If there was a dominant theme to the 2014 Sacred Space Conference in Laurel, Maryland, it would be Appalachian folk magic, and the teachers from that culture who have emerged within our community. Featured presenter Orion Foxwood, author of “The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root-Work” spoke to packed rooms that seemed reluctant for their experience with the charismatic teacher to end. Likewise, Byron Ballard, author of “Staubs and Ditchwater: a Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo” gave a rollicking overview of “the joy of hex” to a standing-room only crowd.
So, it stands to reason that a panel featuring Foxwood, Ballard, and Linda Ours Rago, author of “Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing With Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise-Woman Tradition” (among other works) would come to seem like the capstone of the entire weekend. Moderated by Michael G. Smith, an Elder in The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the resulting experience was one filled to the brim with stories, laughter, more stories, explanations of differences in geographic terminology for similar folk-magic practices, even more stories, and emotional evocations of their land and culture.
There’s no way I could accurately capture the experience of this panel, so with permission, I recorded the proceedings and now share them with you here.
Within modern Paganism, and certainly within the many religious movements that overlap with ours, authenticity is important. I think that these practitioners so inspire students and observers because they bring with them a cultural authenticity born of their own experiences. Naturally, when spiritual technologies seated within a specific cultural context are taught in these events, the issue of cultural appropriation comes up (as it did in the Q&A section of this panel). The goal, I think, is to hold onto values of honesty and transparency when given the opportunity to learn from circumstances like these. Their experience is rooted in the land from which they came, and nothing can replicate that. We may learn new spiritual technologies and viewpoints for which to encounter our own day-to-day practices, but we can never become “Appalachian” in the way they manifest, no matter how fervently someone might wish.
Moments like these are opportunities to enrich our understanding of the vital tapestry of magical traditions, and how similar roots can produce very different flowers depending on where they grow. All of these teachers are here to teach, and we should learn from them, while also remembering that we can never become them. So long as we hold that truth, we will be able to become mutually enriched, and events like the Sacred Space Conference can continue to organize unique moments in time like this from a place of curiosity and respect.