Mass Extinctions and Dying Dreams: On the Wilderness of the Human Mind

August 18, 2014


To look on a single fallen cedar tree rotting by a river is to look on a structure of exquisite beauty and structural intricacy—the wood hued deep red and brown in the cloud-muted spring light, the blanket of bright green moss that clung flat to it all winter now sending the tiny stalks of sexually reproductive organs into the air, the hemlock seedling that sprouted on its rotting wood growing where no direct sunlight falls, the river shaded by the tree, providing water cool enough for the spring Chinook to spawn.

The tree has boundaries, to be certain. There is an internally cohesive, spatially discrete entity that is the tree, a collection of cells that each contain its unique DNA and not that of moss, hemlock, or salmon. But the dead cedar also is integrated into its surroundings, providing a structure for new life, feeding soil, providing cover for animals who will range through the mountains far beyond, providing habitat for salmon who will journey into the sea. All these things to which the tree is connected are in turn connected to myriad other entities occupying other echelons of time and space.

In this sense, the tree is boundless.

If one looks at any complex structure, like a dead western red cedar lying on the banks of the Salmon River, or the wild valley in which it lived and died, one finds that it is a component of ever-larger complex structures which eventually comprise the entire world; every web consists of interconnected nodes which in turn consist of webs.

Such is the elaborate, seamlessly integrated, all-encompassing complexity which civilization destroys.

salmon fishers


To know this requires no metaphor or capacity for reckoning that which is beyond the immediately sensate, no uncanny insight, no sense of the inscrutable. Machines come, they crush the blossoming stream violet and salmonberry, they cut down the trees. Explosives are detonated, the mountain is leveled, coal removed. Oil is burned, the world warms, corals lose their color and crumble to the ocean floor. These things are true. They are simple and palpable. No one possessed of their senses can fail to perceive them.

But in terms of the the significance one attributes to this destruction, one must acknowledge that there are factors which confound a simple characterization of civilization as a diminishing of the world’s complexity. It could perhaps be roughly characterized as a predator of a complex system—life on Earth—whose predation allows it to fuel the development of its own complex dynamics. Ivory-billed woodpeckers, boreal forests, and gray whales are obliterated. In their place come prisons, styrofoam, and Stockton, California—or, depending on the polemic one wishes to write, Kafka’s The Castle, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the scientific knowledge that informs the first paragraph of this text about the ecology of a dead tree.

And so we could, operating within the parameters of a purely logical inquiry, be permitted to ask, looking on a web of forest life negated by feller bunchers, or a mountain denuded of its top, or an ocean made dead by greenhouse gases: Is this wrong? We could ask if one form of complexity is indeed superior to another; if civilization, with all its functionally interrelated subcomponents and emergent properties, is not unlike an organism or an ecosystem; if in broad, conceptual terms its emergence, and the destruction of the substrate of the living world it was formed from, is not a continuance of an evolutionary trend present throughout the Earth’s and indeed the universe’s history, not a trend in the evolution of organisms per se, but of complex systems in general . . .

It’s an interesting avenue of inquiry, but, imagining its application to the real world, one progresses down it with a growing uneasiness. One gets the sense that they are venturing down ever-multiplying corridors, bounded by walls of torturously strict logic, corridors which always promise to lead to insight while they obscure an immediately apparent truth. What is most intuitive, most manifest, is frequently the most difficult to define in rigorous terms.

Euclid’s postulate that any two points can be joined by a line can not be proven in the same explicit terms as a geometric theorem. One must simply accept it based on the evidence provided by one’s senses. In many domains of existence, the provable is built on a foundation of the simply known. Biology can specify the complex sequence of events involved in cellular respiration, but has a far less strict definition, despite that we can all readily recognize it, of life itself.

The wrongness of destroying the living world is a fundamental truth, one too simple and too clear to be readily proven. But if this truth is intuitive, then by what means do we account for the fact that our global society fails to grasp it?

At which point we may ask another, related question. In the external, physical world, industrial civilization destroys rainforests, fills wetlands, kills frogs. Are its effects on our internal, subjective world similar? Is the human mind like a wilderness, and is the psychosocial environment we occupy akin to a bulldozer? In which case, do we possess the perceptual capacity to understand our own actions? Our journey down this path may be self-reinforcing, a feedback loop, in which the more we destroy the more we lose our senses. I imagine us operating a machine that negates the existence of the world around us and, as that operation progresses, our awareness of it becomes dimmer and dimmer, our eyes growing ever duller, until eventually the features of our own faces begin to deteriorate, the contours of our hands become indistinguishable, formless from too many repetitions of killing.

And those who resist, however nobly or feebly, are we not, in our own manner, also poisoned? In attempting to confront the machine—a machine we must acknowledge we reside in, however fervently we criticize it—do we not gaze the longest on the horrors it commits? While we attempt to diminish the pace of its physical destruction, is something in our own minds accordingly degraded, diminished, perhaps ultimately destroyed? Some manifestation of the human psyche that withers when one can not take their eyes from their enemy, when one is wholly occupied by oil infrastructure statistics, by accounts of open pit mines, by political meetings, by filing lawsuits or locking oneself to trucks?

In committing oneself to struggle, does one forget the songs of their ancestors, the lighting of fires, the howling at the wild infinitude of the unconquerable sky? And if we are speaking of what is forgotten by minds shaped, whether through acquiescence or resistance, by the machine, would gods and monsters not be among the entities that occupy places of great prominence in the wild psyche, places of prominence from which they are being thoroughly banished?

harlow monkey clutching effigy


We may speak of the wild as a totality, the sum of the mountains, rivers, deserts, and oceans that comprise wilderness physically and the perceptions, dreams, emotions, and cogitations that comprise wilderness mentally. If a wilderness is occupied by a bear, that wilderness does not stop at her fur, nor does it stop at her skin; it consists also of the representation of that place that exists within her, of the infinite tangle of bear dreams, fears, and memories—dreams experienced beneath the ground during long winters, memories of ancient springs and the awakenings they engender—that her ancestors bequeathed to her. The wilderness is not only the savannah, fires, or large predators that shaped human evolution, it is also the spirits we imagined to inhabit those large predators, the stories we told about them in hushed voices around fires, the deities who occupied forbidden mountains, their peaks obscured by clouds, upon which we gazed for millennia in fearful reverence.

As the physical wild dies, jaguars, sage grouse, and green sturgeon lose their habitat and thus die; as the mental wild dies, the habitat of the Trickster, the axis mundi, and the Sky Father are accordingly destroyed.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask—more pointedly, it would be radically amiss not to—if these perceptions are indeed useful to us. The question is not necessarily a proxy for whether any of the gods and monsters we have forgotten in our march toward some terminally civilized mind (which, at least according to civilization’s current trajectory, would correspond to some some hypothetical state of a terminally destroyed Earth, an Earth no longer possessing a single unpaved surface or a single undomesticated species). To my mind, an argument that any of the river spirits, half-women half-swans, or horses pulling the sun across the sky that populate humanity’s mythical heritage actually, physically exist would be too agonizingly convoluted, too hopelessly quixotic, to even warrant dismantling. The question is not whether the spirits of winter are real, but whether, as spring approaches, it helps us to be human to put on a mask and bang furiously on a drum in order to scare those spirits away.

In some regards, gods and monsters are undoubtedly a detriment to human wellbeing, in that a belief in them may compete with another explanatory framework which has the appealing quality of actually being true. (I will not, for purposes of this writing, attempt to refute any of the academic narratives that there is no objective truth and all narratives are equally valid—such discussions are, to my mind, so manifestly absurd as to be completely uninteresting). But the mythical world can have this adverse potential while still having a crucial place in the human psyche which we would do ourselves great harm by denying.

For instance, as is the case with Old World primates in general, humans have an evolutionarily inherited fear of snakes. It is valuable that we know that this fear relates to ancestral environments and is disproportionate to the threat of snake mortality we face today. This knowledge, however, does not entirely negate a visceral response many people have to snakes. Simply pretending that this dimension of the human psyche does not exist would have a significant traumatic potential.

Likewise, in common with much of the animal kingdom, humans have a cross-cultural aversion to sexual contact with close relatives. This aversion—called the Westermarck Effect after the Finnish anthropologist who first described it—has a very legitimate biological basis, in that reproduction with close kin has negative consequences for offspring. Of course, in many modern sexual scenarios, one is hardly intending to reproduce—indeed, one may be doing everything possible to avoid it—and thus one must acknowledge that there are no tangible, physical impediments to having sex with close relatives. This acknowledgment does nothing, however, to negate our psychobiological predisposition to avoid such contact. We could choose to ignore it because it does not refer to any external exigency, but the result would doubtlessly be a great deal of psychological turmoil for those who did so.

The question is not, therefore, whether it is a tragedy we have forgotten ancestral mythical narratives—narratives which comprised a good deal of the environment in which the human mind functioned throughout deep time—because they are true. The question is simply whether the human mind works better when these narratives, in some fashion or another, form part of the world it perceives.

Dismantling a literal belief in dominant mythical conceptions of the world, such as Christianity, is crucial to humanity’s wellbeing. Such literal beliefs, with which we are so easily enamored, have done nothing throughout history but tether the human genius—a genius born to ascend into the sky and encompass the wild and boundless complexity of the universe—to ignoble rocks of absurd conviction. They have chained minds capable of knowing infinity to a flat Earth orbited by the sun, an Earth crafted through no particular mechanism by a stupid, petty, vengeful god, a god who, if he existed, would be humanity’s paramount duty to destroy rather than to worship, to rid the world of a cruel and capricious oppressor.

As these systems of belief are abandoned, however, the tendency has been to replace them with absolutely nothing. This impulse is understandable, but a fair amount of evidence indicates it works poorly for the human psyche. Many sophisticated minds, born into modern environments and apprised of and convinced by scientific ways of accounting for reality, still find themselves orienting toward mythical modes of perception.



One can walk in landscapes and feel a palpable presence of the ghosts of what used to live there. One can walk in mountains and feel the aching absence of wolves, grizzlies, and—accounting for losses further back in time—saber-toothed salmon, mastodons.

Just like the ghosts that haunt a forest denuded of its large predators by civilization, the vestiges of similarly potent, mysterious forms populate the damaged wilderness of the human mind—women who can become birds, demonic elk, gods dying on trees.

Of course, the Earth is far from static. It is relentlessly dynamic. The mountains I walk in have been changing ever since they were born, and the species that occupy them have come and gone with those changes, and, over time, some of them have disappeared altogether.

The mythical world is likewise dynamic. The gods and stories that have occupied a given people’s mind in a given time and place have constantly shifted, changed in subtle ways through permutation after permutation, story after story, until, in a process very similar to biological evolution, they have taken on new forms altogether; and, in some cases, just like species throughout deep time, disappeared altogether.

For the most part, a dynamic equilibrium has prevailed. Species inhabit and disperse from landscapes, gods likewise rise and decline in minds, new forms emerge and old ones die, but their diversity, the complexity of interrelations between them, remains.

Now gods, like biological species, are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, a rate which threatens to undermine the very fabric from which they are formed, extinguishing the capacity of the mythical proto-material to generate new entities. In the great extinction at the end of the Permian, it was not one, or even many, sea scorpions that went extinct. It was the entire class Eurypterida, eliminating the genetic pool from which new species could emerge. It is likewise not just Odin or Inanna dying; it is the very dream world in which they took shape, the equivalent of their DNA that is dying, or their habitat, or both.



What was the first word ever spoken? The question is simultaneously potent and futile. It is doubtful that such a moment in prehistory clearly exists, but it is a useful moment to speculate about nonetheless. The same is true if one asks what the first myth was, or who the first god.

If it may be assumed, just as the words of every living language have been produced from gradual, largely inadvertent modifications of a primordial lexicon, and just as these first words are unknown to us, that all deities which exist today are evolved from mysterious and forgotten ur-gods. Did these initial, primordial manifestations of the divine impetus suit the needs of their creators better than those that exist, products of a prolonged series of haphazard modifications, presently?

For as much ink has been spilled on the nature of the religious psyche—and by extension, the deities it creates—the pervasive sense remains that something is right there, staring us in the face, that is being overlooked. If one were to seek out first gods, one would of necessity journey deep into the mental wild, a journey as far from human habitation, and perhaps as perilous, as those that took humanity out of Africa to the far corners of the Earth.

A tension exists. The narrative may be compelling in and of itself, but does it have any real purpose, or is it merely a literary conceit? Would such a venture, were it indeed possible to travel so far into our collective internal space, to negotiate an inner wild populated with bird-headed men and talking serpents—forms faded from the contemporary mental landscape, if not entirely forgotten, like wolves and grizzly bears have faded from, but are not entirely forgotten by, the physical landscape—actually be useful? Are these deities so much more potent than modern ones that they will, unlike those to which so many of us uselessly pray with such heartfelt fervor, break down the walls of prisons, or stop tar sands machines in their tracks?

It is doubtful. But in making such journeys, in connecting with those vestigal, primordial forms that haunt the far horizons of human memory, one is also, hopefully, freeing oneself from the constraints placed on the human mind by civilization. One should recall that aphorism of Nietzsche’s about taking care when fighting monsters, lest one thereby becomes a monster. The nature of civilization dictates, to a large extent, the methods used in, and the logistical parameters of, the fight against it. This is an inexorable truth. One can not simply pray to forgotten gods and hope that, contrary to all the evidence the world presents one with, it will suffice to halt the machine. An equal danger, however, lies in becoming lost in the small-minded and dead-eyed quasi-logic of the world killers.

It is necessary to fight on the terms dictated by the present moment, but a fatal mistake to acquiesce to those terms on any deeper level, particularly to make the final and most terrible mistake of confusing those terms with reality itself. One can easily be consumed by the logic of politics, of economics, of conflicts with police, corporations, and governments. These things are ugly. These things are not the wild beauty that resides, the product of millennia of evolution, in the human psyche. A resistance that only dreams is futile, but a resistance that has stared for too long at the vulgar and petty horrors of international summits, trade agreements, and pending legislation, never remembering the totality of being on which resistance is predicated, until finally its own thinking comes to emulate the vulgarity and pettiness of the very horrors on which it gazes, is likewise doomed.

Do not be your enemy. All weapons are useless that are not wielded by your wild self. Look upon, in the farthest reaches of your memory, in those same distant lands you first felt the warmth of fire or wrapped yourself in another creature’s skin, this face: It is horned, coarse-haired, wild, shrieking. Gaze upon it until its fury shapes the features of your own face and you return to this place which has grown pale with forgetfulness and fat with the the blood of faceless, mechanized slaughter; return with your fist raised, return monstrous, return ravenous; return howling with the voice of the first god who ever stalked the forest or raced across the stormy sky and brought terror to our kind as we took shelter from the howling wind and the knives of light it threw down; return with this visage and take your revenge on the civilization that robbed you of your primordial strength.


One Response to “Mass Extinctions and Dying Dreams: On the Wilderness of the Human Mind”

  1. Marie O'Meara Says:

    Thought provoking, well expressed, beautiful piece.

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