Vintage Books, 2011, 336pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Of the myriad life forms on this planet, I doubt there’s a single one that spends as much time as we humans do trying to be somewhere else. Even sitting quietly in a chair or walking down the road, we are rarely fully present to the moment, to our senses, to the sights and sounds and smells that surround us. We are animals who have colluded to create and support this monstrous illusion that we are not animals and then, out of that ridiculous belief, have not only damaged our own habitat—in some cases beyond repair—but have damaged ourselves at the same time. It’s little wonder that we exhibit the same behaviour patterns as many of the other animals that we take into captivity, such as passivity, dull and repetitive activities, depression and loss of skills.
Without this ability to detach ourselves from what we are really doing, we could never have committed the many crimes against the planet that we have in our short history of existence. But the same intelligence that got us into the mess may also be what gets us out of it—by enabling us to awaken to our true reality. Thus, an essential first step in repairing the damage—to the planet and to ourselves—may be to go back to basics and, literally, to come to our senses.
Not only must we fully re-inhabit our animal bodies but we must also become aware of our vital interconnectedness with all other creatures. And for tutoring us and inspiring us in these twin tasks I have never met a better teacher than David Abram.
I can see him so clearly in my mind’s eye: bare feet, walking on the earth, on the grass, feeling everything, feeling the Earth pressing up as his feet press down. In his words: “An old, ancestral affinity between the human foot and the solid ground is replenished by the simple act of stepping outside without shoes.”
Moving around in the world, he reminds us, involves reciprocity. An exchange of gifts. Breathing in and breathing out. To whatever is around us we give the gift of our energy and our attention and it comes back to us tenfold. Those are the times when the world suddenly seems to swell and deepen around us, everything leaps into three dimensions. Maybe even four dimensions. There is suddenly such richness and beauty all around us that we can only gasp in wonderment.
And wonderment was my response to this beautiful, amazing, lyrical book. Usually a fast reader, I read this one slowly, wishing I would never reach the last page. Moving through these fourteen chapters I was right there with Abram, in his house, outside in the early morning, walking through woods and valleys, getting lost but not caring, seeing and being seen, watching and being watched, felt, smelt, heard, going with him to the Himalayas, as he studies and experiences shamanic magic that defies rational explanation.
The book is also profound. Re-inhabiting our sensing bodies and re-awakening to the web of organic connectedness in which we exist—and upon which our lives depend—is a necessary first step in healing our social and political structures and establishing true democracy. David Abram is a philosopher, a scientist, and a sociologist as well as a magician and an exquisite writer and he joins all these dots with consummate skill.
Joanna Macy says of this book, “…its teachings leap off the page and translate immediately into lived experience. Shaking us free from the prisons of our mental constructions, Becoming Animal brings us home to ourselves as living organs of this wild planet.” I couldn’t agree more. It is one of the most important books I have ever read—and one of the loveliest.