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INTERview: Adrian Ivakhiv

Discussing enchantment, science, paganism and place with a wide-ranging scholar of environment and culture

By Joshua Brown Article published September 20, 2006

Adrian Ivakhiv 2006
Adrian Ivakhiv has studied the ways some religious movements probe deeply into the relationship between people and the non-human world. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Adrian Ivakhiv’s research on culture, religion, and environment has taken him to Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountains of east central Europe, Cape Breton Island, southwest England and the U.S. Southwest. Earlier this year, the assistant professor in the Environmental Program participated in an hour-long interview with Krista Tippett, host of the nationally syndicated program Speaking of Faith, “public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas.” He described the ecological impulse at the root of Pagan religions from their ancient forms to their current revival in North America and Europe. the view wanted to learn more, to continue the conversation.

THE VIEW: How does your study fit with who you are? Do you think of yourself as a religious person? A Pagan? A neo-pagan? Something other?

ADRIAN IVAKHIV: I think of myself in different ways on different days. Buddhists have this concept of non-self that I find useful. If you watch yourself you realize the self is a process of sensations and thoughts and identifications which change from moment to moment.

So, am I a religious person? Well, I was brought up in a religious environment, and I’m interested in religion. Religion has been a fact of my life.

And now religion is an important factor in the problem of how humans can live more sustainably with each other on the planet. I’m interested in the ways religions are trying to address that issue.

The big religious camps — Christianity and Buddhism and others — are addressing environmental issues actively right now, and that is promising. But Paganism and various other new developments or revitalizations are probing deeply into the relationship between people and the non-human world and how that relationship has become “de-spiritualized” and disenchanted. These new movements are arising out of the desire to re-enchant that world.

I’m interested in re-enchantment both as a scholar and as a human. We’re missing something by not having some sense of enchantment and meaningful connection in our lives, in our relationships to places and to other non-human beings. If you want to call that paganism, feel free to.

Or call it animism. I like the term animism because it focuses on the animate, on our animality — which is what humans are: animals among other animals. We are social beings living in an extended society of beings who don’t all speak the same languages.

You said you grew up in a religious environment. How does that shape your understanding today and your scholarship?

My parents were post-war refugees from Eastern Europe. They both grew up in what is now western Ukraine. During the chaos of World War II they were in displaced person camps and ended up in Canada.

That’s the kind of experience that many displaced and diasporic groups have undergone, which gives a strange color to their relationship to the place where they have ended up, and so they try to preserve something that’s gone and they idealize the connection to the land they left behind.

I grew up in the midst of that. In Toronto there are about 100,000 Ukrainians. I went to Ukrainian schools and churches and spoke the language before I learned English. There is this kind of tension between that culture and the North American environment I was growing up in. It became something for me to resolve.

Religion was a factor in that tension. I grew up in a Ukrainian Catholic family, which is a hybrid of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; it’s the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. The church was the central institution in the diasporic Ukrainian community.

How did you get from an upbringing in the Eastern Rite Catholic Church to where you are now, and to what extent does that tradition still reverberate for you?

Because of my upbringing, I don’t think of religious identity in the same way as some. For me it is less about identifying as a particular believer and more about an appreciation for mystery.

In the Byzantine Eastern Rite Church that’s a powerful shaping factor: you do these rituals and there is an atmosphere about them that has to do with a certain state of mind. Lights, candles, incense, icons — it’s very sensual, and it has an attitude of respect for the mystery of the universe. … I’m sure some Christians would say I’m a heretic, but I think the focus on beliefs and doctrines is more an attitude found since the Protestant Reformation (though it was there in the early church as well, but more for the ‘doctrinal cops’ than for the common people or the mystics — who were very respected in Ukraine and Russia). For the past few centuries, we’ve been thinking of religion as a set of ideas that you believe in, and you say that they’re true, and that makes you a believer in that tradition.

But the more common form of religiosity in the world historically — and which the Eastern Church has preserved — is about practice, about relationships, about culture; it’s about feelings and moods and art and music. I conducted a church choir for years until I left Toronto. It doesn’t make sense to say I used to be a Christian, and now I am something else, now I’m a Pagan.

I think differently now, but I still share that sensibility I got from my Eastern Christian upbringing. I can travel in Eastern Europe and visit an orthodox monastery on a big feast day, and people are in a procession, chanting and holding candles, and I can join them without feeling like an outsider at all.

How has your interest in Paganism and other religious movements developed?

It was both a personal search which included a search for my family roots in Eastern Europe — my ancestral connections to that landscape — and also a scholarly interest in landscape and place and geography. I’m interested in how places shape people’s experience of who they are.

I’ve done a fair amount of writing about that. My book Claiming Sacred Ground, which came out in 2001, focused on places in Arizona and England. Since then, I’ve moved away a little bit from religion and more towards culture, looking at ethnicity and belonging, and regional identity. Though I have traveled back to Ukraine on a grant to study the Native Faith revival and have had some publications on that.

In general, I’m interested in how an eco-regional or bio-regional identity can develop in particular places, which would transcend the kinds of identities — which people have been very good at establishing — that are more ethnic and based around the idea of “us and them” – ‘”This is our land, not yours.” I’m interested in a sense of identity that emerges through the process of living together in a place.

Where does the study of “place” fit into a university? Is there a place for “place” in our traditions of knowledge and the disciplines that shape an institution of higher education like UVM?

A lot of my work has been trying to grapple with the interweaving of nature and culture. We tend to think that there is nature and there is culture — the natural sciences study the first, and the social sciences and humanities study the second. Ecologists study nature; anthropologists study groups of people and how they interact with nature, but they don’t really study the nature side of it.

There have been research traditions, like cultural ecology, that have tried to bring the two together, but they’ve often privileged one side of that duality or the other. It’s only been in the last 10 or 15 years that there has been a growing interdisciplinary conversation of how to think outside that dichotomy — a conversation that includes geographers, anthropologists, philosophers, environmental scholars and others.

And do you think that the dichotomy is an illusion or is there something real about the nature/culture divide?

It’s a set of categories based in our experience of the world, but not entirely sufficient to describe that world. And at a certain point it starts to become inaccurate and to have counterproductive effects. Bruno Latour wrote a wonderful book called We Have Never Been Modern which argues that this very idea of a separate nature and culture keeps us blind to the fact that our sciences and technologies keep producing ever stranger hybrids of the two. And his point is that this blindness has become institutionalized.

Humans tend to classify things in dualities… But that has become not only oppressive but a serious limitation on understanding the nature of environmental problems. These problems are completely interpenetrated complexes of ecological, cultural, technological, economic, ethical things. And we haven’t learned to deal with them very well yet.

Try putting global warming or AIDS into just one category, nature or culture. The problems that we have in the world today require that we bring a lot of different approaches to the table, but the conventional divisions we see in disciplines and universities between the social and natural don’t make that easy.

Of course there are things more cultural than natural. A book is more cultural than a rock at the bottom of the ocean. But a book is made of paper from wood. And the rock might have a certain meaning for a crab or fish – so there is culture going on at the bottom of the ocean, too.

The dichotomy is something we have to work our way out of. We have to blow it open.

How do we do that?

It’s difficult because it’s built into the structure of academe. But new disciplines, new inter-disciplines, are emerging all the time. Environmental studies is a kind of inter-discipline that emerged in recognition of an ecological crisis in the 1960s. Other disciplines — women’s studies, urban studies — are interdisciplinary.

So in environmental studies we try to bring together the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities. But even then there is the tendency to fall back on that duality: are you studying nature or people?

And you find that certain disciplines are caught on that precipice, like geography. There is human geography and physical geography. The field defines itself as the bringing together of those two parts of itself, but there is an invisible wall between them, and only a small minority of geographers who are actually trying to bridge the gap at a deep level.

So what does science have to teach us about living more sustainably in our communities and places?

First we should ask: Who decides what kind of science should be done and funded? And what other models of science might there be? For instance, how does our science compare with the science — the knowledge — of traditional small-scale societies?

There are new terms — like “traditional ecological knowledge” — that have become buzz phrases for how small-scale societies embody wisdom about living in that place. But they’re still not really treated as science. There is this sense that over here is science and ecology, and over here there are these sort of “ethno-ecologies,” “ethno-botanies” and so on.

I want to push it further and say that our modern science is an ethno-science and our ecology is an ethno-ecology. It is part of a culture that has organized things in a particular way, that has separated science from religion and politics and art — in a way that previous societies might not have done. Our science has its own anthropology — an anthropology of laboratories and technologies and funding agencies and commercial applications — that we should try to understand.

In a traditional small-scale culture, science was always imbued with ethics, what we should or shouldn’t be doing. And that was built into certain practices, like religion and art, that extended far beyond the science.

I’m not suggesting that every traditional society was good or that we should be reverting back to small-scale society — which wouldn’t be possible anyway — but I think we should pay attention to how we have segregated these spheres. Political decisions proceed without science (especially under the current Bush administration), and science proceeds without much ethical input.

So can science help achieve this re-enchantment of the world that you seek?

So much of science today is dictated by funding that comes ultimately from commercial interests. Where does that funding go? Biotechnology, microbiology, artificial intelligence – all kinds of fields that may be fascinating in their own right, but which will end up serving economic forces before they help to raise humanity out of the polarized world of haves and have-nots that is in many ways the real cause of the ecological crisis.

But scientific paradigms change, too. There was a recent article in Science about rat laughter. Rats laugh. For a scientist to have said this even twenty years ago, they would have been laughed out of their jobs. But the fact that nonhuman animals are social beings with rich emotional and cultural lives is finally registering in the journal Science.

When you’re talking about a disenchanted world versus a re-enchanted world, it’s mostly a matter of perspective. We enchant the world already — we give power to certain ways of thinking and being, investing it in cars and consumer products and brand names and armies. We give them all a tremendous amount of emotional and psychic power, what Freud would call libidinal investments that end up controlling our lives. All those things that are consuming the world to death are doing it because we enchant them with our fears and our desires. If we learned to give some of that power and meaning to the other critters we share the planet with, and to the lakes and mountains and rock formations and forests around us, things might change for the better.