Sunday, February 1, 2009

We are the land

I struggle to put to words the great feelings of intimacy that flow from me to the land, and from the land to me. This understanding I have is largely intuitive and so personal that I find it a struggle to write out. But, I feel it is so vital that I want to try here.

In the book SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS the author, David Abram, describes well the significance of this feeling by saying that we are human through our relationships with the living, aware, and other-than-human land.

Since I was very young, I recognized that different places had different feelings associated with them that one could describe as the "essence of that place." Though I could not describe it back then, nor really even understand it consciously, it was always there. As clear and real as the rising and setting of the sun, or the beating of my own heart.

Part of that experience was what the landscape and all of its elements communicated to my senses. The land still speaks this way to me today. Every place I have grown to know and love, has a distinct swirl of smells, sights, sounds and more. The way the light dances across the forest floor in that very particular way. The way the bark on a particular Douglas-fir tree looks during a cloudy day. The distinct tartness of the huckleberries from this patch. The mosaic of sounds of the soft breeze rasping the salal leaves or scraping the Oregon grape leaves, or sighing and hissing through the tops of the hemlocks and cedars. Those peculiar pockets of cool or warm air that always seem to be around in certain parts of the forest, which I feel with my bare arms or the skin on my face and neck.

Each element, each individual other-than-human person in the landscape, whether rock, tree, animal, herb, fungi, stream or whomever else, shapes the feeling of that place. No two bio-regions are alike nor are any two locations within a bio-region exactly alike.

I think we all perceive these things quite naturally, though, as members of modern western culture we learn to tune these details out as more or less irrelevant. Not much more than the backgrounds noise and a setting for more important human activities.

Every aspect of the living landscape is part of the language of that place. Each species of bird, mammal, amphibian, reptiles, insect, crustacean, herb, shrub, tree, mushroom, mold and so forth has a very particular essence in and of itself. For instance, a white-crowned sparrow might have certain behaviors, songs, locations it prefers that are unique to its species. With time we might notice the individual differences of one or a particular group of birds from that species in the given location. It is easy to slip into the western perspective and see these individuals as separate parts of the natural world. Sometimes it is useful to do that. In a perspective were everything is separate, this obviously makes perfect sense.

If we step for a moment into another perspective, where everything is connected we might see things differently. Every gesture of an animal, a tree in a wind, the sun moving across a stone or the bubbling of a stream is the land speaking to us. This is our birthright, as human beings. It can be argued, that this is what makes us human.

Who I am right now is due to a very large degree on the places that I have gotten to know and visit, and especially those I have lived in, have shaped who I am as a human being and as an individual. I am still the white and black sage covered hills of southern California where I romped when I was a boy. I am heat waves shimmering in those hills, the rattle snake coiled on the road in the evening. I am the cougar that roams those hills like a shadow, and the deer that it hunts. I do not mean this as a metaphor, rather, I am an expression of those places.

Every molecules of my being is infused with the lands where I have been and dwelled.

From UBNA Adventure Nov. 16

In the same way, right now here in the cool, wet Pacific Northwest, I am also an expression of the rain and the forests right here. I am the dripping moss hanging from a big-leaf maple, and I am also the big-leaf maple. I am also the Douglas squirrel chattering from the limbs of that same tree. The air that fills these lungs is air exhaled by the trees and shared by all. There is no way for me to separate from these connections.

This is the essence of animism.