Patrik Svensson and Rebecca Tamás, based in Sweden and the UK, wrote to one another in the early spring months of 2021. They discussed anger at the government, fears for their families, and their hope that, through our attention, we can learn to cherish and celebrate the nonhuman world.
Patrik Svensson is a Swedish journalist and author of The Gospel of the Eels (2021), a natural history of the eel. Rebecca Tamás is the author of the poetry collection WITCH (2019) and essay collection Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman (2020).
I have never felt so furious at a government in my lifetime, and we’ve had some terrible ones. Not for any decision in isolation, but for their disorganised, sickening cronyism, their disgusting ego, their unwillingness to save the lives of the most vulnerable, their racism and elitism, their smug chaos, their patronising, evil selfishness. Sometimes I think we should just stop, say ‘no more’. Say that we will not break ourselves trying to keep everything spinning.
It makes me think of what Walter Benjamin argued, ‘Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race traveling in the train applies the emergency brake.’ I want to pull the emergency brake on a country where the one thing that has carried on in this pandemic is work – where the most at risk have been asked to clean, sell, and teach, and the richest and safest have sat at home working from their laptops, their savings increasing. Even in my privileged work as a university lecturer I have been amazed how, whatever the collective trauma, no one expects us (staff or students) to slip up, slow down, or stop, even for a moment. The obsession with productivity, and the protection of our economy above all else, seems more and more like a sickness.
Yet, despite all of the pain of these last few days, I’m trying to avoid the temptation of self-pity, and value being in Devon, on a sheep farm in the middle of Exmoor, surrounded by green slick hills and dark skies. I look up from my lunch and see a light brown sparrowhawk flying across the grass, I listen to the howl of the wind challenging the windows. All of these are good things, which I am lucky to have near me.
I’m writing to you from Malmö in Sweden. Here it is grey and wet and freezing cold although the temperature almost never drops below zero. All I meet are people and pigeons. It’s a place where you at this time of year feel especially far from nature, from other forms of life and from the sense of belonging you can have when meeting them. I miss that.
I can’t let go of the thought that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this ongoing situation, with this absurd state of emergency. It contradicts human nature.
I usually don’t like to talk about something as elusive as ‘human nature’ in definite terms like that, but right now I can’t help it. My mother is alone. She is also sick, she’s undergoing treatment. And you are simply not meant to go through something like that alone.
When my mother started the treatment my older sister and I went with her to the hospital. Of course we weren’t allowed to come inside. Everyone was wearing masks and protective clothing, large signs were telling us to stay away. So when my mother went inside the doctor’s office my sister and I were sitting on a bench outside, waiting. My mother had a phone with her and my sister and I could hear everything that was being said in the room, squatting over another phone on the bench outside. But we weren’t there! We couldn’t see what the office looked like, we couldn’t feel the smell of detergents and disease, we couldn’t see the doctor’s eyes or gestures, we couldn’t hold our mothers hand. We didn’t really share the experience with her. We lost a part of our ability to feel empathy.
When I read your book [Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman] I was thinking about Rachel Carson, as I so often do. She wrote an essay called ‘The Sense of Wonder’, which although I don’t consider it to be one of her best works still is a text that I always come back to. In it she writes about how we shouldn’t be afraid to look at nature with the eyes of a child. How we should welcome that sense of wonder that the child feels when meeting nature and how you can only achieve that by getting close to nature and experience it with all your senses. How there’s no opposition between a scientific approach to the world and an emotional, almost spiritual, experience. We should embrace this sense of wonder, says Carson, because in it lies the seed for both knowledge and the ability to feel empathy.
You write in your book about ‘the Diggers’ who in the seventeenth century tried to create a form of Christian utopian society where not only injustices and class differences were abandoned but where you also lived in perfect harmony with, and with total respect for, nature and all other forms of life. This is something I have thought a lot about. What would a secular version of this approach look like? A sort of socialism for all life. How can you from a secular point of view create the same kind of respect for not only humans but also animals, trees, plants and rivers – for everything that the believer considers to be God’s inviolable creation?
I took a walk earlier today through a park in Malmö. My feet turned into blocks of ice from the cold but on a small island in a pond I saw a heron. It stood completely still, with just the large beak pointing out across the water, slowly swinging from side to side. An image of patience. And I thought, with just the kind of sentimental banality that these times seems to so easily attract: If the heron knows how to endure, surely so can we.
I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, and I hope she might be better soon. My father is currently undergoing treatment for lung cancer, in the Eastern European country where he lives. So not only are we in two different countries while he deals with this, but I am also unable to visit him due to the restrictions. It’s a deeply surreal situation, which is why your description of waiting outside the hospital with your sister, unable to hold your mother’s hand, resonated so much with me. I can hear my father’s stories about the strangeness of his experiences, but I can’t wait with him as he is forced to queue in a freezing corridor with broken lights for hours, or comfort him when uncovered corpses are rolled past as he waits for treatment. Going through illness is of course horrible at the best of times, but in a pandemic, and at the mercy of a health service under massive pressure, it is even more alienating and lonely. We, as his family, cannot offer to share the burden of these experiences by materially entering into them with him.
I love your description of Carson’s essay (which I must read) and your thought about a ‘socialism for all life’ – an idea that feels crucial to me too. We can’t force Western societies to return to some kind of vision of divinity in the natural world, or at least not one linked to a specific god or gods; as much as doing so might inevitably encourage people to offer more care and protection to it. So as you say, we need a secular version of this re-alignment, where we automatically and easily can access a respect for the environment that is emotional as well as practical. Telling the public that a river is worth 2 billion pounds to their national economy just isn’t going to do the trick – it needs to come from within, it needs to come from a shift in the entire way that we perceive the world and our responsibilities to it.
I’ve been researching the Ancient Greek cult of Dionysus recently, and in doing so, have been thinking more and more about the importance of mystery and alterity in building a sense of solidarity and intimacy with the nonhuman world. Dionysus, the ‘hidden god’, seems to represent/allow an access to what is beyond the human that revivifies and transforms, a connection to the violent difference of the nonhuman that is electrifying. So much of our lives are spent in the carapace of the entirely human, whether in cities, or in a countryside shaped by agriculture. To witness radical difference, to recognise the agency of wild things, without idealising them, can restore to us the sense of living in a diverse and unpredictable universe. To me that is an immanent rather than a divine mystery, that allows us to feel a genuine joy in a connection to a wider life force that exists beyond our own limiting conceptions. That perhaps sounds a little sentimental too, but I’m not quite sure how else to put it into words!
I also think that another key process in our journey to a ‘socialism for all life’ is attention – the attention which you beautifully demonstrate in your description of the heron, and which I saw again and again in your book [The Gospel of the Eels], when you considered the lifeworlds and behaviours of the eel. This was particularly satisfying in the case of the eel, because of the way in which your attention transforms what could be seen as a ‘gross’ or unappealing being into one that is not only fascinating, but full of mysterious depth and agency.
Inevitably I thought of Simone Weil’s writing in Gravity and Grace – ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.’ She does not say it is prayer, she says it is the same thing as prayer, which, though a tiny difference, seems to offer up to me the possibility of attention as a form of thought which does not need divinity to bring about genuinely transformative internal shifts.
In opening up our attention to any nonhuman being or object for long enough, we will inevitably begin to break through our numbness and our anthropomorphism, and slowly discover our inability to contain its unique existence. We will be forced to recognise that it goes beyond our limited conceptions. Such a recognition feels like another crucial part of breeding the ‘total respect’ for all forms of life that you describe. We cannot allow ourselves to only notice the things we find cute and appealing in the natural world – the ‘charismatic megafauna’, blushing roses or adorable puppies. We also have to find ways to feel for the beings which, like the eel, resist our conceptions of a ‘natural world’ that makes us feel comfortable and secure. There is, I think, so much more intellectual and emotional thrill available in the consideration of that unsettling mystery, than there is in comfortable, numbing holism. In a ‘socialism for all life’, perhaps that thrill could be a place to start?
Today in London we have seen blue sky for what feels like the first time in weeks – when I went for a walk in the park there was a man in a bomber jacket lying on top of a fallen tree, eyes closed, simply soaking up the light. He was, as my friend said ‘living his best life’. I hope such light comes your way too, and offers some much needed relief.
I appreciate your letters so much. Right now we are separated not only by an ocean but also by a pandemic, and yet we can still somehow meet in a common experience. I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I had no idea, and how could I, that we had this in common. Lung cancer is the same disease my mother is suffering from.
Here in Malmö, we actually had some winter last week. It was two days of freezing temperatures and quite a lot of snow and we went out in the woods and did all those things we almost never do any more. We went sledding, and ice skating on a frozen lake, had a fiery and violent snowball fight. But the moment I appreciated the most was when we got out of the woods and on to a big open field and I saw all the animal tracks in the snow. Hundreds of tracks across the field in all directions. From hares, squirrels and roe deers, even from a moose. I walked around for at least an hour looking at them. I couldn’t get enough. I followed the tracks from a fox hunting a rabbit. All over the white field was these tracks of life, from all sorts of different, nonhuman life forms that of course are there all the time, but that I hardly ever really see. For me it was like a form of language, sprawling characters in the snow, like they were talking to me.
Two days later the winter was gone and all the tracks vanished.
I really like what you write about attention. I believe that attention really is the key and the seed to both knowledge and empathy, particularly in meeting with the natural world. I’m sure that Rachel Carson would agree too.
I’m not sure, though, that I completely agree on the comparison with prayer. For me attention is at the core of all scientific practice. Knowledge of the world is gained through observation. Natural science is based on the ability to observe and to be attentive to what you observe, to find the truth in the microscope. It’s of course a bit of an old-fashioned view of science. Today we can study even things that we cannot visually observe, like black holes or planets in distant solar systems. But I think the principle still is valid in any scientific approach, to pay attention to that which is around you, to what you can observe, and I’m having trouble combining it with a more spiritual or religious approach to the world.
When writing about the eel I was forced to acknowledge that the mystery was as important as the facts. I realized that the story of the eel, and our relationship with it, was just as much about what we don’t know as what we actually know. And when asking the question how do we know the things we know, it also became a story about what science is, what knowledge is, and about the ongoing interplay between facts and mystery.
I found a quote by Anïs Nin that I never used, but that helped me to turn things around and look at it from a different perspective. ‘The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery’, she wrote. ‘There is always more mystery.’
I wish you all light and blue skies, and I look forward to your next letter.
How strange that we should both be going through something so similar without realising, an echoing connection that, like this written one, we share without ever having met. Malmö sounds thrilling, I’m so jealous that you have so much wildlife on your doorstep – hares, deer, and moose! Even seeing a fox here in London where I am now, (though there are many) gives me a thrill, as such a big city swallows up most opportunities to see wild creatures. And seeing tracks as language is something that has crossed my mind too – their footprints sharing information with each other, and each footprint a particular style, a particular ‘handwriting’. Nonhuman communication is everywhere, thriving around us, if we’re prepared to look for it.
That, to me, connects closely to the Nin quote you shared – that the more we know of the nonhuman the more mystery there is. Because when we recognise the language-like qualities of animal footprints, it only opens more questions about what they are thinking, feeling, doing, experiencing.
This week I saw a tweet about the ritual behaviour of elephants, saying that they practice ‘moon worship’ by ‘waving branches at the waxing moon and engaging in ritual bathing when the moon if full’. The tweet said, ‘Why did no one tell me Elephants have religion and have been observed to Worship the Moon?’ Now, I wouldn’t personally say that these actions mean elephants ‘have’ religion, and it has to be said that the ‘branch waving’ information on the Wikipedia page remains unconfirmed. But what’s so deeply compelling about these actions, if they are real,– is that we just don’t really know what behaviour like this from animals means. We can’t fully explain them – as much as some of those in the comments jumped in to say, ‘oh well, elephants need the light of the moon for hunting, so it’s a practical thing’. But scientists of animal behaviour just don’t know either way – the more they learn about elephant behaviour, the more questions there are – about these ‘rituals’, about the ways in which they seem to mourn their dead. Everything we learn only pushes us further into recognising that nonhuman beings are constantly going beyond the rigid concepts we put on them, about what they are able to do or feel or believe. They are endlessly mysterious, and I find that more enchanting, more exciting, than any story of organised religion might tell me about the workings of the world I exist in.
As long as we can become comfortable with the increase in mystery that science offers, then I think it can be a wonderful way into understanding and being equitable with the nonhuman world. It’s only when it leads to rigidity and a desire to control and explain away, that it becomes problematic: and so often that is where it leads. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer say in Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.’ That has been the major tenor of our relationship with the natural world since the Enlightenment – and now, perhaps too late, we are realising that we need to try and find ways to learn and discover and not work towards domination in every area. Mystery helps us avoid totalisation and any search for ‘completion’ and control. That is why it’s so important to me, when thinking about environmental questions.
I just recently read Swedish essayist Nina Burton’s Notes from a Summer Cottage (it will be published in the UK this summer). It’s a wonderful book about nonhuman communication and how the natural world is full of languages. If we just leave behind the narrow human definition of language as something spoken or written we realise that there is language everywhere. Bees performing a ‘dance’ to give each other information about where to find flowers, of course that’s a kind of language. Just like elephants waving branches at the moon.
I strongly believe that it is when we interpret the natural world through our own concepts and experiences that knowledge and mystique can be united. And that it is this special unity that also gives us the ability to experience an affinity with other forms of life.
Your discussion of ‘animal language’, and the need to use human forms to discuss nonhuman things, made me think of the writing of the Native American author Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer discusses the Potawatomi language of her grandparents, and the way in which its inflections actually shape a different worldview than the one available to us in English (and perhaps many European languages):
There are words for states of being that have no equivalent in English. The language that my grandfather was forbidden to speak is composed primarily of verbs, ways to describe the vital beingness of the world. Both nouns and verbs come in two forms, the animate and the inanimate. You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is merely an object. Birds, bugs, and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are, as if we were all members of the same family. Because we are. There is no it for nature. Living beings are referred to as subjects, never as objects, and personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadees . . .
It’s no wonder that our language was forbidden. The language we speak is an affront to the ears of the colonist in every way, because it is a language that challenges the fundamental tenets of Western thinking – that humans alone are possessed of rights and all the rest of the living world exists for human use. Those whom my ancestors called relatives were renamed natural resources.
These ideas fascinate me – we know that language shapes how we think, but this analysis of the difference between calling living things ‘it’ and referring to them as subjects, shows how crucial that is in terms of the nonhuman world. Of course, we can’t just change our language wholesale, but learning from languages like Potawatomi suggests the potential that is available for shifting the human relationship with the nonhuman. How might it feel if we tried to refer to other beings as kin? Even other objects? I think the change could be profound.
It’s an overused quote, but Audre Lorde was utterly right when she said, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. Capitalist thinking will never undo capitalist destruction – and biodiversity loss, climate change and so on will never be undone by the system that caused it in the first place. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t constantly pressure politicians to reduce emissions, or that we should give up on averting environmental collapse. I think that would be a terrible mistake, especially when more radical ideas like ‘The Green New Deal’ are gaining traction in the mainstream. But I can’t imagine a long term ‘fix’ for our hugely destructive relationship with the environment unless we can also shift the terms in which we think and feel. Perhaps that’s something of the contribution writing can make.
I hope you continue enjoying the beautiful ice and snow over there – things are thawing here, and there are snowdrops blooming, and even the hint of daffodils in the park. I can truly say I’ve never looked forward to a spring more, or needed it more either.
I think you are very right that language has shaped, and continue to shape, our thinking, not just through the colonial history, and the ongoing racist practice, but also in our relationship with the natural world.
I didn’t know of Robin Wall Kimmerer and the brilliant text you quoted, but something in it resonates very strongly with what I myself have become more and more aware of. In a capitalistic practice, and a capitalistic language, the nonhumans inevitably gets its value solely from how it can benefit humans. And in a way of thinking like that, how you denominate things can also be an act of resistance. That there actually are languages that separate the animate from the inanimate, and name all animals and plants as ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘it’, shows that none of this is given. Which means it’s possible to change.
‘There is no it for nature’, Kimmerer writes.
When I read that sentence I actually shivered.
You see, I happened to receive another letter this week, just the day before I got yours. It was from an elderly man in Munich. He had somehow got hold of the German translation of my book about eels and wanted to send me a note. The man was homeless, he signed the letter with just his name and the word ‘wohnungslos’. He wrote the letter by hand, on lined paper with a red pen, and he walked into a book store in Munich and left it there. The book store sent it to my German publishing house and they in turn took a photo and sent it to me by e-mail.
It was a very beautiful letter. In a wondrous, still completely understandable, mix of German and English he wanted to tell me about the time when he was a small boy and the city built a museum in the village he lived in. People had scoffed at the idea. A museum in a small town like this! What’s the point?
But the boy was curious and when the museum opened he went there and the first thing he saw, walking through the entrance, was a big aquarium with an eel in it.
The boy was deeply fascinated by this animal. ‘Ein All! An Eel!’ He went back to the museum every day for months and after a while he started to believe that the eel recognized him. He felt like they somehow communicated with each other. He described it as ‘a moment of light and awareness’. And he started to think about how he could save the eel, dreaming about an act of resistance to liberate it from being a museum object and return it to the lake outside.
It never happened, but the memory of it was awakened fifty years later, when he read a book about the eel from an unknown author from another country, another generation, and another reality.
And so he wrote his letter, with the red pen, and when he was about to summarise his story about the eel and himself he wrote, and I quote: ‘He or she was my first friend from the kingdom of animals.’
‘He or she’! Not ‘it’!
Sometimes it feels like coincidences want to tell you something, and often I’m not sure how to respond, but I have just sent a letter to Germany, trying to say thank you. I hope it will find its way to its receiver on the streets of Munich.
Images © Emil Malmborg and Sophie Davidson