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.