Earth Day and the Limitations of History

I know, I’m a day late with an Earth Day post. I spent yesterday attending an Earth Day service and tree planting ceremony at Denton UU, followed by a meeting with Denton CUUPS. Among other business, we got volunteers to lead all the circles for the rest of this year – I’m leading Winter Solstice, with help from Erin. Instead of holding it on the closest Saturday as we usually do, we’re going to hold it on Friday, December 21, which is the actual date of the Solstice. We don’t think the world is going to end, but clearly a major change is in progress – we want our Winter Solstice ritual to help shape that change into something that will be positive for us and for our world.

Jason at The Wild Hunt had two very good Earth Day posts this weekend. On Friday he had this piece on how some right-wingers are attacking environmentalism as “Pagan.” This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that claim. Yesterday Jason had a more general post on Earth Day that’s particularly good and that leads me to some things I want to talk about today.

Is Earth Day a Pagan holiday? We can state unequivocally that it was not intended to be Pagan. Go through the links in Jason’s posts – Earth Day was established in 1970 in response to an oil spill and was intended to be a “teach-in” to raise awareness of pollution and environmental degradation. The purpose was entirely secular. There is ample documentation of this and it happened only 42 years ago – there are plenty of people alive who were there for the deliberations and the first celebration.

But as with so many religious, political, and cultural movements and landmark events, the whole truth isn’t quite so simple. Jason quotes Chas Clifton, who in speaking of the impact of Earth Day said

if there was a year when Wicca (in the broad sense) became “nature religion,” as opposed to the “mystery religion” or “metaphorical fertility religion” labels that it had brought from England, that year was 1970. 

There has been an environmental movement in the United States since at least the days of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson – an appreciation of Nature and a realization that we are part of Nature. That movement has mostly been overshadowed – and overwhelmed – by the desire to exploit Nature for its wealth, but it has been present in the works of people like John Muir and in the establishment of the first National Park in 1872, the first Clean Air Act in 1963 and the first Clean Water Act in 1972.

This movement motivated some people to care for the Earth because it’s the only planet we have. It motivated Christians (or at least some of them) to care for the Earth because it’s God’s creation. But it motivated Pagans to care for the Earth because we saw the Earth as the body of the Mother Goddess, because we saw the Divine in the skies and rivers and oceans and rocks and trees.

That’s the first point I want to make. Earth Day isn’t a Pagan holiday, but Pagans have embraced it and claimed it as our own, though we’re happy to share it with practitioners of other religions who share our concern for the environment.

See what’s happened in just a few years: parallel movements (environmentalism and Paganism) have become intertwined – a mystery religion has become a Nature religion. People who are strongly opposed to both movements are spreading misinformation (I’ll assume they really believe the garbage they’re spewing and aren’t just lying to score political points) and have formed a countermovement. In 42 years, in the “Information Age,” when there is an overabundance of documentation, the truth about the origins and meaning of a “teach-in” is close to being lost in the mainstream culture.

If that’s the case, what chance do we have of uncovering the real origins of Wicca, 60 to 100 years ago?

What chance to we have of uncovering the real origins of Christianity, 2000 years ago? Or the real origins of Islam, 1400 years ago?

 Honoring our ancestors is a sacred act and is one of the cornerstones of most modern Pagan religions. But we must be careful not to let that honor degenerate into a false certainty about who they were, what they did, what they believed, and why.

We rarely know as much about the past as we like to think we know.

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  • John – Always love your stuff! I'm jealous of your Earth Day celebration. 🙂 Usually, Jeff and I make time on the weekend nearest Earth Day to go camping or visit a local national park… but this year, we're still getting acquainted with the area and ended up just getting lost on our way to a state park outside of town. Ah well…. there's always next year! 🙂

    If you think you're late with this post, just wait! We're recording our "Earth Day episode" of Faith, Fern & Compass tonight, which won't be aired until Wednesday, so we'll be really behind the times by then. I think it's weird, though, that Jason is claiming people have forgotten the origins of Earth Day. I don't know what media he reads, but doing a really simple Google search for news articles, pretty much every single article I found talked about the origins of Earth Day as a "teach-in" – in fact, some explicitly drew parallels between the first Earth Day 42 years ago and the current #Occupy movement today. Jason needs to stop reading so much junk right-wing media. He'll start thinking it's the only stuff out there. 😉

  • I thought Jason's Sunday Earth Day post was upbeat and a good job of aggregation reporting. Now, Gus diZerega's Saturday piece on Patheos seemed really down on Pagans and Earth Day…

    I do worry about Jason's overemphasis on the religious right. He has a huge audience and it concerns me that so many of his posts are about who we aren't and not about who we are. In fairness, he's made it clear that religious liberty and community building is his primary concern and not the magical and theological topics you and I like to pontificate on. And he's writing EVERY DAY – I can't imagine having to come up with something to write about EVERY DAY, and if I did, I'd probably rely on religious newsfeeds which are predominantly Christian and conflict-oriented.

    Oh well, we all have our callings. The Wild Hunt is the crown jewel of the Pagan internet – I'm just happy to be contributing to the ongoing development of a mostly-new religion.