Our true nature


Dark Matter: A photo taken in Eccleshall Woods, Sheffield – probably of a chicken of the wood mushroom growing between the buttress roots of an oak tree – Camilla Allen, 2016

It has been some time since I have written a post for this blog but that has allowed some time for rumination; allowing thoughts to develop as my research and experiences related to my PhD progress.  Of late, it has been thoughts about nature and our collective understanding and responses to it which have been in the background and so I wanted to take this opportunity to put some of it down on (digital) paper.

The ‘tags’, as it were, are (in no particular order): Stranger Things, fungi saving the world, space travel, narratives, the quiet science of soil, decay, growth, death, and the US election.

I feel motivated to write as it seems an important time to set out some of what I think, feel and believe and for me to get some perspective on my subject and understand my own subjectivity…

The need to get something off my chest coalesced when I watched the nostalgia-drenched (and highly enjoyable) TV series, Stranger Things.  Saturated with the colours, locations and haircuts of 1980s North America which I soaked up as a child, the series takes as its premise that the five young protagonists (with the addition of some cannon-fodder teens, a noble but damaged police chief and single-mother-on-the-edge) find themselves caught up in a secret government experiment which has wrenched through spatial and temporal dimensions, catapulted one of the children into the Upside-Down and in turn released a monster called the Demogorgon.  I by no means want this to act as a spoiler (and I’ll leave the intrigues of Stranger Things there), but it seemed noteworthy to me that the nightmare realm and monster (murderous, blind, otherworldly) encompass and inhabit a place which is markedly one of fungal decay.  The Upside-Down, the place one very much doesn’t want to end up as it’s a terrifying version of reality – dark, lonely, cold – has a strange and ethereal nature which seems to be based on a visual concept which associated fungal decay with threat and death.

At any point that the action moves to the Upside-Down the music slows and the tension increases as the void of this rank and fetid place is revealed to the viewer:  It is perpetual night, and something that looks like snow but seems more likely to be fungal spores gently falls from above.  An ever-expanding network of roots, sustaining something that is never fully revealed, submerges all evidence of the human world: a swimming pool becomes a trap – its steep sides a natural wall covered in unsympathetic vegetation.  The absence of green is what sets apart these two views of nature: on the surface and in the ‘real world’ that most of the characters inhabit there are no leaves on the trees but it is clearly an indicator of the seasons; In the Upside-Down it is a perpetual winter, or without seasons and life – a cold and inhospitable place where nothing of value would grow (excepting the intriguing spores and roots).

This interpretation of fungi is quite at odds with a great deal of emerging understanding of the importance of mycorrhizal networks in soil and within our ecosystems, as recently discussed by Robert Macfarlane in his piece for the New Yorker.  The sinister nature of the spores in Stranger Things sits in opposition to this and is, I think, representative of a societal fear of death and decay which is at odds with the strange beauty of the nutrient recycling that these microorganisms are undertaking, away from our searching eyes.  The Brighton-based pop group Bloom chose to use footage of fungal growth as the visual for one of their records and the difference between the soft white shower in Stranger Things is totally at odds with the eccentric and beautiful forms and colours produced by the fungi in their video for a track called Shout.  Here, something more akin to the paradigm shift that the contributors to the insightful and timely film Dirt! the Movie, seek to make is made: an understanding that growth is intrinsically linked to decay and to understand the importance of these cycles in our soil (from their role in storing carbon, cleaning water and circulating nutrients) is essential for the continuing health of our planet.

It is here that this quiet and unassuming science – that of the soil – clashes with a new big societal narratives: that we are outgrowing earth and that there is a need for the ‘human race’ to explore outer space and find a new home now that we’ve made such a mess of this one.  This is something that I would like to discuss as a narrative that people are beginning to tell one another, a story of our collective future of our species, and one – I feel, that has a dangerous heart.  I cannot claim to be an expert on space travel, but I somewhat suspect that if ever the knowledge, resources and energy were made available, that it would be quite an exclusive bunch who made it onto the ships and that it would leave a whole lot more mess to clean up in its wake.

The romanticism of the endeavour is very much at odds with the drudging reality of understanding, protecting and restoring what we have already; understanding the limits of our ingenuity and resources as a species and working with them to our advantage.  A recent Panorama investigation into safety practices at Sellafield went some way to encapsulate this problem for me: there is little that is recognised as noble or as a vocation when you’re cleaning up society’s mess.  The institution faces accusations of safety failings, but the men and women working there today were not the original instigators who rushed and dumped volumes of radioactive material into deep concrete tanks in the hope that one day the mess would be treated, they just face the day-to-day challenges of cleaning up after we entered the atomic age and that is an essential role they are performing.

It’s at the point that some of the other realities of our reality rear their (ugly?) head.  I am writing this the day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.  There is much to be said by many people much wiser and better informed on the matter than me, but the thing that spurred me to write was his acceptance speech.  His words, radically different from the rhetoric of his campaign, were ones of reconciliation and togetherness; promises of hope, newfound aspirations and growth.

My own opinion is that the words are empty and all that the only function that the speech fulfilled was to illustrate that he is now an empty vessel and that his ugly, raw thoughts and opinions will now be tempered by less visible figures and given a shimmer – a glamour (in the old English sense of the world) by a myriad of speech writers and PR people.  But the thing that chilled was the promise of growth, because it is the myth that growth is possible – without decay – that lies at the core of the mess that we seem to be getting ourselves into.  Growth without consequence, growth to counter decay, growth without conscience; that is what Donald Trump is offering to the American Public and it’s worse than an empty promise – it’s a poisoned chalice.

There is always a joyously profane association that comes to mind when I try and gear up to making a ‘big point’.  In this case it is the work of the comedians Richard Herring and Stuart Lee and their 1990s series This Morning with Richard Not Judy, specifically their piece ‘Consider the Lily’.  In the clip, Jesus, played by Herring, is harangued by his disciples as he attempts to distract their theological discussion by evading with the suggestion that to ‘consider the lily’ is to gain enlightenment and the absurdity of looking to an inanimate plant is the (very funny) gag.  But, despite my delight in this profanity I do think that it is through an understanding and connection with nature that we will get closer to understanding the complexities of the world in which we inhabit.

The Danish philosopher Hans Fink from the University of Aarhus gave a talk at the University of Sheffield at the Centre for Nordic Studies on Nature and Naturalism and although it was much more sophisticated than anything that is within my ken, I found deep purpose in his central argument: that our concept of nature needs to take in all natures, even (and especially) those considered un-natural or other.

His words articulated much of what had been less structured in my feelings about the other things I have mentioned and that what I want to express is that our concept of nature as society needs to confront and accept decay as an intrinsic form of life: both natural, both essential parts of the other.

Fungal decay and death in Stranger Things is closely allied to Donald Trump’s myth about growth without consequence (alongside the rather tidy pairing of a demagogue and the Demogorgon); challenging these erroneous narratives about growth without consequence and decay without rebirth is essential.  Alternative narratives that are rooted in a different understanding and representation of nature – in this case the decay, renewal and growth happening in our soils – might be one way of us moving forward.

Literature and Ecology


(For a bit of background, I’ve just made a research trip to visit the University of Saskatchewan Library and Archives in Saskatoon which hold the main body of material relating to the life of forester and environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker, the subject of my PhD)


The journey to Canada and across to Saskatchewan is the longest I’ve made for a while and there has been the pace and the time to read and think in a way that there isn’t always when one is static and confined to the routine of home.  My thoughts since arriving in Canada have ranged about – dependent on incident and suggestion for their direction – but three things have been constant: a developing understanding of ecology as a philosophical outlook; the relation of my experience and to Richard St. Barbe Baker and the book that I happened to bring along, The Magus, by John Fowles.

The journey has allowed me to think a bit more deeply about the importance, to me, of literature as a way of understanding the world.  If is from this perspective that I would place Barbara Kingsolver and Rachel Carson in the same bracket of extraordinary American women who opened my eyes to an understanding of ecological science, books like Q by Luther Blisset being the most visceral ways to engage with historical events like the Reformation, and would credit Ursula Le Guin and JG Ballard as being instrumental to illuminating dystopian and utopian projections of our collective future.   So, the arts, especially those interwoven with ideas of ecology and in all their manifold forms, are bound up with the ideas that inform my research and it is something that I have wanted to write about for some time.

The catalyst finally came when talking to a young French man and woman in the apartment I was staying in in downtown Montreal when I arrived in Canada.  We got onto the subject of my PhD and how I had come to find myself writing about a forester and environmentalist that so few people have heard of, which led me to regaling them with my ‘life story’.  We talked about lots of different things, and the topics included ecology which I feel has been present in my life for years before I studied ecological design at university.  It was in that moment that it became clear that what I wanted to relate was the interconnectedness of experience and understanding of human nature and ecology gained through books like The Magus, Silent Spring or the Drowned World and then contextualised in the work of the increasingly familiar man in my life, Richard St. Barbe Baker.

I was given The Magus for Christmas and it is a book that it has taken me some months to start on but it turns out that this illusory text set on a Greek island post-WW2 has had a lot to offer in terms of insight into events, presented in such a way as to allow a lived experience and empathy.  The spectre of the First World War looms large over it, as does the changing society of 20th Century Britain, the powerful and ancient landscape of Greece and the nature of science and the unknown.

The Magus also speaks to me, in a way that that Fowles would never have intended, as I look to delve into the archive of St. Barbe Baker here in Saskatoon.  In the manuscripts, speeches, minutes, contracts, letters, photographs and film, the changes of the 20th Century are manifest; from the dustbowl of North America, the trenches of France to the shadow of the Cold War.  There’s a lot of history and a lot of human experience to understand.  The novel – which is currently acting as my late-night counterpoint to all this – weaves together the horrors and atrocities of both world wars, figures from ancient Greek mythology, Shakespeare and 19th Century psychology, which create a heady mix.  Beyond that, The Magus addresses ideas of truth and representation, fact and fiction – all bound up in one extraordinary novel.  The diverse references and links are akin to the variety that I have found in the archive here – one example is an entrancing black and white photograph of St. Barbe Baker as a boy, standing in the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ the chapel that his father built next door to that house and which welcomed people of all faiths.

This serendipitous pairing of archival activity and recreational reading seems all the more timely as I ponder how I will represent and interpret the archive here in Saskatoon.  What image do I have it in my power to create of Richard St. Barbe Baker: what truth and meaning will I find there and what responsibilities are entailed in the telling?  It is the task at hand, and one that seems all the less daunting when there is such an extraordinary world of literature to weave it into.

It seems the necessity is to keep on reading, even though I have now been through daunting numbers of boxes, it will be through the interweaving of St. Barbe Baker’s story with all the other extraordinary manifestations of ecological thought that any personal insight will develop.  This, aside from the academic formulation of my thesis, is part of a personal search for meaning and understanding which began a long time ago and is only going to get richer as the years progress.