Rebecca Vincent is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in mythology who writes about myth, nature, and environmental issues. In the following essay, she considers the connections between mythology and the current environmental crisis.
Myth and the Environmental Crisis
by Rebecca Vincent
You’d have to have your head in the sand these days not to notice that we’re in the midst of an epochal environmental crisis. Wildfires lick at our heals while ancient icebergs frozen since the last ice age collapse into the sea (how much longer till we need boats in Manhattan?); glaciers supplying water to millions in Asia simply disappear, more floods, more droughts, more mudslides, and on and on. Twenty-five percent of species on earth are threatened with extinction. Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum of London, one of the authors of the UN Biodiversity Report released May 6, 2019, posed the question: “can you imagine how people would be reacting if 25% of all major companies were facing bankruptcy? Ecologically, that’s where we’re at.”
How can turning to ancient myths help shift where we are in this pivotal moment of life on earth? What do ancient stories have to tell us that will help light our way toward a more livable and sustainable future? Most myths we think of in the traditional sense when we use the term “myth” emerged from cultures of the preindustrial world—cultures that were immersed in the natural world; cultures that had a vastly different relationship with nature than we modern humans have today.
Peoples of the past created stories about spirit beings inhabiting the stars because they saw the stars at night glistening in a black sky, unlike most of us today whose night skies are polluted by a dull glow of artificial city lights. People told stories about spirits and deities of streams, rivers, hillocks, desert oases, ice hummocks, and even water bubbles because these natural entities were an inescapable part of their daily lives. The natural landscape was a world of sacred beings and relatives.
We have, in the contemporary urban world, simply gone indoors where we no longer notice the natural phenomena happening outside our dwellings, cars, and work places. Because we’re hidden inside, we’re collectively blind to the impact we’re having on the natural systems that surround and sustain us—clear cut forests collapsing into mudslides, coastal cities whose beaches have been stripped of protective mangroves swamped by ocean and storms, the desertification of once green lands, the drenching of land and water with toxins, and the trash. The amount of plastic trash on earth has now surpassed by weight the combined total of all seven billion human beings alive today.
The price of our lack of awareness of natural systems is becoming increasingly hard to avoid or deny. Our collective attention is being constantly swept into a frenzy of alarm as floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires and other extreme weather events intensify and worsen. More of us are forced to wonder if these cycles of climate chaos will descend upon our very own doorsteps. Indeed, according to the United Nations, one in seven humans alive today are fleeing some kind of turmoil, much of that caused by environmental devastation. In sheer numbers, more humans are presently fleeing climate and societal chaos than at any other time of human life on earth.
In the twenty-first century we speak collectively of water and nature as “resources.” We think of them in terms of their utility in upholding contemporary societies. Nature and water have gone from being deities in the pre-industrial past to commodities today. How can myth help us out of this crisis?
Myths and stories from pre-industrial times and from living indigenous cultures call our attention back to natural phenomena we have forgotten. They remind us of a time when nature was not a commodity but instead sacred and populated by holy beings. Myths remind us of a different way of perceiving and interacting with the natural world than our predominant one of exploitation. Instead of draining ancient aquifers to frack for oil or flushing the toxic remains of coal mining into slurry, water sources were deemed holy. People presented gifts to the spirits they perceived as residing over particular water sources.
Salmon, seals, whales, sea otters, and a diverse array of other nonhuman creatures were taken as spouses and viewed as relatives. Boundaries between species were fluid, and creation stories of myriads of diverse cultures tell of primordial descent from these unions with fish, snakes, and other animals. Traditional Passamaquoddy myths from the Northeastern US describe the tribe as descending from unions between pollock and humans. The Arapaco of the lower Uaupes in South America consider their tribe’s origin to be from a union between an anaconda and a human woman.
Myth shows us, by means of contrast, our perceived lack of interconnection with the natural world. Our collective consciousness is no longer oriented around the natural world, nonhuman animals, deities or mythic beings. Instead, modern consciousness is dominated by technology, machines, buildings, and cars. Of course we cannot simply lift the mantle of ancient beliefs about the holiness of nature and water from earlier times and overlay it on our own. We’ve grown into another era and cannot simply abandon technology and industry and revert to prior times. But noticing how nature and water have shifted from deity to commodity illuminates the distance that has arisen between people and nature in the modern era.
Tribal elders of the Achuar Tribe of South America say that radical changes in human actions toward nature are not all that is needed to alter humanity’s life-destroying course. They believe a fundamental change in the collective dream must take place in modern consciousness for any sort of real transformation to occur.
We are at a pivotal moment of life on earth. The science is clear. We must change the way we are living together and on this earth, and we must restore a more harmonious, less exploitative relationship with the natural world. Our understanding of “nature” must transform from one based on utility, one where we define nature as a “resource”, to one based on respect and gratitude. We need a radical change in our collective dream.
Indigenous peoples around the earth can help lead us. It is not too late to listen to the voices of those cultures but we must act quickly. Indigenous earth-based cultures around the world have survived and continue to fight for their existence against the continual assault of mining and utility companies intent upon pillaging their lands and cultures. As Tara Houska, an Ojibway writer and tribal attorney, points out:
My people are the keepers of the sacred—the last beautiful places, rich ecosystems, and healthy earth left. Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity didn’t happen by accident. When embedded traditional value systems are interwoven with the living world, stewardship, sustainability, the rights of nature and those yet to come are simply ways of life. Certainly, colonization did its best to wipe those values out of existence, but many of us hold on or revitalize and defend.
The struggles for environmental health and human justice are twin sides of the same coin. They cannot be waged separately. Indigenous peoples around the earth offer models of harmonious connection with the natural world based on respect and stewardship that can help alter the modern path forward.
According to English folklore, nature spirits would live in a spring, lake, stream, or grove of trees only as long as they were remembered and addressed respectfully; if they were neglected, they would depart and the land and waters would feel soul-less and dead. This same pattern of story is found in mythic traditions around the world where the spirits of land and water admonish humans to respect them, treat them well, and maintain harmony with the nonhuman world; otherwise drastic and terrible consequences ensue.
The ancient Greeks believed two springs of water were to be found in the netherworld: the waters of forgetting which come from the Lake of Negligence, and the waters of remembrance from the Lake of Memory. We are standing right at the brink of irreversible change unless we alter our collision course with the natural world. Let us seize this moment before it is truly too late. Let us drink once more from the spring of memory and rekindle the ancient awareness of the critical importance of earth and water. Let us stop destroying the earth and instead salvage the fine web of interconnected life forms. Youth today demand this change. For any kind of livable future, we must recognize that we are inescapably intertwined with the natural world; that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. Let us turn our attention to the indigenous peoples of this earth and listen to their stories and their struggles. Let us stop pillaging our planet and instead launch together into the long work ahead of restoring these relationships and the ecosystems that support all life.
Andy Purvis quote from PRI, The World, May 6, 2019.
The amount of plastic trash surpassing the total of all human beings alive today from Patagonia, Recycle issue, September 2019, p. 05.
Human migration statistics from Paul Salopek, Walking With Migrants, National Geographic, August, 2019, p. 45.
Passamaquoddy myth of descent from pollock from a radio series on native music and culture, Oyate ta aloha (Songs of the people) broadcast on WOJB April 10, 2001. www.oyate.com.
The Arapaco origin myth from, Nijel J.H. Smith, The Enchanted Amazon Rainforest, Stories from a Vanishing World. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1996, p. 93.
Pachamama belief about a change in our collective dream from New Dimensions radio interview with Lynn Twist, broadcast on WOJB, April 15, 2001 and also from www.pachamama.org.
Tara Houska passage fromTara Houska on the Voices of Indigenous Elders, LitHub, Sept. 18, https://lithub.com/what-listening-means-in-a-time-of-climate-crisis/).
English folklore about nature spirits departing if forgotten from Terri Windling, https://www.terriwindling.com.
Ancient Greek belief about two springs of water in the netherworld from Jean Rudhardt, “Water.” Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 15. Ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan and Free P, 1987, p. 357.
Rebecca Vincent is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in mythology who writes about myth nature, and environmental issues. Her writing has appeared in various publications, anthologies, literary reviews, and blogs. She has recently launched an online educational program that offers courses in writing, myth, and environmental studies. You can learn more about her and her work and connect with her by visiting her website http://rebecca-vincent.com and http://www.classroom-without-walls.com.