Burn Your Village To The Ground

Stuff happens very quickly, and I’ve very little time to follow everything.  Autumns’ supposed to be slow, a reprieve from the manic energies of summer.  But it doesn’t always work that way.

So, many things, all brief.

Ferguson is a Forest

This week’s post for A Sense of Place is an exploration of Private Property, Exclusion, and the spirits of place:

Private Property (think land ownership, as opposed to personal items), then, can be a barrier to my relationship to spirits, as well as the relationship of spirits to people.  Anyone with enough money can own land (excluding parks or other designated commons, which are owned by the government) regardless of whether or not the spirits even want them there.

It’s inspired by the most treacherous statement I’ve heard from the current president of this country, and also rather ironic:

I have no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities.”

Speaking of Communities

I’m pretty certain this was clear, but in case some have missed the point, I hadn’t intended to belittle any of the individual work done by the activists who appeared in PACO.  The assessment that my review was “very critical” in an email sent to others who attended worries me, not because I’m personally offended, but because congratulatory reviews that speak little about the larger implications of our work won’t prepare us for the political and economic catastrophes of climate change and Capitalism’s tactic of using “shocks” to gain more freedom while the rest of us flounder, unprepared.  The sooner we start talking about Capitalism again, the earlier we can start figuring out what we want to replace it with instead.

On a more positive note, the video for the racial-justice panel is available for free, as is T.Thorn Coyle’s.  (The others are currently behind a pay-wall.)  Both are quite good.

Many Gods, Many Peoples

This is not an official announcement, but it’s one anyway.

You know how there was that conference for gods-fools in New York this year? And how I went and spoke? So, another one’s happening, except instead of traveling to the other coast to go, this one’s closer, and I’m helping to organize it!

So, July 31-August 2nd, 2015, in downtown Olympia, Washington, Niki Whiting, P.S.V. L, and I will be hosting Many Gods West.  Official announcements, calls for presenters, and a shiny website coming very soon.  Save the date, yeah?

Your Cards Are a Forest

forest cardsIf you donated funds for the pilgrimage (thank you!) one of these cards are probably yours. I drew a lot of them, and I kinda thought it’d be cool to make a little forest from them, so…here we are! (I need a real camera) (oh! I’m being given a real camera for the pilgrimage, by the way!)(I really hope I don’t lose it).

The books arrived, as well, and those will be sent off this weekend.  Candles should be completed and sent (with card and book) by Dec 4th.

A local bookstore is buying a few copies of Your Face is a Forest to sell, by the way, so it’s actually in a bookstore now.  Which is very non-digital, which is really cool.

Speaking of digital–the e-book version should be available 30 November.  I’ll post an update when that happens.

Also! If you’ve already gotten a copy of the book and got to the acknowledgments page, the person mentioned who’s “fault” it is that the book came about? He’s just released another book, too.  Check it out.

And there’s a book that contains Lorna Smither’s poetry! That one’s gonna be cool, I suspect. Her poems are delicious.

Writing in Other Forests

And on the pilgrimage, I leave Seattle in 9 days, which is crazy.  I’m working (overtime) up to the day before I go.  Before then, my review of Naomi Klein’s new book, which got bumped for a more timely Ferguson article, will appear on The Wild Hunt on Sunday, 30 November.

And my regular column will be there the 6th of December, the day I throw lots of stuff in my rucksack and water my fern and go say farewell to my forest for a few weeks.After that? Pilgrimage updates, one or two A Sense of Place posts, and a column-article about the experience for the Wild Hunt in January.   I’m looking forward to a long break from the internet and back-lit screens.  Just don’t start a revolution in the states without me, right?

Actually, please do.  I’ll catch up, I promise!

Many Reasons to Rage

And on revolutions and other sundry fun topics–You’re following the Ferguson stuff, right? And maybe have been following the fact that the events which triggered it happen all the time in this country? And maybe our whole system is founded upon ensuring that stuff like this happens all the time? And was founded in violence?

Got a song for you.  It helps, trust me:

Be damn well.  All of you.



Running From The Wolf


It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
–Oscar Wilde, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’

I attended the Pagan Activist Conference hosted, funded, and organized by the Pantheon Foundation this weekend.

I was excited.  Thrilled, actually.  I was offered a “Press Pass” to attend for free, which was fucking awesome, because I couldn’t afford to attend otherwise and damn did I feel I’d be missing out.  I mean, they’re “my people,” yeah?


Dammit.  I wish I could report back with something warm and glowing, but with each panel I sat in, I found myself more and more depressed. The idea was great.  Get a bunch of activists to talk to other activists about their causes and commonalities, share struggles and tactics and analysis.  Community building at it’s best, I had thought.

Let’s Not Talk About It

The first panel was the most exciting for me: Pagan Environmental activism.  Starhawk’s presence particularly thrilled me, and when it came time for questions, I asked one.  Unfortunately, the answer made me feel a bit belittled and utterly alienated.

The question?  How much has the commodification of American Paganism led to a divorce from Environmental issues, and how much did the Green Scare of the mid 2000’s (which caused many anti-Capitalist environmental activists to go silent) contribute to this?

The answer I received was so dismissive you would have thought I’d just said something about UFO’s and the primordial lizards who inhabit the British Monarchy.  Or, perhaps, I forgot I was sitting at the children’s table.  Or maybe I’d just said I wanted to have a threesome with my parents.  I don’t even remember the answer that was given, because it had nothing to do with my question, but it can be heard in the videos which will be available later.

But hey!  There were more panels, so I shook off my disappointment.  I missed two the next morning due to throwing out my back, but I eagerly sat in on the panel about gender.  That one at least touched on Capitalism a bit (lots of ‘twinkle hands’), but the moderator asked to re-state my question and  the answer I received was not a response to the one I asked.  Still, that was a highlight, as was Thorn’s keynote.

The phone call-in system for the conference is wonky, unfortunately.  My call dropped off during the other panel I looked forward to the most, “Care and Feeding of Pagan Activists.”  John Beckett had just begun to speak as my call was dropped, which was a great disappointment.  Technology always disappoints me, though.

The panel which made me understand precisely why I’d become increasingly depressed at a larger narrative throughout the conference, however, was the one on building infrastructure.  Each session led in with a short plug for the work of the Pantheon Foundation, the non-profit built by Sam Webster to help fund Pagan causes.  The Wild Hunt, which pays me to write, is now under the Pantheon Foundation’s umbrella, so you might understand that any critiques I have about them are in essence ‘biting the hand that feeds me.”

The infrastructure panel ended up being an extended discussion of the Pantheon Foundation.  The first 30 minutes or so were Sam Webster explaining how Paganism needs money.  He read that (awful) poem about how “the coin is for all,” and explained to us that corporations can be bad or good, and he creates the good kind of corporations, and we need lots of money for stuff.

By the time the third panelist has finished explaining to us how to raise lots of money for things, I proposed a question which was (happily) asked in its’ entirety.  I do not remember the exact wording, but it was like something like this:

“How does raising money for infrastructure cripple or mediate activist critiques of Capitalism?  That is, what place for a Pagan Anti-Capitalist within this?”

The answer?  Apparently, it doesn’t cripple anyone.  And there’s nothing wrong with being very rich, and Capitalism has its problems, but we can work on righting those so this is a non-issue and let’s raise money!

By the time Alley Valkyrie spoke, I was overcome with such despair that I could barely take joy in her words.

Ai Vist Lo Lop

There’s an old song, in Occitan, called “Ai Vist Lo Lop (I see the wolf).”  It’s a children’s song now, though like many such songs, it’s a rather despairing song about poverty.  Also, in one interpretation I’ve read, it’s likely a dirge of the poor upon seeing the alliance between government, priests and landlords:

“I see the wolf and the fox and the hare
I see the wolf and the fox dancing
All three danced around the tree…
…When I see the wolf and fox and the hare
there’s nothing left for us anymore.”

I’m remembering a night before I left Eugene, sitting around a fire with my lover, another lover, and Alley, drinking hot cocoa and talking very late into the night.  I remember thinking that it was the last time I would feel I was understood by others, the stars wheeling overhead, the firelight reflecting off the underside of cherry and maple leaves, our talk about the problems of the world and our fierce hope crackling with joy, votives of hope rising with the sparks from those flames.

We’d talked some about this sort of thing, and also how there’s very little space for folks like us except the ones we create. Like ghosts living in the walls, or chamomile in the cracks of sidewalks, or sometimes like the three pigs fleeing the wolf, hoping eventually to find a safe place to stand and fight.

There’s very little place for those of us who want to stand and fight, to attack the wolf we’re fleeing from.

At best, a non-profit Foundation can help fund a few things that make life a little better for some people, but it cannot actually fix the problems it address because it needs Capitalism to continue.  If it wants more money, it needs its funders to do very well in Capitalism so they’ll give it more money.  It cannot attack the wolf, only help build more straw huts for the wolf to blow down while hoping the wolf does well enough that it has more straw huts to build.

Consider: the non-profit agency I work for shelters and houses homeless people.  This is a very, very good thing to do, but the one thing it actually wants to do (end homelessness) it cannot do.  It gets its funding from governments which tax Capitalists and from individual donors who do well by Capitalism and want to “give a little back.”

It can never attack the Capitalist logic which creates homelessness without endangering its own funding.  It can argue for a kinder, more humane Capitalism, just as some environmentalists have been pushing to “green” the American wars by minimizing military carbon emissions, or have praised the military installation at Guantanamo Bay for using solar and wind power.

I suspect this is why Capitalism was the one thing no-one talked about in the presentations of the Pagan Activist Conference this weekend.  The whole thing was being funded by a Foundation that requires the continuance of Capitalism (and expressly states that the “coin” trumps the sword of insurrection or the cup of ‘Dionysian’ rebellion).  I do not assert there was a pre-determined plan to avoid it, nor am I suggesting Pantheon asked anyone not to talk about Capitalism.  But in the minds of most of the panelists, who are bright, caring, passionate and deep-thinking folks, I suspect they sensed this same denkverbot.

But why talk about Capitalism, really?  There are more immediate problems, right?  There’s all these blown-down houses–we should repair them.

Yes.  But we can’t keep running from the wolf and whomever else has decided to dance with it.

You cannot address each individual societal problem without also attacking the machinery behind it. Activists who care about animal rights, the environment, immigration, prison justice, anti-war, homelessness, gender and sexual equality, poverty, or other ills and don’t address Capitalism are ignoring the one thing which unites all our struggles:

  • The commodification of animals in industrialized slaughterhouses is created to maximize profit.
  • The damage to the environment from fracking, clearcutting, and pollutant dumping makes money for CEO’s and shareholders alike.
  • The manufacture of racial tension of poor peoples against each other maintains a distracted, divided and powerless work force unable to organize against exploitative employers and governments.
  • The imprisonment of whole populations of people and the illegalization of immigrants cloisters away threats to private property and culls the labor-pool.
  • Foreign military interventions profit arms manufacturers while brutalizing young men and women looking for a way to afford college.
  • Homelessness inculcates fear into the minds of the housed worker, who won’t risk missing a debt payment or going on strike lest they, too, suffer as the homeless do.
  • Cities and towns which build roads instead of public transit ensure petrol and automobile industries have a steady consumer base.
  • Patriarchal structures within Capitalism ensure half of society never makes as much as the other half, pitting the genders against each other (and villifying any who attempt to transgress those divisions), while extracting free domestic labor from people who just happen to have a second X chromosome.
  • Even illness profits people. Every HIV+ person, every cancer diagnosis is a new source of income for pharmaceutical and medical corporations. Cures don’t make money, treatment does.

Until people cannot make money from human and non-human misery and suffering, activists can only be combat medics, doing a quick patch-up while the bullets continue to fly. Until the wolf is killed, we’re always going to be running to the next house and praying that, even though it was built with money from the wolf, the owner might not have been dancing around that tree, too.

Riding the Crazy Train


Reviewed: God Speaking, By Judith O’Grady

jhp4f5369d8716f5What little Pagan philosophy I’ve read has been a little scant on actual theory on the world or, for that matter, theory.   There’s plenty of advice on how to run a ritual, or what sort of wand to make for a specific purpose, and even, to some degree, cautious conjecture on how to approach certain presences.  Practical advice abounds everywhere, oftentimes contradictory (wand or athame? white cloth or black? One goddess or many?), but for those looking for an actual theory of the world, or for a framework of understanding how Paganism relates to sex, or politics, or economics, or even the world around us, there’s very little for the seeker to read.

So I’ve learned to look elsewhere, to cobble bits and pieces from other sources to build what I can of a theory of Pagan thought.  The work of Slovenian philospher Slavoj Zizek, while quite Atheist and Materialist, can almost function as a Pagan theory of Disenchantment and Alienation, if you can ignore his occasional but quite perceptive digs on Neopagan universalism.

Similarly useful (but problematic)  is the specifically anti-Modern, anti-Pagan Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton.  In fact, his defense of Catholic sensibilities, Orthodoxy, could perhaps be seen as the greatest theory of Pagan understanding, a near perfect work cutting through all the nonsense of Modernism with the dancing sword of Pagan thought if it weren’t for his insistence on calling it all “Catholic.”

Of particular note is Chesterton’s conception of the “Mystic:”

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

And my personal favorite passage, his analysis of the problems of Naturalism:

That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.” (emphasis mine)

But for all his brilliance, Chesterton is often alternately misogynist, homophobic, and sometimes quite downright useless in his insistence that Christianity is somehow the savior of Paganism.  Reading him is equal parts utter joy and frustration.   But I’ve taken what I can of his work, on account of there being no such thing as Pagan theory.

Until Judith O’Grady’s book arrived in the mail.

The God-Bothered

I see visions and hear voices.”

So starts perhaps one of the most brilliant books I’ve had the chance to read in quite some time, full of probably the most poignant observations of what it’s like to hear gods, to be, as she calls it, “God-Speaking” and being “God-Bothered.”

“The historical way of describing my perceptual reality is to call me a visionary, a seer, or a mystic.  All serious words and good ones, but the way I think of it is as a conversational two-way street….This whole process I call God-Bothered because, really, the Gods don’t enter into communication with us to pat us on the back or congratulate us on a job well done but instead to give us difficult tasks and teach us unpleasant truths. (2)

O’Grady has an intimate understanding of not only what it’s like to find yourself speaking to Gods, but precisely what it means for the rest of your life, your interactions for others, and that very strange and quite difficult act of living in several worlds at once, the mystic’s “stereoscopic sight” to which Chesterton refers.

The most difficult aspect of that balance? The question of sanity.

And that is the crux of the problem for the modern God-Speaker.  Being crazy.  Actually, being thought to be crazy and being crazy for real, which can be two quite different things. (5)

She calls her trance practice, rightly, “getting on the Crazy-Train,” and it’s impossible not to nod in agreement with her description of what it’s like to get aboard:

I go into trance, and I am offered a vision–I am at the station and the Crazy-Train pulls in….Beings may enter my car or compartment and sit down for a chat, if I respond.  I will not descend onto the dark, graffities, broken-down platform of Destructive Thinking even though it too is a stop on the line.  The train will eventually pull into the terminus and I will be able to tour the immense and impressively glittering station of Visionary Experience before I either die (always a slight possibility especially in traditional societies) or travel back where I came largely unchanged except for new and significant knowledge” (12-13)

But here is where one begins to see precisely what distinguishes a Pagan, Animist, Polytheist ethic from Chesterton’s conception of what a Mystic is on about.  While both acknowledge the living in multiple worlds and with multiple truths aspect of mysticism, O’Grady, who is not only a Druid but also a biologist, asserts that the position of a God-Speaker is one of consistency and of action:

‘Logically consistent’ is one of the benchmarks I employ in determining which side of the visionary/crazy line I am on.  And, unlike Post-Moderns, I am continually making that distinction.” (6)

She addresses the matter of mental-health quite well, particularly ‘disassociation’ and ‘magical thinking.’  As both are precisely what a mystic must do in order to speak with Gods and also defining characteristics of mental-illness, the question of ‘visionary/crazy’ must have a secondary reference point.  In clinical psychology, this is often a matter of function.  That is, if someone who appears to respond to “internal stimuli” (as both self-generated voices and gods are called) yet is still able to function perfectly fine within the world, hold down a job, take care of children, pay bills and bathe, their illness something else.

Of course, take away that ‘functionality,’ and the person is suffering from a diagnosable illness treatable with medications.

But on neither side of these clinical axes do we have any statement regarding the actual-nature of the gods.  In fact, much of European-derived psychoanalysis starts with the premise that the there are actually no gods or spirits, so only the material existence of the sufferer’s experience matters when deciding whether or not there’s a problem.

O’Grady seems fully aware of this problem, detailing her experience discussing her God-Bothered state with another Pagan who does not believe in actually-existing gods, a tale I’m certain many a polytheist can relate quite well to.  Yet ‘logical consistency’ does indeed work quite well as a measure: not the trapped, self-referential logic of the schizophrenic, but rather an external appeal.

On my side, that of the believer, I have a responsibility to examine the findings that result from my belief.  Not to convince the unbeliever (which is demonstrably impossible) but to be confidant that I have received an OtherWorldly message, that I have understood/correctly interpreted it, and that I am willing to do what is requested….When I receive a message, I can research in mythos and lore to see if any other God-Bothered people have a similar finding to mine exactly like a dieting person can look up in diet books to see what well-liked food they can safely substitute for an unpalatable one…

The Gods rarely, if ever, tell us to do what we want to do and were planning to do anyway; the Gods are logically consistent (They do not change Their minds) and do not abrogate our free well (They do not force us to do Their will); the directives of the Gods are often unpleasant and surprising, although not outside our capabilities. (8,9)

On that matter, O’Grady offers perhaps the most delightful formulation of precisely how the gods tend to work, how one is able to self-check against the potential of what is often called “sock-puppetry,” or delusion:

…a message from the Gods that I should plant trees is likely valid–it asks me for effort and it betters the living world.  A message from the Gods that I should preach tree-planting is still believable although I am being asked for less effort and am influencing if not compelling others.  If I hear that the Gods will put any trees planted by my acolytes on my Spirit credit balance without any planting effort on my part I am likely telling myself a story.” (12) (emphasis mine)

She doesn’t stop there, either, though one could almost certainly found an entire theology and practice on such incisive statements alone, because I have only thus far told you of the first chapter.  But to restate her point, being God-Bothered is sometimes like being on the Crazy Train, occasionally like finding yourself dancing on Soul Train, but should never, under any circumstances, be like watching Solid Gold.

Leaving the Station of the Modern

Like Chesterton, Judith O’Grady possesses a subtle and brilliant ‘humor of reversal’ which quite often takes you unawares, a deliciously archaic wit to match a voice of sense which seems to come from the earth itself, the oldest of stones and the most ancient of trees.  And though both writers quite accurately attack the [post]Modern sensibilities which strip from human activity and relations the dreaded solidity of common-sense, O’Grady’s short book (52 pages) doesn’t re-inscribe the reader back into a universalized experience or the Holy Mother Church.  Rather, in subsequent chapters she analyzes several of the values of Modernity against an almost Anarchic common-sense.  Regarding empowerment, for instance, she says:

“Historically, power is something you take, not something you legislate or demonstrate for”(17-18)

Regarding Democracy and the particular passivity of [Post]Modern ‘subjects:’

In history the Gods involved in Sovereignty spoke only to Kings and God-Speakers but they are now constrained to speak to whomever will talk to Them.  Democracy has overthrown Kingship each person has become the tiny equivalent of a King and so, in my world-view, has the responsibilities of a ruler. (24) (emphasis mine)

And particularly dear to my heart are her laughing indictments of the modern myth of Progress:

There is a possibility that global connectedness could enhance the perception that we are all similar, fragile and valuable…but this does not appear to be the case.  Instead there seems to be a terrible lowest-common-denominator applied that everyone wants a car, a cell phone and a color TV and no one wants a farm.  Previously non-industrialized countries jump from walking-pace to cell phones and from cottage manufacturing to importing poisonous first-world garbage in order to kick-start destroying their own ecologies.

…Technology, more insidiously, creates an ever-faster, ever-smaller loop (as in the cascade telegraph/telephone/ tiny hand-held device or movies in theater/movies on televisions/movies on your tiny hand-held device) that creates enormous hungry markets for products and concurrently enormous piles of poisonous garbage.” (46)

Spoken by others, many of these ideas might seem utterly reactionary and quite suspicious.  Yet one cannot escape both a profound joy and love for the world and for people, human and non-.  If anything, you can almost hear an almost twinkling and mirthfully kind laugh at the strange absurdities that we’ve found ourselves in.  Unlike other theorists who barely conceal their misanthropic disgust with what humans have become (Derrick Jensen, perhaps, and sometimes John Michael Greer), one cannot help but laugh along with her at the sillyness of angry, destructive people.

Passengers and Conductors

Though she speaks of a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, she speaks most fondly of Hertha, the Goddess of the Earth.  Like decades-long lovers or friends who’ve known each other forever, it’s said that those devoted to gods begin to take on their qualities, and sometimes I imagined myself hearing the laughter of the earth itself in her words, a matronly bemusement hoping us children who dwell upon Her might finally get it right.

In fact, O’Grady is quite evidently in love with the earth and particularly trees, like any good Druid.  And this is her ultimate goal, to delineate a theory of the gods and the earth together.  Spirits of land are crucial to this, as is understanding our roles as God-Speakers, invoking the most common-sense critique of anthropocentricism of any writer I’ve yet read.  That is, we are both needed and not needed.

“What would happen without [God-Speakers]?  Something else.  The Gods would carry on with Their plan without any communication to or from people and the people would only have whatever hindsight their science allows them to plan their future actions with.  So Earth wouldn’t end; Hertha has weathered larger storms than the actions of people on Her.  And the Gods wouldn’t end either; They don’t need us for Their existence but only as company.  And as Their eyelash mites or gut bacteria.” (43)

Her embrace of both the ‘scientific’ and the ‘spiritual’ dances throughout the pages, hearkening again to the liminal states and multiple-worlds in which a God-Speaker must dwell, and she’s funny to wit.  While I’m quite certain a polytheist or animist will immediately take to her ideas, I suspect a Naturalist would find her equally amusing, even if a bit, well, crazy.”

I could go on for much longer, perhaps for even longer than the length of her book, about how very good and how desperately needed such a work is.  And I could also prattle on for hours about how I could quite easily have read another 300 pages worth of such stuff.  And she’s funny–I fell off my bed laughing when she recounted explaining why she didn’t accept a certain savior into her heart, and I spilled my tea regarding the uselessness of measuring the speed of a God.

Mostly, though, I want lots of other people to read this book so I can talk about it with them.  And it’s the book I wish I’d had 2 years ago when the gods started ‘bothering’ me, one that I’d buy for any poor soul who doesn’t know what they’re about to get themselves in for, and one I’ll be certain is close at hand in case I’ve forgotten which station I’m at on the grand line of the Crazy Train.  And I’m hoping more people will write books like this one, so I can finally put Chesterton to rest.


Next review: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (on The Wild Hunt, 26 November)

And P.S. Your Face is a Forest is 30% off (as is everything else on Lulu) until midnight, 20 November! Use code ‘FLASH30′


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