Wild Ideas: an online exploration of the wild

The Calyx: Wild Sexuality The Commons: Wild Politics Return to Wild Ideas home page

In The Forest:

Book Reviews
Web Reviews

Stay informed — join WildNews, our announcement list:

E-mail Address:


You are here: Wild Ideas > Forest > Library >

The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

9: Magic and the problem of belief

The third axis -- the acceptance, condemnation or outright rejection of the possibility of magic or paranormal phenomena -- may seem initially the most difficult to relate to environmental concerns. But I think that there may be more of a connection that might at first appear to be the case. A society's view of magic may in fact say a great deal about where that society perceives itself in relation to the world, in terms of the locus of power and control. A world where magic can happen is a world where we don't have all the answers, a world where nature still holds the power to surprise us, to confound our expectations and evade our attempts at categorization, prediction and control.

In my view, the acceptance of the possibility of magic is rooted in humility -- it is a tacit admission that we don't know everything. Conversely, the denial of magic is rooted in control fetishism -- in the blind faith that nothing we don't understand can exist. Even the term "supernatural" in itself implies a faith in the possibility of some sort of absolute knowledge of what is "natural."

I find that this faith in the ability, and perhaps more importantly, the right, of human beings to define the bounds of reality, to dictate what nature should and should not be allowed to do, is disturbingly widespread, even among many who are otherwise quite critical of anthropocentric biases. I sometimes refer to the common perception that things cease to exist if we stop believing in them as the Tinkerbell syndrome, after the well-known scene in stage productions of Peter Pan where the audience is exhorted to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, in order to save Tinkerbell from being destroyed by their disbelief.

This view can be seen in the popular interpretations of a legend originally told by Roman writer Plutarch about a ship which was stopped in mid-voyage by a mysterious voice from nowhere announcing demanding that the captain carry the following message (as recounted by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem "The Dead Pan") home with them:

And that dismal cry rose slowly,
And sank slowly through the air.
"Pan is dead! -- Great Pan is dead --
Pan, Pan is dead."[27]

Dolores LaChappelle points out that the Greek god Pan has often been portrayed as representative of the old gods in their entirety due to his name, which means "all" in Greek, and adds that:

Plutarch's story, dating from the second century, predates the time of Constantine by roughly 150 years; yet, according to the Christians, this was a clear prophecy that all the pagan gods were gone; only the one Christian God remained.[28]

So, apart from the temporal problems, we have here perhaps the classic example of what could be termed the ultimate in anthropocentric hubris: the idea that the human mind, human belief, is so potent that it can literally destroy gods. Nietzche's famous "God is dead" is only a refinement of the basic sentiment expressed here.

A similar viewpoint was expressed by Neil Evernden, who in his Nature and Society class in 1995 remarked upon the lingering traces of magic in mediaeval sensibility, wherein a field might contain messages from God. Nowadays, he added, this could not be. When I suggested, only half-jokingly, that perhaps it wasn't that the messages that were gone, but that the majority of people had stopped paying attention to them, he adamantly insisted that no, the messages were no longer there. If the majority of people don't believe in something, apparently, it cannot exist.

Personally, I tend to feel that the divinity of nature, like "the beauty of things" that the poet Robinson Jeffers writes of,

...was born before eyes and
sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.[29]



All content copyright 1999-2006 by the individual authors, where cited, or by Lynna Landstreet where not specifically credited.

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Green Web Hosting by Dreamhost Site design: Spider Silk Design - Toronto web designers
This page last modified: January 29, 2006


Wild Ideas has just undergone a major redesign and restructuring, and may still be a little rough around the edges. Please bear with us as we get things sorted out.