Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 8

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

“We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” The geologist Hans Cloos, a contemporary of Beston’s, complemented the sentiment beautifully in reflecting on our conversations with the planet: “We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.”

As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.

That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming nature’s language

Abram writes:

Magic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow 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.

[…]

Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to 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.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

And yet a defining feature of what makes us human — our imagination — is predicated on a recognition of this sensorial interrelation. Two centuries after William Blake wrote in his searing defense of the imagination that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way, [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Abram writes:

That which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.

Echoing naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and philosopher Alan Watts’s admonition that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Abram considers the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality beyond our isolated experience:

The “real world” in which we find ourselves, then — the very world our sciences strive to fathom — is not a sheer “object,” not a fixed and finished “datum” from which all subjects and subjective qualities could be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles. The mutual inscription of others in my experience, and (as I must assume) of myself in their experiences, effects the interweaving of our individual phenomenal fields into a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or “reality.”

And yet, as we know from our everyday experience, the phenomenal world is remarkably stable and solid; we are able to count on it in so many ways, and we take for granted much of its structure and character. This experienced solidity is precisely sustained by the continual encounter with others, with other embodied subjects, other centers of experience. The encounter with other perceivers continually assures me that there is more to any thing, or to the world, than I myself can perceive at any moment. Besides that which I directly see of a particular oak tree or building, I know or intuit that there are also those facets of the oak or building that are visible to the other perceivers that I see. I sense that that tree is much more than what I directly see of it, since it is also what the others whom I see perceive of it; I sense that as a perceivable presence it already existed before I came to look at it, and indeed that it will not dissipate when I turn away from it, since it remains an experience for others — not just for other persons, but… for other sentient organisms, for the birds that nest in its branches and for the insects that move along its bark, and even, finally, for the sensitive cells and tissues of the oak itself, quietly drinking sunlight through its leaves. It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensations of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Golden Leaf

This recognition of the reality of other experiences calls to mind the distinction philosopher Martin Buber drew nearly a century earlier between the I-It and I-Thou orientations toward what is other than oneself. And this recognition, Abram argues, is the key to redeeming our connection to the rest of nature and the more-than-human world, so artificially severed in modern Western culture. “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov captured this modern hijacking of our essence in her exquisite poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” Abram considers what it takes for us to heal the artificial severance into parallels and re-intersect our own experience with the manifold realities of that “other” world:

Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies. And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky.

[…]

We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and to experience, once again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world… This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.

In the remainder of the altogether enchanting The Spell of the Sensuous, Abrams visits with various native cultures to learn from their wisdom and mirror it back through the lens of a more-than-scientific understanding of the world. Complement it with a lovely illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature, then revisit the great marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson, who awakened the modern ecological conscience, on science and our spiritual bond with nature.

BP

Middle Age and the Art of Self-Renewal: An Extraordinary Letter from Pioneering Education Reformer Elizabeth Peabody

“The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth… The perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth….”

Middle Age and the Art of Self-Renewal: An Extraordinary Letter from Pioneering Education Reformer Elizabeth Peabody

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her characteristic asides of immense insight as she considered the dying art of letter writing. This may be the most elemental paradox of existence: We yearn for permanence and stability despite a universe of constant change as a way of hedging against the inescapable fact of our mortality, our own individual impermanence. And yet this faulty coping mechanism results not in immortality but in complacency, stagnation, a living death. Emerson captured this paradox with sundering precision as he weighed the key to personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

That is what Emerson’s contemporary and collaborator, the great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody (May 16, 1804–January 3, 1894), explores in an 1838 letter to her friend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister, included in Figuring. (Peabody’s own sister, Sophia, would eventually marry Hawthorne, living through his conflicted romantic attachment to Herman Melville.)

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

As a child, Peabody had taught herself Latin and Greek in order to access the world’s wisdom and cut off her curls in revolt against her culture’s preoccupation with young women’s appearance rather than their minds. She learned astronomy and geography in an era when higher education was not available to women and become the first woman allowed into Boston’s only lending library. (The exception only lasted a month, during which she borrowed twenty-one books.) In her ninety years, Peabody founded the first English-language kindergarten in America, translated the first American edition of Buddhist scripture, launched the country’s first foreign-language bookstore and circulating library, coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England, and introduced the king and queen of Transcendentalism. The epitome of intellectual restlessness and creative self-reinvention, she never married — she lived a life her younger sister described as one of “high thinking and plain living.”

Quoting advice a friend had once given her, Peabody writes:

The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth. The holy sensibilities of genius — for all the sensibilities of genius are holy — keep their possessor essentially unhurt as long as animal spirits and the idea of being young last; but the perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth; when the world comes to them, not with the song of the siren, against which all books warn us, but as a wise old man counselling acquiescence in what is below them.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Peabody ends with the admonition that the path to complacency is paved with complacent companions:

No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.

The antidote to stagnation, therefore, lies in surrounding oneself with people of creative vitality. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell — a contemporary of Peabody’s and a key figure in Figuring — would articulate this beautifully two decades later in contemplating how we co-create one another and recreate ourselves through friendship: “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.”

Complement with the pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at age 93, on creative vitality and how working with love prolongs your life.

BP

Borderless Lullabies: Musicians and Authors in Defense of Refugee Children

A reading from “Figuring” with original music by Yo-Yo Ma, a stunning rendition of the 19-century parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer” by Esperanza Spalding, and a family of friends speaking out against injustice in the universal language of sympathy.

Borderless Lullabies: Musicians and Authors in Defense of Refugee Children

“You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children,” Pablo Casals, the greatest cellist of the first half of the twentieth century, counseled humanity in the final years of a long life filled with music as a conduit of beauty and cross-cultural understanding.

Casals’s words fall heavy on the heart in an era when the world’s children are not cherished but detained at national borders, treated not as radiant beacons of our shared future but as criminals. To any conscionable human, witnessing such inhumanity is at once utterly infuriating and utterly helpless-making — a devastating syncopation of feelings.

Moved by this injustice, my dear friend Morley — immensely gifted musician, peace and reconciliation activist, golden-hearted human being — set out to buoy the heavy, helpless heart with the universal language of sympathy and consolation: music. She summoned a family of friends to produce Borderless Lullabies — a compilation of twenty songs and spoken-word pieces, with 100% of proceeds benefiting KIND: Kids In Need of Defense, a wonderful nonprofit that partners with pro-bono attorney at law firms and law schools to represent unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their deportation proceedings, ensuring that no child stands in court alone. Most of the kids KIND serves have fled severe violence in their home countries, and many have been abandoned, abused, or trafficked, only to find new traumas in wait when they arrive in the alleged land of freedom and possibility in search of safety.

When Morley asked me to read from the prelude of Figuring as one of the two spoken-word pieces on the record, I in turn asked Yo-Yo Ma — the greatest cellist since Casals, and one of the most generous, largehearted humans and humanitarians I have the honor of knowing, who has spent more than two decades building cross-cultural bridges of collaboration and understanding with his Silkroad project — to accompany the reading with something beautiful and thematically apt. He found the perfect sonic and symbolic counterpart — the vintage folk lullaby “Nana” by Manuel de Falla, one of the greatest composers of Casals’s era and culture — and beckoned it back to life on his enchanted cello, with Kathryn Scott on piano. Please enjoy the free stream below and join us in making a dent in the monolith of injustice by purchasing Borderless Lullabies.

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

[…]

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.

[…]

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

Also featured on the record is a stunning rendition of Stephen Foster’s 1862 parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer” by another titanic contemporary musician: the Grammy-winning jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who has a penchant for breathing new life into centuries-old classics and who cites Yo-Yo Ma as one of her key influences — a lovely reminder that, as Pete Seeger observed, “all of us, we’re links in a chain, and if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.” Here is to unlinking the artificial chains of bordered bigotry so that we may honor the most natural linkage of human to human, generation to generation, dreamer to dreamer.

“Beautiful Dreamer” sheet music, first edition, 1864

Other original music and readings on the record include Lizz Wright, Somi, Jacqueline Woodson with Chris Bruce, Cellogram with Arian Saleh, Elio Villafranca, Travis Knapp, Alejandro Urias, Jamia Wilson with Travis Sullivan, Chris Connelly, and Morley herself. Also included are recordings of previously released music by Draco Rosa, Martha Redbone, Rosanne Cash, Tendor Dorjee, Leni Stern, Karavika, Taína Asili, and Meryl Streep (who sings the Victorian lullaby her mother used to sing to her), generously donated to the project by the artists. Special thanks to my pal Shantell Martin for making the lovely cover art.

Borderless Lullabies is available on a pay-what-you-can model — from the at-cost minimum of $18 to anything more you feel this labor of love is worth, to you and the world.

BP

Keats on Compassion

“The best of Men have but a portion of good in them — a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence — by which a Man is propell’d to act and strive and buffet with Circumstance.”

Keats on Compassion

“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sings in the gorgeous song based on her father’s poem of the same title, “You do not know / What wars are going on / Down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” A generation earlier, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in her uncommonly insightful diary: “I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another… This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.”

The saccharine pleasure of self-righteousness is, upon even the most cursory reflection, incompatible with compassion — with the ability to consider another’s foibles and mistakes with the same generosity of interpretation, in the same breadth of context and character, one would consider one’s own.

That is what the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) explores in one of the timeless treasures collected in his Selected Letters (public library).

Life mask of John Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816 (National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter to his dearest friend, penned in early 1818, just before a series of life-blows plunged the young poet into his most harrowing depression yet, Keats writes:

Men should bear with each other — there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side. The best of Men have but a portion of good in them — a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence — by which a Man is propell’d to act and strive and buffet with Circumstance.

Only with such a compassionate orientation, Keats suggests, can we begin to care about and durably connect with another. In consonance with Hannah Arendt’s admonition against trying to change those we love, he argues that the healthiest, strongest connection is forged when we willingly face and accept the foibles and peculiarities of the other from the outset:

The sure way… is first to know a Man’s faults, and then be passive, if after that he insensibly draws you towards him then you have no Power to break the link.

Complement this fragment of Keats’s endlessly rewarding Selected Letters — which also gave us his precocious wisdom on the mightiest consolation for a heavy heart, what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne — with Carl Sagan on compassion and moving beyond us vs. them and historian Karen Armstrong on compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the art of choosing empathy over vengeance.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.