“Somebody killed Pan,” she said. My best friend Sarah and her family had staked out a plot of land at the Gaea Retreat outside of Kansas City as their favorite campsite. It was a secluded spot, just big enough for three tents, tucked to the side of the gravel road and wire fence that marked one edge of Gaea. They called it Shamballa, which invariably made me think of the Three Dog Night song – I can tell my sister by the flowers in her eyes, on the road to Shamballa. Underneath an evergreen tree inside the entrance to Shamballa, Sarah had placed an old concrete idol of the god Pan.
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.
I have been thinking about land and sacredness, about the idea that we can choose a spot on a survey map and declare it sacred ground. My thoughts are grounded in the Gaea Retreat, the Pagan nature center in Kansas where I most often make my pilgrimages, but thinking about that particular place leads me to think about places like it more generally. What does it mean to call a place “sacred?” What does that mean for our relationship to it? And how do our religious, spiritual, and magickal conceptions of a place sit alongside the legal and social borders of the location?
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.
It is Monday morning, Memorial Day. Another Heartland Pagan Festival has come and gone. At the moment I am sitting in the muddy nook I picked for a campsite, looking up at the canopy and wishing that my tent would simply put itself away, perhaps animated by a helpful djinn. My wife suggests that it’s better off that tents don’t do this; even a helpful tent-spirit might sometimes get the notion to pack itself away with us still inside. I do not hear her voice when she tells me this.