In this post, I’ll share with you some of the investigations into the scientific basis for animistic folklore that I explored for my PhD thesis, which resulted in my two nature audio walks through Abney Park cemetery: Woodland Magick and Woodland Networks.
I cannot avoid the conclusion that all matter is composed of intelligent atoms and that life and mind are merely synonyms for the aggregation of atomic intelligence.
– Thomas Edison, 1903
As a metaphysical monism, animism is based upon the idea that nature’s essence is minded.
– Emma Restall Orr, 2012
I wrote my PhD thesis on the layered heritage of Abney Park cemetery in the north London community of Stoke Newington. My thesis was practice-based, which means my method of inquiry was based on a project, in my case audio walks through the cemetery. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Abney Park, it’s a Victorian garden cemetery that once held such vibrant plant diversity that it rivalled Kew Gardens. Today, it’s rather rewilded and overgrown, and many of the species once cultivated there are lost to time, however the 32-acre grounds of Abney Park are still an important ecological feature within the borough of Hackney. It is a registered Metropolitan SINC (Site of Interest for Nature Conservation).
I explain Abney Park’s nature pedigree here to explain why of the four audio walks I wrote through the cemetery, half of them are about nature. Abney Park offers an encounter with a rich tapestry of the natural world alongside human memorial.
So, what does this have to do with animism?
English anthropologist Edward Tylor reintroduced the term ‘animism’ into common use in the late 19th century and considered it to be the first phase in the development of modern religions. Some form of animism has been a part of the human experience since our incarnation as homo sapiens. Our understanding of the world, and our place in it, has been based for over 200,000 years on the view that every animate and inanimate entity is interconnected through energy and some form of ‘mindedness’. “This vast span of time makes the past five to ten millennia of civilisation somewhat fleeting, and the last fifteen hundred years of widespread monotheism a blink.” (Orr, 2012, 111)
Some form of animism has been evident at the beginning of every culture worldwide. This presents a powerful image of a binding together of an almost instinctual ideology throughout the human species. Within animism are many different branches of what is, essentially, a very broad term. Animism is based upon the idea that nature’s essence is minded. My audio walking practice does not claim methodological heritage with any specific indigenous culture, pagan, or ancient tribe, whose intricate histories speak of specific legends in relation to nature. Instead, my practice has been informed by modern animism, which opens up the definition of animism from the idea of fully shaped and anthropomorphised spirits within nature, with specific characters and humanlike sentience, into a wider concept of what is considered ‘minded’. Within this modern animistic framework, I was free to create a story purely from my imagination.
Viewing animism as simply an acknowledgement of the connections and patterns of energy within nature does not require a pagan or spiritual belief system. Magnetism and gravity are essential forces, which are vital and real and grounded in scientific findings. The study of quantum mechanics has proven there to be constant movement, atom exchange, and connection within, and between, all matter. This is not labelled as a form of mysticism, yet the premise could be seen to arrive at the same conclusion: all matter, all beings—the whole earth—is in flux, contains energy, and is connected.
Take, for example, the mind-blowing ‘magic’ of mycorrhizal fungal networks (which is too much to go into now, but you can read more here).
Quantum physics has also proven (or at least theorised) connections exist globally on a quantum level via incrementally smaller concentric vibrating strings (i.e. string theory). Everything has a ‘force’ that is in constant motion and communication. Ancient shamans and George Lucas believed this to be true before science proved it to be so.
Magic is simply science that we have yet to understand.
Author and all around badass Auther Machen explored the concept of humans misunderstanding the various meanings and communications within nature when crafting his 1907 book The Hill of Dreams.
He wondered whether all objects of nature could actually be purely symbolic: “whether nature does not endeavour to talk to us and tell us amazing secrets by the signs and cyphers of trees and ferns and herbs and flowers and hills and streams.” (Machen, 1924, 80) Machen presents an analogy of how much may very well be missing from our human perspective of nonhuman interactions:
Suppose a Tuscan to come to a village of savages and talk in his beautiful speech, and suppose the inhabitants pronounced him a curious, gibbering creature and made him a slave to amuse the children by the strange sounds he uttered. Even so, perhaps, may be our state with regard to inanimate nature. The oak and the elm that we fell for our need may be wonderful signs; the brooks may indeed be books; the fern may be a great secret; the flower by the way the word of a great mystery; and whether we call the hills beautiful or dig coal from hem, we may equally misunderstand their office. (Machen, 1924, 80)
The minded agency of nature that I anthropomorphise in my Woodland Magick audio walk is an extension of this idea, that as humans we cannot understand the possible deeper mystery or emotional worlds of nonhuman networks within inanimate nature. Machen’s early 20th-century sensibilities were attuned to the supernatural, and this served as a starting point for my 21st-century walk.
Borrowing concepts from both modern animism and Celtic folklore, I have used these themes rather freely within Woodland Magick to craft an animistic folktale about a River Spirit in Abney Park cemetery, more akin to Celtic animism legends than the scientific advancements that formed the basis of my Woodland Networks audio walk. Through anthropomorphising the river, fires, and trees, I have crafted a folkloresque tale that shares a common basis with Celtic animism and poetry, with a shared heritage most akin to Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans.
Erynn Rowan Laurie stresses that Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans do not regard the ancient tales as literal history, but instead as mythic and spiritual truths that resonate through the ages and teach deep lessons, to those who would but hear and understand. Animist Andrieh Vitimus describes the agency of trees as having a significant role in a variety of earth-based spiritual and magical traditions. Trees represent communication and, in totemic shamanism, certain plants have information and a willingness to communicate.
For Woodland Magick, I chose trees to be the communication networks through which the elemental ancients (River and Fire Spirits) infused Stoke Newington with an unbalance, which explains the otherworldly atmosphere that has been noted by writers over the years in Abney Park cemetery.
Arthur Machen wrote of Abney Park’s otherworldly unseen dimensions in his story N. Edgar Allen Poe went to school in Stoke Newington as a boy and wrote a fanciful version of the village into his story William Wilson. Iain Sinclair put forward the notion in his 2009 lecture London’s Lost Rivers: The Hackney Brook and Other North West Passages that Stoke Newington is so ‘weird and mysterious’ because it follows the line of the long-lost Hackney Brook river.
What I have endeavoured to capture with my Woodland Magick audio walk is the dark tension and struggle to which all of these writers have allude. The Hackney Brook river used to flow freely above ground. Herons would nest on an island in the river, inspiring the hymn writer Isaac Watts. Then the river was buried in the Victorian era, turned into a sewer. In my tale, it is this subversion of purpose that twists and corrupts the intent of River Spirit—from peaceful and life giving, to tormented and poisoned. This darkness is literal in the sense of subterranean, but figurative in terms of theme.
If the Hackney Brook could talk, this would be her story.
Through both of my nature audio walks, Woodland Networks and Woodland Magick, I’ve tried to inspire a process of acknowledging the agency of nature and to engage the community who uses the cemetery with its fascinating nonhuman aspects. By breaking down binaries that may be assumed to be static: life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic, these two audio walks also pose larger questions about our human position in a world that is both human and nonhuman.
Everything on our planet works together to its own ends, even if those ends can’t be seen to have a consciousness in the way that we think of it as humans. We are all part of an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity. Both of these audio walks are an invitation to see our natural world in a new way. Through a shift in perception, your neighbourhood park can show itself to be an enchanted forest.
References and further reading:
Harvey, Graham, Animism: Respecting the Living World, (London: Hurst & Company) 2005. Book.
Laurie, Erynn Rowan; Lupa, ‘A Word Among Letters: Animist Practice in Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism’, Engaging the Spirit World, (Stafford: Megalithica Books) 2013. Book.
Machen, Aurther, The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering (London: Martin Secker) 1924. Book.
– N, (London: Tartarus Press) 2010. Book.
Orr, Emma Restall, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature, (Winchester: Moon Books) 2012. Book.
Sinclair, Iain, Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London, (London: The Swedenborg Society) 2013. Book.
Vitimus, Andrieh; Lupa, ‘Pragmatic Tree Spirit Magic’, Engaging the Spirit World, (Stafford: Megalithica Books) 2013. Book.