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Earth Pages

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Every Day is Earth Day

From the Waterfront...

Pagans and the Environment: Leaders or Laggards?

NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.

Article Specs

Article ID: 4234

VoxAcct: 257376

Section: earth

Age Group: Adult

Days Up: 4,382

Times Read: 9,623

Pagans and the Environment: Leaders or Laggards?

Author: H. Byron Ballard
Posted: April 22nd. 2002
Times Viewed: 9,623

As I write this, I am sitting by a lake surrounded by 1600 acres of YMCA camp. In the past couple of days, we've had a sampling of available spring weather: cold, wet, sunny, foggy, hot enough to burn fair Irish skin.

It is almost painfully beautiful, even though the deciduous trees haven't leafed yet. Canada geese honk us awake in the morning and spring peepers serenade us at night. The nearly full moon lights the gravel road back to our cabin.

It smells good here, too. Overlooking the dirty socks of dozens of fifth-grade girls, there is the moist and mushroomy fragrance of the Earth as she wakens. And soon we will celebrate this amazing web of life with a relatively new holiday called Earth Day.

Let me be clear at the outset--I like Earth Day. The flags, the picnics, the good intentions. It makes me smile to be lectured about recycling by children with earnest faces. I like it when Peter Jennings and the other talking heads show us the touching Earth Day festivities around the nation. Earth Day--what a great idea.

But Earth Day always falls to 'holiday syndrome'--it comes and goes and we don't have to think about it again for another year. What a relief! We may make a half-hearted attempt to compost or take a shorter shower or walk someplace we would normally drive. We see news blurbs about oil spills or burning rainforests and feel momentary outrage. But the outrage is smothered as the detritus of our lives relentlessly rolls over us.

Most of us don't feel connected to our planet in any meaningful way. Bound by the language of Genesis, we know we left the garden a long time ago. We are exiles, homeless, forbidden entrance to the land that is our birthright by angels wielding swords of flame.

Before we were kicked out, ashamed of our animal nakedness, we were given orders to name every critter in the garden and, once the magic ritual of naming was complete, the garden and everything in it was ours to do with as we thought fit. Free fruit and veg, happy animal friends and prime real estate. Too bad about that snake thing. Too bad we couldn't obey a set of fairly simple rules.

Along with our strategically placed fig leaves, we left the garden with one thing--the certainty that we were special in the eyes of the Creator and that, even though the garden was no longer our home, we were the boss in the great world beyond the angels. We were given dominion, by God, and we meant to dominate.

And since we are more special than--and therefore superior to--elk or newts or sponges (not to mention minerals, petroleum and trees), it was up to us to tame and control nature, to cut civilization from the heart of the wilderness. We gave up the religious observances that tied the course of our lives to the agricultural year and took to ourselves spiritual systems that further alienated us from the natural (dirty, sin-filled, dangerous) world. We set our eyes on a heavenly kingdom and simply endured the horrors of living life on a planet that supplied our every want and need. As civilization progressed, we moved farther and farther from the gods of our tribal ancestors, and from our connection to the natural world. Sacred groves were chopped down and white spires pointed our way out of this cesspool of sin and toward our real home and our heavenly Father. Rural lives were exchanged for urban ones and the Industrial Age brought us every thing our hearts desired. For a price. The powerful cultural entity called the Church turned its attention to saving the souls and bodies of the poor, left dispossessed by western success.

But now in the 21st century, as environmental degradation comes to a place where it cannot be dismissed or denied, the more liberal and even moderate Christians are embracing the notion of 'stewardship of God's creation'. Christian authors have begun to concern themselves not only with justice and civil rights issues but with the ecological disarray confronting the citizens of planet Earth.

Last year, I attended an interfaith lecture on religion and ecological issues. It was very PowerPoint-high tech with brightly colored images and pithy quotes by Joseph Campbell. Just the sort of presentation that brings tears to the eyes and fire to the bellies of liberal Christians. They swigged bottled spring water and nodded sagely about those stubborn members of their faith family who don't drive high MPG cars or recycle or even try to conserve energy. They determined to go back to their home congregations and start focus groups and committees and recycling programs, their eyes alight with the fire of stewardship.

Though I am relieved that the majority Christian culture in my country is turning its attention to the welfare of the planet, I hate the word stewardship and I'll tell you why. It's the same old dominion concept reheated as new hash. Humankind is still separate from and superior to the rest of the ecosystem and is assigned this time by their god to 'save the planet'. It is enlightened self-interest but self-interest nonetheless. They go from despots to saviors but the relationship remains the same: one of superiority to an ecosystem so complex and densely-layered that it's hard for the human mind--that extraordinary machine!--to comprehend it.

The arrogance of this position stuns me. People worry about destroying the planet when it more rightly is a case of making the ecosystem nonviable for our own (and scores of other) species. We make the Earth unlivable for us, we die out, the planet adjusts and new species emerge triumphant: the insects are none too patiently biding their time. We know the planet has a number of ways to self-clean--wind, flood, fire, disease. And she uses them adeptly from forest fires in the American west to floods in Europe. With all our power and arrogance, there is still one thing modern man can't control: nature. We can flatten mountains and dam rivers, drain swamps and inoculate babies. But we, the stewards, the chosen, are limited. Our power pales in comparison to a hurricane or volcano or supernova. We have envisioned a world that can be controlled by human intellect and achievement but this vision is flawed.

And where are the Pagans in all this? Many of us believe that the planet is holy ground: not just churches, synagogues, mosques and Mount Sinai, but the whole shebang. The planet as the Greek deity Gaia is the living body of a living Goddess. One would think it only natural that the rapidly growing global Pagan community would take leadership at this crucial time, that we would step forward to talk about our genuine and loving relationship to the land and the web of life. In a spirit of fellowship and community we might assist neighbours of other spiritual traditions to return to right relationship with the natural and sacred world. Where are the councils of elders, where the interfaith dialogue on this issue? Where are the Pagans?

Some Pagans are cleaning up streams and picking up litter and sitting on interfaith councils, but in my experience their numbers are small. Some Pagans are working within their larger communities to create tribal units that answer to the old gods by preserving or recreating the old ways and following the cycles of the agricultural year. But the majority of Pagans, as far as I can tell, are sitting in front of computer screens, creating cyber-communities. We are posting our endless opinions on various bulletin boards and we are doing what tribal folk love to do: we are fighting. We can't agree to be called 'Pagan' because that's a Roman word, used by Christians and it doesn't apply to all the myriad cultures that make up the Neo-Pagan movement, as it used to be called. Some of us prefer 'Heathen' to 'Pagan', and have the scholarship to back it up. Some people have tried the awkward phrase 'Earth religionist' in an attempt to be as inclusive and comprehensible as possible. But some of the Reconstructionists and Traditionalists have set up a hue and cry that their spirituality is not earth-centered and never was and that nobody is going to get away with saying it is. Some of us don't like 'Pagan' or 'Heathen' because the words are too loaded with centuries of baggage. Half the culture doesn't know what 'Pagan' means in the modern sense and we must constantly explain ourselves and our motives. This was brought home to me last week, when I read a quote from Episcopal Bishop William Swing, the founder of the United Religions Initiative, a multi-faith organization of which I am a part. Swing made a statement that ended with '...teaching adherents to marginalize, paganize and plain old despise people of other beliefs'. 'Paganize'? What does that mean exactly in a multifaith peace organization that includes Pagans? Does it mean to make people into 'Pagans' with a capitol 'P'? I hardly think so. It means to demonize, to alienate. So are Pagans demons or aliens? And why would a spiritually savvy interfaith leader feel he could use such a word without being castigated for it? Why indeed? Because Pagans are stuck in the ritual of naming and show no signs of ever ending the ritual.

For the record, I answer to Witch, Wiccan, garden-variety Pagan, priestess, Mom and other endearments. I have been called (but do not necessarily claim) New Ager, Fluffy Bunny (not a term of endearment, by the way), hell-bound, a tree-hugging dirt worshipper. My Irish roots are very deep and for decades I've studied the ancient lore as it has been passed down to us. I read Frazer's The Golden Bough (yes, all the volumes) when it was fashionable and still read it when it's not. I speak Irish badly and read it little better, being as ignorant of my written tribal language as my tribal ancestors probably were. I avidly peruse the latest scholarship from archaeological and anthropological sources and see what new information I can glean. I talk to my ancestors--both living and dead--and strive to create, recreate and conjure a tribal spiritual system that works in a modern world with modern families whose roots are very deep. We strive to live in right relation to the land in these mountains. We watch the weather. We bring the rain sometimes. We tend gardens and raise children and follow an ancient seasonal cycle in sometimes modern ways. We are Pagans and are comfortable with that old and troublesome word. We wear it like a favorite sweater--picked here, frayed at the sleeves but generally right for who we are and what we profess.

So it seems we can't even get past the magic ritual of naming. We certainly can't get past the high emotions and thin-skins of this new and old movement that holds out so much hope for our species. And though we may have strong bonds to the land, I worry about our bonds to each other. As a fast-growing movement with no central authority or dogma, it is difficult for individuals or even organizations to define what we are for a dominant culture that is coming to terms with Pagans and Heathens, Witches and Reconstructionists; a culture that has held tenaciously to the notion of 'interfaith' as Catholic and Protestant Christians and a token Jew.

We minority religionists are good for the dominant culture, however--we shake them up, make them look twice (and often askance) at precious and long-held beliefs about who is or is not their neighbor.

Our time has come again. We are both an old and a new religion, and that gives us a rare opportunity and an engaging energy. We are well-educated, sometimes overly so. Our use of the Internet has been astounding in its scope. Click on the 'Favorites' file of any one of us and you'll find we have a vast array of information at our fingertips. Some of it's even accurate.

As we mature, both as individuals and collectively, we can use these resources and strengths both to honor the Ancients and restore health to the planet. The Pagan community--by whatever names we choose to call ourselves-- can take leadership in an area to which we are particularly well-suited. As many different traditions and cultures find ways to exchange ideas across the gulf of ignorance, the very best of what we are as honorable, freethinking folk can be brought to bear on the environmental crises we face as a culture.

But we have to finish the pissing contests and the battles for primacy and get on with honoring the Ancestors and their/our Deities. We have to be willing to allow other Pagans to worship differently than we do, to dress differently, to pray differently. To call themselves what they call themselves. My Celtic ancestors didn't call themselves 'Celts': that's a convenient pigeonhole in which modern scholars and seekers file information. They may have called themselves 'the People' or 'the forest dwellers who eat mushrooms' or 'the hard-drinkers with hard heads'. They didn't write it down or engrave it on a stone tablet, so I don't know. And as long as I honor them and the Old Ones, take care of my kith and kin, and try to be a valuable member of my community, they don't give a damn what I call us. They call me Byron, daughter of Betty, granddaughter of Helen, great-granddaughter of Lillian and on and on, back to the Ancestors I know only through dreams.

Before we sit in judgment on a particular spiritual path, we can get to know some of its practitioners. Worship with them, if it is allowed. Open our hearts a little and try listening to each other. Try being a student as well as a teacher. Before we hurl the invective 'fluff bunny' at someone who is seeking, we can remember how it felt to be a new Pagan with lots to learn and an open willing heart with which to do so. Let us remember that traditions born out of early scholarship are sincerely adhered to, that folks who have been practicing Pagans for fifty years must have something going for them. Let us also remember that new information comes to us daily about the lives of the ancients and this can give us insights into our Deities, our tribes and ourselves.

We have a chance here to do a good thing for the ecosystem we call home. As a loosely-bundled enthusiastic community who honor our goddesses and gods, our Ancestors and our connection to Deity through planet and star, we can face the angels at the gates of the garden and tell them to buzz off. We can demand the right to tear down the walls and make all the world our garden. Then we can get out of our computer chairs, role up our sleeves and get to work.

So get out there and celebrate Earth Day--every day! Give your Baptist neighbor a helpful hint about growing herbs. Volunteer at a stream clean-up (wet and cold but very invigorating). Be the leader that you are in your circle, kindred, coven, grove, tribe or shire and take the message out into the dominant culture--it's okay to love the planet. Heck, you can even call her 'Mom'.

H. Byron Ballard

Bio: H. Byron Ballard has deep roots in the mountains of western North Carolina where she is active as a priestess of Inanna, Pagan activist, playwright and mom. She holds an MFA in Theatre from Trinity University and circles weekly (and occasionally weakly) with an American Tribal Pagan group. She is a member of WARD, an elder of SerpentStone, an affiliate of the WHISPER community, a founding trustee of the Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support and a Willful Harpy. Her interfaith affiliations include the United Religions Initiative and the Interfaith Council. She is also a board member of the local chapter of the ACLU. And in her copious free time she is still learning Irish Gaelic and to play the fiddle. And gardening, for the sake of her sanity.


H. Byron Ballard

Location: Asheville, North Carolina

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