Saturday, 31 August 2019

FROM UMWELT TO UNDERLAND

'Cow parsley has a language of its own,' writes Ali Smith in her novel, Autumn.  

Adam Nicholson quotes these words at the end of The Seabird's Cry and adds 'Yes, cow parsley, puffins, sandeels, gannets, plankton, the great wandering albatrosses, every living thing in a multiple Babel of radiant interpriorities.'

But Nicholson's book is, like so much contemporary nature writing, a book of loss - sea bird numbers are falling rapidly (only the gannet is doing well).

Nicholson writes about the biologist Jakob von Uexküll's concept of umwelt or surrounding world.  Each creature has an individual perception of its own world.  For seabirds that may include knowledge of thousands of miles of ocean, its currents and the direction of its prevailing winds.  Every creature also has its own innenwelt, its 'interiority derived from the animal's grasp of the world that surrounds it.'

Human intervention has disturbed the umwelt of so many creatures and we have started calling this age the Anthropocene (Ben Porter's shocking photograph - displayed in his current exhibition at Plas Glyn y Weddw - of a dead seabird, its stomach full of plastic says it all).

But Nicholson's book is not all doom and gloom.  He even proposes the end of the Anthropocene and the beginning of the Ecozoic, 'an age which has at its heart the belief that all living beings have a right to life and to the recognition that they have forms of understanding we have never shared and probably never will.'

On Sunday night Prom 49 (BBC Radio 3) was a delight.  It was based on The Lost Words: A Spell Book, the collaboration between Robert MacFarlane and artist Jackie Morris, prompted by the Oxford University Press's decision to cut words such as bluebell, acorn, heron, raven, wren, bramble, kingfisher from a new edition of its Junior Dictionary.  Already a beautiful book, the prom dramatised The Lost Words into an enthralling mixed media performance of word, song, music, dance, birdsong (Chris Watson's recordings) and live painting by Jackie herself.  It was a great celebration of the natural world.  

This week I read in the on-line magazine, Emergence, MacFarlane's essay, 'Understory', (excerpted from his book Underland: A Deep Time Journey)MacFarlane quotes Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree: 'to dwellers in the wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature'.  

The essay includes an account of the net of hyphae (minute threads that fungi send through the soil) and their interrelationship with trees.  MacFarlane revises the way we see woodland, not as individual trees in competition with one another, but as a network of co-operative resources, a 'mutualism', and it is the hyphae which enable this to happen.

The swallows are insect-hunting above the field outside my study on this quiet late-summer evening.  For half the year this has been their umwelt - they know where there is mud to make their nest, the place to build it, and where the insects will be.  Soon they will begin their great migration. 

No comments:

Post a Comment