Protest-Site Paganism

A Life in the Woods: Protest-Site Paganism” is an essay by Adrian Harris.

Dusk is falling as I get off the bus but within 10 minutes I find myself walking down the rough path towards the camp. A voice hollers out a “Hello!” from the bank above me. “Hi! It’s Adrian – I phoned the camp a couple of days ago.” At the moment I’m no more than a shadow in the dark, so I want to reassure them that I’m a friend. “Oh, hi! Come on up. There’s a gap in the fence over here”. A guy who calls himself ‘Oak’  meets me with a smile and leads me to the fire pit where people sit huddled round the warmth.

The piece references a “bender,” which is a temporary dwelling made from lengths of flexible wood (or metal rods) and covered with fabric, plastic sheeting, etc. You can see an example and explanation here. An American might say “wigwam,” from the Algonquian.

You can also read his PhD thesis, “Wisdom of the Body: Embodied Knowing in Eco-Paganism,” for more thinking on what makes nature spirituality.

The Wanton Green—Both Book and Blog

Adrian Harris describes a new Pagans-and-place publishing project, The Wanton Green.

For many contemporary Pagans the relationship between bodymind and place is fundamental, but that relationship has rarely been explored in any depth. Paganism is often described as being polytheistic, animist or about ‘nature worship’, and while that’s all true in a vague and anodyne way, it’s of limited value.

Follow the link for more.

Why Did I Agree to Do this Workshop?

Fire and law enforcement people gather as the Sand Guch Fire spreads.

Photo from April 29, 2011. All the gray in the background is smoke. I am in the yellow shirt, lower center, trying to get a word with the sheriff. (Photo from the Wet Mountain Tribune)

I have spent much of today being nervous about the weather (warm, dry, windy) while yet working on a workshop presentation on nature religion.

Nature is making me nervous. Ironic, eh? Even though M. and I have been back in our house for a week, we are still jumpy. After all, lightning season has not yet really begun.

At least my little volunteer fire department is suddenly taking training very seriously. And we have some new members.

Last night, when the festival was starting, I was at the fire house, working up an equipment order for the General Services Administration.  More hard hats! More yellow Nomex shirts! And what’s your size?

So today I had to finish the workshop for tomorrow. It’s too much like preparing a lecture.

The problem is, I’m not really a Pagan festival workshop guy.

I used to think I knew some things. Now everything is complicated, nuanced, and requires further thought.

A couple of months ago, this Pagan podcaster was after me and after me to appear on his show.  Finally I told him, “You have to understand that I don’t have a ‘shtick.’ I don’t go around to festivals (other than Florida Pagan Gathering two years ago, where I was  mainly on panels about Pagan history). In other words, I don’t do ‘how-to’ or ‘how ancient wisdom can make you a better Witch’ or anything like that.”

Never heard from him again.

If I had a shtick, I would be like my friend Thorn Coyle. I would walk out in front of a group, and inside of five minutes they would be breathing and moving and chanting and visualizing and liking it. That’s what she does, but it’s not what I do.

So I will try to talk about the ways that I defined “nature religion” in Her Hidden Children, I suppose. And give people an exercise or two to do. Maybe try to convince them that even if they are not capital-N Native (in some legal sense) they can still be “native” in an earth-based spirituality sense.

I have also decided that I am sick of the phrase “spiritual path,” at least on even-numbered days of the month. Being on a “path” sounds like you are trying to get away from something, but as that 1970s wall poster said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

(Did the same people who said “Be here now” also say that they were “on a path”? And if so, did that mean that they were in fact trying to leave here and go elsewhere? Inquiring minds want to know.)

So, yeah, a workshop. Forty-five minutes worth of blather and then dismiss class early? That might work. This bunch will probably be talkative though.

Were the Gods Angry with Japan?

Adrian Ivakhiv blogs on religious responses to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

All of this resonates with an immanence-based process-relational perspective: nature does what it does, it includes the “good” and the “bad” (which are relative to their perceivers), we are part of it and sometimes we get struck down in it. (Careful readers will know that when I say that good and bad are “relative to their perceivers,” this doesn’t mean that “everything is relative, anything goes, and whatever you think or do is as good as anything else.” The world is layered and folded: perceivers share their perceptual situations with other perceivers, so my “good” is closer to your “good” than it is to the good of an amoeba, a viral bacteria or cancer cell, or an asteroid whipping through the solar system. Hitler’s actions may have seemed “right” to him, but in a human context they come off as psychotic and grotesque. And as for “nature,” if it includes everything, becoming a fairly meaningless term, so be it. It corresponds to what, in an East Asian context, is thought of as “the way,” ziran, an active and unfolding “suchness,” or what Gregory Bateson called “the pattern that connects.”)

There is lots more with interesting links. Apparently even the mayor of Toyko took a “the gods are angry with us” line, although he later backed away from it.

Sometimes, the nonhuman world is not All About Us Humans.

P.E.I. Bonewits 1949-2010

Isaac Bonewits (2nd from left) at the Greenfield Ranch tree planting, Jan. 1978

Isaac Bonewits, second from left, at a tree-planting in 1978.

All around the Pagan blogosphere, tributes are being written today for Isaac Bonewits, who died today.

Here is a chronology of his life and tribute by Ian Corrigan.

I can add only that he was one of the most prolific and visible figures of the Pagan revival from the 1970s forward.

As a student, he took what had been a sort of spoof “Druidry” and turned it into a genuine Pagan religion with a spoofy name, the Schismatic Druids of North America.

That in turn  become Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF), which is very much alive today.

Druids are always associated with trees, and the photo is one that I took in January 1978 at a tree-planting at “Annwfn,” part of Greenfields Ranch, near Ukiah, California.

From left, Isaac’s then-wife Selene Kumin vega, Isaac (leaning on his hoedad), Morning Glory Zell, someone obscured (possibly Gwydion Pendderwen), and would that be Oberon Zell with arm outstretched?

I am glad that I was able to offer Phaedra some help in finding a home for his papers. Although I did not see Isaac often, we were always friends at a distance, and I shall miss his presence on the Pagan scene. Ave atque vale.

Thinking about ‘Nature Religion’ in the Snow

I spent about an hour today on the snow shovel after fifteen inches fell yesterday, laughing a bitter and sardonic laugh at people who associate flowers and bunny wabbits with the spring equinox. (At least the Sun is stronger now than in midwinter.)

Today’s preoccupation is the talk that I have to give tomorrow on nature religion to some Unitarians.

First off, it’s not an easy term to define. I can think of at least three definitions for “nature religion.”

1. One was developed by Catherine Albanese, historian of American religion: “a symbolic center and the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values that encircles it.” (Nature Religion in America, 7)

To Albanese, the term was a “scholarly construct” that made it possible to talk about various attitudes and activities under one heading, everything from “natural healing” to national parks to New Agey dietary fads.

I was present at an American Academy of Religion panel c. 1998 when Professor Albanese learned to her surprise that “nature religion” was also a term self-applied by many contemporary Pagans. Pagans had simply not been on her mental radar.

2. My own research, however, showed various Pagans using “earth religion” and “nature religion” to describe themselves (and to avoid loaded terms like Witch and Pagan) at least as long ago as 1970. And 1970 happens to be the year when the first Earth Day was observed.

3. Somewhat similar to Albanese, another religious studies professor, Bron Taylor, has a recent book called Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.

Not particularly theistic, Taylor defines “dark green religion” as “religion that considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care.” The “dark” suggests not just intensity but also nature religion’s propensity to “precipitate or exacerbate violence” (ix).

Once jokingly described to me as “the house intellectual of Earth First!” Taylor has had a long interest in studying ecotage and other environmental violence, along with more peaceful manifestations of nature religion as  surfing culture.

Consequently, where Albanese tends to be more interested in the nineteenth century, Taylor is more focused on contemporary environmentalism and politics.

Talking to UUs about Nature Religion

I am busy working up a talk on “nature religion” to give to a Unitarian Universalist congregation on Sunday.

Hey, it’s a change: bring in the Pagan speaker at Ostara instead of Samhain. On the other hand, they did originally try to get me at Samhain, but someone messed up the scheduling. This is better, actually.

It’s a good thing that Unitarians tend to be a bookish crowd, so I do not have to sing, dance, lead breathing exercises, etc. There are others who are so much better at all that.

I can talk, however. But I will have to repress the tendency to want to turn and write on the blackboard.

I will lean heavily on the “three kinds of nature religion” described in Her Hidden Children and of course on Catherine Albanese’s work on nature as a source of sacred value in American religion.

Looking at books makes me painfully aware how much I need to start on a new writing project before my brain atrophies.

Contemporary Pagans: Indigenous or Not?

A kerfuffle over who said what about which flavors of Paganism at the just-concluded Parliament of the World’s Religions is summarized over at The Wild Hunt.

This year’s parliament in Melbourne listed “Reconciling with the Indigenous Peoples” as one of its key topics.

Some contemporary Pagans have been playing the “indigenous card” since the 1970s, when Oberon Zell and other Green Egg writers argued that Wicca was a form of “indigenous European shamanism.”

The same claim has been made by some British Pagans in controversies over the management of megalithic sites in the UK and the treatment of prehistoric remains.

So are today’s revived and re-created Pagan traditions “indigenous.” I think not—not because they lack ancient roots, but because they are not generally connected to land claims and other current political issues.

In academia, in the world of [Fill in the Blank] Studies, “indigenous” has a more limited—and more political—meaning.  Hang around the people teaching, for example, Native American religion, and you may be told that the descriptor “indigenous” can only be applied to people who are or have been oppressed or colonized.

This claim might seem illogical. After all, were the ancient British not oppressed, and thus not “indigenous,” until the Romans came and created the province of Britannia—at which point they were colonized. And then when the Roman legions left, they were not “oppressed” anymore, so not “indigenous.”

Forget it. This is all about political issues now.

If you cut through the rhetoric, what is really at stake in discussions of who is “indigenous” is land—and sometimes related issues of political power, reparations, and trying to avoid sharing the guilt for how screwed-up the modern world is.

Most Anglosphere contemporary Pagans do not directly connect following an “earth-based religion” with political control of acreage itself, but in other places that connection is the underlying concern.

Particularly in eastern Europe, today’s revived Pagans have made “blood and soil” arguments, saying that their approach is truer to the land than is Orthodox Christianity.

Anglosphere Pagans may invoke a sort of metaphorical or historical “indigeneity,” talking about people who followed polytheistic religions a millennium or two in the past. In the West, our connections with our Pagan ancestors are intellectual (based on books) and theological.

We can talk about prejudice and Christian hegemony—but being blocked from giving a prayer at the county commissioners’ meeting is not “oppression” in the sense that the Australian Aboriginals suffered, for example.

Islam, too, has its “death to the polytheists!” passages in the Qu’ran. Indeed,  I think anyone who opened a Pagan bookstore, etc., in Cairo or Islamabad would be oppressed in a hurry. Is anyone brave enough to revive the worship of Ishtar in Iraq?

In our religious views and practices, we have much in common with the tribal religions of the world.  In the academic study of religion, common ground is being found between “indigenous” and “Pagan.”

In that limited sense, it is useful to show contemporary Paganisms’ (that is a plural possessive) roots in pre-modern, polytheistic,  or “indigenous” cultures.

But before playing that card, we have to understand that it is usually connected to issues of land rights, grievances over such issues as removal of children into government boarding schools, and other current political struggles.

In those instances, the typical Wiccan, Heathen, etc., is probably going to be on the sidelines.

2nd (or 3rd) Generation Pagan on a Backhoe

High Country News reports on a woman with interesting roots doing environmental restoration in the Pacific Northwest.

Erion grew up in a dying timber town outside Portland, where her father logged Mount Hood’s forests and taught her to run the heavy rigs she now uses to decommission his old logging roads. He was the type of guy who would flick cigarettes into the forest, Erion says, then toss the pack after them. She was the type of 6-year-old who yelled at him for it. Her mom eventually divorced Erion’s dad, moved to Portland and opened The Goddess Gallery, where she sold Roman, Egyptian and pagan idols, crystals and Mother Earth icons.

(Probably one of the same dying timber towns where I was repairing slot machines in the 1970s.)