On the top of the mountain of the balsams after the storm has passed and cleansed the world with snow, the jagged fir tips tremble and sway in the dusklight and the wind. There it sits, the winter eye of the west at 4 pm, approaching the solstice, readied for its supple sinking beneath the forest walls. I would have long ago gone mad here in the Catskills without the respite and relief of forest time, woodland sojourns, and climbs to wind-blown clefts. And the god-like trees! – who are we who have not wisdom enough to bow before them like the cults of old?
Sir James George Frazer writes in his masterwork The Golden Bough about the tree worshippers of Europe:
How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were roundabout its trunk.... it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.
As it should be.
Among the Lithuanians, writes Frazer, “Some of them revered remarkable oaks and other great shady trees, from which they received oracular responses. Some maintained holy groves about their villages or houses, where even to break a twig would have been a sin. They thought that he who cut a bough in such a grove either died suddenly or was crippled in one of his limbs.”
And among the Finno-Ugric people of Siberia, the Ostyaks:
within their sacred groves no grass or wood might be cut, no game hunted, no fish caught, not even a draught of water drunk. When they passed them in their canoes, they were careful not to touch the land with the oar, and if the journey through the hallowed ground was long, they laid in a store of water before entering on it, for they would rather suffer extreme thirst than slake it by drinking of the sacred stream. The Ostyaks also regarded as holy any tree on which an eagle had built its nest for several years, and they spared the bird as well as the tree. No greater injury could be done….than to shoot such an eagle or destroy its nest.
The heathen Swedes, Slavs, Lithuanians, and the Celtic druids (but of course) were all inveterate tree worshippers. Prior to Christian conversion, the Dalmatians believed that felling beeches and oaks was a killing of the trees’ souls and would likely leave any perpetrator who dared such an act dead on the spot. If not dead, he would at least be made a wretched invalid.
According to Frazer, the etymology of the Teutonic word for “temple” traces to “sanctuary of woods.” The Celtic word for sanctuary survives in the Latin “nemus,” which means “glade in the forest.” At a time when anthropology was entirely Eurocentric, to his credit Frazer included at least a few mentions of what we now know is an enormous tree-worshipping lexicon that was part of the animistic practice of Native American tribes. In the arid High Plains, for example, Frazier notes that the Hidatsa (among other tribes) held in such great honor the Plains cottonwood that
When the Missouri, swollen by a freshet in spring, carries away part of its banks and sweeps some tall tree into its current, it is said that the spirit of the tree cries, while the roots still cling to the land…until the trunk falls with a splash into the stream. Formerly the Indians considered it wrong to fell one of these giants, and when large logs were needed they made use only of trees which had fallen of themselves.
According to Porphyry of Tyre (234 AD – c. 305 AD) — after Pythagoras the second most famous vegetarian classical philosopher — such was the “superstition” of “primitive men” that the slaughter of an ox or a sheep could be considered as great a wrong as the felling of a fir or an oak, “seeing that a soul is implanted in these trees also.” (Take note of his dates: he died at 71 – long-lived for the time; I’m going to bet it had something to do with his vegetarianism).
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We moderners are savages by comparison – ignorant, bumbling, and unfeeling. We lay waste to whole forests with our machines and no one gets their guts torn out and wound around a tree trunk. Instead, our government subsidizes the wreckers. How have we come to this?
In 1966, a professor of medieval history named Lynn White, Jr., attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presented a lecture that would go on to live in infamy. Later published in Science, it was titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Ending the ecological crisis was White’s primary concern. He singled out Judeo-Christian religion as the historical villain, calling it “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”
White argued that the Judeo-Christian conception of a planet made solely for man’s exploitation, as laid out in the book of Genesis, freed humankind to lay waste to the environment. The message of Judeo-Christianity is that man alone is infused with the spirit of the one true God while everything else is soulless matter relegated to human use.
Pause a moment to recall the words of Genesis: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
It was this worldview, White argued, that replaced pagan animism, with profound consequences. In pagan animism, "every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit,” wrote White. “Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” With this disenchantment “man's effective monopoly on spirit [was] confirmed” – and the inhibitions that held back the total pillage of the natural world crumbled.
Then White made a fascinating leap:
The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which [originated] in the Western medieval world [and which] cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.
This was the claim which earned him infamy: that the ideology of technoscientific humanism, forged in the crucible of the European Middle Ages and bequeathed to the world by Western civilization – an ideology that now holds sway over every corner of the planet – grew directly out of Judeo-Christian values. Humanism was the secular realization “of the Christian dogma of man's transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature.”
It is fair to say that most people in the modern world regard nature as a collection of “resources” that exist solely for human aggrandizement. Even the foremost putative “progressives” on the national stage (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren et al.) argue that we should continue to exploit resources to keep the capitalist growth machine humming, though we must do it more gently, more ”sustainably,” with more intensive application of advanced technology, with “green” production of energy from wind, solar, hydro, and the like.
The central problem of our time, I’ve come to conclude, is that humanity now consists predominantly of these “resourcists” – which is to say humanists. I mean humanists in the ugliest and most benighted sense of that word: that man is the center and measure of all things, and all other life is subordinate.
Too much of Earth – as we all know at this late hour – has been subjugated by techno-industrial Homo sapiens, and that we regard this collectively not with the horror it merits is a testament to our complacent self-regard as vaunted humanists. Maybe in this fraught moment, when our dominance is leading to suicide via capitalogenic climate upheaval, it is time to imbibe a dose of anti-humanism. Time, too, for some disembowelings of offenders against trees.