From 2012 to Day after Tomorrow, environmental disaster films center on spectacle rather than substance. The modern movie goer revels in easy to digest worst-case scenarios rather than tackle the real-world questions about climate change that spur the fiction. The mainstream book world is also dotted with environmental calamities such as these lists from Bookish, io9 and The Guardian. These are horror stories, horrific tales on a global rather than intimate scale.
Many of these stories and films offer a bleak look at man-made environmental cataclysm, during and/or after the destruction. Taking a closer look at non-fiction environmental writing of the past century, you see bleak warning signs that fortify many scriptwriters and fiction scribes. These real environmental stories are mixed equally with rhapsodic prose of nature’s beauty and fragility. Mankind;s connection to nature was elegantly stated by environmental writer Wendell Berry who wrote in Preserving Wilderness, ” A culture that does not measure itself by nature, by an understanding of its to nature, becomes destructive of nature and this itself.”
From Berry to Emerson, we have a rich perspective on the preciousness of the environment that was intimately connected to the spiritual world. Where has this spiritual link between man and environment in our disaster fiction? Could there be another way of telling dire environmental stories without relying on the folly and failure of mankind? What would stories of environmental disasters of a spiritual nature look like? Nature folklore has never truly been syncretized into fiction.
The stalwart and respected environmental essayist Berry wrote, “We need to come into the presence of the unqualified and mysterious formality of Creation.” Berry’s use of Creation, placing God within the conversation about the environment, and you have heavier, more Biblical language. The wilderness, according to Berry, is required for us to survive, as “an essential measure of our history and behavior.” The wilderness of the Bible is a place of hardship and discovery. It is the harsh crucible of races and individuals, the wilderness of the Bible. This is a language of devotion and reverence, a rarity written in today’s of scientific arguments.
Environmental writers of the last century freely used language of ecstatic religious experience where many modern environmental takes a decidedly secular tact. Conservation champions like Thoreau and Muir are what many associate with environmental writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson, articulated the Transcendentalist philosophy of soul and nature, “Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”
The wilderness of colonial Americans, those Puritans of New England, was not a place of trial and redemption but often a place of horror and temptation, occupied by the Devil and his pagan minions. Within two centuries, America’s progress changed the language of our relationship with the environment. The wild was either cheapened, conquered and harvested, or sanctified as a place of personal discovery. By the 20th century, environmental activism and awareness replaced theology and spiritualism with data and scientific theory. This non-fiction change is directly reflected in the tales of global disasters, now carbon footprints stomp our arrogance where fickle gods once did. The deluges of Gilgamesh and the Bible are replaced by humanity choked by greenhouse gas and mankind’s consumerism.
Spirit Never Left The Wood
The ideas of nature’s spiritual power, its potency and humanity’s relationship with it, are not lofty ideas generated by thinkers of centuries past. The spiritual connections between man and nature were being explored by David Abram in his 1990s, The Ecology of Magic. A trained stage magician Abram traveled the world seeking to rekindle humanity’s embrace of nature’s spiritual side. Abram would meet modern men and women, shamans and magicians of, who worked for man, but nature, performing “constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and ‘journeys,’ he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal.”
Imagine Wicker Man‘s Lord Summerisle invoking Berry’s “culture” and “nature,” what tone does it take then? Strange, ominous or ‘backwards’? Or are they saying the same thing, just choosing a different path of worship to the same ends? Abram’s shaman and magician, like those of Summerisle, walk the path between the “human and more-than-human worlds.” Abram’s
The Green Man and Maypole are the environmental folklore descended from ancient tales born at the dawn of civilization. They are the mythologies of man’s relationship with the environment, shunned by the Christian world. The stories we are telling today about environmental horror are that of mankind’s doing, not a god displeased or spirit unsatisfied with tributes paid. Abram caught this modern oversight when he wrote, “modern civilized assumption that the natural world is largely determinate and mechanical, and that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be some other, nonphysical real above nature, ‘supernatural’.” Modern mechanistic attributes of nature have left little room for the supernatural in much disaster story telling.
The cold sureness of science informs the screenplays and manuscripts about our bruised and battered environment. The narrative of nature before was told reverently through forest mythologies, faiths or religions; and are decidedly absent from modern disaster-tainment. Introducing the ideas of gods, spirits and beings tied to our environmental well-being would not trivialize the problems we face nor absolve us of guilt in the damage done. Watch Princess Mononoke or Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind to appreciate strong environmental stories told from a supernatural or magical perspectives. It is time to return to these old ways to provide new insights, add a spiritual and environmentally redemptive value to stories of global natural collapse.