In Strangers (Makina Books), Rebecca Tamás explores where the human and nonhuman meet, and why this delicate connection just might be the most important relationship of our times. From ‘On Watermelon’ to ‘On Grief,’ Tamás’s essays are exhilarating to read in their radical and original exploration of the links between the environmental, the political, the folkloric and the historical. From thinking stones, to fairgrounds, from colliding planets to transformative cockroaches, Tamás’s lyrical perspective takes the reader on a journey between body, land and spirit—exploring a new ecological vision for our fractured, fragile world.
Strangers can be ordered direct from the publisher here.
To celebrate the publication of this collection, Hotel runs an excerpt from this suite of essays, ‘On Panpsychism’—see below...
¶ When I go for a solstice swim on the south coast, I come out not feeling as refreshed as I might hope—still battling a summer cold, still worrying. Then, above our heads as we dry off, a skylark comes hovering—tiny against the rolling blue sky, hollering out its scratchy, buzzing, kaleidoscopic song. The grooves of my mind resettle, without being fixed—soda bubble brightness, wailing and rubbing song of liveliness and being alive. The bird has no interest in me, but his deliberate song is changing the font of my thought, taking my inwardness and flinging it open to the fizzing sea light. Nothing has changed, but, of course, it has.
The heavy movement and being of fog slows down my inner monologue, the spacious lushness of a forest in spring fills me with weird and pleasurable expansiveness, the cold shush of snow against the window clarifies me and empties me out. Can anyone really deny that thought and thinking comes from the outside as well as the inside? That when the outside is terribly damaged, the inside will be also?
Panpsychism is the theory that everything in nature has mind, or at least mind-like qualities. The arguments to support this range across philosophy and spirituality. Some animist religions see divine spirit in everything, some Christians see God’s nature in everything he created—splinters of the great spirit in each part of the world.
For secular panpscychists, a central argument is ‘The Argument from Non-Emergence’ described here by leading panpscychist thinker David Skirbina:
It is inconceivable that mind should emerge from a world in which no mind existed; therefore mind always existed, even in the simplest of structures … “nothing in the cause that is not in the effect.” *
Another closely related argument is that of ‘Naturalised Mind:’
If the human mind is not to be considered an eternal mystery or a divine miracle, it must be fully, deeply and rationally integrated into the natural world. †
Do rocks think? Or do they at least have a will to, if not life, then being? The continuation of what they are?
Do trees, which communicate through roots and soil, which display ‘crown shyness’ (where they avoid touching each other’s leaves in the high canopy) display a sensitivity to being, an ability to express their will, a goal-directedness, which we might consider sentient?
I don’t know the definitive answer to these questions. But in the primordial mud which we came from, the chemicals, gases, atoms and electrons where we began, the potential for mind was there, impossible to locate or quantify. Waiting. We can’t describe or rationally prove other minds in the mud, other ‘desires’ to live or to continue to be, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.
When we think of the loss of ecosystems, of environments, of living beings, we most often consider the practical human cost. Or, if we are being generous, we consider this alongside the loss for the environment or creatures themselves, their suffering and destruction. But I want to add another consideration to these crucial ones, and it is the consideration of mind.
Sitting on the steps of my flat, crying. I feel awful—stressed, sad, but I don’t know why. I can’t locate a single pressing issue that has, over the last few days, suddenly pushed me into this low mood. The terror of blank misery rising up from nothing is worse than the emotions themselves. Slowly, slowly, sitting on the steps, I realise what is happening. These are not my emotions. Living closely, intensely, with my beloved housemate, I have caught her emotions. Fighting her internal difficulties as she is, not wanting to say outright what she is going through, or complain; her subconscious has nevertheless met mine. She does not have to tell me she is suffering for me to feel it in my body—wordless mind to wordless mind.
Is there not a version of this, infinitely more subtle and hard to parse, in the vibrations that we feel from the world beyond the human? We are not closed circuits, plastic wrapped—without words, things still speak to us, jolt us, pain us, free us, and change us. This isn’t really surprising. The outside world, human and non-human, is not a painted backdrop to our lives and experiences, but makes them, is part of them.
David Skirbina, in Panpsychism in the West, quotes from a 1970 lecture by systems theorist Gregory Bateson:
[W]hen you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark … on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you … You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.‡
The natural world is part of an intimate web of life that we share, but it is also part of our mental web of existence, one that we ignore again and again.
The unassailable difference of the nonhuman, is freedom from being stuck in the unbearable feedback loop of the purely human, of our own minds and selves, chatting away in a vacuum. When I was feeling deeply ill in my mind and spirit, and I went and walked along a river in midwinter, was the movement of the water just a metaphor? Was it only a distraction? I think that the river’s cold flowing and rush was something genuinely outside of the stultifying clamminess of my own head, and that its cool difference, its ignorance of me, gave me relief.
We know that human health will suffer as we continue to expand cities and reduce ‘natural’ or nonhuman environments and spaces. We know pollution will choke us and make us sick. But what happens to thought?
The sheeny, various, prickling thought of fields of wildflowers.
The bellowing, vast, indelibly blue and subtle thought of storms out at sea.
The slicing, nervous, fruitful, bright thought of a primeval forest.
The layered, smooth, tingling, rich thought of humid wetlands.
The cold, to the point, attentive, virulent thought of a moor in winter.
Reading a novel in summer heat, looking out onto a deep Mediterranean blue bay, hornets and butterflies licking honey from the wooden terrace floor, changes my reading. The book hasn’t changed, but my experience of it genuinely has. The cavities my thought is able to slide into, change.
What thought would have been impossible if Shakespeare had not had the memory of the slanting light of the forest of Arden, it’s fuzzy, mud-thick equality of plants, animals and desires? What thought would not have been available to him, if Tagore had not travelled to the icy, sharply intense landscape of Himachal Pradesh’s border with Kashmir, or the freeing blue horizon of rice paddies in Shantiniketan? What thought would have been buried without Virginia Woolf’s time in the rolling hills of Sussex, clouds going in and out, bird noises, slash of water and the darting changes of the colours on the leaves?
With the death of different spaces, different environments, different histories and different bodily forms moving through them, forms of thought die too.
We know that ‘spending time in nature’ is scientifically proven to improve human being’s physical and mental health. Being in green spaces reduces depression, speeds up physical healing, and tackles anxiety.
Are such powerful impacts simply created only by the quiet of ‘natural’ places? The relaxation of pretty trees and flowers? What makes these things relaxing? After all, even looking at pictures of nonhuman environments has been proven to have beneficial impacts, balancing our parasympathetic nervous system.
Could it be then, that nonhuman difference itself is necessary to our mental wellbeing and the possibility of our thought? That we crave to not exist as lonely monads, but as individuals whose worldviews don’t cram every orifice of available thinking? If you had to spend your entire life inside, moving from building to building but never being allowed the possibility of being in the open air, you’d go mad. But why? You’d have company, vitamin D supplements, food. The human is only a part, and perhaps without the agency and indifference of the nonhuman, the capacity for thought curdles and gets sick.
The Ecological philosopher Timothy Morton argues:
… what matters isn’t exactly what you think, but how you think … Being mentally healthy might mean knowing that what you are thinking and how you are thinking are intertwined … And maybe mental health and ecological ‘health’ are interlinked. I believe that humans are traumatized by having severed their connections with nonhuman beings, connections that exist deep within their bodies … §
Whether the nonhuman world has ‘mind’ or not, its capacities, changeability, agency and being have an impact on what, and how, we are able to think. However many jungles and wetlands we destroy, the nonhuman will not ‘go away,’ because it exists in our very own guts and on our very own skin. But the harder it is to find and access, the more ill, damaged, maimed and suppressed it is, the fewer opportunities we will have to grow new and spacious kinds of thinking. This is not a question of morality (that the nonhuman is somehow ‘good’ or ethically instructive) but a question of difference—the truth that we are not all that exists, that there is a radical and shocking alterity bound up in every physical and mental possibility we have.
We don’t always get to decide the thoughts that we have. After a terrible year taking care of a family member who is physically and mentally ill, I am swimming in the choppy waters of Galway Bay. The water smashes over my head, filling my mouth with salt, knocking me against the stones, twirling me through dark water. Coming out, I’m laughing and joking, proud of myself for getting into the cold sea in only a standard skimpy swimsuit, as others ploughed through in wetsuits and goggles. But the equation of body + water has released types of thinking I don’t want to have, nudging them from my subconscious through the jolt of wave on skin. I can hear, really hear, as if it’s right next to me, the sound of a child crying, screaming. Where is it coming from? There is nothing but black sky and white boiling water. Then I realise that the wailing is actually in my own head, is me, is coming from inside, was already doing so, and now has become available to me. I crouch in the shower, shaking, old and new traumas swirled and spat out by the rough water. The thought has been wrestled out of me, vomited up onto the platform of my mind.
Walking home at night, drunk and bad tempered, to find the yellow eyes of a fox on me, and a jolt of sharp stink throws me back into myself.
Waking up to unexpected frost, and the hurried, selfish thoughts I was having momentarily evaporating into frozen attending.
Being surrounded by low sea fog, a haar, as I stroll home over Edinburgh’s meadows, knee height lake of gossamer water, normality peeled back and the city made strange, as strange as it is.
Our minds, the minds of the nonhuman, the intricate ever shifting patterns of thought, millions of endless webs, endless changes in the pressure, the expanse. A tree doesn’t think like a snake, or a stone, or an amoeba, or like us. The word ‘think’ begins to crumble and fracture under the weight of itself, under all of these different beings. One mind is never going to be enough for me. Never should be enough.
[*] David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017)
[§] Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019)
[§] Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019)
Rebecca Tamás’s poetry and criticism has been published widely. She is the co-editor of Spells: Occult Poetry for the 21st Century, with Sarah Shin, published by Ignota Books; and her first poetry collection, WITCH was published by Penned in the Margins, 2019, to praise from the Poetry Book Society, the Guardian, Telegraph, Irish Times, TLS, White Review and The Paris Review. Rebecca is a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University, where she co-curates The York Centre for Writing Poetry series. She is represented by Emma Paterson, at Aitken and Alexander.