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Living Earth Community

Sam Mickey
Mary Evelyn Tucker
John Grim

Section I. Presences in the More-Than-Human World

1. Creaturely Migrations on a Breathing Planet

Some Reflections1

David Abram

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  • 1 This chapter is an excerpt from ‘Creaturely Migrations on a Breathing Planet’ — a long essay reflec (...)

Fig. 2 Sandhill Crane in Flight, near Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, Baily Country, Texas.

Photo by Leaflet (2009), Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,​wiki/​Grus_canadensis#/​media/​File:Sandhill_Crane_Bailey_County_Texas_2009.jpg

1Not so long ago, almost every stream, river, and rill emptying into the North Pacific — from southern Japan to northern Siberia, around the huge Alaskan land mass and the Pacific coast of Canada all the way to southern California — supported one or more salmon runs, perfectly adapted to the dynamic ecology of that watershed. The migratory ways of the salmon were likely born in response to the swelling and subsiding ice ages that have dominated their range after these fish evolved to their present form in the cold freshwater of the northern latitudes some two million years ago. As those inland waters were subsumed beneath the immense, spreading ice sheets, the fish were driven out into the ocean and forced to adapt, yet, somehow, they never lost their ancestral tie to the fresh mountain streams.

2Whenever the ice sheets retreated, salmon would colonize the rivers and tributaries formed by the glacial runoff, slowly establishing new spawning beds in valleys scoured out and scraped by the ice. They brought with them the rich nutrients of the open ocean, and, as bear, eagle, and otter feasted upon their spawning or spawned-out bodies, this abundant ocean nourishment was distributed more widely, enriching the soils and enabling the sparse, pioneer woodlands to fill out into dense forests.

3These forests, in turn, shaded the inland streams, their detritus providing shelter and food for the aquatic insects and small fish upon whom the salmon themselves fed. The thickening woods offered habitat for innumerable other animals, for raven and coyote, for owl and deer and raccoon. The association between the salmon and woodlands is an ancient reciprocity renewed time and again: as the ice retreated, the fish and the forests recolonized the glacier-scoured terrain together.

4After the most recent ice age, nomadic bands of humans, as well, made their way up into the coastal forests and the river valleys, drawing sustenance from the seasonal storms of large fish that would periodically undulate up the rivers, surging past fallen trunks and leaping up waterfalls. Centuries later, while developing ways of preserving the caught salmon (drying them in the wind or smoking them on wooden racks), some native peoples settled in permanent villages along those rivers. Through trial and calamitous error — at times overfishing the runs and having to endure the consequent seasons of famine — these cultures gradually learned how best to harvest the collective gift without interrupting its cyclical replenishment. Central to all such cultural constraints, throughout the Pacific Rim, was a recognition of the salmon as a powerful emissary from hidden or unseen dimensions — a form of energetic intelligence that came toward humankind from the sacred heart of the mysterious.

5Indigenous cultures from every part of the North Pacific Rim revered the salmon as an uncommonly holy power, ritualizing their respect in ceremonies that honored the first salmon caught in the spring. No other salmon could be taken during these rites, wherein the first salmon was treated as an esteemed guest before being carefully prepared and eaten.

6Along the Klamath River in what is now California, the primary ‘first salmon ceremony’ was conducted in a Yurok village close by the mouth of the river. After that event, strong runners were sent upriver to alert the Hoopa people that the proper rites had been accomplished, and that the spring salmon were on their way. Upon catching their own first fish, the Hoopa undertook ten days of ceremony and prayer before allowing generalized fishing to commence. The Karuk people, many miles further upstream, moved away from the river and into the hills while the first salmon was taken and ritually eaten by their spiritual leaders.

7One effect of such ceremonies, and of the restrictions on fishing during their enactment, was that significant numbers of early salmon were enabled to pass freely upriver to their spawning grounds, ensuring the continued replenishment of the run. The ritualized honoring of the first fish also ensured that the salmon, however abundant in the coming season, could not be taken for granted — that its flesh remained a sacrament for the people.

8Across the Pacific, among the Ainu people of northern Japan, whenever any family caught the season’s first salmon from the river, the fish was passed through a special window into the house before being placed in front of the hearth fire. There the family would address the spirit of the salmon directly, honoring it ceremonially with spoken words and ritual gestures. The household fire, for the Ainu, was itself a goddess who could see all that unfolded around her; she would report back to the other gods that the salmon had been treated with proper respect.

  • 2 June McCormick Collins, ‘The Mythological Basis for Attitudes towards Animals among Salish-Speaking (...)

9The Ainu held ceremonies, too, to bid goodbye to the salmon when, having left their flesh bodies behind as food, they paddled their spirit-boats back to their homes far to the east. Like other native peoples of the North Pacific, the Ainu assumed that the salmon, when they were not crowding upstream to visit the people, removed their salmon garb and lived in human form beyond the ocean horizon. Such a mythic view bound their sensory imagination to the ways of this wild creature, engendering an almost familial regard for its well-being. The view was so widespread that, when in the nineteenth century when several Skagit Indians from the American northwest accompanied a white expedition back to the east coast, and saw the abundance of pale, pink-skinned people living there, they reported back to their tribe that they had been to salmon country and had seen the salmon walking around as human beings.2

10More detached and technological approaches to tracking salmon have yielded other ways of describing their whereabouts once they depart the inland waters. Upon leaving their rivers, the salmon seem to spend the largest part of their lives swimming in great circles throughout the North Pacific. Their journeys carry them to the remotest regions of the sea, feeding and growing strong on the ocean’s abundance — on herring and smelt and other small fish — traveling distances that boggle the human mind. After several years dispersing to all points on the horizon, following their food whence it leads them, the members of a single run unerringly return to the mouth of their natal stream — all converging there, somehow, at precisely the same time. How they pull off this feat remains an enigma for present-day science. Once the salmon come close to their home stream, it is probable that they rely on their astonishingly keen sense of smell to distinguish between the subtly different waters of neighboring tributaries. But how the fish navigate across thousands of miles of ever-shifting and largely featureless ocean to make their way back to the very same coastal point from whence they set out years earlier, remains an elemental mystery to us, confounding our primate senses and our terrestrial, pedestrian logic.

11Like spring monarch butterflies fluttering north toward specific clumps of milkweed that only their great-grandchildren will reach, like sandhill cranes vibrating the sky with their bugling as they drop toward a tiny patch of peat bog in the broad tundra, the migrating salmon appear to avail themselves of somatic skills far beyond our bodily ken. The only way contemporary science seems able to fathom their uncanny navigational powers is by likening the abilities of these animals to technologies of our own, human invention. We are told, over and again, that these migratory creatures make use of internal maps and internal compasses, of innate calendars and inborn clocks. Clocks, compasses, and calendars, however, are by definition external contrivances, ingeniously built tools that we deploy at will. Metaphorically attributing such instrumentation to other animals has confounding implications, suggesting a curious doubleness in the other creature — a separated sentience or self that regularly steps back, within its body or brain, to consult the map or the calendar.

12It seems unlikely, however, that organisms interact with an internal representation of the land in any manner resembling our own engagement with maps. Cranes and butterflies would have little use for a separated re-presentation of the earth’s surface, for they have never torn themselves out of the encompassing presence of the wide earth. Our reliance upon such instrumental metaphors seems to stem from our over-civilized assumption of a neat distinction between living organisms and the non-living terrain that they inhabit, an unambiguous divide between animate life and the ostensibly inanimate planet on which life happens to locate itself. As long as the material ground is considered inert — as long as the elemental atmosphere or ocean is viewed as a passive substrate — then the long-range migrations of certain animals can only be a conundrum, a puzzle we will strive to solve by continually compounding various internal mechanisms that might somehow, in combination, grant a particular creature the power to grapple its way across the world. Instead of hypothesizing more metaphorical gadgets, adding further accessories to a crane’s or a salmon’s interior array of tools, what if we were to allow that the animal’s migratory skill arises from a felt rapport between its body and the breathing Earth? That a crane’s two thousand mile journey across the span of a continent is propelled by the felt unison between its flexing muscles and the sensitive Flesh of this planet (this huge curved expanse, roiling with air currents and rippling with electromagnetic pulses), and so is enacted as much by Earth’s vitality as by the bird that flies within it?

13Such a conception need not contradict any of the accepted evidence gathered from a century’s research into the enigmas of animal migration; it simply offers a new way of interpreting and integrating those various evidences. By focusing our questions so intently on the organism, as if it carries all the secrets of this magic hidden inside itself, we easily lose sight of the obvious collaboration at play. By adding new gadgets to an animal’s neurological and genetic endowment, we tacitly induce ourselves to focus upon relationships interior to the organism (how, for example, does the animal bring its biological clock and its internal map to bear on its compass readings), deflecting our curiosity and attention from the more mysterious relationship that calls such interactions into being.

14What is this dynamic alliance between an animal and the animate orb that gives it breath? What seasonal tensions and relaxations in the atmosphere, what subtle torsions in the geosphere help to draw half a million cranes so precisely across the continent? What rolling sequence or succession of blossomings helps summon these millions of butterflies across the belly of the land? What alterations in the olfactory medium, what bursts of solar exuberance through the magnetosphere, what attractions and repulsions…? For surely, really and truly, these migratory creatures are not taking readings from technical instruments nor mathematically calculating angles; they are riding waves of sensation, responding attentively to allurements and gestures in the topological manifold, reverberating subtle expressions that reach them from afar. These beings are dancing not with themselves but with the animate rondure of the earth, their wider Flesh!

15Consider the deep somatic attunement by which a salmon feels its way between faint electromagnetic anomalies, riding a particular angle of sun as it filters down through the rippled surface, gliding with certain currents and plunging up against others, dreaming its way through gradients of scent and taste toward a particular bend of gravel and streamside shadow. Whatever specialized sensitivities and internal organs are brought to bear, those very organs have co-evolved with textured patterns and pulses actively propagating through the elemental medium; indeed, those sensitivities have often been provoked by large-scale repetitive or rhythmic happenings proper to that part of the biosphere — by pulsed coalescences and cyclic dispersals — and so can hardly be fathomed without reference to these patterned gestures within the Body of the planet.

16Perhaps it would be useful, now and then, to consider the large, collective migrations of various creatures as active expressions of the earth itself. To consider them as slow gestures of a living geology, improvisational experiments that gradually stabilized into habits now necessary to the ongoing metabolism of the sphere. For truly: are not these cyclical pilgrimages — these huge, creaturely hegiras — also pulsations within the broad Body of earth? Are they not ways that divergent places or ecosystems communicate with one another, trading vital qualities essential to their continued flourishing?

17Think again of the salmon, this gift born of the rocky gravels and melting glaciers, nurtured by colossal cedars and by tumbled trunks decked with ferns, fungi, and moss, an aquatic, muscled energy strengthening itself in the mossed and forested mountains until it’s ready to be released into the broad ocean. Pouring seaward, it adds itself to that voluminous cauldron of currents spiraling in huge gyres, shaded by algal blooms and charged by faint glissandos of whale song… Until, grown large with the sea’s abundance, this ocean-infused life flows back up the rivers and tributaries and spreads out into the wooded valleys, gifting the hollows and the needled highlands with new minerals and nutrients, feeding bears and osprey and eagles, ensuring that the glinting gift will be reborn afresh from a lump of luminous eggs stashed beneath a layer of pebbles.

  • 3 The two phases of the cardiac cycle.

18This circulation, this systole and diastole,3 is one of the surest signs that this earth is alive — a rhythmic pulse of silvery, glacier-fed brilliance pouring through various arteries into the wide body of the ocean, circulating and growing there, only to return by various veins to the beating heart of the forest, gravid with new life.

19Or… perhaps it’s better to think of this seasonal reciprocity as a kind of breathing, as an exhalation of millions of young salmon smolts down from the tree-thick mountains and meadows and then out into the roiling cosmos of currents and tidal flows, to mingle with zooplankton and seals and squids, and then the great in-breath, the drawing in of living nourishment from the sea into river mouths and estuaries, inhaling the salmon up those rivers into streams, and from there into the branching becks, rills, and runnels that filter into the green forests, the living lungs of this biosphere. Or is it the broad-bellied ocean that is breathing, sucking these finned nutrients down from the shaded slopes, luring them over rocks and through rapids and hydroelectric dam spillways — drawing them past bustling cities and factories, through intersecting gradients of toxic effluents that sting their mouths and strafe their exposed membranes — on out into the heaving whirl of the sea’s innards, the writhe and foam of the ocean circulating this glimmering nourishment within itself before exhaling it back, a long sighing breath, up into the wooded valleys?

20However else we may view them, these deterritorializations and reterritorializations — these large migrations of various species — are a primary way that the biosphere cleanses and flexes its various organs, replenishing itself: each region drawing insights from the others, concentrating and transforming such qualities before releasing them abroad, divergent places trading perspectives along with nutrients and nucleotides, the whole half-shadowed sphere steadily experimenting, improvising, slowly altering its display to the blazing fire watching from afar, as the reflective moon rolls on ’round.



Collins, June McCormick, ‘The Mythological Basis for Attitudes towards Animals among Salish-Speaking Indians’, Journal of American Folklore, 65 (1952), 353–59,


1 This chapter is an excerpt from ‘Creaturely Migrations on a Breathing Planet’ — a long essay reflecting upon the wild Sandhill crane, Pacific salmon, and Monarch butterfly migrations, published in the inaugural issue of Emergence (an online magazine launched on Earth Day, 2018). The full essay is published there in both textual and auditory form (read by the author):

2 June McCormick Collins, ‘The Mythological Basis for Attitudes towards Animals among Salish-Speaking Indians’, Journal of American Folklore, 65 (1952), 353–59,

3 The two phases of the cardiac cycle.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 2 Sandhill Crane in Flight, near Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, Baily Country, Texas.
Crédits Photo by Leaflet (2009), Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,​wiki/​Grus_canadensis#/​media/​File:Sandhill_Crane_Bailey_County_Texas_2009.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k


Cultural ecologist and geophilosopher, is the author of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996) and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010). Hailed as ‘revolutionary’ by the Los Angeles Times, and as ‘daring’ and ‘truly original’ by Science, Abram’s work has been catalytic for the emergence of several new disciplines, including the steadily growing field of ecopsychology (in both its clinical and its research branches). His essays on the cultural causes and consequences of environmental disarray are published in numerous magazines, scholarly journals, and anthologies. A recipient of the international Lannan Literary Award, as well as fellowships from the Rockefeller and the Watson Foundations, in 2014 Abram held the international Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and Ecology at the University of Oslo. Abram’s work engages the ecological depths of the imagination, exploring the ways in which sensory perception, language, and wonder inform the relation between the human body and the breathing earth. His philosophical craft is informed by his fieldwork with Indigenous peoples in southeast Asia and the Americas, as well as by the European tradition of phenomenology. His ideas are often discussed and debated (sometimes heatedly) within the pages of various academic journals, including Environmental Ethics and the Journal of Environmental Philosophy.
Abram was the first contemporary philosopher to advocate for a reappraisal of ‘animism’ as a complexly nuanced and uniquely viable worldview, one which roots human cognition in the dynamic sentience of the body while affirming the ongoing entanglement of our bodily experience with the uncanny intelligence of other animals, each of whom encounters the same world that we perceive yet from an outrageously different angle and perspective. A close student of the Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEK) of diverse Indigenous peoples, Abram’s work also articulates the entwinement of human subjectivity with the varied sensitivities of the many plants upon which we depend, as well as with the agency and dynamism of the particular places, or bioregions, that surround and sustain our communities. In recent years, Abram’s work has come to be associated with a broad movement loosely termed ‘New Materialism’, due to his espousal of a radically transformed sense of matter and materiality. ADistinguished Fellow of Schumacher College in England, Abram is founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE), a consortium of individuals and organizations dedicated to cultural metamorphosis through a rejuvenation of place-based oral culture. He lives with his two children in the foothills of the southern Rockies.


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