Author has magical nature Perception: David Abram, a philosopher and lecturer, turned his fascination with the sleight-of-hand into a respect for the environment.

November 05, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The Kennedy half-dollar rolled back and forth across the knuckles of David Abram's hand. Faster and faster it went until the silver coin seemed to flow like liquid.

"I can tell when it changes its nature," Abram said. "It seems to get a bit lighter."

It is then, he said, that the coin is ready to begin its journey -- disappearing, reappearing in odd places, going through tables, doing the amazing feats that a sleight-of-hand magician can create.

Abram, 41, is the author of "The Spell of the Sensuous," a personal book of philosophy and ecology that has become an underground hit, showing up on college campuses in courses from psychology to poetry, anthropology to literary criticism. It was published in 1996.

This week, he came to Baltimore from his home on an island in Puget Sound of Washington, meeting with a variety of classes and groups at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

His visit is part of a yearlong series organized around the theme of beauty that will bring three other writers to campus. Abram will give a public lecture at 8 tonight at the Mount Royal Station building.

"It is the first time I have been in a place like this," Abram said. "Being in an art institution is wonderful. I think I am bringing the perception of a deeply ecological perspective to what is going on here."

Abram's journey has taken him to Europe, Indonesia and Nepal, to a variety of cultures in the United States, to a deep study of the philosophy of phenomenology that focuses on sensual perception, to his current role as a visiting lecturer, scholar, writer and spiritual leader of the environmental movement.

It all began with magic.

"When I was in my mid-teens, I was having trouble at school," said Abram, who graduated summa cum laude from Wesleyan University and earned a doctorate in philosophy. "I was always getting in trouble, getting yelled at. I think I am just one of those people whose nervous system is so sensitive and attuned to others that we can't live among others.

"As much as 20 percent of the population might be like this. In most cultures, they send these people to live on the periphery, among the plants and animals. But not in ours."

To escape these pressures, at night Abram would go out in the yard of his parents' home on Long Island, lie on the ground and stare at the stars.

"I was fascinated with the power of the night sky," he said. "It put everything in perspective for me at that time. It led me to study magic, which could put the same sense of wonder on people's faces. That led to everything else."

An interview at the Wesleyan admission office turned into a magic show for the staff. During college, he paid his expenses doing magic. "I was the house magician at Alice's Restaurant," he said, referring to the western Massachusetts establishment made famous by Arlo Guthrie.

After college, Abram traveled as an itinerant magician through Europe, met psychologist R. D. Laing in London and experimented with magic in the treatment of deeply disturbed patients at a clinic operated by Laing.

Magic and healing

That led to an interest in magic and healing. Abram received a grant to travel to Indonesia and Nepal to study indigenous magicians -- the shamans, the healers, the witch doctors, the spiritual leaders of their communities.

"These are people who would turn and run if an anthropologist came down the road," Abram said. "I thought maybe my magic would be a way to get to know them."

It worked. His book contains accounts of what he learned from these people. "I got in over my head," Abram acknowledged, saying that he tapped into a spiritual tradition of such power that it scared him.

"What I came to realize is that the real role of these people was to mediate between nature and man, to make sure the spirits that are in the natural world are appeased, whether by offerings or prayers or sacrifices," he said.

In this way, according to Abram, a balance is achieved between the needs of man and the needs of nature. He says this balance has been lost in the Western world with the split between the mind and body, between man and nature.

"I came back from there an animist," he said, referring to religions that see a spirit in every being -- plants, animals, the land, the sea. "I had a deep sense of anguish about what we are doing to this planet, all the points of view that are being lost in the species we are destroying."

He talks of clear-cut forests, replanted with trees that are the same age. "How do these trees feel? There are no elders around to tell them what to do, no young ones around. It's terrible," he said.

"People must realize that to exist is a verb, that when a rock exists it is doing something, that when two buildings exist side by side, they have a relationship and converse with one another, not in any way like we do, but in their own way," he said.

He knew his ideas needed an academic basis to be taken seriously. "I did not want to be dismissed as flaky," he said.

Perceptions and ecology

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