Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Wild Geese Fly Home: Gratitude for Mary Oliver

In one of the deepest moments of grief and shame and fear I have ever known, in the last words she would share with me before we went our separate ways, a dear friend sent me a single line from Mary Oliver:

"You do not have to be good."

and I wept.

Releasing for a moment my deep sense of failure and disgrace, and opening into he possibility that I could breathe the
next breath and live.
Several weeks later, in a ceremony held by a community that was willing to hold all the complexity of my healing, as my prayer deepened, Mary Oliver's words came again, spoken in the voice of that same cara anam (friend of my soul):
"You do not have to walk on your knees
fora hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves."
and again, tears flowed, washing away a lifetime of stories of worthiness and unworthiness, deserving and undeserving fall away, understanding that no matter what had come before, and no matter what would come next, in that moment I could choose to be with the beating of my heart and the beating of the drum . . and love.

Love, wild love,
unconditional love
has fallen out of fashion in these times.

We fear it will not be enough. Or that we will not be strong enough to sustain us.

We fear it will reach the underserving. We fear we might be among them.

We fear it will make us vulnerable. We fear it will make us fools.

We treat the imperfection of its expression as proof that it was never real.

And yet, love is truly the only thing that can overcome evil, because it is the only thing evil cannot understand, and hence the only thing that catches evil by surprise.

(I do not believe that there are evil people, but I do believe that evil is a force in the world that finds its way through the cracks in our hearts when our hearts are not turned toward love.)

And deserving and undeserving are meaningless in the hearts of the wild and the divine.

Thomas Paine wrote that belief in a cruel god makes men cruel. I see all around us, people sharpening the edges of righteousness, praying for the suffering of their enemies, whether they are paying to one god or to many or to an impersonal ideal of justice.

Mary Oliver's poetry again and again reminds us to turn toward the beauty of the living world, remember its goodness, remember love. It turns us away from cruel gods and invites us back into our own hearts, our own soft animal bodies that love what they love.

And so, as Wild Geese on the wing fly through the snowy twilight, and their calls echo from the sky, I remember you with gratitude, Mary Oliver.

And I remember to love.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Forest and the Trees

This essay was originally published on September 8, 2017 by a publication that has now removed it from their website.   I am reposting it tonight as I mourn the burning forests of California.

“’Sé do bheatha, a bhean ba léanmhar
do bé ár gcreach tú bheith i ngéibhinn
do dhúiche bhreá i seilbh meirleach”
– Padraig Pearse

The forests of home are burning, and I am a continent and an ocean away. Fire burns on both sides of the river the colonial maps call the Columbia.
My heart recites a litany: Cedar and Douglas Fir. Mountain Lion and Deer. Black Bear and Salmon. Devil’s Club and Wild Ginger.
In another time, fire was part of the land’s cycle of life and death and rebirth. But the 1940’s brought the cutting of the old growth forests to make ships for the U.S. Navy. Then came the housing booms of the 50’s and the 90’s. And climate change. The forest is no longer resilient as it once was and nobody knows what’s to come. And I, its priest, am so far away, walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, trying to remember how to sing the wild back into the world.
When I first came to the rainforests of the Pacific, my ancestors told me “This is what our land was like before they took our forests.”
Ireland, too was once a place where great trees grew from soil fed by the bodies of Salmon dragged from the waters by Eagles. Though early agriculture did take its toll on the wilderness, the Brehon laws protected sacred trees and insisted on both reparations and physical restoration for even the stripping of too much bark from one.
The erosion of that protection began with the Norman invasion in the Twelfth Century – an incursion sanctioned by the Pope in the name of wiping out “barbarism” in a country where women headed many households and churches, the clergy wasn’t celibate, and wild places had legal standing. In a move that would be echoed by British colonizers in North America, Norman invaders exploited cultural differences in understandings of land ownership. Irish historian Eoin Neeson writes:
“In England, the Normans had introduced the notion of ‘forests’ (a term that simply meant a large area of land, not necessarily all wooded) as areas where a special law applied. The Irish idea of land title was very different from the Norman one of absolute ownership, and this much facilitated the Normans. When an Irish lord or king donated land to one of his subjects, he gave not ownership, but dominion subject to recall. Therefore,  the Irish nobleman who ‘gave’ land to a Norman was allowing a rescindable dominion in trust. When he learned that the Norman thought otherwise and was prepared to fight for it, the Irish lord fought back, or agreed to the Norman authority under what he saw as duress.”

For a few more centuries the British would lack the power and the will to impose their models of religion and land ownership on Ireland in earnest. That all changed in the seventeenth century, as British coffers swelled with gold looted by the Spanish from the Americas and grew hungry for expansion.
As capitalism emerged, Ireland represented both a source of untapped resources, a place where land and title could be given to an emerging moneyed class, and a dangerous example of another way of life to the British aristocracy and the nascent bourgeoisie. Elizabeth I ordered the wholesale destruction of Ireland’s forests to deny cover to Irish rebels – a foreshadowing of the U.S. use of Agent Orange in Viet Nam – and to provide timber for naval ships and slave ships. Later that century, Cromwell escalated the brutality of the occupation bringing near-genocidal levels of violence, pioneering many of the counter-insurgency techniques that the U.S. would use when it inherited Britain’s imperial mantle.
I spent three days in edge of Drummin Wood at the edge of the Burren, one of the last remnants of the wild Irish forest.
Fern and Moss, Deer and Owl, ancient well and wild spring, Hawthorn and Blackthorn.
The wheel has turned from Lughnasadh toward Samhain.
The whisper of the wind in the trees, the scent of rich dark soil and rotting leaves, the call of the Owl at dusk stir memories I never knew my body held of the Salmon run, the Deer hunt, the gathering of the Hazelnuts.
But these are only memories for the land here, too.
The Oak and Birch forest gives way to a wild Heather meadow . . . but at its edge is a tree plantation, Sitka Spruce grown for timber and kept alive with pesticides and fertilizers that filter into the waters that once teamed with Salmon and Trout.
What dies when a forest dies?
Trees are memory keepers. Their bodies hold the trace of everything that has happened on the land throughout their lives. Even the degraded form of science emerging from a capitalist culture that denies the life of the world knows how to read the rings on the stump of a felled tree or a core sample drilled from a living one to divine the history of drought and flood and fire. Older sciences and emergent ones understand how to learn deeper, richer stories from living trees.
But rows of trees are not forests.
A forest is a living system of plants and animals and fungi woven together by mychorhizal and pheromonal and phytochemical exchanges, wild currents of sex and death.
When the Oak forests of western Ireland fell to the axes of the Queen of England’s men, the soil too was lost, and the Burren became a landscape of thin soil covering the limestone of an ancient seabed. When farms failed in the Great Hunger that resulted from the British-imposed practice of potato monoculture that turned Ireland into a plantation that fed its colonizers’ hunger, seeds of Arctic plants left by the glaciers of the last Ice Age began to sprout. Yet, even in this transformed landscape, the wild world left to its own devices would have sprouted Willow and Birch whose leaves and branches would feed the soil, preparing for the Oaks’ return. But the expulsion of British troops from most of Ireland didn’t give way to the conditions for the forests’ return – instead it brought in a different kind of exploitation of the land.
The Easter uprising of 1916 that initiated the war that would result in independence for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties was largely socialist in its inception, but the state that arose following the struggle and the civil war that followed was decidedly capitalist.
As the Fir and Spruce and Cedar of North America’s Pacific Coast were being clear-cut to fuel the expansion of a new empire, the Irish state began promoting the importation of fast-growing Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce to provide timber and fuel for the project of reconstructing a nation.
As a temporary measure, this would have been understandable for a nation emerging from centuries of occupation and trying to meet its people’s needs, but there was nothing temporary about it. Forestry became an industry, and in the second half of the twentieth century, in both Ireland and North America, it became an industry dependent on heavy petrochemical inputs – all the while representing itself as a way of regenerating the land.
The tech boom of the 90’s brought a housing boom in both Ireland and the U.S. that increased the demand for lumber. The 1990’s also brought an Orwellian scheme in the U.S. – “salvage logging.”
Set in motion by a rider added to legislation by Washington Senator Slade Gorton that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, “salvage logging” involved setting private corporations loose on public forest land in the wake of wild (and not-so-wild) fires to “salvage” trees for profit that would then be replaced with fast-growing commercially valuable species that could soon be logged again under new leases made legally easier to obtain because they no longer represented part of an old growth forest.
To a culture that does not know forests, clearing out what is left in the wake of devastation and planting the young trees that will grow fastest seems like regeneration. Already, with the fires still burning, well-meaning people throughout Washington and Oregon are volunteering to do industry work for it, planting bought or donated saplings amid the ashes, turning a forest’s charred remnants into another plantation.
Cultures that measure forests in board feet, that define them as concentrations of trees, that value quick fixes and rapid growth cannot restore living ecosystems, because they are not part of them. Bringing back a forest requires listening to land and water in ways that are only possible when they are experienced as alive – the ultimate heresy under capitalism, which depends on our viewing the world as a lifeless hoard of resources for our plunder.
We will only bring back the forests of my home and the forests of my ancestors’ homeland if we bring fire and axe to the culture that feeds off their destruction. In the wake, communities human and wild can emerge on their own organic terms.

How Dare You Pull the Rose?

Tam Lin was a human knight who had become the favorite of the Queen of Elphame. He was pledged to protect the forest that was sacred to her at Carterhaugh in the lowlands of Scotland.

Janet was the daughter of the lord who held legal title to the land. She had been warned that Tam Lin guarded the woods. One day while her father was away at war, she went down to Carterhaugh, her skirt tied high above her knee, to gather forbidden roses. The ballad tells us:

She had na pu'd a double rose,
A rose but only twa,
Till upon then started young Tam Lin,
Says, Lady, thou's pu nae mae.
Why pu's thou the rose, Janet,
And why breaks thou the wand?
Or why comes thou to Carterhaugh
Withoutten my command?

Janet has come to a place where the forest and all that grows in it are sacred to a Queen and her people who have been there long before the British crown gave her father’s people legal title there. Tam Lin is charged with defending the sovereignty of the people to whom the place is sacred.

Janet replies very much as the colonizer she is:

"Carterhaugh, it is my own,
My daddy gave it me,
I'll come and gang by Carterhaugh,
And ask nae leave at thee."

At this point, Tam Lin should have driven her off. But instead he takes her out among the reeds and rushes where they conceive a child.

Therein lies his betrayal of his Queen – not in taking a human lover, Elphame is not known for monogamy, but in allowing the plundering of a sacred space on his watch (and later leaving Elphame completely to become fully and solely human again, and to prevent the child he conceived with Janet from expressing his faerie genetics.)

He was sworn to protect those Roses from any who would take them without permission and respect and reciprocity and he broke that oath and incurred the wrath of the Queen who had loved him.

In this culture, we are not used to any part of the other-than-human world saying “No” to us. We are like Janet, believing we have the right to come and go as we please and take what we desire.

The King James Version of the Bible, in words that linger in the background of the minds of believers and non-believers alike, tells us that:

God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Capitalism brings a secular echo of that cosmology and ethos – turning the world, including our bodies, into a set of commodities to be traded and materials to be extracted and developed for the generation of wealth. Socialist regimes from the Soviet Union to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela simply shifted from treating the living world as a source of resources for generating wealth to seeing it as a source of resources to benefit the people and the state (and, all too often, the members of the regime and their families and friends.)

Even the rhetoric around conservation in this culture tends to focus on the idea of preserving wild places and wild creatures for the good of future generations or because of the joy humans take in experiencing their presence. (This is implied by the word “conservation” itself – the etymology of which implies that streams and salmon and ancient forests are ours to save or to waste.)

All are expressions of the same paradigm – the land itself and other-than-human life exist for humans to do with as we will. The debate is simply whether humans should use them for the glory of God, for profit, of for the good of a particular human society, and whether we should use them all now or set some aside for the tangible benefit they might bring to future generations and the intangible aesthetic benefit they bring us now.

This stands in sharp contrast to the view of animist cultures, which tend to speak of plants and animals and mountains and rivers as kindred, have cosmologies in which certain places and beings are especially sacred, and have stories about the dire consequences of doing things like poisoning water sources or taking uranium out of the ground.

In the Gaelic-speaking world, the Faerie realm has always been understood to have allies in the plant and animal realms and sacred hills and waters that must be treated with respect.

Drawing from her own experiences, Cora Anderson, grand-daughter of an herbalist who emigrated from Ireland to Alabama during the Great Hunger, wrote:

The [Faerie realm] is not some place put here for the sole benefit of humans. It is teeming with many forms of life, including those who are malevolent and dangerous to humans not because they are evil but because they are different. They are the wildlife of their native habitat. Most of their antagonism is caused by corruption and destructive behavior toward the environment.”

This understanding of the world remains especially strong on the west of Ireland, where Gaelic was the primary language well into the twentieth century and where there are still small regions, the Gaeltacht of Connemara, the Dingle and Beara Peninsulas, and the Aran Islands, where few speak English in their day-to-day interactions.

In August of 2017, Danny Healy-Rea, a member of the Dail (Ireland’s parliament) from County Kerry told a reporter from the Irish Times that he believed that an unexplained dip in a road under construction were being caused by faeries angry at the desecration of the land around a series of ancient stone ring forts that belonged to them. The Times reported that Healy-Rae spoke of:

the local belief – which he shared – was that ‘there was something in these places you shouldn’t touch.’

These were ‘sacred places’ and fairies were believed to inhabit them, he said.

“’I have a machine standing in the yard right now. And if someone told me to go out and knock a fairy fort or touch it, I would starve first,’ said Mr Healy-Rae, who owns a plant hire company.”

The newspaper went on to add that a formal investigation of the problems with the road were the result of a “deeper underlying subsoil/geotechnical problem.” People working within a rationalist paradigm tend to assume that the presence of an empirically observable process unfolding in the material world negates the possibility of magical or metaphysical forces also being at play. For example, many atheists hold that because imaging technologies show certain parts of the brain “lighting up” when people are having religious or mystical or spiritual experiences that gods and other non-embodied spirits must be phantoms conjured by human neurological quirks. Yet if show the ways in which different human brains respond to sunlight, the same people rarely express the opinion that this is proof that the sun is a figment of our collective imaginations. In her gorgeous novel about a contemporary Welsh girl’s encounters with the faerie realm, Jo Walton writes:

You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes these chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had deopped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.”

And so to an empirically observable mechanism that causes a roadbed to collapse doesn’t mean that the collapse isn’t also the result of triggering a curse laid to protect the place the road threatens to defile.

From a traditional Irish standpoint, underground geological and hydrological disruptions destroying a roadway would be completely consistent with the faerie realm expressing its displeasure. As we discussed earlier, Irish tradition holds that when the ways of the invading Galatian Celts became too strange and brutal for the Tuatha de Danann, Mannanan mac Lir, son of the sea god, gathered his people at the mouth of the Boyne where the descended into the Otherworld where lies the well that is the source of all the waters of the world and took up resonance beneath the hollow hills – Neolithic tombs. The magic of the Tuatha de Danann included the ability to summon storms. Beneath the hollow hills, would not the Daoine Sidhe work with earth and water in the same ways that the Tuatha de Danann has worked with air and fire when they walked the surface of the earth?

The stretch of the N22 highway that kept falling apart passed through an area rich with the ceremonial and burial sites of the people who inhabited the land before the sons of Mil arrived from Spain.

The west of Ireland is full of ring forts, stone circles, and passage tombs, preserved because it was the region that fought off English domination most persistently and most successfully, allowing the language, the culture, and the ancient sites to be preserved. Since independence, the continued fear and reverence people of the west tend to feel around sites that are sacred to the Daoine Sidhe has served as a buffer against development, leaving many hills and streams and fields in many areas in a semi-wild state not much different from the state they have been in for the four centuries since Queen Elizabeth’s armies cleared most of the country’s remaining Oak forests in order to deny rebels a place to hide.

Developers are often hard pressed to find a crew that will work on a site sacred to “the Other Crowd” – every rural community is full of stories about what befell the workers who last disturbed such places. The kind of mishaps that insurance companies tend to refer to as “acts of God” are often seen as signs of the displeasure of the faerie realm as well. I know a place in Galway that became conservation land because a tree fell on a man who was trying to cut it down and the community took it as a sign that the land was being protected by the Daoine Sidhe.

The Daoine Sidhe are known to be particularly protective of Hawthorn trees.

In 1929, Irish naturalist, Arthur Kells, wrote:

In Ireland, it is the solitary and small-sized thorn trees that grow singly by the side of streams, or in little groups on the faery raths or mounds, that are held to be the particular haunts of the good people.”  

As late as the 1990’s, folklorist Eddie Leninhan found many people in the west of Ireland who shared stories of the woes that befell those who damaged Hawthorns:  one spoke of the tree beginning to bleed when cut with a cross-cut saw, another spoke of a man who, after cutting a Hawthorn, felt thorns in his bed every night for the rest of his life. Those were among the milder consequences associated with such desecration.

The Hawthorn is, in many ways, a perfect glyph for the realm whose gate it protects – its flower is strangely seductive, its berries are deeply nourishing to the heart, and its thorns will cut deep into the flesh of any who come grasping greedily. It is a tree that can be generous with humans who treat it with respect, but also sets a fierce limit against exploitation.

The presence of the Other Crowd sets limits on human destruction. Where to they draw the line?

Drawing on folklore and her own experiences, Morgan Daimler makes the case that the faerie realm is really only interested in protecting its own sacred places:

[T]oday’s pop culture fairies also reflect aspects of our culture, shifting into spritely little eco-warriors who show up to impotently bemoand modern human destruction of the environment, as if we haven’t been merrily clearcutting entire countries and driving species extinct for millennia. The modern crisis may be a more extreme threat to our own survival, but humans have had an enormous impact on the world around us for as long as we’ve existed in significant numbers. We may well be courting our own destruction and unlike the Gentry we don’t have the Otherworld to return to if we ruin this one, but arguably They have never cared about the things we do to the world around us as long as we leave Their places alone. While there would be no reason for Themselves to suddenly and inexplicably turn to warning us about saving our environment.”

I agree with Daimler’s reading of the folklore, but not with her reading of human history. Yes, Paleolithic humans drove some species to extinction and the destruction of forests is at least as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but the rise of capitalism and industrialism set off unprecedented levels of destruction, accelerated further by the rise of the global petroleum-based economy. Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples did not permanently alter the climate, and while they did decimate some species, they did not set off waves of mass extinctions. Nor did feudal societies. Their scale of destruction did not impact the Otherworld. And the persistence of animist echoes in rural areas kept the lone Hawthorns and the Hollow Hills and the ring forts safe for a few centuries after the rise of capitalism. But when the wind and the rain themselves are changing, the Other Crowd take notice.

John Moriarty wrote “This World and the Otherworld are the same Great World.”

And the havoc this civilization is wreaking is being felt throughout the Great World.

My Wild Queen speaks of storms to come and out of Annwn a voice thunders “I am the war and the war has come.”

What that storm, that war, mean for humanity as a whole is another question – and one my Queen seems chillingly unconcerned with.

The great bard and Feri priest, Gwydion Pendderwen had a vision of her while at Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, that haunted him until his untimely death. He saw her rising from the sea on a blood red horse with a scourge in her hand. Then:

From that hill I could see all of Erin aflame,
and I knew the rest of the world was the same;
For the wrath of that Goddess would never be spent
Til the last human corpse had been broken and rent”

Perhaps. Should it become necessary, my Queen, like Babalon, would not shirk from unleashing bloodshed.

But, like Babalon, she too offers another path – a path of devotion, of relation, of alliance with those who would join her in unleashing the erotic and thanotic forces that would bring the end of this civilization and crack the world open in ways that would allow for the return of Her people, who are also our ancestors and her descendants, and whose ways of being are carried in genetic memory that is awakened when we accept her kiss.

And if we betray her, if we accept Her kiss and then break the promise it implies to Her world and Her people who in that moment became Our world and Our people?

Tam Lin, who was also called Thomas, was Her knight and Her lover. When she learned of his betrayal, he was already beyond Her grasp, but in her anguish she spoke of how she would have cursed him had she known what he was about to do:

'Had I kend, Thomas,' she says,
A lady wad hae borrowd thee,
I wad has taen out thy twa grey een,
Put in twa een o tree

'Had I but kend, Thomas,' she says,
I Before I came frae hame,
I had taen out that heart o flesh,
Put in a heart o stane.'

To civilized ears this sounds brutal. But she is not speaking in a civilized tongue. She is speaking in the tongue of a people for whom all worlds and all things are alive. From this perspective, to take out Her lovers’ two grey eyes and put them in a tree is to give him the ability to see the world from the perspective of the trees he is sworn to defend. To replace his heart of flesh with a heart of stone is to make him feel what the land feels.

Just as the wages of that other Thomas’s faithful service to Her as lover for seven years were a green mantle and a tongue that could not lie.

Her blessing and Her curse are one and the same: to be forever transformed in a ways that bring the imperative to serve the preservation of Her world and the re-enchantment of this one.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Unnatural Categories: In Defense of Barnhill and Martucci

I read the controversial article that Dr. Anne Barnhill and Dr. Jessica Martucci wrote in  Pediatrics Perspectives, problematizing the use of the word "natural" in breastfeeding promotion campaigns, and while I think that they oversimplify the variety of reasons why people would be skeptical or resistant around adhereing current vaccination regimes, their core argument is an important one.

Barnhill and Martucci write:
It makes sense that breastfeeding promotion would make appeals to the 'natural.; The resurgence in breastfeeding rates over roughly the past 4 decades is rooted in a history of women’s organized efforts during the 1950s and 1960s to redeem the value of feeding babies 'naturally' in the face of widespread medical support for formula feeding. Coupling nature with motherhood, however, can inadvertently support biologically deterministic arguments about the roles of men and women in the family (for example, that women should be the primary caretakers of children). Referencing the “natural” in breastfeeding promotion, then, may inadvertently endorse a controversial set of values about family life and gender roles, which would be ethically inappropriate. Invoking the “natural” is also imprecise because it lacks a clear definition."
Their point is not that breastfeeding is not beneficial,  or shouldn't be promoted, but that in identifying it as "natural" and assigning a moral value to that category we identify mothers and families who can't breastfeed -- women and other mothers who don't lactate,  men  and other fathers who are raising babies together or on their own -- as "unnatural" in ways that skirt dangerously close to the rhetoric of Christian fundamentalists and Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists.    (If you aren't familiar with Judith Butler's questioning of the category of "natural woman" here is a taste --

The problem with dismissing things as "unnatural" is that it quickly leads to dismissing people as "unnatural."  I am highly critical of the choices we in this culture make around technologies such as genetic engineering, petrochemical production, smartphones, and the methods of using and administering pharmaceuticals -- but I find that as soon as people move beyond the specifics of how the use of these technologies is impacting complex living systems and into the argument that they are "unnatural" they soon begin talking about the ways in which those technologies are allegedly responsible for the existence of monstrously unnatural people -- usually members of sexual and neurological minorities that have existed since the beginning of humanity and beyond. 

I am an animist -- I experience everything in the world as alive and conscious, and nothing as un-natural.  This includes things made by human technology.  I wish humans wouldn't dig up uranium and put it in nuclear reactors and produce plutonium -- but the plutonium humans produce is still part of the living world, just as much as Roses and Hummingbirds and waterfalls are, and only when we fully engage it can we begin to transform the systems that produce it and find ways to deal with the reality of its toxicity.

And sometimes the best and least disruptive interventions we can make to support someone's healing involve technologies and approaches we might otherwise be critical of which ultimately support the establishment of coherence and healthy flow in living systems in ways more efficient and less damaging than ostensibly more natural interventions.   As an herbalist, it is easier for me to support healthy tissue recovery after a surgery to remove a skin cancer than it is for me to do so after someone has applied a caustic "black salve."   Sometimes technologies we might otherwise be loathe to apply are the best means in a given situation to stabilize a person whose health is rapidly deteriorating so we can move forward with the real work of healing.

My teacher, Karina, repeated to me over and over again that "A witch works with all things"-- dismissing some of those things as "unnatural" can be an impediment to healing, magic. and justice.

Monday, November 6, 2017

New Online Class: Wild Magic, Imbolc - Samhain 2018

practicing magical herbalism 

online February – October 2018 
with Sean Donahue Plants

Plants are powerful allies in personal, community, cultural, and ecological healing and transformation. Join herbalist, poet, and witch Sean Donahue for an exploration of an approach to magical herbalism rooted in connecting with plants as living, conscious, sovereign beings. Twice a month, participants will receive audio lectures and notes on themes including: grounding and protection, plant magic and the three-fold self, plants and the wheel of the year, eros and plant magic, ancestral healing, forest magic and forest ecology, honoring plants and the land, and more! 

To register or for more information e-mail

 $300 if paid by December 1 – $450 if paid by December 21 – $550 if paid by February 2

 a limited number of scholarships are available for activists and community builders

 free for participants in past “Plant Magic” courses

$50 discount for participants in "Materia Magica"

Monday, May 22, 2017

Materia Medica: Bear Medicine -- an excerpt

This is an excerpt from the notes accompanying my recent lecture on bear medicines from my online Materia Magica course which started in May.   If you like it and want to see/hear/read/learn more, please consider signing up for the course.  You will be sent my notes and lectures on Hawthorn and Bear Medicine immediately and will receive future lectures and notes twice a month through October --


In the forest I inhabit, bear and salmon are bringers of life – as they were in the lost Irish forests of my ancestors.

Returning from the ocean to spawn and die, salmon draw bears to rivers and streams, and the bears drag the carcasses of the fish into the forest where they feed the topsoil.

In the Irish tradition, the salmon is the oldest creature, and holds the wisdom of three worlds – the watery underworld it swims through, the airy heavens it leaps through, and the earth its body returns to. Who eats its body gains its knowledge and insight.

Bears gorge on Salmon in autumn, and then retreat into their own dark underworld, where their dreams are shaped by the mycorrhizal songs of the sleeping forest. When they stir in spring, they dig their medicine roots – which Matthew Wood notes are “brown, furry, pungent, and oily” like bears themselves. Wherever people and bears live in proximity, humans have traditionally followed suit, digging and decocting those same roots. And they have told stories of people who married those strange dark giants who rear up on two legs and whose skinned bodies look human.

There is linguistic evidence of deep reverence for bears in early Ireland.

Ireland was ruled through the last several centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era by a High King, an Ard-Rí, whose sovereignty was granted by the land itself as it spoke through the Lia Fáil, a stone that held powers of regeneration for the king and the earth.

But there is also an older Irish word, art-rí which means a king of bears or a bear-like king. (The Welsh version of the same word is likely the origin of the names of King Arthur and a Feri god.)

What would the nature of a bear king be?

Old stories of sacred kings speak of the ways in which the life of the land and the life and death of the king intertwine. Their modern re-iterations speak of the king being sacrificed at Samhain. The king's life and death are dedicated to the well being and blossoming of the people and the land itself.

The salmon provides one model for this sacrifice – giving its life in the journey upstream to spawn, giving its body to the soil in death. And the bound bodies of chieftans and kings found in peat bogs suggest that for some kings, this sacrifice involved literal death.

The bear rides the wheel of the year in a different way. Three seasons awake, walking through our world, one season in darkness. A bear king might work in the same way. Spending nine months tending to the well-being of the community and the realm, three months in trance and dream and contemplation listening to the soil and the stones and the underground springs and the roots of the trees and the bones of the dead.

The English word king suggests authority rather than power, to use the late John Trudell's distinction – authority comes from dominating and coercing others into obedience, whereas power comes from being part of life unfolding. But the Irish word rí has an interesting etymology, deriving from the same root word as the Sanskrit rig, which means praise or shine. This suggests the possibility of seeing the sacred king more as a priest or shaman, not the maker of laws in the modern sense, but the speaker and interpreter of natural law through the gnosis gained from giving a quarter of each year to walking in the dark world that lies before all beginnings and after all endings, the original darkness from which all things emerge and to which all things return.

The bear medicines all serve to facilitate the movement from darkness and stillness into motion and light. Their bitterness grounds us into our bodies, their heady aromatic scents melt tension to allow the blood stirred by their heat to move through the body. The body of the art-rí that comes back to life when the snowmelt streams flow into fields of bright blossoms.

The rest of the notes and the lecture go into the specific natures of Eastern and Western Skunk Cabbage, Osha, and Angelica.   To learn more, register for Materia Magica today!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Beltane Blessings

I can't remember how many years ago I wrote this for the Earth First! Journal, but it comes back to me as a reminder of "the reason for the season" as those of a younger religion might say:

Beltane marks the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice -- a time of the world coming alive.

The smooth, muscular curves of the supple boughs of a young Aspen. The pulsing rise of Birch sap. Rushing water. Lush moss.

Or maybe its the scent of Chapparal hanging heavy in the air after a desert rain.  Or the wind blowing in from the sea on the first warm day of spring.

The living world seduces us, bringing us into our bodies, calling us to taste, smell, see, and feel.
Beltane is a festival of fertility and lust. The Celts marked it with wild excess – bonfires and sweaty ecstatic dancing and heady Heather (or Psilocybe cubensis)  mead, and lovers sneaking off into the forest at night, bringing back green boughs in the morning. The festivities began when the Hawthorn bloomed and continued until May's “Honey Moon” began to wane.   

The Hawthorn has powerful associations with the Fae.  The Tuatha de Danaan are said to have arrived in Ireland from out of the northern mists on Beltane as the Hawthorn bloomed -- and the Celtic sons of Mil also arrived from Spain and launched the war that would bring the Danaan down on Beltane as the Hawthorn bloomed.  And it was under the Hawthorn that Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Elfland who would take him away for seven years.
The Maypole, mummer's dances involving the Fool and Jack in the Green, the custom of leaving flowers on doorsteps on May Day, are all remnants of older Beltane traditions.   

In much of modern pagandom, the erotic energy celebrated at Beltane is cast in terms of heterosexual reproduction.   But in the wild and to our wild selves, the force of Eros -- vibrant, vital, lusty life -- knows no such limits and categories.   The ecstasy of the Earth emerges in myriad forms.  And we experience it viscerally when we allow ourselves to be fully present.

Terry Tempest Williams writes:

"Erotic means 'in relation.' Erotic is what those deep relations are and can be that engage the whole body - our heart, our mind, our spirit, our flesh. It is that moment of being exquisitely present. It does not speak well for us as a people that we even have to make the distinction between what is erotic and what is not, because an erotic connection is a life-engaged making love to the world that I think comes very naturally. Eroticism, being in relation, calls inner life into play."

The hunger for wildness that stirs the blood, the fierce love of the living Earth are fed by our sensual experience of the wild world around us – be that the delight in seeing a dandelion cracking through the concrete of a Manhattan sidewalk or the sharp intake of breath when you wade into a snowmelt stream in the high Rockies. Williams writes – “No longer numb, we feel the magnetic pull of our bodies toward something stronger, more than simply ourselves. Arousal becomes a dance with longing. We form a secret partnership with possibility."