David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World has been a touch-stone text ever since I first stumbled upon it in a Tucson bookshop in the 1990s (when I was writing my desert novel The Wood Wife) -- and it has never ceased to be relevant during the many times I've re-read it. The questions it raises concerning our fraying connection to the natural world -- and the role that Story plays in strengthening or weaking that connection -- are questions that echo in my creative work, albeit in the metaphoric, poetic, slant-wise language of myth, folklore and fantasy.
In a latter chapter of the book, David writes:
"The deer on this island [in the Pacific North-West] have recently molted, forsaking their summer fur for a thicker winter coat. I watch them in the old orchard at dusk. No longer the warm brown color of sunlight on soil, their fur is now grey against the shadowed trunks and the all-grey sky. These quiet beings seem entirely part of this breathing terrain, their very texture and color shifting with the local seasons.
"Human persons, too, are shaped by the places they inhabit, both individually and collectively. Our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, and even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by shifting patterns in the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses -- once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth -- become mere adjuncts of an isolated and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary.
"The alphabetized intellect stakes its claim to the earth by staking it down, extends its dominion by drawing a grid of straight lines and right angles across the body of a continent -- across North America, across Africa, across Australia -- defining states and provinces, counties and countries with scant regard for the oral peoples that already live there, according to a calculative logic utterly oblivious to the life of the land.
"If I say I live in the 'United States' or in 'Canada,' in 'British Columbia' or in 'Mexico,' I situate myself within a purely human set of coordinates. I say very little or nothing about the earthly place that I inhabit, but simply establish my temporary location within a shifting matrix of political, economic, and civilizational forces struggling to maintain themselves, today, largely at the expense of the animate earth. The great danger is that I, and many other good persons, may come to believe that our breathing bodies really inhabit these abstractions, and that we will lend our lives to consolidating, defending, or bewailing the fate of these ephemeral entities rather than to nurturing and defending the actual places that physically sustain us."
How precient those words seem today, when the the borderlines between countries and cultures have become hotly contested, shaking our systems of governance to their foundations -- all while climate crisis rolls on, and cannnot be stopped at the passport gate. Fantasy, too, is a literature full of borders crossed, and borders that may not be crossed. In thinking about the boundaries and borders drawn on maps of imaginary lands, I wonder how we might re-envision them...and thereby give language to other ways of living in the physical, tactile world we share with our four-footed, scaled, and winged neighbours.
The land has its own articulations, David writes,
"its own contours and rhythms that must be acknowledged if it is to breathe and flourish. Such patterns, for instance, are those traced by rivers as they wind their way to the coast, or by a mountain range that rises like a backbone from the plains, its ridges halting the passage of clouds that gather and release their rains on one side of the range, leaving the other slope dry and desertlike. Another such contour is the boundary between two very different kinds of bedrock caused by some cataclysmic event in the story of a continent, or between two different soils, each of which invites a different population of plants and trees to take root. Diverse groups of animals arrange themselves within such subtle boundaries, limiting their movements to the terrain that affords them their needed foods and the necessary shelter from predators. Other, more migratary species follow such patterns as they move with the seasons, articulating routes and regions readily obscured by the current human overlay of nations, states, and their various subdivisions. Only when we slip beneath the exclusively human logic continually imposed on the earth do we catch sight of this other, older logic at work in the world. Only as we come close to our senses, and begin to trust, once again, the nuanced intelligence of our sensing bodies, to we begin to notice and respond to the subtle logos of the land.
"There in an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds, and ally our noses to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes in with us in turn. The senses, that is, are the primary way that the earth has of informing our thoughts and of guiding our actions. Huge centralized programs, global initiatives, and other 'top down' solutions will never suffice to restore and protect the health of the animate earth. For it is only at the scale of our direct, sensory interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world.
"Yet at the scale of our sensing bodies the earth is astonishly, irreducibly diverse. It discloses itself to our senses not as a uniform planet inviting global principles and generalizations, but as this forested realm embraced by water, or a windswept prairie, or a desert silence. We can know the needs of any particular region only by participating in its specificity -- by becoming familiar with its cycles and styles, wake an attentive to its other inhabitants."
As a fantasy writer/editor long past youth, with 30+ years of experience in the field, I still feel like the merest apprentice to the ancient art of crafting stories. I am also apprenticed to the local terrain: the patchwork of moorland hills where I live. I walk and re-walk the same network of paths through woods and meadows and riverside fields, learning the quiet green language spoken here, day after day, season after season. These things are connected: the writing, the walking. They are part of the same apprenticeship. It is slow, patient, weather-wise work to discover the stories the land wants to give you. It is slow, patient, weather-wise work to craft the words in which they are passed on.
I look to the words of other writers for guidance: fantasists, naturalists, folklorists, poets who point the way down the wild, crooked trails that lead to a well-storied world. The Spell of the Sensuous is one such guide. There are other authors and other texts that have taught and inspired me over the years, but this is one I keep coming back to...and every time it has new things to tell me.
Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "Looking, Walking, Being" by Denise Levertov, is from Poems: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The bluebell fields on the slopes and top of our hill at the end of May.
Related posts: Kith and Kin, Twilight Tales, Crossing Borders, and The enclosure of the Commons: borders that keep us out.