[Today, The Wild Hunt welcomes author Christine Hoff Kraemer. Over the year, The Wild Hunt welcomes guests, like Kraemer, to share unique viewpoints and practices. Doing so is an important part of our overall mission. If you enjoy articles like this, please consider donating to The Wild Hunt. You make it possible for us to continue to provide a world platform to a diversity of voices, and we’ve got four more fantastic writers scheduled over the next three months and more coming in early 2017. The Wild Hunt is your community news service. Donate today.]

befunky-design2I’m nine years old, and it’s a sunny summer day. School’s out and there’s nowhere to be, nothing I have to do. I say goodbye to my mother, grab my bike and ride to my best friend’s house. “Can Lisa come out and play?” We walk in the woods near the playground. The sunlight filters down through green leaves and dances across the wet-weather creek where we go to hunt for frogs. Birds are singing, and distantly I can hear shouts from the kids spinning the merry-go-round at top speed. My friend has walked ahead, following the creek, and for few moments, I’m alone with the sound of my breath.

Does this sound like your childhood? If you’re my age—thirty-seven—or older, it may. Most children raised in the United States in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s spent a great deal of time playing unsupervised outdoors, often in the company of a mixed-age group of other children.

My childhood experiences of encountering the natural environment on my own, without direction or interference from an adult, are part of the bedrock of my Paganism. The quiet of the woods helped me learn to listen and connect to the land around me. Outdoors, by myself, was the first place that I felt spirit. Being out with other kids also helped make me self-reliant. We knew which houses had trusted adults in them if we needed help, and we knew how to find our way home. Those senses of interconnectedness and of my own personal power are part of what ultimately made me a Witch.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

Today, it is the rare child that spends much, if any, independent time outdoors. Some of this shift is because so many homes now have streaming television and video game systems—engrossing entertainment that discourages kids from going outside to seek fun. But why are parents no longer kicking their kids outdoors for some healthy exercise, far away from these hypnotic screens? The explanation lies in a generational change in American parenting culture.

“You Can Never Be Too Safe”—Or Can You?

Since the 1990s, constant supervision of children has become the norm, especially in urban and suburban areas. American parents have embraced safety as the top priority for their children, to the extent that even minor risks have sometimes been deemed unacceptable. As a result, many of the useful skills that were part of my childhood—small things like learning to use a sharp knife or operate the oven—have been actively discouraged. Today, many parents (as well as police, social services workers, and other authorities) assume that pre-adolescent children are essentially helpless. Children are commonly not permitted to play outside unless an adult can be present.

Journalist Lenore Skenazy was unexpectedly catapulted to national fame in 2008 when she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway by himself. The media picked up the story, and Skenazy suddenly found herself being decried as “the world’s worst mom”… and invited on talk shows. Skenazy used the opportunity to write a book, found a website, and ultimately start a movement: Free-Range Kids.

Skenazy’s book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) advocates strongly for independent outdoor play as soon as the parent judges that the child is ready. It also reflects on an important question: Why are American parents so obsessed with the idea of safety when we are, in fact, living in incredibly safe times? Skenazy rolls out statistic after statistic: after a peak in the early 1990s, crime rates are down to where they were in the early 1970s and are still falling.[1] Yet there are widespread perceptions that American society is much less safe for children than when today’s parents are growing up.

Skenazy argues that this is due to a media culture of fear-mongering that has made parents unable to calmly and rationally evaluate risk, especially when it comes to “stranger danger,” the possibility of child abduction by a stranger. Journalists say that “If it bleeds, it leads”— stories about tragedy and violence draw viewers and, therefore, make money. This is especially true for news stories about strangers preying on children. These tragedies routinely receive national coverage and are then recycled into true-crime shows and made-for-TV movies.

The painstakingly detailed, terrifying coverage of crimes against children gives the impression that child abductions by strangers are common. In reality, they are incredibly rare. As Skenazy reports, stranger abduction is so unusual that children are 40 times more likely to die in a car accident than they are to be kidnapped and killed by a stranger.[2] 2,000 American children die in car accidents every year, yet it is the rare parent who hesitates over strapping a child into a car.

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

Is Skenazy arguing that allowing kids independent outdoor play is 100% safe? Not at all—but she argues that in most cases, it is safe enough considering the benefits. In Free to Learn, educational psychologist Peter Gray writes that free play is the primary way that children develop emotional resilience, learn to solve problems, and develop social skills—and that to develop these skills, outdoor play with friends is ideal.[3]

Being able to explore freely outdoors gives kids opportunities to explore their world, make up creative new games, and build community through befriending their neighbors. Play unsupervised by adults encourages self-reliance and gives a sense of competence. Children who run their own errands or can spend an evening alone are learning the street smarts and self-care skills that they will need as adults—and today, cell phones means they can do it with their parents only a quick call or a text away.

It’s probably no surprise for Pagans to hear that being outdoors is also hugely beneficial to our health, but this fact is now becoming well-known in mainstream culture. Recent studies suggest that time spent in natural settings improves short-term memory and concentration, increases energy, encourages creativity, reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system, and more.[4] Too much indoor time can actively harm one’s health as well: dangers include vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of diabetes and depression.[5]

The Free-Range Parenting Movement in the Courts

The right to raise our children with our religious and spiritual values should be fundamental. Pagans who want their children to spend time in nature independently, however, need to be prepared to educate disapproving neighbors and deal with suspicious law enforcement. Because of today’s overprotective parenting culture, parents who allow their children to walk to school or play outside unsupervised may find themselves being interviewed by Child Protective Services or even arrested.

In 2014, Debra Harrell was arrested and jailed for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park while she was at work. According to news coverage, the daughter had a cell phone and a key to her house, which was a brief walk away. She had asked to go the park as an alternative to what she had been doing for most of the summer: playing on a laptop at the McDonald’s where her mother was employed.

Skenazy documents this and many similar cases on the Free Range Kids blog. Fortunately for Harrell and her daughter, however, Skenazy was not the only one taking notice. Media outlets as large as CNN picked up the story, noting potential racial bias against a “mother of color.”[6] Harrell received pro bono legal assistance to secure her release, keep her job, and restore her custody of her daughter. Happily, in the summer of 2016, a Facebook group formed to help raise legal funds for the Harrells reported that the jury had declined to indict and that there will be no further action taken against Harrell.[7]


[public domain]

It is exciting to see that as such cases receive more media attention, government decisions are often coming down in favor of families’ right to give children more freedom. In 2015, the Meitiv family of Silver Spring, Maryland were repeatedly harassed by local authorities after allowing their six-year-old and ten-year-old to walk together in their neighborhood.[8] After the Meitivs announced their intention to sue, Maryland officials clarified that so long as there is no specific and substantial threat of harm, children walking or playing outside unsupervised do not require the attention of Child Protective Services.[9] This statement is a tremendous victory for the Meitivs and may help protect families with free-range parenting philosophies in the future.

Free-Range for an Uncertain Future

As reports from government agencies and scientists mount, we can no longer be in doubt: climate change is already causing volatile weather patterns, rising temperatures, and flooding. These shifts are impacting agriculture, clean water supplies, housing and more in ways that will ultimately affect us all. For those of us in the United States, our grandchildren—perhaps our children—may need to learn how to live in a lower-tech, less comfortable environment than we enjoy today. Some may be at the mercy of the elements in a way most of us have never experienced.

When my husband and I discuss the education of our son, now just a toddler, this global reality is never far from our minds. We want to encourage our son’s independence, resilience, creativity, and persistence. We want him outdoors as much as possible, learning to use his body and forming relationships with the animals and plants he finds there. We want him to feel supported and loved, but we also want him to be able to take care of himself.

Because there is so much pressure to keep kids indoors and supervised at all times, we’ve realized that if we want our child to be competent, self-reliant, and comfortable in nature, we will have to create opportunities for independent outdoor play deliberately. When I imagine my son at twelve years old, I see him able to ride his bike to the store to buy milk; I see him able to catch, clean, and cook a fish over a fire he made; I see him able to mow a lawn, operate a smartphone, care for a dog, and bandage a burn.

We’ve started out by putting him in a nature preschool where the children play in the woods and learn to recognize animal signs and identify plants. I hope that in the future, we will continue to find support for our parenting with other free-range parents, alternative schools, scouting, and Pagan groups.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

What Can I Do?

Are resilience, self-reliance, and love of nature some of the Pagan values you want your kids to have? Want to protect your parental rights and form communities of support for free-range parenting? Here are some positive steps to take.

  1. Educate yourself. Read the Free-Range Kids blog at freerangekids.com, or check out the work of Daniel Pimentel, a professor who is writing about parenting philosophies and the law.[10]
  2. Get to know your neighbors, and make sure the people around you know that your child is permitted to play outside independently. You can even download a “Free-Range Kid” membership card that your child can give to other concerned adults.
  3. Join the National Association of Parents at parentsusa.org. This nonprofit group works to protect the rights of parents to raise their children as they choose.
  4. Educate your community. To head off neighbors’ concerns, offer to give your neighborhood association or community group a presentation on the benefits of free-range parenting. Distribute safety statistics, and arm sympathetic friends and fellow Pagans with them too.
  5. Organize a Free-Range Kids Project in your Pagan group or at your kids’ school.[11] FRK Projects provide support for kids to do something new on their own. Parents connect with each other around their worries and hopes, and the community as a whole gets to discuss parenting philosophies and form new friendships.

 *    *    *

[1] Skenazy, Lenore. Free Range Kids (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 182-183, or for updated statistics, check Free-RangeKids.com
[2] Skenazy. pp. 228. [For citations, see “Strangers with Candy” 209-210.]
[3] Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2013).
[4] Friedman, Laura F. and Kevin Loria, “11 scientifically proven reasons you should be spending less time in the office,” Business Insider 30 June 2015.
[5] Skenazy. pp. xx-xxi.
[6] Wallace, Kelly. “Mom arrested for leaving 9-year-old alone at park.” CNN.com 21 July 2014.
[7] Support Debra Harrell group, Facebook.com 30 July 2016.
[8] Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “A ‘free range’ family fights back: ‘The police coerced our children into the back of a patrol car,’” Salon.com 15 April 2015.
[9] St. George, Donna. “Md. officials: Letting ‘free range’ kids walk or play alone is not neglect,” The Washington Post 11 June 2015.
[10] Pimentel, David. “Criminal Child Neglect and the “Free Range Kid“: Is Overprotective Parenting the New Standard of Care?,” Utah Law Review (2012).
[11] For more information, see Skenazy’s article, “The Simple School Project that Sets Kids Free,” published in The Huffington Post 7 Oct 2013.

[About the Author: Christine Hoff Kraemer is a religious studies scholar specializing in contemporary Paganism, sexuality, theology, and popular culture. In 2008, she completed her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University. Christine is an instructor in the Theology and Religious History department at Cherry Hill Seminary. Her books include Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies and the collection Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy (edited with Yvonne Aburrow). She is also the proud parent of an extremely high-energy toddler.]

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Cultures throughout the world have beliefs and traditions honoring ancestral practices.  Ancestral veneration is not just a hot topic in October when the popular holiday of Halloween hits the mainstream celebration circuit, but it is also a practice routinely honored in sacred space and in many ways throughout the year.

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

Whether for protection, wisdom, guidance, reverence, or for much needed intervention, the way that religions and communities work with the ancestors is often very personal and cultural. I have often found that discussions of ancestral work within the Modern Pagan community often neglect to speak to some of the very relevant pieces of my own ancestors stories, which do differ from the crowd. The ancestors within the African American communities tell a very different tale, one that can be neglected in the generalized perception of who the “mighty dead” are. There isn’t often allowances made or room for the discussions of our ancestors specific path.

So when I heard of a celebration honoring the very specific ancestors of the Middle Passage and slavery, I knew it was important for me to be present.

The Annual Maafa Commemoration began on Oct. 9 at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California. This event celebrated it’s 21st year of putting on the Maafa celebration in the Bay Area.

According to the Maafa SF Bay Area website, Maafa is a Swahili word for “disaster, calamity, or terrible occurrence.” It has come to be known to describe the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, otherwise called the Middle Passage. It is also often referred to as the “Black Holocaust” within communities of people of African ancestry.

The Maafa SF Bay Area group has continued to facilitate this open “commemoration ceremony and mourning ritual” to honor the ancestors that suffered in the middle passage, and to those who have continued to suffer under the weight of the aftermath of slavery into modern day. The website invites all people of African descent to come to the remembrance to support personal and collective cultural healing for those of the African diaspora. The website states:

In the San Francisco Bay Area, October is Maafa Awareness Month–it is a time to reflect on the legacy of slavery: victims and beneficiaries in the short and long term and look at ways to mend, repair and heal the damage to Pan African descendants of the enslaved and their New Afrikan societies. The toll has been tremendous: psychological, economic, social, physical, emotional and spiritual.

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

I decided to go to the Maafa commemoration after hearing about it from a fellow African American Pagan woman. The importance of the legacy of historical oppression and the pain that many African American/Black people carry in this country, and throughout the world, is something very tangible and real. It felt like an important spiritual experience to promote a healing that is very much needed in current times, as well as being a way that Black people local to the Bay Area can venerate their ancestors whose graves are in the ocean.  

I arrived about 5:30 AM, in the dark of the morning with my 15 year old son, several family members, and a couple of fellow Black Pagan friends. There were well over 100 other people of African descent gathered around a fire burning on Ocean Beach, and the air was filled with the rhythmic pounding of the drums. People were standing, dancing, and celebrating in the dark morning hours to honor the ancestors of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade.

In the crowded darkness and dampness of the beach, we gathered among people we did not know. In any other context this would have been quite frightening, but among a few friends and several family members, I felt strongly comforted by the energy of the shared legacy present in the air.

What followed was a series of events that contributed to the overall experience of connection and mourning that comes with celebrating the that shared history of commiseration among the descendants of slaves living here in the United States.

The unfolding of events took up about 5 hours as the sun came up. A series of symbolic and magical moments happened, all of which were profoundly and spiritually impactful for me as a Black woman. The drums continued to beat throughout the dark and into the light of day while we went through what felt like initiatory, magical, and ritualistic honoring of the ancestors, our journey, and the legacy of those who were enslaved during the Middle Passage.

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

As I stood there in line with my family in front of me and my son behind me, I faced the ocean, looking at the large fabricated gates that symbolized the “gates of no return.” I held the rope as the slaves would have held the chains, and there was a somber alignment in that moment with my ancestors.

Standing in line for over an hour, I was able to really contemplate what that meant to me, to my family, and to my spiritual understanding of ancestral connection.

Following our journey through the “Gates of No Return”, we gathered by the ocean to share songs, ritual, poetry, stories, and connection in remembrance. Wanda Sabir welcomed us all to the healing ceremony with the following words:

As we process through the Door of No Return give thanks for what we remember…. Trauma induces amnesia, yet the body remembers what the mind forgets. Intuition is another name for Divine Spirit. The bones which lie between Alkebulan and the West link Black people genetically through this liquid experience: sweat, blood, feces, urine, milk, after-birth, death.

The transcontinental passage, our ancestors packaged as if they were inanimate cargo, connects our souls and scarred bodies to this day. The Maafa Commemoration acknowledges this. The yokes and chains and shackles many of us still bear speak to this, as does freedom.

After 5 hours of amazing alignment in the honoring of those who came before, I took some time to consider the spiritual significance of the experience and the importance of ancestral connection. While my own path honors the ancestors all the time, this level of veneration and remembrance is radically different than what I imagined it would be.

After the ceremony, I also took a moment to speak with two fellow Black Pagans who had attended this year’s Maafa Commemoration. What motivated each of them to go this year, and how did the experience contribute to spiritual path and experience of the world?

I went to a Maafa event years ago but hadn’t been in quite a while. I decided to go this year because I felt the need to reconnect with my ancestors’ presence.

I realize that honoring my ancestors and recognizing their sacrifices is an integral part of my spiritual path. My ancestors who suffered through the Middle Passage, through slavery, through Jim Crow and all the abuses and oppression Black people suffer until this day; enable me to keep pushing forward. – M. A.

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

That’s a good question. I had a busy week, and was looking forward to “sleeping in” until 8 that morning when I notice a post on Facebook with a video attached from the previous year. I am a native San Franciscan and had never heard of the ritual at Ocean Beach. I am studying to facilitate Ancestor Healing, so Ancestors are extremely important to me. I had just gone through yet again another, “Dark Night of the Soul” where I questioned my Spirit Guides to why they allowed us (Black Folk) to continue to suffer. When I pulled a card to help me reconnect to my core spiritual self, I go, “When the waters of life don’t flow, we feel disconnected. Our intuition or inner compass seems unable to get us back on track. A ceremony to connect with water may be indicated, where you can consciously connect to the power of this element.” It seemed like a “no brainer.”

I got some very powerful messages from my Ancestor that confirmed the path that I’m on. When we were holding the rope and walking down the path to “The Doors of No Return” I felt a deep sense of hopelessness, fear, and regret. I actually felt the chains around my neck. It helped me to realize that we (My Ancestors) have gone through so much and survived without a sense of bitterness or hate. And looking at what we still are going through it really showed me how resilient we are as a people. I am still sorting out my feelings, and even though it was a very emotional day with sooooooo many signs that they are with us, it gave me a renewed sense of hope. Hope that we will get through this “dark time” and more importantly, we are not alone! – Luna Pantera

There is power in being able to connect with the ancestors in true, authentic, and supportive ways. While many traditions within modern Pagan and polytheist communities embrace a connection to the ancestors, how are we addressing the distinct stories of the diverse ancestry that enters into our communities and circles? How can we acknowledge the necessity of such things when we engage in community ancestral practices? How are those specific stories left out of our shared spaces?

[Photo Credit: Crystal Blanton]

While none of these questions have easy answers, the importance of being able to acknowledge the very real history of my ancestors and the pain of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is now much clearer. These stories are uncomfortable and bring up different emotions for different people; they break through the walls of cognitive dissonance that we often have in place to protect our feelings of safety.

Yet, if there are Black people in our circles, keeping out the stories of these ancestors contribute to making those members feel unwelcome and unaccepted. The stories of our ancestors are important; our ancestors need to be heard.

I will continue to unpack my own experiences from participating in the Maafa ceremony and having a different level of connection to the very real history of my people. There is something about walking through the symbolic doors of no return together with my family, while facing the ocean, and hearing the waves hit the shore. In contemporary society, when many of us are experiencing and watching the horror of oppression and violence against ethnic and religious minorities, it is imperative that we hear what the ancestors have to say.

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GLASTONBURY, England — As the wheel of the year turns and Samhain draws ever nearer, many people’s thoughts are turning to death, release, and endings.The Harvest is gathered; the nights grow long; the weather turns damp and cold. Some would argue that this is summer in Britain.

There are some people who can easily embody the energy of a particular time, and John Awen, a Druid based in Glastonbury, Somerset, embodies the energy of Samhain perfectly.

John Awen [Photo Credit: Adrian Farris photography, copyright reserved]

John Awen [Photo Credit: Adrian Farris photography, copyright reserved]

Awen’s life has been a reflection of the phoenix rising from the flames – not once but many times. He had his hopes of a military career dashed. He descended into drug abuse and crime, before suffering a near-fatal stabbing that served as a catalyst for change. Having grown into his spiritual path, Awen learned that, as a consequence of his previous life, he now has an incurable heart condition.

But ever positive and living in the moment, Awen believes the only way is up – and he has now realised another childhood ambition by becoming a published writer.

Awen’s latest offering, Baby Naming Day, is an exploration of the tradition of naming including, but not limited to, baby names. He said: “It’s a metaphysical look on how we name, what we name, popular names, gender-less names, then culminating with ceremonies around the world and given a descriptive on naming ceremonies today and devising ceremonies.”

He added, “Names are important – there’s a great power in names.”

The book comes not long after his first major published work, Journey to the Summerlands: Pagan Death and Rebirth. This is a Druidic take on a subject Awen knows intimately. Born in 1969 with a urine infection and underdeveloped lungs, Awen spent his first four months in an incubator.

“I’ve been battling to stay alive since I was born,” he said. “My parents were told I probably wouldn’t make it – yet here I am.”

Awen became interested in Druidry at a young age. Sent off to weekly Sunday school at seven, he began asking difficult questions. “After a while I was just ignored by the teachers, even though I had my hand up all the time. In the end I just bunked off and started going to the woods and asking my questions there.”

Awen’s world was turned upside down when he was involved in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19. “From the age of three I wanted to be a soldier. That was all I wanted to do. I’d been accepted into the army at 19, and shortly after I had the accident that shattered which my ankle. It was plated and pinned and I was on crutches for 18 months. I couldn’t join after that. I felt like I’d been dealt a bum hand.”

Despite his intention on being a soldier, it would seem that fate was already working through him to make herself known. As he explained, the one time that he was actually asked what he wanted to be as adult, he didn’t answer soldier. “I said ‘I want to write books!’ ” He was only seven at the time.

This early spark of the awen, however, was to lie dormant for years. Lacking direction, he drifted “from dead-end job to dead-end job.” He started using cannabis and amphetamines, and explained: “My addictive personality kicked in, after a while I didn’t just want to be buying it, I wanted to be selling it as well.”

[Photo Credit: Adrian Farris photography, copyright reserved]

[Photo Credit: Adrian Farris photography, copyright reserved]

This period in Awen’s life was also punctuated with stints in prison for driving offences.

Then in 1997, his life turned again, when he discovered heroin. The following 10 years were a cycle of drug use, petty crime, and prison. He also suffered three heart attacks. Awen laughs: “I’ve crossed over so many times I’ve lost count!”

This cycle was finally broken in 2007 during an aggravated robbery in which he, once again, nearly lost his life. Awen said, “I felt someone punch me in the back and I fell to the ground. I was on my way to score some gear [slang for ‘heroin’] with my mate and had a wad of notes in my back pocket.

“I felt my pocket being touched, someone ran past me, and I knew I’d been robbed. I cried out in pain and said ‘What was that?’ My friend said ‘Hang on John, you’re in trouble here.’ I’d been stabbed in the back three times.”

The brutal incident proved to be a turning point in his life. Awen said: “As I lay there I was floating above my body, feeling warm, and content, and I thought ‘Right, I’m happy with this.’ Then something, some gear cog, just clicked into place and said, ‘There’s more to life than this.’ I don’t remember anything else for several days – I’d been rushed into hospital and had a full blood transfusion. I discharged myself a few weeks later and within two months I was off methadone and clean of all illicit drugs.”

This near-death event marked a rebirth. “When that gear cog kicked in, that was it,” Awen explained. And, it was one little sentence that he took refuge in over the subsequent months as he became substance free. There’s more to life than this.

During this change, Awen returned to his childhood sanctuary of the woods and nature. “After 11 to 12 years of not having to think much, my mind was like a tap that was totally, totally turned on. I started asking questions again, people didn’t seem to have any answers. I started walking again and asking questions, and getting them answered.

“I also started reading, I knew I felt a connection to the universe, to the land, the moon, the sun, the stars all of it. I knew about the word Pagan. I started researching the different beliefs, traditions and faiths and Druidry ticked all the boxes.

But I needed to put my own take on it. Any tradition is not about adhering to someone else’s indoctrinations and allowing them to have power over you. What you believe in and what that becomes should be a state of heart. If you can balance your body and allow your mind and body to feel the same, then that resonates on a much deeper spiritual level.”


[Photo Credit: Adrian Farris photography, copyright reserved]

It is this hard-won balance and perspective that informs Awen’s work. However, death was not finished with him yet. He worked for a time in the funeral trade, experiencing death as it happened to others.

“I’ve been through the whole lot of it, I’ve comforted people as they’ve come to terms with the passing of a loved one, I washed and cleaned up bodies, I’ve lowered coffins into the ground and tended bodies in the burning rooms at the crematorium.

“I’ve been with people as they’ve transitioned over and seen their lives expire and I’ve supported and comforted. Even with animals as well, so it’s been a massive part of my life.”

However, it is another, more intimate knowledge of death that informed Awen’s best-known offering, Journey to the Summerlands: Pagan Death and Rebirth. Since 2015, Awen has been living with the knowledge that he has a heart condition that could stop it from working at any moment. Doctors have told him there is no treatment for his condition and every day is a blessing. It is this finality, his acceptance of this condition, that led him to write Journey to the Summerlands.

Ironically, it is this wisdom that has birthed him as an author. Journey to the Summerlands is the book in which he shares his unique, intimate perspective of death and rebirth. Awen’s life is a testament to this concept, literally and metaphorically.

He said: “My aim is to enable others to reach an understanding of the afterlife. What we’re aiming to do on all of our journeys is to know everything. Everything is there to shape and mould us. What I find important is creating a state of heart, which in turn creates a state of mind.”

Despite his condition, Awen is incredibly upbeat and at peace with life. Next March will see the publication of his fourth book, titled Ancestors.

Awen reiterated, “Ever since the age of three I wanted to be a soldier, but the one time I was asked as a child aged 7, what I wanted to be when I grew up, ‘I said I want to write books!’”

He has embraced his past and sees it as an integral part of his journey. “There’s been prison, there’s been shoplifting, there’s been all sorts of things that are part and parcel of who I am today, but it was my path and I don’t have any regrets.”

Then he added, “I have had regrets in the past, but now I’m happy with who I am. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I know who I am; I know what I’ve done and I know what I’d like to achieve. I’m a million-piece jigsaw and if I take one little piece away from that jigsaw, the picture isn’t complete. After 47 years of constantly bloody fighting, this is the best place I’ve been.”

[There are only 17 days left in the Fall Fund Drive. How much would you pay for a monthly magazine subscription or a daily news service? If you read The Wild Hunt and enjoy the service, donate today. It is your support that keeps our team serving you with professional news and commentary each day. This is your community; TWH is your community news source. Donate today and share our link! Thank you.]

Gordon only created the Pagan of the Year Award so that he could give it to himself.” — Arwen Starda

DETROIT –That wisecrack about Gordon Ireland was recounted by Arwen Starda’s daughter Gwenn, after Arwen was named Michigan’s 2016 Pagan of the Year. And, Ireland has taken great pains to be certain that Arwen’s prediction doesn’t come true. Not only will he not be involved in selecting the annual honoree for 2017 and beyond, he has also secured an agreement that he himself will not be named in his lifetime.

Awarding the honor to longtime co-conspirator Arwen Starda as one of his last official acts before his retirement may well be evidence of what Gwenn Starda calls his “sick sense of humor.”

But Ireland isn’t talking about that.

Gordon and Paula Ireland [courtesy photo]

Gordon and Paula Ireland [Courtesy Photo]

What he was willing to talk about was the incredibly vibrant Pagan community in Michigan, a community that he himself has sought to improve in multiple ways. Ireland has had a hand in a number of other high-profile projects. Those include the Midwest Witches’ Ball, Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund, and the Pagans in Need food bank.

In addition, he launched the Pagan of the Year award, which is now in its fifth year. The 2016 winner Arwen Starda joins other winners: Kenya Coviak, Jacki Smith, Michael Wiggins, and David Trexler, who have all been recognized for their contributions to Michigan’s Pagan community.

Ireland and his wife Paula came up with the idea as a way to recognize those people that always seemed to be lending a hand, year in and year out. “We made a list of people, came up with 15 that we thought would deserve it,” he recalled. Honorees get a handsome plaque at the Witches’ Ball, and free tickets to next year’s soiree.

Exactly who is on that list remains a secret, but Ireland made it clear that his name isn’t among them. Pagans in the region might intuit who future honorees may be from Ireland’s description of the criteria: “must be doing something positive for the community, and we like people who do it because it needs to be done, not people who do it to say, ‘look at me.’ ”

Ireland’s list has now been delivered to the leadership of the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry. The winner will no longer be selected by Ireland and his wife, as in past years. Part of the agreement in passing the award-selection on to the church is that neither Gordon nor Paula are eligible to receive it.

“I told them that after I die, they can award me with whatever they want.”

Just the two of them picking winners has worked well, Ireland says, because the fewer people that know, the easier it is to surprise the recipient. However, the process has always welcomed nominations from the public. If no one deemed suitable is nominated in a particular year, the award goes to someone else from that original list, he explained. Others have been entrusted with the winner’s name, and it’s worked out well until this point.

“We had to give a wife free tickets to get her husband to attend, but she was good at keeping the secret.”

According to the loose criteria he provided, Ireland would otherwise be well-qualified to be named Pagan of the Year several times over. It’s been given to luminaries like David Trexler, who in the wake of Tempest Smith’s suicide founded Witches of Michigan to educate people on the Wiccan faith. Smith’s mother Danessa started a scholarship for Pagans in her daughter’s name, and when that foundation was closed, Ireland helped launch the Michigan Pagan Scholarship to continue that legacy.

Another winner, Michael Wiggins, saw to it that the Magical Education Council — host organization for ConVocation — donates $500 annually to that scholarship fund.

As for this year’s honoree, Arwen Starda, her daughter explained some of what she’s been up to.

In addition to being part of the Witches’ Ball committee for all these years and organizing all the good works that I spoke about, Arwen has also been hosting the Pagan Roundtable the first Tuesday of every month at the Mount Clemens library since 1996. I can remember myself and my brothers being hauled there as kids. This group was a lifeline to Pagans seeking to connect with one another in the days before the internet was ubiquitous. People that met there have made lifetime friendships and relationships.

Ireland might be considered worthy of being called “Pagan of the year” just for his work on the scholarship, or even for establishing the annual award alone. However, he has also done many other things to normalize Pagans as being members of a religion, albeit an alternative religion. There’s a Boy Scout troop sponsored by the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry church, as well as a recovery group and food bank that are designed for Pagans, both with his fingerprints on them.

Pagan of the Year award from 2013 [courtesy photo]

Pagan of the Year award from 2013 [courtesy photo]

What makes it all possible, however, is the Witches’ Ball. It is the financial engine making all the other programs possible. In fact, the ball was among the first projects that Ireland worked on 20 years ago, and it is not one he’s going to divorce himself from completely.

“I’ll still attend,” he said. “I just won’t plan it.”

What makes the ball such a powerful platform, Ireland believes, is the marketing behind it. That program includes the marketing of the sponsors, who pay more than half of its budget each year. The fact that there are solid covens around, the members of which are willing to collaborate on setting up the space and the yearlong organization, certainly helps as well.

Pagans in Need — one of his proudest accomplishments — started out, Ireland explains, as “a food bank filled and maintained by Universal Society of Ancient Ministry supporters to meet the needs of those who might be turned away from other sources due to their professed religious orientation.”

Ireland put the paperwork in order to make this a non-profit agency, and he’s proud to see how it has grown. “This charity has expanded to address diverse needs such as lack of home appliances, shutoff notices, and eviction notices,” he said.

Most of these projects involve the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry, and that is no coincidence. Ireland founded the church, set up the by-laws, and made sure that it was recognized by IRS officials. He also built the web sites for the organization’s numerous programs, but otherwise says he’s not involved with it.

“I helped with it because I wanted to see if I could,” he said.

Gordon Ireland probably doesn’t have any more good ideas than any another Pagan, but he does possess the ability to follow through until they become reality. That, and he unabashedly taps into the large number of “people of like minds” to whom he has access within the Detroit area. While he won’t become the official Pagan of the Year — at least in his lifetime — the impact of his 20 years of service to Paganism in Michigan will be felt for a long time to come.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The 13th annual Nashville Pagan Pride Day (NPPD) event was visited by three Christian street preachers who call themselves Nashville Saints. The men arrived at the Two Rivers Park with bibles, signs, and a bullhorn. They proceed to shout at the attendees for several hours before they finally left.

Nashville Pagan Pride Day 2016 [Courtesy NPPD]

Nashville Pagan Pride Day 2016 [Courtesy NPPD]

According to organizers, this was the first time that Nashville Pagan Pride Day had attracted this type of attention. “There were three of them,” said Rev. Mary Hawk, is the local co-coordinator for the event as well as the president and secretary for NPPD Inc. “I had a part in main ritual, and they showed up while I was busy with that.”

Rev. Hawk is a longtime volunteer and attendee at NPPD. She has been part of the event since its early days in 2003 when it was still at one of two local Unitarian churches. In 2015, the organization moved the event to Two Rivers Park, because they had outgrown the indoor church space.

Rev. Hawk said that this year they saw their biggest crowd yet, topping at 739 guests.

This fairly recent change in location and the event’s growth may explain why it had yet to see any type of protesters. Rev. Hawk said, “My daughter who was present tells me that she has seen this group on Second Ave. (a major Nashville tourist destination) yelling out the same sort of stuff to everyone passing by.”

That is true. The three men make up a local street preaching group that labels itself the Nashville Saints. They are regulars in the area and travel around the Southeast with their bullhorn and signs.

Quentin Deckard is one of the two main speakers. He calls himself Saint Quentin and says that he is “Disciple of Jesus Christ.” As he explains on his Facebook page: “Who I was before this point in my life is irrelevant.” He was joined by two other men identified as Marvin Heiman and Tim Baptist.

As reported by Rev. Hawk and others, the park police escorted the three men through the event one time. “After that tour up and down the length of vendor row, they remained at the front of the event, between our welcome table and the line for the food vendor,” notes Rev. Hawk. Yelling the entire time, the men walked slowly through the space, carrying their backpacks, a sign, bibles, several cameras, and a unused bullhorn.

Their entire walk can be seen in the above 40-minute video taken by the men themselves, as well as in a Facebook live video shot by Deckard. Many Pagan onlookers also recorded videos. Ariel Marie Barnes and Carria Woodburn posted their videos on the Nashville PPD event page.

Attendees reacted to the street preachers in different ways. Some tried to reason with them, and even tried to shake their hands. Rev. Hawk said, “I approached them to ask if they would care to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank (one of our designated charities) but they totally ignored me and continued ranting.”

One woman circled them with a smudge stick and, as can be seen in the longer video, another appears to have circled them with salt. As the men walked by, Rev. Hawk and others joined their voices in a chant of “We all come from the Goddess.”

Rev. Hawk said said that a few people were very upset by the presence of the street preachers. However, most thought “it was hilarious.” She said that there were people surrounding them at all times. “At one point, the protesters yelled, ‘You are all going to die.’ Several people yelled back, “Well, so are you!'”

Lucia Jameson, one of the other event coordinators and the vice president of NPPD Inc. agreed, saying, “Most of [our attendees] treated the religious bullies as free entertainment and took the opportunity to mock them a bit.

“One attendee wearing a jester’s cap, black and red pants, and black-and-red arm bracers decided to mimic every move of the main yeller. […]  A young lady and her girlfriend shared a kiss in front of them and them skipped past them, holding hands and shouting ‘We’re Pagan and we’re gay!'”

Nashville Pagan Pride Day 2016 [Courtesy NPPD]

Nashville Pagan Pride Day 2016. The man in the jester’s cap can also be seen in Carria Woodburn’s video. [Courtesy NPPD]

Jameson added that there was no way to fully shield attendees or keep people away from the street preachers. The crowd was too large. She added, “Primarily I tried to make sure that our attendees knew not to physically touch them no matter what they said. [The protesters] weren’t leaving until they got enough video to post and our folks were not going to ignore them while they were screaming.”

However the coordinators did get help from the park police. Rev. Hawk said, “Metro Parks requires that anyone holding an event in a park pay for Metro Park Police to provide security.”

“[Officers] did closely monitor the situation,” continued Rev. Hawk. “[They] explained what we had to allow legally and saw to that that protesters stayed with in those bounds. I cannot speak highly enough of their work at NPPD, especially Lt. Houston Taylor.”

TWH reached out to the Metro Park Police, but they did not respond in time for publication.

Nashville PPD [Courtesy NPPD]

Metro Police talking to street preachers at Nashville Pagan Pride Day 2016 [Courtesy NPPD]

Jameson said, “The police were there the for the entire event. I spoke when them several times throughout the day. They were very helpful, keeping an eye on the incident as it unfolded. They were ready to intervene as necessary.”

In the end, the street preachers only stayed for a reported two hours, after which, Jameson said, the street preachers began to get hoarse. She explained that they could not use their bullhorn. “That may have contributed to their departure.”

Rev. Hawk speculated that a dwindling audience also contributed to their short stay. She said, “Our main entertainment, a concert by Rowena of the Glen, started. Most of those watching [the protesters] left to hear the concert.”

Despite the disruption and the shouting, NPPD saw its most successful year yet. As Rev. Hawk and Jameson both reported, the organization raised collected 369 pounds of food and $148 in cash for Second Harvest Food Bank, and 267 pounds of dog and cat food, plus treats, miscellaneous items and $230 in cash for the Middle Tennessee Pet Food Bank. The organization also raised $230 in cash for the school at the NoDAPL camp in North Dakota.

Jameson said, “Both our vendors and attendees were pleased overall with the event and let us know that they are looking forward to next year.” With that said, she added that the NPPD committee will be discussing what happened. “Based on the events this year we are looking at what we can do to have better control if a similar incident occurs next year.”

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14724656_10210624116742889_6722353328289287912_nCHICAGO – The mid-west Pagan community lost one of its elders last week. It was announced that Lady Flora, also known as Georgeanne Hollingsworth, had died on Oct. 7 after complications due to “diabetes and numerous bouts of congestive heart failure.”

Lady Flora was trained and initiated by David Cole and Janet Berres, the leaders of the Coven of Hecate. She eventually went on to establish her own group, becoming the high priestess of the Grove of Aphrodite, which thrived in the Chicago during the 1980s and 1990s. Due to her location, Lady Flora was able to easily attend the very first modern Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1993.

Over the years, Lady Flora taught both Wicca and tarot. Additionally, she taught shamanism with the help of her husband, high priest Rex Hollingsworth, who was reportedly part Mohegan. Lady Flora’s sister, Lady Annabelle, who is high priestess of the Pittsburgh-based Grove of Gaia, said that “Lady Flora was a dynamic and amazing high priestess and teacher and initiatrix of Wicca.” Her group is planning a celebration of life in Pittsburgh, and is also working to host a second memorial in Chicago. What is remembered, lives.

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logo trothTWH – The Troth has voted to amend the oath taken by its elected or “titled” representatives. As explained in an Oct. 16 blog post, “The new verbiage includes some small changes to the third paragraph to make it read more easily and the inclusion of a new paragraph (fourth) that reflects current Troth policy.”

The new oath will be required of all newly elected representatives. However, opportunities will be made available for current representatives to renew their oath using the updated version. The board statement continues, “We on the Rede see this step as a positive, proactive change that is aligned with The Troth’s Mission and stated positions.”

What is this stated position? The oath’s new additions reinforce statements of inclusivity with regard to race, sexuality, gender and more. This oath change coincides with the Troth’s recent re-assertions of its mission to support inclusive Heathenry. The new oath can be read in full on the Troth’s blog.

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308979_10150223697084956_60467375_nNASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Oct. 1 Pagan Pride Day event held in Nashville, Tennessee was visited by a group of Christian protesters. The protesting organization, which is led by a man named Saint Quentin, is called the Nashville Saints. Quentin labels himself an “open-air preacher” and frequents Nashville street corners and other parts of the city in order to share his beliefs. In this case, Quentin explained, “The Nashville Saints take up the sword of the spirit against the wicked demonic powers at work within Nashville’s Pagans.”

Fortunately for the Nashville Pagan Pride Day organizers and attendees, the protesters did remain within their legal limits, and were monitored closely by the park police. The daylong event was considered a success, despite any disruptions from Quentin’s group. We will have much more on this story tomorrow. 

In other news

  • If you participated in Saturday’s Warrior’s Call to action “Voices on the Wind,” the group would like to share your photos and experiences. Organizers are asking people to send them links to blog posts or any photos taken for use on its own Facebook page and website. This blog, for example, shared the Voices on the Wind event held in Cheshire, England. In December, Warrior’s Call will be hosting a single day workshop in Glastonbury, England. The goal is to “explore ways to work constructively to prevent fracking around the world.”
  • Pagans in Need (PIN) has uploaded a Yule application for its holiday program. The application should be used to apply for any assistance needed during the upcoming busy holiday season. PIN hosts a number of assistance programs, including a Secret Santa service and a toy collection. PIN is affiliated with the collective of Michigan-based Pagan organizations and community services.
  • Priestess and author Courtney Weber has released her second book. The new book is called Tarot for One and was published by Red Wheel/Weiser. The new book focuses on reading the cards for yourself, rather than for others, and includes a number of layouts and methods. Weber, who is based in New York City, has been reading and teaching tarot for over a decade.
  • The Maetreum of Cybele radio station was mentioned in a New York Times article on local terrestrial FM radio stations. The NYT article doesn’t focus on the Maetreum’s station but mentions it as contributing to this niche industry and as part of the discussion on the value of these stations within our contemporary, digitally-driven culture.
  • While many Pagans and Heathens continue to spend their fall weekends celebrating together at Pagan Pride Day events, others groups are getting ready for their upcoming Samhain observances, festivals, rituals and classes. In New York City, Rev. Starr Ravenhawk will be hosting the 11th Annual Samhain Eve’ Masquerade Ritual. Across the country in San Francisco, Reclaiming will be staging its popular Samhain spiral dance, which is both a ritual and fundraiser. In Massachusetts, the EarthSpirit Community will be hosting its annual open Samhain ritual. These are just three examples of the many public and private events being held around the world over the next two weeks.

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“For anyone trying to carve out space in this world while creating the world we want to come…sometimes it is overwhelming. It feels like the floodwaters are rising, sweeping away supports, tugging the mind and body downward, until a person drowns.” – T. Thorn Coyle, from On Suicide in the New Belle Époque

ATLANTA, Ga. – Suicide. It lingers around in the shadows affecting people from all walks of life in all parts of the world. A 2016 report from Centers for Disease Control show that suicide is on the rise and considered the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2000, the U.S. rate was 10.4 and in 2014 the suicide rate was 13.1 per 100,000 individuals. Demographically speaking, the biggest shift was in the age group 45-65, which increased by nearly seven percentage points over the same time period.

According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. number is higher than the global rate, which is 11.4. Putting that into perspective, the republic of Korea has the highest rate at 36.8, and Saudi Arabia has the lowest at 0.3. The U.K. is recorded at 7.0; Australia 11.6; Canada 11.4; South Africa 2.7; and Brazil 6.0. No country or region is immune.

There are currently no statistics on suicide attempts. However, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  reports that for every suicide there are 25 attempts. Additionally, there is much variation, even just in the U.S., in how assisted suicides affect the above statistics.


[public domain]

Beyond the numbers and outside of physician-assisted suicides or those cases in which a fatal illness provokes the choice, the many factors leading to suicidal thoughts can be crippling. It is often overwhelming and unstoppable. When an attempt is successful, loved ones are left asking why. What could we have done better? What could we have said? Often the death or the attempt is kept quiet, and brushed under the rug.

In the past several years, we’ve reported on a number of situations in which suicide affected Pagan communities. In 2001, Tempest Smith, a Pagan child from Michigan, died by suicide after experiencing years of bullying. Last year, Elain Morria spoke to us about her suicide attempt:

“I knew coming out as transgender was going to cause me pain thanks to the small fearful minds of people who have never walked in my shoes […] I took enough medication to kill me several times over. Posted my goodbye figuring nobody would even see it until at least a couple of hours after I was already dead and then went and laid down in my bed. I closed my eyes and curled up…”

Then, just last week, it was discovered that Seb Barnett, a beloved member of the Seattle Pagan and art communities, had died by suicide. Friends have since launched a funding campaign to honor Seb’s final wishes.

Now one Pagan woman in Georgia has decided that she doesn’t want to be a statistic, and is hoping that her own experiences with depression and suicide will help others.

“It is OK to talk about this,” explained Tara Denison, a 41-year old eclectic Witch from Atlanta, Georgia. “There is already so much judgment out there. Suicide knows no race, gender or age. It affects all of us.”

Denison is originally from Vancouver, Canada, and has fought depression as long as she can remember. “The first time I can remember feeling suicidal was pre teen. […] I went to multiple psychologists, therapists, doctors; nothing fully made me feel OK. Some times were better than others, and [the depression] just continued to grow as I did.”

Her first suicide attempt was as a teen. She consumed a “bottle of booze and a bottle of Tylenol,” after which she woke up very sick. “Being a teen was a hard time for me. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. I never felt like I fit in; I was always the weird kid and lashed out by fighting.”

Denison added, “As long as I stayed high or drunk the [suicidal] thoughts mostly stayed away until I was coming down off the drugs, then I would tell myself how stupid and worthless I was. Then, I got into a very unhealthy abusive relationship in my late teens which just fed my demons of my self-worth. ‘I was a piece of crap.’ Now not only was I saying it, I had someone else telling me too.”


Tara Denison [Courtesy Photo]

Denison said that she can’t pinpoint when it all started or what specifically led her down this road. It is just always there, she said. When asked how her depression felt, she called it a “place where you don’t want to live, no matter what.”

“You feel so alone and lost,” she explained. “I feel so out of control and really the best I can say is that it is almost a out of body experience. You can’t think logically. You are thinking about how you will affect others or how you are affecting others; you are in this bubble of personal hell that you can’t escape from.”

Over the years, Denison has reached out for professional help. She’s been on medication and through therapy, both of which helped “stop the suicidal thoughts.” However, these methods never prevented the “major bouts of depression.”

She said, “The pills would work for a while then stop working, so I felt like I was on so many pills in a short amount of time. I started to feel hopeless. I didn’t want to tell anyone, I didn’t want to live anymore because I was ashamed I felt like that. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my friends or family.”

At that point, Denison got pregnant with her daughter, which saved her for a while. But, as she said, the depression eventually “made its way back.” In fact, just last year, she wound up in the hospital, after yet another suicide attempt.

She had been crying for days and hadn’t showered in a week. She shared: “I had got the bottle of medication ready to take. […] I felt so out of control. I am a self-harmer in the sense that I scratch and pick my skin ’til it bleeds, I had scratched my neck so it was bleeding. […] I just wanted it to go away. I wanted to go to sleep to stop the hurt, the thoughts, the pain. I wanted to hit myself to stop the thoughts in my head telling me how worthless I am, why no one loves me, why I have no friends, why my family would be better off without me.”

Fortunately, a good friend saw what was coming and immediately called Denison’s husband, who came home and took her to hospital.

But even so, this was not the last time. Just two months ago, Denison overmedicated once again. She said, “I was in that moment, I was sick of crying; I was sick of feeling this. I was sick of my kids and husband seeing me like this. I just wanted to go to sleep. I do have a crisis plan in place but I chose to ignore it that night. I took about 6 prescription pills that help me sleep but I woke up.”

However, when she woke up this time something had changed in her. She decided it was time to speak out.

“When I came out of the hospital I decided to post about it because people asked where I had been since I am a pretty active poster online. I got a ton of messages from people saying they suffer as well but didn’t know what to do or where to go for help. I also had people saying they didn’t understand depression or couldn’t relate to how I was feeling, why couldn’t I just snap out of it. From then on I decided to be as vocal as possible.”

Denison added that she has now seen too many people suffering. As a result, she has will devote her time to making a difference. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to live like this,” Denison explained.

“To think that there are so many people suffering like me out there makes me fight. So many people don’t know how to go about getting help. I want to be there to help them through it and help be their voice.”

Team Denison

Team Denison [Courtesy Photo]

Denison and her family have recently joined the Out of the Darkness Walk sponsored by the American Foundation for the Suicide Prevention (AFSP). According to the AFSP website, “The community walks created a movement. Held in hundreds of cities across the country, they give people the courage to open up about their own struggle or loss, and the platform to change our culture’s approach to mental health.” These community and campus walks also serve as a fundraiser for the organization, supporting its many educational and advocacy programs.

Denison admits that, at first, this “coming out” of sorts was difficult. “I was very embarrassed about it  […] ‘Oh yeah she is crazy; she tried to kill herself.’ I know people will think like that but that is why I think this needs to be talked about so much more. Mental health in itself needs to be talked about.”

When asked what the biggest misconception about suicide and depression was, she said, “That people do it for attention or that they are weak. No one who says they are going to kill themselves is doing it for fun. […] They are screaming for someone to grab their hand and help them.

“Suicide is a terrible thing. Anytime someone is successful it breaks my heart, not only for that person because I know the hopelessness they felt at that moment, but now the family and friends are left to pick up the pieces. ”

As for Denison’s own struggle, she has increasingly been relying on her spiritual practice for growth and support. She said that “going into circle and meditating is very comforting. I feel safe and protected.” She also said that she asks Athena for strength every morning.

“Sometimes I have a full on conversation with her and ask for signs to let me know that she is with me. ”

Denison also finds support with a close friend who, like herself, suffers from mental illness. “She understands and she is my go-to when I am in a whirlwind,” Denison explained. She also said that, in the end, her family has always saved her, but added, “I would like to say I save [myself].”

When asked how people can help the movement, Denison suggested donating money for education and research through organizations like AFSP. Other ways to help, she offered, would be through spreading the word about the many causes of and issues surrounding suicide,through supporting families who have lost someone to suicide, and by getting trained, where possible, in prevention and care.*out_of_the_darkness

Her advice for those currently struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts: “You are not alone. If you are headed that way, please reach out to someone. Add me on Facebook if need be. Call the suicide hotline 1-800-273-8255. Talk to a friend, a family member. There are plenty of Facebook support groups, go and join.”

And, as for her advice to friends and family, she said, “If you have lost a loved one, do not blame yourself. If your loved one is living and struggling be pro active and get them help; go with them to the doctors; get them in therapy […] Find an out of the darkness walk in your area and walk, get people involved! Be the voice!”

Denison added that “If anyone in Atlanta would like to join me for the walk, it is Nov. 6 in the Piedmont Park picnic area. We are team Denison!”

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[Editor’s Note: In 2015, we published an article titled “Treating Depression in a Pagan Context,” which discussed support methods and Pagan resources.]

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2016 marks the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the Spanish Revolution. When Franco led his fascist forces against the Second Spanish Republic in July 1936, anarchist militias simultaneously fought the fascists and seized large swathes of Southern and Eastern Spain, overthrowing local authorities and collectivizing wealth. One of the most passionate and dedicated of these militias, the Iron Column, was formed largely of liberated prisoners and included women within its ranks.


While the Iron Column fought the fascists on the front lines, however, their supposed comrades were stabbing them in the back. The syndicalists of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) joined the Republican government in September 1936, with three CNT members taking positions as ministers. In March 1937, the Iron Column, previously organized along egalitarian lines, was ordered to submit to incorporation into the Republican Army and accept the leadership of Republican officers hostile to their revolutionary ambitions. One of the “uncontrollables” of the Iron Column published a denunciation of this betrayal, entitled “A Day Mournful and Overcast,” in Nosotros, the daily newspaper of the Column.

The uncontrollable introduced himself as “an escaped convict from San Miguel de los Reyes, that sinister prison, which the monarchy set up in order to bury alive those who, because they weren’t cowards, would never submit to the infamous laws dictated by the powerful against the oppressed.” He had been imprisoned at the age of twenty-three “for revolting against the humiliations to which an entire village had been subjected. In short for killing a political boss.”

In this detail of his life story, he closely resembles the Chinese warrior Guan Yu, who was later deified as Guan Di and is closely associated with loyalty and righteousness. In the Ming Dynasty novel Romance of Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu explains why he left his hometown, for “there was a man from a wealthy family who was acting like a big shot and bullying everybody, I ended up killing him. I had to become a fugitive, and have been living the life of an itinerant mercenary for the past five or six years.” Like Guan Yu, the uncontrollable rebelled and fought back against injustice in his home village, and suffered the consequences for his action: he was imprisoned for eleven years before anarchists opened the gates of the penitentiary. The word “rebel,” incidentally, comes from the Latin prefix re- (opposite, against, or again) added to bellare (to wage war): thus, it literally means “to fight back.”

The uncontrollable joined the militia that had liberated him, and, like Spartacus and his fellow rebels stripping weapons from the Roman legions they defeated (Life of Crassus 9.1), he armed himself with a rifle seized from a slain fascist. While fighting the fascists, the Iron Column also “changed the mode of life in the villages through which we passed – annihilating the brutal political bosses who had robbed and tormented the peasants and placing their wealth in the hands of the only ones who knew how to create it: the workers.” The methodology and members of Iron Column, however, were denounced by their enemies:

We have been treated like outlaws, and accused of being “uncontrollable”, because we did not subordinate the rhythm of our lives, which we desired and still desire to be free, to the stupid whims of those who, occupying a seat in some ministry or on some committee, sottishly and arrogantly regarded themselves as the masters of men.

The reference to those “occupying a seat in some ministry” clearly referred to the supposedly anarchist-syndicalist CNT, for it was not only fascists but also anti-fascists who condemned the Iron Column: “Not only the fascists considered us dangerous, because we treated them as they deserved, but in addition those who call themselves anti-fascists, shouting their anti-fascism until they are hoarse, have viewed us in the same light.” And the uncontrollable knew exactly what kind of people love to shout their anti-fascism until they are hoarse: “people who wish to be regarded as leaders.”

Lucia Sanchez Saornil, one of the founders of Mujeres Libres. [Public Domain]

Lucia Sanchez Saornil, one of the founders of Mujeres Libres, an anarchist women’s organization that maintained independence from the CNT. The process of militarization re-established the gender roles that Mujeres Libres sought to destroy. [Public Domain]

We can distinguish, then, between two types of anti-fascism. On the one hand, there is a purported anti-fascism proclaimed by aspiring politicians: one that defends the State, that participates in Popular Fronts, and that demands militaristic unity and obedience from all other factions. And it is not only liberals and Stalinists who espouse this type of anti-fascism, but also Socialists, union organizers, and even so-called “anarchists.” On the other hand, there is the anti-fascism practiced by the uncontrollables: one that is liberatory, that changes the mode and rhythm of every day life, and that refuses both to submit to authoritarianism and to enforce it in turn. The Heathen and Polytheist milieus have seen too much of the former type of anti-fascism and too little of the latter.

The uncontrollable is a pariah. And moreover, the uncontrollable is a mystic seeking to “penetrate the obscurity of the fields and the mystery of things” at night while fighting the fascists by day:

On some nights, on those dark nights when armed and alert I would try to penetrate the obscurity of the fields and the mystery of things, I rose from behind my parapet as if in a dream, not to awaken my numbed limbs, which having been tempered in pain are like steel, but to grip more furiously my rifle, feeling a desire to fire not merely at the enemy sheltered barely a hundred yards way, but at the other concealed at my side, the one calling me comrade, all the while selling my interests in most sordid a manner, for no sale is more cowardly than one nourished by treason.

On those nights, the uncontrollable was possessed by the urge to run wild and destroy all that sought to grind him and his comrades down:

And I would feel a desire to laugh and to weep, and to run through the fields, shouting and tearing throats open with my iron fingers, just as I had torn open the throat of that filthy political boss, and to smash this wretched world into smithereens, a world in which it is hard to find a loving hand to wipe away one’s sweat and to stop the blood flowing from one’s wounds on returning from the battlefield, tired and wounded.

There is an ancient Greek word for this kind of hands-on dismemberment: σπαραγμός. Sparagmos is associated in literature with the Dionysiac cults, which contained many women and slaves, just as the Iron Column was comprised of ex-prisoners. Euripides wrote in Bakkhai that the mainads needed no weapons but their hands to hunt their prey:

They, with hands that bore no weapon of steel, attacked our cattle as they browsed. Then wouldst thou have seen Agave mastering some sleek lowing calf, while others rent the heifers limb from limb. Before thy eyes there would have been hurling of ribs and hoofs this way and that; and strips of flesh, all blood-bedabbled, dripped as they hung from the pine-branches. Wild bulls, that glared but now with rage along their horns, found themselves tripped up, dragged down to earth by countless maidens’ hands. The flesh upon their limbs was stripped there from quicker than thou couldst have closed thy royal eye-lids.

But it is not only destruction that characterizes the Dionysian spirit, but “the wildly irrepressible desires we carry in our hearts to be free like the eagles on the highest mountain peaks, like the lions in the jungle.”

Dionysos mosaic [Ancient Images / Flickr]

Dionysos mosaic [Ancient Images / Flickr]

The uncontrollable wrote that precisely in his moments of despair, he would find renewed enthusiasm in his dreams:

I would abandon myself joyfully to dreams of adventure, beholding with heated imagination a world that I knew not in life but in desire, a world that no man has known in life but that many of us have known in dreams. And dreaming, time would fly by, and my body would stand weariness at bay, and I would redouble my enthusiasm, and become bold, and go out on reconnaissance at dawn to find out the enemy’s position, and…. All of this in order to change life, to stamp a different rhythm onto this life of ours; all of this because men could be brothers and I among them; all of this because joy that surges forth even once from our breasts must surge out of the earth, because the Revolution, this Revolution that has been the guiding light and watchword of the Iron Column, could soon be tangible reality.

The word “enthusiasm” also comes from ancient Greek: ἐνθουσιασμός denotes the condition in which a god (θεός) is inside (ἐν) a person. Compare the previous quote with a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy:

Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, now matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth freely offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from the rocks and the desert approach in peace. The wagon of Dionysus is covered with flowers and wreaths. Under his yoke stride panthers and tigers.

If someone were to transform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy into a painting and not restrain his imagination when millions of people sink dramatically into the dust, then we could come close to the Dionysian. Now is the slave a free man, now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as if the veil of Maja has been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around before the mysterious original unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher unity. He has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures.

In both of these texts, we find sympathetic magic between the joy of the earth and the liberation of humans, the possibility of universal camaraderie between human and human, and a dreamlike transcendence that becomes incarnate within material reality.

Dionysian methodologies of warfare cannot be described as “non-violent,” but they supersede the linearity of rigid militarization by striking where unexpected, by changing the very time and space within which the “battle” is waged. Euripides’s mainads first and foremost caused disruption by abandoning the οἶκος (oikos), the household centered around slavery and gender roles, whence we derive the word “economy:” management of the οἶκος.

But when pursued, they fought “with the thyrsus, which they hurled, caused many a wound and put their foes to utter rout, women chasing men, by some god’s intervention. Then they returned to the place whence they had started, even to the springs the god had made to spout for them; and there washed off the blood, while serpents with their tongues were licking clean each gout from their cheeks.”

Another individual known for having snakes coil about his face, the Thracian gladiator Spartacus, whose wife was a prophetess, also won a battle by a Dionysian miracle. Spartacus and his fellow runaway slaves, who were primarily of Thracian and Gaulish origin, were besieged on top of Mount Vesuvius:

But the top of the hill was covered with a wild vine of abundant growth, from which the besieged cut off the serviceable branches, and wove these into strong ladders of such strength and length that when they were fastened at the top they reached along the face of the cliff to the plain below.

Descending on these ladders of wild vines, the rebels caught the Roman legion by surprise and defeated them in battle. Like the Iron Column, they were supported by the locals: “they were also joined by many of the herdsmen and shepherds of the region, sturdy men and swift of foot, some of whom they armed fully, and employed others as scouts and light infantry.” The escaped slaves and shepherds of Vesuvius were literally anti-fascists: Roman officials were preceded by lictors carrying fasces as symbols of their political authority.

Death of Spartacus, Hermann Vogel. [Public Domain]

The pro-Dionysian spirit of the Iron Column has resurfaced lately. In June 2016, Neo-Nazis and anti-fascists fought with sticks and knives at the California state capitol in Sacramento, resulting in hospitalizations on both sides for blunt force trauma and stab wounds. In September 2016, prisoners revolted at Holmes Correctional Institution in Florida and at Turbeville C.I. in North Carolina, and hunger strikes and work stoppages have proliferated in prisons across the nation. Prisoners in Greece and in Mexico have acted in solidarity. In Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, the prison guards themselves went on strike, not in solidarity (obviously), but due to “increasingly dangerous conditions and fears that they may be killed while on duty.” The warden at Holman was stabbed during a queer-led riot in March and subsequently quit, and a guard was stabbed and killed on September 1.

Michael Kimble, a black gay anarchist incarcerated at Holman, writes that prisoners’ struggle will not always be non-violent, echoing the Iron Column in his uncontrollability: “If your solidarity and support is predicated on prisoners being ‘non-violent,’ we don’t want or need it, because you are trying to control us.”

The Iron Column’s revolutionary war against fascism and prisons and the society that produces both is alive and well. And it is once again being fought by partisans, by people who desire first and foremost to change their own lives, “to stamp a different rhythm onto this life of ours.” Ill Will Editions writes that the concept of the “partisan” is “best understood not as a splitting of a totality into competing parts or factions each defined via mutually contested claims over the management of the whole, but rather as the intensification of asymmetrical differences that were already there within the way we live.”

The Polytheist and Heathen milieus are plagued by “people who wish to be regarded as leaders” of movements, who wish to claim “management of the whole.” Some of them wish to maintain the supposedly apolitical nature of the whole, others to defend the whole against the very real threat of fascist infiltration. Both positions accept and reify the continued existence of the πόλις (polis), which exists only in contrast to actual communities and traditions. My position is not apolitical, but anti-political.

Mujeres Libres wrote, “To be an anti-fascist is too little; one is an anti-fascist because one is already something else.” Like their syndicalist predecessors who became Ministers, those who claim to be anti-fascist because they are aspiring managers do not seek the “different rhythm” of life that I seek. The uncontrollables of the Iron Column speak from their mass graves, warning us never to trust these would-be politicians:

History, which records the good and evil that men do, will one day speak. And History will say that the Iron Column was perhaps the only column in Spain that had a clear vision of what our Revolution ought to be. It will also say that of all columns, ours offered the greatest resistance to militarization, and that there were times when because of that resistance, it was completely abandoned to its fate, at the front awaiting battle, as if six thousand men, hardened by war and ready for victory or death, should be abandoned to the enemy to be devoured.

History will say so many, many things, and so many, many figures who think themselves glorious will find themselves execrated and damned!

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To get to the labyrinth, first I have to get through the maze.

The directions seem straightforward: take one main artery to another, cross a bridge over the highway, turn right, and drive. Kalamazoo’s Unitarian Universalist church is supposedly half a mile down the road, easy to find. But big orange signs warn that the way is blocked -– road closed, no thru traffic –– and indeed, not long after turning onto 10th Street, where the People’s Church is located, the road disintegrates from asphalt into huge mounds of dirt and gravel, the natural habitat of Caterpillars and other forms of industrial machinery, rather than my trusty Chevy Cobalt.

Stones outline the path of the People's Church labyrinth in Kalamazoo, MI. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Stones outline the path of the People’s Church labyrinth in Kalamazoo, MI. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Having no choice, I turn left, hoping that with a few right turns I can find a place to cross over into the church’s parking lot. Instead, I find myself lost in a web of wide suburban curves, subdivision streets with no guideposts or markers, roads that wind and twist in ways that defy my city-boy instincts. (While I can’t claim the streets of St. Louis are perfectly logical, most of the time they at least proceed in straight lines, and the avenues go one direction and the streets go another; I have never really learned how to cope with subdivisions, the layouts of which seem practically non-Euclidean.) I find three different opportunities to exit back onto 10th Street, but each time I find the road still obliterated. Eventually I give up and turn back towards the main roads, heading back to my dorm room at Western Michigan University, where I am staying for the summer.

This is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth: though the path of the labyrinth winds and weaves, there is only one route, and with enough steps, one comes to the center and then the exit. There’s no guarantee of escaping a maze.

The center of the labyrinth. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

The center of the labyrinth. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

I have never been so good at meditation – not the seated, peaceful kind, anyway. I never developed the posture for it, much less the discipline to clear my mind of all its worries and distractions at will. But walking meditation does the trick well enough. When I still lived in St. Louis, I liked to stop by the botanical gardens and walk the perimeter, chanting the elements -– air I am, fire I am -– under my breath. With my mind taken up by the rhythm of the chant, and my body engaged in the walk, and my senses suffused with the trees and flowers, I could find my way to peace. I needed to be so embodied to become bodiless.

And that was why I sought the labyrinth: in its journey to a center, the labyrinth serves as a pilgrimage in miniature. Though its footprint is only a few meters in diameter, the path of a labyrinth is an order of magnitude longer. As we follow its contours, its sharp angles and snake-backs, we see landmarks again and again, but changed again and again by the new vantage. And when we come to the center, we can stop, survey the space around us again, and realize that the destination is only halfway through the journey. Much of my interest in the subject comes from my friend Travis Scholl, a Lutheran preacher and a fantastic writer, who has written a book on his experiences with labyrinths; I was thinking of him when I started looking for one in Kalamazoo.

After my other attempts at finding a labyrinth went bust (I’m looking for the labyrinth, I told the clerk outside a Catholic retirement community; The what? he replied; I later found the spot on the map bulldozed and waterlogged), I came back to 10th Street. It was still ripped apart, and I had no business driving on it, but I cut across a flat part of the construction into the church parking lot. The place was completely empty, unusual for a weekday afternoon. It doesn’t look like many people from the congregation manage to get out to the church thanks to the construction, nor even the staff; from what I can tell of the maps, there’s no other way into the parking lot except from 10th Street, so even the groundskeepers are shut out.

As a consequence, the labyrinth itself is overgrown, weeds poking up through the dirt. So many vines cover a trellis at the edge of the circle that at first I can’t tell that it is the entrance. Not wanting to damage anything, I press gently against the green leaves and tendrils and push them aside, stooping down low to pass into the circle of stones.

It has been a tumultuous year, for me and for the world, and though it’s a hot summer day as I’m walking this path, my mind is already turning toward the autumn, toward the winter. The things that are on my mind aren’t so different from what’s on everybody’s mind, I think: I’m worried about politics and justice, about my family and my job, about my coven and my future. And often it’s good to worry: sometimes it’s paralyzing, but it’s often the impetus for action.

Still, you can’t worry all the time: sometimes you need a long walk through the pale stones, feeling the wet afternoon heat on your skin, making your way to the center of the labyrinth. There is nothing special about that center point: here there are stones and lovely flowers, but there are stones and lovely flowers all along the path. Reaching the center is not the point, really. It’s the motion, the journey; the stillness in the movement. I can’t find the gods by sitting still. I need to walk.

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SAN FRANCISCO – It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Starhawk’s seminal novel The Fifth Sacred Thing was released by Bantam Books. It was 1993 when the world was first introduced to this dystopian story, set in the not-so-distant future of 2048, where our heroes must protect their northern California ecotopia from ruthless invaders. The book went on to become an inspiration for a new generation of pagans, feminists, goddess-worshippers, activists and environmental advocates.

Never going out of print, The Fifth Sacred Thing has sold over 100,000 copies, been translated into four languages and is now being developed into a television series. And, as of August this year, The Fifth Sacred Thing has been re-released for the first time in audiobook format.

Starhawk (courtesy photo)

Starhawk [Courtesy Photo]

“We had been trying to do an audiobook for years” said Starhawk, from her home in California recently. “So many people just don’t have time to read now, but people do listen to audiobooks – I know I do. They are a great way to pass the time on a long drive, or keep your mind occupied when you are trying to hook up your drip irrigation system” she added with a chuckle.

Working with her production partner, Maya Lilly, Starhawk entered the studio to turn the 496 pages of the story into a recording. After the original publisher declined to take on this project, Starhawk was able to regain the rights to do the project herself. Fortunately, Lilly is a experienced voice actor, and her life partner is a sound engineer. This gave them a team capable of proceeding with the project, under their own terms.

After a month of planning, the team got to work in the studio, finding time between their many other projects. The finished audiobook is 22 hours of talking, which equals 44 hours of voice work, plus 168 hours of editing. In the end, Starhawk is very pleased with the result, and Lilly’s voicing of the story.

“I think she did a great job, getting those subtle differences in the voices, so you feel like different people are talking.”

And if Maya Lilly’s name sounds familiar to fans of the book, it can be chalked up to serendipity, said Starhawk: “She happens have the names of two characters in the book. It was a pure coincidence. Plus, she happens to look exactly like my picture of Madrone. Something is at work here!”

In addition to launching the audiobook, Starhawk also recently traveled to Spain to co-teach the Earth Activist Training permaculture course with Alfred Decker. The two-week course was held at a camp near the village of Arbizu, Navarra, in the north of Spain. This area is part of the Basque Country, famous for its association with the Spanish Inquisition and the Witch Hunts that took place there in the 17th century. More than 7,000 individual cases of witchcraft were tried during this time, and this is commemorated in the local Zurgaramurdi Witch Museum, which Starhawk visited and was astounded by.

Starhawk recalled: “The bottom floor had a powerful memorial to all the witches who were accused, and burned and tortured. It went through the history of the witch persecutions. The second floor was all about the ancient religion of the Basques, which is a religion of the Goddess. I can’t even really describe how I felt there, it was this whole history that we have been talking about, and advocating for, and arguing about, in my case – for decades.”

Permaculture students in the garden, in Arbizu, Spain (courtesy photo)

Permaculture students in the garden, in Arbizu, Spain [Courtesy Photo]

Starhawk went on to add, “People were saying that there never were goddesses, Marija Gimbutas was making it all up…..and then here it was, it’s still a living memory, ingrained in the Basque culture, and which I think for them, is very much a part of their sense of having a culture that is very distinctive. It was an amazing sense of coming home, in a very powerful way, even though I do not have any direct Basque ancestors. It was a sense of coming home to a place of spiritual ancestry.”

Almost 25 years later, The Fifth Sacred Thing almost seems prophetic, and this is not lost on Starhawk. While the streets of San Francisco have not been completely dug up to plant gardens, and we have not suffered an apocalypse, some of the books themes, both good and bad, echo in our world today.

“The whole movement toward urban gardening and food growing and urban farming is enormous. Twenty-five years ago it didn’t even really quite exist in the same way” she noted, “and we also see the forces of brutality and this upsurge in racism, in the murder of people of color by police, we see an upsurge, with Donald Trump in outright, outspoken misogyny and hatred of women and making that somehow acceptable.”

Starhawk is quick to note how our climate is changing and our environment is in danger. However, she is also sure that there is much hope, explaining that she sees many people newly embracing the practices of permaculture and how using it can effect positive change for the planet.

She said, “One of the exciting things now, is what permaculture can bring to the discussions around climate change. This isn’t just about carbon numbers. This is about ecosystem degradation on a large scale. The answer to it, is about ecosystem regeneration on a massive scale, and that is something permaculturalists know how to do. The good news is it can be done, and often doesn’t even take as long as you think it would.”

Permaculture courses will keep Starhawk on the road throughout October, with appearances in Nevada City on Oct. 14 and San Rafael on October 22 – 23. She is also preparing to lead the 37th Annual Reclaiming Spiral Dance in San Francisco on Oct. 30, celebrating Samhain.

Starhawk added that she highly recommends that anyone interested in attending the annual Reclaiming event make sure that they secure tickets in advance, as the venue has a limited capacity, and looks like it will be sold out by the actual date.

Once enough copies of The Fifth Sacred Thing audiobook have been sold to pay back the cost of production, Starhawk’s plan is to record a reading of City of Refuge, the sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing, for an audiobook. There are no plans at present to make audiobooks for any of her non-fiction works, such as Spiral Dance.

The Fifth Sacred Thing audiobook is widely available for purchase online at Amazon, iTunes and Audible.

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