Nature Religion and the Tum to Metaphysics

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Nature Religion and the Tum to Metaphysics
50
Reconsidering Nature Religion
24. Taylor, "Earrh Firsrl's Religious Radicalism," 198-99.
25. For brief anrhologized summaries of rheir views, see Kerry S.
Walrers and Lisa Porrmess, eds., EthicaL Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to
Peter Singer (Albany: Srare Universiry of New York Press, 1999), 11-45.
26. See Walters and Portmess, eds., EthicaL Vegetarianism, for discussion
passim rhar supports rhese generalizarions.
27. Michael Allen Fox, Deep Vegetarianism (Philadelphia: Temple
Universiry Press, 1999), 175-76 (emphases in original).
28. Peter Singer, AnimaL Liberation (1975; reprinr, New York: Discus,
Avon Books, 1977),7,163.
29. Tom Regan, The Case for AnimaL Rights (Berkeley: Universiry of
California Press, 1983), 352-53 (emphasis in original).
30. Andrew Linzey, AnimaL Theology (Urbana: Universiry of IlJinois
Press, 1995), 125-37; Carol J. Adams, The SexuaL PoLitics of Meat: A
Feminist- Vegetarian CriticaL Theoryl (New York: Conrinuum, 1991).
31. Fox, Deep Vegetarianism, 61.
32. Robbins has recounred this rale, wirh wry humor, in countless oral
presen rarions of his work.
33. John Robbins, Diet for a New America (Walpole, N.H.: Srjllpoinr
Publishing, 1987).
34. Robbins, Dietfor a New America, xvii.
35 Ibid., 380.
36 Ibid., xiii.
37. James D. Procror, unpublished lectures, Universiry of California,
Sanra Barbara, December 1999 and Ocrober 2001. A power-poinr version of
rhe firsr is available online ar rhe following websire: http://www.geog.ucsb.edul
~jprocrorljdp/ralks/ESR/Index.hrm.See, also, hrrp:/lrea.l.geog.ucsb.edu/esr.
38. Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley, The Wrirings of
Henry D. Thoreau (Princeron: Princeron Universiry Press. 1971), 17.
3
Nature Religion and the
Tum to Metaphysics
Horace Bushnell (I 802-1876) was a nineteenth-century American
of a different son from natutalist John Muit or osteopath Andrew
Taylor Still. Intellectually uncomfortable with the Calvinism of his
day by the time he entered Yale College, he experienced the religious awakening when it came there and felt the power of the evangelical hean religion of the era. He also absorbed at Yale a passion
for language, especially in its analogical and metaphorical uses.
Well inro his ministerial career in the Congregational church, he
felt the power of another religious awakening and a personal sense
of the presence of Christ thar led him, perhaps surprisingly, in lirerary directions. In a period of intense creativiry, he was drawn
increasingly ro rhe problem of rhe relationship of language to spiritual and theological truth, and the work that he produced became
a lasting testament ro views of the analogical imagination he had
begun ro form at Yale.
Bushnell came ro rhink of all theological language as approximate and not exact. Language for him was an "instrumenr"-an
instrumenr that, however usefUl, could never render precision. "I
see not how anyone, who rightly conceives irs nature," he declared,
"can hope any longer ro produce in it a real and proper system of
dogmatic trmh."
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Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
All things our of sense getmeir names in language through
signs and objects in sense that have some mysterious correspondence or analogy, by which they are prepared befotehand
to serve as signs or vehicles of the spititual things to be
expressed....
Inmis view ... the outer world is seen to be a vast menstruum [solvent] of thought or intelligence. There is a logos in
the forms of things, by which mey are prepared to serve as
types or images of what is inmost in our souls; and then there
is a logos also of construction in the relations of space, the
position, qualities, connections, and predicates of things, by
which mey are framed into grammar. In one word, the ourer
world, which envelops our being, is itself language, the power
of all language.'
The second direction to be taken returns to me late-century
osteopam Andrew Taylor Still, whose quaintly Enlightenment vision
of nature, examined in Chapter 2, made of nature a more rigid and
mechanical reality man me Romanticism of eimer Emerson or
Bushnell would allow. It is Still, me later figure, who, wim his "cargo
of indispurable trurhs" regarding remedies wimin me human body,
more man eimer of me earlier two signals a marriage between nature
and dogma.! Moreover, it seems no accident mat, as a co-signed letter to me spirirualist Banner a/Light reveals, me Osteopamic founder
was a reader of that well-known journal of me age, which was oriented toward spiritualism and magnetic healing, or mesmerism:
Still's world skirted me edge of meosophy, me Gilded Age system of
metaphysical belief and ptactice mat finds direct heirs and progeny
in tOday's New Age movement. His reliance on natural healing
brought metaphysical law into practice to change and shift the seemingly set and hardened matter of bones and body. He pointed, merefore, toward a body mat was ultimately malleable and manipulable
under me power of mind.
The third direction this chapter takes joins me first twO in examining a contemporary movement that links me Romantic analogical
imagination exemplified in Bushnell and Emerson wim me mechanical translation into a quasi-Enlightenment dogmatism pursued by
Still. This movement is a case study of how an unstable and noninstitutionalized Romantic religion of nature can transmure into a
form of teligiosity that deserts me lived world of physical nature for
me satisfactions of me metaphysical mind. The phenomenon I consider is me present-day and evolving animal communication movement, and I explore it in an introductory way in what follows.
Once upon a time, say some traditional peoples, humans lived
with animals in harmony and peace, and they understood animal
language. But after some "primordial catastrophe," only shamans
could speak the animal tOngues. In Mircea Eliade's classic work
Shamanism (1964), being able to speak animal language was a standard part of the description ofshamanic powers. Moreover, such animal language, said Eliade, was an indicator of me "mystical solidarity
berweet1 man ;lIid ;ll1i1ll~1' and "oilly :l VJl1<lllt of \l'llil LlI1gliagc.""
Set in me context of a concern for nature religion, Bushnell's
wotds are suggestive of connections between ourer and innerbetween world and mind-that preoccupied many nineteenthcentury Americans besides him and mat continued to preoccupy
later Americans. That Bushnell is often labeled a Christian
Romanticist or the "American Schleiermacher" is perhaps a clue to
the intellectual and spiritual company he kept. It is, at least, a
pointer for some directions to be raken here.
The first direCtion leads to an earlier Ralph Waldo Emerson
who, as we saw in Chapter 1, in his little book Nature (1836) articulated a theory of language that, however much it owed to
Swedenborgianism, became a hallmark ofTranscendentalist minking. Words, Emerson thought, were "signs of natural facts," even as
"particular natural facts" were "symbols of particular spiritual
facts," and nature itself was "the symbol of spirit.'" Spirit, for
Emerson and his followers, meant the transcendent, bur it also
especially led within-to the realms of intuition and ancient memory. Hence, as Emerson's admiration for Platonic categories already
acknowledges, his nature was a decidedly metaphysicalized version.
As for the later Bushnell, for Emerson the path of analo~y led to
the hlll1l~n Illlagin.llioll JIlJ It, inner landsc:Jpe,.
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Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
Far removed from Eliade's paradisiacal age and irs re-presentarion
in shamanic cuJrures-and seemingly far removed, roo, from rhe
age of Andrew Taylor Srill-a number of modern-day Americans
say rhey undersrand animal "speech.» They claim ro ralk ro animals,
quire ofren wirh rhe animals physically absenr, and ro ger answers,
somerimes pragmarically, somerimes reflecrively, and somerimes
ecsTarically. Markedly differenr in rone and rrapping from rhe
shamans of religious and anrhropological lirerarure, animal communicarors don no symbolic garb or gear, use no hallucinogens or
sonic driving (drumming) rechniques ro alrer consciousness, and
ease in and our of rrance srares wirhour rhe roughness and rirual
drama reponed in shamanic lore. They employ visualizarion, ofren
using phorographs of animals rhey aim ro reach; or mental projecrion; or gendy inducrive sound rapes; or rhe quier and openness of
medirarive srares."
To summarize rhe argument for rhis specific case, rhe animal
communicarors described here begin wirh experiences of communing wirh animals rhar poinr ro one version of narure religion. 7
Thus, exploring rheir world can show much abour rhe essenrial
fragility of American narure religion as a symbolic consrrucrsomerhing rhar rhe various inducrion rechniques, which so prominendy involve rhe mind, already begin ro rell. As rhe case of rhe
animal communicarion movemenr surely demonsrrares, a
Romanrically endowed narure religion, wirh irs characrerisric aversion ro insrirurionalizarion, is always ready ro deconsuucr inro
somerhing else. Once again, American narure religion is chronically invesred wirh rhe marerial for irs own collapse-eirher inro
polirics (forms of environmenral advocacy) or inro erhics (vegerarian food pracrices) or inro meraphysical discourse (rhe New
Age movemenr in general and, in rhe case in quesrion, a meraphysical rheology of rhe animals).
Firsr, rho ugh, whar is rhe animal communicarion movemenr?
How did ir arise, and where can ir be found roday? Whar are irs
general dimensions, and whar is irs likely furure? To speak of animal communicarion is nor, as some mighr be inclined ro rhink, ro
speak of visual cues and asrure readings of animal body language
(alrhough in cases some of rhis may be present). Nor is ir ro speak
of advanced rechniques of behavior modificarion using new and
benign forms of obedience uaining (alrhough pracririoners say rhar
behavior modificarion may resulr). Rarher, rhe rerm refers ro claims
of releparhic communicarion wirh animals, in many, if nor mosr,
cases wirh rhe animals physically absenr. These animals may be rhe
favored domesric four (cars, dogs, horses, birds); rhey may be more
exoric domesrics (hamsrers, rabbirs, snakes, llamas); rhey may be
uJ1[amed species from land and sea (e1ephanrs, whales, dolphins);
rhey may even be insecrs (anrs, spiders, flies).
The ancienr seer of rhe movemenr is probably]. Allen Boone, a
journalisr who became head of a Hollywood srudio in rhe 1930s.
Among his several books, Boone's Kinship with All Lift, originally
published in 1954 and srill in prinr, is repearedly cired by communicarors as a kind of gospel sraremenr. The book, which may be
read as a collecrion of essays, opens wirh a series of medirarive recollecrions of a celebrity movie dog of rhe period, a German shepherd
named Suonghean, and closes wirh a sequence of anecdores abour
Boone's relarionship wirh one Freddie rhe Fly." Suonghean, rhe
dominaring figure in rhe work, had been a champion German war
dog. He belonged ro Hollywood producer Larry Trimble, who
acquired rhe animal because he believed rhar rhe dog, rhen Erzel
von Oerengen (Suonghearr's German kennel name), had rheauical
porenrial-a porenrial consummarely realized in a series of
Hollywood films in which Srronghean became rhe hero and darling of rhe movie-going audience of rhe rime. More ro rhe point
here, rhrough a complicared ser of circumsrances Srronghean came
ro live wirh Boone for a year.
Ir was during rhis rime rhar Boone came ro believe rhar he was
having experiences of releparhic communicarion wirh Suonghearr
afrer whar for Boone were a series of inner changes. He learned, he
said, ro be quier, open, receprive, ever more deeply appreciarive of
Suonghean's characrer and quality, and no longer governed by
assumprions of his own human superiority. As Boone explained rhe
phenomenon, he repearedly used meraphysical language ro
describe whar had happened. "We would liSlt~n ro rhe Voice of
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Reconsidering Nature Religion
Existence as it silently spoke in that language which knows no barriers of time, space or species," Boone remembered. He and
Srrongheart, he said, had shared "in that silent language which the
Mind of the Universe is constantly speaking through all life and for
the greater good of all life. . . . Thus did we cross each other's
boundaries, only to find that there were no boundaries separating
us from each other, except in the dark illusions of the human
senses." Or again, as he declared, Strongheart was "spoken through
by the Mind of the Universe.""
Boone's affirmations as he recollected his experiences with the
famous dog of the movies were so many Straws in the metaphysical wind, and they pointed the way toward a furure in which experience speedily became reflection and reflection became
metaphysical theology. Sometime in the 1980s, the animal communication movement as it exists today constellated around a number of individuals, largely women, who became professionals in the
business of aiding mostly the "companions" and "guardians" (in the
language of the movement) of domestic animals in their dealings
with their charges. For the most part, the communicators dealt
with tl1tee sortS of issues. First, they addressed behavior problemsthe cat that would not use the litter box, the dog that chewed the
rugs and furniture, the horse that kept trying to throw a rider-and
they claimed success in saving situations and saving animals from,
in some cases, the fate of euthanasia. Second, they tried to find lost
animals, although most communicators agreed that this was
exceedingly difficult, and some refused even to try. Third, they
dealt with separational circumstances-illness, death, and communication with animals after their passing. For physical illness, they
often sought to identifY emotional causes of disease and tried to
clear them through various forms of nonmedical therapy, flower
remedies strong anl0ng them. For death, they advised whether or
not an animal desired "assistance," that is, euthanasia. For the afterlife, they reassured owners of their former pets' conditions and also
carried messages declared to be from the Other side to alleviate
human guilt and grief. Thus, in general, the communicators aimed
ro act as go-bet ween~ for pcnph' and their pets. Tlll:Y brought. thtoy
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
57
said, an animal's poim of view to a human, allowing the animal to
release pent-up emotions and feelings around old or current concerns, and getting animals to understand what owners wanted.
There were enough good results after their interventions that they
were kept busy.
The now-defunct Tiger Tribe magazine, a holistic journal devoted
to cats and their care, became a place where communicators advertised their services. Later, Natural Pet magazine, published by
Fancy Publications, the producers of Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy,
printed communication advertisementS until it, too, died. Other
publications continued to offer venues in which to publish ads. It
was clear that communicators were working on a fee-for-service
basis, with averages ranging from fifty to eighty dollars an hour. It
was also clear that they were making ample use of the telephone to
do their work--oftemimes with the guardian/owner waiting at one
end of the line while the communicator tried to establish contact
with the designated animal at the OtheL'O
In the early 1990s, Penelope Smith, without a doubt the leading
animal communicatOr in the United States today, began publishing her newslener Species Link. Smith's workshops to teach animal
communication attracted a network of women who began to teach
stlldents of their own. Other communicators independently
offered classes, toO, mostly about how to contact and communicate
with animals and somerimes about sound busines5 practices.' I
Ranks swelled, and the movement grew, bringing more and more
communicators and clients together. Although Smith and several
other Californians became well-known leaders, there were also East
Coast stars, and no region of the nation seemed to be without practicing communicators.
By the late 1990s, a small cottage indumy in books on animal
communication resulted, and communicators were 5elling audiotapes of their lectures and instructions as wcll.'~ Anbur Myers had
published a nationwide list of the forty-two communicators he had
interviewed for his book on the mowment, and Penelope Smith's
Spaie' I ink reg\darlv carried advntisemenrs (some sixtV-t\vo in
thL Wimer 2000 edit ion) f rom rq~i()l1~ i IlLIIilI i ng nunherll anel
Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
southern California, the western United States excluding California,
western Canada, the American Southwest, the Midwest and South,
the East, and even one from Switzerland by 2000. '3 By the year
2000, toO, Smith had gone on line with animal talk. net. And significantly, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals sponsored a July conference at a fashionable San Francisco
hotel under me title "Kinship with All Life." Sharon Callahan, a
well-known animal communicator from Mt. Shasta, California, was
an organizer and featured speaker. Meanwhile, skirting the edge of
me movement, Susan Chernak McElroy, author of Animals as
Teachers and Healers (1997), which had earlier climbed to a place
on the New York Times bestseller list, was also an active organizer
and speaker at the San Francisco conference." It became easy to
predict mat the animal communication movement would continue to gain converts in the near-term future.
Earlier, Smith and other communicatOrs had already pondered
the ethics of their interventions, and Smith had produced a code.
Formulated in 1990, the "Code of Ethics for Interspecies
Telepathic Communicators" was published at least once annually
in succeeding issues of Species Link. It pronounced the motivation
of movement members to be "compassion for all beings" and especially the restOration of "the lost human ability to freely and
directly communicate with other species." It declared the importance of spiritual growth on the part of communicators to keep the
work "as pure and harmonious as possible." Still further, it
explained that it was not the job of communicatOrs "to name and
treat diseases" and mandated referral "to veterinarians for diagnosis
of physical illness." It closed affirming that "the goal of any consultation, lecture, workshop, or interspecies experience is more
communication, balance, compassion, understanding, and communion among all beings. We follow our heart, honoring the spirit
and life of all beings as One," the code asserted. IS
With itS lofty goals and high aspirations, beyond itS substantive
recommendations the official code hinted broadly at changing views
of animals an10ng interspecies communicators. There were tensions
and ambivalences to be sure. Overall, however, communicators
showed a progression from relationships in which humans as superiors tried to communicate with animals on, especially, behavioral
matters, to relationships in which the animals achieved parity and
were considered equals, to still other relationships in which me animals were regarded as superior beings imparting ancient wisdom
that humans had forgotten or had never known. Here certain
species of animals especially emerged as wisdom bearers-whales
and dolphins in the ocean and elephants and llamas on land. By
tracing reported interactions by communicators with domestic animals who speak as peers and something more, and then with extraordinary nondomestics, it is possible to see how human imerspecies
COntaCtS move, apparently inelUCtably, from brief, "illumined"and orren mystically tinged-moments of nature reLigion to longer
cultural moments of a minimally varying metaphysics.
Examples of this process are virtually everywhere in movement
literature. Consider, for example, from the domestic side Dawn
Brunke's account, in the Winter 2000 issue of Species Link, of the
death of her dog Barney one early morning before she awoke. For
a week or fWO he had been sick and then had stOpped eating, a
process that seems a gentle slide into what might be called a good
but "ordinary" death. What Brunke claimed next, however, was
surely nonordinary-in fact, evoking the kind of illuminism, communion, and communication that Boone had described with
Strongheart, dog of the movies. For the previous six weeks, Brunke
declared, Barney had been having conversations with her about
"shapeshirring" and the art of dying, telling her that he had been
working to achieve a "conscious deam." Barney was an "old soul,"
she was quick to add. And then she quoted from his final conversation on the day before he died.
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You are right to apprehend that death is actually much more
of a group process than you have been inclined to believe.
Humans tend to pomay death as a solitary journey, but that
is not a truth I know....
Death is a journey of becoming and, as such, there are
alwa\'~ helpers along the way. I think al rimes humans desire
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Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
[Q make it a separate experience in order not [Q open [Q the
shared commonaliry of our ever-becoming....
Once you pierce or go beyond the veils that hold ... fears
[of death], you will see that death is a momenrary switch from
one mode of realiry [Q another. In order [Q shapeshifr, you
must become familiar with death, undemanding of itS nature
and ways in the world. This is the "big fear" that must be
worked with in order [Q approach the deeper layets of
shapeshifring, and it is why 1 caU death an arc.. . As one
becomes more familiar and adept at this an, one soon
becomes an apprenrice [Q death, and death begins [Q reveal her
secrets and her majestic smile. 'G
aware of how each species and each being plays a unique role in the
communif)l of life." Later, words came [Q her mat seemed [Q caprure
some of me experience: "Through whale wisdom / Reimroducing
me ra all of God's glory / I rest in my deepest cemer of creation / And
know that all is well." 17
Yet even as Smim brearhed her excitemenr in the midSt of experience, she fitted what she saw inco patterns of New Age orthodoxy.
Awakened in her whale-watching boat on the night of February 24
[Q witness a nighttime light show in the sky, she saw, as she later
raid, "me vast white light arching in the shape of me Egyptian Eye
of Horus," and it "formed a giant whale in the midnight sky. A portion of the light shaped itself spermlike." The conclusions she drew
were irrevocably metaphysical. The sperm like configuration of
light "appeared [Q pour energy imo the ocean. I became aware that
mis was nunuring the whales and seeding new populations of
whales and dolphins on the Earth .... It was a starseeding of whale
energy inco me ocean to assist the evolurion ofhumanlcind and the
whole planec." Thus the whales, wim rheir allies me dolphins,
emerged as wisdom teachers ra warn and save me eanh. "The
whales let me know that mey and their dolphin kin would be
appearing in places they had never appeared before and in new
varieties of whale and dolphin forms. They would visit pOftS and
shores in ever increasing numbers. There would be many beachings
as needed co increase human awareness of oceanic and planetary
pollution. Their proposed population increase could insure mat
their role as evolurionary guides would be fulfilled.""
As if the New Age environmencal warning of rhe denizens of tbe
sea was not enough, mere were land warnings as well, couched in
rhe metaphysical rheraric of movemenr panicipants. Take, for
instance, the accounr given by Sharon Callahan, the prominem
imerspecies communicarar from Ml. Shasta earlier cited. She
reponed a series of imeractions with a female Asian elephant
named Barbara, a wounded survivor of years of circus performance
and abuse, in which she (Callahan) merged mystically with the animal and felt overcome with Barbara's pain and sadness. Mer sixteen months of work \Vim the elephant, Cdlahan \\J.S able co
As Brunke recounrs the animal's death, it is clear that Barney in
some sense had moved from pet co peer: Brunke and Barney were
having daily ralks on metaphysical subjects. But it is even clearer
mat the relationship had advanced still funher ro a state of inequality, in which Barney "<1;; insrructing Brunke in spiritual wisdom.
He was affirming the naturalness of death but also the docrrinal
tenets of dawning rwenry-flrSt-Cenrury American New Age metaphysics, which, apparendy, he shared with his caregiver. Brunke,
afrer all, is the one who assened confidendy that Barney was an
"old soul"-a theosophical concept and complimem abour the
extended series of r",incarnations ;:l.nd spiritual lessons learned by
the individual so described. More than that, Barney's evocations of
group process, rravel beyond the veils, death as an, and the like,
poinr coward the venerable language of American spiritualism.
More expressive of the ur momenc of mystical communion,
there is Penelope Smith's experience swimming with humpback
whales in their breeding grounds off me coast of the Dominican
Republic in February 1998. "As they downloaded meir records inro
my receptive cellular srructure," she r<:p0r1ed, "1 reeled [Q hold ir in
my form as a vessel. I could not verbally communicate the vasmess
of these communications in a hundred years." She wem on [Q speak
of being "in a perpetual srate of wonder and gratirude at the inrer.tnion of the whole wcb oflife here 011 F~lrrh," ofb<:ing "proFoundly
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Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
articulate a composite statement of what she believed Barbara had
said. The being who emerged from Callahan's report seems a far cry
from the scarred creature who did not trumpet like other elephants
and whom Callahan had been hired to help to heal. Sad and
depressed Barbara may have been. Bur over the months, it was clear
that Callahan saw her animal client as also consciously the bearer
of a higher wisdom, self-conscious of her role as a divine emissary
to help save humans in the transition from a former to a transformed age: "I speak now as a single manifestation of the great ones
you call Elephant. I have been sent as an emissary during this enormous time of planetary transformation to speak for those of my
kind who have no voice, and for those who have gone on into the
realms of White Love." "Ir is true that an elephant never forgets,"
she affirmed, "for we are the earth's historians." A long message
detailed the pain and scars of ''the Great Mother Earth," recounting "the tears of her great rivers as they attempt to remove impurities from her quivering form, the clouds of brown particles that
surround her glittering countenance, impeding the inflowing of
the great central sun."19
Even more, if human environmental abuse had created the suffering of the earth, it was the elephants on land, akin to the whales
and dolphins of the ocean, whose spiritual mission was to "balance,
soothe, and nurture her." Callahan's Barbara knew consciously and
specifically of the role of the whales, explaining to her human friend
that "the great whales perform the same function for the oceans of
the world," by "sounding a note of very high frequency that balances and tones." Alluding to her own condition, the animal noted
the depression of captive elephants who were "robbed of their ability to sing their deep note." Ir took five elephants "together in one
place to create such a resonance," Callahan's Barbara told; and often
captive elephants were "forced into solitary living." "Please hear us,"
she begged. "The elephants hold the frequency, the framework, in
which all of the other animal species hold their own. We speak not
for ourselves, but for Mother Earth and all of life upon her."20
There is wisdom and counsel within Brunke's account of her
dog; and, even more, there is a poignancy about the Smith and
Callahan messages. But recognition of the counsel of the former
and rhe poignancy, and even urgency, in rhe latter twO environmental messages should not deflect from noricing the syntax of
contemporary culture in each animal's talk. Theosophy and spiritualism come together for Brunke's Barney. Both Smith's whales
and Callahan's elephant convey messages that agree with the
ecofeminist rhetoric many communicators share, and the messages
surely reflect their discourse community. StiJJ more, rypicaJJy,
broad and expansive wisdom about death and warnings about the
environment give place to far more specific and detailed instances
of New Age language and conceptualization. These are pervasive
within the movement, inteIWoven into public accounts and private conversations. 21
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A good place to see this distinctly metaphysical discourse in
operation is in Penelope Smith's book Animals . .. Our Return to
Wholeness (J 993), both because she clearly leads the movement and
because her articulation of themes is so strong. In this volume laden
with New Age orthodoxy, animals emerge incontrovertibly as forms
of spirit. Dawn Brunke's "old-soul" dog Barney, it may be seen, has
had innumerable companions, for they have freely chosen to enter
their animal bodies where, as part of the cycle of birth, death, and
reincarnation, they work our accumulated karma. Sometimes they
have been humans in previous lives, and sometimes, as in the case
of Smith's own Afghan hound Pasha, they return to their previous
owners in new animal bodies. Indeed, Smith's effUsive dedication
page for her work signals what is to come: "This book is dedicated
to PASHA I dearest friend and spiritual brother I who graced the
earth in Afghan hound form I from August 12, 1978 to January 20,
1993. I In gratitude for his rebirth on February 14, 1993, I returning to us as TAILOR, "Buddha Boy," Afghan hound, I to continue
to help many in their return to wholeness."22
Animals have a kind ofgroup leader, or oversoul, for each species.
They are sometimes walk-ins-souls or spirits who take over the
physical body of another animal that is choosing to vacate. And, as
in the broad hints in the account of the light configuration over the
humpback whales off the coast of the Dominican Republic, they
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Reconsidering Nature Religion
are sometimes beings sent from outer space. Smith, for example,
felt that she had become aware of the original background of
Mghal1 hounds. "Their original group landed thousands of years
ago in spacecraft in Egypt, to dwell on this earth and help in
human evolution," she recorded. Llamas, by comparison, have
outer-space "visitors" and "observers" in almost every contemporary herd. In one account of a premature baby llama named
Chimu, Smith recounted that she "felt almost repulsed" even
though physically the llan1a was a soft and cuddly baby. "He had
no aura," she said, as she told how she perceived his body being
controlled by beings "in outer space." ''A group of aliens, or nonincarnate beings, decided to operate his body as an experiment, a
lesson in how to experience life on earth," she explained. Smith
believed that her communication helped, because later, when she
checked on Chimu from afar, the aliens had decided that a single
spirit was bener than a composite and had selected one of their
number to reside in the body. Chimu was doing wel\.1'
In Smith's metaphysical system, different species are also
described as having different work-as, for eXalTIple, the orange
tabbies in the "Orange Cat Contingent"-cats, she has affirmed,
who all know and communicate with each other even though they
are thousands of miles apart. These are cats with common characteristics of friendliness, love of the outdoors and of watet, athleticism, and humor, but for Smith they have a collective "spiritual
mission unrelated to genetic inheritance." "They seem to be a
group of spirits with a mission to help people love themselves and
to remind them, by example, of who they really are." Roosters, in
turn, with whom Smith also connected, "were responsible for
bringing up the sun." She realized, she declared, that "many folk
tales were true about the animal's [sic] different functions, no matter how bizarre it seemed to our Western analytical mode of thinking. I knew totally that without the roosters crowing, the sun
would not rise.""
Smith's life with animals, as it unfolds in her book, is replete with
miracles-surprising coincidences and reincarnations, warnings of
danger, and experiences of grace :lnd salvation. Her confidence in
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
65
the reality of the messages she receives and in the need to honor
animal wishes is striking, and even shocking. In one case that she
recounts, for exan1ple, she became convinced that her ten-year-old
Mghan hound Popiya desired to die. She was in "good health,"
Smith told, but wanted to leave in order "to be human again."
After trying unsuccessfully to assiSt an exit through meditation and
will, Smith was so sure that she had heard Popiya's wishes correccly
that she, with Popiya, "went to a very spiritually aware and underStanding veterinarian.... Popiya quietly accepted the injection as
I held her in my arms, and she was gone in a few seconds."2\
What all of this very metaphysical book adds up to for Smith is
her willingness to claim the tide that she says others have given
her-"Animal Mystic." "Seeing the mystery of life, the spirit eternal, in our animal friends and all of life, is what my work is all
about," she assesses. For the argument here, however, her words
about the mystical matrix of what she does and is, when juxtaposed
with the fixed theological content of her book, point again to the
fragile situation of nature religion, evoking and, from a methodological perspective, adding to the comparison-oriented model of
Ernst Troeltsch. In his classic study The Social Teaching of the
Christian Churches (1911), TtoeltSch distinguished-in a distinction
scholars have come to consider fundamental-between churches
and sects. But there was still a third form that TroeltSch identified,
and that was mysticism. Characterized by "radical religious individualism" and a "pure fellowship of cl10Ught," nondependem on institutions, and combinative of Christianity with other elementS, the
mystical proclivity was bequeathed to modern times.'6 By the nineteenth century, it was linked to cultural and literary Romanticism, to
nature, to illumined momentS outside the social world.
Yet this Romantic nature mysticism of the nineteenth century
would also reveal that it had its orthodoxies and that its orthodoxies were nudging it not toward systematic expression in an institutional context, as in the case of recognized religious traditions, but
tOward a different kind of borderland of the spirit. In the United
States, one form cl1at mysticism had assumed was the metaphysical
tradition. And in the late lwenrictl, ccntl.lI)" ,Jlld on into lhe
Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
rwenty-first, much of me metaphysical tradition coalesced for the
time in the movement called the New Age, a movemenr mat could
be recognized by the marked vocabulary and tenor of its "spirirual"
discourse. Animal communicarors, by and large, are New Agers,
and so their moments of elevated consciousness and mystical communion with animals, as denizens of narure, lead mem ironically
away from narure and inro the realm of spirir. Those in contemporary America who seek, like the shamans of other times and
places, ro talk ro the animals are encoding inro meir messages
nuanced affirmations that bespeak a dOCtrinal ormodoxy significandy removed from a nature that, even with a Romantic gloss, is
still manifesdy material. In an idenrifiable social and cultural
momenr that favors "spirirualiry" over "religion," their metaphysical creed prefers harmonious connection over theoretical precision
and distinctiveness. Yet animal communicarors end by affirming
what they deny, for the terms of their discourse communiry dictate
a new precision about what may be said. If the shanlans of tradition imitated the speech of animals, able, as in the paradisiacal age,
ro speak and underStand it, the animals mat me new interspecies
communicarors contact have learned a human dialecr. The animals,
in short, speak New Age. Thus, watching animal communicarors
can help in the task of deciphering me American trajecrory of a
Romantic nature religion inro metaphysical discourse. Watching
them can also help in me task of idenrifying the role of social and
culruraJ context in transmuting religion-in-general in our time.
Surely animal communicarors engage in idenrifiable forms of
symbolic practice. Surely, roo, as the Troeltschian discussion suggests, mysticism for me most part needs ro be considered as a
species of religion. Even more, undersrood in light of an earlier
American metaphysical world with a distinctly religious ambience,
it is difficult ro dismiss me religious beliefs and behaviors that New
Age metaphysics carries with ir. But perhaps what all of this most
suggests is the need ro understand the religious in processual terms
more man essenrialist ones. From this perspective, it is hard ro
draw a hard and faSt definitional line ro mark me point at which
religion ends and some Other Form of culrural practice begins. But
it is also possible ro nOtice gradations of presence and absence-ro
see the differences berween, say, a spirirualist seance in 1861 and a
telephone conversation berween a client and an interspecies communicator in 200 1. It is also possible ro notice the relative "presence" or "absence" of nature in any movement that might have a
claim to be counted as nature religion.
Indeed, if Horace Bushnell could be imported on a rwenry-firstcentury time machine into the discourse communiry of presenrday animal communicators, he might be perplexed at the
metaphysical fundamenralism he encountered, wim its lingering
evocations of Enlightenmenr claims ro uum. Language among
animal communicarors is literal and concrete, almough their subject has slipped away from its foundation in narure ro the realm of
spirit and conjecture. The Romanric Bushnell had written, in the
middle of the nineteenrh cenrury, that "we can never come into a
setded consent in me trum, unril we better understand the narure,
capacities and incapacities of language, as a vehicle of truth." He
had argued that words were "only hinrs, or images, held up before
me mind of anomer." "Words of thought or spirit" were "not only
inexact in meir signiftcance, ... but mey always affirm[ed] someming which is false, or contrary ro me uum inrended." There were
"no shapes in me uums" that words represenred." Likewise, Ralph
Waldo Emerson would have felt eStranged in the company of the
animal communicators. Even if, for him, words poinred to nature,
which in rum pointed ro spirit, Emerson's attempts to unmask language and show its attachmenrs ro the material world never led ro
linguistic flXiry, a condition he Strongly opposed, but rather to a
docuine of correspondence that favored, not suppressed, metaphor
and analogy.20 More man that, Emerson could never count himself
a complete Idealist: he always undersrood nature as a tangible, and
even inroxicating, presence. Worried in his book Nature that he
had gone too far in the direction of Idealism, he hastened to
protest, "I have no hostiliry to narure, bur a child's love to it. 1
expand and live in me warm day like corn and melons."29
It required a stronger doctrine of language ro leave the physical
for the metaphysical world. Literally and paradoxically, it required
66
67
68
Reconsidering Nature Religion
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
a more mechanical and less organic view of words and rheir capaciries ro pierce, as ir were, rhe meraphysical veil. And so, ir is rhe
osreoparhic physician Andrew Taylor Srill, former magneric docrorl
mesmerisr and perhaps spirirualisr, who bener poims rhe way imo
rhe world of rurn-of-our-cenrury ralking animals. Already, as he
conremplared me body's living secrers wirh a view ro wresr rhem
imo healing discipline, he used rhe rheroric of rhe American
Enlighrenmem ro move roward spirir and meraphysics. Ar rhe same
rime, he moved away from religion and roward science, roward a
form of discourse mar privileged human undemanding, managemem, and comra! of hererofore mysrerious worlds. Togerher
Emerson, Bushnell, and Srill suggesr me cuirural rurns and r\Vim
rhar gor us from rhere (me lare eighreemh and rhen ninereemh
cemury) ro here (rhe early rwenry-firsr cemury). Over rhe objecrions no doubr of Srill, rhe firsr rwo poim ro rhe slipperiness of
speech and conversarion (wirh humans, wirh animals) and, even
more, ro rhe evanescence of rhe marerial world rhar language seeks
ro grasp. By analogy, rhey also suggesr rhe slipperiness of rhe very
concepr of religion. Taken rogerher once again, rhe rhree him of
rhe quier, sliding dearh of a Romamic religion of narure and irs
passage, in a journey of becoming, imo an inside-our
Enlighrenmem world in which rhe animals have confidenrly
learned ro speak New Age.
3. Andrew Taylor Srill, Autobiography ofAndrew T. Stilt with a History
ofthe Discovery and Development ofthe Science ofOsteopathy (1897: reprint,
Notes
I, Horae<' Bushnell. "Prdiminary Di·;,~rLnion on rhe Nature of
Language as R.'.:lared 1'0 Thl)ughr and Spirir." God in Chi'i.rt (1849), in
David L. Smith, ed., Homee Bw/mel{: Selectee! Writings on Language,
Religion, andAmerican Clt/ture (Chico, Calif: Scholars Press, 1984),33,37.
2. Ralph y;',ddo Emerson, Nature (1836), in The Collected Works of
Ralph Waldo Emersol'. vol. I, Natltll:, ,,·lddresses, and Lectures, cd. Alfred R.
Ferguson er al. (Cambridge: Harvard Universiry Press, Belknap Press,
1971), 17. Emerson's views of language here closely followed rhose of
Swedenboq~i~,11 Sampson Reed.
69
New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972), 100.
4. S~e Norman Gevirz., The D.o.s: OsteopClthic Medicine in America
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Universiry Press, 1982), 13-14.
5. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans.
Willard R. Trask (Princeron: Princeron Universiry Press, 1964),99,93-94.
6. Writren insrrucrions for animal communicarion may be found, for
example, in Penelope Smirh, Animal Talk: interspecies Telepathic
Communication, 3d ed. (Point Reyes Starion, Calif.: Pegasus Publications,
1989); Penelope Smirh, Animals . . , Our Return to Wholeness (Poinr Reyes
Station, Calif.: Pegasus Publications, 1993), 25-55; Carol Gurney, The
Language ofAnimals: Seven Steps to Communicating with Animals (New
York: Banram-Dell Publishing, Dell Trade, 200 I); Lydia Hiby wirh
Bonnie S. Weintraub, Conversations with Animals: Cherished Messages and
Memories as Told by An Animal Communicator (Trourdale, Oreg.: NewSage
Ptess, 1998), 157-83; Maureen Hall, Telepathy with Animals: A Workbook
(Norrh Hollywood, Calif: Maureen Hall, 1997); Diane Srein, Natural
Healingfor Dogs and Cats (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1993),34-41;
and for cars, rhe parrially releparhic Anirra Frazier with Norma Eckroare,
The New Natural Cat: A Complete Guide for Finicky Owners. rev. ed. (New
York: Penguin, New American Library, Plume, 1990), 24-27, 262-65;
and Celesre Yarnall, Cat Care, Naturally: Celeste Yamalts Complete Guide
to Holistic Health Carefor Cats (Bosron: Charles E. Tuttle, 1995),9-16.
Carol Gurney, Samanrha Khury, and Penelope Smirh, all animal communicarors from CaJifornia, have offered sound rapes wirh anecdotes and
instruction. Numbers of communicarors offer workshops insrructing in
techniques for contacr.
7. For nature religion, see Carherine L. Albanese, Nature Religion In
America: From the Algonkian indians to the New Age (Chicago: Universiry
of Chicago Press, 1990), esp. 7-8.
8. J. Allen Boone, Kinship with All Life (New York: Harper, 1954),
Boone's other books include Letters to Strongheart (New York: Prenrice-Hall,
1939), a series of reflecrive and meraphysicallerrers, writren from various
places to which Boone rraveled and addressed to rhe spirir of Strongheart,
who had died before rhe rime of wriring;]. Allen Boone, The Language of
Silence, ed. Paul and Blanche Leonard (New York: Harper & Row, 1970),
with essay-reflections on Jusr Joe, a rarne monkey, and similar themes; and
J. Allen Boone, You Are the Adventllre.' (New York: Prenrice-Hall, 1943).
9. Boone, Kinship, 78-80 (emphasis in original).
70
Reconsidering Nature Religion
10. Of the twelve animal communicators to whom I have spoken
regarding their work, eight use the on-the-line method of communication.
11. As an example, Carol Gurney, a well-known communicator in
Agoura Hills, California, incorporates a discussion ofsound business practices into her sequence of classes.
12. See, for example, the already-cired Penelope Smith, Animal Talk;
Penelope Smith, Animals . .. Our Return to Wholeness; and Lydia Hiby
with Bonnie S. Weimraub, Conversatiom with Animals. See, also, Arthur
Myers, Communicating with Animals: The Spiritual Connection Between
People and Animals (Chicago: Comemporary Publishing, 1997); Michael
Tobias and Kate Solisti-MatteJon, eds., Kinship with the Animals
(Hillsboro, Oreg.: Beyond Words Publishing, 1998); and, by the most
well-known author, Susan Chernak McElroy, Animals as Guides for the
SouL- Ston'es ofLife-Changing Encounters (New York: Ballamine Wellspring,
1998). For audiOtapes, see note 6 above.
13. Myers, Communicating with Animals, 231-36; Species Link: The
formull of Interspecies Telepathic Communication, Issue 34 (April-June
1999): 18-19.
14. Susan Chernak McElroy, Animals as Teachers and Healers: True
Stories and Reflections (New York: Ballamine Books, 1997).
15. See, for example, Species Link, Issue 26 (April-June 1997): 21;
Species Link, Issue 30 (April-June 1998): 17; Species Link, Issue 34
(April-June 1999): 20; and Species Link, Issue 38 (April-June 2000): 20.
16. Dawn Brunke, "A Journey of Becoming," Species Link, Issue 37
Oanuary-March 2000): 4-5.
1.7. Penelope Smith, "God Is a Whale," Species Link, Issue 30
(April-June 1998): 1.
18. Penelope Smith, "God Is a Whale (Part II)," Species Link, Issue 31
Ouly-September 1998): t.
19. Sharon Callahan, "Barbara's Story," in McElroy, Animals as Guides
for the Soul, 87-90.
20. Ibid., 91-92.
21. Of the twelve animal communicators to whom I have spoken (seven
in California, twO in the Southwest, two in Virginia, and one in
Pennsylvania), all but three signaled agreemem with New Age metaphysics. Conversations with the remaining three were not extensive
enough to form a judgment.
22. Smith, Animals . .. Our Return to Wholeness, v. I am aware of at least
one communicator who is some-.vhat circumspect regarding whether or not
animals know of their past lives as other species (although, even so, her
Nature Religion and the Turn to Metaphysics
71
views imply that they do). In her Conversations with Animals, Lydia Hiby
writes: "Never has an animal told me that in another lifetime she was some
other species. However, I have met animals I considet 'old souls.' I feel ~hat
such an animal has a greater understanding about life and is somehow wiser
beyond her chronological years" (186).
23. Smith, Animals . .. Our Return to Wholmess, 285,287-89.
24. Ibid., 135, 1.34, 157.
25. Ibid., 257-58
26. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching ofthe Christian Churches, trans.
Olive Wyon (l 91. I.; reprint, Chicago: Universiry of Chicago Press, 1976),
1:376-78.
27. Bushnell, "Preliminary Dissertation on the Nature of Language," in
Smith, Horace Bushnell, 39, 41, 42.
28. For Emerson's views of language in the comext of the idea of correspondence, see Catherine L. Albanese, Corresponding Motion: Tramcendental
Religion and the New America (Philadelphia: Temple Universiry Press, J 977).
29. Emerson, Nature, 35.