Nature Matters: Life at All Scales
By Jos Smith
We chose scale as a theme for this year’s New Networks because of the way it can challenge us to see the world afresh. As with the range of visible colours, or the range of audible sounds, we forget sometimes that we experience nature within a human range of scales, outside of which it extends away from us in every direction. Testing the edges of this range has always expanded our knowledge of, and feeling for, the world. But as much as it can help us to understand what goes unseen, it can also help us to appreciate what we have right here before us in new ways.
Heath Potter Wasps, Eumenes coarctatus
Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing teaches us the value of slowing down, of searching for the deep past beyond memory and holding it, here and now, with the quality of attention that comes from being truly present. Tim Dee’s Greenery opens our eyes to Spring as we’ve never experienced it before, tracking, through close observation of birds, an intercontinental blush of warmth as a whole hemisphere is revived into another year. Kathleen and Tim will launch our conference this year in conversation with Jean McNeil.
In an essay I have never been able to find since, John Burroughs once claimed that to describe the lives of insects, to write about them in all their drama and variety, and place that writing on the bookshelf next to classics, is to suggest a parity between natural history and history. He was arguing for the value of nature writing as a process of magnification, raising the life of a cricket, say, up to the scale of Achilles on the battlefield (and long before the ubiquity of the zoom lens).
Burroughs was arguing for a quality of attention that speaks for the little things of this world, that believes they might have something valuable to teach us. There is a deeper implication to his argument as well, though, that suggests the human dramas of ‘our’ history are not simply played out against a backdrop of the ‘natural’ landscape, but that they exist within a whole cosmos of other dramas, other histories, vying for our attention at all sorts of different scales.
Led by a curiosity to understand and a creativity to work with the world around us, we have narrowed our vision toward the microscopic and opened our minds toward (and beyond) the planet as a whole. Champion of ‘watching narrowly’ (as he described it), the eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White famously claimed that ‘all nature is so full that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most studied’. Even he would have been surprised today to see just how right this would turn out to be.
News from below about quantum foam, epigenetics, the microbial life in a handful of healthy soil, can produce an excited vertigo in even the hardiest of stomachs. Our panel on ‘Microworlds’ will lean you over the edge of this busyness of being down there. Tom Oliver (speaking on this panel) tells us now that our own bodies might even be composed of a minority of human cells, that in fact non-human bacteria, fungi and viruses make up over half of the very matter of us. What does this do to the understanding of our relationship with nature?
At last year’s New Networks in York we heard about the importance of children’s literature in shaping this relationship. Well tonight, with my three-year-old just put to bed, this talk of scale brings to mind Dr Seuss’ classic, Horton Hears a Who. Some will tell you that The Lorax is Dr Seuss’ great environmental fable but Horton feels like one for our stranger times. For those who don’t have the book to hand, Horton (an elephant) hears a voice calling for help one day that seems to be coming from a speck of dust. Of course, he cannot see who is calling – he can hardly see the speck of dust – but he decides he will help: ‘Because, after all, / a person’s a person, no matter how small.’ The speck turns out to be almost a planet for the ‘Whos’ who live there and Horton helps them, despite never seeing them and despite being ridiculed by all the other animals. But it is Horton’s decision to help a ‘person’ beyond his capacity to see that I think is relevant here.
Thinking at the edge of human scale can stretch our moral sense in productive ways. Horton finds himself rethinking what counts as a ‘person’. This is no small question. In fact, it is one that has been running through the American courts in recent years thanks to Steven Wise’s visionary ‘Nonhuman Rights Project’. This is a legal campaign to recognise certain cognitively complex animals as ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law rather than as property.
Shifts in scale can happen in the centre too then as we question the categories with which we organise the world around us. This year we have a panel asking the question ‘What is A Species?’, promising to explore what is at stake at the shifting edges of the species boundaries. Part of the uncertainty here comes from the fact that all identities are contingent, they are constituted by difference and differentiation, by the whole network of relationships that species share with one another, and especially with us (the species who seems to get the final word).
Donna Haraway has written memorably that ‘beings do not precede their relatings’ in her Companion Species Manifesto. The idea of companion species draws attention to the intimate and mutual debts that we share with some of the animals we are closest to. Our panel on ‘Companion Animals’ will explore different ways of thinking about those exchanges and debts.
Shifts in scale often unsettle our anthropocentric view of the world. This can feel disturbing or it can feel refreshing depending on how comfortable you are with being a little displaced from the centre of your universe. Either way, such shifts help us to see the world around us with those fresh eyes again. And at a time when the world is changing in profoundly unsettling ways, fresh eyes will serve us well. Our panel on ‘Lost Worlds’ will explore, among other things, the vanishing of Doggerland to sea level rise 6,000 years ago, a story of environmental vulnerability that speaks to our own uncertain times.
And so, our programme moves up in scale to cross international borders. Following last year’s ‘New Directions for Nature Writing’ we explore ‘Nature Writing in a Global Context’ thinking about memory, human migration, relationships that stretch around the world as they bring us closer to the Earth. As ever, our panels will be complemented by music, poetry, artwork and even some site-specific drama this year from Steven Waters.
Finally, we explore a panel on ‘States of Emergency’ offering fresh perspectives on both the climate and the biodiversity emergencies unfolding around the world. When we look at some of the wildest parts of the planet now – the Arctic tundra and the Amazonian rainforest – we see disturbing evidence of our own influence staring right back at us. This final discussion promises to offer ideas, thought and debate that will carry you home equipped to weather the strange new normal of life in the Anthropocene.
Whether it’s the wriggling miasma of microscopic life or the shifting complexities of the climate system, such journeys in scale help us to reflect on what we mean by ‘nature’ and our place within it. Doing so is to perhaps feel a little more vulnerable today than we once did, but that vulnerability can also bring us closer to the other animals with whom we share this planet. And with that vulnerability also comes an intensified sense of how precious life really is. We hope you will come and join us in celebrating this life across all scales.