I took a walk in a botanical garden and let myself drift lightly through it, listening to the place, to its subtle hum. I enjoy the way it feels to be in the midst of a gathering of trees because even young trees project this sense of being from another time, a time before there were people.When you walk through a gathering of trees, it becomes more pronounced. My partner and I once wandered off a path into swath of pine trees that were probably not even decades old, but once we lost sight of the path, it was like stepping backward into time. Thirty feet away from the path, we got turned around and it took us ten minutes to find our way to the margin.
It isn’t really going back in time, of course. The trees came into being under another way of living in time and that tends to feel slower, older to us. I like J. R. R. Tolkien’s ents as a metaphor for that other sort of time, so long as their human traits are understood as the vehicle to express the other sort of time and not projected onto that time frame; trees really are alien to us even at their most familiar.
Reading Davi Kopenawa in The Falling Sky has been helpful in that regard. He makes no bones about how essential the rainforest is to his spiritual work, but he distinguishes frequently the rainforest from the spirits. He talks about the rainforest as the most perfect habitat for his spirits, even mentioning the impossibility of traveling from the rainforest with certain spirits (much to his own dismay). The loss of that habitat will not mean the death of his spirits, but it will mean their withdrawal from our world. As he understands these spirits to provide stability and order to this world, that loss is no small thing. It is not simply the departure of old friends for another place, but the loss of stability and regularity on this earth.
As the rainforest has shrunk, so too has the order of the spirits called down by Kopenawa and his fellows. Kopenawa is no dummy and sees quite clearly the connection between the destruction of the rainforest and the transformation of the global climate for the worse.
But the trees? The relationship between spirits and the rainforest is neither immanent nor transcendent. The spirits come into full expression only through their interaction with the rainforest, but they aren’t identical with it. It doesn’t seem so different from the way in which Kopenawa understand his own existence as having a separable spiritual element that nonetheless enters into close relationship with his body. The loss of that body isn’t the death of that spiritual element, but it is a profound loss, one which is partially ameliorated by the shamans who come after him being able to call him, too, down with the beloved spirits.
The forest is a medium more than anything else. If it is exceptionally spiritual, it is only because certain spirits find it exceptionally hospitable and choose to dwell within it for a time. The loss of the forest, from a spiritual perspective, is not the death of spirits, but the closing of a door. If that door is closed firmly enough, it may never open again.
It may seem like nitpicking, but I think it is important to appreciate what is at risk more clearly. Too often, we treat the loss abstractly, either amplifying it through an identification of spirits with their medium or diminishing it by treating the spirits as entirely separable and transferable from their medium. But that doesn’t seem to be what is actually at stake. The losses of species and ecosystems aren’t the end of those spirits, they are the end of our access to those spirits, both coming to know them and our capacity to pass out of our lives toward them. Maybe that door will close forever, maybe it will reopen in the distant future, but it is the closing of it in the present.
It isn’t a one-to-one equation, of each ecosystem and each species equaling a unique doorway into spirit. There is some hope even in the face of extinction that this or that relative or variant of the ecosystem will remain a point of egress and ingress, but there aren’t guarantees. Some of what we lose may never come again and toward it we will never be able to go again. Perhaps, perhaps, we might manage the muffled rapping through the walls, but what is that compared to free congress?
Some changes like this just happen as the normal course of existence in this temporal world. But this part, now? Too much of it comes from our rushing around without reflection. It doesn’t change the fact that is happening and we will have to confront the new spiritual realities that accompany it, but perhaps, just perhaps, we might yet preserve some of the best these millennia have stored up?