?

Log in

pagan_articles

Article on urban paganism and questions of "nature"

next entry »
Feb. 23rd, 2007 | 09:53 pm
posted by: catsnstuff in pagan_articles

I'm the Urban Pagan, Baby by Yvonne Aburrow. From her homepage - http://www.handstones.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/yewtree/ - which features the very cool Pagan Theologies Wiki.

A brief article, arguing that Urban Paganism is possible and equally as desirable as "moving to the country" (as the article she is responding to suggests). She begins to conceptualise what such urban Paganism could look like, her ideas involving beautifying and "greening" cities.

Link | Leave a comment | Share

Comments {13}

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 24th, 2007 12:05 am (UTC)
Link

The main thing I noticed when reading this article was how it touches on the idea of "nature".

The very proposition that as members of a "nature" religion we should leave the cities and towns to go out to live in "nature" ignores the metropolitan roots of modern Paganism as well. Ms Aburrow mentions the importance of the industrial revolution - that people felt they had lost their connection with nature. This is often seen as one of the driving forces towards the Romantic aesthetic - (and here I'm thinking particularly of England, as I'm not so sure about other countries) people flooded into cities which quickly became very dirty, loud, unpleasant places and Nature was seen as a counter to this. It came to be seen as a place of spiritual replenishment and connection - the wilder and more untamed the better. Yet Claudia Bell and John Lyall mention an additional influence in the growing appreciation of wild nature:

'A decrease in the actual danger of the experience of wild nature is one explanation for this shift in attitude. Trains were safer and a more comfortable mode of transport than stagecoaches; and new maps helped one find one's way.'*

The further back in English history you go, the less comfortable in their technology and ability to preserve onself from it, the more "nature", especially the idea of untouched, wild nature, is feared or seen as a threat, not welcome solace. I'm not sure how universal this is, but found the following quote concerning Indonesia a few days ago when reading about something else:

"In this sense the Javeanese peasants - although many Dutchmen called them "children of nature" - were not much different from peasants and farmers throught history, in whatever part of the world: they feared and often hated "wild" nature, and they expected their rulers to do something about it". **

My point and hope is that such statements relativise our views on nature, and perhaps draw attention to ways in which these views might influence our perception, as Pagans, of non-Western or ancient societies. We have a life expectancy greater than any other historical civilisation in the world, water and medicine are treated as rights, and we don't need to worry about starving to death. This is bloody unique, and I would argue, most definitely shapes to a degree our experience of the universe, nature, and ourselves.

So yes, we can decide to go and live in the countryside if we want to. We can choose. We will probably get there by car. Our ideas about how to go about our farming business will probably be influenced by books or the internet. And in doing so, we will know that if we break our bones when kicked by a cow, or catch some kind of nasty disease, there will be rescue helicopters and ambulances to take us to care. If we have a lean year and whatever we are growing is insufficient to feed us, we can buy supplies from the store down the road. We may be getting back to nature, but civilisation is there as a safety-net in the background. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but it's only honest to aknowledge that it is there.

Reply | Thread

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 24th, 2007 12:46 am (UTC)
Link

[Contd - bloody small "comment" allowances]

This is not to say we don't need nature, if we take "nature" to mean "not controlled by people", or that trying to get in touch with it can't make us better people in real ways. Nature is certainly an important part of my spiritual practice. I feel it is important to ground our lives in this and learn about it, lest we get too arrogant and feel that we can control everything. Nature has a lot to teach us - about how it influences us in ways we may not even notice, its dazzling complexity and diversity. Although inevitably we will project our human values onto it, in many ways nature seems worth observing to simply because it is not entirely controlled by humans - to glean what feels like more grounded, more honest, more proven-by-time insights into our lives and how the world could work with or without us. Although people have influenced this also, in many cases nature seems to have its own savage equilibrium and slow adaptive change that seems more trustworthy than human thought which has and could take us, well, anywhere. Perhaps to dangerous places, if we don't watch it. And it is undeniable that, for a person in the 21st century, most nature feels good to be around. It feels different, and difference is often needed.

To my mind, the crucial point is this - I believe a more honest assement of our relationship to nature, what it is and how we see it, can help us determine how we are to relate to it in the future in a more responsible and useful manner. Some ideas of nature, such as "nature is a great force that will balance everything out", may have disastrous consequences in that our very real effects on the planet may go unchecked as we wait for this balance to fix them. Perhaps not as drastically, fleeing permanently from the human to "anything not-human" doesn't seem very progressive, doesn't seem constructive to making humanity itself better and the human-influenced world a better place.

Ms Aburrow makes what seems to me an excellent point when she notes that technology can bring many benefits to the world but it depends on how we use it. Her idea of making cities more beautiful and sustainable places seems a pertinent and useful one. This, I think, is one of the more useful ways of relating to nature within paganism and wider society. Not fleeing to it, but respecting it, allowing it space, and drawing inspiration from it to make the world that we live in a better place however we can.

*Bell, C and Lyall, J. 2002. The Accelerated Sublime: Landscape, Tourism, and Identity. Prager: London. P. 8.
** Boomgard, P. 1997. "Indtroducing environmental histories of Indonesia", in Paper landscapes: Explorations in the Environmental History of Indonesia, P. Boomgard; F Colombijn and D Henley (eds). Leiden : KITLV Press. P 17.

Reply | Parent | Thread

(no subject)

from: diogenes_stone
date: Feb. 24th, 2007 10:08 am (UTC)
Link

As just about anyone who knows me knows, the topic of urban paganism is one of my favourite themes of discussion so its tres kewl that the first article under discussion is on this subject.

Having just read Natalie’s response, I find myself saying “damn, I wanted to say that” over and over again. Rather than rewording and repeating what she said, I’ll just make some other comments in a more haphazard manner.

As one of her points, Aburrow talks about alienation being a major motivation in the idealization of nature, but its not just a result of the Industrial Revolution. Natalie mentioned the Javanese peasants, which put me in mind of Rousseau and his Enlightenment era view on the ‘noble savage’. Perhaps it was more simply an urbanization issue rather than industrialization per se- city dwellers were enamored with nature’s beauty, even as the reality of life on the land receded from their view.

In regards to the idealization of nature, I can remember some classes in Medieval English in which the idea of the garden was discussed as a symbolic theme in medieval literature, specifically Arthurian legends. The important point was that untamed nature was a hostile and dangerous place- and a place of quests, testing and adventure. The garden, however, was nature tamed, a place that mediated between courtly civilization and the ‘perilous forest’. But as importantly, the garden was a place that only the courtiers had access to and all gardens were a reflection of the perfect garden in Eden.

To a large extent I think modern pagans, including Aburrow, have bought into these conceptions of nature (or at least have been profoundly influenced by them). Lip service may be paid to the trials and tribulations of drought, flooding, infestations and long drudging hours, but without actual experience of those tribulations it all remains and abstract exercise. In short, nature has been sanatised.

It is this sanatisation which is at the root of Aburrow (and others) insistence that a nature-based paganism still retains meaning in an urban environment. Aburrow talks about the enjoyment and pleasure she gets walking in the park and cites that as part of the nature-experience available to urban pagans. However, what she seems to miss is that a walk in the park, while it may be inspirational and good exercise, is largely a passive and passing encounter. Even gardening in an allotment does not significantly engage you with the natural cycle as there is a lack of any real reliance on the garden and it is simply too physically small for the different natural cycles and microsystems found in the country to come into play.

In short, I think Aburrow underestimates the importance that experience plays in spirituality and she, like many others, feels that you can synthesize the experience that being embedded in the land brings you. In this I have to profoundly disagree.

Of course, there are other conceptions of paganism which decentralises the ecocentric paganism that Aburrow seems to be primarily referring to, but they are a different kettle of fish.

Nature: accept no substitute.

Reply | Thread

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 25th, 2007 11:15 am (UTC)
Link

I had no idea - what a lovely coincidence. :)

I agree that our idea of nature is santitised. Absolutely there is no real substitute for experiencing such infestations, drudging hours, etc. But, what can we do about this, or what should we do about it?

I'm reminded of some debates concerning political issues (especially class and ethnicity-related ones), where it is pointed out in a critical manner that the people doing much of the theorising and planning are reasonably well-off, well-educated, often white, and just don't know what it's like, man. With both debates, when thinking about them, I can't help feeling a little bit of sneaking embarrasment at being a middle-class white girl who can afford the luxury of higher education and sitting at a computer in a comfortable room, pondering about such things in my spare time.

But, what's to be done about it? Give everything away and go live on a farm in some poor, drought-stricken country for a while? Live like the Amish? (!)

Personally, such enormous lifestyle changes are a little beyond where I'm willing to go for understanding (although all respect to those who are willing to do such things). I'd like to think there is a middle ground for Pagans such as myself who want to live in the modern world and work on that for a while. And, wouldn't following such a line of thought end up back to the idea that to be a real member of a nature-based sprituality one has to go live on a farm somewhere?

As with research, I think an awareness of and acknowledgement of one's positionality would be an important early step to accomodating the issue constructively. Beyond that, perhaps such things could be at least partially tacked with at least an awareness of what we don't experience ("paying lip-service" is at least acknowledgement that nature isn't some cruisy arcadia, and researching what is actually involved may bring an intellectual knowledge that is surely better than nothing), and doing what we can to experience nature as we are willing to encounter it.

(Now, of course, comes the dangerous part of such fun discussion - where I feel guilty and think "I had really better get off my ass and do something beyond spouting-off, shouldn't I?". ;))

I believe that the nature we encounter in the city is better than nothing, and knowledge still contribute to our lives even if it isn't the full-blown hit-you-over-the-head awareness that some may live. For example, I don't even have a garden, but do grow herbs in planter boxes on the balcony of my apartment. As my Mum smugly pointed out to me when my planter boxes, thought to be safe at a few metres above the ground, got suddenly invaded by snails and insects - "yes, Natalie, that's nature!" *grin*. I've also recently acquired a nest of paper-wasps that decided to take up residence on my white sage, and after a quick internet search to make sure they wouldn't attack me, I've been watching them as well. Unexpected new knowledge, certainly!

There are of course other conscious things one can do to get more first-hand understanding of the natural world - gardening, trips to the bush, seasonal celebrations, etc. Like a general interested reader as opposed to a trained specialist the field, my knowledge of nature as an urban Pagan will be no doubt more limited than that of my country counterparts, and I'm sure will be more likely to be swayed by popular myths and opinions, also. I'm willing to live with that, focus on my own practice/path instead, and consider such little knowledge and interest to be better than none at all.

Those are my tentative suggestions, in any case. How would you negotiate such things? You mentioned an interest in Urban Paganism - what other conclusions/thoughts have you come to?

Reply | Parent | Thread

(no subject)

from: diogenes_stone
date: Feb. 26th, 2007 12:39 am (UTC)
Link

I'm reminded of some debates concerning political issues (especially class and ethnicity-related ones), where it is pointed out in a critical manner that the people doing much of the theorising and planning are reasonably well-off, well-educated, often white, and just don't know what it's like, man.

The great irony of popular revolutions- a lot of them are instigated by the elites. The way I look at it is that the development of (for the sake of labelling it something for ease of discussion, lets call it) ‘Revolutionary’ ideologies is a dialogue between the theorists and those who are affected by it. The theorists (the ‘elites’) may not know what its like, man- but they do know an injustice when they see it. Usually theorists have a breath of scope that the affected do not, but the affected have the actual experience. Ideally a dialogue develops- the theorists listen to what the affected are saying, think about it, discuss it and their ideas filter back down. The affected listen to those ideas and seize upon what they, in their experience, consider to be useful and utilise them. The theorists then look and listen and modify their ideas based on what is actually happening to them, which trickle back down again. Of course, it usually comes unstuck and the theorists try and impose an ideal, and not practical, structure whereas the affected get pissed off with the theorists riding on their back- the aftermath of the French and Russian Revolutions being classic examples.

With both debates, when thinking about them, I can't help feeling a little bit of sneaking embarrasment at being a middle-class white girl who can afford the luxury of higher education and sitting at a computer in a comfortable room, pondering about such things in my spare time.

I think I lost my white middle-class guilt a while ago and as a class/ethnicity I personally believe our contribution to the world far outweighs our undoubted evils. We have been given the advantage of the luxury of being able to ponder things, and so we should- the crime is not that we have the luxury but rather that we do not use that luxury to examine our place in the world. Intellectuals have always been in the vanguard of revolutions, and/or its first victims.

I agree that our idea of nature is santitised. Absolutely there is no real substitute for experiencing such infestations, drudging hours, etc. But, what can we do about this, or what should we do about it?

I really don’t know. I can’t even fully get to grips with what the actual nature of the ‘problem’ really is- all I know is that the idea that you have nature-worshippers in the city seems, well, unnatural. Is that simply my issue or is it a systemic dissonance within modern paganism? Or both?

My stream of consciousness reaction is “You want to get back to nature, yet you don’t actually want to. Then what are you relating to? What is the basis of your belief? A romantic image? An image of reality that you are deliberately cutting yourself off from and not engage in to any deep extent? Does that mean that urban (nature-based) paganism is based on a priori expectations and ideals and therefore no more than fantasy-fulfilment trip (and is that any different to any other religious modality)? What, fundamentally, is the point of dressing eco-awareness up in religious clothing outside of feel-gooding and emotional gratification?”

But those are simply questions which may or may not be able to be answered, but certainly have no solutions to.

I certainly agree that a mass exodus into the country is simply silly, and also the idea of a thought police going around and saying “no, you can’t believe in that unless you live on more than 50 acres of land” is far from desirable. Like I said, questions with no solutions.

Reply | Parent | Thread

(no subject)

from: diogenes_stone
date: Feb. 26th, 2007 12:41 am (UTC)
Link

And, wouldn't following such a line of thought end up back to the idea that to be a real member of a nature-based sprituality one has to go live on a farm somewhere?

However, ultimately I have to agree with that idea, I’m afraid. But I would add that there is nothing to stop a person venerating nature in the middle of Tokyo, but for me the big thing with the Western esoteric tradition is one of its goals is to establish a dialogue between us and the big IT. In the city, I believe nature veneration to be essentially a one-way street with little return traffic as the opportunities for nature to teach you about itself is much, much more limited. It may be there, but its distant, muffled and partial.

There are of course other conscious things one can do to get more first-hand understanding of the natural world - gardening, trips to the bush, seasonal celebrations, etc.

Herein lies a bit of a rub. As I see it, the Great Lessons of Nature intimately involve your participation in a vast ecosystem. A lot of my beliefs are based on the idea that to learn from Nature (capital N) there has to be an element of putting yourself in her power. Gardening may teach you about nature, but not about Nature. Also, I believe that immersion and repetition are two of the keys to esoteric knowledge. Gardening is participating in a tiny ecosystem, and the smaller the ecosystem, the more control you have over it and the more control you exert, the less room there is for pagany stuff to happen. Its about give and take, which is found in larger ecosystems; not dominance, which is found in smaller ecosystems like gardens. Trips to the bush, while better than a walk in the park, are still very transitory. For most people who go, a trip to the bush is a walk that lasts for a handful of hours and while inspirational, is short-lived and fleeting. And, of course, seasonal celebrations are man-made constructs and as representations of nature depend more on the people who write and perform them than they do with nature itself.

Those are my tentative suggestions, in any case. How would you negotiate such things?

“Buggered if I know” is the short and simple answer. I love to discuss (and argue) the issue, but only because by doing so I hope to work towards resolving it to my own satisfaction.

I am not saying anyone is wrong if they are urban-based nature-orientated pagans, those are just my questions I have around the topic- and something that has got a lot to do with my own transition from a rural life to and urban life and me finding *gasp* that life in the city is different to what I grew up with. Just for the record, I have never considered myself a nature-based pagan, despite my love for the country and the huge influence living in the country has played in the way I view the world, including my spirituality.

Reply | Parent | Thread

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 26th, 2007 03:33 am (UTC)
Link

And, of course, seasonal celebrations are man-made constructs and as representations of nature depend more on the people who write and perform them than they do with nature itself.

*nod* I was thinking more of the process of continually performing such things, rather than the rituals themselves. I've never been big on the year-long seasonal myths, and what I do changes every time. Despite this, I've found the process of doing something every month and a half to create a background to pin experiences and memories to. They re-focus my awareness, and I notice the way that the air changes, what the street-side trees are doing, what the weather's up to and what effect this has on me, more every year, every time. Better, I feel such things at a gut level without searching for them. This seems worthwhile.

I bow to your superior experience with the "repetition and immersion" point. It seems worth considering in perhaps a more active manner. The nature vs Nature thing is also interesting, and worth thinking about more. Thanks. :)

I remembered, last night, about all of the other ways one can experience nature (little "n"... perhaps) now through technology. I know what a hurricane looks like from space, and I have the information about why at my fingertips. I can mentally engage with tiny, tiny things or great big far away ones, and get additional information that in some ways can help me appreciate how incredibly awesome such things are. Perhaps one could say that it makes possible a "breath of scope that the affected [often] do not, but the affected have the actual experience"?
(To refer to your above post with what may perhaps be some useful parallels that could offer some points toward negotiating this.)

Reply | Parent | Thread

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 26th, 2007 05:15 am (UTC)
Link

Hmm, had better clarify that I'm not thinking of "elites", which would be very arrogant, but simply that different people may contribute to understanding in different ways.

Reply | Parent | Thread

(no subject)

from: diogenes_stone
date: Feb. 26th, 2007 12:41 am (UTC)
Link

You mentioned an interest in Urban Paganism - what other conclusions/thoughts have you come to?

Having lived and/or worked in the country for most of my life and now living in the ‘burbs of H-Town, to me there is a rather noticeable shift in the perception of energy during ritual. Of course, what follows is all from a rather personal perspective and I am still trying to disentangle my own expectations and other psychosomatic influences out of the equation, but it seems to me that energy raising is different in the city than it is in the country. Out in the country, standard quasi-Gardnerian style ritual can be, I think, quite effective in drawing a bit of zing whereas in the city it doesn’t seem to be particularly efficient at it. I am not saying that it doesn’t work, just that it doesn’t work as well. A couple of reasons have sprung to mind as the reason for this observation.

• Its my own expectations being played with
• I haven’t made the adjustment to urban life fully/properly
• Out in the country you have room and privacy to be expressive and thus ‘commit’ to the ritual more freely
• Nature, by its very nature, is a source of energy. The more nature around you, the more energy is easily tapped
• The paradigm of the ritual is nature-based, so the environment reflects the construct, which has got to be good.
• (this one is difficult to articulate the full sense of what I mean) Nature-based ritual looks at emplacing you in the natural environment, by having no walls around you and being able to look for kilometres around you and up into the sky, you get the sense of embeddedness. If there are walls around you, your vision and sense of vision/scope is cut off and you are, literally, detached from nature.

Alternatively, pagany rituals I have been involved with in town have either been inside or in back-yards (with the ubiquitous neighbour-over-the-fence). Of course there is nothing wrong with ritual-working in cities, but the interesting thing is that the hermetic groups I have been involved in, which are all city-based, can raise some spectacular charges- but they have a different paradigm, not the least of which is that they are introspective- rather than paganism’s extrospection. Curiously enough, in my experience, Hermetic-style rituals don’t work anywhere near as well outdoors as they do indoors. I rather suspect that walls are the critical factor- Hermeticists need walls to keep themselves focussed inwards, whereas pagans need no walls to keep themselves focussed outwards.

Anyway, as a result I am slowly trying to understand how to develop a ritual which retains the distinctly pagan feel about it but at the same time is better at raising energy. Yay for working with people who let me experiment.

Anyway, enough bandwidth- work calls so I shall galliva

Reply | Parent | Thread

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 26th, 2007 03:50 am (UTC)
Link

Thanks so very much for sharing your experiences and musings. :) Your insights on paradigms were particularly interesting, and I suspect could only come from someone with your particular set of experiences (or at least, could be confirmed, not conceptualised).

I must admit, some of my memorable early rituals out in more natural places had been influenced by my own expectations in the converse way - I had all these expectations that everything would feel a lot more intense and special, and so had difficulty actually mentally shutting up and getting in touch with what was actually there. I suspect this would be a real danger for Urban Paganism - letting our cultural expectations go a bit too crazy, unchecked by honest feeback. Perhaps also, not being as bound to the consequences of our interractions? I'm thinking of a Pagan Fest I went to a few years back where people came and soaked up the lectures and rhetoric, yet where there was quite a bit of rubbish left behind, also.

Anyhow, I know you're very busy at the moment. Thanks again for your thoughts. :) Perhaps, at least for me, they should be mulled over for a while.

Reply | Parent | Thread

catsnstuff

(no subject)

from: catsnstuff
date: Feb. 25th, 2007 11:15 am (UTC)
Link

P.S. Yes, I was thinking of the idea of "noble savage" when thinking about how our ideas of nature, if not recoginised as specific to us, could be projected onto all sorts of "native peoples" and "ancients" who wouldn't recognise them and may not approve of them. I don't know enough about many cultures to informedly comment on if there are any trends in how such societies view nature or wilderness, or indeed, if they even have such concepts, but am willing to bet money that each society would see the natural world differently and this wouldn't be how many Westerners romantically imagine they do. If there are any anthropologists watching, I'd love to hear from them!

Reply | Parent | Thread

yewtree

(no subject)

from: vogelbeere
date: Jun. 26th, 2007 04:44 pm (UTC)
Link

Nice to see some in-depth discussion about this - when the article has been discussed elsewhere, a lot of people totally got the wrong end of the stick.

I'm not sure if I actually do have an idealised view of Nature, I think that's a bit harsh. I'm all too aware of its redness in tooth and claw.

The point I was trying to make in the article was that nature and the countryside are wonderful, but the people that live there might not be. And civilisation, despite its discontents, isn't as bad as it's cracked up to be either. And most countryside in the UK isn't real wilderness, either. And it seems a bit ironic for people to drive hundreds of miles in their cars for a ritual that's supposed to be about communing with nature.

Also, the article was intended to point out that cities could be a lot better than they are (think buildings by Rodney Matthews and lots of gardens). We shouldn't just give up on cities and let them become dirty smelly polluted places.

Yvonne Aburrow

Reply | Thread

Returning To Our Pagan Roots

from: anonymous
date: Aug. 5th, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC)
Link

HI
Great place here, I hope you dont mind but I thought you might be interested in reading an article I wrote at http://www.squidoo.com/oldways.
Check it out and leave feedback.
Many thanks
Two Hawks

Reply | Thread