I don’t love Nature because I’m a Pagan. I’m a Pagan because I love Nature.
I was a very grounded, very rational little kid who struggled with the Christianity I was taught, and sometimes struggled against it. But despite all that, I knew there was something magical in the woods. The woods were my safe space where I could be and say all the things that were too dangerous for me to be and say around other people. When I discovered a religion that taught Nature is good and not “fallen” I knew I was onto something.
All of us who live in cities or suburbs face a challenge as we try to stay connected to Nature. True, Nature is all around us where ever we are, but there’s a difference between the trees and flowers in our back yards and the wildness of the forest.
Last November I got a strong message that I needed to go back to the woods. In December I asked my Facebook friends “where can I go hiking and get lost?” I had no intention of actually getting lost, but I needed some place I could go off the trail, lose sight of the trail, and wander for an hour or so. I got a lot of good responses – the best was Davy Crockett National Forest near Crockett, Texas, about 200 miles south of here. It’s part of the East Texas Piney Woods – not quite what I grew up with in Tennessee, but a lot closer than the flatter and drier Crosstimbers and Blackland Prairie regions of North Texas where I live.
In January, the call got stronger and more urgent. I set a date and hoped the weather would cooperate. Last Saturday I made my pilgrimage into the woods. It was a beautiful day unseasonably warm even for Texas, and it was an amazing experience.
There’s a parking lot and camping area at Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area. From there, there are two short, well-maintained trails around the lake, and a 20-mile one-way trail that leads to a scenic overlook. Just as we pulled up, a group of boy scouts were leaving, carrying enough camping gear for an overnight stay.
Cathy and Cynthia went with me on the drive. I gave them my basic route and my expected time back – we agreed on a time for them to start looking for me if I didn’t make it back. We had a decent cell signal, but that can change quickly in the woods (and it did).
I went to the trail head and poured offerings to the spirits of the place, to Cernunnos, and to the other deities who had a hand in the pilgrimage. And then I started down the trail.
I was no more than a mile into the woods when I caught up with the boy scouts. That amused me to no end – how did the old fat guy outhike a bunch of kids? They weren’t carrying that much camping gear. I took that as a sign that this was the place to leave the trail, and so I did. A few minutes later I crested a hill and realized that while I wasn’t lost, I couldn’t see any recognizable landmarks.
And it began.
In our presentation on Ecstatic Devotion at the ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat, Cynthia and I gave three examples of ecstatic experience that most people will recognize. One is Vodun, where drummers and dancers go all night, a spirit takes over someone and they do wonders. Another is Pentecostal Christianity, where people run through the aisles and “speak in tongues” during a worship service.
But a third is a meeting of Quakers, where some of the most peaceful people you’ll ever meet sit quietly until the Spirit moves someone to speak. This type of direct experience is far less dramatic than other kinds, but it is more common and it is just as valid.
When a God picks you up and throws you across the room it gets your attention. But when you hear a familiar voice speaking softly through the trees, you have to listen. What does that mean? What does He want? What do I need to do with all this?
I’m a Druid who’s connected to the Earth. My devotional polytheism is important, but the woods have always been my refuge. Of course, when you serve a Forest God, there’s no need to separate the two.
Some of my pantheist, monotheist, and even non-theist friends could have had the same experience as I did. They would have interpreted their experiences differently, but they would have walked away with the same core message.
What, you think our Gods aren’t strong enough and wise enough to get Their message across to people who don’t believe all the right things about Them???
I cannot share the specifics of my experience. I can tell you there is much work that needs to be done. My part in this Great Work was made more clear in this pilgrimage.
You must find your own place, but you have a place – if you will claim it. You have a role – if you will accept it. You have a job – if you will do it.
I don’t have to tell you what’s coming. You know what’s coming, because it’s already here. If you don’t know, wake up and pay attention. Pay attention to what’s going on in the natural world. Pay attention to what’s going on in the social, political, and economic worlds. Pay attention to what’s going on in the spiritual world.
We don’t have to save the world – the world doesn’t need saving. Nature will persist. Saving ourselves – our families of blood and our families of choice – that’s another matter altogether. We must also persist.
This work is hard, difficult, and painful. Not because some God wants to make us suffer, but because the work has to be done even though it really is hard, difficult, and painful. Those who can do the work must do the work. This is what I can do, so this is what I must do.
This post is much more vague than I would prefer. There are a few things I cannot tell you because they are too intimate and personal. There are many more things I cannot tell you because I haven’t yet figured out how to translate whispers through the trees into goals, plans, and actions.
I can tell you this: the Forest God called me back to the woods, and it was an amazing experience. But I cannot stay in the woods – there is too much work to be done out here.