Since 2004, the Alternative Religions Education Network (AREN) has produced a regular seasonal newsletter called ACTION. For 6 of those years, the pages of the newsletter have been filled with interviews with Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists from around the world. To date, the newsletter has published around 560 interviews that catalog, record and share the memories, practices and work of a huge diversity of people.
Since the beginning, one man has been behind the newsletter from the writing of articles in the early days to producing the detailed interviews that we see today. That man is Christopher Blackwell.
Blackwell has been a solitary Wiccan for thirty years, and currently lives in New Mexico. He began following AREN around 2000, shortly after it changed names from the Witches Anti-Discrimination League (WADL) to the Alternative Religions Educational Network (AREN). The organization was formed in the 1970s by Leo Martello and, for many years, worked for the protection of religious rights. However, the organization had to be dissolved after the Anti-Defamation League threatened a lawsuit over use of the name. Shortly after, AREN was born.
In those early days, Blackwell spent his time interacting on the organization’s internet forums from his home in New Mexico. Then, in 2004 his life changed. He was asked to create and grow an AREN newsletter. The rest is history…
Today we turn the tables, so to speak, on the man who interviews the Pagan world. This is Christopher Blackwell.
The Wild Hunt: Most people know you as the guy behind ACTION. Tell us what you did before AREN.
Christopher Blackwell: Being that I had been traveling for years mining agate, my first contact [with the Pagan world] was through letters by snail mail to people writing in to Circle Network News newsletter back in the 80s … I had five post offices in three different states that I would have mail forwarded to as I moved with the wheel of the year mining from Eastern Oregon to Southern New Mexico, and back to Oregon again…
It was also through Circle Network that I took part in my first letter protest when a certain Jessie Helms tried to attach a rider to a the Post Office appropriation bill that would deny any non-profit group, tied to either Witchcraft or Satanism, the bulk rate postal rates allowed to all other non-profits groups. As this was before the Internet, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary sent, I believe, post cards to every one on Circle Sanctuary’s mailing list and then it was up to us to flood congress with letters against the rider. Primitive as that would seem today, the rider was dropped before before the Post Office appropriation bill left committee.
TWH: You are Wiccan? When and how did you find this path?
CB: In 1985 I literally got trapped selling at a flea market in Tucson Arizona and never could earn enough to move on with my partner. So when I had time off I started looking for a teacher. There was a sort of New Age book store and in it a bulletin board. I found a notice about a high priestess, called the phone number and she wanted to meet me first in a public coffee shop. We talked, I was asked why I wanted training and I passed and started training. I was initiated [into the Alexandria Tradtion] on Yule of 1985.
[Shortly after his initiation, sales picked up and he returned to mining. Then in 1993, his “mining days ended” after a severe illness. He settled returned to New Mexico, where he has lived ever since. After four years of medical care, he began writing. His only connection to Paganism was through Circle Magazine, Green Egg, Pagan Africa and a few other international newsletters. He submitted articles and letters as well as interacted with the community from his home. This is how he found AREN]
TWH: How did you get involved with AREN and what led to you becoming its newsletter editor?
CB: It was not until the late 90s that our local library got its first public used computer. It was slow, hooked to our phone system. Learning as I went, I usually crashed the computer once or twice a day. The librarians took pity on me and did not throw me out. I started exploring. I found a few online bulletin boards and Witches’ Voice.
I am not sure exactly when I connected with AREN … I just started posting on their forum taking part in various subjects. I became a regular … It was at this time the idea of an in house newsletter was suggested and I was asked to take it on. Now I did not like newsletters, first for being boring and second for being quarterly. I set out to create one. Bill Kilborn, who still acts as web guy, tried to find me free editing programs. [The first two didn’t] even have page numbers, with often many mistakes and only about ten pages long.
TWH: How has the newsletter changed over the last ten years?
CB: I have often said it is fortunate that I never realized what I was getting into for I might not have never done it. Anyone, that has run one, knows how hard it is to get enough to post, to keep it going.
It was a busy time for AREN with the whole Bush Administration. So I began looking for stories on the internet about Wiccans, or about things that might effect Pagans. When I found something, I checked out the story in a variety of newspapers … until I had enough for a much longer and more detailed article. Sometimes these articles of mine would run up to a page or two.
But there were two problems, even by 59, I had had a case of Pancreatitis and been diabetic for about a decade. I was already losing energy yearly and the newsletter was not succeeding … I doubt we had reached even 75 people reading it. Bill decided we should open ACTION to the public and I decided that I could not do researched articles and that I would shift to interview format.
This started on Samhain of 2008. The change was noticeable and we soon topped two hundred readers, then three hundred readers, then eight hundred and a thousand readers. Not only did I interview people in the different communities, but in different countries and continents. Now there was new problem, where to find people to interview?
[Blackwell added that today readership runs as high as 3500 per issue. His first interviewees were friends and readers. Then he turned to the forums. Eventually, he expanded outward. Blackwell said that every issue starts with who he is going interview, will they accept and “how much longer can [he] keep this going.” He said, “I ask my gods to either give me inspiration or a kick in the butt, whichever is most effective. So far they have not let me down.”]
TWH: What was your most memorable interview?
CB: Goddess that is hard because they are many. One of my first real enjoyable interviews with a well-known Pagan was Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. He was an original. He has been in so much of our American Pagan history, and is a born story teller. I think his interview was something like eight pages long.
Now, probably, the youngest and most controversial interview was with a boy who published an essay in Witches Voice years ago …He got more reads than any other essay, even those by adults, which meant even the adults were reading him. The controversy came from the fact he wrote an essay on introductory Wicca in simple straight forward words and did it well. He turned out to be thirteen years old. He wanted to be a Wiccan author someday …
But a 13 year boy is vulnerable and there are people in our society who would hurt him, and I didn’t want him to get in any trouble. I only knew his first name, Mike, and never even asked what part of the country he was from. Otherwise, it was just an ordinary interview and damn I hope he does become that writer.
TWH: Through your interviews, what changes or significant trends have you noticed over the past ten years?
CB: Wicca was the big community here in the United States, the best known, and the most recognized with the most books … [Now] there has been more research published books showing up. The Polytheists have got very good at researching not only the Gods, variations of each god’s sacred story and practice depending where it was being done, and by which people. … The Heathens are again publishing more books and creating more groups and a lot of them are fighting against racist ideas successfully… I have seen Druids in charities and civic actions in England. They are showing up in remarkable places.
In Wicca, more of us do interact with other communities and definitely are developing all sorts of things, including charities, continuing civic action the environmental action. But we are also fighting against sexual exploitation of women and children in society and in our own community. So all of our communities are growing and filling more of the gaps. More of us are becoming openly active in our society.
TWH: The Pagan media world has changed significantly since 2004. What role do you see yourself and the AREN newsletter playing in today’s digital media world?
CB: The world has changed greatly since the days that Witches’ Voice first start posting links to newspaper paper articles of interest to Pagans. They inspired Jason to create The Wild Hunt, and I to create ACTION and many other people. The Pagan media has grown a lot since, each filling different niches.
ACTION will last only as long as I and Bill care keep it going. I had hoped to have more helpers but that never happened. I am coming to the end of my life. I have already out lived most of the men in my family… Ironically I think I am happier being an old geezer than at any other part of my life. How amazing that is. Meanwhile my role is to remember each stage of my life and be gentle on the younger folk.
I have accomplished two goals with ACTION. One to eventually open more connections between the different communities and prove I can give a fair interview to anyone with their own words and none of my opinion. No spin from me … Somewhere down the line, my reader will hit a “Ah Ha moment, I could do something like that.” I have played my part, an old disabled Marine Vietnam Veteran, a Wiccan solitary who rarely leaves his home in the desert.TWH: Sometimes we see your interviews on Penton Independent Alternative Media. Are these different or are they republished from ACTION? Where else can we find your work?
CB: My job is to find the story, write the questions to help the person tell it, and to get it out. One of the things that encourages people is their story will get out around the world, at least as far as I have readers. Afterward they are free to repost it anywhere as often as they want.
Penton asked to reprint older articles. And when they find one that they think will interest their readers, I gave the the permission to do so. I, so far, have had a couple of other Pagan organization in other parts of the world do the same, and I give the the same permission. I have had some Russian Pagan friends translate a few of them into several Eastern European languages. I have been told that some of those much newer Pagans consider my interviews as a window onto the rest of the Pagan World.
No one makes any money out of this, and more readers get to read the stories. One, Greek Gods -worshiping Pagan Group in Russia, was having a bit of harassment by local officials. They showed them my interview of them and said it was published in the outside world. The harassment stopped. My tiny bit of the Pagan media, dinky by world media standards, actually had a tiny bit of political clout.
Can you imagine what that felt like for a person never trained in the media, who only learned by the endless mistakes I made and sometimes still make. It is magic and a gift of the gods. So I have had a chance to affect the Pagan communities. One old man in the middle of nowhere. What more could I want?
TWH: You talk about retiring from ACTION. Do you have any other plans or projects?
CB: A model railroad. I have wanted to build one for over fifty years. But I had no space, no money, and none of the skills. Railroad history has been my great love since high school. My second library in my sanctuary is railroad and model railroad [books]. I have many of the kits needed and a fair amount of material for its construction, but that is as far as it has gone…
As I often say, I am in good shape for 79, unfortunately I am only 69. So I make no predictions about anything any more, and live very much in the present. I try to avoid worrying, as worry stops nothing but uses up much limited energy that I have … Life is still interesting, often fun, and I get by.
[The unedited interview is one of the hallmarks of ACTION’s pubication. It is a standard that Blackwell set back when he changed to that format in 2008. He did not want his opinions, his spin, to overtake the words of the interviewee. Unfortunately, our space here is limited, and the above interview is only a taste of our conversation with Blackwell. However, in the spirit of ACTION, we will be posting the full unedited version in the next few days. Please check back for a direct link to that document.]