Replenishing Oral Culture:
ReStorying the Local Earth
The Alliance for Wild Ethics is engaged in the ongoing and many-faceted work of rejuvenating oral culture – the culture of face-to-face and face-to-place storytelling.* We excavate stories that live in the land, stories rooted in particular places, tales that contain not just human characters but other animals who figure as protagonists, mentors, and tricksters, wherein local plants dynamically deploy their powers, wherein river-bends and boulder-strewn mountainsides enact their own active part in the tales. By rejuvenating oral culture, we resuscitate and preserve traditional ecological knowledge systems and the place-based practices carried and handed down in the stories.
Allies seek out and learn from the layered folklore of the particular bioregions where we undertake these projects, laboring to gain the confidence of native elders and healers indigenous to the region, visiting with old farmers whose families who have lived with and learned from the land generation after generation. We invite such elders and other locals to join us on rambles through the terrain, and to share with us songs and tales that hold something of the unique efficacy and dreaming of the place, and to help us discern the most potent ways to renew and replenish those traditions.
In each case we work to ultimately bring diverse residents of the watershed together, out on the land, to participate in fresh tellings of those local stories, weaving the tales – and the songs and even the dances that sometimes accompany those tales – into seasonal rituals that can gradually, year by year, bind the community ever more deeply into the more-than-human dynamics of the local terrain. Our simple conviction is that we cannot restore the land without restorying the land.
One installment of this project unfolded in the summer of 2015, in the mountains and valleys of Western Norway, where the Alliance for Wild Ethics brought field biologists and storytellers from Europe, Britain, and the United States together with local farmers, craftspeople, and elders for a weeklong ramble on foot through a region steeped in old, bioregional traditions, walking from the central mountains of Norway through rural valleys and millenium-old yet still active farming settlements, down to the edge of the longest fjord in Europe, listening to and learning place-based stories as we went, breathing fresh life into the tales, empowering local tellers and singing up the land, according a new and deeply felt primacy to evolving place-based ecological traditions in the face of the rapidly spreading technological monoculture.
Here are a few images from that journey:
AWE returned to the same region a year later, in the summer of 2016, this time hiking the same route – the same songline – but now in reverse, making our way up from the small fishing hamlet of Aurland, on the Sognefjord, up through valleys articulated by innumerable waterfalls, encamping once again at a different farm each night, listening and telling in fresh forms the many tales we’d first heard the year before, and in this way planting those stories (many of which had been all but forgotten) back in the living landscape. Through our efforts in tandem with the local farmers and goatherds, the terrain is beginning to hold those potent stories once again, carrying the tales in particular places where the more-than-human mix of cliff and rushing water, of wild herbs and creatures and weather beaten trees now compel fresh regard and protection, and hence are vibrant with fresh life.
By undertaking such place-based projects in different bioregions, discovering what works (and what doesn’t) in divergent situations and divergent cultures, AWE is gradually assembling a pool of necessary insights and best practices for the ecological work of renewing oral culture. That is, for the ongoing work of aligning our human communities with the more-than-human collectives that sustain them. In the language of social theorist Ivan Illich, we are assembling a set of “tools for conviviality” – practices for replenishing an ethic of reciprocity between people and places.
* The very useful term “face-to-place” was coined by Marc Tognotti.
The Origins Project
The Alliance for Wild Ethics is lending its support and expertise to the Origins project, an ambitious initiative working for cultural regeneration among San Bushmen communities in the Kalahari Desert. Working in tandem with the legendary tracker and nature educator Jon Young and anthropologist Nicole Apelian, our intention is to bring a deepening sense of pride and self-determination to specific Bushmen communities, helping to revitalize the very oldest traditions of human-earth reciprocity on the planet. Together we help to empower the intergenerational exchange of ancestral knowledge, practices, and traditions rich in song, dance, ecstatic trance, animal tracking, interspecies communication, plant knowledge, and low-impact flourishing skills – all of which are under increasing threat from harsh and exploitative land-development schemes.
To this end, in late March of 2017 Alliance director Dr. David Abram will co-lead a ten-day expedition to the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, in partnership with tracker Jon Young and Dr. Nicole Apelian, to visit and learn from a remarkable hunting and gathering community of Naro San Bushmen, practicing the arts of tracking and bird language with an exuberant people whose culture is now recognized as one of the most ancient and venerable human traditions still in existence anywhere on Earth. Evenings will be spent sharing stories and songs, trance dance and healing with the San around their communal fire. The second half of our journey will be spent honing our nature-awareness skills in the outrageous exuberance of the Okavango Delta, one of the most wildlife-rich places in all of Africa. We are accepting only 12 participants on this expedition, which will start and end in Maun, Botswana, and will run from March 26th through April 4th of 2017. If you are interested in joining us, please contact us as swiftly as possible, by visiting this website.
An Ethics for Technology:
Valuing the Earthly Sensuous in an Era of Augmented Reality
Many persons, today, feel a buoyant sense of possibility with regard to the near and longterm future, an upbeat and expectant optimism fed by the rapid and unceasing emergence of new technologies (and the new forms of association, communication, commerce, and transport made possible by those inventions). At the same time, many other persons are beset by a deepening malaise whenever they contemplate our collective future,a sense of despondency and eerie gloom triggered by the rapidly metastasizing signs of ecological breakdown, biodiversity loss, and runaway climate change.
How can we best make sense of this odd juxtaposition of moods? What are the actual relations between these two ostensibly contrary currents – deepening ecological catastrophe (with its concomitant tone of melancholy) and rapidly burgeoning technology (with its attendant technological utopianism)? The Alliance for Wild Ethics is working to disclose the hidden patterns that connect these apparently divergent trends within society. By our focus upon sensorial experience, and by our engagement with indigenous communities and place-based practices, we aim to counter ecological despondency with a dawning awareness of new-old possibilities as yet unglimpsed within the dominant cultural mindset. Yet we also work to temper the techno-utopian zeal of our fellow citizens with a clear-eyed and grounded awareness of earthly and ecological constraints. We have no wish to disparage (much less demonize) technological innovation and know-how. Rather, our aim is to carefully develop and articulate a powerful set of ethical principles for the development and deployment of technologies in the era of mass extinction.
Eairth and the Commonwealth of Breath:
Translating Science into Felt Experience
While climate destabilization affects every aspect of human existence, it remains – for most persons – an exceedingly abstract process (operating at spatial and temporal scales far beyond their direct experience) with little bearing upon how we go about their daily lives. Hence politicians, business leaders, and policy makers are still able to ignore the mountain of evidence with little pushback, and to endlessly postpone making the difficult decisions necessary to protect our descendants and to safeguard the rapidly-dwindling biodiversity of the Earth.
As a counter to such abstraction, the Alliance for Wild Ethics works to galvanize awareness and catalyze action by communicating a much more direct, visceral experience of our human entanglement with the rest of the biosphere. We offer fresh ways of demonstrating each individual’s interdependence with other species, with the soils, with the waters and the shifting winds of this planet. In contrast to conventional discourse, which articulates global warming in the rarefied language of “parts per million carbon dioxide,” we help planetary citizens to recognize that the climate is as close to us as the unseen air flowing in and out of our nostrils (as crucial, and as easy to take for granted, as breathing itself). We have helped tens of thousands of people to discern the atmosphere as a sensitive organ of this planet, an invisible ocean generated by the interbreathing of innumerable plant, animal, and bacterial species, including ourselves. And hence that we live not ON the Earth but rather IN the Eairth, in the depths of this breathing planet.
The Alliance for Wild Ethics draws steady insight from the natural sciences, attentively engaging current developments within biology, geology, and earth systems science, interrogating the rich discoveries arising within ethnobotany and cultural ecology, neurobiology and physical cosmology. But while the evidence of the sciences, today, is often framed in arcane and jargon-ridden language laced with statistical abstractions, AWE works to steadily translate these quantitative disclosures into the more qualitative language of felt experience. What bearing do these findings have upon our direct, visceral encounters with one another and with the living land around us? By undertaking such translation, AWE works to retrieve direct experience from the ongoing technologization of everyday life, and to correct the dangerous misconception that the human intellect is in any way separable from the human body in its ongoing interchange with the animate Earth.
Aligning the Human Animal with the Animate Earth
How does the human creature attune to the rhythms of a place; how does the human animal move within the more-than-human terrain? Starting in 2012 the Alliance for Wild Ethics began exploring, cultivating, and now enacting a powerful emergent practice for aligning the human animal with the animate earth. In this era of transformation, when so many are struggling to meet the biospheric changes now upon us, PlaceDancing is an improvisational adventure into the felt space between the body and the breathing land.
Developed by cultural ecologist David Abram and by choreographer Taira Restar, PlaceDancing is a practice whereby persons of divergent backgrounds and ages begin to awaken their creaturely senses, slipping into subtle movement and dynamic interchange with trees, rocks, sunlight, wind, cricket-rhythms, soil and mycelial webs, high-stepping herons and billowing cloud-shadows. We inquire: how does the many-voiced intelligence of a particular place speak to, and through, your person?
Imagine an ensemble composed of windswept pines, gliding pelicans, rolling sand dunes, wildflowers, a gray whale diving with her calf. Imagine yourself as an integral part of the ensemble, its life and your own life meeting, entwining, informing one another. There, where rocky bluffs and freshwater marshes meet the ocean, the place is inviting us to dance…
Using dynamic empathy, improvisational dance, organic interplay with bodies human and other-than-human, spontaneous sounding and earthly poetics, in each extended workshop participants practice both as individuals and in ensemble. Under such titles as “Rock Tree Cloud” or “Wind Rock Wave,” we have enacted multiday PlaceDancing investigations in diverse bioregions – from the desert southwest of North America to Point Reyes National Seashore, from the Rocky Mountains to the islands of British Columbia – and we will gradually bring this dynamic ecological practice into many more ecosystems. In 2017, AWE will begin training other PlaceDancing practitioners to spread this practice into a diverse range of cultures and communities.
Community Practices for Healing Places and Empowering Persons
Members of the Alliance have been carefully developing a collective healing tradition, a practice that takes variant forms in different places. Reciprocal Medicine brings various members of a community together for regular gatherings (whether once a month, or four times a year) during which the participants intentionally bind their collective intelligence to the manifold sentience of the local earth, affirming and honoring the more-than-human agencies that inhabit and compose the surrounding terrain.
The practice of Reciprocal Medicine can be viewed as a non-sectarian ritual open to spontaneous expressions of gratitude to the more-than-human community of beings, as well to deep-hearted expressions of grief for new wounds and losses undergone by the local earth (new oil spills, losses of habitat, interrupted migrations). It is an emergent ceremonial form arising in response to slowly mounting ecological disarray, and to the societal fracturing, resentment, and violence that can rise in the wake of such disarray. Weaving unforced, oral eloquence with resonant silence, throughout the practice participants engage in deep listening to one another and to the many-voiced landscape, carefully remembering themselves to the broader collective of animate beings. Participants feed that wider collective with their affections, appreciations, and their spoken praises, then draw upon the unique medicines of that wider collective in order to acknowledge, soothe, and alleviate wounds to individuals and/or families that have experienced grievous and unexpected loss, and know not how to reconcile themselves to such losses.
From the silent and reciprocal exchange of breath with the local plants, participants collectively bring attention to their alliance with the soils and the rains and the rivers of that realm, to their solidarity with the manifold plants and the diverse animals of the watershed, and to their alliance with local landforms and weather patterns. They then call upon the strength of this renewed alliance to interrupt, intercept, and transform the age-old human impulse toward scapegoating and blame, inviting the medicine of this earthly solidarity to enfold and dissolve the human instinct to inflict violence on others whenever hard times are at hand.
For it is now apparent that instability, difficulty and loss will intensify in every part of the biosphere throughout the present century and likely beyond. In this era of high population and big technology, neither humankind nor the rest of nature can long withstand the internecine hatred and reckless aggression to which our species has shown itself to be prone.
The practice of reciprocal medicine, between persons and places, is thus an ongoing practice of solidarity, an evolving culture of awakening to which we commit ourselves. There is nothing religious about this practice (although it may be engaged in by persons of every faith and by persons of no faith). Rather, the practice adheres only to our most immediate and directly-felt encounter with the more-than-human community of life, and with one another as plain members, and citizens, of that breathing commonwealth.
Film: Becoming Animal
A feature-length documentary inspired by the work of David Abram is currently in production. Directed by two visionary artists, the multiple award-winning Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler (Picture of Light; Gambling, Gods, and LSD; Petropolis (Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands); The End of Time) and the Scottish documentary director Emma Davie (I Am Breathing). Filming began in Wyoming in the autumn of 2015 and was completed in 2016; assuming that the necessary funding becomes available, editing will get underway in the summer of 2017.
Education and Outreach:
Depth Ecology and Wild Ethics
In addition to current projects, AWE regularly facilitates lectures, seminars, workshops and trainings that seed and spread various facets of Wild Ethics (the place-based ethical principles and practices developed and honed in ongoing collaboration among members of the Alliance). AWE also lends its support to depth-ecological research and incisive writing that furthers its ethical aims: opening new opportunities for reciprocity and deepened rapport between humans and the more-than-human earth.
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to sustain the ongoing work of the Alliance for Wild Ethics. We put your donation to great use in support of the exuberant, many-voiced Earth. Thank You!