to address is a viral phenomenon which has only recently begun to wane, the building of whimsical rock piles or “cairns” within National Parks and other ‘wild’ spaces.

Encountering such rock piles is equally delightful. Often the skill, attention, and mindfulness to construct these small monuments appears great. When one is encountered it is hard not to appreciate. Their relative impermanence, and the pure metaphysical sense of balance which they convey strikes at the core of the alienated soul. How marvelous to be so in tune with gravity and stones.

The construction of insta-cairns, a term I’ve invented to distinguish between these rocks piles and historic cairns once used to indicate trails and convey information, was once, and still is to an extent, a major problem in some National Parks. Spreading memetically through instagram, that sense of delight was soon overcome by a scoffing sense of disregard, or even despair. They became eyesores, or worse, actively damaged the natural and historical character of the sites within which they were constructed. Rangers asked visitors to stop their construction, and even encouraged outdoorsy folks to kick them down.

I can subscribe to this argument, though I have my doubts about its importance. When the phenomenon peaked around 2015, instagram algorithms worked in support of the viral trend. This was an easy way to receive attention on social media, allowing one to compete for likes against other outdoorsy types, all while simulating artistic expression and, honestly, providing one with a vibey and calm activity upon which to focus.

This, I think, was especially important to people at a time when we began once-again struggling with nature's clear recession. Alienated as we were (and still are) from the natural world, what options were there really to re-engage with that nature in new, fun, and aesthetically familiar/pleasing ways? Rock cairns are radically optimistic features. They seem to promise non-destructive engagement with a dying world. And yet, they are destructive, if in somewhat subtle ways. What else then is there to be done but to kick them down?


Forest Fire, Delaware Water Gap, 2020

Maybe I should knock this thing down? I think to myself of the large conical structure standing in the woods before me. I am hesitant, at first, because its construction is actually quite solid. It looks as though it may take some effort to dismantle, and I’m not really feelin’ it right now. Beside that point, and perhaps more relevantly, I would hate to destroy something someone worked so hard to construct, even despite its unnatural nature. Who am I to dismantle the fantasy?

At the root of this structure is a desire of some kind. Indeed at the root of many things are desires of one kind or another. Capitalism, which sustains itself off of our desires, has made its life out of the promise that it may quench those desires. Desire to be fed, here’s monoculture. Desire fun, here’s Hollywood. Desire to be free of attachment, fully engaged with the world, nomadic and out in nature, here's a 2021 Mercedes sprinter conversion van.

There is probably some correlation between cairn building, the overwhelming of National Parks, and the rise of #VanLife, but it would be unfair to lay the blame solely at the feet of shallow millennials. Correlation does not imply causation, says my 10th grade AP chem teacher.

What is present at the core of insta-cairns and wood cones, I think, is a profound sense of disconnection and loss in regards to our natural environment. This feeling is hard to engage with and to articulate. It is one we swim in like water, slipping through our fingers as soon as we start to contend with its origin and meaning. Absent an easy answer to this problem we turn, as all artists do, to the expression of our feelings through aesthetics. Here is the origin of the meme. The root of this tall wood-cone.


If I am a communist, I’m not a very good one. The same would be true if I were an anarchist. That said, I don’t think I have to be good to move in its direction. To pursue, as Jodi Dean might suggest, that red horizon that paints the color of every good sunrise.

I might call this desire, a yearning for authenticity. In a contrived world, a consumed and consumable world, authenticity is hard to sell, and in high demand. So, while it may be useful for the forest floor to dismantle the cone, while it might be helpful for the shoreline to kick down these cairns, I will do so not out of loathing for those who, like me, feel robbed of something. I will do so only out of appreciation for the creative processes of grubs and of salamanders.

             Misery and Greater Misery Islands, Salem, 2021