Review: Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that should be read in the spring.

Unfortunately, I first picked it up in the fall, and found the first fifty pages a tough slog. Where was the evidence, the statistics, the science? There is none, of course; this is a book of moral and environmental philosophy, and more of the felt-truth flavour than the chain-of-logic variety.

I had much better luck with it when I picked it up after a full day of hiking and gardening, with the dirt still under my fingernails and the songs of birds in my ears. Well, of course–the earth is alive, and we are connected to it, and we should remember that we too are animals and part of the world. And it doesn’t need any evidence. It’s self-evident.

“there’s a tacit sense that we’d better not let our awareness come too close to our creaturely sensations, that we’d best keep our arguments girded with statistics and our thoughts buttressed with abstractions, lest we succumb to an overwhelming grief–a heartache born of our organism’s instinctive empathy with the living land and its cascading losses.” (p. 7)

That hurdle overcome, I polished the book off lickety-split.

Abram’s central argument (if you can call it that, when it consists largely of appeals to the reader’s empathy and personal experience) is that we, too, are animals; and, being animals, we ought not to think of ourselves as or act as if we are separate from the rest of nature. Go outside; pay attention; listen to things, because everything has a voice, and talk to them too, because they are listening to you. You may not find his argument convincing in a typical linear logic sense, but it is beautifully stated and deeply felt, and it’s hard to see how taking ourselves off of the evolutionary pedestal and resituating ourselves with the rest of creation could possibly lead to any harm.

“Perhaps the broad sphere, itself, needed our forgetfulness. Perhaps some new power was waiting to be born on the planet, and our species was called upon to incubate this power in the dark cocoon of our solitude. Ours enses dulled, our attenntion lost to the world, we created, in our inward turning, a quiet cave wherein a new layer of Earth could first shape itself and come to life. But surely it’s time now to hatch this new stratum, to waken our senses from their screen-dazzled swoon, and so to offer this power back to the more-than-human terrain. The cascading extinctions of other species make evident that the time is long past ripe. The abrupt loss of rain forests and coral reefs, the choking of wetlands, the poisons leaching into the soils, and the toxins spreading in our muscles compel us to awaken from our long oblivion, to cough up the difficult magic that’s been growing within us, swelling us with pride even as the land disintegrates all around us. Surely we’ve cut ourselves off for long enough–time, now, to open our minds outward, returning to the biosphere that wide intelligence we’d thought was ours alone. … Sentience was never our private possession.” (p. 129)

OK, the language may be a little overwrought from time to time. Also, Abrams really likes the word “cascading.” But as a book to bring you back into your senses, as a living creature in a living world, it’s hard to beat.

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