Naturalists, Animists, and Spirituality.

In Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold spoke of a ‘need to re-integrate the full range of human faculties into the study of nature’.  Isn’t this what animist ‘spirituality’ is all about?  Some of our finest naturalists write about moments of intimate contact with other-than-human beings.  Their love for their subject matter is obvious, and perhaps best left understated.  Many more naturalists experience such moments, but don’t write about it.  Public discourse about nature leaves human subjectivity, let alone spirituality, at the margins.  There may be some valid reasons for this.  Discussing spirituality could, paradoxically, be divisive, when ecological priorities demand broad involvement.  Many published accounts, however, suggest a continuum of experience, from the kind of silent attunement my father showed me when we watched birds together, through a range of more intense and exceptional phenomena, some of which are plainly inconsistent with Western scientific rationality.

In Whistling in the Dark, Richard Mabey recalls developing ‘a slight gift for intuiting and predicting’ where unusual birds might be seen.  He found he could ‘conjure up a Woodpecker’.  In Landlocked, he talks about the ‘serendipity’ involved in an encounter with a Dartford Warbler; ‘they are usually the shyest of birds, but true to the spirit of that day, this one sported about in the open for a full quarter of an hour’.  The outside world begins to penetrate his ‘fragile membrane’.  In Common Ground the first pair of Bee Eaters to breed in Britain are described as a benediction.  Yet Mabey resists the implication that his sensitivity has anything to do with ethereal spirituality.

Neo-Paganism is often described as a nature religion.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, however, writings in this tradition seem more concerned with philosphical abstraction, deities, technologies of magic, historical research, or human healing – important as these may be – than with the natural world.  Where other-than-human beings feature there often appears to be more interest in otherworldly ‘power’ or ‘totem’ animals or familiars, an animal’s place in lore, or their purported symbolic or elemental attributes, than in their flesh and blood lives or the fine detail of ecology.  This can become problematical, but again there may be valid reasons.  Animism is not all about ecology.  Reaching for my slightly frayed hat as a reasonably feet-on-the-ground social scientist and worker with human people, my own carefully recorded experience, and that of friends, suggests that other-than-human persons may turn up as helpers or witnesses at times when a human is dealing with a crisis, or a death, and in no state to be thinking about ecological concerns.  I appreciate that the subtlety of such a process may tax the scientific mind.

Questioned repeatedly about spirituality, Richard Mabey describes himself as a materialist or matterist, and stresses the importance of the real.  He does however admit to ‘something close to a moment of communion’, in which his own ‘sort of familiar’, the Nightingale, became a shaman – ‘experienced, rhetorical, insistent’ – and he, the bird’s ‘willing initiate.’   As Mabey’s peripheral vision closed down, the bird’s song appeared to solidify and create synaesthetic effects with the light.

Whether or not we describe such experiences as ‘spiritual’ depends on what we mean by the term, of course.  If the presence of love is a hallmark of spirituality, there certainly seems to have been love involved.  We need to come to our own conclusions about this, and leave others to theirs.  Although I’m not entirely comfortable with ‘spirituality’, because of its associaton with earth devaluing traditions, I want to retain it, for the time being at least, as a way of talking about otherworldly experience.  My mentor in these matters was a spiritual healer, and too many of my experiences seem best described in post-materialist terms.

I’m also concerned that some new animist writing seems intent on turning away from other dimensional experience.  David Abram may have had a point when he recast shamans as ecological experts, and argued that in indigenous cultures the over-worked term ‘spirits’ refers primarily to non-human intelligences such as ants or birds.  His redefinition of magic ‘in its most primordial sense’, as the ‘the intuition that every natural form one percieves … is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations’, may not be very far from Richard Mabey’s animist sounding materialism.  Not all animists go along with Abram’s perception of sentience in grass blades or rocks, after all.  I’m not convinced, however, that this is the whole truth about indigenous traditions.

Some elements of the world view of the Ojibwe people of mid-twentieth century Manitoba, as retold by Irving Hallowell in a paper that has become a key reference point for new animism, would not surprise Western spiritualists.  Hallowell’s informants say that souls can leave the body during dreams, and appear in animal form to a distant observer.  They say that all ‘persons’ have an enduring inner aspect; that the human self survives death and continues its existence in another place.  Entities encountered in dreams may be powerful other-than-human persons who bestow revelations, power, and blessings.  Although such accounts are susceptible to interpretation as metaphorical statements about intrapsychic or ecological processes, there are striking cross-cultural parallels with phenomena and experiences that I would describe in terms of earth-centred spirituality.

Richard Mabey reminds us of the value of reflexivity.  He constantly questions himself, and is scathing, for example, about some of his own early writing that reduced a local Barn Owl to a symbol, ‘an emotional puppet’.  As animists we need to be alert to this all too human tendency to appropriate the lives of our other than human neighbours.

But if we want to deploy the full range of human faculties in the study of nature, we arguably need to engage with the subjective realm, and in particular with the kinds of ‘otherworldly’ sensibility that emerge in dreams, meditation, and visionary states.  Not, in my view, because these states and the worlds they reveal matter more than ‘the real’, but because they’re integral to an appreciation of the layered complexity of this world, and our place in it.  Such a project, I believe, entails careful symbolic thought, and writing as cautious, committed, yet poetic as any good naturalist’s.  I’m only a plodding -ologist, but I’ll do my best.

B.T. 29/11/12.


Aldo Leopold  A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford, 1947/1987.

Richard Mabey, Whistling in the Dark, In Pursuit of the Nightingale, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993, and The Barley Bird, Notes on a Suffolk Nightingale, Full Circle Editions, 2010.

Richard Mabey, Landlocked, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994.

Richard Mabey, The Common Ground, a Place for Nature in Britain’s Future, Hutchinson, 1980.

David Abram, The Ecology of Magic, Orion, 10, 3 Summer 1991, quoted in Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future, University of California Press, 2010, p89.

Graham Harvey,  Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst 2005.

Irving Hallowell, Ojibwe Ontology, Behaviour, and World View, reproduced in Graham Harvey, ed. Readings in Indigenous Religions, Continuum, 2002.

Richard Mabey, God and Me, Granta 93, Spring 2006;  Bioluxuriance, Resurgence, 238;  Definitely Mabey, Interview with Richard Mabey, BBC Wildlife, March 2010.

The drawning by Peter Goode first appeared in a book of poems by Rod Hartle called The Iron Tree, Lantern Press, 1993.


3 thoughts on “Naturalists, Animists, and Spirituality.

  1. Oh, yes! Y-E-S! I find myself gushing, I am so pleased to have found you here! I find the scientifically/naturalisitcally/animistically inclined to few & far between. By degrees, I begin to feel less alone in the human world.
    Now to add this to my subscriptions…

  2. P.S.
    This: “Where other-than-human beings feature there often appears to be more interest in otherworldly ‘power’ or ‘totem’ animals or familiars, an animal’s place in lore, or their purported symbolic or elemental attributes, than in their flesh and blood lives or the fine detail of ecology…” So true!

    and, “I appreciate that the subtlety of such a process may tax the scientific mind…” also true from my frayed socio-biological hat-wearing perspective. My rational self is challenged daily, yet like you, I cannot deny that sometimes our other-than-human neighbors have a “non-ecological” matters on their agenda.

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