Opinion: James Patterson wonders what nature writing teaches us about community during lockdown...

In October 2020, a UK Labour Party motion to extend free school meals beyond Christmas – up to and including Easter 2021 – was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 322 to 261. Man Utd. footballer Marcus Rashford took to Twitter to encourage charities, businesses and local councils to help make up the deficit, and despite the fact that the footballer received enormous support for his efforts, there were still people on the dark corners of the internet reminding us that not everyone is so empathetic.

Marcus Rashford

Ultra-conservative commentators revived the Victorian argument of deserving vs. undeserving poor. Sock puppet social media accounts began sharing ingredient lists for 'cheap meals’, all under the guise of providing useful advice for poor families and saving Britain’s working class from the "tyranny" of a nanny state.

All this did, of course, was absolve society’s richest and most powerful of any responsibility. Concepts of communitarianism and ‘Mutual Aid’ have existed for as long as there has been civilisation, and may even have contributed to our evolution into Homo sapiens in the first place. Still further, recent evidence suggests that plant life may well have developed these concepts even earlier, having worked over millions of years to support the development of our forests into high-functioning bionetworks.

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Watch: Robert MacFarlane in conversation

In 2016, author and naturalist Robert MacFarlane wrote for the New Yorker about the possibility of botanic collaboration among trees in London’s Epping Forest. In the piece, he pondered the concept of the ‘Wood Wide Web’ which – among other things – posits that clusters of trees are linked together via an intricate network of underground mycorrhizae.

According to MacFarlane, these connections can, and often do, facilitate the free transfer of nutrients from stronger members of the forest community toward plants who, for one reason or another, are sick and/or dying. Not only that, but plants undergoing attack have been observed sending chemical distress signals down into the network; thereby warning the colony as a whole against whatever danger is imminent and allowing the other trees the chance to guard themselves accordingly.

MacFarlane, for his part, expands on this beautifully in his 2019 natural history study Underland: A Deep Time Journey, though it is mycologist and ethnobotanist Merlin Sheldrake who makes the link more explicitly. In his eye-opening introduction to mycology Entangled Life: How Fungi Makes Our Worlds, Changes Our Minds and Shapes Our Futures, Sheldrake writes of the ‘Wood Wide Web’ as a decentralised, democratic system of call and response, where plantlife and fungi alike are in a state of constant collaboration:

A mycelial network has no head and no brain. Fungi, like plants are decentalised organisms. There are no operational centres, no capital cities, no seats of government. Control is dispersed: mycelial coordination takes place everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

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Watch: time-lapse movies showing fungal growth

It stands to reason then that ‘Mutual Aid’ – the collaborative model of evolution first posited by anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin – must also apply to us. Indeed, in Rebecca Tamás’s 2020 Makina Books-published collection Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, the poet, critic and lecturer makes a convincing case for humans to return to a more harmonious relationship with nature; borrowing her vision from the lifestyles of the 17th Century Diggers and cleverly expounding upon a long line of eco-anarchist thought which encompasses everything from Murray Bookchin to panpsychism, Extinction Rebellion to Pyotr Kropotkin and beyond.

Advocating for a system of governance which disposes of artificial manmade constructs like capitalism, Tamás reminds us that the earth is not for human consumption only, and that any form of world-building must incorporate our flora and fauna, lest we perish collectively in a CO2 ravaged wasteland. She writes:

It is Western capitalism, the sequel to the Digger-era proto capitalism of land enclosure and wage inequality, that is the reason for every forest fire, every heatwave, every extinction… Equality means the same opportunities of life and liberty for people of every race, nationality, sexuality, gender, physicality, age and place. It might also come to mean a radical equality that includes the nonhuman, the animals and beings, the trees and the rivers.

It might be tempting to think of such an idea as returning to a kind of Emersonian transcendental ideal, but where Romantic-era dreamers within that particular movement encouraged going to nature as an escape from the world, Tamás advocates for an incorporation of nature into our everyday lives. The normalisation of empathy as it extends to everything that shares the planet.

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Watch: Rebecca Tamás reads an extract of On Greenness from Strangers

And so what we learn from these texts in the short term might well be that in order for society to survive during times of struggle – much like trees in a forest – a radical redistribution of resources is not something to be balked at, but celebrated in order to guarantee our survival.

In the long term, of course, what it means is that these forms of redistribution must radically extend to other beings and things. And that we are not the world alone, but only a part of it.