If we approached rivers, mountains, dragonflies, redwoods, and reptiles as if all are alive, intelligent, suffused with soul, imagination, and purpose, what might the world become? Who would we become if we participated intentionally with such an animate Earth? Would the world quicken with life if we taught our children—and ourselves!—to sing and celebrate the stories embedded in the body of Earth, in the granite bones of mountains and rainy sky tears, in trembling volcanic bellies and green scented hills? What if we apprehended that by nourishing the land and creatures with generous praise and gratitude, with our remembrance or tears, we rejuvenate our own relationship with the wild Earth, and possibly revitalize the anima mundi—or soul of the world?
These were questions I posed to a group of environmental education graduate students during a conversation about Aboriginal Australian songlines—the stories of totemic ancestral journeys imprinted into the land during the Dreamtime, stories that are at once profoundly mythic and, according to at least one researcher, imbued with a deep sense of ecology. Traditional belief suggests that singing or dancing the songlines keeps the land alive. I hoped to fire up the students’ imaginations with the possibility that even contemporary Western people like us might “hear” the layered geo-poetry and bio-mythos of the land and inhabitants and honor them with spoken praise, or song, or dance. Or even—and perhaps especially— grief for what the wild Earth has endured at our hands.
“Isn’t that a little contrived?” one student asked. “It doesn’t feel comfortable to talk to trees or the river.”
True enough, I agreed. It’s difficult for Western adults to even imagine that stone or water, forests or creatures, have their own ancestral stories—epic journeys and transformations that are not necessarily the stories we tell about them. It’s even more difficult, perhaps, for us to imagine engaging with those stories, participating with our words, gifts, music, or gesture. But what if, I asked, we simply practiced honoring the wild Others as if they could hear us, as if they were responsive, and as if Earth depended on this reciprocity for continued flourishing?
“Well,” one of the students allowed, “it would be a different world.”
A Sense Of The World’s numinous, animating dimension, its psyche or soul—its anima mundi—began to recede from the minds of Western people centuries ago. The modern scientific and industrial enterprise is based upon the Cartesian severance of psyche from matter—how else would we bear vivisection, mountaintop removal, rivers poisoned with effluents? Most never questioned the common view that the world is made up of dead or insentient matter, even though our own senses and experiences might sometimes suggest otherwise. For contemporary people, expressing the possibility (or certainty) that there is sentience, psyche, or soul present in everything can be socially risky though not life-threatening, but when radical cosmologist Giordano Bruno affirmed the animate nature of all matter in the sixteenth century, he was burned at the stake for beliefs that challenged the divinely ordained authority of the Medieval Church. With Bruno’s execution, and with the loss of so many other human and other-than-human beings, the anima mundi—uncelebrated, dishonored—slipped further into the shadows.
James Hillman writes of the need for psychology to return psychic depths to the world, without which we have been trying to heal or treat individual human patients without recognizing sentience—and suffering—in the world in which our individual lives are embedded. It is not clear to me that the world has actually lost its psychic depths, but surely there are few among us who, like Thomas Berry, recognize that the world is saturated in psyche—that “the universe from the beginning has been a psychic-spiritual, as well as a physical-material, reality.”
We generally regard our bodies as ours, distinct from what is outside our skin, yet our bodies depend on air, water, sunlight—and food, which in turn depends on air, water, sunlight, food. The elements of our bodies were born in a primeval supernova billions of years ago. Who can be sure where our bodies begin or end?
The familiar view suggests that psyche is entirely subjective, residing in the gray matter of the individual brain; yet can we be confident of making the cut that isolates our “own” psyche, mind, or imagination from the larger psyche of the world when we dream of communicating with animals, or of landscapes we have never seen, or when we have a sudden intuition about a distant beloved, or when we have visionary experience, or “remember” lives we have not lived? When we recognize that our animal companions dream, have memory, and sometimes know when we are within miles or hours of arriving home, or when we are aware that plants may respond to our affections, can we be certain that psychic depths are limited to human beings? And even though, by now, the idea of the interconnected body-mind-soul has permeated the “new age” (and beyond), how often do we enact our lives accordingly, as if there is intimate relationship between our imaginations or mental habits and our bodily experience, including our experiences in the embodied, ensouled world beyond ourselves?
At Dawn In Summer, I carry my flute to the top of the slickrock mesa, where the undulating stone summit overlooks valleys, canyons, distant ridges, and peaks. I play the walnut flute as a way of beginning the day, greeting the world, offering melodies to rock, clouds, ponderosa, cottonwood in the draw below, grasses in the fields, meadowlarks, doves, finches, lizards. I play as if there are listeners. The music is simple, untrained. Sometimes I get lost in the rhythm of my breath moving through the flute body, emerging as music, and other times I am keenly aware of the Others, my companions in the dazzling world.
I have been teaching myself this practice of offering small beauty in reciprocity to the world, a practice that is deepened each time I play as if creatures other than human beings might hear me. It is an enormous act of imagination to participate as if even stone “hears” and plays a part in the land’s organs of perception. I began many years ago engaging with the world as if it mat- tered to the Others as well as to me; I began with whispers, with gentle touches, then with praise, poetry, song—actively imagining that it did matter, somehow, even if there was no apparent response. But such offerings brought me more alive, and perhaps opened some hidden organ of percep- tion in me, because the world in which I am embedded seemed to tremble with greater aliveness too, like the sudden greening that follows desert rain.
I want to inhabit a fully animate world— and sometimes I do, although not usually while paying bills or getting the tires rotated. In fact, the animate Earth seldom reaches me when I’m involved in the tasks of maintaining a twenty-first-century life. The laptop seldom speaks, the espresso pot is silent. Even the stones, antlers, and feathers gathered on sills and shelves are mute. But perhaps the world itself does not change; perhaps the anima mundi is always near and receptive; perhaps only the lens with which I perceive the world shifts or widens. Engaging with the exuberant wild Earth from a different, deeply imaginative mode of participating consciousness might be something like donning 3-D glasses—a shimmering new dimension is revealed, and it is not just visual. The numinous, psychic atmosphere pulses with aliveness, crackles with curiosity.
Can Contemporary Western people reopen the gates of perception to an intelligent, meaningful cosmos, the cosmos as experienced by “nature mystics” and many traditional people—perhaps even our own distant ancestors? If we cultivate the imaginative consciousness that allows for experience and perception of the anima mundi, would we be able to continue shutting down Earth’s life support systems? Would people who practiced reciprocity to an animate, intelligent Earth have invented fracking, strip mines, Three Mile Island, or the economies of weapons, massive warfare, and destruction? Maybe. Yet it’s difficult to envision how a culture of reciprocity would have first developed the necessary Earth- assailing technology; such things would have been, perhaps, as unimaginable as schemes to demolish our own loved ones would be to contemporary people.
Who Would We Become if we honored the other-than-human world as if it matters to them and to us? If we do not already recognize that the Others are spiritual-psychic presences as well as physical beings, perhaps it’s still possible to teach ourselves to sense the world from a different set of assumptions, from a different lens, from a different view.
For most contemporary Western adults, intentionally participating with the other- than-human world requires vivid imagination. But an enchanted world is the natural home of human children. Until the spell is broken, the world sparkles and brims with companions and playmates, daemons and demons. Everything is alive and significant, thrilling, sometimes terrifying. Stones, clouds, and butterflies are capable of conversation. For most Western adults, the spell was broken long ago, and an enchanted world view of anyone past age six or so is easily dismissed as naïveté, animism, magical thinking, or regarded with suspi- cion—perhaps mental illness or crackpot mysticism. Yet who does not long, perhaps secretly or with despair, to live in a sentient, meaningful cosmos?
It is one matter to imagine that grass, mountains, Moon, willows, warblers, and weasels are worthy of—and receptive to— our praise and respectful attitudes; it’s another matter entirely to deeply believe this, to apprehend out of our own sensate experience that creatures and the body of Earth itself are aware of and in some way responsive to us—and that perhaps they are even participants in human affairs, whether or not we notice. If, as you grew in aware- ness of the world, you were taught—as children have been taught in many traditional cultures—that the other-than-human world is in conversation with you, asking from you a devoted attention, your experience of the world, your participation, would reflect that foundational understanding. You would be profoundly attuned to the slightest variations in the unfamiliar insects, the emergence of rare leaves, the inaudible voice in the forest that says, “wait here.” You wait, and in a moment a spotted fawn, or a sow grizzly, pads into view.
A lifetime of such experience would confirm your unshakable belief in communion with an animate, intelligent world.
Even a few such experiences might momentarily assuage the terrible loneliness of living in a meaningless, insentient universe.
Geneen Marie Haugen is a writer, wilderness wanderer, scholar, and guide to the intertwined mysteries of nature and psyche. She currently lives in southern Utah.