On my daily walk in the State Park, I always pick up a stick. It’s impossible to walk in the country without a stick. It’s one of those survival instincts laid down in the genes a million years ago, an inner voice that says: “I’m alone in the woods, I must have a weapon.” The instinct is irresistible, even when the most dangerous creatures in the woods are squirrels – squirrels, moreover, with no sticks.
At the end of my walk, unless this is a particularly good stick, I throw it away. At that moment, I feel just the tiniest pang, the faintest twinge of regret. While I was carrying it, the stick had become, in a small way, a special thing, a personal thing, my stick.

I imagine that this is a fairly universal human experience. It’s the same with pebbles and shells we pick up on the beach, or old clothes, or dead house plants. They take on a life of their own. Through sheer familiarity, they become somehow different from other pebbles or clothes or house plants. That’s why it’s so hard to get children to give up their favorite toys, especially their stuffed animals. In fact I never have given mine up. They’re still here, old and slightly battered now like their owner, but still full of personality – or so they seem to me.

This attachment to physical objects is more than just nostalgia. It’s a reminder that the animate world and the inanimate world are really very close together. Deep in our brains, probably in the same primitive region that produces stick-carrying behavior, we know this. One of the most ancient forms of religion is animism, in which familiar objects, plants and creatures are believed to be inhabited by spirits of their own – the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the rock, the spirit of the bear, and so on.

When people lived closer to nature, they didn’t make such rigorous distinctions between animal and human, alive and dead. The whole world seemed alive and meaningful to them. In animistic religions, certain objects called totems were sacred, endowed with special powers.

These kinds of beliefs may sound primitive, but they have never gone away. The objects found in The Mall – clothing, bright little baubles from the Pacific Rim, electronics toys, decorative items and so on – are mass produced and commonplace. What gives them magic is the power of the spirit lodged within them – the Ju-Ju, the Genie, the good fairy – which makes each commodity seem so much more than the sum of its tawdry parts.The advertisements in glossy magazines and on television tell us quite clearly that we are buying not just a visible object but an invisible spirit: it’s not just a car, it’s not just a pen, it’s more than a perfume. Sometimes, they even say it in plain language: this shampoo has spirit, that piece of jewelry has magic, these CDs have soul. We search for the totem objects that will speak to us with the voices that we want to hear. It may be that our faraway ancestors were wiser than they knew, believing as they did that the spirit of a thing is more important than the thing itself. Animism lives!

Copyright: David Bouchier