“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” This is the first command God gives to early humanity, to till and keep the garden of the earth, to care, in short, for creation. This is a command which has never been rescinded. But how ought we to care for creation? What is our relationship supposed to be like with the rest of the world, with the universe? Not all of these questions can be fully answered, but we can gain intuitions and directions. I hope to shed some light on these questions in this essay by enlisting the help of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ as a reminder to the Christian that the world is our common home and demands our care. Following, then, on Pope Francis’ insistence that we leave no form of wisdom behind, I will look to the practical effects of folk belief in elves in places like Ireland and Iceland and the symbolic importance of the Green Man carvings in churches throughout England. I will conclude with a look at Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s masterful “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” looking at his vision of our relationship with creation, to conclude that we must attain a kind of poetic vision of reality.
In 2015 Pope Francis followed in the footsteps of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in writing a papal encyclical concerning the care for creation. In Laudato Si’ the pope addresses the concerns of the ecological crisis facing the world today. He emphasizes the world is included in the “least of these” for whom Catholics ought to have a preference. There are two concerns and means of addressing them that Pope Francis lays out which will help unfold this notion that myths and legends, that the imagination, helps us on the path to caring for our common home. The first is the emphasis Pope Francis places on the sacramental nature of reality. The second, and less developed in Laudato Si’, is the need to listen to other voices outside the sciences on how to care for and relate with creation.
The very title, Laudato Si’, shows the sacramental lens through which Pope Francis desires us to see creation. He pulls the title from the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” by St. Francis of Assisi. In that poem, St. Francis refers to all aspects of creation with familial language, brother sun and sister moon, and, of course, our sister, mother earth. We have not treated this sister well. “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” Pope Francis reminds us that we need this fraternal, this sacramental relationship with creation. Without it, we instead abuse, mistreat, rape. We treat creation, Francis writes, as, “a problem to be solved,” when we ought to view it as, “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” The problem, in many ways, is that we have turned creation into mere matter, as we turned the cosmos into mere space, a thing meant to be used, that exists solely for our benefit. Nowhere is this more evident, and possibly nowhere more detrimental in our treatment of animals. As Pope Francis writes:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence or convey their message to us. We have no such right.
While it may be true, and the pope recognizes this, that human caused extinction of certain plants and animals may mean the loss of creatures capable of helping us cure diseases and flourish as human beings, this is not the fundamental reason for caring for them. Rather, it is because they are good, they have their own ends in God which it is our job to cultivate. Thus, our failure to properly care for creation is a failure of our priestly role. For we are called to be priests, both representing all of creation to God and representing God back to all of creation. This is made most explicit in the fact of the incarnation. Christ, in joining his divinity to our humanity has also joined himself to all creation.
How is this the case? Humanity has in it all aspects of creation, from the smallest quark to the starkest mineral to the highest angel. All is joined in humanity as a microcosm. And thus, when Christ joins his native divinity to humanity, he joins it also to the rest of creation. I’ll return to this theme in a moment. For now, it is enough to ensure that we understand what Pope Francis is saying, it is our job to care for creation, in part (and this is going further than what the pope says in Laudato Si’) because creation may serve us in some way. But more because creation sings the Glory of God, and we serve as priests to and for that Eucharistic song.
It is thus this Eucharistic element to which we now must turn. For creation is sacramental. This song of thanksgiving is the reminder that creation is a book of signs that signify a deeper reality. Creation points to the fact of a Creator. And it is our job as people who live in this world, to learn to read these signs and experience them as, in a sense, sacramental.
To aid in the conservation efforts, Pope Francis recommends that we leave no stone unturned. It is essential, he says, to be attentive to other ways of knowing and understanding in order to better combat the problems facing us today. He writes:
Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge just from one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.
Note two of the chief ways of doing this – art and spirituality. We live in an age where science and the scientific method are still seen as the primary, if not sole, ways of arriving at truth, or if not truth at least fact. What Pope Francis reminds us of is this – we need all branches of scientia of knowledge, and what’s more, we need wisdom that understanding which includes, but transcends mere knowledge. To quote T.S. Eliot:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of the Heavens in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the dust.
While Pope Francis will go on in some ways to focus on the essential nature of spirituality and the language of religion, he nevertheless opens the door for us to see, acknowledge, and move forward with the notion that art, and thus the imagination itself, is necessary in the fight against the destruction of creation.
The pope goes on to argue that ecological concern itself must also mean concern for the cultural. While not stating it explicitly, it is clear that Pope Francis has the older understanding of oikos in mind, that ecological concern is household concern and the household can, ought, and must include the cultural, the artistic, the poetic. And with this reality in mind, we turn now to the role myth, legend, and poetry can play in our ecological efforts.
In nearly every culture there is a notion of local geniuses, a kind of local deity or tutelary spirit that governs and guides the growth of a particular locale. They are imminently local. They belong to the place and the place belongs to them. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil is a more modern example of this, serving in his initial fictional creation as the tutelary spirit of the Oxford Valley. But these spirits have had a long history, and there are two instances of them I want now to engage. The first comes from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In the play, Shakespeare’s lovers, as well as the lovable Bottom, find themselves lost in what is best described as a Fairy Wood. They followed by the impish Puck, who, on King Oberon’s orders, endeavors to make them fall in love in the right pairings. At the end of the play, after the lovers tell their tale, Theseus says this:
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
In other places must I wait to discuss the notion of imagination’s role in bodying forth forms, but here I want to focus on the imagination’s role in giving “to airy nothing/a local habitation and a name.” The poet and theologian (and priest and rock’n’roller) Malcolm Guite, in his book, Faith, Hope and Poetry argues that the imagination’s job, through the poet, is precisely to do what Theseus here says with disdain: “The purpose of imagination, in its playfulness and poetry in particular, is to be the bridge between reason and intuitive apprehension, to find apprehension just in those shapes, those local habitations and names that make for comprehension.” Earlier in the same book, Guite argues that “Oberon and Titania are the ‘local habitation and a name’ given by Shakespeare to realities we could not otherwise picture, but which are nevertheless at play as forces within our own psyche and perhaps within the wider world.” These fairies, who seemingly can change in size, are the tutelary spirits of this English, Grecian wood. They embody something of the spirit of the wood. This notion of a guardian spirit is not foreign to the English imagination, one only need look to her churches to see that.
Walk around long enough in nearly any Medieval English church and you will likely find one of the Green Man figures. Not much is known about the history of the Green Man, nor do we know with certainty why the British stone wrights and sculptors deemed them important to include. What we do know is that they are fairly popular. While each one is unique they share certain traits. Most of them are just faces, sometimes with ears or open mouths, other times without. But they are faces surrounded by leaves and trailing vines. Sometimes these sprout from the ears or surround the head and are grasped by the Green Man’s hands. In Southwell Minster, particularly in the 13th century chapter house, one can find not only carvings of the Green Man, but stone foliage throughout. Nature is re-presented in artifice inside these churches. So it seems, whatever else the Green Man might be, he is now a follower of Christ. He is a reminder to us that God is the Lord of man, to be sure, but also of nature, of trees and fungi, of insects and birds, of fish and animals, of elves and the Green Man.
Creation’s relationship to the architecture of churches is a fascinating one. Churches fill themselves, or used to, with carvings of birds, animals, flowers, leaves, the Green Man, the Sheela Na Gig. It is a reminder, as Maximus the Confessor points out that the universe is a kind of macrocosm of the Church and the human person. Like an exploded picture of an atom, the cosmos can be seen as a symbol for the church itself, and the church, therefore, is a microcosm of the whole of the created order.
Pope Francis, as noted above, called on us to pay attention to local beliefs and spiritualities in our quest to fight against the degradation of creation. While perhaps not precisely what he meant, two interesting examples of precisely this have happened within the past five years. In both Ireland and Iceland local belief in elves has halted and altered road construction projects. In Ireland in 2017, Teachtaí Dála Danny Healy-Rae made the bold claim that the reason for the dip in Kerry Road was due to fairies. He went on to say that while he has a building machine in his backyard, if someone asked him to knockdown a fairy-fort (usually either a large stone or mound), he would rather starve first.
Similarly, in Iceland in 2016, road construction was brought to a halt. During the construction a known “elfin rock” had been covered with debris. After that, mishaps began to happen on the construction site. Finally, realizing what they had done, the construction crew worked to uncover the enchanted rock and continued to work with more care, lest they should anger the elves in some other way.
While it is not clear that either in Ireland or Iceland, the intent of either construction crew was conservationist. Yet this is precisely the effect caused by these local beliefs, some might call them superstitions, is better care and attention paid to the ground on which they live. These, it seems to me, are precisely the kind of local beliefs and wisdom we need to attend to. It is, of course, possible that these elf-stones and fairy-forts are either just rocks who through time have found their way into these places, or perhaps were placed there by our Neolithic ancestors. I have my misgivings, but it does not matter. These beliefs can be tested by their fruit, and in these instances their fruit is good. More care and attention is paid to the way these peoples do construction. As Chesterton averred about his own people, “If we ever get the English back onto English land they will become again a religious people, if all goes a superstitious people.”
Speaking of Englishman, the poet and literary critic (as well as philosopher and social activist) Samuel Taylor Coleridge has something important, quite possibly essential, to add to this discussion of ecological care and poetry. In his most well-known poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge sets out some key ideas that, by engaging with them poetically, ought to help us see the plight of our sister Mother Earth, more clearly. The end of the Mariner is perhaps the clearest expression of Coleridge’s ecological concern, but before we get to that, I want first to engage in the inciting incident in the Mariner’s life, the killing of the albatross.
The Mariner begins his tale––in the quasi-medieval setting of the poem––by stopping a wedding guest (one of three) on his way to a wedding. The Mariner tells him the tale of his ship’s journey down into the Antarctic Ocean. As they journey down, they are visited by an albatross. This bird is seen not as an omen of good fortune, but as a friend.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
In the gloss, which Coleridge added years later, he tells us that the sailors, “received [it] with great joy and hospitality.” As the Mariner continues his story we see that the bird is fed by the sailors. There is nothing explicitly mentioned about why the sailors hailed the bird in God’s name. It is entirely possible that they saw the bird as a tiding of good news, that they would soon be clear of the land of mist and snow. Yet the poem does not mention it, not here at the bird’s first appearance. Rather, it seems that they love the bird for its being. They love the bird because it is, not because it is doing anything for them. That comes later, after the Mariner kills the albatross.
The poem does not tell us why the Mariner shoots the bird. It does not seem he shoots it for food, or to keep it from eating theirs. Nor does it seem that it was in his head killing the bird would bring some benefit to them. Rather, it seems the Mariner kills the bird in much the same way that young Augustine stole the pears, just for the sake of doing something evil. Of course, young Augustine knew the act to be wrong and did it because it was wrong, to feel the wrongness of it. It is not clear that the Mariner was thinking thusly. Perhaps he was more like a child throwing rocks at a bird or a squirrel, not because they desire to harm the animal, but to see if they can. Whatever the case, the sailors begin to interpret the consequences, though not the motivations, of the Mariners actions.
At first, the other sailors believe that in killing the bird, the Mariner killed the creature that had caused their northern wind to blow. Already we see a hint of the problem that implicates the other sailors. Their concern is not with the fact that albatross is dead, but that in killing it, the Mariner had also killed the breeze. But then, when the fog disperses and they see the sun again, the other sailors change their tune. Now they believe that in killing the bird, the Mariner has put an end to the fog and mist. It is here, as the gloss makes clear, that the sailors implicate themselves in the sin of the Mariner. But what exactly is the sin? The text is not explicit, but, as Malcolm Guite has argued, it is the utility involved here. The bird now only matters to the sailors insofar as it does either good or ill for them. They are only angry with the Mariner, not because he had killed a bird they had initially hailed as a human person, but because he made the wind stop. Then they praise him because he made the fog and mist disperse. They have no care for the life of the bird itself. They only care about what use it is to them. Once they determine that it was not only of no good use, but was an actively bad presence, they decide its death was justified.
But these sailors are a changeable folk. And after all, the fog and mist might be gone, but the breeze has not returned. And so, they sit in the midst of an unknown ocean, the sun beating down on them, and they run out of water. The gloss makes it clear this is the beginning of vengeance served for the death of the albatross. And once again, the sailors change their mind, and determine that killing the albatross has brought this misfortune––and in this they are correct, as the gloss shows––and they hang the albatross around the Mariner’s neck. What they do not yet realize is that they too are to blame and their attempts to make a scapegoat out of the Mariner will not deter them from their fate.
It is not until Part V that we finally come to a full understanding of the ship’s plight. Before then we learn, in the dreams of the sailors, that a spirit of the deep, a kind of genius or local habitation, is the one wreaking havoc on the ship. He too, presumably, calls the ship which carries Death and the Nightmare-Life-in-Death. But we do not know why, not until the almost very end of Part V. The Mariner is the only one alive on board the ship hears “two voices in the air.”
‘Is it he?’ quoth one, ‘Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.
The spirit who bides by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.’
Here finally we learn two essential pieces of information. First, the bird in whatever level of agency it had, loved the Mariner. Who knows what good it may have worked the Mariner and the other sailor. Not that this was essential, this was not what gave the albatross meaning or value, its being, and its being loved are. In the end of the poem, we will see that the bird is loved by its Creator. But for now we learn the second essential piece of information. The reason the polar spirit is avenging the bird is because he loved it.
Yet what are these spirits? In the gloss, Coleridge says this, “A spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted.” Then comes a truly fascinating line, “They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more.” Coleridge was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, and that comes through nowhere more clearly than in the gloss to the Mariner. This gloss is one of the clearest. Here we see that what began as a gothic, semi-medieval, ballad now explicitly includes the supernatural by way of these middle spirits (another name he gives to them in a different gloss). These spirits are not demons, not in the Christian sense of this word, but nor are they angels or departed human souls. Rather, they are rational beings who belong to the air, which is really just to say that they belong to the middle space, not to heaven in the way the angels do, nor to earth, they that humans do. Yet they are not uninvolved with the earth. For again, the class makes it clear they are associated with climates (here we ought to read regions, not weather) and elements. This polar spirit, “nine fathoms deep” belongs to the South Pole, is its guardian and the lover of its inhabitants, hence its reaction to the death of the albatross. They are tutelary spirits, local habitations, those “airy nothings” Theseus claimed did not exist.
These spirits show us how we ought to relate the world around us. The polar spirit does not love the albatross because of anything it can do for him. It is not an issue of utility for him. Rather he loves the bird because it is his charge, because it belongs to realm which the spirit oversees.
This is the lesson the Mariner must learn throughout the rest of the poem. At one point, after his shipmates have died, he looks out into the sea and sees it filed with “a thousand, thousand slimy things.” But as the mediated light of the Moon shines on him, these disgusting creatures become beautiful. water-snakes” which move “in tracks of shining white,” surrounded by an “elfish light,” The Mariner goes on in this transfigured vision to declare:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
The Mariner has begun to learn the lesson, the lesson he will pass on to everyone who needs to hear his tale:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
God’s command that we till and keep the garden has not ended. This is the message Coleridge wishes us to hear in the conclusion of his poem. It is also the message Pope Francis wishes us to hear in Laudato Si’. It may very well be the case that there are no elves in Iceland or Ireland, that the Green Man only adorns the inside of our churches, but does not haunt the local wood. The tutelary spirits we cannot so easily get rid of, for they may simply be angels going about their business. The essential thing, however, is that we listen to the stories we have and are still telling ourselves about the world around us. Even if elves did not destroy Icelandic construction vehicles, the idea that a particular rock or forest has a deeper significance, that it might hint at a deeper truth as a kind of liminal or thin place, is almost certainly true. We simply need eyes to see and ears to hear.
David Mosley has a PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham and his writings can be found around the web, most particularly at U.S. Catholic Magazine.