Monday, June 15, 2009

Pagan Values: Relating to the Wild

If you thought my last post ended kind of abruptly, you're right! Plugging away at my discussion of pacifism, defining ideas like violence and destruction in order to talk about Just War theory and environmentalism, I hardly noticed how long and how far afield I'd gone until the clock chimed eight (metaphorically, anyway). It was time to call it a night, and leave the rest for another day. For today, actually.

When I last wrote, I'd set out to find a workable definition of "violence" that would give us some insight into the fundamental principles of pacifism and how they're reflected in the modern environmentalist movement. Opponents of pacifism would like to blur the distinction between destruction and violence and back advocates of creative nonviolence into a corner defending the straw-man view that we can somehow avoid all forms of destruction. Of course we can't, nor would we want to! But luckily, we've seen that this unsubtle approach fails to address how we actually experience the world around us. When we define violence as the rejection, denial or diminishment of the unique and meaningful individuality of being, distinct from destruction as a natural and inevitable aspect of the manifest world, we see that we can strive to avoid violence, against others and against ourselves. Cultivating honorable, reverent relationships and recognizing the utter uniqueness of all beings as meaningfully interconnected is something that we most certainly can accomplish, right here, right now. It also transforms the way we relate to the natural world, and challenges us to reconsider the initial myth of an inherently violent "human nature" at war with each other and its surroundings.

Violence Without Spirit

Our contemporary Western culture suffers from a kind of schizophrenia or sociopathy when it comes to our relationship with the natural world. Exceedingly, almost irrationally anthropocentric, we have come to view almost any check to human well-being, longevity and prolificacy as a kind of malicious rejection of our assumed right to thrive. Under a definition that mistakes all forms of destruction as forms of violence, human beings not only act violently against the wheat field, the deer and the tree; nature itself acts violently against us. The natural force and power of storms and quakes, the inhospitable landscapes of desert, jungle and tundra, even the annual withering and hibernation of winter, all of these become not merely forces of destruction with which we strive, but ways in which the natural world acts out violently. Against this violence, we assert our right to survive, aspiring to tame and control for the benefit of our species.

But reducing destruction and violence to synonyms has another effect: it confuses our perception of indwelling spirit, allowing us to ignore nature as animate and full of divinity whenever it suits us. Only today, when we have employed our knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology and other sciences to subjugate vast realms of the physical world to our needs and desires do we feel secure enough to set aside protected lands and national parks for recreation and aesthetic pleasure. In these places set-apart and roped off, we can open ourselves up to the sacredness of the natural world, we can perceive nature as something with which we might enter into relationship in a meaningful way. But outside of these designated spaces, we slip back into an attitude that treats the natural world as spiritless and empty, something which we can control and use for our own purposes.

The wild tiger is merely an amoral predator mindlessly acting on its base instinct; it can be hunted down, or protected, according to our current sentimentality. When a tiger attacks within the "safe space" of a zoo, however, we perceive it as a being capable, at least in some truncated way, of relationship and so we seek to "punish" it, as though killing the creature might serve as a lesson for other tigers or obtain justice for the victim of the attack. Likewise, we tend to react with horror to those who suggest floods and earthquakes are vengeful acts of an angry god, labeling such views superstitious and ignorant. Yet we respond with apathy or even reluctant acceptance to the pervasive ecological destruction happening around us on a daily basis. We step in to prevent it most passionately only when it mars our "national treasures" or favorite recreational spots. In this way we foster a disconnect between our perception of "wild" nature as senseless and dangerous, and "tame" nature as charming, revitalizing, and sentient only to the extent that it is also relatively safe.

As with many other attitudes of modern culture, we project these assumptions back in time onto societies quite different from our own, and draw odd conclusions. We quite rightly recognize that for most of humanity's existence, the wildness and wilderness of the natural world was a very real and constant danger. Yet we fail to grasp how our ancestors were able to relate to the wild as sentient and radiant with immanent divinity without reducing its force or controlling its power. Instead we assume that ancient peoples, surrounded as they were with danger and challenge, were themselves more prone to violence and less capable, in a milieu of fear and hardship, of developing the mindfulness necessary for peaceful, "civilized" living. The pacifist sees violence as "mindless" because it involves the willful forfeit of mindful choice to respect and honor unique Spirit in all beings. But a mistaken view of human nature as inherently violent attributes that same mindlessness to the complete absence of our ability to choose. The closer we come to nature, in other words (either by looking back in history to when our ancestors lived entrenched in it, or by sloughing off the social assumptions and restrictions that keep us civilized and safe), the closer we come to our own inner mindlessness. When we leave the confines of the zoo, we once again become ruthless predators. Like the natural world itself, we are wild, dangerous and a bit senseless at our core. At our very heart beneath the layers of civilizing influence, implies this view, we lack the capacity to make mindful choices, to relate "face-to-face" with other beings.

Old Stories of the Hunt

As a pacifist who believes that people are not only capable of peaceful, reverent relationship with one another but supremely and deeply suited to such relationship, I don't accept the view that our core is empty of empathy and spirit. Rather, it seems to me that the closer we come to nature--our own and that of the manifest world in which we live--the more capable we become of real connection and understanding. I suspect that our ancestors, living in more intimate contact with wildness and wilderness on a daily basis, were probably less violent than we believe them to be, perhaps even less violent than we ourselves are today. Our modern tendency to sanitize and depersonalize violence with technologies that also allow us to commit horrific acts on a massive scale can fool us into believing we live safe and peaceful lives, but this illusion only lasts as long as we can maintain our ignorance of the real consequences of violence and war.

Among ancient tribal cultures, on the other hand, life-threatening wildness and bodily conflict and destruction were always lurking at the edges of ordinary awareness. Because of this, ancient peoples learned to build relationships of honor and appreciation with the potentially destructive forces and powers of the wilderness, both outside and within themselves. Their stories and myths can show us even today a way of relating to the wild with reverence instead of fear, affirming a mindful relationship with Spirit rather than a senseless battle of instincts. These stories speak to us from a time when human beings remembered, recognized and imagined our roots as deeply entwined in the natural world, when we had only just come into our power as a species capable of cleverness and creativity. A time when we still appreciated these traits in ourselves as an aspect of our own unique individuality within an expansive and inclusive world, and not as qualities that set us apart from and above the world.

From the Cheyenne, for instance, comes the myth of the Great Race, a contest among all creatures to determine who would eat whom. The story goes that long ago, the buffalos, who were huge and strong, used to eat people instead of the other way around. But the people cried out that this was unfair, and so the buffalo proposed there be a race between the four-legged and the two-legged animals to decide the proper relationship among them. The buffalo chose the strongest and fastest of their kind to contend. The people, meanwhile, enlisted the help of the birds of the air who, although only two-legged like the people, outstripped the buffalo on their swift wings. From then on, people hunted buffalo for food, though they would not consume the beard of the buffalo because it was a reminder that once they had been the prey.

Among the Blackfoot, there is another legend about the hunting of buffalo. In this story, no one could induce the buffalo to fall to their deaths over the edge of a cliff, and so the people were slowly starving and wasting away. In the kind of desperation that gives way to jest, one young woman promised that she would marry one of the buffalo, if only they would jump; and soon they were running and tumbling down the cliff, while a great bull, master of the buffalo, came to claim her hand in marriage. The girl's father, outraged and afraid, went on a journey to rescue her and bring her back to her family, but he was soon discovered and trampled to death by the herd. As the girl mourned, the bull pointed out that such was the sadness of the buffalo, too, when they watched their relatives plunge to their deaths in order to feed the people. "But I will pity you," said the bull, "and make you a deal. If you can bring your father back to life, I will let you go, so that you may return to your family." And so the girl found a shard of bone from her father's shattered remains and sang a secret song that restored her father to life. The bull honored his agreement, but said, "Because you have shown that your people have a holy power capable of bringing the dead to life again, we will show you our song and dance. You must remember this dance, so that even though you hunt us and eat us, you will afterwards restore us to life again." This is the story the Blackfoot tell about how the Buffalo Dance began, with its priests dressed in buffalo robes and wearing bulls' heads shuffling along and singing the continuation of life for the massive beasts.

In both these stories, we see a new relationship with the natural world, one that respects its wildness and potential danger without rejecting meaningful relationship. The people who told these stories were buffalo hunters, in relationship with the animal not as domestic stock but as great, untamed creatures perfectly capable, through death or deprivation, of hurting the people who depended on them. It would be easy to say that these legends simply serve, like our modern justifications, to excuse violence as inherent or necessary. From the perspective of Just War theory*, the hunting of animals for food can be considered a form of "just" violence. The needs of the people and the practical benefits of killing outweigh whatever negative consequences the people might suffer, as well as the needs or desires (including the desire to live) that the animals being hunted might have. When an animal has the power and potential to be dangerous and even life-threatening to a human being, the case seems even more obvious; after all, there is no reasoning or other "peaceful" means of reconciling with a senseless animal. Such stories of contest and exchange might amuse or reassure us, but for the most part they're just superstition, overlaying the reality of pragmatic survival.

But what if instead we take these ancient myths at face-value? In Just War theory, the enemy or opponent does not consent to his own destruction, but at the heart of these myths is the awareness of nature, as well as people, as capable of consent and choice. The buffalo himself takes initiative, proposing conditions of equal exchange and just, honorable relationship with human beings. He consents to the terms of the great race or the marriage, accepts the consequences and even, in both stories, demonstrates empathy with human suffering. In the Blackfoot legend, especially, through intermarriage human beings and buffalo come into more intimate understanding, recognizing their common "holy power" to create new life through music and ritual. These stories are not a rejection of "face-to-face" relationship, but a celebration of it. Rather than a prize wrestled from the flesh of unwilling prey, the survival and fruitful life of human beings becomes a gift, in which nature gives of itself by its own consent with the understanding that we, too, will give of ourselves in return. And so, even though the end result is the same (the people still hunt and kill the buffalo in order to survive), a potential act of violence is transformed into an act of mutual empowerment and renewal.

This transformation is what practical pacifism can help us to realize. It puts us in touch with our awareness of relationship, and where there is relationship there is the possibility of generous giving and of gratitude, even in the most difficult, dangerous or destructive circumstances. To hunt a species to extinction dishonors the gift of life that creature has given us, but it also means we rob ourselves of that gift. When we diminish others, we also diminish ourselves. But when we see ourselves as connected to and concerned with the prosperity and protection of others at our most fundamental level, we become more care-full in how we act and react, how we live in and respond to the world around us. We can longer turn a deaf ear or blind eye to others; we learn to listen to them closely, to reach out to them in connection and communication, so that we might know what gifts they offer and how best to honor those gifts in return. At its simplest, pacifism asks us to care for other beings and preserve them from the callousness and diminishment of violence. For when we empower and appreciate others, when we recognize in others the capacity for choice and consensual relationship, we also empower and elevate ourselves and honor our own potential.

*To be fair, Just War theory is rarely if ever actually applied to anything other than literal warfare among humans; however, its implications about the nature of violence and our relationship with potentially destructive forces can be more widely considered and applied.


  1. I love your blog, so I’ve given you an award to prove it ;) Please stop by my blog to claim it!

  2. An elegant and compelling argument, Ali...

    I find myself wondering whether the buffalo really DID give their consent. If not, then the Cheyenne and Blackfoot were simply telling themselves a story to, in effect, fool themselves into thinking that they were committing destruction instead of violence. But even if that's the case, then, as you say, it's still a better story than one we tell ourselves today.

    But I think I'm enough of a mystic to believe that the buffalo COULD give their consent, and I have enough respect for the shamans of the First Peoples that I think they would have known, and would have said something, if the buffalo had not given consent.