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[originally published on A Sense of Place, 01/17/13]

The bees are still. The wild hive in the back garden is quiet. It’s cold out. A sliver of moon rides high in the sky: french tip manicure nail of beauty. The air is crisp, with hints of sycamore leaf, tobacco smoke, and steel–the numb metallic smell when too cold air is breathed in through the nostrils.

This week, winter weather dances over Austin.

As dusk deepens, I walk to one of the neighborhood coffee shops. A faint glow graces the horizon. Porch lights are on. Colored bulbs drip from eaves, shrub, and tree on those houses where Fairy Lights were selected over their traditional outdoor counterparts. Neighbors are out: walking their dogs; taking an evening stroll while they smoke, talk on their phones, or laugh; some are even, dressed in toasty gear, getting-in their evening run.

Elisabet Ney Museum : Hyde Park : Austin, Texas

A Place Within A Place

This neighborhood, close to the heart of the city, is a Place within a Place–a concept I first discovered after ditching the automobile and buying a commuter bicycle. On two wheels, my range became smaller. Crossing town was no longer as convenient, and I evaluated every excursion: living became regional.

I was fortunate. My earlier choices (giving up some modern ‘conveniences’ for inner-city living at a reasonable price) made my transition easier. Hyde Park, in Austin, is a historic suburb that the city grew around. There are restaurants, a small grocery, cheese shop, post office, cleaners, pharmacy, bike shop, theatre, wine bar, coffee shops, hair salon: in essence, I rarely needed to leave the neighborhood.

The planner of this “suburb” intended it to be a self-sufficient community, respectfully isolated from the city yet connected via public transport–originally, streetcars connected it to downtown. He achieved his vision, and today Hyde Park is a sought after location because of its convenience, amenities, and community feel. It is home to many progressives, and the vibe reflects the eclectic soul of the city.

Biking within my ‘hood and down Duval to campus (at the University of Texas) where I worked, with the occasional excursion into other regions, taught me that not all neighborhoods feel the same–let alone look the same! Many of these areas, while built within the same ecoregion, had distinctly different vibes about them. [Austin falls into two major ecoregions: the Edwards Plateau (western side of Austin) and the Blackland Prairie (eastern side of Austin).]

…which sounds reasonable, even commonsensical, but until I was out of my car and FEELING the difference, it remained an intellectual construct.

How A Place Within A Place Is Made

If the natural environment is theoretically the same in these areas (same ecoregion), what distinguishes and differentiates these Places (gives them their special vibe)?

People. The human-persons are what make each block, neighborhood, and section (north of the river or south) of the city unique. Going with the “cities are anthills” metaphor isn’t enough. Each micro-locale that human-persons have set apart by naming, possesses a distinct flavor– much the way different subspecies of ants build different types of anthills.

What I experience in Hyde Park is not Blackland Prairie (the ecoregion of the area), per say. Rather, it is an human “anthill” influenced by Texas Blackland Prairie.

Thinking of cities as Concrete Jungles may help us feel connected to, and within, them. When I journey, as I did this weekend, to the Edwards Plateau, I expect to shift my ways of perceiving. I look for different plants, animals, and geology. I don’t expect to hear the wind whisper through tall pines or see wild antelope bound through the grass. Likewise, as pagans seeking place, if we think of human cities, and neighborhoods, as their own distinct ecoregions, with their own plant and animal life; geology; and weather patterns, we can intentionally shift our ways of connecting.

Are Cities Sacred?

We may hesitate to think of cities as distinct ecoregions, even feel uncomfortable doing so, because it requires us to think of them as “natural”–part of nature. This line of thinking leads to an even bigger question, one I am interested in grappling with and consider a fundamental question for pagans; a question that goes back to our philosophy and world-view, and how it connects us to, or distances us from, nature, each other, and the experience of life.

Western civilization was founded on a particular world-view, and set of values. There have been significant shifts, at least in trajectory, over the centuries, but I would wager that many of us disagree, on some level, with the major premise of modern Western consciousness–namely, the sundering of spirit from matter. The technological paradigm we live within permeates every thing, from what we consider knowledge; to how we communicate and categorize information; to how we are taught about the world; how we define aliveness; how our governments are run and our societies structured; and how we look backward in our search for a different religious affiliation.

If we are seeking an embodied spirituality, one where connection to Place–both an amorphic concept and physical location–is possible, we must consider and wrestle with these ideas…even if we sound silly. Especially if we sound silly!

In thinking of Places within Places, and finding deep connection in an urban environment, it is especially important to consider what constitutes aliveness and how we define ‘sacred’ or ‘spirit’. Is there as much room in our definition of Place for modern human-made architecture as there is for other-than-human made architecture? Is the star-dust we put together less sacred than the star-dust the Universe put together?

If we can finally begin to see our own creations as sacred, lessen the Baconian-driven desire to alter ever bit of nature we find, and reconsider the Descartian assumption that human-persons, as thinking beings, are purely mechanical–confronting the world as an object–then perhaps there is hope for us after all! At least, we may finally create healthier, more sustainable, places to live; and find connection, instead of alienation, within our communities and under our own feet.

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[re-post from A Sense of Place, originally published 01/10/113]

Ireland is a land awash in folklore.  Like waves crashing upon its shores, the stories create a rhythmic backdrop for life. They seep into the fabric of Being and are part of the island’s DNA.  I return to Ireland in two weeks–in time to weave my Imbolc solar crosses. With returning on my mind, I share this juicy tidbit from R. F. Foster:

Faeries in a mountain cavern : Æ : image Lissadell House

Foster was born in Waterford and educated in both Ireland and the United States. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he subsequently became Professor of Modern British History at Birkbeck College, University of London and in 1991 the first Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford and a Fellow of Hertford College. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1989, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1986, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1992, an honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 2010.  His books include W.B. Yeats, A Life. I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 (1997) which won the 1998 James Tait Black Prize for biography, and Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939 (2003). He is also a well-known critic and broadcaster.

R F Foster on Yeats, faeries, and the Irish occult tradition

R F Foster on Yeats, faeries, and the Irish occult tradition

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[re-posted from A Sense of Place, originally posted on 01/03/13]

My transition to a localized Place-based practice began when I bumped into someone.

You see, while my childhood relationship with Place had been specific to the farm and its immediate environs, which were geographically contained and local, my adult experience had been shaped like most of us: from books.

When I discovered there was such a thing as “witchcraft” it was a moment of awakening. Learning that others, who practiced the same sorts of charms and healing I had been taught by my grandmother and who shared a world view closely resembling my own, called themselves Witches was a homecoming, and sent me searching for more information.

The problem was that most of that information came from books focused on practices and cosmology originating from a set of islands in the northeast Atlantic!

The places they spoke of had lush green grass in summer, ripening fruits in a season called ‘Autumn‘, and long, dark winters that kept people huddled indoors around a fire. These were foreign concepts to me (though they sounded romantic). Instead, my summers in central Texas were scorched brown, and often stretched from June through October. Gardens ripened in late spring. Winters were mild times that allowed for outdoor fun.

But all the books said Witches honored these new, and strange, seasonal turnings. And wasn’t I a witch?

So, I dutifully learned the language of the Eight-fold year; though it never felt quite right, and I often wondered where the gods and spirits of my own land were.

Barton Creek

Barton Creek : By Vicki Mitchell, via Wikimedia Commons

Fast-forward a few years to my first initiation, which began with a visioning along Barton Creek: the fresh, spring-fed water flowing into Austin, where it merges with the Colorado River.

During that tearful and glorious rite, I met the Quick Silver Girl. She darted into my consciousness, like a flash, as the cold waters of the creek flowed over my naked body.  Barton Creek rushed into my experience, introducing herself to me with laughter and welcoming (even though I had been impolite enough to splash into her sitting-room without so much as a Howdy-Do!).

Here was one of the tutelary spirits of my Place and I had never heard of her! Worse still….for years I had been diligently communicating with, expressing love and gratitude to, a tutelary spirit in….. county Limerick, Ireland!

Talk about not dancing with the one who brung ya!

All those years of living in Austin; eating the produce of her body; drinking her water; walking upon her flesh, and I had never bothered to do more than mention the vague “land spirits” during public ritual! Instead of loving, and being grateful to, the land around me, I had spent all my time trying to build relationship with spirits found on those northeastern islands: the ones I read about in all the books! Oh, how my heart hurt me in that moment.

Thus began my journey: to craft a Place specific practice and mythos; to discover the stories of the Great Powers — Hurricane and Tornado; to learn ‘why’ the Testing of Summer, when all things die; and to sing the songs of the glorious winter, when life rests and is refreshed.

Of course, just when I began to hear their tales… I moved to Ireland.

But that’s another story!

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[re-posted from A Sense of Place, originally posted on 12/27/12]

As the festive season winds down, and we slide toward secular New Year, I leave you with a bit of follow-up reading.  In my last post I offered 10 Tips for cultivating place in the city.  Within that post I mention some ideas that were revolutionary for me.  Crafting a ritual year unique to my locale and beginning to work with a Place specific mythos (which I often had to create) propelled my spirituality forward in unexpected ways.  In the weeks to come I will dive into these topics, sharing my experience and offering what I have learned.  In the meantime, chew on these two thoughts:

Do you practice a nature religion? (Chas S. Clifton; Nature Religion for Real)

Does the land beneath your feet have its own mythic stories? ( Steven Posch; How do you say that in witch?)

May you enjoy the season, and discover beauty where you least expect it!

winter sky : Austin, Texas : beauty surrounds us

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the sensual

The back garden is a carpet of bejeweled grass; each blade aquiver with droplets of dew.  The windows shine with condensation.   I open the door from the sun-room, and dozens of small birds scatter from the feeders.  I speak my normal greeting, “Good morning! Sorry to disturb.  I will only be a moment.”  The sky is a watercolor wash of gray and white. The air, chill and fresh. I pause as I head up the stone stairs to the barn.  I close my eyes and listen.

the Beara Peninsula : Cork

far distant tractor
bird
faint low of cattle
silence

This autumn and early winter have embodied stillness. While I witnessed some good storms, I most remember the uncanny silence.  Last year the trees in our garden were constant movement, as stormy winds danced over the ridge and buffeted our little stone house.  This year,  my attention is continually drawn to the quiet spaces.

the theoretic

In my last post I mentioned a nifty 10¢ word.  You may not remember it; in fact, you may not have watched the YouTube video about the word (which was linked at the bottom of my post).   Or, you may have.  I’ll remind you what it was: solastalgia.  It’s a term invented by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the sense of homesickness you have when you are still at home.

“How can you be  homesick when you’re still home?”

Good question.  In our technology-driven world, change happens quickly.  From one month to the next, buildings go up and what was once empty green space is paved over.  We innovate, building faster and more efficient toys that we chomp at the bit to play with.  Often we don’t entirely understand the consequences of our new toys, but they sure are fun and entertaining!  At the very least, they make our lives so much more convenient. Right?

the way home

When our Place changes in ways we don’t entirely like, in ways we feel an unidentifiable sense of wrongness about, it impacts us deeply, both emotionally and psychologically.  We feel sad, sometimes despondent and even angry.  This  is solastalgia in action.

When I returned to Texas, after my years of North American roaming, I decided to live in Austin.   I did not want to return to my rural home-town. It was, and is, an economically depressed area.  Once  abundant with small and medium-sized family farms (a way of life that  succumbed to market forces when I was still a girl), the area struggled to survive with limited industry, and offered few employment or social prospects.  Austin, on the other hand, with its liberal hippy vibe and robust arts scene, was just what a young rebel needed!

But while I was away, significant changes had occurred back home.  My parents had divorced, my grandmother  grown increasingly ill, and my father had – unbeknownst to me – sold the land his own forebears had worked so hard to tend.  Bit by bit, he had let the land go for housing development.  When I heard this, I  felt as if someone had stabbed me.  When I drove home to see it with my own eyes, I broke down in gut wrenching sobs.  Powerless.  Feeble.  I had no recourse, no way of changing what had been done to the enchanted land of my childhood.  No way of upending the houses that  now sprawled over fields and barns I once played in.  No  way of returning the other-than-human friends and loved ones of my youth.

The feeling we experience when we see yet another box store go up on land we love, or a dear tree friend felled because power lines get right-of-way, is solastalgia.  It is the profound sickness in the pit of our stomach that tells us something is terribly wrong in our world.  It was with this grief and anger that I began my relationship with Austin, Texas: a place of asphalt, constant noise, and the suffocating experience, common to all cities, of being watched (so speaks the introvert). Yet this place, this city with its hustle and bustle, was now home.

austin_hero

I have been fortunate; I have lived in some gorgeous remote (quiet) locations: from the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, to the great Smokies of Tennessee, to the deep wagon ruts of the westward trails through Nevada.  These places were very different from home, but they were all wild, and spoke a similar language to the creeks and fields of the Gulf coast plains.  I didn’t hear this language in Austin: at least, not at first.

In fact, during my first year in the city I suffered from numerous stress-related illnesses and gave up, escaping to a country hideaway 40 minutes outside of town.  But the Place wasn’t finished with me, and as these things often happen, I really wanted (or needed) to learn the language of Austin–the language of the human city.  So, within a few years I was back: in the heart of the city and learning how to find Place wherever I am–a journey that began with stillness.

Next week I will say more about this journey; which is convenient, because I will be in Austin for the holidays!

Do you struggle to find connection within the city? Have you experienced uncontrollable changes to your Place?

[originally published 12/13/2016]

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I have been writing at the new Patheos Pagan Chanel blog: A Sense of Place. It has taken me into a deeper exploration and understanding of my own connection to the geography around me, what constitutes “home”, and what various places mean to my spirituality and to my practice as a witch.

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the ring fort : Lissnabroc : Cork

Because it was such a sunny morning here in Cork, I went out for a run. As I passed the gate, leading into the pasture where the Ring Fort lives, I noticed a sigh. “blah, blah, Cork County Council…blah, blah…..planning permission for..blah, blah, ….a residential structure.”

What!?

The man who bought the pasture– from the family whose relations originally farmed it and lived in our stone house (that pasture had once been part of the farm belonging to the house we live in), a family whose relations had preserved the ring fort in tact (a fate not shared by two others on this ridge)–was now giving it to his daughter to build a new house. Right. Next. To. The. Ring.

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the back pasture : my family farm : Wadsworth, Texas

Several things flooded my mind as I read the sign. First, that the new owners show an incredible lack of regard for folk tradition. In years past, no one in their right mind would have lived so near one of “their” dwellings (ring forts were seen as dwelling places of the Good Neighbors, and there were/are many prohibitions concerning them). This seeming lack of regard immediately had me concerned for the preservation and welfare of the ring. Secondly, I felt the trauma of losing my family farm all over again.

I am sure I have written here before about growing up on a farm in Texas. My experience of and deep connection with that Place forever shaped my present incarnation. Many times I have admitted that instead of human parents rearing me, it was actually the land. Nature herself, in all her forms, took a wild heathen thing, who used to run barefoot from sunup to sundown, and shaped her into the woman I am today. When my father got control of the farm, he sold it: bit by bit. While I know his actions were influenced by his Bi-Polar disorder, the loss devastated me.

So today, reading a simple white sign staked into the ground by the stone wall, I was struck once more with my own Solastalgia (Albrecht, 2010a): my own grief, pain, and trauma caused by the loss of Place. My post on Patheos this week was about snakes and sovereignty–specifically musing on the very local and immediate connection the ancient Irish kings had with Place. The right to rule, here in Ireland, was bestowed by a female agency and was intimately bound to the immediate environs of that tuath (The tuath was the basic unit of society and was based on kin grouping. At one time, there were up to 300 tuath in the country.). The king, then, was sovereign over his very specific Place–and nowhere else, as each tuath was independent (apart from occasional alliances, etc).

I no longer have a place. Uprooted and tossed on the wind, like many in western culture, I am a migrant. I am forced to carry my Place within me. This is both lonely and liberating. I learned, out of necessity and natural inclination, the tools to connect with my surroundings. These have served me well, as I have traveled–moving from place to place–the entirety of my adult life. And it occurred to me, reading the sign today and feeling the instant desire to flee so I don’t have to witness the infringement on the ring, that I’ve been running from deep connection my entire life.

Maybe we all do. In America, society has become disposable. Forces outside our immediate control have power and sway over our lives. So, whether due to economic or political forces, many are compelled into a migrant lifestyle, seeking work or fleeing destruction (another shopping mall or parking lot, anyone?). In ages past, we were subject to the power of a chieftain or tribal ruler. But at least that king was kin, and his domain–our domain–the same Place our ancestors had lived, perhaps for millennia.

a village by the sea : Ireland

a village by the sea : Ireland

Now market forces rule, and kingship is given to the profit margin.

I hurt…and because I can’t bear the loss of another Place, I will migrate once again. My face is turned toward the city. It seems my Fate is intimately bound with it. My academic interests include the psychological stress of urbanisation. It seems fitting, doesn’t it?

References:

Albrecht, Glenn. (2010, May 22). ‪TEDxSydney 2010 was organised by General Thinking. Environment Change, Distress & Human Emotion Solastalgia. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/-GUGW8rOpLY

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