The Tree-Hugger Prophecies

Posted on May 8, 2010


I remember a school teacher talking about the advance in human thought represented by monotheism.  I immediately saw this as a challenge to my Aboriginal separateness (although the remark wasn’t addressed to me particularly), and I wondered why having one god was better than having many.

Since then I have encountered similar, perhaps more sophisticated arguments, about how the inclusion of human morality into the Old Testament was a crucial step forward in religion.  Again, that part of me which cannot resist a theological argument, asks, “Were there really no values in other religions?”

I did not begin examining my Aboriginal cultural roots until my mid to late-20s—long after I asked myself that question—so I actually didn’t have any sort of answer at that time.

But I knew all about tree huggers.  One time one of my old law school profs referred to us here in western Canada as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in reference to our economy.  I believe he was quoting something.  But the description was apt for much of British Columbia’s economic history.

Loggers were iconic.  After awhile, so were tree-huggers.

“Tree-hugger” was a designation intended, of course, to be dismissive.  But however rational the arguments were, “sustainable harvest,” “unique ecosystem,” “selective logging,” and so on, deep down, looking at these early eco-warriors in their boots and sensible clothing, chaining themselves to trees, you knew that in fact the reason they did it was because they loved trees.

They had taken a walk in the woods one time, and the spiritual weight of that moment had convinced them instantly that trees were good and commerce was secondary.  You saw that this was about love, and were tolerant.  You had once taken a walk in the woods yourself.

And then there was Greenpeace, first facing off against the atomic tests in Alaska in the early 70s (atomic explosions along the Ring of Fire!)  John Wayne, talking tough, said Canada should shut up about those tests, and none of the Duke’s movies did well again in Vancouver until the day he died.

And after taking on the bomb, our valiant Greenpeacers went after the whalers.

Who can forget the footage?  Rough seas.  A tiny boat, looking like hardly more than a raft.  An industrial whaling ship with a harpoon cannon.  The tiny boat interposing itself between the whale and the whaling ship, whipped by wave and wind.  It was glorious.

And could this have been done for anything but love?

(Gandalf on the precarious stone path.  “You shall not pass!”)

We’re talking about religion here.

I have felt it myself.  I remember the last time I returned to the Skeena river.  I was alone there at the broad Skeena mouth.  I felt it.  I could almost hear my ancestors saying, “We love this place, this morning, this river, these mountains, these trees, that mist.”

And my ancestors don’t usually talk to me.

What I am discussing is a connection with the planet, with its sacred places, which in the guise of my ancestral expression is known as animism.

Religion which thanked the salmon people for giving their flesh to feed us.  Religion which told Raven tales about when things were lousy, when things were dark, without even sun, moon and stars, and how Raven came and gave us light, and the salmon came and the cedar grew, and the people lived amidst wealth and gave great feasts in celebration of it.

And always it was necessary to acknowledge and thank the source, to tell stories about the coming of the oolichan, and how we were taught the recipe for making oil from Oolichan Woman.  And how you were always to speak politely to a bear, call him “grandfather,” never say his name, and how you were supposed to treat a buck’s antlers with respect by hanging them in a tree.

Respect was a necessity for tribal peoples who spoke to nature, whose culture was a permanent ambassadorship to the (sometimes tentatively) benevolent forces of nature personified.  Nature which fed us, body and spirit, allowed us to prosper, and which embodied the welcome alternative to those still-remembered times of when things were lousy.  The spiritual values of animism could be summarized as respect for the earth and all that was in it.

Understand, in this discussion, that I’m not saying the tree-huggers and whale warriors were animists, per se.  But I think they understood the spiritual essence of animism, and were responding to it, that essence which still exists in potentia, I am convinced, deep within many or most of us.

A kind of cultural and visceral fear keeps some away.  Indifference and incomprehension shield still more.  And it does not help that the dominant spiritual force in many of our lives has been so silent about the ecology, if not philosophically hostile to it.  In many Western expressions of Christianity, nature was not so much to be respected as dominated.

That is my answer to that old question, “Did not those old religions have values worth preserving?”

Yes, I say.  They did.

And maybe, for all the vanity of schoolteachers, and for all the vanity of our achievements as a civilization, what we had forgotten, and what is still largely forgotten, was the most important value of all.  The earth calls to us.  The trees call to us.  The whales call to us.  We hear, because somewhere among our wiser instincts is a knowledge that it is our mother calling, who feeds and nurtures us, and without whose benevolence the dark, stark landscapes of less prosperous times will return.

We lost something by discarding our respect for the earth and all the parts of it.  However, no matter what, there were always some people who understood.  Who had not forgotten.

The whale warriors.  The tree-hugger prophets.  The silly, earnest people with the picket signs and the bullhorns tramping in the mud on the edge of a clearcut.

Because, as it turned out, we actually needed the trees.  And it wasn’t just because they were pretty, either.

And it turned out that we actually needed the whales, too.  Like trees, they fix a lot of carbon.  And it turns out that in the southern ocean, back when whales were numerous, they actually filled an important ecological function in assisting the ocean’s ability to fix carbon.  It had to do with krill, and iron, and doo-doo, and is too preciously funny and ironic that it would be a distraction to go into it now.

The whale warriors and tree-huggers—for very compelling and scientifically described reasons—were right all along.

They did it for love, but it was a love saner than all the no-nonsense calculations of our economists, our corporations, our governments, and sensible folk everywhere.  They did it for love, because a grove of trees really is a cathedral.  And they were right, and the sane grey-suited citizens were wrong.

And they were right for the right reasons.

We didn’t know it.

We just thought they’d eaten too much granola.

Image “Connecting With the Universe” © 2008 by Haisla Collins