A silhouette of a young woman with arms outstretched standing in front of a large, purple and gold particle-based digital artwork.
Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, Distortions in Spacetime. 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 life's biggest mystery – death.

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 question – since everything is connected (according to science) – can anything ever really die?

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

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David Abram

I'm David Abram. I'm a cultural ecologist and a philosopher. What some call a Geophilosopher, that is somebody who thinks, and reflects and is working out the ways of thinking under the influence of a more than human earth. It seems to me that earth is the real life from whence each of us was born. And at the moment of death we begin to fold outward and spread back into that wider life, which is also a wider sentience.

Merlin Sheldrake

I think it's interesting to think about the way that the different parts of yourself will die at different rates. So if someone were to shoot you in the head, you would die. But then the other parts of you would continue to live for different amounts of time. Some of the organs might continue to work for a little bit, and so the cells that make you up could stay living and continue to do that at different rates. So death would be a process rather than a single instant, even though the moments that... the big dramatic moment for ones coherent, integrated, psychospiritual self... one might think of that as as happening at an instant.

So then the microbes that make you up, the microbes that support your growth and behaviour, that have helped you develop and allowed, and created, the conditions for you to be able to live, they then start to decompose you. It's a bit like this with plants as well. Plants contain fungi that can live within them for their whole lives. Playing innocuous roles, sort of housekeeping roles. But when they die, these fungi, they become fungi that then rot down the plant and then make a home in the rotting log and have a whole other life after the tree itself has died. It's a little like that with the microbes that live in us. So, we think of decomposition as happening in one site where we die, but actually parts of us can be carried sometimes quite far. Even if a vulture doesn't come and eat you, if you’re buried in the ground, then worms and carrion beetles, flies come and lay their eggs, and maggots would start to eat you and then come and turn into flies and take that part of you elsewhere.

So there's a process of dissipation, spreading out, and it's a reminder that there's a lot of energy that it takes to keep ourselves together. And when that energy is not there then we dissipate entropically. And so there’s the microbial action from the inside, there's the microbial action from the outside, there are the animals. And then, as the nutrients, the stuff of your body, the proteins, all of the things that make you up, the fats, the carbohydrates, everything starts to be broken down. And as some of the animals that have been eating you start to die as well, leaving their bodies at the site, it becomes a whole a whole new ecosystem. And actually there's something called “cadaver decomposition islands”. So the bodies of the animals that have been eating us, the bodies of the microbes that have been eating us, because they die too, and the chemicals that have made us up are released and are broken down.

A lot of this breaking down happens by fungi. And then these fungi are, because they form living networks, which is one of their great adaptations, when the fungus absorbs something it doesn't just stay in one place. It travels through the network and some of these fungi will be fungi that form mycorrhizal relationships with plants and exist in a trading relationship with plants. And the plants will be supplying energy containing carbon compounds to the fungi and in return, the fungi will be supplying nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus to the plant. And will create the conditions for plants to grow and to photosynthesise and, again, can create the conditions for the plants to, you know, whatever grows must die, and so create the conditions for plants to die as well, themselves, then becoming another body.

So I think it's quite helpful to think about all the bodies that are allowed to form off the basis of your body decomposing because all those bodies will then decompose as well. So, I like thinking about those interfaces, the places where nutrients move from one place to another and and they move from a dying thing into a living thing.

Katie Field

There's lots of reasons why a fungus might die. So, fungi, like any living organism, are not infinite. They don't live forever. I guess it depends on what you define as being an individual fungus. It's really difficult to define an individual, particularly filamentous organisms like fungi because they can fuse. They grow for miles They can recycle hyphae. They can change shape and everything all the time. And I guess that's not something that's available to some to organisms that have a defined body. Where you have a barrier to the outside world, almost. I guess that's where it's different. Where a fungus would cease a part of its mycelia and just recycle that and then grow in a different direction. That's not necessarily an option that's available to, for instance, animals which have this determinate growth, we call it, and it's a set pattern of growth and development. And once you hit that, it stops, whereas some things like plants or fungi, they have this indeterminate growth where they change what their body plans going to be according to environmental conditions or what's available at the time. When a fungus dies, I don't know, really, I don't know whether it would be... you could have like an old-age death of the entire organism, or whether it's just a series of, sort of, turnover events where individual hyphae die off and get turned over in the soil by other microorganisms.

David Abrams 

My body begins to spread out into the body of the land as my breath spreads into the body of the atmosphere. If I, or someone, is cremated then there's not just the ash that is fed to the soil and the aspects of breath that spread into the air, but some departs as flame and is fed to the sun and to the stars. That is, I spread back out there in that field and my life is taken up within the wider life of the breathing land.

Stephan Harding

Who am I in all of this? The way I understand it at the moment is that I am temporary. I have a psyche. There's a psyche here and there is a lot going on in this psyche and it definitely has a unique character of myself. Which you could call my identity as Stephan Harding. But there's much, much more going on there, which is beyond my identity as Steven Harding. And yet all of this intense psyche with its, you know, its deep symbols deep in the unconscious and the dream world that we have and inspirations that come to us, you know, snatches of music, poetry, mathematical equations. All of those things are somehow linked to those carbon atoms that have once been in the atmosphere, and to those nitrogen atoms and phosphorus atoms and sulphur atoms who, similarly, have been in parts of our mother's body, Gaia. So that must be who I am in that case, you see, it's sort of a combination of Gaia's atoms that have formed themselves into this sentience called me. And they're quite happy for this sentence to be called me. There's no need to try and obliterate it.

But then eventually, this being, this Gaian being, this me whose skin is made out of these atoms from my mother's body, you know, that being will have to go back into my mother's body. Those atoms will have to go back. And maybe when they go back, each little atom will carry a little savour of who I was, who this Stephen was, just as it carries a little savour of all the other beings it's been in over the evolutionary history of our mother planet, and probably, every single other human being.

You see, if you take the notion that psyche is everywhere then all of this follows in some way. Why should we think that psyche is everywhere? Because it obliterates the problem of thinking. Well, it obliterates what they call in science the problem of the mind. Where does the mind come from? It can't be in matter because matter is just dead molecules. Therefore, where does it come from? It can't come from some spiritual space because there is no spirit and there is no soul. So crikey, this is really a mind body problem. This is really a problem for science. Real problem. They're really stuck on that one. And the answer is pretty simple.

The psyche is there from the start. In matter. Now, what that means is very deep, you know, to experience that. But I think the intellect can be quite happy with that solution. When I feel that, I don't feel that all the time, but when I do, God, I feel I'm really at home on this planet. And my fear of death disappears. Because you know, when you die, maybe all of you will get dispersed throughout the whole of Gaia. Maybe somewhere there'll be an experience of the whole of Gaia, when you die, and her atoms that she'd lent you go back into her body. She lends you these atoms so you can see her. You can be conscious of her. And then that's only temporary because everything must change, you know, like Heraclitus said, everything flows. So, then, you have to be ready to let those atoms of yours go back into Gaia, into your mother's body.

Katie Field

For me, the idea that your body and organic stuff becomes recycled and becomes part of the landscape, for me that's quite a powerful thought. And, I think, I don't know, I find that the most comforting thought. I don't think that there is an afterlife. I don't think that you, sort of, go anywhere. I think you decompose and then your elements get recycled and incorporated into soil and into microbes, into trees, into fungi. And I think, for me, that's a very comforting thought.


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


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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