Radical medicine is best swallowed in small doses, and David Abram’s “Becoming Animal,” is a book that might have better been published as a series of essays. The roots of his themes delve back into the soil of some of the earliest human cultures, but his recommended application of these ideas branches distinctly from both traditional and modern approaches to the subject of how we unusual mammals relate to the rest of the natural world.
The overarching theme of Abram’s book is a call to action through a shift in perception, and his topic is directly referenced in the title, “Becoming Animal.” Abram urges his readers to reaffirm their many connections to nature by “Becoming earth, becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner fully human,”(p.3). He argues that culture, propelled in recent years by the spread of digital media, has separated us from who and what we truly are: Mammals and active participants with everything that surrounds us, be it air, water, soil, plants, or other animals. A fear of the destruction that humans are imposing on the earth drives Abram to proselytize his perspective of the world.
The idea? That learning to recognize and respect our physical selves can help to forge a deeper sense of being a part of this world. Abram’s hope is that a deep re-connection with nature can help people on an individual and social level to treat the earth with greater respect and be more careful and alert in our use of its resources. As he states the matter:
“The complicated and often terrifying problems arising at this moment…entail the widest possible range of responses, to which every one of us must lend our specific gifts,” (p. 8).
Abram’s goal is a noble one, and his execution of it remarkably eloquent. At times his text reads like poetry. He is clearly aware not just of the content of his writing but of the auditory sounds each word produces. A description from the section “Mood” offers a fine example:
“On a warm afternoon, new leaves creeping out of the just-opened buds, when the apricot trees shamelessly offer their blossoms to a thousand bees, one notices a faint rumble in the air.” (p. 150)
Yet Abram seems unwilling to trust in the power of his descriptions. I sometimes felt he might have achieved more in saying less. He has a dismaying tendency to lead his reader to a beautiful overlook, then promptly proceed to tell us how he suspects the scene affects us and how looking at it differently will enrich us.
The nature of my complaint in fact springs from my greatest criticism of the book in general. Abram has experienced very powerful responses, some positive, some negative, to a variety of circumstances in his life, and, to this reader at least, it seemed he was overly willing to project his own experiences onto his readers. He falls into assumptions about his readers and particularly about certain groups of people, Book-based monotheists and scientists in particular. Certainly, anyone who wishes to take a strong stance on a matter cannot avoid alienating some of their readers. However, a humble attempt to avoid a tone of omniscience can go far in helping to keep the ears of dissident minds open.
I periodically disagreed with Abram’s approach, which is heavily philosophic. The cover fly describes Abram as an environmental philosopher, and he clearly writes from a philosopher’s perspective rather than the perspective of agriculturist, advocate, or ecologist, others who have written with a similar purpose. There were moments when Abram’s words struck a deeply affirming chord with me. At other times, I disagreed strongly with Abrams content or opinions.
\Still, I do recommend this book to others, including those who might have the same experience. Our world is indeed in dire straights, and the best way to create new ideas and press for change is by constant reassessment of our own beliefs. One final recommendation, if you do choose to pursue “Becoming Animal,” find yourself a reading buddy first, as this is a volume that shouts for active, in-person discussion.