Archives For Alley Valkyrie

The Polytheist community is vast. Cultures around the world celebrate versions of polytheistic worship and commune with the Gods as a way of life. Modern polytheistic practices are just as wide of a range as in any other time in history. There are many contextual differences, nuances, cultures, beliefs, stories, and practices that fall under a very large umbrella of Polytheism.


[from Wikimedia]

The strength of any community is enhanced and yet challenged by the variety of diversity it faces. How we see worship, who we worship, how we engage in community worship, how we are inspired to worship; all things that can encapsulate the myriad differences that play a role within any snapshot of the Polytheistic community.

The complexity and variety of practice is what brought the My Polytheism project to creation. Writer and polytheist Jolene Dawe started working on this project in August of this year, which has unfolded to include many different writings and reflections from people within the Polytheist community that are speaking about their personal version of Polytheism.

I was quite drawn in by the creativity and variety of the posts on the site because they showed so many different interpretations and practices within this community. The myriad nuances that can be rooted within any practice create a vital context to the very connection one has with the Gods, their practice, community, and their place within it. I can relate to this concept because of the many different aspects in my own practice that are outside of the “norm” within greater community expectations. My personal culture plays a big role in my own brand of Polytheism.

There have always been many attempts, whether over the internet or in person at festivals, to clarify what acceptable Polytheism is. The ongoing desire to define modern Paganism and Polytheism is nothing new, and sometimes that is accompanied by judgement and the creation of normative values focusing on who fits inside of the circle and who does not. Communities often focus on differences as a way to identify parameters and cultivate shared social standards. These very differences and nuances also push people into the margins of a community and can lead to ridicule, feelings of isolation, and additional challenges that come with being right outside of the lines of acceptable culture.


And for all of these reasons, I decided to turn to Jolene Dawe and speak with her about the motivation and drive to create what has become #MyPolytheism.

Crystal Blanton: In creating the My Polytheism site and concept, did you think that it would call to so many people?

Jolene Dawe: I cannot emphasis ‘no’ enough, here. The site started as a place for me to gather links that I didn’t want to lose, when people started writing their own #mypolytheism posts in response/inspired by mine. One day, someone was wrong on the internet, and I got annoyed. Those responses were heartening.

I’ve been blogging about my path for awhile, and I do get people reaching out to me regularly, who are put off by the debate style that passes for community building in the louder section of the Pagan blogosphere, who don’t want their paths or experiences picked apart, who are tired of hearing that they’re wrong somehow. As there’s been more and more talk about this so-called Polytheist Movement, I realized that, you know, phrasing it like that, as if there’s some collective movement around whose tenets people agree, is misleading.

Because My Polytheism has zero interest in deciding if others are ‘doing polytheism right.’ The idea of there being some homogeneous polytheism tradition, where one must approach the gods through appropriate people, really turns me off. The looking back to how ancient polytheism was, with some rose colored glasses, as if that’s something to bring forward . . . no, thank you, but no. I don’t want a state-sanctioned polytheist approach. I’m female; would I have been allowed to devote myself to Poseidon for life, if we existed under a polytheist world since antiquity? Because, I doubt it.

So, My Polytheism came about in part because of that — can we maybe stop arguing about who’s ‘doing it wrong’ and instead maybe share what it is that we’re doing? Can we move away from wanting contemporary polytheism to be rooted in sameness — in where we hold the gods in the ordering of society, in how we think of them, in how we worship — and instead maybe root it in hospitality? I’m weary of it being acceptable to tear into people online, because “they’re nice in person” — which is a refrain I heard all the time during my years interacting with heathens on the east coast, in person. Can we be kind to one another? Can we stop pretending that personal attacks because you don’t agree with someone is acceptable? Can we admit that the perennial debates are going to keep happening, and not everyone needs to be a theologian, or a scholar, or even just want to debate. Can we please, please, move beyond this stage?

I did not know My Polytheism was going to become a project, when it went live. It was really supposed to be this depository of links, for my own ease of reference. Clearly, I was wrong.

CB: What do you feel that My Polytheism adds to the idea of community and the culture of modern Polytheism?

Jolene Dawe

Jolene Dawe [Courtesy Photo]

JD: Off the top of my head? A safe space to share, where the authors of the various essays/blog posts get to determine how they engage with others. It’s been criticized that because My Polytheism does not allow debate on the site, that it’s anti-debate. It’s not. I’m not. What I am, though, is against the idea that people are obligated to participate in debates, that they somehow owe anyone else an explanation as to why their experiences are as they are. I’m not going to provide one more space for people to attack someone. If you want to talk to one of the contributors about what they have to say, you need to go to their blogs and comment to them directly. They then get to decide if they want to engage with you or not. It’s completely up to them.

I think My Polytheism also increases visibility of the diversity with contemporary polytheism. I want it to. I hope it does. I do know that already people have found others whose work they may not have found otherwise — I’ve ‘met’ a ton of new people I didn’t know of before, that’s for sure. There are so many people who have felt alone, or in the minority, and I think My Polytheism is helping to challenge that. Certainly, having examples of the different ways a polytheist life might look is a positive thing.

Another thing about My Polytheism is that — yeah, I’m the curator of sorts, in that I’m maintaining the space — but it is nothing without the contributions of other polytheists. In that way. it’s a collective effort. My Polytheism is ours. It wouldn’t work any other way, because I really do not care about telling people how to be. I want to share what I do, and I want to know what you do, because I’m nosey, and because I’m curious, and because I find this all fascinating, and because I find it inspiring. I like stories. I want to hear yours. You know?

CB: Sometimes bridge work can be difficult in any community. What would you want to emphasize about My Polytheism to those may not understand the need for safe space within the modern Polytheism community?

JD: I’d like them to pause and consider that, if they don’t feel a need for a safe space within the modern Polytheism community, it might be because they have the privilege of not needing it, and that this does not mean others do not. I know ‘privilege’ is something of a buzzword these days, but it’s necessary to confront this: people want safe spaces. I’d argue that they need them. Not everyone can tackle issues in the same manner, whatever those issues are, and they shouldn’t be expected to.

I want community, I even want in-person community, but I don’t want just anyone. I want the people that are going to nourish me, who are going to encourage me. Beyond that, I don’t want people to feel they cannot approach their gods because of whatever reason. Because they can’t leave their houses, because they don’t *want* to leave their houses, because they’re not able-bodied, because they’re not comfortable in their skin, because their would-be communities are intent on telling them why they can’t be involved with the powers they’re involved with, because of their skin color or their gender orientation or their sexual preference, or a host of other reasons. We need safe space within the modern Polytheism community because modern polytheists are asking for it, are responding to it. You don’t have to understand. You don’t have to want to contribute to it — but you don’t get to decide what other people want or need .You do not get to decide how other people want to build community.

My Polytheism is not a place for everyone, and it’s not trying to be. There is the whole of the Internet to debate and attack and criticize. If that’s all you’re after, in community building, you’re going to have to go elsewhere. And, because I know there are those out there who love to send hateful and abusive private messages and emails, I’ve also made it clear that any sent my way about this topic are to be considered submissions for publication, because they will go live. So far, I haven’t gotten any. Which maybe isn’t the best way to build bridges, but I’m not interested in building bridges with people who only want to tear others down.

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When reaching out to Jolene about this project and its subsequent impact, I also decided to reach out to several of the people whose pieces were published on the website. What motivated them to write about their brand of Polytheism? What inspires their reflection of Polytheism? What hope did they have in sharing this with others?

Their answers are just as diverse and layered as the makeup of our community.

I was motivated to write an entry for #mypolytheism because I know I’m deviating from the “mainstream” ideas of Paganism and Polytheism with my practice. There’s a lot of gatekeeping in the wider online community, ideas of how things should be done in order to be correct, which can be demoralizing for those of us who can’t seem to find a home in the established Pagan and Polytheist religions. Personally, I take the stance of a Chaos Magician, in that what is correct… is what works. And that may not be the same for everyone; each person needs to experiment and see what works for them. And it’s likely to be a continuing work in progress.

I wanted to be part of something that strives to show everyone who is doing things a little different that we’re not alone. And I wanted to be part of showing the gatekeepers that we are just as valid and active as they are, no lectures required. We’re all doing our own thing, and it’s beautiful, and awesome, and amazing. By being able to share what we’re doing with each other, we’re sharing ideas, and helping each other.

Maybe someone in Russia is doing something really interesting someone in California might like to try out. Maybe new and more dynamic and inclusive religions and traditions can grow out of solitaries sharing information, and maybe not. I know there’s already a new community of support that’s grown out of the movement, for Pagan and Polytheist monastics, and it’s so exciting to see everyone talking, and so many people saying “I’ve been interested in this for *years* and never knew anyone else was interested!” It’s wonderful to see so many people connecting and sharing ideas. I don’t know if that would have happened without #mypolytheism. – Celestine

Alley Valkyrie [Courtesy Photo]

Alley Valkyrie [Courtesy Photo]

I was motivated on two levels. One was the increasingly rigid definitions that were being put out there by self-styled “leaders” about what polytheism is and isn’t supposed to be. I felt that those ideas were very limiting and excluding of many people and practices, and that they failed to accurately capture the diversity of ideas and ways within polytheism.

The other motivation was those who had already put their reflections out under the #mypolytheism hashtag. It was quickly obvious to me that so many of us had been feeling the same thing and they idea of putting out our own thoughts became quite contagious.I hope that from this sharing that others who are either on the edge looking in or have felt excluded by the rigid definitions of the past realize that there is a place for their practices and style of worship within polytheism, and that there is no “one true way” of being a polytheist.

I envision a community where folks are free to share their ideas and experiences without being told that they are “doing it wrong”, and that they can take inspiration from others who are putting their experiences out there. – Alley Valkyrie

As I understand it, My Polytheism was started in order to highlight the many diverse ways of being a polytheist. It has already shown that people are building community in ways that are unique and valuable, such as polytheist monasticism (the kind of monasticism that serves a wider community). It has created a safe space where people can share their feelings about their relationship with the gods.

Some people have complained about it not being a space for debate. As I see it, there are two ways to arrive at knowledge – (1) by debating and trying to eliminate the “incorrect” point of view; (2) by sharing experience & feelings and building up a richly textured view of reality. Since religion is largely about feelings and experiences, the debating approach won’t help much. My Polytheism is clearly about sharing feelings and experiences. And frankly I don’t want my heartfelt experiences to be a matter for debate. You can debate theology all you want, but ultimately the nature of the gods is a mystery and one that we all perceive in different ways.

There is so much debate everywhere else on the Internet – it’s lovely to have a space that is more like a sharing space where people can post their thoughts & feelings and not get shot down in flames for it. – Yvonne Aburrow


Yvonne Aburrow [Courtesy Photo]

It was the tag line on the Facebook page that first caught my interest: “Visible. Vocal. Diverse.” That’s well aligned with my values. I want folks to hear from polytheists who celebrate diversity in polytheism. There are plenty of people who will tell you you’re doing it wrong, or assert that you’re not really a polytheist. There are plenty of places that attract attention by courting controversy and heated debate. But there are precious few places where I can set aside that sort of discourse entirely, and simply be heard on my own terms in a space of sacred hospitality. Magic happens in those places, and I want to contribute to that magic!

As a member of a minority religion, it takes courage for me to share details of my devotional and contemplative practice publicly. There are risks involved in doing so, especially given that sincere religious devotion in a polytheist context is often dismissed as “crazy” or “backward” in the dominant cultural milieu. If I fear my personal religious experience might be debated or insensitively picked apart by bullies – people who don’t know me or the challenges I deal with, and aren’t even peripherally involved in my relationships with the deities I venerate – I’m far less likely to share these things.

By providing a welcoming space for marginalized voices, and relief from the constant worry about being dragged into the kind of debate-driven discourse that is so prevalent elsewhere, My Polytheism emboldened me to speak up and contribute.

I hope it will amplify the voices of polytheists who are marginalized – voices that might not have been on our radar otherwise, yet have much to contribute to modern polytheism. I hope the project reaches people who feel underrepresented or unwelcome in polytheism, and brings them comfort, camaraderie, and the reassurance that they’re not alone. And finally, I hope it drives home the importance of creating spaces with clear and well-defined boundaries, in which voices that often go unheard are given a platform to address their communities on their own terms. I’m a co-administrator of a new discussion group on Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism, and our guidelines were inspired by those of My Polytheism, so the project’s influence is already expanding! – Danica Swanson

Danica Swanson [Courtesy of Arrowyn Craban Lauer]

Danica Swanson [Courtesy of Arrowyn Craban Lauer]

This project, while drawing some criticism, has come at a time when many people are looking for a place to celebrate their differences and similarities with others in spiritual community. It is also very relevant that many are actively in search of a safe place within the world; our spiritual communities are not void of this need.

As our communities grow and expand, we see more glimpses of what gaps exist and what needs go unfilled within the larger communal sphere. Acknowledging the needs of those within the margins can be a vital and healthy piece of the much larger picture of any group of people. How do we embrace the sharing of those same perspectives as the gifts that come from the diversity of different practices, experiences and stories?

It brings back into focus many of the questions that communities ask when they are in a process of growth and formation. How can we embrace differences? What is the value of holding space for those who outside of the norm of overculture? How do we welcome diversity? What is the benefit of stretching our own understanding about the practices and needs of others? How is safe space for the nuances of culture intersect with our ability to create healthy community? How does the desire to formulate a common framework for Polytheism limit our ability to learn and grow through the myriad of practices and beliefs we encounter?

While some of the concepts that communities explore in the development of culture are large and require much contemplation, others are rather simple. Our collective community is just as varied as the Gods who are worshiped around the world. We often forget inside of modern depictions of polytheistic practices, that we are but one segment of a much larger system of worship that spans time and physical spaces And what we have to gain from exploring the many different interpretations of personal practice is much greater than what we could ever lose.

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This column was made possible by the generous support of the members of Come As You Are (CAYA) Coven, an eclectic, open, drop-in Pagan community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

UNITED STATES — On Tuesday morning, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was shot in the chest and back by a Louisiana police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. By Tuesday night, protests and vigils began in that capital city. While many people were still examining the video of the shooting and processing what happened, another shooting occurred. On Wednesday evening, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was shot by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While an official police video of the shooting hasn’t yet emerged, a video of Castile’s death was livestreamed on Facebook.

By Thursday, protests against police brutality, along with vigils for the two men, swept the nation. Most protests have been peaceful. However, one in Dallas, Texas ended with five police officers killed and seven others wounded by a former military member who said he wanted to “kill police officers, especially white ones.” Two protesters were also wounded in the attack. Then, on Saturday evening in Minneapolis, several officers were injured by protesters throwing rocks and bottles. Police responded with CS gas and rubber bullets.

Protest in NYC July 2016 [Courtesy C. Weber]

Protest in NYC July 2016 [Courtesy C. Weber]

The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have much in common, along with a few differences. The deaths of both men were caught on tape and viewed by millions of citizens. Both men were carrying a firearm when they were killed.

In Minneapolis, police pulled Castile over for the stated reason of a broken taillight. Unknown to Castile, police reportedly thought he matched the description of an armed robbery suspect, and wanted an opportunity to take a closer look at him. According to Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who was in a car with him, the officer asked him for his license and registration. She said that, as he reached for his I.D., he informed the officer that he had a concealed-carry permit and was armed. Reynolds said the officer told him to put his hands up and not to move. But, as Castile tried to put his hands up, he was shot five times and died. Reynolds said that Castile was attempting to comply with conflicting orders by the officer: to produce his identification, to put his hands up, and to not move.

In Baton Rouge, Sterling was just outside a store when police came. Officers were responding to a call that a man was displaying a firearm or that it was visible. As Sterling is a convicted felon, he was not legally permitted to carry a firearm. However, that fact was reportedly not known to police at the time of the shooting. Additionally, the video doesn’t show Sterling brandishing or reaching for his weapon during the attempted arrest. What the video does show is Sterling and the police struggling, then the officer fires several times killing Sterling.

Both cases have civil rights activists, Black Lives Matter activists and many others questioning whether these killings were justified or examples of excessive force used by police.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagans across the country about why they attended the weekend rallies, what religious ethics drive their actions, and what they experienced first hand.

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Detroit, Michigan

Kenya Coviak is a diasporic practitioner of modern neo-pagan witchcraft and folk magick, Founder of the Great Lakes Witches Council of Michigan, Co-treasurer of Ancient Faiths Alliance; Founder of Black Moon Grove and President of Pagan Pride Detroit INC. Coviak said:

“One, I am a diasporic, that means Black. [A] woman in this great nation who is directly and indirectly affected by what is going on in the class and race conflicts ongoing in the way we treat each other as a country.  The blood that is being spilled is my own in spirit, kith, and kind if not kin. It is a greater issue when it comes to Black Lives Matter. It is not Black Lives Matter OR Blue Lives Matter. It is Black Lives Matter AND Blue Lives Matter. Because the tide of wickedness that is flowing through the rivers of pain in our country are a form of sickness that is seeking to divide and dissolve our collective unity.

“Those who have been twisted and turned into the tools of hatred and bigotry are killing citizens before they can even get to the hearing. And there is a spectrum of force that is being skipped and cherry-picked when it comes to Black and Native and Poor people.”

Detroit Protest July 2016 [Courtesy K. Coviak]

Detroit Protest July 2016 [Courtesy K. Coviak]

Coviak continued, saying “The fact that there are Pagan activists all over the electronic landscape is one thing, but unless we get in the streets and off the keyboards, what good are we to people who do not have time to put their coffee next to the screen and read the latest thought piece?

“Michigan is unique in that it has so many new and old Pagan and Heathen groups that are openly and actively involved in bridge building. There is no justifiable reason that there should ever be a demonstration where NO representative of Pagan faiths are in attendance. And the fact that I went through three bundles of smoke cleansing herbs and oils means a great deal to me. Even security and law enforcement were open enough to ask questions and even let the smoke clear and bless them.

“I am an activist and former Family Service Worker for Head Start. Boots on the ground is how I have always rolled. I experienced the energetic  [at the rally] shift from anger to focus to optimism.  As the crowd grew, so did the feeling of a storm breaking. Some were overwhelmed and took generous gulps of water as they were comforted by volunteers.

“My values dictated that where there is a spiritual awakening, and where there is an etheric shift that trauma causes,  I should be there if I can.  I come with heart,  hands,  and soul to share the weight.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tasha Rose, a practicing Witch, said:

“I went to the rally because clear injustice was laid upon Philando and his family. I wasn’t able to stay beyond bringing food that I made but that’s how I serve, I cook. I prayed as I made a simple snack for protesters and as is my personal daily practice, imbued the food with love and strength and resilience and other attributes I thought would be needed by those standing up and speaking out.”

Minneapolis Rally July 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Schulz]

Minneapolis Rally July 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Schulz]

Rose added, “This man was innocent. He was murdered by a police officer who spooked like a newly broke horse after he profiled Philando. These kind of people do not deserve to count themselves as protectors of the peace when they are waging war built on classist, racist pretenses. I went and left prayerful food and said my prayers at the rally because we should all feel safe around those who wear a badge. We should all be able to drive without fear of being murdered by those who are sworn to serve us.”

Atlanta, Georgia

Sara Amis is a writer and Faery Tradition initiate. Amis said:

“I actually went to two marches: one Thursday evening from Five Points to Piedmont Park, and one Friday that started in Centennial Park and basically went on for the rest of the evening with a bit of rally in between. Aside from the obvious…that I think there’s a problem with police violence that the system as it functions now is not addressing, and that there is a measurable racial bias element to it as well…I think it’s important to be present, to walk the streets with those most at risk and hear what they have to say in their own voices, to let them know they are supported in real time with my own feet and voice and risks. It’s an act of democracy and an act of love.”

Atlanta protest July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

Atlanta protest July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

Amis continued, saying, “I wrote an ‘Incantation for Justice’ a year and a half ago, which begins ‘The place of the witch is beside the downtrodden.’ If anything I’m more convinced of that now than I was before. Fundamentally, if I think that life is sacred, that each person is a unique expression of the divine, it’s not good enough to think that in the abstract. I have to express those ideas in concrete ways.

“Atlanta is interesting. There’s such a strong tradition of civil disobedience here, and many of the veterans of the Civil Rights movement are still around, still doing work in their communities in and out of politics. When John Lewis is the senior member of your Congressional delegation, it changes things.

“The Friday afternoon march started as the Center for Civil and Human Rights which is also an Atlanta tourist attraction, and my Congressman, Hank Johnson, was marching in it. I was there with my boyfriend, who is a political candidate. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some antagonism, but it’s more passive-aggressive, like Mayor Reed claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr. would never have blocked a highway, which if you ask me is a patently ridiculous statement.

Atlanta rally July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

Atlanta rally July 2016 [Courtesy S. Amis]

“But the protests here almost never get ugly and can often be quite celebratory, even with all of the typical confusion, police, flashing lights, and helicopters. The Thursday night march was more somber but Friday night people were drumming, singing, dancing down the street. There were all ages and races and backgrounds there, but the majority of them were African-American and many of them were quite young. When I look at them they look like my students…some of them clearly were students, from Georgia State, Emory, Spelman, Agnes Scott, Morehouse, etc. They were bantering back and forth about Rosa Parks and Zora Neale Hurston. They were cheerful, funny, ebullient even. Bystanders were also very supportive, waving and honking their horns even as we were keeping them from getting where they were going.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was tense at times. The police were present with AR-14s (sic), though I assume that was in fear of a copycat of Dallas. I heard they had tear gas though I didn’t personally see it.  And after the stand-off on the Williams St. exit had gone on for a while it looked like they were going to try to box us in. The response was to peel off a large group and march around the city for about an hour and a half, singing and picking up more people as we went.

“My boyfriend and I finally left before the trains stopped running.  We passed someone who had parked his car and had it cranked up playing ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.’  Then argued politics with people on the train on the way home; another thing about Atlanta is that people talk to each other, in the street, on the train. It’s a very human city, like an overgrown small town.”

Oakland, California

Elizabeth said: “I don’t prescribe to a specific type of Paganism. I practice goddess worship, acceptance, kindness, peace, love, feminism, and social justice.”

“I went to the Shut It Down protest in Oakland, CA  this past Thursday as white ally and witch. The crowd was extremely diverse. There were all different religions races and creeds. Children, families, teens, young adults, middle aged adults, elderly adults. The protesters were culturally diverse, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian […] What I saw with my heart was my community coming together in support of Black Lives Matter.

“I attended the protest with my Hive Sister from CAYA Coven and we were burning sage and walked the perimeter of the rally with our focus and intentions on maintaining a shield of protection around us (protesters) from violence and police brutality and boosting the signal that Black Lives Matter.”

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Morpheus Ravenna is a Celtic polytheist Pagan, and Lore Chieftain of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. Ravenna said:

“I attended the rally because I must. I value justice, sovereignty, the kinship of humanity, and I can’t stand by and claim to care about those things but not act to do something about the horrific injustices that I see perpetrated by our institutions against People of Color. There are plenty of other ways to make a difference; but for me as a practitioner of a warrior tradition and a dedicant of the Morrígan, I’m called to act by joining the Black community in the streets and participating in direct action and resistance.”

Ravenna at Oakland protest July 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Ravenna at Oakland protest July 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Ravenna continued, “The mood of the crowd was passionate that night. News of the extrajudicial killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had just landed in the community on top of weeks of awful revelations about the OPD and several other local police forces in a truly reprehensible sex trafficking conspiracy. There was a feeling of outrage, grief and frustration. You had this sense that this crowd was not going to be stopped. The march moved very quickly from the plaza to OPD headquarters, and then in a matter of moments was cascading across the highway, shutting it down completely and holding it for over four hours.

“I saw fierce chanting, outpourings of rage and grief, revolutionary speeches; and I also saw celebratory music and dancing, spontaneous outbursts of jubilation. When the front of the march crested the on-ramp and took the highway, someone let off a few firecrackers overhead and there was victorious cheering. People took care of each other, sharing food around as the night grew later. When someone in the crowd had a seizure, street medics stepped up, and a doctor whose vehicle was stuck in the shutdown even came and helped out.

There was a lot of good feeling. But also, as all this was going on the news about the Dallas sniper started going around the crowd, and people were very nervous that the police would come down hard on us because of it. We were working with other clergy people at the march, preparing to place ourselves as shields between police and Black activists if the situation called for it. Thankfully, we saw no violence that night.”

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Brennos Agrocunos, is a Celtic polytheist Pagan and the acting Chief of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. Agrocunos said:

“I attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland California on July 7 in order to support the Black community, stand alongside Black clergy, and work as a street medic during the event. As a part of my commitments and oaths to my Gods and ancestors I work to serve my community in the best way that I can.  In Oakland, violence from the police against the Black community is a significant and deadly problem.  Providing support for People of Color in our community during a time of crisis is the morally correct thing to do, and as a human I’m compelled by my conscious and as a priest I’m compelled by my oaths to my Gods to act.”

Newark, New Jersey

Queen Mother Imakhu, is a Shenu-Khametic, a branch of Ancient Egyptian spirituality, and Pastor and Leader of the Sharaym Shenu Khametic Temple.  Queen Mother Imakhu said:

“I was walking to my bus stop, on my way home from the Farmers Market. There was no difficulty in catching it, because it was stuck at the intersection, along with a long line of buses and cars. Traffic was at a standstill because grassroots protesters had taken over the major intersection of Newark. We sat there for an hour. Our bus driver was in solidarity, and shut the bus off. He said he wasn’t going to attempt to move until the protesters allowed passage. Other drivers followed suit. Some tried to push through, but got nowhere. I jumped off the bus to grab photos with my phone, then reboarded.”

Newark Rally July 2016

Newark Rally July 2016 [Courtesy Queen Mother Imakhu]

She added, “What was disappointing was hearing folks complaining about how the protestors were an inconvenience. Others complained about getting to work. They missed the point about the economic shut down. Business in downtown Newark was disrupted. And these were Black folks complaining.

“My driver happened to be a colleague: a Kemetic High Priest. Our faith calls for making a difference through actions. The spiritually awakened Khamite/Kemite stays calm, but stands on the side if truth. While others in the bus were screaming and complaining, we both maintained our cool, and affirmed our support for the protestors. He took a lot of heat too. He was calm, dignified, resolute, smiling.

“I was happy to see how my personal influence of teaching and demonstrating Activism has positively influenced our community overall. Kemite used to be ostriches. Our faith demands activism. I’ve posted events I’ve protested at in order to educate about being involved. That’s why.”

New York, New York

Courtney Weber is a Progressive Wiccan, Priestess and author. Weber said:

“As a Priestess in a diverse, urban community, I’m terrified that one morning I’ll wake up to see that the next victim of police violence was one of my students, community members, or friends–or one of their children. I won’t be neutral. I won’t be quiet.

“The rally was big, tight, and peaceful. We streamed into and blocked traffic up 5th Avenue to and along 34th street, then up to 42nd street, blocking Times Square. Some drivers were losing it at their wheels. Others honked or raised fists in solidarity. Whole buses had to sit and wait. I hoped passengers would get off and join us. Maybe some did. The sit-in in Times Square was the most peaceful part. We sang, but most people sat in silence. It’s was the most calm and quiet I’ve ever seen in that space.”

Portland, Oregon

T. Thorn Coyle, is a magic worker, author, spiritual director and agitator for justice. Coyle said:

“I could call upon Pagan ethics, and my Goddesses and Gods, as reasons for activism, but frankly, during these times to not stand up against injustice? That would be a slap in the face to my very humanity. I do this simply because I feel in my bones that it is the right thing to do. I cannot do otherwise.”


Portland rally July 2016 [Photo Credit: T. Thorn Coyle]

Coyle wrote a personal account of her experience at the Portland rally in an essay titled “To Run In, Freeze or Flee.” Briefly she said:

“Around 45 minutes into tonight’s gathering in Portland, a man pulled a gun on us. It turns out he is a Trump supporter and right-wing agitator. I was right near him, saw the gun, saw him unsnap the holster, and turned to get some children to back up. Once the kids were safely taken by some other adults, I was still close to him, trying to decide if I was needed. Then the ‘hit the ground’ call went up.

“I am grateful to the level headed people who just kept walking toward him, getting him away from the crowd. As the small group walked him further off, others of us were asked to form a cordon around the protest. We did.

“As the Black man who asked us to said, ‘I don’t want to get killed keeping you safe. I’m willing to die for you, but it’s your job to hold this line.’

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Alley Valkyrie, a Feri initiate, radical polytheist, columnist for The Wild Hunt. was at that same rally. Valkyrie said:

“I went to the rally for many reasons. I consider it my responsibility as someone who benefits from white supremacy and colonialism to speak up against oppression and state violence against Black folks, I knew many of the folks who had organized the rally, and its very much a community issue as well as a national issue given the racist history of Portland and the history of racist violence that our local police department has engaged in over the years. I have close friends in town who are afraid for themselves and their children due to police violence and I wanted to support them and stand beside them. I also have specific orders from the gods I worship to stand up against oppression and white supremacy, and going to the march fit right in with those orders.”

Portland rally [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

Portland rally [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

Valkyrie added, “The rally started out real well. Several hundred people gathered in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, several leaders from the Black community spoke and engaged the crowd, and then we took the streets and marched through downtown, blocking traffic (most folks in cars were supportive), and eventually pausing at in front of the police headquarters where more folks started to speak again.

“And then out of nowhere a well-known right-wing agitator named Michael Strickland pulled a gun on the crowd and waved it around several times in a threatening manner. He was agitated because folks asked him to leave, as he was filming the crowd for malicious reasons. He runs a right-wing youtube station that he uses as a platform for harassing local activists, and has allied himself with self-proclaimed fascists who doxx local activists.

“I was nearby but blocked from sight of the gunman, but my partner was right in front of Strickland and had a gun pointed and brandished at him. Despite the fact that this occurred right across the street from the police station and there was heavy police presence at the march, it took the police around 20 minutes to arrest Strickland. Once he was arrested, the march continued through downtown, blocking the streets for another few hours. I went home at that point due to back pain, but the march then proceeded to block off the Morrison Bridge for over an hour.”

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The Wild Hunt will have continuing coverage of the protests in the days ahead.

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Note: Michael Strickland, the man accused of brandishing a weapon at the rally, has been charged with two class A felonies after being arrested and released Friday morning on his own recognizance without bail.

TWH – Over the past year, issues related to transgender rights have crested in mainstream social discourse. The most recent national debate has centered around the passage of North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (also known as House Bill 2 or HB2) that, among other things, “blocks local governments from allowing transgender persons to use bathrooms that do not match the biological sex.”

The collective Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, as diverse microcosms of the greater whole, are not free from similar debates, discussions and, at times, serious conflicts on the subject of transgender inclusion. While never fully disappearing from the culture’s meta-dialog, there are times when a particular event or action rekindles the conversation with renewed fervor, pushing it to the forefront of communication.

And that is exactly what has happened over the past month, reaching a fever pitch last week. Transgender inclusion became a focused topic in a conversation at the Pagan Unity Festival (PUF) in Tennessee and, similarly, the subject became the focus of online protests due to a newly proposed anthology edited by musician, author and priestess Ruth Barrett.

While some of the dialog was offline, most of it appeared in digital forums. Those people who do not use social media regularly or not all, may have seen or heard only bits and pieces of the conversation. Through interviews and public postings, The Wild Hunt has put together a look at just what happened and why.

“I guess this all started three weeks ago at Pagan Unity Festival. I was a VIP and sat on a panel to discuss topics of Paganism on Thursday afternoon,” explained Heathen author and craftswoman Gypsey Teague in a message to The Wild Hunt.

“When my turn came I called out some of our female elders in the Pagan community for being sexist and exclusionary due to their philosophy of gender versus sex. I stated that it was insane to tie someone’s religious following to what does or doesn’t appear between your legs or in your genetic DNA. Unfortunately there are still some women out there that not only believe that but force it on their line and their ilk that follow her.”

After that event, Teague was interviewed by  the hosts of the Tree of Life Hour at Pagans Tonight Radio Network. As advertised, the two-part radio show was focused on the “transgender issues that are coming up again and again in our community and how we as a community should respond to folks who have a different gender expression than the binary male/female cisgender.”

Teague said, “By the end of the event it seemed like everyone was talking about transgender exclusion and how I was ‘pissed’ at the discussion; which was not true. What I believe is that if you tie your religion to a penis or a vagina you don’t deserve to be in the religion. We have too many examples of gender fluidity in our paths to still believe or accept this.”

Around that same time, author, musician, witch and Dianic priestess Ruth Barrett was launching an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for her new anthology titled Female Erasure. Barrett explained to The Wild Hunt, “Female Erasure is an anthology that celebrates female embodiment, while exposing the current trend of gender-identity politics as a continuation of female erasure as old as patriarchy itself […] Female erasure is being enacted through changing laws that have provided sex-based protections.” The unedited interview in its entirety is available here.

The IndieGoGo campaign was launched June 4 with a goal of raising $25,000 toward editing, design, legal and technical fees. After only eight days, the campaign has reached 50 percent of its goal. Barrett said, “Our contributors want radical societal change – freedom from oppressive gender roles, not from our sex. We want a world free of the so-called gender stereotypes of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity.’ We want a world where the ideal of diversity is not abused to oppress and erase 51 percent of humanity. We want a world in which everyone’s biological reality is honored, our sacred bodies are celebrated, and where sex-based violence and enforced gender roles become obsolete.”

Despite Barrett being the editor, the anthology is not a Pagan-specific project. Its projected audience is far broader and most of its contributors do not fall under the Pagan, Heathen or polytheist umbrella. With that said, the project does include several Pagan voices, such as Ava Park and Luisah Teish, and essays that discuss the proposed issues from a Pagan perspective. One of Barrett’s own offerings is titled, “The Attack On Female Sovereign Space In Pagan Community.”

For Barrett, the project is linked to spirituality in that she has been “assisting women in the often painful process of coming into awareness about how male-centered cultural and religious views and institutions have been foundational in their very personal sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and how patriarchal socialization powerfully influences their self-perception.”

While a few of the unpublished anthology’s essay titles evoke what some might consider a feminist spirit consistent with many Pagan practices, other titles raised immediate concerns, resulting in a fierce wave of backlash. Along with that spirit, there is also an expression of what is being called “transgender exclusion” and “transphobia.” In our interview, Barrett said that “transgender politics dismisses biological sex differences as irrelevant, while suppressing critical conceptual examinations of gender itself, ignoring the history of female class oppression, enforcement, male domination, sexual violence, personal suffering, and social and economic inequality.”

The first protest came in the way of a June 5 call-to-action blog post by activist and author David Salisbury. He wrote in part, “As a leader of the largest witchcraft tradition in Washington DC, I refuse to sit in silence. As an author and teacher of Goddess spirituality, I refuse to sit in silence. As a queer person, I refuse to sit in silence.” After Salisbury, the online, written protests only grew in number through both the blogosphere and social media, including posts from Peter Dybing, Vanessa Blackwood, Estara T’Shirai, Yvonne Aburrow, and Susan Harper.

After reading the funding campaign explanation and exploring the work of various authors, Pagan transgender activist and vice president of STRIVE Rev. Katherine A. Jones said, “I find it disheartening that so many women are so mired in a combination of transphobia and internalized misogyny that they are willing to blatantly attack their fellow women in the name of this exclusionary false feminism they have created […]The obsession with so called ‘biological sex’ is an indicator of women who see themselves as nothing more than vaginas. Just like the patriarchal men who oppress them. Unfortunately it seems to be common even within the Pagan community.”

Barrett said that she fully expected the backlash. When asked specifically about transgender exclusion and the erasure of the transgender identity within the scope of the book, she said, “While it is well-documented that physical and sexual violence against women and girls is on the rise globally, so-called progressives and the transgender lobbyists are acting to silence, disrupt, and legislate against our ability to name, gather and address the issues of our own oppression. This is female erasure.”

She added that the anthology addresses “concerns about a very profitable and growing transgender medical industry targeting well meaning parents, vulnerable children and adolescents, with no other options discussed other than transitioning that results in sterilization and a lifetime of dependence on pharmaceuticals and with no long-term studies of the health impact, are silenced. In this industry young lesbians and gay boys can be “normalized” by transitioning them. The possibility that homophobia is playing out in this issue seems to be too taboo to discuss.”

Arguably the most public outcry came from activist and writer Alley Valkyrie via Facebook.* On June 7, Valkyrie posted an “Open Letter to the Pagan Community,” which was shared over 250 times in that forum alone. The letter read in part, “As a pagan and a cis woman, I cannot and I will not remain silent on this matter, and I will not stand by in the face of violent targeting that is being enacted in my name.”

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Valkyrie clarified later that, while she does not support the anthology or Barrett’s work, her letter was actually aimed at attacks reportedly being launched at some of the bloggers who had previously spoken out against Barrett’s anthology. In the letter she said, “I also recognize that by posting this, I will also likely become a target.”

Shortly after the publication of her open letter, the post was removed along with other similar ones. Then she was locked out of her Facebook account for 24 hours. Other Pagans were reporting similar occurrences around that time. Valkyrie’s letter can be found in its entirety here.

Valkyrie and others have accused Barrett of being “complicit in this violence” due to her close association with those suspected of enacting what is being labeled as “doxing.” Barrett said she knows nothing of these attacks and hasn’t been following the online backlash.

But that is not where the story ends; it is where it gets more complicated. In her open letter, Valkyrie addressed Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) due to its continued relationship with Barrett. The letter reads, “I am calling on Cherry Hill Seminary to publicly disassociate with Ruth Barrett immediately.”

Within twenty-four hours of hearing about letter, Barrett resigned saying, “I believe very strongly in the mission of Cherry Hill Seminary and their academic commitment to diversity in their faculty and the free exchange of ideas. Rather than let my participation endanger the future of Cherry Hill Seminary, it made the most sense for me to respectfully remove myself. While some doors have closed to me, I will continue to teach as I have been doing all along.”

In an interview CHS director Holli Emore told The Wild Hunt that Barrett tried to resign last fall when similar issues rose the surface, but the CHS governing board would not accept the resignation. Emore explained, “The work of a seminary is to prepare people to facilitate healing and build bridges. The work of higher education is to expose students to as many ideas as possible and to develop critical thinking skills.”

At the time, the seminary stood behind its commitment to academic freedom. However, Barrett did cancel her fall rituals course and, as has been revealed, hasn’t taught any class at CHS for four years even though she is listed as faculty.

This time around, the school accepted the resignation.

“Cherry Hill Seminary has never and would never condone violence against anyone and most certainly supports the full rights of transgender individuals,” said Emore. “The kind of attacks of unbridled animosity against Pagans on issues like this is indicative of a deeper need. It is clear to me that CHS is needed more than ever.”

CHS President Jeffrey Albaugh took to Facebook, saying, “Although I find the events disheartening and depressing, I keep returning to a single question: what do I have to offer that can aid in the process of resolution? The answers were simple. I can listen. I can enter into dialogue. We can have a discussion on the matter. This ability to enter into dialogue is, in my opinion, one of the hallmarks of leadership.”

Albaugh added that, since the issues came to light, nobody had reached out to him personally and that “demands have been posted on the Internet, strewn across Face Book and re-blogged ad infinitum.” He said, “No wonder this is off the rails. Everyone is shouting and no one is listening. So this, then, becomes my invitation. Contact me.”

While issues, reports of attacks, and conversations continued to circulate online, Witch and blogger Pat Mosley took a different approach to action in support of transgender rights. Like Barrett, Mosley is now spearheading an anthology project, but this one gives voice specifically to “Queer, Trans, and Intersex Witches.” The proposed book Arcane Perfection, was first imagined as a coven-based “zine” but, as Mosley explained, “recent events” have changed its direction.


“HB2 was probably the biggest one. We really snapped into this mindset of needing to be there for one another — a lot of us can’t be out to our families or at work, so our coven is really our sanctuary,” explained Mosley. “Hearing that a Pagan community leader was editing a new anthology which, in part, appears to be discussing trans civil rights as an attack on women’s rights inspired our decision too. Both of those things affect more than just our coven.”

Mosley went on to say that many “Queer, Trans, and Intersex people find power in Witchcraft” and that will hopefully serve as a point of solidarity “regardless of specific tradition, and regardless of the geographic distance between us.” Another objective, as Mosley described, is to address “the way Wiccans talk about gender.”

“We want to see that [discussion] evolve,” Mosley said, “Most Wiccans and other Pagans these days seem to want LGBT+ people to feel included. Often that looks like adapting a hetero-centric framework to accommodate other perspectives. Our intention with this zine and now the book is to have Queer, Trans, and Intersex people define and talk about Wicca, Paganism, Witchcraft, etc, rather than positioning cis/het Pagans as the owners of traditions with the authority to include or exclude us.” The deadline for Mosley’s new anthology is set at Aug. 1.

Neither Mosley’s or Barrett’s anthology have a set delivery date yet. However,  they are both in production and moving forward.

Returning to Barrett, in reaction to what has happened this week, she added, “Everyone is entitled to their sense of identity. What often goes unexamined at a deeper level is the contextual influences and cultural norms (including enforced gender stereotypes) that informs consciously or unconsciously how a person arrives at their identity. This is explored within the anthology in many ways. ”

The current debates, arguments and the reported attacks may not yet be over. Time will tell.

But the subject is certainly one that will persist, as it always has, into the future at both public gatherings, like PUF, and online through blogs and social media.

Looking over the entire situation from beginning to end, Emore said, “When respectful dialog is silenced by threats, we are all diminished.”

In a blog post, author Yvonne Aburrow offered a different type of community call-to-action, saying, “Gender essentialism and separatism is the mirror image of patriarchy. We reject the patriarchy and the kyriarchy. […] Let us magnify and glorify the images of divinity within ourselves and each other. Show forth love and beauty and creativity; celebrate the radiance of the many-hued multiplicity of gender expression, sexuality, and the human body.”

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* [Editorial Note: The Wild Hunt always aims for balanced news reporting. However, as a community-based source, there are times when our writers are affiliated, in some way, with aspects of a story. In those instances, we make a decision on how to ethically handle the story. Today’s article was such a case. Our managing editor currently teaches a class at Cherry Hill Seminary, and one of those quoted above is a Wild Hunt columnist. Our editorial team reviewed this article carefully to ensure a clear presentation of the issues.]

David Babulski, 1944-2016

ATLANTA, Ga. — The Georgia Pagan community lost one of its elders this month. David Babulski, more commonly known as Papa Bear, passed away on April 11, 2016 at 71. David was an internationally recognized artist, as well as an author, educator and musician. He is most well-known for his mineral paintings, which have been featured in exhibits around the country and have been the subject of numerous books. David said that growing up “in the Sunland/Tujunga of Southern California” made him “intensely curious about the natural world” and inspired his love to draw.  He also noted that he grew up next to an avid mineral collector, which intrigued him at a very young age. By the time David was in college, his interest in art and science merged into a lifelong career, spilling over into his hobbies and his spiritual beliefs.

David practiced Wicca, studying and circling with a number of Pagan groups in the Atlanta-metro area. Lady Arsinoe of the House of Oak Spring wrote, “Because of his love for nature and science, he studied the energy that binds the universe and brought the scientific method to his magical practice.” She continued on to say that he loved dowsing in particular, and crafted new tools for that very purpose. Lady Magdalena of Temple of the Rising Phoenix remembered David’s “warm personality, his far-reaching intellect and his wicked sense of humor.” She said, “He was always there to share what he knew openly and support whatever we were doing.”

David’s talents were many, and he was always up to something. He loved storytelling through creating, music, poetry and the written word. He was an accomplished harpist, and wrote two children’s books about an elf named Piffles.

In recent years, David had been coping with debilitating muscle spasms. His ability to circle with his Pagan families declined over the years. Some members were able to visit him at a rehab center in his final weeks, offering to keep him stocked with art supplies. Then, on April 11, he suffered a heart attack. A memorial service and life celebration were held in April 17 at the Eternal Hills Funeral Home. In the announcement for the memorial, David’s daughter told attendees, “Aloha Shirts or SCA garb optional,” which speaks directly of his everlasting and unforgettable whimsical and warm spirit. What is remembered, lives!

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HUAR LogoLODI, Calif. — Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR) is involved with an anti-fascist action to be held in Lodi, California. In recent weeks, HUAR assisted in the research and writing of an article detailing information about an international group called Soldiers of Odin. The article itself is posted on a blog called Anti-Fascist News, and begins “A big thanks comes to Heathens United Against Racism, who did a large amount of research for this article.”

The article goes on to describe the Soldiers of Odin as a “new phenomenon” and a “group of people who are trying to ‘defend’ European nations and the U.S. from […] refugees.” Soldiers of Odin was reportedly born in Finland and now has small groups in multiple countries throughout the world. As is noted, the group uses elements of the ancient Nordic Pagan religion to support its political stance and related work.

The Anti-Fascist News article ends with a call-to-action, asking for activists to join them on April 30 for a protest event at Lodi Lake Park, in Lodi, Calfiornia, where the Soldiers of Odin have reportedly planned a private “meet up.” HUAR is currently working with non-Pagan Antifa Allies on this action.

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HPS-Handfasting-AltarSYRACUSE, NY. — Mary Hudson, president of the Church of the Greenwood in Central New York and the Pagan chaplain at Syracuse University, recently launched a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for a trip to Australia. In the campaign letter, she wrote, “In 2012, I attended the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education held at Yale University. It was a unique experience that I had hoped would help create better understanding of Earth-based faith traditions ..” However, as she goes on to say, it didn’t turn out that way. The experience was “abysmal.”

Hudson was invited back to the conference after submitting an account of her 2012 experience. She was offered the opportunity to present. Hudson wrote, “My voice, a tiny voice, has been heard and it has been acted upon by those that had the power to facilitate change.”

The 2016 conference will be held in Bendigo, Australia. Hudson and her fellow Greenwood Pagans are raising the money needed to fund the trip. As of publication time, Hudson has already passed the 50% point. She said, “I am truly humbled by the generosity of all of you.” We will have more on this story in the coming week. 

In Other News

  • downloadFor those Wild Hunt readers interested in coloring, Red Wheel/Weiser has released The Witches’ Almanac Coloring Book. Written by Theitic, a member of the New England Witchcraft community, this coloring book is inspired by the many images featured in past Witches’ Almanacs, and also includes “images that have not been presented.” The coloring book is “neatly packed into seven distinct sections,” with titles including Woodcuts, Constellations, The Planets, Egyptian, Americas, Tarot, and Creatures. The publisher writes that book is meant to “allow the inner artist to emerge in a meditation of color.” The Witches’ Almanac Coloring Book sells for 12 USD “wherever books and eBooks are sold.”
  • This spring, Cicada Magazine published what has been called “a wyrd & witch edition.” The March/April 2016 issue of the children’s publication is “rife with magicks, moons, familiars, fellowship…” Pagan blogger and author Sara Amis is one of the featured writers in this issue. Her short fiction story called “The Witch’s Egg,” begins on page 19.  Along with her work is a test called, “Does your mom suspect that you’re a witch?” and “Rooted in Feminine Power: An Interview with Nnedi Okorafor.” Cicada is a literary publication aimed at pre-teen and teen girls.
  • Wild Hunt columnist Alley Valkyrie has released her first published work, called Night of a Million Stars. Valkyrie has been a Wild Hunt writer since 2012, and her new book takes its cue from the column. It contains 19 essays in which Valkyrie “shows us the worlds we miss, the worlds we forget to look for, and the worlds we bury in memory.” Digital copies are now available through Print copies will be available in May through Lulu.
  • Last January, Mike Rodgers, also known as The Fluid Druid, began a community radio broadcast focusing on Paganism in Arkansas. This show, called The Fluid Druid’s Medicine Show, is one of the few Pagan-dedicated programs on broadcast radio in the U.S. It airs on 97.9 FM Sundays from 10-11 am CT. For those outside the listening area, the show can be heard live at KUHS Radio.
  • From the blogosphere, John Halstead has written a two-part article based on his presentation at the Greening of Religions symposium in Columbia, South Carolina. In the two posts, he contemplates the relationship between the many diverse Pagan religions and the modern environmental movement. He asks, “What exactly [does] the word ‘nature’ really means to Pagans?”

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Don’t forget! If you have a community announcement or a news tip, let us know. We also take submissions, pitches and proposals for articles. We love hearing from our readers. Contact us.   

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you very much.]

“The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.” – Herbert Marcuse

Borders and Fortifications

On one side of the post office sits Bud Clark Commons, a Housing First complex that also functions as a day center and a drop-in shelter for the homeless. Extending just eastward from Bud Clark Commons are both Union Station and the Greyhound station, anchoring one of the defining corridors of what little still remains of Portland’s ‘Skid Row’.

Portland's main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Portland’s main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

On the other side of the post office is the eastern edge of what is now known as the Pearl District, a neighborhood currently at the tail end of a twenty-year redevelopment plan that transformed the area from an industrial district to the most expensive neighborhood in Portland. Trendy shops, bars and restaurants and million-dollar condos now dominate the ten-block radius just west of the Post Office complex; a neighborhood which thirty years earlier was dominated by auto repair shops, warehouse art spaces, and various types of industry.

The post office itself is not only the city’s main post office, but also the main processing facility for all of Oregon and southwest Washington. The complex stretches from Hoyt Street to the tail end of the Broadway Bridge, spanning 14 acres and the equivalent of eight city blocks. The post office predates both Bud Clark Commons and the Pearl District by a generation, having first opened to the public at the height of the Kennedy administration.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

While the physical presence of the post office creates a delineating barrier of sorts in terms of its sheer size alone, there’s more to it than just that. It serves as a significant energetic buffer between two neighborhoods that are on the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. The post office stands as neutral ground, holding a space understood as commons at an otherwise volatile crossroads where affluent folks often feel uncomfortable two blocks to the east, while poor folks are made to feel uncomfortable only two blocks to the west.

It feels and acts as a fortification as well as a territory of safe passage. But the fortification is seen as an obstacle in the present day, as the eight blocks that the complex rests on is among the most valuable land in Portland. City planners and local developers have been itching to redevelop the land for years and, after many years of negotiations, the plan is finally coming to fruition. The timeline has not been set as of yet, but the complex’s days are all but numbered. 

I actually learned this news as I was standing in front of the post office itself, staring into the newspaper box at the headline. Since I don’t believe in coincidence, I stood there digesting the moment when a older man tapped me on the shoulder – a man who I knew to frequent the area around the train station.

“You live here, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. He continued.

“You know this whole place is done for, right?” he said, gesturing with his hand in an arc towards the complex. “According to the news, its going to be condos or some crap like that. The whole thing, coming down.”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking. I mean, I know what they’re thinking, they’re thinking money. And it may make dollars but it makes no damn sense. Not to me, anyway. They want to take over all of it.” He pointed over towards the Greyhound Station. “All the hotels, all the SROs, straight up to Burnside, they want to take over all of it.”

“Yes, yes they do”, I said to him sadly.

“And where do we go then, huh? Where we all gonna go?”

He walked away without waiting for an answer, which was a small relief only in that I sure didn’t have one. The only thing I could focus on at the moment was that this was at least the third time that month that I had a nearly identical conversation in nearly this exact spot.

Vice, Temperance, and the Vanishing Commons

The term “skid row” originates from the greased skids that made up the roads that loggers would use to transport cut logs from the forest to the river in the Pacific Northwest. To be ‘on the skids” was to have no choice but to live in such an area, as the conditions of the roads were considered not to be fit for dignified habitation.

Portland’s skid row stretches down through Old Town Chinatown, butting up against the borders of downtown proper. It has unwaveringly held that territory since Portland’s early days when it was considered one of the world’s most dangerous port cities. The history of “vice” in Old Town is as old as the history of the city itself, and it is both that history of vice and the resistance against its proliferation that define much of the landscape and the historic nature of the area.

Portland's historic 'Benson Bubblers'. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.
Portland’s historic ‘Benson Bubblers’. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.

As a result of well over a century’s worth of blue-collar domination, much of the original infrastructure is still intact. Old Town and the northern edge of Downtown are home to an impressive inventory of Victorian-era commercial buildings, many of which are historic landmarks and have been kept up to their original glory. Others, no less lacking in history, have fallen in disrepair over the course of many years, but many still retain landmark status and due to the current real estate boom are newly slated for renovation and preservation.

Unlike the sidewalks outside of busy establishments, which for the most part are regularly controlled and policed, the sidewalks outside the tenant-less, abandoned buildings of Old Town function as a commons, not too differently than the the block which contains the post office. In the absence of anywhere else to carry out such functions, homeless folk of all stripes eat, sleep, commune, fight, bicker, barter, hustle, and otherwise claim territory throughout these uncontrolled sidewalks, which in turn only adds to the desires of developers to gentrify the area and displace such folk.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Those who displace and renovate also rebrand, and Portland’s rebranding on a national level of being a haven and destination for craft beer is starkly reflected in the newer establishments that have accompanied the recent waves of gentrification throughout Old Town and the surrounding areas. Hipster vice has replaced working-class vice as the area is slowly overtaken by drinking establishments that cater to the young and affluent. Meanwhile, bars that cater to the neighborhood’s historic population have all but disappeared.

Business owners and community members alike credit themselves for “cleaning up” the area, and while I’m sure they’re “cleaning up” economically, it becomes apparent after a while to those who live here that they’ve simply replaced one group of unruly drunks with another. Apparently it was not the presence of “vice” itself that was supposedly “dragging down” the area as much as it was the socioeconomic class of those who were partaking.

Ruins and Reminders

Before Portland had a source and the proper infrastructure for importing natural gas, it manufactured gas from oil in a process known as “coking.” The Portland Gas and Coke (Gasco) plant was built in 1913 on the NW riverfront just across from St. John’s, just north of where the Cathedral Bridge would be built nearly twenty years later. The plant refined gas from 1913 until the city converted to natural gas in 1957, and the plant was shut down a year later. An estimated 30,000 cubic yards of coal tar had accumulated on the site over the years. Fifteen years later, it was covered with landfill when the site was sold, and most of the operational buildings were demolished.

The original administrative building, built in 1913, still stands and has been vacant for nearly sixty years. It is perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful Gothic ruin that I have ever seen with my own eyes. A ghostly reminder of the past, it is one of Portland’s most photographed structures, and over the past several years a fence has been installed and a guard put on duty in order to discourage explorers and adventure-seekers.

In addition to the crumbling condition of the building itself, the land that it sits on is among the most contaminated areas along a stretch of the Willamette River through Portland that has been designated a Superfund site. A DEQ report from the late ‘90s states that contaminated water was detected up to 100 feet below the surface of the west bank of the Willamette. Any significant cleanup of both the Gasco site and the Superfund site has yet to begin.

NWNatural, who still owns the building, announced last year that the building was to be slated for demolition. A community group attempted to raise the funds to buy the building, but they failed in their effort, and NWNatural announced last week that the Gasco building is to be demolished next month. Its reasoning mostly centers around safety. But what is unspoken yet completely understood is that, once the site is cleaned up, the land that the building currently stands on will be quite valuable.

It stands on its own as a sentimental tragedy that such a beautiful structure is to meet the wrecking ball, but there’s something that hits deeper in the timing of the announcement, given that demolition and gentrification have dominated both media headlines and local conversations nonstop for the past several months. The announcement comes in the same wave as the proposed redevelopment of the post office site, further talks of an “urban renewal” plan for the adjacent Old Town neighborhood, and a record number of demolitions and no-cause evictions. While the destruction of the building itself is a significant historical loss, the timing, the symbolism, and the layers of meaning and crossover between the demolition of the Gasco building and the greater overhauling of the city and its denizens — these combined factors speak to a much greater collective tragedy than the loss of any one structure.

Confessions over Coffee

“I mean, there’s a part of me that feels like I did a bad thing, but at that price I just couldn’t say no.”

I looked over at the table next to me and saw two men in suits with portfolio cases at their sides, having what obviously was a heart-to-heart over some sort of business decision. Intrigued, I leaned in slightly in order to properly overhear the conversation.

“Are you crazy?” the other man replied. “You said yourself that you profited nearly a hundred times what your grandfather originally paid for that land. Every other house on the block had already had a date with a wrecking ball. How many hundreds of houses have you bought and flipped over the past five years? This is really no different.”

“It’s a little different. He built that house with his own two hands. That house was a Sears bungalow from the 20s… you know, the kind you bought and put together yourself. Three generations in that house. Mom’s still confused, still thinks we own the house or that she lives there, but we all agreed that she’s better off in a home… but still. It’s the house itself. Its this weird attachment, almost. Knowing they’re going to raze it. I feel like I signed its death warrant.”

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

“Its business, Tom,” the other man said after a moment. “You need to remember its just business.”

“I know. I need to stop. It’s just a house. But there’s something that feels nagging.”

I stared at them in disbelief as I realized that this man, obviously a wealthy real-estate developer, had sold his family homestead out from under his ailing mother, not out of economic need but purely for profit. Suddenly I felt sick, and I quickly got up and headed toward the door.

That nagging something that you feel is most likely your ancestors, I muttered under my breath as I walked past them on my way out.

The Yelling Field and the Green Cross

Anywhere I’ve ever moved to, I quickly seek out the abandoned parts, the empty lots and the derelict warehouses. I look for a place, hopefully with features that echo, where I can yell as loud as I need to and nobody’s close enough to hear or investigate or call the police. I call these places my ‘yelling fields’.

When I settled into this neighborhood, I found my closest yelling field a mile or so up the main drag from my building, just north of the Fremont Bridge. A series of abandoned waterfront lots, a few dotted with ‘for sale’ signs but no sign of activity, and nothing else for blocks other than an ancient-looking bar and a run-down strip club a few blocks away across the street.

I thought it to be a consistent landscape that wouldn’t surprise me with any significant changes, but I walked by one day and noticed two things at once. My yelling field was suddenly fenced in, with a sign from a construction company posted in the center of the lot. And across the street, the strip club had closed, and in the window covering the old sign was a new sign that stated “Coming Soon” above a picture of a green cross, which in Portland is the universal symbol for a marijuana dispensary.

I stared at the sign for a minute, thinking back. Fifteen years ago, when I watched New York City undergo a similarly massive gentrification, the “Coming Soon” sign accompanied by a Starbucks logo became known as the telltale symbol that an area was about to gentrify. I realized at that moment that this symbol in front of me was operating on the same pattern, that the green cross held the same symbolic power in this new chapter of gentrification as the ubiquitous coffee goddess did when that first wave hit New York.

And sure enough, I watched over what seemed like only a few months as not only my yelling field, but several consecutive waterfront lots, went from abandoned industrial frontage to high-end condominiums and townhouse apartments. The dispensary opened right around the same time that the first completed development did.

I lost my yelling field while developers created a cash cow. Meanwhile, recent signage indicates that more riverfront construction is to come.

Demolition and Migration

I heard them talking while standing next to the food carts waiting for my lunch.

Food carts in downtown Portland. Photo by Another Believer.

Food carts in downtown Portland. [Photo by Another Believer.]

“We’ve been living in that house for less than six months, and our landlord just sold the house right out from under us. We have less than thirty days, and I have no clue what we’re going to do. I mean, the realtor literally just knocked on the door, asked for the owner, and made an offer right there…”

Her friend nodded in acknowledgement, and she continued.

“Turns out that same developer bought three other houses on the same side of the street. Apparently if they’re approved for a zoning change, all four will be demolished to build condo units.”

“Yeah, that’s happening everywhere,” her friend said awkwardly, obviously not knowing what else to say.

“Yep, and so I’m just following the pattern of migration. I don’t know what else to do, so we’re all looking in way outer SE for a big house out there. But then the folks who already live out there are then pushed farther out once folks like me start moving in. So in following the pattern, I’m complicit in the cycle.”

They paused for a moment. “But my only other option is to go back to Arizona and there is absolutely nothing for me there. I have community here. I need to stay here. But I can’t stand the thought of being the gentrifier. I feel like I’m either I’m screwed or I’m screwing someone no matter what I do…”

I swear, this entire town is having the same conversation, I said to myself.

Remedies and Realities

I stepped out of Powell’s and saw a man with a sign.

“Rent Tripled, Newly Homeless. Need $28 for a Bed, Keeping My Job Depends On It.”

I gave him a dollar and walked down the street, looking up for a moment at a building just long enough to notice a green cross in the window. It didn’t matter where I went, what I read, where I looked, who I talked to. Everything, everywhere, from the people to the signs to the snippets floating through the air, a city in crisis that was broadcasting and reflecting its collective distress through every possible method of expression.

A few blocks later I walked past a man sheltering himself in newspapers. I stopped for a moment and noticed that the headlines that were covering his legs stated that Portland mayor Charlie Hales announced that he wants to declare a housing emergency, while the headlines covering his feet highlighted a proposed “demolition tax.” I’m not sure if the man was aware of the irony and symbolism contained in his presence at that moment, but the universal broadcast was suddenly much louder than I could really handle.

Walking home, mind racing, I realized that I couldn’t recall a day this month where the local headlines haven’t greeted me with displacement-related stories, whether its astronomical rents, multiple mass evictions of both tenants and artists, studies that stress that the national housing crisis is about to worsen, the impending eviction of a longtime homeless camp, ominous comparisons to the market situation in San Francisco, citizen calls for a renters’ state of emergency, and now the potential for a housing emergency actually being declared.

And yet the hope of a remedy provided no real or imagined comfort. It was clear from the level of the broadcasting crisis around me that most others weren’t fooled either.

*    *    *

bell hooks had it right when she described gentrification as “colonization, post-colonial style”.

Her words serve as an important reminder that the term ‘gentrification’ itself fools us into thinking that what is currently occurring in both Portland and in cities all over the world is a 21st century phenomenon and a “sign of the times.” In reality, this is only the latest round in a cycle of colonization and primitive accumulation that has been ongoing for hundreds of years.  And, it is a cycle that will continue its destruction unchecked as long as laws, policies, and sentiments continue to value and prioritize profit and property rights over human need.

In the meantime, I remain in search of and in service to the ever-vanishing waterfront ruins and yelling fields, consistently and helplessly bearing witness as the economic powers allied with the green cross and the wrecking ball seek to displace and devour every last square inch of this city.

And in those searchings and wanderings, my mind keeps going back to the displaced. I keep thinking of the conversation with the man in front of the post office. I wish someone had an answer for him. I wish I knew where he could go.

I’m not sure where I’ll go, either.

*    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. Fire and Bone: July, 2006

I was hurrying home, deep in thought and not paying attention, when I walked right into his sign, accidentally tearing it with my boot as I plowed through the cardboard.

I looked down at the torn sign and snapped back to reality. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I blurted to the man sitting a few feet away as I started to bend over to pick it up.

“Only Need $20 More For Bus Ticket Home” the sign said. Next to the sign was a collection of objects presumably for sale. There were a few tattered romance novels, some antique Coke bottles, and what looked like a piece of antler.

I picked up the antler and examined it. Part of it was broken off with a small stump remaining, but it was a beautiful piece, and I realized that if I sanded the broken stump down it would make a nice wand.

“Where is home?” I asked.

“Milwaukee”, he answered. “I left years ago and swore I’d never return, but over the time I’ve decided that maybe one actually can go home again.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out $20. “Sorry again about your sign, but hopefully now you don’t need it,” I said as I handed him the money.

Image: US Treasury Department

Image: US Treasury Department

He broke into a wide smile. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” He got up to shake my hand. “I hope that piece treats you well.”

I thanked him again and continued home, waving the antler around like a wand as I neared my corner. I went through the front door of the building and up the stairs, leaving the antler outside my door by the landing on the second floor before going inside.

A few days later, I dug out my dremel and went out on the landing with the intention of sanding off the stump on the antler in order to give it the right shape. I had done some bone carvings some years back, and didn’t think much of it as I put on my goggles and turned on the dremel.

I held the sanding tip to the antler and made contact, and within a second or two I started to suddenly panic and uncontrollably shake. I quickly put down the dremel, and before I could understand what was happening my body went into full panic attack mode. I started to hyperventilate and I lowered myself into a seated position as my heart started to race and I started to sweat.

Terrified, I put my hands over my head and closed my eyes, and all I could see and feel and taste and smell was fire. Visions and sensations poured through my head; a fiery inferno, the screams of the dead, the stench of burning flesh. I felt myself being pulled down into myself and I briefly opened my eyes, but the visions and the smell did not immediately cease and I felt myself tightening into the fetal position as I closed my eyes again and reminded myself to breathe.

My heart was pounding ever faster, and it took me several minutes of slow breathing before whatever had come over me faded and I was able to uncurl myself and sit back up. As I felt myself come back, I stared at the antler in horror, utterly confused and terrified at what had just transpired. What had flashed through my mind was familiar, all too familiar, and yet so deeply buried and deliberately forgotten. But…what? How did the…

At that moment, my upstairs neighbor bounded up the stairs towards the landing, and as he got within a few steps of me he suddenly froze and sniffed the air. He looked at me, wide-eyed.

“That smell. Holy Mother of God, that smell. What the…?” he said, his voice shaking slightly.

I pointed to the antler and the dremel and tried to summon the proper words, but he had no interest in what I was actually pointing to. I looked down again where I was pointing and the objects suddenly read out to me as a solved riddle: friction and antler. Fire and bone. I looked up at him again but he spoke before I could.

“That smell,” he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. “It smells like when the Twin Towers were burning.”

II. A Lesson in Capitalism, A Lesson in Imperialism: February, 1993

Our fifth-grade class had spent all month learning about the stock exchange, and it seemed fitting to wrap up the unit with a day trip to the Financial District. We piled into a big yellow bus and rode into Manhattan along with the morning traffic, eventually inching our way downtown towards Wall Street right at the peak of the AM rush hour.

We started out with a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, had lunch at a Burger King near Wall Street and, afterward, we walked over in a group to the headquarters of Solomon Brothers, located in the World Trade Center complex.

7 WTC as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

7 WTC and the North Tower as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

It was the first time that I had ever seen the Twin Towers in person, and I was instantly mesmerized by their energy and presence. We stood in front of the towers for a moment as our teacher took a few photos, and then proceeded across the street towards Building 7 where Solomon Brothers was located. As we walked away from the towers, I kept looking back as I struggled to process that anything could be so tall, so vast and so otherworldly. There was something truly unreal about them, as though I had stepped onto a Hollywood movie set or I was being fooled by a hologram.

One our way into Building 7, one of the guards wanted to check one of the bags that our teacher was carrying. We stood back as she was searched, all of us quite confused as to why there were security guards in the first place, let alone why our teacher had to open her bag up for them. After she was waved along by security, a few of us immediately wanted to know what that had been all about.

She gently tried to explain that the security guards check bags because they were worried about people potentially sneaking in “bad things”, which only piqued our curiosity further. She then told us that it was hard to explain in a few words but it was something we could discuss the next day, and then quickly led us toward the elevator while changing the subject. Within moments, the incident was forgotten.

In school the next morning, we talked extensively about our trip and what we learned, what the good parts were and what we didn’t enjoy so much. I was still wondering about the security guard and hoping that our teacher would talk about it, but nobody else brought it up and I was too shy to do so.

The following afternoon, we came in after recess to learn that a bomb had ripped through the garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with reports of both deaths and injuries. We looked around at each other, both terrified and confused. Why, we asked. Why would someone do that?

Our teacher had no answer that afternoon, telling us only as much as the media knew at the time. Over the next few weeks, however, it became apparent that the bombing was an act of terrorism, which eventually facilitated the discussion around bombs and security guards and bag searching that our teacher had evaded during the field trip.

“But why do bad people want to hurt us?’ one student asked.

“Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and sometimes that means that we do things that anger people who do not have power,” she answered.

Nobody asked anything after that, but I stewed on her words long after the subject had been exhausted. I wrote them down in a journal and thought about them often, especially when watching the nightly news. Between my own personal awestruck experience with the Twin Towers in and of itself and having been on that land in their presence only 48 hours before the bombing, my attention was suddenly aimed towards subjects like terrorism and empire in a way that would never have occurred had we not gone on that field trip.

III. Of Boxes and Blemished Skylines: Summer 1996

I remember the very first time I heard the joke.

I was with a friend, in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon, on our way into Manhattan to see Les Miserables. As we approached the Holland Tunnel, with the skyline clear-as-day in front of us, her father turned around to face us.

“You girls know that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, right?” he asked us with a grin.

“But….” I started to immediately correct him, as everyone knew that the Twin Towers were the tallest.

He interrupted me with a laugh. “Yeah, the two boxes that they came in were dumped way down by Wall Street …”

We laughed along with him, immediately getting the joke. It was an understood and unspoken truth that for all their impressiveness in terms of height, the Twin Towers did look like two big ugly boxes, especially in comparison to buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State. While I had a strange fondness for them, even I had to admit that while they were otherworldly, they were otherworldly eyesores.

“You know, I was about the same age as you two are now when those towers first went up, and I’ll never forget how much folks hated ‘em at first. They called ‘em a blemish on the skyline, complained that they ruined the view of Lower Manhattan. And now a generation later, everyone’s buying tchotchkes with the Twin Towers on ‘em, and nobody can imagine what the skyline would look like without the towers. Funny how that works…” he said, drifting off into his thoughts.

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

I thought about what he has said as we came out of the tunnel. One of my neighbors had expressed a similar sentiment recently, and as I got a brief glimpse of the towers out the back window, for a moment I tried to imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers.

And while it was hard to imagine that those buildings actually existed in the first place, it was even harder to imagine what it would look like without them.

IV. Land, Once Water: Spring, 1999

“And it was right at this spot, at the base of a buttonwood tree, that the contract that became known as the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in 1792, marking the beginnings of what was to eventually become the New York Stock Exchange…”

‘This spot’ was in front of a hot-dog stand on Wall Street near the corner of Pearl Street. I was on a guided tour of the Financial District, having been dragged along by a friend from the West Coast who had never been to New York before. At that point, I had been taking the bus into city once or twice a week and I knew most of Manhattan like the back of my hand, but as I looked around I realized that I hadn’t been down near Wall Street since the school field trip six years earlier. I looked around, down the dark narrow street tucked within the oldest and deepest depths of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, and it was nearly impossible to imagine any sort of tree, buttonwood or otherwise, ever having grown in that spot.

We started walking eastward again behind out tour guide, who continued talking as we ambled along.

“Wall Street itself was named after an actual wall which once protected the settlement of New Amsterdam from both the British and the local tribes. The wall was built in the mid-1600’s, and originally stretched from Pearl Street to what is now called Church Street, which were the original shorelines of Manhattan over three-hundred years ago.”

Wait, what? I said to myself. The original shorelines of Manhattan are Pearl Street and Church Street? The present-day Manhattan extended three blocks east past Pearl and at least as many blocks west of Church. I thought of the Twin Towers, which I knew were just west of Church Street. If the tour guide was correct, that would mean that the entire WTC complex was standing in what was once the Hudson River.

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote "made land". [Public Domain]

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote “made land”. [Public Domain]

“By the time the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, landfill had extended Wall Street out an extra block east, and the next year the Tontine Coffee House was built here at the corner of Wall and Water, which was to serve as the headquarters of the New York Stock and Exchange Board until the mid-1800s….”

I looked down where I was standing, suddenly aware that I was standing on an invisible border between bedrock and landfill, between the original boundaries of Manhattan Island and a man-made extension of “land” that was created from refuse. I looked eastward at the blocks and buildings, stretching towards the waterfront, buildings that I now knew stood where fish swam for millennia. I tried to imagine what the shoreline might have looked like around the time that the Dutch first fortified New Amsterdam with a wall, but once again the concrete got in the way.

The tour guide headed back in the other direction, still pointing out landmarks, but I was only partially paying attention at that point, still hung up on the idea that the lower half of Manhattan Island was once only half as wide as it was in the present day. As we approached the New York Stock Exchange, I tuned in to the tour guide again for a moment and quickly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“And it was right here that on September 16, 1920, that a bomb went off in front of 23 Wall Street, at the height of the lunch hour on a busy weekday. 38 people were killed and over 100 were injured in what was at that time the deadliest attack on American soil. It was suspected that the bombing was carried out by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day.”

Wait, what again? A bomb? Here? My thoughts immediately drifted back to the WTC garage bombing, and then back to the tour guide’s words about Wall Street as a fortified wall that was built as a means of defense. The guide made no mention of the events that led to the need for a fortified wall in the first place, but I understood enough about history and empire at that point to sense a general pattern of cause and effect.

I looked around; the block itself felt like a fortress, holding itself in tension, in constant defensive posture against anything that may try to attack it. It felt nervous and guarded, and I felt the same as I continued down the narrow concrete corridor.

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. Photo by NortonJuster7722

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. [Photo Credit: NortonJuster7722]

 V. Fate and Foreshadowing: Late July, 2001

“You don’t have a fear of heights, do you?” he asked me at one point while giving me a tour of the main dining area. I had been looking out the window for a moment, temporarily paralyzed by the realization of how high up I was, and the look on his face was one of slight concern.

“Oh, no, not at all,” I lied. “I’ve worked in skyscrapers before,” I added nervously. That part wasn’t an outright lie, but I left out the fact that while I had actually worked in a few skyscrapers, I had never been higher up than the 29th floor.

“Uh-huh,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “New hires always tell me that they’re not afraid of heights, but then I’ve had some go and quit on me after a few weeks because they realize they can’t deal with it,” he said to me.

For the money I’ll make here, I’ll learn to deal with it, I thought to myself.

“This is as high up as you get in this town,” he continued, as if I needed any more reminders that I was on the 107th floor of the tallest building in Manhattan.

I nodded and smiled. “I know. I’m OK,” I said again, trying my hardest to project an air of confidence.

He smiled back and waved me over as he walked towards the back of the restaurant.

Other than the awkward exchange around heights, the interview went smoothly. I got along well with the interviewer, he seemed satisfied with my resume despite my relative lack of fine dining experience, and he was pleased at my willingness to take any shift that was available. I left there very hopeful that I had the job.

“I’ll give you a call in a few days”, he told me as I walked out.

But a few days came and went without a call, and by the end of the week I realized that I didn’t have the job after all. For some reason, that time I had really gotten my hopes up, and I took it very hard and very personally. Those around me noticed, and tried in their own little ways to cheer me up.

“You know, I have dreams of that building sometimes,” my partner said to me a few weeks after the interview. “In the dream, I’m standing against the windows on one of the top floors, and all of a sudden the building starts to sway violently back and forth.”

I thought back to when I looked out the window from the dining area of the 107th floor, that terrifying, paralyzing rush that the manager picked up on, and I nodded.

“Frankly, you’re better off with a job closer to the ground,” he said after a while. “Personally, I don’t know if I could handle being that high up all the time. That building always made me a little nervous.”

“Everything happens for a reason. I’ll find a better job,” I concluded.

After dinner, we walked through Midtown down to Lower Manhattan. The sun was setting, illuminating the skyline, and I stared down at the southern tip for a moment, thinking about the job I didn’t get. The job in the buildings that stood where the river once flowed, the buildings that swayed back and forth in my partner’s dreams. I suddenly felt a strangely unexplainable relief that I wasn’t going to be working in that building.

The manager probably made the right call, I admitted to myself as walked through the shadows of the towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with being that high up.

VI. Consequence of Empire: September 11, 2001

I opened my eyes just a crack, immediately closing them again as the bright sunshine streaking through my windows temporarily blinded me. I knew it was already mid-morning, and I also knew that I wasn’t ready to wake up quite yet. I had spent the night before out late drinking with friends, and I hadn’t gotten back to my place until close to sunrise. I had only been asleep for three or four hours at that point.

But something had just woken me up out of a sound sleep, and I shifted my head slightly and slowly tried to open my eyes again to see if it was anything that I needed to worry about. The head of my mattress was up against a large bay window, and as I squinted my eyes open again all I saw was blue. The sky was an amazing, brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky, a rarity that late in the season. I turned my ear towards the open window for a moment, heard nothing but birds and traffic, and rolled over back to sleep.

Blue sky over New York. Photo by Payton Chung

Blue sky over New York. [Photo Credit: Payton Chung]

A little while later, I heard a similar noise again. That time I sat up, again my vision fixated on the sky, wondering if what I heard was the demolition project from a few blocks away. Again I listened for a minute, looked out the window again, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I lowered myself back into bed, an unsettling and creeping feeling came over me.

I tried to get back to sleep but failed, eventually settling for lying in bed while staring at the sky, too anxious to fall back asleep yet too exhausted to actually get up.

Out of the silence the phone rang. I jumped at the sound, then slowly reached over and picked it up.


I recognized the voice of a friend but thought I had misheard what he said. “What?” I asked. “Can you say that again?”


I stayed on the phone and reached for the remote. I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers engulfed in flames.

I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs, flung open the front door, ran down to the end of the block, and looked northwards towards Manhattan. I could see what looked like smoke and fire in the distance, and the air was sooty and acrid. I looked around. My block was mostly empty, and the few faces I saw looked as ashen as the sky in the distance.

I stood, frozen, staring at the smoke in the distance. As I stood there, an older man walked past me, walking with a cane and wearing a hat that proclaimed his status as a Vietnam vet. He stopped next to me for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and motioned towards the smoke with his cane.

“That there,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke, “that there is the consequence of empire.”

I nodded, repeating his words to myself quietly. The consequence of empire.

My thoughts started flashing, from the bombing of the WTC garage nine years earlier, to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, to the original fortification from which Wall Street bears its name. The consequence of empire indeed – 350 years of colonialism that led us to this very moment.

I ran back to the house and stood in front of the TV for the next several hours, taking in as many vital details as I could bear. I reflected for a moment on the job that I ended up not getting a few months prior and a knot immediately formed in my stomach.

As I stood there, I slowly took in what this meant in actuality. Subways were shut down. Bridges and tunnels shut down. Flights grounded. Cell phone networks hopelessly jammed. ATM networks down. Stock exchange shut down. Traffic suspended throughout all of Manhattan for the first time in the city’s history. An entire ‘way of life’, shut down in an instant.

And out my bay window, only a few miles away, a fiery pit steadily burned, with television cameras catching every detail save for the one things that I knew could not be transmitted through sight or sound: the stench of fire, of metal and soot, of burning flesh and bone. The news was calling it a “rescue mission”, but my senses and my gut both told me otherwise. I could smell death in the air, and I could hear and feel the dead as well.

VII. City of the Dead: September 12-15, 2001

The morning after, I cracked my eyes open in the identical manner as I had the day before, and it only took a split second of staring at the blue sky to remember what had transpired over the past 24 hours. I lay there for a moment, my dreams still fresh in my mind, dreams filled with fire and horror and the screams of the dead.

I needed to check on a friend who lived downtown, and I couldn’t ignore the pull that I was feeling from the other side of the river, so I grabbed my camera and a few other items and set out on foot towards Lower Manhattan. It was around three miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, and with every block the smell in the air increased along with the tension of the land and the unmistakable screaming that shook through every bone of my body.

At the base of the bridge, an officer with an AK-47 guarded the walkway. “Residents only,” he barked as I approached.

“I live on Warren Street,” I lied, and gave the address of my friend.

“ID?” he asked.

“Its in my wallet which is in my apartment on Warren Street.” I answered calmly. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought to myself.

He scowled for a moment, not sure whether to believe me, then relented and let me through.

I walked across the bridge, straight through Lower and Midtown Manhattan right up towards Central Park, walking in a city that other than the sound of emergency vehicles had gone completely silent. Not a single store was open, not a single car was driving through the streets, and there were very few people on the sidewalks. Birds eerily chirped as I made my way uptown, briefly pausing near 14th Street to take in the totality of the silence. It was a literal ghost town, in more ways than one, with the surreal nature only increasing when a military tank rolled right by me as though it was the most normal, everyday thing.

Tank rolling down 14th Street in Manhattan. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Military vehicle down 14th Street in Manhattan. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I continued uptown, taking pictures as I went. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, I paused and looked around and for a moment was in utter terror. There was nobody in sight. No cars, no people, no sounds other than the shrill shrieks of sirens and the screaming that I couldn’t tune out. I stood across from Radio City, the only person in a 360 degree radius, and was so taken in and paralyzed by the emptiness around me that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was standing right in the middle of Sixth Avenue. A group of people walked by on the sidewalk and I was so surprised by their presence that without even thinking I pulled my camera out and took their picture.

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I then laid down in the middle of the street and did a log roll straight across to the other side. I didn’t know why, but in that moment I needed contact with the land, with the concrete and ashes that I had been walking upon for miles. I lay still in the street next to the sidewalk for a moment, and the screaming I was hearing suddenly became a roar. When I got up, I looked over at the people on the other side and realized that they had been taking pictures of what I had just done. They waved, I waved back.

Remembering that I had a friend that I was checking on, I quickly made my way back downtown. As I approached Union Square, I quickly saw that makeshift memorials were already being erected in the park, and flyers with pictures of the missing were taped to nearly every street-pole.

It brought me back to what I couldn’t tune out, the screaming. The dead. I wanted to stop and pay tribute, but I was still on a mission, and I continued on until I arrived at my friend’s apartment four blocks north of the disaster. As I rang the bell, I could feel the heat of the fire, and the stench had become overwhelming.

“I haven’t seen a thing yet, I haven’t left the house and I don’t want to,” he said to me we sat down on the couch.

“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that smell out of my mind.”

He looked up at me. “My grandmother’s been in a constant anxious state since yesterday, and nothing I can say or do will calm her down,” he said, motioning towards the back room. “She says the smell reminds her of Poland when she was a child, and she’s been in a terrible state. She’s terrified. I mean, we’re all terrified, but I don’t even know how to begin to comfort her.”

I didn’t know what to say, and we both sat there in silence for a while with our tea and cigarettes as I tried desperately to tune out the screaming that had hit a deafening pitch.

For the rest of the week, I spent my afternoons in Union Square, praying and making offerings for the dead. The screaming only started to fade a few months later as the fire finally went out, but I heard the screams in traces for the next several years.

VIII. Fear of a Blue Sky: July 2010

“When you were a kid, did you ever hear that joke about the Twin Towers?”

I paused for a minute, trying to access a file in my brain that had been long since tucked away. “You mean the one about how they’re just the boxes that the Empire State and the Chrysler Building came in?”

She nodded, poured herself another glass of wine, and then continued.

“Isn’t it weird how one day the world has suddenly changed and you just can’t say things anymore? Like, my mother would go on and on about those buildings when I was a kid, about how ugly they were and how she wished that they had never been built, on and on. And even remembering and recalling that just feels so weird and inappropriate now. I mean, obviously telling any jokes about the Twin Towers nowadays doesn’t seem right, but even remembering that we used to make jokes feels funny, like we did something bad retroactively or something. Its weird, I almost feel guilty about it.”

“Yes,” I said. I knew just what she was talking about. “I think we all carry around much more baggage around that event and our relationship with those buildings in general than we’d ever want to admit or even conceive of,” I said.

“For example, I’ll give you one,” I continued. “I can remember years ago being in the back of a friend’s car driving into the city from Jersey as her father was telling me how there were no Twin Towers when he was a kid. And when I heard him say that, I stared out at them and tried to picture what it would be like if they weren’t there. I shudder when I think about that now, it just freaks me out. And I swear, its like I’m almost afraid to even put words to it, to say it out loud. Somewhere in my head I seem to think that it never actually happened if I don’t speak of it. “

She nodded. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked me.

“Of course,” I answered.

“I mean, its weird and messed up. I feel like I’m just crazy or this was just some crazy thing that happened in my head, but I really just need to tell somebody and you’re good with crazy stuff.” She looked at me for affirmation and I nodded.

She took a deep breath. “Okay. So, a few years ago I was having a cavity filled, and I should preface this by saying that I hadn’t gotten any work done on my teeth since before 9/11. But I’m in the chair, and as the dentist started to drill, all of a sudden the smell just jolted something seriously deep and I suddenly started panicking and remembering the towers and the aftermath in this vivid and intense way that felt like I was on psychedelics or something. Its like it was right there for a moment, it was real and in front of me again. I had to get the dentist to stop, and it took me a while to calm down after that.”

I nodded vigorously and I told her about my experience with the antler and the dremel. “It was one quick and hardcore lesson in how deeply scent and trauma are linked in the brain, and the degree to which trauma is retained long after you think you’ve gotten over it,” I said to her. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, like I had completely lost control.”

Her expression suddenly turned to sadness. “There was a part of that experience, the part where your stomach clenches so tight you think you’ll choke…. I’ll tell ya, sometimes that happens to me for absolutely no reason at the most innocent times. Like last week, I was lying on my back in the park and there was something about the color of the sky that just threw my stomach in knots. It was that same blue, something about that shade…”

“I mean, listen to me,” she continued after a moment. “ Fear of a blue sky? It’s just absurd. But its also very real and I don’t know if I’ll ever rid myself of it.”

I just stared at her for a moment. as not only did her experiences so precisely mirror my own, but she had the courage to vocalize something that I couldn’t ever bear to acknowledge to myself up until that moment.

“Yes, the fear of a blue sky,” I said after a while. “It’s very real indeed.”

Author’s Note: Minor details were changed for privacy reasons.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Whims of the Father

Alley Valkyrie —  July 24, 2015 — 9 Comments

(Author’s note: The following attempts to capture a recent four days in time and about time with as much accuracy as possible. Minor details have been changed to protect privacy.)

I walked from my apartment to the elevator, going past a dozen or so doors on the way. It was early afternoon, and I could hear a TV blaring in nearly every apartment as I walked past. In a typical apartment building, most folks would be at work, but here in this building a noticeable number of the residents are home all day with little to do other than to watch television. I was used to the sound of TV as I walked past, but right then it was much more noticeable than usual.

I live in what is generally referred to as “tax-credit housing”, meaning that the property was built under a federal program that grants a 30-year property tax credit in exchange for renting the units for well below market value and only to those who make less than 60% of the area median income. As a result, the building is composed of a noticeably varied range of working-class and poor folks, from single moms and working families with kids to retired folks who live on Social Security, as well as a significant number of disabled folks, including several war vets, who also live on fixed incomes. There are also several multigenerational households, where younger relatives work while their elderly parents and/or grandparents are at home during the day for the most part.

I stepped into the elevator, where a man was awkwardly leaning in the corner, propping himself up to relieve pressure off his leg, which I noticed was in what looked like a permanent brace.

“You ever watch that Kardashian show?” he asked me as the elevator door started to close.

“Nope,” I replied. I don’t have a TV.”

He looks at me in amazement. “You don’t have a TV?” He looked me up and down. “Well, I suppose you don’t need one. You’re young, you can go amuse yourself in the real world. Twenty years ago I thought I couldn’t afford cable. Now I realize I can’t afford not to have it.”

I nodded. It had occurred to me often as of late that the very fact that I can sufficiently keep myself occupied to the point where I did not need a TV was a significant privilege that many of my neighbors did not have.

“My nephew criticizes me, tells me I’m wasting my money,” he continued. “I asked him, what else am I supposed to do with it? I get a little over $700 a month plus my food stamps and whatever I can get returning cans. $595 for rent, $40 for electricity, $20 for a big bag of dog food, after that I got well under a hundred dollars left to amuse myself for the entire month. Can’t even afford a respectable drinking habit. So cable it is. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is. Cable and my dog, that’s what keeps me occupied.”

“Makes perfect sense to me,” I said to him as the elevator door opened into the lobby.

He nodded. “Thank you, I need to hear that. My nephew, he’s the only blood family I really have around here but he’s so judgmental. The kid doesn’t understand how easy it is to think the way he does when you’re bringing in $50K a year. He goes bowling, goes to the movies, goes to the coast. Doesn’t know what its like to not be able to afford all that, and then lectures me for how I spend my money. He doesn’t think about the fact that his time itself is worth money, while my time doesn’t hold value for anybody. ‘Time flies’, he says to me. Not for me it don’t.”

I looked at him sympathetically as we walked out the front door. “You know what’s best for you better than anyone else does,” I said to him as we parted ways.

As I walked on, his words rang on in my head, as they illustrated the core divide that the sound of the TV had come to symbolize for me as of late: the divide between those whose time had a market value, and those for whose time did not carry a transferable value and was often regarded as a burden, as the enemy, as something that needed to be intentionally wasted and consumed in the absence of a meaningful way to spend it. For some, time flies, while others are in constant need for time to fly away.


*   *   *

I was sitting for a moment just outside the library when he approached me.

“Hey, you got a smoke?”

I’m not a smoker nowadays, but I still carry cigarettes sometimes, deeply aware of the power that tobacco has to initiate random conversations with strangers. I handed him one and he lit it up.

“Ah, thank you. I’ll tell ya, it’s the only addiction I have left, but this one’s manageable and I’ve stopped trying to give it up. I gave the rest of them up, I still need something, you know.”

I nodded and he continued.

“My counselor said to me many times that addiction was a demon. I could tell that she meant it as a metaphor, but over time I’ve come to realize that it’s literal. A heroin addiction is the ugliest of demons – it’s a beast inside of you that you constantly need to feed, and feeding it becomes your utmost priority over time. But time is the key, time. An addiction also eats the time, and gives purpose to the time, and time itself is another demon, one that also eats away at you. And as screwed up at this sounds, in the face of the demon of time, the demon of addiction is actually a bit of a comfort. Simply put, it gives you something to do. You wake up, and the first thought is that you need a fix. Immediately you have a task, a goal. Something to do with your time. Something to take care of, something to feed.”

“How’d you kick it?” I asked.

He pointed down towards the corgi at his feet. “After I finally got through rehab, I got myself a dog,” he answered. “Figured having something else to feed would keep me out of trouble. And it did in terms of smack, but I didn’t stay completely out of trouble and after a while I collected a wife and then a kid as well. So now I have a houseful of creatures that howl to be fed in the morning.”

He paused for a moment and smiled. “But at least they’re all external. And I love them all dearly. I’d rather feed kids and dogs than those other demons. But often it’s better to feed demons than to be left to the whims of the father without sufficient distraction.

“The father?” I asked. “You mean God?”

The price of a conversation. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The price of a conversation. [Photo by Alley Valkyrie.]

He laughed. “No, Father Time,” he said. “But he might as well be God. Cruelest force there is, that time. Never enough of it when you need it the most, then it drags on endlessly when you desperately need it to pass.”

He put out the end of the cigarette. “The tricks of the Father are endless. Time files sometimes, but never when you want it to. A winged demon, that Father Time.”

“And that’s no joke, that’s real as you and me.”

*   *   *

“This next sequence will run for four minutes.”

The strange patterns of beeping noises started again, and I closed my eyes and desperately tried to relax, trying to block out absolutely every aspect of the current situation. As I had discovered in the past, if I ignored the headphones and earplugs and panic button in my right hand, the coldness and the brightness and the very fact that I was in a cylindrical tube, if I blocked out all of that successfully, for a split second it was almost as though I was just lying down listing to some sort of avant-garde techno music.

I held the illusion for a moment, until the beeping shifted to a faster-paced and much more jolting rhythm, which snapped me back immediately into the realization that I was currently in an MRI machine. I think this is why I don’t like techno, I thought to myself.

“This next sequence will run for two-and-a-half minutes.”

I closed my eyes once again and tried my best to pretend that it was a just techno-tunnel.

When the final sequence was over, it struck me how 38 minutes in a tube, broken down into 2-4 minute segments that are announced step-by-step, makes for one of the most accurate flows of time that I experienced as of late. As uncomfortable as it was on one level, it was exactly as long as it seemed, as long as it was supposed to be without the catches and loopholes that are often present in time. The ‘tricks of the Father’ were conspicuously and surprisingly absent this time around, which considering the circumstances was quite a relief. For once, time seemed a strange constant.

They pulled me out of the tunnel, took down some additional information, and told me that I would hear back within a week.

“I know that the waiting is the hardest part,” she said to me, sympathetically. “Time can be especially cruel that way…”

I thought of the man that I talked to that morning with the dog outside the library. Time can be cruel in many ways, I silently whispered to myself.

“Do you need a parking validation?” she asked.

“No, I walked here.”

She looked down at the screen at my info for a moment, and then looked up at me again. “That’s a quite a bit of a walk,” she said to me.

“Yeah, it took a while. But I find it a good way to clear out some time.”

“Must be nice to have that kind of free time,” she said.

Trust me, its not nearly as nice as you think, I thought to myself, and thought hard for a second before answering

“Yes and no,” I said to her after a moment. “Free time tends to lose its value and appeal once its no longer being weighed against the time you wish you didn’t have to spend elsewhere. Eventually, it becomes somewhat of a liability, especially when you don’t have adequate ways to waste or spend it. I’m grateful in a sense that I’m able to spend the amount of time that I do walking around Portland, especially considering how many folks I knew with mobility issues who don’t have such an option. But the time itself isn’t always a good thing to have, especially for those who can’t get out as I can.”

She looked at me, silent for a moment.

“Huh,” she finally said. “I hear you. I never thought of it that way before, but I can definitely see what you’re saying.”

*   *   *

I dragged a chair and a small table out on my patio, intending to spend a good portion of the afternoon making pinch-pots while watching the traffic below me.

My upstairs neighbors started watching a TV program about UFOs, which I could hear clearly from where I was sitting, and before I realized what was happening I found myself sucked in. I forgot about the clay in my hand as I strained to hear their TV above the sounds of the traffic while staring out mindlessly towards the street below.

Out of nowhere, their dog started to bark uncontrollably, which set off the dog next door and another dog nearby, and the neighbors either muted or paused the TV while yelling at their dog to shush. I snapped back into reality, and as I listened to the chorus of barking dogs I looked out and noticed the doggy day camp van pull up in front of the luxury condos across the street. I had noticed the van many times before, but seeing it in that moment brought with it a whole new significance.

I tuned in to the cacophony of barking throughout the building for a moment, dogs that for so many folks here were instrumental in giving their time and their lives meaning in the face of very few accessible amusements or comforts.

And as I listened to the barking, I closely watched across the street as the van driver walked the dog toward the building, the owner approaching them from the other direction. In stark contrast to my upstairs neighbors who spent most of their waking hours caring for their dog with the TV blaring in the background, this dog owner’s time is so valued under capitalism that he can afford to pay someone to amuse his dog for several hours every day while he’s gone so that the dog itself doesn’t get bored in his absence.

Sitting on the porch, staring across the street, I realized that I was experiencing two worlds at once, worlds that in the moment were being illustrated by dogs and separated and defined by the value and perception of time.

As the van drove away and the barking died down, they turned the UFO show back on upstairs. I started to listen in once again, but my thoughts kept interrupting my ability to concentrate as I couldn’t help wondering what a dog actually does all day at doggy day camp.

*   *   *

“Daddy, why is the market only open on the weekends?”

“Because during the weekdays, everyone is at work. They’re off on the weekends, so they can come here and shop,” he replied.

Sitting in the back of my market booth, the weekend ‘workplace’ that I’ve steadily inhabited for over a decade now, I tipped both my eye and my ear towards the direction of the conversation.

“But there are some people who work on the weekends too,” the kid countered. “These people here all are working right now,” he said, pointing towards the booths in front of them.

Smart kid, I thought to myself, curiously anticipating how the father would attempt to explain this particular aspect of class dynamics to a six-year-old.

“Well, yes, you’re right. Some people do have to work on the weekends.”

“But when do the people who work on the weekends get to go to the market?”

“I guess they just don’t get to go,” the father said after a moment. “We’ve talked before about how the world isn’t always fair.”

“Are the people who work on the weekdays more important than those who work on the weekends?

“Well, I guess some would say that. Those who work weekdays generally make more money than those who have to work on weekends, and there are many people who think that those who make more money are more important than those who make less money.”

“That’s stupid,” the kid said defiantly. “The people who work on the weekends should make more money, because they’re the ones who are missing all the fun.”

Portland Saturday Market. Photo by Steve Morgan.

Portland Saturday Market. [Photo by Steve Morgan]

“Are you hungry?” the father asked abruptly, desperately trying to change the subject at that point. The kid nodded and they walked away towards the food carts.

“If I was in charge, I’d have a market all week just for the people who have to work weekends,” the kid said as they walked out of earshot.

The father looked around for a moment, his expression one of pure helplessness and exasperation.

Right on, kid, right on, I thought.

*   *   *

As I watched her hand, moving so eloquently and furiously, I realized that I had seen her before, although in a different park on the other side of the river. She finished the bird with a few quick strokes and started to write underneath the picture in Chinese, quickly scribbling out a few rows of text in what seemed like seconds.

She then picked up the picture, blew on it, quickly looked both ways, and muttered a few words under her breath. And before I really understood what was happening, she pulled out a match and quickly set the paper on fire.

I gasped aloud, not meaning to, and she turned around, surprised to see me there. She nodded hello at me and I nodded back.

“It is OK, it is supposed to burn,” she said to me, smiling. “It is a prayer for the sparrows.”

“But you just spent so much time….” I stopped mid-sentence, recognizing the thought-trap regarding the value of time that I was about to fall into. She laughed.

“I have all the time in the world to draw things and set them on fire,” she said. “I am retired, I do not work. I do not like TV, I do not like bingo. Instead, I draw and I pray and I pay attention to nature.”

I stared at her for a second, wondering if I should say aloud what I was dying to ask her, then took a breath and went for it.

“Do you mind if I ask why? Why did you burn what you just drew, what was it for?”

She motioned for me to sit, and I immediately dropped down on the ground next to her.

“I draw them to ask forgiveness for the past. When I was a girl back home, one day our leader commanded all the people to kill the sparrows, all the sparrows. It was a matter of duty, of honor, patriotism, all of those things, to kill every sparrow we could find. So we did, we chased them, killed them, destroyed nests, some shot them out of the sky. Throughout my village, throughout the country, the people killed all the sparrows, every one they saw.”

As she paused for a moment, I thought about her age and realized that I was hearing a personal account of the Great Chinese Famine. My stomach clenched up as I anticipated what she was about to say next.

“But sparrows eat locusts and locusts eat grain, and when sparrows don’t eat locusts, locusts eat all the grain that is grown to feed the peasants. And then, after the sparrows were gone, after we killed them all and the locusts came, the droughts also came. And for years, there was famine, and millions and millions died.“

“Years later, I moved to America to be with my daughter, and everywhere I see different kinds of sparrows. And they reminded me of my childhood, of the famine and the death, and at first I was very angry at them. They almost felt haunting. But then I thought of what the people had done, and what happened as a result, and how all of the species are connected and interdependent. Here we both reside, me and the sparrows, and we are both alive, both survivors, and I don’t like bingo. So eventually I thought why not reach out to them?”

She smiled and looked around. “So I started coming to the parks, and when I see sparrows, I draw them and write prayers of forgiveness and send them up towards where I spotted them. I think it heals both of our wounds.”

I stood there for a moment, slightly shivery. “Thank you for sharing that with me,” I told her.

She nodded. “Nobody can change the past, but I can at least give them the time I have now. I often feel like I’m just wasting my days away when I sit at home, but then I remember the sparrows and I realize that my time has value.”

*   *   *

Walking back from the park towards my building, I noticed the man who has asked me about the Kardashians the other day, sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. He looked up and I nodded; he waved me over.

“Hey, you ever hear of a time bank?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he continued, excitedly. “I saw something on TV this morning where they were talking about unemployed folks in Greece and how they’ve started these exchanges called time banks. It’s a bartering of services where if you can perform a skill, you can trade your time for the time-skills of another. Everyone’s time is worth the same no matter what service they perform, and services are traded hour for hour, no money exchanged.”

I nodded and he went on. “I’m one hell of a wood-turner. Put me in front of a lathe and I’ll make you some of the most amazing things you’ve ever seen. But I can only do it at most for a few hours at a time, which is why I’m useless to an employer. But if I could trade a few hours a week’s worth of my skill for, say, someone who could help me fix my car up or could repair my boots, I’d be so much better off.”

He pointed toward our building. “That whole place, I’m sure almost everyone can do something. But so many do nothing at all, because they’re trapped in their apartment with nothing but a TV and maybe a chat with the neighbor once in a while. What they know, what they do, it all just goes to waste. Nobody’s time has any real value as it stands.

“But just think of what we all could do if we all decided to start organizing ourselves and our skills around something other than money. You’d have a whole bunch of folks who think they’re useless who would suddenly find themselves quite useful again. We’d all have an easier time of it, a much easier time.”

“A much easier time,” he said again after a moment. “It always comes back to time.”

 *   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

I thought I was a strong swimmer. But I was also seventeen, and I thought I knew everything.

It was hot, and the Delaware River was refreshingly cool. I can do this, I said to myself, perhaps a little too confidently. I stood at the bank of the Pennsylvania side, with my eye on a small sandy landing across the river in New Jersey. I jumped in and made it across easily, then without really thinking about it I quickly turned around and swam back.

Halfway back, I learned quickly that I wasn’t as strong of a swimmer as I thought, and that I should have given myself more time to rest before attempting the trip back. I was caught in the current, and started to move sideways instead of across. Foolishly I tried to fight it; tried to swim against the current and, as I started to drift downstream, I quickly tired myself out.

I felt myself losing the battle, and allowed the current to carry me for a while. I struggled to stay afloat, felt myself starting to drown, found myself reflecting in that panicked moment how this is never what it looks like on TV or in the movies, all while still facing upstream and still attempting to swim back the way I came. I tried floating on my back but the river kept pulling me down. Knowing that there wasn’t a human in sight that could hear a scream for help, I started shouting the names of every deity I could think of at that moment, but yelling for only those few seconds quickly weakened me further. I switched from screams to silent thoughts as I felt I was about to go under, my last concern being that I didn’t tell anyone I was even going for a swim in the first place.

And then I literally smacked into a ton of bricks. I had been facing upstream the entire time, and in all my struggling I didn’t notice that there was a bridge behind me. I landed on a masonry pier, and the height of the water was at an exact level that I found myself seated on the ledge of the pier before I even realized where I was. The moment I was about to go under, the bridge had provided a chair for me to rest.

I sat there for the next few hours, first to catch my breath, then to reflect. I had done a very foolish thing, and I nearly paid with my life. I owed that life to what I would have always considered to be an inanimate object … until that moment of collision. There was something so alive about the pier; the way an old tree or the river itself felt alive. And the longer I sat there on the edge of the pier, in a strange dazed delirium filled with fear and gratitude, the more I felt a very deep connection with stones themselves, even more so than I had every felt from a tree or a river. There was a true mutual appreciation in that moment: I appreciated the pier for being where it was, and the pier seemed to appreciate my just sitting on it for a few hours in contemplation. I thought about the people who constructed that pier, each brick laid down by hand, the literal sweat and blood that went into this structure that held me in a time of need.

When I felt rested and clear-headed enough, I prepared to swim back to the riverbank. I found myself thanking the pier profusely, at that point having the same regard for its spirit and sentience as I would any person or animal, and right before I jumped back in the river I asked the pier to wish me luck and if possible to see me over to the other side. The swim back was easy, and by the time I landed on the riverbank the only pain I felt was a bruise on my side from when I had smacked into the pier.

The bridge that caught me. Photo by Aerolin55.

The bridge that caught me. [Photo Credit: Aerolin55]

After asking around a bit the next day, I learned that, although the bridge had been rebuilt three times, the pier was the original and had been standing in that water for over 150 years. Other than the river itself, those masonry piers were the just about the oldest thing around. This made sense to me, as the pier definitely felt old, and yet there still was something much more to that pier, something much deeper than age alone.

That pier had life; that pier had spirit. That pier had imprinted something unshakable upon me.

*   *   *

It may be painfully typical to state that such an experience dramatically shifts one’s perspective on life, but it’s the only way to describe the transformation that I went through in the months after the bridge incident. Not only was I grateful for and deliberate in my existence in a way that I couldn’t have imagined beforehand, but I became fascinated by and fixated on both spirits and bridges in various ways.

After spending a few months processing what happened at the bridge, I left home and started to couch-surf with friends in New York City, first in lower Manhattan and then in Brooklyn. At first, I took with me only my backpack and a small bag of possessions that most would consider mere knick-knacks but I saw as infused with consciousness and spirit. Among those possessions was a small piece of moss that I had pulled off the masonry pier.

I loved so much about Brooklyn, but I loved the bridges the most. I found myself mesmerized by the bridges; first by their structures themselves and then by the lush history behind their existence. I spent hours in the library, drinking in stories of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and later the Verrazano.


Verrazano Bridge from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Verrazano Bridge from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. [Photo by A. Valkyrie.]

The stories also revealed a darker side, one I had never considered before. Those who financed and engineered such bridges were usually remembered by history as those responsible for the bridge itself, not so much the workers who gave their labor and often their lives to actually bring the bridge into existence. Similar to the building of the railroads, those who actually built the bridges were mostly forgotten while those who backed it are remembered and glorified. Also forgotten were those who were displaced by the building of such bridges. Planning for the Verrazano Bridge, which broke ground in 1959, wiped out an entire stretch of neighborhood in Bay Ridge; bulldozing Victorian-era brownstones, and displacing working-class families and second-generation immigrants who had nowhere else to go in a rapidly developing city. The cruelty and injustice inherent in such urban planning was no different than today’s urban gentrification battles that raged throughout Brooklyn as well as cities across the nation.

I loved and appreciated those bridges, but did I ever shutter deep down whenever I thought of the true cost, whenever I consider the ghosts of a generation uprooted.

*   *   *

Nearly a decade after the bridge incident, I packed my things and moved across the country. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to that bridge when I left, but I kept it in my thoughts and my prayers as I was saying goodbye to the East Coast, to Brooklyn, to the bridges that I had adopted as my own in the years that I was a resident of New York City. I took only what I could carry in my van with the front area behind my seat reserved for carefully-packed boxes containing, what I then referred to as, ‘spirit-items’.

On day five in the car, driving along the Columbia Gorge in Oregon less than an hour from Portland. I suddenly saw a sign. Bridge of the Gods, it said.

I turned off at the exit.

The bridge looked rather modern, almost disappointingly so, but a historical plaque told an intriguing story about an ancient bridge that once stood in that spot. There was a natural land-bridge that once blocked the river, that was the subject of various folkloric tales from indigenous tribes that populated the area prior to European settlement.

There was something about stumbling upon local mythology, around gods and bridges, so close to the end of my journey to a new home that struck me in a very significant way.

I walked down to the base of bridge, going as far down the steep riverbank as I safely could manage. I introduced myself, and left a few coins at the base. Despite its newness, despite its lack of any real connection to the historic ‘Bridge of the Gods’, there was something about it that still felt sacred.

Walking back up, a rock the size of a golf ball bounced down straight towards me. I stopped it with my foot, picked it up, and put it in my bag. I slipped it into the special box right behind the front seat.

Eight years ago, eight moves ago.

*   *   *

“Hey, would you mind holding onto Grandpa for me? I really don’t have a safe place for him and … well … you’ve already got a big collection of dead things that you take care of …”

‘Grandpa’ was a jar of ashes; more specifically the ashes of my ex’s grandfather who had passed over during the first year of our relationship. Grandpa had indeed found a comfortable spot among my various collections of dead things over the course of our relationship.

We were at the point in the break-up process in which we were dividing our things in preparation for his move back to the Midwest, and I was deliberately forcing a mindset of collaboration and compassion in order to maintain my sanity. I had already been keeping an eye on Grandpa as though he were my responsibility. It seems sensible to maintain what was already routine for me.

“Of course, don’t worry.” I replied. “Leave Grandpa right where he is, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Five years ago, five moves ago.

The Patio of Living Things, circa 2010. 'Grandpa' is hidden in the corner behind the lavender.

The Patio of Living Things, circa 2010. ‘Grandpa’ is hidden in the corner behind the lavender. [Photo: A. Valkyrie]

It was never made clear at the time whether my custody of Grandpa was temporary or permanent, but Grandpa seems to have become a perpetual addition to the strange assortment of items that I had been carrying around. The assortment has grown considerably since I was in my late teens, an assortment of items that themselves possess spirit and soul to the extent where simple ideas of ‘ownership’ quickly evolve into reverent caretaking of a very peculiar kind.

*   *   *

I knew he was severely depressed to the point where he was possibly suicidal, and I knew that a change of environment can often positively shift someone that is in such a state. It was only a few days after I started scheming on how to get him out here that a thousand dollars literally dropped into my lap unexpectedly in a way that only happens when greater forces are at work. I bought him a plane ticket from upstate New York to Eugene and, a few weeks later, we were headed down the 101 in my van, packed for camping and exploring.

We drove for ten days, down from Florence, Oregon all the way to Mendocino and back, stopping at every place that looked interesting and many other places that were simply quiet and serene. We camped in the redwoods, on the coast, on the bank of the Russian River. He ran right in, I timidly waded up to my knees and stood in contemplation. I took a few steps more but wouldn’t go in past my waist.

He asked why, I told him. “Once bitten, twice shy,” I said when I finished the story.

He nodded. We shared many other stories that week, of close calls and near-death experiences, as well as darker experiences such as self-harm and suicide. He admitted to me that he had contemplated killing himself, both in the past and very recently. I nodded; I had sensed as much. I didn’t have to say aloud that such worries were why I flew him out here … it was unspoken but understood.

By the time we got back to Eugene, the van was filled with various objects, both natural and man-made, that we had amassed over the course of our trip. He had the same sense and affinity for what he called ‘living’ objects as I did. Much of our trip consisted of stumbling upon such wonders like small children, giggling as we left offerings in return.

As he packed up to return to New York, we both tried in vain to fit the entirety of his new collection in his baggage, cramming nearly everything except for a pile of bark and a bag of meticulously chosen and extremely ‘living’ bunch of sticks that he had intended to carve an ogham set with.

“I have to leave that all here. You can have the bark,” he said. “But I would love that bag of sticks back from you one day.”

“I’ll give them back to you the next time I see you,” I replied.

Four years ago, four moves ago.

bag copy

[Photo: A. Valkyrie]

Eighteen months after he left, I got a message from a mutual friend. Call me immediately, the message said, followed by her phone number. My throat tightened; I knew instantly that he had done it; that he had committed suicide.

I called her to confirm what I already knew and subsequently broke down for several hours. At one point, I looked over at the bag of sticks, hanging on the door, and remembered my words to him.

“I’m still going to hold onto your sticks until I see you again,” I said aloud.

A few days later, I placed them with the rest of the collection.

*   *   *

When I knew I had to leave Eugene, I surrendered my fate to the Gods, who very quickly and bluntly guided me to a tiny little studio, 100 yards from the river, smack dab between two of Portland’s most iconic bridges. I didn’t even begin to question it, I simply accepted it and settled in.

The tone had been instantly set for my Work in this new place, and the very first action I took even before signing the least was to make offerings at the bases of both bridges. I thanked the bridges for their presence and their function, I made prayers and offerings to those who were sacrificed in the construction of the bridge, and to those who had taken their lives by jumping. I also made prayers and offerings for those who currently lived under the bridges, those who we tend to label as ‘homeless’ and ‘mentally ill’ and ‘addicts.’

The studio was just under 400 square feet. Realizing that there was not enough room to unpack the majority of my possessions, within a few months I put myself on a waiting list for a bigger space in the same building, unheeded by the warning from management that it could take well over a year to happen. The studio served an immediate purpose in terms of survival and a place to print, but was unsuitable as a place of worship or Work. I took my worship and Work to the riverbank, to the bridges, building altars on abandoned piers and stone foundations.

rivermile11 copy

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Against the wall in my studio, meticulously stacked boxes, boxes containing packed up altars and places of offering, boxes containing those packed up objects-turned-obligations. Bones and sticks, including ‘Grandpa’ and the ogham bag, the rock from the Bridge of the Gods and the moss from the bridge that saved me, all in safe storage, in plain sight and yet obscured by corrugated cardboard.

One year ago, one move ago.

There’s something admittedly strange and yet comforting in talking to boxes, feeding them and caring for them just as you would were they outside of the box. I kept an eye on them, checked up on them constantly, awaiting the day when I would be able to unpack them again and put them in their proper places.

*   *   *

There have been well over 200 drownings in Oregon in the past decade The vast majority of them occurring in rivers in the Willamette Valley.

I don’t have the luxury of believing in coincidence, so it only seemed perfectly natural that I stumbled across a detailed list of those drownings the same day that my computer screen was filled with headlines and opinions focused on the racial dynamics of a pool-party incident in Texas. Browsing the list of drownings, it struck me immediately that a significant number of those who have drowned in Oregon were people of color, in a state that is overwhelmingly white.

In a vastly unequal society where minorities and the poor were both historically and still presently denied access to safe, publicly accessible bodies of water, it sadly makes sense that so many would seek to relieve themselves from the heat in the rivers, and meet a tragic fate in doing so. Learning how to swim, learning what to do when one is in danger of drowning, and being able to safely access bodies of water when it is hot, are basic needs in terms of public safety that should be accessible to anyone and everyone in this country, regardless of race, socioeconomics, or documented status.

I read through the list again, this time focusing on the descriptions of the incidents. It hit a tender nerve when I read through accounts of drownings that resulted from those who thought that they could swim across a river. It has been more than fifteen years since I nearly drowned, but after having relived the incident more times in my mind than I ever care to acknowledge, the naivete and commonality of my mistake still reverberates. I thought I was a strong swimmer, I still cling to occasionally in defense. I thought I was a strong swimmer.

But there’s a piece of moss on my altar that will always remind me otherwise.

With those thoughts swirling through my mind, I went down to the base of the nearest bridge, as close to the water as I could get, with flowers for those who have died in the river. I petitioned the bridge and the land spirits to do what they could to protect those who may be floating by in distress. I spent a moment in touch with my inner terror, that taste of death that has never quite left me since my own dip in the river years before, and I whispered prayers of protection towards the opposite side as I let that terror go on the riverbank.

*   *   *

It has been unbearably hot this past week, as my partner and I moved boxes from the tiny studio to a larger space in the same building, after nearly a year of waiting for such a space to open up. The new place faces the river just across the street, and the breeze from the Willamette blows directly into my new living-room and bedroom. It’s at least fifteen degrees cooler than the studio, which faced southward with very little breeze.

steel copy

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Unpacking the boxes, with layers of altars and old friends hidden away for nearly fifteen months, becomes an unexpectedly emotional reunion. Bits and pieces of my life and journeys all spread out for my eyes to take in, each infused with life and spirit as well as countless stories. I uncover Grandpa and sit him on a shelf; I find the bag of ogham sticks and hang the bag out on the patio. I dust off my friends, I smile, and for the first time in years I know I’m exactly where I should be.

Now. Here.

A hundred yards from the river, between two bridges, I finally feel like I am home.

 *   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  


When I was in my early twenties I had a rabbit, a sixteen-pound French Lop that had free rein of parts of the house and succeeded in both equally fascinating and terrifying every houseguest I ever had. From her ability to clear a seven-foot gate to her skill in severing any cord or wire ever laid out in her path, Gwendolyn was much more akin to a troublesome toddler trapped in a four-legged body the size of a Corgi than what the average person pictures when they think of a pet rabbit.

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl...

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl. [A.Valkyrie]

Out of all her tricks and quirks, the one that still echoes loudest in my mind years later was her unfailing habit of excitedly charging any time she heard a sound reminiscent of pills shaking in a bottle. She would come immediately running at the sound, often at top-speed, obsessively expecting a treat. While it delighted friends and family, it was an accidental behavior that was an unintended consequence of my own naïveté in terms of how strongly animals can form associations with sounds.

Similarly to humans, rabbits have both quite the sweet tooth as well as a noted lack of self-control around what we would call ‘junk food.’ Carrots are the most popular example of this tendency, as rabbits crave them specifically due to their sweetness, but they will also obsessively seek out candy and other treats meant for humans, and will often make themselves sick if they gain access to an unattended stash of sweets. Animal trainers often take advantage of this tendency in rabbits by using papaya tablets as a reward, as rabbits are quick learners and will happily comply in exchange for the treat.

I did not know this when I called my vet about Gwendolyn’s digestive issues and she suggested giving her papaya tablets as a dietary aid. I bought a bottle of the tablets, shook it just for the sound and then opened the bottle in front of her and gave her a few, and put the bottle up on a shelf. A few hours later, I took the bottle off the shelf and shook it without really thinking, and she immediately came running at the sound. I gave her a few tablets, shook the bottle again, and she responded by jumping for the bottle. From that moment forth, every time I ever shook that bottle she immediately came running.

The association was advantageous in many ways. Any time I needed to find her, she would come immediately when I shook the bottle, which helped greatly at times for rabbits find great hiding spots. But over time I discovered that she responded in kind to the sound of any bottle, not just the papaya tablets, which is why over time everyone in the house took great care every time they opened a pill bottle. More than once, a guest opening an aspirin bottle in the bathroom was suddenly rushed by an enormous rabbit who would then occasionally jump at the exact source of the noise itself. This once resulted in a spilled bottle of aspirin and an immediately dangerous situation as the rabbit then desperately tried to eat the pills.

Its not that I hadn’t recognized the tendency in animals before. Nearly every house cat jumps at the sound of a can opening. But there was something about watching it click in the rabbit – the intensity and instantaneousness of the rabbit’s reaction, propelled by an addiction to sugar that I could clearly empathize with – that really opened my eyes to both the effectiveness and potentialities in how intelligent creatures of any persuasion can react to sound.

*    *    *

Two summers ago, I unexpectedly ended up with a sickly, four-week old kitten, having plucked her off the shoulder of a street kid after realizing that she would die without proper care. Although I wasn’t planning on adopting her when I first took her, I bonded closely with her as I nursed her back to health and after the first couple of days it was clear that she was my new cat.

A very tiny kitten.

A very tiny kitten. [A.Valkyrie]

My living situation at the time didn’t allow me to leave a kitten at home unattended, so for the first month that I had her, the kitten I ended up naming Squirrel stayed on my body for the vast majority of any given chunk of day, usually either on my shoulder or in the hood of my sweatshirt. Our constant state of mobility made me quickly realize that I needed a way of immediately calling her back to me if she was to jump off my shoulder in a public place.

I thought back to my rabbit with the pill bottle, and then to the way that a cat responds to the sound of a can opening, and decided to integrate those examples with minor changes based on lessons from the past. I decided on a glass jar rather than a pill-bottle, hoping that the sound was distinct enough so that the kitten would not conflate a bottle of aspirin with cat food. I filled the jar halfway with dry kibble, and the next time I fed her I shook the jar before doing so. It took only a little more than a day for her to learn that the shaking sound meant food. A few days later, she jumped off my shoulder at a busy intersection in downtown Eugene, but only took two steps before being coaxed back by the shaking sound.

To this day, no matter where she is hiding, if I want her to come out all I have to do is shake the jar.

*    *    *

I tried forming relationships with crows when I first moved to Eugene with little success. They didn’t actively avoid or scorn me as I know they do to some, but they never seemed interested in my presence or my words. I didn’t push the relationship, especially considering that there were many other creatures and entities in that town that were actively seeking my time and attention.

In Portland, however, the crows have been a constant feature from the very beginning, living in great numbers both throughout downtown Portland in general as well as specifically in the area near Union Station where I live. They made their presence very obvious to me from the moment I started to move furniture into my building.

Time has also been a hovering constant from the very beginning. For the first time in my life, I found myself without a routine, without a reliable daily activity, without a proper or useful way to spend my time. Time is a reliable foe in that too much and too little can both effectively destabilize and eat at the soul, and in from moving to Eugene to Portland, literally overnight I went from a situation where I had absolutely no time to myself to a situation where I had more time than I knew what to do with. I had a bicycle, I had a fresh terrain to explore, I had ideas and thoughts and urges, and yet without direction, time still stood as a presence in a way I had never experienced before.

And while I know that the idea was seeded in my head by seeing the crows fly around the Union Station clock tower so often, crows and time became strongly and immediately linked in my mind. It’s a link that over the past year has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as the presence and behavior of the crows eventually became my antidote to the ever-looming curse that time held over me.


Clock tower at Union Station [A.Valkyrie]

*    *    *

I usually don’t remember my dreams, and I’ve learned from experience that if I am remembering my dreams, there’s something very important that I need to be paying attention to. Which is why a certain red flag went up once I started dreaming of crows for several nights in a row.

After the third or fourth night, I woke up at the crack of dawn, trembling, the images of crows seemingly seared into the darkness behind my vision. Without really consciously understanding what I was doing, I quickly threw on some clothes and stumbled down to the riverbank, seeking out a familiar dark and still spot on the water. Still half-asleep, still seeing crows when I closed my eyes, I stared into the water and briefly fell into a trance. The crows that were burned into the darkness of my vision were suddenly reflected in the water, appearing larger than life. I looked up and noticed that two actual crows were circling. They flew down at me, almost touching the riverbank, and then took off towards the west.

I followed them for as long as I could keep track of them. They led me throughout Northwest Portland, touching down repeatedly at corners and intersections that I tried desperately to mentally note while also desperately trying to keep up with the flying pair. I finally lost sight of them underneath the 405, and yet as I was headed back home I could hear them nearby and I had the distinctive feeling that I was being watched.

That night my dreams felt like a trap, a pull, a call, a maze of repeated imagery in which crows shifted into a dark-clad woman, who then shifted back into a crow. I recognized her immediately; we had been chatting on and off for years with no serious commitments on either side. And yet it was still all rather vague. I woke up not sure how to proceed. There were still too many pieces missing.

A few days later, when Rhyd Wildermuth posted a blog about bees and bestowing kindnesses towards ravens, I knew better than to shrug it off as mere coincidence. I made a mental note to buy a container of unsalted peanuts the next time I was out and to keep an eye out for crows.

And then a few days after the blog post as well as another series of crow dreams, my partner and I were on our walking down First Avenue just north of the Burnside Bridge, only a few feet away from edge of the buildings, when I noticed a crow standing still in the corner by a window. Thinking he was hurt, I approached the crow slowly and stooped down. The crow stared me right in the eye, less than two feet away, and immediately I could tell he was not actually hurt at all.

“What’s up? Are you OK?” I asked the crow, and suddenly I was flooded with a stream of thoughts and visions… from Rhyd’s blog about feeding ravens, to the crow dreams I had, to the crows on the riverbank the other day…and then thoughts and images of my old rabbit Gwendolyn and the papaya bottle, and of Squirrel and her glass jar of cat food, of myself on my bike riding through downtown, and then of peanuts and more crows. Suddenly, it all clicked.

I had meant to buy peanuts. I looked at the crow, feeling terrible that I had nothing to give to it at the moment. I thanked the crow for the information and apologized for my lack of a treat. I wouldn’t make such a mistake again, I said to myself.

Under the bridge, where I met the crow

Under the bridge, where I met the crow [A. Valkyrie]

Walking away, I looked back and the crow remained against the wall, watching me until I turned the corner.

I looked at my partner. “I think I get it now, I think I finally get it,” I said. “I’m supposed to be watching the crows, making friends with the crows. Like as a regular thing, a daily thing. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my time right now. ”

He looked at me and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.

 *    *    * 

Once you train your eye to notice specific features within the landscape, it’s often impossible to un-see them. The feature becomes encoded in both one’s conscious awareness as well as the subconscious, and creates a hiccup in one’s latent inhibition, unwillingly interrupting any given moment of observation in order to announce its presence. This tendency is why many graphic designers can’t help but to constantly complain about fonts, or architects about the eaves or arches of any given building. The graphic designer can’t not notice the painful use of Papyrus in the storefront sign, nor can the architect not notice the cheap and brutal travesties that are de rigueur in modern design.

This same tendency comes forth pretty quickly when one consciously decides to notice and acknowledge every crow that they come across. I poured some peanuts into a plastic box with a lid and started setting out daily, following the crows while shaking the box to announce my presence and feeding them whenever I got their attention. I was trying to attune myself to their perspective while at the same time paying close attention to what is taking place in my own world as well.

And within the space of a few weeks, I realized that I couldn’t not see a crow, I couldn’t ignore a crow, I couldn’t relegate a crow to a feature of the landscape anymore no matter how hard I tried. I’m not sure how long the sound of a crow prompted an immediate reaction in me before I consciously noticed that it was happening – but I know now that I can’t tune it out any more than a mother can initially tune out the cry of her baby. Every time I saw a crow fly above me, I couldn’t not look up. Riding my bike in downtown traffic presented a bit of a challenge.

Unlike fonts and arches, however, what’s different about attuning oneself to noticing crows is that the gesture is reciprocated, especially when you offer them treats. The crows start to notice you as well and, even in a dense urban area such as downtown Portland, one quickly starts to realize that they’re always being watched to an extent. I may be constantly looking for crows, but I also get the strong sense that they don’t have to look for me. They know where I am as soon I leave my building. They know where I am even when I have no idea where I actually am.

The more I think about the vastness of a crows-eye view, the more I start to think that the crows know this city much better than any of its citizens ever possibly could.

*    *    *

It also didn’t take me long to realize that the pigeon-crow relationship dynamics are at least as interesting and complex as most of the human relationship dynamics that I observe while downtown. Other than Canadian geese on the waterfront, crows and pigeons are the only two sizeable birds that inhabit downtown Portland, and they are constantly interacting with each other on nearly every corner or rooftop.

The differences in their pack habits and their mannerisms stood out immediately. Rarely do I see a solo pigeon, and rarely do I not see a solo crow. Pigeons generally go about their business in flocks on the ground, while crows often fly in pairs or trios. When foraging for food, they are usually on their own. The pigeons are braver and much pushier in seeking out food in the presence of humans, but not nearly as observant or sensitive to the subtle goings-on, as the crows are. A crow will spot a hipster discarding a sandwich from half a block away, while the pigeons often miss bread that tourists throw directly at them. The more populated the area, the more the crows hide in plain site while the pigeons bobble in a flock in the middle of the commotion. On the food cart blocks in downtown Portland, one practically trips over the pigeons in their path while the crows watch from the light-posts, unnoticed for the most part.

And yet despite their shyness and altogether lack of aggressiveness when compared to the pigeons, a single crow will fend off a whole flock of them in defense of his claimed prize, using a wide assortment of noises, dances, and aggressive gestures in order to chase the intruding birds away. On the campus of Portland State University, I watched a crow aggressively fight off pigeons for several minutes in order to defend a half-eaten burrito in the bottom of a take-out container that the crow had dragged out of an overflowing trashcan. At one point, the crow grabbed the fork out of the container with his beak and threw it towards the pigeons. After the flock finally left, the crow carefully and expertly tore the excessive pieces of tortilla off the side of the burrito before taking the remainder of it in his beak and flying off to a nearby rooftop.

Crow standing off against pigeons

Crow standing off against pigeons [A. Valkyrie]

I was interacting with a crow near PSU, shooing away the crowding pigeons, when I was approached by a rather grumpy, elderly gentleman.

“What you got against pigeons?” he asked me.

“Nothing, really. I’m just more interested in the crows, that’s all.”

“What, you think crows are better than pigeons?”

“No, it’s not a contest, but I’ve been working with crows, not the pigeons. Its nothing against the pigeons, I’m just not seeking them out.”

He seemed intent on challenging that. “Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”

I took a deep breath. “Look. I’m not in the mood for an argument about bird rights and bird equality, OK? If you think I’m being unfair to the pigeons, give them a little attention yourself. There’s nothing personal here. I just work with crows.”

He gave me a dirty look and walked off, himself shooing away the pigeons as he left. I was reminded that within a downtown urban landscape, even the subtlest of solitary activities are not really solitary. One always has an audience.

On my way home I took a longer route, up and around through the Pearl District. As I was riding through, it occurred to me that I rarely ever see a single crow north of Glisan Street, in the newer part of the Pearl. I thought about what I found distasteful about the neighborhood – not enough trees, too many boxy buildings, way too much construction, too many dogs, and very few places to deposit trash – and I laughed out loud, realizing that the crows most likely avoided the Pearl for the exact same reasons.

*    *    *

I feel like a Pied Piper of sorts, riding through the streets of downtown Portland every day around lunchtime, shaking the peanut box as I ride past corners where I know crows to congregate. After a few months, I find myself in a steady routine along a specified path throughout downtown, a path that was overall dictated by the crows themselves. What first started as simply following their caws quickly turned into a dedicated route with expected interactions on both sides, often taking several hours out of my day. I approach the location, shaking the peanut box, and more often than not a crow appears a short time later. I then toss some peanuts, back up a bit, and the crow usually advances and starts to snack.

I quickly find that there are subtle maneuvers and tendencies that make a world of difference. Tossing peanuts underhand is best – overhand startles the crows and they often fly away. They don’t appreciate my sunglasses much, nor the squeakiness of my rear brakes. But they very much like being talked to, and they make quite the show of knowing that they have your attention.

Without deliberately meaning to do so, I realized that I’ve started to give the crows nicknames in my mind based on the locations in which I tend to find them.

The “Bud Clark crows” hang out in the trees across the street from Bud Clark Commons, a “Housing First” shelter and homeless day center that sits a block from Union Station. The Bud Clark crows are noticeably both louder and braver than any of the other crows that I come upon regularly. I can’t help but to think that this is a very specific co-adaptation to their specific location, as the folks who regularly hang out on this block themselves tend to be noticeably louder and braver than what one would generally expect in this neighborhood. The crows have adapted to other the rhythms of the local residents, swooping in daily around the same time just after lunch to pick up the food scraps from the patio and the surrounding sidewalk.

The “yoga crows” are a bonded pair who live on the rooftop next door to a yoga studio a few blocks north of Burnside. At least one of them spends nearly every day perched above the studio, watching the action below while scolding and mocking random passers-by.

Yoga crow, watching from above

Yoga crow, watching from above [A. Valkyrie]

Next door to the yoga studio is a gift shop with a bowl of dog treats left outside. After a few weeks of visiting the yoga crows daily, I started shaking the peanut box on the sidewalk one morning when one of the crows came right out and swooped over my head, landing in front of me. He took a peanut, ate it, looked me in the eye, swooped over to the bowl of dog biscuits, grabbed one in his mouth and flew off to the roof. He cawed in celebration, looking at me while dancing back and forth with the biscuit in his mouth.

He was obviously showing off, and I was quite impressed.

The “parking lot crow” often acts as a supplemental security guard for a parking lot on an unusually deserted and empty block in Old Town. This crow paces back and forth at the entrance, warily observing the pigeons while keeping an eye peeled for any scraps that the flock may come across. When the actual security guard steps onto the property, the crow often jumps on the cars, hopping from rooftop to rooftop while cawing in a mocking tone. The parking lot crow was the very first to start to respond to my shaking the peanut box, and is the least timid of all the crows that I regularly interact with.

A few blocks from the parking lot crows are the “ODOT crows,” who hang out in the trees around the employee headquarters for the Oregon Department of Transportation. They scavenge for scraps dropped by employees on their cigarette breaks, and they frequently take over the parking lot once everyone has left for the day. Recently, one of the ODOT crows has taken to swooping above my car when I drive past the building, and he’s not the only crow to start flying past my car as I drive through the neighborhood.

When I go by the ODOT building at other times separate from my crow route, I often see one of two crows in the side-street, comically dancing and waving around twigs or food scraps while a passer-by stands and watches in amusement.

And if I shake my peanut box, they usually pause and look right over at me.

*    *    *

I had noticed the man watching me from the roof of the homeless shelter almost daily as I interacted with the parking lot crow. This time, he was standing in the middle of the parking lot as I approached on my bike, shaking the peanut box towards the parking lot crow who was perched on the pole. He watched us for a few minutes, and once the crow had his fill of peanuts and flew off, he approached me.

The parking lot crow

The parking lot crow

“Why are you feeding the crows?” he asked me.

I looked at him for a moment and decided to tell him the simplest version of the truth.

“Because a rather intimidating deity-type who came to me in my dreams asked me to and I couldn’t really say no, and I also really needed something to get me out of the house. I’m still don’t have a solid grasp on the entirety of the why part yet, but its making more and more sense by the day, I’ll tell you that.”

“Can you really make friends with crows? Why do you shake that box for?”

“If you want to make friends with them, just feed them. And talk to them. And be nice to them, and calm. They shy away from loud noises and yelling. They will learn to remember you quickly, and they will trust you the more you show kindness. I started shaking the peanut box with the idea that they would learn to respond to the sound, expecting a treat. At this point I’m pretty damn sure that it works.”

“Huh…” he said, his voice drifting off a bit.

I looked at him for a moment, handed him my peanut box, and pointed towards the crow. “Here, take this,” I said. “The crow expects me in the afternoon. I’ll bet you that if you start coming down here in the mornings, shaking the box, and scattering some peanuts, you’ll have a crow friend by the end of the week.”

I smiled at him and then started to ride off the long way towards my building. A block away, a crow flew above me and landed in the street ten feet or so ahead of me. The crow looked at me expectantly.

I pointed back toward the man from the shelter. “I gave him my peanut box, man,” I said. “You gotta go ask him. I’m going home to put together another one.”

I doubt the crow actually understood what I had said, but nevertheless I watched him look over and then fly to the pole at the edge of the parking lot. I shook my head, amazed at how vastly my perception of this city has shifted over four months’ worth of paying attention to crows, and I continued on my way home.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

WASHINGTON – On Feb. 24, U.S. President Obama vetoed a bill that would have approved construction of the final phase of the Keystone XL pipeline. After installation, this pipeline system would carry 830,000 gallons of crude oil from oil sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The current legislative battle is over the final phase of 1,179 miles of pipe that are part of the entire 3,200 mile project.

Installed Keystone Pipeline [Photo Credit: Public Citizen / Flickr, CC lic.]

Installed Keystone Pipeline [Photo Credit: Public Citizen / Flickr, CC lic.]

In January, Keystone proponents won three significant victories. Both the U.S. House and Senate approved the project. At the same time, Nebraska’s state Supreme Court removed the remaining blocks preventing the pipeline from being constructed in its state.

Then, in mid February, the approved federal bill was sent to President Obama, who promptly vetoed it, saying in a message to Congress:

The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people.  And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.

Experts do report that this veto may have dealt a fatal blow to the Keystone proposal, at least in its current form. Congress doesn’t appear to have the votes necessary to block the veto. In addition, legal battles have re-surfaced in Nebraska, which have halted Trans Canada’s acquisition of needed land. Does it mean an end to the project entirely or just delays?

For those unfamiliar with Keystone XL, CNN has published a short digest on the issues being debated. Briefly, proponents argue that the new lines will bring temporary and permanent jobs, boost the economy and make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. Opponents cite numerous environmental concerns, as well as the destruction of lands owned by Indigenous populations and the potential threats to those communities.

As has become quite commonplace, this battle pits economic stability and growth against environmental safety and community protection. It is an old struggle dressed in new clothes. However, as pointed out by Chris Mooney of The Washington Post, the conversation may be changing, which makes the veto particularly significant. As Mooney points out, past cultural debates have centered on finding ways to make production safer or cleaner. This may be the first time at this level of government that the conversation focuses on stopping production entirely. The message isn’t “do it cleaner;” but rather “don’t do it all.”

We talked to a number of Pagans who are, in some form, significantly engaged in environmental activism. As expected, they all were very pleased with the veto. Courtney Weber, co-founder of the Pagan Environmental Coaltion of NYC, said:

It’s certainly very exciting and encouraging for the environmental movement. This pipeline is never going to supply a large number of permanent jobs and its oil was never meant to support the American people–it’s been an export-only plan from day one! A few will get rich and many will run the serious risk of contaminated farmland and drinking water…

As a member of the Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC, this news is very encouraging. Our work focuses on encouraging sustainable green infrastructure and opposing fossil fuel infrastructure. I hope that this will encourage Governors Cuomo and Christie to veto to the Port Ambrose LNG port, which would have the same dangerous impacts on the Tri-State coastline as Keystone would to middle America.

Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien), Witch at Large and co-author of the CoG environmental policy, said:

I’m heartened by the President’s veto. After all, he has two daughters who will have to live in the world. I think he knows how serious our environmental problems have become and feels, as I do, that all the jobs in the world cannot justify the risk of such disastrous environmental degradation that Keystone could generate.

I fail to see how imperiling our lands with a pipeline does anyone any good. This proposed pipeline would be 36″ in diameter; the recent broken lines in the Northern Plains and elsewhere were only 4″ diameter. I shudder to think of the devastation a broken pipe could wreak. Not to mention the fact that plans call for it to traverse sovereign Native American lands. Furthermore, exploiting our Earth for petroleum-derived energy sources ignores the bigger problems.  Instead, we should be cultivating alternative energy sources.

I hope it’s the end, because I know the Congress doesn’t have the votes to overrule Obama’s veto. This allows more time to educate more people who’ve had their heads in the sand or who’ve been convinced otherwise about our environmental crisis.

O’Brien and Weber point to the typical concerns raised by pipeline construction, which include leaks, spills, the acquisition of “sovereign Native American lands,” exploitation of oil sands, the impact on coast lines and climate change. Blogger and Druid John Beckett said:

The Keystone XL Pipeline is troublesome on many counts. Much of the recent debate has focused on the risks to our water supply – the pipeline would run over the largest underground aquifer in North America and leaks are virtually inevitable. But there’s been little talk of the fact that the pipeline was designed to transfer oil from the Canadian tar sands. Tar sands extraction and refining are some of the dirtiest operations in the entire petroleum industry – some have called it “Canada’s Mordor.”

Beyond that, this project extracts additional fossil fuels to drive additional consumption, which will dump additional climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere. The entire tar sands project needs to be killed, not just the pipeline.

Beckett went on to say:

I have been critical of many of President Obama’s decisions and I want to acknowledge when he does the right thing. I’m very happy he vetoed the bill approving the construction of the pipeline. But I’m disappointed he didn’t use the occasion to emphasize the need to reduce carbon emissions and to encourage the Canadians to leave the tar sands in the ground.

Instead, his veto statement focused on procedural issues: “this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest.” This leaves open the possibility that his administration or that of the next President could decide the pipeline is an acceptable risk. It is not.

His skepticism is justified, considering that Keystone proponents in Congress have pledged to overturn the veto or attach the proposal to other legislation. Beckett’s sentiments were echoed by others interviewed. Weber said:

This veto is not a coffin nail on tar sands oil. This veto doesn’t get rid of it, it only keeps it in limbo. It is likely to come back attached to another bill. In addition, that oil can still flow through numerous other pipelines being built or already built. But it’s an important symbolic action in which public health and environmental concerns are given consideration before profits of large companies. 

James Stovall, who was recently elected to the board of directors for the Jackson County Conservation District (JCCD), offered his personal opinion, saying:

I do think the veto was the right call, but sadly it is not the last of the issue. The President vetoed the Legislative attempt to pass the pipeline but could still approve it after State Department studies are completed. Be it by pipeline or rail we need to make environmental safety is paramount. Make sure to keep speaking to the White House on these matters.

Similarly, Wild Hunt columnist and activist Alley Valkyrie, who has extensively written about and researched oil sands and the transport of energy resources, said in reaction:

While I’m glad that Obama decided to veto Keystone XL, it’s definitely not a victory. This veto is far from the end of the Keystone XL fight, and I have no doubt that the current Congress will try again and again to revive Keystone, most likely in the form of attachments to other bills. And meanwhile, while everyone is focused on and distracted by this one pipeline and this one federal approval process, other pipelines are being built all over the country, literally in our own backyards. While stopping Keystone XL obviously has importance to both the environment as a whole and especially those who are individually affected by it, stopping this one pipeline will not halt nor reverse the consistent damage that industrial capitalism is wreaking upon the earth. It’s the entire destructive system that needs to be stopped.

I wish I could be more hopeful, but unless and until the industrialized nations of this planet collectively decide to radically alter how they produce and consume fossil fuels, and until the people decide that the ability to live on this planet is more important than engaging in a never-ending cycle of producing and consuming, all the effort put into stopping individual projects like Keystone XL will be in vain.

John Halstead, Managing Editor of and organizing member of the working group for the Draft Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, wrote:

I applaud the President’s veto and the work done by groups like that have opposed the pipeline, recognizing that there is still work to be done to oppose the pipeline. But as important as this victory is, it is the tip of an iceberg, one which expands to include an unsustainable system of resource extraction and consumption, which is rapidly making the earth uninhabitable for human beings, as it has already been made uninhabitable for countless species. [This] expands further to include an economic model — global capitalism — which has failed in its promise to reflect the true value of that which is consumed, and expands still further (largely beneath the surface of our consciousness) to include a spiritual hegemony which alienates human beings from the material source of our being and from all life.  We must attack this iceberg at all of these levels; at the points of consumption, production and destruction (economics), the point of decision (politics), and the point of assumption (ideology/religion). 

Whether the veto stops construction completely or simply delays it, there are currently other pipelines in operation, as noted by Valkyrie and Beckett. This includes the other TransCanada lines that make the trip from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. In order to end oil sands operations entirely, there must be a collective shift in our relationship with energy use. In addition, there must be a simultaneous and significant economic shift to prevent a catastrophic structural social collapse. Our world economies are deeply tied to the current energy industry, its operations and its products. This is a complicated venture that will require far more than a single piece of legislation, as suggested by Halstead and others interviewed.

However, this presidential veto may be a sign that the global conversation is evolving from “do it, but do it cleaner” to “don’t do it at all.” As is often discussed, those people who follow environmentally-centered religious practices may now have unique place in helping to shift this conversation. Beckett said:

One of the core principles of modern Druidry is that the Earth is sacred. The value of the Earth does not come from the benefits it provides to humans. Rather, the Earth is a living thing and it has the same inherent value and worth as all other living things. Druids seek to live in a respectful and reverent relationship with the Earth.

Halstead echoed that sentiment:

It is in this last area that I believe Pagans have the most unique contribution to make to this fight. We can lead the way in effecting paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. We need to personally and collectively cultivate the spiritual and psychological resources to sustain us for a prolonged struggle on all of these fronts.