In a recent episode of David Attenborough’s new BBC series Wild Isles, he spoke of what is being colloquially referred to as the “Wood-Wide Web“, that is the mycorrhizal network formed by fungi underground connecting with tree roots so the various life-forms in a given wood or forest may exchange both nutrients and information. Not only are they capable of exchanging water, nitrogen, and various other minerals and nutrients, but Attenborough gives the example of how a tree being attacked by a predator, (such as a caterpillar chewing its leaves), can call out and through this network of roots, spores and such, inform its neighbours who may develop counter-measures to make themselves hardier, (in the given example, a tree may make its leaves less appetising to the caterpillar).
This is amazing. Quite honestly, this is incredible. A region such as a woodland or forest requires diversity to support and maintain life, and its own existence itself, and plenty has been written and said about encouraging and supporting vital biodiversity as humans have sought to plant trees or crops but only of one variety, creating a harsh environment intolerable to other life who suffer from loss of habitat. Between the lesson of communication and mutual support, and the lesson of the need for diversity in a localised region, I believe we humans can learn much from our surrounding flora, as an example of dominant fauna.
Firstly, we are learning that the flora and the planet itself are very much alive. Something panentheists and animists have known globally for millennia that mainstream Western science is coming to agree with in recent decades. This brings whole new notions of respecting one’s environment and learning to observe how we individually and collectively treat our environment. Are we talking to and thanking the herbs, bushes, and trees we may forage from? Are we giving offerings to the earth when sowing seeds? Are we taking what is needed and no more, to not only account for others, but also to account for the environment itself, flora and fauna both?
We have yet another example of interdependence here. As I have said before, I fully and wholeheartedly believe that independence is a myth, and striving for it only leads to suffering. We are all interconnected. Even trees, fungi, and other plant-life are capable of living under the notion of “from those who have, to those who need“, or even “from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] need“.
We see similar thought in the Hávamál itself, from stanza 36 through to stanza 42:
36. Better a house, | though a hut it be,
A man is master at home;
A pair of goats | and a patched-up roof
Are better far than begging.
37. Better a house, | though a hut it be,
A man is master at home;
His heart is bleeding | who needs must beg
When food he fain would have.
39. If wealth a man | has won for himself,
Let him never suffer in need;
Oft he saves for a foe | what he plans for a friend,
For much goes worse than we wish.
40. None so free with gifts | or food have I found
That gladly he took not a gift,
Nor one who so widely | scattered his wealth
That of recompense hatred he had.
41. Friends shall gladden each other | with arms and garments,
As each for himself can see;
Gift-givers’ friendships | are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.
42. To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,– (Bellows, Hávamál 36-42)
And gifts with gifts requite;
But men shall mocking | with mockery answer,
And fraud with falsehood meet.
My understanding of the above stanzas is that here Óðinn is advising that friendship is gained and sustained through generosity, reciprocity, whilst miserliness or hoarding create tension and unease communally. Whilst we may be told that those who harm, mock, or lie, will in turn meet the same treatment in response, this shall also be our own fate should we act in such a manner. Needing to resort to begging is an unpleasant and undesirable situation here, so if a community seeks to build friendship and avoid such things, giving becomes something of a commandment here. In any given myth, we seldom, if ever, see a God alone. The Gods and Their domains are explored via Their interactions, interplay, overlap, and conflict, which is a vast thing in and of itself we can learn from. But returning to these stanzas, if we are to avoid being harmed, being mocked, or being met with fraud, we are encouraged to be generous, be kind, be honest, and to distribute resources appropriately.
This notion of “appropriate” in terms of both behaviour and material accumulation appears in myriad philosophical schools from ancient Stoicism through to modern Marxist and Socialist thinking.
In Stoic thought, this is expressed through the notion of oikeiôsis, (οἰκείωσις), variously translated as “appropriation”, “affiliation”, “affinity” and more, (Sedley, 1998). As Sedley puts it: “Oikeiōsis is a continuum, stretching from the instinctive self-preservation of the new-born infant to the other-regarding conduct which is equally natural in rational adults. […] Oikeiōsis is an affinity founded on the shared rationality of the entire human race” (ibid.). Stoics observed that a child developing a sense of “other” comes to relate to the other unless, or arguably until, taught to treat others harshly or fearfully. A Stoic idea of the world, thus, operates on the notion of working towards a global, cosmic, community encompassing all life both mundane and Divine. Just as Stoics understood a transcendent, all-pervading Divinity, so too would an idealised Stoic sage seek to hold affinity with, and care and compassion for, all regardless of anything else.
I would posit this is not too much of a leap from modern Marxist and Socialist views on how a global population of workers and labourers have more in common with each other than not, and that the perception of differences are artificially manufactured to prevent solidarity, unionising/uniting, and so on. Marx himself wrote of the human’s symbiotic and interdependent relationship with their environment, for example where Marx in 1844 wrote:
“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labour is realised, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.
But just as nature provides labour with [the] means of life in the sense that labour cannot live without objects on which to operate, on the other hand, it also provides the means of life in the more restricted sense, i.e., the means for the physical subsistence of the worker himself.
Thus the more the worker by his labour appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labour – to be his labour’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.
In both respects, therefore, the worker becomes a servant of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labour, i.e., in that he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. This enables him to exist, first as a worker; and second, as a physical subject. The height of this servitude is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and that it is only as a physical subject that he is a worker.”– (Marx & Milligan, 2009)
A tree alone does not thrive, where a woodland or forest with biodiversity and this underground fungal network does. Similarly, like many fauna, humans are social creatures and attempts for independence can only be disastrous. Just as a lone wolf will soon die, so wolves thrive in packs, lions in prides, horses in herds and so on.
This brings us to the idea of “living in harmony with nature”. For the Stoics, as for many philosophical schools of thought the world over, happiness is something of an end-goal in life, but what makes Stoicism, and other schools or traditions, different is how this is defined and approached. For Stoics, eudaimonia, (εὐδαιμονία), commonly translated as “happiness” or “welfare” but which may be more directly or literally translated as “good spirit” or “good daímōn”, is “the end, for the sake of which everything is done, but which is not itself done for the sake of anything” (Durand et al., 2023).
“Therefore, living in agreement with nature comes to be the end, which is in accordance with the nature of oneself and that of the whole, engaging in no activity wont to be forbidden by the universal law, which is the right reason pervading everything and identical to Zeus, who is this director of the administration of existing things. (Diogenes Laertius, 63C)
[…] God or Zeus is identified with the active principle of the universe, the corporeal mind present everywhere within it, structuring and shaping the underlying matter according to an all-encompassing, perfectly rational plan. For a human being to live “in agreement” (homologoumenôs) with cosmic nature therefore requires attuning her own reason (logos) with that of the whole, by thinking the same thoughts about her situation and circumstances as does Zeus in governing the portion of the world she occupies (Cooper 2012). In this way, the flourishing agent lives in conformity “with the will of the administrator as the whole” (Diogenes Laertius, 63C).– (Durand et al., 2023).
To connect Stoic thought to the above on Marx and my point about how we may learn to appreciate the sharing of resources as a worthwhile act in a community, just as trees and fungi with an abundance of nutrients proceed to share them amongst their neighbouring flora, I provide another quote from Durant et al.:
Everything which neither does benefit nor harms is neither of these [, Good or Bad]: for instance, life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, reputation, noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, low repute, ignoble birth and the like. For just as heating, not chilling is the peculiar characteristic of what is hot, so too benefiting, not harming is the peculiar characteristic of what is good. But wealth and health no more do benefit than they harm. Therefore wealth and health are not something good. (Diogenes Laertius, 58A)
In sharp contrast with eudaimonist theories which regard health, wealth, reputation, etc. as “external goods”, the Stoics maintain that such items are neither good nor bad and, thus, “indifferent” (adiaphora / indifferentia) to human happiness. To establish this conclusion, the Stoics do not rely on the claim that wealth, for instance, sometimes benefits and sometimes harms the agent. Instead, the Stoic position is that wealth “neither does benefit nor harms”: in no case is a human life ever made better or worse by the possession or deprivation of wealth (or health or reputation etc.).– ibid.
I would make a case, therefore, that to live in harmony with nature, and to aim to live with this goal of a cosmic community where humans recognise one another as worthwhile neighbours regardless of distance or familiarity, and we embrace human and God, spirit, animal and plant, in this equation, we are to consider the pointlessness of hoarding resources or wealth, and the benefits to the world at large gained through taking what is necessary for ourselves and redistributing the rest. Just as Óðinn taught that begging is an unpleasant need for any in the above-quoted Hávamál stanzas, He also teaches that friendships forged through giving grow strong.
I do not wish, however, for any of this to be used to continue the very damaging notion that “urban = bad” that pervades Pagandom and Heathendom. The notion that urban environments, built-up cities, people living in flats or skyscrapers, are unable to access Gods, spirits, or other various Divinities is not only highly illogical, but often classist in nature, and does a great deal to tell people that “Our religions are nature-based and therefore if you can’t walk out into the woods, you can’t join our religions”.
“Nature” in my writing, in Stoic thought, and so on, is to be understood as the cosmos, the world itself, and so on, not exclusively rural environments, or locations untouched by human-hand. Indeed, historians, archaeologists, geologists and so on have spoken of how a great deal of desert, woodland, and so on, that are now understood to be natural or organically occurring are the results of mass agricultural endeavours by the earliest human inhabitants of a given region.
North Africa, the Levant, and the Ancient Near East more broadly, is increasingly thought of in the Western psyche, to be akin to the Sahara in terms of environment, but a glance at the flag of Lebanon points towards how much of its environment was covered by cedar and cork oak woodland. Much of this region is not that different in terms of environment to that of Southern Europe, these are still Mediterranean locations known for grapes, olives, and grains. To try to understand how deeply religious customs and the natural world can be entwined, look to the significance of the Nile and Her inundations or flooding in Kemetic religion, or the importance of cedar forests in the Mesopotamian, (modern-day Iraq), Epic of Gilgamesh. For more on the significance of wood, timber, and forests in the Ancient Near East see Kuniholm 1997.
Indeed, even in Britain and Ireland, intensive agricultural developments in the earliest ages of permanent settlement on the British and Irish isles led to radical changes in the landscape, (see Cox et al., and The Conservation Volunteers below for more on this).
But we also see plentiful examples of a thriving spirituality, animism, and so on in the heavily urbanised and built-up cities of Tokyo and the like. An online search for shrines in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tokyo, Singapore, and so on demonstrate how human religious praxes have adapted along with their environment, just as the environment adapts along with humanity. Everything becomes relevant to its time and place, adapting and shifting accordingly, as everything is shaped by everything else.
This would then lead to finding a balance between the one and the many, as much as between humanity and our environment. Marxists have written at length about how a worker from the US, a worker from Cuba, a worker from Russia, and a worker from Japan have more in common with each other, and more comparable hopes and struggles in their everyday material existence, than with the upper classes, millionaires, and the like who are removed from such an existence, within the artifice of the bubbles their hoarding creates as they exploit mass media globally to romanticise their lives trying to convince the rest of the human population that their lifestyles are something to aspire to. Whilst Stoics point to how we can strive to live modestly and find a kinship with all life, near and far, human and otherwise, to experience the cohesiveness of the cosmos in full.
As trees rely on fungi, fungi rely on trees. The flora of a given locale is considered to be the bottom-most tier of a food-chain and is often granted the least attention by the bipedal social great apes known as “humans”. But if the flora suffers, the fauna suffers, just as a cracked foundation leads to building collapse, and a poorly dug tunnel leads to ground collapse. This exchange of information and nutrients allows for biodiversity, and for the forests of the world to thrive, grow, and survive. They bond and give resources as needed. There is much we can learn here from this. A lone tree, does not a forest make.
I will conclude with the following from Marx:
“Above all we must avoid postulating “society” again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being. His manifestations of life – even if they may not appear in the direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – are therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man’s individual and species-life are not different, however much – and this is inevitable – the mode of existence of the individual is a more particular or more general mode of the life of the species, or the life of the species is a more particular or more general individual life.
In his consciousness of species man confirms his real social life and simply repeats his real existence in thought, just as conversely the being of the species confirms itself in species consciousness and exists for itself in its generality as a thinking being.”– (Marx & Milligan, 2009)
Bellows, H.A. (tran.) (1936), Hávamál, The Poetic Edda: Hovamol. Sacred Texts. Available at: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe04.htm (Accessed: March 23, 2023).
The Conservation Volunteers, A brief history of woodlands in Britain and Ireland. TCV Practical Conservation Handbooks. The Conservation Volunteers. Available at: https://www.conservationhandbooks.com/woodlands/a-brief-history-of-woodlands-in-britain/ (Accessed: March 23, 2023).
Cox, D.C. et al. (1989) “Early Agriculture,” in G.C. Baugh and C.R. Elrington (eds) A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 4, Agriculture. London, UK: Victoria County History, pp. 20–26. Available at: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/salop/vol4/pp20-26 (Accessed: March 23, 2023).
Durand, M., Shogry, S. and Baltzly, D. (2023) Stoicism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/ (Accessed: March 23, 2023).
Kuniholm, P.I. (1997), “Wood” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Eric M. Meyers, ed., New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 347-349.
Marx, K. (2009), Estranged Labour, in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Marxist’s Internet Archive. Translated by M. Milligan. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm (Accessed: March 23, 2023).
Marx, K. (2009), Private Property and Communism, in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Marxist’s Internet Archive. Translated by M. Milligan. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm#44CC6 (Accessed: March 23, 2023).
Sedley, D. (1998), ‘Oikeiōsis In: Stoicism’ in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1 Available at: https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/oikeiosis. (Accessed: 23 March 2023).
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2 thuairim ar “Learning From The World Around Us”
I’m a simple man. I see Heathens talking about Oikeiōsis and I click ‘like’.
MoladhMolta ag 2 duine