Unselfing – a selfless approach to the beauty of wild nature


Even after the latest flowering woodlanders are over, there is always something to see in the year-round fungi, mosses and lichens, bringing as many colours as the flowers - and yes, there is a small blue bracket fungus that appears in autumn on a fallen, barkless tree in one of my local woodlands. It could be the Conifer Blueing Bracket (Postia caesia) but I don’t always find it easy to identify fungi, especially the saprobes that survive by decomposing dead wood. Some in that woodland are easy, like the Hairy Curtain Crust (Stereum hirsutum) a lovely orange crinkly crust fungi that is the first to appear on oak, pushing through the bark, after a large branch has broken off. There are other, lighter coloured colonies of dainty crinkly crusts that appear on a standing dead alder there, that I can’t identify, nor do I know what is the more sinister, tiered colony of hard, dark, earth-coloured brackets on the same tree.

I get on better in another local woodland with its Turkeytail (Trametes versicolour) a thin but tough little bracket that looks just like what it is called. There’s a small, fallen birch I always look forward to passing that has a growing colony of Turkeytail at one end, and a number of emerging fat Birch Polypore brackets (Piptoporus betulinus) at the other end. This woodland has a constant growth of Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricularia-judae) a brown jelly-like fungus growing on dead elder, and which develops into an ear-shaped lobe from a small corpuscle on emergence. Gently flicking a floppy jelly ear as you pass is irresistible. I’m almost certain it was jelly ear fungi that I got served up in a vegetarian meal in the Po Lin monastery on Lantau Island in the early 80s. I also find black dead moll's fingers there (Xylaria longipes) growing on small diameter fallen dead wood that has lost its bark (porbably sycamore) as an autumn flush of club-shaped fingers that stand for a number of months.

I can’t overestimate the joy I have in looking for and then finding the first Scarlet Elfcups (Sarcoscypha austriaca) of the year in this wood. Again, the name is accurate, these brightly red coloured sac fungi always grow on barkless, small diameter fallen deadwood, partially covered with leaf mould or moss, this humus rich, damp deciduous woodland being ideal. I went back a week later to check for more Scarlet Elfcups, knowing of a second group, and then found a third near the moss-covered rocks of the first. This is the wood locally that I most often see roe deer during the dormant months, or at least evidence of their presence from the debarking of fallen wood, the overnight scrapes and the deer toe tracks. However, it was in the other wood that I watched a couple of roe deer a few days ago browsing on bramble leaves. More often than not, my roe deer sightings are watching the white rumps of these female deer disappearing after they have sensed my presence. However, this time I was able to watch them for about a quarter of an hour, their choice for browsing confirming what I had only read about before. That they did not bolt was a risk-based decision on my distance and height above them and the available safety in the local structural diversity in this ravine woodland of sandstone outcrops and varied understorey vegetation. It is of course these same characteristics that favour an ambush hunter like lynx (1).

The impact of the high winter rains

It is this woodland, with its beck surging down successive rocky cascades (2) that has shown the impact of the high winter rains. River and stream levels rose everywhere around me, and an unwelcome new stream ran through my garden, fed from surface run-off from the moor above. The exceptional level in the woodland beck scoured vegetation high off its sides, and shifted tons of rocks, pebbles and river sand downstream, scraping clean the green growth on the larger, immoveable rocks, forming new, deeper pools, and depositing its load in slacker areas. Aldo Leopold talks about the “music” of the river - “The life of every river sings its own song” (3). This beck has the crash of cascades, quieter ripples in riffles, and mysterious low notes. The music must have been profound when the beck was in full spate, the rocky load grinding and scouring.

The spawning brown trout may benefit from the change in beck morphology, but the dippers are still there and the herons will likely come in later in the year. The scouring revealed the roots of many of the beckside trees, especially interesting in exposing the reddish, corky spheres of the nodules on the roots of alder trees that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It is these nodules that give alder the ability to grow in riparian areas and as carrs in wetter woodland. Successive high rises though in the beck seem to have broken off many of the nodule spheres, and so I worry at the setback this may cause to these trees. I’m less worried at the loss of beckside vegetation since it has created an opportunity for me to observe its return, although perhaps not exactly as it was before. The first ever marsh marigold to turn up in the woodland, and which had clung to a rock in the middle of the beck (perhaps showing the waterborne method of its arrival) has gone. However, others have hung on tenaciously in the face of the surges, such as the thalloid liverwort (perhaps Conocephalum conicum) and hart’s tongue fern on the rocks, and the pendulous sedge along the becksides, but they look beaten about. I expect the golden saxifrage and lesser celandine will have suffered the most, but I have already seen the stirrings in the bistort, their fatter root system having served to anchor them better.

Woodland repays in emotional fulfilment from repeated return, such as the joy in finding the Scarlet Elfcups. You don’t necessarily need disturbance events in woodland, other than those already there, to experience a thrill of being immersed in a natural freedom that has long been lost from much else of our landscapes. It can be experienced for the delight and inspiration it gives, and where the interactions between natural forces, and of native plants, animals and insects, are so much more readily observed than in a farmed landscape. Wind, age and disease supply a level of disturbance, and which the saprobes that I so enjoy thrive on. The roe deer are a disturbance, but until I directly observed that browsing of bramble leaves, and how the deer took a leaf from here and there rather than strip a bramble, then I would be hard pressed to confirm the evidence that their disturbance at present population levels is of little impact. The dramatic impact from surges seen in the beck is not confined to woodland, but the beckside recovery will be in the context of a woodland ecosystem, and thus is a disturbance in that woodland. If it seems I am labouring this aspect of disturbance, then it is because I will have to return to it some other time in the context of the disputed evolution of woodland. These observations in my local woodland, and which are fresh in my mind, form a backdrop to that. However, they are also the backdrop to what I want to focus on here, and that is my approach to and response as a mammalian species to these observations.

Where ego isn’t a factor

As I have explained before, I have grappled with trying to understand why the commonplace tokens for self esteem don’t seem to work for me, often leaving me hollow (4). I believe it is ego that I am uncomfortable with, and why my greatest satisfaction and release comes where ego isn’t a factor. This is why I am drawn to wild nature where the natural and physical beauty is often breath taking, where all is so much bigger and more important than me, and where I am not trying to impose my will. I am nevertheless there with a participatory state of mind” as James MacKinnon would have it (5). I am also aware of the dangers of revelling in and receiving succour from a “false idyll”, as MacKinnon has rightly pointed out, of a wild nature that I observe that is so much less than it could be, that it has been sanitised and made safe and more easily accessible than if I were able to drop into the really wild nature of an original wilderness, the stark reality of a “bittersweet and sometimes forbidding place” of death and predation (6)

I have found that American essayist Ralph Emerson, writing about human appreciation of nature in 1836, also saw it in terms of ego. Emerson observed the special nature of woodland when compared to the “charming landscape” of farms (7). For him, woods were about a “perpetual youth”, where the years were cast off, and the lover of its nature retains a spirit of infancy into adulthood. The issue for him was that “few adult persons can see nature” distracted as they were by the exigencies of human progress so that they fail to see its beauty. He was keen to point out the falsity that nature only had beauty for half the year, when to his “attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty”. Given the era in which Emerson was writing, where manifest destiny was taking its toll on the wild nature of America, his writings can have a theocratic edge, but his perspective seems to hold today (7):
“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all”

An existence value to woodland

It is perhaps no surprise that it is another American, George Marsh, who gave an existence value to woodland beyond the beauty of its wild nature, but which was also a challenge to the human disregard for it (8). His book Man and Nature in 1864 drew on the works of European scientists and geographers, and is viewed as a turning point in understanding the extent and significance of the environmental changes wrought by humans - “The earth was not, in its natural condition, completely adapted to the use of man, but only to the sustenance of wild animals and wild vegetation”. Marsh challenged the belief that human impact on nature was generally benign or negligible - "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent" - and attacked the American assumption of the superabundance and inexhaustibility of the earth. In what now seems like an early ecological approach to nature, he described the influence forests had on local temperature variations, regional climate patterns, precipitation and soil moisture, and how they were protection against rock fall and snow avalanche in Switzerland. Having contemporary resonance for us in Britain, he pointed out the “evils which have resulted from the too extensive destruction of the forests”, describing the increased violence of river inundations in countries where woodland had been cleared, and asserting that replanting of the forests was the only effective method of preventing the frequent recurrence of disastrous floods. He considered the destruction of forests humanity’s “first violation of the harmonies of inanimate nature", calling for a “restoration of disturbed harmonies” by a “reconstruction of the damaged fabric” coupled with exercising wisdom and restraint.

Unselfishness, objectivity and realism

Many people of my age would be aware of the Irish novelist Iris Murdoch, not that I was particularly drawn to her cast of characters and their often narrow obsessions. I was unaware of her works on philosophy until I came across an essay from 1967 that has an astonishingly apposite use of the concept of unselfing when observing the beauty in nature (9). Murdoch believed we are “anxiety-ridden animals” so that the self-preoccupation arising from continually active minds conceals the reality of what is in front of us. However, it is in our ability to be able choose and to act in breaking out of the natural selfishness of humans by "anything that alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism". Murdoch sees in the beauty of nature a way of exploring the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. She sets this up by her observance through a window of a hovering kestrel, its sudden appearance countering the preoccupations of her anxious and resentful state of mind at a personal slight so that her brooding and hurt self disappears - “There is nothing now but the kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important”. Murdoch notes that it doesn’t need the sudden event, such as the appearance of the kestrel, to bring about this alteration, that it is something that we may also do deliberately, giving “attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care”. She cautions though against forcing this self-directed enjoyment of nature, citing the romantic tradition that turns it into an occasion for exalted self-feeling (9):
“More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees”

The beauty of wild nature

Self-evidently, you would think, the beauty of wild nature is not a concern of its constituents. I found this eloquently described in an essay from 2002 by American philosopher Holmes Rolston that explores the relations between the aesthetics of nature and the environmental ethic that seeks to safeguard and preserve it, both seemingly anthropogenic attributes (10). Considered objectively, Rolston asserts that aesthetic experience seems not to be present anywhere in non-human nature, and that any aesthetic value is thus some kind of a construct, set up on human interaction with nature:
“Perhaps there are some precursors to aesthetic experience in animal pleasures or courting birds, but a critical appreciation of nature as worthwhile experience for its own sake arises only in human consciousness. A hiker may admire the vista as he crests the summit; the marmot, alarmed by the hiker's arrival, has not been enjoying the view”

Rolston explains this further. He notes the aesthetic pleasure we have from the greenness of forest leaves, a pleasure that is intensified as the chlorophyll is withdrawn in autumn and the colours then become the yellows and browns, and less so here the reds that are more apparent in the native trees of N. America. Our aesthetic experience has nothing to do with the functioning of the chlorophyll in capturing solar energy, nor in what residual chemicals that remain in the leaves. Any colour we see and enjoy is an entirely different phenomenon to whatever metabolic process that is going on in the leaves. In another example he gives, we may enjoy a hawk flying above us, poised in the wind, but the hawk has no intention to beguile us with this display, nor is it an evolutionary selection on the basis of aesthetic properties – it is as we know a technique of hunting, the predator positioning itself to observe and then swoop. Rolston considers the motion inherent in the struggle for survival, the fleet footedness of impala avoiding predation (or the roe deer retreating from my presence in woodland) adds a grace in form that stimulates aesthetically, as does the movement of the predator. There is also motion in wildflowers swaying in the breeze, and thus the beauty in nature is not just confined to the static, but comes also from observing the generative dynamism of living things, their spontaneous perpetuation through self-replication, and their interactions. It is in our motion as well, a "participatory aesthetics" because we don’t just look at a forest, we enter it and experience its sights, sounds and smells – “A forest attacks all our senses” - something Rolston calls a “kinaesthetic bodily presence” because of the physicality of the interaction. It is a “deep engagement, a sense of an embodied presence”

Rolston believes humans “ignite” beauty in nature, because there is no autonomous beauty inherent until our arrival, bringing our system of values and appreciation, a subjective experience of us as beholders. He is labouring this as he wants to weigh aesthetic experience as being any more valuable a motivation for preserving wild nature – the “beauty to duty” in his essay title – rather than an ethic that is based simply on safeguarding what is actually there (10):
“Respect for life, for endangered species, or for intrinsic values in fauna and flora, for the welfare of biotic communities, or for the systems of life support, or for speciation and evolutionary genesis – by contrast, all seem concerned with what is there independently of human encounter. Aesthetic values, though they are important and though they readily support an ethic, can be in the end less forceful than moral duties to others”

After such a discursive journey, more than I have portrayed here, Rolston’s conclusion is that it depends on how deep your aesthetics goes for it to be an adequate foundation for an environmental ethic. It’s a question he says of that aesthetics finding and being founded on natural history, with us emplacing ourselves fittingly (suitably unselfed?) within wild nature to observe it. But how do you found that aesthetic on natural history? I looked to my left just then to an image of my late mother when she was probably in her early 30s. It wasn’t so much wild nature that she knew about, but she was a floral art teacher and nature provided her with materials for arrangements that supplemented what she got from the garden. She would drag my brother and I along paths in the country, looking in hedgerows to find things like wild hops, or a good spray of rose hips. We would walk local woodland as she loved its spring flowers (11). She also knew where all the orchids were in local fields, and we would make pilgrimages each year along the coast on which we lived to see the few horned poppy, sea kale and sea holly, and would pick up interesting shapes in driftwood (12). Much later, when an interest in wildflowers got me travelling, mum would know about all that I would find, not having seen them herself, but from having devoured so many books on plants. Was it my mum from whom I inherited this aesthetic pleasure in wild nature? Does it need the schoolboy magnifying glass and notebook to ground it in natural history, because that wasn’t me? Was it because of the life science of biochemistry that took me into adulthood, and which gives me an easier appreciation of natural processes (13)? At what point does a selfless approach to wild nature become in itself second nature?

As always, I hope to answer these questions and more as I work through here what wild nature means, but I am also keeping an eye on Miles King and his new venture in People Need Nature (14):
“The benefits of nature that really count for people are the things that create sensory, emotional and spiritual connections with nature…..We need to start talking positively about nature and what it means to people, celebrating the joy and wonder that nature provides us with, the inspiration it provides for art, music and writing. And we need to start talking seriously about the spiritual value of nature to people”

Mark Fisher 14 February 2016, 18 August 2016 (corrected identity of fungus - Xylaria)

(1) Podgórski, T., Schmidt, K., Kowalczyk, R., & Gulczyńska, A. (2008). Microhabitat selection by Eurasian lynx and its implications for species conservation. Acta Theriologica, 53(2), 97-110


(2) Watching the naturalness return to the Carrifran Valley, Self-willed land April 2015


(3) Leopold, A, (1949) Song of the Gavilan. In A Sand County Almanac. OUP


(4) Wilderness experience and the spirit of wild land, Self-willed land September 2008


(5) The challenge of Lost Island, Self-willed land September 2014


(6) MacKinnon, J.B. (2012) False Idyll, Orion Magazine


(7) Emerson, R.W. (1849) Nature. New Edition. James Munroe & Co.


(8) Marsh, G.P. (1864) Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Charles Scribner


(9) Murdoch, I. (1967) The sovereignty of good over other concepts. Cambridge University Press


(10) Rolston, H. (2002) From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Ethics. In Arnold Berleant, ed., Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics. Ashgate Pub Ltd


(11) Woodland memories from childhood, Self-willed land May 2014


(12) Along the coast and under the sea - the outlook for marine protection, Self-willed land April 2008


(13) Lack of natural control mechanisms - the missing lynx, Self-willed land June 2014

(14) King, M. (2016) Nature Conservation: barking up the wrong tree? a new nature blog 4 January 2016



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk