Thursday, August 8, 2013

Imagining Nature

I recently wrote about the importance of imagination in our lives. I would like to gather up that thread and spin it out a bit further this time. In the history of religious symbolism, the images of sun, blood, and water have prominently reflected the notion of Life, vitality, and purification, yet in the span of my life I have witnessed these powerful images revisioned as foci of death, danger, and contamination.   

Sun: I recall my mother telling me to go outside on a summer day to get some sun. We needed to be in the sun to stay healthy. SPF factors had not been heard of and few people used sun lotions. Skin cancer was not a concern. We felt bright, happy, and warm in the sun. We were safe.

Blood: a potent symbol of life and continuity. I remember making a cut on our hands with one of my friends, mixing our blood together becoming blood brothers, joined forever. A small abrasion at a friend’s house and his mother would simply wash it with soap and water, apply some mercurochrome, a band aid, and send me back to play. There was no fear by her of touching my blood. No one ever saw latex gloves. There was no paranoia about contacting blood. No medical person ever said to me, “Treat everyone as if they’re infectious.”

Water: once a precious liquid, life giving, baptizing, purifying. We could still drink from some streams and swim without worry in its refreshing flow. Today, many beaches, lakes, and streams are permeated with filth and debris. We purchase filtering systems for our homes and buy water in bottles to ensure its safety for heaven’s sake. This all astonishes me.

Lacking a pervasive guiding fantasy for caring for the environment and possessing a stunted aesthetic toward beauty, we have damaged the air, infected the water and wounded the land to the extent that it is difficult for the planet to care for us anymore. We experience no sacred immanence intimately present in the world. For many people, the guiding fantasy is that life is simply a testing ground pointing toward a greater life after death in our true Home for Eternity. Sacredness resides out there somewhere in heaven, that’s what need concern us. It is no wonder that when the planet is imagined as simply a commodity for our use, as inanimate (i. e., without soul), dead matter, that we do not cherish it.

Imagination is reality, our guiding fantasies shape our relation to the world. If we truly believed that nature was sacred then the Darwinian image of having evolved from earlier primates would not so much raise our collective ire as it would humble and soothe us as we would clearly be connected to the sacred nature of the world. It would be no shame to share an ancestor with the apes but a blessing. We would celebrate this relationship, not put it on trial. We would have a sense of being home and of belonging here. If this were the case, then I imagine we would take care of our home more lovingly. As long as we feel like outsiders, tourists in some distant motel, far from home, it’s not hard to imagine us trashing the rooms.

When Columbus invaded the New World, the world was already being imagined not as a living being, but as a storehouse of unlimited resources for consumption. In Beyond Geography, Frederick Turner suggests,

"To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent, miles out into the ocean. Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast       occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory."

"Had they been other than they were," how were they? They were consumers rather than conservers, they were businessmen rather than artists, they were Christian rather than pagan. Even with this great provocation of beauty, they could not imagine the world as sacred. Their cultural imagination displayed the land as ultimately cursed and given for their use. Beauty was in the adoration of the transcendent not the immanent. And here we are now, our fantasies about life darkened; impoverished land, impoverished soul, impoverished imagination.

Perhaps we can adopt a new credo: Cultivate imagination, Seek beauty.

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  1. The image of ships swimming through floating flowers has me entranced! This evening I read also of an endeavor called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive which is busy propagating the great trees of the world (redwoods and sequoias especially) with a view to planting them all over. It's a mission with imagination and great beauty! This is what we must all do in our own ways. Thanks for another great post Brad.

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