Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Metaphor: In the Earth not On the Earth

There is a passage in David Abram’s book Becoming Animal, which describes how humanity imagines its relationship to the planet. When a child draws the world, it often looks like a green and blue rock with people stuck to the outside. We are told that we exist “ON planet earth” and in a sense this is correct - we are being held to earth by gravity, and we live on the crust rather than inside the earth’s molten mantle. However, the earth is not merely a geological artifact that we are stuck on, rather it is a complex and dynamic biological process. Walking through a forest a human is easily dwarfed by the size of the trees, we are not even observable from the air. Fish live IN the ocean, and humans live submerged in a dense layer of atmosphere. Clouds, atmospheric currents, and birds of the air float and move around us in our submerged world. When we venture outside of the earth, we must be contained within artificial and surrogate earths (a spacesuit, spaceship, etc.). I’ll let David Abrams phenomenological writing speak for itself.

The way that all these other bodies—trees, bushes, hillsides—shift in relation to one another as I walk compels my thorough inclusion in the landscape; when I really notice and pay attention to their transformations, I’m forced to discover myself utterly inside the physical world. These shifting gradients and angles of alignment—the multiple tree-lined corridors that seem to open around me as I move—all converge and cross here, at this animate creature that is me, ambling through this forest. There really is this huge world going about its business independent of me, and yet I am in it, alive in its folds!…

Unless, of course, the clouds themselves are a part of the turning earth. In which case I am not really standing on the surface of this world, but am submerged within a transparent layer of this planet, an invisible stratum of the earth that extends far above those clouds. Unless, that is, the unseen substance that rides along these slopes, whispering the needles and rubbing the branches against one another—this tangible but utterly ungraspable element that swirls between my legs and pours in and out through my nostrils, the fluid medium through which those clouds are floating, and of whose lightness they partake, of which they are a kind of visible thickening or crystallization—is not at all continuous with the space that hosts the sun and stars, but is an element of this earth, an amniotic substance entirely proper to this place.

Which indeed it is. The air is not a random bunch of gases simply drawn to earth by the earth’s gravity, but an elixir generated by the soils, the oceans, and the numberless organisms that inhabit this world, each creature exchanging certain ingredients for others as it inhales and exhales, drinking the sunlight with our leaves or filtering the water with our gills, all of us contributing to the composition of this phantasmagoric brew, circulating it steadily between us and nourishing ourselves on its magic, generating ourselves from its substance. It is as endemic to the earth as the sandstone beneath my boots. Perhaps we should add the letter i to our planet’s name, and call it “Eairth,” in order to remind ourselves that the “air” is entirely a part of the eairth, and the i, the I or self, is wholly immersed in that fluid element.