When Chris Cornell died earlier this year I had to put this song on repeat as loud as I could stand. The sheer feralness of it, the substrate of wild nature in both the music and the lyrics, that amazing guitar riff…Io.
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?
An interesting and challenging aspect of taking on responsibility for stewardship of land if you’re a nature-worshiping polytheist is the necessity of entering into communication with the entities and spirits in residence in that land. As I embark on such an enterprise, an acquaintance’s observation that as Americans, the land we live on is not necessarily in alliance with us resonates deeply. Not only is the land of which I’m proposing to take stewardship recently clearcut commercial timberland, but it has some earlier prior history of which I am ignorant, because that history has been erased. Did other people whose relationship to the land ran along different lines once live there? Almost certainly.
Wild Gods has a fairly set ritual structure and specific deities with whom we work, inspired by the work of Labrys in Greece and other reconstructions of ancient Greek religious practice. Yet at the same time we are aware that we are engaging in these practices in a time and place outside their origin. There is a wide-ranging and contentious discussion to be had on this subject; right now I’ll say that given how concerned ancient Greek religion was with place, we likewise engage in our practice conscious of the place in which we do it in both specific and general terms: where are we right now, and what entities reside here that might be gratified or offended by what we’re doing–and, more generally, what is the historical, cultural, and spiritual context in which we are operating?
Every full moon I perform a ritual termed the dadiai, based on a historical full-moon offering of cakes to the goddess Artemis. For this full moon, I wanted to open communication with land of which I propose to take stewardship, and of which I have necessarily obtained legal ownership for that purpose. (How the concept of land ownership plays into all of this is yet another large and contentious topic.) How to adapt my practice, the means I possess for attempting this task, to a respectful and meaningful end that will help accomplish its purpose? Especially since I don’t know what the historical and potentially pre-historical inhabitants would have done?
One must start somewhere. For this ritual, I chose to address first the aspects of the deities I work with that I wished to evoke. I wasn’t just calling on Artemis, I was calling specifically on the aspect of Artemis which cares for and stewards wild places. I wasn’t just calling on Pan, I was calling specifically on Pan as the spirit of wilderness that endures against incomprehensible opposition. I wasn’t just calling on Dionysus, I was calling specifically on Dionysus as the spirit of rebirth and renewal. Incorporated into all of this was explicit acknowledgment of the spirits of the place I was in, an element I brought with me from the witchcraft Tradition in which I was trained.
Thus this communication was also an introduction. Hello. I’m new here. I know you have been abused and much has been taken from you. Here is what I’m proposing to do about that, and here are the the names in which I do this work.
There’s something in us that goes for the quick fix, and polytheists and witches are as susceptible to this as anyone. In this work, however, there is no quick fix. You cannot expect the spirits of a damaged land to take your word for anything. The most optimistic interpretation I have of the response I got was: We’ll see.
It’s enough. For now.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.