Thrift, shale and sea beet. Do they share a language?

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Dylan Thomas – from “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

I could go on, I suppose, but too many quotations (there are more to come) can make you look like a smartass rather than an intellectual – see Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees Mogg for abundant evidence of that! However I remember a piece of advice I received from a lovely retired priest when I was a curate that has all the patina of a much handled relic. “You should,” he said, “preach one very clever sermon a year, but never more, because that way the congregation will know you’re clever but won’t get bored to tears with you”. The second piece of advice was that I should never preach about adultery for fear of inadvertently landing a right hook on an unprepared penitent. I once recounted this as a very ill conceived joke in a sermon and leaned across to focus on the most impeccably virtuous person I could think of, upon which a deep burgundy blush rose from his throat to the top of his head. Months later it all came out. Lesson learned.

Anyway this might turn out to be my annual clever piece – I’ll do my best, anyway but even I don’t yet know how to express this rather complicated notion.

Walking is very good for philosophers; well it’s very good for thinking anyway – and one of the great things about our holidays in Cornwall is that they give abundant opportunity for walking and thinking. On Sunday we were wandering down the usual ecstatic bridle way on which I’d already amused myself by listing all the wildflowers I recognised; so I was enjoying a rather relaxed feeling as Madame tried to photograph an Orange Tip butterfly and I was wondering whether at least some of the Cow Parsley in the high banks was actually Hemlock. And then – apropos of nothing at all – the thought popped into my mind – “is nature structured like a mind?” Now these sudden thoughts often turn out to be a complete waste of time, but it seemed a good idea to write it in my field notebook. So I write it down and then – in a rather Pooh Bear moment added “Gaia”. Just to remind myself that I should be careful not to reinvent the wheel. Then, ten minutes later and a bit of chin scratching I added to – “is nature structured like a mind? …… four more words – “or like a language?”.

Click here if you want to see where these weird European thoughts came from – it’s not that bad I promise.

That was enough to set me off on what turned out to be a rather tortuous reflection on a famous (well a bit famous) quotation by Jacques Lacan whose impenetrable writings almost exceed Martin Heidegger (“That pellucid Teuton”) in obscurity. He wrote that “the unconscious is structured like a language” – an idea which, after several years of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, I think I have a tentative hold on. Then of course, remembered quotes fluttered around my brain like Hitchcock’s birds, and Wittgenstein “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him”, joined Eliade with “We live in a story shaped universe”.

A hunch is just just a theory without footnotes

So, to borrow an image from police procedurals on the telly I started a kind of virtual mind-map in my head, as you might pin post-it notes on a screen. In no particular order, we now know that plants and trees really do communicate with one another; sometimes through the mycelial networks of fungi and sometimes through the release of tiny amounts of organic compounds; sharing food, sending warnings about pests. On the allotment we occasionally make use of these properties, for instance by sowing Tagetes (African Marigolds) to warn off eelworms. We know quite a bit about these functions but hardly anything about the finer detail. The point here is that interactions between plants; between the tiniest single cell organisms through and between all of the many Kingdoms up to and including ourselves could be described as languages, and one of the essential properties of language is that it’s structured; there are syntaxes, rules that need to be respected if successful communication is going to happen.

All that this suggests is that as clever humans we’re able to crack some of those codes – we know when the dog is angry or frightened, when the cat is hungry, when the bird is startled or just looking for a mate. Not all of these interpretations are founded in fact. The medieval doctrine of signatures denoted Lungwort as a cure for chest complaints because the spotted leaves looked rather like the nodules on diseased lungs. Some herbal remedies were founded in hypothetical links between appearance and curative properties; but some were well found in experience, which is why Big Pharma is scouring the earth looking for plants able to synthesise organic compounds as yet unknown to science. Just think of the current interest in Cannabis and Psilocybin. Here again, the active ingredients in both, have a powerful and often curative function in human medicine. These tiny organic building blocks in plants and fungi are miraculously able to lock on to molecules in our own bodies and change whole systems. It’s as if we were made of the same stuff.

You may wonder “what about poisons then?” I once worked in a satellite broadcasting studio and over the desk – you know, the thing that looks like an aeroplane flight deck – was a sign that read “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked the engineer what it meant and he simply said “Read the manual”. The business of vegetable molecules locking on to our own is a serious matter, and however much Hemlock Water Dropwort roots look like parsnips they’ll kill you before you’ve had time to look them up in the manual. In the linguistic interactions between humans and other life forms there are melodious moments and grammatical disasters.

All of which suggests that we have a great deal more in common with other life forms than we often think. Those moments of ecstatic connection with nature are much deeper than nice feelings. They’re a recognition that we are made of the same stuff – how could it be otherwise?

Thrift, shale and Sea Beet all evolved into their present forms in a process so remote and complex it’s hard even to imagine. But if all creation evolved in an orderly way even through mutations and adaptation; if the theory that nature is structured like a language should be tenable, then maybe – just maybe – that language may be faintly communicable not through translation into any human language but through interactive imagination and moments of insight. Our unconscious may be a better listener than our rational selves.

I know this might sound like a return to tarot readings and astrology. I’m certain that many “regular” scientists would dismiss it as heretical nonsense. But even in my most recent floras, there’s always genetic information that describes how many sets of DNA the plants possess. The reproduction of plants is generally very rule-bound and when a new generation breaks those rules it is often infertile. Some genera get around that by reproducing without fertilization by another plant. As with Blackberries they’re nature’s little joke to keep naturalists off the streets as they struggle to identify hundreds of sub-species and write monographs about them.

Maybe you didn’t press the uncover button above, and missed Mircea Eliade’s quote that the universe is story shaped, and Wittgenstein’s famous statement about not being able to understand lion speech and finally Lacan’s assertion that the unconscious is structured like a language. Of course there’s a whole universe of natural language that will remain unintelligible to us because we are not trees or hoverflies. But we can know the circumstances under which trees and hoverflies and elephants thrive. The instinctive unity with nature which is gifted to some can be learned and must be learned if we are not to perish as the species that thought it could manage on its own.

Which brings me to the last post-it note. In a largely irreligious culture many people are unaware of the wealth of creation stories that our ancestors told one another to explain how we came to be. If I pick just one Old Testament story it’s because it’s a brilliant insight into the way of things. In that story God created the earth and all its creatures by speaking. There are many other creation stories across the world that reflect the astonishing thought that language is the substance and condition of our existence.

To recap for a moment – if Nature is structured by some form of broadly considered language; and if the unconscious mind is also structured like a language, then mind, language and nature have this in common. We are one with nature not out of some voluntary act on our part but because that is the way of it. We can ignore it but we certainly can’t change it.

In a worldwide culture which has lost its way in greed and selfishness and where the consequences selfish and destructive behaviour can be airbrushed away, we need good stories more than ever because, in a sense, Eliade is saying that to tell stories is to shape the universe; so to contest and reverse an ecological disaster we need stories that answer the most terrible question ever asked of a human by a god, when the Hebrew God demanded of Cain – “What have you done?” and Cain, whose hands are wet with his brother’s blood, answers “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer – is “Yes Pal – you are!”

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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