Voices and Stories of the Earth: The Significance of Narrative and Mythology for Environmental Sustainability

By Jacob Baker

If you will think of yourselves as coming out of the earth, instead of being thrown in here from somewhere else,
you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth.
And this is the voice of the earth. 

Joseph Campell (The Power of Myth, 40). 

We often underestimate the vital importance of myth in human society. Unlike throughout all of human history, today society is too fragmented and fast-paced to keep up with myth construction and too modern to take mythology seriously. According to eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell, myths are “stories in our search through the ages for truth, meaning, significance.” (4) Ultimately, though, “people are not seeking for meaning in life. They are seeking for the experience of being alive, the actual experience of life instead of an abstract meaning or significance.” Read myths, he says. “Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts–but if you read the other ones, you get the message.” (5)

Campbell says that all myths in human history were specific to different cultures and societies. But the world has drastically changed, at a greater pace than previous eras, such that “The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it…..The society that such a myth will speak to will be the society of the planet.” (41)

Campbell employs a speech by Chief Seattle, a Duwamish Indian chief, that Seattle gave in response to United States encroachments on his people’s land. According to Campbell, Seattle’s speech–given in 1854–embodies the ethic of a planetary myth better than any other would-be planetary (as opposed to societal or cultural) myth he had encountered. I include the full text of this speech here:

The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?

We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.

As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.

Myth is crucial for establishing a new, sustainable, and interconnective relationship with the earth. Perhaps more significant and persuasive than amassing scientific data regarding climate change and unsustainability are the stories we tell about our place in and on the earth. When we start to uncover and even create myths that compose human existence within a planetary narrative, attitudes and pre-conceived notions about the earth and our place in it will begin to change for the better. Perhaps in the end it will be our myths and stories that will do for us what technology and education cannot do alone.


4 responses to “Voices and Stories of the Earth: The Significance of Narrative and Mythology for Environmental Sustainability

  1. SNeilsen April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I agree.
    But….. does this mean that the movie Avatar is modern day revelation and must I watch it in 3D?

    Perhaps the only lasting impact is the box office total.

  2. xenawarriorscientist April 8, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Universal myths! Here’s a brilliant one (an Apache story conveyed by mythologist Michael Meade). It’s a podcast with a couple stories; they’re both fantastic, and I’m thinking in particular of the first one story. The lady and the black dog– my daughter (3-1/2) wants me to tell it all the time.

    http://www.bioneers.org/radio/series-archives/2010-series/why-the-world-doesn2019t-end Getting these podcasts to load can be fiddly– if you just open the page and wait a couple minutes it’ll start playing on its own.

  3. Pingback: new myth, old god (and the origin of heaven and hell on earth) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  4. Pingback: Respect the Land and the Forest – Chief Seattle’s Letter | lilianausvat

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