In 1989, I entered the Ph. D. program in history at Rutgers University, working with Calvin Martin, a rogue ethnohistorian whose Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade I had found compelling for its attention to the spiritual dimension of the North American fur trade. I had been in love with Indians since 4th grade, when my grammar school librarian put John Harrington’s Dickon Among the Lenape in my hands. On the Flathead Reservation in Montana, I had taught a course in Native American Mythology, and, living in the Champlain Valley of Vermont during the years of the political activism of the Abenaki, I had become intrigued by Abenaki history, and developed a friendship with former forester-turned-ethnologist Gordon Day. I headed off to Rutgers thinking I would write a biography about Gordon that would celebrate his entry into the world of the last Abenaki hunters, trappers, and mdawlinno (shamans).
One reads an enormous amount while in graduate school, and somewhere along the way I had read an article by geographer Yi Fu Tuan that mentioned something called “synaesthesia.” That word stuck in my head, drawing towards me all sorts of intriguing questions. A Dutch art historian named Sixten Ringbom had published articles that suggested that Wassily Kandinsky’s pioneer abstract canvases expressed his faculty of synaesthesia, and that it was a kind of clairvoyance produced through his study of Theosophy. Ringbom mentioned the influence of Rudolf Steiner, and I set out to see what Rudolf Steiner had said about synaesthesia.
Nothing, it turned out, but Steiner’s epistemology turned both my undergraduate education in biology and my doctoral studies in history upside down and inside out. I ended up writing this book, which, asks if synaesthesia is “new” or “old,” and in the process, led me from my old nature-loving Romanticism into the world of Christian esotericism.