Is it possible to grow a worthy cosmology by attending closely to our encounters with other creatures, and with the elemental textures and contours of our locale? We are by now so accustomed to the cult of expertise that the very notion of honoring and paying heed to our directly felt experience of things—of insects and wooden floors, of broken-down cars and bird-pecked apples and the scents rising from the soil—seems odd and somewhat misguided as a way to find out what’s worth knowing. According to assumptions long held by the civilization in which I’ve been raised, the deepest truth of things is concealed behind the appearances, in dimensions inaccessible to our senses. A thousand years ago these dimensions were viewed in spiritual terms: the sensuous world was a fallen, derivative reality that could be understood only by reference to heavenly realms hidden beyond the stars. Since the powers residing in such realms were concealed from common perception, they had to be mediated for the general populace by priests, who might intercede with those celestial agencies on our behalf.
In recent centuries, an abundance of discoveries and remarkable inventions have transformed this culture’s general conception of things—and yet the basic disparagement of sensuous reality remains. Like an old, collective habit very difficult to kick, the directly sensed world is still explained by reference to realms hidden beyond our immediate experience. Such a realm, for example, is the microscopic domain of axons and dendrites, and neurotransmitters washing across neuronal synapses—a dimension entirely concealed from direct apprehension, yet which presumably precipitates, or gives rise to, every aspect of our experience. Another such dimension is the recondite realm hidden within the nuclei of our cells, wherein reside the intricately folding strands of DNA and RNA that ostensibly code and perhaps even “cause” the behavior of living things. Alternatively, the deepest source and truth of the apparent world is sometimes held to exist in the subatomic realm of quarks, mesons, and gluons (or the still more theoretical world of vibrating ten-dimensional strings); or perhaps in the initial breaking of symmetries in the cosmological “big bang,” an event almost inconceivably distant in time and space.
Every one of these arcane dimensions radically transcends the reach of our unaided senses. Since we have no ordinary experience of these realms, the essential truths to be found there must be mediated for us by experts, by those who have access to the highpowered instruments and the inordinately expensive technologies (the electron microscopes, functional MRI scanners, radio telescopes, and supercolliders) that might offer a momentary glimpse into these dimensions. Here, as before, the sensuous world—the creaturely world directly encountered by our animal senses—is commonly assumed to be a secondary, derivative reality understood only by reference to more primary domains that exist elsewhere, behind the scenes.
I do not deny the importance of those other scales or dimensions, nor the value of the various truths that may be found there. I deny only that this shadowed, earthly world of deer tracks and moss is somehow less worthy, less REAL, than those abstract dimensions. It is more palpable to my skin, more substantial to my flaring nostrils, more precious—infinitely more precious—to the heart drumming within my chest.
This directly experienced terrain, rippling with cricket rhythms and scoured by the tides, is the very realm now most ravaged by the spreading consequences of our disregard. Many long-standing and lousy habits have enabled our callous treatment of surrounding nature, empowering us to clear-cut, dam up, mine, develop, poison, or simply destroy so much of what quietly sustains us. Yet few are as deep-rooted and damaging as the habitual tendency to view the sensuous earth as a subordinate space—whether as a sinful plane, riddled with temptation, needing to be transcended and left behind; or a menacing region needing to be beaten and bent to our will; or simply a vaguely disturbing dimension to be avoided, superseded, and explained away.
Corporeal life is indeed difficult. To identify with the sheer physicality of one’s flesh may well seem lunatic. The body is an imperfect and breakable entity vulnerable to a thousand and one insults—to scars and the scorn of others, to disease, decay, and death. And the material world that our body inhabits is hardly a gentle place. The shuddering beauty of this biosphere is bristling with thorns: generosity and abundance often seem scant ingredients compared with the prevalence of predation, sudden pain, and racking loss. Carnally embedded in the depths of this cacophonous profusion of forms, we commonly can’t even predict just what’s lurking behind the near boulder, let alone get enough distance to fathom and figure out all the workings of this world. We simply can’t get it under our control. We’ve lost hearing in one ear; the other rings like a fallen spoon. Our spouse falls in love with someone else, while our young child comes down with a bone-rattling fever that no doctor seems able to diagnose. There are things out and about that can eat us, and ultimately will. Small wonder, then, that we prefer to abstract ourselves whenever we can, imagining ourselves into theoretical spaces less fraught with insecurity, conjuring dimensions more amenable to calculation and control. We slip blissfully into machine-mediated scapes, offering ourselves up to any technology that promises to enhance the humdrum capacities of our given flesh. And sure, now and then we’ll engage this earthen world as well, as long we know that it’s not ultimate, as long as we’re convinced that we’re not stuck here.
Even among ecologists and environmental activists, there’s a tacit sense that we’d better not let our awareness come too close to our creaturely sensations, that we’d best keep our arguments girded with statistics and our thoughts buttressed with abstractions, lest we succumb to an overwhelming grief—a heartache born of our organism’s instinctive empathy with the living land and its cascading losses. Lest we be bowled over and broken by our dismay at the relentless devastation of the biosphere.
Thus do we shelter ourselves from the harrowing vulnerability of bodied existence. But by the same gesture we also insulate ourselves from the deepest wellsprings of joy. We cut our lives off from the necessary nourishment of contact and interchange with other shapes of life, from antlered and loop-tailed and amber-eyed beings whose resplendent weirdness loosens our imaginations, from the droning of bees and the gurgling night chorus of the frogs and the morning mist rising like a crowd of ghosts off the weedlot. We seal ourselves off from the erotic warmth of a cello’s voice, or from the tilting dance of construction cranes against a downtown sky overbursting with blue. From the errant hummingbird pulsing in our cupped hands as we ferry it back out the door, and the crimson flash as it zooms from our fingers.
For too long we’ve closed ourselves to the participatory life of our senses, inured ourselves to the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities. We’ve taken our primary truths from technologies that hold the world at a distance. Such tools can be mighty useful, and beneficial as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried carefully back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience. But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shield—etched with lines of code or cryptic jargon—to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambiguity of the real.
Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves to the shattering wonder that enfolds us. This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos.
We sleep, allowing gravity to hold us, allowing Earth — our larger Body — to recalibrate our neurons, composting the keen encounters of our waking hours (the tensions and terrors of our individual days), stirring them back, as dreams, into the sleeping substance of our muscles. We give ourselves over to the influence of the breathing earth. Sleep, we might say, is a habit born in our bodies as the earth comes between our bodies and the sun. Sleep is the shadow of the earth as it falls across our awareness. Yes. To the human animal, sleep is the shadow of the earth as it seeps into our skin and spreads throughout our limbs, dissolving our individual will into the thousand and one selves that compose it—cells, tissues, and organs taking their prime directives now from gravity and the wind—as residual bits of sunlight, caught in the long tangle of nerves, wander the drifting landscape of our earth-borne bodies like deer moving across the forested valleys. pp 24
This sitting on chairs is a strange new thing for the primate body—holding our hindquarters away from the ground, our flexible spine suspended in air. Civilized, to be sure. Yet how much more nourishment our spines once drew from their oft-renewed friendship with the ground—planting themselves there, like trees, as we prepared our foods and whittled our implements, squatting on our haunches as we wove patterns into bright cloth and chatted with kin. But now we scorn the ground. Gravity, we think, is a drag upon our aspirations; it pulls us down, holds us back, makes life a weight and a burden.
Yet this gravitational draw that holds us to the ground was once known as Eros — as Desire! — the lovelorn yearning of our body for the larger Body of Earth, and of the earth for us. The old affinity between gravity and desire remains evident, perhaps, when we say that we have fallen in love—as though we were off-balance and tumbling through air, as though it was the steady pull of the planet that somehow lay behind the eros we feel toward another person. In this sense, gravity—the mutual attraction between our body and the earth—is the deep source of that more conscious delirium that draws us toward the presence of another person. Like the felt magnetism between two lovers, or between a mother and her child, the powerful attraction between the body and the earth offers sustenance and physical replenishment when it is consummated in contact. Although we’ve lately come to associate gravity with heaviness, and so to think of it as having a strictly downward vector, nonetheless something rises up into us from the solid earth whenever we’re in contact with it.
We give ourselves precious little chance to taste this nourishment that springs up into us whenever we touch ground, and so it’s hardly surprising that we’ve forgotten the erotic nature of gravity, and the enlivening pleasure of earthly contact. We spend our days walking not on the earth but on fabricated slabs suspended above office floors and basements; at our desks we ride aloft on our chairs; at night we drift to sleep on the backs of beds neatly raised so we needn’t be too close to the ground. If we venture out of doors, it’s commonly not to wander on foot; instead, we entrust ourselves to the fiery alchemy of the automobile, whose fevered cylinders and whirling tires loft us speedily to our destination without our needing to touch down on the intervening terrain.
But if our artifacts hold us aloft and aloof from the solid earth, they themselves partake of that solidity and that earthiness; something of the ground passes into the struts and beams of our buildings, spreading into the reclining two-by-fours and the prone slats of maple and pine that lie upon them, spreading up through the clay tiles of the floor, stymied and stifled, somewhat, if the tiles are made of plastic, yet even in that subdued condition leaking up through the legs of our desks and radiating out across the surface to kiss our fingertips where they graze the grain, fortifying our bony elbows when we rest our head upon our open hands. It is a kind of pulse, a dark resonance that sustains and feeds things. We can taste of it in the thickness of our mattress or the fluffed happiness of the pillows as we settle back for the night. The rubber tires of our bicycles may seem impervious to such nourishment, yet even as they roll along the tarmac they’re massaging the song forth from its stuck and paved-over stupor, wherein the vitality of stones and the vigor of soil and stem lie stunned and struggling to rise through the black and bituminous carapace.
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” is the question that philosophers have used to unsettle our complacency regarding the weirdness of existence, to stir us from our forgetfulness, to reawaken our sense of wonder. Yet it is enough to notice the inherent dynamism of the present moment—to notice that mere “existence” is already an upsurge, and not a blank and passive floating—in order to retrieve the sensuous world from the oblivion to which our concepts too often consign it. A solitary rock or a clear-cut stump is utterly inanimate only as long as “being” itself is taken to be static and inert. Our animal senses, however, know no such passive reality; they perceive things only by interacting with them, by entering into relation with their rhythms of disclosure and concealment, their allurement and their reticence.
To my animal body, the rock is first and foremost another body engaged in the world: as I turn my gaze toward it, I encounter not a defined and inanimate chunk of matter but an upturned surface basking in the sun’s warmth, or a pink and sharp-edged structure protruding from the ground like the shattered bone of the hillside, or an old and watchful guardian of this land— a resolute and sheltering presence inviting me now to crouch and lean my spine against it.
Each thing organizes the space around it, rebuffing or sidling up against other things; each thing calls, gestures, beckons to other beings or battles them for our attentions; things expose themselves to the sun or retreat among the shadows, shouting with their loud colors or whispering with their seeds; rocks snag lichen spores from the air and shelter spiders under their flanks; clouds converse with the fathomless blue and metamorphose into one another; they spill rain upon the land, which gathers in rivulets and carves out canyons; skyscrapers slice the winds and argue with one another over the tops of townhouses; backhoes and songbirds are coaxed into duets by the percussive rhythm of the subway beneath the street. Things “catch our eye” and sometimes refuse to let go; they “grab our focus” and “capture our attention,” and finally release us from their grasp only to dissolve back into the overabundant world. Whether ecstatic or morose, exuberant or exhausted, everything swerves and trembles; anguish, equanimity, and pleasure are not first internal moods but passions granted to us by the capricious terrain.
Spring’s intensity is finally bursting out of the branches. The scent of apricot blossoms makes my nostrils flare, triggering a faint memory of some giddy childhood transport; I stand still, eyes closed, sipping the sweet air with my nose. But just then another, darker smell floods in and jumps my undefended neurons, making me wince. I recently began a new compost pile behind a near juniper. Orange rinds, leftovers kept too long in the back of the fridge, lettuce leaves turned brown and oozing, scrapes of this and that all merge into a pungent, slightly acrid rumor that drifts with the breeze. I head uphill and that whispering stench fades into the spice of green needles. A mosquito glides by and then circles erratically back, following a ribbon of scent to where it alights on my sleeve. I brush it free, and it drifts off a short distance, then commences to bounce up and down as if on a string. After a few vertical circuits, it swerves back down and settles on the same forearm, just beyond my rolled-up sleeve. I swivel my arm up to eye level in order to look closely at this creature. The mosquito seems oblivious to my gaze: she’s already bracing herself against my arm and piercing my skin with her long proboscis. I restrain an impulse to quash this annoying visitor, aware—for once—that here, too, is reciprocity.
If I’m able to smell the zinging scent of the piñons and the strong fermentation of the compost, it is only because I, too, am a part of the olfactory field—because I have my own musk and effluvium, my own chemical emanations that any mosquito can pick up and follow back to my skin. And since I also take pleasure in sampling the world’s tastes—since I can chew and swallow the leaves of coriander and parsley in our haphazard garden, and savor the sour tang of the crusty olive bread cooling on its rack in the kitchen—I know well that I, too, must have my own tastes, my delectable flavors, my tartness and bitterness, my dark aftertastes. As an omnivore, an eater of the flesh of plants and sundry animals, willing to taste almost anything—and thus kindred, in my gustatory and cognitive curiosity, to most other omnivores: to bear and raven and raccoon—I find myself entwined in a great gift economy, wherein each life partakes of other lives and gives of itself in return. No matter how earnestly we humans strive to exempt ourselves from this economy (whether by dissociating from our animal bodies, or trying to eradicate every disease to which we’re susceptible, or sealing our remains within lead-lined caskets), we cannot escape our participation in the cycles of exchange.
If we ingest the land’s nourishment not only through our eyes and ears but also through our hungry mouths—chomping leaves, seeds, and muscles with our teeth, moistening them with our saliva, and swallowing them down into our depths, incorporating the world’s flesh into our own—it can only be so because we, too, are edible. Because we, too, are food.
I watch the mosquito’s abdomen fill up with my blood. Countless times I have annihilated mosquitoes with a slap against my arm, or else brushed them angrily away. Yet today I just watch, humbled, ashamed to be offering only this tiny sip of my blood in return for the abundant sustenance I draw from the biosphere, yet still glad to confirm my membership in the big web of interdependence, as both eater and eaten.
We can sense the world around us only because we are entirely a part of this world, because—by virtue of our own carnal density and dynamism—we are wholly embedded in the depths of the earthly sensuous. We can feel the tangible textures, sounds, and shapes of the biosphere because we are tangible, resonant, audible shapes in our own right. We are born of these very waters, this very air, this loamy soil, this sunlight. Nourished and sustained by the substance of the breathing earth, we are flesh of its flesh. We are neither pure spirits nor pure minds, but are sensitive and sentient bodies able to be seen, heard, tasted, and touched by the beings around us.
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 broad mountain range or of a small valley within that range, at each scale there is a unique intelligence circulating among the various constituents of the place— a style evident in the way events unfold in that ecosystem, how the slow spread of a 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 amalgam of elements that structures each region 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 region, my peripheral senses tracking seasonal changes in the local plants while the scents of the soil steadily seep 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 within 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 climate grows colder; oak buds bursting and unfurling their leaves to join a gazillion other leaves in agile, wind-tossed exuberance before they tumble, spent, to the ground; the way a cat-faced spider weaves her spiraling web in front of the porchlight every summer— each such patterned event, quietly observed, releases analogous metamorphoses within myself. Without such tenement 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 of the place (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.
Certainly there are roads more conducive to sensory alertness than the highway, whose rectilinear, manicured margins induce a kind of stupor in the speeding driver, a steady trance of abstraction—an onrushing flood of memories and future concerns with few ties to the sensuous present. Unpaved, country back roads invite a more open and improvisational style of thought, one that stays bound, albeit loosely, to the twisting topography. This is a more meandering cogitation, vaguely punctuated by leaning mailboxes and rusting maroon tractors, by barking dogs racing the caror a kestrel motionless on a fence post.
Yet how much more thoroughly this land would feed our thoughts if we were not driving but rather strolling on foot along these lanes—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 from the land, the airplanes in which we fly abstract us entirely from the grounding earth. After checking 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 compose the specific sentience of that place. Only to plunk down some hours later in an entirely different ecology—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 topography as we move across it. It’s a recipe for madness, don’t you think?—the way we now force our body to slip from one mode of awareness into another weirdly different awareness, without undergoing the slow, perfectly calibrated transition between them (the gentle metamorphosis that the earth instills in our body as it alters around us). No wonder that we feel dazed and discombobulated after an extended flight! “Jet lag” we call it, dutifully resetting our watches, as though it were merely a consequence of entering a new time zone. As though it had nothing to do with abruptly finding ourselves in a world whose background colors, shapes, and smells diverge drastically from those where we were a few hours earlier. A new time zone? Well, yes, if by this we mean a place whose rhythmic timing, or pulse, is oddly other than that where we just came from—a zone whose specific dynamism tempts our skin and jangles our ears in weird new ways, crashing our sensory organization, forcing our nervous system to reorder itself as best it can. The sudden strangeness is jarring to our animal body, and especially rattling when we’re compelled to adapt to the new circumstance in a matter of minutes.
Hence, after flying in jets for several years, many adapt by simply blunting their senses, numbing themselves to all but the most homogeneous facets of a place, taking refuge in only the most fabricated spaces, eating in the identical themed restaurants that now sprout from the pavement in every corner of the continent to meet the spreading demand for anesthetic ease and familiarity. Each airport seems merely a new annex of the last airport, each new downtown an extension of the last: by lingering only in the hotels and conference centers where their meetings unfold, they’ve no need to subject themselves to the unruly otherness of the living locale.
Yet for those who have kept their animal senses awake—for those who venture beyond the made-to-order spaces, traveling more on foot or by bicycle than they do via the jet or the automobile— the journey from one ecosystem into another is precisely a journey from one state of mind into another, different, state. From one mode of awareness, flavored by salt and the glint of sunlight on waves, to an altered, inland awareness wherein the cries of those gulls become only a vague, half-remembered dream.
When we speak of “language,” we speak of an ability to communicate, a power to convey information across a thickness of space and time, a means whereby beings at some distance from one another nonetheless manage to apprise each other of their current feelings or thoughts. As humans, we rely upon a complex web of mostly discrete, spoken sounds to accomplish our communication, and so it’s natural that we associate language with such verbal intercourse. Unfortunately, this association has led many to assume that language is an exclusive attribute of our species—we, after all, are the only creatures that use words—and to conclude that all other organisms are entirely bereft of meaningful speech. It is an exceedingly self-serving assumption.
Other animals, commonly possessed of senses far more acute than ours, may have much less need for a purely conventional set of signs to communicate with others of their species, or even to glean precise information from members of other species.
Even when simply addressing a maple tree, or a boulder-strewn hillside, you can be sure—if you are honest, and so relaxed within your flesh—that there are sensate presences out and about that are affected by the sound and the scent and perhaps even the sight of your gestured intent, whether they be squirrels, or a swarm of ter- mites chewing its way through the resonant hollow of a fallen trunk, whether a small, silent bat flapping erratically through the night air, or the airborne insects that the bat is hunting, or even the impressionable air itself, absorbing your chemical exhalations and registering in waves the sonorous timbre of your voice. And so your loquacious utterance is heard, or felt, or sensed—and it would be wrong to believe with certainty that you are not being understood. The material reverberation of your speaking spreads out from you and is taken up within the sensitive tissue of the place . . . The activity that we commonly call “prayer” springs from just such a gesture, from the practice of directly addressing the animate surroundings.
Language accrues not only to those entities deemed “alive” by modern standards, but to all sensible phenomena. All things have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings. Indeed, what is perception if not the experience of this gregarious, communicative power of things, wherein even ostensibly “inert” objects radiate out of themselves, conveying their shapes, hues, and rhythms to other beings and to us, influencing and informing our breathing bodies though we stand far apart from those things? Not just animals and plants, then, but tumbling waterfalls and dry riverbeds, gusts of wind, compost piles and cumulus clouds, freshly painted houses(as well as houses abandoned and sometimes haunted), rusting automobiles, feathers, granitic cliffs and grains of sand, tax forms, dormant volcanoes, bays and bayous made wretched by pollutants, snowdrifts, shed antlers, diamonds, and daikon radishes, are all expressive, sometimes eloquent, and hence participant in the mystery of language. Our own chatter erupts in response to the abundant articulations of the world: human speech is simply our part of a much broader conversation.
It follows that the myriad things are also listening, or attending, to various signs and gestures around them. Indeed, when we are at ease in our animal flesh, we will sometimes feel that we are being listened to, or sensed, by the earthly surroundings. And so we take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than a merely human meaning and resonance. This care— this full-bodied alertness—is the ancient, ancestral source of all word magic. It is the practice of attention to the uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world’s unfolding.
Here are some observations made by a member of the Mattole Indians (an Athabaskan tribe that traditionally hunted and fished along the Mattole and Bear rivers near the northern coast of California):
The water watches you and has a definite attitude, favorable or otherwise, toward you. Do not speak just before a wave breaks. Do not speak to passing rough water in a stream. Do not look at water very long for any one time, unless you have been to this spot ten times or more. Then the water there is used to you and does not mind if you’re looking at it. Older men can talk in the presence of the water because they have been around so long that the water knows them. Until the water at any spot does know you, however, it becomes very rough if you talk in its presence or look at it too long.*
These injunctions bespeak a remarkable etiquette, the careful deference and decorum to be observed when around water. While this decorum may at first seem ludicrous to modern sensibilities, notice: such an etiquette ensures that those who practice it will remain exquisitely attentive to the fluid ways of water—from the shifting eddies along the river to the tidal swells and rolling breaks along the coast. Such deportment, with its linguistic deference toward the fluid element, inculcates a steady respect for that element, ensuring that the community will not readily violate the health of the local waters, or the vitality of the watershed.
Few of us today feel any such restraints in our speaking. Human language, for us moderns, has swung in on itself, turning its back on the beings around us. Language is a human property, suitable only for communicating with other persons. We talk to people; we do not talk to the ground underfoot. We’ve largely forgotten the incantatory and invocational use of speech as a way of bringing ourselves into deeper rapport with the beings around us, or of calling the living land into resonance with us. It is a power we still brush up against whenever we use our words to bless and to curse, or to charm someone we’re drawn to. But we wield such eloquence only to sway other people, and so we miss the greater magnetism, the gravitational power that lies within such speech. The beaver gliding across the pond, the fungus gripping a thick trunk, a boulder shattered by its tumble down a cliff or the rain splashing upon those granite fragments—we talk about such beings, about the weather and the weathered stones, but we do not talk to them. Entranced by the denotative power of words to define, to order, to represent the things around us, we’ve overlooked the songful dimension of language so obvious to our oral ancestors. We’ve lost our ear for the music of language—for the rhythmic, melodic layer of speech by which earthly things overhear us.
How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to the other beings—to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses—that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world. As though the clear-cut mountainside and the flooding creek had no sensations of their own—as though they had no flesh by which to feel the vibration of our speaking. Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we talk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives.
Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us—and if they still try, we will not likely hear them. They withdraw from our attentions, and soon refrain from encountering us when we’re out wandering, or from visiting us in our dreams. We can no longer avail ourselves of their perspectives or their guidance, and our human affairs suffer as a result. We become ever more forgetful in our relations with the rest of the biosphere, an obliviousness that cuts us off from ourselves, and from our deepest sources of sustenance.
* G. W. Hewes, as quoted by Alfred Kroeber and Samuel Barrett in “Fishing Among the Indians of Northwest California,” University of California Anthropological Records 21:1 (1960).
One morning I followed the dissonance of some blaring horns to a small semicircle of lamas and monks chanting in full regalia on a mountainside. They saw me watching from down the slope, and waved me over with big grins. I sat and joined them for the afternoon around their fire, charmed by the cacophony of the horns and by the throaty, bass voices intoning the liturgy, and the sweetness of the rice cake offerings I was urged to eat, and the many birds soaring overhead, apparently drawn by the festivities. Only after several hours, when I stepped upslope to urinate behind some trees, did I discover, with a shock, that upon the rock platform just beside where I’d been sitting (just above my seated line of sight) was the naked, disemboweled corpse of a young woman! I felt the blood drain from my face. I was already walking back down to my spot when I first saw that splayed, bird-pecked body, its innards still attached yet laid open on the rock, and so could not easily slink away. I tried to contain my nausea as I dizzily took my seat at what I now realized was a funerary rite. The festive celebration I’d been enjoying for several hours abruptly morphed into a macabre, haunted ritual, stained by my own fear. The clamor of the horns now seemed sinister to my ears, and strong smells that I’d thought were from the incense now assailed my nostrils as a threat. Even the blue sky itself began to seem an oppressive power as it imbibed the dark smoke of the central fire.
I had never seen a corpse displayed in such a manner, much less sat beside one for a whole afternoon. As I slowly gathered my rattled wits, I came to realize that the deceased woman’s body was being offered to the animal powers and the spirits of the air. Hence the broad-winged lammergeiers and the other carrion birds that’d been circling overhead all afternoon. Death was not hidden here as it was where I came from, not cosmeticized to mask its unnerving power, nor embalmed to stave off decay. Instead it was displayed in all its matter-of-fact awfulness as the ever-present underside of existence; indeed, here it was being offered as food to the wilder life that surrounds us. I was stunned, grappling with the demons stirred inside me by what was happening. Yet the monks were smiling and sometimes laughing, at ease with their prayers as they guided the woman’s spirit through the bardo—through the gap between worlds. By the time I left the gathering, bowing low to the various lamas, my idyllic sense of these mountains, and the prayer-infused breezes that move between them, had deepened considerably to make space for the earthen tones of danger, disease, and death that color life in this stark terrain. To make room in my awareness for the loss and racking grief that shadows life on this planet, the rain of tears that somehow enables all this staggering beauty. Only after this encounter was I able, for the first time, to return the ferocious gaze of Mahakala—the horrifying, wrathful form of the Buddha—who glared down from the inner walls of the small monasteries that I came upon in these high valleys.
At one such gompa, the resident lama was startled into laughter by my sleight-of-hand metamorphosis of a simple, weathered stone into another, carved with prayers, that I’d found some days earlier. He took my hand and led me down a long trail to the river, so I could watch his two students as they worked with temple woodblocks artfully carved with Tibetan ritual verses. Normally these precious woodblocks were used to print out liturgical books. But now—amazingly!—the students were stamping the woodblocks over and over into the flowing surface of the river, so that the water would carry those printed prayers to the many lands through which it traveled on its long way to the Indian Ocean. Here, remarkably, was a culture wherein written letters were not used merely as a record of words once spoken, or as a score for oral speech, but as efficacious forces in their own right. The letters were not just passive signs, but energetic agents actively affecting the space around them. Whether written on the page of a book or carved into woodblocks, whether etched into standing stones or printed on flags, the Tibetan letters held a power that could be activated not only by human beings but by insects crawling through their cracks, and by water flowing along their shapes, and even by the breeze gusting across them. Human intentions, carried in dreams and prayers, mingled here with the intentions of stones, trees, and rivers. Clearly, “mind” in this mountain region was not a human possession; it was a power proper to every part of the elemental field.
We participate in this encompassing awareness with the whole of our body, as other animals participate in it with theirs, the snow leopard with its tensed muscles and the hawk with its splayed wing feathers. Every creature here inhabits and moves through the same field of mountains and melting ice, imbibing the same air, the same boulder-strewn awareness. Yet each animal filters this awareness with its particular senses, its access to the whole limited by the arrangement of its limbs and the specific style of its pleasures, by the way it obtains nourishment and the way it avoids becoming food for others. Each creature—two-leggeds included—has only a restricted access to the mystery of the real. As a human I may have compiled a great mass of data about the ways of the world, yet in a practical, visceral sense (carnal knowledge being the primary form of intelligence), an earthworm knows far more about the life of the soil than I do, as a swallow knows more about the wind. To be human is to have a very limited access to what is.
The human body is precisely our capacity for metamorphosis. We mistakenly think of our flesh as a fixed and finite form, a neatly bounded package of muscle and bone and bottled electricity, with blood surging its looping boulevards and byways. But even the most cursory pondering of the body’s manifold entanglements—its erotic draw toward other bodies; its incessant negotiation with that grander eros we call “gravity”; its dependence upon cloudbursts not just to quench its thirst but to enliven and fructify the various plants that it plucks, chomps, and swallows; its imbroglio with those very plants and a few animals, drawing nourishment from them for its muscles, skin, and senses before passing that chomped matter back to the world as compost that might, if we were frugal, be used to nourish the soils in which those plants sprout; its bedazzlement by birdsong; its pleasure at throwing stones into water and through glass; its mute seduction by the moon—suffices to make evident that the body is less a self-enclosed sack than a realm wherein the diverse textures and colors of the world meet up with one another. The body is a place where clouds, earthworms, guitars, clucking hens, and clear-cut hillsides all converge, forging alliances, mergers, and metamorphoses.
Clearly our body is altered and transformed as it moves through different lands. But if this is so, it is because the body is itself a kind of place—not a solid object but a terrain through which things pass, and in which they sometimes settle and sediment. The body is a portable place wandering through the larger valleys and plains of the earth, open to the same currents, the same waters and winds that cascade across those wider spaces. It is hardly a closed and determinate entity, but rather a sensitive threshold through which the world experiences itself, a traveling doorway through which sundry aspects of the earth are always flowing. Sometimes the world’s textures move across this threshold unchanged. Sometimes they are transformed by the passage. And sometimes they reshape the doorway itself.
It is a commonplace to observe that today the perceived world is everywhere filtered and transformed by technology, altered by the countless tools that interpose themselves between our senses and the earthly sensuous. It is less common to suggest that there’s a wildness that still reigns underneath all these mediations—that our animal senses, coevolved with the animate landscape, are still tuned to the many-voiced earth. Our creaturely body, shaped in ongoing interaction with the other bodies that compose the biosphere, remains poised and thirsting for contact with otherness. Cocooned in a clutch of technologies, the nervous system that seethes within our skin still thirsts for a relatively unmediated exchange with reality in all its more-than-human multiplicity and weirdness.
Of course, there can be no complete abolishment of mediation, no pure and unadulterated access to the real. Like other social species, we two-leggeds communicate intensely among ourselves, and the various languages we’ve evolved to do so are themselves a kind of filter that mediates our experience. Still, some ways of speaking are more abstract than others, and some are more permeable to the hooved or scaly shapes that flex and slither through the sensible surroundings. Certainly civilization has many highfalutin forms of speech that hold us aloof from our animal bodies and from the material ground underfoot. And the pervasive digitized forms of discourse that today bring instant communication with persons on the far side of the planet regularly interrupt any remaining rapport between our flesh and the sensuous locale. Yet there are other, older human discourses whose sounds still carry the lilt of the local songbirds, languages whose meanings are less removed from the intimacy of antler and seed and leaf. Such lan- guages live more on the tongue than on the page or screen. They thrive in societies that have not until recently been greatly influenced by the printed word—cultures where human meaning has not yet become wholly ensconced in a static set of visible signs. While every human language intercedes between the human animal and the animate earth, writing greatly densifies the verbal medium, rendering it more opaque to the many non-human shapes that dwell out beyond all our words. Non-written, oral languages are far more transparent, allowing the things and beings of the world to shine through the skein of terms and to touch us more directly.
To an oral culture, the world is articulated as story. The surrounding cosmos is not experienced as a set of fixed and finished facts, but as a story in which we (along with the moon sliding in and out of the clouds, and the trout leaping for a fly) are all participant. For the relation of a tale to its characters is much the same as the relation of this earthly cosmos to its inhabitants. Just as there is an interiority to the perceived world (carnally enfolded as we are by the round expanse of the terrain and the curving vault of the sky), so the characters in a well-told tale live and breathe within the voluminous interiority of the story itself.
In other words, we find ourselves situated in the land, with its transformations and cycles of change, much as protagonists are situated in a story. To a deeply oral culture, the earthly world is felt as a vast, ever-unfolding Story in which we—along with the other animals, plants, and landforms—are all characters.
In such a breathing cosmos, time is not a rectilinear movement from a distant past to a wholly different future. Rather, time has an enveloping roundness, like the encircling horizon. It is a mystery marked by the slide of the sun into the ground every evening and its rebirth every dawn, by the incessant cycling of the moon and the round dance of the seasons. The curvature of time is here inseparable from the apparent curvature of space; and indeed both remain rooted in the round primacy of place. For each place has its particular pulse. Each realm has its rhythms, its unique ways of sprouting and unfurling and giving birth to itself again and again—as the world itself turns and returns, and as indeed the best stories are told over and over again.
Further, a world made of story is an earth permeated by dreams, a terrain filled with imagination. Yet this is not so much our imagination, but rather the world’s imagination, in which our own actions are participant. As players within an expansive, ever-unfolding story, our lives are embedded within a psyche that is not primarily ours.
The dreamy, emotional atmosphere that permeates a story is much like the fluid atmosphere that enfolds our breathing bodies, with its storms and its calms. Awareness itself is here inseparable from the air—from this invisible medium, infused with sunlight, which circulates both within and all around us, binding our life together with that of the tempest and the swaying pines . . . So mind is not experienced as an exclusively human property, much less as a private possession that resides within one’s head. While there may indeed be an interior quality to the mind, for a deeply oral culture this interiority derives not from a belief that the mind is located within us, but from a felt sense that we are located within it, carnally immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Eairth’s.
Each entity participates in this enveloping awareness from its own angle and orientation, according to the proclivities of its own flesh. We inhale the awakened atmosphere through our skin or our flaring nostrils or the stomata in our leaves, circulating it within ourselves, lending something of our unique chemistry to the collective medium as we exhale, each of us thus animated by the wider intelligence even as we tweak and transform that intelligence. The rooted beings among us twist and flex in the invisible surge; other creatures are carried aloft by the whirling currents. The denser life of rock may seem impervious to those winds, yet the crevassed contours of the mountains have been carved over eons by the creativity of wind and weather, as those mountains now carve the wind in turn, coaxing spores out of the breeze and conjuring clouds out of the fathomless blue.
The wild mind of the planet blows through us all, ensconced as we are in the depths of this elusive medium. However, although it is our common element, every one of us experiences it differently. No two bodies or beings ever inhabit this big awareness from precisely the same angle, or with the same sensory organization and style. Since the body is precisely our interface and exchange with the field of awareness, a praying mantis’s experience of mind is as weirdly different from mine as its spindly body is different from mine; and the dreaming of an aspen grove is as different from both mine and the mantis’s as its own fleshly interchange with the medium is different from ours. It is our bodies that participate in awareness. Hence no one can feel, much less know, precisely how the big mystery reveals itself to another.
Here’s another way this might be said: each of us by our actions is composing our part of the story in concert with the other bodies or beings around us. Yet since we are situated within the story, dreaming our way through its voluminous depths according to the unique ways of our flesh, no one of us can discern precisely how the story can best be articulated by another. No human individual can fathom just how the encompassing imagination is experienced by any other person—much less by a turtle, or a thundercloud, or by a car door patiently rusting at the junkyard, its viridian paint flaking off in the desert heat.
Our carnal immersion in the depths of the Mysterious thus ensures an inherent and irreducible pluralism. And yet—and yet: although there is no single way to tell it, it is the same Tale that is unfurling itself through our gazillion and one gestures. It remains the same Eairth whose life-giving breath we all inhabit, the very same mystery that we each experience from our own place within its depths.
Something of this ancestral self stirs and awakens whenever we tell, with the whole of our body, a story that’s rooted in the local land, or whenever we listen to such a tale being told, not by some personage on a screen or a disembodied voice on the radio, but by a palpable person who stands before us, inhaling the same air that fills our own lungs as she gestures toward the gleaming crescent rising like an elephant’s tusk above the trees. It stirs in us when we wander down to sit with our child on the stones by the river, dangling a line below the surface while recounting a tale, first heard from our grandfather, about a talking fish who once granted him a simple wish in return for its watery life. Or here, in the high desert, when one comes upon a ropelike bit of scat, woven from crunched bones and mouse fur, judiciously placed like an indignant sign right in the middle of the path. For the ready recognition of that sign’s author sparks the memory of one or another story wherein that same Coyote, like a holy fool, accidentally upends the world.
But tricksters come in many forms. There are certain late nights, driving through the empty streets of the nearby city, when every green light turns to red just as I approach the intersection. Upon skidding to a stop at the sixth or seventh such insult, I suddenly recall how—in so many of the old tales—the spirits tend to linger and congregate at the crossroads. Aha! So those spirits are still here, drawn by the electric hum of the wires, flipping the traffic lights to red whenever they sense my approach, feeding gaily on the sparking rage of my resultant frustration: I’ll use the bicycle next time.
Whether in the heart of the city or the thick of the wilderness, our indigenous soul stirs and comes awake whenever we find ourselves thinking in storied form, and so the buildings lean toward us and the trees in the backyard begin to speak in low, groaning tones as the trunks rub against one another. If we are thinking in literate, logical terms then these tones are not voices, but when we’re thinking in stories then they are indeed a kind of speaking, for to the oral imagination every entity has its eloquence, and so our muscled flesh can’t avoid the sense that those sounds are filled with expressive meaning, as even the few clouds and the clustered rocks are alive with felt meanings, though we can hardly translate that meaning into words. The breeze is an elixir carrying the green chemistry of the needles up through the double arch of our nostrils to burst as a steady tang on the moist membranes inside, while the autumn blue of the sky, as it filters through the branches, is itself a kind of wine casting a giddy charm upon our limbs, making us crouch and leap with pleasure. This whole terrain is talking to our animal body; our actions are the steady reply.
That such participatory experiences remain accessible for many of us even in the midst of the technologized world—that they have not been eradicated by our more sophisticated ways of seeing and thinking—indicates that here there is something basic to the very constitution of the human creature, something necessary to our ongoing vitality as a species. That such animistic inclinations remain active underneath all our literate logics does not invalidate those more recent and refined logics—not at all! But it does suggest that our abstract forms of reflection remain dependent, in some manner, upon this older and more full-bodied mode of experience.
The stubborn persistence of participation suggests that this ancestral form of experience is the hidden ground in which reason remains rooted, the secret soil from whence all later forms of reflection draw their sustenance.
Our most immediate perceptual experience discloses a world in continual metamorphosis. Even the most allegedly stable landforms alter around us as we move among them, their hues transforming as the sun glides behind the clouds. The tonalities of each region modulate with the turning seasons. Two weeks ago, when my partner and I were gathering wild herbs in the mountains north of our home—digging osha roots and plucking nettles—I heard the very faint but unmistakable call, somewhat like the rusty hinge of an old screen door, of a sandhill crane. I glanced up into the cloudless, clarion blue of the autumn sky, but could see no bird. I scanned the surrounding valley and the cliffs looming above us. Nothing. Then again I heard it—that rusty but evocative bugling, seeming to come from several directions at once, as if there were several cranes, and it occurred to me that it was echoing off the tall cliffs. I stared back up into the sky, and suddenly far, far up there a glimmering white pattern crystallized out of the blue. It was a perfect V-shaped arrowhead, made of thirty or thirty-four cranes, visible only as the sun reflected off their flapping wings, a ripple of white spreading from the point backward along each slanted edge as the arrow advanced across the heavens. I stared and stared until the apparition was directly overhead, then took a moment to glance at Carmen; she looked back at me, grinning, and we swiveled our faces back toward the sky. Except . . . where were they? I poured my gaze into every part of the sky’s expanse, but could not find that slowmotion arrow. The cranes had dissolved back into the blue depths.
I heard Carmen’s voice, somewhat anxious: “Can you see them?”
“Did they just disappear, or what?!”
Two or three times, a bugling cry stuttered down out of the heights, but our eyes were unable to overcome the sky’s witchery, and we finally gave up.
The morning after that apparition and odd vanishing, I was searching for more roots when I was spooked by a brazen animal who chased me, leaping and crashing, down the wooded slope— my adrenaline gushing—until the predator abruptly resolved into a large, dislodged rock that tumbled on past. Relieved and shaken, I stopped to catch my breath. As my pulse eased back down, I noticed an abundance of dazzling cerulean blossoms on a nearby bush. Unable to identify them, I stepped closer to better inhale their color with my eyes, yet at my approach the blossoms seemed to quiver and undulate, then all at once they flapped skyward, morphing into a flock of blue butterflies.
Reality shapeshifts. Underneath our definitions, prior to all our ready explanations, the world disclosed by our bodily senses is a breathing cosmos—tranced, animate, and trickster-struck.
The oral stories, then, bring us close to our animal senses. They recall us to our bodily participation in the metamorphic depths of the sensuous. The tale of the sun’s journey through the ground stirs and resonates within us because it cuts through our easy abstractions, and calls us back to our most direct, creaturely encounter with the space around us. Our spontaneous, sensory awareness of the sun is of a fiery presence that rises and sets. Despite all we may have learned about the stability of the sun relative to the earth, no matter how thoroughly we’ve convinced our intellects that it is the earth that is really turning while the sun basically holds its place, our animal eyes still perceive the sun mounting up from the distant earth every morning, and sinking beneath the far-off ground every evening. Whether we are farmers or physicists, we all speak of the “rising” and the “setting” of the sun, for this remains our primary experience of the matter.
The story follows a kind of perceptual logic very different from the abstract logic we learned at school. It attends closely to the sensuous play of the world, allowing the unfolding pattern of that display to carry us into a place of dark wonder and possibility: that at night the sun replenishes itself in the material depths of the ground. There is a vivid imagination at work in the tale, although it’s an imagination steadily nourished by our senses, and one that nourishes them in turn. The story does not ask us to forsake the evidence of our eyes, but invites us to look deeper, and to listen ever closer, feeling our way into participation with a palpable cosmos at least as alive and aware as we are. The jostling elemental powers that compose this animate cosmos are sometimes lucid and sometimes dazed—like us, they must give themselves over to sleep, and the magic of dreams, if they wish to renew themselves.
Informed by the logic of our creaturely senses, the story gestures toward a great secret: that there’s a blazing luminosity that resides at the heart of the earth. The tale suggests that the salutary goodness of light makes its primary home within the density and darkness of matter. That the transcendent, life-giving radiance that daily reaches down to us from the celestial heights also reaches up to us from far below the ground. That there’s a Holiness that dwells and dreams at the very center of the earth.
That which transcends the sensuous world also secretly makes its home deep within this world. However blasphemous such an affirmation may sound to persons of a theistic bent, the aboriginal intuition of a resplendence immanent in matter accords well with a new sense of the sacred now striving to be born.
Our age-old disparagement of corporeal reality has in our time brought not just our kind but the whole biosphere to a horrific impasse. The aspiration for a bodiless purity that led so many to demean earthly nature as a fallen, sinful realm (and the related will-to-control that’s led us to ceaselessly mine and manipulate nature for our own, exclusively human, purposes) has made a mangled wreckage of this elegantly interlaced world. Yet a new vision of our planet has been gathering, quietly, even as the old, armored ways of seeing stumble and joust for ascendancy, their metallic joints creaking and crumbling with rust. Beneath the clamor of ideologies and the clashing of civilizations, a fresh perception is slowly shaping itself—a clarified encounter between the human animal and its elemental habitat.
It is a perception that honors the immeasurable otherness of things, the way that any earthborn presence exceeds the calculations we perform upon it—the manner in which each stone, each gust of wind, each termite-ridden log or gliding sea turtle harbors and bodies forth a creativity that resists all definition. As though there’s a subtle fire burning within each sensible presence, a heartbeat unique to each being—not only to persons, then, and individual woodpeckers, but also bulrushes and granite slabs, gashes burned into trees by lightning, pollen grains, katydids, coral reefs, and shed snakeskins. This unique creativity ensures that we don’t really perceive the beings around us unless we suspend our already-settled certainties, opening ourselves toward whatever pulse rides within each thing we meet. The expectation of a basic enigma at the heart of every ostensible “object” kindles a new humility within ourselves, engendering an empathic attunement to our surroundings and a compassionate resolve to do least harm.
Despite our inherited conceptions, sensible things are not fixed and finished objects able to be fathomed all at once. Their incomplete quality opens them to the influence of other things, ensuring that each entity—earthworm, musk ox, thundercloud, cactus flower—is held within an interdependent lattice of relationships, a matrix of exchanges and reciprocities that is not settled within itself but remains fluid and adaptable, able to respond to perturbations from afar, yielding a biosphere that is not, finally, a clutch of determinate mechanisms but a living sphere, breathing…
The hyper-rational objectivity behind a great deal of contemporary techno-science could only have arisen in a civilization steeped in a dogmatic and other-worldly monotheism, for it is largely a continuation of the very same detached and derogatory relation to sensuous nature. If in an earlier era we spoke of the earthly world as fallen, sinful, and demonic, we now speak of it as mostly inert, mechanical, and determinate. In both instances nature is stripped of its generosity and prodigious creativity. Similarly, the utopian technological dreaming that would have us bioengineer our way into a new and “more perfected” nature (or would have us download human consciousness into “better hardware”), like the new-age wish to spiritually transcend the “physical plane” entirely, seems calculated to help us hide from the shadowed wonder and wildness of earthly existence.
All of these dodges, all of these ways of disparaging material nature or of aiming ourselves elsewhere, enable us to avoid the vulnerability of real relationship with other persons and places in the depths of this unmasterable world. Despite the several pleasures we might draw from life in this world, there remains something about earthly reality that frightens us, and especially unnerves most of us born into civilization. Not just the decay to which our earthborn bodies are prone, and the death that patiently awaits us, but also our steady subjection to what exceeds us, to the otherness of other persons and other beings, and to an anarchic array of elemental forces over which we have little control. To exist as a body is to be constrained from being everything, and so to be exposed and susceptible to all that is not oneself—able to be tripped up at any moment by the inscrutability of a pattern one cannot fathom.
Why is this simple and rather obvious intuition—this recognition of matter as generative and animate—so disturbing to civilized thought? It’s as though there’s an ancient dread of what is palpably dense, an old and unspoken taboo against acknowledging the creativity of matter—as if by such a recognition we risk waking a slumbering power that intends us harm. An ancestral sense that whatever is genuinely good in this world must have its ultimate source in what is above and ethereal, while whatever is dense, dark, and downward must be avoided at all costs. As though the damp soil underfoot was solely a medium of death and decay and not, as well, the very source and fundament of new life. As though what is deeper down below is best not pondered at all, lest we fall under its infernal influence. For (and let us hope that we don’t provoke its wrath by such speaking) is not that deep-down place the terrible locus of Hell, the very dwelling of Satan and the fiery source of all that’s evil?
Is this, then, why we feel compelled to distinguish our reflective selves from our material bodies, and strive to hold ourselves aloof from the density of earth? Is not this civilization, in both its religious and its secular variants, still beholden to an old topological aversion layered deep within our languages and tightly held within our muscles? An inherited, habitual dichotomy between an absolute Good that summons us from on high and a perfect Evil that drags us down?
Whenever the wild diversity of experience is twisted into a simple opposition between what’s good and what’s bad, whenever the heterogeneous multiplicity of life is polarized into a battle between a pure Good and a pure Evil, then the earth itself is bound to suffer at our hands. When the sacred is conceptually stripped of its various shadows and idealized as a pure light, or Goodness, without any taint of the dark, then those stripped-away shadows inevitably seem to gather into a concentrated and implacable gloom, or Badness. The unsullied light can only be located above and beyond this ambiguous world with its shadowed woodlands and its swamps, its cycles of growth and decay. The unadulterated darkness, meanwhile, must be located in a realm utterly inaccessible to that light, and is therefore assumed to dwell far underground, at the center of the earth. And earthly nature, for all its abundance, comes to seem a tainted place, all too much under the abysmal influence of what lies below. Sure, this world is illuminated by the sun’s radiance, by that light that draws new shoots from the soil and beckons our spirits to ascend. But the weight and density of our material bodies render us vulnerable to the pull of what lies below. Our thick physicality holds us to the ground, drawing us down toward that place of sheer dread, without light, at the dense center of this world. There’s no escaping this downward drag while we’re alive. No wonder a civilization steeped in the polarization of Good versus Evil wreaks such havoc on the rest of nature. No wonder so many creatures are dwindling and disappearing, their homes ravaged with toxins, their forests transformed to stumps…
Was this inevitable? The old oral stories about the sun’s night journey through the ground give evidence that the simple opposition between an infinite light and a concentrated dark—between a perfect goodness and a pure malevolence—is not instinctive for the human animal, and indeed is of very recent vintage relative to the enormous depth of our indigenous ancestry.
If the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo loosened the earth from the center of the universe, they also opened a profound rift between our sensing bodies and our thinking minds— between our direct, sensory experience of the world, in which the sun moved across the sky of a stable earth, and our new intellectual apprehension of the world, in which the sun remained stable while the earth itself moved. If the sun was really motionless, then everything our senses showed us was untrustworthy. As Copernican and Newtonian insights took hold, sensory perception was increasingly derided as deceptive; only that which could be measured and analyzed mathematically could be taken as true. The spreading cultural detachment from bodily experience enabled a new audacity in our human researches, empowering a wondrous range of discoveries and technological innovations. But it also left us curiously adrift, bereft of our most immediate source of contact and rapport with the surrounding terrain. Dismissing our felt experience, we sacrificed much of our animal empathy with the animate earth, forfeiting the implicit sustenance we’d always drawn from that empathy. While amassing our analytic truths and deploying our technologies, we became more and more impervious to the needs of the living land, oddly inured to the suffering of other animals and to the fate of the more-than-human world.
Might there be ways to recover our attunement without abandoning intellectual rigor? Corporeal sensations, feelings, our animal propensity to blend with our surroundings and be altered by them, our bedazzlement by birdsong and our susceptibility to the moon: none of these ought to be viewed as antithetical to clear thought. Our animal senses are neither deceptive nor untrustworthy; they are our access to the cosmos. Bodily perception provides our most intimate entry into a primary order of reality that can be disparaged or dismissed only at our peril. Far from offering an untrustworthy account of things, our senses disclose an ever-shifting reality that is not amenable to any finished account, an enigmatic and encompassing field of relationships to which we can only apprentice ourselves. This ambiguous order cannot be superseded by reason and the careful practice of our sciences, since it provides the experiential substance without which reason becomes rudderless. As the very substance of the real, it cannot be supplanted—but it can be augmented, elaborated, clarified, and complexified by those sciences. And our participation within it can be honed and deepened by our discoveries.