TED Talk: A Sense of Place

[originally published A Sense of Place, 01/09/14]

with poet Dana Gioia


Paganism’s Messiah Complex

[originally published A Sense of Place, 01/02/14]

Or, the Anthropocentrism of Western Paganism

Occasionally, within pagan circles, I happen across a troubling component of the western centric world view, and one that I find particularly antithetical to pagan values: anthropocentrism.  The belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways.  Most of us would balk at the outright notion that our species is superior, yet I often hear how humans have a divine role as mediators between worlds, or even how we are tasked with saving our planet.  I don’t disagree that we do have a responsibility to live rightly and within our means; or that our species seems determined to remove itself (to our detriment) from the circle of life; or even that it is possible for us to shift our consciousness in such a way as to glimpse into other worlds.  What I heartily disagree with, however, is the subtle notion that our species is the only one listening.

Crom Stone

This past Lughnasadh, I stayed the night in one of the Carrowkeel megalithic mounds in south county Sligo.  As I settled into the southwest recess where the Crom stone is placed, I noticed three red moths.  They were resting on the Crom stone, near to one another, with wings spread.  I went to great lengths not to disturb them, as they were there first.  As I pondered the Red Moths, I wondered why they might be visiting the monument.  They were in a dry, protected place, but so was I.   These incidental details told me nothing about their motivation for being inside the mound, anymore than my presence could be accounted for by these details.

Since all things are made of the same star stuff, I perceive all as possessing consciousness in some form. That form may be radically different from the way I perceive my own consciousness, but conceptualizing it in this way enables a starting place for relationship, and my animism is about relationality within a community of persons, both human and other-than-human.  What IF the Red Moths were there mediating between the world of the ancestors and the world of the living?   What IF the Red Moths were there praying to their own god, to intervene in the changing climate? What IF the climate doesn’t concern the Red Moths, and they were there to sing, or have a party?

Red Moths

Anthropocentrism creeps in when we, as pagans, view the presence of the Red Moths as somehow specifically and exclusively connected to us, as humans.  If I had seen the Red Moths as a ‘sign’ to me from Crom, I would have removed their agency and transformed them into a lesser species, whose sole purpose for being there was to send me a message.  What a load of colonizing BS that is!

I realize that saying paganism has a Messiah Complex is applying really strong language; after all, the state of mind characterized by the belief that one is exceptionally unique, with a predestined mission, is delusional, and can even be schizophrenic. But might the actions of The Human (our species as a whole) be seen as delusional, and more than a little pathological, by other species looking in at us?  After all, our record for ruining habitat, the very ecosystem we depend upon for survival, is less than sustainable.

Even though my argument is over simplified, and reductionist if taken too simplistically, it is a line of thought we ought to grapple with.  I hear too often in our conversations the same mindset we chafe against in dominant culture: one that perceives itself as superior to, and privileged over, another.  So the next time you encounter one of your neighbors, be that sister Bird, brother Wind, or cousin Tree, take a moment to consider what their world view is, and how they view you, as the strange alien moving within their sphere of life.

[originally published A Sense of Place, 12/05/13]

This article is a reprisal of one of my first on Patheos.  It’s my “Top 10 Tips” for cultivating a sense of Place in an urban environment; a feat that did not come easy for me.  I was reared on a family farm with hundreds of acres as my garden.  I roamed barefoot from sun-up till sun-down, engaging in more risk-taking behavior than my parents would ever want to know about!  Snake spoke to me, coyote sang his eerie song, and bobcat warned me about what happens when you meet Other, out past your bedtime.

I am a country girl, and my spiritual awakening happened in a rural environment.  My journey toward an animistic world view began as a child; a child in nature doesn’t need to be told the world is alive, she hears that living world all around her.  I also discovered witchcraft (I define this term for myself here), and reclaimed the line of my ancient Mothers, while still living in the countryside.  My interaction with the living world nourished me, and when that landscape changed (with my move to the city as an adult), it was a jolt to my system.  It took me years to adjust!  Thankfully, witch-craft taught me the tools of Connection and Presence–but you don’t have to be a witch to use them!


The ability to connect and be present in the midst of chaos is important.  I first cultivated this skill while living in my cup-runneth-over-house with four Little Bigs.  I sharpened and honed this tool living within the constant pulse of the city.  Connecting with Place–the ground beneath my feet–in the city required more than foundational grounding and centering. It required research, digging, and the courage to change my thinking and my lifestyle.

All those years ago, when I struggled to hear this land’s voice — this bit of earth under the layers of asphalt and concrete; the cacophony of road noise woven with live music; the fabric of cowboy boots and hipster plaid — I longed to feel the heart connection I’d felt in the countryside. After engaging in the following practices, I found the love and appreciation I sought: a connection with this sauntering, swaggering city called Austin.

Discover the pre-history of your Place.   Which other-than-human persons once lived on the ground beneath your feet, and now rest within its substrata?  Many of us learned this information in school, but for those who have migrated it’s important to acquaint yourself with the beginnings of the land you now call home.  Visualize those waves of ancient migration, the shift of flora and fauna, and expand your awareness out a few paces to notice the patterns and story that emerge from that knowing.  Let the land tell you its stories: Listen.

You don’t need to be an expert, but learn a thing or two about the primordial shaping of your Place.   What forces created the significant landmasses? What type of rocks lie under or within your topsoil (do you have topsoil)? Often it’s difficult to imagine soil under the asphalt and concrete, but it’s there.  Heck, even the asphalt and concrete are organic material (as in, organic chemicals).  I like to imagine the roads and sidewalks as band-aids (plasters) covering the skin of the Earth.  I then stand on sidewalk and grass, in turns, while holding this image.  Try it!

Many pagans base their ritual year around a seasonal procession not in sync with their local weather patterns or agricultural year.  Do you utilize seasonal change within your system of praxis?  Why not craft a localized ritual year?

Central Texas does not follow an 8-fold wheel of the year.  The first time I broke with the revered British tradition was nerve-wracking.  ’Everyone else’ was doing it the ‘traditional’ way.  I was afraid that being an outlier within such a fringe subgroup as ‘paganism’ would push me into Lonely Land.  It didn’t, though my personal practice no longer matches that of the wider community.   But hey, I’m a witch and well used to being different!

Do some research on the human history of your city.  When did the indigenous population arrive, and who were the immigrants (or colonizers)? There are often amazing, heroic, tragic, and humorous stories associated with the settlement of our cities.  Dig them up!  Your local University is a great resource.  Check-out their history department, and ask whether they hold public lectures or symposiums.  Also, visit your local library.  I bet they can direct you to a local historian more than happy to share their knowledge!

This is a fun step, and another realm of myth-making.  Who were the archetypal Mothers, Warriors, Wise Women & Men, or Tricksters?   I  loved discovering the stories of Austin.  Texas was already rich in mythic imagery, so I was delighted to learn of the Austin buffalo hunt, Mrs. Eberly and her cannon (pictured above), and the house of ‘ill repute’  in my neighborhood.

Don’t shy away from People
Cities are the anthills of humanity, areas of  condensed human creativity and enterprise.  Some of us are introverts and need to carefully craft our excursions, but don’t let that deter you from connecting with other humans.  Get out and meet your fellow ‘ants’! This makes us feel grounded in our physical place, as opposed to a fantasy land of our imagining.  It’s tempting to be an internet pagan, or witch, but don’t stop there!  There is so much more out there.  Don’t read – DO!

Get out of the box
Get out of your house, your car, your office, your coffee shop.  Get your body out of the center of the anthill and up on the surface where the sun shines and the wind tousles your hair. This is vital for a Witch.

The most important step for me in building a sense of Place within an urban environment, and a major turning point in my relationship with the city, was selling my car and buying a commuter bicycle.  My first commute to work was an epiphany!  Each garden I passed was a unique scent experience.  I became intimately acquainted with the environment by stepping outside my box, and removing the barrier.

Visit Landmarks
While you are out experiencing the plants, weather, and other-than-human-person creations in the city, visit the sites that commemorate the history and myth of the area.  These stand as temples and altars of our urban landscapes.  You might be surprised what shrines speak to you, and what places whisper your name.

Eat Local
Put into your body the produce of your bioregion.  We are what we eat– literally.

You are part of the anthill that is your city.  Find your work; your part to play; your art; your unique offering, and Do It!  Contribute your time and energy to the activity and organization of the human city.  By getting involved, you become invested: you feel connected to others who are part of Place.

Embrace Your Humanness
Finally, relish in your humanness.  We can be pretty amazing animals.  While the countryside is the anthill  of…well, ants, the cities are our places. These wondrous works deserve our active participation.  We can make them better than we ever dreamed, but only if we engage and connect: with ourselves, the humans around us, and our other-than-human neighbors.  It’s about relationship, being present, and building sacred connection.

Go forth–be fully present in your location, and Cultivate Place!

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/28/13]

There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared by word of mouth.  Most of us were illiterate.  That word has such a nasty taste in the mouth now, doesn’t it?  It conjures all sorts of images, from gross ignorance to the cruel acts committed by those same ignorant individuals.  I don’t like those conjurings, so I’m going to make-up my own reference phrase (which may have been thought of already by scholars who also ponder such things).   Let’s begin again…

There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared orally, when we were all Other minded, and animatedly literate.  We saw the world in pictures: a tapestry of sound, vision, taste, texture, all woven into a unified, and sacred, whole.  During this time, my vocal sounds blended and joined the vocal sounds of the Other animals that lived around me, along with the verbal sounds of the environmental Other: the wind, the trees, the water.

All auditory stimulation combined to communicate something to those who listened.

My ancient ancestress would have been acutely aware of the water listening to her.  The rain that fell outside the house heard her mumblings and hummings and murmurs and sighs.  The water paid attention, and knew.  The trees also.  They looked in at her, through the door opening, and heard her speak words out-loud to herself, or to her children.  They listened, and knew.  Oh, how careful was she in what she said.  How deliberate was her choice of word and phrase.  All of the animate, living World heard her.  What would they think?  What might they do?

During this time of animate literacy, information was shared from human to human by way of Story.  These beautiful mnemonic techniques, used to pass important knowledge, allowed for abundant creativity and ingenuity.  Shared around a toasty fire, over a hearty meal, they were comforting entertainment and essential reminders.  Most of the world’s indigenous population told these sacred stories—which very often involved warnings and wisdom about the natural world—during the winter.  It may seem they were told during winter for purely pragmatic purpose.  What else was there to do?  It was dark and cold and we were all indoors, under a skin flap or in a wood hut.

Ah…but why else might winter have been the time to share stories about the living world?

That world was asleep!  The tree who peeks her knowing eyes into my hut during summer, sleeps deep within her trunk in winter.  She does not hear the warnings shared about her nuts and leaves, thus the humans do not offend her.  She rests, and we respect her by not gossiping within ear shot!  Yes… I like that notion.

So, we communicate in order to share valuable information, to pass on customs, express affection, request help, process emotional pain, and pass the time.   All those are important reasons to communicate but it seems what I want to say has nothing to do with that; rather, I seem concerned with the power of our communication.  Namely, why it is vitally important to use words respectfully.  As a witch, I work with the natural world as both part and parcel.  I am the natural world.  I am one with it, and I am a component of it.  Just as I hear the Grackle whistle, perched high in our native Pecan, she likewise, hears me.  Just as I hear the south wind sing through the corridors of living buildings in downtown Austin, he likewise, hears me.

Mutual respect and strong relationship are important to my work and life as a witch, and as a human. 

I need a harmonious relationship with the elements, and all other-than-human-persons.  What in the world would the north wind think if she heard me bad-mouthing her?  My word!  She wouldn’t be any more desirous of working with me than I would if I heard a friend gossiping behind my back!  And let’s not forget the rain!  He eventually winds his way back to the ocean, and I certainly would not wish to offend Her!  A wise witch minds her words and communicates to ALL beings with respect and courtesy, never speaking more than is needed, and remembering the wisdom of the ancestors: some secrets are best woven into Story and those Stories are best shared when the world sleeps.   ssssshhhhh

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/21/13]

Decomposition : creative commons

In Ireland,  the chthonic energy of decay is experienced as Crom Dubh, the dark, bent one who takes the grain under the ground.  He was a sacrificial god heavily associated with Lughnasadh.  In fact, while many Irish people may never have heard of the ‘festival of Lughnasadh’ (apart from the movie), they have certainly heard of Crom Dubh’s Day: Dé Domhnaigh Crum-Dubh.  This is a day of pilgrimage to the high places: a custom maintained with the yearly climb of Croagh Patrick.  More anciently, Crom was associated with sacrifice: King Tignermas offered human sacrifice, and there is a long history within antiquity of scapegoat sacrifice to underworld powers.  In more modern folk practice, Crom was the ‘old bent one’ who lived in the rings and forts, waiting to receive the Lughnasadh offering of the strangled black cock.

To understand the placing of offerings in storage pits, it is perhaps helpful to think of corn storage itself as, in a sense, a ritual or religious act, whereby the grain was given into the safe-keeping of the chthonic or underworld gods. […] The animals [or humans] which rotted in the ground, their blood and vital juices seeping into the earth, nourished the earth-gods in whose territory the pits were dug.  – Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Miranda Green.

It’s about exchange, right order, and living in balance, so as not to draw undo attention.  The powers were never seen as playthings to be called for fun; rather, great lengths (taboos, social customs, etc) were gone to so the world of human-persons and the world of Other did not meet.

The Power, or force, of decay is also seen in urban environments.  When a building, a living structure, is no longer occupied, it is reclaimed by the force of decay.  When vines or other plants begin to grow up a structure, the force of decay rides with them.  The order we create is in constant peril, under siege from the Powers of decomposition.

Austin experienced severe flooding at Halloween this year.  People I know had water seeping into their homes.  It was a dire situation, because the Other world was coming into direct contact with the human world.  Fast action and decisive measures were taken to remove the water, and  prevent the Power of decay from getting a foot-hold: industrial fans were rented, high-powered vacuums used,  sheetrock stripped, carpets ripped up.

I spent the past weekend removing, ending the life of, tree-persons who had grown too close to the house.  Their bark touching the exterior walls—the Other world touching the human world—opening a portal for the Power of decay.  This weekend I will rake and pile fallen leaves, for this same reason.  It’s why we paint or protect wood, embalm our dead, or get plastic surgery:  we wish to slow the Power of decay.

Yet we must remember the balance.  Decay and Death are necessary parts of the whole.  We do seek to dance with them, in a fashion.  One taking the lead for a song, or two, until it is time for the Other to lead.  Sensing this natural order, the rhythm of the dance of life and death, is what a witch does.  It is what any spiritually minded person living in a society connected to the natural world does.  And when we cease to hear the rhythm, or even remember there is one.….well, that’s when we invent things like cosmetic surgery.

As I pile my leaves this weekend, adding them to the bones of the trees I cut down last week, they will be transformed into a scapegoat offering.  In my compost pile, they are offered to the Powers of decay.  An act intended to nourish the Powers of decomposition in my soil, and as a religious act of thanksgiving to the Power of Death that brings Life.

Urban Witchcraft : Spirit Roads

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/13/13]

Most U.S. witches live in cities.  This probably holds true for most of the western world, since urbanization is on the rise and predicted to grow.  I recently found myself back in an urban environment.  Granted, Austin prides itself on its small town vibe, and funky eclecticism, but it’s no rural Ireland!  The sounds I hear, and the other-than-human-persons I encounter, are different.  Yet, they are still animate, and very eldritch.

Since I plan for this to become a multi-part series, let me start by defining my terms. I’m an animist. My philosophical and spiritual approach incorporates a world view of relationality: a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human. Within this relational experience, I practice a form of traditional witchcraft steeped in folklore.  I don’t engage my witchcraft as a religion. Rather, I experience it as a reclamation of the wisdom traditions passed to me through my blood, from the Ancient Mothers.

Now, for urban spirit roads.

The concept of the spirit road is found in most of Europe.  In Ireland, the principle can be seen in the folk practice of placing a pile of stone at each corner of a new house site before construction begins.  If the stones are disturbed, you know its a path used by the Good Neighbors, and you should resite the house. In other parts of Europe, you find special paths used only to carry a coffin, or to act as a processional way for the funeral. * The idea is that there are person specific paths;  human-persons make and use paths, as do Other-than-human-persons.

It goes back to the Old Irish concept of “right order.”  Each world has a right order, and each person, a right place in that order.  

There are alleyways in my neighborhood.  It’s also a heavily treed neighborhood, one that borders a system of wet weather creeks that run all the way out to the Hill Country, west of town.  Many Other-than-human-persons use those creek beds as pathways.  A local biologist found coyote scat in one not many years back.  She went looking after a rake (Irish Slang Alert: rake means a lot of something) of neighborhood cats went missing.

So, the other evening I was strolling home from a local cafe.  The sound of the wind in the trees was just right: familiar and sensuous.  The temperature, and humidity level, was just right: my body recognized it.  The quality of light, filtering down through the urban tree canopy from the few inner neighborhood street lights, was just right: familiar and comforting. I was taking in my environment using all my senses.  This is an embodied process, and one that connected me to a Place I know intimately. This is my Place, and my body knows it well.  And then I walked past an alley.

Down the black tunnel was a stirring.  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.  I paused, reached for my phone, and snapped; hoping to capture an image, or glowing eyes.  I don’t know what other-than-human-person was down that dark urban spirit road, but consciousness perceived me and looked back.

Adhering to the right order is tricky in an urban environment.  In the country, you know the right order.   Human-persons have the day, and other-than-human-persons, the night.  In the city? Well, I suppose you risk being disrespectful …. or meeting the Other world.

* To read more about the topic, you might enjoy Paul Devereux’s book:Fairy Paths & Spirit Roads: Exploring Otherworldly Routes in the Old and New Worlds.

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/07/13]

museum in my neighborhood : replanted with native grasses

While the northern latitudes just opened the Door to the dark time, the dead of winter, we Texans greeted the cool Ancestral breath that offers welcome respite.  Here in central Texas, and I can only speak to this one tiny geographical part because our state’s as big as most countries (including most of the U.S.)—now here’s a Texas Tall Tale—heck, you could fit most countries inside our borders and I would still have room for a hundred head of cattle in the back pasture!  Where was I?  Oh, yes…

Central Texas has two seasons, hot and cool.  Notice I didn’t say ‘cold’.  That’s because, while we do get Blue Northers, our cool season is what most of y’all call summer!  It’s a refreshing time of year for most folks.  A time to stroll outside, leisurely, without running from one speck of shade to the next.  You can leave things in your windowsill without them melting.  And we get to revel in the betwixt-and-between rains.  Our rains generally come at the two turnings of the year: between hot and cool, and cool and hot.  In this way, they align with the two major Gates in modern witchcraft: Samhain and Bealtaine.  So, while European, and other northern, witches might have multiple points on their wheel, Central Texas has two.

native Indian grass flower heads sway in the breeze above little bluestem, sideoats grama and other natives

I live north of the river in Austin; in a little neighborhood with towering trees, wide residential streets, and plenty of community feel.  I ride my bike down to the local grocery where I purchase locally produced foods, or pop into one of half-a-dozen cafes to sip something refreshing, and maybe hear live music. I rise early in the morning to walk down to my bus stop, three blocks away, and marvel at the colours in the sky.  My ramshackle little house has tilting wood floors, and bright walls in rooms with fun names (the Spice room, the Purple room, the Gray Lands — ok, maybe that last is rather gloomy).  My gardens are an overgrowth of possibility, and I swear numerous critters live in my attic!

My physical engagement with the Place that is Austin is less about the city and more about my immediate region.  In fact, I rarely travel outside my little neighborhood.  I don’t own a car, and this forces me to be more embodied. It’s how I learned the different scents in each yard, those made by plants and those left by dogs, as they mark their own unique trails.  My ears are not deafened by the noise of TV or radio–I don’t own either.  Instead, I hear the sounds of the wind, sirens, the dogs next door, the sweet night birds and the even sweeter dawn chorus, the neighbor practicing guitar or piano, loud sex next door, and children laughing without shame.  A few days ago I even heard a fox!  A cry I would not have known had Fox not recently introduced herself to me, back home in Ireland, on that silent night deep in the dark down the lane.

Tonight, as I walked home from the coffee shop, I breathed in the feeling of this neighborhood, my Place in Austin.

 It is a sensual experience.

One I have parred away the extraneous noise of modernity in order to BE in.  Human-persons shaped this place, to be sure.  Other-than-human-persons live here, as well, but this is truly a place of the Human. (As much as my little lane in East Cork was shaped by the Human–it certainly was not wild land, left in the shape Nature made her.)  And I like this Human place — with her wild creativity, infectious optimism, pretentious hipness, and lust for life.  We are a hot climate, and the blood moves quick and lively here.  There is room for everyone, unless they are nouveau riche.  Speaking of, here’s another Texas Tale.

The state built a Formula One race track just out our side door.  It seems people with lots of money like to attend those races.  In downtown Austin is an historic old stone building, operated under the name of The Driskill.  Now, the story goes, one of those rich types waited till the last minute to book his hotel accommodations, which was lazy of him, and he rang The Driskall expecting them to make room just for his precious little self. Unfortunately, they were all full and aghast at the notion of canceling another guest just for him.  So this rich guy decided he would just *buy* the hotel.  The folks down at The Driskall?  Well, they just laughed at him.  That’s not how things work down here.

My Place is also with my People.  Part of it is about cultural understanding, and influence.  Culture is defined as a complex integrated system of beliefs, values, and behaviors common to a large group of people, and includes adaptive responses, a shared language and folklore, ideas and thinking patterns, as well as communication styles.  Texas is a specific culture, and so is Austin.  Both share much in common, but those specific cultural values shift as you move between places, even within this one state (but then again, that’s not surprising…we’re really the size of a country!).

So, as I move into the season of welcome rest and recuperation, I thank the Ancestors for sending their cooling breath.  All living things around me heave a collective sigh of relief.  And for the Ancestors that passed away this year, the over 300 million Trees—ancestors to us all—that perished in the Great Heat, I send a kiss and my love.

What is remembered lives.

Thirst :: thirstart.org