To these indigenous people, nature was the great teacher, the source not only of food and building materials, but of wisdom as well. Even after I crawled back to my hut and shut the door on this whirling world, I felt that now the little room in which I lay was itself floating free of earth. Indeed, when we are at ease in our animal flesh, we will sometimes feel we are being listened to, or sensed, by the earthly surroundings. By allowing the inevitable suspicions and fears to circulate unhindered in the region, the sorcerers ensured that only those who were in real and profound need of their skills would dare to approach them for help. Temporarily forgotten, paved over yet never eradicated, this old reciprocity with the breathing earth was here long before all our formal religions, and it will likely outlast all our formal religions. The complex organization of the brain evolved as a consequence of our sensorial and muscled engagement with the landscapes that surround us.
It is with my body that I am able to enter into a relationship with all things. Language too is rooted in the experience of the senses, beginning with our bodily gestures that express intention and emotion. Not only did writing undermine the human participatory relationship with the natural landscape, it also dissolved the intimate link with particular places in which ancestral stories or myths took place. I had occasion to recommend it again, and also have a moment to write a note about it. Each creature enacts this expressive magic in its own manner, the honeybee with its waggle dance no less than a bellicose, harrumphing sea lion.
This view contradicts the currently accepted idea that language is a system of signs or symbols representing things and events, with no inherent connection with that which it represents. As Abram points out with Heidegger, this was intentional — he was trying to bring about a shift in perception with a shift in language. In a fundamental sense, he feels himself to have truly come home. . The alphabet becomes entirely airtight and self-referential. What will it take for us to recover a sustaining relation with the breathing earth? He is an accomplished sleight-of-hand magician and has lived and traded magic with indigenous magicians in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Americas. He argues that our senses were no longer involved in their more primal synaesthetic participation with the landscape, but were now converging towards written letters purely symbolic representations of exclusively human-made sounds.
The same is true of our own world. Other scholarly tomes have been penned that wrestle with such philosophical issues. These are misconceptions derived from Western Christian beliefs and modern psychology and do not reflect the experience of the shamans and the communities they serve. No meaningful distinction was made between time and space. As he sees it, it is the hunter-gatherers who are entirely wedded to place and to the stories that bind them to it, to the point where, in Brody's words, those responsible for their displacement from their lands must be considered guilty of cultural genocide. Abram takes us on a journey from pre-literacy where stories and songs were employed as mnemonic devices to remember the accumulated knowledge of the tribe to pictographic writing systems e.
We are immersed in air. It has been observed that, in order to kill a human being, you have to make that person less than fully human in your eyes: a thing, an idea, an irritant. The medicine person's primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded--it is from this that her or his power to alleviate human illness derives. Deeply resonant with indigenous ways of knowing, Becoming Animal reminds us of the porosity of the boundary between ourselves and the more-than-human world. Some cultures may cremate the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and what lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language In a More-Than-Human World.
But the focus of my research gradually shifted from a concern with the application of magical techniques in medicine and ritual curing, toward a deeper pondering of the traditional relation between magic and the natural world. Many of the stories of indigenous peoples, suggests Abram, appear to us strange, simplistic and, even if we are too polite and culturally sensitive to say so out loud, just plain misguided. Our greatest hope for the future rests not in the triumph of any single set of beliefs, but in the acknowledgment of a felt mystery that underlies all our doctrines. The primacy of nonhuman nature for magicians, and the centrality of their relation to other species and to the Earth, is not always evident to Western researchers. I might perhaps have been able to reorient myself, to regain some sense of ground and gravity, were it not for a fact that confounded my senses entirely: between the galaxies below and the constellations above drifted countless fireflies, their lights flickering like the stars, some drifting up to join the constellations overhead, others, like graceful meteors, slipping down from above to join the constellations underfoot, and all these paths of light upward and downward were mirrored, as well, in the still surface of the paddies. In the loving descriptions of every-day life of the peoples among whom he moves, it is the perfect companion volume to Abram's more theoretical treatment of the same subject.
I am a thousand winds that blow. It is a complex interchange that goes on continually between our own body and the body of the world. David Abram is a philosopher and depth ecologist but it was as a sleight-of-hand magician living, studying and practicing his magic among the shamans of Indonesia and India, that led him to look more deeply into the relationship that the people of indigenous, oral cultures have to the living, natural world. . Since 1996, Abram has lectured and taught at universities throughout the world, while nonetheless maintaining his independence from the institutional world of academe.
He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language, which--even at its most abstract--echoes the calls and cries of the earth. A far-reaching consequence was the initiation of a new stage of reflective and abstract thinking not possible without written language. As Abram points out with Heidegger, this was intentional — he was trying to bring about a shift in perception with a shift in language. I walked back to my room chuckling to myself. Placed in regular, repeated locations at the corners of various structures around the compound, the offerings seemed to establish certain boundaries between the human and ant communities; by honoring this boundary with gifts, the humans apparently hoped to persuade the insects to respect the boundary and not enter the buildings.