In Search of Texas’s Groundhog

Last weekend I celebrated Imbolg/Candlemas/Groundhog’s Day/whateveryoucallit with my usual Charming of the Garden Tools ritual. My husband and I gave the hoes, shovels, and spades a good cleaning and sharpening before taking them to our backyard ritual circle to be sprinkled with wine that was then given to the land spirits.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with this holiday, and I’ve decided that I like the idea of doing a garden and garden tool blessing based on the Charming of the Plow tradition from England and will keep doing it. Yes, I know that was technically in late January, not February 2, but close enough.

I also like Groundhog Day, which is a big deal to the Pennsylvania Dutch Heathens (Urglawwe). I like the idea of celebrating critters coming out of hibernation as part of an early-spring holiday. Besides, we need a holiday between Yule and Easter. I guess in secular American culture that’s covered by the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, but I like having a more nature-oriented observance in there too.

But the problem is groundhogs don’t live in Texas.

And I’m not sure if any mammals hibernate here at all. In Germany the hibernating animal was probably a badger, but the closest thing we have to a badger here are skunks, and I don’t think they hibernate. Groundhogs are actually a type of ground squirrel, but the squirrels here don’t hibernate either and seem just as active in January as they are in March, judging from how fast they eat up my birdseed. Austin does have an armadillo named Bee Cave Bob who’s supposed to be our version of Punxsutawney Phil, but armadillos don’t hibernate either. The last time I saw one it was digging around in my neighbor’s lawn under their Christmas lights in mid-December.

The only critters here that definitely hibernate every winter are cold-blooded critters like frogs and toads. In fact, weekend before last we had to “rescue” some hibernating toads that were under a boulder in our backyard that we had to move. Thankfully we didn’t squish any of them, but five of them had burrowed under there, and that night it was going to get very cold, so we kept them in a plastic tub in the house overnight. When we found them under the rock they were comatose, but after spending the night in the warm house they were up and hopping around and looked healthy. We released them around noon so they’d have plenty of time to find a new shelter before it got cold again that night.

I love my toads, but Toad Day doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.

I’ll probably keep calling it Groundhog Day just because that’s what everyone calls it, and that Bill Murray movie was great, but the search for a Texas groundhog substitute continues. Texas weather is just so weird and unpredictable this time of year that it’s hard to pinpoint “this is spring now.” In the past week it’s been near freezing on some nights AND in the low 80’s on some days.

Which I understand is kind of the point of this holiday. Is it spring yet? It’s hard to tell. With no groundhogs around, which creature to I trust to make that call? Armadillos, skunks, and squirrels all don’t seem to have the best judgement to me. Hrrmmm.

This Land is Our Land?

I took Gods and Radicals off of my WordPress Reader list, but the other day I went ahead and looked back through it and found this post about the Oregon Militia standoff. I was very disappointed about how they really missed the mark here with their interpretation of these events.

I completely agree with the hypothesis that racism and white supremacy is used by rich white people to turn poor white people against non-white people, so that the poor white people don’t instead team up with the non-white people against the rich white people. But this post tries to lump the Bundys in with the poor white people and paint them in a sympathetic light.

The Bundys are millionaires.

The Bundys’ problem with federal land management has nothing to do with the European enclosure movement. It traces its roots back, not to old Europe, but to the Theodore Roosevelt administration and the Antiquities Act of 1909, which authorized the federal government to protect areas of scientific and historical value.

All you have to do is read any of Indian Country’s articles about this to know there is going to be no Paiute-Bundy alliance any time soon: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/tags/cliven-bundy

The Bundys are part of something called the Wise Use Movement. They believe that land has only utilitarian value. They rose up in direct opposition to the environmental movement which believes that nature has intrinsic value and that some places, like wildlife refuges, should be preserved in a pristine state. The Wise Use Movement (emphasis is on “use”) believe that national parks, wildlife refuges, and any other federal lands that have restrictions on resource exploitation shouldn’t exist at all. They want all federal lands to be turned over to private ranchers, for free. They believe that if land is not being exploited for profit, then it’s going to waste.

They’re the complete antithesis of anyone who believe that the land or nature has any sort of intrinsic value. The reason they think they have more of a right to the land than the Native Americans is because the natives were “savages” who didn’t exploit the land enough. They’ve blatantly said words to that effect in interviews, as you can see here: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/1/15/1470295/-Ammon-Bundy-Native-Americans-have-lost-their-claim-to-the-Land

The whole idea that land can be sacred is completely foreign to them. That’s what hippies and savages believe, not Real True Americans(TM).

It just blows my mind that a group of pagan anti-capitalists would try to portray them in anything resembling a sympathetic light. Whoever wrote that article just seems to be fairly ignorant of the whole story, including what the Bundys themselves have said about why they were there, and what the Native Americans have said about how they feel about these guys.

The Sacred Waters

It always amazes me how much we take water for granted.

My husband works at a water company, so I know a bit about the sorts of things that need to happen behind-the-scenes to ensure that safe, clean, toxin and pathogen-free water can be delivered to the inside of your home with the turn of a tap. But most people never give it much of a thought. They certainly never consider the possibility that one day either the water won’t appear on demand, or if it does, it would be unsafe to drink.

Both of us have been following the story of the poisoning of Flint, Michigan with great interest. I think the story is probably more complex than most news outlets are portraying it, but Rachel Maddow seems to be doing a good job explaining things, as usual. (Yes, I’m a fan. I really like how thorough she is when she covers something.) In a nutshell, to save money, politicians decided to change the source of Flint’s drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The corrosive river water leached lead out of the old lead pipes in the town, elevating the lead levels in the water to over 10 times the EPA’s (already lenient) maximum allowable limit. And by now we know that lead is extremely toxic. Finally we aren’t putting it in water pipes anymore, though we sure took our time making the switch, so there are still plenty of lead pipes around. Lead is especially bad for children, causing permanent brain damage. That’s why people are making such a big deal out of the lead, but it sounds to me like there were lots of other nasty things in that water too. Ten people have died of Legionnaries’ disease, which is caused by an aquatic bacterium that needless to say should not be in a public drinking water supply.

People are focusing on which politicians to blame, but I don’t think I understand the situation well enough to weigh in on that. Apparently there was weird political stuff going on in Flint where the state government had taken over the city. I’m not sure how that works, but I do think that whoever made the decision to switch the water source and not do the proper treatments that would have prevented the water from corroding the pipes needs to be brought to justice. Please Tyr.

But even before the politicians made that decision to switch the water, the Flint River had been poisoned by years of industrial pollution. When they said they were going to switch to Flint River water, locals freaked out because they knew that river was nasty. If the water source isn’t already polluted, you don’t have to do that much to treat it before you can pipe it into people’s houses safely. But since we don’t appreciate water, we’ve been dumping our toxins into it for hundreds of years. Some rivers are so polluted it’s unsafe to swim in them or eat fish from them, let alone drink from them. Humans made them that way.

 

We have a different problem here in Texas. I live in an area where the water is extremely clean, on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, which is studded with springs from the Edwards Aquifer. The water coming out of those springs is crystal clear. Water companies only have to do a minimal amount of treatment before piping it into people’s houses, and most of what they do is just precautions. In the hot Texas summer, one of the most popular things to do is go swimming or TOOBING (pronounced “tubing” but definitely spelled “toobing!”) in one of our spring-fed rivers.

They’ve found artifacts here going back to the Ice Age, and local Native Americans still consider the springs sacred today. The major springs of the Edwards Aquifer stretch in an arc along the Plateau from Barton Springs in Austin, to the San Marcos springs in San Marcos, to the Comal Springs in New Braunfels, to the San Antonio springs in San Antonio. There’s a good reason why the major cities from Austin to San Antonio each contain a spring. The springs are why the cities are here in the first place. Civilization requires water to exist. Going all the way back to ancient times, you could only put big cities where you had a reliable source of clean water for the people living there. One of the most basic functions of government is to ensure its citizens have water. Think about the aqueducts the Romans built. No water, no civilization.

The problem we have is not the quality of water, but the quantity. In 2011 we had a horrible drought and the Comal Springs stopped flowing for the first time since the 1950’s drought. The San Marcos Springs are home to several species of animals (and one plant) that only live there and nowhere else on Earth. If that spring ever stops, they’ll be gone forever. The San Marcos Springs have never run dry in recorded history, but when the Comal Springs next door run dry it’s still worrying.

Droughts are a natural part of life here, but humans make them worse. Climate change is probably going to give us more severe weather extremes in an area that already has a drought-flood-drought-flood type of weather pattern. And then of course there are the GOLF COURSES!

Why do we even have golf courses in this ecosystem at all?

Why is there a golf course RIGHT NEXT TO THE SAN MARCOS SPRINGS? It just seems to send the wrong message.

At least xeriscaping seems to be gaining in popularity. Many nurseries now carry native, drought-resistant plants. Most homeowners associations still require residents to maintain a green lawn (I’m so glad my neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA), but a few are coming around.

But this is also one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Stop moving here, people! Many environmentalists are afraid that we simply don’t have enough water to support the population doubling in the next few decades like demographers are predicting. But local governments continue to do things to encourage more people to move here. They call it “development,” and that’s a good thing, right? No one seems to be considering the realities of carrying capacity, or that we shouldn’t be making plans based on wet years rather than drought years.

Last year in California they came close to actually running out of water. When that was going on, I saw people being interviewed on TV saying they are still watering their lawns because they are wealthy and can afford the water bills. Do wealthy people not understand that you can’t just make water appear out of nothing if you pay enough money? Or maybe people are just in denial that it’s possible run out of water.

That could happen here. We need to realize that water is precious, and quit wasting it or polluting it. The first people who arrived here back in the Ice Age knew they found a good place when they saw it, because it had water. The Spanish missionaries and German settlers couldn’t have put down roots here (literally and figuratively) without the water. But now people are so disconnected from nature that a lot of my students don’t even know what the Edwards Aquifer is.

I think any local polytheistic/animistic cultus here in Central Texas needs to include the springs and rivers as a point of veneration. The Native Americans hold a pow-wow honoring the springs in San Marcos every year, but I think it would be appropriate for us in the modern pagan revival to do likewise. I think it’s necessary to honor something that important to our survival, especially something most people take for granted. Let’s not be like those people who think the water is magically summoned from nowhere when you turn on the faucet.

I also think that pagans living anywhere should find out where their water comes from and give it due honor, whether it’s a lake, river, or aquifer. Water is precious no matter where you live, even if it’s an area that receives a lot of rain. As we’ve seen from the Flint example, even a wet climate can have water problems if people take it for granted.

So don’t forget to honor the water spirits, and to use their gifts wisely.

Oh, I see what happened.

I was looking at the Patheos Pagan Channel, and I think I see now why my posts about Folkism suddenly got a whole bunch of views. A week or two ago Stephen McNallen said something on Facebook about how the chancellor of Germany isn’t being quite Nazi enough for his liking, so the Heathens United Against Racism guy called him out on it, so the current leader of The Troth wrote something to defend McNallen.

That’s why someone linked to my posts debunking Folkism on Facebook. OK, well, glad you thought what I said was useful, even if it did draw the attention of some Folkish people to my blog.

I know I said I wouldn’t engage in this debate, but it reminded me of something I wanted to post already anyway, so maybe now’s a good time to mention this.

There’s this guy who comes to my Pagan Meetup group sometimes. He’s one of the members of the Pagan student group at the local college, so he’s probably in his early 20’s. When I first met him, I assumed he was Chinese or some other kind of East Asian, but it turns out he gets his black hair and epicanthic folds from Indigenous Mexican ancestry. We got to talking about ancestry, and I found out he’s Mexican on his mother’s side, but his father was of German ancestry. In fact, he seemed to know a lot about his ancestry, telling me an interesting story about how his family has this family myth that they’re descended from Aztec warriors, though he suspects that story has been greatly embellished over time. He considers himself a Wiccan, because with mixed ancestry like that, he thinks Wicca is the best pagan path for him, though he includes a lot of Germanic stuff in his spiritual practice and seemed to be very knowledgeable about the German gods and the runes.

We didn’t discuss this much further, so maybe Wicca really is the right path for him. Nothing wrong with Wicca, but I did start wondering about how he said he’s a Wiccan because he’s of mixed ancestry. It makes me feel bad to think that people like him might not feel welcome in Heathenry because they know they don’t look white enough to fit in with Heathens. This guy seems like he’d make a great Heathen if he wanted to be one. He seems to be a lot more in touch with his German ancestors than I am with mine. (I also think that’s it’s perfectly OK for a person to practice Heathenry with other traditions as long as you do it in a smart way, so he wouldn’t have to give up honoring Mexican gods and spirits if he wants to do that too. I know that’s also very controversial, and I think it is for similar reasons of racial purity.)

And given that this is Central Texas, I suspect there are a lot of people around here who are of mixed Mexican and German ancestry. Just listen to Tejano music, which is a form of music that originated here. It’s basically a Mariachi-Polka hybrid. Where do you think they got the accordions from? Given that ancestry is really important in Mexican culture, I don’t see why these people can’t be Heathens. It seems like a lot of their values are compatible. In fact, if Wotan and Tezcatlipoca did meet (and maybe they have), I bet they’d either be best friends, or they’d get on each other’s nerves because they’re too similar.

The problem with Heathens that try to have it both ways and tolerate people like McNallen (who thinks that “the people of Tezcatlipoca” are trying to have a race war in the American Southwest), but also say that they “respectfully disagree” with McNallen and are OK with non-white people being Heathens too is that you can’t have it both ways. Even if you don’t explicitly say “whites only,” if you tolerate the white nationalists, the non-white people will know they aren’t welcome.

For full disclosure, I’m a member of The Troth myself, but every time I get my notice that it’s time to renew my membership, I have serious reservations about going ahead and renewing because The Troth is trying to have it both ways like this. I’ve gone ahead and renewed every time because I like Idunna magazine, but maybe next time will be the time I finally don’t renew. I don’t know. It’s why I haven’t put it on automatic renewal.

I’ve just talked to enough people who are either LBGT or don’t look white enough that they feel like they are not welcome in Heathenry. They’re not stupid. They can read the subtext. And usually when this issue is brought up, people start howling about political correctness gone mad, and these people who feel unwelcome in Heathenry need to grow a pair. Look, what I’m talking about here is Hospitality. You can’t be hospitable to two groups of people who are sworn enemies to each other. One of them will refuse to come to your mead hall if they know the other ones are going to be there, so you have to pick a side.

For my little Meetup group, I’ve picked my side. Other Heathen groups, like the AFA, are free to pick the other side and I can’t do anything about that. But I don’t think you can just not pick a side. And I know some might accuse me as being too “us vs. them” about this, but the white nationalists are the ones who already made this an “us vs. them” thing when they decided that non-whites are the Thems. So I guess I’m in with the Thems too.

Greetings New Readers!

Yikes! It looks like some time last week someone shared one of my posts on social media, and unfortunately it was the one about Folkism. Great. Just when I was saying I need to be more mindful about my online time so I’m not wasting my life on internet drama.

So now there are 25 comments in my moderation queue. That’s way more than I’ve ever had before.

Having moderated comments for first-time commentators sure was a good idea. I just sorta glanced over it, and some of them are nice comments, but there are some walls-o-text trying to educate me about how folkism is not racism, and why “universalism” is bad and yadda yadda. At least it doesn’t appear that the “anti-racism is code for anti-white” people have shown up yet. They’re one of the big reasons I have moderated comments, because I’ve seen how they can spam other liberal-leaning Heathen blogs (though sometimes I wonder if it’s just one person with a whole bunch of sock puppets).

I’m not sure if/when I’ll get around to reading through them all, so if you left a nice comment recently and I don’t end up approving it, nothing personal. I’m flattered that you like my blog. Please keep reading and commenting.

And if you think I am very wrong about Folkism, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I haven’t changed my mind since I wrote that post. A person’s genetics should have nothing to do with whether or not they can be a Heathen. Period.

Sorry if I’m being a wuss for not engaging in this debate (again), but the spring semester just started, and we just updated our textbook and our lab equipment, so I’ve been extra busy getting all that ready. If I am going to use some of my free time blogging, it’s going to be writing about something I like.

Besides, part of my job sometimes involves dealing with students who think the Earth is 6,000 years old, Al Gore made up global warming, and vaccines cause Autism. Arguing about pseudoscience online is like bringing my work home with me. I don’t get paid for that, so I’m trying not to do that anymore, no matter how tempting it may be.

A Lokean Rock Star?

I spend a few hours yesterday watching David Bowie videos on YouTube, and finally remembered something I should have mentioned in my last post, especially since it’s a little more relevant to a Heathen blog.

When I first got into Heathenry, before other people’s depictions of him influenced me, I always imagined Loki as looking like David Bowie. Maybe I should add Bowie to my list of “honorary Lokeans”. Hey, if Jim Morrison, another inhabitant of Rockalfheim, can be an avatar of Dionysus, why not?

He was an androgynous, gender-bending, shape-shifting, perpetual outsider looking in. But is he really the crazy one, or is he really the only sane one, and it’s everyone else who’s crazy? I can relate to that feeling.

We need people like that to test our boundaries.

So here’s a song that I neglected to include in my last post, but is a very Lokean song, with a video of how Loki used to look to me (maybe with slightly less eye makeup).

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

The Mighty Dead of Rockalfheim

I just got the news this morning that David Bowie has joined the Ancestors. His 69th birthday was just a few days ago, and I did think it was odd that NPR (which I had on my car radio as I was running errands) was talking about him so much on his birthday. Now I realize that they may have known what I didn’t know at the time, that he was terminally ill and probably wouldn’t make it to his 70th birthday. I had no idea he was sick. I guess I just assumed he’d keep on living like Mick Jagger. (Mick Jagger is immortal, right?)

I’ve never been a rabid David Bowie fan, but I have always had a lot of respect for him, and really like several of his songs (and I mean listen to them over and over again and never get tired of them like). I am a rabid Beatles and Queen fan, and consider Bowie to be just as important in music history. As far as music goes, I’ve always felt like I was born 30 years too late. I think rock music reached its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s and will never be that good again.

John Lennon died a month before I was born, and Freddie Mercury died when I was just a little bit too young to care who he was, so I hope David Bowie doesn’t mind me paying tribute to them along with him today. (I don’t think he would. He was friends with both of them.)

I discovered the Beatles when I was 14 and The Beatles Anthology documentary was broadcast on TV. I watched it because I had heard a few Beatles songs on the local Oldies station, so I was a little curious, and there just wasn’t much else on TV at that time. I think I completely fell in love with them about 15 or 20 minutes in. I had never seen footage of them performing before, and something just clicked when I did.

I became obsessed with the Beatles, and soon branched out into other music of that era, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Queen, and yes, David Bowie. The Beatles were always my favorite though, and John Lennon became a personal hero of mine in my teenage years. Listening to the Beatles now always gives me a warm feeling. They were a big source of comfort during a hard time in my life.

When George Harrison died in 2001 I felt grief almost like someone I knew personally had died. He was the least well-known Beatle, but All Things Must Pass is one of the greatest albums, which is impressive given that it’s a triple album. You’d think it would be full of filler, but it’s not. A lot of it is songs he wrote while he was in the Beatles, but didn’t get on the Beatles albums because he was overshadowed by the other two geniuses in the group.

After that he didn’t put out many more solo albums, but still had some great songs. My dad got Cloud Nine when it came out. I was a little kid at the time and loved it when he’d play it, but I didn’t connect George and the Beatles until later. George Harrison also helped introduce me to the idea that there were more spiritual options out there besides either Christianity or atheism.

I’ve always had a little trouble deciding which rock band was my second favorite after the Beatles, but Queen was always among those competing for that spot. (I’m also sure they wouldn’t be insulted by me saying they were second to the Beatles. They were huge Beatles fans too, so they’d probably agree.)

I can only imagine what would have happened if Freddie Mercury hadn’t died when he did. I could have gone and seen them live. Oh, that would have been great. Any lists of greatest rock frontmen that don’t include Freddie at the top are completely wrong. Yes, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Roger Daltry are all great, but none could hold a candle to Freddie.

 

So now David Bowie has joined that elite pantheon of Mighty Dead. You know, now that I think of it, maybe part of the reason I never got as much into David Bowie is just because I don’t know where to start. He was around for so long, putting out hits through several decades. He was like three or four artists in one. Collecting the complete albums of the Beatles, Queen, and Led Zeppelin when I was a teen wasn’t that hard to do, but David Bowie just had so much stuff. So all I have is his first Greatest Hits album. I know, that’s pretty lame.

I suppose in the coming days there will be a lot of tributes coming out, and some of them will talk about what his best albums were. Maybe that will help me decide where I need to start adding to my collection.

 

 

 

Blogging for 2016

Yule is over, and it’s a new year, making this a natural time to rethink certain things in my life and make sure I’m on the right track, and if not, make course adjustments.

That includes this blog. I’m still not sure if starting it at all was a good idea or just a big waste of time. Sometimes it seems like the “pagan blogosphere” mostly distracts me from what’s really important and upsets me unnecessarily.

I’m not the first one to bring up how the Pagan Internet has a problem with drama, some have even called it toxic, but I would like to remind people that it’s not really a pagan thing, it’s an internet thing. I’ve been socializing on the internet for 20 years. I started with Usenet newsgroups when I was 15. Trust me, it’s always been like this, and it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. It can be paganism, organic gardening, or Doctor Who fandom, all of them have flame wars and drama and people blowing things out of proportion. Humans just aren’t good at communicating this way. It doesn’t come naturally to us to communicate completely through text with no tone of voice or facial expressions to clarify what we mean and remind each other that we’re all human beings here.

It does worry me a little bit that so much of pagan discourse is on the internet instead of face to face, when it’s clear that internet communication has these problems. The internet can allow us to communicate with pagans from different states or even different countries, but also allows us to get into flame wars with them. Is that worth it? I’m still not sure. Maybe we’d get along better if we were talking with each other in person instead of typing on the internet. We’re trying to build traditions that will last for generations here (or at least that’s my goal), and I’m just not sure if the internet is the best place to do that.

Anyway, people complain from time to time that when they write a blog post about something they think is really interesting, it gets no views or comments, and the only way they can get any attention is by writing about the controversy of the week. I’ve noticed that too. The solution proposed is usually to quit taking the bait, and just write about what they think is interesting and not care if anyone reads it or comments. I also realize that is much easier said than done. But maybe it is beneficial to periodically rethink why you’re writing a blog in the first place and try to refocus on that.

I half-write a lot of blog posts that I eventually end up deleting. I think it’s a good general practice to write a blog post on Word first, then save it and don’t post right away until I’ve thought about it some more. That way is much more time consuming though, so I get a lot less posted. I just hope it raises the quality of what I do post. I’m not doing that with this post, so maybe that’s a mistake. I think some bloggers post in a more knee-jerk fashion all the time, and that might perpetuate the flame wars a bit more.

I do post comments on other people’s blogs right away, and sometimes I regret that. Yesterday I posted a bunch of comments on John Beckett’s article about “Adulting” that I probably shouldn’t have. That’s a touchy subject for me. Wasted a lot of time and mental energy on that one yesterday. I usually just lurk on Patheos, and that was probably a good policy. I comment on WordPress more, but I still wonder if I’m bothering people when I do that.

But what should I be writing about? WordPress sent me that Year in Blogging thing they do. I was surprised that my most viewed post of 2015 was the one about the show River Monsters. Do people want me to write more about TV shows? Writing about stuff like that probably attracts a broader variety of people.

People are still reading my post about Texas Mountain Laurel, which is one of the first posts I ever did. I intended to write a lot more posts like that when I started this blog. I wanted to talk about local plants and animals and sacred sites and seasonal changes, since pagans are always so focused on far away places and ancient times instead of the here and now. But I got distracted by what everyone else was talking about. Plants and animals is what I know about though, not hard polytheism vs. soft polytheism, or lore vs. UPG, or folkism vs. universalism or any of that crap. That’s just not my area of expertise.

And it’s the same stuff people were arguing about on the pagan internet ten years ago. Yeah, now they say it’s monist vs. polytheist instead of Wiccan vs. Reconstructionist, but it looks like the same old thing to me. I don’t think things would seem this black and white if it wasn’t on the internet. I think the internet tends to polarize things. Again, I’ve seen this in every internet forum or community I’ve been in. Are you a John Lennon or a Paul McCartney fan? Which is better, classic Doctor Who or the new series? You must choose one side or the other and the other side is completely wrong!

(Oh, and don’t even get me started on bringing up any type of political issue online! I need to stay away from those kinds of “discussions” too, though those mostly show up on my Facebook, not on blogs.)

Religion, like politics, is a touchy subject for people. It gets down to our core beliefs about the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I really doubt the internet is the best place for these types of discussions, but for some of us, that’s all we have. Maybe if we change our approach it can be a more positive experience, but I have no idea how to do that.

Over Yule I had a big crisis of faith/dark night of the soul type experience. And Yule is supposed to be fun, right? Humph! I thought about writing about it on here, but now I think I’m going to hold off on that. Just remember that pretty soon we’re all going to be dead, and there’s no evidence I’ve ever seen that anything comes after that. Oh sure, I might live another 30 or 40 years, but that’s like nothing in the grand scheme of things. How are you using the time you have? Is what you’re doing right now really the best thing you could be doing right now? If it’s internet drama, probably not.

The Season of Gebo

Thanksgiving is over, and that means it’s time to head into the Winter Solstice/Yule/Christmas season. This weekend the hubby and I are putting up the lights and getting our tree. We’ve also been working on our gift wish lists, though I admit I haven’t bought anything yet. Next week is finals, and then after that I’ll have more time for things like gift shopping.

And I’ve already seen the posts popping up about how horrible the Christmas gift giving tradition is because it’s just this orgy of materialistic consumerism. People proudly proclaiming that they don’t do Christmas gifts. People asking why we don’t just buy whatever we want ourselves and save everyone the trouble. Christmas gift giving is just a way for corporations to brainwash us into going into thousands of dollars of credit card debt buying a whole bunch of Chinese-made stuff that we don’t need, right?

I’ve heard it all last year and the year before that and the year before that, just as regularly as I hear that Christians are persecuted because sometimes they are reminded that not everyone is celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time and there are some other  holidays that happen in November and December.

It always makes me sad too. I know it’s none of my business if people don’t want to take part in a particular holiday tradition, but saying that they’re going to quit exchanging gifts altogether because Christmas has gotten too commercial and materialistic seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I even thought this when I worked in retail for five or six years, first in a big box store and then in a mall, while I was in college. The first time I worked retail over the holidays, they hung a sign up in the break room saying if you call in sick on Black Friday or Christmas Eve you’re automatically fired. At least this was back in the good old days when Thanksgiving and Christmas day were the two days of the year we were closed.

I’ve definitely gotten to see the dark side of the Christmas shopping season up close and personal, but the whole time I wasn’t thinking “Christmas is terrible. We should get rid of it.” More like, “You fools are ruining something ancient and sacred with this madness!”

434px-MerryOldSanta

For full disclosure, maybe I should remind readers that this is probably so important to me because Santa Claus was my first god, and now I consider him to be an aspect of Odin. I’ve written about this before, though I feel I have to keep repeating myself because so many people think of Odin as solely a scary war god. I know the Vanir are usually thought of as being the main gods of wealth and prosperity, but Odin has some wealth and prosperity aspects to him as well. One of his many names is Oski, the granter of wishes. He owns the golden ring Draupnir, which multiplies itself into nine rings every night. There are several verses in the Havamal about the value of generosity, and the rune Gebo is all about giving.

To me, the gift exchange is not only an important part of the Winter Solstice holiday; it’s central to it. The exchange of gifts symbolizes the bonds we have with members of our human community and with the gods, and those bonds are what allow us to survive through the darkest time of year. It’s not the Yule Father’s fault that his image has been co-opted by the big corporations for profit. He’s supposed to embody the exact opposite of greed.

It’s also not surprising that a prosperity deity would get co-opted by consumerist culture. That wouldn’t work with someone like Jesus who was all about denying material pleasures. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with prosperity deities. My pre-Christian ancestors lived in an environment of scarcity. Exchanging gifts would have been a really big deal to them. Now we live in an environment of excess, so that throws things off a bit. It’s kind of like feasting. Feasting used to be something special that you didn’t get to do every day. It doesn’t mean as much now that we’re getting health problems from having too much food to eat rather than too little.

(Yes, I have read that gift giving may have come from the Roman Saturnalia and not the Germanic Yule. I don’t care. Gift giving is part of the Yuletide now, and considering how important reciprocity was to our heathen ancestors, it seems to fit well even if it’s not entirely “historically accurate.”)

Like with so many things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Instead of throwing out the tradition of Christmas presents, I think this is another thing we pagans can reclaim.

 

One mistake we make is equating value with an item’s price tag. Spending lots of money is not the point. Yule gifts don’t have to be expensive, and they certainly don’t have to put you into credit card debt for months. There are all kinds of creative ideas out there for thoughtful gifts that don’t cost a lot of money. When I was unemployed I used to give people homemade candy or cookies. I made pecan pralines and fudge and put them in pretty tins that I had saved from previous years, or picked up for a dollar each. Now I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to buy gifts again, but I would never hold it against anyone if they had to give me something that didn’t cost a lot of money. If you can afford to, you don’t have to buy things that are mass produced either. You can buy things from local craftsmen or artisans or mom and pop stores or off of Etsy. You can get something from the gift shop of a nonprofit organization to help support their mission. You don’t have to elbow through crowds at Wal-Mart or get everything off Amazon.com.

The irony is that the most materialistic people I’ve known have also been the hardest to find gifts for. They’re always the ones that have the most stuff, so they already have everything they want. Whenever they see something they want, they just buy it for themselves immediately. They can’t handle the delayed gratification of putting it on their holiday wish list and waiting a few months or weeks for someone else to give it to them. And then even if you do find something to give them, you know it just gets thrown on their huge pile of stuff and forgotten.

People who obtain material possessions thoughtfully and deliberately seem to have a better idea of what they want, and when you hunt down that special thing that they want, they seem to appreciate it so much more. These are not the people the Black Friday commercials are marketing to, but they’re so much more fun to shop for.

 

And yes, I do think Christmas/Yule shopping is fun, and I usually hate shopping. I especially hate shopping for clothes for myself. I’ll wear things until they have big holes in them to put off buying new clothes for as long as possible. Grocery shopping isn’t quite as bad since I love to cook, but still more often than not it seems like a chore. But I love shopping for gifts for people! I love picking out the wrapping paper and ribbons and bows and wrapping it up and arranging it under the tree and then marking that person off my list. I love seeing the look on the person’s face when they unwrap it and see that I got them that thing they’ve been wanting for so long. I love the whole process.

I held on to my belief in Santa Claus much longer than my peers, but after a while I could no longer deny that those gifts by the fireplace every Christmas morning were put there by my mom, and the stomping on the roof I hear that one year that sent me and my sister scrambling to our beds on Christmas Eve (because if you’re not in bed when Santa comes, you won’t get any presents!) was my dad.

But then I discovered paganism and figured out that Santa Claus is a god, and now that I’m an adult, the way to continue “believing in Santa” was to perform his work in the world.

When I worked at Barnes and Noble, we had a tree covered with tags with the names of needy children and what kind of books they like. People could get a tag, buy a book, stick the tag on it, and put it under the tree to get donated to the needy children. Each year I would get a boy and a girl who said they like science or animal books and get them some of the cool books we had in our children’s department, the kind of books I looked at and went, “I would have loved this when I was a kid.”

The ultimate gift giving is giving to someone that you know is never going to pay you back. That’s what Santa Claus does. He gave me a My Little Pony Dream Castle, a Super Nintendo, and a stuffed tiger that still sits in my bedroom to this day, and all he got in return were cookies. As a kid, that didn’t teach me materialism, that taught me that when someone has the power to be generous, whether you have a workshop of magical elves that crank out toys (or are they dwarves?), or you just have some disposable income to buy something for someone in need, you should do it just to make the world a happier place, not to get paid back. Santa Claus wasn’t a toy vending machine, he was a role model.

 

But yes, a lot of the people I buy gifts for could buy those things for themselves. I can afford to buy myself everything on my wish list this year. Why even bother with that? Why not just buy things for yourself if you want something? Why do the gift exchange? Why do you need to give people material things as a symbol of your love for them? Shouldn’t they just know you love them without you having to hand them a physical object?

Pagans should understand this. Why do we do rituals where we burn candles or knot chords? Why do I have statues of my gods on my altar? Why do I have an altar at all? On one level, the gifts are another magical prop like the candles in a spell. The exchange of gifts is a magical act that bonds people together.

I’m wearing a ring right now that’s the physical embodiment of my marriage with my husband. I’d still be married to him if I didn’t have a wedding ring, or if I lost it, but I still wear it every day, and if I lost it I’d be pretty upset. We could have just signed some paperwork and we’d be legally married, but no, I wanted to do a full ritual and exchange rings, because I thought it was important and needed a ritual.

The Yule gift exchange is kind of like that. Making a big production of it once a year through the Yule ritual reminds you how important your bonds are that are there throughout the year, and doing it at the darkest time of year makes sense because it’s during the dark times of your life when you need your tribe the most. Going to the trouble of finding out what the person wants, finding the gifts or making them, and packaging them all up in colorful paper and bows is all a ritual act, or it can be if you treat it that way. Pour positive intent into your actions throughout the way. Galdr Gebo and Wunjo runes as you wrap them. Pray to Jolnir to bless the gift’s recipient, and don’t forget to leave him out an offering of cookies on Christmas Eve to thank him.

People have been complaining about Christmas being too commercial for generations, so that’s not changing any time soon, but I’m never going to give the gift giving tradition up. I feel sorry for the people who dread the coming of the Yuletide and see it as just being a stressful chore and don’t see the magic in it. It’s the first magical ritual I ever did, overseen by the first god I ever believed in. I just try to emphasize the good bits and ignore the rest.

Honoring the Land this Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law is hosting this year, and I’ve been asked to bring pies. We’ll have enough people there that we’ll need two pies, though I’m sure a lot of people will want to have a slice of each. This year I’m going to make a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie. The secret to making a good pie is a homemade crust made with butter and lard. This is no time to be worried about saturated fat, and I don’t think anyone there is a vegetarian. Butter tastes delicious, and lard is what makes the crust tender and flaky. Yum!

Last year I talked about how I have decided that Thanksgiving is a time for me to honor the North American land spirits. Here are some ideas I’ve come up with to incorporate that into the usual secular American celebration of turkey, pie, and football.

Incorporate sustainable ingredients into your feast.

My pumpkin pie will be made with pumpkins I grew myself in my garden. If you have a garden, try to make at least one dish incorporating something from your garden, even if it’s just sage from a potted sage plant on your balcony.

If you don’t have a garden, check out your local farmer’s market and see what they have for sale. Get some fruits or vegetables to make a dish from something locally grown. If you don’t know much about the kinds of things that are grown in your area or are in season right now, now is a good time to learn.

For the turkey, I highly recommend getting a free-range bird if you can afford it. You have not tasted turkey until you’ve tasted one that got to run around outside. Butterball turkeys have been bred to have such huge chest muscles they can hardly walk. Free-range turkeys are going to have less white meat and more dark meat, but I prefer dark meat anyway. But even the white meat of a free range turkey is much more flavorful than a Butterball. I think it’s worth it.

Burn off some calories with a hike in your local ecosystem.

Maybe you can do this with your family after dinner in a local park, or maybe you can take a trip to a state park on Black Friday. It probably won’t be very crowded since everyone else will be at the mall. Take a look at what’s happening in your local ecosystem. Are the trees changing color or losing their leaves yet? Here they’re just starting to turn color. The Cedar Elms and Western Soapberry are turning bright yellow, while the Texas Red Oaks and Flameleaf Sumacs are living up to their names and turning bright red. Those are mixed with Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers that stay green all winter.

Are there any migratory birds passing through your area on their way south? Since I live in Texas, this is south for a lot of migratory birds. There are several species I only see in the winter, like Orange-Crowned Warblers and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. There are other species of birds, like most other warblers and the hummingbirds, that only live here in summer and go to Mexico or South America for winter. Then of course there are the cardinals, wrens, blue jays, and mockingbirds that are here year round.

Or maybe where you lived there’s already snow on the ground, the birds have left, and the remaining animals are hibernating.

If you don’t know how to identify your local trees or birds, maybe some field guides would be a good thing to put on your Yule wish list. Our ancestors had detailed knowledge about flora and fauna that many modern people have lost. There’s even a trend among professional biologists that knowing “natural history” isn’t important, which I discovered when I was in grad school. I think that’s a big shame. I don’t think you can fully appreciate something unless you can name it. It’s kind of like the old adage about how the Inuit have all these different words for “snow”. To most people a tree’s a tree. Once you learn to identify which tree is which, suddenly you notice so much more about all the amazing variations of what a “tree” can be.

Visit a museum or historic site to learn some real history.

This might be a good idea if the weather’s bad and you don’t feel like spending much time outside. Learn about the people who lived on the land before you. The Thanksgiving story we were taught in elementary school about Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Rock has been mythologized quite a bit, so maybe it’s time to learn about the real Native Americans and various immigrants who lived where you live now.

For example, where I live there was the Tonkawa tribe, and then they got conquered by the Comanches. Then there are all those missions around San Antonio that were built by the Spanish to convert the native people to Catholicism, so that today most Latinos (some of their families go all the way back to when Texas was still part of Mexico) practice a version of Catholicism with a lot of native flavor. A bunch of Germans and Czechs settled the Hill Country and did cool things like inventing Texas-style barbecue. Yes, Texas barbecue was invented by Germans, not cowboys. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned about how the Texas Germans signed a peace treaty with the Comanches, but were persecuted by Confederates during the Civil War because they didn’t support secession.

My point is there’s a lot of complicated stuff about history they don’t teach you in school. I think Thanksgiving is a good time to remember your “ancestors of place.” They may not be your blood ancestors (who are honored on Samhain/Halloween), but they left their mark upon the land where you now live, so that makes them important too. Archaeologists have even found Clovis points only a few miles from my house. Those points were used to hunt mammoths during the last Ice Age. The Clovis people where probably the first people to immigrate to North America (as far as we know) and they lived right here!

 

Well, those are just some of my suggestions. Modern American Pagans celebrate all these holidays that are taken from European traditions. We’re always looking across the Atlantic to our “ancestral homelands” for inspiration. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time for us to remember that we’re the descendants of immigrants who left Europe and came to America, many because they thought America would be a better place to live than Europe. Don’t forget to give thanks to the land that gave your ancestors these new opportunities, and remember that you share it with the plants and animals and people who lived here before they got here.

And don’t forget that Thanksgiving is the one time of year where it’s permissible to have multiple pies in one meal. I have some baking to do now!