Some Thoughts on Nature and Culture… (and the nature of culture)

Just going to toss this out there and get right into it…

Animals and plants have culture. 

This statement is one of my core beliefs and has guided me to include animism as part of my spiritual path. By the current scientific understanding of what culture is, you could easily tell me I’m wrong. (I mean, I’m not wrong, but you could say I was if you really wanted to.)  By definition, culture is a human-centric concept held together by “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group…” Animism asks us to broaden our concept of what culture is to include everything in our natural world — to perhaps expand our understanding of what life, sentience, consciousness, and soul really are. One of the ways we can do this is through immersion. 

Consider how we learn other languages. It is one thing to take a class and study them from a book or an app, but the deepest understanding of a language is acquired through exposure to people who live the language, and experiencing the culture from which it sprang. Otherwise, one word can run into another, and much is lost in translation. For instance, in Sanskrit there are 96 different words for love, and they all have their own variation in meaning. Use the wrong one and you’re conveying the wrong thing.

The same goes for nature. We can memorize facts until our faces turn blue, and those facts will be true. They will also be cold — lacking in nuance and dimension kind of like office metrics. We can still love nature from that distance, but there is no replacement for the magic that occurs when we stand in a space of allowance for the idea that the millions of other beings we share the earth with, just like you and me, are individuals with their own needs, desires, opinions, and preferences.

Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

For a spectacular example of what immersion can do, check out the 2011 episode of Natural World from PBS, My Life as a Turkey. This is a reenactment of the experiences of naturalist, Joe Hutto, as detailed in his book Illumination in the Flatwoods. I have watched it numerous times now, and I’ve found it deeply moving. I hope you will as well! Once you’ve checked that out, I recommend you read the Q&A that took place afterward here, as Hutto provides some wonderful insights about the program and his experiences with the turkeys. 

Without immersion, Hutto might not have been able to witness variants in their personalities, or the subtleties in their appearances that made them unique from one another. While wild turkeys are thought to have 29 calls, it was due to immersion that Hutto identified more than 100, acknowledging there were even more he couldn’t catalog. These are just a few examples, but he experienced these things when he chose to become a turkey instead of asking the turkeys to become human.

Of course, we can’t all imprint on a clutch of turkey eggs (nor should we), but we don’t have to. We simply need to see that, just like people, not everyone in a species is the same. We all communicate differently, learn differently, and emote differently — we are all here together, individual and valuable beyond the meat on our bones.

The Velveteen Rabbit Hole

In 1932, Douglas Herrick went hunting with his brother, hoping to snare a jackrabbit. When they returned, the jackrabbit carcass was laid next to some antlers, and thus the jackalope was born. And Douglas, Wyoming was forever changed.

This story, although just a snapshot, inspired the creation of Anthony, pictured here.

So why am I talking about and painting jackalopes?

Recently, during a visioning/energy healing session, a jackalope showed up. I laughed at first, a little thrown off by the appearance of an American made myth, but I now think he came in to talk about how stories shape us and how we see the world. 

Stories are important. They are carriers of culture, identity, and metaphorical truths. Every country, community, family, and individual has their own that convey to those looking in exactly who they are. Stories can do great things — offering beautiful perspectives and guidelines for living, and they can also do greatly damaging things — like when we spread untruths about others, or when we hang on to tales about ourselves that aren’t true.

Stories can empower, and they can disempower. 

We can get stuck inside old family tales (as in “that’s the way I was raised”), and we can get stuck inside our own heads (as in “everyone is judging me,” “no one likes me,” “this always happens to me,” etc.). It is vital that we be willing to look deeply at those we tell ourselves and shift them where necessary. We absolutely can control the narratives we ingest and those we project to the world. 

Look at little Douglas, Wyoming, population 6,120. What started as a gag has become a huge tourist attraction for the little town, now known as “Home of the Jackalope,” where they hold an annual jackalope festival and issue thousands of jackalope hunting licenses every year during jackalope hunting season. The season lasts only one day — June 31. (Yes, you read that correctly!)

Great for Douglas, not so great for jackrabbits and deer, but the point is, they literally changed their story, and created a claim to fame in the process, not to mention an entire mythology. This is actually really powerful! 

*Note: It is preferable you create a story that doesn’t needlessly harm other beings in the process. 

By creating the jackalope (which arguably already existed in some form beforehand), they gave life and personification to a concept. Children are great at this. Watch the way they personify the world around them. They give a soul to just about everything they touch! The way they interact with their environments is pure poetry.

This got me thinking about The Velveteen Rabbit. Actually, I thought about that story a while ago during a discussion with one of my teachers, Cyrene. I had been trying to figure out a way to tie it in with another blog I was working on, and it didn’t work. Tonight, as I showed Anthony to a friend, she said he reminded her of The Velveteen Rabbit, and lo, there was the connector!!

Earlier in the year, I was reading a text about animism which drew a correlation between animist thought and the thought patterns of young children. I had a bit of a “chicken vs. egg” question: is it that animism is merely “primitive thought,” or; is it that our natural proclivity is toward animism, and children are just absolute naturals? I remembered myself as a child, assigning spirit to everything around me — including my stuffed animals. This made them very difficult to part with when the time came, even into adulthood. I really feel it’s just inherently within us to desire connection with our surrounding world, even the objects we use. Animism is a natural answer.

The Velveteen Rabbit was a toy so beloved, he was made real. Of course, since the book is kind of from the rabbit’s perspective, he had already achieved personhood by simply having been created. But he didn’t know this. How could he? His purpose had already been assigned to him — he was a toy, nothing more. That was the story he told himself, and that was the story he was told.

I want to be clear — I am not saying that if he had only believed in himself he would have been hopping around with other bunnies sooner… (wait, am I?) I am saying that, simply by the act of having consciousness (I think therefore I am-ish), he was already real.

I think this is where we come back to just how important stories are. The Velveteen Rabbit didn’t think himself enough until he was out chewing real clover, but the truth is that he provided great joy and comfort to the boy long before he had hoppity legs. His purpose was far greater than “just a toy.”

And the jackalope — a story created in silliness brought to life by all who participate in the gag, and a very present visitor in a healing session.

You may very well have isms assigned to you by birth, but only you get to decide who you are. If your internal stories are harmful to you or to others, you get to change them, and I highly recommend it.