Our Garden

Since we haven’t been able to go anywhere at weekends during the lockdown, we’ve been very busy in the garden. We’ve also seen lots of birds (cardinals, robins, a woodpecker, chickadees, and mourning doves) and squirrels (both black and grey) in the garden.

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What we have in common

I dreamed that I was in an Anglican or Episcopalian Church in North America and had been invited by the vicar to introduce a hymn. She handed me the order of service which already had a hymn picked out, and it had been annotated to change “him” to “her”, so I introduced it and encouraged people to sing “her” where appropriate if they wanted to. One of the congregation said they didn’t really know the tune for that hymn. So then I suggested we sang Morning has broken and changed “him” to “her” in the second verse, and “God’s” to “Her” in the third verse. Then I woke up.

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Water, water everywhere

I am currently sitting beside Lake Erie (Erielhonan), or in Ojibwe, Waabishkiigoo-gichigami (Neutrals’ Sea), or Aanikegamaa-gichigami (Chain of Lakes Sea).

Lake Erie is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. The surface area of the Great Lakes is about the same as the surface area of the British Isles (a statistic I’ve often quoted to impress the sheer size of Canada upon my fellow English people).

Despite Canada (1) possessing the largest body of fresh water in the world, a significant percentage of the original inhabitants of this northern area of Turtle Island (2) do not have running water in their homes.

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Stephen Fry, burrowing insects, and lions and tigers and bears

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses' skin and infests the horse's intestines.

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses’ skin and infests the horse’s intestines. (Wikipedia)

Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?

But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.

Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).

Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.

Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of  “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.

The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.

Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)

The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.

Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.

Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.

The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.

Art, Agriculture, and Ancestors

Patheos Pagan is hosting a conversation about honoring the ancestors this month. I didn’t write anything for it, having no established practice to speak of. More truthfully, the whole concept challenges me.

The relatives I’ve lost (thankfully few) weren’t a very spiritual bunch. They lived deeply in this world. I honor them best by enjoying good food, good friends, and remembering to appreciate the small beauties of each passing day.

As for ancestors of the land, having just passed “Indigenous People’s Day” (which is still known as Columbus Day in much of the nation), I have at best uneasy relationship with this idea. Who am I to assume that the ancestors of this place called Wisconsin, called the USA, welcome my attempts to reconcile with them? They might well be furious—at the genocide and displacements of their people, at the ignorance with which we carved up and plowed into the land, at the disrespect we show to their descendants, even now, in how we treat both the peoples and the land. I would like to believe some sort of connection is possible, but I don’t think I’ve yet put in the work and time that would make this an honest effort. At best, I can bow my head, and promise to try to listen, to teach my children how to listen.

***

But there is a ritual pilgrimage my family makes in October each year.

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Traveling about an hour up the road, the town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin serves as host to a ten-day Fermentation Festival, celebrating all things fermented, from compost to chocolate to kimchi to beer. And as part of this celebration, each year arising out of the farm fields in a 50-mile loop, the Farm Art DTour.

People come from as far away as the Twin Cities and Chicago to drive the loop, stopping at the installations—some of them by professional artists, others by the farm families that own the land, local 4H groups, and some pop ups from local artisans and neighbors. We move as pilgrims through the rural landscape, stopping at each station to read, consider, pause, interact, take pictures, try the food.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

It’s always a profound experience for me to see so many people spend a day visiting art of all kinds, driving through the autumn fields. The DTour ties together agriculture, culture, art, food, history and land. This year, the very first stop was a new sign with this text:

 

Wanąğomįk cinąk

The native inhabitants of this area were called Winnebago by the neighboring Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1993 the tribe reclaimed their original name of Ho-chunk, or “People of the Sacred Language.” Reedsburg has long held a respected place in the history of the Ho-chunk. In the winter of 1893 the citizens of Reedsburg stood up to the US Government military in order to protect the Ho-chunk from the decimation of the forced removal from their homelands. Due to the large number of church-sponsored cemeteries or final resting places located in Reedsburg, the Ho-chunk refer to the city as Wanagomjk cinak, or land of cemeteries.

 

The words washed over me like cool water, reminding me that history is always more complex than the stories we learn (no matter which stories we learn). That in every generation, peoples can work together in spite—or even because of—their differences. That respect and appreciation can grow anywhere. Maybe, just maybe, keeping in mind this piece of local history, I can begin to find my way to connecting with the ancestors of this place in a way that is respectful to them and honest to myself.

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

We drove on. Soon we came to a spiral labyrinth mowed into the corn, with signs along the way reminding us to “still your lips” “open your ears” “quiet your mind” “listen to the land…”

Listening Labyrinth

Listening Labyrinth

when we reached the center of this contemplative journey, there were stairs leading up to a platform that allowed us to see over the cornstalks, the view expanded in front of us to embrace the landscape. The metaphor was unmistakable.

One of my favorite aspects of the DTour is that it forces one to see the land, agriculture, and culture, anew. If this is art:

 

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

 

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

What about this?

 

Tractors, photo R. Busse

Tractors, photo R. Busse

And what about this?

 

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

How we find food, prepare it, share it, and how we honor our dead…these things may vary from generation to generation, from one culture to another, one region to another, but… we all do procure and share food together, and we all do honor our dead.

 

By the time we finished the loop and headed for home, we had enjoyed pork and sauerkraut sandwiches, Asian-inspired potstickers (including a macaroni-and-cheese version–this is Wisconsin, after all), fermented salsa, local chocolates. I felt my connection to this place reaffirmed and reframed—by returning to the land with a reverential attitude, I already begin to connect to the ancestors of this place, and in doing so, I reconnect more deeply to my own humanity.

Wealth, photo R. Busse

Wealth, photo R. Busse

 

With thanks to my husband, Reed Busse, for the photographs. My daughter insists that I use some of hers as well. Alas, she missed my deadline…so expect to see more DTour shots in upcoming essays.