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Thread: The Amazon, Agni, and Tian

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    The Amazon, Agni, and Tian

    Tian, Confucious wrote, spoke to him. In Analects he offered that Tian gave him life, that Tian watched and judged, that we could know the movements of Tian, and knowing this, we would be provided with the sense of a special place in the universe. Our place. Tian, the god of heaven, or just heaven if we prefer, was not a personal god as envisioned by abrahamic theologies. More the dao of taoists, the way things were, or the physis of the greeks - nature. Brahmin, for another take. When asked if it were better to sacrifice to the god of the stove or the god of the family, Confucious replied that in order to worship any god properly, one must first know and understand Tian. His central concept was ren, or humaneness. Defining ethical behavior as essential to human being, jun zi. As he practiced a form of ancestral worship arising from the shang dynasty, he sought to make the gods and their rituals less about the demands and expectations of those gods, or for that matter what transactionary relationship one might seek with those gods - but that those demands and expectations conformed to the will of heaven - The Zhou dynasties mandate of heaven. Confucian principles were never abstract, but instead, placed within and inseperable from practice. On the subject of what he called "spiritual beings" he was clear and concise. Respect them, but keep your distance. They were not central to his worldview and, while their existence was taken as a matter of fact,.. this existence was irrelevant to the right life, or the principles of the right life. They themselves may or may not conform to the mandate of heaven, and they had no insight which could not be directly observed in Tian.

    Meanwhile, to the west, large swaths of the indian subcontinent were being transformed from forest and marsh to arable land. This, in addition to the vast plains already suited. This was done by an interesting process of migratory hearth fires. It was a push to the north and west where every day civilization followed the sun. A fire generally located on the southeastern side of the encampment would be kindled (it having been left to smolder overnight) and the village coming to light their own hown fires from it, before clearcutting another parcel and using the timber both practically and ritually while teams scoured the undergrowth for edibles, medicinals, and other items of interest. When enough distance had been crossed that the camp needed to move or it became unweildy to transport the debris, the hearth fire along with the entire encampment would be moved in ceremonial procession to the new boundary of "the world" - and this cycle would repeat itself for centuries. Day by day, hour by grueling hour. Agni, fire-as-god, the primordial force that consumes, transforms, and conveys...and very much by this hearthfire the wilderness was consumed, and transformed into productive land, and through this effort the entire society was conveyed over great distances. The fire itself was a practical concern, regardless of whatever else it might be. The logistics involved in keeping numerous small fires burning just werent workable, and so the community was formed around this fire as many communties have been throughought history and prehistory, including whatever ovens might be adjacent, and keeping the fire was a profession of great respect and importance. So much so that it would become the duty of priests as their culture became more sophisticated and transcendantal concerns began to weigh more heavily. Ultimately, the fire was moved again, wholly outside of it's place and function within a community and influenced by incoming peoples and cultures it became a fire temple. A place with ritual significance, considered to be sacrosanct...not where you would bake bread or burn your trash or just have a chat with folks about that big fish you totally, absolutely really did catch...when no one was looking.


    Further to the west, and much further forward in time, another forest is burning, and being clearcut. Two million square miles. 400 billion trees. So dense that there are still uncontacted peoples living in it. It stands, in most of our minds, as a raw expression of nature at it's most vital and fundamental and powerful - but it's not at all what it seems. In a study meant to document the biodiversity being lost to timber, a sampling of trees was taken at vastly remote sites that could be reasonably expected to serve as a barometer for the pre-industrial state of the rainforest. Broadly, the data confirmed what they already expected. There were thousands of species of trees crammed into the canopy. What wasn't expected, was that over fifty percent of the trees were just one percent of the species, and that these species...were known domesticates. The Amazon, is a garden. It's composition determined by eight thousand years of indiginous agriculture. Chained inseperably to this were eight thousand years of etiological narratives that describe how and why this was done. Just to the north, on the high mexican plain, the aztecs engaged in a systematic campaing of monoculture and terraforming, pioneering methodologies that may have more relevance and utility for us, today, than they ever had for that society. All of this, too, was contextualized in the ritual and temple complex. A temple dripping with blood reenacting or repaying an ancient sacrifice where the gods threw themselves into the sun to keep it burning - and without the sun..there can be no corn..and without the corn, there can be no life. These aren't isolated examples. In the american northeast, pre colonial land use policies enacted de jure and de facto by indiginous tribes produced widespread impact on the landscape and floodplain development centuries before european settlers arrived. A vast increase in soil erosion was caused by natives reducing the tree cover, reorienting their settlements, and intensifying corn production. This laid sedimentary deposits in the rivers which are still there to this day. Here again we find their efforts contextualized in myth. The three sisters being the engine of that environmental catastrophe. Still, this was necessarry to maintain life, and was balanced by a presence for living and for nature that helped to mollify them in the face of the worst consequences of their most destructive interactions.


    They all placed man within nature, as nature, rather than apart from nature. They all maintained that sanctity and principle either was or could be derived from nature. That we as human beings had a unique responsibility to nature -owing to our unique attributes as creatures- and the actual business of living, living with each other, and living with each other in nature. These few examples above are interesting in their own right, in their own times and circumstance, but far more important is how relevant they are to us today. Confucius saw the splintering of his society into a state of perpetual war - the agni hearth fire was an endless search and slavish devotion to the procurement and consumption of fuel - to the development of civilization. The engineering of a food forest we moderns later mistakenly took as raw unfiltered wilderness in the amazon a consequence of trying to persist in an ironic maze of green where light rarely touched the ground. The aztecs apocalyptic desperation the confluence of the limits of their (wildly sophisticated) technology and it's growing inadequacy to sustain them, as they themselves grew on it's back. The pre columbian reorganization of the north american biome a casualty in mans quest to remove the limitations and miseries of an insular life as hunter gatherers - a goal that would go unrealized due to a calamity of even greater proportions just as they were set to establish themselves...disease. Disease transported throughought their population faster than an army could march, carried along by those same new settlements and connections that they had reformed their earth to support - post contact. In every case the fabric of these peoples lives was contextualized and given meaning by their religious narratives. Those sets of organizing principles which we all live our lives by, whatever they might be. They faced the same problems we face now. Problems that we had diminished or, at least temporaraliy, solved. The vitality of their message being lost when we could no longer recall those struggles that we had formed them to address. While I doubt that any of us today would vouch for the contents of the ideologies or religions or traditions above in full, I also doubt that any of us could competently argue that confucious was wrong when he insisted that living in reality imposed a requirement of ethical conduct and consideration. That our decisions must honor our parents, ourselves, our children, each other, our land. Perhaps we, like the clearcutters who stoked the agni fires, cannot escape the need for fuel and the need for space and the need for development - but if that's the case, would we not also benefit from the reverence that they maintained for that enterprise? Finding and consuming the necessities of life as imposed by nature, and being together while we do it as a collaborative rather than competitive effort..is of religious importance. We must, by necessity, make due with what we've got - and that will always include novel thinking and the clever retasking of otherwise natural environments to our own benefit - as the engineers of the amazon sought to do. Even as we bend nature around us to our will with a never ending procession of technological acheivement, we cannot forget that those things which we take are borrowed, and that we owe something back to the source from which all life, including our own, flows, as the aztecs maintained. We need to connect our populations and provide greater commerce and trade between them if we're to be able to source the talent and ideas and material required to stand up to challeneges to our existence, even if we ultimately fall, as the native north american indians. Through all of this, and much more, we have to be able to maintain the dignity of who and what we are, and to keep our very real relationship with nature always in sight, always considered, as an article of singular importance. No other item matters or could matter, if that relationship ends. There will be no one left for them to matter to.


    So...what is sacred? This question is so pregnant with assumptions that it might go into labor before I finish delivering it. So, let's start with the first thing that most of us learn is sacred, as children, in the west. A church. A place of worship. A place so sancrosanct that the ground around it is holy. In some beliefs this ground is the only appropriate place to host so much as the discarded shell of a human being. A place so well infused with sacred presence that it can keep the conceptual miasma of evil out. Not just to people who believe, either. The idea of burning or harming a church is as revolting to an atheist as to the man kneeling before the cross inside. We could posit that this is social conditioning, we could reject the notion entirtely by pointing to people who very gleefully burn down churches...with and without people inside, or just wander in with a gun. I'd say that these realities don't diminish the sacred. We've seen a thousand years of fighting over abrahamic sites...but these are seen as the worst outcomes of strained interactions between people with more in common than what seperates them. We laud those examples when people manage to coexist, and manage to have their sacred sites coexisting. Imagine a world, otherwise the same as this in every respect - except that nature also avails itself of that spring of reverance and awe...and yes, even revulsion at the thought of it's damage or destruction. What else do we find sacred, holy? Well, gods, in a word. We don't always agree with each other about gods, or with what a god has to say, but as far as items held by faith this itself is almost the picture of a sacrosanct thing. We believe that we should be able to believe in these gods, and that we should be able to order our lives by the principles these gods represent or commit to us. In fact we believe it so much that it informs our decisions and the decisions that others make on our behalf. Gods and god beliefs are priveleged. Imagine a world where nature was likewise privileged. With social etiquette and political policies carving out space in every interaction. Picture an open coal pit in a cathedral. Picture a god covered in crude oil and suffocating. Picture both being hunted to exinction. These are easy ones, but we can repeat this with anything that any of us find sacred. I use them so that we can share in a feeling or experience while we read this. This is the power of the sacred - to produce these feelings and compell us to action. While we reserve this attribute and this power for a great many things between us, we could not maintain that it's extended to nature by simple reference to the state of it, as we're putting it. We could not do to nature what we are doing if we believed it were sacred any more than we could do those things to our own churches, our own gods. Like those victims of sectarian violence we just mentioned in passing, we also have more in common than what seperates us. All of us. The breadth and depth and shape of that common content being described precisely -as- our nature. What we are, and what is. If nature is sacred, our nature is included, and what do we do to each other that we would never do to our own churches, our own gods? Holiness, unlike our natural resources, is endless. At the very least we could spread a little more around - but, I would contend, that we have good reason to do more. I would note, as well, that there are competitions for holiness not related to scarcity but from the existence of antithetical ideologies and claims to sacred making properties or authority that will have to be resolved, and that this resolution will play out very much in the natural world, by it's rules. We're capable of privileging more than one thing at a time, but if we subordinate even a privileged nature to some other concern, we will have signed a suicide pact with that thing. In this, I cannot see any other way to organize our lives, our commitment to nature must be first order.
    Last edited by Rhythm; 23 Jan 2020 at 11:54.

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