I find the Pagan nature sanctuary to be an odd entity, when I stop to think about it. In the past few months I have considered how these physical places that we have given names like Gaea Retreat and Oak Spirit Sanctuary interact with the metaphysical and political beliefs in which we clothe them. We have shaped these places, built structures atop them, sculpted their landscapes — to what end? What draws us to the idea of having “Pagan land” in the first place?Margot Adler wrote of the early days of these Pagan nature sanctuaries in Drawing Down the Moon. She describes the movement to create Pagan nature sanctuaries as the result of several desires on the part of the Pagan community: to have land where rituals can take place in privacy, to have access to wilderness settings, and to protect wild areas.
The desire for a landscape conducive to magick, the desire to be in nature, the desire to protect it: these are the reasons, past and present, for Pagans to create their own holy spaces, building them into landscapes suffused with history and purpose. They seem to me the purest expression of Pagan pilgrimage; unlike Stonehenge or Þingvellir, which gain their significance to modern Pagans through a fraught connection to ancient Pagan forebears, these sanctuaries were created by modern Pagans to directly meet their modern needs. They do not exist in the awkward state of mediation common to the ancient European sites, held primarily as historical monuments and tourist attractions by the state and only sometimes opened to religious use. Instead, the sanctuaries are held directly by the Pagans who use them, and the state intervention in their operation falls into the same kind of relationship held by other kinds of churches and nonprofit entities.
These desires clash with one another. Take the first item of Adler’s list, the desire for a place to perform rituals in private: although technically one can perform a ritual anywhere, in practice, rituals require a landscape shaped to their purpose by human agents. This can seem to be a simple requirement, such as an expanse of level ground large enough for people to stand together in a circle. But even that requires a substantial amount of upkeep: grass must be mowed, sand must be trucked in, trees must be cut for the bonfire.
Many rituals do not conform to the simplicity of the big circle. A ritual we perform every year at Heartland — our so-called “vision quest” — uses an entire backwoods trail as its stage, which requires annual maintenance to keep the trail safe for the pilgrims who walk it. Mowing, hacking down saplings with machetes, digging trenches for the rain, pouring concrete to make a staircase in a steep hill, building bridges over creeks, hanging glow-sticks from low branches to guide travelers in the dark.
In every Pagan camp I’ve visited, and especially at Gaea, these specialized ritual areas have been carved out throughout the land, some right off the gravel roads that cars traverse and others tucked away in the back country in hollows that do not show up on maps of the property. And of course, these sites specifically designated for ceremony and magick are abetted by many spaces that are not: the mess halls and shower houses, the sleeper cabins, the vast and mud-plagued fields of straw that serve as parking lots in the festival season. The way we use the land demands this infrastructure and upkeep, no doubt. If we want to hold mass rituals that can involve dozens or hundreds of people, we have to shape the land to accommodate their numbers, and if the way we are to pay taxes on this Pagan land is through inviting those hundreds to pay to camp there for the better part of a week at a Pagan festival, then we have to make provisions for their transportation and hygiene.
All of this is at odds with a desire to protect the wilderness, Adler’s third item. Whatever the landscape once looked like, it now bears the mark of our blades; it reflects our image. That’s to say nothing of the vast amounts of gasoline, motor oil, and plastic required to let us visit these places and to maintain them in the manner to which we have become accustomed. To have access to nature (item two), we must build roads and cordon off fields to hold our masses of cars and RVs. In order to have this place to revel in nature, we must do violence to nature.
I might add a fourth item to the list, something Adler brings up a little later in Drawing Down the Moon when discussing the early days of the Pagan festivals that often take place at these sanctuaries: the desire to live an unapologetically and openly Pagan life, if only for a holiday weekend or even a hike of two hours on a back trail. This desire — to escape the world of patriarchal, self-denying oppression to which we subject ourselves to on a daily basis — is perhaps the strongest urge we have to make our way to these sanctuaries, where we might be able to connect to a more authentic way of being.
“To go out walking and not have the fear of ravenous glances, cat-calls, come-ons, and other unasked-for responses,” one of the Witches Adler interviewed writes, to feel the sun, wind, fire, and water on my naked body without feeling vulnerable to physical or psychological attack….To feel that I can be whoever I am with total acceptance and unselfconsciousness — and to have that feel as natural as breathing.
These words are beautiful, an image of the better world that we might hope to create through our Paganism, a sliver of a world that has grown past the oppressive bonds of power that surround us in our daily lives in a patriarchal capitalist society. There is the idea that in these retreats, we might built that better world in miniature. For me, it’s a powerful image, intoxicating, the reason I love places like the Gaea Retreat so much.
I am all too painfully aware that such a vision remains a mirage. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, oppression does not magickally disperse once we walk through the gates of a sacred space; we bring it in with us, embedded in our flesh and our spirits. We manifest our sexism, racism, our thoughtless capitalistic exploitation just as readily under the trees and sky as we do under concrete and glass, and worse, the freedom implicit in the communities we have created around these sacred places draws some of us to act out deadlier games of manipulation, oppression, and abuse than we would dare to attempt in the policed locales outside of it. The promise of freedom, to some, reads only as an invitation to further power over their fellow pilgrims.
One response to these contradictions would be to simply throw our hands in the air, declare that a Pagan land is as contaminated as everything else, and abandon the concept altogether, bhat seems too fatalistic to me, and it condemns those true moments of magick that can be found only in places like this. I don’t think any our of Pagan retreats will ever be the utopias we dream of, but it does us no good to deny any part of what lies before us: the freedom is there, the magick is there, the oppression is there, the pain is there. None of that is to say that they are coequals, that we should accept one as the price of the other.
We owe it to ourselves and to everyone around us to do our part in improving what we have, building the good and casting out the bad. Despite all the muddle our retreats present to us, I think they remain somewhere to start. I still believe in Paganism and the things we can create with it. When the moon rises and the fire warms and the chanting of disparate pilgrims fills the night, I can still see this land as it reflects a better world. The magick comes to me then, just as natural as breathing.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.