The Animate Canyon

We hear trickling water when we enter the canyon. It’s rainwater, seeping out of the mountain. The sand filters it and it flows spring-clear, clear enough for the pools to take on the color of their substrate.

img_0851One pool is white as alabaster. The next has a green tinge. In another, a collection of pebbles—vibrant as sea glass—collects in the center of the pool, a low spot where the current does not pull on them. Paige crouches over this pool, peering at something in its depths. I stand thirty feet above her up a ramp that stops at the vertical canyon wall. We exist within the same canyon but our experiences of it are different.

Up against the cliff walls, I can see Ollie and Paige below and they look small—much smaller than I imagined them to be from this distance. We are not large here. We are contained within the crust of the earth. Everything before me is of massive proportions: boulders the size of cars, heaving cliff walls, and a brittle yucca stalk outlined in black against a sheet of gray sky.

I walk down the ramp to where Paige bends over the pool, looking intently into it. The sound of tinkling water—one of the most soothing sounds I know—draws me close. The canyon shrinks and inhabits the pool where Paige shows me little creatures locomoting across the depths and a tiny worm—suspended and squiggling wildly.


I’ve been thinking about our participation—our embeddedness—within the landscape as I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal. The central idea Abram puts forward is that we cannot divorce ourselves from the integrated, sensuous, animal nature of our bodies. For a long time (really just an instant when you look at TIME) we have tried hard to believe we are just mind—an elevated mind occupying a sphere above the rest of the dirty, messy mass of plant, animal and rock around us. We have categorized everything: certain things are living, certain things are not, certain things have sentience, other things do not. What we’ve forgotten is our ability to sense a certain animacy—a realization that everything moves and shifts and lives and dies and erodes and accretes all around us, all the time. What we notice and bring our attention to is just one measly grain of sand within a mountain of activity that is living, occurring, and being constantly.

In a basic sense, everything is breathing around us. It is interacting with air molecules on an atomic level whether or not it has lungs—pushing it away or pulling it in. Everything is also in a state of decay or decomposition: the sheer rock walls have pockmarks from centuries of water drip, the juniper I see is in a incremental state of losing the turbidity within its cell walls, and my cells are dying by the tens of billions everyday.


Although what we notice is such a small part of a cacophonous whole, our noticing can be immensely important because it can remind us that we—as an animal body— are within the earth, not a detached entity looking at it from above. If we are in the earth then just as we sense things about it, we are in turn being sensed.

Abram puts it this way:

“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!”

Our inclusion in the landscape encourages us to have a conversation with it rather than treating it as inanimate matter with which we can do what we please. In the lovely children’s book The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor, a child learns to hear the rocks singing:

“Of course their kind of singing isn’t loud. It isn’t any sound you can explain. It isn’t made with words. You couldn’t write it down. All I can say is it came straight up from those dark shiny lava rocks humming. It moved around like wind. It seemed to be the oldest sound in the world.”

We might call this impossible because rock is inanimate matter, it does not sing. Abram would respond:

“Simply to exist, or continue existing, is already active—already a doing—and hence no phenomenon is utterly passive, without efficacy or influence.”

The walls of the canyon hold memory: turbid, tearing water and incremental drip, uplift and erosion, and thousands, millions of different lifeforms—plant, animal, bacterial—that have moved through its shadows. There is a huge body of existence here and it tugs on me as I walk through it. The water trickles, at times holding my attention like a waterfall and at other times drifting imperceptibly behind me as if I were being stealthily trailed. I let myself embed in the changing canyon, the moving canyon, the animate canyon.






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