Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Essentially Pagan Nature of Environmentalism

Last dream before waking: I am carrying a load of wood, long stripped pine logs, with others, from a forest patch to a trucking site down the road; our work group is two Native girls, a friend, and myself; we take turns carrying and maneuvering the load of wood, trying to get where we’re going; we get to talking about our motivations for why we have all become environmentalists; I talk about my birth and life in Michigan, how I felt directly connected to the land, how I still feel connected to the land when I settle some place; the older of the two Native girls, the one who talks, finds this a good thing, and close in kind to the values and feelings she herself has, and was raised to believe.

People need to always remember, the Earth will endure, even if we destroy ourselves. We could destroy ourselves, still, and the habitats we rely on for survival. But “save the planet” needs to be rephrased as “save ourselves.” We are the ones in danger. The planet itself is enduring, and will still be here even after we, as a species, have either died out, or evolved on to some other state, possibly a space-borne one, either technologically or inherently, or something wildly beyond imagining.

The dream, and the thoughts it springs forward upon waking, that I’ve written here, remind me of the essentially pagan nature of the thoughts and feelings behind the environmental movement(s). Pagan, in the original Latin, meant the people of the countryside, the pagani, as opposed to those who dwelled in the center of culture in the Big City. Pagan also meant the country people's little religions, the thousand little gods, the statues of Priapus in the village greens, and other fertility symbols, the old Dionysian/Bacchan rites, the gods and festivals that were tied to and marked the agricultural annual cycle. Pagan, once Rome became Christian, the Holy Roman Empire, who consolidated their power in the One True Church, as some have called it, also came to mean all the little pre-Christian, non-Christian belief-systems and local religions that institutional Christianity strove to supplant throughout Europe. Thus do the conquering monoliths of organized faiths label those they have supplanted, murdered, and exterminated: heretics, heathens, witches (which meant, originally, wise ones), pagans. During the Inquisition, which some scholars insist has never ended, women and men alike were burned as witches because their local wisdom was based on the local herbs and beliefs, not the One True Church. The shift in meaning of the word pagan to mean non-Christian was part of a method of centralized political control, of the consolidation of temporal power as well as religious domination. In which case, being the fundamentally anti-authoritarian beast that I am, it pleases me to be labeled, pagan, witch, heretic, faggot. I own all those labels proudly, in defiance of Church authorities. And my dreams, ever archetypal and resonant, continue to remind me of my own essentially pagan nature: my feel for the land, for the forces of nature, weather, time, erosion, wabi-sabi, the agricultural annual cycle, and the non-human beings that travel alongside us on this turning globe. There’s a squirrel bounding across the snow in the yard out back: gather ye nuts and berries while ye may.

I am not anti-human in the slightest, although I don’t think we’re the center of the universe, the measure of all things, or the end product of evolution. Evolution continues, and will do so when we're gone. If the theory of evolution is correct, our species like many other species has a lifespan of probably a few million years, at most. After that, we would not even recognize ourselves, if we are still here; we'll either have evolved or become extinct. The globe will circle our Sun for much longer than that. The earth does care about us, her wayward children, of this I have no doubt. Meister Eckhart’s comment about how we feel separated from the Divine, be it God or Gaea, is relevant here: God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. In all of this I agree with Robinson Jeffers, in his oft-misunderstood philosophy of Inhumanism, which is not misanthropic but rather reaffirms that all things human are rather small, and not the center of the universe. I am not anti-human, but I am opposed to the excesses of some of the humanist philosophy, which at times approaches narcissistic self-regard at the level of solipsism. What I am for is including everybody else in our self-regard, not forgetting that we are all One, and that a good guest in a home doesn’t mess up the furniture or leave dirty dishes in the sink.

But perhaps selfishness is the only motivation that many people will hitch their wagons to. If you point out that the real truth of the environmental movement is not “save the planet” but “save ourselves,” maybe people will actually begin to pay attention, and wake up to the truth that it’s not healthy to shit where you sleep. The planet will endure, whether or not we do. If an appeal to enlightened self-interest is what it takes us to clean up our acts, literally, then I’m all for it.

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