Witchcraft and bioregionalism: the growing local spiritual heart

Back on January 11, Chris Orapello and Tara Maguire appeared on New World Witchery with Cory Hutcheson where they spoke a bit about their new tradition that they’re working on called BlackTree Coven. On their site, they call it a “non-Wiccan,  initiatory tradition of sabbatic witchcraft.” As with any tradition, it seems to be a smattering of influences, pulled together from a variety of sources that work to reflect the worldview of those who create it. And rest assured, that’s not a criticism of their efforts, most good ideas are not born from within a vacuum but built upon the shoulders of the giants who have come before us. Our ancestors have gifted us with countless tools from their trials and experimentation. We must in our own way continue their tradition of using the tools that are available and working on our own solutions.

What they’ve come up with is a pretty cool idea. It spoke to my animist heart when they started talking about a practice that is deeply rooted to the environment that they live and breath in. The place that they live, New Jersey, and the pine barrens that are so integrally connected with the identity of the land. Utilizing a sense of place and tying it to some ceremonial magick and sabbatic witchcraft (among other influences), they’ve crafted a tradition that is uniquely their own.

One of the best ideas, I think, that they came up with was to bring local folklore into their tradition. The Jersey Devil, a flying cryptid that is equal parts bat, kangaroo, horse and more is the sort of animal spirit of the pine barrens. The creature has been consistently reported as far back as when the native people who originally lived in the region, prior to Europeans forcing them out. They referred to it as a dragon of some sort and the area was referred to as Popuessing, which meant ‘place of the dragon’.

As they mentioned in New World Witchery, In their tradition the Jersey Devil and the creature’s mother, Mother Leeds take on the role of God and Goddess figures. I’m not quite sure I understand this part, why not just work with or venerate these as local land spirits rather than putting them into what feels like a more traditional Wiccan worldview? Regardless, I applaud their efforts and support the development of their new system.

[EDIT: Tara reached out and helped clarify this point for me. Turns out my understanding of this part of BlackTree was waaay off and the place of the Jersey Devil and Mother Leeds was NOT in the traditional Wicca god/goddess structure at all. Thanks to Tara for correcting me! Here’s a link to her full comment, below.]

I was so impressed by their ideas, in fact, that it got me thinking more about a blog post from a couple of months ago that I had written about creating a local practice or tradition that more adequately addressed the concerns of my own environment.

This is basically bioregionalism with a spiritual component, just as our ancestors used to do. While I value my relationship with the gods, I have a much more primal and immediate connection to the spirits of the land and to my ancestors. The land spirits, who I still sometimes refer to as wights, really capture the presence of life, the spirit of it. In Florida the spirit of the black bear, the alligator, the panther, and the River of Grass itself are real personalities (to name just a few). They can be worked with, consulted and communicated with and are very available when I need some help. More legendary spirits or creatures exist here as well, though the stories aren’t nearly as fleshed out as that of the Jersey Devil. Long Ears, from Seminole folklore, was a wolf-like beast with, you guessed it, Long Ears. There’s also enough skunk ape lore to shake a stick at, some of it from here, some from the Southeast, generally.

But isn’t this just shamanism? I’d say yes and no. The term shamanism feels appropriated to me. I prefer not to use it out of respect for the peoples to whom the term belongs. Also, much like Christopher and Tara, I feel a connection with the term and concept of witchcraft. It’s the lost philosophical and spiritual heritage of many cultures and through it, the possibility for healing and restoration of wholeness. There’s a lot of power in those ideas, and I’m personally loathe to toss them aside. I’m looking forward to seeing how BlackTree Coven develops, and what can be applied to other regions. Good luck to Tara and Christopher!

Finally, I think I’m just happy to see some of the ideas that I’m into gaining more traction. The bioregional, animistic witchcraft has always been around to varying degrees, in recent years Sarah Anne Lawless has been a particularly noteworthy voice on the topic. But it feels now like it may be on the cusp of a renaissance within our community. As environmental issues become more and more pressing, people are looking to their bioregions with fresh eyes. Sadly, the attention may be too late, as things are on the cusp of irrevocably changing. Witchcraft will morph and change with the world as it changes though. How could it not? It’s intrinsically tied to its rhythms and motions.

4 Comments

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  1. Great post, Nathan! I am also curious about how spiritual bioregionalism would look like in Florida. I have no great love for the area, but the curiosity remains. 😉

    A while ago, while constructing a “likely” history for a novel series I was working on, I came up with the idea that shamanism, witchcraft, and organized religion were “phases of development” that coincided with the growth of our civilizations, yet could coincide with each other because no matter if you say “British Empire” there are still rural areas living like in the Nth century, so you get witches, and hunter-gatherer tribes somewhere in the colonies. Culture is no uniform, people live in many different ways, so different “styles” of practice remain. Nevertheless, they flow into each other. Shamans worked primarily with spirits and mediated through otherworldly journeys, witches acknowledged greater spirits that seemed part heroic ancestors and part gods, and organized religion (priesthoods) had completely deified these non-human intelligences and worshipped them accordingly.

    Just a few thoughts… I see no conflict with mixing any of those labels and practices. They’re just different power-dynamics between spirits and people, thus prescribing different sets of practices to maintain that relationship.

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  2. Nathan- in your article you ask why Chris and I have given the Jersey Devil and Old Mother Leeds the status roles of God and Goddess, much like there is in Wicca, instead of venerating them as land spirits. I just wanted to clarify that for you.

    Given the extreme prevalence of Wicca in modern pagan and witchcraft cultures, it is very easy to fall prey to the idea that whenever there is a female and male figure within a particular tradition, in any type of context, that this immediately indicates they have just been slotted into the positions of Goddess and God for that tradition. This is not the case with Blacktree, as we do not have Gods to begin with. We are a tradition of witchcraft, which we view as a practice, and not as a religion.

    The Jersey Devil and Old Mother Leeds aren’t meant to have taken on the God/Goddess role in our tradition, nor do we work with them in any type of Wiccan worldview context. They are land spirits, the genius loci of our region, and we work with and venerate them as such. We don’t worship them and they do not serve as our connection to the Capital D-divine. They are our ancestors, our brethren, our link to the land itself. Those who have gone before and those who are yet to be.

    Those two particular spirits are also not specifically and definitively the Jersey Devil and Old Mother Leeds, in and of themselves. We don’t worship the Jersey Devil (which is something I’ve been shouting about since all of this began). And we don’t actually believe that Old Mother Leeds herself is our primary ancestor. Those are faces that the spirits wear for us, masks that they occasionally peer out from behind, names that we are able to identify with given the region we currently reside in. If we left New Jersey and the Pine Barrens, we would need to reconnect with the spirits of the land wherever we were living. We would still be witches within the Blacktree tradition, but if we lived in Oregon or Arizona or North Carolina, we would no longer call to the Dragon of the Pines or Mother Leeds. We would still work with the genius loci of the area we were in, but it would no longer wear that mask.

    In the construction of our tradition, which is ongoing and nebulous as all living traditions are, it was impossible to ignore the influence of Chris’ two sculptures, the Witch Queen and the Witch Lord. Their voices were loud and difficult to ignore, but at the same time- we are also still trying to find their places in all of this. Personally, I view them as the faces behind the masks. They are our connection to the Underworld, to the axis mundi, to the Great Between, to the land. I see them not as Gods, I reckon they’re older and more primal than that, but as the very land itself. That’s what a genius loci is, after all.

    All of that being said, this certainly turned out a whole lot longer than what I had originally anticipated! Thank you so much for your kind words, your attention to our appearance on New World Witchery, and your well wishes. I’m not as in the public eye as Chris has been with his pod/video casting, so all of this attention can be a little overwhelming for me at times.

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  3. Oh my gosh, a fellow Floridian!

    I got to thinking about regional land spirits for the Land of Flowers after this podcast episode as well! As a denizen of Central Florida, I felt like a lot of the Everglades dwellers were too far off from me, the scrub oak is where my plant allies live.

    But then I got to thinking about trickster figures… and well… Florida Man came to mind. I mean, it seems like a bit of silliness to think of an internet phenomena as a “Land Spirit”, but you have to admit, a lot of those Florida Man headlines read like the titles of Coyote stories, right? Thoughts?

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  4. Love the local flavor of this practice. While I appreciate that these practitioners identify as witches working magic rather than religionists doing worship, I think some of the terms used here are a little confusing. Firstly, in many indigenous traditions, the concepts we think of as gods and land spirits are much the same things, and native religion doesn’t inherently involve western-style or monotheistic-style worship of them. This can also be seen in the indigenous Irish tradition in the Irish myths when those called the Tuatha de Danann, informally known variously as both the old gods and the faery folk, go into the hills of the land after the Milesians, the first Gaels beat them in battle, but then the Tuatha de take the vitality of the land and cattle away and the Milesians must go to them and ask for them back so they’ll be able to eat. The Tuatha de promise to do so, so long as the Milesians promise that they and their descendants will acknowledge and honor their doing so by making regular offerings to them of corn and grain, essentially returning surpluses of their staple harvests in thanks, and not desecrate the hills, the sacred sites where these gods/faeries/land spirits live. This outlines the basic relationship between them, which is not one of worship, yet they’ve been called the gods, and are also variously known as the shape of the land, the sea, the sun, cow, horse, etc. through the meanings of their names. So I don’t think what we think of often as gods and religion and worship all have to mean what our dominant monotheist tradition has taught us they must mean, at least not to the point that we have to work hard to reject that language. Secondly, the suggestion that what this blog post is describing is shamanism is confusing because shamanism, a western word and concept itself, is a created term for what is a particular Siberian tribe’s type of healing known as soul-retrieval, which this blog post isn’t describing or referring to at all. It is describing the kind of animistic-polytheistic religion/spirituality (whichever you like) common to many indigenous tribes around the world which essentially functions as the social protocol for the relationships between the human and non-human persons of a given place. I very much resonate with this idea of recognizing, honoring, working with, and living respectfully and mutually-beneficially with local, non-human persons. Hope to see more of this kind of thing developing here in the west. Thanks for sharing this.

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