The Voice of Nana Moma

Page 17 of The Mythic Roots of Western Culture’s Alienation from Nature. Adams and Belasco. Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, Volume 1, Number 3. July, 2015. Outline / List of Headings available here.

The Voice of Nana Moma

When environmental policy analyst Charles Little came across an ancient Douglas fir so monumentally huge it completely filled the logging truck to which it was strapped, he was overcome with emotions of wonder and awe. His search for an explanation, and the humanus voice that periodically punctuates that explanation, reveal several very important aspects of Western culture’s relationship to nature (78). First look at the passage just as it was written:

“The awe was genuine, the reference to deity not merely a casual blasphemy, for a god had lived in that tree — a forest god feared and revered from the very beginning of our time on the planet, when proto-humans first left the forest, stood upright, and with an opposed thumb, a hungry belly, and year-round estrus came to dominate the world. Our sense that forests are sacred survives, as these lines from the anonymous English poem ‘Castle Howard’ (ca. 1773) suggest:

‘Here the smooth Beach and rev’rent Oak entwine
And form a Temple for the Pow’rs Divine:
So Ages past from ancient Bards we’ve heard
When Men the Deity in Groves rever’d.
A Tow’ring Wood superior in its Kind,
Was to the worship of the Gods assign’d.’

“According to the great Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer, among the Druidic Celts the ‘old word for sanctuary [in its primary definition as a place of worship] seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a grove or woodland glade.’ The sacred grove is our sanctuary, our temple. . . And yet, contrarily, we fear and distrust the forest, for we are a savanna species, having arisen in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa millions of years ago, when the distant forest was the home of creatures wishing to do us harm.”

Here’s the same passage, with the lines of the poem “Castle Howard” removed, so you can see the contradictory voices of humanus (left side, in blue boldface) and nana moma (right side, in red boldface) as they speak through Little’s words.

Voice of the humanus

Voice of nana moma

“The awe was genuine, the reference to deity not merely a casual blasphemy, for a god had lived in that tree — a forest god feared and revered from the very beginning of our time on the planet, when proto-humans first left the forest, stood upright, and with an opposed thumb, a hungry belly, and year-round estrus came to dominate the world. Our sense that forests are sacred survives, as these lines from the anonymous English poem ‘Castle Howard’ (ca. 1773) suggest: . . . “According to the great Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer, among the Druidic Celts the ‘old word for sanctuary [in its primary definition as a place of worship] seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a grove or woodland glade.’ The sacred grove is our sanctuary, our temple. . . And yet, contrarily, we fear and distrust the forest, for we are a savanna species, having arisen in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa millions of years ago, when the distant forest was the home of creatures wishing to do us harm.” “The awe was genuine, the reference to deity not merely a casual blasphemy, for a god had lived in that tree — a forest god feared and revered from the very beginning of our time on the planet, when proto-humans first left the forest, stood upright, and with an opposed thumb, a hungry belly, and year-round estrus came to dominate the world. Our sense that forests are sacred survives, as these lines from the anonymous English poem ‘Castle Howard’ (ca. 1773) suggest: . . . “According to the great Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer, among the Druidic Celts the ‘old word for sanctuary [in its primary definition as a place of worship] seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a grove or woodland glade.’ The sacred grove is our sanctuary, our temple. . . And yet, contrarily, we fear and distrust the forest, for we are a savanna species, having arisen in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa millions of years ago, when the distant forest was the home of creatures wishing to do us harm.”

Notice that a scientific and evolutionary explanation is given for each of the two views of forests presented, but they are complete opposites. The first paragraph says the forest is the cradle of our species so we have a long and reverential relationship with it (“revered from the very beginning of our time on the planet, when proto-humans first left the forest”). But the end of the passage says humans “fear and distrust the forest, for we are a savanna species” that evolved far away from the “distant forest” that was home instead to predators we have good reason to fear. Once you see the internal contradictions in the passage, you can almost hear Little sigh to himself as he writes “And yet, contrarily” when his humanus launches into a concluding statement that completely contradicts everything he’s just said.

It is essential to understand that this example is not specific to the person who wrote it. The same pattern of syncopated and contradictory voices marks almost every story, narrative, and even image of nature in Western culture. We have seen it in a Robert Frost poem, the opening scenes of Silverado, text from the Death Valley National Park website, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s first glimpse of the sacred Cedar Forest. The intermixed voices of humanus and nana moma, coupled with rare and intermittent representation of humana, generate a picture of nature and its relationship to people that’s so confusing it feels nearly psychotic. This is why “people of Western culture have a hard time understanding their own views of nature and why they think about nature the way they do,” as we wrote in the Introduction to this paper.

But now that we see how to recognize the voice of the humanus, we can disentangle it from text it interpenetrates to see what the voice of the nana moma actually says. In Little’s passage, just cited, it says this about nature and its relationship to human beings:

  • Nature makes people feel awe rather than fear.
  • Nature is sacred to human beings.
  • Nature is a fundamentally safe place to human beings (given the etymology of “sacred”).
  • The sacred relationship between humans and nature has deep ancestral roots.

These statements express the original, unsplit human psyche’s perception of nature and of the relationship between nature and human beings.

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References, Notes, and Credits
for
The Voice of Nana Moma

78. Charles E. Little. 1995. The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests. Penguin Books, New York. pages 192-193.