As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s as well as issues of racial justice and equality that need attention today, we also have an opportunity to consider how the values underpinning civil rights apply not only among people -- across race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, and religion -- but also to our relationship with nature.
Fundamental to civil rights is a moral attitude of respect, compassion, appreciation for one another's inherent, integral worth, and a sense of community, interconnectedness, and interdependence. The same ethos applied to our relationship with nature -- a perspective proffered by a number of writers, artists, poets, environmentalists and philosophers, and embedded in many religious practices and indigenous cultures -- would radically transform how we engage with the natural world. It would alter how we organize our business, social, and political conventions in connection with nature, from resource extraction, conservation, pollution management, and energy development, to how we choose to engage our leisure time, to how we design our homes and communities.
And in turn, by altering tendencies to objectify inhabitants of the living world around, cultivating respect for nature likely would also enhance our respect for other humans.
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ― Aldo Leopold
Witches, ghosts, and werewolves: fear-inducing outliers brewing powerful potions, apparitions defying the normal cycle of life and death, humans metamorphosing into savage canine creature. If one can step away from the commercial hype, Halloween reminds us of places and times where nature’s wilder manifestations were anthropomorphized.
In Landscapes of Fear, Yi-Fu Tuan explores ways in which threatening aspects of nature—fears of drought, flood, famine, and disease shared by entire communities, and fears haunting the individual imagination—were given shape and tamed through myth, stories, and anthropomorphizing. Writes Tuan (pp. 105-112):
"Dark nights curtail human vision. People lose their ability to manipulate the environment, and feel vulnerable. As daylight withdraws, so does their world. Nefarious powers take over…. People the world over have shown a tendency to anthropomorphize the forces of nature. …[T]he physical environment of dark nights … acquires an extra dimension of ominousness, beyond the threat of natural forces and spirits, when it is identified with human evil of a supernatural order, that of witches or ghosts."
Witches defy social values. They dwell in untamed places outside standard human habitation—deep in forests or mountainous—and are closely associated with wild animals that defy human control: wild goats and horses (Europe); toads, snakes, lizards, frogs, jackals, leopards, bats, owls, and nighttime screeching monkeys (Uganda); hyenas and black cobras (Sudan); and dressed in skins of wolves and coyotes – werewolves (Navajo). They "are a force for total chaos, and they are closely associated with other forces or manifestations of chaos such as dark nights, wild animals, wild bush country, mountains, and stormy weather."
Your costumed neighborhood trick-or-treaters might be a far cry from the bone-chilling renderings conceived by people trying to make sense of nature's more fear-inducing tendencies. But consider how cultures, living without electric lights and ease of communication across villages, coped with frightening aspects of nature. Maybe, for a moment, from the comfort of your built environment, and between sampling candy corn and observing various ninjas, princesses, and superheroes, you can sense how the supernatural helped explain the natural.
Song of the Witches
William Shakespeare, from Macbeth
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
September is here, a time of transitions. Children return to school and, with summer vacations now a pleasant memory, work tends to ramp up. With the days getting shorter many of us turn indoors earlier. We are nearing a time of harvest, and here and there we might notice a leaf’s changed color, a harbinger of the radiance of autumn to come.
In the Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar, we are nearing the end of the month of Elul, the days that lead up to the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Whether or not you are Jewish or religiously-minded, there is something apt about this time of year being the New Year, a time of reflection and a time of a long cycle of new beginnings.
A parable teaches that in the month of Elul “God is in the field”. That is, God is not sequestered on the palace throne, surrounded by guards, but rather has ventured into the countryside to meet ordinary people and grant their requests. God is outside and accessible. This time of year thus asks that we be attuned to what is around us and to open our senses to an awareness of a divine presence in nature. It reminds us of the feeling of “what is bigger than ourselves” that we can experience when in nature.
Others have noted the sense of the divine in nature. As Thoreau wrote, “Nature is full of genius, full of divinity. (Journal, January 5, 1856). He defined his “profession” as “to be always on the alert to find God in nature—to know his lurking places. To attend all the oratorios—the operas in nature.” (Journal, September 7, 1851).
Consider the wisdom of opening one’s senses to the divine in nature, to attend its “oratorios” and “operas” and to be reminded of what is bigger than ourselves.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.