Awakening What's Wild Within Us

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


| November-December 2001



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.