We seem to have established a nascent tradition here on Ecosophia.net around fifth Wednesdays, and I’m by no means distressed by that. The first month with five Wednesdays since the new blog launched, which was this last August, I decided on the spur of the moment to ask my readers to propose a topic for the fifth post of the month, and a substantial plurality of them asked for a discussion of reincarnation, which they duly got. The level of interest and the quality of the conversations that resulted were more than enough to make me decide to try it again, and so when November rolled around the same question got asked.
The competition this time was a good deal fiercer, with quite a few readers asking for an essay on democratic syndicalism and other alternatives to the asphyxiatingly narrow range of systems of political economy that most people these days are willing to think about. They’ll get that essay, too, in the fairly near future—but a significant plurality asked for a discussion of nature spirits, and so that’s going to be the theme of today’s post. More precisely, it’s going to be the theme of the next two posts, because it’s going to take all of today’s post to establish a framework within which talk about nature spirits can make any kind of sense at all.
This is necessary because the mere act of mentioning the words “nature spirits,” or any of their synonyms, calls up shrill prejudices in most people in today’s industrial societies. It’s indicative that when members of the current crop of evangelical atheists want to be just as nasty about other people’s religious beliefs as they possibly can, they refer to gods as “sky fairies.” Against belief in gods, these same atheists deploy any number of arguments, and some of them—by no means all, or even most, but some—are serious philosophical challenges. Against belief in faeries and other nature spirits, they don’t even bother. Far beyond the bounds of devout evangelical atheism, the notion that there might be disembodied (or rather, as we’ll see, differently bodied) intelligent beings in the natural world, corresponding more or less to what’s described in traditional lore concerning faeries and nature spirits, is dismissed as too absurd to consider.
I’m far from sure that dismissal is as comfortable or as deeply rooted in the collective mind as many people seem to think. As I think most of my readers know by now, I’m a Druid—that is to say, I follow one of the odder minority religions of the Western world, an eccentric movement of nature spirituality that emerged in the 18th century and borrowed the name and some of the traditions of the ancient Celtic Druids—and I’ve always been open about this, even when attending conferences about the future of industrial society and similarly pragmatic subjects. One consequence is that in such settings, I routinely get asked questions about Druidry by people who don’t generally have any exposure to it.
A sizeable percentage of those questions come from people who don’t practice any religion, feel a certain gap in their lives as a result, and are looking for something that will fill that gap without requiring them to believe in the existence of any intelligent beings in this part of the cosmos other than us. That’s usually the sticking point. I long ago lost track of the number of times such a conversation came to an abrupt end when the other person asked me whether Druids believe in gods, spirits, and the like, and I said yes. At that point a good many people back nervously away, sometimes literally. Their reactions, and the further conversations I’ve had with those few people in this category who were willing to keep talking with me at all, have convinced me that what’s behind that sudden backward movement isn’t a reaction to absurdity; it’s rooted in visceral fear.
Thinking about this not long ago, I found myself recalling a passage in one of Arthur Machen’s tales of supernatural horror, “The White People.” Two men, one of them a Christian mystic, are talking about the nature of evil:
“And what is sin?” said Cotgrave.
“I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and the pebble you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?
“Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.”
It so happens that my reaction to this passage, the first time I read it and indeed every time thereafter, was not the one that Arthur Machen had in mind. Literal-minded child that I was, I imagined our family basset hound Jessica striking up a conversation with me, the rhododendrons in the back yard (we didn’t have roses, they were too old-fashioned) starting to sing, and the stones in the vacant lot next door suddenly showing signs of vegetative life. My reaction, no matter how vividly I imagined these scenes, was the precise opposite of the horror that Machen apparently assumed everyone would feel.
In fact, had Jessica the basset hound come trotting over on her stumpy legs to ask me for a puppy snack and a scratch behind the ears—these being her most common preoccupations at the time—I would have been delighted, and asked her whether she’d always known how to talk or whether she’d just figured out the trick. Had our rhododendrons suddenly developed musical talents and began singing, weirdly or otherwise, I would have sat down right there on the Beauty Bark to listen and applaud, and had the stones next door come to life, I would have petted one of them to see if it would purr. I’d do the same thing now, for that matter. My reaction to these things, in a word, would be wonder, not terror.
Arthur Machen might have replied to this by suggesting that I’m up to my eyeballs in sin, and in his terms, he’d be entirely correct. His concept of sin, expressed in this and other stories, can be defined quite precisely as disturbing the hierarchy of being. In his mind, and the minds of a great many others of his time and ours, rocks, roses, cats and dogs, and humans occupy rigidly defined and defended steps on a ladder that, not coincidentally, ranks human beings above every other being with a material body, and only a single step (or, for those who believe in angels, two steps) below God. The sin committed by talking cats, singing roses, and rocks that blossom—or, for that matter, purr—is the same thing Victorian intellectuals denounced when they spoke of women or the poor getting “above their station”: that is, doing something that only some more privileged group of beings was supposed to be able to do.
That attitude, rooted in social prejudice and enshrined in a certain kind of Christian theology, passed over without the least disruption into the minds of a great many people who think they’ve renounced Christianity and all its works. Most of these people haven’t actually gotten outside the Christian worldview at all; they’ve simply chucked God off the top rung so that Man can take His place. To suggest that there may be other beings of approximately human intelligence closer to us than Proxima Centauri, in turn, threatens the supposed hierarchy that assigns a privileged place to our species, and that’s why it gets such instant and violent pushback.
I’ve noted in this and my earlier blogs, for example, that there are other vertebrates that show considerable evidence of intelligence more or less equal to ours—porpoises, elephants, and African gray parrots, among others—and in every case that suggestion has been met with considerable resistance. Why? I’d like to suggest that it’s because it disturbs the supposed hierarchy of being, and threatens our self-proclaimed status as the masters of the planet.
The traditional belief in nature spirits also threatens that alleged status, and in an even more forceful way. Even among those human beings who accept the possibility that there may be other vertebrates more or less as intelligent as we are, the attitude toward these other vertebrates tends to copy the attitude that so many people in modern industrial civilization have toward people of other civilizations: oh, yes, they’re quaint and fascinating and no doubt know a few little tricks we don’t, but we own the planet. If nature spirits exist, by contrast, we don’t own the planet. We share it with beings we don’t understand, and can’t put in their place with high-powered rifles, poison bait, and the other charming implements our species uses on other species it doesn’t like. That prospect is something a great many people these days can’t handle thinking about—well, outside of horror movies, where they’re a source of vicarious thrills founded on the serene conviction that none of it can possibly be real.
The terror of finding out that we don’t own the planet is one of the things that has to be faced if we’re going to talk about nature spirits. As far as I know, every one of the traditions of thought that take nature spirits seriously also rejects the claim that human beings are the masters of the planet. Not only that, most of these traditions of thought assign human beings a relatively modest place in the overall scheme of things, usually somewhere toward the middle of that spectrum of being that extends from pond scum at one end to gods at the other. For a species with a sense of entitlement as impressively overblown as the one we’ve cultivated, that’s a real shock.
It’s not the only shock that has to be dealt with, though, if we’re going to talk about nature spirits. There’s another, and for many people it’s even more forceful. To understand it, it’s going to be necessary to talk a little about what it means to be a person rather than a thing.
In the last fifth Wednesday post, back in August, I started off by pointing out that we all know more than we can prove. Most likely, for example, you can easily pick a photo of one of your close family members out of a lineup of photos of strangers, but you won’t be able to explain how you do this, nor—unless the family member in question can be contacted to confirm it—will you be able to prove to a skeptic that the photo you’ve picked is in fact your cousin Cheryl and not some random stranger. A vast amount of the knowledge we use to get through life is equally impossible to prove, and a certain type of intellectual hack tries to get attention by choosing some such piece of knowledge and insisting that it can’t be true because it can’t be proven.
For example, there’s a small but loud movement of pseudophilosophers who insist that human beings aren’t actually conscious persons; they’re just subject to a curious illusion that makes them think that they are. It’s hard to think of a better example of a self-refuting belief—if consciousness is an illusion, then just who or what is experiencing the illusion and being fooled by it?—but the people in question get taken seriously in some circles because it’s impossible to prove that they’re wrong. We know that we’re conscious beings. In fact, if we pay attention to our inner lives, we know that more certainty than we know anything else, because the contents of consciousness can always be mistaken but the fact that we’re conscious of anything at all, even an illusion, shows that we’re conscious. Yet we can’t prove it.
It’s even more challenging to prove that consciousness exists in other people. Back in the days when I hadn’t yet broken into print, I did a variety of low-end jobs to pay the rent, and that included four and a half years as a certified nurses’ aide working evening shift in nursing homes. During those four and a half years I had quite a few opportunities to get used to the reality of death. Rather more than once, I went over the course of a single evening from providing personal care to a patient, to taking vital signs to track the dying process, to cleaning up the corpse and getting it ready for the morticians. When you do that, if you’re paying attention at all, you won’t be able to miss the difference between a body that has someone at home in it, on the one hand, and a corpse on the other. Yet you can’t prove that the difference is there.
This is exactly the situation we’re in with porpoises, elephants, African gray parrots, and the other animals that show signs of an approximately human level of intelligence. It doesn’t matter that porpoises call each other by distinctive individual names, and thus have a sense of personal identity (one of the common lines drawn between humans and animals); it doesn’t matter that bands of adolescent male elephants in areas where elephant society has been shattered by human activity have been observed gang-raping and murdering female rhinos, and thus have a culture that has to be learned from elders and can dissolve into acts of antinomian violence, rather than purely instinctual behaviors that are automatically inherited (another line routinely drawn between humans and animals); you can’t prove that there’s a person in there, and so humans go on assuming that they’re the only conscious persons in the world.
It’s very convenient for humans to do this. Persons have rights; objects do not. It’s precisely because most humans refuse to consider the possibility that porpoises, elephants, African gray parrots, and the like might be persons that we as a species continue to treat porpoises, elephants, African gray parrots, and the like with a brutality that routinely exceeds that of concentration camps—and it is, of course, profitable for some of us to do so. That by doing so, we might be losing something considerably more important than monetary profit is not something that enters many minds these days.
Now consider the possibility that the forces of nature might also be persons, and see where that takes you.
The philosopher Martin Buber pointed out most of a century ago that broadly speaking, human beings have two ways of relating to what they encounter in the world around them. He called these two ways “I-it” and “I-you.” The I-it relationship is between a subject and an object, while the I-you relationship is between a subject and another subject. Approach the same thing from one way and then from another way, and the interactions that result are utterly different.
(I’ve often thought, along these lines, that the best way to respond to the pseudophilosophers mentioned earlier—the ones who insist that human beings aren’t conscious persons—is to take them at their word and treat them as unconscious objects, as “it” rather than “you.” When one of them tries to say something, the appropriate response would be to turn to someone else and say, “How very strange! This object is making noises that sound remarkably like human speech. Of course the noises can’t mean anything, since they’re coming from an unconscious object, but it is really odd, isn’t it?” This would point up the way that the pseudophilosophers in question tacitly rely on the fact that everyone treats them as conscious persons, even when they deny the existence of conscious persons.)
Modern industrial civilization is terrified of the I-you relationship, and goes to really quite astonishing extremes in its attempts to force all relationships into the I-it mode. The flight from the I-you relationship isn’t limited to the obvious. The frantic efforts to replace human workers with machines even when the machines cost more and don’t do as good a job—a fairly common occurrence these days—are motivated, not by the shibboleths of profit and efficiency that get bandied around so freely in such situations, but by the fear of having to relate to employees as human beings. The common corporate phrase “human resources” expresses the same fear in a different key: you don’t interact with a resource, after all, you just exploit it.
The insertion of technology into human relationships is another expression of the same terror of the I-you relationship. The internet, to cite the extreme example, is among other things a very effective way of filtering human interaction out of communication. That’s why your common or garden variety internet troll can get away with treating other people as punching bags—a punching bag, let us remember, is an object, not a subject—and also why he does it. The rush he gets from spewing unprovoked nastiness at other people is the same rush that accompanies all the other dehumanizing behaviors that modern industrial society pursues so avidly; it’s the flipside of the terror just mentioned, the morbid glee at escaping for a little while into an imaginary place where there are no other persons, just things.
Pay close attention to the terror and the glee, and you can see the rot at the heart of the entire project of modernity: the shrill demand of a spoiled and tyrannical five-year-old that the entire universe and everything in it become his own private toybox, which nobody else is allowed to touch. The kind of power our culture teaches us to crave is the kind of power you can only have over dead things, objects rather than subjects. There’s another kind of power, a power that’s found in participation with the living rather than domination over the dead, and that’s the kind of power that the operative mage attains—and I’ve come to suspect that this is a core reason why magic is so heavily tabooed in our time: it challenges our cultural narratives about the nature of power, right down to the core.
What happens if we set aside these dubious obsessions, and allow the world to contain persons as well as things—including persons that don’t happen to belong to our species? What if we take a good hard look at the hierarchy of being that Arthur Machen used in his stories, and so many other people take for granted, and recognize it as a frantic attempt to force the dancing complexities of the cosmos into a framework simplistic enough for us to understand, and flattering enough to feed our overdeveloped sense of collective entitlement? What kind of world would we then inhabit?
It’s possible to answer this question quite simply. It would be the kind of world that most human beings, though most of history, have always inhabited. I’ll discuss the shape of that world, and the role of nature spirits in it, in next week’s post.
And in unrelated news, the third volume of the collected Archdruid Report essays, Natural Economics, is now in print. If you didn’t preorder, why, now’s your chance to get one. Enjoy!