by Phil Brucato
Where are you, right this minute? If you’re like most of us, you’re probably sitting inside an air-conditioned house, maybe with a TV or computer humming away in the background, electric light on overhead and the smell of fast food wafting through your living space.
Aren’t we Pagans? Don’t we revere Nature? Didn’t we renounce the gods of books in favor of a gospel spoken every moment by the Earth? Yes? Then why are so many of us sitting inside with feet propped up on coffee tables, remote in one hand and cheeseburger in the other? As summer arrives, is there any good answer for that question?
Really. Go outside.
Normally, this column focuses on Paganism and popular culture. Not all culture, though, comes from books, games, music, or the Internet. As I pondered my next article, my roommate Cory and I got on a rant about Pagans who spend their lives wrapped up in air-conditioned cocoons. That’s when I knew what I had to write about this issue: not about passive media culture, but about the active culture just outside the culture of the living world.
In this era, we have unprecedented data and images available about this living world. We can download images from anywhere on earth, even log in to satellite feeds and watch ourselves from space. We can stock up on books about Nature or buy stunning DVD collections. Yet for all these technological insights, there’s no substitute for getting out in the sun or rain and breathing the open air. That personal touch is vital to learning and appreciating the earth we revere. As I remarked to my friend Pooka while we hiked the Appalachian Trail, you can’t download this sort of thing. You can’t read about it or watch it or describe it in mere words. To truly understand the immense glory that is Nature, you have to get your feet in it. That’s literally what Cory, Pooka, and I do. And each time, it’s a life-changing experience.
So where can you get started? And how can you best appreciate the adventure? First, leave the house — the neighborhood, if possible. Find some parks, woods, fields, hills, or hiking trails. A small creek, wooded hilltop, schoolyard or even a cemetery can provide an island of calm in otherwise hectic surroundings. If nothing else, wander around your neighborhood. In any case, treat your trip as a ritual — a sacred break from your everyday life. As you begin, whisper a short prayer to your patron deities or Mother Earth and stretch your arms to the sky in appreciation, even when it’s raining or snowing… hell, especially when it’s raining or snowing! If you have a bike or skateboard, ride it. If there are safe places to walk without getting run over, take a stroll.
If you’re stuck in a city or other heavily-developed area, view your surroundings with fresh senses. Appreciate them as a child might. Look closely at trees, grass, or clouds — really see them, and ponder the ongoing miracle that makes such things possible. Every so often, take a few minutes to stop and truly examine some item of interest — tree bark, a stick or leaf — that otherwise would have escaped your notice. Take the time to explore it with all six senses (see below), and then give thanks to Whomever you hold sacred for the miracle that goes on around you at all times.
Give yourself time to explore your surroundings. Look for the “ordinary extraordinary,” those impressions of everyday existence that slip past you otherwise. Ponder the play of light through tree branches; note the color of a house’s brick surface; close your eyes and smile at the play of wind across your face. No matter where you are, such sensations are always present. Take time to fully enjoy them. When you encounter uncomfortable sensations (gravel, roadkill, sewage, etc.), take time to honor them as well. After all, life isn’t always pretty and soft! Rough edges and foul smells are part of the living world as well.
- As an exercise and practice, full-sensory awareness expands and deepens the range and clarity of your senses:
- First, close your eyes and focus on a sense other than sight.
- Breathing slowly and deeply, concentrate on one sense for no less than one minute. Sink into the impressions you experience, mentally note each impression, and then see how much further you can “reach” to catch another impression beyond that one.
- Mentally “caress” each impression, taking time to really experience it.
- With the sense in question, probe your surroundings to see how much you can notice beyond the obvious stimuli. • Run this way through your six senses, in turn: scent, hearing, taste, touch, energy-awareness, and finally (opening your eyes) sight.
- Breathe one final deep breath and give thanks for having such an amazing range of senses.
Trash-Work and Blessings for the Dead
For a challenging but rewarding break, take some work gloves, heavy boots, thick pants, a pack, and some garbage bags and then go clean up trash at roadways, parks, or unofficial dumps. It’s a civic-minded thing to do, and gives you a visceral understanding about just how badly we treat our world. There’s something meditative about cleaning up broken glass and other cast-offs on behalf of the Goddess; done in a ritual spirit, it can even seem like a sacrament. Just be careful! You don’t want to get tetanus, not even in service to Divinity!
If you find roadkill or some other dead animal, find a place to dig or clear a small grave. Using a stick or shovel to avoid possible disease, move the corpse to the grave, and then cover it with dirt. Say a blessing for the departed soul, honoring its passing and wishing it well in the next incarnation. Death is a part of life from which we often remain separate; outside, though, you can take an active, sacred hand in the process of passing and renewal, acknowledging the million tiny deaths that surround us every day.
Hiking and Backpacking
I could fill half of this magazine with an article about hiking and yet hardly scratch its surface. As an activity it’s amazing, as a culture it’s gregarious, and as a way in which to experience Nature it’s sublime. “Taking a hike” can range from a couple of hours spent walking in the local park to several months spent on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. Personally, I suggest both; a vigorous walk enhances your appreciation for the living world, while an extended hike reveals it to you in indescribable ways. Your spiritual practice will thank you for your efforts.
Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t need to be a buff millionaire in order to hike. I did my first extended hike after years of inactivity, and found it challenging, yet manageable. The same goes for gear; although certain items are essential for long-distance hiking trips, most of them can be rented, borrowed, or purchased secondhand without breaking your bank account. If you’ve never done it before, I suggest hiking with an experienced friend, doing your homework and some training beforehand. Still, I feel that every able-bodied Pagan should take an extended hike at least once in a lifetime, if not once a year. Your faith will deepen in ways you literally cannot imagine from inside your home.
- Pack it in, Pack it out! Whatever you bring in with you, take away with you.
- Watch your fires! Nothing says “Oops!” like burning down the woods where you meant to worship.
- Never throw cigarette butts on the ground. Besides the risk of fire, it’s just plain gross.
- Be friendly! If and when you meet other folks on a hike, nod, smile, or say hello.
- Share the path: A smaller group has right-of-way over a larger group. Hikers going uphill have right-of-way over those going downhill. When in doubt, be considerate.
- Be quiet: Loud noises disrupt Nature, annoy fellow hikers, alarm animals, and make you look stupid.
- Don’t trespass: Unauthorized “visits” irritate land-owners, and may expose you to unknown hazards (animal traps, dangerous ruins, guard animals, angry farmers with shotguns).
For ultimate effect, leave your shoes at home and go rambling barefoot. This isn’t nearly as dangerous or uncomfortable as it might seem — Pooka and I hiked for several weeks on the Appalachian Trail barefoot, and suffered no injury whatsoever. Walking barefoot increases your awareness by several magnitudes, but soon feels more “natural” than footwear. Obviously, you’ll want to steer clear of shattered glass and wreckage… but then, you should avoid those hazards no matter what! A barefoot walk through soft grass or crackling leaves may be just the thing to re-orient you to Creation’s living miracle.
So yeah — go outside, already! And thanks for indulging me this break. Sure, I love pop culture too… but without experience to back it up, pop culture is just a gallery of mirrors — images without substance.
A relationship to Nature is essential: the form it takes isn’t that important.
In any case, get out there and see what Nature offers! If you claim to revere Her, it’s best to go outside and check Her out for yourself. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my own advice. It’s gorgeous outside… and even when it’s not, the living world remains Divine.
Reading and Resources
- Richard Angier, How to Stay Alive in the Woods, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984.
- Karen Berger, Hiking & Backpacking: A Trailside Series Guide, New Media, Inc. 1995.
- Richard Frazine, The Barefoot Hiker: A Book About Bare Feet, Ten Speed Press, 1993.
- Kathleen Meyer, How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art, Ten Speed Press, 1994.
- Michael Mouland, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Camping & Hiking, Alpha, 1999.
- Backpacker, National Geographic Adventure, and Outside, plus dozens of magazines devoted to specific sports (hunting, skateboarding, etc.).
- Wikipedia.org — articles on Hiking, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, Backpacking, Cycling, Litter, Walking and Barefoot, plus the associated links.
- The Worldhiking Directory: http://www.worldhiking.com www.earth.google.com and www.flashearth.com
— PHIL “SATYRBLADE” BRUCATO gets his ass out of his chair as often as possible. A longtime newWitch contributor, he hikes, flirts, dances, spins fire, and occasionally writes something. Check out Phil’s blogs at: Live Jourrnal and MySpace.
» Originally appeared in newWitch #15
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