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Nature Worship: or Seeing the Trees for the Ents

Author: John Halstead
Posted: September 16th. 2015
Times Viewed: 2,666

To a devotional polytheist and monotheist alike, it may be difficult to understand Neo-Pagan nature worship. They might think that Neo-Pagans cannot possibly be worshipping natural phenomena, like the sun or trees; Neo-Pagans must be worshiping a “divine force” within or behind the phenomena, they think, something like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, who were the personification of the spirits of the trees. Devotional polytheists do not worship the statues that represent their gods and monotheistic Christians do not worship their icons, so they might have difficulty understanding the Pagan worship of physical nature. They assume that worship needs a receptive party on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it might seem absurd to worship inanimate or unconscious nature.

But for me, worship is a natural human response to the wonder which nature evokes. It is a spontaneous expression of awe, gratitude, joy, praise … and sometimes a little fear and trembling. In the morning, I greet the sun, I celebrate the sun -- not the spirit of the sun -- the sun itself. Admittedly, the sun is indifferent to me, but this is irrelevant to my wanting to celebrate it.

What’s more, the “Sun vs. Spirit of the Sun” distinction assumes a division between matter and spirit that many Neo-Pagans deny. For many Neo-Pagans and other pantheists who embrace an immanent divine, “nature” and “the divine force within or behind nature” are not separate entities.

In addition, I think it is actually possible for there to be an interaction between the Neo-Pagan worshiper and an unconscious or inanimate nature without personifying it. But this requires the tricky step of overcoming the subject-object distinction, which is our default way of relating to the world. I recently came across Martin Buber’s discussion of his contemplation of a tree in I and Thou which describes precisely this transcending of the subject-object relation:

"I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law–those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars–all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself."

Here is what I take away from his discussion of the encounter with the tree:

1. Encountering the tree as a “you” or “Thou” is different than encountering the tree as an “it” (i.e., as an object) .

2. Encountering the tree as a “you” means entering into a relationship, albeit an asymmetrical one in the case of inanimate or unconscious natural phenomena like the tree.

3. Encountering the tree as a “you” does not mean looking beyond or within the tree for something else like a soul or a dryad … or an Ent. It does not mean personifying the tree.

4. Encountering the tree as a “you” is tricky; it requires both “will and grace”.

5. Encountering the tree as a “you” requires understanding that the act of perception is complex and not unidirectional.

This last point is inspired by David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous:

Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter – of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that that confronts us and draws us into relation. We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.

If, on the other hand, we wish to describe a particular phenomenon without repressing our direct experience, then we cannot avoid speaking of the phenomenon as an active, animate entity with which we find ourselves engaged. To the sensing body, no thing presents itself as utterly passive or inert. Only by affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world. [...]

There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.”

But to see and hear and feel the world in the way is not easy. But that is what I hope Neo-Pagan ritual will help me to do. Not to see an Ents where there is a tree, but to see, really see, the tree itself.





ABOUT...

John Halstead


Location: Chicago, Illinois

Website: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2013/02/17/nature-worship-or-seeing-the-trees-for-the-ents/

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