By Sharon St Joan
The earth is not just a physical thing. The same is true of the trees, the flowers, the clouds in the sky, the mountains, the rivers, the valleys, the oceans. And, of course, all the animals.
The other day I listened to a spokesperson for a major environmental organization explaining on national television the reasons why it’s not a good idea to log the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. I’m not going to give his name because I’m about to criticize him – even though he spoke well and gave good, rational arguments. But I felt there was an essential element missing. I don’t honestly remember all the points that he made, but they may have gone something like this. The Tongass National Forest puts a significant percentage of the earth’s oxygen into the air. It is the largest temperate forest in the world. It is a treasure for many people who visit it. It protects many wild species by providing their habitat.
During the interview, footage was shown of this incredibly spectacular land – tall cliffs covered in green forests rising up out of clear lakes.
I do absolutely completely understand that in trying to defend old growth forests from logging and other destruction, it is useful to appeal to concerns that are meaningful to most people. It is helpful to stress the importance that the forest has for human health – replenishing the earth’s oxygen – it is also much loved and enjoyed by visitors. It is the essential habitat for so many animals, and wild animals – really all of them – are quite endangered. The forest is useful, it is loved, it is rare now on the planet, and it is important to take care of it. Absolutely!
A missing element
But there is a missing element, which is a very key element. The forest – quite apart from its value to humans and other animal species – also has an intrinsic value all its own. Its value does not lie solely in its usefulness to human beings or in its beauty as perceived by humans. The forest is not just a thing. It is not an object – and this is true of the entire earth. The trees, the rivers, the cliffs, the lakes, the sagebrush, the moon and the sun overhead, the clouds, the birds – these are not just physical things. They have a spirit.
So, what is the point of actually saying this – of making sure that we mention it often, whenever possible? Of speaking up, without being intimidated or being afraid of being ridiculed? After all, it wouldn’t be the first or the last time that people laugh. As long as we do not mention what we see as the truth, then we are ceding the most important point to the side that wishes to objectify the world of nature. We are tacitly agreeing that the natural world really only has value if it is beneficial to us as humans – or has value only by preserving habitat for wild animals so that we may go and visit them or at least watch them on film.
But ceding this point is not right. It is not correct.
Protecting the earth isn’t all about us as humans.
It is the objectification of the natural world by human beings – especially in modern times, and especially in the west (where this worldview originated) — that is the root cause and the justification for the destruction of the earth which is taking place all around us. It is our collective alienation from the natural world that gives some the excuse basically to kill nature. We’re not just talking about climate change – though it is that as well – it is also the very direct, immediate destruction through industrialization and pollution – drowning the earth and the sea in chemicals – and removing the sand that holds water that prevents drought.
A great many people, myself among them, feel that all the beings of the earth have a spirit and a spiritual dimension – not only the animals, but also all the trees and the plants, and even the rocks, the cliffs, and the oceans. They are not just physical things. This is not as odd a concept as it might seem. Virtually all tribal peoples and all ancient peoples saw the earth this way. It is only the modern world that differs from this age-old, traditional view. It is the modern world that is the outlier – and perhaps not coincidentally, it is the modern world that is dismantling all the life of the planet more rapidly than any society that has gone before us. So, are we modern people as wise as we think we are? Perhaps we are simply more decadent, and farther removed from the basic truths of existence.
An older, wiser view
It is well-known that Native Americans viewed all of nature as alive and as having a spirit. Among some of these stories and legends, known and not-so-well-known – the Abenaki nation of Maine see the drum as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. The Munsee of Delaware tell of great thunderbirds that cause storms and lightning. The Shoshone people of western states tell stories about the trickster coyote, and his elder brother, the wolf, who is a creator hero. The north wind, known as Winter or Biboon, is the spirit of winter for the northeast woodland tribes, like the Iroquois. The Paiutes of Utah have a story about a mountain sheep who became a star. In other words, all of creation is seen as alive and sentient. There is no sharp distinction between animals and rocks or lakes or other geological features – all are considered living beings. This appears to be true of all tribal people everywhere – from the Americas to the Pacific islands to the native peoples of Australia.
Furthermore, it is not only tribal people who see the world in this way – virtually every early civilization and every civilization which still has some connection with its roots also recognize a spiritual dimension as belonging to the earth and to every aspect of nature – from the ancient Egyptian, and on into modern times – to the Chinese and Japanese, just to mention a few.
The most striking example is the complex, intricate beliefs of Hinduism, which go back perhaps 10,000 years and which, even today are as alive as ever. The moon, the sun, and the wind are among the millions of gods. Every major Hindu god has an animal vahana or vehicle. The rivers are goddesses and the mountains, generally, are gods. All things have life. And, as is stated in the earliest writings, all the gods and all that exists are ultimately part of one God, Brahman. A deep reverence for nature is intertwined with the Hindu worldview.
In March of 2017, The Guardian reported that a court in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand had accorded the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers the status of personhood, citing as precedent the declaration by the New Zealand government of the Whanganui River, long revered by the Maori people, as a living entity. This modern legal recognition of the personhood of rivers is in accordance with the perception of many people all over the world, today, as always in the past.
It is exclusively a modern, western viewpoint to assume that the world of nature is composed of objects or things – that rocks, rivers, mountains have no spiritual nature, and even in the western world, this may be a minority view. Many everyday people acknowledge the spiritual nature of the living world around us. Sadly, it is those who seek to exploit the natural world that talk about it as inanimate, lifeless, insentient – and existing only as “natural resources” to be gobbled up by mining, oil and gas, fracking, and every form of destruction and desecration.
For those of us for whom the earth and all the beings of the earth, have an intrinsic value, a profound beauty in and of themselves – the more we say this clearly, the more accessible that view will be to more people – and the more we all will be able to see plainly that the Tongass Forest, for example, is far from being just a resource to be devoured by humans. It is a living entity filled with spirits and presences, and astonishing beauty, which as humans we can only begin to see and appreciate.
Among environmentalists, all perspectives that value the earth are very much needed – scientific facts, legal arguments, and also views that take into account the benefits to humanity. Our lives and happiness do indeed depend on the natural world.
Still, the many millions, billions, of us across the planet, who see the natural world and the earth as spirit, as well as physical, should not be afraid to say so. As is so often quoted, “We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.” The earth is Mother Earth and is a living being – far older, greater, and more worthy of reverence than the human race could ever be.
Standing up for the essential life-essence of the earth is a missing key in the fight to protect and preserve our fast-vanishing planet. We who see the earth, and all of nature, as spectacularly alive with an intrinsic beauty and validity must speak up and not be silent.
It is our alienation, as humans, from the natural world that leads to its destruction, and it is our re-connection with the earth that can hold the prospect of some help for all the myriads of beautiful, majestic, innocent beings with whom we share the planet. So, we must see clearly, and speak bravely.
Four) Sharon St Joan / River in Karnataka, India, near Mysore.
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