Interview with Iain Orr

‘Biodiplomat’ Iain Orr, a former British Consul-General in Shanghai, shares his thoughts on diversity, islands and albatrosses.

Scientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence… It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine ‘truth’ here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw.
Alfred Wegener, The Origins of Continents and Oceans

Do you think there is such a thing as the collective imagination?
Yes, in that certain ideas are going around at any particular period. Take the theory of evolution. In the nineteenth century people were learning about more and more different species and asking questions about where they came from. They were starting to conceive of geological time. Biblical explanations of creation were becoming problematic. Nowadays, everybody is used to the idea that the land areas of the Earth have moved around a lot: you look at the globe and see how neatly South America fits into Africa. But for this to become ‘common knowledge’, it first had to be imagined as a possibility. The German scientist Wegener was the first to notice it and have the imagination to think of rocks as actually being able to move; that however solid rocks may seem, they can move like water – though obviously a lot more slowly. When Wegener made that observation in The Origins of Continents and Oceans, first published in 1915, he was pooh-poohed. But what he said proved to be accurate. This was the inception of the theory of plate tectonics, and a fresh way of understanding the world.

How that happens really interests me. A man who worked with a Tibetan herbalist told me that one day, collecting orange membrane from under the bark of a tree, he had asked how its medicinal properties could have been inferred. The reply was: ‘Clairvoyance.’ Although Tibetan medicine is strong on testing by trial and error, that doesn’t explain the original intuition.
Certainly, somebody has to start asking questions and an exploratory mind – scientific or poetic – will be sensitised to look for clues. In my experience, answers sometimes come through using a model, for example, a house with all sorts of rooms representing different ideas. In literature, simile is a model. For instance, when Burns wrote ‘My love is like a red, red rose,’ he was comparing love to something that is thought of as being beautiful – there’s the idea of a scent, of something that is rather intense; and in the background, the idea of the rose having thorns – love can bring pain as well. So far, the model holds together. In the poem the simile is functioning in a particular way and it doesn’t matter that it has limits. But remove poetic sensibility, and look what can happen. I remember once typing in ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ and my spell-checker came up with ‘repeated word’, and suggested getting rid of it! Get rid of the poetry!

It’s humbling to know that the world will change, whether through human agency or not.
Yes. And while people talk about climate change as a major problem, I think loss of biodiversity through population growth and our willingness to purloin the habitats of other creatures is just as important. Of course, there’s a limitation to that, in the sense that we are terrestrial. We can’t live in the ground…

Or in the oceans… nor can we directly experience the world in those terms.
That’s right. We don’t have the magnificent sense of hearing that some marine creatures have, or the chemical senses – a shark will know that something has been bleeding two miles away. It’s an experience of life that you can only try and imagine. In order to have coherent experience, you do need boundaries. A creature sensitive to every light or sound or electromagnetic wave would be overwhelmed by sensation. Limitation is necessary. Humans couldn’t function without it. Take memory – the most important thing in having a good memory is the ability to forget. If you couldn’t forget, you would be overpowered.

That’s how Sherlock Holmes said he solved crimes. By knowing what to eliminate, he saw what he needed to see.
And that again is probably something common both to the scientific and the poetic imagination.

Was it Michelangelo who talked about taking away the stone to find the shape waiting inside? Perhaps that’s what the process of gaining knowledge is, a paring back to something innate.
Yes, and in any language, there will always be the discipline of its innate structure. Depending on structure, the vowels and the consonants, you can get different effects in different languages. For a writer, language is the essential raw material, just as the basic arithmetical rules are for a mathematician.

It’s funny to think that spoken language is breath, your mouth moving the breath and creating sounds, communicating.
Well, you and I are having a conversation in the same dialect of English and we’ve got a shared cultural background, but you know, I had an extraordinary experience at the British Library at a live performance of part of the Kyrgyz epic poem, the Manas – recited, with musical accompaniment, in the Kyrgyz language. There was no simultaneous translation and yet it was extraordinary how much of the power of it came across, even for those who didn’t know a word of Kyrgyz. You can tell so much just by looking at a storyteller – there are so many ways in which meaning is conveyed.

A friend of mine saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Calcutta, which used seventeen different Indian languages. Although she only understood about two-and-a-half of those, she said it was perfect for a play that in many respects is about miscommunication. Which reminds me – my original intention was to ask you about your fascination with islands. Why islands?
Probably that goes back to childhood experience. My father’s first job after demob in 1945 was as Church of Scotland Youth Organiser for the West of Scotland and one of his tasks was to organise youth camps on Iona and so we spent summers there. It’s a wonderful size of island, about two miles long, a mile at most at the widest. As a wee boy I could actually walk right round it. Which comes back to the question of boundaries: the thing that defines an island is that it has very clear boundaries in a way that a town or city doesn’t. When you say ‘Edinburgh’, you may have a vision of the Castle but you don’t have a vision of the city’s shape, as it were. If you know an island well, you know it by its shape. And with a small island – where you can get up to the highest point and look in every direction and see the sea around it – you have a three-dimensional sense of that bit of land, defined by water. An island is a very powerful way of representing the idea of identity – of something that is, and has its own reality. One of the great appeals of a small island is that a question about it is likely to be answerable. You can stand on Iona and ask, ‘How many people live here?’ and the answer is, literally, within grasp. Whereas, if you asked that question on the edge of the Eurasian landmass, by the time you counted, generations will have been born and died.
Islands are worlds in miniature. As a boy, I loved going round the beaches and looking at the sea anemones in the rock pools, and finding the lovely wee cowrie shells that you get on Iona; I felt aware of the fish in the sea and got to know all the different habitats. Islands hold an abiding romantic appeal. I was brought up on Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe, so perhaps that’s why islands have such a powerful appeal to my imagination.
In a scientific sense, islands are a bit like the canary down the mine: how they are faring is a good measure of how human beings are affecting the planet. It has to be said that of the birds, mammals and plants that have become extinct in the last five hundred years, something like eighty percent are island species (which is partly to do with the fact that the isolation of islands is a driver for speciation). There are so many island species under threat – and the same can be said for many human communities and cultures.

I gather that one of these species under threat is the albatross.
In my imagination the image of the albatross is very powerfully present. In flight, with its huge wingspan, riding the currents of air, it’s a most wonderfully gracious bird. In my last job at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I was concerned with environmental issues in remote British territories such as South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, where albatrosses nest. They are in great danger from long-line fishing fleets – the bait attracts them and then they get tangled up in the lines. Of course, there’s a very easy solution – to weight the lines so that they are held deeper. But persuading rogue fishing fleets to do that is difficult. The albatross is an iconic bird and if we lose it, it would be a loss for the whole world.

© Jennie Renton

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