Chatter of all kinds: A sentient world

 “Sentience is born of the ongoing encounter, the contact, the tension, and entwinement between each body and the breathing world that surrounds it. While each of us encounters only a corner of the world, it is nonetheless the same outrageous world” – David Abram (Becoming Animal)

I sometimes gaze up at the sky and wonder what it would be like to be able to read the sky. To be able to discern what weather conditions are looming or how the seasons are changing. To know like the Kaurna people, whose lands I live in, knew that the appearance of a particular star in the night sky signified the change of a season. To understand what the world is imparting for those wise enough to understand.

In societies that still live in participation with the rest of our Earth, this deeper awareness of the ways of the living world is not a novel thing. In the documentary Tawai the Penan tribe of Borneo speak of when they hear a particular bird sing and knowing that it indicates that it is time to harvest a certain fruit. This way of living requires a deep attunement to the living world combined with a trust that the world will unfold in certain cyclical patterns that is a part of the societies collective knowledge but without the expectation that this is an automated happening. 

Even though I yearn for a deeper connection – to read the stars, understand birds and know the Earth’s patterns of life –  I seem to do nothing about it.  I am, undeniably, immersed in a technological world where I can look at the weather forecast or any other information I want on my phone – instant, reliable information without straining any of my own senses or making a life time study of weather phenomenon or bird calls.  The technology we have created is marvellous and magical in its own way, although in no way foolproof or omniscient as some would like us to believe, as those of us who have been led astray by google maps would know. Relying on the algorithms of a machine has also allowed us to leave undeveloped our innate abilities to sense and understand this living world. 

When I let myself dwell in the knowing of an enlivened world, one where the world is full of more-than-human chatter, I wonder at how much more wondrous it would be to understand even a little of the communication of the more-than-human world. To not be limited solely to human conversations, but to instead be able to converse with other beings and receive their wisdom. It would surely allow us to be more connected, respectful and aware of our place in this Earth. Rather than the false story we have been educated into, of conscious humans having to constantly measure and evaluate an unconscious, objective environment so as to maximise the temporary benefits for humans alone, we could be participants in an alive co-becoming world. Yet modern culture limits us to human words. What a loss.

Many other cultures have created mythologies that see the world as alive and abounding in conscious beings and human being just one of them and not necessarily the most intelligent. The Dagara of West Africa, for instance, belief in a world of intrinsic meaning that is beyond what can be communicated in words. So humans who rely on words to communicate are seen as less intelligent than other animals that use a minimum of uttered communication. While elements of nature especially trees and plants are most intelligent because they don’t need words to communicate and so live live closer to meaning behind language [1].

Even in our scientific establishments, there are people striving to bring other wisdoms into our consciousness. Dr Monica Gagliano is one such scientist who made a strong impression on me and made me wish that I had been able to bring to my undergraduate studies even a smidgen of the rigour and vision she brings to the field of plant biology. If so I might still be working in that field.  Her work into plant communication through both scientific and shamanistic methods brings a very different way of thinking about plants to the Western world [2] and offers for those of us willing to listen, a pointer back to being home in our Earth and able to converse more widely with our neighbours.

I marvel at the varied ways in which life has come up with to communicate: bees use dance to communicate the direction of a good stash of pollen to their hive mates; Blue Whales fill the vast oceans with their songs; trees have their own version of texting which involves releasing airbourne chemicals to notify neighbours that a predator is chomping down on it and to produce defensive (and bad tasting) chemicals to deter the hungry creature and my recent favourite is the little male Puffer fish which painstakingly creates a geometrically balanced sand sculpture to signal to potential mates that it is the best male around [3]. How can we believe that we are the only sentient being around in the face of these acts of co-operation and companionship? The universe is alive with chatter of kinds. We need to remember how to listen and to see more clearly.

[1] Malidoma Patrice Some. 1999. The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community

[2] Monica Gagliano. 2018. Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants

[3] BBC Earth 2018. Puffer fish constructs a masterpiece of love. .

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