Sometimes I live near a river. It’s called the Rillito, or “Little River,” in Spanish, and it carries water only when it rains or after the snow in the nearby mountains melts. Most of the year, it’s a dry wash thick with mesquite trees and tall grasses; at dusk, I often see coyotes flitting between the bushes. People walk their dogs in the dry riverbed.
The Rillito didn’t always come and go: About a century ago, its flow was continuous, and the riverbed was lined by larger, leafier water-dependent vegetation, such as willows and cottonwood trees. But as regional agriculture and the city of Tucson grew, groundwater pumping destroyed the perennial stream, and, with it, most of its riparian habitat. One unforeseen consequence of this was that the “little river” now rose and widened with each flood, unleashing a raging force each time it rained.
Just west of us in Southern California, atmospheric rivers have brought storms, flooding and landslides, killing more than 30 people. Such is modern-day life in the West: Nature’s disrupted cycles make for a frustrating commute, at the very least; at the worst, they can bring a death sentence. It didn’t have to be this way. Nature wasn’t always this destructive, this often. Then again, we were never meant to be this disconnected from Earth’s heartbeat.
Across geography and culture, our ancestors had a greater reverence for nature’s myriad expressions — for what makes a river swell, or how a forest landscape regenerates after a fire. As a city dweller living far removed from my cultural roots, I find myself often searching for this deeper understanding of the living world around me and how it shapes and nurtures all of us.
Anthropologists have another name for this: animism, from the Latin word anima, or soul. It’s a concept as difficult to decipher as dreams, death or apparitions, and it has a problematic history. The founder of cultural anthropology, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, first introduced the word in his 1871 book Primitive Culture, which argued that culture progressed from primitive to modern expressions. Today, Burnett Tylor’s theories, which denigrate Indigenous worldviews as childish and backward, are considered beyond anachronistic.
But before colonization and the human-centered organized religions that accompanied it, animistic worldviews taught us to listen to the natural world, to move to its beat. For many people, these songs never stopped playing. Others are learning to listen to them anew.
“WATER GRATITUDE WALK on the Santa Cruz River, 1 p.m.,” the social media post read. I showed up at a park by the other river flanking Tucson, curious but wary of what I expected to be a woo-woo New Age gathering. Four others who seemed equally unsure came, too. “I just figured it’d be nice to be outside with other people,” a woman I met in the parking lot told me. She looked like she was in her 40s, like me. “I’d grown used to being alone during the pandemic.”
A 55-year-old white person originally from Portland, Oregon, Quynn Red Mountain met us at the edge of the wash and gave a brief overview of landscape restoration efforts that are returning treated wastewater to this section of the Santa Cruz River. Then we all walked along the riverbed, chatting side-by-side while occasionally picking up trash from the ground.
“Thank you for this water that is helping the animals and this place.”
Red Mountain has adopted the nickname given to their tall, redheaded father. They call themselves an animist minister for the Web of Life Animist Church, a church “for Earth-honoring people” legally founded in 2008. But they are quick to tell me that animism is “not a religion but a practice,” a set of beliefs and actions that honor the original ways in which humans connected with each other and with nature, before those relationships were disrupted by modern religions and ways of life.
The purpose of the visit to the Santa Cruz was simply to call people’s attention to its speedy regeneration, Red Mountain explained — to say “thank you for this water that is helping the animals and this place.”
In my head, I tried saying “thank you,” too, skeptical of who, if anybody, would be listening. I am not religious, but I grew up with a respect for all living things, including the landscapes — the rivers and mountains — that sustain them. Witnessing anthropogenic change and recognizing my own role in it has been crushingly disorienting and sad; I find myself searching for the kind of guidance my grandmothers or great-grandmothers would have given me had we had more time together.
A GLOBAL INTEREST in spirit worlds has often been driven by non-Indigenous peoples. But with animism, a collective gratitude for nature and its inherent magic need not be in the form of Indigenous appropriation, said Natalie Avalos, an assistant professor in the ethnic studies department at University of Colorado Boulder.
People are demoralized and alienated by modern-day lifestyles focused on materialism, technology and productivity, she said: “I think a lot of people of European descent in the U.S., settlers that were disconnected from their own land-based traditions, have had a real sense of grief and have felt the allure of the New Age movement.” Yes, many may still be romanticizing Indigeneity, she told me, but today some of these people are also starting to develop a more political consciousness that is defining boundaries around appropriation. In spiritual circles, Indigenous leaders have long asked non-Indigenous peoples to recognize their white privilege, and to understand that the ecological crisis is deeply tied to colonialism.
“I’m genuinely surprised,” Avalos, a Chicana scholar of Apache descent, said of this growing trend to acknowledge the legacy of colonialism and realize that meaning isn’t necessarily found in the “other.” “People have started to connect the dots more, but we still have a long way to go.” Avalos is trying to connect the dots of her own Indigenous roots: Her mother and paternal grandmother were from northern Mexico and were separated from their band during the Indian wars of the late 19th century.
“What do you do about the white folks who want to capture Indigenous spirituality to find meaning?” she asked Indigenous leaders in the course of her ethnographic research. “Go to your own traditions and recover those. Try to draw on your own ancestral European traditions,” they told her.
Avalos believes there is a sincere effort among European-descended communities who want to change the way they relate to life and to land, and to “model new ways of being in the world for other white folks.” And she said this can be very powerful because it has the potential to influence mainstream consciousness, and eventually change relationships with those who have been marginalized, especially Indigenous peoples. “We have to start somewhere.”
“Go to your own traditions and recover those. Try to draw on your own ancestral European traditions.”
In recent years, a movement known as “new animism” has been trying to build consciousness about nature and the rights of its various lifeforms, including rivers and mountains. In many ways, new animism is prompting us to unlearn Western views of nature as something separate from us that is but a collection of resources to be extracted and exploited. It wants us to ask: What if we sought to secure the same rights for nonhuman beings that we do for people, and did so through legal means? What if we were to revert to a pre-industrial view of nature?
New animism may be a product of our collective climate anxiety, but it also expresses the hope that if we begin to see bodies of water or trees or other plants as fellow beings, we might learn to behave in more ecologically sustainable ways.
We can also hope for something much more basic. I am learning to acknowledge the seemingly dry or empty Rillito every time I pass by, reminding myself that it isn’t just a wash, but a whole ecosystem that I depend on. Maybe recognizing that it is alive, despite all the threats to it, will help us see it — and ourselves — anew.
This story was made possible in part by the support of the Religion & the Environment Story Project at Boston University.
Note: This story was updated to correct information about Avalos’ grandmother. She was her paternal grandmother, not her maternal one.
Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on LinkedIn.
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