The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

The Sacred Depths of Nature
Ursula Goodenough
Oxford University Press, 1998
174 pages

Reviewed by Ser

I was quite excited by the premise of this book, so I believe I gave it more of a chance than I normally would. The goal of The Sacred Depths of Nature is to unite the two fronts of science and religion… not an easy task. The author is a biology professor with a lifelong interest in religion, and pulls experiences from both aspects of her life as she progresses through the book.

The basic format of each chapter is to present a scientific topic (such as DNA, reproduction, mutation), explain it, and then close with a reflection on how this topic can be seen from a spiritual point of view. This seems to be an excellent way to discuss the many topics, some of which the reader may never have heard of. However, each section is so… science-y. There is a lot of (in my opinion) dry explanation using terminology that would be more familiar to the scientific community, rather than someone more familiar with the religious or spiritual. I feel that the final part, “Emergent Religious Principles”, is where the real value of the book is for me, as it goes beyond the scientific explanations and discusses topics such as gratitude in everyday life, and shows how to apply this scientific understanding to our daily experiences.

There are a number of places in the text (most noticeably large captions of images) that simply stop in mid-sentence, never to be picked up or continued elsewhere in the book. I feel these should have been captured by the editor before publishing.

I was also a bit disappointed in the chapter on the big D – death. The author pays a lot of attention to most of the topics in this book, but I feel the death chapter was sort of lacking. While death can be a simple subject, death is something much meditated upon by religions across the globe. She simply ended the chapter with the statement, “My somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death”. I feel there was a lot more she could have touched on, more she could have expanded on to share with the reader how she is able to overcome her fears of the unknown. If your audience often asks the same question or gets stuck on the same topic, that might be a good indicator of a chapter you should spend more of your energies on as well.

I did appreciate the author’s attempt to unify the two seemingly opposite fronts, and I appreciated some of the metaphors (such as a Mozart sonata standing for reductionism). I personally don’t agree that life, when reduced to it’s component molecules, can’t possibly have more to it – a soul, an essence, what have you. I also disagree with her view that animals cannot feel “unique, special human emotions” such as love. However, I enjoyed appreciated this view from another’s eyes.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
Norton, 1999
496 pages

I’m sure there are going to be people scratching their heads in complete confusion when they see this book on Pagan Book Reviews. However, this blog isn’t just for books that are specifically about paganism, but are also useful to pagans. And this one is useful–for giving us perspective.

See, lot of (usually, though not always, white) neopagans romanticize their conceptions of what “tribal” societies are like, and glorify rather unrealistic portrayals of hunter-gatherer and basic agrarian societies. This is not to say that these societies aren’t of value; quite the contrary. But many pagans have insufficient understandings of what makes a society sustainable, which then turn into overly simplistic arguments about how technology is evil and indigenous people are noble savages.

The beautiful thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is that Diamond painstakingly traces the various factors that caused some societies to advance technologically quicker than others, ranging from access to large, domesticatible animals and cultivatible plants, to proximity to animals that can pass on diseases and build a population’s immune system, to specific geographical and geological features, and so forth. Obviously, the book is not flawless; Diamond, despite his attempts to be matter-of-fact, still shows a Eurocentric bias in some areas; additionally, this book should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of its subject matter. But there are a lot of salient arguments here, too.

For pagans, it’s a nice break from the sometimes technophobic attitudes that pop up. Additionally, as neopagans are mostly found in developed, English-speaking and/or European-culture-based nations, it’s a good look at societies outside of those contexts. And who can’t use a good history lesson now and then?

Four pawprints out of five.

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When God is Gone, Everything is Holy by Chet Raymo

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist
Chet Raymo
Sorin Books, 2008
148 pages

This is another one of those “Why is this important to pagans, anyway?” books. At first glance, it would seem that a balancing act between Catholicism, agnosticism, and strict scientific interpretations of reality would have little interest to your average neopagan. This is exactly the kind of book that I like to bring to my readers’ attention, however. It’s full of interesting little surprises, and I got quite a bit out of it as far as brain food goes.

Raymo presents a series of arguments towards a materialistic interpretation of Nature as sacred. Nature is not sacred because it is filled with spirits, but rather because the very processes which science is uncovering are endlessly fascinating. With this perspective, he skewers dualistic worldviews which separate Sacred from Profane, and the idea that Earth is just a waystation to be used and abused before we go off to some afterlife. However, as a dedicated agnostic, he proceeds to toss the idea of a personal God, along with numerous religious trappings (emphasis on “trap”) out and instead explains the Divine as the ongoing “I Don’t Know”.

It is this emphasis on admitting that we don’t know everything (and that’s okay) which I think really makes this book worth reading. Neopaganism as a whole lacks a healthy dose of skepticism. What Raymo presents is a nice alternative to some of the more militant atheist voices at the table; healthy skepticism (as opposed to outright debunking) is paired with the admission that, removed from its fundamentalist, harmful roots, religion and spirituality can still serve healthy purposes in the evolution of humanity.

Do be aware that Raymo tends to shove animism, pantheism, polytheism, and other mainstays of (neo)paganism into the same category of useless superstition, while admitting aesthetic preferences for certain aspects of Catholicism. This bias may not have been intentional, but it is glaring. If you are easily offended, you’ll probably end up unhappy with this (of course, if you’re easily offended the entire book may come up with the same result). However, I still found his conception of Nature as sacred (in his own interpretation of the idea) to be one that I could resonate with on numerous levels, even if I believe in spirits and he doesn’t.

Despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m still not convinced that animism isn’t a good theological choice for me at this point, so his argument against it wasn’t as effective as he might have hoped. And, as with anything, take what you read with a grain of salt. This is a book for considering over time, not simply to read and discard after first impressions. If you find things that you disagree with (and if you’re like most neopagans, you will), don’t disregard the text in its entirety. Give it time to percolate in your mind, and see what you think after a second read a few months down the line.

Five pawprints out of five.

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I Am of This Land – Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow

I Am of This Land (Wetes pe m’e wes): Wildlife of the Hanford Site (A Nez Perce Nature Guide)
Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow (compilers)
Nez Perce Tribe Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Department

This is a neat book I found secondhand. It’s a combination of natural history of various animals at the Hanford site in Washington state, and stories about the animals from Nez Perce mythology. The two areas are well blended for a wonderful look at the wild creatures that the Hanford nuclear site features.

The first section of the book is a summary of Nez Perce culture, to give context for the rest of the material. There’s also a good reminder of the history of the tribe in relation to the United States government, including land grabs and other abuses by the latter. Considering the book is produced by the tribe itself, one can most likely trust to its accuracy.

The rest of the book includes brief explanations of the various animals–mammals, birds, and more–found at the Hanford site, as well as a special section on harmful animals such as poisonous spiders. The information for each animal is not particularly long–usually a sentence or two, if that. So don’t take this as your only field guide. However, there’s good (if a bit dated) information on the status of each species (endangered, threatened, etc.) as well as how commonly it’s found on site. Myths are interspersed throughout the text.

Overall, it’s a neat little compilation. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Nez Perce culture and myth, as well as anyone who like critters of any sort.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Reason For Hope – Jane Goodall

Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey
Jane Goodall
Warner Books, 1999
282 pages

Biologist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall has authored a number of informative and approachable books. This one combines a summary of her life with her spiritual insights. Often ecospiritual in nature rather than “Worship God!”, the book allows the reader a sensitive look into Goodall’s personal thoughts on her experiences of the past few decades, as well as her thoughts on contemporary issues in animal welfare and environmentalism.

Reason For Hope is divided into chapters that each focus on a particular theme, such as solitude, war, evil and healing. While the material that Goodall covers is often familiar to people who have read her other works, there are some new writings as well. A variety of photos allows more depth to the text, putting faces to names. The book ends on a positive note, extolling the virtues of–and need for–hope. Instead of feeling as though there’s nothing we can do, instead Goodall explains the problems we face, and through her patient and courageous example, inspires us to continue the good fight.

Even though Goodall is a self-described Christian, there is much in here to interest pagans, particular those of an ecospiritual persuasion. You won’t find preaching and proselytization. Instead, Goodall glories in the wonders of this world and the potential for human depth and growth in harmony with the rest of the world. It’s an inspiring read, and one I intend to return to.

Five pawprints out of five.

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When Elephants Weep – Masson and McCarthy

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy
Dell Publishing, 1995
292 pages

While this isn’t strictly a “pagan book”, it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for some time. As a totemist and animal magician, I believe it’s exceptionally important to study the natural history of animals as well as the more abstract mythology, lore, and UPG.

This book explores the emotions of species of animals ranging from ants to whales. Numerous anecdotes are given, particularly involving primates, cetaceans, and African gray parrots. These are used to put forth discussions and considerations of the debate as to whether or not nonhuman animals have emotions, and to what extent they share emotional states and expressions with us. We are not told what we must believe; the authors make their arguments, but they are not entirely dogmatic. Instead, they present their case, give their examples, and beseech the reader to consider what they have offered up. Responsibility is placed in the hands of the reader; we are not spoonfed the answers.

Let me make something clear: this book was not written by scientists. If you’re looking for hard scientific evidence for animal neurology and related fields, this isn’t it. One author has a PhD in Sanskrit; the other has degrees in journalism and biology. (Of course, I have a B.A. in English, so perhaps according to some I’m unfit to judge the scientific integrity of a work in my mere layman’s understanding.) However, I don’t believe science has all the answers, and the authors point out numerous places where science has perhaps been quite blind. We are called not just to think, but to feel–a more complete way of observing and considering emotions themselves. After all, it is strict adherence to left-brained thinking that justifies everything from vivisection of unanesthetized animals to extermination of entire species.

What I consider important about this book is that it can get the average person to think about how we approach animals and their emotions, and reconsider the practice of anthropomorphization. It may make you angry, it may make you cry, or it may make you nod and say “Yes, I agree with this”. But as long as you’re thinking about your position on animals as emotional beings instead of just reacting with your usual routines, I think the authors have done their job.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Animals and Psychedelics – Giorgio Samorini

Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness
Giorgio Samorini
Inner Traditions, 2002
97 pages

I had heard good things about this book, which apparently is pretty well unique in its field (not a surprise there). It’s really more of a long academic paper in paperback book format, but it’s worth the read.

The first part of the book is dedicated to defining what a drug is and what its inherent functions are. He also introduces us to the basic idea of animals deliberately seeking out specific plants (even carnivorous animals) to meet certain ends beyond nutrition–to aid in healing, or to alter the state of consciousness the animals are in.

The bulk of the book is composed of specific examples of animals drugging themselves. More well-known examples, such as cats getting high on catnip, or elephants seeking both natural and manmade alcohol, are cited. However, Samorini also discusses California robins gorging themselves on holly berries, caribou and reindeer devouring Amanita muscaria, and drunken slugs. It would seem that drug-induced altered states are found from insects to mammals, from the Arctic to the savannah, and are definitely not limited to the human animal.

The final chapter is where the author really shows off his ideas. These can be summarized thus: that animals do, indeed, intentionally drug themselves, and that the resultant altered states of consciousness are a part of evolution. While I agree with the first half of this, there’s much evidence lacking in the second. We have yet to show a definite connection between animal intoxication, and the changes in a species’ behavior, which he postulates. However, in Samorini’s defense, this is such a niche area of research that only has a handful of people studying it that this particular book is pretty much the first one to focus exclusively on it, or so he says. I’m inclined to agree, as it’s the only book I know of either on the topic or–for that matter–by this author.

Overall, I really enjoyed this brief but good read. While the final evidence isn’t complete, this is understandable in light of the limited research available. However, it is a groundbreaking text, IMO, in the area of chemognosis, as it supports the idea that seeking altered states through drugs is natural, rather than an unhealthy human compulsion that inevitably leads to ruin. The inclusion of cases of animals being addicted to alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, right along with marijuana, datura and psilocybin mushrooms, is also useful for showing that intoxication doesn’t discriminate on the basis of human choices.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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