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.
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.
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 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.