Atheopaganism

An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

What Do We Mean by “Revering Nature”? A Reality Check

Life is one of the Sacred four pillars of Atheopaganism. And it is often said of Pagans generally that we revere or even “worship” Nature.

So…what do we mean by that?

To explore that, we have to go back about 250 years to a major wellspring of modern Paganism, which is Romanticism.

Starting in the late 18th century, as more and more Europeans began to live in cities rather than in small villages or on farms, the Romantic movement arose, which, well, romanticized the idea of “noble Nature”. Romantic ideas of “untamed wilderness” and “the magnificent wild” persist in cultures derived from Europe to this day, including the idea that because something is “natural” it is harmless or “innocent”/naive (cue racist stereotypes of indigenous people by European colonists).

In my experience, this Romantic idea of Nature as properly pristine, untouched, benign and idealized is quite common in Pagan circles today…extending to widespread embrace of “natural medicine” (up to and including outright quackery such as homeopathy) as somehow superior to “man-made” or science-based medicine, and creating a false dichotomy between “natural” (“good”) and “artificial” (“bad”).

But in Atheopaganism, we make a point of understanding the nature of the Universe through the critical analysis of evidence, so…where does that leave us in relation to revering Nature?

Well, first of all, there is the awestruck WOW that comes with the spectacular experience of nature’s beauty: the amazing sunset, Moon rise, landscape. The mountains, the ocean, the many wonders.

That’s real. The spiritual experience of joy and awe is one of the greatest pleasures of living–and it can come from human sources, too, like an urban skyline, a magnificent cathedral or an inspiring piece of music.

But when it comes to understanding the Life of Earth, even as we honor our exquisite home planet it is important that we not romanticize nature to the degree that we stop paying attention to what it really is…and what it demands from us.

Life is made up of ecosystems. And ecosystems are networks cycling food and carbon and nutrients and water and reproductive relationships, folding composition, life, death and decomposition into a magnificent interpenetrated wholeness. They include cities and human-developed areas, where wildlife and Life’s cycles also extend. Matter cycles, energy flows.

Humanity’s works, too, are nature.

To honor it, we must honor all of it…including the fact that death is an essential part of the process. All life of Earth relies on death of prior organisms in order to live, and we are no different. In time, we die and our component parts go back into the system as food for other organisms. It’s an elegant system and it has evolved for billions of years. The very soil from which our food springs is made up of the broken-down components of millions of dead animals, plants and microorganisms.

Today, science helps us to understand that humans are a part of every ecosystem on Earth. Even areas that seem very remote and wild are affected by species eradication, by pollution and climate change. And so the Romantic idea of “pristine, innocent Nature” doesn’t have a basis in reality, if it ever did.

One of the greatest fallacies of the nature-is-romantic lens is that it suggests that the best thing humans can do for any given natural area is to leave it alone. But in the case of most places on Earth at this point, nothing could be farther from the truth. Humans have had so much impact throughout the planet that it has become both ecologically and morally necessary that we actively manage ecosystems to keep them from being outcompeted by invasive species, and crashing in biodiversity.

Take, for example, the plant communities of the arid western United States’ grasslands and chaparral, which evolved together with elk, antelope, deer and bison that grazed them. They, in turn, were prey to wolves, bears, mountain lions, humans and other predators.

If we somehow just threw a fence around these lands and “let nature take its course”, they would become thickets of invasive non-native species like tumbleweed and star thistle, neither of which is useful to local wildlife at all, and with impoverished and lifeless soil. We know this because well-meaning people have tried it, and the results have been disastrous.

As it turns out, the introduction of another grazing animal–cattle–effectively filled the niche of the largely eradicated American Bison. When not overgrazed and managed in a way that mimics their larger cousins’ behavior, cattle can actually be beneficial to these ecosystems, increasing biodiversity and ecosystem health. A lucky break.

But less lucky, given that today most of those predators I listed have been extirpated or radically reduced in population, is that unless native populations of elk, deer, etc. are artificially controlled through human intervention they will overpopulate, eat everything right down to bare dirt and trees stripped of bark in desperation (leading to deforestation, erosion and destruction of waterways and native fisheries, among other impacts), and then starve en masse, suffering a miserable death.

Ask any range ecologist, and that is what they will tell you.

Local to my area is a great example of this general issue. Know where the great wildlife habitat is in my region? On beef and dairy cattle grazing lands. Absolutely full of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, coyote, mountain lions, bobcat and ungulates like deer.

Know where the WORST wildlife habitat is (even worse than cities)? Crop agricultural lands, where farmers do everything in their power to exclude or kill those same birds, small mammals, ungulates and so forth, including use of poison and traps. This is true of “organic” farm lands as well, which simply use “natural” poisons (there’s that word again), traps, and strategies like deafening noise cannons to scare animals away.

As a result, it doesn’t take much of a leap to understand that supporting those pastured beef and dairy operations by eating the beef and dairy products they produce is directly beneficial to wildlife in my area. And in the case of deer, which are plentiful and always on the verge of overpopulating where I live, helping to control the population through hunting and eating wild venison (as well as supporting conservation of predators like bears, lions, bobcat and coyote) is similarly beneficial.

Surprising, eh? Not the conclusion you would draw with a romantic ideal of “nature”, but rather, one absolutely based in the reality of nature.

Now, we’re not talking about hunting for trophies, or killing predators or endangered species, or out of the sadistic desire to kill something. There is no reason for such destructive behavior, and I do not endorse it. But I can support acting in accordance with what the ecosystems concerned will best benefit from, and that includes hunters harvesting animals which evolved to be prey species, and eating them.

Humans and their predecessors have hunted for millions of years, and this is something which can be approached as a sacred activity, as many, if not all indigenous people do. Ritually honoring the animal that is taken and taking care to use every part of its body is a way to be responsible in so doing, and to know not to take too much.

I should be clear: I’m not a hunter, and I’m not encouraging you to be a hunter, either, unless you want to be.

But loving nature means loving what is good for nature. And that happens to include a healthy predator/prey balance, whether by the teeth and claws of animal predators or by the bows or rifles of human ones.

The truth about our world and how to care for it is just more complicated than any simple, one-step solution like a dietary regime or a decision to buy (or not to buy) some particular product.

I have to recognize the debt I owe to the ecologists and land managers who study and plan for management of healthy ecosystems, and for those who hunt wildlife populations that threaten to overpopulate in my area. These species include deer, wild turkeys, and wild pigs, all of which can be incredibly destructive if not limited in numbers (and the latter two of which are invasive European species introduced by settlers and shouldn’t be here at all). These hunters include, of course, Native people who have been hunting these lands for thousands of years and for whom it is a sacred activity.

What I suggest with this post is that we step away from the Romantic idea of “noble nature” and look at what is really going on on planet Earth. It is more complex, more nuanced, more exciting, interesting, and beautiful, actually, than the romantic ideal. And it should both humble us and open our minds to be aware of nature in its entirety: the bloodthirsty parts as well as the graceful, amazing, inspiring parts. It’s all true–it’s all a part of our planet’s reality.

The truth about our world and how to care for it is just more complicated than any simple, one-step solution like a dietary regime or a decision to buy (or not to buy) some particular product.

When I talk about Life as Sacred, I mean the system, the fabric of food and cycling nutrients and reproductive relationships of planet Earth. That’s what’s Sacred. That’s what we have to fight for. Not the individual life of every deer and bunny in the wild. They are going to die, regardless, as will we all, with time.

But if the system persists, more like them–and us–will flourish in future generations. The magic of Life on Earth will persist robustly and in abundance.

So let us be aware of the nature of Life as it is, and fulfill the responsibilities of our place in it.

Let us embrace the Earth’s ongoing miracle. As it is.

Welcome home to Sacred planet Earth, where Death is the way of Life.

And vice versa.

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