Spirits of the south, powers of fire
Come and be with us in our circle tonight…
There’s a story my father tells about his early days in the craft. They were holding a ritual in the space above an occult bookstore that used to sit on Cherokee Street in St. Louis. A couple was visiting from somewhere in the northern part of the world and they got invited to the ceremony. When the ritual got started, the participants started by casting a circle and invoking the elements, the way they always had. When they got to parts about summoning the forces of fire and water, the northerners went pale and refused to go any further. “We know what the elements are like, where we come from,” they said (or so the legend goes.) “They aren’t things you bring into your house on purpose.”
That story keeps coming into my mind lately, while I read about the bushfires that are burning all across Australia. The figures are staggering: 26 million acres of land burned, 26 people killed, thousands of homes destroyed – and, most sobering, a billion animals killed. Several endangered species are likely to be declared extinct as a result of the fires. That number cannot help but rise: just today, National Public Radio reports that two of the largest fires had merged with one another, creating a single blaze that is three times larger than any fire reported in the history of California.
As a rule, we are not good with large numbers; a billion of anything, whether it is animals or dollars, is a sum beyond what our minds tend to be capable of visualizing. This inability to process the scope of the issue has led some to despair and resignation. The problem feels too big to solve; what else can we do except harden our hearts and turn inward, worrying only about what is within arm’s reach? I have seen that sentiment from several Pagan acquaintances – a sense that all there is to do now is to cultivate one’s own piece of ground (if one is lucky to have one) and shut out the rest of the tragedy that is climate change. The pain is too much for the size of our hearts.
I have not yet come to that point, although I can see it on the map as a place I may someday visit. I am thankful that for now I still have enough rage to keep my despair at bay, rage at politicians like Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, who even in the face of his country burning still shows little interest in creating a sustainable energy policy, or like my own president, Donald Trump, who in the face of continents burning has introduced rules that would eliminate what pitifully small environmental protection policies the United States already has. And I have rage for myself and for the rest of us, too, rage because we continue to allow our rulers to lie to us about the future, rage that we haven’t cast them out and created something better.
Spirits of the south, powers of fire,
Lend us your passion for our circle tonight…
In my circle, when we talk about fire, we talk as much about ideas like passion and courage and ardor as we do about the actual flame. This is understandable – the elements we call into our ritual are more than just their basic material forms. They are, magickally speaking, what all creation is made of, in both the physical and metaphysical sense, and often when we are in a religious frame of mind, we are concerned with the spiritual and the metaphorical more than the literal. But at the root of the practice is the idea that those things are one and the same. The emotional flame is the physical flame. As above, so below.
It’s hard to reconcile that mindset when looking at a great disaster like this. The brushfires have spread so far and destroyed so much, and are likely to do much more before the fire season ends in March. As a Pagan, how does one make sense of it?
For me, it begins with an acknowledgment of responsibility: we, particularly we of the imperialist and capitalist West, have invited the spirit of fire into our lives, and we have abused it. (These issues are not the fault of the indigenous people of Australia; they were brought in by the settlers.) There have always been brushfire seasons in Australia; some species even incorporated it into their life cycles, using the fire as a means of reproduction and growth. Their escalation into something profoundly damaging, not just to humans but to the other denizens of the continent, comes because of human actions. The earth has become more parched and the fires have grown more deadly because our desires to extract more and more from the earth have not been checked. In that sense, the brushfires remain the mirror of our own rapaciousness. As above, so below.
Spirits of the south, powers of fire
Light the way forward in our circle tonight…
Right now, there are Pagans working magick to combat the fires, and there are many people putting their lives at risk to contain the flames as best as they can be contained. But there is still more to be done. While we do everything we can at the moment to contain this year’s fires, we must look forward as well. There is a brushfire season every year; the difference between it being a healthy part of the natural cycle and it being a maelstrom that consumes a billion of our fellow creatures is human action. We will not make the right choice by accident – we will have to choose purposefully to restore our relationship with the spirits of fire.