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The Mythic Roots of Western Culture’s Alienation from Nature
Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) and Jo Belasco, Esq.
Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, Volume 1, Number 3.
July 31, 2015
To cite this article: Adams, Dawn Hill and Joanne L. Belasco. 2015. The Mythic Roots of Western Culture’s Alienation from Nature. Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, 1(3). https://tapestryinstitute.org/publications/occasional-papers/mythic-roots-alienation-vol-1-no-3-july-2015*
Many people in contemporary Western culture want to understand Indigenous ways of thinking about and relating to nature. At the same time, a number of Indigenous Elders and scholars are reaching out to share traditional wisdom with people of the dominant culture. The goal for both groups is survival of the world’s ecosystems and those whose lives depend on it, including human beings. But cross-cultural communication about the Land or nature is often a frustrating challenge. “It is difficult to present an Indian view of the environment,” writes prominent Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., “because there is such a difference in the way Indians and non-Indians look at the world . . . More traditional Indians have a devil of a time communicating to non-Indian audiences exactly what their relationship with nature is.” (1)
A big part of the problem is that people of Western culture have a hard time understanding their own views of nature and why they think about nature the way they do. In literally thousands of publications, theologians, philosophers, scientists, historians, and other scholars have explored Western culture’s views of nature and the roles of historic events, geographic struggles, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Western science in shaping those views (2). Movements such as Romanticism and Transcendentalism, that continue to impact modern thought, have expanded Western cultural conceptions of the human-nature relationship and applied them to the arts, humanities, and social systems. But despite these substantial efforts, there are strong indications that contemporary people of the dominant culture continue to struggle with their own understanding of and relationship to nature — a nature from which they are increasingly alienated.
For example, a 2008 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented the fact that “After 50 years of steady increase, per capita visits to U.S. National Parks have declined since 1987. . . All major lines of evidence point to an ongoing and fundamental shift away from nature-based recreation.” (3) As a result, at the same time almost everyone realizes humans need to interact more with nature for the health of both, people are pulling ever farther away. And as they know less and less about the environment they no longer have a relationship with, they are increasingly unable to establish environmental policies that protect the water, air, forests, and wetlands they depend on but no longer understand.
The cause for peoples’ alienation from nature has been ascribed variously to increasing engagement with electronics and virtual environments, increasing school and work pressure that makes it harder for families to get into the wilderness, rising costs for camping and park visits, growing fear of nature caused by urban stranger danger anxieties, violent television survival shows and “so-called nature shows which have become something akin to horror movies,” basic ignorance caused by lack of access to casual outdoor play on a daily basis, and instinctual human fears of wild predators and the landscapes they inhabit (4). But Vine Deloria suggests that Western culture’s view of nature and its relationship to human beings is a distinctive paradigm with deep historical roots. If so, then computer games, soccer practice, and park use fees might exacerbate an already-existing problem, but they can’t be the ultimate cause. To understand how and why people of Western culture relate to nature as they do, Deloria wrote, “We need to probe for a minute into the question of why non-Indians think the world is the way they want to see it.” (5)
This paper uses Mythic Ways of Knowing (6) as a powerful tool to explore and analyze Western culture’s relationship to nature. We describe and document the presence of two primary views of nature, four motifs of human-nature relationship, and an important mythic story called “Dark Forest, Fiery Desert” that’s been told by and for people of Western culture for over 4000 years. We identify and define humanus and humana in Western culture’s mythic stories and actions, as parts of the human psyche that perceive nature in fundamentally different ways. We also recognize the part of human psyche that sees nature holistically, discovering its voice in the same Mythic stories used to identify humanus and humana. We designate this very significant part of the human psyche the nana moma.
Information encoded in ancient as well as recent Mythic stories therefore unlocks our understanding of how and why Western culture relates to nature as it does. It also allows us to understand why people of Western culture tend to see Indigenous peoples and cultures the way they do. These two things facilitate more powerful and meaningful cross-cultural communication about nature. But perhaps most important, this work offers meaningful insight to people of contemporary culture who are increasingly grieved by their own alienation from nature, who continue to search for “a relationship which may have become ghostly from neglect, buried by over-domestication, outlawed by the surrounding culture, or no longer understood any more.” (7) It provides an answer to their fear that “we must roam the dark and lonely forests to seek an answer, hoping that if there is to be one, it will be in a language we can understand. Or have not forgotten.” (8)
It turns out Myth is that language – and it’s one the unconscious mind remembers very well.
Continue to Next Section: Two Views of Nature and Four Motifs of Human-Nature Relationship in Popular Western Culture
Outline / List of Headings and Pages:
References, Notes, and Credits for Introduction
* The original url for this paper was https://tapestryinstitute.org/occasional-papers/mythic-roots-alienation-vol-1-no-3-july-2015. That link now redirects to this page.
1. Vine Deloria, Jr. 1999. Spirit & Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Edited by Barbara Deloria, Kristin Foehner, and Sam Scinta. Fulcrum Publishing Co., Golden, CO. page 223
2. Joseph Campbell exemplifies the view of scholars who ascribe Western culture’s view of nature to its Judeo-Christian roots: “Our story of the fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us.” (Joseph Campbell. 1973. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ., page 99) Western science is another commonly mentioned culprit, because it leaves no room for a system that values nature. “We have reduced our knowledge of the world and the possibility of understanding and relating environment to a wholly mechanical process,” writes Vine Deloria, Jr. “We have become dependent, ultimately, on this one quarter of human experience, which is to reduce all human experience to a cause-and-effect situation. When we look at nature and environment through Western European eyes, that is really what we are looking at.” (Deloria, Op. cit., pages 226-227). See, as four very different additional examples of scholarship that reviews and summarizes some of the more important Western cultural views of nature and factors related to those views: (a) Donald Worster. 1994. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, New York. 507 pages. (b) I. G. Simmons. 1998. To civility and to man’s use: history, culture, and nature. Geographical Review, 88(1):114-126. (c) Simon Schama. 1996. Landscape and Memory. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York. 652 pages. (d) John McPhee. 1989. The Control of Nature. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 272 pages.
3. Oliver R. W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic. 2008. Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), vol. 105, no. 7, pages 2295-2300. Available online at http://www.pnas.org/content/105/7/2295.full.pdf?sid=ba8ca4d8-b5cb-40a5-bf3a-a8a7bed69221
4. (a) David Biello. 2008. “Are Americans Afraid of the Outdoors?” Scientific American. Available online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-americans-afraid-of-the-outdoors. Accessed June 24, 2015. (b) “Fear of Nature Has Lots of Company,” webpage of the National Wildlife Refuge System, U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, July 8, 2014. Available online at http://www.fws.gov/refuges/news/afraid_of_nature.html. Accessed June 24, 2015. (c) Op-Ed: “The Great Fear of the Great Outdoors.” Gary Ferguson. L.A. Times, December 19, 2014. Available online at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1221-ferguson-humans-and-nature-20141221-story.html. Accessed June 24, 2015. This reference is source for the quote about “so-called nature shows which have become something akin to horror movies.” (d) Dona Hart and Robert Wald Sussman. 2005. Man the Hunted. Basic Books. 336 pages.
5. Deloria. Op cit., page 225.
6. Dawn Hill Adams. 2015. Assessment as Acculturation: Procrustes in the Land Between the Mountain and the Sea. Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, 1(2). Available online here. It is not always appropriate to analyze the myths of non-Western cultures with Western methods based in Jungian psychology. But it is both apt and meaningful to apply Western methods of myth analysis to Western culture’s own Myths — precisely as has been done by Jung, Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Sam Keen and other Western myth scholars — since both the Myths and these methods of analysis are derived from the same basic cultural worldview.
7. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. 1992. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. Ballantine Books, New York. page 5. Estes was referring specifically to “the wild feminine” in this quote, but she largely equates this to nature throughout the book.
8. Charles E. Little. 1995. The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests. Penguin Books, New York. page 16.