Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

Can Christians Be Animists?

Animism is having a moment in the pop culture spotlight. Thanks to the success of the Netflix show Tidying Up, featuring Marie Kondo and her joy-sparking approach to decluttering, thousands of Americans have been introduced to a subtly Shinto-influenced worldview* in which houses are ritually honored, books can be awakened with a cheerful tap, and even ugly t-shirts are thanked like dear old friends before being retired to the trash or a secondhand shop.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, environmentalists and conservationists have been facing the reality that despite our best efforts we’ve been unable to halt, let alone reverse, the ever-looming nightmare of global warming. Debates have raged over whether environmentalism as a political movement has failed — if we’ve entered a time in which “dark ecology,” action without hope, is the only adequate response. Earthlings everywhere are looking for a new approach. An approach, perhaps, that might even spark joy… Could animism be it?

With animism making a comeback among philosophers, environmentalists and reality TV hosts alike, what should arrive in my inbox but an invitation to review a new book by Religion & Environmental Studies professor, Mark I. Wallace, titled When God Was A Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World. My interest was piqued! Were Christians embracing animism? And if so, what would a Christian animism look like?

The thrust of Wallace’s argument is this: although the traditional view of Christianity is that it’s a world-denying religion focused on a wholly transcendent God, in fact (he endeavors to prove), Christianity has always had roots firmly planted in an earthy, nature-loving worldview. Though he frames this claim as edgy and controversial, it’s nothing new. For the past couple centuries at least, this “greener” view of Christianity has been growing in popularity especially among more liberal denominations. What is new is Wallace’s claim that Christianity is (and always has been) animistic.

It’s a bold claim, and he’s right to note that it might raise some eyebrows. Saying that Christians could (and maybe should) become more animistic is one thing. But it’s hard to believe his assertion that Christianity has always been animistic, given its long legacy of proselytizing with the explicit and well-documented purpose of wiping out indigenous pagan cultures. Such an assertion is on par with claiming that Christianity has always been feminist because sometimes the Bible has warm-fuzzy feels about how gosh-darn pretty girls are and what wonderful baby-mommas they make! With its complex philosophical and theological critiques, modern feminist theory arose in part as a response to Christianity and has presented serious challenges to Christian tradition over the past century. In the same way, animism — particularly, the evolving modern understanding of animism — makes certain specific claims about the nature of our shared reality. It cannot be reduced simply to a kind of general “green-fuzzy” aesthetic response to the natural world.

Unfortunately, Wallace makes a habit of just this kind of reductionism. In his introduction, he starts off all right, drawing on contemporary anthropologists and philosophers to suggest that:

“animism flattens commonplace ontological distinctions between living/nonliving or animate/inert along a continuum of multiple intelligences: now everything that is is alive with personhood and relationality, even sentience, according to its own capacities for being in relationship with others.”

Even here, though, we can spot the first signs of trouble — what exactly does Wallace think this “flat ontology” looks like, and what does it mean for Christians in practical terms? He offers various descriptions of what he calls “Christianimism” (ugh), including: “[the belief] that God or Spirit enfleshes itself within everything,” and “God [as] ensouling every life-form with deific presence.” It’s hard to see how this approach — which centers God’s personhood and presence while framing other beings as mere “manifestations” or “expressions” of God — have much in common with an animism that (to quote scholar Graham Harvey) recognizes that “the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human.”

If Harvey’s definition of animism reminds you a bit of that wittily-brief definition of feminism — “the belief that women are people” — that’s no coincidence. In many ways, prejudiced stereotypes about women and nature have been mutually constructed and reinforced over the centuries, and it’s useful to compare the two categories in any attempt to deconstruct them. Wallace himself prompts for this comparison with his book’s title, a callback to Merlin Stone’s highly-influential feminist work from the 1970s, When God Was A Woman. In her book, Stone asserted that throughout much of Europe and the Middle East, there once existed a beneficent matriarchal society that centered on worship of the Great Goddess, until it was suppressed by invasive patriarchal religion. As a vision of female empowerment, the text occupies a special place on the cusp of second-wave feminism; however, it also perpetuates a number of misconceptions and prejudices that the intersectionality of third-wave feminism has only just begun to critique effectively. And as an historical analysis, its sweeping conclusions are dubious.

Wallace’s When God Was A Bird occupies a similarly conflicted place in current theological conversations around animism and earth-rooted spiritualities. His eagerness to embrace our planet as a locus of divinity and beauty is undeniable. But for all his earnestness, his historical argument remains unconvincing. Worse than that, his understanding of animism is decidedly… let’s call it “first wave.”

To see what I mean, you can play this fun little game as you read: for each example of the Christian “animistic” attitude that Wallace offers, try replacing the plants and animals with women. Then, ask yourself if you still think they’re good examples of respectful relationship. If a saint were to, say, drive all the dangerous whores out of Babylon, or transform an ugly old hag into a totally bang-able super hot virgin as a manifestation of God’s glory — would you consider that feminist? Yet these are the examples — driving native reptile or insect species out of a forest, forcing a tree to bloom in the depths of winter, etc. — that Wallace cites to show how Christianity has been animistic from the beginning. That these are the best examples he can come up with is not very encouraging.

Even when, like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, Wallace stumbles upon an example that could arguably support an animistic interpretation, it’s obvious that he’s not exactly clear on why. The most striking instance of his confusion is when he compares a healing ritual from Hildegard von Bengin’s 12th-century medical treatise, Physica, to the story of Jesus curing a blind man in John 9:6-7. In the Gospel account, Jesus spits into the dust, smears the resulting mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash in a nearby pool, whereupon the man’s sight is restored. In her text on natural medicine, Hildegard describes a three-day ritual which consists of:

“taking handfuls of green soil and packing it around the head and feet of a person suffering from numbness […]. The goal is for the earth itself, thoughtfully positioned near the patient, to be its own agent of healing and to radiate its restoring warmth into the numbed body of the sufferer. […] ‘You, earth, are sleeping in this person, N.’ […] ‘You, earth, grow and be useful in this person.'”

Wallace asserts that these two rituals are “almost identical,” presumably because they both involve healing and mud. Beyond these two similarities, however, there are essential differences that Wallace either overlooks or discounts as unimportant. In particular, three aspects of Hildegard’s ritual stand out as potentially animistic:

(1) In her ritual, the healer addresses the earth directly, recognizing the soil’s unique presence as a specific embodied entity, and not merely as a symbol that represents something else or as a manifestation that points to some other entity behind or beyond it.

(2) The healer asks for the earth’s participation in the healing process as an agentive being, recognizing that it possesses a particular perspective, as well as an interiority that is withdrawn and inaccessible except through its own self-disclosure and willing participation to make itself available to others.

(3) In speaking to the earth “sleeping in this person,” the healer acknowledges the complex interobjectivity** in which both human and soil participate. In this way, the ritual draws attention to the multiplicity and complexity of interconnected personhood that exists on many levels, and invites a perspective that can shift among these levels without either denying them or collapsing them into each other.

The Gospel account of Jesus’s healing includes none of these characteristics, and in some cases directly refutes them:

(1) The mud and spit are seemingly incidental to the healing act — Jesus kneels down and works with the dirt where he just happens to be, prompted not by the earth itself but by the questions of his disciples, and more indirectly, by God. There’s no immediately obvious reason why the blindness (or its cure) is explicitly tied to this particular mud or its characteristics; other instances of Jesus’s healing miracles show him making use of whatever materials are available. For this reason:

(2) The mud and spit are, at best, treated as tools or symbolic extensions of Jesus’s divine power, not as agentive beings in themselves. They have no interiority or perspective. They do not act themselves but are only acted upon by others. Wallace describes this healing ritual as “shamanic” and examines the ways in which it grapples with issues of boundaries and transgression. But even with the most generous reading, the healing is at best an act of sympathetic magic in which “like attracts like” — the symbolically impure mud, ritually “charged” with Jesus’s spit, draws out the impure/harmful blindness from the man and so cures him when he washes both away with the (symbolic purity of) clean, fresh water. It is only after and because of this miracle that the pool (but not the dirt) is named.

(3) Far from acknowledging a complex interobjectivity, the use of mud as a symbolic tool in this way lends itself to just the opposite reading: a concern for how one’s purity (ie one’s bodily and spiritual integrity) can be corrupted by overly porous boundaries, resulting in a blindness which, like dirt, is “matter out of place” that needs to be removed in order for the person to be cured and “made whole.” Just prior to this miracle, Jesus’s disciples speculate about the cause of the man’s blindness, suggesting it’s due to some sin he or his parents committed — but Jesus explicitly rejects this explanation and the relationality it suggests. Instead the blind man himself, like the mud, is a tool that God uses to demonstrate his power.

Were Wallace to offer an alternative, animistic reading of the Gospel miracle, I might still quibble with his interpretation — but he doesn’t even bother! Instead, he seems not even to recognize how these “almost identical” rituals are actually very different. He conflates them (along with many other superficial and sometimes downright strange examples throughout the book) and offers a version of animism in which God’s personhood is always and repeatedly foregrounded, and there is no meaningful distinction between “person” and “tool” because even human people are wielded as tools by God. Rather than highlighting the personhood and agency of such tools (as I suspect he thinks he’s doing), he merely succeeds in reducing the former to the latter.

This issue of foregrounding and backgrounding is a serious overarching problem in Wallace’s text. While distinguishing between foreground and background is natural — a result of the way we perceive, process and participate in the world — one of animism’s basic insights is that these foregrounds and backgrounds are not static, inherent aspects of reality but instead arise from particular perspectives. Different human and non-human perspectives will foreground different aspects of our shared reality while backgrounding others. An animist text would, ideally, explore these shifts in perspective deliberately and conscientiously, interrogating and de-centering its own assumed or inherited perspective — for instance, asking how non-human persons might construct foreground and background differently and gleaning insights from the tentative answers that such questions provoke. Unfortunately, when Wallace manages to acknowledge a shift in foreground/background at all, he does so only in a single direction and to one specific end: in order to background individual persons in nature and foreground the human relationship with God.

You can see this backgrounding in a very literal way in his tendency to focus on metaphors of nature as environment. A familiar example of this is the popular quote attributed (incorrectly) to John Muir: “Nature is my church.” Though Muir never said exactly these words, he did often describe the natural world as a location within which humans encounter God, and Wallace leans heavily on this concept. Non-human beings, such as pine trees, may collectively contribute to the ambience of that environment, but usually only as a pluralized abstraction. Rarely do non-human persons make individual appearances or express individual perspectives on this human-God encounter in Wallace’s accounts. Even when they do appear as individuals, he immediately undermines this individuality by reattributing their expressive agency to God.

(An aside to return to our feminism parallel: This reattribution is akin to viewing women as extensions of male agency, so that even when a woman seems to be acting independently, her actions are reframed as a man’s choice not to act and/or as the object of the male gaze. See also, Morton’s Ecology Without Nature for a fascinating analysis of how nature-as-environment is commonly evoked through the “ambience” of lists in the nature writing genre. And then turn to page 77 in When God Was A Bird for a striking example of Wallace just straight-up listing bird species like some kind of avian Mambo #5.)

Again, Wallace engages in this reframing even with texts that are arguably good candidates for a re-imagined Christian animism. The Biblical call to “consider the lilies of the field,” for instance, could be read as an invitation to consider the lilies as persons who have a particular perspective, the capacity to perceive how they are cared for and supported, and even a kind of agency (insofar as they can refrain from toil). The passage prompts the reader to imagine the lilies’s perspective and compares them to “Solomon [a person] in all his glory.” And yet, Wallace twice makes sure to reframe this as a comparison not to Solomon-the-person but to Solomon’s temple as an aesthetically pleasing environment. He rejects the invitation to “consider the lilies” and considers instead only the field — that is, lilies-as-background.

For the most part, Wallace’s “Christianimism” seems to endeavor to look forever cross-eyed at the natural world — or rather, to look through it, as if it were one big Magic Eye puzzle in which you can see a 3D picture of God riding a dolphin if you squint just the right way. There are times, however, when he comes tantalizingly close to noticing the complex non-human community as more than just pleasing soft-focus background. These occasions are usually the direct result of his time spent outside in the natural world, in prayer or on pilgrimage. It’s when he is confronted with the undeniable presence of particular plants and animals living and acting in the world around him that he is forced to meet them face-to-face. His abstracted theological narrative momentarily falters, and we as readers have a fleeting chance to imagine a world in which non-human persons look back at us.

Perhaps, then, if there is hope for a more robust animism emerging within today’s Christianity, Christians might find themselves on the right path if they follow the same directions musicians take to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice!

In the meantime, Wallace’s When God Was A Bird represents a well-intentioned first step along that path. Unfortunately, it is the same first step that Christians have been taking for hundreds of years. The “green” approach to Christianity seems to have one foot stuck firmly in place, limping in circles around that same sticking point for centuries. Which raises the question: what exactly is this sticking point? If Christians are interested in taking more than just that first step — moving beyond the most basic acknowledgement that “nature is good” — at some point they’re going to have to ask themselves what is holding them back? What is it about their doctrines and/or ritual practices that prevents them from following the call of longing and belonging that so many of them have been noticing just on the edge of their hearing for so long…?

Rather than yet another re-imagining of the Christian past to suit today’s sensibilities, I long for an honest wrestling with Christianity’s history of missteps and an informed, intersectional, interobjective attempt to redress them. That’s the book I want to read!


* There are a lot of hot takes on Marie Kondo going around right now, including some terrible takes rooted in racism and sexism. The philosopher Dr. Jonathan Flowers (@shengokai) has some excellent Twitter threads addressing some of these issues. I highly encourage you to read and follow!


** Interobjectivity is perhaps too specialized a term for this kind of review, but it’s one I find super useful. The concept was introduced by Bruno Latour (pdf) as a way to talk about the social agency of objects and to challenge the common distinction in Western philosophy between subjectivity and objectivity. It’s been further developed by other scholars, my favorite being Timothy Morton, particularly in his work on hyperobjects.


Photo Credits:

• “Dove,” by Jan Daciuk (CC) [source]
• “Dove In Flight,” by Victor Paul (CC) [source]
• “Eight Flying Doves,” by Hartwig HKD (CC) [source]
• “Dive,” by Daniela (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization, Theology

Landscape In Ink, With Horse

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman

I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own

When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.

Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.

We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.

In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.

Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.

I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.

My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.

globe_Teresa-Alexander-Arab

We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.

But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.

~~~

It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.

One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.

lost-traveler_martinak15_sm

Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.

After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.

The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.

“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.

mother-son_bk

Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.

Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.

I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.

The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.

Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

I will never write a poem about a real horse.

Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.

Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.

I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.

Memory changes things.

I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.

And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.

We know ourselves, and then we do not know.

And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)


Photo Credits:
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization

Landscape in Ink, With Horse

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman

I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own

When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.

Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.

We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.

In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.

Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.

I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.

My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.

globe_Teresa-Alexander-Arab

We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.

But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.

~~~

It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.

One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.

lost-traveler_martinak15_sm

Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.

After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.

The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.

“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.

mother-son_bk

Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.

Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.

I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.

The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.

Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

I will never write a poem about a real horse.

Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.

Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.

I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.

Memory changes things.

I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.

And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.

We know ourselves, and then we do not know.

And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)
It was shared in response to the Daily Post’s prompts: Elusive and Shared Journeys


Photo Credits:
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Theology

Relishing Choice: How Not To Be An Ass

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


It was her sixth birthday, and my youngest stepdaughter was standing in the middle of the toy store looking like she was attending her own funeral.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. All I got back was grumpy silence.

donkeybaby_jillbluemoonbeamstudio1This was a special trip for us — to one of those quirky, locally-owned toy stores that is proudly eco-friendly, aggressively gender-neutral and unabashedly educational — and I’d told her she could pick out anything she wanted as a birthday present. At first I’d worried that she wouldn’t be able to find anything she liked, that maybe her tastes as a six-year-old had already been firmly corralled by American consumer culture into the pink-Barbie-fashion-princess phase that every little girl apparently has to live through, if only to get it out of her system. But we’d been there for twenty minutes and she’d already considered half a dozen choices with enthusiasm, taking each one carefully off the shelf and turning it over in her hands, imagining out loud how much fun she’d have with this doll or that board game or one of these books…. Now she just stood there looking somewhat morose, and I as the still-very-new-to-stepmothering stepmom was starting to feel antsy.

I tried encouragement. “I think that doll looks awesome. He’d make a great friend for your teddy bear… Is that what you want to get?”

“I don’t know,” she groaned. “I can’t decide….”

“Did you like the Make You Own Silly Slime kit better? Maybe you want that instead?” I saw the look of tortured indecision cross her face again as she glanced towards the Science Is Fun aisle.

“This isn’t fair,” she accused me. “Every time I think about picking one, it feels like I’m missing out on all the other ones I want. It’s like you’re taking them away from me.”

Her older sister, who’d tagged along for something to do and was also starting to get antsy by this point, chimed in with annoyance: “That’s stupid! If you take much longer, Ali’s going to change her mind and then you won’t get anything — so just pick something already!”

From the mouths of babes.

icanhastreats_jennifer

There is a famous philosophical paradox known as Buridan’s Ass, in which a hungry donkey finds himself exactly halfway between two identical stacks of hay and, being unable to choose between them, stands there until he starves to death.

The ridiculousness of this scenario is adorably poignant when played out by a sweet little six-year-old on her birthday. Of course, she did eventually choose just one toy (though I’ll be damned if I can remember which one it was, and I’d bet that she doesn’t either, which only goes to show).

Some philosophers have pointed out that no real-live, non-allegorical donkey has ever died of such indecision — eventually, the very palpable hunger pangs compel even the dumbest donkey to act. I try to imagine conducting this experiment with my parents’ dog to see which bowl of food she would choose, but I have a feeling the results would be an inconclusive hurricane of slobber and tail-wagging, with both bowls empty before they ever touched the ground. Which only goes to show.

donkeyonfarm

We humans like to think we are so much smarter than donkeys. Still there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve faced just such a situation and almost made the same mistake as Buridan’s Ass. This philosophical paradox is meant to illustrate the nature of free will: when placed between two options that are perfectly equal in every way, it is our freedom, our very ability to choose one or the other, which breaks the tie. But if we know that two choices are equal and it doesn’t matter which one we pick so long as we make a choice, why do we ever get stuck in this stalemate in the first place?

Intelligence can only take you so far when you’re bogged down by fear — fear of loss, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of the consequences of claiming your own power to act in the world and owning up to all of the wild possibilities that spiral out from that act. We are perhaps a bit too intelligent for our own good: able to imagine all the futures in potentia that await us, we conjure up whole alternate timelines with every roll of the die. We recognize at an instinctive level that no two choices are ever truly equivalent; if they were, there would be no choice. We know that each path will lead us on a unique journey with twists and turns that we can only guess. We know, deep in our squishy guts, just how little we actually know. And so we wait… hoping that some new information will come to light, that one path will call to us as the clear and obvious right answer. We wait for the universe to step in and take away the need to decide. And if it refuses? We might find ourselves waiting forever.

It’s tempting to lecture like a big sister and say: Snap out of it! Make a decision already, before you lose everything! We could go on pretending that life is a rom-com chick flick about a guy who’s afraid of commitment, caught between the enticing stranger and the girl next door, and by the end credits we’ll all have learned a valuable lesson about friendship.

But that’s not where I’m going with this. What I want to do is shift the conversation. I think our real problem is not that we are more or less scared of commitment, or that commitment is more or less difficult for some folks than others. I think what we struggle with at the deepest level is our fear of all that we have to lose.

This fear is built right into the word: decide, from the Latin meaning literally “to cut off” (de- “off” + caedere “to cut”). Every decision, it seems, severs us from the infinity of the possible and forces us onto a narrower path where our options will be more limited and our actions restrained. In trying to make a wise decision, we might distance ourselves emotionally or intellectually in hopes of avoiding bias — bias, from Old French meaning “slant, slope, sideways,” possibly related to the Proto-Indo-European *krs-yo-, from the root *(s)ker- meaning “to cut.” We might try to determine which decision is best through careful analysis — analysis, from the Greek meaning “a breaking up, a loosening, releasing,” tracing back to the PIE root *leu- “to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, separate”; and determine, from Latin de- “off” + terminare “to mark the end or boundary,” from terminus “end, limit.” The evolution of our language doesn’t pull any punches: when faced with a decision, we are practically obsessed with separation and loss.

With such an obsession, by focusing on the necessity of commitment — lest we lose everything and/or die alone — we only exacerbate our fears. No wonder every rom-com ends with a marriage as surely as life ends with a funeral.

But if the lesson of Buridan’s Ass is to remind us of our freedom, what I propose is a radical reversal of this perspective: to give up this notion of decision-making in favor of the more liberating and empowering concept of choice. Choice, from the Old French choisir meaning “to recognize, perceive, see,” related to the Old English ceosan “to seek out, select; to test, taste, try; to accept, approve.” From the PIE root *geus- “to taste, to relish.”

keepthatsmile_leabesson

Words have power. What a world of difference a single word makes! To take the step from decision to choice is to shift our focus from loss to enjoyment, from separation to engagement. To choose is to express not only our freedom, but also our joyful and sensual embodiment in the world: we see and taste and touch, we recognize and reconnect, and we relish that connection. Choice engages our sense of curiosity and experimentation: we test and try, and try again. Every choice is a new opportunity to learn and explore, opening up unexpected possibilities, rather than a decision that cuts us off from all but one option. Choice cultivates gratitude, shifting our attention from what we fear to lose to what we value and appreciate, what we long for, what we seek out because it calls to us. Choice is creative and generative, even as it encourages acceptance and affirmation of the world as it is.

This is the magical power of choice. For we can exercise it even in situations where we feel we have no control over our external circumstances. To make a choice is to perceive a connection, to affirm a relationship — whether it’s with a teddy bear, a slime mold or a spouse, a career or a casserole. At the heart of our freedom to choose is our recognition of the myriad unique relationships that draw us together and weave us into the world. Even when it seems like we have no alternatives and our path is set in stone, we can choose how to walk that path in relationship with others — to walk with curiosity, mindfulness, and passionate engagement. We can say yes to the world as it is with as much authenticity as we can muster. We can say yes to whatever twists or turns we encounter, eager to discover what’s to come rather than haunted by an unchangeable past.

donkeysinlove_klearchoskapoutsis

We can even say yes to our own indecision. We can see our stillness as a choice to be present, to be patient. We can accept our own insecurity or uncertainty or ignorance, to hold ourselves open to whatever possibilities may arise when we least expect them. Maybe the last fear we have to overcome is that our own indecision is an unforgivable loss, a missed opportunity. But we cannot unweave ourselves from the world of relationships. No choice is ever final, because these relationships are always changing in response to the shifting circumstances of our daily lives, both those beyond our control and those of our own making. Every moment is a new chance to choose again, to shift our focus, to see and accept and relish the place that we find ourselves in. So don’t worry — even in this topsy-turvy world, the guy can still choose the girl next door, we can all learn a valuable lesson about friendship, and even the dumbest donkey doesn’t die.


Photo Credit:
• “Donkey Baby,” by Jill/Blue Moonbeam Studio (cc) [source]
• “I can has treats?” by Jennifer (cc) [source]
• “Donkey on a Farm,” public domain [source]
• “Eating Process,” by Irene Mei (cc) [source]
• “Keep the smile,” by Lea Besson (cc) [source]
• “Donkeys in love,” by Klearchos Kapoutsis (cc) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Contemplation & Meditation, Featured, Holy Wild, story, Theology

Relishing Choice: How Not To Be An Ass

It was her sixth birthday, and my youngest stepdaughter was standing in the middle of the toy store looking like she was attending her own funeral.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. All I got back was grumpy silence.

donkeybaby_jillbluemoonbeamstudio1This was a special trip for us — to one of those quirky, locally-owned toy stores that is proudly eco-friendly, aggressively gender-neutral and unabashedly educational — and I’d told her she could pick out anything she wanted as a birthday present. At first I’d worried that she wouldn’t be able to find anything she liked, that maybe her tastes as a six-year-old had already been firmly corralled by American consumer culture into the pink-Barbie-fashion-princess phase that every little girl apparently has to live through, if only to get it out of her system. But we’d been there for twenty minutes and she’d already considered half a dozen choices with enthusiasm, taking each one carefully off the shelf and turning it over in her hands, imagining out loud how much fun she’d have with this doll or that board game or one of these books…. Now she just stood there looking somewhat morose, and I as the still-very-new-to-stepmothering stepmom was starting to feel antsy.

I tried encouragement. “I think that doll looks awesome. He’d make a great friend for your teddy bear… Is that what you want to get?”

“I don’t know,” she groaned. “I can’t decide….”

“Did you like the Make You Own Silly Slime kit better? Maybe you want that instead?” I saw the look of tortured indecision cross her face again as she glanced towards the Science Is Fun aisle.

“This isn’t fair,” she accused me. “Every time I think about picking one, it feels like I’m missing out on all the other ones I want. It’s like you’re taking them away from me.”

Her older sister, who’d tagged along for something to do and was also starting to get antsy by this point, chimed in with annoyance: “That’s stupid! If you take much longer, Ali’s going to change her mind and then you won’t get anything — so just pick something already!”

From the mouths of babes.

icanhastreats_jennifer

There is a famous philosophical paradox known as Buridan’s Ass, in which a hungry donkey finds himself exactly halfway between two identical stacks of hay and, being unable to choose between them, stands there until he starves to death.

The ridiculousness of this scenario is adorably poignant when played out by a sweet little six-year-old on her birthday. Of course, she did eventually choose just one toy (though I’ll be damned if I can remember which one it was, and I’d bet that she doesn’t either, which only goes to show).

Some philosophers have pointed out that no real-live, non-allegorical donkey has ever died of such indecision — eventually, the very palpable hunger pangs compel even the dumbest donkey to act. I try to imagine conducting this experiment with my parents’ dog to see which bowl of food she would choose, but I have a feeling the results would be an inconclusive hurricane of slobber and tail-wagging, with both bowls empty before they ever touched the ground. Which only goes to show.

donkeyonfarm

We humans like to think we are so much smarter than donkeys. Still there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve faced just such a situation and almost made the same mistake as Buridan’s Ass. This philosophical paradox is meant to illustrate the nature of free will: when placed between two options that are perfectly equal in every way, it is our freedom, our very ability to choose one or the other, which breaks the tie. But if we know that two choices are equal and it doesn’t matter which one we pick so long as we make a choice, why do we ever get stuck in this stalemate in the first place?

Intelligence can only take you so far when you’re bogged down by fear — fear of loss, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of the consequences of claiming your own power to act in the world and owning up to all of the wild possibilities that spiral out from that act. We are perhaps a bit too intelligent for our own good: able to imagine all the futures in potentia that await us, we conjure up whole alternate timelines with every roll of the die. We recognize at an instinctive level that no two choices are ever truly equivalent; if they were, there would be no choice. We know that each path will lead us on a unique journey with twists and turns that we can only guess. We know, deep in our squishy guts, just how little we actually know. And so we wait… hoping that some new information will come to light, that one path will call to us as the clear and obvious right answer. We wait for the universe to step in and take away the need to decide. And if it refuses? We might find ourselves waiting forever.

It’s tempting to lecture like a big sister and say: Snap out of it! Make a decision already, before you lose everything! We could go on pretending that life is a rom-com chick flick about a guy who’s afraid of commitment, caught between the enticing stranger and the girl next door, and by the end credits we’ll all have learned a valuable lesson about friendship.

But that’s not where I’m going with this. What I want to do is shift the conversation. I think our real problem is not that we are more or less scared of commitment, or that commitment is more or less difficult for some folks than others. I think what we struggle with at the deepest level is our fear of all that we have to lose.

This fear is built right into the word: decide, from the Latin meaning literally “to cut off” (de- “off” + caedere “to cut”). Every decision, it seems, severs us from the infinity of the possible and forces us onto a narrower path where our options will be more limited and our actions restrained. In trying to make a wise decision, we might distance ourselves emotionally or intellectually in hopes of avoiding bias — bias, from Old French meaning “slant, slope, sideways,” possibly related to the Proto-Indo-European *krs-yo-, from the root *(s)ker- meaning “to cut.” We might try to determine which decision is best through careful analysis — analysis, from the Greek meaning “a breaking up, a loosening, releasing,” tracing back to the PIE root *leu- “to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, separate”; and determine, from Latin de- “off” + terminare “to mark the end or boundary,” from terminus “end, limit.” The evolution of our language doesn’t pull any punches: when faced with a decision, we are practically obsessed with separation and loss.

With such an obsession, by focusing on the necessity of commitment — lest we lose everything and/or die alone — we only exacerbate our fears. No wonder every rom-com ends with a marriage as surely as life ends with a funeral.

But if the lesson of Buridan’s Ass is to remind us of our freedom, what I propose is a radical reversal of this perspective: to give up this notion of decision-making in favor of the more liberating and empowering concept of choice. Choice, from the Old French choisir meaning “to recognize, perceive, see,” related to the Old English ceosan “to seek out, select; to test, taste, try; to accept, approve.” From the PIE root *geus- “to taste, to relish.”

keepthatsmile_leabesson

Words have power. What a world of difference a single word makes! To take the step from decision to choice is to shift our focus from loss to enjoyment, from separation to engagement. To choose is to express not only our freedom, but also our joyful and sensual embodiment in the world: we see and taste and touch, we recognize and reconnect, and we relish that connection. Choice engages our sense of curiosity and experimentation: we test and try, and try again. Every choice is a new opportunity to learn and explore, opening up unexpected possibilities, rather than a decision that cuts us off from all but one option. Choice cultivates gratitude, shifting our attention from what we fear to lose to what we value and appreciate, what we long for, what we seek out because it calls to us. Choice is creative and generative, even as it encourages acceptance and affirmation of the world as it is.

This is the magical power of choice. For we can exercise it even in situations where we feel we have no control over our external circumstances. To make a choice is to perceive a connection, to affirm a relationship — whether it’s with a teddy bear, a slime mold or a spouse, a career or a casserole. At the heart of our freedom to choose is our recognition of the myriad unique relationships that draw us together and weave us into the world. Even when it seems like we have no alternatives and our path is set in stone, we can choose how to walk that path in relationship with others — to walk with curiosity, mindfulness, and passionate engagement. We can say yes to the world as it is with as much authenticity as we can muster. We can say yes to whatever twists or turns we encounter, eager to discover what’s to come rather than haunted by an unchangeable past.

donkeysinlove_klearchoskapoutsis

We can even say yes to our own indecision. We can see our stillness as a choice to be present, to be patient. We can accept our own insecurity or uncertainty or ignorance, to hold ourselves open to whatever possibilities may arise when we least expect them. Maybe the last fear we have to overcome is that our own indecision is an unforgivable loss, a missed opportunity. But we cannot unweave ourselves from the world of relationships. No choice is ever final, because these relationships are always changing in response to the shifting circumstances of our daily lives, both those beyond our control and those of our own making. Every moment is a new chance to choose again, to shift our focus, to see and accept and relish the place that we find ourselves in. So don’t worry — even in this topsy-turvy world, the guy can still choose the girl next door, we can all learn a valuable lesson about friendship, and even the dumbest donkey doesn’t die.


Photo Credit:
• “Donkey Baby,” by Jill/Blue Moonbeam Studio (cc) [source]
• “I can has treats?” by Jennifer (cc) [source]
• “Donkey on a Farm,” public domain [source]
• “Eating Process,” by Irene Mei (cc) [source]
• “Keep the smile,” by Lea Besson (cc) [source]
• “Donkeys in love,” by Klearchos Kapoutsis (cc) [source]

Conservation, Current Events, Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

What’s Good for the Bird is Good for the Herd: Cooperation at Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Perhaps one of the most insidious ideas that environmentalists and animists alike continue to struggle against is the misguided belief that to be pro-environment is to be automatically anti-human. Nothing could be further from the truth! Embracing the more-than-human community — whether spiritually or scientifically, or both — invites us into deeper, more meaningful relationship with the world and its many beings. Such relationship only helps to cultivate our sense of connection and enhance our well-being, both as individuals and as a species.

malheurwildliferefuge_stevenmiller

This is not to say that relationship is always easy. But it is essential. Acknowledging the interdependence of humans and non-humans on this wild holy earth is not just a foundational concept in modern animism, but a basic ecological fact that informs the most effective conservationist and environmentalist efforts. Given even a moment’s thought, the us-vs-them attitude that denies this connection, that emphasizes our separation and pits the human species against the planet we call home, is patently ridiculous. And yet, it continues to be an incredibly pervasive (and sometimes even persuasive) belief nonetheless.

What Do You Mean, ‘You People’?

As we’ve seen over the past month in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, this separatist attitude rests at the heart of many a call to “return the land to its original inhabitants.” The militants who seized control of the wildlife refuge headquarters in early January claimed to be protesting the tyranny of a federal government that they saw as usurping public lands through oppressive regulations and disproportionate punishment. They sought, among other things, to “return the land” to the local ranchers, farmers and hunters that they saw as the rightful and original owners.

But for many of us, the words “original inhabitants” held a very different meaning. For some, it meant the Northern Paiute Nation, the Native American Indian tribes whose territorial rights to this day “remain unextinguished by treaty” with the United States despite federal and state governments generally ignoring this fact. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation in 1908 under the assumption that the area was unclaimed federal land, although the Oregon Territorial Act from sixty years earlier clearly stated otherwise.

As others have pointed out, the “original inhabitants” of this area also include the astounding diversity of wild non-human life, in particular the migratory bird population which came under threat of extirpation in the 1800s — the very inhabitants that the wildlife refuge was established to protect and restore. Over the past century, the refuge has become one of the most important migratory bird sites on the continent, with 320 different species “returning to the land” every year.

rossgeese_dandzurisin1

But even when we invoke this desire to “return the land to its original inhabitants” in the name of environmental responsibility, we can quickly run into difficulties. I’ve written before about the problematic metaphors of invasion and warfare in how we speak about ecological restoration and conservation efforts. Environmentalists are not immune to the misplaced belief that pro-earth means anti-human. Like a lot of people, I tend to be more critical of the social groups of which I’m a member, partly because I have more intimate knowledge of what problems need fixing and partly because I feel a greater sense of personal responsibility for fixing them. I’ll admit, sometimes I get very frustrated with my own species, and this frustration translates into language that can sound downright misanthropic. Even as I grumble about the Oregon protesters, I run the risk of making the same mistake they do: seeing the needs of “invasive” humans in opposition to the needs of the “natural” environment, and feeling compelled to pick a side.

Living in relationship is always more complicated than the simplified categories of us-vs-them we try to impose. The fact is — whether we locate our preferred historical period as a time before federal regulations to protect wildlife, or before the encroachment of European ranchers and farmers on Native American territory, or before human settlement disrupted older non-human ecological communities — advocating the return to some idyllic past state is simply not an effective solution to our current challenges. Wherever we try to draw this distinction, we are too often wrong about what the past was actually like. History is just too tempting and convenient a place to project our fantasies of an ideal world, especially in a modern society that rushes towards the future so fast that it outstrips our capacity to imagine a better one. But even aside from our idealization of and ignorance about the past, attempting to recapture a community that no longer exists often entails ignoring the needs of the individuals and communities that exist here and now. This inevitably leads to conflict, and sometimes outright violence against the very people (human and non-human) who share the present with us.

A Story of Conflict and Cooperation

It would serve us well, I think, to remember that “returning the land to its original inhabitants” has just as often been the justification of the invader and the occupier as it has been a cry of the refugee and the exile. Who counts as “original” usually depends on where we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate narratives of history, where our sympathies lie and which groups we identify with, idealize or exoticize. How easy it is to fall back into an us-vs-them attitude when grappling with the complicated issues of social and environmental justice in the face of our country’s undeniably painful legacy of colonization, exploitation, disruption and loss.

The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is, in many ways, a microcosm of these on-going tensions among different environmental interest groups, government agencies, tribal associations and individual residents. Although the recent violent occupation has drawn national attention to the refuge, conflict in the area is nothing new:

Malheur’s marshes, ponds and lakes were a vital water source for the Paiute Indians. The Indians later were pushed out by cattle ranchers who used the water to help build up large ranching empires in the late 19th century. The ranchers, in turn, faced pressure from farmers drawn to the region.

After the wildlife refuge was established in the early twentieth century, park managers took steps to restore damaged landscapes by curtailing ranching and farming on the land. However, even into the 1990s, their approach was often guided by top-down regulatory and enforcement strategies developed by experts unfamiliar with the conditions unique to the local human and ecological communities of the region. As a result, these strategies were bogged down by bureaucracy and litigation, slow to change in response to the dynamic needs of local inhabitants.

But if Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a microcosm of conflict, it is also an inspiring example of success. In recent years, new approaches to cooperative land management and participatory conservation efforts have eased tensions and helped to reframe age-old conflicts in ways that benefit everyone, from bird to herd:

Malheur’s collaborative approach to land-use management began in 2008, when the refuge’s manager, Tim Bodeen, agreed to work with a cooperative group called the High Desert Partnership. It brought together ranchers, the Paiute tribe, conservationists, and federal staff to develop and implement long-term restoration projects on the refuge and across the region. After years of dialogue, a landmark plan was created in 2013 to guide the management of the 187,757-acre refuge for 15 years — sustaining it as a stopover habitat for millions of migratory birds as well as promoting it as a rangeland resource for local ranchers.

The success of the High Desert Partnership lies in its emphasis on cooperative approaches to problem-solving, reframing entrenched conflicts as shared challenges that can provide an opportunity to discover solutions that are mutually beneficial for everyone involved. This is a lesson drawn from the dynamic balance of living ecosystems themselves. As Nancy Langston, a professor of Environmental History and author of a history of the Malheur Refuge, explains:

Western grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, which means they thrive with disturbance from grazing. Cattle differ from native bison and elk in many ways. But with close attention to plant growth and soil moisture, grazing can foster grassland diversity, store carbon in soils, encourage the growth of grasses along creeks, and improve habitat for endangered birds. Doing this well requires specific local knowledge. Ranchers who work and live on the land often know the place and its limits better than people whose knowledge was gained in distant ecosystems. [emphasis added]

“Since ecological conditions change,” she goes on, “the plan treats grazing and all other management on the refuge as a series of experiments, testing to see what strategies work and what strategies don’t.”

By entrusting much of the day-to-day decision-making to local participants, this strategy remains flexible and responsive. But it also helps to rebuild trust and foster a sense of shared commitment that is vital to the long-term success of these relationships. Local ranchers began to adopt the slogan: What’s good for the bird is good for the herd. The sentiment perfectly captures the growing appreciation of interconnection in the community.

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It is a testament to the success of this approach that, when faced with the violent threat of armed militants, both the managers of the wildlife refuge and the larger community of Harney County responded with a renewed commitment to the collaborative process. Not a single local rancher joined the militants in protest. In an open letter posted to their Facebook page, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge staff stated that, when faced with such challenges:

In Harney County, that means we talk. We have cups of coffee. We have arguments. Together we knit our brows, and together we knit scarves. We understand what those currently occupying the Refuge don’t understand—that Harney County isn’t afraid of tough talk.

We can have effective disagreements and either find resolution, find compromise, or simply agree to disagree. But we do it with respect for the rule of law, and know that our areas of agreement and cooperation are infinitely more powerful than the differences we may face. Mostly, we face those differences together with open dialogue and open gates—not intimidation and threats. We have access to each other, because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations or have difficult conversations. [emphasis added]

Let me repeat that: we have access to each other because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations. Relationship is not always easy, but it is essential, and there is no denying it.

An Animist Approach to Justice

This question of how we define and work for justice in an animistic, ecological context has been an obsession of mine for years now. Do we kill an individual so that the group might survive? Do we cull this species to save that one? Do we act on our limited knowledge, aware that our biases might blind us or our ignorance might undermine our best intentions? Or do we do nothing? And if we do nothing, is this “allowing nature to take its course,” or is it silently acquiescing to the ill-informed decisions we’ve made in the past and which have already set certain patterns of cause-and-consequence in motion? I find myself drawn back again and again to the same basic question: how do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community and the planet?

The events in Oregon over the past several weeks — and our varied responses to them — highlight how these are not abstract theological or philosophical exercises, but questions that cut us to the quick and have real implications for how we understand and act in world. Social and environmental justice are not (and never have been) separate issues. The success of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and the resiliency of its community in the face of adversity, can provide us with a real-life example of how principles of cooperation, commitment and trust can help us nurture meaningful, healthy relationships in the more-than-human community.

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And yet, this kind of thinking is contrary to the competitive, us-vs-them attitude more often encouraged in our society — indeed, encouraged sometimes in the name of “natural law.” We tend to think of justice as mercantile: the idea that fair relationships require zero-sum, tit-for-tat exchanges in energy and resources, crime and punishment. We have long known that “separate but equal” is a lie that has been used to obscure real injustice and inequality. But we can be too quick to assume that the problem lies in our differences, and that the solution is to seek a one-sized-fits-all answer to injustice that will do away with difficult conversations for good.

When we reframe justice as right relationship, we see that we can be different without being separate. We realize that sometimes those who seek most fervently to distinguish “us” from “them” do so precisely to hide our shared relationship and common responsibility to one another. We come to understand that the root of injustice is this belief in separation, the belief that we can somehow isolate our communities from one another as if we weren’t all connected. Once we give up this notion of separateness, we are forced to define our individuality in other terms. But this does not mean giving up our individuality entirely in favor of a homogenous “oneness,” for we can also see that such homogeneity is itself unnatural and unsustainable.

Living and working cooperatively means adopting methods that are responsive, flexible, and participatory, guided by a shared vision but open to individual inspiration, experimentation and change. Such approaches do not suppress individual diversity, but absolutely require it. Collaboration means finding ways of fostering relationships that are mutually beneficial; this is not to say that everyone gets the same exact thing from a relationship, but that each individual’s needs are being acknowledged and respected, even when those needs differ. We cannot live in healthy community without some notion of individuality to sustain us and help us grapple with the reality that our needs, desires and perspectives are inherently unique and diverse. But this diversity challenges us to think creatively, to discover ways to cultivate “virtuous cycles” in which each person’s well-being enhances rather than detracts from the well-being of others. This is the dynamic, living balance between individual and community, in which each supports and sustains the other, that is at the heart of the animistic approach to justice.


Photo Credits:
• “Malheur National Wildlife Refuge” (CC) Steven Miller [source]
• “Ross’ Geese” (CC) Dan Dzurisin [source]
• “Mule deer buck group” (CC) Barbara Wheeler [source]
• “American Avocet & chicks” (CC) Barbara Wheeler [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

The Welcoming Wild: Community for Introverts & Animists

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


standingalone_miraitakahashi

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.


Photo Credits:
• “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]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com