The Magic of Wild Places

the edge of the woods, circa 1988
the edge of the woods, circa 1988

For all that Paganism is a religion of Nature, most Pagans live in urban and suburban environments. So we’re quick to point out that “we’re part of Nature too” and “Nature is everwhere” – statements that are true both physically and spiritually. Our Pagan practices help insure that our residence in human-built and human-dominated spaces does not disconnect us from Nature.

Nature is everywhere. But there’s still something special about wild places.

I grew up with the woods literally 20 feet outside my back door. When I was very small and before subdivisions started crowding in, the woods seemed boundless. Even though I knew that if I walked far enough eventually I’d run into a well-known road, the woods were deep enough they never became completely familiar. Years later, when I read the Celtic stories of hunters chasing animals into the woods and suddenly finding themselves in Otherworldly territory, I had no trouble relating to them.

I never got lost in the woods, in part because I have a good sense of direction and in part because our woods just weren’t that big. But there were many times when I found an interesting spot and enjoyed a few minutes or even a few hours there, but was unable to find it again when I went back. Did I wander into the Otherworld on some of those expeditions? The thought never occurred to me at the time, but when I look back on my experiences I think it’s likely that happened at least once or twice.

I would not be a Pagan without the woods. Or more precisely, I would not be the kind of Pagan I am without my experiences of the wild, both in the woods where I grew up and in other wild places I’ve visited in the years since I left home.

There is magic in wild places.

Hot Springs 2015 73

The wild is a place of refuge. For most of you, this statement will seem nonsensical. The wild is wild and dangerous – it has plants that will poison you, animals that will eat you, and weather that will drown, freeze, or burn you. But it is in those very dangers that the safety of the wild can be found – they scare people away.

When I needed a quiet place, the woods were there. When I needed to get away from troublesome people, the woods were there. I never felt like I was hiding – I was just disappearing to somewhere else. The frontiersman is part of American lore – the men and women who, when civilization began encroaching on them, picked up and moved farther into the wild. Whether the details of that lore are historical isn’t the point. Humans have been moving into the wild ever since our earliest ancestors left East Africa.

Dropping off the face of the earth is really hard to do in our modern era of electronic tracking, but retreating into the wild to avoid people is still possible. Even for those of us who rather like civilization, few things are as restorative as a trip to a remote place of natural beauty or a weekend camping in the woods.

04 Skagway 33 meltwater falls

The wild is a place of possibility. Food? Not much in the desert, but in other wild places there are roots, berries, nuts, and all kinds of wildlife. Materials to build a shelter? There are rocks, trees, leaves… and caves in some places (but see who might already be living there first). Surviving in the wild isn’t that difficult, if you know how.

Making do in the wild for a few days is one thing. Living in the wild on an on-going basis is much harder. It takes a certain amount of knowledge, skills, and physical strength. It favors the young and the experienced, which is a rare combination. But for most of us, if we had to, we could.

And knowing that we could live in the wild – or just thinking we could even if we really wouldn’t last a week – opens our minds to all kinds of possibilities. All of a sudden we realize we have more options than we think – there are other ways to live than working a meaningless job to make money to buy stuff we don’t need and don’t really want. Like the frontiersman, we know the alternatives to the mainstream culture will be hard and risky, but they do exist.

Realizing there are possibilities is the first step in changing our lives and our world.

Big Bend NP 2010 desert

The wild is full of spirits. The fairy tales I heard as a child were presented as fiction and I assumed that’s all they were. But everyone I knew accepted the possibility of ghosts, even if that didn’t exactly square with the doctrines of their churches. Demons and other spirits were assumed to be real.

Walk through the woods after dark and even someone as spiritually dense as I used to be can feel the presence of spiritual beings. Some of them are Otherworldly. Others are simply the spirits of the trees and rocks and animals who live there. When I think back on some of my experiences, I feel bad that I assumed everything I encountered was a malevolent spirit, but that’s all I had context for. I’m now certain there was at least one nurturing Spirit in those woods. Plus a lot more that didn’t give a damn about me one way or the other.

Go into the wild – even little pieces of the wild like parks and vacant lots, or an overgrown corner of your back yard. Go at night. Go by yourself. Block out the noise. Listen. What do you hear? What do you feel? Don’t assume whatever is there is there for you – almost certainly, it’s not. Just learn to hear and see and feel what else – who else – is out there.

It’s necessary to be aware of your surroundings where ever you are, and malicious humans are far more dangerous than malicious spirits. Don’t put yourself in needless danger. But the wild is full of spirits.

If we stay too long in a wild place, it is our nature to domesticate it and civilize it, and then it is wild no more. My parents sold two thirds of the woods before I left for college – it was turned into a subdivision. My mother sold the rest shortly after my father died. We owe it to future generations – as well as to the physical and spiritual beings who live there now – to preserve at least some wild places in perpetuity. We can also rewild places as we abandon them. Or rather, left alone, Nature will reclaim them.

My Paganism, my Druidry, and even my polytheism have roots in the wild.

Blessed be the wild, for it is full of magic.

Dinosaur Valley 07.13.14 42

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