How Did I Become Aware of Natural Inclusion?

Wounded Warrior/Healing and Revealing’ (Pen, ink and watercolour sketch on paper by Alan Rayner, 2018) I have long been fascinated by the way wounds in tree bark heal over through the production of callus. The relationship between vulnerability and recovery is of pivotal significance in our emotional lives.

In this, my hundredth and perhaps final Medium article, I turn to the question of how I came to prepare the preceding ninety-nine.

It’s a question I’ve been asked

It’s a question I’ve asked myself

It’s not a straightforward question for me to answer

In incremental steps from beginning to end

Because although it has entailed passing through a number of transitions

Perhaps three major transitions

These have not taken me anywhere that’s new to me

They have felt more like a return journey

From somewhere remote, lifeless and loveless

To what I was aware of all along

But didn’t know how to express

In a way that would be understood


The first 48 years of my life took me along a course that became devoted to the study of fungi and their relationships with other life forms and habitats, especially trees and woodlands. This study was made, however, within the context of a scientific and academic culture from which I felt increasingly alienated and that progressively nibbled away at my confidence until I reached a point when I couldn’t continue. I came to feel that either something was foundationally wrong with the culture or something was foundationally wrong with me. It was and is a very insecure feeling. Sensing that I had voyaged very far from home, I abandoned ship in mid-ocean. And drifted.

Within 2 years, I became explicitly aware, in a visionary moment, of what I now call ‘natural inclusion’. I embarked on a new voyage of discovery — or rediscovery — which, as it turned out took me even further from mainstream thought. But this voyage also brought me much closer to home and what I feel I have always known, since early childhood, but suppressed through a series of abandonments made in a vain effort to conform with societal expectations.

The first major abandonment had come

When I was required at school

To study ‘hard science’

Physics, chemistry and an underpinning of maths

And forgo any more than lay interest in arts and humanities

In order to study biology


I wanted to study biology

Because, during walks with my father,

I had fallen in love with life in the wild

Intuitively sensing the patterns within its variety

How these relate to patterns in landscape and water

And arise as manifestations of flow

Creating and following channels of least resistance

I delight in the way this intuition

Enables me with swelling heart

To view different species as friends

And to discover new ones

Each with their own profound story to tell

Concerning why and how they come to be

As they are

Where they are


When I was around eight years old, having recently made the trip with my family back ‘home’ to London from where I was born and lived my earliest years in Nairobi, Kenya, I contracted measles, the first of many childhood illnesses that confined me to bed and disrupted my schooling. My father sat by my bedside and read stories to me about the planets and outer space, infecting me with his love of scientific exploration. I was given books to read about natural history and I learned to identify the garden birds in the tree that grew outside my bedroom window. I made watercolour paintings of these and others that I had never seen from illustrations on the pages of ‘Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds’. Then, whenever I was well enough, I was taken out into the countryside and spent many happy days bird-spotting for myself. I was taken on my first ‘fungus foray’ to a place called Burnham Beeches, west of London. It was led by the redoubtable figure of a man called Bayard Hora and I was awestruck by what I many years later described as ‘The Fountains of the Forest’ as they erupted from ground and trees in manifold shapes and colours, not least the legendary ‘fly agaric’ (Amanita muscaria), the ‘parasol’ (Macrolepiota procera) and numerous ‘brittle gills’ (Russula spp). I found that their Latin names came easily to me and I delighted in showing off my recall to peers and teachers.

Over following years, I became familiar with more and more of the British flora, fauna and fungi, filling my head with thousands of Latin names and associated mental images not only of the organisms themselves but also of the habitats in which they flourished and the ground-shaping processes that formed them. I loved the companionship of like-minded others on natural history walks and fungus forays, and the thrill of new finds and sharing knowledge.

But, there was a problem. To study biology as a ‘science’ was not the same as experiencing ‘life in the wild’ in the caring companionship of others. If anything, it was wild life’s antithesis:- a competition to be first or best while following strict codes of practice designed to eliminate subjective human ‘error’ and conform to an unquestionable norm prescribed by prior authority.

I was not enamoured with numerical figures and mental fixes

Mechanics and technicalities

Atomised life in dead boxes

So what perverse logic was it

That forced this choice upon me?


It took me a long while to realise

But meanwhile, I persevered

Never quite losing my original feeling for pattern, process and relationship

Even bringing this to my understandings of hard science and maths

For I couldn’t learn anything without it

But sensing it being increasingly threatened

By an unforgiving attitude of mind

Hell-bent on mastery

Dismissive of mystery

Intolerant of error and unpredictability

Viewing life as a purposeless eliminative struggle

Between selfish genetic survival machines


The second great abandonment came

When I followed my father’s footsteps

Not only to a Cambridge degree in natural sciences

Specialising in Botany

But into postgraduate mycological research

In pursuit of an academic career


This brought me into full exposure to the glare of that attitude of mind

Divorced objectively from its subject of study

Cut off from feeling

By definition

That idolises quantity

Without regard for quality

Forsakes companionship

For competition

Forsakes artistry

For technicality

Rendering all that doesn’t make the grade

By complying with its exacting standards



This kind of science, I discovered

Was a far cry from what I’d loved

On fungus forays with my father and his companions

In search of beauty and variety

And the sheer joy of discovery and sharing knowledge


Instead the emphasis was on utility and methodology

Taming both organism and researcher

Under controlled conditions

Homogenising mathematically, genetically and intellectually

In library, laboratory, digital computer

Agarose gel

And industrial scale fermentation

Far-removed from reality

No wildness allowed

Even in the experimental plots in the timber-producing forest where I did my field work

In order to ensure conformity with abstract rules


I tried to conform,

I really did

To do things by the book

To keep my cultures as they should be

To measure accurately

To isolate with care

Free from contaminating interference

To check my work

And that of those I mentored

For consistency with others’

Described in ‘literature’


But that’s when I found

What others said

Even in the most vaunted of places

Was full of contradictions





At odds with my actual experience

Or so it seemed to me


I began to lose trust

In others’ judgement

In my own judgement

Aware as I had always been of my capacity for error

The wildness within me

Marked wrong in school tests

I faltered

And, with confidence fading

Made one last effort

To leave behind in my wake

A painting

Called ‘Fountains of the Forest’

Celebrating all that my erstwhile friends

The fungi

Had taught me

Concerning their lives in the company of trees

Which none of my peers understood

Though a few did try to do so

Only to be blocked by hard-line thought


Fountains of the Forest (oil painting on board by myself, 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

Since childhood, painting had been a source of respite for me as a way to express my feelings for the natural world, and as an antidote to the rigidity of scientific objectivism. Since 1976 there had been a long lapse, except for four paintings I had made around 1990 for my two daughters, Hazel and Philippa. Now I began painting again in earnest. And not only painting, but writing poetry — sometimes alongside or as an inspiration for a painting.

Although I did not initially realise this, all my paintings made since 1969 illustrate a shift from the abstract perception of space, time and material boundaries as sources of definitive separation between independent objects, to recognising them instead as mutually inclusive sources of natural continuity and dynamic distinction between flow-forms. In effect this represents a shift from rigidly static to fluidly dynamic framings of reality: from abstract ‘freeze-framed geometry’ to natural ‘flow geometry’ — from ‘abstract exclusion to natural inclusion’. They all depict imaginary scenes, based on real experience and study of natural form, which often come into my mind ‘out of the blue’ rather than deliberate intent. One that I made at the time of my ‘second great abandonment’ graphically illustrated what I recognised unconsciously but not consciously:-

Arid Confrontation (oil painting on board by myself, 1973)

I withdrew into the wasteland -

My final abandonment

To consider my options

For a change of career

But none came near to anything

That I felt I could do

And so began my return journey

Starting where I’d left off

But now without any funded research programme

Or ready-made publication venue

To speak of,

Required by my colleagues to ‘pull my weight’

As a ‘research-inactive’ liability

By teaching a heavy load

Yet free at last to abandon

The pretence of conforming

With objective expectations

And renew my love of life in the wild

With all its twists and turns and surprises

Seeing straight through the facade of false logic

That sought to tame, control and predict it

Within a cage of fixed boundaries


It was then that awareness of natural inclusion

Came back to me

In a way that I could now express

At least to my own satisfaction

In prose and in paintings and poetry

Conveying receptive-responsive relationship

Between infinite spatial stillness

And energetic motion

In the co-creation of all material forms

As figures emerging from ground


So simple I could scarcely believe it

So obvious to me as a child

When I noticed what permitted or impeded my movements

By way of openness, liquidity and solidity

Elemental Air, Water and Earth

Enlivened by Fire

Burning in the Endless Freedom of Space

Far removed from containment in boxes

Intangible, invisible

Yet here, there and everywhere


Without limit


One beckoning image, especially, came to me out of the blue, along with a poem, to symbolise this epiphany, this turning and returning point of innermost receptivity:-

Holding Openness — light as a dynamic natural inclusion of darkness continually brings an endless diversity of flow-form to life (Oil painting on canvas by myself, 2005)

You ask me who you are; To tell a story you can live your life by; A tail that has some point; That you can see; So that you no longer; Have to feel so pointless; Because what you see is what you get; If you don’t get the meaning of my silence; Because you ain’t seen nothing yet

You ask me for illumination; To cast upon your sauce of doubt; Regarding what your life is all about; To find a reason for existence; That separates the wrong; From righteous answer; In order to cast absence out; To some blue yonder; Where what you see is what you get; But you don’t get the meaning of my darkness; Because you ain’t seen nothing yet

You look around the desolation; Of a world your mined strips bare; You ask of me in desperation; How on Earth am I to care?; I whisper to stop telling stories; In abstract words and symbols; About a solid block of land out there; In which you make yourself a declaration; Of independence from thin air; Where what you see is what you get; When you don’t get the meaning of my present absence; Because you ain’t seen nothing yet

You ask of me with painful yearning; To resolve your conflicts born of dislocation; From the context of an other world out where; Your soul can wonder freely; In the presence of no heir; Where what you see is what you get; When you don’t get the meaning of my absent presence; Because you ain’t seen nothing yet

You ask me deeply and sincerely; Where on Earth can you find healing; Of the yawning gap between emotion; And the logic setting time apart from motion; In a space caught in a trap; Where what you see is what you get;

And in a thrice your mind is reeling; Aware at last of your reflection; In a place that finds connection; Where your inside becomes your outside; Through a lacy curtain lining; Of fire, light upon the water

Now your longing for solution; Resides within and beyond your grasp; As the solvent for your solute; Dissolves the illusion of your past; And present future

Now your heart begins to thunder; Bursting hopeful with affection; Of living light for loving darkness; Because you ain’t felt no thing yet


So life evolves in response to receptive invitation — through natural inclusion — not selective exclusion. We are called to evolve, not forced*. Life is a gift of natural energy flow, which we receive with grace, care for protectively, and pass on — not a competitive struggle for existence in a sealed box. We breathe life, we don’t suffocate it. Ain’t that a relief?

Now all I had learned on my travels

Fell into a new kind of place

Even maths and hard sciences

No longer at odds

With Art or Humanity

But serving to show

A side of the story

Insufficient to stand on its own


So that’s how I returned to my senses

In three stages

Three abandonments of the abandonments

That had taken me so far from love


Stage 1

Abandonment of the abandonment of objective abstraction

That cuts what is in here apart from what is out there


Stage 2

Abandonment of the abandonment of mechanistic focus

That places tangible utility before lovable beauty


Stage 3

Abandonment of the abandonment of life’s purpose

That denies the call to live, love and be loved

In receptive-responsive relationship

With neighbours and neighbourhood


Quite simply, becoming aware of natural inclusion gave me back my calling and purpose in life, beyond mechanical utility. It validated my aesthetic appreciation of all natural material form as flow-form within a receptive continuum of space. It enabled me to dispense with any residual perception of objective self-isolation from my natural neighbours and neighbourhood. And it made sense of a great many scientific findings that make no sense in terms of definitive theory.

Perhaps it can do the same for you?

This is why becoming aware of natural inclusion matters:-

Core Values & Principles of Natural Inclusion(ality) — the mutual inclusion of intangible spatial stillness and energetic motion in all material forms (Watercolour on paper by Alan Rayner, 30/11/2021)

* See this simple illustration:-

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