The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. David Abram. 1996. ISBN 0679776397
Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations. The simple premise of this book is that we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.
For magicians – whether modern entertainers or indigenous, tribal sorcerers – have in common the fact that they work with the malleable texture of perception.
For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society; its place is at the edge of the community, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance.
The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth.
We no longer describe the shamans’ enigmatic spirit-helpers as the “superstitious claptrap of heathen primitives” – we have cleansed ourselves of at least that much ethnocentrism; yet we still refer to such enigmatic forces, respectfully now, as “supernaturals” – for we are unable to shed the sense, so endemic to scientific civilization, of nature as a rather prosaic and predictable realm, unsuited to such mysteries.
For it is likely that the “inner world” of our Western psychological experience, like the supernatural heaven of Christian belief, originates in the loss of our ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth. When the animate powers that surround us are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves, when the generative earth is abruptly defined as a determinate object devoid of its own sensations and feelings, then the sense of a wild and multiplicitous otherness (in relation to which human existence has always oriented itself) must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself – the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.
While the notion of “spirit” has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the “spirits” of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.
For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.
“Ancestor worship”, in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.
It was from [insects and spiders] that I first learned of the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, the ability that an alien form of sentience has to echo one’s own, to instill a reverberation in oneself that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.
Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence – by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by air “conditioners” that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all.
It is natural that we turn to the tradition of phenomenology in order to understand the strange difference between the experienced world, or worlds, of indigenous, vernacular cultures and the world of modern European and North American civilization. For phenomenology is the Western philosophical tradition that has most forcefully called into question the modern assumption of a single, wholly determinable, objective reality.
The world and I reciprocate one another. The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn.
Our spontaneous experience of the world, charged with subjective, emotional, and intuitive content, remains the vital and dark ground of all our objectivity.
Unlike the mathematics-based sciences, phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.
To acknowledge that “I am this body” is not to reduce the mystery of my yearnings and fluid thoughts to a set of mechanisms, or my “self” to a determinate robot. Rather it is to affirm the uncanniness of this physical form. It is not to lock up awareness within the density of a closed and bounded object, for as we shall see, the boundaries of a living body are open and indeterminate; more like membranes than barriers, they define a surface of metamorphosis and exchange. The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the composting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends.
Far from restricting my access to things and to the world, the body is my very means of entering into relation with all things.
… a truly authentic phenomenology, a philosophy which would strive, not to explain the world as if from outside, but to give voice to the world from our experienced situation within it, recalling us to our participation in the here-and-now, rejuvenating our sense of wonder at the fathomless things, events and powers that surround us on every hand.
The sensing body is not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and to the world. The body’s actions and engagements are never wholly determinate, since they must ceaselessly adjust themselves to a world and a terrain that is itself continually shifting. If the body were truly a set of closed or predetermined mechanisms, it could never come into genuine contact with anything outside of itself, could never perceive anything really new, could never be genuinely startled or surprised.
However determinate one’s genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity in adjusting oneself (and one’s inheritance) to those contours. It is this open activity, this dynamic blend of receptivity and creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term “perception”.
The brilliant forerunner of today’s “cognitive” and “symbolic” schools of anthropology, Lévy-Bruhl used the word “participation” to characterize the animistic logic of indigenous, oral peoples – for whom ostensibly “inanimate” objects like stones or mountains are often thought to be alive, for whom certain names, spoken aloud, may be felt to influence at a distance the things or beings that they name, for whom particular plants, particular animals, particular places and persons and powers may all be felt to participate in one another’s existence, influencing each other and being influenced in turn.
From the magician’s, or the phenomenologist’s, perspective, that which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the sense themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.
… it is when the magician lets himself be captured by the magic that his audience will be most willing to join him.
As soon as I attempt to distinguish the share of any one sense from that of the others, I inevitably sever the full participation of my sensing body with the sensuous terrain.
The relative divergence of my bodily senses (eyes in the front of the head, ears toward the back, etc.) and their curious bifurcation (not one but two eyes, one on each side, and similarly two ears, two nostrils, etc.), indicates that this body is a form destined to the world; it ensures that my body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth.
When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip toward the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness. The countless human artifacts with which we are commonly involved – the asphalt roads, chain-link fences, telephone wires, buildings, lightbulbs, ballpoint pens, automobiles, street signs, plastic containers, newspapers, radios, television screens – all being to exhibit a common style, and so to lose some of their distinctiveness; meanwhile, organic entities – crows, squirrels, the trees and wild weeds that surround our house, humming insects, streambeds, clouds and rainfalls – all these begin to display a new vitality, each coaxing the breathing body into a unique dance. Even boulders and rocks seem to speak their own uncanny languages of gesture and shadow, inviting the body and its bones into silent communication.
In contrast, the mass-produced artifacts of civilization, from milk cartons to washing machines to computers, draw our senses into a dance that endlessly reiterates itself without variation. To the sensing body these artifacts are, like all phenomena, animate and even alive, but their life is profoundly constrained by the specific “functions” for which they were built. Once our bodies master these functions, the machine-made objects commonly teach our senses nothing further; they are unable to surprise us, and so we must continually acquire new built objects, new technologies, the latest mode of this or that if we wish to stimulate ourselves.
So the recuperation of the incarnate, sensorial dimension of experience brings with it a recuperation of the living landscape in which we are corporeally embedded. As we return to our senses, we gradually discover our sensory perceptions to be simply our part of a vast, interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies – supported, that is, not just by ourselves, but by icy streams tumbling down granite slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind.
Nevertheless, conventional scientific discourse privileges the sensible field in abstraction form sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is “caused” by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly privileges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed world-views, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one or the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human “subjects” and natural “objects”, and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use.
Clearly, a wholly immaterial mind could neither see things nor touch things – indeed, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things – can touch, hear, and taste things – only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes.
If we dwell in this forest for many months, or years, then our experience may shift yet again – we may come to feel that we are a part of this forest, consanquineous with it, and that our experience of the forest is nothing other than the forest experiencing itself.
In indigenous, oral cultures, in other words, language seems to encourage and augment the participatory life of the sense, while in Western civilization languages seems to deny or deaden that life, promoting a massive distrust of sensorial experience while valorizing an abstract realm of ideas hidden behind or beyond the sensory appearances.
We thus learn our native language not mentally but bodily. We appropriate new words and phrases first through their expressive tonality and texture, through the way they feel in the mouth or roll off the tongue, and it is this direct, felt significance – the taste or a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body – that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us.
To the sensing body all phenomena are animate, actively soliciting the participation of our senses, or else withdrawing from our focus and repelling our involvement.
When we attend to our experience not as intangible minds but as sounding, speaking bodies, we begin to sense that we are heard, even listened to, by the numerous other bodies that surround us. Our sensing bodies respond to the eloquence of certain buildings and boulders, to the articulate motions of dragonflies. We find ourselves alive in a listening, speaking world.
European civilization’s neglect of the natural world and its needs has clearly been encouraged by a style of awareness that disparages sensorial reality, denigrating the visible and tangible order of things on behalf of some absolute source assumed to exist entirely beyond, or outside of, the bodily world.
The other animals, the plants, and the natural elements – sun, moon, stars, waves – are beginning tolose their own voices. In the Hebrew Genesis, the animals do not speak their own names to Adam; rather, they are given their names by this first man. Language, for the Hebrews, was becoming a purely human gift, a human power.
Among other things, [Albert] Lord’s research indicated that learning to read and write thoroughly disabled the oral poet, ruining his capacity for oral improvisation.
For the letters of the alphabet, like the Platonic Ideas, do not exist in the world of ordinary vision. The letters, and the written words that they present, are not subject to the flux of growth and decay, to the perturbations and cyclical changes common to other visible things; they seem to hover, as it were, in another, strangely timeless dimension.
For Plato, as for Socrates, the psychê is now that aspect of oneself that is refined and strengthened by turning away from the ordinary sensory world in order to contemplate the intelligible Ideas, the pure and eternal forms that, alone, truly exist. The Socratic-Platonic psychê, in other words, is none other than the literate intellect, that part of the self that is born and strengthened in relation to the written letters.
In indigenous, oral cultures, nature itself is articulate; it speaks. The human voice in an oral culture is always to some extent participant with the voices of wolves, winds, and waves – participant, that is, with the encompassing discourse of an animate earth. There is no element of the landscape that is definitively void of expressive resonance and power: any movement may be a gesture, any sound may be a voice, a meaningful utterance.
Without writing, knowledge of the diverse properties of particular animals, plants, and places can be preserved only by being woven into stories, into vital tales wherein the specific characteristics of the plant are made evident through a narrated series of events and interactions. Stories, like rhymed poems or songs, readily incorporate themselves into our felt experience; the shifts of action echo and resonate our own encounters – in hearing or telling the story we vicariously live it, and the travails of its characters embed themselves into our own flesh.
Oral memorization calls for lively, dynamic, often violent characters and encounters. If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant or natural element, then that entity will often be cast, like all of the other characters, in a fully animate form, capable of personlike adventures and experiences, susceptible to the kinds of setbacks or difficulties that we know from our own lives.
In this light, that which we literates misconstrue as a naïve attempt at causal explanation may be recognized as a sophisticated mnemonic method whereby precise knowledge is preserved and passed along from generation to generation.
It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sequence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was necessarily to read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words (or the inward echo of words once uttered).
The senses that engaged or participated with this new writing found themselves locked within a discourse that had become exclusively human. Only thus, with the advent and spread of phonetic writing, did the rest of nature begin to lose its voice.
Whenever we of literate culture seek to engage and understand the discourse of oral cultures, we must strive to free ourselves from our habitual impulse to visualize any language as a static structure that could be diagrammed, or a set of rules that could be ordered and listed.
Minute alterations in the weather, changes in the migratory patterns of prey animals, a subtle shift in the focus of a predator – sensitivity to such subtleties is a necessary element of all oral, subsistence cultures, and this sensitivity is inevitably reflected not just in the content but in the very shapes and patterns of human discourse.
Such deference in the face of natural elements – the clear sense that the animate terrain is not just speaking to use but also listening to us – bears out Merleau-Ponty’s thesis of perceptual reciprocity; to listen to the forest is also primordially, to feel oneself listened to by the forest, just as to gaze at the surrounding forest is to feel oneself exposed and visible, to feel oneself watched by the forest.
A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.
The astonishing endurance of the Aboriginal peoples must be attributed, at least partially, to their minimal involvement with technologies. Their relation to the sustaining landscape was direct and intimate, unencumbered by unnecessary mediations. They relied upon only the simplest of tools – primarily the boomerang, the hunting spear, and the digging stick – and thus avoided dependence upon specialized resources while maintaining the greatest possible mobility in the face of climatic changes.
Knowledge of distant parts of one’s song cycle – albeit in one’s own language – apparently enables a person to vividly experience certain stretches of the land even before he or she has actually visited those places. Rehearsing a long part of a song cycle together while sitting around a campfire at night, Aboriginal persons apparently feel themselves journeying across the land in their collective imagination – much as the Apache man “talking names” to himself is “riding in his mind”.
The chanting of any part of a song cycle links the human singer to one of the animals or plants or powers within the landscape, to Crocodile Man or Pandanus Tree Woman or Thunderstorm Man – to whatever more-than-human being first chanted those verses as he or she wandered across the dreaming earth. But it also binds the human singer to the land itself, to the specific hills, rocks, and streambeds that are the visible correlate of those sung stanzas.
One of the strong claims of this book is that the synaesthetic association of visible topology with auditory recall – the intertwining of earthly place with linguistic memory – is common to almost all indigenous, oral cultures. It is, we may suspect, a spontaneous propensity of the human organism – one that is radically transformed, yet not eradicated, by alphabetic writing.
In the absence of formal writing systems, human discourse cannot isolate itself from the larger field of expressive meanings in which it participates. Hence, the linguistic patterns of an oral culture remain uniquely responsive, and responsible, to the more-than-human life-world, or bioregion, in which that culture is embedded.
It should be easy, now, to understand the destitution of indigenous, oral persons who have been forcibly displaced from their traditional lands. The local earth is, for them, the very matrix of discursive meaning; to force them from their native ecology (for whatever political or economic purpose) is to render them speechless – or to render their speech meaningless – to dislodge them from the very ground of coherence. It is, quite simply, to force them out of their mind.
For the Amahuaca, the Koyukon, the Western Apache, and the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Australia – as for numerous indigenous, oral cultures – the coherence of human language is inseparable from the coherence of the surrounding ecology, from the expressive vitality of the more-than-human terrain. It is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse.
Different gods dwell in different places, and different demons. Each place has its own dynamism, its own patterns of movement, and these patterns engage the senses and relate them in particular ways, instilling particular moods and modes of awareness, so that unlettered, oral people will rightly say that each place has its own mind, its own personality, its own intelligence.
The human senses, intercepted by the written word, are no longer gripped and fascinated by the expressive shapes and sounds of particular places. The spirits fall silent. Gradually, the felt primacy of place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of “space” as a homogeneous and placeless void.
The new concentration of persons within permanent towns and cities, and the increased dependence upon the regulation and manipulation of spontaneous natural processes, could only intensify the growing estrangement of the human senses from the wild, animate diversity in which those senses had evolved.
To indigenous, oral cultures, the ceaseless flux that we call “time” is overwhelmingly cyclical in character. The senses of an oral people are still attuned to the land around them, still conversant with the expressive speech of the winds and the forest birds, still participant with the sensuous cosmos. Time, in such a world, is not separable from the circular life of the sun and the moon, from the cycling of the seasons, the death and rebirth of the animals – from the eternal return of the greening earth.
The multiple ritual enactments, the initiatory ceremonies, the annual songs and dances of the hunt and harvest – all are ways whereby indigenous peoples-of-place actively engage the rhythms of the more-than-human cosmos, and thus embed their own rhythms within those of the vaster round.
On high plateaus in the Rocky Mountains, where the visible horizon is especially vast and wide, are circular arrangements of stones arrayed around a central hub. It is known that such “medicine wheels”, still used by various North American tribes, once served a calendrical function. Or, rather, they enabled a person to orient herself within a dimension that was neither purely spatial nor purely temporal – the large stone that is precisely aligned with the place of the sun’s northernmost emergence, marks a place that is as much in time (the summer solstice) as in space.
By carrying on its lettered surface the vital stories earlier carried by the terrain itself, the written text became a kind of portable homeland for the Hebrew people. And indeed it is only thus, by virtue of this portable ground, that the Jewish people have been able to preserve their singular culture, and thus themselves, while in an almost perpetual state of exile from the actual lands where their ancestral stories unfolded.
The Jewish sense of exile was never merely a state of separation from a specific locale, from a particular ground; it was (and is) also a sense of separation from the very possibility of being placed, from the very possibility of being entirely at home.
What were these invisible realms that had so much power over the lives of my family and friends? Everybody that I knew seemed to be expending a great deal of effort thinking about and trying to hold onto the past – obsessively photographing and videotaping events, and continually projecting and fretting about the future – ceaselessly sending out insurance premiums for their homes, for their cars, even for their own bodies.
As an animal myself, I remain suspicious of all these dodges, all these ways whereby my species lays claim to a source of truth that supposedly lies outside of the bodily world wherein plants, stones, and streams have their being, outside of this earthly terrain that we share with the other animals.
The horizon of the perceivable landscape is provided, I know, by the relation of my body to the vast and spherical Body of the earth. This is not merely something I have read, or learned in school. It has become evident and true for me in the course of many journeys across the land, watching the horizon continually recede as I move toward it, watching it disgorge unexpected vistas that expand and envelop me even as the horizon itself maintains its distance. And yet if I glance behind me as I journey, I see that this enigmatic edge is also following me, keeping its distance behind me as well as in front, gradually swallowing those terrains that I walk, drive, or pedal away from.
In “Time and Being”, [Heidegger] writes of the past and of the future as absences that by their very absence concern us, and so make themselves felt within the present. This description aids us a great deal. Now at least we can say what we are searching for in our attempt to locate, or place, the past and the future. We are hunting for modes of absence, which, by their very way of being absent, make themselves felt within the sensuous presence of the open landscape.
For the American Plains tribes, at least in the nineteenth century, the home of the dead beyond the horizon was commonly believed to be a land always abundant in edible plants and wild game – the “happy hunting ground” of popular legend. While some such indigenous notion of a fertile and abundant terrain where the ancestors dwell was likely the archaic source of even the Christian belief in a heavenly paradise, it is important to realize that for oral peoples such realms were never wholly cut off from the sensuous world of the living present. They were not projected entirely outside of the experienced world, but were felt as the mystery and hidden depth of the sensuous world itself.
… many indigenous cultures have but a single term to designate the very deep past and the far distant future. Among the Inuit of Baffin Island, for example, the term uvatiarru may be translated both as “long ago” and “in the future”.
… the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or “mind”, not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds.
According to Robert Lawlor, a researcher who has lived and studied among the indigenous cultures of Australia, Aboriginal peoples tend to consider the visible entities around them – rocks, persons, leaves – as crystallizations of conscious awareness, while the invisible medium between such entities is experienced as what Westerners would call “the unconscious”, the creative but unseen realm from which such conscious forms arise.
… the Navajo elders suggest that that which we call the “mind” is not ours, is not a human possession. Rather, mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans – like all other beings – participate.
[The ancient Hebrews] were perhaps the first nation to so thoroughly shift their sensory participation away from the forms of surrounding nature to a purely phonetic set of signs, and so to experience the profound epistemological independence from the natural environment that was made possible by this potent new technology. To actively participate with the visible forms of nature came to be considered idolatry by the ancient Hebrews; it was not the land but the written letters that now carried the ancestral wisdom.
Yet this sense of the written text as an animate, living mystery is nowhere more explicit than in the Kabbalah, the esoteric tradition of Jewish mysticism. For here it is not just the text as a whole but the very letters that are thought to be alive! Each letter of the aleph-beth is assumed by the Kabbalists to have its own personality, its own profound magic, its own way of organizing the whole of existence around itself. Because the written commandments were ostensibly dictated to Moses directly by God on Mount Sinai, so the written letters comprising that first Hebrew text – the twenty-two letters of the aleph-beth – are assumed to be the visible traces of divine utterance.
In the journey to Greece … the letters of the aleph-beth loosened and left behind their vestigial ties to the enveloping life-world; they thereby became a much more abstract set of symbols. But the Greeks also introduced a strange new element into the alphabet, an innovation that would ultimately increase the abstract capacity of this writing system far more than the above-mentioned factors. For the Greek scribes introduced written vowels into the previously consonantal system of letters.
Relative to Semitic texts, then, the Greek texts had a remarkable autonomy – they seemed to stand, and even to speak, on their own.
A century and a half alter, however, when the alphabet was at last being taught within the educational curriculum and was thereby spreading throughout Greek culture, Plato and Socrates were able to co-opt the term psychê – which for Anaximenes was fully associated with the breath and the air – employing the term now to indicate something not just invisible but utterly intangible. The Platonic psychê was not at all a part of the sensuous world, but was rather of another, utterly non-sensuous dimension. The psychê, that is, was no longer an invisible yet tangible power continually participant, by virtue of the breath, with the enveloping atmosphere, but a thoroughly abstract phenomenon now enclosed within the physical body as in a prison.
It was not enough to preach the Christian faith: one had to induce the unlettered, tribal peoples to begin to use the technology upon which that faith depended. Only by training the senses to participate with the written word could one hope to break their spontaneous participation with the animate terrain. Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air.
We may better comprehend this curious development – the withdrawal of mind from sensible nature and its progressive incarceration in the human skull – by considering that every human language secretes a kind of perceptual boundary that hovers, like a translucent veil, between those who speak that language and the sensuous terrain that they inhabit.
Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual “interior”, a private “mind” or “consciousness” unrelated to the other “minds” that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside.
The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth. The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts.
By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us. Intelligence is on longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.
The sense of being immersed ina sentient world is preserved in the oral stories and songs of indigenous peoples – in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity of speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human intervention but a gift of the land itself.
Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millennia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.
By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings in many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it. We then wonder why we are often unable to communicate even among ourselves.
For such an oral awareness, to explain is not to present a set of finished reasons, but to tell a story.
… a story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And “making sense” must here be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin.
The apparently autonomous, mental dimension originally opened by the alphabet – the ability to interact with our own signs in utter abstraction from our earthly surroundings – has today blossomed into a vast, cognitive realm, a horizonless expanse of virtual interactions and encounters.
There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in in turn.
In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of that whirling world. We have forgotten the poise that comes from living in storied relation and reciprocity with the myriad things, the myriad beings, that perceptually surround us.
For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.
John Fire Lame Deer
Let’s sit down here … on the open prairie, where we can’t see a highway or a fence. Let’s have no blankets to sit on, but feel the ground with our bodies, the earth, the yielding shrubs. Let’s have the grass for a mattress, experiencing its sharpness and its softness. Let us become like stones, plants, and trees. Let us be animals, think and feel like animals. Listen to the air. You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it. Woniya waken – the holy air – which renews all by its breath. Woniya, woniya waken – spirit, life, breath, renewal – it means all that. Woniya – we sit together, don’t touch, but something is there; we feel it between us, as a presence. A good way to start thinking about nature, talk about it. Rather talk to it, talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the winds as to our relatives.
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.
…[t]raditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with the proper respect.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ah, not to be cut off, not through the slightest partition shut out from the law of the stars. The inner – what is it? if not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.
We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
… I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.
Sword (Lakota shaman)
The circle is the symbol of time, for the day time, the night time, and the moon time are circles above the world, and the year time is a circle around the border of the world.
Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.
Language, but now words.