Cultural photosynthesis: Artful is the new art.

Cultural photosynthesis: Artful is the new art.

I’ve long harboured this niggling feeling that the blogged and twittery instagramaphone of the interwebs is just a big vanity machine. I’m still not entirely disabused of that notion, but today I think I’ve arrived a new place.

I’ve written elsewhere:

“Like plants in a city, the artist’s gift is processing unfiltered CO2, that is the miasma of human experience and offering back the oxygen of context and meaning.”

This is one of my favourite metaphors. It’s also, I have come to learn by way of a gold embossed envelope post marked Hind Sight, which is located in the beautiful country of Whatwasithinking, one of the most awkward sentences ever written in the history of humanity.

So how about this?

“Like plants in a city, the artist’s gift is processing the CO2 of unfiltered human experience and offering back the oxygen of context and meaning.”

If I am part of a subset of society—artists, creatives, poets or prophets—whose primary gift to a we’re-all-connected-world is a kind of cultural photosynthesis, then, yeah, okay, the interwebs are just another way of saying what I see. It’s just another way of doing my plant-like work of offering context and meaning.

We all offer context and meaning to each other. We’re all plants to at least some people. We’re all artists.1  But for a few people—let’s call them artists, creatives, poets or prophets—cultural photosynthesis defines them. They take time to see and then say what it is they see. They produce the oxygen of context and meaning. It’s what they’re here for, it’s what they do.

Not unlike trees in the city we kind of sense the importance of their presence. That’s why we come up with words like artist, creative, poet or prophet, we get that there’s something set apart and important going on. But again, like trees in the city, we tend to take the whole thing for granted. We don’t see them for seeing them.

In the hustle and bustle artists, creatives, poets and prophets become translucent. City trees are shadow reminders of our humanity. They are ghosts who haunt us at the edge of our harried striving.

If you’re a city tree, you understand this feeling of translucency. Your ghostliness causes unease. You remind people of something they’re afraid to remember they lost, and besides, they don’t have the time to be reminded.

Sometimes the artists, creatives, poets and prophets, and I imagine the city trees along with them, start to believe in their ghostliness. They feel invisible, so they act invisible. They forget they are carbon, leaves, DNA, woody and fleshy. They forget that by their very nature, by their very existence they produce oxygen, context and meaning.

I think I was beginning to assent to the ghostliness.

Today, I’m shaking off the ghostliness.

We have a distorted sense of flourishing if we think only the biggest trees matter. It matters not one whit the number of people who know about or visit a city tree, it just does what it does. It’s a tree. City trees, in as much as they produce their little oxygenated contribution to the air we all share, they shake off the lie of ghostliness and inhabit their place in the world.

We have a distorted sense of flourishing if we think only the most well known and famous artists, creatives, poets and prophets matter. I matters not one whit, dear artist, the number of people who know about or stop by to look at, read, listen or watch the context and meaning you’ve produced, it’s just what you do. You’re an artist, creative, poet, prophet. In as much as you breathe in the miasma of human experience and breathe out your little oxygenated contribution of context and meaning you shake off the lie of ghostliness and inhabit your place in the world.2



Having said all that, I acknowledge this equal truth, city trees can get lonely. It’s nice to be noticed.

—If you’re not a city tree here’s your adventure for today. Find a city tree nearby, I guarantee there are some, you’ve just not noticed them, and breathe some oxygen.

—If you are a city tree, please keep breathing. We need you.

—For extra credit, comment below with your submission for “Most Awkward Sentence Written In The History of Humanity.”


1. No, really, you are. However, the task of convincing you of this is fodder for another post.

2. Yes, I managed to repatriate “miasma” after it’s being banished from the most awkward sentence in the world.


  1. Nice to hear you’re shaking off the ghostliness.
    Important words here.

  2. Thanks Erin. It’s been a good day. Wrote this this morning. Then started reading Seth Godin’s “The Icarus Deception” which the inimitable Mike Todd had mailed to my door. Check this out:

    Art Is The New Safety Zone. Creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected are the two pillars of our new society, and both of them require the posture of the artist…. Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another…. Seizing new ground, making connections between people or ideas, working without a map—these are works of art, and if you do them, you are an artist, regardless of whether you wear a smock, use a computer, or work with other all day long… Art is the act of a human being doing generous work, creating something for the first time, touching another person.

    Wow. I’m only on page 9 and I’m already telling everyone I know to read it.

    • Didn’t reply to Erin’s comment, which is the whole point of Disqus, instead started a new comment. Sigh. Someday I will master the internets.

    • My copy from Mike arrived yesterday, and I’m having the same reaction. Going to burn out a highlighter on this one.

      Have to admit that it makes it easier to be a city tree when you know you’re not the only one.

      • Yup. In some cities they’re pretty sparse. That goodnes they’re wifi enabled. :)

  3. i like how city trees often rip up the carefully laid sidewalks laid nearby.. their roots break up the concrete and create a rift in the same-ness. definitely something that is vital to our survival.

  4. Steve, you get underneath what it means to be human; its a counter imagination. If I can make a contribution of an awkward sentence, embodying what you suggest – and it’s a beautiful metaphor – fulfills our vocation to flourish (as you say), but also as living temples of God; generative…creative…artistic in every breath and impulse. The tragedy is our asleep-ness to this reality and life. Thanks for articulating it the way you did. I can’t wait to read your take on the first footnote.

    • There’s that word again, “flourish.” Hmm…must be important or something. Thanks for reading.

  5. i sound so ignorant, but i haven’t heard of seth godin or this new book :( However back to your blog post, SF— I like the sentence, and I like the word”miasma” a lot— maybe that was what impressed me! ps– Thanks for being a tree– it’s not about how big we are or how much oxygen we contribute, it’s about simply being tree/ fully tree!

    • Thanks for the words of support CC. The more I’m basting in this whole city tree thing the more I like it. I actually wrote a little art book about 6 years ago called City Trees. Didn’t really know what it was about, until now.

      Godin is particularly big among interweb geeks, dancers not so much, so don’t feel bad.


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