Last week while I was at Prescott College, where I teach in the grad programs, I had a wonderful conversation with Mary Sweeney, who also teaches there. Mary is a cofounder of Her Feet on the Earth, a nonprofit that teaches women and girls skills for “living in close relationship with the natural world.” These skills are often called survival skills or wilderness skills, but their group calls them “the ancient daily living skills of the ancestors.”
“When you go out in nature,” Mary said, “people are surprised how easy it is to slip into a different way of knowing.” People slide right into alpha state, she said, which she has come to believe is our natural state of being.
Mary teaches wilderness tracking skills, and she said it’s really all about relationships. “If your safety and food depend on understanding how everybody behaves, you’re going to pay really close attention to who’s out there. You might find yourself calling out to thunderbolts–hey, we’re here, please move around us–and you begin to sense where the animals are. You can do that because your mind is in a more relaxed state, and so more information is available.”
At Prescott Mary teaches ecopsychology, but I could have called our conversation Animism 101 because it’s exactly what I say to my religious studies students about the practice of animism. Rather than being about “spirits,” as animism used to be understood, it’s more about relationships–living in a world full of people of all kinds, only some of whom are human. It’s about paying such close attention to the plants, animals, or rocks nearby that you can recognize them as you would the faces of friends.