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Remembering How to be Human

Lost Man Lake Colorado

What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. ~ Annie Dillard


Like Dillard, I want to cultivate a way of being that enables me to be in continuous contact with the fullness of the more-than-human world. This is no easy task in the context of the barrage of soulless infotainment and aggressive consumer programming that pass for meaning in our modern culture.

Spending as much time as possible outdoors is an obvious step. But the quality of one’s presence during that time is crucial. Like Dillard, there are ways of showing up in nature that are less interesting to me. I am familiar with the way of scientific observation, which wants to name, catalog, and analyze everything. Having been trained in that mode of relating to nature, the problem in my view is that it recognizes only certain aspects of reality. Most of what I know about the world has been gleaned with faculties beyond my rational mind. And that knowing includes a sense that the more-than-human world extends far beyond the level of scientific data. Science has its place. But it’s small.

When Dillard talks about the meanings of nature, she immediately invokes a sense of exchange. What we have learned from post-modernism is something the natural world has always modeled for us: that meanings are collaborative. And the meanings of the more-than-human world are, as Derrick Jensen says, much older than words. To understand what is arising requires sensitivities outside the mind.

We have to re-train ourselves. Put another way, we have to remember how to be human. A lot of what I try to do in my walking-around-life is about loosening the habits of mainstream culture. First I have to notice them. Then I have to stop. Neither is easy. But releasing those habits opens up a space. As I make space for remembering, I find that my powers of receptivity and awareness sharpen on their own, naturally. It’s a slow, quiet process. But it seems absolutely necessary.

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