Mussel Beach Campground

by Simon Goland, August 29, 2009

Today’s Reflection is about a vacation, Nature, and our human ways of being in, and with, the world around us.

It is early morning, and I am sitting on the beach of Mussel Beach Campground, which is on the very West Coast of Vancouver Island, hidden behind Ucluelet, yet right on the ocean. While there are a few other people in the campsite, they are all asleep, and so it feels as though the whole place belongs to me. And Tobi. And the crows and seagulls. The clouds and the rain of last night are moving away, and the sun is making its shy – yet persistent – appearance. It is time of low tide, yet the waves make sure I know they are not too far away. Nothing like going to sleep, and waking up, with their sound in the background.

When I am present with these magical surroundings around me, it is easy to feel in-tune with myself and with the world; the world which David Abram calls the “more-than human community.” Everything feels alive, co-existing, and participating in that mysterious game called life. In what seems to be a very appropriate setting, I am reading an interview with David Abram, author of a gem of a book, “The spell of the sensuous,” conducted by Derrick Jensen. Here, on the beach and deeply immersed in Nature, it resonates strongly with me. What follows are a few excerpts, interspersed with some of my thoughts about us, humans.

“But the sleight-of-hand magician is one who can startle the senses out of the slumber induced by such obsolete ways of speaking [where we have been culturally brainwashed to speak of other animals’ behaviour as “programmed” in their genes and nothing there is even remotely close to “consciousness”]. By making a coin vanish from one hand and appear under your foot, making a stone float between his hands or a silk scarf change its colours, the magician wakes up that old, animistic awareness of objects as living, animate entities with their own styles and secrets; he coaxes our senses to engage the strangeness of things once again.”

After all, for the largest and longest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of our environments, exchanging possibilities with every form, entity, and being around us. All could communicate, though not in language (as we use right now), and we could understand and reply – whether with sounds, movements, thoughts, or minute shifts of mood. And from all of these relationships with our environment, all were collectively nourished.

“So much of research, today, seems motivated less by a sense of wonder than by a great will-to-control. It’s a mark of immaturity, I think, a sign that our science is still in its adolescence. A more mature science would be motivated by a wish for a richer relationship, for deeper reciprocity with the world that we study.”

“In our culture we speak about nature a great deal. Mature cultures speak to nature. They feel the rest of nature speak to them.”

“If we want to actually start noticing where we are, and finding ourselves in a better relation with the rest of the earth around us, the simplest and most elegant way I know of is simply to stop insulting everything around us by speaking of them as passive objects, and instead begin to allow things their own spontaneity, their own life. As soon as you start speaking in such a way, you start noticing things a hell of a lot more. You suddenly find yourself in a dynamic relationship with all the things around you, including the air you breathe, the chair you are sitting on, the house in which you live. You find yourself negotiating relationships all the time. And you realize that ethics is not something to be practiced only with other humans – that all of our actions have ethical consequences.”

An interesting point here is to look into our common literature. There, if we look carefully, we will notice a very subtle, yet all-prevalent taboo, preventing us from assigning any consciousness to any being other that human. It shows in the fact that there are very few books where an animal, for example, is a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’ For the most part, the animal (even the “man’s best friend”) is an ‘it.’ An object, and not a live being, with feelings, thoughts, desires, awareness. When such a perspective is adopted without ever questioning it, David’s words ring even stronger.

“Once we reduce our input to everything being mediated by humans, we are essentially in an echo chamber, and we begin to hallucinate. We are sensory deprived, because we are not getting the variety of sensory stimulation we need.”

And that becomes a form of solitary confinement, where we find ourselves cut off from a full range of relationships, existing in a world in which none of the other beings are acknowledged as sentient or aware. Which allows us the only possible relationships with other humans; after all, one cannot enter into a dynamic relationship with an object.

Yet, every human community is nested within a more-than-human community of beings.

“The animate earth around us – this land swept by the wind and pounded by rain – is far more lovely than any heaven we can dream up. But to awaken to this awesome beauty we must give up our spectator perspective, and the illusion of control that it gives us, in order to gaze out at the world from within its own depths. This is, alas, a terrifying move for most over-civilized folks today – because to renounce control is to notice that we are vulnerable: to suffering, to loss, to disease, to death. But also that we are vulnerable to purest joy. The wild world to which our senses give us access is an inexhaustibly beautiful realm, but it is hardly safe – it is filled with shifting shadows, and is plenty dangerous. … We can’t master it – never have, never will. What we can do is participate in the life of this breathing world far more deeply and creatively than we have these past few thousand years.”

A sunny week to you all, inside and out.