The Spell of the Sensuous and Perceiving Trees

Oh arghh… We’re having an ice storm, I’m trying to work from home, and it’s not going well. I’m back from vacation and feeling a surge of pent up energy to get some work done on SCA’s websites. That, coupled with anxiety about having been away for 10 days has me feeling more than my usual frustration when things go awry, as they have this morning. First the SCA server went down, then I lost my internet connection altogether, and now the power is off. I will be out of business in about an hour when the battery in my computer goes dead.

I guess I could find a pencil and some paper and write the review that I have been promising of David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.This is not an easy book and I’m still reading it, determined not to skip the hard parts. It’s the “perception” piece that has captivated me and kept me going through the precise, scholarly analysis of the evolution of language and its progressive disconnect from the natural world.

What is notable to me is how focused I have become on observing the natural world since starting Abram’s book. Right now, I’m sitting at my dining room table, looking out windows in three directions and imagining I’m seeing the ice storm with a fresh eye. The trees are bowing low to each other, encased in ice. The old lilac is completely bent over, touching the ground, and there are icicles forming on every single bud and seed pod left from last season’s blossoms. The part of the field that never got mowed is an icy, matted brown and green jumble. And it’s very, very still. The birds are waiting it out somewhere. I imagine them lightly encrusted with ice, huddled together for warmth.

I’m proud of myself for noticing all this and realize that I have been looking at what’s around me with more attention for several weeks now. When I first arrived in the British West Indies on New Year’s Day, happy to be there but tired from the rigors of airline travel and the holidays, I was immediately uplifted by the colors that people paint the trim on their houses and even the entire house. Lime green, pink, yellow, orange, scarlet — how stylish, I thought.

It took me several days to realize that the colors were not inspired by Crate & Barrel or even Martha Stewart. The intense blue green of the water over the white limestone sand should have been a tip off, but it was really while snorkeling, just floating and watching the extravagantly colored fish, that I made the connection. The residents of this small Caribbean island paint their houses the colors of their world — the fish, the flowers, the sky.

Originally from Africa, these middle-class, English speaking Caribbean people have lived on the island for hundreds of years, many of them on the same piece of land, and they are part of the land and sea, and the land and the sea are part of them. They have high-speed wireless internet just like I do, better than I do, but they are still intensely connected to their physical world.

The fact that they paint their houses the colors of their world may not seem like a blinding new insight. But what Abram’s book makes clear is that this reciprocal connection to the physical world is different, profoundly different, from the way we in the “developed” countries perceive and experience the natural world.

Short of moving to an island in the Caribbean, which is not likely although the thought has crossed my mind, I can’t think what to do about this, except to try to make my own connections to the extraordinary landscape outside my Vermont door. A friend once told me a story about a tree that had chosen to show her its life form. Resisting an urge to ask her what she might have been smoking, I simply nodded and listened. Now I’m wondering, if I pay attention, will those trees in my yard reveal themselves in some way. I’m nothing if not skeptical, but after reading Abrams’ book, I’m open to expanding my perception of the “more than human world.” I’ll let you know what I learn.