Can the Earth talk? Isn’t it just a great ball of rock rocketing about an even bigger ball of combustibles? Surely it’s only humans that have feelings and sensitivity and the like. All this claptrap about Gaia, isn’t it just a long deep wallow in unabashed anthropomorphism?
At the time of my first night in the Wendy house on my land back in 2011, I wasn’t exactly a materialist. But I was hardly an Earth Mother either. I’d already lived in the countryside for a few years. And I’d seen the blood-curdling displays nature could put on. There were ghastly critters, scorpions, poisonous snakes, even ants morphed into sinister armies when they banded together to devour a moth alive. All in all life on planet Earth appeared to me to be a wheel of ferocious struggle, a relentless and exhausting scrabble to stay alive and avoid seemingly inevitable pain. I loved the beauty nature offered, but I was unconvinced of her underlying ethics. That night, as I stabbed at my campfire with a broken pine branch and felt the sweet apricots squelch between my teeth, I sensed the primitive in all her rawness.
In fact, unbeknown to me at the time, there has been a batch of research regarding the sensitivity of our planet and the various life forms that dwell on her. None is more fascinating than the investigations into the secret life of plants. Long before the new age donned its rose-tinted spectacles, a while before the more cynical post-moderns too, people were researching into the feelings of plants. Back in 1848 a certain Gustav Theodor Fechner showed that plants responded to talk and affection. This theory was backed up by Jagadesh Chandra Bose in 1900 who discovered that plants seemed to suffer from spasms when administered poison or subject to other aggressive behavior. More alarmingly, he found the same responses in metals too, which generated something of a kerfuffle. Then, later on in the sixties, the independent scientist James Lovelock, published his Gaia hypothesis. He argued that the Earth is a self-regulating, interacting organism, with all entities on the planet being compared to the separate cells and organs that make up a body. The environmentalists almost completely adopted the theory. But back in the realm of positivist science doors began swiftly swinging shut. Bose, Fechner and Lovelock are still greeted by the academic community with steely stares of skepticism. According to the mainstream, it’s all pseudoscience. Emotional, childish poppycock.
I’m not a scientist. I’m a human being. And being human is a fascinating state of play. All of us are perched upon this spinning green orb trying to deduce what the hell is going on around us. But whether we rely on our five senses, our logic, our emotions or intuition, we can never KNOW beyond all reasonable doubt. Because there is always reasonable doubt. Can we be sure that simply because an organism doesn’t have a brain, that it doesn’t possess sensitivity? Can we be certain that a massive body such as our planet doesn’t have some sort of sentience? We can’t. We can’t because our modes of understanding the world in which we live (senses, logical analysis, intuition) are limited. We can’t even prove we didn’t make the entire world up or that we’re not living permanently in a dream.
So back to the rocks and the campfire and the Wendy house that was too small for me to fit my legs in. Back to that magical night, my first night alone on my land in the Turkish hills. There I was, staring into a fire feeling distinctly cavewoman. The burning wood hissed, while the thick pines overhead murmured. Above me stars and constellations I had no idea of the name of winked and pulsated like distant lighthouses. The huge dark gulf of the infinite was out there. Space, and more space, and more. And yet here I was, this pondering human ape, my rump of flesh and blood wedged firmly onto the Earth’s crust, looking up and sensing the awe of a fathomless night sky.
Gaia doesn’t speak to us in a deep booming voice. She doesn’t send messages crashing into us with lightning bolts or flashing lights. But whenever you hear the whisper of the breeze, the rippling of bird song, the approaching bellow of a storm or the rhythmic whirring of crickets, Gaia is communicating. It isn’t logical. It isn’t empirical either. I agree with the academics. The experience is very unfashionably emotional.
I smelt the dampness of the dew on the grass. The hard ridges on my rock pushed into me. I heard an owl call out into the forest, other foreign rustlings in the grass. This is what I understood as Gaia speaking, and what I realised is that she was talking to me in a code of feelings. The message I received was clear. It was the feeling of belonging, of being finally well and truly home. As the darkness pulled in about me, it dawned on me that I hadn’t ever felt so intensely a part of a place before.
There may be a multitude of explanations for the way I felt that night. But in all honesty, does it really make any difference? Because however much society attempts to repress or belittle emotions, it is feelings, not logic that actually direct people’s lives. And if they don’t, well what miserable grey existences they are. Love is replaced by marital contracts, family bonds become obsolete, we cart grandma off to an institution and live in faceless boxes instead of inspiring hand-crafted cottages. Life without feeling really isn’t life at all. Indeed, it is perhaps pertinent to wonder - if the planet really is no more sentient than a concrete block of flats – why we all do get so emotional about it, and if the Earth has no more soul than a strip of asphalt, then why walking on the former invigorates and rejuvenates us, while the latter drains and demoralizes us. There are few things that are universally true from culture to culture, but a feeling of well-being in nature is one of them.
So, yes I admit it defied all logic. It was irrational and unscientific. It might have been a figment of my mind. If my senses were to be believed I was sitting with my arse in the dirt, high up on a lonesome mountain slope without a roof over my head. Logic and memory both informed me that there were wild boar, scorpions and snakes all about. And yet my emotions were telling another story altogether. They told me I was more at home here than I had ever been in my life. I felt strangely taken care of, nurtured even.
I decided there and then. Somehow I had to live up there.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
Just released! There is now a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?