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In the final episode of ‘The Root of the Matter’, JC takes us to the least human habitat of all: the wasteland. It’s a space that often fills us with a sense of foreboding, yet these places teach us some of the most profound lessons about the plant world and our relationship to it.

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Photograph of a brown toned photogram. The light sensitive emulsion has been roughly spread onto the textured watercolour paper leaving brush marks around the edges. Across the surface of the brown colour of the emulsion is the white silhouette of lots of small organic shapes, old blossom, dried twigs, seeds, dust and earth.
Wasteland. © Faye Heller for Wellcome Collection.
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JC Niala (00:12): Wastelands spark different ideas in our imagination. Barren. Overgrown. Unused. What I think we often mean by wasteland is an area of land that we don’t know how to categorise because we can’t use it. And because we can’t use it, we say it is a waste.

In this series we started off looking at domesticated, planned natural spaces – the garden, the farmland – and then we spooled out progressively to wilder and less managed landscapes, the forest and the wetlands. And now we arrive at our final destination. The end of the line, and the least human of all. The wasteland. 

Of course, to the plants these are all the same thing – land. It’s a cultural idea, and at that, a particularly Euro-American type of cultural idea that divides these landscapes into categories. But here’s the thing: our attempts to shape the world into categories can have devastating consequences, whether it’s intensive farming that creates a global, fragile food chain, or draining life-giving water from wetlands that leaves us more prone to flooding. Have we gone too far? Have we tipped the balance to the point that plants which sustain us are no longer able to counteract our destruction of the planet?

In this episode we ask: What we can learn from those areas that humans have abandoned?

What happens to the vegetal world when we leave it to its own devices? 

Cal Flyn (01:49): It’s really sort of ecological anarchy in the first stages of succession because it’s just whatever survives, survives.

JC Niala (01:56): What can we learn from rethinking our ideas of intelligence?

James Bridle (02:00): What we’re discovering is, actually, plants have multiple senses, and they act on those senses in various ways.

JC Niala (02:08): And what can wastelands teach us if we’re going to survive the climate crisis? 

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (02:13): To say it’s wasteland means that you’ve lost relationship. It’s a hurtful word.

JC Niala (02:25): When trying to define wasteland, my mind keeps coming back to that quote from T S Eliot’s poem of the same name. ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’ Even though ‘The Waste Land’ was published in 1922, many of the themes feel relevant now. And it highlights a primal fear. What happens if there are no longer plants that can live on the land? Our fate is intimately tied with theirs, and we can’t live on dust.

Cal Flyn (02:53): Over the last few decades, we’ve begun to understand how brownfield sites – that we now think of as being wastelands and completely valueless – can actually be incredibly biodiverse and ecologically valuable. 

JC Niala (03:07): There are also other types of wastelands – ones that can be abundant with plants but we no longer have a relationship with. 

Cal Flyn (03:15): The key element, I think, of a wasteland, that is somehow uncontrolled, unmonitored and unmediated.

JC Niala (03:21): We are quick to call these spaces useless, but actually they are rich in diversity. Cal Flyn says we need to rethink what a healthy landscape looks like. 

Cal Flyn (03:32): What I hope to encourage people to do is to look at the world through new eyes. To see that a site like an abandoned mine or a spoil heap or a quarry or a former car park can also be beautiful. It’s a type of way of understanding the land around you, which is not to look at its picturesque qualities, but instead to look at its ecological value, its ecological health. 

JC Niala (04:00): Cal Flyn is a nature writer from the North of Scotland. She wrote a book called ‘Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape’. I loved it, and read it in two sittings. She finds hope in the rubble, and she brings into sharp relief the idea that plants can find their way even in the most bleak of situations – and they don’t need us to do it.

If you leave a plot untended for long enough, it’ll turn into a forest, through a slow process called succession.

Cal Flyn (04:33): To begin with, small plants arrive, it’s a random process. There’s also a process called seed rain, which is really quite beautiful. So this is the idea of tiny seeds, but also things like tiny spiders and all sorts of insects, they all get swept up into the atmosphere, and then they swoop around very high over the Earth, and then they slowly rain down. 

All sorts of seeds are coming down all the time – most of them won’t germinate: it’s just completely unsuitable for them – but some of them will. And then over time, you get these populations of plants beginning to grow up. So you might have types of grasses, for example, you might have lichens. It’s really sort of ecological anarchy in the first stages of succession because it’s just whatever survives, survives. The larger plants will then begin to take hold, you’ll get things like shrubby plants, you’ll get things like brambles, larger plants, and again, further down the line, you start getting larger trees, they start coming to the fore.

JC Niala (05:35): Remember back in episode one when we talked to Michael Smythe of the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve? Well, it was built from a Blitz bomb site. They had some of the kinds of plants that first arrive during succession – they’re called ruderal plants, which also means “of the rubble”. Given enough time, these sites turn into forest and can also be a real boost for the climate.

Cal Flyn (05:58): Across Europe at the moment and especially in the former Soviet Union, we find a lot of abandoned farmland. And what I found really fascinating, when I was travelling through Estonia looking at these abandoned farms, was just the incredible potential of abandoned farmland to essentially serve as enormous carbon sinks. We’re desperately sort of planting plantations to try to hold carbon. But there’s this enormous resource on the planet at the moment, which is farmland falling into disuse. 

One study suggested that Russia had technically met the terms of the Kyoto Protocol through the abandonment of farmland alone. 

JC Niala (06:36): What’s so heartening about looking at plants in the wasteland is their incredible adaptability, even in the most hostile of situations.

Cal Flyn (06:45): What I find really interesting about the Chernobyl exclusion zone is the lack of disturbance. Areas that might be constantly kept as farms or might have been built on, and so on and so forth, have been left to their own devices. So we find that this lack of disturbance has allowed the recovery of lots of different ecosystems, but only the ecosystems that are able to survive in a radioactive area.

We found the Red Forest, which was very close to the reactor and famously died off. The reason it was called the Red Forest is because it was near a pine forest which, as it died, became a sort of very red, resinous colour. But over time, what has grown back in the place of the Red Forest is a birch forest. That’s because birch is pretty hardy and able to cope in a way that the pine is not.

We find a similar story in Korea, in the DMZ, the demilitarised zone. So again, this is an exclusion zone, effectively, it’s no-man’s land between North and South Korea. What you can find are reports of things like the Asiatic black bear, Korean water deer, the long-tailed goral, and the leopard cat. They’ve all been spotted within the zone, thriving. A forbidden zone that is yet somehow full of life – I think people do find that quite provocative.

JC Niala (08:06): Cal also talks about a place in northern France called “la place à gaz”. After the Second World War, they dug a huge trench and filled it with millions of unused shells and chemical weapons and set it ablaze. For decades, nothing would grow there because the soil was too contaminated for any plant life. But now, the gravel is slowly being reclaimed by plants – species that don’t just work around the heavy metals, but actively absorb them.

Cal Flyn (08:38): The plants that are growing there are either metal-loving or metal-tolerant plants. So we’ve got a type of grass, just a tufted grass, as we call it in the UK. There’s also a type of goblet lichen which is coming in. But what’s really interesting is that there is a type of moss called nodding thread-moss. It’s kind of common; if you saw it you wouldn’t think anything special of it.

What that is, is a metallophyte plant, a metal-loving plant. And what that does is it begins to suck up the heavy metals from the soil and it stores it in its own body. It’s not wholly understood why metallophyte plants do this, but there are a number of them around. So there’s a really fascinating metal-loving tree that grows in New Caledonia that when you cut it, it bleeds a sap that’s really the colour of verdigris, like a green-blue. It’s really beautiful and it’s more than a quarter nickel. 

Now that we have things like mines and mine tailings actually in a human-impacted world, these metallophyte plants are becoming more common, but there’s still a lot of scientific interest. They open the door to this idea of bioremediation or phytoremediation, and this is that maybe plants can be used to detoxify industrial sites.

JC Niala (09:53): I worked with phytoremediation in 2008 in Kibera in Nairobi, when we started an organic farm there with a community group called Youth Reform. It’s an area of the city that’s unfittingly been called Africa’s largest slum. The soil we were working with was high in zinc, so we planted sunflowers, which transformed the site. They helped to heal the soil by extracting the zinc, but also made the area beautiful, and drew people to the farm.

James Bridle (10:26): So I’ve been working with some researchers in Northern Greece for the last few years, where they’re deliberately planting certain endemic species onto these particular metal-rich soils, and then harvesting the plants for metal. 

JC Niala (10:40): James Bridle is a writer and journalist who normally writes about technology, but whose latest book, ‘Ways of Being’, looks at new ways of thinking about intelligence. James is inquisitive and thoughtful, and described experiencing the plant world with awe for the first time after moving to a Greek island. When we look at a wasteland, we might see an absence – but in fact it’s teeming with life and, as James argues, intelligence.

James Bridle (11:08): All these plants have developed this method for extracting metal from the earth that is more in balance with the Earth itself than anything humans have come up with. When we go looking for these metals, you know, we crack open the earth, we blow it apart. It’s an incredibly violent form of extraction. But the plants are doing the same thing in this much more kind of careful and regenerative way. 

JC Niala (11:30): So what are we getting wrong about plants and why?

James Bridle (11:33): So much of our sense of plants is of them as being kind of passive, of being rooted in place, to essentially being machine-like. Western science has treated them for a long time as being tiny mechanisms composed of all these little pieces that don’t really add up to anything apart from thoughtless growth. What we’re discovering is, actually, plants have multiple senses and they act on those senses in various ways. They respond to the world around them. They do all the things, essentially, that in animals we consider to be signs of intelligence: plants are doing all of those things.

JC Niala (12:14): I’m smiling because in my work, I’m always telling people, you know, gardens are not static, they move, plants move, and they kind of go, “What?”, and I’m like, “Well, think about your neighbour’s garden – you certainly complain if it moves over into your garden!” Are there any other things that you’d say that? Look, this is a sign of intelligence in plants.

James Bridle (12:30) One of the most startling scientific results in botany over the last few years is just the realisation that plants hear, that they respond to sound.

There’s a particular famous book in the 1970s that everyone knows about, ‘The Secret Life of Plants’, which is complete pseudo-science that was completely kind of made-up stuff, that said that we should be talking to our plants, it would make them grow better, and that they enjoyed particular types of music. Those things aren’t really necessarily true.

But plants do hear, and recent research, what they did was that they put little caterpillars on plants that would eat them, white butterfly caterpillars on cress plants. And they could see that the plants respond chemically to being chewed by this. They release this kind of chemical defences from their leaves. They took a separate set of plants and they played them the sound of caterpillars munching with no caterpillars present. And they discovered the plants responded in exactly the same way. And, crucially, they didn’t respond in this way when played other sounds; they didn’t respond to, like, the sound of the wind or even other types of insects. It’s specifically this type of insect and the sound of eating which they knew.

All of which already opens up whole new worlds of thinking about them. And then you can go from that into more complex types of information-processing, like memory.

JC Niala (13:46): James went on to talk about slime moulds, which, although strictly speaking aren’t plants; it’s not really clear what category to put them in. Still, they’re capable of some pretty mind-blowing things.

James Bridle (14:01) So there was a famous experiment that was done a few years ago at the University of Tokyo, where researchers took a big Petri dish, and they put oat flakes, which the slime mould, Physarum polycephalum, really likes to eat. They placed these oat flakes on the Petri dish in the location of the various metropolises around Tokyo. Over 24 hours, the slime mould essentially recreated the rail network, the transport network for the greater Tokyo area. They did it completely in 24 hours, a task that took some of the best rail engineers in the world a hundred years to do.

And we don’t know how they do it; there’s some kind of signalling process going on that we don’t fully understand at this point. But the central point is that they are better at solving this kind of complex topological problem than humans or the best supercomputers we’ve ever built. Which also always makes me think that there’s probably a lot of other things that they do that we don’t even know how to kind of ask the right questions to find out.

JC Niala (14:55): That is incredibly hopeful, because I’ve always felt that, you know, the answer lies within nature, so it really does seem that it does. But what would that mean in practice? If we were going to start recognising plants and slime moulds as sovereign, intelligent beings? Where would that take us?

James Bridle (15:15): A radical decentring of the human as being like the most important thing around. And so beginning to recognise the abilities of, and even intelligences of non-human beings is a step towards a certain kind of humility. 

So many questions we might ask of other beings, if we were open to their intelligences, things that we haven’t figured out for ourselves yet, but are clearly in sore need of understanding? Well, animals and plants have been working on these same problems for ever as well, and we have much to learn from them.

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (16:02): The Western mind is always thinking that they discovered something, and it’s always about that, and then, “Give us credit because we discovered it, and here’s a book saying so,” but they’re dismissing their own indigeneity because Indigenous peoples have retained this, regardless of what has happened to us. 

JC Niala (16:22): That’s Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a musician, sundancer and founder of First Voices Radio.

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (16:32): I come from the Lakota people, who are always asking for instruction from the stars to how to learn how to live here. I have these four names that take a longer time to explain that my people are always looking forward to meeting people like you. We can’t talk about the environment, the nature, that nature, because we have been distancing her for so long. We can’t name the plants in a sense, because they have names there as they identify themselves to us, by their traits or their characteristics. 

Because we’re not so anthropocentrically centred. We’re always referring to our relatives as trees. A tree is different than that tree. Each has their own character. Each has their own name and traits, and they all grow differently. There’s not one tree that is exactly the same. And like snowflakes, we know that. The elders, which are trees, plants, the animals, rocks, water, rivers, mountains, are much older than who we are as people, as human beings. So these are elders and have made us human. But when we dominate all that she’s given, then we are often giving plants, animals and trees and mountains inappropriate names.

So in a way, if I can really say this, is that the native, in a truer sense, has learned how to adapt the human to nature, but the Western way is always adapting nature to themselves. 

JC Niala (18:17): I very much relate to it. So we have Nam Lolwe, which was named the wrong name, Lake Victoria. And Lolwe actually means endless. Because of course, Nam is endless. Because Lake Victoria, as we know, is the source of the Nile, which is endless. So I completely understand what you’re saying about the wrong names. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I felt I heard you say was, that if you start off already, giving the wrong name, then you have the wrong thinking, which means you can’t have the right relationship.

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (18:50): Very true. I can speak Lakota where I’m from, and the people, the land will understand it. But when I come to the east coast here, our language is not adequate for describing the terrain. It can generally in English say, “It’s the land or the mountains,” and that’s taking the sacredness out of it.

I’m understanding the land a little different, because maybe the clarity that indigenous languages bring in are gotten from the land, because of what we’re giving to the land. In other words, there’s no sense of ‘takeaway’. What did you get? What did you take away from the forest? No, it’s “What did you give to the forest?” Right? If you give, she’ll know how much you need, not how much you want. She’ll always know what you need. And in that way, that language is reciprocal. 

So in Lakota, there’s no word for domination. There’s no nouns at all. In our language, it’s all verbs. There’s no need for concepts. There’s no need for objectifying or subjectifying anything. So you can describe energy and then the motion of the energy, and that would be our language. We don’t need that way of describing things from an authoritative thought process. It’s always that we are with the energy.

When I earlier greeted you with ‘Cante’, ‘can’ is the first part of that word, which you can never really split it up, but for the sake of the language we’re speaking, I have to parse everything and you know, pull it apart. So I took ‘Cante’ – ‘can’ is like treeing, ‘te’ is like a derivative of living. So when you put ‘Cante’ is living, treeing.

And that ‘Cante’, that I just described to you, the living, treeing, is our heart. It has a movement to it, it’s just not the heart, or the heart, a function. The brain that we think is holding intelligence, is merely a seed of the heart, that all of our thoughts come from the heart. 

JC Niala (21:08): So if we can stick with language for a moment, one of the things that I find fascinating is this idea of the English word ‘wasteland’. And I was wondering if you might like to speak to even the thought that something can be a wasteland.

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (21:27): Waste is something we do not have in our original language. Pollution, garbage, those don’t even exist. Because everything used us. The buffalo used us, the bison used us, the birds used us. We were in a metabolism with everything, even so-called ‘wasteland’. It doesn’t make spiritual, logical sense to me.

But mentally in concept, “Oh, something that’s barren.” So to us, there is not nothing. In other words, if we say, “There’s nothing there, it’s waste,” that’s a lie. It’s measured as there’s no benefit for the human any more so, therefore, it’s waste, it doesn’t mean anything any more. But that’s resource thinking. To say it’s ‘wasteland’ means that you’ve lost relationship. It’s a hurtful word. You know, because it’s what humans did, or maybe certain humans, in some cases did to the land to hurt our mother. True human beings do not treat the earth like it’s a wasteland.

JC Niala (22:41): I definitely hear you. If I could ask you a little bit more personally. When you’ve been with plants, what have you learned about being human?

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (22:53): That’s a great question, love that question. I learned how ignorant I am. I learned how humbling it can be understanding that you will never know everything. They are beings in their own goodness that also came here to help us learn how to live with the Earth. And all the medicines, all the food, all our knowledge of intelligence come from, one is the plants or the trees. And the other one is the water that helps them to grow.

And then there’s fire, the sun. So like, wait, these are all intelligences. Every one of these sort of elements have intelligence. And we know that. We can’t teach the Earth anything again, but it’s always the plants, because they were here first, JC, and they are our elders. So in this way, we are always the children of Earth. So the beings of the Earth, the plants, are constantly giving you the knowledge.

JC Niala (24:12): There’s one idea which came up in all our conversations for this episode.

Cal Flyn (24:16): What I’ve learned is a kind of humbleness, which is learning where the edges of our wisdom are.

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (24:24): I learned how humbling it can be understanding that you will never know everything. 

James Bridle (24:29) A step towards a certain kind of humility.

JC Niala (24:33): We need to start decentring ourselves.

Cal Flyn (24:37): We are always constantly trying to assert our plans, our agenda onto those of other species and often it would be better for everyone if we simply allowed them to get on with it.

Also, when it comes to human intervention, we don’t always know what the consequences of our actions are going to be in the long term. And so I think I can be a little bit nervous about the more interventionist methods of conservation generally, just because sometimes in the past, they’ve backfired. Whereas leaving things to their own devices, it’s slower, the results are not necessarily as picturesque. And I think that this is a key thing: feel less useful, like you don’t feel like you’re doing something about it.

James Bridle (25:22) Intelligence, really, I’ve come to see as something that’s very active. And that, crucially, is both embodied and relational at the same time. Our minds, our intelligence goes beyond the body, and therefore it’s entangled with other beings, and actually emerges as a result of our encounters with other beings, other people, but also other organisms of all forms. So intelligence is something that arises when we interact with the world around us in various ways.

JC Niala (25:48): The wasteland used to represent the aftermath of a disaster. Farmlands turned into a dustbowl, a string of abandoned buildings in a war zone, patches of no-man’s land after nuclear contamination. It conjured the past, but now it feels like a vision of the future. And that’s tough.

James Bridle (26:14) We’re starting to name this as a kind of climate trauma now. And I think it’s really real and that it differs from other forms of medicalised trauma, in the sense that it relates to an external event that’s ongoing. It’s not an event in the past that happened, and therefore we can react to it and work through it. It’s ongoing. So it’s a new form of trauma.

Cal Flyn (26:35): if you visit somewhere like Chernobyl, you are confronted with what immediately feels like a very negative turn of events. So you are confronted by disaster, economic decay, contamination, something like this. And, of course, you know, your immediate reaction is to withdraw from it, to recoil from it. And I think there is some kind of sense of grief in there as well, or this sense of sorrow or, I don’t know, sort of embarrassment as a species. 

JC Niala (27:18): But there is hope.

Cal Flyn (27:21): There is always some species that will be able to turn these situations to their advantage. However tiny the ecological niche, there is always something that is going to be able to fill it. Whether that ecosystem is simply reclaiming the land that it had before, perhaps a forest regrowing in an area that has been cut down next to it. Or it might be starting a new ecosystem from scratch in a completely new situation. Nature can be incredibly adaptive, it can be incredibly fast moving, and it often acts in ways that we cannot truly anticipate or predict.

James Bridle (28:00): So how can we build that agency, which I think is the kind of first step to reintegrating climate trauma and actually addressing what’s happening? My main responses to that are these things in part, getting to know the world around us, asking other beings for help, and for advice, which one does as a process of relationship-building, and also developing one’s own skills. I spend a lot of time working on regenerative technologies, learning how to build things like windmills and solar panels. I think these are useful, important skills to have to build new forms of community, better suited to our relationship to the Earth. It also helps us to psychologically address the feelings of loss, of solastalgia, of trauma that we’re feeling as a result of what’s going on.

JC Niala (28:43): If there was a thought, which is a dangerous word to use, that you would like to leave the listeners with. Because I always like to leave people with hope, actually. Something hopeful that so that they can maybe start the process of learning and being with, would there be anything that you’d be able to share?

Tiokasin Ghosthorse (29:03): In our language, originally, there was no word for hope. Because you had to do what’s required. If we sat around and hoped and wished for the next dream or wish to come true, there was nothing you could do. Prayer, again, is a little different. We have to do what’s required now. We can’t wait for the government; we can’t wait for anything. 

We can’t save the Earth. It’s hard to think about trying to save the Earth because that means that you’re losing control. And if you allow the Earth to save us, you have to step back, because that’s what she does all the time anyway. Stop trying to have control and let the Earth have the say; she will anyway, right? So, I’ll leave with this thought, is that try to think about life without I, me, my, mine, or ours. Because none of it belongs to us. It was given to us.

JC Niala (30:13):  Tiokasin Ghosthorse is right, like so many people we’ve talked to in this series. Even though they came from different parts of the world and lived in varying landscapes, when they described what plants teach us about being human, they kept coming back to this: that we need to control less, and listen more. 

It’s quite astonishing to think that organisms we don’t share a language with, and literally keep us alive, also have the capacity to shape the way we think and how we feel about ourselves.

I have an enormous respect for plants. Despite all the research we’ve done, we have barely scratched the surface about the ways in which we are intertwined with them. So, what have plants taught me about being human?

That being human is about connection. And if we feel connected to the world around us, as a living, treeing being part of the Earth, rather than dominating it, we can find a better way to live with it. Now is the time to notice, reconnect and engage with the natural world around and within us.

This is the last episode in the series, so thank you to all of our contributors, and in this episode to Cal Flyn, James Bridle and Tiokasin Ghosthorse.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the ideas we’ve covered here, go to the Wellcome Collection website, where you can also find a transcription of this episode.

And if you’re in London and you’re listening to this when we released it, you’ve still got a couple of weeks to head to the ‘Rooted Beings’ exhibition, which is on until the end of August 2022.

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection. The producers are Alannah Chance and Mae-Li Evans. Our music and sound design is by Alice Boyd. And I’m JC Niala. Thanks for listening.

Author of ‘Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape’, Cal Flyn, shows us how wastelands can demonstrate nature’s resilience in the most hostile of situations.

Journalist and writer James Bridle explains how plants force us to fundamentally rethink our ideas about intelligence beyond the human. 

And Tiokasin Ghosthorse – a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota, and founder of First Voices Radio – talks to us about the need to fundamentally change our language if we are to de-centre the human and heal our relationship with the earth.

Presented by JC Niala
Lead producer Alannah Chance
Produced by Mae-Li Evans
Music and sound design by Alice Boyd

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection.