By Katie Chang
December 5, 2022

As we turn to digital nature, what happens to our relationship with the real, physical thing?

My family never flies.

We’re the road trip type. The camping and eating freeze dried spaghetti kind of family. We drive for hours and hours on end, and I rotate between scrolling on my phone and staring out the window as one version of White Sands blurs into the next, on and on and on. The landscape seems to unfold endlessly—it feels like we’re making no progress.

There are 473k more pictures under #whitesands. I guess we aren’t.


For about 95% of our species’ existence, we survived as hunter-gatherers, in tune with the natural world. We knew we were at the mercy of nature’s order, and calculated our every action accordingly. We followed the ebb and flow of the seasons, navigating the land with the intent to survive—just as other species did.

At some point, some luck-of-the-draw combination of factors (a shift in environmental patterns, a larger brain, and a big toe, perhaps?) allowed for the development of agriculture, and from there, our relationship with nature changed. It was no longer something we were both a part of and subject to. We could interrupt the natural seed dispersal process to get more wheat! We could fence up a group of pigs to have readily-available meat! Nature became something to dominate, something to control to fulfill our needs.

As mud villages turned into concrete cities and human labor turned into machine, the same regard for nature that enabled our mastery of agriculture sowed the seeds of capitalism. Our wheat dispersal hack is now a billion-dollar fertilizer industry. Our pig pen is a trillion-dollar meat market. From the comfort of our leather desk chairs in our glass high-rises, we’ve cemented our role as nature’s puppeteer, and in doing so, we’ve sucked the life out of Earth’s soil and ripped apart its atmosphere.

Yet, somewhere deep within our psyche, we know we’re missing something. Somewhere not yet poisoned by the gospel of economic growth, our primordial affiliation with nature survives.

So, to recreate what we have destroyed, we turn to technology. “Digital nature.” Virtual reality is on the rise. Video games featuring mythical woods and majestic mountains are more popular than ever. We can experience an outdoor run via an indoor treadmill. We can explore pristine beaches and luscious forests via #nature.

And the best part? We get to create it all ourselves. With cameras and desktops that offer the newest and greatest computational abilities, we can make digital nature just like the real, physical thing.

But when we watch hiking vlogs or experience virtual reality, we can only see the river flow and the trees sway. We do not feel the wind or smell the soil. We hear the sky thunder and the bushes rustle. But we don’t have to listen, because we aren’t worried about a storm approaching or a bear lurking around the corner. We know we aren’t at the mercy of the nature we experience because we created it all — it's under our control.

And that’s the problem. Inherent to nature is the process of living in relation with the other, not in domination over it. Digital nature, as a human creation—a product of our utmost control—is not the same. It doesn’t even come close. Its very existence is contradictory to nature itself.

Our attempt to recreate what we have destroyed is not only futile—it’s destructive. Digital nature is an extension of the exact phenomenon that elicited its necessity.


Smooth mounds of white gypsum blend into the painterly sky. The half-shrouded sun creates a soft glow over the deep blue mountains.

My vision goes black for 1/2000 of a second. There is a loading icon, then the photo I have taken reveals itself.

It’s just what I had envisioned. Better, even, compared to the ones I’ve seen. It’ll be the perfect cover for my White Sands post.

I lower my camera, and my eyes are flooded with light. My forehead is hot—maybe burnt. I recoil. I forget I am standing, completely exposed, in the middle of the desert.

And the desert is much bigger than it was through my lens: the mountain range wraps around me and there is a cottonwood tree to my left.

I blink. The wind picks up again, and silence fades into song, stillness into waltz. The sand hisses in dissent as it is strewn about by the wind, the birds flutter in harmony as they too are carried along. Even the clouds are swept away, and as the sun spills onto the desert floor, the lizards and mice emerge from their burrows. My senses are heightened as the desert comes alive, my skin tingles as the sun and wind and sand caress my body all at once, and something inside is pulled outwards—something under my skin yearns to break free and fuse into the life around me.

But it can’t. It’s tied down by the strap around my neck.

Suddenly, my camera weighs a thousand pounds. I have the urge to yank it off my body and throw it down the dune, watch it roll and roll until it is buried in the sand and the elements begin to break it down—the glass back into sand, the metal back into sediment. I wonder how it would feel to be here with no motive but to sit and soak up the way the wind tangles my hair and the sand tickles my skin—no preconception based off of the hundreds of photos and videos I’ve seen, no future Instagram post in the back of my mind. I wonder how it would feel to look at that cottonwood and see something that is just as alive as I am, that has veins and capillaries just as I do.

But I can only wonder. Because as soon as I saw the cottonwood, I deemed it an eye-sore: it didn’t match the way I expected White Sands to look, nor the way I wanted it to.

So I cropped it out. ■

Layout: Melanie Huynh
Photographer: Tyson Humbert
Videographer: Athena Polymenis
Stylist: Summer Sweeris
Set Stylist: Caroline St. Clergy
HMUA: Lily Cartenega
Model: Laurence Nguyen-Thai

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Vi Naturae

December 5, 2022

I learned what the world looked like from under the pine and oak trees covering a tiny, red brick house in Alvin, Texas. I’ve known what it means to be saved by them, which means I know, too, what is at stake when they’re lost.

My grandparents lived in my mom’s childhood home, a small bungalow on Oak Manor Drive where cigarette smoke coated the walls in a way that never allowed it to look or smell quite clean. My grandma’s nightstand overflowed with books, house plants, and other trinkets; copperhead snakes slithered between cracks in the concrete when it got hot, and the pervasive sound of cicadas in the late summer months rang in our ears as we fell asleep. For my brothers and me, this was the setting of many weekends of our childhood.

On Saturday mornings, my grandma would walk with us to the park. We walked down the street until the asphalt blended into a dirt trail, shaded by pine trees whose enormity made us feel small. We had to crane our necks up to see the tops where light spilled through leaves and cascaded down our faces in scattered rays. The trees had thick trunks and their worn roots overlapped one another in an embrace so strong it felt as if time began when they crossed. My brothers and I treated the trees with a spiritual reverence: We fell to our knees and collected its pine needles, a piece of God we could hold. We wanted our grandma to feel it, too. She held onto the needles I gave her in her left hand while lacing my hand in her right. We walked down that path where God was not airy, not foreign, but somehow contained in what is seen and touched, still not entirely knowable.

When we returned to the house, my grandad would be laying on the couch, and she would go to shower. My grandparents lived around — and not with — each other. To connect to them, we had to reach their worlds in different ways. Bonding with him meant we had to like grown-up things. We laid on the linoleum tile floor parallel to where he laid on the couch, watching Elvis marathons and jutting out our bellies to match his, mirroring the cadence of his breath.

They probably shouldn’t have stayed married, but time had weathered them into opposites who shared a house and got used to the way the other snored at night. They were as permanent as the house itself: Just like how the roots of the big oak tree in front split concrete into uneven, staggered planes where we played hopscotch, my grandparents' relationship was, too, beautiful and enduring.  

It made sense then, that when he died, everything shifted. It was on my birthday. I didn’t think he was seriously sick, so I spent the last few hours I saw him scrolling on Instagram, on the couch of a hospital room, overcome by the realization that my friends were hanging out on my birthday and didn’t invite me. I had grown into a teenager, centered in the world I created. It was filled with complications they couldn’t understand. They didn’t know about the surveillant, sneaky language of social media in middle school — what it felt like to stalk your friends' locations and find them together, or to slide up on a story for a “tbh” and be met with your deepest insecurity reflected too easily by text on a screen. My world was all-consuming; trees and Elvis were too many generations behind me to matter.

After the funeral, I saw my grandma when she would swing by the house, on holidays, at birthdays, but never on mine. She sold the house, and laid the roots for a new life with a luxury apartment in my area of Houston, next to a park. I was angry. To sever my ties to their world meant I had to lean more heavily into mine. She became obsessed with working, while I moved through high school largely without her. Even though she lived closer, we kept our distance because it was easier than trying to find footing in the new, uncertain future of our relationship that might fall and break with one wrong step. Hiding in our busyness took away blame that couldn’t be placed on either of us.

I lost the comfort of routine in my first semester at college. I had planned for my whole life to lead up to that moment — when I was home, I went through the motions of my day with the promise that soon I would be independent and surrounded by thousands of new people in a new place that was mine to explore. When I got there, though, I had never felt so lonely in my life. I walked to class glancing at thousands of faces without having enough time to process them so they all turned to a frenzied blur of people with their eyes cast forward, headphones in. I sat in the back of a lecture hall for a few hours, returned to my bed, and stayed there until the last possible minute before the next class. I listened to my old playlists, printed out pictures of my friends, and clung to every detail of home, even the things I used to despise.

It’s funny how when I finally got to choose who I could be, I just rearranged the pieces of myself that were already there. One day, I remember having an overwhelming feeling that I needed to call her. I sat down with my backpack on the lawn and found a tree to show her. It felt like a pathetic reason to call, but I was desperate to feel home and to feel it deeply. Today was my brothers’ first day of school, and I wasn’t there.

She answered on the fourth ring. We said hi, and I flipped the camera to show her the tree to which she responded that it reminded her of the trees at my brothers’ school, which was near her apartment. She walked there every morning to bless the trees where the kids ate lunch.

“You what?” I said.

She had watched a science special that made her believe the way roots tangled was profoundly human. They could sense when another tree was going through a difficult time, and they would supplement it, sacrificing their own nutrients in order to support the others.

With this knowledge, she would go from tree to tree and put her hand on each one in a sacred exchange. I could imagine her hand on the bark. Her skin had become more translucent these past few years to reveal protruding, green veins that expanded over her hands. They mimicked how time weathers through the earth to display the enduring permanence of the roots underneath. When I was younger, I loved to trace my fingers along those veins.

“Why do you bless them?” I think part of me knew the answer, but I needed her to say it in her voice.

“There are ways that I will never be able to protect your brothers. But when they sit underneath the trees, I hope they feel that I’ve been there. The trees get it, you know, the protection.”

There’s a peaceful, resigned stillness in her face, all muscles relaxed and sinking. When I look at her, I see my kids and their kids too.

I feel something like wholeness— and at the same time deeply afraid because this, this, is what the future will miss.   

Let it be known that from the embrace of concrete and tree roots, hands and pine needles, the grave and the ground, I know humans and nature need each other. I know this, and still, I know I am not greater than nature; I am of it. Blood flows through my veins with capillary action, those veins stretch out like branches, and the skin that covers them does, eventually, rot. That blood has been passed down to me, and I will pass it to my kids, but I fear they won’t know what it means as I do right now on the phone with my grandmother.

I don’t think the world will ever be without nature, but I'm scared that we are creating a reality that can exist independently of it. When we see nature as something to decorate the world we’ve built and not as the world itself, we will have lost it.

I mourn for my distant lineage who will look at veins of their grandmother’s hands, then their own, and not be able to trace them against the branches of the trees on Oak Manor Drive. Just as we search for traces of ourselves in the people we love, I am afraid we will search for traces of nature in them and find only the subsequent, nostalgic melancholy for pieces of us missing. ■

Layout: Megan Gallegos & Juleanna Culilap

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