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Paganism is a Dirty, Dirty Word

Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 23rd. 2008
Times Viewed: 13,545

(Or, Most of What I Need To Know I Learned From My Garden)

Dear Newbie Pagans of the Internet,

You have found this essay at a most auspicious time. You are seeking information on learning about neo pagan religions, right? You want to know the basics, the foundations, the best place to start, and you may be feeling a little overwhelmed, I'm guessing. (Don't worry, you're not alone--lots of us have been in your shoes.) Well, have I got an answer for you!

(Not so newbies, you may want to pay attention, too--there's something for just about everyone here.)

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, Spring has arrived. Don't worry, those of you in the other half of the world, especially if you're not in a tropical zone, you can play along, too. And even if you have to wait until your regional Spring season, this article should still be fresh by then--it has a long shelf life. At any rate, whether it's Spring where you're at or not, this season is a great opportunity for learning about paganism.

Is it because Spring represents new beginnings, with baby bunnies and ducklings and fuzzy caterpillars? You could look at it that way, I suppose. And new birth is part of what I have here for you, your (not quite instant) pagan kit. But what I'm talking about has chlorophyll involved.

It's quite simple, really--plant a garden! Within a garden there are numerous lessons that can be applied to one's pagan education.

Now, before we get into the nitty-gritty, let me make something clear. "Paganism" is a broad topic, and not every pagan is a green activist, nor is every 'pagan path' a nature religion. (Okay, so my article on nature-based paganism (1) was idealistic, I admit it.) However, just about any form of paganism can have green applications with a little imagination, so regardless of what tradition you work within (or are interested in exploring), you may find something of interest here.

Getting Started

The first things you need when you're starting either with paganism or gardening is knowledge. I believe firmly that a lot of "black thumbs" with regards to plants come from people who simply haven't bothered to educate themselves on proper care of plants (which really isn't all that scary).

Sure, there are people who, despite all their efforts, can still kill a plant by looking at it, but for the most part I think the "black thumb" is an excuse not to learn. It's the same thing as newbie pagans who "choose" their favorite element and then swear they can't work with its opposite. Beware of making excuses!

There are numerous books on gardening. General books are a good idea, though it's also advisable to get books that focus on specific needs for your geographic region, if possible.

I live in the Pacific Northwest U.S. where gardening abounds, so there are numerous resources for planting things in the soil here, specific climactic concerns, and so forth. Even if you can't get books, there are always the joys of the Internet, with websites, online communities, and even online gardening journals where you can record your day-to-day experiences. And you can apply the same resource-hunting skills to finding out about paganism, too.

However, let's keep talking gardening, shall we?

Once you've done some research, you'll need supplies. A nice set of garden tools is a good start--gardening gloves, a shovel, garden fork, and sprinkling can are bare essentials, though depending on whether you need to tear up some lawn, do some residual landscaping or otherwise prepare a place, you may need other things.

If you're like me and you have a porch rather than a yard, you'll need some containers to plant things in. I found used plant pots in thrift stores and on Craig's List and Freecycle, along with other supplies.

And, of course, you'll need seeds. Just as you need to figure out what interests you with paganism, so you need to decide what sorts of plants you want to grow. Now, I focus on veggies and fruit because I want to plant edible things--my garden is part of my way of being a locavore, trying to maximize the proportion of locally-produced food I take in. However, you may want some pretty flowers to attract hummingbirds and other critters, or just to enjoy.

Either way, figure out what you want to grow, and how well it will grow where you are with what resources you have available.

You'll also need things to help with the growth. Good topsoil is a good idea, as is fertilizer. I avoid chemicals, instead opting for good ol' cow manure, though I'll supplement with bone, fish and blood meal. You may need something more specialized if you growing something like roses.

This mirrors the tools for various pagan traditions--some of them have specific tools and toys they like to use, though how necessary they are depends on the tradition. After all, you may not have to have the pagan equivalent of a poured concrete fountain, handmade ceramic stepping-stones, and a lovely bench in your everyday life--but if they enhance things for you, so be it!

However, all the shiny objects in the world won't help your practice--or your garden--if you don't actually work to help things sprout in the first place.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

You can learn a lot about the patience and discipline necessary to really learn pagan topics well, all through the process of gardening. Just as paganism isn't only about reading books (though books most certainly have their place, despite what the reverse book snobs (2) say), with gardening you actually have to grub around in the dirt to make things really happen. Plus you need to continually keep an eye on the garden to make sure things are growing right--the seeds won't plant themselves, and sometimes the plants need our help with protection from harsh weather and other hazards.

So you have seeds and stuff ready to go, and it's warm enough to start planting. Time to get your hands dirty!

First, you'll want to select the right containers or section of garden for each round of seeds. The biology of the plants-to-be is very important. How much room, water and sun will these seeds need to grow to their greatest potential? If you plant a bunch of small, sun-loving plants in the middle of a group of larger ones, they may not get the sun they need.

You'll also need to be aware of how deeply the seeds need to be planted, so they have adequate cover but also aren't too deep to break out of the dirt. And certain seeds can be planted in a staggered manner--for example, with lettuce, I plant two varieties, one of which matures after 45 days, and another at 85 days, and I do at least two plantings of each so I almost always have fresh lettuce available. (It does help to keep a journal of what I plant when, just as I keep a magical/spiritual journal to keep track of my progress with the various things I'm learning.)

Now that your seeds are planted, you get to wait for them to sprout. Make sure they get adequate water, especially when they've just sprouted and may be easily dehydrated or burned. If you may get an unexpected late frost, be sure to cover them up to protect them (or bring containers inside, if possible). The first couple of weeks are pretty vulnerable times for a lot of baby plants.

Make sure, too, that if certain types of plants need subsequent fertilizing that you keep on schedule with that--it's not just about the initial planting of the seeds! Plus there are weeds to deal with, and potential harmful insects and other critters--gardening, like learning, is an ongoing process.

However, with success, in a number of weeks or months you'll have a harvest, whether of delicious produce or lovely flowers!

The thing that I find is that the food I grow myself always tastes better than what I buy. Not only is it super-fresh, but also I've put a ton of energy into it. Plus there's the joy of victory and success itself, and knowing that I accomplished something.

In the event that the harvest isn't so great, it's a learning opportunity; I can look at what didn't work and keep that in mind for the future--which is something that, again, can be applied to learning about paganism.

Lessons of the Garden

There are also some more specific lessons, especially for green pagans of any tradition, to be found in gardening. Many of them deal with the life and death cycle inherent in Nature.

Let's start with the four classic Western elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Earth, of course, is the dirt and the fertilizer, which provide nutrients to the plants. Without Earth, there's nowhere for the plants to anchor their roots (with the exception of air plants (3), but they're a minority here).

Air, of course, is necessary; especially carbon dioxide--plus we get to benefit from the oxygen the plants exhale. The Sun provides photosynthesis--the Fire of the Sun contributes to the Fire of change and metamorphosis within the cells of the plant. And without Water, the plants dry up and can't transport nutrients throughout their bodies.

In fact, with the exception of photosynthesis, we share all the needs for the elements that the plants do.

I know some newbie (and not so newbie) pagans have a tendency to work with the elements in an abstract manner (often by focusing almost exclusively on personality traits as a way to find easy answers about themselves without doing much introspection) but there's definite value in working with the physical elements themselves.

Part of my regular practice involves simply acknowledging the connection between the physical elements in my body, and those in the world around me--bones to dirt, air in lungs and in spaces between organs to atmosphere, metabolism to Sun, and body fluids to bodies of water and rain.

This grounds me in physical reality, and gives me a good starting place for a lot of my magical and spiritual work, since the current cosmology I work within centers on the four elements.

There are lessons in the actual life-death-rebirth cycle of plants as well, even if you don't believe in reincarnation. This one is especially important for green pagans, as it's a good exercise in understanding the exchange of resources, and why conservation and reusing/reducing/recycling is so important.

We've already examined, to an extent, the life end of the cycle. However, things don't end once the plant dies. In our back yard we have a compost bin where all vegetable-based matter goes, from dead plants to paper towels (except those soaked in things that aren't edible).

Even if you don't have a yard, indoor composting is quite possible (4) --done correctly, compost piles do not stink. The trick is to not put animal-based scraps in the compost; while I'm an omnivore (5), even I'll admit that a compost bin needs a primarily veggie diet (though eggshells are just fine). (If you want to compost animal products, and you have a yard, a compost digester is a good investment.)

Once the dead plants are in the bin, it's just a matter of time and a little maintenance to get rich compost. This is very important from a green perspective--nothing biodegrades in landfills. Instead, all that garbage just sits (6). You can dig in a landfill and find vegetable matter from years ago that's still recognizable.

However, why pass up the opportunity for free organic fertilizer and having to buy fewer trash bags? Additionally, every bit of nutrition that ends up in the landfill is that much less that goes back into the food and life cycle.

Last year's garden can become food for this year's garden, which creates a cycle of continuity. Whatever any living thing takes into its body is what that thing becomes, to an extent. We're too used to looking at the world from a divisive perspective.

When I eat a tomato, most people think about the nutrients getting drawn out of that tomato and integrated into Lupa. However, what I'm thinking is that I am becoming temporarily part tomato--just as when I eat fish I become part salmon, or tilapia. I honor the spirit of what I have eaten and acknowledge its integration into me, a form of alchemy, rather than only looking at the vitamins and minerals, the building blocks. Granted, the building blocks are important. A molecule of protein in a piece of meat or handful of peanuts I eat becomes a piece of protein in my body, possibly a part of a muscle.

However, that molecule of protein--or the level of reality it's on--isn't the only thing to pay attention to.

This promotes a more whole-istic, indivisible way of looking Nature--not just the Nature of the Earth, but of the entire Universe. I am animistic and pantheistic. I believe everything--even an inanimate object--has a spirit and that those spirits are the Divine within everything. This is a very crucial part of my pagan belief system.

The concept of "Everything is Connected" often gets either lip service, or ignored, among most pagans. Just saying "Everything is Connected" does not convey understanding of it, especially if you still see yourself as separate from Nature and all things within it. The belief that we are separate from Nature has caused a lot of the problems we have today, environmental and otherwise. As Peter Lamborn Wilson says in Green Hermeticism:

A healthy society would have no need for Environmentalism--and Environmentalism is a symptom of sickness, not of health. Reification of nature as something separable from human consciousness--whether in order to exploit it or fetishize it--always tends towards false consciousness, and a bad conscience. (7)

In a way, many attitudes towards environmentalism encourage a lost-cause mentality towards Nature, just as the "noble savage" stereotype places indigenous cultures firmly in the past, as though there's no need to work towards the revivification of endangered cultures. At best, some of the more milquetoast attitudes towards both the environment and indigenous cultures support "preservation", rather than growth and re-expansion.

If we see ourselves as inseparable from everything else, we may think less about preservation, and more about improvement--which can spark a totally different set of actions.

But back to the garden...

The Wonder of Magic

Few things fascinate and fill me with more wonder than natural processes. Schwaller de Lubicz is quoted in Green Hermeticism:

...plant and final fruit actually exist potentially in the seed where no tangible form exists for a cerebral or psychological consciousness...[when] the seed divides into root and germ, and the germ grows up as the roots grows down, the potential fruit cannot be situated: it is as much in root as in germ. This "occult" power--in conformity with cosmic power--decides when leaves, branches, sexualized flowers, and new seeds and ovules for proliferation will appear from the trunk. (8)

A physical, literal fruit is not located in a seed, any more than a physical, literal human being rests within an unfertilized egg in the ovary of a female human or the spermatozoa of a human male. However, the potential, the programming, are in there, waiting to be made manifest if things are done correctly.

Magic is the same way. There is potential for many realities, not just apples, walnuts, and zinnias. Magic is, in part, the process of bringing about a series of actions that lead to the unfolding of potential into our conception of reality.

Magic is not as easy as putting a seed in a pot of dirt, but it may require care over time to help the reality grow to its full potential, like a plant to maturity and fruition.

And yet, even knowing how such things happen never seems to destroy the wonder. Every time I successfully grow a plant, or watch a ladybug walk across the window, or think about how much older a rock is than I am, I am overwhelmed with wonder, even for just a moment. Most people lose that wonder, which prompted Mark Twain to observe, "We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow...because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter" (9).

However, to me, a good deal of magic is about wonder. There is something significant lost when we no longer feel we "need" that wonder and relegate it to the realm of imagination, uninhibited joy, and other such relics.


These are just a few of the lessons inherent in gardening that can be applied to many neo pagan religions. However, as with any learning, you need to go into it consciously.

Just going through the motions isn't enough. In order to get the most out of what you're doing, it's essential to be present and aware of what you're doing. This is where the most personal lessons occur.

You may find, for example, that you find grubbing around in the dirt to be distasteful, or that you get impatient or bored with waiting, or you wish you were plunked down in front of the TV or computer instead of outdoors (rain or shine!). If so, ask yourself why you feel that way.

It may actually have very little to do with the action of gardening itself, and be more about insecurity regarding what others may think of you when you may have dirt under your fingernails, or an unhealthy addiction to artificial media, or other issues that may lead to even deeper imprints and conditioning. This can lead to years of self-exploration, a process that's both terrifying and incredibly liberating.

And it can all start with a garden, some seeds and dirt and attention. Granted, gardening is tamer than, say, running wild in the woods with the flora and fauna. Agriculture was a pretty major step in creating human civilization, as we know it.

But we can't participate in the wilderness in the same way we can with gardening. I love a good hike as much as anyone, and I spend that time connecting with the wilderness and its denizens (physical and spiritual) to whatever extent I can. Yet at the end of the day or weekend it's time for me to head back home. Additionally, I'm still somewhat of an outsider in the wilderness for the most part, other than a bit of hunting and gathering, I'm primarily an observer. I'm no longer integrated into that ecosystem.

With gardening, we don't just observe--we take an active part in the process. As I said earlier, the seeds don't plant themselves, and gardens require regular maintenance. Additionally, while most of us don't live in the thick of the wilderness and have daily contact with it, a garden is an everyday presence even in an urban area.

Through the act of tending a garden we are brought into direct contact with the mysteries of Nature, digging our fingers in the dirt, watching the cycle of life, death and rebirth occur right before our eyes...

In my garden are some of the most important lessons I have ever and will ever learn about being a pagan. This year, I invite you to garden as well. Even if you end up with a single seed in a single pot on a windowsill, it counts. Let your experience be your teacher; let your observations and meditations be your texts.

Recommended Reading:

Any regional and general gardening books you can find

"The Earth Path" by Starhawk (goes into nitty-gritty elemental and environmental work on a practical and spiritual level; a big inspiration for this article)

"Ecoshamanism" by James Endredy (neoshamanism that brings shamanic practice back to the environment, a very important thing in my practice)

"Green Hermeticism" by Wilson, Bamford and Townley (a somewhat academic but still readable text on ecological implications for Hermeticism and alchemy)

(1) See and c=earth and id=10864
(2) See and c=words and id=11980
(3) See
(4) See
(5) See and c=earth and id=12276
(6) See
(7) Wilson, Peter Lamborn from Wilson, Bamford and Townley (2007) . Green Hermeticism.
(8) de Lubicz, Schwaller, as quoted in Wilson, Bamford and Townley, 2007, Green Hermeticism.
(9) See

Copyright: Copyright Lupa, 2008. Please link to this page rather than copying and pasting the article--thanks!



Location: Portland, Oregon


Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE

Bio: Lupa is a therioshaman (in training) who lives in Portland, OR with her husband and fellow author, Taylor Ellwood, Sun Ce and Ember the cats, and entirely too many books and art supplies--and, of course, a garden. She is the author of several books and anthology essays on pagan and magical topics, and is a ritual tool artist. When she isn't writing or creating artwork, Lupa enjoys hiking, walking, reading voraciously, and is rediscovering her love of video games. She may be found online at and

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