Earth Day, April 2010
Late afternoon, and my partner and I were resting together beneath the great ancient Angel Oak tree, oblivious to the tourists snapping photographs of each other next to the massive trunk. Rooted in the soft earth of an island on the coast of South Carolina for more than fifteen hundred years, the oak was the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi. Its limbs arched and curled, dipping under the earth and emerging again in serpentine undulations that seemed to make a small grove all their own — older than the memory of our culture, older than the ruined foundations of the old plantation mansions, older even than some religions, as all gods are.
We reclined in dappled gold and green, my hand resting on his, his hand resting on the low, wide branch so that our fingers, entwined, brushed gently against the bark. There had been, when we’d first approached, the sensation of pressure and power permeating the sheltered air, so that my hands trembled with a palpable warmth as I’d reached out to touch the giant for the first time, balking, hardly believing. If I had asked permission, it was silent and instinctual, a kind of groveling in awe — and then the sensation had passed, the threshold crossed, and I had slipped inside, the world small and full of quietness again in its enfolding presence.
My freshman year of college was the year the planes hit the World Trade Center towers and the country came crashing to its knees, for a little while brought low to the earth again where we laid flowers, burned candles and tied brightly colored ribbons among the wreckage of steel and concrete and charred, poisonous air. For the next four years, I spent most of my time studying the religions of the world, plunging into books, attending lectures, traveling around the state during the summer to do field research. I talked to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Witches, Pagans, mystics, poets, activists, anarchists, counselors, priests — and a lot of what we talked about was violence and evil.
For many monotheists, especially those who belong to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, one of the ultimate mysteries of the religious life is what’s known generally as The Problem of Evil. It goes: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and also all-loving and all-good, then why is there evil in the world? Why would a loving God allow evil to exist?
The question is a kind of monotheist’s koan, a puzzle akin to the sound of one hand clapping. One of those Mysteries-capital-M. It is a challenge, and a reminder that our assumptions about how the world is divided — into good and evil, power and impotence, love and ambivalence, presence and absence, sacred and profane — are not so much realities of life, as they are stories we tell to ourselves to give that life meaning in the midst of awesome, awful chaos and change.
These were topics that played on the minds of everyone I knew during those first few years of the twenty first century, as war followed on the heels of tragedy and we watched ourselves become, in the name of God and country, the same kind of evil-doers as the evil-doers we were fighting. In his book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, R. Scott Appleby tackled the role of this ambivalence and uncertainty when he wrote: “Unfortunately, the numinous power of the sacred — accessible to human beings through multivalent symbols, elastic myths, and ambiguous rituals and conveyed through the imperfect channels of intellect, will, and emotion — does not come accompanied by a moral compass.” The numinous nature of the sacred, Appleby argued, was truly sublime, in the literal sense: liminal, of the threshold, giving rise to an ambivalence poised between the tensions of awe and fear, inspiration and dissolution, reverence and violence.
Maybe this doesn’t seem to have much to do with us as Pagans, or with this blog and its focus on nature spirituality in contemporary society. After all, most of us don’t believe in a singular, omnipotent creator God who orders the whole of the world and deigns to grant us peace and bless our lands. Appleby’s statement smacks of the kind of thinking that imagines human beings as separate and imperfect, isolated from the sacred and reliant on symbols and rituals that can’t ever capture the “real” nature of the Divine that we seek to connect to through their use. Even back then, as I dutifully studied Appleby and my other college textbooks during the day, at night I was sneaking out to the local woods, heart pounding at the thought of being discovered, to light candles and call to the wild and the dark and the living, sacred earth with her companion moon and lover sun. That there should be destruction and pain and death as well as creation and joy and life in the cycles of the world seemed no great mystery to me, though that knowledge didn’t always make them any easier to bear.
Over the years, though, another Mystery was growing in my awareness. If monotheisms face the Problem of Evil, then earth-centered and embodied spiritualities face another kind of problem, just as intractable and irresolvable. Bron Taylor touches on this in his recent book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, and others have mischaracterized it as the trouble of trying to derive human morality from an amoral and empty-of-spirit material world. Even when we move beyond this false duality between body and spirit, mind and matter, the problem remains; in fact, it only seems to intensify. This problem I’ve come to call the Problem of Justice.
If the Problem of Evil in monotheistic traditions arises from a theology which locates the source of goodness and fairness in an all-powerful, transcendent creator deity, then the Problem of Justice in modern nature spiritualities arises when we locate values such as justice, honor and goodness in the earth and the natural world. (As the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) would put it: “Nature is good! And likewise, nature is good!”) Many earth-centered spiritualities, including those of modern Paganism, look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness.
The Problem of Justice for us is not so much why these things exist, but how should we respond to them? While monotheists might model themselves after an all-loving but ultimately transcendent deity who provides an example of justice and righteousness separate and beyond the muck and mess of the world, our desire to “attune ourselves to the earth” and model ourselves on examples from the natural world cannot free us from this predicament. Questions about how to balance the needs of ecosystems and communities with the needs of individuals remain unresolved — just as we observe each bird, each rat, each mosquito and dandelion and sycamore strive for life and continuation, we witness natural disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes, disease and drought wreak wide-spread destruction without regard for that striving.
The matter is complicated further because we ourselves are not separate from that earth, that nature. If the Problem of Evil locates justice too far above the world in an untouchable, invulnerable God, then the Problem of Justice for us dirt-worshippers is that we locate justice too close, within the very vulnerable and interconnected world of which we ourselves are already a part, and which we change and shape by our very existence. It’s as though we’re trying to weigh our values and ethics on scales that we ourselves tip and swing with our bustling movements.
This Problem of Justice, like the Problem of Evil, may never have a resolution — it may remain a Mystery of earth-centered traditions. Still, it requires serious consideration. While it may not be as shocking and spectacular as that bright fall morning when the towers in New York City fell, the environmental destruction and ecological devastation that occurs around us everyday, a direct and on-going result of the way many of us live, is no less tragic, and no less ethically challenging.
People all over the world have begun to realize, and to try to redress this tragedy — seeking ways to enshrine a new kind of justice that would include the earth and its ecosystems as well as ourselves, we human animals, as members of the natural world. Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador have taken steps to formalize this “ecojustice” into law, the Law of Mother Earth, declaring the rights of nature as equal to our own and demanding protection for her cycles and systems, free of exploitation, pollution and human manipulation and disruption.
Yet the concept of “rights” itself derives from a philosophy heavily influenced by atomism and individualism. Can we really strive to protect the earth from ourselves, when we ourselves are part of her ecosystems and bioregions? How do we reconcile the reality of our interconnection and interdependence, with a political concept based on individual autonomy and minority representation? Who will speak for the earth and the land, and will we be willing to listen when she roars with famine or shudders with tectonic tension, when she whispers with infection or withdraws her fecundity? And equally important: when is it just and ethical to embrace the life-drive of the human animal as an expression of nature itself, and to celebrate our curiosity and creativity in how we engage and change the landscapes around us? These questions raise legitimate concerns that must be confronted if earth-rooted justice is to be more than merely a rhetorical tool to be used in the tug-o-war of politics.
And as above, so below — we find the Problem of Justice much closer to home. Locally, small communities rally around sacred sites, like that of the Angel Oak in South Carolina. Though in our more mystic moments we may identify with the Whole of the Mama in her messy-crazy-beautiful all-ness, that beauty and mess is made palpable and real to us through the sacred places that we mark as special through pilgrimage, story and ritual. For the sake of a single, ancient tree, we fight to preserve the 40-acre forest that surrounds it, the wetlands that nourish its roots, and even the tourists who come to gently gaze at its old, wrinkled skin and pay their respects.
The location of justice slips in and out of focus, as we try to navigate these numinous and ambiguous boundaries between self and other, part and whole, earth and us, sacred and not-unsacred. We enter the presence of earthy gods with awe and trepidation, knowing not only their might and power, but also their vulnerability and receptivity, their responsiveness and fluidity. Though Appleby might describe symbol, emotion and intellect as paltry tools for communicating the ultimate Divine — we understand that our rituals and stories, far from inadequate, are simply expressions, entrenched and rooted in the rich, changeable integrity of the natural world, both sacred and strange. We can only just glimpse that wholeness not because it is beyond us, but because we are in it.
This is poetry, though, and poetry is inadequate because it is not ordinary, not familiar enough or simple enough.
The old tree bent low and propped itself up against the ground, as it has for more than a thousand years, and people wandered into its shadows for a while, took a few pictures, and wandered out again. Listening to their murmuring negotiations with cameras and poses, they sounded to me like serious children arranging their loves like soft-faced dolls, carefully, delicately, around the feet of the world. And though prayer was liquid and impossible, running away from me, I closed my eyes and pressed both hands against the trunk, and tried for something like Great One, Old One… before, swimming up through my palms came a new sensation, of space and light and a lattice-work of curving, crystalline bone suspended almost as weightless as air in all directions, above and below, root and limb engaged effortlessly with earth and water and wind and sun, and this ancient accidental Angel laughed an emptiness that would be young and new when all of us had long since grown heavy and sagging with the heap of years. My partner said to me, “Trees are made of air,” and I said, “And of sugar.” And then it was time to leave.
(Excerpts from “And On the Edge, Surrender“)