Big Bend National Park: A Holy Place

When American pagans think of sacred places, they usually think of somewhere like Stonehenge or ruins of Greek temples, but you really shouldn’t ignore the places closer to home. Some worry that it would be cultural appropriation about Native American culture, because they were here first and first regarded these places as sacred sites. However, I think the Native Americans were just the first human beings to recognize them (unless of course it’s a site they built themselves), and we should respect them for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these places belong to them. They were here for millions of years before our species even existed. I think they’re sacred in their own right, independent of any human observer, and should be recognized as such by anyone who believes that the natural world has sacred power.

I’m going to tell the story of my relationship with a place near and dear to my heart: Big Bend National Park.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande left there by kindred spirits from long ago.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande. Left there by kindred spirits from long ago?

Getting to Big Bend from here requires a day of driving west. I’ve heard people say the long, “boring” drive is a reason why they don’t go, and to those people I say, “Good!” If you think it’s not worth the drive, then you don’t belong there. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that’s one of its great advantages. I’ve never been there on Thanksgiving, but I’ve heard that’s their only “busy time”. If you go there during summer, like I usually do, there’s hardly anybody there. You certainly won’t get caught in a crowd like you might at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, which is on the eastern edge of the Edward Plateau ecoregion. Driving to Big Bend, I first have to pass through the rest of the Edwards Plateau, with its familiar oak-juniper woodlands, herds of goats, and peach orchards. Going west, the climate gets drier and drier. The woodlands open up into grasslands, and finally, after several hours of driving, you reach the Chihuahuan Desert. The vegetation changes to agaves, cactus, and the majestic ocotillos standing tall among rocky hillsides.

It’s really not a bad drive at all.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

The last bit of “civilization” is Alpine, the largest city in the Trans-Pecos, with about 6,000 people. That’s big enough to have a supermarket, shopping center, and fast food restaurants. Stock up here, because after this, there are only gas station convenience stores in little towns. The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University campus is also worth a visit to stock up on some knowledge about the history of the place if you have never been here before.

From Alpine, Big Bend is straight south, into that “bend” in the Rio Grande that gave the region its name. Things are so “big” out here, that after you reach the borders of the park, you still have a long drive before you get to the headquarters at Panther Junction.

The first time I went to Big Bend I had just moved to Austin for college. I also just joined the Pagan Student Alliance, and that Beltane I went to my first pagan festival. My new friends, knowing I was majoring in biology, introduced me to a lady who worked for Bat Conservation International, and she started talking to me about an opportunity to have something to add to my resume. It was so strange “talking business” at a pagan festival with a lady who was wearing nothing but a sarong around her waist, but at the end of the conversation I had agreed to go with them on a trip in June to Big Bend National Park to study endangered Mexican long-nosed bats. My job was to be the camp cook, errand-runner, and laundry-doer for the scientists, who would be on a nocturnal schedule just like the bats.

I gave one of the other scientists a ride out there. Neither of us had been there before. When we arrived at Panther Junction and got out of the car, I was hit with the most wonderful fragrance. I asked my companion what it was, and she didn’t know. I laughed and said maybe it was fresh air. It wasn’t until later I found out that I was smelling creosote bush, which is known as “the smell of desert rain”. June is the rainy season out there, and when it rains, creosote bush gives out a scent that I think is invigorating.

A field of creosote bush.

A field of creosote bush.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park. Out in the middle of this harsh desert, these mountains rise up, creating an island of lush forest. There are several legends about the mountains being “enchanted” or “haunted,” which means people long before me recognized their spiritual power. Imagine being among the first human beings to make it out here, after crossing miles and miles of desert to find mountains with lush forests of Douglas fir, aspen, and madrone growing on top. There’s a winding road that takes visitors into “the Basin” where you’re surrounded by the mountains. On my first trip there, it had rained, and there were waterfalls cascading over the rock faces. The Basin is also a good place to camp in the summer, since it’s much cooler up in the mountains than the desert below.

The Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains

To study the bats, we had to hike up the Emory Peak trail, higher into the mountains, to where the bats roosted, stay there all night catching bats in a net and attaching radio transmitters to them, and then hike back down in the morning. That night I went with the scientists so they could show me how it was done, but I had to go back earlier than everyone else so I could get up the next morning to cook. I was freezing up there because it had rained, and I had gotten sweaty on the hike up, so I ended up leaving at about 3 am. The problem was that now I was hiking down a mountain trail I was unfamiliar with, alone, in pitch darkness (with only a small, fading flashlight), with thoughts of mountain lions stalking me running through my mind.

When you’re in that situation, your mind starts playing tricks with you. I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me, but when I stopped walking, the sound stopped. It took a long time before I figured out it was my canteen knocking against my backpack when I walked. I walked as fast as I could, and ended up startling some large animal just off the trail in the blackness outside the narrow beam of light coming from my flashlight. All I heard was a snort and crashing through the brush as it ran away from me, and I ran away from it. To this day I have no idea if it was a deer, a javalina, or a bear that I disturbed.

Later on, I lost the trail somehow. I must have gone down a deer trail, and slowly it faded out until I found myself standing in the middle of a patch of lechuguilla with no sign of any trail at all. I looked all around, and everything looked the same. I started to panic, and then I remembered what they told me to do if I had trouble, which was “curl up like a bear on the trail and wait until we come down and find you in the morning.” Yeah right! I wasn’t on the main trail, and I had no idea how far off I had wandered. I ended up finding a rock to sit on, turned off my flashlight, and just sat there a while. This turned out to be a good idea, because the adrenaline started to fade, my eyes adjusted to the starlight, and I calmed down as I looked at the black silhouettes of the mountains against the spectacularly starry sky. That was the first time I was anywhere that was dark enough at night to see the Milky Way.

After a while my eyes had adjusted to the point where I could actually see a small metal sign several yards away. I walked towards it and found the trail. I thanked the mountain spirits for not killing me this time, and managed to make it all the way back to the parking lot, to my car, and then safely back to the research station out in the desert where I was staying.

Sunset over the mountains.

Sunset over the mountains.

Modern pagans (and modern people in general), seem to either idealize Nature or hate it. They’ll say nature is good, and go camping at pagan festivals, until they get stuck with a thorn and then they want to go home back to air conditioning and soft beds. I think if you really want “nature-based spirituality”, then you have to embrace the fact that Nature is amazingly beautiful and healing to the spirit, and can also kill you. I probably wasn’t really in any danger as I hiked down the mountain that night, but it sure felt like it to me when that primitive part of my brain kicked in, and I was reminded that out there I’m not at the top of the food chain. And really, you’re not supposed to hike on those trails alone at night like that. If a mountain lion wanted to eat me that would have been her opportunity to do so. A few days after that, as I was running an errand in Study Butte, I bought a walking stick made of a sotol stalk. It’s become sort of a magic staff for me (I later burned my name in runes on it), but I also carry it on hikes to make any predators think twice about pouncing. (Though it’s more of a psychological thing. If a lion really set her mind to it, the staff probably wouldn’t help that much.)

Terlingua

Terlingua, an old mining “ghost town” turned quirky tourist spot next to Study Butte.

Since I was there during the rainy season in June, every morning there was a thunderstorm. Huge claps of thunder would blast through the desert, and out there nothing obstructed my view of the towering clouds and flashes of lightning. The desert plants soaked up the water and burst into bloom. After that, the sun would come out, and rainbows arched across the blue sky. Then the desert heated up, and by mid-afternoon it was baking hot until the sun went down, and nocturnal creatures like rabbits, coyotes, and kangaroo rats came out of their burrows as the temperature rapidly cooled. The next day the cycle would start over again. Fortunately the fridge at the research station was well stocked with beer, and I managed to sneak out into the desert to pour offerings for Thor and Heimdall and the desert spirits at sunset a couple of times.

That was my first trip to Big Bend.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A couple of years passed. I neared completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UT. When I graduated, it felt like my entire life fell apart. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before I walked across the stage, several of my friends moved to other states, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I had no job, and I was just starting to find out a Bachelor’s degree in biology is worthless, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle graduate school. None of my family or friends was in the sciences, so they couldn’t give me any advice. My relationship with that boyfriend was very unhealthy. I spent months putting a huge amount of emotional energy into trying to make the relationship work out, and then he dumped me right before my graduation. I felt worthless in just about every way.

I moved in with some friends after I had spent most of college living alone in an efficiency apartment. Living with supportive friends helped, but I still slipped into a deep depression. It felt like I had spent the last few years working so hard but everything I worked for had been worth nothing.

So I started planning another trip to Big Bend. This time I would go all by myself, and I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going. I told myself it was so that they couldn’t stop me, but part of me also wondered if anyone would notice I was gone. I needed to get out there and away from my pathetic little life.  I was also aware it was a bit dangerous taking a trip like this by myself, but I was at that point where you’re not quite suicidal, but you don’t really care if you just so happen to die somehow, you know? The thought of dying in Big Bend had a certain appeal.

DSCF2764

You are so small out here.

That morning I got up early and was loading the camping gear into my car, and of course one of my roommates caught me. I instantly realized the whole sneaking away idea was one of those stupid things that the fog of Depression comes up with, and my roommates would have noticed and would have called the police to report me missing. She made me promise I wasn’t going to kill myself and would be careful, and then she told me she’d let my other friends know not to worry, and she wouldn’t worry about me until I was gone for more than a week. Then she thought it was an awesome idea for me to take this pilgrimage.

I spent a week in Big Bend by myself. Since it was summer, I camped in the Basin where it was cool. I had only been there a little while before the depression was swept away. Since this was the first time I wasn’t there “on business” I got to leisurely hike lots of trails I hadn’t before, like the Lost Mine Trail. The rangers advised not hiking on any of the desert trails in the summer because of the potentially deadly heat, so I didn’t. I did take some of the scenic drives through the park, and at one point became overwhelmed by the mountains. It was when I was looking at an interpretive panel explaining how some rock formations in front of me were built, and I saw the tiny road I had been on an hour or so before off there in the distance, with a tiny little car driving along it, and realized how tiny I am, and how huge these mountains were that took millions of years to form. Some of the rocks in the park are billions of years old. It actually wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. I get a similar feeling when looking up at stars. “Feeling small” isn’t a strong enough description for those moments, but I still think that’s a good thing to experience. If more people really knew how small they are, they might change their priorities a bit.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

When I got back, I enrolled in graduate school. That turned out to be another really, really difficult time in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting into. My thesis didn’t work out. I thought I would have to quit and had wasted all that time and money for nothing, and I still wouldn’t be able to find a job. Thankfully, the department chair, when I thought he was about to kick me out, suggested I change my degree plan. It freed me up to take classes I was much more interested in, like Ornithology, Mammology, and Field Botany. For those classes, we had field trips where we traveled all over Texas learning about the different ecosystems, and I ended up going back to Big Bend two more times. It reminded me of why I got into this career field to begin with.

After I abandoned my thesis and started taking those classes, I finally learned what I wanted to learn this whole time. I learned bird calls, and animal tracks, and how to identify plants, all knowledge my previous thesis advisor thought was useless trivia, while real scientists program ecological models on computers or run electrophoresis gels in a lab all day.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

I took my husband to Big Bend in the summer of 2013. He had never been before. I told him about all my past history with the place, and now that I was happy, done with graduate school and with a job I liked and a nice husband, I wanted to share it with him. We went to Davis Mountains State Park for a couple of days first. Neither of us had been there before. We stayed at the beautiful Indian Lodge. That was so nice, he said maybe we should stay here the whole time, but I told him Big Bend was even better, so we went there next, and he said I was right. All the pictures in this post are from that trip.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

While we were there, I bought a book at the gift shop called Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent and read it on the drive home. It was interesting reading about these now-familiar places in the park and how they turned on some people. There are several tales of people who died of heat and thirst. I always give offerings of water to the land spirits for that reason. When people have actually died out there from not having enough water, giving some away to the spirits is a huge sacrifice. There are also stories of people freezing to death, getting hit by lightning, and even suicides and murders, but no one eaten by a mountain lion.

I really related to some of the people’s stories, like the old man in the first story who hiked the Outer Mountain Loop without enough water (and possibly suffering from the early stages of dementia) and died of thirst. He left a journal of the whole thing. He had been going to Big Bend for years, sometimes taking his kids with him. I got the sense that he felt a similar love for Big Bend that I do, and when he figured out he was going to die there, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

My husband and I didn’t bring enough water hiking the Window Trail. One bad thing about that hike is you go downhill first when you’re fresh, and then have to go uphill to get back when you’re tired. We ran out of water about halfway back up, and were feeling pretty bad by the time we got to our vehicle. It’s a popular trail, so I’m sure if we really got into trouble we would have been found soon enough, but you never know. One story in the book was of a man who died hiking Grapevine Hills, which is a short, 2 mile trail in the desert right next to the road. He didn’t bring any water, got disoriented, wandered off the trail, and his body was found in an arroyo.

Looking out The Window.

Looking out The Window.

The Window was worth it though, because at the end you can look out over the desert for miles. As my husband was looking out, and I was getting a drink of water in the shade, we heard this strange bird call I’d never heard before. My husband yelled at me to come look, and a golden eagle swooped past. Of course I didn’t get a picture of it, and when I talked to a ranger later, they said they didn’t know of any golden eagle nests down there. But we’re absolutely sure it was a golden eagle after looking up its call on the internet when we got home. That was the first and only wild eagle I’ve seen.

I know a lot of people are afraid of the wild because of the dangers, though I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on my way to work than anything else. There’s just something humbling about being somewhere like that where human beings aren’t in control. For most of us it’s rare to be in a place that hasn’t been altered and tamed to for your comfort, a place where there’s no air conditioning and all the plants have thorns and there are animals there that look at you as a food source. And I think that makes it even more important to visit these places sometimes and get reminded of what that’s like.

One of the things I look forward to about having a kid one day is bringing her (or him) to Big Bend as soon as she’s old enough. I thought about that a lot when I was there with my husband. I want to pass on my love and reverence for that place to another generation.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This May I’m going to Sul Ross University in Alpine for a week-long workshop for STEM educators. I just got the itinerary, and most of the week will be spent taking classes on things like scanning electron microscopy and GIS, but it looks like at least on Friday we’ll be going to Big Bend for a Field Geology workshop, and then to the Davis Mountains that evening for a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory. I hope I get time to sneak a quick hello to the mountain spirits, the rivers spirits, and the desert spirits. It’s not quite the same going there “on business” as going there when I can do what I like, but at least it’s a free trip to Big Bend. All my expenses are being paid by the university, including room and board, and I’m getting a stipend.

I haven’t been to many other national parks, and I haven’t been to any other national parks more than once. I haven’t gotten to travel much in my life in general. But I think even if there are more impressive parks out there that I may see some day, Big Bend will still seem special to me.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Day of Remembrance

Mexican buckeye

Today is the first anniversary of my dad’s death. I was with him when he died in the hospice, though he was no longer conscious by then. But I know I was there, and I’m glad I was, even though being there to witness his death was not a pleasant experience.

At around the time of his death today, I went out to sit by his tree we planted by our ritual circle. My mother-in-law bought us the tree as a gift. It was her idea to plant the tree in his honor. When she asked which kind of tree we wanted, I just told her I wanted a small, native understory tree that wouldn’t mind growing underneath our big oaks, so she chose a Mexican buckeye. My husband dug the hole for it, and I sprinkled some of his ashes into the hole before we put the tree in. It’s across the circle from where we buried one of our cats, Kay-kay, when she passed away (she got an American beautyberry planted over her grave). Kay-kay passed away in September of 2013, on the week of the Autumn Equinox and the same week dad was diagnosed with cancer. Then dad died six months later, right after the Spring Equinox of 2014.

My dad’s tree just started to get its leaves, and after sitting there for a while, I noticed it’s got a few small, pink flowers starting to bloom. The tree is only about knee-high right now, but it will grow.

The Goddess of Spring and the Dawn

Here is a neat myth I just found: Urglaawe Myth of Die Oschdre

It tells a tale of how the spring goddess brings bright colors to the world. This resonates well with spring here in Texas, with the Texas Mountain Laurels, Texas Redbuds, and now the Texas Bluebonnets starting to bloom.

Winter weather in Texas is gray. We only rarely get the pretty parts of winter: the snowflakes and icicles. No, we get gray clouds, fog, and drizzle. We do get some freak warm weather through the winter. I’ve had Yule parties where I needed to turn the air conditioner on. But most plants and animals know it’s not spring yet when we have those warm periods in December, January, or February. They wait, because the next week it could be below freezing again.

But by the Spring Equinox, it’s safe to assume we’ll get no more freezes again. At the same time, colorful flowers start to bloom and colorful summer migratory birds like warblers, painted buntings, and hummingbirds start to arrive. Our non-migratory birds like mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees start building new nests and soon you can hear the chirp of this year’s chicks up in the trees.

So yes, the idea of Ostara bringing color to a gray world fits very well here. I’m glad I found this myth.

There’s so little about Ostara out there. Some Heathens don’t even think she’s a real goddess and say that Bede just made her up. Others ignore her because she’s not found in the Scandinavian lore which they base their religion on. Some say she’s the southern name for a known Scandinavian goddess like Freya or Idunna as substitute accordingly.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think she’s one of the “other” Vanir. You know, one of the ones besides Frey, Freya, and Njord who weren’t involved in the peace negotiations between the Aesir and Vanir. I also think that England and Central Europe knew the Vanir better than Scandinavia, because it’s a warmer, more fertile climate. I think that Frau Holle and Nerthus also may be Vanic deities that were better known in these more southern areas, and this is why their lore has been better preserved in the folklore of these areas than it was in Scandinavia.

I try to follow a Germanic version of the standard Neopagan Eight Holidays, using English, German, and Pennsylvania Dutch sources for inspiration. One thing I have observed is that the holidays opposite each other (that is, the ones that are exactly six months apart) balance each other in a nice way. They end up acting like Ying/Yang counterparts to each other.

The Autumn Equinox comes in September, and that’s usually when we get our first cold front that finally breaks the summer heat. The temperatures go from the high 90’s or low 100’s every day to a relatively refreshing high 80’s or low 90’s. Trust me, after getting through another Texas August, a high of “only” 92 is a sign the Wild Hunt and the Frost Giants are on their way! There’s a definite sense of seasonal change, of flipping a switch, and now we’re finally done with the suffocating 100 degree heat.

The Spring Equinox is the opposite of that. By January and February, we’re getting a little sick of the dreary drizzle with occasional freezes. But when the goddess Ostara arrives, we know it’s really Spring this time. It’s flipped to the light half of the year. It’s really unlikely we’re going to get any more freezes, so it’s safe to start planting out warm-weather plants. The trees know it’s safe put out their buds and flowers and the birds know it’s safe to start laying eggs. We know for sure that winter is done with.

Ostara is as real to me as any other deity I’ve encountered. One of the first group rituals I ever led was an Ostara ritual where the goddess actually showed up. I did it in a Wiccan style since most of the people there were Wiccans, with a “Drawing Down” of the goddess. And apparently, it worked! I was never completely possessed, since I remember everything that happened. I felt like I was in a state of “flow”, and the whole ritual went perfectly smoothly, and afterward the other participants told me how great it was and how they really felt the presence of the goddess.

So if she’s not a real deity, then I don’t know what is.

There’s a good reason why Ostara is the goddess of both Spring and the Dawn. If Yule is the midnight of the year, and Groundhog Day is when you start to see the first glow of sunlight on the horizon, then Ostara is daybreak when the sun comes up over the horizon and bathes the land in morning light. Ostara is the goddess of new beginnings, of chicks and bunnies and other baby animals, of flowers and bees and seeds. When she arrives, it’s an exciting time of year, full of potential.

I don’t care if the Scandinavians didn’t know her. I know her.

Hospitality for Heathens

John Beckett recently posted Hospitality for Humans about how to make people feel welcome at public rituals and events. Good timing, since I’m about to do my first ritual with my Meetup.

Hospitality is one of the Nine Noble Virtues, but it seems like a lot of Heathens don’t have the same idea of what it means that I do. I am reminded of my first and only time I tried to attend a public Asatru event.

It was some time around 2006 or so. I had recently graduated from college with my Bachelor’s degree and was still living with my college roommates in Austin. I was participating on an online forum for the Texas Asatru League, and they had posted about an event they were going to host over the weekend at a state park (if I remember correctly) that was about a two hour drive away. I decided to be daring and register for it. They said they were going to do an Odin Blot there, and it sounded like it would be really cool to do a ritual to my patron god with a bunch of like-minded folks.

I showed up around sundown, and went to the main dining hall. Inside, people were just starting to gather around a table. A woman was making corn tortillas from scratch in a tortilla press and frying them in a cast iron skillet on the stove. I came in and sat at the table, and nobody offered me food or drink. Instead, people gathered around and stared at me. I tried to politely introduce myself, and questions started. Who are you? Are you here alone? How did you hear about this event? Why did you decide to come here? Where are you from?

When I told them I was from Austin, one guy said, “Oh yeah, that’s where all the Communists are!” He then added, “but I’m sure you’re not like that.”

At this point I was in a cold sweat and my heart was pounding.

As soon as there was a break in the interrogation, I mean conversation, I excused myself, saying I needed to get something out of my car.

Instead, I jumped in my car and sped away.

I’ve never gone to another Asatru event again.

Keep in mind, this event was posted publicly on this forum that anyone could join. Anyone could register. I thought that event was open to the public. I had no trouble registering for it despite not personally knowing anyone who was going. I thought it would be an opportunity to meet some new friends, especially since I don’t have any Heathen friends.

I’m not sure if the Texas Asatru League still exists. I never got on their online forum again.

Say what you will about Wiccans, but I’ve never been treated that way at Wiccan gatherings. They can be the opposite, hugging me when I didn’t signal that I was OK with that and otherwise being a bit TOO touchy-feely with me, but at least they don’t call me a Communist just for living in Austin and act like I don’t belong there.

Equinox Plans

Friday was my Pagan and Heathen Meetup, and 17 people showed up! Again, we had trouble finding room in the coffee shop and had to rearrange a lot of tables and chairs. Ugh, what have I gotten myself into? This thing has really snowballed.

Since people have been wanting more variety in our events, I posted two things for the upcoming Ostara season. On March 21 we’re having a potluck picnic in a local park, and on April 4 I posted a full moon ritual in another park.

The potluck on the Equinox is going to be purely celebratory. I told everyone to bring a dish to share, but only one person so far has posted a comment saying what he’s bringing, and only 5 people have RSVP’ed so far. At least it should turn out better than the last time I tried this, where only one man showed up, who was old enough to be my father, and all he wanted to talk about was this pagan festival he went to and how awesome it was to have young women running around topless there. He especially liked the skinny dipping.

This time around three of the people who have RSVP’ed are regulars, and they’re all non-creepy people who I actually don’t mind being around, thank goodness!

I always like to make egg-themed dishes for Ostara/Easter, so I’ll probably bring deviled eggs since they are picnic-friendly. I might make some challah bread too. I know that’s a Jewish thing, but it’s made with lots of eggs, and it’s also delicious.

As for the ritual, I noticed that the parks department changed the curfew for our parks from sundown to 11 pm, giving us a lot more time to be out there under the actual moon. I just hope there aren’t a lot of other people out there after dark, since I’m still concerned with privacy. The full moon of April is called the Egg Moon, and this year it’s the day before Christian Easter. On the Meetup website I asked for input on what people would be interested in doing for the ritual, but even though I’ve got 4 people signed up, no one has given any feedback yet.

At the Meetup on Friday, a Heathen guy who hadn’t been there a while showed up again. He sat next to me and talked to me for a bit. He asked what the deal was with the full moon thing he saw on the website. I told him some of our Wiccan members had been mentioning that they wanted to do full moon rituals, and he nodded and went “Oh, Wiccans, right!” and then started going on about how he’s not into that sort of thing, and tried to steer the conversation to talking about guns and swords and weapons and fighting and macho manly stuff. He also asked me how many Asatruar are even in this Meetup, and I told him maybe a third to half of us are, and that I think that reflects the pagan community in general pretty well, but he still seemed annoyed that I wasn’t doing enough Macho Manly Asatru Viking stuff. I again reminded folks that anyone can suggest an event on our website, but nobody ever does.

Oh, they LOVE to talk about how they want to do such-and-such, and I always say “then click ‘suggest a meetup’ on the site!” but nobody ever does. One of our Wiccan members keeps saying she wants to do a Tarot workshop, and I don’t know anything about Tarot, so I told her to put it on the site, but she’s hasn’t. I’d really like to get to the point where I’m not carrying this whole thing solely on my shoulders. Maybe I’m going to have to just draft some people to be co-organizers. Some of the members who like to suggest things are going to the picnic, so I think I’ll ask them then if I can just go ahead and make them co-organizers. But I have a feeling if I do that, then my mantra will just change from, “then suggest it on the site,” to “since you’re a co-organizer, you can post it yourself!”

Well, if none of my Wiccan members want to help plan a Wiccan-style Full Moon ritual, I’m going to turn this thing into a Blot to the goddess Ostara. At least blots are simple enough that I could probably do the whole thing by myself and everyone else who shows up can just watch if that’s all they want to do. But hopefully by calling it a Full Moon ritual, I’ve already turned off the Macho Vikingtru types from attending at all. I’d rather do a Blot with a bunch of Wiccans than with Heathens like that.

Ugh, this turned out bitchier than I intended. I’m just feeling a bit overwhelmed with how this thing has grown. I think we have more people showing up to this Meetup than to the ones in the nearby large cities. I guess there’s a lot of us country folks who don’t feel like fighting the traffic to get to those.

I’m really NOT the kind of person to be in charge of a thing like this.

It’s Spring

This past week was Spring Break, so I was off work, though I didn’t have any fun plans. I spent most of Spring Break doing Frigg-type things around the house like cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking big batches of stews and casseroles to go in the freezer for days when I’m too tired to cook dinner when I get home from work. But the weather was so gorgeous Thursday that I decided to till the back garden.

My acre of land is mostly wooded with more live oak and mountain laurel trees than we can count. It’s nice, but fruits and vegetables require full sun, so I’ve got them stuck in whichever sunny spots I could find. I ended up with one vegetable garden in the back, one in the front next to the driveway, and a row of dwarf fruit trees (consisting of a pomegranate, Meyer lemon, satsuma, kumquat, loquat, and fig tree) lining the street under the power lines. All the rest of the yard is in shade.

The front yard vegetable garden consists of four 4’x20′ raised beds framed with cedar with 3 foot paths between. I felt it was more important to get that garden looking nice since it’s in the front yard. I’ve got nothing but compliments from neighbors about it. It sure is nice to not have a homeowner’s association.

The back garden is messier. Raised beds back there is further down on our to-do list, but I really should do it some time. Since I live in the Texas Hill Country, the ground here is like “would you like some soil with that limestone?” and our back yard is even rockier than the front. My husband is working on building a pond back there, and he dug down about a foot before he hit solid rock. He’s had to rent a jackhammer to work on the rest.

However, the advantage of the back yard is that the deer don’t go back there. They could if they really wanted to. We only have a short chain-link fence they could easily jump over, but so far they haven’t bothered. Our deer are still picky and only eat the really tasty, easily-accessible stuff. For example, over the winter I tried to grow a mixture of salad greens in the front garden, and the deer ate all the lettuce, but left the arugula.

I planted peas in the back this winter because deer find legumes especially delicious, but the rest of the back garden became horribly overgrown with weeds over the winter, especially this one particularly nasty weed that gets these sticky burrs on it.

So this week I finally decided I would just till up the whole thing, hopefully uprooting all those weeds before it’s time to plant warm-season crops.

But when you’re an animist, tilling the garden isn’t that simple. Before I got out the noisy machine with whirring blades that chops up the soil, mutilates plants, and will probably kill some earthworms and insects in the process, I felt I should give an offering to the land spirits first. A combination of thanks and apology for the havoc I’m about to wreak. I poured out a cup of milk for them, and sat there for a bit listening to the songs of the mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees for a while.

Then it was time to let the rototiller rip!

tilling back garden 006

The high that day was 78, so it turned out to be sweaty work, but I finally got it done by late afternoon. All that is left back there now are the two rows of peas on their trellises.

I hope those sticky plants don’t grow back.

As I sat on the back porch resting, a flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in the tree above and preened themselves for a while.

Cedar waxwings in oak tree

Live oak trees keep their leaves all winter and lose them at this time of year, right before growing catkins and new green leaves. So the oaks aren’t looking too good right now, and my porch is covered with fallen oak leaves.

Meanwhile, the second most common tree in my yard, the Texas mountain laurels, are blooming and filling the air with their sweet, grape kool-aid fragrance.

blooming trees 001

Friday morning, I went out to look over my work in the back garden again, before sitting on the porch to drink my coffee and listen to the dawn chorus. A chickadee landed in the tree above me and starting singing. It’s amazing how loud such a small creature can be. I listened to him for a while, and then a second chickadee flew over and landed right beside him. They started twittering frantically, and at first I thought they were fighting, since chickadees are somewhat aggressive little birds. But then I looked more closely and noticed that they weren’t fighting after all!

Apparently that second chickadee was a female who really liked his song!

The mockingbirds have already got chicks. I heard them chirping in the oak trees in the front a few days ago, and saw one of the parents catching bugs and bringing them up there. A couple of days later I saw a male cardinal picking out sunflower seeds from our bird feeder and giving them to a female cardinal perched above it (the bird version of giving your girlfriend a box of chocolates). Now there were chickadees gettin’s busy right above my head!

It’s definitely spring.

Hail Ostara!

What “Nature-Based Religion” Means to Me

One of the big divisions in the Big Tent of Paganism seems to be between those who consider it to be a “nature-based” or “earth-centered” religion and those who say they are centered on the gods. Back in the early 2000’s when I first ventured into online paganism it was Wiccans vs. Reconstructionists. Now it’s changed somewhat to “naturalist/humanist/atheist pagans vs. “devotional polytheists”, but the overall argument doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. “Do you worship Nature or do you worship the Gods?” is the question.

I’ve always thought that division was strange and doesn’t really fit my understanding of the main distinguishing feature of the Abrahamic monotheisms from the various indigenous religions of the world. I first got into paganism growing up as an atheist kid in a very Christian culture, and indigenous religions were very appealing precisely because they don’t have this division between the divine and nature. The thought that you had to pick between the gods and nature didn’t even occur to me until I got online and started reading the flame wars between the nature-worshiping pagans and the god-worshiping pagans.

As I always understood it, the main difference between the Abrahamic religions and pretty much all the indigenous religions of the world is how they view the relationship between the divine, humans, and the rest of nature. Abrahamic monotheism teaches that humans are the most important thing in all creation, specially created by the One God, who is separate from nature, and God created all the rest of nature to serve us. None of the polytheistic religions I know of put humans in such a privileged position.

That’s a big difference in world views, and the monotheists I’ve discussed this with agree with me. The only difference is they think it’s a good thing and shows monotheism is superior to the polytheistic indigenous religions they replaced.

I remember when I was a kid, and one of my cats died. All my friends were Christians, and we got into an argument about whether cats have souls. It always bothered me that anyone would assume only humans have souls and no other animals do, but that seems to be a standard belief among Christians.  Some Christians will go ahead and allow for the idea that beloved pets go to Heaven, but only because they would miss their pets when they got to Heaven, so God would allow their pets to be there with them. Your beloved dog or cat will go to Heaven for your sake, not for their own sake, as if they earn a soul through the love of a human. Wild animals don’t have this honor.

That just seemed wrong to me, and really put me off Christianity at an early age. When I was a freshman in college, I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center that specialized in injured birds of prey. Most of them had been harmed by humans in some way, either directly (by getting shot or caught in traps) or indirectly (by running into windows or getting tangled in barbed wire). Sometimes we couldn’t save the animal and it had to be euthanized. By this time I had just discovered Wicca and would say a silent prayer to “the Goddess” as the bird died, because I knew that everyone else working there were either Christians or atheists and all thought of the birds as being objects with no souls. The point of saving them was completely utilitarian, because they were useful as pest-control in the ecosystem, not because they had any kind of intrinsic worth. I liked the idea that there would be a deity out there who cared about these birds for their own sake. When we released a bird back into the wild, I hoped that the Goddess appreciated what we had done, not because we had repaired a damaged object that belongs to us, but because we had saved the life of a fellow creature and had righted a wrong that had happened when humans caused this animal harm.

The anthropocentric and utilitarian view of nature seems to go hand-in-hand with being monotheistic. There is only one God, and humans are his favorite creature. All the rest of Nature was created for his favored creatures to have dominion over and use as we please. Only human life has intrinsic value. Nonhuman life only has value in that it benefits human life.

In polytheism, however, there are lots of gods and spirits, and some of them favor humans, but not all. For example, in Heathenry the Aesir and Vanir have more to do with humans, while the Jotnar don’t seem to be big fans of humans in general. This leads some Asatruar to view the Jotnar as “evil”, but what if they are just the gods of other parts of nature? Maybe they favor wolves or sharks or rattlesnakes over humans. The only reason they’re “evil” is because they aren’t on our side, but that’s just a matter of perspective.

In “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter of the book The Wind in the Willows, the god Pan is depicted as the savior of the woodland animals the same way Jesus is the savior of humans. This book was written when western society was just starting to re-discover paganism. It was a revolutionary idea that animals would have their own god that cared about them and protected them from the traps and snares humans set for them. After all, according to Christianity, don’t humans have the right to trap as many animals as they want? Animals are just objects for us to use after all.

I know not all monotheists think this way, but even the most nature-friendly monotheists still put humans in a superior position. Maybe instead of conquering Nature, God wants us to benevolently care for it as “stewards”, but the One God still ranks us above everything else.

Since the universe has been put into this hierarchy, with God on top, then humans, then the rest of nature, it also means God is separate from nature. In the story of Exodus, Moses demonstrates that his God is the only true God when he breaks the rules of nature by doing things like turning the Nile to blood. If you know anything about the Egyptian gods, you know Osiris is the god of the Nile. Turning the Nile to blood was a direct attack on Osiris, and Osiris can do nothing to stop it. The Egyptian gods are bound by the laws of nature, but the Hebrew god can override them. Hence Moses proves his god is superior.

And from then on, people got the idea that a “real” god must be able to violate the laws of nature. I see this attitude even in modern pagans. The problem is no one has been able to demonstrate a god actually doing that, which leads some people to become atheists because if a god can’t perform these types of “miracles” then they must not be real.

The lack of any evidence for miracles that defy the laws of nature is discussed in John Michael Greer’s excellent book A World Full of Gods as an argument in favor of polytheism over monotheism. In polytheistic cultures, the many gods are all bound by the laws of Nature. They can tweak the odds in our favor, but they can’t outright stop the sun in the sky for us. In Norse mythology, the gods are still bound by Wyrd, and other polytheistic cultures have similar concepts of some sort of natural order that the gods are subject to. That seems to fit better when our observations about reality than the idea of an all-powerful God who can suspend the laws of nature at will.

This difference can also be seen when comparing Genesis to other creation stories. In Genesis, God comes first, and then he creates the universe. In the creation stories from polytheistic cultures the universe come first and the gods come later. In Norse mythology there’s a union of Fire and Ice. In Greek mythology there’s a union of Earth and Sky. In some stories there’s a vast cosmic ocean, or a cosmic egg, but in all of these stories, the gods we worship come later after these vague and hard-to-personify cosmic forces do their thing.

So if anything, Nature is superior to the gods, rather than the other way around. I realize this may sound terribly impious to some polytheists, but that’s not how it looks to me in the mythology and in my observations about reality. However, I prefer to say the gods are part of Nature, just like humans and other animals and plants and mountains and rivers, and lose the hierarchy altogether in favor of an interconnected web. John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Sounds a lot like Wyrd to me, which makes me think our polytheistic ancestors knew about these “invisible cords” too. Monotheism instead tries to “pick out” God and humans from the rest of Nature.

The Theory of Evolution shows that humans are just another animal. This is the main reason why Creationists object to it, because in their worldview, humans have to be special. They also hate the idea that that the universe was around for billions of years before humans existed, and humans have only been around for a minuscule fraction of the history of the universe. If that’s true, then how could the universe have been created just for us? But nothing in polytheistic theology says the world was created just for us, just like nothing suggests that the gods are separate from and superior to nature.

Some Heathens say that the Jotnar, being the gods of wild nature, are our enemies, and therefore nature is our enemy. The Aesir, the gods of human civilization, separated us from nature, and that was good for us. Life was harsh before we had technology that could shield us from nature. Then we got agriculture, cities, running water, electric lights, television, air conditioning, modern medicine, the internet, and life just keeps getting  better and better for us the more separated we become from nature. Right?

Yet anthropologists are starting to discover that life for hunter-gatherers was much more pleasant in many ways than it was after the adoption of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers had better diets, suffered fewer diseases, and actually worked less and had more leisure time than people living in agricultural communities.

And while modern life has given us many benefits, it also brings with it many maladies (mental and physical) never seen before. Not to mention the damage it’s done to the planet as a whole. Perhaps we’ve been separated from nature too much, and perhaps it’s not only making us physically and mentally ill, but spiritually ill as well.

I don’t think Norse mythology supports this view that nature is bad and must be conquered. The Jotnar are not always enemies of the gods. The gods are the children of giants. Many gods also marry and have children with giants. Even Thor, the god who defends us from the giants, is the son of a giantess, and not just any giantess, but Mother Earth herself. Thor only fights giants that directly threaten humans or the Aesir. Other than that, he leaves them be. He knows wiping them out would be a very bad idea, and he also knows he couldn’t if he tried. Thor may favor humans, but he’s not an all-powerful god, only one Power in a universe with many.

In “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold writes about how we need to redefine our relationship with the Land as a community which we’re a part of. He writes, “Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth,” to illustrate the utilitarian, anthropocentric view of humanity’s relationship with nature. I find it very significant that he uses Abraham, the father of monotheism himself, to make his point. He then goes on to discuss how this worldview has led to the environmental problems we face, and how we need to replace it with a “Land Ethic” where the Land has rights just as humans do, and humans have an ethical obligation to respect those rights.

It seems to me that polytheism is much more compatible with the Land Ethic than Abraham’s monotheism. In polytheism, the universe is one big community of many gods, many spirits, many species of plants and animals, and humans are just another citizen of the community. Of course, you can have a community with no gods in it, which may be how “atheist pagans” view it, but if pagan gods like Pan or Osiris do exist, they are part of the community too. They are not separate like the monotheistic god supposedly is.

To be frank, when polytheists insist upon the same utilitarian and anthropocentric view of nature that monotheists have, it saddens me. It seems like a wasted opportunity to really radically overhaul our worldview to something much closer to what our ancestors believed. They seem to be merely substituting the pagan gods in for the monotheistic god but keeping everything else the same. To our ancestors, it was completely obvious that humans and the gods were part of nature just like everything else. Perhaps it was so obvious that they didn’t even have to talk about it or write about it much, which might give us the impression that nature wasn’t as important to them as it was. It’s like the old saying about how fish don’t notice water until they’re not in it anymore. For most the history of our species, we were just another animal playing our part in the ecosystem like all the other animals. We didn’t need people like John Muir or Henry David Thoreau or Aldo Leopold to tell us how important nature was. We couldn’t miss nature and long for it until we were separated from it. Terms like “nature-based religion” weren’t needed until “religion” was no longer nature-based.

The modern pagan movement is not just an attempt to get back to our Old Gods, but also our old relationship with Nature where we were part of it rather than its conqueror and master. After hundreds or thousands of years of this, humans are finally starting to look back at to how we saw the world before, worshiping many gods and living in a community of many different creatures. They’re starting to see the damage that believing in only One True God that favors us above all the rest of nature has caused to us and the rest of our community. I think this is a very positive thing.

But in order to be successful at this, we have to get rid of all those harmful beliefs we got from Abrahamic monotheism, and that includes a utilitarian view of nature, the idea that nature is evil and must be conquered, and the idea that humans are special and set apart from the rest of the natural world.

After all, in the myth of Ragnarok, the Jotnar make war against the Aesir, and the Aesir lose. If you view the Jotnar as gods of wild nature, and the Aesir as gods of civilization, then maybe this means that if civilization tries to fight nature, it will always lose. Yet fighting nature is what we’ve been trying to do for hundreds of years, and look where it’s gotten us. We’re living in a totally unsustainable manner that will destroy us in the end if we don’t stop.

Perhaps it’s time to give the Jotnar and other spirits of the wild their due respect, quit being so anthropocentric about everything, and start viewing ourselves as part of the community again.

My Attempt at Community Building Reaches an Impasse

Today is the second anniversary of the Pagan and Heathen Meetup I started, and the good news is it seems to finally be reaching a critical mass where I actually have a “core” group of people showing up more than once, instead of a constantly revolving door of people who only show up once and I never see them again.

We meet the second Friday of the month in a local coffee shop. At our last meeting we had over a dozen people, so we had to push together three tables in there to make enough room. We had some new people, but for once it looked like we had more people who had been there before than newbies. We didn’t have to spend most of our time on introductions. I ended up sitting next to a guy who has been to a lot of meetings before, and he asked me the dreaded question, “Where do you think this group should go from here?”

I couldn’t really answer that question. Of course, when I first started the Meetup I had ideas, but then I actually started the Meetup and discovered a lot of those ideas probably weren’t realistic. I decided to give it at least a year, and the first year I lowered my goals down to, “just have people show up,” and that was pretty much it.

But now people are actually showing up and starting to ask, “Well, hanging out at a coffee shop socializing is fun, but what else have you got?” They’re starting to mention words like “structure” and “rituals” and “workshops”.

 

Well, there are some obstacles that we have to overcome first. And the biggest one seems to be not having a good place to meet to do anything else other than socialize.

The coffee shop where we meet is loud and sometimes crowded. They usually have music playing that we have to raise our voices to be heard over (last night seemed to be a compilation of all the hits of the 80’s). Since we’re near a university, if school is in session there are a lot of college students there hanging out. They have some outdoor seating which can be quieter because of lack of music, but last night it was too chilly for people to want to sit out there. When the weather is nice, outside is often just as crowded as inside.

The only other place we’ve ever met is a local park. Last Ostara I posted a potluck picnic there, and only one (kinda creepy) guy showed up. That wasn’t fun at all. However, this past Imbolc, I scheduled a hike at that same park, and six of my regulars showed up, and we had a good time. We just hiked, though. We didn’t do anything especially pagan-ish except when one of the members left an apple as an offering for the land spirits. That hike was mostly to scope out the place to see if there were any places we could go where it would be private enough to have a full-blown ritual at a later time.

We have some beautiful parks here, but just like the coffee shop, there’s no privacy. On the Imbolc hike I tried leading them to this place I thought was pretty remote, and we still passed by a few joggers out on the trails. It might depend on when you go, but I have a full time job, like many of my members, so the only meeting times that would work for me are evenings and weekends, which is when everyone else is at the parks too.

I’ll probably try again this year to do an Ostara picnic and see if more people show up, but that brings me to another problem with meeting at parks. This is Texas. From Beltane to the Autumn Equinox, it’s just too hot for anyone to want to be outside much. Ostara is pretty much our last chance to be outside in nice weather. It’s cooler at night, and it would be nice to do some full moon rituals out there, but our parks have a sunset curfew, so if the cops see cars parked in the parking lot, they’ll go in and kick us out.

When I was a member of my college student pagan group, we got to reserve a classroom in the evening all to ourselves. Then we could have privacy indoors to do rituals or discussions. But now as adults with jobs and families and so on, there just isn’t anywhere like that.

 

This is what I think about whenever the subject of pagan temples comes up. This would be so much easier if we had a building, or even just a room, that we could meet in where we could close the door and not have college students or joggers showing up and wondering what’s going on over there. It would be doubly awesome if it was our building, where we could leave stuff there permanently.

Critics of the idea say that historically temples weren’t meeting spaces for humans anyway, but only homes for the gods, that the traditional place of worship for polytheists is the home, and that what we’re really talking about are “community centers” not temples (as if there’s something wrong with a community center), and even that we’re really trying to re-create a Protestant Christian churchgoing experience out of some kind of nostalgia (um, I should remind you that I’ve never been a Christian in my life).

Look, times are different now. There aren’t any “wild places” you can go and be completely isolated. My choices for “wild places” are city parks or state parks that are open to the general public and full of joggers and people walking their dogs.

As for using my home, I have considered that, but given the occasional creepy dude that shows up to our Meetups, I really don’t feel like posting my home address on the internet for everyone to see (or even just the membership to see). I know some Meetup organizers do that, and that’s their choice, but I’d like people to respect my choice to keep my home secure and private and not open to the general public.

Maybe that stuff worked out thousands of years ago, when people lived in small villages and everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was pagan, and there actually was true “wilderness” left out there, but “doing it the way our ancestors did” just doesn’t work today.

Another option I’ve considered is to just privately invite certain members that seem trustworthy or at least not creepy to my home for rituals, but then we can’t have newbies participate, and I think they should be able to show up and see what a pagan ritual really is all about. Also, the people I didn’t invite would probably find out about it eventually, and might get pissed off and feel left out, like we’re forming some kind of clique.

In a nearby city, their pagan Meetup meets in the back room of a metaphysical store. That seems to be a good place, but we don’t have anything like that here. John Beckett’s group meets at a UU Church, but the UU church in my town doesn’t have their own building either and borrows a Christian church, and they don’t even seem very pagan friendly (I know, I tried going there a bit, and they gave me weird looks when I told them I was a pagan).

Of course, since I’m barely sustaining a Meetup group as it is, we really don’t have a group that would be dedicated enough to create an actual pagan temple/community center here, but I think that results in a kind of chicken-and-egg thing, because since we don’t have a good place to meet, it’s hard to build a dedicated group that can do more than just hang out at a coffee shop talking about the latest good movie we saw.

 

Anyway, that’s why I think modern temples are a good idea, but the reality still stands that there’s no way we’re going to have one here, so I’m still left with the question: What next for this group? I’m getting asked that more and more, and I still don’t have a good answer.

Is it spring yet?

That’s the question that seems to be the underlying theme of all the pagan February holidays I know about: Imbolg, Candlemas, Charming of the Plow, Groundhog’s Day. It’s an important question. Here in Central Texas, February can bring sunny weather with temperatures pushing 80 degrees, or a sudden cold front that brings ice and even sleet or snow.

You have to be very careful to not be fooled by the warmer days and go ahead and plant your frost-sensitive plants, only to have them killed by a sudden late February or early March freeze. Then again, sometimes that late freeze never comes. Sometimes our true last freeze of the winter really is in January. This weekend it’s supposed to be sunny and in the 70’s, even though the last couple of nights have been getting down to 34. I haven’t done a Charming of the Plow ritual yet, since last weekend was cold and rainy, so I’ll probably do that this weekend. I have a nice bottle of mead I got from a home-brewing friend at Yule that will make a nice offering. I also made an absolutely delicious Meyer lemon cake from a couple of lemons off the tree in our front yard. I always like to include homegrown stuff in holiday feasts and offerings. My husband and I had a few slices ourselves already and it’s so good I had to hide the rest to make sure some was left for the gods and spirits.

My husband and I are still trying to figure out what would be an appropriate animal to substitute for the groundhog as a symbol of this time of year. It doesn’t get cold enough around here for any mammals to hibernate. The best we’ve been able to think of so far are the frogs and toads. They do hibernate, and last week when we had another warm spell, I finally heard some croaking again when I got home from work. The sound was coming from a stock tank in a nearby ranch.

Frog’s Day instead of Groundhog’s Day? Would that work?

My Interest in Urglaawe Grows

Groundhog Day is coming up, and while most Americans think it’s quite silly, it’s a major holiday in Urglaawe, and as you can see from my several posts last February, has become one for me as well. Urglaawe seems more and more appealing to me the more research I do on it. It seems like that branch of Heathenry is more compatible with my temperament and lifestyle than Viking-based Asatru.

Viking Raiders vs. Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers

The biggest issue I’ve had with Asatru from the very beginning has been the huge emphasis on warriors. Now, I don’t mean to disparage people who are actually in the military. My husband was in the Air Force, my dad was in the Navy, and my grandfather fought in World War II. A lot of my students are veterans, and they are usually my best students. But since I’ve never been in the military and never will be, I’ve never been able to relate to the whole warrior experience, and am not going to pretend to. So it’s hard to me to relate to Asatru as a “warrior religion” as if that’s all there is to life. The main gods in Viking-based Asatru are Odin and Thor in their most warlike aspects, since they get their stories from the Norse Eddas and Sagas. There is much less information in the Eddas on the goddesses or the Vanir gods.

Urglaawe, however, is the religion of an agricultural people, so they have a bigger emphasis on the more “peaceful” deities. Frau Holle, a motherly goddess, is their chief deity. Even Odin and Thor have slightly different “personalities” to them in Urglaawe. I worship Odin as a magical and intellectual god, and hardly ever interact with his warrior side. Thor is primarily a weather deity who brings life-giving thunderstorms to my often drought-stricken area, and he’s also the defender of those weaker than himself. From what I’ve read of Urglaawe, that’s close to how they see Wudan and Dunner.

I’ve also been wondering if I find Urglaawe more comfortable simply because the Pennsylvania Dutch are closer to me in space and in time than the Vikings. The Vikings lived far away in Scandinavia over a thousand years ago. I know them through that show on the History Channel and movies like The 13th Warrior. The Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States just a little over 200 years ago, and there are still lots of them around today. They also had a big impact on American culture. Many of our holiday traditions come from them, as well as a lot of traditional American foods. Scandinavian traditions and foods are much different and just seem a bit more “foreign” to me.

Also, once they got here, they changed and adapted to the local environment, becoming a truly “New World” version of Heathenry, which I think is great. To me, so many Heathens seem to be trying to play Viking rather than adapting Heathenry to the time and place. Deitsch tradition continued to evolve, even after they converted to Christianity and moved to North America. It just doesn’t seem like it would be as much of a stretch to adapt Urglaawe to the present day than trying to recreate a religion from over 1,000 years ago in 21st century Texas.

Cycles of Nature

One of the things that first attracted me to Wicca was its calendar based on natural cycles, instead of human things like birthdays of important leaders and anniversaries of historical events. I disagree that being in tune with the turn of the season is irrelevant to modern life. Even if some pagans are disconnected from the seasons, I am not! It’s a big part of my spiritual practice. It probably helps that I live out in the country with two vegetable gardens, a small orchard, and lots of parks and greenspaces around. I most certainly notice the changes in the seasons and celebrate them. Wicca’s holidays are taken from English folk tradition, which is a blend of Celtic and Germanic influences. Urglaawe’s holidays are quite similar to Wicca’s because of the common Germanic influence, and like I mentioned above, they influenced a lot of American secular holiday traditions as well. Celebrating them just seems to fit so much better into my life than celebrating the sorts of things like Vikings did, like the start of the raiding season.

Die Blanzeheilkunscht and Nature Spirits

I’ve always been interested in plant lore, and Urglaawe has this long history of herbalism utilizing both Old World and New World species of plants. I also love that they talk about the plant spirits. I’m an animist, and the idea that plants possess powerful spirits has a long history in many polytheistic cultures, but it seems to not come up in Asatru much. I haven’t found as much about animal lore in Urglaawe yet, but I’m sure there must be some. Asatruar often say that the nature spirits were more important to ordinary people than the gods, but they don’t seem to talk about them much. The likely explanation is that Heathens are just as disconnected from nature as any other modern people, but I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Potential Pitfalls

I’m not Pennsylvania Dutch. Then again, I’m not Scandinavian either. Like I said, my mom was born in Germany, which is at least closer to where the Pennsylvania Dutch came from. I also live in an area that had a lot of German immigrants, but they were a completely different wave of immigration from the Pennsylvania Dutch. As far as I know the Texas Germans didn’t preserve a lot of Heathen ways, though I could be wrong. My mother-in-law is of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, but she’s not really a part of the community herself. All in all, I’m probably culturally closer to the Pennsylvania Dutch than I am to the Scandinavians, but maybe not by much.

I don’t feel like I really have much of a cultural heritage at all, alas. So I’ll probably continue being just a “generic Heathen”, though I would like to adopt more Urglaawe-like things into my personal practice. Would that be cultural appropriation?

One of the main things I like about Urglaawe is being close to the land and plant and animal spirits and seasons, but I don’t live in Pennsylvania, I live in Texas. It’s closer than Scandinavia, but still a pretty different climate and ecosystem.

Since the Pennsylvania Dutch adapted their Heathen traditions to the New World when they came from Germany, would it be OK to further adapt their Heathenry to Texas? Can I add Prickly Pear and Mescal Bean to the list of important plant spirits? Can I substitute a local animal for the groundhog? After Dunner is done driving the Frost Giants out of the North, does he come down to Texas to bring thunderstorms and fight with tornadoes?

Here’s where I’m getting my information from:

http://www.urglaawe.com/uploads/A_Brief_Introduction_to_Urglaawe_First_Edition_2009.pdf

http://urglaawe.blogspot.com/

http://www.blanzeheilkunscht.com/