The first half of Coates’ Nature regales us with the thoughts and histories of ancient civilizations as they pertain to nature. From the Greeks and Romans to the Christian societies of the middle ages and beyond, we see a dramatic shift in how nature is treated by humans spurred on by increasing population and disease. Still, I found rather interesting comparisons to be made between the environmental conservation efforts of today and the actions of Greek and Roman societies. While some of these practices do appear in the medieval ages, they seem to focus on the needs of the people rather than the needs of nature.
Beginning with the Greek and Roman civilizations, their religious practices seemed to venerate nature in order to keep it protected. Similar to the modern national parks, preserved sites were set aside as sacred to certain gods or goddesses. Despite their small size, hunting, logging, and farming was restricted in these areas under threat of divine punishment or punishment by a cleric who lived on the reserve. To provide a specific example, the book tells of Agamemnon’s poaching of one of Athena’s stags. As recompense for this transgression, he was forced to sacrifice his daughter. While, of course, originating from mythology, the tale still provides us with an example of what was critical to the modern lives of the ancient Greek people. These practices were rather interesting as I found them to correlate rather closely with today’s national parks and laws surrounding hunting. The book, too, makes this connection.
As expected, religion was not the only aspect that guided the Greek and Roman view of nature as academic thought and debate also brought the hierarchy of nature into question. Thinkers such as Pythagoras and Lucretius all questioned the impact of humans on their surrounding environment and discussed the inherent morality of the situation. Lucretius argued that humans are justified in their control over nature due to the actions of creatures such as goats. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Pythagoreans practiced a form of vegetarianism because they found the consumption of meat to be tied to savagery. This sentiment did not only extend to humans as they found even wolves and tigers to be savage due to their diets. Still, the existence of Lucretius’ argument does portray that the human need to justify or downplay the abuse of nature has been ingrained in our being for centuries.
Even more extreme than the Greek and Roman views on nature were those of the mysterious Orphic cults. Orphism venerated gods and goddesses deeply tied to death and practicians sought to rid themselves of their evil nature through successive reincarnation. Nature briefly explains their views on nature as “belief that all forms of life are intelligent and possess souls and vital interests.” Because this view seems so extreme as to suggest swearing off the consumption of all plants and animals, I would personally love to learn more about it. Additionally, because of it’s close ties with primal nature, one has to wonder: as we travel back farther and farther in human history, do we come closer to a more harmonious relationship between humans and nature?
Conversely, the middle ages seemed to be a period of increased land usage and colonialism. The untamed wilderness was no longer venerated by people but was feared or seen as evil. The text points to Glacken’s story in which hell is described to be at the center of a dense forest. The needs of the people are more present in the thoughts of medieval governing bodies as the rise in population required in increase in resources. Overhunting proved to drive species to extinction so preserves were put in place not to venerate nature, but ensure that it could provide settlers for years to come. Alternatively, the decrees could be tied to the human fascination with “The Hunt” as increased animal populations would allow for a more fruitful hunt and feast. Following these decrees came the failure of many agricultural land plots leading to malnutrition and the arrival of the infamous Black Death. Although not addressed in the book, I wonder if this lack of food and widespread disease would have resulted in an increase of land colonization as humans attempted to make up for dwindling food or a decrease due to the decreased human population.
Moving towards the modern day, the text indicated that it was between the Renaissance and the scientific revolution that we became the most alienated from nature. The anthropocentric and humanist ideals of the renaissance were dependent upon the fact that renaissance humans no longer considered themselves a part of nature. Rather, they felt as if they possessed certain qualities like intelligence, creativity, and purpose that nature lacked. This thought was even more radical than that of the Greek philosophers who commonly accepted that nature still possessed a soul of some sort. The advent of the scientific method was a game changer to how we treated nature. Rather than fearing or revering it, we could find a solution to the unknown and conquer it.
If I learned one thing from the first half of Coates Nature, it would be that humans haven’t changed much since the oldest records we have. Despite the existence of preserves in ancient Greece, sacred trees were often cut down to build shrines which was deemed acceptable. Additionally, the contamination of water sources was somewhat understood by ancient Babylon and Greece although nothing was done. Of course, the medieval and renaissance view of nature most commonly resembles our own today. We still acknowledge that harming nature can be harmful to our own health but continue to do it because we see no other option. The question is, how should we reorient our view of nature going forward? A question that will likely be answered in the second half of the book.