Awakening What's Wild Within Us

The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses

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I’m 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—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 earth’s 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 'the facts' of the matter. And yet the tale of the sun’s 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 sun’s fire nourishing the deep earth far below my feet.

Going to grade school in the 1960s and ’70s, I was repeatedly taught not to trust my senses—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—by our endless dissing of the world of direct experience—we were not disparaging the truest world of all, the primary realm that secretly supports all those other 'realities,' 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—the cloud-shadows darkening the large boulder across the field turn out, when I step closer, to be crinkly black lichens radiating across the rock’s surface; the discarded tire 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 “truth” 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 chills at the felt presence of another animal—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 we’ve forgotten (or dismissed as irrelevant) the sensory dimension of our lives. The senses are what is most wild in us—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—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 wildflower—sensory perception thus effecting the intimate coupling between this organism and its local world. Our own senses, too, have coevolved 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 bee’s compound eye draws it in to the wildflower, 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.

I’m 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: I’m 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 scientist’s 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.

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 senses—when we are really watching with our animal eyes and listening with our animal ears—we 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 things—like the rocks and the hills—move 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

Sense and Sensibility 

I believe in the flesh and the appetites;
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from; The scent of these arm-pits, aroma finer than prayer...
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Self-reflection is a desire felt by the body as well as the soul. As dancers, healers, and saints all know, when you turn your attention toward even the simplest physical process—breath, the small movements of the eyes, the turning of a foot in midair—what might have seemed dull matter suddenly awakens.
—Susan Griffin, The Book of the Courtesans

Devils can be driven out of the heart by the touch of a hand on a hand, or a mouth on a mouth. —Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

If you atrophy one sense you will also atrophy all the others, a sensuous and physical connection with nature, with art, with food, with other human beings. —Anais Nin, Diaries Vol. 2

The air was so sweet in New Orleans it seemed to come in soft bandannas, and you could smell the river and really smell the people, and mud, and molasses, and every kind of tropical exhalation with your nose suddenly removed from the dry ices of a Northern winter.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The Scent of Light

Like a great starving beast
My body is quivering
Fixed On the Scent
Of
Light.
--Hafiz, 14th century Persian poet

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 body—and hence that I and the rock are not related as a mental “subject” to a material “object” 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?

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; “lower” animals are more sentient, yet still stuck in their instincts; “higher” 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 spectators—never 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 ourselves 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 them—as active, as animate, as alive.

Ecologist, philosopher, and magician David Abram is the author of The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage, 1996). He lives with his family in the Rockies. This essay will appear in the forthcoming anthology Wild Earth (Milkweed Press, 2002), which features essays from the first 10 years of Wild Earth magazine.