You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Last weekend, a group of us went into the woods by a river to be together, share friendship and camaraderie, and do ritual: in honor of Asteria/Brizo, who has made herself known to me recently, and of Dionysus, one of the gods of our cultus.
We danced, drank, played music, swam in the river, sat beneath the trees, cooked breakfast in the rain, and traded quizzical looks with scrub jays, chipmunks, and deer.
And then we came home to the news out of Charlottesville.
Retreats refresh the soul and provide the opportunity for the kind of private ritual that, as polytheists, we sometimes have trouble finding time and space for in our daily lives. But we do not believe that our gods are only to be found there; nor is that the only place for our work. Dionysus is a god of liberation, and that does not mean solely in the woods, or in the circle, or in the wine-soaked temple. It also means in the streets, and in our own hearts. America has a lot of work to do, not least in recognizing that our past isn’t really past, and that we have never come to terms with our history.
We have work to do.
Hear me, O queen,
Zeus’ daughter of many names
Titanic and Bacchic,
revered, renowned archer,
torch-bearing goddess bringing light to all,
Diktynna, helper at childbirth,
you help women in labor,
though you know not what labor is.
O frenzy-loving huntress,
you loosen girdles and drive distress away
swift arrow-pouring goddess of the outdoors,
you roam in the night.
Fame-bringing and affable,
redeeming and masculine in appearance,
Orthia, goddess of swift birth,
you are a nurturer of mortal youths,
immortal and yet of this earth,
you slay wild beasts, O blessed one,
your realm is in the mountain forest,
you hunt deer.
O revered and mighty queen of all
many-shaped lady of Kydonia,
come, dear goddess,
as savior to all the initiates,
accessible to all, bringing forth
the beautiful fruit of the earth,
and fair-tressed health.
May you dispatch diseases and pain
to the peaks of the mountains.
— translated by Ben Wolkow and Apostolos N. Athanassakis, in The Orphic Hymns
I tied together
a few slender reeds, cut
notches to breathe across and made
such music you stood
shock still and then
followed as I wandered growing
moment by moment
slant-eyes and shaggy, my feet
slamming over the rocks, growing
hard as horn, and there
you were behind me, drowning
in the music, letting
the silver clasps out of your hair,
hurrying, taking off
I can’t remember
where this happened but I think
it was late summer when everything
is full of fire and rounding to fruition
and whatever doesn’t,
must lie like a field of dark water under
the pulling moon,
tossing and tossing.
In the brutal elegance of cities
I have walked down
the halls of hotels
and heard this music behind
Do you think the heart
is accountable? Do you think the body
any more than a branch
of the honey locust tree,
hunching toward the sun,
shivering, when it feels
that good, into
Or do you think there is a kind
of music, a certain strand
that lights up the otherwise
blunt wilderness of the body –
and unaccountable selectivity?
Ah well, anyway, whether or not
it was late summer, or even
in our part of the world, it is all
only a dream, I did not
turn into the lithe goat god. Nor did you come running
Recently I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It was recommended by a teacher in ethnobotany and edible and medicinal plants who I’ve taken a few classes from. Within a few chapters I understood why she praised the book so highly.
On some level many of us know that something is wrong. We know that the way we live isn’t sustainable–unfortunately “sustainable” has become a buzzword, ironically robbing it of meaning–and that we damage the Earth in ways that will take a long, long time to recover from…while meanwhile, the damage continues.
This is something that either bothers you or it doesn’t. If it does, Braiding Sweetgrass comes as close as anything I’ve read to laying out another path. Because everyone who agrees that there’s a problem is largely in agreement about what the problem is. It’s solving it that’s challenging: because, first, finding and articulating a vision of what that solution is, of what that other way looks like, is hard.
In general we have some notions about getting back to the land, about eating local and consuming less. These are generally good things to do because they help develop awareness of the bigger problem, the one that individual choices cannot solve because it is systemic.
Braiding Sweetgrass makes its case via the sciences of botany and ecology, the interdependencies of spirituality and religion, and the grief and passion of people who have seen their land ravaged and their way of life all but destroyed. It’s facile to observe that much of the argument for saving the planet is really about saving ourselves: the planet will continue to exist, probably even with life on it, long after our species has worn itself out.
Kimmerer, though, points out that in devouring our world, we are also devouring ourselves. I see it not only in industrial agriculture that produces more than we could ever use, then wastes it due to market forces; the determined glutting of markets for everything from oil to timber in pursuit of profit; but also in the grinding poverty from which people living in the richest country in the world cannot escape; the stress, anxiety, and rage within even those who by any standard are doing well; the rampant paranoia of a nation as unable to come to terms with its past as with its future.
Wild Gods is dedicated to living in partnership with the world that birthed us. This isn’t just a nice idea, but essential. Kimmerer herself asks the question: who will arrive at Hekate’s Crossroads first? Those who will save the world? Or those who will destroy it?
Artemis, Great Lady, steward of the wild, protector of the young, hunter, mountain dancer, torch-bearer, guide.
We ask your protection this month and every month: guide our hands in the work we have dedicated to your service, watch over our families’ children, our friends’ children, all children in danger of hunger or harm. To you we offer evergreen cedar of the land we care for in dedication to you and to the earth. We ask that you accept these offerings and grant us your blessings.
So mote it be.