Becoming Animal

It has been scientific fact for several decades now that humans are animals just the same as all the others, just with more specialized brain functions and cultural frameworks. But, for many modern humans, particularly those in Western cultures, cut off from the Land and their ancestral ways, being an animal is seen as utterly undesirable, and even uncivilized. And yet, we often also hold up animal traits as ones to be emulated – the majesty of a lion, the strength of an ox, the gracefulness of a doe.

Even in our technological bubbles, many of us feel a yearning for a more land-rooted life. The communes of the ’60s and ’70s, the back-to-the-land movement, homesteading, many forms of modern paganism, urban farming and beekeeping, the various traditional food/caveman diets and lifestyles – all are attempts by Westerners to re-connect with something from the past they feel is missing in the modern age. And a big part of that which is missing is our connection with our environment as a seamless, integrative whole that we are intrinsically a part of, rather than separate from and intruding upon.

Look at a young child or non-human animal. They react with their surroundings as easy as breathing. They know the hidden paths through the forest, they can tell when danger is lurking nearby by listening to the song of the birds. Little children have no fear or sense of Other when they encounter something new, but are often eager to incorporate it into their experience (much to the dismay of watching parents).

There are a couple of concepts that David Abram explores in his book Becoming Animal (from which this post borrows its name) that have stuck with me ever since I read it. The one that most embodies the tone of this essay is the concept of shadow. Now, normally, we consider the shadow an unimportant part of ourselves that simply exists through the interplay of light and our body mass. But Abram invites us to look at the shadow differently. A shadow, in this case, is not caused by light, but by darkness.

Each person’s shadow is a child of night that clings to them throughout the day until it is rejoined at sunfall with its mother and reincorporated into the Great Darkness that was before all things and is in all things. So too are our lives and bodies in relation to the Mother, the Lady of Night, First of all beings. She sends forth bits of herself at birth, and gathers them back to herself at our deaths, but that is not the only time that she comes to us. She comes to us at the end of each and every day (barring polar extremes) to nurture our shadow and heal our sorrows, gathering it, and us, into her bosom. And every thing has a shadow, every thing has its own power from the night. The shadow of a tree may impart to you stability and exuberance, while the shadow of a mountain covers a valley in stillness and contemplation. Everything that touches your shadow becomes a part of you, and you of it, just as you become, in a small way, a part of every thing and being whose shadow touches you.

Another bit that Waincraft has taken from Abram’s concepts is the correlation with the spheres of time and the biolocations of our selves. The past is underneath us, in the earth, under the surface, from where trees and mountains and rivers emerge with the knowledge of the ages, where salmon grow wise and the lands of the ever-living lie. Thus, to experience the past, we can delve into the depths, whether that’s through a cave, an ocean, or even an Embrace of the Earth (a supervised live burial practice that may be used for reconnection, journeying and healing)

The future, that amorphous blob of potential and possibility, is viewed as what lies beyond-the-horizon, for we can never completely know, even in our age of satellites and GPSs, what lies just on the other side of this rise, or across that body of water. Even if we have been to a place before, it may be completely different the next time we come across it, and in coming to it, we leave the place we were, which may then also be changed when we return.

And so, we find ourselves in the present, the sphere of knowing and being that is contained by the reach of our senses. It is here, though, that the biggest part of our animal nature can be experienced. The wind that blows through your hair is a bit of air that wanted to see what you felt like. The air you breath is the same breath that was just breathed out by the tree you sit under, or the butterfly that lands on your knee. When you touch a stone, feeling its texture with your fingertips, it is also touching you, feeling the softness of your skin and tasting the oils and sweat. So too, the wind stops for a taste, and then carries you with it in minute particles, sharing your unique essence with the rest of the world. There is no barrier between you and the world. Your skin does not cut you off from the rest of existence; in fact, the reason why it’s the largest single organ in your body is to make it so that every bit of you can touch and be touched, feel and be felt, smell and be smelt, hear and be heard, see and be seen. The trees dance with the wind, and invite you to join. The flowers offer up an array of perfume greater than that of any department store for your appreciation and love. The birds sing you a lullaby, or share the latest gossip, because you are one of them. The deer coyly prance, waiting for the chase, knowing you too can feel the urge to run with the wind until you fly.

Leave behind propriety. You were born to run, born to climb, born to roll in the grass. Become the animal you are, and rejoin the wonderful world of existence that lies just outside your self-imposed bubble.


The concepts discussed are from David Abram’s book Becoming Animal, a sequel of sorts to his debut book The Spell of the Sensuous, both highly recommended reading. See both books, and lots of other great information, at his Web site Wild Ethics

The Embrace of the Earth practice is from the workshops and books of ecoshaman James Endrédy. Also highly recommended are his works, particularly Ecoshamanism and Earthwalks.

For a more comprehensive look at integrating and realigning oneself in a cosmic sense, I recommend The Universe Story, by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry