The Living Chest: On the Possibilities of Everyday Animism

Animism example of Makapu’u Point tide pools
Makapu’u Point Tide Pools. Photo courtesy of the author.

When I was little, my grandmother in Canada gifted us a varnished black chest with yellow filigree. The chest was filled with photos taken over the decades—a sort of history of our family. My parents left it behind the couch because it was convenient there, out of the way in a house of six with already too much clutter. When I was bored, I used to climb onto it and rest there in a heightened state. Then I would mount the back of the leather couch and pretend I was riding a brown stallion. From my position, either riding the horse or resting on its back while my feet relaxed on the chest’s lid, I sang and danced and was my loud and playful self. 

My mom didn’t seem to like me climbing on the chest, however. Once I remember her telling me to be careful, that the chest might throw me off. I was puzzled. I had no clue the chest was alive. I didn’t know it could get annoyed with someone standing on top of it, let alone decide to toss them .

The next time I stood on the chest I was careful, gentle as I lifted my feet and climbed onto the couch’s back. When I placed my feet back onto the chest to dismount, still careful, I felt my legs give way and my body slam against the hardwood floors. My mom came to see if I was okay.

I said yes, but that the chest threw me off, like she said it would. From that point on, though I still got on top of it, I always took great care with the chest. I thought of it as alive, as having its own freedom the way I had my own. I started to look at everything in the house and wondered what else was secretly living. I looked at the chairs and saw loving little jokesters. I picked up stones, and they knew so much, and therefore kept silent. To this day, it’s hard not to see the tables I sit next to as living things, each with their own character.

Years later, I asked my mom about the chest. She said she never told me the chest was alive, only that I might hurt myself. It must’ve been a slip up of words in my five-year-old brain, a new bewildering phrase lost in translation. But that mistake changed everything.

From that day on everything around me had some sort of soul.

Animism and the World

This odd and small experience, created from play and a lack of understanding of the English language, fundamentally changed how I saw the world. Things in the world were not just objects or commodities: they were beings in some sense alive—and if not alive, at least having their own sort of self. I had, without knowing it at the time, created my own personal animistic worldview, my own metaphor for what the world is.

For Doctor Kalehua Krug, school principal and native Hawaiian activist, his beliefs deeply rooted in the animism within his Hawaiian heritage, the world is a series of actions; reciprocal engagements that can create and destroy plentitude. The land itself is alive, a living process; it’s a set of relationships between the animals and the earth that feeds them.

I spoke to Krug last year in the midst of a protest to clean a major Oahu aquifer contaminated by jet fuel, and he gave me a clear example of this perspective in Hawai’i: the building of a Ko’a. A Ko’a is a sacred shrine, often made when food, or some other resource, is scarce. You build a pillar of stone in the water that you paddle out to to feed everyday. This, Krug told me, is both literal and spiritual. In the water, the Ko’a, which essentially means coral, creates small nooks for young fish to hide in and not be eaten by larger predators. Paddling out, fishers place their ‘ulu (or breadfruit) rinds and other bits of food around the Ko’a, giving food to the fish so that, one day, they may grow large and feed them in return. According to Krug, this reciprocal nature, this understanding of the give and take of the world, is essential to the stories of Hawai’i.

While I did not understand it so articulately, this view of the world is similar to what I believed when I was six. Even if to some degree how I saw the world then—and how I, with my skeptic’s sight, am trying to see the world as once more—is only a metaphor, it is not without critical importance. 

After that first fall from the chest, I looked at stones beside streams and wondered who they were, wishing they could somehow speak to me. Watching a spider, I wondered what it must feel like to be that little thing. Perhaps the spider didn’t have complicated thoughts, but still, what did it feel like? I even saw fire hydrants as alive, calmly waiting to burst to aid. I remember feeling sorry, not for myself, but for the shirt that I tore, that I was so careless of its structure that I would rip it. 

It was almost a Shinto belief too: the animistic notion that things are created with a divine spirit within them. The world, for those who practice Shinto, is made up of living beings. Nothing is not living, is not without spirit, just as is true in Hawai’i—and in so many cultures across the world.

As a kid, each stone had not only its own character, but its own self, thriving. I would pick a stone, seeing its aliveness, then throw it in a stream, or keep it for good luck. While this could be seen only as a playful thought of a daydreaming and misinterpreting child, I also know that it was, and is, an ethos of compassion and care for the world, where the earth, all forms of it, have their own right to be and to live. 

As Krug put it, “It’s really the stories that you use, the metaphors you build, that construct how you see the world.” 

Dire Consequences

When I got older I started to see that, even if my story that everything was alive was objectively untrue, the world was still inevitably filled with living things, each with their own individual natures. Respecting life’s complexity became clear in my relationship to animals. I would cry if I killed a spider. I would lash out at friends, threatening to hit them for messing with deer on the backroads at night. I loathed anything that made people believe they were “better” than all other animals without defining what better meant. I hated (and still do) anything that presupposes that life, aside from humans, was just not important. I hate phrases such as “humans and animals alike.”

The notion that humans have greater value than all other animals to the point of being more-than-animal is only an idea, one that I see as having very little logical footing to hold onto. It’s a story we tell ourselves. This is not to discount our dominance in the food web, or our impact on the land and sea. However, to point out that we are “better” really only raises the question: what do we mean by the word better? Maybe we are smarter, or better at using tools. However, maybe we aren’t “better” at preserving biodiversity.

This idea of human supremacy has gripped Western thought for hundreds of years. And while many realize that it’s not fundamentally true, it is the anchor—the metaphor, the story—by which we as a culture validate the exploitation of land and thereby damage our neighbors’ homes and ability to survive. If we think we are better than the Earth itself, then why would we give a shit what mountains or streams we alter? 

Compassion for the inanimate may make it easier to see the right to life for all other animals. It makes the question of which kinds of lives matter a simple one to answer—we are indebted with the care of our neighbors, and so should ensure all their flourishing. The spider on the wall has as much right to be here as we do. It is only a story, a different guiding narrative, but one with vastly different consequences than the ones we live by today.

Classic Metaphors, New Stories

Animism as a broad and overarching idea is, according to religious scholar Stephen Asma, the most common form of spiritual practice, possibly because many people around the world still live closely with the land—something those of us living in more industrialized spaces do not experience as viscerally. 

It is a simple idea, but from this foundation, a love and care can grow. The kind of care that would make jet fuel disasters, mining collapses, and even the burning of fossil fuels ludicrous and horrific acts. I’m not saying it’s real or true that all of the world is alive in the sense of having a pulse. 

Intead, it is a powerful lens to view the world. While it may be just an idea, a story to share and hopefully convince you that we can change how we interact with the world—that capitalism is not the only thing we can imagine—it is still a metaphor we might consider living by, as the planet burns and melts through our hubris. Maybe the old stories have lost their purpose. Maybe we need new ones that make us respect the world we inhabit—like a small kid respecting a small chest standing behind a brown leather couch.

Cole Hersey is an Oakland-based freelance environmental journalist, essayist, and illustrator. To view more of his work follow his Instagram @goatinbirdland, his newsletter,, or visit his website,