Urban Witchcraft: The Power of Place in the City

This article is a reprisal of one of my first on Patheos.  It’s my “Top 10 Tips” for cultivating a sense of Place in an urban environment; a feat that did not come easy for me.  I was reared on a family farm with hundreds of acres as my garden.  I roamed barefoot from sun-up till sun-down, engaging in more risk-taking behavior than my parents would ever want to know about!  Snake spoke to me, coyote sang his eerie song, and bobcat warned me about what happens when you meet Other, out past your bedtime.

I am a country girl, and my spiritual awakening happened in a rural environment.  My journey toward an animistic world view began as a child; a child in nature doesn’t need to be told the world is alive, she hears that living world all around her.  I also discovered witchcraft (I define this term for myself here), and reclaimed the line of my ancient Mothers, while still living in the countryside.  My interaction with the living world nourished me, and when that landscape changed (with my move to the city as an adult), it was a jolt to my system.  It took me years to adjust!  Thankfully, witch-craft taught me the tools of Connection and Presence–but you don’t have to be a witch to use them!

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The ability to connect and be present in the midst of chaos is important.  I first cultivated this skill while living in my cup-runneth-over-house with four Little Bigs.  I sharpened and honed this tool living within the constant pulse of the city.  Connecting with Place–the ground beneath my feet–in the city required more than foundational grounding and centering. It required research, digging, and the courage to change my thinking and my lifestyle.

All those years ago, when I struggled to hear this land’s voice — this bit of earth under the layers of asphalt and concrete; the cacophony of road noise woven with live music; the fabric of cowboy boots and hipster plaid — I longed to feel the heart connection I’d felt in the countryside. After engaging in the following practices, I found the love and appreciation I sought: a connection with this sauntering, swaggering city called Austin.

Myth
Discover the pre-history of your Place.   Which other-than-human persons once lived on the ground beneath your feet, and now rest within its substrata?  Many of us learned this information in school, but for those who have migrated it’s important to acquaint yourself with the beginnings of the land you now call home.  Visualize those waves of ancient migration, the shift of flora and fauna, and expand your awareness out a few paces to notice the patterns and story that emerge from that knowing.  Let the land tell you its stories: Listen.

Geology
You don’t need to be an expert, but learn a thing or two about the primordial shaping of your Place.   What forces created the significant landmasses? What type of rocks lie under or within your topsoil (do you have topsoil)? Often it’s difficult to imagine soil under the asphalt and concrete, but it’s there.  Heck, even the asphalt and concrete are organic material (as in, organic chemicals).  I like to imagine the roads and sidewalks as band-aids (plasters) covering the skin of the Earth.  I then stand on sidewalk and grass, in turns, while holding this image.  Try it!

Weather
Many pagans base their ritual year around a seasonal procession not in sync with their local weather patterns or agricultural year.  Do you utilize seasonal change within your system of praxis?  Why not craft a localized ritual year?

Central Texas does not follow an 8-fold wheel of the year.  The first time I broke with the revered British tradition was nerve-wracking.  ’Everyone else’ was doing it the ‘traditional’ way.  I was afraid that being an outlier within such a fringe subgroup as ‘paganism’ would push me into Lonely Land.  It didn’t, though my personal practice no longer matches that of the wider community.   But hey, I’m a witch and well used to being different!

History
Do some research on the human history of your city.  When did the indigenous population arrive, and who were the immigrants (or colonizers)? There are often amazing, heroic, tragic, and humorous stories associated with the settlement of our cities.  Dig them up!  Your local University is a great resource.  Check-out their history department, and ask whether they hold public lectures or symposiums.  Also, visit your local library.  I bet they can direct you to a local historian more than happy to share their knowledge!

This is a fun step, and another realm of myth-making.  Who were the archetypal Mothers, Warriors, Wise Women & Men, or Tricksters?   I  loved discovering the stories of Austin.  Texas was already rich in mythic imagery, so I was delighted to learn of the Austin buffalo hunt, Mrs. Eberly and her cannon (pictured above), and the house of ‘ill repute’  in my neighborhood.

Don’t shy away from People
Cities are the anthills of humanity, areas of  condensed human creativity and enterprise.  Some of us are introverts and need to carefully craft our excursions, but don’t let that deter you from connecting with other humans.  Get out and meet your fellow ‘ants’! This makes us feel grounded in our physical place, as opposed to a fantasy land of our imagining.  It’s tempting to be an internet pagan, or witch, but don’t stop there!  There is so much more out there.  Don’t read – DO!

Get out of the box
Get out of your house, your car, your office, your coffee shop.  Get your body out of the center of the anthill and up on the surface where the sun shines and the wind tousles your hair. This is vital for a Witch.

The most important step for me in building a sense of Place within an urban environment, and a major turning point in my relationship with the city, was selling my car and buying a commuter bicycle.  My first commute to work was an epiphany!  Each garden I passed was a unique scent experience.  I became intimately acquainted with the environment by stepping outside my box, and removing the barrier.

Visit Landmarks
While you are out experiencing the plants, weather, and other-than-human-person creations in the city, visit the sites that commemorate the history and myth of the area.  These stand as temples and altars of our urban landscapes.  You might be surprised what shrines speak to you, and what places whisper your name.

Eat Local
Put into your body the produce of your bioregion.  We are what we eat– literally.

Contribute
You are part of the anthill that is your city.  Find your work; your part to play; your art; your unique offering, and Do It!  Contribute your time and energy to the activity and organization of the human city.  By getting involved, you become invested: you feel connected to others who are part of Place.

Embrace Your Humanness
Finally, relish in your humanness.  We can be pretty amazing animals.  While the countryside is the anthill  of…well, ants, the cities are our places. These wondrous works deserve our active participation.  We can make them better than we ever dreamed, but only if we engage and connect: with ourselves, the humans around us, and our other-than-human neighbors.  It’s about relationship, being present, and building sacred connection.

Go forth–be fully present in your location, and Cultivate Place!

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

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

    Love this, thanks!

    • Traci

      Thank you, John!

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    > Cities are the anthills of humanity, areas of condensed human creativity and enterprise.

    True. I like visiting, briefly, the Toledo Museum of Art, The Planetarium at Lourde’s College and the Observatory at University of Toledo, yet I still have to agree with Jefferson:

    I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue and freedom, would be my choice. ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 23 September 1800

    > selling my car and buying a commuter bicycle.

    I’m ready to do that, even now, living miles from town. I used to ride bicycle 12 miles to an airport where I worked, even in sub-zero temperatures (I used a scuba gear tube wrapped around my body to warm air going into my lungs;) however, these days, I feel so unsafe, as bicycles are perceived by cell-phone distracted as road kill. ;)

    • Traci

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for reading, and commenting! There is certainly a part of me that shares your view. I prefer the countryside, and smaller human populations–not just for my own benefit, but for that of our planet–yet, I believe cities are here to stay. There is a certain level of social and psychological dis-ease that can develop for human-persons, and other-than-human persons, within urban environments: chronic stress, anxiety, environmental toxins, etc. Because I view fighting against cities as a futile exercise–not everyone is privileged, i.e., many lack the resources to move OUT of cities–I see our best recourse as working WITHIN the city, to make it healthier, more sustainable, and reflective of the best of who we are. The first step in that path is to change our perception.

      Perception, and its influence on behavior, is foundational to any form of social change. The perception of our environment as ‘object’ to be “improved” upon, has not only ripped us from a sense of connection, it has degraded our environment. Until we shift our thinking about the ‘worth’ of Place, be it urban or rural, and alter our world-views, from western centric to more holistic, we can’t begin to approach the issues that make our cities dis-eased.

      That’s what I try to do in my writing: not write another intellectualizing essay, but to contribute something that might stimulate an embodied connection to where we are now–not where we wish/dream/fantasize we ‘want’ to be. I don’t want to escape. I think our species has done too much of that in the modern era. I want to engage, with my Whole Self, right where I am now.

      Oh – and stay safe out there! Keep away from those cell-phone distracted drivers! I try my best to! :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/ThePaganNaturalist Nicole Youngman

    This is wonderful. I live in uptown New Orleans and can relate very much. Have you seen this “Bioregional Quiz”? http://www.dces.wisc.edu/documents/ies112/Where%20You%20At%20Quiz.pdf

    • Traci

      Hi Nicole. Thank you for reading, and commenting! Yes, I have seen that quiz. Thank you for posting it here! It’s a wonderful list of questions to seek answers to.


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