on 5 March 2011
David Abram is a true magician, superbly skilled in both slight of hand magic and in the literary art of awakening us to the superabundant wonders of the natural world. He is also without doubt one of America's greatest nature writers who ably follows in the footsteps of Muir,Thoreau and Leopold, fructifying their legacy with rich infusions from the writings of Merleau Ponty, Husserl and Heidegger - the masters and creators of phenomenology who taught us to pay attention to lived experience as it happens in its very happening.
This book is the long-awaited sequel to his earlier masterpiece, The Spell of the Sensuous, which restores to modern consciousness the ancient animistic sensibility that all things are redolent with life and meaning - that everything is saturated with soul: mountains, forests, and even manufactured objects like cars and buildings. The essential achievement of Spell was for me the revelation of how all beings, living and non-living, palpably bring us home to the pulsing heart of the world when we listen to their long-stifled voices - when we unpack their hidden messages with the intuitive power that lies slumbering in our animal bodies.
In Becoming Animal, Abram carries us off on new and enlivening journeys into the radically exciting possibilities of this animistic style of perception, deftly validating his dextrous explorations with profound insights from philosophy, ecology and his sometimes hair raising experiences in the great wild landscapes that infuse him again and again with deep inspiration and a vibrant sense of the real.
This is a book of such transformative potential that it needs to be read twice in quick succession to get the full benefit. I did just this, starting again as soon as I had finished my first reading so that I could savour so much that I had missed in that first powerful immersion. The language is luminous, the style hypnotic. Abram weaves a spell that brings the world alive before your very eyes as everyday things that seemed dead all of a sudden take on new life, new meaning and a new purpose.
Take shadows. For Abram, they are thick volumes of shade - remains of the night's sentience that survive the day by gluing themselves to objects exposed to the glaring light of the sun. As the sun disappears behind the horizon, shadows slowly seep back into the world. When night finally arrives we are carried into the "mammoth shadow of the earth" and hence into the particular style of awareness adopted by the very earth itself as it contemplates the vast spaces of its intergalactic habitat, speckled with stars and planets. Shadows even permeate our sleep, says Abram, for "sleep 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... sleep is the shadow of the earth as it seeps into our skin... dissolving our individual will into the thousand and one selves that compose it".
Abram also enlivens our taken-for-granted sense of depth with the transformative power of his perceptual magic. When deep in the mountains, Abram enters into that "exlir state of mind called `wilderness'", in which the landscape reveals its psyche by metamorphosing around him as he explores its rugged contours. He experiences the landscape walking past him rather than the other way around: forests on distant mountain slopes come alive and keep pace with his walking, whilst trees nearer him smoothly ease themselves by him at different rates depending on their proximity. Entering a narrow creek, he experiences the subtle intimacy of its cloistered ambiance, with its fox tracks, stream bed pebbles and insect exoskeletons. Later still, as massive mountains suddenly disappear behind thick clouds, he marvels at this earthly archetype of his own subtle craft: sleight of hand magic.
Thus does the world reveal itself in its ambiguous depths as Abram discovers himself deeply inside the physical world. Even clouds, he says, are part of our turning world, pulled as they are by the thickness of the atmosphere itself. So he gives us a new word, `Eairth', to remind us that the air is as much a part of the earth as the biosphere, the waters and the rocks, and that our `i', or self is totally immersed in the swirling air. Eairth implies that we live in the earth and not merely on it as disconnected observers.
At just the right moments, Abram steps out of the richly textured flow of his startling narrative to give us a more discursive look at how our perceptions became befuddled and disconnected from the earth by the mechanistic style of thinking that took root during the scientific revolution. Descartes features strongly here, of course, with his famous schism between the human mind on the one hand and the supposedly lifeless material world on the other. Abram interprets recent efforts to heal this split as a resuscitation of the approach developed by the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who argued that mind and matter are in fact two aspects of the same substance, `God or Nature' - implying that every material body has an inner, mental aspect. Abram develops this insight by suggesting that the human body is in fact an "open entity" whose sentience is utterly entwined with the sentience of soils, waters and the very air itself, all of which flow through us continuously to constitute our very existence. In short, Abram proposes that our human style of sentience emerges from the encounter between our own living flesh and the sentient flesh of the world.
This intertwining of different styles of sentience gives rise to a marvellous correspondence between our own moods and those of the landscapes that surround us. Walking in woods keeps our thoughts "close and complexly patterned", wide meadows call forth "wide vistas of feeling", whilst expansive views from a high mountain on a clear day reveal mind to be a "vast thing, open and at ease". Thus, each place is, for Abram, a unique state of mind; even atmospheric conditions are themselves embodiments of different moods. Could it be, he wonders, that our interior moods are borrowed from the "moody capricious earth" and that our sense of anger comes from our "animal experience of thunderstorms and the violence of sudden lightening"?
So mind is no longer an "indoor room" as we have been taught, but rather is more akin to an "open terrain" where thoughts are more like wild animals that take us by surprise in the depths of the night than they are our own creations. Abram concludes that mind is not ours alone, but is in fact a property of the very earth itself as a "power in which we are all carnally immersed". We each live inside the earth's mind and engage in its wider intelligence from within our own particular outlook on the whole. The round life of the earth is thus our larger flesh - it is a vast field of sentience sustained and produced by all the relationships that compose it.
I hope that by now you are beginning to sense the lilt and measure of this marvellous book. But perhaps you also feel a certain scepticism creeping into your bones. For how can it be that inert objects, and even mere shadows are alive? Isn't Abram indulging in a misguided anthropomorphic projection, valuable as poetry perhaps, but certainly not worthy of consideration as a genuine way of knowing? Abram counters this by pondering the possibility that the animistic sensibility that he so eloquently espouses helped our ancestors to survive, for they could not have flourished without being able to discern the shifting mood of a winter sky, or without a felt rapport with all the complex entities in their immediate surroundings.
I find these arguments compelling, suggesting as they do that that our senses are finely tuned to the rhythms and patterns of the animate earth because the biosphere is, after all, the primordial creative matrix from which we emerged as a species. I agree with him that we urgently need to rediscover this adaptive style of animistic experience and that we must regard the world's oral cultures as our primary teachers in this regard, allowing their ways of seeing and being to permeate, soften and reform own literate, science based-culture.
And so, as we travel on through this wondrous book, Abram graciously gives us privileged access to his various inner and outer pilgrimages into the very heart of our animate earth. Everything he shares ignites in us a powerful re-membering of our wider body, our wider mind, our wider sentience. I have only been able to give you the slightest hint of the many and varied treasures that lie waiting for you in this hugely important book. Now you must read it for yourself as a matter of utmost urgency. For there is little chance that we will discover the restraint that we so urgently need to survive the massive global crisis that we have unleashed upon the world unless we learn to sense the world around us as a mysterious animate being that merits our deepest care and respect.