Environmental Mythology

I too would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures — They should be material to the mythology which I am writing.                    [Thoreau, journal: 11/9/1851]

These days, if you put “environmental mythology” into Google, you will end up with various links to some heated discussion about the myths of environmental crisis (global warming, etc). I have in mind, rather, Thoreau’s understanding in “Walking” that we (particularly in the West, in America) are lacking a mythology adequate to the expression of Nature and the wild. That we need more mythology, not less, in order to be “in sympathy with surrounding Nature.”

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild [“words…with earth adhering to their roots”]….  Mythology comes nearer to it than anything. How much more fertile a Nature, at least, has Grecian mythology its root in than English literature! Mythology is the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight. [278]

From Thoreau’s perspective, to explore the “mythology” of Silko’s ceremony–the Native American world view as Momaday calls it–is to consider the novel as a candidate for the kind of adequate, imaginative or poetic expression Thoreau is in search of. And note that Thoreau imagines  the American (New World) lack  of natural imagination as a metaphor (or is it metonymy, more material) of soil exhaustion. Perhaps Ceremony (which deals in many ways with exhaustion and with drought) is native American mythology: a story about the need for stories in America with earth adhering to the roots. Think of the passage early in the novel–Tayo’s encounter with the healer Ku’oosh: we learn there that the fragility of the world is tied up with the ability of words to contain and convey their complex origins. So, storytelling is a way of being responsible to those words. Storytelling, in other words, is also a way of saving the world.

In her essay “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” Silko addresses the intricate relationship between the Pueblo creation, emergence, and migration stories and the land to which those stories refer. She writes:

The narratives linked with prominent features of the landscape between Paguate and Laguna delineate the complexities of the relationship which human beings must maintain with the surrounding natural world if they hope to survive in this place. Thus the journey [from the 4 worlds below, into the 5th world] was an interior process of the imagination, a growing awareness that being human is somehow different from all other life–animal, plant, and inanimate. Yet we are all from the same source: the awareness never deteriorated into Cartesian duality, cutting off the human from the natural world…. Not until they could find a viable relationship to the terrain, the landscape they found themselves in, could they emerge. Only at the moment the requisite balance between human and other was realized could the Pueblo people become a culture, a distinct group whose population and survival remained stable despite the vicissitudes of climate and terrain.

So, what are the myths and stories we have, we whoever we are, that relate to the natural world, to the earth, to the environment? What can we learn from them? When does our use of mythology  become stereotype (the crying Indian?) When does it become vital, in the senses of “viable relationship” that Silko addresses? A partial listing of myths and stories we might consult with an eye to their environmental nature, to which I invite you to add others [comment below]:

Films and Fiction and Nonfiction that focus in some crucial way on the environment–and as to how we might define such crucial focus, consider Buell’s categories.

  • Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
  • Audubon’s Birds of America
  • Avatar (film)
  • The Bear (Faulkner)
  • Ceremony (Silko)
  • Safe (film)
  • The New World; Tree of Life (film)

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