Every living thing has two bodies. To be an animal is to be in possession of a physical body, a body which can eat, drink and sleep; it is also to be embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. When every human body has an uncanny global presence, how do we live with ourselves?
In this timely and elegant essay, author Daisy Hildyard captures the second body by exploring how the human is a part of animal life. She meets Richard, a butcher in Yorkshire, and sees pigs turned into boiled ham; and Gina, an environmental criminologist, who tells her about leopards and silver foxes kept as pets in luxury apartments. She speaks to Luis, a biologist, about the origins of life; and talks to Nadezhda about fungi in an effort to understand how we define animal life. Eventually, her second body comes to visit her first body when the river flooded her home last year.
The Second Body is a brilliantly lucid account of the dissolving boundaries between all life on earth.
The publication of the photograph of the earth as viewed from space, called Earthrise, or Spaceship Earth, has been described as a crucial moment in the relationship between this planet and the humans who live on it. Some people say that humans began to care for their environment when they saw a photograph of the earth from above. This is because the photograph showed people that space on earth is limited and the atmosphere is only a thin covering. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, described her experience of viewing the planet for the first time: The beauty of the earth was overwhelming... I realized how small earth is, and how fragile, so that it can be destroyed very quickly.
There are other people who believe that the Earthrise images had quite a different effect. While Tereshkova said that seeing the earth from space made her respect it more, there are others who believe that the images are a symptom of human disrespect. That is, seeing the earth from space has given humans a false sense of independence from this planet. The images of Earthrise have been compared to the idea of the Anthropocene: an epoch during which the human species is producing its large, clear, distinctive signature in the stratum of the earth which is currently forming. This is the definition which emerges from the work of geologists who are currently seeking to discover and define what the Anthropocene is – to identify, or to disprove, the indelible physical presence of human productions in a stratum of the earth.
Even before the geologists’ questions have fully been answered, though, their terminology has gone into orbit. The term ‘the Anthropocene’ can be said to be similar to the image of the earth from space in that both imply that humans look down from a distance on all other forms of life. In the case of the Earthrise, this perspective is literal. In the case of the Anthropocene, it is conceptual. Moles might dig tunnels in the earth, or swallows carry particles of dust from Africa to Europe. Soil-dwelling bacteria might comprise the very smell of the earth – the scent of a garden after rain is the scent of actinomycetes. But the human makes its own terms, and the Anthropocene characterises the earth, uniquely, as a product of humanity.
The argument against Anthropocene and Earthrise is this: they make the human feel superhuman. The idea that each individual human body is currently determining the composition of the whole atmosphere would seem hubristic if not crazed to an ordinary person, in normal life. And likewise, the perspective which allows every human individual to look down on the earth, while standing outside it – as though in space – is nothing but a delusion. In this respect, the second body appears as a kind of disordered thinking. This idea is shared by the academic Timothy Clark in an essay which I first saw delivered as a lecture over Skype when I was a student. Clark describes what he sees as a derangement of scale – a sense of confusion that is caused by the huge gap between the immensity of the human’s global existence and the smallness of your own private everyday life. Clark discusses how climate change disturbs the human habitat, in that our tiny homes and even tinier bodies are bearing down on distant, huge, unknown things, and vice versa. For example, Clark says, every affluent French person is already lurking in the living space of a farmer in the floodplains of Bangladesh. The smallest half-conscious acts of your first body, such as turning on the kettle, or turning down the thermostat, are transformed, by the existence of your second body, into momentous political decisions which have global impact. This strange movement gives the sense that our lives are being turned inside-out, and our ideas about what is reasonable no longer make sense:
The overall force is of an implosion of scales, implicating seemingly trivial or small actions with enormous stakes while intellectual boundaries and lines of demarcation fold in upon each other.
Money, bodies and chemicals are moving around the globe in different configurations. They set off complex interactions, and so it becomes impossible, in a technical way, to rule anything out of a relationship with anything else. Everything is in a relationship with everything else! It’s a bewilderingly promiscuous world view. This impulse of climate change, says Clark, disrupts the scale at which one must think, skews categories of internal and external and resists inherited closed economies of accounting or explanation. When we look at the global body, it is impossible to relate that body to anything individual because there can be no certain borders between one thing and another. We do not know what is relevant to the individual body, and what is outside it, because the atmosphere and the individual body are inside one another. Therefore we cannot help seeing every individual as a part of the whole world: the whole of life becomes a mass and it becomes impossible to differentiate one thing from another.
Daisy Hildyard is an author based in the north of England. Her first novel Hunters in the Snow (2014) won a Somerset Maugham Award at the Society of Authors (UK), and a ‘5 Under 35’ honorarium at the National Book Awards (USA). The Second Body (2017) is an essay on how the porous boundaries of the Anthropocene are shaping human experiences. A new novel, Emergency (2022), tells stories of the global connections, and the human-nonhuman relationships, within a small rural area. www.fitzcarraldoeditions.com