"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, this porous 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 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 chemotaxis of a simple bacterium -- 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 that the earth has of influencing our moods and of guiding our actions.
"Think of a honey bee 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. The human eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with the oceans and the air, 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, imperilling 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; and further, that we should strive to express our experimental conclusions in a language accessible to direct experience, and so to gradually bring our science into accord with the animal intelligence of our breathing bodies."
Words: The passage above is from "Waking Our Animal Senses: Language and the Ecology of Sensory Experience" by David Abram, an essay first published in the Wild Earth Journal (1997). To read it in full, go here. The poem in the picture captions is by Scottish poet & translator Alastair Reid (1926-2014), a friend from my New York City days. The poem appeared in his beautiful collection Weathering (Dutton, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: An early morning encounter with ponies grazing on our village Commons.