Animism is a profoundly unfashionable idea among the ‘nature intellectuals’ – even those who preach to us about reconnecting with ‘nature’. Which is curious, really, because I’m not sure why they’d want to connect with nature if they believe that most of what is in it is inert, insensible, or just plain dead.
In the foreword to a new book about the work of writer and cartographer Tim Robinson, Robert Macfarlane writes that Tim Dee, in a 2011 edition of the journal Archipelago, put together a list of the characteristics which define what he calls the ‘new topographic writing’. (I have no idea whether this new label is intended to overlap with, be a subset of, or entirely replace ‘new nature writing’ as the genre of choice today. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up.) One of those characteristics is ‘A wariness, even a testiness, with regard to anthropomorphism and animism.’ This, apparently, is a Good Thing. Heaven forbid that we should properly address the dualism which separates humans from the rest of the natural world. Heaven forbid that we should think of the rest of ‘nature’ as in any way like us, or consider the land in any sense to be alive, and animate. Those of us who do are clearly verging on the transgressive, not entirely legitimate, maybe even more than a bit ‘woo-woo’. Heaven forbid that we should be anything other than objective.
And so it was with a modicum of trepidation that I accepted an invitation recently to speak at ‘Nature Matters’, the annual conference of the very fine organisation New Networks for Nature in Cambridge, knowing that I’d find myself in a room filled predominantly with conservationists, naturalists, and other scientific types who would also very likely espouse this idea that anthropomorphism and animism are distinctly unorthodox. It’s not the nature of the audience which concerned me: I have a rigorous scientific background of my own, with a number of publications and prestigious research fellowships in the field of neuroscience dating back thirty years. But I am for sure not a believer in scientism. There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, and I’ve communicated with a rock or a tree or two in my time.
Anyway: the talk I gave was entitled ‘Myth and story as an act of place-making’, and it was politely received by most, and enthusiastically by a few. It’s under 15 minutes long, and if you’d like to listen to it, please click on the link below to access the MP3 file.