Today I felt brave enough to lift the lid on The News. I braced and opened the Guardian website. It told me the following. Forest carbon sequestration is still falling. Tax breaks for conifer planting schemes are inflating rural landprices and encouraging depopulation. Another major migrant crisis is growing ( 24,000 people have been lost to the Med since 2014). The 7th zoonotic plague since 2009 has been recognised ( the 6th of course is still very much with us). The ceasefire to allow grain supplies to cross the Black Sea to famine threatened lands has been broken after only a day. Both candidates for UK PM have made ss promises to clamp down on immigration and only meet decarbonisation targets if its convenient. I wasn’t sure if the site had updated from the last time I looked , but that wasnt really important. We know what’s going on.
Collapsology suggests climate change will bring unstable weather patterns, droughts, famines, explosive mass movements of people, pests and zoonotic illness , populist government , insurrections and civil unrest. In roughly that order. Food riots in the Global South, industrial action against rising inequality and clampdown in the Global North. There’s a bomb ticking.
I left my feelings under a tree before the pandemic and havent felt able to rejoin them until now. Since then my status has been somewhere between numb and nagging, but mostly inertial . But now its time. Bright flowers fringe the tinder-dry fields. We have someone else’s weather. The wind is picking up again.
Marching with notebook in hand, past Sunday am dog walkers , I face inertia , unease and a familiar aching around my heart chakra . It’s never really gone away.
I find the desire path recently trampled and warm embers of Saturday night neatly raked out nearby. A pop up tent is floating upended in the burn , and the scorch marks on the spruce trunk are mottled with blobs of resin. I check that the last teens have left the howff before I sit down under the tree to hot desk.
Then we came here to mourn. Needing to find our feelings in a ground without other associations. Armed with the deep adaptation agenda, we didnt get much beyond sorrow. I m not sure we can.
Some of my bereaved clients have stopped believing in closure. They do believe in laughter and forgetting. What is hard is staying with the trouble. But you know its there. Always. The kind of arrhythmic hum of disquiet that says something isnt sorted.
I understand that feeling can create the impulse to deny , to ignore those qualms, as you seek the rush of sports broadcasts, clickbait, designer drugs, or boosterish politicians breaking the mould of British politics (again). You can escape , for now, but you wont escape. Ultimately.
It is easier to imagine doom than change, apocalypse than redistributive cooperation. And maybe as another set of targets are missed and forgotten, our instincts are right.
I think the Buddha sat under a tree too. And accepted pain and impermanence. According to Wikipedia, he stayed there for seven days. Im nervous the teenagers will come back well before that, so mine will be a takeaway enlightenment.
As I come back together I notice the birches . Swaying in front of me. I think of Hallaig and mourning ( My love is a birch forever by Hallaig stream). I think of the possibility there will be no mourners. And I think of what we ll leave. Like the teenagers we will not clear up after ourselves.
The best we can hope is that something will find a way to grow through the ruins.
Breac is a gaelic word applied to hillsides, trout , wagtails, water sheens, magpies and freckles.
Not to bracken -at least not directly, but to tartan ( breacanach) and maybe to tweed. It is translated as speckled, spotted, sprinkled, dotted, dappled, scattered, mottled or spattered.
I think its a felt thing.
There is a feeling I get in faded light in tangled landscapes, which speaks to me of a sense of return and familiarity ( regular readers will notice the photos below look very like the ones I posted this time last year).
Meaning dappled or speckled, it is applied to hill slopes where patches of scree and heather, greys and greens and browns, break out form under each other.
He adds there are 54 Beinn Bhreac s in Scotland ( not including the Drumbrecks and Ben Vrackies ).
In his definition I can find a trace of my fascination – things break out from each other; there is a depth which is translated into shading in a flattened image- as it is in fact, in the warp and weave of tartan or Harris tweed ( clo na Harraidh),which perhaps explains its popularity with stalkers (other than wanting to look like a posh knob).
You ll notice the different spelling and pronounciation ( Bh sounds like V in Gaelic) that comes when an adjective is applied to a noun. In fact it is eminently nonsense to imagine this quality without things attached.
I remember working with the stalkers ( who spoke no gaelic) but had a vocabulary of words like rigging and prap ,which was both terse and functional to directing where things had been to be found for a very long time . Their predecessors would have had the charge of naming things locally, provisionally , for those that knew them and those places and had no need of other authority.
What I am doing here, based on a summer job before I left the Glen for ever ( for it was a place where we were asked to eat our dinner out of earshot and downwind of the gentry),and three years of online Gaelic, is reclaiming my ancestral right to fuck around with the language, and say , breac is breac.
For me , now, it is about the mutedness of colour, the low angle of the winter sun, the pervading sense of dampness, and the rich decay of stem and leaf giving up its form to the great other. It is also I think about the dimming of acute vision, the acceptance of not knowing (or naming) , and the tangles and knots that make up one real place. In this case it is the Ettrick Marshes in the Scottish Borders.
It is also about a process of serendipity -the light, its reflection from the vegetation, my eyesight and attention, the camera , the reproducing pixels and your eye . Can you see what bhreac may be- would that be the same as my version, and if we are not able to agree on an exact shade, could we agree on a definition or would that too be entangled and incomplete?
And perhaps, in doing this we’d realise that the process of paying attention to it was really what mattered – a way of being in place, a way that the world acts with us, and that one of the things bhreac may be is a verb.
I read a lot of books during lockdown. More novels than usual – the quality of escape from my own interiors has been particularly appreciated. But I ve also tried to look for writing which has seriously tried to engage with a worldview which is emergent and precient. Richard Powers, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin , Amritav Ghosh, Rebecca Tamas, Kathleen Jamie, Javier Cercas, Olga Tokarchuk and Svetlana Alexeivich have all featured. But I wanted to write about Richard Flanagan and The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, which is the book which has had the biggest impact on me.
By all accounts ( except for one in the Daily Telegraph , which I ll leave anyone sceptical to google for themselves) it is a really good book. It covers the deterioration of an ageing woman’s health in presentday Tasmania , the resulting deterioration of certainties in the lives of her family, and the concurrent deterioration of the climate and environment, which were occuring as Flanagan wrote his novel while wildfires swept Australia.
The main character Anna, daughter of the dying woman, is initially able to distract herself from her grief through the speed and ubiquity of her electronic media, but this gradually becomes seen as a contributor to disintegration of personal and social integrity . Flanagan’s metaphor, which should feel more clumsy than it actually does , is that parts of people literally disappear . And are not noticed. I suspect the impactfulness of this for me comes from the second part.
for so long they had been searching , liking, trending and commenting, emojiing and cancelling,unfriending and swiping and scrolling again, thinking they were no more than writing and rewriting their own worlds, while, all the time- sensation by sensation, emotion by emotion, thought by thought, fear on fear, untruth on untruth, feeling by feeling- they were themselves being slowly rewritten into a wholly new kind of human being. How could they know that they were being erased from the beginning.(Ch 9/13)
It began to seem to Anna that the only thing worse than the world not taking note was perversely when itdid, making the vanishings a small … buried in some alternative news feed ,as if, at best, it was simply the province of cranks or social media conspiracies , or at worst, worthiness. It was just common sense to see it wasnt right, Anna told Meg, but as Meg pointed out, everything wrong was now common sense. (ch9/17)
I have become aware of Big Things going on in the world which are spoken about incessantly without feelings (my own, perhaps yours too) being touched. Sometimes this feels a relief ( I could be concerned about the Pandemic, without acknowledging the threat of death, or that trust in proximity to each other was being viscerally deconstructed)..
I ve just been at COP26 too -which is no longer a thing, but is, and was, a hashtag. I went to witness ( although, like most of us, the only part of it I actually saw was a security fence and a lot of tooled up policemen on overtime rates) , and had felt a need to do so long before I knew what to expect. I felt ( and actually still feel – although that part of me seems to be addressing something happening in an alternative universe ) that this was the most important event in my future.
Outside the police lines the participants I met -African diplomats (staring at Falkirk High station in the rain), NGO employees with clipboards, and determined environmental protestors, were acting out a scenario which didn’t interest me. I wanted us to acknowledge and to weep.
I walked through Glasgow on the main demo for Climate Justice, as part of the dotted yellow line of marshals defining the edge of the march. Like a couple of lichen colonies defining against each other as we rubbed along, our edge was matched by a line of cameras and mobile phones held out towards us from the pavement crowd like small matt metal tentacles . Over the four hours we were moving, sections of the march broke off to take their pictures, and sections of the amateur paps joined the march to be recorded . Oddly for me , who went to my first demos during the 1980s, the only people who didnt seem to be taking photos were the police -who presumably nowadays can get all the surveillance they need from Facebook and CCTV.
During the demo, us stewards were given a WhatsApp channel for our communication ( when we had battery life, and could shelter our screens from the torrential rain) which meant we could share our frustrations about the people we could not contain or direct , and the supports we could not find. And that has all gone off in a tranche to Facebook too.
Richard Flanagan and I are both white men of a certain age. ‘Nowadays’ , has become for me , not my days. I wonder if one of the synergies for me in reading The Living Sea is a recognition of that – that I no longer wish to keep up. I am aware that this sounds like the irritating keen of an entitled Boomer. But it is also the alarm call of each generation just before the latest one ( is that, Y or maybe, Z?) and these are coming round faster these days.
In The Living Sea Anna’s ultimate escape (into ecology, magical realism and a liminal connection with everything) doesnt work for me – although this doesnt mean I don’t appreciate the effort .
The effort is to create a fiction that gives us a story to live by, and it leads me to an idea I ve been hearing more and more within the climate movement ( for example recently from George Monbiot) which is about changing the narrative, or more radically, setting up types of narrative which escape from the structural myths of capitalism ( see here) that recreate the solutions that are failing us.
One of these types of narrative which I have hopes for is ‘Staying with the Trouble‘, which comes from the work of philosopher Donna Haraway .
As you d expect of a writer valuing symbiosis, complexity and incompletion there is not a neat definition of how you stay with the trouble , but here s a description of how a teaching assistant used one of her approximations as stimulation in his class. I think it may work best as an axiom which summarises a series of practices which are usually excluded from thought and politics – dichotomy, unevenness, tangles, assymetry, non-binary descriptions. In her work many of the examples are drawn from art projects, but there are interesting ones drawn from science and philosophy in The Art of Living on a Damaged Planet, and Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, which i reviewed in an earlier blog post.
I could not easily stay with the trouble around COP , although perhaps others did. I realised that all the attention at COP went upwards towards the White Men on the White Horses* and our gaze was focussed over the security fence. I didnt have many (or enough) conversations with the hundred thousand or so people who had chosen to walk slowly through the centre of Glasgow on an ugly November day.
I suspect many of them had come to mourn too. I think our lack of communication may have been due to a lack of common cause – the ‘trouble’ in the demo was what we were doing there , whether calling for more efforts, demanding change, beginning a new social movement, or expressing grief. And I am not even sure what to call us – climate activists, environmentalists, social change agents? Maybe this tangle is why it was hard to feel an authentic engagement , and maybe this is not a bad thing if we can direct our attention to each other.
The area of climate activist engagement which I’ve found most fulfilling is to facilitate climate cafes , which simply allow participants to tell someone what they are feeling about global warming and extinction and to be heard. There are no conclusions, and usually no ongoing connections (although I think in the to come there will be). Most of the cafes have been online during the pandemic which has the limitations of making it easier to talk at than talk to, but has allowed isolation to be breached , and the care in the format to prize sharing space has meant I ve witnessed moments of real connection. Not surprisingly this is a growing phenomenon, and maybe we will soon find we do have important things to say.
I ll leave the last word to Richard Flanagan through Anna s voice
The more she thought about it the more she wondered if maybe that s what humans can’t do . Live with beauty . That its beauty they can’t bear. That what was really vanishing wasnt all the birds and fish and animals and plants but love. Perhaps that s what she was really trying to stop vanishing before it was too late. Sometimes she felt love had dried up like a riverbed in a drought.(ch 8/7)
* this comes from a lyric in Gil Scott Heron s B-movie –
I have found it good to be a citizen scientist. I count butterflies in Midlothian on hot, still summer afternoons, moths at dawn, thrushes in winter and ducks all the year round. I downloaded lots of charts for a seaweed survey , and then hid them under the sofa when I realised how hard it was.
I ve counted every bird that moved or tweeted over two hour periods on Loch Long, the coast of Angus, the Moorfoot Hills and down the Tyne valley.
So I provide data. I think of it as pouring it into a huge information funnel. The methodology employed in these surveys is to reduce the Citizen’s individual choice to a minimum and to move through the task, as much as possible, as an automaton following an algorithm in the service of science. Soon this work will be done by drones and the ID apps many of have already downloaded onto our mobiles.
Once the algorithms have whirred and docked and the stat boffins have had a look , someone will write a paper and the Comms Dept will send out a press release to the media which will indicate the percentage reduction in INSERT NAME HERE And, if it makes the headlines on a quiet news day, people ( such as the folk who volunteer for the charities) will despair and a few others might be alarmed and join up, but mostly it will just pass out into more data.
As I plod the grouse moor counting meadow pipits I wonder if it would really make a difference if I d just stayed in bed and made something plausible up. Say 42 meadow pipits against the 44 were actually there. Maybe the more interesting question is why i didnt.
There is an anecdote in Birders by Mark Cocker, about a twitcher who in order to boost his ailing reputation created a false sighting of a rare vagrant bird by photographing one he had constructed out of wood in a remote field in Lincolnshire which then caused several hundred other birders to race there to try and confirm the sighting. Once the photograph is studied closely, and the hoax ( in birding terms,’string’) is suspected, the twitcher leaves the country in shame.. Although the story could be seen as amusing or tragic, my response to it was great outrage – I ve never been a twitcher, or really hung out much with other birders, but I do see their reports of ‘what is about’ and will exchange this type of information freely if I ever meet anyone on a site, usually with the proviso of , ‘I think’. It is a community of trust- perhaps the only thing that makes it a community.. and to belong to it requires a commitment to being as accurate as possible – which might involve bigger and better optics, or in my case, letting others decide how they judge my competence. So just to be clear I saw 44 meadow pipits on the tetrad that morning, and my effort involved in finding that out clearly places me as an amateur naturalist ( which does give me some pride).
Data reduces idiosyncracy to numbers. We had a lot of trouble with the crow in the trap. On the highest point of the bald headlands of the shooting estate they had placed an enclosure containing a live young carrion crow. This is a crow trap, which in days of yore would have been tucked out of the way in nooks and crannies, with an air of secrecy, but in this intensely ‘governed place’ it is held high as a gallows visible for miles. the crow in the trap attracts the inquisitive corvids for miles around which enter through a net funnel and are then stuck there until the gamekeeper appears to shoot them. This is all legal (well as long as the trap is licensed ,which SNH is happy to provide) . The one act of apparent clemency is that there is a source of water in the trap and it is supposed to be emptied each day- and I m sure all the gamekeepers will be driving 15 miles up a bumpy dirt track to do that, with no one else to look over his shoulder.
My discussion with the support team concerns whether I count the crow in the trap, which will have been a resident of the woods around the gamekeepers cottage , unlike the high moor ravens which it will lure into the trap. They tell me that the rules are to count only wild birds using the area, so it doesnt go on the list, and that particular blip in the data will disappear. As, I decide , will be the possible hen harrier sighting I have on the way back – I m not hopeful for its future, and feel I that keeping its secret is the best I can do for it. Gamekeepers read citizen science too.
But I actively enjoy all this so maybe I should work out why.
Firstly I d be doing it ( or something like it) anyway. And although there are good critiques of identification as dominion and classification as control and speciation as anthropocentrism I find this engages me in place and space. It makes me turn up , and test what I ‘know’. Of course naming is not knowing, but the process of turning the data that my body can collect into the impression of something known ( or comparing something new with something known) is knowledge which floats between subjectivity and objectivity.
Who knows if I saw a hen harrier – how would I know, what something flapping away into the mist over a moorland would be? If I m honest what happens with birds is I hear the names in my head . This is not something I would share widely – either with birders or with post structuralist reading groups. Birders have the term jizz for the thing that philosophers (non post structuralists) call essence (one of the possible origins of this word is as an Irish term for ‘spirit’) . Post structuralist birders would argue that our intention can often create the sense of essence on a drab brown canvas(back, birder joke there- might take it out later), that we can see what we wish to. But most of them would acknowledge we are usually usefully ( ontically) approximate with things we already know, and aware of the mystery ( ontology)of something we don’t.
All the places I ve surveyed have remained clear to me as memories both as events in my life and as places I belong ( or in the case of the grouse moor am exiled from). I think I can guess why. It is a fairly overwhelming experience to differentiate between every birdsong for two hours at near dawn in a wood, but you do get a sense of the size of all that. It becomes say, blackbird (alarm call), song thrush (song) chiffchaff(song), wren (alarm call) chiffchaff ( competing song), Buzzard ( over), blue tit ( alarm call), blackbird ( alarm call), wren ( alarm call , again).
Thats a memory – probably fifteen years old of a particular May morning in a wood near my home, where I ve been many times since without competing associations , but I always recall it.
The butterflies have taught me a different way of looking. Downwards and into the mid distance and for particular composite shades of brown, blue ,or white ( which I think if its a shade is technically grey), and to make as much as possible of a glimpse.
Moths I am learning slowly. I stumble up just after dawn to a plastic bucket topped with a funnel and a glowing orb above suggesting a mis sized UFO has crashlanded in the bushes. Inside resting on egg boxes ( dont know why but theyre important) are the moths. Moth wing patterns make faces for the birds to peck at ( known as oceli) while their real insecty wriggly cores have a chance to escape intact. Even at rest they seem to be signalling something to us that we cant quite grasp.
The moths also go out of the bucket ( officially trap) and into my phone in pictorial form. Someone asked me if they could come along when I empty the trap at their local patch, and I made an excuse. I dont actually identify anything at 4am, and I think that s a good thing. I do it at home , usually when watching sport. There is not yet an app for moths, so their obscurity and awkward features have so far stopped my failing eyes becoming obsolete.
Opening the trap you have a sense of numbers of Beings staring back at you, poised for lift off. They sometimes rev up like an archaic car on a cold damp morning ( most dawns feel like cold damp mornings). On bad days I put them in Tupperware containers and cool them off in a fridge for a few hours until i have the energy for the ID challenge, and after having their mug shots taken they wobble back out to occluded lives amongst the bushes.
Victorian moth-ers ( Lepidopterists on Sundays) gave them names often reflecting their wing patterns, but also indicate the sense of something else going on. The Deathshead you ll have heard of- I think its in Silence of the Lambs- but also, Mother Shipton, Quakers , Non-conformists, Moons ,Satellites, Sphinx, Brocades, Dogs tooth, Ground Lackey and the Hebrew Character. Those without imagination might think that these were merely attempts to try to retain focus in trying to differentiate between hundreds of similar small brown and grey striped fluttering insects. I think there s a little bit more to it – perhaps an instinctive response that the patterns and sudden movements are designed to make on our internal bird brains.
I dont actually believe citizen scientists beome automaton recorders . We choose our routes , we choose what way to look, and what to be interested in -what to notice and what to ignore. Every point when looked at closely enough beomes a line or a form. Every instant a period.
For the Winter Thrush Survey we were offered the ‘opportunity’ to do ‘bonus’ tetrads over the (interminable ) Xmas holidays. I got the sewage works ( surprisingly good for blackbirds) and an undistinguished slope on a sheep walk in the Lammermuirs. I walked around it on the 27 of December for the alloted hour and confirmed it contained no thrushes and then on the way back to my car in the gathering 3pm gloom found the largest flock or fieldfares I ve ever seen eating spilt grain in a ploughed field. It looked like the grey ground was creeping forward as they moved along. Not on the tetrad though. It was a relief not to have to count them, but seemed somehow remiss.
Sometimes as I count I remember the Borges story about the map https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Exactitude_in_Science. It suggests that the most exact version of the thing is the thing itself and we are drawn through improving our methods towards creating an exact replica of whats there to the extent it becomes an expression, and maybe obscures what we wanted to experience anyway. I guess in those terms I could see citizen science as a response to precariousness, change and loss , and my own participation in it as a way to be present with the creatures and places which are already ( but perhaps always) slipping away from us.
What is it that the detailed knowledge of everything would give us? Control? Omnipotence? Predictability? I think for me its awe. Its a sense a sample if you like of profusion of quite how much is outside me , how much i can gather and how much will always remain.
I remember when I was young, every so often my parents would have houseguests ( remember those?) and they d bring out the slide projector (ditto) and we’d all herd into the best room, and look at the pictures they’d laboriously collected of their foreign trips ( Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and, er, Shetland).
If what follows gives you the sinking sense of disappointment I would feel then, you are excused, to spend time in the living room with the TV , and, in time, a plate of cheese on sticks and Twiglets will appear through the serving hatch. If I remember..
Meanwhile, back in the best room, I want to show you the images that go with my intention to explore Plant Being. I hope its also going to stop me banging on for a bit..
I have no claims as a photographer, so you ll see my thumb at times, and wonder if your eyesight is on the blink, but you may , I hope also see what I saw..
I was struck again and again by the replication of forms at all scales and angles. I remembered Darcy Wentworth Thomson , and the sense that this was a balancing of forces of growth , a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the multitude of multitudes
In a wood there is never just one thing going on, the reaching down into air, light and moisture is endlessly repeated at many scales
Each surface is used and becomes in turn another surface
With the plant thinking going on in my head I’ve made a couple of field trips to familiar woods – Hermand in West Lothian, and the Birks of Aberfeldy in Perthshire ( which I ll say more about in part 2).
I wanted these places to feel less familiar, but not to find myself pathfinding or orientating. And I ve used the words ‘field trips’ to echo the language I would have heard as a trainee ecologist, because it has a sense of purpose and ,in my head at least, that I would be taking notes – although I dont think people do that anymore, and a battered mobile phone seems less intrusive than a damp notepad and pencil used to .. So for a change I actually took site notes, which I ve used to reconstruct this piece , and matched the photos I took there more closely to them.
Within all this process I wanted a more immersive experience , something about being within, which seems to be returning when I go back to the recordings and the pictures..
I think I was drawn back to Hermand because its a bit untidy.. From what I could see things have been living, dying and falling over pretty much undisturbed for the last fifty years or so.. This is not uncommon in neglected estate woods, but because it has now been established as a nature reserve ( basically gotten rid off as useless by the landowner) , and because the main reserve management plan is based on trying to restore the moisture level in the sponge of raised bog which is at its centre, the trees are minor actors and are more or less left to their own devices.
For my purposes this is an area large enough to imagine what it is like to be in a wood. There is an attraction to think of this as a natural feeling, that parts of our physiology are evolved to work best in green light , but then you watch a coal tit, or a wood mouse moving around, and then go , “Nah, no really.” In a wood there is rarely only one thing to focus on.. I took several photos which were designed to show this, to limited effect, I think , before realising that the idea of taking a frame with a centralised focus was another kind of anthropocentrism which I was trying to escape from.
I had similar problems with the other thing that I noticed strongly, which was the nature of edges, both within and without the wood. There is a very clear boundary established by the fence and the agricultural process (grazing and management for grazing) which it either excludes or contains ( depending on your perspective). It is interesting to me that rewilders are now following the advice of woodland historians such as Francis Vera and introducing large browsers to break up the understory and humus layers to create (or restore ) woodland landscapes.. I don’t know how I feel about that as a kind of authenticity ( or gardening) , except it might stop us seeing the wood for the trees.
The way I see the boundary between the wood and the field is that on one side there is what I thought of as a plethora of stuff, where it was not clear what was what and everything was an opportunity for something else to grow, and where individual things were not really distinct, and on the farmed side, coming from the wood, things seemed simplified , denuded, and diminished.
I could feel a sense of repeated destruction ( what it felt like) or control (as it would have been seen if I d wanted to eat mutton). What plants were left were either densely grazed or seperated as individuals – it was easier to notice the trees . My take on all this once I d walked out a bit into the field was that this was how we had become used to seeing things, our idea of landscape is based on that view -tree, space, animal , boundary, repeat.. I wondered what it might be like not to have grown up with that landscape in my head..
So I went back into the wood..
In the wood I am rarely upright, or striding purposefully. I am often scrambling, or disentangling (briars, outlines, fruits) and there is a type of motion which works better for this which allows the spaces between things to appear to find you. Similarly it is helpful to stay still and wait for things to appear – this is the best way to see a wood mouse, and probably the only way to see a badger ( although of course, these don’t actually appear because its dark – lets not get too much into the Arcadian Idyll School of Nature Writing). But something, I feel does happen to consciousness and my sense of time, and Being , when I do this..
Firstly, you can’t see the trees for the wood. Much of the wood at Hermand is birch, or alder and so not huge, and, for trees, quite short lived. Ecologists call it , rather patronisingly, ‘stage 4 of primary succession’ .. And, the trees are not visually dominant. They seem mainly footholds for what in my ecology days were called lesser plants – these being ferns, mosses , lichens, liverworts and fungi. This ‘lesser’-ness would have been based on size, what we knew (or cared) about them, and how much we could identify with them. Identifying with a plant is a huge misnomer, but we have given some plants ideas of sexual behaviour, individuality and purpose, in a way which is increasingly obviously anthropocentric. The lesser plants have been there longer, have more diversity and variation in how they reproduce , where they live ( having had much longer to experiment, in an evolutionary sense) and are sneakier in how they do things – that is , we don’t notice or can’t project our notion of purpose onto them. Who makes liverworts central characters in their poesy*?
I also notice that making sense of things I am more familiar with – birds- is different in the context of the wood.. I ve already got my head round the idea that most woodland birds have feeding zones which are divided Mainly vertically,and experienced horizontally ( although of course not in a rigid way). Thus a wren will be heard from below, and a coal tit from above. Most of our most familiar birds are found around our headheight – that is in the understory of a mature wood , or at the level of our front window in a suburban garden…
What I noticed is the association with the plants that is there. Feeding opportunities ( and it is autumn so that is mainly what bird activity is about) are about plants ( or insects which might be living on the trunk of plants, in the lives of vertical feeders like treecreepers and woodpeckers), and movement is about he detailed exploration of those, at speeds higher than we are used to living and often by touch or sound. The trees and bushes do give the additional protections of camoflague and refuge which give the birds here a kind of confidence to feed on above and around me.
I find some boundaries in the wood, which are more like transitions or zones of contention. I find them on the edge of lichens, between those and moss, under the shade of birch or beech . They are chemically created and controlled, and have no sharp edges.. the space is quickly filled when the defences breakdown..
Throughout the wood fungi appear, or at least their symbols, or fruits, the mushrooms and toadstools we can identify . I think these are my joy in the autumn.. I am still astonished by novelty.. I think this is a morel, or some such and a huge chunk of difference from anything I ve seen before.
I’m also aware that this is the only time we can see them and they are remarkably different. My visit coincided with my first sighting of the idea that ‘higher plants’ are different evolutions of symbiotic collusions (or collisions, or coincidences depending on your view of evolution) between fungi and algae over deep time.
And that the whole picture of ‘wood’ might be a description of a way that fungi are sourcing energy from light and water (rather than their more traditional source of decaying organic matter).
This made me think about my last idea, as I lay down amongst the beech mast and the fungal fruits protruding. Which was that things might be the wrong way up.
Apparently Charles Darwin also considered this ( his interest in soil covered not just roots but also earthworms). Darwin felt that the ‘head’ of the plant was really its root stock, the part which regenerates and maybe leads development, and that the seed usually germinates underground.
The more modern view would be that the connections of the ‘wood wide web’, the points of symbiosis between the mycelial nets of fungi and the cell structures which lead to the algae above held in chloroplasts in the leaves as high into the light as they can go , are the control centre, and that the stems and structures are only a way of dangling bodyparts down into the air, to collect light and water and toss out seeds. And our idea of what is useful and what we want ( wood and fruits) have made us unable to see this as the Beings themselves might (at least as a possibility)
I stood , around this time, in another wood along the bottom of a gorge, and looked up at the trees from below the canopy. Foreshortened, I saw a see of trunks and losing my usual sense of scale I felt I was looking at a part of something , the words I had were ‘organs of a body’ and ‘pumps’ transferring some power from one place to another. I felt they were holding together the sky and the ground, and maybe from the view of a wood they are.
* so i googled , and apparently three people have, although this seems to include listing them as ingredients in spells, which I totally think is not ok, so I m still right. Because it s my blog..
So all this plant thinking . What does it amount to really?
Here are my take home points .
1/ If I have been exploring the Being of other types of being it is to find out if imagining them, and their needs better, might stop us overlooking them. Of course , for most of us, this might only mean we mourn them better as they gradually disappear.
2/ Plants are, differently. The problems of imagining Them (and it may well be that each plant is a Them) are so much greater . But not to do it excludes them from Being, from the attention to ‘their rights’ or existence which we might wonder about, and choose to value.
3/ So how might I do that (number 2/)? I ll consider some of the writing about plants which has been appearing recently – which I think is driven (sometimes directly, like Michael Marder’s philosophy, sometimes more obliquely like the woodwideweb idea, or the growth of concerns for plant rights).
4/ And I have spent some time with actual plants . I’ve thought around them. I wanted to find a different method of working which might be more sensitive to their Being so I’ve used a recorder and a camera to build the pieces which follow from it.
5/ We are seeing plants upside down. Their kernel is below the ground, their roots drop into the sky collecting light, water and air.
6/A plant is a community. It might be seen as a symbiont of algae and fungi, a giant enhanced and diversified lichen. To think like this, we introduce the idea of deep time into plants, and a notion of dispersal which moves through both time and space at once.
7/No plants live alone. They exist in place . They make places and within them they are never unique. Any encounter with real plants is an encounter with a tangle, or a shimmer.
8/Many of the ways we think about things ( like ourselves ) are challenged by plants . Like the binaries – one/many, inside/outside, whole/part , up/down, mine/yours. I’ve found that finding a place for plants in my head is only possible obliquely and periodically, but like many things that are hard to do creates a capacity that wasn’t there before.