Myth and story as an act of place-making (a short audio file)

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.

 myth-and-story-as-an-act-of-placemaking

29 thoughts on “Myth and story as an act of place-making (a short audio file)

  1. Some of the most passionate, beautiful 12 minutes i’ve been privileged to breathe with. Thank you Sharon.

    i Cannot Stop Crying (7/15/15)

    The denialism is so deeply ingrained they do not even see, let alone feel, the exiting of all the beautiful Lifeforms, for no longer do they sense any of the tragic loss, or dare to, their lives so estranged from the World that gives them their only breaths.

    As the denialism continues, unabated, without a hint of mercy whatsoever, the daily carnage and evisceration without even a hidden tear. Meanwhile i cannot stop crying as another tree dies in silence before its time, a Monarch never again appears, another elephant becomes a trinket.

    Yet i still gaze in awe at the clouds floating by, more than ever before, until they too are no more, though i will have chosen not to witness their disappearance, for i will have chosen not to exist without them.

    i cannot stop crying.

    from the opera ‘Sphere’ by robert schick

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  2. Enchanting, absorbing and as I sit under a grey sky listening to you, a robin trills and the geese arrive on the shores of Morecambe Bay. A wonderful backdrop to a rich,evocative talk. Thank you Sharon. A much needed and enriching moment in my day.

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  3. Fantastic. First time I have experienced words used in this way to describe “mystical participation” that I call playing one’s part in the symphony of life.

    Please let me know if you plan to post a transcription. I would like to read your words also and pass them along.

    We need more and more and more and more opportunities to read and think about connection and more opportunties to vision ways of looking at life and experience that include other life forms.

    Thank you.

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  4. I listened to your words as I ate my breakfast and remembered the old big leaf maple from my walk the other day that reached out to wrap its branches covered with gold leaves around me. I dreamed of bathing in white flowers still blooming along the side of the path in spite of the season. I resonate with the animals I come in contact with, their eyes pierce my soul and I feel them connect to my heart. Im glad you are speaking this truth. We need it now more than ever.

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  5. Sharon – thank you for this post, for your courage to speak those eloquent words to an audience that may not be receptive. You are carrying a vital dream that seeks to be remembered. You are creating a safe space for people like me to be in the world. Although I still have one foot in the scientific world, I am most alive and connected to place through story, myth, and lived-experience. You inspire that the mundus imaginalis is the third, the doorway for the rationale and the Otherworld to intertwine. That I ever found you is testament to the essential need of your work. I am deeply grateful for your connection to place and the words you return with.
    I also support a transcript of the audio.

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    1. Thanks, Shea! I believe that the scientific worldview is very necessary. But only as one among many ways of seeing the world. It’s when it becomes fundamentalist that the problems begin. There should be no contradiction here, really; the best, most ground-breaking science is a feat of the imagination, after all 🙂

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  6. As i sit here late in the evening with a cold settling in, your words are a healing balm and soothing bath. Although I have no experience of the places of which you speak so eloquently, I can feel the depth of your connection to them, your voice singing them to life in speech. I love the idea and reality of ‘land mystic’ as a way to describe you. We need more, and you lead the way. Thank you, Sharon.

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  7. Sharon, I loved this, both the content and the delivery. Although while there may be a reaction to animism among ‘nature intellectuals’, panpsychic and panexperientialist views are generally getting a better hearing. I thought the way you described your practices in this piece brought these possibilities to life. Thank you

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    1. That is true. There’s more receptiveness among philosophers and anthropologists, for example. I think the trick is to try to express these ways of being so that they are more easily understood, and less easily dismissed as belonging to some perceived ‘lunatic fringe’!

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  8. I’ve long thought much of the reluctance to engage with nature as having a soul/souls stems from selfishness. The people who say we should connect with their soulless version of nature always frame it in terms of what that will do for people; the benefit is always one-way. It’s living and soulless, so they don’t have to feel guilt about being users rather than truly connecting. But if nature is ensouled, guilt and selfishness suddenly aren’t so easily dismissed. They ‘solve’ that by denying there’s any soul, and thus, any need for mutualism, respect, or fair exchange.

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    1. I made a number of changes to this planned talk during that conference as a result of people putting up slides offering lists of things like ‘the services which nature provides us with’. My mouth kept dropping open .. It was a corporatisation of the natural world. I couldn’t make any sense of that language. And yet all of these people were doing good and important conservation work. But all of their arguments were about what ‘nature’ does for us, and so this is why we must protect it. Even in the rewilding debate, it was about the species WE would like to see introduced, about the limits WE would need to set. There was no sense that the rest of the natural world was intrinsically valuable, that other ‘rights’ than ours might be taken into account … Very strange.

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      1. There’s such a disconnect, and I think some of it may simply be trying to appeal to people who can’t deal with the possibility of a living nature — the same people who would never, ever come to me. *laugh* But it so clearly goes deeper than that. I find myself slipping into bad habits even after years of shamanic work, and having to remind myself that while the spirits gather to help me in my work, I can’t slip into the routine of it all being one-way.

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  9. Never apologise for being a land mystic! This was a beautiful speech, I loved to listen to the gentle cadences of your voice and the wisdom of your words. One of the things I most appreciate about you is that, like Martin Shaw and Sylvia Linsteadt, you have an enchanting way of sharing the sense of wild language animals and trees have when they tell their stories about us, for us, to us. It’s understandable that we personify them, but at the same time they may be animalising or treeifying us. Cheryl is so right, we need this, so much.

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    1. That is precisely the point – they might be treeifying us. They see the world as trees, we see the world as humans. Anthropomorphism or its equivalent is inevitable; we can’t ever know what it is to be tree, and vice versa. But I think the trick is to recognise what that means, and why it isn’t always as pernicious as people imagine. I think that might be the subject for today’s brief blog 🙂 Thank you for sparking it. And for your kind words, as always.

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  10. Dear Sharon, I have read your words with my voice echoing in my head, understanding and connecting with nature in the same way and what a gift it is to be given this perception, this way of simply knowing and being in the world at the deepest level of conscious communication, but then I listened to your voice, your telling of the story and your connection was shared, it has made a difference. Thank you for this audio picture of your spirit.

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