- Animism is belief that spirits are everywhere _ trees, birds, puffs of wind. At this time of year particularly, when there is still room for all bursting life and winners and losers are yet to be determined, animism is an easy faith. I have a hidden spirit, why should a tree not have the same? Certainly something unknown or unknowable makes each living organism grow and strive.
- There is a comfort in believing everything, no matter how small and insignificant, fits together meaningfully. Why should not only mighty oaks, but even each leaf on the oak, each acorn, each rootlet have a genie shaping and protecting and guiding? Why should not I have the same? Science, at least modern clinical science stripped of its early poetry, fails dismally at grand explanations. Animism in that sense is as good a religion as any other for celebrating our amazing existence and the consciousness with which we have been gifted.
An ocean of spirit, or spirits in each
Spirits we never can see
Tantalize dreams, just out of our reach
Wondering what might be
We do not know, we cannot
Today like tomorrow, and yesterday too
Our logic informs us that’s so
Always been like that, if memory is true
If false we’re unable to know
We do not know, we cannot
So here’s to fair dryads, nymphs, and such sprites
Thunder gods riding through rain
Fairies in daffodils, angel delights
Perhaps just as real as your brain
I do not know, I cannot
- Birds _ dinosaur-descended distant cousins _ seem to possess intelligence and sense. Flights of birds were interpreted by augers in Classical Rome to predict the future, in the belief that some cosmic spirit guided the flight’s patterns. It is well-established that hunting peoples frequently performed ceremonies for their prey, both before and after capture or death. The belief that the world and all it contains possesses spirit is universal.
- I rarely take pictures of birds, insects, fish, or mammalian roadkill. That is not because I do not notice them, just as I do not ignore people as I amble about. I simply prefer compositions of slightly more permanence, which means I am often engaged with flowers, leaves, and distant horizons. As is often true, I find that deeply studying or contemplating one particular aspect of life inevitably leads me to a better appreciation of all the rest that it contains or that lies about it.
Startled by a sudden splat, I glance at my companion whose arm now displays a smear of blood. “Why Steve,” I mockingly remonstrate, “don’t you know ‘You should never swat a fly’?”
“Got him! What?” Steve exclaims in grand confusion.
“Old Jim Kweskin, Maria Muldaur jug band tune about insects having their own value ….”
“Don’t care about your ancient songs,” he states. “Bible gave me dominion over anything that bothers me, you know.”
“Ah, but some Eastern religions believe …”
“Look, I’ll pick whichever damn songs or religious texts I want whenever I need them. Besides, wasn’t a fly anyway, just a mosquito.”
“Same difference. Your karma is damaged. Each living thing may possess ….”
“Nope, nope nope. According to the most up to date modern scientific theories, my karma is all balanced out, thank you.”
My turn to be startled. “What are you talking about?”
“Each moment,” he lectures smugly, “is an intersection of infinite possible worlds in some vast incomprehensible multiverse. In some of them I hit the mosquito, in some of them I miss. I suppose in some of them it gives me a deadly disease. This particular me just happens to inhabit a universe time line where I was able to squash the pesky devil.”
“But …” unfortunately at that moment I had to slap at my own bloodsucking annoyance, which rather definitively put an end to our philosophical conversation.
- The role of spirits when material manifestation is gone? Who knows? A flower looks alive in a water vase for a long time, but is its spirit still there, doomed to a short sterile existence? What of a bloom perfectly preserved? The special name for the invisible residuals of life is, of course, “ghost.” Here at the Huntington historic cemetery should be many ghosts, but all that can be seen are quietly inert scribbled rocks and weeds.
- Ghosts of people are memories among the still living, and a few somewhat longer-existing objects such as tombstones, artifacts, and place names (Reverend Prime has a street named after him.) In spite of speculation and elaborate attempts, no real contact has been made with folks once “departed.” Why we would ever wantmore than memories, artifacts, and place names to haunt us is something I never quite understood.
- True science depends on repeatable experiment with fully observable results in the “real world.” True science would correctly claim that in such a sense nothing spiritual is “true” or “real.” I yield to that argument and agree that spirit is not real and cannot be real as a scientific construct.
- A less provocative, but absolutely similar, problem arises as to whether “hope”, “love” and so forth are “real” or not. Science will claim they are caused by hormones, learning, neurons, obscure brain networking, and what not. But science cannot account for their reality in our experience. Surely for me love and hope are just as real as a cup of coffee or the clear light of a bright morning.
- Some theoreticians now speculate that intelligence and consciousness is a result of networks, which need not be brains. That network intelligence functions just as well for a colony of ants or an immune system as it does for dendritically connected neurons in our skull. That perhaps there is an evolutionary intelligence guiding Gaia itself. If so, we are part of it. And, if so, perhaps hope, love, and the belief in spirits are essential parts of our existence itself.
- Who would live without hope or love? And isn’t a belief that there is some kind of guidance and meaning in everything we encounter far more life-enhancing than a cold psychopathic dismissal of all there is as just differently scattered energetic particles?
- But ignoring all the deeper, or perhaps more idiotic, thoughts, perhaps even if animism is simply a fine fairly tale, a myth to comfort us, surely that also has survival value. There are metaphoric truths necessary for life that will never be proven in a test tube or on a survey form. We reject them at our peril.
- Humans inhabit an ecology of phantoms _ spirits and other concepts that are only with difficulty discussed and never adequately defined. Happiness, meaning, love, beauty _ the list is endless and important. Imagination _ what things mean, what the future may be, what happened in the past _ imagination is the lodestone of consciousness. It creates magic from sensation. Sometimes such thoughts are easily wrapped into unconscious metaphors, which is when sprites and dryads seem to play in meadows and trees.
- I think this is what we really are _ I know it is what I really am. I reject any other definition of myself, for all such dry and objective evaluations are eventually false. I love beauty, I seek understanding, I rejoice in empathy. The only limit I am willing to accept in this spirit world is that my world is mine, and I would never force it on anyone else. I can thus follow my superstitions and metaphors and imaginations wherever they may lead, accept whatever comforts they provide, hesitate only when I encounter another human in this vast cosmic mystery.