Blogs >> Tickling for Trout - a meeting with James Lovelock by Dr Stephan Harding

Tickling for Trout - a meeting with James Lovelock by Dr Stephan Harding

child playing by river

It had been a long while since I had seen James (Jim) Lovelock, my friend and scientific mentor of many years.   

We first met here at Schumacher College in January 1991 during the College’s very first course on Gaia lead by Jim himself.  I had been appointed as the college’s Resident Ecologist some three months previously, and found it astonishing that such a small and (then) wholly unknown college could host such a highly distinguished scientist as its first teacher. 

We hit it off immediately, and thus began many visits to Jim and his wife Sandy in their home-cum- laboratory in the deep countryside of the Devon-Cornwall border during which we would explore Gaia through both science and philosophy. 

I became part of a small group of scientists deeply inspired by Jim’s far-sighted, highly original understanding of our Earth as a vast planetary living entity, brought alive through the multifarious feedbacks between living beings and the planet’s rocks, atmosphere and water which we attempted to model mathematically on our whirring computers.

By this October, I hadn’t seen him for three years, or more.  Why, I’m not sure.  My shyness, perhaps.  And yet, a few months ago during one of my quiet sabbatical days in our little cottage in the grounds of Schumacher College, during which, as usual, I studied Gaia and pondered her depths, a sudden urge to speak with him overwhelmed me. 

So I phoned, and heard his voice, and felt again that strange rush of powerful intellectual excitement as we talked.  There was that feeling once more – that sense of being with him on top of a mountain with vast vistas all around – a strange exhilaration with no rational explanation that I had felt so many times before in his company.

And so it was that a month or so later I found myself walking by his side again – this time along Chesil beach in Dorset, near their new home.  Now 98, and as lively in mind and as a sprightly as ever in body, we talked about the importance of intuition, and about his father. 

“The only way to really understand Gaia, Stephan, isn’t through science and reasoning, it’s through intuition.”

“What is intuition, Jim?”

“Imagine we’re deep in the jungle and at this very moment we see a tiger in front of us. We react without even thinking about it.  Another part of our mind takes over, a non-rational functioning that guides us to safety.  We’d be dead if we had to think: ‘that’s a tiger – hmm, probably dangerous. Let’s calculate its probable trajectory etc.’  Some other part of our mind takes over and we know what to do without thinking. That’s what intuition is like.”

“You mean that the mind that reacts to a danger is somehow connected to the intuitive mind that can sense what or who Gaia is?”

“Yes – they are connected.  Intuition comes in flash – in a moment of insight”.

“Can we cultivate intuition?”

“Oh yes.  It’s best learnt when we are children.”

“Did you learn it as a child?”

“From my father.  He was deeply connected to nature. He knew how to live off the land, how catch rabbits. He knew the names of wild plants, and which berries one could eat.  He could see the trails of mammals, he knew where birds nested. He knew their names."

“I get it – your father was a tracker!  A sort of modern bushman!”

“And he taught me how to tickle for trout.”

“Tickle for Trout?”

“By wiggling my fingers under water in a quiet river’s eddy where trout like to wait for food. If you did it right the trout would be fooled into mistaking your fingers for worms.  But you can only learn it as a child. Only a child is able to evoke an intuitive connection deep enough to attract the fish.”

“You mean that the searching for the intuitive experience of Gaia is like tickling for trout?”

“It’s just like that.  To sense Gaia we need to be like a child tickling for trout.”

We walk in silence for a while, gazing out over the gentle, sunlit sea.   The conversation turns to other Gaian things.  We go in, have lunch, then tea. It’s late.  The Lovelocks must be tired. 

Time to go. But the image has stayed with me all this while – a gift from the sage by the sea.The river water is the great flowing psyche of nature. Our fingers, they’re our intuitive feelers in this flow. The trout, that’s the world- saving insight that can be granted if we feel our way into the stream of our planet’s vast life with the openness of a child.  Science can take us part way to Gaia, that’s clear.

But to feel her fully, as fully as we are humanely able, we must be like children. We must learn to tickle for trout.

Dr Stephan Harding coordinates the MSc Holistic Science at Schumacher College - the only programme of it's kind in the World.