Shakespeare’s fairy queen asserts—in fact, takes for granted—that there is a robust, causal connection between the conduct of ritual and the order of nature. If you neglect the rituals on which the order of nature depends—or if your estranged husband interferes in them—then “the seasons alter”. Of course, this is a fairy story. But there are good reasons for taking fairy stories seriously, and that seems to be the case here.
To see why, let’s jump ahead four centuries to take a look at the work of anthropologist E. N. Anderson. Anderson, who teaches at the University of California-Riverside, has spent his career studying the ethnoecology of traditional societies, including extensive fieldwork in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia and with the Yucatec Maya in Mexico, and less extensive studies in some two dozen other countries, including Australia, Madagascar, Scotland and Ireland, Turkey, northern California and the northwest coast of the U.S. and British Columbia. This gives him a seriously in-depth, cross-cultural perspective on how, to borrow a phrase from Jared Diamond, societies choose to succeed or fail in the essential task of achieving a sustainable relationship with their environment. This perspective, elaborated in three books published over the past 20 years, is in remarkable agreement with Titania’s insistence on the necessity of ritual.
Noting that, while many traditional societies have succeeded ecologically, while modern societies are clearly heading toward ecological catastrophe, Anderson wonders “Why are we so foolish?” EH4 And, reflecting on this question from the perspective of his long experience with traditional societies, he sets aside some of the usual answers: ignorance (thanks to ecology and other natural sciences, we know a lot about the ecosystems we depend on, but often fail to act on this understanding); technology (humans have had the technical wherewithal to ruin ecosystems for thousands of years and, though some have done so, others have not); shortsighted greed (well, like technology, a tendency to privilege short-term self-interest over long-term common interest, is pretty clearly a human, not merely a modern or Western predilection); and rational choice (humans clearly have motives other than economic self-interest).
While these may be factors of varying importance in defining humans’ relations with their environment, the fundamental problem, Anderson argues, is emotional. The challenge for society is not so much formulating codes of behavior—anyone observing the mis-steps and gaucheries of her fellow humans does that, almost without thinking. It is finding ways to motivate appropriate behavior. In the case of behavior related to use of resources this is done in large part by “representing sound ecological management in strongly religious terms,” through the technologies of myth, ritual and ceremony. This is not, he notes, about “some misty ‘union with nature,’ but about specific social codes and institutions” EH 10.
“All traditional societies,” he writes,
that have succeeded in managing resources well, over time, have done it in part through religious or ritual representation of resource management” EH 166
The italics are his. And the reason for this, he argues, has less to do with theology and doctrine than with the ways a society has for articulating its cosmology and making it emotionally compelling:
The key point is not religion per se, but the use of emotionally powerful cultural symbols to sell particular moral codes and management systems EH 166.
These, he notes, make conservation “part of a religiously sanctioned code” according to which “wise use conveys blessings,” while “misuse of resources has devastating effects”.
Which, of course, is exactly Titania’s point.
Of course Prof. Anderson is not proposing a mystical connection between performance of ritual and the state of nature, as one might suppose in Titania’s case. He is simply taking it for granted that an ecosystem inhabited by humans is shaped in part—often in considerable part— by the behavior of those humans, and is emphasizing the emotional basis for that behavior—an idea strongly supported by research in psychology over the past few decades—and the value of ritual and the arts in informing emotion.
A key point, of course, is that the effects of myth, ritual and ceremony are social. These “technologies of the imagination,” as I have called them, establish and maintain bonds among people and obligations to them, and so are the key to the social solidarity that Anderson sees as essential not only to socially but to environmentally responsible behavior ET 23ff. “We now know,” he writes, that people do manage well when they have real communities…Conversely, many a local management regime breaks down when a government alienates control from the local communities” CP50.
A key concern for environmentalism, of course, is the self-interested behavior, unconstrained by broader considerations of the long term and the common good—the good, that is, of other species as well as other humans—that results in the unrestrained, indeed competitive, taking that Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons”. Anderson provides striking examples, many from his own experience, of members of traditional societies behaving with remarkable constraint as responsible “members of the land community”.
He describes, for example, the harvesting of bark from Western red cedar, which native people of the Northwest value for food, fiber and ceremonial purposes. Overharvesting, of course, would girdle the tree, killing it. But the native people “remove only one narrow strip, so that the tree recovers and can be cropped again and again” ET 34. Considering the value placed on this material, he comments, “this meant self-denial of an almost incredible order”.
Similarly, the taking of flitches of wood from yew trees—a rare and uniquely valuable material for making bow staves. Individuals exercise extreme restraint in this matter, taking only about one per branch per 20 years from a tree, despite the fact that “countless individuals, hunting alone in the bush, would pass by the tree in that time, and would be quite aware of its qualities ET 34-35.
That’s as though citizens in California, once word of a water shortage became common knowledge, voluntarily and for the common good, reduced their consumption, taking fewer showers and letting lawns turn brown.
Another example: fisheries, a specialty of Anderson’s. “People,” he writes,” seem almost unable to control themselves when there are fish to be taken” ET 3. Besides which, he notes that it is easy to “rob” creeks in the Northwest of salmon by netting to the point of actually extirpating a salmon run. Yet “even the tiniest streams had salmon in them when the whites came” ET 36-37.
Anticipating Aldo Leopold’s plea for respect for draba by a millennium or so, this regard and restraint may extend to the small, useless and inconsiderable elements in nature. Anderson describes how the Chinese venerate certain trees because, having little value for wood or fruit, they are left alone to grow old and accumulate ch’i, a kind of circulating existential energy EH 20.
The relevance of Anderson’s ideas for us is obvious. We are exploring Fred Turner’s idea that ritual plays an essential role in human life and relationships, including, crucially here, their relationships with other species, and with their environment generally, and Anderson’s work provides strong, empirical support for that idea. It also suggests guidelines for applying this idea to practice in the kinds of societies many of us find ourselves living in.
Briefly, Anderson stresses that the social/psychological technologies—the myths and rituals—he has come to regard as crucial in negotiating relationships arise out of direct, hands-on experience of nature, and seem to work best in small-scale societies.
This is an obvious challenge for people living out of refrigerators in nation states. But not necessarily an insurmountable one. Millions of Americans, for example, engage in more or less serious ways in outdoor activities, some of which, like hunting, fishing and gardening, entail real engagement with, or even participation in ecological systems and the plants and animals that compose them.
These provide obvious opportunities to field test Anderson’s—and Turner’s—ideas in ways that are accessible to many, if not most, of the members of the kinds of nature-alienated societies that are currently rushing toward ecological crisis.
A prime example, is the practice of ecological restoration, which has gained some popularity as an avocation and form of outdoor recreation during the past two or three decades. This experience offers excellent opportunities to interact with, as Aldo Leopold put it, “soils, waters, plants, animals, or collectively: the land”. This can be done in cities as well as in rural and wilderness areas, and it is a powerful gesture of respect for “nature”, especially for the ecologically forlorn places that have been degraded by humans, and for “useless” creatures and features found, like the old trees venerated by the Chinese, in many of the historic ecosystems that serve as models for restoration projects.
Projects like these entail serious engagement with the ecosystem, including a range of activities, from seed-collecting, planting and removing exotic species to—the obvious big opportunity for ritualization in fire-dependent ecosystems—prescribed burning, that offer obvious opportunities to try out these ideas by introducing elements of ritual into the process.
An interesting step in this direction has been taken by managers at the McHenry County Conservation District in northern Illinois, who have for several years scheduled one of the prescribed burns on their restored prairies for after dark, simply because, as one of them has said, it’s spectacular and “people love it”.
Another is the systematic experiments with ritualization Geography Professor Mark Stemen has been carrying out with students in his restoration course at California State University-Chico, which he describes in the accompanying post.
Books by E.N. Anderson referenced in this post
EH: Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief and the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)
ET: The Pursuit of Ecotopia: Lessons from Indigenous and Traditional Societies for the Human Ecology of Our Modern World (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010)
CP: Caring for Place: Ecology, Ideology and Emotion in Traditional Landscape Management (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2014)