The first book I am reading for my study is A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature by James William Gibson. I found the book, or it found me, in a rather serendipitous way, and the book’s thesis is a perfect match for my inquiry, so it was a very happy serendipity.
Gibson begins with a brief description of modern thought, which views “nature as inert matter, void of spirit and consciousness” (p. 8). Some of the contributions to this mode of thinking covered in the book include René Descartes and the scientific revolution, American frontierism, industrial capitalism, and the rise of technology. Not only was this mode of thought a break from “traditional unity between humans and the rest of creation typical of premodern societies” (p. 9), it was also never fully embraced, as exampled by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to name just two.
In the last 40 years, a movement has arisen which reclaims the sacredness of and connection to nature. Gibson writes, “The ultimate goal of this sweeping change, which I call ‘the culture of enchantment,’ is nothing less than the reinvestment of nature with spirit. Flatly rejecting modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces to either matter or utilitarian resource, the culture of enchantment attempts to make nature sacred once again… People respond to the culture of enchantment because it offers them something they need (and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America): transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own” (p. 11).
A Reenchanted World traces the history of this movement. The line of history that Gibson focuses on starts with the rise of Transcendentalism in the 1840s, through John Muir and the first National Parks, through Aldo Leopold and the establishment of modern ecology, and onto the post-WWII years where the use of synthetic chemicals and industry begin to change the environment in unprecedented ways, as described by Rachel Carson. Native American culture was influential in the 1960s and 1970s, as were the first pictures of the Earth taken from space.
The 1970s saw the rise of the modern environmental movement including the first Earth Day, the creation of the EPA, and the passage of major laws including the Clean Water and Air Acts and the Endangered Species Act. Gibson notes that “environmental activism could … be seen as an expression of people’s new awareness of their connections to the planet, their nascent consciousness of being intrinsic part of the Earth” (p. 99). The 1970s also saw James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis, feminist and earth-based spiritualities becoming more widespread, and the beginning of an emerging Judeo-Christian movement calling for stewardship of nature or Creation Care as biblically based and theologically driven. The greening of religion continues to gain strength, and spans across denominations and faiths. Per Gibson, “There cannot be any doubt that beliefs in the sacredness of creation of have radically increased since the culture of enchantment first emerged in the early 1970s” (p. 117).
I would say that my interest in this topic, and my study itself, are part of the culture of enchantment Gibson is writing about. As such, his conclusions make sense to me, but with a third of the book yet to read, I am not exactly sure what conclusions I will draw from the book for my inquiry. The exploration continues.
Additionally, this book has helped me see just how vast the topic of “environment and spirituality” really is. The notes/bibliography section of this book alone has provided me with a very long reading list, one I doubt I will ever find the end of. I chose to read A Reenchanted World first because of its focus on the spiritual aspects of the human/nature connection, which is the area I am trying to focus on. I am finding patterns I want to explore more – the impact of a sense of place, how food connects people to nature, and the role that photography has played in the culture of enchantment (such as Ansel Adams and Subhankar Banerjee). I also find myself wanting to broaden my study – I’m interested in learning more about the greening of religion both in specifics and in general, wanting to read more of the classics of nature writing…
As I said, the exploration continues.