SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2000

hacking down the garden

by Ian Lordon


In the beginning (according to some), there was Haida Gwaii. The raven welcomed the first men as they struggled from the shell, then tricked and taught them as they settled the islands of the archipelago.

For thousands of years the Haida lived in harmony with the land and sea, and both answered every need of the people. When the ancestors took from the forest, the rivers, or ocean, a ceremony of some kind usually accompanied the harvest. These rituals were performed to honour or thank the forces that helped sustain the people, and it was good.

"Our ancestors lived comfortably and respectfully for tens of thousands of years, since the beginning of time," Haida language teacher Diane Brown says. "There was ceremony and ritual for the taking of everything. You had to talk to the tree, talk to everything. You had to give thanks for their life and tell them what you were taking them for, and sometimes who it was for." This way of living served the Haida well and until two hundred and fifty years ago, they lived comfortably, enjoyed nature's abundance, and prospered.

Today, the Haida have a difficult time finding cedar tall and straight enough to carve totem poles and canoes. Today, before trees are harvested on Haida Gwaii we produce forest development plans and Local Resource Use Plans (LRUPs). We build roads, sign permits If a faller was caught talking to trees, he'd probably wind up on medication.

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
Genesis 1:26-29

These words appear among the first pages of the Old Testament, at a point where God is indulging quite a variety of artistic and constructive impulses. They are the word of God according to Judeo-Christian tradition, and they guided many of the hearts and souls belonging to the first Europeans who came in contact with the Haida.

Those men arrived in wooden ships looking for sea-otter pelts (hard to come by these days), and the settlers who followed did their level best to populate the earth, catch the fish, shoot the caribou, chop the trees, and mine the soil. They were good Christian soldiers, and their comrades were carrying out the same orders all around the globe.

Centuries later, the dominion God asked his followers to impose upon the Earth is convincingly articulated by pipelines, freeways and cities on the land; supertankers, processing ships, and platforms at sea. The wild and woolly world has given way to the global village, and mankind's success in subjugating the planet probably surpassed the wildest imaginings of the early Hebrews God was speaking to in Genesis.

Many modern-day theologians, sociologists, environmentalists, and even economists attribute western society's use of the environment and its resources to that particular passage. God told humanity to subdue and exploit all life on Earth and this divine encouragement gave rise to a phenomenon we now refer to as anthropocentrism - a word Oxford's English Dictionary defines as 'centring in man; regarding man as the central fact of the universe, to which all surrounding facts have reference.'

Put another way, man believes the universe revolves around him. Why? Because the bible tells him so. If a single person self-applied the term, rather than an entire species, most people would politely suggest the person in question suffered from conceit and a bloated ego. One could easily say the same about mankind, or at least western society.

Anthropocentrism may have had its origins in the Old Testament, but it owes its continued existence as much to modern values, science, and academia as it does to Judeo-Christian tradition. After all, in western society we no longer tolerate religious influences at school, at work, in government or politics. Even if we did, the exploitation of creation with God's blessing would no longer be sanctioned because religious institutions of every stripe are beginning to take responsibility for the environmental crisis and attempting to undo the damage wrought by anthropocentric thinking.

Sir Crispin Tickell, a British environmental expert and diplomat, remarked upon this trend somewhat cynically in a lecture he delivered at London College three years ago.

"Recently many religious leaders have sought to align themselves with green issues and to harness green enthusiasm ­ particularly among the young ­ to their causes. Texts are being re-examined, new interpretations being put on old dogma, and efforts being made to lure a bewildering variety of spiritualists, psychics, astrologers, Tarot card readers, creationists, New Age and other curiosities, or plain nutters, back to organized religion."

And Carolyn Tanner Irish, the Episcopal Bishop of Utah, supports at least the first of Tickell's assertions during a 1997 lecture. In what would have formerly been considered a major departure from accepted scriptural interpretation, but is quickly becoming commonplace, Irish rejects the notion that Genesis is the holy equivalent of a Tree Farm Licence.

"Some thought Genesis authorized the unbridled exploitation of Earth under the rubric of having dominion or an unlimited mandate for population growth under the call to be fruitful and multiply," Reverend Irish says. "But the scriptural record as a whole does not support the image of an exploitative God in whose image we are made, nor is it possible for creation to be fruitful or fertile enough to sustain an unlimited population. Power can, of course, be exercised as dominion or control, but authority is more like responsible influence than control."

This newfound environmental conscience among Judeo-Christian leaders is certainly a welcome development, even if it took thousands of years to take hold. Today, Irish's interpretation of scripture is shared by many people the world over, and in far-flung reaches like Masset our own Reverend Peter Hamel advances much the same reading of the bible.

Like Irish, Hamel also draws a distinction between 'dominion' and 'responsible dominion.' He points to the book of Job as evidence that God values the natural world and the wilderness and expects humanity to do the same.

"When God starts speaking to Job in Chapter 38, in talking about the various animals that have populated the Earth, it is about creation coming alive," he says. "Here is the cradle for wildness, wildness in the sense of environmentalism, and the protection of wilderness and wild places."

But even if Christians and Jews are eager to embrace environmentalism and document their conversion through scripture, they aren't quite ready to reject anthropocentrism entirely. To remove man from his lofty perch, and suggest human life is no more significant than any other, is to rob him of his dominion - responsible or otherwise. The idea that all life is equal before God and entitled to the same existentialist rights on this planet is one Hamel espouses, but one church authorities are not prepared to accept.

"When I was working on this stuff in theological school, one of my professors called me dangerous," he says. "Talking about Christ dying on the cross for all of life, not just human beings, they thought was rather radical."

There are, however, several other religious and spiritual traditions which do promote exactly this sort of awareness to varying degrees, and they tend to be rooted in eastern and aboriginal cultures.

If western religious traditions promoted an anthropocentric view of the universe, then at the opposite end of the spectrum are those that cultivate a more pantheistic perspective. Pantheism, again according to Oxford, is 'the religious belief or philosophical theory that God and the universe are identical (implying a denial of the personality and transcendence of God); the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God.'

Pantheists reckon that man is not created in God's image, part mortal/part divine, but merely a very small, very insignificant, very ordinary 'part' of God, or creation itself. Sir Tickell does a good job of describing some of these religious traditions, how they relate humanity to life, and how that relationship influences their position on the anthropocentric/pantheistic spectrum when he writes:

"At (the pantheistic) end are those for whom nature is self-sufficient and self-regulatory. Life is a constant flux and humans should put themselves in harmony with it. One of the favorite symbols of Taoism is water: humans should 'be the stream of the universe.' Buddhists likewise look for harmony. All life is one and indivisible. The overriding moral value is compassion for all beings. Neither Taoists nor Buddhists find it necessary to invoke God as a creator or a manipulator of his creation. Hindus have many gods but associate them with a nature vibrating with life. Such life allows animals, including humans, to move in and out of each other through reincarnation."

Once individuals adopt the belief that God and the universe are one and the same, it isn't hard to understand how these religious convictions can translate to green politics. To exploit, disrespect, and destroy life is to exploit, disrespect, and destroy God. Pantheistic traditions hold that human beings are inextricably connected to and dependent upon the universe around them. To abuse the Earth is to abuse humanity itself. Or as Chief Seattle, a First Nations chief from nineteenth century America put it:

"Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

In another life, Chief Seattle might have been a Buddhist monk.



Whether a person's religious beliefs can be construed as pantheistic or anthropocentric, nature has a role to play in every spiritual tradition. Furthermore, nearly every spiritual tradition promotes respect for the environment in one way or another.

Author and scholar, Dr. Kusumita P. Pedersen explored this question in a paper she wrote in 1998 titled "Environmental Ethics in Interreligious Perspective." After reviewing the most widespread and popular religious traditions, Pedersen concluded they agreed to a greater or lesser extent on the following points:

Pedersen, through careful study and analysis, arrives at a conclusion that billions of people already accept and take for granted - that nature and spirituality are closely intertwined. Once the connection between spirituality and nature is acknowledged, it isn't much of a stretch to then conclude that nature itself has spiritual value.And this is where it all becomes a little complicated

If we accept that nature has spiritual value, at least to the large segment of the population that observes some form of spiritual tradition, then why is there little or no discussion of these values when society is planning to harvest natural resources? It's a legitimate question, and one that highlights the absurd inadequacy of western society's current approach to the management our natural legacy.

Michael Blackstock is the Aboriginal Affairs Manager for the Kamloops Forest Region. He's also part native. Blackstock has the arduous task of trying to reconcile two very different cultures and their perspectives on the natural world. As an upper-level employee with the Forest Service, he is expected to take part in the scientific planning and management of a large portion of British Columbia's interior forests. As a native person with respect for his culture's spiritual beliefs and traditions, he's in the unpleasant position of participating in what is often the unceremonial and calculated destruction of nature.

"For First Nations people, spiritual values are the foremost concern. They're the foundation for their ecological perspective on the forest," he says. "All cultures have that spiritual connection, it's just that for whatever reason western culture is losing it. It's not like First Nations are the only ones ever to have this connection, everybody has it, but First Nations have managed to keep it. And in the kind of industrial forestry we're practicing in BC those values have been minimized."

Blackstock suspects First Nations managed to retain their connection to the land because they have only been exposed to western attitudes for a couple of centuries. The cultural colonization of western values has not fully taken root and replaced the less dominant, more symbiotic relationship with nature that aboriginal people practiced for the thousands of years they were alone on this continent.

Ward Churchill, an American native activist, develops this idea a little further during a speaking tour of Germany. Churchill argues that before they were introduced to the idea of subjugating creation, most ancient cultures related to the natural world in much the same way First Nations do today, but at some point that relationship was lost.

"What we have to understand is that in order for Europeans to do what they have done to virtually all non-Europeans, all non-Westerners on the planet, they had to colonize themselves," Churchill says. "They too are indigenous people. Not here. But somewhere they are indigenous people, with indigenous understandings of the land. They need to get back in touch with that. They must recover that which was taken from them in the process of colonization. They have to recognize the need for that to occur, to get back to what it meant to be Gaelic or Celtic, to find out what Anglo-Saxon really meant before the synthesis of 'Europe' was effected. I can talk to Basques and Celts. I can't talk to Europeans."

In a manner of speaking Churchill is suggesting western culture is capable of exploiting nature the way it does because it has abandoned indigenous ways of relating to the land and valuing the natural world. Or, as Reverend Hamel puts it, western society is capable of viewing creation as a store of resources for economic use because it has lost its spiritual relationship with the land. Once that relationship is erased, society is suddenly capable of destroying nature, the source of its physical and spiritual sustenance, without regret or second thought.

"You are losing sacred places. You are destroying hallowed ground," Hamel says. "All of the land, the Earth, is a holy place and it is a place to be treated with respect and awe. If you don't have a personal relationship to that, if it doesn't mean something to you, then you can objectify it. Then you're not ripping and tearing apart the sinews of life when you exploit habitat, whether in the sea, on land, or in the air."

"People like to get scared of the word spirituality. It conjures up some kind of fear - that people who are spiritual aren't right in the head or whatever. They make fun of it, and that's something you do when faced with something you don't know about, and you're afraid to know about. You make fun of it and put it down. And yet it's such a simple thing."
­ Diane Brown

It never used to be this way. God (or gods) once occupied a prominent position in every culture throughout recorded history. What's more, spiritual values had a profound effect upon the behaviour of individuals and societies. Deities were consulted, honoured, and worshipped before nations went to war or the people ate their breakfast. Those individuals who refused to conform to their culture's spiritual values were viewed suspiciously and often ostracized or condemned.

Today, more and more often, the reverse is true. Belief- systems haven't disappeared, people still congregate, observe, and celebrate their faith, but spirituality no longer shapes decisions made by the people who determine the fate of the Earth's resources. More often than not when spiritual issues are raised, the people who raise them are viewed suspiciously and often ostracized or condemned.

"I've experienced it," April Churchill, a Massett weaver says. "Every time I speak publicly and bring it up I'm called some kind of emotional, spiritual person. It's a small component that exists within me, but if I talk about it or anybody talks about it, people say 'it's emotional and wonderful but is it relevant?' Well, I think it really is relevant."

Certainly some people will argue that distancing spiritual influences from public decision-making is a wise course to follow. After all, many religious traditions differ on certain grounds, and attempting to reconcile the disparities between them could generate more conflict in an arena already notorious for it.

But are we really better off if we ignore these issues? And what do we lose when we set them aside? Michael Blackstock believes we're neglecting a vast store of wisdom accumulated over the course of thousands of years. In our arrogance, in our dependence upon modern science and economics, we're overlooking lessons so basic, so fundamental to human existence they've been known to us in one form or another throughout recorded history and beyond.

"We do need to rely upon the resources of the forest, that's just a fact," Blackstock says. "But if we use these resources in a way that is not conscious of the spirituality of forests and the sacredness of forests, then at some point we're not going to be able to survive. We're not listening to the canaries in the mine, and those canaries can be spiritual voices as well as the literal canary. It's in our own best interest, but we just don't seem to do it."

In the final analysis there is nothing really mysterious about our spiritual connection to the universe. Our food, our water, our homes, our clothing, our very existence depends upon it. Why should it come as any surprise that we revere it? If we set aside the ritual, the dogma, the texts and interpretations, and strip religious order down to the human spiritual bond to the Earth, it's something even the most determined atheist can recognize and understand. Or as someone once said:

"If you don't believe we're dependent upon and connected to the Earth, try holding your breath for three minutes."

So what happens if we begin to seriously consider these values when we plan to harvest resources? Lynna
Landstreet, a writer and graduate of York University's environmental studies program, notes that spiritual values don't easily lend themselves to resource planning processes because they can often be difficult to get a handle on.

"They aren't something that's scientifically quantifiable," she says. "That's where a lot of people run into problems because they're used to thinking of these things in a quantitative paradigm where everything has to be measured."

Planning processes do prefer to digest a steady diet of quantifiable information, but not always. Take, for example, the Tlell Local Resource Use Plan. While quantifiable values like terrain, soil type, stand composition, and water quality are under consideration, there are also a few qualitative values on the table. Visual quality, recreational sites, future generations, and achieving a balance can all be perceived as qualitative in certain respects.

Spiritual values too are being examined by the Tlell LRUP planning group, but so far they've only been addressed on two occasions: The table members watched a video portraying First Nations' spirituality, and they heard a presentation on the subject from Kimiko von Boetticher. This was some time ago, and since then the table hasn't returned to the subject for any meaningful discourse.

A video and presentation likely won't be enough to deal with spiritual values. Give the table members credit, at least they acknowledged these values which is better than most land-use plans in British Columbia, but the true measure of their success will surface in the final document once the planning process is complete.

Unfortunately, because there are no laws, policies, or guidelines to follow when dealing with spiritual values in the context of a planning process, Landstreet says it will require (no pun intended) something of a leap of faith from table members to properly address them.

"People have to really consciously acknowledge and commit to the idea that quantitative values are not the only ones that count. That things that can't be measured are values as well," she says. "That really does mean committing to a different way of thinking, and it requires quite a bit of courage on the part of the people who are doing it because it means going against the prevailing model within which these processes are conducted."

Ultimately, Landstreet believes the ability of tables like the Tlell LRUP to produce a plan that takes spiritual values into account depends largely on the willingness of the table members to consider them.

"You can't convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced. If it's somebody who is completely not open to hearing spiritual perspectives at all then it's not going to matter what you tell them," she says. "The people who are involved in the planning have to make a commitment to be willing to hear people out. Even if they don't really understand where someone's coming from, they have to at least recognize that person's experience is likely valuable to them. It's still a struggle, but I think it's a worthwhile one."

Spiritual values do exist, at least in the hearts, minds, and souls of spiritual people. For those people, the natural world is often a source of, or repository for, these values. If we accept this, then it follows that spiritual values should be considered and accounted for when we plan to harvest resources from the Earth.

Today, one can safely say there is little that is loving, skillful, or reverent about a 100-hectare clearcut, a Forest Development Plan, or a mining permit. If there was, the natural world would likely be better for it. But as it is, humanity's prevailing attitude towards creation continues to be one of dominion and abuse based solely on facts, figures, evidence and measurements. The skills currently involved in resource use are principally based on greed - how to maximize profit and minimize expenditure.

Of course many of the laws and regulations written by governments are meant to counteract those raw capitalistic impulses and protect qualitative values like wilderness from greed. But because governments have been secularized, addressing anything that may be construed as remotely spiritual is carefully avoided.

To take a little liberty with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's famous quote: "the government has no business in the souls of the nation." This is true insofar as it applies to the rights of people to choose and exercise their beliefs, but in spite of this, governments quite appropriately will intervene to protect and restore heritage churches, grave sites, and other sacred places or monuments. This is the context within which the spiritual value of nature should be addressed.

Spiritual people must be allowed to take responsibility for putting their beliefs into effect, and non-spiritual people have to listen and respect their attempts to do so. This doesn't mean protecting all of the Earth's resources from human use, this would condemn us to extinction, but rather that we approach the use of these resources in a manner which is enlightened, which respects the integrity of the natural world and is mindful of our dependence upon it. Or, as the American writer Wendell Berry eloquently phrases it:

"We cannot live harmlessly or strictly at our own expense. We depend upon other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live we must daily break the bread, break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructfully, wastefully, it is a desecration. And in such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and others to want."

How we get there is another matter altogether. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2000