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Human cultures have employed myths as sacred stories concerned with the origins of the world or to explain how the world and its creatures came to have their present form. Greek and Roman myth is perhaps most familiar to Western society, but all human societies from Norse to Native Americans, from Australian Aborigines to Amazonians, have used myths as sacred narratives with moral lessons. Myths have provided human cultures with connections to the past and guidance for future decisions through their moral significance, but myth seems to be disappearing in Western society and much of the world today. Joseph Bruchac in The Circle is the Way to See retells the Native American myth of Gluskabe to emphasize the responsibility humans have to “their children’s children” (812), while providing insight to the profound evolutionary understanding of their myth which came long before Charles Darwin published his scientific treatise The Origin of Species in 1859.
This loss of myth has had devastating effects on the natural world and much of the blame has been attributed to the theory of evolution popularized by Darwin. Economist Kenneth E. Boulding warns of evolution:
An ideology which states that the world is essentially meaningless but that we ought to strive, suffer, and fight for it is unlikely to be powerful because of the essential contradiction among its components. If an interpretation of history says the world is meaningless, then our value system is likely to be pure hedonism- “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”- or else one of apathy or stoic resignation. (163)
In The Future of Man, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin echoes Boulding’s warning by writing, “The possibility has to be faced of Mankind falling suddenly out of love with its own destiny. This disenchantment would be conceivable, and indeed inevitable, if as a result of growing reflection we came to believe that our end could only be collective death in a hermetically sealed world” (296). It appears that Darwin had set an evolutionary time bomb for humankind, one that indirectly freed humans from environmental responsibility, but evolution has recently emerged as the vehicle for humanity’s salvation from ecological Armageddon. David Rains Wallace champions a conscious cultural evolution among humans in The Human Element, advocating an eco-responsibility akin to Bruchac. In an excerpt from The End of Nature, Bill McKibben addresses humanity’s ability to exercise this eco-responsibility and willfully choose survival over extinction. Indeed, humans can now drive their own evolutions by interacting with, adapting to, and changing their environments positively. By being aware of our own evolutionary and ecological potential, humankind has the ability to consciously choose what is in its best interest for survival. Ironically, the emergence of evolution in nature myth may be what saves humankind from hastening its exit from the evolutionary center-stage, while reviving myth that is disappearing in Western culture.
Bruchac tackles the issue of the disappearance of myth in American culture in The Circle is the Way to See. He tells the Native American myth of Gluskabe, the Trickster, who “contains both the Good Mind, which can benefit the people and help the Earth, and that other Twisted Mind, a mind governed by selfish thoughts that can destroy the natural balance and bring disaster” (813). Grandmother Woodchuck reprimands Gluskabe for capturing all the game animals in a magical game bag because “In the future, our small ones, our children’s children, will die of hunger” (812) and forces him to return the animals to the forest. Bruchac uses the myth to clarify the ecological responsibility of humans for the perpetuation of the land and all its beings, but also to represent the practical, common-sense relationship myth has with nature. He writes, “We have been given ceremonies and lesson stories (which in many ways are ceremonies in and of themselves) to remind us of our proper place” (815), and believes that, “It is not what is in the blood but what is carried in the culture that makes human beings lose their balance and forget their rightful place” (816). Sociologist Leslie A. White in The Science of Culture considers culture a form of social heredity whose significant attribute is its transmissibility by non-biological means (363). Echoing Bruchac and Darwin, White insists, “It becomes the primary function of culture, therefore, to harness and control energy so that it may be put to the work in man’s service” (367).
In The Circle is the Way to See Bruchac also demonstrates the profound evolutionary understanding of Native Americans who realize that humans are a part of the circle of Creation and that the Earth is “the web of life that sustains us” (815). European colonialists have weakened nature’s web in North America because of their anthropocentrism and made the Earth sick (815), but Bruchac presents an evolutionary perspective shared by Native Americans, elucidating:
If we see “the Earth” as the web of life that sustains us, then there is no question that the web is weakened, that the Earth is sick. But if we look at it from another side, from the view of the living Earth itself, then the sickness is not that of the planet, the sickness is embodied in human beings, and, if carried to its illogical conclusion, the sickness will not kill the Earth, it will kill us. (815)
In accordance with this perspective, many Native Americans cultures have used myth to teach their children how to live in a way that considers seven generations into the future, a lifestyle adapted through trial and error over thousands of years to ensure the continued existence of humankind (818). The broad outlook of Native Americans displays a Darwinian prescience, while acting as a precedent for modern nature writing that incorporates both evolution and myth to advocate humanity’s conscious self-preservation.
Wallace captures the complexity of evolution emerging in modern myth in his work The Human Element. He believes, “We are fortunate to have the self-consciousness that allows us the possibility of free will” (934) and supports a cultural evolution amongst humans because “we must change to survive” (934). Going beyond the projection of human consciousness onto non-human nature found in many myths, Wallace suggests that evolutionary science has created the possibility of nature having its own consciousness (935). He introduces science into myth because it “has allowed us to begin to imagine states of consciousness quite different from our own. We can begin to see trees, birds, and spiders not as masks concealing humanlike spirits but as being in their own right, beings that are infinitely more mysterious and wonderful than the nymphs and sprites of old myths” (935).
Using ‘giants’ of the Klamath region on the California-Oregon border to exemplify how humans can adapt traditional myths to the humanity’s present predicament, Wallace builds a bridge between science and myth. “Giants seem to have originated as a way of giving human form to all that is titanic and inchoate in nature” (936), he writes, and they have “understood the world more deeply than we have, and that thus inhabits it more comfortably and freely, while eluding our self-involved attempts to capture it” (936). According to Wallace, giants continue to humble humankind with their apparent omniscience and immortality (936), while also providing “a new function in evolutionary myth” (936) by linking us to “lakes, rivers, forests, and meadows that are our home as well as theirs. They lure us into the wilderness, as they lured me, not to devour us but to remind us where we are, on a living planet” (936). From the pre-adapted myth of giants, new human myths can evolve (936), but these future myths will still have the fundamental purpose of sustaining life (935). In The Meaning of Evolution professor George Gaylord Simpson concurs with Wallace, proposing, “The new evolution continues to interact with and in considerable measure to depend on the old” (330). Simpson also sponsors the ideology that “It is each individual’s responsibility to choose what he considers right directions for social and for biological evolution” (331). By confronting their evolutionary choices consciously, it seems humans can willingly choose survival over extinction. Through a future evolutionary myth adapted from traditional myths and living giants, humankind can participate in its own cultural evolution and prevent its own destruction.
In an excerpt from The End of Nature, McKibben addresses the evolutionary responsibility of humans to embrace “a brave new ethos” (1129). He fears, “The loss of memory will be the eternal loss of meaning” (1127), reiterating the threat of disappearing myth apparent in the works of Bruchac and Wallace. McKibben proposes the discouraging idea that humans are ending nature in their myopic pursuit of a good life (1121). He warns that the idea of nature autonomous from humankind can go extinct and cautions, “The meaning of the wind, the sun, the rain- of nature -has already changed. Yes, the wind still blows- but no longer from some other sphere, some inhuman place” (1121). The end of nature also signifies an ecological catch-22 for the preservation of nature myth. Humankind’s growing disconnection from nature and pervasive effects on global systems have made fewer people attach themselves to vanishing nature because they are afraid of committing themselves to a relationship doomed for evolutionary, if not self-imposed, death (1126).
However, for McKibben evolution gives the human species the free will to voluntarily choose to remain on this earth because it allows us “to recognize the danger that our growth poses to it, and to feel something for the other species we threaten” (1128). By living up to their evolutionary potential, humankind could enter “ten thousand years of humble civilization when we choose to pay more for the benefits of nature, when we rebuild the sense of wonder and sanctity that could protect the world” (1129), and perhaps restore nature from the insidious affect of an indifferent and short-sighted humanity. He hopes that “If we now, today, limited our numbers and our desires and our ambitions, perhaps nature could someday resume its independent working” (1129), alluding to the rekindling of nature myth and evolutionary awareness as the keys to humanity’s self-preservation ethos.
Literature and philosophy professor Peter Marshall states of evolution in Nature’s Web, “And if man is taught that he is a brute, or at least descended from one, then there is nothing to stop him from becoming one. The thin veneer of civilization, carefully built up over centuries, would be torn asunder and humanity fall back into a savage state of nature where all would prey on all” (330). Marshall focuses on how the Darwinian legacy has transformed humankind’s view of itself and of its place in nature (329), but only reveals one side of the dual nature of evolution. Darwin offers more hope than Marshall in his The Origin of Species, positing, “Whilst this planet has gone cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (460). Darwin’s evolutionary optimism is evident in The Human Element by Wallace and in the excerpt from The End of Nature by McKibben, but both authors also utilize myth as a vector for dispersing evolutionary awareness. Evolutionary myth itself has evolved from unscientific, pre-Columbian myth and the dismal portrayal of humans as just another act in the drama of evolution, to a nature narrative that gives humankind hope of preservation by consciously participating in its own cultural evolution. Bruchac emphasizes the importance of listening and learning from myth for all people of the Earth in The Circle is the Way to See, while advocating a cultural awareness and evolution that foreshadowed Darwin by millennia. Perhaps the ecological success of pre-Columbian cultures rests in its use of myth, with its ethical insights, as opposed to the purely scientific theory of evolution that exposed humankind to the disheartening reality of extinction without clarifying any of the moral obligations. Botanist William H. Murdy summarizes the dual nature of evolution in Anthropocentrism: A Modern Vision, seeing it as ultimately beneficial for humanity, writing:
The ecological crisis is viewed as an inevitable crisis in human evolution. Through cultures knowledge becomes cumulative. A crisis occurs when our knowledge of nature, which determines our power to exploit nature, exceeds our knowledge of how to use knowledge for our own survival and for improvement in the quality of our lives. An anthropocentric belief in the value, meaningfulness, and creative potential of the human phenomenon is considered a necessary motivating to participatory evolution which, in turn, may be requisite to the future survival of the human species and its cultural values. (287)
Boulding, Kenneth Ewart. The Meaning of the Twentieth Century: The Great Transition. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Bruchac, Joseph. The Circle is the Way to See. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. John Elder and Robert Finch. New York: Norton, 2002. 811-818.
de Chardin, Pierre Teilhard. The Future of Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1959.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. New York: Penguin, 1859.
Marshall, Peter. Nature’s Web: An Exploration of Ecological Thinking. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. 319-332.
McKibben, Bill. from The End of Nature. Elder and Finch. 1120-1130.
Murdy, William H. “Anthropocentrism: A Modern Vision.” Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. 280-287.
Simpson, George Gaylord. The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man. New Haven: Yale UP, 1949.
Wallace, David Rains. The Human Element. Elder and Finch. 930-936.
White, Leslie A. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1949.
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The Idea of the Green Man in The Tree by John Fowles
and “Marshland Elegy” by Aldo Leopold
The term “Green Man” refers to the archetype of human oneness with nature and for a wide variety of the archetype’s cultural manifestations (Olshen 96). In The Tree John Fowles criticizes scientists, academics, and, to a lesser degree, artists, who insist on explaining nature by ordering its “green chaos” (603). They “wish to make what is unconscious or partly conscious fully conscious, to use the sacred places for profane ends” (Olshen 105). To Fowles, “the idea that the real, the truly significant, is private and hidden” (Olshen 105), and the Green Man represents in his writing the basic human need for internal and external disorder. He writes, “achieving a relationship with nature is both a science and an art, beyond mere knowledge or mere feeling alone” (599). This theme of a union between science and art is present in a chapter from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac entitled “Marshland Elegy.” Leopold laments the loss of cranes from the drainage of peat bogs in Wisconsin and expresses, “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words” (102). In contrast to Fowles, Leopold employs his scientific knowledge in a style that is not only artistic, but wise; uniting science and art in a sacred ecology that fosters a healthy relationship between humans and nature. Although Fowles and Leopold disagree on the roles of science and art in enhancing the human-nature relationship, both authors impart that nature is beyond the ability of words to capture. While Fowles condemns those who attempt to “defoliate the wicked green man, hunt him out of his trees” (Olshen 105), Leopold calls out to the Green Man to be an ecological diplomat between science and art, between knowledge and beauty, in order to reconcile the disconnection between humans and nature.
Fowles, a natural history museum curator, ironically presents a pessimistic perspective on the role of science and art in creating a sound relationship between humans and nature. A disapproving tone is employed by the author to caution readers of pitfalls within both disciplines. He argues that humans have been brainwashed by modern societies into believing that acquiring knowledge is more important than having knowledge or using that knowledge wisely (595). This mechanistic, purposive, puritanical legacy from Victorian science to always seek more knowledge “insidiously cast nature as a kind of opponent, an opposite team to be outwitted and beaten… it distracted from the total experience and the total meaning of nature” (594). Indeed, humans are “far better at seeing the immediate advantages of such gains in knowledge of the exterior world than at assessing the costs of them” (602). Science detached humans from their environment by the individuating process (593), where once individuals were a part of their environment, science now “removes us a step from total reality towards anthropocentrism” (593).
The scientific tool developed by Aristotle, and refined by Linnaeus and Darwin, has given humans a false sense of isolation from their environment; while the scientific community has become so specialized that many laypeople are dissuaded from trying to understand nature at all (597). Many humans now falsely believe that the nature of ordinary experience corresponds with the limiting nature of the scientific method (598), where anything unscientific is labeled as “unpatriotic and immoral” (602).
Fowles confronts scrutiny from the scientific community, aptly labeling himself a heretic about Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century botanist who developed the scientific system of naming plants, admitting “I do not dispute the value of the tool he gave to natural science” (593); however, he suspects tools such as science “are disturbers and rearrangers of primordial nature and reality” (604) which “addict us to purpose… and become effectively synonymous with pleasure” (605). Purpose, he contends, is being and surviving (605); while the human arrogance and insouciance towards nature stems directly from our culture’s belief that “it is the general uselessness of so much of nature that lies at the root of our ancient hostility and indifference to it” (598).
Fowles adds, “our approach to art, as to nature, has become increasing scientized (and dreadfully serious) during this last century” (602). Art is now dismissed as “non-scientific and inegalitarian” (602), but “can be acquired, like knowledge of science, by rote, recipe and hard work” (602). Within the past one hundred and fifty years, humans have devalued the experience or knowledge we define as art (600) by trying to understand and teach it. Fowles asserts that all replication or imitation is worthless and true arts demand “some inwardly creative or purely personal factor beyond the power of external teaching to instill or science to predict” (601). Science is limited to teaching one how and what to look for in external nature, but never questions one’s own nature (601). Ultimately, knowledge can be abused and purpose distorted because, “It is not necessarily too little knowledge that causes ignorance; possessing too much, or wanting to gain too much, can produce the same result” (604).
According to Fowles, art and science, unlike nature, share the shortfall of anthropocentrism which demands human utility by defoliating the Green Man, by fixing some piece of the present into the past (603). Nature is continually coevolving, re-creating its beauty, unlike art and science which seem “to cast a mysterious veil of deadness, of having already happened, over the actual and present event or phenomenon” (604). To Fowles, nature cannot be captured by any art (596), and science clearly fails the task as well.
Aldo Leopold presents a more optimistic perspective on the positions of science and art in helping humans develop a strong relationship to nature in A Sand County Almanac. In the prosaic chapter entitled “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold couples his scientific background as a forester and wildlife biologist with an artful eloquence in describing a Wisconsin marsh. His scientific knowledge of geology, evolution, paleontology, ornithology, dendrology, and ecology contribute to the detailed description of the great marsh. Leopold notes the morning fog which resembles “the white ghost of a glacier” (101), the annual return of the cranes “is the ticking of the geologic clock” (103), the cranes “stand…upon the sodden pages of their own history” (102), in peat bogs “laid down in the basin of an ancient lake” (102). The tone seems to congratulate Darwin for enlightening humans to the geologic time scale of evolution, a contrast to Fowles’ assertion that Darwin’s legacy has isolated and detached humans from the natural world (593).
Curt Meine writes in Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation, “Leopold rarely failed to highlight the aesthetic dimension of his work” (99), and later adds, “[his] aesthetic sensitivity, as enhanced by the new science [of ecology], was useful” (102). Leopold’s endorsement of both art and science to develop a healthy human-nature relationship opposes Fowles’ discouraging perspective on the subject. Fowles stresses, “We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability” (599), but Leopold transcends this dualism in formulating a land aesthetic “that celebrated not the superficial appearance of natural objects and places, but their evolutionary history and ecological relationships; he extended traditional criteria of natural beauty to the point where they essentially merged with his sense of long-term utility based on land health” (Meine 114).
Fowles and Leopold would agree that words cannot capture the true essence of nature, but the authors diverge on the issue of science and art fostering a healthy human-nature relationship. In The Tree, Fowles feels the Green Man is “lost by science in man’s attitude to nature” (598). Conversely, science and art enhance Leopold’s historical description of the Wisconsin marshland. Indeed, Leopold writes with an informed tone, eloquent speech, and refined style that imparts a land wisdom steeped in scientific knowledge and artistic awareness. Leopold laid the groundwork for the contemporary science of ecology, but simultaneously fostered “the hope that the Green Man in our time will unite what have hitherto been considered antipathetic modes of consciousness, early animism and modern science, and that the union will result in a science and art that are in harmony with wild Nature” (Olshen 96). Unlike Fowles, Leopold seems to call out to the Green Man, maybe even ask to shake his hand, and unite science and art in a sacred ecology that bridges the chasm widening between humans and nature.
Fowles, John. The Tree. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. John Elder and Robert Finch. New York: Norton, 2002. 592-605.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 1949. 101-108.
Meine, Curt. Correction Lines Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation. Washington Island Press, 2004. 89-116.
Olshen, Barry N. The Archetype of the Green Man in the Writing of John Fowles. John Fowles and Nature: Fourteen Perspectives on Landscape. Ed. James R. Aubrey. Madison: Associated University Presses, 1999. 96-113.