For the Wild

Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism

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Sarah M. Pike
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     2017.
     312 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520294967.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The advent of the 21st century ushered in developments in both academic and environmentalist discourses on animism, transforming it from its earlier Victorian definition as the belief in spirits residing in trees, rivers, stones, and so on to an understanding of human existence in terms of the relationship with the larger-than-human world—a world inhabited by myriad other-than-human beings. These discourses on “new animism” and “Dark Green Religion,” propagated within academia by figures such as Graham Harvey and Bron Taylor, are simultaneously informed by developments among ecologically-minded adherents of modern Paganism in the West, as well as debated by practitioners themselves.

Sarah M. Pike has been studying this milieu for well over two decades, as evidenced by her many publications on the subject, including Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (University of California Press, 2001) and New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (Columbia University Press, 2004). In her latest monograph, For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism, Pike utilizes participant observation methods, interviews, and an analysis of the cultural products produced by radical environmentalists and animal-rights activists. Many of the eco-activists studied by Pike self-identified as Pagan, and included ritual magic in their activist practice, even if most of them do not belong to a particular Pagan tradition such as Wicca or Druidism. In For the Wild, Pike analyzes activists’ perception of the other-than-human world, as well as the ways in which these experiences inform their struggle to protect nonhuman animals and the natural world. 

Pike is particularly interested in the ways in which activists in decentralized groups such as Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front construct and refashion what she terms as “protest rites” from road blockades to tree-sits, as well as what they imply for the idealized relations between human and other-than-human beings and animals, as shared by campaigners. 

In the process, Pike emphasizes the role childhood experiences and memories play among radical eco-activists. Many of the activists she interviewed during her fieldwork were between 18-26 years of age, and were usually teenagers when they became involved with radical eco-activism. While childhood and young adulthood are relatively disregarded by most scholars of religion and spirituality, scholars of modern Paganism have highlighted the importance and validity of these formative years, including studies such as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy’s Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (Rutgers University Press, 2007), and S. Zohreh Kermani’s Pagan Family Values: Childhood and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary American Paganism (NYU Press, 2013). Building on the work of Tim Inglod, Gisli Palsson and Donna Haraway, Pike describes the transformation of young adults into radical eco-activists as a “biosocial becoming”—a process in which activist “identities emerge from their interactions with many species and landscapes through childhood and young adulthood, as they become human with these others over time, reactivating themselves, so to speak, as they relate to trees, nonhuman animals, and landscapes where they find themselves at protests” (6).

Pike notes that activists associate nature with childhood and an idealized view of the past. Affected by the legacy of Romanticism, they continuously position their opponents in contrast and opposition to “the wild,” “Mother Earth,” Pagan religions, and indigenous communities. In this context, Pike problematizes the activists’ use of the concepts of “nature” and “the wild,” which are, of course, constructed within the context of late modernity. Is the earth wild and unknowable, or an anthropomorphized nurturing mother, in need of protection by her children? Attitudes regarding gender, cultural appropriation, and fetishization of indigenous peoples are examined as well.

In terms of layout, For the Wild’s first two chapters introduce the reader to the groups and organizations that Pike encountered during her research, and provide a much-needed historical background for the development of radical environmentalism and its reliance on earlier movements and concepts, such as the antiwar, feminist, gay, anarchic, and Pagan movements. Pike then dedicates the next five chapters to covering the entire span of an activist life: starting with experiences of wonder during childhood; continuing through an exploration of the rites of passage to radical activism (either through participation in forest action camps or in specific urban punk rock scenes); and mourning, grief, and anger over the loss of fellow activists or other-than-human beings. Between these poles, the ways in which activists maintain their communities by using ritual and spatial strategies as tools for both inclusion with and exclusion from the group are also examined. 

Pike’s For the Wild provides an essential and well-structured resource for scholars interested in the intersection between environmentalism and alternative spiritualities. This book also provides the general public with a respectful and compassionate—while at the same time critical—analysis of a movement usually portrayed in terms of eco-terrorism, or irrelevant and childish naval gazing. The reality, of course, goes much deeper. As Pike rightly observes, from the perspective of radical eco-activists, “becoming wild, becoming more like other animals, is [paradoxically] the way to being more fully human” (227).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shai Feraro is a historian interested primarily in contemporary forms of spirituality in the West, as well as in aspects of British and American cultural, intellectual, feminist and transatlantic history.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah M. Pike is professor of comparative religion at California State University, Chico, and the author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community and New Age and Neopagan Religions in America.

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