Quest For A New Kinship With Nature

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Book: A Reenchanted World: The Quest For A New Kinship With Nature by James William Gibson. Metropolitan Books, 2009


"a marvelous synthesis for the general reader as well as specialists looking for a broader and deeper view. Not as squishy as the title might indicate, it narrates pertinent history and it's a good introduction to classic authors and important if more obscure books that combine the practical with the necessary spiritual dimensions of approaching our relationship to the natural world. Though these relationships faded in our current built environment, a hotter climate and all that it brings will force humanity to once again confront the power of nature. When humans were closer to nature by necessity--when humanity developed by means of its relationship with the rest of nature--the spiritual dimension was very important. It likely will be again." (


James William Gibson:

"1, The culture of enchantment creates symbolic, totemic kinship ties with wild animals. It does not erases human-animal differences, but clearly links them in human-animal kinship ties.

2. Consecrating land--restoring enchantment or sacredness to lands and waters--is a collective act. Consecration changes the public meaning of places. It helps create commons.

3. Both the political/economic right and the fundamentalist right tried to destroy this culture and the enviro movement during the Bush administration. They failed. The evangelicals split. Using sacred in a broad sense of the term, most of Christianity and Judaism embraces some form of sacred earth theology--even if they don't stress it.

4. Ordinary people fight for animals and places. It's not a top-down movement."


Bill Gibson:

"I spent roughly 15-17 years studying war and warriors, publishing The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1986) and Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America (1994). Both books received a fair amount of attention, especially Warrior Dreams after Timothy McVeigh's 1995 truck bomb attack in Oklahoma City. But after considerable reflection I came to the conclusion that although it's important to analyze how wars are fought and the ways war cultures sustain warfare and masculinity, writers face a serious problem. War is hell, yes. But once a writer has taken readers to a particular hell, then what? The critique of hell doesn’t necessarily lead the way to something better. Hell is a place where all hope of change is abandoned.

I concluded that I needed to understand desire and hope. And that led me to the land, the ocean, and to wild animals. By the mid-1990s it was clear that a profound cultural change—what I came to call reenchantment—was well underway, but in subtle, fragmented ways. I thought that if I could connect these fragments then I could help increase people's desire to feel connected with land and creatures and increase hope that we can actually save the planet.

Some of my own experiences as a scuba diver and as a hiker in the mountains and deserts of Southern California also helped change my direction. Once while diving off of Catalina Island I saw thousands of anchovies suddenly swarm into a great silver pulsating ball that shimmered with the fishes' neon blue stripes. It was an exquisite experience. I was stunned; a door had opened.

In time I learned that many other people have had similar experiences. When John Quigley sat in the oak tree, Old Glory, to protect it from Los Angeles developers, and the crane-man geared up for his ultra-light flight to lead Siberian cranes to a new winter refuge, and Jacques Mayol and Richard Barry dove with dolphins, (not in captive theme parks, but in the open sea) they hoped that somehow they could breakthrough the numbness and deadness of contemporary culture .Their projects aimed at reaching people emotionally, at liberating them to the richness of life. Or look at the searchers for ghost species. They hope finding a near-extinct species or a species thought to be extinct will both trigger provisions of the Endangered Species Act, but more importantly, will generate hope within the broader society: We haven't killed them all; we can help bring them back.

The ideas that the Earth is sacred in a broad sense of the term and should be protected and wild animals respected as our totemic kin are now circulating at multiple levels, from theological treatises to Hollywood animated movies and nature documentaries. Newspapers now routinely run obituaries for wild animals--beached whales, bears shot by police, deer impaled on a spiked suburban fence. Funeral oratory articulates a culture’s fundamental values—our eulogies and public mourning for wild animals mean our sense of community has broadened. When the same themes begin to permeate a culture across vastly different domains it’s a sign of profound change. Cultural change in turn makes political change possible." (via email, January 2010)


There is another long excerpt here at Reality Sandwich:


James William Gibson:

"Desires for place and the animal Other

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, a new and striking kind of yearning was evident in the ways ordinary people felt and talked about nature. People were touched by stories of bears who befriended humans, enthralled by the fluid grace of whales, moved to the depths of their souls by majestic trees, newly alive to the sense of mystery, of a world larger than themselves. Some suburban residents came to feel deeply connected to the few remaining open spaces—slivers of forest, wetland, meadow—around them, dedicating years to trying to save them from development. Others restored degraded places such as polluted wetlands and rivers. People began speaking up for the dignity of ordinary domestic animals such as cows and pigs.

How are we to understand this upsurge of feeling? To some degree, it can be considered a product of contemporary environmentalism. But the spreading influence of the environmental movement only partially explains the last two decades’ fundamental change of consciousness. No political movement or platform can account for the intensity of feeling expressed by those who long to rediscover and embrace nature’s mystery and grandeur, who experience an attachment to animals and places so overwhelming that they feel morally compelled to protect them, and who look to nature for psychic regeneration and renewal. More than an ideology, this quest for connection indicates a fundamental rejection of the most basic premises of modern thought and society.

Those premises center on a view of nature as inert matter, void of spirit and consciousness. For an early scientist like René Descartes, writing in the first half of the 17TH century, animals were simply unfeeling machines, incapable of emotions or pain. As the accomplishments of science earned it increasing prestige, this utilitarian view of nature became the dominant mode, further reinforced by the success of industrial capitalism. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed in The Communist Manifesto, the modern world was built largely through “the subjection of Nature’s forces to man.”

This subjection was so complete it eclipsed humankind’s past and, with it, the traditional unity between humans and the rest of creation that is typical of premodern societies. Among Native American tribes, for example, animal species were, like other tribes, deemed “nations,” such as the buffalo nation or beaver nation.

The premodern cosmos possessed a kind of enchantment. Humans were never alone: The crane flying overhead, the ground beneath one’s feet, the great oak tree near the creek, the creek itself, could all be addressed as kin by those who knew the right words and rituals.

Modernity, as has been widely noted, drained the cosmos of that magic. In Max Weber’s formulation, the West’s elevation of “rational empirical knowledge” led to the “disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism.” Radical and utter isolation followed. Carl Jung, a contemporary of Weber, grasped that loneliness had tragic implications: “Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him.”

Yet, the idea of the human world as separate from the rest of nature never gained complete acceptance. A few mavericks and romantics have always seen such isolation as wrong in substance and unbearable in spirit. Over generations, they repeatedly fought back, launching waves of protest, both cultural and political.

A rapidly dying world

The current wave of spiritual interest in nature is not simply another outburst of romanticism. For one thing, it is fueled by a new sense of urgency.

In 2005, the United Nations released the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the result of a five-year study of the world’s environment involving some 1,360 scientists. In its executive summary, “Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-Being,” the report’s authors write, “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. “

Global warming looms ominously, with the climate changing faster than anything seen since the end of the last ice age some 10,ooo years ago. The rapid rise in temperature is endangering countless animals. People converted more forests and prairies to cropland from 1950 to 1980 than in the century and a half between 1700 and 1850. The destruction of habitat leaves animals with nowhere to go. The report’s authors conclude: “Some 12 percent of birds, 25 percent of mammals, and at least 32 percent of amphibians are threatened with extinction over the next century.”

The assessment reads like a funeral oratory.

A new covenant takes shape

Funerary rhetoric marks what is irretrievably gone, but it also reveals a people’s fundamental moral values—what the deceased meant to those still living, and what their hopes are for the future. In a growing public acknowledgment of kinship, laments for the deceased are now given on behalf of wild animals and places of all kinds. Such oratory serves as a reveille, a call to make amends for creatures’ wrongful deaths by acting to save those who are still left: Outlaw lead bullets, so the few remaining California condors won’t die from lead poisoning when they eat carcasses left by hunters. Urgently study the mysterious deaths of whales. Put the U.S. Navy’s testing of powerful sonar systems under stringent government regulation.

Increasingly, for every funeral story or call for action there is also a tale of resurrection and renewal. Searches for “ghost” species, for instance, are holy pilgrimages, mythic quests to bring back life from death’s grasp. If one near-extinct creature can be restored to a healthy population, then possibly others can, too.

When researchers announced in 2005 that they had videotaped an ivory-billed woodpecker in a forested Arkansas swamp, the first sighting since 1944, government agencies and the Nature Conservancy bought more forested river-bottom lands near the location of the sighting to increase the bird’s chances for survival.

The response to the sighting shows a new covenant between society and nature taking shape. As novelist and bird-watcher Jonathan Rosen commented, the return of the ivorybill offers hope: “It somehow suggests that we have found more than just a missing bird and that God, whom we invoked when we conquered the wilderness, is also present in our effort to get it back.” (


James William Gibson, from Chapter 2:

"In the creation myths of many Native Americans and other hunter gatherer peoples, humans and animals once spoke the same language. Indeed, before the “fall,” when animals and humans went their separate ways, there was no rigid distinction between them. As the Inuit (Eskimo) woman Nalungiaq explained to ethnologist Knud Rasmussen nearly a century ago, “In the very earliest time when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference.” Even after this golden age, many Indian tribes celebrated an intimate connection to par tic u lar species. When a Pawnee scout pulled a ceremonial wolf skin over his body, he was not putting on a costume, argues nature writer Barry Lopez. Rather, the wolf skin was “an outward sign to the man himself and others who might see him that he was calling on his wolf power. . . . What was actually present was an intimacy with the environment, a magic ‘going in and out,’ so that the line of distinction between a person and his animal helper was not always clear.”

Tribal shamans often changed into animals for journeys. The Yakuts in Siberia told Peter Matthiessen that their shamans sometimes transformed themselves into cranes: “Our shamans say that this world is actually three worlds. We live in the middle one. The world below belongs to the dark spirits, and to fly down there to obtain power in order to predict the future and deal with someone’s fears, the shaman must become a hooded crane. The hooded crane is black, so people fear it, because seeing one may bring about a death. To fly to the upper worlds, the shaman must become the white crane, kitalik. Only the shaman can travel to the upper and lower worlds and describe what he learns from cranes and ea gles on these journeys.”

Claude Levi-Strauss, in his seminal work, The Savage Mind, used the term totemismto describe this mixing of human and animal realms. In totemic or animistic cultures, people conceptualize animals not as beings different from themselves but as similar creatures with special physical and mental abilities and spiritual powers. Nature is an extension of human culture; even though humans and animals may no longer speak the same language, relationships between them are social and cultural and imbued with spiritual significance.

James Cowan, in his work on the myths of Australian aborigines, argues that in totemic conceptions of the universe, animals and people are literally family; both humans and animals carry within their psyches links to former members of their shared tribe, all the way back to the tribe’s origins. As Cowan says, “Totemic identity suggests that a person is both ‘himself/herself’ in one sense, but is also ‘another’ in the sense that he (or she) participates in an earlier, transitory form of existence.” What’s more, that “other” self from an earlier lifetime might equally well have been either an animal or a human being. The restoration of this human- animal connection—and with it the transformation of animals from profane to sacred—is a central theme in the culture of enchantment. While John Muir intuitively accomplished this transformation in his writings, sociologist Emile Durkheim provided a theoretical basis for the process.

Durkheim argued that a culture comes to call certain places, creatures, and objects sacred not because of their intrinsic qualities but because of the intensity of emotions they evoke. These intense “feelings of sacredness” are readily communicated. As Durkheim put it, sacredness “transmits itself contagiously. What makes its reality is a special emotion; if it attaches itself to some object, it is because this emotion has found this object in its way.” Most efforts to make something sacred, what Durkheim calls “rites of consecration,” depend upon this principle of contagiousness and are most effectively accomplished by hybrid discourses that mix the secular and the religious.

As Rachel Carson said of her approach to writing The Sea Around Us (1958), “If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Poetry acknowledges and tries to illuminate the mystery of the sea, its beauty, its abundance of animal life, and its ability to inspire awe. In short, it helps create what Durkheim called feelings of sacredness—and those feelings help its audience grasp the essence of a creature and form a connection with it. the sacralization orconsecration of animals can come about in a number of ways. It may result from deliberate efforts to reconnect people to the animal world; it may be the product of unexpected revelation; or it may combine elements of both. This mix is by no means unique. Major cultural changes and even religious movements invariably involve both conscious striving by innovators and haphazard or partial commitments. The first step is often a powerful encounter with animals.

Naturalist Alan Tennant happened to join a group of researchers on Texas’s Padre Island who were capturing peregrine falcons to attach transmitters to their legs and track their migrations. He found himself completely entranced: “Padre’s peregrines,” he wrote, “were no longer simply beautiful raptors to be lured in for banding. They were part – of something larger. Something ancient and powerful.” Learning that the falcons had become an endangered species after de cades of decline from DDT contamination of their eggs, Tennant set out to track one falcon from Padre Island to its summer range on Alaska’s North Slope. Along with pi lot George Vose, Tennant followed “Amelia” for weeks in a small single- engine plane, flying up to eigh teen hours day. The journey created a feeling of deep connection. When they finally parted from Amelia, Tennant wrote, “Soon the swiftly winnowing speck Vose and I had hardly ever seen would be all we would ever know of her. Yet she’d not been just an abstraction. George and I had flown where she had flown, seen the land that she had raked all day with her binocular eyes. And we had felt through our own fragile flight surfaces the same air currents, peered into the same mist and storm and rain that Amelia had known in every nerve, hollow bone, and fairy feather of her hard muscled body.”

Nature writer Dan O’Brien recalled a similarly transformative encounter in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Entranced by the Black Hills on a childhood visit, O’Brien returned to the region as an adult and bought the Broken Heart ranch. But his plan to raise cattle there proved far more difficult than he’d anticipated—cattle died in the harsh South Dakota winters and those that survived routinely overgrazed the prairie, forcing him to buy grain for them. By the late 1980s, the stress and threat of financial ruin had destroyed his marriage and his health. One afternoon O’Brien got in his truck and started driving aimlessly on backcountry roads. Somewhere near the Badlands National Monument he saw an enormous buffalo that had somehow escaped a nearby ranch known for its strong, high fences. O’Brien threw the truck into reverse, but before he could drive off, the buffalo raised his head and looked straight into O’Brien’s eyes. “Like the wedding guest caught in the stare of the Ancient Mariner,” he says, “I was frozen in place. We stared at each other for perhaps a minute, and for that minute all my business worries were dwarfed by this dose of reality lying in the road ahead.... I sensed that the buffalo signaled something profound.” The bull buffalo reminded O’Brien of the key role that buffalo hunts played in the American West, and of how “we, as humans, evolved eating wild meat, and our success as a species is, at least in part, a result of that evolution. Perhaps it is knowing that truth that consecrates such meat for me.” Within months of his vision O”Brien sold his cattle, began restoring the prairie grasses on his land, and started raising buffalo calves. A buffalo also appeared to Canadian peace activist Paul Watson back in 1973, when he served as a medic to the American Indian Movement volunteers occupying Wounded Knee. After the siege ended, Watson underwent honorary initiation as a Lakota Sioux in a sweat lodge ceremony conducted by Wallace Black Elk (grandson of the legendary medicine man interviewed by Neihardt) and Leonard Crow Dog, leader of the Sioux who had invited the activists to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Watson says that during the sweat, he had a vision in which spirit animals appeared and spoke to him. “I suddenly saw myself in a grassy, rolling field, gazing into the eyes of a wolf. The wolf looked at me, then into a pond, and walked away. When I told the Sioux what had happened, they gave me my Indian name, Gray Wolf/Clear Water. Then I went back into the vision, and saw a buffalo standing on a ridge. It began to speak to me, and as it told me that I must protect the buffalo of the sea, an arrow came and struck it in the back. Attached to the arrow was a cord, symbolic of a harpoon.” Not long thereafter, Watson joined with Robert Hunter to found Greenpeace, whose first mission was to protect whales. In June 1975, Watson and a colleague tried to stop a Soviet whaler in the North Pacific from harpooning sperm whales. Their plan was to steer their inflatable boat between the whales and the whaling ship, thinking the Soviets wouldn’t fire for fear of hitting them. But the scheme didn’t work. The whalers shot a female whale, and when a bull, enraged by her death, turned and tried to ram the whaling ship, the Soviets shot him, too. As the whale died, Watson says, “he rose slowly out of the water, a quarter of his bulk towering above us.... He looked at us. It was a gentle, knowing, forgiving gaze. What had I seen? Was it understanding?. . . I no longer try to understand what happened between that dying sperm bull and me, I know only that I felt a commitment.”

More Information

  1. Excerpt at
  2. Excerpt on the greening of religions, at


  1. James William Gibson et al on Radical Gardening