Hello, beautiful creatures.
Previously on Outside the Charmed Circle, I introduced the subject of an animistic, relational approach to working with the spirits of the land on which we live, and discussed both the inherent dangers and the absolute necessity of taking such an approach in a Pagan, polytheist, and occult context. It was suggested to me by a dear friend that, while my points may have been perfectly valid, they came across more as “avuncular advice from your wise old Misha” than might’ve been useful, and certainly more so than I’d intended.
This was, we agreed, largely due to a lack of what salespeople call “the personal touch.” I laid out some facts and gave you my opinions, but without the anecdotal evidence behind those opinions. In other words, I told you what I think, but I didn’t tell you why I think it.
That’s a fair critique. I didn’t mention my personal experiences because they’re precisely that: my personal experiences, unique to me. I can no more give you my experiences than I can taste your ice cream for you. However, I can share the stories of those experiences. I can tell you some of what I saw and what it meant to me, and perhaps you’ll find something of use and value in the telling of the tale.
Here’s one to start with, then: an anecdote from my chequered magical past, one of the experiences which have led me to my sense of the land as a living thing indwelt and inhabited by spirits older and larger than any of us. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of this story, though I’ll confess to a little rueful amusement, along with some retrospective relief. After all, any landing you walk away from is a good one, right?
Night on Paris Mountain
Most magical practitioners I’ve known who’ve been around the block a time or two have at least one story of a time when they did something magically which was, in retrospect, really bloody stupid and dangerous. Perhaps it was a circle-casting that set the drapes on fire, or a banishing ritual that turned into a full-on magical battle, or a demon-summoning that went horribly, catastrophically wrong.
For me, it was a field trip to a state park.
I was a baby witchling—sixteen years old, give or take a few months—and part of a social circle made up of friends a few years older than me. We all lived in Greenville, South Carolina, one of the notches in the Bible Belt and home to Bob Jones University. All of us dabbled in one sort or another of magical practice, but none with any real rigor or discipline. This last point is important, because it’s really the only explanation I can offer as to why, on a Friday evening with nothing better to do, anyone thought it would be a good idea to get the youngest member of the party all tranced out of their gourd and head up to the top of Paris Mountain to see if we could “make contact” with the spirits up there.
As the Wikipedia page tells it:
Cherokee Indians once dwelled on Paris Mountain, before European men began to colonize North America. […] A legend surrounding the mountain speaks of the first white men to visit the mountain. The chief of the indwelling Cherokee tribe tried to protect the mountain, and when he grew old, he passed on the responsibility to his daughter and her husband. The husband failed in this task and sold the mountain; in anger, the daughter of the chief killed her husband.
There are other stories told in the area about Richard Pearis, for whom the mountain is now named, befriending the local Cherokee and receiving land from them, only for him to betray them later when his own fortunes turned. The precise details of what this betrayal entailed are rather fuzzier, but none of the stories end well1.
It was in this context that we drove up the mountain and, when we got as close to the summit as we could, my friends worked to induce a trance-state in me so I could “open up” to communicate with whoever—or whatever—was there.
Like I said, I was sixteen, and I clearly had little regard for my personal safety.
Much of what happened next was recounted to me later, as I only have a few fragmentary memories of it. By those accounts, my trance-state went from loopy to spooky to babbling incoherence. I found what I was looking for, and then some. There was old blood on that ground, and angry ghosts tied to it, spirits whose trust had been broken. I don’t claim to know who they were, just that they were there. And, beneath them, there was a spirit so large and so old that it defies any anthropomorphic description, something I can only call a presence with an awareness. And it was aware of us, of me.
I started speaking to the mountain and its spirits, and they started speaking back to me, in images more than words. I can’t tell you what we spoke of; some of it I don’t remember, and some of it is more personal than I care to reveal in a blog post. All I will say is that there was pain, and blood, and death in those images. They were suffused with a bottomless sorrow and a sense of profound betrayal, a wordless cry of why would this happen? Why would anyone do this?
Somewhere along the way, I began to cry.
At this point, even my friends could feel the eyes of the mountain and its spirits on us. They freaked right the hell out, decided that discretion was the better part of me not ending up in a psych ward, and bundled my incoherent self back into the car. Of course, they didn’t realize that while in trance, I’d picked a stone from the ground as a material basis for my contact. I still had this stone in my hand when we started driving down the mountain, and was still speaking with the mountain.
My friends eventually cottoned to what was happening, pulled over, and made me leave the stone on the mountain. As I set it down, I felt the contact start to dissipate, and the images start to fade. There was an almost physical sense of loss, as though a part of me was being pulled away. At that point, I did something purely on impulse. I made a promise to the mountain and the spirits that I would come back someday to visit, to pay my respects and make an offering.
It’s been almost thirty years since then, and whatever dwells on Paris Mountain is still waiting. I haven’t gone back yet, but neither have I forgotten my promise. I remember it with every invocation I make to the powers of the Earth, and with every offering I make to the spirits of the land. I remember it whenever I am confronted the atrocities committed on this land against the indigenous peoples by my ancestors. I remember it whenever I hear people speak of the Earth as a loving mother.
I remember my promise to the mountain, and I am reminded that the spirits of the land—the spirits-of-place—are far greater than we are comfortable with.
They are huge, they are powerful, and they can be terrifying. And, in many of the places we have the foolish hubris to call “ours,” they are deeply unhappy.
Next time, I’ll talk about my diametrically opposite experiences with islands on diametrically opposite sides of the planet and what they’ve taught me about spirits of place, and about belonging.
Until then, dear ones, walk softly. ♥
- Pearis, being kind of a garbage human being, eventually ditched his family and spent the sunset years of his life in the Bahamas, dying at the reasonably ripe old age of 69. Because of course he did.