Earth, Ecology and Environmentalism: Walking the Walk

Autumn Toad

I thought I was being rather clever when I wrote “I’m a Pagan” on the slip of paper, folded it once and dropped it into the basket along with the others. A split second later, the doubts and second thoughts came rushing in — what if I was the only one? what if it was rude to bring up religion in this kind of setting? what if I was accidentally about to “out” people who didn’t want their own religious identity known? — but before I could snap the slip back up, the energetic blond woman who was leading the team building exercise had already moved on and half a dozen more anonymous pieces of paper scrawled with interesting and curious facts were already fluttering down into the basket along with my own.

Then the team building and ice breaking began in earnest. I’m pretty good at this game. Rule #1: when nobody knows you, you never have to admit to anything. Rule #2: everyone’s just as nervous and distracted as you are. Rule #3: if it’s something that’s true for everybody (some jokers wrote things like “I love being out in nature” — like anyone who didn’t would even be in the room that night), make for the nearest chair. Rule #4: if you’re the quirky one out, accept it with grace and pride.

The team leader, head of the Volunteer Naturalist training program for the city parks who would be our teacher and guide for the next six weeks, stood in the center of the circle of chairs and drew the first slip of paper. “I bike to work,” she read out loud. About a dozen or so of the sixty people present rose from their seats and, giggling like grown-ups more used to business casual attire and office decorum, slunk and skittered their way around the room in a game of musical chairs until all but one had found a new place to sit. The game continued…. We learned how many of us were afraid of spiders, how many liked the color green, how many loved the wild and gorgeous Pacific Northwest (all of us, duh), how many of us had kids. We learned that Mary had run a marathon when she was 65 years old, and that Tom had climbed Mount Rainer five times (each proudly strode into the center of the circle, the quirky one out, to a round of applause).

I kept waiting for mine to be read, wondering how I would handle it if no one else got up. Being a Pagan wasn’t as impressive as being a retired marine biologist, or hiking sixty miles through wilderness every summer, or many of the other amazing and wonderful things that my fellow volunteers had listed. But when the team leader had passed around the blank sheets of paper, telling each of us to write down one fact about ourselves, that was the first thing that came to mind. It was why I was there, after all.

My spiritual life has always been firmly rooted in my love of nature and the wild outdoors. As a kid, I made up nature clubs and collected money to donate towards charities that protected endangered species. I spent hours and hours in the park at the end of my block, exploring the suburban ecosystem of field and creek, the crayfish and butterflies, spiders and voles, sparrows and water-striders and rabbits, and the red-tailed hawks that sometimes glided above it all with sharp, wary eyes. It was only natural that my growing adolescent fascination with mysticism and soulful poesis would eventually lead me to Paganism and earth-centered spirituality as that sacred dwelling place my love and passion would carve out among the religions of the world. But all the while I still retained a distinctly practical edge as well — the concern of the environmentalist for ecological justice and sustainable lifestyles, and the fascination of the student for all things warm and wriggling across the ground in all their biological, botanical and bodacious beauty.

So when I found myself having to move away from my home state and her sylvan mountains to a new city on the other side of the continent, on the shores of a whole new ocean, there were two impulses compelling me to get to work. The first was a soul-deep need to connect to this new land, to find a way of living among the towering pines and sharp-taloned ospreys and snow-capped volcanoes and billowing storms blowing in from the west across a vast expanse of unfamiliar sea. The second was a simple desire to learn, to find out the basic facts of ecology for the area, to be “in the know” about environmental issues that faced my newly-adopted community and what role I could play in lending a helping hand.

The Seattle Parks Volunteer Naturalist training program seemed like a perfect opportunity to meet both of these needs. For six weeks in the spring and another six in the fall, volunteers would spend Saturdays and Thursdays out in the field, learning about the many habitats of the Pacific Northwest to be found throughout the city parks — forests, meadows, saltwater shores and freshwater ponds — and the many plants, animals and insects that shared the local landscape. After more than a hundred hours of teaching, training and shadowing veteran volunteers, we’d begin giving back to the community in our turn: teaching programs to school kids and the general public, leading nature hikes, giving talks and demonstrations in the urban green spaces all throughout the city. By reaching out to urban and inner city schools that couldn’t necessarily afford expensive field trips to wilderness destinations, we’d bring the natural world to them, opening the eyes of the next generation to the beauty and wonder of wilderness to be found all around them, even in the heart of the city. As one of the program managers explained our first night, during our potluck and team building introductory exercises, we’d be working to make sure that this city would someday be filled with the kind of passionate, ecologically-conscious adults who have learned to cry out, “No! Don’t cut down that tree! Don’t build that dam!”

So naturally, I signed up. Plenty of Pagans talk about being “earth-centered” — and many of us reach out to that holy Mother Nature for solace, support and respite in times of spiritual need — but I knew that the only way I would ever really feel at home in my new city would be to get my hands dirty, and start digging deep.

And when a fellow volunteer, a stranger I’d never met, stood in the center of that team building circle and finally read out, “I’m a Pagan,” I stood up with grace and pride, prepared to be the token Druid of the group, ready to answer questions and talk earnestly about how my spiritual path had led me to be in that room, making that commitment to my community and the land I knew I would come to love.

But to my surprise and delight, I wasn’t the only one. Five or six others stood up from their seats, too, and the game of musical chairs began. I was shy and distracted (see Rule #2), so I can’t say I caught any names or exchanged any meaningful, knowing looks with those fellow Pagans whose spiritual callings had also led them to give their time and energy and passion to this shared cause. But I know now that I’m not alone, I’m not the odd one out, and maybe I have more in common with this new city and its people than I realized.

There are more of us out there than you think. We may not always be flashing our Pagan flair — sometimes we’re wearing worn old hiking books and mud-spattered rain coats instead of shimmering ceremonial robes, sometimes we put aside our pentacles and wands for a good pair of binoculars and a sturdy walking stick — but we’re out there. Walking the walk. Doing the work.


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012.
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Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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