Tangled and entangled—compost and companions 


For the last few days, I’ve been deep into Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene and I’ve been excited by how she revels in the “wormy pile” that is compost (32). I like to imagine that she would feel a-kin to the squirmy companion critters in our compost bin—even if worms don’t actually loom large in her writing. Speaking of compost, I love how in this book Haraway proposes compost and companions as more congenial figures for kin relations with critters than posthumanism. I’ve never really warmed to posthumanism myself, preferring new materialism and the more-than-human (if we want to bring human into the fore/background) and now I’m thinking about how Haraway’s ‘com’ figures also evoke the with-ness of kinships.

So I decided I needed to go back to Haraway’s earlier book, When Species Meet, where she digs into the roots of companion and finds cum panis–with bread (17). This reminder of how breaking bread and eating together lie at the heart of companionship makes me notice how our worms, companion-critters, eat with us. As I put my breakfast makings and leavings into the worm café and compost bin, I realize that it’s not just that we are feeding the worms but that they are actually eating what we eat—we are all eating the same food, drinking the same drinks (yes, an incredible amount of coffee and tea and quite a lot of toast, speaking of panis). A moveable, shared, companionable vegetarian feast.

As I drink my/our morning coffee and munch my/our toast, I remember, too, that Darwin also recognized worms’ companionability, their sociability: “They perhaps have a trace of social feeling, for they are not disturbed by crawling over each other’s bodies, and they sometimes lie in contact” (15). Or, as Donna Haraway might put it, “entangled meaningful bodies” (26).


Ok, I can’t resist bringing Z&Z into this conversation. Again, they are still in bed upstairs while we’re all having breakfast downstairs and outside (yes it’s still wintry cold here). But as ever, Ziggy and Zazie are part of this assemblage and have a lot to say about companionable entanglements.


In an earlier post, I was thinking about how Haraway  reacted to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming-animal.’ It’s not that she rejects becoming, it’s just that for her what matters is real worldling becoming with. And the care and curiosity this involves. In When Species Meet, she talks about “practices of care” (90) that shape all the critters in the relationship—and the need to “act in companion species webs with complexity, care and curiosity” (106).  Her com or with figures resonate with Vinciane Despret. As I’ve been reading their books together–and together with the worms–I’ve  loved how they write with a certain attuned entanglement with each other and with animals—sharing interests and concerns and questions and surprises: “Emphasizing that articulating bodies to each other is always a political question about collective lives, Despret studies those practices in which animals and people become available to each other, become attuned to each other, in such a way that both parties become more interesting to each other, more open to surprises, smarter, more ‘polite,’ move inventive… partners learn to be ‘affected’; they become ‘available to events’; they engage in a relationship that ‘discloses perplexity.’” (207)

Lots to chew on there! Before I finish my last coffee and piece of toast—spoiler alert—I want to mention some more com relations, that I’ll add to the compost of my next post where I want to think about the complex kinship of working with worms in an art project as collaborators, colluders, contrivers.

Digesting Darwin

A few days ago, when I was ‘Taking a break,’ I was gripped by Adam Phillips’ essay on Darwin, worms, and digestion. When Phillips says Charles Darwin “commemorates, and rejoices in, the [worms’] powers of digestion” (55), I’m definitely in. Since then I too  burrowed into the rich ground of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.


It’s been quite an alchemical experience, as I burped my way through Darwin’s book (my gut telling me I’d had way too much coffee when I was trying to lure the worms out from under their blanket with ever more coffee grounds). The experience reminded me of when I was working on a radiophonic essay on alchemy and its transformations [Separation Anxiety: not the truth about alchemy]—and I went through all the seven stages of alchemy in the process. Dissolution was painful and the coagulation was intense, but it was putrefaction and fermentation that was the most challenging and transformative of all. Time for a new category for the blog — digestion.

I like that the worms call me to think about alchemy again now, years later. Alchemy is an alluring knowledge that is all about affinities and transformation… just like the project working with worms. It’s turning out that alchemical transformations and affinities abound once we tune in to them. Not just digestion – there is also shredding. We seem to be kindred Kin here, as Donna Haraway might have it… us with our shredding habit and the worms with theirs. (As I said in the early days of the blog, we shredded a lot of paper for a previous art work, and now we’re feeding the shreds to the worms to digest and transform. (Strangely, looking back, we actually did try to eat them ourselves in that work, but not too successfully– there were just way too many to digest.)

I’m inspired when Darwin speaks about the intimate co-compositional moments in shredding and digesting: “The leaves which they consume are moistened, torn into small shreds, partially digested, and intimately commingled with the earth…” (79) And so we feed the worms our shredded leaves of paper to do with what they will, to transform in their alchemical habitual way. There’s an unexpected intimacy here as we wait and wonder…

And thinking about wonder, when I was looking for what Jane Bennett said about alchemy in her wonderful The Enchantment of Modern Life, I remembered how important her work has been for us. It made me sense how enchanting the worms are in the work they are doing with us. Darwin, too, seems enchanted by worms and his amazement is infections. But, bowing to science, he also fills the book with calculations to demonstrate the power of worms. That I didn’t mind– they seemed to make him happy– but I have to say I did gasp as I read of the eviscerated worms sacrificed to science to explain the chemical functioning of their digestion. Sadly, it seems that quite a few worms suffered in the writing of that book, paying a price for the glory of worm-kind. At the same time, though, I feel drawn to the Darwin who is not bowed by science, who tells stories of running around old buildings with his sons and working at home observing the eating and burrowing habits of worms. And I laugh at the Darwin who gently blows tobacco breath at the worms as part of his enquiries into their senses. These passages  where he speaks as a more attuned, amateur scientist, are for me far more alluring and thought-provoking than his descriptions of their dissected digestive tracts.

But I think I like Darwin best when he’s discussing the worms’ favourite foods. And the way he’s moved by their consciousness, their attentiveness, their intelligence and the sensitivity to touch of their whole bodies. And when he assures us how hugely important part a worms play in the history of the world. And when, asking what Vinciane Despret calls the  ‘right questions,’ he is rewarded by the surprises of worms’ responses—as, for example, when together they bury the tired concept of blind instinct: “But it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degrees of intelligence instead of a mere blind instinctive impulse, in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows.” (103)

What I’ve responded to in Darwin’s engaging worms is what Phillips calls his “artful science” (55). Like Despret I appreciate Darwin’s recognition of animals’ agency and aesthetic sense (37-38). This is a far cry from the scientists Despret questions for being out of touch with the affects and effects of their relations with the animals they study.

I’m happy to be coming back to Despret. I realise that I’ve digested about as much science of worms as I want to and it’s time to think about art again. So I return with relish to her artful writing and her first chapter (“A for artists”). Stirring words about the importance of the achievements as “beasts and humans accomplish a work together. And they do so with the grace and joy of the work to be done.” And so she finishes, “Isn’t this what matters in the end? To welcome new ways of speaking, describing, and narrating that allow us to respond, in a sensitive way to these events?” (6)

Coffee cup in hand…


IMG_2354.JPGCoffee cup in hand, I give the critters an early morning gift from the local organic shop — a bag full of coffee grinds to enliven the carrots and apples. I wonder if it will wake them up and move them with joy on this very cold morning? Guess I won’t know  til tomorrow, when I see if they’ve been lured out of bed and made the big journey through the blanket and shreds. Meanwhile I did help a couple up of worms to wake up and smell the coffee — to see if they might let the others know the delights in store for getting out of bed. Hope they don’t mind. Not sure who is slower today, me or them, but it’s beginning to work on me…

And so I turn to Vinciane Despret whose writing always moves me with joy. “C is for Corporeal” opens with an enigma from Spinoza, “Nobody knows what the body can do.” As it happens my lovely reading group is deep into Spinoza’s Ethics at the moment, so I burrow right into this chapter. Despret’s engagement with Donna Haraway’s engagement with Barbara Smuts’ baboon encounters enlivens Spinoza for me. She describes an agencement of bodies between Smuts and the baboons she is studying with– how they move in response to each other, how they move each other, how they move with each other:

“…it is the possibility of becoming not exactly the other through metamorphosis but with the other, not in the sense of feeling what the other is thinking or of feeling for the other like a burdensome empathizer but rather of receiving and creating the possibility to inscribe oneself in a relation of exchange and proximity that has nothing to do with identification.”

It’s about attuning, about learning to respond to each other’s demands — “to recognize one another.” This helps thinking about the with of working with worms, collaborating as artists together. I think we’re all in the early stages here. We have learned things about our first worms– their love of coffee and shreds– but now we’re trying to see how these worms respond. Maybe they just want to stay in bed on these cold mornings. Are they ready to get up?