Nature and Madness, by Paul Sheppard. 1982 University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1982
Excerpt from the back cover: “Paul Sheppard (1925-1996) is widely regarded as an elder of the environmental movement, whose radical and visionary ideas shaped much of our current thinking about human nature.”
I began my reading experience of Nature and Madness somewhere around 2012. I went back to my order history on Amazon to find the exact date, but couldn’t. I believe that Paul Shepard’s name came up when I was reading Derrick Jenson some years ago. Each year since I purchased it, I have struggled through it, all the while knowing that I was privy to an alternative, and in many ways, profound revelation about the reasons for our destructive behavior and beliefs, not only about the environment, but life itself. It’s not an easy read, but I found with this last reading a much clearer understanding of Shepard’s thesis.
“Why do men [and women] persist in destroying their habit? Italics mine.
While there are many groups who live in peace with the natural world, or who revere their relationship with the natural world, most of us do not. Shepard tells us that for those of us who do not, the first hints that this reverence for the environment was disintegrating appeared between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. We have become accustomed in assuming that it is the human beings’ unquenchable desire for material wealth that has caused a corresponding, and out of control, quest to turn the planet into consumer objects.
But Shepard suggests otherwise; as the relationship between us and the Earth disintegrates we require and demand more in an effort to replace the needs that are satisfied by and in that relationship. To put it another way: the more we distance and alienate ourselves from the Earth, the more we will require to fill the gap, which, as he explains later, cannot be filled by cutting down forests for the dining room tables and chairs we see in furniture shows, or on online showrooms.
Our relationship with the Earth is comparable to our relationship with our mothers. We are born totally dependent, mostly on mothers, for our food, affection and nurturing. Everyone knows about the studies that conclude how babies who are not cuddled, talked to and held can, and often do, experience low levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, the hormones linked to emotional and social behavior. Shepard develops an ontogenesis which demonstrates how human beings, mostly those living in consumer societies, deprived of the relationship with the Earth that hunters and gatherers had, suffer “with” a form of societal neurosis. It is a madness that has resulted in untold suffering that we inflict not only on ourselves, but on other species and the natural world. We are psychologically crippled!
Shepard answers his question of “why do men persist in destroying their habit?” in 5 chapters. The first, “The Domesticators.” We replaced hunting and gathering, foraging and the intimacy with the Earth that comes it, with a sedentary lifestyle that included backbreaking labor. This shift not only brought untold suffering to the Earth, the land, but to the physical body as well.
Chapter 3, “The Desert Fathers.” They produced a god separate from Mother Earth, one who did not dwell in the forests or inhabit mountains. They produced a god who gave us the isolation inherent in monotheism: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religions, or dogmas, depending on your sensibility, ushered in sin, hell, the denial sex as a sacred and necessary dance with the spirits, and a host of other modern day-religious nonsense. “Unreconstructed adolescents make bad mothers and bad fathers. The parent whose oversimplified view of things places the natural world on a lower plane or in opposition to the social world will express this anxious, schizoid attitude in many ways to his children and will fail to make occasions for their own healthy growth beyond it.” pg. 72
“The Puritans” of chapter 4 had a fascination and disgust for the natural world and a disgust for the human body. They ushered in a greater preoccupation with sin and hell, and were equally obsessed with and disgusted by sex and corruption. “The contradiction within American Protestant culture-which continues today-is its emotional enthusiasm for the beauty of virgin scenery set against the materialist “ethic” expressed collectively as corporate arrogance in the destruction of soil, grass, water, and forests.” pg. 91
Then chapter 5, the penultimate one, “The Mechanist.” Shepard discusses the effects of living in industrialized urban environments. “The city contains a minimal nonhuman fauna. Adequate otherness is seldom encountered. A self does not come together that can deal with its own strangeness, much less the aberrant fauna and its stone habitat. City-bred mothers are incompetent models (wow!) of the metaphor, and fathers are travesties of its administration. The world to the child-and adult-is grotesquely, not familiarly, Other.” pg. 98
The final chapter “The Dance of Neoteny and Ontogeny,” the author suggests that all is not lost, and that there is a path that will, and must, reveal itself. “The civilized ways inconsistent with human maturity will themselves wither in a world where children move normally through their ontogeny.” (ontogenesis is the developmental history of an organism)
So if you’re looking for a perspective about the destruction of the biosphere that goes beyond what is being fed to us by the main-stream media, you may want to have a look at Shepard’s admirable and convincing discussion.
Akilah ~ January 8, 2019