Today I read two thought provoking pieces that cross traditional divides while addressing key issues in environmental thought. In both cases I think a Pagan sensibility brings new and valuable insights to the table.

First John Tierney wrote a column in the New York Times discussing Charles C. Mann’s new book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created . I haven’t read it, but now I want to.  Mann is a locavore, like me he seeks to eat what has been grown close to where he lives.  But we locavores eat food which often originated far away, and is produced here only because of earlier global trade.  Tierney then explores the implications arising from this paradox, and lists many of the greatest losses and gains from this process.

For my more focused purpose here the chief issue is that we locavores would enjoy a much much more restricted menu in the absence of the international ecological exchanges we often lament.  For myself, all meat animals I currently consume other than turkey, all grains other than corn (and it originated far away in Mexico), and many vegetables would be absent from my table. If I were still in Kansas my table would be still yet thinner in variety, and in Alaska?  I would not want to actively contemplate it. One Koyukon Indian elder, being asked whether things were better before the arrival of the white man, replied essentially “Be glad you never had to eat ptarmigan droppings in the spring.”

Our food even when grown locally is far richer in variety and taste because so much of it is not of local origin.

Next is a fascinating article I found this morning over breakfast while reading my favorite regional publication, High Country News.  In her article “The mirage of the pristine”  author Emma Marris writes of the last remnants of an old growth forest in Seattle, in Schmitz Park.  There 700 year old Douglas fir still reach their mighty trunks up to the sky as they did before Europeans first came to these shores.

But the life span of a Douglas fir is 1200 years and neither there nor elsewhere in the region are there any trees that old.  Here is a mystery with a surprising answer.

The present cool temperatures of the Northwest did not exist 700 years ago during what is called the Medieval Warm Period.  Fires were more frequent.  Trees would almost certainly have burned before the 700 year mark was reached. Today’s Seattle old growth is not an example of a forest that would have occurred naturally for a very long time until shortly before Europeans arrived. Marris explores this and more in her book Rambunctious Garden,  which I also want to read.

The point here is that the pristine wilderness is always in flux, even absent people, and people have changed North America so much that even what Europeans first encountered was far different from what could have been expected had human beings never lived on Turtle Island.  The same is true for Australia where Europeans never encountered many of the animals and perhaps plants that the aborigines did when they arrived.  And let is be clear, this observation holds for everywhere else. But even absent people, there would have been change for “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.”

So is the popular efforts to preserve wild lands simply a romantic fantasy rooted in wishful thinking about an Eden we never knew?

No, I do not think so, and I think we as Pagans have something important to add here.

The issue is not whether we preserve an unchanging landscape, an effort as doomed as our effort to prevent change in our lives.  Rather the issue is the attitude with which we enter into relationship with the more-than-human.

We cannot help using the world for our purposes, as do all life forms.  Look at a red ant hill out in the Utah deserts, as I have, and ponder their relation to nature.  For a considerable distance around the colony nothing growing can be found.  In their immediate surface vicinity the ants cannot be accused of enriching their environment by even the most die hard lover of the wild, although they play an important role within a greater context.

We use the land and all within it as does everything that lives, but that is not all there is to the issue. We also are able to appreciate its sacred dimensions, the intrinsic value of other life forms, the presence of the  energies of rock and water, sky and the living fire deep within the earth.  We live in relationship with the world, and perhaps unlike other beings here, we know that we live in relationship because we have the possibility of doing it better or worse as a matter of choice.

It is a lot like love and friendship.  Love and friendship are very useful and we make us of our friends and loved ones all the time.  But if we seek friends or lovers because they are useful, we are not really a friend nor are we really demonstrating love.  Friendship and love rely on our appreciating the other for qualities they have independently of their utility to ourselves.

Yet strong friendships and love are what makes life at its richest.

The same attitude, I suggest, holds for the other-than-human world.  When we realize that the beings and forces within it have value independently of their service to our own utility, the other-than-human becomes the more-than-human. At the dawn of modernity Leonardo Da Vinci put this point clearly  “The virtues of grasses, stones, and trees do not exist because humans know them. . . . Grasses are noble in themselves without the aid of human languages or letters.”  He also observed “if you only love them on account of the good you expect from them, and not because of the sum of their qualities, then you are as the dog that wags its tail to the person who gives him a bone.”
Leonardo’s ethic is a profoundly Pagan one.

(For the source of these quotes see this book by Fritjof Capra. )

Whether in the words of Leonardo, Aldo Leopold, Scott Momaday, or many others, this ethic of respect that can grow into love is the key to how we can best approach the vexing issue of how to related to the wild world.  Knowing that most in Western culture long ago abandoned Leonardo’s insights, but still felt the power and healing qualities of wild nature, advocates of conservation used the language that would work to preserve what we could from the rapacity of greed, particularly corporate greed. They accomplished a lot.

But today we have obviously reached the limits of that approach.  The sociopathic force of corporate America has fought back viciously and the only way we can truly defeat them is to carry the argument into realms where they are completely tone deaf: the land and all within it is worthy of love, and it is from within that relationship that we can  most effectively learn to both prosper and leave something wonderful for even the seventh generation.

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