“…A feel for the mysterious and the unseen is thus entirely proper to our experience of the material surroundings. Invisibility is not, first and foremost, an attribute of some supernatural domain beyond the sensuous, but is integral to our encounter with material nature itself. While there exist around us many shapely and richly colored things that we can point to or specify with some precision, the relations between these visible things—the ways that they influence one another, and influence us—remain hidden. ..
…But while these invisible happenings may make themselves vaguely felt, we almost never perceive them precisely—and hence we cannot delineate them with any exactness, can hardly define or even describe them without violating their ephemeral quality, without falsifying their constitutive invisibility. Although we sense that such enigmatic unfolding make up a large part of our world, we can allude to them only obliquely, indirectly, wielding figures of speech that are purposely ambiguous.
Such, for instance, are the multiple ‘intelligences,’ ‘powers,’ and ‘spirits’ that populate the oral discourse of native peoples throughout the world. Every indigenous community that lives in close and intimate contact with undomesticated nature acknowledges the myriad energies that move in the invisible depths of the sensuous, regularly honoring these powers with offerings of propitiation and praise in return for the steady provision of earthly sustenance. Cultures whose reliance upon the animate earth is not, as yet, mediated by a crowd of technologies cannot help but experience the seasonal nourishments upon which they depend as gifts that offer themselves from the unseen heart of the mysterious. The plants that we consume for food quietly emerge from the dark depths underground; the bison or caribou arrive each year from distances hidden beyond the horizon; the water that quenches our throats is replenished by clouds that somehow gather and materialize from the invisible depths of the medium.
Only mistakenly, then, do we interpret the unseen ‘spirits’ honored by indigenous, oral peoples as wholly disembodied, supernatural entities—immaterial phantasms conjured by a naïve or primitive imagination. Are the streams and vortices in the invisible air disembodied? Is there no materiality to these jostling surges and subsidence’s that compose the fluid expanse in which we’re immersed? Or to an unseen cloud of lichen spores riding those currents like a transparent silken cloth? Is the hidden sap rising within the trunk of a fir tree, or the infection spreading through the body of a young elk, supernatural? The ‘spirits’ or ‘invisibles’ spoken of by oral, indigenous peoples are not physical beings but are a way of acknowledging the myriad dimensions of the sensuous that we cannot see at any moment—a way of honoring the manifold invisibilities moving within the visible landscape, and of keeping oneself and one’s culture awake to such enigmatic aspects of the real. They are a way of holding our sense open to what is necessarily hidden from view, a way of staying in felt relation to the invisible tides in which we’re immersed. As such, an acknowledgement of ‘the spirits’ is part of the practice of humility. It is a practice necessary to avoid endangering one’s community—a simple and parsimonious way of remembering our ongoing dependence upon powers we did not create, and whose activities we cannot control. …
…By severing the term ‘spirit’ from its very palpable, earthly provenance as the unseen wind, alphabetic civilization transformed a mystery that was once simply invisible into an otherness that was utterly intangible—incapable of being felt by any of the bodily senses. ..
…Just where is this empathic contact taking place? Am I slipping out through my eyes and plunging across the valley to meet and feel the pleasure in those needles? Or is there some tree-force pouring out from those branches and striding through the thickness of air to meet and join my body here where I stand staring? At any rate, somewhere between those trees and my body (and perhaps at every point between us) there is contact and a kind of blending. And this simple instance of perception, this momentary meeting across the expanse of the valley, cannot help but be influenced by the mood of the medium between us, encouraged or obscured by the many happenings unfolding within that invisible depth—by its local turbulences and eddies, by condensations and warm updrafts and the cool pellucid calms that briefly open and close within the unseen river of air as it rolls between my body and that breathing hillside.
Our perception of other beings is everywhere mediated by such invisibles. The reciprocity between our body and the earth is enabled by a host of unseen yet subtly palpable patterns, fluid and often fleeting powers whose close-by presence we may feel or whose influence we can intuit yet whose precise contours remain unknown to us. Felt presences whose lives sometimes mesh with or move through us so seamlessly that they cannot be rendered in thought, but only acknowledged. Or honored with simple gestures of greeting, and sometimes of gratitude.
And so, if we wish to open our awareness to the actual place we inhabit, freeing our sense to perceive the terrestrial reality that so thoroughly enfolds us, it is likely that we will have to welcome the spirits back into our speaking.
Whether we allude to them as spirits, or powers, or presences, it is only by addressing these unseen elementals that we begin to loosen ours senses, waking minute sensitivities that have lain dormant for far too long. By allowing such enigmatic phenomena back into our discourse—acknowledging them neither as wholly objective entities nor as purely subjective experiences, but (like whiffs carried on the breeze) as ambiguous realities that move both around us and within us, and sometimes move through us—we rejuvenate the participatory sentience of our bodies. By speaking of the invisibles not as random ephemera, nor as determinate forces, but as mysterious and efficacious powers that are sometimes felt in our vicinity, we loosen our capacity for intuition and empathic discernment, unearthing g a subtlety of sensation that has been buried in the modern era.
And it is by means of such subtle sensations that the living land tunes our bodies, coaxing our communities and our cultures into a dynamic, dancing alignment with the breathing earth the spirits are not intangible; they are not of another world. They are the way the local earth speaks when we step back inside this world…”
This excerpt is from an article in Parabola Magazine; see their website at https://parabola.org/