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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 55 material presences experienced by our senses are also sensitive and sentient in their own right—is an assumption common not just to the Pueblo culture of his ancestors, but to most indigenous, tribal cultures that still exist, whether in the desert southwest of North America or the archipelagoes of the Pacific, whether in the wooded plains of Africa, or the Australian outback, or the dank and dripping forests of Amazonia. Some form of this animistic assumption has likely been an instinctive aspect of every tribal, subsistence culture that has thrived on this planet since the emergence of human sociability. Yet over the course of the last three millennia, this ancestral supposi- tion was successively overlaid, in various populations, by other ways of structuring experience. And during the last three hun- dred years, most of the remaining partici- patory lifeways were displaced, destroyed, or finally absorbed by the onrush of tech- nological civilization, with its abundant blessings and its curses. By the start of the twenty-first century, those few groups still informed by the experience of an animate, wakeful landscape have had to submerge or stifle this aspect of their lives, accepting the basic assumptions of commercial civi- lization, with its highly objectified view of nature, simply in order to survive into the new millennium. Nonetheless there are many reasons to suspect that the older belief in a world all alive, awake, and aware simply cannot be eradicated. It can be submerged and paved over, but it cannot be destroyed. For a few people of European ancestry, the felt awareness of a living, expressive terrain may have been buried for some forty or fifty generations, yet it has never been vanquished: even at that depth it moves and stirs, exerting its influence upon our bodies and our dreams, waiting patiently for the moment when it will rise like a bubble from the depths, expanding rapidly toward the surface as the pres- sure upon it decreases, until it bursts into the open air of our experience, and we breathe of it once again. WRITING ABOUT SUCH deeply par- ticipatory forms of experience is always an odd and paradoxical endeavor, and I admit to some frustration at the appar- ent necessity of affixing these thoughts on the surface of the page. I’m never entirely happy about this—about having to take these visceral experiences, these carnal encounters and hunches and sen- sorial reflections, these intimacies, and pry them out of the loamy soil of my body in order to flatten them between the pages of a book or magazine. It feels like tearing off pieces of my skin and pasting them to the surface of the paper. I have no wish for these reflections to become stuck here, drying out between these pages like pressed flowers. I don’t want these notions to desiccate and die for lack of water. Many of my thoughts have been shaped by the forest and the tides; they have sprouted like lichen along the trunks of trees and on the mottled surface of cer- tain stones. If they become isolated within a purely human language, enclosed within a disembodied field of signs and abstract cogitations, well, then those insights are not likely to forgive me. Originally invoked by the rhythmic thudding of a raven’s wings paddling the air overhead, or by the late afternoon sunlight spilling across the splintered stumps of a clear-cut mountainside, such reflections are already suspicious of me for offering them up as a set of symbols printed out in lines upon the page or the screen. They would much prefer that I offer them to you while we are sitting together among the ferns at the edge of a creek, or perhaps while walking in the rain along a city street late at night, with the radiance from the streetlamps gleaming upon the wet pavement, and every now and then the hissss of tires joining the rise and fall of our voices as we ponder and gesticulate and gaze silent into the electric dark. IT IS A RISKY PROCESS, this writing things down. There remain various cul- tures that still listen for the voices of rivers and stones, various peoples who know that language is not the exclusive property of humankind. But most such cultures still conversant with the animate earth are traditionally oral cultures, cul- tures that evolved and flourished without a strong reliance upon the written word. The tribal, subsistence cultures native to North America, like most of those indig- enous to other continents, traditionally sustained themselves (often for millen- nia) in a fairly reciprocal relation with the living landscapes that they inhabited. They did so, commonly, without any dependence upon written-down words. To be more precise, they flourished with- out a formalized system of written signs that were tightly bound—like the printed letters you are now reading—to the spo- ken language. Oral cultures are cultures of story. In the absence of written records, linguistic knowledge is most effectively preserved in an easily remembered spoken form, in a style of speech that engages the imagina- tion of the senses. For humans the world over, storytelling always was and remains the most engaging of such forms. Reliance upon spoken stories, moreover, seems to encourage a keen awareness of processes afoot in the surrounding terrain, includ- ing the habits of the local animals and the proclivities of the local plants. In part this may be due to the way the stories of a deeply oral culture inevitably root them- selves in the specifics of the immediate Under the influence of spelling, a strange enchantment descends upon the land. When the written page begins to speak, the forests fall mute, the bears and the bobcats fall dumb.