Leopold, Weber, and Achebe. Oh my!

Some people are content to not experience the outdoors, not knowing the secrets behind overcompensation in Gentianella campestris as a response to herbivory; those same people probably never want to hear the thousands of gallons of water sucked up by the trees surrounding them at any given moment.  These posts are not for those people.

OK- so I’m borrowing from Aldo Leopold (with, of course, my own little twist).

But Leopold allows me to start off my presence on this site in a better way than I could and with a useful little segue into the relationship between literature and landscape.  Literature has always acted as a particularly important manifestation of the relationship between people’s cultures and landscape.  So, if you want to get at an understanding of how different people see themselves in nature, their writing can be a handy tool.  Leopold is near the top of my list insofar as American writers embody–or perhaps shape–the way I see how my culture should interact with landscape.

But enough about Aldo Leopold.

Today, I want to talk about two very different writers: Max Weber and Chinua Achebe.  These two articulate very different ways cultures situate themselves in relation to landscape.

Weber posited that the development of capitalism was made possible by the Protestant notion that one works to glorify God.  In fact, the relationship between cultures’ perspectives, which are inherently linked to their religion, and their economic activity is unavoidable.

The fulcrum between economic activity and culture–perhaps fulcrum is not the perfect word, but it will have to do–is the perceived relationship between people and landscape.  Whereas some cultures see something like a bountiful harvest as a gift from God, Weber’s European culture often sees a bountiful harvest as evidence of people’s dedication to work, a sacred endeavor in and of itself.

To explore this concept further, I suggest Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart.  Achebe explores a culture in which people fear an evil forest (the Igbo of what is currently known as Nigeria).  Their fear, of course, is not simple fear of the darkness or fear of an unknown- it resembles something more like terrified awe.

Properly distilled, this discussion can be described as follows:  Weber’s Europe is a demystified one in which people do not “fear” the natural world while Achebe’s Igbo tribe is one in which people do.

A rather stark binary, I admit.  Still, this difference seems to me profound in exploring the different ways in which different societies treat landscape through things like literature and economics.  That is not to say either is better or more noble, but merely an attempt to begin to understand the differences in environmental attitudes throughout the world.

Another interesting split is that of sacrifice.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into that idea, but Weber and Achebe illustrate two very different perspectives with regard to sacrifice.  In Things Fall Apart, the people fear that they might not adequately sacrifice to the gods.  In Weber’s Europe, God sacrificed himself for humanity.  Where, as here, the relationship between God and humanity differs so immensely, how could people not view themselves differently in relation to their surrounding landscape?

.  .  .

If you feel so inclined, here is a little reading assignment: a short story by Anton Chekhov entitled, He Understood.  In the story, a peasant dwarf is caught killing a starling on a retired lieutenant colonel’s land.  Without ruining the ending (which, admittedly, has nothing to do with my theme), the colonel reprimands the peasant for killing a useless animal in violation of statute.  The colonel says, “ ‘You did this out of greed.  You saw the little bird and it annoyed you that she was flying free, glorifying the Lord.  “Here,” you said to yourself, “let me kill it and devour it.”  Human greed!– I can’t look at you!’”  The peasant goes on to describe how the devil tempted him into the dastardly deed.

Chekov’s Russia, I think, is distinct from both Weber’s and Achebe’s worlds.  If anything, it falls closer on the spectrum to Achebe’s evil forest.  Still, the language of glorification versus Achebe’s language of fear is distinct.  Complicating the issue, the before-mentioned statute allows hunting after St. Peter’s day–so, taking the life of these animals which glorify God is fine when done under municipal ordination.  Interesting.

Oh.  Welcome to Willow’s Wept.

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