On Sunday afternoon, we returned from Dragonfest, a multi-faith gathering and retreat in the mountains above Denver. This year was exceptionally laid-back: attendance was light, workshops and activities were thin, and I mostly hung out in camp and talked with our campsite neighbors.
One of our neighbors is a professor at Naropa University in Boulder, who specializes in a field called “transpersonal ecopsychology.” It’s one of those daunting subject titles that isn’t really that difficult to grasp, despite the ponderous name. I struggled with the words for a bit, then smiled and said, “Oh, you mean speaking with the spirits of the land.” She smiled, and put her finger on the end of her nose.
Not that she’d put it that way in the context of coursework — or maybe she would, I wouldn’t know without taking her classes. But the idea of “transpersonal psychology” has to do with getting out of our own heads, and the idea of ecopsychology has to do with the fact that our surroundings are an important part of our mental states. That all seems pretty obvious, and you don’t have to take it much further than that to have a distinct field of academic study.
But as I thought about it and asked a few questions, some piecemeal questions about life started to fall into place for me.
Riding a bicycle is a hideous problem in physics. People make sweeping statements about gyroscopes which have almost nothing to do with the matter; the actual physics of bicycle-riding is complex and not especially well-understood. But here’s the thing: a fourteen-year-old child with no training in physics can still pop a wheelie. A fair number of them can ride around on the back wheel, and a few can stand on the handlebars.
They don’t do this by solving differential equations in their heads. They do it intuitively: through the process of simply letting the brain and body do what they are specialized to do, after a period of incremental trial-and-error and careful attention to learning from mistakes.
There’s another extremely complex problem people need to solve on a regular basis, and that is the problem of living in ecological balance with their environment. From a systems-theory approach, the problem is overwhelming: it makes the physics of bicycle-riding look like child’s play. And yet, people can (and do) come into ecological balance and thrive for thousands of years in isolated environments, with no benefit of mathematics, computer models, or research grants.
How? Intuition, mostly: letting the brain and body do what they are specialized to do, after a period of incremental trial-and-error and careful attention to learning from mistakes.
There are a lot of ways to look at an ecological landscape, but one of the more useful ones (for the purpose of achieving a thriving ecological balance) is to look at the land as both living and sentient. The relationship with the land is a reciprocal relationship: a friendship, a collaboration, a family. At least, that view seems to be a common element among societies that have actually achieved any measure of ecological balance.
What doesn’t work so well is viewing the land as a servant, or a slave, or a dead thing to be exploited at “maximum efficiency” until it breaks.
So when we speak, as Druids or from any other earth-centered spiritual outlook, of dryads (tree spirits) or naiads (water spirits) or divas (local spirits), we are invoking our individual and collective powers of intuition: our ability to solve vastly complex problems in ecological systems theory in the same basic way that a fourteen-year-old rides a bicycle.
Writers and rhetoricians denigrate this practice by calling it the “pathetic fallacy” of attributing human characteristics and emotions to inanimate objects of non-human life-forms. Social scientists dismiss it as “anthropomorphization.” Engineers, accustomed to viewing the world as a complex machine, laugh at it as superstition. And there is certainly no question that people go completely overboard with their tendency to oversimplify and literalize metaphor: a great deal of human belief is fallacious and superstitious.
Laughing it all off, however, is literalism and oversimplification on the part of the skeptics.
Science and speaking with land-spirits, in proper balance, are not in the least incompatible: in fact, they mutually reinforce each other.
On the one hand, observation, classification, and analysis cannot hurt getting to know the spirits of the land. Aspens are very different from oaks. Foxes are very different from hyenas. Birds reveal a lot about insect life, which reveals a lot about soil health. If I can’t tell the difference between a pine tree and a maple tree, or if I don’t understand the basics of predator-prey cycles, or if I don’t grasp the idea that water runs downhill, I’m probably not going to have a very rich relationship with the land spirits. I will more likely end up with a rich relationship with imaginary friends who exist only in my own head, and have nothing to do with the land.
On the other hand, too much detail-oriented observation without a broader look at the whole system shuts down intuition, just as overthinking bicycle-riding causes us to lose our balance and fall. We then start trying to solve ecological problems by brute force, which is impossible without grotesque oversimplification: as physicists, we would always joke about trying to solve a farmer’s egg-laying problems by first positing a spherical chicken of uniform density, and working forward from there — it doesn’t work very well at all. Eventually, we get completely lost — we no longer have any idea what we are looking at, or (more importantly) why.
Our modern view of the world is tied up, philosophically and economically, in the need to believe that the earth is a dead thing, just a pile of rock and water and air and biomass that we can manipulate freely to our own liking. It takes only the briefest corrective glimpse of the earth as a living, sentient being to gain a horrifying vision of what bad neighbors we are: noisy, dirty, self-centered sociopaths.
Even if we insist on viewing humans as supreme masters of earth and everything on it, we’re still locked into a feedback cycle with our global ecosystems, and we regularly act in ways that are… shall we say, far from enlightened self-interest. But that’s hard to see when we are drowning in details, which means we are much more easily manipulated by the real trolls and sociopaths among us.
That’s why the metaphor — the pathetic fallacy, even the superstition — of a living, sentient earth filled with dryads and naiads and divas is a good thing: it’s a potent corrective to suicidal short-sightedness. Even if it isn’t “really true.”
Then again, who knows for sure that it isn’t “really true?” I certainly am not that wise, and I find that I distrust people who claim such absolute wisdom: they’re usually selling something.