Friday, March 18, 2005

Knowing the land

For me, now, the Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that underlie the living world. The Goddess is the presence of consciousness in all living beings; the Goddess is the great creative force that spun the universe out of coiled strings of probability and set the stars spinning and dancing in spirals that our entwining DNA echoes as it coils, uncoils, and evolves. The names and faces we give the Goddess, the particular aspects she takes, arise originally from the qualities of different places, different climates and ecosystems and economies.

- Starhawk, from her most recent book, The Earth Path

I like this definition of the Goddess. It challenges me, not to anthropomorphize "her."

Knowing the land means knowing the gods of a place. I've lived here for nearly ten years, but would I recognize a god if I met one? What do I know of the indigenous people who lived here, and who live here still? What do they worship? How do they know the land? What happened to them? What is happening to them now? Here there are goddesses and gods of green valleys, of gorges and lakes and hidden swimming places, of forests taking back the land, of long winters. Of waterfalls and sunsets over the lake and moon rises. Of drumming circles and Tibetan Buddhists. Of organic farms, of idealistic peoples, of the women's rights movement and abolition and the Underground Railroad.

I met a witch from Iowa who said he has trouble sleeping anywhere he doesn't know the land. Yet how well do I know the land, here? I eat her food. I swim in her waters. I walk her tended paths. I ski in winter. I lie in the summer grass and bathe in waterfalls. A friend has tried to teach me the names of trees when we walk in nature, but I'm a careless student. I look for the weed-herbs I know wherever I walk: burdock, dandelion, red clover. I've picked weeds for wild salads and worked on the farms that grow my food. I tended an herb garden at my old apartment, where I had a yard, and I led rituals there. Now I grow herbs on my front stoop and dry them in my hallway.

Witches regularly invoke elementals: spirits of earth, air, fire, and water. When we work indoors we "visualize" the loamy scent of freshly turned earth, the sound of waves breaking, dry desert heat, wind cooling the face. But magic has its source not in my consciousness, but in the earth itself. Magic may involve the art of changing consciousness at will, as the saying has it, but it's not the art of changing the world at will, even if that's the way it's often portrayed in popular tales. Understanding the way the world works is crucial to working magic. And while third-person, scientific knowledge is a fine thing, I think the kind of knowledge intimately tied to magic is phenomenological or experiential. What is it like to be a human being in this world? What does the world feel like from within your skin? To work magic, I need to know what it's like to be me, this human animal, in this place.