An animist is never alone, not really.
For us, the world is full to bursting with persons of all kinds, it’s just that not all of them are human. Graham Harvey puts it succinctly in his ground-breaking book on animism:
Persons are those with whom other persons interact with varying degrees of reciprocity. […] Persons are volitional, relational, cultural and social beings. They demonstrate intentionality and agency with varying degrees of autonomy and freedom.
Someone becomes an animist, Harvey says, by learning how to recognize and engage meaningfully with non-human persons. It is a worldview that holds open the question of personhood, extending it as a possibility to all manner of beings and entities that Western culture usually dismisses as mere objects. This is not to say that animists believe all things are persons. Only that we approach the world with a certain degree of sacred curiosity, extending an invitation of respectful relationship and doing our best to remain open, listening for a response where we might least expect it. When we stop treating the world as if it were mostly composed of dead matter and mindless meat-machines, we discover that it is not as indifferent and impersonal as we’d once assumed.
The Introverted Animist
But if the world is so full of people, then where does that leave me, your friendly neighborhood introvert? (Note: When I say friendly I mean, of course, in theory. And when I say neighborhood, I mean that you probably didn’t notice that I live right next door to you. That was me, hiding behind the curtain pretending not to be home when you rang the doorbell.) As an introvert, there are days when the more I hang out with people, the lonelier I feel. I may find myself in desperate need of solitude, especially the blissful solitude of time spent outdoors in nature. Sometimes, I just need a break from humans.
The strange thing is, I’ve never felt this way about the more-than-human community. I never grow tired of listening to the wind in the cedars, or watching the way sunlight falls on the ruffled feathers of a preening crow. And so I wonder, why is it that the company of non-humans never grows wearisome? What is it that the natural world offers that I cannot get from my fellow human beings?
The answer practically leaps to my lips: the complete and utter acceptance of who I really am.
Maybe this sounds sentimental or overly romantic. On the contrary, it’s downright Darwinist. In a survival-of-the-fittest kind of world, plants and animals (including human animals) must attend to the world as it really is. Moment to moment, they must assess what’s really going on, and they have to be right (at least most of the time) in order to survive. How fast can that bear really run if I turn tail and flee? Just how injured is that limping elk, if my pack and I try to take it down? Is this plant really poisonous, or does it just look similar to one that is? In the natural world, understanding the abilities and intentions of others is a matter of life and death. In the wild, everyone is watching you.
Living in a complex more-than-human community also requires unflinching introspection and self-knowledge. Spend any time in the holy wild, and you’ll be faced with some of the most basic questions: Just how fast can I run, and for how long? Just how hungry am I? How long before my energy gives out? How cold and wet can I get before I need to take shelter? And these naturally lead to the more existential, but just as essential: What exactly are my abilities, and to what extent can I improve and expand them? What are my own intentions and desires? Just how badly do I want them? What am I willing to risk?
There is a dance here, between profound self-awareness and the sense of being keenly observed, sought out and known by the surrounding world. It is a dance that many religious seekers have felt when they’ve gone in search of solitude in the wilderness. In his book on apophatic desert and mountain spirituality, Belden C. Lane acknowledges this feeling of attending and being attended to even as he insists on the mindless indifference of a landscape defined by its harshness, emptiness and silence. Over and over, he recounts how startled he is by the deep and abiding sense of being loved that he discovers in such places. “Why am I drawn to desert and mountain fierceness?” he asks.
What impels me to its unmitigated honesty, its dreadful capacity to strip bare, its long, compelling silence? It’s the frail hope that in finding myself brought to the edge — to the macabre, stone-silent edge of death itself — I may hear a word whispered in its loneliness. The word is “love,” spoken pointedly and undeniably to me.
This love is a longing that arises naturally between ourselves and the world of which we are both a part and apart. It is the love of attention — a word that not only speaks of willing presence (as in, attending the party) and loving service (as in, attending to her wounds) but also evokes a feeling of tension itself, the act of leaning in close, stretching ourselves towards that which draws us.
In the Western worldview, this tension is deliberately heightened into paradox by the theological assumption of an intimate but indifferent earth, and a distant yet loving God. The more we deny the living, relational personhood of the landscape and its many denizens, the more we feel broken by our limitations and self-imposed loneliness. The more we insist on God as a power of perfect might and majesty, the stranger it seems to us that he could possibly care about our flawed and fleeting mortal selves… and the more we feel inexplicably, undeservedly redeemed when we are forced, in our extremity, to acknowledge that yet somehow we still feel loved, we still feel accepted just as we are.
For the animist, though, there is no paradox. Of course the earth and its beings attend to our presence. Of course they seek to know us in our true selves, to understand our abilities and push us to our limits, to tease apart our intentions and test our commitment to what we desire. The self-awareness of our own values and limitations, and the attentive presence we feel from the more-than-human world around us no longer seem strange or contradictory. They arise from one and the same need. When such an understanding ceases to be a paradox, we no longer require harsh or difficult landscapes to break us free of our stubborn denial. We no longer need to come face to face with death in order to discover the living faces of the community of which we are already members. The living world suddenly becomes available to us everywhere, even in the most ordinary places.
Love and Lies in the Natural World
There is a simplicity in this kind of wild welcome, a refreshing freedom from both melodrama and sentimentality. It is enough to be simply and completely yourself, and in coming to know yourself better, it becomes easier to rest in that simplicity. In nature, you’ll rarely find someone trying to talk you out of self-knowledge, or pressuring you to be something other than who and what you are. When you go for a walk in the woods, the trees aren’t trying to sell you on their sincerity or convince you that nobody thinks you’re cool unless you buy the latest iPhone.
This is not to say that everything in nature is exactly as it seems. There is trickery. The perfectly harmless Viceroy butterfly mimics the brilliant colors of the much more poisonous Monarch, in hopes that you’ll decide not to risk eating him. Despite being almost entirely defenseless, a mother possum hisses and screeches, baring her teeth and rearing up on her haunches to convince you she’s bigger and tougher than she is so that you’ll back down from a fight. The tiny winter wren is so well-camouflaged, you might almost step on him before he bolts from the underbrush in a flurry of wings. The jay imitates the cry of a hawk in order to scare everyone else away from the bird-feeder in your backyard, so that she can have the score of delicious seeds all to herself.
Yes, there is trickery here. But it is a clean kind of trickery, with transparent motives. There’s also a certain playfulness to it, as if we are children playing dress up, donning costumes. These are disguises that communicate just as effectively even when we realize they are only masks. Once you get the trick, it becomes a matter of playing along. Because you’ve seen through the disguise, you better know the boundaries of the game — when to back off, when to rely on the strength of your real abilities, how to communicate your honest intentions. If you know that a hissing possum is just posturing, you can let go of unnecessary fear and adopt the correct ritual postures to avoid a confrontation. If you know the jay is bluffing, you can ignore her cries. By reading the signs, by knowing the rules and playing by them, you can navigate conflict more safely. You can play with the tension of mutual more-than-human communication, engaged more fully in the dance of give and take.
There is also seduction in the wild. I like to say, somewhat salaciously, that plants are the sluts of the natural world. Just consider the tantalizing colors and textures of fruits, the delicate scents and soft brilliancy of flowers, all to the purpose of seducing our senses and inviting us into intimate communion. But this seduction is also a mutual dance of give and take, of reciprocity and response between species. A plant cannot bully a bee into finding its pollen attractive. It must actually become what the bee desires, even as the bee itself is adapting and evolving from one generation to the next, becoming the kind of creature that can better serve the plant’s own desire to pollinate and procreate. In this and so many ways, the natural world is the most attentive lover, the most responsive beloved.
This dance of mutual change and adaptation is self-giving and simple in a profound way. Does the plant wallow in existential crisis, clinging to a particular idea of itself and worrying that by becoming what the bee desires it is betraying that idea? Is the bee wracked with guilt because of the plant’s generosity, wondering how it could ever repay the bounty of pollen it has gathered from among those petals? In the wild, seduction as well as trickery embraces a kind of unselfconscious playfulness. The melodic and acrobatic mating displays of birds have a beautiful uselessness to them, a beauty that isn’t just appreciated by potential mates of its species but gives itself simply and completely to the entire world. Have you ever wondered why you find birdsong beautiful, even though it isn’t meant for you?
Perhaps this, too, is why the natural world is so restful: so much of it isn’t about you. This is not to say that the natural world is deaf or indifferent to your presence (just the opposite!), only that the world does not revolve solely around you and your concerns. Indeed, far from indifference, this is the very definition of authentic relationship, in which the perspectives and experiences of the other are considered alongside your own. For an introvert, it is a blessing not to have to be the center of focus, always on display. To have the option to simply be present to the moment, sitting quietly in attentive observation. In fact, sitting quietly can open up whole new ways of relating to the world. The longer you sit still with a relaxed gaze, the more the innumerous beings around you start to relax as well and accept your presence as non-threatening. Here is one who is not on the prowl, who is not looking to do me harm, who is not crashing about insensitive to the damage or hurt they might be causing… Sit still outside long enough, and you’ll be able to feel the shift around you, the turn the world takes towards cautious trust, even curiosity.
It is this sacred curiosity that animists value most, perhaps. So much so that we are willing to take the risk to extend it first to others, as an offering of respect, as an invitation to relationship. Come be with me, we whisper, I am willing to wait…
The Introvert’s Lament
How different it is to be around humans! How mistrustful they can be of anyone who sits quietly watching them for too long! What does that girl want? What’s she staring at? Do I have something in my teeth? Does she know that I skipped a shower this morning? What is she thinking about me? Is she judging me? Why isn’t she saying anything? It is exhausting to be on the other side of this kind of self-conscious uncertainty and doubt, to feel the need to always be performing acts of appeasement and reassurance. And exhausting, too, the worry that such self-doubt will warp into suspicion and projection. I bet she can’t think of anything intelligent to say, maybe she’s a little bit stupid. I bet she thinks I should have worn a different shirt — well, screw her! Who does she think she is anyway? Her clothes are worn, her hair’s a mess. I bet her parents never loved her…
The harsh and unpredictable wilderness of human projections and neuroses is too much for me, sometimes. And it’s so easy to become disoriented, especially if we are self-aware enough to notice the disparity between what we expect, what we desire, and what we experience. That person is saying one thing, but their body language seems to be communicating something else… Do they know that? Is it intentional? Which should I listen to? How should I respond? If I tease them or call them out, will it be all in good fun, part of the game? Or will it be insulting, confrontational? Am I struggling to make myself seen and heard against the strength of someone else’s projection? Or am I lost in a projection of my own and completely misreading the signs? Whose neurosis is this, anyway? It is difficult to trust our instincts and intuitions amidst the thick layers of posturing and self-deception that we drape about ourselves on a daily basis. (And all the more difficult for women in this society, who are told too often that we cannot trust ourselves because our emotions are irrational, our intellects inadequate.) Give me a hissing possum or a bluffing jay any day!
And yet, animism offers us a way to understand the source of this frustration as well. For as Harvey points out, the animist acknowledges that “humans’ most intimate relationships are had with other humans.” Often it is not our differences that confound us, but our similarities — the doubts and fears and desires and defenses that we share in common, which can make it so difficult to keep track of where you end and I begin. We drape ourselves in pretense to gain a safe distance from which to reach out towards each other.
We must start with this basic acknowledgement of our deeply-rooted familiarity with other humans if we are to recognize the continuum of relationality along which we live with other non-human beings. Only then can we challenge ourselves to explore our boundaries and move towards intimacy with the more-than-human world, knowing that our sense of spaciousness and freedom in nature is not a sign of its emptiness or indifference, but of its fullness and diversity.
For me, spending time with other humans is a journey into a wilderness whose very inescapable intimacy tests my courage and commitment. The desert monks fought their inner demons in the spaciousness that the non-human landscape offered them, where all their all-too-human projections and neuroses were entirely their own. This kind of simplicity can be very clean and therapeutic, a way of claiming your limitations, coming back to yourself and your noisy, self-contradictory desires. Yet I find my own inner demons reflected in the half-shaded eyes and unmet glances of other human beings — who never stop talking and yet manage to say so very little sometimes, who give so little of themselves away and yet seem so reluctant to trust in the gifts of others…
I try to challenge myself to seek out human company, though sometimes it feels like trying to cross my eyes to look at my own nose. I know that navigating the human community with more grace and loving-kindness will only come with practice, and that part of this practice is necessarily learning the art of self-forgiveness and self-understanding.
But sometimes, I just need the respite of solitude and space. That is to say, I need the sanctuary of another kind of community, the company of the more-than-human world.
While You’re Wondering…
• This post is, in some ways, a follow-up to my recent essay on The Mystery of the Many: In Silence and Solitude.
• For a deeper exploration of animism’s influence on the evolution of human reason and philosophy, check out my review of Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science and Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature in my essay, The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity.
• Finally, and again, I cannot emphasize enough how central the theological concept of biophilia is to my whole spiritual life and practice.
• “Standing Alone,” by Mirai Takahashi (CC) [source]
• “Waling Alone,” by Nicolas Vadilonga (CC) [source]
• “Grand Tetons on Leigh Lake,” by notnyt (CC) [source]
• “In a perfect world…” by Marianne Bush (CC) [source]