crossposted with No Unsacred Place
If you grew up watching Looney Toons (and if you didn’t you had a very deprived childhood!) you saw many stories about the collision of Nature and the modern world. Water abruptly stops flowing when a huge dam is constructed overnight. Chipmunks (or was it gophers?) get scooped up by a harvesting machine and have to escape from an automated cannery. And in 1954’s “No Parking Hare” a construction worker tries to evict a certain wabbit so a superhighway can be built on top of his home.
The formula is simple: peaceful forest creatures are assaulted by “progress,” the creatures fight back and outsmart the humans, we laugh at the cartoon violence, and in the end some kind of accommodation is reached. The superhighway is built, but it goes around the rabbit hole. Whether that arrangement was sustainable for the rabbit wasn’t discussed… like a lot of assumptions, both then and now.
Many of us like to speak of the “spirits of Nature.” Sometimes that’s an expression of animism, the belief that all things have a spirit similar to our own spirits. Other times it’s a reference to creatures who are closer to the land than us but who are still individual beings. Some of us have had experiences with these creatures that give credence to our beliefs – at least for ourselves.
What happened to those creatures, those spirits of Nature, when we built our cities and suburbs on top of their homes?
I don’t know. It’s reasonable to assume that some couldn’t deal with the loss of their homes and died. Some moved – either to more remote regions or back to the Otherworld. But as anyone who has seen a tree growing through a sidewalk can tell you, some are still here.
Who’s still living in your back yard? Who’s living in the park down the street? Who’s living in the tree in your office parking lot?
For a long time I avoided approaching the Nature spirits who live near me. Aside from general skepticism (I am an engineer, after all) I was concerned about how I’d be received. Just because you’re a Nature-loving, tree-hugging, Goddess-worshipping Pagan doesn’t mean Nature spirits are going to see you as anything other than another greedy land-despoiling human. Stereotyping sucks, especially when you’re on the receiving end.
But when you’re around someone for a long time, you get to know them. And when you live in one place for a while, the Nature spirits get to know you. Over time, either your actions line up with your words or they don’t.
When my daily prayers began to include acknowledgement of the Nature spirits, something changed. I went from feeling like I was being watched with suspicion to feeling like I was being watched with curiosity. I wasn’t just addressing “Nature” any more – I was speaking directly to the spirits who live near me. Eventually, they spoke back.
They’ve been here a long time and they don’t want to leave. Right now their biggest concern isn’t people, it’s the drought – all living creatures need water. Mainly they wanted to be left alone.
It was a short, polite conversation. No pronouncements of wisdom, no offers of treasure or teaching, no dire warnings or threats. Just neighbors, thrown together by the winds of life and change, being neighborly.
If you’re thinking this was all in my head, well, maybe you’re right. I like what J.K. Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the chapter “King’s Cross”:
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
There is value in honoring the spirits of the land, no matter who they are or how you see them.