Maybe it was the sunlight on the turning trees that made me think of animism as I drove north to the Hermitage on Saturday. I was remembering an old argument I’d had with some conservative catholic students over whether or not animals had souls. Of course they have souls, I’d said, and I still believe it, and will go farther and say that plants have souls, and soil, and maybe even rocks. I’m not alone in this. Many of the early church fathers saw nature as ensouled. Trees had to have souls, they reasoned, because we have souls, and when we die we decay and become the soil itself and the root-matter for trees. But I know that this comes close to animism, the belief that the natural world is full of spiritual beings.
I was going to the Hermitage for a poetry and spirituality retreat. It was led by my friend John Holliger, a retired priest and photographer. He’d gathered almost twenty people together, and we read poems to each other throughout the day. Some of us were artists, and shared our art in whatever form it took.
We had long rest periods in which we could go and wander through the forested hills. The autumn light was crisp and cold, and the leaves patterned the ground. I kept catching sight of the sunlight, of different beams falling at different angles through the canopy, and I kept grinning and taking pictures. And, inspired by the day, I found myself writing a poem, something I haven’t done for a very long time. Here it is:
The sunlight on stacked firewood
is thick, although its cold.
I go deeper into the woods,
past the choral mumble of the chimes
beside the lake, and the voice
of the bald psychologist,
stopped to talk beside two women.
Stones and moss and the stalactite sag
of an insect’s egg sac, distended
from a creviced rock.
All these things, the insects waiting
at the start of autumn for spring,
the shell pattern of leaves,
brown and dry on the wet and cold ground,
all these things are shaped to mean
something, only what they mean
would require the right words.
And I am only wondering, like them,
perhaps, when the hard white sunlight
might release the world, and let it,
until spring, at least, sleep.
This poem surprised me, because it seems to intimate that natural things could use a rest from my desire to flood them with meaning, or to name meanings that go far beyond words. Animism only works if our imaginative minds are ready to impose themselves on nature, and I found myself oddly reluctant to do so.
After one of these rest periods, John read William Stafford’s poem “Vocation,” which begins with the line “This dream the world is having about itself.” I heard that line and didn’t listen to the rest. Is the world really dreaming, I wondered. Is it sentient? Despite all my morning thoughts about the souls of plants and stones, this didn’t seem believable to me. Maybe it was simply that Stafford’s poem wraps all of nature up into some greater entity, “the world,” and that I’m more comfortable with separated mysteries, the single mystery of a fallen leaf’s soul, than I am with one, powerful, overreaching mystery.
And yet I believe in God. Perhaps this is the single greatest reason that I believe in God as an entity, separate and greater than nature, certainly separate and greater then myself. Perhaps this is why I believe that God acts in history, even our history, even now. It seems kinder to nature. Kinder to not demand that nature speak with a single unified voice, but to listen as it speaks with many little voices, individual voices that aren’t necessarily prodded into a chorus. I would rather think of the world as a stage which God walks across, important and beautiful, certainly, but not divine within itself. Divine as we are divine, divine when aligned to God, when allowing the touch of divinity.