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A Good Life: Embodied, Earth-Centric or Controlled, Detached

We grapple with insights from David Abram's, Spell of the Sensuous

*Author is Madeleine Thompson

Spending my reading experience by a bright window in my dorm during the morning hours, I consumed David Abram’s insights (Landscape of Language) while sipping at my warm cup of coffee. After finishing the readings, I spent time alone in my common room working on the deep breathing techniques that we’ve been practicing in class and meditated on three short poems I had been gifted this summer, when I was working at a wilderness therapy site in Montana.

My initial reaction to Abram’s words was one of peace and tranquility. I was immediately transported back to my spot around the fire pit in the Montana wilderness as both students and staff took turns sharing their challenge and success of the day as well as their “I feel” statements, which were used to communicate our emotions and needs. After these nostalgic and serene feelings subsided, I began to feel guilty for my society as a whole for stripping indigenous people of their land, which they value as a sacred aspect of their language, while we in turn develop or destroy it without a second thought.

However, I also felt a personal guilt for the many times each day when my footprints on the earth are heavy and my disturbance loud. I reflected on the many times when I slip into the viewpoint of “me on this earth” instead of the view that “I journey with the earth and the earth journeys with me.”

The readings focus on having direct experience with the natural world by using our senses. This past summer, I was completely immersed in the wilderness and had to wrestle often with my emotions, regulating them based on my environment. I used the sound of streams to calm me when I felt overwhelmed; I let the sun’s rays shine on my face when I was feeling frustrated; I let the crunch of the earth underneath my boots penetrate my feelings of annoyance. I was informed by the natural world around me, and I was open to being told how to feel by the earth.

This sense of open-mindedness to both one’s senses and direct experience with the world are a main focus of Abram’s in “Waking Our Animal Senses.” Abram writes on the idea that if we refuse to awaken our senses and continue to see all matter as inanimate, we will become spectators to the world and not participants; this rejection of our senses has led to our disrespect for the earth (6).

In “The Landscape of Language,” one of Abram’s key points is how we locked up our senses when transferring our language into words and sounds (138). We created our own meaning based only on human’s viewpoint, forgetting that nature is also aware of its surroundings.

Abram advocates for a society that does not put itself atop a self-made hierarchy with the creatures and things of this world as we would offend and disrespect the earth’s own ability to understand. He pushes for a worldview without the idea of meaninglessness (153).

Abram uses examples from indigenous people to describe ways of life and cultures that actively and beautifully use the land around them to find, interpret, and convey meaning. His key point to get across is the message that human language cannot be exclusive of the animate earth because it is here where our language roots its meaning.

How do I begin the journey to broadening my language beyond words? How do I reconnect with the lands that first breathed meaning into written words? How do I give attention and respect to the muse behind written language as it was given long ago? How can I incorporate the natural world when I’m in extremely developed sectors of the world? My hope is to ponder these questions in more depth in the weeks and months to come. while also using my environment and senses to make my language slightly different and more meaningful.

Note: David Abram, Alliance for Wild Ethics, is one of the keynote speakers at the University of Notre Dame conference, Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing, September 11-15, 2016 (see website for videos after the conference).

*Madeleine Thompson is an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame, class of 2019.


David Abram, “Waking Our Animal Senses

David Abram, “Language and the Ecology of Experience” from Spell of the Sensuous.

Alliance for Wild Ethics

Also see conversation between David Abram and Four Arrows on the indigenous worldview.

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