It is usually too cold to go outside, but the great outdoors is brought inside this time of year. We move a nordic tree inside, and submit it to sweltering heat. We create elaborate miniature landscapes with evergreen branches, with moss and fir cones and red apples, and fragrant forced hyacinths to bring us an anachronistic spring. We listen to tales of reindeer and elves. Christian myth gives us the ox, the donkey and the sheep in the nativity scene.
What exactly do we want from the animals and the plants? At first sight, it seems we have tried very hard to distance ourselves from the natural world we were once a part of. We wear elaborate, impractical clothes. Although we came out of Africa long ago, we make sure our houses have comfortable savannah microclimates. We cook and process our food, undoing it of its natural flavours. Our bodily functions are usually locked out of our social discourse or distorted, buried in conventions and assumptions. Yet, at the same time, we cannot seem to leave the animals and the plants alone. Throughout the year we hunt, without being hungry.
We have bred a whole class of domesticated animals that are exempt from having any function at all. We treat them as children, albeit disposable ones when we have no longer any need for them. We prefer to wear the skins that belonged to others, even though many alternatives are available. We grow flowers which can never set any seed, which can only be propagated with our assistance. There are great differences in these pursuits. Some are more invasive and harmful to the rest of the living world than others. But all of these pastimes and customs reflect a deep desire for communion with nature, however clumsy or misguided.
When did we start to be human and leave the animal way of life behind? It is something that cannot be agreed on by scientists. Was it when we started to use tools or started cooperating in the hunt? Some animals display similar rudimentary behaviour. It is more accurate to say that we are, as a species, defined by immaterial things, the very things that do not leave a trail in a cave or in the ground. The first circumstantial evidence of uniquely human behaviour is relatively recent. The oldest evidence of artistic endeavour is no older than 100,000 years. Long before these manifestations though, there must have been a gradual shift towards thinking beyond what was present in the here and now. The most human we can be however, is by using the word to shape the world around us. The spoken word, our sharpest sword, however, has not left a trace for the larger part of our history. As a result, even the scientific theories about our cultural origins, are little more than conjecture. Old myths that no longer explain anything, give rise to new ones.
Let us consider the story of Adam and Eve, one of many blueprints for the creation myths of men. While it is an easy myth to ridiculise, in the light of all we have come to know about our evolutionary path, it should not be discarded altogether. It tells a powerful story, not about our biological origins, but rather about the birth of our mind. We once lived in a large garden, unaware, and unquestioning of our world. The concept of our own death was unknown. But our sly mind began to live a life of its own. Once we started listening to its ambiguous tongue, knowledge became the glossy apple we sought after. From that moment on, the way back was shut. It is impossible to untaste the fruit of knowledge. And the world ceased to be a garden and became a hostile place, with danger and death always eminent.
One example of a modern myth of our cultural origins is connected to what is known as the dark green religion. In a way it mirrors the symbolism that can be perceived in Genesis. It is a myth that often grows on well-meaning soil, a crumbly mixture of environmentalism and cultural idealism. Its premise is that the emergence of organised religion and urbanism, tore our societies from a previously deep communion with nature. The attractiveness of this idea lies in the promise of its possible retrieval. If we were once able to live in harmony with our surroundings, it can be done again.
It is fair to say that a myth could not be successful if there was no amount of truth to it. Our ancestors must indeed have worked with their environment instead of opposing it. It is also true that our ancestors revered at least certain elements in nature. Animism, the belief that hat non-human entities possess a spiritual essence, is common among almost all indigenous people. It is suggested by cave paintings and body ornaments. It also resonates in the personas we find in various (Indo-European) pantheons. Many of them display characteristics of animals. The question is whether our forebears revered nature out of innate wisdom or whether their cults were driven by fear. However lovely the first thought might be, the second assumption is more likely. The best way to know ourselves, is to honestly regard the evidence of our man’s nature present in today’s society. We are endowed with great knowledge of biology and ecosystems. As a group, though, we tend to be ruthless and at best indifferent about the effects of this behaviour. The laws of nature can now be tweaked to an extent, so there is no longer any need to confer with the elements. Our ancestors, on the other hand, wielded little or no power over their habitat, so they feared to tread in this unknown universe. It was better to be safe than sorry. Their reverence for these forces must have acted as a makeshift insurance against a fickle fate. It is also safe to conclude that our ancestors lived in an apparent harmony with their surroundings out of their sheer number. At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 years B.C., there were most likely only a couple of million people in the world. Without modern technology, their impact on the natural world must have been minute.
What would be a good way to commune with nature, to lessen the pain of the paradise that was lost? Our current way of seeking communion with the rest of the natural world will at some point be a dead end. Even in our seemingly harmless enjoyment of cut flowers we support an industry that pollutes and corrupts on a large scale. Neither does it do to pine for a glorious past that never was. Maybe it would be more fruitful, to put the knowledge we chose over the garden to work. Our great knowledge of the workings of nature’s laws provides us with great advantages. We no longer have to fear the forests and the rivers, as long we respect their innate qualities and the creatures that live in them. Maybe it is high time for a light green religion.
Let us acknowledge that we have shut ourselves out of paradise, cruel and beautiful at the same time. We can choose, however, to preserve paradise without us in it. We can live just outside its gates, and be sustained by its renewable life forces. We have to kneel for nature’s forces, like our ancestors. No longer out of fear, but in reverence from where we came. And celebrate that which we now know to be fragile. It can easily be lost.