The Betrayal of Nature

A great paradox surrounds human beings’ relationship with the environment. We need to settle comfortably into the environment to sustain our lives, and in doing so we alter it, and yet we need to preserve the environment so that it continues to sustain us. Hence we must save it, but extracting the necessities of food, fuel, clothing, and shelter requires us to destroy it. There has always been the need for some kind of balance between what we take, what we leave, what we destroy, and what we preserve.

Civilization has been built on what Edmund O. Wilson, the biologist and environmental thinker, calls “the betrayal of nature.” The natural world is our life support, but our need to take from it can weaken its ability to continue providing that support. This is obviously evident in contemporary Western civilization that has so destroyed, polluted, or worn out lands and waters that they can no longer support human life or, in some cases, any life. But this altering of the environment was also true of stone-age civilization. It’s thought that early humans hunting the wooly mammoth in North America caused its extinction. Certainly early men and women caused large “burns” to clear land and control animal life, changing the environment drastically. We have always left our footprints behind, and often what we valued of the natural world no longer lives or grows where we have stepped.

Humans have often viewed the power of the natural world as a “female presence” because of its ability to gestate, bear, and nurture life. And we have defined that presence and power in terms of the three stages of a woman’s life: virgin, mother, crone. A female friend of mine pointed out that we are comfortable around the virgin and mother because what we value in them is the beauty of youth and the ability to bear and rear children. In a male-dominated culture these expectations are defined and described by men, but women, who define themselves by cultural norms, often espouse these ways of viewing the virgin and mother also. So both men and women can find it hard to accept the crone, especially when portrayed in myth and legend as the Hag Goddess who is neither beautiful nor fertile.

We have no culturally defined ways to appreciate the Hag’s earth-power which is the power to keep her blood inside herself where it empowers the Earth with forces and conditions hostile to human beings. Winter storms, winds, earthquakes, floods, drought, deserts, swamplands. The natural world has conditions and places that are not conducive to human life. They do not offer shelter or sustenance. They frighten us for they bring death. For this reason the old stories portray the cailleach as ugly, frightening, untamable, representing dirt, darkness, disaster, distruction, death, decay. She lives in the wild, deep in caves, among beasts, eats raw food, and never dies. She fights men who attempt to destroy her and she kills them.

But in some stories she herself is killed. And the hero, usually male, lives on with land, flocks, houses, fine clothes, and riches precisely because he has slain the “old woman” who tried to frustrate his goals. In one old Celtic story the wife of a cailleach-slayer says to her husband after he has killed the cailleach, “You are my heart’s love. We are rich now for all time.”

There are quite a few stories of the cailleach’s death or displacement. These tales are about her world of wildness being replaced with pastoralism, agriculture, urbanization, a new system supportive of human life. In other words, civilization. She is gone. We will survive. We are rich for all time.

But are we?

The truth hidden in stories about the death of the old gods is that they never die, they just retreat or are displaced for a time, beaten by some human effort, but they surely return. The cailleach and her hostile forces have not been eliminated even by our technological culture that seems to have tamed so much of the wildness in nature to allow us to create a civilization of great affluence, comfort, and ease. We are still astounded when the weather creates havoc, when towns are flooded, when winter freezes power lines and pulls them down, when wind uproots trees and crashes them against our houses. We are astonished when we must face the cold or darkness or starvation. We may be living a life of deception, fooling ourselves into thinking the cailleach is gone, and that our technological defenses will continue for all time.

This is the betrayal of nature: to have beaten back the wild forces of nature and then to live as if they are not necessary or even still present. We devalue and destroy the Hag because we don’t understand her power and yet she holds the balance of life. We have denied Earth its own life force, the blood that it holds within it for its own purposes, not ours. We expect nature to be beautiful and fertile by our standards, and we deny the death and decay that refertilizes the soil in order to produce new life and new beauty. Or we replace the soil with “unnatural” substances that force the Earth to produce more than it can reasonably and “naturally” maintain. We try to stop the natural aging and declining of life that the Hag and crone represent. We deny their rightful place in the order of things.

In the last sixty years we have learned a lot about the needs of the environment. Almost everyone today is some kind of environmentalist. But we must be humanists as well as environmentalists. We cannot simply return to living in caves to reduce our footprint on the Earth. We will always leave footprints. In some way or other we must be both creators of civilization and preservers of the natural world. It isn’t a question of either-or, but of finding appropriate ways that allow human life to continue and that also honor and preserve wildness, the hag-rhythms of death and decay that allow the land to return to virginal and fertile states that can birth new life.