But nature is a stranger yet.
Emily Dickinson In her poem “What mystery pervades a well”.
Environmentalists consistently celebrate diversity and difference, and indeed these are the basis not only for our experience of value but for life itself: What we call creation — or evolution — is essentially the emergence of difference. And yet difference is problematic. Creation, as stories of creation, from the Trickster to Darwin, remind us, proceeds by prank, accident and discrimination. And the trouble is personal, too. At some level, I am troubled when I realize that I am not only a self and the center of being as I experience it, but also, as Sartre put it, an “… object which the Other is looking at and judging”. And that “Other” is not only other people, but everything other than the self, beginning with the smelly, limited, recalcitrant, mortal body, and including all those others out there, from chipmunks and tulips to dog turds and the morning star.
Indeed, philosophy, religion, literature and the arts are themselves, most fundamentally, reflections on and creative responses to this experience of otherness, or what I am calling the distance between souls. Mostly, those of us living in W.E.I.R.D., economically privileged societies manage to ignore this. But artists find occasions for confronting it, as literary critic George Handley makes clear in his reflection on Herman Melville’s account of total—and literal—immersion in nature in this issue of “EP”. Emily Dickinson achieves a similar experience simply by looking down a well and realizing that “water lives so far” (i.e., in Amherst, Massachusetts). And, responding to disruption in the political sphere through images evoking a similar, overwhelming immersion in nature, the chorus of poor women in T.S. Eliot’s play, “Murder in the Cathedral” smells
“…death in the rose, death in the hollyhock, sweet pea, hyacinth, primrose and cowslip”.
But if this is so—if these reflections are anything but morbid reflections on aspects of experience better passed over—then the injunction simply to celebrate difference and diversity–to, as it were, stop and smell the roses–misses the point. The basic challenge–the real “root of our
environmental crisis” (to quote the title of Lynn White, Jr.’s influential 1967 essay)–is not merely our willful behavior or failure to appreciate the diversity and beauty of nature, but the failure of our culture to provide, healthy, productive ways of dealing with the ambiguous way a self-conscious creature experiences its environment, as a collection of creatures it is both part of and apart from.
A Wider View
From this perspective, thinking about restoration during the three decades or so of its emergence as a conservation strategy has been far too narrow. Restorationists and observers of restoration have generally thought of restoration as a form of applied science, an adjunct of ecology. Indeed, we call it “ecological restoration”. But, as our colleague Tom Simpson has pointed out, there are important things restoration can’t do as long as it belongs only to science. And one of those important things is to serve, other than incidentally or at a merely personal level, as a context for the creation of values such as meaning, community and beauty—the values, in other words that are the foundation for the ethics and conscience formation that underlie the behavior on which, as successful societies have realized, the environment—that is, the world—ultimately depends.
What the theory of values we are exploring in E.P. proposes is that it is the technologies of the imagination—ritual, myth and the fine arts— that provide the tools for carrying out this essential work. A land-management practice that belongs only to science, can’t manage this. And this is plausibly why the restoration community in the U.S., for example, has tended to turn its attention to restoration as a way of responding to the onset of anthropogenic climate change, rather than as a context for creating the values needed to avert it, and to achieve a sustainable, gracious relationship with the rest of nature.
This is the point of “E.P.” and of our two departments—the “Values Project” and “Ecological Restoration”. I want these
two disciplines, or areas of experience, which some might consider only distantly related if at all, to be talking with each other. In fact, because I believe that restoration has a distinctive contribution to make to the repertory of rituals that will be required to save the world from us, I also believe that this conversation may prove crucial.
It is worth keeping in mind not only that humans have inhabited ecosystems for thousands of years without ravaging them, but also that, as Gene Anderson has pointed out, they have done so by relying on land-use practices grounded in—and we may say sustained—by myth and by rituals such as the Sundance of the Plains Indians or the Intichiuma of the Australian Aborigines.
This is not to disparage ecology, or ecological restoration. It is, rather, to suggest that, so long as we practice restoration only as a form of applied ecology, a technical fix for ecological damage, or even simply a rewarding way of experiencing nature, we are wasting a large part—quite possibly the crucial part—of its value. That is, its value as a way of confronting the dark side of human experience of nature—the “death in the rose”—and dealing with it productively through its development as a performing art and, ultimately, a context for ritual world renewal.
The Dark Side
This does not mean merely celebrating the charms of nature, our delight in the butterflies and the babbling brook. It means engaging the experiences that powerfully evoke the dark
side of our experience of otherness. Falling out of a whaling boat in the middle of the ocean worked for Melville’s Pip. Looking down a well did it for Emily Dickinson. A classic occasion for undertaking this psychological/spiritual work, common to cultures all over the world, is ritualizing the fraught business of getting (i.e., killing), eating (i.e., appropriating for ourselves), and experiencing the radical dependence of the self on the other the whole messy business entails. [Read more…]