Book Review: Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit by Judy Grahn

The stories and essays of Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit: Living in a Sentient World form a beautiful tapestry of communications across species and consciousness. From grateful dragonflies to fatherless strawberries to companionable stones, poet and activist Judy Grahn details meaningful connections from her own experiences of the sentient world. Throughout her firsthand accounts, she weaves in histories of ecological philosophies and spiritualities including those of North American Indigenous cultures, South India, ancient Europe, and Grahn’s own Scandinavian ancestors who interacted with spirits in rock and water. Both a study and a questioning of consciousness, Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit is a buzzing network of stories that connect with one another in the loving way that Grahn herself connects with the cats, ants, trees, and microbes in their pages.

The collection is organized in three sections: first, a group of nonfiction pieces about communicating thoughts and feelings across species; then four creative nonfiction stories about the limitations of human senses in experiencing other animals’ behaviors; and, finally, a collection of essays on the three forms of consciousness, which Grahn describes as sensory, cellular, and radiant.

Grahn’s nonfiction pieces attest to her long life of being unabashedly open to the offerings of the world and its mysteries. “Dragonfly Dances” is about her experience caring for a dragonfly in need and the dragonfly-human bond that forms in the process. “Messages with Cats Attached” is a series of stories about Grahn’s entertaining and affecting experiences with cats—from spirit cats to telepathic cats to cats that seem to know just when to show up. In “Interventions and Invocations,” Grahn describes the efforts of creatures to reach across to one another’s consciousness, particularly through displays of empathy and collaboration. A deer solicits help from a human to rescue her fawn, ants regroup after a heartwarming human struggle to communicate that a jar of peanut butter has been moved to outside of the house, and prolonged eye contact between a human and a butterfly remains frustratingly undeciphered. 

“Is love the be-all and end-all of life, especially of a responsible, spiritual life?” Grahn asks while contemplating her role as an outdoor cat owner in the neighborhood’s declining bird population. “No, I decided, not unless it is accompanied by consciousness, empathy for all beings, and courage to make change, including oneself.”

The four creative nonfiction short stories explore the misinterpretations that abound in human relationships with non-human animals. In “Rats at the Door of Love,” a cat brings rats to the door of a lesbian couple’s new house and the couple misinterprets the offerings as a message of hate from their new neighbors. The succinctly titled “Bugs” is an unexpectedly moving tale about a teenage boy and his father who must grapple with the family matriarch’s no-kill policy. Hundreds of bugs overtake the household and lead the boy down an unexpected life path. Grahn’s stories also explore questions of gender roles and family relationships as much as they emphasize connections made with other creatures. “A Hunter and His Horns” and “Only Strawberries Don’t Have Fathers” consider the relationships between romantic couples as well as questions of masculinity, motherhood, and parent roles in both human and non-human species.

Grahn also writes about her relationships with non-animal entities—namely stones, fire, microbes, and spirits in the essays “Elementals,” “Microbia,” and “Touching Spirit.” She details beautiful accounts of goddess temples and fire rituals in South India, of microbes as our ancestors who developed the atmosphere that supports us, and of love literally falling out of the sky. Each experience is written about with profound reverence and gratitude, told from a perspective that is equal parts scientific and poetic.

Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit is an invitation to readers to open up and join Grahn in a joyous celebration of connections. Grahn’s stories are a necessary reminder of the interconnectedness of humans, animals, nature, and beyond. In caring for the world and in communicating with its vast consciousness, we are caring for and communicating with our own selves. Anyone in need of hopeful environmental literature—and lovely stories about cats—will find inspiration, connection, and a renewed love of life itself in Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit.

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