“Seeing the Trees for the Dryads: Non-Theistic Nature Worship” by John Halstead

You weary Nations,
perhaps I am some new being you’ve never encountered before.
Yet there is nothing about me you can’t recognize.
I live in the place where you perceive nothing.
Look again!

— Geoff Bartley, “The Language of Stones”

Some Pagans find non-theistic forms of Paganism strange.  They may wonder what the point of non-theistic Paganism is in the absence of a belief in deities who are aware of and responsive to us.  One polytheist friend of mine, Lupus, has argued that traditional forms of religious worship must be “irrelevant” to more scientifically-informed forms of Paganism.  He explains that, for religious worship to make sense, one must believe in an animating spirit in Nature or “something else beyond what is strictly physical and what can be proven by science”.

“When I hear Pagans being described or self-defining as “nature worshippers,” I wonder how interaction can take place at all. ‘Nature’ doesn’t care if you make offerings, hold festivals, or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends. Dancing at Lughnasadh will not avert global warming; singing a hymn won’t stop an earthquake; pouring a libation won’t prevent it from raining. … Nature—and the wider cosmos more generally, with its colliding asteroids and exploding stars—is utterly indifferent to human existence … Making prayers and offerings to a spirit of nature that doesn’t care about humans and is indifferent to us–which is the model science provides–is as useful as making offerings to the blind idiot god Azathoth.”

I think my polytheist friend is both right and wrong.  He’s right that Nature does not “care” about us.  And he’s right that making offerings to the earth and singing the praises of Nature do not avert catastrophe or bring down the blessings of Providence.  But I think he is also wrong that Nature worship is pointless.

To begin with, Lupus’ argument seems to assume that worship needs a receptive party on the other end that appreciates the worship.  And if you start with that assumption, then it might seem absurd to worship Nature.  But to me, worship is a natural human response to the wonder which Nature evokes.  Worship is a spontaneous expression of awe, gratitude, joy, praise … and sometimes a little fear and trembling.  In that way, it is kind of like creative inspiration.  It rises up from within and demands expression, regardless of whether there is an audience.

Lupus is also right that dancing the Wheel of the Year does not avert global warming — no more than the Aztec sacrifices raised the sun each day.  But then, how is praying to polytheistic gods any different?  Can they save us from disaster?  Some theists might believe this, but Lupus admits that the benefits of polytheistic worship are less tangible: “The hurricane may still knock your house over, or the earthquake, or the bear attack you, or the deer eat all of your flowers, but the relationship one has with the spirits of these things might keep one in better balance in relation to all of those calamities …”  I would say the same thing about worshiping Nature.  It’s not, after all, the wheel of nature’s seasons that I turn with my ritual dance, but the wheel of the seasons within me.


Terry Pratchett’s Blind Io is blind but sees all.

But even more than that, I think Lupus is wrong that Nature is “indifferent” to us.  Lupus says that Nature worship “is as useful as making offerings to the blind idiot god Azathoth.”  I didn’t know who the “blind idiot god Azathoth” was (I later found out it’s a Lovecraftian reference), but it reminded me of a character I had read about in Terry Pratchett’s humorous fantasy Discworld series.  Blind Io, is the head of the pantheon of gods in Pratchett’s world:

On this particular day Blind Io, by dint of constant vigilance the chief of the gods, sat with his chin in his hand and looked at the gaming board on the red marble table in front of him.  Blind Io got his name because, where his eye sockets should have been, there were nothing but two areas of blank skin.  His eyes, of which he had an impressively large number, led a semi-independent life of their own.  Several were currently hovering above the table.

Blind Io is blind, but he’s not.  In fact, he sees everything.  That’s how I understand Nature.  Nature is blind — in the way that Lady Justice is blind — having no favorites: neither sports teams, nor combatants in war, neither saints, nor sinners, neither little children, nor parasitic wasps.  At the same time, Nature “sees” everything.  Not a sparrow falls, but that it is noticed by Nature.  Nature sees all, not because it is a person who sits on some Archimedean point above everything else, but because we are the eyes of Nature, as is every other being that has awareness.  We are part of Nature, and thus Nature sees through us.

Lupus questions how interaction with unconscious Nature is possible.  But I wonder how one could avoid interacting with Nature.  Nature shapes us, and we shape Nature, through everything we touch, through every breath we take, though every physical interaction.  As David Abram explains, “there is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.”  Abram argues that “our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter,” and we only experience things as objects “by mentally absenting ourselves” or “by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement”.  Our most primal experience of the world and its myriad beings is as “a dynamic presence that that confronts us and draws us into relation.”

When we speak of interacting with a tree, for example, it is not the same kind of interaction that we have with another human being, but that doesn’t mean there is no interaction going on.  There can still be interaction between the worshiper and the “object” of worship, even when that “object” is unconscious or inanimate.  And we do not have to personify nature to experience this — in fact personification (projecting human characteristics onto something) would get in the way.

Be we do have to find another way of thinking about the tree than as an “object”.  This can be difficult, because this is our habitual way of experiencing the world.  In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber describes how the subject-object relation might be overcome in the context of his contemplation of a tree:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law–those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars–all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

Buber encounters the tree as a subject, as a “you” or “Thou”, which is different than encountering the tree as an object, as an “it”.  Encountering the tree as a subject means entering into a relationship with it, albeit an asymmetrical relationship in the case of inanimate or unconscious natural phenomena like the tree.

Encountering the tree as a subject does not mean looking beyond the tree or within the tree for “something else” like a spirit (or a dryad).  It does not mean personifying the tree.  It means being fully present to our sensuous encounter with the tree.  In the words of Paul Eluard, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”  Seeing this world, really seeing it, is not easy.  It takes an great deal of patience and effort.  In Buber’s words, it requires both “will and grace”.  And that is what nature worship does for me: Not cause me to see a dryad where there is a tree, but help me to see, really see, the tree itself.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

22 Comments on ““Seeing the Trees for the Dryads: Non-Theistic Nature Worship” by John Halstead

  1. Once again I find myself in awe at how well this sentiment is expressed. And I heartily agree. I like your definition of “worship.” Thank you.

    • When I am working with the energy of a tree or any other plant I am acknowledging the amazing bond we have. I am inhaling the oxygen it creates and I am exhaling the carbon dioxide that it inhales. During rituals this is what I do when I call in the air energy. Then when I am calling in fire I feel the pumping of my heart. Then I call in water at appreciate all the water that nature provides for me. Then I call in earth and appreciate all the food that it provides for me. I created a little chant about all our senses and the elements combined. The rhythm is based on the christian chant “Jesus loves me this I know, because the bible tells me so”

      “Nature loves me this I know, because my senses tell me so.
      When I feel the wind blow
      When I see the sun glow
      When I hear the ocean flow
      When I smell the flowers grow
      Nature loves me, this I know when I taste my hot co. co,”

      I hope you might sing it too

      • And this is why I like to monitor the comments when I can. Thanks, Wendy. I love this.

  2. Good points.

    A minor nitpick: Buber might not be quite the best example to make your point that personification is required, since personification of a sort is precisely what is involved in the “Thou” stance. It doesn’t involve creating a literal spirit or personality within the tree, but it involves treating the tree in a person-like way, 1) as an other in a relationship (which can be construed as an anthropmorphic act), seeing the other in terms of intimacy (which is what the German word translated as “Thou” connotes in German – this can be construed as an anthropomorphic act), and see his God in the tree (which can be construed as an anthropomorphic act). So, although I understand your point, the use of Buber introduces a confusing element.

    • The assumption is that person is synonymous with human, which can be a problematic stance. In the Western world, black/coloured people and women historically where not regarded as persons. This implying an inferiority of that which is not a white male. Scholars, academics, philosophers, and theologians, such as Nurit Bird-David, Harvey Graham, David Abram, Emma Restall Orr have been re-examining and re-defining personhood to include a much wider-scope of community outside that of humanity. Though I am not familiar with Buber, or German philosophy behind thou . . . I could be miss speaking but I don’t think the quote is out of place. I think it is an error of human-centrism in regarding that person be the exclusive domain of humans which is the point at the heart of de-constructing the dualism of the object-subject-self paradigm.

    • B.T., right on! I had thought about addressing this in the post, so I’m glad you brought it up. You’re right, it is personification, in the sense of treating other-than-human beings as persons. But I don’t think it is anthropomorphication. I think we tend to conflate the two. If you accept the premise that there are non-human persons, then they have to be distinguished. I shold have said, “It’s not anthroporphication.”

  3. I also appreciate this definition of worship. The sensuous encounters with trees that Abram describes in his work and you describe here could be said to point to an “intersubjectivity” between bodies, the bodies of both obviously animate beings and the bodies of trees, rocks, rivers, etc. You can’t touch a tree, without it touching you back.

  4. Very interesting. I’m thinking about the term nature as including both living and nonliving things. Worship of the two faces of nature might be quite different. For me the experience of a tree is very different than my contemplation of a rock. The tree is like me in that, although it is unconscious, it is an individual living thing, with living characteristics and a life history, so I easily feel a relationship of sorts with it. The rock is part of a mass, like water or air, wondrous and historical but not something I relate to–unless I personify it.


    • Yeah, I struggle with relating to the non-living in this way, more than I do living beings. But I guess that makes sense, because rocks are more different from us than are trees, for example. David Abram would say that, while not biologically alive, on some level even rocks are animate, just on a scale that we have difficulty perceiving.

      • Yes, I think he would say that rocks are animate simply in that they exist, which is itself an active state. Rocks maintain their stable organization “in a cosmos that is steadily flying apart.” They prevail “against the suck of entropy.” They shelter and anchor many organisms, they slice the wind. (Also reading a lot of David Abram’s work recently. 🙂 )

    • Rocks are part of Gaia, if you will, and thus we have more or less intimate relation with them. We are all part of one body, organic and inorganic alike. That’s what I think of anyhow, sometimes, when I gaze upon a rock like our old friend Buber looking at the tree.

    • The tree is like me in that, although it is unconscious, it is an individual living thing, with living characteristics and a life history, so I easily feel a relationship of sorts with it. The rock is part of a mass, like water or air, wondrous and historical but not something I relate to–unless I personify it.

      I can definitely understand that perspective. As for myself, I take a little bit different view. I actively undermine the living/nonliving distinction by contemplating how the atoms that compose me were not different before I was alive, and will not be different after I die. Life is not a matter of substance, only organization. Even moment to moment, I am breathing atoms in and out: at what point does that air become “alive” as it joins my body? How long does it stay “alive” as I exhale it? Contemplating in this way, the boundary between living and nonliving becomes fuzzy, my identity merges with everything around me, and I get a sense of extending outward into the cosmos infinitely. In some meaningful sense, it’s all “me” or I am “it” (albeit one small part of it). At that point, I feel able to relate even to nonliving matter.

  5. Sometimes, there seems not to be as big a divide between non-theism and theism as we think. Then I remind myself the difference in interpretation of the phenomenal. This is where language gets sticky, where the atheist tends to reject all concepts of spirit, soul, divinity based on the the theistic (anthropomorphic) perspective that these require some human-like consciousness. Then you have more fluid theists, like myself (and I suspect you fit in this category John) who feel these words can and do express something of value without such a transcendental consciousness.

    One such word, I find theists brandy about in the defence of their argument is spirit, which has multiple nuanced meanings in English which get lost in translation between English speakers. It is a rather vague word, like god, which I try to avoid. But there are some useful definitions and discourse through non-theistic interpretations.

    I like Emma Restall Orr’s definition of Spirit as “the pattern created by the crucial moments of interaction.” She compares this to her definition of soul as “the wholeness of being. As the incorporation of every moment of its experience, every influence of its contextual heritage and environment, a soul is the presence of its complete past.” Which she work within a pantheo-animism framework.^

    If you are interested in delving deeper into this whole self-object-subject-spirit/soul quagmire from a naturalistic perspective I have a sew of books to recommend – juts PM me on FB.

    P.S. You’re starting to sound like some kind of animist.

    ^Note: the quotes are from her book “The Wakeful World”

  6. I appreciate your comments on the blur between theists and non-theists and about “spirit.” On the first, I do sometimes find it difficult to appreciate the qualities of living things without feeling that appreciation expand in my mind into a felt sense of some larger animation behind them, one that I don’t think I actually believe in. But neurologists’ approach makes sense to me: that the same wiring that brings us our acute consciousness of self is also quick to see personhood in other active phenomena, such as thunderstorms and ventriloquist’s dummies.

    And “spiritual” and its cousin words are indeed difficult. Different forms of the word carry different connotations. “Spirituality” can be used in a non-theistic sense, conveying one’s general feeling of being part of something larger. But “spiritual” in front of a noun suggests a belief in a more well-defined non-material realm, as in “spiritual attitude” and “spiritual life.” And “spirit” itself goes to extremes, as either the human soul specifically or vague emotional characteristics, as in “his fighting spirit.” A difficult set of words.


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