It feels splendid to leap into the writing life after a year of absence. Thank you, dear readers, for your interest across this span of silence.
The diagnosis was cancer and the treatment that knocked it off was brutal. Together they left me stunned, wandering in the valley of the shadow of death, at times truly fearful.
Coming now into the light of life, feeling the beginnings of vibrance as I emerge from the shadows, I keep thinking of Lazarus. Not the guy who was raised from the dead, but the other one. Jesus told the parable of a sick and destitute beggar named Lazarus who lay before the rich man’s gate asking only for the crumbs from the table. The rich man turned his back, slamming the gate shut so that no food, care, comfort or goodness could cross over. Behind the closed gate the rich man and his brothers continued their self-satisfied, hard-hearted, opulent and comfortable lives. Lazarus, abandoned and alone, died at the gate. Abraham himself came and took Lazarus away to a better place.
Not long after, the rich man died. From his place of torment in Hades he called to Abraham, asking that Lazarus come to give him relief. Abraham said no: the barrier between the two places was impassable, he said. So the rich man asked if Lazarus could go back to earth to tell the brothers what had happened to him. He thought that if they heard about it from Lazarus they would change their behaviour and avoid the brother’s fate. Again, Abraham refused. He said that the living brothers already had Moses and the prophets. If they would not listen to all the wisdom that was already given, they would not listen to anyone.
This is the true wisdom of the face-to-face: goodness toward others gives life its value, and all anyone needs to know is right before them.
The first part of this powerful story concerns hard-heartedness in the face of desperate need. We are today deeply familiar with the social and spiritual demands of strangers at the gate. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of them. Michael Ignatieff recently wrote about the disasters pushing people to flee Syria: ‘Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution’. Ignatieff argues that generosity toward refugees is both ethically good and politically prudent. Far better that people be given the opportunity to make good lives for themselves than that they be pushed into utter, nihilistic desperation. And multicultural experience shows that in general nations are enriched as newcomers settle and flourish. None of this happens without effort, but this is the real work of life’s goodness: to reach out in care and responsibility.
The second part of the Lazarus story also speaks powerfully to life on earth today. Abraham said that all we need to know is actually before us. For him, Moses and prophets held the keys to knowledge. Other times and places hold other keys.
These days I find myself thinking of the animist vivacity that permeates the goodness of earth life. Part of the horror of the shadow of death is that one feels that life’s goodness is being obliterated. In contrast, to see clearly is to see that goodness arises all around us – in the rain, air, ground, light, warmth, the light winds of morning and the golden glow of dusk. Alfonso Lingis explains:
‘We do not relate to the light, the earth, the air, and the warmth only with our individual sensibility and sensuality. We communicate to one another the light our eyes know, the ground that sustains our postures, and the air and the warmth with which we speak. We face one another as condensations of earth, light, air, and warmth ….’
All creatures are the beneficiaries of elemental goodness, and all creatures participate in the webs that nurture and support on-going life. We are face-to-face with goodness all the time, and that goodness gives rise to creatures’ capacity to flourish. It speaks in all the vast exuberant generosity of earth life that flows through birds and bees, predators and prey, flowers and nectar drinkers, creaturely generations, air, sun and water. All around us is this great flourishing. All one needs to know as a grounding for wisdom is the coming forth of diversity, beauty and integrity. The goodness of a human being is here: in becoming a conscious contributor to the generosity of life.
It is a pleasure to report on the conference last week at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Along with the delights of sunshine, beaches, long daylight hours, a big moon, sea lions and redwoods, there was also the specific event that brought me there: “Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”.
Best-ever start to a conference! ~ Ursula Le Guin in conversation with James Clifford and Donna Haraway in a downtown theatre . It was definitely an enchanted evening! Le Guin is deeply impressive: in her eighties, serene, committed, engaged, and, in a non-aggressive way, very hard-hitting. James Clifford has been writing about culture and its predicaments for many years, and has recently published a book on Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-first Century. Donna Haraway is one of the leading thinkers in the area of science and technology studies, along with many other fields, and is a champion of multispecies becomings. Her most recent book is When Species Meet.
The Le Guin ‘conversation’ was sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale, and these lively conversationalists, along with an enthusiastic audience, made for a warm, indeed thrilling, evening. Le Guin read a few short prose pieces and poems, and spoke briefly. Clifford and Haraway each spoke in appreciation of Le Guin’s work, and also asked a few questions. Too rich to be summarised, the conversation ranged across matters of prose and poetry, the carrier bag theory of fiction, dragons, the need to develop stories that are commensurate with the damaged worlds we are now inhabiting, wizards, stories that might enable us to see and imagine the looping destinies of earth life, rocks, ‘decentring the west’, coyotes, and fellowship with nonhumans.
After the conversation, members of the public got to ask questions. I was particularly taken with the person who asked about Le Guin’s use of the word ‘soul’ and what she means by that. She said, with characteristic aversion to abstractions, that there isn’t any other word, and somehow people know what you mean. Maybe it just means ‘the togetherness of things’.
Some time, either then or later, someone remarked that UC Santa Cruz, the campus in the midst of ancient redwoods, is something of a school for wizards. I had to agree:
the whole conference was immersed in the magic of good thinking, good speaking, good listening, and respectful engagement.
Over the course of the next two days, we participants shared our thoughts and concerns in relation to the challenge set by the organiser, Anna Tsing: ‘A multi-day conference seeks to understand if humans and other species can continue to inhabit the earth together? Through noticing, describing, and imagining, we aim to renew conversation about life on earth.’
So what are some of the arts of living on a damaged planet? Donna Haraway framed the question vividly: what are the on-going possibilities for possibilities to be on-going? Speakers from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences addressed the topic from within their area of expertise. I was particularly fascinated by the biologists because I was least familiar with their material. At the same time, they focussed their speeches to address questions that scholars in the humanities are also concerned with: what is the nature of the ‘individual’; how are social groups organised; are there forms of immortality?
One term we all kept coming around to was ‘story’, along with it’s relatives such as ‘storying’ and ‘storied’. Donna Haraway referred to the previous evening’s conversation by raising again the carrier bag theory of fiction. Her point was that the stories we need now are not the big heroic ones, but rather smaller stories that help us rethink our big questions in richer veins. William Cronon, the historian and great proponent of stories, defined history as a process of making connections across individuals, events and landscapes, telling stories in our own time. Story, he said, is the great narrative of transformation. Other scholars, who may not have been equally familiar with storying as a scholarly practice, took up the term with surprising verve. Deborah Gordon, a biologist specialising in ants’ social life, briefly discussed the algorithm she developed to analyse ant interactions across time and space, and daringly referred to it as a kind of story.
Another term we all kept coming back to was symbiosis. Donna brought the term into the conference by pointing out that the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (selfish genes, organisms, populations, species, competition) was quite incapable of engaging with the new evidence arising from microbiology that shows symbiosis to be at the heart of life.
Margaret McFall-Ngai gave a fantastically engaging presentation on microbiology. In the past six years or so, she said, microbiology has been undergoing a revolution. To take an example that is up-close and personal, it is now possible to say that a human being is 90% microbes. This is such a strange thought: that the being one thinks of as one’s self is only 10% one’s self. The rest are other creatures who live with us, and who in some sense are us. It is difficult to know in what sense an individual is an individual: we are all chimeras, we are plural and symbiotic, we are animals in a bacterial world. It follows that all the damage and all the impacts that are altering the microbial world have the capacity to include us (humans) in the on-going devastation. It may be that we are changing the microbiotic world in such a dramatic way that it will collapse. If so, we’ll all go together because we all are together far more intimately than could possibly have been suspected until recently.
I won’t go into lots more detail, as the online videos will be available soon. There you will encounter speeches addressing symbiosis and flying-foxes, salmon farming, black water in the Murray River, megafaunal extinctions, the perilous future of horseshoe crabs, the emergent non-centralised social organisation of life in an ant colony, the wildly symbiotic lichen way of life, canyons as sites of trash and treasure, and much more.
A third term that ran through the conference was, of course, ‘Anthropocene’. Donna Haraway proposed the term Capitalocene more specifically to target responsibility in this era of damage. Terms are still debated and debatable, and probably will be for a while yet. For example, Eileen Crist recently wrote a wonderful argument against the term Anthropocene, citing it as evidence of the poverty of our capacity to think beyond ourselves (read here). In her words, ‘our predicament primarily calls for a drastic pulling back and scaling down of the human presence—welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, forms of habitation, and uses of land and sea, so that humanity may flourish together with the entire breadth of Life.’
Crist’s words remind us of another of the big questions we face when examining and imagining ‘arts of living’ – can we imagine alternatives? Nora Bateson, award-winning film-maker and daughter of Gregory Bateson, posed the question in very succinct terms: ‘what is the vision?’ Her words brought us back (again) to science fiction and fantasy, poetry and poetic prose, visual arts and algorithms, chimeras and symbionts ~ who are we and what are we aiming for?
At the same time, no one seemed to doubt that we are now living in a new era.
The question necessarily arises: how would we know that we are living in a new era? Anna Tsing, the organiser and keystone thinker in pulling together this particular nexus of interdisciplinary thought and practice, spoke of history as ‘overlapping tracks and traces of world-making’, situated in irreversible time, fraught with uncertainty and with emergent complexity. This humanities-science perspective links up interestingly with the evidence now being compiled by geologists.
One of the most informative and disturbing speeches I have heard recently was offered by Jan Zalasiewicz at the Anthropocene conference held in Sydney earlier this year. He is a professor of geology, and he started by making the point that geologists define eras on the basis of visible evidence in the earth’s strata. From that point of view, the question of whether or not we are in a new era is answerable by considering the extent to which human activities are now making a mark on earth’s strata. This speech is available online, and is well worth watching (view here). Let me just name a few pieces of evidence: new metals unknown in nature; synthetic compounds such a plastic, the amount of which no one is measuring; new rocks such as concrete; boring and drilling to an extent of something on the order of 50 million kilometres of holes in the ground for oil; granite formed through atomic testing, and so on. His answer unequivocally was ‘yes’, we are in a new geological era.
It can be hard to pinpoint a ‘take-home message’ from such a rich and complex conference, and perhaps it is unfair even to try, but there was for me one truly novel expression that summed up many of the big ideas. The most powerful themes included symbiosis, interactions between the biotic and the abiotic, mutual interdependence, and the understanding finally emerging in western thought that life arrives on waves of multispecies connectivities, and is imperilled by threats all across the webs of life.
The humble lichen is a great exemplar of many of these themes. Anne Pringle’s talk on lichens, asking the question ‘why do organisms age’, was a delightful discussion of her research. This composite organism lives interactively at the interface of biotic and abiotic domains, and is symbiotic in its very (composite) make-up. Understanding the patterns that connect us with lichens enables us to understand ourselves as chimerical multispecies organisms, symbiotically interdependent both within and without. That understanding leads to this great message:
More about the conference, including abstracts of papers and bios of presenters is available at http://anthropo.ihr.ucsc.edu/. The conference was sponsored by the UCSC Institute for Humanities Research, AARHUS University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) (Denmark), and UCSC Bateson Experiments.
Keystone species ‘punch above their weight’, to use a popular metaphor. They contribute more to their ecosystems than their numbers would indicate. Charismatic top predators such as wolves and dingoes are great examples of keystone species. They generate the trophic cascades that enhance whole systems of life including the geophysical foundations (discussed here). But as the fascinating ecologist Stephan Harding tells us:
‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’
To my mind one of the least likely ‘big players’ is mistletoe. Can a parasite actually be a keystone? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Not only is mistletoe good for kissing, this great cohort is a ‘keystone resource’.
Let us enter the entrancing world of mistletoe through symbiotic mutualism. A relatively non-technical definition is ‘two or more species that live together to their mutual benefit’. Although the idea of symbiosis was not the dominant paradigm for much of the 20th century, a growing body of research is showing that it complements competition and is utterly fundamental to life on earth and is part of how every creature lives. The great biologist Lynn Margulis declares:
‘We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet.’
Mistletoe, it turns out, is a highly eclectic and inclusive symbiotic mutualist. One of the main families all around the world, and a prominent player in Australia, is Loranthaceae – a family of mistletoe with about 1,000 member species. Most of them are ‘obligate, stem hemiparasites’. This means that they can only live by being attached to another plant (obligate), that they attach to stems (not roots), and that while they get water and some nutrients from their host, they are also able to photosynthesise.
The story of mistletoe mutualisms is all about entanglements of interdependencies, nutrient cycles, and seductions. Loranthaceae are themselves deeply dependent. First there is dependence on the tree or shrub on which they grow. No host, no parasite. Next, there is dependence on birds and bees to pollinate. No pollination, no seeds, no future generations. Then there is dependence on birds, in particular, to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. No dispersal, very little chance of germination and growth. And there is dependence on the leaf-eaters: no browsing means too much mistletoe growth leading to multiple deaths and disasters.
If mistletoes are to survive they have to entice and nourish their mutualists. The brightly coloured flowers are powerful attractors of pollinators, and the nectar is not only high in sugars, but also fats. Some of the Australian Loranthaceae produce nectar containing droplets of pure fat. The berries are highly visible, abundant and full of nutrition. Worldwide, many ‘folivores’ eat the nutritious leaves: deer, camels, rhinoceroses, gorillas and possums, amongst many others.
Their adaptive edge goes beyond mere provisioning and involves dazzling abundance.
The most awesome interdependence is between mistletoes and their mutualist mistletoe birds. ABC Science journalist Abbie Thomas wrote a delightful account:
Many mistletoes continue to flower in drought or during winter, when few other blossoms are available. Indeed, they are often the only local source of nectar and pollen during hard times. Packed with sugar and carbs, mistletoe fruits are good tucker, not just for the ubiquitous mistletoe bird, but also for cuckoo-shrikes, ravens, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, and even emus and cassowaries.
The mistletoe bird plays an important role in the mistletoe plant’s life cycle. The life of most mistletoes begins when a viscous, gluey seed drops onto a branch from the rear end of the brilliantly coloured black, red and white Mistletoe bird. Found throughout Australia, these birds are highly mobile and go wherever mistletoe is in fruit. Once eaten, the seed of the fruit quickly passes through the bird, emerging just 10-15 minutes later. The sticky seed fastens onto the branch, although many seeds fail to adhere, and are lost.
Within days, a tiny tendril emerges from the seed, growing quickly and secreting a cocktail of enzymes directly onto the corky outer protection of the branch. Unable to resist the onslaught, the bark yields a small ulcer-like hole into which the tendril probes, seeking its way down into the sappy tree tissue until it hits paydirt: the water and mineral-rich plumbing of the tree.’
Mutualisms are entanglements of interdependencies. The host tree supports its mistletoes physically and nutritionally, and it also buffers them against the vicissitudes of climate uncertainty. So, too, mistletoes support other species and provide a buffer against fluctuations and uncertainties. A study from Australia shows that mistletoes have extended nectar and seed producing periods, and that within a given region nectar and fruit are available from one or another mistletoe species all year round. In addition, as mistletoes are host to so many insect species, the insect-eating birds also get the benefit. Mammals join the feast, eating leaves, seeds and flowers. Possums are amongst the main leaf eaters, and are seasonally dependent on mistletoe.
Along with all the creatures who consume mistletoes, there is yet another entourage that benefits. Some animals build their nests in the mistletoe where they get some protection from the elements and predators. The action of the mistletoe itself increases hollows in trees, and so all the creatures that nest in hollows get the benefit. A further benefit is that their presence in trees alters the forest canopy and reduces the severity of bushfires.
In life systems, what goes around comes around. The host tree or shrub gets a steady rain of litter, droppings, and other organic matter that become part of the nutrient cycle, benefiting both the host and other plants in the area. In short, the benefits of mistletoes pass through the lives and bodies of many species before turning into nutrients to be drawn up by hosts and tapped into by mistletoes.
The relationships work because of the extravagant generosity of interdependence: highly nutritious nectar produced by bright showy flowers; shiny seeds loaded with carbs and sugars; mistletoe birds with their gorgeous red feathers, lovely song, and fertile poop; gliders and possums; butterflies who visit, eat, and reproduce.
There is an association between songbirds and mistletoe, and as new evidence is showing that both groups have their origins in ancient Gondwanaland, perhaps there is more to this old and beautiful alliance than is yet properly understood. I found myself totally captivated by a story shared by Andrew Skeoch, a sound recordist specialising in the sounds of nature. He recorded a mistletoe bird in full song, and inadvertently also recorded the fact that this talented little creature was singing and pooping at the same time. Something about this bright little bird creating and performing musically, while depositing mistletoe seeds securely wrapped in glue and fertiliser seems almost magical in its joyfulness (listen to the birdsong here).
It is good to recall that there is an old European history of respect. Mistletoe is sacred to Druids (contemporary and ancient), and it is still a customary Christmas decoration. Hung over the threshold, it invites people to kiss. In earlier days it was said to be able to find buried treasure, keep witches away and prevent trolls from souring milk! It would be good also to recall that Aboriginal Australians respect mistletoe as a food for humans and for many other creatures. In North Australia, where so much of my learning has taken place, people give berries to children, but adults avoid them. Perhaps they are aware that growing children have a particular need for the high nutritional value of mistletoe.
At this time, many people think mistletoe is a pest. The term ‘parasite’ conjures negative imagery, but the larger issue, at least in Australia, is that in some areas mistletoes are over-abundant. Trees are dying, and something has gone askew because mistletoe cannot thrive if the host dies. The renowned science writer Tim Low tells us that the loss of possums, those folivores who love their mistletoe, is a key. “Foxes, by preying on mistletoe-munching possums,” set up conditions where mistletoes can grow out of control. Possums are only prey to foxes when they come down out of the trees. Along roadsides and on farms, they are at risk. Within forests where they can remain up in the trees possums thrive and mistletoe is contained.
So, what would partnership rewilding be like if the focus were on mistletoes and their ‘ground up’ trophic dynamics?
First, it would involve fewer foxes and more possums. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of the dingo. As I have been reporting in other essays, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that dingoes reduce the numbers of invasive species such as foxes and cats, and promote the viability of smaller native marsupials such as possums.
Second, it would involve on-going health and reproductive capacity of more extensive stands of trees. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of flying-foxes. Their pollination is utterly crucial to the future of forests and woodlands in Australia, and their lives and livelihoods are central to partnership rewilding.
Third, it would involve changes in human thought and action. Not everyone thinks mistletoes are innate pests, but, as the great mistletoe scientist David Watson indicates, “pretty much all of the public’s perceptions about Mistletoe are fundamentally incorrect.” I want to be clear that Aboriginal people are not likely to hold these misperceptions. Here, as with other matters, the limitations of the mainstream public cannot readily be attributed to everyone. Having said that ~~
I want to set up camp, metaphorically at least, under the mistletoe. Here the kiss of life is sensuous, continuous, and diverse.
I hope others will join me, and I rather hope we won’t get pooped on! Let us open our lives to the great, complex, on-going, joyful, benefit-rich, exuberant and dazzling generosity that holds entangled interdependencies together. A camp in the midst of all these mutualisms is place of coming-forth for those whose flows of life and death are achieved together. These entangled partnerships have co-evolved over millions of years, and if the human newcomer can partner in with them, we may yet become part of ecosystems that will hold together in this time of flux and uncertainty.