Ritual Natures: Expressive Culture and the Natural Forms of Trees, Water, and Rocks

The natural forms of trees, rocks, and water have long been central to ritual practices across a wide range of religious traditions. Found in situ and transported far and wide, the tactile substances of wood, stone and liquid – among other natural forms – organize individual and social religious practices and expressive culture, even while they also exist as resources central to everyday subsistence. From songs that connect waterways with sacred identities, to trees that are harvested to construct musical instruments, to flora used for food and hallucinogenic rituals, the links between natural forms and expressive culture are manifold. Beyond their location in ecologies of religious value, these substances work as key nodes in local networks of wellbeing as they provide forms of energy, shelter, and sustenance. They are further connected with the health of larger regional and global ecosystems as they aggregate into forests, mountains and oceans, among other environmental formations. These natural forms not only have instrumental value in artistic and ritual acts; they also embody crucial links across interconnected ecological systems.

We invite proposals that consider how natural forms are described, praised, and given sacred and ecological meaning in and through expressive culture. What can a focus on these natural forms, including the manner they touch both ritual and artistic work, tell us about their place in our current environmental crisis? How do the increasingly vulnerable natural elements used in ritual and the related arts shed light on our ecological crises? How do environmental activists seek to preserve these elements by engaging features of expressive culture? How might expressive cultures give rise to new rituals and sacred practices that can resist ongoing ecological devastation?

While this theme focuses primarily on trees, water, and rocks, we also invite proposals that consider other natural forms: plants, animals, mountains, landscapes, and more. How are plants, animals, and land recognized as sacred in and through ritual practice? How are relations to land enacted that might address ongoing injustices? What does it mean to maintain the sacrality of the forms of animals and plants in era of mass extinction in which these very forms are disappearing at an accelerating rate?

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