I’ve described before, the serendipitous wandering from point to point of interest that can be so rewarding when you have time to absorb and act upon some of what you can find online. In more recent times, unfortunately, this is less and less likely to happen due to the corporatisation of the world wide web…it was bound to happen of course.
Recognising the same effect, BrainPickings author Maria Popova often points to the power that books have to lead us to discover ideas, other books, art and music, and as far as I’m aware, she is the first person to point out not only the similarity this has to the now ubiquitous hyperlink in the online world, but more specifically to the kind of hyperlinks that used to be better stumbled upon in the earlier times.
Ridiculous, I know, that I am already hankering after the good old days of the internet, days when it was less tainted, more free and fluid and you could frequently happen upon something that was perhaps slightly out of your zone, but that somehow piqued your interest or even intrigued you. These were the magical online hyperlinks that really could be the entrance to a rabbit warren of delights.
In today’s web, you are ever more likely to be trapped in a capsule of intricately targeted, demographically aligned content, largely of your own making. The wild swimming of the past, where I ran into Abbey Ryan’s wonderful paintings, Cabin Porn, Charlie Parr, Caught by the River or The Tuesday Swim is largely not likely to happen any more. You’ve probably noticed this, but maybe thought it’s just you who has lost the knack or energy to surf the web…it isn’t, it’s the filter bubble in action.
All is not lost if you still make the effort to pick up a book however, which brings me back to the start where I mentioned Maria Popova’s observation on the hyperlinks in real texts. These are altogether richer and more diverse than any algorithm is likely to set up for you and can lead you again down those glorious burrows and underground trails of yore (1998). Here’s my most recent yet vividly beautiful experience of this:
I subscribe to the very real print magazine Idler, edited and published by Tom Hodgkinson since 1993 and in a recent newsletter (email) from Tom, he mentioned his own delight in other, old fashioned print magazines. He named a few of these including The Land magazine, which I liked the sound of enough to immediately subscribe to it myself.
The first edition I received was focussed on the land issues surrounding the production and use of fibre for making textiles, cloth and clothing. I discovered a new term and the concept of the Fibreshed and gained many other insights into land issues. Incidentally, the magazine has a vivid and rousing Manifesto that I like a lot.
Anyway, there was an article within my first edition called Foxfire Revisited, describing a monumental DIY magazine project conceived by an Appalachian school teacher called Eliot Wigginton in order to inspire, excite and educate his pupils, many of whom he was in danger of losing due to their boredom with the traditional classroom and old fashioned teaching methods. Monumental, because it grew to become an intensely interesting, as well as an indispensably useful and valuable project. With every storyline sniffed out, thoroughly researched, written, edited and illustrated by the pupils in a fairly rural high school over a long period of time, it worked and lasted through many student cohorts.
You might think that such a project is a fairly easy thing to get going with pupils these days buzzing with technical nous and bristling with iphones, macbooks and seamless internet access, but Foxfire was a project conceived and executed when cutting and pasting meant just that, starting in the mid 1960s.
Foxfire was anthologised from 1972 onwards into an annual book of articles, the depth and usability of which will astound you. There are 12 books in total and they are still in print today.
The school pupils went out into the Appalachian mountains and met people with stories and skills that were even at that time old fashioned. They encountered many isolated homesteads where the inhabitants were living close to self sufficient lifestyles including making or growing just about everything they needed, including clothing, food, tools and houses.
And so it unfolded that having followed all of these real life, non algorithmic hyperlinks, I found myself sitting, during this weird lockdown, in my garden, on a warm, sunny April afternoon enjoying a bottle of Black Sheep Ale, reading instructions on how to build a log cabin, so detailed, entertaining and so well illustrated that I feel confident I could do it myself and would be doing so if I had the logs to hand…one day soon!
Written and illustrated by high school pupils in Georgia, USA, who are, strangely, all older than me, the log cabin article was written in 1969, when I was 4 years old and yet I remained unaware of this wonderful and compelling resource for all of 50 years…thank you Tom H and of course who or what-ever led me to the Idler, but that information is lost in the mists of time!
In Foxfire Book One, a few pages further on from the log cabin article, there’s another on the skills of a mountain chair maker called Lon Reid. The young reporter closes as follows:
“It’s hard to leave at the end of an interview like this one. One is tempted to stay a moment longer, wondering at the fact that here, in December of 1969, men still live as this one does, oblivious to the fact that others are bouncing about the moon.
The Twentieth Century is here, bellowing like a bull; but in quieter coves, families still make do with what they have-or do without.
It’s a big country, ours is.”
I implore you to pick up any half read or long ago finished and forgotten book from your shelf and to start following the hyperlinks. You won’t regret it.