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The Earth and The Magician
In times of a long ago past, the earth held magic. The trees spoke in a language of whispering leaves and clicking branches, revealing their secrets only to those who cared enough to listen. The sky held gods of sun, moon, rain, thunder and lightning. Mother Earth loved, held, and mastered all things in her realm. In these times humans were unavoidably intertwined with a world wholly greater than themselves. In these times, the only words were those spoken, the only letters those of tracks on the ground and clouds in the sky. Today our magic lies with the written language, our whole has been fractured, and to regain what we have lost, we must relearn the spells we once knew—we must become magicians.
Letters, and the words they form, are magical—anyone who has read a book and been transported into an entirely different world can attest to that. Indeed, there are those who have written solely on this subject. John Abram, in his essay “Animism and The Alphabet”, weaves the evolution of our alphabet and the way it, and animism, has changed our connection with nature. He uses the words “magic” and “animism” interchangeably, describing how we have switched our magic from the earth, to our alphabet. He says, “As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone” (56). Animism then, is the giving of a soul to non-human things, the giving of a voice to the previously voiceless. It is, in its way, magic.
Whichever word you choose to use, animism or magic, it is still, according to Abram, vital to the perception of our world. It allows us to relate the things around us to ourselves—allowing us to care. Abram states, “Direct prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies.” Magic then, is simply the tool we use to connect to the things around us.
If we accept Abram’s views, then with the evolution of the alphabet came a change in the way we directed our magic. Instead of using it to connect to the natural world, we now used it to give life to symbols on paper. However, if we have indeed transferred this perception to the alphabet, then why should it matter that the trees and stones no longer speak? Could it not be that we have simply “outgrown” a stage, moving onto the next level where words offer an entire world full of unlimited possibilities?
It is here, however, that the problem arises. This transfer has been to something purely and entirely human. Abram explains this phenomenon, once more, through the alphabet, discussing hieroglyphs—letters that were still linked to a more-than-human meaning; “Only when those images came to be associated, alphabetically, with purely human-made sounds, and even the names of the letters lost all worldly, extrahuman significance, could speech or language come to be experienced as an exclusively human power. For only then did civilization enter into the wholly self-reflexive mode of animism, or magic, that still holds us in its spell” (56).
Humans however, are not self-reflexive, independent creatures. Whether we like it or not, we are dependent on the earth on which we are making our indelible mark—we are a part of a greater whole. For the time being, we can think that we stand alone—believing our “world”, (whose foundation rests in the alphabet, in a phonetic text which has evolved to become purely human) is a separate and independent whole.
Perhaps this is why we so often talk about escape. Whatever world we have created for ourselves, there comes a time when we want to forget and become completely immersed in another place. Words readily allow this escape—their magic is strong now, and simply by picking up a book, we can deny our own reality, escaping into the world another human has created—a world that, for a while, enables us to forget.
Nature too, is said to provide this escape. Are there not a million images of hikers on top of mountains, the world disappearing into a wash of green and brown below them while they look exultingly towards the heavens? Assumedly this return to nature has allowed them to escape their reality, obtaining some sort of renewal and strength. However, here we have made a wrong assumption. The earth provides not an escape, but a returning—a piece of a puzzle firmly fitting in its place, a worn traveler finding his way back home. Nature is an ever-changing whole, and we are, undeniably, a part of that whole. Alone and separate we can survive, but to thrive, we must assume the role of the magicians—casting the spells to link ourselves back to the earth.
We obviously have the innate need to escape from the situations we find ourselves in, to find something more. Why then, can’t the alphabet, words, fill this need? Simply, it is because truly it is not escape we seek, but a returning. It is not solitude, but connection. Why is one, perhaps without even realizing it, drawn to the quite of a forest, or the wildness of a mountain top when seeking to be “alone”? It is because only on top of a mountain, or within the shadowy edges of a woods, are we not alone. Only back in the places where we came from can we find the contentment of knowing we are a part of a whole, that we are not a race of individuals, but a leaf from a tree, a word in a novel. Only back in these wild places can we start to feel a ghost of the magic that used to connect us with the whole with which we long ago severed our ties.
How then, can we relearn to cast the spells which will allow us to totally and utterly intertwine ourselves with the natural world? If we have already transferred this magic to the alphabet, then is it possible to have the magic of both? Abram doesn’t give us the answers to these questions; we are left to make our own assumptions of what we have lost and what we can gain back, although he suggests that our loss is an irrevocable one, saying, “Yet we can now realize that…it was to exchange the wild and multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concentrated and refined magic of the written word” (58).
Is it not true, however, that magicians have the power to direct their magic where they choose? Children show us this well—they have an ability to create magic almost everywhere. Children can stand under a swaying pine and hear the haunting voices of fairies. They can easily believe that the world holds giants whose footsteps rumble against the floor of the sky. For children, animals talk and words remain silent. We must learn to be magicians as children are—fearlessly and without question. We have the opportunity to see the magic in both the written world, and the whole of nature—we must simply take the time to do so.
To rediscover the magic that will connect us to the earth, then, we must reverse our usual process. To intertwine ourselves, we must first experience. The start is already there, the seed of connection to the earth has never been lost. Is it not true that even a simple weekend camping trip can make the earth come alive again, the magic returned? As you lay in the dark, light no longer throwing its protective restraints, the night revealing the earth without a filter of familiarity, we are able to feel the magic. The haunting scream of an owl takes on the spirit of something more—a hunter searching for prey, the unknown—an unbidden evil. This is the start, but it should not be our end.
Abram, John. “Animism and The Alphabet.” Ways of Reading. Ed. David
Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2002. 28-62.