Beyond Interconnectedness

Honeysuckle Sharing Circle’ (oil painting on canvas by Alan Rayner, 2003)

In an egocentric world where people feel increasingly at odds with one another and Nature, the call to find ways to ‘connect’ and ‘reconnect’ has become very strong. Have you heard this call? If so, how do you respond to it? When you hear someone say, ‘we’re all interconnected,’ or ‘let’s reconnect with Nature,’ or ‘Nature is an interconnected web’ do you feel the urge to ‘get out there and do things together?’ Or does it in some way make you want to dive for cover or run for the hills to live a hermit-like existence? Does it fill you with hope for the future of humanity — as a solution to all our personal, social and environmental problems — or does it fill you with worry and doubt?

How do you feel about the way the Internet has influenced our lives? Now we humans all around the planet are interconnected via our telecommunications, computers and high-speed road, rail and air links, what costs and benefits do you perceive for the quality of our lives as individuals and groups? Do you feel empowered and more easily heard, or disempowered by the noise of billions clamouring for attention while relatively few are positioned to monopolize the air waves? Do you recognise the vulnerability of networks to internal spread of damaging influences, such as viruses and malevolence, as well as beneficial ones? What do the terms ‘globalisation’ and ‘totalitarianism’ mean to you?

I recognise both the value of ‘connecting with others’ and its limitations. As a naturalist, familiar with both the individual and collective organization of natural life forms and communities, I understand the ecological principle of interrelationship. Likewise, I recognise the vitality of degenerative as well as regenerative processes in evolutionary innovation and sustainability. So, I can ‘hear’ and appreciate the call for interconnection, while I am aware that it brings dangers as well as hope and that taking it too far can be a serious impediment to and distraction from responding to a much more profound need. This need is no less than the need for love in life.

To understand why the call for connection is both understandable and problematic, we need to recognise this call as a symptom of — NOT a remedy for — what has gone wrong in our relationships with one another and with our natural neighbourhood. It arises from an attitude of mind that isolates self- or group-identity from neighbourhood by divorcing ‘subject’ from ‘object’. This attitude is in its turn the result of an abstract-literal perception of reality in which we see boundaries only from the outside. We hence envisage natural boundaries and space to be barriers to communication, when in reality they serve to contain, channel and permit natural energy flow. Natural boundaries are inter-relational presences, places of in-betweenness that serve to distinguish one locality from another both as containers and conduits. Natural space is a ubiquitous, frictionless presence that freely permits movement.

You might recall here how ‘Space’ is regarded in ‘Star Trek’ as the ‘Final Frontier,’ to be breached by Human ‘Enterprise’! Turn that perception around and you have the foundation for a radically new comprehension of reality. I have called this ‘natural inclusion’ (see, for example, http://www.spanglefish.com/exploringnaturalinclusion). In brief, natural inclusion is the evolutionary process through which all material form comes into being and diversifies as flow-form: a mutual inclusion of space and circulating energy in receptive-responsive relationship. This inclusion occurs at the boundaries of betweenness. It may not mean much to you on first reading. There’s an irony here because this language and the underlying awareness differ so much from what many of us have become habituated to by deeply entrenched perceptions of interconnection.

It is possible to understand natural inclusion by reasoning quite simply from everyday experience. But in order to do so, you may have to lay aside all your preconceptions of reality based on what you have been led to believe is true, and accept instead what you are able to work out and imagine for yourself. You have to liberate your thinking from what has been prescribed and networked by generations before us and get back down to basic principles that may have been evident to you as a pre-school child at play. That’s what I had to do!

On my website I have described a process of self-enquiry that may help you to do this. Essentially it entails recognising why a material body cannot exist without volume and so must be formed by a mutual inclusion of intangible spatial stillness and circulating energy. Pause here and notice how you feel in the presence of another living creature, such as a squirrel, a bird or a tree. Stay quietly with this presence for a while. Doesn’t it feel enlivening and soul-restoring? This is the sense of mutual inclusion you experience when you envisage your own and others’ living bodies in an intrinsically dynamic way, as receptive and responsive expressions of natural energy flow. We are sentient beings with our own agency, not just solid lumps of matter driven by external and internal forces beyond our influence.

To get back to the problem facing the Star Trek crew, most especially Mr Spock. When we are led to believe that material objects ultimately have sharply definitive boundaries that exclude space, we will envisage space as a distancing ‘gap’ or ‘barrier’ between ‘things’. We will imagine that these things can only be brought into communication with one another by ‘connecting’ them forcefully together.

Recall how problematic Newton himself, as an observer objectively detached from what he was observing, found the idea of ‘action at a distance’ implicit in his conception of ‘gravity’? Recall too, how ‘The Age of Reason’ preceding the Industrial Revolution constructed a distanced, rationalistic view of reality. This view dismissed emotion as ‘subjective irrationality’ and treated human beings as no more than sophisticated machines with varying abilities and efficiency. It set the scene for the Darwinian conception of life as a competitive ‘struggle for existence’, along with the rise of capitalism and communism, social discrimination and the devastating arms races and ideological wars of the twentieth century.

Does this history sound painfully familiar? This is what results from the fiction that the atomistic logic embedded in the foundations of conventional mathematics and objective science has been telling us, and teaching our children for millennia. Added to our natural fear of death, pain and uncertainty, this fiction has served to drive us damagingly adrift from one another and our natural neighbourhood to such an extent that our emotions now cry out for ‘connection’ and ‘healing’ as the only means they can imagine to ‘bridge the gaps’ in our divided psyches and communities.

Awareness of natural inclusion enables us to recognise that in reality we were never isolated from or by space in the first place, and couldn’t have been if we were to have any material existence as more than a dimensionless point or dimensionless gathering of points! The very idea that matter and space are mutually exclusive is paradoxical. Space is a receptive, frictionless, intangible presence that pools us together in natural communion and allows free passage of matter and energy. It is not a substance, but what makes substance possible.

Pooled together in space we dwell inescapably within one another’s receptive and responsive influence. This influence radiates intangibly through the space between and within our material bodies, whether we are tangibly connected or not. Planets can orbit within the sun’s gravitational and energetic influence without being attached to the sun. I symbolise this receptive-responsive influence in my painting, ‘Honeysuckle Sharing Circle’, above. For me, a flower epitomises radiant receptivity in its invitation to pollinators and attractiveness to us human beings.

None of what I have said above is to deny the importance of natural connections and networking. I mean only to place these phenomena within a much more comprehensive panorama than is afforded by abstract perceptions that isolate or conflate matter from or with space. The formation of tangible linkages between one locality and another enables energy to be channelled along pathways between them in a more focussed or concentrated way than is possible otherwise.

The stronger these pathways become as conduits, the more they will attract energy away from other possible routes. For example, the first person to cross a field of tall grass will create in their wake a narrow path of least resistance — i.e. a path of less obstructed space — that others will prefer to follow rather than make the effort to form own paths. A self-reinforcing (‘autocatalytic’) process results, in which the original path is widened and flattened. This process therefore both eases passage across the field, and constrains its direction.

So, the formation of connective conduits can both liberate life and restrict its possibilities for future evolution through a process of reinforcement that imposes increasing conformity with what has gone before. As this happens, the need to stray individually from an established path may be vital to open up new possibilities, but it will require increasing effort until or unless the established path degenerates. This is why I had to free myself from previous thought in order to open my mind up to the possibility of natural inclusion — and why I earlier invited you to do the same. The evolutionary sustainability of a living system requires both collective coherence and individual non-conformity.

I was perhaps fortunate at one stage of my life to study arguably the greatest living connectors and network-formers in natural communities, the underworld infrastructure in our forests, grasslands, heathlands and moorlands that links the lives of plants and animals in innumerable and varied ways. I am speaking here of the Fungal Kingdom, a richly diverse group of organisms that typically gather in, conserve, explore for and redistribute the sources of energy they need through systems of cellular tubes. These tubes are called ‘hyphae’. They extend at their tips and branch and fuse with one another to form coherent collective organisations called ‘mycelia’. I once illustrated the varied ecological roles of these ‘great communicators’ in a painting called ‘Fountains of the Forest’:

Fountains of the Forest (oil painting on board by Alan Rayner, Mycological Research 102, 1441–1449, 1998). ‘a tree is a solar-powered fountain, its sprays supplied through wood-lined conduits and sealed in by bark until their final outburst in leaves … Within and upon its branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces, and reaching out from there into air and soil are branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of finer scale, the mycelial networks of fungi … which provide a communications interface for energy transfer from neighbour to neighbour, from living to dead, and from dead to living

One experiment especially taught me some very important lessons about these natural network-forming systems:

Sustainable development’ in abundance and scarcity, illustrated by mycelial growth of the magpie fungus, Coprinopsis picacea, in a matrix of 25 2 # 2 cm plastic chambers filled alternately with high and low nutrient media. Holes have been cut in the partitions just above the level of the medium. The fungus has been inoculated into the central high nutrient chamber, whence it has produced alternating prolific and condensed patterns of development. Growth linking between chambers has been reinforced into persistent ‘cables’, whereas mycelium unable to extend further has been prone to degenerate. (Photograph reproduced by courtesy of Louise Owen and Erica Bower)

Here, in this living flow-network, we see a beautifully orchestrated pattern of receptive-responsiveness in changing circumstances that some human organisations might do well to emulate! This is no mathematical construct of individual dots joined by solid lines, but a versatile system of flow-channels formed by growth from one or more local centres. It differs radically from a system of joined together threads, like a spider’s web, which is a sticky, immobilizing trap, not an exploratory organization. A special feature is the fusion of some of the branches to form ‘anastomoses’. These convert the organisation from a branching or dendritic structure, with resistances to flow in series, to a true network with resistances in parallel. As anyone who understands electrical circuitry will appreciate, this conversion radically enhances the possibilities for current flow. It is what literally allows the system to ‘mushroom’ creatively from local centres within its midst and around its periphery.

That’s an example of real-life interconnectedness for you, in which capacities for generation, preservation, degeneration and regeneration are all vital to keeping on the move and not getting stuck in gridlock! And both within and beyond this fluid organisation is a vital presence that makes it all possible, but is all too readily overlooked by a mind focused on superficial structure alone — the receptive Grace of infinite Space within our hearts and easing our passage through life!

Yes, to get more connected can indeed bring hope for humanity in a world riven by needless opposition and conflict. But we need to recognise how the process can restrict as well as expand our horizons. And we need to recognise too how, if used uncritically, the language of connection can unwittingly bind us in to pre-existing dogmas that we need desperately to break free from. For example, the exhortation to ‘re-connect with Nature’ implies that Nature is an object we need to re-attach to. It belies the reality that Nature is a ubiquitous presence that we need to appreciate our dynamic inclusion within, not as ‘part of an interconnected whole’, but as a lively expression of natural energy flow.

From Interconnectedness to the Infinity Beyond and Within us!

Acknowledgement: I thank Rev Roy Reynolds for his continuing encouragement and editorial advice.

Alan Rayner is an evolutionary ecologist, writer and artist, who is pioneering the philosophy of natural inclusion