Radical Ecopsychology? A Book Review.

radical ecopsychology_1_1

In a second edition of his Radical Ecopsychology Andy Fisher comments that if he were writing the book now he would stress that ‘an ecopsychology that faces the psychological dimension of ecological crisis head on [would] not pretend that the psyche -as an inter-relational phenomenon- can be disentwined from either nature or society’.  Psychology, in other words, cannot be disentangled from political ecology.  This updated edition (published in 2013) was written at the time of the Occupy Wall Street Protest against a backdrop of mounting concern about climate change and peak oil, by an author moving in a more ecosocialist direction whilst still affirming ‘a deep love of the land and its creatures, our erotic attraction for wild and sensuous things, our innate desire to know the stars and the planets, the birds and the mammals’.

A new chapter reviews the difficulty of establishing ecopyschology within a discipline dominated by a scientific paradigm, and calls for writing grounded in interdisciplinary dialogue, Marxian dialectical praxis, and the researcher’s lived experience.  Frustratingly, however, no personal material is added to a book that, in my view, remains overly theoretical and abstract.  Discussion of internal debates (critiquing ‘second generation ecopsychology’ and ecotherapy) may be helpful to those involved in the subdiscipline but is unlikely to excite the general reader.  I was encouraged, though, both by the author’s insistence that ecopsychology programmes need to ‘interpret the earth as ensouled, with its own subjectivity’, rather than as a psychological resource, and by his enthusiasm for a community-focussed heroin addiction recovery programme in a Mexican village which uses indigenous land based traditions to tackle ‘the severe state of dislocation caused by a brutal history of capitalism and colonialism’.(1)

Radical Ecopsychology is a dense and thought provoking book describing a project that I’m in broad agreement with, but I want to focus here on several areas that I’m uncomfortable with, or have a different take on.

As a former community deveopment worker I wholeheartedly agree about the value of community empowerment, cultural ownership, and processes of decolonisation, but am not convinced that Andy Fisher has grasped the extent of the colonising tendency of the psy-disciplines themselves, including his own. In his concern to promote ‘a wide range of practices, even if some will be less obviously “ecopsychological” than others’, the author may have unwittingly colludeded with a tendency to psychologise (and thus individualise and depoliticise) areas of life -community development, activism, meditation, spirituality- which are simply not the business of psychology.  I felt that he wasn’t clear enough about this.

Although (in the main body of the original book) he mentions ‘mental health oppression’ (as defined within Re-evauation Co-counselling, a not unproblematic self-help therapy movement he has been involved in, and endorses unquestioningly) he relies on professional critics of medicalisation whilst overlooking the contribution of a diverse and energetic psychiatric user/survivor movement that has produced a prolific literature at least since the 1980’s.  I was troubled by his decision to organise a substantial portion of the book around ‘five figures of psychopathology’.  Reframing psychopathology as suffering (pathos) of the soul, and citing the Buddhist view that suffering is endemic to ‘the Egoic mode of existence’, or to writers such as Gendlin, who talks about ‘malfunctioning character structures’ and ‘pathological repetitions’, is unlikely to win many converts from the critical mental health or survivor movements, given the provenance of that profoundly normative term.

Given Andy Fisher’s strong advocacy of marginalised spiritual approaches, and his concern about the intrusiveness of ‘natural scientific disclosure of nature’, I was also uncomfortable with his choice of the term ‘naturalistic’ to describe his approach.  Perhaps as a former geologist he’s more comfortable with it than I am, though in a rare and powerful instance of personal disclosure he describes his own profound emotional discomfort at the act of splitting a rock sample in a laboratory -“a voice inside me screamed …..”.  In justification he turns to Erazim Kohak’s assertion that naturalism, in a generic sense, refers to ‘any philosophy that recognises the being of humans as integrally linked to the being of nature […] as fundamentally at home in the cosmos.'(2)  Given the conventional association of ‘naturalistic’ with literal depiction (in art), denial of otherworlds, spirits, or deities (in religious studies), and reductive rationalism (in science), however, I would have much preferred some other term such as biocentric, or animic.(3)

SAM_7002trtrtr_1Andy Fisher characterises postmodern thought as ungrounded ‘relativism’, disconnected with the real or material world.  Some postmodern writing undoubtedly deserves such approbrium, but the proto-postmodern Nietzsche, Michel Foucualt, and broadly postmodern feminists such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, and Val Plumwood, have much to say about the nature of power, personhood, embodiment, the politics of identity, and ecology.  Foucault in particular produced some of the most powerful critique of psychology and influenced subsequent critics such as Ian Parker and Nikolas Rose, who don’t appear in Radical Ecopsychology’s index.  Nor does Red Therapy, a socialist self-help therapy collective based in London in 1970’s (who were perhaps little known outside the U.K).  More surpisingly, the new chapter doesn’t mention Roy Bhaskar, the influential socialist theorist of critical realism whose late Ken-Wilbur-esque spiritual turn appears to have flummoxed some of his former followers.

I would contend that writers influenced by postmodernism have often come up with better critique and guidelines for practice than their ‘realist’ colleaguesAndy Fisher is concerned about what he sees as a denial of ‘human nature’, but, I think, understimates the harm done by conservative appropriation of that concept, particularly in defence of hegemonic masculinity.  Lynn Segal, for example, has complained about dominant discourses of male sexuality as ‘a phallic imperative impelled by a primordial and transhistorical drive’.(4)

His enthusiasm for the universalist concept of human nature, ‘the common human being’, leads Fisher to cite ‘a worldwide epidemic of traumatic stress’, and to relate this to developmental needs for ‘trustworthy social relations’, and to ‘develop basic human powers such as boundary setting and handling one’s emotional life’.  ‘If we had no nature trauma would have no meaning’.  Against this, post-psychiatrist Pat Bracken, informed by Foucault (as well as by anthropology and phenomenology) argues persuasively, from personal experience of treating traumatised people in non-Western settings, including torture victims, against imposing culturally inappropriate Western diagnostic and treatment protocols.(5)  In such contexts the long term solution to trauma of this kind lies in controlling the arms trade, and in decolonisation and democratisation, of course.

I would reccomend postpsychiatry -a radically pared down, client centred, pluralist, non dogmatic, open minded, dialogical, approach to helping people experiencing madness and/or distress- as a model for ecopsychology.(6)  Professionals informed by postmodern theory tend to be strong on listening to marginalised voices, not least those of service users/survivors/clients.  Hopefully the next edition of Radical Ecopsychology will be as radical in relation to psychology as it is in relation to political economy/ecology.

For those who regard ‘socialism’ as tarnished beyond recuperation, Jamie Heckert has drawn attention to the close affinity between ecopsychology and anarchist traditions.  Again, however, there is a need for clarity about the boundaries of psychology.  Ecopsychology may have much to learn from processes of direct democracy, and activists may benefit from the reflective space of counselling or therapy, but lets be clear that activism is not therapy and politics are not reducible to psychology.  Depending on individual circumstances, activism, peaceful retreat, meditation, music, art, friendship, community, including the wider community of more-than-human nature, celebration, meaningful work, adventure, fun, and love, may well be the best forms of ‘therapy’?

B.T 15/9/15.


(1) Chellis Glendenning, Chiva, A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade, Gabriola Island B.C, New Society, 2005.

(2) Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

(3) on ‘animic’ see Tim Ingold.

(4) Lynn Segal Slow Motion; Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, Virago 1990/1997.

(5) Pat Bracken Trauma; Culture, Meaning and Philosophy, Whurr Publishers, 2002.

(6) Pat Bracken and Phil Thomas, Postpsychiatry, Mental Health in a Postmodern World, Oxford University Press.

Economy as Ecology, Postcapitalism in the writings of J.K. Gibson Graham

Water Mill, photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

Water Mill, photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

“What if we were to see the economy as ecology -as a web of human ecological behaviors no longer bounded but fully integrated into a complex flow of ethical and energetic interdependencies: births, contaminations, self-organizings, mergings, extinctions, and patterns of habitat maintenance and destruction?”

J.K. Gibson Graham is the joint pen name for feminist economic geographers Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham.  My purpose here is flag up their writings as a source of ideas on cultivating postcapitalist enclaves, and selves. “When we begin to recognize that we are not alone in our livelihoods, and that our human economies are inextricably linked with the economies of more-than-human others, might our ways of understanding and experiencing economic crisis, development and well-being begin to fundamentally shift? … Can we, for example, begin to see the chickens, bees and fruit trees of a cooperative farm not as part of that farm’s commons (as shared resources), but rather as living beings participating in the co-constitution of the community that, together, makes and shares the farm?”(1)

Whilst I found myself enthusing about some of this recent writing about economy as ecology, I was troubled by A Postcapitalist Politics.  Geared towards an academic readership, this quite densely theoretical tome claims to be influenced by ‘the postcapitalist indigenous communalism’ of the Zapatistas, by anarchic situationism -with its ability to ‘send affective shockwaves that reverberate through the brittle architecture of established forms’, by second wave feminism -with its organisational horizontality and insistence on non-monopoly of the spoken word or information, by Mondragon -with its extensive network of worker-owned co-operatives, and by the World Social Forums -that bring together local social movements that co-create a politics of possibility.

I was not at all sure, however, how this rousing chorus of influences informed some of the material from their own local action research projects. In an opening chapter dealing with ‘affects and emotions for a postcapitalist politics’ I was uncomfortable with the use of medicalising and/or psychologising terms (‘paranoia’ and ‘melancholia’) in relation to an impulse to locate and defend rigidly ‘politically correct’ theories.  Whilst it may well be useful to examine our emotional investment in adopting certain kinds of political position, my background in the critical mental health movement alerts me to the need, at the very least, to acknowledge the historical and present day consequences of the medicalistion of distress and madness.

The authors invite us to dis-identify with the subject positions offered by hegemonic ‘Capitolocentric’ discourse, and establish alternative identities related to active participation in community economies.  I was even less comfortable, however, with their reccomendation of the work of narrative therapists, who have seemed uninterested in historical or political contexts, in the process of reframing and re-storying the life of a community damaged by economic disinvestment.  The resulting community research looked, to me, rather like an excercise in mass Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Outo Kumpo stainless steel mill, Sheffield.  Geograph.org.uk c.c.

Outo Kumpo stainless steel mill, Sheffield. Geograph.org.uk c.c.

Worse still, the authors resort to theories from the dominant and conspicuously de-politicising power-knowledge discourse of neuroscience about the role of the amygdala in panic, in the context of ‘producing and sustaining positive affect’ in a community that is expressing ‘aversive reactions’ of hostility and anger, and a deep sense of powerlessnes.  Aaaagh!  In my experience, as a community development worker, personal empowerment and political understanding emerges of its own accord, organically (and far more effectively), through mutual-aid, self-advocacy, ‘consciousness raising’, and collective action of various kinds, led and managed by community members.  There is no need to impose expert models and ‘techniques’, let alone ones that psychologise economic deprivation.

That said, other aspects of these community research projects seem positive and valid (facilitating ‘a wide range of economic practices that support well-being directly, offer a social safety net, and are vehicles for community celebration and civic engagement’, and fostering alternative identities around these newly diverse activities).  Whether they, or The Full Monty, constitue a sufficient post-capitalist alternative is another question.  It will, nevertheless, be interesting to see how J.K. Gibson Graham’s ecological perspective is integrated into community development projects.

B.T. 24-7-15.

Sources: J.K. Gibson-Graham Economy as Ecological Livelihood, from ‘A Manifesto for the Anthropocene’, Puncus Books, Brooklyn, New York.
A Postcapitalist Politics, University of Minnesota Press.
The Nitty Gritty of Creating Alternative Economies.

End of Life Experiences; Two Books by Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick

Tree Woman, Coloured Sketch, Peter Goode.

Coloured Sketch, P.G.

A research study based on interviews with nurses, doctors, and carers in two hospices and one nursing home in London found that profoundly meaningful ‘end of life experiences’ were not uncommon.  Peter Fenwick, Hilary Lovelace, and Sue Brayne, conclude that the subjective experiences of people who are dying, and phenomena that occur around death, need to be taken seriously if we are to develop best practice in spiritual end-of-life care.

Amongst the end-of-life experiences commonly reported are visions of deceased relatives (or friends) sitting on or next to the patient’s bed providing emotional warmth and comfort (64% and 54% in retrospective and prospective studies), visions of relatives or ‘religious figures’ who appear to ‘collect’ the dying person (62% and 48%), a sense of transitioning between this world and another reality (33% and 48%), dreams or visions in which the person feels comforted and prepared for death (62% and 50%), a sense of being called or pulled by someone or something (56% and 57%), the symbolic appearance of a significant bird, animal, or insect near the time of death (45% and 35%), light surrounding or near the dying person (often seen by therapists), relatives or friends being ‘visited’ by them at the time of death (55% and 48%), and synchronic occurances such as clocks stopping or lights coming on.  The prevailing scientific view, however, has been that ELE’s, especially deathbed visions, ‘have no intrinsic value, and are either confusional or drug induced.'(1)

Although Peter Fenwick, a renowned neuropsychiatrist, is no critical or post- psychiatrist, he clearly realises the importance of taking what people say seriously, not least when many respondents feared they would be thought mad if they talked about their visions.  His writings therefore cast some interesting light on an important but culturally neglected area of human experience.  I’m reminded of the work of Marius Romme and Sandra Escher on voice hearing (which challenged the medicalisation of madness) and, to some extent, Stanislas Grof on perinatal and transpersonal experience (but see note 1).

In the first of two books (co-authored with his wife Elizabeth Fenwick, a writer on health issues) Peter Fenwick reviews some 350 responses to a questionnaire sent to people who responded to his media appearances.  Although the main features described in Near Death Experiences -passing along a tunnel towards a welcoming and compassionate light, meeting beings of ‘light’, a momentary but somehow panoramic life review, coming to a barrier of some kind where a decision is made, and returning to the physical body- have become quite well known, only 2% of Fenwick’s respondents had previously heard of N.D.E’s.  For most, their Near Death Experience was a spiritual awakening in a broad and universal sense.

The accounts of N.D.E’s presented in this and other studies (cited here) do, nevertheless, show considerable individual and cultural variation.  For example, American studies report many more appearances by Jesus and by angels, whilst a study of Indian experiences showed that most people there were collected by Yamraj, the messenger of the Hindu god of death, rather than by deceased relatives.  Some Western individuals, however, met figures from Eastern cultures -and had their religious horizons broadened as a result.  For one woman the welcoming presence was a tree.

Most of the accounts were intensely autobiographical, but a few people were ‘shown glimpses of the past or of the future on a more cosmic scale’.  One man who could see Peterborough cathedral and small W’s of swans flying across the sky as he waited for an operation, but then suffered a coronory thrombosis followed by cardiac arrest and was rushed into Intensive Care, felt himself “become weightless several times and float up into the sky” where he joined the swans as a “very junior member of their family group”.  During some of these flights he was aware that the cathedral had not been built yet.  “It was as though the fens were in a primeval state”.  He saw men in medieval dress punting on the great meres, and the cathedral being built. “I felt as if I had existed forever, my being and ‘soul’ had been this way before.” (Fenwick 1996 pp131-2)

Cultural variation could be taken to show that such experiences are socially constructed in much the same way as dreams, but of course, otherworlds might also be constructed in ways that make them familiar and welcoming – congruent with the expectations, needs, and understandings of new arrivals.  Intriguingly, 38% of respondents met someone ‘on the other side’ who was still alive.  Does this mean that their experiences were ‘just dreams’?  Shortly after the death of her mother, a Japanese woman dreamt that she was standing in the middle of a river with her parents on either side.  Her mother was beckoning her father to cross, but he didn’t.  Although, in keeping with Japanese Buddhist symbolism, the barrier between worlds often takes the form of a river in Japanese N.D.E accounts, this woman had been brought up a Christian with no knowledge of Buddhism, and no recollection of hearing about the river symbolism. (we are not told whether she’d heard about the Styx though).

Given the intensely subjective and emotional nature of these experiences I was not entirely suprised to see that 78% of respondents were women.

In the Fenwicks’ second book, which reports findings from the study of London health professionals and carers, the concept of a journey emerges as a central theme.  The other world which people visit has a quality of absolute reality, but in the case of ‘deathbed visions’ it is as though ‘this world and the other reality overlap, dissolving into each other so that both can be experienced at once’. (2008 p44)  The dying person is rarely confused by this, is usually aware that not everyone can see what they can see, and may conduct separate simultaneous conversations with this-worldy and other-worldly visitors.  Given the importance of sorting out unfinshed business, it’s interesting that many carers report that two or three days before a death a room often becomes extremely peaceful and dominated by feelings of love, as though the process of death somehow sets up conditions that facilitate the resolution of personal conflict.  For me this (along with various phenomena mentioned in other accounts) raises questions about the agency and power of other-worldly people vis-a-vis this worldly affairs.

There are fairly brief discussions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, mythological themes, Jungian archetypes, quantum entanglement, and the notion of extended and inter-connected mind.  I couldn’t help noticing some tension between two authorial voices -within Peter Fenwick I suspect.  One regards ghosts and mediumship as ‘tiger country for scientists’, writes that most of us ‘cling to this pale ghost … like a child with its comfort blanket’, persists in referring to visions as hallucinations even where the person is lucid (and despite instances where a vision is shared by other people), and eagerly anticipates ‘a body of homespun Western mystics becoming available for study’, whilst another is open-mindedly empathetic and, for example, regards co-incidence as a simplistic explanation for many of these phenomena.  I was also concerned that the authors’ perspective veered towards over-valuing the transcendental.  Their work, nonetheless, constitutes a significant challenge to cultural amnesia, and to insititutional resistance against respecting intimate subjective experience.

I’ll close by quoting from a contribution from a woman describing her sister’s death: “I saw a fast moving ‘Willo-the-wisp’ appear to leave her body from the side of her mouth on the right. The shock and beauty of it made me gasp.  It appeared like a fluid or gaseous diamond, pristine, sparkly, and pure, akin to the view from above of an eddy in the clearest pool you can imagine.”

B.T 26/4/15

Note 1: Unlike Peter Fenwick, Stanislas Grof developed an intensive ‘therapeutic’ method, inclduing controversial experimental work with LSD.


(1) Fenwick, P et al, (2009) Comfort for the Dying: five year retrospective and one year prospective studies of end of life experiences. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2009.10.004

Fenwick, P (2004) Dying, a Spiritual Experience as shown by Near Death Experiences and Deathbed Visions. http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/PDF/PFenwickNearDeath.pdf (accessed 17/3/15).

Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E (1996) The Truth in the Light, An Investigation of over 300 Near-Death Experiences, White Crow Books.

Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E. (2008) The Art of Dying, London, Bloomsbury.

Fenwick P. (2012) Dr Peter Fenwick Discusses Dying, Death, and Survivial, Interview by White Crow Books:

An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr.

An Animist's Bookshelf

Yesterday, while reading ‘Wakeful World’, I decided to put some music on.  My computer refused to play what I thought I wanted, so I dreamily selected some Chopin Nocturnes.  The music drew me into a meditative state and memories began to surface of my mother playing the piano.  Then I remembered that the previous day would have been her birthday.  I had slipped into that misty terrain between memory/imagination and co-presence, so decided to have a look at her horoscope.  As often happens at moments like this, the transits, both to her chart, and even more bewilderingly to the rational mind, to a composite chart (combining hers with mine), were fairly breathtaking.  Particularly given the physical realities of the solar system that underpin such observations.

A whole cluster of ‘planets’ (including the Nodes of the Moon) were making close aspects to the position of key planets at the moment of her birth in April 1913.  This is not the place to consider the fine detail, but experiences like this, in which a horoscope seems to work beyond a person’s death -signifying fluctuations in the reputation of public figures, or quiet moments of memory and ‘contact’- complicate still further the unsettling commonplaces of astrology.  I mention this because observations from astrology, and other forms of divination, have been a key reference point in my own grapplings with animism. I wondered, therefore, whether Emma Restall Orr’s investigation of animist ontology might cast some helpful light on such phenomena.  What follows is a provisional response to a thought provoking book.


Restall Orr, a high profile British Druid, and founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead, manages a natural burial ground, and has previously written about aspects of Druidry.  In a talk posted on her website she tells us that she finds animism exciting and dangerous becuase it offers an alternative to Western consumer capitalist culture’s objectification and exploitation of many human beings, other animals, forests, and so forth.  In Wakeful World she wanted to hone a definition of animism that would stand its ground against other world views, and help us deconstruct self-sabotaging assumptions in the process.

As a confirmed pluralist I welcome this book.  We need a range of perspectives.  I like the way in which Restall Orr develops her thesis, step by step, throughout the book.  The research behind her most recent offering has clearly been a labour of love, and there’s much of interest here, not least an extended consideration of the mindedness of nature.

No book appeals to everyone however, and some have found Wakeful World a bit circuitous.  I thought it could have been tighter, but then, at the risk of oversimplifying the differences between our approaches, I tend to be an an inductive thinker (I like to work from specific observations towards general understandings) whereas Emma Restall Orr appears to be a deductive thinker, motivated by a desire to theorise animist ontology as cogently as possible.  She does this primarily by examining a series of related concepts, such as spirit, soul, matter, mind, self, life, and consciousness.  Although she has previously written, quite powerfully, about autobiographical experience, personal observations make a relatively minor contribution to the argument unfolded here.  Perhaps the abstract rational mode of thought is not alien to the grounded and relational nature of animism after all, then?

Turning to the rather brief index (for a book without notes) it soon became clear that the author’s reference points have mostly been different from mine.  My favoured intellectual landmarks/interests are largely missing.  This may not matter however, as much can be gained from exploring the creative tension of difference.

As well as being a different kind of thinker, however, I found myself struggling with some aspects of the author’s writing style.  After four decades in the company of feminists of various hues, I was surprised to find that she’d opted to resurrect the generic ‘he’.  In most of the circles I’ve moved this unexplained departure from a widespread post second-wave feminist consensus on non-discriminatory language is likely to be taken as further evidence that neo-Pagan sub-culture is a bit out of touch with progressive political values.  Unfortunately, it may undermine her goal of gaining intellectual respect for animism.  The problem will be compounded for many where she imports the word ‘God’ (but not Goddess) into her animist lexicon. (see pages 186-7).

Once I’d overcome my initial resistence to Wakeful World, I soon realised that it would work for me as a reference guide to all kinds of discussions relevant to animist thought.  Emma Restall Orr’s definitions of animism as ‘a monist metaphysical stance based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances but an integrated reality rooted in nature‘, and as ‘a monist metaphysical stance based upon ubiquitous and integrated mindedness‘, are likely to be influential.  There is, however, another discourse in which monism, whether religious or secular, is conceived as an enclosed system, subject to a single master principle, whose antithesis is not dualism -which monism tends to generate- but pluralism.  In this view, monism is the underlying cause of Cartesian hyper-separation, not its solution.

So, for instance, where Emma Restall Orr addresses Plato’s dualist metaphysics, Patrick Curry targets the authoritarian nature of his monist universalist cosmology.(1)  Plato has been described as a ‘monistic dualist’, a ‘dualistic monist’, and a ‘priority monist’ (for whom the One takes precedence over the parts).  In the Timmaeus, he envisions a cosmos constructed by the demiurge in the pattern of ‘one visible animal comprehending itself within all other animals’.(2)  Many, perhaps all, neo-Platonists -for whom an anima mundi, or world soul, moves within the material world, have been/or are, surely, animists?  You may (or may not!) therefore wish to ponder whether animism can also be a dualist, monist dualist, or dualistic monist, metaphysical stance. (Aaagh 🙂 ).

Where does all of this leave pluralism then?  As Graham Harvey puts it ‘animists celebrate plurality, multiplicity, the many and their entwined passionate entanglements’, and crucially, ”for animists, the answer to the problem of dualities is not the assertion of unity, but the celebration of diversity‘.(3)  As far as I can see, and I claim no expertise here, this is potentially applicable not just to questions about personhood, agency, and the familiar catalogue of (geo-)political polarisations, but also to how we understand consciousness and overcome mind/body-matter dualism.  The wonderful diversity of states, beings, worlds, and phenomena, described in Wakeful World seem to me to testify to the irreducible plurality of nature rather than to any comprehensively unifying monist ‘essence’, or even web.  In which case, perhaps we should be saying something like ‘animism is a pluralist metaphysical stance grounded in the ubiquitous mindedness of nature‘?

For the time being, at least, though, I would prefer to suggest that from a phenomenological/experiential perspective, all of the above (including dualism) are defensible descriptions or constructions of cosmic nature.

Later in the book, Emma Restall Orr adds the further definition that animism is a relational ontology.  At this point I’d like to have seen a mention of Nurit Bird-Davis, whose conception of animism as a relational epistemology (way of knowing) has been so influential in debates about contemporary animism, not least because of her influence on Graham Harvey, who talks about the relational nature of animist ontologies (theories about being) as well as epistemologies.(4)  As befits an individualistic and inductive thinker, Emma Restall Orr approaches relational ontology from an altogether different direction (from Bird-Davis’s ethnography), by visiting early Christian theology and Gaia theory.

Sprits and Souls

So, with my astrological Chopin moment query in mind, I want to conclude by looking briefly at Emma Restall Orr’s discussion of spirits and souls.  This is a pivotal issue, given the etymology of the term animism (from the Latin anima, life, breath, soul), and Edward Tylor’s nineteenth century definition of animism in terms of belief in an insubstantial ‘ghost soul’ that could ’cause life and thought in the individual it animates’, leave the body, and continue to exist and re-appear after death.(5)  For Tylor, such beliefs were childlike delusions, characteristic of ‘primitive’ cultures, but also definitive of religion per se.

Although Restall Orr has written elsewhere about her own psychic experiences, she vigorously denounces the dualistic ‘superstition’ that the spirits of trees or rivers ‘behave like ghosts in a child’s story book’.  This is animism drawn with ‘fat crayons’.  Personally, I’m uncomfortable with this borrowing of derogatory language, because its been the weapon of choice wielded by proponents of the dominant paradigm of scientific rationality against marginalised intuitive/spiritual/mythopoetic/non-rational knowledges -the knowledges of Enlightenment’s ‘others’.  I also wonder how we’re meant to know, with any certainly, about the habits of tree or river ‘spirits’?  Restall Orr acknowledges that many animists believe in the transmigration of souls, but this would surely be inconcievable without believing in the existence of specific ‘souls’ (single or plural) of other-than-human beings, rather than just the fabric or ‘soul’ of nature as a whole?  I don’t think we can be sure about these matters.  There is some fairly convincing testimony from Near Death Experiences, that suggests that consciousness can work independently of the physical brain, and, as the author clearly knows, the ‘ghostly figures of dualistic superstition’ can occasionally be seen, felt, and/or heard.  This, at the very least, means that we need to treat such testimony with respect, even when we disagree with the terms in which it is described.

The author’s definitions of souls and spirits are, characteristically, distinctive.  She understands spirit as ‘those essential forces and energies that, moving within particular patterns, vitalise and empower’, or as ‘the pattern created by crucial moments of interaction’- a fleeting form rather than a seperable entity, and soul as the wholeness of a being, its song, or contextual expression -a recurrent pattern, both mental and physical, but, again, not a defined individual.

My first impression on reading this is that the language (particularly in relation to spirit) is too dry and technical to convey the profoundly emotional quality of subtle encounter, and that these definitions are very different from those I’m used to.  For example, Graham Parkes writes ‘in the traditional triad of body-soul-spirit, soul occupies the middle, mediating, position, which suggests that the psychical is more closely interfused with the body and the physical than are the mental, intellectual, and spiritual, aspects of our being.’  He uses ‘soul’ and ‘psyche’ more or less interchangeably, and keeps them distinct from ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’.(6)  This sense of soul being closer to the body and earth, is familiar from the post-Jungian writings of James Hillman.

Emma Restall Orr’s ideas are certainly interesting, but, despite her assurances to the contrary she sometimes writes as though defining a singular animism, and speaking for all animists.  Responding to Whitehead’s teleological God, who guides the universe towards the production of beauty, for example, she writes ‘there are no such benevolent gods in the pantheon of the animist’.  Well, no single teleological god, perhaps – but no benevolent gods, guiding us towards beauty?  There is a bleakness in this omission that, once again, I’m uncomfortable with. I acknowledge the recurrent reality of ‘brutality’, but the beauty I’m surrounded by feels more fundamental and enduring.  There’s bleakness too in the statement that ‘as no more than a flow of percepts, of changing contextual data, the self actually has no purpose, no meaning at all‘.  If that were so, how could ‘we’ enter into long term relationships with other (meaningless) selves?  Why would ‘I’ want to ‘create a sustainable and peaceful world’?  Why would I find that the pattern of the planets consistently reflects the capacities, challenges, and intimate concerns of individual human, or other-than-human lives?  Why would any of this matter?

B.T 24/4/14 (updated 27/4/14).

Note 1, see Patrick Curry’s discussion of Weber, in Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004, p78, and of Plato’s monism as the foundational instance of disenchantment, in Divination, Enchantment, and Platonism, inThe Imaginal Cosmos; Astrology, divination, and the sacred, Angela Voss and Jean Hinson Lall, eds. University of Kent, Canterbury, 2007.


(1) Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

(2)  Jonathan Schaffer, Monism, the Priority of the Whole, Philosphical Review, Vol 119, no1, 2010, p37.

(3 and 4) Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005. See pp xiv and 203, and a discussion of Nurit Bird-Davis’s work on pp20-22.

(5) Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1871.

(6) Graham Parkes, Composing the Soul, Reaches of Neitzsche’s Psychology, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Emma Restall Orr, The Wakeful World; Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature, Moon Books, 2012.

You Tube: Emma Restall Orr’s talk to the Duid Network Conference, 2012.

This provisional response to Wakeful World was written as a contribution to the Animist Blog Carnival/Book Club. 

An Animist’s Bookshelf- ‘Animism, Respecting the Living World’, and other Writings by Graham Harvey..

This Animist's Bookshelf - detail, showing ye olde working methods!

An Animist’s Bookshelf – showing ye olde working methods!

As a latecomer to ‘new’ animism, I’m still feeling slightly dis-orientated, in a good way, by the process of looking anew at familiar landscapes and questioning long held assumptions.  So I’ve decided to take another look at some of the books I’ve been inspired and informed by -and have found myself arguing with.

Rather than attempting comprehensive reviews of titles that have mostly been around a while, I propose to focus on issues that concern me, including some aspects that seem problematical.  When I worry away at the latter, I hope you’ll hear a thoughtful, rather than hostile, ‘tone of voice’.  All of the following authors have made (and continue to make) significant contributions to the emergence of animism in the contemporary West, so their work deserves careful and constructively critical attention.


'Kunka Women's Dreaming' by Gladys Yawentyne, on the cover of Graham Harvey's, Animism, Respecting the Living World.

‘Kunka Women’s Dreaming’ by Gladys Yawentyne, on the cover of Graham Harvey’s, Animism, Respecting the Living World.

Graham Harvey’s Animism, Respecting the Living World (Hurst, 2005) was the book that convinced me I was an animist.  Harvey, who is head of Religious Studies at the Open University, and a prolific author, mostly manages to write in an accessible yet argument-rich style.  Some readers have nevertheless found Animism too much like a text book.  Horses for courses, I suppose.  All I can say is that, unlike much of what I’ve read in academic journals, I found it engaging, and ethically focussed.

In Parts One and Two, Harvey covers vital conceptual and political ground, setting out the case for reclaiming the once derogatory term ‘animism’, and practicing what he preaches by entering into dialogue with Ojibwe, Maori, and Australian Aboriginal ‘animists’, as well as hedgehogs, all of whom he visited while researching the book.  He also draws on the work of postcolonial ethnographers, espcially Irving Hallowell, whose Ojibwe inspired neologism ‘other-than-human-persons’ (refering to the Ojibwe sense that personhood is not restricted to humans) has become part of the currency of contemporary animism, and Nurit Bird-Davis, whose characterisation of animism as relational epistemology, informed Harvey’s emphasis on the principle of respectful relationship.

Some nine years since Animism appeared, its widely recognised as a landmark text, but some of the inter-linked Animist Issues given an unavoidably brief airing in Part Three, and developed by Harvey and others elsewhere, are  complex, and remain far from resolved.


My background in the politics of ‘mental health’, and various other experiences and involvements, sensitise me to debates about the psychologising of shamanism.  I prefer to distance myself from the term mental health, by the way, because (as the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements have long argued) this ubiquitous construction fixes distress and madness as primarily ‘mental’ rather than social, cultural, and/or emotional, and reinforces the assumption that it needs to be addressed medically or psychologically, rather than by means of crisis support, practical help, human contact, the sharing of stories, artistic creativity, gardening, contact with other-than-human persons, walking in the countryside, cups of tea, political activism, and so forth.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with animism, I’ve been concerned that ‘new’ animism, as expounded by Graham Harvey (and others), appears to be focussing on ecological relationship at the expense of human concerns, not least social justice (activism/advocacy), and healing work.  In the recent Handbook of Contemporary Animism, for example, these appear to be minority interests (more so than in Listening People, Speaking Earth where personal or community healing is included as a major part of what shamans do) -though, for example, Linda Hogan’s powerful reference to aboriginal ceremonies that ‘return the human to his or her place within the natural world, the human community, and the universe’  reminds us that animist cultures often ground human healing in communal celebrations of the sanctity of both place and cosmic nature.(1)

In Animism, Harvey links Mircea Eliade’s emphasis on shamanic ‘techniques of ecstasy’, and Levi Strauss’s reframing of shamanism as a branch of psychology (rather than an outbreak of ‘psychosis’!), with the tendency for neo-Shamans to reduce shamanism to ‘a set of methods for altering consciousness’.  By replacing ‘frightening otherworlds’ with the ‘life-enhancing innerworlds’ of a ‘quasi-Jungian therapy’, Michael Harner made shamanic initiation ‘achievable in a suburban living room’ or New Age workshop.  Harvey identifies this as part of a long colonising process in which psychological discourse about inner truths has been a pivotal way of undermining indigenous voices.  Neo-Shamans need to give the term shaman ‘extra pay’ by returning benefit to the land, and/or to indigenous cultures, or by demonstrating effects and values different from those of individualising psychotherapy and/or (late capitalist?) modernity. (Animism, pp142-4.  Listening People Speaking Earth, ch 7).

Yup'ik shaman, Nushagak. Creative Commons.

‘Yup’ik Medicine Man Exorcising Evil Spirits from a Sick Boy’, Nushagak. Creative Commons.

My response to this is complicated. I agree with Harvey that re-packaging shamanistic work as psychotherapy may constitute a further layer of colonisation, but would want to summon the ‘spirit’ of Michel Foucault in order to argue that psychology also functions as a disciplinary power/knowledge regime within Western Cultures.  There are, nonetheless, radical (critical, feminist, pro-feminist, etc), even democratic forms, that may have considerable potential -both for their insights into the human condition, and as forms of healing practice.

A major strand of support for radical forms of therapy comes from the many feminist and pro-feminist writers who have commented on public masculinity’s appropriation of rationality (as a way of marginalising women, ethnic ‘others’, madness, etc.), and identified a political imperative for men to take responsibility for their emotional and inner lives.  Bob Connell, for example, argues that psychoanalysis evolved from a debatable form of therapy into a normalising technology of surveillance and control, but nevetheless recognises its potential to cast light on the often precarious construction of masculinities. I’ve discussed this in some detail elsewhere(2), but what matters here is that we consider the therapeutic turn in neo-Shamanism in the context of the quite complex politics of therapy and healing.

Predation and Violence

A pivotal issue for feminist and pro-feminist commentators has, of course, been the need to address men’s overwhelming culpability for initiating and enacting violence in both private and public arenas.  Although the late Val Plumwood links feminism and anthropocentrism in her chapter in Handbook of Contemporary Animism, discussion of this fundamental issue in the emerging literature on ‘new’ animism appears to have been deflected by acceptance of an all too familiar mainstream discourse that constructs human violence in terms of predation, and regards it as ‘natural’.

Graham Harvey’s concern with the fabric of human culture is clearly reflected in his many references to diversity and respectful relationship.  I am worried, however, that in his discussions of exo-cannibalism, and the dangerousness of indigenous shamanisms, he appears to accept, and even justify, not so much some aspects of some animist cultures that seem wholly inconsistent with the animistic ‘liberatory good life’ he urges us towards -for good reasons postmodern Europeans are hardly in a position to offer moral advice to indigenous animists- but, the ethical code (of animist warfare) they implicitly represent.

Having discussed compassionate cannibalism -the practice of eating the flesh and bone ash of the deceased as ‘the spirits of the dead join the community of animal spirits’ (perhaps, so that they might return as prey animals), Harvey then cites various indigenous animist traditions in which the bodies of enemies were eaten as an expression of domination and contempt.  He concludes that even when families disrespectfully devour, and no doubt disrespectfully excrete, an enemy’s flesh, ‘the killer becomes more fully human and more complexly relational by the incorporation of the killed enemy’s ‘spirit’ as ‘inner ‘child’, and that the drama of cannibalism is, therefore, about ‘subjects relating, and necessarily, being predatory, and/or prey’. (my italics, and see note 1 below).

My first thought on re-reading this was to turn to the Geneva convention – Article 34(1), 1977 Additional Protocol, which states: “the remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation, or in detention resulting from occupation, or hostilities … shall be respected.”  Since I don’t see anything ‘fully human or relational’, in a commendable sense, in the historical intances of animist warfare Harvey mentions, I wondered whether ‘fully human’ was being given an ironical twist here? 

The conflation of human warfare (and more intimate human violences) with other-than-human predation, though quite common, is surely wholly inappropriate?  Predation, as Aldo Leopold demonstrated in Thinking Like a Mountain, often involves complex relationships of inter-dependence in which ecosytems and prey species both benefit from the sacrifice of weaker individual herbivors.  Other-than-human predation is about catching food, and is, therefore, biologically unavoidable.  Human warfare (and ‘domestic’ violence), despite its historical prevalence, is not. 

This, it seems to me, highlights a key problem with the adoption of animist assumptions, namely that, alongside the obvious benefits of bringing Western culture into closer and more honest relationship with the ‘natural world’, there’s a corresponding danger that it could encourage an uncritical transfer of understandings from ethology (the study of animal behaviour) into human psychology or sociology.  This could encourage simplistic biological reductionism (men are violent because of testosterone), evolutionary determinism (‘man the hunter’/’hard wiring of traits’, etc), and/or essentialist assumptions about gender (women are emotional, men rational, etc.), all of which tend to be politically regressive.(3)

Returning to Graham Harvey’s implication that neo-Shamans understandably dilute, sanitise, and domesticate shamanism, by re-packaging it as ‘quasi Jungian therapy’, I’m also concerned by the implication that ‘predatory’ (a.k.a.’dark”) shamanism – perhaps we could  refer to these forms as agonistic (doing battle) when they’re about violent human conflict rather than hunting for food?- is somehow more real, more exciting perhaps, than forms of neo-Shamanism that concentrate on personal healing.  If these neo-Shamanisms are sometimes found ‘dull and petulant’ (as one critic describes John and Caitlin Matthew’s Celtic shamanism), this may be because their proponents do understand the potential dangerousness of otherworlds, and the vulnerability of  many Western neophytes?

I’d like to complicate the picture further by noting that powerfully transformative events can sometimes occur in ‘suburban sitting rooms’, that the transformative potency of an event is not a simple function of its drama or danger -quiet ‘inner’ work may be more valuable and life-changing than noisy public celebration- and that, although there may be much else to disagree with in their work, many post-Jungian’s do acknowledge both the reality of otherworlds (this was the point of Jung’s ‘objective psyche’, and Henry Corbin’s ‘imaginal’), and even the possible dangerousness of shamanic allies.  Furthermore, the figure of the charismatic shaman, when transposed into a Western context,  is potentially quite  problematical.  For example, one influential Seidr worker, who Harvey might regard as giving ‘shamanism’ extra pay by ‘rediscovering ancient traditions’, uses some decidedly questionable concepts from the psy-disciplines (such as ‘mental disease’, and Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’).


Since a great many humans seem to have difficulty treating other human persons with respect, I’ve been wondering whether extending the notion of personhood into other-than-human worlds, risks undermining an already devalued currency?  What it means to be a human person is already a complex issue -we now increasingly recognise the plurality of selves, voices, and identity.  Nietzsche’s term ‘dividuals’, referring to the multiplicity of our bodies and minds, has been quite widely adopted by anthropologists.

If we are to adopt the terminology of ‘other-than-human persons’ we need to think carefully about the possible implications.  Since, for Westerners, the equivalence of ‘person’ and ‘human’ is so ingrained, ‘other-than-human person’ could become the currency of a new anthropomorphism based on an underestimation of inter-species difference, and an overestimation of our human capacity to communicate with other animals, let alone plants, rocks, clouds, and a vast array of other beings with whom we share the ‘natural’ world.

My hope, of course, is that calls to extend respect, compassion, and rights, to non-human others might clarify and strengthen demands for human rights.  The ethical principle of respectful relationship, that Graham Harvey finds in the lifeways of contemporary indigenous animists, expresses such a hope -and works well as an ethical guideline,  opening up a multitude of questions about how we might show respect in a whole variety of circumstances.  Even this formulation can’t be assumed to be universally applicable however.  Under hierarchical conditions, respect can mean deference, or proud defiance.

I leave these lively questions open, and warmly reccomend Animism, as a path breaking and thought provoking introduction to contemporary Western animism.

Brian Taylor, April 2014 (with minor revisions November 2014).

Note : On Graham Harvey’s website (consulted 9/4/13) he quotes the late Maori scholar, Te Pakaka Tawhai’s statement that the “purpose of religious activity … is doing violence with impunity”, without further comment.  On predatory shamanism, see for example, Harvey and Wallis, A to Z of Shamanism (Scarecrow Press/Lanham, 2010, p25) quoting Carlos Fausto on Amazonian shamanisms in which a shaman’s ability to relate to powerful other-than-human persons (especially jaguars) is related to ‘predation in warfare and hunting’ as ‘a preferred means of affirming one’s agency and intentionality, rather than being used, preyed upon, by other persons’.


(1) Linda Hogan, We Call it Tradition, pp17-26, in Graham Harvey, ed Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

(2) Brian Taylor, Responding to Men in Crisis; Masculinities, distress, and the postmodern political landscape. Routledge, 2005.  See Ch10 (pp184-210) Reconstructing Men’s Lives, Power/Knowledge, personal recovery, and social transformation.

Bob Connell, ‘Pyschoanalysis and Masculinity’, pp11-38 in Brod, H. and Kaufmann, M. eds, Theorising Masculinities, Sage, 1994.

(3) Bob Connell, Gender and Power, and Masculinities,Polity, 1987 and 1995.

Animism, Respecting the Living World

Video: Graham Harvey interviewed by Voices of the Earth 

Books written or edited by Graham Harvey include:

Listening People, Speaking Earth, Contemporary Paganism, 2nd edition, Hurst 2007.

Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013 (edited by G.H.).

Shamanism, A Reader, Routledge, 2003 (edited by G.H)

see also:  Robert Wallis, Shamans, Neo-Shaman; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies, and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Next month’s ABC (Animist Blog Carnival, re-named Animist Book Club for the purpose) will focussing on Emma Restall Orr’s Wakeful World.    

Handbook of Contemporary Animism, First Impressions.

Stewart Edmundson's 'Return of the Fieldfares' on the cover of the Handbook of Contemporary Animism.

Stewart Edmondson’s ‘Return of the Fieldfares’ on the cover of the Handbook of Contemporary Animism.

Tree full of Fieldfares, West Yorkshire 20/1/14.

Tree full of Fieldfares, West Yorkshire 20/1/14.

Where to Begin?  The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (HCA) is Graham Harvey’s latest edited collection.  It promises to be every bit as useful as his readers on Shamanism and Indigenous Religions, but at 581 pages is even longer, and since only seven of the forty chapters have previously appeared elsewhere, most of the contents is new material.   The book therefore reflects a lively sense of ongoing debate encompassing a range of viewpoints.  Those of us who came to ‘new’ animism after reading Harvey’s Animism, Respecting the Living World, will have high expectations of this book.

Harvey orchestrates the volume by providing introductions to each of its seven sections –Different Animisms, Dwelling in Nature/Culture, Dwelling in Larger-than-human Communities, Dwelling With(out) Things, Dealing with Spirits, Consciousness and Ways of Knowing, and Animism in Performance.  These are written with his usual energy, clarity, and commitment to pluralism.  “More excitingly, what is proposed here is that setting diverse phenomena and approaches alongside each other invites interpreters and theorists to look again and think again.”  HCA does seem broader than Animism (2005), in which neo-Platonic and post-Jungian conceptions of animism were overlooked.  These are referred to in Stephan Harding’s chapter Towards an Animistic Science of the Earth.

Harvey describes how he serendipitously found himself learning the distinction between animate and inanimate genders in the Ojibwe language alongside primary school pupils at a reservation in Wisconsin.  Once again he emphasises the indebtedness of ‘new’ animism to indigenous traditions by opening with a contribution from Linda Hogan, Writer in Residence for the Chicksaw Nation and Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado.  There are several contributions from today’s variously engaged, dialogical, and post-Cartesian anthropologists.  Since some of my recent ancestors were missionaries, however, I found myself wincing at religious studies professor Martin Stringer’s comment that he was ‘not able to spend enough time with any one group in Burkino Fasso to assess whether their religious beliefs formed a systematic whole or not’.  Whatever next!

All contributors to HCA are academically qualified.  Whilst I appreciate the validity of establishing animism as a legitimate and pressing field of intellectual enquiry that should be taken seriously by the wider culture, I’m also keenly aware that this book will be inaccessible to most people, including some of those closest to me!  My worry is that, paradoxically, ‘we’ end up debating the importance of relationship (personhood, embodiment, and ecology), in terms that few can understand, and many will find threatening and exclusive.  This is a familiar dilemma.  Some invaluable political insights have, after all, been crafted in barely intelligible prose that had to be digested and popularised by other writers before it could bear fruit. (Michel Foucault springs to mind!).  Given the theoretical nature of much of the discussion in HCA, I also wonder whether ‘handbook’ was the right title?

Academic writing has, of course, traditionally been governed by the Cartesian convention of the disembodied author as dispassionate and objective cerebral expert.  Feminist and postmodern perspectives have replied by insisting that all knowledge claims are socially situated, and by encouraging auto/biographical writing.  As far as I can see (I’ve only just begun reading HCA) only Jenny Blain and Andy Letcher have included testimony from their own experience.  I suppose I should declare an interest here, since my article on birds and animism, which includes personal testimony, might have been squeezed in to HCA had Graham Harvey known about it earlier.(1)

Academic conventions may also have constrained the content of HCA.  Given that Oxfam have just pointed out that the richest 85, yes 85(!), human people in the world – you could fit them into a double decker bus- own as much wealth as the entire poorer half of humanity, I’ve been wondering about the exclusion of social justice from animist agendas (including my own blog).  There doesn’t seem to be much social critique going on here.  Murray Bookchin, who used the term new animism in the late 1960’s, doesn’t appear in the index, for instance.  My growing sense is that the interface between human social concerns and human attitudes towards other species needs to be addressed.

One of my own avenues to animism has been the study and practice of astrology.  Although there is now some academic research about astrology, sometimes under the cover of ‘cultural astronomy’, serious consideration (a word with starry etymological roots) of astrological evidence, is still likely to be met with derision within the groves of academe.  The only reference I’ve found so far is Linda Hogan’s description of finding a Skidi Pawnee star bundle in a Chicago museum.  ‘It is decorated with constellations, that take in the living world around, the people, antelopes, swimming ducks, as if uniting the universe with the earth on which we live, our one special planet in this universe of constant change and motion of its own, still unknown to us, but with nurseries of stars and new life forming’.(2)

Another omission from the index of HCA that I find much more surprising is the apparent lack of interest in dreams.  There’s only one reference (in a 581 page book) to dreams (as opposed to ‘dreamings’ in an Australian Aboriginal context).  Yet many ethnographic accounts emphasise the importance of dreaming in indigenous traditions.  Dreamwork has been pivotal to my own sense of connection with other-than-human persons, and is arguably critical to understanding what is meant by ‘spirits’ -the subject of an entire section of this book.

I’m uncomfortable with the description of ‘spirits’ (some contributors understandably want to exorcise the term in relation to indigenous beliefs and cosmologies) and extra-ordinary experience as ‘non-empirical’.  If empiricism signifies an attempt to tie knowledge to experience, this seems inappropriate, as extra-ordinary experience is still a form of (subtle sensory) experience.  I find the term worryingly evocative of positivist science, with its ‘preference for empirical data that can be observed and measured so that the various component parts can be compared for their relative frequency’, in order to ‘generate law-like regularities’ and ‘hard facts’.(3)  Rane Willerslev, for example, who seems to be swimming against the tide by suggesting that animism is, after all, a metaphysical rather than empirical issue, still refers to ‘ethnographic fact’, when he surely means ethnographic consensus.  Ethnographic (or scientific) consensus can, of course, get things wrong, especially in relation to the domain of  intimate experience and meaning.

Having expressed some initial reservations about HCA, I should say that I’m very much looking forward to following up some of the debates within its pages in more detail.  Its arrival in my life was marked by a minor but enjoyably serendipitous ‘showing’.  The day after I began reading the book the Sun came out (this in itself is noteworthy in the West Yorkshire Pennines, where we’ve had so much rain recently that someone I met quipped he was growing webbed feet), so I went for a walk.

Fieldfares, like their Redwing cousins, are beautiful thrushes that come over from Scandinavia to spend the winter in the U.K.  Flocks are a common enough sight, but that afternoon I had an unusually clear and close view of these birds, including seeing a whole flock flying up into an isolated oak tree.  Since most trees round here grow in woods or clumps, I can’t recall seeing this happen before.  I took the picture above, from a distance (so its not very clear, even when magnified by double clicking), because I felt that getting any closer to these very flighty bird-persons would have been a breach of respectful relationship!  (my usual practice is not to photograph birds at all).  Anyway, the sight of that tree teeming with Fieldfares was, of course, immediately reminiscent of Stewart Edmondson’s ‘Return of the Fieldfares‘ on the cover of HCA.  So, thank you to the birds, the earthworms in the fields for agreeing to be eaten by them, the farmer for leaving the tree alone, and, of course, to Graham Harvey for getting the book together and helping me think and see differently.

B.T 21/1/14.

1) Brian Taylor, Birds, Liminality, and Human Transformation, an Animist Perspective on New Animism, Pomegranate, the International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14.1.2012, pp109-127.

2) Linda Hogan, ‘We Call it Tradition’, in HCA.

3) Mark Smith, Social Science in Question, Sage/Open University, 1998, p77.

Graham Harvey, The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

Relational Magic?

In a previous post I expressed concern about an instrumental and anthropocentric approach to natural magic, and wondered whether alternative conceptions of magic, enchantment, and divination might feel more compatible with postmodern animism.

My unease with the term magic (however spelt), stems from a long felt ambivalence about neo-Pagan/contemporary Pagan* sub-cultures.  Most of the people I’ve shared or practiced Nature based spirituality with had long involvements (in the eighties or before) in community action, the voluntary sector, feminism, anti-sexist men’s groups, radical self-help therapy, or the peace/anti-nuclear movement, all of which had strong traditions of democratic practice.

Although I shared much common ground with Paganism, I (and no doubt many others) felt wary of (i) an apparent fondness for hierarchical structures (grades, initiations, priests, Chosen Chiefs, etc), (ii) an individualistic ethic, with, it seemed, little concern for social realities, (iii) a tendency towards naïve identification with warrior deities, (iv) an insufficiently critical attitude towards highly problematic sources such as Crowley, or Freemasonry, and (v) the widespread adoption of Jungian (essentialist, binary) assumptions about gender (i.e. that there is a universal set of ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ qualities).  I would now add the familiar animist complaint that Pagans (other than eco-pagans) revere nature in the abstract but often seem uninterested in the ecology of their local pagus, district, region, or place (c.f. French Pays) after which Paganism is named.  Along with my friends and peers, I was, in any case, much less oriented towards anthropomorphic deities than most Pagans.  We therefore kept our distance from organised ‘religious’ Paganism, and celebrated the seasonal festivals in an autonomous local non-hierarchical group.  I do remember being impressed, however, by Starhawk’s politically engaged Goddess centred spirituality.

Writing as an outsider in relation to capital-P Paganism, then, I was interested to read recently that many Pagans are now talking about animism in the context of questioning the need to follow a particular path.  Does this mean that my younger self’s concerns are being addressed, and that understandings of magic have been shifting in a broadly ‘new’ animist direction?  How do its practitioners relate to other human and non-human becomings?


‘Toadlet’ (Juvenile Common Toad, Bufo bufo) on a Human Road, July 2007.  

In the hope of finding out I turned to some of Susan Greenwood’s writings, and soon found some important areas of common ground.  Citing New Animism’s ancestral foe Edward Tylor, for whom magic was ‘the most pernicious delusion that ever vexed mankind’, Greenwood sets out to re-establish the legitimacy of a marginalised tradition.  Based on her research she contrasts the tradition of High Magic -with its emphasis on transcendence, and apolitical perspective, with Feminist Witchcraft, which is Goddess centred, nature based, and politically engaged.  In the former, magic is seen as a means of reaching human perfection in the search for Ultimate Being.  In the latter, shamanistic methods (such as dancing and drumming) are used primarily for therapeutic purposes or for changing society.  I was less comfortable, however, with her adoption of a fairly conventional psychological framework.  She talks in Freudian terms about ‘the creative use of imagination … to urge the unconscious into consciousness’.  Following Michel Foucault, and others, who have critiqued psychoanalysis, I would be much more circumspect about using its language and practices.  Where these are found useful, I prefer to follow those who talk, for instance, about ‘unconscious processes’ rather than ‘the unconscious’, and would question the Jungian sounding notion of a ‘true self’, even in the context of holistic spirituality.

In keeping with her feminist orientation, Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic alternates between personal narrative and theoretical discussionThere’s a welcome sense that this is a collaborative exploratory project, and that plural understandings are possible.  The downside of such an approach, perhaps, is that it can be difficult to find a settled definition of magic in the book.  The author acknowledges the influence of her friend and informant, a British shaman called Jo Crow, who in turn appears to have been influenced by Michael Harner’s neo-shamanism.  Greenwood therefore talks about ‘journeying’ in an ‘altered state of consciousness’, about harmful and helping spirits, and soul loss.  This strand of experience has clearly shaped her understanding of what she calls ‘magical consciousness’, a ‘mythopoetic expanded aspect of awareness’ that anyone can potentially experience.  The term is used inclusively to cover a multiplicity of intuitive or associative mental processes and ways of knowing.

One of the criticisms leveled at Harner is that his method reduces shamanism to the dis-located individualism of a New Age psychotherapy; that it is orientated towards self-discovery and empowerment at the expense of ecological relationship, community development, or political activism.  Susan Greenwood’s project -to reclaim magic from reductive anthropological explanations in terms of its social or psychological functions (which she helpfully reviews)- seems to have taken her to a place where social realities are by-passed altogether.  I hope I’m wrong about this, since, in my view, there’s a pressing need to link healing work with an understanding of social forces and power relations that cause harm.  Although Greenwood explicitly asks whether magic can lead to an ‘ecological worldview’, cites Rachel Carson on the importance of childlike wonder in reply to those who dismiss animism as childish delusion, and defines magic as relational, her emphasis still seems to be on inner journeys rather external realities.

So much so that she describes Richard Mabey’s encounter with a Nightingale -when he experienced the bird as ‘a shaman’, whose ‘song seemed to become solid, to be doing odd things to the light’, and who  momentarily entered his head, so that he became the singing bird- as ‘the sort of experience that anyone can have through empathising with another creature in the imagination‘. (my italics).  She then compares this with something similar that happened to her at a shamanic workshop, during an inner journey to find a spirit guide.  The dreamlike visionary experience she recounts involved passing through frighteningly tight labyrinthine tunnels, and seeing imagery of dismemberment in which a large Crow picked over her bones before turning into a ‘white snow owl’.  An obvious point of similarity with Mabey’s experience was that she too briefly had a sense of becoming the flying Owl.  It would be inappropriate to speculate about the subjective importance of these two events, but they were, surely -monist understandings of a conscious universe, and the reality of ‘spirits’ notwithstanding- fundamentally different in one key respect.  Richard Mabey was not empathising ‘in his imagination’, he was relatingas one of our most experienced, sensitive, and articulate naturalists- to a materially embodied and co-present member of a species he had long felt a passionate connection with.  Susan Greenwood was ‘journeying’ in inner space, through imaginal worlds, where she met what others would call a spirit helper, and what she prefers simply to call a friend.

If Mabey was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to find words to categorise his own experience, that’s fine by me.  Susan Greenwood, however, claims it as example of ‘magical consciousness’.  (I would have been happier had she said what I call magical consciousness).  Aside from the issue of categorizing another person’s experiences, I’m not sure whether such a broad term gets us very far.  Frustratingly, we are told very little about the author’s subsequent relationship with Owls as ‘friends’, or how this relates to the lives of flesh-and-blood Owl-people.

Returning to the question of magical agency, the extent to which magic is about turning or shaping events, or consciousness, by acts of will, Susan Greenwood introduces the concept of participation, as developed by Lucien Lévy Bruhl in relation to mystical thought, and contrasts this with causality.  She associates participation with altered states, holistic language, a metaphorical mode that makes emotional, sensory, and psychic connections; with mythology, story-telling, and engagement with an ‘enspirited world’.  I very much welcome the suggestion of dialogue here, but once again, Greenwood’s actual practice (as reflected in what I’ve been able to read) appears to be individualistic and psychologically oriented.  Commenting (in ‘Of Worms …) on her auto-ethnographic research, she writes ‘I’ve found that magic involves looking deeply into the self and facing the subconscious and unconscious’.  Although accounts of shamanic healing give a sense of ‘magical consciousness’ in practice, I would like to have seen more discussion of the quite complex ethical and practical questions that inevitably arise about therapeutic uses of ‘magic’ in the context of a world in which many people people experience extreme states of distress or madness.  Susan Greenwood’s observation that, paradoxically, we need to be strong within ourselves in order to ‘ride the dragon’ -to open ourselves up to, and make creative spiritual use of, magical consciousness, might make a good starting point.  She also touches upon some of the pitfalls, such as ‘magical charisma’.

A concluding discussion in The Anthropology of Magic reframes the issue of the reality of spirits in the context of a monist universe in which consciousness is wider than individual minds.  During the experience of magic, spirits -beings that have a different order of existence, but are nonetheless real- ‘may share a degree of corporeal materiality, and possess mind’.  Imagination is proposed as an important doorway to expanded awareness, including potentially very powerful experiences, but we must bracket disbelief and act ‘as if’, in order to enter into participatory relationship with an enspirited world.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

One of the risks with insider research is that identification with (or advocacy for) the subjects of the research can blunt our critical faculties.  I wondered whether this had happened when the author took part in a ‘Wild Hunt Challenge’ in a Norfolk wood, at night, at Samhain (Halloween).  During this mythos based event participants were invited to ‘confront death’ in the form of spectral beings, in a timed challenge emphasising ‘competition, sport, and mastery'(!?!).  In the process one participant reportedly may have seen a black dog, whilst another claims to have seen a medieval knight on a horse.  We are told that the Wild Hunt ‘restores reciprocity between humans and nature’.  How, I wondered, did the flesh and blood other-than-human residents of that wood feel about this?

Although I found Susan Greenwood’s writings thought provoking, and quite like the notion of magical consciousness, I’m not, at present, convinced by her widening of the definition of magic to cover many phenomena that most people would describe in other ways.

In another post I hope to ruminate on Barry Patterson’s take on participatory magic, and Patrick Curry’s animist perspective on divination.


*As the U.K 2011 census findings remind us, terms such as neo-Pagan, (contemporary or postmodern) Pagan,  Post-pagan, or of course, Heathen, Druid, etc. are preferred by different groups of people.  I have no strong feelings about this.  One objection to neo-Pagan is that “no-one refers to neo-Christian”.  Perhaps they should?  Post-Christian might be more appropriate though as a description of some expressions of  feminist/’earthen’ Christianity.  Since neo-Pagan simply means ‘new’ Pagan some see it (like postmodern Pagan) as usefully distancing us from the less attractive aspects of pre-modern patriarchal chiefdoms.


Starhawk, Towards an Activist Spirituality, in Ly de Angeles, et al, Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future, Llewellyn, 2005.

Susan Greenwood, “Of Worms, Snakes, and Dragons”; Can Magic Lead to an Ecological World View, in Ly de Angeles, Ibid.

Susan Greenwood, Feminist Witchcraft; A Transformative Politics, in Nickie Charles and Felicia Hughes-Freeland, Practicing Feminism; Identity, Difference, Power, Routledge, 1996.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.

Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.