Last week I was watching the documentary “Radio Unnameable” about famous New York radio personality Bob Fass, when I saw Margot Adler. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all Margot had a long and storied career in radio that overlapped with Fass, and even though she had recently passed, the documentary footage was no doubt shot years earlier. Still, the moment brought into focus that while Margot Adler loved the Pagan community, played an important role in the development of modern Paganism, and enjoyed attending Pagan events, she also had a rich, complex, rewarding life completely outside the context of her religious preferences. That seems like a somewhat small revelation to have, but I found it profound all the same, because sometimes it has seemed like modern Paganism was my whole wide world.

Photo by Jason Thomas Pitzl

Photo by Jason Thomas Pitzl

I’ve been working on The Wild Hunt on a nearly daily basis since 2004. Two years ago, I realized I was burning out. When you reach your limit doing something like this it isn’t like hitting a wall, sudden and immediate, it’s more like running out of water in a desert. You wish you could simply quench your thirst and continue your journey, but there’s not a drop of relief in sight. So you stagger forward as best you can, until you can’t even do that. Meanwhile, my public profile within our religious movement had never been more pronounced, and I found that a growing number of people saw me as some sort of leader, or perhaps more accurately as a public intellectual who was expected to hold forth on the issues of the day. Both of these developments made me increasingly uneasy, and I started looking for a way I could keep The Wild Hunt intact as a service to modern Paganism, while also allowing myself the freedom to leave. To re-orient my life in a new and different way.

Your humble-ish author.

Your humble-ish author.

I have been extremely fortunate that a group of like-minded media professionals, most notably Managing Editor Heather Greene, came at just the right time to step forward and help me. Over this last year I have been slowly transitioning out of my responsibilities in a gradual manner, while Heather, our staff reporters, and columnists, took up my old mantle. For the last few months I’ve been more of a symbolic presence and editorial advisor than avid contributor, and I think that this new team has managed to create something that honors the spirit of what I intended with The Wild Hunt while setting it up for a long future as a journalistic outlet for our interconnected communities. Heather now holds “the keys” to The Wild Hunt, its finances, the domain, and all other aspects. I trust her and the rest of the staff implicitly in their ability to carry out our mission. They may not please everyone all the time, but then neither did I.

So this is my “last post” post. This is where I get to walk into the sunset, and decide what I want to do with my life after ten years of active service to my religious community. I suppose I could take this opportunity to pen a “goodbye to all that” type kiss-off, but that has never really been my style. I would much rather hold on to the wonderful experiences and friendships that formed while I was doing this work. I would much rather say thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years, and to ask all of you to stay with The Wild Hunt as they continue their transition into a bright new era. I know they will do good work.

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

This is about as close as walking into the sunset I get. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

As for me, I’m not sure what, exactly, my future holds. I’ll still be around, here and there. I haven’t stopped being a Pagan, nor do I have plans to stop any time soon. I’ll still use social media, I’ll still chat with my friends. So I won’t completely disappear. However, after I complete a few last obligations, I plan on my Paganism returning to being one facet of my larger whole. I need a break, and I’d much rather focus on things I had put aside in the name of that work for awhile. I look forward to introducing myself in a different way in the not-too-distant-future. I will leave the unique brand of religious micro-notoriety I haphazardly obtained over the years to others, though I would warn them against coveting such a prize (seriously).

So goodbye, and thank you for reading my writing.

Yours,

– Jason

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In March 2014, the Pagan Environmental Coalition of New York City (PEC-NYC) formed after being inspired to action by Gasland (2010), a documentary on the U.S. fracking industry. It became their mission to pro-actively promote the development of renewable, clean energy alternatives.

In 2013, a group of U.K. Pagans held a ritual at Glastonbury Tor to raise awareness about fracking. The event turned global with Pagans around the world joining the ritual from their own space.The organizers wrote, “We felt it a shame to let the energy go to waste and so consolidated ourselves into a pagan anti-fracking pressure group; thus was the Warrior’s Call born.”

Both the PEC-NYC and The Warrior’s Call are dedicated to passionately campaigning against fracking. They have joined a fervent and outspoken global movement to end this relatively new process of energy extraction. Collectively these people are often refer to as fracktavists. But what exactly is fracking? Why is there so much controversy around its use?

"Rig wind river“  Wyoming. [Public domain via Wikimedia]

“Rig wind river“ Wyoming. [Public domain via Wikimedia]

What is Fracking?
Hydraulic Fracturing, or “Fracking,” is the extraction of fossil fuels from subterranean shale rock. The complicated process involves the injection of a high-powered fluid, containing water, sand and chemicals, into the earth. The combination of chemicals and pressure cause the shale to fracture and release trapped fossil fuels, which are then collected at the well site.

The basic technology behind fracking has been around for decades. According to Wall Street Journal senior energy editor Russell Gold, the concept on making wells more productive through fracturing rock began in the 1800s. However, the “modern age of hyrdraulic fracturing” did not begin until in 1998. And it has only been in the last 10 years that the United States has seen a surge in the use of fracking wells.

Fracking processes are found in areas where geologists have identified trapped fossil fuels within the subterranean shale beds. In the U.S., hydraulic fracturing is mostly used in Texas, Oklahoma, Pensylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Other countries with identified shale beds, such as Canada, Bulgaria, China and Australia to name a few, have also been using this new fracking technology.

Why Frack?
At its base level, the push to employ hydraulic fracturing is driven by society’s dependence, or overdependence as it were, on fossil fuels. As the world’s population increases the demand increases, and alternative energy processes have yet to become viable replacements for these traditional modalities, due to economic, technological and practical reasons. The industry is desperate to find new sources of fossil fuels to feed our insatiable need. Fracking answers that call.

"US Natural Gas Production 1990-2040" by US Energy [Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

“US Natural Gas Production 1990-2040″ by US Energy [Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

While fracking does pull oil from the shale rock, it is more commonly known for its use in extracting natural gas. According to the EIA, as noted by writer Brad Plummer, the U.S.natural gas stores “have reached historic highs.” The data show the fracked gas has increased 5x since 2007 alone, while coal and other traditional wells have decreased production.

Proponents argue that this boom is helping decrease our dependency on international energy. It has also reduced the price of natural gas, even at the consumer level. Due to the lower cost, many industries are converting their coal burning plants to natural gas, which burns cleaner. Experts believe that this change has contributed to the moderate decrease in overall U.S. carbon emissions since 2007. And finally, proponents also argue that the fracturing bonaza, as it has been called, has bolstered local economies and created new jobs.

Why the controversy?
While there are a Pagans who are conflicted with regards to the use of fracking, we could not find one who was decidedly pro-fracking. If they exist, they appear to be a non-vocal minority. The majority of Pagans who are publicly talking about the fracking boom, are vehemently opposed. The Warrior’s Call and PEC-NYC are just two examples.

Courtney Weber, a member of PEC-NYC, spoke with The Wild Hunt about her organization’s position and recent actions. She said, “I can’t imagine Pagans allowing their temples to be smashed. The Earth is being damaged…We have to fight to protect it.” Weber is one of key organizers in the PEC-NYC’ mobilization against fracking and for renewable energy – specifically wind. PEC-NYC is working on a petition to ask New York Governor Cuomo for his support of wind energy. The group is also sending members to a Nov. 1-7 Beyond Extreme Energy rally in Washington D.C.

"Witches Want Wind"  Courtney Weber at a Cuomo Rally, 2014 [Courtesy Photo]

“Witches Want Wind” Courtney Weber at a Cuomo Rally, 2014 [Courtesy Photo]

For Weber and others like her, the reported benefits of fracking do not justify the known environmental and economic damage, both immediate and long term. With the help of Food and Water Watch, PEC members visited fracking sites in Susquehana, Pennsylvania. Weber said, “They had headaches in 15 minutes. There was no wildlife. No insects. No birds … It smelled as if you put your face in a gallon of glue.” What she describes is not a thriving metropolis living off industry profits, but a broken region gutted and stripped of life.

Opponents believe that the economic claims are wrong. Jobs are not being created, roads are being destroyed by industry vehicles, and the townspeople are reaping no benefits. They add that, even with the increase in gas stores, the U.S. will not ever be energy independent as is often claimed.

Additionally, opponents point to some serious and very immediate environmental concerns. There have been cases in which the local water has been tainted with the toxic waste fluid from the shale gas extraction, and the air has been polluted with both methane and benzene gases. Weber pointed out the number of trucks needed to transport the millions of gallon of water. She noted that these trucks increase the carbon footprint of entire process and the water usage itself can potentially strain resources in many drought-ridden areas.

From PEC-NYC Pennsylvania trip. [Courtesy PEC-NYC]

From PEC-NYC Pennsylvania trip. [Courtesy PEC-NYC and George Courtney]

Finally, opponents will also quickly point out that, while natural gas does burn cleaner, it still does produce “greenhouse gases.” Weber says, “It’s kind of like quitting smoking and then starting heroine instead.” She questions the wisdom in supporting an industry that appears to be just another dangerous substitute. Like others opposed to fracking, she fears that any support given to hydraulic fracturing will only detract from the development of economically viable, clean and renewable energy solutions.

Weber added that, as an activist, she can’t fight every battle. She says, “I can’t fight for bees, deforestation and the black rhino. Philosophically I can. But practically I can’t.” Energy is what she picked and says to others, ‘Pick what’s local. Pick what makes you mad.” Fracking made her mad.

So where do we find an answer?
Fracking is happening and at an increasing rate. The U.S. is on its way to having record natural gas resources. While that will not make us energy independent, it will increase U.S. exports, decrease prices and help the national trade deficit. Coal-based plants are closing down and the U.S. has lowered its overall carbon emissions. And, there is talk using natural gas reserves to help countries still struggling to control their own carbon emissions.

However, those benefits are measured purely in numbers and do not take into account the negative externalities of fracking.They do not measure methane cleanup; water pollution; property damage; local economic fallout; road maintenance; water resource limitations and the many environmental unknowns. What are the long-term affects? Will the progressive fracturing of subterranean shale rock create ground instability, leading to earthquakes?

While the Environmental Protection Agency and other private organizations are studying these issues, debates rage on in the world’s political arena. Many states and countries have banned or severely regulated the process or, like New York, have placed a moratorium on fracking until further data are collected. At the same time, organizations like PEC-NYC and The Warrior’s Call join The Sierra Club, Green Faith, Sane Energy Project, Food and Water Watch and others continue to oppose the process altogether.

This article only grazes the surface of a very complex global problem. Due to our society’s addiction to its fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure, we are stuck, so to speak, between a rock and hard place of our own making. We have yet to find a perfect solution that will allow us to maintain both a healthy ecosystem and our current energy-hungry systems. There is no easy button; no magic wand; no panacea … no injection drill that will extract that solution.

 

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As the United States and its free citizens hurl through the second decade of the 21st century, most of its ample prison population is solidly rooted in the final decade of the 20th, with regards to email. While inmates in some prisons have had limited access to email since as far back as 2005, when the messages would be printed out and included with other mail for review and distribution, most are limited to old fashioned snail mail. But more recently an increasing number of prisoners have been allowed to send and receive messages through an officially-sanctioned service called CorrLinks. The Wild Hunt posed the question: how has this impacted Pagan prison ministry?

CorrLinks, a web site run by Advanced Technologies Group of West Des Moines, Iowa, is an intermediary between prisoners and those on the outside with whom they wish to contact. Federal prisoners, as well as those incarcerated in Iowa, may apply to use the system, but can be rejected for any reason, including having used a computer to commit crime. The inmate can only send messages to people on an approved contact list, which is populated with email addresses provided by the inmate. Those addresses are vetted and included only after the address owner consents. Prisoners can use designated computers, which have no internet access, to receive and send emails at a cost of five cents per minute. Incoming and outgoing messages are reviewed by prison officials, as is the case with any other mail to and from inmates.

Inquiries directed to CorrLinks customer service department about aspects of the service received unhelpful replies. Those questions, probing how inmate fees are set and whether the software itself provides monitoring tools, got a one-sentence reply: “You would need to contact facilities for that information.”

prison

[Public Domain Photo]

The system has been in place since at least 2005, but only one of the Pagan ministers asked indicated any familiarity with it. That one is River Faeron, who is a member of Everglades Moon Local Council of Covenant of the Goddess and has been involved in prison ministry in the Tallahassee area for the past seven years. “I’ve been active in prison ministry,” he wrote, “but I’ve never been active in email-correspondence-ministry through CorrLinks or anything similar. I only used CorrLinks by sheer coincidence, when a single inmate from my Florida ministry was transferred into Federal custody and he and I kept in touch for a brief period of time.”

What happened with that one correspondent could be indicative of a larger, underlying problem in prison ministry. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands, and a minister may be the only outside contact that the prisoner has. “Unfortunately, sometimes inmates write lengthy correspondences, and he became distraught/frustrated when his long emails went unanswered for days or weeks,” Faeron conceded. Eventually the prisoner broke off contact completely.

Long letters are typical on paper as well, and as a rule Faeron spends his time visiting in person, rather than responding to correspondence. However, he did say that email is a good way to write without having to reveal one’s address to an inmate.

That time component is something that Ashleen O’Gaea, with Mother Earth Ministries, mitigates by going old school. She doesn’t use email, just the postal service. She said that “a paper letter can be considered for some time before an answer’s made, whereas e-mail time tends to be limited, so, it seems to me, there’s less time for thought to go into the process.” She also finds paper letters easier to refer to while writing a response, and harder to alter without detection than email.

While CorrLinks is the only sanctioned system for federal prisons, there are other similar systems. Reverend Dave Sassman, a member of Circle Sanctuary, said that he uses JPay to email inmates in his state of Indiana. That system charges Sassman a per-page fee for emails, but he was unaware if inmates also must pay. Typically prisoners don’t get anything without paying for it out of their commissary accounts, which must be funded by people who are not incarcerated. Even basic toiletries like toothbrushes and soap may not be provided to an inmate with a zero balance. It is likely that JPay users do get charged on both ends.

The prisons in the United States might be slowly approaching the 21st century, but Pagan ministers don’t appear to be in any rush to adopt electronic communication with inmates. At this point, CorrLinks and similar services seem poised to collect fees for the right to keep in touch using a method that is taken for granted by free people, and Pagan ministers, in particular, don’t see it as a useful tool for improving their work.

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[Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. Our hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!] 

2433370_1414184043.751On Oct 24, Brian Dragon (Tony Spurlock) passed away. He was a beloved member of the Feri Tradition, an active participant in many Bay Area Pagan groups, an occult scholar and talented Bard, who loved to sing and tell stories. The loss has been felt by many in the local community.

To help fund funeral expenses, his friends launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay “for the cost of an urn and cremation so that Rhiannon can find comfort amongst family and friends and closure as she mourns the passing of her partner in life and magic.” Less than 3 days later, the goal of $2000 was reached and exceeded. This show of support demonstrates the true coming together of community for the care of a family and in tribute to a treasured friend and spirit. Organizer Maya Grey expressed her heartfelt thanks on the funding site.

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The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

On Oct 21, the New York State Court of Appeals began hearing oral arguments in the Maetreum of Cybele case. As we have reported in the past, the Maetreum of Cybele has been caught in an eight year legal battle with the town of Catskill over its property tax-exempt status. In 2013, the Appellate Division of the state’s supreme court ruled in favor of the Maetreum, but the city would not relent, and appealed once again.

The day after the oral arguments were heard, the organization said,The Maetreum exists because of one miracle from the Goddess after another. We never should have been able to buy the property but did … never should have been able to stay in the legal battle to the end but did. We view the property as belonging to the Goddess.” Currently, the Maetreum reports that it still owes $1360 in legal fees and its fundraising efforts are ongoing. However, once those bills are paid and legal processes are over, the organization hopes to return to the project of getting its “community low powered FM radio station on the air.”

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Pantheon FoundationThe Pantheon Foundation will be hosting the first annual Pagan Activism Conference Online (PACO) Nov 22-23 2014. The conference will take place entirely online, allowing for global participation and attendance. According to the website, “The goal of the Conference is to equip Pagan activists from all over the country with the tools necessary to advance the goals and aims of their own activist efforts, and to build bridges between Pagan activists for mutual support.” The keynote speaker will be T. Thorn Coyle. Registration, information and a schedule of events are currently listed on the site.

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[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

With frustration mounting, Silver Ravenwolf has responded to the Facebook name controversy with a new blog post. A few days earlier, she told The Wild Hunt, in part, “As the days progressed I’ve received many e-mails and posts about individuals who have been targeted — radio show hosts, tattoo artists, writers, singers, Native Americans, etc. — but, more worrisome? Many of the individuals indicated they fought and lost, that the experience was painful and upsetting, and that they were treated unkindly by FB employees.” Ravenwolf added that she will fight this because, “FB is purposefully putting the safety and security of individuals at risk — and that is unconscionable.”

In Other News:

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It took me a few hours to find the girl whose face had appeared to me so clearly that morning, but as soon as I spotted the figure sitting on the bench out of the corner of my eye, I immediately knew that I had found the right person. She had a pile of cards, a handwritten cardboard sign, and, as my eyes met hers, she broke into an impish grin. She was definitely the one.

I handed her five dollars and sat down on the blanket.

“What is your question?” she asked me.

“I need to know what story to tell,” I answered.

She drew three cards, turned them over in front of me, and started to study them. As soon as I glanced at the cards, an old friend flashed through my mind, and instantly my question was answered. I quickly glanced at the cards again, snapped a picture of them with my phone, and then gently interrupted her thought process.

“No need,” I told her. “All I needed was to see the cards. I’ve got everything I need to know now.”

She looked at me, puzzled. “If all you needed was to see the cards, why did you pay me for a reading?”

“I was supposed to seek you out,” I answered, momentarily drifting back to the vision I had on the riverbank that morning and remembering that I had neglected an important detail. “I was also supposed to compensate you twice what you asked, so here…”

I reached into my pocket, handed her another five dollars and started to get up.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to ask. What’s the story? What are you writing about?”

“Its about the dead,” I quickly answered, realizing as the words left my mouth that she deserved more of an explanation than that. I took a breath and tried again. “I’m being nagged to write about the dead. But I’ve got too many possibilities in my head and I was drowning in an indecisive fog. Those three cards made it perfectly clear who and what I need to write about.”

She smiled and nodded. I thanked her again and headed home, ever so grateful for the simplicity of that exchange.

*  *  *

It was Samhain, and we had dedicated the day to honoring the forgotten.

We had started the afternoon at Washington Square Park, on the east side of the park where an estimated 20,000 bodies were buried and forgotten beneath one of New York City’s most well-known landmarks. The park was packed that day with children and adults alike in Halloween costumes, milling about in anticipation of the parade that would pass through Greenwich Village in just a few hours.

Jim and I stuck out for our lack of costumes and, yet instantly, attracted attention as we spread flowers throughout the east side of the park and sang songs and left offerings for the dead, purposefully ignoring the confused and questioning stares from passers-by. The crowds of people dressed as ghouls and ghosts hadn’t a clue that they were atop one of the city’s largest graveyards, and observing the depths of that ignorance only fueled our energy towards the task at hand. If only they knew what lies beneath, I thought to myself as I sprinkled flowers along the perimeter of the park.

From Washington Square, we walked uptown to Madison Square Park and then Bryant Park, performing the same ritual again in both places, and then briefly over the pedestrian bridge to Ward’s Island and back before taking the 6 train up to Pelham Bay in the Bronx and hopping a bus over to City Island.

The day before, I had arranged to borrow a boat from a friend whose family lived out on the island. It was a rickety old skiff, perhaps 12 feet long with a sputtering old Evinrude motor, that had seen better days but was sufficient for the purpose of our voyage. I was given a quick lesson on the boat’s quirks and operations before dragging her on the dolly down to the dock. I looked out into the water and focused my eye towards our destination in the distance.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

The sun was just starting to set as we strapped on our life jackets, grabbed a few flashlights and a set of oars, and headed out into Long Island Sound with a large plastic bag filled with fresh-cut flowers. It was a clear night, the water was still, and Jim piloted the boat while I helped navigate us northeast past Rat Island, the nautical map of this stretch long committed to my memory. I had been out on the Sound only a few times before in years past, but I had taken this trip many times in my mind, to the point where I felt a definitive déjà vu while we crossed the sound, despite the fact that I had never taken this exact route before.

A short time later, we stopped the boat and shut the motor off a hundred feet or so away from the shoreline near the northernmost tip of Hart Island. We carefully stood up in the boat and gazed out towards the island, immediately noticing that the land formation before us was literally shrouded in mist against an otherwise clear sky. Without a word we each grabbed an oar and slowly rowed closer in silence, drawn to the eerie, numinous energy that was emanating from the shoreline. Before us was a literal island of the dead, a 101-acre tract of land that held the distinction of being the largest publicly-owned burial ground in the world.

Over a million of New York’s indigent, forgotten, stillborn, and otherwise unclaimed dead are buried on Hart Island. The island has served as New York’s potter’s field since 1868, when the city purchased the island and designated it as “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” Prior to the city’s acquisition of Hart Island, potter’s fields had been maintained throughout Manhattan from the time of the city’s inception. The area that is now Madison Square Park was the first large-scale potter’s field, until the city purchased the area that is now Washington Square Park in 1797 and designated that tract as a potter’s field until 1825. Bryant Park was used to bury the indigent from the 1820s until just before the Civil War; Ward’s Island was then used for burials for several years prior to the purchase of Hart Island in 1868.

In addition to a potter’s field, Hart Island had also alternately housed an insane asylum, a drug treatment center, a boys’ reformatory, a tuberculosis sanitarium, prison dormitories, and a Nike missile base. The island was dotted with ruins from these various incarnations – ruins that were left crumbling and unexplored as the island had been closed to the public for as long as anyone could remember. The burials on Hart Island were performed by prison inmates from nearby Rikers Island. The inmates and employees of the New York City Department of Corrections were the only living souls legally permitted on the island. Signs warning the public not to land ashore were scattered all around the perimeter of the shoreline, and anyone who did step foot on the island was potentially subject to arrest.

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

Before I had met Jim, I had never even heard of a potter’s field, let alone had any thoughts of ever visiting one on Samhain night. I had occasionally wondered in the past what became of those who died and were unclaimed, or those whose families could not afford a burial. But I had never taken those thoughts to their logical conclusion until I started spending time with the segment of society that tends to end up in such places. I understood why nobody ever spoke of potter’s fields, as poverty and death are equally uncomfortable subjects as far as society is concerned. And yet, I found that once it truly sunk in – that there were untold thousands of the forgotten dead scattered throughout New York City – I couldn’t ignore or look away from the implications of that knowledge. I felt a need to honor them, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

Jim was unusually familiar with Hart Island, having worked as a prison laborer on the island during his last stint at Rikers some years back. A long-time petty criminal, he consistently credited his experiences at Hart Island with scaring him straight and setting him on the right path. Burying the indigent dead had moved something in him, forced him to examine his life and the hand that he was dealt. He spoke of the dead redeeming him in the same emotional manner that so many others spoke of Christ and, while I hadn’t known him prior to his prison experiences, I could regularly sense the deep changes that were continually occurring within him. He was homeless, struggling with sobriety, and stumbled regularly in that struggle, and yet there was a consistent fire within him that lifted him through his struggles, a fire that was deeply connected to the sense of purpose that he found while working with the dead on Hart Island.

“I got at least ten or eleven friends out there, that I know of, anyway,” he had said to me a few weeks prior to our trip. “Two of them died while I was locked up that last time, and for all I know I helped to bury them. It’s literally an island of forgotten souls out there for the most part. Most folks don’t even know its there.”

He told me of the memorials that the prisoners would build after they finished filling a trench. Altars of sticks and rocks, left in corners and crevasses throughout the island, built out of a sense of solidarity and empathy with those inside the simple wooden coffins that they stacked into the trenches day after day. “After a while, you feel a responsibility, an obligation to the task,” he told me. “Being locked up is a lesson in what it means to be forgotten. and most everyone who ends up on Hart Island is forgotten, whether you’re out from your cell for the day or freshly arrived in a wooden box. The forgotten in boxes, after a while, you realize that you’ve got perhaps a little too much in common with them.”

I thought of Jim’s time out on the island as we rowed close to shore and, as I looked over at him, I had a feeling that his thoughts were in similar places. We steered the boat eastward through the still water, and slowly started to circle around the island. I grabbed the bag of flowers and started to sprinkle them out of the side of the boat as we moved through the water. Jim rowed, and I sprinkled flowers, and we sang songs and prayers, rowing a full circle around the island of the forgotten dead as the sun set behind us.

As we made our way around the island, serenading the dead, the mist over the island started to glow in the  moonlight. We felt shifts in the air as the island seemed to respond to our presence. A whistling breeze picked up, and it was almost as if the dead were singing along with us. The veil was thin, time and place started to blur, and there was a sense of ever-strengthening connection as we slowly rowed through the water.

By the time we had completely circled around Hart Island, it was well after dark and both of our voices were hoarse. The island was pitch black, the moon was half-full, and we sat in the boat staring out at the island, watching as a sudden gust of wind stirred the mist that had been hovering throughout our journey around the island. We looked at each other and without a word spoken we decided it was time to depart. Jim started up the engine, which promptly sputtered and died, and we took it as a sign to maintain our silence as we gently rowed back to City Island without a word said between us.

As we landed back on City Island, the sky opened up and it started to pour, and as we looked back towards the opposite shore, the island of the dead was still eerily glowing.

*  *  *

In the time since our trip out to Hart Island, which took place in either 2002 or 2003, the island’s existence and the mystery around it has become much more well-known and widely publicized.

Among those buried at Hart Island are an untold number of stillborn children who died in city hospitals, many whom were buried at Hart Island without the knowledge or permission of the mother. Many of those mothers, along with the help of a local filmmaker and advocate, steadily fought the city and the Department of Corrections for the right to visit Hart Island. The department had always refused all requests to access the Island, from grieving relatives to filmmakers and journalists alike, but over the years their fight has gained traction, and the department gradually started to soften their position. In 2007, the department allowed ‘closure visits’ for the first time, which they granted only to family members who could legally prove that they had a relative buried on the island. The families were restricted to a gazebo next to the dock at Hart Island and had no view of the actual gravesites.

After eight women threatened to file suit against the Department of Corrections in 2010, seeking to visit the actual grave sites of their children, the department finally relented and allowed the women to visit the graves under tight security. The Department simultaneously lifted the overall requirement that visitors to the island need to legally justify their request through burial records. According to the Department of Corrections website, Hart Island is currently open to the public on a limited basis, although the visits are still restricted to the same rules that govern visits to Rikers Island, which means that no photographs, flowers, or mementos are allowed.

I lost touch with Jim a few years after our trip, and learned from an acquaintance several years later that he had died of cirrhosis in the hospice ward of Bellevue Hospital after a long battle. I was told that his body was unclaimed after his death, which means he was undoubtedly buried on Hart Island.

I put this story to words in the spirit of honoring his memory, and in the hopes that others will take it upon themselves to remember and honor the otherwise forgotten dead. What is remembered, lives.

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In our era of deep individualism which produces such horrors as the 1% oligarchy that rules our nation, we have a society that places individual benefit, greed, and self-centeredness at the acme of life. In ancient Athenian society, a person who behaved in this way was called an idiot.

"O Partenon de Atenas" by Steve Swayne [Lic. CC Wikimedia]

“O Partenon de Atenas” by Steve Swayne [Lic. CC Wikimedia]

Individualism is a strong force within the Pagan community. If Helen Berger is correct, 70% of us are solitary, which is very unusual for a religion. Of course, we are all used to the chorus of, “I joined this religion to get away from religious authority!” This is an understandable sentiment given the authoritarian religions that surround us.

Even the defensive assertion of being a ‘small-group religion’ is another aspect of this individualism. In this case, it is slightly extended to the local crew. While I am a fan of the small group, individualism has a centrifugal force that isolates and disempowers us in our solitude and small circles. It makes it hard for Pagans to join in a coordinated action in response to opportunity or oppression.

One of the most important tasks of religious leadership is to critique, challenge, and deconstruct the religion or a spirituality’s beliefs, perspectives, and practices.Today you are invited to contemplate Pagan solidarity, or civitas, and what the ancient Athenians called the idiot. Reclaiming the word ‘idiot’ and contemplating the criticism it embodies is hereby commended to you for discussion. The ancient world provides us with insight.

In ancient Athens those who gave no thought to the public life, the needs of the Polis, the community, were called ‘idiots’ and considered deficient in honor. This was contrasted to ‘citizenship,’ or civitas in the Roman. This is a life which is dedicated to community and which had to be inculcated by education.

[Public Domain; Pixabay]

[Public Domain; Pixabay]

If you read the Wikipedia listing for it, citizenship arose in opposition to slavery. The military defense of the City by citizens was to prevent enslavement by conquest, which was the normal outcome of war in the ancient world aside from death.

With so much to lose, the Athenians, like many other people in the world, banded together to defend and strengthen themselves against oppression, and for mutual prosperity. Those who did not participate, seeking only their own benefit, were called idiots. Citizenship was considered a virtue and accrued honor to those who gave up some personal benefit for the sake of the community. The respect of one’s fellows was considered ample compensation.

So, at times we should ask ourselves, are we a bunch of idiots? Do we Pagans see things that benefit our community as a whole and beyond our immediate circles (regional, state, national) as something worth our effort?

Admittedly we are in an era of speciation, spawning off new religious practices and traditions like Reconstructionism, [Hard/Soft-] Polytheism, Humanist Paganism, Heathenism and other culturally focused forms, and many more. We are in a centrifugal mode. Diversity is good for us overall; diverse ecologies are healthy and robust. This also pulls us apart into our many factions or sects, too often painfully at odds with each other. A necessary phase of development, but solidarity need not be ignored.

So, what of our civitas, our awareness of being a community? There are none like us in this world. We are a new, rising, vigorous, religious movement, only a few hundred years old. Contemporary Paganism is twined with the origins of modern science and liberal governance (freedom of speech, press, rule of law, etc.), but also with a revival of ancient forms of religiosity with their insights and Deities. Altogether a more wholesome form of religion, better suited to today, I warrant, than any other. But we are not a very powerful or effective one; the poster child for disorganized religion.

The Maetreum of Cybele is struggling to get tax relief for their monasteryThe Seekers Temple in Beebe AR is being attacked for trying to operate its Pagan church by a Christian church across the road). And I’m sure there are more such oppressions in the U.S. and abroad. Our ability to come together to support each of these members of our community, or failure to, constitutes a measure of our civitas, our citizenship as Pagans.

Two positive examples of civitas are the Lady Liberty Headstone Project, which lobbied the Veterans Administration so that deceased Pagan Military could be buried with headstones marked with Pagan religious symbols, and the recent fundraiser for The Wild Hunt. This vital Pagan news outlet was able to reach its basic funding goal with two weeks to spare. We can, as a community, put it together at times.

But is it a virtue to us? Is civitas a value in our sub-culture? How do we embody our solidarity in action? Pitching in and helping out is especially necessary when we don’t have institutions and paid leadership to take on the skut work. It’s not glorious, but it is necessary. Will we honor and respect, and support, those who labor on behalf of our community? What of those who set up our spaces and clean them afterwards? What of those who handle the accounting and book the sites — those not out front and visible leading ritual? Civitas is that special unity that comes from finding ways of joining together to achieve our hopes and dreams. In it, there is honor, respect, and support, for those who shoulder the burden. The alternative is sheer idiocy.

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Peter Paddon

It was announced Thursday that Peter Paddon, author, teacher, Witch, and Cunningman, had passed away quietly during the night. His family posted the following on his public Facebook account:

As you can imagine, there just aren’t words for things like this, at a time like this. Our beloved Peter has passed away peacefully in his sleep. We know that he has touched so many of you, as he has touched us, and we know that you share our grief this morning. We’ll share information on the plan as we’re able to put a plan together. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

Peter Paddon was a beloved figure in the Pagan world. Raised partially in the shadows of Stonehenge, he spent many hours playing and learning among its stones. At the age of twelve, he began experimenting with the Occult, but it wasn’t until after finishing school in 1983 that Peter engaged in any formal training. That journey began as a student of Alexandrian Wicca.

Over the next two decades, Peter studied a number of different traditions, including Egyptian Mysteries, Rosicrucianism and Enochian magick, and worked with many different people along the way. In 1997 Peter moved to Los Angeles to begin a new adventure with his wife Linda. In 2004, they started a group called Briar Rose, a Companie of Cunningfolk, which is still in operation today.

4ea7fde243bb0a82390adf.L._V322154580_SY470_Peter has been the spirit and energy behind many projects and creative ventures.Through his work, he has shared his love of the Craft and his vast Occult knowledge. In 2011, Peter began the popular Crooked Path podcast. Shortly before that, he launched an independent publishing imprint called Pendraig Publishing, whose focus is to produce “quality books … covering subjects like Traditional Witchcraft, Wortcunning, The Art of the Cunning Folk, and Ancient Mystery Traditions.” Since its founding, Pendraig has published Peter’s own books, The Crooked Path Journal and the works of other authors. Its newest release is Peter’s Traditional Witchcraft: Visualization.

In 2012, Peter suffered a major heart attack and underwent surgery, from which he fully recovered. That setback didn’t slow him down and, once able, he continued on with his work.

Throughout his life, Peter was a creator, an artist, a storyteller and a visionary. Along with his podcast and writing, Peter performed tarot readings and produced the Craftwise series of spellcasting DVDs. With his wife Linda, Peter enjoyed creating Pagan-inspired art and crafts. Most recently, the couple’s work, including Peter’s custom glass etchings, were being offered at the Northridge Mall open air market.

After Thursday’s announcement was made public, it became very clear how many lives Peter and his work have touched over the years. The Brothers of the Unnamed Path wrote:

Peter was a gifted witch who brought humor and great personal passion to his work. He was a friend of ours and of our dear Hyperion and provided great comfort to us after his passing. We offer our Love and deepest condolences to his wife Linda, son Ben, and Peter’s entire family and community of friends.

Close friend Orion Foxwood said:

Peter’s legacy is a multi-threaded beautiful tapestry of loving husband, loyal father, wise witch, treasured friend, and esteemed author and teacher. His brushstrokes on our lives have made the world more beautiful and magical….forever.

Peter will be missed as he begins his next journey. But his spirit and wisdom have been preserved in the many and varied works that he has left behind for future generations, from books to podcasts to etchings. In that way, Peter will continue to touch lives as he has always done; just as he will continue to live on deep within the hearts and memories of his students, friends and family.

What is remembered, lives.

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[We have changed the monthly "Walking the World" column to "Around the World." Today we return to the UK with Christina Oakley Harrington, the founding director of Treadwell's Bookshop in London. Do you like this column and others that feature perspectives from outside the U.S.A.?  If you do, please consider donating to our ongoing Fall Funding Drive. All of the money donated goes back to building The Wild Hunt and expanding our reach so we can feature more international stories and columnists. Please donate today!]

Hallowe’en approaches. Here in London we are in autumn at last. Golden brown leaves are underfoot on the sidewalks of our tree-lined streets here in Bloomsbury, my neighbourhood. Yesterday I walked down to the open market on East Street to buy ten yards of orange fabric to decorate the front window of my occult bookshop. We’re scouting for pumpkins to carve to put around on the display tables amidst the books.

[Courtesy of Treadwell's Bookshop London]

[Courtesy of Treadwell's Bookshop London]

Halloween is a time for remembering ancestors and, this week, I am honouring the ancestors of the wonderful tradition of the magical store, where ancient tomes, kindly conversations, and recommendations come together. Pagans and mystics of the western traditions historically don’t have churches or congregations. We’ve found one another in these book-lined spaces. It’s from the occult bookseller that we’ve received our guidance for reading; we’ve got our introductions to the local coven or the address of the local magical lodge.

In my own city of London, the ancestor booksellers are many and indeed illustrious. John Watkins, a friend of occultist Helen Blavatsky, set up his bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the early 1890s. His occultist customers used his shop as a meeting place and pressed him into publishing some of their work. Among them were members of the Golden Dawn, including WB Yeats and MacGregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Eventually Watkins’ son Geoffrey took over for his father. Carl Jung was a friend. Aldous Huxley was also known to be a bookshop regular. The famous poet Kathleen Raine wrote this of the son who inherited the bookseller mantle:

He welcomed his customers as his guests, assuming that we were seekers for wisdom, and meeting each of us at the level of our learning (or our ignorance) as he was well able to do. He seemed always to have time to listen.

The Atlantis Bookshop

The Atlantis Bookshop [Courtesy Photo]

London’s Atlantis Bookshop was founded in 1922 by Michael Houghton, a Jewish immigrant with a passion for the mysteries and poetry, and who reputedly held ceremonies in the basement room of his shop on Museum Street. Caroline Wise, who owned the shop through the 1990s, related to me that, during the second world war, Houghton took in refugee Jewish children who had been smuggled out of Nazi Europe. Houghton’s customers included Gerald Gardner, for whom he kindly published his book on Wicca – which apparently took a while to sell.

Atlantis and Watkins are both still flourishing in London. We at Treadwells, having opened in 2003, are the new kids on the block. We are honoured to have such predecessors as those booksellers. This is my town, these are my ancestors of place. I owe them honour for their help in cultivating the traditions of my spiritual vocation and my bookselling profession.

The young Christina visited the occult bookshops of London for the first time in early 1990, when still fresh off the overnight train from Northern Scotland. The noticeboards listed groups, meetings, conferences. These scrappy bits of paper and cards were a key to the places I would find real witches, real magicians. The booksellers at these shops looked knowledgeable and kindly, but I was always too daunted to strike up a conversation. In those days I was embarrassed to be the new kid. So I hid behind the books as I’d done since childhood, silently bringing my purchases to the check out and equally silently scribbling down the phone numbers and addresses of the contacts on the community board  I’ve learned that my story is a common one for that era.

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Magickal Childe [Public Domain]

This summer I traveled to New York City and looked along the streets for the site of the old Magickal Childe, where so many gathered in the seventies and eighties, to find one another, find adventure and misadventure, and to connect for magic, for withcraft, and for personal explorations. Here, gay men met up and gave birth to a men’s initiatory tradition of witchcraft known as the Minoan Brotherhood. Here teenagers came through the doors to nervously browse and buy their first black-covered paperbacks – Michael Bertiaux’s Voudon Gnostic Workbook or Doreen Valiente’s ABC of Wicca. And although the bookshop’s doors closed years ago, its precedent continues to inspire those of us who run esoteric bookshops today.

When I travel around America or around the UK, I can’t help but pop into every small city’s esoteric shop. Whether it’s Nottingham or Norwich or Albany, I have to go in. Usually I end up having a chat with the owner, who is commonly the friendly person behind the cash register. We talk about “how business is” and about the effect of the internet on bookstores. But, most of all, we talk about our spiritual calling – to have an open door for the community of Pagans, magicians and seekers in the place where we live. It’s a hard life. We commiserate with one another, but all our conversations come back to the fact that we feel we have to do it.

In our conversations, we reminisce about the good old days, remembering those who did it before us. And, though we don’t always say it to one another, I get the feeling that we all look to the ancestors of the occult bookshop tradition for strength when we don’t know how we’re going to make the rent this month. They give us patience when obstreperous occultists lecture us on what we’ve known for years. They hover as benign presences over our book launches and watch over us from the upper corners of the dusty book cases.

[C

[Courtesy of Treadwell's]

And so, as I unlock the door of my own shop this morning, this prayer is in my mind:

Bless us, ancestors of the occult bookshops, and we in turn bless you and thank you for all you did in your lifetimes. We try to do you proud, and stand in your shoes as best we can. May the bookshop continue to be the circle between the worlds, a meeting place of joy and peace and communion.

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As we reported Friday, October is a popular time for interview Witches. The season also brings a flurry of Halloween-inspired television programming. From the holiday specials to the classic horror films, the entertainment industry capitalizes on our cultural love for all things related to the secular holiday.

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

This phenomenon is nothing new. In the 1930s, Betty Boop appeared in a short called Hall’ween Party (1933). In 1948, Mighty Mouse saved the world in The Witch’s Cat. Many readers will remember looking forward to the yearly October airing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or, more recently, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). One of the newest Halloween-inspired offerings,Book of Life (2014), capitalizes on the growing popularity of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos aesthetic and tradition.

As we get closer to the actual Oct. 31 date, producers begin offering Halloween-themed episodes of TV series. In its lineup this year, CBS aired a Witch-themed episode of its popular, long-running show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While the secular Halloween holiday was never mentioned, the show’s title “Book of Shadows” and its subject matter were not arbitrarily chosen to appear in a late October episode.

Sunday’s CSI episode has set off some intense discussion within the Wiccan community. While many believe the show demonstrates a step forward in the depiction of Witches and Wiccans within mainstream entertainment, others were not easily convinced. Massachusetts Priestess Laura Wildman-Hanlon remarked:

I’m annoyed my religion was again dragged out and used as a means to scare people on Halloween. I’m angry at the disrespect paid to my beliefs and my God & Goddess. I’m furious at the writers who could have used the opportunity to debunk these untruths instead of playing to them. 

Was the show a simply a means to “scare people” as Wildman-Hanlon suggests? Was it yet another serving of insulting television fare perpetuating the historically-ingrained, sensationalistic construction of Witchcraft? Or was it positive? Did the writers demonstrate any cultural sensitivity?

Before looking at the specifics of the episode, it is important to be aware the CSI program is very formulaic like most TV dramas. “The Book of Shadows” episode was no exception.The aesthetics and narrative structure fell well-within the CSI storytelling boundaries, including the sensationalism, campy humor and graphic displays of internal anatomy.They didn’t stretch the show’s artistic reach to tell this story.

csi_crime_scene_investigation_logo__140218204850

“Book of Shadows” opens with a teenager filming a video while walking through school hallways. This scene is important because it establishes the main characters of the “who done it?” plot. After we are introduced to the players, a burning body comes running down the hall and then falls dead. Interestingly, this dead teacher is labeled “the Burning Man” and, although not known at the time, is a practicing Witch. While just a minor point, this detail, death by burning, becomes the second reference to Witchcraft. The first, of course, is the title.

Although the show is filled with subtle phrases and imagery maintaining its connection to the theme, it isn’t until the second segment that the narrative really delves into subject of Witchcraft. The coroner discovers a “Life Rune” symbol, which he links to Nazism, gangs and crime and which eventually leads investigators to the coven’s temple space.

The temple scene, itself, was filmed in the classic CSI aesthetic while also recalling elements of the horror film. As CSI Nick Stokes enters the dark room, everything is visually obscured by shadow and a tight camera angle. The limited lighting is blood red and, as the slow-moving camera pans across the space, the only recognizable images are a skull and a pentacle.

In typical CSI fashion, the horror-style scene is followed by scientific explanation and visual clarity. In this case, there is a brief dramatic reenactment that parallels the horror-scene.  Then the director abruptly cuts to a non-engaging, medium shot of the temple room in nearly full light. Everything is visible. CSI D.B. Russell has joined Stokes in exploring the space.

As they investigate, Russell educates Stokes and the audience on what they are seeing in the room. When referring to the pentacle, Stokes says, “I always thought it was the sign of the devil.” Russell replied, “Well you were wrong.”

Along with other similar type comments, Russell says, “[Wicca] is a Pagan religion.” Putting these two temple scenes together, the show plays first with what the viewer expects and then says, “well you were wrong.” This juxtaposition demonstrates a clear step forward in the representation of Witchcraft and Wicca within a modern context of its own making.

Moreover, the writers also note the important distinction that Wicca is a “Pagan religion.” This statement is critical because it moves popular discourse away from the simple point that “Witchcraft is real” or “Wicca is Witchcraft” to “Wicca is one of many religions.” Although encapsulated in a bucket of typical CSI sensationalism, the show’s narrative does demonstrate that the writers did some real homework.

CSI:  The Book of Shadows  [Courtesy: CBS Television]

CSI: The Book of Shadows [Courtesy: CBS Television]

The next important detail to examine is the lab scenes, in which tech David Hodges is dressed in a “relic Druid robe.” To Wildman-Hanlon, these scenes were extremely off-putting. She said, “I was furious to see one of the main characters wearing a silly robe, waving a wand over a cauldron bubbling with fake smoke and obviously making fun of my beliefs.”

David Hodges is largely present for comic relief within the more serious CSI drama schematic. He always takes a campy and comical attitude toward any subject. However, in this case, he was mocking a religious practice, which proves problematic. Along with his robe, Hodges called his lab a “Wiccan Altar” and mentioned a past Wiccan girlfriend who was “a little too earthy” and didn’t have a “bathing spell.” In addition, Pagan viewers may have been offended by the God and Goddess statuettes on his table. Although meant as harmless comedy, the writers went too far for many Pagan viewers as demonstrated by Wildman-Hanlon’s comment.

While the show’s middle portion largely diverts its attention from Witchcraft and Wicca, the narrative returns to the theme by the end. It is at this point the writers’ attempts at sensitivity fall completely apart. We find out that the killer is a Wiccan mother and teacher; the dead coven member was a teacher and drug dealer; the Wiccan principal was sleeping with a student and the High Priest and school janitor had once been a criminal. While the show doesn’t posit any of these characters as purely evil, they are all framed as damaged goods.

However, more problematic than any of that is the “who done it?”conclusion and various subtle details used to intensify and color the story. First, both murders were done by a Wiccan woman, who had been attempting a healing spell. She apparently needed the blood of a “sacrificed youth.” In once scene, the coroner notes that the dead boy’s blood was removed after his murder, which “suggests a Wiccan ritual.” Considering this line alone, it appears as if the writers fell face first into a vat of cultural stereotyping.

All the earlier positive elements and demonstrations of sensitivity become buried by the failings of the conclusion and other narrative details, such as the janitor brandishing his athame in a threatening manor. Through lines such as “Druid spell” to gain “more power” or “May the blackest of darkness smite you down,” a viewer’s preconceived notion of Witchcraft and Wicca are confirmed.

Why pay attention to shows like this one? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a fictional drama that posits its universe as real. For viewers, the CSI environment could be their world. There is no fantasy or mythology here. That is the nature of the genre. As such, it presents Witchcraft and Wicca as something real; something the viewers might witness in their daily lives.

This attempt to bring Witchcraft and Wicca out of a fantasy world and into reality is exemplified by the following exchange. Stokes says, “What happened next? No, let me guess, lightening bolts.” Russell replies, “No. a coven meeting.” This is notable change for the construction of Witches and Wiccans within American entertainment. Where most shows, even live-action, posit Witches and magic as elements of fantasy, this shows says “No they are real. They are parents, principals, janitors and science teachers.”

At the same time, CSI‘s realistic nature makes the mistakes all the more difficult to digest. Wildman-Hanlon remarks:

A couple of sentences muttered by a character that ‘Wiccans are peaceful people who work with the energies of nature,’ is lovely but not when the plot heads immediately back into the fiction line saying beneath our practices of harmony actually lies a darker stance where murder/human sacrifice is, according to our beliefs…our Book of Shadows…an acceptable practice if we deem it warranted. 

“The Book of Shadows” was a notable effort with some very positive forward steps in the representation of Witches and Wicca. Unfortunately the writers didn’t go far enough and wound up relying too heavily on good old fashion Halloween entertainment lore for the sake of a scream.

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The movement towards marriage equality in the United States has taken on a different tone in the year 2014. The term “marriage equality” itself is a seismic shift from the debate over “same-sex marriage” of only a few years ago, indicating that the question being asked is not one of gender, but one of fairness.The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declined the opportunity to address the issue, apparently preferring to let it play itself out socially, and playing out it is.

"Rainbow flag and blue skies" by Ludovic Bertron [CC lic/Wikimedia]

“Rainbow flag and blue skies” by Ludovic Bertron [CC lic/Wikimedia]

As of today, it is possible for same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license in 32 out of 50 states, including those places where it was banned by constitutional amendment or voter referendum.* To understand what’s been going on in recent weeks, The Wild Hunt decided to talk to Buddha Buck for a fresh voice and “Pagan on the street” perspective.

Buck is effectively a lifelong Pagan, having been reared that way since he was a child in the early 1980s. He’s not personally impacted by the question of marriage equality, since, “I have no desire to marry and am not gay, but I have been actively paying attention.” For Buck, following important legal struggles is a life-long hobby. Perhaps its because he’s a computer programmer; Buck’s “paying attention” involves a very close focus on the extreme details and complexities of a given case – including this one.

First, he was quick to point out that the ways this legal environment impacts people is quite nuanced: “I know folks … who have moved so as to be able to get married, who married primarily to get health insurance and other benefits, who live in pro-equality jurisdictions but don’t plan on marriage, etc. How each of those react to the developments is more nuanced than, ‘have been or are being denied marital rights.'”

For many people, what happened this month was anticlimactic. SCOTUS simply chose not to get involved in the debate. Five states, in which marriage bans had been overturned by federal courts, had those rulings effectively ratified by the decision of SCOTUS not to hear an appeal. Six other states with bans were drawn in by virtue of sharing a federal court district with the affected states. A flurry of legal activity followed and, when the dust finally settled, 32 states allowed same-sex marriage. That number has changed several times and could again soon.

screen-shot-2013-03-26-at-2-48-50-pm-650x0“They took more action than I expected,” Buck said of the court. “For each of the 7 cases, their choices were (a) grant cert, (b) deny cert, or (c) hold on to them, doing nothing. I expected (c), a true lack of action. After no case was announced as being granted cert on Friday, I expected them to hold onto all of them, re-listing them for a later conference or generally waiting until a circuit split. I was surprised that all 7 were denied certiorari.”

The road to this point has been anything but smooth. A 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, received strong support in Congress as well as the signature of President Bill Clinton. This marriage act protected states and the federal government from being forced to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states where it was legal.

In 2000, Vermont was the first state to grant any sort of legalization for the union of same-sex couples. However, the legislature acted under a court order and called the product civil unions, rather than marriage. In 2004, another court case led Massachusetts to open marriage to same-sex couples. That year also saw protest marriages performed by the mayors of San FranciscoNew Paltz, NY and others.

In reaction to the perceived “war on marriage,” state legislatures passed a number of laws expressly forbidding gay marriage, indicating a strong backlash to the trend. At the same time, several states either passed laws in support of civil unions or domestic partnerships, or were forced to accept full marriage by the courts. The year 2008 saw intense activity on this front, with actions in two states standing out. On the east coast, New York governor David Paterson signed the first-of-its-kind law to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages from a state that hadn’t legalized them. On the west coast, California’s residents voted to amend the commonwealth’s constitution to ban same-sex weddings, making it the first state to overturn court-imposed same-sex marriages.

In the following year, Vermont’s legislature took a leadership role by passing a same-sex marriage bill and overriding a gubernatorial veto. Other states, largely on the coasts, followed in using the word “marriage” in legislation. But the biggest blow to the fight to preserve so-called “traditional marriage” did not come until June 26, 2013, when SCOTUS hit it with a double whammy. The court invalidated a key provision of DOMA and turned away an appeal on behalf of California’s Proposition 8, which had been found unconstitutional by a lower court.

The court’s 2013 ruling on DOMA is an area the Buck was quick to clarify, saying, “Not all of DOMA has been struck down, just some of the more important bits. DOMA still says that states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Striking down DOMA was an important event legally, and certainly made the subsequent court cases across the country easier to argue. Without it, advancement of marriage equality through the courts would have been much slower (especially as the alternative to saying DOMA is unconstitutional would be saying it is constitutional, and thus making it harder to strike down the bans). More importantly, it got rid of the federal ban on marriage recognition, which for actually married couples was immensely important.”

From one perspective, the recent flurry of court rulings seems quick, but in context, the fight has been going on for decades. On the other hand, Buck points to a recent and eye-opening xkcd comic, comparing the acceptance of same-sex marriage to that of interracial marriage:

 

 

While same-sex marriage seems long overdue, particularly for those who have waiting a lifetime to marry, the trend towards general popular acceptance reached the mainstream in record time when compared to the popular acceptance of interrracial marriage. And this happened despite the deep ideological divisions in this country. Could full nationwide legal acceptance of same-sex marriage now be close-at-hand? Could nationwide acceptance of true marriage equality, across and between any social divisions, be not far behind?

 

 

*32 States include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina,Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming (as of Oct 23 2014)

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