Sunset, 9 December 2017, near Horsethief Falls, Teller County Colorado.
I went camping with some friends last weekend.1)Note the general absence of snow, which is disturbing when you’re up at 10,200 feet (3100 m.. Some of my friends like to have music all the time, so there was a set of Bluetooth-enabled speakers and plenty of digitized music covering the last fifty years of American popular song.
One song was older, however — Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land,” composed in 1940. It’s been covered multiple times by many famous musicians.
Only it hit me this time what an anthropocentric piece of Marxist crap it is.
You have heard the refrain, “This land was made for you and me.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Ol’ Woody, if not a Communist himself — he certainly hung around with them, and he claimed to be one — was expressing Marxist values there: There is nothing beyond “Man.” No gods, nothing supernatural. “Was made” does not really suggest that presence of a Creator; it’s just a statement of fact: All of this was put here (somehow) for us to use because we are the most important creatures in the world.
Communist, capitalist, what’s the difference when they share this viewpoint?
So I looked up at Sentinel Point and thought, supposing Ol’ Woody had written, “You and I were made for this land”?
It would not scan, for one thing. There would not be the gratifyingly drawn-out me-e-e-e at the end. There is nothing in his lyrics about responsibility or reciprocity; it’s mostly a diatribe against the idea of private property, so it has appealed to generations of disaffected intellectual backpackers.2)Let’s have a show of hands.
But just as a thought experiment, turn it around in your head. “You and I were made for this land.” Wouldn’t we owe the land something? Wouldn’t we have to admit that we were not the only “owners” of it — a concept far beyond in Guthrie’s line about “As I went walking I saw a sign there / And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing'” (talk about not scanning!)?
The concept of “source of sacred value” is completely un-Marxist, but I have one, and it is not “Man as the highest good.”
The next time I hear that song — and I am sure that I will — I am making that change, and a little pledge.
Coyote America is both an environmental and a deep natural history of the coyote. It traces both the five-million-year-long biological story of an animal that has become the “wolf” in our backyards, as well as its cultural evolution from a preeminent spot in Native American religions to the hapless foil of the Road Runner. A deeply American tale, the story of the coyote in the American West and beyond is a sort of Manifest Destiny in reverse, with a pioneering hero whose career holds up an uncanny mirror to the successes and failures of American expansionism.
Coyote likes camps, villages, towns, and cities. He lived with the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan — the word coyotl itself is Aztec (Nahuatl), pronounced COY-yoht, so we Westerners who say it as two syllables actually favor an older pronunciation than the Hispanicized co-yo-te.1)As a boy in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, I was taught that only Easterners and tourists said kiy-yo-te.
As a deity, he was Huehuecoyotl, or “Venerable Old Coyote, “who sounds so much like the widespread North American god-avatar often called ‘Old Man Coyote’ that the empire-minded Aztecs may have borrowed him from tribes far northward, in what is now the western United States,” Flores writes.
Europeans had old experiences, stories, myths, and preconceptions about gray wolves, bears, and foxes and long employed folk stories about them to investigate human nature. But coyotes are different. The coyote is an American original whose evolutionary history has taken place on this continent, not in the Old World. We see it not from the traditional vantages but from a sideways one, and from that perspective everything looks different.
But you don’t honor him/her/them by feeding them, at least not directly. Maybe you honor Coyote by telling Coyote stories. They are easy to find.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Wrong canid in the title, but a movie nevertheless inbued with the spirit of Old Man Coyote is The Grey Fox (1982), starring Richard Farnsworth. I treasure my VHS copy.
The Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon — an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) residential/ritual/governmental (?) complex in northeastern New Mexco that flourished during what where the early Middle Ages in Europe — is well-known among archaeoastronomers, as is the possible solar alignment built into one of the grand kivas nearby at Casa Rinconada.
“The historical accuracy of the alignment may be less important than its symbolic value, especially for those who flock to the site on the summer solstice.
“Casa Rinconada has become a place where people come to see an alignment. In our culture, we haven’t been taught to relate to the natural rhythm of what the sun and the earth are doing throughout the year. So here’s a place where you can come and see that—not a representation of a solstice, but the actual solstice, as mediated by a building. It’s a wonderful experience.”
So perhaps we look at all astronomical alignments in whatever country as wonderful examples of nature religion. Casa Rinconada attracted a crowd during the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, when various New Age thinkers, led by José Argüelles, promoted prophecies connected to a planetary alignment: “The convergence is purported to have ‘corresponded with a great shift in the earth’s energy from warlike to peaceful.'”1)No doubt you have noticed how much more peaceful the world is.
The New Age event was spoofed at a Pagan festival in New Mexico that summer by a dance performance of the “Harmonica Vigins.”
My view on astronomical alignments was being warped in the 1980s by seminars with Davíd Carrasco, a scholar of Mesoamerican religion who has spent a lot of time working with temple alignments and associated mythology.
My take-away was that astronomical alignments are mostly about priestcraft and power. Farmers don’t need rows of giant stones to tell them when to plant. Every locale has its indicators: here in the southern Colorado foothills, when the emerging leaves of Gambel oak are thumbnail-size,2)“As big as a mouse’s ear,” some people like to say, because it sounds more folkloric. the chance of a frost is usually past. (Usually!) And I know that the sun sets in a notch on the ridge to the west at the equinoxes, for what that is worth.
Being able to proclaim the cycles from the temple steps is probably more about showing how “King Jaguar” enjoys of the favor of the gods than anything else.
After a living room talk to a group of Anchorage Pagans about different types of nature religion, I ended up in the kitchen with a woman who was an Egyptian reconstructionist — or revivalist, as she preferred to say.
Given my concerns, my first thought was that if the ancient Egyptian sacred year was organized around the flood cycle of the Nile, what was the Alaskan equivalent? If ships of ancient Egyptians had somehow sailed into Cook Inlet, how might that landscape have changed them?
Yes, it’s true that one of my religious studies professors called me an “environmental determinist,” and he did not mean it as a compliment. But I am not the only one wondering about how one’s religious practice becomes rooted in a particular place — and how do we get back to that situation?
Dolores LaChapelle in SW Colorado
Here in Colorado, one under-appreciated writer on these topics was the mountaineer and deep ecologist Dolores LaChapelle. Earth Festivals: Seasonal celebrations for Everyone Young and Old was written in the 1970s, while her big book, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep — Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life came out in 19972. (Visit her Amazon page to see all her books.) Both might be called “deep green religion,” to borrow a phrase — non-theistic nature religion but still exhibiting an approach to life that I would love to see more of in contemporary Paganism.
Another writer who wrote a how-to workbook on integrating spirituality with nature is Loren Cruden, whose The Spirit of Place: A Workbook with Sacred Alignment involves study and doings through the cycle of a temperate-climate year.
The term “Neolithic” might be off-putting for some, especially those who — following some deep ecologists, philosophers like Paul Shepard, or Pagan thinkers like Fred Adams — see it as the “Fall” from the older Paleolithic life, which was dangerous but yet more leisurely.
The “Neolithic Revolution” (agriculture, domesticating livestock) also meant bigger social groups, hierarchies (the Big Man becomes the king, and you better bow down), turning women into full-time baby-makers (More sons, bigger farm!), and an overall decline in health and physique, at least in some archaeological studies, although not everyone agrees.
But perhaps the thought is of robust peasants living in somewhat more egalitarian societies on the margins of Europe.
Rather than organizing by the calendar, Neolithic Shamanism is organized by realm: Earth, Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft, Air, Ancestors. Unlike the other books mentioned, this one is very much about spirit work:
We [authors] have many spirit allies; we also have plenty of experiences with spirits who weren’t interested in talking to us, or who took a firm dislike to us from the start. Remember that these are people. They aren’t human people, but they are People. Like all individuals, some will take a shine to you, and some will prefer someone else. Don’t take it personally. (Italics in the original.)
This book is densely packed, and it would take months to work through the exercises, but to do them all would change you permanently.
One question always in my mind, however, is to what extent we can impose a pantheon, so to speak, on the gods of our place. (There are at least two polytheistic theological questions in that sentence.) Do we “summon, stir, and call [them] up” or do we hang out and see who is there?
This is especially a question when in new places — new hemispheres — and there is only one piece of evidence — that I know of — in which a Pagan ancestor dealt with it.
Unfortunately for the story, almost all the Norse who visited North America during the time of the Greenland settlements (roughly 1000–1400 CE) were Christian, from Leif Erikson on down. So the episode from Erik the Red’s Saga about “Thorhall the hunter” has passed through many layers of Christian tellers and redactors, meaning that Thorhall is portrayed as an anachronism at best and a fool at worst.
To me it is a very poignant story:
They [the Norsemen] stayed there [in Vinland] that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one . . . . They ran short of food and the hunting failed . . . .Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked.
Meanwhile Thorhall the Hunter disappeared and they went out to search for him. They searched for three days; and on the fourth day Karlsefni and Bjarni found him on top of a cliff. He was staring up at the sky with eyes and mouth and nostrils agape, scratching himself and pinching himself and mumbling. They asked him what he was doing there; he replied that it was no concern of theirs, and told them not to be surprised and that he was old enough not to need them to look after him. They urged him to come back home with them, and he did.
A little later a whale was washed up and they rushed to cut it up. No one recognized what kind of a whale it was, not even Karlsefni, who was an expert on whales. The cooks boiled the meat, but when it was eaten it made them all ill.
Then Thorhall the Hunter walked over and said, “Has not Redbeard turned out to be more successful than your Christ? This was my reward for the poem I composed in honor of my patron, Thor; he has seldom failed me.”
When the others realized this they refused to use the whale meat and threw it over a cliff, and committed themselves to God’s mercy. Then a break came in the weather to allow them to go out fishing, and after that there was no scarcity of provisions.
Whether in Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland [?], to Thorhall it was all one realm.
The image of the “blue planet,” a new perspective of the earth as seen from the outside, is one of the most popular images in history. This image, more than any other, has shaped the popular notion of the age of the “whole world” and globalization, from a worldwide society linked by the Internet to the current debate on the climate. Using artworks and materials from cultural history, the exhibition will critically explore the application of ecological-systemic concepts to society, politics, and aesthetics.
And how it ended up as a way to sell smart phones.
That the photo of the earth from space changed consciousness on some level is a given of environmental writing. My only concern is that it feeds the “everything started in the 1960s” meme, which downplays the long role of nature-as-source-of-sacred value in American religion, going back to the early 19th century. Catherine Albanese described it well.
The real-estate supplement of the Taos News this week carried an article titled “Five Must-Haves for a Beautiful Backyard.” Oddly enough, four of the five items* were available at the store owned by a person interviewed for the story.
“Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is one of our most popular statues,” said Char Austin, who works at Camino Real Imports. “People like the air of serenity that he brings in, more so when the statue is surrounded by trees, and birds can nest around. El San Francisco definitely contributes to create a peaceful environment.”
The real St. Francis of Assisi was anything but serene. He was more like “Occupy Rome” AD 1204 — an upper middle class young man angry at the establishment, demanding radical change in the Roman Catholic Church. But history has turned him into a bird bath — and perhaps that metamorphosis was inevitable.
St. Francis as a bird bath, with the wolf of Gubbio.
Growing up as a Forest Service brat, with an agnostic father and a devoutly Christian mother, I noticed that Christianity seemed to end at the edge of town. Relations with the other-than-human world were not discussed in church. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contained a prayer for rain, as I recall, and that was about all.
For the rest, I was offered the secular gospel of conservation: scientific forestry, soil and water conservation, state-regulated hunting. At least that was better than what had gone before: cut-and-run timber cutting, market-hunting that wiped out species, the Dust Bowl . . .
Pope Innocent III has a dream of St. Francis of Assisi supporting the tilting church (attributed to Giotto). Francis was more concerned with church reform than with nature itself. (Wikipedia.)
His Franciscan order grew to where it too was a bureaucratic organization, and some of the monks who clung too hard to Francis’ peace-and-poverty ideals (the “Spirituals”) ended up condemned as heretics. (The conflict between hard-core Franciscans and the Vatican appears briefly at the beginning of The Name of the Rose. Most viewers probably don’t get it.)
Yes, he wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” in which all creation, including animals, the Sun and Moon, etc., is invited to praise God and is depicted as manifesting the divine. And he supposedly preached to birds — but he preferred to preach to people, even to the Muslim sultan of Egypt, who was enough of a sporting gent to let him live. In the story of the “wolf of Gubbio,” he saves the wolf from persecution by the local pastoralists, but at the price of giving up its wolf-ness. There is nothing in the canticle about the ecological role of predators.
Fast forward to 1967, when the journal Science published an essay by the historian Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (PDF), still widely read and anthologized today. In it, White blamed the crisis on the dualistic creator/created thinking fostered by the monotheistic religions, among which he included Communism, given the environmental crises created by Communist Party policies in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe:
Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.
Casting about for an alternative to the “domination” model within the Christian tradition, White settled (rather half-heartedly, I always thought) on Francis, even though Francis’ view of non-human nature was thoroughly Catholic. To quote the Wikipedia entry, Francis taught “that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man.” Contrary to the slide show linked above, this is not particularly “closer to Eastern philosophy.”
With the environmental movement growing, religious officialdom had to respond. Some Protestant Christians started talking “eco-justice,” while in 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis “patron of ecology,” urging Catholics to be like Francis and take care of nature. Francis, said the pope, “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation” — as long as we understand that it is human-centric and required to praise God the creator, who is outside of creation, for letting it exist.
Of the hundreds of officially canonized saints, Francis was the only candidate for patron of ecology, even though the Vatican had squeezed all the radical ideas out of the Franciscan order within a century of his death.
We could see Bird Bath Francis as an attempt to bridge these traditions, to consecrate a safe, protected, and cultivated nature — if not the self-organizing wolf-ridden wilderness. Followers of what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion,” which may not be at all theistic, might not be so easily persuaded by the monk of Assisi, were they to meet him on the path.
*Wood carvings of saints, giant metal flowers, concrete animals, small water fountain, and ceramic Sun and Moon faces
I am off Thursday to Cherry Hill Seminary’s “Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium. Although not one of the marquee speakers, I have a small part to play as a respondent for one panel.
What does a respondent do? First, you read all papers in advance. Of course, there is often somebody who has a string of excuses for not sending his or her paper, so (assuming that person does not bail out totally), you hope that you can take some notes during its delivery and extemporize some remarks.
Having heard the presentations, it is your turn to take a few minutes and discuss common themes, opportunities for further research, and the like. It is considered bad form—at least in the conferences that I have attended—to say, “Jane Doe’s paper was jumbled and had nothing useful to say about Problem X.” You might say, however, “Jane Doe rightly draws our attention to Problem X.”
On the other hand, I have heard respondents critique the overall theme of a session as being poorly thought out, so it’s not always all sweetness and light. But the respondent responds constructively, rather than conducting an oral examination.
Cherry Hill is a seminary too, after all, which means some of the presenters engage in more theologizing than I am used to in my corner of religious studies.
To get in the right frame of mind, I have been re-reading parts of Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, which lays out different aspects of what he calls “naturalistic animism” in particular, that is to say, animism that is does not require any supernatural component but is more of a shared web-of-life experience. Is this the same as the “New Animism”? Perhaps we have a theme for an AAR session here.
I recently reviewed Philip Heselton’s latest biography of Gerald Gardner, but I did not have time to discuss one of his final observations, written in a too-brief closing chapter, “An Assessment of Gerald Gardner.”
Heselton writes, “Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any.” Nor, in his assessment, did Gardner believe in spirits or have any success at working magick on his own (640).
If he, Edith, and friends were talking about witchcraft during lazy days at the nudist camp in the late 1940s, they had a lot of concepts swirling around, concepts such as these:
Witchcraft was merely a collection of psychic abilities available to everyone.
It was spells and herbal curing and folklore and whatever, with no clear organization — just a soup of this and that.
It was power given to someone after a pact with the Devil.
It was power that you were born with, either for good or ill.
It is a super-secret Pagan cult that survived 1,000 years of Christianity in western Europe (Margaret Murray’s view).
All of these ideas are swirling around and bumping into each other inWitchcraft Today (1954). But there is not much about deities — for that, Doreen Valiente should get the credit, I suspect.
Somehow this vagueness and messiness of definition ties in — in my mind at least — with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’s recent blog essay, “Bringing Back the Gods.”
What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).
For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.
On the “nature religion” part, I would suggest that non-theistic nature religion is rooted in 19th-century American thought, and Catherine Albanese tackled it well inNature Religion in America and other writing. So it is not a reaction against contemporary polytheism originally, but a genuine spiritual current on its own. I have argued that the existence of that spiritual current made it easier for Pagans in the 1970s and 1980s to grab the “earth religion” label — partly as camouflage.
And some people just have not had that knock upside the head that leaves you saying, “All right, You are real and now we have some sort of relationship.”
I would agree that there is a cultural prejudice against polytheism. Some practitioners of what look like polytheism to us have maybe learned to emphasize a “Great Spirit” or “High God” behind them in order to avoid that label. It’s what you say when the missionaries have you backed into a corner.
• In the “Finding a God” chapter of Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton describes the rise of Pan in Victorian literature. Sometimes he personified an idealized countryside while at others he was “a battering-ram against respectability.” He appears in America during that period too — this time as sculpture.
I couldn’t stop the thought: And this is what award-winning education looks like. It was education that had gotten the climate wrong, the animals wrong, and the children wrong as well. By feeding the students a pablum of anachronisms about the natural world instead of teaching them to sink their hands in mud, to feast their eyes on the colors of tree foliage, to recognize poison oak and name the first wildflower in spring, this brand of education disrespected the students. It inculcated a story from another time and place instead of encouraging the students to observe grasses or flowers or woodland using their own eyes, their fingers and toes, their ears, their skin. It treated the children as if they didn’t have the capacity to appreciate or synthesize the results of their own observations.