Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a very Happy New Year to all of you!
May the coming year bring greater peace, protection, and abundant blessings to the world of nature and the whole earth – to all peoples, to all the animals, the trees and plants, the rivers, the oceans, the mountains, the forests, and to all wild lands. May they all be blessed.
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.
On Friday, November 2, 2018 at 11 pm in Maharashtra, India, a tiger called Avni was shot and killed by the Forest Service, leaving her two ten-month old cubs, who are too young to survive on their own, without their mother. There has been a major outcry against this injustice in the Indian press. For details, you can google “Avni” – beware of numerous fabricated justifications (lies) being given by the authorities.
In Utah, in the U.S. (and in other states), hunting native big cats is not illegal. Every year in Utah the number of cougars allowed to be hunted is increased, despite the fact that there is no real data on the actual numbers of cougars left in the wild. This hunting season, the target for cougars has been raised from 581 to 642 – the equivalent of 61 additional, innocent “Avni’s” slated to lose their lives. (Please see the link below.)
A cougar is not a tiger and is not – not yet anyway – endangered. Not being endangered, however, is not a reason to allow the senseless killing of living animals – for the sole purpose of displaying their heads on the living room wall. Both tigers and cougars are astonishing, magnificent animals. And every other animal on earth – from the bright fish in the sea to the squirrels who are gathering their food for winter is a living, sentient being, whose life has worth and value.
Entirely apart from the consciousness and sentience of each living animal, to whom her life is as precious to her as ours is to us – we, as humans, are all connected to the world of nature.
This connectedness is extremely ancient knowledge, still alive in India – and, to some extent, in the west as well. In Hinduism, every God or Goddess is linked to an animal. The Goddess Durga, one of the forms of the wife of the great God Shiva, is also an independent, powerful deity in her own right. She is fierce, a warrior Goddess who fights and defeats evil. Durga and the tiger are inseparable.
This ferocity is also the nature of the tiger – powerful and dynamic, a mother who defends and protects her young. Or a male who represents the wild spirit of the forest.
The tiger is the essence of the wild – untamable and free.
Who would want to kill such a magnificent animal?
Paleolithic and neolithic people did hunt for survival, but not for sport.
Since the beginning of time, animals have been hunted for food by tribal people. For at least 10,000 years Native Americans lived off the land, hunting and fishing, as well as growing whatever vegetables they could. In the sixteenth century, when Europeans arrived on the shores of America, they found a land of unbelievable beauty and magnificence – filled with a vast abundance of wildlife and wild lands which had not been destroyed or diminished – which they promptly set about to demolish. This destruction continues unabated to this day, until there is not much left of the great wilderness that was once here.
Europeans, my ancestors and perhaps yours, brought with them a culture of dominance (over other peoples and nature), which is also a culture of alienation from the natural world. It’s a case of “us” and “them,” which proclaims, “I’m a human, and that thing over there, unfortunately, is just an ‘animal’ – just an object to be used for my benefit.”
We can see this thinking alive and well today in the way that the word “animal” is still being used, endlessly, sometimes to apply to anyone who is simply “other.” The word “animal” is also used for those who demonstrate disgusting or criminal behavior – despite the fact that animals are innocent beings, and no animal behaves, or thinks, like a criminal. The attribute of “viciousness” can logically apply only to humans, because it applies to malevolent intent, which animals simply do not have.
It is this malevolent intent which is the problem. Not all humans, thankfully, have this trait. And not all cultures either. It is something gone awry in the history of our race. If one goes far back to the time of the Romans, the Europeans, then pagan tribes, were worshipping trees and nature, just like other early peoples.
They had genuine spiritual traditions, really not so different from those of India, which were based on peace and harmony with nature. Not that they were entirely peaceful, they certainly weren’t, but there was an underlying premise of being at one with nature – of being part of one overall earth – of not being alienated or superior to this planet – and there was an absence of the desire to kill nature. (Sadly, western religions seem to have little to do now with their own origins, and they have, in large measure, been taken over by the western view which sees everything as a dichotomy.)
Killing a tiger, a cougar, a bear, or a wolf, is, in a way, emblematic of this malevolent intent – this destructive, evil force which has, to some extent, possessed the human race. These great archetypal animals seem to incite fear and to have a magical power within them – some sort of force, a will, which is untamed and untamable. They are hunted for no rational purpose – hunted to near extinction. No one in Utah, or elsewhere in the U.S., is in any reasonable danger of being killed by a cougar. We are in far more danger of being killed by our own cars, while we are driving them, than we are of being harmed by any of these animals.
There is something vastly irrational about the destruction that we as humans are inflicting on the earth. We have already destroyed 60% of the animals on the planet. We have turned half of the earth’s land mass into farm land, destroying forests and natural ecosystems.
With our artificial chemicals pouring into waterways, we are rapidly poisoning the ocean – as well as the air and the land. And, as we know, we are destroying the climate.
Since we are dependent on the earth for our survival, there is absolutely nothing sane or rational about these human activities. They are like a suicidal madman waving about a bomb that is about to detonate.
Yes, of course, there is an element of greed and self-centeredness in the way humans go about taking over and then obliterating all life on the planet. But this, in itself, is really not a rational explanation for the obsessive level of destruction that is taking place.
One might posit that there is some underlying, driving, unconscious force which compels us to behave in this immensely self-destructive way. We seem to want to kill ourselves.
This major isolation and alienation from nature which has taken hold of us is propelling us toward a cliff, a bottomless abyss — and seems to predetermine our will as a species, and our actions.
Yet, although this is, I am aware, profoundly gloomy, there is something else also, a certain light – which lies in the fact that not all of humanity has always behaved in this self-destructive way.
Ancient people saw themselves as part of the earth, as, ultimately being at one with the animals, the trees, the rivers, and all life. Even today, especially among those cultures and countries not altogether swept up in the falsehoods of the modern worldview, there are remnants and in some cases the reawakening of a true realization that we are the earth and the earth is us. We are all one, intertwined and interrelated.
There is, moreover, a dynamic, and growing movement, all over the planet, both east and west, to return to, and go forward with, the knowledge and vision of deep reverence for the world of nature and the sacredness of all life.
This is the great end battle. Nature, of course – even if it takes several millennia — will recover and will win, in this world or in another. The question that remains is — will we join with nature, protecting her as the earth, our mother, or will we, as a species, self-destruct? We shall see.
In the meantime, each of us can open our eyes and our hearts — and live, as best we can, in harmony and peace with the natural world and its numinous, alive, wild presence – encountered in the wonderful, fiery eyes of the tiger and in all of nature.
Link to Salt Lake Tribune article about cougar hunting:
Readers of Sharon St Joan’s blog site, “Echoes in the Mist” (recently changed from “Voices-and-Visions”), will be familiar with her ethereal poems, which have always resonated with me as a view into the sacred soul of Nature.
Over the last two years, Sharon has graciously devoted some of her time and creative talent to composing twelve poems for the latest volume of Secret Voices from the Forest—Thoughts and Dreams of North American Trees.
Volume Three: The East, in which you will find her verses, concerns a few of the trees native to the eastern part of this continent—from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean—some well known and some quite uncommon, and some wholly unique to this continent, although not necessarily familiar to all of us; examples are Sugar maple, American chestnut, Pawpaw and Tulip Tree.
These brightly illustrated volumes familiarize us with each tree, utilizing facts about it and its native surroundings, as well as a few particulars about some of the animals and other plants that share its environment. At the same time, each tree is given a chance to “speak for itself,” in a section titled, “Reflections,” in which we can imagine how the tree might see its place in the world and how it may view us, as fellow travelers on the Earth.
In the world of books about nature, these publications are distinctive, blending fact and fantasy for adults who are willing to consider the idea that we are all equal participants in the great work of Creation.
You can find this, as well as the first two volumes, The West and Midcontinent, on Amazon at this link.