(Full essay available in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology)
“To the human animal, sleep is the shadow of the earth as it seeps into our skin and spreads throughout our limbs, dissolving our individual will into the thousand and one selves that compose it…”
— David Abram
In a patch of woods of spruce boughs and firs, a red-tail hawk, a dragonfly and other animals populate our senses. An undefined time span occurs in the writing as Abram turns to the sunset in detail, describing it until “the sun is gone” (24) as other senses intervene, settling in the afterglow, with all the smells and all the textures in the air. The idea of a “mammalian intelligence” emerges from this description as Abram considers his own consciousness attuned to the natural environment he found himself in, giving a name to this realm of blurring awareness.
You have entered the country of shadow. And a vast and brooding presence that had been hiding, moments earlier, behind the gauze of light is now slowly walking toward you through the clarified air. It is the breathing body of the mountain itself.
This insight touches on the estrangement of our thinking minds from the “intelligence of our sensing bodies,” an argument that sustains his meditation on shadows as more than “this flatness, this kinetic pancake, this creature of two dimensions”. Shadows emerge as something living, symbiotic with the natural world and its species. He describes the flight of a bumblebee to illustrate how ensnarled the elements and the species are in this realm of shadows—as he himself is as well.
Suppose, however, that on the same afternoon a bumblebee is making its way from a clutch of clover blossoms on one side of the road to another cluster of blooms in an overgrown weedlot across the street, and that as it does so the bee happens to pass between me and the flat shape that my body casts upon the pavement. The sunlit bee buzzes toward me, streaking like an erratic, drunken comet against the asphalt sky, and then it crosses an unseen boundary in the air: instantly its glow dims, the sun is no longer upon it – it has moved into a precisely bounded zone of darkness that floats between my opaque flesh and that vaguely humanoid silhouette laid out upon the pavement – until a moment later the bee buzzes out the opposite side of that zone and emerges back into the day’s radiance.
These musings evoke the question of whether we—as animals—notice how indistinguishable our shadows are from our beings. “Do we feel somehow different at high noon, when the darkness has seeped into us?”. Reflecting on such questions, he observes himself reacting to the course of the sun along an ordinary day, all the while perceiving the natural world in detail, in shades and nuances, with blades of grass and a beetle swaying along them as they become engulfed in shadows. He goes on to describe another sunset and its shadow play, with his own shadow elongating “like a slender giant of a man”. The shadow, “this elegant enigma, is always with us”—it is “an inescapable consequence of our physicality”. While there are some elements, such as winds, that do not cast shadows, for material beings “the shadow is part of our makeup”.
Reflecting on different shades and shapes of shadows, Abram settles on a mountain shadow as the template for a broader awareness of shadows, pointing to the fact that the Earth itself is always half-shrouded in shadows in its rotation, or day-night cycle.
To step into the shadow of this mountain is to step directly under the mountain’s influence, letting it untangle your senses as the rhythm of your breath adjusts to its breathing, to the style of its weather. To step into its shadow is to become apart, if only for this moment, of the mountain’s life. Just as shadows are not flat shapes projected upon the ground (but rather dense and voluminous spaces), neither are they measurable quantities, mere consequences of sunlight and its interruptions. Shadows are qualitative attributes of the bodies that secrete them. … To find oneself in the shadow of a mountain is to abruptly find oneself exposed to the private life of the mountain, to feel its huge and manifold influence on the local world that lies beneath it, to enter the gravitational power of its intelligence, a sagacity no longer dissolved in the dazzling radiance of the sun.
This awareness of celestial bodies and their own shadows concludes the chapter as Abram alternates perspectives between the micro—the human and nonhuman species living in habitats—and the macro—the “fabric of space-time” where celestial objects arrange themselves according to the music of the spheres, and the Earth itself is part of that dance of light and shadows.
Works by David Abram
Abram has published two influential books: The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human, in 1996; and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, in 2010. More about David Abram.