I began Today in order to become more conscious of my life experience as it was passing, to create more vivid memories, and to reach a deeper understanding of time. During the process, it occurred to me that others could benefit from exploring a similar practice, so I created a storytelling platform called Cowbird, where anyone could share their life stories, in a similar vein as Today.
Cowbird launched in December of 2011 — offering a free, deeper, slower, more contemplative (and ad-free) alternative to existing online spaces like Twitter and Facebook. The vision was to create a “public library of human experience” so that the wisdom accrued in individual lifetimes could live on as a part of the commons.
Sensing its further potential, I arranged a seed round of $500,000 from a handful of Silicon Valley investors — but at the last minute decided not to take the money, realizing that accepting the investment would set Cowbird on an immutable path shaped by the pressures of growth. So Cowbird remained a labor of love.
Meanwhile, there was a growing awareness of the widespread epidemic of screen addiction, propelled by powerful attention economies — dynamics about which I'd written in my 2012 essay, Modern Medicine, and I was concerned that Cowbird was unwittingly playing into these very dynamics.
By 2016, the Cowbird community had coalesced around a group of about 150 authors, who spent huge amounts of time on the platform, commenting on one another’s stories. When I tuned in from time to time, I was struck by the sense that Cowbird had become an addictive and unhealthy place — an emotional crutch for people who longed for a deeper sense of connection (a totally valid need of course, and yet one I knew a website could never truly meet).
In 2017, I made the difficult decision to close Cowbird to new contributions (while pledging to keep it online as an historical archive) — a choice that was met with great sadness and frustration from within that core group of authors. In order to help them process their grief around the loss of this platform they loved, I invited those authors to visit me in Vermont later that summer — to meet one another in person, and to share stories together around an actual bonfire.
So that July, around forty Cowbird authors traveled from Spain, Norway, Japan, Canada, and many American states to converge at High Acres Farm for a three-day gathering to honor, mourn, and celebrate the closing of Cowbird.
On the first night, we cooked steak (cow) and on the second night, we cooked chicken (bird), with other meals communally prepared in the recently renovated Main House. We hosted an “open-mic” slideshow where each author was invited to present his or her favorite Cowbird story to the rest of the group, and then we shifted to the High Acres Farm beach, where we had a joyful bonfire next to the water, with moonlit swimming under the stars.
On the final morning of our gathering, we performed this quiet ritual together, as a way of moving into life beyond Cowbird...
I gather a collection of my mother’s silver picture frames, after removing their glass and their backings. Using fencing wire, I make a small stand for each frame.
I invite the Cowbird authors to enter the grove with bare feet and in silence, as quiet observers to what they perceive and experience — embodying the longtime motto of Cowbird: “A Witness to Life.”
Everyone is invited to find a frame that resonates, to take it into their hands, and eventually to carry it home as a gift.
Through the shining silver rectangles of these empty picture frames, we examine the trees, the brook, the ground, and one another.
The frames help us see that every act of perception is itself an act of framing — Cowbird the website is no longer needed.
Life itself is enough.
This brief film is accompanied by the song of the reclusive Hermit Thrush, Vermont’s official state bird — beloved by the poet Walt Whitman.
Alongside the birdsong is the constant sound of flowing water from a small vernal brook traveling into the lake — as though these peaceful visitors, merely through their attentive presence alone, were nourishing the landscape. And so they were.
Original music by
- Rita Roth
- Alexandra Lauer
- Ashwin Adhikari
- Belen Torregrosa
- Bryan Alexander
- Daniel Poynter
- Dave Lauer
- David Carlson
- Debra Krauss
- Deniz Dutton
- Dev Aujla
- Eirik Johnsen
- Geoff Dutton
- Geoffrey Gevalt
- Hanna Satterlee
- Hanna Utkin
- Hannah Regier
- Joachim Frank
- Kirsten Bunch
- Lesli Butler
- Lisa Griffiths
- Marlon Paine
- Nathan Claus
- Peter Shore
- Rachel Lauer
- Scott Thrift
- Ssong Yang
- Whitney Joiner
- Yuebo Yang