Across the street from my house is a silver maple tree whose branches stretch up and up. In the summer, the maple leaves bloom out with such fecundity that they make a canopy over the street. On lazy July days I like nothing more than to stretch out on the couch below the big window in my living room and watch that tree. I see the shape of its leaves and the sway of its branches, how the green and yellow and brown of it plays against the bright blue of the sky, and it absorbs my attention like no film or book could. Given the chance, I would spend all my hours looking at that tree.
I am sure that most of us in the Pagan world have felt like that. If we are serious about our Paganism, that comes with a delight in the things that excite our Paganism, whether that is enjoying the natural world, or practicing rituals and devotions, or studying books of spells or ancient lore. If we could, we might submerge ourselves in these joys for the rest of our days on Earth, leaving behind other concerns.
I stepped out to check the mailbox today in this cold January afternoon and looked across the street at the tree. Its branches are winter-barren now, and I could see the skeleton of it tracing out across the gray sky. It had a different kind of beauty from its summer color, but still, it brought me joy to look at it.
Yet even as I did so, I thought of something Thoreau wrote in his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts”: “We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them,” he writes. “When we are not serene we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.”
Thoreau was writing about how blithely the people around him could celebrate their own independence while sending Anthony Burns, a Black man who had escaped from slavery, back into bondage. Thoreau would have preferred to spend his time with the lakes and with the woods, but he could not turn his head from the politics of his time. “I had never respected the government near to which I lived,” he writes in the same essay, “but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it.”
This is a pleasant thought, and one that I think many of us would concur with: it surely would be nice if we could put all the messy thoughts of law, governance, and politics to the side and focus on the things that truly matter: the infinite splendor of nature, the storied beauty of myth and ritual, the numinous feeling of connection to the gods. But the fact is that such a separation is impossible. As Pagans, we live in the world as it is, this real and tangible place. We believe that the sacred is something we can reach out and touch. And because of this, we must also engage with the forces that can assert power over what we find holy.
It has been, to say the least, a tumultuous week in the United States, where TWH is based, and in TWH’s newsroom. Our two most recent articles, both of which addressed the appearance of Heathen symbols during the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol building last week, are among the most widely-read articles TWH has ever published. For the most part, they have been received well, including by sources outside of the Pagan and Heathen communities. There has, naturally, also been some criticism, much of which we are taking to heart and discussing in the newsroom.
One critique that came up in commentary on both articles is the idea that the modern Pagan movement should not involve itself in politics, that it should remain apart from those kinds of concerns. Some argued that by even writing about the “QAnon Shaman,” Jake Angeli (a.k.a Jacob Chansley), we were doing a disservice to the Pagan community by implying there was a connection between Heathenry and the rioters. (“He’s not even Heathen,” some replied, a fact that we had reported in our original story – and as Luke Babb pointed out yesterday, the fact that our first response is so often to distance ourselves from these extremists is in itself indicative of the problem we face.)
There is some validity to the idea that what TWH does best is cover stories about the “Pagan world” – what makes this publication unique is our coverage of figures, organizations, and events that are openly Pagan, and which would not receive much attention from the mainstream press. (To be sure, this is, and will remain, the heart of our commentary and reporting.)
But we can’t pretend that the Pagan community exists in a bubble. The politics of Christian Nationalism and Dominionism, for example, are powerful threats to our communities, and we have covered those topics since the foundation of TWH. And although they are less overtly tied to religion, many other national issues, such as environmental protection, racial and gender prejudice, and, most recently, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, affect Pagans in profound ways.
The politics surrounding these issues matter to the Pagan community, and Pagan voices should be part of the conversation around them. That’s the case in the pages of TWH, and, I hope, also true in the world at large. Thoreau joined his mother Cynthia and his sisters Helena and Sophia in becoming a powerful voice for abolition despite his preference for solitude in the Massachusetts woods. We may also prefer to spend our days in nature, or at our altars – but for the sake of the world we worship, we must also spend our days in the statehouses and the streets.