Praise for Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
written by David Abram, published by Pantheon Books, 2010
“Magic doesn’t sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine – to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.”
These are words by David Abram in his most recent book, Becoming Animal. (Some of you will have read his The Spell of the Sensuous that came out in the mid 90s.) Becoming Animal is a glorious sadhana for becoming truly human(e) and rediscovering our membership in and with the living community of earth. The entire book is a song of awakening, that frequently draws on his rich and personal experiences, both with non-human creatures and humans. His writing, which often flows like a great braided river of poetry, opens up fresh understandings of perception, language and the workings of mind, and places them right in the midst of communally lived embodied life.
Here are a few excerpts to give you a feeling for his style.
“When we allow that mind is a luminous quality of the earth, we swiftly notice this consequence: each region – each topography, each uniquely patterned ecosystem – has its own particular awareness, its unique style of intelligence. Certainly the atmosphere, the translucent medium of exchange between the breathing bodies of any locale, is subtly different in each terrain. The air of the coastal northwest of North America, infused with salt spray and the tang of spruce, cedar, and fir needles, tastes and feels different from the air shimmering in the heat of the Southwest desert. Each atmosphere imparts its vibrance to those who partake of it, and hence the black-gleamed ravens who carve loops through the desert sky speak a different dialect of squawks and guttural cries than the cedar-perched ravens of the Pacific Northwest, whose vocal arguments are often instilled with liquid tones. Likewise, the atmosphere that rolls over the Great Plains, gathering now and then into swirling tornadoes, contrasts vividly with the blustering winds that pour through the Rocky Mountain passes, and still more with the mists that advance and recede along the California coast. The specific geology of place yields a soil rich in particular minerals, and the rains and rivers that feed those soils invite a unique blend of grasses, shrubs, and trees to take root there. These, in turn, beckon particular animals to browse their leaves, or to eat their fruits and distribute their seeds, to pollinate their blossoms or to find shelter among their roots, and thus a complexly intertwined community begins to emerge, bustling and humming within itself. Every such community percolates a different chemistry into the air that animates it, joining whiffs and subtle pheromones to the drumming of woodpeckers and the crisscrossing hues of stones and leaf and feather that echo back and forth through that terrain, while the way these elements blend is affected by the noon heat that beats down in some regions, or the frigid cold that hardens the ground in others.
“Each place has its rhythms of change and metamorphosis, its specific style of expanding and contracting in response to the turning seasons, and this, too, shapes – and is shaped by – the sentience of that land. Whether we speak of a broad mountain range or of a small valley within that range, at each scale there is a unique intelligence circulating among the various constituents of the place – a style evident in the way events unfold in that ecosystem, how the slow spread of a mountain’s shadow alters the insect swarms above a cool stream, or the way a forested slope rejuvenates itself after a fire. For the precise amalgam of elements that structures each region exists nowhere else. Each place, that is to say, is a unique state of mind, and the many powers that constitute and dwell within that locale – the spiders and the tree frogs no less than the humans – all participate in and partake of, the particular mind of the place.
Later, he says,
“Of course, I am writing of these earthly elements, or moods, from an entirely human perspective. Indeed, I’m writing from the subjective perspective of a single human creature – myself. Nonetheless, I write with the knowledge that there cannot help but be some overlap between the direct, visceral experience and the felt experience of other persons – whose senses, after all, have much in common with my own. Moreover, I’ve confidence that my bodily experience is a variation, albeit in many cases a very distant variation, of what other, non-human, bodies may experience in the same locale in that season, at a similar moment of the day or night. For not only are our bodies kindred (all mammals, for instance, sharing a common ancestry), but also we are all of us, at the present moment, interdependent constituents of a common biosphere, each of us experiencing it from our own angle, and with our own specific capabilities, yet nonetheless, all participant in the round of life of the earth, and hence subject to the same large-scale flows, rhythms, and tensions that move across the wider life.
“The world we inhabit is not in this sense, a determinable set of objective processes. It is our larger flesh, a densely intertwined and improvisational tissue of experience. It is a sensitive sphere suspended in the solar wind, a round field of sentience sustained by the relationships between the myriad lives and sensibilities that compose it. We come to know more of this sphere not by detaching ourselves from our felt experience, but by inhabiting our bodily experience all the more richly and wakefully, feeling our way into deeper contact with other, experiencing bodies, and hence with the wild, intercorporeal life of the earth itself.”
Becoming Animal is one of the most beautifully written and inspiring books I’ve come across for a long time. It evokes a rich intermeshing, a kind of synaesthesia, of sensing, empathizing, and intuitive understanding. Each page exudes the perfume of profound reverence for life. From a Buddhist perspective, Becoming Animal points to a practice of kayanupassana (awareness of the body and a deepening appreciation for the mystery of embodiment) taken to a very broad and rarely appreciated level of refinement. It points to our rediscovering our living relationship with all beings both animate and inanimate, which is something we desperately need to bring back into focus in order to creatively move with the many ecological, social, political and economic problems that face us today.
This is not a book to read in a hurry. It’s a treasure of contemplations to have with you in retreat or on the lived journey of your life. You could think of it as a kind of puja, a daily remembering to question and notice and actively participate in the vast mysterious community of unfolding creatureliness, that is what we all are.
Paraphrasing Abram’s words; “Becoming Animal doesn’t sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine – to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.”