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Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology Paperback – September 6, 2011
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Richard Louv Reviews Becoming Animal
Richard Louv is the author of seven books, including Last Child in the Woods. He is the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, and has served as adviser to the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World award program and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Read his review of Becoming Animal:
David Abram is unique among interpreters of the wild voice within us. His first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, has become a touchstone for a needed shift in our thinking about the place of humans in the world. As the poet Gary Snyder remarked, that book helped map us back into the world. In his new book, Becoming Animal, Abram offers a startling new exploration of our entanglement with the rest of nature. This time, his focus is the intimate but sadly forgotten relationship between our bodies and the earth. By excavating the most ordinary and familiar of our experiences--the perception of shadow, the recognition of depth, the transience of mood--he re-opens for us the knowing that our bodies are intertwined with the flesh of the earth. I cannot imagine another book that so gently and so persuasively alters how we look at ourselves, and reminds us that sentience was never our private possession, that our very awareness is a means of participating in a more than human world. At no other time in Western history have we needed to listen to the wild voice within us, and to Dave Abram's, as much as we do today.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* How did our curious, inventive species go from worshiping nature to destroying it? A creative and visionary ecologist and philosopher, Abram addressed this complex and urgent question in his influential first book, Spell of the Sensuous (1996). In his second provocative, boldly recalibrating blend of stories, reflections, and discoveries, he offers perception-heightening insights into the causes of our disparagement of “sensuous reality,” or “bodied existence,” and the disastrous consequences of our increasing detachment from the living world as we funnel our attention to the cyber realm. As Abram identifies underappreciated aspects of our minds and bodies that evolved to enable us to respond with exquisite sensitivity to our surroundings, he tells extraordinary tales of his encounters with wildlife from whales to ravens, illuminates the planet’s myriad forms of sentient life, and elucidates the significance of oral culture. In addition to writing with poetic precision about sensory experience—his analysis of shadows and life’s reciprocity are phenomenal feats of observation and eloquence—he also draws on his adventures as an itinerant sleight-of-hand magician and apprentice to indigenous shamans to forge an inspirited physics of being. We can’t “restore” nature, Abram writes, without “restorying” life, hence his prodigious, transfixing, and rectifying “earthly cosmology.” --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
The result is another sublime work. Abram takes us through a variety of experiences in his daily life, some exotic, some mundane, but always immediate and present. It is a courageous work, taking us inside his life in a very intimate and direct way. Whether he is chronicling his baby daughter's spontaneous connection to a stone, his own adventures shapeshifting with ravens and shamans atop the Himalayas, his lament in leaving a rental home, or his clumsy attempts to fix a vacuum cleaner - Abram always maintains the same attention to presence. The book as a whole is an original guide to a way of thinking, seeing and interacting with the sensuous, breathing world.
Becoming Animal is a bit like entering a hypnotic trance, which is clearly Abram's intention. Every sentence embodies the message - keeping a rhythm, a pulse - just like the moving, breathing earth he speaks of. The sentences are a microcosm of the book, bringing together seamlessly what at first appear as diverse, unrelated experience. In the end, in a wholly personal way, he reprises some of the themes of his first book: that we need to reawaken our senses to the speaking, sensuous earth, that the written word and abstract thinking that pervades our society must be rebalanced by a restoration - a "restorying" of the land herself; that "rejuvenation of oral culture is an ecological imperative." He doesn't seek to eliminate abstract thinking or technology; he simply asks us to remember where it was abstracted from, so that we can remember our true origins and recover our essential humanness.
In short, it is another masterpiece from one of our most gifted contemporary storytellers.
So why not five stars? I wish I could give it 4.5 stars.
As I said in the title of this review, Becoming Animal is almost perfect. It also has several not to trivial problems.
One, Abram rails against those who criticize writers who romanticize the hunter/gatherer - indigenous cultures of the world and of the past. He points out, in a lengthy footnote, how those same critics tend to romanticize the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, yet shower contempt on those who write favorably about indigenous cultures. And I could not agree more strongly. Yet, Abram does romanticize these worlds. As beautifully as he extols their power and their connection with earth-based life, he totally ignores their own internal pressures to conform, as well as their often savage cruelty they visit upon their neighbors. In the book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear deftly describes the unceasing violence visited upon the Crow Nation by their traditional and more powerful enemy the Lakota. And this is one of countless stories of cultures dedicated to frequent violence and mindless animosity (not that are free of these very same vicissitudes). Often the reticence of these societies to innovate is a consequence of internal pressures to conform. Such stressors to internally conform in these societies often become unbreakable obstacles to innovation.
One of the core themes of Becoming Animal is the rootedness these traditional societies have with the Earth on which they live. But many of these same societies lack this rootedness, including several Abram mentions. The life on the high plains of such tribes as the Cheyenne and Lakota were very recent phenomena made possible by the acquisition of the horse, introduced into the Americas by the Spanish. Life on the high plains began with these tribes at around the same time it began with the European invaders. Many of these tribal groups are highly nomadic. The Navajo entered the 4 Corners region of the US around 1450 after a long migration from Arctic Canada beginning around 1300. They arrived in the Southwest not so long before the Spanish entered that same region. Thus the argument for ageless rootedness often falls apart.And these are just several of hundreds of possible examples.
Toward the end of the book, Abram unfortunately unleashes an attack on evolutionary theory by setting up a straw man hypothesis based on his projection that the science of evolution is too mechanistic and unwelcome to the complex web of inter-communication that he observes in the natural world. But such mechanistic models are exactly what modern science has, itself, rebuked. While the statistical incidence of mutation is random, how these random changes manifest and evolve in the complex eco-systems of the planet are entirely a consequence of the very same, rich and complex layers of inter-communication described and extolled so lovingly by Abram. Her really fails to get his critique right and the book suffers as a result.
Finally, his criticisms of the cartesian world are uncompelling. The world he correctly criticizes is, itself, a consequence of cultural and historical memes that go far deeper in the human story than what Abram describes. More compelling and evidence based critiques are raised by Morris Berman (see: Wandering God and my own writings, Liberation from the Lie. The emergence of mechanistic, soulless models was rooted in far deeper human cultural soil than what Abram presents in this book. I recommend each of these books for a more sweeping and compelling accounts for the degradation of the planets and social/individual life that resulted from the abandonment of the earthcentric life that forms the centerpiece of this book.
Abram is fantastic as a writer of narrative and some of my favorite passages are taken, directly, from his own life. I really loved his description of his kayaking off the coast of Alaska and encountering a colony of sea lions and how he responded to their sudden appearance with such brilliant and connected expression,. The personal quality of this book is really terrific.
But sometimes his use of language becomes too labored and flowery. Sometimes, it sounded strained, like he was working too hard to convince the reader of how smart and sensitive he is.
Nonetheless, this is an extremely valuable book and I really admire Abram for his originality, the challenge of the subject matter, and the power of this critically important message. This is a book that we need to read and absorb.
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