Monday, 17 September 2012

Living lightly

She arrives when I am on the terrace eating lunch outdoors: a flicker of movement among the plant pots, a sally then a quick dash for cover with a rustle of leaves.

She is fearless and fearful in equal measure: sudden in her activities, opportunistic in her adventures, reticent in her habits.

Her coat is a rich chestnut brown; her eyes are little beads of vigilance.

The terrace must seem as wide as a playing field for her: an open heath carpeted with moss and shaded by groups of tall, thin trees, the vervain plants growing there. Looking up, she will see the last of their mauve flowers burning out like high fuses overhead, the final glow of summer.

I know nothing of her home. I imagine a chamber full of dry grass and leaves, perhaps down the hole of the storm-water drain, a tunnel floored with dark alluvium, but surely prone to regular flooding. Perhaps she lives more securely up in the eaves, only a short, two-metre climb away. I hear sounds up there some evenings.

I throw hazel nuts towards her. These are hard balls of future food to be stored, not eaten. She stocks some of them in a red earthenware tower, a length of old field drain standing end-up beside the house wall; she disappears down it then reappears a moment later, empty handed. I have no idea how many she has stocked in there; I hesitate before disturbing her projects.

Sometimes she sits watching me, the terrible giant in her world, but when I get up and move around or shift her landmarks - pots, ornaments and plants - she's gone.

I can see the power that I - a human - might have over her. It is quite disturbing. I have the power to share food with, rearrange the living space - or even end the life of - a bank vole.

Surely ethics has its origin in an awareness of the power we might have in the life-world of an Other.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


"Everything we think we know about the world is a model".

          - Donella H. Meadows: 'Thinking in Systems: A Primer' (Routledge; 2009)

Friday, 15 June 2012


I am seated outside my front door in the sunlight, reading.
"Our most immediate experience of things... is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter - of tension, communication and commingling". (1)
I glance up suddenly, aware of being observed. A grey squirrel is draped along the ridge of the roof, warming itself in the sun, watching me. I give a low whistle; its head is quizzically raised for a moment.

Awareness is aware of me.

"Only by affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world" (ibid). 
David Abram suggests we must decentre our perception from seeing things in subject-object terms, and recentre them in the primordial connection we have with the life-world, and our symbiosis with it.
But what about the subject-object dichotomy? Isn't it central to perceiving and knowing things factually? Where would Science and the Enlightenment project be, since Galileo and Bacon, without objectivity?

Abram and the phenomenologists recognise that by trying to represent the world we inevitably forfeit its direct presence.
"It was Husserl's genius to realise that the assumption of objectivity had led to an almost total eclipse of the life-world in the modern era, to a nearly complete forgetting of this living dimension... In their striving to attain a finished blueprint for the world, the sciences had become frightfully estranged from our direct human experience." (2).
However the objective way of seeing the world, and the achievements of science, are rooted in subjectivity.
"The striving for objectivity is understood, phenomenologically, as a striving to achieve greater consensus among a plurality of subjects... The pure 'objective reality' commonly assumed by modern science, far from being the concrete basis underlying all experience was, according to Husserl, a theoretical construction, an unwarranted idealisation of intersubjective experience". (3)
Science is thus an intersubjective project, the product of competition and consensus-building between scientists as subjectivities. This is a radical position, which gathers both subjective and objective modes of experiencing reality into its orbit. Husserl considers intersubjectivity to be the grounding for a new, truly scientific philosophy.
"The intrinsically first being, the being that precedes and bears every worldly Objectivity, is transcendental intersubjectivity".[4]


[1] David Abram: 'The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World'; Vintage Books, 1997; p56). 
[2] Ibid, p41.
[3] Ibid, p38.
[4] Edmund Husserl: 'Cartesian Meditations'; Martinus Nijhof, 1970; chapter 64).

Friday, 8 June 2012

The lives of others

A squirrel is busy retrieving acorns - a small hole in the grass, the husk of the acorn lying beside it = the evidence. New potholes appear on the lawn every few days. She presumably locates her buried treasure by smell: I have often seen her sniffing about the grass, and she often has mud on paws and nose. I don't think I can attribute great feats of memory to her however - grey squirrels cannot match the astounding Clark's Nutcracker in North America, which may recover 70% of its cached nuts from a territory of over 100 square miles (see article). Every year I have several oak seedlings sprouting from the lawn, which have presumably grown from the acorns that have escaped her or her fellows.

I am reminded how important smell is in the non-human world. The beetle which flies heavily past me in the garden is unlikely to be pursuing a random path. The ants which forage among the grass stems are following scented tracks laid by their fellows; the closer they come to their native ant-heap, the stronger and more reassuring must be the smell of home. The voles have their runs in the undergrowth. The moorhens are patrolling their part of the garden, reinforcing an invisible territorial boundary between their domain and that of the moorhens on the back pond.  The rabbits have taken to sitting on top of the ant-hill on the lawn, and crapping there, making a pile of hraka, as Richard Adams might have put it.

My garden has places and spaces with meaning of which I know nothing. It is filled with tracks, trails, signs and boundaries; if I could read them all I would be astounded - and completely overwhelmed with the quantity and complexity of the information. I just filter out what is important to me - and the other inhabitants do the same.