In his fine book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses how being a sleight-of-hand magician gave him an entrée into the world of traditional healers and shamans:
"I traveled to Indonesia on a research grant to study magic; more precisely, to study the relation between magic and medicine, first among the traditional sorcerers, or dukuns, of the Indonesian archipelago, and later among the djankris, the traditional shamans of Nepal. The grant had one unique aspect: I was to journey into rural Asia not outwardly as an anthropologist or academic researcher, but as an itinerant magician in my own right, in hopes of gaining a more direct access to the local sorcerers.
"I had been a professional sleight-of-hand magician for five years, helping to put myself through college by performing in clubs and restaurants throughout New England. I had, as well, taken a year off from my studies in the psychology of perception to travel as a street magician through Europe and, toward the end of that journey, had spent some months in London, working with R. D. Laing and his associates, exploring the potential of using sleight-of-hand magic in psycho-therapy as a means of engendering communication with distressed individuals largely unapproachable by clinical healers. As a result of this work I became interested in the relation, largely forgotten in the West, between folk medicine and magic.
"This interest eventually led to the aforementioned grant, and to my sojourn as a magician in rural Asia. There, my sleight-of-hand skills proved invaluable as a means of stirring the curiosity of the local shamans. Magicians, whether modern entertainers or indigenous, tribal sorcerers, work with the malleable texture of perception. When the local sorcerers gleaned that I had at least some rudimentary skill in altering the common field of perception, I was invited into their homes, asked to share secrets with them, and eventually encouraged, even urged, to participate in various rituals and ceremonies.
"But the focus of my research gradually shifted from a concern with the application of magical techniques in medicine and ritual curing, toward a deeper pondering of the traditional relation between magic and the natural world."
Scott London goes deeper into this aspect of David's work in the following passages from his illuminating intervew, "The Ecology of Magic":
London: You have used the phrase "boundary keeper" to describe the magician. What do you mean by that?
Abram: I discovered that very few of the medicine people that I met considered their work as healers to be their primary role or function for their communities. So even though they were the healers, or the medicine people, for their villages, they saw their ability to heal as a by-product of their more primary work. This more primary work had to do with the fact that these magicians rarely live at the middle of their communities or in the heart of the village. They always live out at the edge or just outside of the village -- out among the rice paddies or in a cluster of wild boulders -- because their skills are not encompassed within the human modality. They are, as it were, the intermediaries between the human community and the more-than-human community -- the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests are considered to be living, intelligent forces. Even the winds and the weather patterns are seen as living beings. Everything is animate. Everything moves. It's just that some things move slower than other things, like the mountains or the ground itself. But everything has its movement, has its life. And the magicians were precisely those individuals who were most susceptible to the solicitations of these other-than-human shapes. It was the magicians who could most easily enter into some kind of rapport with another being, like an oak tree, or with a frog.
London: What sort of rapport?
Abram: Every magician that I met had a number of animals or plants or forms of nature that were their close familiars. Just as we speak of the witch's black cat as her "familiar," so in these animistic societies the magician might have crows and frogs and perhaps a certain kind of rubber plant as his familiars. It might also be a certain kind of storm -- a thunder-storm -- a being that, when it appeared in the sky, would tell the magician that it was time to go outside and just gaze at those clouds and learn from them what they might have to teach.
London: In the same way, perhaps, that horses can sense an impending earthquake.
Abram: Right. Other animals function for the magician as another set of senses, another angle from which he can see and hear and sense what's going on in the surrounding ecology, because we are limited by our human senses, our nervous-system, and our two arms and our two legs. Birds know so much more about what's going on in the air, in the invisible winds, than we humans can know. If we watch the birds closely, we can begin to learn about what's going on in the sky and in the air simply by watching their flight patterns.
London: Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?
Abram: That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.
London: What happens to a culture bereft of magic?
Abram: One thing is that its relation to the natural landscape is tremendously impoverished. In fact, by our obliviousness, by our forgetfulness of all of these other styles of awareness -- the other animals, the plants, the waters -- we have brought about a crisis in the natural world of unprecedented proportions -- not out of any meanness, but simply because we really don't recognize that nature is there. It seems to us, in our culture, to be a kind of passive backdrop against which all of our human events unfold, and it's human events that are meaningful and what happens in nature, well, we don't really notice it, it's not really there. It's not vital. How different that is from the awareness of a magical or animistic culture for whom everything we do as humans is so profoundly influenced by our interactions with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us and the other animals.
London: You said that some field biologists are able to capture the essence of magic in their work. I can think of some nature writers who also serve that same function -- people like Peter Mathiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez.
Abram: Absolutely. I do think that some of the nature writers are doing an exquisitely important work of magic. They are doing what we might think of as "word magic" -- very carefully taking up the language and trying to use it in new ways, trying to work out how to speak without violating our kinship with the rest of the animate earth.
I agree with David on this, but I would add that there are fantasy writers, storytellers, and mythic artists who are doing the important work of "word magic" too.
Words: The first passage quoted above is from The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage, 1997). Scott London's interview appears on London's website here, adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." All rights reserved by Abram and London. I highly recommend David's two books, pictured above, if you haven't read them already. Both have been influential texts for me over the years.
Pictures: The two ink drawings are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs capture a Dartmoor pony encounter that Tilly and I had earlier this spring. We sat together on old stone wall watching them drift by, one by one. The last pony stopped in front of us, resting her head on my outstretched hand; then she turned and followed the others up the hill. It felt like a blessing.