To Be In Relationship: How Do Animals Make You Human?

Reverence, fear, disgust, delight—these are just some of the responses that spontaneously, and uncontrollably, arise in me upon contact with different individuals of various animal species. How I feel morally and intellectually about a particular individual, a select species, or even that vague abstraction that somehow refers to all nonhuman animals in a simple, all encompassing term—animals—often differs from my somatic and emotional response in a concrete situation. I do not have a universal relationship to the multitude of species we humans call “animals,” because there is nothing universal about this homogenized Other, except that we name them so. Or is there?

My relationship with animals began at birth, the moment I became a separate animal being from the body of my mother. I cannot say that relationship began at conception, because until I actually passed through the birth canal my mother and I were one animal organism. But relationship begins with duality, and as I gazed back on the being who birthed me my first relationship formed. But my first relationship with an animal outside of my own species? I cannot name the first nonhuman animal I encountered, because it was earlier than my first memory. Perhaps it was a deer, or a bird, as we lived in a redwood canyon on the Big Sur coast. I do know the first species to have a major impact on me though, and their presence has remained a constant throughout my life: Felis catus, the house cat.Maine Coon Cat

Since I was a young child I seemed to be a magnet for cats. If I entered someone’s home and a cat was present, she or he would usually find me. If the cat happened to be shy, I usually would find her instead. I would delight in their softness, their playfulness, the mature dignity and kittenish adolescence constantly co-present in one, small, furry body. Cats and I have always seemed to have an understanding, an easy, almost telepathic communication. There is no hierarchy, we both seem to feel like we are equals. To the surprise of several people I know, cats will almost always come when I call them by name. And of course, I too come when I, by them, am called.

Perhaps as a karmic twist to this lifelong species bond, I have never really had a cat of my own. Perhaps I am not able to “own” a cat, and therein the problem arises. Twice I tried to be the companion species to a cat, but both times ended in tragedy. My first kitten I was forced to return to the animal shelter because of the unfortunate allergic reaction of a family member. My mother and I called constantly for days until we heard he had been given another home. I never forgot him, and often still wonder where he made his new abode. This was now twenty years ago. My other cat, who I brought home in high school, lived two delightful years in my house before dying of an unexpected blood clotting condition. He died, ironically, of an oversized heart.

The cats that came into my life were not mine to own, but rather visitors that came through as a reminder of the human ability to communicate with other species, if only we humble ourselves to try. My most recent feline engagement has been with a large, champagne-colored tomcat with crystal blue eyes by the name of Shasta. My first evening, just two months ago, after moving into my new house in the Sunset district of San Francisco I saw Shasta’s pale and eager face peering in the study window from the garden. I sat on the doorstep and we exchanged pleasantries. Now Shasta returns every day, often three times a day or more, for a chat, some affection, and a little play. The relationship is purely social, and because we do not feed Shasta there is no hierarchy or relation of dependence between us.

But what of other nonhuman animal species besides Felis catus? The cat is a species I am rather biased in favor of, and if I am honest I must admit that I feel far less of a desire for intimate communion with most other domesticated species. At ages eighteen and nineteen I lived on a biodynamic farm where I was given the task of caring for—feeding, watering, herding, milking, and shearing—the cows, sheep, chickens, and horses resident there. Although excited for this chance at connection and even education, I found I did not have the same high rapport with the particular members of these species as I did with Felis. Some individuals I connected with more than others, as would be expected, but I never felt I could communicate as well as I would like. I often felt clumsy and awkward with these animals, unable to fully grasp what was needed of me, or maybe even what it was I was asking of them. Perhaps it was the inherent hierarchy already established, before I ever set foot on the farm, between the human species and these nonhuman individuals, that got our relationship off to this uncomfortable start. As much as I wish not to admit it, I have at times even found myself to be disgusted by these particular domestic species, finding their pungent smell and unclean fur and feathers to be repulsive. This is not something I admire in myself, and I must ask myself why this unwelcome reaction arises within me.

CowsA domesticated farm animal is brought into the human realm, but not usually welcomed in as a member of the family—of course, blessedly, there are exceptions. The odd juxtaposition of a nonhuman animal, with its instincts and biological necessities, with the human realm within which it is contained but can neither influence nor alter, indeed makes for an uncomfortable situation. Long removed from even a memory of native habitat, these domesticated nonhumans live in much closer proximity to the full cycle of their biology than any wild animal or domesticated human is almost ever expected to do. Eating, shitting, sleeping, mating, birthing, all take place within a much smaller habitat than these animals’ wild ancestors once enjoyed. Is my own felt disgust not of, but rather on behalf of these domesticated beings? What, rather, is it in the human condition that I find disgusting when such an encounter is taking place? Does my disgust really have anything to do with the cow who stands before me, or is it a disgust with my own species, a disgust even with myself, with my own animal body whose biological necessities I would rather not own or acknowledge?

Over the course of my life, my relationship with wild animals has been radically different than with domesticated animals. The inherent otherness, the mystery created by distance and a sense of freedom, all give to my encounters with wild animals—from deer to snakes, mountain lions to hawks, butterflies to owls—a mixture of reverence and fear. This response, like that to the domesticated farm animals, seems to arise out of a pre-given intuition of hierarchy. The wonder I feel at the glimpse of an animal whose presence is fleeting seems to inform me that I am not an equal to this being. Indeed, in my human ordinariness I am not at the pinnacle of any hierarchy. Perhaps this is the reason that animals are able to become religious and spiritual symbols for the human species: they are beings that live outside the realm of common day. They can run from us, hide, attack, or ignore. They do not come when called because we have never been told their names.Barn Owl

But what of the miracle, the delight, when one of these beings does respond to our attempts at communication? It is as though a god has peered back at you, as though you could speak a language you did not know already resided in your heart, in your blood, in the beating rhythm of your consciousness. When a deer takes a step toward you rather than away, when a hawk looks you straight in the eye, a butterfly comes to a quiet rest in your palm, or an owl clings to the ledge of your kitchen window while beating his wings against the glass as though he has an urgent message only you can hear, somehow the distance between human and animal has been bridged. Remember me, their voices seem to say. Remember yourself. We both come from each other.

Crossing the Threshold: The Ecological Road into Mordor

Great stories become symbols as they are encountered again and again by successive generations, as they are read in the context of currently unfolding lives. Stories become a part of the ecology in which they are told, participating in shaping the cultural landscape and being reshaped by it as well. Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare—these are but a few of the authors whose stories have withstood the slow wearing and reshaping of the passing river of time; they are narratives that have become changing symbols for those who have taken them up in their own time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, principally his Lord of the Rings epic, has been called by several scholars a myth for our time, a symbol of the age in which we live. As one Tolkien scholar writes, The Lord of the Rings is a tale that “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.”[1] Such is the gift of a story written not as prescriptive allegory, but rather as what Tolkien preferred to see as “history, true or feigned, with its various applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”[2] It is the flexible applicability of Tolkien’s narrative that allows it to be adapted and molded according to the needs and desires of the generations encountering it, providing a symbolic foil to the world in which it is being retold.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Tolkien began writing his mythology during a time of rapid transformation in Europe, as he witnessed increasing industrialization overwhelm the rural landscape of his native England. His stories carry much of the melancholy rendered by this loss of ecological beauty, and seem to plant seeds of warning for upcoming generations as more and more of the Earth’s landscapes are being turned to solely human uses. The ecological awareness at the heart of Tolkien’s world may contribute to its particular applicability to the current time period in which we face massive anthropogenic ecological destruction. Methods of engagement with the ecological crisis are innumerably diverse, a reflection of the broad scale of the problems with which the Earth community is challenged. Philosophical approaches to ecology and environmentalism have sought different means of engaging with the very concept of nature, as well as the dualisms created between human and nature, self and other, subject and object, that have contributed to making the Earth crisis what it is. Can Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth provide a symbolic mirror for some of these approaches, from ecofeminism, to dark ecology, to process ethics? By bringing such frameworks into dialogue with narrative, can new concepts be born through their interminglings and diversions?

This study of Middle-Earth as an ecological foil will go in several different directions, although they will all address overlapping issues related to how concepts of unity and difference play significant roles in the human relationship to the Earth. I will be using Tolkien’s narrative in two ways: on the one hand, by looking at it from the outside to see how it might change the engagement of the reader—as a participant in an imaginal world—with the primary world in which she lives; and on the other hand, by diving into the world itself and studying the characters directly as examples of individuals engaging in different ways with their own world. I will first explore the role art plays in shaping the human relationship with the Earth, seeing how art can both cultivate a sense of identity with the natural world, but also how it can give a clearer view of the diversity and inherent difference in that world. Crossing the threshold and entering into Middle-Earth itself we can continue exploring themes of identity and difference, remoteness and entanglement, duality and unity, by bringing such thinkers as Timothy Morton, Val Plumwood, Pierre Hadot, Slavov Zizek, and Alfred North Whitehead into dialogue with Tolkien’s work.

Imaginal worlds and the stories which take place within them can provide what Tolkien calls a “recovery,” a “regaining of a clear view.”[3] He goes on to elaborate what such a clear view can offer, saying:

I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[4]

Although he mentions not wanting to involve himself with the philosophers, for the purpose of this essay I will be drawing Tolkien’s narratives into philosophical dialogue. The ecophenomenologist Neil Evernden offers a complementary, although somewhat reoriented, view to Tolkien’s on the role that art and the humanities can play in ecology: quoting Northrop Frye to make his point, Evernden says, “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[5] Evernden’s perspective dissolves the boundary between the human and the natural world, whereas Tolkien’s sharpens awareness that there is a surrounding world that cannot be possessed by the human. Both perspectives, however, lead to a reorientation of values in which the natural world cannot become forgotten or taken for granted. They both call forth a sense of wonder.

The French philosopher Pierre Hadot points towards how art can create continuity between humanity and nature, offering another perspective for regaining the clear view of which Tolkien speaks:

If . . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[6]

Art offers to the spectator the possibility of becoming a participant, to engage at a personal level with the subject as portrayed by the work of art. The human subject can no longer encounter the other in the art as solely objective for, as Evernden writes, “The artist makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever, but not neutral.”[7] For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality”[8] that allows both the designer and spectator to enter into the created world. We have the possibility of entering fully into a world such as Tolkien’s and seeing its applicability to our own world, which is what makes it such a potent symbol for our own actions.

Entering into Middle-Earth we find ourselves in the Shire, the quiet, sheltered landscape inhabited by Hobbits. The Shire is insolated from the outside world, its inhabitants peacefully oblivious to the wider world, its borders guarded unbeknownst to the Hobbits by human Rangers of the North. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a literary example and metaphor of overcoming the dualism between self and other, human and nature, and subject and object. It tells the story of how four Hobbits leave their isolated world—and also world view—of the Shire to journey into the diverse landscapes of Middle-Earth and encounter the many peoples shaped by those lands. They realize they are but one small part of a larger, diverse ecology of beings. As Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature,

The strangeness of Middle-Earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narrative. The road comes right up to your front door. To step into it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside.[9]

Morton is quite critical of Tolkien, seeing Middle-Earth as an “elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch,” a closed world where “however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar” because “it has all been planned out in advance.”[10] This criticism is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what Tolkien describes the very aim of fantasy to be, to free things ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.’ Is this an indication that Tolkien has failed in his project, or rather that Morton is misreading what it is that Tolkien is attempting to do? Morton begins his analysis of Middle-Earth by saying,

The Shire . . . depicts the world-bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them.[11]

In many ways this is a true characterization of the Shire at the start of the tale. There is an idyllic pastoralism to the Shire that is cherished by many of Tolkien’s readers, but it is also a realm of sheltered innocence as Morton points out, a Paradise before the Fall. However, by substituting this image of the Shire for the whole of Middle-Earth, Morton misses an essential aspect of the narrative: the Hobbits must depart from the Shire and encounter the strangeness and diversity of the larger world. The Hobbits, who may start out as ‘little suburbanites,’ cannot accomplish the tasks asked of them without first being transformed through the suffering and awakening that comes from walking every step of their journey. To return to Morton’s quote about the Road, once the ‘threshold between inside and outside’ has been crossed, the traveler cannot return to his former innocence. It is a shift in world view. The Hobbits can never return to the solipsistic world that existed prior to that crossing. This is an essential move that is also being asked of the human species in our own time; to cross out of our anthropocentric world view to encounter the great and imperiled diversity of the wider world.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

While the Hobbits’ journey can serve as a metaphor for the journey the human species is being called to take—to awaken to the crisis at hand and leave our anthropocentric world view—The Lord of the Rings can be read symbolically from another perspective in which different characters represent alternative approaches to the natural world that have been taken by humanity over the course of history. These differing approaches have been laid out by Pierre Hadot in his “essay on the history of the idea of nature,” The Veil of Isis. Using mythic terms, these are what Hadot calls the Orphic and Promethean attitudes:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[12]

The three primary methods of the Promethean attitude, according to Hadot, are experimentation, mechanics, and magic, each of which seek to manipulate nature for some specific end. In Middle-Earth the Promethean approach is used by the Dark Lord Sauron, and later by the wizard Saruman, as they each seek to employ technology to gain power and dominion over others. Hadot writes of the Promethean attitude: “Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.”[13] As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[14] Saruman’s drive for power is a mere shadow and an echo of Sauron’s: the emblematic symbol of the power of technology in The Lord of the Rings is of course the One Ring itself, a device or machine that takes away the free will of those who use it.

Hadot’s consideration of magic as an aspect of the Promethean attitude is quite similar to Tolkien’s own views on magic, although this might not be expected with a first glance at his works. Tolkien differentiates between magic and enchantment, seeing magic as the technological manipulations of the Enemy, while enchantment is the exquisite creations of peoples such as the Elves. Tolkien writes in one of his letters that “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference”[15] between magic and enchantment. He goes on to say, “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete . . . . its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”[16] Elvish enchantment might be seen as an example of Hadot’s Orphic approach to nature, with its focus on poetry, music, art, holistic science, myth and contemplation.

The Orphic attitude holds the belief that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[17] It is an approach that seeks to come to understanding through contemplating the whole, without reducing it into simplistic parts. This is illustrated by the difference between the two Istari, or wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. In his bid for power, Saruman has renounced his rank as White Wizard rather to become Saruman of Many Colors. He mocks the symbol represented by his former color, proclaiming:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said [Gandalf]. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”[18]

Saruman has moved from being one of the Wise, those who bring an Orphic approach to all they undertake, to a dark Promethean figure seeking domination, power, and control over others.

The attitudes Sauron and Saruman take towards the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth can be better understood through the ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s model of anthropocentrism, which she recognizes as the dominant human culture’s relationship with nature. Her language is particularly appropriate for mapping onto The Lord of the Rings because she refers to the dualism between One and Other as played out in this form of hegemonic centrism. In this symbolic mapping, the One represents the centralized power of the Lord of the One Ring, while the Other represents the diversity of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and their multiplicity of cultures and landscapes. Plumwood’s anthropocentric model demonstrates the ways in which the One approaches the Other, particularly through means of homogenization, backgrounding, incorporation or assimilation, and instrumentalism. A breakdown of these terms follows, each of which can be seen in the way Tolkien’s dark powers seek to dominate and control the peoples of Middle-Earth:

• Homogenization – “The model promotes insensitivity to the marvelous diversity of nature, since differences in nature are attended to only if they are likely to contribute in some obvious way to human welfare.”[19]

• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”[20]

• Incorporation (Assimilation) – “The intricate order of nature is perceived as disorder, as unreason, to be replaced where possible by human order in development, an assimilating project of colonisation.”[21]

• Instrumentalism – “In anthropocentric culture, nature’s agency and independence of ends are denied, subsumed in or remade to coincide with human interests, which are thought to be the source of all value in the world. Mechanistic worldviews especially deny nature any form of agency of its own.”[22]

Sauron seeks to turn all of Middle-Earth to his own devices, by reducing the great diversity of the land’s peoples to mere tributes and instruments. The power of the One Ring is that it can bring all beings, even the land itself, under its dominion: “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”[23] Sauron’s darkness is homogenous, erasing all difference, backgrounding all who do not fit his plans, and incorporating and using as instruments those who do.

The key actions to the three great victories accomplished by the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are carried out by characters or races that have been forgotten or backgrounded in just the way Plumwood describes: Sauron is overthrown by the actions of Frodo and Sam, two small Hobbits of a race he considered too unimportant to account for in his schemes; Saruman is defeated by the Ents whom he dismissed as mere myth; and the Witch-King of Angmar is overthrown by the shieldmaiden Eowyn, whose coming was concealed by the patriarchal language that referred to her entire race as Men—leaving the arrogant Lord of the Nazgûl to be defeated at the hands of a woman. As Elrond says at the Council held in Rivendell that decides the fate of the Ring, “This quest must be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”[24]

There are, of course, flaws with Tolkien’s work that a perspective such as Plumwood’s would be quick to point out. For example, it is a largely androcentric work, with the majority of the characters being male. It also has a Eurocentric focus, as Middle-Earth was intended by Tolkien to be set in Europe, although in an imaginary time: “The theatre of my tale is this earth,” Tolkien wrote in one letter, “the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”[25] Critics such as Morton point out that “For Tolkien, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and talking eagles are welcome others, but swarthy ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ men are not.”[26] Although I do not want to discount these valid criticisms, I will point out some subtleties that emerge in the text that complexify Morton’s simple rendering of good and evil in Tolkien’s world.

For example, when Sam witnesses the violent death of a Southron man he finds himself contemplating what the character of this man might have been in life.

He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.[27]

In this moment I believe Tolkien is asking the reader to contemplate the same: to not take the presentation of the other at face value, but rather to look deeper. He is bringing moral complexity into a story that has often been initially perceived to present a Manichean vision of evil and good. Often the struggle between good and evil takes place within a single person, as can be seen emblematically in Frodo and Sméagol’s internal struggles with their own potential for evil, and even Gandalf and Aragorn’s wrestling with the corrupting influence of power. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond says. “Even Sauron was not so.”[28]

One’s actions, and not one’s inherent being, are what turn a person evil in Tolkien’s world. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes on the nature of evil and its root in inhibiting, either through violence or neglect, the potential for beauty in the world. For Whitehead, the evil of violence “lies in the loss to the social environment.”[29] He also writes,

Evil in itself leads to the world losing forms of attainment in which that evil manifests itself . . . . Thus evil promotes its own elimination by destruction, or degradation, or by elevation. But in its own nature it is unstable.[30]

An example of this can be seen at times throughout The Lord of the Rings when the Orcs, acting as evil minions doing the bidding of Sauron or Saruman, turn on each other during a dispute and often end up killing one another in their anger—often eliminating a danger otherwise needing to be faced by the protagonists. As Brian Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insight is that violence and force tend to be self-defeating in that they undermine the very social structures that make them possible.”[31] Another case is Saruman, who cuts the trees of Fangorn to feed his fires, allowing him to raise an industrial army. Without doing this harm, which is what makes him evil to begin with, he would not have triggered the anger of the Ents, leading to his defeat. Finally, a more abstract illustration of how evil undermines itself can be seen in Sauron. Gandalf says of Sauron that “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”[32] Sauron’s desire for power, which is what initially corrupts him and turns him evil, is also that which is his undoing, for it blinds him to the moral will of others, resulting in his utter demise.

One must be careful of the way in which one relates to the actions of evil in the world. Creating a dualism between oneself and what one sees as evil can lead to what Hegel, from the perspective of Morton, called the Beautiful Soul. Morton writes, “The Beautiful Soul suffers from seeing reality as an evil thing ‘over yonder.’ Is this not precisely the attitude of many forms of environmentalism?”[33] He goes on to say,

It’s that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over yonder,’ is evil as such. The environmental fundamentalism that sees the world as an essential, living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the Beautiful Soul’s evil gaze.[34]

The evil of the Beautiful Soul’s gaze is only evil when one remains at a remove from what one perceives as evil out in the world. So long as it remains a distant gaze, evil can flourish in the world. “How do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul?” Morton asks. “By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. On the ground this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it.”[35] The burden of the One Ring is that Frodo must take responsibility for it once he is aware that the world is imperiled by it. It is his task to take responsibility for the Ring, and the longer he is in possession of it the more he is corrupted by its power. “The only way is in and down. . .” as Morton says.[36] Frodo and Sam not only go down into the heart of Mordor, they also face the capacity for evil in themselves. Indeed, Frodo must take responsibility for his inability to destroy the Ring, but in doing so he also must forgive himself, for only in his failure was the task actually able to be accomplished.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

The approach of going ‘in and down’ is what Morton has called dark ecology. “Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth’s humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms.”[37] There is a melancholy too that is inherent to the heart of The Lord of the Rings. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Rings of the Elves are also stripped of their power, and all that was wrought with them in symbiotic harmony with beauty of the Earth begins to fade and pass away. Interconnection is at the heart of this story, the power of good intrinsically interwoven and even dependent on the power of evil, and vice versa. Destroying the One Ring is choosing to lose the great beauty created by the Elves to allow the greater beauty of a free Middle-Earth to flourish. It is a moral decision according to Henning’s kalogenic ethics of creativity, but it is a tragic, a melancholic decision as well. The Lord of the Rings concludes with a sense of bittersweet mourning, the mourning of all that has passed, the mourning of the end of an age.

In reference to the ecological crisis, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes on what hope we have for the future:

We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny—and, then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself by inserting a new possibility into the past.[38]

In many ways the future of Middle-Earth is also doomed, poised on the edge of ruin. Late in the story Pippin asks Gandalf:

“Tell me,” he said, “is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.”

Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope.”[39]

‘On the background of this acceptance,’ as Zizek has said, we must then make our decision, the melancholic choice that leads us ‘in and down’ into the darkness of the world, a darkness mirrored potentially in each of us as well, whose very success leads to mourning. When Frodo first learns that he is in possession of the One Ring, that it is his responsibility to face the darkness head on, he confides to Gandalf:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[40]


Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

–––––. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. Edited by Judith A. Jones. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.


[1] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xii.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.

[5] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.

[6] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.

[7] Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.

[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.

[9] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.

[10] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.

[12] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[13] Ibid, 92.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.

[15] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[17] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.

[19] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[20] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.

[21] Ibid, 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[25] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.

[26] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.

[28] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.

[29] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.

[30] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.

[31] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.

[32] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[33] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.

[34] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.

[35] Ibid, 291.

[36] Ibid, 293.

[37] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

[38] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.

[39] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.

[40] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.

Darkness, Duality, and the Call for Enmeshed Solidarity

Dark Ecology

When confronted with crisis, one must ask what it is that is in crisis. When it comes to what has been termed the environmental—or ecological—crisis, this question of what is in crisis immediately complexifies. The crisis itself may be that we cannot simply apply a homogenous label to what is unfolding everywhere around, before, and even inside of us. If there is a crisis of nature, and humans are causing it, then knowing what nature and humanity are, what their relationship is, and if they can even be distinguished or differentiated from each other, is crucial to the survival of countless species, including our own, and the ecosystems which these species constitute.

Certain contemporary ecological thinkers have challenged the barrier—constructed by dominant aspects of Western civilization—between the concepts of nature and humanity with a variety of different approaches. These challenges come in the form of Val Plumwood’s ecofeminism, Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, Slavoj Zizek’s ideas of interdependence and the barrier of Included and Excluded, Neil Evernden’s concepts of ecological interrelatedness, and Holmes Rolston’s response to the deconstruction of ecological terminology, among many others. Each of these approaches seeks to address and break down the dualism held between subject and object, primarily as maintained in the separation of humanity from nature.

Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist approach, as encapsulated in her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, uses methods of analogy to read one system of thought into another to think through enculturated dualisms between male/female, rational/emotional, Self/Other, subject/object, and of course, human/nature. She addresses the problems of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, systemic remoteness, and hegemonic centrism at multiple levels as embodied not only by dominant rationalistic approaches but also by a variety of ecological perspectives, from animal rights advocacy to deep ecology. Plumwood sees humanity as being faced with “two historic tasks that arise from the rationalist hyper-separation of human identity from nature: they can be summed up as the tasks of (re)situating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms.”[1] Her primary prescriptive approach is to shift from an attitude of identity with that which is termed Other, to an attitude of solidarity. She also emphasizes the need to recognize the agency of the Other, instead of only the intrinsic value of the Other.

Holmes Rolston addresses the idea of agency in relationship to value as well when he writes, “The world is full of eyes, legs, wings, antennae, mouths, webs and eggs, all being used in the defence of life. Is it consistent to say that animals defend lives they do not value?”[2] He goes on to say,

The organism is an axiological, though not a moral, system. So the tree grows, reproduces, repairs its wounds and resists death. A life is defended for what it is in itself, without necessary further contributory reference. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind, it defends its own kind as a good kind.[3]

Both Rolston and Plumwood are focusing on the issue of ‘resituating. . . non-humans in ethical terms,’ with an understanding that agency indicates the rights of the Other while also affirming their inherent differences from humanity. Rights need not arise from similarity to the human, as this is a form of anthropocentrism that merely pushes the boundary of duality further from the sphere of the human species.

A tension exists between affirming difference while challenging duality in the various approaches of these five ecological thinkers. As Neil Evernden points out, “Ecology begins as a normal, reductionist science, but to its own surprise it winds up denying the subject-object relationship upon which science rests.”[4] Timothy Morton affirms this when he writes, “‘Nature’ dissolves when we look directly at it, into assemblages of behaviours, congeries of organs without bodies.”[5] Both Morton and Slavoj Zizek argue that the ecological crisis ought to be addressed by abolishing the concept of “Nature” as an external environment radically other to the human. One must, in Zizek’s words, “ the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded,” rather than simply “fight for the environment.”[6] Rolston, on the other hand, accepts the use of the term “nature” but only after addressing the difference of nature as concept or framework and nature as real beings: “‘Nature,’ if a category we have constructed, has real members, that is, things that got there on their own in this world-container, and remain there independently of our vocabulary.”[7]

For Evernden the solution lies in art, aesthetics, and the humanities. He quotes Northrop Frye in saying “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[8] For Plumwood, aspects of this approach might be problematic, primarily the idea of ‘identity with our surroundings’ rather than solidarity and communication with those beings outside the human species. Yet Plumwood also accepts the ambiguity and imperfection inherent to developing effective models of communication with non-humans. She writes,

The problems of representing another culture’s or another species communication however pale before the enormity of failing to represent them at all, or of representing them as non-communicative and non-intentional beings. This is an incomparably greater failing.[9]

This acceptance of the ambiguity and even the mess of ecological engagement are also present in Morton and Zizek’s thought. Morton writes, “Ecological thinking—what I call the ecological thought—is precisely this ‘humiliating’ descent, towards what is rather abstractly called ‘the Earth.’”[10] Zizek, who draws significantly from Morton, looks to the necessarily externalized slums produced by the capitalist system to highlight the dualism of Included and Excluded, and at the overlap of nature and industrial civilization in a state of “common decay”[11] to break down the conception of an insolated humanity and an “impenetrable inhuman nature.”[12] These ideas are at the core of Morton’s “dark ecology,” which “realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh.”[13]

To say that Plumwood, Morton, Zizek, Evernden, and Rolston agree with one another would be a severe misinterpretation of each of their projects. However, they do stand on some common ground with one another as they pose challenges to current systems of dualistic, anthropocentric, hegemonic thinking. While there may not be a common identity between these ecological thinkers, there does appear to be, in Plumwood’s terms, a solidarity between their challenges to ecological philosophy and the concept of nature.

Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Morton, Timothy. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Rolston, Holmes. “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, edited by T.D.J. Chappell, 38-63. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.

[1] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 8-9.

[2] Holmes Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, ed. T.D.J. Chappell (Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 60.

[3] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 61.

[4] Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 93.

[5] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 285.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 45.

[7] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 43.

[8] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 99.

[9] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 60-61.

[10] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 265.

[11] Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” 63.

[12] Ibid, 50.

[13] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

Co-Created Movement

The soles of my leather shoes are thin, allowing me to feel the contours of the path with each step. The thick layer of redwood leaves that slowly disintegrates into the rich canyon soil, soften the sounds of all the footsteps being taken around me. A meandering line of people are wending their quiet way along this forest path, each connected to one another, yet simultaneously enclosed in their own imagination-suffused worlds. The path bends to the right, taking a steep dive toward the clear, spring-fed creek. This is the place we cross, leaving the soft path momentarily, to leap from rock to rock, staying precariously above the chill waters below.

Photo by Matthew David Segall
Photo by Matthew David Segall

I watch as the first person in this line of individuals begins to descend. Her arms flail slightly, not reaching for an object to steady her, yet monitoring her balance nonetheless. It seems she is about to fall and a ripple of concern echoes back through the group of waiting walkers, some expressed verbally, others merely in a position of body or facial expression. No, she assures us. She often can look as though she is about to topple off her feet, but this is just how she finds her balance. She apologizes for worrying anyone, and continues to make her wavering descent.

The next person, who is walking directly before me, begins to take careful steps down the winding way, with a greater steadiness in his footfall, but still with arms out to balance his movement. No one is concerned for his safety, however. His is not a gait that inspires uncertainty.

Without thinking I begin to move next along the trail. In a state of reflective curiosity I observe my own movement, fascinated by how the way I move might differ from those ahead of me now stepping or leaping from boulder to boulder over the cold stream. My arms are relaxed by my side, and I feel my footsteps fall evenly forward, one after the other. I find my balance like a line within myself. Why do I not use my arms? What is giving me this sense of stability? I recognize that I know this path, having walked it countless times from childhood into adulthood, and wonder if that history is built into my sense of balance now. My feet, my legs, the whole length of my body knows the placement of this path before my mind has a chance to reflect on it.

What, I ask myself, is movement? One usually thinks of movement as arising from the body of a person or other being who is moving with agency through the world. The uniqueness of movement seems to arise from the body and personality of the individual. Yet in this moment, as I watch myself and others navigate the winding, steep path by the stream, I realize how all movement is really a co-creation. Movement arises not from the individual’s agency but rather in the intermediate place between the individual—with all her history, personality, unconscious material, physical qualities, and so forth—and the dynamic contours of the surrounding world. The movement itself, although I might call it mine, is rather both mine and the world’s as we press into each other with each passing moment.

Bridging Our Attitudes Toward Nature

“Phusis kruptesthai philei”

For twenty-five hundred years the concept of Nature has evolved through the writings of Western History. The myriad meanings of the Greek word phusis have unfolded through history as Nature personified, Nature divine, Nature hidden, Nature secretive, nature separate from humanity, nature inclusive of humanity, nature as dead matter, Nature as art, Nature as All. Pierre Hadot traces this winding history in his book-length essay The Veil of Isis by examining the famous aphorism attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, “phusis kruptesthai philei,” usually translated as “Nature loves to hide.”[1] Using these three cryptic words, whose meaning it seems also loves to hide, Hadot explores the many different ways this aphorism could be—and has been—translated, and the various effects such interpretations have had upon the continuing relationship humanity has with the world into which we each are born. Hadot perceives how traditional metaphors such as Heraclitus’ phrase will

hold sway for centuries over successive generations like a kind of program to be realized, a task to be accomplished, or an attitude to be assumed, even if, throughout the ages, the meaning given to these sentences, images, and metaphors can be profoundly modified.[2]

He goes on to note that “To write the history of a thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.”[3]

Isis Veiled

Why is it that Nature loves to hide? What is it she—for in Hadot’s traced lineage Nature is always unquestioningly personified as female—is hiding, and from whom is she hiding it? History has offered many answers, from Nature as divine mystery, to Nature as weak and inferior and thus wrapped up in shame, Nature as clothed in imagination, Nature as malicious toward humanity, Nature protective of humanity: all of these and more have been reasons given for why Nature’s veils have been deemed so difficult to peel away.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the veils and the secrets of Nature never ceases to fade, until it gives way to amazement before an unveiled Nature, which, in Goethe’s expression, henceforth became “mysterious in full daylight,” in the nudity of her presence.[4]

The image of veiled Nature has tempted the curiosity of humanity from deep into our ancestral memory until the present day, although the understanding of who and what Nature is has shifted dramatically over that time.

Hadot posits two archetypal narratives to illustrate what he sees as the primary approaches humanity has taken in the quest to unveil Nature: the Promethean and the Orphic. In Hadot’s own words, these approaches or perspectives can be understood as follows:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[5]

The Promethean attitude is based upon a notion of progress in which humanity will some day attain all of nature’s veiled secrets so that they might be put to use for the betterment of the human species. The three main methods of the Promethean attitude, as Hadot delineates them, are that of experimentation, mechanics, and magic, all of which manipulate nature in some way for a specific end. In this perspective Nature is seen as hiding her secrets out of hostility for humanity, keeping her knowledge hidden due to a kind of spite.

The Orphic attitude takes the approach that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[6] In many ways the Orphic is an antidote to the Promethean, although it extends far beyond that as well. The Orphic approach is that of approaching nature through the contemplation of art, poetry, music, classical physics, and myth. Hadot’s archetypal analysis of nature is itself an Orphic approach, in that he draws on myth and art to unfold the meanings of humanity’s changing relationship to the natural world.

In our current era of ecological destruction and crisis, understanding what is at stake and how we came to this precipice is key to moving in a new direction. If we do not have an understanding of what humanity has perceived nature to be throughout history then we have little chance of knowing how to heal our relationship to that which we call nature. Although in The Veil of Isis Hadot seems to favor more of an Orphic approach, in that it is more holistic, contemplative, non-violent, and non-exploitative, it could be that finding a bridge between the two perspectives is a better way forward. Although a deep chasm has often separated the two, Hadot offers examples of individual thinkers who embody both perspectives within themselves. For example, to dive back toward Western philosophy’s beginnings, Hadot demonstrates how Plato carries both a Promethean and Orphic attitude within his works. In the Timaeus, “Plato represents the world fashioned in an artisanal way,” but that world can also be understood through mechanical, mathematical models.[7] Plato saw phusis as divine art.[8] For Hadot, the view of nature as art is in itself part of a solution for overcoming the division of human and nature that has contributed to create the ecological crisis.

If. . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[9]

Hadot’s work is not prescriptive, yet he indicates that finding bridges may be what is needed: a bridge between Promethean and Orphic, a bridge between humanity and nature—and in many ways art is able to fill this bridging role.


Work Cited

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.


[1] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[2] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, xiii.

[3] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 14.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[6] Ibid, 91.

[7] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 97.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 92.

Reinhabiting Death

“Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain.”
– Second reflection of Buddhist practice[1] 

“When did we become human? One second to midnight.”
– Joanna Macy[2]

I am walking through a world of accelerating decay. I am walking through a world of exquisite beauty. I am living a life of sorrow and suffering. I am living a life of boundless joy. Somewhere, and at some time, I know my death is out there. We wander along life’s twisting roads, our paths occasionally coming breathlessly close. We almost know that we have met, but not quite. Sometimes I feel as though I am stalking my death, sometimes my death seems to almost deliberately be avoiding me. But then, one day, after walking around an inevitable bend, we encounter one another. Time halts.

I look deeply into my death’s eyes, seeing the beauty present in this moment, embodied in her. My death. And for her too I am death, the bringer of this life’s closing. We lock eyes. A smile plays across my lips, and a light giggle escapes on my breath. What is this? A sense of utmost relief. A release from the hold of incarnation. We reach up to touch each other’s hands and then, as if this was always meant to happen, we fall into a deep embrace, sinking into the comfort and warmth of each other’s presence.

Quietly we take each other’s hands and walk slowly together to a place where we can gaze out over the world, to take in all that we are leaving behind. I feel calm, at peace. Then, just as quietly, we sit down together, still hand in hand, our knees touching. She puts my hand on her heart and as we breathe together it feels as if every good deed, every kind gesture, each moment of grace in her life passes out through me and into the cosmos. As her life continues to flow through me our positions change, and her hand is upon my heart: now I too feel the release of letting all that I did and all that I was pour forth into the universe. And then there we sit, just two beings, outside of time.

As a culture, the West seems to have a disengaged relationship with death. We are often raised with little confrontation of the knowledge that this life someday will end. Somehow we see death as a possibility, rather than a certainty. Death is the greatest certainty we have in life, and yet it remains the greatest of mysteries as well. It is an ever-present reality to us, whether we acknowledge it or not. As Sean Kelly writes,

The natural and cultural dimensions of the human experience, however, cannot of themselves circumvent the fact that this Earth and all of its life forms, as indeed our sun and the entire physical cosmos within which they are embedded, are finite beings, with beginnings in time, and bound to inevitable death.[3]

For much of human history, when we contemplated the inevitability of our individual deaths, we had the comfort of a sense of continuity, remembering our ancestors behind us and our descendents whose lives await in the future. Continuity, perhaps, was as much an inevitability as our own death. Yet now humanity has entered a new period in which that continuity is no longer certain. The devastation of the ecological crises endangering every region of our home planet has made that continuity questionable. As Joanna Macy writes, the deleterious effects of the industrial growth society—from species extinction, to mass deforestation, to ocean acidification and climate change—“are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us.”[4] As Kelly remarked, all finite entities of our physical reality will have an eventual, inevitable end, but the time scale on which Macy is speaking is one that could be experienced in a single lifetime: a reality so terrifying it has the ability to either stop us in our tracks in fear and apathy—or to give rise to the greatest creativity humanity has ever expended in service not of preserving our own personal lives, but of offering some hope to the very existence of future generations.

When we allow the realization of our potential collective death—as individuals, as a species, and as a planet—“to become conscious,” as Macy explains, “it is painful, but it also jolts us awake to life’s vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object and each being.”[5] Awareness of death not only awakens the possibility for our highest creative potential within life, but also brings up questions of what exists after the threshold of death: questions of personal and collective continuity not only on Earth but beyond this lifetime as well. It is in this context that Macy’s exercise, the Meditation on Death with which I opened this essay, was conducted.

The sense of peace, release, and well-being I experienced during the meditation with my death echoes many of the stories told by religions and spiritual traditions, and by individuals who have survived near death experiences. Contemplating one’s own personal death can lead to a beautiful acceptance of the inevitable, a realization that it may not be a doom but rather a gift. But shifting the contemplation of death to a collective level presents us with a great paradox: for while one’s own death may come to seem acceptable, or eventually even welcome, the idea of our entire human species, or the entirety of life on Earth, coming to an end is beyond the scope of tragedy. It feels impossible to transfer the sense of post-mortem peace to the loss of billions of individuals or whole species.

The severance of our continuity as a species, the “future canceled” as Macy writes, has only been realized as a global possibility since the atomic bomb was first exploded 1945.[6] As Robert J. Lifton explains, the possibility of species annihilation seems to have sliced the currently living generations off from any sense of connection to future descendents, but also from our ancestors who likely lived with a collective sense of species survival. Lifton argues, “We are thus among the first to live with a recurrent sense of biological severance.”[7] Interestingly, the remembrance of individual death under natural circumstances provides the opposite sense: not a severance, but a thread tying the generations together, as the elderly pass away and leave the world to their grandchildren, who will one day do the same for their own grandchildren.

Besides the biological continuity of familial generations, many cultural and religious traditions contain an understanding of spiritual continuity as well, in the form of the ideas of reincarnation and karma. From the perspective of reincarnation, as Christopher Bache puts it, “Death is but a pause that punctuates the seasons of our life, nothing more.”[8] Being able to see that some part of us carries on through multiple lifetimes releases us from the constraint imposed by the limited time of a single life. It makes death less of something to fear and more of a milestone upon a long, evolutionary journey. Yet death is much more than mere punctuation because, from Bache’s perspective, “the concept of reincarnation actually challenges the notion of personal survival because it ruptures the category of personal identity itself.[9] Bache and Kelly both write of the need to understand reincarnation without retaining the image of an individual, atomistic soul being reborn in life after life.[10] Bache continues, “We must eventually move beyond the atomistic vision of separate souls reincarnating for their individual evolution and begin to grasp the larger intentional fabric that our lives collectively express.”[11] Such a perspective shifts the focus away from the individual human being and broadens the horizon to include the collective: at the community, species, and possibly even planetary levels.

A major component of Macy’s “Work That Reconnects” is engagement through practices and exercises with the future generations whose potential existence we strive to bring to reality. Including the concept of rebirth in the practice of visualizing our future descendents can draw us even more personally into working for their well-being; not only might we be paving a smoother way for our great great grandchildren to walk, we ourselves in some form may be walking that path. Drawing from his research on reincarnation and the bardo, Bache suggests that rebirth may not be affected by linear time in the way we perceive it while incarnated. The possibility may exist for one to be born into any historical period, or even perhaps to be living multiple lives simultaneously.[12] “Each life,” as Kelly writes, “. . . however seemingly distant in our past or future—is always and already ensouled, is inalienably associated with its own soul, whose personal and singular drama is ever unfolding in the Eternal Now.”[13] The future is already present within us: biologically—in our ovaries, gonads, and dna, as Macy points out,—but also possibly spiritually—in our souls. Our present personality, along with our past and future personalities may coexist or participate in soul, an entity greater than anything with which our present personality can identify.

The other side to the equation of rebirth, the yin to reincarnation’s yang, is the concept of karma. Kelly writes,

The series of lives is said to be bound together by the law of Karma or its analogue, which, whether or not one believes in a transmigrating soul, provides continuity both before and beyond an individual life, and therefore also gives a ground for its value and meaning.[14]

The karma of our actions ripples forward into the future, affecting not only ourselves but all those who may come after. Nuclear waste and ecological devastation, Macy argues, may be the clearest physical example of how karma, in this case negative karma, ties together thousands of generations. Yet karma is not a fate engraved in stone, and how we choose to meet our karma will positively emanate into the future as well: as the Buddha said, if we cannot alter our karma, “all effort is fruitless.”[15] The fruit born by our effort is a selfless gift given to those who will inhabit our future world; yet it is also a gift to ourselves for the future we will inhabit. Bache describes a vision he had of that future with the following words: “I could see that the future we were creating was a future that we ourselves would participate in through future incarnations. We were doing this for God, for others, and also for ourselves.”[16]

The others:

Gray Wolf

Swallowtail Butterfly

Polar Bear

African Elephant

Blue Whale

“The Bestiary:” Macy’s poetic eulogy of those species leaving, or on the brink of departing, our planet forever—each name spoken, punctuated by the harsh beat of the drum.[17] Boom. A species erased. Boom. Yet another lost. The punctuating drum marks their permanent death. The accelerating drumbeat of extinction does not feel like a simple pause punctuating the seasons of life. Extinction is an irreversible loss, a diminishment of the wholeness and the creativity of our living planet.

The only sane response seems to be despair. Yet somehow despair is not the collective human response, at least at a conscious level. Macy observes, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear warfare, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”[18] Our cultural inability to confront death has extended to the numbness we feel in place of mourning, as the presence of thousands of our ecological companions is erased forever. Macy continues, “The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”[19] By turning our empathy into apathy we seal ourselves off from the collective suffering of our planet: we either become numb or experience the world’s pain as solely our own, expressed in our personal pathologies, depressions, and diseases. Releasing the experience of one’s isolated suffering, while simultaneously living into and owning the despair that is such a real presence upon the Earth, unleashes the energy suppressing one’s grief and also may help release some of the suffering of the collective. Bache writes on this latter point saying, “Instead of seeing ‘my’ pain as existing separately from the suffering of ‘others,’ it becomes more natural to see it as a distinct nodal point within a collective field of suffering that runs throughout the species”—and, I would argue, throughout planet Earth as a whole.[20]

We are learning to confront grief and despair and to make it part of who we are. We are facing our mortality, learning to reinhabit death as a part of life and maturation. Macy writes, “We are confronting and integrating into our awareness our mortality as a species. We must do that so that we can wake up and assume the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood.”[21] Much of Western civilization has lost the ritualized initiation rites that serve to guide young people into the responsibilities of adulthood. Such rites of passage usually involve immense pain, a real confrontation with one’s mortality that helps forge the adolescent into the adult they will become. As Macy, Bache, and many others have suggested, the human species as a whole may be confronting such an initiatory rite in the imminent potential of our collective demise. “The specter of global death,” Bache writes, “that hangs over the postmodern era may be fueling a profound psychic transformation of our species.”[22] Bache goes on to describe what the container for that profound transformation seems to be:

The crisis of ecological sustainability is even more lethal than the nuclear crisis because it is not being generated by an overzealous military minority but by the very fabric of modern civilization. . . If there is a species ego-death in our immediate future, I think it will be triggered by the impending ecological crisis of sustainability.[23]

The ecological crisis forces us to face not only the mortality of our species and our planet, but also the deep shame that comes with the realization that we have done this to ourselves, shame that is more difficult to accept and perhaps even more repressed than our grief and despair.

I would argue that the rite of passage presented by the ecological crisis is not only an initiation for the human species, but for every species on this planet and perhaps even for the Earth itself. There may be an ego death of industrial civilization, but much of the suffering and confrontation with mortality of this rite of passage is being borne by the thousands of species going extinct at far too rapid a pace. They have borne the pain of this initiation far longer than we humans. To fully understand the depth of this rite of passage I believe humanity has to recognize that it is an initiation for the planet as a whole.

In a meditation to “re-story our identity as Gaia”[24] Macy offers the experience of imagining the entire existence of the Earth taking place within twenty-four hours, beginning at midnight. For much of the day the Earth is undergoing large-scale geologic processes, and not until five o’clock does organic life emerge. The evening is dedicated to the evolution of all living beings, and not until the last half hour of the day do mammals even evolve. “When did we become human?” Macy asks. “One second to midnight.”[25] In that one second before the clock strikes midnight all that we know of human existence takes place: every tribe is formed and reformed, every civilization rises and falls, every religion flourishes, every human to ever be born lives and eventually dies. The expansion of time felt by embracing a belief in reincarnation is suddenly compressed into that one second before midnight. Could that really be the time human souls have reincarnated within? If a spiritual continuity does exist between human lives, would not this continuity carry back throughout more of the twenty-four hours of our earthly evolution? Were we present with the beginning of life? The beginning of Earth? Might we have some spiritual continuity beyond even that beginning? And if so, what happens moving into the future, when the clock does eventually toll midnight?

A rite of passage is often related to the notion of the dark night of the soul. Perhaps it is only fitting that humanity would emerge during that dark night, in that one second before the midnight hour. Bache writes of his own personal understanding of our significance as a species, in connection with the greater whole of the cosmos:

How blind a species we are. How noble. How deep and profound the evolutionary currents that carry us. Sometimes the darkness stands out for me, sometimes the dawn. Increasingly it is the dawn.[26]

The midnight hour is the hour of mortality, death, the crossing of a threshold. It is the hour of transformation. Humanity may be undergoing a rite of passage but I believe it is an initiation in which we are one of many participating members. If we learn to support our fellow initiates, our fellow species, ecosystems, and biomes, then some of us may pass midnight. Eventually we, in an expanded sense of the term, may see the dawn.

Works Cited

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Kelly, Sean “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival.” Integral Review. 4. No. 2 (2008): 5-30.

Lifton, Robert J. The Broken Connection. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

[1] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 76.

[2] Macy, World As Lover, 183.

[3] Sean Kelly, “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival,” Integral Review, 4, No. 2 (2008): 6.

[4] Macy, World As Lover, 17.

[5] Ibid, 124.

[6] Macy, World As Lover, 174-5.

[7] Robert J. Lifton, The Broken Connection (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 338.

[8] Christopher M. Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 41.

[9] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 42.

[10] Kelly, “Integral Time,” 24.

[11] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 34.

[12] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 133.

[13] Kelly, “Integral Time,” 23.

[14] Ibid, 6.

[15] Macy, World As Lover, 57.

[16] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 223.

[17] Macy, World As Lover, 87-90.

[18] Macy, World As Lover, 92.

[19] Ibid, 93.

[20] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 169.

[21] Macy, World As Lover, 184.

[22] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 215.

[23] Ibid, 232-3.

[24] Macy, World As Lover, 181.

[25] Ibid, 183.

[26] Bache, Dark Night, Early Dawn, 249.

Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.


Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 2010.

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.

–––––. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

The Great Mosaic: California’s Wilderness Garden


This is not the wilderness. The crisp leaves rattle overhead as squirrels jump from branch to branch. The wind and sun alike are filtered through the dry, prickly foliage causing the reflective leaves to sparkle like the ruffled surface of a lake. Spiderwebs catch the westering light, near invisible threads stretching seemingly to nowhere. It is here that I encounter my subject, the tree who will be my emissary of Nature, a representative on behalf of landscape, ecosystem, Earth: Quercus chrysolepus, the canyon live oak, one of many oak species native to the California climate. I cannot presume to know this tree, but I will attempt to inquire, to observe, to learn, perhaps to better understand the land that generated us both.

Canyon Live OakThis oak is not in the wilderness. We have both grown up in the city of San Francisco. This particular Quercus lives within the Botanical Gardens of Golden Gate Park, in the California Native Plant section. It lives in an enclosed space surrounded by a human constructed city, a place that is artificial yet natural at the same time. This park is tended and cared for by human hands, not for food, clothing, or shelter, but as a place of beauty. This tree is not growing in the wilderness, but it is still a tree, it is still nature. Perhaps it is better to conduct this inquiry within the bounds of a city park, a place where human and non-human ecosystems coincide, where boundaries are less clear and the symbiotic role of the human in these micro-ecosystems is more apparent than in the places that have been designated pristine wilderness.

The live oak I sit beneath is several feet wide at the base of its trunk with seven thick boughs extending radially outward, branching again and again until they end in thin twigs clothed in the distinctively pointed, dull green leaves that characterize California’s oaks. Many brown leaves litter the wide, mossy paving stones and the small, fern-covered slope beneath its spreading branches. It is a chilly November day, and both the fallen leaves and the temperature bring to mind that autumn is well underway. The rough, cracked bark of the ochre branches are spotted with sea-foam green lichen. Toward the base of the trunk, nailed into the wood, hangs a small, black, metal sign printed with the words: Fagaceae, Quercus chrysolepus, Canyon Live Oak, Western North America.

Spreading out around the oak is a gardened landscape containing many of California’s native plant species. Within the enclosure of this park is likely a better representation of the plant species growing on the West Coast of North America before European settlement than anywhere else in California. It is a reproduction and preservation of the past, guarded and tended to remain in such a state. Paths wind between dense clusters of chaparral—which means “short, woody vegetation” in Spanish—that are comprised of manzanita, buck brush, chamise, nude buckwheat, scrub oak, mountain mahogany, toyon, California coffeeberry, and silk tassel bush. Around and beneath the denser patches of chaparral are herbs and flowers: matilija poppies, red maids, farewell-to-spring, melic grass, gilia, chia, and clover.[1] Although the composition of the plants reflects an ecosystem prior to European contact, the contemporary common names clearly do not.

Timothy Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature that “We discover how nature always slips out of reach in the very act of grasping it.”[2] As I sit beneath this live oak tree writing of the play of golden light across the waxy leaves of the chaparral, I am actually distancing myself from nature. The more I describe the landscape, the deeper I go into the writing and the further I depart from where I am situated in this moment.[3] Nature slips away as it is turned into written words, making what is tangible and alive transform into a piece of art, something that is no longer nature. This paradox may be worth keeping in mind as I enquire further into the nature of nature, the nature of the human being, and the boundaries that may or may not exist between us.Native California Garden

I have titled this essay “The Great Mosaic” for several reasons: the name refers to the diverse ecological microclimates of the landmass named California, as well as to the mosaics created by symbiotic human interaction with that landscape; but it also refers to the method of writing I am exploring in this piece. I will attempt to create a mosaic of language, forming puzzle pieces of nature writing, scientific and ecological study, and philosophical and historical inquiry that will fit together with the same diversity, incongruity, and complexity as the landscapes that inspired these words.


It is becoming increasingly evident that human beings are rampantly destroying the ecosystems of the Earth. A primary reason for such destruction seems to be part of the Western world view as developed and inherited from the European tradition: a perceived dualism between the human and all other non-human entities, the latter often termed nature. If one is to address this dualism one needs to understand not only how it came to be, but also why it is a problem. Many, although certainly not all, environmentalists work on behalf of nature without actually addressing the underlying foundations of why they do their work, acting from a sense of reverence and love for an intrinsically valuable and good environment that must be saved from the marring touch of human hands. For this kind of environmentalist, the environment is defined as “that form of nature that is vulnerable to human-made devastation and disaster.”[4] The work such environmentalists do should not in any way be disregarded or dismissed. It is important work not to be taken lightly or for granted. What I hope to address is the world view behind their actions. Their work may ultimately be futile unless we can have a clearer understanding of the role of the human being, not as an alien destroyer of the natural world, but as a fundamental part of Earth’s ecosystems, a species that shapes and inhabits its ecological niche like all other species.


“Scientific findings indicate that virtually every part of the globe, from the boreal forests to the humid tropics, has been inhabited, modified, or managed throughout our human past.”[5] As is clear in this quote from Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus’s article “Taming the Wilderness Myth,” the idea of wilderness as a pristine, untouched landscape is increasingly being exposed—through the writings of William Cronon, M. Kat Anderson, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, James Fairhead, Melissa Leach, and many others—as an idealized myth of the Western psyche. Timothy Morton takes this perspective a step further by calling for not only a human practice of ecology without the idea of wilderness, but without even the concept of nature. The idea of nature will have to “wither away” for an “ecological” human state to be able to exist.[6] He writes that “in all its confusing, ideological intensity, nature ironically impedes a proper relationship with the earth and its life-forms, which would, of course, include ethics and science.”[7]

Cronon writes in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” that wilderness does not exist apart from the human, it is rather an entirely human construction.

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.[8]

This is not to say that the land itself is shaped exclusively by human hands—indeed, quite the contrary—but rather that the human is a species interacting with the natural environment in ways that shape it like every other species that participates with that land.


The landscapes of California provide a clear example of ecosystems that have been preserved under the guise of untouched wilderness in some of the world’s most famous and majestic national parks. Far from being untouched, however, these ecosystems were formed in relationship to human inhabitants over thousands of years, and some species may even have become dependent on a symbiotic relationship with humans. Therefore, I will be concentrating specifically on the various oak species indigenous to California, to understand the role they play in their ecosystems, their relationships to humans, as well as to ecosystem disturbance, to fire, and to the virulent pathogen that causes sudden oak death which is now devastating oak populations across the state.

California is a richly diverse landscape supporting between 5,800 and 6,300 plant species that grow in a wide variety of ecosystem communities, making it one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots.[9] California’s microclimates range from deserts to salt and freshwater marshes, coastal prairie, valley grasslands, shrublands, riparian and foothill woodlands, and coastal redwood, lower montane, and evergreen forests.[10] The state has been called by some “the great mosaic.”[11] The wealth of species diversity can be seen in the example of the coastal prairie grassland, in which the average of 22.6 plant species per square meter is higher than in any other grassland in the North America.[12]

There are nine major kinds of chaparral ecosystem in California, each defined by the dominant species in its community. The variety I was observing in San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens was the ceanothus chaparral, characterized by its abundance of buck brush (Ceanothus cuneatus).[13] Different oak species grow among this kind of chaparral, predominantly scrub oak (Quercus dumosa), a shorter, more shrub-like oak than the Quercus chrysolepus under which I was sitting.[14] Unlike the scrub oaks, canyon live oaks grow primarily in California’s moist ravines and canyons and can live to be three hundred years old. Foothill woodland ecosystems, which cover some three million acres of California land, are dominated by oak species. In the drier inland regions the endemic blue oak (Quercus douglasii) grows in stands from the Sacramento Valley to Los Angeles County. Often the blue oak grows in mixed stands along with valley oak (Quercus lobata), interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii), coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and gray and foothill pine (Pinus sabiniana); blue oak also grows among chaparral species and even in pure stands solely comprised of Quercus douglasii.[15]

The largest species of California oak are the valley oaks, christened “monarchs of the soil” because of their enormous size. Their shade provides a nourishing microclimate rich with a diversity of understory species.[16] In the northern coastal regions of California the dominant oak species are California black oak and Oregon oak; further south coastal live oaks are the dominant species. Unlike the valley oak, live oaks have little to no undergrowth, giving their stands the look of well-tended parks.[17] Indeed, California has been compared not only to a park but also to a flower garden, or as John Muir named it “the Pacific land of flowers.”[18] While this concept of California as a park or garden may have seemed unusual to arriving Europeans who believed they were entering a pristine wilderness area, it actually was the case that they were entering a garden of sorts, a landscape that had been developing in symbiosis with the hundreds of indigenous tribes living in the area over the previous 12,000 to 13,500 years.[19]


No country in the world was as well supplied by Nature, with food for man, as California, when first discovered by the Spaniards. Every one of its early visitors have left records to this effect—they all found its hills, valleys and plains filled with elk, deer, hares, rabbits, quail, and other animals fit for food; its rivers and lakes swarming with salmon, trout, and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams, and other edible mollusca; the rocks on its sea shores crowded with seal and otter; and its forests full of trees and plants, bearing acorns, nuts, seeds and berries.[20]

This evocative excerpt from Titus Fey Cronise’s book The Natural Wealth of California, published in 1868, provides a delectable image of a veritable Garden of Eden ripe for the taking. Yet Cronise makes no mention of the thousands of people whose lifestyles were thoroughly integrated into this wealthy landscape, who had coaxed forth such abundance through cultural practices that cultivated the land not as an intensive farm but as an extended wild garden.

California’s high species diversity was matched by its diversity of indigenous peoples. Indeed, Fikret Berkes has written of correlations worldwide between cultural diversity and biodiversity, likely caused by human “disturbance” and rotational use of the land.[21] Some 500 to 600 tribes lived in California, with each tribe spread over multiple villages.[22] Estimates of California’s indigenous human population at the time of European contact ranges from 133,000 to 705,000 people, with the most widely accepted estimate at around 310,000.[23] The tribes that lived in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was sitting beneath the canyon live oak, were the Ohlone, Coast Miwok, and Pomo, among others.

Juan José Warner, a European traveler in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1830s, noted with some wonder that such large indigenous populations could thrive on land that was apparently not cultivated.[24] Yet what he did not see were the subsistence activities carried out by these different tribes that were a form of cultivation and conservation, a coaxing of abundance from the natural processes of the land. Native Californians gathered, hunted, fished, and quarried stone for tools.[25] The acorns of the canyon live oak were used by the Pomo to relieve coughs and sore throats. The oak stands and prairies provided ingredients for acorn bread, wild grass seed cakes, and a variety of edible bulbs. Indigenous peoples lit fires on the land that could burn through chaparral and other woody vegetation to open up pathways and restart the cycle of regenerative plant growth that provides new vegetable matter and attracts grazing herds.[26] Fire is critical to the California landscape and many plant species have developed both a resistance and dependence on it for their lifecycles to continue. The same acre of land burned about once every ten to fifteen years before European contact, and fire has been crucial in shaping at least three quarters of California’s flora.[27]


Ecosystem resilience is defined as how much disturbance a system can take before it is fundamentally altered and becomes a new kind of ecosystem.[28] The four stages of ecosystem recovery after disturbance begin with the reorganization phase, in which the ecosystem is renewed, seeds open and begin to germinate; followed by the exploitative phase, in which pioneer species compete and colonize the landscape with rapid plant growth; the next is the conservation phase, during which growth slows and larger, perennial species dominate; the fourth phase is ecological disturbance, or the creative destruction phase, which begins the cycle anew. It is the phase of creative destruction that is activated by such activities as routine burning of the land. Such a disturbance releases what Lance Gunderson calls “accumulated ecological capital,” such as nutrients and dormant seeds, that can now germinate and grow into new plants.[29]

Another type of ecosystem disturbance can come in the form of insect or pathogen invasion.[30] Like fire, insects and pathogens can lead to a creative destruction phase but, also like a fire that burns too hot or for too long, such invasions can cause irreparable damage, pushing an ecosystem to the brink of collapse. An example of such an invasive pathogen is Phytophthora ramorum, which has been the cause of sudden oak death for thousands of oaks across California and Oregon. Thus far it is unknown which stands of oak trees will be infected or exactly how the disease is spread, but research has been conducted to locate the most susceptible parts of oak forests. The species of oak that have been most devastated are coastal live oaks (Quercus agrifoli), black oaks (Quercus kelloggi), and tanoaks (Lithocarpus densifloru).[31] It appears that the trees at highest risk for infection are those at the edge of forest clusters, those growing near stands of bay laurels, and also those in close proximity to hiking and biking trails.[32]

The pathogen can colonize several other species of plant without actually killing them, such as the California rhododendron, huckleberry, madrone, California buckeye, big leaf maple, and manzanita.[33] Many of these species grow in the understory of oak stands and only carry the pathogen on their leaves while the main stem of the plants remain uninfected. The disease can pass easily from this understory foliage to their terminal hosts, the oaks, during rain and wind storms.[34] Mortality of oaks is highest at the edge of forest stands where the presence of pathogen-colonized undergrowth is most prevalent.[35]

Lee Klinger, a scientist who has closely studied sudden oak death, has found a correlation between abundance of moss and lichens on oaks and diseased and weakened trees. The mosses and lichens contribute to acidification of the soil, which is detrimental to the health of the trees and often kills their fine root systems.[36] Klinger suggests that the compromised health of the oaks, due to acidification and lichen growth, are making the trees more susceptible to Phytophthora ramorum, aiding the spread of sudden oak death.

Studies conducted on sudden oak death throughout Northern California have indicated that Phytophthora ramorum infecting oaks is far less prevalent in areas that have been recently burned.[37] Interestingly, the presence of lichens and mosses are also greatly reduced in frequently burned forest stands.[38] Although three quarters of California’s vegetation, including oaks, are fire-adapted species, the frequency of fire is dramatically different than during the time before European settlement. The U.S. Forest Service suppresses most forest fires, and as a result large quantities of undergrowth and lichens can build up that once were regularly burned away. It is quite likely that fire suppression has played a major role in the spread of sudden oak death.

Many of the indigenous tribes of California had symbiotic relationships with the oak trees growing near them. They often tended to the trees by burning brush and undergrowth from beneath the oak, thus improving the fertility of the soil and suppressing pests or diseases that might be detrimental. The soil fertility was also enhanced through working seashell and bone fragments into the soil, and mulching with seaweed.[39] Klinger writes,

In my holistic view, the problem of sudden oak death is ultimately related to the profound ecological shift of the oak forests in California brought about by a fundamental change in management practices associated with white settlement of the lands. The oak forests that, for centuries, were tended by native people were suddenly abandoned.[40]

Klinger treats oak trees today with a holistic medicinal approach which aims not to treat sudden oak death, or eradicate Phytophthora ramorum, but to support the trees’ health so they are more resistant to pathogens.[41] He scrubs the moss and lichens from the trees to reduce acidification, then fertilizes the soil surrounding the oaks, essentially mimicking the effects of fire.[42] He is stepping in to fulfill an ecological niche critical to California’s oak-dominant landscapes that was once filled by a species often not considered to be an integral part of nature: the human being.


Over a relatively brief period of time touching three centuries from the 18th to the 20th, the concept of wilderness shifted from a place of evil and desolation to the sublime cathedral of pristine perfection wrought by the hand of God. Romanticism and the Enlightenment were the two primary catalysts of this profound shift. Before this transformative period, as Cronon writes, “To be a wilderness then was to be ‘deserted,’ ‘savage,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘barren’—in short, a ‘waste,’ the word’s nearest synonym.”[43] Yet by the year 1862 Henry David Thoreau would be declaring “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,”[44] and just seven years later John Muir, upon his arrival in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, said “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.”[45]

The two sources that led to such a reverence for the concept of pristine, wild nature, according to Cronon, were the ideas of the Sublime, and of the Frontier. The Sublime comes to us through European Romanticism, whereas the Frontier is truly a concept of Americanism.[46] Cronon writes,

Indeed, it is not too much to say that the modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of Romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create.[47]

Romantic thought is what birthed the concept of Nature that Morton finds so problematic. “The ‘thing’ we call nature becomes, in the Romantic period and afterward, a way of healing what modern society has damaged.”[48]

In both contrast and complement to Morton, Berkes traces the origins of the concept of nature, as an external environment, to post-Enlightenment thought and the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, spirit and matter, man and nature (I use the term “man” instead of the gender-inclusive “human” here purposefully).[49] Thoreau wrote a beautiful passage in The Maine Woods which captures both this Romantic notion of sublime awe and the Enlightenment dualism of man and nature:

It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there… It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever,—to be a dwelling of man, we say,—so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. (My italics.) [50]

Nature, for Thoreau, is a place of sublime, terrifying beauty. It is a place where spirit and matter are able to be conjoined, an overcoming of the Cartesian dualism, but it can only be so if nature does not include the human. Nature is, as Morton writes, “a transcendental term in a material mask.”[51] The grand cathedrals of the natural world, for the Romantics and American conservationists, were places where the lone individual might have the chance to encounter the might of God.[52] This is, of course, not an experience unique to Euro-Americans; for example, the indigenous tribes living near the Arctic glaciers understood that the glaciers had a powerful sentience and would respond to human behavior.[53] The sacred in nature is certainly not isolated to the European tradition. However, it seems the idea of an untouched sacred wilderness, with a complete lack of human presence, is less common worldwide.

Morton makes a strong case against revering such a conception of Nature: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.”[54] He is clear though that he is not advocating for no environmentalism—or what he prefers to call “ecology” as this term encompasses so much more—but rather he is suggesting an “ecology to come,” an ecology of the future.[55] Many environmentalists are trying to preserve what they see as pristine wilderness, particularly places of supreme natural beauty or biodiversity.[56] But the problem with privileging such sublime locations of grandeur is that we choose to value some parts of the Earth over other, perhaps more humble, places, or endangered species over more “common” plants and animals.[57] New dualisms are created between wilderness and the garden, the park, or even our human dwellings.

The other source of the American notion of wilderness, besides the Romantic Sublime, is the American Frontier. As Euro-American settlers moved ever westward across the North American continent the idea of the frontier became a way to reconnect with one’s primitive origins, to experience what it meant to be a true American. As settlers reached the West Coast they shared a sense of loss, a lament for the “free land” that had been available to them.[58] But this is the heart of the problem of wilderness, or nature, and of the frontier: there never was free land. This land had been occupied and shaped by and with the thousands of tribes that had been living here for millennia.


Both the movement of the frontier and the movement to preserve national parks were, and still are, acts of violence against the indigenous people who belonged to this land. As national parks were emptied of their inhabitants it created the illusion for tourists that they were visiting, “raw nature,”[59] land as fresh and pristine as God first created it.[60] Activities that helped shape the land and ecosystems, such as hunting, gathering, and burning, have been made illegal in many, although not all, parks, and are now labeled arson and poaching.[61] The 1964 U.S. Wilderness Act defines wilderness as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”[62] Cronon points out that the ideal of a natural landscape unworked by human hands can only be the fantasy of those who have never had to make their living from the land.

Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the Romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land… If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.[63]

Wilderness, from such a perspective, is imagined to be an escape from history, from our human past.[64] We can enter the wilderness and leave behind our personal and collective histories, forgetting the violences committed so no trace might be left of the human being on these isolated preservations of nature. Yet any study of environmental history, which is an emerging branch of ecology, will show how human interaction has shaped nearly every landscape on Earth.[65]

Forests worldwide that were once thought to be pristine, for example, are actually the result of ecosystem resilience developed directly through human disturbance over thousands of years.[66] Forest islands amid the African savanna, once thought be the remains of an original primal forest, are now understood to have been brought forth from the grasslands and maintained through human care and nourishment.[67] By studying the environmental history of the landscape, Fairhead and Leach were able to see how the distribution of these forest islands follow the distribution of past and present village settlements.[68] Human interaction and engagement with the landscape in ways that are integrative and not domineering, have been shown in numerous cases to increase biodiversity and maintain resilient ecosystems.[69] A different example of this comes from India, where grazing water buffalo in Keoladeo maintained the biodiverse wetlands that otherwise would secede to less abundant grasslands.[70] Ecosystem resilience is defined by a system’s keystone species; perhaps the human is also a keystone species in many landscapes, able to build resilience and diversity if we can keep our own activities in check, within a threshold of sustainability.[71]


The indigenous cultures that were able to cultivate such abundance in relationship to the California landscape over 13,000 years developed many social and cultural narratives, guidelines, and taboos for engaging with the land. Common terms used for this engagement have been “keeping the land,” “caring for the country,” or “taking care of the land.”[72] As Berkes defines it, tradition ecological knowledge is about moral and ethical human-ecological relations.[73] Cruikshank writes, “Narratives underscore the social content of the world and the importance of taking personal responsibility for changes in that world.”[74] This is a great contrast to the notion of pristine wilderness erased of any signs of our human past. In indigenous California nearly every place was named, even seemingly unimportant locations, usually for the subsistence activity carried out there.[75] The landscape was more than just a container for human knowledge though; it carries the memories of all past events, it is a mnemonic of social relations and responsibility.[76] The poet Gary Snyder writes, “In the old ways, flora and fauna and landforms are part of the culture.”[77]

Of course, being part of an indigenous culture, or possessing the knowledge of such a culture, is no guarantee that one will have a sustainable relationship with the Earth.[78] Not all indigenous cultures have consistently treated the land they live on well, and many examples exist of those who failed or did not survive.[79] But this does not mean there are not powerful lessons to learn from many of these cultural groups. It is true that the Earth must be conserved from the ravages of industrialism and greed, but not by the violent methods used to preserve the national parks of the United States. Such preservation is a form of embalming, a moment frozen in time, an erasure of the dynamic life forces that allow the Earth to be resilient and regenerative. It is a slow but eventual death knell, a false tilling of the soil to preserve a moment long gone, that does not allow new birth to take place. If the planet is divided solely into wild places and places domesticated for development neither will truly flourish to their full potential. Engagement of all species is required. If land is to be conserved, the human beings who shaped that ecosystem should be treated as a continual, integral part of that landscape as well.[80]

In her book Friction, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes of “anthropogenic” landscapes, landscapes that are co-created with their human inhabitants, forming places that are neither domesticated nor wild.[81] For true conservation of the Earth, a form of conservation that includes human beings, to flourish it must rise up in the gaps, between the dualism of nature and human, like an acorn buried beneath a concrete sidewalk that eventually pushes up between the seemingly impenetrable slabs on either side. But the tender shoot will grow strong in its liminal space, forging a new path where none seemed to exist before, eventually emerging as a sturdy, powerful oak tree.


The leaves whisper, drier even than when I first sat beneath this tree in mid-autumn. Winter has nearly set in; the branches are cold to the touch. The tree has changed little itself during this shift of the seasons, only its leaves have faded from dusty green to a crunchy brown. Yet I see this canyon live oak with new eyes now. Are the mosses and lichens growing up its branches weakening its health? Ferns grow right up to the base of the tree, and I know no fire will sweep through this park to clear the underbrush.

As I gaze west through the branches the sunlight streams through with the rich, deep golden glow so characteristic of the days around the winter solstice. In between the branches pale, white-winged insects flutter, their wings like an ethereal gauze in the sunset. There is no denying that the scene is magical. This sense of ecological wonder is a form of magic created between the human being and all other species we humble ourselves to approach in communion. The magic of this moment is one ignited specifically between myself, the dancing insects, and this truly majestic oak tree.

As I walk away from the oak, meandering through the winding paths in between the chaparral, I realize that this particular canyon live oak has something that many oaks in California once had, but no longer do. It has human caretakers, caretakers who will clear the underbrush and mosses away by hand, and who will nourish the soil so that the oak remains healthy. This oak is neither domesticated nor wild, but growing in the gap, the liminal space of a human-shaped park, thriving between the streets of San Francisco.


Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

Berkes, Fikret. Sacred Ecology. New York, NY: Routledge. 2012.

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon, 69-90. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995. Accessed November 12, 2012.

Cruikshank, Julie. “Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition.” Arctic 54 No. 4 (2001): 377-393.

Fairhead, James and Melissa Leach. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Gomez-Pompa, Arturo and Andrea Kaus. “Taming the Wilderness Myth.” BioScience. 42 No. 4 (1992): 271-279. Accessed November 13, 2012.   

Gunderson, Lance H. “Ecological Resilience—In Theory and Application.” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 31 (2000): 425-439.

Kelly, Maggi and Ross K. Meentemeyer. “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death.” Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing. 68 No. 10 (2002): 1001-1009. Accessed October 16,             2012.

Klinger, Lee F. “A Holistic Approach to Mitigating Pathogenic Effects on Trees.” Paper presented at the Treework Environmental Practice Seminar XII, Trees, Roots, Fungi, Soil: Below-ground Ecosystem & Implications for Tree Health, at the Natural Museum Cardiff, Cardiff, UK, November, 13, 2008. Accessed December 18, 2012.

Moritz, Max A. and Dennis C. Odion. “Examining the Relationship Between Fire History and Sudden Oak Death Patterns: A Case Study in Sonoma County.” Paper presented at the Sudden Oak Death Second Science Symposium: The State of Our Knowledge, Monterey, California, January 18-21, 2005. Accessed December 18, 2012.   

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1988.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[1] M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 30.

[2] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 19.

[3] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 30.

[4] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 123.

[5]Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus, “Taming the Wilderness Myth,” BioScience 42, no. 4 (1992): 273, accessed November 13, 2012,

[6] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 1.

[7] Ibid, 2.

[8] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), 1, accessed November 12, 2012,

[9] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 25.

[10] Ibid, 26-34.

[11] Ibid, 26.

[12] Ibid, 28.

[13] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 30.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 32.

[16] Ibid, 31.

[17] Ibid, 32.

[18] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 15.

[19] Ibid, 37.

[20] Titus Fey Cronise, qtd. in Anderson, Tending the Wild, 13.

[21] Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 44.

[22] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 35.

[23] Ibid, 34.

[24] Ibid, 37-38.

[25] Ibid, 38.

[26] Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 89.

[27] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 17.

[28] Lance H. Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience—In Theory and Application,” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 31 (2000): 426.

[29] Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience,” 430.

[30] Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience,” 430.

[31] Maggi Kelly and Ross K. Meentemeyer, “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death,” Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing 68 no. 10 (2002): 1001, accessed October 16, 2012,

[32] Kelly and Meentemeyer, “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death,” 1005.

[33] Ibid, 1001.

[34] Ibid, 1002.

[35] Kelly and Meentemeyer, “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death,” 1006.

[36] Lee F. Klinger, “A Holistic Approach to Mitigating Pathogenic Effects on Trees” (paper presented at the Treework Environmental Practice Seminar XII, Trees, Roots, Fungi, Soil: Below-ground Ecosystem & Implications for Tree Health, at the Natural Museum Cardiff, Cardiff, UK, November, 13, 2008), 3, accessed December 18, 2012.

[37] Max A. Moritz and Dennis C. Odion, “Examining the Relationship Between Fire History and Sudden Oak Death Patterns: A Case Study in Sonoma County” (paper presented at the Sudden Oak Death Second Science Symposium: The State of Our Knowledge, Monterey, California, January 18-21, 2005), 173, accessed December 18, 2012.

[38] Klinger, “A Holistic Approach,” 4.

[39] Klinger, “A Holistic Approach,” 5.

[40] Ibid, 6.

[41] Ibid, 2.

[42] Ibid, 1.

[43] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 2.

[44] Henry David Thoreau, qtd in Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 2, 19.

[45] John Muir, qtd in Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 3.

[46] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 3.

[47] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 3-4.

[48] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 22.

[49] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 51.

[50] Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1988), 93.

[51] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 14.

[52] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 4.

[53] Julie Cruikshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition,” Arctic 54 no. 4 (2001): 387-388.

[54] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 5.

[55] Ibid, 6.

[56] Ibid, 9.

[57] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 16.

[58] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 7.

[59] Cruikshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change,” 390.

[60] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 9.

[61] Ibid, 10.

[62] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 249.

[63] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 11,

[64] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 10.

[65] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 30.

[66] Ibid, 79-80.

[67] James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 78-83.

[68] Fairhead and Leach, Misreading the African Landscape, 90.

[69] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 44.

[70] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 43.

[71] Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience,” 431.

[72] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 40.

[73] Ibid, 11, 19.

[74] Cruikshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change,” 391.

[75] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 38.

[76] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 6.

[77] Gary Snyder, qtd. in Anderson, Tending the Wild, 39.

[78] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 78.

[79] Ibid, 241.

[80] Ibid, 252.

[81] Tsing, Friction, 174.

Of Blood and Stars

September 22, Early morning

I am awake before dawn on the Equinox. The sky is lightening all around me. The clouds are so soft it is hard to see where each one ends and the robin’s egg sky flows in. To my right is a small herb garden planted in dry, mounded beds delineated by white stones. A gateway, made of three simple, straight boughs barely differentiated from the trees they once were, stand beyond the herbs. Past the gate unfolds an intricately woven permaculture garden: fruit trees ranging from a few years old to the grandmother plum in her sixties.

A white horse whinnies restlessly on the golden hill; a stand of redwoods frame her from behind. Interspersed in the orchard are beds of annual crops: beets, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, kale, chard. Concord grapes grow from vines draping every available trellis, their scent saturating the air. Although I cannot see them where I sit, I hear the chickens, ducks, and geese calling to the arriving dawn. Somewhere, hidden behind apples and sunflowers, are the family of five goats. The two young males, Peaches and Sweetie, we will be harvesting and processing today, and making into our evening meal.

Goat milk clouds my warm cup of black breakfast tea, adding an unfamiliar sweetness. The goats are an integral part of the life here; they provide milk, cheese, yogurt, even caramel, as well as meat and companionship.

The sun has now risen.

The three days spent on the Hill of the Hawk farm was a lesson in ethics, an ethic related to one of the most intimate aspects of survival: eating. Whether or not to eat animal products, especially meat, is an issue to which every culture seems to have a different answer. An example of the views on these issues are presented by Peter Singer and Jim Mason in their book The Ethics of What We Eat, which stands in contrast to the perspective of Sally Fallon in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions. While Singer and Mason agree with Fallon on many aspects of food choice, such as eating organic produce and purchasing from fair trade and sustainable sources, their primary disagreement is about the consumption of animal products.

Singer and Mason write primarily on animal rights and well-being, looking into the methods of factory farming, as well as large- and small-scale organic production. Fallon, on the other hand, is writing from the perspective of human dietary health, drawing on research about the major benefits of a diet rich in animal products raised in a humane way. She gives examples of the longevity of peoples eating diets high in animal fats and proteins—namely the Japanese, Swiss, Austrian, Greek, and, of course, French[1]—as well as archeological research on the decline in stature of Mayan peoples correlated to periods of meat scarcity.[2] Fallon also draws on numerous studies relating to the importance of animal products, both meat and dairy, for the healthy development of children, and for the prevention of numerous degenerative diseases and maladies.

Singer and Mason focus more on how animals for consumption are produced rather than the dietary effects of eating them. They draw on several differing viewpoints regarding the ethics of taking animals’ lives, looking at the quality of life as well as methods of slaughter. They are clearly in favor of a vegan or vegetarian diet, but also present arguments from those who feel that it is better that animals raised well have the lives they do, rather than not existing at all.[3] While these issues have no clear answers even when one chooses to take a particular position, one aspect of my own understanding of eating meat is that one must experience participating in killing an animal before a decision can be made in favor of meat-eating. And this is just the experience which we encountered at Hill of the Hawk.

September 22, Late afternoon

The goats were brought up in the back of a pick-up truck cradled in the arms of several students. They ate grass near us while we sat and spoke with Tamara, the woman who would guide us with the killing. She said that if she ever were to take an animal’s life and feel no emotion in that act she would know she had done it too much and would have to stop. She wanted to cause the least suffering possible, in part by keeping herself and the other participants calm, and therefore giving no reason for the animals to feel anxiety. Everything is about the animal in his last moments, not about the humans involved. Our well-being in that time comes second. Tamara uses the term “processing” to refer to the entire procedure of harvesting the animal, because we humans can process our emotions as we process the animal.

We brought the goats under a great spreading oak and laid a cloth beneath them. The first goat Tamara gently straddled while her assistant held his head. She put her sharp blade into the back of his neck, severing the spinal cord so he would feel less pain. He only made one small sound, one that seemed to convey surprise more than pain or even fear. Swiftly she brought the knife forward and sliced into the jugular vein. Crimson blood welled from the opening, pouring and pouring forth. I came forward to catch it in a clean, glass bowl. Whispered thanks came from Tamara and her assistant, and many of those standing further back. The animal’s fading pulse seemed to pass from him to the very air itself, beating through everything. I was grateful to stand so close, to look into this little animal’s beautiful deep brown eyes, to thank him, and to recognize the moment when life left him. The eye transformed. No longer a window to the soul it became a glass bead. The blood still poured forth.

The deaths of Peaches and Sweetie were not the routine slaughters of factory farmed chickens, cattle, and pigs as depicted in Singer and Mason’s book. Clearly present in the processing of these two little goats was an aspect not mentioned by Singer, Mason, or Fallon; it was a spiritual presence. The focus for Singer and Mason is on the pain of farmed life and the trauma of the slaughtering process. What became apparent for me beneath that oak tree was that death itself was not an issue that could be assessed with statistics, written description, photography, or even filming. When the issue of pain and fear were handled in apparently the most ethical ways possible, death seemed to become a spiritual exchange, a gifting of one species to another, something that could not be captured in any other way than by standing witness.

September 22, Late afternoon

The rest of the day was given to skinning and gutting the goats, and making recipes of each of the organ meats. Nothing was wasted. Liver and onions, kidneys and red wine, spleen pâté, breaded heart and testicles, lung soup, sausages stuffed into the intestines, fried blood, chocolate blood ice cream. The heads were skinned and sawn in half, the brains dried to be used later to tan the hides. The hides were salted and set aside to be cured. The hooves and bones will be cleaned and buried until they are white, then made into jewelry and musical instruments. Nothing was wasted.

Using every part of the animals felt like the most practical way of honoring their gift and sacrifice. Unlike large-scale farming operations which only use the choicest parts of animals, and often feed the remainder back to a different species,[4] our use and consumption of the animal in his entirety seemed an act of thanks. Additionally, it is the diverse organ meats that provide the greatest nutritional value, as Fallon writes about frequently. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, B, D, and E, are especially abundant in organ meats[5], and also allow for the absorption of minerals[6] and the assimilation of protein.[7] While Singer and Mason argue that any vitamins unavailable in one’s diet can be taken supplementally,[8] Fallon provides arguments of how isolated vitamins can, in some forms, be toxic to the system.[9] Organ meats are especially nourishing for pregnant women, and aid in the development and maintenance of healthy sexual organs.[10] Yet Singer and Mason also give the example of a healthy family of four living exclusively on a well-planned vegan diet, without any seeming detriment to their health.

Reflection on September 21, Evening

Sunset. A road climbs to the west over the hill and opens out to a full view of the Pacific Ocean, a vista broad and high enough to indicate Earth’s great curve. In silence we sat and watched the molten gold of the sun sink in blazing glory as Earth rolled away from its heat. The clouds were set alight, shifting from gold to vermillion, to crimson and magenta. Not until the sun had made his departure did the clouds shift to reveal the ivory crescent of the moon, one day from the quarter. She glowed ever brighter in the fading sky, her face ever turned in adoration to the departed sun.

Watching the cycles of the sun and moon, the passage of the planets, and the great wheeling of the stars across the sky each night led me to thinking about the passage and cycles of life upon Earth as well. The processing of the goats somehow to fit into these cycles, a mysterious give and take, an exchange of life and death, sorrow and gratitude. I was all too aware of that sunset as the final sunset in the lives of those goats, and the following dawn as a dawn onto perhaps a new life for them. Whether we eat other beings or not, death is something we all must contemplate and someday face. In reflection, I learned more from those goats about my own death than I could have imagined.

September 23, Early morning

Venus and Jupiter, two fading diamonds in the warming dawn sky. The few clouds are saturated in rosy sunlight, but the fiery orb has not yet peaked over the Coastal Ridge. The flock of wild turkeys that haunt the farm walk past on my left, and quietly filter into the neat rows of the young Pinot Noir vineyard. One of the farm’s many cats, a large gray and white tabby, cuddles close providing welcome warmth, dividing my attention between petting and the pen. He finally leaves to find a more steady source of love.

Venus, last of the night stars, has now vanished from my sight, lost behind an atmosphere flooding with dawn light. The wind stirs, the cold air pushed forward by the approaching sun. Sunrise here for us is sunset for someone else, someone on the far side of that distant horizon.

When I awoke this morning it was still dark, the sky bejeweled in her net of stars. The moment I stepped through the canvas flaps of my tent I beheld Venus, a gem so bright she shone out unmistakably, shimmering princess of the twilight. From her it was easy to trace along the ecliptic to Jupiter, an orange-shaded beam of light, seated right at the mid-heaven.

Dawn is close. I can see pure sunlight on the south-western slopes of the Ventana Double Cone Mountain. Ventana. A window to the east. The Esalen Indians believe the souls of the dead pass between those two white, granite peaks into another realm. Perhaps the souls of our two little goats passed that way as well.

The birds are all awakening; a hummingbird thrums among the branches directly over my head, jays cry, a kite hawk circles in search of prey. When the kite pauses in mid-air, wings poised, he looks like a white angel in the distance, an angel framed against the Ventana Mountain. Many songbirds call to each other. I can feel their anticipation, their celebration, their worship of the sun. The air stirs restlessly and the temperature continues dropping.

The sun is emerging. A liquid platinum fire is melting up over the hill, spreading across the ridge like gold spilled from an alchemist’s forge. At the heart of that fire pure light spreads in all directions, filling the sky, obscuring the mountain. It melts all things surrounding it into undifferentiated lightness. The first warmth of the day is playing over my skin.

I have found myself wondering often if the experience with Sweetie and Peaches has changed the way I eat. Many questions have come up for me regarding veganism and vegetarianism. As we saw at Hill of the Hawk, the consumed dairy from the female goats requires the occasional slaughter of male goats so that the herd does not become too large. And even an organic vegan diet requires the presence of animals on the farm to provide manure to fertilize the soil in a healthy way to grow crops. To farm sustainably seems to involve animals in some way or another, whether we are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous. As before this experience, I personally still eat meat and dairy yet also, as before, I eat them in fairly small quantities. But there is something else that has become a greater part of my diet since leaving Hill of the Hawk: intention and gratitude. Whether we are eating animals—or grains, vegetables, and fruits—what seems to matter most is recognizing the gift of that food. All food is a life sacrificed, a life gifted. How do we in turn repay that life?


Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing. 2001.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. United States: Rodale, Inc. 2006.

[1] Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001), 7.

[2] Fallon, 27.

[3] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (United States: Rodale, Inc., 2006), 251.

[4] Singer and Mason, 62.

[5] Fallon, 39.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Singer and Mason, 228-229.

[9] Fallon, 37.

[10] Ibid, 29.