"I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." ― Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
Terrence Mckenna, an ethnobotanist stated in his seminal book Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge that "nature is not mute", it is alive and talking to us on a real level. It was almost three decades ago when he talked about civilisation's false narrative about nature and those "mysterious intelligence within plants" and the implications of a basic chemical language that is unconscious but profound.
The language of nature as we mostly perceive has been understood/misunderstood from both metaphorical and sensory perceptions. We represent nature in cultures through languages, literature and other forms of narratives. We are yet to learn the craft of talking to nature. As humans, we love bridging gaps. Our nature also incorporates that same urge. A semiotic way of understanding nature is neither difficult nor novel. It has been going on for several ages.
Antonio Vallisneri, the 18th-century Italian medical scientist, physician and naturalist in a letter to Louis Bourguet asserted that "the language of nature is always the same, without metaphor, without allegory, without hyperbole, without doubtful, obscure, mysterious meanings. Nature speaks clearly to him who knows how to understand her, and does not need interpretation." Nature remains as the marker of life for all of us since the beginning. We need to connect the dots.
If nature is alive and trying to have a dialogue, then it must be sending us messages through a medium where every species in the web connects. Studies show that humans are not the only animals with evolved intelligence.
A recent article in The New Yorker talked about new research showing that plants have astounding abilities to sense and react to the world. The unfolding of life has been participated by 1.2 million known and 8.7 million unknown species of life. If life has a common semantic code, then we all are sharing the same vibe.
We can assume our position in the world as handicapped to natural causes. According to the Gaia principle, developed by James Lovelock, living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate life.
Everything in the world is connected like a dedicated bond in a web of things where damaging one string in the web could cause a terrible imbalance. Our pandemics can teach us some valuable lessons about our abuses that brought upon these imbalances amidst us.
What if there is a natural lingua franca? This common language then does not simply differentiate cross-communication among birds, animals, trees and humans.
Every animal or plant around us leaves an innate marker of ideas like breadcrumbs or signs so that the other species can formulate a mode to code and decode responses or signifiers. This commonality comes from a collective sense.
This idea speaks of Ferdinand De Saussure's theory of how language has been perceived throughout not as "peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it." Our spoken or perceived words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjustments that are superimposed upon an already given order of things.
The splendid thing about these communications is that we can connect despite the varied languages we speak. Our foundational knowledge of recognizing and understanding visual and auditory patterns makes it possible. So what does it mean when we talk about a common ground that might have been overlooked?
The answer lies in experiencing the floating narratives that species switched back to and forth since the beginning of time, rather than looking at the root causes of epidemics in governments, industrialists and vaccines to avoid pandemics. Evading a problem can give a temporary sense of security but listening and talking to the problem is a far better cure that the world needs desperately.
James Bridel, an artist, a writer and a publisher has recently made a documentary about the junction where art, spirituality and epidemics met. He talked about the relationship between spirituality and common sense.
As art accommodates its voice around the human experience of feeling and seeing, the same principle can also be applied to connect everything. The communication among the members of an ecosystem can be an overwhelming experience of spiritual recognition. Bridel's idea can also be found in the essays of David-Waltner Toews and Pablo F Gómez as they talk about the language of the epidemic in societies.
Laura Spinney, the British science journalist recently wrote in The Guardian on the lessons that we can draw from the history of disease outbreaks as she stretched out, "historically, pandemics have been more likely to occur at times of social inequality and discord. As the poor get poorer, the thinking goes, their baseline health suffers, making them more prone to infection."
That history was even true for the Romans and the Chinese as well, as in the heydays of the Silk route the Chinese and Roman empires had unequal distribution along classes, thus creating a massive upheaval in the economy as the poor were forced to live in extreme conditions. The outbreak of the Antonine plague brought these two empires to their feet.
Our recent experience of human infectious diseases is mostly from animals. If we trace it back, as John Cassidy the staff writer for The New Yorker did, we find the source linked to political and economic actions.
These infectious disease rises have to do with Industrial-scale large and medium farming, that resulted in the marginalisation of small farmers. These farmers are then forced to move to uncultivated lands mostly in the forests where animals have their natural ecosystems. With natural habitat in decline animals and organisms are more prone to transgress. A deep disturbance in the natural way of things can result in viruses that can travel through from animals to humans.
In the past one hundred years, human actions have caused the decline of biodiversity. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation report of 2019, most key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline.
The reasons are rising climate change, international markets and demography-driven drivers such as land-use change, pollution and overuse of external inputs, overharvesting and the proliferation of invasive species.
These risk factors are not new to us as we have been observing our seas being polluted by plastics, soil poisoned by artificial chemicals and rain forests have been disappearing at an unprecedented rate. The rise of new diseases is not a surprise anymore.
Epidemics are part of our existing lifecycle. Most of our diseases are in one way or another related to our failure in listening to natural systems. As we are harvesting the consequences of our past, nature must be understood from the voices it speaks.
We need to let natural things lie in the realms of soil, solitude and spirituality. Our technologies need to evolve from the philosophy of serving the planet, rather than fetishizing consumptions.
The language of nature is the language of living creatures in a reciprocal deal. The diseases are not peripheral to our ecosystem. They make us wiser than our past selves.
Humane response to crises should be positive. Rather than randomly vaccinating against every disease we need to address the causes of the disease first. It is not about modifying nature to our will, rather it about cooperation.
The human desire to control and modify nature comes from untimely arrogance/ignorance. The idea that we are the centre of the ecosystem is a manifesto of abuse that we all are participating in as a race.
We need to learn to respect the wilderness, celebrate abundant bliss and the natural diversity of life. As we live by different priorities and values, we must give importance to interconnectedness.
Life is a giver. Our nature has brought forth intelligence, consciousness and language. It is time we start listening to collective senses. The language of everything is the language of spirituality found in diversity.
Asif Nawaz is a senior lecturer at the Central Women's University.