Paganism and Real Live Nature

Recently Teo Bishop wrote a wonderful post about his experience of doing ritual in nature.  (Sometimes I think I should rename this blog “What I think about awesome things Teo Bishop has said”.)  Anyway, in his post, Teo writes that when he performs a certain ritual indoors in the city, he lifts his hands toward the ceiling and imagines that he is feeling the warmth of the sun.  He imagines that his feet have become roots, extending into the earth, far down into the underground waters.  However, recently, he performed the same ritual outside, standing next to a reservoir under the morning sun.  He writes:

“So I lifted my hands up to the sky, and when I felt the warmth of the sun — the actual warmth, and not the imagined warmth — I was taken aback. I opened my eyes and I saw the water. The actual water. The Two Powers meditation felt a little silly to do at that point, ’cause I was in the sun and I could almost feel the water on my skin. I didn’t need to imagine anything.”

Rather than imagining nature, Teo suggests that his practice should consist of opening his senses to what is actually around him.  He goes on to state that Druid (and I would add “Pagan”) practice must be an experience of the living earth, not simply the metaphoric earth.  By turning natural phenomena into metaphors for human experiences, Teo writes, we can be misled into believing that the “outer” natural world exists only as a reflection of the “inner” human world.  Teo concludes, “The tree doesn’t always need to represent something. It can simply be alive, and beautiful.”

The problem of representing nature is one that has haunted Neopaganism from the start, and I think it highlights a line between what I recognize as Paganism and what I call esotericism.  This is something that Peregrin Wildoak has written about on his blog, Magic of the Ordinary, here and here and here.  I urge you to peruse Peregrin’s blog.  He is an esotericist, but one who engages with nature in a way that puts many Neopagans to shame.

Examples of Neopagan confusion about nature include early Neopagans in the southern hemisphere following a Wheel of the Year that corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere, or Pagans on the West Coast of the United States following a Wheel of the Year that corresponds to the climate of the British Isles. This is what Joanne refers to when she asks: “to what extent does the Wheel turn the seasons instead of the seasons turning the Wheel?”  (“Wicca, Esotericism an Living Nature: Assessing Wicca as a Nature Religion”, The Pomegranate, vol. 14 (2000)).  In other words, do the celebrations of the eight sabbats actually bring Neopagans any closer to nature?

Working out the Wheel of the Year has been a long process for me.  Due to the seasonal lag here in the Midwest, we do not experience really feel the changing of the seasons with the equinoxes and solstices, but rather with the cross-quarter days, which follow about six to seven weeks after the preceding quarter days.  February is not the beginning of spring and May is not the beginning of summer.  Our “mid-Winter” is in February, not December, and our “mid-summer” is in August, not June.  And so on.  Right now, my family and I celebrate the cross-quarters half way between the solstices and equinoxes, but I would like to tie the cross-quarter celebrations to actual seasonal events, like the coldest day (January/February), the first buds on the trees or first bird songs (April/May), the hottest day (July/August), and the first falling leaves or the first migrating geese (October/November).  But due to the difficulty of scheduling family events, I haven’t been able to work this out always.

Another area where Neopagans often idealize nature are the so-called “elements”.  The Neopagan adoption of the Empedoclean/Jungian elements has cut us off from the real elements in some ways.  I remember hearing someone complain about a ritual where Pagans invoked the element of “water” in the west while standing on the western shore of the Mississippi River, ignoring the real water to the east.

I have struggled with this issue myself in various ways.  For example, part of my morning ritual, involves a welcoming of the sun.  But if the sun is obscured by cloud cover in the morning, should I welcome it in the same way I do as when I can actually feel its warmth shining through my eastern-facing bathroom window?  Should a light a candle in effigy of the sun that I do not see?  Or should I wait until I do see the sun, even if it does not appear until the afternoon?  I’ve tentatively concluded that I need to come up with a different invocation for the grey mornings, one that expresses my hope that the sun will appear, but does not imagine an experience that does not exist.  Similarly, I do not invoke the earth until I actually go outside and can touch the dirt on the ground.  Air is not in the east, but all around me.  And water is not in the west, but flowing out of my shower head.

During our family seasonal celebrations, we always do part of the ritual outside in our backyard.  And I try to incorporate some physical piece of our immediate natural world in the ritual.  We do part of our winter solstice celebration outside in the dead of night.  For our mid-winter celebration, we gather snow from the ground and bring it inside so it can melt into water which we then use in a purifying ritual.  For the spring equinox, we have planted seed pots for later planting in our garden.  For our mid-spring ritual, I cut a green branch from a tree for use in our drama.  For the summer solstice this year, we tried to wait until the sun was actually out and then use the shadows cast by the sun to experience the contrast between light and dark.  For the mid-summer ritual, we burn flowers, at least some of which come from our own garden.  The fall equinox ritual uses a corn stalk from one of the corn fields that are ubiquitous here in Indiana.  Some of these things are small, but I think they help connect us to the world of nature that is right outside our door.

It is interesting how comparatively little is written by Neopagans about real live nature and how much is about an imagined (and often romanticized) nature.  It is for this reason that Glen Gordon (of Postpaganry) rejects Neopaganism in favor of what he calls Eco-Paganism, and I think with good cause.  Gordon’s advocacy of what I call “Backyard Paganism” has been an inspiration to me.  I have a long way to reach that ideal, but I’m working on it.  A couple of essays that have really helped me along this way are Chas Clifton’s essay “Nature Religion for Real” and Barry Patterson’s essay “Finding your way in the woods”, which is part of his book, The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci, both of which can also be found in The Paganism Reader.

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  • Interesting. I’ll be keeping an eye on this blog now that I’ve found it. For me, if the sun is not visible in the morning (or whenever I get up because shiftwork is rough like that) then I welcome the rain because rain *and* sun are needed to make the crops grow. My paganism is a “what’s in front of me” kind of path, so that seems to work for me.

    • Geez, why didn’t I think of that?! Apparently, seeing what is in front of me does not come naturally to me. That’s why I need Paganism. Thanks for you comment.

  • Bloody brilliant post! Thanks heaps. We need more of these discussions. Wonderful work, thanks John 🙂

  • Kelley Shelton

    John, a great post. I myself am a Pagan of a different feather… I was raised in a family where my dad and my younger brother and about 99% of my family were outdoorsy hunters and I was in the indoor hermit! Later on in my life around 18 or so, I changed and embraced the outdoors. I now consider myself a person who practices Naturalistic or Humanistic Witchcraft… I find Gard Wicca and Alex Wicca not to my liking and most so called Trad Witchcraft tends to be Roy Bowers or Robert Cochrane inspired beliefs. I strip away the God / Goddess stuff and replace it with Naturalistic / Pantheistic / Humanistic view of the Universe or the All as some call it. I figure since Gardner could adapt various esoteric systems and combine to create modern Wicca, why can’t I adapt my views… He and the other modern Pagans who put Paganism out there and started the revival are no like biblical prophets or untouchable people… So I take their framework and what speaks to me and roll with it… I think as you have said John, many have stripped away any sort of real sense of nature and replaced it with romanticized visualizations. I am not totally againist that cause we all do it… But when we can go to a park or a wooded area… Even one of many places in are more urban areas, we can use the 5 senses and touch the 5 elements or at least make contact in a more naturalistic way. Great post, just down right great! I think too many of us spend time fighting with the others to prove who is right or wrong or more authentic… makes us no better than other religious groups that most of us come out of…. Its not about being exclusive, its about making contact and connection to the world around us and feeling a connection to what I call the sacred! Blessings, Kelley.

    • Thanks Kelley! It is very interesting to hearing about a witchcraft tradition that is naturalistic/humanistic. I suspect that a lot of what is called hedge witchery or kitchen witchery may fall into this category. It’s something I don’t know much about and would like to learn more

      It is interesting you brought up Gardner and Bowers. I think they should be credited for at least taking religion outside. Gardner was a naturist (not a “naturalist”, but being a nudist does mean being outside), and Bowers did try to make Garnderian witchcraft more nature-oriented. They were small steps in the right direction. Bowers, in turn, influenced Joe Wilson, who founded Toteg Tribe, and who inspired me to start this blog. Wilson’s Paganism evolved over decades, starting with a Gardnerian orientation, by he gradually came to believe an essential component of Paganism is a direct connection with the land where we actually live.

      • Kelley Shelton

        Thanks again John. I agree that Gardner and Bowers deserve credit for bringing things out into the open. I would like to think that what they taught, though similar and different (all at the same time) is not set in stone and should be a growing/living traditions. Unfortunately, this is not the case with many of those who are our elders out there. I also don’t think that the Craft is one size fits all. There is much room to explore and learn. I myself have a very simple practice which involves Tarot Card readings for myself as a divinatory way of coming to answers to the hard questions in my life, when I feel like I have no clue what to do. As far as spells with herbs and potions, that is something that never interested me, so the Kitchen Witchery that is out there is very awesome and they have my admiration, but it’s a little bit beyond what I do. I celebrate the moons and the occasional day here and there… A lot of meditation, thought, and rhythmical chanting is something that fills my practice. It is pretty much Craft on a minimalist budget. After having a time of soul searching and really getting down to brass tacks, I decided for myself that if I was going to practice the Craft and I saw in the books I had, both Modern stuff and Classical stuff from European folk magic without going all new agey with it, I would have a task on my hand. So I used the foundation I had (Christian) and took prayer and it was structured and reworked it into a magical incantation sort of way… Symbols and Chant can do a lot, and from that base I developed my practice. I don’t have a set base of tools or ritual items I use. I dress in plain dress (jeans and a printed T-shirt) and find a quite place in nature. I think connecting to nature is a very powerful experience. I usually wear two pendants, an outer one which is usually Celtic themed and an inner pentacle which I only wear on the outside for ritual prayer / magic purposes. I think little things like this help me connect with nature. I know you might think I am crazy because I have a Naturalistic / Humanistic bent, but I think every place invokes an emotional response to us. That feeling / emotion is what I try and work with. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it not. But when its there, I roll with it. My view of the afterlife is naturalistic with a pagany feel. When we die our energy and atoms go back to the earth so in my mind we all become a part of the planet when we die. That energy becomes a part of everything around us, so in a way we never die… Which a friend of mine says is Pantheist light, what ever that means… But I think when it comes to practice, which I think is very important for all of us pagan or not. Getting out there and making connects is very powerful and moving experience. Whether we are interacting with one another or with nature. Sometimes I think we need to use what space we are given, even if that is a small park or back yard with a small patch of green. Its not about the tools or the regalia, a lot of people think this is so, but my logic tells me that our ancestors did not have cool pentacles, chalices, or stuff that many claim is essential in the Craft. But these above things are just my opinions and mine alone… I hope not to offend anyone, just want to stir peoples inner core to get out there and practice and make connection which they feel are sacred! Thanks for responding. Blessings, Kelley.

  • Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  • “The Neopagan adoption of the Empedoclean/Jungian elements has cut us off from the real elements in some ways.” It is a mistake to confuse the philosophical elements with physical things that embody them (and even more so to think that the “four elements” were an early attempt at the periodic table, as some apparently still do).. The elemental correspondences on which those rituals are based are astrological as much as anything else. So it makes sense to flip everything if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, but not so much to worry about your local topography.

    I can say this to you, because you know who Empedocles was 🙂

    • True. I do think there is something primal about breath/wind, sun, water, and dirt.