Animism: An idea whose time has come?

I’ve been writing about animism for years, and I sense that it’s an idea whose time has come. Animism has never gone away for Indigenous peoples, of course; it’s those of us in the Global North who lost the plot. But perhaps there’s an animist awakening coming.

Earlier this month, I read the news that Traditional Māori and Pasifika leaders had signed a declaration that granted legal personhood to whales. Crucially, this opens the way to discussion with governments across the Pacific to create a legal framework of protection for whales and a $100 million fund backs that. Reactions in the media have been positive. The reason, I suspect, is because animism makes sense to us. The evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that we are born animists; it’s “the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”.

Orion magazine recently hosted a conversation between Sumana Roy and Mary Evelyn Tucker about how spiritual traditions can reconnect us to the more-than-human world (The Rites Of Nature). Sumana Roy, author of the non-fiction book How I Became a Tree, explained the importance of inviting plants to a traditional Hindu wedding. Roy emphasises that we exist in a living earth community. She referenced the work of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who, in the 1900s, argued that plants may be sentient. More recent research supports this idea, with some leading plant scientists claiming that plants can distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ (Witzany & Baluška, 2012).

Rachael Petersen contributes a different perspective in her article Zen Mind, Vegetal Mind. Reflections on Buddhist practice and plant science. Petersen considers contemporary and traditional discussions in Buddhism about plants. Are they sentient? Do they have Buddha-nature? Petersen concludes that “not only do plants have a spiritual life, they are the spiritual life”, adding that “through deep practice that we may hear the voice of plants ‘with our eyes’.”

That intriguing suggestion echoes a recent experience of mine. I’ve been experimenting with super-slow-motion videos of water, including one of a river on Dartmoor. As I watched one of these videos, it occurred to me that the spirit of this place – the genius loci – was communicating through the mesmerising patterns of light and shade. Is this the voice of the more-than-human ‘speaking’ through an image?

Watching the river reveals the Spirit of Place