Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fighting for the Land and Water

Yahoo! News just reported a very interesting story about the struggle of conservationists to save Chesapeake Bay. I thought I might give a link to the story here and discuss some of the importance of the efforts of these good men and women. But first, I have to say a few words about the relationship between conservation-based efforts and the mindset of environmentalism/conservationism, and modern day Heathenry or Pagan religions.

There are a few people out there, ostensibly Pagans or Heathens, who fight very hard against the public opinion and perception that most neo-Pagans or modern Heathens will all have to be raging environmental warriors. With a sick sort of amusement, I've seen banners on Pagan and Heathen websites that strongly announce "PAGAN DOES NOT EQUAL EARTH-BASED: Stop religious homogenization".

Like with most things, I can see both sides of the issue. But for people who really don't believe that Paganism has to be "earth-based", I'm forced to wonder: what other planet could we be based on? What other Land besides the Land of this earth could we rely on for the earthy flesh of these bodies, the water in our blood and organs, and the food that we eat every day?

By admitting that we owe our bodies and lives to this Land we all share, are we "homogenizing" religion? No, I don't think so- if anything, we're simply admitting to being human like the rest of the men and women we share this world with, and taking this understanding of our reliance on the Land up to a religious level, as the ancients did.

There's many ways to approach religious understandings and practices based on the belief in nature's sacredness. Nothing stops us from admitting that we all rely on a sacred body of nature for our lives, one we all hold in common, and from celebrating that in countless different ways, each to our own.

People who would fight even the admission that the Land is sacred, in some attempt to avoid some unrealistic threat of "homogenization", and furthermore go out of their way to refuse to include the Land in their own religious life, alienate other Pagans who do believe in the sacredness of the Land, and even try to revise history to make ancient peoples seem unconcerned with the power of the Land, are being very selfish, unnecessarily divisive, and ultimately unwise.

It seems that they are wailing and wanting to differentiate themselves from Pagans who recognize the sacredness of the Land for no other reason but "to be different"- the ultimate juvenile tactic of thoughtless, empty rebellion that most of us have thankfully outgrown.

At any rate, the difference between most modern Heathens and Pagans and mainstream modern religions is that we view the natural world in terms of a degree of sacredness that they cannot and do not match- we have extreme ontological differences regarding who and what the Land is, and what places of moral and spiritual value the powers of nature occupy.

Even those liberal Christians who harp on about our "responsibility" to the Land, citing some verse in the bible wherein their great singular creator "gave man dominion" over the land and its creatures (and therefore, they say, lies an implied responsibility) cannot match the Heathen view of the sacred natural world. We see the natural world as an eternal sacred reality, full of holy powers, packed to the limits with sentient beings (the Landwights) and even some of the souls of our dead, who become "mound folk" after their deaths and dwell in the spiritual dimension of their grave sites.

Beyond all that, the Earth itself is a Giantess- a Goddess from a generation of beings that even pre-dates most of the Gods of our people, and who certainly pre-dates mankind. When you see the earth itself as the body of a huge and living being, and you honor her with sacrifices and blots, and pray to her, you are in a very different relationship and mindset than people who see the world as basically inanimate energy, soul-less "stuff" that a God just made for human beings to have "dominion" over.

The ancient stories of our folk are clear. We know with great certainty how they revered the features of the landscape, used them as ceremonial centers, respected the Land-spirits and wights, and made offerings and sacrifices to them. We know how sacred they believed the natural world was; we know what sort of animistic worldview this entire complex of beliefs descends from. We know the truth about the human relationship with the land- we are not the "dominion holders" over this land or its creatures; we are part of this land, and we are another population of creatures on it. We are not in a vertical relationship of dominion; we are in a horizontal relationship of reciprocity and reliance.

If you can see this clearly, then how can you deny that any form of true and traditional Paganism- particularly these reconstructionist paths that have sprung up in the modern day- are not "Land-based"? "Land based" doesn't mean "ignore everything except the land". It means "realize our dependence on the sacred powers under our feet, and act accordingly." Surely we Asatruar honor the Gods in the Godly Enclosures that are beyond this earth, in other worlds and conditions of being. But we live here, in Midgard or Middle-Earth, and we rely so much on the natural powers who occupy this web of power that we are all intimately woven into.

Defending this natural world is one of our Godly duties. The Gods shaped this Land into much of the form we see it in now, though the elements of it are eternal and uncreated: they are sacred powers that have no beginning or end. To protect the land is not just honoring the Giant Goddess upon whose back we live; it's also protecting our lives, the well-being of our children and all people's children, and it is making an important statement that we recognize sacredness and respect it. It is the same as saying "we recognize the boundless creativity of the Gods and respect it enough to uphold it with our effort."

The Yahoo! news story I saw today about the battle to preserve Chesapeake Bay is very good. Here it is:

Chesapeake Bay Blues

I was quite moved by the resolve of the good and wise men and women to help this sacred place- and I realized how their struggle reflects the greater struggle that we are all a part of. The story above contains the following poignant passages:

"The Chesapeake teemed with oysters and blue crabs when European settlers arrived but is now plagued by algae blooms and fish kills. Oysters are nearly wiped out. Miles-long swaths of the bay are called "dead zones" because summertime oxygen levels are too low to support most life."

It's a simple truth that we have to put aside our pride to accept: our culture is unwise when it comes to how we treat the natural world. This is due largely to how we've been taught to think of ourselves as "dominion holders" over the Land, but it also has to do with the fact that most of us don't think even once a day about the fact that this Land we live on is full of real, living, sentient beings, both seen and unseen, who have as much sacred right to be here and live their lives as we do. We must consider our responsibility to balance our lives with the well-being of our land and its many inhabitants.

The story goes on to say:

"The rate of population growth, the number of people moving into the watershed, it's gotten to the point we can't ignore it anymore," said Jeff Corbin, assistant secretary for Virginia's Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources. "The streets people used to drive down were lined with trees. Now, they're lined with CVS and Starbucks."

The images are terrifying to a radical traditionalist like myself. Even if we must create these technological things to make our lives safer or easier, why can we not remember the need for beauty and aesthetic? What perversity drives us to wipe out the sheer beauty of trees, to create parking lots? One day (probably too late) we will all realize that the features of the natural world actually do more than maintain environmental balance- they soothe our minds and souls and help keep us sane. The more we hack them away to replace them with rows of strip-malls and cars, the further we get from basic sanity. It is enough to make the heart break, if one is aware enough to see the decline of this world, and understand mankind's role in it.

One more important line from this story stands out to me. It says:

"Working to restore the Chesapeake is somewhat like fighting hunger or poverty, Baker said. The aim is noble, and progress can be made, but the job will never be done."

Here we find the heart of Heathen nobility- do not shy away from the endless or hopeless fight, for endeavor and struggle for good ends are by themselves enough. Struggle, and not final victory, is what we are called to- we know how things must end up; the Volva has told the Gods and Mankind how things must end up. Even as the doom of the world draws near, and conditions become worse for all of us, nobility and bravery cannot quit. They fight until the end. Some victories still remain to be had- but effort towards good ends, even if that effort comes to defeat, is still a real sort of victory. Our duty to be noble and struggle against destructive forces in ourselves and in the world will never be done, and that's part of what it means to be a noble human being.

I will tell you who does appreciate the efforts of these conservationists- the spirits of the land and water that dwell in and around Chesapeake Bay. But there's more than that- I appreciate them, and the spirit of every one of my readers appreciates them, because they see in their struggle the Godly urge to preserve and uphold life. These people are warriors fighting for the good of Midgard, and they will be honored for their efforts in the Afterlife. It may be that the Lady of the Vanir takes them to Folkvang, for peace until the end of the age, or that they stand with the Einherjar with Allfather at the end of time. Either way, I'll have a toast for them this Yuletide.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this article. I have also encountered the same banner you mention on "Pagan" sites and it has always perplexed and disappointed me. Your writings echo so much of my own thoughts on the issue.