Dirt Sorcery I – Home
By Al Cummins
This is the first piece in a series about dirt and its magics: the works of the Earth itself, of foundation, of terroir, of foot-tracks, of land spirits, of the dead. Dirt as a magical materia arguably presents uniquely fierce resistances to monetising it. Dirts are overlooked allies, and they are what grassroots are grown from. The literally downtrodden.
I thought I’d be starting with a rundown of magical theories and occult operations concerning the gathering and usages of dirt. After all, I wanted to be practical – you know, grounded. But that’s not what the gnomes wanted. They wanted a true story of lived work. They wanted a journey about home. Seems a lot of earth elementals don’t see the difference between personal and political, between history and journeys. The land remembers.
Do not take the ground beneath you for granted. Trust me, I write this with smeared Safe Travel oil salving my soles halfway over the North Atlantic through severe turbulence. Swallowing my many guilts at the expense of travelling strapped to one of humanities’ thirstiest fossil fuel engines in order to embrace my sister and parents. To stand on the land of their home, my home for eighteen solid (and a whole bunch more part-time) years, five minutes down the road from the site of my birth. It has been the longest period apart from them I have ever spent.
We hadn’t planned for me to move to American lands this soon.
I had come because Love, because our hallowed anniversary, with a ticket back to Blighty and every intention of using it. Border-crossing and making a new home in the US is a complex, nail-biting, shadowy bureaucratic procedure. I had been warned by the blackshirted borderguard on this latest entry: you’ve done everything by the book, but we still don’t trust you – if you try this again, we’re bouncing you back. And when I did leave the country, we could face at least six months waiting for the correct paperwork to be done to let me return more permanently. And so, being magicians and all, a deal was cut and a shortcut opened up. I was damned if I was taking the alternative – spending half a year separated from my beloved. Just because our gods do, doesn’t always mean we can. Or should.
I had not been long on American shores before realising I would need some very specific dirts to assist me in being able to stay here. Fortunately, I had a guide. Having made the usual pocket change offering at an entrance to New York Below – coppers for Love – I rode the metal worms under Manhattan’s establishment to its southernmost shore. Blinking into a bracing November mid-day with a murmured thanks to the gnomes and the dead of the Subway, I navigated the bizarrely fenced-off miniature maze fortifying Castle Gardens, and rendezvoused with La Gitana. We had a very important Lady to meet.
Although we were visiting two islands very much a part of the Big Apple – indeed, it is not a stretch to say they are both historically and mythically foundational – the enclosed queues, tickets, bag searches, and metal detectors are most reminiscent of an airport. The Gitana and I unwind our twinsies keys from around our wrists, and hope security don’t ask what the empty mason jars are for. Nothing to declare but our genius loci.
When you live in a city, especially if you’re born there, a lot of the iconic destinations become part of the background. The City pulls a reverse magic-eye where the sharks and sailboats sink into flat swirl-static. The past is a foreign country: a lot of people never visit. Storied landmarks – born from the sweat, hopes, and wages of the locale’s ancestors – become mere spectacle, tourist trapezes to swing foreigners around and upend the hard rain of coinage. What’s beacon to the visitor is the old hat of the resident, brimming world-weary. But the beacon-light of those mythic locales and monuments often has a very real illuminating quality for meeting and dealing with the spirits of a place. And we were off to visit the biggest torch around.
In a boat full of foreigners – albeit tourists and not prospective immigrants – I could feel the keeling shift, felt us riding waves of more than just the New York Harbour. That which we had stretched out had caught an echo, and our current-writing was waking the trace of that historical, that underlying historic of so many journeys past. It’s all foot-track magic, when you get right down to it; I mean, eventually. The palimpsest, I told my Romany companion.
With my mouthed heart and stranger’s accent, with hopes of making a new home here, and with stray foreign currency still in back-pockets, under a flag of sky, She hove into view. She who welcomed the tempest-tossed. She who ushered in those yearning masses: the builders, the craftsmen, the servicemen and servicewomen, who built roads, schools, hospitals and undergrounds. The Lady of Liberty.
Hold fast. I am absolutely not here to magesplain to you how chintzy nationalism can be detourned. And I am certainly not here to persuade you to forget the mass graves of native genocide the United States are built on. There are no blank slates.
Someone was always here before you. And every land is a land of many stories, many kinds of story. Standing between a hope and a lie is a torch-bearing Lady, welcoming the restless and forgotten – Herself made in the image of a foreign mother – crowned in the diadem of the stars. And make no mistake: She has priests. Visit them. Listen to them tell Her stories of hopeful crossings, of proud bootstrapping, of making something of yourself, that old Dream. On pain of Paine, sometimes you can see tears in their eyes. American hearts, purpled, pierced with nine swords.
When the French donated the Statue, they neglected to spring for the plinth necessary to actually seat Her. So a fundraising campaign was waged, and its chief means? To market little Statues of Liberty. Not to tourists, mind, but to residents. To put it in terms of a Borges story (and why else would you practice magic?), the Lady of Liberty was called forth from idols, from the focused support and charity of those who, believing in a song of liberty, enthroned their conductress of its harmonies.
Liberty Island is also a former military base. They don’t really talk as much about that.
Every land is a land of many scars. The lesson in the lesion was clear: learn those stories, recognise the siren song, and remember to hear the voices of both those spoken of and not spoken of – those for which She was not the first hopeful glimpse or beckoning promise. Those who did not choose to come here, even by the forced choice of hunger. Those who were stolen. Remember. There is no such thing as the voiceless, only the unheard. And there are many kinds of journeys across great waters.
With respects paid and poured to the saints and shades of the isle – the designer, the sculptor, the poet, and, of course, the workers who hammered Her penny-thin form – we collected dirt from Her feet. Paid in foreign and local currency alike, we push coppers deep into the soil, plant them like seeds and the dead into the womb and tomb of soil. Pray that penniless shades may see their way across the waters.
I was lucky enough to have got to choose to be here, to be supported by so many that mean so much to me. And when in the newest Rome, you buy an overpriced postcard from the gift shop, right? Prior to being plinthed, various unassembled pieces of the Statue were displayed at fairs, with tickets to climb upon Her sold as a further means of raising funds. The postcard is a photograph: Her disembodied arm and torch, apparently emerging from the earth. A chthonic Ace of Wands.
If the beacon isle of the Lady was the land of rousing nationalist anthem, a scratchy old record of hopeful promises and inclusive opportunity gone yellow around the edges, and an American Dream awoken from like scratching gold fig leaf from lead weights and transatlantic chains, the next island was the home to the gated bureaucratic reality of immigration. The sorting hall. The staircase of assigned futures. The Old World’s afterlife, complete with pylons and passwords, judges and supplicants. Ellis Island.
Any magical practitioner worth their salt will tell you names have power. And this is a place of Lost Names: where beautiful native consonants were hacked into acceptable White mouths. Where people’s very selves were deloused, re-ordered, and made to measure up. A harrowing of Dantes becoming Dans.
Yet even here – in the midst of people chalked, weighed, and herded as cattle, stripped of land, tongue and the very name your mother called you by – there are places of compassion, hot points of Love Triumphant. At the foot of the staircase assigned to those whose admission to the US was approved (the left hand path, incidentally) is a place where love overcame even the most officious prods of state apparatus and would not be filed away, where shouts of joy overwhelmed administrators’ orders to move along. The spot became known as the Kissing Post, where families and lovers separated in crossing were reunited. Because even in the very bowels of dehumanising prison rules, there can be heartbeats of Love welcoming you back into eternal arms. One way or another. And besides. Falling in Love is punk as fuck.
Gathering dusts and laying our tricks, we eventually processed ourselves outside, where recent reparations of a sort have been undertaken, in the form of a wall of names which curves like time. Ancestral immigrants with my surname can be found there. Whether or not they are blood relatives is unimportant here – I bear the name of those who walked this path before me. George. Hannah. Louis and Anna. Margaret. Mary. Patrick. Patrick. Patrick Joseph. Thomas and Bridget. Thomas. Here at the crossroads gate to life in the United States, I pour liquors, sing prayers, whisper secrets, plant coins, and scrape dirts from corners, from footpaths, from the dusty cracks of steps.
When I wed my beloved on the First Day, the Gitana officiated. Amongst the many offerings and materia for the rites made to Our Scarlet Lady were dirts and dusts from these places. And so, in the city identified with the typical depiction of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we make and nurture our home and songs of our sacred dirts. Our carolled Gardens.
Al Cummins is an Anglo-Irish Midlander, necromancer, and occasional supply teacher. He’s just finished a PhD on early modern magic and the passions and moved to New York, and did both because Love. He mainly works goetia, grimoires, seventeenth-century England, hoodoo, and a pretty damn fine chana paneer jalfrezi.