Derrick Jensen: I’d like to start with two questions that might actually be one. They are: Is the natural world alive? And second, what is magic?
David Abram: Is there really anything that is not alive? Certainly we are alive, and if we assume that the natural world is in some sense not alive, it can only be because we think we’re not fully in it, and of it.
Actually, it’s difficult for me to conclude that any phenomenon I perceive is utterly inert and lifeless; or even to imagine anything that is not in some sense alive, that does not have its own spontaneity, its own openness, its own creativity, its own interior animation, its own pulse — although in the case of the ground, or this rock right here, its pulse may move a lot slower than yours or mine.
Now your other question: What is magic? In the deepest sense, magic is an experience. It’s the experience of finding oneself alive within a world that is itself alive. It is the experience of contact and communication between oneself and something that is profoundly different from oneself: a swallow, a frog, a spider weaving its web…
DJ: Another human being.
DA: That too. Sure. Magic is that astonishing experience of contact and conviviality between myself and another shape of existence, whether that be a person, or an aspen tree, or a gust of wind. It’s that sense of wonderment that arises from the encounter with that which I cannot fathom, with something that I cannot ever fully plumb with my thoughts or understanding. Many of my most intense experiences of magic have been encounters in the wild with other species, other shapes of earthly intelligence. From the meeting and exchange that one might call interspecies communication.
DJ: When most people think of magic, they think either of sleight-of-hand or sorcerers casting spells. Is there a relationship between these definitions and yours?
DA: Hmmm…I wouldn’t call what I’ve said a definition. If you try to to define something as unruly and wild as “magic,” you’re asking for trouble. But these other, more restricted notions of magic are still dependent upon the experience of a living world: a magician, really, is one who is able to participate richly in that world; who can communicate with the elements, or call a wild hawk down out of the sky — one who can understand something of the language of the other animals, or who can communicate quietly with certain plants and so is able to draw upon the particular powers of certain herbs in order to heal or alleviate illness.
Sleight-of-hand magic is somewhat more distantly related but still utterly dependent upon the animistic experience of a world all alive and aware. In our modern, technological civilization, the sense that the natural world is alive is considered a delusion or superstition. We conceive of nature — and indeed of the material world in general — as a set of basically inert or mechanical objects. Such a conception profoundly influences the way we see the world around us. It closes our senses to the inexhaustible strangeness and wild otherness of the things around us. For instance, when we speak of the behavior of other animals as just “programmed” in their genes, it deadens our ears to the all the birdsong going on around us. ‘Cause those birds, we assume, are not really saying anything; those are just automatic sounds, “programmed,” as it were. So our ears begin to close down — we become deaf to the living voices all around us. And our eyes, too, begin to glaze over. If we speak of the world as a mechanically determined set of processes, then there’s no real strangeness or mystery to engage the curiousity of our senses, and so our senses begin to shut down, and we come to live more and more in our heads.
The sleight-of-hand magician is one who can startle the senses out of the slumber induced by such obsolete ways of speaking. By making a coin vanish from one hand and appear under your foot, making a stone float between his hands or a silk scarve change its colors, the magician wakes up that old, animistic awareness of objects as living, animate entities with their own enigmatic styles and secrets; he coaxes our senses to engage the strangeness of things once again.
This was my own craft, my profession for many years. As a sleight-of-hand magician working in the late twentieth century, I felt my task was to undermine, to disrupt, to explode the determinate and habitual ways of perceiving that we fall into in a culture that speaks of and defines nature as a set of inert, inanimate, and determinate objects. A skilled sleight-of-hand magician is involved in shaking that accepted view of reality until it begins to unravel; freeing up our animal senses to begin to see and to hear and to taste the world creatively once again. In order to do this, I make use of various “sleights,” these little manipulations of my fingers that I use to lure your senses and to loosen them out of their expectations. I have to roll this coin around my fingers enough times so that at some point it begins to come alive and dance. Then it can start shapeshifting, vanishing from this hand and reappearing over here.
Our world is so domesticated, so defined. People have learned to view things in such conventional and habitual ways that they’ve stopped actually seeing those things at all. Because they always know exactly what they’re supposed to perceive, they no longer really perceive what’s there. They see more a set of concepts than the actual world; they’re not participating with their eyes in the branching life of that cottonwood tree, or in the swirling life of those clouds riding that mountain. But a sleight of hand magician disrupts our expected experience of the visible so that we actually start looking once again, actively gazing and peering at things, our senses drawn into a kind of silent dialog with things.
D.J. So magic has a lot to do with perception.
D.A. Absolutely! The magician — whether an indigenous sorceror or a modern sleight-of-hand conjuror — is someone who is adept at altering the perceptual field, adept at shifting others’ senses, or at altering her own senses in order to make contact with another shape of awareness, another entity that perceives the world very differently than we do — with a coyote, perhaps, or a frog. Or a whole forest, for that matter.
We’ve been taught to think of perception as a kind of one-way process, whereby information from the world out there is picked up by our senses and transferred to our nervous system in here. But when we really attend, mindfully, to the experience of perception, we discover that it’s a reciprocal, interactive process — a dynamic interaction, or participation, between oneself and what one perceives. To our own sensing, animal bodies, the things are not passive. We walk down the street, and a particular building, or leaf, or stone, actively catches my attention.
DJ: It grabs your awareness.
DA: It calls my eyes, or captures my focus. And thus I’m drawn into a relationship with this other body, this other being. And the more I enter into this relationship – the more I grant it my attention – perhaps moving toward that stone, picking it up and hefting it in my hands, feeling its textures with my fingers, the more articulately that rock speaks to my body, and begins to teach me.
DJ: What is it that motivates your writing and speaking?
DA: My work is motivated in great measure by my sense of loss, by the spreading destruction and desecration of so much earthly beauty. By the accelerating loss of other species — the extinction of so many other styles of sensitivity and sentience, by the destruction of wetlands and forests, the damming and draining of so many rivers to serve our own, purely human interests. I’m trying to understand how it’s possible that a culture of intelligent critters like ourselves can so recklessly and so casually destroy so much that is mysterious and alive, and in the course of it destroy so much of ourselves and our own capacity for wonder.
And it seems to me that it is not out of any real meanness that we are destroying so much of our world. It’s simply that we no longer notice these other beings, no longer really notice or feel that we are a part of the same world that the ravens and the rivers inhabit. We don’t sense that weíre inside the same story in which the squirrels and the salmon are characters. Somehow our ways of speaking, and our ways of living, perpetuate this odd notion that we stand outside of the world, apart from the world, looking at it, pondering it as if from some distant vantage point. And our science steadily tries to figure out the world, to come up with a precise blueprint of how it all works — as if the world were a vast machine we could somehow diagram and control if we can just get the right perspective.
Logically, however, this is all a bit silly. We’re obviously immersed in this world, utterly dependant upon it, our nervous systems coevolved in delicate interaction with all these other beings and shapes and textures. Rather than figuring out the workings of this machine from outside, in hopes of trying to engineer it to suit our purposes, it would make much more sense for our sciences to study the world from our experienced place within this world — using our experiments to discern how we might establish a more sustaining relationship with a particular species, or with a particular wetland or forest, rather than trying to figure out just how that species or that wetland works in itself, as though we were somehow not participant in its processes. Those are the sort of questions our sciences should be asking: how can both we and these frogs flourish in right relationship to one another; how can we humans live in right relation to this river valley so that both we and the river and the salmon can all flourish — rather than: what kind of a machine is a salmon in itself, or what are the mechanisms that make this forest tick? By asking these latter questions we take ourselves out of relation to the forest, out of relation to the salmon, in order comprehend their workings. I suppose it would be okay if we then brought ourselves back into a living relation with those beings. But we don’t! Instead we begin to focus on how to manipulate the forest, how to engineer the genome of the salmon for our own ostensible benefit. So much research, today, seems motivated less by a sense of wonder than by a great will-to-control. It is a mark of immaturity, I think, a sign that science is still in its adolescence. A more mature natural science – the science to come – will be motivated more by a wish for richer relationship, for deeper reciprocity with the world that we study.
But perhaps today we do see some stirrings of such a mature science — in the emergence and development of conservation biology, for instance, or in the empathy cultivated by some field biologists for the animals and plants that they study — or even in the growing recognition of indeterminacy, and “chaos,” as a principle that undermines all our attempts to understand the world from outside.
In our culture we speak about nature a great deal. Mature cultures speak to nature. They feel the rest of nature speaking to them. They feel the ground where they stand as it speaks through them. They feel themselves inside and a part of a vast and steadily unfolding story in which storm clouds and spiders are just as much players as they are. So that’s what part of my work is about: how to coax people back inside the world, how to startle their senses awake so they recognize that they are really immersed in this breathing world, not spectators but active participants in this curious world.
DJ: A few minutes ago, you were suggesting that perception, itself, is a participatory thing.
DA: When we speak of the world as a set of objects, or of mechanisms waiting to be figured out by us, we are implicitly saying that the world has nothing that is, in principle, hidden from us, that given enough time and research we could plumb the depths of the whole shebang, and know how it all works. It’s the God trick — the idea that we can understand the world from outside, from a God’s eye perspective. But when we pay attention to our actual experience of things and of the world, we realize that we never encounter the totality of anything all at once. There is always some aspect of what we encounter that is hidden from us: the other side of that tree, or its roots under the ground. It’s these hidden aspects, these mysteries or uncertainties, that invite us to look further, that draw us into relation, into participation with whatever we meet. Perception is a kind of improvised dance with the world, a dynamic interaction between my sensing body and the sensuous landscape. Simply to be gazing the blue sky, or watching those storm clouds approach, is already to be in relationship, to be participating in an active exchange between my body and those roiling clouds. But if I speak of the clouds or the weather as a purely mechanical, quantifiable set of processes, then I’m speaking of them as things that have no life of their own, no otherness, nothing really hidden from our awareness, and so I’m stifling the possibility of an ongoing relation with those storm clouds — which is to say, I stop seeing them. I no longer really notice the sky with all its shifting patterns. To the extent that we speak of the world as a set of objects, we stop seeing with our eyes, and hearing with our ears. We stifle the spontaneous reciprocity between our bodily senses and the sensuous cosmos. We climb up into our heads and begin to live in a world of abstractions.
If we want to actually start noticing where we are, if we wish to find ourselves in a more respectful relation with the rest of the earth around us, the simplest and most elegant way I know of is simply to stop insulting all the things around us by speaking of them as passive objects, and instead begin to allow things their own elemental spontaneity, their own active agency — their own life. As soon as you begin speaking in such a way, you start noticing things a hell of a lot more. You suddenly find yourself in a dynamic relationship with all the presences around you — with the air you breathe, the chair you’re sitting on, the house in which you live. You find yourself negotiating relationships with other beings all the time. And you realize that ethics is not something to be practiced only with other humans — that all of our actions have ethical consequences.
DJ: You said a chair. When you talk about things being alive, you’re not just talking about rocks, salmon, clouds, wind. . .
DA: I’m also talking about telephone poles, about houses. . . .
DJ: So you perceive this tape recorder as something to be entered into relationship with — or rather as something that we’re already in relationship with, if we would just notice and acknowledge it?
DA: Sure. A tape recorder can be seen as having its own quirky existence. To speak of anything as inanimate is kinda disrespectful. It’s insulting to the thing. Why do it? It cuts me off from listening to what that thing might want in the world, to what that object, that presence, might be asking of me. I don’t see any usefulness in making a conceptual division between that which is animate on one hand, and that which is inanimate on the other. And I know of no healthy culture that makes such a division between animate and inanimate matter.
Often when discussing these notions, people will say, “Okay, well, sure, humans are alive. Other animals, okay, I can get that — critters have their own lives, sure. And even plants, I get that they’re alive. But stones? Rocks? Matter? No way! The matter of which this table or that chair is made? You’re going to tell me that it’s alive? I can’t go there — forget it! — that’s just inanimate matter.”
People always want to draw the line somewhere. But you see, it’s drawing the line at all that’s the problem: the idea that at bottom matter is ultimately inert, or inanimate. The word “matter,” if you listen with your animal ears, is basically the word “mater,” or mother. It comes from the same indo-european root as the word “matrix,” which is Latin for “womb.”
We all carry within us an ancient, ancestral awareness of matter as the womb of all things, a sense that matter is alive through and through. But to speak of matter as inanimate is to think of mother as inanimate, to imply that the female, earthly side of things is inert, is just an object. If we want to really throw a monkeywrench into the workings of the patriarchy, then we should stop speaking as though matter is in any way, at any depth, inanimate or inert.
Every indigenous, oral culture that we know of — every culture that has managed to sustain itself over the course of many centuries without destroying the land that supports it — simply refuses to draw such a distinction between animate and inanimate matter.
If we speak of matter as essentially inanimate, or inert, we establish the need for a graded hierarchy of beings: stones have no agency or experience whatsoever; bacteria have a minimal degree of life; plants have a bit more life, with a rudimentary degree of sensitivity; “lower” animals are more sentient, yet still stuck in their instincts; “higher” animals are more aware; while humans alone are really awake and intelligent. In this manner we continually isolate human awareness above, and apart from, the sensuous world. It takes us out of relationship with the things around us. If, however, we assume that matter is alive and self-organizing from the get-go, then hierarchies vanish, and we are left with a wildly differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has its gifts relative to the others. And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this web, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.
In relation to certain human artifacts, particularly the mass-produced objects, it ís difficult to make contact with and feel the unique life of that presence. Yet one can find that life pulsing, most readily, in the materials of which that artifact is made. In the wood of the telephone pole, which was once standing in a forest, in the clay bricks of the apartment building, even in the smooth metal alloy of the truck door that you lean against — there, in those metals originally mined from the bones of the breathing earth, one can still feel the presence of patterns that are earthborn, and that still carry something of that wider life. But if I look at the truck purely as a truck, what I see is not something that is born, but something that is made. And there is surely an important distinction between the born and the made. But even with that distinction, the made things are still made from matter, from the flesh of a living cosmos.
DJ: How would you convince a skeptic that a river, or a mountain, is alive?
DA: Actually, Derrick, I’m not interested in convincing anyone that this is true in some objective, literal sense. ‘Cause it seems to me that the literal view of the world is often part of the problem. I’m not trying to get people to just replace one view of what is literally the case with another view of what is absolutely literally true. No.
I know, however, that we cannot change the way we live, the way we interact with the world, without changing the way we speak. We currently speak about the world in a very goofy way that holds us apart from it, and makes us feel like we’re outside, and hence able to control it, master it, manipulate it. There are other ways of speaking that hold us in a very different relation to the world. I don’t think that any of these ways of speaking are “true” in some utterly objective sense. I think they’re all just different strategies for speaking, different ways of wielding our words. And one strategy, it seems to me, leads us into a richer way of life, into a deeper reciprocity with the land around us, and with the myriad beings that comprise this land.
This is a very different notion of truth from the one that holds sway right now within conventional science, which is still trying to figure out the “truth” of “how nature works.” It seems to me that a more fruitful understanding of truth would ask how we can live in right relation with this rainforest, so that neither we nor the rainforest are suffering. If we’re going to study humpback whales, how can we as a human community and a humpback whale community flourish as parts of the same world? I’m not interested in pursuing the questions of: what is a humpback whale? How does it work? What are its mechanisms? To even ask those questions presumes that I am something other than an animal myself — that I am some kind of bodiless mind, a pure spectator of nature, rather than a participant in it.
So there’s this problem with much of what we’ve been talking about. Within our contemporary technologized civilization, it is all too easy to say “that rock is alive, that tree is aware and awake.” It’s too facile, because it’s so simple for people to just translate this into their objectified, literal view of the world, and to believe: “oh, so it is literally alive and aware and awake.” It feels to me too much like a perpetuation of our current way of speaking, which uses language to dominate the world, rather than to make contact with the world around us, to touch things, and to feel them touching us, to respond to things. At this strange cultural moment in the West, our way of wielding words is even more of a problem than the content of those words. Of course, when we speak of the world around us merely as a conglomeration of objects, that is a problem. But even more of a problem is that when we speak, we speak as though nothing else is listening. We speak as though none of these other beings can hear what’s being said, or can be influenced by our speaking.
DJ: As though nothing else is listening. . .
DA: Yes. Not in the sense that the birds or the trees could understand the dictionary definitions of our words. I mean, none of the creatures around here — the coyotes and the ravens and the magpies — know the denotative meanings of the words I say, but they can nonetheless hear the tonality in our speaking. They feel the rhythm in our words. They can hear the music and the melody in our conversation. And in that sense some of the meaning comes across. Yet we speak as though nothing else hears, as though we needn’t take care how we speak of these other beings. We like to assume that language is a purely human property, our exclusive possession, and that everything else is basically mute.
But what I’m suggesting is that those of us who work to heal or mend the rift between humankind and the more-than-human earth oughta pay more attention to how we speak, we oughta be way more mindful about how we wield our words. If you already know that you’re entirely a part of this wild world, if you’ve already entered, now and then, into a deeply felt reciprocity with another species, or have tasted a profound kinship and solidarity with the living land around you, still: it is not easy, today, to find a way of speaking that does not violate that experience, that does not tear you out of that felt rapport. It’s real hard to flow your phrases in a manner that invokes and encourages that reciprocity, or even allows it. Our civilization is masterful at twisting even our most beautiful words to make them into slogans for a commodity-based reality. Our habits of speech have co-evolved with a violent relation to the world for so for so many centuries, that one cannot step out of them very easily.
Given the power of this crazed culture to co-opt even the best of our terms, I think that even more important than the content of what we say is the style of our saying, the form of our speaking, the rhythm of our rap. Somehow the music and the texture of our speaking has to carry the meaning, has be appropriate to the meaning at every point. Our deepest intent makes itself felt in the cadence, in the rhythm and the melody of our discourse. If we are not, in fact, disembodied minds hovering outside the world, but are sensitive and sentient animals – bodily beings palpably immersed in the breathing body of the world – then language is first and foremost an expressive thing, the patterned sounds by which our body calls to other bodies, whether to the moon, or to the geese honking overhead, or to another person. It is really a kind of singing, isn’t it? Even the most high-falutin and abstract discourse is still a kind of song, a way of singing the world. It may be a really lousy song — a song that’s awfully insulting to many of the beings that hear it, one which grates on the ears of owls and makes the coyotes wince — but its still a song. And those of us who are working to transform things, we’re trying to change the tune, to shift a few of the patterns within the language.
In a sense, we all have to become poets. I don’t mean that we should be writing poems for poetry anthologies — no: rather, that our everyday speaking has to touch people bodily as well as mentally. We have to notice the music in our speaking, and take care that the music has a bit of beauty to it, so that we’re not just talking as disembodied minds to other abstract minds but as sensuous and sentient creatures addressing other sensuous creatures, so that our animal bodies are stirred, and are brought into the conversation, and so that the other animals are not shut out either. We feel their presence nearby, and so we take care not to violate our solidarity with the animals and the animate earth.
DJ: When I write, I don’t want anyone to say, What a great idea. I want them to burst out sobbing, or to become agitated: to have a bodily response.
DA: Uh-huh. When I write, I sometimes feel I’m in service to the life of the language itself. Maybe I write to rejuvenate that life, to open it back on to the wider life of the land, so it can draw sustenance from there. I’m working to return meaning to the more-than-human terrain, which is where all our words are rooted in the first place. I guess I really don’t think language, or meaningful speech, is a particularly human thing at all — it seems to me that language is a power of the earth, in which we’re lucky to participate.
So I guess for me, then, the question is not really: “Is the world alive?” but rather “How is it alive? How does that life hit us? How can we let it sing through us?”
DJ: If traditional indigenous cultures speak of the world as animate and alive, and if, as you’ve suggested, our own most immediate and spontaneous experience of the world is inherently animistic, disclosing a nature that is all alive, awake, and aware — then how did we ever lose this experience? How did civilized humankind lose this participatory sense of reciprocity with a living world? How did we tear ourselves out of the world?
DA: Lots of factors. Settlement. The development of large-scale agriculture, which entailed fencing out the wild. The emergence of agricultural surpluses, which often led to hierarchical forms of control and distribution of those surpluses. Urbanization. New technologies. But I also believe it had a great deal to do with one of the oldest and most powerful of our technologies: writing. And, in particular, the alphabet.
But in order to understand why, you have to recognize that the animistic experience is not just a sense that everything is alive, but also an awareness that that everything speaks, that everything, at least potentially, is expressive. The evidence suggests that this is baseline for the human organism, an experience common to all our indigenous ancestors. For most of us today, it seems an extraordinary and unusual experience, but in fact it could not be more ordinary and more normal. The normal human way of encountering the world and the things around us is to sense that they are also encountering us, and that they are experiencing each other, and to sense as well that the things are speaking to one another, and to us at times — not in words, but in the rustle of the leaves. . . .
DJ: . . . which are quite possibly tree words. It hit me about a year ago that there is no difference between us speaking and trees speaking. We both use the wind, or maybe the wind uses us. The wind going over the vocal cords and the wind going over the leaves.
DA: Sure. Language is just the wind blowing through us.
DJ: I took us down a side alley. You were saying. . . .
DA: That everything speaks. The howl of a wolf, the rhythms of cricketsong, but also the splashing speech of waves on the beach. And of course, as we were both suggesting, the wind in the willows. To indigenous people, there are many different kinds of speech. Many manifold ways of pouring meaning into the world. But if that is our normal human way of experiencing the world, how could we ever have lost it? How could we ever have broken out of that animate, expressive field into this basically mute world that we seem to experience today, where the sun and moon no longer draw salutations from us, but just arc blindly across the sky in determinate trajectories, and so we no longer feel that we have get up before dawn in order to pray the sun up out of the ground?
How did that happen?
I think one of the factors that has been too easily overlooked until now is the amazing influence of writing. All of the genuinely animistic cultures that we know of — whether we talk of the Haida people of the northwest coast or the Hopi of the southwest desert, whether we consult the Huaorani of the Amazon Basin, or the Pintupi or Pitjanjara of Australia — these are oral cultures, cultures that have developed and flourished in the absence of any highly formalized writing system. Animistic cultures, in other words, are oral cultures. And so we should wonder: what is it that writing does to our animistic experience of the world?
I would say that writing is itself a new form of animism, a kind of magic in its own right. Writing makes use of the same animistic proclivity that led our oral ancestors to experience the surrounding world as alive, and to feel themselves spoken to by a passing bird or a cloud. To learn to read is to enter into an intense sensorial participation with the letters on the page. I focus my eyes so intently on those written scratches that the letters themselves begin to speak to me. Suddenly, as we say, “I see what it says.” The written words “say” something, they speak to me.
Indeed, that’s what reading is. We come downstairs in the morning, we open the newspaper, and we focus our eyes on these little bits of ink on the page, and suddenly we hear voices! We feel ourselves addressed, spoken to! We see visions, of events unfolding in other times and places! This is magic. It is not so very different from a Hopi elder walking outside the pueblo; he finds his attention drawn by a large rock at the edge of the mesa, focuses his eyes on a patch of lichen spreading on the flank of that rock, and suddenly hears the rock speaking to him! Or a Kayapo woman who, while walking through the forest notices a spider weaving its intricate web, and as she focuses her eyes on that spider she abruptly hears herself addressed by the spider. As other animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the inert letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless — as outrageous as a talking spider.
The difference, of course, is that now it is only our own human marks that speak to us. We have entered into a deeply animistic participation with our own signs, a concentrated interaction that short-circuits the more spontaneous participation between our senses and the sensuous surroundings. Written signs have usurped the expressive power that once resided in the whole of the sensuous landscape: what we do now with the printed letters on the page, our oral ancestors did with aspen leaves, and stones, the tracks of deer and elk and wolf, with the cycling moon and the gathering stormclouds.
Our written signs have tremendous power over us. It’s certainly not by coincidence that the word “spell” has this double meaning: to arrange the letters of a word in the correct order, or to cast a magic spell — because to learn to read and write with this new technology was indeed to learn a new magic, to enter into a profound new world, to cast a kind of spell upon our own senses. Our own written signs now speak so powerfully that they have effectively eclipsed all of the other forms of participation in which we used to engage. And of course it is no longer just our written signs, but our tv screens and our computers and our cars that have us in a kind of dazzled trance. The alphabet is the mother of invention, the progenitor of all our Western technologies. It seems we first had to fall under the spell of the alphabet before we could enter into this fever of technological invention.
I don’t mean to be getting down on technology, only to say that many of these very complex technologies could only have emerged from the alphabetic mindset. But nor do I mean to be demeaning the alphabet here — I’m a writer, after all — I’m not saying that the alphabet is something bad, not at all. What I’m trying to say is that the alphabet is magic — that it is a very concentrated form of magic, and that like all magics it must be used with real care. When we just take it for granted, when we don’t notice its potency, then we tend to fall under its spell.
So while our indigenous ancestors dialogue richly with the surrounding field of nature, consulting with the other animals and the earthly elements as they go about their lives, the emergence of alphabetic writing made it possible for us to begin to dialogue solely with our own signs in isolation from the rest of nature. By short-circuiting the ancestral reciprocity between our sensing bodies and the sensuous flesh of the world, the new participation with our own written signs enabled human language to close in on itself, enabled language to begin to seem our own private possession, and not something born from our encounter with other expressive beings — from the speech of thunder and the rushing rivers. We no longer sense that language was taught to us by the sounds and gestures of the other animals, or by the roar of the wind as it pours through the trees. Language now seems a purely human power, something that unfolds only between humans, or between between us and our own written signs. The rest of the landscape loses its voice; it begins to fall mute. It no longer seems filled with its own manifold meanings, its own expressive power.
I now look out at nature from within my privileged interior sphere of mental subjectivity, but this subjectivity is not shared by the coyotes or the swallows or the salmon. They now seem to inhabit another world — a purely exterior, objective world. They just do their own thing automatically. Creativity, imagination — for so many of us today these seem purely human traits. The mind, we think, is a purely human thing, and it resides inside our individual skulls. You have your mind, and I have my mind; we have this sense that mind is something that is ours — its no longer a mystery that permeates the landscape. We own it.
DJ: Why can’t we engage our own writing and still engage with an animate natural world as well?
DA: We can! The written word didn’t necessitate that we break our sensorial participation with other beings: it just makes it possible for us to do so. It doesn’t necessitate that the land become superfluous to us, or that we no longer pay much attention to the more-than-human world. But we no longer need to interact with the land in order to recall all the stories that are held in those valleys, we no longer need to encounter coyotes and dialogue with ravens in order to remember all the knowledge originally carried in the old Coyote tales and Raven tales, because now all that knowledge has been written down, preserved on the page. Once the language is carried in books, it no longer needs to be carried by the land, and we no longer need to consult the intelligent earth in order to think clearly ourselves. For the first time we no longer need to speak to the mountains and the wind, or to honor the land’s life with prayers and propititiations, because all our ancestrally gathered insights are preserved on the page.
So, the written word was not a sufficient cause of our forgetting, as we philosophers say, but it was a necessary cause, a necessary ingredient in our forgetfulness.
DJ: This reminds me of something John A. Livingston wrote in The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation. He says that once we reduce our input to everything being mediated by humans, we’re essentially in an echo chamber, and we begin to hallucinate. We’re sensorily deprived, because we’re not getting the variety of sensory stimulation we need. His point is that much of our ideology, much of our discourse, is insane, delusional, hallucinations based on the fact that weíve put ourselves in solitary confinement.
DA: I think I share a similar intuition, which I might put a little differently. Our senses have coevolved with the whole of the sensuous world, with all these other sentient shapes and forms, all these other styles of life. Our nervous system emerged in reciprocity with all that rich otherness, in relationship and reciprocity with hummingbirds and rivers and frogs, with mountains and rivers, with an animate, living land that spoke to us in a multiplicity of voices. I mean, human intelligence evolved during the countless millenia when we lived as gatherers and hunters, and hence our intelligence evolved in a thoroughly animistic context, wherein every phenomenon that we encountered could draw us into relationship. Yet suddenly we find ourselves cut off from that full range of relationships, born into a world in which none of those other beings are acknowledged as really sentient or aware. We abruptly find ourselves in a world that has been defined as a set of inert or determinate objects and mechanical processes, rather than as a community of animate powers with whom one could enter into relationship. A dynamic or living relationship is simply not possible with an object.
Today the only things you can enter into relationship with are other humans. Yet the human nervous system still needs the nourishment that it once got from being in reciprocity with all these other shapes of sensitivity and sentience. And so we turn toward each other, toward our human friends and our lovers, in hopes of meeting that need. We turn toward our human partners demanding a depth and range of otherness that they cannot possibly provide. Another human cannot possibly provide all of the outrageously diverse and vital nourishment that we once got from being in relationship with dragonflies and swallowtails and stones and lichen and turtles. It’s just not possible. We used to carry on personal relationships with the sun and the moon and the stars! To try and get all that, now, from another person — from another nervous system shaped so much like our own — continually blows apart our relationships, it explodes so many of our marriages, because they can’t withstand that pressure.
DJ: That reminds me of something I wrote in my book ‘A Language Older Than Words:’ One of the great losses we endure in this prison of our own making is the collapse of intimacy with others, the rending of community, like tearing and retearing a piece of paper until there only remains the tiniest scrap. To place our needs for intimacy and ecstasy — needs like food, water, acceptance — onto only one species, onto only one person, onto only the area of joined genitalia for only the time of intercourse, is to ask quite a lot of our sex.
DA: Indeed. Our intimate relationships become increasingly brittle. We finally turn toward our lover and say “I really care about you, darlin’, but I’m somehow not quite feeling met. I’m just not being met by you in all the ways I feel that I should be.” Of course not! Another person cannot possibly meet us in all those ways that we were once engaged by the breathing world! Even a large bunch of human relationships cannot make up for the loss of all that more-than-human otherness, and it is this that makes our human communities intensely brittle and violence-prone. I don’t think we have a hoot of a chance of healing our societal ills, or the manifold injustices we inflict on various parts of the human community, without renewing the wild Eros between ourselves and the sensuous surroundings — without “falling in love outward” (in Robinson Jeffers’ wise words) with this earthly cosmos that enfolds us.
As long as we continue to construe the land as little more than a passive backdrop against which our human projects unfold, we’ll continue to close ourselves off from the very sustenance that the human community most needs in order to thrive and flourish. As long as we hold ourselves out of relationship with the surrounding earth, we’ll be unable to tap the necessary guidance that we need from the old oaks or the elder ponderosa pines that surround our town, from the winds and weather patterns, from the mountains and rivers. Many of these beings live at scales much vaster than our own, and so can offer us some real perspective, and a sense of humility. We simply need their wild guidance. Every human community is nested within a more-than-human community of beings. Until we notice this, many of our human relationships will remain exceedingly fragile, and brittle, and we’ll keep slamming each other in frustration, busting each other up with bullets and with bombs.
If you really crave a healthy and lasting relationship with your lover, then instill it with a wider affection for the local earth — for the local critters, and plants, and elements. That affection will hold and nourish your relationship, will feed it and enable you and your partner able to be fluid with one another.
DJ: You’ve talked eloquently already about not needing to enter into new relationships, but simply noticing and acknowledging the relationships that already exist. . . .
DA: Well we’re obviously already embedded in a complex web of relationships, both with our own kind and with many entities very different from us. How then is it that we don’t notice them, don’t honor our relationships with the plants and animals and all the other elemental presences (soils, rainclouds, rivers…) who support and nourish us? It can only be because somehow we’re oblivious to that direct, unmediated layer of carnal exchange which is always already going on — ’cause we’re oblivious to the bodily level of our existence. It is my body that steadily drinks of the oxygen breathed out by all the green and growing plants, and my body that breathes out the carbon dioxide these plants steadily draw upon in order to photosynthesize and flourish. It is this body, this muscled flesh that rests in intimate relationship with the tree-trunk I’m now sitting on. From walking barefoot in the garden or wandering through all these arroyos, my toes are well acquainted with the life and texture of the soil. But we don’t live our body’s life anymore. We live a life of abstractions, of mental cogitations massively influenced by all of the human-made artifacts and signals that surround us. We’re incessantly reflecting off of our own reflections. We have been taught not to trust our senses, and our direct sensory experience. The senses, which are our most instinctive animal access to the world — our eyes, our ears, our tongue, our nostrils — these magic organs open us directly onto the more-than-human field! Yet we’ve been taught not to trust any of these powers; we’re told that the senses lie, we’re taught in school that the senses are deceptive.
What do our senses tell us? I step out at dawn, walk out across the arroyo, and I see with my own eyes the sun rising out of the nearby Sangré de Cristo Mountains, and in the evening I see it sinking down into the distant Jemez Mountains. And then I watch the moon being hatched from the Sangrés, arcing across the sky, and then see it slip down into the ground far to the west. But at school I’m told, “No, no, no, no, no! The sun is not really moving at all! It’s the earth that is moving. Do’ít trust your senses. The sun is not rising up and setting down. The truth of the matter is that it is the earth that is turning.”
Fair enough. But do we really need to disparage our sensory experience in this manner? Surely there is also a truth to our more spontaneous experience of the rising and setting of the sun. I mean, everyone still says that “the sun rises” and “the sun sets,” whether they are scientists or farmers, and it’s kinda bizarre to simply invalidate this collective experience, as though our bodies have no wisdom of their own. So many indigenous cultures speak of how the sun, after sinking down into the western earth every evening, journeys all night through the ground underfoot on its way toward the east, and how in the course of this journey the sun feeds the deep earth with its fiery life, seeding the depths with the multiple plants that will later sprout forth from the earth’s surface. It’s a tale that honors our direct experience. There is a deep truth to the body’s spontaneous experience of things, a truth that underlies, and secretly supports, all the more abstract and rational insights that we erect upon it. It’s a truth that we ought not to toss aside when we teach the modern, “more sophisticated” cosmology. Rather, we should show how the new view grows out of that older, more primordial experience that has in fact never been lost — that these are like different layers of our encounter with the world, different layers of interpretation. Just as a text has different levels of interpretation, so does the world. And each layer or lever entails a different kind of awareness.
Nonetheless, ever since Copernicus and Galileo and their grand intuition, we have all learned to distrust our senses. We generally pay far more attention to what we are told by the experts than to what we can learn with our unaided senses. We have split our reasoning minds off from our sensing bodies. In order to buy into the Copernican worldview, it would seem we had to accept this split, had to hold our thinking selves apart from the sensuous and sensing life of the body. But what great damage that’s done — we’ve forgotten our instinctive, corporeal solidarity with the breathing earth.
After all, we now know that the sun, too, is in motion, and that even the “fixed” stars are rapidly rushing apart from one another – indeed all of the celestial bodies are in motion relative to one another. Hence it seems an arbitrary choice where one chooses to stabilize one’s perspective. But since we find ourselves here, on this earth, it perhaps makes just as much sense to consider the breathing earth as the stable center of our world (to recognize the ground underfoot as the very ground of our reality) than to consider the Sun as the unmoving center.
DJ: This reminds me of the Groucho Marx line when he was caught in an obvious lie: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
DA: I’m interested in helping folks learn how to think with their senses once again, how to respect their direct experience of the world. Of course the senses reveal a world that is ambiguous and open ended, and by looking more closely, or by listening more carefully, we will always discover new things. But if you don’t trust the intelligence of your senses, then what is it that you are going to trust? You will have to place all your trust in the so-called experts to tell you what is really going on behind the scenes. It is rather like the situation of a church, or a temple, that tells you, “Well, the real Truth is not here but is in that heavenly dimension hidden beyond the stars, and only our high priests have access to that unseen realm.” Such is the situation that we’re in, today, when we neglect our direct sensory experience of things. I mean, no wonder it’s so difficult to mobilize people on behalf of the vanishing species, or the dwindling rivers, or the ailing life of the land around them! No wonder the surrounding earth is only a peripheral concern for most folks! Because the real mystery, we have heard, is somewhere else; the real Source is somewhere outside of this realm that our senses experience. Thus our physicists say that the deep source and truth of things is hidden in the subatomic world. The molecular biologists say that it is in the ultra-microscopic dimension of DNA base-pairs and gene sequences that the real source of life and behaviour resides. But of course, the neurobiologists say the deep cause of our behaviour is to be found in the neuronal structure hidden within the brain.
Each of these dimensions seems to hold the deep truth or cause of the world that we experience, and yet we have no direct access to these dimensions; one needs very fancy instrumentation, very high-powered microscopes and cyclotrons and such to get at them. And so we take our truth from the experts with the instruments (those with the massive funding needed to build or acquire such instruments), and we forfeit our own democratic power, our own immediate, sensorial access to the real. Perhaps we’ve heard that the deepest source and truth of things is to be found in the breaking of the initial symmetries in the Big Bang — another dimension which most of us have no way of glimpsing directly: you need massive orbiting telescopes to gain even a provisional entry to that realm so far beyond the scale of our direct experience. The truth is always hidden somewhere else for a culture that has forsaken the evidence of its own senses.
I mean, Heck: all these investigations into other dimensions are very elegant and sometimes even somewhat useful, but in our lust for Truth with a capital T we forfeit our responsibility to the scale at which we live, to this ambiguous and wild-flowering world that breathes all around us. We hide ourselves from the most outrageous and mysterious truth of all, which is our ongoing immersion in this outrageous web of relationships with all these other wild beings, all of whom request our awareness and our humble respect.
For all our dreams of a final certainty, after three full centuries of science the only thing we can ultimately be certain of is the world disclosed to us by our direct sensory experience. I suspect that the most we can really attain, with humility and humor, is a richer relationship, a deeper reciprocity with the persons, beings, and elements that surround us and compose – with us – our world.
So we’ve had it backward. The sensuous world around us is the secret source in which all those other dimensions – subatomic and galactic and neuronal – are secretly rooted. Similarly, we might suspect, all our religious heavens and hells are secretly born from the world of our direct experience, with it own winged beings and its hooved and horned powers. The sensuous world is always local. It is not, for me, what’s going on in another galaxy, nor even what’s happening in Senegal or Siberia right now. It is this very terrain that I happen to inhabit. This Rio Grande watershed, with these particular critters who like to hang out around these plants who happen to root themselves in these soils. These junipers and ponderosas and pinon pines. And that raven squawking from the telephone wire, and the lizards and horny toads that haunt this terrain, and the coyotes howling out there in the arroyos, and the vivid blue of these desert skies, and the reddish tones in these rocks. This is my local universe. This is the primary cosmos for me. The sensuous world is always local, and it is never a merely human world. There is no aspect of the sensuous world that is exclusively human — since even on the top floor of a city skyscraper, I’d still be inhaling air that’s been breathed out by the green plants around the city; and I’d still be under the influence of gravity, the mysterious draw of my body toward the heart of the earth.
DJ: You have spoken a bit about the alphabet, and how writing has made it possible for us to neglect, to view as secondary and derivative, the sensuous, more-than-human world. Today, the computer is taking us even further away from our senses. It seems to me that literacy may have to fade before we find our way back to the sensuous earth, and to the primacy of place.
DA: Actually, I don’t think so. I don’t think we should imagine getting rid of writing or literacy — which, as I’ve suggested, is a pretty wondrous magic. We’re certainly not going to get rid of the computer and its digital networks, which are burgeoning all around us.
DJ: I donít think we’ll get rid of it, but it will be gotten rid of by the collapse of civilization.
DA: I wouldn’t count on it. It does seem to me, however, that the only cultures manifesting the primacy of place — the only cultures deeply tuned to this earthly world, informed by the particular places they inhabit (living appropriately in their place, and appropriated by their place) – are traditionally indigenous, oral cultures. There is something about oral culture that is inherently sensuous and local.
Meanwhile, alphabetic literacy that seems to be inherently cosmopolitan. The written word has brought with it great gifts, the cosmopolitan liveliness of Europe in the last millenium, and the pleasure of cities, the bubbling ferment of New York City or San Francisco, and the niftiness of all these exciting cultures converging from all these different places, and feeding each other and exchanging possibilities with each other. For all its problems, literate culture is really delicious.
The computer, of course, takes us even further away from our bodies and our direct sensorial experience. The computer seems to be inherently globalizing technology. When I log onto the computer, I seem to forget my body entirely, cognitively engaged in this abstract dimension wherein I might be dialoguing with a person in China as easily as with some person on a laptop in the next room.
But I’m not interested in decrying the computer. I’m certainly not interested in demeaning or demonizing literacy. But both the globalizing culture of the computer, and the cosmopolitan culture the book, will begin to make sense only when they are rooted in a thriving oral culture of unmediated face-to-face interactions within one’s local community. It is only then that the computers and even books will really begin to nourish us in a way that is more benevolent than it is destructive. Oral cultures are necessarily storytelling cultures, which are inevitably place-based cultures — because the stories that thrive and live in this valley will be very different from the ones being told on the other side of this mountain range. Rejuvenating the primacy of the sensuous world — renewing our solidarity with the more-than-human locale — is only going to happen by rejuvenating oral culture. Face to face storytelling, and all the things that go with it. Rituals, community festivals, collective and good-hearted initiations of the young men by the older men, and of the young women by the elder women, community celebrations honoring the seasonal changes.
DJ: I agree, except that I don’t think we’re wise enough, and maybe we’re not capable of being wise enough, to have writing, and to still listen to the natural world. I don’t believe we are wise enough to be able to have computers without them destroying local cultures.
DA: Well, I don’t know about that. It seems that if we want to be able to communicate with our younger brothers and sisters, we need to be able to say yes to the things that they find exciting and inspiring, to some of the technologies that turn them on. We need to be able to say, “Yes, that is cool. It’s a part of the story.”
DJ: I don’t disagree. In fact, there is a statistics-based computer baseball game I play with people all over the world. It’s fun. That doesn’t alter the fact that I don’t think weíre wise enough, and that I don’t think computers are going to be around in five hundred years.
DA: Do you think WE’RE going to be around in five hundred years?
The point really is that we don’t have to be wise enough. It’s more a matter of realizing that the wisdom, or intelligence, was never ours to begin with. Mind is not a human property: it’s a quality of the Earth. As we begin to loosen up, to allow the life of the things around us, and to speak accordingly, we start to notice that this awareness we thought was ours does not really belong to us. It is the earth that’s really intelligent, not humans apart. Along with the other animals, the plants, and the drifting clouds, we are bodily immersed in the mind of this living world.
So perhaps we don’t need to become exceedingly intelligent or wise. We simply need to open up, once again, to the living land, learning its intricacies and patterns. Of course each land has its own particular style of awareness. The intelligence of this land, here in this valley, is quite different from the salty intelligence of the Puget Sound, which is quite different from the wild mind of the eastern forests. Each place has its own style of awareness, its own wisdom. If we humans are still around at the end of the twenty-first century, it will likely be because we’re at last finding our way toward a new humility, a new reciprocity with the animate earth.
DJ: Many of my environmentalist friends say that as things become increasingly chaotic, they want to make sure that some doors stay open. If Grizzly bears are still alive in fifty years, that door is still open. What I hear you saying is that one of the doors you would like to make sure stays open is the door to the body. . .
DA: So many people have a sense of this world as unreal, as secondary, as something ephemeral. We’re all suffering from a confusion of worlds, since we have given far more weight to abstractions — whether the abstract truths propounded by many of our scientific colleagues or the disembodied spiritual certainties propounded by so many new age teachings — than we do to the much more ambiguous, difficult, and dangerous world that we experience face-to-face, here and now, in the flesh.
The animate earth around us is far lovelier than any heaven we can dream up. But if we wish to awaken to its richness, we’ll need to give up our detached, spectator perspective, and the illusion of control that it gives us. That is a terrifying move for most over-civilized folks today — since to renounce control means noticing that we really are vulnerable: to loss, to disease, to death. Yet also steadily vulnerable to wonder, and unexpected joy.
For all its mind-shattering beauty, this earth is hardly safe; it is filled with uncertainties, and shadows — with beings that can eat us, and ultimately will. I suppose that’s why contemporary civilization seems so terrified to drop the pretense of the view from outside, the God trick, the odd belief that we can master and manage the earth.
But we can’t master it — never have, never will. What we can do is to participate more deeply, respectfully, and creatively in the manifold life of this breathing mystery we’re a part of.