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Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

A PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award Runner-up

David Abram’s first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, hailed as “revolutionary” by the Los Angeles Times, as “daring” and “truly original” by Science, has become a classic of environmental literature. Now he returns with a startling exploration of our human entanglement with the rest of nature.
 
As the climate veers toward catastrophe, the innumerable losses cascading through the biosphere make vividly evident the need for a metamorphosis in our relation to the living land. For too long we’ve ignored the wild intelligence of our bodies, taking our primary truths from technologies that hold the living world at a distance. Abram’s writing subverts this distance, drawing readers ever closer to their animal senses in order to explore, from within, the elemental kinship between the human body and the breathing Earth. The shape-shifting of ravens, the erotic nature of gravity, the eloquence of thunder, the pleasures of being edible: all have their place in this book.

Richard Louv Reviews Becoming Animal

Richard Louv is the author of seven books, including Last Child in the Woods. He is the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, and has served as adviser to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award program and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Read his review of Becoming Animal:

David Abram is unique among interpreters of the wild voice within us. His first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, has become a touchstone for a needed shift in our thinking about the place of humans in the world. As the poet Gary Snyder remarked, that book helped map us back into the world. In his new book, Becoming Animal, Abram offers a startling new exploration of our entanglement with the rest of nature. This time, his focus is the intimate but sadly forgotten relationship between our bodies and the earth. By excavating the most ordinary and familiar of our experiences–the perception of shadow, the recognition of depth, the transience of mood–he re-opens for us the knowing that our bodies are intertwined with the flesh of the earth. I cannot imagine another book that so gently and so persuasively alters how we look at ourselves, and reminds us that sentience was never our private possession, that our very awareness is a means of participating in a more than human world. At no other time in Western history have we needed to listen to the wild voice within us, and to Dave Abram’s, as much as we do today.


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3 Responses

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  1. Glenn Aparicio Parry says

    Becoming Animal by recovering our essential humanness

  2. Eric Gross says

    Almost Perfect First let me come out and say, I really loved David Abrams book Becoming Animal. I loved how eloquently it argued against philosophies of transcendence which are such an important part of most organized western religions, I loved how David described and conjured up the mystery of the natural world, and perhaps most of all I loved how he reminded us, so powerfully, of the innately expressive and conscious filled the natural world truly is. Many of his descriptions of this world reminded me of my own time studying with Navajo healers.So why not five stars? I wish I could give it 4.5 stars.As I said in the title of this review, Becoming Animal is almost perfect. It also has several not to trivial problems.One, Abram rails against those who criticize writers who romanticize the hunter/gatherer – indigenous cultures of the world and of the past. He points out, in a lengthy footnote, how those same critics tend to romanticize the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, yet shower contempt on those who write favorably about indigenous cultures. And I could not agree more strongly. Yet, Abram does romanticize these worlds. As beautifully as he extols their power and their connection with earth-based life, he totally ignores their own internal pressures to conform, as well as their often savage cruelty they visit upon their neighbors. In the book , Jonathan Lear deftly describes the unceasing violence visited upon the Crow Nation by their traditional and more powerful enemy the Lakota. And this is one of countless stories of cultures dedicated to frequent violence and mindless animosity (not that are free of these very same vicissitudes). Often the reticence of these societies to innovate is a consequence of internal pressures to conform. Such stressors to internally conform in these societies often become unbreakable obstacles to innovation.One of the core themes of Becoming Animal is the rootedness these traditional societies have with the Earth on which they live. But many of these same societies lack this rootedness, including several Abram mentions. The life on the high plains of such tribes as the Cheyenne and Lakota were very recent phenomena made possible by the acquisition of the horse, introduced into the Americas by the Spanish. Life on the high plains began with these tribes at around the same time it began with the European invaders. Many of these tribal groups are highly nomadic. The Navajo entered the 4 Corners region of the US around 1450 after a long migration from Arctic Canada beginning around 1300. They arrived in the Southwest not so long before the Spanish entered that same region. Thus the argument for ageless rootedness often falls apart.And these are just several of hundreds of possible examples.Toward the end of the book, Abram unfortunately unleashes an attack on evolutionary theory by setting up a straw man hypothesis based on his projection that the science of evolution is too mechanistic and unwelcome to the complex web of inter-communication that he observes in the natural world. But such mechanistic models are exactly what modern science has, itself, rebuked. While the statistical incidence of mutation is random, how these random changes manifest and evolve in the complex eco-systems of the planet are entirely a consequence of the very same, rich and complex layers of inter-communication described and extolled so lovingly by Abram. Her really fails to get his critique right and the book suffers as a result.Finally, his criticisms of the cartesian world are uncompelling. The world he correctly criticizes is, itself, a consequence of cultural and historical memes that go far deeper in the human story than what Abram describes. More compelling and evidence based critiques are raised by Morris Berman (see: and my own writings, Liberation from the Lie. The emergence of mechanistic, soulless models was rooted in far deeper human cultural soil than what Abram presents in this book. I recommend each of these books for a more sweeping and compelling accounts for the degradation of the planets and social/individual life that resulted from the abandonment of the earthcentric life that forms the centerpiece of this book.Abram is fantastic as a writer of narrative and some of my favorite passages are taken, directly, from his own life. I really loved his description of his kayaking off the coast of Alaska and encountering a colony of sea lions and how he responded to their sudden appearance with such brilliant and connected expression,. The personal quality of this book is really terrific.But sometimes his use of language becomes too labored and flowery. Sometimes, it sounded strained, like he was working too hard to convince the reader of how smart and…

  3. snowy owl books says

    This book actually deserves all five stars

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