If you are familiar with my work, you will know that the notion of connectivity, and how we make conscious relationship to 'all that is', sits at the heart of it. We are all in interrelationship, all of the time. Living as if this is the truth that it is changes everything. We can no longer pretend that we are separate and superior.
A few weeks ago friend, colleague and occasional workshop participant Dr Lania Knight, until very recently a creative writing tutor on the MA course at the University of Gloucester, recorded a YouTube interview with me where I was talking about my approach to land, place and the other-than-human species who share our planet.
I was speaking as a writer, and therefore talking about my own relationship to the more-than-human world and how it colours my writing as well as my experience.
A little afterwards, one of the university MA students who were the destined audience of the video emailed me.
Some of you might be interested in our conversation.
[KA] I would very much like to know a little more about your idea of 'connectivity'. This has intrigued me and I'm trying to imagine writing nature poetry by removing the self as a prominent focus… it's begun to make me think differently about nature and my place within it. Would you have time to comment more on what you mean by 'connectivity' and how this can be put into practice when writing poetry?
[RA] I have been thinking about what you ask. It has been a perspective that is so woven into the fabric of me that I needed to step back and think about your question. Here's my response:
So, in brief, my starting point is that our post-Enlightenment/Cartesian heritage has not always done us favours. It fosters a further dualism that has probably been a significant part of our collective psyche for hundreds and possibly thousands of years: matter/spirit, good/bad, man/woman, humans/nature. So it seems almost inevitable that we relate to the rest of nature – the other-than-human or more-than-human – as if it’s ‘out there’, separate from us. It’s my view that it’s this unconscious assumption that is at least in part responsible for the atrocities we can visit/have visited on other species and the planet.
My perspective is that, rather than a hierarchy of life with humans at the apex, we are all part of a vast network of interrelationship where anything that happens to a part affects the whole. It is not ‘us’ and ‘nature’ but as eco-theologian Thomas Berry said: ‘we are a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’.
In my view, everything of the natural world is animate, sentient, conscious to some degree and in its own way. Everything is inherently in interrelationship, all profoundly interconnected, a vast eco-system of which every single organism is a necessary part of a coherent whole.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
I believe this requires for most of us a shift in worldview so that it’s not ‘us’ vs ‘nature’; nor even 'us' and 'nature'.
So I’m not sure it’s so much ‘getting rid of the self’ (or in your words ‘removing the self as a prominent focus’) as seeing it – the self – as simply one, if integral, part of the cosmos.
In terms of poetry, farmer-poet Wendell Berry said something that has always stuck: ‘So much of the poetry I see has speaker present but world absent, or world present but speaker absent.’ (My paraphrase.) (Another dualistic trope is 'either/or’, whereas I believe it’s more holistic and wise to see ‘both/and’.)
I notice that the best writing (poetry is a good example) exemplifies this, when the speaker is fully present in the poem (or essay, or whatever it is) but as a co-operative force, rather than a dominating one. In other words, the writer is part of, not apart from, the subject (and the rest of the natural world).
This seems especially potent in 'the new nature writing', those nature-memoirs written by people like Kathleen Jamie, Helen MacDonald, Miriam Darlington, Jim Perrin, Robert MacFarlane, John Lewis-Stempel, and many others, where the author is very clearly present. In nature non-fiction even 50 years ago the writer, usually a rather old-fashioned and perhaps bachelor gentleman, was very much the detached observer. There may be a place for that, but we want more engaged writers nowadays. That in turn engages us more.
In terms of planetary ethics, clearly we are more likely to protect that with which we are also emotionally engaged – at least, I believe so.
So how we may write to include self and other both is a preoccupation of mine, and one that I emphasise in my courses. I believe this is partly down to consciously switching between the perspectives of self and other and taking care to incorporate both (as per Wendell Berry), but also reminding oneself that in some profound philosophical way self IS other and other IS self. My view of the cosmos suggests that the physical level is only one level of being, and there is a correlation, a reciprocal affinity of relationship, on more subtle levels also. That’s what I mean by connectivity – there are subtle ties that bind us to everyone/everything else.
This doesn’t sit well with our current mechanistic philosophically materialist ‘scientific’ viewpoint, but with, for instance, our new understanding of the subtler aspects of ecosystems such as the mycorrhizal networks that link all plants and trees we are beginning to understand scientifically too that nothing happens in isolation.
My forthcoming book A Spell in the Forest – tongues in trees explores this in much greater detail through the lens of the tree world and also archetypal and symbolic motifs (I trained in a branch of archetypal psychotherapy).*
There's a page on my other website that also addresses this idea (well, actually, probably all the pages do, but this one overtly): https://thewildways.co.uk/an-ecocentric-view/
* This is the description: 'Trees occupy a place of enormous significance, not only in our planet’s web of life but also in our psyche. This book is part love-song to trees, forests and the Wildwood, part poetic guidebook to the botany, ecology, cultural history, properties, mythology, folklore and symbolism of trees, and part a deeper exploration of thirteen native sacred British tree species in relation to the powerful mythic Celtic Ogham alphabet calendar. Tongues in Trees is a multi-layered contribution to the current awareness of the importance and significance of trees and the resurgence of interest in their place on our planet and in our hearts.'