Pleased to meet you
How do we get to know people? Why do we come to care about them? What makes a community?
I’ve never been skilled at socialising. Around strangers I’m either tongue-tied and wondering what the hell to say, or cutting straight to Meaning Of Life topics, but even I know the basics. We’re curious about other people. We want to know a name, a place, what are the important relationships in this person’s life? What do they give to the world? What do they care about?
Once we have this information, we can feel our way into how and where this person fits into the landscape, whether our relationship is a passing interaction or potentially for the rest of our lives. Over time, we care about each other, we want the best for each other and we understand the link between us that thrives with mutual support. There is such a thing as society.
As we face the knowledge that we’ve damaged the planet in some horrible ways, it’s important we recognise our place in Nature, as Nature. As members of a wider community than just our little human network. The wonderful thing is, we can create kinship with other species much as we create it with our own.
I’m pretty up to speed on mammals but I’ve also come to know plant species; where they thrive, the environment they prefer, the healing properties they might have, and of course, a name that we can use for them. (I’m aware that just because a human chooses and needs a recognisable word for something, doesn’t mean that word has any real connection to - for example - a plant beyond that human ID. I mean, just look at the science.) I have a live-in naturalist who often can’t remember where his keys are but will instantly recall Latin and English names for most birds and insects we’re likely to find locally. It’s amazing how many of them I too now remember. I’ve also referred to books and apps to tell me names, then repeated observation and contemplation has shown me habits and preferences. Yes, like Clint Eastwood before me, I talk to the trees.
As I sat watching the morning sun light up a silver birch one morning, I thought that - as far as social networking goes - I’ve never really managed to succeed, nor actually be impacted too deeply by the failure. But I do have a wide and diverse network of wild beings to whom I feel intimately connected. I know their names - posh Latin and nicknames. I know where they live and the things they like. I know what they do in the world. I know who and what they connect with, their favourite food/month/resting place.
The glaring difference between this network and an exclusively human one is that it feels to me to be one-sided. These wild beings know nothing about me and care less. Or do they?
Plants might seem entirely disengaged from us but, according to chemical ecologist Jack C Schultz, 'Plants are just very slow animals.' They have complex sensory systems that don’t mirror ours but research shows that in their own way, plants ‘see’, ‘smell’ and ‘hear’.
When it comes to other animal species, I’m hopeful that the days of ‘don’t anthropomorphise behaviour’ being the prime directive are over as we simply accept that we are not the only beings on the planet who experience emotion. That Descartes’ view that animals are ‘mechanisms’ has truly been consigned to horrible history.
There’s so much to be gained from building community with all the life around us. It’s colour vs. black & white. It’s Dolby stereo vs. tinny mono. As humanity slowly remembers that diversity is the answer to almost all survival and sustainability problems, we can also be aware that it heals us in mind, body and spirit.
I highly recommend getting to know your wild neighbours, wherever you live. It’s not speed-dating, it takes time and attention and patience but the rewards are vast and not just for you.
There are many ID resources out there - usually specific to a particular country/area/continent of course - from plants or birds, to moths or fungi. It takes moments to search and find something that will at least give you a starting point. Here's a few. If you know of others, please leave a comment!
Tree ID app (UK)
RSPB Identify A Bird (UK website)