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.