I have returned to my beginning. I realize that if through science I can seize
phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot for all that apprehend the world.
Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more.’
Albert Camus 1955 (The Myth of Sisyphus)
When I returned to Scotland from Texas in 2002 I was already primed to receive the writings of Kenneth White and his ideas on geopoetics. My first acquaintance with them was in ‘On Scottish Ground’, which I read shortly thereafter. I was deeply impressed by the quality of his writing and the relevance of his essays to what I regarded as not only the most pressing issues for Scotland but which were also timely for me personally during a particularly critical point of my career in biology. I had just completed almost three years of research as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Texas in Austin, working on the evolutionary systematics of the bellflower family Campanulaceae. I had become deeply disaffected by the level of careerism in academia in general, which seemed to be so much worse in the United States, and there was little academic integrity but much political jousting and opportunism. In addition, within the very esoteric discipline of systematic botany, I found that traditional botanical wisdom gained over the past few hundred years was ignored in favour of the latest techniques of molecular cladistics, techniques that were not only philosophically flawed but also methodologically suspect. Naturally, the novelty of these newly-spawned ideas created a bandwagon of worshipers although there was nothing particularly new in all this.
I was looking for a way out and White’s writing resonated clearly within me. I abandoned any aspirations that I might have retained of a formal academic career in favour of a very precarious future as a tutor in lifelong-learning. What exactly was it in White’s writing that so attracted me? The most consistent thread running through all his writing is his great love of the earth, its weather, geology, and wild nature, especially his frequent references to birds. I could relate to this directly, for the feelings he expresses so wonderfully are also very personal ones for me – the cry of gulls, a mountain hare leaping, or the stark beauty of birches in the snow.
White excels in his ability to pare his writing ‘to the bone’ without such economy losing the richness of meaning or the melody. His ideas flow easily over the pages and with a depth quite unsurpassed by most contemporary writers. The topics covered range from the local to the global. White is grounding a new relationship to the earth firmly based on a new sense of place and a deep sensitivity to nature. What he rejects are outworn ideas that can ultimately be traced back to Western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, as well as religious doctrines and dogmas, especially monotheistic beliefs such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He is neither a positivist who regards science and technology as a panacea for our modern ills, for he is well aware of human abuse of the earth, nor is he a humanist who regards man as the measure of all things. His sense of cosmos, his ‘open world’ is founded on the poetic interpretation of the earth but not of poetry in the narrow sense. White’s grounding is poiesis, which is from the Greek poiein (to create or build). In other words, he seeks nothing less than a new poetic way of living, but first, we have to get rid of all the religious mumbo-jumbo and metaphysical cobwebs that have ensnared and dulled the senses of thinkers for the last two millenia. Many of White’s ideas are, of course, echoed in the work of others, particularly those in the Deep Ecology movement, but geopoetics differs by going deeper into the relationship between humans and the earth, and by the expression and celebration of this relationship through poetry, music, dance, drama, the visual arts and the sciences.
As a child I developed a great passion for nature, especially birds, and like Kenneth White in his formative years on the coast and hills around Fairlie, I spent endless days wandering the Kelvin Valley to the north of Glasgow searching for migrant birds, venturing further afield to Flanders Moss in the upper Forth Valley for wintering geese down from the Arctic, or to the Campsie Fells and the Corrie of Balglas for the company of Peregrines, Ring Ouzels and Ravens. In the naive exuberance of youth I saw the world as overflowing with untold riches and delights to be discovered. I was beguiled by the beauty of the world’s birds and longed to travel to foreign lands. In my late teens I came across Walden by Henry David Thoreau. For me this book remains one of the finest examples of how to interpret the world on one’s own terms and challenge the indoctrination process of a mediocre self-righteous society driven by pleasure and profit. Thoreau was an acute observer of human nature and his stinging satire of human folly and foibles had a lasting effect. It heightened my awareness of how important it is to consider human affairs in our dealings with nature, how we conceptualise it and especially how we can avoid plundering it. It also taught me how important it is to know oneself.
I have always been pulled in the directions of both art and science but in Scotland, in the 1960s, such disciplines were kept rigidly apart. Subjects were taught in isolation and much of the educational process was aimed at providing the foundation for a career. I desperately needed a career but I felt that I couldn’t sacrifice one calling for another. Perhaps this explains why it took me so long to enter Aberdeen University as a mature student. I transferred from zoology to botany at the end of my second year but it was not an easy decision and I remember expressing my apprehension to one of the senior lecturers about the possible ‘loss of my ornithology.’ But you will never lose it,’ she advised, ‘it will come back to you and you will have gained a world in the meantime.’ She was right of course but those dreary years at university, being trained to think in the ways of orthodox science, cost me dearly. I felt that I was losing the ‘wonder and marvelling’ of my youth and that I did not really belong there.
“I know I saw the universal form,
the fusion of all things, for I can feel,
while speaking now, my heart leap up in joy.”…
“And so my mind was totally entranced,
in gazing deeply, motionless, intent;
the more it saw the more it burned to see.”
Dante (Canto XXXIII, The Divine Comedy: Paradise)
Much of my time was spent ‘in quiet desperation’ as Thoreau so aptly put it. I was deeply moved by an interview with Richard Feynman, the American physicist and Nobel prize-winner, made for the BBC television programme Horizon in 1981, and for the first time, I felt there was a way out of my personal Hades. At the time I was also avidly reading books by authors such as Rachel Carson, Peter Matthiessen, Arne Naess, Adolf Portmann, Alexander Skutch, Andreas Suchantke and Alan Watts. What I received from them was the revelation that there was another way of doing science, and a deeply-felt intuition that, behind the wonderful diversity of living organisms in the world, there was a necessary unity that could best be understood through evolutionary ecology and expressed through poetry. Arne Naess in particular was instrumental in making me aware that we need a completely revolutionary approach to the ecological catastrophes facing the earth, especially his advocacy of deeper, more meaningful relationships of humans within the natural world. But more than any other, it was Goethe who first instilled this idea of unity in me. I read his Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu Erklärung during this time and it gave me a very clear picture of his developmental concept of telos. Like Heraclitus, Goethe saw that the form of living organisms is not static, that life is a process, ever changing. Through his concepts of Bildungstrieb and Steigerung I could comprehend the relational and interdependent aspects of phenomena. I could now see a new way of doing science and solving the epistemological dilemma that had haunted me for so long. I suppose it was then that I first clearly realised the deficiencies of a science that stresses cause and effect and measurement and classification at the expense of interdependent co-arising and observation and perception. In retrospect this was my grounding in geopoetics in the making.
Back in Edinburgh after my experience of Texas and in the course of expanding my knowledge of White’s work, I started to apply some novel ideas to the lifelong-learning courses I taught, in particular the phenomenological methods used by Goethe. What I saw was a large number of people who go about their daily lives with their eyes only half-opened, largely oblivious of the world around them. It seemed to me that if people are so unaware of what is right in front of them they will be estranged inevitably from the world. How can we love the world and have meaningful conservation of it if we don’t know anything about it, if we have never seen it? In my courses in ornithology and botany I now focus on the art of ‘seeing’, and how we can develop ‘new eyes’. I am gradually casting off the ingrained methodology of a so-called objective science that separated me from the world, and learning to re-appreciate the world of the senses and the intuition. In this respect I’m guided by a contemplative approach to science, which Goethe called “delicate empiricism,” whereby natural entities disclose themselves on their own terms, and in their complex and dynamic interrelations with other entities and phenomena. Ultimately, Goethe recognised that: “every act of looking turns into observation, every act of observation into reflection, every act of reflection into the making of associations; thus it is evident that we theorise every time we look carefully at the world. The ability to do this with clarity of mind, with self-knowledge, in a free way, and (if I might put it so) with irony, is a skill we will need in order to avoid the pitfalls of abstraction and attain the results we desire, results which can find a living and practical application.”
I believe there is poetry and beauty in science but it has been distorted by institutionalised academia and the power of technology. I still have a healthy respect for the scholar, in marked contrast to the career academic. In botany, I am strongly influenced by the work of Agnes Arber, Rolf Sattler and Rolf Rutishauser (“Fuzzy Arberian Morphology”), and in general by the seminal work of Maturana and Varela (The Santiago Theory of Cognition). My work on the Campanulaceae continues apace and I collaborate with colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, as well as in South Africa, Croatia and New Zealand. On re-reading Kenneth White’s works, I continually find fresh insights. I am encouraged to be more critical of literature and to develop a fresh approach to writing that is free of the stultifying constraints of orthodox science or the mind-numbing effects (aptly described by a friend as the ‘mushy-peas’) of populist literature. In painting too, I have abandoned a rigid, illustrative style of bird portraiture in favour of a looser style that takes naturalism as a point of departure. Through the influence of geopoetics, I have returned to my beginning and my feeling of plenitude is regained.
‘Entering this valley
Is like entering a memory
obscure the feeling
of a plenitude lost
about to be regained
what is this valley
that speaks to me like a memory
whispering with all its branches
this november morning?’
Kenneth White, 2003 (Valley of Birches. Book V: Mountain Meditations. in Open World. The Collected Poems 1960-2000)