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The Silence of the Earth

By Gus diZerega



On a recent Friday evening shortly before Earth Day, I drove to Point Reyes Station to hear David Abram give a talk. Ever since I read his first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, Abram has been on my shortest list of authors to read, reread, and recommend to anyone I meet.

As a graduate student, Abram hoped his skills as a sleight of hand magician, and consequent heightened appreciation for how perception worked, gave him special entry into the worlds of traditional shamans. He traveled to Indonesia and Nepal to do his research and found they were indeed interested. He also, as he put it, got in way “over my head.”

In Spell, Abram asks a basic question “How did the earth fall silent to the modern mind?” Using the ancient Greeks as an example, Abram points out that while the world was alive for Homer, by Plato’s time people’s attention was turned towards the city, the polis, while the earth itself had become an increasingly silent backdrop to the human drama. This shift was not as complete then as it is today. For example Socrates was possessed by a nature spirit in the Phaedrus. But it was far along.

Why? If Abram is right, that I am writing an essay asking this question and you are reading it, points to why.

Literacy as Magic

David Abram

David Abram

Literacy, Abram argues, is a profoundly powerful magic, one so powerful it drowns out more subtle forms of knowledge and perception as we fall under its enchantment. At his talk Abram emphasized “If we don’t recognize writing as a magic, we tend to fall under its spell. It’s not accidental that ‘spell’ has a double meaning.” And writing’s spell is powerful. “Everything speaks,” Abram said, “but for us letters speak so loudly we don’t listen to anything else.” 

To experience this fact for yourself, take this test where you are asked to name the color and not the word. 

If we were to look at a text in an unknown language using an unknown script it would mean nothing. But when we can read the script, black lines on paper bring forth the most amazing results. We can be delighted or angered, taken to visions of beauty or suffering, be able to feel the wind against our skin on a beautiful hillside in spring, or shiver with its bitter blasts as we read of a struggle through a night time blizzard. We can taste chocolate, or spinach. We can encounter ideas that change our lives, and much more. All through the medium of little lines on a page. And here too, perhaps the double meaning of “medium” is appropriate.

Reading necessarily narrows our focus. To read easily we isolate ourselves so as to concentrate on the text. And we pour ourselves into it. We are not in the moment of the world around us, we are in the moment the text elicits for us. As I write this essay I sit alone, in front of my computer screen, a radically simplified external environment compared to the world outside, in my yard. The world of nature is silent.

Normally we do not notice what we might give up all unknowingly, so enchanted we are by the gift of literacy. And it is a gift. I am arguing for awareness of the need for balance, not rejection. It’s that old Pagan theme of harmony again.

Reclaiming Our Hearing

Earth Day constitutes a remarkable turn towards the value of the immanent by a culture that has spent over 2000 years progressively losing the capacity to truly see the world. And I think that the rise of Pagan spirituality is connected to the same currents of thought and intuition that gave rise to Earth Day.

Earth Day stands as perhaps the first time a major modern culture established a day to celebrate our capacity to care for what is unlike ourselves simply because of its own intrinsic value. This insight was long known by hunting and gathering peoples. It has often been recognized by our greatest thinkers. For example, Leonardo daVinci wrote, "The virtues of grasses, stones, and trees do not exist because humans know them. . . . Grasses are noble in themselves without the aid of human languages or letters." But this truth had been forgotten by nearly everyone, even in Leonardo's time and more so today.

But with Earth Day millions of modern people recognize what Leonardo saw. And choose to honor it.

Earth Day marks a turn towards the earth as our true home, the womb of relationships that makes us the beings that we are. Those of us who continue along that turn will find our connections to the earth are deeper and more subtle than most of us have yet imagined. Our Pagan Wheel of the Year offers a continual meditation on the earth’s cycles and the cycle of life and death. As we learn to listen, to take time away from our books, our computer screens, and our immersion in the human world, to immerse ourselves in the more-than-human world within which we live, we experience at least occasionally Abram’s observation that “Everything speaks.”

And with these remarks I want to suggest a ritual you might want to initiate next Earth day. One that will help clear your ears to the song of the earth.

A Ritual to Connect

Over these past few weeks I have been moving. On Earth Day I built an outdoor altar in my new place and made my first offerings to the spirits of the place. I know from experience it will take some time to revive the energy of a place towards its human inhabitants. But with attention and good will, the revival will happen. The place will speak to me. Earth Day 2013 is symbolically a good day to start, but any day is better than none at all.

I suggest those who are interested do likewise. For this to work well at enlivening your connection with the earth, make offerings at least weekly. You are building a relationship. And be patient. Ideally build your altar next to a part of the yard you do not do much with to bring under your control. At the very least do not spray poisons there. It is a place for other powers to prevail with as little interference as possible. This area does not have to be large.

In an apartment you can group some of your house plants around your new altar (or your old one). Light a candle weekly, and give and ask for blessings for the earth and for yourself and your loved ones. No house plants? Do the same at your main altar, but at least have a glass of water there. When you go outdoors later pour the water on the ground before a plant you like.

Outdoors or in, once a week I suggest also making an offering of a little liquor that seems appropriate to you. In years past I have used dark rum and accompanied it with a sprinkling of good tobacco. I did this Earth day as well. Whatever you use, do not use that bottle for anything else, which is why liquor is better than wine. It keeps. The contents of that bottle are spirits for the Spirits.

As you make your offerings, ask for better connections between yourself and the spirits of your place. Thank them for the good things about where you live. Show sincere gratitude. Ask for their blessings. And again, be patient.

Our culture has spent over 2000 years separating itself from awareness with the spirits of place and we can begin taking some important steps to reconnect.