By providing a new way of viewing our planet – one which connects with some of our oldest and most primordial intuitions regarding the animate Earth – Gaia theory ultimately alters our understanding of ourselves, transforming our sense of what it means to be human. For much of the modern era, earthly nature was spoken of as a complex yet mechanical clutch of processes, as a deeply entangled set of objects and objective happenings lacking any inherent life, or agency, of its own. Such a conceptual regime helped sustain the cool detachment that was generally deemed necessary to the furtherance of the natural sciences. Yet the thorough objectification of earthly nature also served to underwrite the sense of human uniqueness that has permeated the modern era. As long as the Earth had no life, no agency, no subjectivity of its own, then we humans could continue to ponder, analyze, and manipulate the natural world as though we were not a part of it; our own sentience and subjectivity seemed to render us outside observers of this curious pageant, overseers of nature rather than full participants in the biotic community. The thoroughgoing objectification of the Earth thus enabled the old, theological presumption – that the Earth was ours to subdue and exploit for our own, exclusively human, purposes – to survive and to flourish even in the modern, scientific era.
Gaia theory, however, gradually undoes this age-old presumption. By demonstrating that organic life is reciprocally entangled with even the most inorganic parameters of earthly existence, Gaia theory complicates any facile distinction between living and non-living aspects of our world. By showing that Earth’s organisms collectively influence their environment so thoroughly that the planet’s oceans, atmosphere, soils, and surface geology together exhibit behavior more proper to a living physiology than an abiotic system, Gaia theory suggests that the biosphere has at least a rudimentary kind of agency. It suggests that like any living entity, the biosphere is not just an object but also, in some curious sense, a subject.i
To the extent that we take seriously the ongoing disclosures of Gaian science, we cannot help but feel a transformation in our own relation to the planet. If agency is an attribute of the biosphere as a whole, then the felt sense of our own agency need not isolate us from the material world that surrounds us. Just as our life is now recognized as part of a vast, planetary metabolism, so human sentience can now be felt as an extension, an elaboration, even an internal expression of the organic sentience of the biosphere itself.ii Rather than the sole carriers of awareness within an essentially inanimate or mechanically determinate world, we now find ourselves fully embodied and embedded within a nature that has its own wild intelligence, and our own subjectivity seems no longer entirely ours…
Of course awareness – or consciousness – is an exceedingly amorphous and ephemeral phenomenon, one that is notoriously difficult to pin down. Numerous scientific papers and books have been published in recent years trying to account for the emergence of consciousness, or to explain how awareness is constituted within the brain. Yet many of these explanations are dramatically at odds with one another, for there exists no clear agreement as to just what this enigma that we call “consciousness” actually is. Part of the difficulty stems from the intransigence of old notions – in particular our age-old assumption that consciousness, or mind, is a uniquely human property, an utterly intangible substance that resides somewhere “inside” each of us.
It may be far more parsimonious, today, to suggest that mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the breathing Earth – a property in which we, along with the other animals and plants, all participate. The apparent “interiority” that we ascribe to the mind would then have less to do with the notion that there is a separate consciousness located inside me, and another, entirely separate and distinct consciousness that resides inside you, and more to do with a sense that you and I are both situated within it – a recognition that we are corporeally immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Earth’s.
Our experience of awareness actually has much in common with our experience of the planetary atmosphere that circulates around and between earthly organisms, and that circulates within them as well.[i]ii Like the quality of awareness, we are steadily informed by the fluid air, and yet it is very difficult to catch sight of: we glimpse it only indirectly, as it bends the branches of an oak or rips a note from our hand and sends it tumbling along the street. We partake of the air ceaselessly, yet seem unable to fully bring it to our attention. Itself invisible, the atmosphere is that element through which we see everything else – much as consciousness, which we cannot see or grasp, is that through which we encounter all other phenomena. We are unable to step apart from consciousness, in order to examine it objectively, for wherever we step it is already there.
Consciousness, or awareness, is in this sense very much like a medium in which we are situated, and from which we are simply unable to extricate ourselves without ceasing to exist. Everything we know or sense of ourselves is conditioned by this atmosphere. We are intimately acquainted with its character, ceaselessly transformed by its influence upon us. And yet we’re unable to characterize this medium from outside. We are composed of this curious element, permeated by it, and hence can take no real distance from it.
To acknowledge this affinity between air and awareness, however, is to allow this curious possibility: that the awareness that stirs within each of us is continuous with the wider awareness that moves around us, bending the grasses and lofting the clouds. Every organism partakes of this awareness from its own angle and place within it, each of us imbibing it through our nostrils or through the stomata in our leaves, altering its chemistry and quality within us before we breathe it back into the surrounding world. Consciousness, in this Gaian sense, may be ineffable but it is hardly immaterial, for it is a quality in which we participate with the whole of our breathing bodies. Hence, just as your body is different from mine in many ways, so your sensations and insights are richly different from mine. The contrasting experience of a praying mantis or a pileated woodpecker – or of a field of wild lupines, for that matter – is as different from our experience as their bodies are different from ours. Each being’s awareness is unique, to be sure, yet this is not because an autonomous mind is held inside its particular body or brain, but because each engages the common awareness from its own extraordinary angle, through its particular senses, according to the capacities of its flesh.
Such a Gaian way of articulating the mind – one that speaks of awareness as an attribute of the living biosphere, rather than a discrete property unique to privileged entities within that biosphere – offers an audacious and unexpected resolution to the mind-body problem that has long plagued Western philosophy. Yet it offers much more besides. By shifting the locus of intelligence from the human interior to the encompassing biosphere, such a way of speaking offers a corrective to contemporary assumptions that dramatically overlook the thorough dependence of human culture upon the continued creativity and flourishing of the more-than-human natural world.
In this chapter I would like to explore just a few of the experiential shifts and insights that might follow from such a transformed way of speaking. I hope to suggest, by these explorations, something of the way that Gaia might come to be experienced not merely as an objective set of facts, but as a felt reality – as a vast and enigmatic presence whose life both pervades and exceeds our own.iv
Place and Awareness
When we allow that mind is a luminous quality of the Earth, we swiftly notice this consequence: each region – each topography, each uniquely patterned ecosystem – has its own particular awareness, its unique style of intelligence. After all, the air, the translucent medium of exchange between the breathing bodies of any locale, is subtly different in each terrain. The atmosphere of the coastal northwest of North America, infused with salt-spray and the tang of spruce, cedar, and fir needles, tastes and feels quite different from the air shimmering in the heat rising from the soil of the southwest desert – hence the black-gleamed ravens who carve loops through the desert sky speak a very different dialect of squawks and guttural cries than the cedar-perched ravens of the Pacific northwest, whose vocal arguments are filled with the liquid tones of falling water. Likewise the atmosphere that rolls over the great plains, gathering now and then into vorticed tornados, contrasts vividly with the mists that advance and recede along the California coast, and even with the blustering winds that pour through the Rocky Mountain passes. The specific geology of a place yields a soil rich in particular minerals, and the rains and rivers that feed those soils invite a unique blend of grasses, shrubs, and trees to take root there. These, in turn, beckon particular animals to browse their leaves, or to eat their fruits and distribute their seeds, to pollinate their blossoms or simply to find shelter among their roots, and thus a complexly entangled community begins to emerge, bustling and humming within itself. Every such community percolates a different chemistry into the air that animates it, joining whiffs and subtle pheromones to the drumming of woodpeckers and the crisscrossing hues of stone and leaf and feather that echo back and forth through that terrain, while the way that these diverse elements blend with one another is affected by the noon heat that beats down in some regions, or the frigid cold that hardens the ground in others.
Each place has its rhythms of change and metamorphosis, its specific style of expanding and contracting in response to the turning seasons, and this, too, shapes – and is shaped by – the sentience of that land. Whether we speak of a whole range of mountains, or of a small valley within that range, in every case there is a unique intelligence circulating among the various constituents of the ecosystem – a style evident in the way events unfold in that place, how the slow spread of the mountain’s shadow alters the insect swarms above a cool stream, or the way a forested slope rejuvenates itself after a fire. For the precise amalgamation of elements that structures each valley exists nowhere else. Each place, that is to say, is a unique state of mind, and the many powers that constitute and dwell within that locale – the spiders and the tree-frogs no less than the humans – all participate in, and partake of, the particular mind of the place.
Of course, I can hardly be instilled by this intelligence if I only touch down, briefly, on my way to elsewhere. Only by living for many moons in one place, my peripheral senses tracking seasonal changes in the local plants while the scent of the soil steadily seeps in through my pores – only over time can the intelligence of a place lay claim upon my person. Slowly, as the seasonal round repeats itself again and again, the lilt and melody of the local songbirds becomes an expectation within my ears, and so the mind I’ve carried with me settles into the wider mind that enfolds me. Changes in the terrain begin to release and mirror my own, internal changes. The slow metamorphosis of colors within the landscape; the way mice migrate into the walls of my home as the air grows colder; oak buds bursting and unfurling their leaves to join a million other leaves on that tree in agile, wind-tossed exuberance before they tumble, spent, to the ground; the way a wolf-spider weaves her spiraling web in front of the rear porch-light every spring – each such patterned event, quietly observed, releases analogous metamorphoses within myself. Without such tunement and triggering by the earthly surroundings, my emotional body is stymied, befuddled – forced to spiral through its necessary transformations without any guidance from the larger Body (and hence entirely out of phase with my neighbors, human and non-human). Sensory perception, here, is the silken web that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.
Human communities, too, are inflected by the particular sentience of the living lands that they inhabit. There is a unique temperament to the bustling commerce and culture of any old-enough city, a mental climate that we instantly recognize upon returning after several years, and that we mistakenly ascribe solely to the human inhabitants of the metropolis. It is a result, we surmise, of the particular trades that the city is known for, or the dynamic mix of ethnicities that interact there, or the heavy-handed smugness of the local police force. Yet all such social dynamics draw nourishment from the elemental energies of the realm – from the heavy overcast that cloaks the sky for weeks at a time, or the profusion of flocking birds that nest on the ledges of apartment buildings, or the splashing speech of the river that rolls through downtown, tossing glints of sunlight into the eyes of all who walk near, or from the way the greasy exhaust from fifty thousand commuting cars interacts with the humidity of the summer air. The dismal social ills endemic to certain cities have often been stoked by the foolishness of urban designers who ignored the specific wildness of the place, the genius loci, the unique intelligence of the land now squelched and stifled by local industries. A calloused coldness, or meanness, results when our animal senses are cut off for too long from the animate Earth, when our ears – inundated by the whooping blare of car-alarms and the muted thunder of subways – no longer encounter the resonant silence, as our eyes forget the irregular wildness of things green and growing behind the rectilinear daze.
Each land has its own psyche, its own style of sentience, and hence to travel from Manhattan (in the Hudson River estuary) to the upper Rio Grande valley is to journey from one state of mind to another, very different, state of mind. Even to travel by train from New Haven to Boston, or simply to walk from one New England town to another, is to transform one’s state of awareness. Traveling on foot makes these variations most evident, as the topography gradually alters, easing the stress on one’s muscles as mountains give way to foothills and foothills become plains, and as the accents of the local shopkeepers transform in tandem with the shifting topography. The very texture of the air changes, as the moisture-laden atmosphere of the highlands, instilled with the exhalation of roots and decaying leaves and the breath of cool granitic caves, opens onto the drier wind whirling across the flatlands, blending the scents of upturned soil with hints of exhaust from the highway, and – especially strong in some places – the acrid smell of processed fertilizer.
Such alterations in the unseen spirit of the land are mostly hidden to those who make the journey by car, since then all the senses other than sight are held apart from the sensuous Earth, isolated within a capsule hurtling along the highway too fast for even the eyes to register most changes in the texture and tone of the visible. Still, subtle clues drift into the cabin, now and then – the insistent stench of those fertilized fields, or the reek from an unfortunate skunk, finding its way even into nostrils well-insulated by air-conditioning. And the ears can engage some aspect of the shifting psyche of the land if we turn on the radio – the percussive hip-hop and blues of the city opening onto the lilting voices and plucked strings of country music (laced with funk in some regions and more plaintive in others). Along certain stretches of highway the wave-lengths give way to a saturated array of Christian stations, with smooth or gravel-voiced preachers citing chapter and verse. This, too, is a register of the mind of that locale. Yet how much more thoroughly the land would feed our thoughts if we were not driving but rather strolling on foot across this land – or even pedaling a decent bicycle, the gusting wind swelling our lungs as our muscles work themselves against the slope.
If the automobile isolates our speeding senses, by and large, from the land around us, the airplanes in which we fly abstract us almost entirely from the breathing Earth. After checking in our bags at the airport, we tighten our buckles and loudly levitate up out of the ecosystem, shaking our senses free from the web of relationships that comprise the specific intelligence of that place. Only to plunk down some time later in an entirely different ecology – in an entirely different state of mind – without experiencing any of the transitional terrain between them, without our nervous system being tuned and tutored for this change by the gradual changes in the sensorial topography as we move across it. The sudden strangeness is jarring to our animal bodies, and especially shocking when we’re compelled to adapt to the new circumstance in a matter of minutes.
Yet for those who have managed to keep their animal senses awake, the journey from one ecosystem into another is precisely a journey from one state of mind into another, strangely altered, state. From one mode of awareness, flavored by saltspray and the glint of sunlight on waves, to a different mode of awareness wherein the sorrowful cries of the coastal gulls become only a vague, half-remembered dream.
The Land’s Elemental Moods
Alterations in the very texture of the mind, however, are not only brought about by traveling from one geography to another. Those who dwell steadily in a single terrain, whether by choice or necessity, also experience profound shifts in the collective awareness. The psychological qualities of a particular place steadily metamorphose as the powers that comprise that place shift among themselves – as the first rays of morning, for instance, spill their warmth across the fields – or as that place exchanges specific constituents with other places. The migratory flight of certain birds, for example, may bring large flocks to settle for days or months in a particular region, and their arrival will alter the psyche of that land even as those birds enter and partake of that very psyche. Seasonal shifts in the collective sentience are especially obvious, of course, while other, more continuous transformations go mostly unnoticed by us. Yet we can be sure that there are manifold changes unfolding in the local mindscape, changes that imperceptibly – but inevitably – affect our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions.
I have suggested that the subtle intelligence of a particular place is akin to the medium of air that circulates invisibly within and between the inhabitants of that locale, nourishing their breathing bodies even as it bends the grasses and lofts the clouds. The most dramatic modulations within the collective psyche of a place are often those that alter the sensuous quality of this medium, changes that we commonly ascribe to the “weather” – those transformations in the collective atmosphere that often confound our conscious plans, sometimes curdling the unseen medium into a visible fog that slows our steps and clogs our thoughts, or suddenly congealing the depth around us into a thicket of slanting raindrops.
Changes in the weather transform the very feel of the world’s presence, altering the medium of awareness in a manner that affects every breathing being in our vicinity. We sometimes refer to such phenomena, collectively, as “the elements,” a phrase that suggests how basic, how primordial, these powers are to the human organism. The ephemeral nature of weather phenomena – the way such modulations in the atmosphere confuse the boundaries between the invisible and the visible, between inner and outer, between “subjective” and “objective” – ensures that the weather holds a curious position in the civilized world of modernity. We refer to it constantly; inquiring after or commenting upon the weather establishes the most basic ground upon which any social communication can proceed. Although it rarely occupies our full attention, the weather is always evident on the periphery of that attention, an ever-present reminder that the reality in which we live is ultimately beyond our human control.
For the activity of the atmosphere (presumably a strictly objective matter) remains the most ubiquitous, the most intractable, the most enigmatic of practical problems with which civilization has daily to grapple. Despite the best efforts of science and the most audacious technological advances, we seem unable to master this curious flux in which we’re immersed, unable even to glean a clear comprehension of this mostly invisible field of turbulence and tranquil eddies so fundamental to our existence. The difficulty is compounded, today, by the abrupt warming of the global climate due to the industrial-era accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; how this accelerating trend will affect the weather in particular regions is all but impossible to predict. We rely on satellites to monitor the atmosphere’s unruly behavior from outside, hoping to gain from such external data a rudimentary sense of its large-scale patterns, so we can better guess at its next moves.
But suppose we were to analyze this turbulent dimension from within – from our perspective as sensing and sentient organisms thoroughly permeated by this flux? How then would we articulate its manifold modes of activity, its storms and its calms, its clarities and its condensations as they resound in our bodies and move through the terrain? We would need a term that suggests the subjective quality of these elemental phenomena, the way in which they subtly alter the palpable mind of the place, transforming the awareness of all who dwell there.
For our own species, at least, it’s clear that such changes in the ambient weather do not force a change in our conscious thoughts, but rather alter the felt context of those thoughts – the somatic background, or mood, within which thinking unfolds. From our own creaturely perspective, then, we might say that shifts in the weather are transformations in the mood of the land. Different atmospheric conditions – different kinds of weather – are, precisely, different moods.
Wind, rain, snow, fog, hail, sunshine, heavy overcast – each element, or mood, articulates the invisible medium in a unique manner, sometimes rendering it (partly) visible to the eyes, or more insistently palpable upon our skin. Each affects the relation between our body and the living land in a specific way, altering the texture and tonality of our dreaming.
During the summer, near the coast, one sometimes wakes to a day that seems like any other, although as one goes through the motions of dressing and preparing breakfast, one notices one’s thoughts lagging behind, as though they have yet to fully separate themselves from the state of sleep. A slowness attends all one’s cogitations – the newspaper, today, seems written with less zip, reporting the same old thing with the same stale phrases, and when you put it aside you wonder if a minute’s rest on the couch would be in order before tackling the day’s work. The immediate tasks to be accomplished are after all somewhat vague and unfocused; it’s hard to remember just what they are.
Only upon stepping outside, and surveying the world from one’s stoop, does the material cause of this mental lethargy become apparent. For the leafy trees, the electric wires and the other homes are all bathed in a humid atmosphere that renders their outlines fuzzy and imprecise, while the mountains that usually rise from the far edge of town have dissolved, or are wholly shrouded, somehow, in the moisture-thick air. There’s no cloud to be seen in the washed-out sky, only the too-big sun, hovering in the east, sweating like a spent tennis ball mouthed by too many dogs; its dull heat presses in from every direction.
Then there are those rare days – not entirely unknown in any region of the Earth – that dawn with a clarity that muscles its way into every home and office, lending a crispness and cogency to almost every thought. One feels uncommonly good on such days, and others do too; deliberations move forward with unaccustomed ease. Ambiguities resolve themselves, or render themselves more explicit, the choices more defined and clear-cut. There’s a delicious radiance that seems to come from the things themselves, from even the tables and the plush rug, and when we step outside we can taste it in the air and the way a few fluffed clouds rest, almost motionless, in the crystal lens of the sky. How far our vision travels on such days! When I climb to the top of the street I can see clear to the mountain range that rises from the plain in the neighboring state! And how sharp that horizon is. Long term goals abruptly become evident; possibilities far in the future seem more accessible, lending perspective to the present. Hence planning goes more smoothly, with a marked absence of the usual friction – no sweat.
Although, to be sure, we’re not always in sync with such felicitous weather – with the strangely clarified transparence that lifts the weight of the whole suburb on such unpredictable days, or that wraps the aspen-branches outside our cabin with such a pellucid and form-fitting cloak of blue. Sometimes we’re still carrying the strains and stresses of recent weeks, struggles that followed us into our dreams and now cling to our face and our feet, or we’re still in the dank doldrums due to the wreck of a relationship we’d trusted our hearts to. These are the worst days for depression, when everyone we meet moves so smooth through the world. Even if we’re off on our own, well away from the human hubbub, the despondence can be darker on such days when we feel that the stones and the singing sky and the green blades of grass are all tuned to another frequency. For there’s an insistent and eager harmoniousness to things, an ease that we sense on the periphery – the hillside itself humming with pleasure for a whole afternoon – yet the mood cannot penetrate through the thick pellicle of our pain. The mismatch of the world with our own traumatized state feels distressing, even terrifying, shoving us deeper into the pit.
* * *
Of course I am writing of these earthly elements, or moods, from an entirely human perspective. Indeed, I’m writing from the quite subjective perspective of a single human creature – myself. Nonetheless, I write with the knowledge that there cannot help but be some overlap between my direct, visceral experience and the felt experience of other persons – whose senses, after all, have much in common with my own. Moreover, I’ve confidence that my bodily experience is a variation – albeit, in many cases, a very distant variation – of what other, non-human, bodies may experience in the same locale in a common season, at a similar moment of the day or night. For not only are our bodies kindred – all mammals, for instance, sharing a common ancestry, and hence still enacting different variations of what were once common sensibilities – but also we are all of us, here and now, interdependent aspects of a common biosphere, each of us experiencing it from our own angle, and with our own specific capabilities, yet nonetheless all participant in the round life of the Earth, and hence subject to the same large-scale flows, rhythms, and tensions that move across that wider life.
The world we inhabit is not, in this sense, a determinate or determinable set of objective processes. It is flesh, a densely intertwined and improvisational tissue of experience. It is a sensitive sphere suspended in the solar wind, a round field of sentience sustained by the relationships between the myriad lives, the myriad sensibilities that compose it. We come to know more of this sphere not by standing apart from our bodily experience but by inhabiting our felt experience all the more richly and wakefully, feeling our way into deeper contact with other experiencing bodies, and thus with the wild, inter-corporeal life of the world itself.
The pencil whirls above my scribbling fingers, letters arranging themselves on the paper as I list the matters I must attend to in the next couple days. It’s too much stuff. Between getting the wood stacked for winter and my daughter’s dental appointment, between repairing the steady roof-leak and dropping a clutch of packages at the post office, I’ve no idea when I’ll ever compose the lecture I agreed to deliver Thursday evening…
Something catches my peripheral vision, and I turn toward the window. My eyes widen in surprise: snowflakes! A great crowd of snowflakes floating down, a deep thicket of slowly tumbling white. How long has this been happening? I stand and stare for a few moments, then pull on a sweater and step out the door into a landscape transformed as if by a spell. My steps make no sound – the white blanket already plush upon the ground and layered in tufts upon the juniper and pine branches, as flakes drift down like loosened stars. A hundred of them swerve into my face, melting cold against my skin as I walk slowly through a world utterly transfigured by this silent grace cascading through every part of the space around me.
The surge and press of the week’s worries has simply vanished. When I try to call those concerns back to mind I cannot find them behind the teeming multitude of slowly falling flakes – past and future have dissolved, and I am held in the white eternity of a moment so beautiful it melts all my words. All weight has lifted; the innumerable downward trajectories have convinced my senses that I myself am floating, or rather rising slowly upward, and the ground itself rising beneath me – the Earth and I now rising weightless through space.
A sound – the flutter of a bird’s wings, and a small explosion of snow from a branch the bird launched from. Then, just silence. Not silence as an absence of sound, but as a fullness, as the very sound ten thousand snowflakes make as they meet the ground. A thick silence, muffling the whole valley, and for all I know the whole cosmos. I cannot imagine that any bird, squirrel, coyote, or hare is not similarly held in the visible trance of this slowly cascading silence. The clumps on the branches deepen…
The snow falls through the night, the porch-light illuminating a charmed space through which powder floats steadily down. I turn it off before sleeping, then step outside to breathe the darkness: now even the house, and the car asleep in the driveway, have fallen under the spell.
By morning the snowfall has stopped. Yet the enchantment holds; when I step outside and snap my boots into my skis, there is a soft stillness everywhere. I glide between the trees and onto the dirt road, whose many ruts are now invisible; unbroken goodness extends from the tips of my skis in every direction. There is a hushed purity to the world, and to awareness itself as I glide across the snowy fields. The dentist will wait, and the post office will get its packages when the roads are clear. Thursday’s lecture is forming itself, easily, as I glide over the white expanse, my body writing its smooth script across the unbroken pages.
Now and then a high limb releases its too-heavy mound of snow, and a spray of powder drifts down in sheets, glittering, scintillating, then vanishing into the clarified air.
Of all the elements, wind is the most versatile and protean, offering in each region a different set of aspects, varying itself according to the season, and often, too, according to the direction from whence it arrives. Even to consider only a narrow range of its incarnations – considering only those winds that are neither so ferocious that we must rush to shelter ourselves, nor so gentle as to be a mere breeze – we find ourselves overwhelmed by their variety, and so must choose only a few examples from an outrageous range of styles.
Toward the tail end of winter, when a few days of unexpected warmth bring whiffs of spring – and a buried store of state-specific memories proper to that season send a few green shoots into one’s conscious awareness – the winter will often reassert itself, swooping low at night to chill the walls of your house and repossess the snowy fields. When you step outside in the morning the recently melting surface of the snow has now frozen solid and slick like a pane of glass. And gusting across that glass, a fine mist of crystals speeds past the trunks of trees, some of them tinkling in eddies against the windows as the main current of wind gallops through the fields. Boots slip along the frozen surface as you try to take a few steps, ears and face stung by the icy blast. Nothing in the landscape beckons or reaches out to you, for each bush or branch or telephone pole seems entirely focused on staying in place, every parked car and house holding fast with all its fingers to the ground beneath, each being doing its best to become an inconspicuous part of the ground, a mute lump or appendage of the Earth, affording the wind nothing other than a smooth surface to glide past on its way to wherever. Under the onslaught of the chill wind, each entity subsides into the anonymity of the Earth, and even you, too, find your individuality subsumed into the rigor of standing solid against the icy blasts, as your body makes itself into a smooth stone. Thought is stilled, all interior reflection dissolves, no memory apart from this ancient kinship and solidarity with the density of metal and rock, of heartwood and stone. The outward roar of wind forces one to find the blessed silence of stone at the heart of the mind. Anonymous, implacable, unperturbed – the biting cold of a winter wind returns one to one’s unity with the bedrock.
Yet a wind of comparable velocity in the late spring or early summer can have a nearly opposite effect. As when after a long hike one ascends at to a high pass from the eastward slope and peers over into the valley beyond. A moist breeze is riding up the western slope, carrying fresh scents from the forests below, and clouds previously unseen are slowly massing on that side of the range. The wind becomes stronger, more insistent, and you realize that a storm is brewing; it is time to head down and find shelter. Yet something holds you on the pass. As the wind begins to rage, pouring over the crest and rushing down the boulder-strewn slope behind you, it tugs your hair back from your head and fills your cheeks when you open your mouth, whipping your unbuttoned shirt like a kite as an exuberance rises in your muscles. Laughing, crouching and leaping in the wind, facing into it and feeling the first raindrops as you gulp from the charging gusts, imbibing its energy, meeting its wildness with your own as you dance drenched like a grinning fool down the trail – a wild wind can return us to our own vitality more swiftly than any other element. And the needled trees swaying and tossing around us as we descend, jostled by the same wind – are not they, too, caught up in something of the same mood? Not the giddiness, but the exuberant pleasure that lies beneath it, the way the wind challenges us in this season when the sap’s already been rising in our veins, testing our flexibility, waking our limbs and our limberness, goading us each into our own animal abandon, our own muscular dance?
There are also the winds of autumn, winds that whirl through the streets tearing the dry, gold-brown leaves from their moorings. Alive with the dank scents of soil and fallen fruit and the composting Earth, the autumn wind teases our nostrils with the sweet scent of smoke as it whooshes past, scattering the humped piles of carefully raked leaves and sending their constituents tumbling across lawns to meet other leaves spiraling down from the branches. Soon the oaks, maples, and beeches stand denuded and exposed, their fractaled complexity silhouetted against the sky. Our own bodies witness this gradual release of leaves, this stripping away of life from the skeletal eloquence of the grey trunks and limbs, and cannot help but feel that the animating life of things is slipping off into the air – that the wind blowing in our ears and moaning in the branches is composed of innumerable spirits leaving their visible bodies behind. We feel enveloped by a moving crowd of unseen essences – sighing, whooshing lives that reveal themselves to us only as fleeting scents, or by a momentary turbulence of dust and spinning leaves. The wind is haunted, alive. Only in this liminal season, before the onset of winter, does the wild psyche of the land assert itself so vividly that even the most reflective and analytic persons find themselves lost, now and then, in the uncanny depths of the sensuous. Their animal senses awaken; the skin itself begins to breathe.
For wind is moodiness personified, altering on a whim, recklessly transgressing the boundaries between places, between beings, between inner and outer worlds. The unruly poltergeist of our collective mental climate, wind, after all, is the ancient and ever-present source of the words “spirit” and “psyche.” It is the sacred “ruach” of the ancient Hebrews, the invisible rushing-spirit that lends its life to the visible world; it is the Latin anima, the wind-soul that animates all breathing beings (all animals); it is the Navajo “Nilch’i,” the Holy Wind from whence all earthly entities draw their awareness.
Indeed, whenever the native peoples of this continent speak matter-of-factly, about “the spirits,” we moderns mistakenly assume, in keeping with our own impoverished sense of matter, that they’re alluding to a disembodied set of powers entirely outside of the sensuous world. We would come closer to the keen intelligence of our indigenous brothers and sisters, however, if we were to recognize that the spirits they speak of have much in common with the myriad gusts, breezes, and winds that influence the life of any locale – like the particular wind that whooshes along the river at dusk, rustling the cottonwood leaves, or the mist-laden breeze that flows down from the western foothills on certain mornings, and those multiple whirlwinds that swirl and rise the dust on hot summer days, and the gentle breeze that lingers above the night grasses, and the various messenger-winds that bring us knowledge of what the neighbors are cooking this evening. Or even the small but significant gusts that slip in and out of our nostrils as we lie sleeping. We moderns pay little heed to these subtle invisibles, these elementals – indeed we tend not to notice them at all, convinced that a breeze is nothing other than a mindless jostling of molecules. Our breathing bodies know otherwise. But we will keep our bodies out of play; we will keep our thoughts aligned solely with what our complex instruments can measure. Until we have incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, we will assume that matter, itself, is utterly devoid of felt experience.
In this manner we hoard and hold tight to our own awareness – like a frightened whirlwind spinning ever faster, trying to convince itself of its own autonomy, struggling to hold itself aloof from the ocean of air around it.
On a warm afternoon, new leaves creeping out of the just-opened buds, when the apricot trees shamelessly offer their blossoms to a thousand bees, one notices a faint rumble in the air. It dissipates or fades back into the incessant whirring of the bees, until then, sometime later, a similar trembling. The tremor is more felt than heard, a vibration noticed more by our bones and the trunks of trees than by our conscious reflections. Behind the branches of cottonwood, far off to the west, a darkness is growing, massing in the sky, a vague threat on the horizon. Yet now the irregular rumble, once again, more audible now, ominous. The rabbits (who have only just begun appearing near the road and at the edge of the orchard) are sniffing the air, hesitant. And how odd; what’s become of all those bees? Now only a few stragglers are moving between the blossoms. Birdlife is more evident, several wingeds calling and swooping between the telephone wires and the trees, expending an unusual amount of energy. Everyone here is now feeling it: the background hush that has come over the land as the clouds thicken into a too early dusk, the rabbits ducking into their digs – a deep hush broken by the alarm call of a bird, and then a bit later by the thudding violence in the near distance. As though the sky was a skin that’s been stretched taut. Everyone is finding somewhere safe and hunkering down, tremulous, waiting. And then, quietly, a soft breeze stirs the tips of the grasses, rippling and bending the blades, a kind of pleasure spreading there among the green life, maybe even an eager anticipation very different from the threat vaguely sensed within one’s chest and the muscles of other animals.
And then without warning the air splits open, white fire tracing an impossibly erratic path between the sky and the hills opposite, a jagged gash burning itself into one’s retinas and turning the entire landscape into a negative afterimage of itself, for an instant, before the shadowed darkness returns. Silence. And then the shattering sound of that splitting, the syncopated cracking, ripping open the world as it explodes in the skull and reverberates off the cliffs. The sound from which all other sounds must come, the Word at the origin of the world. And as the visible world settles back into itself, another bright flame rips haphazard through the grey, and soon the anticipated yet un-prepared-for SHOUT! shatters the air and shudders through the ground underfoot.
Nothing, no creature or stone or flake of paint on the wall of the house, escapes the shattering imperative of the thunderbolt’s shout – the way it undoes us and recreates us in a moment. No awake creature is distracted at that moment, no person remains lost in reverie or inward thought; all of us are gathered into the same electric present by the sudden violence of this exchange between the ground and the clouds, the passionate mad tension and static that reverberates through all of us in the valley this afternoon. This rage in the mind.
This passion now rising, it seems, in the branches of the tall Ponderosa pines on the hillside opposite, and soon in the swaying limbs of the closer cottonwoods, and now even the roiling needles of junipers and pinyons along the dirt road below the house – some power is moving rapidly across the valley, a tumult of wind in the branches, and the rushing cool sound of …
A few drops, at first, on my shoulder and nose, as I hear it begin to pelt the soil of the orchard, and then I am taken up within the cold thicket of drops, soaking my clothes and then the body beneath those clothes, rolling off my nose and dripping off the apricot branches to pool among the grasses, spilling down my arms and gathering in the cuffs of my jeans. The obvious effect triggered by the rain is release – a steady, dramatic release of tension, like held-back tears finally sliding across our cheeks.
Lightning still flashes through the downpour, and the stuttering of thunder, but all this cascading water drumming on the ground and on my head eases the violence of that darker percussion, drawing my attention back from the splintering tension in the sky to my own cool and shivering surfaces, and the intersecting patterns in the near puddles – returning awareness to the close-at-hand locale. A few minutes earlier, when the lightning seemed to strike nearby, all attention was gripped by the immediate present, yet that present moment was a vast thing, opening onto the whole of the clouded sky, including the whole span and expanse of the valley. A strong rain, however, rapidly shrinks the field of the present down to an intimate neighborhood that extends only a few yards in any direction. For the dense forest of droplets falling all around me is not easily penetrated by my senses. Past and future are utter abstractions, yesterday and tomorrow are far-off fictions; I am gripped in the slanting immediacy of water and mud and skin. I turn my face upward, blinking, trying to follow individual drops as they fall toward me. Difficult. I give up and just open my mouth. The sensuous density of the present moment, and me inside it, drinking the rain.
I head into the house to strip off soaked clothes and towel myself dry. The many-voiced rain sounds steadily on the roof. I stand at the window, staring out. Drops splash against different points on the pane, sliding in scattered droplets down the glass, each droplet picking up others as it descends – every added straggler increasing the velocity of the drop – until they all pool along the bottom.
Even the interior of the house is transformed by the thrumming rain; objects seem more awake and attentive to the things around them – the reclining chairs, tables, and books seem to have shed their distracting ties to the world outside and are now committed citizens of this small but commodious cosmos wholly isolated from the rest of the valley. And the familiar bonds that these objects have with one another, and with me, are all heightened by the sound of the downpour on the sheltering roof and the walls, and the tremble of thunder.
Later, after the rain has dissipated, I open the door onto a different world – a field of glistening, shiny surfaces, of beings quietly turning their inward, protective focus back outward, as creatures poke noses out of burrows, and a thrush swoops down to the edge of a puddle, and then hops in to splash its wings in the wet. Everything glints and gleams, everything radiates out of itself as a thousand scents rise from the soil and the branches and the fungus-ridden trunks, from insect egg-cases and last year’s leaves and the moist, matted fur of two squirrels chasing each other along the edge of the roof. A tangle of essences drift and mingle in the mind of this old orchard, each of us inhaling the flavor of everyone else, yielding a mood of openness and energetic ease as the lightened clouds begin to part and the late afternoon sun calls wisps of steam from the grass.
* * *
But wait! Are we not simply projecting our own interior moods upon the outer landscape? And so making ourselves, once again, the source and center of the earthly world, the human hub around which the rest of nature revolves?
It is a key question, necessary for keeping us on our toes and turning our attention, always, toward the odd otherness of things – holding our thoughts open to the unexpected and sometimes unnerving shock of the real. So are we merely projecting our emotional states upon the surroundings? Well, no – not if our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various “interior” moods was originally borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself. Not, that is, if our conception of anger, and livid rage, has been borrowed, at least in part, from our ancestral, animal experience of thunderstorms and the violence of sudden lightning. Not if our sense of emotional release has been fed not only by the flow of tears but by our experiences of rainfall, or if our concept of mental clarity has long been informed by the visual transparence of the air and the open blue of the sky on those days of surpassingly low humidity. If our sense of inward confusion and muddledness is anciently and inextricably bound up with our outward experience of being enveloped in a fog – if our whole conceptualization of the emotional mood or “feel” of things is unavoidably entwined with metaphors of “atmospheres,” “airs,” “climates” – then it is hardly projection to notice that it is not only human beings (and human-made spaces) that carry moods: that the living land in which we dwell, and in whose life we participate, has its own feeling tone and style that varies throughout a day or a season.
The Return of the Repressed
Today, as Gaia shivers into a fever – the planetary climate rapidly warming as oil-drunk civilization burns up millions of years of stored sunlight in the course of a few decades – clearly the felt temper of the atmosphere is shifting, becoming more extreme. As local weather patterns fluctuate and transform in every part of the globe, the excessive moodiness of the medium affects the mental climate in which creatures confront one another, lending its instability to human affairs as well. Our human exchanges – whether between persons or between nations – easily becoming more agitated and turbulent, apt to flare into storms of blame and anger and war as the disquietude in the land translates into a generalized fearfulness among the population, a trepidation, a readiness to take offense or to lash out without clear cause.
Indeed, the propensity for random violence becomes more pronounced whenever the sources of stress are unrecognized, whenever a tension is felt whose locus or source remains hidden. And as long as we deny the animate life of the Earth itself – as long as we arrogate all subjectivity to ourselves, forgetting the sentience in the air, and the manifold intelligence in the land – then we’ll remain oblivious to what’s really unfolding, unable to quell the agitation in ourselves because we’re blind to the deeper distress.
For the possibility of a human future, and for our own basic sanity, we need to acknowledge that we’re not the sole bearers of meaning in this world, that our species is not the only locus of feeling afoot in the real. To weather the changes now upon us, we must become ever more attentive to the more-than-human field of experience, consulting the creatures and the old local farmers, comparing notes with the neighbors, learning the seasonal cycles of our terrain even as we notice new alterations in those cycles. Listening at once outward and inward, observing the shifts in the animate landscape while tracking the transformations unfolding within us – in this way we weave ourselves back into the fabric of our world.
The violence and disarray of the coming era, its social injustices and its wars, will have their deepest source in systemic stresses already intensifying within the broader body of the biosphere. Yet such system-wide strains cannot be alleviated by scapegoating other persons, or by inflicting violence on other peoples. They can be eased only by strengthening the wild resilience of the Earth, preserving and replenishing whatever we can of the planet’s once-exuberant biotic diversity while bringing ourselves (and our communities) into greater alignment with the particular ecologies that we inhabit. Acknowledging that human awareness is sustained by the broader sentience of the Earth; noticing that each bioregion has its own style of sentience; observing the manner in which the collective mood of a terrain alters with every change in the weather: such are a few of the ways whereby we can nudge ourselves toward such an alignment.
The era of human arrogance is at an end; the age of consequences is upon us. The presumption that mind was an exclusively human property exemplified the very arrogance that has now brought the current biosphere to the very brink of the abyss. It led us to take the atmosphere entirely for granted, treating what was once known as the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life as a conveniently invisible dumpsite for the toxic byproducts of industrial civilization.
The resulting torsions within the planetary climate are at last forcing humankind out of its self-enclosed oblivion – a dynamic spoken of, in psychoanalysis, as “the return of the repressed.” Only through the extremity of the weather are we brought to notice the uncanny power and presence of the unseen medium, and so compelled to remember our thorough immersion within the life of this breathing planet. Only thus are we brought to realize that our vaunted human intelligence is as nothing unless it’s allied with the round intelligence of the animate Earth.
i See Abram, “The Mechanical and the Organic: On the Impact of Metaphor in Science,” in Scientists on Gaia, edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston.
ii See Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia,” in The Ecologist, vol 15, no. 3, 1985.
iii The modern word for the mind, “psyche,” originates in the ancient Greek word for wind and breath, much as the word “spirit” derives from the Latin spiritus, meaning a breath or a gust of wind. Similarly, the Latin word for the soul, anima, originates in the older Greek word for the wind, anemos. In the ancient world, it would seem, the unseen air was commonly felt to be the very substance of consciousness. Thus the English word “atmosphere,” is cognate with the Sanskrit word for the soul, atman, through their common origin in the older term atmos, which signified both the air and the soul inseparably. The Hebrew word for the spirit, ruach, signifies (at one and the same time) the wind, and hence is often translated as “rushing spirit.” Such an identification of air with awareness is found in innumerable indigenous, oral languages. See “The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air,” in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, by David Abram (pp. 225-260).
iv The theoretical approach of this chapter brings the philosophical tradition of phenomenology — the careful study of direct, sensorial experience – to bear on Gaian ecology. Readers wishing to learn more regarding the phenomenological tradition and its relevance to environmental thought may wish to look at the following books: The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, by David Abram; Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, edited by Bruce Foltz and Robert Frodeman; The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, by Edward Casey.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, Pantheon, 1996.
Abram, David. “Earth In Eclipse,” in Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy, edited by Suzanne L. Cataldi and William S. Hamrick, SUNY Press, 2007.
Abram, David. “The Mechanical and the Organic: On the Impact of Metaphor in Science,” in Scientists on Gaia, edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston, M.I.T. Press, 1991.
Abram, David. “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia,” in The Ecologist, vol 15, no. 3, 1985. Reprinted in Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by A. H. Badiner, Parallax Press, 1990.
Casey, Edward. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, University of California Press, 1998.
Bruce Foltz and Robert Frodeman, ed., Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, Indiana University Press, 2004.