Artwork by Enrique Cropper
“In which case” continued George, always keen to have the last word, “there’s only one thing I don’t quite understand.” Michel, Sophie and George’s wife each drew in a small breath, fearing the conversation was about to start another round of debate. Though George could feel his wife twitching to clear the table and bring out the dessert, he couldn’t resist asking his question. Santiago looked at him, ready to hear. “I get it all about the wolf and that he is more than just a ‘top predator’. But the way you’ve explained this theory of biology, all this idea of species interacting in an ecosystem….” He paused very briefly, attempting to take any unintended edge off his question. “Well, isn’t that just a materialist viewpoint, like any other?”
Santiago’s face opened into a calm smile. “Ho, ho, George. At last, we got there” he chirped. “Am I propounding a view of biology, which is nothing else but just materialism in another form? That is the question!”
George looked straight at Santiago, expectantly, as Santiago replied. “This question has troubled and keeps troubling me. Indeed, something else more beautiful, more complete, something more whole, must grow out of our observation of physical, that is of material, Nature. Otherwise we ourselves become, as they say, ‘a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal’ and all our thoughts will come to naught.” Santiago continued. “You can see it particularly well in microbiologists. They have become almost obsessed with finding some material agent, some physical device to ‘save the appearances’ of their mechanistic bacteria-eat-dog and virus-eat-dog theories.”
George’s mouth twitched as he captured Santiago’s complex humour but, by now, Santiago’s mood had become much more amenable. “I don’t deny the material existence of fungi, bacteria and viruses, just because I can’t see them. And I don’t deny that they are associated with breaking down rather than building up processes in Nature. But why, in the fullness of things, should a virus be any more sinister than any other of the myriad living things?”
Santiago persisted. “You could turn it all on its head. Seeing that most of the time microorganisms go about their business entirely in harmony with the rest of the ecosystem, especially when that ecosystem is diverse and has not become one-sided. Disease and decay only happen when something is out of kilter, when something is lacking”. Santiago raised himself in his chair. “So often we forget that the word ‘health’ comes from the word ‘whole.’ An unhealthy ecosystem is one that is missing the presence of an element, call it an organism if you prefer, that makes it complete, and therefore healthy. Likewise, any organism within an ecosystem becomes unwell if it ‘missing’ something. And it is that missing element which, as it were, allows decay and disease to enter.”
Santiago looked around at the others whose silence had by now given him no option but to continue. “I guess you all want me to tell you – what is it that is missing?” He paused. “Personally, I think a true biological thinking must incorporate not only the seen and the ponderable but also the unseen and the unmeasurable. And what do I mean by that?” asked Santiago, suppressing the temptation to speak rhetorically.
“Forces, energies, call them what you want, anything which an open and unbiassed mind is able to contemplate in Nature. I’m familiar with things like Sheldrake’s theory of Morphic Fields, and Steiner’s Formative Forces, but it’s a diverse scientific domain, and yes, I know lots of people don’t even consider those writers scientific. But that’s where the open-mindedness come in. Once history has taught us all she can, it is the duty of each of us to figure out on their own what the phenomenon they are contemplating actually is. It’s up to each of us to work this one out.”
George still couldn’t quite give up the pursuit. “This sounds like Animism” he interjected, rather lamely. Santiago sighed. “Yes, I often get accused of descending into Animism. But, as my grandfather would say at such moments, I know I don’t have the answer to your question – but something transcends all this, George, something transcends us”. The others gazed blankly, while Santiago looked all alone. “And yet I know, to my chagrin, this is when people usually cut off the conversation and we never get any further.”
By then, in that way which so often happens in uncomfortable social situations, the body language of the group at the table was beginning to talk more loudly than the speaker. A few mumbled sounds surfaced. Then Sophie piped up with a cheery suggestion of “Can I help clear the table?” and the tension of the conversation broke. One or two immediately stood up to move the serving bowls and cutlery, the dinner plates and the empty glasses, leaving Santiago, non-plussed, loosely clearing his own plate. George, making a limp offer of “A last drop of wine” to Santiago and Michel, attempted to revive some interaction but it was clear by the time the dessert had been served that the conversation was never going to reach the same depth as earlier in the evening. Instead, the usual pleasantries of such soirées returned, with questions and answers about ‘fantastic’ holiday plans, recent attendance at ‘brilliant’ opera shows and polite comments about ‘how lovely the garden looks’.
Just then, the cawing of a jet-black crow hustling the thrush off his perch high in the tree, brought George back to the grimness of the lockdown and the dense, daily bombardment of COVID news and analysis of infection rates; of viral loads in the bloodstream; of respiratory insufficiency; of medical staff on the front line; of patients fighting for their lives; and of Death.
George sat struggling, trying to delve deeper into himself, to dissipate the mist in his memory that impeded his full recollection of that conversation with that ‘impudent young biologist,’ so many years before. “Santiago was making a plea. A plea to reconsider Life, openly, in all its breadth and beauty – and Death in all its beauty too”, rued George. “And now we have COVID. And all this talk of ‘victims’ of the disease, ‘fighting’ the scourge, ‘beating’ the infection, counting the death toll. Can this really be the science on which to base how we live our lives?” thought George. “What if we’re the ones missing something?”
George was suffering. While he was always at pains to point out that ‘Blessfully no-one close to me has been ill’ and ‘So many others are facing real economic hardship’, he was feeling a grave yet healthy inner doubt he found impossible to share with others. “How did we get to this? he said to himself, sighing once, and sighing again. “Is this what becomes of us, under the materialist hegemony?” he mumbled to himself, recalling the huffing sound of Santiago’s own pronunciation.
George tipped the last drop of wine into his mouth. He felt a pervading ache in his mind and in his body. For weeks now he had been peering into the shrunken screen of his ERA laptop computer, harried by Lecomte’s impersonal rattle of email instructions. Lecomte had begun by requesting that he ‘advance as soon as possible’ and then had moved on to demanding ‘a first draft no later than Wednesday.’ His self-styled firefighting boss had finally insisted George ‘send by close of business today’ his contribution to the ERA’s post-COVID reconstruction package, which George had duly delivered, just before coming out on the terrace. “I need a breath of fresh air” was his way of explaining to his wife that he had had enough for the day.
Taking one more look up at the darkening blues and purples of the evening sky, George raised his tired body from the veranda chair. He began to nod wearily to himself and whispered one last time, “That impudent young biologist”, as he made his way across the terrace and stepped into the dining room, where Patricia had so neatly laid the table for their quiet evening supper.