Biota Beings (working title), 2020-present

600 million years ago lived a common ancestor of animals and plants. After emerging from the water onto the land, it evolved down two very different paths. The plant and the animal worlds. Fast forward to the climate crisis we face, and we are waking-up to the complex web of interactions between plants and life sustaining ecosystems. Moreover, we are discovering hidden abilities of plants and re-evaluating relationships with these as other conscious intelligent beings.

Our ancestors had a rich tapestry of folklore around plants, respecting them as medicine and infusing them with spirit in rituals and mythology. This was lost somewhere in our development. Theorist Timothy Morton calls this The Severing to describe a “traumatic fissure between… reality (the human correlated world) and the real (ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere).” *

We are now turning back to the natural world and with scientific insights, we attempt to forge ecological balance, symbiotic exchanges and make new stories about human nature and other beings. The work called Biota Beings tests the mergence of flora and fauna again to pursue the evolution of a very different human. It recognises the intertwining of plants and animals to create complex webs of interactions. For instance some plants rely on animals to spread their seed or protect them. Marine life relies on coastline woodlands to enrich the oceans with iron (Fe) to enable food chains. Such examples reveal larger processes at play existing outside our immediate perception. When out of sight, these ecological systems are at peril, like killing the mother at the end of the umbilical cord of a hungry foetus. Similarly, we are blinked to the full sense of plant-life and their lives. We are only just starting to understand that trees keep their dead alive, nurture their offspring and communicate across a wood-wide-web facilitated by mycorrhizal fungi relationships. These examples may be only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of biota systems with many more waiting to be discovered.


 

Biota Beings transform humans by enhancing the interactions with the biota life support systems that sustain us. The term biota captures a perspective of all organisms, geographic regions and timescales that create a biosphere to sustain human life. The resulting systems proposed for Biota Beings connect us from the microbiome within the body, to whole-planet and whole-timescale spatiotemporal scales.

The artworks create plans, prototypes and systems to test inter-organic mutualism and biota embedded beings. The individual elements of the series form dense entanglements building life support systems that are continually in a state of flux and change.
By nature, this work is slow growing, mind opening and ‘more than human’.


 

Beyond perception

Plants and especially trees are intelligent, they have memories, they share resources via mutualistic relationships, they sustain marine environments, moderate the climate and create life support systems for us.
Due to plants being so different to us, they have been relegated as non-beings and part of the landscape. Their complete otherness, has meant they have been overlooked as conscious beings by humans. Instead they are seen as resources, beauty and food. Now, they unlock untold potential to reimagine ourselves and the world around us.

There is much we can learn from plants for other ways of designing the world.

Stefano Mancuso, an expert in plant neurobiology prompts us to imagine how the plant’s characteristics including their adaptability, could reimagine human life. What would the human world look like if we design from a place of “a cooperative, shared structure without any command centers, able to flawlessly resist repeated catastrophic events without losing functionality and adapt very quickly to huge environmental changes”? **

If humans could become more plant-like, we would surely have a very different world and future. We ask, how far could humans become more like plants?


Our ancestors had ways to notice without knowing

In folklore the Devil collects nettles on May Day to make his shirts and in reality the Nazi army made their uniforms from nettle fibres during World War 2 supply shortages. In folklore mint grows in the afterlife to accompany you on your journey after death, perhaps for it’s soothing properties long-held as a digestive aid, or for it’s aroma found by scientists to enhance memory in cognitive performance.***

In the past, yew trees were sacred meeting places creating natural religious structures. Past natural remedies used willow trees to ease aliments such as arthritis in the wetlands where the tree is found, and in later medical developments it is the original source of the drug aspirin. However, folklore warns to not cut down willow trees or use the wood in your house, else it will send you mad. These folklore stories and later medicalised uses of plants show a tantalising, pre-science knowing which often carries undertones of respect and balance for the plants and environment. Now not commonly known, they show insights into beliefs and connections we once held with the natural world. The myths, stories, rhymes, recipes, methods, cures and spells helped humans relate with beings so different to their own, giving them access to a ‘more than human’ world.

Biota Beings resurrects some of these old accounts and updates them with contemporary scientific knowledge, to find bridges to world-views beyond our perception. For instance, the dark glands in St John’s wort produces a compound to combat depression and the saying “climb a tree to catch a fish” captures the ecological role of coastline forests in sustaining life in marine environments.

 


Adapt and transform

When we become a Biota Being, we gain steps to change behaviour to balance our place in natural systems, and through story have bridges to the non-human being. We gain the ability to know without fully knowing, and to gain perspectives on massive, complex webs of interconnections.


Without resorting to sticking plaster attempts of transformation or half measure imaginings, we ask: what are the radical new evolutions to our species? What is the most equitable options for all planetary life, and how do we build a map to get there?

 

* Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. Verso, 2019.

** Stefano Mancuso, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behaviour. Atria Books 2018.

*** Mark Moss, et al, Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. 2008 National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18041606/ [last accessed: 13 July 2021]

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Acknowledgement

Biota Beings by Burton Nitta (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta)

 

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