“It became…obvious that there was no way
the restoration described in our readings could outpace
the destruction we were seeing around us.”
Mark Stemen’s comment, in his reflection on his experiment in the ritualization of restoration with his classes at California State University at Chico, reminds me of a story anthropologist and ritual scholar Roy Rappaport told me during a phone conversation we had just a year or so before he died in 1997.
The first Earth Day was held in the spring of 1970, and a group of students at the University of Michigan, where Rappaport was teaching, decided that they would mark the event by creating a community garden on or near the campus. They did so, but then finals came, and the semester ended and…in short, the garden didn’t come to much.
The problem, Rappaport said, was that, given the circumstances, they should have thought of and carried out the project as a ritual. Then it might have accomplished something along the lines of shaping the consciences, not only of those directly involved, but of their audience of students, passersby, and so forth. But since they had thought of the project as helping, at least in a small way, to solve the problem of hunger it wound up accomplishing next to nothing.
That’s pretty much the case for a lot of restoration projects: like the ones Prof. Stemen and his students were reading about and working on, they just seem too small to matter, considering the scale of ecological alteration and outright loss going on all over the world.
Which brings us, as it brought Stemen, to Rappaport’s point about the value of ritual.
The challenge of restoration on a serious scale is indeed challenging. But even a project that is small, incomplete or in some way imperfect in utilitarian terms, may have value beyond its purely ecological value, as a context for ritual.
In fact, small may be beautiful.
If you are thinking about ecology, it’s pretty much true that the bigger a restoration project is the better it is: the more species it will include, and, probably, the easier it will be to maintain it over time.
But if you are thinking about restoration as a performing art, that is, a context for negotiating our relationship with an historic ecosystem and generating the values that emerge from that relationship, then the smaller the better.
This refers to what Fred Turner has called ritual commutation. That is, what you do with a commonplace, “practical” act, such as eating, to signal that it is being performed as a way of creating meaning. An example is the Japanese tea ceremony, in which the simple “act” of brewing and drinking a cup of tea can take—indeed, is meant to take—several hours. Another is the communion meal of Christian practice, which typically takes the better part of an hour, after which the congregants may well go off for, very likely, a “real” (that is, merely literal) meal.
In both cases, the “real”—or literal—elements are drastically reduced in scale, as the ceremony elaborates the experience and expands the time devoted to it in order to focus attention on the act and realize the meanings inherent in it. So a relatively small project like the Arboretum’s prairie restorations (two prairies, totaling about 100 acres), arguably generates more awareness—certainly per acre—than much larger “real” prairies that may be experienced and taken for granted as simply “natural”.
In fact, I have found that burning a few stalks of dry bluestem standing in a bowl of sand—a “prairie” about the size of your hand—has a strong effect on an audience. There is a brief, small crackle of flame. The room fills with a faint smell of smoke—call it incense—and eyes water at the realization that, as Fred Turner has noted, we helped create the prairies. We belong on them. And perhaps even on the planet.
This is the power of performance and ritual to move hearts, to inform minds, and perhaps to shape consciences.
What this means is that to restore an ecosystem of any size without in some way ritualizing the work is in an important sense wasting the work. In fact, the crucial work. Because who really thinks that recommending virtues, lecturing people about values, or informing them about carrying capacity, food chains and predator-prey relations will bring about any such transformation?
Actually, serious attention has been paid to this “fourth dimension” (as I call it) of experience with respect to the environment, especially during the past few decades as the humanities have taken up the environmental challenge, environmental art has emerged as a vital frontier in the arts, and activists and conservationists have taken steps to enrich their work as both experiences and expressive acts.
I find all this seriously encouraging. At the same time, going back to Prof. Rappaport’s ideas, I can see at least one stumbling block in the way of progress in this, I believe crucial, endeavor.
That is Rappaport’s definition of “ritual,” strikingly just two lines long in his inch-thick, 535-page, posthumously published magnum opus, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity:
“…the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely coded by the performers” (italics mine).
This raises the question of who does code a ritual? Who institutes the ritual—and with what authority?
It also challenges the idea of individual autonomy that is so much a part of the modern sensibility: Who are you to tell me what to say or do? Yet Rappaport saw it as essential because it not only expresses the deference to an “other” (which I take to be the core of environmentalists’ insistence on respect for others, including other species), but also establishes an obligation to whatever is encoded in the ritual.
All of which seems sort of—what can I say?—un-American.
But I have come to suspect that it is crucial. E.O. Wilson, for example, in his recently published Half-Earth, calls for setting aside half of the earth for nature alone, untrammeled (as they say) by humans. That is obviously not a very practical idea. And I don’t think it is an attractive way to think about the future of human residence on this planet. But it does express, if only by exaggeration, the importance of deference to other species that certainly will be required if we are to achieve decent citizenship in a species-rich world.
Well, we environmentalists have been telling ourselves and the world that saving the environment is going to entail serious challenges to modern ways of thinking. That may well include the recovery and re-deployment of ritual, demotion of which has been one of the salient aspects of the modern project. And if Gene Anderson’s fascinating work clearly documents the importance of ritual in this matter, Mark Stemen’s intelligent, brave experiments in ritualization at least suggest the possibility of doing something about it.