The Dragon Journal: Issue 3

'Go fly a kite': A New Approach to Eco-Magick
by Andy Letcher

 In a recent television documentary about the roots of the industrial revolution, the historian Simon Schaffer suggested that the Victorian’s building of the railways marked a fundamental shift in the way in which we perceive and relate to landscape. For the first time our lines of communication were not constrained by the lay of the land, by contours or other natural features, by field boundaries, or, as with canals, by the proximity of a plentiful water supply. Rather, Victorian engineering was able to cut through unfortunate obstacles such as hills and even to replace them elsewhere as embankments. For the first time we were able, literally, to drive our intentions through nature. This capability, and the mentality behind it, resurfaced with the road-building of the 1990’s, with the cutting at Twyford Down being perhaps the most iconic example of this power of the human ability to shape nature to our designs. Given that many practitioners of eco-magick were involved in attempting to halt construction of those very roads it may seem surprising therefore, shocking even, that I wish to suggest here that Pagan and eco-magical practice is in danger of reiterating the very mentality which it sets out to oppose, that of making nature comply with our prior intentions and expectations. In doing so I am following on and developing arguments from authors such as Adrian Harris, and the late Rich Westwood, who have questioned the implicit assumptions upon which eco-magick is based. By questioning these assumptions I offer my own answers to the question of how we can best interact with the spirit, and spirits, of nature.

            Let me start, then, with a slightly less controversial metaphor with which to illustrate what I regard as the problem. Not far from where I live in Bristol are Durdham Downs, a large, flat, recreational park which ends abruptly at the edge of the Avon Gorge. The prevailing wind blows up the Bristol Channel and is funnelled over the top of the gorge, a factor which makes the Downs a popular place for kite flying. The most common kites are of the modern two-stringed variety which resemble a small ‘winged’ parachute. The two control lines allow the kite to be manoeuvred so that pulling the left hand string turns the kite to the left, and vice versa. Whilst walking on the Downs I have watched many attempts to fly these and similar kites, the majority of which meet with only limited success. The main problem seems to be that people are determined to fly their kites irrespective of the weather conditions. These kites are designed for medium to strong winds and consequently people adopt all sorts of novel, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to get their kites airborne in the lightest of breezes: running backwards is a particular favourite. Similarly these kites require a fairly continuous wind, but people often try and fly them in the lee of trees which cast a wind-shadow making air currents turbulent and unstable. Flown from such a position kites do not remain in the air for long.

            Kite flying has romantic connotations of being a harmonious harnessing of natural forces, but the kite flying on the Downs is far from harmonious. On the contrary, it seems to be derived from an attitude in which nature is seen as something to be controlled, subdued, or even dominated. Flyers rarely take note of the weather conditions and rarely attempt to work in sympathy with them: the decision to fly is made first, from which follows the expectation that the wind will somehow obligingly blow. The sense of control engendered by the kite’s design provides the illusion that nature itself can be controlled with the pull of a string, made to do our bidding like the dance of a marionette. That such kites are great fun is indisputable, but they require little in the way of subtlety, little in the way of skill: watching successful pilots being dragged across the Downs suggests that all that is required is ‘brute force and ignorance’. No wonder so many flights end in frustration.

            But then it is hardly surprising that we spend so little time listening to nature, observing the wind and the weather, for the majority of us live in urban and sub-urban environments where most of nature’s inclemency has been ameliorated, if not actually removed. It is hard to find nature in the city [1] , an irony for Pagans, in which we are separated from the very thing we hold most sacred. And herein lies the problem, namely that our perceptions of nature are based upon a day to day existence in which we have little or no experience of it. Thus we fashion nature in our imagination such that when we do travel out into the wilds, we take with us an array of expectations and assumptions about how nature and its spirits should be; human expectations that are formed within human-created environments. They are shaped more by what we read in books, or see on the television, than by any direct embodied experience. Like the kite-flyer on a windless day, or the engineer plotting a railway, we impose our expectations onto nature and will it, dutifully, to comply. As Adrian Harris states "we need to be very careful not to project our own perspectives onto the natural world" [2]

            Here some examples are instructive. One summers afternoon, whilst I was attending a week long Druid camp, a kestrel flew over our central circle. "Look" someone cried. "A hawk! It must be a sign!"

For those unfamiliar with Druidry, ‘the hawk’ is seen as the signifier, totem perhaps, of the eastern quarter, and therefore an especially important animal. Consequently someone reached for their copy of The Druid Animal Oracle so as to determine what the appearance of a ‘hawk’ might mean. Leaving aside the glib ornithological observation that kestrels aren’t hawks (they are falcons), this example shows how we arrive in nature armed with expectations of how it ought to be. We arrive having already made judgements about the relative worth of animals, privileging, say, birds of prey over song birds. We arrive expecting nature to be filled with magical signs, portents and meanings. This assumption that nature will rearrange itself in ways that correspond to our preconceptions of what is ‘significant’, solely for our benefit, is an assumption which seems to me to be a deeply human- centred, if not individualistic, notion. Anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors will know that kestrels are extremely common, and that the sighting of one typically means, well, not much really (although I do not wish to diminish the delight one might feel in observing it). As Groucho Marx once noted "when a black cat crosses my path, it means the cat is going somewhere". In saying this I wish in no way to dismiss non-ordinary experiences of animals and other creatures, which can and do have profound significance. My own experience however is that such encounters happen rarely, and that when they do they have a certain ‘edge’ or poignancy which separates them from mere wish-fulfilment. And yes, I too have willed every animal encounter to be a ‘sign’ from my deities, but sadly I am ashamed to admit that in the few encounters which I do regard as having been ‘signs’, I have had the distinct impression that they occurred simply so as to reprimand me. Others say that it is when animals behave unusually, or outside of their normal patterns of behaviour, that we should take note. The point remains that the only way to discern the normal from the non-ordinary is by spending time outdoors listening and observing, for how else are we to establish a benchmark for what is typical?

            My second example follows on from this, and concerns totems, or rather the way in which we, as Pagans, approach them. Here I wish to compare our usage with indigenous usage, but I skirt around potential problems of cross-cultural generalisation, which are, for example, inherent in the classic anthropological studies of ‘shamanism’, by simply comparing our contemporary practice with that of Australian Aboriginals, as described by Emile Durkheim at the beginning of the twentieth century [3] . Whilst his account is not unproblematic, he describes a situation in which individuals from different tribes, but who share the same totem, come together as clans at significant moments to take part in intense, or ‘effervescent’, rituals. The possession of a particular totem, and the enactment of these rituals, connects individuals with each other, with their totem, and with the land. "In the Australian’s have the clan name Kangaroo is not merely to postulate an amazing inner bond of shared essence with animals. It is also to postulate a just as amazing inner bond of shared essence with other humans, just by sharing a name" [4] . In a similar, albeit drastically diluted manner, we share a sense of familiarity with someone who shares the same astrological sun sign. However there is, again, something deeply individualistic about the way in which we proclaim our totemic allegiances. We advertise our animals on t-shirts, we paint them on our regalia, tattoo them on our skin, hang them like trophies from our belts (and yes, they do always seem to be higher order carnivores). Totemic allegiances amongst Pagans seem not to bring us together, but to mark us as separate. They are used to signify alterity and difference, or sometimes to boast of ‘shamanic virtuosity’. However much our totems connect us with nature, we still use them as badges in our own human-centred status games, badges which signify for us the possession of a piece of nature, a territorial delineation of the animal kingdom: "this animal", the badges seem to say, "belongs to me". Once more here is a situation in which we make nature fit with our human expectations and concerns.

            My third example concerns ritual. There is a rule of thumb which states that when two or three Pagans are gathered together they will perform a ritual of some kind. I have no complaint with that, for ritual is our bread and butter. However, whilst ritual is a bridge between our world and the otherworld, it remains, in part, a human activity. In order to connect with nature, with nature spirits, we light fires, illuminate the dark with candles, bang drums, make music, sing, and occasionally howl and shriek; all human activities which ward off the very thing we yearn to reach. Thus it was that during the Newbury bypass campaign at Skyward camp we praised the spirits of the wood, raised the dragon, performed seasonal and full moon rituals, and all the while trampled the flora into a quagmire and scared off the fauna with our raucous habits. Of course ritual is hugely important, and during a campaign such as Newbury large, noisy, outdoor ceremonies have their place. However, what I am asking here is that we question the things which we regularly do in the name of Paganism and eco-magick, so as to address whether they really achieve our aim, that of connecting us with nature and nature spirits. My concern is that they do not, and that in some small way they actually restate the discourse of mastery apparent in the kite flying (above), or the building of roads and railways.

            My suggestion is that we need to broaden our definition of eco-magick to include, paradoxically, more mundane ways of engaging with nature: here I offer three alternatives summarised as solitude, stillness and sensitivity. Firstly then that most Romantic of notions, solitude, which we can find in a number of ways. Sadly the hardest of all is to find solitude in lonely places (there aren’t many left, at least in Britain), but we can chose lonely times of day and night. It is unavoidable, but humans create disturbance in the natural world. Merely walking through the woods on a spring day will set off a chorus of alarm calls from nesting birds. By choosing solitude, however, we can minimise our impact by moving silently and stealthily. Undisturbed by human conversation, we can begin to engage in a dialogue with nature. We too can share in that sense of the sublime beloved by the Romantics, for in nature we are never alone: solitude can be exhilarating.

            Secondly, stillness. Too often we engage with nature with noise or frenetic activity, that is, we bring the rhythms of the city out with us. However, without calm and silence how are we to listen? By stilling ourselves we can observe nature, and thus begin to know it, and here I want to suggest that the two indispensable ‘shamanic tools’ should be a good field guide, and a pair of binoculars. With the help of a field guide a ‘hedge’ becomes an array of plant personalities, a chorus of bird song becomes differentiated into individual voices, individual songs. Binoculars enable us to see things otherwise impossible by bringing nature close by. Once I fell asleep under a hazel coppice in Wytham woods, near Oxford. When I awoke I spotted several deer browsing nearby. With my binoculars I was able to watch them for a full twenty minutes before they melted away into the shadows. Sitting still, watching: this is a part of my Pagan eco-magick, this is how I work with nature spirits. Had I been banging a drum or shaking a rattle, the deer would have passed me by.

            This brings me neatly to my final point, which is that we need to develop sensitivity. Here I am influenced by Adrian Harris’s ideas of embodied knowledge, but also particularly by Tai Chi philosophy. Through repeated practice of Tai Chi or Chi Gung, say, we can learn to sink our awareness into our bodies so as to feel and release tension, and thereby to sense the subtle energies of our body. It is a gradual process, not one of sudden epiphany. In a similar way we can learn an embodied sensitivity to nature as we come to know the ‘genius loci’, the spirit(s) of a place. Or, say, by getting out of the car and walking or cycling we can get to know the lie of the land in an embodied way (anyone who has cycled up ‘Labour-in-vain Hill’ near Avebury will understand what I mean). Or we can develop sensitivity to other perspectives by trying to alter our human sense of scale; lying down so as to get a weeds-eye view, or climbing a tree in order to feel what it might be like to live so long. However we chose to do this, the development of this embodied sensitivity requires that we engage with nature with a particular attitude, one of humility, perhaps even of prayer. We must, as Adrian Harris points out, learn to invite, rather than to invoke [5] .

Unfortunately current thought tells us that we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of our preconceptions regarding nature and that we will only ever be able to meet it half-way. For instance cultural historians have demonstrated that what we think of as ‘nature’ is not a stable category for it has changed through time contingent upon our socio-economic well-being. Thus during the Romantic period, that which had previously been thought of as inhospitable and dangerous became sublime and beautiful, somewhere for poets to wander in solitude, freely as a cloud. In current parlance we ‘construct’ nature, that is, we always relate to nature through the filter of our preconceptions about it. Far from being unsettling, the various ways in which we have constructed nature are interesting, because they reveal something about the way we lived and thought at the time. My suggestion is that given that we inevitably construct nature, and that we can only ever meet it half-way, how much better it would be if our constructions and preconceptions were grounded in embodied experience of nature, rather than based upon our urban imaginings.

And here I return to the analogy of flying a kite, for there is another way to go about it. One day on the Downs, I met a man flying a single string kite. It was made from balsa wood and tissue paper, and he had constructed it himself. It was designed for the lightest of breezes, and required some considerable skill to fly. By adjusting the tension of the string, pulling and letting go according to the strength of the wind, he was able to steer the kite, left, right, up and down; within a few minutes he had manoeuvred it high into the sky. What strikes me about this type of kite is that rather than being about control, it requires that the flyer sense, respond, and ultimately yield to the wind. Unlike two-string kites, where flyers merely heave left and right on the controls, the single string requires a relationship to be established between the flyer and the wind, a dialogue through this line of communication. The kite is a human construction, but built and used in the right sort of way enables us to meet and engage with nature on a more equal footing. Relationships are notoriously tricky things to maintain; they take time, commitment, and a willingness to learn, change, and above all to listen. However, if we are to truly oppose the mentality behind road- and railway-building, then these are the qualities that we need to foster within our practice of Paganism and eco-magick. I trust that we are up to the challenge.

[1] I do not wish here to be side-tracked into a discussion about how we define ‘nature’. For the purposes of this article I refer to ‘nature’ in two ways. Firstly, as areas of relatively high species diversity, and therefore as locations beyond urban and sub-urban locations: whilst accepting that humans and their creations (i.e. cities) are a part of nature, human interaction with the natural world tends to reduce species diversity. Secondly, as forces, such as the weather, which are beyond human control.

[2] Harris, A. 2000. Dragon Decade: a personal perspective on eco-magic. Dragon Eco-Magic Journal, 1: 16-19, p. 18.

[3] Durkheim, E. 1995 [1912]. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. The Free Press, New York.

[4] Fields, K. in Durkheim, 1995, p. xix.

[5] Harris, op. cit.

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Journal Contents - Earth Magics - Civilization and Its Discontents without Freud
Perspectives on Mass Ritual - How Pagan is Our Paganism?