Ghost Signs

Wittgenstein wrote of thinking that one cannot see one’s way around, saying ‘We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers.” And while on the topic of philosophy in general and Wittgenstein’s philosophy in particular, I should like to take this chance to pass on a piece of advice that I have kept in mind throughout the writing of this book, remembering it as his on one of the two occasions when he took part in a public discussion in Oxford. Wittgenstein interrupted a speaker who had realized that he was about to say something that, although it seemed compelling, was clearly ridiculous, and was trying (as we all do in such circumstances) to say something sensible instead. ‘No,’ said Wittgenstein. ‘Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on.’ The suggestion that in doing philosophy one should not try to banish or tidy up a ludicrously crude but troubling thought, but rather give it its day, its week, its month, in court, seems to me very helpful. It chimes of course with Wittgenstein’s idea that in philosophy it is very difficult to work as slowly as one should. 

From the introduction to Phillipa Foot “Natural Goodness”

I took these photographs in Bath today as we went in search of the original signage for Hand’s Cafe in the Abbey Square, which I wanted to insert in yesterday’s post to try to illustrate the usefulness of stretching the meaning of “Palimpsest” to include wildflowers that once signified whole industries – now largely forgotten.

That said, I have always been attracted to these so-called ghost signs because they have the effect of situating you in two places at once; the here and now, and the past. The idea of being in two places at once is both difficult and troubling because there seems no way of explaining, even to a sympathetic listener who may well believe what seems to be self-evident – that each moment in time passes by as if caught in the flow of a river – is false.

Just as one example – each time I find a plant that I’ve previously identified, and especially if naming it was particularly difficult, I inwardly relive the moment of discovery, the place, the weather, the exact setting and mood of the place as if I were still there in the past ‘though I know I’m in the present.

I remember once standing at one end of Damery Lake on a packbridge and being overwhelmed by the presence of a young officer in the thick of a First World War battle, standing with me and harnessing my imagination to recall a happy moment in his own past, fishing in the lake. It was all over in an overwhelming moment of intense introspection. I cite this not to push a non-existent reputation as a psychic; but because I don’t understand it and can’t explain it.

If we’re going to develop any kind of Green Spirituality or ethic we have to find a new framework for understanding ourselves which will undoubtedly feel difficult, perhaps insane, to someone steeped in the Cartesian dualism that’s still the dominating culture of our time. So this will be hard – which is why I find Phillipa Foot’s recollection of Wittgenstein so encouraging. Be crude and then we shall get on, and never be afraid of sounding like a fool. Don’t tidy up ludicrously crude but troubling thoughts but give them all the time they need.

Does an insect know what ‘wild’ means?

IMG_5326It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in 1907 – “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”.  Sounds complicated I know, but reverse it and it’s easier to understand.  We humans apply descriptions like ‘wild’, and ‘domesticated’ to wildlife all the time, but do the animals pay any attention?  Do they even understand what ‘wild means’?  And the only answer is – ‘of course – they don’t’. They neither know nor care that we humans have them organised into an exquisitely complicated set of relations that we expect them to adhere to.

Our weekend visit to the Brecon Beacons brought to a head something I’ve been pondering for a while. Being a bit of  purist; conservation – in my mind – often suggests the restoration of a pristine habitat so that the creature or plant in question can, as it were, return to its own ‘Garden of Eden’. During the last war when children were being evacuated away from large cities to be safe from bombing, a huge amount of work was done to discover whether they would be permanently damaged by their estrangement from their natural parents and family environment. The psychologist DW Winnicott came up with a wonderfully fertile idea.  Parenting, he said, whoever it was carried out by, only needed to be ‘good enough’ for children to thrive.

Only a scientist could say whether his idea can be transferred to any other category of life except humans but it remains a tantalising possibility that what most, if not all, life forms need is just a ‘good enough’ environment to survive or even thrive. Maybe – and this idea really excites me – the garden and the allotment, although not quite the traditional haunt of certain life forms, would be good enough to ensure their survival. If that were true, then the distinction between the allotment or garden and the nature reserve would disappear in a blink.  We know already that peregrines – to take one example – can thrive while nesting on tall city centre buildings because there is a plentiful supply of food. Seagulls, including some declining species, can live well in cities – I know they can – because in the summer they wake us up every morning. Likewise, some lowland species like yellowhammer can get by 250 metres higher up if there’s a sufficient food supply.

This year we’ve made a big effort to grow more insect friendly plants throughout the allotment. In particular we’ve planted a lot of Apiaceae – carrot family – because we know they’re great attractors of insects, and today I took a look at some of the angelica plants which have come into flower. The hypothesis is quite easy to prove. Today there were a multitude of insects around the flowers including the bee at the head of the page, and also a cluster of blackfly which – oh joy – were being farmed by ants. I’d read about this unexpected relationship, apparently the ants will even move the blackfly to a more suitable location so they can better feed on the honeydew, but I never saw it before today.  Not in a nature reserve or on the television but on the Potwell Inn allotment.

We are, already, a tiny nature reserve although the better description might be that we have deliberately enhanced our 250 square metres to accommodate a wider range of living things.  I’m not saying we don’t need nature reserves, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but what I am saying is that we need not see ourselves as junior partners, amateurs or anything but full and crucial participants in the fightback against environmental and climate degradation. I’m really very excited to feel that the two descriptions “naturalist” and “allotmenteer” are not alternatives, but inextricably tied together. There’s no need to choose where we put the effort because they both (all) lead to the same place, a better environment for everyone and every creature, wherever.


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