MLF - tree roots
Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest. Photo by Eugene Hyland.
Stories & Ideas

Thu 21 Dec 2023

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In this meditative soundscape, the scientists whose thinking inspired Works of Nature share their insights into individuality, consciousness and the importance of connecting to nature.

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 consciousness and the importance of having a space connected to Gaia (the earth mother), and question the concept of individuality from a scientific point of view.

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

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Stephan Harding

Well, my name's Stephan Harding. I've been the resident Ecologist at Schumacher College for 30 years since it began. Also the head of Holistic Science for 20 years, and now Deep Ecology research fellow at Schumacher College. Nature is full of feeling. Feeling. We don’t just sit outside nature and say, oh, very interesting. There's the moth... ok, evolution... we do do that. But then what we do is just we think, OK, that's it, done and dusted. OK, but those beings are feeling each other and that's a really good insight. That's what we're after.

David Abrams

I mean, what is climate change except the simple consequence of forgetting the sacredness of the invisible medium in which we dwell and from which we drank steadily? And just thinking it's just empty space because today we don't speak of the air between you and I, or the air between me and a nearby tree. We just speak of the empty space between us. It's empty. It's just a void. And so it's a perfect place to toss anything we want to avoid. All the toxic effluence of our industries. Everything belching out of the exhaust pipes and the smokestacks. Everything that, sort of, billows out and dissipates and dissolves into the unseen air. We think, out of sight, out of mind. But for our oral ancestors, anything that dissipates like your own breath and dissolves into the invisible was by that very gesture entering into the mind, wind mind of the world from which we all drink steadily and every indigenous culture honours this in its own unique way.

Merlin Sheldrake

Look, I mean, the concept of the individual is pretty useful if you need to go and get a passport or a mortgage. And so I understand why we've come to depend on the concept of individuals. It's very useful when thinking about human societies, about the way that we share responsibilities. And so there is a great utility to this concept. And when you look in the living world, from a biological point of view, it becomes much harder to draw the line between individuals. Where one individual ends and another begins. Our own bodies, as you say, are ecosystems and we are composed of, and decomposed by, vast communities of bacteria and fungi and archaea that live in and on us. Bacteria can have smaller bacteria living within them and viruses living within them and larger viruses can have smaller viruses living within them. And so there really isn't a life form that is separate from this story of symbiosis. So I think of individuals as a category that depends on our point of view rather than as being a natural fact, a category that can do useful work for us in certain conditions. But it also can lead to problems when we think of ourselves as distinct from other people and as distinct from the living world that sustains us. Then it can encourage us to take on potentially damaging behaviours. It makes it easier to engage in ecocidal behaviours, for example. If we forget that we are bound up within the ecological networks that make up the living world, and think of ourselves as separate from them, then it's easy to imagine that environmental degradation can take place without harming ourselves.

Katie Field

When you look at a tree, it looks at first just to be a single entity sort of standing alone in a landscape. But, really, what you're looking at when you're looking at that tree, it's just a fraction of the tree’s story. So the trees actually start underground, with roots emerging from the seed and they then go on to form their first, sort of, intimate partnerships with soil fungi, also with bacteria, even viruses in the soil. So this network of connections then develops within the tree root system and beyond and it becomes more and more intricate as that tree grows, forming these ever more complicated communities and connections underground. As the tree matures, it then, sort of, connects with other plants in the neighbourhoods. Other trees, other plants. And they form these vast underground networks through which the plants and the trees they all communicate, transferring messages, nutrients and other chemical signals that, sort of, warn of danger, resource availability and other important tree stuff. Above ground, so if you sort of put your focus above the root system, again the tree is a vastly intricate ecosystem. So much like a human body, I guess, in that it plays hosts to a huge number of different microbes, plants, animals, even fungi across all different trophic levels. So right from top predators, that might be an owl living in a branch, right the way through to a tiny virus causing a lesion on a leaf somewhere. So I think, really, a tree isn't just a tree, OK, it's much more. You're probably better thinking of it as a bustling metropolis that's teeming with life and supporting this huge abundance of life, way beyond any of its own cells. I always think of trees more as like big, big cities in an ecosystem where it's, like, the smaller plants then become, sort of, little towns or villages on the outside of that.

Stephan Harding

I find it's very, very important to have a Gaia place. It’s I call a Gaia place. I mean, it's more commonly known as a sit spot. But I prefer to call it a Gaia place. And before we moved to this house, we lived in another house at Schumacher College for 30 years. And I had a Gaia place there for 30 years. And I saw it grow and develop. I planted a small elder tree or stump of an elder, which we rescued from a hedgerow. Now it's become a really fully mature and wonderful elder tree. So can you imagine in my Gaia place the transformations I've seen, you know, started off as a vegetable garden? And it turned itself into a forest. I mean, a wild forest, really wild. I would sit there sometimes, and I'd imagine I was back in Africa or in the wilds of Costa Rica. In fact, it often felt as if different places, wild places, that I'd been in my life, you know, as an Ecologist suddenly descended into this little jungle that had happened in my Gaia place. And then these places meet each other. You know that's how it began to work for me in my Gaia place. So I recommend everyone should have a Gaia place, the same place you go back to. It can be even some plants in your apartment if you're really in lockdown or isolated. It doesn't matter. I've had some folks in Brazil who were in that situation and they just had some plants in their apartment, you know, some lovely tropical plants on a little table. That was their Gaia place. So it doesn't have to be wild or pristine nature, but it has to be nature, it has to be something more than human or other than human. Alive. The plants are very important.

David Abrams

I struggle some with the notion that separation is the problem. I have a lot of, you know, colleagues, brothers and sisters now who say yes, it's our separation from other things, our separation. I struggle with that as being really what the problem is. Especially if the alternative to separation is, kind of, unity. No separation, no gap, no distance. Where it's all one or we’re all one. It seems to me desire is opened by distance by a kind of relative-, I'm not saying absolute separation, but a kind of relative separation between us and things, that difference and differentiation between things opens the possibility of relationship. But if I'm not different from that pine tree, or different from this spider weaving its web, then my curiosity would not be piqued and I wouldn't, just, get drawn into this fascination, or even desire to enter into the spider's world.

Stephan Harding

But I would say the ultimate result of all of this is psyche. Is actually consciousness. It's Gaia coming to know herself. Through our consciousness and the consciousness of every other-, the awareness of every other living being. Somehow that's what our culture is missing. It's a knowledge and a trust and a faith in that, sort of, well, Ontos. That sort of being, you know, that's actually the universe itself. The Ontos of the universe is something you can feel. I wish I could feel it all the time. I can't feel it all the time. But I know when I do feel it, it's the most wonderful cure all. Cures everything. And I think that's maybe what's meant by Dow, Kingdom of heaven. You know, all these sorts of words that have been used down the ages by many wise people who've really worked on cultivating this.


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.


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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