Ecologist and philosopher David Abram is widely renowned for his books on nature, language and perception. Drawing on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology and traditional oral cultures and their practices. In 2014 he held the Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo. We met him in his home outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.
DEEPER DIALOGUES WITH THE LANDSCAPE
AD: In your work, beginning with your seminal work The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More- than- Human World, you have written extensively about how we can relearn a more vital relationship with nature. Our exchanges with our surrounding landscape can in the best cases be a dialogue, a process of learning and understanding. Today it seems that our relationship with our surroundings has deteriorated, becoming a confused miscommunication, or even something like a heated argument. What does it take to improve our dialogue with the land?
DA: It seems to me that a great deal of our own confusion – and the land’s confusion – stems at root from certain assumptions about language that are tacitly layered into our flesh. In our peculiar civilization, we tend not to consider the language we speak as part of the world. Rather, we view language as something that gets at the world from outside and maps it, or represents the world, but which itself is not a part of the world, like a stone or a cedar tree or as this woodpecker here. We think of verbal language as “a virus from outer space,” as William S. Burroughs called it.
But our responsibility in an era when so many species are being lost and the land is going through so much upheaval, is to learn to speak differently, to speak otherwise. Is it possible to speak, once again, as the human animal – as the earthly animal that we are?
The human being, without a doubt, is a most remarkable creature, but of course frogs and woodpeckers are also plenty remarkable, and these apple trees can actually grow apples out of their limbs! Each being has certain weird gifts relative to all the others. As a highly social species, we humans have this amazing propensity to secrete verbal language among ourselves, and between ourselves and the animate earth. Yet our current way of speaking keeps us entirely aloof from the earthly sensuous. It holds us in the stance of an almost disembodied mind, always looking at the rest of nature as though from outside. We talk about the world, we don’t talk to the world. We don’t feel the living land speaking to us, and we’re hardly ever listening for its reply to our ways of speaking.
We need to meet the earth with some of the same imaginative richness that it gives to us. We are always talking about the world – about the weather, about those cliffs over there, about the sunset – talking about the world behind its back, as it were. We neglect to speak to the world, and to listen for its reply.
HOW LANDSCAPES SPEAK
AD: If the land speaks, it seems to speak in gesture – doing things to us, just as we do things to and with it. Beyond gestures, you have thoroughly explored the role of formalized language and in our communication with the living landscape. What is at stake in this investigation?
DA: In The Spell of the Sensuous, I looked very closely at the origin of formal writing systems. Of course, different writing systems engage our senses in hugely different ways. More overtly pictorially- derived writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphs – or the very different hieroglyphic script of the Maya in Central America – carry images of felines, and raptors, and other animals, along with images of humans and, human implements, interspersed with shapes of rainclouds and mountains and rivers. This is also the case in a very, complexly worked out and still-operative script like the ideographic writing system of China. In these scripts, in other words, many of the written characters are derived – albeit in a highly stylized manner – from images of sunrise, of rainfall or even of the smell of rice rising to the nose. And hence the reader reading one of these more pictorially-derived scripts is continually reminded of language’s link to the whole of the sensuous landscape. While all highly formalized writing systems begin to close us within the house of human language, in such pictorially-derived scripts the written characters themselves still function almost like windows opening onto the expressive, more-than-human landscape – onto a terrain that still speaks.
Our alphabet, like all other alphabets in use today, derives from an ancient middle eastern form of writing, the aleph bait. The letters in this ancient, Semitic invention were also pictorially derived, but we then begin using them in this strange new manner. For instance, our letter A comes from the Aleph, which means “ox” en”. The letter itself, as you can see, is originally derived from the image of an ox’s head:
Similarly, the letter B derives from the second letter of the aleph bait, the Bait. “Bait” means “house” in the Semitic languages, and one of the original forms of the letter imaged a simple rectangular mud house, with a door in the side:
But when Phoenician traders carried the aleph bait across the Mediterranean, and it was adopted by the Greeks, a couple curious things happen. For one thing, the Greek scribes borrowed the Semitic names – Aleph became Alpha, and Bait became Beta – but these names had no other meaning in Greek. The names referred solely to the letters, not to any other referent like “ox” or “house.” Further, the Greek scribes reversed the horizontal direction of writing, which for the Semites had always been from right to left. The Greeks reversed the direction, so that one now wrote from left to right. And in the course of this reversal many of the letters got turned upside down, like the aleph – A – or turned on their side, like the bait – B. So for the Greeks, the letters were no longer recognizable as images of anything out there in the sensorial world. The reader reading such a script learns to associate the letter strictly with a sound made by his or her own voice. I look at a “B” and I go “Buh”, I look at a “C” and I go “Kuh.” That is, the letters are no longer associated with anything out in the surrounding world; rather they refer me back to my own mouth, to my own face. With the advent of the Greek alphabet, the letters no longer function as windows opening onto an animate, expressive terrain, but rather begin to function as mirrors reflecting the human form back upon itself.
And indeed, it’s only with the advent and spread of the alphabet that language, or meaningful speech, comes to be thought of as an exclusively human power, or property.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE LAND AND THE ETHICS OF SENSATION
AD: How do we break out of this house of mirrors in to reach something more immediate? Do we need to learn lost languages or invent a new one? Are there other ways of speaking, or do we need to get out of language all together?
DA: As a cultural ecologist, I learn a great deal from traditionally oral cultures – that is, from indigenous cultures that developed and thrived, often for many centuries, without any highly formalized system of writing; without any formal system of marks that was tightly coupled to their spoken language. Most such oral cultures are exquisitely attuned to the local, more-than-human terrain wherein they dwell, or within which they circulate.
Of course, indigenous, oral cultures are outrageously diverse, and exceedingly divergent in their patterns of experience and thought, in their ways of interacting with the local earth. Yet despite this remarkable diversity, there seem to exist a few basic commonalities among traditionally oral cultures. And one of them is a refusal to make a neat division, or bifurcation, between that which is animate and that which is inanimate, or inert. Rather, for them, everything is animate! Everything moves – it’s just that some things, like that mountain over there, or the walls of this house, move a lot slower than other things, like deer, or a hummingbird. All things have their dynamism, their own rhythm or pulse. Each thing has its own interior animation, its own way of dancing into the present moment, its unique manner of engaging the space around it, and the other beings around it, including us.
The one other commonality one I finds across so many indigenous, place-based traditions, despite their vast differences, is the sense that all things have the potential for expressive utterance. That meaningful speech is not an exclusively human power, or property. Rather, for most indigenous, traditionally oral cultures, meaningful speech is a property of the earth itself. And hence, any sound can be a voice, and any movement can be a gesture, laden with expressive intent. Each thing speaks in its own way, like the rattling of those aspen leaves above your head as the breeze moves through the branches just now. Cricket rhythms give expression to the intensity of the heat, and of course bird song is often filled with significance. But to our animal ears, the rumble of thunder is also filled with expressive meaning, as is the splashing speech of waves on the beach.
Here’s a simple example of this. The words that we might use in English to describe the movement of the water as it rolls between the banks of a stream, would be words like “rush,” “gush,” “wash” or “splash.” The “rush” of the river, the “splash” of those waters as they “gush” over the rocks, and “wash” between the banks. Yet the sound that unites all those words – gussssh, wasssh, splasssh, russssh – is the sound that the water itself speaks as it moves between the streambanks: “SHHHHH….” Which suggests that our human languages are not just born of humans talking back and forth among ourselves, but rather that our languages arise in a kind of call-and-response with a speaking world. Even modern languages have their ancient and oral origins, born in relation to an animate, multiply expressive world where all things had the power of meaningful utterance, although very few beings spoke in words.
Now, this is not as simple or silly as saying that human languages are onomatopoeic, that many human words mimic natural sounds in the land. It’s far more subtle, much more enigmatic than that. For instance, in English we have the word “blink,” which names the rapid closing and opening of the eyes. Now that action of the eyes does not make any sound at all. But if it DID make a sound, the sound would probably be something like “blink.” That is, the word corresponds to the feel of that gesture, but in a somewhat hidden manner that’s very hard to pin down.
DEEPENING OUR ATTENTION
AD: How can such insights about the sounds and the landscape be brought to bear on our communications about nature – and with natural landscapes – in the time of environmental crisis?
DA: One of the key insights of the little organization I work with, called the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE), is our conviction that the rejuvenation of oral culture is an ecological imperative. The practice of restoring or replenishing oral culture – the culture and face-to-face and face-to-place storytelling – is a way of returning voice to the land. And it’s a way of binding our human senses back into the sensuous, more-than-human terrain.
The aim, of course, is to gradually ally ourselves and our own projects with the needs of the living land wherever we dwell, and to interrupt and put out of play those practices that involve a kind of one-way imposition of ourselves and our fantasies upon the terrain. Only then can we avoid choking off the numerous other shapes of sensitivity and sentience that are today being shoved to the very brink of extinction as a result of our human obliviousness, of our blindness to any thing that is not human or of human invention, our deafness to any voice that does not speak in words.
One small, personal practice involves allowing certain terms, and certain phrases in our language to slowly drop out of our vocabulary – because these words and phrases are so abstract, they’ve been uprooted so long from the soil that all the dirt has fallen off their roots, and they no longer make any sense to our feelingful, creaturely bodies. In order to understand what these phrases mean, one almost has to withdraw from one’s animal senses and climb up into one’s head… A great deal of academic jargon is now like that. There’s no earthiness to much of this discourse, and it – often inadvertently – keeps us exceedingly aloof and detached from the living land.
What is the most efficacious and rapid way of changing the world? Well, I would say it’s changing our perception of the world, changing the way our senses are dynamically engaging with the world. But one can do that also very potently and powerfully by shifting the ways we speak, by altering our styles of discourse.
AD: But if we take the word earth, it is one of the ones that really works! It is used for the actual soil is used for, for the local earth territory. And it’s for the planet as a whole. So, it’s one of those words that feels precisely right.
DA: And it’s evocative! Earrrth! Rmph! The materiality of it! I used to be offended that all the other planets had the names of gods or goddesses, while our planet did not. But I began to appreciate it when I was working with James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Inspired by their work, more and more people began calling the Earth Gaia. It’s a lovely word, but not as viscerally strong as Earth.
AD: The French symbolist poet Mallarmé complained that the French word for day, jour sounds so dark it should be used for the night, whereas the word for night, nuit would be perfect for a bright day. This was long before Férdinand de Saussure convinced us that the relationship between the sound and the meaning of signs is arbitrary.
DA: Still, my experience of the tenderness of night has been inspired by the strange gentleness of that French term, nuit.
AD: There is a loftiness to it, perhaps. The sky was called Nut in the Alexandrian pantheon of ancient Egypt, and the god of the earth was called Geb – another great name!
DA: But when you speak of earth, you must know… the etymology of the word “human”?
AD: Does it have to do with “humus”, as some say?
DA: Indeed, it has everything to do with “humus,” an old Latin word for the soil underfoot. It has Proto- Indo-European roots. Besides the original meaning –, humus –, soil or earth, it is cognate with the word “humility,” which means means “being close to the soil, close to the humus.” That our species has this name “human” suggests, at least to me, that despite our modern arrogance – considering ourselves to be above and beyond all other creatures – “humility” may be in the end be a necessary and defining trait of the human being. That we are only really human when we’re humble in the face of everything else. That what makes us really human is our capacity to “fall in love outward” with everything else, our ability to stand astonished in the face of a stone or a stormcloud or a blade of grass. This is what William Blake suggests in his most eloquent quatrain:
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wildflower,
hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.”
For me those are perhaps the most beautiful four lines written in English.
AD: They seem to resonate with your animistic conviction – that there is something alive and energetic in even the simplest material objects.
DEPTH OF ATTENTION
AD: The first stumbling-block for modern people encountering the idea of animism, is not so much the animation of wildflowers or animals who are, after all, obviously living creatures, but rather but the notion that even non-organic things such as clouds and stones are also somehow alive. How should we think about that in a way that makes sense for us today?
DA: From a phenomenological perspective – that is, from the perspective of our sensing bodies – the simple act of perception is inherently animistic. We say that something “catches our eye,” that a particular cloud “draws our awareness,” that a tree stump “snags our focus,” or “captures our attention.” And in fact these ways of speaking are quite precise, for there is no presence that meets my senses as an entirely inert, passive, utterly inanimate object. Rather, things actively solicit our attention – they call to us, they draw our focus, or they actively repel our gaze and withdraw from our awareness. Things enact a kind of agency even just in drawing our attention and turning us toward them, and when I respond to the mute call of a stone or a sculpture or a cliff face, by turning toward it, or picking up that stone, then the stone will reveal something more of itself to me – its granular texture, perhaps – to which I then respond by moving my fingertip slowly across its surface, and in this way I am drawn into an interactive exchange with this other being, a sort of conversation without words.
Perception is an ongoing and open-ended activity. We never perceive any object in its entirety, all at once. Each thing that we encounter has its near facets open to our gaze – or to the apprehension of our skin, or our listening ears – and also its hidden aspects that are concealed from view. And it’s this tension between each thing’s openness and its obscurity or reticence, that ensures the allurement of the things around me. Each thing has this ability to beckon to my eyes or my ears or my skin while always withholding something of itself for further disclosure. Each thing has its accessible openness and its obdurate otherness which I can never fully dispel or dissipate.
Even when we consider our perception of the broad landscape that surrounds us wherever we find ourselves, this terrain has its close-at-hand aspects and its far aspects, as well as many facets that are entirely hidden – behind that hill, or beyond the horizon, or under the ground where we stand. Simply because we are not pure minds, but are bodily beings of density and weight, we are always situated down here in the thick of a world that exists in depth, with near aspects open to our exploration and many distant aspects concealed from our awareness.
Conventionally we think of depth as the third dimension, but phenomenologically considered depth is always the first dimension, from which height and width are abstracted. I mean, in order to ascertain how high or how wide a perceived thing is, you must first try to discern just how close, or how distant, you are from that thing.
AD: There is an enormous difference between painting a picture out in the open, plein air, and copying a landscape from a flat photograph, where you often fail to understand what you see. The lack of depth plays tricks on you, just as the trick of landscape painting is that of creating an illusion of depth – conjuring the feeling of being there in the landscape.
DA: The practice of sleight of hand magic is completely dependent upon the dimension of depth, upon the ability to momentarily conceal certain things behind other things. My original profession was that of a sleight-of-hand magician; indeed that was how I financed my college years, and made my living for many years after. I was one of the most skillful close-up magicians working in New England at that time. When performing with coins, or a wand, or a handkerchief, I would leave various gaps – or lacunae – in the trajectory of that coin as it moved around my hands. And the spectators would spontaneously fill in those gaps with the imagination of their eyes, with the creativity of their senses. The magician induces us to participate in the antics of the coin, and then startles us with what we, ourselves, have created. What generates the experience of magic is the participatory creativity of perception itself.
A skillful magician interrupts habitual ways of seeing, loosening ossified habits of perception (habits reinforced by ways of speaking that refer to the world as a set of inert objects and determinate, mechanical processes). A fine sleight-of-hand magician interrupts these static and endlessly-reiterated ways of perceiving the world, so that our senses start to creatively engage the things once again, so that our eyes and our ears begin to participate much more actively in what they perceive. In other words, the craft of magic wakes us up to the metamorphic quality of the real in its wonder – to the ordinary, outrageous magic of perception itself.
UTOPIA LIES IN THE DEPTH OF THE PRESENT MOMENT
AD: In this sense it is close to poetry, which also knocks out the literal use of language and draws attention to the sounds and images and shows us that both language and the world can be something entirely different. Expanding a shift in one’s consciousness changing culture at large or the human consciousness as such, sometimes feels like a utopian idea. I seem to remember that you are critical of utopias, but how are we to change in time and change enough collectively, if something like a general alienation from nature is at the root of the problem?
DA: My primary critique of utopian thinking, as I argue at the end of The Spell of the Sensuous, is that it tends to hold us within the tyranny of linear time, since it involves a mental projection of a desired form of life into the imagined future. But we cannot really move the world in an ecological direction just by projecting a mental image into the future. Because the other animals, the plants, the mountains and forests and rivers don’t really inhabit linear time. Like our own animal bodies, these beings all inhabit a timing and a rhythmic temporality that is overwhelmingly cyclical – the arcing trajectory of the sun, and of the moon (which is like an eye in the sky that closes and winks at us once every twenty-eight days), the cycling patterns of seed and blossom and fruit, the round dance of the seasons.
It seems to me that our dreams, our desires, our hopes for a more livable world really need to root themselves here in the open presence of present moment, in this vast and open presence where must negotiate with all these other bodied lives that enact so many rhythms strangely different from my own, like the weird temporality of a tadpole before it morphs into a frog, or that of spider spinning its web out of its abdomen, or of pinon pine ravaged by bark beetles. If there is a utopia to strive for, I feel, it must lie in the hidden depths of the present moment that we share with all these divergent forms of earthly life. Most utopias, like most forms of futurism, enable us to hide from our responsibility to all these other lives that intersect with our own only in the tangle of the present moment. Technology, too – for all of its possibility and promise – keeps stealing me away from my full-bodied immersion in the presence of the present.
But this is my birthright as a human creature: to become ever more awake to these ongoing, present-moment entanglements, to feel the relational dynamism of the world’s manifold otherness far more richly than I tend to when caught up in the hustle and bustle of this hyper-technologized form of life we call capitalism.
What is the most efficacious and rapid way of changing the world? Well, I would say it’s changing our perception of the world, changing the way our senses are dynamically engaging with the world. But one can do that also very potently and powerfully by shifting the ways we speak, by altering our styles of discourse. Not that that is enough – not at all, for clearly we also need to transform many of collective behaviors, altering our ways of generating energy, our ways of moving across the land, our ways of treating one another. But if we don’t also attend to the language, to the ways that we wield our words, then whatever else we’re doing will not have the desired effect.
At some point we will realize that it is not possible to restore the land without re-storying the land, without finding and rooting these rich stories of human/animal and human/plant interactions back in the animate landscape. We must begin to recognize, once again, that stories do not live, first and foremost, on the pages of books, much less on the glowing screens of our computers and cell phones. Rather, stories live and sprout from particular places in the land.
AD: What would be examples of what is at stake in our concepts and choice of language?
DA: When I first published The Spell of the Sensuous in 1996, I coined this phrase “the more-than-human world”, because I was alarmed by the poverty of our nomenclature, by how few terms we had to speak of “nature,” which is so often juxtaposed to (and set outside and apart from) “culture.” I wanted a word or a phrase that would indicate that our human world is a subset within a larger set. That the human world (with all of our culture and our technology) is permeated by and thoroughly included within the larger, more-than-human world, yet that the more-than-human world always and necessarily exceeds the human world – that the earthly community that includes us is always more than just us. Slowly this phrase – the more-than-human world – has spread around the sphere, and has become part of the common parlance of the broad movement for ecological integrity.
Lately, however, another new term been gaining ground: “the anthropocene.” Now, I have nothing against what “the anthropocene” purports to name: the epoch in which humankind has become a geological force. It has been clear to me since I was an adolescent that our species is and has been a geological force for quite a while. My dismay, and even disgust, with the term is that it seems to foreclose any turn toward humility on the part of humankind. Of course, those who came up with the word, Crutzen and Stoermer, are neither philosophers nor poets, and they did not notice the deeper resonances within the word. They did not realize that “the anthropocene” would inevitably begin to be taken up as an aspirational term. “We humans must now be as gods!” The problem is that by designating the anthropos as the name of the geological epoch now upon us, we imply that humankind is now coextensive with the earthly world in its entirety. It implies that nothing exceeds the human. And hence that there is no more-than-human world.
A LANDSCAPE-WIDE ATTENTION-SPAN
AD: The Swedish critic and human ecologist Andreas Malm has criticized this idea of the post-natural in his book The Progress of this Storm, simply by reminding us that because we damage or poison something, that doesn’t mean it ceases to exist in its own right. Just because we manipulate something, that doesn’t mean it is now our creation: that a nature altered by humans is thereby human.
DA: Right. That’s good. And yet the logic has often been like that old shopkeeper’s saying. “You broke it, you own it.” Now that you’ve broken that item, you must purchase it: it is yours to own. We broke the Earth so now it’s ours, right? The attitude implied by the anthropocene seems to be that although it’s kind of unfortunate, it’s now our responsibility to engineer the planet for our own purposes, because, basically, it’s a human world now. And sure, we do need a few other organisms for our purposes, so let’s try and make sure that a few other organisms survive. I think it’s a horrible term.
Of course, there are various other names that have been proposed, some of them a bit tongue in cheek; Capitalocene, Plantationocene. Yet many of my scientific colleagues insist that the name must underscore the central role that our species, as a whole, has played in bringing about this new planetary state of affairs. If so, then I don’t think we should use the Greek term for our species – “anthropos” – but rather the Latin term “humanus,” which as we mentioned earlier is cognate with the word “humility” – both derived from the humus, or soil. Perhaps we should call the geological epoch now upon us “The Humilocene” –which would indeed emphasize our species’ influence, yet would also nudge us into a new era of humility. Some people might say the name’s too awkward, that it sounds too much like the word “humiliation.” But that’s a plus, in my estimation. We should indeed be humiliated by what we have wrought.
And this period that we are now living through, this early phase of the Humilocene, might come to be called, in oral tradition, as “the Humbling.” A period when we are compelled by circumstances to apprentice ourselves, once again, to the manifold ways of the earthly world. “The Humbling”is a term suggested by my friend Dougald Hine, co-founder of the Dark Mountain project.
A DIALOGUE WITH THE LANDSCAPE
AD: So far, we’ve been more like the sorcerer’s apprentice, I suppose. It is like we learned some basic tricks from nature and then lost control of our own magic. So, what you suggest is a next step of collective learning. I like the title of your old colleague Dorion Sagan’s book, also a sleight of hand magician, Cosmic apprentice. What would be the first steps in a deeper and more cautious apprenticeship with nature?
DA: First, it involves turning toward and noticing the particular place that one inhabits, and learning the ways of the plants, the fungi, and the other animals of that land. In my case, it is the upper Rio Grande valley, here in the high desert foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which are the southernmost spur of the Rocky Mountains, the spine of the North American continent. What are contours of the actual bioregion, or watershed, that you inhabit? The real contour of your place often has nothing to do with the straight lines and right angles painted on the map of nation-states, provinces, and counties. All the straight lines and right angles drawn across the continent of North America – or Turtle Island, as some of us call it – make it impossible for our economies, our politics, and our social institutions to ally themselves with the actual patterns of life in this place, or to honor the needs of the more-than-human community in which any human community is always nested. They make it impossible even to notice, much less respond to the needs of the soils, of the forests, of the wetlands upon whose flourishing our human lives completely depend. So, we need to know the real boundaries of our bioregion. Who are your real neighbors, those with whom you share the same sources of water? Not just your human neighbors, but the other animals who migrate through this terrain, feeding on the particular plants that root themselves in these soils, which are different from the soils on the other side of that mountain range.
Another necessary aspect of apprenticing ourselves to the actual earth would involve rejuvenating oral culture – replenishing the practice of face-to-face and face-to-place storytelling. Oral culture is manifestly local. It involves the sharing of stories regarding the way things happen here, in this particular place – stories that are not written down, so they don’t so easily travel to other places and continents. The stories are rooted in the particular places where they happened, or where the events in those stories are understood to have happened. For instance, on the northwest coast of this continent, when the wild salmon return to the rivers and streams to spawn, there are stories that honor the salmon, and that are told in ceremonial fashion, involving collective songs and even dances that are beginning to be practiced once again. And as some of the hydroelectric dams that block their rivers are at last being decommissioned and taken down, various salmon species are being wooed and courted and coaxed back up into the river valleys and the headwaters of those rivers.
Such an intimate dialogue with particular animals, and with local, animate earth goes hand in hand with a replenishment of oral culture. At some point we will realize that it is not possible to restore the land without re-storying the land, without finding and rooting these rich stories of human/animal and human/plant interactions back in the animate landscape. We must begin to recognize, once again, that stories do not live, first and foremost, on the pages of books, much less on the glowing screens of our computers and cell phones. Rather, stories live and sprout from particular places in the land. It’s the more-than-human terrain that carries the tale. When you see that cave-mouth, or that cluster of boulders, or that riverbend, it triggers the memory of one or another tale of how that cave came to be there, or of some legendary encounter that happened at that riverbend. This is this is how we lived, linguistically, for 99% of our human tenure in the biosphere. The land was the primary mnemonic, the primary memory-trigger for remembering all of the accumulated knowledge gathered by our ancestors – knowledge about how to live in this land without destroying the capacity of the land to replenish itself, and where to find particular plants, and which plants were good for healing particular ailments and how to detoxify those plants in order to use them. The stories hold us in right relation to the local earth.
RESTORYING OUR LANDSCAPES
AD: Reviving old knowledge is vital, especially since we don’t live the lives that gave rise to that knowledge, so that it is even more precious. But old knowledge and improved sensitivity doesn’t seem to be enough in our time. We know about climate change because of science, and science also tells us fascinating and important things, such as that a layered rock is sediments from an ocean-floor hundreds of million years ago, or that certain roots are symbiotic with fungi. How can we incorporate scientific language and knowledge in a spoken culture or in our relationship to the landscape?
DA: It is utterly necessary to study and learn from the remarkable investigations of the various sciences, and from the clues and the evidences gleaned from the practice of those sciences! Yet we should also be looking to translate those evidences into the language of direct, sensorial, and felt experience – into a language that makes sense to the human animal, to our body. This is why I want to reticulate climate change as having to do with a torsion within the Commonwealth of breath. This inter-breathing with all the other animals and with the plants and with the microbes, percolate into existence this layer of the earth that we call the atmosphere. We don’t live on the earth, we rather live inside this co-breathing – in eAIRth. Remembering this is one way of keeping it visceral, bringing our bodies into the discourse, rather than just articulating it as parts per million of carbon dioxide and other exceedingly abstract notions – that leave our bodies cold.
The natural sciences, today, regularly bring us astonishing evidences and insights; indeed, much of what I myself understand and trust about the world has been learned from the intrepid investigations of the various sciences. But when science’s discoveries are couched in the language of a pure objectivity, or when they present the natural world as an immense object lacking its own agency and animacy, then they distort our actual relation to the world. Nature only presents itself as an inanimate set of mechanically determinate processes when it is viewed as if from outside. But we are not outside the world; we are bodied beings coevolved with all these other bodies of mountains and rivers, of countless plants, of other animals, of fungi situated down here in the thick of the world. When the earth is viewed from within – when nature is seen, perspectivally, from within its own depths – then the earth shows itself as animate and agential in every aspect.
And so, when I speak of restorying the land, or of translating the evidences of the natural sciences into the language of sensory experience – as is done, for instance, in the work of several friends of mine, like the uncanny writings of the remarkable biologist David James Haskell, or in the recent book, Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake which is about fungi, or in Richard Powers’ wonderful novel, The Overstory, wherein trees figure as central characters – then I am speaking of translating the objective view from outside the world, which was always a pretense, into the view from inside the world. This is a much older, oral way of speaking – one that binds our body to the terrain breathing all around us.
We need to meet the earth with some of the same imaginative richness that it gives to us. We are always talking about the world – about the weather, about those cliffs over there, about the sunset – talking about the world behind its back, as it were. We neglect to speak to the world, and to listen for its reply. Perhaps we need to let our imagination flow back out through our eyes in order to meet the imagination that the things, the other animals and the plants, are sending toward us. The forests and the rivers and all the other animals must be so bored by our way of talking only to ourselves, as if nothing else can hear us! So goddamn bored by our exclusively human ways of speaking and acting, that are so impervious to all these other shapes of sensitivity and sentience, oblivious to the countless other forms of creativity and agential vitality that dance and slither and roar within our world.
Photo: Carmen Harris
Anders Dunker works as a journalist and philosophical author, focusing on the environment, technology, and the future of the planet. His works includes a series of interviews with leading international environmentalists for the Norwegian journal Samtiden, that was published as Gjenoppdagelsen av Jorden (2019) and translated into English in 2021 as Rediscovering Earth (O/R books). Anders Dunker is also a permanent member of the NWCC’s Editorial Board.
Published with funding from the Fritt Ord Foundation.