Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Animism - The Grace of Wild Things

Terry Tempest Williams says in her delicious book Red, 'to protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wildness we fear is the pause beteen out own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wild mercy is in our hands' (2001:215).

Today I watched the bulldozer at work and wondered if the driver was aware of why his machine is called a 'bull' dozer. I wondered it has something to do with the imagined temperament of the bull as determined and consequential, or the cultural origins of the bull fight in Spain where the savage dance between bull and human ends with the bull's death. Or perhaps it dates back earlier to the Minotaur, the fearsome half-bull/half-man of Ancient Greece who was outwitted by the hero Theseus using the canny trick of Adriadne's thread to find his way out of the Minotaur's terrible labyrinth. Or perhaps it dates back to the smothering of Pagan beliefs from pre-Christian days, when Bulls were honoured.

In the famous cave of Lascaux in France, the Bull is stands out as a reverential creature whose painted body is considered 'unique because still today the brushstrokes make it appear to be rich, velvelty, and soft' (Grand 1967 in K. C. & M. S., 1998). The Bull was hunted and in paleolithic times, hunting Bulls was a dangerous undertaking. I can well imagine the rituals that may have accompanied the hunt, as hunters called on the spirits of place and their ancestors to ensure a successful hunt and for protection. The interaction between hunter and animal was respectful.

But the way the term bull is used in this culture is often derogatory. And yet, as Graham Harvey (2006:99) notes in his marvellous book Animism: Respecting the Living World, 'animals are people too'. An animistic worldview shifts the treatment and recognises 'that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others (Harvey, 2006:xi). Harvey makes the point that the perception of humans as animals is problematic. There is a presumption in this (western) culture at least that animals are not like 'us', are not 'us', and thus they can be depicted as 'other' and treated as such - just as humans can also be 'treated like animals' (113).

Harvey proposes that animism be regarded in the same vein as ecological philosophies and activitism. In the process he suggests a change from the expression 'environmentalism' towards 'ecological ethics'. An ethical stance towards the living earth and the other-than-human is interwoven with what he maintains are 'celebratory, respectful interactions with places and communities' (185). I keep this notion of respectful celebration in mind as I travel in riverspace and seek the interaction with local persons, 'only some of whom are human'.

Today as I walked the rivertrail I wondered if there was a better term for the 'bull' dozer - an earth destroyer, an animal killer - but these terms suggest that it is the machine alone which has agency, which decides on what fate to deliver. Rather than directing animosity at the operator, it is the system which is the real driver and its economic imperative. The outcome is the same.

Ecological sustainable development (ESD) has three components that interact - economic, environmental and social. But within this sustainability framework the spiritual and the sacred are missing. Sustainability is about sustaining the economy while at the same time, sustaining the wellbeing of society, and the viability and vitality of ecosystem processes. Governments worldwide have adopted ESD principles and frameworks. But alongside ESD must be the precautionary principle.

The Science and Environmental Health Network's website (2007) explains the object of taking precaution, and making care:
'When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action' (Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Jan. 1998).

There is an acknowledged connection between the health and sustainability of the environment and an individual's or a community's overall health and wellbeing. The river sustains us aesthetically and in terms of health and wellbeing. People walk their dogs, admire the view, run along the trail, and enjoy the waterscape. But can we sustain the river?

Harvey G, 2006, Animism: Respecting the Living World, New York, Columbia University Press.
K. C. & M. S. 1998, Cave of Lascaux, Webpage prepared for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School, http://http://www.richeast.org/htwm/Las/Las.html
Williams TT, 2001, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, New York, Pantheon Books.