Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild

Animist Blog Carnival: Wakeful World Book Club

Welcome to the May 2014 edition of the Animist Blog Carnival! For this month’s theme, the ABC hosts its first-ever virtual book club — exploring the work of renowned animist and Druid author, Emma Restall Orr.

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrLast summer when I first picked up Orr’s The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, I was anticipating a memoir-like book rich with the poetry and storytelling that has come to characterize much of her work. By its outward appearance, The Wakeful World is a slim book with a beautifully minimalist cover. I’d tossed it into my suitcase as I packed for vacation, thinking I’d squeeze in some light reading between our morning hikes and afternoons by the pool.

Boy was I wrong! I ended up reading this book out loud with my partner every evening that week — and for almost a month afterwards — during which we found ourselves constantly setting the book aside to discuss the nuances of Orr’s complex and fascinating ideas. Despite its unassuming appearance, The Wakeful World is no lightweight. It takes up tricky topics such as the nature of consciousness and mind-body dualism, and carefully examines them from every angle, drawing on the insights of some of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western philosophy.

In the year or so since I first read it, I’ve returned to this book again and again. (The pages of my copy are now worn and bent, the margins thick with notes — the highest compliment I can give to a writer!) But what I’ve enjoyed most about the book are the endless discussions it’s provoked. There is so much to chew on, and plenty to disagree with and debate. When grappling with questions about the mind, the soul and existence itself, every reader will inevitably bring their own unique perspectives and experiences to the discussion. This wonderful variety is reflected in this month’s ABC. So without further ado, let’s get to it!


Our first review comes from Brian Taylor, who welcomes Orr’s contribution to the growing plurality of ideas about modern animism. In his post “An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr,” he writes:

In a talk posted on her website she tells us that she finds animism exciting and dangerous because it offers an alternative to Western consumer capitalist culture’s objectification and exploitation of many human beings, other animals, forests, and so forth. In Wakeful World she wanted to hone a definition of animism that would stand its ground against other world views, and help us deconstruct self-sabotaging assumptions in the process.

As a confirmed pluralist I welcome this book. We need a range of perspectives. I like the way in which Restall Orr develops her thesis, step by step, throughout the book. The research behind her most recent offering has clearly been a labour of love, and there’s much of interest here, not least an extended consideration of the mindedness of nature.

Brian also points to an aspect of Orr’s book that falls somewhat short, in being primarily a philosophical work less concerned about how these ideas might have personal, spiritual relevance for the individual animist. Weaving his review of the book into a reflection on the power of astrology and divination, Brian raises some important questions about the bleakness of some of Orr’s theories about purpose and beauty:

Emma Restall Orr’s ideas are certainly interesting, but, despite her assurances to the contrary she sometimes writes as though defining a singular animism, and speaking for all animists. Responding to Whitehead’s teleological God, who guides the universe towards the production of beauty, for example, she writes ‘there are no such benevolent gods in the pantheon of the animist’. Well, no single teleological god, perhaps – but no benevolent gods, guiding us towards beauty? There is a bleakness in this omission that, once again, I’m uncomfortable with. I know about ‘brutality’, but the beauty I’m surrounded by feels more fundamental and enduring. There’s bleakness too in the statement that ‘as no more than a flow of percepts, of changing contextual data, the self actually has no purpose, no meaning at all‘. If that were so, how could ‘we’ enter into long term relationships with other (meaningless) selves? Why would ‘I’ want to ‘create a sustainable and peaceful world’? Why would I find that the pattern of the planets consistently reflects the capacities, challenges, and intimate concerns of individual human, or other-than-human lives? Why would any of this matter?


In his post “The Mind of a Rock: Musings on Orr’s ‘Wakeful World’,” Jeff Lilly draws on his professional background in linguistics and computer engineering to dig into the implications of Orr’s theory of “minded nature” for a modern society where the lines between technology and biology, man and machine, are increasingly blurred:

Orr’s take [on the mind-body paradox] not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind. […]

Orr’s work leads us to a very different conception of mind: one in which humans are no longer at the top of a great chain of mental being, no longer kings of cognition, but simply possessed of a brain that is very well adapted to our needs — not too constrained, not too free, not too malleable, nor too rigid, for our ecological niche and social natures. Just as Copernicus dislodged humanity from the physical center of the universe, this reading of Orr dislodges us from our psychic pinnacle. Instead we’re part of an ecology of mind, one in which the tiny brightly lit mind of the beetle is as valuable and miraculous as the vast dark mind of Mt. Ranier.


Over on the Naturalistic Pantheist blog Nature is Sacred, Matt shares a review of The Wakeful World that explores how Orr’s animism can offer a solid foundation for theories of panpsychism and panexperientialism, two important concepts in his own philosophy. He details the overlap between these concepts in his post “Everything Experiences!“:

One of the Yule/ Christmas presents my partner gave me this year was a book called “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature” by Emma Restall Orr. It is a fascinating book yet I have found a lot of it very difficult to understand and am still trying to get my head around the concepts explained in it. Much of the book is made up of looking at different philosophies and building a theory of metaphysics to explain the world as an Animist sees it. This post isn’t exactly a review of the book, but it will use a lot of the information from the book to explain the idea of Panexperientialism/ Panpsychism and what it offers to Naturalistic Pantheists. […]

I have come to the conclusion that an Animism based on the theories of Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism is a valid, reasonable and ethical worldview that can bring many benefits for Naturalistic Pantheists who choose to incorporate it into their life. It answers the Mind-Body problem and gives a foundation for Animistic Ethics of treating the world and all life with respect, reverence and honour.


In a beautiful embodiment of the power of animistic experience, the “Dad Who Writes” Gabriel M. Clarke shares his personal reflections on Orr’s book one cold night at yoga camp, in his post “Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World“:

You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.

Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held. […]

The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?

I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.

Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read [Orr’s] book.


In the introduction to The Wakeful World, Emma Restall Orr notes that the book can be considered a prequel to Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics, developing some of the philosophical ideas that were first proposed in her earlier work. While most of our ABC bloggers this month focused on Orr’s more recent text, Chas Clifton shared a review of Living with Honour he wrote in 2009 that can give some context to the on-going development of Orr’s ideas:

She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This “nature” is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: “The *Pagan acceptance of nature’s destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence.” You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.

Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition! […] The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of “hard polytheists” to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the “honor the gods and do your duty” attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life–even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system. Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?

[…] Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics–I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what “nature religion” is–I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.

For readers like Chas, The Wakeful World will answer a good number of these criticisms, though not all of them. Orr continues to develop her conception of nature as grounded in the “planetary” even as her discussion reaches beyond this understanding of the natural world to include the “cosmic” and ontological. But as a modern animist grappling with the legacy of such eminent and influential thinkers as Kant and Whitehead, Orr’s approach to Pagan and animistic thought remains thoroughly rooted in more recent developments of the Western philosophical tradition, taking ancient Greek and Roman thinkers as a foundation but not limiting her discussion to them.


Finally, for my own contribution to the ABC, I offer a recklessly ambitious, two-for-the-price-of-one review of The Wakeful World by bringing it into conversation with Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science to place Emma Restall Orr’s work in a broader cultural context. In my post “The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 2)“, I continue my on-going exploration of anthropocentrism in Pagan theology and ritual by considering how Orr’s systematic and speculative approaches to animistic philosophy are rooted in the evolutionary insights of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors:

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. […] Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths.


There is so much more to say about The Wakeful World, and I have no doubt it will become a cornerstone of modern animist thought, provoking discussion and debate for many years to come. Thank you to all who participated in this month’s Animist Blog Carnival!

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity

In the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, a young man of the !Xõ people bends towards the earth, examining in detail an impression in the sand the shape of an upside-down heart. Nearby, his fellow hunters make their way quietly through the underbrush, moving with caution so that they might not come upon their prey too suddenly and startle it. The gemsbok is quick; they must be quicker.

Gemsbok_Yathin

One of the hunters, an older man with years of experience and many successful kills to his name, gestures to the others, indicating a bit of scat drying in the midday sun — a sign that the beast has passed this way hours ago, likely on its way to a popular watering hole over the next ridge. They should move on. With speed and stealth, they should be able to overtake the animal and bring the hunt to an end by evening. One of the other men challenges him, and a whispered debate ensues — is this scat from the same animal? how long ago was it left? Wind direction and temperature are considered. The interpretation of scat is a tricky and inexact business. In the end, though, the older hunter’s interpretation prevails and the group agrees to move on.

Yet the boy lingers by the heart-shaped impression in the dirt. Is it a hoofprint? If it is, it’s facing the wrong direction, leading back along the trail they’ve been following all morning. In the shifting sand, the impression is vague and already partly obscured by the breeze. It could be almost anything. But something about it calls to the young hunter, arresting his attention. As he considers it, strange physical sensations arise in his body — a weight on his shoulders, a palpitation in his chest, a feeling like warm, wet blood trickling down his back. On the very edge of his perception, it’s as if he can feel the lingering presence of the gemsbok in this place, its fawn-gray flanks quivering in the slight breeze as it raises its majestically-horned head, the grasses rustling around its legs — a rustling he feels now, too, around his own bare calves. In that moment, he is the animal, tasting the breeze for predators, looping back on his own trail seeking a protected place downwind to settle for an afternoon rest.

The young man turns to the other hunters in his group and, nervously, makes his case. The older men are skeptical. This youth has very little experience to go on, and he is far from a charismatic or convincing speaker. But something in his eyes, his conviction, sways them to trust his instincts. The group loops back, following a trail now entirely held within the mind and imagination of the boy as he feels his way through the brush with a body not quite his own. Before long, his vision is rewarded: among the underbrush, they spot the form of the animal half-asleep in the shade.

The Evolution of Reason

What does this story of the young hunter have to do with philosophy?

According to anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Louis Liebenberg: a great deal. In his book, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, Liebenberg takes a close look at the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa in order to explore what he believes to be the origins of homo sapien’s capacity for scientific reasoning. Tracing the evolution of hunting and tracking throughout human prehistory — from the simple to the systematic to the speculative — he argues that tracking represents science in its most basic form.

Like modern scientists, early hunter-gatherers developed detailed knowledge of the world around them based on careful observation of their environment. Possessing an accurate understanding of animal behavior was a matter of life and death, as they navigated an ecosystem full of elusive prey and potentially deadly predators (who were also competitors for food resources). In some places, a wide variety of environmental conditions challenged early humans to develop increasingly sophisticated tracking techniques. Simple tracking in snow and desert sand was relatively easy, though it required good eyesight, physical prowess, stealth and speed. But in areas of rocky ground or thick underbrush where footprints might be scarce or completely absent, a more systematic approach to tracking required not only greater skill but also a keener intelligence as hunters relied on a broad understanding of ecological relationships in order to piece together the subtler signs of an animal’s presence. With the advent of systematic tracking, Liebenberg argues, human beings first developed the capacity for inductive-deductive reasoning: gathering data from direct observation in order to formulate generalizations about the world, and then reasoning from the general to the specific based on the empirical evidence at hand.

Yet the most successful hunters not only possessed a vast knowledge of their surroundings, but an intuitive connection with the animals they hunted. At some point in the prehistory of our species, the homo sapien mind made the revolutionary step from systematic tracking to speculative tracking — from inductive-deductive reasoning, to what Liebenberg calls hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Speculative tacking required creative thinking and imagination, a willingness to listen to intuition as well as utilizing careful reasoning based on direct observation. The speculative tracker did not just follow the evidence before him — he learned to anticipate an animal’s behavior based on a sympathetic understanding of the creature’s own desires, motivations and unique personality. He imagined the world from the animal’s perspective, opening himself to experiences and sensations that did not always draw from direct observation but could nevertheless lead him to correct conclusions. Forming a predictive hypothesis about an animal’s likely movements, the speculative tracker tested and refined his theories through the “experiment” of the hunt itself, in cooperation with fellow hunters who offered feedback, critique and alternative explanations. Whereas systematic tracking once restricted hunters to the slow, detailed process of collecting and interpreting only the empirical evidence immediately at hand, speculative tracking now allowed them to anticipate patterns and look for further evidence where they expected to find it, revising their theories as they went and responding more effectively to new or unexpected information in difficult terrain.

Grottes de Lascaux II, by David Martin

Both of these types of reasoning are still evident in the sciences today — in fact, like the most successful trackers, scientists usually employ a combination of the two, for both have their advantages and disadvantages. A systematic approach to the scientific method utilizes trial-and-error and detailed observation to collect vast amounts of data, allowing patterns to naturally emerge from a careful analysis of the evidence. A good example of this technique can be found in how citizen science is being used today to measure the impact of global warming around the world: ordinary people contribute their observations of local phenological phenomena (like the timing of bird migrations or the budding and flowering of plants) to a global database, allowing scientists to develop statistical models that illustrate the wide-scale effects that changes in temperature and weather patterns have on these species. The method requires the patience and precision to collect large amounts of reliable data in a number of different locations over several years, but almost anyone can contribute to the work without needing in-depth knowledge of the theories behind the research or creative insights into what that research means.

On the other hand, some of the greatest scientific minds in history have used speculative reasoning to formulate new hypotheses about the world and to create experiments with which to test them. Albert Einstein is probably the best known example of a scientist using such an approach: his famous thought-experiment, in which he imagined what it would be like to chase a beam of light, played an important role in developing his theory of special relativity. Today, most work in theoretical physics relies heavily on speculative reasoning, as scientists propose theories that cannot yet be tested by physical experiment or confirmed by direct observation. While systematic science values patience and precision, speculative science celebrates intuition, imagination and the courage to take bold risks for the sake of discovering new frontiers of knowledge.

Both systematic and speculative reasoning play a vital role in philosophy as well (as I’ll explore more later in this post). Philosophers routinely grapple with questions about the nature of existence, the self and the soul that are grounded in and influenced by observations of the world around us, and yet can reach far beyond what we might directly observe in our everyday lives. We can see both kinds of reasoning in the earliest writings of the ancient Greeks, but as Liebenberg points out, these traditions of philosophical thought stretch back much farther into prehistory, preserved in the mythologies and religions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The Reasoning Animist

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrIt might seem odd to preface a review of Emma Restall Orr’s book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature in such a roundabout way. But Liebenberg’s insights into the intelligence and capacity for both systematic and speculative reasoning in our earliest prehistoric ancestors holds special relevance when considering the question of whether or not animism can be considered a viable philosophical position today.

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. She acknowledges this difficulty with admirable forthrightness, saying:

To someone looking at animist ideas from outside, such beliefs may seem close to the immature response of a little child still wondering how the world around him might respond. […] It is religious metaphysics drawn with fat, colorful crayons.

Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” Many Western philosophers and scientists alike attribute animistic belief to the superstitious anthropomorphization of non-human entities and objects, attributing them human-like feelings and characteristics (this is known in some philosophical circles as the “pathetic fallacy,” a term that comes from the Greek pathos meaning “emotion, feeling,” but which also expresses a clear tone of disdain for such a worldview). A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths — the vibrant, minded presence of beings like the gemsbok (and its relative, the Arabian oryx), whose spiraling, rapier-like horns originally gave rise to ancient tales of unicorns in the first place.

In this hunt for the modern animist’s worldview, Liebenberg could prove a valuable ally. Unlike previous anthropologists such as Edward Tylor, who have generally viewed animism as merely a primitive precursor to more civilized and respectable philosophies such as monotheism and materialism, Liebenberg portrays the animistic imagination and active intuition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors as a positive development in the evolution of human reason. Rather than presenting the indigenous animistic worldview as childish or underdeveloped, he places it on par with modern scientific and philosophical thought:

The modern scientist may know much more than the tracker, but he/she does not necessarily understand nature any better than the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. What the expert tracker lacks in quantity of knowledge (compared to the modern scientist), he/she may well make up for in subtlety and re­finement. The intelligent hunter-gatherer may be just as rational in his/her understanding of nature as the intelligent modern scientist. [emphasis added]

But if The Wakeful World is a hunt for the modern animistic worldview, what kind of “tracking” — that is, what kind of reasoning, systematic or speculative — does Orr employ? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at how systematic and speculative reasoning have played a role in the Western philosophical tradition, and to locate Orr’s arguments within that contemporary context.

Speculation in the Age of Reason

Since the 19th and 20th centuries, Western philosophy has seen a split between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy that roughly echoes many of the differences between systematic and speculative reasoning. Seeing themselves as allied more closely with the natural sciences, analytic philosophers emphasize empiricism, objectivity, thoroughness, precision and attention to detail each within their own specialized fields of study, seeing their work as contributing to the cummulative knowledge of the larger community. On the other hand, continental philosophers see themselves as taking up the project of formulating broad worldviews which can be applied to a wide range of related fields — from aesthetics to ethics to politics — while emphasizing the contextual and ultimately subjective nature of all knowledge. Unlike analytic philosophers, continental philosophers do not necessarily see knowledge as cummulative, but instead as progressing in leaps and bounds thanks to bold new insights by key figures.

As American philosopher Graham Harman quipped during a recent lecture:

People talk as though the difference between these two kinds of philosophy is scandalous. Two kinds of philosophy! Even though there are 24,500 species of fish, somehow having two kinds of philosophy is supposed to be this horrible intellectual scandal that we need to eliminate immediately.

Harman’s solution is not to seek to bring these two kinds of philosophy together but instead to revel in their differences, exploring and even intentionally heightening the tension between the two. If Liebenberg is correct in his theory of how the human mind evolved the capacity for complex reasoning through evolutionary pressures to improve tracking and hunting techniques, then we can safely assume that not only have these different kinds of philosophy existed almost as long as our species itself has roamed the planet, but that these approaches to reasoning — the systematic and the speculative — are each both useful and necessary in their own ways. Liebenberg notes, for instance, that while systematic reasoning is a better approach for gradually accumulating and retaining knowledge, speculative reasoning is more adept at recovering lost knowledge, discovering new knowledge and adapting to change.

Given these differences in application, we might expect Orr to rely primarily on speculative reasoning in The Wakeful World, as she sets out to tackle the twofold task of reclaiming an indigenous animistic worldview drawn from her ancestors (recovering lost knowledge) while challenging rationalist and materialist assumptions embedded deep in the contemporary Western philosophical tradition (discovering new knowledge). In her previous books, Orr has become well-known for her incorporation of poetic language and stories of personal experience to illustrate her ideas, inviting readers to step into a creative exploration of alternative human and non-human perspectives that she evokes through her prose. Such writing can be understood as a kind of speculative reasoning, embracing intuition and imagination alongside logical argument and careful observation, offering bold theories that push at the boundaries of currently accepted knowledge and which must be tested against each reader’s own experiences of the world, to be confirmed or refuted through practice and experimentation.

At first glance, this speculative approach seems to be at the heart of The Wakeful World as well. Framing her project in “Chapter One: The Enquiry,” Orr begins by building on the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant, progenitor and arguably still one of the most influential voices of continental philosophy over the past two centuries. In particular, Kant’s insights into the inherent subjectivity of human perception and knowledge is one of the defining features of continental philosophy in contrast to analytic philosophy’s emphasis on objectivity and empiricism, and it provides a rational foundation for valuing and interpreting subjective experience in the context of modern society’s growing scientific understanding of the natural world.

Never Say Kant

And yet, in the end, The Wakeful World seems to be a departure from much of Orr’s earlier work — in style, if not always in substance. Her analysis of concepts such as the self, matter, spirit and mind are much more cautious and systematic than bold and speculative. She spends a great deal of time carefully recounting the endless debates that have grown up around these terms, even when those debates are only tangentially related to her own ideas. In the meantime, readers must wait nearly 200 pages before Orr offers even a basic description of the animistic worldview in any detail. In the hunt for modern animism, readers might feel that they are forever losing ground to the elusive beast as Orr stops to examine every bent blade of grass and loosened pebble along the trail.

Ancient Rock Painting, by Carol Mitchell

The result is a text that is dense with ideas and can at times feel sluggish. Orr comes across as somewhat embarrassed by her occasional departures from the more familiar ground of Western philosophical tradition, rather than embracing such risks boldly as she has done in previous books. When she does allow her language to return to the speculative and the poetic (especially in later chapters), her words still shine with evocative power…. And yet her turn towards “the poetry of animism” occasionally seems almost apologetic, and her bracketing of these passages seems to imply that the imaginative writing of such moments should be considered a departure from the process of careful reasoning, rather than as an essential and natural aspect of it.

Part of Orr’s choice to take a more systematic approach no doubt stems from her desire to present her ideas in a way that will be convincing to skeptics and detractors of animism, or at least to speak in a language that can dismantle unfair assumptions and penetrate potential bias. It is impressive to see a writer with the flexibility to use both systematic and speculative writing as different circumstances warrant, and Orr puts to rest any doubt that she can hold her own against academics who have felt the need in the past to “mansplain” away the real importance of her ideas. For those who have found it difficult to keep up with some of her more provocative work, The Wakeful World slows the conversation to a more ruminative — if sometimes ponderous — pace.

Unfortunately, some readers may feel Orr cedes far too much to her critics in her decision to take a more systematic tack, missing a valuable opportunity in the process. Rather than rising to a vigorous defense of the “fat, colorful” worldview of modern animism in a way that rejects the notion that such ideas are automatically superstitious or immature, she seems to agree with that assessment and to feel a pressure to reimagine modern animism as simply a variation on Kantian idealism (or Whitehead’s process philosophy, minus the math). This is particularly frustrating for readers who are already familiar enough with Kantian philosophy to know that much of his work is built on anthropocentric assumptions that may ultimately undermine an animistic worldview that values the intersubjectivity of a minded, more-than-human world. Although Orr does her best to reason her way out of this pitfall, personally I found myself constantly anticipating a more direct rejection of Kant’s anthropocentrism that never quite came.

Ultimately, I believe Orr does move beyond the anthropocentric foundations of much of continental philosophy. But she does so in such an indirect and protracted way that readers spend much of the book feeling as if they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, inexperienced “trackers” less familiar with the terrain of Western philosophy might entirely miss some of the more subtle footprints left behind by this metaphorical shoe that Orr’s animism seems to be dragging behind it for much of the text.

Back to the Future

But at the risk of losing the trail on our hunt for a more wakeful world, let’s return to the young man at the beginning of our story.

It’s easy to see this boy as a paragon of the animistic worldview, embracing a creative relationship that values the more-than-human world as a community of richly-minded beings, each in their own right capable of reaching out to the human through moments of intuition and connection. But this is not to say that animism is a worldview concerned primarily with the sentimentality or romanticism of the merely personal, imaginative experience. As Liebenberg points out, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not merely accept such experiences at face value: they were keenly aware of the distinction between direct observations and creative or intuitive insights, constantly testing their intuitions against the facts of the real world. Where they accepted the reality of non-human intelligences, consciousness and subjectivity in other beings, these beliefs were confirmed by on-going experiences and practical demonstrations of the explanatory power of such theories. Indeed, it is this very willingness to entertain a skeptical viewpoint and to continually refine one’s theories through attentive observation that is the hallmark of the speculative approach.

Oryx running, by Benjamin Hollis

It is this same skepticism that now challenges us to question some of the lingering biases that we have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition. Liebenberg expands on his initial observations about the intelligence of hunter-gatherers by adding:

Conversely, the intelligent modern scientist may be just as irrational as the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. One of the paradoxes of progress is that, contrary to expectation, the growth of our knowledge about nature has not made it easier to reach rational decisions. [emphasis added]

The future of modern animism depends upon this insight: that the prevalence of anthropocentrism in modern science and philosophy is not necessarily an indication of its correctness. One reason Liebenberg suggests that indigenous hunter-gatherers may possess a knowledge of the natural world that is more subtle, refined and responsive than that of the modern scientist is precisely because the modern scientist’s access to huge quantities of data threatens to mire him in dogmatism:

While the scientist may have access to a large amount of information, accepting the validity of the information requires to a certain degree an act of faith in others. This has the inherent danger that well-established knowledge may become dogmatic, which may result in irrational beliefs becoming entrenched in science. […] The tracker, by contrast, is in direct contact with nature. Ideas and interpretations are continuously tested in nature itself.

This places Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World in a slightly different light: as a challenge to the anthropocentrism of Western philosophy which, although perhaps it never quite succeeds in catching up to the unicorn, contributes meaningfully to the modern animist community in ways that continue to encourage skepticism and critical reasoning skills. In the end, animism is a worldview that must be grounded in and responsive to individual experience even as it seeks to reach beyond it. In the same way that a !Xõ tracker cannot simply be told how to hunt but must learn for himself — cultivating a creative way of thinking that allows him to “continually acquire new knowledge and solve unique problems in a never-ending process of discovery” — the animist who expects to learn everything from her elders will have “a head that is only half full.”

For this reason alone, aside from its other merits, Orr’s book is well worth reading, and re-reading: for it introduces the thoughtful animist to a challenging intellectual terrain against which to hone her skills.


Coming soon: Even more thoughts on anthropocentrism and subjectivity…


This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month right here on Holy Wild. For details on how to join, click here.


Photo Credits:

• “Gemsbok or Gemsbuck (Oryx gazella),” by Yathin (CC) [source]
• “Grottes de Lascaux II,” by David Martin (CC) [source]
• “Ancient Rock Paintings,” by Carol Mitchell (CC) [source]
• “Oryx running,” by Benjamin Hollis (CC) [source]

A More Wakeful World - Animist Blog Carnival Book Club
Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, News & Announcements

A More Wakeful World: Animist Book Club Call for Submissions

A More Wakeful World - Animist Blog Carnival Book Club

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]T[/dropcap]his May, the “ABC” in Animist Blog Carnival will also stand for the Animist Book Club!

Here on Holy Wild, I’ll be hosting this monthly gathering of bloggers and writers exploring the evolving role of animism in modern Pagan and earth-centered spiritual traditions. Most months, the ABC host chooses a theme for all participating writers to explore (past themes have included Becoming an Animist, Bioregionalism, Trees, Animist Ethics, and Dreams). This time, I wanted to try something a little different. And so, the ABC theme for May is:

A More Wakeful World: Reviews and Responses
to the Writing of Emma Restall Orr

Emma Restall Orr is one of the most prominent and well-respected Druids today. For more than two decades, she has been sharing her vision of creative, embodied living in relationship with the natural world in her books and other writing, as well as through her advocacy work in the UK. Her recent book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, is one of the few resources out there that explores a thoroughly modern approach to animistic spirituality grounded in both a solid grasp of western philosophy and the poetic insight that has come to characterize her work.

One of the biggest obstacles for people who want to learn more about modern animism is that there are so very few resources available. My hope is that highlighting writers like Emma Restall Orr can bring greater visibility to the resources we have, and spark some great conversations about how animism has influenced so many of the Pagan traditions that are thriving today.

How Do I Participate in the ABC?

You don’t have to identify as an animist to join in the ABC! Anyone can participate by writing on the chosen theme and exploring how animistic practices and beliefs have influenced their own spiritual lives and communities. To contribute to the Animist Blog Carnival-slash-Book Club, there are just a few simple steps to follow:

1. During the month of April, write about the upcoming theme on your own blog or website. Your contribution might be an essay, article or book review, or it could be a creative piece like a poem, short story or memoir. For this month’s theme, I especially encourage you to read and write a response or review of The Wakeful World — but reflections on any of Orr’s other work are also welcome! (You can find a list of her published writing on her website). You can also contribute old or previously published posts.

2. Make sure to include in your post a link back to this blog (https://alisonleighlilly.com/blog/), as well as a link to the Animist Blog Carnival HQ at http://lifthrasirsuccess.wordpress.com/animist-blog-carnival/ (where you can also find more detailed writer’s guidelines and links to all of the past ABC themes).

3. Send me a link to your blog post or essay via my contact page or by emailing me at: ali [at] alisonleighlilly.com. Make sure you send me your submissions by Sunday, April 27, 2014.

4. Sit back and enjoy! I’ll be sharing the links from all contributors and participants in a big ABC Animist Book Club round-up on Thursday, May 1st!

This is the first time the ABC has experimented with using a “book club” approach to the monthly theme. If all goes well and we get lots of folks involved, I hope we’ll be able to feature more awesome animistic writers on a regular basis! Thanks for joining, and I look forward to reading your thoughts and reflections!

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

The Nature of Fog

It’s a quiet, foggy morning here in Seattle, and I’m thinking about ontology — the philosophical study of the nature of existence.

woods_in_fogFor a few reasons. First, there are passages from Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World playing in my mind against passages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, both of which have been my nightly reading recently. Then there is this post by John Halstead from the Humanistic Paganism blog, exploring “tropical rainforest ontology” as an alternative to materialist reductionism. Unfortunately, the alternative that Halstead offers is all too familiar: an ontological hierarchy, with human beings at its apex. Although in naturalistic philosophy hierarchy no longer needs the divine sanction of a god to justify it, the supremacy of human culture and human consciousness remains unchallenged, the assumed pinnacle of evolution, with the masses of quarks, quasars, oak trees and elephants relegated to the same old mindlessness of mere objects, only so much stuff.

I admit to being disappointed. There is something deeply dissatisfying about our only choice being between reductionism and hierarchy, for both seem to me equally wrong. Here in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, there exists a messy, thriving tangle of lifeforms coalescing into communities of meaning and mindfulness on every ecological level. As I go stumbling along on my hikes through the forested mountains, clunky boots thumping heavily on the moist earth with every step, I can almost hear the chorus of beings laughing good-naturedly at the very idea of such neat, clean hierarchies and my species’ claim to supremacy.

But rather than go into any more detailed analysis of these dense and sometimes unwieldy philosophies, instead I want to talk a little bit about fog.

In early autumn, the rains have only just returned to Seattle after the annual summer drought. For a few months every year, the landscape here in the rainshadow of the great Olympic mountains becomes dry and brittle. Even the ubiquitous carpet of moss and lichens crunches slightly underfoot. When the rain returns again in the fall, the ground itself seems to drink gratefully of the refreshing waters. Small creeks swell that had only weeks before been reduced to mere muddy trickles, the moss plumps up again lush and soft, intricate spiderwebs suddenly seem to be everywhere shimmering with morning dew, and the banana slugs venture out from the damp, dark protection of the leaf litter to brave the exposure of wooded paths in the city parks. Most mornings this time of year begin in fog.

I sometimes think that, like the proverbial Eskimo words for snow, we should have far more words for fog. There are a few near-synonyms in English: mist, with its connotations of cool, damp breezes; haze and steam, clinging to the landscape with sticky heat; the unappetizing murk and the polluted hybrid smog; even the obscure, poetic brume, a dark, chilling thing that stalks through the coldest winter months. But when I look out my window this morning, what I see outside is not quite any of these. It is undeniably, simply: fog.

It is the kind of fog that arises from the earth itself, exhaled slowly into the still morning air, dense and quiet and lingering. It is the kind of fog that transforms the landscape into a soft, gray canvas on which distant trees are painted in watercolor greens, sketched in with a few thin strokes of graphite. This is a fog that you can only see by looking down the road aways. It doesn’t curl around your feet like an affectionate cat — it keeps its distance, withdrawing as you approach, always just out of reach.

As you walk down the road, houses, fences, gardens and stop signs emerge from the light-infused obscurity to arrest your attention. In such a fog, nearby objects seem to put themselves forward to be examined minutely in their singular beauty. The diffuse light reveals an interplay of texture, color and form that a harsher light of stark contrasts might obliterate.

If you keep walking west, eventually you will reach the shore of Puget Sound. Standing on the beach on a clear day, you would be able to see the craggy peaks of the Olympics on the horizon across the water, their heights a dappling of light and shadow, snow and stone.

But in this fog, from your place on the shore, the world seems to expand around you only a few hundred feet before disappearing altogether into anonymous silence. You stand at the heart of clarity and light, so that your own body is a landscape of creases, joints and goosebumped skin that appear infinitely more complex to you than your muted surroundings.

In such a fog, it’s all too easy to forget the mountains, to forget the trees and the houses — to imagine only the gently rocking waters of the sound extending forever in every direction in a smooth, unbroken simplicity.

You are completely alone in the universe.

Except that every now and then a solitary gull sweeps into view, its wedged form coalescing out of light, water and sky, with a cry that sounds like the sea.

gull6_mmarcotte51


Photo Credit: “gull6,” by Mike Marcotte (CC) [source]