I’m an Animist: and what that means

I rarely speak publicly about my spiritual practice.  This is mainly due to the intimate nature of relationship. You see, my worldview is animistic, and for me, this means I view the universe as a community of living persons, of which humans are a part.  I perceive everything within the universe, including the Universe herself, as possessing unique worldview, culture, and language (method of communication), e.g., the Ash tree near my front door is a living person, who possesses a worldview, culture, and language distinct from my own.  Because I live within such a vital world, I try my best to “live respectfully as a member of the diverse community of living persons (Graham Harvey).”

Grandfather : Kealkill stone row

 How animism informs my spirituality

All living persons have an agenda.  We also all have an impact on others, for good or for ill: no man is an island.  Without trying, my footsteps have a profound affect on ant-persons, grass-persons, worm-persons, and so on.  This also applies to persons larger, and smaller (hello, bacteria and microbes), than myself, such as the various Oceans, Moon, Sun, other Stars, Dark Matter, and the countless other persons residing in the cosmos.  By simply living their lives, and expressing their unique culture and worldview, they impact me – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.  Red, in tooth and claw.

Loch Léin meets Tomies Wood

The cacophony of life, and chaos of existence, that emerges experientially with this view, is not something I am afraid of, or seek to propitiate (though, hearing it does overload my system); rather, I am curious.  I want to understand the boundless universe I live within.  I do not worship other persons.  I do not engage in adoration of, or devotion to, other persons.  I do have relationships, both with human and other-than-human persons, and I nurture and cherish those connections.

 How I ‘do’ animism

I also practice witchcraft, which I am equally discrete about, owing to the tradition’s focus on silence.  My affinity for The Craft is due, in large part, to its long history of shamanic practice and my own extrasensory leanings – that, and my Grandma teaching me so much folklore!

For me, there is no distinction between ‘spirit’ world and ‘material’ world – they are of a kind.  Therefore, there is no mundane experience.  Yes, there are other-persons living in the universe who are so alien, so different from myself that encountering them feels like I have stepped into another realm, but they are still part of my everyday world – the one I wake-up in, the one where I live my work-a-day life.

the golden light of Lughnasadh

Since I am a witch who views everything she sees (and doesn’t see) as sentient and existing within a cosmos of living persons, relationship is vital. In community, whether familial or something broader, relationship building is foundational – it’s how we get our needs met, and is psychologically nourishing.  In my working life, relationship building is a primary focus.  Again, it’s how I get my needs met.  It’s also how we organically interact with friends, family, and acquaintances: we build relationships. I am interested in building relationship with the persons, both human and other-than-human, I interact with daily. We may not be best friends, but, hopefully, we can foster a mutually satisfying connection. It’s also simple good manners.  Like I learned from my human neighbors here in Ireland, the first thing to be done is invite a new-comer over for tea, and then greet each other whenever you meet.

 A day in the life of an animist

I’m fortunate.  My current life circumstance affords me the opportunity to live away from alarm clocks and deadlines.  I wake with the sun, and the first thing I do upon waking is notice the quality of the light, and how it feels.  Light is different in Ireland, and special – so special the indigenous inhabitants exerted great effort constructing monuments that enabled them sensual interaction with the Sun (Brú na Bóinne). The low angle with which the sun’s electromagnetic waves enter the atmosphere produces a dramatic effect indicative of the earth’s tilt (the  season) –  the morning  light at Lughnasadh is vastly different from the light of a winter morning.  By paying attention to the light, my body communes with the Sun and my day begins with intimacy.  The Sun, as a Great Power, is someone I want to develop relationship with.  By attending to the presence of the Sun, and actively communing, I forge connection.

the shaft of Lughnasadh light that enters my room

The very next thing I attend to is the birdsong.  Many different voices are heard here in east Cork, and the timing of their song tells me a lot: Raven sits in the Pine and talks in her low voices only in summer, Robin chatters early in spring, and blackbird talks to us late in autumn.  I may not live here long enough to understand their patterns, but I have noticed.  So, I greet the birds, both vocally and extrasensorially, in order to build relationship with them – my neighbors. Think about how isolating and cold the lack of acknowledgment and greeting feels when sitting on the metro, or the bus.  I certainly don’t want that atmosphere cultivated around my home.

Once I’m up, and dressed, I wash-up any dishes from the night before.  My house, made from the same star dust I am, is alive, too.  By tending to the orderliness and cleanliness of it, I show respect and affection, thus building relationship.  Do I imagine my house has an unseen ‘soul’ or incorporeal entity residing within its ‘body?’ No.  I’m not a fan of the soul / body divide.  I perceive consciousness as inhabiting all of the universe.  How that Mind moves through and within all things is a Great Mystery.

Sabhaircín : ‘Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May. The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under this string.’ (NFC S.455:237)

The act of relationship building, with and within my environment, influences my sense of a dynamic Place – one which includes my physical location and my role within it.  I hope this gives you a sense of my cosmogony, and what animism means to me.

 For those interested in Early Irish Charms and Magic, I recently attended a symposium at National University of Ireland Maynooth and am posting my notes on my personal blog:  Confessions of a Hedge Witch.

About Traci

Traci Laird is an animist living in Ireland and hails from the great state of Texas (a mythic heritage she is quite proud of!).  Her current academic pursuits are in Sociology and Psychology, and she engages a “sensuous scholarship” when seeking to understand Place.  She can also be found at Confessions of a Hedge Witch

  • Moon Flower

    I really enjoyed this. While I am not a full-fledged animist, I have some tendencies. I’ve always felt that any object with a “face” is somehow sentient. If I drop a figurine or a stuffed toy, I apologize to it. I’m nearly 43, but I still have my stuffed animals from childhood. I truly believe they have witnessed my life and are imbued with some kind of soul.

    • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

      Hi Moon Flower, and thanks for reading! I understanding your feeling about closely held objects! It really is how Fetishes, or Talismans, are made, isn’t it. We have a toy in our family that has passed from me to each of my daughters, in turn. Nobody ever really played with this particular toy, yet she stayed with us through the years. In fact, her perseverance has imbued her with power. I love finding magic in our everyday lives. Thank you for reminding me of my own family’s “Toy Talisman.”

  • Eithne

    So much of my spiritual life woke up when I was travelling – I ended up in West Cork for six months and you are right – the light IS different in Ireland. I haven’t been able to adequately explain that to anyone since experiencing it. The land itself felt alive — almost humming — and the pace was divine.

    Thank you for sharing this and reminding me of some lovely memories.

    • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

      Hi Eithne, and thanks for reading! It’s gorgeous, isn’t it! I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, and I have lived in some pretty amazing places. You know, living here is what solidified my animism. I have been attracted to Irish folklore and myth for much of my adult life, and even use to visit on sacred pilgrimage. It wasn’t until living here, though, that I began to understand how truly Place specific those tales were, and to see the persons and Great Powers referenced in the mythologies reflected physically in the landscape. Of course, myth isn’t as simplistic as that, and I don’t want to fall into reductionism, but…. those heroes and poets are embodied in this green land. You see them everywhere.

  • http://www.christinehoffkraemer.com Christine Kraemer

    I find myself wanting to think more about how I use the word “person,” and whether I feel like “other-than-human persons” actually reflects the way I relate to other-than-human beings. I feel like my *personality* is actually a relatively small part of myself — it’s the part that’s most unique to this life and in some ways, the most superficial, composed of my preferences, my thoughts, my social patterns. It seems to me that animals have much more limited personhood in this sense, but it’s not their personhood necessarily that makes them capable of relationship.

    This is a very half-formed thought, obviously. I’m just finding myself talking a lot about being “depersonalized” and also the possibility of choosing to temporarily “be an animal” (as a positive thing) and realizing my sense of what a “person” is isn’t consistent.

    • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

      I think I understand what you are getting at. The cartesian dualism inherent in our language seems to limit our ways of talking about other beings as agents – persons. I like thinking of us all as having ‘personhood’ because of the relationality it implies, as well as reciprocity. I think of a ‘person’ as more than cognitive reasoning. In fact, it’s probably my socialization that influences me, but I vision ‘personhood’ as endowed with the concept of rights, freedoms, even respect.

      On a philosophical – or magical – level, I think I see where you might want to get ‘under’ personality, in this instance, and find a deeper level of relationality. But to explain animism, and the concept of ‘other-than,’ to a westerner, I think ‘person’ offers a bit of a jolt.

  • http://priscillastuckey.com/blog Priscilla Stuckey

    Hi, Traci, thanks for bringing the focus back to relationships–how we’re all in this together, many kinds of persons sharing a precious Earth. It means we as humans could use some more humility (a lot more!) in relating to others. I too have been influenced by Graham Harvey; some pieces of my worldview came together when I found the newer definition of animism as relationality. I wrote a whole book from this perspective, Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature. It’s part memoir and part meditation on what these personal stories of encountering a tree or animal or creek might mean for arriving at better cultural stories of nature. Red in tooth and claw, yes–but nature is not more competitive than cooperative, as Western political & economic theory has liked to think. Both tendencies lie within within us. Giving the balance its due would lead, I believe, to friendlier stories of nature, perhaps friendlier relations between humans as well as between humans and the rest of the persons in the world.

    • Traci

      Hi Priscilla, and thanks for reading! I hopped over to peek at your blog, and the book (I LOVE the title) – which looks really juicy. The point you make regarding cooperation is well made, especially in our modern era. Often, when I meditate on the maxim, “red in tooth and claw,” I am reminding myself that life, and the natural world of which I am a part, is not sterile. Death, change, pain, and feast are all equally part of the dance. The competitive nature of modernity fools us into thinking we can ‘always’ win, and, by winning, overcome defeat, or at least shield ourselves from these self-identified ‘negative’ aspects of nature. I believe if we could all, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, begin to acknowledge the personhood of all the Others we share our cosmos with (and the Cambridge Declaration will hopefully go some way toward this), relationality would increase and bring with it a more balanced, compassionate world.
      Again, thank you for stopping by! I look forward to perusing your website!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507689165 Traci Laird

      (My reply seems to have gone missing. Here it is, and apologies for the apparent tardiness.) Hi Priscilla, and thanks for reading! I hopped over to peek at your blog, and the book (I LOVE the title) – which looks really juicy. The point you make regarding cooperation is well made, especially in our modern era. Often, when I meditate on the maxim, “red in tooth and claw,” I am reminding myself that life, and the natural world of which I am a part, is not sterile. Death, change, pain, and feast are all equally part of the dance. The competitive nature of modernity fools us into thinking we can ‘always’ win, and, by winning, overcome defeat, or at least shield ourselves from these self-identified ‘negative’ aspects of nature. I believe if we could all, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, begin to acknowledge the personhood of all the Others we share our cosmos with (and the Cambridge Declaration will hopefully go some way toward this), relationality would increase and bring with it a more balanced, compassionate world.Again, thank you for stopping by! I look forward to perusing your website!

  • Heather Awen

    Hello Traci, I would love it if you joined the Animist Blog Carnival! Great post!

    http://ecoanimism.com/blog/heather-awen/2013-jul-03/august-animist-blog-carnival-birds-call-submissions

  • ninigik

    There are many reasons that I am grateful for the internet, and for Facebook, and articles like this one are high on the list. I’m so pleased to finally feel that my personal beliefs aren’t so “out there” as I’ve been led to believe.

    I’ve always felt a deep connection to nature, and most of my memories from childhood are of light through leaves, wind through tall grasses, or the smells of dried leaves, grain after harvest, barns, and rain. I’ve lived in many places and have always noticed that there’s a different mood in every environment, be it prairie, temperate rainforest, or the temperate broadleaf biome. Different environments harbour different life forms, not all of which are kindly disposed, or even neutral, to human beings. Those angry trees from The Wizard of Oz didn’t seem very far-fetched to me.

    I lived for about a decade in and around Vancouver, BC, Canada, which lies in the temperate rainforest zone. Having grown up on the prairies I found the lack of sunlight and the seemingly constant rainfall very difficult to adapt to, and although the air was soft I often felt as though I was listening to a conversation in a language that I barely understood, if that makes any sense. It wasn’t until I had the great good fortune to move to a remote valley some 90 minutes drive north of Vancouver, and to live there for 8 years, that I finally began to understand the language of the rainforest.

    When I was living in the city the rain was a nuisance, something that created puddles on the pavements, turned fallen leaves into splodgy muck, drowned flowerbeds and made moss grow on roofs and walls. Driving in it was a pain, and trying to keep warm was a challenge when things were always damp.

    Living in the forest, however, was an entirely different experience of the same environment. Now the rain fell not onto roofs and walls, but onto towering cedars and Douglas firs, hemlocks and alders, which shed the rain and soaked it up. There were no puddles on the forest floor, but only a springy bed of fallen needles and leaf litter. Seasonal ponds and creeks sprang up in the rainy months, and larger streams flowed fast and cold, but one’s feet stayed dry while out walking.

    The change of seasons, more subtle than in other places I’d lived, was more noticeable in the forest. Small purple butterflies emerged in May, looking for salt by the edge of the lake or by the potholes in the gravel road; large blue dragonflies and lake boatmen emerged in summer, and small red dragonflies meant fall. Bald eagles soaring overhead in their hundreds meant winter. Stellars jays, cheeky and bright blue, were a constant, thrushes and robins woke us in the spring, bard owls kept watch over us at all times. If we were very fortunate, snow geese or loons would land on the lake during migration.

    But the most noticeable difference was the trees, those huge, mighty, patient trees. I would often sit under one, close my eyes, and just listen. It seemed to me that I was in the presence of a being so much bigger than myself that I couldn’t possibly hope to understand it, but I tried nevertheless. The root systems spread out across the forest to gather nutrients and water, gripped tightly onto rock for stability; needles shed water, gathered sunlight, and created their own clouds; bark protected from minor aggravations like insects, birds and small mammals. Each tree was a great being with a long-view of life that I couldn’t fathom, though it filled me with awe.

    I’ve kept these feelings to myself for the most part, because the few people I’ve shared them with have given me odd looks, as though I’m the crazy one. But I think that to live a life so disconnected from the rest of “creation” (whether by some wonderful accident or by an unknowable being I neither know nor care) seems crazy to me. In doing so we’ve charged blindly into an industrial disaster, commodified not only forests, which create water and regulate climate, but now even our food production. Living with an attitude of apartness has allowed the hubris we see in companies like Monsanto, which claim to be able to improve on nature, putting us all, human and non-human alike, in mortal peril.

    So again, thank you for sharing, and for spreading the truth that we are but the most obnoxious residents of the community of beings on this planet, and in this solar system. It’s not too late for us to restore balance, but first we have to talk about the imbalance, and envision a better way forward.

  • Glen Wells

    How is cherishing and nurturing different than worshipping, adoring and devoting?
    Or how are these acts meaningfully separable from/with the actors?


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