Two screen work Marshmallow Laser Feast, Works of Nature, ACMI, 2023 - image by Eugene Hyland
Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, Journey of Breath. Photo by Eugene Hyland.
Stories & Ideas

Thu 21 Dec 2023

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In this meditative soundscape, the scientists who helped inspire the thinking behind Marshmallow Laser Feast's Works of Nature discuss the fundamental rhythm that underpins all life on earth – breath.

While developing the artworks featured in Works of Nature, Marshmallow Laser Feast conducted a series of interviews with the foremost thinkers on nature, life and the more-than-human world. These include internationally renowned cultural ecologist and geophilosopher Dr David Abram, Professor of Plant-Soil-Processes at the University of Sheffield Katie J Field, author and founder of Schumacher College Dr Stephan Harding, and biologist and bestselling author Dr Merlin Sheldrake.

In this episode, they discuss how breath connects us to the natural world – and each other.

Audio courtesy of Dr Stephan Harding, Professor Katie J Field, Dr David Abram and Dr Merlin Sheldrake.

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Merlin Sheldrake 

My name's Merlin Sheldrake and I'm a biologist and an author, and I research fungal networks. If we think of ourselves as neatly bounded things, like we are often encouraged to do in a reductive materialist society and culture, then we think of all the non-living elements that we depend on like oxygen or water as not alive and ourselves as alive. But the scholar Jack Forbes has a great passage of his writing where he says something along the lines of, “If you if you cut off my arm, I can survive. You take out one of my eyes, I can survive. Cut off one of my ears, I can survive. But if you take away the oxygen that I need to breathe, then I'll die. If you take away the water I drink, then I'll die.” And it's a really helpful reminder that actually we depend more on these traditionally thought of, or at least as we think of as non-living, physicalfluids or, you know, in the form of oxygen, or air, or water, but actually these are very great animating forces that are that are key to the systems that are our bodies, and our bodies are not closed systems, our bodies are in constant interchange with the surroundings, through our breath. A breath is the simplest way to think about it. There are many others, of course, these flows and cycles. And so I think this is the easiest way into thinking about, to softening the edges of ourselves.

Katie Field

Once we get plants on land and they, sort of, drive this enrichment of oxygen in the atmosphere right through the Paleozoic, you get this boom in animal life because you get this much more oxygenated atmosphere and that sort of drives the evolution of bigger and more interesting animals. I think much before that you were kind of limited to insects, quite small ones, because they're limited by how much oxygen's in the atmosphere as to how big they can get. But certainly the evolution of plants and the increasing complexity and the greater efficiency with which they were able to convert sunlight and water and carbon dioxide into oxygen. That certainly drove this explosion in animal life and eventually created the sort of atmosphere that we can breathe today, this highly oxygenated, 20% or so oxygen atmosphere.

Stephan Harding 

There’s a cycle in which you get a glucose molecule built. C6H12O6, six carbon atoms H12O6. 12 hydrogen atoms, 6 oxygen atoms. And then the whole thing goes around again. There's a bit leftover, which then becomes fuel for another cycle. You just go round and round, and that's the basis of our modern life. Because of course, what happens next is that we breathe the oxygen in. And then we go through the process, which is known as respiration in biology. So we use the oxygen, and this is amazing. We, when I say ‘we’ I mean all the oxygen breathing organisms, including the plants themselves. We all use the oxygen made by photosynthesis, by this kind of photosynthesis. We use the oxygen to breakdown the very sugar molecules which the plants have made, in which we find solar energy held in an embrace with those sugar molecules. The oxygen is such a powerful molecule, it can breakdown the sugar molecules, release the energy and then we can use that energy in any way we want, you know, to run our bodies. To breakdown food molecules. We know this. I mean, the breath of a plant, the inbreath of the plant, is our outbreath. I should say the outbreath of all photosynthesisers, all modern photosynthesisers, the outbreath of all oxygen producing photosynthesisers is our inbreath. And our outbreath is the carbon dioxide which the photosynthesisers need and becomes their inbreath. It's very simple, in a way, but what's going on there is, from at a molecular level, is absolutely mindbogglingly complex.

David Abrams 

Talk about reciprocity. It's this uttermost reciprocity at the very heart of the present moment. Breathing itself is our infusion and our utter entanglement with these outrageously different forms of life that are rooted in place but drinking the sunlight steadily with their needles and their leaves and slurping up water with their roots.

Merlin Sheldrake 

All of our cells contain mitochondria. Mitochondria are what's known as organelles. Organelles are like organs of a cell that do certain things, and mitochondria are where respiration happens. That's where we create energy. And they're the, sort of, powerhouses of the cell. And mitochondria used to be bacteria, free-living bacteria and billions of years ago they were swallowed by another cell, and they went on to live within that cell and over time have become domesticated. So every single one of our cells bears this echo of an ancient endosymbiosis, as it's called, and so every single one of our cells has evolved out of this chimera in the past. And that's just one example of the kind of fusion that happens to create evolutionary novelty and this has happened in many different ways over time. I think it's a very helpful perspective to take. Because it encourages us to see the fluid flows that make up the living world. And we ourselves are flowing as well, you know, but the breath is a very perceptible way of flowing. But matter flows through us as we produce new cells and old cells by and fall off us. Matter flows through us over time and if you think on an evolutionary timescale, there is a kind of flow and interaction. We think of species as sort of separate things, as static things. But of course species are processes too and all species have evolved in conjunction with other species. And so humans have long evolutionary roots that trail backwards in time, tangling with the roots of other species and very different other organisms like the bacteria that went on to live in the eukaryotic cells that now make up our bodies. So I think these flows are really, really important to think about and breath is the most obvious flow, and I'm not surprised that so many spiritual practices place emphasis on the breath, you know, whether it’s singing together or explicitly thinking about the breath or other types of breathwork. In fact, ‘Spiritual’ comes from the word ‘Espiritu’, which means breath. So it feels like not only a fundamental part of our everyday biological realities, but also a very important part of our psycho-spiritual realities, our psychological realities, our cultural realities and the rich, lived, nuanced world of our subjective experience as well. So I think it's a great way to think of it. And it's remarkable when you think, well, actually this oxygen, this molecule of oxygen that I'm breathing in has been released by a photosynthetic organism somewhere and it will pass through me. And we think about these atoms, these elements circling through us and out again.

David Abrams

All of the indigenous cultures of the world that we often extol for being so attuned to their particular bio regions or places, by and large, we're speaking of traditionally oral cultures, cultures without any formalised system of writing. In an oral culture, the air, the wind and the breath is holy and massively sacred because it's quite clear that speaking and human language is not,for them, something you can look at an open a book and see on a page. Language is, for an oral culture, is speech, and speech is nothing other than shaped breath. We only speak by inhaling some of this invisible substance and drawing it into our lungs and then breathing out. And as we breathe out, we shape it with our tongue, our lips and our palate. And we sound our words out into the world like I'm doing now, but we never speak on the inbreath, right? Although most people don't notice that, but they're never speaking when they're breathing in. Because it doesn't sound good. It's only on the outbreath that out words shape the outbreath and are carried by my breath to your ears and your words carried by your breath to me. So the air is the implicit intermediary in all communication. It's the very medium of meaning. It's the place where our ancestors’ voices linger once they've passed on. The very place of the spirits.


This is one in a series of four podcasts exploring the science and ideas behind Marshmallow Laser Feast's artworks you've just heard from professor Katie J Field, Dr Stephan Harding, Dr David Abram and Dr Merlin Sheldrake you can find more information about the scientists and the rest of the podcasts by visiting Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature on the ACMI website.

Audio courtesy of Dr Merlin Sheldrake, Dr David Abram, Dr Stephan Harding and Professor Katie J Field.


Dr David Abram

David Abram is an internationally renowned cultural ecologist and geophilosopher. The author of such books as The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, David engages the ecological depths of the imagination, exploring the ways in which sensory perception, language, and wonder inform the relation between the human animal and the animate earth. He lives with his family in the foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains.

Prof. Kate J. Field

Katie Field is Professor of Plant-Soil-Processes at the University of Sheffield. Her research spans 500 million years of land plant evolution, focusing on the interactions between plants and the soil around them, including the myriad of microorganisms that inhabit the below-ground environment. In particular, Prof. Field is interested in the role of symbiotic soil fungi in plant nutrition in both ancient and modern ecosystems.

Dr Stephan Harding

Stephan’s doctorate from Oxford University is on the ecology of the muntjac deer. He is a founder of Schumacher College where he met James Lovelock – originator of the Gaia hypothesis – with whom he has collaborated scientifically. Stephan is author of Animate Earth and Gaia Alchemy.

Dr Merlin Sheldrake

Merlin is a biologist and bestselling author of Entangled Life. He received a Ph.D. in Tropical Ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, where he was a predoctoral research fellow of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He is a musician and keen fermenter.

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