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At the mythic core of every agricultural human society lies an archetypal theme of a dark goddess of wildness and chaos being defeated, raped, and subdued by a shining masculine god of order, agriculture, and progress. What some have come to understand as civilization can also be understood as a mythic/religious phenomenon wherein massive numbers of humans have found themselves in service to this god who is known by many names but whose mark is unmistakable – violent assaults on wildness, femininity, and chaotic self-expression. He leaves his legacy in clear-cut forests, mountains disemboweled for coal and minerals, rivers of toxic waste, skies clouded with smog, the shaking bodies of violated women, and the reduction of wild spaces teeming with life into the flat, sick, monotonous fields of agriculture – the violated body of the Goddess.
Those of us who have found ourselves in love with the wildness inside and outside our bodies, who revel in the anarchic delights of dissent, who desire autonomy and chaos above safety and drudgery, who would rather hunt and gather wild plants than exchange our labor for processed simulacra of sustenance- those of us in service to the Goddess – are currently finding ourselves in various places seeking meaningful relationships with our immediate companions, human and non-human alike. We desire intimacy and conversation with the world around us. Despite the seeming overwhelming victory of the god of progress, we reject the normalization of this culture built on the continual violent devastation of the Goddess of Wild Nature. We refuse to believe that this is the only way to live in the world.
As we turn towards other ways of being, as we move towards communion with the wounded Goddess, we encounter the deep waters of Grief. We must give ourselves over to this Grief and let it work on us if we are to have any hope of connecting with the wounded, betrayed, and forgotten parts of the world and our own bodies. This Ocean of Grief is so overwhelming and enormous that it dissuades many who encounter it, as they would rather numb themselves against this reality than acknowledge it and risk losing their sanity. This Ocean of Grief is chaotic and mysterious, and it works in different ways at different times for different people. Sometimes it asks us to grieve for others – those whose deaths were never mourned, whose voices can be heard echoing through the waters, calling for a witness. Sometimes we are invited to grieve for great wrongs that have been committed against the land or against wild beings. Many times the Grief is for what our species has lost: Elders who will initiate us into our community roles, Wise-women who know the plant people as intimately as their own worn bodies, The Songlines which carry the stories of the land, and Ceremonies which integrate us into the cycles and rhythms of the cosmos. We grieve because not only has the Goddess been violated, but because we have lost the ways back to Her, we cannot hear Her voice, we have forgotten what it means to be wild humans.
These are the Initiatory Rites of Grief. If we can give ourselves over to Grief – letting it work on us and change us, releasing all our tangible and mythical attachments as we drown in these dark wild waters – we move from the experience of being outside the wild world to being within it. If we survive this ordeal, we can begin to connect with the wild world as it is, not as distant observers. This is what the Goddess demands if we are to approach Her on Her terms, these are Her requirements for a lover. She has no time or interest for immature infatuation. The Rites of Grief are also a preparation for those who would go before Her – maturing, ripening, and deepening the initiates, opening our senses and expanding our ability to experience and worship Her authentically.
For those unable or unwilling to undergo this initiation, the many-faced God of Leviathan offers an easier path, an alternative to the agricultural ethic: the wilderness ethic. In this story, the wilderness exists as a space apart from humans; wild places are defined by the absence of humans, buildings, and the more obvious indications of mass society. The underlying justification for these seemingly wild spaces is ultimately aesthetic – many humans enjoy the sensory experiences offered by being away from civilization, therefore we must work diligently to “protect” these spaces and ensure their continued viability for the assorted pleasures offered by the outdoor industry: hunting, fishing, off-roading, hiking, etc.
For those initiated in the dark waters of Grief, the claw marks of the god of history are not hard to see here. If agriculture is an ethic of rape, wherein humans exist apart from Wild Nature in order to subdue Her, than this is an ethic of protestant abstinence, wherein humans exist apart from Wild Nature in order to protect and preserve Her fragile condition… or perhaps an ethic of pornography, wherein humans exist apart from Wild Nature in order to carefully manipulate Her to fit our bizarre desires and then enjoy Her at an appropriately alienated distance. The appropriate function or ecological role of our species is never considered. We are simply fallen beings who must not despoil these sacred places. There is no consideration of how wild humans (regardless of their indigeneity) might exist alongside other wild beings in these places.
Of course, the realities of wildland management in North America (the context that this essay is written in) are far from anything that might be described as abstinence. Numerous federal and state agencies control, regulate, and enforce their agendas of what they perceive as appropriate displays of wildness for the safety and enjoyment of the masses. All forms of life are reduced and abstracted into categories of “resources” to be managed according to the appetite of capitalism. Perhaps the most obvious example of this are the millions of cows who eat, shit, trample, and generally wreak havoc in these places yet are given more rights and protections than most of the wild animals who occupy these same spaces. The veneer of pristine wild spaces is very thin indeed.
The most compelling aspect of this protestant-wilderness ethic is the fact that many places have been so devastated by the god of industry that minimal human involvement is, in many places, the most respectful and helpful action we can take at the moment. As anyone who has experienced the fallout of sexual/physical assault can attest to, sometimes the most supportive thing our friends can offer us is respectful distance as our bodies attempt to heal.
In contrast, perhaps the most insulting thing another can offer us is pity – the objectification of our bodies as victims and the denial of agency in our own healing and experience. The one who pities stands apart from the pitied, is not interested in the wounded ones raw emotional experience, they refuse to acknowledge their own festering wounds which are crying for attention and so project their own status as “victim” onto others.
The expression of pity lies at the heart of the wilderness ethic, as those who visit the wilderness are unwilling to find the wounding or the resiliency of the land in themselves, they are not interested in empathizing with the land. They do not come as lovers, they do not come with poems and offerings, they do not ask what the land needs from them. They come as those who stand apart, as tourists and visitors… they carry pity with them, and no wonder they don’t feel at home in the wilderness.
For those of us who see through this veil of disconnection – this perpetuation of the old story of humans apart from wildness – how are we to court our beloved? How do we reclaim our ancestral birthright of living in direct communication with the land? What if I believe that I am a wild animal who belongs in wild places and has the capacity to fulfill a viable ecological role? What if I believe that my erotic, sensuous self is essentially good, that my feelings and desires are beautiful expressions of my wild animal body? What does authentic relationship with place look like?
Perhaps it begins as I approach a remote section of a canyon whose waters I have been courting for the previous year. I pause at an opening in the birch trees, introduce myself, and give an offering of my water (saliva), a spoon I carved, and a poem. I walk into the clearing, sit down in the sand, and share my feelings towards Her, as embarrassing as they might be – the way my spine tingles as I dip my fingers in her water, how I have dreamed of Her at night, and my desires to co-create life with her. I also acknowledge my awkwardness, my inadequacy, my lack of context or ancestral relationship to this place. I admit that I have no idea what i’m doing, but that i’m willing to try, and to learn. Then, I listen. I listen with the full sensory capacity that my domesticated body allows for. I taste the air, I caress the sand with my toes, I listen to the Canyon Wren calling down canyon, I watch the light dance on the surface of the creek, and I notice the emotional currents of my body. After a bit, I begin to feel warmth, pleasure, an invitation to continue.
I reach into my bag and pull out several jars with seeds in them. Yarrow, Plantain, Lambs Quarters, Milkweed, Mugwort, Mallow…. wild plants gathered from the Mountain and other riparian areas of the Desert. These seeds carry the possibilities for food and medicine – for myself, my human community, and for any beings who happen upon this place.
I introduce these seeds and declare my intentions to tend this place, to help these plants grow, to learn how to feed myself and be in relationship with this place. I listen again, with my whole body. Again I feel warmth and acceptance, my body full of excitement over the possibilities of what we might create. Smiling, I spread seeds around Her body, burying some and leaving others where they lie. I move some rocks and boulders to help irrigate the area, and give blessings to the seeds, the water, and the soil in which they rest.
I finish with another offering, as I give my gratitude to this place for its generosity and openness to my initial attempts at relationship. I promise to visit regularly and to protect this place from the followers of the god of agriculture, more specifically the ranchers who drive their bovine locust hordes through this area regularly. On my hike out, I make my first down-payment on this promise, accepting the risks of this action as an acceptable price to pay for my illicit love affair with the canyon.
If She chooses to nurture the plants I have introduced, there will be many opportunities for wild food and medicine later this year. If not, I will continue the conversation, noticing which, if any, plants do want to grow here and what they might need in order to continue living – water, shade, sun, or protection from the obnoxious hordes of tourists and cows.
Wildtending is my way of making love to this place, of honoring my body’s desires while acknowledging the full agency and autonomy of the land. It is a life-affirming conversation between my wild animal self and the soul of this place. This land is my temple, and learning how to be an animal here is my act of worship. I do not pretend that I have any right to this place or any access to secret knowledge, yet I also refuse to accept that civilization is inevitable, that progress has won, that I am so fully domesticated that I cannot learn how to be in relationship with wild places.
As I move deeper into relationship with this place – gathering food, medicine, tools, clothing, and stories from the land – I notice that the boundary between my body and this land becomes blurred and harder to define. Describing our relationship as a partnership seems less like a metaphor and more like a lived reality. I am not one who stands apart and alone from the wilderness. I do not exist separately. When my food is dependent on the flow of a creek, I do not feel like a visitor here. When my medicine is trampled by a cow herd, I am not a casual observer. When this land is threatened, I feel it intensely in my own body. I do not pity my Lover, I do not objectify Her as a wounded Other, nor do I attempt to force my will or desires upon Her.
I fully honor Her wisdom, resiliency, and power to accept or reject my advances. I do not pretend that she is ultimately benevolent or at all interested in my happiness. She has been here long before me and will be here long after… I am not the apex predator here. As I fall deeper in love with this place, I am called to gather with others under the light of the full moon and worship Her through ceremony, song, and invocation…
Hail, Goddess of Weeds, Wolves, and Women who Bleed
We call you in from your dark and wild places
From your waiting place by the River
From the shadows of our own bodies
Welcome, Goddess of Water and Shadow
Milky white petals unfurling only for your dark beloved
Silent night-huntress of the weak and inattentive
She whose body flows through mine
All flows from you and all will return to you
The honored one and the scorned one
The whore and the holy one
The mother and the daughter
The mountain and the canyon
The river and the rain
As our bodies gather here before you
We return your water to you
We offer our bones to you
We reach our taproots down and declare our love for you
May you run wild and free
Through our bodies and through this land
May your water flow
Through our bodies and through this land
May violence and scarcity visit those who harm you
Through our bodies and through this land
May vitality and abundance visit those who serve you
Through our bodies and through this land
(to the Moon and the Goddess) May it be so
(to the Mountain, Water, and non-human world) May it be so
(to each other) May it be so
(to my body) May it be so