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 …