If you have not yet done so, please go and read Peter Grey’s life-altering essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” before continuing with my piece. The co-owner of Scarlet Imprint has much to say that desperately needs to be heard by the magical community. I will sit here and wait and sip my tea while you do so. Then come back and I’ll pour a mug for you and we’ll talk.
e are doomed. The earth and nature are not doomed. We are doomed, we humans. If we want to be honest with ourselves about the future of life on earth then we must be on the side of nature and not on the side of humanity. We have made the earth uninhabitable for ourselves, but nature will survive and notice our decline and demise as much as a the ocean notices one boat sinking into its depths. Green vines will swallow our cities of concrete and metal, trees will uproot parking lots and highways, animals will nest in our abandoned houses, the roofs of our temples will collapse letting in sunlight and starlight… and nature will not care, nature will not laugh, nature will not cry.
Our witchcraft, nay, our very being must become more wild, more intuitive, and more accepting of nature’s amorality and our inevitable demise if we are to make any difference at all. If we are to preserve what we’ve left behind of the earth in our destructive wake, and if we are to survive in any number as a species, we must rewild ourselves and learn how to live outside of civilization. We must lose our faiths, our religions, our meaningless attachment to nitpicketity details only we as individuals and not a whole care about. We who are importers of foreign magics and alien gods. We must become a different kind of witch. Something that needs no definitions, no boundaries, and no expectations. Something more primal and raw than our current incarnation. Something small, something just outside your door…
Local food, local beer, local products… the locavore movement invades the Pacific Northwest like an organic cotton-wearing hippie invades a farmer’s market with the best of intentions, but whose naïveté fails to see that paying more for something local will make absolutely no difference on the environment or the decline of our civilization (this is coming from someone who shops at farmer’s markets and buys local). What we need instead is local knowledge, local medicine, and local witchcraft. What do your local spirits care about you and your family’s survival? You who have never spoken to them or left them an offering? You who doesn’t know their names, powers, or dwelling places. They have no vested interest in you. They will dwell in the trees growing over our mass grave one day and not weep for us… after all, wasn’t it our ancestors who clear cut the forests that were their homes when we came to this land? Wasn’t it our ancestors who polluted their rivers and oceans and fished all their food until it couldn’t be renewed? Why would these spirits teach us their magic and medicine? One would have to put in a lot of hard work to simply get their attention, and years of it for them to start trusting and helping one local spirit worker, let alone all of us.
What did the ancient magicians, shamans, sorcerers, and witches do to gain the favour of the spirits? The literally went wild. Off they would go into the uncivilized world of nature without any comforts, without any companions. They would learn to hunt and forage for food, how to clothe themselves only with what nature provided, how to make tools, how to follow the migrations of animals, and learn how to predict the weather and the seasons. So wild they would become that speech, manners, and morals would be forgotten. When they would return home five to ten years later, they would be unrecognizable: feral, dangerous, mad. Accounts in Ireland even speak rumours of cannibalism. It would take a long time to bring them back to civilization and they were never fully comfortable in it again, living on the outskirts of town. But their people believed their madness was worth it for the knowledge they brought back; for these wild men, these woodwoses, were now encyclopedias and intermediaries of the genius loci – the local spirits of nature. And they were invaluable to the people’s survival.
What is the ancient purpose of a witch or shaman? To be an intermediary between the spirits and humanity. To be translator, negotiator, salve, and warrior if need be. In rewilding witchcraft, this is what we must learn, this is what we must become. We must be able to commune with the spirits of nature; of animals, insects, plants, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and also with the dead. In order to commune with the spirits we must become them, we must live with them, we must speak to them even if they do not answer back for years whether due to our untrained ears or their chosen silence. Wherever you live, you must allow yourself to be absorbed into the very land itself, immersed in the genius loci until their secrets and wisdom pour into you. We must become village witches, regional witches, shamans who speak for the spirits where we live.
I live in the Pacific Northwest. I live between ocean and mountain. My corner of the world is full of spirits both benevolent and malevolent, great and small, named and unnamed. Some have no equal anywhere else in the world, some uncannily resemble foreign spirits or spirits found in too many cultures to count. In Russia, Old Woman is Baba Yaga. In the highlands and islands of Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur. In the Pacific Northwest she is Asin, Monster-Woman-of-the-Woods, or Basket Woman. They are all very different, and yet they are the same. They protect the forest, they are wild, they are the land, and though they eat people (especially children) they are also initiators of spirit workers who are brave or foolish enough to seek them out. The world of spirits is often a paradox and linear thinking is of little use. I have said it many times. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you must go into the wild unknown over and over and over if you want to learn how to speak to spirits and learn their magics. The same goes if you live elsewhere.
Let us journey into the wild…
Hear the rain softly falling on the leaves and the louder drops rolling down the branches to drip onto the ground. Smell the air as each drop falls releasing the musky, earthy scent of centuries upon centuries of a humus composed of decaying cedar trees and plant leaves. See the thick mosses carpeting the forest floor and the bark of wizened old hazel and maple trees. See the fungi covering dead stumps, climbing up vast tree trunks and spreading its invisible mycelium network beneath their roots. See their colours ranging from purple and pink to brightest yellow and orange, to unassuming browns and the nefarious red-capped toadstools with white spots.
Tilt your head back and look up into the canopy of trees: Cedar, Fir, Alder, Poplar, and Big Leaf Maples so tall you cannot see where their branches end. They must touch the roof of the sky itself. See in their branches the dark shapes of crows cawing their messages and prophecies in a cacophonous symphony. Be silent and you may hear the croak of a raven,the cry of an eagle, the hoot of an owl, the rustling of a black bear through the deep woods. Be still and you may see a wild hare, a white-tailed deer, or a serpent slithering back to its hole in the earth.
Climb a hill or a tree and see the vast mountain ranges around you with their summer snow-dusted peaks and you will know the world when it was young. Look below the saw-toothed mountains and you will see the raging rivers, the snaking fingers of streams and waterfalls running down mountain sides, and the outlines of inlets – waters reaching inland from the great pouring sea. Follow the rivers and inlets back to the source where all water flows: the Pacific Ocean. Here its vastness is dotted with lush green islands of solitary hills and mountains hidden by mists and fog. They are an otherworld all of their own.
What do you see in the waters between the chains of these wild hilly islands? A massive grey whale and closer still, orcas, their skin shining black and white with proud upright fins cutting through the salt water. Deeper still the ocean conceals its mysteries: giant squid that would crush your bones as easily as the frame of a wooden boat, neon jellyfish full of stings and fire, and colourful red and green salmon fattening in the sea before their homeward journeys back to the rivers of their births. You travel back to the sea shore and find it covered with barnacles, mussels, clams, crawling crabs, and the odd stranded purple starfish. On the rocks nearby you see a family of black-eyed seals sunbathing on a rock, furry body upon furry body, happy and fat after a feast of fish.
You stand on the shore and remember you drank from the mountain springs, you ate the forbidden berries bursting with tart juices, you sucked the flavour out of roots, you filled your mouth with catkins and bitter green leaves, and you stuffed the flesh of fish, hare, and bird with mushrooms and tender fir tips and roasted them over a fire on lonely hungry nights under the stars. You ate and ate until your skin turned green with leaves and moss, your blood turned to sap, flowers spilled out of your mouth, roots sprouted from the soles of your feet, fur grew down your back and feathers from your finger tips. You are what you eat and you ate the wild — shape-shifted into it.
You look up and see you are in a sacred places where land, sea, and vast sky are all present. You have unknowingly stepped into the spirit world and into the ancient past. You touch your head and waist and find them wreathed in delicately needled hemlock branches. You touch your face and find it painted. You touch your shoulders and find them cloaked in familiar feathers. You touch your neck and find it draped in necklaces of teeth, claws, bones, and magical roots of native species.
Dig a small hole in the wet sand with your hands, feel its coolness and leave an offering; small stones and spring water from the mountains, wild flowers from a meadow, a sprig of cedar, a bundle of feathers, a perfect clam shell, and berries you foraged along your journey. You stand over your offering and drum and sing, calling the spirits and the act being an offering in and of itself. When you are spent you thank the spirits for all they have revealed to you; how the land is connected and interdependent, how powerful and important each feature, element, and creature is. Then you start the long journey home knowing you are wild again.