Searching For a Nature Religion

Venerating the environment beyond pagan rites.

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Maybe Rilke would have understood. Standing in front of an ancient marble torso of Apollo, the German poet felt its headless, eyeless form watching him, and he knew: Du mußt dein Leben ändern. You must change your life.

I have been stared down by such a statue. She stood taller than I in her glass case in Athens, solemnly ignoring the overly friendly light on her coarse-crystalled marble. Five thousand years old, she looked spare and timeless: an almost flat, oblong spade of a face, featureless, free to be everyone and no one; a long but firmly planted neck, crossed arms under gentle breasts, legs together, knees just slightly bent. I had seen this type of figure before, in books and lectures about the long-lost goddess culture that blanketed the Mediterranean. But this one, so imposing and present, demanded something with her blank face and crossed arms. I stood fixed before her, and, no longer aware of the bored Greek guards or the chattering tourists, caught myself muttering, “Who are you?”

“You must change your life.”

Oh, but I’ve tried. Like many Judeo-Christian refugees, I’ve heard the whispers of an Ur-faith that lived for eons just beyond written history. I’ve read about its ancient hints and relics; I’ve tried the well-meaning solstice ceremonies and reconstructed books of spells, looking for some ritual path to its core. The tenets hold a palpable allure: that nature is alive and sacred, neither a flood-and-firestorm prop for a jealous god nor a shackled servant to man; that the feminine is divine, even when––especially when––it is not meek and virginal; that nature has secrets we can share if only we honor our connection to it.

I have always longed for that connection. Like a lot of kids who grow up rural, I learned the smell of coming snow, the life cycles of frogs, which field flowers release their scent at night. In summer I lay for hours in the juicy night grass, staring at the full moon, craving some fuller communion. And when the “developers” and their bulldozers came to tear apart that land, my siblings and I cried and marched impotently with picket signs—my initiation into the sect of people who side with nature against the push of “progress.”

During those same childhood years, I spent hours in church, kneeling and gazing up at the crucified Christ. We were instructed to love him, and I professed I did. But I had drawn a line even then: I knew that I didn’t love the Christian god as much as I loved nature, and I didn’t feel as pained by his death as I did by her destruction.

I was 14 and reading in a lawn chair under our wineglass elm when that line was drawn darker, in print. That afternoon, a book by mythologist Joseph Campbell explained away my childhood religion as one of many mythical patterns humans had woven to cushion and guide their way through life. Like a rug dealer in a bazaar, Campbell rolled out an array of cosmologies beside it. By the time I finished reading I felt not only regret that I had been born too late to have known those other traditions, but also anger that Christianity had insisted on replacing their evocative designs with so much wall-to-wall. An unlikely place for an epiphany, perhaps, but when I stood up from that lawn chair, I was facing away from Christianity.

I never returned. Still, years of High Masses and benedictions had hardwired me for religion and ritual, so I went looking for a live socket with a more compatible current. I read Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books and spent several weeks visiting a Zen Buddhist monastery. Like a lot of people seeking some spiritual connection to the natural world, I read up on Native American spirituality, but it felt like a cultural trespassing to demand a seat for my white ass in the sweat lodge. What I am, I realized, is spiritually hungry and European.

“Come and celebrate the winter solstice! We will feast our fill and merry make!” The self-consciously antiquated verb placement should have been a warning given, but at the time the flyer posted on a New York City utility pole seemed like kismet: For years I’d wanted to mark the solstices––maybe these people knew how.

I went alone to the Unitarian Church (the Unitarians, bless their open hearts, shelter a lot of pagan events) and immediately I felt a lift: There was a live band and 200 people! I’d been spared that gloom of the marginal, when just a few folks bob on the same ideological raft and stare at each other for reassurance.

I joined the line dance that snaked past a teal green spiral signifying the “eye of the goddess.” Then the music stopped and we all took seats for the ceremony. Maybe it was the costumes—tunics and coronets and feathered masks straight from a summer-stock double bill of Camelot and La Cage aux Folles. Maybe it was the high priest’s frosted blue eye shadow and the beer belly threatening to smother his jeweled belt and scabbard. Maybe it was the high priestess, a blond in a long white dress whose noodle-like posture fell short of the rootedness I expected in a caster of natural spells. Maybe it was the guy in the gold body paint and lamé loincloth who skipped around the circle with deer antlers, offering solstice hope by belting out Bette Midler’s “The Rose” (“Just remember in the winter, far beneath the winter snows . . .”).

Or maybe it was just me, but I started getting that itch to back away. This was a masque conjuring some period when humans were at nature’s mercy; I wanted some recognition that the balance has changed. I scanned my fellow celebrants, whose expressions were hard to read. Surely, I thought, I’m not the only one here with years of environmental activism under her belt. Surely I’m not the only one who, in working to protect them, has made herself learn more than she ever intended to know about monarch butterflies, coral reefs, or old-growth root systems. Then why aren’t we celebrating what we know about the natural world? Why instead are we beseeching the sun to return in the spring when we all learned in fourth grade why it will? Why do the people conducting this ceremony seem so domesticated and flabby, as if they’d last 10 minutes outdoors? Since then, I’ve attended pagan rites in other cities and the scenario is inevitably the same, with much ado about robes, men who like to wear Maybelline, and no detectable spiritual substance. The nagging problem is this: Despite archaeological evidence that a long-lived religion venerating nature and the feminine once flourished in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa, and however much anyone might long for its return, that religion is lost. Its traditions have been crushed or appropriated by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, lost in cultural wars, burned with “witches,” and driven underground until their only recognizable traces are the harvest festivals of a few agrarian regions. Without that continuity, reconstructing pagan rites becomes the plaything of drama majors.

Although I can’t keep a straight face at pagan pageants, I still look for a socket that has some juice. I’ve traveled to ancient sites in Europe, tiny, out-of-the-way towns inhabited for thousands of years, and I sit at the ruins or at the holy wells trying to absorb some remaining current.I read about these cultures. I don’t know what to do with what I know.

There was one solstice gathering a few years ago that felt truly celebratory. There was no ceremony, no costumes, just ten shivering strangers bundled up for a Central Park tour titled “Winter Solstice in New York: Who Survives?” As we headed into the park that Saturday morning, our two female park rangers occasionally stopped us to describe how particular birds or bushes withstand a Northeast winter.

These women knew their turf: They pointed out lofty holes in oak trees where a half-hidden raccoon would be sleeping off a rough night in Upper West Side alleys; they knew where to spot a hawk when all we had noticed was the scattering sparrows. We stopped in front of a glossy green holly tree, a real extrovert against December’s taupe and gray. Holly leaves survive, one guide explained, because the tree stores water not in the leaf cells, but in interstices between cells; there the water can freeze and expand, and the cells remain intact. A thrill bubbled up through my half-frozen marrow at the genius and beauty of this little system. Oh, you are wise, I thought. You are glorious! This tree, and these women who knew it, and the light that clicked on in our faces when we knew it too––this was a catechism of sorts, nature’s Magnificat in which science could sing its stanza.

I’ve stopped looking for pagan rituals. What I “practice” now borrows from Buddhist and Catholic monastic traditions: the idea that work and awareness can be worship. I take long walks and pick up litter as I go. I try to bike instead of driving. I sit quietly in fields and under trees. Upstairs on my desk stands a small alabaster copy of that Cycladic goddess in Athens, her arms crossed expectantly while I keep my weekly vigil of environmental e-mails and calls to elected officials, of letters to the editor about policies and preservation. The nature religion I’ve sought seems irretrievably lost. Nature might still have a chance.

From The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies (2001).