Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 17, No. 8, August 2021
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Ecocentric Languaging: Animism, Persons, and
the Aesthetics of Primary Perception

Rebecca R. Burrill

August 2021

Persons by Rebecca R. Burrill ~ click image to enlarge

There is a long human lineage of the perceptual experience of the more-than-human natural world as animate. Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David recognizes animism as a relational way of knowing about the world and asks “…why and how the modernist project estranged itself from the tendency to animate things”[1]. Linda Hogan, writer in residence for the Chickasaw Nation, writes that for tribal peoples, an animate world-view is simply called tradition[2]—an ancient consciousness and life-way of perceived and practiced kinship, based in shared ancestry and origins, with the whole of the living world. Associated with the phenomenon of animism is the notion of persons—the encountered entities and qualities of the myriad forms and expressions of more-than-human nature. Such persons are in mutual equality with human persons, both actors in a kin-centered—kincentric[3]—ecological practice of harmony and balance.

This perception of the world as animate is artfully portrayed in the illustration I am calling Persons [shown above], a watercolour by me from an exact tracing of a pencil drawing by my son at age 6. It is a wonder-filled expression of a child’s experience of an animistic world—a world alive with intelligences – persons – such as those of the stones, plants, animals, humans and elemental forces such as wind, rain, mountains and lightning. Such persons are communicative through the very gestural qualities of their expressed incarnation. With humans they are relational participants in meaning-making in particular encounters in particular places—an immediate reciprocal ecology.

As a movement-based child developmentalist and dancer, I recognize that the human source for this relational participation in meaning-making—a languaging—begins in utero. Here our first perceptual organs to development and mature are those that register movement and sound. And these are registered as a single perception: movement creates—is—sound, and sound-resonance evokes movement. Therefore, in utero, our foundational patterning for meaning-making arises from the experience that movement is unified with a tone quality of resonance at deep cellular levels. This first communication arising from immersion in place (womb), is an immediate reciprocation of movement-sound gesturing—a dance and song of meaning-making through felt qualities. And this early neurological, motor-sensory-perceptual and felt-sense patterning is the base-line organization for all of our other senses. This relational participation in meaning-making I am calling primary languaging.

A core characteristic of primary languaging is its aesthetic structure. How is this so? At the core of artistic process is perceptual metaphor—the cross-sensory-modal transference of felt quality through resemblances. This can be seen, for example, in the way the scent of a wild rose can evoke a sound tone, or when the seen slope of a hill can be felt and expressed in a movement gesture, or when a sound can evoke the perception of a color and more, as in the sound of a loon’s wail:

My core resonates
The color of indigo
Tone of a loon’s song

In this haiku it is the felt resemblances within the vowel alliteration of the round voluminous ‘o’ sounds, the evoked images of color, resonance, tone, and embodiment that translate meaning across kinesthetic, auditory, visual, and visceral sensory modes.

The prototype for this cross-sensory, metaphorical meaning-making is found in the extension of in utero primary languaging processes to that of the dance and song of mother-infant dialoguing. Such as when my grandson expresses high-pitched voicing. And I spontaneously raise my eyebrows, shoulders, and upper torso with high intensity energy, synchronized with voicing at a slightly lower pitch and slightly shifted intonation. I am not imitating. I am translating sound gesture into movement and energy gestures; and harmonizing and paralleling in sound gesture. I am making resemblances across sensory modes. This is a human semiotics—meaning communicated through gesture and quality that fundamentally operate as signs and codes.

It is this aesthetic structure, patterned in utero, recognizable in the first perceptual processes of primary languaging, that leads me to formulate that first human art-making arose as markers (signs) of encounter with persons of the animate world. Evolutionarily our relationship with Nature (with persons) is primary. This is borne out in the research of Jean Ayres[4], a founding researcher of motor-sensory-perceptual integration and development, in which she writes that, “We bond to the Earth first,” even before we bond with our mother. To bond is to communicate—language with—and so, in this way, our first languaging is ecocentric: Earth-centered, rather than human-centered.

And the aesthetics of this ecocentric relationship is born out, for example, in the understanding that first human speech was poetic in form; mythtelling was oral poetry, and poetry was originally sung and moved—performed. And these old human ancestral arts, based in movement-sound (dance and song), are the very core of ceremonial and ritual practices throughout world cultures. These early practices renewed and celebrated kincentric balance and harmony—right relationship with the whole of creation.

Primary languaging supports both mythological and scientific notions of what can be termed ‘mind in nature’[5]. Such as the old mythological adage—'when humans and animals spoke the same language’. And notions of the Gaian Earth as a multiplicity of intelligent and communicative beings both organic and inorganic. And these reflected in holistic and in animate views in science, as well as ideas in ‘philosophical animism’ in which all things are persons and have communicative agency. And these related to biosemiotics—the interpretation and communication of meaning by way of signs and codes throughout the biological world—on a continuum with the human semiotics.

All things have resonance and quality and process and exist in a multitude of changing interrelationships. We all connect through making and interpreting signs—meaning making. This is an ecocentric view of being in the world. Ecocentrism displaces the human mind as the singular center of all value, meaning, and agency: anthropocentricism. In this respect, ecocentrism opens to the presence of the world and its beings (persons) as ‘minded’ and as collaborators in communicative processes.

It is within this ecocentric view that the sense of kinship with the many intelligences of the natural world arises, and the aesthetics of primary languaging plays out, and can be felt in the delighted sense of belonging and comradery in my son’s drawing. And it is through this aesthetic sense of languaging that I came to create the movement-sound based program Languages of Nature, Languages of Art® (LNLA). This program works experientially with the primary perceptual and aesthetic processes at work in primary languaging, by bringing participants into familiarity and practice with these communicative and expressive forms. With this foundation, along with practice in embodied meditation process, we enter into the practice of deep communicative immersion with the natural world. From the immediacy of this reciprocal movement-sound dialogue, we gather experiences in which to structure a group ceremonial performance piece in ritual celebration of our kinship languaging with nature.

In honoring nature, LNLA is a movement-based, eco-art program. Eco-art is an arts genre that seeks to expand and practice ecological consciousness through various art expressions, often in the form of arts interventions or actions. These are intended to remediate human ideologies and practices concerning the ecological world. As an eco-art action, LNLA is a site-specific, community-based performance process that contributes to the re-experiencing, re-envisioning, and re-membering human relationships with nature. It is a practice in ecocentric languaging and kinship in which the intelligences and perspectives of natural beings and systems—persons—are appealed to, not assumed upon and exploited, cheated and disassociated with: inferiorized. As Dennis Martinez, who coined the term ‘kincentric’, says: “What we have the right to do is to make our case, as human beings, to the natural world”[6], a compact based in the aesthetics of mutual morality, respect, and equality.

Note: This article is an extension of, and combined synopsis of, two previously published article as follows:

Burrill R (2020) Ecocentric languaging: Persons, art and education. The Ecological Citizen 4: 47–51.

Burrill R (2020) Languages of Nature, Languages of Art. Center for Humans and Nature, October 27.


[1] Bird-David N (1999) Animism Revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology. Current Anthropology 40: 67-91.

[2] Hogan L (2015) We Call it Tradition. In: Harvey G, ed. Handbook on Contemporary Animism. Routledge, London, UK: 17-26.

[3] Martinez, D. (2008) & E. Salmon, M. K. Nelson, Restoring Indigenous History and Culture to Nature, in M. K. Nelson (Ed) Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company: 88-115.

[4] Ayres J (1972) Sensory Integration and Learning Disorders. Western Psychological Services, CA, USA.

[5] See: Bateson G (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. University of Chicago Press, IL, USA; Capra F and Luisi P L (2018) The Systems View of Life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, USA; Harding S (2015) Towards an animistic science of the Earth. In: Harvey G, ed. Handbook on Contemporary Animism. Routledge, UK: 373–84; Wheeler W (2016) Expecting the Earth: Life, culture, biosemiotics. Lawrence and Wishart, London, UK; Plumwood V (2009) Nature in the Active Voice. Australian Humanities Review, 46, May 2009.

[6] Martinez, D. Ibid: 89.


Rebecca R Burrill, Ed.D, is an ecocentric dancer, artistic director, and movement-based child developmentalist and educator. Her work focuses on the aesthetics of first perceptions—movement-sound—as primary language, the language of human kinship with Nature. She engages people of all ages in the experience of these deep psycho-biological processes, culminating in community ceremonial site-specific dance performance. Her movement-based work with children includes Arts with Literacy Integration®. Her website is Horsechestnut Winds.

"Small-minded people blame others.
Average people blame themselves.
The wise see all blame as foolishness."

— Epictetus (ca. 50-135 CE)


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