RICHMOND, Va. — Standing Rock and the Keystone XL pipeline have attracted most of the media attention in recent months, but there are many pipelines proposed or being built in the United States, some through sensitive wilderness areas. In Virginia, Pagans have been standing shoulder to shoulder with Native Americans and local landowners in their effort to stop the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coastline pipelines.
These pipelines “have become more urgent in northwest Virginia, where fracking wouldn’t be financially worthwhile,” according to Maya Sparks, an activist who has been involved in the recent efforts primarily by providing communications and esoteric support.
“Pipelines do transport fracked gas, and that’s what they want in Virginia.”
Sparks is one of the three core planners in Earth Allies, a chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, along with Lady Tes and Kira Young. Leaders of that organization called upon members to get involved in the pipeline fight, and she was one of the many who answered that call. Young, who is Native American, declined to be interviewed as she was under the weather, and this reporter was unable to contact Lady Tes by press time.
The idea of casting a circle around the capitol in Richmond came from Mara Eve Robbins, another activist who is a member of BREDL. Robbins noted that she was not speaking on behalf of that organization during the interview for this article.
“It’s been three years, five months, and 10 days today since I’ve been fighting pipelines,” said Robbins, when people along the route started getting knocks on their doors from land agents.
Robbins comes by direct action through her upbringing: her grandfather had a cross burned on his lawn for integrating his Methodist church, her father organized unsuccessfully against high-tension power lines, and one of the teachers in her Quaker boarding school was arrested for protesting injustice.
Rural areas are not targeted just because of the smaller populations, Robbins said, but also because they lack the financial and educational resources to fight. “It’s about environmental racism, and environmental justice,” she said, “and taking advantage of vulnerable communities.”With magical intentions being set by forming a circle, activists such as Sparks who were unable to travel to Richmond were asked to provide remote spiritual work. “Incorporating spirituality into this movement is exciting,” said Sparks, a priestess of Spiral Grove, which she described as an “interfaith community of nature spirituality.”
Robbins counts herself among those who call themselves spiritual, but not religious. She values a deep connection with the Earth, and was inspired to suggest casting a circle to raise awareness and encourage attendance at public meetings. She’s also inspired by those at Standing Rock, who were “not protestors, but protectors” of the waters.
The incorporation of spiritual practices — particularly those of minority traditions — into this movement is something Sparks believes can be attributed to the water protectors at Standing Rock, who performed ceremonies of their own Native American tribes.
“The drumming was one of the first things injected in this movement,’ she said, and since Standing Rock, “we’ve done several drumming circles for the protection and healing of the earth.”
She sees this emerging as an interfaith effort, with indigenous and Pagan practices being supported by Christians who are respectful of different spiritual approaches. Echoing the sentiments of Colorado-based activist and Druid Casey McCarthy, Sparks believes it’s critical to stand with Native Americans, but not attempt to speak for them. It’s one of the reasons she values the contributions of Kira Young as highly as she does.
Robbins, too, values listening to those most affected. Landowners along the route have different concerns than student protestors, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot work together if those concerns are all heard. “Students can take risks landowners cannot,” she said, and while their motivations are different, their fears about water quality are no less valid.
At Richmond, upwards of 900 people joined the circle around the capitol in advance of a public pipeline meeting. That may be, in part, because of efforts to convince people that all pipelines are the same fight; Robbins and her associates have been more than happy to help people in neighboring counties when the proposed routes have been shifted away from their own.
Referencing her own health and age, Sparks said that she is grateful to those who are able to be on the front lines for this efforts when she is herself unable.
As she’s working in public relations, Sparks has concluded that there’s simply not enough news coverage about pipelines and the environmental harm resulting from construction and breakages of them. She sees hope in what she calls this “time of revelation” in areas such as sex abuse and corrupt political leaders, and believes that soon the “hidden, horrible things” about the fossil fuel industry will also come under public scrutiny.
While pipelines which cross state lines fall under jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, questions of water quality can be used to at the state level to thwart construction. In Virginia, the water control board members have decided to certify both of these pipelines, but with one important difference: the Atlantic Coastline certification is conditioned upon the completion of additional environmental impact reports, while no such requirement has been imposed on the Mountain Valley plan.
“Water permitting is one of the best ways to fight this on a state level,” said Robbins.
While she’s a pacifist, she uses terms of battle without irony, for she has recently come to recognize her role as a warrior, as well. “The water focus is indicative of the fights of the future,” to protect its quality. The rains which fall upon her home part of Virginia “feed three major watersheds, and four major metropolitan areas in 28 counties.”
Given the support for pipelines offered by Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, Sparks called this a “miracle,” one which she feels is absolutely needed. Mitigation plans for erosion and sediment control, as well as for the protection of karst areas along the route, must be completed.
“They were trying to push through without these plans,” Sparks said, and while the project is now being called “pre-certified” by some, she believes that it may come to light that adequate mitigation is impossible. “It’s very hard to control sediment and erosion in mountaintop areas.”
Sparks added, “I would like to think that the prayer and ceremony and ritual and light work made the difference, that it may have opened up the minds of the people on the water board.”
Robbins is a bit less optimistic about any certifications being denied, and is now considering this a new phase of the battle.
“I am hopeful, and jaded,” she said, in part because she’s seen “examples of corruption on all levels” of government. She notes that while she was able to provide a powerful water protection proclamation, she was later asked to leave, as she detailed in this video interview:
As with every aspect of efforts to stop the use of fossil fuels, pipeline construction is supported by deep corporate pockets that fund, among other things, “outrage managers” who are psychologically trained to undermine the opposition. For those wishing to end this chapter of human history, a culture of cooperation, tenacity, and self-care is all they have to counter those vast financial resources. We will continue to report on these issues, particularly when Pagans and polytheists bring their own set of skills to bear.