Becoming a Forest: Caring for Entangled Relationships

By Sabina Enéa Téari1)

There's an old Turkish song, unfolding as the author is searching for what or who he is. In our humble translation the song goes…

“Am I a human or a creature or a weed

Am I a cultivable plant

Or am I an adjective

Am I a bee or a flower or a honey…

…I couldn't find myself in any way

…I couldn't find myself in any way…”

As we're nearing the winter solstice, and the winter season generously offers space and time for deep reflection and restoration as well as creation of space for the seeds of spring, we are pondering deeper about the complex webs of entangled relations each of us is involved in. Relational space of course cannot be separated from personal ecologies. Just like the environment cannot be separated from the inner environment. We are ecosystems within ecosystems. Which is particularly useful to remember if we think of the context of climate change.

For the past 2 months we've been diving into the subjects related to personal ecologies at the autumn trail of Foresta Seasonal Academy. What we experience is a tickling sensation, or rather, a broadened perception, that makes it somehow hard to perceive a self in separation. From the objects in the house we are in, the birch tree we see every morning through the window, and the little bird with a bright peach chest that comes and seems to enjoy watching us just as we rejoice in watching her, from the landscape, from each other. Without losing the beauty of the unique amalgamation of parts that claims its own (fluid) identity amidst the diversity of other beings, each of us still is a holobiont, as Linn Margulis and other scientists put it, where those millions of bacteria are me and I am them, a multitude of ecosystems entangled in a web of other ecosystems, a process where each encounter shapes me and is shaped by me. A larger, more expanded and deepened sense of self is what is emerging from the exploration of the ecological that we have set onto.

How can we expand our perceptions and awareness beyond a reductionist view of ‘nature’, both human and more-than-human? How do we overcome distance from the world and move away from alienation? How do we live in diversity, where conflicts are inevitably arising? How could a non-alienated being in the world, that may offer conditions for bonding, be possible?

As David Abram writes, “nature” it would seem, has become simply a stock of  “resources” for human civilization. The way we think about and experience nature is inevitably influenced by our particular culture with its specific habits of exchange and interaction.

If alienation is a particular mode of being in which there is no responsivity, no meaningful inner connection or genuine relation to whatever it is we come in contact with, we need to carefully examine the role of instrumental interactions in cultivating our exchange with one another, both among humans and with other beings inhabiting this planet. If we just come in contact based on what we need from others, under time pressure and full of expectations, we will not be able to come into bonding. Bonding requires a more sincere and vibrant exchange, it demands a true connection.

Where does an ecological body end? Where do we end?

Individuality seems to be meaningless if it's separated from the larger being, a larger ecology. Cut off from the rest it then resembles a cancer cell in a way, as those individualised cells not willing to communicate, to collaborate, to die when it's time. Some cancer researchers say that the increasing trends of this disease are related to social and economic development, mentioning factors like diet, nutrition and physical activity. Is there also a relation to a growing social and environmental separation and alienation? Is environmental climate change just a symptom of that condition? And what is this 'thing' called environment anyway? Do we have to objectivise, anonymise the world around that is pulsing alive and includes our aliveness right into the very depth of its entangled and complex beat, reducing it to just what “surrounds” us (environment=Umwelt)?. Or, perhaps, it would do more justice to speak of this matter in-between us, the air we all share, breathing in what other creatures like plants and plankton are breathing out, and giving back to those beings the carbon dioxide as we exhale? As David Abram put it, we do not live on the Earth, but on the Earth, speaking of the atmosphere we are immersed in and constantly exchange, this vaporised matter that connects living beings now and our endless lineages from times immemorial. Or, like some of the Andean indigenous cultures view it, “the place is not where I am from. It’s who I am”, thus we cannot separate ourselves from the environment without affecting our “individuality”. Something we learn from Marisol de la Cadena, is that we become the place, just as it is part of us, borders are blurred. So we are human, but not only.

Remaining with this image of living life being in intra-relation, the relationship being the basic unit of life, as Donna Haraway and other thinkers put it, and all of us—human and more-than-human—immersed in this air we call atmosphere, what is climate change then? What is this heating up, if perhaps not the fever from the accelerated hyperactivity, over-activity of our eyes, minds, muscles, and other tissues, as we make our bodies execute more effectively and more efficiently, faster, as well as our livelihoods, called “busy-nesses”, springing, struggling, and even almost dying in the agony of rapid growth, competition and so called victory? Without separating the pragmatic from the poetic, the mundane from the invisible—because in the spirit of the interconnected life, whose manifestation and particle we only are, there can not be such separation — we like to think of climate in both its direct and metaphorical meanings at the same time. Climate as the long-term properties of the atmosphere on this Earth, the very properties of this relational space that both envelops our life forms and is constituted by them. This relational space is characterised by its bloated Yang element (in the Zen tradition) and the colonial dominance of the Cain archetype (in the way we learned it from Joseph Campbell, and Jonathan Kay), just as it is by the polluted spirit, in us and the spirit around us that we call air, or the lack of resonance and reciprocity, as the strangling effect of the all-prevailing instrumentalisation of relational spaces.

As human borders get blurry, so do our cosmologies and interpretations of what is our place in the world. Can I, human, still decide for the “others” that they are too many or too few, that I should be able to protect them or demolish, decide where they should dwell or move? How does this change if the “other” is a plant, an animal, a fossil fuel, a person on the move from another house, another country, another continent? How does moving away from anthropocentrism happen? And how is this particular Anthropos we are speaking about? And if our worldview is changing, what would a cosmology that welcomes diversity and intra-relational becoming feel like?

A fascinating take on the intra-relational is ubuntu. In Zulu it means “I am, because you are”, and talking about a person with ubuntu we talk of someone who is a person through other people. Yet if we are who we are through the others, how do we walk into and move inside this relational space? Meaningful connections are the natural state for our being. Meaningful connections often are tricky. How do we hold this contradiction? Do we risk losing our personality, as we seemingly acknowledge that dissolving quality of being part of a larger whole?

Something we've been learning from the work of Lynn Margulis, as well as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, what we now started calling the holobiont rhizome, is that expanding connections goes well together with keeping the awareness of and care for the unique process that each of us is. Complexity thinking is a potentially rewarding emergent strategy. Acknowledging complexity, moving away from simplistic solutions that tend to reduce, shrink and separate, we might move towards the ecological, that cannot be reduced to a single meaning designating interdependencies in biology.

Seeking to live more earthbound, collaborative, attentive and generative ways of relating, where collective flourishing from the compost of the modern ideas of progress can take place, moved us to call Relational Space, the Winter trail at Foresta Seasonal Academy, into being. We dedicate Relational Space to discernment within relationships that make life possible. We dedicate this learning experience to Lifescapes, as Marisol de la Cadena puts it, and as we call the alumnae*I network at our Seasonal Academy. Lifescapes imply criss-crossing of relations that make life. It's a way of thinking, in which place implies ‘humans’ and ‘more-than-humans’ coming together, making place, emerging from place.

This learning experience invites to explore sensitivity and ways of listening, reciprocity and conflicts, walking together the circles of ecological intimacy, and proposing to engage into radical attentiveness to relationalities, to notice other beings inhabiting the landscapes we walk during our lifetime, multiple intelligences and pluralities of organic forms of sensitivity with which our (each of us) existence is entwined and is inseparable from.

Perhaps, you, dear reader of this, would like to join this guided journey into collective practice, nurtured by impulses in words and images, as well as close connection with the natural environments, embodied awareness practices, and a process of larger-self-discovery, with the wish to recognise relations as meaningful with intensity and nuance. Well, one of the methodologies we use we call art-thinking-and-making. This means we also invite you to playfully join the collective choir of stories in various media. The focus this winter 2022 will be on writing and drawing, as part of our research practice into thinking-through-making and different ways of knowing.

Sensing that we are not contained between our hats and boots, as Walt Whitman put it, we move towards the subject and being of relationalities. So how do we move towards a change of paradigm? Towards an enlarged sense of self, togetherness, synchronicity; towards a deeper experience of relational nature of reality; and how will it change our interconnected reciprocities with other humans, interspecies, and indeed everything we come in contact with? How do we change climate together, in ways that makes this Planet liveable for all creatures, in ways that (as Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it) all flourishing can be mutual?

Foresta Collective is a fluid collective of people, places and projects that share an intention, an inquiry, a slow pace unfolding towards the ecological mindset. (In the mainstream language, I would be called a founder, but I prefer to think of myself as a carer, a gardener and also a seed of this initiative).