The relationship between humans and our natural world is enshrined and encapsulated in interpretive schemes and manners of conceptualization. Our conceptions of nature act as resources which guide our everyday practices and give us a sense of possibility. Given our current ecological crisis, enflamed as it is by global climate change and numerous other issues, we must critically scrutinize our current conceptualization of our natural world, figure out if it is contributing to our problems and consider potential alternatives that might be able to guide us to a more sustainable way of living. I first review the conceptions of the natural world found among our archaic ancestors, Part 1. In Part 2, I address our modern image of nature. In Part 3, I conclude by arguing that we need a new way of thinking about nature as a “sacred living system.”
“The Wisdom of the Earth”
Close examination of the conceptions of the natural world found among archaic foraging societies across the globe reveals a set of cultural framings that I call the “Wisdom of the Earth.” These people, who lived very close to their natural worlds, deeply understood the interconnectedness of the universe. They had intimate relationships with their natural surroundings, sustainable cultural practices and earth-centered spiritualities grounded in rich ceremonies and rituals.
In a sense, this is the “norm” for human communities, as this way of life comprised the bulk of human existence. It is estimated that over 90% of our time on this planet as homo sapiens was found in these pre-agricultural foraging societies. Tribal people are attuned to the recurring cycles of nature and to the deities that animate the world of the visible living beings and that links them to the invisible realm of spirits, ancestors and dreams. They feel a deep kinship with everything animate and inanimate.
Today some indigenous tribal people across the globe still retain this close spiritual connection to the Earth. Those whose cultures have been less influenced by “western” and “modern” ways of life continue to maintain a conception of the world as sacred and alive. We should be thankful that this “Wisdom of the Earth” has not been lost and that we have rich and vibrant tribal cultures willing to teach us aspects of their worldviews so that we might achieve a sustainable way of living.
Indigenous people occupy a unified soul-filled cosmos in which there is no separation between the human and nature. Everything flows into everything else. Often these people talk to the animals and to the spirits, who are their equal partners weaving together the sacred web of life.
The dominant conception of the natural world in these indigenous tribal societies is that of the nurturing, yet sometimes dark and mysterious, mother who provides endless bounty, but who can also suddenly take it all away. Knowing that the world around them is enchanted and that rocks and rivers, trees and woodland animals are imbued with spirit, they treat the world with reverence and continually express gratitude through embodied rituals celebrating this familial relationship. A powerful ecological consciousness gives these people a strong sense of belonging to the world and supports an ethic of responsible use.
To be continued …
About the Author: Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
The Dionysian Naturalist explores Nature Religions in contemporary North America, including shamanistic practices, reclaimed Paganism, but most specifically Religious Naturalism — a recent religious approach at the cutting edge of science and religion. Drawing upon the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, I continue developing a Dionysian Naturalism with a central role for ecstasy and the sacramental use of entheogens. Creating rituals and ceremonies to re-sacralize our natural world are particularly important in this time of ecological crisis. I find particular religious significance in the scientific story of evolution and develop liturgy around these themes.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.
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