This is the first of what I intend to make a recurring feature: reviews of books that matter to me as a Wiccan. Some of them will be Pagan books, some not; all of them will be related to how I study and practice my spirituality. I hope the reviews can expand your thinking, help you decide what books you want to read in more detail, and be generally informative and interesting.
Starhawk. The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature. HarperCollins, 2004. Paperback, 230 pages.
True to its name, this book focuses on the “earth-based” part of Neo-Paganism as a group of earth-based religions. Starhawk has integrated her decades of Goddess worship with the experience she’s gained in ecological activism and practice. The result is something I might call Spiral Dance for the Ecologically-Minded. In fact, she says up front that her thinking has evolved in that direction: “For me, now, the Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that underlie the living world.” (5)
The twelve chapters are organized into an introduction, discussion of the problems facing a world disconnected from its natural environment, and an approach to spirituality focused on nature that might be a healthier, holier, and wholer world. The second half (which contains the majority of the pages) takes a circle approach, going through the four elements, and center, as if casting a circle. Each topic’s chapter is filled with writing on a variety of topics ranging from the personal – her own efforts to “green” her environment – to the practical – both environmentally-friendly suggestions, exercises, and rituals – to the overtly political discussion of activisim.
Starhawk’s approach to engaging with nature sounds simple: observation. In fact, much of the book is an exploration of how difficult this task is, once you realize that Starhawk means for us to observe nature on its own terms, not ours. We are encouraged to ask “How does this group of plants work together in this environment?” rather than notice “There’s a big enough rosemary bush for me to get the three tablespoons I need.” As in The Spiral Dance, Starhawk remains firmly focused on this goal, and provides a wealth of approaches to help readers shift their ways of thinking. Since changing consciousness is her definition of magic, I’d say that this book is an act of magic – and a generally successful one, at that.
At first, though, part of my reaction to this book was anger. It was a strange mix with the delight in her depth of observation and in the way she handled her subject. That anger tells me more about myself than it does about her book; that anger was rooted in fear, and in guilt. Her passion for swift and significant change is, I agree, justified by the worsening crisis of our environmental situation. But deep down, I know that she’s truly committed to what she’s saying, and her commitment runs deeper than a little superficial “greenwashing” of the same old patterns of thinking and behavior. Deep down, I’m afraid that the kind of change she wants to work for would mean changes in my life that I don’t know if I’m prepared to accept. It would mean changes that affect my comforts, my conveniences. And possibly it would mean changes that would make my life a little more dangerous, especially because of my particular health situation. That’s scary. Change is scary. It’s okay to be scared about it; what’s not okay is letting that fear turn me away from her message entirely. Starhawk is, in the best tradition of the Feri and the hedge witch and the feminist, those who live on the boundaries and often push them, calling out to us from over the edges of our normal experience and asking us to join her, or at least take steps in that direction.
Partially because of my own fears and susceptibility to eco-guilt, but partially for practical reasons, I wish she had spent more time engaging with the potential paths from the “here” of those of us not blessed with extensive gardens and a place to put a micro-hydro power generator to the “there” filled with those things. She claims that this book is addressed to urban Witches as well as rural ones, and that she doesn’t expect everyone to move to the countryside and grow their own food. But it is hard to avoid the implication that until we do at least some of that, we’re not “real” Witches or nature-worshippers.
Most of the exercises and rituals are about making that trip in a spiritual fashion; and that’s fine, because I did buy a book on Paganism, not a handbook on vermiculture or composting. On the other hand, Starhawk’s adherence to the idea that the personal is political makes it hard to imagine not getting wrapped up in practical action as well. There are other works on eco-conscious action, it’s true, and Starhawk also provides further resources for those who do want to get their very own worms. But the gap between that and what I can do in a deeply urban apartment is huge, and I find myself seriously challenged about how to integrate these ideals into my practice.
Starhawk explicitly rejects the idea that humans are a blight on the environment as well as the idea that humans are somehow separate from the environment and may exploit it. In trying to find a third way, she encourages individual action and the awareness that individual action alone will not be sufficient to make the necessary changes. Her sense of urgency and commitment to activism are hard to reconcile with her suggestion that progress towards a healthy relationship with the Earth be a “gradual, joyful process.” (36)
I do have to say, though, that it’s refreshing to see a Pagan author so deeply involved in the reality of nature. There are plenty of pagans who know more about the exotic gemstones available at the local Pagan store than about the ground under their feet, Pagans who can recite the magical properties of plants ad nauseam but haven’t so much as watered a houseplant, Pagans who are more concerned with developing astral projection skills than taking a walk in the park; all of them are seriously missing one of the major distinguishing features of Paganism. When a book instructs the budding Witch to ‘ask the plant’s permission’ before gathering herbs, there is usually no guidance given on how to recognize the difference between the plant’s opinion and my own desire to get the herb. Starhawk’s emphasis on integrating science and spirituality directly addresses that tendency towards self-absorption: “…like most Witches, I’ve always talked to tress. But now, when they talk back, I can assess whether what I’m hearing is truly their message or my own fantasies.” (5) As she says later, “Unless our spiritual practice is grounded in a real connection to the natural world, we run the risk of simply manipulating our own internal imagery.” (11)
Her discussion of frames and magic is particularly useful; the connection between changing an entire mental approach and magical working is even clearer here than in her more poetic description of “twilight consciousness” in Spiral Dance. Starhawk’s psychological approach to magic makes it easily integrated with scientific knowledge and approaches. This book contains some lovely examples of psychological magic, which have been designed with her usual expertise and obviously honed through trial runs in her classes. Her community-building exercises and elements of teaching nonviolent activism reflect her interests and activities. She develops at length the metaphor of group-building as fire-building: you need individuals who can be easily inflamed, you can’t drop a huge log or idea or task on a group when it’s still in its early stages, and so on.
Of interest to me personally is her excellent discussion of the issue of eating meat, starting about page 114. She clearly explains the position I have been working to articulate. I also appreciated her emphasis on working with the local Wheel of the Year, recognizing that it will be different in different ecologies; a little more discussion of the necessity of adapting these approaches to the local situation, and perhaps some ways to do that, would have been a great addition.
I do wonder how leading scientists would respond to her emphasis on the importance of cooperation, not just competition, in evolution and survival. In response to the typical modern focus on competition, she may have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, or perhaps just made her rhetoric so forceful in trying to get across a seldom-used viewpoint that it seems that way. This is, of course, similar to some critiques raised about the feminism of Spiral Dance. I am also a bit surprised that she does not dwell a little more on the importance of death in the process of evolution; that would seem a natural topic when discussing a faith that includes death in the range of experience, rather than setting it aside.
Finally, you simply can’t miss the paean to chlorophyll, in the form of a song to the tune of “O Tannenbaum.” “O chlorophyll, o chlorophyll / if we don’t love you, no one will…”
Each element discussion ends with a blessing, and so does the final chapter, “Healing the Earth.” The last blessing begins: “We give thanks for all those who are moved, in their lives, to heal and protect the earth, in small ways and in large.” (229) I give thanks for those people, and for Starhawk being moved to write this work. And regardless of the (hopefully constructive) criticism offered here, her effort – her magic – to change my consciousness has been successful. I admire her firm grounding in Nature, and her example of the possibilities for that path will influence my own path. I will face up to the challenge to improve my relationship with the natural world in both knowledge and action.