Two Texts

Following are two texts by Paul Shepard:  “Edith Cobb’s The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood” and “Message From a Bear.”


This piece served as the introduction to the Japanese edition of Edith Cobb’s The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (Tokyo: Shishaku-sha Publications, 1986).

Someone has quipped that Charles Darwin had “the only good idea” in the last three-hundred years, and it has been said that he and Sigmund Freud “created” the 20th Century. True or not, they did lead in the demolition of the mechanical model of the world that had ruled the intellectual life of the West since the sixteenth century.  Their thought has survived the tempests of reaction and has led the radical new syntheses in recovering an organic universe, of which theories of holism are the heart.

In spite of its seeming integration the mechanistic concept was allied to the notion of a divided cosmos. On many fronts the old dichotomies of man and nature, body and spirit have begun to crumble. Edith Cobb believed that the horizons of mind and nature, said by the dualists to be opposite paths, could be–are–met and united in what her friend, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, calls “the ecological theater.” She began by exploring the mystery of individual genius, looking for common ground in autobiographies, extrapolating her findings finally to a general principle in human life. In her subjects’ frequent reference to childhood outdoor play and later `return’ in thought and reflection she found a clue to creative intuition that led, in some, to superlative achievement.  Increasingly for her, “culture” meant a kind of evolutionary process, linked in individual growth to a surprising and rather specialized relationship of the child to both nature and place.

Here, in the innocuous to-and-fro of play, in the use of moved-through space as an organizing screen of patterned experience, is a source of the core elements of the personality. Children of middle years, from about six to eleven, are engaged in expanding awareness from body to the organic surroundings, from self to the ecosystem. In this employment of their own bodies as a kind of flying shuttle, they embody the inherent integration of the small world of yard and garden, whose special places hold a constant relationship to each other, predisposing their own perception of meaning in the disparate fragments of experience. In this play of body and earth the landscape becomes a model and method of anticipated knowledge, juxtaposing the systems of the body and the structure of the living nature. After infancy it is the first great coherence between already existing patterns of the body and the Other, the unpremeditated discovery that such resonance is itself a tool. The great leap in comprehension from the microcosm of the self to the macrocosm of the mysterious universe is otherwise confronted by an impossible distance, but the leaping, dancing play of boys and girls prepares an ecological bridge, a vehicle of insight and intuition.

Cobb’s theory does not imply an identity of self and world. It emphasizes, she says, the discontinuity of the self and all else. One of humankind’s most specialized traits–extended immaturity–is the time of an intensely focused discovery of the world’s diversity, including personal uniqueness.  It is not an isolating and fragmenting experience, however, for the perceptual immersion of the active self in a complex and patterned world redeems its plurality. The child’s mind instinctively responds to this vascular and webbed analogy. Play in the landscape glows with elated expectancy, the foreknowledge of an equipoise between parts and wholes, self and the world. This experience, she says, is the prelude to loving the universe.

This dynamic vision of self and world as a temporal and spatial whole she holds to be “at the source of all original thinking.” The two primary activities of unconscious mapping and the naming of living things create a reticulate image from sensory perception, forming a powerful faith that the world is structured and meaningful. Such silent recognition is the genesis of all the gestalt-making that comes later in life.

The ecological domain in which the child soaks, the middle ground of juvenile home range, is a school of preverbal confidence, protecting the emerging ego against the fragmentary thingness in the healing loom of terrain, grass, and trees. This sense of things is deeply imprinted. So, she says, the little outdoor events of childhood are “the universal link between mind and nature as yet uncodified but latent in consciousness in intuitive form.”

Edith Cobb has described nothing less than a new meta-physiology, connecting the most prized human faculties with the pungent presence of soil, leaves and butterflies. Her probing of this metabolic connection opens a whole new field of study, a prevalent, little understood, exquisitely timed encounter. She presents to us in an elegant synthesis a glimpse of an extraordinary facet of human becoming, so close around us as to have been invisible, a source of metaphors that bond body and planet, thought and place by the seemingly aimless, rhythmic frolic of children.

[Copyright © 1986-2014 Florence Rose Krall Shepard. All rights reserved.]

Photo by Doug Mayer


In late 1994, Paul Shepard gave a talk, “The Origin of the Metaphor:  The Animal Connection,” as part of the “Writings on the Imagination” lecture series at the Museum of Natural History in NYC.  (Full text included in The Others, Island Press/Shearwater Books,
pages 331-333.
) He ended his remarks with “a letter delivered to me by a bear,” addressed to humanity from the Others, the animals.  These words were among the last spoken on a public occasion before his death from cancer in 1996.


From:  The Forest, The Sea, The Desert, The Prairie

Dear Primate P. Shepard and Interested Parties:

We nurtured the humans from a time before they were in the present form. When we first drew around them they were, like all animals, secure in a modest niche. Their evident peculiarities were clearly higher primate in their obsession, social status, and personal identity. In that respect they had grown smart, subtle, and devious, committed to a syndrome of tumultuous, aseasonal, erotic, hierarchic power.

Like their nearest kin, they had elevated a certain kind of attention to a remarkable acuity which made them caring, protective, mean, and nasty in the peculiar combination of squinched facial feature and general pettiness of monkeys.

In ancient savannas we slowly teased them out of their chauvinism. In our plumage we gave them aesthetics. In our courtships we tutored them in dance. In the gestures of antlered heads we showed them ceremony and the power of the mask. In our running hooves we revealed the secret of grain. As meat we courted them from within.

As foragers, their glance shifted a little from corms and rootlets, from the incessant bickering and scuffling of their inherited social introversion. They began looking at the horizon, where some of us were both danger and greater substance.

At first it was just a nudge–food stolen from the residue of lion kills, contended for with jackals and vultures, the search for hidden newborn gazelles, slow turtles, and eggs. We gradually became for them objects of thought, of remembering, telling, planning, and puzzling us out as the mystery of energy itself.

We tutored them from the outside. Dancing us, they began to see in us performances of their ideas and feelings. We became the concreteness of their own secret selves. We ate them and were eaten by them and so taught them the first metaphor of their frantic sociality: the outerness of themselves, and ourselves as their inwardness.

As a bequest of protein we broke the incessant round of herbivorous munching, giving them leisure. This made possible the lithe repose of apprentice predation and a new meaning for rumination, freeing them from the drudgery of browsing and the grip of relentless interpersonal strife. Bringing them into omnivorousness, we transformed them forever and they entered the game as a different player.

Not that they abandoned their appetite for greens and fruits, but enlarged it to seeds and meat, and to the risky landscapes of the mind. The savanna or tundra was essential to this tutorial, as a spaciousness open to infinite strategies of pursuit and escape, stretching the senses to their most distant reference. Their thought was invited to a new kind of executorship, incorporating remembrance and planning, to parallels between themselves and the Others and to words-our names-that enabled them to share images and ideas.

Having been committed in this way, first as food and then as the imagery of a great variety of events and processes, from signs in dreams to symbols in metaphysics, we have accompanied humans ever since. Having made them human, we continue to do so individually, and now serve more and more in therapeutic ways, holding their hands, so to speak, as they kill our wildness.

As slaves we stay close. As something to “pet” and to speak to, someone to be there and need them, to be their first lesson in otherness, we have shared their homes for ten thousand years. They have made that tie a bond. From the private home we have gone out to the wounded and lonely, to those yearning for unqualified devotion–to hospitals, hospices, homes for the aged, wards of the sick, the enclaves of the handicapped and retarded, and prison.

All that is well enough, but it involves only our minimal, domesticated selves, not our wild and perfect forms. It smells of dependency.

They still do not realize that they need us, thinking that we are simply one more comfort or curiosity. We have not regained the central place in their thought or meaning at the heart of their ecology and philosophy. Too often we are merely physical reality, mindless passion and brutality, or abstract tropes and symbols.

Sometimes we have to be underhanded. We slip into their dreams, we hide in the language, disguised in allusion, we mask our philosophical role in “nature aesthetics,” we cavort to entertain. We wait in children’s books, in pretty pictures, as burlesques in cartoons, as toys, designs in the very wallpaper, as rudimentary companion or pets.

We are marginalized, trivialized. We have sunk to being objects, commodities, possessions. We remain meat and hides, but only as a due and not as sacred gifts. They have forgotten how to learn the future from us, to follow our example, to heal themselves with our tissues and organs, forgotten that just watching our wild selves can be healing. Once we were the bridges, exemplars of change, mediators with the future and the unseen.

Their own numbers leave little room for us, and in this is their great misunderstanding. They are wrong about our departure, thinking it to be a part of their progress instead of their emptying. When we have gone they will not know who they are.

Supposing themselves to be the purpose of it all, purpose will elude them. Their world will fade into an endless dusk with no whippoorwill to call the owl in the evening and no thrush to make a dawn.

–The Others

[Copyright © 1996-2019 Florence Rose Krall Shepard. All rights reserved.]