From My Garden
Being Human in the Anthropocene era
An essay by John Newling
Section One: Our Garden
A resurgent set of thoughts
Propositions from the garden
A plant dies in the garden
Learning in the garden
Section Two: Borders
Borders in the garden and elsewhere
Crossing borders - consciousness to conscience
Section Three: Other Species
Animistic desires and the pet shop
Section Four: Constructing a soil
The anthropogenic within the natural
A mind in the soil
Purpose in the soil
Responsibilty in the soil
Section Five: Drawing Threads
Being less confused
Glossary of terms
From My Garden
In early spring 2008 I began to make notes on the ways we connect with our natural environment. In late summer I gathered these notes and started to draw together some of the reflections. Whilst I carried each thought around in me, my garden became the place for my reflections. A garden is a very particular type of clearing.
In our earliest days, engulfed in the murky dank of the forest, a clearing would have been a place where arboreal dimness would have been cut through with light. It would have been a place where the sky seemed nearer and the earth less cluttered. It is in forest clearings that our ancestors may have begun to consider their relationship to the natural world that surrounded them.
The philosopher Heidegger described the notion of the clearing as a metaphysical space where entities other than us can emerge. Entities that are made visible by being brought into the light is a poetic idea. It is also useful in helping us to consider a human form of being that Heidegger refers to as Dasein or ‘existence’. The clearing is the place where entities that are independent of human purpose and human existence, seem to reveal themselves and fuse with human nature.
The clearing is any space that encourages the speculation and questioning that can connect us to the other entities that define our human-ness. Nowadays our clearings are not limited to the forest. The contemporary clearing is, in its function, the same as our ancestors but it differs in the multiplicity of places that these spaces can occur.
Changing the interior decoration of a house establishes a sense of personal ownership. It is a kind of removal of history. The garden, however, seems to evolve more slowly through its histories than the interior of the house. The transformations of the garden lend themselves to a deeper set of reflections and thoughts.
Looking back over the development of my thoughts the idea that ‘Nature is independent of human purpose and existence’ reveals an apparent chasm between views of the cosmos. On one hand is the idea of ‘immanence’. This is the view that the cosmos has a mind within the world. An alternate view is to see the cosmos as a kind of machine, made up of working parts that are separate from our subjective selves. Much of this essay weaves its way in and out of this apparent divide, and questions whether it is wise to perpetuate the separation. Other thoughts explore knowledge, forged from complexity, which reveal an intricate network of ideas that illustrate our need to understand our connections to Nature. From religious practice to social Darwinism, this essay attempts to outline and review the inherent dangers in some of our methods of connecting to nature.
At this moment in the early 21st century we are conscious that our human nature has affected Nature in a manner few predicted. This relationship has been based for millennia on the idea that Nature is something ‘other’ than ourselves. We have been shifting away from the ‘other’, that necessary and assuring machine, that enables our survival and yet generated a myriad of spiritual rituals in our need to communicate. We are now moving towards a consciousness of our effects on Nature.
The effect of this affecting has been to make us feel like a bad mechanic; helpless, guilty and confused. We can see that our human nature is capable of affecting a Nature that is an evolutionary determinant. We can also see that nature does not need our causality. We are tiny within the universe. The ego of human nature is at once gratified and deflated. We have affected nature, a control of sorts, but in doing so we have threatened ourselves. We are in a state of confusion, a kind of loneliness, in our relationship with the world.
I have become aware of the concept of a new geological era. The ‘Anthropocene Era’ was first used as a description in 2000 by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning chemist. The term is used to describe the most recent geological era in the Earth's history where the soil itself gives evidence of the human impact on the Earth's climate and ecosystems. The Anthropocene era can be seen as emerging through the evolution and processes involved in settling. It is in settling that we begin to understand that we have affected the effects of Nature. I see the clearing as a place to better understand the relationship between humanity and the cosmos in the light of this new geology. In this essay I have considered the relationship through three distinct causal relationships. I have reflected on our relationship to nature, to borders and to other species. I also attempt to review our contemporary soil from metaphysical, natural and human science perspectives.
This text emerges from contexts that help me to develop thoughts, questions and connections. As such, it is more aligned to human than natural science. There is a difference in the methodologies adopted by natural and human sciences. The natural sciences, like physics and chemistry, look towards a unifying theory of materiality using empirical methods. It is a theory that demands de-contextualization and subsequent abstraction. This is to say that a theory must hold true for all places and times to become a law. In the natural sciences, this has evolved de-contextualised entities. These entities, or thoughts, reveal themselves as independent of human purpose and human existence. They exist outside the necessity to correspond them to any given context and, as such, can be developed as law.
Human sciences, like psychology and sociology, cannot de-contextualize their observations, because they are largely concerned with us. In many ways the material of human science is human context. To advocate a theory of human nature that holds true for all places and all times seems unlikely given the peculiarities of human transactions and behaviours. The statement ‘Nature is independent of human purpose and existence’ must be subject to particular human contexts for the human scientist. Human views of Nature as either machine or as immanent cannot hold true for all places and times because of differing human views.
This essay is a review, from my clearing, of the confusion we have in regard to causes, connections and relationships we have with the natural environment. I share in this confusion and will continue to share in it but the reflection has helped me to clarify some of the elements held within the confusion. As such, my confused self is a little clearer and less lonely in the cosmos.
A resurgent set of thoughts
Over the years I have found gardening becoming a pleasure. This may be simply because I’m getting older and work with living things to better understand mortality. Whatever the reason, it is a pleasure to see plants grow and feel that I have been helpful in this process. I am not an expert and tend to go with instincts rather than knowledge. I am aware that most plants probably thrive anyway, despite my attempts to affect their wellbeing. I also know that if a plant does not respond to my attentions and dies, then I feel real remorse. It may well be that this desire to feel part of this urban nature is linked to a human quest to control Nature. In moments of reflection, considering that even if all humanity died the garden would keep growing, I am touching on surprisingly resurgent thinking about human nature in relation to Nature. Whether it is in a garden, a forest or a park, clearings are important to us all.
Our garden is a typical urban back garden. It has a shed at the bottom right hand corner and an oblong area of grass and moss surrounded by borders and hedges. At the house end, the garden has raised areas of rockery. In the bottom left hand corner there is an old apple tree. The borders of the garden are framed by ivy and privet hedges intermingled with several mature trees and shrubs. In front of the shed is a compost barrel. The small front garden is concreted and has plants in pots and a jasmine that is being trained to climb up the wall of the house. There are also plants in the porch. Hanging from the tree nearest to the kitchen window are several bird feeders. We are aware that foxes and other animals regularly visit the back garden.
Since moving into the house some sixteen years ago, Ann and I have made changes to the garden. This has been a very gradual process of adding plants, borders and a rockery. Each time we have planted something new, or dug a small border, we have had pleasure in watching the plants grow. On many occasions our planting has not worked and the plants died. Efforts are made to help the plant recover, attending to soil composition and watering, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes these familiar gardening activities provide me with a space where I can begin to explore the hidden-ness of nature.
Changing the interior decoration of the house removes the history of those that lived there before us and makes the house our own. The garden evolves more slowly. Whilst the general architecture has not been radically altered, we have included plants that have changed the appearance of the garden. Unlike the transformations inside our house, those in the garden do seem to generate a deeper set of thoughts. The three most common subjects of my reflections have been our relationship with nature, with borders and with other species. These reflections find expression within the clearing as illustrations of reality and the nature of being. A kind of ontological soil. This is an attempt to look at that soil.
Propositions from the garden
In the garden, I am aware that Nature is independent of human purpose and existence. In some ways this is amplified by thinking that ‘If all humanity died - the garden would keep growing’. The garden, however, would be different if my purposeful changes had not been brought in to effect. This relationship between affect and effect within the clearing is at the core of understanding ourselves and other entities. The common thought, that ‘If all humanity died - the garden would keep growing’ reveals the idea of entities that are independent of us. It is an acknowledgement of our essential smallness within the larger view of our Nature, with Nature being an entity that is independent of human existence and purpose.
These thoughts appear in Heidegger’s clearing. The human being and the being of nature are contiguous, they are neighbours. Yet they are also essentially linked because human beings are dependent on nature. This is evident in ‘If I leave the garden alone it will keep growing’, and also in ‘If all humanity dies the garden will keep growing’. This proposition is incorrigible, that is, it seems true and is made in that truth.
Nature may be independent of the purpose and existence of humankind, but humanity is absolutely dependent on Nature. The existence of Nature does so, whilst Nature can be seen as being independent of us, we are entirely dependent on Nature. In the garden or on the farm this is evident in bad weather or plagues of insects or diseases. Gardeners can resent of such impositions realising that nature is independent of their purpose. The garden will survive even if we do not. It is very human to attempt to understand Nature as a neighbouring entity within which we exist without being exclusive to its purpose.
It should not be forgotten that the frustrated gardener can also become the homeless farmer or grieving human as nature affects us. Humanity is driven to understand the independent entity, Nature, in order to gain knowledge of its mechanisms. If we understand how Nature works we may aspire to some control. It is clear that, as a species, we have sought to commune with and control Nature as our cosmological friend. We know that we are dependent on this ‘other’ for our survival. Human knowledge of our dependency on Nature has generated rites and beliefs that try to influence our environment.
A huge and rich anthropological soup of rites has been formed to help us feel as if we could influence Nature. Within these rites there are views of Nature as a machine, a set of causes and effects that are separate from us. But there are also views of Nature as an immanence held within all things including us.
In the garden, my pleasure in seeing a plant thrive is, in a small way, a feeling that I can control Nature. That is, I can affect its effects. This would lead to the proposition, ‘Gardening is independent of Nature’s purpose and existence’. Well in some ways this may be true. Gardening as a contextually specific activity may well not be part of Nature’s purpose and existence. Gardening seems to be an opportunity for human beings to experience tiny acts of causality within a highly organised and aesthetic situation. It would be difficult to imagine that gardening was part of Nature’s purpose; it is not a warranted proposition, not a true belief based on knowledge. We know that without Nature the garden does not exist but the reverse is not true. The lack of a garden here or there does not affect Nature. Whilst the purpose of Nature is not to make my garden look beautiful, without Nature there would be no garden. Causality, here, is one of the small interventions in the existence of Nature, that independent entity whose purpose we struggle to know. Gardening makes my activities contiguous to nature and my garden contingent on Nature.
When I’m working in my garden I see the small acts of assistance I render through two particular frames of thought; the mechanical and the immanent. The mechanical view is that Nature is a mindless machine whose working parts need to be understood in order to assert control over it. Taking the mechanical view means that I can consider the death of my plant is like breaking part of the machine. This makes me the incompetent mechanic that needs to understand more about the mechanisms involved to make it work properly.
Another view is to see Nature as immanent. Immanence derives from the Latin in manere ‘to remain within’. Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of the Divine existing and acting within the mind, within the world. This is a view that advocates that Nature is not independent of human purpose and human existence; instead nature is inextricably linked through the Divine acting within the mind of the world.
The idea of ‘purpose’ here is a key to understanding a cosmos that has meaning. This is transcendent Nature. Throughout history, humans have attempted to give Nature a human purpose through notions of immanence. Many religions share this idea, that the cosmos has a purpose for us beyond the separate unthinking entities of mechanical Nature.
Our view of our natural environment is based on Nature being either immanent or mechanical. This is to say that the patterns we have learnt in relation to weather and season and other naturally occurring events are mechanical; we predict they will happen according to our experience and knowledge. Alternatively these events are immanent, caused through an agency that acts within the mind of the world as a whole.
When Noah started again he must surely have thought of Nature as independent of human purpose and human existence, a particularly lonely thought. He too, may have concluded that humans along with all living things were both contiguous to nature and contingent on Nature. He may have had a sense of Nature as immanent, a Nature that acts within the mind of the cosmos. Noah would have called this God. Whatever thoughts he may have had, it seems a good bet to claim he would have thought of affect and effect.
A plant dies in the garden
To think I have affected the effects in my garden is a threshold to the clearing; it is a contextual sharing of a situation that is dependent on Nature but occasionally shows human involvement. It is a feeling of sharing causation within Nature, but human nature is dependent and not causal. These small acts of gardening invite us to the threshold of the clearing; they introduce a context where human nature seems to affect Nature. Such acts of causation are the thresholds of the clearing.
We garden despite knowing that if all humanity died the garden would keep growing. We garden to see that the small acts of causation we have learnt from Nature have an effect. This knowledge makes us feel less lonely in the face of knowing that Nature is independent of us.
We become aware that Nature is independent of us when the act of gardening goes awry; those times when acts of Nature have effects that frustrate our own attempts at affecting Nature. It is at these moments that human nature enters the clearing to experience and learn more of the ‘other’.
If my actions of feeding and improving the soil to encourage plant growth fail and the plant dies I experience a sort of anxiety. I have regret for the dead plant and become anxious as I realise that the garden is not really subject to my influences but is wholly subject to Nature. These moments, which I have always thought of as a ‘wobbling’ of our certainty, are the times when those other entities come into a human context. The death of a plant brings a remorse that forces human nature to recognise Nature.
Less catastrophic, perhaps, than the death of other things, the death of a plant touches on mortality in general. Death, the most extreme event in human nature, does open up a context for the fusing of human nature within Nature. These constantly occurring events create thresholds to enter the clearing. The thresholds nourish an understanding of the ontology of the entities that inhabit metaphysics.
Learning in the garden
The death of a plant makes me re-think my relationship to the Nature in the garden. I have to accept a new relationship that is based on a Nature that is independent of human purpose and existence. How, then, does this affect my gardening in the future?
This break down of understanding in one context to experience a de-contextualised truth is learning through experience. It is a phenomenological event in that the death of the plant appears to us in both experience and consciousness. It is also hermeneutic in that the experience seems to need interpretation to avoid misunderstanding. Interpretation repeats the learning. It emphasises that my garden is not entirely governed by me, that the plant died anyway despite my best efforts. After considering what I could have done better, the new truth becomes apparent. My plants and I are both subject to the Nature that is independent of human nature. My best efforts are reflected in some understanding of Nature, but I cannot cause Nature, I can only mimic and repeat its effects.
However, this learnt repetition is truly amazing. Over millennia we have used our senses to interpret our experiences. This hermeneutical, phenomenological approach to learning has evolved our understanding and relationship to Nature.
Borders in the garden and elsewhere
I bought a border spade the other day. The adjective ‘border’ made me think about the function and consequences of the spade within the Anthropocene era.
The natural environment forms natural borders like mountains, rivers and coasts. We are also familiar with the human borders that cut across the landscape, borders that are political boundaries for local or national governments. The configuration of these borders change as war and politics change the geo-political map of the world. There is a cartographic skin of humankind lying on the surface of the natural landscape.
On either side of a constructed border the soil may be identical in composition, but what is grown in that soil is known by its national origin. If, for example, a vineyard were grown across a national border the wine produced would share provenance or origin through the soil. However, when sold, the wine would be labelled with its origin described by nation state. The border identified on the label influences our opinion on the wine. It delineates a human context rather than the natural environment because it frames the boundaries of a nation not a landscape. This is to see human constructions overlying natural law; one is to do with context the other is de-contextualised, common to all places and times.
When a new border is cut and dug in the garden it alters the architecture of the garden landscape and separates the border from other garden places and plants. Creating a border in a garden is an action of separating and segregating plants. The border is often given a particular function within the garden. The border then somehow moves away from de-contextualised natural laws towards a contextual view that assigns value through the specific subject of the border. The construction of a border in the garden begins to move us away from the proposition that ‘The purpose of Nature is not to make my garden good yet without Nature there would be no garden’. It questions the proposition as a true belief based on knowledge.
Gardening is a pleasure, enjoyed by many, but it is probably more concerned with immanence than gaining knowledge from Nature as machine. Perhaps it is more spiritual than an essential means of production. An essential production that is intimately dependent on the natural environment is farming. The advent of farming may be the answer to the question: when did we stop belonging to a place and have the place belong to us? Farming creates borders, physical, social and psychological.
Analysis of Anthropocene geology suggests that farming has affected the environment. It seems inevitable that eventually we would affect our natural environment as human history shows our endeavours to do just that. Farming shifts our relationship as increasing knowledge allows us to control nature. This shift is intensified by dividing general human understanding into specialist divisions of human subjects.
Borders or boundaries of knowledge can be compared to borders or boundaries of a field. Both are governed by our need to divide a subject so we can better control and understand the specifics. Subject borders have fostered the amazing growth of knowledge about the cosmos and much within it. They have also acted as the barrier that has separated and excluded many people from that knowledge and may now even threaten our environment.
The choices are stark. We can try to control and affect the natural environment with the knowledge and technology we have. We can also try to re-evaluate the way we view it in order to stabilise the relationship we have with Nature. This means removing not building barriers. At the very least borders should be crossed, subject disciplines less tightly bounded and knowledge shared across our species.
Our connections to the natural environment have been lessened by segregating land for food production. The irony of this action is self evident. Farming is an essential activity, it feeds us. But part of our present dilemma is that the very construction of land borders to intensively grow food excludes us from understanding the contiguous position we have with our natural environment.
Our relationship to the natural environment is contiguous whilst our existence is contingent on it. This is not to denigrate farming, an attitude popular with urban peoples for a couple of centuries. It is an attempt to connect the evolution of borders with our evolution of knowledge acquisition. Both have functions that have contributed to our current situation.
The establishing of borders, both physical and psychological, may have shifted our view of the cosmos as a mind towards the idea of the cosmos as a machine. Both views seek correspondence with the effects of the cosmos. One view sees human purpose as being in a state of trust with a cosmos that must have a mind. The other sees human purpose being like a mechanics where the cosmos is a machine that can be dismantled to understand it. The truth seems to be somewhere between these views; both seem to be borders. Maybe it is possible to view the cosmos as both a machine and as a mind.
A transgression across the dominant borders would allow us to understand our purpose better within a cosmos of such wonder and complexity. It may also change our relationship to the cosmos if we thought of ourselves as both a part of the machine and the mind. Human purpose could then be seen as contiguous with the cosmos, part of its mechanics and its mind. Human science could become part of natural science as the human species is viewed as a component of the cosmos. As such, science could be seen as an element of both machine and mind; an element that can be de-contextualised in order to be true to all places and times.
In this way it becomes possible to advocate human laws within natural laws, seeing us as part of both cosmic machine and mind. However, it would still be true to say that if, as a species, we die, the garden would keep growing. This is an issue of existence rather than purpose.
In terms of our purpose, we seem predisposed to affect all the effects that we experience. By seeing ourselves as being part of the machine and also within the mind of the cosmos, we can understand that we can affect our environment. This creates a new kind of responsibility where we are not separated from our environment and we can begin to affect our natural environment in a way that benefits us all.
The Anthropocene era shows the changes in our relationship to the natural environment, but it may yet see us making changes through understanding that our relationship to the cosmos is that of being part of the machine and part of the mind.
Perhaps we simply do not know or understand what kind of machine or mind we are trying to connect to. We are a minuscule aspect of the cosmos but by advocating that we are part of its machine and mind we become less lonely in it. We better sense our belonging.
Crossing borders: consciousness to conscience
Many of the thoughts expressed in this text are reflections on the effect of humans on Nature. Attempts to understand the the way we affect Nature is a struggle to cross the borders that these reflections may posit. Perceiving and crossing borders are both subject to consciousness of them. Both involve being something and being conscious of something. One concerns subjective experience, the other concerns information that can validate the subjective experience.
Ned Block, a contemporary philospher, has divided consciousness into phenomenal consciousness (being something) and access consciousness (being conscious of something). In the garden I am something and I am also conscious of something. The information necessary to be conscious of something is evident to my senses and is aquired through knowledge and experience. One consciousness could be described as natural, biological law of human-ness. The other is a social consciousness where contextual experiences generate information and knowledge.
In the garden I am conscious of my purpose; to encourage plant growth. I am also conscious that any growth is subject to natural laws that are independent of my purpose and existence. There are other species in the garden. They are also something and, possibly, conscious of something. My desire then is to understand and connect to the natural laws and also to speculate on the consciousness of the other species. I wish to cross the border from being simply contiguous to these other entities to feeling a greater sense of connectedness. One way of doing this is to acknowledge that consciousness is not exclusively ours. It may be a particular conceit to consider that, as a species, we are exclusive in our consciousness.
Across many cultures and times humans have endeavoured to connect with the natural environment. Through invention, imagination, curiosity and drugs humans have tried to expand their consciousness by sensing a greater consciousness in other entities. We have tried to cross the borders between them and us. The eagle, lion, storm, plant and other entities have all shown us attributes that we have desired, and at times we have sought to possess. By attempting to become something other than ourselves, we are attempting to connect to something deep within it. To become that life-form is to connect to that soul. This is an animistic view of other entities in our world. Animism, an ancient set of beliefs, sees everything in Nature as having a spirit or soul. Animism implies a consciousness in all living things; another example of us being lonely in the cosmos. This may be so, but the desire to connect is part of our spiritual welfare.
In the garden, my consciousness tries to cross the border between my being there to affect nature and my being there to empathise with the effects of nature. At the very least, the sense of being conscious of something other enhances a feeling of responsibility towards it. The nature of the responsibility is a spiritual welfare that is a progression from consciousness to conscience. An understanding of that informs our actions through our moral judgements. Attempts to cross borders between us and nature can help to clarify our confusion as we experience being human in the Anthropocene era. This is a border crossing through ‘phenomenal’ consciousness to ‘access’ consciousness. It allows entrance to metaphysical, and actual, spaces where connections can be made between all living things and phenomena. A process that affects our conscience.
Both the physical and conceptual cartography of the garden has prompted me to consider borders in terms of species, peoples and nations. This has led to me thinking more generally about crossing borders. These are material borders; borders that divide the landscape made by human action. Informing some of these actions are borders of knowledge, more precisely, the ways in which we construct knowledge. To see the effect of these borders we need to consider how different disciplines may construct their own borders. These are the discipline borders used to organise, value and construct specific knowledge. Methods within and across borders.
All disciplines have subject borders. Having two or more disciplines applied to a single project is now common within many institutions both public and private. There are several types of inquiry that could be referred to as interdisciplinary. Multi, inter, trans and cross are all prefixes that describe the inclusion of another discipline.
In the garden, my thoughts are governed by crossing many subject borders. Thoughts are constructed using the knowledge of a discipline and the evidence of my senses. I deploy theories, methods and instincts to my thoughts to support my ‘access consciousness’ and organise my thinking. The subsequent knowledge that may evolve has many discplines within it.
Most important is the discipline of connection. It is a process of making subject borders more porous so connections between subjects can happen. This could be seen as a violation of other disciplines. I do not consider this to be so. My intention is simply to reflect on the way we experience events. In the garden I see that knowledge cannot have a single discipline as its origin. I see knowledge as a continual fusion of subjects informing each other like a constantly evolving, living construction; not unlike the plants that I have been observing. I believe these connections between and through subject knowledge are core to creativity.
The notion of knowledge being a living entity, constantly informing and re-informing our understanding of the the world, can raise problems within institutions that audit the value of single subject disciplines. These institutions often assert that rigour is lost with intrusion from other disciplines.
The problem, of course, is not rigour. Rigour is desirable. The issue of rigour is linked with the problem of autonomy. Supporters of a single discipline will often argue that knowledge is a rational, informed and un-coerced entity that is put ‘at risk’ with the introduction of another discipline within its borders.
Subject disciplines can become unable or unwilling to disseminate knowledge to a wider public; us. The fear of losing self governance can lead to a lack of communication; yet loosening the borders of subject knowledge would create a wider democracy of knowledge.
We need to understand the implications and moral situations within the singularity of many subject disciplines. Much research is funded from the public purse and we are, therefore, part of it. If we cannot contextualise and connect that knowledge then we are being excluded from its significance. The borders of these complex subjects do need to attempt outward routes of dissemination so that we can all have an opportunity to connect to the current thinking within our world.
Part of our confusion is because we have little or no idea of what some disciplines research, why they do it and how it can be applied. We cannot reason their purpose or our involvement. The disciplines become institutionalised as they pursue rigour within tightly defined boundaries. This is a particular problem when trying to understand the relatively new sciences related to bio-technology. They are complex. In terms of public understanding what they do demands a high degree of specialist knowledge. However, understanding why the research is necessary may not be so difficult. The ‘why’ becomes the important ground in terms of dissemination and debate within a wider public. The ‘why’ is the important generator for our accommodation of knowledge. From my garden this particular ‘why’ has helped me better understand our relationship to the natural environment.
In the instance of trans-disciplinary work the notion is not to coerce or corrupt any single discipline but to attempt to create a situation where an investigation is informed through many disciplines. It has the structural distinction of removing or crossing discipline borders. Trans-disciplinary work establishes new insights and areas of research that are not necessarily quantified or qualified through a single discipline. Rigour and autonomy are not exclusive to the methods and structures of single discipline.
Knowledge in the clearing is Trans-disciplinary. The clearing generates complex structures that create and share knowledge in the understanding that knowledge does not have a single origin and is formed through a living process, where borders are transgressed and re-oriented.
Such an approach may loosen, rather than lessen, rigour in order to achieve new connections and approaches; an approach that crosses borders yet retains an autonomy can disseminate its purpose across many peoples.
Animistic desires and the pet shop
Our garden is occupied by a variety of other species. Birds, foxes, squirrels, cats and bats are regular visitors. Ann and I get pleasure from observing them and have set up several bird feeders near our kitchen window so we can watch a variety of birds feeding. Foxes often wander across the garden and did have a den in the bushes near the house. Cats posture and hunt in the garden. Grey squirrels go giddy, jumping, climbing and digging in our garden. Bats do their dizzying dance at dusk as they feed. We live in a natural environment that has other species in it.
These visitors provide us with both amusement and wonder. Most importantly we see other living entities that feed our imaginations: what if I could fly like that? It leads us to speculate on their relationship to their natural environment. Inevitably we tend to anthropomorphise each animal, giving them characteristics of our own. A good example of this would be the bird boxes that I bought as gifts on Lincoln High Street. The boxes are shaped as a human type of house, pitched roof and all. Whilst this pays homage to the disneyfication of our relationship to other species it may also reveal a deeper need in us. We are lonely in our relationship to the natural world.
The human species has kept the natural world at a distance. Maybe this is because of our ‘fight or flight’ survival instincts or our ‘learn and control’ connections to nature. The need for an ‘other’ in relation to this connection evolved the ‘immanent’ and ‘transcendent’ view of the cosmos and is important because it is part of our need to connect our existence and purpose to the natural world. Loneliness has played a part in all of this. When I see a fox or bird in the garden part of my pleasure is knowing that another species, with other ways of being and expression, exists along with me. My desire to relate to these other species, to more deepen my relationship to Nature, edges towards Animism.
Animism views everything in Nature as having a spirit or soul that is a part of the immanence of the cosmos. This would include waters, fires, rocks, plants, animals, humans and other elements of Nature. We are a tiny aspect of the cosmos, but by advocating that we are part of its machine and mind, we become less lonely in it. An element of such advocacy is our relationship to other species. To this end, the shamanistic practices of communicating with the spirit world have been developed for us to connect with and help us feel less lonely.
As I stand at our open kitchen door I wonder what that cat may be thinking or where these birds sleep. I ponder a whole heap of questions that attempt to connect me to them. In reconsidering the proposition ‘If all humanity dies the garden will keep growing’, as an essential truth, it is clearly a generative proposition that has encouraged us to try to communicate with all of Nature. Not least, the proposition encourages human attempts to speculate upon the idea of the spirit as never dying; the achievement of a kind of immortality as an element of both the mechanical and transcendent view of cosmos. Parts of shamanistic practices are evidence of our hunger to see beyond our mortality, a border that has engaged us from our beginnings.
There is no doubt that pets are important in the society in which I live. A very considerable industry has grown around pets and our perception of their needs. Trips to a pet shop will reveal a thriving industry. Here the various necessities for pet comforts are laid out. Pet toys, beds and homes all pay testament to our desire for our pet to have a great life. The death of a pet is often met with undeniable grief. Pets have a dependency that lets us include other species in our desire not to be lonely in Nature and, in turn, with the cosmos. The pet shop becomes a metaphorical lonely hearts club.
These are domesticated animals whose existence is dependent on us. Unlike farm animals whose domestication has the function of feeding us, pet animals have a different function. They can make us feel part of the natural world. There is research that suggests pets are good for our wellbeing. In this post-industrial society they can foster a sense of trust in a world where our trust in so many things has been damaged. It is odd that we sometimes trust our pets more than our human relations. Maybe, as a species, we are unsure whether we are a pack or a lone animal.
Back in the garden the other species continue to occupy the space. Cats exhibit the familiar, individual, somewhat autonomous aloofness. Squirrels continue to dig, jump and scurry frenetically, most often with other squirrels. Birds continue to feed and fly. The bees seem to love the lavender bush and exhibit all the signs of intense and important work. Other species leave tracks and traces in the garden.
I recently met a man walking the street accompanied by the largest rabbit I have ever seen. The rabbit was on a lead and attracted much curiosity from passers by. It transpired the man bred these giant rabbits and was well known locally. As I watched the man and his rabbit talking with the groups of people that gathered round him, I could not help but speculate on our desire to communicate with other species as an element of trust in our relationship with Nature. In this instance, another species can be seen as both contiguous and contingent to human purpose and existence.
Constructing a soil
The anthropogenic within the natural
Much of what I have written attempts to know the unknown. In some ways this is a metaphysical determinate acknowledging that there may be more to our understanding of our world than we know. Since our beginning, knowledge has been an essential tool in our survival. Without attempts to know things, including the knowing of possible unknowns, we would struggle to survive. The knowing of unknowns is a principle within the concept of the clearing. The ‘known unknown’ feeds our sense of detection. Such knowledge of the unknown is, essentially, a driving force for us. We would stop the necessary challenges and quests to find out the unknowns and know them.
The architecture of the clearing is constructed with unknowns. We are lonely and lack a sense of our purpose beyond survival or existence. We have affected our natural environment and yet need to better understand our relationship with it. We have seen that this is a question of causality related to our existence and purpose. It should not be forgotten that we live in a world where the purpose of many is still simply survival. Our privilege surely gives us the purpose of helping to make a world where survival and purpose become less predicated on each other. The clearing is a space that helps us see our relation to the natural environment in terms of entities that seem to be independent of human existence and purpose.
The challenge of the Anthropocene era is to understand our existence so we can sense a purpose in our actions and thoughts. As an evolving geological era it would be good to think that the next hundred years would provide soil samples that indicate a reappraisal of our relationship to all things living; that the soil itself would tell the story of our better understanding of our relationship to Nature. The soil may begin to demonstrate that whilst Nature is independent of humankind we slowly began to understand that we are dependent within this independent entity. The ontology of such a metaphysical soil would be filtered through an understanding that the immanent and machine views of the cosmos were not binary and could coalesce as a combined understanding. A soil that inhabits souls and machines. A soil that could combine both the natural and human sciences and contain elements that are true to all places and times. Such a soil could, in the future of the metaphysical clearing, make us less lonely in the cosmos. A new purpose freed from existence.
Purpose in the soil
When a new plant is brought into the garden I am aware that my gardening purpose is to make a situation that is good for the plant. I am also aware that while I share with the plant the desire that it should thrive, the purpose of the plant may be different. The purpose of my gardening is socially engaged whilst the purpose of the plant is, as far as we know, entirely engaged with the natural world.
We know from Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ that the struggle for survival is determined through natural selection. First published in 1859 this great work is an essential text to evolutionary biology. In the garden I separate my purpose to foster the plant from my existence, my need to survive. My purpose in gardening is not to ensure my survival. This is in contrast to the plant’s purpose which is wholly predicated on survival. Given natural selection, one could argue that learning rudimentary aspects of plant welfare is a trait that my species should perpetuate. Clearly, it would be curious if our evolutionary selection was by a genetic predisposition to make good gardeners. Yet all our experiences make us selectable in order to perpetuate our species.
The theory of evolution describes survival through maintaining and developing essential traits. In the Anthropocene era, where we can see that we have affected our natural environment, it may be that our survival does become our purpose.
This would require a more focused view of our relationship to that environment. As a species we have exceptional gifts of detection and imagination that we can deploy on any given problem. My gardening may not have a distinct evolutionary purpose, except that it gives me pleasure. But it can be argued that, as an activity, it involves detection, imagination and evidence of the senses; qualities that strengthen our reasoning and emotional abilities
For our species, and maybe others, the relationship between purpose and existence is not entirely set. My purpose is not consciously linked to my existence or survival; as a gardener, my purpose is largely to encourage a plant to grow. My concern is with the plant’s survival not mine. My connection to the plant can be seen as causal, in the knowledge that my best efforts may be thwarted by the real causality of Nature. Darwin, and subsequent evolutionary biologists, tell us that we are all connected. The causality of our natural environment affects the very characteristics that determine what is genetically valued in evolution. So, when we affect our natural environment we also affect the evolutionary characteristics of all living things. This connectedness is at the core of the Anthropocene era.
As climates change living entities need to adapt to that change. It may be an evolutionary predisposition to achieve an awareness of our influences on the environment and the consequent effects on evolutionary characteristics.
Parallel to this realisation is the rapid progress made in genetic research.
This has involved a massive understanding of the ‘how’ and ‘what’ we are as natural entities; from genomic mapping to genetic manipulation. Understanding these fundamental natural laws will progress our fight against disease. The research gives us power to genetically modify species, a kind of new evolution. This ability to affect the characteristics of a species will lead to revolutions in medicine and food production. It also means we can affect the characteristics of all species including ourselves. This power needs to be very carefully discussed and monitored because it positions the human relationship to the natural environment in a new way. Any abuse or misguided use of this technology could threaten our own survival. This is why bio-ethics is now hugely important area. The double whammy of climate change and genetic engineering put us at a pivotal place in the evolution of our relationship to Nature. We have a kind of ownership and, like much ownership, it implies responsibility.
All this feels like the reasoning of the mechanical, the machine view of our cosmos. Much was, and is, made of Darwin’s theory being in opposition to the immanent view of the cosmos; that in some way the evidence presented is antithetical to our need for spirituality and imaginative play.
Certainly it did give a view of the natural world that contradicted many religious texts. However, I think that the two models can be better positioned not to oppose but to include each other.
A mind in the soil
The idea of a cosmic principle or mind that is both immanent and transcendent in our relationship with Nature has been under critical review over the last century. The psychological, philosophical, theological and ontological complexity of God as a ‘mind’ within the cosmos in direct opposition to a cosmos seen as a ‘mindless’ machine applying the natural laws has coloured our understanding of Nature. It seems to me that when we look at the natural world it is difficult not to conjecture the existence of a mind in the cosmos. At times of difficulty, or thankfulness, the transcendent entity that is always beyond us is called on.
In my garden the evidence to my senses is compelling in the inference of a transcendent condition or state of being that surpasses physical existence; an invisible force that seems beyond and independent of existence whilst pervading all living things, immanent. In many ways this could be a description of the invisible forces that drive the natural laws, Nature.
The problem may be that my rational self says such an entity is implausible whilst my subjective self welcomes an entity that is always beyond the immediacy of events. I know that Nature is independent of human existence and purpose.
The existence of a mind within the invisible forces of Nature does allow me to bring human nature within Nature and to see that human purpose is part of these invisible forces. This may be a delusion, but it does assist the human species to feel that they have a stake in the cosmos. In some ways I see the laws of Nature as a mind in and of itself; and the transcedent, immanent entity as a necessary human construction formed to connect us to the natural laws. For me this is an abstract construction, true for all places and times and therefore not subject to specific contexts.
I am sad that this construction has been adopted, in varying forms, by religions; spirituality with names. The very act of naming has contextualised the abstract construction. It is within this contextualisation that many of the religious have deployed the particular, often textual, arguments that devalue the construction. Religion has argued and killed in the name of a mind that we cannot yet comprehend. Religion has also created some of humankinds most sublime rituals of faith.
We are young as a species. In the manner that a child conjures up invisible friends as entities for comfort and company, perhaps we need similar constructions to help assuage our loneliness amidst Nature; a kind of company and comfort that helps us accommodate the wonder and mysteries of the cosmos.
In a society driven by audit, the notions of transcendance and immanence sit uncomfortably. I think that belief, importantly subject to contextual change, is different to faith which is an absolute trust and not subject to context. Faith is more a human law.
In the debate between ‘machine’ and ‘mind’ views of our cosmos religions have become borders that seem unnecessary to me. In my garden I view the cosmos as both mind and machine. I see it as an unknown fusion of the subjective and objective held within a relationship that is beyond my comprehension.
Responsibility in and of the soil
For many generations we have endeavoured to communicate with Nature’s phenomena, with sky, seas, rocks, plants and animals to try to find a sense of ourselves. We have reached a point where we can see the mechanical aspects of that order, to see ourselves in the machine. Indeed, we have the knowledge to interfere in natural selection, our own and others. We can alter evolution. Much of this has been rapidly acquired knowledge of our natural biological mechanisms.
Earlier in this text I referred to natural science and human science, with one being of natural laws and the other of human contexts. What seems evident is that natural law and human context are being refigured. Our ability to affect genetic determinants moves the two sciences into an overlapping relationship. Natural science and human science, laws and contexts, become a relationship unique in our history. As humans we have affected our natural environment; we could now begin to review the relationship of the human and natural sciences. As a species we seem to be moving towards a situation where natural selection is being supplemented by human selection; the anthropogenic within the natural.
Human selection, when distorted by eugenics, has resulted in cruelty, degradation and inhumanity. The assumption that human genetics should dominate social context and conditions has had consequences that all humanity condemned. The full title of Darwin’s seminal work is ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’. The expression ‘favoured races’ is one that has implications for all of our species. Darwin’s use of the phrase has to be historically located, clearly it was not written as an announcement of vile experiments to follow, nevertheless, the expression does foreshadow a warning.
As a species, it is now imperative not be divided by racial borders where human selection favours only some. I believe if that happens then Darwin’s final phrase ‘in the struggle for life’ will be disastrous for humanity. I am not suggesting that current biological research is eugenic, rather that it is crucial to better understand human relationships to each other, to other species and to the natural world. In particular, I would suggest that the overlap between human and natural sciences needs to emerge from a moral and ethical understanding of how we work with our scientific developments and applications.
It is very apparent that most of us may have some knowledge of the effects of this scientific revolution but few fully understand the language, meaning and implications of the science. To better understand we need better communication. This is not simply a material revolution but also a philosophical one. Ethical understanding is not the exclusive understanding of the wealthy and powerful nations. In a truly global society we need to see a moral and ethical context across all peoples. This may sound fanciful given all the conflict in the world, but given that nature does not comply to any human border and is independent of our existence, then there is a need for a human endeavour that crosses all borders; a kind of human nature that understands human purpose and its connection to existence.
Rapid scientific development requires great responsibility. Part of that responsibility will be formed by our subjective wonder at the mysteries we observe in our cosmos. We can understand the empirics of biological advances whilst still loving those things that are evident to our senses.
I do believe if we can balance these twin progressions then we will live in a better and more tolerant world. We need to wonder at the cosmos and to speculate on all its mysteries. As a machine, it has to be experienced as a machine that is like no other. A machine that has no edges and that may be able to evolve new natural laws. A machine that can have the subjective melded into the objective. From my garden, I experience such an entity. In the garden, my purpose is to better understand it. The soil we construct needs to be composed of this knowledge.
Being less confused
This essay has involved reflective reviews at several points in its development. At each stage of the reflection, a catching up so to speak, the next set of thoughts and questions begins to emerge. In this manner the text is alive to new possibilities, meaning that I am never sure where it will end. In many ways it is simply a continuum of what I do and how I work. I have tried to look at how our human nature resides within and without the natural. I have done this through observations and actions that are common in our experience of working and being in a garden. I have considered our garden as a clearing in which entities independent of us can be revealed and our connections to them made clearer. It has been a set of thoughts that attempt to place us somewhere.
Early in the process I expressed my confusion about our place in all of this complexity. I have tried to construct a partial cartography that reveals some of the routes and territories that we need to understand so we can see and experience the clearing. Like all maps the clearing is evolving and changing. It is not the territory that we experience through events and actions. My hope is that, by trying to tease out constituent elements that inform our relationship to nature, I stimulate further consideration of our connectedness with the natural. For myself, I do feel less confused and more able to apply what I have learned to the questions that humanity will be asking in this Anthropocene era.
When I see a squirrel digging up the back garden, or a fox sleeping in the hedge, or a plant thriving after some simple intervention, or the bees working on the lavender, or the bats flitting around at dusk, or the unfolding of a flower, as complex in its geometry as it is stunning in its colour, I am conscious of my relationship to these events.
I do think of affect and effect, of machine and immanence, of natural and human selection, of genetic and social predisposition, of human and natural science, of existence and purpose, of the contingent and the contiguous, of borders and openness, of thresholds and clearings, even of what a pet shop may imply, but above all I wonder at it, and care. I care because I wish not to be lonely in the cosmos.
Glossary of terms
Animism: An ancient philosophy that views everything in Nature, all living forms, including fires, plants, humans, waters and winds, as possessing a spirit.
Anthropogenic: Anthropogenic effects are processes, materials and objects that emerge from human activities as opposed to occurrences that emerge from the natural environment.
Anthropocene: First coined by Nobel prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen; ‘Anthropocene’ refers to a geological era that corresponds to the Earth’s recent history. This is the term coined to represent the era when humans began to have a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate.
Autonomy: Autonomy is a concept found in political, moral and bioethical philosophy. It refers to the right to have a sense of self-law or self-government. Principally, autonomy refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed and uncoerced decision. Autonomy can be viewed as the basis for determinig a moral responsibility.
Conscience: Conscience is our inner sense of what is right or wrong. It can be seen as our moral judgement prior to performing any action.
Consciousness: Consciousness is to be awake and responsive to the environment. Consciousness is mind space that may involve thoughts, perceptions, dreams, an awareness of self, emotions and moods in varying combinations. Consciousness is ‘being something’ and ‘being conscious of something’.
Cross-disciplinary: Cross-disciplinarity is the crossing of subject borders to explain one subject in terms of another.
Immanence: Immanence, a term used in metaphysical and philosophical theories, refers to the divine as existing and acting within the mind or the world. The word originates from the Latin ‘manere’ (to remain within.)
Interdisciplinarity: Interdisciplinarity is a general term that refers to an approach to forming knowledge through the interaction of more than one discipline.
Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation. It is a term often used and applied when there is a possibility of misunderstanding.
Multidisciplinarity: Mutidisciplinary is where two or more disciplines are part of an enquiry where each discipline contributes specific results just from within its own discipline. Any integration would be left to a third party observer.
Ontology: Ontology is the study of conceptions of reality and the nature of being. In philosophy, it is the study of being and existence. Ontology is the basic subject matter of metaphysics.
Phenomenology: Phenomenology is the study of the ways phenomena appear to us through our experience and consciousness.
Shamanism: Shamanism refers to beliefs and practices concerned with communicating with the spirit world. Across the world, Shamans, practitioners of shamanism, adopt many variations of practice to achieve this communication. There are some commonly held beliefs between all forms of shamanism.
Transcendence: Transcendence, particularly in religion, is a state of being that surpasses physical existence and, in one form, is independent of it. Thus the transcendent entity is in the cosmos but not of it.
Trans-disciplinarity: Trans-disciplinarity attempts to dissolve the borders between disciplines in order to achieve new insights into the enquiry. It is also a transgressive attempt to cross the borders of discplines as a conscious attempt to create new understandings and knowledge.