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Interview — Before humans repurpose nature for our own needs, it is important to develop a language to discuss what nature is, say Mickey Gjerris and Johan Olsen in their new book.
At a café table in the Copenhagen neighbourhood of Frederiksberg in early summer, sit three men who seem keenly occupied with taking care of snails.
Johan Olsen, molecular biologist, researcher and lead singer in the rock group Magtens Korridorer, recalls taking a break during a cycle through the woods when he spotted one of the slimey, cold gastropods.
“That was my main problem with the autumn. When there were forest snails all over everything. I got this kind of OCD thing, where I went over and picked up those crazy snails and put them in the bushes. I’m also like that today. I can’t justify it scientifically, because I don’t believe that the snail experiences the universe in that way,” he says.
“It is just out of pure respect for…the snail.”
Mickey Gjerris, professor and bioethicist, has a similar story. He gathers the snails up from the rainy pavement in front of his home so that they don’t get stepped on, even if he gets laughed at.
“My children ridicule me,” says Gjerris, who has even devoted an entire chapter of his book to what he calls “snail thoughts.” Gjerris, who by his own admission is a
Uniavisen’s correspondent can understand where they are coming from. I myself become very nervous that the shell will break when my son picks up a snail. Or once, I ate a dozen snails because it seemed like a funny dish that happened to be on sale at the supermarket, and I felt strange about the fact that there were so many of them. What kind of animal eats
Tasty they may not be, but the topic of snails is certainly an expansive one.
… for the huge distance between myself and the snail, what we share is even bigger
Everything ranging from both the gluttony to the sheer humanity referred to above is incorporated into the book which we have met to discuss. Its title is The language of nature [Published in Danish as Naturens sprog – ed.] – true stories about the wonder of nature. Both men, together with about 20 other people with an insight into nature, contributed to writing it. Olsen composed one chapter, while Gjerris wrote another and also edited the book together with anthropologist Cecilie Rubow.
What would happen if we started to notice little moments in nature’s wonder, ask the editors. Those moments we all know, but that we often don’t have the words to describe?
Olsen has words. His chapter is sensual, almost ecstatic and describes diverse scenarios around being present in, physically embedded in or immersed in nature. A kind of scientific poetry:
“We are swimming in the Mediterranean at night, enveloped in bioluminescence that lights up from beneath us, a myriad of stars above us, only the sound of water, which shirks from the two swimming animals,” he writes, going on to acknowledge being part of the natural world:
“You and I, snails and strolls, cantarelles and fir trees under snow in Lapland are all connected in a line to the first life that emerged 4 billion years ago since (…). Life builds up the word by breaking down the words from its surroundings. Whether it is the sun that burns and offers light to an algae, or you, who is burning for a cheese sandwich.”
“For me, the beauty of nature unfolds the more I know about it – from a physics and a biochemical and a biological perspective and also from a philosophical and a theoretical departure point. One experiences nature as something bigger and wilder, the more you know about humanity’s recognition of it,” says Olsen. “That is what I try to explain in my story.”
It can be difficult to define where the natural world begins. Elisabeth Friis, professor of literature at the University of Lund, writes in a prosaic, thoughtful manner about the problem in her chapter of The Language of Nature:
“Every time we flush the toilet, throw something out or go out into nature for this reason – we confirm the discrete barrier between humans and nature, which we are used to understanding ourselves in relation to, and which hides the fact that there is nothing truly “out” in this world. Every stool, the toilet paper or the tampon disappears when we cannot handle their unappealing presence anymore, and we are not less a part of an environment when we sit inside in front of the screen in the office, than when we look at the light-green trees out in the forest.”
Olsen says that he is interested in the school of thought which says that there is nothing, that is not nature.
Our position is that there is a way to talk about nature which has a meaning that goes beyond what we are going to do with it
“Instead we have different environments in our nature. This is an old debate. If you have a swan, it is nature, as it has created the swan. Why should the house behind it then not also be defined as nature? Everything that is touched by humans, is defined as culture, yet we also agree that people who moved about the Savannah 100, 000 years ago were also nature. Back then everything was pure and beautiful, or at least, that tends to be the intuitive feeling which most have.”
“150 years ago, John Stuart Mill made us aware that if we want a stringent definition of nature, you can find two: what people have touched is culture, the rest is nature. Or, otherwise, everything is nature,” says Gjerris. “The problem is just that we distinguish in our daily language, and therefore we should instead see nature as a fluid concept.”
The notion of a fluid definition is also an opportunity to give an unexpected shout-out to Esben Lunde Larsen, former environment and agriculture minister. The rather unpopular minister provoked criticism when he said that he considered farmers’ cornfields to be nature. But that is fair enough, says Gjerris.
“I have defended him, and I believe that this is the only point I have defended him on, but each time I hold a lecture, I put up a picture of Esben Lunde Larsen and say that the criticism of him was unfair. We can discuss how much nature there is, but then to deny that a cornfield has anything to with nature does not make sense,” he says. “It was a Norwegian philosopher who at the end of an article writes that “even in a garden peppered with garden gnomes in the most shoddy suburb, you can observe the creation and destruction of the universe.”
“That is bloody beautifully said,” says Olsen.
“One word that reappears when we talk about nature is wildness. The more uncontrolled it is, the more we understand it as nature. Naturally, we humans are also nature, but as far as we know, we are also the only animal that is able to take responsibility for its actions. We cannot ask the lion to kill the gazelle in a human way, but we can choose. We have developed intelligence and technological power and have exclusively seen it as an opportunity to expand ourselves,” says Gjerris.
Schizophrenia is more prevalent among people without access to nature
The book is an attempt to say that perhaps we should take responsibility and find a language where we can talk about putting ourselves to one side and allowing something, that is not independent of us, unfold itself.
“Without it being a left-oriented hippie thing, it is also worth noting that the human mind could not manage without nature,” says Olsen. “It is a no-brainer. Those who have grown up without nature go crazy. Schizophrenia is more prevalent among people without access to nature. I am very happy with my workplace, and my large office space is a daily pleasure. But when I mention that my view looks out onto a parking lot, people say ‘oh, that’s a shame’ and we don’t even discuss why. You just know.”
And yet, this way of thinking may be in danger of disappearing. When the psychiatric hospital Sankt Hans was established in the city of Roskilde, it was with the idea that the ill would be helped by beautiful surroundings. However, the idea was then dropped and the hospital constructed in Hvidovre, in a space which resembles an indoor parking lot.
“Yes, and corresponding with food was the idea that you should have good food, so we began to create a science around it and count calories and that kind of thing, so that the food was exactly suited to our needs exactly as with animals, and people came home from the hospital undernourished,” says Gjerris. “Because we forgot, that it is not just about the physical, but that humans are an emotional being, for whom experiences play an enormous role.”
Gjerris is trained in making ethical choices – he was a member of the Ethics Council from 2011 – 2016 – and he likes to answer questions by taking on different positions.
“You can hear in Mickey’s argument that he overlays a philosophical angle onto the considerations, which is interesting. On one hand, you have enthusiasm and respect for nature, and on the other you have a scientific approach to why there should be respect. The book is at once academic and poetic,” says Olsen.
“That was what we wanted,” says Gjerris. “When you open the newspaper and read about the climate and plastic in the oceans and the seventh mass extinction and I don’t know what else, you suddenly get the urge to crawl into the foetal position. And we have to relate to that. Our position is that it should not just be a technical and scientific discussion, but there also needs to be an ethical discussion. There is something wrong with our culture’s perspective on nature, and that’s why we also need to talk about that.”
“We talk a lot about nature, but in reality it is much more about environment,” says Gjerris. “Whether we should benefit from nature or whether we should take care of what is out there. Otherwise the blow will sneak up on us. However, my co-editor Cecilie Rubow and I believe that this kind of language is lacking. Philosopher K.E. Løgstrup, who I am inspired by, talks about how we can experience the world in three ways. Firstly, we can experience it scientifically – like Johan does, when he has to analyse proteins and describe them in language that is as objective as possible – and that is very good for many things. We definitely have to do that.”
“The second way is in terms of needs. These days you basically just have to open your mouth and a grilled chicken flies in, but you don’t have to go far back in time, before “give us this day our daily bread” was a relevant thing to pray for. People have instinctive needs imposed by nature, and when we look at the world through the lens of our needs, we describe the world in terms of what we use it for. But Løgstrup also says that there is a third, immediate way to experience the world. And that is a language we want to challenge people to write in.”
“As our body lives off daily bread, our mind lives in its storage and the energy of our world in its nature…the mind does not exist without being in tune, without being a sounding board for all that exists and surrounds it in the world and in nature, which humans are themselves enmeshed in via their senses, with their eyes and ears.”
Is that a romantic notion?
“No, because then it would immediately become unrealistic and sentimental,” says Gjerris. “Our position is that there is a way to talk about nature which has a meaning that goes beyond what we are going to do with it. And that is a language that we also have to incorporate into the climate debate, the pollution debate and the agriculture debate, otherwise we will end up structuring the entire universe according to our needs and preferences and we risk losing something important. The problem is, if you arrive at a debate on climate and the environment and begin talking in this way, people say: you are just a nature romantic and all that nonsense. It’s preferred that you talk about ecosystem services. However, we believe that there is something discuss, and therefore we also need a language to do that in, if we are to be taken seriously. This is why we asked a range of people who we believe have an intimate, or needs-based or scientific relationship to nature, and where we thought that behind it there was likely an enthusiasm which was the reason that it entered into their work in the first place. If we could get them to speak in that language, we would be on the way to discovering how to do this here.”
You and I, snails and strolls, cantarelles and fir trees under snow in Lapland are all connected in a line to the first life that emerged 4 billion years ago since
Johan Olsen, quote from The language of nature
“If we only talk about the animals that we breed as either some kind of lunch on legs or a natural phenomenon that we can make more effective, we miss out on the fact that before we came and turned it into a dairy cow, it was an animal which had meaning in and of itself. We cannot see this because we are mixed up in the angles that we have applied to existence,” says Gjerris.
Besides a pre-scientific approach to nature, both men also believe there is a post-scientific path to a fascination and connection with nature.
“I have few natural sciences people within my circle of acquaintances. They have said “you are destroying the experience of nature by naming everything and putting things in categories.” I cannot describe how wrong that is. It is embedded in the study of nature – also within the stringent natural sciences school – that it zeros in on itself and becomes interesting. This also applies to a philosophical and a social sciences perspective. The more perspectives we have of nature, the more beautiful it becomes,” says Olsen.
“I believe that the reason that Johan finds it exciting to separate proteins from one another and see whether they can be transformed into something else is partly because of the fact that he has floated in the Mediterranean,” says Gjerris.
“100 percent,” says Olsen.
“I was at a conference regarding insects in China,” says Gjerris. “There was a talk about a parasite which lives in the ground and is eaten by snails, and from the snails it can wander into an ant, where it continues all the way to the brain. Eventually it makes the ant crawl up into a blade of grass and sit itself there, and then come the cows and eat the grass, and the parasite can further develop itself there, until its eggs are shit out and eaten by the snails. It is truly fascinating that the world is this way, and we sit around watching Netflix.”
“I read an article in a scientific journal that people with influenza are more social during the incubation period. Also, there was a change of behaviour. I’d like to know how much of our behaviour comes from viral infections over time,” says Olsen.
I add that I have seen a documentary about parasites in cat droppings causing people to run greater risks, that is, if they end up eating cat droppings such as in the sandbox as a child.
“You could certainly measure that,” says Gjerris. “You can just take the children out to a forest and see who climbs a tree highest.”
“We can never understand nature in and of itself without ourselves being part of it,” says Gjerris, taking a serious tone again. “No one can sit themselves down and say, now I am fully listening to what is being said. But that does not mean that I cannot try to free myself of my needs and my scientific approach and just describe, what is happening, before I become occupied with describing what should be,” says Gjerris.
Gjerris and co-editor Rubow ask in the book: “What might happen if we accepted that the fascination with cattails, odonate, knotweed and icicles cannot be put in one the same scale and measured equally with pork exports, but is nevertheless is equally important to us.”
Wouldn’t it be ideal if economists – and an environmental economic council does exist – developed their calculations in this way?
“That’s all good and well.” says Gjerris. “I work with environmental economists at the institute. You can try to calculate what people would be willing to pay in order to preserve nature. However, this also means that our payment capabilities decide what is worth taking care of. And we want to move past that, because once again, it is us who chooses. We could also make environmental economic calculations of what would happen if we composted dead people and used them in potato production instead of burning them, which is probably not so environmentally-friendly. But we wouldn’t even make that calculation, because there is something to respect which goes beyond an economic value. We believe nature has the same thing.”
And perhaps the appreciation of this value begins – and this article draws to a close – with yet another snail encounter. As Gjerris puts it in the book:
“…By taking a little slimy creation in your hand and placing it under a bush. Watch as it orients itself with its small feelers. Watch it glide slowly down your hand. Notice that it and I have something in common. In our vulnerability and exposedness. Learn that community is not just something we have with other people, but with everything living. See, that for the huge distance between myself and the snail, what we share is even bigger. We are both part of the same story, one that began with the Big Bang and has now arrived at this sidewalk and this meeting.”