All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

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Rituals of Relationship: connecting with the spirit of place

I have just returned from a Women and the Land  conference held in Point Reyes, California.  It was a wonderful series of panels, whose presenters were almost all women authors: poets, essayists, and fiction and non fiction writers. Given my interest in how the feminine and ecology fit together  as a unified theme in needed cultural changes that might yet save our nihilistic Western culture, I expected to enjoy it. And I did, far more than I expected.

             That said, this column and the next will deal with an error I heard there, and with its solution. I think the error runs through the thinking of many women and men whose hearts are in the right place. And its solution is easy once we recognize it and take the time to digest its implications. It is also very relevant to Pagans.

During lunch we broke into smaller groups.  In my group our conversation turned to how one could become indigenous to place and engage in genuinely respectful relationships with the other-than-human world. Both are important topics and Robin Kimmerer  had given the morning’s opening address on how English makes achieving the latter difficult, in part because anything not human is described as an “it.” This term shapes all subsequent thought about what the pronouns refers to. Her example was to describe our grandmothers as “its.”  “It goes to the stove to cook us a meal. It is tired. It bought us a present.”  And so on.   Her talk was important enough to merit a future column by me, but it is also an extraordinarily subtle point that will need many rewrites by me to (I hope) get right.  This present one is “hot off the skillet” so to speak.

Several participants were discussing how allowing otherwise non-indigenous plants to cross breed would help create indigenaity as their offspring adapted to their new environment.  The plants that did not come up to desired standards could be pulled and discarded, and several described large piles of such plants discarded and later burned on Luther Burbank’s property while he was creating many new varieties of plants in the region. (Some of whom now grow in my garden.)

As they talked few seemed to noticed they had fallen into the logic of describing plants as ‘its.’  Plants were valuable only from the human perspective. Useful ones were kept and the less useful destroyed. Like trading in a flawed grandmothers for a better one. 

I observed that while selective breeding was not wrong, how it was being discussed fit the modern exploitive mindset more easily than the transformed approach Kimmerer advocated. To treat plants as a kind of relative, as this land’s original inhabitants had, required something more than valuing them for their utility alone. For most of us, terms like “kin” and “relative” had to amount to more than an abstract word or philosophical concept for this to happen. They had to refer to a felt relationship.

I described how for decades whenever I lived somewhere long enough to feel settled I began making morning offerings of coffee to the spirits of my yard.  Before taking my first drink I would pour some on the ground or on a special rock, saying “For the spirits of this place” or something close to that.  I had first gotten the idea from a Tony Hillerman  novel where he described how traditional Navajo Jim Chee did it. It had seemed right to me. 

Over time I had discovered that when repeated regularly these offerings gradually disclosed another dimension of my yard.  The place slowly became more alive energetically.  And not just for me.  I described how visitors often observed how ‘different’ the place felt, different in a good way. This transformed relationship between me and where I lived did not happen instantaneously. In my experience it took a year or so to become strong. But when your land makes you aware it is aware of you, the transformed relationships Kimmerer had described become much easier.

Ritual? Heart?

Someone then interjected that she didn’t have a back yard, and felt a “good heart” is enough.  Someone else then said that I was describing “ritual” which she didn’t do. Meditation was sufficient for her to have a quiet mind and open heart. Then lunch ended and we walked back to the conference center.

I was frustrated.  I felt these women, mostly secular or Buddhist, had missed my point, which was that things change in important ways when a relationship becomes reciprocal.  Despite their wanting badly for it to be otherwise, these women still seemed enmeshed in a way of living that viewed the natural world as impervious to genuine relationship.

I was particularly taken aback when my pouring coffee on a rock was dismissed as “ritual.”

In one sense yes, it is a ritual. When I am home I do it almost every morning before drinking my coffee. And we all have “morning rituals” we perform most of the time when beginning our day.  But this morning ritual is more like saying “good morning” than casting a circle.

It is a ritual of polite relationship, and our lives are much enriched by such rituals.

Politeness has many ritual dimensions, such as the word “please.”  Saying “please” indicates we consider another as more than simply a means to our ends.  Its use begins with small children who are told it is “the magic word” and by the time we become adults we usually realize it signifies respect and care.

If I meet someone and extend my hand, and the person declines to shake it because they believe relationships should not be initiated through ‘rituals,’ that would not make me more likely to make further efforts to develop a relationship. It could still happen of course, but it would almost certainly take a little longer for me to feel comfortable with them. I am sure I am not alone.

If the person radiates enough love energy that might be enough to establish an instant desire for relationship, but most good-hearted people do not radiate that kind of energy that strongly, including myself and the woman with whom I spoke.

The ritual of shaking hands helps us feel more at ease with a stranger.  We often also get some small insights about the person by how they do it.  So does the ritual of “Good morning.”  I suspect all societies have such simple rituals for managing many encounters.

The same insight seems to me a reasonable way to go about establishing relations with the other-than-human, particularly when they have not made an effort to contact us. Those coffee offerings were my taking the time over months to demonstrate I was serious.  Once that was demonstrated, I received a response.

Of course it needn't be coffee.  Tobacco and alcohol are traditional as well. And there is no reason to be stuck to that tradition if something else speaks to you.  Attitude and consistency amount to more than a particular form.


Someone might counter that my pouring of coffee is a way to try and interact with “spiritual forces” whereas shaking hands is hardly that.

This is a good monotheistic distinction, but not one indigenous peoples, experienced Pagans, or people trying to think of other beings as “relatives” should take seriously. It perpetuates the sense that an unbridgeable gulf separates us from everything else, both materially and spiritually.

Kimmerer had argued there was not a huge gap between the world of nature and the human world.  Whether from caution or belief, she did not refer to the other-than-human world in terms of spirits, but she did emphasize this world consisted of other intelligences, ones worthy of genuine respect. 

Let me again refer again to the human world.

In the human world we have relationships ranging from the most intimate and personal to those involving respect for strangers.  In most contexts a relationship is something that lasts past the moment.  It needn’t be intimate, but neither is it anonymous and impersonal.  It acknowledges the other as being of value.  We have a continuum of intimacy from the most familiar to the least, and this continuum makes it easier to respect those who are least like us.  If there is a gap, those of the far side are simply alien. We need to find a connection, however small, to establish respect.

I suspect this is why education and urban life generally lead people to become more tolerant of those different from themselves, for in both cases we are continually encountering those who are different from us in a large variety of ways, some small and some large. The country and small towns away from cities are less so because they are more homogenous. 

I believe this is why establishing a connection with the spirit or spirits of a place is important.  It makes the many more connections with the other-than-human that are far less intense still real to us.  It enables us to see that the plants and rocks and birds we see are more than what we see.

When my yard first came alive in this way, some of the response was in the ‘energy’ of the place.  But there was more.  Every year certain plants- never the same ones- would grow to enormous size.  Last year it was a dinosaur kale that reached about five feet. Often new plants would appear from nowhere, ones that were not native, had not in my experience ever appeared there before as seedlings, and were very welcome.  One was a rose with a beautiful flower. Another was the sudden appearance of an acanthus, and in the ideal place.

             Life flourishes when the relationships are right. This is true with human beings and it is true with other-than-human beings.  Because from a Pagan perspective the entire world is inspirited, we are grounding our practice more deeply when we are in good relations not just with the Gods, but with the variety of intermediary beings as well, physical and nonphysical, for the distinctions between the physical and nonphysical are indistinct. 

              Good relations take more than a good heart.  Important as that is, they also take opening ourselves to interaction with others in a good way.  They require politeness and friendliness.  This is the lesson that those who want to see the other-than-human world as in some sense our relations, and yet regard a offering of coffee as a needless ritual have yet to learn.

                And they and the spirits of place are the poorer for it.

And if you don't have a yard? I suggest finding some place that speaks to you, in a nearby park or off a trail, and whenever you are there, make a small unobtrusive offering. And keep it up for at least a year- and pay attention.

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Connie Lazenby
    Connie Lazenby Tuesday, 17 March 2015

    I just loved this. Being very connected to nature and the spirit of a place, i have different rituals that end with the same result; a deep, abiding relationship with it.

    Now, would I think of what I do as a ritual? No, not necessarily. i walk my space daily, planting, weeding (although I have been known to place "weeds" in pots and enjpying them flourish) and just "being in the moment" there.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 21 March 2015

    Thank you Connie.


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