This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.
Bioregional education seeks to create a human culture that is in tune with wildness. One of the ways bioregionalists do this is learning to listen to nature. David Abram stresses how the animals and plants are always listening to us, and how we must learn to listen to them. This chapter was originally published as, “The Ecology of Magic”, in Orion Magazine, Summer, 1991, pp. 29-43). This is a fascinating account of Abram’s journey to rural Asia to study the relation between folk medicine and magic. The focus of his research shifted when he recognized the importance of the shaman or magician’s role as tribal “ecologist”, a mediator between nature and his tribe.
In this way, bioregional education asks the teacher to play a role: the role of shaman for the children in her class. With her knowledge of the natural world and a lively imagination, she can help her students begin to hear the multitude of voices in Earth’s chorus. How do we introduce the beings of the world—animals, plants, rivers, trees, rain, wind, fire—to the children? How do we introduce the children to other members of the Earth family? This is real bioregional education. It involves listening, seeing, and paying attention to the beings we usually regard as part of the background scenery.
Late one evening I stepped out of my little hut in the rice paddies of eastern Bali and found myself falling through space. Overhead the black sky was rippling with stars, densely clustered in some regions, almost blocking out the darkness between them, and loosely scattered in other areas, pulsing and beckoning to each other. Behind them streamed the great river of light with its several tributaries. But the Milky Way churned beneath me as well, for my hut was set in the middle of a large patchwork of rice paddies, separated from each other by narrow two-foot-high dikes, and these paddies were all filled with water. By day, the surface of the pools reflected perfectly the blue sky, or the monsoon clouds, a reflection broken only by the thin, bright green tips of new rice. By night, the stars glimmered from the surface of the paddies, and the river of light whirled through the darkness underfoot; there seemed to be no ground in front of my feet, only the abyss of star-studded space falling away forever.
I was no longer simply beneath the night sky, but also above it—the immediate impression was of weightlessness. 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 clusters of stars 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 in the still surface of the paddies. I felt myself at times falling through space, at other moments floating and drifting. I could not dispel the profound vertigo and giddiness; the paths of the fireflies and their reflection in the water’s surface held me in a sustained trance. Even after I crawled back to my hut and shut the door on this whirling world, the little room in which I lay seemed itself to be floating free of the earth.
Fireflies! It was in Indonesia that I was first introduced to the world of insects, and there that I first learned of the great influence that such diminutive entities could have upon the human senses. I had traveled to Indonesia on a research grant to study magic—more precisely, to study the relation between magic and medicine, first among the traditional sorcerers, or dukuns, of the Indonesian archipelago, and later among the dzankris, the traditional shamans of Nepal.
The grant had one unique aspect: I was to journey into rural Asia not outwardly as an anthropologist or academic researcher, but as an itinerant magician, in hopes of gaining a more direct access to the local sorcerers. I had been a professional sleight-of-hand magician for five years back in the United States, helping put myself through college by performing in clubs and restaurants throughout New England. I had also taken a year off from my studies to travel as a street magician through Europe, and toward the end of that journey had spent some months in London, where I explored the use of sleight-of-hand magic in a therapeutic setting, as a way to open communication with distressed individuals largely unapproachable by clinical healers. As a result of this work I became interested in the relation, largely forgotten in the West, between folk medicine and magic. It was this interest that eventually led to the grant, and to my sojourn in rural Asia. There my sleight-of-hand skills proved invaluable as a means of stirring the curiosity of the local shamans. Magicians, whether modem entertainers or indigenous, tribal sorcerers, have in common the fact that they work with the malleable texture of perception. When the local sorcerers gleaned that I had at least some rudimentary skill in altering the common field of perception, I was invited into their homes, asked to share secrets with them, and eventually encouraged—even urged—to participate in various rituals and ceremonies.
But my interest gradually shifted from a concern with the application of magical techniques in medicine and ritual curing toward a deeper pondering of the relation between traditional magic and the natural world. This broader concern seemed to hold the key to the earlier one. For none of the several island sorcerers that I came to know in Indonesia, nor any of the dzankris with whom I lived in Nepal, considered their work as ritual healers to be their major role or function within their communities. Most of them, to be sure, were the primary healers or “doctors” for the villages in their vicinity, and they were often spoken of as such by the inhabitants. But the villagers also sometimes spoke of them, in low voices and in very private conversations, as witches (or “leyaks” in Bali)—as dark magicians who at night might well be practicing their healing spells backwards, or while turning to the left instead of to the right, in order to afflict people with the very diseases that they would later work to cure by day. I myself never saw any of those magicians or shamans with whom I became acquainted engage in magic for harmful purposes, nor any convincing evidence that they had ever done so. (Few of the shamans that I came to know even accepted money in return for their services, although they did accept gifts in the way of food, blankets, and the like.) Yet I was struck by the fact that none of them ever did or said anything to counter such disturbing rumors and speculations. Slowly I came to recognize that it was through the agency of such rumors, and the ambiguous fears these rumors engendered, that the sorcerers were able to maintain a basic level of privacy. By allowing the inevitable suspicions and fears to circulate unhindered in the region (and sometimes even encouraging and contributing to such rumors himself), the sorcerer ensured that only those who were in real and profound need of his skills would dare approach him for help. This privacy, in turn, left the magician free to attend to his primary craft and function.
A clue to this role may be found in the circumstance that shamans rarely live at the heart of their village; rather, their dwellings are commonly at the periphery of the community or, most often, out beyond the edges of the village, amid the rice fields, or in a forest, or a wild cluster of boulders. We can easily attribute this location to the just-mentioned need for privacy, yet for the magician in a traditional culture it also serves another purpose, providing a spatial expression of his or her symbolic position with regard to the community. For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society—its place is at the edge, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance. This larger community includes, along with the humans, the multiple nonhuman entities that inhabit and constitute the local landscape, from the myriad plants and diverse animals—birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects—of the region, to the particular winds and weather patterns that inform the local geography, as well as the various landforms—rivers, forests, mountains, caves—that lend their specific character to the surrounding earth.
The traditional shaman, as I came to discern in the I course of my twelve months in Asia, is in many ways the “ecologist” of a tribal society. He or she acts as intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, regulating the flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his or her constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and “journeys” the shaman ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns—not just materially, but with prayers, propitiations, and praise. The scale of a harvest or the size of a hunt is ever negotiated between the tribal community and the natural world that it inhabits. To some extent every adult in the community is engaged in this process of listening and attuning to the other presences that surround and influence daily life. But the shaman or sorcerer is the exemplary voyager in the intermediate realm between the human and the more-than-human worlds, the primary strategist and negotiator in any dealings with the Others.
It is only as a result of his ongoing engagement with the animate powers that dwell beyond the human community that the traditional magician is able to alleviate many illnesses that arise within that community. Disease, in most such cultures, is conceptualized as a disequilibrium within the sick person, or as the intrusion of a demonic or malevolent presence into his body. There are, at times, destructive influences within the village or tribe that may disrupt the health and emotional well-being of susceptible individuals. Yet such influences are commonly traceable to an imbalance between the human community and the larger field of forces in which it is embedded. Any healer who is not attending to the relations between the human community and the larger field will likely dispel an illness from one person only to have it arise, perhaps in a new guise, somewhere else in the community. Hence the traditional magician or medicine-person functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds, and only secondarily as a healer. Without a continually adjusted awareness of the relative balance or imbalance between the local culture and its nonhuman environ, along with the skills necessary to modulate that relation, any “healer” is worthless, indeed, not a healer at all. 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 entwined, and it is from this that his or her power to alleviate human illness derives.
The primacy of the magicians relation to other species and to the earth is not always evident to Western researchers. Countless anthropologists have managed to overlook the ecological dimension of the shaman’s craft, while writing at length of the shaman’s rapport with “supernatural” entities. We must attribute much of this oversight to the modern assumption that nonhuman nature is largely determinate and mechanical, and that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be of some other, nonphysical realm outside nature—’’supernatural.” The oversight becomes still more comprehensible when we recognize that many of the earliest ethnologists were Christian missionaries, for the church has long assumed that only human beings have souls, and that the (other) animals, to say nothing of trees and rivers, were “created” for no other reason than to serve humankind. It is not surprising that most of these early ethnologists, steeped in the dogma of institutionalized Christianity, assumed a belief in supernatural, other-worldly powers among those tribal persons whom they observed awestruck and entranced by nonhuman (but nevertheless natural) forces. What is remarkable is the extent to which contemporary attitudes preserve their anthropocentric bias. We no longer dismiss the shaman’s “spirit-helpers” as the superstitious claptrap of heathen primitives, yet we still refer to these enigmatic presences, respectfully now, as “supematurals”—for we are unable to shed the sense, so endemic to our civilization, that nature is a rather prosaic and predictable realm, unsuited to such mysteries. Nevertheless, that which is regarded with the greatest awe and wonder by indigenous, oral cultures is, I suggest, none other than what we view as nature itself. The deeply mysterious powers and beings with whom the shaman enters into a rapport are ultimately the same entities—the very same plants, animals, forests, and winds—that to literate, “civilized” Europeans are just so much scenery, the pleasant backdrop to our more pressing human concerns.
To be sure, the shaman’s ecological function, his or her role as intermediary between human society and the land,is not always obvious at first blush, even to a sensitive observer. We see the shaman being called upon to cure an ailing tribesperson of sleeplessness, or to locate some missing goods; we witness him or her entering into a trance and sending his awareness into other dimensions in search of insight and aid. Yet we should not be so ready to interpret these dimensions as “supernatural,” nor as realms entirely “internal” to the personal psyche of the practitioner. For it is likely that the “inner world” of our Western psychological experience, like the supernatural heaven of Christian belief, originated in the loss of our ancestral reciprocity with the living landscape. When the animate presences with whom we have evolved over several million years are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves, when the fecund earth that gave birth to us is interpreted as a soulless or determinate object devoid of sensations and feelings, then the numinous mysteries with which we have always been in relation must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself—the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.
But in genuinely oral, tribal cultures, the sensuous world itself remains the dwelling place of the gods, the mysterious powers that can either sustain or extinguish human life. It is not by sending his awareness out beyond the natural world that the shaman makes contact with the purveyors of life and health, nor by journeying into his personal psyche; rather it is by propelling his awareness laterally, outward into the depths of a landscape at once sensuous and psychological, the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk, the spider, and the stone silently sprouting lichens on its coarse surface.
The sorcerer’s intimate relation to nonhuman nature becomes most evident when we attend to the easily overlooked background of his practice, not just to the more visible tasks of curing and ritual aid to which he is called by individual clients, or to the larger ceremonies at which he presides and dances, but to the content of the prayers through which he prepares for such ceremonies, and the countless ritual gestures he enacts when alone, the daily propitiations and praise that flow from him toward the land and its many voices.
The most sophisticated definition of “magic” that circulates today through the American counterculture is “the ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.” No mention is made of any reason for altering one’s state of consciousness. In tribal cultures, however, that which we call “magic” takes all of its meaning from the fact that humans in an oral context experience their own intelligence as simply one form of awareness among many others. The traditional magician cultivates an ability to shift out of his or her common state of consciousness precisely in order to enter into rapport with the other organic forms of sensitivity and awareness that animate the local landscape. Only by temporarily shedding the accepted perceptual logic of his or her culture can the sorcerer hope to enter into relation with other species on their own terms. It is this, we might say, that defines a shaman: the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture—boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language—in order to make contact with and learn from the other powers in the land. The shaman’s magic is precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations—songs, cries, gestures—of the larger, more-than-human field. Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of living in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every natural form one perceives—from the swallows swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass and indeed the blade of grass itself—is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.
The magician’s relation to nonhuman nature was not at all my intended focus when I embarked on my research into the medical uses of magic in Indonesia, and it was only gradually that I became aware of this more subtle dimension of the native magician’s craft. The first shift in my preconceptions came when I was staying for some days in the home of a young “balian,” or magic practitioner, in the interior of Bali. I had been provided with a simple bed in a separate, one-room building in the balian’s family compound (most homes in Bali are comprised of several separate small buildings set in a single enclosed plot of land). Early each morning the balian’s wife came by to bring me a small plate of delicious fruit, which I ate by myself, sitting on the ground outside, leaning against my hut and watching the sun slowly climb through the rustling palm leaves. I noticed, when she delivered the plate of fruit, that my hostess was also balancing a tray containing many little green bowls—small, boat-shaped platters, each of them woven neatly from a freshly cut section of palm frond. The platters were two or three inches long, and within each was a small mound of white rice. After handing me my breakfast, the woman and the tray disappeared from view behind the other buildings, and when she came by some minutes later to pick up my empty plate, the tray was empty as well. On the second morning, when I saw the array of tiny rice-platters I asked my hostess what they were for. Patiently, she explained to me that they were offerings for the household spirits. When I inquired about the Balinese term that she used for “spirit,” she repeated the explanation, now in Indonesian, that these were gifts for the spirits of the family compound, and 1 saw that I had understood her correctly. She handed me a bowl of sliced papaya and mango and slipped around the comer of the building. I pondered for a minute, then set down the bowl, stepped to the side of my hut, and peered through the trees. I caught sight of her crouched low beside the comer of one of the buildings, carefully setting what I presumed was one of the offerings on the ground. Then she stood up with the tray, walked to the other comer, and set down another offering. I returned to my bowl of fruit and finished my breakfast. That afternoon, when the rest of the household was busy, I walked back behind the building where I had seen her put the two offerings. There were the green platters resting neatly at the two rear comers of the hut. But the little mounds of rice were gone.
The next morning I finished the sliced fruit, waited for my hostess to come by and take the empty bowl, then quietly headed back behind the buildings. Two fresh palm-leaf offerings sat at the same spots where the others had been the day before. These were filled with rice. Yet as I gazed at one of the offerings I noticed, with a start, that one of the kernels of rice was moving. Only when I knelt down to look more closely did I see a tiny line of black ants winding through the dirt to the palm leaf. Peering still closer, I saw that two ants had already climbed onto the offering and were struggling with the uppermost kernel of rice; as I watched, one of them dragged the kernel down and off the leaf, then set off with it back along the advancing line of ants. The second ant took another kernel and climbed down the mound of rice, dragging and pushing, and fell over the edge of the leaf, and then a third climbed onto the offering. The column of ants seemed to emerge from a thick clump of grass around a nearby palm tree. I walked over to the other offering and discovered another column of ants dragging away the rice kernels. This line emerged from the top of a little mound of dirt about fifteen feet away from the buildings. There was an offering on the ground by a comer of my building as well, and a nearly identical line of ants.
I walked back to my room chuckling to myself. The balian and his wife had gone to so much trouble to placate the household spirits with gifts, only to have them stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned within me. What if the ants themselves were the “household spirits” to whom the offerings were being made?
The idea became less strange as I pondered the matter. The family compound, like most on this tropical island, had been constructed in the vicinity of several ant colonies. Since a great deal of cooking took place in the compound (which housed, in addition to the balian and his wife and children, various members of their extended family), and also the preparation of elaborate offerings of foodstuffs for various rituals and festivals, the grounds and buildings were vulnerable to infestations by the ant population. Such invasions could range from rare nuisances to a periodic or even constant siege. It became apparent that the daily palm-frond offerings served to preclude such an attack by the natural forces that surrounded (and underlay) the family’s land. The daily gifts of rice kept the ant colonies occupied—and presumably, satisfied. Placed in regular, repeated locations at the comers 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.
Yet I remained puzzled by my hostess’s assertion that these were gifts “for the spirits.” To be sure there has always been some confusion between our Western notion of “spirit (often defined in contrast to matter or “flesh”) and the mysterious presences to which tribal and indigenous cultures pay so much attention. I have already alluded to the misunderstandings arising from the circumstance that many of the earliest Western students of these other customs were Christian missionaries all too ready to see ghosts and immaterial specters where the tribespeople were simply offering their respect to the local winds. While the notion of “spirit” has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the “spirits” of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.
As humans we are well acquainted with the needs and capacities of the human body—we live our own bodies and so know from within the possibilities of our form. We cannot know, with the same familiarity and intimacy, the lived experience of a grass snake or a snapping turtle, we cannot readily experience the precise sensations of a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower, or a rubber tree soaking up sunlight. Our experience may be a variant of these other modes of sensitivity, yet we cannot, as humans, experience entirely the living sensations of another form. We do not know with full clarity their desires or motivations—we cannot know, or can never be sure that we know, what they know. That the deer does experience sensations, that it carries knowledge of how to orient in the land, of where to find food and how to protect its young, that it knows well how to survive in the forest without the tools upon which we depend, is readily evident to our human senses. That the apple tree has the ability to create apples, or the yarrow plant the power to reduce a child’s fever, is also evident. To humankind, these Others are purveyors of secrets, carriers of intelligence that we ourselves often need: it is these Others who can inform us of unseasonable changes in the weather, or warn us of imminent eruptions and earthquakes—who show us where we may find good berries to eat when we are lost, or the best route to follow back home. By watching them build their shelters and nests we glean clues regarding how to strengthen our own dwellings, and their deaths teach us of our own. We receive from them countless gifts of food, fuel, shelter, and clothing. Yet still they remain Other to us, inhabiting their own cultures and enacting their own rituals, never wholly fathomable. Finally, it is not only those entities acknowledged by Western civilization as “alive,” not only the other animals or the plants that speak, as spirits, to the senses of an oral culture, but also the meandering river from which those animals drink, and the torrential monsoon rains, and the stone that fits neatly into the palm of the hand. The mountain, too, has its thoughts. The forest birds whirring and chattering as the sun slips below the horizon are vocal organs of the rain forest itself.
Bali, of course, is hardly an aboriginal culture—its temple architecture, irrigation systems, festivals and crafts all bespeak the influence of various civilizations, most notably the Hindu complex of India. In Bali, nevertheless, these influences are thoroughly intertwined with the indigenous animism of the Indonesian archipelago; the Hindu gods and goddesses have been appropriated, as it were, by the more volcanic spirits of the local terrain.
Yet the underlying animistic cultures of Indonesia, like those of many islands in the South Pacific, are steeped as well in beliefs often referred to by anthropologists as “ancestor-worship, and some may argue that the ritual reverence paid to one’s long-dead human ancestors, and the assumption of their influence in present life, easily invalidates the assertion that the various “powers” or “spirits” that move throughout the discourse of these peoples are ultimately tied to nonhuman (but nonetheless sentient or intelligent) forces in the surrounding landscape.
This objection trades on certain notions fundamental to Christian civilization, such as the assumption that the “spirits of dead persons necessarily retain their human form, and that they reside in a domain beyond the physical world. However, most indigenous tribal peoples have no such ready recourse to an immaterial realm outside earthly nature. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body”—whether human or otherwise—is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s elders and ancestors into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born. Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the natural environment in which it is embedded.
Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world, the subtle presence that circulates both within us and around all things, retains within itself the breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body—a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may bum or “cremate” the body in order more completely to return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and that which lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures, like some in the Himalayas, may dismember the body, leaving parts in precise locations where they will likely be found by condors, or where they will be consumed by leopards or wolves, thus hastening the reincarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person’s presence does not “vanish” from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape, whether subtly, in the wind, or more visibly, in animal form, or even as the eruptive, ever to be appeased, wrath of the volcano. “Ancestor-worship” in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.
This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of life that we encounter, whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds, are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite their obvious differences in shape and ability and style of being, they remain distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship and consanguinity that renders the difference or otherness so eerily potent.
Several months after my arrival in Bali, I left the village where I was staying to visit one of the pre-Hindu sites on the island. I arrived on my bicycle early in the afternoon, after the bus carrying tourists from the coast had departed. A flight of steps took me down into a lush, emerald valley lined by cliffs and awash with the sound of the river and the sighing speech of the wind through high, unharvested grasses. I crossed a small bridge and stood in front of a great moss-covered complex of passageways, rooms, and courtyards carved by hand out of the black volcanic rock. I noticed, at a distant bend in the canyon downstream, a further series of caves carved into the cliffs. These appeared more isolated and remote, unapproached by any footpath I could discern, and so I set out in their direction. After getting somewhat lost in the head-high grass and fording the river three times, I at last found myself beneath the caves. A short scramble up the rock wall brought me to the mouth of one of them, and I entered on my hands and knees.
It was a wide opening, maybe four feet high, and the interior receded only about five or six feet into the cliff. The floor and walls were covered with mosses, painting the cave with green patterns and softening the harshness of the rock; the place, despite its small size, or perhaps because of it, had an air of great friendliness. I climbed to two other caves, each about the same size, but felt drawn back to the first one, to sit cross-legged on the cushioning moss and gaze out across the canyon. It was quiet inside, a kind of intimate sanctuary. I began to explore the rich resonance of the enclosure, first just humming, then intoning a chant taught to me by a balian some days before. I was delighted by the overtones that the cave added to my voice, and sat there singing for a long while. I did not notice the change in the wind outside, or the cloud-shadows darkening the valley, until the rains broke, suddenly and with great force. The first storm of the monsoon!
I had experienced only slight rains on the island before then, and was startled by the torrential downpour now sending stones tumbling along the cliffs, building puddles and then ponds in the landscape below, swelling the river. There could be no question of returning home—I would be unable to make my way back through the flood to the valley’s entrance. And so, thankful for the shelter, I recrossed my legs to wait out the storm. Before long the rivulets falling along the cliff outside gathered themselves into streams, and two small waterfalls cascaded across the cave’s mouth. Soon I was looking into a solid curtain of water— thin in some places, where the canyon’s image flickered unsteadily, and thickly rushing in others. My senses were all but overcome by the wild beauty of the cascade and by the ferocious roar of sound, my body trembling inwardly at the weird sense of being sealed into my hiding place.
And then, in the midst of this tumult, I noticed a small, delicate activity just in front of me. Only an inch or two to my side of the torrent, a spider was climbing a thin thread stretched across the mouth of the cave. As I watched, it anchored another thread to the top of the opening, then slipped back along the first thread and joined the two at a point about midway between the roof and floor. I lost sight of the spider then. For a while it seemed to have vanished, thread and all, until my focus rediscovered it. Two more filaments now radiated from the center to the floor, and then another; soon the spider began to swing between these as on a circular trellis, trailing an ever-lengthening thread which it affixed to each radiating rung as it moved from one to the other, spiraling outward. Now and then it broke off its spiral dance and climbed to the roof or the floor to tug on the radii there, assuring the tautness of the threads, then crawled back to where it had left off. The spider seemed wholly undaunted by the tumult of waters spilling past. Whenever the web disappeared from my view, I waited to catch sight of the spinning arachnid, and then let its dancing form gradually draw the strands of the web back into visibility, tying my focus into each new knot of silk as it moved, weaving my gaze into the deepening pattern.
Abruptly, my vision snagged on a strange incongruity: another thread slanted across the web, neither radiating nor spiraling from the central juncture, violating the symmetry. As I followed it with my eyes, pondering its purpose in the overall pattern, I discovered that it was on a different plane from the rest of the web, for the web slipped out of focus when this new line became more clear. I soon saw that it led to its own center, about twelve inches to the right of the first, another nexus of forces from which several threads stretched to the floor and the ceiling. And then I saw that there was a different spider spinning this web, testing its tautness by dancing around it like the first, now setting the silken cross-weaves around the nodal point and winding outward. The two spiders spun independently of each other, but to my eyes they wove a single intersecting pattern. This widening of my gaze soon disclosed yet another spider spiraling in the cave’s mouth, and suddenly I realized that there were many overlapping webs coming into being, radiating out at different rhythms from myriad centers poised—some higher, some lower, some minutely closer to my eyes and some farther away—between the stone above and below.
I sat mesmerized before this complex expanse of living patterns upon patterns—my gaze drawn like a breath into one converging group of lines, then breathed out into open space, then drawn down into another convergence. The curtain of water had become utterly silent. I tried at one point to hear it, but could not. My senses were entranced. I had the distinct impression that I was watching the universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy.
Night filled up the cave with darkness. The rain had not stopped. Yet strangely, I felt neither cold nor hungry, only remarkably peaceful and at home. Stretching out upon the moist, mossy floor near the back of the cave, I slept.
When I awoke the sun was staring into the canyon, the grasses below rippling with blue and green. I could see no trace of the webs, nor their weavers. Thinking that they were invisible to my eyes without the curtain of water behind them, I felt carefully with my hands around and through the mouth of the cave. But the webs were gone. I climbed down to the river and washed, then hiked across and out of the canyon to where my bicycle was drying in the sun, and headed back to my own valley.
I have never, since that time, been able to encounter a spider without feeling a great strangeness and awe. To be sure, insects and spiders are not the only powers, or even central presences, within the Indonesian universe. But they were my introduction to the spirits, to the magic afoot in the landscape. It was from them that I first learned of the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, the ability of an alien form of sentience to echo one’s own—to instill in one a reverberation that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware. It was from such small beings that my senses first learned of the countless worlds within worlds that spin in the depths of this world that we commonly inhabit, and from them that I learned that my body could, with practice, enter sensorially into these dimensions. The precise, minuscule craft of the spiders had so honed and focused my awareness that the very webwork of the universe, of which my own flesh was a part, seemed to be being spun by their arcane art. I have already spoken of the ants, and of the fireflies, whose sensory likeness to the lights in the night sky had taught me of the impermanence of galaxies and the fickleness of gravity. The long and cyclical trance that we call malaria was also brought to me by insects, in this case mosquitoes, and I lived for three weeks in a feverish state of shivers, sweat, and visions.
I had rarely paid much attention to the natural world before, but my exposure to traditional magicians and seers was rendering me increasingly susceptible to the solicitations of nonhuman things. I began to see and to hear in a manner I never had before. When a magician spoke of a power or “presence” lingering in the comer of his house, I learned to notice the ray of sunlight that was pouring through a chink in the wall, illuminating a column of drifting dust, and to realize that that column of light was indeed a power, influencing the air currents by its warmth, even influencing the mood of the room. Although I had not consciously seen it before, it had already been structuring my experience. My ears began to attend in a new way to the songs of birds—no longer just a melodic background to human speech, but meaningful speech in its own right, responding to and commenting on events in the surrounding world. I became a student of subtle differences: the way a breeze may flutter a single leaf on a tree, leaving the others silent and unmoved (had not that leaf, then, been brushed by a magic?); or the way the intensity of the sun’s heat expresses itself in the precise rhythm of the crickets. Walking along the dirt paths, I learned to slow my pace in order to feel the difference between one hill and the next, or to taste the presence of a particular field at a certain time of day when, as I had been told by a local dukun, the place had a special power and proffered unique gifts. It was a power communicated to my senses by the way the shadows of the trees fell at that hour, and by smells that only then lingered in the tops of the grasses without being wafted away by the wind, and other elements I could only isolate after many days of stopping and listening.
Gradually, other animals began to intercept me in my wanderings, as if some quality in my posture or the rhythm of my breathing had disarmed their wariness—I would find myself face to face with monkeys, and with large lizards that did not slither away when I spoke, but leaned forward in apparent curiosity. In rural Java I often noticed monkeys accompanying me in the branches overhead, and ravens walked toward me on the road, croaking. While at Pangandaran, a peninsula jutting out from the south coast of Java (“a place of many spirits,” I was told by nearby fishermen), I stepped out from a clutch of trees and discovered I was looking into the face of one of the rare and beautiful bison that are found only on that island. Our eyes locked. When it snorted, I snorted back; when it shifted its shoulders, I shifted my stance; when I tossed my head, it tossed its own in reply. I found myself caught in a nonverbal conversation with this Other, a gestural duet with which my reflective awareness had very little to do. It was as if my body were suddenly being motivated by a wisdom older than my thinking mind, as though it were held and moved by a logos—deeper than words—spoken by the Other’s body, the trees, the air, and the stony ground on which we stood.
I returned to North America excited by the new sensibilities that had stirred in me my newfound awareness of a more-than-human world, of the great potency of the land, and particularly of the keen intelligence of other animals, large and small, whose lives and cultures interpenetrate our own. I startled neighbors by chattering with squirrels, who quickly climbed down the trunks of their trees and across the lawns to banter with me, and by gazing for hours on end at a heron fishing in a nearby estuary, or at gulls dropping clams on the rocks along the beach.
Yet, very gradually, I began to lose my sense of the animals’ own awareness. The gulls’ technique for breaking open the clams began to appear as a largely automatic behavior, and I could not easily feel the attention that they must bring to each new shell. Perhaps each shell was entirely the same as the last, and no spontaneous attention was necessary…
I found myself now observing the heron from outside its world, noting with interest its careful, high-stepping walk and the sudden dart of its beak into the water, but no longer feeling its tensed yet poised alertness with my own muscles. And, strangely, the suburban squirrels no longer responded to my chittering calls. Although I wished to, I could not focus my awareness on engaging in their world as I had so easily done a few weeks earlier, for my attention was quickly deflected by internal verbal deliberations of one sort or another, by a conversation I now seemed to carry on entirely within myself. The squirrels had no part in this conversation.
It became increasingly apparent, from books and articles and discussions with various people, that other animals were not as awake and aware as I had assumed, that they lacked any genuine language and hence the possibility of real thought, and that even their seemingly spontaneous responses to the world around them were largely “programmed” behaviors, “coded” in the genetic material now being mapped by biologists. Indeed, the more I spoke about other animals, the less possible it became to speak to them. I slowly came to discern that there was no common ground between the unlimited human intellect and the limited sentience of other animals, no medium through which we and they might communicate and reciprocate one another.
As the sentient landscape gradually receded behind my more exclusively human concerns, threatening to become little more than an illusion or fantasy, I began to feel, particularly in my chest and abdomen, as though I were being cut off from vital sources of nourishment. I was indeed reacclimating to my own culture, becoming more attuned to its styles of discourse and interaction, yet my bodily senses seemed to be losing their edge, becoming less awake to certain patterns and changes. The thrumming of crickets, like the songs of the local blackbirds, readily faded from my awareness, and it was only by a great effort of will that I could bring them back into my perceptual field. The flights of sparrows and of dragonflies no longer carried my attention very long, if I noticed them at all. My skin quit registering the changes in the breeze, and smells seemed to have vanished from the world almost entirely. My nose woke up only once or twice a day, perhaps while cooking, or when taking out the garbage.
In Nepal, the air had been filled with smells—whether in the cities, where burning incense combined with the aromas of roasting meats and honeyed pastries and fruits for trade in the open market, and the stench of organic refuse rotting in the ravines, and sometimes of corpses being cremated by the river; or in the high mountains, where the wind carried the whiffs of countless wildflowers, and of the newly turned earth outside the villages, where the fragrant dung of the yaks was drying in round patties on the outer walls of the houses, to be used when dry as fuel for the household fires, and where smoke from those many home fires always mingled in the outside air. And sounds as well: the chants of aspiring monks and Buddhist adepts blended with the ringing of prayer bells on near and distant slopes, accompanied by the raucous croaks of ravens, and the sigh of the wind pouring over the passes, and the flapping of prayer flags, and the distant hush of the river cascading through the far-below gorge. There the air was a thick and richly textured presence, filled with invisible but nonetheless tactile, olfactory, and audible influences. In America, however, the air seemed thin and void of substance or influence. Here it was not a sensuous medium— the felt matrix of our breath and the breath of the other animals and plants and soils—but merely an absence, and indeed was commonly spoken of as empty space. I found myself lingering near wood-fires and even garbage dumps— much to the dismay of my friends—for only such an intensity of smells served to remind my body of its immersion in an enveloping medium, and with this experience came a host of body-memories from my sojourn among the shamans and village people of rural Asia.
Today, in the “developed world,” many persons in search of spiritual meaning or self-understanding are enrolling for workshops in “shamanic” methods of personal discovery and revelation. Meanwhile some psychotherapists have begun to specialize in “shamanic healing techniques.” “Shamanism” has thus come to denote an alternative form of therapy; the emphasis among these practitioners of popular shamanism is on personal insight and curing. These are noble aims, to be sure. But they are secondary to, and derivative from, the primary role of the indigenous shaman: a role that cannot be fulfilled without long and sustained exposure to wild nature, its patterns and vicissitudes. Mimicking the indigenous shaman’s curative methods without his intimate knowledge of the wider natural community cannot, if I am correct, do anything more than trade certain symptoms for others, or shift the locus of disease from place to place within the human community. For the source of illness lies in the relation between the human culture and the natural landscape in which it is embedded. Western industrial society, of course, with its massive scale and hugely centralized economy, can hardly be seen in relation to any particular landscape or ecosystem; the more-than-human ecology with which it is directly engaged is the biosphere itself. Sadly, our society’s relation to the living biosphere can in no way be considered a reciprocal or balanced one. With thousands of acres of nonregenerating forest disappearing every hour and hundreds of species becoming extinct each month as a result of our excesses, we can hardly be surprised by the amount of epidemic illness in our culture, from increasingly severe immune dysfunctions and cancers, to widespread psychological distress, depressions, and ever more frequent suicides, to the growing number of murders committed for no apparent reason by otherwise coherent individuals.
From an animistic perspective, the clearest source of all this distress, both physical and psychological, lies in the aforementioned violence needlessly perpetrated by our civilization upon the ecology of the planet; only by alleviating the latter will we be able to heal the former. This may sound at first like a simple statement of faith, yet it makes eminent and obvious sense as soon as we recognize our thorough dependence upon the countless other organisms with whom we have evolved. Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of humanmade technologies that only reflect us back upon ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities.
Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human. Only in reciprocity with what is Other will we begin to heal ourselves.
David Abram (b. 1957) is a philosopher, magician, ecologist, and writer. He is the co-founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics. His philosophy is informed by the traditional knowledge of indigenous groups around the world and an interest in perception that began with his practice as a magician. His term “the more-than-human world,” a reflection of the idea that human culture exists not as separate from but within and intertwined with the larger world beyond, has been influential and widely adopted.
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