Tuan (1980) provides a historical critique of human interactions with their surroundings, proposing fear as a primary motivator for explaining particular societal-landscape relations. Many cultures contain perceptions and stories about unforgiving elements of nature, often anthropomorphized, in which spiritual forces inflict pain on humans as a result of their offences, impurity, and/or sin. Conversely, Tuan also notes that “as human power over nature is extended, fear of it declines” (p.9).
There are many parallels between Tuan’s interpretations and what I have observed in the lives of many in rural Bhutan. In a small village in the Phobjikha valley, for example, many villagers express belief in local lhus, particular spiritual beings associated with pre-Buddhist practice, that inflict sickness and other forms of harm on those that disturb their territory. These spiritual beings are rampant across the landscape, although the territory of each lhu is quite limited in terms of space. One might assume that one could merely escape the influence of such beings by moving one’s homestead. However, it is commonly understood that where one lhu’s territory ends another’s begins. Rather than escape, villagers are much more inclined to co-exist and to have developed rituals and behaviours that appease such beings. Tuan found similar experiences in China where “peasants felt so helpless before the multiplicity of powers affecting their lives that they much preferred to propitiate them than to fight” (p.91).
Another common belief in Bhutan is that deities lay claim to territory in mountains and alpine lakes. Many lakes are feared as inclement weather may be produced by the throwing of stones, burning of garbage, or even speaking too loudly. Stories are told of travellers being engulfed in fog and blizzards, losing their way, and never being heard from again. While such stories may seem alien from a Western perspective, Tuan also reflects on a small Christian community in the 15-16th century that held similar beliefs. Near the town of Lucerne in the Swiss Alps:
“the folks held the curious belief that the spirit of Pontius Pilate caused frightful storms there. Pilate’s body – the story went – was thrown into the lake on Mount Pilatus near Lucerne. His ghost, after it was exorcised, agreed to remain quietly in the lake except on Good Friday and on those occasions when passers-by threw things into the water…the story was not finally discredited until 1585, when Johann Muller of Lucerne deliberately threw stones into the lake and no meteorlogic disaster ensued” (p.80).
This similarity in traditions is astounding. It’s a humble reminder that multiple cultures across the globe, even the underpinnings of today’s western-technocratic worldview, share a common fear of the landscape. We fear what is unfamiliar, what is unknown, which has resulted in efforts to exert power over the landscape/nature. Sadly, this positioning of humans over our surroundings has also produced harmful outcomes, such as the present-day environmental crises that seem overwhelming. It seems that our modernization efforts, that have successfully minimized a perception of fear, deserve a tempered response in which we actively work to maintain a fearful respect for our surroundings. As such, animistic perceptions seem very relevant to current conservation debates and deserve more attention, going beyond traditional assessments that see them as ‘backwards’ or ‘unscientific’.
Tuan, Y. (1980). Landscapes of Fear. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.