The Poetics of Ecology

A conversation with Andreas Weber

As forest fires rage, oceans acidify and countless species go extinct, how can we reengage our hearts and minds with the living systems of a sentient Earth ? Hannah Close talks to Andreas Weber, biologist, philosopher and author of ‘Matter & Desire’ and ‘The Biology of Wonder’, about the role of kinship, creativity and enlivenment in a time of ecological devastation.
is a curator, writer and photographer. She is currently studying Engaged Ecology at Schumacher College, Devon and has recently curated an online course on kinship for the transformative education platform Advaya.

As this troubled civilisation descends into an age of reckoning, the task of remembering ourselves as creatures on the wild, bristling Earth becomes more urgent. Despite the stories of separation that have fractured the web of  relationships with our more-than-human kin, human beings remain irrevocably entangled in the biosphere. From the fierceness of ocean wind to the call of collared doves at dawn – we depend on it all for life.

After reading Matter & Desire, I was curious to speak with Andreas Weber about how biology can re-enliven our relationships with our fellow creatures, despite the sterility of the sciences. His work addresses the urgency of orienting ourselves in reciprocity with the Earth, and how biology can dispel the myth of human exceptionalism that denies our creaturely nature. The biosphere, Weber proposes, is the creative expression of a universal desire to be in relationship. Even the smallest particles of matter express the primordial need to get in touch with others in order to undergo transformations necessary to being alive. Far from the mechanistic metaphors put forward by Darwinism, beings are driven by this longing for encounter. They are not sovereign fighters for individual fitness, as the myth of progress might have us believe; they only become individuals through their fruitful entanglement with each other. Life is ‘interbeing’ – down to the levels of breath, flesh and bone. This way of being and becoming through mutual transformation can instruct us on how to live in relationship again.

Before becoming a writer, Andreas studied as a marine biologist and collaborated with the eminent neurobiologist and Buddhist, Francisco Varela. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics, and Biopoetics: Towards an Existential Ecology. He lives on the bosky threshold of the Grunewald Forest in Berlin and among the meadows of the Apennine mountains in Northern Italy.

 

Hannah Close
Much of your work challenges our perception of human beings as the rulers of the planet by placing them within the context of a sentient biosphere. You support this shift in awareness with your background in biology…
 
Andreas Weber
Lived experience, embodied meaning, exchange and subjectivity are vital ecological truths that cannot be excluded from a scientific understanding of the biosphere. We can dig into this delusional story of human exceptionalism through biology and see what’s going on in detail. Mainstream science has misled us for generations, claiming that only humans are feeling subjects capable of sophisticated sensations and emotions; everything else is a lifeless object. Thankfully biology is learning that sentience and felt expression in organisms are not just fanciful projections of the human mind. Instead, being an organism means being flush with feeling and the desire to be alive, and to be wholly expressed in that aliveness. 

Today, we know that bees can feel euphoric or depressed and that fruit flies suffer with chronic pain if injured. We know that plants feel, too. If you feel what makes you thrive and what is better to avoid, you are a subject, an alive being whose sensitivity to the tactile world means everything to its existence. We are only human subjects because we are feeling biological selves entangled in a web of biotic relations. Our humanity connects us with life. It does not separate us, as is the mainstream belief. It’s worth mentioning that animism, which says that the world is peopled by persons or subjects with whom we share a basic level of embodied experience, is supported by this new biological research. This is fascinating, and deeply humbling…

Animism, which says that the world is peopled by persons or subjects with whom we share a basic level of embodied experience, is supported by this new biological research.

HC
 Throughout your books, you also develop the notion of a ‘poetic ecology’, which seems to echo an animistic worldview. How would you describe it?

AW
Ecology looks at how species and individuals relate in order to create new life. Poetic ecology looks at these relations from the perspective of subjectivity and meaning. So it’s not about cause and effect; instead, it’s about the expressiveness of a living reality whose creative process is constantly bringing forth a multitude of fertile relationships. In my view, any thinking in terms of relationship can only come about as a poetics. Any practice of aliveness can only be a poetic practice. A poetic ecology understands nature less as an economy of checks and balances than as the creative interpenetration of sentient beings, so it is animistic in that way. 

If we wander through a flowering meadow in May, we become enmeshed in this tactile exchange. When we look closely, we may recognise that our nervous system mirrors the infinite mycorrhizal networks beneath our feet. We are intertwined across this threshold through sensation, perception, and organic memory, kind of like an umbilical cord, or what the mythologist Martin Shaw calls ‘bone memory’. That’s why we find it enlivening; it rouses our own creaturehood. It reminds us of our place in the natural world and of our intimate belonging to the Earth; we realise we are not so alien after all. 

In this meadow, we are embraced by sentience that expresses itself in a multitude of dancing bodies, enticing earthy smells, sounds, colours, movements etc. Ecology becomes poetic when the creative expression of other beings stirs our own desire to become expressive, to unearth words, pictures, and melodies for this sublime experience of aliveness. When you encounter the azure plumage of a peacock, you enter a creative exchange. It is not passive, but is instead an invitation to participate in the radical poetic beauty of the world. It is not about being a spectator; that dynamic severs us from ecological reality, and it’s where most of us moderns live, most of the time, on the conceptual ‘edges’ of this primal exchange. Instead, it is about entering into and participating in the world that lies before and among you with a profound level of engagement and care.

HC
 You use the word enlivenment throughout your books. How is it different from embodiment?

AW
 I use enlivenment as a mirror concept to enlightenment. Where ‘The Enlightenment’ was striving for the emancipation of the autonomous rational subject, enlivenment is about the re-animation of the embodied inter-being. From the perspective of enlivenment, the whole world is teeming with aliveness, and we’re a part of this continually emerging process. So it’s a sort of propagation of a new enlightenment, only this time it’s about sharing life, not about defending sovereign individual rationality. 

To become enlivened means to inhabit your aliveness through relationship. Of course, we are alive right now, but many of us are not inhabiting our lives, nor are we relating through any sense of reciprocity. Embodiment is necessary, but it refers explicitly to the body, not to life itself. Enlivenment is almost infusing oneself with life.

HC
 You have written that ‘all perception is a form of being touched’. What would you say to those who feel untouched by the world, whose sense of being alive has atrophied because of this alienating culture?

AW
The deadliest problem we’re facing, which Western civilisation has proliferated, is the systematic withdrawal of beings from this embodied exchange. They cannot have this essential exchange because they are mercilessly incarcerated, factory-farmed, asphalted over, or rounded up by Roundup. They are quite literally ripped from the womb, and from the soul of the living land. These callous acts deny beings participation in the mutual interactions of flesh in the living biosphere. People who feel alienated mirror this situation because their civilisation mirrors the catastrophe at hand. Capitalist civilisation is an onslaught on aliveness. We so desperately need to reclaim this aliveness as our birthright. We must allow ourselves to feel our subjectivity on a deeper level and attend to life’s genuine needs. One of these needs is to understand that others are not your competitors, but co-creators of the cosmos, and kin whose flourishing we all depend on.

Capitalist civilisation is an onslaught on aliveness. We so desperately need to reclaim this aliveness as our birthright.

HC
 Speaking of kin you say, ‘we’re not individuals, we’re colonies’. When I encounter this idea, I feel slightly unnerved. Trillions of microbes are interacting within my body right now, pulling strings I don’t even know exist…

AW
Thank god they’re pulling strings because you couldn’t be you without them! None of us could. Today I would say we’re individuals because we’re colonies. My teacher, Francisco Varela, coined this beautiful phrase. He said, ‘as organisms, we are a meshwork of selfless selves’. We’re ecosystems. This microbial ecosystem inside of you is in constant dialogue with the ecosystem(s) outside of you. Your gut biota are continuously replenished by the stuff you eat because it’s full of bacteria. Your skin microbiome deposits itself on everything you touch. If you touch somebody, you exchange microbiomes. You don’t have a border. To think so is another bourgeois Western illusion. In actuality, you’re constantly blurring with the animate world around you. This is the ‘conversational nature of reality’ the poet David Whyte talks about.

Do you know why you find this unnerving? Because it shows you that you’re really this world around you, and one day you will be again, only you’ll be an ecosystem without an individual. We go back to the soil from which we came – few living in modern cultures appreciate the extraordinary beauty of such a truth. It’s unnerving because it’s about losing control, and our civilisation is terrified of that. It’s also about paradox. You’re not allowed to decide if you’re a colony or an individual; you’re both. Isn’t that very much about being open to difference and otherness?

HC
 Absolutely. In Sharing Life, you say, ‘an ecosystem is the embodiment of reciprocity’. This seems so far from where we are in this extractive regime, yet all around us the natural world is acting in reciprocity. How can we re-orient ourselves in this process?

AW
Our philosophy in the West is based on consuming objects that are supposedly ‘lying around and free to take’. This is our main metaphysics, and it’s seemingly legitimated by classical biology as the ‘survival of the fittest’. We have completely misunderstood how ecosystems thrive through kinship relationships. We’ve privileged competition and forgotten reciprocity. Take the so-called evolutionary arms race between insects and plants. Insects need plants for food. Plants need insects for fertilisation. What comes out of this is not war but intricate interdependency. 

The ‘endless forms most beautiful’ Darwin referred to in the last sentence of his ‘Origin’. Certain bee species can only pollinate certain blossoms. Certain shrubs defend themselves against certain beetles that gnaw through their cuticle, but in turn, give rise to a certain species of predator who can bite through the skin and consume the plant. On the other hand, the shrub depends on the beetle for its regeneration. We see etiquettes of reciprocity, not bloody contests. That’s a Victorian distortion of reality, but it defines our lives – and creates immeasurable death.

HC
So how is reciprocity different from exchange?

AW
Exchange means that I give you something and get something ‘better’ back. At least I’ll try. It’s about me against you. Reciprocity means that we create something together that holds us both. It’s about partnership. It’s based on mutual gifts, not on mutual reckoning. You are related to your gut microbiome through reciprocity, not exchange. They don’t live inside you for rent. Instead, they co-create your self and themselves with all the other ‘selfless selves’ that share that eternal dance. Kinship cannot exist through passive exchange; it arises only through reciprocity. Reciprocity asks us to think about what we can do for other beings, not what they can do for us. It is the opposite of extraction. So the work is about granting others more space and listening for those subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messages that arrive on the murmuring wind. It should be about the other first, as the indigenous activist Tiokasin Ghosthorse says.

HC
 And yet, not all relationships create flourishing. You talk about the difficulties many of us face relating to our own families, not to mention polarisation and oppression. How can we avoid fetishising relationships while at the same time fostering connection?

AW
Life is not a kindergarten where everyone is always pleasantly petted; but it is also not a merciless battlefield between unrelenting combatants, ‘red in tooth and claw’. Life is more like a wild playing field with anarchic elements, where the rules of togetherness are constantly renegotiated, where gang wars break out between little groups of co-conspirators, but also where one finds acts of sharing, dedication, and bliss.

Ecosystems flourish because they are teeming with diversity. This can teach us a lot about human relationships, as we often reject those ‘not like us’ in favour of those who seem outwardly familiar. Living connections depend on two basic things: allowing the self to exist while at the same time helping other(s) come alive. We lack this idea of reciprocity in our relationships. If you look at philosophical books about love, you find that you allegedly love someone or something because you gain what you don’t already possess as an individual. In this view, love is a resource. It is something we can ‘extract’, just as we extract from the living land. We have colonised love in the West. As we all know from the partnership war zone, such relationships often fail because they inhibit the freedom of others. They fail because they are not faithful to ecological reality. Healthy relating means growing through the other’s growth. For me, this is a working definition of love: a practice that makes others alive and, through this, enlivens yourself. Our bodies still function according to this ecological love, a harbinger of our animal nature. We still relate to the trees by breathing their oxygen.

Living connections depend on two basic things: allowing the self to exist while at the same time helping other(s) come alive.

HC
 I’m struck by what you say about people using each other as resources. This feeling of being incomplete and needing to extract from the other seems to stem from trauma…

AA
Looking at our civilisation from a trauma perspective makes total sense, including the seeming impossibility to get out of the mess we’re in. That’s what trauma does. It blocks the possibility of doing things differently because it’s trying to ‘protect’ you, but in an incredibly debilitating sense. Trauma cuts off the body and, in turn, aliveness. It obscures our porous nature. A core trauma is being told that this sentient, living world has nothing to do with oneself, and then being deprived of a connection to it. To be alienated from belonging to this sacred Earth is deeply traumatic. Still, the living biosphere is mostly anti-traumatic. It suffers but does not perpetuate suffering.

HC
 How do you see the role of death, metabolism and composting in this play of life-giving relationships?

AW
Among the many things our civilisation is afraid of, death is at the centre. We are afraid to fall back into this allegedly deserted world of mute objects. But death means becoming edible again; it means becoming compost, mycelium, nitrogen and so on, ultimately putting yourself in service to life. If we look at the metabolism of a living cell, we see that it is constantly decaying. It breaks down and is built again. That’s precisely the core of your aliveness: putting yourself together again. Undying. But not avoiding death. Immortality, which is so worshipped by our civilisation, is the biggest ecological mistake you can make. Death is an integral part of life, as is birth. Every breath mediates the two – literally. You could label that mediation with radionuclides and see that your body gradually dies over into the bodies of the plants in your garden. If you understand this cosmos as fundamentally alive, you’ll see that there is no way out of this life. There is just a continuous unravelling into otherness. Death is metamorphosis. Death is becoming kin with the earth. It is intimate ecological embrace. The system of living relationships only works because everyone is edible. That’s the mystery, and one we must yield to.

HC
 I’m curious to hear about a recent encounter with the more-than-human world that was transformative for you?

AW
Every morning I open the kitchen window and listen to the call of the collared doves. They nest in an old pine tree in front of my house. Sometimes late at night, when I lock my bike with too much noise, I hear the rustle of their feathers as they stir. It’s a couple. I only have these little clues that they are there throughout the year. But now, in the late winter, they have started to coo at dawn. In this cooing, I hear the creative force of self-renewing life. Why? I still don’t know. I am still writing books about this. We are life, we are matter from the inside, and the collared dove’s way to experience this is by cooing in the late winter morning. Can there be anything more profoundly poetic?

 

Andreas Weber will be a guest teacher for Kinship, an online course organised by the transformative education platform Advaya, exploring community, relationality and belonging (15th March – 5th May 2022)  kinshipcourse.com 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence

 

Comments
  1. It seems to me an article that deepens in the understanding that our lives are part of all lives, of all life and very interesting also the reflection on death, that great question that invades us all, or the phenomenon of alienation that separates us from life and makes us feel something different, distant.
    I will go deeper into the reflections of Andreas Weber and the reading of other texts written by him.

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