David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”
This is the second in my series of posts from the conference “Climate Existence 2010.” The series began with a post on Bill McKibben’s opening keynote. This one covers the afternoon keynote and the workshop I went to, which awakened some memories …
“We don’t live on the Earth. We live in the Earth. Or rather in the EAIRTH.”
This is David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous or more recently Becoming Animal. He is explaining why he is proposing a slight change in the name of our planet. The addition of that “I” puts the word “AIR” in the middle of the word “EARTH.” It calls our attention to something that is both invisible and essential.
Because the air is invisible, says David, we tend to treat it as nonexistent. That’s why we can treat it like an open sewer, as McKibben called it this morning. But for indigenous people, that very invisibility is part of what makes the air so sacred to them. “It’s a kind of a secret,” says Abram (who is also a sleight-of-hand magician, who likes secrets). “Secret. Sacred. Same word.”
“The air is the unseen medium of exchange,” says David. We speak when breathing out, not breathing in, and our sounds are carried on the air to each other. For oral-history people’s, the air is “a thicket of meaning,” full of stories and spirits.
He introduces us to the word Ních’i — Navajo (Dineh) for “holy wind.” This was translated as “spirit” by the early anthropologists, “but they missed that this inner wind was entirely continuous with the wind out there,” with the air. David traces the origins of various words related to air, and consciousness, and they intertwine beautifully: “atmosphere,” for example, from “atma” and “atmos” in ancient Sanskrit, meaning … air, and soul.
He is drawing (I find this on the internet, searching on the phrases I hear from him in real time) on an article he published in 2009, “The Air Aware,” published in Orion magazine. David’s words are carefully chosen, he is a “writerly” writer. It is an inspired reading. But he occasionally breaks out of the box of his own text (and literally steps out from behind the podium) to speak, rather than read, and to breathe, and to make his case for taking the reality of the air-in-which-we-live-and-breathe more seriously, more passionately. (“Passion,” from Latin, replacing an Old English word that combined “suffering” with “endurance.”)
The last time I saw David Abram, fifteen years ago …
… we were both on the faculty of a rather experimental training program run by the (now-defunct) Institute for Deep Ecology. We were in a forest, north of Seattle. Then, too, I remember distinctly, he was speaking about the breath: he noted that even the word “Yahweh,” or “YHWH” (from the Jewish tradition, indicating the unnamable personal name of God) can be understood as two syllables built on the sound of inhalation, and exhalation. “YAH”: inhaling. “WEH”: exhaling.
“There is deep affinity between the mind and the wind …” “… a delicious radiance that seems to come from the things themselves …”
This conference is reminding me very much of this earlier phase in my life, when Deep Ecology (a philosophy created by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who died last year) was new and path-breaking, when some of my oldest teachers and mentors were embracing it and teaching it as a way to make the abstractness of “sustainability” something more sensual, something more psychologically satisfying and truly connected to Nature — as in, everything we label as “Nature-out-there.”
In fact I took the Nature Walk this afternoon — drawn by unexpected clear skies and the fantastic autumn light making the trees red-orange and sharply drawn — and it turned out to be led by Arne Naess’s close collaborator, Per-Ingvar Haukeland. We meandered slowly and listened to some orienting thoughts and concepts from Per-Ingvar on Deep Ecology. We did small exercises to experience different kinds of “depth,” simple perceptual exercises with the trees and landscape around us. I did so many of these exercises (either as participant, or teacher) in what I think of as the “old days.” It’s like a pleasant trip through time, and a lovely thing to be doing with half my brain, while the other half prepares for a musical performance this evening.
What a pleasure to be here in the role of musician, free from any need to think strategically, or offer policy examples, or assess sustainability performance. I’ll go back to that tomorrow. For now, I have to think about my own breath: for as any singer will tell you, when you sing, it’s all about the breath.
“… I’m held in the white eternity of a moment so astonishing it melts all my words …” David’s article text, read with his expressive, breathy, soulful, lively voice, continues in the background as I recall the way I used to take courses in naturalist training, or went and sat by a certain tree in a certain park to enjoy the feeling of inspiration and peace that just that certain spot in nature reliably afforded me.
And now I know which song, I’ll begin with this evening, one I have not performed for at least ten years …
If the trees were the people, and the people were the trees
We’d stand like a forest at the edge of the sea
And the forests would wander just as far as they please
If the trees were the people, and the people were the trees …
[From the music album “Believing Cassandra,” originally produced as a companion to my book of the same name, released 1999. Currently out of print, I’ll re-release it in digital form soon.]
Postscript: The question and answer portion of this talk was the most moving, as it became a somewhat heated dialogue among David Abrams, Bill McKibben, a Swedish scientist, an Icelandic philosopher … Is this a non-empirical, non-scientific view? Is it elitist? Can we possibly hope to interpret what’s happening to the Earth (or Eairth, or Eaarth, which is McKibben’s latest book title) when what’s happening to the Earth is beyond even the experience of many indigenous peoples? (McKibben relates that the indigenous peoples of the high arctic are experiencing thunderstorms, and indeed hearing thunder, for the first time in their cultural history. “Will just have to surf on chaos?” he asks.)
The questions gave Abrams himself to opportunity to restate his principle aim, clearly and beautifully: he wants to rehabilitate our direct physical and subjective experience of the Earth, or “Eairth,” as a source of knowledge and truth. And pay attention to our language, how we talk about our experience of the Earth, and how we let that language shape our experience. Without a vibrant, sensual connection to the planet, it is difficult to motivate people to act on its behalf, says the author of “The Spell of the Sensuous.”
Is that true? I don’t know. I think the human, cultural world is equally important, and just as potent a source of inspiration. But I do know that having such connections to the natural, living world, in my own life — from “befriending” a manatee in my childhood, to leaning against a particularly beautiful tree this afternoon — support my own motivations to work for change, and for a viable future, under the umbrella term for the science, economics, policy, culture change, and social psychology that we bundle together and call “sustainability.”