Anna Walther is one of my favorite pagans. I say that because she consistently reminds me what being pagan is all about.
Most recently, it was in her essay, “Walking with my Dog is my Most Sacred Practice”. There, Anna explains that her most sacred practice involves no ritual paraphernalia, no casting of a circle, no calling the quarters, but simply walking through her neighborhood with her dog, Poe. Because she walks with Poe, explains Anna, she knows what phase the moon is in, when the trees are leafing and the flowers are blooming, when the birds and bats return, and what her neighbors are about. In short, she knows when and where she is.
“I experience a sense of place and belonging, when Poe and I walk through our neighborhood. I’m grounded, connected, and relating with intention to the human and more-than-human world around me. I’m aware that the very real world of spirits is here, right now, and not somewhere else, far away. This is it!, to borrow a Zen Buddhist proverb. To experience this world as radically alive, all I have to do is keep walking and pay attention.”
Anna reminds me that being pagan is about being here, now. But more than that, it’s about loving here, now. Buddhist philosophy and practice have never really resonated with me. It’s about paying attention too. But for me, Buddhism too ascetic. Too serene. I prefer Dionysus dancing to the Buddha sitting. I want passion. I want vitality. The passion and vitality of being alive in this moment and in this place.
There’s a human tendency to look for our answers everywhere except where we already are. This is true in contemporary Paganism as well. Historically, there’s been a lot of esotericism/occultism mixed in with contemporary Paganism, the idea that there is secret (occult=”hidden”) knowledge only available to the initiated (esoteric=”inner circle”).
But I think the greatest secret of paganism is an open one. As Lester Mondale as written about the “practical mysticism” of Emerson, “far from being fogged behind seven veils of Rosicrucian obscurity and centered in the inmost sphere of taboo and sanctity,” pagan spirituality is rather “as common and yet as enigmatical as a dandelion”. It’s a secret only to the extent that we’re not paying attention.
This seems to be the great “mystery” of many religious traditions in fact. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” It’s so simple, and yet profound. So obvious, but so easy to miss. Religions keep complicating it with great systems of thought and interposing intermediaries between us and it. But the mystics of the world’s religions, mystics like Martin Buber, call us back to the direct, unmediated experience:
“There is something that can only be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfillment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.
“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realization of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, fulfilled existence, that, as it were, it passes true existence by. We nevertheless feel the deficiency at every moment, and in some measure strive to find—somewhere—what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or of the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set—but it is there and nowhere else that the treasure can be found.
“The environment which I feel to be the natural one, the situation which has been assigned to me as my fate, the things that happen to me day after day, the things that claim me day after day—these contain my essential task and such fulfillment of existence as is open to me. It is said of a certain Talmudic master that the paths of heaven were as bright to him as the streets of his native town. Hasidism inverts the order: It is a greater thing if the streets of a man’s native town are as bright to him as the paths of heaven. For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of the hidden divine life.
“If we had power over the ends of the earth, it would not give us that fulfillment of existence which a quiet devoted relationship to nearby life can give us. If we knew the secrets of the upper worlds, they would not allow us so much actual participation in true existence as we can achieve by performing, with holy intent, a task belonging to our daily duties. Our treasure is hidden beneath the hearth of our own home.“
— Martin Buber, The Way of Man
“A quiet devoted relationship with nearby life.” That’s a beautiful description of what I have been seeking in the word “pagan”.
It’s not surprising to me that I should find such insight from non-Pagans like Buber. I have realized for a while now that what I’ve been calling (small-p) “pagan” isn’t to be found exclusively, or even reliably, in nominally “Pagan” spaces. The most pagan experiences I have had didn’t happen during inside a ritual circle. They had nothing to do with the things I have read about in most Pagan books or on most Pagan blogs or most of the things talked about in workshops at Pagan conferences or in Pagan online forums. They certainly didn’t have anything to do with the things I could buy in Pagan shops or under vendor tents at Pagan festivals. They aren’t the kinds of things that self-described Pagans can lay exclusive claim to.
As I wrote a while back, When I talk about “pagan” with a small-p …
“I’m talking about standing on a rocky shore of the Pacific ocean, the breakers crashing below me, the wind whipping my hair and caressing my skin, and a great inarticulate shout of joy welling up from somewhere deep in me. I’m talking the exultation of a demanding hike up the side of a mountain and feeling the inexplicable compulsion to build a rock altar at the top.
“I’m also talking about more common experiences, like laying in the grass in the summer and letting the my skin drink in the sun and the air until it it spills out of me in a semi-articulate prayer of thanksgiving. I’m talking about the sacrament of eating a ripe mango and letting the juice drip unself-consciously down my face. I’m talking about experiencing sweaty, passionate sex in the candlelit dark as an act of worship, worship both of my partner and of the Holy Body that we are all a part of.
“And I’m also talking about rituals which arise without effort, naturally, as a result of contact with the Holy Body of the earth. I’m talking about pouring libations and feeling my sense of sensual connection with the world restored, the stream of liquid becoming a living connection between myself and the earth. I’m talking about the simplest of gestures, like raising my hands toward the sun, as instinctual, and yet powerful, rituals for re-enchanting the world.”
This is what I call “backyard paganism”. It takes the “nature religion” label seriously, where “nature” means, not some romanticized capital-N “Nature”, but what is right outside your door, right under your feet. It involves practices which help to us to root ourselves in the immediate, specific place where we dwell.
In addition to Anna Walther, several other contributors here at HP have written about their experience of this kind of “backyard paganism”. Bart Everson, for example, has written here about the sacred acts of making vegetable stock and baking bread. M.J. Lee has written about the spirituality of composting. And I have written here before by sacralizing seemingly mundane experiences, like my first conscious breath of air when I wake, the sight of the sun rising in the east in the morning through my bathroom window, the feeling of the hot water flowing from my shower head, and the feeling of dirt under my fingers when I step out the door in the morning and bend down to touch the earth. This is a kind of paganism which everyone has access to.
Frequently over the years, I have defined paganism by contrasting it with Christianity. But there have been occasions when I found paganism in nominally Christian spaces, for example, at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian festival in the hills of western North Carolina, or books by Christian authors, like Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith .
Some of my favorite writers are pagan, or pagan-adjacent, like Ruby Sara, Alison Leigh Lily, and of course Anna Walther. But many of my most reliable guides to being pagan aren’t self-described Pagans at all, like Annie Dillard, John Steinbeck, John Muir, and Mary Oliver. Writers like Anna Walter and Annie Dillard don’t just engage my mind. When I read their words, I hear the earth calling to me, tugging at my body, at my flesh and blood and bones. I don’t think reading is part of being pagan. But when I read these writers, I feel almost physically pulled into the space that I call “pagan”.
And that place is always here. And it is always now.
And I have to wonder, why does so much of contemporary Paganism try to take me somewhere else? How is it that a Christian festival (admittedly a unique Christian festival) can seem more pagan than a Pagan conference? Part of it surely has to do with the fact that the Christian festival was outdoors and the Pagan conference was in hotel conference center. But even beyond that, so much of contemporary Paganism seems disconnected from the here and now. All the candles and crystals, circles and correspondences, cauldrons and costumes (some of which I do like) seem like a distraction, one which threatens to draw me away from everything I recognize as pagan …
… away from that quiet devoted relationship to nearby life.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.