A Libation for the Mother River

Across the wide Missouri — and she is extra-wide here, backed up by the Big Bend Dam (completed 1963) downstream into a winding reservoir called Lake Sharpe.

I wrote earlier about the hitchhiker whom I called Travis, a post writen on the 19th of October, mostly at the Twenty Below coffeehouse in Fargo, North Dakota, waiting to drive an old friend home to his tiny prairie town after he had been poked and prodded and MRI’d all day at the Sanford Medical Center.[1]All to be told, “No change. The tumor is inoperable.”

We still had some good time outdoors, working the new dog [2]The latest of his German wirehaired pointers under the big skies, driving  the long straight roads, and eating lunch at quirky small-town cafes. In one, I ordered a Reuben sandwich for a change, bit into it, and realize that something was different. Rather than the usual corned beef, it was made with roast beef. But the menu had promised local beef—and that probably was the case, whereas corned beef would have come off the Sysco truck or something like it. And it tasted good, so who cares?

Then on the 22nd  it was time to turn southwest again. When I cross the Missouri River on US 83 — the longest river in North America, actually — it’s always a homecoming, leaving the intensely farmed Midwest for the tan rolling hills of western South Dakota, a change of ecosystems and time zones all at once.

Once in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, I wheeled into a riverside parking lot. I had meant to stop at a municipal park in Pierre, on the east bank (Central Time), but it was full of construction materials and blocked to visitors — a new highway bridge is being built.

In thanksgiving for having returned to the West, I clambered down the rocky riprap with a plastic mug of Jim Bean whiskey and poured it (generously!) to Mother Missouri with a prayer of thanks.

And then on south to Valentine, Nebraska, which has its own poetic bridges across Minnechaduza Creek and the Niobrara River, if you know to take the old highway over the “most beautiful” Bryan Bridge.

Notes

Notes
1 All to be told, “No change. The tumor is inoperable.”
2 The latest of his German wirehaired pointers

Pop Vikings, Modern Animism, and the Raven Flag

From Danish writer and animist Rune Engelbreth Larsen

The Viking Age seems to be undergoing a kind of global renaissance in various fields, spanning from popular culture to spirituality and even some misguided political trends. Often this “viking revival” manifests itself in ahistorical and superficial ways, but not always. Here I share a few thoughts on how some lesser known aspects are also slowly gaining ground and understanding: the animist perspective.

Vikings armed with “myth, music, and merchandise”!

Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

Lammas season[1]Northern Hemisphere has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?

Located in what is now Syria, Ebla was an important city-state of the Bronze Age Middle East. [2]Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.

The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.

Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.

Archaeologists today can look at her toe bones, how they were shaped by kneeling for long hours at the grindstone.

Woman at a quern, drawing by J. Sylvia. [3]Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.

There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”

Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.

In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily.  Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.

The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”

Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.

Notes

Notes
1 Northern Hemisphere
2 Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.
3 Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

Animism in the Kitchen

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

I was watching the cooking show Simply Ming on Friday, which is hosted by Boston chef Ming Tsai. He always has a guest chef — or occasionally his parents, who started him on his career — and in this episode, his guest was a Chicagoan (via Texas), Sarah Grueneberg.

She is showing him how to make the pasta dough for Tortilli Verdi, “her restaurant Monteverde’s signature dish,” and at one point she says something like, “The pasta knows when you’re afraid.”

Oh no, I thought, not dough too! It’s alive in a yeasty sense, of course but it can sense your fear? Ah, the animist world —so complicated! I reckon that is why we like it.

Aidan Wachter’s “Six Ways” Shakes Up Occult Publishing

Near Llewellyn Worldwide’s corporate HQ (Google Maps).

At an office park in Woodbury, Minnesota, some publishing employees must be feeling a certain degree of nervousness.

Today I heard a podcast host say what I have been thinking from when I bought the book last year: Aidan Wachter’s Six Ways: Approaches & Entries for Practical Magic has more content in 155 or so pages[1]And an index! than a shelf-full of Llewellyn books.

I fantasize that witches, magicians, and sorcerors of all sorts[2]That’s a metaphor from the printing trade, did you know? are sweeping their shelves of books with the familiar crescent Moon on the spine and tossing them into cartons to take to the nearest used bookstore to sell or to trade for store credit. Six Ways’ success threatens the old model of printing lots of occult  books in small press runs and waiting to see if any author is the next Scott Cunningham.

And now there is another one coming. Weaving Fate: Changing the Past & Telling True Lies. The ebook is available and the paperbook is on its way.[3]I am waiting for the “real” book, since I want to write in it and make it mine.

It is Chaos magic-plus-animism, as one interviewer said, and that combination appeals to a lot of readers.

Thanks to the Internet, Wachter is communicating from his rural compound outside Albuquerque with multiple podcast listeners, plus maintaining a Six Ways Facebook page and of course a website.

One fan has already assembled a Spotify playlist of all his different podcast appearances. Self-publishing and social media: When they work, they can work big. Disruptive, even.

UPATE: Aidan himself has an even longer list of podcast appearances.

Notes

Notes
1 And an index!
2 That’s a metaphor from the printing trade, did you know?
3 I am waiting for the “real” book, since I want to write in it and make it mine.

A New Approach to “The Locals”

I wonder when this white fir was cut. The 1950s? Anyway, it seemed like a good place for offerings.

This time last year M. and I were picking mushrooms at higher elevations — and almost were trapped in a fairy portal. At least, that is what it seemed like. I might have provoked That Crowd by feeling a little too arrogant about my woodsmanship, but at least I saw the trap in time.

Admittedly, we were right up against the red zone, “extreme drought” in southern Colorado.

That event was August 6th. This year we returned to the same spot on July 29th, just to see if any mushrooms were coming up — there had been a few good rains up high — but there was nothing, edible or otherwise. It’s been a bad bad drought year, even in the high country (above 10,000 feet / 3,050 m).

But I had another purpose. Drought or not, I wanted to leave something for The Locals. The Other Crowd. Them. I did not know what protocol would work in “the mushroom grounds,” so I just brought some whiskey and a tobacco bundle, made from Nicotiana rustica that I had grown last year and dried, tied up in a scrap of old bandana.

Whiskey in a stump.

I poured some bourbon into a natural “cup” formed by the stump, and I tied the tobacco bundle to a protruding spike of wood inside the hollow stump.

We went back up there on August 6th, a year after the “portal” event. Still not a mushroom in sight. But I strolled past that stump and the tobacco bundle was gone. Flat gone. This is not an area that gets many human visitors.

The lore is that if an offering disappears, it has been accepted. Now if we could have more rain. But that is a different ritual and a different story.

Neoshaman Barbie Number 2

Neoshaman Barbie 1 with her drum.

There have never been any little girls in my house, so consequently no Barbie dolls, but they cost only about $2–$4 in the thrift stores. So I decided last year to make a neoshamanic Barbie, because I like the idea of “theme” Barbies (like “New Mexico Barbie“) and because the very thought of her reminded me of a certain author and teacher who is “widely acknowledged as a major link between the ancient world of shamanism and modern societies thirst for profound personal healing and a deeper understanding of the pathway to enlightenment.”

I made one and on a warmish day in January placed her way up behind the house in some boulders that I call Ringtail Rocks. She has her magickal assignment, she is hidden by rocks, and I will never disturb her.

Neoshaman Barbie 2 with her necklace of power and her spirit animal.

But there was one more Barbie left, so today, now that the last snow has melted and the trail is dry, she went to a different cluster of boulders with a similar assignment, along with her spirit animal.

These are part of a series of “installations” that I have started. You can tell that I was not a studio-art major, because I cannot produce 3,000 words of art-prose about what I made.

But since producing prose (and editing other people’s prose) is what I do all day, these and the other installations are just thigs that Iet bubble up, and I don’t have to produce a lot of discourse about them. I am not even completely clear on their magickal purpose

A geocacher would spot this as a “suspicious pile of rocks,” but there are no geocaches in the area either.

You can see a couple more on Instagram, because Instagram is no place for long writing.

Now I have this box of skulls and beads and wire and you know, all the usual stuff, and when the weather warms up, I have more un-formed, inchoate subconsciously directed ideas.

“Weird things in the woods” pretty well covers it.

Other Barbie-related posts:

October 29, 2003, “Barbie, the Hot Pagan Witch.”

January 26, 2005: “Inanna Descends to the Underworld (Barbie version).” The link is dead though, and the Wayback Machine did not help.

March 5, 2005, “Some Pagan Publishing Gossip.

April 27, 2006, “Pagan-Studies Barbie.”

“These Are Dangerous Books”

Dale Pendell, erudite writer of “the poison path,” author of Pharmako/Poeia, Pharmako/Gnosis, and Pharmako/Dynamis, died two years ago, but I only recently found a video of his memorial service.

I am starting this video at the 30-minute mark, because that is when Gary Snyder comes on. Quite simply, I think that most of what little wisdom I have about “nature,” the “wild,” and so on comes either from Snyder or from directions his work has given me. Read his poems, read The Practice of the Wild and The Old Ways,[1]Buy it used. and you will have it.

Gary Snyder  . . . Beat poet, Zen Buddhist-animist, not a self-proclaimed Pagan but aware of Pagan sensibilities going back to the Old TIme.

Here he reads the introduction that he wrote for Pharmako/Poeira and then gives a short biography of Pendell.

I would not be surprised if a lot of the people pushing “traditional witchcraft” poison-path stuff are not just lifting it from Pendell’s books. Because they are great.

Notes

Notes
1 Buy it used.

A Wreath for Hardscrabble Creek

Earlier this month I wrote about tossing offerings into the Cache la Pourdre River in northern Colorado, and it hit me that I had not done anything about a certain creek in the southern part of the state — a creek that has been hit hard with three summers of flash-flooding (thanks to a forest fire at its headwaters) yet which still sustains my well, among other things.

In September, the flow is just a trickle, typical for the season. So I made a little wreath. M. used to make wreaths professionally, woven from grapevines from our backyard at the Cañon City house and filled out with dried flowers. Mine was simple by contrast: a willow branch and some Liatris (blazing star) blossoms.  Yet my thanks and best wishes were sincere.

A Proposal for Honoring the Spirit of the Poudre River

I had to follow Wind over Tide, “a folk band specializing in traditional music of the British Isles and Americas with special emphasis on tales of seafaring and adventure,” which was kind of a challenge.

The evening before I was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Fort Collins (Colorado) Pagan Pride Day on August 24th, M. and I were driving around the city, buying groceries for the camping trip we planned to take after the event, and sight-seeing a little bit.

The university town where I spent some of my teenage years has tripled in size. Yes, it’s weird seeing what was ag land turned into “technology parks” alternating with chain hotels and chain restaurants. And the drive up from the Denverplex was hellish.

Biologists studying the Poudre River above Fort Collins (Colorado Parks & Wildlife).

But one thing has changed for the better — the community’s relationship with the Cache la Poudre River, which leaves the mountains nearby and flows down through the city before continuing eastward across the High Plains.

My outdoorsy friends and I went rock-climbing at Horsetooth Reservoir, backpacking in the Rawah Wilderness, etc., and hunting wherever, but we ignored the Poudre River once it came out of the canyon and was no longer considered fishable. I don’t recall anyone canoeing it or anything like that. It was just a conduit to farms and towns further east.

In Fort Collins, a sign under a bridge shows the river’s flow in cubic feet per second.

Now the river has been dignified as the Cache la Poudre National Heritage Area. In the city, the change is huge. Suddenly it is a place that people want to visit for hiking, biking, kayaking, tubing, fishing, and so on. And at its nearest, it flows along edge of the downtown area, only three or four city blocks from the park where the festivities take place.

Where College Avenue, the main north-south commercial street, crosses the Poudre River.

So as I was standing there talking about nature religion and urban animism and such things, it hit me: the Pagan Pride Day ought to end with a procession to “honor the river.” (“Honoring” sounds suitably bland and inclusive, don’t you think?) Make up some wreaths of native flowers and grasses and toss them in with appropriate invocations. And of course there would be music.

I put that suggestion into my talk. Whether anyone takes me up on it remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I should be doing something like that for Hardscrabble Creek. Devotion begins at home.

Edited to add: See what they are doing at Twin Cities Pagan Pride!

Related posts:

What is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Large-Group Ritual: Magic, Worship, or “Just What We Do”? (with procession and midsummer wreath-tossing)

Can You Put Your Paganism in the Street?