Nature and Madness

This essay blows my mind. I edited it heavily in order to read it aloud a few months ago – this is the abridged version, and I urge you to take ten minutes to read it.


Nature and Madness

by Paul Shepard, 1992

Once, our species did live in stable harmony with the natural environment (and in some small groups it still does). This was not because people were incapable of changing their environment or lacked acumen; it was not simply on account of a holistic or reverent attitude; rather, there was some more enveloping and deeper reason. The change to a more hostile stance toward nature began between five and ten thousand years ago and became more destructive and less accountable with the progress of civilization. In concert with advancing knowledge and human organization it wrenched the ancient social machinery that had limited human births. It fostered a new sense of human mastery and the extirpation of nonhuman life. In hindsight this change has been explained in terms of necessity or as the decline of ancient gods. But more likely it was irrational (though not illogical) and unconscious, a kind of failure in some fundamental dimension of human existence, an irrationality beyond mistakenness, a kind of madness.


The idea of a sick society is not new. Sigmund Freud asks, “If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual, and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations – or some epochs of civilization – possibly the whole of mankind – have become neurotic?”  Approached in terms of collective personality disintegration, what is indicated by the heedless occupancy of all earth habitats; the physical and chemical abuse of the soil, air, and water; the extinction and displacement of wild plants and animals; the overcutting and overgrazing of forest and grasslands; the expansion of human numbers at the expense of the biotic health of the world, turning everything into something human-made and human-used?


To invoke psychopathology is to address infancy, as most mental problems have their roots in our first years of life, and their symptoms are defined in terms of immaturity. The mentally ill typically have infantile motives and act on perceptions and states of mind that caricature those of early life. Among their symptoms are destructive behaviours through which individuals come to terms with private demons that would otherwise overwhelm them.


The whole of growth through the first twenty years (including physical growth) is our ontogeny, our “coming into being.” Among those relict tribal peoples who seem to live at peace with their world, who feel themselves to be guests rather than masters, the ontogeny of the individual has some characteristic features. I conjecture that their ontogeny is healthier than ours (for which I will be seen as sentimental and romantic) and that it may be considered a standard from which we have deviated. Their way of life is the one to which our ontogeny has been fitted by natural selection, fostering cooperation, leadership, a calendar of mental growth, and the study of a mysterious and beautiful world where the clues to the meaning of life were embodied in natural things, where everyday life was inextricable from spiritual significance and encounter, and where the members of the group celebrated individual stages and passages as ritual participation in the first creation. This seed of normal ontogeny is present in all of us.


The newborn infant, for example, needs almost continuous association with one particular mother. For the infant as person-to-be, the shape of all otherness grows out of that maternal relationship.  Yet the setting of that relationship was, in the evolution of humankind, a surround of living plants, rich in texture, smell, and motion. There is unfiltered, unpolluted air, the flicker of wild birds, real sunshine and rain, mud to be tasted and tree bark to grasp, the sounds of wind and water, the voices of animals and insects and humans. The mother is always there, a presence in the tactile warmth of her body. The world is a pungent and inviting place. It is a world of travel and stop. This interrupted movement sets the pace of the child’s life, telling him gently that he is a traveller or visitor in the world. As he gets older and as the cycle of group migrations is repeated, he sees places he has seen before.


It is a world bathed in nonhuman forms, a myriad of figures, evoking an intense sense of their differences and similarities, the beckoning challenge of a lifetime. Speech is about that likeness and unlikeness, the coin of thought. The child begins to babble and then to speak according to his own timing, with the cooperation of adults who are themselves acting upon the deep wisdom of a stage of life. Nature is their lexicon. There are as yet few mythical beasts, but real creatures to watch and to mimic in play. The child sees the adults dancing the animal movements and does it too. Music itself has been there all the time, from his mother’s song to the melodies of birds and the howls of wolves. The child already feels the mystery of kinship: likeness but difference. Animals have a magnetic attraction for the child, for each in its way seems to embody some impulse, reaction, or movement that is “like me.” In the playful, controlled enactment of these comes a gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships.


The child goes out from camp with playmates to imitate foraging, and then with adults to actually forage. Sometimes the best is not to be found, but there is always something. The world is all clues, and there is no end to their subtlety and delicacy. One has only to learn the art of reading them.


In such a world there is no wildness, as there is no tameness. The otherness of nature becomes accessible to humans in fabulous forms of incorporation, influence, conciliation, and compromise. When the male juvenile goes out with adults to seek a hidden root or to stalk an antelope, he sees the unlimited possibilities of affiliation with the environment, for success is understood to depend on the readiness of the prey or tuber as much as on the skill of the forager.


The child’s world is full of stories told: hearing of a recent hunt, tales of renowned events, and epics with layers of meaning. He has been bathed in voices of one kind or another always. Voices last only for their moment of sound, but they originate in life. The child learns that all life tells something and that all sound, from the frog calling to the sea surf, issues from a being kindred and significant to himself, telling some tale, giving some clue, mimicking some rhythm that he should know.


The child does not yet philosophize on this; he is shielded from speculation and abstraction by the intimacy of his psyche with his environment. Yet, reaching puberty, he is on the brink of a miracle of interpretation that will transform those things. At the end of childhood he comes to some of the most thrilling days of his life. The transition he faces will be experienced through body and ritual in concert. The childhood of journeying in a known world, scrutinizing and mimicking natural forms, and always listening has prepared him for a whole new octave in his being. The clock of his body permits it to be done, and the elders of his life will see that he is initiated.


The quests and tests that mark his passage in adolescent initiation are not intended to reveal to him that his love of the natural world was an illusion or that, having seemed only what it was, it in some way failed him. He will not put his delight in the sky and the earth behind him as a childish and irrelevant thing. He will graduate not out of that world but into its significance. So, with the end of childhood, he begins a lifelong study, a reciprocity with the natural world in which its depths are as endless as his own creative thought. He will not study it in order to transform its livingness into mere objects that represent his ego, but as a poem, numinous, and analogical of human society.


Maturity emerges in midlife as the result of the demands of an innate calendar of growth phases, to which the human nurturers – parents, friends, and teachers – have responded in season. It celebrates a central analogy of self and world in ever-widening spheres of meaning and participation, not an ever-growing domination over nature, escape into abstractions, or existential funk. Programmed for the slow development toward a special kind of sagacity, we suffer for the want of that vanished world, a deep grief we learn to misconstrue. Western civilized cultures have largely abandoned the ceremonies of adolescent initiation that affirm the metaphoric, mysterious, and poetic quality of nature, reducing them to aesthetics and amenities. But our human developmental program requires external models of order–if not a community of plants and animals, then words in a book, the ranks and professions of society, or the machine. If the ritual basis of the order-making metaphor is inadequate, the world can rigidify at the most literal level of juvenile understanding and so become a boring place, which the adult will ignore as repetitive or exploit as mere substance.


In the civilized world the roles of authority – family heads and others in power – were filled increasingly with individuals in a sense incomplete, who would in turn select and coach underlings flawed like themselves. Perhaps no one would be aware of such a debilitating trend, which would advance by pragmatic success across the generations as society put its fingers gropingly on the right moments in child nurturing by taking mothers off to work, spreading their attention and energy too thin with a houseful of babies, altering games and stories, manipulating anxiety in the child in a hundred ways. The transitory and normally healthful features of adolescent narcissism, oedipal fears and loyalties, ambivalence and inconstancy, playing with words, the gang connection, might in time be pathologically extended into adulthood, where they would be honoured in patriotic idiom and philosophical axiom. Over the centuries major institutions and metaphysics might finally celebrate attitudes and ideas originating in the normal context of immaturity.


The idealization of youth becomes mischannelled into an adulthood of simplistic polarities. Adolescent dreams and hopes become twisted and amputated according to the hostilities, fears, or fantasies required by society. Retarded in the unfolding of his inner calendar, the individual is silently engineered to domesticate his integrity and share the collective dream of mastery. Changing the world becomes an unconscious, desperate substitute for changing the self.  The trouble with the eagerness to make a world is that, because the world is already made, what is there must first be destroyed. Idealism, whether of the pastoral peaceable kingdom or the electronic paradise of technomania and outer space, is a normal part of adolescent dreaming, like the juvenile fantasies of heroic glory. The difficulty for our time is that there is no culture of benign elders to guide and administer the transition from juvenile into adult life.


White, European American, Western peoples are separated by many generations from decisions by councils of the whole, small-group nomadic life with few possessions, highly developed initiation ceremonies, natural history as every person’s vocation, a total surround of nonhuman-made (or “wild”) otherness with spiritual significance, and the “natural” way of mother and infant. All these are strange to us because we are no longer competent to live them–although that competence is potentially in each of us.


The culture of urban technicity works out its own deformities of ontogenesis. Some of these are legacies, while others are innovative shifts in the selective perpetuation of infantile and juvenile concerns. The city is shaped, designed consciously and unconsciously, by identity cripples, who are deprived in various social and ecological dimensions, yet who are also cripples in the sense of potential capacity, the possibilities of personal realization in the archaic and magnificent environments of the deep past.


Civilized society celebrates childhood, admires youth, and despises age, equating childhood with innocence, wisdom, and spiritual power. Its members cling to childhood, for their own did not serve its purpose. To wish to remain childlike, to foster the nostalgia for childhood, is to grieve for our own lost maturity, not because maturity is synonymous with childhood, but because then it was still possible to move toward maturity.


The children playing delightedly on the green grass or in awe at an owl in the woods will grow up oblivious to the good in nature if they never go beyond that momentary fascination. When, as adults, they will weigh the literal value of the owl (already realized, for it taught them the name and owlness) against other literal values, such as replacing the forest with a hospital, a sewage system, or an oil well, their judgment is likely to be for progress. With poor initial mother symbiosis, with an inadequate or lacklustre place-and-creature naturizing, or without the crucial adolescent religious initiation that uses the symbiotic, literal world as a prefigured cosmos, the adult cannot choose the forest and the owl. The self is still at the centre of a juvenile reality. It may be true that the purpose of the childlike pleasure in the outdoors is an end in itself; it is also necessary to the further work of the self going beyond the self. But I have oversimplified the choices in order to make a point. There is not a choice between the owl and the oil well at all. In our society those who would choose the owl are not more mature. The opposition is itself an extension of infantile duality. Fear and hatred of the organic on one hand, the desire to merge with it on the other; the impulse to control and subordinate on one hand, to worship the nonhuman on the other; over-differentiation on one hand, fears of separation on the other–all are two sides of a coin. In the shape given to a civilization by totemically inspired, technologically sophisticated, small-group, epigenetically fulfilled adults, the necessity to choose would never arise.


All Westerners are heir, not only to the self-justifications of recent technophilic Promethean impulses, but the world’s flimsiest identity structure, the products of a prolonged tinkering with ontogenesis. By Paleolithic standards, we are childish adults. Because of this arrested development, modern society continues to work, for it requires dependence. But the private cost is massive therapy, escapism, intoxicants, narcotics, fits of destruction and rage, enormous grief, subordination to hierarchies that exhibit this callow ineptitude at every level, and, perhaps worst of all, a readiness to strike back at a natural world that we dimly perceive as having failed us. From this erosion of human nurturing comes the failure of the passages of the life cycle and the exhaustion of our ecological accords.


Much of this has been said before, but not so often in terms of the relationship of the human to the nonhuman. Even as socially intense as we are, much of the unconscious life of the individual is rooted in interaction with otherness that goes beyond our own kind. Games and stories involving animals serve as projections for the discovery of the plurality of the self.  Initiatory ordeals in wilderness solitude and the ecological messages conveyed by myth are instruments in the maturing of the whole person. Only in the success of this extraordinary calendar does the adult come to love the world as the ground of his being. The risk in epigenesis is that the nurturers and caretakers do not move forward in their role in keeping with the child’s emerging stages. If such deprivations are severe enough, the child’s normal fears and fantasies can become enduring elements of the personality. Some of these omissions and impairments enhance the individual’s conformity to certain cultures, and the culture acts to reward them, to produce them by interceding in the nurturing process, and so to put a hold on development. In this way, juvenile fantasies are articulated not only in the monosyllables of the land scalper, but in philosophical argument and pontifical doctrine. Irrational feelings may be escalated into high-sounding reason when thrown up against a seemingly hostile and unfulfilling natural world. The West is a vast testimony to childhood botched to serve its own purposes, where history, masquerading as myth, authorizes men of action to alter the world to match their regressive moods of omnipotence and insecurity.


What can one say of the prospect of the future in a world where increasing injury to the planet is a symptom of human psychopathology? In some ways the situation is hopeful. An ecologically harmonious sense of self and world is not the outcome of rational choices. It is the inherent possession of everyone; it is latent in the organism. Perhaps we do not need new revolutions. The civilized ways inconsistent with human maturity will themselves wither in a world where children move normally through their ontogeny. Beneath the veneer of civilization lies the human in us who knows what is right and necessary for becoming fully human: birth in gentle surroundings, a rich nonhuman environment, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the discipline of natural history, play at being animals, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. There is a secret person undamaged in each of us, aware of the validity of these conditions, sensitive to their right moments in our lives. The task is not to start by recapturing the theme of reconciliation with the earth in all of its metaphysical subtlety, but with something much more direct and simple that will yield its own healing metaphysics.


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