Column: Loans from the Land

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The shovel’s blade cuts into the rich wet earth. As soon as it lifts its burden of dirt from the ground, brown water slips into the hole. The dirt falls to the ground and then the shovel bites into the firmament again. Do this again and again, bringing along six other shovels with six other sets of hands, and bore a channel into the muck, an empty line that stretches between the lake and the muddy trail at the edge of the woods. The work is hard, especially for hands and backs not used to shoveling, but we reward ourselves with camaraderie and club sandwiches during our breaks. We sit on wooden steps that carry the trail up into the hills, drink cans of Arizona tea, and admire the beauty of the day.

A ruined barn in Cooper County, Missouri [E. Scott].

I am remembering this while standing on the same set of wooden steps, eight years on, near the end of this year’s Heartland Pagan Festival at the Gaea Retreat outside of Kansas City. The point of our digging was to clear a drainage channel for the Blood Trail, one of the paths cutting through the wooded hills of the camp. At that time, we used the Blood Trail as part of the festival’s annual vision quest ritual, and nearly every year the lower part of the trail flooded. We sliced our path through the bog in hopes that perhaps, when the inevitable Friday afternoon thunderstorm rolled through Gaea, our trail would be left useful. I can’t say whether it was or not; I played a part in the ritual that year, and I came in through the trail’s back entrance. But the swamp won in the end – the path below the stairs has as much soup to it as it ever had, and the channel itself has long since been reclaimed by the land. “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields,” writes Henry David Thoreau in his essay Walking, “not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. Hope we can argue with, perhaps, but the future, not at all. The earth reclaims itself.

Walking the Blood Trail, I found myself astounded by how swiftly so many of our improvements have fallen back into the wild. Deeper into the woods, the trail meets a stream; today, the crossing consists of a few rocks large enough to jump across, but only a few years ago a wooden bridge spanned it. Each year a few planks rotted away and had to be replaced; at some point the whole edifice had to be taken down. I don’t mourn the bridge, myself – I fell off it once, tripping over a guide-rope and flipping head-over-heels into the rocky creek below – but I find its absence strange. It is a thing that was and now is not, and despite all my efforts I have never made my peace with that truth. Time remains, for me, a thicket.

Earlier in the festival, I attended a workshop by Chas Clifton in which he discussed some nature writers whom he felt Pagans could stand to read more often. One of those writers, Gary Snyder, wrote of the difference between the words nature and wilderness in his essay The Etiquette of Freedom. For Snyder, nature could mean two things – the first, simply the “outdoors,” but the second, and Snyder’s preferred definition, was that nature included the entire physical world, down to the atoms. “By these lights,” he says, “there is nothing unnatural about New York City, or toxic wastes, or atomic energy, and nothing – by definition – we do or experience is unnatural.”

By contrast, Snyder’s wilderness refers to places where the web of being continues uninhibited by human demands, its plant and animal life intact and living according to their own inherent behaviors. For him, the primary trait of the wild lies in its freedom – wild animals are “free agents,” wild plants are “self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities,” and wild individuals are “without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post.”

It strikes me that even here, on Pagan land, much of our interaction is to bend the earth into a shape more useful to us. Digging channels and building bridges, yes, but also mowing fields to make room for tents and cars, laying in pipes for shower-houses, building halls and pavilions. And yes, even sculpting my beloved wooded shrines, those sacred pockets built of stone and wood and sweat that seem inexhaustible at Gaea, involves reshaping the earth to better suit human desires. The earth itself provides no shrines; it abides in its own sacredness.

I feel tempted to portray the decay of our edifice, its sublimation by the wild, as the earth reasserting itself, stripping away our interventions and renewing the land as something independent of humans. Yet that sets up our relationship with the earth as inherently adversarial, that humanity must necessarily struggle against a hostile wilderness. Such a mindset lends itself to the misuse of the earth that has characterized our last few centuries, in which we have been willing to, say, blow the tops off mountains in hopes of finding a few more veins of coal, or bring the Gulf of Mexico to ruin in search of oil; if the wild is our adversary, there is nothing innately worthwhile about its preservation. That kind of adversarial thinking may kill us all eventually.

I take a step down into the muck of the trail beside the lake. It would not serve very well for our ritual today, but then, we are not having our ritual today. We drained it for a time, and now the swamp has returned; that didn’t stop us from enjoying the dry trail back then. I don’t think of the swamp as my adversary. It’s better to think of decay as the earth slowly reclaiming something it has loaned to us, for a time: we build our bridges, dig our channels, erect our shrines, and the earth is happy to help us meet our needs of the moment. But we have an obligation not to ask for too much, or for too long. The structure need not last forever to have been worthwhile, and we need not take too much to be satisfied.

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