“The knowledge of how to build a nest in a bare tree, how to fly to the wintering place, how to perform the mating dance—all of this information is stored in the reservoirs of the bird’s instinctual brain. But human beings, sensing how much flexibility they might need in meeting new situations, decided to store this sort of knowledge outside the instinctual system; they stored it in stories.”
-Robert Bly, preface to Iron John
Many of us feel like cultural orphans in this era: we don’t subscribe to the mainstream capitalist religion that worships money, status, and consumption, but we did not inherit the beliefs and traditions of our ancestors in the same way that past generations did. Global capitalism created a rift in our belief systems over the course of the last century or two, co-opting our rituals and traditions and repurposing them for the amoral pursuit of cash. We deserve better.
Humans are innately spiritual creatures: we are all driven to seek purpose beyond pure survival, and connection beyond the individual body. We want to be a part of something greater than our individual selves—to feel that we are working with others towards a common goal that supersedes individual needs. And how do we achieve this state? Through myth, ritual, and culture.
Update 12/2017: I have covered this topic in much greater detail in episode #29 of the Good Life Revival Podcast, which you can stream or download HERE:
Give Me Culture or Give Me Death
In his brilliant anti-civilization manifesto Rewild Or Die, Peter Bauer (writing under the alias Urban Scout) develops a somewhat unique set of definitions for these three terms, explaining what each concept is and then, crucially, what purpose it serves. (For a more detailed description of how he arrives at these definitions, check out the essay on “Civilization vs. Rewilding” from the book.)
- Myth: a story that holds cultural ideology for the purpose of survival.
- Ritual: a choice made for the purpose of survival.
- Culture: socially organized humans enacting an ideology for the purpose of survival.
Do you see a pattern here? Each of these terms, at its core, represents the means by which a group of humans acts out its ideology for the purpose of survival. We all do this, whether religious or secular – those who reject the mainstream religions are given alternatives in the form of capitalism, globalism, science, pop culture, etc. Ultimately, all of these institutions can be boiled down to a culture sharing myths and performing rituals with the goal of improving their collective chance for success in life.
When we do this well, we forge deep social bonds and develop a meaningful spiritual understanding of our place in the universe – for a human animal, it doesn’t get much better than that. When we get it wrong, we end up with a mythology of Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians; rituals of conspicuous shopping and fast-food drive-thrus; and a culture that values sociopathic behavior and ecological exploitation above all else. If you don’t design your own lifestyle, it will be done for you.
What is Useful and What is Natural
Humans need myths and rituals—we do want to keep on surviving, after all—and it’s our choice to accept or reject any we come across on the basis of whether we find them useful or not.
What is a useful ritual? Going back to the definitions above, a ritual is a choice that you make for the purpose of survival. So a useful ritual might be one that actually does improve your life – we could say that it allows you to thrive. A useful culture engenders a lifestyle in which we can flourish individually, collectively, and sustainably; that’s a pretty good way to define a high quality of life, if you ask me.
Throughout this blog I argue in favor of a more natural way of living, one that’s in tune with the rhythms of nature and aligned with our intrinsic needs. What we need—what we are so profoundly lacking for the first time in human history—is a culture of stories, beliefs, values, and actions that reinforce our interconnectedness with nature.
The ethics of permaculture offer a fantastic ideological foundation, but permaculture is not the culture itself, nor the blueprints – it’s no more or less than a tool kit, a set of guidelines for evaluating specific cases and circumstances.
I’m not suggesting that we write our own mythological texts, or choreograph new and unique ceremonial dances or something. What I am suggesting is that we are already surrounded by myths and rituals that we could benefit from, and we shouldn’t be swayed by fears of “cultural appropriation.”
Reclaiming What We've Lost
In this era of mass cultural homogenization towards the lowest common denominator, indigenous world cultures of the past and present could use all the help they can get preserving their beliefs and perspectives. Urban Scout has this to say, in his essay on “Appropriation vs. Rewilding”:
“Many indigenous authors and teachers have explained that no one owns these skills. Now, that doesn’t mean I practice particular, long-standing traditions of a particular indigenous people (such as the potlatch), but that I study their systems, and the systems of my own ancestors, and create my own using the same principles.”
Some balk at this post-modern notion of “pick-and-choose” culture, but the purpose of learning from our indigenous peers should be to draw inspiration rather than to plunder wholesale. What permaculture, rewilding, and related ideologies are trying to get at is a return to natural, bioregional cultures, but not a reenactment of the past or of anyone else's culture. Studying indigenous and non-Western cultural traditions offers us ideas about how to better relate to our surroundings, and thereby develop our own mythology.
Myths arise from a culture’s relationship to its environment. That fundamental interconnectedness with the land is precisely what we’ve lost, and what we must reclaim.
In my experience, traditions related to the changing of seasons are a good place to start. Celebrating the solstices almost certainly predates recorded history, and there is a vast ocean of myths, rituals, and symbolism related to these seasonal events that is fascinating to explore.
From there, the sky’s the limit – as we learn from Buddhist traditions, anything from preparing tea to washing dishes can be a ritual act, rich with meaning. It’s up to us to take on the power of these symbolic gestures that were passed down to us from our ancestors – whether or not they come to us directly through our lineage or the specific time and place we were born into. Of course, we are also free to create our own.
You might think this is silly, but for me, turning a compost pile is a highly sacred ritual. The compost pile is where the line between life and death begins to blur; where the division between individual entities appears arbitrary. Compost contains the life force which gives rise to all of us living creatures, and we also know that the ultimate fate of our bodies is to become compost once more. Take away our soil fertility and life as we know it ceases to exist. What could be more sacred than that?
I’m not telling you to worship your compost pile, or follow any of my examples really. What I’m saying is that you have to figure out what kinds of cultural experiences have meaning for you and your community in your specific place, and just run with them. If they improve your feeling of interconnectedness with your group and your environment, then you’re on the right track. With time, the traditions will fall into place.