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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.

30

Eric O. Scott —  July 12, 2013 — 9 Comments
http://www.flickr.com/photos/harmfulguy/13866569/

The Stone Pavillion in Tower Grove Park. Photo by Brennan O’Keefe.

We are walking down a side street off of Grand Boulevard in south St. Louis, my parents and I. City ordinances typically prohibit the amount of sushi we have just consumed, and absolutely forbid following such gluttony with gelato. But we eat it anyway. It’s a Tuesday, which is unusual for us; we normally have dinner together on Wednesdays. But tonight is special.

“I was just talking about it with Kenny,” my father says, referring to his closest friend. “About the people who were there. It was a completely different universe back then, huh?”

My mother shakes her head. “Not that different…”

“Well, do you remember who was there? Tim and Nancy, Becky, Kenny, Al Lambert-”

Mom cuts him off. “Al Lambert was not there. He hadn’t been around for months by then.”

“He absolutely was,” says Dad.

“No, he was not!” says Mom.

They stop to argue in the middle of the sidewalk, right next to the First Church of Divine Science. They give each other annoyed glances, but they’re chuckling all the while.

“How much you want to bet?” asks Dad.

Mom pauses, thinks about just how right she is. “Twenty.”

“Twenty bucks,” he echoes. They pinky-swear on it, and we’re finally free to move on towards the truck.

Despite the bet, neither of them claims to know where they kept the wedding photos in order actually prove or disprove the presence of one Alvin Lambert. I suspect neither of my parents is sure enough of their memories to commit to an archeological expedition for the photos of their wedding; after all, thirty years is a long time to remember.

*                *                *

My parents were married in 1983. It was not a big wedding; they held it in Tower Grove Park, only a few blocks away from the sushi restaurant where we celebrated their anniversary. They rented the only pavillion in the park with an electric outlet so that they could bring dad’s stereo for music, and the catering was provided by Lee’s Fried Chicken. Mom claims the catering van had a plastic chicken leg mounted to the top, which is one detail I’ve always had some trouble believing.

Dad’s uncle Lark, who had a Missionary Baptist church, did the preaching and the marrying. I think this was a choice borne of practicality and frugality, just like dad getting married in his old gray suit instead of a tuxedo, or having the chicken van handle the food. They didn’t have much money. It wasn’t a perfectly sculpted dream wedding, and they knew that; knowing my parents’ character, I suspect that the ramshackle elements of the wedding were a point of pride for them. They’ve always thought of themselves as more Onslow and Daisy than Richard and Hyacinth.

It was a Christian wedding – because what else could they have had, back then? – but my parents had already been involved with the occult for a few years at that point. They had been going to Golden Dawn meetings since the late 70s, and from there had ventured into Wicca, joining Pleiades, the coven my family is still in today. Most of the elders of my coven were there – not really elders back then, of course. They were barely older than I am now; kids, really.

Did it bother them going in? They had only been Pagan for a few years at that point, I guess; I doubt they could have seen more than a couple of handfastings at that point. And I don’t think the idea of having just a handfasting would have ever been an option for them. Paganism might have been a major part of my parents’ lives even then, but it’s never been the entirety of their identities. It’s not as though they were snakes shedding a skin, after all. They were still the people they were before they found the Golden Dawn and Pleiades. Paganism was an additive, not a substitution.

Almost every day I find myself thinking about how my parents and their friends managed to make those first few brave steps into the Pagan world. I think about all the obstacles they had to negotiate, all the trouble and effort, the plain damned improbability of it all.

And perhaps I think about it even more this year. Not just because of my parents’ 30th anniversary, but because of the impending developments in my own life. I proposed to my girlfriend at Beltane this year, at Tower Grove Park, the same place my parents were married. Now we’re facing many of the same questions my parents did: what sort of wedding to have, which relatives to appease, wondering when we’ll actually have time to do it. (My girlfriend – fiancé now, I suppose, though the world is still strange to my tongue – is probably going off to Central Asia to do her dissertation research in the next year. Whether that means we get married sooner or later is anyone’s guess.) She comes from a very Catholic family, and we haven’t had that talk with her parents yet, and that conversation scares me to death.

These are different problems than my parents faced, and yet very much the same. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I know how my parents dealt with these things when they were my age – I doubt any child ever knows. That’s the story of the species.

I talk here mostly about my childhood as a Pagan, as a product of Pagan parents and a Pagan community. But that can’t be taken in isolation: this person I am, these beliefs I hold, these words I write, they all trace back not just to the religion my parents practiced, but to their working-class childhoods, to the troubles they had with their families, to the chance meetings that became decades-long friendships. I am not just their religion; I am their anger, and their hopes, and their failures. I am the thousand tiny coincidences that shaped them and therefore shaped me.

It is a tapestry whose handiwork I can only just begin to see, much less understand. As for me. As for everyone.

*                *                *

We are in the truck, driving away from the anniversary dinner. It’s the hottest day of the year, and work is terrible, and the waiter never did bring us an extra dish for the soy sauce. But we are full, and we are happy, and we are going home.

I don’t think anybody ever fully understands their parents; I surely don’t. It’s too complicated a relationship, too full of memory. But thankfully, understanding is not a prerequisite for gratitude, much less for love.

Thirty years is a long time. Happy anniversary, mom and dad.

Certain names obscured to protect the guilty.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Daniel LaPlante. Photo: The Boston Herald.

Daniel LaPlante. Photo: The Boston Herald.

  • A new documentary, The Art of Disappearing, tells the story of Haitian Voodoo priest Amon Fremon, who visited the People’s Republic of Poland in 1980. Quote: “What I did learn from the brief research I did on him, is that he believed that he was a descendant of Polish soldiers who were abandoned in Haiti, after the Haitian Revolution. They intermarried with Haitians, and may have established themselves at a settlement in Casales. And although they probably practiced Catholicism in the early days, some would later become practioners of Voodoo.” Sounds interesting!
  • The definition of who’s an Indian in the United States is causing some heartache (and fiscal strain) as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act rolls out. Quote: “The definition of “Indian” in the section of the law that deals with the insurance exemption appears to be the same as the one in 25 USC § 450b. That means only members of federally recognized tribes and shareholders in Alaska Native regional or village corporations are considered “Indian.” But that definition is narrower than the one found in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was made permanent by the ACA. For example, California Indians with allotments have long been considered eligible for IHS care.” A hearing is scheduled to address these concerns.
  • Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll is becoming this generation’s Pat Robertson. Quote: “He’s been heavily criticized by Christian voices across the spectrum, and according to reports, several attendees at the Catalyst Conference in Dallaswalked out during his talk. He’s even being marginalized by some Reformed Christians (i.e. Calvinists) who precipitated his rise to prominence. “I’m not a Mark Driscoll kind of Calvinist,” some have remarked to me.” There’s good money in being a divisive lightning rod if you can withstand the weather.
  • StudioCanal has initiated a worldwide search for long-missing footage from the 1973 cult-classic film “The Wicker Man.” Quote: “Director Robin Hardy has endorsed a worldwide appeal launched by StudioCanal to locate original film materials relating to cult horror classic The Wicker Man. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film about a policeman (Edward Woodward) sent to a remote island village in search of a missing girl, whom the townsfolk claim never existed. It also stars Christopher Lee. StudioCanal intends to mark the occasion by releasing the ‘most complete version of the film possible’.” There’s a special Facebook page created for the hunt. There have been a number of attempts to get at the “original” directors cut, with an “extended” version released in 2001 (and later packed in a deluxe box set). I’d love to see a high-quality restored director’s cut. 
  • “Evil spiritual entities” is not a real diagnosis. There’s no evidence base. 
  • Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon (no, not that Arthur Pendragon) is protesting plans to display human remains at the Stonehenge visitors center in England. Quote: “This is out of step with the feelings of many of the people and groups I represent, who would rather the ancient dead were reburied and left to rest in peace and, where appropriate, samples kept for research and copies put on display [...]  We shall not take this development lightly and will oppose any such intention by English Heritage at Stonehenge. I cannot rule out non-violent direct action against the proposals.” As I’ve noted before on this site, there is no consensus among British Pagans on this issue, with many, most notably Pagans for Archeology, opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains. Read more about King Arthur, here.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

- T. Thorn Coyle has issued an appeal to help raise money for the American Magic Umbanda House of Oakland, to help rebuild their sacred Lubisha, destroyed last year in a devastating fire. Thanks to generous donations, including one from Thorn’s Solar Cross Temple, they’ve already reached their modest goal of $450. However, I think they could use a cushion, don’t you? Any money above the goal will be used towards House related expenses, including their famous Pomba Gira ritual at PantheaCon, so let’s help out. “May the sound of drumming rise.”


- In other fundraising news, Datura Press, a small esoteric publisher that publishes the work of Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Gareth Knight,  Alan Richardson, and W.E. Butler, is in the midst of a campaign to buy advertising and discounted copies of their own titles so they can expand and make a better profit. Owner-editor Debbie Chapnick says that, quote, “the company is at a crossroads. People want these books. I have been contacted by distributors and bookshops from all over the world. All I need to really get this going is to have enough books in stock to fill the need.” The goal is $10,000, with 12 days left to go.  Any money raised over the goal will be donated to the New Alexandrian Library Project.

- Humanist-officiated weddings are on-track to receive full legal status in Ireland, a classification that only Health Service Executive registrars and members of religious bodies previously received. While Pagan Federation Ireland has permission to legally marry couples in Ireland under the Civil Registration Act of 2004, the new changes could allow any “philosophical and nonconfessional body” to also perform legally binding ceremonies. Starting in 2007, Ireland allowed State-recognized weddings in the venue of the couple’s choice, instead of having to hold two ceremonies.

- A teenager in Britain was convicted of religiously harassing a McDonald’s employee who is Pagan. The youth repeatedly returned over a period of two months to engage in verbal abuse, despite being told to stop by the employee and management. Barrister Laura Austin, who mitigated on behalf of the teen, said he “did not realise paganism was a recognised religion,” and that this was “this is the first case of its kind,” so far as she knew. The teen was sentenced to community service, and a restraining order was issued.

- The 2010 U.S. Religion Census, released this week by the Association of Religion Data Archives, has some interesting data for those who are following the shape of (non-Christian) religion in America. While the data is skewed towards congregational models, it did show that “Buddhist congregations were reported in all 50 states, and Hindu houses of worship in 49 states.” All together, “the number of non-Christian congregations – synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious centers – increased by nearly a third, from 8,795 in the 2000 study to 11,572 in the 2010 census.” Meanwhile, Mainline Protestants “cratered,” Catholic numbers decreased overall (with a growing disconnect between “active” and non-active adherents), and non-denominational Christian houses of worship exploded.

- Oh, did I miss the National Day of Prayer this year? Maybe because it’s almost exclusively focused on “Judeo-Christian” modes of worship and conceptions of deity. As CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero put it, “how to pray as a nation when some believers affirm more than one God and some affirm fewer?”

- Out & About Newspaper in Tennessee profiles author Christopher Penczak in advance of his visit to the fifteenth annual Pagan Unity Festival. Quote: “I think of witchcraft, rather than just Wicca, as a vocation and tradition that springs up all around the world, not in any one culture, there is a mystical, healing, cunning tradition in most cultures. The inner experience of the mysteries is the same, and I like the hunt for all wisdom around those mysteries.”

- SF Weekly looks at David Talbot’s upcoming book “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love,” which charts the shifts in San Francisco’s culture and politics between 1967 – 1982. Author, actor activist, and former Digger Peter Coyote is quoted as saying “I blame Mick Jagger for f***ing with black magic,” when asked about the disaster that was Altamont. Sounds like an interesting read.

- It looks like the recent attention paid to infamous Nigerian Christian leader Helen Ukpabio may have had an effect. It seems the witch-hunter canceled her March trip to Texas, and a scheduled May visit as well. Ukpabio claims the the cancellations were due to death threats from Stepping Stones Nigeria, a charity that aids children accused of witchcraft, and is highly critical of her. Blogger Richard Bartholomew is highly skeptical of these claims, pointing out that Ukpabio’s church has been slandering that organization for some time now.

- In a final note, I’d like to recognize Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch of the Beastie Boys, who passed away yesterday after a years-long battle with cancer. Yauch was an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism, famously commemorated in the song “Bodhisattva Vow,” and worked for the Tibetan independence movement. However, for most members of Generation X, the Beastie Boys were a game-changing Hip Hop group that shook off their earlier party-boy lunk-headed image to release amazing albums like “Paul’s Boutique,” “Check Your Head,” and “Ill Communication.” Praised as “revolutionary MCs” by Chuck D, the Beasties helped define what Hip Hop would become, and oversaw its entrance into the mainstream. My consolation in this tragedy is that MCA has left behind a lot of awesome music, and that he’s now a Hip Hop Bodhisattva watching over all those who suffer.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Pagan Weddings in Ireland: Just a few quick news notes for you this Sunday, starting with the news that Ireland will now recognize weddings performed by officiants from Pagan Federation Ireland as legally binding.

“Following a five-year campaign the Irish state has now recognized the right of the Pagan Federation Ireland to perform weddings. Couples will now be able to be legally married after a ceremony that concludes with jumping over a broomstick to mark crossing over from an old life to a new one.”

Before this, Pagan couples would have to get legally married at a separate civil ceremony, and then participate in a religious ceremony of their choosing. A circumstance that still holds in the UK (unless you’re Christian). Eight solemnizers are currently being trained under the new guidelines, and no doubt wedding planners who work with Pagan tourists are excited about these new developments.

Invisible Vodou Aid: The BBC  examines why Vodou, practiced by such a large number of Haitians, isn’t more visible in post-earthquake relief efforts. What emerges are more accusations that some Christian aid missions are excluding and turning away Vodou practitioners.

“Some Christian communities do not want to give food to voodoo followers,” [Theodore 'Lolo' Beaubrun] says. ”As soon as they see people wearing peasant clothes or voodoo handkerchiefs, they put them aside and deny them food. This is something I’ve seen.”

It should be noted that this isn’t the attitude of all aid organizations, many, most notably Catholic charities, have been welcoming  towards Vodou practitioners. In addition, Vodou practitioners took part, along with Christians, in a recent 3-day prayer ceremony held for earthquake victims. Still, these incidents of exclusion are deeply troubling, and point to a thread of “aid” that is more about winning souls than saving lives.

Pagan Holidays in New Jersey: In a final note, word has been spreading through Pagan e-mail lists that the New Jersey State Board of Education has added the eight Wiccan/Pagan “Wheel of the Year” holidays to its “official” list.

“I just got a call from the NJ Board of Education. They are adding 8 Wiccan/Pagan holidays to the “official” BoE calendar! They just wanted to double check the dates with me, in response to my letter to them in December. They said it will be adopted as official policy next month at the March BoE meeting!! our holidays plus a couple Jewish ones they apparently missed.”

This means that school children in New Jersey can now take an excused absence for those eight holidays without question. The addition of Pagan holidays came after  a Salem County School refused to grant an excused absence for Yule to a Pagan student, which started a letter-writing campaign by local Pagan parents. Congratulations to the New Jersey Pagans for this win!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!