I’m reading a book titled Becoming Animal by a “cultural ecologist and environmental philosopher” David Abram. My amazing sister (Wendy Barker, a break-your-heart brilliant poet and writer herself) sent it to me for Christmas and it has had a profound effect on me all week long.
This is not a book for many people. As a matter of fact, when I started it I was a bit put off. The Introduction seemed a bit wordy and ponderous, and I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. But by the time I became lost in the first chapter I was enrolled. Abram is asking us to get back into contact with our physicality, our relation to the earth and all that is around us. He does so slowly, gently, asking of the reader what he asks of us as inhabitants of the earth–to slow down and notice that shadows are not two-dimensional outlines on the ground, but three-dimensional structures that affect everything within them; that it is not just us that is feeling the grass under our feet, but that our footsteps include the grass sensing our feet upon it.
Reading this book feels like meditating, and as such it’s not something you can skim through. It is the absolute opposite of the kind of page turning book that I call a “popcorn book.” These are the books I like to read on planes, books that allow my mind to seal off itself from the chaos of not being anywhere, except on route from one place to another. But this is the kind of book to savor, to sink into and read slowly, tasting the words and feeling its message. After reading the first chapter I swear the woods looked different when I walked up the hill that evening. Somehow we felt more connected, the trees and I, and the black and white of winter looked less empty, no longer forlorn and colorless but waiting with slow quiet breaths, pausing patiently for the next phase of the year.
Here’s an excerpt, from the chapter about shadows:
To step into the shadow of this mountain is to step directly under the mountain’s influence, letting it untangle your senses as the rhythm of your breath adjusts to its breathing, to the style of its weather. To step into its shadow is to become apart, if only for this moment, of the mountain’s life. Just as shadows are not flat shapes projected upon the ground (but rather dense and voluminous spaces), neither are they measurable quantities, mere consequences of sunlight and its interruptions. Shadows are qualitative attributes of the bodies that secrete them. … To find oneself in the shadow of a mountain is to abruptly find oneself exposed to the private life of the mountain, to feel its huge and manifold influence on the local world that lies beneath it, to enter the gravitational power of its intelligence, a sagacity no longer dissolved in the dazzling radiance of the sun.
If you like that paragraph, you’ll like the book. Fair warning.
The book’s theme of connecting with our animal nature and physicality reminds me–how could it not?–of the way our dogs keep us connected to nature. As I said in The Other End of the Leash:
...there’s something that I get from my connection to her (Tulip) that I can’t get from my human friends. I’m not even sure what it is, but it’s deep and primal and good. It has something to do with sharing the planet with other living things. We humans are in such a strange position–we are still animals whose behavior reflects that of our ancestors, yet we are unique–unlike any other animal on earth… Perhaps dogs help us remember the depth of our roots, reminding us–the animals at the other end of the leash–that we may be special, but we are not alone. No wonder we call them our best friends.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about whether you see your dog helping to keep you connected to the rest of nature, and how that manifests.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Willie and I are playing with “Pony” a lot, Sushi is so sick of the cold weather that she is actually trying to get Willie to play with her (Willie, who appears to categorize Sushi the cat as some kind of miniature, deformed sheep, was shocked.), and Jim and I have loaded Mac’s new Photoshop equivalent, Aperture, onto our computers and are climbing up the learning curve. We have another training session this Sunday at the Apple Store. So far, we’re a having a great time, except, of course, when things don’t make sense and then, well, we’re not. I have a long way to go to use it well, but meanwhile, here are a couple of shots.
Usually I’d like to take close ups of birds, but I loved the way this Cardinal contrasts with the greys and browns of the landscape in winter.
Here’s one of my favorite ewes, Spot. She is at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy, and often hangs back for the food, so I always go out of my way to make sure she has a seat at the dinner table.
Susan S. says
Our big dogs get us out there in all conditions, rain & sleet & gloom of night. We have to interact with nature at its least comfortable sometimes, & deal with it. We’re lucky in that we can walk with our dogs across fields & through woods, & we’re aware of all the things they perceive that we don’t. Being mere humans, we try to see what they see, see what they hear, see what they smell. That’s humbling. Even out on a frozen lake they can find something to investigate. My dogs have taught me that no matter how keenly I pay attention when I’m out walking, there’s so much more going on that they’re aware of & I’m not. I walk in their wake, trying to understand what they show me.
The passage you quoted from the The Other End of the Leash is the same one that has stayed with me all the years since I’ve first read the book, and its a sentiment I think about every time I’m out on a walk with my dog best friend. Definitely when walking with Charlie, a 9 month old Staffy, I’m reminded of how exciting, fresh and wonderful everything is that we encounter, be it an acorn or an empty slurpee cup. And previously, when I was walking my senior friend, Butch, an American Bulldog, I was constantly reminded, especially in his final months, how nice it is just to be here now, in the sun or the shade or the cold or the rain, just being….
My horse connected me to the earth and nature in a way not to be questioned. There is something very primal about the deep relationship that I had with this magnificant the prey animal for twenty four years. She would carry me into a real connection with all that was around us. She required that I entered into her world if I wanted to be with her. I couldn’t bring her in the house, and she would only obey me if she trusted me over her instincts. She honored me with her trust. She carried me to depths of relationships with her and nature and the earth that I don’t think I would have reached any other way.
My dogs also keep me connected to nature. My dogs don’t demand that I connect with nature the way that my horse did. They are willing to let me go on in my very human way and ingnore the richness that they experience and are willing to share. They require that I consciously join them to share their experiences.
When the four of us walk in the nature preserve by ourselves, when I can quiet my mind and be with them, they share a wonderous depth of connection to everything around us from a predator’s point of view. It is a delight to join them in their lives. It is also instructive, one predator to another. This predator’s experience and connection to nature, as well as my musings, are enriched and strengthened walking next to my beloved dogs.
Thanks for the book recommendation and the question.
Kathryn Williams says
Great to know that David Abrams has another book out. I know it was coming, but hadn’t heard. I was deeply moved by his first book “The Spell of the Sensuous.” It is also dense in language and ideas, and brilliant for those of us who feel our connection to the natural world deep in our bones. If nothing else, read the introduction.
I’ve experienced my dogs as intimate connectors to my animal nature, to the natural world. And I’ve found them at times a barrier to fully merging with the natural world
Having Labradors, and being in North Carolina, I go out in all weather conditions every day of the year. I think their absolute indifference to rain and cold has kept me in the habit of spending time out of doors ever day as I left college and started working full time. Without them I think it would be all too easy to get caught up in my day to day routine and forget the simple joys of being outside. As the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Oh, great, another book to add to my ever growing list. 😉
Looking around at all the people who have pets I’ve always wondered if part of the attraction isn’t simply having a piece of nature that lives with them. I run outdoor education programs so I’d say I have a pretty close relationship with nature but I have to confess that that relationship advanced to new heights once we adopted Ranger. There’s so much out there that I miss with my purely human senses. He shows me so many things I’d miss when hiking alone. Heck, he shows me things in my own neighborhood that I’d miss otherwise.
Roberta Beach says
Oh, I completely understand the horse vs dog nature connection. I miss my horses so and love my dogs but the horses indeed needed to more invite me in and let me abide. I think now it is why I enjoy senior dogs. They have wisdom to impart I will miss if I don’t pay attn. Thanks – will look for the book – loved the quote.
I love the picture of Spot… the eyes are amazing… how people can eat lamb I’ll never know…
Gretchen Dietz says
How do you like Aperture? I’m thinking of getting it myself, but worried it’s not as good as Adobe. Would love to know your thoughts. Gorgeous photo of the cardinal.
Melanie S says
Ah, what a lovely post Trisha.
That paragraph from Abram’s book is indeed meditative – it really does compel you to steady and slow yourself, doesn’t it. It made me take a deep slow breath and immerse myself in the imagery.
I particularly liked an aspect that you mention – that it is not just us feeling the grass under our feet but also the grass feeling us. One of the enduring blessings (and challenges) I’ve found from living with my current Clan of nine creatures (one dog, two cats, one horse, three sheep, two galahs), and those that are no longer with us, is the opportunity to be immersed in another creature’s world, to have your perspective altered via sharing a connection with someone both distinctly different and undeniably familiar to ourselves.
I wrote an article on this very theme last year and it was published here:
Here are two excerpts from my article – “We humans, with our big brains and highly developed verbal skills, can so easily become enamored with a sense of our set-apart specialness, forgetting that if we are set-apart it is a role of responsibility we are called to fulfill, not a status bestowed upon us.”
” As I observe Slip
Ha! I love Willie’s categorization of Sushi, and resulting shock when she strays outside the bounds of appropriate behavior! Dogs can be such sticklers for propriety.
Maya is often nervous about new things, but she took to sharing a tent with us without the slightest hesitation. I am pretty sure it is her idea of perfection: a small, den-like space she can share with one or both of her favorite humans, where everyone gets up together very early in the morning!
When we are camping, she sometimes wakes abruptly in the night and lies watchful, raising her head and growling softly at sounds or smells coming from beyond the nylon walls. Sometimes I can hear them too — a herd of elk walking past, coyotes singing in the distance, or the scratching and rustling of small rodents just inches away. Sometimes I detect nothing.
It doesn’t make me feel any more a part of the wilderness than I ever did — I have always woken up in the night and listened. But sharing it with a dog makes me feel more connected to a primal human experience, part of the reason dogs and humans came together in the first place. I like the way that I can reach out and place a hand against her warm side, reading her degree of tension through my fingertips and palm. I like that she takes my word for it if I say it’s no big deal, just a couple of deer, and we settle back down together. I like that I can take her word for it too, and if her growl intensifies or her alarm deepens, I can assume that there may be a predator outside…but that a human and dog together are safer and more capable than either alone.
Taking part in this partnership of species makes me feel good, plain and simple. More aware of my own species’ history, and more aware of hers’ and the way that we have evolved together. Aware of the world around us through both sets of senses and minds. And, in the middle of the fascinating, alarming, living world, we are above all aware of each other — members of two quite different species, but in a relationship more vital than all those other sounds in the night. There is something tremendously wonderful about that.
Lynn says, “It doesn
I’m going to try to get a copy of that book.
And yes, my dog does make me see the world differently. Sometimes I see things that matter to humans and I step back and realise they just aren’t important. To a certain degree, cleanliness is one – of course, hygiene is important, but we make the world a worse place through our use of toxic cleaning products, for instance. I now won’t have toxic cleaning products in my house, especially on the floor where my dog lies, and sometimes grabs scraps of food.
Lisa W says
My dogs have taught me to pay attention. Watching them outside, I look where they look, I can track their footprints in the snow and see where they stopped to smell (or pee), I have become much more attuned to my surroundings since living with dogs. I often wish I could smell what they smell, only for a few hours, so I could hear the story of who passed through, who left a scent, who was here a few days ago.
We live under a Canada geese migration path, and if we are outside when a flock passes overhead, all of us stop, frozen where we stand, and watch the flock until it has disappeared. I didn
Annie R says
What wonderful thoughts and descriptions to contemplate!
I worked a 4pm – midnight shift for three years in Northern California, years when my very soulful Weimaraner/Shepherd mix was in the last stage of her very long life, and during those years I always knew intimately what the phases of the moon were, as we would go outdoors between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m., and she would stand and sniff the air as I looked up at the sky. We would then take a slow turn along the paths of the condo complex where we lived, which was off the beaten track in a hilly area and had a streambed flowing through part of it, so that it was like a nightly nature walk. I remember how easy it was to let go of my worknight (nursing in a busy Labor and Delivery unit) and come back home relaxed and ready to rest. The fact that my very serene heart-and-soulmate was with me was the key to my focus on the physicality of the experience; again, my breath, the air, etc. She was a real gift in my life during a time when my work schedule and the stress of work could have easily submerged my awareness of nature; but because she was there, I took time and noticed.
As a somewhat “bookish” child, having dogs was a big part of what got me outdoors, and to this day, the necessity of going out for walks is a part of what gets me through the NW winters. It would be so easy to just hunker down indoors from November through May, but getting out, even when it’s overcast, even just to go around the block, gets me to deepen my breathing and feel the air around me; to notice the light (just magnificent here in Portland), and through my dogs’ eyes, to see what critters are about and what they are doing. To experience the seasons in detail is a real pleasure.
That is indeed one of the great gifts of dogs in our lives, to follow them into nature and discover what is out there and our response to it, not just mentally but in the physicality of it. I think that having dogs is one aspect of staying in touch with my physical and emotional self. Certainly not the only one, but an important component of staying grounded in the priorities of life beyond just the mental and material, which are so overemphasized in our modern Western culture.
Bear reminds me constantly to be in the moment. To be present. When we are on a walk together, it is so much better for both of us when I am present in the moment with him. No music playing in my ears, no getting lost in my thoughts, no worrying about what to make for dinner or what chores need to be done when we get home. Just walk with my dog. Sometimes that is not what I want – sometimes I want to listen to music or think while I walk, but when I’m with Bear, it is so much better when I am *with* him. He walks nicer, gets into less undesirable things, I get less frustrated, and we both enjoy ourselves much more.
I think I feel more connected with nature and the world in general with him, because he makes me slow down and pay attention. Feel the world around me. Even though I don’t know what has him on alert and staring down the dark street, I respect that he sees or senses something. Even though I don’t smell anything, I marvel at him stopping mid-run to sample the air.
My dogs have brought me out to nature especially in the absolute quiet of the early morning hours. When out walking with them, not a soul around, I’ve embraced the peace and enjoyed the solitude. If I tell anyone where I go, folks are shocked that I’m not afraid. I do take precautions – I carry my cell phone, I tell my husband when to expect me back, and if there is a strange call or something my gut says is off, I find another spot, but I love this one particular set of woods because of its isolation.
I’ve seen fungi I would never have noticed, I’ve heard bird calls in the stillness, I’ve seen breathtaking winter landscapes – the snow frosting the tree limbs. One time we walked through what seemed like an archway of bowed branches and we laughed as we shook each one after passing to give the sagging branches relief – snow falling on our heads as the trees sprung back without the extra weight.
I find myself able to exhale in the early morning stillness of the woods. There is familiarity in our route while season’s change the landscape – this past year, for instance, a clear cool stream remained dry the entire summer and fall, while the year before that the dogs loved to splash there as we neared the end of our walk. There have been times I’ve also felt overwhelming alone and scurried back to my car when a strange animal’s cry has caused me concern, while the dogs seemed completely unconcerned.
My dogs also react differently to nature – one loves to roam and go off the path, yet she circles back continuously. I liken her path to the Family Circus cartoon where little Jeffy would take a circuitous route from one door to the next, exploring. The other, my velcro guy, sticks with me – usually only a few feet away from me at any time. In the beginning of our walk he’s more likely to follow his pal, but he never strays far.
Of course, some parts of nature I could do without – the decaying dead animals that my exploring dog loves to find! And, a year back, a hunter felled a deer right off the trail and my dogs had to be leashed each time we drew near to keep them from feasting on the entrails and rolling in them as they decayed. yuck.
I don’t do the nighttime bathroom run often but the times that I do take it on, I love to see the beautiful stars and moon, to see lights on in the neighbor hood houses as folks are cozy in their routines and homes.
The book you shared is definitely not something for me but I do want to share that I read “Lets take the Long Way Home”, a book you shared awhile back, and it was a beautiful book. The bond between friends was amazing. I would never have picked it up in the library without your mention of it, but because it looked familiar, I took a chance and loved it.
Unfortunately, I was impatient by the end of the first sentence, so I won’t be rushing out to get Mr. Abram’s new book but, if I understand your post, the ideas he is writing about are frequently on my mind. Like some of the other posters, I don’t necessarily feel that my dog connects me more to the natural world despite the fact that I can’t imagine life without a dog. As a keen gardener/plant lover, I can’ t help myself – I am constantly enthralled by the ebb and flow of the seasons and what is going on in the complex, endlessly fascinating world of plants, in my garden, in the woods, even from the window of the train on the way to work. And last year, courtesy of another poster to one of your blogs, I discovered e-bird (THANK YOU! Sorry – I don’t recall who the poster was but thanks!!) and am having a wonderful time becoming nearly as fascinated by birds as I am by plants. The extent to which people are estranged from and ignorant of, the natural world strikes me as disturbing and very sad. I was amazed to find a tree sized poison ivy plant (it was well beyond vine stage) flourishing in my sister’s yard last summer – right next to her porch! No one in her family had any idea it was poison ivy. Crums!!! That’s something you sure want to be aware of! Otherwise decent people have no qualms about destroying plant colonies because they don’t even see them and wouldn’t know what they were even if they noticed they were there. Doesn’t matter whether they are endangered or simply lovely – they aren’t even seen most of the time. People are too busy “feeling the burn” or competing with their buddies to be first up the hill or texting someone even while they are out in the woods and fields…. Being anywhere but where they are. Disturbing and sad, sad, sad but what to do about it? I don’t know. Maybe Mr. Abrams does. I’m glad people are thinking and writing about it.
Aside from a great feeling of being connected to nature when Duke and I are on the same page: Duke definitely connects me to nature more than I would be otherwise on a superficial level.
I’m a city girl. I hate to garden. Spiders scare me. I like physical comfort. Etc. Duke physically gets me out into nature, because I love letting my boy run off-least in the country. Once I’m there, I usually enjoy the experience. I revel in the beauty and calm. My heart soars watching Duke run with his tail high. My breath is taken away when I watch Duke stalk who-knows-what scent. But I wouldn’t actually have the incentive to GO into nature most of the time if I didn’t have Duke’s big brown eyes looking at me and a big wad of guilt on my shoulder for working 5 days a week. Without Duke, I would spend the vast majority of my free time on the couch reading a science fiction or fantasy book. So, Duke connects me to nature by physically connecting me to nature.
(But please, can we skip the natural part where Duke rolls in poop 10 minutes before the guests come over!! Please?!? )
I grew up in a smaller town and lived a wonderful life of beaches, trails and horses. Today I live in a big city (Vancouver, Canada) but am lucky enough to be a 10 minute walk from trails that weave through our local mountains. My dog gets to romp daily in this environment and together we soak up nature and it centers my world so that once again I can sanely return to life in a city. Without that time together outdoors I firmly believe I would be a much more stressed and miserable person. There are soggy wet days that I really don’t want to go but I agree with other posters that I can’t ever remember truly regretting our walk (at least after a hot shower :o)).
We said goodbye to our old girl this past summer and right to the end we shared an appreciation with nature. We definately moved a lot slower and went much shorter distances but I believe that those daily nature walks kept our bond strong and her spirit high. We were lucky enough to have a two week camping trip where we got to swim together, soak up the sun and meander the trails. When we came home she took a turn for the worse and we said goodbye a few days later. I will always cherish that time as I feel nature helped guide us down the path to goodbye.
I’m a bit late on this one. Before dogs I was into wildlife, in particular, birds. One day it came to me why I was so fascinated and excited by wildlife. Sometimes, a wild animal would look at me and for just a moment or two I would be part of its world. It would regard me, and I would hold my breath and just hope that the moment would stretch. I lived for those moments when my world bumped into the world of a wild animal and I could peek in on it and get a glimpse of what its world was all about. A couple of years later I was working on fiddler crabs and caught myself deliberately tossing the smallest crabs after we measured them close to a mudskipper and hoping the mudskipper would catch it and eat it. The researchers I was working with eventually cottoned on to what I was doing, told me I was barbaric, then started doing it themselves. We talked about this intense compulsion to feed animals humans seem to have. It is SO hard to resist. Why? My theory is because we like being regarded by that creature and becoming important to it for a few moments.
So in answer to your question, my greatest joy in having pets, dogs included, is that they are an independent creature with its own desires and motivations, but still it will let you step into its world and become a part of it. That is kind of magical to me.
Wow! I think this post has inspired some of the best comments I have read on your blog yet! It is wonderful to read of others’ connections to nature. I don’t really have anything new to add. I do know my life would be incredibly poor without my dogs. Indoors or out, they bring so much joy, so much inspiration, so much love.