I want to start this discussion with a personal memory from my year of teaching at the Palestinian university at BirZeit. It features a Palestinian elder who lost his family’s house (and thus his ability to have a family of his own) in the Six Day War. He did not blame the soldiers—but “when the soldiers come, the people must leave.” One day I found him bent over an unlikely looking tree, tenderly pulling weeds back from its stem, with the rubble of blown up houses in the backdrop. “It is a pear tree”, he told me, “It deserves to live.” There is a folk saying in which a man asks, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?” The answer: “How can you not plant a rose in war time”? This is cited in Kenneth Helphand’s new book, Defiant Gardens—Making Gardens in Wartime. He describes gardens grown in the worst of times—by the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, for instance, who planted gardens they knew they would not live to harvest. Can you see the meaning in these acts and the line from the poem, “Place”, by W. S. Merwin: “On the last day of the world, I shall plant a tree”?
The link between humans and the green world is an ancient one—not to mention, one that sustains our lives. Among hunters and gatherers, plants provide the substantial—and most reliable– portion of the human diet, as well as shelter, medicine, and tools. Given this, it is not surprising that so many indigenous peoples consider particular plants, plant species, and/or plant systems (forests or groves) as sacred. Indigenous traditions, as well as the Zen and Taoist philosophies discussed by Callicott, see plants as our teachers.
Such traditions were also prevalent in pre-industrialized Europe, where particular trees might signify protection and wisdom. Community councils were held under ancient linden trees in Slovenia. Oak groves were sacred council sites in Druidic England. Throughout Eastern and pre-industrialized Central Europe, sacred groves were honored and protected. In the collective terrorism resulting in the death of nine million women accused of witchcraft during the Renaissance, a large number of sacred groves were burned. Such burning had economic motives. Witches were sometimes organizers of peasant groups who resisted feudal authority, and who took refuge in the wild commons and sacred groves that interlaced cultivated lands. Notably, the property of a witch went partly to her accuser and partly to the courts to pay for her own imprisonment.
Into the twentieth century, many peasant European farmers considered forests to have protective spirits, and it was often thought that fields would not bear crops without the care of other spirits who protected the wheat and flax. (e,g. Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia) The spirits of fields, forests, and springs, lakes, and rivers were consulted and honored in many peasant villages. According to Celtic, Eastern European, and East Indian traditions, such spirits fostered growth in individual plants and healthy relationships between members of biotic communities. Pre-industrial European folk traditions posited not only a sacred Lady of the Animals (often seen as an aspect of Mary, the Mother of Jesus), who looked after her charges, but also a Lady of the Plants who did the same. Throughout Northern Europe, the symbolic Tree of Life taught humans the balance between light and dark in the interdependence of its roots and its leaves. In Medieval Christian drawings this tree is depicted with all the species of the world nurtured in its branches. In Cajete’s Native Science notes that the image of the “sacred tree of life” parallels many aspects of indigenous science everywhere. Indigenous traditions recognize plants “allies” or spirit powers that provide sustenance, shelter, and medicine, as well as knowledge to human beings—and they frame contracts with them parallel to the contracts they frame with animals. By way of example, here is a Mayan idea cited by Cajete in his chapter on plants (“the hair of the Earth Mother”):
The roots of all living things
are tied together. When a mighty tree
is felled, a star falls from the sky.
Before you cut down a mahogany,
you should ask permission
of the keeper of the forest,
and you should ask permission
of the keeper of the star.
Here we find echoes of the idea that animals, if not properly hunted, will disappear in the prevalent beliefs that plants will not grow if humans do not honor and appreciate them. Such views express values that enforce ecologically sustainable behavior. They add spiritual and aesthetic dimensions, in addition to a sense of inter-personal intimacy, to the relationship between human beings and growing things. What Western science sees as the extinction of species, Paula Gunn Allen sees as the results of the violated contract between humans and other natural beings. From her Laguna Pueblo perspective, the beings who provide us with food, shelter, medicine, knowledge, and beauty, will not continue to be our companions if we mistreat them. If humans make them a partner in an abusive relationship, other species will chose to leave us– and humans will have to deal with the profound loneliness-as well as the ecological consequences—of their loss.
Three hundred years ago, the interpersonal relationship between a forest and indigenous peoples was so powerful in an area of North India that when the lord of a feudal estate sent his woodcutter to cut down that forest, the local tribespeople hugged the trees in that forest, so that the axe fell on themselves and the trees together. This is the original history of the term, “tree hugger”. When the lord of the estate heard what had happened, he was so horrified that he attempted to rectify his karma by ordering that the place of the carnage would stand forever as a wild park. In Buddhist tradition, the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the “tree of heaven” or bodhi tree (a kind of fig) —which was considered sacred for generations before his own birth. Thus he knew, according to some traditions, to wait under that particular tree for his enlightenment. Also in Buddhist tradition, the Bodhisattvas, compassionate souls who have achieved enlightenment but refuse nirvana for themselves as long as another soul stills suffers, share their nature with this tree.
In the Far East, rituals surrounding the growing and eating of rice created a sacred relationship with the natural world. In Viet Nam, ancestors were buried in rice fields, and thus their bones nourished the rice of their descendents. In Wangari Maathai’s traditional Kikuyu tradition (you will remember this Nobel Prize winner for her work in the Greenbelt movement in Kenya discussed in an optional forum for this class), the wild fig tree was also considered sacred as it was in India where Buddha found enlightenment. Not only would it not be cut for firewood, nothing under or around its root system would be disturbed. One pragmatic result of the reverence for this tree was that its root clusters reached into and protected the water table upon which the local people depended. In a similar fashion, the revered baobab tree provided living cisterns from which people drank. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the 30,000 baobab trees in one province of the Sudan alone held 7.5 million gallons of water for local inhabitants.
As indicated, folk beliefs resulted in the protection of plants and plant communities in a way that was ecologically significant. In a tale from the ancient Middle Eastern tradition, it was the cutting of the sacred forest by Gilgamesh that caused him to lose both his best friend and his own immortality (you can read a bit more about this in a web reading for this lesson). When I taught at BirZeit University (a few miles from Jerusalem), my students readily interpreted the Gilgamesh myth for its ecological lesson. Their land, once known as the “Fertile Crescent” suffered desertification with the stripping of its ancient cedar forests. Interestingly, ancient Palestine is no dry land. The indigenous word for “winter” means, “rain”, and Palestine’s mild climate is strikingly similar to our own. It has copious amounts of rain in the winter and drought in the summer growing season. With successive deforestation, however, there was less and less vegetation to hold the winter rains. Ultimately, most of the local topsoil washed into the Mediterranean with those heavy rains. Now the mountains of Palestinian are in large part scoured rock.
Even as the Zen environmental aesthetic (as indicated in Callicott and a previous web reading) elicits a sense of care for the natural world, indigenous peoples used aesthetic media such as stories to create wonder, awe, intimacy–and thus care– for their lands. Though such stories may not appear as scientific to the modern Western mind, they resulted in values that fostered the sustainability of their societies. We should not underestimate the sophisticated thinking inherent in such traditions. A number of decades ago, the anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski did a classic study of the elaborate rituals involved in planting, harvesting, and trading of yams among the Trobriand Islanders. When the Trobrianders insisted on the necessity of their spiritual practices in getting their yams to grow, Malinowski could not resist asking whether they understood the scientific concept of cause and effect. The Trobrianders replied that no one could miss such a simple concept. But simple cause and effect was only appropriate in analyzing situations that had no sense of deeper meaning or value. And certainly, that was not the case in the growing of the gardens that sustained their lives.
My own work with indigenous peoples over the last thirty years indicates that sustainable human societies have consciously decided when and when not to apply “value-free” concepts in developing their understanding of and relationship with the natural world. Certainly, we can learn much from the natural philosophy of such societies as we attempt to balance the power and danger of our own actions upon our environment.
Related Essays for Discussion: