One can say with certainty that we humans are an inherently spiritual species, since no aboriginal culture was never discovered that was not profoundly spiritual in sophisticated ways. The umbrella term for this vastly differing pristine spirituality is ‘animism’ (from the Latin ‘anima’: life, soul), and can be roughly defined by the belief that everything, whether animal, plant, mushroom, rock, mountain, river, lake, or cloud is a person — with thoughts, wishes, dreams, needs, intentions, hopes, fears, and other emotions just like yourself. Everything is animated by a spiritual life force that runs through all beings and things alike. It is the belief in superficial differences and subliminal oneness. Everything has its place in the animist cosmos, everybody a role to play. Different forms of animism easily arise if we just have enough time to marvel at everything that happens around us. We slowly get to know the world around us, contemplate its beauty and abundance, and at times we shudder and feel miniscule and unimportant in the face of the gigantic global ecosystem, the natural world. This feeling is the first step: acknowledging that there is something much bigger, much more powerful, and much more important than us.
The absence of any profound spirituality in today’s youth is one of the most unexplored and unappreciated reasons for the extraordinarily high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, burnout and suicide. People don’t know, and in fact would vehemently deny, that it is spirituality that they’re looking for. Spirituality is stupid, they say, and nobody but kids and uneducated savages believe in ghosts or spirits anyway. Yet every human has a craving to find a deeper meaning in the world around her. Without it we’re empty husks, dragging ourselves to work and back, hoping that it all ends soon.
Only finding the sacred can fill the void that we try to cram with an endless amount of disposable consumer items.
Where once was a deep belief in our fellow creatures and the forces that keep the world spinning, is now the persistent feeling of loneliness, in a world crammed with strangers. We try to stuff this hole in ourselves with unrestrained consumption, with binge-shopping, binge-drinking, binge-eating and binge-watching, and advertising promises us that we’re only one purchase away from happiness and fulfillment.
We wish there was more to life, we feel alienated and alone, not realizing that our environment — even in the cities — is humming with life, life that buzzes through the air, scurries around our feet, shoots from the ground, and gushes out of the cracks in the pavement. If we follow this trail of life, we’ll find what we were missing all those years. Provided that Nature around you thrives and you have open eyes and an open mind, spirituality will come all by itself. It is difficult not to see the sacred in every living creature and in every wild place once you learn how to observe, imitate, appreciate, and learn from them.
Permaculture and spirituality lay closer together than most people think. They are often so inherently entwined that Japanese permaculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka considered the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process. Permaculture provides us with a way of life in which this process can take place. Since permaculture is all about cooperating with Nature and living in harmony with her, the most obvious spiritual counterpiece would be some sort of animistic nature-based spirituality.
Many primitive tribes (especially in the New World) – who all practice some form of animism – do some form of horticulture, too. Examples are the Ayoreo in Paraguay, the Yanomami in Venezuela, the Matsés in Peru, the Zo’é in Brazil, and the Achuar in Ecuador, but also the Baka in Congo and the Gebusi in Papua New Guinea.
Among the Achuar, where only the women do gardening, the act of planting vegetables is a sacred ritual where the gardener sings to the spirits (“nunkui“) who watch over the garden. Those magical songs are a form of communicating with the plants and promote their growth.
A 2007 paper from scientists at South Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology proposed that two genes involved in a plant’s response to light—known as rbcS and Ald—are turned on by music played at 70 decibels. “This is about the level of a normal conversation,” says Marini. The Korean researchers found differing responses depending on the frequency of the sound. The higher the frequency, the more active was the gene response.
Doesn’t that mean that singing could actually help the plants to grow?
In her phenomenal essay “We call it tradition”, published in “The Handbook of Contemporary Animism”, native American Linda Hogan writes about the Tohono O’odham (“Desert people”) of southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. They have so-called corn-growing songs, one is offered for every stage of the plant’s splendid development (book: “Singing for Power”, Ruth Underhill, 1938). Each night a man walks through the corn singing to it:
The corn comes up
It comes up green
Here upon our field
White tassels unfold
In the many pueblos in the Southwest, throughout the time of planting to the end of harvest, corn dances and songs are performed weekly for the growth of the corn; these are serious dances, the energy of humans given to the earth.
As of now, we not yet sing to our plants, but we do talk to them, since it won’t to any harm and it gives you a good feeling of a deeper connection to the plants around you.
Permaculture is a very efficient way to (re-)connect with Nature, since you help creating an ecosystem and see Nature as a partner.
Watching the plants grow and accompanying and assisting them while they do so makes you realize what incredible beings they are and appreciate their beauty and the abundance that Nature creates; watching the clouds and experiencing the growth cycles and the cycle of the seasons shows you the magnificence and sophistication of the never-ending circles of life, death and rebirth happening simultaneously on our travels through space-time on this big organic spaceship that we call Earth.
Over the time most people develop some kind of animistic relationship to different plant- and animal species in their gardens, since you watch them grow, experience the cycles of growth and see them every day. You learn that they like some places more than others, that they can have “moods”, and that they have specific characteristics and attributes that make them an individual unlike any other, a realizing that eventually makes you acknowledge them as being a ‘person’ – an individual with individual needs, wants and wishes, just like yourself.
Traditional Thai Spirituality
Thai folk belief (called ศาสนาผี; “religion of the spirits”) is firmly rooted in animism, as well. Before Buddhism took over, belief in local deities and spirits was widespread and practiced diligently. In many parts of Thailand, this is still the case (especially in the Northeast, where local shamans – หมอผี – are still employed and consulted regularly), but today folk belief has been mixed thoroughly with Buddhism. Often, you’ll see large trees (especially Bodhi trees, Ficus religiosa) with colorful cloth wrapped around them – it means that this tree is sacred, and people use the site to worship and make wishes. Some trees are even ordinated as monks (“clothed” in an orange robe) as a form of protection – cutting down a tree who wears an orange cloth around its base is tantamount to killing a monk.
There are spirits believed to reside in certain species of trees, like the jungle giant Ta-Khian (ตะเคียน; Hopea odorata) and the Tani Banana variety (Musa balbisiana), but all trees can be decorated with colorful cloth, blessed by a monk, and thus become sacred.
The two tree spirits mentioned above are especially popular, one being Nang Tani (“the Lady of the Tani Banana tree” ) the other Nang Ta-Khian (นางตะเคียน; “the Lady of the Ta-khian Tree”). Both appear as beautiful young women, and usually people don’t have to fear them – if you have a clean conscience! Nang Tani is said to be only dangerous to men who have wronged or otherwise harmed women in the past, and Nang Ta-khian may hurt immoral people but leaves you alone if you have done no wrong.
We believe that all those ancient stories must have something to them – otherwise why would so many people believe in them for so long? We venerate and worship trees, especially large ones. It feels good to have “elders” watching over us, beings who are here for much longer than us and know the land much better than we do.
Trees have a special place in our hearts, for obvious reasons. We make sure to ask and thank the tree from which we harvest fruit, flowers, leaves, or timber, and we ask for forgiveness when we must prune or otherwise harm the tree (this can be done silently as to not have our neighbors think we completely lost it).
We also have two Tani banana plants and two (very young) Ta-khian trees in our garden, which we planted knowingly to house those spirits and thus to spiritually “charge” our land.
“Here I stand in awe, deeply moved by the sheer beauty you cast forth… I feel small and minuscule in the face of your size, your age, your experience, your wisdom. How many cycles of the sun, the moon and the seasons you have seen, how many times you have felt life and death, suffering and happiness, grief and joy. How sophisticated your branches wind to grow towards the sun, how elaborate your leaves are spread, how elegant they dance in the wind; of what inconceivable complexity is the vast and deep network of roots from which you draw just what you need, never more. You give more than you take, you know your place, you are humble, altruistic, generous and friendly. You know this place better than I ever will, and you understand its will better than I can ever fathom. You are my inspiration, my paragon, and I wish to learn from you as much as you can teach me, so that one day I will be as wise as you — so that one day I will become you.”
— Prayer to a tree, written by Dave
The most obvious remains of traditional folk belief are the ubiquitous “spirit houses” (ศาลพระภูมิ; Saan Phra-Poom) found throughout the country in front of residences and other buildings – even factories and shopping malls erect them! While today there are often two spirit houses – the larger one actually belonging to a Hindu deity – with the smaller one belonging to the local spirit of the land, traditionally there was only one spirit house and Hindu gods were not worshipped. Modern spirit houses are rather ugly – uniform, mass-produced and made from concrete, but in the past they were made from wood, each one individually designed by the inhabitants of the land whose spirit needs to be appeased. Offerings such as incense, drink and food (and even betel nut, cigarettes and occasionally rice vodka), are made daily to avoid misfortune and retain a good connection to the guardian spirit of the land one lives on.
The guardian spirit of the land (called เจ้าที่ - Jao Thee – considered the true “owner” of the land) is commonly blamed for small mishaps, which is a very cute tradition: if you’re preparing food, for instance, and the vegetables you just copped fall down on the ground or a bowl of soup spills, that’s no reason to be angry at yourself for your clumsiness – you just say “Oh, the spirit of the land must be very hungry, that’s why she made this fall down!“ and the whole thing is seen as a kind of involuntary offering to the ‘true owner’.
We used to worship the guardian spirit of the land at the base of the largest tree in our garden, because until recently we hadn’t finished our spirit house yet. Now that the first year of hard work is over and we have a little time for other things, we built a small spirit house from wood, decorated with carvings of elephants, snakes, a hornbill, a monkey, a cat, and fruit. For special occasions such as birthdays or other celebrations we make little flower bouquets to offer the Jao Thee.
Similarities to aboriginal ritual, tradition, and folklore
Some beliefs even have analogies to hunter-gatherer societies: a northeastern legend tells of the python being venomous in ancient times, and giving away her poison to all other snakes and venomous insects like scorpions and even bees. A strikingly similar story is told among Malaysia’s indigenous Penan!
Another traditional ritual is a small food offering on a banana leaf placed on the ground for the spirit of, for example, a forest where you go collecting mushrooms or harvest rattan canes for weaving, which was likely adapted from the Northeast’s aboriginal inhabitants, hunter-gatherers who called themselves Mlabri (in Thai they are called ผีตองเหลือง; “ghosts of the yellow leaves”).
The building of “spirit houses” is also part of the spiritual tradition of the Itneg people, semi-sedentary horticulturist-hunter-gatherers indigenous to the Philippines.
Loy Krathong – An Animist Holiday
One of our favorite holidays is Loy Krathong (Thai: ลอยกระทง), an ancient Thai festival, held on the night of the first full moon of November. It is a beautiful ritual to thank the water spirits for bringing us life. In old times, people thanked the water/river/lake goddesses for supplying them with water to drink, bathe, fish, and to water their crops and made cute little floats from banana trunks decorated with flowers as an offering – but today this tradition has sadly “watered down” quite a bit. Since all rivers are polluted to some extend anyway, the focus is nowadays often a hollow ritual ended with a wish for monetary wealth.
We celebrate Loy Krathong at the only body of water around that is not polluted by plastic and pesticides: the adjacent pond in the Nature Reserve. We are truly thankful for having a steady, year-round supply of fresh water, and we vow to protect this little aquatic sanctuary.
When the moon has risen, we’ll take our drums and our Krathongs and go down to our little jungle pond for the mystical ritual…
Graham Harvey, “The Handbook of Contemporary Animism” (Acumen Handbooks, 2013)*
Hugo A. Bernatzik, “Die Geister der Gelben Blätter” [The Ghosts of the Yellow Leaves]; (Bertelsmann Lesering, 1937/1961)