The Silvatici and the Spell of the Sensuous

Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves,

it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous 1

spell-of-the-sensuousFor weeks I’ve been leafing through the pages of my copy of The Spell of the Sensuous looking for the perfect quote that sums up what this website is all about. Nestled somewhere in amongst all the challenging and complex ideas which Abram presents in the book I was sure there a paragraph which completed nailed it. I eventually rediscovered the passage above, by chance, on a Facebook page I set up for my men’s group last year which was never used and then promptly forgotten. The juxtaposition of these two things – the David Abram quote (which takes my breath away whenever I read it) and the men’s group – stirred up a breeze which made a doorway swing firmly open in my mind and this blog post appeared in the space that was revealed. Rather unexpectedly this morning I find myself sitting at a sun soaked kitchen table in a luxurious off grid house on a Portuguese hillside, expectation and trepidation balanced in equal measure, hoping that words will emerge from that place which will help me to describe the part of my story which involves the Silvatici and the Spell of the Sensuous.

(As a brief aside I’m compelled to attempt to describe this feeling of fullness and flow, a sense of tapping into something which exists somewhere inside me fully formed, but which has not yet been given shape. I don’t consider my creative process to be anything special but I’m increasingly interested in the experience of creativity, of gently nurturing an idea, a dream, a vision, a story, slowly giving it form and structure, breathing life into it. There’s an edge of fear which threatens to subvert the whole process, so I might even abortively snap the lid of my laptop shut and wander out blinking into the sunshine trying to shake off the sense of unease that comes from not expressing what needs to be expressed. I cannot resist comparing the process to carving a wooden spoon, a hobby I’ve recently taken up. I try to imagine a spoon nestled inside the block of wood, waiting patiently to be born. The spoon exists already in my mind and I have to trust my hands to the task of cutting it from the wood and revealing it to the world. I could go on but I realise there’s a whole other blog post here, gently nudging me and requesting to be written.)

It was on the first anniversary of the first meeting of the Silvatici (my men’s group) when I first heard the words “spell of the sensuous” uttered in a way which made me sit up and take notice. I know this makes the phrase sound like some kind of invocation but in all honesty, a year and half later, that’s still how it seems to me. I remember that grey, chilly November afternoon as I sat in a tight circle around a small fire with a group of friends and strangers, a kind of thrill went through me, the words vibrated and resonated with me in a way that I could not ignore. Even now the title of Abram’s book conjures up so many symbols and senses in my body and mind, a kind of longing for combined with a sense of endless possibilities for connection. I can’t help but cast this heady mix of feelings eighteen months into the past and project them onto the younger me, but I’m sure that moment sat by the fire contained some of the alchemical ingredients that kindled and lit this blaze which has burned inside me ever since. Indeed, it’s from that fire of creativity that these words are called forth.

Green Man, York Minster, c.1080
Green Man, York Minster, c.1080

If like me you are seduced by Abram’s words at the top of this blog post then I suggest you find a copy of the book and read it for yourself because it’s not my intention to spend any more time swooning over his rhetoric. My purpose has been simply to provide a context for a story about the profoundly growthful and healing experience of, year after year, spending one afternoon a month sitting in a circle with a group of men who are, in all different ways, committed to a path of authenticity in the world, and as a part of honouring that journey are drawn to the woods. This is what Silvatici means: the men of the woods. After the conquest of 1066, this is the name the Normans gave to the insurgents who, over a ten year period, continued to fight and harry the conquerers from their hideouts deep in the forests. The English called them Green Men. We’ve joked about our own ten year resistance. In my heart I’ve been nurturing the dream that this will turn out not to be a joke. Although the name “Silvatici” might cynically be construed as pretentious – readers may be forgiven for wondering if it functions like a badge which somehow sets us apart and makes us feel special – this is not the way in which we use the name. Unsurprisingly perhaps, when we do refer to ourselves as Silvatici we often do it with reluctance bordering on embarrassment, almost as if we feel we do not deserve such a powerful name, that we can never live up to it. No-one understands the power and the potency of sensuous language more than David Abram perhaps, and I’m sure he would approve of the name. Maybe if a day comes when we feel we do deserve the name that will be the day when our ten year resistance truly begins.

I suppose like many boys (and girls) in our school system I was bullied. I was bullied during two separate periods from the age of nine to about fourteen. During the second period, which lasted for three years, I was subjected to bullying at the hands of my “friends”, a regular torment which only came to an end when, because of my good grades, I was moved to a different class and began socialising with different boys. To say that the experience has made a lasting impression on me is something of an understatement, until quite recently I regularly found myself fantasising about punishing those cruel boys, particularly the ringleader who I now appreciate must’ve been having a terrible time at home to be able to come into school every day and torment me (and others) so much. I assume our country (and most others) is being run by boys who had a far worse time than me at school, abandoned by their parents at age six or seven and forced to spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week being slowly fed through the meat grinder of an oppressive and hierarchical system. Like me, they did what they needed to do in order to survive, kept their heads down and suppressed their feelings of fear and abandonment until they were old enough to stand up for themselves, often through a process of initiation into the very system that caused them so much pain in the first place.

This is one of the reasons why I think men’s work is so important. There’s another (as yet unwritten) blog post in me about the sense I have that in our modern society the only way back for men to the Sacred Masculine is through the Sacred Feminine. In a group of men, long before a (traditionally feminine) healthy expression of feelings can take place, there must be a space created in which every man can feel safe, and every man in that circle must go through their own very personal process in order to reach that feeling. It was not an easy process for me. It has been said that when men get together they cannot help but compete with one another. The legacy of my school days is one of choosing to disappear into the background when men around me start competing. During my first dozen men’s group meetings I would find myself, quite irrationally, melting into a pool of shame and inadequacy as the trauma of those childhood years I spent silently absorbing my friends’ cruel manipulations descended like a shroud over my senses. The breakthrough for me came when I was finally able to share this experience  with the other men in the circle and feel accepted and supported by them.

I find myself wondering how I can conclude this post by aligning it more with the overarching theme of my developing relationship with nature. I’m cautious because while the Silvatici have had numerous moments of profound and sometimes mystical connection with the more-than-human world during our time together in the woods, there is somehow a kind of sanctity to these experiences which leaves me feeling relucant to share them here, almost as if I’ve suddenly realised I haven’t fully processed them myself. I will need to find a way to overcome this sudden and surprising coyness, because it is precisely the aim of this website to relate such remarkable experiences, to weave them into the fabric of my life story and in so doing allow myself (and others hopefully) to be nourished by the energy they generate. If there’s one thing I can state here unequivocally it is that the energy created by our group process has enabled some startling things to happen at both an individual and a collective level. I’m not just talking about the kind of healing and transformation which can take place when a community with a powerful shared intention comes together. I’m also speaking of something deeper and more mysterious, a silent call which echoes through the woods triggered by an intensity of connection which invites more-than-human participants into our circle.

The dark side of men is clear.

Their mad exploitation of earth resources, devaluation and humiliation of women, and obsession with tribal warfare are undeniable. Genetic inheritance contributes to their obsessions, but also culture and environment. We have defective mythologies that ignore masculine depth of feeling, assign men a place in the sky instead of earth, teach obedience to the wrong powers, work to keep men boys, and entangle both men and women in systems of industrial domination that exclude both matriarchy and patriarchy.

Robert Bly, Iron John 2

References

  • Abram, D. (1997) The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books. p.22.
  • Bly, R. (1990). Iron John. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books. p.x.

2 thoughts on “The Silvatici and the Spell of the Sensuous”

  1. From the moment I joined the Silvatici half a year ago I knew I wanted to make men’s groups a permanent part of my life. Reading your experience resonates with me because of my history of being bullied in school which compounded the anxiety I felt as a reaction to my father’s violent mood-swings which he would unleash by destroying our home. The bullying and the destruction taught me to quietly hide my light and passion in order to survive.

    Showing up in the woods every month alongside other men has slowly but surely denormalised the hate and chaos I experienced as a child. Now I’m discovering a new way of being which I can only describe as turning from a boy into a man. As I see it, our shared values centre around presence and authenticity. Speaking for myself at least, when we meet I seek to cultivate both and have felt them become a stronger part of my character.

    I’m glad to be spending more and more time in nature now because I relish the feeling of awe and curiosity that comes over me. That’s what The Spell of The Sensuous means to me.

  2. fantastic insights, well rounded written words and truth and heart emersed all the way through, lovely Ollie, keep inspiring and glad to be there with you as Silvatici, a man of the woods. x

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