Fantasy in an Age of Ecological Crisis

This paper was written for a short, spoken presentation at Glasgow University’s Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic.

When asked by fellow environmentalists ‘What do you do?’, I say ‘I write fantasy,’ but more than once I’ve been confronted with the argument that fantasy is part of the spell that enshrouds our culture, keeping us from having to worry about what mass extinction and rising sea levels really mean.

But I believe fantasy has an important role to play in helping to bring about a life sustaining culture.

It’s useful to ask what kind of worldview brings a civilisation to severely diminish the health of its home planet? To ask this question is to ask ‘what are the root causes of our ecological crisis’, and there are many roots:

  • When we swapped the hunter’s bow for the farmer’s plough and began to worship different gods
  • When the self-reflective power of alphabetic language drowned out the ancient conversation with a living landscape
  • Or when the view of nature as a machine began to take hold during the scientific revolution.

Whilst many of us today might not consciously view nature as a set of mechanical objects to be dissected and plundered, the ghost of Rene Descartes is still at large in the gene pool of our culture. The mind-body split might be healing, but the rift between mind and matter is reinforced from birth.

Matter is no longer experienced as animate and sacred. Rocks and rivers no longer have a voice. In our culture, only animals with a highly developed central nervous system are allowed to have sentience.

But what if the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was right; that mind and matter are not separate, but are two sides of the same substance?

An oak tree, for example,  has its material attributes: its size, its weight, its water content, but it also possesses immaterial qualities that we feel, sense, and intuit; the way its branches reach and sag over the path, the dark cleft in the trunk that suggests a door, the shifting scents of damp earth when you step into its shadow.

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes how:

‘Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.’

So the way we perceive a moss-covered river rock is completely different to how a trout or a dragonfly perceives the same rock. No one experience of the rock is more correct than the others, and each creature’s experience is rooted in millions of years of co-evolution, and is co-created in the moment by the unique qualities of that specific rock and by the human’s or the dragonfly’s unique mode of perception.

An old alchemy is at work in the place between us and the living landscape.

Where the rockness of a rock meets the breathing body of Brian Froud, a faerie is born.

Where the oakness of an oak seeps into the dreams of a pipe-smoking Oxford professor, Tree-Beard wakes up from a long sleep.

And where the qualities of a particular river splash through the sense organs of a bespectacled Japanese animator, a dragon hatches ~ the spirit of the Kohaku river.

If we had always experienced material nature as eloquent and intelligent would it even have been possible to have had an ecological crisis? Would we clear-cut our ancient forests if we viewed them as sentient and ensouled?

As creators of mythic fiction (fantasy with roots) could we open ourselves to the intelligence of place, allowing the rocks, rivers, winds, and wild others to speak through our stories, helping to restore a sense of the sacred in nature.

And if we invite the animate earth to find a home in our stories, then perhaps the earth will return the favour.