Place-Based Practice: or dancing with the one who brung ya

My transition to a localized Place-based practice began when I bumped into someone.

You see, while my childhood relationship with Place had been specific to the farm and its immediate environs, which were geographically contained and local, my adult experience had been shaped like most of us: from books.

When I discovered there was such a thing as “witchcraft” it was a moment of awakening. Learning that others, who practiced the same sorts of charms and healing I had been taught by my grandmother and who shared a world view closely resembling my own, called themselves Witches was a homecoming, and sent me searching for more information.

The problem was that most of that information came from books focused on practices and cosmology originating from a set of islands in the northeast Atlantic!

The places they spoke of had lush green grass in summer, ripening fruits in a season called ‘Autumn‘, and long, dark winters that kept people huddled indoors around a fire. These were foreign concepts to me (though they sounded romantic). Instead, my summers in central Texas were scorched brown, and often stretched from June through October. Gardens ripened in late spring. Winters were mild times that allowed for outdoor fun.

But all the books said Witches honored these new, and strange, seasonal turnings. And wasn’t I a witch?

So, I dutifully learned the language of the Eight-fold year; though it never felt quite right, and I often wondered where the gods and spirits of my own land were.

Barton Creek

Barton Creek : By Vicki Mitchell, via Wikimedia Commons

Fast-forward a few years to my first initiation, which began with a visioning along Barton Creek: the fresh, spring-fed water flowing into Austin, where it merges with the Colorado River.

During that tearful and glorious rite, I met the Quick Silver Girl. She darted into my consciousness, like a flash, as the cold waters of the creek flowed over my naked body.  Barton Creek rushed into my experience, introducing herself to me with laughter and welcoming (even though I had been impolite enough to splash into her sitting-room without so much as a Howdy-Do!).

Here was one of the tutelary spirits of my Place and I had never heard of her! Worse still….for years I had been diligently communicating with, expressing love and gratitude to, a tutelary spirit in….. county Limerick, Ireland!

Talk about not dancing with the one who brung ya!

All those years of living in Austin; eating the produce of her body; drinking her water; walking upon her flesh, and I had never bothered to do more than mention the vague “land spirits” during public ritual! Instead of loving, and being grateful to, the land around me, I had spent all my time trying to build relationship with spirits found on those northeastern islands: the ones I read about in all the books! Oh, how my heart hurt me in that moment.

Thus began my journey: to craft a Place specific practice and mythos; to discover the stories of the Great Powers — Hurricane and Tornado; to learn ‘why’ the Testing of Summer, when all things die; and to sing the songs of the glorious winter, when life rests and is refreshed.

Of course, just when I began to hear their tales… I moved to Ireland.

But that’s another story!

The Science of Subjugation
Pagan is Latin for Redneck
Elemental Ethos: Earth
A fond farewell
About Traci

Traci Laird is an animist living in Ireland and hails from the great state of Texas (a mythic heritage she is quite proud of!).  Her current academic pursuits are in Sociology and Psychology, and she engages a “sensuous scholarship” when seeking to understand Place.  She can also be found at Confessions of a Hedge Witch

  • Yvonne

    Even for those of us who live in the British Isles, sometimes the deities of mythology are overlays on the spirits of place, and not the actual local deities, so it behooves us to listen to the land around us and find the deities who hide there. I have met Old Wood Shadow and the Horse Goddess of the Chalk that way (and the latter is not the same as Epona).

    • Traci

      Hi Yvonne !

      Yes!! What you say is SO true! I plan to write more about this, but when we moved to Cork I had to scrap everything I thought I knew about Irish mythology, and pre-christian theology. Each tuath (kin-group and its Place) seemed to have its own sacred precinct and persons — talk about localised!

  • Sarah

    Yes! My relationship with the places I live in and love is an important part of my practice. Even when I don’t perceive distinct beings in the landscape, I’ve found approaching the land itself and the trees and rocks and other non-human beings who live with it deeply moving and powerful.

    • Traci

      Hey Sarah!
      Yes, indeed! The trees who live in my garden, the standing stone watching over me from the back garden, and all the moving other-than-human persons who live on my lane are my neighbors. Great Powers are they! Each with a mythic story of its own culture, and creation. What unimaginable intelligence, and knowing.

      I find myself sitting for hours…listening – perhaps waiting – for a Shaman or Elder from their various tribes to whisper their stories into my bones.

  • Alverdine

    A very important point, and one that’s easy to forget in today’s book- and internet-centric world.

    There’s another layer of complication here in Australia – and maybe it’s one you’d encounter in the US as well, or any country where one culture displaced another – is that some land spirits are not necessarily welcoming of White presence or attention. Plus there’s the whole cultural appropriation aspect… that’s one of the reasons I work mainly with the Gods (well, Goddesses, really) of ‘my’ people, back on those tiny Atlantic islands. :)

    • Traci

      Hi Alverdine!
      (and pardon the long ramble — I got excited! lol)
      Yes, in this book -and internet- centric world, I still struggle to localize. There is no real source of information, because the truth is that we don’t have an unbroken tradition that has come down to us. We are putting together practices and mythologies piecemeal.

      I am fortunate to be in a position to attend juicy academic seminars at various institutions in Ireland. These conferences range from Old Irish MS to Folklore and Archeology, and I hear no consensus regarding indigenous religious practice–and those few theories I have heard begin to coalescence into something akin to agreement are far from anything I ever read in a popular book.

      Steven Posch is quoted as saying, “What we do needs to naturalize: it needs to put down local roots and take on local coloration.” He lives in the US midwest, and in an interview of his I linked to last week (which is well worth reading), he gives this real world example that touches on the worry over cultural appropriation:

      “One of the great sacred places of this part of the world is the Black Hills, in what’s now South Dakota. Is it cultural appropriation for the Hills to enter our pagan lore? Gods, no; if we’re to become the pagans that we need to be, it’s got to happen. The Black Hills are sacred to all the indigenous local peoples: the Kiowa, Arapaho, Ute, Commanche—there are plenty of others—as well as the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. They all tell different stories about why the Hills are sacred, but they all go there to do their sacred work. Pagans need to step into the circle. But we can’t do so honestly by stealing the Lakota stories, or anyone else’s, although we do need to know them, respect them, and be informed by them. We need to tell our own stories, just like everyone else.”

      What intimidates me the most is not appropriation, but imagination. Often I feel like a lone wolf straining to hear the echoes of a pack long dead…and forgotten. I no longer wish to be a person ‘of the book’–I am no longer satisfied speaking, or thinking, in “a bad translation into Pagan of some variety of Natal Monotheism or, worse, Pop Culture.”

      I want the real deal. One that is alive, not just within my own head and based on a foreign landscape, but alive outside my door; arising from the actual ground beneath my feet. It’s a daunting task. But IF I had received an unbroken Pagan tradition, reaching back into the Mesolithic, it would have already undergone numerous naturalizations. I have a hunch Neo-paganism is ready to examine its world view, and grapple with these hard topics.

      • Sterling

        Last winter, as I sat huddled in front of a fire, house sitting for a friend on the Snohomish river, I spent many nights talking with a Native American medicine man and friend of mine about my personal struggles with knowing how to feel about where my spiritual path was leading and my “white guilt” and worries about cultural appropriation.

        He listened patiently as I rambled on, and then pointed out that I was not appropriating these things but redreaming them. Yes, I was learning a lot from local stories and human teachers who showed me some traditions of the people who were there before (most of) my ancestors arrived on the continent. But I wasn’t just mimicking those traditions. I was integrating those lessons into the context of the spiritual path that I have grown into in a respectful way.

        I believe that it’s this learning and listening and entering into conversation with both the traditions of others and the Spirits that we meet that we grow into our deepest personal Pagan path. Yes, there is a need to be aware of a tendency toward appropriation. That should be part of the listening and the conversation for sure! But the fear of appropriation shouldn’t stop you from learning from the wisdom of anyone you come in contact with.

        Build respect. Listen. Don’t act entitled. I think that these steps will avoid the worst of the pitfalls.

        In the end, all spiritual paths are syncretic. Every religion is built on the religions that came before. All of us, even indigenous peoples, are descended from someone who moved to a place where they encountered other people, cultures and religious ideas that were integrated into the cosmology and practice of later generations. Hopefully, our generation can do so in a respectful manner and in so doing build bridges instead of burning villages.

        • Traci

          Nothing to say here, Sterling, but….YES!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I know of what you speak…I always thought it odd that some people in my native area in western Washington were doing rituals to the Caillech Berri, who is, of course, very specific to SW Cork in Ireland. Luckily, I discovered the main Land Lady here (strangely enough, in absentia when I was living in New York!), and have since nurtured my relationship with her…and then, eventually ended up in Cork as well for five years!

    Whereabouts are you in the Big Bog, like? I shall always consider Cork my second home, as I lived there the longest of any other place I’ve lived except where I grew up (and where I again live now). Drombeg was my solstice marker, the great River Laoi my life’s blood, and though it’s not exactly local, Cashel (being the former provincial capital) was my axis mundi.

    • Traci

      Hi !

      Ah…Drombeg. What a spot! Did you ever visit the Kealkil circle and row?

      I’m in east Cork, between Midleton and Fermoy. Since moving to this spot (we lived in Co Meath for a year), my focus has narrowed to the tuath where my house is. I am fortunate to live within sight of a ring fort, holy well, and several standing stones. They have become my sacred landscape. Living here also shifted me from polytheism to animism. Not that I no longer accept a classification of Being some would call gods; rather, I now concentrate my relationship building with those other-than-human persons I interact with daily — including beauty of Beauties… Mór Muman.

      Were you in Cork City when you lived here?

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Yes, I lived in various places in Cork City when I was a student there in ’00-’05. I haven’t been back since June of ’06, to Cork or anywhere else in Ireland, alas.

        I never got to Kealkil, though I heard of it a number of times. I did, however, take a trip to a variety of “odd” small stone circles in West Cork one time in ’03 with a friend from the U.S. and our “local guide” from Bantry (who had never been to any of the circles, but he had a car and was interested and wanted to go), all of which were aligned to the sunrise on Samain and Imbolc, which was particularly interesting for me in a number of ways. All of them were near creeks, and used hills or mountains on the horizon for their alignments. Fascinating stuff!

        I’d been to a few locations in East Cork on archaeology field trips. But, being you’re near Fermoy, that’s Mog Ruith territory, too! ;)

        • Traci

          Oh, yes! Mog Ruith’s hill dominates all entrances to Fermoy. Always reminds me of a ….sphinx….sort of crouched, watching over its territory–brooding. And the Galtees…and Knockmealdowns. All this reminiscing is making me home-sick. I look forward to seeing them all again next week.

  • Charles MacRurie

    My father grew up in Nova Scotia, and his parents were born Island Scots. But my mother was Canadian Metis – a mix of Scottish, French, Irish, Iroquois, Ojibwa, Cree, and Sioux created by eleven generations of her family working in the fur trade in Canada. So my biological roots (and spiritual ones) were honestly both in Scotland and in America. My life and career led me to a PhD in ethnographic anthropology, and forty years as an educator and researcher.
    A pertinent observation:
    It is proposed by Celtic Reconstructionist scholars the likes of Alexei Kondratiev, that Celtic tribes once formed powerful relationships with the local Goddesses of the places where they lived. Here on Puget Sound, in western Washington State, on the northwestern edge of “The Turtle’s Back,” the local goddess would be Takopid, “She Who Gives Us the Waters,” in the Southern Puget Sound Salish language, or Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier is a fourteen thousand foot tall volcano that towers strikingly solitary over the southern Cascade mountains, and is the source of four major river systems. Many in the local pagan communities here in the region are just starting to look at local Native folklore to inform them about the land they love and hold sacred.

    • Traci

      Charles, thank you for sharing! “She Who Gives Us The Waters”– a beautiful sentiment. An idea intriguing me at the moment, as specifically regards indigenous Irish incorporation of foreign deities, is the view of Lugh and Ogma (two very prominent figures in early Irish MS) as non-native. In the case of the Irish, who were first inhabitants, they brought older deities with them and then selectively incorporated the shiny foreigners.

      Anyway, perhaps that was only relevant in my own mind! I look forward to your comments in future!

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