Why writing embodies a multiplicity of conversation
We are kith with all life.
Our connections are to all — everywhere and always what defines life is relationship. Mindfulness may slow us down, make us more aware, but it is our bodifulness that often goes unsung and under-nurtured. To relate, fully and with attention, demands all our senses.
Attending to the networks of life
Writing in The Songs of Trees, David George Haskell notes:
…human lives and tree lives are made always from relationship. For many trees it is non-human species … that are the primary constituents of the network. Olive and bonsai trees bring humans to the centre, giving us direct experience of the importance of sustained connection.
Should those connections break, life is diminished, sometimes ended. […]
This inner nature is animist: rocks have desires, trees are imbued with Buddha-like solemnity. … The garden is not an escape into domineering control of nature; rather it requires sustained attention to the networks of life … to the inner nature of the nonhuman combined with close listening to accumulated knowledge off many human generations.
Such attention is bodiful. It not only demands deep listening but physical engagement with the world. And in this engagement we become unselfed, a concept developed by Iris Murdoch to describe those moments when we are so enraptured by something in nature, a kestrel, a star-scape… so that we forget ourselves, leaving behind ‘selfish care’.
Haskell quotes a bonsai gardener talking about how, over years, the work will:
decenter a person, drawing the locus of attention away from the self. ‘It’s less about me, much more about the tree and the work of people who came before. This effects the rest of my life. I’m more tolerant, understanding.’
In short, relationship changes us, and we realise afresh that separating any part of life from any other is impossible.
with all the senses
Studying an urban pear tree in Manhattan, Haskell charts this interconnectedness in how what we call one sense is actually a multiplicity of bodiful senses coming together, so that hearing is not only aural but pressure and electric charge, the vibrations of the skull:
Hearing is modulated by tongue taste, emotion, foot soles, hairs on skin. What we perceive is our body conversing with a purring, stridulating world.
He goes on to look at why street vendors in noisy cities sell food that is highly spiced and salty because we physically cannot taste subtlety amidst noise. Similarly, skin also makes a difference to hearing. In wind we mishear certain sounds, while:
Interior senses — emotion, thought, judgement — weave themselves into what seem to be exterior stimuli. Pitch and genre of music change our perception of food and wine, with bitterness emerging on our tongues from the lower registers …
Scent too is not a discrete sense, with microbes less abundant on city trees where the scent is overpowered by diesel fumes and bees bewildered and less able to find flowers and electromagnetic signals disrupting birds’ sense of direction…
We are a network of relationships, internal and beyond the body and into environment. We are a network of senses constantly communicating and affecting each other and being affected by what seems to be outside ourselves. All life is permeable, related, connected.
This has implications for how we write and for how we live. Talking of trees, Haskell says:
The future, the unfolding telos, is not contained in any self, in a tree seed or human mind, but has its origins and substance in living strands of relationship … A tree is the common life, a being that is multiplicity of conversation.
The same can be said of us. And every sense works together in that conversation. Writers are amongst those who go about the world with all their senses open and know how those senses meld with context and with one another to give us a deeper perspective on how we embody our writing to honour this reality of connection. We bring not only our whole selves but our environments to our writing. Who we are, what we see and hear, taste, scent and touch, and how these things are modulated by where we write, all cohere. Writers have lives with windows onto a multiplicity of conversation.
As I noted recently when writing about why writers need to embody what they write:
Disembodied, disconnected life is not a higher state of being, it’s fragmentation, illusion, grief and loss. We are kin and kith with all lives and artists of all kinds, and writers certainly, do well to embody that. If we don’t tell the stories of muscle, gut, the matrix of all life, of Matter herself, we will accelerate the time when there will be no story to tell.
Haskell’s study of trees across the globe only makes this more urgent.
in the context of community
And nowhere is this more sharply focussed than in the rainforest of the Yusuni Biosphere Reserve of western Ecuador. In this environment of almost science-fiction like diversity and extremity, where
The forest presses its mouth to every creature and exhales
with breath that is
hot, odorous, almost mammalian
where nothing keeps water at bay and sounds are constant, loud and of every kind of
whine, murmur, howl, yelp, whistle, squeal …
where to reach out while slipping on mud will result in either flesh grated or speared by the heavily armoured vegetation or invite a snake or ant to strike so that
nature seems to be one of vigorous, even frightening conflict
Even the name of things in Waorani is not of individual species but of their relationships. The Waorani have no hermits or rugged individuals, but
live like one.
This is not to say that skill and individuality are trampled or devalued but that such things make sense only in community. Anyone who wants to live in ‘self-reliance’ in such a society is viewed as ill, disturbed and not likely to survive. Individuals’ names relate to the group to such an extent that the name changes if someone leaves for another group.
And it is not only humans who use relationship as the basis of identity and survival in this forest, but also the trees, including the iconic ceibo tree, which hosts successive communities within and around itself, communities with which there are a myriad beneficial and complex relationships.
The forest is not a collection of entities joined by networks; rather, it is a place entirely made from strands of relationship. And for the people who live there, the forest is not
an assemblage of biological ‘others’.
The forest, including human life, is a unity of spirits, dreams and reality. This is not a unity made of forming parts together, rather
we exist from the start in spiritual relationship
Those of us raised in places where corporatism and individualism hold sway, are not from cultures at ease with living as one. We are more likely to cling to our individuality not as it relates but as it sets us apart. Yet in those transcendent moments when we lose ourselves in nature and are unselfed, we know in our gut that attending to the networks of life with all our senses is the only way forward.
The multiplicity of living like one
What this will mean is not simplistic or homogenous. It doesn’t demand that every society should have no notion of solitude as healthy and nurturing, for example. After all, the particular Waorani expression of living like one grows out of their particular geography and context. A forest in Brittany or a city in Italy will suggest other expressions of how we might ‘live like one’.
But the world certainly needs a new story and one that recognises that we exist from birth in a matrix of relationships and that our tight boundaries of self and other are illusory. After all, reconginising that we are kith with all life, might give rise to the multiplicty of stories of a future that is hopeful, embodied and connected.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.