By Bill Sherwonit
I’ll begin with this: I’ve never felt a strong personal need or desire to commemorate “Earth Day.” The reason is simple. I celebrate and give thanks for the wild and precious Earth just about every day that I take a breath on our life-giving planet, our original home. And I have done so for many years. So I don’t need to set aside April 22 as a day for special celebration or recognition.
Still, I see great cultural value in bringing attention to our miracle of a planet and in celebrating Earth Day, because our nation by and large does not honor the Earth or regularly give thanks for the wild blessings it bestows upon us humans (and other life forms) in a multitude of ways. And I applaud the fact that great attention is being given to this year’s 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, at least in some quarters and even if done in “virtual” celebrations during this time of coronavirus pandemic.
This is how I will celebrate Earth Day 2020 on Wednesday: with a long walk on a favorite local woodland trail, joined by my girlfriend Jan and our two dogs, Denali and Guido. I’ll look for the green shoots that here and there have already begun to sprout through the ground—the earth—later to bloom into beautiful wildflowers; and I’ll listen for the songs of migratory songbirds newly arrived to the Anchorage area. I’ll look up the mountainside for white, wild sheep and I’ll rejoice in the beauty of the day, whatever form it takes, and the renewal and rebirth that marks this vernal season.
Here and now, seated in my home office, I’d like to share an excerpt from an essay I wrote some time ago, “In Search of the Wild Man,” because it ties directly to the ways our culture thinks about—and behaves upon—the Earth. It helps to know that much of that essay explores poet, author, and teacher Robert Bly’s powerful (and for me, transformative) work Iron John: A Book about Men and notions of the “wild man” that males carry within them. (Females similarly carry an archetypal wild woman, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes in Women Who Run with the Wolves.)
It also helps to know that the figure of Iron John is taken from an ancient story that begins with the discovery of a “hairy man,” hiding at the bottom of a forest pond. In similar fashion, Bly suggests, “When a contemporary man looks down into his psyche, he may, if conditions are right, find under the water of his soul, lying in an area no one has visited for a long time, an ancient hairy man.
“Welcoming the Hairy Man is scary and risky, and it requires a different sort of courage. Contact with Iron John requires a willingness to descend into the male psyche and accept what’s dark down there, including the nourishing dark.
“For generations now, the industrial community has warned young businessmen to keep away from Iron John, and the Christian church is not too fond of him either.”
As symbolized by hairiness and primitive instincts, Wild Man “energy” also reflects a friendliness toward wild nature, a draw to wilderness, the ability to see the divine in ordinary things, a willingness to take risks and follow one’s desires, and an honoring of grief in self and the larger world.
Given that context, consider these musings in celebration of the Wild Earth:
For a long time now, we westerners have largely denied the existence of Wild Man energy, both within us and outside us. In the United States and other modern western societies, the earth is considered feminine; by extension it “belongs” to women. The image of earth-mother—or if you prefer, Mother Earth—is a popular one in our society, used extensively by environmental groups, the media, pop singers, advertising campaigns (recall “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature!”) and in our day-to-day conversations.
The sky, meanwhile, belongs to men. While cultural images of “sky-father” may not be so immediately apparent, consider that the western Judeo-Christian vision of God is male. And He lives among the heavens. Most science fiction, too, tends to portray humanoid “aliens” from outer space as masculine, particularly if threatening.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those earth and sky images, Bly says our modern perspectives ignore their ancient counterparts: earth-father and sky-mother. The Egyptians, for example, identified Ra as sky-father and Isis as earth-mother. “But prominent in every Egyptian moment,” Bly explains, “were two other gods, Nut and Geb. Nut, the sky-mother, was painted on the inside of every coffin or mummy-lid, so that the dead person looking up saw a being bending down from the stars. Stars were shown on her body and around her body. Her hands and feet touched the earth, and the rest arched among the heavens. . . .”
Then there was Geb, the earth-father, who in some images is portrayed “with his back to the earth, his stomach and erect phallus, earth-colored, reaching up toward the woman in the sky, or longing for the stars.”
Even if Bly is correct that ancient myths included sky-mothers and earth-fathers, what does it matter now? It matters for this reason, he argues: “When our [modern, western] mythology opens again to welcome women into sky-heaven and men into earth-water, then the genders will not seem so far apart. White men will feel it more natural, then, for them to protect earth.”
In rejecting stereotypical images of the American male—and female—and seeking to find the part of them that’s been lost or misplaced, many of our nation’s men are indeed (re)discovering their bonds with the earth. Myths that reinforce an identification with the earth can only promote a healthier, less abusive, male relationship with our planet. And with females. Any number of people who have taken a hard look at the American culture have pointed out the parallels between male exploitation of “Mother Nature” and women.
The fact that the Iron John story doesn’t polarize earth and sky has, I think, contributed to its appeal since Bly resurrected the tale. Iron John the Wild Man lives deep in the forest, in the depths of a pond. As a mythological figure, he “lives wholeheartedly on earth; his wildness and hairiness in fact belong to earth and its animals.”
Part of the story’s message, then, seems to be this: whether hiding or revealed, whether recognized by us humans or not, the Wild Man is always present in nature, as the earth’s male protector. Taking it even one step farther, Bly suggests that the Wild Man can be seen as nature itself—as, of course, we humans are too.
And that seems worth remembering and celebrating on Earth Day or any day.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.