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Returning to our senses

In our everyday conversation, we might use phrases like ëthe sun roseí, ëthe wind in the trees spoke to meí, or ëI was moved by my encounter with the landscapeí. These phrases speak of our sensual experience of nature around us, and are not spoken from the perspective of scientific truth. However these days we tend to be locked into a scientific view of the world which makes us spectators and observers rather than participants in a web of relationships. David Abram encourages us to return to our senses, and to relate to the world as a web of animate and sentient beings of which we are an integral part.
By David Abram  
  The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses.
Iím beginning these thoughts during the winter solstice, the dark of the year, during a night so long that even the trees and the rocks are falling asleep. Moon has glanced at us through the thick blanket of clouds once or twice, but mostly left us to dream and drift through the shadowed night. Those of us who hunger for the light are beginning to taste the wild darkness, and to swallow it ó taking the night, quietly, into our bodies.

According to a tale told in various ways by diverse indigenous peoples, the fiery sun is held, at this moment, inside the body of the earth. Each evening, at sunset, the sun slips down into the ground; during the night it journeys through the density underfoot, and in the morning we watch it, far to the east, rise up out of the ground and climb into the sky. But during the long nights of winter, and especially during the solstice, the sun lingers longer in the ground, feeding the dark earth with its fire, impregnating the depths with the diverse life that will soon, after several moons of gestation, blossom forth upon the earthís surface. It is a tale born of a way of thinking very different from the ways most of us think today. A story that has, we might say, very little to do with ìthe factsî of the matter. And yet the tale of the sunís journey within the earth has a curious resonance for many of us, despite our awareness that the events it describes are not literally true. For the story brings us close to our senses, and to our direct, bodily awareness of the world around us.

Our spontaneous, sensory experience of the sun is indeed of a fiery presence that rises and sets. No matter how thoroughly we have convinced our intellects that it is the earth that is really moving, our unaided animal senses still experience the sun as rising up from the earth every morning, and sinking beneath the ground every evening. Which is why I am pausing, at this moment, to feel the sunís fire nourishing the deep earth far below my feet.
The world directly revealed to us by our senses came to seem more illusory and less essential than that truer realm hidden behind the appearances.

If we ignore or devalue sensory experience, we lose our primary source of alignment with the larger ecology, imperiling both ourselves and the earth in the process. Many factors have precipitated our current estrangement from our sensuous surroundings. One of the most potent is also one of the least recognized: our everyday language, our ways of speaking.

What we say has such a profound influence upon what we see, and hear, and taste of the world! To be sure, there are styles of speaking that keep us close to our senses and enhance the sensory reciprocity between our bodies and the flesh of the earth. But we often wield words in ways that simply deaden our senses, rendering us oblivious to our sensuous surroundings and to the voice of the land. For instance, we have a habit of endlessly objectifying the more-than-human world, writing and speaking of every earthly entity (moss, mantis, or mountain) as though it were a determinate, quantifiable object without its own sensations and desires. In order to describe another being with any precision, we often feel we first must strip it of its living otherness, or envision it as a set of passive mechanisms with no spontaneity, no subjectivity, no active agency of its own. As though a toad or a cottonwood were a fixed and finished entity waiting to be figured out by us, rather than an enigmatic presence with whom we have been drawn into relationship.

Actually, when we are really awake to the life of our sensesñwhen we are really watching with our animal eyes and listening with our animal earsñwe discover that we experience nothing in the world as a passive or inanimate object. Each thing, each entity meets our gaze with its own secrets, and if we lend it our attention we are drawn into a dynamic interaction wherein we are taught and sometimes transformed. In the realm of direct sensory experience, everything is animate, everything moves (although, to be sure, some thingsñlike the rocks and the hillsñmove much slower than other things). If while walking along the river I find myself suddenly moved, deeply, by the luminous wall of granite towering above the opposite bank, how then can I claim that the granite rock does not move? It moves me every time I encounter it! Shall I claim that this movement is entirely subjective, a purely mental experience that has nothing to do with the actual rock? Or shall I admit that it is a physical, bodily experience induced by the powerful presence of this other being, that indeed my body is palpably moved by this other bodyñ and hence that I and the rock are not related as a mental ìsubjectî to a material ìobjectî but rather as one kind of dynamism to another kind of dynamism, as two different ways of being animate, two very different ways of being earth?

Going to grade school in the 1960s and í70s, I was repeatedly taught not to trust my senses ó the senses, I was told again and again, are deceptive. This was a common theme in science classes at a time when all the sciences seemed to aspire to the pure precision of physics. We learned that truth is never in appearances, but elsewhere, whether in a mysterious, submicroscopic realm we could reach only by means of complex instruments, or in an apparently disembodied domain of numbers and abstract equations. The world directly revealed to us by our senses came to seem more illusory and less essential than that truer realm hidden behind the appearances. This education continued in college, but by then I had begun to suspect we had it all backwards.

I began to wonder if by our continual put-down of the senses, and of the sensuous world ó by our endless dissing of the world of direct experience ó we were not disparaging the truest world of all, the primary realm that secretly supports all those other ërealitiesí, subatomic or otherwise. The sensory world, to be sure, is ambiguous and open-ended, filled with uncertainty. There are good reasons to be cautious in this enigmatic realm, and so to look always more closely, to listen more attentively, trying to sense things more deeply. Nothing here is ever completely certain or fixed ó the cloud-shadows darkening the large boulder across the field turn out, when I step closer, to be crickly black lichens radiating across the rockís surface; the discarded tyre half buried in the beach suddenly transforms into a seal that barks at our approach and gallumphs into the water. The world we experience with our unaided senses is fluid and animate, shifting and transforming in response to our own shifts of position and of mood.

A memory from a hike on the south coast of Java: It is a sweltering hot day, yet a strong wind is clearly stirring the branches and leaves of some trees across the field. As I step toward those trees, the wind rustling the leaves abruptly metamorphoses into a bunch of monkeys foraging for food among the branches. Such encounters, and the lack of certainty that they induce, may indeed lead us to reject sensory experience entirely, and to quest for ìtruthî in some other, less ambiguous, dimension. Alternatively, these experiences might lead us to recognize that truth, itself, is a kind of shape-shifting trickster, and that the senses are our finest guides to its approach. It seems to me that those of us who work to preserve wild nature must work as well for a return to our senses, and for a renewed respect for sensorial modes of knowing. For the senses are our most immediate access to the more-than-human natural world. The eyes, the ears, the nostrils catching faint whiffs of sea salt on the breeze, the fingertips grazing the smooth bark of a madrone, the skin rippling with chill at the felt presence of another animal ó our bodily senses bring us into relation with the breathing earth at every moment. If humankind seems to have forgotten its thorough dependence upon the earthly community of beings, it can only be because weíve forgotten (or dismissed as irrelevant) the sensory dimension of our lives. The senses are what is most wild in us ó capacities that we share, in some manner, not only with other primates but also with most other entities in the living landscape, from earthworms to eagles. Flowers responding to sunlight, tree roots extending rootlets in search of water, even the movement of a simple bacterium in response to its fluid surroundings ó here, too, are sensation and sensitivity, distant variants of our own sentience. Apart from breathing and eating, the senses are our most intimate link with the living land, the primary way the earth has of influencing our moods and guiding our actions.

Think of a honeybee drawn by vision and a kind of olfaction into the heart of a wildflowerñsensory perception thus effecting the intimate coupling between this organism and its local world. Our own senses, too, have co-evolved with the sensuous earth that enfolds us. Human eyes evolved in subtle interaction with the oceans and the air, steadily formed and informed by the shifting patterns of the visible world. Our ears are now tuned, by their very structure, to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. Sensory experience, we might say, is the way our body binds its life to the other lives that surround it, the way the earth couples itself to our thoughts and our dreams. Sensory perception is the glue that binds our separate nervous systems into the larger, encompassing ecosystem.
As the beeís compound eye draws it in to the wild flower, as a salmon dreams its way through gradients of scent toward its home stream, so our own senses have long tuned our awareness to particular aspects and shifts in the land, inducing particular moods, insights, and even actions that we mistakenly attribute solely to ourselves. If we ignore or devalue sensory experience, we lose our primary source of alignment with the larger ecology, imperiling both ourselves and the earth in the process.

Iím not saying that we should renounce abstract reason and simply abandon ourselves to our senses, or that we should halt our scientific questioning and the patient, careful analysis of evidence. Not at all: Iím saying that as thinkers and as scientists we should strive to let our insights be informed by our direct, sensory experience of the world around us. Further, we should strive to express our experimental conclusions in a language accessible to direct experience, and thus to gradually bring our science into accord with the animal intelligence of our breathing bodies. (Science can no longer afford to deny the scientistís own embeddedness in the very world she studies; we can no longer pretend that the human mind is able to break wholly free from its co-evolved, carnal embedment in a more-than-human web of influences.) Sensory experience, when honored, renews the bond between our bodies and the breathing earth. Only a culture that disdains and dismisses the senses could neglect the living land as thoroughly as our culture does.
If, however, we view matter as animate (or self-organizing) from the get go, then hierarchies vanish Ö we find ourselves not above this living web, but in the very midst of it, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape. If we speak of matter as essentially inanimate or inert, we establish the need for a graded hierarchy of beings: Stones have no experience whatsoever; bacteria have a minimal degree of life; plants have a bit more life, with a rudimentary degree of sensitivity; ìlowerî animals are more sentient, yet still stuck in their instincts; ìhigherî animals are more aware; humans alone are really awake and intelligent. In this manner we continually isolate human awareness above, and apart from, the sensuous world. If, however, we view matter as animate (or self-organizing) from the get go, then hierarchies vanish, and we are left with a diversely differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has its gifts relative to the others. And we find ourselves not above this living web, but in the very midst of it, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.

If we continue to speak of other animals as less mysterious than ourselves, if we speak of the forests as insentient systems, and of rivers and winds as basically passive elements, then we deny our direct, visceral experience of those forces. And so we close down our senses and come to live more and more in our heads. We seal our intelligence in on itself and begin to look out at the world only as spectatorsñnever as participants. If, on the other hand, we wish to recall what it is like to feel fully a part of this wild earth, then we shall have to start speaking somewhat differently. It will be a difficult change, but it will also be curiously simple, and strangely familiar, something our children can help us remember. If we really wish to awaken our senses, and so to renew the solidarity between our selves and the rest of the earth, then we must acknowledge that the myriad things around us have their own active influence upon our lives and our thoughts (and also, of course, upon one another). We must begin to speak of our sensuous surroundings in the way that our breathing bodies really experience themñas active, as animate, as alive.D
  David Abram is an ecologist, philosopher, and magician. He lives with his family in the Rockies. His book, The Spell of the Sensuous, is published by Vintage, 1996. We first met David at a ëconversationí hosted by Wolfgang Sachs and Ivan Illich in Pennsylvania, 1989.
  This article first appeared in Wild Earth magazine, and we found it in the Utne Reader, Nov-Dec 2001, 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403, USA. Permission received from David Abram to republish.