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Recently on an inner-city street I came across a cluster of elderly men standing around a little table topped with sunlit jars of honey. The men were laughing and talking to the young honey seller, remembering the past and giving advice. Beekeeping talk. I stopped to listen. The seller kept a hive or two in his small garden, his bees roamed the neighbourhood, and he filtered the honey himself. Those few minutes connected us all: to nature, memory, community, and history reaching as far back as the Ancient Egyptians.
It was a shock on the way home to pass a van crawling with representations of insects and spiders and promises to kill them all. I wondered what Ancient Egyptians would have thought.
Reverence for nature and awareness of its cycles was central to Ancient Egyptians. Arrival into Egypt by air eloquently illustrates why. Below, the River Nile’s floodplain appears as a ribbon of green threading across a vast yellow plain. Its annual flooding and the resulting fertility were critical for Egypt’s civilisation. It’s not surprising that gods identified with nature became such a feature of the country’s myths and beliefs.
The development of their national religion and many deities continued over almost three millennia (3100 – 320 BCE), in many ways resembling nature itself: complex, mutually supporting, and constantly evolving.
Overarching it all was Ma’at, the concept that social cooperation and the forces of nature had to remain interconnected and in balance; without it they believed the world would fall apart. Natural phenomena such as the Sun (Ra) and Moon, sky (Nut) and air (Shu), life and death, were seen as divine. It was the job of Egyptians to sustain them, which they did through rituals and offerings to ensure the continuation of cycles of nature such as the annual Nile flood, the pharaonic succession, and the daily journey of the Sun god Ra.
There is a bubbling energy in the art surviving from their civilisation, opening a vivid window onto their world. Deities were often represented as part animal: images intended to be understood symbolically rather than literally. The Sun god Ra has a hawk’s head, suggesting the bird’s flight across the sky, while Sakhmet, goddess of war, is usually lion-headed, suggesting ferocity and courage.
Colours were symbolic too. Osiris, the god of the dead and the afterlife, is sometimes depicted with green or black skin, references to his connections with vegetation, the fertile earth, and the skin of an embalmed body.
Even insects had a place. Tombs and temples from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom depict beekeeping activities, including in the tomb of Pabasa (7th century BCE). Bees fly across the tomb wall, their wings showing a tracery of veins and their legs trailing elegantly behind. They symbolise the country of Lower Egypt, one of the Pharaoh’s titles – Bee King – and the sanctuary where Osiris was worshipped, known as the Hwt bjt, meaning the ‘Mansion of the Bee’.
How much the world has changed. Nature today has become almost an abstract concept that exists ‘out there’, packaged as a destination, an adventure, as something to horrify, touch, or thrill. Closer to home, responding to what writer and naturalist Helen Macdonald calls ‘territorial anxieties’, people seek to eradicate what they think of as dirty, dangerous, or creepy – hence the proliferation of pest extermination services.
The world has lost half of its wildlife over the last fifty years as a result of climate change, pollution, pesticides, and habitat loss. Governments and multinationals often work in cooperation to make economic decisions. As legendary environmental campaigner Jane Goodall recently commented, “the biggest problem we have as environmental activists is to fight the power of money”.
Our daily lives are enmired in the products of devastation. Palm oil, for instance – found in peanut butter, soap, cosmetics, biscuits, and many other household goods – is one of the most environmentally devastating products there is.
Individuals are not powerless, though. Even if it is not easy to let go of the convenience and comfort that an exploited environment provides, we can choose what we buy and invest in, and how we act in our daily lives.
So what can the Ancient Egyptians teach us about living more wisely? Few of us would be keen on daily religious observances to ensure that the Sun rises, rivers flow, or bees continue their work. Nonetheless, people’s understanding of the high environmental cost that our lives exact appears to be growing, alongside a desire to live in greater harmony with nature.
The tiny house movement, environmental action groups, community gardens, and even rooftop parks in city centres are responses that seek to reduce human impact and create balance. Many people act through online petitions and campaigns to save whales, reefs, wetlands, rainforests, wildlife, and yes, even bees, sometimes exposing themselves to great danger. Ancient Egyptians might recognise these activities as attempts to support Ma’at.
Cultivating awareness of the natural world has other, less tangible benefits. On social media recently, with many others, I have been watching the progress of a bowerbird chick rescued from a roadside, a strangely moving process. The bird has become a sort of bridge between people as well as with the natural world. But environmental awareness needs to transcend such fairy tale moments to produce lasting change.
Although we can foster our sense of connection to the environment on a personal level, the corporate and political level is more problematic. With so many locked into adversarial positions – pro-business or pro-nature – society has long been at an impasse.
Academics Peggy Barlett, Patricia Kelly, and others believe that reenchantment – “affective engagement that includes dimensions of wonder and delight and…connections to other species and the Earth’s living systems” – is one way forward. They argue that these emotional dimensions should be integrated with scientific approaches at an educational level to help change attitudes towards the environment.
There are some signs that this is occurring. Science, which once appeared to set humans apart from other life forms as more highly developed, instead increasingly reveals the subtlety of the natural world: octopuses are social; elephants mourn; birds must learn to speak when they are young, much like human infants; parrot species mate for life and suffer terrible anguish if their relationship bonds are broken or damaged; whales speak in dialects and develop local ‘accents’ and dietary preferences.
Astonishingly, it seems sentience is not confined to the animal kingdom. In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben explores the social nature of trees. They can, he says, send electrical signals warning of danger through the ‘Wood Wide Web’, as well as count, learn, remember, and ‘nurse’ each other. The startling success of this book suggests people’s growing curiosity and wonderment about our fragile environment.
I keep thinking of that urban honey. We ate it that night with bread and butter. It was delicious – more than honey; it was connection.