Naturalistic Animism: Seeing the Trees for the Ents

The Tree or the Spirit of the Tree?

Those who believe in personal gods sometimes have difficulty understanding non-theistic nature worship. I have heard it said that we cannot possibly be worshiping natural phenomena, like the sun or trees; we must be worshiping a divine force “within” or “behind” the natural phenomena, something like Greek dryads or J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Ents, the personification of the spirits of the trees.

From a theistic perspective this makes sense. After all, Orthodox Christians do not worship their icons, and Pagan polytheists do not worship the statues that represent their gods. So some theists have difficulty understanding the non-theistic worship of physical nature. They assume that worship requires a conscious person on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it seems absurd to worship unconscious nature.

On the other hand, many Naturalistic Pagans are uncomfortable with the word “worship.” But for me, worship is a natural human response to the wonder which nature evokes. It is a spontaneous expression of awe, gratitude, joy, praise…and sometimes a little fear and trembling.

In the morning, I stand at an east-facing window of may hour, feel the sunshine on my face and chest and arms. And I greet the sun with a hymn of praise from the Indic Rig Veda. In my mind, it is the sun itself that I am praising, not the spirit of the sun or a god of the sun. Admittedly, the sun is indifferent to my praise, but this is irrelevant to my desire to celebrate it.

I find the “sun vs. spirit of the sun” distinction to be problematic. It assumes a division between matter and spirit that I, like many Pagans, reject. For Pagans and pantheists like myself who embrace an immanent divine, “nature” and “the divine force within or behind nature” are not separate.

A Tree as A “Thou”

In addition, I think there actually is interaction going on between the non-theistic worshiper and unconscious nature. It’s not necessary to personify nature in order for there to be interaction. But appreciating this requires the tricky step of overcoming the subject-object distinction which is our default way of relating to the world.

To understand what I mean, consider Martin Buber’s distinction between the “I-it” relationship and the “I-Thou” relationship in the context of his contemplation of a tree:

“I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air—and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law—those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars—all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself …”

For Buber, encountering the tree as a “you” or “Thou” (i.e., as a subject) is different from encountering the tree as an “it” (i.e., as an object). Encountering the tree as a Thou means entering into a reciprocal relationship with it, albeit an asymmetrical relationship in the case of unconscious natural phenomena like a tree. This does not mean looking beyond or within the tree for something else like a soul or a dryad or an Ent.

It also does not mean personifying the tree, in the sense of ascribing consciousness to it. Personifying nature can sometimes be a useful way of relating to it. But the pitfall of personification is that, rather than really seeing what is there, we project our own image onto nature. Personification can be used as a tool to connect with nature, but it should only be used after we have first seen what is really there.

Seeing as an Encounter

In order to understand what encountering a tree as a Thou means, it helps to understand that the act of perception is complex and not unidirectional.  As social ecologist David Abram explains in Spell of the Sensuous (1996), our most natural and direct way of encountering phenomena is as a reciprocal encounter with an animate being:

“There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn. …

“If … we wish to describe a particular phenomenon without repressing our direct experience, then we cannot avoid speaking of the phenomenon as an active, animate entity with which we find ourselves engaged. To the sensing body, no thing presents itself as utterly passive or inert. Only by affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world. …

“Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter—of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor—as a dynamic presence that that confronts us and draws us into relation.”

Thus, it is our objectification of beings, turning them from “Thou’s” into “it’s” which is artificial:

“We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.

Encountering the tree as Thou means becoming and remaining conscious of the natural reciprocity which underlies every act of perception.  But seeing (and hearing and feeling) the world in this way is not easy, habituated as we are to see the world as populated with inanimate objects, rather than animate subjects.

Naturalistic Animism

When I look at a tree, my default way of seeing is not seeing at all. I don’t see the tree, but my idea of a tree. I unconsciously fill in the gaps with my ideas of what a tree should look like. It takes an artist’s eyes—or a lover’s—to really see. It takes a willingness to get our hands dirty, to get up close and personal with messy nature, and to use all of our senses. But most of all, it requires a willingness to be open to receiving, as well as perceiving—an openness to being “touched back” when we touch nature.

And while this is our “natural” way of being in the world, it is not our habitual way of being. This is where animist practice comes in for me. Animist practice helps me to really see (and hear and smell and taste and touch).  Not to see a dryad where there is a tree, but to see, really see, the tree itself.

When I manage this, then worshiping nature doesn’t seem strange at all; it seems the most natural thing in the world. When I realize that the world is not made of inanimate objects, but of living beings that are in constant communication with me and with each other, then the idea of worship takes on new meaning. Worship isn’t my way of communicating with the tree. It’s the way I celebrate the communication that is already happening.


John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.

To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.

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3 Comments on “Naturalistic Animism: Seeing the Trees for the Ents

  1. I have just discovered this genre of thought. Your piece makes so much sense and as I search for s spiritual path I am grateful to find one that can reconcile spirituality with rationale. Wonderful thoughtful piece, thank you.

  2. Deep philosophical resources abound to support this view! It’s so exciting to see it expressed so clearly and accessibly.

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