Marshmallow Laser Feast_ Works of Nature preview_Photo by Eugene Hyland_11 copy
Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest. Photo by Eugene Hyland.
Stories & Ideas

Thu 21 Dec 2023

ACMI author icon


Your museum of screen culture

In this meditative soundscape, the scientists whose thinking inspired Works of Nature discuss the interconnectedness of different organisms and us.

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 the interconnectedness of different organisms and different species – including us.

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

Explore the exhibition


Katie Field

My name is Katie Field. I'm a professor of Plant-Soil Processes at the University of Sheffield. My expertise lies in how plant roots interact with the soil environment and the microorganisms within. I find the interconnectedness of these different organisms from different kingdoms. They're so wholly unrelated. So a plant, a fungus, bacteria, a virus. The fact that they form these connections between kingdoms and they rely on each other. To do what they need to do to get by. I just find that incredibly fascinating and the idea that then these individual connections build up into ecosystems and the influence that that has on individuals, but also across populations, even on a global scale. So the actions of a tiny interaction between tiny bacteria and fungi below ground can actually influence the composition of the atmosphere on Earth. I just find the whole complexity of that absolutely fascinating, and it kind of blows my mind when you're walking around and you're looking like, oh, yeah, nice countryside scene, to actually think that these things are all interconnected below ground and what's happening over there could well be influencing the actions of that Daisy over there. And just the thought that we don't, we don't really understand a lot of it. Why are they doing that? How are they doing it? I just, yeah.

Merlin Sheldrake

There's been a lot of debate in the history of biology about whether nature is fundamentally competitive or fundamentally cooperative. I don't think that it's necessarily helpful to have a binary view like that. I think we can step into a bigger room and see both of them as important parts of the way that things interact and that collaboration can include both of them. I find music a really helpful metaphor. I think about jazz bands. And if you had a touring jazz band, players can hate each other and drive each other crazy and they can get on stage and make something extraordinary. And so this collaboration can arise from a cooperation and at the same time they can be competing with each other or fighting with each other and conflicting in all sorts of way. Families are another good example. You can behave as a functioning family and still be fraught with conflict and competition.

So we're no stranger to the idea of these forces flowing together and blending in all sorts of surprising ways in our own lives. And I think that's the helpful way to think about it happening in the living world too. The question of harmony is interesting. Again, I find jazz really helpful because there's some harmonies that don't sound very nice to some people and they sound really nice to others. So I think we can think of sometimes harmony as used to suggest some kind of, almost, twee everyone getting along kind of utopia. And I prefer to take the harmony into the sort of jazz world where you can have remarkable crushes and tensions and tensions that give rise to new harmonic possibilities. And so jazz harmony, I think, is quite a helpful metaphor, and there's a great story about Thelonius Monk, possibly apocryphal, where he was playing and when one of the players in his band would play a wrong note, he would just shift and expand the harmony to include that wrong note. He'd reharmonize in the moment on the fly to include that note, which was a wrong note within the old harmony, but which becomes an interesting new tension generative of new possibilities within the new harmony that he created.

And I think that's quite a lot like the way the living world works because it's constantly responding. It's improvisational and responding on the fly to the actions and unexpected occurrences which then come together, flow together to create something new.

Katie Field

There is this idea that everything is in harmony and it's a delicate balance, and on a gross scale it is. But then we also have to consider alongside that that you know you do have individuals competing within communities and between individuals within a population, right. And so if someone's gonna fight, if someone can cheat, they will. And in a way, it's kind of-, if the organism that is being cheated. So if we take mycorrhizas for an example, it's very easy to describe, and happy to think about, it as being that the plant gives something and the fungus get something and they do this reciprocal exchange of stuff. But in reality it doesn't work that way because it's different with every partner, but because they're in these huge networks and they've got multiple partners, they can take things from some members and give things to other members and so on the net scale, if you look at it as an ecosystem scale, then yeah, there is a net sort of mutualism. However, on an individual basis, I still think that it’s one of the rules of evolution that, you know, if you can take advantage of something, then you do.

David Abrams 

It does seem to me that our eyes are co-evolved with all these other eyes and so are primed to gaze not just at human eyes but to see very different styles of gaze coming back at us. That our ears are tuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and to the honking of geese. Also, the bugling of elk in the autumn, the most haunting sound in all of the wild to me. Our senses, our animal senses, never outstrip the conditions of this living earth. Because they're the very embodiment of these conditions. So perception is more an attribute of the biosphere than the possession of any single species within the biosphere. Like the strange echolocating sensory systems of bats and of whales. And the subtle heat sensors of snakes and the electroreception of certain fish and the magnetic field sensitivity of migratory birds. These are not random alternatives to our own range of senses. But rather, are necessary adjuncts of our own sensitivity. Born in response to variant aspects of a single interdependent whole that we call the biosphere.

Stephan Harding 

And, finally, the biosphere arrives. The sphere of life. So from that small beginning, from one, somehow, in somewhere like that. Darwin thought it was a small pond. Maybe on the surface of the land, I think Darwin thought that. Other people thought it was elsewhere. On the cracks in the rock, where there werer mineral waters. But anyway, somewhere, somewhere, somewhere. It seems that, no, it must have happened. That the first living cell assembled itself. From out of itself. At a point where there was no self, itself were the potential in the molecules floating around. Wherever it was in the pond or in the hydrothermal vent. Somehow something happened and they organised themselves in a most intelligent way. I mean, into an unbelievably complex form of organisation which dwarfs our human economy. I would say a billion times to rough estimate. And that organisation, that system of interaction, those relationships between all the molecules and atoms are complex relationships and conversations. All happening within a membrane that this whole organisation had made for itself. Not a closed membrane, but a very intelligent membrane that decides what goes in and what goes out, what goes in and what goes out. This incredibly complex being, can you see? And there's more we could say about it. For example, we could say anytime one part of its network was diminished by consumption for a process, the rest of the network would intelligently know that and would arrange for that component, for the rest of the network, to replace that component and this would be happening for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of components all at once. This is what the Chilean scientists Maturana and Varela call autopoiesis, self-making. So, the first self-making set of relationships amongst the atoms and the molecules of our mother Gaia's planet suddenly happened and life appeared - pfff.


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


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.

You might also like