The Magic of Animism

Hello, fellow bibliophiles,

In the last days of 2018, the book blog Uwadis asked other book bloggers and bookstagrammers to name their favorite books of the year.  I was honored to see that Going Widdershins was one of them. It was chosen by Evelina at Avalinah’s Books, who wrote: “The book has so much to say! It tells the story of a woman whose soul was crushed through poor upbringing and an abusive marriage….  And this goes bigger. There’s a Mother Earth theme to the book as well.  Disconnecting from the female we are disconnected from the whole system and that is how our culture has led to the destruction of nature.”  Thank you, Evelina!  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

One of the reasons I wrote Going Widdershins was to honor our deep connection with the natural world.  Much of the novel’s action takes place in a residential facility for female hysterics called Summerland, run by May Manley, whose purpose is to help her “guests” heal by teaching them to re-root in the earth.  But you may wonder, what has the earth to do with mental health?  If I can answer for May, the earth is whence we derive; it’s the foundation and essence of who we are.  When we lose connection with it, we lose touch with a vital part of ourselves. 

However, it’s easy to ignore May’s wisdom when we’re so caught up in the demands of daily life, the responsibilities of work and family, and the affairs of the world that we can’t even recall the last time we witnessed a sunset or moon rise, felt joy in birdsong, or communed with the land.  Cut off and estranged from the earth, we have no way to revivify ourselves.  Thus, at Summerland May created an environment that encouraged her “guests” to have a personal relationship with nature, and in so doing, see themselves in a new way.

They danced under the full moon to honor the life force and develop a lunar consciousness. They participated in seasonal celebrations like the solstice and created their own earth-centered rituals like rolling in the dew.  They kept a notebook to record their sensory impressions and a log to track the cyclic occurrence of natural phenomena.  They also collected feathers and identified their avian owners.  By these and other means, May’s “guests” moved from a vague to a specific appreciation of the earth, its beauty, rhythms and bounty. 

Once nature becomes a consciously integral part of our lives, it acts as a stabilizer like ballast on a ship, keeping us in balance. The relationship is both primal and cosmic but also deeply individual because it’s grounded in sensory perceptions. When we spend too much time in our minds, our senses lie dormant, even wither.  Perhaps it’s one of nature’s self-protective mechanisms, the way immediate sensations cut through the fog of reason and circumvent the traps of abstract thought.  As David Abram puts it in The Spell of the Sensuous, our senses are a magic carpet that transports us from a fragmented mind beset with distractions to a state of unified wholeness.  They are the portals through which we participate in our all-encompassing habitat.

If, then, it’s by developing our faculty of sensory perception that we create a personal relationship with nature, where do we begin?  The first step is to abandon the attitude of a detached observer, thus allowing for a spontaneous, subjective response.  Without analysis and judgment, we perceive the world not as an object but an animate, breathing presence—as Thou instead of That.  

Then, walking alone in the woods or along the shore, on a mountain or in a desert, we can open ourselves to the mysterious content of moods coursing through our bodies and once again, our minds shift.  Suddenly the air, which we hadn’t even noticed, enfolds us in a warm embrace; we no longer feel like we’re separate and distinct from the earth, but rather integral with it.  Acutely aware, we heed the sights, scents, sounds and shadows melding with the rhythm of our breath and we experience something ineffable that  should not be discussed, only experienced. 

Though I’ve never taken a survey, my guess is that in our high-tech industrialized world most people don’t perceive the wild as sentient, so I’d like to share with you a recent encounter I feel privileged to have had.  In my backyard is an orange tree, and in early winter when the fruit begins to color, it attracts the attention of birds looking for a sweet drink who peck holes in the oranges, which then fill with ants, making the fruit inedible.  To prevent this from happening I cover the tree with a large net.

One sunny morning last November I went outside to give the tree a good watering and noticed a Black-Chinned hummingbird flying around frantically inside the net.  It must have gotten in under the net’s hem, which wasn’t weighted on one edge.  I had no idea how long the bird had been in there but it was clearly desperate to escape. I quietly lifted one end of the net from the top of the tree and then the other, letting it fall to the ground. 

In what I perceived to be an ecstatic burst of joy, the hummingbird flew onto the   branch of a nearby mesquite.  Perfectly still, I watched it for several seconds while it rested, its little chest rapidly rising and falling; then it flew off.  Pleased with the happy ending, I laid down on a chaise next to the orange tree, wanting to soak up some warm winter sun.  After a couple of minutes, I opened my eyes and the very same hummingbird, with its glistening black head and iridescent green chest, hovered mid-air about four feet in front of my face, looking straight at me.  It remained there for about for about five seconds before flying off again.  I have no doubt that that little bird had come back to say, “Thank you.” 

While some might deem it fanciful to attribute thoughts and feelings to a bird—the incident was for me a poignant reminder of our reciprocal relationship with the natural world.  We often hear about “the interconnected web of life” and how we’re “embedded in the matrix of the biosphere,” but it’s an experience, upfront and personal, like the one I had with the hummingbird that makes those words meaningful and confirms that we share this beautiful earth with many species … as their equals.