Sharing Nature: Relationships

14 July 2017

We asked you to share and rate images on the theme of relationships. Marianna Bucina Roca’s photo shows us just how fragile those relationships might be.

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Over the last fortnight, we’ve asked visitors to Wellcome Collection and our Sharing Nature website to contribute and rate images on the theme of RELATIONSHIPS. The image that resonated most was this picture taken by Marianna Bucina Roca. It shows treetops reflected in water, the upper and lower reaches of our immediate environment. Marianna writes:

The critical zone. The living, breathing, continually changing area that extends from the top of the trees to the bottom of groundwater. It’s the layer where rock, soil, water, air, and living creatures interact in a complex relationship. These complex interactions regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources, including our food production and water quality. The critical zone sustains nearly all terrestrial life including human life, however ever-increasing negative impacts of human society like land use, pollution, and climate change on the critical zone continue to put this fragile relationship in peril.

If these relationships are in peril, how do we understand what they are? Ancient philosophers had systems of classifying the natural world, and Christian models of nature specified relationships and dependencies, including moral ones: the duty of fidelity to God’s law.

The systematic detailing of the relationships and the birth of modern taxonomy (never to be confused with taxidermy) came with Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae of 1735. Setting out to classify God’s creation, Linnaeus named over 10,000 separate organisms and organised them along the principles of similarity, for the first time placing humans with other primates.

Over a century later, biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ‘ecology’ (‘Ökologie’ in his native German) to describe the emergent science of the complex relationships between individual species of plants and animals, developing ideas of individual habitats and food webs of mutual dependency.

Ecology has moved beyond science. Founded in 1975, the UK’s Ecology Party became today’s Green Party whose commitment to social and economic justice makes clear that the relationship between humans and nature is also political.

The natural conclusion of western ecological thought might well be James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock theorised that inorganic systems and living beings form a single self-regulating system that encompasses the entire planet. From this point of view the critical zone itself becomes something more like an individual being.

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Earthrise. Courtesy NASA.

The Gaia theory has obvious antecedents in the religion of earth goddesses, but might also have been influenced by the rapid technological development of the 1960s: Bill Anders’ famous Earthrise photo, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft allowed Earth’s inhabitants to see their home for the first time as a single, fragile planet.

Critical to our survival, the critical zone is perhaps in critical danger. All our relationships depend upon it.

Sharing Nature continues until 1 October 2017, and upcoming themes include relationships, dead, green, alone, plastic, health, and consume. A museum of modern nature is at Wellcome Collection until 8 October 2017.