Archives For Nature Religion

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”John Muir

Today is Earth Day, a moment when we as a people take notice of our interconnected relationship with the planet we inhabit, when, in theory, we take stock of our responsibilities towards good stewardship of the fragile ecosystems that allow the flourishing of life. A moment where we realize that the resources that we depend on for life are not inexhaustible or incorruptible. Originally a teach-in on environmental issues, Earth Day has since become a global point of focus for issues relating to environmentalism, ecology, and the preservation of natural resources. With climate change becoming an increasingly dire issue, it remains to be seen if we can escape the fog of politics and actually work to mitigate some of the worst effects while we still can.

Pioneer trail, Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl.

Pioneer trail, Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl.

While many contemporary Pagans today feel a deep connection with these issues, to the point where many now describe themselves as following an “Earth Religion,” that was not always the case. Nascent Pagan religious culture in the 1950s and 1960s  was more focused on what scholar Chas Clifton, in his book “Her Hidden Children,” calls “cosmic” and “embodied” forms of nature. This former dominant paradigm is underscored by a recent editorial by Fritz Muntean, who argues that hedonism, not high-minded environmental concerns, were the driving force in the community he joined in the 1960s.

 ”The people who rallied, with me, around the ribbon-bedecked May Pole of modern Pagan Witchcraft in the early 1960s were primarily hedonists. Many of us, it’s true, were interested in ecology and environmentalism. But all were there, I believe, to fuel the fires of a religiosity that claimed ‘all acts of love and pleasure’ as its sacraments.”

I think that Muntean’s assertions as to how the shift in emphasis from ‘cosmic’ and ‘embodied’ ideas to ‘Gaian’ ones happened suffers from a selective and biased reading of our community’s history, and largely ignores how Pagans of that time were influenced by a much larger groundswell in the West around issues of environmentalism. As Clifton puts it, this cultural shift within Paganism largely happened without premeditation.

Chas Clifton

Chas Clifton

“I would stress that Wicca and other forms of new American Paganism stepped right into the opening created, without, so far as I can tell, any premeditation. In more than a quarter century of involvement in the movement, I have not uncovered any instance of any American Pagan’s saying, in effect, ‘Let’s position ourselves as the environmental religion.’ Risking an argument from absence, I think that the unconscious ease with which American Pagans embraced the terms nature religion or earth religion testifies to the strength of Catherine Albanese’s argument that nature religion does exist in the American worldview, whether as a scholarly construct, a way of organizing reality (her first description), or as the ‘spiritual source of secular passion.’”

It should be noted that within the larger Pagan movement, some individuals and groups have, in recent years, rejected labels like “earth religion” or “nature religion,” finding them not accurate descriptors of what they practice or believe. That said, support for environmental causes, a willingness to embrace modern scientific data on issues like climate change, and a general belief that preserving natural resources is a good idea, are still pervasive throughout our interconnected communities. A shift did happen in 1970, one that has changed our religious movement in a deep manner, to the point where environmentalism is often slurred with the epithet of “pagan” by some political conservatives.

“With the demise of the biblical religions that have provided the American people with their core values since the country’s inception, we are reverting to the pagan worldview. Trees and animals are venerated, while man is simply one more animal in the ecosystem. And he is largely a hindrance, not an asset.”

This slur, meant to shock Christians of a certain stripe, is increasingly losing its power in the face of greater ecological catastrophes. The main question now is, will outrage over local disasters, over poisoned resources, over under-regulated oil, chemical, and gas industries, gel into a national movement powerful enough to shift the political will as it did in the 1970s? Back then it took acid rain, rivers on fire, toxic smog, and widespread chemical poisoning of both people and our ecosystem before enough push-back solidified. How much damage, or more accurately, how much irreversible damage, will we as a culture tolerate? It’s clear we will need more than Pagans espousing nature religion, we will need a larger change in how we all encounter and experience the natural world and our place within it.

View from Spencer Butte. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

View from Spencer Butte. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

While I think that documentaries like “A Fierce Green Fire” (debuting tonight on PBS), “Monumental,” “Earth Days,” or Ken Burns’ love letter to the National Parks, can help raise both awareness and a longing for reconnection with nature, nothing replaces experience. Living in Oregon, surrounded by ocean, forest, high plains desert, mountain, and butte, one has only to pick a direction and walk to it. Since moving here some years ago, I have seen my own spiritual framework shift and change as I adapted to my new home. Here, people regularly climb to the summit of local buttes to break through the clouds that are our reality for several months of the year, where almost everyone owns hiking gear, where both REI and Cabela’s thrive in providing equipment for a number of outdoor excursions. As a result, “nature religion” is almost our default setting in a land where religious “nones” are a force to be reckoned with.

Not everyone has access to the lush splendor of the Pacific Northwest, but nature, and our desire to preserve its ability to support us, need not depend on forest or mountain. Pagans can oppose fracking in urban New York City, they can get involved in environmental law, fighting for nature in our courtrooms, they can call awareness to poisoned water supplies, they can stand on the front lines as activists, and perhaps most importantly, they can dig into the history of the land they are on, no matter where that is.

“Many of us look to the land to teach us various internal and external lessons. And most of us look to what has been built before us in order to better understand who we were and are. But we sometimes overlook the idea that the objects and structures that we have built can also serve as powerful lessons about the land itself. Lessons that our ancestors knew but in the present-day we have forgotten, lessons that the land may not be able to tell us quite so clearly, especially when man-made alterations have transformed the historic layout of a landscape.”Alley Valkyrie

I know that there will be many who will say that there is little they can do, that they already recycle, or conserve, or donate, as best that they can. That the problems we face are too immense, that we can simply face forward with stoic composure, or engage in “collapse” scenario preparations, and hope for the best. However, I don’t think that’s true, there is something we all can do, rich or poor, connected or isolated, and that is to stop being polite about the devastation. When the AIDS crisis hit, there were those who were more than ready to consign all who were hit by the disease with death, who readily villainized the sick. However, a group of people decided that they weren’t going to die quietly, and that they weren’t going to give up hope. They forced awareness, they pushed for new drugs, and they pushed for policy changes. As a result, there are thousands alive today who may not have been had they accepted their fate.

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

The way forward, especially for those of us who think terms like “nature religion” or “earth religion” matter, is to keep pushing towards a culture that cares about these issues. Where it is reported on in the news every day, where all politicians are forced to have a position, where every new statistic, every new disaster, every new setback, is discussed openly, even if it annoys some of your connected social network. If nature is sacred, if we are connected to that sacred nature, then “likes” are immaterial in the face of crisis. If we want global change, we must become that change. We must role model what we expect from our leadership, be that spiritual or political. Making every day “Earth Day” has become a cliche rejoinder, but we must instead make it a call to action that promotes a radical shift in our spirit.

The fact that it was the spring equinox did not occur to me at first. I was drawn out of my house by the rare March sun, and was immediately and utterly transfixed by a vibrant downtown which had suddenly come alive after several months’ worth of of gloomy weather. As I stood there, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, I heard the familiar yell in the distance, and when I turned around I saw John Brewster coming around the corner on his bicycle, uttering yet another variation of his trademark line:

“I love America and I love the sunshine and I love freedom of speech, but LTD can lick my sweaty, shaven….”

Spring has arrived, I thought to myself. The locals are officially no longer in hibernation.

John Brewster (aka "LTD guy")

John Brewster (aka “LTD guy”)

In a town well known for its eccentric and colorful residents, John Brewster is one of a handful of figures who stand out even amongst Eugene’s characteristically odd landscape. Better known as the “LTD Guy”, Brewster has been riding around downtown screaming about his nether regions for well over a decade now, often while dressed in flamboyant costumes. Brewster’s tirades against the Lane Transit District have earned him a certain degree of notoriety, and he has achieved a local cult status with an accompanying fan club. Many people cheer him on as he passes by, while others roll their eyes in annoyance or ignore him outright. In the warmer months, Brewster can often be spotted on a daily basis, sometimes several times over the course of a sunny afternoon.

Brewster’s story and history has been profiled in local media and he has even been the subject of a student documentary, and yet most people in the community who see him on any given day still don’t know what he’s so angry about. They laugh, they make small conversation, they note the differences over time in his costume or his script, but the point of his rant or the history behind it is lost on them for the most part. It’s evident from the way that most people react to Brewster that the story behind his anger is not nearly as significant or meaningful to them as the spectacle that is Brewster himself.

John Brewster is one of Eugene’s (mostly) celebrated outsiders, and in the minds of many, the community’s enthusiastic embrace of such figures demonstrates our local values in action, the idea that Eugene is an inclusive community that accepts everyone despite their quirks. But while so many cheer on and support these eccentric local celebrities as a testament to the idea of radical inclusion, what so many fail to recognize is the fact that the circumstances surrounding their notoriety are a result of systematic exclusion policies, policies which seemingly stand in stark contrast to the ideas and values around inclusivity. In embracing the spectacle of the person rather than their actual story, the community can feel good about accepting people of all stripes while conveniently failing to acknowledge the widespread practices that result in such ‘outsider’ status in the first place.

In Brewster’s case, a fight with a bus driver many years ago over whether he could bring his bicycle on the bus resulted in a permanent ban from the LTD bus system, and absent any accessible method of recourse, Brewster has aired his grudges very publicly and theatrically ever since. He is one of a countless number of people who have been banned from the bus system, the vast majority of them homeless and/or mentally ill. And while his theatrics are often embraced, supported, and laughed at, the serious plight of Brewster and so many others is routinely dismissed and ignored. Brewster makes me smile as well, but behind the humor I recognize the dark truths that motivate his actions.

When I saw Brewster ride by on that unusually sunny equinox day, my thoughts immediately went to Glassbar Island, where I’ve seen Brewster sunning himself many times over the last several years. Unlike the theatrical character I often encounter downtown, out at Glassbar he’s not riding around screaming about anything at all. He’s simply one of the regulars, one of many stewards of the land who contribute to the unique character of the hidden little island at the edge of town, a place where outsiders like Brewster go to get away from it all.

Satellite image of Glassbar Island

Satellite image of Glassbar Island.

Situated on the confluence of the Coast Fork and Middle Fork of the Willamette River, Glassbar Island was originally known as “Bring Beach” due to the island’s location behind the old Bring Recycling facility, which sat on a county-owned parcel just outside the city limits. For over fifty years now, Glassbar Island has served as a hideaway of sorts for various people, groups, and activities that are not always accepted by the mainstream community. The island first gained a reputation as a nude swimming-hole in the ‘60s, later gained notoriety as a cruising spot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has served as a sanctuary for the homeless throughout its history, and in the past decade has become recognized by scientists and botanists for its biological diversity and gained a reputation as an ideal spot for nature identification walks. Today, the island is mostly known as a spot for nude sunbathing, but folks of many different stripes not only peacefully co-exist on the island but also cooperatively maintain and care for the area.

Glassbar functions as a self-policing autonomous zone of sorts, publicly-owned yet left to its own devices. The island is open and welcoming to all, provided that one respects a code of behavior that is best described as mutual respect, cooperation, discretion, and leaving no trace. More often than not, I’ve found myself to be the only one on the island who is neither homeless nor naked, and yet I have always felt completely welcome in this community of outsiders. I fall into another category of respectful visitors: those who simply find the place enchanting and otherworldly.

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island.

The otherworldly aspects of Glassbar Island are not limited to what is found on the island itself. Getting there is often an adventure plucked straight out of a fairy-tale. In the spring and summer months, the Coast Fork dips low enough that one can easily walk across an ankle-deep natural land bridge to the island. During the rainy season, however, the river has been known to crest at well over twelve feet, cutting off island access to everyone except experienced boaters. While my own local sign that spring has arrived is the spotting of John Brewster, the true sign of spring for the close-knit Glassbar community is the day the river dips low enough to safely wade over.

Even when the river is safe to cross, access is still limited to those “in the know”. For an untold number of years, most people accessed the island from a county-owned parcel that led to the low point of the river, until last year when the County shut off access, citing environmental and safety concerns. The parcel was gated and fenced to keep the Glassbar community out, and according to both the county and the state, the island is designated “river access only”, meaning it is only legally accessible by boat. This has not deterred the regulars, as there are numerous entrance points throughout the adjacent properties that all lead to the river. Those entrances are not easy to find, however, and the lack of knowledge around the current access points has only added to the island’s mystique. In its present state, it is not only an island of outsiders, but of outlaws as well: one must break the law to access it on foot. The island is still public and open to all, but every person who fords the river to the island has committed an act of criminal trespass.

There are many angles to the controversy over restricting land access to the island, but remembering John Brewster’s association with Glassbar always brings me back to the politics of inclusion and exclusion, especially in light of the County’s hyperbolic excuses for closing the parcel. County officials publicly cited problems with prostitution, drugs, and sex trafficking in justifying their actions without offering any evidence to back the allegations, and in response the media outlets and private citizens alike alluded to the presence of nude sunbathers, homeless people, and the gay community as the potential sources of those problems. And while the county’s claims were mostly refuted or disproven by the Glassbar community as well as area residents, the fences went up nonetheless and the voices of opposition were drowned out.

No trespassing gate.

No trespassing gate.

The idea that law and policy has created yet one more restriction on where the John Brewsters of the world are allowed to exist troubles me not only on an ethical level, but on a deep spiritual level as well. Scare tactics were used to defend actions that in the end only served as an attempt to further exclude the already marginalized amongst us, and the interconnectedness between the island itself and the community that interacts with and tends to it was completely disregarded in the equation. Among many other things, it was never considered that the island itself greatly benefits from the community and the stewardship that the Glassbar community provides. To say that the relationship is reciprocal would be putting it mildly.

Glassbar path

Glassbar path

As I stood downtown on that sunny equinox day, watching John Brewster ride past me as my thoughts drifted to Glassbar, I felt an immediate pull to head out to the island myself, something I’ve never attempted so early in the season. I had spent much of the winter ruminating on the ways that community, exclusion, and perception interact in and with this specific place that is Eugene, and Glassbar contains and expresses each of those elements more concretely than any other singular place I know of here. And at that moment, heading out to the island seemed more of a directive than anything else, a directive that I was determined to fulfill despite the fact that the river was reported to be nearly three feet high at the crossing.

With the sun holding out, a few days later I set out towards the island with two friends, neither who had ever experienced our destination before. And despite setting out with explorative intentions and a focus on exclusion, my initial reasons for the trip evaporated as we were immediately caught up in the area’s magic. From the moment we stepped upon the initial path beneath the trestle that leads out the abandoned haul road, which we followed for a mile to the river crossing in order to trek across the river itself, I felt myself moving in and through a world completely out of place and time, anchored only by the constant reminder that I was supposedly acting as a navigator for my companions. We took off our boots and set out to ford the river, and although I am usually nervous and wary around rivers, the numinous aspects of our surroundings and the otherworldliness of the moment completely drowned out my anxiety. As I stood in the middle of the Willamette, thigh-high in rushing water, my feet grasping for the next river stone in front of me as I tried desperately not to fall, a message came through to me loud and clear, a message that came straight from the river itself:

Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

And the enchantment swept over me, midway across the river. As soon as we made it across to the island itself, another friend of mine spotted us and immediately took on a tour guide role, taking us around the island while explaining the history and landscape to my companions. I followed closely, trying to pay attention, trying to process what was occurring in the moment, but I kept slipping away despite my best intentions. Space and boundaries blurred as I walked on, and the more I tried to revisit my original purpose, the more I slipped into the otherworld that lay before me. I always felt welcome on this island of outsiders, but I also have always felt as an outsider myself. This time, I felt a part of the island’s dance, pulled in and transfixed by its numinosity. By the time we had reached the other end of the island, several hours had gone by in what seemed like mere moments. As I stepped in the river to cross back, the feeling of inclusiveness and belonging held me up in one sense, as the physical presence of a friend held me up in the literal sense.

The following day, I walked towards downtown with the ideas of inclusion and enchantment floating around in my brain, and John Brewster came around the corner once again like clockwork. I watched as a group of college students interacted with him, and I thought back to the message I received in the river. Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment. The students were laughing as they spoke to him, obviously enchanted in the moment. The policies and forces that create outsiders like Brewster are often unjustified and contradictory to the stated values of this community, but that does not cancel out the power and the beauty of the community’s embrace of such characters, nor does it weaken the effect that these outsiders can have upon the people around them and the everyday nature of a given place. Despite his exclusion, John Brewster interacts within a place where he feels like he belongs, and he is a part of the dance of this community just as much as I felt a part of the dance of the island. Brewster’s presence is a tragedy of sorts, but his presence is also a gift.

The rains came back in a few days ago, and the Coast Fork is slated to crest at ten feet in the next day or two, once again cutting off access to Glassbar Island. Our island trek the week before suddenly seems like a faraway dream, and knowing that our visit occurred in what turned out to be a small window of accessibility only adds to the mysticality of the experience. The county may not be able to successfully block off access to Glassbar Island, but the river itself can achieve that task without issue. And a community of outsiders will wait patiently until they can cross at the ford once again.

“You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

This was Sheriff Gil Gilbertson’s advice to women fearing domestic violence in Josephine County, Oregon in the spring of 2012, after drastic cuts to public safety funding resulted in a reduction from 24 sheriff’s deputies to only 6. A few months later, Gilbertson’s chilling warning became a reality when a woman in Josephine County was sexually assaulted by an abusive ex-boyfriend despite calling 911 and pleading for help to the dispatcher for over ten minutes. The dispatcher was not able to send help because there were no deputies on duty at the time. When the Josephine County dispatcher routed the call through to the Oregon State Police, there were also no officers available. Over the course of the call, the State Police dispatcher remarked that it was “unfortunate you guys don’t have any law enforcement up there” and suggested that the terrified caller “ask him to go away”.

The incident made national news a few months later after Josephine County voters once again considered and then narrowly rejected a modest property tax levy that would have provided for adequate law enforcement. Despite having the lowest property taxes of any county in Oregon, and despite the fact that the failure to pass a tax levy the year before resulted in a woman being brutalized, voters had apparently decided that the safety of local citizens was not worth an average of $18.50 per household per month.

On the surface, it would seem easy to simply blame Josephine County voters for their woes, but the situation that led to the county’s financial crisis is far more complicated than just a matter of property taxes. Nearly 70% of the land in Josephine County is owned by the federal government, and the county receives no tax revenue from that land regardless of whether a tax levy is passed or not. Josephine County is one of eighteen counties in Oregon that has been receiving timber payments from the federal government to compensate for the lost tax revenue from federally-owned land since the 1930s. The amounts of payments are dependent on sustainable-yield harvests, and for many of these counties, known collectively as the “O&C counties”, these timber payments have made the difference between feast and famine for nearly a century. And while the O&C counties prospered as a result of these payments up through the late 1980s, over the past 25 years many of these counties have fallen into financial ruin as the payments slowly dried up.

While many felt that Josephine County voters were simply prioritizing their anti-tax sentiment over their need for adequate public safety services, its important to recognize that in rejecting the tax levies, the citizens of Josephine County were not only demonstrating their belief that the federal government has an obligation to help fill their budget gap, but many also strongly believed that rejecting the levies would either prompt Congress to increase timber harvests or would trigger additional financial assistance from the federal government.

The short explanation behind Josephine County’s financial crisis is that the rapid deforestation of Oregon’s old-growth forests over the past century eventually led to a steady decline in timber harvests, which in turn reduced the federal timber payments down to a trickle. The larger story behind that simple explanation, however, of how and why Oregon developed such a pathological dependence on timber in the first place and why basic municipal infrastructures are so rapidly failing as a consequence of that dependence, is an interesting tale of money and politics that stretches back over 150 years. And while critics had pointed out for many years that Oregon’s failure to diversify its timber-dependent economy would eventually lead to both economic and biological disaster, few ever truly imagined a day where in the words of a local forest activist, “we are now being told that protecting women from rape is contingent upon raping the earth.”

Clear-cut forests near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas.

Clear-cut forests near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas.

It all started with the desire for a railroad.

The Oregon and California Railroad Act, passed by Congress in 1866, dedicated nearly four million acres of land to be made available to any company who would build a railroad from Portland to San Francisco. The Act dictated that the land was to be distributed in 12,800-acre land grants for each mile of track that was built, with an amendment three years later requiring the railroad company to sell the land adjacent to the rail line in 160-acre parcels to be priced at only $2.50 an acre in order to encourage settlement along the corridor. The theory behind the land-grant arrangement was that the sale of the parcels granted to the railroad company would financially compensate the railroad company for building the railroad in the first place. Meanwhile, the value of the government parcels would increase significantly over time due to the building of the railroad as well as the development that would occur on the parcels that the railroad sold to settlers, which would financially benefit the government in the long-term. Similar land grants had successfully enticed railroad companies to construct what became the first transcontinental railroad, which broke ground in 1863 and was completed in 1869.

The O&C parcels were laid out in a checkerboard pattern, extending twenty miles out from each side of the tracks, with the parcels designated for settlers alternating with parcels that were retained by the federal government. Construction was first started in Portland in 1868, and the route was completed over Siskiyou Summit into California by 1877, at which time the Southern Pacific Railroad took control of the railroad line. But while the laying of the tracks itself went smoothly, selling the available land parcels to settlers proved to be quite problematic. The terrain, which was rugged, mountainous, and consisted mostly of old-growth Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, was not ideal nor practical for development, and the land proved to be difficult if not impossible to sell to potential homesteaders. Timber companies, on the other hand, coveted the parcels, but the land grant stipulated that the land was to only be sold to bona-fide settlers. This left the railroad company unable to recoup the money that was spent on building the railroad, as was the original purpose of the land grant.

And from this dilemma, a massive land-fraud scandal was born.

The racket was brilliantly simple. The president of the Southern Pacific Railroad hired a former surveyor tasked with rounding up working-class folks from the bars and saloons on Portland’s waterfront. The surveyor would escort the saloon patrons over to the land office and pay them to pose as a settlers, where they would register and pay $2.50 an acre for an O&C parcel and then immediately sell the parcel back to the railroad company. The railroad company then sold off the parcels in large blocks to the highest-bidding timber companies, who then harvested the timber without restrictions. This continued throughout the first decade of the 20th Century, until a disgruntled lumber employee tipped a Portland newspaper off to the scheme. The investigations that followed led to hundreds of federal indictments.

After the subsequent trials and convictions, the question remained as to how to legally handle the issue of the land fraud and the parcels themselves. A flurry of lawsuits between the state of Oregon, the federal government, and Southern Pacific resulted in a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that found that although the railroad company had violated the terms of the grant, they had a right to retain the land because the railroad had still been built as per the agreement. A year later, Congress overrode the Supreme Court’s decision with the passing of the Chamberlain-Ferris Act, which declared that 2,800,000 acres out of the nearly four million acres granted were to be revested back to the United States under the control of the General Land Office, which later became the Bureau of Land Management. Under the Act, the land became known as the “Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands”, commonly referred to thereafter as the “O&C Lands”. The original plan under the Chamberlain-Ferris Act was for the land to again be re-sold into private ownership so that the counties could recover their tax base, but once again selling the land to settlers and developers proved to be difficult if not impossible due to the rugged terrain.

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Finally, in 1937, Congress passed the O&C Act, revising the terms of the Chamberlain-Ferris Act and mandating that the land be managed for forest production and that the 18 affected Oregon counties be compensated for the loss of tax revenue. The Act guaranteed the counties 75% of the revenue from timber sales on O&C lands, which could be used by the counties for any purpose they chose. A year after the Act was passed, Oregon surpassed the state of Washington as the number-one timber producing state in America.

Under the terms and financial structure of the O&C Act, the counties themselves became the most vocal champions of timber production. More production meant more money flowing into county coffers, and for the next fifty years, the O&C counties in Oregon produced more timber than any other region in the entire world, leveling over 80% of Oregon’s old-growth forests in the process. Between the jobs created through the timber industry and the revenue that flowed through the O&C counties as a result, timber was not only the most dominating economic force throughout Oregon, in many rural areas it was pretty much the only economic force. At the height of the timber boom in the 1940s and 1950s, loggers harvested several billion board feet per year from the O&C lands, and by the 1960s more timber was being harvested on federal lands than any private land in Oregon.

Clearcuts on O&C lands outside of Oakridge, Oregon

Clearcuts on O&C lands outside of Oakridge, Oregon

For years, as old growth was logged and the O&C counties flourished, environmentalists watched the massive deforestation and subsequent destruction of a thriving ecosystem with horror. Under the terms of the O&C Act, however, there was little they could do to halt the logging. Years’ worth of environmental lawsuits had failed to produce any results, and yet the effects of deforestation on certain species were becoming plainly apparent. In 1986, environmentalists first petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species. The USFWS reviewed the petition in both 1987 and 1989, but declined to list the owl as endangered. In the meantime, forest activists started to blockade federal forests in order to stall logging operations while more lawsuits worked their way through the court system.

The Northern Spotted Owl

The Northern Spotted Owl

Finally, in 1990, the Northern Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Loss of old-growth habitat was listed as the primary threat the owl, which gave environmental activists the ammunition they needed. A lawsuit was filed, claiming that logging timber harvesting old-growth habitat was in violation of the Endangered Species Act due to the presence of the Northern Spotted Owl, and in 1991 logging was halted on the O&C lands via court order. This order provided immediate relief for the owl and the forest, but also had an immediate and devastating affect on the timber payments that the O&C counties relied on, and officials stated that anywhere from 30,000 to 150,000 jobs would be lost as a result of the court order.

During his first campaign for office, presidential hopeful Bill Clinton promised Oregon voters that if elected, he would work to break the deadlock. Clinton kept his promise, and in 1994 his administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan (NFP), which was intended to balance the need for logging on federal lands with the need to protect the habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl. The plan strongly decreased the amount of timber yields that were allowed under the original O&C Act, and set aside several million acres of old-growth forest as habitat for the Northwest Spotted Owl. And while the compromise set forth in the Northwest Forest Plan was arguably better than the stalemate that had preceded it, neither side was happy with the results. Environmentalists and forest activists pointed out that the plan did not go far enough to protect old-growth forests and municipal watersheds, while timber executives and county officials insisted that the allowed yields were not high enough to sustain the timber industry and the economic health of the O&C counties. Over the next several years, the concerns of both groups came to fruition. Environmentalists witnessed, documented, and publicized the negative effects that the logging was having on the ecosystem, which further empowered the forest defense movement to take up blockades in the forest. Meanwhile, the timber revenues of the O&C Counties continued to plummet, and timber jobs steadily started to vanish. Rural towns descended into poverty, while municipal and county governments struggled to stay afloat.

Once again the O&C dilemma compelled the federal government to act, and in the year 2000 Congress created a safety net for the Oregon timber counties as well as other rural areas affected by declining timber harvests by enacting the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The Act allowed the O&C counties to receive the average of the three highest timber payments from 1986 through 1999 in lieu of the payments owed based on actual yields, which at the time was an average of only 150 million board feet a year. The Act originally was set to expire in 1996, but was renewed several times without lapsing, with the amounts decreasing with each renewal. In early 2012, however, the bill stalled in Congress and the federal timber payments lapsed for the first time since they began in 1937, which directly resulted in Josephine County’s drastic public safety cuts and Sheriff Gil Gilbertson’s ominous warning. Although Congress eventually renewed the payments, the Act is again set to expire in a few years.

Today, only 10% of Oregon’s old-growth forests remain, and two more “compromise” bills working their way through Congress are being championed as problem-solvers but also potentially threaten much of the remaining old-growth habitat. The competing bills, one sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and the other sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), have both come under fire from environmentalists and forest activists for increasing timber harvests on the O&C lands. DeFazio’s plan would turn over portions of the O&C lands to a state-managed trust for harvest, while granting federal wilderness protections to other sections of the O&C lands. Wyden’s plan is strikingly similar, claiming that it will boost timber harvests from the current 150 million board feet a year to anywhere between 300 and 400 million board feet a year while protecting trees that are over 150 years old. It is inevitable that one of the bills will become law, which in the long run will only serve as another band-aid that will not satisfy either side. The potential agreement only furthers Oregon’s dependence on a finite resource that is undeniably running out.

forest defenders

Forest defenders blockading threatened old-growth habitat

Growing up on the other side of the country, it was my fascination with the forest defense movement in the Pacific Northwest that first lured me to Oregon a decade ago, where I spent two weeks in the Willamette National Forest assisting with a tree-sit at a timber sale on the O&C lands. At the time, I knew little of the history and politics that led to the action I was participating in, but the experience of climbing 200 feet up a Douglas fir and the effects of sleeping and waking surrounded by old-growth had forever altered my understanding of the sacred. It was also in the forest that I first regarded the actions of forest activists as a militant form of earth-worship, and it was the energy and passion of certain individuals within that movement that strongly factored in my decision to permanently relocate to Oregon a few years later. Since then, my experiences with the land and the people here have greatly expanded my understanding of the timber-related history and politics that have driven and controlled this area for the past century. Never have I seen or experienced a single issue that so strongly reverberates through so many people and so deeply within a place, and never have I been at more at a loss for answers or solutions. Often I can’t help but feel that Western Oregon is a real-life version of “The Lorax”, complete with an equally grim and predictable ending.

In the meantime, it was announced last week that petitioners in Josephine County have gathered enough signatures to place another tax levy on the ballot this coming May. And while I can’t predict exactly what the future holds for Josephine County or any of the other O&C counties for that matter, what I do know for sure is if the long-term safety, security, and livelihood of the citizenry is dependent on the consumption and destruction of our old-growth forests, we will have retained neither our security nor our biodiversity in the end.

Earlier this week, I noted that a West Virginia-based CUUPs chapter was holding a ritual for the water poisoned by a massive chemical spill, which has still hobbled access to fresh, safe, water in that region.

Elk_River_WV_map

“An emergency meeting of concerned citizens was held in our Unitarian Fellowship (there had been other emergency meeting cropping up throughout the state) to discuss implications and possible actions. A water drive had been planned for the capital with an open mic for residents to express their outrage- and there’s a lot of it. There are other community meetings planned, letter writing campaigns, and pushes to contact representatives; but as a magical person, my instinctual reaction is to couple This World Action with magic and ritual. I met up with a few other local CUUPs members who were also mad as hell and it was decided that a magical working was needed but to fight our polluting Goliaths and the legislators who support them, we’d need help and support from the outside.” – Crystal Kendrick, Co-Vice President, Unitarian Fellowship of Huntington

The truth is that scientists aren’t sure how safe the “cleared” water sources are after the spill.

“Sonya Lunder, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic that the decision to lift the water ban was based on scant science. “Evidently the one-part-per-million safety level, used to lift the drinking water restriction, is based on an unpublished study of the amount of chemical that killed 50 percent of test animals, a very crude indicator of health concern,” she said.”

Further, the spilled chemical agent isn’t simply staying put in West Virginia, that isn’t how water works. Now, places like Ohio are scrambling to protect their own drinking water sources as the contamination spreads.

“The Ohio Guardsmen are among more than 500 from West Virginia, Tennessee and the District of Columbia responding to the incident, and have been testing water samples from across the Kanawha Valley to determine levels of contamination to the local water supply.”

For those of us in the Pagan community who see our ecosystem, our natural world, as a living sacred force (or interwoven tapestry of sacred lives), this spill is an affront, a blasphemy in a religious culture that rarely utters such an accusation. Some Pagan groups are now stepping up to help raise funds, and give assistance, to those affected by this ongoing eco-crisis.

1521839_10203039292001565_828088099_n“When I first heard about the disaster, my thought was to raise funds to send water shipments to the hardest hit towns. In talking with local Pagan, Shannon Swan, I was pointed to a different need: 

No clean water means that restaurants, cafes and other places many working class people rely on for income are closed, or, as some locals have told me, though some restaurants have re-opened, things like coffee are being made with affected water. Restaurant workers in the US, as we know, rely on tips to survive. A week without work, plus these ongoing conditions, is making life very difficult.

Paul Dalzell of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Charleston writes: “I have worked in, and have many friends in, the food service industry, and I am very concerned for them.  This is an urgent problem for both the minimum wage workers who barely make it in the best of times, and the waitstaff and help who often live from day to day on their tips.”  

These people already live close to the bone. Solar Cross Temple is raising funds to send to the Unitarian church in Charleston, who will get the money to local people in need.

This is a disaster for the trees, the water, the animals, the land, and the people. If you cannot afford a donation, please offer whatever prayers you can, and pass this announcement along. Donations of any amount are welcomed. Donations to Solar Cross Temple are tax deductible.”

For those wanting to help through Solar Cross Temple and the Charleston UU congregation, you can donate via Paypal using the email “solarcrosstemple@gmail.com.” Please note in your donation “West Virginia Disaster” so that the funds are appropriated correctly. For those wanting to donate directly to the UU church, information can be found at Thorn’s blog.

West Virginia resident Kelly Mir, a Reclaiming Priestess and Feri student, noted that she is living in a “sacrifice zone” and this is just the most recent outrage in the “oppression” of this land.

“Thank you for being attentive to this; we {West Virginians) are in a location openly called a “sacrifice zone,” but few are paying attention. I am a Reclaiming Priestess, a student of Feri, a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a long-time active member of the UU Congregation of Charleston, WV, where efforts are being made to help those most harmed by our most recent crisis. I am also a descendent of some of the first Europeans into this area, and of some of the Original People as well. This land is held deeply in my heart, and the oppression of this land and its people goes back many, many generations.”

It is in moments like this, when an ecological crisis becomes acute and impossible to ignore, that a belief in sacred nature, in a nature imbued with life and powers, is truly tested. How do we respond to the spoiling of our own water supply? How do we reach out? Do we reach out? Recently, at Patheos, Rhyd Wildermuth argued that Paganism, that polytheism, was inherently radical in a economic system that treats our natural world as a resource to be exploited and controlled.

“Worlding the earth with the gods and spirits is a radical act in our societies, as is fighting the systems of control and profit which maintain our distance from the earth and our disenchantment (and disenfranchisement). It can seem daunting, dangerous; it will alienate us from some, and the decisions we make may cause us to experience poverty rather than exploit the earth and each other.”

One does not have to be a radical to see the danger in unregulated use of the ecosystem that supports our life, one only has to be pragmatic about what is truly sustainable, and posses the empathy to see how our actions are interconnected. A small, symbolic act would be to reach out now, and help make life a little easier for those in West Virginia, where this spill originated, to help the people who are now feeling the effects of a system that does not care about preserving natural resources for all classes of people and life on this planet. We will keep you updated as this story continues to develop.

Nature’s Social Union

Eric O. Scott —  January 10, 2014 — 12 Comments
Photo by author

Maiden, Mother, and Crone

My fiancee and I have been waffling about making exact plans for our wedding since May, when we were engaged. This is mostly because of our odd living situation – for a variety of reasons, we have been together for nearly eight years but have only ever lived in the same city once, at the very start of our relationship, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But we have finally made up our minds to get things in order. So what if we still live in different states? Are we not moderns?

The idea is to have the wedding in St. Louis at Tower Grove Park – the same park that my parents were married in, and the park where I proposed to her. I like the idea of being married under the branches of those trees; Tower Grove was the park closest to my parents’ house while I was growing up. It was where I took the dog on walks, where I learned to ride a bike. Growing up in the city, Tower Grove was the closest place I could visit to experience nature. Even now, on the occasion that I consider the idea of a Summerland, really I’m just thinking of an eternity laughing on the grass of Tower Grove Park.

Which is odd.

Despite the trees and the flowers and the duck pond, there’s nothing “natural” about Tower Grove Park, nor most other parks in cities across the US. City parks, with a few historical exceptions, are a product of the Industrial Revolution just as surely as factories or high rise apartment buildings, and indeed, rely on those things for their very origins. It was considered important for the physical and spiritual health of industrialized workers that they had an opportunity to spend their leisure time in nature; otherwise, the dehumanizing, “unnatural” urban environment would wear them away. City parks were seen as the solution to this: an area of the city that was reserved away from the weary ugliness of urbanity and instead given over to greenery, where people could interact with the earth in the ways they had since the dawn of the species, according to nature’s design.

Tower Grove Park, in particular, was a bequest from Henry Shaw, who also donated the grounds for the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, which St. Louisians to this day still call “Shaw’s Garden.” It took decades to improve the property to meet the needs of visitors: there were pavilions to be built, bronze statues to be erected, and the earth itself to be molded, irrigated, and forcefully acquired in order to complete the park. Even today, nearly a century after the last tract of eight acres was added to the grounds and the park declared “complete,” Tower Grove requires a small army of groundskeepers, botanists, and rangers to maintain the buildings, plant the flowers, and keep the grass cut low enough that the insects don’t annoy the patrons.

Of course, in “real nature,” the grass grows tall and in the summer the air is thick with bugs. In “real nature,” the greenery isn’t bounded on four sides by major streets, nor are there life-sized statues of Shakespeare, Rossini, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The city park is an architectural space just as surely as any civic center – it just happens to be sculpted, in the main, with trees and grass as opposed to concrete. To put it another way, urban parks may be “nature,” but they are not in any sense “wild.” They exist because of human design. They are hardly what nature intended, except perhaps in the bizarre alternate reality of the Victorian mind.

This fascinates me, because – despite the debates the community has had over the legitimacy of this definition – my Paganism is, at its core, nature worship. Sometimes when I pray, it’s to the disir or the land-wights or to the gods; but sometimes I just pray to the trees, and that seems like it’s enough. But the way I think of nature – the way I think of “trees!” – has been buttressed by all those afternoons in a heavily cultivated city park, a tamed form of nature where every plant sits according to the plans of human beings. Does that taint the legitimacy of my connection to the earth? Can I really be said to worship nature if my idea of “nature” resembles a Victorian greenway?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not. I have Annie Dillard on my mind right now – I’m teaching Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my Introduction to Nonfiction course this semester – and the central theme of that book seems to be the presence of nature in all her beauty and all her savagery all around us, everywhere we would care to look. There’s a famous passage near the beginning where Dillard sees a frog eaten alive by a giant water bug, which bites into the frog and devours its insides while leaving the empty skin-sack intact, like a deflated balloon. To Dillard – and to me – it’s an otherworldly, terrifying scene. But it’s just the way those two creatures interact: the giant water bug eats the frog, just as the frog eats the fly. Dillard’s Tinker Creek isn’t a finely sculpted civic attraction like Tower Grove Park, but it’s still shaped according to human intentions – there’s a cattle barrier doubling as a bridge slung over the creek, for example. But if the presence of humanity has made any impression on the frog and the giant water bug, they make no sign of it. Nature – “real nature” – goes on regardless.

“This place look like public property to you, bucko?”

I proposed to my fiancee at Beltane last year. In the days leading up to the sabbat, I made a habit of going over to the spot in Tower Grove Park where I planned to ask her. Without fail, every day I was visited by a cardinal bird. He was a feisty young buck, bright red and full of the warrior spirit. He seemed to take offense at the presence of my car sitting underneath his tree, and would swoop down onto the hood to peck at the windshield glass – probably, I suppose, thinking that his reflection was an intruder on his territory, though I like to think he just thought he was tough enough to scare away even a creature as big as a Chevy Cobalt.

The tree that cardinal lived in was planted by humans, kept up by humans, and was meant for human use. But the cardinal didn’t know any of that. To him, it was simply his tree, just as all his forebears had before him.

Perhaps, if the world were still in its primal state and the hand of humanity had never touched this acre of Tower Grove Park, the tree wouldn’t have been there, nor the cardinal, either. But they are here, and they’re true enough.

The View From Above

Alley Valkyrie —  December 28, 2013 — 11 Comments

I must have driven past the Delta Ponds dozens of times without really giving it much thought or notice. While there was a certain swampy seductiveness that called out on foggy days, it never occurred to me while whizzing by at 55 mph that there was any real story there. It wasn’t until I got lost on the bike paths last spring and ran into some Great Blue Herons on my way to lunch that I realized that this secretive oasis was not only a thriving wildlife sanctuary, but that its existence told an interesting story of the destruction and restoration of a crucial part of the local ecosystem.

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning.

The herons caused me to stop. Standing there, face-to-face with the Delta Ponds, it quickly occurred to me that they weren’t natural ponds. I looked around and took in my surroundings, in the middle of an isolated and strangely preserved natural area between a river and a highway. Suddenly, several clues came together, and the combination of the geographical location and the surrounding place names provided a pretty accurate assessment of the area’s history. The Delta Ponds were right alongside the Delta Highway, which essentially acts as a driveway up to the current riverfront mining operation of Delta Sand and Gravel. I only had recently learned about the mine at the northern end of the highway, but my visits up there had provided an instant reference for the use and nature of the immediate area.

Delta, I thought to myself. These ponds must be restored gravel mines which have been reconnected to the river, which means that this spot is possibly a former channel or side-channel of the Willamette River. The name of the road which loops around the Delta Ponds, Goodpasture Island Road, suggests that this patch of land was once cut off by a waterway, and used for grazing prior to it being mined for gravel. Not only was it a gravel mine, but the highway leading up to the current mine was most likely paved with the gravel that was mined right here.

A few minutes of iPhone research confirmed the bulk of my theory as well as filled in the missing gaps. The area was indeed once a side-channel of the Willamette, which was an important component of the river ecosystem, but the side-channel dried up around the turn of the century due to man-made alterations of the land. The land was then marshy pasture that was mined for gravel in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then sold to the City after the gravel was exhausted, where the pits sat untouched for nearly forty years as the land around them was further altered and developed.

During that time, it suffered the same fate that many old gravel pits do: the pits flooded, and while they became a natural wildlife habitat over time, the pits also became over-run by invasive species such as blackberry and Scotch broom. Finally, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, the city embarked on a $9 million-dollar restoration project, taking the greater part of a decade to complete, which removed the invasives, altered the steep slope of the gravel pits, and eventually reconnected the ponds to the river. Today, the restored side-channel habitat is the home to nearly 150 bird species, including herons, falcons, owls, and several varieties of hawk. A beautiful, concentrated wildlife preserve birthed out of an old gravel mine, strangely nestled between a river, a highway, and scores of condominiums and housing developments. It was a wonderful and unexpected discovery; despite its urban backdrop it felt hidden and sacred. And while I immediately appreciated the areas for the rare and beautiful habitat that it was, I also realized not only did this area stand out as an exception of sorts, but that it most likely stays off people’s radar as much as the issue of gravel mining itself does.

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background.

Unlike the more well-known resource extraction practices such as clear-cutting, which leaves a visual scar that’s simply impossible to ignore as one drives or walks by, gravel mining is naturally much more obscured from public view, given that it often occurs in a pit. For the most part, the impacts of gravel mining are rarely seen from ground level, and citizens are often ignorant about mining operations that are practically occurring in their neighborhoods. As a result, while clear-cutting practices are the subject of much public outcry and heated debate, few words are said of the deliberate ecological destruction and devastation of our riverbanks that has been occurring since the early 1900’s. Most people generally have no idea that the vast majority of land along the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers north of town is owned by gravel mining corporations, or that much of the land which stretches from the confluence of the Middle and Coast Forks of the Willamette eastward towards and past Mt. Pisgah had been mined continuously for the past eighty years. Pristine parks and recreation areas border former gravel mines, and those using the parks are usually completely unaware that the remnants of gravel mining are out in plain sight only yards away.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Standing out over the Delta Ponds, it occurred to me that there’s a blessing in the fact that at least certain gravel pits can be restored in a generation, as opposed to clear-cuts that easily stand out fifty years later. The Delta Ponds, however, is a rare exception in that it is restored, as flooded gravel pits dot the landscape up and down the riverbank for miles and most are either listless or overgrown with blackberries. When I first gained awareness about the amount of gravel mining in the area, I visited several sites, on foot, on bike, and driving by. But aside from the occasional large crane sticking up out of the sky, it was hard to gain a real sense of the mines themselves. It wasn’t until I started studying Google aerial satellite images that I truly started to understand the impacts, cycles, and sheer ugliness of open-pit mining. Taking in the view from above is what really drilled it home.

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

The cement drills outside my window last summer also recently drilled it home. From May through September, a good number of the roads downtown were re-paved in a massive project paid for by a voter-approved bond. The condition of the roads and the actual need for repaving was somewhat debatable in my opinion, but the repairs created much-needed jobs, and provided a significant economic boon for the local sand and gravel companies. As I learned has been the case since the 1920s, the roads were paved exclusively by local companies and mined from either the Willamette or McKenzie, a fact that was stressed by company heads as a positive aspect. And while tapping into the “keep it local” energy was a brilliant move on the part of the gravel companies, it was bothersome to noticed such a disconnect on the part of the community. Well-meaning citizens celebrate keeping it local, but they fail to understand exactly how local and how significant the impact is, and they truly fail to recognize that not all of those local impacts are positive. While the Delta Ponds stands as a testament to something sacred that can be created out of the profane, it’s a very small gain when compared to the overall amount of land that has been or is being ripped apart for gravel.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Last June, the “finite” aspect of what are recognized as “finite natural resources” became a subject that caught the public’s attention. Delta Sand and Gravel’s most recent application to expand their mining operation at the end of the highway was rejected last spring by County officials, and in the ensuing media coverage Delta representatives stated that without the expansion, the company is set to run out of gravel in less than 15 years. For nearly a century, the aggregate that makes up the entirety of roads, sidewalks, jogging paths, and driveways has been “proudly” mined in Lane County by Delta and other companies, and Delta is forecasting a potential end to that tradition, at least in terms of their operation. The County is currently (and rightly) maintaining the need to protect zoned farmland, but Delta’s statements signal a future and possibly significant showdown over land-use on the riverbank. Even if current land-use laws were ignored, the reality is that the supply of gravel is still finite. One day the mining companies will be out of land. The land-use battles of present and future will only determine how much arable farmland is still available when that does happen.

In the meantime, however, Delta Ponds exists as an example of how such destruction can be successfully restored, and I am grateful for its existence and for my stumbling upon this place and the story behind it. For me, the ponds stand as a reminder of how environmental destruction can be taking place right in our midst and yet still remain hidden from view. Sometimes it takes an adjustment, a different perspective, to be able to see a situation clearly for what it is. In this case, I found great value in the view from above.

The island country of New Zealand has just released data about religion from its 2013 Census, and the figures point to a nation where the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are the largest grouping, with Catholicism trailing in the distance.

Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay on Lake Taupō, over 10 metres high and are only accessible by boat or kayak. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay on Lake Taupō, over 10 metres high and are only accessible by boat or kayak. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“According to Census 2013, 4 of 10 Kiwis have said they follow no religion which makes New Zealand one of the most secular countries in the world. The data revealed that a Christian majority in New Zealand is uncertain with less than 1.9 million Kiwis affiliated with a church compared to more than 2 million in 2006. Paul Morris, a religious studies professor at Victoria University, said New Zealand was moving into “new territory” with Christianity no longer a prominent part of society. Mr Morris said Christianity is not the clear majority when it comes to religion since 1901.”

Anglican Ink notes that the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in New Zealand have both been shedding numbers, and another Anglican site points out that the Christian population is getting older and older.

“Last census there were 41,000 Anglicans over the age of 80, only slightly less than those under 10. But this still means that many Anglicans in 2006 have changed their affiliation since then – probably to “none”. Meanwhile, for the first time in New Zealand history Roman Catholics outnumber Anglicans. Catholics now number 492,324, although they too have declined slightly from the last census. The big growth has been in those of “no religion,” up from 32.2% last census to 38.6% this census. And when we add in those who objected to state their religion or who didn’t answer the question, a majority of New Zealanders (50.82%) now have no religious profession.”

So, a country that’s probably most famous (in American minds at any rate) for being the place where the Lords of the Rings films were made (among other blockbuster fantasy pictures), is now also famous for being a country that’s part of a slowly encroaching post-Christian West. So, now that Christianity is definitively on the wane (outside of a small number of Protestant denominations), are religious minorities growing? What about modern Paganism? Are there many Pagans in New Zealand? Yes, yes there are. If you tally up the Wiccans, Animists, Druids, Pantheists, and self-declared Earth/Nature Based religionists, they number over 5000.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 9.04.44 AM

Now, around 5000 Pagans doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that New Zealand isn’t only about Christians and “nones,” it’s one of the most ethnically diverse nations on Earth. Thanks to where New Zealand is positioned, there’s a large Hindu community, a small Shinto community and, of course, Māori traditional beliefs, and Māori new religious movements like Ringatū and Rātana. The cumulative effect is that New Zealand must govern a nation where no single sect or religion holds absolute sway. Post-Christianity doesn’t mean the absence of Christianity, merely that it must co-exist with other faiths within a culture.

“A post-Christian world is one in which Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but that has gradually assumed values, culture, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian (and further may not necessarily reflect any world religion’s standpoint, or may represent a combination of either several religions or none). Generally, therefore, post-Christian tends to refer to the loss of Christianity’s monopoly, if not its followers, in historically Christian societies.”

So, in short, New Zealand is a more diverse, and less traditionally religious place. It can be seen as a bellwether for larger nations that are undergoing the same process, and hopefully, we can all learn from how the island nation moves forward in serving their diverse land. For more on Paganism in New Zealand, see the website for the New Zealand chapter of the Pagan Federation International.

[The following is a guest post from Lonnie Murray. Lonnie Murray is a naturalist, local environmental activist and part-time politician. For many years, he was a leader of the NatureSpirit group at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church (Unitarian Universalist), and currently lives with his two daughters and wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.]

Lonnie Murray

Lonnie Murray

Beneath the concrete, steel and asphalt of our cities there are ghosts gurgling whispering and moving nameless beneath us. An anthropologist, Loren Eiseley once wrote that “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”. Many people never stop to think what happens to the streams when a shopping center or housing complex is built, but the secret is beneath our feet in large pipes. This water flowing through man-made engineered stormwater systems is all that is left of places once rich with life like salamanders, crayfish, dragon flies and minnows.

At one time, the thinking was that the best way to deal with water and pollution was to get it out of cities as fast as possible. Under that thinking, streams were straightened or put in pipes. Other policies made by local governments and engineers paved most urban areas reducing them to a sea of concrete. We now know that each time it rains all the oil, fertilizer, trash and other pollution goes into the stormwater system, which then eventually makes its way to rivers.

I think a lot about water because I serve in Virginia as an elected official on the local Soil and Water Conservation District, and as an appointed member of several different boards and commissions related to the environment. For as long as I can remember, my environmental activism has been tangled up in my spirituality (but which one caused the other is impossible to say.) Like many modern pagans, I often find it hard to classify my spirituality with labels, but I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist church who follows animistic beliefs that see all living and natural things as having a spirit worthy of reverence. I led a UU-Pagan group for well over a decade and was active for a while in my local Reclaiming community. While I’m highly influenced by the Romantic and Transcendentalist thinkers of the 19th Century, I confess that I also take great inspiration from my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy.

A still from "Spirited Away."

A still from “Spirited Away.”

In one of my favorite animated films “Spirited Away”, by Hayao Miyazaki’, there is a scene where the main character, Chihiro, is forced to work in a Bath House for the Spirits. One day a “stink spirit” oozes its way to the bath house. While everyone else runs away in terror and disgust, she kindly bathes it and removes a bicycle lodged in its side. Upon being cleansed, the spirit’s true nature, a river spirit, is revealed. In interviews, Miyazaki has mentioned that this was inspired by a river cleanup in which he participated. During another scene Chihiro finds the true name of a river spirit that had been buried under a housing complex. This notion that a river has a spirit is impaired by our treatment of it, is consistent with Shinto and other animistic ways to view the universe. To anyone that has done a river cleanup, or seen a stream restored, there is indeed a presence you can feel beyond mere water flowing over rock.

Within modern Paganism, it is common to hear praise for trees, mountains or Nature, without any specific reference to a real place or specific living being. This is a stark contrast to many indigenous cultures that usually have specific sacred trees, rocks, streams or mountains that are essential to their faith. Indeed we hear the same sentiment in Judaism in the reverence accorded specific sites in the Holy Land. My ancestors in Scotland and Germany certainly had sacred places, streams and trees. I know the Monacan nation, who still live in my corner of the world, had sacred places, some of which we’ve now buried under concrete. Like many of us, being separated from the lands of my ancestors I have lost that direct connection to the spirits of place my ancestors certainly knew.

While restoring streams is good public policy, and I advocate for it on that basis, as an Animist, I feel too the spirit of place that is healed as we heal our streams. I also feel it as a spiritual wound when we fail to do the right thing by our sacred waters. In recent years, I’ve watched as two “nameless” tributaries of the Meadowcreek were buried under a new shopping center. Even though the public asked repeatedly what the large pipes were about, the only thing the public heard was that it had something to do with “stormwater”. I could not save these streams, but I was able to bear witness to what really happened there, by confronting local media organizations with the truth.

a typical bioswale at the University of Virginia using native grasses to filter stormwater.

A typical bioswale at the University of Virginia using native grasses to filter stormwater.

As localities have increasingly had to deal with the implications of the Clean Water Act, passing pollution downstream has ceased to be an option. Much of the cleanup of streams and rivers is wrapped in arcane acronyms and technical jargon like TMDL (or Total Maximum Daily Load). In my work, it is part of my responsibility to help localities deal with the challenges of meeting federal mandates to clean up streams. In particular, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL will require a complete reversal of the kinds of behaviors that paved the landscape and buried streams. Changing those attitudes, policies and ultimately the landscape itself is not easy.

In practice, improving the quality of stormwater can only be done by living systems, like special gardens made of native plants called biofilters that remove toxins from the water. I’ve had the exceptional opportunity to witness several stream daylighting projects, where streams are resurrected from the deep and returned to life on the surface of an urban landscape. I dare say it is hard not to feel the spiritual implications as you see butterflies, wildflowers and a splashing stream where there was once nothing but pavement. Also, once these streams are daylighted, they cease to be unnamed and start becoming places again like the Dell, a stream daylighting project in my area.

The Dell at the University of Virginia.

The Dell at the University of Virginia.

The importance of naming has a long history within the concept of magic, including the idea that a measure of power can be gained over anything if you learn its secret name. Indeed as Tolkien once said in On Fairy Stories, “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.” Part of spell work in many traditions involves setting an intention and visualizing a change in the word. Like the Reclaiming tradition, I tend to follow Dion Fortune’s definition of magic, “the art of changing consciousness at will.” Public policy is a whole lot like that; you come up with an idea and then you advocate it by participating in public advisory groups. Over time, if you are lucky, you change consciousness (and policy) and it has a real lasting impact in the world.

Like those once nameless streams, I begin with no human names for the spirits of the landscape of my community; their true names were lost long ago, if ever they were known. While my work in the community of helping improve stream buffers, daylight streams, or promoting best management practices is inherently based on sound conservation science, it is also part of my spiritual work in the world. As a public official I serve the public, not my faith, but when I look out over a paved city or a construction site, it is faith that helps bring me to the table and inspires me to seek solutions. It is my way of giving a name to that which was lost. By speaking for those places that cannot speak for themselves, by caring for them as Chihiro did, I come closer to naming those spirits of place so they need not wander as ghosts in concrete beneath our feet anymore.

The oldest house in town is not necessarily looking for attention. In contrast to some of the more lavish, well-known historical properties in the city, artfully restored Victorians that often function as bed-and-breakfasts or historical museums, the Daniel Christian house sits quite unassumingly on a quiet residential block just south of the downtown core, a mile or so inland from the Willamette River. The house blends in nicely amongst the curious variety of dwellings that surround it, and to the average passer-by, there is little about the house that suggests any historical or architectural significance.

I must have walked or biked past the house dozens of times without ever noticing it, until one day when a kitten stopped me in my path on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. I reached down to pet it and it ran up the porch step, daring me to follow. I stepped up onto the porch, scooped up the kitten, and found myself suddenly taking in my surroundings. This porch had a very different feel than the other houses I knew in this neighborhood. It felt… old. I glanced at the front door and noticed a sticker on the door stating that the building was on the National Register of Historic Places. There were four mailboxes next to the front door, indicating that the house was divided into residential apartments. I put down the kitten and thanked it for leading me to the front door. At that moment, one of the tenants walked up the porch steps and took out his key. I asked him if he knew the history of the building. “Its really old,” he said, obviously uninterested. “I don’t know much more than that.”

Daniel Christian House

Daniel Christian House

I snapped a photo of the house and walked a few blocks to the Lane County Historical Society, showed the photo to the woman behind the counter when I walked in, and within a few minutes I learned that not only was the Daniel Christian house the oldest remaining house in all of Eugene, but it was most likely the only frame house left standing from Oregon’s territorial era. Christian and his family arrived in Oregon in 1853 from Illinois and settled on a 209-acre donation land claim, a footprint which is now the heart of Eugene’s midtown business district. The Greek Revival-style farmhouse that bears his name was built by Christian himself in 1855, nine years after the city of Eugene was founded, and the surrounding land served as an apple orchard up until the turn of the century.

I left the Historical Society with a photocopy of a cadastral map from 1860, showing the original donation land claims that formed the City of Eugene. As I walked back to the house, I reflected on the fact that the dense urban neighborhood that I was passing through had once been an apple orchard anchored by a small, simple farmhouse. A significant portion of the land that was once Daniel Christian’s orchard is currently the site of the largest development project in the city’s history, a project that went forth despite sharp opposition from the community, and as I walked past the development I couldn’t help but to think that an apple orchard in that location would have been of much greater benefit to the neighborhood. I arrived back in front of the house, a house which I now knew had been standing for 158 years, and tried to picture in my head what it must have looked like standing alone, surrounded by farmland, with a clear view straight to the river.

Within that visualization, I immediately noted the fact that the Daniel Christian house was a good distance from the river. The yearly, variable flooding of the Willamette had been a persistent problem throughout the city’s history, especially for the early settlers. The original 1851 Eugene city plat had to be revised and moved inland after the first year due to flooding, and subsequent floods wiped out early settlement areas time and time again. As the town grew over the years in size, the property damage from each flood intensified, until the federal government began to harness the river through a series of dams starting in the early 1940s. While the river still floods occasionally, the water levels have never reached anything close to the levels of the pre-dam floods, and flood damage in the modern day has been very minimal. Most current residents have no memory of a time when the natural rhythm of the floodplain greatly affected the use and development of the riverfront areas, and very few remember back to a time when residents had to be evacuated due to flooding. This lack of memory has always concerned me, even before I was ever conscious of how specifically vulnerable this area is to a flood-related natural disaster.

When I first started observing and taking in the layout and architecture within specific neighborhoods in this town, I had noticed early on that most of the houses and buildings anywhere near the riverfront were of more recent construction than most of the surrounding areas, with older houses farther back surrounding the newer developments. There are very few structures near the riverfront that pre-date WWII, despite the fact that some of these neighborhoods were originally platted years before that, in contrast to other neighborhoods in the city where a significant majority of the houses standing were built the same year the subdivision was originally platted. I had learned from an old realtor that many of the pre-war houses had been either built on beams to withstand the flooding or built without any sort of foundations whatsoever, and most of the houses that survived all the old floods have been since demolished. A bank won’t finance a home without a foundation, which made many of the old homes impossible to sell in the modern day. A few of these homes still survive, standing reminders of a time when the neighborhood was often underwater, but even these few survivors are disappearing one by one. And yet, I thought to myself, if a dam failure triggered even a temporary return to the river’s natural floodplain, those few old houses would probably fare much better overall than anything built in the last seventy years. I doubted that most of the inhabitants of those newer houses knew the history of the land that their house was built on, despite the subtle clues in the surrounding architecture.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

Standing in front of the Daniel Christian house, I reflected on the fact that this house had survived every flood from the time it was built up to the time the river was dammed. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or washed away by floods over that hundred-year period, but this simple, inconspicuous house withstood them all. With flooding on my mind, I took out the donation land claim map from 1860, and as I found the location of the Christian land claim on the map I noticed something striking. The bend in the Willamette as drawn on the map did not match the current course of the river. While the current path of the river bends slightly north as it approaches the downtown area, the 1860 map illustrates the river sharply meandering north well past its current boundaries, channeling through a patch of land just above and over the present-day location of Autzen Stadium. I had heard it mentioned once that the flood of 1890 had altered the course of the Willamette, but I hadn’t a clue as to the location or severity of that alteration, and I had never given it much thought until that moment.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

I took out my phone and pulled up a satellite map of the area, and compared the path of the river to the illustration of the 1860 map. In quickly tracing past and present shape of the river, suddenly the history and composition of the land in between the two paths made perfect sense. The 1890 flood had altered the channel at the point of the meander, cutting off the meander and forming a shallow oxbow lake around the river’s old path. Evidence of this former river channel could be seen on the current satellite map, in the form of ponds and sloughs still in its old path. I had already known that the land under and around Autzen Stadium had been undeveloped swampland that was previously used as a dumpsite, but why that swampiness existed in the first place was now clear. The swamp was created by the oxbow lake after the river changed its course.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

I left the house that survived a hundred years’ worth of floods and proceeded towards the river in order to trace the river’s old path. I had walked and biked through the exact area countless times before, but my knowledge of the river’s past spurned a new sense of curiosity about the ponds and sloughs that once cradled the Willamette itself. Following the waterway, I tried to ignore the presence of the looming stadium as I followed the water, envisioning the river, the flood, and the swamp. I suppose it’s fitting, I thought to myself, that a team called the Ducks play in a stadium built on a swamp.

Although I’ve thought for years about the Willamette floodplane and the harnessing of the river, only recently have I really thought about the potential devastation to this area in the wake of a natural disaster, and tracing the pre-1890 path of the Willamette brought that reality home for me. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic modern lesson on the vulnerability of dams and levees in the face of a storm, a lesson which greatly raised my own awareness of development and disasters in relation to floodplains. During Katrina, the greatest amount of devastation occurred in the low-lying areas which were not fit for widespread development prior to modern engineering, engineering which in the end could not stand up to the power of nature. If dam failures allowed the Willamette to rise to its natural level, the greatest potential for devastation would also occur in the low-lying areas that were developed after the river was dammed. During Katrina, evacuees took refuge in the Superdome, which had been built upon higher ground. But in the event of a flood-related disaster in Eugene, Autzen Stadium may very well be underwater.

In 1890, the river changed its course on its own and significantly altered the natural landscape without any help from a natural disaster, and scientists have warned for years now that a natural disaster in this area is only a matter of time. The Willamette Valley sits atop the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which experts say is over a hundred years overdue for a major earthquake. In the past few years, concerns have been raised by scientists, journalists, and politicians about the potential of catastrophic dam failures on the Willamette and/or widespread devastation in the event of an earthquake or a tsunami. Although the Japanese tsunami of 2011 sparked a certain degree of awareness as to the vulnerability inherent in our location and infrastructure, little has been done overall to prepare for such a disaster on a local level. Public meetings are held to discuss the economic viability of long-term riverfront development projects as though our dams are impervious to the ways of nature, while no real time or effort is ever spent discussing the overall viability of the city itself in the event that even one of those dams were to fail. While information and education about the level of risk is occasionally available to those who deliberately seek it out, many members of this community are completely unaware of the likelihood of such a disaster occurring here as well as the severity of the impact that such an event will have.

I thought of the tenant I met outside the Daniel Christian house, who was completely uninterested as to the history of his own building. In the case of a low-level to moderate flood, he is most likely protected in his ignorance, as he just happens to live in a house that has withstood every flood in the city’s history. But if a major earthquake hits, triggering the 40-foot wall of water that experts fear it will, he will literally be in the same boat as the rest of us, no pun intended.

Many of us look to the land to teach us various internal and external lessons. And most of us look to what has been built before us in order to better understand who we were and are. But we sometimes overlook the idea that the objects and structures that we have built can also serve as powerful lessons about the land itself. Lessons that our ancestors knew but in the present-day we have forgotten, lessons that the land may not be able to tell us quite so clearly, especially when man-made alterations have transformed the historic layout of a landscape. The Willamette River, currently held back by over twenty dams, has been muzzled and cannot presently hint at the potential reaches of her natural floodplain. And yet the historic age of the buildings and their relative distance from the riverfront illustrate that reach in a way that the river cannot. Perhaps more significantly, the Daniel Christian house serves as an important physical marker, speaking to the boundaries of how far the water has risen in the floods of the past. And yet, while I am slightly comforted in my knowledge and understanding of the reaches of the natural floodplain and the history of the land, I also know that an earthquake-triggered flood may very well result in a flooding situation that will render these observations and lessons irrelevant. But at least I am aware of this inevitability, and I deeply understand that such a disaster is not a matter of if, but when. In the meantime, however, I am simply grateful for my constantly evolving relationship with the river.

“The Parks Department may not want me here, but this land tells me otherwise.”

We were standing on the north bank of the Willamette River, where I had come down to check up on a friend who had lived on the river next to the boat landing for as long as I had known her. I had come to the riverbank bearing root beer, but Mary Ann met me at her entryway bearing bad news and a yellow piece of paper. Maintenance workers had just come through the area earlier in the afternoon, and the yellow paper had been left taped to her door. She was being evicted from her home.

North bank of the Willamette river.

North bank of the Willamette river.

I looked around, forgetting for a moment as I always did that her “home” was not a house in the traditional sense, but a primitive hut built from waddling and covered with a canvas tarp that was tucked away within the confines of a city-owned park. My experiences camping at various pagan festivals over the years had instilled in me a great appreciation for makeshift dwellings, especially for ones that were cleverly built and aesthetically pleasing, and hers was second to none in that regard. It was an extraordinary spot, and it was indeed her home in the strongest sense of the word. Literally built from scratch with her own two hands, her riverfront hobbit-hut was truly otherworldly, quietly hidden and secluded with the river as her only neighbor.

So secluded, in fact, that it had taken the parks department over a year to find her within the tangled overgrowth of the riverbank. But find her they finally did. And unlike a legal eviction from a “legitimate” residential dwelling, which allows for seven days and a judicial hearing, a legal eviction of a “homeless camp” from a city park grants neither adequate time to vacate nor any form of due process. Her hut was literally set to be bulldozed the next day, and she had no recourse. She also had nowhere else she felt she could go.

“This place is a sanctuary, and this land wants to protect me,” she said to me, tearfully. “This ground beneath my feet, it welcomes me here. We have a relationship, an understanding. I don’t care if they need to trim the blackberries. I am of the Earth and this is my home. I have a connection with this space. Myself, the trees, the bushes, the river. We get along, we are friends. Nobody bothers me here. This place wants me here. This is the only place I’ve ever felt such safety.”

I looked at her and realized at that moment that not only was she losing her home, she was also being severed from a deep and powerful spiritual connection that she had forged with this odd little patch of sand and brush. In the eyes of the parks department, she was simply another illegal camper who was squatting on public land and interfering with their futile attempts at controlling the blackberries. As I saw it, however, the home she had crafted and her connection to this place was nothing less than sacred. I looked at her again and realized I was gazing into the eyes of a fellow priestess who was facing the loss and destruction of her hand-built, self-defined sanctuary.

Sanctuary. I muttered the word under my breath. She was far from the first person to tell me that this specific strip of riverbank felt like an energetic sanctuary for the disenfranchised, but never before had I considered the issue while literally standing in the place in question. Sanctuary. I closed my eyes for a moment, cleared my mind, and allowed my inner awareness to tune into my surroundings. It felt calm, deep, rooted, potent.

I looked into the eyes of my friend once more, trying to comprehend in the moment what it could possibly be like to live in a blackberry thicket that swirled with such a force, and what it meant to develop such a deep relationship with one’s surroundings in a place such as this. I knew there was nothing more I could offer her at that moment other than understanding and sympathy, and the only thing I knew to do in the moment was to hug her as hard as I could. We said our goodbyes, and I climbed back up the ridge of the riverbank to the path above. Halfway up, I glanced back and over at her beautiful dwelling, soon to be demolished, and I felt a lump form in the back of my throat. That wasn’t just a homeless camp. I truly felt that her little spot was sacred ground.

As I walked home, my rage and sadness quickly transformed into an unshakable curiosity regarding the energetic resonance of that chunk of the riverbank and Mary Ann’s strong belief that the land specifically wanted to provide her sanctuary. I was reminded again that I had heard similar claims before, from people that weren’t nearly as spiritually attuned as my friend was. There were dozens of parks scattered throughout this city, countless hidden spots scattered up and down the riverbanks where one could make a temporary home. Why did people gravitate to this specific place? What is it about this place that feels welcoming and safe to those who are otherwise living in exile, despite the fact that people are rousted from here just as much as anywhere else? I tried my best not to dwell on it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be something more to it.

A few days later, I was having coffee with another friend when I mentioned my experience in the park and the unanswered questions that were still lingering.

“What is it about that place?” I asked her, not necessarily expecting an answer. “I can’t help but feel that there’s something specific about that spot that’s creating or contributing to a widely-sensed feeling of safety. Mary Ann’s been getting the message from the land directly since she was first drawn to that spot, and I sense that there’s a true authenticity to her connections and experiences. But then other folks, many who don’t subscribe to spiritual thinking and would scoff at the idea of talking to the trees, will still tell you that that there’s a “welcoming vibe” down on that part of the riverfront.”

She looked up. “Well, you know that’s where the old black settlement used to be, right?”

My friend had lived here for many years, and was an indispensable and often spontaneous source of local history. She immediately realized by the look on my face that I had no idea what she was talking about.

“There was a tent city on the riverbank sometime around World War II that existed as the only black community for several years. The neighborhood was eventually bulldozed in order to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge, and those who lived in the settlement were mostly forced out into the wetlands at the other end of town Some weren’t even given time to claim their possessions before their homes were destroyed. But for years before the bridge was built, the north bank was the only place that black folks were allowed to live, the only place where they were safe from harassment and left alone.”

“The only place they were allowed to live?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Well, yes,” she continued. “Back then, city limits ended at the river. The north bank was county land.” She paused. I stared at her, processing what I had just been told. We both started to speak at the same time. I let her go first.

“You do know that this used to be a sundown town, right?”

She had just answered the question I was about to ask, and I was suddenly hit with a burst of clarity. As a recent transplant that was still in the wee learning stages of understanding the history, politics and dynamics of this area, that one powerful piece of factual information immediately started to trickle its way into the various questions and thoughts about this area that I had been filing away in my head all this time.

I looked up at my friend and smiled. “You just gave me a real important piece,” I said to her. “Thank you.”

I had been aware of the overall history of sundown towns and their effects, but until that moment I hadn’t a clue that this liberal, Pacific Northwest college town, with its reputation as a hippie mecca and its emphasis on human rights and diversity, also had a notable history of racial discrimination. As a former New Yorker, one of the first things I noticed about Eugene was how overwhelmingly white the population was, but I had assumed it was mainly the result of the same discriminatory housing practices that were once widely practiced throughout the nation. But the newly-acquired knowledge that this town had a history of systematically excluding the entire black population from the city limits after sunset affected me almost instantly in my understandings and perceptions of this place. Not only was it simply important on its face in terms of my desire to understand the basic history of where I lived, but it provided a powerful and important historical context that was quite relevant in relation to the current patterns of exclusion and oppression that I had been observing and noting, and the ideas and questions that I had been tossing around and pondering in response to those observations.

I immediately thought back to Mary Ann and her sanctuary. The reason that Mary Ann and countless others hide out on the north bank of the river is because they are constantly subject to local laws and policies that have resulted in the systematic harassment, persecution, and exclusion of the homeless population from the city center. These exclusion policies and practices are numerous: ordinances that criminalize sleeping anywhere on public property, strictly enforced park curfews that prohibit people from gathering at night, a deliberate and complete lack of public benches combined with an ordinance that prohibits sitting on the sidewalk, a constitutionally-suspect judicial remedy known as the “exclusion zone,” and an infamous team of private security guards who are specifically tasked with forcing homeless people to move along.

dpsz

Especially at night, it is essentially illegal to exist in the downtown area if you have nowhere else to go at night, and choosing to willfully remain in the downtown area is to risk arrest, assault, or worse. These various laws and strategies create the effect of a sundown town for anyone who lacks a home. The similarity had never been lost on me, but it took on a much stronger significance for me now that I knew that this place actually had been a sundown town. I had been criticizing and speaking out against these policies without ever knowing or understanding the degree to which this city had a history of discrimination and exclusion, a history that not only is unknown to most, but has arguably been effectively and deliberately erased by forty years’ worth of liberal rhetoric that has consistently projected the image that Eugene has always been a haven for diversity and tolerance.

I then thought about the history of that stretch of the riverbank, and the similarities in the two narratives, historic and present, as they related to that specific area. There have been countless tent communities and temporary homesteads erected along that stretch over the years, inhabited by folks who had been driven out from the city center, and eventually they were generally all subject to the same fate in the form of a bulldozer, often without any notice or warning. The same exact fate, I now knew, that another community of makeshift homesteads had succumbed to over a half-century ago in nearly the exact spot. Another community that was forced to retreat to this area and build their own huts and shanties after being systematically denied the right to live within the city limits.

I recognized that the knowledge and recognition of these historic connections and patterns was an essential part of my ongoing process of forging a deeper relationship with the land, and in developing a more solid understanding of the habits and tendencies of both people and place. I couldn’t define exactly what these connections meant in the large sense of that process, but I understood exactly why I was led to discover them as I did. As someone who has long been committed to fighting for justice, stumbling upon such ugly yet important truths about this town’s discriminatory past only strengthened my commitment to recognizing and standing up to oppression in all its insidious forms.

A few months later, I finally found Mary Ann on the riverbank again, a few hundred yards upstream from the spot where her hut had been demolished. Her new place was further hidden away and nowhere near as enchanting as her previous spot. A simple tent had replaced her former hut of sticks. “I don’t see the point right now,” she told me. “I’m still too angry. I don’t want to start over. For all I know I’ll be evicted from here in a week. They don’t understand that I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know how to make them understand that the land wants me here.”

I told her what I had learned about the history of this area. “I kept thinking about your feeling of sanctuary,” I said. “And I can’t help but to keep going back to the historical parallels as a reference point, and then bounce right back to thinking about your sense of this place.”

I may have been fascinated by it all, but she didn’t look the slightest bit surprised. “What have I said again and again? This piece of land doesn’t believe in exclusion,” she told me. “This place protects the oppressed. I know that, I told you that. I don’t need to dwell on why it is. It just is.”

I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t about to argue.

Perhaps that stretch of the riverbank is exactly as Mary Ann says it is, and the spirits of that land truly and simply wish to protect those who are oppressed and excluded. Perhaps they’ve always done that, and it was my job to pick up on a small piece of that pattern. Perhaps the history of that spot as a sanctuary for those who have been excluded has left a subtle psychic echo that many happen to pick up on, in a wide variety of strengths that range from “feeling safe vibes” to the absolute steadfast religious belief that the river and the trees want to shelter and protect the oppressed. And perhaps there are no true connections at all, and the entirety of my observations amount to nothing more than pure coincidence. Perhaps the belief among many that the area offers them safety is purely in their heads. It could be that its nothing more than a matter of simple location that accounts for the similarity between the history of that spot and the current usage as it relates to those who have sadly experienced exclusion and oppression throughout the years.

What I do know is that the true value of the lesson has very little to do with any one definitive answer, and much more to do with illuminating and reinforcing the importance and power of knowing the various histories of the places in which we inhabit and interact. I find that often, hints from the land itself will point me straight to the answers, the history that you need. Other times, these hints serve as a caution and reminder as to the dangers of forgetting that history, and in the importance of seeking out and researching patterns and connections.

I consider the stories that make up our history to be sacred, and to learn about, research, remember, and retell such stories not only serves to honor those who actually lived those histories, but it also ensures that if and when we ever find ourselves in patterns of repetition, we carry within us important pieces of our collective memory and experience that can serve as a point of reference and reflection.