“Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?” Maurice Merleau-Ponty; “The Visible and the Invisible”, 1968.
That we live “separated from or defended against nature” is one of the myths of 20th and 21st century life, although it seems on the face of it true for those anyway in privileged countries where most people live in sturdy houses with running water, gas and electricity, with hard roads and motorways, aeroplanes, ‘rubbish’ collection, health services adequately provisioned, and where many of us have enough wealth to purchase more or less anything we need or want without having to traipse across fields, venture into forests or sail on the high seas. Let alone go into the massive and multitudinous factories in which tens of thousands of low paid workers sweat over the production of endless objects that we have come to rely on. David Wallace-Wells book “The Uninhabitable Earth” starts with a reference to this fantasy separation between we humans and ‘nature’, and the linked fantasy that geo-engineering will be a solution to the fossil fuel heat death that awaits the planet, and we humans, unless something dramatic happens to reverse the CO2 trajectory we are on.
Nature is here, not just all around us, not just in our guts, but in our being, our flesh which is part of the living fabric of this tiny and beautiful planet. It is hard to imagine the extraordinary complexity and marvelousness of life which we take so much for granted, to be aware we are part of the mystery of it, the dance or weave of it. David Holmgren in his interview on YouTube talks of the perceptual shift we need when most of us are so used to screen action, moving fast, 2, 3, or 4 second hit time that we use to ‘decide’ whether something is worth keying into, never stopping for a moment to wonder, just wonder, or to contemplate something that is beyond our immediate reach and understanding. To observe nature, as permaculture suggests we do, cannot be just a 2 second glance, and then move on. We need to sit really without thought, and let things seep into us, to notice tiny insects, a frog catching a fly, the shape of a leaf or flower, the way rain affects everything, and water runs across the landscape, sinking into the soil, or eroding soil and rock with a power no other substance could ever have[i]. The deep listening as Holmgren and others call it, adapting an Aboriginal practice known in some language groups as dadirri, needs to sink into the soil with the moisturising water, with the roots of trees, and soar to imagine what the buzzard or eagle sees, or the airborne river pumped into the sky by those trees.
It is not helpful to think of climate heating and its consequences, and especially not the Covid-19 virus, as the revenge of nature, even if it is sometimes tempting to do so. It is worth noting the science that tells us of the huge reservoir of viruses particularly living in bats, whose immune system enables them to survive happily enough with all these viruses, which can and will more often transmit to humans the more habitat we destroy and move into in our so far endless path of destruction. Knowing the science sometimes helps us change our behaviour. Climate heating is not revenge, it is straight forwardly the direct consequence of human activity, burning coal and oil to fuel the ‘wealth’ of at least some people, and the nature insulated comfort of those privileged enough to benefit. Wallace-Wells describes what many climate scientists have shown, as climate heating really kicks in, our relative insulation from nature will break down, and our human flesh will meld back into the flesh of the world all too quickly.
Humans on the other hand love revenge, it is our rebellion as Nietzsche says, “against time and its ‘it was’”. The past is there irreversibly, however the quantum equations go, it cannot be undone, it has been lived, it is indelible and marks us all. Somewhat ironically as the past is ‘behind us’, nevertheless it has to be faced by we humans, who else can face the past? This is true whether we are talking of the CO2 we have collectively pumped into the atmosphere, or all the injustices of racism, sexism and exploitation we have committed. Even more demanding we must face the future, or the likely and possible futures we could work towards. Revenge is not facing the past but seeks to undo it, or nullify it, or in fantasy balance one wrong with another, with an endless sequence of further injustices. Nature does not seek revenge, and this is where we humans are apart from nature; nature in its deep silence, without shouting or slogans, tries to grow back, accepting death, yet finding ways to regenerate.
I understand something of the use and history of the term ‘deep ecology’, in the work of Arne Naess and Aldo Leopold. Rachel Carson was an early inspiration for many environmentally active people, Naess cited her work, especially “Silent Spring” has inspiring his life’s work. Carson was the beginning for many in understanding the dangers of the chemical warfare waged on nature. However I’m not sure it is helpful to contrast ‘deep’ with ‘shallow’ ecology, nor to say that the ethical or spiritual response, and wonder at the world, is missing from ordinary ecology. Ecology can be presented drily and purely academically as though it is a subject of study with the contents ‘over there’ as with much purely academic study. But passion can be, often is, present in many people’s study of and engagement with their subject, scientific or in the humanities. In any case surfaces are not separate from their depths, something of the depth is revealed by the surface – just look out at the ocean and let it work on you, or sit on the earth and feel your own roots reaching down…
Ecology is immensely complicated, and like the human brain, impossible to understand from the ‘outside’ in the totality of its workings. And from the ‘inside’ you have to live it, rather than try to get an objective view on it. Just as there is no ‘outside’ to language for a language user, there is no ‘outside’ to ecology for a living creature, although our trips to the moon and space stations orbiting the earth reinforce our fantasy that we can separate ourselves from the living world.
This illusion of separateness as already suggested depends on the ‘hardware’ of our lives that we encase ourselves in. We get used to seeing the ‘outside’ world as a kind of movie, whether through a windscreen as described in “Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, or literally in the beautiful documentaries made by David Attenborough, and now with the world almost totally presented to us via social (and anti-social) media. It seems that we have become almost totally dissociated from the world, and we think, feel, believe that the world is exterior to us. Worse, we forget how we do ‘fit’ with the natural world, that as humans we are part of it.
It is easy to idealise this ‘fit’, Dino Gilio-Whittaker in her book “As Long As Grass Grows” (2019) discusses the complexities of the American First Nation lifestyles that inspired so many conflicting views from seeing First Nation people as ignorant with no understanding of the land, to models for hippie back to nature communes, to commercialised fantasies of ‘wilderness’. Gilio-Whittaker describes how Yosemite Valley when first encountered by European colonialists had the appearance of a well-managed park, covered with grass and wild flowers between fruit and nut trees. This is exactly what it was as one or two observers realised, the Yosemite First Nation people had been cultivating Yosemite for centuries and most likely in some form for thousands of years. In common with south America, Australia and New Zealand, these cultivated cultural landscape have been destroyed. In Yosemite the First Nation people were driven out in the 19th and early 20th century, Yosemite Valley, reduced to ‘space’ for tourists, has since been ‘rewilded’ as an imaginary wilderness devoid of humans. I was there with my children once, not understanding this sad and painful history.
It is the colonialist mentality, the modern industrialised mentality that sees land as a resource for exploitation, and anything that interferes with that exploitation as a pest, an obstacle to be removed. Insects are a nuisance, we still spray vast quantities of insecticides on many crops, nearly 60 years – 60 years! - after Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring” was published in 1962) showed the dangers so clearly. The American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that pesticide use doubled between 1960 and 1980. Early insecticides were naturally available substances like nicotine, in a ‘tea’ (don’t drink it!) made from tobacco plants, or sulfur, which is mostly used as a fungicide. Modern pesticides are hydrocarbons produced from oil with added elements such as chlorine. Insecticide manufacture adds to CO2 production, as well as all the other damage it does. Sadly insecticides are not selective and kill all or most insects unless they have developed resistance which is not uncommon. So one consequence is the destruction of helpful insects like bees, ladybirds and hover flies, amongst many others. Most insects are beneficial, or not harmful, to plant life, and all play a part in the ecology of plants and other animals. In California especially for the almond crop, bees are driven around in huge trucks to pollinate the almond flowers – what a sad story – and even these bees die in huge numbers. How contaminated must the honey be that these bees produce? It’s not just the bees, insects everywhere are suffering a huge population crash, up to ¾ lost in some parts of the world.
Ants are a nuisance. What if they get into your house? They form their long trails, hundreds even thousands of ants, finding the jam jar you left out of the fridge with the lid slightly open. Infestation! Yet the world would be covered in metres high layers of detritus without ants. On holiday once (urgh warning) I noticed a dead rat reduced to a clean skeleton in three days by ants. My children weren’t so fascinated! Cockroaches are the worst. They are disgusting, feeding on rotting food. And they look so alien. They are edible though. My favourite insect is closely related, the praying mantis, so many species, some that look like delicate leaves, and the ‘plain’ one of even green that I loved as a child in New Zealand (it’s the commonest insect kept as a pet – yes I did!) There’s a beautiful brown patterned one in Mairena. Slightly gruesome the way they snatch a fly out of the air, and calmly eat it. They have true bug eyes, and when they contemplate you – in some sense they do – we see the logic of the spelling of their name – praying, not preying, mantis. A large one in Spain sat on the arm of my chair seeming to look intently up at me, with the deepest of questions in its soul.
When do we ask those questions? Climate heating is an enormous challenge. But we can meet it, and many actions do not even require major life style changes; as scientists are saying it could be quite a lot easier than the changes required by the covid-19 lockdowns. (Wasted food and wasted energy account for significant parts of our carbon foot print globally, dealing with this asks little from individuals.) The changes need to be relatively simple, and very clear if the behavioural changes are for the indefinite future, not just a few weeks. But if we don’t change now, our children and grandchildren, those that survive, will have to live in extremely different and restricted ways, ways we can’t even imagine. If we are to recalibrate our perception, to see ourselves as part of a living system, and not separate, nor entitled to a life of convenience that meets all our needs and wishes, if we are to really listen, observe, to find our deep connectedness with all life, that will ask a lot. In the meantime we need governments to bring in clear rules and stop subsidising the oil industry, stop mining coal, stop ploughing up our degraded and eroded soil, stop… well just a few things really. School strike for climate – please continue!
[i] Water is extraordinary, its molecular structure, which gives water the extraordinary properties without which no life could exist, is determined by quantum effects. Water has one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, making its molecular weight less than oxygen gas, or nitrogen, but because the hydrogen bonds are at a slight angle and not in a straight line it has an electrically charged structure that means the molecules are attracted to each other and so form a liquid at the temperatures we are used to and associate with life, that is more or less between 0 and 30 degrees Celsius.