Discussion of Paganism often centers around what a Pagan is. Terms like “nature-centered” always come up, and occasionally reference to the spirituality of the countryside is spoken. I like to think of Pagans as people of the land. It is a vague term and many people can be considered people of the land without having any particular spiritual belief. I take some pride in the term Pagan. I am a Pagan connected to a piece of land.
I realized recently what a rare relationship I have with land. I have lived on and had an intimate relationship with the same piece of land for thirty eight years. It is not so rare in rural areas where people often reside in the same location for generations. For people who associate their spiritual beliefs with the land, and for Pagans, the opportunity to spend hundreds of hours in total solitude on an individual piece land is uncommon. I am not referring to the casual acts of living, work, and recreation, but time spent in meditation and direct observation of the land, its plants, and creatures.
I confess, much of this time was spent in the acts of fishing and hunting, and preparing for these activities. The time walking, looking, sitting, and directly observing the land is all a part of this. These activities have a directed purpose, which didn’t distract from developing an intimate relationship with the land.
A long term relationship with land teaches you how temporary are the things we think are permanent. My land embraces a river, and rivers are ever changing. I can’t count the number of times this little river has changed its course, each fallen tree or rock diverting the flow from its established path. Fragile stream banks erode away, cliffs collapse, and a spring log jam can start the deposit of a new stream bank. A severe flood can scour out a new deep fishing hole and a large influx of eroded dirt can silt in a beautiful rocky rapids. These changes occur without any relation to what we as humans may want, or what we spiritually wish and pray for as best for the land.
Land changes in its type, spanning the whole range from agriculture, to grassland and meadow, to brushy pasture, and eventually to mixed forest. Human intervention often controls these changes. In my part of the world the land was once all a conifer forest, then it was cleared by humans for settlement. The natural progression is for grassland and meadow to move back to forest. Fire can maintain a meadow, killing the woody plant starts, but fires are often not enough. As soon as human intervention stops, the land rapidly returns to woods.
Most of us are not aware of how many of plant species which fill our world are foreign and invasive. I had a campaign of meadow fires to help bring back a stand of Blue Gentian here. It is a fairly rare and beautiful meadow flower easily overwhelmed with foreign grasses and plants. I have seen a meadow go from grassland to brush and on to a young wood of popple, birch, and pine. A meadow first gathers up prickly ash and stag horn sumac to begin shading the grass out. Then the denser and slower growing ironwood and hop hornbeam pop in wearing dark stockings at their trunk base. The now shady and brushy young woods supports the spread of taller growing birch and popple, and even these eventually give way to maple and ash. The land moves from easy to walk through, to nearly impenetrable with brush, and eventually to a “park like” mature wood, in the span of a lifetime.
These are relationships with change. People of the land receive deep lessons about change, and apply it to their own lives. The feeling of powerlessness in the face of nature and the attitude of “power over” nature come from a severe disconnect that is foreign to landed Pagans. Humans often confuse what is best for us as humans, with what is best for the land.
Many people suffer from a fear of nature, and of the dark. The unknowns or unfamiliarity of the forest keep many from fully experiencing the land. I can walk in my forest in the dead of night, with no light, and always know exactly where I am. The forest is a community, and I feel supported and safe at any season or time of day.
As I observe this woods over time, I find so many parallels to human community. There are densely populated areas, that feel filled with stress for the inhabitants, but which make great cover to hide in and to shelter wildlife. For me this is like the urban life. You have everything needed to survive at hand, and can remain anonymous to your neighbors. We see hurt and illness and discord spread through our community and wonder how it can ever heal. Land is an amazing example in its ability to take deep scars, clear cutting, and assault by humans and still survive, rapidly healing and restoring itself.
Individual trees are like people. There are the glamorous butternuts. They have rich dark bark and beautiful form, but at their heart they are fragile, and quickly succumb to disease, rot, and storms. Popple trees shoot up fast and straight to the sun. They look stalwart, but age quickly and soon become part of the forest floor. The ash leaf maple is a light stealer, branches spreading every which way in an effort to collect the forest coin of sunlight. It can drown out many fellows, but with a weak root system a heavy snow fall brings it right to the ground.
Elms and hickory trees are the doomed. Their susceptibility to virus means an early death sentence. They are like pessimistic people, nay-sayers at their core! The vision of the giant elms of the past is now a dream. Alders, dogwood, and black birch are the “mothers” of the woods in winter. They provide buds to get wildlife through even the hardest winter. The common people are the basswood, ash, red oak, cherry, and hard maple. They grow with reliability and modesty, providing the forest a long term population.
Each forest area is guarded by its sentinels. These are often giant white oaks, 140 feet tall with alternating arms. These branches themselves have grown to be the size of tree trunks. White and red pines, the ancient species before settlement, still tower over in some places. They are the preferred nesting trees for our bald eagles. Each tree is so unique as to deserve its own name. We have people in our lives that are beacons and our rock solid base. The red oaks, sugar Maples and ash try, but they never quite gain the height of the sentinels.
As I return to the forest each year, and see what change nature and weather has wrought, I find some surprises and many confirmations. The trees without strong roots have toppled. The overly greedy with sprawling branches, have split apart and are falling. The trees without a sound genetic map, or a proper and nurturing environment are suffering disease. The surprises are the demise of those who you thought were real assets, offering an anchor, strength and continuity to the forest. These can turn from the new forest sentinel to firewood in just a season and reveal their inner weakness.
People of the land come to learn these things. Well, most anyone can learn them, but living with land integrates the experiential wisdom you encounter into oneself. It is both observation without emotion, and a survival skill. If you assign a spiritual role to what you observe and are a part of with the land you are probably a Pagan, even if you don’t declare it. For me, the further I get from this kind of direct knowing, the less I trust my intuition. If you have any doubt about what is real and what is make believe, find a piece of land and commit to a long term relationship. You will learn as much about the natural world, your community, and the gods, as about yourself. Be of the land. Pagan.