SOPHIE STRAND: Hi, everybody. Welcome into this weird digital space. This is David Abram, magician, eco-philosopher, writer, thinker, dancer, mover. And I’m Sophie Strand. And we’re going to be talking about magic on a day that is known for its magical valence.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah, such a delight to be here. And to join you, Sophie, because I am very far from my home. Ooh, there goes my tea. I’m gonna go grab it.
SOPHIE STRAND: Grab it. Yeah, I think this is the perfect way, and actually I’m just going to burn a little wood, a little incense to begin this.
DAVID ABRAM: I’ll just call out my love and praise toward the creatures of the air, the wind, the breath, the weird folk, all those musical and melodious powers, flit on the wing, and swerve and swoop and squawk down at us, and ask that they lend us something of their presence and medicine, as we ponder today.
And a call out to all the rooted folks. Those who slurp up moisture in the soil, even as they eat that fire in the sky, the flame, the heat, the warmth. The plant world-like elementals of the fire, in a sense, calling upon them also, offer us a bit of their flexibility, and their specific medicines, oak and maple, some of these beings around here, who are also alien to me, back home in New Mexico. But I’m just getting to know them, now, here, in the East Coast. So calling those folks to draw near and join us, hold us, in our ponderings.
SOPHIE STRAND: Thank you. I want to call on a different type of ghost, because we’re about to be on the day of Samhain, and All Hallows’ Eve. And the ghosts that I think about are the ghosts of the glaciers, because I live in the glacial Hudson Valley, that was shaped by giant glaciers. And there are huge flung stones, boulders and fields that were flung by glaciers.
I had a very, very bad kidney infection many years ago, and I was hallucinating in my little house out in the woods, because I lived much deeper in the mountains, at that point. And I remember, in my feverish state, I remember thinking, oh, yeah, my best friends are the glaciers, like they’re here. They’re still here, they’re still talking to me. They’re still very present. I need to acknowledge them all the time. Their heaviness—like when I feel a certain kind of heaviness, it’s them, pressing on me, from above.
And so I’m thinking today, as there’s traditionally this idea that the spirit world is closer, that the dead are closer, that I’m calling on the glaciers and their weight, and their stability and intensity, their ability to shape landscapes, to draw their bodies across stone and create valleys and furrows. So I’m calling on that glacial weight and heaviness and direction. And I’m also calling on all of the very, very particulate, delicate, almost crocheted moulds that are across the fallen leaves right now that you don’t even think that there’s all of this life happening.
But in these piles of fallen leaves, there are these tiny little moulds that are growing right now. And because I have this new dog, I go outside, and I spent a lot of time looking at the ground. He’s tiny, [I’m] walking him around, and I was thinking of all of these little beings, these mould beings that are surfing across the leaves, they’ve suddenly got a lot of surface area in which to breathe and to be. So I’m calling on the leaf mould, and I’m calling on the glaciers, very specifically today.
DAVID ABRAM: Delicious, delicious, like some of the mouldy cheese in the back of my fridge. Strong tasting, intense.
Yeah, and just so they know we don’t mean to leave anyone out, just calling forth some of the swimming folks in the streams and rivers and runnels and rills, emptying into the great ocean, all those swimmers, salmon and minnows and folks who delve in their solitude and in their schooling multiplicities, and the humpbacks too, and orcas, the grey whales, just also to be with us.
And all the rockish folk underfoot and thick in these mountain sides around here, the granite and the myriad shapes of sensitivity and sentience that walk the ground of this granite Earth. The hooved ones and the horned ones and the furred ones and the scaly slithering folks and all you beautifuls, all you beloveds. We feel you, we honour you. We know you’re here. We love thee. And be with us, as we ponder together with our ancestors and the ghosts, this land and this place.
So I’m here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, very far from my home in the upper Rio Grande Valley of northern New Mexico. So I’m a stranger here, just getting to know it. I’ve a brief year long gig in this neck of the woods and, hmm. Slowly settling into this new collective of critters, insects, wingeds, plants. It’s real good to be here. It’s really good to be with this curious creature, Sophie.
SOPHIE STRAND: It’s interesting to think that we’re on the same coast right now, that in a certain way, we’re participating in the same extended body that we’re walking across.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah, I was thinking that you and I, Sophie, we’re very different animals, but we share a lot in common.
Our work has this commonality, we’re both involved in sort of grounding imagination, drawing the imagination back down to Earth, rooting it in the soils, in the palpable world, in the sensuous, in the tangible, not at all as a way to reduce the imagination, but to enliven and complexify and expand our sense of matter and materiality.#
And to enliven our sense of the Earth, and the rock, and the soil, and the lichen. To notice that whenever we dream, all these beings are dreaming with us. And whenever we concoct images of other worlds, or even have some sort of a heaven, we’ve got this weird habit of envisioning a heaven as something inhabited only by humans or human spirits and souls.
And I think your work and my work, both, is just trying to take care that any heaven that comes a-wandering and a-dreaming in us, is inhabited not just by us two-leggeds, but by all these other furred folks and swimming folks, and crawling and rooted, and richly. Spreading, radiating, fungal powers that the imagination, or the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, is really the soul not just of us humans, it’s the Soul of the World. And the world is this whirling dervish of a world, spinning in the heavens, but it’s Earth, who dreams through us when we dream.
SOPHIE STRAND: I think that’s why when I first read your work, it felt like, finally, someone’s articulating something that I’ve felt in my body for so long.
It’s interesting. I think people are very interested in trauma right now, because it brings us back into our body—problematically. And the desire to locate trauma is a desire to locate ourselves back in our matter, and to read our body, like the theologians used to skry over text and scripture, and always be trying to do some kind of exegesis. But what we really need to be doing is less this solipsistic obsession with our own organism, and more realising that the world of matter extends beyond our body, that like in that Van Gogh behind you, a plant curves into the colour of another plant and then curves into the actual texture of the sky.
We were talking about Van Gogh before we came on here, and I was thinking about how Van Gogh shows how all the disparate parts, be they air, be they colour, be they light, are interconnected and accommodating, with their very bodies, the aliveness of something else. And so I’ve been thinking lately about how there seems to be a collective urge to come back into that: the mattering of the sacred, that the sacred is material, that it is bumptious, agential, material, that we are a wave on the ocean of, that we are not a part of, we are symptomatic of it, we’re like a small pattern in this giant ocean, but that we need to not medicalise that we need to resacralise it.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah. Realising that matter is also mater, both from matrix, a word meaning womb, but in some weird sense, matter is the womb of all things. That within which all things are shaping themselves, coming to their dancing, presence, and then sliding and slipping away, in order to metamorphose into yet another shape, another style. Sentient dynamism.
This is good. So hey, I mean, [this is] a chance to ponder together about magic at this magical moment of the world, and this is a magical moment in the Earth’s turning. Of course, it’s hard to think of any moment that’s not filled with bodacious strangeness and mystery. But, I’m wondering, what does [magic] mean to you? Neither you nor I are into any hard and fast, definite definitions of anything. But what does the term magic invoke, for you?
SOPHIE STRAND: It’s so interesting—I feel like it’s something I believe in so intensely, and yet, when you go to pin it down, like a butterfly, you kill it. So, I think you have to kind of have a cataphatic experience of it, you have to name it again, and again, and again, in order to in any way, try and actually delineate what it could be.
But for me, I was thinking that there’s a modern idea that magic is above the world of material or natural order. That we have the world of science where everything is quantifiable, we can measure it, we understand the rules. And then there’s magic, which breaks the rules. I was thinking that I very much disagree with that. I think that magic is actually the deeper layer of rules, it emerges, that can’t be quantified, that it’s inherently irrational. In a certain way, it gives us space, that we can’t actually understand everything, but there is a deeper order, an order that confounds our idea of order.
And when it emerges and erupts through that texture of anthropocentric, quantifiable rules, it gives us a moment to breathe and say, the world is bigger than our machines. I was actually just rereading this essay, I’m sure you’ve read, that I love, “On Fairy-Stories”, by Tolkien. And Tolkien has complicated feelings about magic, but he explains these magical moments that happen, [and] it’s not that they rupture the order, they’re never a god from the sky—those don’t really count as real magic, because they disrupt the actual natural order. That they have to be part of the world.
So in Lord of the Rings, when the golden eagles come to save Frodo and Sam, that’s magic, because those eagles are part of the world. Their timing, and everything is inherently deeply unpredictable and magical—you don’t think they’re actually going to come.
But they’re not a god from the sky. They’re not rupturing the order, they’re coming up from a deeper order, that’s well below what is visible to the human. So that’s what I’ve been feeling: when something magical happens in my life, it’s a deep sense that there’s an order well below the order that structures my days.#
DAVID ABRAM: Lovely.
SOPHIE STRAND: Your whole life has been about magic. So I’m interested in how it’s resonating for you today.
DAVID ABRAM: One of the ways, sparked by what you were just saying, the sense of magic as another order, I do feel it’s a particular logic. The way of things. Magic to me, is really the way of things. It’s how things happen.
When we experience the world, from a fully embodied, embedded position, in the depths of the world’s ongoing unfolding, that the world seems to follow a much more cut and dried, straight line, linear, right-angled logic. When we, and only when we, look at or ponder the world from a kind of disembodied gods-eye viewpoint hovering outside the field of the 10,000 things, gazing upon the world, seeing it, as a spectator looking at a spectacle, which can be then framed as a set of objects. Some bigger, some smaller, some more complicated, some less so. But it’s basically a set of objects and objective mechanical processes, just automatically going about their thing.
Magic, on the other hand… And if that linear logic is the one that leaks out from ever so many papers in the sciences, even and still today, it’s this strange rhetoric that is always taking its distance from the world, assuming that we can ultimately “figure out” what it is, how it all works, ultimately. But magic is just this very other logic, from the perspective of a creature from the perspective of a bodied being, like you, like me, down here, in the depths of this blooming, buzzing proliferation of colour and shape and texture and olfactory essences, riding past our noses, wherein some things are always hidden behind other things, because we’re down here. And as I shift my position, and perspective, new things become visible and other things are now occluded or hidden.
Magic is the logic of the world, when the world is experienced from within its own depths. And in this sense, maybe “logic“‘s not quite the right word, it seems to me, when I’m trying to describe a logic that I don’t deploy from outside, like with my head, but that I’m inside of, I’m immersed in it, and move within it bodily. That seems more to me, like logos. Logic is a logos.
It’s a strange logic that catches me and moves me, and it’s weirdly richly participatory at every moment.#
SOPHIE STRAND: What was really striking me is there’s something about magic, I think, that we both experience, which is related to culpability, and to relationality, you’re responding and response-able, you’re able to respond, you’re also responsible to the world, in a way that you can never do when you’re in a laboratory experience, where you’re watching the billiard balls follow your own trajectory.
And it’s interesting because the god’s-eye view, we’re seeing more and more, involves a type of magic, which is, when you pretend that you have the god’s-eye perspective, and you can watch how things happen, you’re actually affecting how they happen. Which is such an interesting idea, that even when you think you’re at a remove, your idea of your remove, changes the outcome.
DAVID ABRAM: Yes. So here’s another take. I don’t know if this resonates at all. It’s been with me for a while, but just a sense that magic is a particular form of mysticism, that every one of the world’s—what we speak of as the world’s—religions has at its heart. [Each one has at its heart], a mystical tradition: Kabbalah for the Jewish tradition, Sufism for the Muslim world, for the Islamic world, there’s the many different Christian mystical traditions.
But if at the heart of every world religion is a mystical tradition, at least one or many, then at the heart of the mystical traditions, one finds—always—the magical tradition, which is a particular form of mysticism. It’s the mysticism of this world, of the body’s world, the body’s engagement with the Earth around it. It’s a mysticism that has no interest in transcending the body, or transcending the material world, with its folds and fabulous unfurlings, but is actually interested in staking its claim, or holding its place, down here, in the material thick of things.
To the point where each thing, each acorn, each slab of sandstone begins to shine, that the world in its material presence begins to become luminous, darkly so, sometimes richly shadowed, yeah, but each thing, vibrant and open-ended, and disclosing its own interior animation, its own pulse, its own rhythm, or rock, and roll.
In that sense, a particular form of mysticism, that those who are drawn to magic are those drawn to this sense of affinity with their own thingly material density and weight, and have no wish to transcend their flesh but are interested in inhabiting it, becoming more and more of it, from which they sense that their culture or their language has estranged them from their bones, and their animality. They are folks who are busily becoming more and more animal, more and more creaturely.#
SOPHIE STRAND: I love that. I studied in college, and I’ve continued to write and think about the female mystics in the medieval ages. They were exiled from ecclesiastical and Scholastic religion, so they were very focused, their bodies became the site of ecstasy and spiritual exploration. And so their visions themselves were incredibly sensual and creaturely, that they were climbing into Christ’s wounds, that they were having these orgasmic experiences, and very often, they were having convulsions and physical experiences as well.
And that was what made them so terrifying to the church, [it] was that their experience of mysticism was highly sensual, highly embodied, thinking about Hildegard of Bingen, and God showing her that all of life was just like a nut in her hand, that it was a tiny piece of condensed matter. And thinking about like, yeah, mysticism is not the moment when you transcend, but it’s the moment that you’re like, the whole world is a nut. It’s a mustard seed. It’s right here. It’s tactile, I can put it in my mouth and suck it to know it, that there’s a way of knowing that has very little to do with sensemaking and has very much to do with sensual making.
DAVID ABRAM: If that does make sense, I wonder and I’ve wondered for a long time, if this particular form that lies at the core of each of the mystical traditions, this magical tradition, it’s actually really, almost always, a holdover, pre-religious, indigenous, animistic, modalities of experience, common to the particular place, to that particular terrain or landscape. And hence, it’s carrying practices, bodied practices, that are often very basic and intensely practical and pragmatic about how to live in this land.
How to generate heat within your body, from your belly, in times of excruciating and unending cold? Or how to douse for water in the depths of an ongoing drought? [These] very practical, bodied practices, not just bodied, but they’re always about the body and its relation to the larger body of the world, or of the Earth. So we’ve got these world religions, we’ve got these mystical traditions, at their heart, these magic practices, many of which are holdovers from the pre-religious world that were just very basic to living, and getting on in that land, at that time.
SOPHIE STRAND: So the area that I’ve written about a lot is Jesus as a magician, Yeshua, and from being from Galilee, which is outside of the city, outside of the Scholastic Judaism, which is much more associated with folk practices, that people who are being oppressed by empire, who’ve been dislocated, who have had their land taken from them, who are incredibly sick, and then traumatised, are trying to make do, and they don’t have time for actual scholarly experiences, they need to take care of the body, first and foremost. And so there’s a scholar who I’ve learned a lot from: John Dominic Crossan.
He does a great case study, from all the anthropology and all the primary documents of magical practices in Second Temple period Palestine, and he says the only difference between magic and Orthodox religion, is magic is what is called the little tradition. It’s what the peasants have to do to keep alive, they don’t have time for the act of religiosity like because they’re actually trying to be bodies, they need to make food, they need to heal their sores, they need to make sure that their wife survives childbirth. And I do think that there’s something to be said, which is, magic is very, very much about staying alive, that it’s very wedded to survival.
But religion is almost an elite practice. It’s a luxury. And it’s interesting that religion has become the dominant theme, when it’s not actually practical, in terms of: how am I going to find food? How am I going to grow food?
That when you look at magical practices, it’s about: how can I be attuned to the seasons? How can I be attuned to my own body and relationship to the season?#
DAVID ABRAM: How can I find water?
SOPHIE STRAND: Exactly. And [we’re] at a moment in time where, because of climate change—[and] we’re kind of siloed from being affected by the weather, by the seasons, by agricultural patterns, but—we’re going to be more and more sensitive to those. And I think perhaps it’s that understanding that’s pushing people towards magic.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah. And yet, in the culture at large, there still and has been for many long centuries, a deep revulsion, a fear of magic. Just as there’s been a fear of the body and embodiment—something about being whatever else I am, if I’m a body, I’m subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I am vulnerable, I am going to die.
And that seems disturbing to lots of folks but to me, it’s even more what alarms folks, is just that present moment vulnerability in the ongoing interchange with others, with other persons, other beings, who might see me as too fat or too skinny, or not quite the right way. But I’m vulnerable in ever so many ways to illness, to disease, and all these ways wherein we take flight from being creaturely, because there’s something terrifying about it.
It means that we don’t have the world under our belt, that in fact we are subject to so many things that are out and about—some of which can eat us, really big things that can chomp us down, and even some really small, unseeably small, beings that can take us down. And so, it’s too darn terrifying, [so] I’d like to imagine myself into some much more pristine mode of being.
SOPHIE STRAND: Yeah, I think a theme that feels like it’s emerging is that magic is about making oneself vulnerable to the elements and to other beings. The moments in my life that I would uncontestedly say were magical, were moments when a creature, some kind of animal, bird, bear, contacted me in a way that felt dangerous and risky. And I was being asked to participate in a story, that I would never be able to actually see. I think that their magic is when another being comes and says, will you be a conduit for me? You’re never going to know what you’re doing. But will you do it?
You said at the beginning, that magic is a way of making things happen. Magic is a way of letting your body be the billiard ball, as part of the universe. You don’t know what your forces [are] pushing forward, what your trajectory is igniting. But you let that bear that came and looked at you, move through you and use you as an instrument. So yeah, I’ve been thinking of magic as a way of saying, alright, I will be a tool, use me as a tool, use me as an instrument. I’ll play music that I’ll never actually be able to hear.
But that’s a terrifying thing. You think of the ant that gets taken over by cordyceps and becomes a vehicle for the fungus. I think that’s pretty magical. But it’s magical in a way that’s much bigger and riskier, than our simplistic binaries of good and evil.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah, for sure. I mean, in a sense, we’re speaking here about magic as as interspecies communication. As the ability to step out of the singular umwelt of one’s particular species and make contact with another shape of sensitivity, another style of sentience, which verges on—and I mean, let’s keep holding all these things close—what for me is maybe the most profound sense of magic… came from my time travelling as an itinerant magician. I have to admit, some folks listening will know this, but others won’t: my fascination with these matters came from my craft, as a sleight of hand magician.
I was a magician by profession for many years, I put myself through college performing as a magician. I was house magician at Alice’s Restaurant, which is a very storied establishment in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and then began performing as an itinerant magician around first New England, and then around North America. Took off a year after my second year of college, and travelled as an itinerant magician through Europe, and a bit of the Middle East, back, finished my degree and then took off, journeying again as an itinerant magician through Southeast Asia, through Sri Lanka, through Indonesia, through Nepal, looking to meet the traditional Indigenous magicians who practice their craft in various village backwaters, in those cultures.
But I was approaching them not outwardly as a researcher, or an anthropologist, but as a magician in my own right. Someone very gifted in the skills of sleight of hand, but I was curious, would that be at all interesting to traditional magicians or shamans or sorcerers, as we sometimes speak of these folks? Would it be enough to pique their interest? And in fact, it was, and I got in way over my head, drawn into the homes of a number of these exceedingly bizarre individuals called dukuns, in Indonesia, and called jhākris, in Nepal. [I] asked to trade secrets with them, and ultimately to participate in their ceremonies.
And like I say, yeah, I got in too deep for my own good, perhaps. But it sure turned my life on its head. I undertook that journey among them to study the uses of magic in medicine, folk medicine, in curing, but this morphed, profoundly, into a much deeper concern with the uses of magic as a way of communicating with other animals, with plants, with the forest, with the valley, with the wetlands, that is, the magicians I came to know, this tiny clutch of folks that I had the luck to learn from and live with, in very different cultures.
But it turned out that although they were the healers for the villagers in their vicinity, they understood that their more primary role or function was to work as intermediaries between the human world and the more-than-human collective. The more-than-human collective, not meaning in this case, anything supernatural, but meaning the world of the humans, but all the other walking and crawling folks who move through the local landscape, as well as the flapping and squawking wingeds overhead, and the swimming folks in the waters around the islands of Indonesia, but also the rooted powers, the plants, the herbs, trees, whole forests, all assumed to be alive, awake and aware, but not just what we take to be alive. Also, the river, the dry riverbed, the clouds drifting overhead, storm clouds, in a big way, which are often called and invoked to drop rain, the mountainsides, rocks, anything that we can sense was assumed to be sensate and sensitive in its own right.
And the magicians, it seemed to me, Sophie, were those folks who were most susceptible to the call of these other-than-human styles of resonance and vitality.
The magicians were the sensitives, those who were most susceptible to these other-than-human solicitations, who could pick up from these other beings an easy resonance, or a reverberation within their own organism. And this enabled them to work as intermediaries.#
In fact, these folks would be helpless in the middle of the village. Because other humans whose nervous systems are shaped just like their own, are too similar. And they pick up way too much from other nervous systems, that are their own shape.
But this kind of sensitivity was just right for entering into some kind of communication with a frog, or with a spider, or a squirrel, or a wolf, or a forest. And that became their primary role or function, within their communities, was to tend to that boundary between the human world and the more-than-human world. And in that sense, it does seem to me, that magic in its uttermost essence has everything to do with the encounter with another style of intelligence, the ability to negotiate the strangeness between the human and an other-than-human shape of experience.
SOPHIE STRAND: I love that. So many things came up for me. One is that we’re in a moment in time where neurodivergent, whatever that is, is highly problematised or sensationalised, that it’s something you have to work with, you have to change, until you can come back into a normative mode of participating in culture, but thinking about how I’m a survivor of early trauma, which opened up the gates. So instead of homogenising the sensory stimuli I receive all the time, in order to function within human society, I noticed way too many frogs and crows, and landscapes and that the world is talking all the time, and I can’t shut it out.
And I was just thinking that, there are so many people I know who feel like they’re way too sensitive, that their brains are too alert, they have ADHD, they have all of these things. And in a very different time, that would be a mode of knowing, a way of actually realising that the world was speaking. And that maybe you should be paying attention to all of those different voices. So I think what I’m always trying to do in my life is say, okay, yeah, my nervous system is very primed and awake, I notice all the fluctuations in temperature and pressures, I notice all the birds, the shifts, and I can’t not notice, and it’s way too much information.
And yet, perhaps it’s that kind of fluency that is necessary. Some people need to be that intermediary. And there are a lot of people right now who think they’re a problem. But really, they may be very, very attuned to magic. It’s all about start[ing to] think about it a little bit differently, and reframing it.
DAVID ABRAM: That’s so true. Definitely, the jhākris I was with, the dukuns I got to spend time with were what we in the West, in the overcivilised world of the West, would call way oversensitive and would probably be pathologising them right and left. Even as kids, they’d be learning disabled, attention deficit disordered, and massively dyslexic, on the spectrum, all of that kind of stuff. But in their home cultures, I mean, I think it has to do with a sense that this society—I won’t even call us a culture, I don’t know if that’s worthy of the name “culture”—where we assume that anything that’s not human is basically inert, inanimate, or programmed in its genes, not really alive, not nearly as awake and aware as you are, this kind of sensitivity is then not good for anything.
You’re so porous, you’re picking up all the time from other things, other beings. But the only place you get to deploy it is with other humans, with other conscious, fully alive beings, that we think are just humans, but again, that blows out your circuits, because another human nervous system is just too similar to yours. You’re picking up all the time, the moods of others, even without looking at them, when they come in the room, and they’re all elated, and you’re talking to some other folks, but you’re starting to feel really elated, because you’re porous, other people percolate right through you.
So this kind of sensitivity, which is helpless, and very confusing in a society that assumes that [al]most everything other-than-human is not really awake and aware, is extremely functional, in a healthy culture, in a culture worthy of the name culture, that knows that everything’s awake. It’s just things are way different from one another. And so this kind of porousness that picks up so readily from other humans, “too much so”, may be just right, to hang out at the edge of the community or even just inside that forest edge.
Where with one hand, she can be in relation to the human goings on at a bit of a distance, but with her other hand, she’s in relation to the oaks, and the mosses, and the mycorrhizal fungi beneath the ground, and the wingeds. And that becomes her work, to be tending that boundary, making sure the human community has not taken more from the land than it returns to the land, whether with prayers or propitiations, or simple practices, and offerings and gestures, of communication. That’s a healthy culture. That’s when such folks are actively doing intermediary work.
SOPHIE STRAND: It’s interesting; I studied all of the Merlin mythology in England, and I was very fascinated in how a lot of different figures were created into this composite figure, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. And what always seemed very clear to me, is that he’s a magician, because he is a hedge dweller, that he has to go to the woods and go mad, that in the Vita Merlini, and all of the original myths, he comes, and he gives advice about how to run a kingdom. But it’s only after he goes and runs wild with the pigs and goes crazy in the woods. He doesn’t get his wisdom from the world of men, he always gets it by going back to the forest, and walking across that boundary repeatedly.
I think there’s something about transgressing the boundary, crossing that boundary repeatedly where you’re bringing spores from one side to another, you’re cross-pollinating, that it’s like an ecotone, where two ecosystems dramatically shift into each other, and there’s always much more biodiversity right at that thickened boundary, much more of a preponderance of birds and fish always live in the ecotone. And that the magician is kind of the ecotone between the world of humans and the world of the more-than-human. But we don’t have those edges.
And also we don’t know how to transgress boundaries in a very good way. We do it in a way that’s violent now. There’s never any kind of porosity, where they get to reflux back through the magician, into us. It’s always a one-sided affair, which goes back to your original noticing that a lot of the ways we study nature, or we study magic, is from a remove. That we never expect that the world will respond. And I think that what you were talking about with the jhākris and the dukuns is that knowledge that the world is responding, that it’s going to push back against you, and use you, and also come across the boundary?
Yeah. The whole purpose of tending that boundary is to make sure that it stays a membrane.
That your porosity is placed, as it were, in service to keeping the boundary of the human community porous, keeping it a membrane, across which there’s always things going in both directions.#
Your bringing up [of] the Merlin stories reminded me of my great pleasure coming upon. Was it, T. H. White? The one where Merlyn also is training the young King Arthur or [The] Wart, as he’s calling it. But he’s training him, by turning him into various other animals. And so again, the magician is the one who is the ecotone, as you’re saying, it’s the one who works that edge, is the practitioner of interspecies communication.
Even the very fallen away and contrived modes of conjuring magic that one meets today, in big theatres, where the magician is working with pulling a rabbit out of a hat, or making doves appear unexpectedly, or even folks like you know, like [those] in Las Vegas who transform tigers into chickens, and then the tiger is back. But they disclose something of this ancestral interchange, or the ancestral rapport that the magician has with the wild, with the more-than-human, with what’s not just us.
But I would say that sleight of hand magic, the simple craft of working with your fingers and an object, a coin, a deck of cards, always these very materialistic things that a sleight of hand magician then stretches into strange shapes and contortions, showing that even in the most ordinary, taken for granted phenomena, there is an otherness there is an inexhaustible strangeness, that the sleight of hand magician is still… he’s not just doing a sort of faking of magic, but she’s working with the same medium that the Indigenous, tribal sorcerer works with—that is the medium of perception itself.
If we could say that perception is like the medium of the magician, much like pigments are the medium for a painter, or musical tones for a composer. But a magician is working with this very malleable texture of sensory experience itself and shifting the senses, opening, altering the feel of one’s encounter with the sensuous, altering the senses. To what end? We could ask, and well, to the end of being able to shift out of your purely human style of experience, to feel something of this other style, that of the squirrel, or of the spider as she’s spinning the cosmos out of her abdomen, and maybe being able to enter into some kind of communion or communication, with that spider or with that ponderosa pine tree, or with the whole Aspen grove.
SOPHIE STRAND: I’m thinking about how I’m obsessed with the fact that there’s been a lot of focus on the divine feminine and female figures in art. And I always want to say that actually, the biggest motif were theriomorphs, which were human-animal hybrids, and then polyphonic iconography of many different beings creating like a holobiont, and then like tiny little stick figure humans. And I was thinking a lot about, it has antler heads, and owl eyes and paws, and, it’s one of the earliest representations of a human. But it’s not a human. It’s what you said, it’s like that interspecies ecotone.
Like the magician is always never human, that it always implies that there’s some kind of composite being being born, which is actually inherently, perhaps even more scientifically true. I think that’s the thing, magic and science are actually extraordinarily wedded, we just don’t understand it—we are built of more bacterial and fungal cells, than we are human cells, we’re quorum sensing, microbial, and mystical clouds that are held together by a kind of like a skin silhouette. And even our inheritance is that, simple, unnucleated bacteria have digested each other.
And so I oftentimes think that these theriomorphs are incredibly scientifically accurate. And that the magician actually is an incredibly scientifically aware being, who understands that it’s never just us making bodies or making things happen. It’s always many other beings you’re having to coax. Actually, it’s so interesting. So my friend, who is participating in the course, who is actually an incredible mycologist, her husband is a synthetic chemist. And so he has to study very complicated matter in types of medicine and in molecules and get them to do certain things.
And he was explaining it to me, and he was like, at a certain point, it’s kind of like magic, you’re like trying to convince these molecules to do certain things. And he was telling me that actually, they did a study, and chemists are the most likely type of scientists to believe in magic.
That when you get to a certain point in scientific studies, you realise that you are collaborating with beings you do not understand, that maybe you have similar goals, but these are not inanimate matter. These are beings that have ideas, patterns, proclivities, and you’ll have to coax them and work with them.#
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah. Oh, that’s gorgeous.
Certainly, there have been some scientists who for a long time, I think even when I was growing up, someone like Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas—who was working with the orangutans. Fossey was working with mountain gorillas. Jane Goodall, of course with chimpanzees. So working with other primates, kind of like us, and yet so unlike us, but these women were adept at communicating with—they had no interest in keeping that aloof detachment from what they studied, and just subjecting their subjects to arcane, statistical analyses of behaviours.
They were really, really just interested in going native, becoming part of the gang, feeling out and finding their ways to insert, instantiate themselves within those communities, deeply participant. And I’d reckon our best scientists today are doing that, not just with primates, but with cetaceans, with insects, spiders, well, I hope, certainly, quite a number, with the microbial world, with the fungal world, that is, scientists beginning to act as intermediaries, translating for us, not at all working to sort of “figure out”, in some kind of totalising sense, what’s going on, but rather, how can we communicate with this other shape of sentience?
And this seems to be an edge where even the natural sciences themselves are morphing out of a kind of adolescent phase into something more mature, out of that adolescent impulse to sort of immobilise what you’re studying, under forceps and put some klieg lights on it, and demand that it tells you what it is. And rather, science [seems to be] becoming more a mature recognition that we’ll never fathom this world in its entirety. What a silly idea, because we are a part of the world. And the best we can get at is to learn how to be better citizens of this biosphere. So these scientists act to translate both our human ways to the beings that they study and the ways of these other beings translating their languages or discourses or strange styles of marking to the human form.
That would be a beautiful new modality of science—science being deployed, not just in service of humans, and our own wishes and dreams, but a science that is practised on behalf of the entire earthly community. I hope that’s happening.
SOPHIE STRAND: Me too. And I was just thinking of Barbara McClintock, who dreamed with the plants and tried to act like them and made her body into them, and just thinking of all of these ways that you have to be goofy, in order to really do good science or good research.
But I also think that we’re so focused on progress and on results, and I think that it’s not about getting results or making something happen. It’s about opening up a channel, a dialogue—how do you use these tools, these scientific tools, as modes of having conversation, rather than as being your accessories to make something happen, that specifically benefits you. So: remove the goal, open up the dialogue.
DAVID ABRAM: Study the wetland, not to figure out exactly how this wetland works in and of itself, as if I’m a spectator looking at this spectacle, and thereby able to take it apart and put it back together to suit my purposes, or those of this corporation or that corporation, but studying a wetland, precisely, in order to learn how can wetlands and humans live in proximity to one another, and flourish?
Studying the humpback, not to understand what makes it tick, how it works, in and of itself, as if it were a big complex piece of machinery, but studying humpbacks, in order to discern how we and humpbacks can live in the same world without destroying each other. How humans can live in a world that enables and empowers the humpbacks themselves to flourish with all their kin, and all their neighbours.
SOPHIE STRAND: I think something I’m hearing and feeling is there’s a certain kind of humility to magic, which is that you’re never going to understand it all, but you will be a participant. And I think that’s what I love—which is you do not need to understand why this is the correct action, to create the best interaction between you and the humpbacks. All you have to know is that that’s the next step.
So you’re humble, that given your organism, given the fact that you’re a certain size, that you have a certain umwelt, a certain sensory apparatus, you’ll never be able to see it all.
But that the beauty, the magic, is in knowing that you’re in service, that you’re part of a conversation, that maybe you’re like, a word in a syntax, that is multispecies.#
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah, that sounds right to me.
If there are magicians, these intermediaries, among our kind, among humans, there are very likely such magicians found among other animal species, as well, and no doubt, among the plants, fungi and others.#
I’m thinking of when I was living in the Northern Rockies for a few years, and there’s no sound more haunting in the Earthly world, as far as I’m concerned, than the bugling of elk, the autumn bugling, which I wish I could imitate, but I can’t, but it’s a kind of spiralling upward, riding on overtones, into the highest reaches of our hearing, and then dropping into this guttural grunt, that you can feel is from a very large cave of a body, and to hear multiple elk bugling… Well, I was there, living there long enough to hear tell of a particular elk whose buglings were the most beautiful of all.
He was legendary, but an elk who also made himself visible again and again, in hunting season, to hunters who would try to take down this elk, but no one was able to plant a bullet in him. He would just dissolve—he would be visible, and then dissolve into the forest. And once I was out, hiking in the mountains, near a home and I was with a local friend, and I heard that elk, I heard a bugling that was more full-bodied, and utterly haunting than any I’d heard before. And he said, yeah, that’s him. But I never saw him. I wondered, is this one of those beings?
I got lots of examples of these. In Indonesia, there were monkeys that would follow you sometimes in the branches overhead on this peninsula jutting out from the south coast of Java, called Pangandaran. When I would walk, I’d find monkeys accompanying me overhead. The local villagers asked me please not to go into that forest, because there’s one monkey they told me about, who is so wild that he just swings down and steals the glasses off of visitors’ faces and they had to organise various search parties to find these folks who are wandering around blind in the peninsula. And they saw I wore glasses and so they begged me not to go in, but I did anyway.
But that particular monkey, that particular elk, I wonder if these are especially keen, intensely curious about other species, about us, and others, that certain individuals are of this same ilk, as the sorcerer, or the intermediary magician. And if it’s true, then maybe there’s some sense in which they form a species unto themselves, that the human magicians are not necessarily really human, that their home species may be elk, or maybe toad, or maybe monkey. Or maybe they don’t have a home species because they just are able to slide from one species to another, and to another, shifting their hands into fins, or into talons, and then back again to hands.
That’s certainly how many of the village folk in Indonesia, saw their magicians and why they gave them such a wide berth, even though these dukuns were able to bring health to when you’re ill or when you’re sick. But unless you really need to be seen by this particular jhākri, in the Himalayas, or dukun, in Indonesia, best not to approach or get too close, because there’s something really weird about these folks. And my sense was this was how the traditional magicians ensure their privacy. They don’t interrupt these rumours from circulating at all, because it gives them some sort of privacy, so that people aren’t endlessly inundating them with requests for ritual, aid.
But I wonder if they don’t sometimes just step out and take wing, and soar through the night and explore other parts of the land, and then come home in time for dawn.
SOPHIE STRAND: I think when I read, I think you talked about this in Becoming Animal. One of the most striking things was when you said, there are animals that are also doing this work. And for me, that’s that paradigm shift. That we’re not the only ones participating in a dialogue. I also think that right now, those animals are taking extraordinary risks to contact us, but then that we should honour that, that the animals that do break through the boundary and come into the city… like I was driving through a pretty industrial area and a stag ran out from behind the store, and in front of my car, at night.
And I thought you have gone through quite a bit to get here, and I’m going to stop and really respect that this was a risk, for you to come contact me. So it’s interesting to think right now, about how much work it’s taking those magicians to break through, given how many structures we put up to keep them out.
One thing I was also thinking about is microbes and viruses; in a world where we’ve created so many blocks to those magicians? The smalls: the viruses and the bacteria and the fungi are like, oh, we can go through your boundaries, we can come into your body and make contact. And as someone who has been susceptible to viruses and infections and bacteria that are scary, and have almost killed me. I can also say that was a contact, by an extraordinarily powerful magician who had things to say. I wouldn’t listen if they stood across the room from me, they had to enter into my very body, and speak through my eardrum into me.
DAVID ABRAM: Well, I too, am permeated. As you know, Sophie, I walk with late stage Lyme disease, which has wreaked havoc on various of my organs at different times of my life. I grew up on Long Island, which at the time, was before even Lyme disease was discovered as a thing, there in Long Island was the centre of this radiating realm of this illness. Is it an illness? Is it just an altered state? These other beings enter and take possession of you, and it turns out that Lyme is not just this one, spirochetal bacteria, but is a whole host of pathogens that come along with the spirochete, when a tick sinks its head into your flesh.
But I’ve had to grapple with and ponder, when I’m speaking, and when I’m aware and reflecting on anything, or speaking as I am now, how much is this me?#
And how much is it the fucking Lyme spirochete? How much is it this clutch of other beings who dance with the Lyme, and after trying to get rid of this infestation for years, not knowing really what it was I was afflicted with, and only got well diagnosed, like twelve, thirteen years ago, but long before that, I started just to negotiate with these beings, and just say, look, okay, I know I’m a walking swamp.
Anyway, I’m just made of so many other beings. Welcome to the neighbourhood. And if you just leave me alone, I will happily leave you alone and not slam you with mega doses of antibiotics. Just be gentle and don’t rile the ship up too much, and I will do my best to respect your presence here. But at a certain point, even the sense of me and you, gets confused and I don’t know, who is me, and who it is who’s speaking, right now, because there are so many other critters that compose me.
SOPHIE STRAND: So you have something like lichen, which is not actually a discrete being, but it’s what happens when two beings interface, or when many beings interface. Beings are, in a certain way, interfaces rather than concrete nouns. I’ve been thinking about how there’s a kind of Trinitarian aspect to what’s happening to us right now.
There’s an offspring, there’s a child that’s born, there’s a lichen that’s made, when we come together, when we interface, and that, in fact, our bodies are are created through these interfaces, through the inhaling of the microbiome and the pheromones and the funk, and that we need to be constantly coming into a kind of Trinitarian experience with the matter of the world. That we’re never just the algae, or the bacteria, or the yeast, we’re always the lichen of many other beings. What would it feel like if we thought of ourselves as like the hand of a giant Frankenstein? It’s terrifying, but also perhaps exciting because maybe the hand doesn’t know what the head is thinking. And to be a magician is to say, I’m part of a body that’s much bigger than me.
DAVID ABRAM: Yes, indeed. I do get confounded when reading these recent pieces that say that, such and such percentage of the DNA in our bodies is not human. Why then, are we calling it not humans, since you wouldn’t get the human, without all these other beings? So let’s just allow that the human is a threshold, is a meeting place. That that’s what we are.
SOPHIE STRAND: I also think, on a much trickier level, that we’re boats for matter, for spores, for carbon. And that we’re facilitating reunions that we don’t know, that our bodies are just boats that are transporting matter to other matter.
My father gave me this huge stone that he took off of my favourite mountain, and he had a dream. He was like, I have to give you this huge stone, you’ll know what to do with it. And I thought, really? But as soon as I received it, I thought, oh, I have to take you on trips. I have to take you places. And so all of a sudden I was going to places I would never go with this stone, and putting it, burying it, washing it. And I thought I don’t know why I’m doing this.
Perhaps there’s matter in it that hasn’t known the matter in a certain place on top of a mountain for millennia, and perhaps this is how mountains are born, perhaps a spore of a mountain came off and I’m the boat helping it travel, pollinate oceans. I eventually took it all the way to the ocean. And that felt like the culmination of this experience.
But yeah, we don’t even know what we’re doing. And I think that the magician—I wonder what your experience of this is—understands that they’re not totally in control. How do you navigate that, in your understanding of magic, like never being able to see the total picture? What role does unknowability and uncertainty play in your own experience of magic?
DAVID ABRAM: I guess that’s why it puzzled me at first, just because it seems utterly of the essence—what role does it play? It plays every role, it’s everything. Unknowability is the name of the game. If anyone is certain about anything, I try and sort of head to the other side of the street. Certainty is just deeply anathema to the mood and mode, that we’re calling magic.
A sense of the mysterious, the enigmatic, the unknowable, just comes from being a piece of the whole, from being just one small, goofy part of the dance. And the very idea that one could fathom the whole thing seems nonsensical to me.#
So a kind of huge openness to uncertainty is what’s most necessary even beginning to take a step in the direction of magic.
SOPHIE STRAND: Yeah, in a moment when the way that humans live [is] in first-world ecocidal capitalism, because everything everyone is “traumatised”, you want stable value systems, you want certainty, so you can feel like you can kind of understand who’s good, who’s bad, how to live. And that it would be incredibly risky and terrifying to open to magic. I can kind of understand why there’s a revulsion to the unknown, and to magic, because it implies that you can’t totally eradicate the Lyme disease, you can’t clean up forests, you can’t map these things and understand them completely.
But in a moment where I think things are going to cascade ecologically, in ways that we cannot map with our technology, magic would seem to be a very good way of navigating uncertainty, that it’s a way of strengthening the uncertainty muscle, getting good at improvising.
DAVID ABRAM: Improvisation seems profoundly at the heart of magic. Improvisation with the other, a kind of improvisational duet, with whatever is encountering you at any moment. Or maybe not just to duet, but with multiple other beings. But what can you do, if not improvise? That’s what we’re all doing anyway, at this moment. So notice it, allow it, and begin to practice dancing well. But the sense of uncertainty, it’s certainly a strange impulse to try and get things under control, and when so much is going on.
Even just societally, one notices this will toward scapegoating, to finding someone to blame, and then try and inflict as much pain upon them as possible, or destroy them, eradicate them, that that impulse comes from this terror of not knowing, this terror of the ambiguous. Yeah, a terror of ambiguity. Whereas the magician and magic itself involves loving the ambiguous, the enigmatic, and riding within it, and making moves, participating in it and realising that we are other, even to ourselves, as we’ve been saying.
SOPHIE STRAND: That’s interesting. So I’m fascinated with Jesus, Yeshua as a magician, as part of this mosaic tradition, northern tradition about spitting in people’s eyes, going to the top of mountains and talking with God. When you actually look at the earliest sayings of Yeshua, what he’s saying the kingdom is, whatever the kingdom is, whatever is most magical, fluid experience with the divine is impure. It’s leaven, it’s weeds that destroy your crops. And I was thinking about terror and uncertainty, and how a way in which to map your life, and to look where magic is trying to communicate with you is perhaps to look at the things you think are impure, or the things you don’t understand or the things that terrify you.
That’s actually the threshold that you’re being asked to tiptoe across. Thinking about you and your Lyme disease, thinking about me and my body, it’s at these moments where it’s a terrifying interaction. There are no rules. There’s no rulebook. Each step is improvisational. So I was thinking about reading your life for those ambiguities and saying, like, where are they? Where am I very scared to receive the message?
DAVID ABRAM: Yes, yes. Another element of the same is, because each of those are indices, indexes, where we are forced to accept that we are inside something bigger than, that we are inside the story. We’re not the composers, the authors of this tale. It is happening all around us and we are down here, in the belly of the beast, like Jonah in the whale, we’re inside something that is happening to us and through us, and we can either enjoy it and participate in it richly, or just be massively terrified, looking always for purity and trying to make ourselves evermore pure, or to make ourselves evermore certain, but those are ways of, it seems to me, hiding, of disguising ourselves, from the encroachment of the real and its wonder.
SOPHIE STRAND: I have to say, I’m a little bit of a psychedelic conservative these days. I’m not super surprised at how it’s developing inside the culture. And I want to say that it’s creating, [an idea that if] you take one pill, you get to open up your sensory gating, you see the world as magical, and then you close it back down again. And you pretend like you just go take the medicine, you put on your magical headset and you come out. [But] the much slower work is to learn to open those gates yourself, and to begin to realise that the magic is never psychedelic—it’s always utterly available.
And that it actually might take a lot of hard work to keep out those dialogues, those voices, those interjections. It’s such hard work for people to pretend that the world isn’t magical. So Freud, as it turns out, all of his patients were having prophetic dreams, they were intuiting things about his life… he was having magical experiences with his patients all the time and writing them out, like working so hard to write them out of his studies. It’s hilarious when you look at it.
And I think about how much work we have to do to explain away the magic in our lives, and then to pretend that we can medicalise it and control it, with this little psychedelic heroic dose, [that] we can go and dose our magic and then come out and then apply it to the rational world, when the truth is that it’s much riskier than that. It’s just beginning to relax your assumptions about what your day is going to look like.
DAVID ABRAM: Availing ourselves of these simple ways of just turning on the magic, using a pill is, I think, a bit insulting to the ordinary world of things that surrounds us, which is so uncanny in every one of its aspects. That’s why I so love your affirmation of the animate everything, that all you have to do is just allow that it’s all alive, like all of it. That it’s all alive, then there is no being, not even this strange plasticine surface of this desk, that I can’t actually begin to groove with, and find some way to play with or to roll things on, as I was doing just yesterday, I’ve been spinning coins on this desk.
The world is beckoning to us from so many different edges and angles. I’m worried that the palpable, tangible, flesh and blood world is getting so painful and difficult for folks, with its floods and its raging forest fires and never before seen hurricane winds, and intensifying droughts cracking the ground in many places. I mean, I don’t know what that is, if not an encroachment of magic, the world itself speaking in ever so many ways, to our bodies, to our creaturely senses and sensibilities. And yet, what it’s saying ain’t particularly sweet and joyful.
And I am a bit flummoxed that things are getting so harrowing for folks, that more and more people are just having recoursed to hanging out in more and more virtual spaces, or psychedelic spaces, when the earthly world itself is so… I mean, how much more psychedelic can you get? This is outrageous, what’s coming down now, and so [it’s] time to actually try and meet the real magic of this moment. Don’t get so hung up on it, that you have recourse to this particular shroom or that particular pill, or acid, every time that you want to tap into the delight.
The way the deep wonder of magic is reaching us today is also through horror.#
But you don’t have to go to a fucking cinema and find a horror film. The intensity of the calamitous right now is such that this is so psychedelic, and it takes all of us, each with our own utterly unique gifts—because your body is so weirdly different from my body—to suss out, what is this story? What is this story that is playing itself out now? And what’s my work, my dance, in this mix? Because it’s like all hands on deck, no time to tune out, or drop out. This is it. We’re in it. It’s happening. There’s no time for timidity. But it’s no time to run into some easy, blissful zone.
SOPHIE STRAND: Yeah, I oftentimes say like, if you’re ecologically embodied, you’ll be screaming. It’s not this eco-sensual awakening, where it’s just so good. If you’re tapping into your web of relations, you’re going to feel that your wider body has been harmed. You’re going to feel those wounds that you’ve inflicted in your own breast, that you didn’t realise that when you shot the arrow, it was going into your own body.
I always use storytelling as my frame, and I think oftentimes about how Scheherazade, in the One Thousand and One Nights, has to tell the stories to stay alive, and each one has to be more and more compelling. And it’s not necessarily about, [how] it’s fun to tell stories—it’s about staying alive, convincing the king to keep her alive. The Earth is like Scheherazade right now, the magic is communicating in more and more violent, loud ways, because we have been so good at not listening to the story. It’s trying to stay alive. When you refuse the call, the call gets loud. It gets really loud.
DAVID ABRAM: It gets really loud. Maybe in a sense, we also have to be a bit like Dunyazad, her sister, right, who just interrupts the story, at the right moment, each evening, and says, ah, sister, time to get some sleep. King, you must be really, really tired. And the king is like, no, I just need to know what happens, which is why he’s not going to kill her, like he’s killed all the other women before Scheherazade.
Because we’re not just living into the thick of calamity. There are so many exquisite wonders and delights to be had here, and that’s where I’m thinking, you need a break from the onslaught of nightmarish unfurlings. But take it by just inhaling a breath of this air, oxygenated by all these green and rooted folks outside your window, or step out and place your feet upon the ground and walk, and notice that with each footfall, you’re coming into contact with a being who is herself alive, who is feeling your steps as you walk upon the ground, and draw nourishment from contact.
I mean, once everything is alive, then yeah, there’s a kind of alarm and a deep grief that we have to step through, like a threshold, to come into this world of wonders. But it is a world of wonders. Not a particularly nice world—in fact, it’s massively dangerous—and that’s what we’re speaking of, there are not just things out and about that can eat us, but there are huge storms gathering on the horizon, that wipe out villages, or send them up in smoke. Earth as alive, is not particularly sweet. She’s wild. She’s a witch, in the best, most terrifying sense.
And that’s what makes her so fucking gorgeous. But that also means there are nourishment to be had, because this witch is also so richly complex, and to allow that everything is animate, is not to sort of open to some kind of a bland oneness—it’s to come into a world of outrageous differentiation, and a kind of irreducible plurality, styles of vitality, and an intelligence to enter into communication with. Find the way, communication without words for most of these beings. And yet your body is a variant of all these other bodies. And yet, each thing I meet is a variant of my body.
So I have inevitably, the ability to lean close and pick up a reverberation from any other being, or to send an echo of my voice through the bark, into the cambium, in the wood. No time for timidity, but time for luscious intermingling.
SOPHIE STRAND: It’s very Dionysian, in that you never know if you’re going to accidentally rip something apart, or if you’re going to be ripped apart, but you’re going to be part of the best party in town, which is anathema to empire. Dionysus always comes and turns over the empire.
It may not be pretty, but it’s always revelry. It’s always ecstatic.#
And I was also just thinking, we have such human ways of dealing with problems, and our human ways of dealing with problems have shown themselves to be pretty narrow and not super effective. I was thinking about [how] it’s better to crowdsource your thinking, think like a hummingbird. Practice a kind of kaleidoscopic consciousness. And that magicians understand that, like Merlin in T. H. White, you learn not by thinking like a human, but by practising being like other beings. The exercise will always necessarily fail, but it’s important to practice.
You talk about embodying the crow or the hawk, in Becoming Animal, right? What does it mean, to actually let yourself soar, to let yourself think and feel like another organism, and then you come back to a problem in the human world, and suddenly you’re thinking like a crow, you’re thinking like a mountain?
DAVID ABRAM: Yes. Expose yourself to these other beings.
SOPHIE STRAND: And you risk being changed—that’s the thing.
DAVID ABRAM: But get out of your house, the little house of your human mind. Open the doors, fling open the windows and step on out into the real in its multiplicitous weirdness. Also, places. Suss out the differences between places. I mean, we’ve only gently broached this sense of wow, if my body is awake, aware, thinking, speaking with this tongue flapping between my rows of teeth. Well, this vast spherical metabolism or flesh of the breathing Earth itself, who is vaster than fast, our more than mother, who is yet, so oddly different in each terrain.
Where I live in the high desert of northern New Mexico, so bizarrely different from this terrain where I’m living now, in the metropolitan, eastern coast of Turtle Island… I mean, the matter of the genius loci, the spirits of place, the unique intelligence or sentience of each ecosystem. Find a local wetland and just hang out and let that sentience, that mind of that place, begin to soak through you. For me, I step into the forest—I have to find some good forest near here, I’ve not found any that I can walk to, as yet, here, near Cambridge—but to step out into the woods, or a wetland, or a swamp, in order to recalibrate your nervous system.
In order to let all these other beings recalibrate your senses and your whole nervous system, to a world that is much more than just us. And then from there, come back home, come back into your office spaces, your workspaces, your family spaces, and keep all of that sensory openness, alive.
SOPHIE STRAND: Yeah, I was thinking also, to kind of go back to this idea that we always have to take the medicine, that we’re also being called to be like an acupuncture needle on the land. When we want to go to a place, that’s because it wants that footstep, it wants us to activate a certain spot, to place our bodies physically in somewhere that sets off the Rube Goldberg effect of like some mycorrhizal system sending carbon through to something else. When we step we’re activating miles and miles of mycelial fungi. And I think about that, that we don’t even know how medicinal we are to our landscapes, to our ecosystems, just by walking across their bodies.
So I think that we’re probably drawing to the end, especially because it’s getting very dark here, of this, and I want to ask you to tell a magical story to end this. To tell an experience that was just certainly magic.
DAVID ABRAM: Too many. [I’m] having trouble choosing. Well, since we’ve been speaking so much of the more-than-human world, maybe [I’ll share] one experience that bowled me over, that happened in the very human world of the city, walking along city street, I was in Manhattan, years ago.
All these people rushing past me, talking on their cell phones, their voices reflected off of all the glass, super slick walls on either side, the stone walls, the glass windows, people charging this way and that, talking on their phones to people who are not actually with them. And there was a kind of madness that was beginning to vibrate in my body, in my limbs. I gotta get out of here. But I’m just trying to make my way to a subway entrance, and I come just to a corner and I’m just about to cross the street, but there’s a sense of a strange openness that beckons to my right, and I turn and the full moon was just then rising right at the end of that side street, over the car tops.
Full, and round. Like a ripe peach reflecting off of all the windows of the many floors on either side of that street, turning this whole city into a kind of many-faceted jewel. And I couldn’t hear any of the car horns, I couldn’t hear any of these voices, I just dropped into, or was under this spell, the gleaming, powerful spell of that lunar gaze and rested there. Silent, silent, silent. I don’t know how long. But that was a magic, I’ve never forgotten—one of many.
SOPHIE STRAND: I think my favourite part about that is that it incorporates the architecture of the human, that it interjects and plays and improvises with materials at hand. And that there’s nothing pure about magic, it’s going to use what’s there—it’s going to find you. I think that’s the most powerful part about that. Don’t worry, it will find you. If you say yes, it’s I will find you.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah. And it’s also very, very ordinary.
SOPHIE STRAND: Yeah, it’s everywhere.
DAVID ABRAM: I think that’s why I chose that one. But offer a story, please, of your own.
SOPHIE STRAND: I have lots of wild stories. I live in the Hudson Valley, so there are lots of strange encounters that confound your idea of how time works. I think for me, there’s always a certain type of humour that magic comes with in my life, and it’s a way of kind of jolting me out of my seriousness. And the most intense magic I’ve experienced have been repeated, speaking of the magician, encounters with woodchucks. So with the magician species of the woodchuck variety, that come and have much to say, and that interject themselves into my life.
That run at me, find me, circle me, and that I just can’t seem to exit these interactions. And they always happen in places that are not pristine, and not natural, that they are edge-dwellers. They’ll be [living] in a city park, that my most intense encounter with them happened when I’ve been encountered by woodchucks for many, many months, and then I was driving home, in the middle of a storm on a highway, and there was one little shivering woodchuck in the middle of the divider, that it was not going to be able to get across, and I just knew, I was called by woodchuck, to stop and put my hands out.
And the magical moment was not that I picked up the woodchuck and saved it, but that the woodchuck and me had a moment of both meeting—the woodchuck jumped into my hands. It was like, yes. So it was this incredible moment where the world pushes back: when you put out your hands, it jumps to you. And then I ran across the road and threw it into the woods, and saved it. And it bit me. And the sense of humour was that I then had to get full rabies shots, so that I could be protected, when I was doing other animal encounters. The magic was that I received my armour, so that I could go touch other animals.
DAVID ABRAM: Mmm. Beautiful. And so goofy. And simple, and potent. I want to trade another story.
SOPHIE STRAND: Please, tell another.
DAVID ABRAM: I don’t know why this one came flooding in. I haven’t thought of this in such a long time. But maybe because I’m back here, on the East Coast. It’s something that happened to me up in the Adirondacks, [a] long while ago, on a lake, a large lake.
I was paddling in a canoe. I have to say some of my most richest, most vivid experiences of magic, have happened when I’ve been kayaking. But this was not one of those. This was just a very simple, paddling a canoe. How in the vastness of this lake and seeing a curious shape in front of me, and paddling closer and closer, and discovering it was a male deer, a buck with very many antlered rack, or many pointed rack, holding its head aloft, as it was swimming across the lake, toward an island, a large island, in the middle, it seemed. And I just paddled up alongside, and it looked at me, turned its head to me, and what was it going to do?
It just kept swimming. And I was about to say something, but then realised, this poor fellow, he’s exerting, so I don’t want to give him any reason to expend any more energy. So let me leave him be. And I began paddling away without making any vocal sound. When the deer uttered just a slight groan from its throat. And I kept paddling, and it sounded like a groan, just another. Another came from its throat. I thought, oh, is it calling out? To me? So I just paddled the canoe back to just two, three feet along from this buck, and paddling alongside it. And it paddling with its hooves.
I didn’t say anything, but it didn’t make that sound, didn’t that utterance anymore. I just accompanied it for a few long minutes, just us side by side, swimming across the lake. Yeah. Gosh, I haven’t thought of that in so long.
SOPHIE STRAND: That’s one of the most intense things I’ve ever heard. I think I also just love the idea of the accompaniment. That magic is a kind of accompaniment, of walking alongside, not needing to dialogue, not needing that response or to say anything, but to just know that you’re in step. Somehow your paths have joined.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah.
SOPHIE STRAND: Wow.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah.
SOPHIE STRAND: Was there any kind of invocation or spell that you’d like to say to end this?
DAVID ABRAM: Just a simple gratitude to all the wingeds, and all the swimmers, and all the rooteds, and all the walking and crawling, bodacious, furred and horned, all the many other folks, including these waterful artefacts that surround me here, and surround you there. We don’t forget them and their life as well. Life and creativity sometimes, tucked into the materials, from which these things are made. But thanks for joining us. Thank you so much for having this conversation. Right at this good autumn time, when the veil is slender, and thinning, and we’re feeling all our ancestors [coming] in.
SOPHIE STRAND: I’ll call on the Mesozoic ferns turned into plastic, all of the bumptious material ancestors, those ancient compressed minerals that have gone into making the technology that then weaves us together. There are so many strange ancestors that are helping us have this conversation.
DAVID ABRAM: Yeah, there sure are.
And maybe we should acknowledge the invisible, as just like the word says, it’s not somewhere else. It’s in the visible. Right here.#
And, indeed, if this elemental air was not invisible, I wouldn’t see anything else, wouldn’t see you. Because the air would stop up my gaze, that the place of the spirits, and the place of the ancestors, oh man, it’s just right here. Call them close. They’re right next to you, whispering in your ear.