Ecology and Nature Mysticism

Growing up in the countryside gave me a different perspective on life. Life around me changed with the seasons. As a child I was aware of the change with the seasons, but the reason for that change remained largely inexplicable. In spring I eagerly waited for the first signs of change in nature. The solitary snowdrop hiding under a tree, the bursting into bloom of the ma and the appearance of hazel nuts on the trees, each indicating the onset of a different season. Although I knew at an early age this was due to changes in the position of the sun, the process of change in nature still seemed a mysterious process. Primary school science was not sufficient to explain the changes in the moods of nature. None of the adults I knew could explain the sudden changes in the weather, why did a bright summer’s day suddenly darken with storm clouds which would erupt into a sudden downpour. An uncontrollable force which could disrupt people’s lives. The eruption of the storm would instantly change people’s lives. In a fierce thunderstorm people would take cover, as the fierce rain made work impossible. Storms demonstrated not only the power of nature and the insignificance of man, but also its mystery. How did the cows know long in advance that a storm was coming? Hours before it arrived they would sit down in a group, nobody could explain to me how the cows knew or why they sat in a group? Was it some primeval instinct that was necessary for the survival of the primeval wild cattle that roamed the land. Living the country you learned to accept the mystery and power of nature, us dwarfish beings had no choice to the live and work according to the rhythms of nature.

Our village church steeped in human history as it was, also gave testament to the power and majesty of nature. The purpose of the steeple I was told was to show distant travellers that there was human habitation here, a civilised Christian place, were shelter could be found in a storm. At the entrance to the church, at the lych gate were two ancient yews. Planted we were told to provide yew for the English bows, used by the archers at Agincourt and the other battles of the Hundred Years War. In fact this was a lie, concealing there real purpose, a purpose dating back to pre-Christian times. Now thought to either provide protection against evil spirits, or more likely due to their great age, seen to provide a link to the underworld and the Gods thereof. Just their survival and purpose added to the mystery, as when planted these yew trees would have served little practical purpose, as their berries were poisonous to livestock.

Rather than being frightened I grew to love the power and magic of nature. I loved being out in storms witnessing their power. How trees bent, swayed and buckled beneath the wind. Being careful to avoid elms, as they were notorious for shedding their branches without warning. Even in good weather countrymen were wary of elms, often keeping a safe distance from them.

Heraclitus to me sums up the essence of nature, when he said that ‘nature loves to hide’. Nature or the essence that is nature hides in plain sight. I know yet don’t know nature. To the Greeks nature was a Goddess Isis, who hid behind her veil. This was how I experienced nature, I could see the changes taking place, trees getting leaves in spring and shedding them in autumn, yet feeling that I did not really understand what was happening. Possibly I have too much of the country mans’ acceptance of what is, knowing that I cannot change it. Although I have an understanding of biology, quantum physics, chemistry, I cannot shake to the belief that these come together in a something that is both unknowable and knowable. What I have to admit to a knowledge of a thing that I cannot express in the language of ordinary or scientific discourse. Poetry with its ability to give a sense of what lies behind the words is perhaps better suited for this task.

Goethe expressed this sentiment far better. When he wrote “A.Humboldt sent me the translation of his Essay on the Geography of Plants with a flattering illustration that implies Poetry, too might lift the veil of Nature.” What he was referring to was an illustration in the book of the God Apollo unveiling the Goddess of Nature at whose feet lay a copy of Goethe’s book ‘The metamorphosis of Plants’.

What I believe is that there are many valid modes of understanding. Jaspers and Benjamin expressed this in similar but different ways. Jaspers said there are many ways to the truth. He was thinking of the stories, parables and myths of Christianity that can express the truths of that religion in a manner that is impossible through the use of reason and rational discourse. When writing of the task of the translator, Benjamin said there was but one universal language, but one that could be expressed in different senses according to which spoken language was used. He gives the following example the French call bread pan and the Germans call it brod. They are both describing the same thing, but subtle differences in what they mean when they use the respective terms. Can not my nature mysticism and biological discourse be equally valid, are not the both expressing equally valid senses of what is understood as nature? What is being described, explained or understood are two different sensory experiences that need not be contradictory. Does not ecology suggest a reconciliation of the two experiences. Ecologists have a sound scientific understanding of nature, yet they also experience a sense of the wholeness of nature. A natural order that they wish to preserve through application of their scientific knowledge to prevent the catastrophe that the anthropocene threatens. A threat that can be simply illustrated in the words of my father a former old countryman. He said looking at a field full of cattle, does not the farmer realise that there are too many cows in that field and that many cows will destroy the drainage system and turn the field into a muddy mess. He was right the industrial farmer inflicted irrevocable damage on that field significantly reducing its value as pastureland.

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