WE START WITH SOME OBVIOUS QUESTIONS
If, as my thesis statement supposes, seasonal time influences human life at perceptual and motivational levels, reflecting in the actual development of external events, then . . . what prevents us from a ready awareness of it?
If earlier cultures have known these things, then . . . why, in the course of cultural studies that have ranged to the broadest horizons of planetary place, and to the farthest time of human record, have we not a vast library of testimony to the fact of it?
In short, how can something of such universal scope be true and remain unrecognized?
These questions must be dealt with before we can undertake a consideration of the evidence that may substantiate the thesis. It will be seen, in fact, that there is a weave of circumstances that not only distorts our view of reality but encourages us to consistently interpret cultural evidence so that the distortion will be maintained. Our view of reality is largely habituated, and the structure of it contains a built-in imperative for self-reinforcement. That is to say, no part of the structure is free-standing; any "piece" of it under challenge presents an immediate threat to the integrity of the whole, and it must be defended. This is nothing more unusual than the natural inertia of a cultural paradigm.
For David Ray Griffin (The Reenchantment of Science, p. 142), a paradigm "is like a filter, not only coloring the data which enter (i.e., giving it a particular interpretation), but even determining which kinds of data enter. A paradigm helps us see certain things, and make sense of them; it also largely blinds us to other things -- those things that would not make sense within that interpretive framework."
Broadly speaking, the structure defined by our paradigm is called objective rationalism and it is under present challenge along a number of frontiers, one of which is the developing area of inquiry called Deep Ecology which posits an intimate, even spiritual, relationship between consciousness and nature. It will be immediately apparent that Deep Ecology is the proper context for the present study. But ours is a very specific range of inquiry, and we shall respond to the above noted questions by staying as close to our topic as possible.
LIVING IN AN ERA OF ALIENATION
When Darwin published his Origin of the Species in 1859, the most prominent aspect of his theory of natural evolution was his perception that mutational change with a survival advantage for any given species served as the evolutionary fulcrum for species evolvement. But what grabbed the popular imagination, and indeed scandalized comfortable 19th century British society, was the corollary proposition that we descend from an ancestry of apes.
Like the well-known "shot heard 'round the world," Darwin's thesis, in that light, set off reverberations of shocked outcry that have not yet died away. One piece of mute evidence stands on the University of Washington campus in Seattle -- graven in stone, as it were. When the Suzzallo Library was built in the 1920's, its stonework was graced with a decorative frieze of statuary figures honoring the notables of intellectual history. The statue of Darwin, however, on the library's southwest corner, is shorn of a left leg -- summarily "amputated" when it was found that sculptor Allen Clark had interpolated a clinging, somewhat mocking monkey into the design. Testimony, with a touch of institutional violence, to an insistent human vanity: that we are beings completely apart from the animal world -- and thus, by inference, outside of nature itself.
The defacement (delegment?) of Darwin's likeness, without doubt, was merely an over-reaction to the furies being generated at that time by the famous "monkey trial" of John J. Scopes -- but it was also an instance along a continuum that shows no indication of dying down. The vitality of the latest challenge to Darwin's deflating ideas, by religious fundamentalists, is all too current in memory; and while its focus has been the sanctity of biblical revelation, it's not hard to see the connection with the notion of "human sanctity."
It's tempting to dismiss such populist resistance as typifying a less-than-reasonable fringe of the popular consciousness; but it's not that easily set aside. Consider, for instance, the ordinary personal reaction to recent research indicating that there is only a shallow measurable distinction -- no more than seven-tenths of one percent -- in the DNA coding of ape and human genetic structures. Our immediate, almost instinctual, response is to be amazed at the great differences contained in that fractional disparity, when we might far more appropriately be humbled by the demonstrated degree of biological affinity we have with those furry creatures.
Max Scheler (Man's place in nature, pp. 6-7) has pointed out the evidence of this syndrome in one of the most basic words of our language. He observes the particular confusion we express in our use of the term "man." On the one hand, it designates for us a specific sub-class of vertebrates and mammals (however much we prefer to think of ourselves as a super-class); while it also specifies something "so totally different," as Scheler puts it, "that it is difficult to find another word in our language with the same ambiguity... [something constituted by] a set of characteristics which must be sharply distinguished from the concept 'animal'."
Scheler observes that this schism is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it could be responsible for the very origin of religion. As he sees it, religion is a "protective measure" by which we "populate this sphere of being with imaginary figures in order to seek refuge in their power, through cult and ritual... since the basic act of [man's] estrangement from, and his objectification of, nature...threatened to throw him into pure nothingness."
There is, however, a more fundamental bedrock for the schism to which Scheler attributes the beginnings of religion -- not a different source, but a deeper one. The estrangement which Scheler holds to be basic must, itself, have been the outcome of an inspired realization that first objectified nature to human consciousness. Arguably, it was the conscious realization of seasonal pattern and progression -- the temporal order of nature, suddenly being thought about instead of merely lived in. In this act of thinking about nature, the separation became a fact of consciousness.
While "thinking about nature" might have taken place with respect to any number of nature's manifestations, the seasonal progression is a prime candidate in view of its pervasive presence and its unavoidable impact. Agriculture, the oldest of our adaptational arts, cannot have developed before the dawn of this awareness, for it partakes of it and relies upon some schematized knowledge of the seasonal flow.
Indeed, religion, agriculture, and the seasonal progression share so many metaphors that the relationship can hardly be considered incidental or recently developed. The terms:
as well as the names of the seasons, themselves, are so broadly interchangeable in the metaphor of religion, agriculture, and life experience that the point is easily established.
PLANT SEED SOWING REAPING HARVEST CULTIVATE FALLOW WEED PRUNE
What is minimally clear, in this picture, is that religion and agriculture both served to rationalize our relationship with nature, just as science would later do -- religion, toward a greater security within nature, and agriculture toward a utilitarian development of nature. Each enabled us to "live easier" with nature . . . and each helped to establish and later sustain a distortive perception that we were living outside of nature. The schism was clearly unavoidable, and what concerns us in this present review is to establish the recent extent of it, and look at the ways we have tried to ameliorate it.
SCIENCE'S PREDICAMENT: THE APE'S REVENGE
It is perhaps the sheer physical similarity between ape and human that makes us particularly sensitive to the comparison -- and at the same time makes comparison so inviting. In a certain sense, the ape is our "missing link," for it is impossible to approach any study involving apes without being forced to confront the consciousness of separation that we would prefer to take for granted. Not even science itself, that bastion of proclaimed neutrality, is free of the bias of vanity. We have only to consider the controversy engendered recently in the field of interspecies communication.
Ever since a chimpanzee named Washoe and a Gorilla named Koko were introduced to AMESLAN, the hand-signing language of the blind, linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists have been locked in an unusually vigorous struggle over the issue of whether these "lesser primates" are really interacting with us on human levels of cognitive intelligence. The accumulating evidence strongly suggests that they are; but the resisting human vanity will not readily accept it.
Michael Landmann (Philosophical anthropology, pp. 195-6), writing in 1969, on the very edge of the breakthrough with Washoe, and not likely aware of it, comments on some earlier work with chimpanzees done by Wolfgang Kohler. Kohler's experiments did, in fact, indicate the animal's ability to vault over conceptual barriers, in what Kohler had referred to as an "aha! experience." Landmann, after making note of this, virtually discards the implications of cognitional capability and offers a self-serving assessment that is rich with certainly unintended irony:
"...the animal...sees everything only in its own perspective... tak[ing] itself as center. Man, however, lives 'excentrically'... Together with the world, he himself becomes reflexively objectified. Here is the source of all potential for higher forms of introspection, self-examination, and self-education."
Landmann, painfully false to the very point of his explication, not only disallows the historically long learning-curve of Homo sapiens but fails to consider that the significance-factor in any interspecies measurement scheme is entirely of our own determination. He illustrates for us the price we pay for our devotion to objective distancing from nature, falling victim to the very objectification he exalts. His "higher form of introspection" shrivels down to a sad and tragic alienation.
The language problem has only intensified as our ability to communicate with these animals has improved. Arguments against the validity of the communicative exchange, tending toward hair-splitting refinement, are brought to bear in a seeming attempt at scientific probity. But each round escalates the cognitional qualifications that we apply to the apes, until it has taken on an ideological flavor, revealing attitudes that critically impede a value-free examination of what is going on. To cite just one of many available instances, Adrian Desmond (The ape's reflection, p. 120) quotes a comment from Duane Rumbaugh and Timothy Gill about a chimpanzee named Lana, who
"...has never initiated conversations to 'broaden her horizons,' if you will. She has never asked for the names of things unless they held some food or drink that she apparently wanted; she has never 'discussed' spontaneously the attributes of things in her world..."
Stephen Horigan (Nature and culture in western discourses, Chapt. 5) summarizes the situation quite well:
"The remarkable achievements of the ape in being able to learn to use linguistic signs when it has no natural language -- a faculty which, in human beings after all has only evolved slowly over thousands, perhaps millions, of years -- are used instead to provide theoretical support for an intellectually sterile position on the nature of language and human behaviour."
Such instances illuminate the sorts of assumption that accompany our assertion of separateness from nature and demonstrate how easily the vanity of inherent superiority in the natural world can cancel any supposed benefit of intellectual objectivity. But equally, they suggest how easily we can be distracted from any true perception of our relationship to the seasonal year.
It is instructive, in these respects, to consider the so-called SAD syndrome, which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder -- thus named by the medical community to account for the seasonal depression experienced by many people in wintertime. There is an interesting interface, here, with the alienating vanity we've been discussing and its tendency to distort our understanding of the relationship between life and nature. Dr. Norman Rosenthal (Seasons of the mind, p. 174), writing about the effects of the SAD syndrome, has this to say about the animal relationship to the seasonal cycle:
"For many animals...it is crucial to be able to anticipate when it will be cold or hot, when food will be scarce or plentiful, and when to migrate or hibernate. The sheep needs to anticipate when to give birth so that there is food enough to enable the newborn lamb to survive. The weasel must anticipate when to transform its dirty brown coat into one that is sleek and white for camouflage against the snow. The deer needs to time the growth of his antlers so that they will be at their full splendid size by the end of summer to fight his competitors for the right to mate with the does of his choice. In order to time such events correctly, all these animals must have evolved complex physiological programs that depend for their accurate timing on information from the physical world.."
Rosenthal's repeated use of the term "anticipate" tends to endow animals with the very cognitive processes that were being denied by Landmann. Superficially, it seems to put us into closer relationship with nature -- it certainly neutralizes the "Darwin effect," the repugnance displayed toward the human/animal similarity. But it does so by taking animals, too, out of nature's sphere, to share in our alienation. In suggesting that animals "time such events correctly," and that they are cued by "information from the physical world," Rosenthal implies that they might somehow ignore such cues, to their own detriment, furthering the illusion that nature is an "out there" mechanism, separate and distinct from the beings who live within it.
Rosenthal's study, in fact, and its immediate relevance to the subject of this paper, reveals the full dimension of our alienation. The SAD syndrome, of which he is one of the leading investigators, came to the attention of the medical community about ten years ago. Once named and recognized, it sparked further investigation and has broadened into a field of much wider scope: the entire range of mood alteration related to the changing seasons. In his book, Seasons of the Mind, Dr. Rosenthal accounts for the syndrome, consistently, as a physiological and behavioral function correlate with the seasons, but he does so with a very clear emphasis on the reactive nature of our experience, rather than the inherent nature of it. This is a subtle yet very significant distinction having to do with the profound issue of whether nature is actually within us or situated "out there" in the environment.
Here, for instance, is a passage that follows closely on the one just quoted, with my own emphases to indicate Rosenthal's thrust:
"We know now that seasonal changes are not confined to animals, but occur in humans, too. Many normal individuals surveyed in the northern United States report that their energy and activity levels are highest in the summer and lowest in the winter; that in winter they eat more, gain weight, sleep more, and prefer sweet and starchy foods. These behavioral changes...could be viewed as adaptive to the energy demands of winter, since they appear to have an energy-conserving function. These seasonal changes are probably triggered by certain environmental factors such as day length or temperature, which vary seasonally." [emphasis is mine]
In that perspective, the seasonal effect is regarded as something "layered over" our basic nature, instead of integral to it; and in its extreme manifestation (judged on the basis of our inconvenience), seen as a malady rather than a useful directive of individual necessity, like the urgency at a late hour to turn toward sleep. Thus, even a study capable of revealing our intimacy with nature serves only to emphasize our indifference to it, and how wide of the mark is our understanding of it.
It is difficult to express the significance of something that is absent from consciousness. Alienation is a strong, but still hollow word, in that it cannot give body or depth to an awareness that is simply lacking. For it is not as though the bond with nature is inexistent, but that we live our lives completely unaware of it. And unaware, our perception of all reality is distorted. Until the time of Newton, we lived unaware of gravity -- not without it, but with no possibility that it could enhance our further understanding of reality. So it is, with this imperceptible linkage that makes us subject to the seasonal flow, as much as any animal or plant may be.
The words of Coleridge, possibly, can express it in a way that the ordinary language of objectivity cannot: "We have purchased a few brilliant inventions at the loss of all communion with life and the spirit of nature."
Insofar as the professed objectivity of science has become our "coin of the realm" we all partake of this loss of communion. We observe the reality of nature around us, but are blindly unaware of our participation in it. It is on this recognition -- of the fact of this blindness, having only the barest hint of its implications -- that our search for the once-realized link with the annual cycle can begin.
THE UNTOUCHABLE CLOSENESS OF NATURE
Quite naturally, alienation will speak differently to each of us. Some, like Coleridge, will sense the tragedy and feel it deeply; others will lightly regard it as a modest price paid for gains in a world ordered to other priorities. This latter perspective is expressed in almost Nietzschean purity by Kurt Marek (C.W. Ceram) (Yestermorrow: notes on man's progress, p.36):
"It is unreasonable to deplore the fact that man, in our present artificial environment, is losing his relationship with the so-called natural cycles (his dependence on day and night, winter and summer, sowing time and harvest time). If man is regarded not as a higher mammal but as homo sapiens, his greatest poteniality is precisely that he may cast off this dependence. To this way of thinking, to be "human" means to feel independent of a nature which is far from perfect but, quite to the contrary, needful of innumerable improvements."
These differences of attitude matter little for the present purpose . . . they inhere in our separate value structures. But the recognition of alienation must be shared, our joint involvement in it acknowledged, if only for the reason that we jointly share in the experience of the seasonal passage. The annual round of seasons is our psycho-emotional interface with nature. In personal familiarity with it, each of us is 'this close' to realizing the interpenetrative status of our intimacy with nature; yet each of us is heir to centuries of deliberate denial of it -- denial that has become, for us, the accepted norm.
Attempts to reconstitute the nature connection have paid little attention to the immediate nearness of the seasonal cycle and its readily experienced impact. They turn elsewhere, instead, and encounter varying degrees of failure. "Back to the land" has been a perennially popular motif, but it clearly is not for everyone; and there is some legitimate question as to whether, in today's world of farm mechanization and other economic overlays, it even fulfills what is sought. Involvement in environmental and ecological causes is another common approach, but one that still deals with nature "out there" -- as an objectified resource.
George McLean (Man and nature, p. xv), making this limitation clear, has identified three "major attitudes toward nature" that have prevailed in this century, and they share the characteristic of being objectifications:
1. The utilitarian approach, recognizing "man's ability to transform nature ...the central place of the notion of human progress in the philosophies of praxis and pragmatism."
2. The political approach, responding to "limitations of physical resources and of the fragile character of their economic structuring."
3. The hands-off approach, "An aesthetic attitude...expressed in concern for ecology and conservation."
The aesthetic response to nature may not be entirely objectified, in all cases, but unless it arises from direct experience with nature it has recourse only to fanciful images and tends to lose credibility. To this extent, any program or methodology grounded in aesthetics will invite challenge more readily than agreement, tolerance more often than acceptance.
Anthropology, a science particularly plagued with this difficulty, has become a partisan ground, contested by scholars with varying levels of willingness (and perhaps ability) to enter into the reality of cultures under study. Quite often, the depth of an investigator's own sensitivity to nature becomes the critical factor in understanding a radically different cultural ambience, one often more grounded in natural reality than our own.
An instructive example of this appears in a dissertation on women's rituals in the Tamil Nadu country of India, by Holly B. Reynolds (University of Wisconsin dissertation, 1978, pp. 342-4), in which she develops an aesthetically descriptive portrayal of the nonpu devotional activities that take place within a seasonal framework. At several points in her disclosure she is clearly handicapped by a limited seasonal awareness.
She elaborates, for example, on the Gauri Nonpu, which takes place in a 21-day period starting about the beginning of October, and timed so as to end at the new moon nearest the end of the month. It is keyed to lunar significance. [the clarifications in brackets are mine]
"No more fitting time could be chosen to perform a nonpu to the 'bright' goddess [Parvati]. The nonpu commences with growing strength [in the waxing moon], proceeds through a period of darkness [in the waning and disappearing moon that follows], and ends at the first appearance of new light, new strength, new brilliance [a reference to the fresh new moon -- which is hardly either strong or brilliant at this point]. The movement from light to darkness to light parallels the fluctuations of fortune in the mythic episodes where there is an oscillation between states of danger and states of safety."
It is an effectively mythic evocation, but entirely overlooks the deeper implications of this October moment on the annual cycle. "From light to darkness to light" is highly suggestive of the gap between the end of one ripening year and the incipient opening of another, a passage recognized in several older cultures sensitized to it by their deep identification with nature. The transitional quality of this moment has been recognized by the Jains of India, the Taoist Chinese and the faraway Celts, and the timing is also appreciably close to the Hebrew New Year.
In Reynolds' chosen locale, a native Tamil author, M. Arunachalam (Festivals of Tamil Nadu, p.161), describes the national festival of Dipavali, which also takes place at this particular new moon passage, and he links it to the New Year moment of several other regions in India (though not the Tamilnad). Thus, even as Reynolds, herself, observes repeatedly that the Tamil ritual year pivots around the waxing/waning aspects of the sun's annual cycle, she is unable to sense such relationships because of her own cultural background and its lack of a sense of seasonal identification.
Neither aesthetics, nor the benefits of a so-called environmental consciousness is able to return us to a conscious experience of our bio-psychological identity with nature. Direct involvement with the productive capacity of the land, which is necessarily dependent on a seasonal relationship, seems to be the only recourse left for realizing this linkage. Yet, the very readiness of identity between productive agriculture and the seasonal process is cause for another form of mystification that gets in the way of exploring our deeper range of actual identity with nature.
I shall return to this circumstance at the close of this part, to consider some implications it has for our present inquiry; but this brief survey of our alienation from nature is unnecessarily biased without a consideration of the part beneficially played by aesthetics in maintaining at least a threshhold of awareness of our seasonal ties to nature.
THE METAPHYSICAL NATURALISTS
Outside of the problematic choice of a farmer's life, the only other access to nature, as an inner experience, has been in religious insight. The interaction between religion and nature has been one of the most powerful motifs in history, and it will figure in the development this paper will pursue. But it concerns us essentially as history, for the sectarian church long ago divorced itself from nature as thoroughly as any other present-day institution. The motif has become a mystical tradition, and expresses itself today only on the spiritual fringe, in such contexts as pantheism, paganism, and what are often referred to as New Age spiritual groups.
This is not, however, to suggest that the religion/nature motif, in a more generalized context, has fallen into dormancy. It has a persistent vitality in its appeal to the human imagination and has found a harbor in what is generally referred to as romantic philosophy -- a catch-all moorage for poets and literary dreamers, and all who sense a resonance with nature in their lives. Resistant to the inroad of alienation, these few have found themselves together inhabiting a backwater of almost piratical non-conformity in post-enlightenment culture. They have been a kind of nature-conscience for the rest of society; yet, it has only served to polarize the distinction between a reality of pragmatic objectivity and one of insubstantial fantasy. Even so, it has kept alive, in an increasingly pragmatic world, the nature-identification that has no other place for expression.
The polarization, however, has been a serious handicap, for it places the valuation put on an intimacy with nature into the category of wishful thinking. There results, then, a secondary polarization, between nature-as-reality and nature-as-the-dream. On the one hand, we have an entire tradition of history and philosophy "objectifying" nature as a realm of wilderness and danger, insinuating a "man vs. nature" struggle into popular consciousness, so potent that it has influenced much of this century's anthropological writing. In turn, anthropology -- partly through its image, but very much because of its own early-century approach to "primitive insecurity" -- has reinforced, in circular fashion, the drive to distance ourselves from nature -- no longer just to protect ourselves, but in abreaction, as it were, to the very thought of identifying with nature.
Those who would recapture this identification, or reconstitute it, have quite ingenuously been called the romanticists. It is hardly an accidental juxtaposition of concepts that in philosophy we find the romantic tradition defined as "a reaction against the 18th century enlightenment" (W. Reece, Dictionary of philosophy and religion, p. 495), while in literature the term denotes the fanciful and the exaggerated, according to one dictionary source.
In accord with this ambiguity, nature itself, as a category of experience, has increasingly received schismatic treatment. "A single tree," says essayist John E. Smith (in McLean, G.F., Man and nature, p. 55), "...will appear to the botanist as a representative of a species, to the lumberman as so many board feet of timber, and to the poet as the force of Nature manifested in the destiny of the acorn to become an oak." To the poet, then, has been left the responsibility to stake our claim to the universe Whole! The poet, the troubador, the romantic dreamer. But better they, than none at all.
In one sense, and possibly the only sense, this has made "the journey back to nature" a more ready prospect for us, because the romantic, in whatever guise, has always spoken to human experience. We can identify freely and readily. The romantic taps into an inner awareness, reconnecting us instantly and consciously with nature -- oftentimes with the very circumstance of nature's seasonal aspect, her ripening propensities. We abandon, if momentarily, our status as mere and remote observers. As Smith goes on to observe, of the poet's perspective, "Nature is disclosed in its aesthetic capacity as a reality surpassing the status of object and even of environment..." (emphasis mine).
The poet disdains the naturalist's penchant for objective detail. He and she recall for us the interiority of the seasons, the transiency of experience, the ever-alive element in nature that is resistant to the formalist's precise and time-bound descriptive definition. The poet brings us to fresh awareness of what we have always known.
...That when we watched, for example, in a deepening autumn, the change of color in foliage, and the gradual denudation of trees until they were stark skeletons against inhospitable skies, we were not idle observers of the seasonal effect on a passive, essentially stable environment.
We shared an energy process called autumn...we were immediately involved in its manifestation.
We saw Earth experiencing autumn and were not separate from it ourselves.
In the transience of that moment, we were . . . alive!
It is the element of transience that eludes the grasp of the descriptive naturalist, and challenges the writer and the artist as well. This goes right to the heart of our inquiry, for transience is the very essence of time, and seasonality is the embodiment of transience in nature's world. The mystery of time impacts on consciousness as a mystery of seasonal experience.
When nature, however, is taken out of its temporal (and transient) context, the mystery is denied. This is the ultimate failure of descriptive naturalism as a portrayal of reality. The descriptive naturalist is a purveyor of facts, while the romantic writer or artist seeks to illuminate the mystery itself and becomes, in effect, a metaphysical naturalist.
Consider, for instance, Claude Monet, who painted some forty impressions of the cathedral at Rouen, many of them from the same physical location, capturing it in every possible shift of color and shadow. What emerges when these are studied en masse is a collage effect of hourly and seasonal change which, according to one observer, becomes "a dematerialization into an almost blurred form. Although we 'see' the same image, we could actually forget what the subject is."
In other words, the subject has suddenly lost its substance, disabusing us of the easy notion that what we see today is just what we saw yesterday, or last month. And if one argues that "the thing itself," the cathedral, had not changed, it merely demonstrates how strongly clings the conviction that substance has more significance than process, or than the observer's perception of both substance and process.
But even to speak of "an observer's perception" is to lose the effect of Monet's achievement. The entire point of the demonstration is that the artist is within the experience of autumn's ephemeral flow. We no longer have the "representation of a cathedral," in any single portrayal, but a captured moment in the autumnal experience of the artist himself.
THE TRANSCENDENTALIST VISION
Monet's inspired method momentarily pulls us through the limiting boundary of representational art, but it is hardly more than a special case of trompe-l'oeil, deceiving us into a grasp of what habit keeps us from otherwise seeing. In fact, it takes a deliberate effort of consciousness to abandon habit, even when surrounded by such a collage of representations. The language of art, though it easily evades the rigidity of verbal formalism, lacks the marvelous capacity of verbal imagery to spark associative resonance with ideas or "knowledge" far below the surface of thought. For this reason, perhaps, the romantic tradition that spawned a 19th century metaphysics of nature found its most comprehensible expression not in art, but in literature.
In order to fully understand the Transcendentalist development of metaphysical naturalism, we must go all the way back to Immanuel Kant, and consider the revolutionary implications of his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant observed that the true relationship between perception and reality is not one of the observer to the existent, but of the structuring mind to the formless profusion of natural phenomena. It is we, ourselves, who -- very literally -- "create reality" by our exercise of the organizing faculty through which we view, or sense, all that happens around us.
With that realization, Kant opened a conceptual hole, so to speak, 'big enough to drive a truck through.' He was at pains, in his lifetime, to put some constraints on where the imagination might run, with this idea; and philosophy as a formal discipline has been cautious about following Kant's brilliant insight to wherever it might lead.
Specifically, Kant qualified his "transcendental aesthetic" as being necessarily limited to extensions of what can be known by experience, or within a phenomenalistic purview. But the use of the term could not be thus contained, and half a century later an adventurous group of eclectic thinkers under the aegis of the newly established Unitarian Church took hold of the concept and set it on a directional turn that would become known as New England Transcendentalism. Kant's insight -- or their version of it -- was blended with certain Eastern verities to formulate a spiritual perspective that posited a vital relationship between nature and consciousness.
Eric Sharpe (Comparative religion: a history, p. 24) has disparagingly observed that the Transcendentalist vision was put together with a "lack of interest in the history or cultural context of the ideas they were so fond of using," adding that it was "eclectic, intuitive, frequently inaccurate, resting on the foundation of a highly personal philosophy."
In terms of Sharpe's concern for comparative religion, this may be an accurate assessment. But when the Transcendentalists are viewed, instead, as unimaginably precocious pioneers of the modern-day deep ecology movement, we can appreciate the fact that they were simply drawing on every bit of intellectual support they could find, however diverse in origin, and to whatever extent the earlier usage had to be bent or stretched.
The vitality of their vision, at any rate, stood for more than a century as the clearest call to an awareness of our harmony with nature. Emerson names it precisely in terms of our present concern, in his essay on Nature:
"Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to or authorizes a different state of mind...
"The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them...
"Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both."
Yet Emerson, himself, could not quite disengage the rational assurance that any such relationship with nature was mediated entirely by the emotional aspect of our being, as he goes on to indicate:
"...Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire has sadness in it. Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend."
Thoreau, however, feels the pulse in his own being, and he leaves no doubt of it in the reader's mind. It was a consistent theme in his journals, as witness this selection of passages:
"There is one door closed, of the closing year...and every year since this plant was created her order has been faithfully obeyed, and this plant acts not an obscure but essential part in the revolution of the seasons. I am not ashamed to be contemporary with the Norway cinquefoil. May I perform my part well... I can be said to note the flower's fall only when I experience in it the symbol of my own change." (August 30, 1851)
"Our moods vary from week to week, with the winds and the temperature and the revolution of the seasons." (May 9, 1852)
"With our senses applied to the surrounding world we are reading our own physical and corresponding moral revolutions." (June 21, 1852)
"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each... Grow green with spring, yellow and ripe with autumn. Drink of each season's influence... Some men think that they are not well in spring, or summer, or autumn or winter; it is only because they are not well in them." (August 23, 1853)
"Each annual phenomenon is a reminiscence and a prompting. Our thoughts and sentiments answer to the revolution of the seasons, as two cog-wheels fit into each other... A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature." (June 6, 1857)
"After awhile I learn what my moods and seasons are... My moods are thus periodical, not two days in my year alike. The perfect correspondence of Nature to man, so that he is at home in her!" (October 26, 1857)
I quote Thoreau at some length because he chose his words more for feeling than clarity, seeming to cast flashes of insight which, together, compose the picture of his perceptions. One biographer (R. Lebeaux, Thoreau's seasons) has shaped a text specifically around Thoreau's relationship to the seasons, and he lays the greater emphasis on the analogy Thoreau presented between the seasons of the year and of a lifetime. Thoreau was certainly invested in this view of the seasons, but not to the exclusion of the more direct relationship between the natural year and the human year.
In fact, Thoreau understood the correlation between all three cycles, the day, the year and the lifetime. He shifts from one analogy to the other so readily and often that one might suppose he is always speaking of the three when he writes of any one of them. There is at least one journal passage in which he beautifully weaves all three of them together as a unity:
"I am again struck by the perfect correspondence of a day -- say an August day -- and the year. I think that a perfect parallel may be drawn between the seasons of the day and of the year. Perhaps after middle age man ceases to be interested in the morning and in the spring." (August 23, 1853)
He not only expresses the parallel here, but of even greater significance to the present study, his concluding observation -- that "after middle age man ceases to be interested in the morning and in the spring" -- takes it out of the range of metaphor and demonstrates Thoreau's awareness that this parallel has an affective influence on our being and our promptings as well.
THE AGRICULTURAL MINDSET OF ETHNOGRAPHIC REPORTAGE
As close as the Transcendentalists have brought us, to an inner awareness of our link to nature -- as close as any Romantic evocation can bring us -- the line between imagery and experience remains, in our culture, a largely impermeable barrier. Even if no other separative factor were operating, this alone would be sufficient to keep the seasonal influence in a twilight zone of awareness; and to leave us comfortable with that status, however much the impulse of spring or the reflective aspect of autumn "feels right" to us. Metaphor allows our participation in nature without any sense that we are compelled to it.
But it also denies us the realization of deep roots in nature, of a birth-right membership in the planetary Whole. It prevents us, or at least diverts us from the wealth of discovery that a fully apprehended connection with nature might promote. It leaves us vaguely uneasy in the impact of seasonal influences that we largely do not understand, and from which we can never be entirely free.
Of particular concern to our present purposes, the ease and convention of a metaphoric relationship with nature will make our search for relevant cultural data more problematical, less reliable. This has to do with the easy and natural tendency to "read" anything that interweaves the seasons with human life as essentially pertaining to agriculture and the farming arts. There is no thought given to the possibility that the influence of the seasons could pertain to other human affairs.
It is impossible to know how often this biased perspective has limited the understanding, or sharply warped it, of ethnographic and historic material. It is extremely difficult, when trying to assess material that has come through this filter, to know whether it has been "read" correctly, whether it should be reconsidered, perhaps extended in its range of implications, even completely revised. An example or two may make the point.
George C. Vaillant (Aztecs of Mexico, p. 187), in his dated but still authoritative study of Aztec culture, translates the month-name ideograms of the 18-month Aztec calendar and then states categorically that "the months' names related to crops and indicated the agricultural origin of the time count." Yet, when one considers the actual translation, the names appear to hold very little necessary relevance to agricultural concerns, as witness:
Want of water
Little feast of princes
Feast of the mountains
Boning of men
Great fast of rulers
Birds (or) Quail
Birth of flowers
Feast of flags
Fall of the fruits
Fall of the waters
Dry (or) Slippery
Month of brooms
Return of the gods
Certainly, agricultural meaning can be read into a number of these, but so can many other possible understandings. The point to note, here, is that Vaillant designated them as agricultural, in an arbitrary, uncritical fashion that demonstrates the mindset bias.
A more limited instance is a quote from Eileen J. Krige from a study of Zulu culture (The social system of the Zulus, p. 412): "Each Zulu month is named after the conditions of nature at that time, e. g. Ndasa (February) means 'to be satisfied with,' for at this time of the year there is plenty, owing to the new crops." This is clearly an extension of meaning beyond what is textually indicated, into the realm of the agricultural. It is worth noting that February is regarded by the Chinese (whose calendar will be one of the cornerstones, in the presentation of this thesis) as the month of Harmony, a rather significant parallel, it would seem, with "to be satisfied with," -- one which bears noting, and which (for the Chinese) has no known agricultural significance.
In Vaillant's listing, too, it may be noted that the period designated as Return of the gods covers our calendar period of September 20 to October 9, which falls in reasonable range of a stretch on the cyclic continuum recognized as a transitional time, in ancient calendar systems as diverse as the Chinese and the Hebrew, while the name hardly lends itself to any agricultural concept.
The net effect of this widespread mindset is to make the present work essentially a thesis of challenge. We'll be considering the available evidence with a basically skeptical eye, seeking new possibilities of interpretation, and linking early cultures in ways that have not been done before.
Naturally, much of it will be speculation, but the value of a fresh perspective should produce some worthwhile results. The thrust, here, though it challenges traditional perspectives, is not to deny the agricultural implications of seasonal influence, but to open new vistas in understanding them, and broaden the possibilities for further inquiry.
If you are ready, let us proceed to Part III
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FOOTNOTES (linked from text)
The "aha! experience" referenced by Michael Landmann, had to do with an ape reconceptualizing the use of a blanket from its primary function into a "swinging instrument" with which to dislodge fruit from an upside perch. The singular facility of such a conceptual leap, for a chimpanzee, might be ranged against the fact that it required a hundred years for the ready availability of a sign-language interchange with other primates to suggest itself to any investigator! Back to text.
The Kant annotation is taken largely from Robert Solomon (Introducing philosophy, p. 179), wherein he writes "Today, many philosophers would rather say that these concepts through which we constitute the world are part of a language, which raises the intriguing but controversial possibility that the world might be quite different for people who speak different languages. (Kant himself did not believe this)." It is worth further noting, however, that the work of Benjamin Whorf (Language, thought and reality) has substantially demonstrated this to be so. Back to text.
Had Thoreau lived beyond middle age, I'm quite sure he would have revised this estimate. In my own experience, springtime and mornings continue to be vital reconstitutions, ever more precious (if brief and a bit shallow), of the youthful sense-of-being in the springtime of life, itself. Thoreau was only 36 when he penned this dour anticipation . . . which, in fact, tends to place him more in the romantic genre, than the scientific observer he certainly was, with a growing understanding of the cyclic equivalence he was describing. Back to text.