Independent Interdependence: Language and Forests

A photograph of a bracket fungus with a maze-like structure on its underside, attached to a decaying piece of wood

by Shane Finan

1. Shared Spaces, Distant Places

Is it possible to know a place without ever having been there?

My residency at Kielder, Northumberland as part of the VARC Entwined programme was originally due to take place in April 2020; it will now finally happen in April 2021. In the interim I have maintained a connection with a place that is foreign to me – I have never been to Kielder, but I feel I have some understanding of the place from the conversations that I have had to date.

Kielder is a former commercial forestry area, and the site of a major reservoir. It has been described to me by a local as “the remotest place in England”. I have learned what I know from reading – it may be inaccurate: The village is small and rural. The large reservoir is built of concrete that contrasts the greens and browns of the surrounding scenery. The countryside is marsh and forest, and stretches throughout vast spaces in a landscape that is typical of the border region between England and Scotland. A rewilding programme is ongoing – a large area is set aside for planting a new forest in the open country.

These are all basic descriptions that can easily be found or learned, but they tell very little about the phenomenon of the place itself.

For me, Kielder is a puzzle to be solved. At a distance, I have spoken to some of the team involved in the rewilding project, and have learned about how trees are being planted, and how volunteers work on the ground. I have been sent photographs by Jerome, one of the keenest of the volunteer planters and a long-term local of the area, that begin to give a sense of the aesthetic. I have been told by a passionate ecologist about the magnificent Scot’s pine trees that grow away from the rest of the forest, somehow thriving despite their disconnection from their colleagues (Scot’s pine are not pioneer trees, and don’t tend to grow like this).

I am solving my version of the puzzle of Kielder at a distance, through phone-calls and emails, with short descriptions of the cold, harsh winds and the sloshing, sloppy heath. I am learning wildness through a telescopic lens, like a researcher in a laboratory who has never been in the field. I can make grand pronouncements, but without setting foot on the soil of Kielder forest, I cannot really know the place. I will finally have a chance to visit the place in the coming weeks, for a short walk around, and am giddy at the possibility of finally beginning to un-abstract the abstract.

Connections are what have brought me to Kielder. I understand the place through people, but the place forms its own understanding through the local connections there. On that note of connection, I introduce the fifth video of this ongoing project, and the first of three about the necessity of networked connections:

2. What is Symbiosis?

The word ‘symbiosis’ was first used in 1877 by Albert Bernhard Frank. He wanted to describe how fungi and algae work together as one apparent organism in lichens. It has since come to mean interactions between species, generally for the shared benefit of both.

But how do we define shared benefit? The jay that buries acorns is storing away a meal for later (and then forgets about it). This relationship is symbiotic, but the symbiosis is more complex than even the simple act of planting a food-source for your future offspring. The oak, in all likelihood, will never know how far away its offspring has grown, or whether it has ever grown at all. The formula works, so the interdependence continues.

Symbiosis becomes even more complex – fungi that thrive in relationships with oaks seek out the young sapling and form connections, usually within weeks. Flowers that thrive in soil inhabited by those fungi set seed and grow. Pollinating insects excitedly gorge on the flowers and themselves thrive. One organism doesn’t live alone.

It is hard to define when a relationship is symbiotic and when it is parasitic. Parasites, like the deadly ash die-back fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, can cause devastating destruction to whole forests. Ash are not co-dependent in this relationship, but simultaneously the fungus cannot survive if it consumes all the available ash. So the relationship is complex. At times it occurs to me that our language is not nearly complex enough to deal with the relationships we encounter in nature.

3. Wanted Dead or Alive

Fungi are extraordinary recycling machines. Different fungi can break down wood, stone, and even plastic. Their varied appetites make them potentially perfect collaborators, but this is only a small part of their larger benefit. As fungal ecologist Lynne Boddy eloquently put it when I spoke to her earlier this year: “forests need dead stuff”. Fungi thrive on this dead stuff, breaking it down into forms that can be digested by plants, other fungi, or animals.

The wood wide web underground provides an even more complex relationship. The network of intertwined fungi, green plants, insects, worms and other organisms compete and collaborate in a myriad of ways under the soil. Even the terms “compete” and “collaborate” don’t tell the story nearly well enough – the English language is poorly equipped to describe the interconnectivity of our world.

Alexander von Humboldt focussed his entire later life on trying to describe this interconnectivity, eventually writing five volumes in his final work Cosmos between 1845 and 1869. After a life of travelling the world and documenting connections that he saw in nature, Humboldt’s magnum opus was a celebration of the network of life, weather and even the stars and planets outside of our stratosphere. As many indigenous cultures worldwide would likely point out, this idea was not new even with Humboldt, but what was new was his way of combining knowledge across a massive geographical area, from the Andes to the Himalayas, and further in each direction.

The depth of interconnectedness challenges how we perceive ourselves, and whether the idea of an individual can even possibly exist. Philosophers Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad have all approached this question in different ways, proposing methods of thinking about ourselves not as human beings apart from the world around us, but as intertwined organisms. Braidotti proposes a “post-human” approach, essentially discarding the ideas that make us consider ourselves apart from our surrounding environment, but retaining the best parts of our knowledge and learning. Of course, this is no easy task.

The interactive digital artwork 'chthonic' by Shane Finan attempts to explore the connectivity between trees, fungi and people by asking us to consider languages that trees might understand - noise, movement underfoot and proximity are among the languages used in the installation.

4. The Limits of Language

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that even if a lion could speak our language, he would not understand us. The lion’s world-view and our own would be too different – a shared language would not be enough. The same is perhaps true of our own role in our natural environment.

To consider ourselves in this variable, complex world is as difficult as considering the question of mortality itself. All death is potentially birth. Fungi show us that in their near-unique ability to break down almost any matter on the earth. What appears dead (including even radioactive wastelands and mountains of plastic) can still create life. We are intelligent enough to recognise our abilities to alter our own planet, and intelligent enough to conceive these complex systems. Still, we struggle to comprehend ourselves within that complexity.

Not everything remains complex forever. In Humboldt’s time, symbiosis had not even been put forward as an idea. Now it is widely understood. In the future, the complex relationships of life, from the parasitical to the mutualistic, will likely become easier to understand. Language might still provide a barrier. That is where art comes in.

I recently completed an artwork, chthonic (2020), that considers this role of language – how do we communicate with the forest? In it, visitors are asked to respond to pillars representing trees, through three types of language that I suggest trees might understand: proximity, movement underfoot (or under-soil) and noise. Visitors are invited to communicate with the trees, lighting up their attached fungal mycelia by interacting together and forming networks. This is complexity, adapted. The artwork was due to exhibit in October 2020 at St. George’s Church, Tubbercurry, Ireland, but the exhibition was postponed due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. A video of the artwork documented can be seen here.

To return to Kielder: My learned understanding of the place, at a distance, is a part of a complex understanding. Language has played a part, as has image, as has network. My own experience, too, is crucial. I know what a forest is like, and can at least picture the forest at a distance. But this also comes with limitations – like the lion, I cannot know the place until I step foot in it. I cannot understand the rewilding project from the abstract ideas alone.

So I will soon go, to understand a place a little better. And, failing that, I will at least try to understand a small part of that place a little better. That, in the end, is all I can really do.