Recently, my wife and I and the kids watched “Cinderella” for the 12th — or 15th or 20th — time. I really paid attention this time to the fact that Cinderella talks with the animals and they talk with her.
There is of course also a spirit fairy (who also talks with the animals) and with whom only Cinderella can communicate. Without the fairy and the animals, especially without Cinderella’s goodness to the animals — at least in the Disney version — there is no escape from the wicked stepmother into the dream-world of the prince.
I also recently went to the theater to watch the latest installment of “The Hobbit,” with I don’t know how many more millions of people. There I saw spiders and trees and forests and a dragon, and other creatures which blur the line between animal and human. These non-humans all interact with sophistication and volition in their own interest toward the human foils.
Over the holidays, I read a book which was surprisingly lent to me by Garry Weybright. The book is titled “The Man Who Planted Trees,” by Jim Robbins.
It’s the true story of an unassuming, small nursery owner near Traverse City, Mich., who had a near-death experience. As a result of this experience, he was given a task by “light beings” to clone the largest, oldest trees around the world in order to preserve their genetics in the face of global climate change. He believes that these trees, and human relationship with them, are an important key to long-term survival of many living species.
I’ve also been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, Reflektor. As is their bent, there is an underlying apocalypticism to the lyrics. The theme that comes in over that slightly despairing undertone is the idea that spirit and soul count, and are as real as any kind of physical matter. Songs, including “We Exist,” “Awful Sound” and “Supersymmetry” seem to make this claim most plainly, though Arcade Fire lyrics are never transparent, and brilliantly require the accompanying music for their full weight to be felt. When this band is at its best, its music is a fusion of physical and spiritual, which our scientific minds don’t often know what to make of.
We are often uncomfortable with the idea of animism (that non-human creatures or objects have a spiritual and even sentient existence), outside of fairy tales. It’s OK for animals and plants to communicate with humans, and have relationships with each other, in “Cinderella” or “The Hobbit.” But when real people, people we know or like people we know, including a hardscrabble, small nursery operator from Michigan, start talking about light beings and the feelings of trees, we turn skeptical pretty quickly, and maybe even feel embarrassed for such people. There’s something not quite in touch with reality about such a person, or maybe they’re selling something. I know that can be my reaction.
But I also know that the depth of winter can make me think twice about the spiritual reality of the physical world around me. Fifteen below zero scrapes up against the known bottom of the temperature range for us in northern Indiana. Much colder than that and we’re into unknown territory — dark, skin-cracking terra incognita.
The unknown is the traditional realm of the spirit world, a place of mystery, of unquantifiable experiences, of intuitive comprehension. That we so love fairy tales, which embrace mystery and intuition and real relationships between humans and non-humans, maybe signals a forgotten ability or renewed desire to bring our seeing-is-believing worldviews into balance with the spiritually animated material world.
I know that sounds funny.
I felt funny when I drove down Century Drive past a 15-acre woods that has been recently developed for industry. Several years ago I hiked in those woods, guessing at their likely fate. I wanted to see who was living there. Now it is all gone, and I feel a loss, similar to the feeling I had this fall when two honey locusts were removed downtown on Main Street. The woods on Century Drive are gone to make way for something else that humans need, presumably.
One of the things that humans need is spiritual relationship with trees, birds, squirrels, foxes, rabbits, rivers, wind, soil. These relationships are not diminished by science. They should not only be celebrated in fairy tales.