Archives For John Muir

In his book “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America” Pagan scholar Chas Clifton notes that the environmental awakening of 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, “was a year when Wicca (in the broad sense) became “nature religion,” as opposed to the “mystery religion” or “metaphorical fertility religion” labels that it had brought from England.” Since then, modern Pagans of many stripes, particularly Wiccans and Druids, have placed a special emphasis on being religions that care for, and have concern about, our natural environment. A who’s who of Pagans, both high-profile and not, have told the press, and the world, that we give special concern to problems facing our natural world, and further, that our faiths represent a positive shift away from abuse and towards sustainability.

“I think only spiritualities of sacred immanence are capable of doing earth justice, and I think that we, as Pagans, have a responsibility to act and speak in defense of this planet that has blessed us into existence.  If anyone can it is we who can argue for and sometimes introduce others to a direct experience of the sacrality of the earth. [...]  Far from being anti-human, we need only enlarge that part of us which may be most unique, our hearts, to embrace what [Aldo Leopold] terms a “land ethic.” Such an ethic: ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.’” - Gus diZerega, Patheos.com

As Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum continues his historic visit to the Kumbh Mela in India, one of his primary messages to our Hindu cousins has been ecological awareness and restoration. From mucking trash in the Ganges river, to leading and blessing a march of Indian school children who are pledging to preserve the planet.

Patrick McCollum leads a march in India for preserving the Ganges and the planet.

Patrick McCollum leads a march in India for preserving the Ganges and the planet.

“Today I led a march of 5,000 school children along the banks of the Ganges to both clean up the sacred river, but also to call for world peace and the preservation of our environment generally. All of these things have been quite spontaneous, and our single act of mucking trash in front of all of the pilgrims has gone viral across the world.  There were TV stations from many countries and newspaper reporters everywhere.  The Governor and Minister and many other officials have joined with us, and banners and such are literally being created in the moment.  One TV station said this is the most significant event toward saving our planet in modern history. Swamiji got this idea to have the kids take a pledge to clean and preserve the planet, and it turned into a huge gathering.  I sat up in front with 5,000 children behind me and we all took the pledge together.”

Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”, believes that religions which embrace an ethos of environmentalism, or ecological sustainability, will thrive as our world’s climate troubles worsen.

“The forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.”

But how far are Pagans, collectively, willing to go in defense of an Earth they call sacred? In a guest review of John Michael Greer’s new book “The Blood of the Earth” (Scarlet Imprint, 2012) from last year, UK Pagan Paracelsian wonders how deep our commitment to being “nature religions” actually goes.

“I’m not suggesting that individual Pagans are never involved with environmental activism, but I am convinced that this is not a priority for the vast majority of individuals who would identify as being Pagan. Greer’s work (and that of other authors who seek to engage contemporary Pagans with these issues: Emma Restall Orr, for example) should at least be encouraging members of the Pagan community to be asking some questions about what it means, in practice, to espouse a nature-based spirituality. This discussion is long overdue, and needed now more than ever, or Paganism will be never be any more than the “virtual religion” critiqued by Andy Letcher. How many self-identified Pagans can honestly live up to Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion”. It seems obvious to me that thinking about these questions is imperative if Paganism is not only going to survive, but also to make a positive contribution to the way that humanity relates to Nature in the future.”

It is from this lens that I think we should view the news that the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest environmental organization, founded by famed conservationist John Muir, has for the first time advocated civil disobedience to its membership.

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune

“For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest. Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet’s climate.” 

The first test of this new call for civil disobedience will be at a Washington DC rally this February in opposition to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline. However, even if no arrests are made at this rally, it marks a major shift for the Sierra Club, which has preferred lobbying, deal-making, and advocacy over the more direct methods of groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. It erodes the idea that mere advocacy, or being ideologically behind better environmental policy, is sufficient in the current environment. It means that support for the Sierra Club implicitly means supporting civil disobedience for the environment.

This is a moment of challenge for those Pagans who espouse an eco-spirituality, who want to practice an Earth or nature religion. If the “safe” moderate environmental group says it’s now time for civil disobedience, do we follow suit? Do our leaders also say “enough” and call for civil disobedience? For direct action in the face of climate crisis? Such calls have usually come from “activist” Pagans like Starhawk, and her critics have often accused her of politicizing Paganism, but are we now at a different moment? Is this the moment where we move beyond recycling and buying the Sierra Club calendar, into advocating for direct action? Not just prayers and spells, but our bodies on the front lines? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but perhaps it’s time we had a renewed discussion about what, exactly, Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagan faiths that espouse the natural world as sacred and alive, should do in the face of a now impossible to ignore climate crisis. The Sierra Club has made a decision, and perhaps that should press us to collectively make one too.

Boing Boing points to a fascinating essay by author Ken MacLeod in Aeon Magazine about moments of ego transcendence and “ineffable encounters” that he’s experienced over the years, and how he experienced them completely outside a spiritual or religious container.

John Muir, Washington Column. Yosemite

John Muir, Washington Column. Yosemite

“I was on my own, exploring the banks of a river that ran along a broad, deep gully. I wasn’t far from human habitation but I don’t remember any sound except the river on the stones, dripping moss and humming insects. The sun was high in the west, brightly lighting one side of the gully. I was on the other side, in shade but nothing like darkness. There was nothing spooky or scary about my surroundings, nothing dangerous about my situation. Out of nowhere, the feeling of presence came back, ringing from the rocks.”

Interestingly, the first person I thought about when reading this essay was famous naturalist and conservationist John Muir, who embraced a pantheism, a religion of holy nature, that completely transcended his Christian background.

“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.”

Muir would no doubt explain the presence “ringing from the rocks” that MacLeod experienced as nature conversing with him, or perhaps even the God in nature reaching out to him. What Muir isolated himself in nature to experience, MacLeod, free from the shackles of a traditional religious education or upbringing, came upon the feeling naturally and left its mystery intact by not trying to attribute it to “God.” I call this a sort of proto-pantheism because both of his experiences happened in nature, while alone, and both left him with a feeling of there being a “enormous presence. It was everywhere, like the shimmer of the heat in the air.”

The mystery of MacLeod’s experience, and his other experiences of ego transcendence, are the building blocks of spirituality. The containers we create to give names to the ineffable things we can’t rationally attribute. Paganism and indigenous religions often reach back to these building blocks, especially among our mystics and seers, who commune with nature, and seek to remove themselves from their conscious ego. Our structures following natural cycles of season, sun, and moon, our powers and omens seen in wind, fire, storm, and thrashing wave. Today our faiths, while closer to the building block moments detailed here than some belief systems, also have generations of tradition and detail to contend with, factors which lead us to label these moments and perhaps even diminish them in a haste to understand.

These moments should be an opportunity to lose our containers, and simply be. I think the mystery and lack of explanation are good things, goads to our creativity, a sense of interconnected wonder at the world we live in and the finite lives we lead.

Oh, and do check out Aeon Magazine, there are some interesting essays to be found there.

Watching twelve hours of a single documentary over the course of six consecutive nights takes commitment, and showing them in that manner can be risky, even the best-made films from the most skilled directors can start to seem repetitious and a bit dull as they continually return to the larger themes unifying the project. “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is no exception to the almost unavoidable pitfalls inherent in a documentary mega-series, but luckily those drawbacks are mostly minimized thanks to the skill of director Ken Burns, one of the most successful documentary film-makers alive today. That’s a good thing, because “The National Parks” is an important work, one that does more to showcase the history of American nature religion, a faith and philosophy that would come to heavily influence American modern Paganism, than any other work of its kind that I’ve seen.


John Muir: A Self-Portrait, 1887

While the bulk of the twelve hours is spent recounting various grass-roots efforts and political struggles over park creation, almost the entire first episode is devoted to the spiritual dimension of nature (called, appropriately enough, “The Scripture of Nature”). Briefly referencing the influence of works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Burns makes ground-breaking naturalist and preservationist John Muir the centerpiece. “National Parks” clearly illustrates how his unique brand of Christian-colored pantheism (along with a keen scientific mind) would go on to inspire many, including President Theodore Roosevelt, to preserve vast swathes of American wilderness. The early episodes also take care to mention Native American spiritual and political perspectives, and extensively interviews National Parks superintendent, and Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, Gerard Baker (who says that John Muir would have made a good Medicine Man).

Though “God” and a “creator” are often invoked by various historical and contemporary commentators throughout the documentary, the presence of denominational Christianity is sparse, perhaps illustrating both its historic indifference to preservation/conservation, and the current culture wars over creationism, global warming, and science. The net cumulative effect is to indeed see a distinct American “nature religion” that has existed alongside “traditional” religious expression in America for generations.

“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death…Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”John Muir

For this, along with hours of breath-taking nature footage, “National Parks” is a treasure, and should be seen by any modern Pagan living in America. However, while “National Parks” is extremely well-made, the documentary series is far from perfect. While Ken Burns is an obvious evangelist for preserving the last wild places in America, he also takes great pains to avoid the ugly battles over preservation and conservation that have happened in the last thirty years.

“The documentary cannily stops at 1980, avoiding the Ronald Reagan — James Watt era as well as today’s drill-here, drill-now controversies. It helps too that one of the parks’ most vigorous progressive advocates was a Republican — President Teddy Roosevelt.”

However, we’ve come a long way from the nature-loving hunter-conservationism of Roosevelt, and his party is more often the party of “drill, baby, drill”. Will “National Parks” ignoring almost the entirety of the modern environmentalism movement really galvanize bipartisan support for a new ethic of conservationism? Was it responsible for this love-letter to not even mention climate change, and the terrible damage it’s doing to the parks? I have to feel, that as much as I loved the scenery, the rapturous commentary, and the spiritual centrality of Muir’s vision to this series, this is a somewhat cowardly oversight. The happy ending of wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone blatantly artificial considering the current controversies over their reintroduction. Despite these serious oversights, “National Parks” is still a fine work, and its early episodes a useful reminder of how our view of nature has evolved over time. Certainly worth picking up.