Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

Can Christians Be Animists?

Animism is having a moment in the pop culture spotlight. Thanks to the success of the Netflix show Tidying Up, featuring Marie Kondo and her joy-sparking approach to decluttering, thousands of Americans have been introduced to a subtly Shinto-influenced worldview* in which houses are ritually honored, books can be awakened with a cheerful tap, and even ugly t-shirts are thanked like dear old friends before being retired to the trash or a secondhand shop.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, environmentalists and conservationists have been facing the reality that despite our best efforts we’ve been unable to halt, let alone reverse, the ever-looming nightmare of global warming. Debates have raged over whether environmentalism as a political movement has failed — if we’ve entered a time in which “dark ecology,” action without hope, is the only adequate response. Earthlings everywhere are looking for a new approach. An approach, perhaps, that might even spark joy… Could animism be it?

With animism making a comeback among philosophers, environmentalists and reality TV hosts alike, what should arrive in my inbox but an invitation to review a new book by Religion & Environmental Studies professor, Mark I. Wallace, titled When God Was A Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World. My interest was piqued! Were Christians embracing animism? And if so, what would a Christian animism look like?

The thrust of Wallace’s argument is this: although the traditional view of Christianity is that it’s a world-denying religion focused on a wholly transcendent God, in fact (he endeavors to prove), Christianity has always had roots firmly planted in an earthy, nature-loving worldview. Though he frames this claim as edgy and controversial, it’s nothing new. For the past couple centuries at least, this “greener” view of Christianity has been growing in popularity especially among more liberal denominations. What is new is Wallace’s claim that Christianity is (and always has been) animistic.

It’s a bold claim, and he’s right to note that it might raise some eyebrows. Saying that Christians could (and maybe should) become more animistic is one thing. But it’s hard to believe his assertion that Christianity has always been animistic, given its long legacy of proselytizing with the explicit and well-documented purpose of wiping out indigenous pagan cultures. Such an assertion is on par with claiming that Christianity has always been feminist because sometimes the Bible has warm-fuzzy feels about how gosh-darn pretty girls are and what wonderful baby-mommas they make! With its complex philosophical and theological critiques, modern feminist theory arose in part as a response to Christianity and has presented serious challenges to Christian tradition over the past century. In the same way, animism — particularly, the evolving modern understanding of animism — makes certain specific claims about the nature of our shared reality. It cannot be reduced simply to a kind of general “green-fuzzy” aesthetic response to the natural world.

Unfortunately, Wallace makes a habit of just this kind of reductionism. In his introduction, he starts off all right, drawing on contemporary anthropologists and philosophers to suggest that:

“animism flattens commonplace ontological distinctions between living/nonliving or animate/inert along a continuum of multiple intelligences: now everything that is is alive with personhood and relationality, even sentience, according to its own capacities for being in relationship with others.”

Even here, though, we can spot the first signs of trouble — what exactly does Wallace think this “flat ontology” looks like, and what does it mean for Christians in practical terms? He offers various descriptions of what he calls “Christianimism” (ugh), including: “[the belief] that God or Spirit enfleshes itself within everything,” and “God [as] ensouling every life-form with deific presence.” It’s hard to see how this approach — which centers God’s personhood and presence while framing other beings as mere “manifestations” or “expressions” of God — have much in common with an animism that (to quote scholar Graham Harvey) recognizes that “the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human.”

If Harvey’s definition of animism reminds you a bit of that wittily-brief definition of feminism — “the belief that women are people” — that’s no coincidence. In many ways, prejudiced stereotypes about women and nature have been mutually constructed and reinforced over the centuries, and it’s useful to compare the two categories in any attempt to deconstruct them. Wallace himself prompts for this comparison with his book’s title, a callback to Merlin Stone’s highly-influential feminist work from the 1970s, When God Was A Woman. In her book, Stone asserted that throughout much of Europe and the Middle East, there once existed a beneficent matriarchal society that centered on worship of the Great Goddess, until it was suppressed by invasive patriarchal religion. As a vision of female empowerment, the text occupies a special place on the cusp of second-wave feminism; however, it also perpetuates a number of misconceptions and prejudices that the intersectionality of third-wave feminism has only just begun to critique effectively. And as an historical analysis, its sweeping conclusions are dubious.

Wallace’s When God Was A Bird occupies a similarly conflicted place in current theological conversations around animism and earth-rooted spiritualities. His eagerness to embrace our planet as a locus of divinity and beauty is undeniable. But for all his earnestness, his historical argument remains unconvincing. Worse than that, his understanding of animism is decidedly… let’s call it “first wave.”

To see what I mean, you can play this fun little game as you read: for each example of the Christian “animistic” attitude that Wallace offers, try replacing the plants and animals with women. Then, ask yourself if you still think they’re good examples of respectful relationship. If a saint were to, say, drive all the dangerous whores out of Babylon, or transform an ugly old hag into a totally bang-able super hot virgin as a manifestation of God’s glory — would you consider that feminist? Yet these are the examples — driving native reptile or insect species out of a forest, forcing a tree to bloom in the depths of winter, etc. — that Wallace cites to show how Christianity has been animistic from the beginning. That these are the best examples he can come up with is not very encouraging.

Even when, like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, Wallace stumbles upon an example that could arguably support an animistic interpretation, it’s obvious that he’s not exactly clear on why. The most striking instance of his confusion is when he compares a healing ritual from Hildegard von Bengin’s 12th-century medical treatise, Physica, to the story of Jesus curing a blind man in John 9:6-7. In the Gospel account, Jesus spits into the dust, smears the resulting mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash in a nearby pool, whereupon the man’s sight is restored. In her text on natural medicine, Hildegard describes a three-day ritual which consists of:

“taking handfuls of green soil and packing it around the head and feet of a person suffering from numbness […]. The goal is for the earth itself, thoughtfully positioned near the patient, to be its own agent of healing and to radiate its restoring warmth into the numbed body of the sufferer. […] ‘You, earth, are sleeping in this person, N.’ […] ‘You, earth, grow and be useful in this person.'”

Wallace asserts that these two rituals are “almost identical,” presumably because they both involve healing and mud. Beyond these two similarities, however, there are essential differences that Wallace either overlooks or discounts as unimportant. In particular, three aspects of Hildegard’s ritual stand out as potentially animistic:

(1) In her ritual, the healer addresses the earth directly, recognizing the soil’s unique presence as a specific embodied entity, and not merely as a symbol that represents something else or as a manifestation that points to some other entity behind or beyond it.

(2) The healer asks for the earth’s participation in the healing process as an agentive being, recognizing that it possesses a particular perspective, as well as an interiority that is withdrawn and inaccessible except through its own self-disclosure and willing participation to make itself available to others.

(3) In speaking to the earth “sleeping in this person,” the healer acknowledges the complex interobjectivity** in which both human and soil participate. In this way, the ritual draws attention to the multiplicity and complexity of interconnected personhood that exists on many levels, and invites a perspective that can shift among these levels without either denying them or collapsing them into each other.

The Gospel account of Jesus’s healing includes none of these characteristics, and in some cases directly refutes them:

(1) The mud and spit are seemingly incidental to the healing act — Jesus kneels down and works with the dirt where he just happens to be, prompted not by the earth itself but by the questions of his disciples, and more indirectly, by God. There’s no immediately obvious reason why the blindness (or its cure) is explicitly tied to this particular mud or its characteristics; other instances of Jesus’s healing miracles show him making use of whatever materials are available. For this reason:

(2) The mud and spit are, at best, treated as tools or symbolic extensions of Jesus’s divine power, not as agentive beings in themselves. They have no interiority or perspective. They do not act themselves but are only acted upon by others. Wallace describes this healing ritual as “shamanic” and examines the ways in which it grapples with issues of boundaries and transgression. But even with the most generous reading, the healing is at best an act of sympathetic magic in which “like attracts like” — the symbolically impure mud, ritually “charged” with Jesus’s spit, draws out the impure/harmful blindness from the man and so cures him when he washes both away with the (symbolic purity of) clean, fresh water. It is only after and because of this miracle that the pool (but not the dirt) is named.

(3) Far from acknowledging a complex interobjectivity, the use of mud as a symbolic tool in this way lends itself to just the opposite reading: a concern for how one’s purity (ie one’s bodily and spiritual integrity) can be corrupted by overly porous boundaries, resulting in a blindness which, like dirt, is “matter out of place” that needs to be removed in order for the person to be cured and “made whole.” Just prior to this miracle, Jesus’s disciples speculate about the cause of the man’s blindness, suggesting it’s due to some sin he or his parents committed — but Jesus explicitly rejects this explanation and the relationality it suggests. Instead the blind man himself, like the mud, is a tool that God uses to demonstrate his power.

Were Wallace to offer an alternative, animistic reading of the Gospel miracle, I might still quibble with his interpretation — but he doesn’t even bother! Instead, he seems not even to recognize how these “almost identical” rituals are actually very different. He conflates them (along with many other superficial and sometimes downright strange examples throughout the book) and offers a version of animism in which God’s personhood is always and repeatedly foregrounded, and there is no meaningful distinction between “person” and “tool” because even human people are wielded as tools by God. Rather than highlighting the personhood and agency of such tools (as I suspect he thinks he’s doing), he merely succeeds in reducing the former to the latter.

This issue of foregrounding and backgrounding is a serious overarching problem in Wallace’s text. While distinguishing between foreground and background is natural — a result of the way we perceive, process and participate in the world — one of animism’s basic insights is that these foregrounds and backgrounds are not static, inherent aspects of reality but instead arise from particular perspectives. Different human and non-human perspectives will foreground different aspects of our shared reality while backgrounding others. An animist text would, ideally, explore these shifts in perspective deliberately and conscientiously, interrogating and de-centering its own assumed or inherited perspective — for instance, asking how non-human persons might construct foreground and background differently and gleaning insights from the tentative answers that such questions provoke. Unfortunately, when Wallace manages to acknowledge a shift in foreground/background at all, he does so only in a single direction and to one specific end: in order to background individual persons in nature and foreground the human relationship with God.

You can see this backgrounding in a very literal way in his tendency to focus on metaphors of nature as environment. A familiar example of this is the popular quote attributed (incorrectly) to John Muir: “Nature is my church.” Though Muir never said exactly these words, he did often describe the natural world as a location within which humans encounter God, and Wallace leans heavily on this concept. Non-human beings, such as pine trees, may collectively contribute to the ambience of that environment, but usually only as a pluralized abstraction. Rarely do non-human persons make individual appearances or express individual perspectives on this human-God encounter in Wallace’s accounts. Even when they do appear as individuals, he immediately undermines this individuality by reattributing their expressive agency to God.

(An aside to return to our feminism parallel: This reattribution is akin to viewing women as extensions of male agency, so that even when a woman seems to be acting independently, her actions are reframed as a man’s choice not to act and/or as the object of the male gaze. See also, Morton’s Ecology Without Nature for a fascinating analysis of how nature-as-environment is commonly evoked through the “ambience” of lists in the nature writing genre. And then turn to page 77 in When God Was A Bird for a striking example of Wallace just straight-up listing bird species like some kind of avian Mambo #5.)

Again, Wallace engages in this reframing even with texts that are arguably good candidates for a re-imagined Christian animism. The Biblical call to “consider the lilies of the field,” for instance, could be read as an invitation to consider the lilies as persons who have a particular perspective, the capacity to perceive how they are cared for and supported, and even a kind of agency (insofar as they can refrain from toil). The passage prompts the reader to imagine the lilies’s perspective and compares them to “Solomon [a person] in all his glory.” And yet, Wallace twice makes sure to reframe this as a comparison not to Solomon-the-person but to Solomon’s temple as an aesthetically pleasing environment. He rejects the invitation to “consider the lilies” and considers instead only the field — that is, lilies-as-background.

For the most part, Wallace’s “Christianimism” seems to endeavor to look forever cross-eyed at the natural world — or rather, to look through it, as if it were one big Magic Eye puzzle in which you can see a 3D picture of God riding a dolphin if you squint just the right way. There are times, however, when he comes tantalizingly close to noticing the complex non-human community as more than just pleasing soft-focus background. These occasions are usually the direct result of his time spent outside in the natural world, in prayer or on pilgrimage. It’s when he is confronted with the undeniable presence of particular plants and animals living and acting in the world around him that he is forced to meet them face-to-face. His abstracted theological narrative momentarily falters, and we as readers have a fleeting chance to imagine a world in which non-human persons look back at us.

Perhaps, then, if there is hope for a more robust animism emerging within today’s Christianity, Christians might find themselves on the right path if they follow the same directions musicians take to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice!

In the meantime, Wallace’s When God Was A Bird represents a well-intentioned first step along that path. Unfortunately, it is the same first step that Christians have been taking for hundreds of years. The “green” approach to Christianity seems to have one foot stuck firmly in place, limping in circles around that same sticking point for centuries. Which raises the question: what exactly is this sticking point? If Christians are interested in taking more than just that first step — moving beyond the most basic acknowledgement that “nature is good” — at some point they’re going to have to ask themselves what is holding them back? What is it about their doctrines and/or ritual practices that prevents them from following the call of longing and belonging that so many of them have been noticing just on the edge of their hearing for so long…?

Rather than yet another re-imagining of the Christian past to suit today’s sensibilities, I long for an honest wrestling with Christianity’s history of missteps and an informed, intersectional, interobjective attempt to redress them. That’s the book I want to read!


* There are a lot of hot takes on Marie Kondo going around right now, including some terrible takes rooted in racism and sexism. The philosopher Dr. Jonathan Flowers (@shengokai) has some excellent Twitter threads addressing some of these issues. I highly encourage you to read and follow!


** Interobjectivity is perhaps too specialized a term for this kind of review, but it’s one I find super useful. The concept was introduced by Bruno Latour (pdf) as a way to talk about the social agency of objects and to challenge the common distinction in Western philosophy between subjectivity and objectivity. It’s been further developed by other scholars, my favorite being Timothy Morton, particularly in his work on hyperobjects.


Photo Credits:

• “Dove,” by Jan Daciuk (CC) [source]
• “Dove In Flight,” by Victor Paul (CC) [source]
• “Eight Flying Doves,” by Hartwig HKD (CC) [source]
• “Dive,” by Daniela (CC) [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization, Theology

Landscape In Ink, With Horse

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman

I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own

When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.

Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.

We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.

In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.

Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.

I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.

My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.

globe_Teresa-Alexander-Arab

We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.

But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.

~~~

It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.

One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.

lost-traveler_martinak15_sm

Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.

After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.

The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.

“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.

mother-son_bk

Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.

Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.

I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.

The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.

Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

I will never write a poem about a real horse.

Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.

Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.

I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.

Memory changes things.

I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.

And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.

We know ourselves, and then we do not know.

And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)


Photo Credits:
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization

Landscape in Ink, With Horse

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman

I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own

When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.

Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.

We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.

In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.

Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.

I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.

My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.

globe_Teresa-Alexander-Arab

We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.

But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.

~~~

It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.

One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.

lost-traveler_martinak15_sm

Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.

After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.

The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.

“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.

mother-son_bk

Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.

Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.

I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.

The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.

Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

I will never write a poem about a real horse.

Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.

Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.

I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.

Memory changes things.

I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.

And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.

We know ourselves, and then we do not know.

And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)
It was shared in response to the Daily Post’s prompts: Elusive and Shared Journeys


Photo Credits:
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Muse In Brief

A Leap Day Altar (and more)

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


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“All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow. Possibility is the secret heart of time.”

― John O’Donohue

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

― Thomas Merton

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There are two paths to transformation: the way out-beyond and the way deep-within.

In the first, you leave your home and its familiarity behind to journey out into the wilderness of the liminal spaces — the desert, the mountain, the jungle, the ocean, the big city, the Otherworld — where you find the gift of your whole self waiting for you like an animal whose shadow you have been chasing all your life. And when you finally return home again you are different, no longer a child, no longer the old self you left behind. The journey home can take a lifetime.

In the second, the way deep-within, you curl up into yourself like a hermit crab or a caterpillar or a seed inside its shell. You burrow down into the sloppy, sucking mud of inner solitude and silence. You speak to no one, and no one speaks to you (except maybe the gods). And there, inside, is where you change — dissolving the old self, stripping it off, making a space into which the new self can grow. Maybe it feels like sickness. Maybe it feels like the growing pains of old ghost limbs thinning into wings. And it might be that the light will sting a little when you finally emerge again, waiting for your wide new eyes to focus.

Either way will work.

But it’s no good to stay here wavering between the two, weighing which one asks the least of you. Don’t tell yourself, “The way out-beyond is a glamorous adventure. I’ll prove myself, I’ll make them proud and come home to a hero’s welcome.” Don’t tell yourself, “The way deep-within is safer. I can keep the structures of my precious life intact while I go about my unobtrusive work.”

More likely you will come home to a place you no longer recognize, full of people who are strangers, wary of your strangeness and the bloodstains on your hands. More likely you will see the scaffolding of your life collapsing like a fire whose kindling has burned down to embers as soft as ash, unable to support anything that does not feed it.

Either way will work. You do not need to know how it will turn out. You only need to be willing to let your whole life change.


Have you been following along with my Altar-a-Day Challenge? Today marks the halfway point in my journey of daily altar crafting and contemplation. Join me on Facebook or Tumblr, and share your magic and meditations as well!

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20160222_honor_gratitude 20160223_give_creativity3 20160224_listen_friendship
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This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Current Events, Holy Wild, Social Justice

What’s Good for the Bird is Good for the Herd: Cooperation at Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


Perhaps one of the most insidious ideas that environmentalists and animists alike continue to struggle against is the misguided belief that to be pro-environment is to be automatically anti-human. Nothing could be further from the truth! Embracing the more-than-human community — whether spiritually or scientifically, or both — invites us into deeper, more meaningful relationship with the world and its many beings. Such relationship only helps to cultivate our sense of connection and enhance our well-being, both as individuals and as a species.

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This is not to say that relationship is always easy. But it is essential. Acknowledging the interdependence of humans and non-humans on this wild holy earth is not just a foundational concept in modern animism, but a basic ecological fact that informs the most effective conservationist and environmentalist efforts. Given even a moment’s thought, the us-vs-them attitude that denies this connection, that emphasizes our separation and pits the human species against the planet we call home, is patently ridiculous. And yet, it continues to be an incredibly pervasive (and sometimes even persuasive) belief nonetheless.

What Do You Mean, ‘You People’?

As we’ve seen over the past month in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, this separatist attitude rests at the heart of many a call to “return the land to its original inhabitants.” The militants who seized control of the wildlife refuge headquarters in early January claimed to be protesting the tyranny of a federal government that they saw as usurping public lands through oppressive regulations and disproportionate punishment. They sought, among other things, to “return the land” to the local ranchers, farmers and hunters that they saw as the rightful and original owners.

But for many of us, the words “original inhabitants” held a very different meaning. For some, it meant the Northern Paiute Nation, the Native American Indian tribes whose territorial rights to this day “remain unextinguished by treaty” with the United States despite federal and state governments generally ignoring this fact. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation in 1908 under the assumption that the area was unclaimed federal land, although the Oregon Territorial Act from sixty years earlier clearly stated otherwise.

As others have pointed out, the “original inhabitants” of this area also include the astounding diversity of wild non-human life, in particular the migratory bird population which came under threat of extirpation in the 1800s — the very inhabitants that the wildlife refuge was established to protect and restore. Over the past century, the refuge has become one of the most important migratory bird sites on the continent, with 320 different species “returning to the land” every year.

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But even when we invoke this desire to “return the land to its original inhabitants” in the name of environmental responsibility, we can quickly run into difficulties. I’ve written before about the problematic metaphors of invasion and warfare in how we speak about ecological restoration and conservation efforts. Environmentalists are not immune to the misplaced belief that pro-earth means anti-human. Like a lot of people, I tend to be more critical of the social groups of which I’m a member, partly because I have more intimate knowledge of what problems need fixing and partly because I feel a greater sense of personal responsibility for fixing them. I’ll admit, sometimes I get very frustrated with my own species, and this frustration translates into language that can sound downright misanthropic. Even as I grumble about the Oregon protesters, I run the risk of making the same mistake they do: seeing the needs of “invasive” humans in opposition to the needs of the “natural” environment, and feeling compelled to pick a side.

Living in relationship is always more complicated than the simplified categories of us-vs-them we try to impose. The fact is — whether we locate our preferred historical period as a time before federal regulations to protect wildlife, or before the encroachment of European ranchers and farmers on Native American territory, or before human settlement disrupted older non-human ecological communities — advocating the return to some idyllic past state is simply not an effective solution to our current challenges. Wherever we try to draw this distinction, we are too often wrong about what the past was actually like. History is just too tempting and convenient a place to project our fantasies of an ideal world, especially in a modern society that rushes towards the future so fast that it outstrips our capacity to imagine a better one. But even aside from our idealization of and ignorance about the past, attempting to recapture a community that no longer exists often entails ignoring the needs of the individuals and communities that exist here and now. This inevitably leads to conflict, and sometimes outright violence against the very people (human and non-human) who share the present with us.

A Story of Conflict and Cooperation

It would serve us well, I think, to remember that “returning the land to its original inhabitants” has just as often been the justification of the invader and the occupier as it has been a cry of the refugee and the exile. Who counts as “original” usually depends on where we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate narratives of history, where our sympathies lie and which groups we identify with, idealize or exoticize. How easy it is to fall back into an us-vs-them attitude when grappling with the complicated issues of social and environmental justice in the face of our country’s undeniably painful legacy of colonization, exploitation, disruption and loss.

The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is, in many ways, a microcosm of these on-going tensions among different environmental interest groups, government agencies, tribal associations and individual residents. Although the recent violent occupation has drawn national attention to the refuge, conflict in the area is nothing new:

Malheur’s marshes, ponds and lakes were a vital water source for the Paiute Indians. The Indians later were pushed out by cattle ranchers who used the water to help build up large ranching empires in the late 19th century. The ranchers, in turn, faced pressure from farmers drawn to the region.

After the wildlife refuge was established in the early twentieth century, park managers took steps to restore damaged landscapes by curtailing ranching and farming on the land. However, even into the 1990s, their approach was often guided by top-down regulatory and enforcement strategies developed by experts unfamiliar with the conditions unique to the local human and ecological communities of the region. As a result, these strategies were bogged down by bureaucracy and litigation, slow to change in response to the dynamic needs of local inhabitants.

But if Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a microcosm of conflict, it is also an inspiring example of success. In recent years, new approaches to cooperative land management and participatory conservation efforts have eased tensions and helped to reframe age-old conflicts in ways that benefit everyone, from bird to herd:

Malheur’s collaborative approach to land-use management began in 2008, when the refuge’s manager, Tim Bodeen, agreed to work with a cooperative group called the High Desert Partnership. It brought together ranchers, the Paiute tribe, conservationists, and federal staff to develop and implement long-term restoration projects on the refuge and across the region. After years of dialogue, a landmark plan was created in 2013 to guide the management of the 187,757-acre refuge for 15 years — sustaining it as a stopover habitat for millions of migratory birds as well as promoting it as a rangeland resource for local ranchers.

The success of the High Desert Partnership lies in its emphasis on cooperative approaches to problem-solving, reframing entrenched conflicts as shared challenges that can provide an opportunity to discover solutions that are mutually beneficial for everyone involved. This is a lesson drawn from the dynamic balance of living ecosystems themselves. As Nancy Langston, a professor of Environmental History and author of a history of the Malheur Refuge, explains:

Western grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, which means they thrive with disturbance from grazing. Cattle differ from native bison and elk in many ways. But with close attention to plant growth and soil moisture, grazing can foster grassland diversity, store carbon in soils, encourage the growth of grasses along creeks, and improve habitat for endangered birds. Doing this well requires specific local knowledge. Ranchers who work and live on the land often know the place and its limits better than people whose knowledge was gained in distant ecosystems. [emphasis added]

“Since ecological conditions change,” she goes on, “the plan treats grazing and all other management on the refuge as a series of experiments, testing to see what strategies work and what strategies don’t.”

By entrusting much of the day-to-day decision-making to local participants, this strategy remains flexible and responsive. But it also helps to rebuild trust and foster a sense of shared commitment that is vital to the long-term success of these relationships. Local ranchers began to adopt the slogan: What’s good for the bird is good for the herd. The sentiment perfectly captures the growing appreciation of interconnection in the community.

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It is a testament to the success of this approach that, when faced with the violent threat of armed militants, both the managers of the wildlife refuge and the larger community of Harney County responded with a renewed commitment to the collaborative process. Not a single local rancher joined the militants in protest. In an open letter posted to their Facebook page, the Malheur Wildlife Refuse staff stated that, when faced with such challenges:

In Harney County, that means we talk. We have cups of coffee. We have arguments. Together we knit our brows, and together we knit scarves. We understand what those currently occupying the Refuge don’t understand—that Harney County isn’t afraid of tough talk.

We can have effective disagreements and either find resolution, find compromise, or simply agree to disagree. But we do it with respect for the rule of law, and know that our areas of agreement and cooperation are infinitely more powerful than the differences we may face. Mostly, we face those differences together with open dialogue and open gates—not intimidation and threats. We have access to each other, because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations or have difficult conversations. [emphasis added]

Let me repeat that: we have access to each other because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations. Relationship is not always easy, but it is essential, and there is no denying it.

An Animist Approach to Justice

This question of how we define and work for justice in an animistic, ecological context has been an obsession of mine for years now. Do we kill an individual so that the group might survive? Do we cull this species to save that one? Do we act on our limited knowledge, aware that our biases might blind us or our ignorance might undermine our best intentions? Or do we do nothing? And if we do nothing, is this “allowing nature to take its course,” or is it silently acquiescing to the ill-informed decisions we’ve made in the past and which have already set certain patterns of cause-and-consequence in motion? I find myself drawn back again and again to the same basic question: how do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community and the planet?

The events in Oregon over the past several weeks — and our varied responses to them — highlight how these are not abstract theological or philosophical exercises, but questions that cut us to the quick and have real implications for how we understand and act in world. Social and environmental justice are not (and never have been) separate issues. The success of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and the resiliency of its community in the face of adversity, can provide us with a real-life example of how principles of cooperation, commitment and trust can help us nurture meaningful, healthy relationships in the more-than-human community.

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And yet, this kind of thinking is contrary to the competitive, us-vs-them attitude more often encouraged in our society — indeed, encouraged sometimes in the name of “natural law.” We tend to think of justice as mercantile: the idea that fair relationships require zero-sum, tit-for-tat exchanges in energy and resources, crime and punishment. We have long known that “separate but equal” is a lie that has been used to obscure real injustice and inequality. But we can be too quick to assume that the problem lies in our differences, and that the solution is to seek a one-sized-fits-all answer to injustice that will do away with difficult conversations for good.

When we reframe justice as right relationship, we see that we can be different without being separate. We realize that sometimes those who seek most fervently to distinguish “us” from “them” do so precisely to hide our shared relationship and common responsibility to one another. We come to understand that the root of injustice is this belief in separation, the belief that we can somehow isolate our communities from one another as if we weren’t all connected. Once we give up this notion of separateness, we are forced to define our individuality in other terms. But this does not mean giving up our individuality entirely in favor of a homogenous “oneness,” for we can also see that such homogeneity is itself unnatural and unsustainable.

Living and working cooperatively means adopting methods that are responsive, flexible, and participatory, guided by a shared vision but open to individual inspiration, experimentation and change. Such approaches do not suppress individual diversity, but absolutely require it. Collaboration means finding ways of fostering relationships that are mutually beneficial; this is not to say that everyone gets the same exact thing from a relationship, but that each individual’s needs are being acknowledged and respected, even when those needs differ. We cannot live in healthy community without some notion of individuality to sustain us and help us grapple with the reality that our needs, desires and perspectives are inherently unique and diverse. But this diversity challenges us to think creatively, to discover ways to cultivate “virtuous cycles” in which each person’s well-being enhances rather than detracts from the well-being of others. This is the dynamic, living balance between individual and community, in which each supports and sustains the other, that is at the heart of the animistic approach to justice.


Photo Credits:
• “Malheur National Wildlife Refuge” (CC) Steven Miller [source]
• “Ross’ Geese” (CC) Dan Dzurisin [source]
• “Mule deer buck group” (CC) Barbara Wheeler [source]
• “American Avocet & chicks” (CC) Barbara Wheeler [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com