It’s trivially easy to point out that there’s something missing in our culture’s relationship with nature. The evidence is our entire way of life.
But what is it that’s missing, that’s wrong? It’s harder to answer that than it is to know that something’s wrong. If we knew the answer already, maybe we wouldn’t be doing it.
For example, here’s a potential answer: our legal system. It’s set up to allow corporations to treat the environment as a free grab bag from which they can rip commodities, as well as a no-strings-attached dumpster into which they can tip poison, all with near impunity. Fix the laws to fix the relationship.
I have doubts. For one thing, experience shows reliably that where there are laws to stop a corporation from doing what it wants, there are corporate lawyers happy to figure out a way around those laws. You’re not allowed to slash and burn forests in the U.S. anymore. U.S. corporations do it anyway; they just do it by financing suppliers in Indonesia and Brazil to do it.
But more to the point, I want to figure out the ultimate source of the problem, and evil as many of them are, corporations are not the ultimate source. Because where do corporations come from? Corporations are composed of and directed by people following a system of ethics.
Those people’s ethics are one source of the problem. But don’t forget, it’s also abundantly documented that power corrupts. Put someone virtuous, who loves nature and wants to protect it, on the corporate ladder at Monsanto, and if they don’t wash out before getting to the top, as president they’ll still be talking about how much they love nature, all while making evisceratory compromises to its detriment in every major decision, for the sake of the profits they’re expected to make for shareholders.
That seems to take human ethics off the hook, but in fact it just changes where we look for them. Some system of ethics allowed the laws that define corporations to be ratified; there’s your culprit.
So if it all boils down to ethics, how do we change our ethics? Ethics are the source, but do they themselves have a source?
Our ethics come from our knowledge of the world. My, this problem has gotten abstract, hasn’t it? But it’s true: our day-to-day understanding of how the world works is what creates our ethics. Where else would they come from?
If you feel pain yourself when you get smacked on the head, and you see other people react the same way you react, you’ll develop an ethics that proscribes smacking people on the head. If you’re raised believing that animals don’t feel pain like we do when you smack them on the head, you may develop an ethics that allows smacking animals on the head indiscriminately. All our complicated ethical guidelines follow from the same process.
(Attempts to show that our ethics come from God via, say, the Bible, quickly run aground on the fact that our ethics in practice look nothing like what’s dictated there. Showing that God has programmed them into human nature collapses too, when you try to account for different cultures’ vastly different ideas of what’s right and wrong, and if you don’t believe that, go to Saudi Arabia, with a woman if you aren’t one.)
Now, considering that your concept of how the world works forms your ethics, ask yourself: how does the world work?
It follows scientific laws, doesn’t it? From physics up through chemistry, biology, and ecology, the world follows consistent relationships that we can learn about and understand. And so it logically follows that to improve our ethics, we have to improve our understanding of the world, which we can do by learning more through science, until the gaps in our picture are filled in.
That all sounds good on paper. But we’ve been going at that project for a few centuries now, and the results just keep getting worse and worse as far as our relationship with nature is concerned (without reference to any other questions, like the nebulously defined term “quality of life” or other improvements that scientific advancement may have offered). The more science we learn, the more effectively we seem to use it to destroy the Earth. Where have we gotten off track?
Get out your pencil and paper, philosophers; go back to Plato and trace from there and see if you can figure out where exploitation took the reins.
That’s another logical impulse, but I want to propose a different tack. Let’s look at a culture that has worked out how to relate to nature in a healthy way, and compare notes. Let’s step outside our box; Einstein warned us that you cannot solve a problem using the same way of thinking that caused it, and our problem seems to have been caused by ways of thinking that run so deep that all of us are thinking them without even realizing it.
There are a lot of cultures in Earth’s history that have lived that healthy balance with Nature. The Anishinaabe, for example—and the cultures that were their ancestors—lived stable lives on this continent for thousands of years. So let’s look at the traditional Anishinaabe worldview, like I’ve been doing for the last few months.
Before I say much about it, I need to make it clear that what I’m going to talk about is my understanding of what I’ve learned, and though I’ve read and heard some thoughts from Anishinaabe elders, and I believe I understand some of what underlies them, I’m not an elder myself. In fact I’m an extreme newcomer to a different way of understanding the world. I’m going to try to say only things that I’m relatively confident I understand, but even those things are subject to correction by someone who knows the Anishinaabe world better than I do.
Right at the start, before you can even begin diagramming things out, you’re going to be stopped short by what seems to be an irreducible difference between your worldview and this one. It’s simple enough to state: the Anishinaabe world has spirits. Spirits, right here in our attempt to make rational sense of the world! Couldn’t be. But there they are, and they won’t go away either.
If you’re not careful, this difference will make you approach the whole inquiry from a fatally different mindset that will make everything you learn useless. You’ll think: “This is an interesting system of seeing the world. How can I extract the true and believable parts of it from the old superstitions, to end up with something that can help me in the modern world where we’ve discovered that there are no such things as spirits?”
You’ll be tempted, probably, to recast the spirits as metaphors. But the Anishinaabe spirits—the manidoog and aadizookaanag—are riotously not metaphors. They’re everywhere, they can interact with you in ways as real as any person can, they have minds of their own that we can’t fathom. They’re intelligent, sometimes far more so than humans. To a traditional Anishinaabe, they exist, in exactly the same sense as humans do. At the fire at sugarbush Pebaam told a story of a time when he was at a ceremony and had a decently long conversation, using literal words out loud, with a spirit. He felt the story was remarkable maybe for how clear and vivid the whole interaction was, but not for how it proved the existence of spirits; that was never in doubt.
You don’t have a chat with a scientific theory, and you don’t place tobacco on the east side of a tree for the benefit of a metaphor.
Until pretty recently, I was in favor of this whole belief system in theory, because look at the results. But I couldn’t make the jump to understanding how belief in spirits can be anything besides a mistake based on insufficient knowledge of scientific explanations of the world.
One night at sugarbush I tried to make sense of it all. I held some tobacco in my left hand like I’d been taught, and searched for spirits, in my thoughts and in the forest. I stared up at the sky through ghostly wintry maples. I mostly ended up feeling philosophically hopeless.
The next night, at home, I tried again, this time with the help of my journal. I also summoned some authors who have been helping me lately.
Stephen Harrod Buhner works with herbs, and hones ways of perceiving them that we no longer use. He tells a story: He wanted to know what herb to use, and how, to help a friend with an illness. The knowledge wouldn’t come from a pharmacopoeia, he knew: he would need to ask the forest itself. He went out, and by following cues far too subliminal for him to consciously know exactly how it happened, he found himself brought to a skunk cabbage plant. In fact he even found himself communicating with this plant. Not in words of course, but in subtler sensations. A person doesn’t need to say “I’m sad” before you know they are, and similarly, if you work at perceiving, a plant doesn’t need to come with a label saying “I’m poisonous” before you can make a good guess that it is. Nothing he does, he explained, requires any bending of physical laws. Just a re-connection with what millions of years of experience together have taught us (all of us lifeforms) about how to perceive important knowledge from other living things.
James Lovelock studied ecology and found that it caused him to come up with the Gaia Hypothesis—the idea that, just as consciousness arises in our minds from a complex arrangement of simple neurons, it equally makes sense to say that the planet has a consciousness from its complex arrangement of simple lives and flows. The human brain is complex. The earth is trillions of times more complex.
Schopenhauer, whom I’ve gotten secondhand via Greer, explained that there is no “world” out there as we normally think of it. There is a physical reality, but literally everything we perceive about it—color, taste, smell, permanence of objects, our sense of the position of our bodies, and even our consciousness—is the human brain’s idiosyncratic way of organizing a world that is basically composed of particles vibrating and moving in an unimaginable number of ways with no inherent meaning or qualities.
All three of them embrace science and the knowledge it’s given us of the world. Instead of ignoring it or insisting that it’s all lies, they show that if you take what we’ve learned and keep going, you end up, whether you intended to or not, with a world that’s far more mysterious and subtle than we usually imagine. A world in which spirits may, after all, be able to live.
With their help I came to some sort of understanding in my journal that night.
Every time I try to understand spirits, it seems, my Western collegiate steeping tells me that there’s nothing there to understand. That the spirits are a nice metaphor, but look how incredibly varying the accounts of them are, how clearly the stories told about them are nothing more than one culture’s Rorschach interpretation of the environment they found themselves in. Look: there’s no real sense in which these “spirits” can be said to be existing entities.
It takes effort and a presence of mind that I haven’t been able to summon in order to offer the contrary argument. As I understand it now it would be something like:
If the manidoog don’t exist, how then does the Gaia-style earth system’s consciousness express itself? Through intuitions noticed through the honing of our ancient, unconscious modes of perception, right? Like the skunk cabbage that spoke to Buhner. It’s a relational consciousness; the message a skunk cabbage gives exists inasmuch as we’re there to perceive it, because it exists in us as ancestral memories of chemicals our bodies need and an openness to this “advanced placebo” mode of healing, but it also exists in the plant in the form of chemicals it offers us chemical-sensitive beings who are there to perceive it, in order to further its own ends. The skunk cabbage could be odorless and imperceptible if it were advantageous to be so, surely. But its hundreds of millions of generations of lineage have found that it’s better to work with animals, for whatever reason we can only trust exists and is known to the entity of skunk-cabbage-as-a-species.
And that entity, how is that different from the manidoo of a skunk cabbage? And if that species can have a spirit, why not the woods as a whole? In fact the woods should have many spirits, emergent and unexpected spirits that nonetheless take on forms we can understand because they exist in our act of perceiving them, as of course we exist to them in their act of perceiving us. Schopenhauer would remind us that the real world is inconceivable and has no nouns, at least none we can neutrally and objectively begin to comprehend. So the spirits exist in the same degree that the forest exists, don’t they?
So, then… does that mean I believe in the spirit world now?
Well, apparently the “spirit world” is really just the world, seen more acutely. And I certainly believe in the world, and I’ve long suspected that there are important ways to see it more acutely. I haven’t knowingly met any of the manidoog, but when I move out of the city and start learning how to live directly from nature (not mediated by commerce), it wouldn’t surprise me if I do.
Thinking like this, of course, is very different from how we learn to understand the world. When there are spirits in everything—every tree, every stone, every word—and you can maintain an awareness of them, you start thinking very differently about how to live.
Which is, after all, exactly what I was hoping to do.