Hate Social Media but Love Nature? There’s an App for That

Facebook and Twitter can be sinkholes of rage and despair. But virtual communities like iNaturalist might usher in the digital utopia we were promised

Over-the-shoulder photo of a woman holding a smartphone to take a picture of the autumnal forest around her.
Michał B/Unsplash

Last spring, I was facing a minor ecological battle behind my family’s small blue cottage on Lake Ontario. We’d been forced to clear cut a swath of land about the size of an Olympic swimming pool: trees had died, some had crashed down in a windstorm. Yet the act left me with a terrible sense of grief. As part of the cull, we’d felled a cedar that monarchs had used as a rest stop along their route south. And, though I hadn’t seen the butterflies there in over a decade, I worried about the potential disruption this might cause to their migration pattern.

That May, surveying the muddy still-cold ground, I felt an urge to revitalize this blank slate. I saw this outdoor project as a way of returning to nature, of disconnecting from urban life and all the attachments that come with it: to technology, to social media, and, most of all, to my smartphone.

At first, my plan was to toss handfuls of wildflower seeds into the empty bed of mulched leaves and ground stumps in the hopes that tall grasses dotted with colourful flowers would greet me by midsummer. But my husband, a field ecologist who specializes in climate change, warned against non-native seeds. He had some other, native, species in mind and mentioned that he had a bag of seeds in our freezer at home. He also had a direct line to a tall-grass-prairie ecologist who could rustle up more. But, soon enough, duty called, and before we could act, my husband left for the Great Bear Rainforest, then the Arctic. Not knowing what to do with the frozen seeds or even what they were—none were labelled, all just looked like seeds—and not knowing the name of the aforementioned tall-grass-prairie expert, I ended up planting no seeds at all. My only act was to bring in two maple and two oak saplings, one each for me, my husband, my daughter, and my son.

On a return visit last August, I was surprised to discover that the clear-cut had become a tangle of flora all on its own, a green mass I saw as one entity. I was disappointed by this manifestation of my failure and equally troubled that I couldn’t discern what was growing there. I could locate only one of the four saplings in the growth that had shot up in the intervening months. I was defeated by this minimally managed, mostly wild space, and as summer’s end neared, I’d had enough. I waded into the overgrowth, reluctantly armed with my smartphone and an app I’d downloaded called iNaturalist, determined to take back some control.

iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Every day, some of its 1-million-plus users upload images of their observations of the wild, from butterflies to lichen to lions, and the app helps them identify what’s before them. It’s part artificial intelligence, part crowdsourcing from the wider iNaturalist community. The more times the system is used to help identify plants and animals, the better the app becomes at making correct matches all on its own.

I justified my usage of this app—technology I had been so eager to get away from—as necessary, possibly even educational. After all, unlike the sprawling agoras of Twitter and Facebook, iNaturalist was niche. It had a distinct purpose and a specialized global community of amateur and professional naturalists. And, rather than encouraging mindless scrolling, iNaturalist was built for action. After a user uploads the image of an animal or plant, it awaits two positive identifications from other naturalists. This act of confirmation certifies the photograph as “research-grade” material. This means that snapping a picture of a beaver or a lily can actually help scientists track populations and species distributions across ecosystems.

My first upload to iNaturalist on my outing into the clear-cut was of a tiny orange flower, one of thousands suspended from spindly stalks that surrounded me like a swarm of bees. These may be spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), iNaturalist suggested, a plant native to North America whose pale-green leaves appear silvery when held underwater. Next, I took a shot of one of the ubiquitous lime-green vines with flowers like white starbursts strung along their stems. I was informed that this was wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), a native species: its roots are said to have been used in love potions. A low-lying ground cover with toothy-edged leaves was goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria): ornamental, invasive, spreads fast. A midsize tree at the periphery bearing shiny black berries turned out to be the same species as a series of saplings that had popped up, seemingly overnight, every few metres throughout the clear-cut. These were common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), ornamental shrubs introduced by anthropogenic means (i.e., people) in the nineteenth century and native to Asia and Europe. This plant, I read, was aggressive, leafing out first in spring and stealing the sun from those beneath its canopy. The berries, dropped from the tree or via birds, rapidly grew into new shrubs. Removal status: nearly impossible. I later found out that this identification was added to a special project, called Invasive Species in Ontario, made possible through the app.

As I learned more about the plants around me, a complex narrative took shape. There was a berried shrub that carried the history of human migration, an outlaw weed, a spindly plant with a silvery secret, and a cucumber with aphrodisiac possibilities.

After about an hour in the weeds, smartphone in hand, I noticed my children, ages four and eight, their faces perplexed, watching from the safety of the tamed lawn that runs adjacent to the clear-cut. I’d warned them against playing in this overgrown area because of Lyme-carrying deer ticks, of which I did not need iNaturalist to identify after a summer of discovering them on the bodies of my children and in my dog’s ears.

“What are you doing, Mama?” my eight-year-old asked.

“I’m learning the names of the plants,” I said. “Want to join me?”

Both children shook their heads and ran off.

This sort of scene was not terribly unique. In recent years, there had been many times at home when my children asked me why I was staring at my phone and I responded with something that sounded vaguely important: that I was answering a text or finding a recipe or checking when the library opened. All of these were half-truths as, usually, I’d become distracted by social media: the buzz of a notification; a stranger’s beguiling timeline of hate; a video of a kitten being swaddled into a “Purrito”; a tweet about nuclear weapons, from the president of the United States, directed at the leader of North Korea. A better question might have been, Mama, where are you?

But, in the clear-cut that day with iNaturalist, I felt both physically and mentally in one place, and rather than acting as a barrier to real life, my phone was merely a medium of communication between me and the natural world. I wondered: Is this the future that technology had always promised?

Around the same time that I first began focusing on my cottage flora, I deleted my Twitter account. (I had long left Facebook behind and had never felt Instagram’s pull.) I quit for all of the reasons that many users do—I felt distracted, frustrated, rage filled, and often depressed. Algorithms were informing my writing and rearranging my dream sequences. In tandem with this personal quandary, however, I felt an underlying panic about the growing disconnect between the digital and natural worlds. I felt that, collectively, we were scrolling ourselves dizzy, becoming increasingly distracted by small battles while the largest war in the history of our planet raged outside the confines of our screens.

Being on iNaturalist felt different. Although I was still engaging with an online network, I used it as I might any other tool—binoculars, hammer, paring knife. It was always for a purpose: I would upload images, identify species, and occasionally check to see if two other members of the community had confirmed what I’d seen. Once fulfilled, I closed the app. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, meanwhile, are designed to transfix. They’ve perfected the art of the endless scroll to trade on our most valuable, intimate commodity: our attention.

Oakland-based artist and author Jenny Odell writes thoughtfully on the commercialization of online hours in her 2019 book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She is not antitechnology; instead, Odell’s gentle polemic suggests we shift our attention away from commercialized social media “and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction” and turn our gaze to the natural world. Drawing on the tenets of bioregionalism, a philosophy of the interconnectivity between all life forms (humans included) within regions defined by nature—watersheds, deserts, islands—rather than boundaries drawn by economics or politics, Odell makes the connection between what the economy does to the natural world and what the attention economy does to our minds. “In both cases, there’s a tendency toward an aggressive monoculture, where those components that are seen as ‘not useful’ and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or Facebook) are the first to go,” she writes. Early in the book, Odell asks an unsettling question: “What does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?”

Odell is also a proponent of iNaturalist. When challenged about using an app to interact with the natural world, she concedes that, yes, optics suggest that this form of “scientific itemization”—and using a screen to do so, no less—could appear to further alienate her from the landscape. But, for her, the app is a “necessary step in the remediation of my ignorance, a temporary crutch. Learning the names of things was my first step in perceiving not just ‘land’ or ‘greenery’ but living bodies instead.”

I came across this idea again in a 2019 essay on translation by my friend, the poet Ashley Hynd, in The New Quarterly. In the first few lines, I was struck by how she addressed Giizhik, the Ojibwe word for “cedar,” as a sentient being. Where a settler approach would be to refer to it as “a cedar” or “the cedar,” Hynd, who is of mixed ancestry, spoke of “Giizhik,” and, in translation, “Cedar,” in the same way as she might a person. In a similar vein, Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ecological scientist, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, writes that “names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.” Threaded through these three works were ways of seeing nature that I hadn’t considered, or maybe, remembering how I’d grieved the felled trees at my cottage, they were innate but buried.

Initially, I’d believed that naming what lived in my cottage clear-cut would allow me to harness control, but now I realized that it was exactly the opposite. Naming was a way of acknowledging my place within the web of the wider world.

As with regular social media, my interactions, images, and geographic locales on iNaturalist became data points. The difference is that I was sharing this information with informed consent, and it wasn’t exclusive to the platform to trade and sell: the data that I was feeding into the system was freely available to anyone conducting ecological research. I saw this in action with Invasive Species in Ontario, an organization that uses iNaturalist data—including my posts of the buckthorn trees—to catalogue and track invasive species as part of a greater project. In this way, we’re working together toward individual and shared interests. I learn something new about where I live, and the project gathers important information for its database. We connect in the online space that iNaturalist provides.

In her book, Odell imagines a sane social network to be a lot like this model: small-scale, intentional groups in which members focus on a common purpose. These communities could be a hybrid of in-person and online, and they would not be designed to take over one’s life. Most importantly, Odell writes, “this social network would rehabilitate the role of time and location in our everyday consciousness. It would offer the places where we are right now as the incubation spaces for the empathy, responsibility, and political innovation that can be useful not just here, but everywhere.”

I returned to the clear-cut on a Saturday in the middle of last October. It was a new season, and the plants whose names I’d learned had changed. Spiked, puffy oblong green shapes had replaced the white floral starbursts along the wild cucumber vines. The buckthorn saplings were easy to spot as they shot skyward, leaves still green. Much of the growth had died back, and I could now see all four of the trees that we’d planted in early spring. Other plants, such as the goutweed and jewelweed, had lost their identifying flowers, so I sought them out by the shapes of their leaves, sometimes using iNaturalist, other times relying on newly formed knowledge. Most prevalent, however, were the goldenrods. I’d overlooked these plants earlier in the summer, but now I was struck by their yellow flowers, still vibrant in late bloom.

It was piercingly sunny, one of those brilliant fall days so beautiful it’s nearly painful. I was inside the cottage, cleaning up the remains of our summer, when I heard my husband and children shouting for me. I ran outside to find all three of them standing in the clear-cut, and as I approached, I saw that the goldenrods were vibrating. It was a kinetic movement that was familiar to me from summers past, from my childhood, my mother’s childhood, and from my grandmother’s adulthood, all spent here at this cottage. It was the monarchs—back for the first time in over a decade. They were clustered on the goldenrods, maybe ten or twenty thick. Years ago, my mother had told me that the now felled trees had grown over the course of her adulthood, a period of fifty years. It was possible that the butterflies had used our cedar as a roost for a time, creating a pattern, but that, when humans had rearranged their habitat, the monarchs had found a new roost. They’d adapted.

I took a photo of a pair of butterflies and uploaded it to iNaturalist a few days later. I’d generalized, marking them as “tiger milkweed butterflies” (genus Danaus). A nine-year-old citizen scientist on the app later narrowed my match to monarch (Danaus plexippus). The second person to confirm this identification, making my post research-grade, was an amateur lepidopterist who, in his bio, noted that he had cared about butterflies, almost exclusively, from his “early larval phase.”

This was the first time I’d read the personal details of my fellow iNaturalists, and it prompted me to add my own self-identification: “fledgling naturalist in the wild!” Out of curiosity, I clicked the iNaturalist home page’s Explore function—an area of the online community that I had never ventured into before—and an image of the world came slowly into focus, spotted with red dots, in many places so thick they obscured the geography beneath. Each mark represented an act of attention to nature, observations made in forests, fields, cities, beaches, deserts, and all the wild spaces in between. Many of these posts had been carefully vetted, making them data points for future researchers. Getting it right matters for the purposes of science but also for something greater: if we can name what lives and grows among us, know their stories, we can empathize with nature. And, in this way, maybe we can save it.

Emily Urquhart
Emily Urquhart is a writer based in Kitchener, Ontario. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Azure, and Hakai Magazine. Her newest book is The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father, and Me (Anansi, 2020).