Searching For a Nature Religion

Venerating the environment beyond pagan rites.

| November-December 2001

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.