Ancestral Trees & Cultural Forests

Note: This is a guest post by John Balch, a graduate student in the Religion Department at the University of Florida and one of my former students. John is now studying under the supervision of Professor Bron Taylor, author of Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.


One of the central hypotheses of the cognitive science of religion is that anthropomorphism is a “general, spontaneous, and unconscious interpretive tendency” (Guthrie 1993:37) of the human mind to project agency onto inanimate matter, and this process is one of the psychological roots for the evolution of religious belief (Boyer 2001; Barrett 2004). This theory has a long history in the field of religious studies, and its contemporary form essentially recasts an idea found in the work of writers like David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Edward Burnett Tylor into an explicitly cognitive framework. In spite of many discontinuities between these two groups of writers, they share one important assumption; namely, that animism is principally a misfire or mistake of the human brain, a spandrel or by-product of our cognitive architecture that can be corrected by rationality and empiricism.

If this is the case, a question arises: What are we to make of anthropomorphic acts that are specific and “planned and performed consciously” like those David Haberman (2012:25) describes in his ethnography of tree worship in northern India? These strategic anthropomorphic practices, which include the molding of facemasks onto trees, are undertaken in order “to better relate to them” and establish continuity between human and non-human worlds.

Nested within the theoretical framework of the anthropomorphic theory is the assumption that the world clearly divides into separate realms of “Nature” and “Culture.” By this assumption, the alleged “mistake” of animism is its ascription of agency, motivation, and mentality (which are placed on the side of Culture) onto a world determined by biological and physical processes (which are placed on the side of Nature). This partition, which has become endemic within modern society, has a long pedigree in Western history. It also has far-reaching implications for the relationship between colonialism, indigenous peoples, and contested environments.

When European travelers and colonists first explored the continents that they dubbed “The New World,” they were stunned by what seemed to be a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and men” (Nash 2001:9). As the colonization of the Americas continued, this antagonistic view of nature would be complemented by a growing appreciation for the wildernesses of the continents, exemplified in the writings of American authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir.

What these two perspectives held in common, however, was the perception that these places and landscapes were untamed and undomesticated, entropic blind spots of the Earth from the transformational spread of humanity. As a result, the inhabitants of these areas were either lauded for their inherent conservationism (the Noble Savage motif) or denigrated for their supposed inferiority at utilizing the resources of the landscape (the Primitive Savage motif). Regardless of whether Native Americans were considered to have revered it or were simply unable to tame it, Nature, in the European mind, remained “pristine” on the other side of the boundary demarcating it from the activities of European culture.

In spite of the distance we may now feel from these attitudes, this paradigm can still be seen in many standard models of conservation, which create “wilderness” preserves in order to diminish or eradicate anthropic effects within those biotic regions. In addition to keeping European tourists at bay, the establishment of these areas often involved the deracination of native peoples, and conflicts over indigenous rights to natural resources has continued unabated as conservation efforts have spread in Africa and South America (Spence 1999). Particularly common in this literature is the idea that certain areas of the planet are “pristine” or “primeval,” and should therefore be preserved in order to maintain these sites as refuges of biological diversity. They are set aside, supposedly “untouched,” to offset the destruction of the rest of the natural world from the activities of technologically complex human society.

Of course, indigenous societies were neither unable to alter their environment nor inherently conservationist. Instead, like other human groups, many indigenous societies extensively modified “Nature.” This paradigm is perhaps most spectacularly demonstrated in the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, and geographers on the Amazon who have concluded that the rainforest underwent extreme modifications, leading William Balée to conclude that at least 11.8% of the Amazonian rainforest landscape exists as the result of human activity (Balée 2013:3). Finding the term “anthropogenic” to be too limited for the proper understanding of the dynamic of these transformations across time (especially following the decimation of the native populations after the introduction of European diseases), Balée coined the term “Cultural Forest” to describe the way in which the Amazon is not only a “rich realm of nature,” but a rich realm of culture as well (Balée 2013:2).

By demonstrating the inadequacy of the Nature/Culture paradigm to analyze ecosystem management in the Amazon, Balée and other Historical Ecologists provide the grounds for the healthy criticism of naturalistic viewpoints without slipping into the vacuous labyrinths of post-modern and post-colonial discourse. In a similar vein, Philippe Descola has argued that a dualistic approach is inappropriate in the interpretation of contemporary ethnography, stating that many Amazonian groups “regard themselves, not as social collectives managing their relations with the ecosystem, but rather as simple components of a vaster whole within which no real discrimination is really established between humans and nonhumans” (Descola 2013:21).

Far from being limited to the New World, this paradigm comes into play again in the discussion surrounding “sacred” groves and forest islands in the African Savanna. Specifically, Michael Sheridan claims that the stereotypical view of sacred groves as “examples par excellence of ahistorical cultural and ecological equilibria” is being supplanted by a perspective that views these groves are “sites where ecological, social, and political symbolic dynamics intersect” (2008:10). Phrased differently, “tropical forests are not simply relics of primeval forests, and contemporary African religions are not simply relics of pre-colonial ideas and practices” (Sheridan 2008:13).

This line of thought is powerfully supported by James Fairhead and Melissa Leach (1996) in their landmark book, Misreading the African Landscape. They found that a significant portion of forest islands in Western Africa were not “primeval relics” of a disappearing forest landscape, but actually the result of careful nurturance and management by the indigenous inhabitants. These ecosystemic practices intersect with the cosmology and religion of natives. Fairhead and Leach draw attention to the myths of “founding trees,” or the first tree that was planted by the first patrilineal ancestor in a forest island, which symbolizes for his descendants their claim over that land. In addition to being a powerful status symbol within the human world, stories around these trees “recall(s) the establishment of a relationship — almost a contract — with the area’s land spirits: a relationship maintained ritually by a founder’s descendants to ensure a place both for human settlement and reproduction” (1996:89).

Importantly, the role of this tree in solidifying and symbolizing the history of the relationship between this culture and its environment cannot neatly be explained by a theory of spontaneous anthropomorphism, and the influence of the tree’s religious significance on the natural and biological processes of its ecosystem challenges any clear division of causation between cultural and natural realms of activity. Rather than reinforcing the barriers between Culture and Nature, ascriptive animists actively and consciously form relationships with dynamic non-human partners. Rather than seeing “Nature” as an undifferentiated mass, animists establish networks of engagements that find their expression in cosmologies, rituals, and experiences of non-human personhood.

While great emphasis has been placed on the spontaneous anthropomorphic tendencies of the human brain, we should more seriously consider the ways in which animists actively foster and bolster these perceptions, often with adaptive ecological effects. While the perception of “spirits” in the non-human world could be a brain-based misfire, or spandrel of human consciousness, these might also be the product of the natural human tendency to enter into intensely emotional and personal relationships with the non-human world.


Works Cited

Balée, William L. 2013. Cultural Forests of the Amazon: A Historical Ecology of People and Their Landscapes. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press.
Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Brightman, Marc, Vanessa Elisa Grotti, and Olga Ulturgasheva (eds). 2014. Animism in Rainforest and Tundra: Personhood, Animals, Plants and Things in Contemporary Amazonia and Siberia. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. by Janet Lloyd. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Fairhead, James, and Melissa Leach. 1996. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Guthrie, Stewart. 1993. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haberman, David L. 2013. People Trees: Worship of Trees in Northern India. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sheridan, Michael J. 2008. “The Dynamics of African Sacred Groves: Ecological, Social, and Symbolic Processes.” In African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, edited by Celia Nyamweru and Michael Sheridan, 9–41. Oxford : Athens, OH : Pretoria: Ohio University Press.
Spence, Mark David. 1999. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press.

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