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To Mitigate or to Adapt? Greening as Reflects in Fairy-tales and Legends. Example of St. Christopher’s Walking-stick

by Jurij Dobravec

Ecocriticism represents a literature genre dealing with human relation to other nature. Most of today’s social environmentalism origin in this 19th-century writings, namely Naturpoesie in Germany, Victorian naturalism of England, or separate thinkers as Thoreau, Muir and others in the United States.

Some scholars categorize folktales and similar forms of oral tradition as ecocriticism. The main reason would be their instructiveness about human behaviour towards nature, close to that of 19th-century idealists. Connections between ancient motives and more modern literature certainly exist, and in examples of both styles, we indeed meet instructive means in the wording. However, it seems that there exists an important difference. If on one side the romanticism rooted its ideas in science and enlightenment, the ancients on another hand started their viewpoint in observations of nature itself. The artists of both sides then hid the instructiveness into their style, either be mythical, allegorical or poetical.

With examples from different European folklore sources, I’ll shortly show, how some ancient motives reflect the reality of human relationship to other nature. I’ll expose/categorize examples of either passive or active approach, and preventive (ethical) or curative (combating and/or adaptations) strategies to changes accured, including to those mirrored natural responses caused by humans themselves.

A pivot motive observed will be the ‘greening stick’ of Saint Christophorus (or Saint Patrick), widely extended across the European continent. As we know, he planted his walking-stick in the ground after crossing the river. As he did so, the stick grew into a giant tree. I’m proposing a new interpretation of the stick’s greening that is now explicitly theological, as the flourishing of Christian faith. My ecological perception would be that St. Christopher's stick planted on a river-bank or sea-shore might hide an instruction, how to encounter soil erosion in places of crossings or boat dockings. It suggests perhaps the idea discovered in nature that a net of tree-roots crucially contributes to a stabilisation of the coast; with its dynamics and plasticity even more than stones or rigid concrete technology. The idea, moreover, learns the ancient and today urbanists that not human but shrubs and forests should be the primary inhabitants of banks of the rivers and oceans since those ‘greening matters’ are able to struggle the floods and raising of the sea level better than buildings. Beside residential problems the coast areas are facing today, St. Christopher as a patron of travellers might as well introduce the need for true 'greening' in today's growth of migrations and tourism.

Social environmentalism started with ecocriticism which was developing in parallel to the industrial revolution and intensive urbanisation in 19th century. It seems that enlighted participants missed or even humiliate many practical and technical ideas of the ancients that survived in an oral and visual tradition. Are we favouring modern technology too, while ignoring solutions that work by nature itself?

[Muir, Zipes, Jonas, Gerrard, Thesz; Grimm, Afanasjev, IPCC]

NOEMIS Institute
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