David Abram and Animism – Everything is Alive. Everything Speaks.

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

David Abram‘s perspective on how we perceive the world around us and how that perception can not only alter the ideas we may have about this world , but that it can also dramatically impact how we interact  (or inter-be as Thich Nhat Hanh would say) with everything and everyone we come into contact with  – this is of particular interest to me. I had read his Spell of the Sensuous some time ago and have had his Becoming Animal on my shelf, unread, since it was first released. I have finally taken it down and begun to dive into it. It challenges me to get out of my head and into my body, to be present. It also challenges me to look at the world with new eyes and to connect more dots as to why I have such an interest in this and related subjects which I hope to explore more as time allows.

The following are extended excerpts from an interview he gave to Derrick Jensen in 2000. That interview is worth reading in its entirety if the following is of any interest.

David Abram –

I’m trying to understand how it’s possible that a culture of intelligent critters like ourselves can so recklessly and so casually destroy so much that is mysterious and alive, and in the course of it destroy so much of ourselves and our own capacity for wonder.

And it seems to me that it is not out of any real meanness that we are destroying so much of our world. It’s simply that we no longer notice these other beings, no longer really notice or feel that we are a part of the same world that the ravens and the rivers inhabit. We don’t sense that we’re inside the same story in which the squirrels and the salmon are characters.  Somehow our ways of speaking, and our ways of living, perpetuate this odd notion that we stand outside of the world, apart from the world, looking at it, pondering it as if from some distant vantage point.  And our science steadily tries to figure out the world, to come up with a precise blueprint of how it all works — as if the world were a vast machine we could somehow diagram and control if we can just get the right perspective.

How can we humans live in right relation to this river valley so that both we and the river and the salmon can all flourish — rather than: what kind of a machine is a salmon in itself, or what are the mechanisms that make this forest tick? By asking these latter questions we take ourselves out of relation to the forest, out of relation to the salmon, in order to comprehend their workings. I suppose it would be okay if we then brought ourselves back into a living relation with those beings. But we don’t! Instead we begin to focus on how to manipulate the forest, how to engineer the genome of the salmon for our own ostensible benefit.  So much research, today, seems motivated less by a sense of wonder than by a great will-to-control. It is a mark of immaturity, I think, a sign that science is still in its adolescence.

In our culture we speak about nature a great deal.  Mature cultures speak to nature.  They feel the rest of nature speaking to them.  They feel the ground where they stand as it speaks through them.  They feel themselves inside and a part of a vast and steadily unfolding story in which storm clouds and spiders are just as much players as they are

If we wish to find ourselves in a more respectful relation with the rest of the earth around us, the simplest and most elegant way I know of is simply to stop insulting all the things around us by speaking of them as passive objects, and instead begin to allow things their own elemental spontaneity, their own active agency — their own life.  As soon as you begin speaking in such a way, you start noticing things a hell of a lot more.  You suddenly find yourself in a dynamic relationship with all the presences around you — with the air you breathe, the chair you’re sitting on, the house in which you live.  You find yourself negotiating relationships with other beings all the time. And you realize that ethics is not something to be practiced only with other humans — that all of our actions have ethical consequences.

Every indigenous, oral culture that we know of — every culture that has managed to sustain itself over the course of many centuries without destroying the land that supports it — simply refuses to draw such a distinction between animate and inanimate matter.

If we speak of matter as essentially inanimate, or inert, we establish the need for a graded hierarchy of beings:  stones have no agency or experience whatsoever; bacteria have a minimal degree of life; plants have a bit more life, with a rudimentary degree of sensitivity; “lower” animals are more sentient, yet still stuck in their instincts; “higher” animals are more aware; while humans alone are really awake and intelligent. In this manner we continually isolate human awareness above, and apart from, the sensuous world. It takes us out of relationship with the things around us. If, however, we assume that matter is alive and self-organizing from the get-go, then hierarchies vanish, and we are left with a wildly differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has its gifts relative to the others. And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this web, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.

In relation to certain human artifacts, particularly the mass-produced objects, it is difficult to make contact with and feel the unique life of that presence.  Yet one can find that life pulsing, most readily, in the materials of which that artifact is made.  In the wood of the telephone pole, which was once standing in a forest, in the clay bricks of the apartment building, even in the smooth metal alloy of the truck door that you lean against — there, in those metals originally mined from the bones of the breathing earth, one can still feel the presence of patterns that are earth born, and that still carry something of that wider life. But if I look at the truck purely as a truck, what I see is not something that is born, but something that is made.  And there is surely an important distinction between the born and the made.  But even with that distinction, the made things are still made from matter, from the flesh of a living cosmos.

So while our indigenous ancestors dialogue richly with the surrounding field of nature, consulting with the other animals and the earthly elements as they go about their lives, the emergence of alphabetic writing made it possible for us to begin to dialogue solely with our own signs in isolation from the rest of nature. By short-circuiting the ancestral reciprocity between our sensing bodies and the sensuous flesh of the world, the new participation with our own written signs enabled human language to close in on itself, enabled language to begin to seem our own private possession, and not something born from our encounter with other expressive beings — from the speech of thunder and the rushing rivers. We no longer sense that language was taught to us by the sounds and gestures of the other animals, or by the roar of the wind as it pours through the trees. Language now seems a purely human power, something that unfolds only between humans, or between between us and our own written signs. The rest of the landscape loses its voice; it begins to fall mute. It no longer seems filled with its own manifold meanings, its own expressive power…

…Today the only things you can enter into relationship with are other humans. Yet the human nervous system still needs the nourishment that it once got from being in reciprocity with all these other shapes of sensitivity and sentience. And so we turn toward each other, toward our human friends and our lovers, in hopes of meeting that need. We turn toward our human partners demanding a depth and range of otherness that they cannot possibly provide.  Another human cannot possibly provide all of the outrageously diverse and vital nourishment that we once got from being in relationship with dragonflies and swallowtails and stones and lichen and turtles.  It’s just not possible.  We used to carry on personal relationships with the sun and the moon and the stars! To try and get all that, now, from another person — from another nervous system shaped so much like our own — continually blows apart our relationships, it explodes so many of our marriages, because they can’t withstand that pressure…

…The point really is that we don’t have to be wise enough.  It’s more a matter of realizing that the wisdom, or intelligence, was never ours to begin with. Mind is not a human property: it’s a quality of the Earth. As we begin to loosen up, to allow the life of the things around us, and to speak accordingly, we start to notice that this awareness we thought was ours does not really belong to us.  It is the earth that’s really intelligent, not humans apart. Along with the other animals, the plants, and the drifting clouds, we are bodily immersed in the mind of this living world.

So perhaps we don’t need to become exceedingly intelligent or wise. We simply need to open up, once again, to the living land, learning its intricacies and patterns.  Each place has its own style of awareness, its own wisdom.  If we humans are still around at the end of the twenty-first century, it will likely be because we’re at last finding our way toward a new humility, a new reciprocity with the animate earth.”

5 responses

  1. Very thought provoking. I hope you don’t mind me bloviating a bit here. I think necessity has something to do with our distancing ourselves from the sensate world. When we can open the frig and pop open a container of prepared food we lose the sense that we need the world. So much is provided for us by the mass production of everything from food to clothing and shelter. We adjust. What outside world? Our minds are attending to the next layer; mediated experience, in which we are surrounded by information so that it has become a full-time job to selectively filter what to attend to and what to ignore. This is what abundance looks like. We squander our attention on what teases the eye and fills the void quickly. No need to reflect and discern. We can get away with a lot, but be left very empty by the booty.


    July 22, 2013 at 3:57 am

    • You are so right. The modern world provides plenty of distractions and simulated realities so much so that it can be a real challenge to step away from it and feel connected to anything but the noise in our heads.

      On another note – According to Wikipedia, Abram and Hillman were friends. I wonder what Hillman had to say about this (other than the brief jacket blurb for ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’)?


      July 23, 2013 at 2:12 am

  2. Oh cool! I was not aware of their connection. I must look into that and find out a bit more. Actually, I am not very familiar with David Abram, so that is another branch to venture out on. Thanks!
    My summer exercise: In the morning when I walk from my car into the building where I work, I am practicing breathing in the fresh morning air – it makes me realize that I don’t always breathe deeply enough.


    July 23, 2013 at 3:32 am

    • I think that’s cool. Breathing is one way to calm yourself , to stay grounded, and to stay present. Dolores Brien reviews Abram’s first book for the CG Jung society here http://www.cgjungpage.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=876&Itemid=1
      and touches on what he says about ‘air’ and the breath and the definition of psyche and our relationship with it.
      It might add another dimension to your morning practice.
      Abram truly is thought provoking and challenging. He makes me look at the way I live my life with new critical eyes.


      July 24, 2013 at 3:03 am

      • Thanks for this. I downloaded a sample of his book onto my Kindle and listened to one of his lectures on Ecology & Psyche that I found on youtube. Good stuff!


        July 24, 2013 at 5:36 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s