My sourdough starter is happy. This is the kind of statement that drives philosophers crazy, but to me – and hopefully to you – it makes complete sense. When dogs wag their tails, we say they’re happy too; inviting philosophical sceptics to raise their eyebrows and turn away.
For weeks, during this lockdown, I couldn’t get any rye flour – which is what my starter was ‘conceived’ in (sorry, that’s another one) and what it’s been fed on ever since – for years and years. For almost two months I was only able to feed it with refined white bread flour at first and wholemeal spelt flour later on. The white flour was not a success. the starter fizzed up for a few hours and then slowed right down and began to settle into a sludgy mess at the bottom and a dark liquid on top. It also smelt quite different. One of the distinguishing features of my starter is that it smells strongly of apples, but fed with white flour it began to smell vinegary. I should add that it still worked perfectly well but never quite felt the same. The spelt flour was better but still tended to settle out. But this week, back on the rye flour, the starter has begun to thrive again, bubbling away for several days without needing a feed and has also returned to its old apple smell. In short, it was happy.
Sourdough can be happy; plants – we gardeners all understand – can be happy and so can soil and even cattle. I once saw a herd of local cattle which had been led up to the Aubrac hills in France, during the transhumance, and I swear they were happy too – smiling broadly in a contented sort of cowy way. The local cheeses – made by the farmers – were fabulous as well.
So there’s a conundrum here. We, in our careless linguistic way, ascribe feelings to dogs cats and cows. We stretch the concept to include plants, trees, butterflies, sourdough starters and even – if you’re into that sort of thing – rat tailed maggots and, in our careless sort of way we ascribe some form of consciousness to them. If rat tailed maggots can be happy they must have feelings and must, ergo, be conscious. We gardeners and allotmenteers are always happy to see their hoverfly stage eating our pests.
There’s a philosophical conundrum lurking in the middle of all this that’s pretty complex and it affects the whole way we look at the earth and creation. If we say that only humans possess consciousness then it’s harder to make a moral or ethical case against exploiting another part of creation that (we believe) – doesn’t, because it only exists for our benefit. You see where this is leading – all human societies have their theoretical underpinning – call it common sense if you must – and the worst of this one is that it separates humans from the rest of creation. If you want to read a whole lot more about this I recommend Philip Goff’s book “Galileo’s Error”.
The takeaway point is that consciousness could be a fundamental quality of nature – from the tiniest subatomic event to the formidable consciousness of the human mind. The argument’s all there in the book, and it’s a bit disintegrating if, by that, you understand that we tend to lean on a whole set of assumptions to get through the day and when those assumptions are demolished, the simplest actions get more complicated. We think that trees, by our standards, lack consciousness – but they not only communicate with one another, they share sustenance – favouring immediate relatives, warn one another about pathogens and insect attacks over wide areas but – get this – they accomplish this by collaborating with fungi, using their network of microscopic threads as a kind of natural cable network. But, of course – if all of nature is talking but we stand aside, contemptuously refusing to join the conversation, we can’t hear what all nature is trying to tell us – that we are rapidly destroying ourselves. Tree hugging, it seems, is not so silly when the tree and its inhabitants are trying to warn us about the oncoming train.
All this, of course is a first draft. It may be that it’s a quirk of my own nature that I’m always asking ‘why?’ but my scepticism isn’t one of those smart things I might say when I’m trying to impress, it’s hard wired into me – examining gift-horse teeth, examining the entrails of common sense and being generally annoying. Socrates, after all said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and it cost him his life. I hope to get away with a few sleepless nights and a headache, but ‘because I say so’ has never got me to sign a direct debit form!
There’s much, much more I want to write but for the moment I need fresh air – and the allotment is perpetually thirsty. As for Naomi Klein, I can only read her in small doses because I find her so disturbing, but here’s a cheerful photo I took a couple of days ago in the centre of Bath. It’s a hoary plantain – not really rare, but let’s say unusual. You might pass it by but it’s a tiny, inconspicuous gem – the only one among its cousins that’s pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Why’s that? I wonder.