The foot of a tree at Solbjerg Parkkirkegård
Interaction with animals helps with that sort of thing. It helps me stay in my body, rooted, present, alert to the world like an animal. I send waves of gratitude in Charlie’s direction. Our communication continues like this, consisting of a few words that we both know and a more elaborate body language involving a large number of gestures through which we understand each other. However, only one of us snorts, growls, barks, cocks his ben, sniffs at buttocks and howls like a wolf when the church bells ring out.
We zigzag through the markers commemorating lived lives. The dead are present here with us, not just physically in the ground, but also through their names on the tombstones that stand to attention as representatives of the dead. Sometimes I am struck by a life cut all too short, or by particularly loving words on a headstone. Touched by how a stone has been carefully selected and carved to match the human being resting underneath it.
I recently realised that birth, life, and death are not opposites, not separate categories. They are just different stages of being. From dead wood and dead bodies, life springs again; in living bodies there is inevitable decay. Our bodies are sites of ceaseless decomposition and emergences. When the body dies, it becomes part of a fantastic ecology of composting, entirely in line with the great rhythm in which we all live and breathe: the changing seasons. Time is cyclical, not linear, although it certainly looks like that in the mirror.
Such thinking is tremendously helpful in counteracting one’s fear of death – not least because I also believe we have a soul. Charlie has one, too. I think his is easy to see, while my own is sadly invisible to myself. Rather, it/she can be felt every once in a (happy) while.
POCKET-SIZED, PORTABLE MOUNTAINS AS COMPANIONS ON A WINDING PATH
On Stones, Animacy, and Time
Every day I seek out the graveyard known as Solbjerg Parkkirkegård while walking Charlie, my three-year-old toller retriever here in Copenhagen. The graveyard is old, large and beautiful. Adjoining the Frederiksberg Have park, it runs along the busy roads Roskildevej and Nordre Fasanvej; surrounded by social housing for refugees, a veterans’ home and an old-fashioned Danish pub wittily acknowledging its graveyard-adjacent location in its name, Gravens Rand, which translates roughly as One Foot in the Grave (literally ‘On the Brink of the Grave’). Here in the midst of the hectic, noisy city you find old trees and crooked wrought iron railings while figures of Christ, sleeping women, dogs and chubby stone angels stand poised as loving companions and guardians of those in eternal repose.
Charlie’s vigour and expectant gaze on the ball in my pocket keeps my attention focused on the present, preventing me from getting lost in thoughts of my own dead. Friends, family. Or, now, thoughts of the war unfolding not far from here, one in which many have already lost their lives. A sombre heaviness, sorrow and fear pervades the world right now. I let that heaviness settle into my legs, into my stride; it seeks its way downward into the earth.
Charlie was puzzled, seeing this resting dog for the first time
Charlie with wolf ancestry, every day trying to harmonize with the bells of the Christian church
ALL THE OTHERS HAVE NO SOUL
The seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes believed that animals do not have a soul; he saw them as machines whose workings could be calculated mathematically. For Descartes, the physical world consisted exclusively of quantifiable, measurable properties, entirely separate from consciousness, thought, and spirit. Man himself is a dualistic being, divided into body and spirit.
Descartes has had colossal significance for the Western view of the natural world as something completely, utterly separated from the thinking, rational human being. A catastrophic mode of thinking which deftly and confidently separated man from the rest of nature and led us to a route where we exploit all of nature and all other species at our own discretion. It led us to climate change. According to Cartesian thinking, Charlie is a thing, just as the plants that generously give us oxygen and food are things, and a tree has value only when it is dead, as timber.
One can envision no greater or more alienating sense of separation than the notion of an intangible human mind, trapped in a skull, all alone in a soulless machine[i]. So sad, so constricted, so lonely.
TO MEASURE IS TO LIE
In the year 1600 – exactly – the philosopher and poet Giordano Bruno was sentenced to death by burning for heresy after an eight-year trial. With the death of Bruno, a distinctive vein of natural philosophy was extinguished; a vision that touched upon religion, philosophy and science and had been dreamed up by others before him — especially in the twelfth century.
Bruno said: "To measure is to lie"
(I felt like leaving you with that thought for a while, allowing it to truly sink in amidst our incessant present-day focus on rationality where everything measurable is held to be credible and truthful and everything non-measurable is believed to be the opposite)
– and even though the telescope was only invented later, he still understood that space is infinite, that there is no centre, and that the earth is just one small globe among millions of others.
Such ideas were hard for the Christian worldview to stomach. Bruno perceived nature as spirit made visible and the spirit as invisible nature, and this could not be allowed to stand. The idea of an infinite universe, with no centre, was deemed insane[ii]. Not being the centre of creation is a huge loss of ego for man.
A ghost of time past
Eve, getting us kicked out. Elmelunde Church
GETTING OFF TO A BAD START
Bruno’s cosmology subverted the Christian creation myth. Because Adam and Eve were created in the image of God: ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’.[iii] God led all the animals to Adam and asked him to name them, which is another perk of being human and at the top of the natural hierarchy. When Eva took the liberty of enjoying the fruit in the wonderful garden, the two were, as is well known, thrown out. Their separation from nature happened before she had even become a mother. And the pain of childbirth (as well as having to covet her husband and submit to him) became the woman’s curse. Man’s was to be locked in an eternal struggle with the soil.
The writer and professor of botany Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks about Skywoman and the creation of the world in the book Braiding Sweetgrass; a creation story shared by indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes area. Skywoman falls from the sky. Geese cushion her fall, and the other animals debate how they can help her get a home. They put their lives on the line. Their efforts succeed, and Skywoman’s gratitude, her singing and dancing, creates a fruitful world for all.[iv]
This story shows how indigenous peoples have a completely different relationship with all living things than the Christians, who are exiled from nature almost from day one. In the West, we are shaped by the idea of nature as something that stands outside of man and which must be tamed. This idea runs like a strand of DNA through Western cultural history, manifesting itself in thinking and practices over time: from the days of colonisation and the perception of other cultures and ethnicities as ‘primitive’, untamed savages, to the development of agriculture and industrial food production, and much more. The list is long.
Words are not just words, but create deep-seated perceptions, actions and cultures. The need for new narratives is urgent and colossal.
BEING A STONE
Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Having a leg in both camps – in the Western, scientific understanding of nature and in the knowledge and practice of her indigenous people – she understands the deep differences between the two outlooks and how they manifest themselves, for example in language. Potawatomi has more than twice as many verbs as English, which in turn is full of things, of nouns. One could say that the English language reflects a focus on the thingness of the world, while Potawatomi reflects a living, acting world.
In Potawatomi, a bay is only ‘a bay’ if the water is dead. The water is only dead when it is defined by humans and held back, constrained. The verb wiikwegamaa – ‘to be a bay’ – shows that the water is not restrained, but alive. ‘Being a bay’ shows that the water has chosen this specific form, taking up a position between these shores, as one of several possible ways of being in the world: being an ocean, being a waterfall, being a stream.[v]
In English, you are either a person or an animal/a thing. Kimmerer describes how we would never use it about a person: "That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family. To whom does our language extend the grammar of animacy? Naturally, plants and animals are animate, but as I learn, I am discovering that the Potawatomi understanding of what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all learned in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings are imbued with spirit, sacred medicines, our songs, drums, and even stories, are all animate.”[vi]
Even rocks are animate. We too are walking, talking minerals, carrying iron, calcium, zinc, apatite and so on in our teeth, blood, bones.[vii] Surely we all share a universal joy in picking up stones, feeling them in your hand, admiring them, skipping them across the water? I remember one time my son was very young and returned from a school camp carrying an entire bag full of rocks; treasures he could scarcely carry. I remember the big rock in my childhood meadow by the fjord, which felt warm from the sun and served as a horse in my imaginary games; I used collect frogs that had fallen into my family´s 1970s swimming pool and carry them here to let them dry out. "The friendship between my hand and this stone enacts an ancient and irrefutable eros, the kindredness of matter with itself," says the cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram.[viii]
I do not know the word for stone in Potawatomi. To be stone. To be stone, almost immortal, almost immovable. Yet living, eroding, migrating. To be part of something bigger, a mountain, a coastline, a sea, a field, a forest. With or without a layer of beautiful moss and lichen, with or without a teeming wealth of small insects underneath it. To witness the creation of the earth and the landscape and to be shaped by it. To be solid, virtually impervious to perishability and porosity.
Georg Jagunov, Younger Sister, 2020, flint, polymer clay, fossils, engraving. Jagunov exhibits March - May 2022 at Liselund Slotspark, Møn
THE WORLD IS FULL OF PERSONS, ONLY SOME OF WHOM ARE HUMAN
In his reference work Animism – Respecting the Living World, the British scholar of religious studies Graham Harvey presents a definition of animism:
"Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship to others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons."[ix]
Many indigenous peoples have an animistic worldview in which animals and plants – and, in some cultures, non-living objects or phenomena, too – all have a soul, a spirit, a spiritual essence. In animism there is no dualism. Here, no distinction is made between the spiritual and the physical world. Everything is alive.
Further north from where I currently am, animism has shaped the beliefs and practices of the Inuit and Sami peoples, but Denmark’s prehistory is also strongly influenced by animistic perspectives. Their influence can be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age and Stone Age with offshoots reaching up beyond the end of the Viking Age, well up into the Nordic folklore and folk beliefs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
300 million people who are categorised as indigenous (and whose cultures are largely animist or have animistic roots) live on 22 percent of the world’s land area in natural areas that contain 80 percent of the world’s total biodiversity.[x]
It is no coincidence that biodiversity thrives where animism flourishes. And, put in another way: it is no coincidence that we are witnessing a mass extinction of species on the other 68 percent of land area (plus the sea) where animism is extinct; where it has been deemed a form of superstition. (I mean, just that word, superstition…).
THE DINOSAUR EGG
When Charlie and I are not ambling around the graveyard or in Søndermarken in Copenhagen, we like to go for walks along the coastline of the island of Møn. Whenever we can, we set out from city and venture south to our old house, dating back to 1775, located on the eastern part of the island, which is known as Høje Møn (literally ‘High Møn’). The house is not located in any of the holiday home areas; it is quite literally the middle of nowhere. The local coastline is a shingle beach and the forest near it is untouched. All this means that the creatures we come across in this place are hikers, ornithologists, fishermen, seals, swans, deer, foxes (the sound of them), gulls, ducks, masses of insects, wild herbs. The few two-legged beings that come here are quiet; deeply interested in silence. Charlie and I have it pretty much to ourselves, except for our winged or rooted, green fellow beings, who are the most visible.
Danish beaches are among the richest in shingles, pebbles and stones anywhere in the world. And the local beach here is an inexhaustible treasure trove. I always have the feeling of being about to find some curious creation, some especially beautiful stone, a rattle stone, a fossil, a piece of amber. Something magical. A sense of feeling lucky; that good luck lurks just around the corner. The other day I found a large, perfectly elliptical and heavy object that I took home with me. It looks like an egg. I imagine it to be a fossilised dinosaur egg. Now it’s in my living room, looking rather out of of place because it is big, and the living room is small, and its essence belongs to another world. I’m considering giving it back to the beach.
The dinosaur egg
View from Møns Klint
Those who are familiar with Denmark know how flat it is here. One of the country’s highest hills, going by the lofty name Himmelbjerget – literally ‘Sky Mountain’ – stands only 147 m above sea level. Geologists even call it ‘a fake hill’. (I once went to see Denmark’s only waterfall on Bornholm. There were a few other people there to see it: Norwegians, who were almost in stitches laughing about it. To them it seemed so small. So comical. So Danish).
But while we have no large mountains, we have plenty of pocket-sized mountains. Because stones were once mountains. Parts of a mountain. The Danish beaches welcome the migrated (miniature) mountains and rocks arriving from southern Norway, central and southern Sweden, the Åland Islands and the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Typically, the story of a stone found on a beach would go something like this: "I was torn loose from a rock in Norway or Central Sweden by one of the glaciers of the ice age, which took me south where I was deposited alongside lots of other fragments, moved around a bit by the meltwater, covered by other sediments, embedded in a cliff that was eventually eroded by the waves, releasing me to crash onto the beach, where I washed up clean and finally set free, worn more or less round on the beach. You need to know that when you pick me up. I come from far away. And I’m old. I am deep time, manifested in your hand. If I’m gneiss or granite, I’m 2,100 - 900 million years old. If I am sandstone or limestone, I am up to 600 million years old. If I am chalk or hard flint I am 70 million years old."[xi]
Charlie and I often go on trips to the highest point of Møn, from where we can see in all directions. The Aborrebjerget (‘Perch Mountain’, named after the fish, not the place of repose) stands 143 m high and is close to Møns Klint, the island’s famous chalk cliffs. The foundations of Møns Klint were laid down in the sea approximately 70 million years ago. A tropical sea then lay where Denmark is today, home to algae with shells made of calcium carbonate discs. When the algae died, these tiny shells fell onto the seabed, forming a thick layer of chalk over the course of millions of years. Since then, the globe has undergone drastic changes. Continents have risen, mountain ranges created. The former seabed of chalk had risen above sea level when the last ice age reached Denmark approximately 12,000 years ago. The ice scraped huge slabs off the old seabed. Reaching thicknesses of up to 50 metres, these shavings were bent, folded and pushed together, concertinaed by the collision. That is how Høje Møn came into being.[xii]
THROWN FROM A GARTER
Our route down from Perch Mountain towards the cliff and Klinteskoven (‘Cliff Forest’) takes us past a giant boulder known as the Svantesten.
Here is the story of the Svantesten, as told by geologists: "It consists of red medium-grained granite, with stains, deposits, of an older rock that the granite absorbed when it lay deep in the earth’s crust in a magma chamber. The two steep, triangular ‘gables’ on the boulder are the results of a predominant orientation of cracks in the granite. As the mountain range of which the Svantesten was once a part gradually weathered and crumbled over millions of years, the granite body came closer and closer to the surface. The reduction in pressure caused the hard granite to crack open. Finally, the boulder was at the very top of the eroded mountain range, ready to be picked up by the ice sheet which took it to Møn and Aborrebjerg in Klinteskoven’.[xiii]
The history of the Svantestenen, told by locals in different ways over time, all share one particular feature: they agree that the stone was thrown here, albeit not by the ice – and that it was thrown with the express purpose of landing a blow against the Christian church: 1) A witch, alternately said to hail from Sweden, Rügen or Bornholm, used her garter to fling it against the Magleby Church Tower (which has no spire). 2) A troll from Sweden or Rügen was so incensed at the church being built that he threw a large stone at it. 3) Some managed to knock the spire off the church. 4) Two sisters, possibly giants, had a falling out. One of them built Magleby Church. The other lived on Rügen and threw the stone after the church.[xiv]
In most versions of the story, Perch Mountain got in the way, and the stone missed its mark.
The legends about the Svantesten sound amusing to most present-day listeners, but upon reflection they also show the great anger and struggle prompted by the introduction of Christianity – and demonstrate that Christianity won out in the end.
With the Christian church as a new power factor on the scene, all other stories, practices, and faiths were banned, and a tidal wave of murder, torture and the deprivation of livelihoods, culture, language, country and narratives followed. Open wounds remain for indigenous peoples worldwide, in deeply problematic ways. Where the power of the church petered out, colonisation and nation states took over. The assaults continue to this day.
The Svantesten, Charlie and I
Not the beauty of rocks, either, I guess
ORIGINAL SIN AND OTHER DECEPTIONS
In 380, being a Christian was declared a civic duty in the Roman Empire. Now, the Christians persecuted the heathens, just as they themselves had been persecuted in the past. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) became the most important church father in the ancient church, exerting a colossal influence on the development of Christianity. He poked fun at the peasants’ folk beliefs, not least "the shameful cult of the Great Mother [Mother Earth]."[xv]
Augustine harked back to the Biblical account of the Creation to firmly hammer home the notion of original sin: Adam and Eve were created perfect but sinned by doing wrong and bringing evil into the world. Eve in particular was to blame for that sin: "What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman," he asserted.[xvi]
Augustin ruled out sensory experiences, the sensible world, as a pathway to knowledge and insight. He clearly stated that: "Not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God."[xvii]
Another gentleman agreed with him. Descartes is said to have declared, rather drily, that "Man’s happiness resides in his ability to control his passions through will." He regarded the sensuous world, potentissimus deceptor, as "a supremely powerful and malicious deceiver who has set out to trick me in every way he can."[xviii]
In the patriarchal Christian church and its history – and narratives – concepts such as woman, nature, sensuality and body are deeply entangled with ideas of sin and deception.
OUR SENSES CONNECT US TO THE NATURAL WORLD
I feel exhausted and fed up just writing this. Oh, what deary foundations we stand on. What a dismal back story, what an ecological disaster it has led us to, what misogyny one finds in the world.
I turn to David Abram, the man behind the concept of "the-more-than-human-world," which is now widely used in the field of spiritual ecology. In his influential books, Abram describes how our senses are the glue that connects us to the-more-than-human-world, the natural world. How we have an animal body that constitutes our primary source of perception and experience. That body has been shaped by exchanges with other species, with each other and with the landscape over time, and these connections are what make us human:
"Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."[xix]
Abram once made his living as a magician. Today he works to bring about a re-enchantment of the relationships between our body, senses and the natural world. He believes that we should all rediscover our animal body, our sensuous body, which is deeply entangled in an animistic world where EVERYTHING is alive.
If Descartes was buried at Solbjerg Churchyard, I would be able to hear him spinning in his grave there.
Walking on the shores of Møn
The divine wonders of the natural world
ONE VAST DIVINE SUBSTANCE!
The Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677) was a little younger than Descartes, and by no means agreed with him. He believed that there is nothing but substance, which is infinite and therefore identical with God: the universe is the body of God, and God and nature are the same.
When I read up on Spinoza, I find him being called both a panpsychist and a pantheist, and indeed the concepts are closely related. They have a kinship with animism, too. Whereas the pantheists believe that God is in everything (pan meaning all/everything), and that God and the world are the same, the panpsychists believe that everything has a consciousness, that all particles, plants, animals and humans have consciousness, while the animists believe that everything (or almost everything) is a being with a soul. All these philosophies are anti-dualistic: here soul / God / consciousness is one with matter and not separate from it.
Spinoza was 24 years old when he was summoned to a meeting with the elders of his synagogue, who wanted to know if he had indeed said that God may have a body and that the soul is simply life. He was convicted of heresy and expelled from the Jewish congregation.[xx]
LINEARITY IS A CRAZY, CRAZY IDEA
Spinoza said, "We should look at our lives under the aspect of eternity." Such clarity of vision could also be found in his everyday practice: he made his living as an optician – and probably died of glass dust accumulating in his lungs.[xxi]
He is so right. The world is full of short-term thinking, not least in the realm of politics. The short-sighted, linear way of understanding the world is not at all connected with the cyclical time of the natural world, nor with the outlook on time found among indigenous peoples.
In his book Sand Talk, Aboriginal scholar and author Tyson Yunkaporta says: "We don’t have a word for nonlinear in our languages because nobody would consider traveling, thinking, or talking in a straight line in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name. One man tried going in a straight line many thousands of years ago and was called wamba (crazy) and punished by being thrown up into the sky. This is a very old story, one of many stories that tell us how we must travel and think in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy ways."[xxii]
Obviously, the West is full of wambas who would be thrown up into the sky clutching their strategy papers, career plans and carefully noted KPIs under their arms.
The stories told by stones speak of becomings that are far removed from any straight lines, and they can hardly be said to rush off in crazy ways either. They are our elders, our wise, ancient ancestors. Kimmerer describes how humans are called "the younger brothers of Creation." The youngest must learn from the oldest, the plants, for they have been here for much longer, and their wisdom is evident in the way they live. They know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and they even give their bounty away freely.[xxiii]
Look at this stone cosmology!
Deep time. Møns Klint
STONE AS TEACHERS
Stones are older than plants. I think about what we can learn from them.
Tyson Yunkaporta had the same idea. In Sand Talk, he talks about rocks with Max, a young Tasmanian Aboriginal. Max says: "Stones to me are the objects that parallel all life, more so than trees or mortal things because stones are almost im-mortal. They know things learned over deep time. […] Stone teaches us that we should be strong no matter what tries to crack us or wear us down, keeping an unbreakable core through your culture and your beliefs. The majority of this earth is rock, and while water and plants make up its surface, the body of the earth, the part that keeps it all together, is rock. You can have life and creation, but it will all crumble without a solid base. Same with society, companies, relationships, identities, knowledge – almost anything both tangible and intangible. Like those forests and trees sitting as a skin over the rocks of the earth: without that strength inside, without that stone, it would crumble."[xxiv]
We can learn peace from stone. Learn how to be, without always doing. We can learn strength, because it is needed. To have a solid core, no matter where we are led. We can learn to listen, for the language of the stone is silence. And when we are quiet, when we listen, we will find that we in turn are being listened to by the-more-than-human-world.
A WINDING ROAD TOWARDS RE-ENCHANTING THE WORLD
Today, adopting an animistic / pantheistic / panpsychist worldview seems like an activist, political choice, and – perhaps most importantly of all – as a winding, magical road towards a sensual world infused by spirit and mutual respect. Animism has values that are not about something purely economic or measurable. Animism turns rivers, forests, meadows and mountains into living beings again, rather than piles of resources for exploitation and extraction. Animism is a magical invitation to engage in deeper relationships with the more-than-human world.[xxv]
Charlie and I are on the shore at Hjelms Bugt on the south coast of Møn, looking out towards Tøveldestenen, a large boulder out in the sea. With an estimated weight of 160 tonnes, it ranks among Denmark’s ten largest boulders: according to an eyewitness account from 1851, it is large enough for a horse and carriage to park on it. Now, however, it is 80 metres out in the water. It hums in warning against impending bad weather, and it turns over if it catches the smell of freshly baked bread.[xxvi] Today it plays host to resting cormorants and their abundant bird droppings.
Beneath my feet is a sea of many stone creatures in beautiful colours; round, sharp, angular, flat, smooth, pierced by holes. I think:
The next time you pick up a stone, let it put you in touch with the deep time it manifests, and let it make you strong, robust and peaceful. Acknowledge its beauty and be quiet; perhaps it will tell you something in its ancient stone language. Feel its weight.
So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. Let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. Let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. Let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. Let’s lick the earth from our fingers. Let us look up and out and around. The world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. Let us pray.
Pádraig Ó Tuama.[xxvii]
Birgitte Kirkhoff, 2022
Translated by René Lauritsen