Friday, April 22, 2011

A ritual renaissance

Have you ever tried to hunt, gather, and grow all the food you'd need to prepare just one meal? Well, if you've kept up with your environmental bestsellers, you'll recall Michael Pollan's attempt at this feat in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Hunting, gathering and growing are all encounters with nature that require you to face the difficult side of your relationship with it in some fashion (refer to my previous post for what I mean by this "difficult" side).

To illustrate the next piece of the Values Project Roundtable's philosophical hypothesis, let's pretend you're inspired to follow Pollan's suit (or perhaps you actually did? In which case, please share your story!)...

Despite your giddiness over bagging a prize-winning (well, in your mind at least) wild turkey, you also realize that you've killed a fellow earthling. You ended this creature's life at the expense of your own need to eat.

As you forage for the mushrooms for your grandma's infamous gravy recipe, you may enjoy your time in the woods for a while, until your back starts to hurt from bending over, or the bugs surpass your tolerance threshold, or nature has hidden the mushrooms from you and you frustratingly have to spend another day on the hunt for mushroom jackpot. Not to mention you suffer from a nagging paranoia that you'll misidentify a mushroom and meet an early death, or at least spend the night in the ER, because of your mistake. Nature can be fickle like that sometimes.

Photo: EuroKulture

And then, to make your grand vision for veggies a reality, you've started a garden. While you enjoy spending your weekends digging in the dirt, after a while you realize there are some not-so-romantic notions that come with gardening. A strange fungus infects your tomatoes and thus kills your dreams of canning them for a winter's supply of pasta sauce. Or a gopher discovers your garden. To his delight and your dismay, he eats your carrots and peppers.

Yet, through it all, you've found yourself on the other end. After a long day of cooking, you're sitting at the dinner table with your nearest and dearest, regaling your adventures and follies in creating the meal, laughing with your best friend over her recent dating fail, and feeling the warmth of community wash over the room and your spirit.

Despite the road bumps in negotiating a meal out of nature, you were able to build or strengthen a few values along the way. Perhaps on both your turkey and mushroom hunts, your appreciation for the forest's beauty deepened, as you realized you're a part of its food web. Or, despite your squabbles with fungus and the gopher, your gardening experiment made you more aware of the ecological community in your own backyard. And, even after a long day in the kitchen, the meal you shared with your loved ones nurtured your sense of human community.

In a sense--and I hope I myself am interpreting this correctly--the meal with which you culminated your adventure can be seen as a ritual that mediated your encounters with the negative side of nature and with your own limits as a human. As a result, you were able to strengthen your sense of community--with both people and the land--as well as uncover a deeper layer of an ecosystem's beauty.

And so, the Roundtable argues that, in order to cope with the difficulties in our relationship with nature, we need to infuse our lives with more nature-focused rituals and other "technologies of the mind" (as they like to call them), such as art, performance and festival. In turn, these rituals transmute the troubling aspects of nature and of our own limitations into opportunities to create values, such as community and beauty. In other words, rituals could be the cultural tools to help us cultivate environmental values on a very deep level.

Burning Man is one extreme example of modern day ritual and art that builds community. Photo: (c) Pmatt Freedman.

To throw a blanket statement out there, probably every culture and definitely every religion uses ritual to create meaning within human life, often as mediators in relationships—whether between humans and humans, humans and animals, or humans and the divine.

Take, for example, the Communion ritual in Christianity. While it symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus, it also signifies the close relationship between Christians and God, and Christians and other Christians--i.e. community.

Or, many cultures have (or had) ceremonies that initiate adolescents into adulthood. In exchange for childhood innocence, the adolescent gains acceptance into the adult community via the ceremony.

Unfortunately, American culture has become relatively impoverished in terms of ritualized encounters with nature...and rituals in general. We've become divorced from many of the duties of survival, such as growing or hunting our own food. Meals are often eaten on the run and by ourselves, and the plants and animals that we eat have been rendered merely "commodities."

And perhaps the closest thing we have to an initiation ceremony is fraternity hazing.

And so, the Roundtable is calling for a renaissance of ritual, art, performance and celebration in our relationship with nature. While scientists and engineers are working hard in the lab to come up with scientific solutions to our environmental problems, they are proposing this renaissance as one possible solution on the humanistic front.

Photo: Wildlands Restoration Volunteers
The renaissance would not entail more of just any kind of experience with nature, from what I understand. While research has shown that spending time with nature can contribute to one's proclivity toward environmentalism, several of the Roundtable members think that merely a walk in the woods, for example, is not enough. Value creation requires getting our hands dirty in what it means to be in this complex relationship.

A flagship example for the Roundtable is ecological restoration. While the ultimate goal of restoration is to revive an ecosystem, it often entails "sacrificing" species, usually invasive ones. If we were to create more rituals or celebrations around restoration, however, the sacrifice would not be in vain. Instead, restoration would become an opportunity for building community, as well as a beautiful, healthy landscape.

In this vein, rituals could be the mechanism for creating Leopold's land community.

My next post will highlight one Roundtable member's real-life experimentation with their philosophical hypothesis. 


  1. Another really thoughtful and enjoyable post. I like your description of American culture as "impoverished" and "divorced" from the "duties of survival." Before I made it that far in your post, I was already wondering if we (by 'we', I guess I mean most Americans including myself) take advantage of nature because we have grown so apart from the effort of individually providing (food, shelter, etc.) for ourselves. (How easy is it to overlook the ills of factory farming--for the land, the animals, and us--for example, when all we know is a fully stocked grocery store shelf?) Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but absence for too long makes the head callous and forgetful.

  2. Great post! I've been thinking a lot lately my relationship with nature - which includes my relationship with food. While I admit that I don't live very close to the land, I do really see the value in such a lifestyle.

  3. Excellent post, Jenny! I must admit, though, I do have deer hunters in my family and I'm generally one of those folks guilty of "eating on the go" all the time. :)
    Your inclusion of Christianity in your post was a nice touch as well, given that it was written on Good Friday and just before Easter.