Long before I encountered Thoreau, Whitman or even Teddy Roosevelt, I discovered America’s nature religion tradition in a children’s book.
I think I was 11 and my family was in a big toy store. My brother was all excited about some video game or action figure and we had been in the store awhile. I was getting bored and irritated. I was not a fan of shopping even then. In the store we came across this long bin of books on sale. It’s was something like 2 for $5. My father told me I could pick out two books.
Now this was serious business. Had we been in a proper bookstore it would have taken me no time to choose two volumes, because I always had a list of books I wanted in the back of my head. This was just a jumble of authors unknown to me, and I set out to make my selection carefully. Solemn as a sermon I sorted through the books, weighing their merits, judging their covers, feeling their heft in my hand. I have no idea how long I stood there sorting the dross from the gold, but I remember my father was patient and possibly amused at how seriously I was taking my task.
In the end I chose Searching for Shona, a great story about two girls who switch identities while evacuating London during the Blitz, and The Borning Room by Paul Fleischman. While Shona stuck with me as a great story, The Borning Room has become what I consider a “Pagan classic”.
Georgina Lott is a young girl growing up in Ohio during the Civil War. While the story has themes with which Pagans will feels very much at home (birth, marriage, death, civil rights, spiritualism) there is one character that stands out and lives in my memory: the Grandfather.
Georgina’s grandfather moved his family to Ohio from New Hampshire back when Ohio was the western wilderness and “commenced cutting trees as if he were the avenging arm of the Lord.” Fleischman writes:
Grandfather was a religious man, even though he spoke of churches with the same dread preachers lavished on Hell. He had his own manner of keeping the Sabbath. Over the years people heard about it. Some of them simply laughed. Some didn’t. I believe you’d have liked him.
Born of New England freethinkers and ever quoting Ben Franklin, Grandfather begins his Sabbath by saluting certain “memory” trees, then spends the morning in solitude, worship and observation by the creek and in the woods. Every Sunday he chooses a different grandchild to worship with him in silence, and after parting ways in the fields and woods, he meets them back home to discuss the things they observed. When Georgina tells him she was too full of springtime joy to feel sad for the soldiers dying in the Civil War, his response reveals his religion plain:
“Hundreds dead at Vicksburg,” he said. “But a thousand births in those woods every minute. They shall all be reborn…”
When Grandfather suffers a stroke and is bedridden ministers come out of the woodwork to convert the repentant old heathen at last. In the guise of Christian charity they harangue the dying man with scriptures and, though he has lost the gift of speech, Grandfather holds out. In the end, though a minister fervently gave him “the grand tour of Hell, then offered him Heaven” Grandfather continues to point at the vase of violets Georgina gathered for him. When he dies, the family plants an apple tree over his grave.
There is something staunchly American in the Paganism practiced by the old man. Something of Jefferson, Franklin, Thoreau and Whitman. A prudent sort of Paganism. An industrious sort of Paganism. Something in my soul approves of this.
If you’re looking for Pagan books for children you will find The Borning Room a joy. It remains one of my favorite books today. Paul Fleischman is a great children’s author and has many Pagan friendly titles, including a book on a New England celebration of Saturnalia and a lovely book of poems about insects for two voices. I do not know if Mr. Fleischman is Pagan, but he is welcome at my table!