Rights and Perceptions
Article ID: 8101
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,762
Times Read: 3,662
Author: Tree Higgins
Posted: December 28th. 2003
Times Viewed: 3,662
Richwood, WV, August 16, 2003.
My friend Lillith and I arrive in Richwood, WV with lots of hope. I am here to look for a building and a home. The land is cheap and the possibilities to me seem endless. I want a Pagan-based business. I want a place for Pagans to come and meet. I was here last summer helping two friends move from Asheville, NC. They were opening a small publishing office. They are both Pagans in this very dominantly Christian town. They had urged me to go with them then but I was on another path at the time. Lillith travels with me as both my student and my friend. She is from North Carolina and Pagan as well. Her beautiful silver dragon pentacle dangles and shines in the changing light as we crawl through the winding mountains roads into Richwood. My much smaller pentacle lies beneath my shirt. I am here to do business and will not be thwarted by others' prejudices although I would never deny who I am if asked.
People stare openly at us on the street. We are strangers in a town where no one is a stranger except winter skiers heading for Snowshoe Resort. I ignore them. I am here for a reason and I will deal with them later. I am looking for a home, and a business location. I keep driving around looking at properties.
Richwood is not a pretty town. It is an old mining and logging company town and was never very beautiful. The Earth cries in Richwood. The most outstanding thing that strikes me over and over as I drive into Richwood is the decay. All the buildings on Main Street are in need of facelifts. Some have serious structural faults, hairline cracks up the sides that have separated from the main building. Even the sidewalks are broken and uneven. Jagged concrete rises up as if it, too, wanted to leave this town. The steps to the higher North side of the street are crumbling into dust. On each street are at least two or three burned-out houses. If they have building codes, they are not enforced. North of Main Street are rows and rows of houses tightly placed together on the side of a mountain. Almost every single one needs paint. Peeling paint, broken steps and tiny yards are the standard here. Every third house glares emptily back at me through broken windows and yawning holes in the roofs or from fallen-in porches. The place is ugly but affordable. I imagine what good Earth-centered Pagans could do with this place, how we could make it beautiful and harmonious, how we could make this a good place to raise our children. We could make it a community.
As I begin to turn back out of town I see my friends who first brought me to Richwood last year. They were supposed to be in Kentucky. Lillith jumps out of the van to get their attention as I find my way down a back alley to get to the three-lot trailer park they are standing in. The trailer park does not have a trailer made after 1970 and all show their age in rusting seams and faded colors. My friend Wild's mom keeps her trailer here as his family has kept it here since it was new. Wild and Word Dancer are pleased to see me. We hug and talk awhile. They are on their way to Charleston to pick up their granddaughter then back to Kentucky where they have moved. Word Dancer tells me she couldn't stand it here any longer. Men started following her on her morning riverside walks a few weeks ago. She felt threatened by them and was tired of being constantly stared at. She is a writer with two published novels. Wild has one accepted for publication. They tell me who to contact and where if I want a place here. They ask me if I really want to be here. Lillith looks doubtfully at me, then they all shrug to one another, knowing I am not dissuaded easily. I hug my friends and say our good-byes, promising to find each other in Asheville and make plans to go the Gathering of Tribes.
As we back out of the lone trailer park driveway, a dirty faced, ragged blonde boy of about ten comes out on his porch. His mother watches from the trailer's broken front door. "Witch! Witch! Witch!" he yells. Lillith's jaw drops and she looks at me. I stop my van and roll down the window and look at him. He seems shocked to get a response. He is silent. "We are Pagans," I tell him evenly. "Some call us Witches but, you know what? We don't live in run down nasty trailer parks like this with ill-behaved little boys. Now, you go ask your mama standing there what the definition of trailer park trash is. She'll know, I am sure." As I leave the street I regret saying it already. I lost an opportunity to educate and started off on the wrong foot in this place. Later, Word Dancer tells me that the child always does that to Wild and her. He is the meanest boy in town, she adds.
Lillith and I head to the town's only shopping mall, all of four stores where Lillith goes into the drug store to buy peppermint schnapps. She returns telling me these Richwood people are the rudest she has ever met! I ask what is wrong. She tells me the clerk at the drugstore gave her a hard time over her ID - a North Carolina driver's license. She is 26 and looks it. The female clerk called the manager and they spent fifteen minutes staring at her license. Finally, the clerk relented and rang up the schnapps and eye shadow Lillith had bought. As she took Lillith's money she told her she didn't think "Witches used makeup." Lillith was taken back by the sheer spite in the woman's voice.
It is Lillith's first real contact with religious discrimination. She tells me angrily that it made her feel like she did when the school-yard bullies picked on her as a kid. She tells me she has never encountered such open hatefulness before. Others have said things to her about her pentacle but they were always open questions or offers to "save" her in Asheville, not bitter taunting words.
I tell her the clerk and the child have no power over her. I tell her the only control they have is what she lets them have. I tell her they are dinosaurs staring at the coming Ice Age. Finally, I tell her the world is fucked up and we all live by our choices. I leave her in silence and know she is wandering deeply inside herself. It is ugly to find such people and know there is no way to address it, especially in a place like Richwood. I think of my Pagan sisters and brothers who endure such places for all their lives, loving and worshiping their Old Ones in secret. Lillith takes out her diary and begins writing.
I get lost on one of the streets and end up on a narrow hardtop mountain road. I find a cemetery to turn around in and find myself staring directly at a tombstone with the name "Gertrude Stull" on it. I am stunned because a 16th century ancestress by that name was burned as a Witch "without the mercy of strangulation" in Germany. It was a mercy given to those who named others and became repentant. It meant she would have been strangled to death so she would never know the touch of flames. Gertrude must have been a strong woman. She danced with flames rather than name people who may or may not have been innocent of being Pagan. Now I was staring at her name hundreds of years later in a land she may not even have heard of. I wonder if this is an omen. I get out and write down her name and the names of the other two Stulls around her for genealogy searches. At the entrance of the cemetery is a rusty iron arch lying on the ground. "Mountain Mortal Park," it reads. I think about the Pagan woman in Asheville who could not take her newborn home from the hospital because a nurse called the state social services and told them she was part of a baby-sacrificing cult. She had to wait a week to take her newborn home. She had no lawyer and no legal options. How far have we come from the elder Gertrude's days? At least, there are no burnings or confiscations of property today and it only took us five hundred years to get that far.
I get back in the van and retrace the road to Richwood, then it is back into woods and beauty. The Monogahela National Forest sings to me. It is a place of incredible beauty and Earth power. We are camped in a primitive site this night by the Cranberry River. We have been here for a week. Lillith is quiet at the campsite. I go to the tent to write, leaving her alone with her thoughts. When I come out of the tent, I tell her I am going to the woods where an old retaining wall has made a four-foot pond in a spring fed stream. We call it the "bathtub." Lillith asks if she can go. I tell her it's okay and I put my dogs in van in case another bear turns up early today. (We have had lots of contact with bears here!) I have my runes in hand. We both carry bio-friendly soap and towels.
I climb up on a large boulder and cast a circle. I pray to Odin and Freya for guidance. I thank Them for a safe journey, then I recite the Rune Discovery from the Havamal and begin my divinations and inquiries. Lillith jumps naked into the pool, kneels to become fully submerged. I look up and smile as I remember an old line about "by living waters do I call thee, by living waters do I anoint thee, by living waters do I heal thee." It is Celtic, I think. I remember the tales of the Tuatha de Danaan and how they made living waters heal even the dead. Lillith is revived now. She dresses and asks me what I am doing. I tell her I am in circle to ask questions without interference of other forces. She nods and heads down the tiny path back to camp leaving me kneeling here in the great forest alone. After the circle, I strip down and slide into cool waters, feeling cleansed from the town and the people. I submerge completely and when I rise up out of the water, everything is greener and more beautiful than it was two minutes before.
Once upon a time, my ancestresses knelt in great forests alone or with sisters of their kind. They gathered herbs for healing and fertility. They prayed and invoked together. They danced in circles and they, too, felt the force of nature course through them and they also thanked the Old Ones for it all. This forest is why I came to Richwood. Not the people.
Two nights later, two men try to break into our campsite in the middle of the night. We are on our own. There is no cell phone service and no law enforcement to help us. Lillith has grown up in hard places, as have I, and we fend them off before they can get across the gully to our tent with a show of clubs, knives and my two dogs. They flee back into the darkness to their truck and down the road into the forest. Lillith and I debate whether they were from the town intentionally looking for us or thought we were just two women who made easy targets. Whatever their intent, they were not expecting to be chased through the woods by two Witches with dogs and weapons. We finally end up laughing then crying over the incident. We go back to our sleeping bags but I am furious now with myself for bringing Lillith here. The next morning, I tell a ranger about it who just shrugs it off and tells me it was probably just some bear hunters having some fun. I tell him they drove back and forth all night even whistling at one point to find out where my dogs were. (They were in the van.) They waited until the campfire was well out. He tells me there is nothing he can do about it while staring at my pentacle. Obviously, there will be no report made. The statistics for crime here must be kept down by whatever means.
The next morning, I go early to the Cranberry River and listen and pray. I wonder how many Pagans would come to a place like Richwood and be open. I thought if I could survive here and flourish then other Pagans would be interested in coming and building a community within this community. Now, I wonder how long I would be here before someone got hurt. I wonder if there would be any legal recourse if something were to happen. Later, I learn that locals had murdered two Rainbow Tribe men here three years ago at a Gathering in this very forest. Charges were dropped while I was in Richwood against the alleged perpetrators. The living have no rights in Richwood. Why should the dead be given the right to justice? Perhaps our call was closer than I thought that night. I return to Lillith and tell her we are leaving. She is ecstatic and begins quickly packing. We are in Asheville by two am.
On the long drive back I review over and over again my plans and my options if I move there. I am a warrior by nature and always have been but I weigh the cost of battles carefully. I do not feel I would get any protection in Richwood. I do not think my civil rights would be enforced in such a place and wonder over and over how many Richwoods there are in our nation. I certainly do not have the money to pursue action against someone every time I am denied the right to even file a police report or stop harassment based solely on another's hate of my religion and spirituality. On the other hand, I know our silence only strengthens those who would keep us from worshipping as we please and where we please. The shortage of coordinated and organized Pagan legal rights and civil rights groups show me how far we need to go and, because there are a few such groups, how far we have come. I think about all of this on the long drive home, slowly letting go of my hope for a place in Richwood and maybe any other small town. I do not have enough money to begin something in a larger city nor do I see the need in larger cities and towns for Pagan stores and gathering places. It is the isolated Pagans who need to know they are not alone and that there is someplace they can get the items they need for their altars, rituals and everyday life as well as sorely needed moral support. I have been in those isolated places of the heart and land before.
As I let Lillith out at her house, I tell her I am certainly not Pagan by choice. I am Pagan because I breathe. She looks at me a long time then nods. "Me, too," she whispers as she walks away.
We Pagans are strong. Our faith was strong enough to survive 2000 years of repression and inquisitions. We will endure. We will one day claim our rights, but only if we do not all hide in fear.
Life is good. Someday, life will be better for all Pagans.
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take. It is measured by the moments that take our breath away.
Location: Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia
Author's Profile: To learn more about Tree Higgins - Click HERE
Bio: Tree Higgins is openly Pagan and has been for several decades. She is on a Norse Path in Paganism (with a deeply reverent nod to the Celtic Paths of some of her ancestors!). She is a performance poet who is mostly known for her Pagan poetry and lives primarily in the mountains of Western North Carolina. She is currently working on a second chapbook of poetry called All The Rivers Roared. The first chapbook was A Pagan Heart.
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