My last post on invasive plants wasn’t just random musing; I’m about to start working with one of them, Rosa multiflora. I’ve been gardening and making herbal remedies and of course cooking and eating plants for many years now, but this is an altogether deeper level of work I’m about to begin, unlike anything I’ve ever done before.
It was initiated by the rose herself.
As a garden lover, I think roses are nice, but they probably aren’t my favorite flower (I think that title would go to Japanese irises). Of course rose flowers are beautiful and I do adore the scent. But have you ever looked at the rose bush itself? They’re really not all that attractive.
But those are your ornamental rose varieties. Wild roses are something else again. Wild roses are brimming over with magic and fierce beauty. And as an herbalist, I am in love with rose medicine (I use that term broadly, encompassing the physical, spiritual, and magical). I need rose medicine. (Here’s a good monograph on rose medicine. And another.)
At the farmhouse where I used to live, there were a couple of multiflora rose bushes that had been tolerated as ornamentals–it is a beautiful species–but it grows wild everywhere here. In fact it’s extraordinarily difficult to restrict or eradicate because the gracefully arching canes that make it so aesthetically pleasing even when not in flower (well, I think so) will root wherever they touch the ground, and it tolerates many types of soils and habitats. “In Ohio, it is especially troublesome in the southeastern part of the state” <– understatement (source).
Its thorns are prolific and unusually vicious: I’ve had minor pricks that barely drew blood continue to ache for days afterwards. They can be strongly recurved and seem to reach out and grab you, snagging absolutely every part of you and your clothes. It is universally loathed by people who live or work in the countryside.
But not me. Early on I formed a certain grudging respect for this rose. Yes, she hurt me a lot. Tore up some of my clothes. But she’s a fighter and a survivor–nay, a conqueror.
And yet she’s also every bit a Rose, that millennia-old symbol of love, beauty, and sensuality. In June she is covered in fragrant heaps of little roses–white, some tinged ever so softly pink, with golden centers–beloved of bees. In fall her branches are beaded with tiny glistening scarlet hips, beloved of birds.
My favorite of her common names is “rambler rose,” but in my mind and heart I have always known her as the Warrior Rose. She has an intense female-warrior vibe that I realize I have barely begun to understand. Now she says we have work to do, and I have no idea what that is going to entail, exactly, but it starts now.
Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?
In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.
Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.
St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.
A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.
Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.
This year I will be:
Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.
What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:
Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Meditate on bees.
Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.
Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).
Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.
For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems. In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:
“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”
I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.
The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.
*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.
**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.
Can members of a diasporic community become indigenous to their adopted land? What if they are the descendants/inheritors of brutal colonization? Is indigeneity something to aspire to (is it even a word?), and if so, how does one get there?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m just weird (I mean, weirder than the average weirdo who is into the kinds of metaphysical and magical stuff I’m into). Maybe it’s just something about my personal neurology. Maybe it’s because I’m still a magical newbie. But for whatever reason, all my experiences of big powers–I hesitate, more and more, to use the term “god/dess”–have been very localized. I’ve tried to take them with me when I moved, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Either I have limited experience with non-place-specific beings, or I am only able to really connect in certain places.
A while back I drew on Shinto as a model for a polytheism full of spirits-of-place. And just recently I became aware that there is a growing internet presence of Westerners who consider themselves Shinto or Shinto-Pagan hybrid believers/practitioners, for example here and here. It makes me happy to see that I’m not alone. I shouldn’t feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, but with the constant kerfuffle about cultural appropriation I feel like I do: Japanophilia among Westerners is not a new thing, and I don’t know what influence that might be having in the adoption of Shinto outside Japan. When I was doing archaeological research on/in Japan, other Americans would often accuse me of being a Japanophile (and yes, it was definitely an accusation). Sometimes that would then be followed by bafflingly irrelevant comments on how “weird” the Japanese are or bad things they did during the early- to mid-20th century colonization of Korea, “Rape of Nanking,” etc., not to mention assumptions that I am into manga, anime, and cosplay (which as it happens could not be further from the truth, though I have been known to enjoy certain Japanese variety shows). In other words, in the West you can find equal parts Japanophilia and Japanophobia.
I think about this a lot because Shinto is not like the “world” religions we tend to be most familiar with in the West–it’s not about what you believe, there’s no conversion necessary, and because it’s so intimately bound up with Japanese geography and ethnicity there has never been much effort to export it. Here in the US we do have Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington (State), a branch of a parent shrine in Japan, and St. Paul, Minnesota has Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora, which curiously enshrines (alongside conventional Shinto kami) Baba Yaga. The priests? proprietors? maintainers? of Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora identify it as an expression of Minzoku NEO-Shinto, which is defined thus:
“What is minzoku NEO-shintô? The technical answer is, ‘A universalist approach to existential Japanese folk religion practices.’ But what does that mean? To break it down, universalist means it’s open to anyone who’s sincerely interested, it’s not just for people of Japanese ancestory. Existential means it’s based on personal experience, not on scripture or dogma. Folk religion means it’s religion as practiced by the commons – the everyday people – and on a local basis; it’s not religion as taught in the seminaries, universities, or on a national or international basis.”
I am so down with that.
Shinto is a religion in the old sense of the word, but not as commonly understood in the West today–it’s not a “faith.” It is, more than anything else, a practice and a worldview. In Shinto terms, the “congregation” of a shrine is made up of ujiko–people born and living in the surrounding precinct, and usually descended through generations there; and sûkeisha–non-local people who for their own reasons feel committed to that shrine. A non-Japanese can become a sûkeisha, but never ujiko. I think for most Westerners, it’s more likely they would feel dedicated to a kami (spirit/god) than to a particular shrine, as most of us have had close to 2000 years enculturation within monotheistic, universalizing religions. Anyway, you don’t have too many road-to-Damascus-style conversions to Shinto, or rather if you do, it doesn’t matter much because in Shinto your personal beliefs are pretty much irrelevant as long as they’re not getting in the way of practice. Like all of Japanese culture, Shinto practice is a complex web of mutual obligations, consideration, and gift-giving. It’s amenable to evolution and to hybridization, as evidenced through its history. I sort of fell into Shinto while I was in Japan because I was already an animist philosophically, and my friends took me to shrines and showed me how to participate.
But I didn’t try to bring it back to America with me, though I thought about it and heartily wished we had something similar here. (By “we” I mean diasporic Americans and “mainstream” American culture.*) I have weird feelings about trying to translate Shinto to another continent, because while it’s eminently doable, is it right? Most of the Shinto kami are not universal–they are landform-specific. An American Shinto could honor the few universal kami, with certain modifications**, but it would also need to make room for many new kami, those that are specific to locales on this continent. Then you have to ask, do you need Shinto, or do you really need something entirely new? At some point you may end up where I am at, which is a completely individual animism with forms inspired by Shinto practice.
In the comments on John Michael Greer’s most recent post on his occult/magical blog, someone said something along the lines that they wished more American herbalists and magical types would learn to use their local North American plants rather than European ones. I agree on more than one level: First, every ecosystem has plants with purifying, cleansing, uplifting properties–usually more than one. Not only does using a non-local plant place a burden on that plant and its original community, it also arguably doesn’t work as well as a plant that belongs to the local ecosystem. There are probably exceptions to this but I think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Second, think of the hidden costs that are incurred in the transportation of the non-local plant to you. Not exactly eco-friendly. Third, I think everyone should be forming relationships with their local plants anyway (and not merely for their own benefit, ahem).
Consider: Have you ever thought about why white sage (Salvia apiana) is the favored herb for smudging nowadays? Because it grows around Hollywood. Seriously, that’s it: It has a very small natural distribution in the coastal sage scrub zone of Southern California. At some point white folk found out that Native Americans used it for purification, then Hollywood, the publicity capital of the world, got hold of the idea and bam, an industry was born. Now you have people in Europe thinking they need white sage to cleanse their haunted castles. Do you really want Hollywood to be the source of your sacred spiritual texts and traditions?
There were people on this continent before our diasporic ancestors arrived, who had already built up such relationships. Leaving aside the question of appropriation (which is becoming a major red herring anyway), it comes down to this: You can’t just use Native American ethnobotany as a cheat sheet to get around having to form those relationships your own damn self. They won’t tell you everything anyway, probably. Be respectful of existing traditions, of course, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut in this Work.
The same thing goes for the spirits and bigger powers here. The thing is, this is hard Work. We can’t just rely on tradition to tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how, because those traditions were built in and for other ecosystems. That means we also can’t rely on tradition for authority, justification, or legitimization. We’re on our own here. Had history gone a different way, had our ancestors made different choices, been subject to different forces, had there been no genocide, forced assimilation, and ecological destruction, we might have been able to harmoniously integrate our ways with the indigenous ones. We might have had partners in this Work. And I should note that some diasporic Americans did choose a more harmonious route, notably African Americans. But the European American ancestors opted to follow other traditions instead, so this is where we find ourselves. No matter what your race or ethnicity or cultural identity, you’re caught in this situation because it was/is the European Americans who hold the hegemony.
I started thinking about this while reading Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s (highly recommended) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She suggests that diasporic Americans won’t really have a sense of commitment and caretaking toward this land, its flora and fauna, until they/we become indigenous. Perhaps we haven’t earned that right yet. But if/when we do, how will we become indigenous? What would it take for us to rewrite our creation narratives?
In his response to my comment on his post taking up this issue, Greer wrote:
“I suspect that in the long run, the thing that’s going to make Americans of European ancestry turn to the native resources of this continent is when they have no other choice — when that’s the only source of medicine and magic they’ve got. Certainly African-American conjure magic embraced quite a bit of North American herbal lore through exactly that process — and I’ve long suspected that the white population of this continent will only become, in a deep sense, native here, once they have gone through experiences of the kind they inflicted on the First Nations and the enslaved nations of Africa.“
(My emphasis.) That’s a sobering thought.
As regards Shinto as a model for functional polytheistic animism(s) outside Japan, I would suggest that rather than try to import it wholecloth, we might be inspired by it to foster the organic growth of something indigenous, working with the local spirits and powers–or kami if you will–heaven knows we could use a better vocabulary for these experiences–of our bioregions. I suspect that, like so many paths that seem simple, it will make up for its lack of superficial complexity with sheer cussedness. It’s also a lonely path. I’m a solitary person by nature, so I rarely get lonely, but the one thing that is guaranteed to have my crying in my beer is the feeling that I am alone in this and maybe I’m doing it wrong. (Oh Gods, am I doing it all wrong?) It makes me feel like even more of a magical impostor newbie than I am. I sometimes have fantasies about immigrating to one of the countries my ancestors came from and finally just getting to relax into some pre-fab pantheon. But then I’m reminded:
“At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.”
(My emphasis.) When I was a kid my family used to laugh at me for being a stubborn little idiot, proudly insisting on doing something the wrong way just because I would be damned if I’d let anyone tell me how to do it. I remember my aunt saying, “You always have to do everything the hard way. You always have to reinvent the wheel.” So chances are, no matter where I found myself, I’d be banging the drum for us all to start from scratch. I guess I belong where I am–when I am, how I am–doing it the hard way.
*I would hate to think this little ol’ blog’s readership was limited to white Americans. I’m speaking from my own experience, and I happen to be a white American. I assume some of my readers are too. If at any point it seems like I am privileging that viewpoint, please say so. That is to say, I welcome perspectives coming from other perspectives.
**For example, Inari, the god of rice plants, becomes a god of the more abstract principles “food” and “abundance,” because Americans aren’t culturally co-evolved with rice the way the Japanese are.
I’m on my way back home after three weeks of Too Much Christmas out west with friends and family. I was homesick the whole time and so spent a lot of time thinking about the house I live in, the landscape, and the many spirits therein.
Along the way a penny dropped and I think I understand why I keep thinking of my home as in the woods when in fact it’s in the middle of fallow fields. I mean yes, there are stands of trees all over, some are even quite old I suspect, but they are discontinuous patches along the side of the road, the riverbanks, the edge of the creek (or “run” in local parlance)–they aren’t the old-growth, undisturbed deciduous woodlands I have in mind when I think of “our” 40 acres.
It’s a ghost forest.
Once it hit me the haunted feeling of that landscape started to take on more dimension, to be less a question mark and more a comma. There are human ghosts there, yes, but there are non-human ghosts as well, and things that never had bodies at all.
Around the same time, I finally succeeded in digging up a little information about the family who built the house I live in. The patriarch and matriarch are buried on what used to be part of their property, which now belongs to a separate parcel of land (luckily our neighbors are cool and let my housemate and me go up and check out the gravesite). I even found a picture of the patriarch, who looked just like I had imagined him. Now I can put a name to him when I talk to him.
I say “ghost” forest but maybe that’s not quite the right word, or rather, it only captures part of the phenomenon. It might be best understood as overlapping worlds, much as the human and faery worlds were conceived in the “Celtic” countries: immanent to each other, interpenetrating, on separate timelines and yet inextricably connected. This ghost forest may also be a foretaste of a forest yet to be. Maybe this forest is in the underworld; maybe the underworld is just closer, where I live.
A quiet rain is falling on the 150ish-year-old farmhouse I now call home. The house sits on a hill overlooking the Hocking River, in the midst of 40 acres of meadow, pasture, and woodlands. The ceilings are high, there’s almost no insulation in this part of the house, and some idiot blocked up the fireplaces years ago, but it’s been a mild autumn, I’ve got a dog curled up on the couch with me, and it’s warm and cozy here. It could change any minute though; the weather here is moody to say the least. And outside it is dark as pitch and the coyotes are calling.
My new/old home is in rural southeast (Appalachian) Ohio, a place that, until a week ago, I had never been before. Yet it has always felt like home to me, and I always knew I’d come back here someday. My mother was born in Athens, and my maternal ancestors have been settled in the region for about 200 years. When my best friend got a great job here and almost immediately announced that she’d fallen in love with the area, despite not having any roots here herself, I knew it was more than coincidence. One by one obstacles cleared and pennies dropped and it became clear that I was supposed to make this my home once my mom had died and finally hang out my shingle as an herbologist (which hasn’t happened yet but is in the works; more in a later post).
I arrived two weeks ago Saturday. I’ve wanted to post something every day since then but the information and sensory overload has me tongue-tied (keyboard-tied?). Plus a lot of it is…weird…although my landing here has been soft, the welcome warm, and the orientation process pretty gentle. I just haven’t been able to find the words until now, and the ones I’ve cobbled together are entirely inadequate. My cousin visited this area once many years ago and before I moved, she told me that the whole landscape had a haunted feeling. It’s lousy with old cemeteries, decaying barns and farmhouses, historical mine disasters, a huge Victorian insane asylum, and Native American burial mounds, so haunting would seem likely (and I’m not ruling it out), but the word I would use is inspirited. One of the first things I noticed was how alive the landscape seems. “Well, of course it’s alive, dummy,” I said to myself, “you’re looking at trees.” But I mean that out of the corner of your eye the trees seem to have mischievous faces like Brian Froud creatures, that then disappear when you look directly at them. I constantly feel like I’m being watched, warily. I already love this land but it hasn’t made up its mind about me.
During the day it’s peaceful and calm here. In a word, bucolic. Nighttime is a different story. To some extent this is just the nature of rural places: there are a lot of critters and they come out to eat when it gets dark. My housemate and I have seen rabbits, foxes, raccoons, and more deer than we can count, hear coyotes not infrequently, and a couple days ago the newspaper reported a mountain lion in the general vicinity. (That’s just the wildlife that comes out by night, of course; there are lots of other beasties during the daytime.) When it gets dark, it gets very dark–no city light pollution here. On clear nights you can see the Milky Way. I grew up in the country until I was 7 or so and I’ve always considered myself a country mouse at heart, but after so many years in cities, the totality of nocturnal darkness here has taken some getting used to. But at the risk of sounding overdramatic, I think there are other things–eerie, uncanny things–that come out at night.
I know it’s not just my imagination because this place is absolutely crawling with pagans, a fact which I put down to the fact that everybody senses, on some level, the presence and primacy of old powers here. The (all too brief) influence of some wormwood and anise extract one night brought intensely clear perception–my breath was taken away by the beauty of the night here; everything seemed to be reaching out to communicate with me and all other beings. I felt enmeshed in a web of sentience and radiance.
In addition to its spooky qualities, this also feels like a wild landscape, though it’s really not. It’s been farmed and mined and deforested and pumped and excavated. It hasn’t been a frontier for a couple hundred years now. Humans have altered the ecology in many ways and there are probably as many domestic species as wild ones. I feel like I have to reiterate here that while I’m no farmer, I’m no stranger to the country and to agriculture. So this isn’t just some romantic pastoral ideal on my part when I say that this place is not tame.
On that note, I had a funny experience a couple days ago. All day I had been thinking about just this thing, the wild, magical, uncanny vibe of this place. That evening I sat down to check my email where I saw this subject line:
Subsequent research uncovered that That’s My Pan!™ is a line of personalized cookware of the sort you might like if you frequent potlucks and have a really bad memory. But at the time, given my earlier line of thought, this is more what came to mind:
…which you have to admit was a lot more a propos than spam aimed at church ladies. I recalled that some new local friends of mine have an image of Pan on their mantel, which at first I took as reflective of who my friends are, but I now realize is more a reflection of where we all live. It may not be this particular foreign Hellenic deity that we sense here (in fact, that may just be shorthand used by some less-verbal part of my mind to communicate to my more-verbal, abstracting consciousness), but there is no question that Pan’s characteristics–wildness, abandon, altered consciousness, disorientation, discomfiture, fear, ecstasy, vitality–are abundantly present. I cannot wait to get to work here.
This topic has been rattling around in my head like a pebble in a rock tumbler. I had one of those as a kid. I loved the shiny jewels that emerged but was way too impatient to wait for them. And so it is with writing. The words for this post have been slow in coming so I’ve just been letting the ideas sit for a while, but now I see other minds are thinking and writing about subjects that dovetail with this one, so I think it’s time has come. Although I might point out to the Powers That Be that their timing really could be a lot better. As a writer, I am not at my best right now, unless you like raw and unpolished rocks. But come to think of it, I love raw and unpolished rocks.
Anyway, I assume that you are all aware, at least in a general sense, of the genocide of indigenous Americans that happened with the arrival of European colonists. While it in no way is meant to deny their/our responsibility, or to downplay the reality or the cruelty of that genocide, I came across the idea awhile back that the Euro-American perpetrators of that violence were themselves victims of violence, and therefore really kind of messed up.
I would like to cite the author of this idea of warped Euro-Americans, but I encountered it years ago on a now-defunct blog and I don’t remember, if credit was even given, who the author was. Maybe there was no single author, but many people arriving at the same conclusion. I’m also pretty sure the idea was a bit more sophisticated and well-thought-out than I’m making it seem here.
Not that Europeans in Europe weren’t capable of doing nasty stuff–nice guys don’t build empires. And the Americas weren’t the only place where European colonists were busy ruining the native cultures as they rapaciously extracted every last resource, be it animal, mineral, botanical, vaginal, spiritual or what have you. Yet the roots of that violence go back long before the proximal causes that drove, or lured, Europeans to other lands. How deep those roots go just depends on what perspective you take. One thing a career in archaeology leaves you with is a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun. Technologies come and go, but the overwhelming impression is one of cycles. So I don’t think the Native American holocaust was unique in the long duree of human time, but in terms of sheer numbers it might have been the worst.
I think about this in the context of my ancestors. One line of my Irish* ancestors arrived in the US almost exactly 200 years ago. Although I don’t have direct documentation, all the evidence suggests that they left when industrialization destroyed the household flax-growing and linen-weaving economy in the north of Ireland (County Monaghan, specifically). Monaghan is itself far away (in Irish terms) from the family seat around Waterford and Kilkenny, so I think my ancestors were already displaced. Did they settle in Ulster in hopes of making a fortune in linen? I don’t know. At the turn of the 19th century they must have smelled their impending ruin on the wind, because they left just before it got really bad, but they and their neighbors had already long been enclosed, in Caffentzis’ sense of that word, by capitalist and colonial exchange dynamics:
“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. …Thus did ‘exchange become more independent of them,’ its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove ‘everyone’ into the monetary system [and, I might add, into new lands].”
They settled in the area where Ohio, West Virginia (then just Virginia, of course), and Kentucky meet with the Ohio River as their shared border. The native inhabitants of this area had been forcibly ejected and divested of their lands during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. My ancestors were among the first white settlers of southern Ohio, but even so, they didn’t, or couldn’t, stay put. The first couple of generations zigzagged through southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, Illinois, and eastern Missouri. They were still rootless.
By the first and second generations born in the US (my great- and great-great grandparents), they were no longer farmers. Whatever land they owned had been lost, and most of the men worked their way into an early grave as coal miners. The townships and “hollers” (hollows) where they lived have mostly vanished now, abandoned when each local mining operation had finally raped the land to death. They were still rootless.
I haven’t been back there yet, but will be going this fall. My cousin went there years ago and said the whole landscape feels haunted. No surprise there. The little town where my great-grandparents built their home has 22 Adena burial mounds in an area of only 2.3 square miles. Yet the population is only 0.31% Native. From 100% to 0.31% in 200 years. That makes for a lot of ghosts. It always cracks me up when I hear someone claim that their house is haunted because it was built “on an Indian burial ground.” Find me someplace in the US that isn’t an Indian burial ground. But I wonder if the colonists don’t have reason to haunt too.
“Pay attention to most any living tradition, though, and you should see that they are never singular. Find one living tradition and you will discover around it at least one other tradition with which it is in dialogue and debate. In most cases, a living tradition is in dialogue and debate with a whole family of traditions. When push comes to shove, it is the dialogue and debate with other practices that defines a tradition. To understand a tradition, we need to appreciate its fellow travelers.
“In most cases, the boundaries between those traditions is [sic] permeable. One is not a member of this tradition or that tradition, but a member of the world in which these traditions play out their tension….
“One of the greatest dangers to a tradition’s viability is the loss of these interlocutor traditions that help to define it. When a tradition’s practices enter into diaspora or are adopted in contexts far removed from its origin, the tradition must reconstitute for itself a world of fellow travelers or slip into dogmatic dissipation. A similar conundrum faces a tradition whose fellow travelers become increasingly marginalized from it.”
So it is with people. Removed from our context, we lose our familiar interlocutors and the dialogue begins to stutter. It would be nice if we could always regroup and adapt and enter into new dialogues with new neighbors–and sometimes we do–but too often the result is “dogmatic dissipation” at best and genocide at worst.
In American terms, 200 years is a long time; but it doesn’t seem to have been long enough for us to develop a sense of this land and its inhabitants. This is true of our spiritual and ecological interlocutors just as much as our human ones. First we demonized everything native, then we fantasized it (as “in tune with nature” or as vengeful poltergeists, for example), but we still haven’t met the natives on their own terms. We are cut off from the powers and beings our ancestors knew in their own lands, but we haven’t earned the right to work within indigenous traditions. So we make ridiculous over-the-top celebrations of our ancestral identity that make our relatives on the Old Sod gag and roll their eyes at us, ironically cutting us off even further. And as Gordon says, you can make magic anywhere, but you can’t overlook the importance of physicality and place in magic. You can make magic, you just can’t make the same magic.
Some languages have words for the feeling of rootlessness, the longing to return, and the understanding that “you can never go home again,” like Welsh hiraeth and Gallego morriña. It is a feeling visualized in the sculptures of Moroccan-French artist Bruno Catalano.
“Mr Catalano said: ‘I have travelled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back….So the meaning can be different for everyone, but to me the sculptures represent a world citizen.'”
Aren’t we all essentially rootless in this global culture? In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer–a botanist of Native descent–argues that without a sense of indigeneity (is that a word?), how can one have a sense of responsibility to and for the land? She is not saying that white Americans should ape Native cultures, but that we should develop our own relationship to this land as our home. I think we might have done that, if globalism (especially globalism qua multinational banks, corporations, and government entities) hadn’t derailed us. Multinationals and genocide are alike fruit of the same root.
I don’t have an answer to what we should do about this. Well, as individuals we stay weird, re-enchant, re-wild, subvert, see our own and others’ hollow spots, and cultivate our minds and spirits as we are already doing. We form relationships to the land we find ourselves on. We plant seeds, we put down roots, hoping future generations will enjoy the shade. Is there anything else we can do?
*I have other ancestral lineages that came to the US much earlier, and a few that came after; but culturally speaking, the Irish side of the family has dominated, because it’s the maternal side. It is the source of our home life and everything that women teach their daughters. So I identify more with these ancestors than some of the others.
This post was born as a discussion on Facebook with the herbalist Rebecca Altman (of Cauldrons & Crockpots and King’s Road Apothecary; both her blog and the KRA newsletter are replete with insightful discussions of herbs, if you’re into that). Rebecca raised the question (paraphrased), “Why do we (21st century Western society) have such a problem with fat and fatness?”
There were many insightful comments and all the participants share some of the credit–or responsibility? heh heh–for helping me formulate my thoughts. They gave me much food for thought which is damn rare in a Facebook discussion (that, by the way, is another topic I plan to write about soon).
Now, I’m not talking here about the medical etiology of obesity. I welcome comments but don’t even bother if you’re just writing another iteration of obesity is so unhealthy and what a terrible epidemic, because that is off topic. I’m also not going to get into the nefarious corporate machinations that are at least partly responsible for the high rates of obesity (but if you’re interested in that, you might like Gordon’s post on the topic). What I am trying to do is to (as they say in academia) interrogate and unpack common assumptions and approach the idea from another perspective. Which is all I really do on this blog. It’s food for thought. Rich, delicious, savory food for thought…here, have another helping.
So Rebecca’s question was specifically about our negative societal attitude toward fat–both as a dietary component and as stored fat deposits on fellow human beings. Though you’ll often see the argument that disgust toward overweight people is a natural or evolved response to their unhealthiness, we must be very wary of such naturalistic arguments. They are always oversimplified and not only overlook but usually deliberately elide the human choices–and responsibility for said choices–that go into creating and maintaining any attitude. They’re also ahistorical. (There have been cultures where obesity was prized and deemed lovely, no matter what the health consequences may have been, for example in present-day Nigeria and Uganda and various Polynesian cultures.) More worrisome, naturalistic arguments are too often use to legitimize very bad behavior.
For example, one cannot overlook that there is a major class-hierarchy element underlying our negative attitudes toward fatness (as well as the actual material anifestation of fatness). While affluent people can afford personal trainers, gym memberships, South Beach and palaeo diets, and have sufficient energy and leisure time to exercise or do recreational sports, how many poor people come home at the end of working two jobs and have the energy to cook an optimal meal? Cheap food is unhealthy food. It is possible to eat healthfully without spending too much money (easier in regions where veggies are available year round), but diet is as much about time, energy, stress, and emotional state as it is about money. Class is certainly a factor. In the old days, poor people were skinny and only the rich could get fat; now it’s the other way around.
Then of course you have sexism and beauty commodification. Does anyone remember the episode of Friends where Ross over-bleached his teeth so that they glowed in UV light and everyone made fun of him? Now every celebrity, model, and anyone you see in an ad has teeth at least that white. Yesterday I saw a commercial where a woman with porcelain-white teeth bemoaned how “yellow” they were. My point here is that our beauty standards are neither arbitrary nor evolutionarily determined–they are the result of advertisers creating a sense of lack so they can sell us a product for literally every part of our body. Women, whose value has long been determined primarily on the basis of fuckability, are the main victims of this, but men get a big dose too. For women, it has become so extreme that we are now supposed to worry about the skin tone of our armpits and anus and the internal symmetry of our vulvae. There is literally not an inch of our bodies that isn’t policed, critiqued, denigrated, and male-gazed at on a daily basis (FYI male gaze can also come from women). So that’s an issue too.
Now that those disclaimers are out of the way, the most interesting idea that emerged from the Facebook fat discussion, for me, was the notion that fat could be medicine. A couple of commenters viewed overweight from an Ayurvedic perspective, opining that Western society can be described as choleric/pitta in nature with sanguine/vata tendencies, and overweight develops as an attempt to balance the scales with kapha. As so often happens when one tries to compensate, we overcompensate. Another take was that people are storing fat for hard times that they perceive a-comin.’ Rebecca notes:
“I see this a lot here in LA, people who want to be fully open, fully bright white love and light without any dark, damp, deep and slow, and I think its pathological. I think, when it comes down to it, the dark, damp, deep and slow (which to me is represented by the fat, too), is something we are terrified of in ourselves because its where we store our pain, and we dont want to deal with that shit. People who build up protective fat layers are often incredibly emotionally sensitive, and bloody well need that protection (at least until they can find another way to feel safe). We store our pain there in the darkness, and not all of us want to face it. Maybe easier to stick to love and light and quickness and ‘high vibrational energy’ (whatever the fuck that is) and hope the rest of it goes away. Or at least hope it just stays in other people, who we can say are distinctly separate from ourselves and therefore not our responsibility.“
Almost any medicine can become a poison in excess. So too with fat. I am, as I have written before, very sensitive to both physical and emotional stimuli and it can get really raw at times. Even if I am more constitutionally sensitive than many (or at least, more so than most people who are not on the autism spectrum), I think that all Westerners are living on a knife edge of overstimulation. Some of the stimulation comes in the form of plain old stress. The planet is overpopulated and its resources overexploited, hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal values treat people as yet more resources to be used, materialism–both the consumer and metaphysical varieties–doesn’t provide any kind of solace, and we are on the fast track to a civilizational downgrade which I think many sense but cannot bring themselves to believe because they have been fed a steady diet (pun intended) of progressivism and technological salvationism for generations. Meanwhile, the economy sucks and is getting worse. Light pollution and lack of sleep fray the nerves. Our hormones are messed up from all the xenoestrogens in water, meat, dairy, and plastics. I sense palpable depression and desperation in the air. And this we pathologize and medicate with expensive placebos. It drives a lot of people to seek oblivion via TV, games, social media, and aimless net surfing–arguably the most heavily marketed items are toys (smart phones, tablets, etc.) which, with their shiny cases and glowing lights, titillate our lizard brains–but all this is just more stimulation.
Fat, perhaps on an esoteric level as much as on the physical, is a buffer, a layer of protection, a softener, a damper. It rounds the hard edges, cushions the hard knocks, smooths wrinkles. It’s armor. I have certainly used my stored fat deposits as protection from the male gaze. Maybe it’s also a clinging–it could be for perceived hard times, or just for comfort. It is a medicine for the sickness of the age.
There may be some people who read this and feel triggered (as the kids say these days) by it. Whether or not I field a flurry of comments to the effect that I am making “excuses” for the obese, or failing to treat obesity as the scourge of the ages, will be a litmus test of (1) how well I am communicating here and (2) how much you, my dear readers, have internalized conventional fears of fatness. Because those issues are red herrings that, I believe, distract and deflect us from seeing the root cause. A couple days after the Facebook discussion that started all this, some guy went into a community college in Oregon and murdered a bunch of people. That headline is become wearingly common in the US. Lately all I hear in the media and well-meaning liberal circles is that we must have more gun control, better care for the mentally ill, and especially more ways to prevent the mentally ill from acquiring guns. I suggest that those are all short-term band-aids on this societal wound. Not only do I not think this addresses the real causes of America’s gun violence problem, I worry a lot about this labeling of shooters as mentally ill. They may be, functionally–though they need not be clinically or legally. But I worry about all the people struggling with mental illness (or perceived mental illness) who are going to find themselves essentialized, labeled, subjected to childhood “interventions,” and just generally forced to deal with even more stigma than they already do. All so that we can–to borrow Rebecca’s apt words–“hope it just stays in other people, who we can say are distinctly separate from ourselves and therefore not our responsibility.”
Could it be that the “obesity epidemic” and the “gun violence epidemic” are symptoms of the same societal ills? Just think about it.