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Of Treehuggers and Woodland Sprites
I wanted to get away from politics and back to religion, to what religion actually is, a proper and reasonable awe of the gods. Indrani urged me the other day to say a few words about nature when I made my post about the deer, and that subject actually represents a welcome path back to what's important for a Pagan and a Heathen like me. Paganism is, after all, at its very heart, Nature Religion.

Are Pagans “tree lovers”? That’s a much derided term. It implies, among other things, that all environmentalists are kooks because it is applied to all environmentalists alike.[1] Some are indeed kooks; fanatics come in every shape and size and ideology, from the extreme right and the extreme left. Most environmentalists are not kooks but very sane, very concerned people. I've actually hugged a tree. I have spoken to trees and touched trees. I'm not ashamed of it. Why should I be? Trees, after all, have a great deal in common with humans. In Heathen mythology, the first people were made from humans, which scientifically speaking, has a great deal more to say for it than the idea that we were made out of lumps of dirt, or just conjured up out of thin air. As Carl Sagan noted in his series Cosmos,
We’re virtually identical to trees. We both use nucleic acids as the hereditary material; we both use proteins as enzymes to control the chemistry of the cell and most significantly, we both use the identical code book to translate nucleic acid information into protein information. Any tree could read my genetic code.
So not only is Heathen myth and science on my side, the fact is that I like trees. Trees are comforting. Not just in the shade they provide, but by their sheer presence. Don't you find them comforting? I wonder if the same people who talk to house plants also talk to trees. I do.

Even when renting an apartment, you can put offerings out at the base of a tree. It's a good place, and you can see why our ancestors would choose such a place. Trees not only represent life, they are full of life, supporting birds and other animals, not to mention insects. And, some believe, they are home to sprites, or faeries, or land-wights, however you prefer to think of them. As T. McKenna said in 1993, the natural world is an “ecology of souls.”[2]

When I go outside, I don't see anything inimical in nature. I don't feel myself separated from it, not superior, but rather part of it, part of a whole. And I am. As much as the horsefly buzzing around me, or the deer eating the apples a few feet away, I'm part of this. You can't be taken out of that picture even if you want to; there is no place to escape to that will remove you from it. That's just a fact. Yet a disconnect exists in our society. Lynn White puts it thus: “Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” He sums up this attitude in the words of Ronald Reagan, then newly elected governor of California, who said, “When you have seen one Redwood tree you have seen them all.”[3]

Christianity turned Paganism’s view of nature on its head. As White puts it, “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.

Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.[4]

In the place of McKenna’s “ecology of souls” we find Augustine of Hippo writing about Silvanus and Pan and other nature deities in ways Pagans would have found quite alien: “Woodland and Backwoods deities whom the common folk, the vulgus, call incubi have often conducted themselves wickedly with women whom they have sought out and gained intercourse with; and certain spirits, daemones, whom the Gauls call Dusii, are forever on the lookout for this depraved pleasure and succeed in it.” Augustine asserts that these “facts” are beyond dispute (City of God 15.22). This is not the Nature Pagans knew, and Augustine seems to take rather more sordid interest in these details than a Churchman ought.

I don’t know about other Pagans today, but these are not things I worry about when I take a walk in the woods, no matter how remote and wild the area. Like my Pagan ancestors, I will be on the lookout for bears and mountain lions, but I will spare little worry for succubae who might wish to have intercourse with me. I’ve seen a bobcat, and I even saw Elves in a sunny, shade-dappled glade, but I’ve never seen a daemon. The Christian interest in demon-lovers seems almost obscene to modern ears. I know of no Pagan who has had such an affair, however, and I very much suspect my Pagan ancestors were in similar ignorance. In the end, Pagans are guilty of the X-rated fantasies of sexually repressed and frustrated Christians who have such a negative view of sex that they cannot imagine anything but an unsavory use for male-female relationships (to say nothing of same-sex!).

Nature became a victim, but also an adversary; something to be conquered. That view is prevalent today, as in the comments of a resident in the path of Ike: "This is nature meets the proud United States of America, and my US of A is going to win" (ROBERT SHUMAKE, of Galveston, Tex., on the approach of Hurricane Ike).[5]

All too often, nature is seen as some sort of weapon wielded by YHWH, who apparently punishes the guilty along with the innocent when he disapproves of the moral rigor of this city or that. The apocalyptic perspective from which the New Testament derives insist that it is God’s enemies who bring natural disasters, not God. Yet by the fourth century, at least, Christians were blaming natural disasters on their god, a notable example being a quake which struck the imperial capital, Constantinople, in 532 CE, and not just quakes but barbarian invasions might be spawned by an angry deity. But modern preachers seem to have forgotten this as well and have reverted to the “Old” Testament view when they say that God smote gay sinners by directing Katrina at New Orleans. A notable example of this attitude is John Hagee, who said that Katrina was “the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.” “New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God,” Hagee said, because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.”[6]

But when I step outside and it rains on me, or snow falls, or even damaging hail, none of this is being aimed at me. It’s falling because of a natural process of atmospheric conditions far over my head. Nature is not lashing out at me. It might be poetic to say so, but it is not true. Nature is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Nature is neutral.

I don’t think in general that ancient Pagans saw nature as something to be conquered or overcome. They lived in close proximity to it. They no doubt respected the natural world around them. To show disrespect could, after all, get you killed. But by the Middle Ages, when Paganism was destroyed or driven underground, the deep dark forests became evil, and home, as we have seen from Augustine, to nasty creatures serving Satan and eager to waylay unsuspecting travelers. There were ancient ghost stories but to the best of my knowledge, there were no stories that took such a negative view of nature. But how can you when the world is full of the divine? Pagans understood this, that wonderment surrounded them. By understanding that you are part of nature, you make impossible any “us” versus “them” worldview. Ingela M. B. Wiman argues that the Romans might have feared the wilds (any sane person would to some extent, given that what’s out there can hurt you) but such a view does not make nature “evil” and diametrically opposed to humanity. J. Donald Hughes holds that the Greeks “generally tended to fear and revere wild nature more, while the Romans found the landscape both friendlier and more easily subjected to various human uses.” The Roman aristocrats and poets might have seen the forests as “dark, hostile places, symbols of loneliness and hopelessness” but they also revered them, and they never saw them as places of evil, the abode of dualistic agents of evil eager to have sex with them![7]

This is not to say that every Christian believes either God or his enemies are behind every natural disaster. Far from it. It would see that attitude is limited to the fanatical few fundamentalists that make up from 12-25% of the American population – and they are in large part limited to the United States. Europe and the rest of the Christian world seem largely free of superstitious fanatics whose minds can’t quite escape the fourth century. But I would wager that there are very few, if any, Pagans, who think the Gods send natural disasters to punish us.

As Ramsay MacMullen observes,
Non-Christians in the Greco-Roman world, so far as we can enter their thoughts, evidently accepted the possibility of superhuman beings at work in great events, earthquakes or military disasters; but the possibility had had little reality, it was little considered. Minor events causing loss or pain might also be blamed on superhuman agents, invoked by magic. But that too was a reality off to the side, so to speak; a rare thing, forbidden, a resort for only wicked and credulous people. In fact, superhuman beings were beneficent. So the philosophers said, and common piety agreed. The common word, “gods-fear”, deisidaimonia, pointed the finger of ridicule, sometimes of shock, at any denial of this wonderful truth. Gods were only beneficent. Granted, they were not omnipotent. Therefore bad things might simply happen. To blame evil on the gods, however, was deeply impious; and it made no sense.[8]
Again, our very belief system presupposes that the Gods won’t punish us for infractions because our moral code is not sent from the Gods. Our ethics do not derive from stone tablets inscribed by a human agent hearing the very words of God. Certainly, ancient temples had divine statutes to be followed, given, presumably, by the oracle, or, more likely, via many long years of trial and error. But by and large, Pagan moral codes were people-oriented, cultural manifestations of the popular will rather than divinely imposed laws which threatened divine wrath if ignored. People administered justice in the ancient world. The Gods, people understood, are benign and generally helpful, not hurtful.

Ingela M. B. Wiman might be right in saying that Pagans saw Nature as a mischievous troublemaker, thus somewhat of a "noisy person", a "practical joker",[9] but there is a vast gulf between this and the idea of a punishing, wrathful god slaughtering indiscriminately so that he can kill a few sinners.

Pliny did not see a God acting out when Vesuvius erupted and buried Herculaneum and Pompeii. In writing to Tacitus of the disaster, he mentions people crying out to the gods for help, a natural reaction in any disaster, and that some thought the world was ending, another reasonable response given the circumstances. So neither the common people nor the aristocrats saw it as the wrath of the gods. It was a terrible natural disaster, the causes of which were only imperfectly understood. But the disasters were not seen as the wrath of the Gods against those two cities. Contrast the immolation of two entire cities and the reaction of the Pagan mind with the earthquakes of the later empire and the superstitious panic of the gullible Christian mobs. Imagine the same disaster today and the Fundamentalist perspective of it. There is more than one Tom Hagee out there, waiting to pronounce the guilt of the innocent and to libel his own God.

I am not arguing that the ancient world was some sort of pristine, ecological wonderland, untouched by human hands, or that Pagans did not abuse the landscape. They did abuse it, largely through lack of understanding of what sort of harm they were inflicting by over-grazing or stripping a mountainside of timber. But as Lynn White argues, “Pagan animism involved respect for the guardian spirits of trees, streams, and hills; Christianity allowed its adherents to disregard the feelings of natural objects, and with Christianity ‘the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.’”[10] Critics might charge that White overstates the case, but that does not mean that he is incorrect in the particulars.[11] As Gilbert Murray noted,

Anyone who turns away from the great writers of classical Athens, say Sophocles or Aristotle, to those of the Christian era must be conscious of a great difference in tone. There is a change in the whole relation of the writer to the world about him... It is a rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God.'

With its emphasis on things not of this world, Murray asks, “if nature is given only a derivative value, how seriously can Christians take the destruction of the natural environment?”[12]

How did Pagans view the destruction of the natural environment? Paganism was as diverse a phenomenon as Christianity. There were many gods and many attitudes, varying according to geography but also according to social class. And philosophical Paganism did not share all the attributes of popular Paganism, that of the countryside. Cicero presents one view, that of an aristocratic Roman, in his Nature of the Gods:
We are the absolute masters of what the earth produces. We enjoy the mountains and the plains. The rivers are ours. We sow the seed, and plant the trees. We fertilize the earth... We stop, direct, and turn the rivers: in short by our hands we endeavour, by our various operations in this world, to make, as it were, another Nature.

This is though but a simple recognition of fact. It should not be seen as a manifesto. And it must be stressed that the philosophers did not speak for the people. Among the Pagans of the countryside the idea that trees were inhabited by supernatural beings, or even possessed souls of their own, held sway. [13]

It is true on the one hand that the Roman period saw a level of atmospheric pollution not to be reached again until the Industrial Revolution,[14] but as early as the fourth century, Plato discussed the effects of deforestation (Critias III a-d). Hughes lists the Pagan writers who discussed the subject: Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Theophrastus, Strabo, Pliny, Livy. As Hughes observes, “classical authors noted deforestation that they believed to be widespread and severe.”

At the same time, forests could be revered in a way that Christianity does not permit. Ancient peoples believed that forests were inhabited by gods, an idea which lent itself to forest preservation. Pliny stated,
Trees were the first temples of the gods, and even now simple country people dedicate a tree of exceptional height to a god with the ritual of olden times; and we…worship forests and the very silences they contain (Pliny HN 12.2(3)).
Vergil suggests that cutting trees in the wrong place might be dangerous in places inhabited by the gods (Vergil Aeneid 6.179-197) and for Vergil then it is humans who are profane, not the forest. This is not surprising when it is understood that like the Norse, the Greeks and Romans saw the forest as the original home of humankind. In Homer’s time it was believed that men sprang from oaks (Homer Odyssey 19.163) [15]

If the forests were denuded by the Pagans, it was also Pagans who looked at ways to resist deforestation “and to favor afforestation,” as Hughes puts it. There were “Custodians of Forest” in Greece, tree plantations throughout the Mediterranean, and Egypt under Ptolemaic rule “had a major afforestation program.” Sacred groves were protected by law and guarded by priests. Stiff punishments were meted out to the guilty, ranging from lashes to fines, and the gods and goddesses were seen to be outraged by such acts of vandalism. “It was a religious duty to replace fallen trees by planting.” Prayers and sacrifices were offered, and even apologies, when trees were cut down.

Here is a novel idea: Hughes asks, “Did trees have any rights of their own, in the eyes of the Greeks and Romans.” His answer is “yes, at least for some.”

Traditional religion held that trees were inhabited by dryads, who tried to protect them, since they died when the trees were felled. Anyone who ignored a nymph’s plea and cut down her tree risked terrible vengeance, like legendary Erysichthon. He was stricken with insatiable hunger; perhaps a uniquely appropriate punishment for one guilty of contributing to deforestation.[16]

Some philosophers, Pythagoras and Empedocles among them, suggested that trees have souls “like, or identical with, human souls” (Aristotle De Plantis 815a-b; Plutarch Mor. 960d-e; Diogenes Laertius 8.19; 12. For these people, cutting down a tree was a kind of murder. Even if some believed the souls of trees were “lesser” souls, they have souls nonetheless. Porphyry asked, “why should the slaughter of an ox or sheep be a greater wrong than the felling of a fir or oak, seeing that the soul is implanted in trees also?” (Porphyry De Abstinentia 1.6).

Of course, for ancients as for moderns, human need generally won out and when push came to shove, it was the tree that must give way. But how many Americans today apologize to a tree before cutting it down? How many Americans today offer sacrifices before pulling out their saws? For these people, trees have no souls. There is no possibility of it.

How many people in the Middle Ages outside of remaining Pagan areas saw trees as anything but an obstacle? How many people living on the American frontier saw trees as anything but obstacles? They were simply inanimate objects that were useful for building or burning or were in the way of plowing a field or hacking a road out of the wilderness. You can be certain that no sacrifices were offered, no apologies made, as the pristine wilderness was trampled underfoot.

So if the Pagan attitude to nature is imperfect, and I think the historical record demonstrates that it was, it is still superior to the attitude that came after. And if reactionary Fundamentalists believe the Parousia trumps any need to worry about the planet (God’s plan, after all) at least scientists understand that we are part of nature. As Wiman states,
ancient thinking may also serve as inspirations in our creation of environmental futures; ". . . man is beginning to discern more clearly what wise men of all ages have intuitively felt-his essential unity with the Universe ... To say with the great Stoic-O Universe, whatsoever is in harmony with thee, is in harmony with me. The being whose will is so adjusted is Fortune's favorite; all things must bend to his will as they bend to Nature's law. For his will is Nature's law (33)." As we are indeed parts of Nature, a true warning system, enabling sustainable environmental futures and not questioning humanistic principles, could then perhaps be found when listening inwards into ourselves, much in the same way as Socrates constantly listened to his inner voice-his daimonion (59). Perhaps this is where a new dialogue can begin.[17]
I do think we need to go back to a pre-Christian time in order to improve our understanding of and relationship to the environment. We have lived with the Christian paradigm for more than a millennium-and-a-half and however much you sugar-coat it, certain facts remain. The idea of a Parousia, that this earth is of secondary importance to the Afterlife, permeates Christian belief. Christians are enjoined to put aside things of this earth, not to embrace them. Gilbert LaFreniere asks, “if nature is given only a derivative value, how seriously can Christians take the destruction of the natural environment?”[18] The Christian focus is on Heaven, on what comes after, but the Greeks, for example, believed that Earth was ". . .the sphere of activity of the gods."[19] One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that these positions are mutually incompatible.

At the end of the second century, the Pagan scholar Celsus made a comparison of Pagan and Christian attitude towards the natural world. He observed that the Christians
hold that God made all things for the sake of men, whereas our philosophy maintains that the world was made as much for the benefit of the irrational animals as for men - I mean, why should things have been created more for man's nourishment than for the benefit of the plants and trees, the grass and the thorns? I suppose they ignore the fact that things do not grow without human endeavor - we struggle to make things fertile, whaever God may have to do with the case - whereas they attribute everything to God as though everything grew without sowing and tillage. As Europides says, "Sun and light serve mortals" but they serve the ants and flies as well. For in their case, too, the night is for sleeping and the day for doing.
Celsus points out in response to those who say "man is superior to the irrational animals" that "God indeed gave us the ability to catch the wild beasts and to make use of them; yet it is also true that before there were cities, arts, culture, weapons, and nets - men were captured and eaten by the wild beasts, and it was rarely the other way around[!]"[20]

Even leaving aside the argument that the Christian god is believed by his worshipers to have put the earth here for his use, there is reason enough to worry about the monotheistic approach to ecology. The evidence of the past eight years of anti-environmental policies by the Christian-Right-friendly Bush Administration lends weight to these fears, as does the attitude of Sarah Palin, a Fundamentalist Christian who seems to hate polar bears and wants to drill Alaska’s pristine wilderness areas as a solution to oil shortage issues rather than finding new, renewable (and clean) sources of energy.

Our current paradigm is flawed. To repeat Lynn White’s words, “We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” This is the attitude of the Bush Administration, and it seems to be the attitude of Fundamentalist Christianity. But this way of thinking is not supportable. The Earth is a finite resource, it is not renewable, and when it’s gone there is no getting anymore. We will be left with a dried husk and no hope. This might be an acceptable outcome for those blindly sure that their Savior will come down in a fiery cloud and take them all “up” with him – a frightening thought when science has disproved the three level universe – but for the rest of us it is rightly terrifying. Fundamentalist Christians may plan on remaining here only a short number of years, but it is important to remind everyone that they’ve been sure it was coming any day now for two thousand years. That’s twenty centuries of myopia, my friends. We cannot afford another twenty.

[1] Pagans, of course, being members of a nature religion, are also often considered kooks, whatever the type of Paganism they embrace. Notable among these is “eco-paganism” (relying heavily upon Wicca and Druidry) and its belief in fairies. See Andy Letcher, “The Scouring of the Shire: Fairies, Trolls and Pixies in Eco-Protest Culture,” Folklore, Vol. 112, No. 2 (Oct., 2001), pp. 147-161.

[2] T. McKenna, Dream Matrix Telemetry. Delec CD 2012, Gerrards Cross: Delerium, 1993.

[3] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155.37 (1967), 1206.

[4] White, 1205. See also MacMullen, Voting about God in Early Church Councils (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006), 41-55, who discusses a growing “anti-intellectualism” in the late empire, an example of which is the idea that all answers are to be found in the Bible. We might note that Fundamentalists today hold to this belief, that the Bible is the only history book of note, or that only the Bible explains the universe (science, apparently, cannot).

[5] Quotation of the Day. New York Times, September 13, 2008.

[6] Pastor Hagee: Katrina Struck New Orleans Because Of Homosexual Rally. Huffington Post, April 28, 2008. For a treatment of Judeo-Christian doctrine surrounding suffering, including natural disasters, see Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

[7] Ingela M. B. Wiman, “Expecting the Unexpected: Some Ancient Roots to Current Perceptions of Nature,” Ambio, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 62-69. J. Donald Hughes, “How the Ancients Viewed Deforestation,” Journal of Field Archaeology 10 (1983), 435-445.

[8] Ramsay MacMullen, Voting about God in Early Church Councils (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006), 47.

[9] Wiman, “Expecting the Unexpected,” 63.

[10] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” 1205.

[11] Robin Attfield, “Christian Attitudes to Nature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983), 369-386.

[12] Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1955), p. 119.

[13] Hughes, “How the Ancients Viewed Deforestation,” 437.

[14] Sungmin Hong; Jean-Pierre Candelone; Clair C. Patterson; Claude F. Boutron “Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations,” Science, New Series, Vol. 265, No. 5180. (Sep. 23, 1994), pp. 1841-1843; cf. idem, “History of Ancient Copper Smelting Pollution During Roman and Medieval Times Recorded in Greenland Ice,” Science, New Series, Vol. 272, No. 5259. (Apr. 12, 1996), pp. 246-249.

[15] Hughes, 437-438.

[16] Ibid, 443.

[17] Wiman, “Expecting the Unexpected,” 69.

[18] Gilbert F. LaFreniere, “World Views and Environmental Ethics,” Environmental Review: ER, Vol. 9, No. 4, Special Issue: Roots of Ecological Thought (Winter, 1985), pp. 307-322.

[19] J. Donald Hughes, Ecology in Ancient Civilizations (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), p. 48.

[20] Celsus, On the True Doctrine. A Discourse Against the Christians, Tr. by R. Joseph Hoffmann (Oxford, 1987), 82-83.

Sidebar Notes

Trees have a great deal in common with humans

Ancient peoples believed that forests were inhabited by gods, an idea which lent itself to forest preservation.