Early spring! Winter’s bleak landscape is airbrushed with a haze of soft greens and reds. Vital forces pulse from underground roots, pushing leaves out of their winter hibernacula. Birdsong cracks through months of silence and the air itself shimmers with new life. To the outwardly-oriented, biophilic member of our species the spring’s miracles can be overwhelming. Why have so many cultures felt a need to embellish them?
Ancient Egyptians had their god, Osiris, murdered by his brother, Set, and his body carved into pieces. Osiris’ mourning wife collected and reassembled them (except for one vital member for which she had a golden prosthesis made!) and then miraculously brought her husband back to life long enough to have him use it to sire their son, Horus, after which Osiris redied – but only after regaining control of the seasons of growth and harvest. The Phrygians had their god of vegetation, Attis, bleed to death after castrating himself (as a religious act) or, in a less gruesome version, killed by a boar, and then get resurrected as a sacred pine tree – an event celebrated by them each spring by an orgiastic festival. Ancient Greeks had Persephone – sentenced to remain in the underworld each year for one month per pomegranate seed she had consumed while held hostage there by Hades, after which she could return to earth and bring spring to the land. A Hopi story explains that winter is transformed into spring because a young girl sacrificed her beloved Kachina doll at the request of the great spirit who then resurrects the doll in the form of legions of bluebonnet flowers. And for Judeo-Christians, the two key holidays – Passover and Easter- with their associated miracles just happen to fall right when spring is beginning.
Stories and metaphors like these compete with the real miracle for our attention. Instead of reciting the tired stories of the Creator visiting ten plagues on the Egyptians and then parting the Red Sea, or arranging for His son’s execution and subsequent resurrection, why not enthrall us with a tale of how the earth was spun, top-like, on its tilted axis during the birth of our solar system. Then delve into the details of how this miraculously results in increasing daylength and rising temperatures, resurrecting life in uncountable trillions of tree buds, triggering powerful hormonal changes in birds, sending great schools of fish northward and causing humans to arise from their winter torpor and go out into their gardens!
Then again, some of our great poets can’t seem to get it straight either. In the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats fantasizes about how he hopes to be resurrected:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Translated, Yeats is saying that when he dies he wants to be resurrected as an artificial bird rather than a living one. It’s quite extraordinary – preferring to be recreated (not reincarnated which, after all, means becoming flesh) as a piece of painted gold rather than something with the intricate workings of a living creature! No humming mitochondria, no pumping heart, no oxygen molecules hitching and unhitching from hemoglobin, no hormonal surges, no genetic maps of migration routes – just a banged on painted-over piece of the most inert of metals. Instead of soaring above the earth on summer thermals, probing nectar from sun-dappled flowers, plunging toward prey in a 200 mile per hour powerdive, Yeats wants to sing mechanically to some elites.
Granted, he pleads his case in hypnotically poetic language, but his case is not for me. And to be fair, “Sailing to Byzantium” is a lament about the process of aging and death and he sees this golden artifice as something with more permanence than his “bodily form”. But wouldn’t it have been sweeter if Yeats had used his poetic gifts to celebrate the way, when our physical selves die, our parts are recomposed into new life, so eloquently described by proponents of the Urban Death Project.
From what I understand, Yeats never visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History, but had he, he no doubt would have been enthralled by the Ware collection of glass flowers. In it, glass replicas of 830 botanical species are visited yearly by over 200,000 people – each of whom is willing to ante up $12 to do so. How many of those visitors, you might ask, would spend $12 and an equivalent amount of time looking closely at a far greater number of botanical species in the nearby Mount Auburn Cemetery? And those living botanical miracles are orders of magnitude more intricately fashioned than the Blashkas’ glass replicas. Not only that, one can touch them, watch insects pollinate them, observe how they grow day by day and even inhale their fragrance!
Who needs a golden phallus when you can have hummingbirds and bees! They not only procreate but in addition fly! And then not just fly but soar for months over the open ocean or travel twice a year between arctic and antarctic circles. Having the Red Sea part so you can get to the other side pales in comparison.
But one can rightfully ask “what difference does it make?” Why not let people believe what they want and be entertained in the process. All that nature stuff is so commonplace. Folks need something you don’t bump into every day. But it does make a difference, and here’s why.
There was a sea of signs at the recent Climate March reminding us that “There is no Planet B”. And while the estimates vary widely, most ecologists agree that the current species extinction rate is manyfold greater than the historical baseline – observations which have led many to describe the present era as the sixth great extinction, a phenomenon carefully documented in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book by the same name. Yet the health of a nation is still estimated by its economic growth, a decline of which is sure to doom any incumbent politician. And unless the metrics are mightily rearranged, economic growth translates into more resource extraction, more asphalt, more concrete, more plastic bits in the ocean and more energy consumption. If a way could be found to rechannel the energy and passion devoted to those old stories, if it could be redirected to worship the real miracles bursting around us every day, the chances of turning things around would improve dramatically. If clearcutting a stand of old growth trees for lumber or turning a rainforest into an oil palm plantation were condemnable as blasphemy with the same energy as was expended by those who railed against Andres Serrano’s controversial photographs, the chances of slowing the gradual impoverishment of life on earth would significantly improve.
Much of the Old Testament is devoted to rooting out “false gods” by either converting pagans or eradicating them. I’m not advocating anything like that. In fact, with a little reinterpretation and modernization some of those old stories are fine. Adam and Eve’s punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge was expulsion from the garden of Eden. It is not a stretch to imagine that this actually means that mankind’s hubristic overuse of technological innovation without consideration of downstream damage – think DDT, PCB’s, mercury, chlorofluorocarbons, neonicotinoids, Chernobyl, Fukushima, plastic miocrobeads etc etc. – will be punished by our own loss of the Edenestic qualities of our planet.
In the New Testament, the Easter story includes this extraordinary plea from a man dying on a cross. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Redirect those words to Mother Nature and we have a powerful and poetic description of the crucial challenges facing our modern world.