Dostoevsky and the Susquehanna Valley


This morning I was reading up on Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism,” celebrated in Mikhail Bakhtin’s view of the author’s art as a polyphonic or many-voiced “dialogical materialism,” an embodied dialogue or textual iconography.

Dostoevsky’s theory of art indeed involves an iconographic epistemology-. It emphasizes storytelling as personal relationship, and exposes the destructive effects of indulging an objectifying idolatry of self and others instead.

He wrote in an 1868 letter of a “genuine, existing realism,” which in the words of his biographer Joseph Frank “delves beneath the quotidian surface into the moral-spiritual depths of the human personality, while at the same time striving to incarnate a more-than-pedestrian or commonplace moral ideal.”

Dostoevsky compared such “fantastic realism” to the experience of relationship with an icon, as distinguished from the objectifying idolatry of a merely materialistic approach to nature

Ideas that distort and impersonalize an authentic sense of life as intercommunion were demonic in his view, and a kind of false realism.

By contrast, “fantastic realism” reflected partly Dostoevsky’s  earlier “vision on the Neva,” in which urban St. Petersburg  became “like a fantastic vision of fairyland,” including all classes of people as magical, rather than just a monumentalized imperial matrix. It also reflected his deep personal experience of spirituality and community, emerging partly from his time in a prison camp.

I immediately found myself connecting this “fantastic realism” to a project on the Susquehanna Valley in which I’ve been involved for several years now with fellow Bucknell Prof. Katie Faull and many other colleagues and students, including collaborators at other universities in the region.

Digital scholars Dr. Diane Jakacki, and Dr. Andy Famiglietti, together with Katie and me, have put together a new (but still under construction) website for the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project, which highlights different aspects of this multimedia collaborative effort in environmental humanities, community studies, and natural history.

The whole SSV project highlights for me how stories (human and non-human) can engage us in region, and reciprocally help us to shape a meaningful sense of a region as the context for our lives. It is a tribute to the connectivity inherent in emerging fields of environmental humanities that Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism” can engage such work, highlighting the often ignored or objectified landscapes around us as  instead “magical,” in the sense of meaningful.

Dostoevsky noted while working later on “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov that the modern Western elevation of man over the earth in dangerous hubris involves denial of meaning in nature. A lack of meaningfulness is perhaps the ultimate mark of the lack of sustainability in our current mainstream culture. As Walker Percy put it in his Jefferson Address to the National Endowment for the Humanities, novels, poetry, the arts, and humanities, all can be evidence in exploring what often is called “environmental science.” They help illuminate the relationships that shape meaningful environments and regions like the Susquehanna Valley.


Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics


My new edited collection, Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, is now out in print from Bucknell University Press. Thanks to all the great contributors and to many others behind the scenes who made this ensemble effort possible. Below are the opening pages from the Introduction, beginning with the epigraphs (photo courtesy of Katie Faull)

Song, Tree, and Spring: Environmental Meaning and Environmental Humanities

This universe is perfused with signs.

—-Charles Saunders Peirce

Language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests.

—Paul Valéry, glossed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The countless Umwelts [meaningful environments] represent the keyboard upon which nature plays its symphony of meaning . . . not constrained by space and time. In our lifetime and in our Umwelt we are given the task of constructing a key in nature’s keyboard, over which an invisible hand glides.

—Jakob von Uexküll

All living things are critics . . . living organisms interpret many of the signs about them [but] the experimental, speculative technique made available by speech would seem to single out the human species as the only one possessing an equip- ment for going beyond the criticism of experience to a criticism of criticism.

—Kenneth Burke

The body proper embraces a philosophy of the flesh as the visibility of the invisible . . . a lexicon of corporeality . . . a system of equivalences between the inside and the outside which prescribes from one to the other its fulfillment . . . the human body as a natural symbolism.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, shocked a group of Euroamerican academics recently when he diagnosed for them the root of U.S. environmental problems with one short phrase: “The separation of church and state.”1

He told us this in the traditional wood-raftered longhouse of the Six Nations in the Onondaga Nation’s lands in upstate New York. The structure melds cosmic and social meaning in traditions stretching back to before the arrival of European set- tlers. A white pine on its grounds evokes the ancient Tree of Peace nearby at Lake Onondaga, “real symbol” of an interconnected life that should include care for the “seventh generation” yet to come. A lacrosse field visible through the windows calls to mind “medicine” aspects of that sport in Haudenosaunee traditions of the earth across generations.

As Tadodaho of the Iroquois, Hill’s spiritual role in the Haudenosaunee Confed- eracy very roughly parallels that of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism. In keeping with that office, at the start of our meeting, he had recited to us from the Iroquois “thanksgiving address,” the traditional opening to seasonal ceremonies of song and dance or other gatherings. It is called in Native languages the ohen:ton karihwatehk- wen, or “the words that come before all else,” a name with a meaning of cosmological performance, reminiscent in some ways of the biblical “In the beginning was the Word.” Indeed, environmental meaning of both Native and biblical traditions will be explored in sections of this collection. The ohen:ton karihwatehkwen recited by the Tadodaho, in translation, includes these verses:

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms—waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water. . . .

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty, and other useful things. Many peoples of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life. . . .

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds—from the smallest to the largest—we send our joyful greetings and thanks. . . .

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. . . .2

He followed that recitation by telling us of his people’s efforts to clean up Onondaga Lake, famed from the “Hiawatha” tradition. Now no longer Indian territory but a toxic Superfund site, the lake according to tradition witnessed on its banks long ago the birth of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a prototype for the U.S. Constitution’s federal system of separation of powers and checks-and-balances.3 He described his people’s current legal efforts to reclaim the lake and other areas in upstate New York for ecological restoration.

Then he summarized American environmental problems with that phrase, “separation of church and state.” He explained this as a problem in terms of the absence of a communal, intergenerational sense of ecology as meaningful; that is, a lack of integrating communication and personal relationships with the environment through shared stories and ritual. But his wording partly recalled Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic vision of an English “clerisy,” an integrated network of educators, writers, and spiritual teachers, sustaining a culture of the English land across generations.4 That vision, too, by the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was in many ways about meaningful landscape.

Nor is the Tadodaho alone today in his concern about the lack of transmission of meaningful narrative traditions of nature in the world. The concern ranges across secular and religious thinkers in the environmental humanities. The award-winning American writer Walker Percy spoke in his famous Jefferson Lecture of the “San Andreas fault in the modern mind,” the chasm between matter and meaning that threatens to swallow global consumer culture.5 The Greek scholar Christos Yannaras has articulated theologically how modern West societies separate metaphysical mean- ing from existential function, thus undermining the sense of the meaningfulness of everyday life needed for an environmentally sustainable culture.6 Ecosemiotician Timo Maran points out (in this collection) how finding such meaning involves contextualization, which draws on recursive symbolic memory to integrate with one’s environment. The agrarian American essayist Wendell Berry describes how separating economy from ecology in modern American life brings a loss of personal meaning.7 Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus gesture to the problem as well in their famous Death of Environmentalism polemic: “environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals, but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”8 And the biosemiotics scholar Wendy Wheeler similarly points up how ignoring the “immaterial” or communicative side of nature fosters environmental dysfunction on a global scale.9

This collection shows how burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, and in particular ecosemiotics, can address such concerns from a spectrum of secular disciplinary backgrounds, along with indigenous traditions. The Tadodaho’s words challenge an emphasis on materialistic quantitative systems and policy in conven- tional Western environmental studies. Yet they don’t lay claim to any romanticized and anachronistic role of Native Americans as age-old environmentalists, keepers of a lost “enchanted” nature.10 Instead, his comments suggest how purely materialistic approaches to nature miss the crucial “immaterial” essence of life as communica- tion and meaning-making, which is highlighted today by a range of disciplines, including environmental phenomenology and semiotics. Rather than a nostalgic desire for “re-enchantment,” his is more an embodied “radical hope,” adapted to drastic environmental and cultural change, as found by philosopher Jonathan Lear in the history of the Crow Nation’s encounter with modern life on the Northern Plains. This involves nurturing an inner meaningfulness to life, in a community that preserves personal relationships amid life’s continual dynamic changes, in the face of oppressive environmental materialism.11


The Tadodaho’s message suggests a crucial potential role for environmental humani- ties in the academy today: Highlighting alternative epistemologies to point up what philosopher Bruce Foltz calls the “other side” of nature, or its fundamental subjectiv- ity.12 The Anthropocene era in Western environmental studies progresses now from “deep ecology” to a “dark ecology” that embraces the entwinement of nature and culture.13 But environmental studies still often do not deeply engage the ecological wisdom of non-modern cultures and “immaterial” epistemologies. Even as they may romanticize earlier ecological traditions, moderns in a practical way tend to dismiss them for primitively destroying their environments, yet engage in denial about the immensely larger global scale of environmental destruction today by supposedly more sophisticated technocracies.

Ironically environmentalists often seek antidotes based on technologically cen- tered assumptions. But such assumptions can support the very technological mindset that still fosters the root problem: An objectifying division of “culture” and “nature,” “economy” and “ecology,” “meaning” and “function.” Even environmental sciences still draw on systems-centered approaches and conceptualized models. These cannot value the immateriality of experiential communications and relationships. In doing so, the sciences continue to marginalize fields in the humanities that could offer alternative epistemologies to address those binaries, but which instead often remain lost in self-designed obscurity, when not seemingly consigned to the role of what Walker Percy called minstrels to tired scientists at day’s end.

Tadodaho Hill’s words instead inspire the purpose of this collection, which is at once both epistemological and poetic. Re-Imagining Nature seeks to illustrate, through a showcase of varied disciplines in the environmental humanities engag- ing marginalized traditions, how humans realize life as ecological creatures through overlapping bubbles of meaningful physical environments. Addressing the often un-examined relationship of environmental sustainability to meaningfully daily life, this collection coins a term for such regions of overlapping human and natural meaningfulness: ecosemiosphere. An ecosemiosphere literally means an ecologicial bubble of meaning (borrowing the term “semiosphere” from semiotics). It involves not a “re-enchantment” of nature, but recognition of nature as a meld of physical and cultural communication, which can be considered spiritual as well as material.

Examples include the Eastern Woodlands of the Iroquois, and the North Woods and prairie savannah of the Ojibway around the Great Lakes. Surviving only in degraded ecological remnants, and under severe cultural pressure, such ecosemiospheres none- theless remain powerful cultural homes, which help to inspire ecological restoration efforts today. By means of such ecologically entwined bubbles of meaning, semio- spheres closely entwined in ecological regions, we as humans can realize our societies as ecological communities.

This collection highlights such narrative and poetic ecosemiospheres, from Middle Eastern deserts to the western islands and northern forests of Europe, ex- ploring the cosmology of Genesis applied to the early Christians Mediterranean oikoumene and the ocean archipelago of early medieval Ireland. It includes studies of Indian landscape tradition on the Great Plains of North America, in Alaska, and north from the Boundary Waters in contemporary Native American literature; and of Latin American cultural borderlands interacting with European conquest in semi- permeable membranes of environmental meaning. In all these varied treks through the environmental humanities, it was the pioneering Estonian biosemiotician Jakob von Uexküll who left the cryptic theoretical signposts (a bit like the fictional Arne Saknussemm in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth) with his mixed meta- phors for ecological life of soap bubbles and musical symphony.

For von Uexküll, each organism lives in a meaningful environment or Umwelt. He used the example of the way in which a tick interprets its environment through the lens of zeroing in on its prey, in an organism-surrounding environment of meaning that he compared to a soap bubble. For a flower and a bird, or a spider and a fly, their overlapping Umwelts form duets, establishing identities in relationship. The spider spins a web in such a way that a fly cannot perceive it, and thus lives fly-like, while the fly becomes spider-like in being able to be caught within it. Life for von Uexküll thus also becomes an incredibly complicated musical “symphony,” of overlapping and semipermeable Umwelts, as detailed in his poetic manifesto in 1934, recently translated into English as part of the resurgence of interest in his work, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning.14 For von Uexküll, the meaningfulness of this symphony of Umwelts involves a pattern beyond any reduc- tionist sense of natural selection. It anticipates the arguments of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel for an ecologically centered sense of intelligent design.15

Today’s emerging field of ecosemiotics focuses on the engagement of culture and nature through signs. It seeks to describe how von Uexküll’s interface of bubbles and symphony includes human narratives, engaging with non-human worlds of meaning in ecopoetics. Timo Maran defines that confluence as a “nature-text,” a process that will be discussed below and in his contribution to the collection.16 The “nature-text” exemplifies how human narratives, and landscape-narratives or landscape-texts, can become in a region the type of musical symphony that von Uexküll describes. For ex- ample, a garden becomes for Maran a physically expressed type of nature-text, which inter-weaves human symbolism, physical environment, and cultural narratives. “The gardener’s activities inevitably influence and shape the entire semiotic community in the garden,” he writes. “At the same time, the garden becomes an important part of the gardener’s Umwelt and any changes there also influence the person’s percep- tual and operational relations and sense of self. Therefore, gardening may offer the possibility for the person to become semiotically rooted into the surrounding envi- ronment and semiosphere.”17 The discussions of meaningful landscapes in various cultures in this volume will highlight similar dynamic and adaptive “symphonies” of meaningful communication, which interweave culture and nature in landscape.

The bubble-symphony of Maran’s ecosemiotic garden parallels the formula for identity as relationship developed by von Uexküll’s contemporary neighbor, the Russian polymath and religious martyr Pavel Florensky. Florensky’s work emerged in the milieu of pre-revolutionary Russian Silver Age philosophy, which not coinci- dentally included naturalists who, like von Uexküll from the Russian Baltic, found in marshes, forests, and beehives an organic unity spanning earth and cosmos.18 Florensky’s work in theology also helped inspire the Moscow School of Mathematics, which in its exploration of set theory would help lay the groundwork for string theory and multiverse theories in physics, which relate to the ecosemiotic perception of nature as composed of information-energy rather than atomistic matter.19

In his 1914 masterwork on theodicy and cosmic philosophy, The Pillar and the Ground of Truth, 20 Florensky summed up a law of deep identity in his formula A=Not- A, which is similar to von Uexküll’s biological notion of defining identity in rela- tionship. Although earlier German idealism had influenced Florensky’s philosophical theology, as it had von Uexküll’s biology, his explication drew on pre-modern Eastern Christian theology of the Incarnation and traditions of agrarian community. Explicating his formula of deep identity, Florensky argued that we realize ourselves in our engagement with another. That relationship itself becomes the crucial “third element” in his formula of cosmic community, beside I and Thou. Similarly, a contemporary Iroquois elder teaches, “I am you, and you are me.”21

The sense of an identity as realized environmentally in communication explains the other primary source for ecosemiotics, in the work of the American Pragmatist Charles Peirce. Peirce’s nineteenth-century system of semiotics argued that thought semiotically manifests self environmentally: “When we think, then, we our selves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign.” For Peirce, any conclusion we have from the connection between a sign or feeling about the environment becomes “a phenomenal manifestation of ourselves . . . just as a rainbow is at once a manifestation both of the sun and of the rain”: in short, a nature-text.22 For Peirce and subsequently for ecose- miotics, the self is the sign relation, as our feeling in experience of life lacks meaning unless interpreted as sign of an object.23 Ultimately identity is environmental. Yet it is also immaterial, semiotic. And some nature-texts express this communicative side of the environment more than others in relation to physical region. In the terminology of this collection, they become ecosemiospheres, or regional landscapes of cultures interacting with nature. The essays that follow include a variety of different examples of ecosemiospheres, and varied disciplinary approaches to them.


The insight that we live, move, and die as humans in ecosemiospheres forms the heart of the developing new field of ecosemiotics. It also provides a theoretical model for interdisciplinary work in environmental humanities surveyed by this collection, represented in this volume by essays on philosophy, literature, culture, history, and animal studies. This model defines life itself as information exchange and communi- cation. They form that “immaterial” “other side of nature,” which ultimately cannot be reduced through objectification. The rediscovery of this “other side” of nature in the modern West parallels the new definition in physics of the building blocks of life as energy-information.24 That paradigm shift challenges nineteenth-century sociobiological models, and lends support to the subjective turn of the environ- mental humanities now informed by ecosemiotics. The latter trend has emerged interdisciplinarily in the decades since Peirce and von Uexküll’s work, from diverse thinkers such as cybernetician Gregory Bateson; philosophers Erazim Kohák, Edward Casey, Bruce Foltz, Thomas Nagel, and Evan Thompson; ecocritics Lawrence Buell and Louise Westling; theological writers John Chryssavgis, Ellen Davis, and John Zizoulas; social anthropologist Tim Ingold; biologist Lynn Margulis; medievalist Jeffrey Cohen; and biosemioticians and ecosemioticians Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Küll, Timo Maran, Winfried Nöth, and Wendy Wheeler; among many others. Relevant works surveying this trend can be found in the suggested readings section at the end of this volume. This emerging body of work has built bridges from the late twentieth century to the present, and between postmodern and non-modern cultural perspectives on nature, as illustrated in this collection’s three sections of essays, on ecosemiotic theory, pre-modern European cultures, and Native American traditions. This volume’s cross-cultural sampling also illustrates the promise of the environmental humanities for overcoming ethnocentric bias in environmental stud- ies. For example, the Anglophone New Atheism movement’s technological solutions to global environmental crisis—including space colonization and “the singularity” as a type of high-tech individual immortality—suggest the cultural and economic limi- tations of lingering Eurocentric bias in scientific responses to environmental crises.25

This collection’s interdisciplinary examination of the environmental humanities grew from intensive “focus years” of visiting lecturers at Bucknell University, in 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, inaugurating an organized program of interdisciplin- ary projects in environmental humanities at Bucknell’s Environmental Center (now the Center’s Place Studies Initiative), as well as in the collection editor’s 2009 sabbatical trip to Estonia with support from Bucknell, and a 2010–2011 Scadden Research Fellowship, together with the environmental humanities focus of the Luce Foundation-sponsored “Bucknell on the Susquehanna” program in 2011 with my colleague Katherine Faull, a special panel on ecosemiotics at the summer 2011 As- sociation for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference organized by

Louise Westling, and the “ecologies” roundtable at the 2012 International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, organized by Jeffrey Cohen, a contributor to this volume. The resulting articles highlight the confluence, in environmental humanities, of non-modern traditions with postmodern emphases on intersubjectivity, all explor- ing the immaterial “other side” of nature in epistemologies that together suggest a powerful alternative to conventional environmental studies.


The collection also emerges at a time of growing recognition of ecosemiotics as an approach to environmental studies and practice. Ecosemiotics in focusing on information-exchange connects secular environmental humanities with traditional spiritual practices and with the sciences, beyond closed input-output ecological models. It describes how humans live “in” their thoughts, in the sense of thoughts that are signs and are environmental, rather than “having” thoughts in the sense of modern capitalist anthropology. As C.S. Lewis said of reading Symbolist texts, our subjectivity thus itself becomes metaphoric of our physical and spiritual ecologies: “We are the allegory.”26

The opening essays in the collection explain ecosemiotics as a field of study ex- amining the intersection of the “natural world” and human culture on “immaterial” levels of information exchange. The remainder of the essays explore the interdis- ciplinary effects of this intersection, and examine exchanges of meaning through symbolism between human communities and physical environments in landscape, viewed by different humanities disciplines concerned with environmental studies. Together, these writings exemplify an ongoing interdisciplinary re-imagination of ecology (and hence of nature), back to the Greek roots of the term as the λογι′α of οι′κος, or “the story of home,” an alternative meaning beyond its usual etymological definition as “study of the house.”

Ecosemiotics grew from roots in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Ameri- can Pragmatism and biological studies in Europe’s eastern Baltic region. Its godfathers were Peirce and von Uexküll. But Native American cultural values indirectly helped to shape Peirce’s Pragmatism, in tandem with both biblical traditions and science.27 Von Ueküll’s science (and that of later Estonian and Danish scholars who picked it up) reflected in part the experience of small-scale Baltic folk cultures with centuries-old symbiotic landscapes.28 From von Uexküll’s work, later generations of scholars, especially at the University of Tartu (where biologist Kalevi Kull heads its famous semiotics program), and also at Copenhagen University, developed the notion of a semiosphere as a larger “bubble of meaning,” encompassing multiple Umwelts. This made possible examination of the relation between Umwelts and hu- man culture, through Maran’s model of the nature-text, which encompasses a landscape of four contexts: Environment, Text-Sign, Author, Reader. When entwined with a physical region and a cultural community of place, a nature-text becomes an ecosemiosphere. Particular ecosemiospheres highlighted in this volume include the landscape of Estonian wooded meadows, constituted by interactions of village communities and physical environments across centuries, and the imaginary “Oth- erworld” or “green world” of Celtic and English landscape traditions in the British Isles. The nature-text model thus adds immaterial layers and contexts of information and meaning to landscape studies.

That emphasis on meaningfulness also addresses long-simmering dissatisfaction in Anglophone environmentalism with a too dogmatic emphasis on random struggle in approaches to nature, based in Darwinist and Neo-Darwinist science. Thinkers such as Gregory Bateson and Lynn Margulis have advocated for a more symbiotic empha- sis in ecological philosophy and activism, forming a basis for environmental humanities. Bateson in the formative days of environmentalism cited the need for shifting the West’s scientific paradigm away from a sense of the organism struggling against its environment, to one of the “organism plus environment,” with relationships of meaning-making as basic “unit of survival” rather than the individual. To Bateson, too much focus by Darwin’s followers on adaptation as “fitness” of the individual organism unintentionally had helped to justify widespread modern environmental destruction. “The impact of every simplified biological or social dogma upon our society has contained the seeds of disaster—natural selection, economic determinism, territorial imperative, laissez faire, autocracy, democracy, individualism, oper- ant conditioning, Lamarckian inheritance, the racial and genetic determination of character, and so on—every major theme of the life sciences proposes a path towards nightmares,” he wrote.29 Margulis, in award-winning work on symbiogenesis, highlighted how symbiosis, fusion, and merger effect new complexities in life forms. She also supported the Gaia hypothesis, which views earth itself as a process of ecopoiesis beyond organismic autopoiesis, in the ultimate ecosemiosphere.30 Similarly, social anthropologist Tim Ingold, whose work engages ecosemiotics, more recently has called for synthesizing developmental biology and ecological psychology with an anthropological sense of nature as performative and reciprocal practice, into a “single focus of inquiry [on] the living organism-person in its environment.”31 And Thomas Nagel, as noted, has from a perspective of atheist philosophy raised the prospect of an ecologically centered idea of intelligent design.

This emphasis on meaningfulness in environmental humanities today also offers a potential resolution fora conflict in postmodern environmental thinking between transcendent and immanent approaches to nature. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari famously criticized Western science, deriving from the nineteenth century, as too transcendently oriented toward vertical classifications, or what they termed “arboreal” or tree-like views of life, reflecting the colonialist backgrounds of scientists. This criticism extended to a focus on vertical rather than lateral gene transfers in Darwin’s metaphor of the “tree of life.”32 Concern today in the environmental

humanities with definitions of life as information exchange, and with meaningful landscape, evident in essays in this collection, approximate in many ways what Deleuze and Guattari praised as a rhizomic or weed-like image of nature. Peirce’s Pragmatism, with its Native American connections, and von Uexküll’s ecological field studies, express more the Deleuzean idea of immanent “minor science” than transcendent “royal science” of past eras. Yet, ecosemiotics also relates to the image of the cosmic tree found in many traditional cultures like the Haudenosaunee’s, which symbolizes ecological connections between many different worlds of mean- ing, and the interaction of web-like communicative “harmonies” (von Uexküll’s symphony) overflowing as if in sacred waters often associated with such mythic trees. An ecosemiotic outlook thus potentially can meld aspects of rhizomic and arboreal perspectives on life, the immanent and the transcendent, the biological and what Wheeler calls “immaterial” meaning-making or the communicative “sparkle” of Creation in theological terms.33

Meanwhile, however, the emergence of global cyberspace as a network of con- sumer semiospheres pushes alternative traditions of nature further away from memory and the Earth today. It creates what cyber-scholar Paul Edwards has called an expanding “closed system” of culture, which he contrasts with traditional “green worlds.”34 Yet Tadodaho Hill argues passionately for the urgent relevance of non- modern intersections of cosmic music, trees, and sacred waters in Haudenosaunee tradition, found also in early biblical interpretations discussed in this volume’s first essay. He argues that human society today desperately needs richly layered and shared realities of meaningful communion with nature to move toward shared action on the environment. The lived Haudenosaunee metaphor of harmonies in the cosmic tree, watering the earth, indeed has afforded a helpful focus for re- imagining the environmental function of storytelling in the overlapping regions of the old Eastern American Woodlands known historically as Iroquoia and the Susquehanna Country. This is seen in the work of scholars interpreting the newly designated Susquehanna national corridor of the Chesapeake historic water trail system, including Bucknell University’s Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. Ecosemiotic theory provided the basic model for that effort, inspiring work that contributed to National Park Service designation of the Susquehanna corridor, and an assembly of partnered academic institutions. These projects involve reimagining the watershed as an ecosemiosphere, in tandem with ecological restoration efforts there.

This collection as a whole seeks to extend that process. It moves from ecosemiotic theory engaged with environmental humanities (including related work in animal studies) to interdisciplinary case studies of meaningful landscapes as environmental narratives in medieval and Native American cultures. First, though, the remainder of this introduction will offer a basic explanation of ecosemiotics through shorter examples, while further contextualizing its roots in indigenous, pre-modern, and Romantic approaches to the nature-human relationship.


Toward a Pansemiotic Politics: The Wind in the Willows and Our Nixon

The Orthodox Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote that his liking for anarcho-monarchism as political philosophy comes from his “exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows.”

To which I would add the new documentary Our Nixon. But more on that later.

By anarcho-monarchism, Hart meant the odd combination of anarchism and unconstitutional monarchism advanced by the fantasy writer and Oxford medievalist J.R.R Tolkien. Tolkien’s ambiguously governed Shire and his character Aragorn’s alter egos as Ranger Strider and Returning King in The Lord of the Rings reflected their creator’s penchant for anarcho-monarchism on Middle-earth, his fantasy overlay of our Earth. But not coincidentally, his book helped inspire many a young environmentalist including your unworthy blogger. Elsewhere  I have traced the source of the appeal of Tolkien’s fantasy writing to a range of people with environmental concerns, from eco-anarchists in England to religious conservatives and counter-culturalists in America. Other book-length studies have detailed the environmental meaning of Tolkien’s work.

The riddling portmanteau term “anarcho-monarchism,” as exegesized by Hart,  symbolizes aspects of the biblical notion of dominion related to the ecosemiotic idea of pansemiotic cosmology, important to the twenty-first century environmental imagination. Hart writes that ,

“There are those whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases. And then there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach… the only purpose of such a philosophy is to avert disappointment and prevent idolatry. Democracy is not an intrinsic good, after all; if it were, democratic institutions could not have produced the Nazis. Rather, a functioning democracy comes only as the late issue of a decently morally competent and stable culture. In such a culture, one can be grateful of the liberties one enjoys, and use one’s franchise to advance the work of trustworthier politicians (and perhaps there are more of those than I have granted to this point), and pursue the discrete moral causes in which one believes. But it is good also to imagine other, better, quite impossible worlds, so that one will be less inclined to mistake the process for the proper end of political life, or to become frantically consumed by what should be only a small part of life, or to fail to see the limits and defects of our systems of government. After all, one of the most crucial freedoms, upon which all other freedoms ultimately depend, is freedom from illusion.”

The key here is an iconographic experience of imaginative politics, rather than an idolatrous or objectifying politics–thus to “be less inclined to mistake the process for the proper end of political life, or to become frantically consumed by what should be only a small part of life, or to fail to see the limits and defects of our systems of government… [to practice] freedom from illusion.” I have written in the introduction to my new collection, Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, on the relation between the visual theory and practice of Byzantine iconography and Charles Peirce‘s triadic model of sign relation. Rather than the binarized Saussurean capture of signified and signifier within an arbitrary interiority of human self, Peirce’s model (influenced, I argue, both by apophatic Christian theology and by Native American thinking) suggests how our self is formed symbolically in our environmental, cosmic, and spiritual relationships. Such simultaneously personal and cosmic symbolism, interacting reciprocally with both the real and the imaginary, rather than subject to them, melds what we have come to divide as the analogic and digital aspects of life, the wave and the particles, so to speak.

“This universe is perfused with signs,” Peirce wrote, exemplifying pansemiotism, a model of the cosmos as all-meaningful and life itself as informationally symbolic. It is found in many pre-modern or non-modern worldviews as well.

Peirce’s pansemiotism lends itself to an apophatic sense of cosmic hierarchy, as an organismic mystery of networks of energy, originally described in writings attributed to St. Dionysius the Areopagite. This differs from the model of hierarchy commonly found in the modern West, that of a static organizational order.

The pre-modern apophatic but pansemiotic sense of hierarchy as mystery, as a cosmic organism that is not organizational, but which involves energies of unknowable essence, can be found in foundational texts of English poetic tradition such as the opening and structure of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and the Mutabilitie Cantos’ end to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This dynamic sense of hierarchy is found, too, in Hart’s short list of readings on anarcho-monarchism, both of which not coincidentally relate directly to ecology.

The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows are both classic celebrations of the English rural countryside as a meaningful landscape of symbolism, more than Virgilian pastoralism in which the landscape as celebrated tableau becomes a surrogate of the state. By contrast, the flow of nature symbolism in both books is more anarchistic and humble, yet within a framework of an overall order.

An opening verse to Izaak Walton’s and Robert Cotton’s The Compleat Angler  (which appeared in final form in 1676) states “The world the river is; both you and I , and all mankind, are either fish or fry.” The book as a whole emphasizes the contemplative worth of fishing, and explores the meaning of “angling” in poetry by Dryden and others as well as explanations of the art. What emerges is a sense of the relationship of Angler, river, and fish, and the combined spiritual and practical aspect of the activity. The book identifies Anglers with the fishers of the gospels. In a section on angling law, it calls for community spirit and expects riverfront landholders to be hospitable to anglers on the water who may also be trespassers “upon so innocent an occasion.”

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame evokes a similar emphasis on hospitable camaraderie amid a shared natural world, an appreciation for friendship in helping Toad regain his manorial home after an invasion by gangster weasels from the Wild Woods, but also the importance of the egotistical toff Toad learning humility from his still affectionate friends. The meaningfulness of nature is also celebrated in this animal fable. As Rat puts it, “There is nothing–absolute nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Mole encounters the river, “as one, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

The Christmas caroling of young field mice celebrating the Nativity of Christ and the mysterious appearance of the demigod Pan  to Mole and Rat while searching for a lost baby otter (Pan, called Friend and Helper, also seeming to be, despite his horns, a type of Christ of sorts in that animal realm), all shape a Peircian sense of embodied cosmic meaning or pansemiotics.

Which gets us back to Hart’s anarcho-monarchism. Of course he was jesting at least in part when referencing these two decidedly non-political books as the source of his political  philosophy, as a kind of combined manifesto for imaginary anarcho-monarchism, seen also in Tolkien’s liminal Rangers of the North and South in  The Lord of the Rings, and in the rather blurry governmental status of the Shire as a province of some missing kingdom. To Christians of these latter days, amid the “great forgetting” about which Rod Dreher writes, such an ambiguous situation is the norm, with no real Christian kingdoms left in the world, and Orthodox Christians left only with allegiance to the vanished empire of Byzantium.

Yet in a time of global neocolonialism and diaspora, real and virtual, allegiance to an imaginary empire is not such a bad thing, especially if this involves an iconographic rather than idolatrous sense of politics. This motivates us in our home to fly a Byzantine flag between our neighbors’ competing American flags, which are on one side of us traditional red-white-and-blue and the other a rainbow-version of Old Glory, calculatedly representing a local political binary. Perhaps this spring we’ll add a plaque next to our front door reading “Byzantine Consulate,” to further confuse that binary. But will such  imaginary diplomatic immunity shield our household, patriotic American citizens all, from unwanted attention from the NSA or other agencies of our government, along our quiet bank of the Susquehanna River?

Still, in the absence of a kingdom of higher meaning, we engage the meaningfulness of Nature in our own circles of organic community, as we hope for and have faith in the return of the King of the cosmos, for news that Aslan is on the move. And in resistance to global technocracy devoted either to bureaucratic or capitalistic meaninglessness, what remains for Orthodox Christians whose empires have long since disappeared are the “little kingdom” of the family and the “little church” of the parish and home, the crowned king and queen of the Orthodox Christian marriage ceremony, the royal priesthood of the Church’s laity, the little conciliar monarchies also of monastic communities and bishoprics in the Church. And in society at large are the “little platoons” of Edmund Burke’s organic society resisting both totalizing ideology and materialism, amid the inherent royalty of all human beings as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve in the image and likeness of God, despite all of our objectifying fallen state as human beings. All this diversity in unity in society reflects, for Orthodox Christians, the mystery of the Trinity, the apophatic sense of the essence of God, the symbolic conciliarity of the Trinity as best we can understand it, seen in  St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon, and the idea advanced by Fr. Sergei Bulgakov of society as a household, an oikos, as in the Greek root of both economy and ecology, overlapping.

In our larger secular society, America’s Declaration of Independence provides a pansemiotic lead-in to the U.S. Constitution by referencing “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  The Constitution itself, as James Fenimore Cooper noted in his classic The American Democrat, draws on elements of what were seen as the “natural” three forms of human government drawing on Classical models, monarchy (the presidency), aristocracy (the Senate), and democracy (the House of Representatives). In its federal system and system of checks and balances, it drew on Iroquois notions of government. It also parallels in a certain secular sense the ideas of conciliaritysymphonia, κοινωνία, and sobornost in ancient Eastern Christian tradition. But all those organic aspects of the Constitution only become highlighted when related to the pansemiotic aspects of imagination, of iconography in a sense, rather than idolatry, as mentioned above. The third foundational document of American politics, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (the 150th anniversary of which our family shared at Gettysburg, PA, recently) offers an added gloss  on the pansemiotism of true government, including a reference to the nation (rather than an end in itself) being “under God.”

Lincoln’s message as a whole underlines a point made recently by Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Tadodaho Hill noted to a group of visitors including myself at the Onondaga Longhouse, which is the headquarters of the Confederacy, that the U.S. had erred in its “separation of church and state” by making a merely mechanical borrowing of Iroquois approaches to politics, which mechanical or legalistic approach to government lies at the heart of our environmental crises. From the point of view of Hill’s Native anarcho-monarchism, or Hart’s Orthodox Christian anarcho-monarchism, the endorsement of liberal democracy by another Orthodox scholar, Prof. Aristotle Papanikolaou, must always be a highly qualified one.

The challenge is to avoid idolatry of today’s technocratic system, in which, as the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has noted rightly (despite his own problematic consumerist-psychoanalytic Marxism) global capitalism and identity politics alike become mere extensions of Stalinism.

Which gets me around to the documentary Our Nixon as  an addendum to Hart’s list of books as a source for an iconographic rather than an idolatrous political philosophy.

Recently I introduced the documentary and led a discussion of it afterward at the Campus Theatre in downtown Lewisburg, PA.

The documentary evoked for me the memory of long-ago family arguments, involving mainly now-silent voices, about Nixon, a great but flawed president in very turbulent times, who not incidentally achieved much on environmental issues, despite his disastrous fall. Director Penny Lane and colleagues used an impressionistic but empathetic lens for the film, focused through the home videos of three young clean-cut Nixon aides, two of whom were members of the Christian Science Church, in which some of my extended family were members, and to which I belonged when I was younger. In many ways Nixon wielded symbolic leadership through media with skill, despite personal awkwardness, but his insecurities and over-reaching, writ large as a result, helped spur the unraveling both of his administration and the symbolic mystique of the presidency and the Constitution.

Chuck Colson, a Nixon aide who went to jail for his misdeeds and then left politics to organize a prison ministry, commented on the spiritual hollowness at the heart of the U.S. imperial presidency, which he witnessed in the time of the president to whom he was so devoted, the distantly Quaker Nixon. Indeed, the Disneyesque devotion to the American status quo of Nixon’s staff, however admirable the unifying aspects of his leadership in a chaotic time, merely raised a false idol for many. The resulting disappointment highlighted the problem raised by Hart, of political idolatry rather than iconography, looking for either materialistic or idealistic saviors in political figures or systems in a post-Christian world. Despite all the travails and supposed lessons of Watergate and Nixon’s disgrace, as I also noted at the Campus Theatre, more systematic government spying and abuse of power abound.

Returning home from the movie theater, I picked up both The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows to read a few favorite passages before bed, thinking of Hart’s essay, Nixon’s fall, and mounting crises today that face us in terms of finding meaningful life amid a faltering economy, expanding technocracy, and roiled natural environment.

Voltaire’s Candide urged us to cultivate our gardens. But as Tartu semiotician Timo Maran affirms, cultivating a garden in an ecosemiotic sense is no withdrawal from community life–no more, in an infinitely deeper way to an Orthodox Christian, than is hesychastic prayer, whether in urban or wilderness deserts. Rather, tending one’s ecosemiotic garden can be a deeper way of re-working and re-imagining the transfigurative symbolism that constitutes life in community, in the household cosmology that really is ecology, an iconography of nature memorably book-marked by Hart under “anarcho-monarchism.”

“Put not your trust in princes,” we hear the badly flawed but Holy Prophet King David sing, recognizing the king and queen in all of us with all our many limitations, tending community and meaning, as we await the return of the King.

  Portrait of Vice President Nixon in 1960 by Norman Rockwell. President Obama poses for a selfie with the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and the Social Democrat Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.


A Geo-Libertarian Manifesto

“How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all”–a very geo-libertarian question to our culture today.

Recently I heard the climate scientist James Hansen speak at the “On Earth as it is in Heaven” conference of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, in Washington, DC, at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s education building. Hansen’s case for a “fee and dividend” carbon tax struck me unexpectedly as reflecting aspects of geo-libertarianism or geonomics, less than a household name but an important alternative approach for environmentalism in the twenty-first century. His plan involves fining production and importation of carbon-based fuel, progressively by volume, and distributing the proceeds directly to all U.S. citizens as a dividend, which could be used for any purpose, although presumably helping to support markets for alternative energy sources. The dividend would be a bit like that received by Alaskan citizens from oil.

The basic idea behind geo-libertarianism, which shadows Hansen’s proposal in part, is that natural resources are a gift and a common heritage, and not an individual possession or creation. Geo-libertarianism seeks to tax revenues from unearned “rent” due to increases in market value of unmanufactured natural resources ranging from land to energy, while leaving wealth otherwise produced by labor, entrepreneurship, and creativity untaxed as much as possible.

Significantly for Orthodox Christians and others, this approach reflects biblical principles of land ownership, which centered on a sense of the land as a gift from God, given for the temporary use of humans in their lifespans, who bear an obligation both to God and to past and future generations, as scholarship by Ellen Davies of the Duke Divinity School on biblical agrarianism has shown. This was seen in the Jubilee years in the Old Testament, the sense of land ownership revolving around extended family networks of tribes, and in Jesus’ parables regarding material riches. Thus the approach relates to the Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart’s half-joking advocacy for a political philosophy based on “exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows.”

Moreover, geo-libertarianism operates outside the usual US political binaries, incorporating aspects of free-market principles as well as environmentalism, usually associated today with right-wing and left-wing positions respectively. It does this by opening a way to assign cost based on market functions for environmental impacts otherwise difficult to assess, and to do so in a way that encourages what the philosopher Roger Scruton has called oikophilia or “love of home” as a prime motivator for environmental care. Geo-libertarianism does so by supporting what Scruton describes in his book Green Philosophy as a necessary culture of aesthetic appreciation and piety for the earth as a shared gift. This involves not constructing earth as an object for utilitarian uses by government or corporations, but experiencing her shared relationships in effect as a household gift economy, based on impulses of human community deeper than either government fiat or market forces. Thus, although a conservative Anglican thinker and American Enterprise Institute fellow, Scruton in his  book like Hansen supports a carbon tax, but one based in a national culture of oikophilia, rather than in global approaches based in technocracy, which he sees as ultimately ineffective on environmental issues and deleterious to human community and culture.

Across the political spectrum. geo-libertarianism also affords adaptations or intriguing echoes not only of Henry George’s populist “geoism”  from the 19th century, but of both Thomas Payne’s revolutionary Citizen’s Dividend and the French Physiocrats’ Confucian-influenced thought from the 18th century (the latter having left a legacy at French Azilum near here in the Susquehanna Valley), as well as the goals of tariff-based industrial policy advocated by some paleo-conservatives, libertarian approaches to natural resources of the Property and Environment Research Center, and the ecological economics of Herman Daly associated with the Green movement and American Left. The libertarian economist Fred E. Foldvary has been a prime academic advocate of geo-libertarianism (which he refers to as “geonomics”), although his work has drawn fire from less environmentally centered free-market advocates.

At the time of the DC conference, I had just mentioned geo-libertarianism in a review of a new book on Orthodoxy and the environment, Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism by Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew P. Morriss. The new book offers an excellent discussion of patristic cosmology, and stresses the incompatibility of Orthodox spiritual practice with statist-centered technocratic approaches to environmental problems. Yet the volume, published by the conservative Acton Institute, is but one of three significant new publications on the topic in 2013. The other two, more substantial volumes in terms of range and length and depth of critique of modernity, include Bruce V. Foltz’s superb Byzantine-centered intellectual and cultural history The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible, and the magisterial anthology edited by Fr. John Chryssavgis and Foltz, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Creation, and Nature, both published by Fordham University Press. These three valuable studies, all with different emphases, seek to bring incarnational Orthodox Christian pansemiotics to bear on our current environmental predicaments, and should be read together by those with a serious interest in the topic. While geo-libertarianism is not specifically mentioned in any one of the books, it lends itself to the range of Orthodox Christian approaches addressed in all three. It provides a distinctive way to relate biblical traditions to environmental policy today.


Susquehanna run softly til I end my song

ImageCivil Engineering kayak trip on West Branch near Milton

(Above) Top: The Howland Preserve, adjoining Camp Lackawanna, preserves a stretch of the Susquehanna River’s main stem or North Branch, by its 222-mile midpoint at the Vosburg Neck. Below: Local kayakers and boaters enjoy a favorite stretch of the Susquehanna’s West Branch by the site of a proposed tire burner.

November 30, 2013

A threat to river preservation (from The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA, Nov. 30, 2013)


“Sweet Thames run softly, til I end my song,” wrote Edmund Spenser in poetry celebrating his Elizabethan green world.

T.S. Eliot later used that line ironically in his poem The Wasteland, a disillusioned commentary on the devastation of humans and earth wrought by World War I.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a gathering celebrating our own Susquehanna River, at the Howland Preserve, part of an effort to conserve riverfront land including Camp Lackawanna on the midpoint of the main river.

Yet while that group celebrated and planned efforts to preserve its scenic natural river corridor, the West Branch near Watsontown faces a potential threat to river preservation.

That threat is a tire burner in White Deer Township to power the National Gypsum plant. It would be the only of its type in the country, in an industry with a history of accidents and fires, and with large operations less than a mile from the river and an elementary school.

Bucknell students recently spoke about this project with State Rep. Fred Keller. Stressing he is “pro-business,” Keller told of his concerns that the out-of-state operator, En-Tire, would not be a careful steward. He described his dismay that company representatives at a local public hearing couldn’t describe the chemical composition of tires, and what he saw as a general lack of care in their successful application process. Keller formerly worked for Conestoga Wood Products, which has won recognition for river-related environmental efforts.

“We look at the river and all the stresses on the river now … golf courses, energy, coal, or other,” he said. “Particularly with a company that came in unable to answer basic questions … we simply don’t need to put another user or stress on this river.”

The site is within the historic river corridor recently designated by the National Park Service, on a stretch that is a prime area for recreational uses. Native Iroquois leaders helped with the designation. Their ethos emphasizes making decisions that keep in mind the interests of future generations to come. The conservative Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton termed the motivation behind such an environmental ethos as oikophilia or “love of home.”

That is potentially strong motivation for opposing the project. Keller noted if we won’t allow elementary school children to smoke cigarettes, why would we accept a process that produces toxins, in an industry with a track record of accidents, across from an elementary school? Or near the river?

Nearby, in the Susquehanna watershed, around the corner from Conestoga Wood Products where Keller used to work, our pastor recently told our house chapel the biblical parable of the rich man and the barn. The rich man, proud of all his belongings, built a big barn to stock them up. But then his soul was required of him and he died.

Remember, Fr. Basil Biberdorf told the Orthodox Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Beavertown, what we have is not just our own, but God’s.

He wasn’t speaking of the tire burner. But lawn signs apply the lesson: “God’s country doesn’t smell like burning tires.”

In future hopefully we here in the Valley can echo Spenser with no irony: “Sweet Susquehanna, run softly, til I end my song.”

Alfred Kentigern Siewers is an associate professor of English and affiliate faculty in Environmental Studies at Bucknell University.


Thanksgiving’s cosmic poetics and joyful sorrow

gulagRockwell-freedom from wantWheat_Fields

Thanksgiving in America is notable as a holiday that is a gerund, as well as a national feast. But on the ancient Christian calendar, there are others older and more cosmopolitan with a gerund-meaning: Pascha (Greek for Passover, from Jewish tradition, although the Orthodox Christian Easter), the passing-over; Nativity (Christmas), which involves process and action as well, the birthing or coming forth; the Eucharist, or giving of thanks, at every Liturgy, and particularly on the Eighth Day of Resurrection. Just so the Greek ktisis, as English “creation,” means both active ongoing process and state. So a cosmic poetics of thanks embraces, in effect, wave and particle, a plexity of time and beyond-time. Thus Edmund Spenser, influenced by the Greek patristics studied in Cambridge at the dawn of the English Reformation, ended his Mutabilitie Cantos and The Fairie Queene: O thou great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight (Sabbaoth as hosts or dynamic activity, and Sabaoth as Sabbath-rest)

In our Russian and American home, we had at our Thanksgiving breakfast today a discussion of both the Orthodox Christian Akathist of Thanksgiving and the American Thanksgiving. The former is often attributed to Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov, because of a copy in his belongings when he died in a Soviet prison camp in 1943, although it is now usually attributed to Metropolitan Tryphon, who wrote it in Soviet Russia in 1929. The confusion is understandable, because only handwritten copies circulated in the gulag underground until the 1970s. As background notes from the Ancient Faith Radio CD of the English version explain:

Since the fall of Communism, the Church – and the entire world – has been made aware of the crimes against humanity committed in Russia and the former Soviet Union for the cause of atheist “revolution.” An estimated 45 million people were slaughtered out of a programmed hatred and paranoia. Terror, betrayal, distrust, isolation, self-preservation, hopelessness and faithlessness defined the God-less Bolshevik order. We honor those Christians who refused to compromise their faith in Jesus Christ – hundreds of thousands of names, some known, though most known only to God – as Passion-bearers, New Martyrs, and Saints. Metropolitan Tryphon ([Prince] Boris Petrovich Turkestanov, 1861-1934) was one of the venerable hierarchs and spiritual pillars of the Orthodoxy whose words and prayers supported Christians during these terrible and violent persecutions. In the 1920-30s, his word was a word of the law for all the faithful surviving this chaos and spiritual insanity of the country. For his remarkable gift of word and sermon, Metropolitan Tryphon was often called the Moscow Chrysostom. In 1929, Metropolitan Tryphon wrote “The Akathist of Thanksgiving” which has become his spiritual legacy. The words of the hymn “Glory to God for All Things” gave the Church and the world light from great darkness, reminding us that even in the midst of frightful suffering true Christian conviction and courage are unconquerable.

This Akathist grows from the last words of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for all things.” I read these passages aloud this morning while telling the story of the Akathist:

Kontakion 2

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

Ikos 2

Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Then we talked about what the boys knew of the American Thanksgiving story from school, about how many Native Americans are wary of the holiday, but also of how it included memory both of a group of people seemingly at the end of their rope in arriving at a new land, giving thanks to God, and of at least a moment of transcendent love and help between them and Native peoples. The philosopher Roger Scruton writes on this in his Green Philosophy as a bittersweet expression of what he calls ecophilia or “love of home,” a motivating force in protecting the Earth: “The self-consciousness of America, which has chosen Thanksgiving as its national feast, returning to that first apologetic [in multiple senses?] attempt of the Pilgrim Fathers to find acceptance among the Native Americans from whom their descendants were to steal the land, has its roots in the concern with home.” But Thanksgiving even there, even in the gulag, in any language and country, opens a cosmic poetics of wonder, a synergy of agapasm (to borrow Charles Peirce’s term), as does the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: “For all the love that is still around us, we gather together our minds as one and send our choicest words and greetings and thanks to the Creator.”  Thanksgiving goes beyond induction and deduction, through our sorrow and pain, and back up into a personal experience of love that transfigures us into joyful sorrow.