The cure for susto
Thursday, February 03, 2022
The Radiant Life of Animals by Chickasaw novelist, poet, and essayist Linda Hogan is a gorgeous collection of poetry and prose about the tenor of our daily relationship with the more-than-human world -- including wolves, crows, foxes, bears, mountain lions and horses, as well as the land that sustains us all and nurtures us body and soul.
In the book's Introduction she writes:
"A geography of spirit, an individual and collective tribal soul, originates with the larger geography of nature, of the ecosystem in which we live. For tribal peoples, this has always been a constant. The animal realm, sacred waters, and surrounding world in all its entirety is an equal to our human life. We are only part of it, and such an understanding offers us the bounty and richness of our world, one to be cared for because it is truly the being of the human....
"Nature is even now too often defined by people who are separated from the land and its inhabitants. In our time, with our lives, we usually include primarily only a majority of the developed world. Such a life is one that carries and creates the human spirit with more difficulty. Too rarely do we understand that the soul lies at all points of intersection between human consciousness and all the rest of nature. With our bodies and selves, skin is hardly a container. Our boundaries are not solid; we are permeable; therefore, even as solitary dreamers we are still rooted in the greater soul outside of us. If we are open enough, strong enough, to connect with the surrounding world, we are capable of becoming something greater than what we are merely within our own selves."
Soul loss, Hogan explains, is what happens when our relationship with the nonhuman world becomes frayed:
"In contemporary North American Latino communities, soul loss is called susto. It is a common condition in the modern world. Susto probably began when, as in many religions, the soul was banished from nature, when humanity withdrew from the world. There became only two things, extremes viewed from our point of understanding -- human and nature, animate and inanimate, sentient and not.
"This was the moment when the soul first began to slip away and crumble.
"In the reversal of and healing from soul loss, Brazilian tribal members who tragically lost their land and place in the world and now dwell in the city often visit or at least reimagine nature in order to become whole again and have their souls returned to them. Anthropologist Michael Harner wrote about the healing methods among Indian people who were forcibly relocated to urban slums, usually from the rain forests. The healing ritual most often takes place in the forest at night, as the person is returned, if only for a while, to the land he or she once knew. The people are often cured through their renewed connections, their 'vision of the river forest world, including visions of animals, snakes, and plants.' This connection brings back the soul that has returned to these places. Unfortunately, in our time, these homes in the forests may now only be ghosts of what they once were.
"The cure for susto, soul sickness, is not found in books. It is written in the bark of a tree, in the moonlit silence of night, along the bank of a river, and in the voice. This cure is outside our human selves, but it becomes the thread that connects the outer world with our own."
The marvellous, spirited sculptures today are by British ceramicist Sophie Woodrow. She graduated with a BA in Studio Ceramics from Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, and is now based in Bristol. Woodrow's work is informed by her love of natural history and a fascination with the Victorians' relationship to nature: the ways they both embraced and feared new theories of evolution, while often misapprehending them. Her sculptures "are not visitors from other worlds, but the ‘might-have-beens’ of this world," as she seeks to "assemble creatures from the strange notions of what we define as ‘nature’ and of each other as people – as ‘other’."
To see more of her art, please visit Woodrow's Instagram page, and the Messums Wiltshire gallery site.
The text above is from The Radiant Lives of Animals by Linda Hogan (Beacon Press, 2020). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist. Some related posts: The language of the animate earth, On language and mystery, and The philosophy of compassion.