Last week, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. This poem is not about that.
One of the most insidious ideas that environmentalists and animists alike continue to struggle against is the belief that to be pro-environment is to be automatically anti-human. But 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.
We Pagans have a love affair with the past that leads us to try to model the rituals and practices of ancient times as closely as possible. But we live in a different world today. Despite the ornate beauty of certain approaches to ritual, I wince at the wastefulness I see sometimes. Can this really be what the gods want from us? Are we so busy trying to do ritual “correctly” that we fail to do it well?
The Pagan gods are not exactly known for their forgiving natures. Yet as divine powers of regeneration and return, they offer a forgiveness all their own. Not the forgiveness of escape and abdication, nor the forgiveness of a benevolent Almighty on whose behalf we can act with unchallenged dominion. Rather, theirs is the forgiveness of restored responsibility, the response-ability that we possess as natural beings and citizens of the earth. After all, what do we seek when we seek forgiveness, but the chance to start again?
We hear the song long before we reach the pond itself ― the rolling, rhythmic voices rising up from among the grasses all around us as if we have entered the halls of some vast monastery during evening prayer. The thrum washes over us in the darkness. We step carefully, sweeping our flashlights back and forth across the path. The kids are tense with eager excitement for the hunt, whispering questions at each unfamiliar noise, flicking their flashlights over every stray stone or lump in the grass hoping to catch a glimpse of movement ― the flexing muscular limbs or the bulging throat of a frog. But there are too many of us. By the time we've reached the water's edge, the low chanting voices have dropped away and the whole place has fallen into silence.
In the Pacific Northwest, Blodeuwedd's darker aspect manifests as innocent victim as well as hapless intruder. Not one or the other, but both. As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag who demands a kiss as the price of sovereignty. As the Barred owl, she is the adaptable trickster again, the wanderer driven by hunger into new lands, whose appetite and determination threaten to overturn the current order. Seeing the owl in the goddess, we also see the goddess in the owl. Do we sacrifice the one in service to the many, without that one's consent? Do we kill this one owl, or eradicate this one species, for the sake of the balance and prosperity of the whole?
I glance out the window at a foggy world that seems still and quiet... a little too quiet. The salmon that should by now be making their way upstream to spawn are missing. Without the necessary steady rains to wash the familiar scent of freshwater streams out into the sound, the fish languish just offshore — uncertain which way to go, unsure which creek is calling them home. It's as if they, too, are lost in the fog. In such weather, my thoughts dwell on memories of the past — what we have lost, what we have forgotten, and what we might still regain. It is so easy to think we have always lived this way, struggling with scarcity, alienated from the living earth, uncertain and alone. Without the rain-washed scent of hope, what will guide us home?
Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species, by Freeman House, is a meandering journey through the natural history of the Mattole River watershed in northern California, with particular focus on humanity's changing relationship with one of its keystone inhabitants, the Pacific salmon. The structure of the book in many ways mirrors the homeward journey of the salmon itself, from the depths of a shared ocean of experience back towards the headwaters rising from the heart of a unique landscape. I picked up this book hoping to brush up on some of my fishy facts and local history, but what I discovered was a story with a great deal more to give. House is a beautiful storyteller as well as an experienced conservationist, and his work reflects not only the careful eye and practical mind of a hands-on community activist, but also the raw heart and brutal honesty of someone madly in love with the natural world.
Different stories will inspire different people. For some, cooking and crafting is their way of fostering a relationship with the natural world, while others might be inspired by the greater call to serve the community on a global scale through conservation. If our efforts are effective and the stories we tell are inspiring, does it really matter whether we approach the work with the courageous heart of a fighter, or the gentle heart of a farmer? My post on invasive species provoked some really wonderful discussion from readers last week, reminding me once again just how diverse our attitudes towards the natural world can be. Even when we all agree on what practical actions we need to take, our motivations and reasons can be very different!
Given how harmful an invasive species can be, it's tempting to see them as wholly bad, the "enemy" of a healthy ecosystem that needs to be eradicated. For modern Pagans seeking to live an embodied spirituality grounded in the sacred land, invasives are powerful allies in coming to terms with our own ambivalent role in the ecosystems we inhabit, and the possibilities and choices that lie before us. Too often our modern society encourages us to see nature as fragile and untouchable, and humans as the worst intruders of all. Befriending invasives can teach us valuable lessons about how to be respectful, loving citizens of the planet that we call home.