Note: I’ve been sadly neglectful of this little project of mine…but I’d decided to use January and February (along with the transition of moving to a new community, starting a new job, getting kids adjusted to a new school, etc–more on all that in another post) as the opportunity to find all the loose threads of my life and snip them off, tie them on, or weave them back into the fabric of living, depending on the thread in question. Just as my “no new yarn unless it’s to finish a project” goal, this is part of my “no new posts until all the drafts are completed and all my multi-part posts are wrapped up” goal for blogging.
Note 2: If you remember this set of posts at all (it has been a while), you may remember that there is a Chapter 1 Part 1 and Part 2, Chapter 2 (and a series of related posts that go with it), and a Chapter 3. Today, I’ve added Chapter 5. Which means that something is missing… That something is obviously Chapter 4. I do plan to review Chapter 4, but there are some bits that I want to get an expert opinion on from a forum friend of mine that is a veterinary professional before I post. So, in the meantime, we are skipping to Chapter 5 (and hopefully beyond in the next few posts).
And now for a discussion of what’s for dinner…
Chapter 5 of Alaric Albertsson’s To Walk a Pagan Path (TWPP for simplicity’s sake) is entitled “Leaf and Fruit” and discusses our connection with the food we eat. Albertsson starts out with “the same question that has been asked by every heterotrophic organism since the dawn of life,” which is “What’s for dinner?” This is followed up by the observation that we are further removed than our ancestors were from “the source of our sustenance” as we depend less on the immediacy of what we can grow ourselves and more on what we can buy from the grocery store. Our ancestors on the other hand, “were more directly involved with food acquisition: farming, hunting, or fishing,” a relationship with nature that “gave rise to the earliest expressions of Pagan spirituality.” (p 119-120) One one hand, I agree with Albertsson’s idea that we are horrendously removed from our connection, not just with the food we eat, but with nature in general…but on the other hand, I see his historical assertations as a gross oversimplification of complex historical realities. Our ancestors, even our distant ones, often lived in cities far removed from pastoral lives too (the very word “city” comes from the Latin civitas, which replaced an earlier term, urbs–where we get urban–from the term for townsperson/city dweller, civis (source)).
Albertsson goes on to make a suggestion that I am totally on board with for other reasons–grow a portion of our own food. Sure, maybe you live in an apartment (like me) or you work 2 jobs and run around after small children or whatever it is that keeps you short of space, time, or resources… As Albertsson says, “I’m not suggesting you buy a tractor and plow up the back forty.” After all, “the most common mistake new gardeners make is to put in bigger gardens than they can maintain.” He goes through all the things one can plant successively in just a single growing season in a square yard of soil, from early spring spinach succeeded by radishes then bush beans and finally lettuce. (p 122-123) And while such an intensive growing of a mini-garden of often not-so-loved veggies isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, almost anyone can
And while such an intensive growing of a mini-garden of often not-so-loved veggies isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, almost anyone can and should grow a couple of herbs in pots on a kitchen window sill to add to their meals. E. O. Wilson, a personal hero of mine, popularized the term “biophilia”, the idea that humans have an urge to affiliate with other forms of life (coined by psychologist Erich Fromme). We need green things (and furry (or scaled or feathered)) things-study after study supports an empirical connection between our interaction with nature and our physical and mental/emotional health, in way that goes far beyond calories and nutrients consumed.
Most pagan describe our many paths as “earth-focused” spirituality and agree that Paganism implies a love for the earth. But how can we clai to love or even understand the earth’s rhythms if we never touch the earth? How can we claim any connection with the land when every bite of our food is shipped to us from distant places? Through gardening we gain an appreciation for what “fertility” meant to our ancestors. Furthermore, we literally become a part of the land itself. As we work the soil, our skin cells slough away, falling to the earth and becoming part of it. We nurture the land, and food comes forth, and the land becomes a part of us as we take that food into our bodies.
One way that Albertsson details how we can make our gardening more Pagan is by keeping (and modifying) traditional customs. In his modern variation on the traditional charming (blessing) of the plow (today, anything from a garden spade to a roto-tiller) for a successful growing season, he offers us a chance to do the practical (fix our tools) and the magical (connect with the spirit of the tool itself). This ritual (along with other blessings for a good growing season) is often undertaken during the cross-quarter day of Imbolc (or Brigid’s Day, Candlemas, etc), but most logically “should take place about a month or so before you intend to begin gardening,” and be tailored to the local climate. He includes directions a short ritual blessing upon it–for anyone wanting to include this in their practice, a blessing for an altar tool and the creativity to modify the words a bit for gardening tools will do the job quite nicely! (p 126-127)
The most useful bit in this chapter, from my perspective, is in a section titled “bidding the land”–bidding, in this case, being a term for making an earnest request (as a part of the establishment of a relationship with the land) and not buying something at auction. Albertsson’s example of a ritual for this has been developed from a medieval land charm, but any offering to the land itself and sufficiently motivated entreaty will work just as well. The key here is to forge a partnership with one’s land, whether it’s in a pot on a window sill or a field out back. The land is an entity in its own right*–biologically and ecologically soil is a community of symbiotic and complementary organisms that is susceptible to disease and malnourishment. Spiritually speaking, the land has its own personality and temperament, feelings, needs, etc. If you want to successfully and successively have it produce for you, then you need to be prepared to offer it something (physically and metaphorically) in return.
And it is here that Albertsson and I depart in our views on this subject–later, in a section on balcony gardening, goes on to say, “there is no point in bidding the land when creating a balcony garden since you are not working directly with the land itself” (p 136). Poppycock! (I’ve always wanted an excuse to use that in a sentence.) Seriously though, for a man that talks about appeasing the spirit of tools, to say that a pot of soil has been so irrevocably removed from the land that it is no longer part of the land seems terribly unenlightened! If one is insufficiently inspired or motivated to find the whole in its parts, then there’s not much you or I can do to find it for them…I tend to think he’s never looked for the spirit of the land in a pot of soil or a single plant. As an (longer than I would like) apartment dweller, this is something that I have a good amount of experience with. For a person that can find the thread between the two, and take it up and follow it where it may lead, developing a connection to the Earth through your little pot of *whatever* should be no challenge at all.
With that being said, the chapter still has a bit more to offer. Albertsson broaches other topics here that may be of interest to those of us trying to live a more Pagan daily life: gardening by the moon, what I will call a “god/dess garden” (for him, a garden devoted to Frige) based on the medieval Catholic meditative garden devoted to Mary (though other religions have analogous traditions), the importance of growing things you will actually use (and not just things you think you should use), and the development of intentional landscapes to provide wildlife habitat and please the spirits of nature**. Most of these ideas can be further researched from a variety of perspectives and sources (heck, there’s even a book titled Garden Witchery that seems to cover some of these ideas and more…I’ve not read it, so this is not a recommendation), for those that are interested in them.
*The land is an entity in its own right, yes…but it is is not an entity that is a single, solid, interacting and independent body, like you or I. One of the moderators on Pagan Forum describes plant spirits in a way that I find analogous to how the spirit of the land and a pot of soil on that land are connected: “Trees are individuals, and are a little closer to how we would view an animal spirit, but as you get down towards shrubs and flowers, it starts to get a bit more… diffuse. If I go out to my strawberry patch, there is a spirit of the strawberry patch… not of the individual strawberry plants. I think this is largely due to how the plants reproduce… plants that multiply via runners or bulbs and spread out like a little community seem to have a community spirit. So if I were to rip up one strawberry plant, I wouldn’t be killing that plant‘s spirit, but reducing the number of vessels that the strawberry patch spirit inhabits. Does that make sense?” While there may be individual land spirits and nature spirits (however one sees them), the actual spirit of the land itself is this sort of community spirit ties together all of its individual components, even in a pot on your balcony.
**I didn’t want to go too much into this topic in this post…its really enough of a topic for a post, series of post, or just an entire blog, book, or ten on its own, and its something that people out there have done far greater service to than I can (or than he does). But I would like to say that I wholeheartedly agree with his statement on setting aside a portion of one’s own land as wildlife habitat–“What greater act of devotion can there be than to give over some part of your land to the wild? But to do this with meaning, you have to be sincere. If you give some land to your gods and the nature spirits, then it is no longer yours to use; it’s theirs. This can be a difficult idea for some people to embrace. We tend to presume eminent domain over all the earth.” (p 143) I only wished that he had taken more time and space to talk about the importance of working in the environment you have, in selecting native plants that will support your local ecosystem, etc…