We Are Not In Charge

From Judith O’Grady


I was at Pagan Brunch last Sunday (2nd, 4th and and any fifth Sundays at Busters in the West End of Ottawa, purveyors of classic breakfast. Come if you’re in the area.) and I realized that the other end of the table had drifted onto that Pagan chestnut ‘what animal would you be?’

Our end was discussing mob violence and the small number of people able to work inside consensus management—— ‘Rarely Speaks’ (who has some sociological background, I believe) asserted that the maximum number was 15, and ‘Cogent Thinker’ agreed. It seems small to me, but then it also supports the smallness of the Grove I am Senior Druid of….. I don’t know.

‘Talks a lot about her Boyfriend’ (you see how this works, I’m not good at remembering people’s names) wanted to be a wolf or tiger; ‘Admires the Irish’ wanted to be a hawk. I was too far away to enter into the discussion without shouting, but I laughed. It’s a trick question: the answer is “I would be a scantily-haired primate with an abnormally large brain”…..

Not that I’m all that gung-ho on primates in general or Homo sappy in specific; we’re a loud, vulgar, pushy bunch that tend to rank according to obnoxiousness. But that’s what I am, will-I nill-I. It’s what we all are and rather than complain about it or wish ourselves different we should (I feel) get going with the refinement of the raw material. For example, look at another trick question— “How can we protect women from being raped?” Change their clothes/ mandate group travel/ nighttime female curfew/ …….. “Stop raping them.”

Or, to look at a governmental kind of solution: I live in a country with Universal Health Care, so it would be extremely difficult for me to create more than one persona; the documentation necessary for just the one is voluminous.

My country also has and scrupulously maintains a registry of people prescribed dangerous drugs. At one point some years ago, my doctor peered at his computer (he too has a lot of paperwork and documentation requirements) and said, “You DO realize that you’re addicted to morphine, right?”

“Of course.” I responded. He nodded his head (box checked off) and we rolled on.

My sister lives in the United States. She has to go to the doctor’s office each month to obtain a month’s refill, sign a yearly ‘contract’ about drug abuse, participate in urine testing, listen to frequent harangues, and have her dose arbitrarily lowered. But she’s not the problem. In her country, though, she suffers through the ineffectual constraints that trouble her but leave the actual criminals untouched. In my country I’m not considered a problem—- although to be fair I must disclose that my son has warned me that if he finds me planning to jack up a gas station to buy street heroin he will forcibly restrain me.

What’s the message? Focus on the actual problem. Primates tend to group and rank. Violence is a part of that. But wait!! It’s not an integral part of the process.

Although we are in the primate family, we are not Baboons. Baboons have sufficient sexual dimorphism as to allow non-consensual sex, and actual fighting is a large part of their hierarchy system. Much as some humans admire these traits, we are genetically more like chimpanzees. They rely heavily on screaming and bluster for rank and (as has been discovered in the wake of advanced test methodology) the ‘alpha male’ is not actually the father of the majority of the baby chimps. The conciliatory good sharers and compliant groomers (who waste no time on posturing) actually have more offspring. Even they get the idea. But we are not even chimpanzees, close as they are. We are humans. The large brains, the tool-using, the transmission of culture, in the image of Jehovah: Are we the apex of the Earth’s Children?

No, that is not the case. It’s a part of the same flawed perception of creation—- Not too long ago a Christo-Pagan (don’t ask ME how she reconciles that because I don’t know) asked me if I believed in “Design”. “By which you mean we were made in one step? Assuredly not, because then the Creator did a piss-poor job. Were knees designed on Munday after a week-end drunk?”

We must necessarily be a work-in-progress if we are not a failed experiment. If we see the Gods as humanoid I believe it is a seeming taken on by the Deity-inQuestion in order to make Themself more understandable to our limited comprehension. Creating Gods don’t have maleness, or whiteness, or dominance as attributes. Those Gods embody conception, making-out-of-‘nothing’, originality—- in my limited comprehension I see this as female. My creator is Mother Earth, working with primordial soup and natural selection.

But (this is the other hand) I am not necessarily right. My opinion is just my opinion. My opinion with yelling; my opinion with weapons; my opinion with governmental supports—— still just as good or not-good. What works remains whatever works whether enhanced by yelling, weaponry, or laws or not. Making it difficult for my sister to manage her pain has absolutely no effect on street drugs; blaming woman’s clothes does not lessen rape…… By our uncontrolled use of resources, by our failure to share, by our insistence on privilege we have messed up our home-place.

 

On the gripping hand, I believe that it is our refusal to perceive ourselves as one species, our demands for unequal standards of living for some, our reliance on power and dominance for leadership selection that push us towards ‘failed experiment’. The systems we are currently using do not work. We are not in charge; we are not the solution. It is not to us to fix things, to save the Earth. It is ourselves we must fix. If we do not find the way to sharing economy and consensus government we will fall with capitalism and democracy. We must fit ourselves into the non-apex space of Gaia Ecology that is actually ours and learn to accommodate each other within that limit. I look to my Gods for solution; I hope that humanity will quit fucking it up. Step out of the driver’s seat and don’t man-splain what actually indistinguishable from the rest segment of humankind the problem is— the problem is all of us.


Judith O’Grady

judithis an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).

When is Paganism not Paganism?

From Emma Porter: “what Capitalism tries to hide from the seeker, is that Paganism is free.”

When it’s paganism with a small p, that’s when.

What can that possibly mean? Well, let me try and explain. Recently in a well known pagan fb group (at least well known in good old Blighty), I stumbled upon a discussion on what Paganism means to the individual in terms of deity and beliefs. I was struck by a response that seemed to be quite popular, and it was along the lines of having atheist beliefs but living the pagan lifestyle.

This is when paganism is not Paganism, at least to me. Is this what our spirituality has become? A lifestyle choice? Online debates about the reality of deity? Oh no, hell no!

Surely as Pagans, the Earth, nature herself, is sacred. You can feel it, can’t you, when you’re outside in the wild with the wind in your face, the rain on your skin, the heat of the sun or the cold of the snow. Surely this is the very essence of Paganism, our connection to and our own place in this, the web of life. “A pagan lifestyle” without any of this is empty and meaningless.

I would like to think that the contributor to said Facebook discussion simply meant that her path does not necessarily revolve around the worship of deity. Worship of and to deity is a personal choice, a personal belief, and I do believe that one can truly have a meaningful Pagan practice without deity, literal Gods and Goddesses.

But what if this isn’t what she meant, and indeed she meant what she said? What is a pagan lifestyle without the spiritual side?

I love the idea of a witchcraft shop that sells herbs, parchment, inks and the like;however, most of the shops I have encountered have been massive disappointments, selling the usual array of crystals, candles, synthetic incense and angel ornaments. This is what I think of when I think of paganism as a lifestyle without the spirituality.

And what’s wrong with that? you may well ask. Well nothing….if you just so happen to like the smell of incense, even if it’s just chemicals and perfume, or the shine of crystals, mined from the earth. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you like (well there is, but that’s another article for another day). But it is not Paganism. Do not be fooled.

This is the work of a system that seeks to keep us dulled down, that seeks to keep us busy with mindless, empty, cheap shit that has no practical or spiritual purpose. When mothers and fathers have to work full time jobs and still ends cannot be met, here, have some cheap shit to take your mind off your own slavery, slavery to a system that many within it, even those at the bottom, defend.

We Pagans are not exempt from this lie either, are not exempt from the self delusions that enable this lie. We’ve all fell for it, at the beginning, when we first start out on the Pagan path. It’s a difficult pitfall to avoid, when you’re new and everything seems so beautiful and shiny. But then you take home your crystal, your incense, and display them and burn them, but what then? Nothing, that’s what, and after a while you see that these trinkets, whilst look the part, add nothing at all to your practise.

And so you head back out to the New Age shop or market stall and you buy something else in the hope that it might make you feel more of a Pagan. And so it goes on and on, in a cycle, until you are ready to break that cycle. Some never do, and some don’t want to, they are happy with their illusions.

What the system, what Capitalism tries to hide from the seeker, is that Paganism is free. You do not have to spend a penny. However capitalism serves the lazy pagan. Why go out and connect with the earth when you can buy this or that to make you feel more pagany? It makes the person with the most money, able to buy the biggest pentacle ring or necklace or crystal seem holier than thou, more genuine and authentic. It is everywhere in pagan culture. Look how much fellow seekers charge for their works. The poor are often priced out.

This isn’t to say that Pagans must give up money, or give freely their own works and endeavours – I’m all for a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but as someone for who, especially in the past when my own children were young, has nothing left at the end of every month, thirty pounds for a working or for supplies is unheard of, a luxury to be dreamed about but never realised. What about those in that situation? Are they to be left out, forgotten? Is their belief and spirituality less than someone who can afford all of the trappings? Yes, if the pagan lifestyle is empty of spirituality, another prospect for capitalism to take people’s hard earned cash for things made in China for as cheaply as possible.

Pagans can no longer afford to be lazy if we want our spirituality to mean something. This earth is our home, and so our paganism must be nature-centred. It is simply not enough to say that we are a part of this universe and that the universe returns to us what we send out, as a well known New Age book seems to think. It is not enough to be grateful, not today when this precious earth of our, when our Mother Nature, whom we worship as Pagans, is under constant attack. Untold damage is wreaked on this earth in the name of capitalism, in the quest for newer and more efficient ways to separate the people from their hard earned money.

I too have been guilty of this. It is a relatively new aspect to my craft, environmental activism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m big on recycling and reusing and reducing my waste and carbon footprint and the like, but it isn’t enough. There’s more I need to do, but I’ve started, and that’s the important part, the hard part, finding your voice, your confidence to speak out against injustices perpetrated by the strong against the week.

Part of what prompted me to act is the fracking of local beauty spots and countryside, but that’s not all. I’m tired of feeling helpless as I watch the destruction of the very nature I worship, all for the sake of profit, profit that benefits the few and leaves the many grateful for whatever scraps they are thrown. Everyday, that part of myself grows stronger, more self assured and confident, and it will for you too. Taking the first step, the first real step, is hard, but each successive step becomes easier.

We Pagans must act, and our actions must serve and protect nature. The alternative is paganism as a lifestyle, and that isn’t worth a damn.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!


All our works are 20% off for the month of August. Use code NOWAR at checkout.

Gods & Groups

AT THE LAST RITUAL, which was Imbolc, while we were having our customary snack afterward, I asked the Grove if we would like to give to a refugee assistance group as well as our traditional (for Imbolc) donation to the food bank. In our world order, the deity of Imbolc is of course Bridget, Whom we see as a protector of the poor as well as the midwifery and blacksmithery aspects. And our winters are fiercely cold; and apparently there is a donation slump in the post-Christ-mass non-Pagan society.

So now is when we give to the hungry in Her name because who needs intercession and assistance, really…… it’s like the famous historical personage who’s name I don’t know (my, that fellah said a lot, almost as much as ‘anon’, neh?) who was told that the new-made laws were not ‘anti-poor’ and responded ‘I see; the rich cannot sleep under bridges nor beg in the streets as well’.

I looked around at the Grove members present; one said that our focus should, in her opinion, be local. Another countered that since we had specifically spoken to Her about the refugees we should back up our petition; the first speaker agreed and said she would be satisfied if the amounts were unequal.

“Excellent,” I said “60/40? 70/30?” The first speaker nodded and I glanced around again.

As it happened, we had a guest present. “Are you going to vote now?”

“No, we are not a democratic group. We are mostly socialists and few in number; we run by consensus only.”

We only act if we are all acting together. If we don’t have agreement we act as individuals (like when I cursed the animal abuser named ‘Seagull-Ripper’ by my son—I only reported to the group because we are all invested in the river-shore’s well-being. They were guardedly relieved that action had been taken although they were uncomfortable with it).

Anyone can do this, you don’t have to be Druids nor follow the Old Gods. Form a group of like-minded people, convert a friendship group to action, mention in a social setting that you would like to take some action and draw in the people who like the idea. Talk it over and make a plan you all are comfortable with, then do something.

In the same post-Ritual chat ‘n snack, the visitor commended us on our work after I reported on the ongoing dialogue between me and the public lands bureaucracy about our planting trees at MidSummer Ritual. (Be you sure that we will guerrilla if we are not granted permission; if we are given permission, however, we will also get free trees given us). It’s not hard; discussion fosters ideas and the person most interested in the idea makes a plan that the others participate in.

judith-one
Seed Bombs in the making

It’s fairly easy to convert talk to action in a small group: it’s impossible to lose transparency, non-participation is obvious, adjustments are fluid and quick.

I was heartened and moved by the post-inauguration Woman’s March; big numbers are good for making big statements. A lot of people show a consensus that is hard to ignore. But actually, a lot of those marchers were small action groups that had planned together what they were going to do.

All of those little stories: the choral group who had practiced over video and had never met in person until they were marching, the people holding up street-width group banners, my house-bound friend who made and sent a lot of pink hats and all of her sisters who did the same, the people who put on skits or donned costume….

Following leadership is the old way. If you elect a leader, you abrogate your involvement in the process. Yes, I belong to a nation and I pay taxes. I expect my government to engage in sewer maintenance. If my provincial leader ran on a ticket of free post-secondary schooling I would vote yes–that’s something I and my several friends would have difficulty implementing ourselves. But organizing garden plots in the yards of interested people and sharing around the produce? That’s something we can do ourselves. Teaching the dominant languages and bureaucratic form-filling in the community centres? Again, something we can do ourselves.

judith-twoI must admit, I don’t belong to those two exampled action cells myself, although I am aware of both of them and know some of the people who do those things. I don’t have dig and weed capability, but have shared seeds and knowledge with other action cells that are forming to de-grass yards.
What I do best is talk to Gods and Beings, and talk to people who don’t trance, and receive messages about what it’s like. Just like my Grove members that didn’t want to curse “Seagull Ripper” themselves, there are quite a few radicals and ecologists (not mutually exclusive groups, though) who don’t want to acknowledge that the world is full of Gods and Spirits, but can hear the World Song faltering nevertheless. They acknowledge the convergence of our goals while insisting on the divergence of our beliefs. But action is still furthered.

It’s like before I retired. One evening I was in the lab working when an assistant came down the hall.

“We have an intractable cat in treatment,” she said “and the technician told me to come and get you.”

“Okay, I can stop what I’m running.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Hold.”

“But I hold!”

“Right,” (now we’re in treatment…)”I’ll hold the front, you’ll hold the back. Now we’ll just wait a moment and I’ll tell the cat it’s all right.”

So the cat quiets down and we draw blood. The assistant is still confused.

“What did you do?”

The treatment technician, a person of science if there ever was, said,

“We don’t ask ourselves that question; Judith is doing something that works, go and get her when we’re having trouble. But don’t listen or you’ll fall asleep.”

“I can’t talk to aggressive dogs,” I cautioned “just fear.”

Eco-terrorists can operate without a speaker-to-the-Earth, but if they acknowledge that having a speaker/believer facilitates success, things work better. And, to the believer, a different level of action is undertaken. In the believer’s world, the Gods, if willing, lend Their aid to the work. In the unbeliever’s world that isn’t the case, but if they perceive that the work goes better with a believer along, then the end is achieved without their having to question what is going on. And getting the work done is important to both the believer and the un. In this case consensus of belief isn’t needed, only consensus of action.

judith-three
Follower of Manannán macLir sharing trash-picked elementary-school lunch scraps with his friends

In our Druid Grove, we have a framework of liturgical format that stays the same from ritual to ritual. When the Guiding Druid is about to declare what the Holy Day is, how celebrated, and Who will be addressed, ze always begins that segment with the call-and-response:

“Why are we here?”

 

“We are here to honour the Gods!”

That is all there can be at bottommost: expression of belief and participation. To the believers, the interactions between people and people are necessarily secondary to the interactions between people and the Gods. The critical (as in the most important, not as in the need for negative input) responsibility of the Gods-Speaker/s of the group is to facilitate the communication with the Gods. That should be the impetus that brings all the worshippers together in a ritual and helps to inform all the participants in a God’s-interesting undertaking. Pagan endeavour references Beings different from the humans present, and the attention of the humans present at Pagan events or the Pagans present at human events should be turned towards something other than themselves.

By not acknowledging the larger-than-self referential a poorly focused Pagan brings upon hirself an additional level of culpability. The Gods are not being honoured and the work is not moving forward; the positive outcome of the group activity is ‘larger-than-self’ and so is the possibility of negative outcome enlarged if the believers are not carrying their two agendas successfully.

judith-four
With one hand I pick trash for the environment, With the other I pick trash for the Gods.

And, since I have belief, I also believe that the Good Gods act to constrain the UnGods as well as the people who choose against Right Action. However, I believe that They do it following Their own agenda which is not mine, not at my behest, and often not comprehensible to me. Our communication is imperfect; I have found that a shining and unexpected asset of group (rather than solitary) communication is how much more stable and clear the lines of communication become over time in a group. What works clicks into place with practice more smoothly, and a whole group of troubleshooters is standing by to root out what doesn’t work and suggest alternatives.


Judith O’Grady

judithis an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).


A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred looks pretty amazing. Want a copy?

The Oil God

A friend of mine once described the 1992 children’s movie Ferngully as the perfect storm of nineties children’s animation and early ecocritical film consciousness. The film, for those of you who never saw it or perhaps have forgotten some of the details, has a relatively strong environmental message for a children’s movie, and an impressive voice actor cast featuring not only Robin Williams, but also a singing Tim Curry in the role of the film’s villain “Hexxus”: a primordial creature of ooze and malice.

In the film, a group of human forestry workers are driving a clear-cutting machine called the “The Leveler” to clearcut a rainforest. I’ve always found it fascinating that in this scene of Ferngully, before Hexxus is released from his prison, the script of the movie specifically has human characters speaking of the labour practices of their employers and fellow employees. Labour and environmental destruction are intrinsically tied to the machine, and the humans driving The Leveller set the stage for Hexxus to arise. The most chilling—or thrilling, depending on your mood and how exciting you find Tim Curry’s singing voice—scene in the film is the musical number after The Leveller destroys Hexxus’ prison, an ancient dead tree where he’d been previously entombed by the magic of the forest, and set him free:

Oil and grime, poison sludge
Diesel clouds and noxious muck
Slime beneath me, slime up above
Ooh, you’ll love my (ah-ah-ah) toxic love
Toxic love

[…]

‘Cause greedy human beings will always lend a hand
With the destruction of this worthless jungle land
And what a beautiful machine they have provided
To slice a path of doom with my foul breath to guide it

Hexxus’ song “Toxic Love” describes his delights in the ingenuity of man-made destruction. Thanks to the fuel and oil in The Leveler, Hexxus is able to regain his former might in record time. With human help, he is then able to go on a rampage of destruction against the forests and all its residents within.

anigif_enhanced-9452-1413399950-1
GIF: Hexxus discovering the innards of The Leveler

Though Ferngully obviously positions oil, power, and ecological and environmental destruction as evils to be vanquished—specifically, by doing away with Hexxus by locking him back in his tomb—what I always found interesting about Hexxus as a villain of greed and destruction is that he is never presented as a human creation, though it is thanks to humanity’s greedy clear-cutting that he is “set free” from his slumber. He is presented as the complete, destructive opposite of ‘nature’ in the world of Ferngully, and anathema in every way to the nature-loving creatures of the forest. But the fact of the matter is that he is, like all the fairies of Ferngully, a creature of the earth. As a creature of the earth, like those fairies, he is supernatural—but born of the natural world. He is a formidable villain, arguably one of the more interesting characters of the film. His character design is inspired directly by death: as his final, iconic form features a human skull and bony rib cage covered in dark, dripping oil. He is not only a force for decay and death within the film, he is also power incarnate. Hexxus relishes power—and he hungers for more, and more, and more…

Representing Hexxus as a combination of a dead human as well as a creature of oil and tar makes perfect sense: this is a children’s film, so the villain must be recognizably frightening and monstrous. Though whether the creators were aware of it or not, Hexxus can also be interpreted as a a layered expression of humanity’s enduring hunt for resources, specifically and most importantly its hunt for oil. Oil has given us humans power beyond all imagination, and has completely changed our world on a fundamental level. The character of Hexxus becomes a hauntingly perfect metaphor for resource-extraction capitalism and imperialism. Like the humans in Ferngully, humans from Europe found the tomb of an ancient and powerful sleeping Oil God in the inky depths of the earth. In our hubris and greed we awoke him, and accepted to glorify him in exchange for immeasurable, cataclysmic, chaotic power.

Explosion of the deepwater horizon tanker
The God of Oil is also a god of warfare and death. Pictured here is the cataclysmic explosion of the tanker Deepwater Horizon in 2010, which caused one of the biggest environmental disasters in USA history. Source: http://grist.org/climate-energy/these-new-high-res-photos-of-deepwater-horizon-will-make-you-go-holy/

Petrocultures—where it becomes impossible to articulate the ubiquitous

Our society is powered by a dark death that pools beneath us and all around us—this is mostly a poetic way of saying that Oil is everywhere. During my childhood, the conversation regarding fossil fuels all around me, at school, at church, with my family, was all about how we were running out of this finite, limited resource. There was a palpable sense of panic that we were going to run out of gas one day. Mainstream conversations have noticeably changed, two decades later, as shale gas, tar sands, and other unconventional methods of extracting fossil fuels are on the rise and heavily promoted as technological “bridges” to “greener” energy here in Canada. Where I live in the province of Québec, we just found conventional oil in Anticosti, in Gaspésie. Reports seem to agree that human demand for fossil fuels are outpacing current production levels—not to mention that climate change seems to be getting in the way of the production of North American tar sands, notably because of global warming-encouraged wildfires in Western Canada. The human thirst for Oil is insatiable—when “conventional oil” is nowhere to be found, we crack open the earth, the tectonic plates of our planet, to find shale gas or exploit tar sands.

Marine pollution...is all plastic. Source is Bo Eide on Flickr.
This marine pollution…is plastic. Photograph by Bo Eide on Flickr.

But I find it interesting how conversations about oil—and oil-derived products such as plastics, solvents, dyes, detergents, soaps, body products, just to name a few—have become sublimated into different kinds of conversations. These oil-derived products have brought many technological advantages with them, but we are now faced with the terrifying prospects of plastic pollution and waste—prospects that this society is completely unequipped to deal with. Why does it seem like we lack the language to speak and reflect thoroughly and deeply on the omnipresence and ethical aspects of oil, oil extraction, and petrochemicals that now occupy our lives, our homes and and our bodies?

Perhaps because any talk, especially criticism, about oil extraction and production becomes unacceptable unless you’re talking in “objectively serious” and “rational” economic terms that do not threaten oil industry interests. In many mainstream political spheres, speaking out against Oil is a serious faux-pas. Recently in Canada, mainstream environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Naomi Klein received harsh criticism from Alberta’s so-called “left of centre” NDP provincial government after the publishing of The Leap Manifesto, calling for Canada’s immediate divestment from fossil fuels:

“The government of Alberta repudiates the sections of that document that address energy infrastructure,” said Notley in a legislature news conference. “These ideas will never form any part of policy. They are naive. They are ill-informed. They are tone deaf.” (The National Post, April 11 2016)

Rachel Notley’s criticism of The Leap Manifesto might be familiar to you, especially when the Premier calls the document “naive”. It has become childish to speak about Oil in a way that challenges global economic party lines. To resist Oil in a manner that also threatens capitalist or imperialist industries and state governments is to allow yourself to be branded as immature, ignorant, and, most important of all, irrelevant. The conversation about Oil, according to the political élite and captains of industry, can only happen in one way: the way that ensures Oil’s continued extraction, production, and consumption. There is a new Church, folks, and its god is Oil.

Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.
Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.

The consequences of these social and political realities, however, is that we now live in a culture that refuses to seriously criticize Oil, and has now become unable to articulate in an everyday, mainstream sense just how deeply embedded Oil has become in our lives.

Of cultural consciousness the writer Amitav Gosh once asked, of the United States especially: “in the nation where oil is virtually sacrosanct and where the industry remains a prodigious force, [why have] literary responses to its significance for American life been so scant?” Though in his essay on Oil and World Literature, professor Graeme Macdonald is quick to problematize and challenge Gosh’s assertion that there has been a cultural silence in response to Oil, he raises an interesting points regarding how the ubiquitousness of Oil makes every cultural literary production—perhaps obliquely—a production about Oil: 

All modern writing is premised on both the promise and the hidden costs and benefits of hydrocarbon culture. If this proposition seems unwieldy—preposterous even—it is still worth thinking how oil’s sheer predominance within modernity means that it is everywhere in literature yet nowhere refined enough—yet—to be brought to the surface of every text. But it sits there nevertheless—untapped, bubbling under the surface, ready to be extracted by a new generation of oil-aware petrocritics.

Oil has become the big constant in our lives, to the point where it has taken over the way that we see and interact with each other, and with the world. Though some of us may be able to conceptualize the ways in which the environmental destruction that accompanies fossil fuels extraction upsets or destroys human (and nonhuman) societies and ancient ecologies, most of us cannot conceptualize or articulate many of the other ways in which Oil has upset delicately-balanced ecological systems, of which humans and their cultures are a part. Though Macdonald contends, in the citation above, that there have been cultural productions sub-textually or textually dealing with Oil, there is a marked mainstream or popular cultural silence on the ubiquitousness of our every-day interactions with Oil.

This ubiquitousness has been sublimated to the point where we no longer name it, see it, or recognize it. When trying to describe the quality and quantity of humanity’s interactions with Oil, writer Brett Bloom created the term Petro-subjectivity in order to communicate that all of our individual and collective subjectivities have been permanently altered by our relationship with Oil: 

Petro-subjectivity is something that each of us experiences constantly. It is a sense of self and the world that shapes who we are and how we think. It stems in part from the fact that the use of oil is present in every thing we do. It has shaped the concepts that govern our thinking. Our use of language and the basic concepts that structure our existence are breathed through the logic of oil relationships and form the metaphoric universe we bathe ourselves in when we speak to one another about who we are, what we do and what the world around us consists of.

Oil is a part of our every day lives. It changes the way we think and are, and nothing is left untouched. As the petro-subjectivity map above expresses, Oil affects some of our most intimate and bodily experiences: our sex lives, our personal hygiene, our reproduction, our medication, our health, our food. Almost every small ritual and every day action is mediated through the convenience, power, or benefits of Oil. Some of these benefits are undoubtedly very real, and very important, and cannot be discounted outright. But we have lost our ability to envision a future without Oil, or a future that interacts with Oil in an extremely different manner. We have lost our ability to envision and imagine a world in which humans do not use Oil to interact with the world and each other. Our understanding of the world is firmly rooted in Oil, as Brett Bloom states: “Petro-subjectivity is in place well before you ever self-identify as something else like Christian, atheist, socialist, environmentalist, or other ideological decoration.” 

In return for this petro-subjectivity, for power, for convenience, for more riches for the very rich, the Oil God demands sacrifices—destruction, war, oppression, death—and as a species we acquiesce. We burn into the atmosphere and into our lungs the distilled remains of Earth’s long dead, and in so doing we destroy species after species in order to fulfill capitalist and imperial contradictions and delusions. We go to war with each other and murder each other over Oil’s favour. We oppress and pillage societies less militarized and industrialized than ourselves. We fill our discourse surrounding Oil with platitudes and empty promises. We embrace petro-subjectivity and hydrocarbon culture without reservations and without end, despite the fact that our planet and human biology have some pretty hard limits past which we cannot survive.

And the Oil God? Well, to put it in Hexxus’ own lyrics from the song Toxic Love, the Oil God feels “good—a special kind of horny.”

Works Cited and Further Reading

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

View all my reviews

Contemplating The Ruins and Reviving Mythic Stories

(We are pleased to host this piece by Pegi Eyers, which first appeared in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are.)

“Our Ancestors experienced life in terms of imagination and intuition, and this mythic worldview has value for us today. A new interest is awakening in primal mind, fantasies and dreams. We have the need to relate back to a deeper level of life which is more direct and full of feeling, with a natural grace and wisdom that is more appealing than all the dazzling accomplishments of the intellectual ego. Myth has once again become important.”

“When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances, they can become self-limiting, even a threat to survival. This is our current situation.”

In these last days of Empire, the “endless growth” agenda of eco-fascism, economic hegemony and corporatocracy is dissolving, falling apart under the weight of unsustainability, and a groundswell of people from all walks of life are moving away from these delusional and insane systems. The paradigm of humanity as lord and master of Mother Earth has run its course, and it is becoming harder and harder to believe in the fallacy of a mechanical universe and our separation from the natural world.

“We are living at a time in which the old story of domination and control has lost its power, and we are in a liminal, in-between time, still searching for a new story.”

At this point in history, it would seem highly apropos to reject the human-centric and hubristic notions that human beings are a “God Species” who rule the world, that more and better technology will solve the problems that technology created in the first place, or that continued “progress” is the only way forward. That the colonial dream would have been adopted planet-wide was perhaps something the early “meme spreaders”(1) did not foresee, but the Earth clearly cannot sustain billions of people living at the height of civilizational benefit and luxury. “Unless you believe infinite growth is possible on a finite planet” (2) it is time to redefine our paradigm and adopt a different mythic story for self, community and the world, to return to the values of interexistence and a respect for natural law.

The conveniences, communication devices and media bombardment of our high-mobility modern lifestyle have given us the illusion that human beings are the center of the universe. Our addiction to entertainment and diversion, the ongoing incestuous interaction with our emotional dramas and human inventions—to the exclusion of all other life on Earth—is narcissistic, dysfunctional and immoral. What spell have we been under? Thinking that human endeavors and human-centric concerns are the only ones that matter keeps us trapped in the sinkhole of modernism, contributes to the ideology of Empire, and does nothing to return us to right relationship with the land. Unlearning the habits of civilization means rejecting the domestication we have adopted from techno-industrial society in favor of earth-wise Pagan skills, returning to the rich matrix of indigenous mind, and learning how to be “true human beings” once again.

We need the vision of an earth-rooted paradigm to counteract Empire’s mandate to devour the earth’s resources and spirit. Experiencing, creating and believing both ancient and new narratives that honor and celebrate the natural world (and our place within it) are urgently needed to bend the curve. Based on the Old Ways, we need to tell revived stories about ourselves, reclaimed eco-myths to guide us forward, and rejuvenated manifestos that celebrate our integration with the natural world. Our archaic spirit needs to rise again in a weaving of timeless stories of growth, regeneration, rites of passage, energy, motion, illumination, magic, decay, and all the earth’s processes that dwell both in us and the other-than-human-world.

Mirroring the “new myth” in full interaction with others is both a spiritual and political act that will disrupt the business-as-usual of Empire in ways we can only imagine. Diverse human groups worldwide have always used mythic stories to record our most sacred origins, to hold the keystone beliefs, cultural meanings, values and destinies specific to each society. Creation stories (or accounts of how our particular social order came into being), along with explanations and exemplars, are human attempts to answer the most fundamental questions of existence and form the building blocks of a collective reality. Arising from both the intellect and the imagination, narrative epics and parables are “lessons for living” that offer us guidance for navigating both the inner and outer worlds.

Keystone stories and important events in history are transferred from one generation to the next, and are integrated in rituals and ceremonies that include the bardic arts, entertainment, music, songs, call-and-response, poetry, dancing and drumming. Throughout history, pagan peoples have relied on the story-keepers to maintain the tribal records, to continue the richness of history, identity and culture. By reaching back to ancestral knowledge, conveying teachings or validating the prestige and responsibilities of tribal members, each storyteller brings with them a unique piece of the mythic puzzle. The oral transmission of collective memories becomes a living worldview that keeps the cultural traditions of the group alive.

Focused on interspecies communication and our soul connections to the other-than-human world, our shared stories can outline our rapport with other beings and the realm of the shapeshifters. The natural world is the entry point to the “dreamtime,” a place where our access to soul expressions and personal mythology merge.

“Stories and their ceremonies weave our world together: the story of corn maiden and mother, of salmon’s death and rebirth, of bear’s human wife, of coyote’s foul tricks and lynx’s loneliness. These stories of ecological conscience are a council where the voices of all species may be heard. It is through these stories that the Earth can be restored, for these eco-narratives are an ‘ilbal’, a ‘seeing instrument’. Looking through the eyes of others as their stories are told, we may hear and understand the voices of our relatives.”(3)

An important purpose for our ongoing oral history is to outline the interactions and lived experiences that arise from our essential bond to Earth Community, to recount the stories that are held within geographical locations on the land. Whether at key points like sacred sites or more personal lived places, the storied landscape brings our lore to life – the earth deities, Gods, Goddesses or sages we honor, the creatures we dream about, and the paradoxes we cannot explain.

For a powerful example of the oral tradition as a living worldview, we can look to the life of the great Okanagan storyteller and orator Harry Robinson, who was wholly immersed in the natural world in every waking moment. During the transcribing of his priceless story-cycles, scholar Wendy Wickwire noted that:

“Harry travelled to Vancouver to undergo medical treatment under the care of an elderly Chinese herbalist. Only then did the depth of Harry’s mythological world become truly apparent. As we passed through downtown Vancouver on his visits to the doctor, I realized that all the traffic lights and cars meant nothing to Harry. They were almost an abstraction, an interesting but fleeting diversion from the timeless real world of Coyote, Fox and Owl.”(4)

In our own process to reject the failed experiment of industrial civilization, connect deeply to the land and embody the brilliant mythology of our own ancestral knowledge, can we also have no doubt that entering urban space is an illusion and an aberration, an insult to ourselves, the Earth and Her many creatures and elements? Can we too contemplate the ruins of Empire and see it as an abstraction, a fleeting diversion that for a long and unmerciful time tried to demonize Gaia and separate us from our one true home? As we examine our own life story within the context of Empire-building, we need to deconstruct the experiences that do not serve us, and reclaim the kinship model of our relationship to the wild.

To re-indigenize ourselves means re-inhabiting our local ecosystems, and returning to the various features and creatures in the bioregional landbase that inform and inspire.

Developing eco-mythic literacy means unlearning the consensual worldview of Empire in favor of older ways to see the world, to think and feel our way into a re-landed perspective with storytelling, ceremonies, intuitive workings and sacred art. Our creative, mystic, and eco-poetic abilities will blossom again when we dwell in a sense of oneness with the natural world, and we gain new wisdom when we are living as a part of (rather than apart from) the Web of All Life. A keen knowledge of the surrounding ecosystem is fundamental to a deep sense of interconnection and is imperative to a sustainable future, and communicating this eco-literacy to others, especially children, is the most important task we face.

”Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, and how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet.”5

So, what are the new Earth Stories? In addition to narratives that arise from our localized re-landing, these thoughts and “chapters” may be a good beginning:

  • To return to our pre-colonial Paganism or indigenity knowing we are all children of Earth, and that our place is within, not above, the circle of creation,
  • To reorient our consciousness toward a more integral relationship with the Earth,
  • To move toward a paradigm shift that includes the land and the other-than-human world,
  • To look to nature as a knowledgeable and inspiring teacher, as Gaia herself provides us with the stories for a new era,
  • To address ecological solutions that maintain and improve the health of natural systems and the diversity of all life,
  • To revive and embrace the natural law of species diversity in a multiplicity of ethnicities, belief systems, partnerships, unique societies and Earth communities,
  • To revalue our bodies, the dignity of materiality, and working with our hands,
  • To live each day as a sacred act,
  • To love the land as central to our most cherished dreams and memories, to care for and restore the Earth, and
  • To take a stand for ecological defence.

The human mind is as much a part of nature as a boreal forest, and the imaginal states of dreaming, imagining, wandering in nature, making magic and creating mythologies is key. In times of massive change and transition, sharing and collaborating with our kindred spirits and communities on old/new ecocentric stories is an integral part of reclaiming our primitivist, animist, Pagan, Neo-Pagan or re-constructionist paths. Human beings have a role to play as earth protectors and earth keepers, and our challenge is to honor each other, all beings, and the earth as Sacred.

Reframing and rewriting our own stories where we find ourselves right now—in the ruins of Empire – will automatically reconnect us to the mythic realms of spirit, and will enlarge our transformation to knowing that we belong to the Earth. When your thoughts and actions go beyond the narrow confines of your individualistic concerns and revolve around the land and the welfare of the whole, you are well on your way to becoming a “true human being!” In these times of cataclysmic return, the “new myth” is the same one already in place that humanity has had for millennia, imbedded in worldview(s) that respect the human place within the circle of creation, and that express our overwhelming love for Earth Community.


  • 1. Daniel Quinn calls the foundational worldviews of culture “memes.” Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, Broadway, 2000
  • 2Charles Eisenstein, A New Story of the People, TEDxWhitechapel video, February 13, 2013: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjoxh4c2Dj0)
  • 3Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness: Reconnecting with the Body of the Earth, Harper Collins, 1993
  • 4Write it on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller, by Harry Robinson and Wendy Wickwire (editor), Talonbooks, 1989. From the first of three volumes, the stories of Harry Robinson (Interior Salish, Lower Similkameen Band, B.C.) were collected by Wendy Wickwire. While working on her doctoral thesis, she recognized in Harry Robinson what Thomas King (Cherokee) would describe as “the most powerful storytelling voice in North America.”
  • 5 Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey, University of Texas Press, 2009

Pegi Eyers

Author of “Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community,” Pegi Eyers is occupied with challenging worldviews, contributing to the paradigm shift and working with the decolonization process in herself and others. A Celtic Animist who sees the world through a spiritual lens, she is a devotee of nature-based culture and all that is sacred to the Earth. Pegi Eyers is an advocate for our interconnection with Earth Community and the recovery of authentic ancestral wisdom and traditions for all people. She lives in the countryside on the outskirts of Nogojiwanong in Mississauga Anishnaabe territory (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada) on a hilltop with views reaching for miles in all directions. http://www.stonecirclepress.com


 

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The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two days and one hundred years ago, women first achieved the right to vote in Canada. This was in the Manitoba provincial election; the federal government followed two years later. So it is perhaps fitting that the day before is the day I finally chose to start reading “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’ve been a feminist and a science fiction fan since childhood, so many people have recommended this book to me over the years. The year it was published, 1986, I was eleven. I think someone first recommended it to me in 1991, when I was protesting the Gulf War. I always meant to read it. It was “on my list,” especially as a Canadian. Margaret Atwood is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian writers and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a feminist icon.

I was not inspired to read it because of the centennial of women’s suffrage in Canada. I was finally inspired to read it because I am doing some science fiction related reading challenges; one to read new-to-me female authors, and the other to read LGBTQ related speculative fiction. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was both on a list of award-winning speculative fiction by female authors, and a list of award-winning LGBTQ speculative fiction. You can find those lists at https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… and https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… respectively. Because I’m intending to read a lot of books this year, it was convenient for me that this book, which I meant to read someday anyway, was on both lists.

Let’s just establish, right off the bat, that I think this is an absolutely stunning book. I am glad I waited so long, because I don’t think I would have been mature enough to understand a lot of it until this point in my life. And I have mixed feelings about it. It’s frustrating and disturbing. Atwood has made some statements about it that make me angry. Some of the things critics have said about it make me want to beat my head against a wall. It can be difficult to follow if you’re not used to the style, because it is written in a flow-of-consciousness perspective that changes back and forth between present and past tense. Some have criticized her for this but I’m sure it was deliberate. The epilogue of the book, a fictional history lecture, says that the story was found recorded over some secular music cassette tapes from the 1980s, usually after a few minutes of music have played. So when you read it, picture a woman about forty, maybe forty-five, telling a story in a tired voice that is sometimes deliberately neutral, sometimes choking back tears and other times choking back rage. Listen to her talk; don’t read it expecting standard writing conventions. Perhaps, if you’ve ever heard a woman telling her tale in an interview for the Shoah project, picture her voice sounding like that.

So, yes. Mixed feelings. On the other hand, I chewed through this book in two and a half very busy days, abandoning all my other reading projects after leafing through the first ten pages. I was riveted to the edge of my seat. Would the protagonist live? Would she die? The whole novel was like holding my breath, waiting for what comes next. If Atwood intended us to feel this way — waiting in desperate anxiety — because that was what the protagonist’s life was like, then she succeeded admirably. The suspense was downright torturous. Also, the message . . . the message . . . How subversive. How frightening. What a fantastic wake-up call in so many different ways, and not just in how it pertains to women.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in an alternate history in which declining birth rates in the mid-eighties, attributed to toxic chemicals, pollution, radiation and other ecological disasters, along with AIDS and a virulent strain of syphilis that caused infertility in most men exposed to it, fell to frightening levels. Women’s independence, the use of birth control, lesbianism and homosexuality, were seen as exacerbating this (and perhaps they did). People reacted with fear, as they often do in such situations, and a religious Christian fundamentalist cult rose to power, toppled the United States government, shot the President and most of the Congress, and formed the Republic of Gilead. They used a symbol and a militant ideology never seen before. And suddenly the lives of women drastically changed.

Because all money had become electronic and there was no paper money, they started by freezing the bank accounts of anyone with an F attached to it rather than an M, and they forced people to fire all women from their jobs. Women were denied the right to own property. Men and women who were in second marriages or extramarital relationships, or anyone who was gay or lesbian, were declared unpersons. Their children were taken from them because they were considered to be “unfit parents,” and women so classified with viable ovaries were forced through reeducation camps, with cattle prod wielding “Aunts,” to become Handmaidens; that is, broodmares to the rich and powerful. Women of the right status and religious background were assigned in arranged marriages as Wives to significant and powerful men; women who were no longer fertile but weren’t “undesirable” were assigned to be “Marthas” (maids,) “incorrigible” women were taken out of official existence to become “Jezebels” (sex slaves,) and those who were too old to do anything else or beyond “reformation” (accomplished through a combination of brainwashing and torture) were sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste and radiation until they died. All of them were assigned different modes of dress to signify their role. Jezebels never went out in public and never left the brothels they’d been assigned to; Handmaids could only go out in pairs so that they could spy on each other and only to do specifically assigned tasks, wearing a red habit with winged wimples described as “blinders” so they couldn’t see out of the sides. All “vanities” such as immodest dress and makeup were banished and women were forbidden even the right to read. Conversely, men were denied the right to marry until they had proven themselves to the people in power, and were forbidden sex or even masturbation until that time also.

Lots to be discussed here. First of all, critics of the novel have tisked at how unlikely they feel this is to happen in the glorious United States of America. Except that I’ve seen many disturbing echoes of Atwood’s predictions in our society right now. How so many things are blamed on Islamic terrorism. How gradually freedoms and rights and privacy have been eroded in the name of “safety” and “security.” How we are gradually being railroaded into giving up paper money. The anti-abortionists, the censors in Britain. The backlash against LGBTQ rights; the “bathroom” laws. The systematic discrediting of feminism and of Planned Parenthood. Encouraging intolerance as a religious “right.” I won’t lie; you guys to the South of us are beginning to scare the shit out of me.

Some critics have said that they just don’t see all of this happening this quickly. But it has, and it is happening right now. The state of women in the Middle East, two generations ago, was comparable to that of women anywhere else in the world at that time. When the Soviet Union broke up much of Eastern Europe erupted into a seething hotbed of “ethnic cleansing.” In a mere five years in the late 1930s Germany transformed from a modern 20th century country to a totalitarian regime which is still causing shockwaves in our world culture. And in the Islamic State, right now, women are being given to jihadis as brides or sex slaves. I think of American “purity balls” and I shudder.

The story is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, and the choice was made to emphasize the United States’ history of Puritanism. The corporate media and the religious right have been building up our political climate for something like this since at least 1991. I am not a doomsayer; I don’t believe in end-of-the-world prophecies; but I am a student of history and if you don’t recognize the parallels and it doesn’t concern you, you’re being willfully blind.

In order for such a regime to exist, you must create a hierarchy of haves and have nots, and so Atwood establishes that hierarchy in vivid detail. The Unwomen of the Colonies were the bottom of the food chain, deprived even of a right to life and health. The Jezebels at least had the privilege of that; though of course they were deprived of the right to liberty and personhood and were required to service the men who came to them. The Handmaidens came next, who at least could live and go out in public, though of course they, too, were required to do what was commanded of them, perform sexually for men, and had severe restrictions on their behaviour, their speech, and even were denied the right to a name; being called “Of-” plus the first name of the Commander they belonged to. The Handmaiden of the tale was called “Offred”; we never learn her real name. The Marthas were not required to spread their legs on command but were menial servants. The Wives had to obey their husbands but otherwise were the mistresses of the household. Aunts held an in-between place in which they are given extra privileges; what those were weren’t defined, but they earned their extra privileges by disciplining the Handmaidens, as some Jewish people earned extra privileges in the death camps by disciplining their fellow Jews. And above all of them, the young men, who at least had the right to read and go where they wished; then the Guardians, who were the foot soldiers; then the Commanders who were effectively above the law; until they weren’t.

One cannot help but consider the issues of intersectionality of our own time. Our corporate masters give lip service to religious fundamentalism to whitewash their activities and control the populace through “moral instruction.” They tell women not to complain about the inequalities they are handed, because they could be transgendered. They tell white people in poverty not to complain because they could be black and thus subject to being shot in the street, even for being a twelve-year-old with a toy gun in an open carry state. That’s how they control us. And we really need to stop allowing it, because the elite, whoever they are, will keep pushing until we force them not to. This, ultimately, is the message behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”; the sad reminder that we must band together, and view an assault on the rights of any one of us as an assault on the right of all of us. Otherwise, who will be there to help when they come for you?

Atwood sometimes receives anti-feminist criticism because her male characters are two-dimensional (true) and because even Offred’s former husband Luke was suspect. When women were denied the right to own property, hold jobs and have money, he put his arms around her and said, “You know I’ll always take care of you.”

Perhaps he didn’t react the way we thought he should have. We might think that Luke should have immediately said, “Okay, let’s run for the border.” But lots of Jews stayed in Germany because they just couldn’t believe that what was happening was actually happening. No one would go that far . . . would they?

I also believe that Atwood’s purpose in having Luke react in this way was to point out how complicated gender dynamics are. Let’s be frank; in many ways, modern feminism is a brand new thing. For centuries men have owned all the property (actually, I believe property rights created the patriarchy) and all of their identity has been wrapped up in their net worth and how well they can take care of their families. Feminism, especially social feminism, challenges that. It causes us to question what it is that makes one a man. Even now, women will rarely marry a man who makes less money than she does, and if she chooses to, people keep telling her to ditch the bum. If we had true gender equality, what difference would it make?

I have said little about the writing in the wake of the politics and the message. On one hand, I must compliment Atwood on her brilliant, liquid prose. Every word chosen is there for a reason; every symbol means something (for instance, the Handmaidens wear red, which of course hearkens back to red light districts, the Scarlet Letter, and also menstrual blood; red in Western culture is the colour of sexuality and fertility, as well as of anger, passion, and blood). It’s truly a pleasure to read such a good writer.

On the other hand . . .

You may be a bit surprised, after my glowing explanation of the message and the politics, when I say that really, Atwood’s story isn’t all that original. Dystopian societies meant to highlight challenging modern political issues are nothing new in science fiction. Nothing new at all. “1984” should come immediately to mind. Remember, Big Brother is always watching (and keylogging your internet usage).

Which is why it makes me gnash my teeth in fury that Atwood had the audacity to claim that this story wasn’t science fiction. She actually said (in an interview included in the back of the edition I read) that “Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that.” But she was nominated for a Nebula and she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I shake my head in dismay. I’m sure Ms. Atwood knows perfectly well that what she’s talking about is only one sub-genre of science fiction, known as “space opera.” Let’s face it, the real reason she said that is that she was afraid that they would take away her magical “literary writer” card if she lowered herself to writing mere “genre fiction.” And why isn’t “literary” considered a genre? Snobbery and nonsense. Ursula K. LeGuin, easily her equal in this craft, responded to that “but isn’t this science fiction?” question with bold statements that she could see no reason why genre fiction should be considered less “literary.”

Science fiction fans get so tired of this. I am reminded of how everyone, including James Cameron, was soooo convinced that “Avatar” was so original, when basically he wrote “Dances With Wolves” with special effects and I’ve seen even his variation of it as least twice in popular sci-fi novels written in the 90s or earlier. I suppose if you’ve never read science fiction this might look original, but literary critics have a lot of gall claiming that it is if they sneer at my beloved “genre fiction.”

However, Brian Aldiss argued in his book “Billion Year Spree” that reading science fiction is generally a lot different from reading other forms of fiction. When someone is described as looking up at the green sun, we assume the sun is green, not that this is a metaphor for something else, and that it will be explained later. One thing that is clear is that Atwood is not writing to science fiction audiences. And that might be a good thing. I referred it to my mother, who has never understood my love of science fiction, in the hopes that it will help to bridge the gap.

And thus I, as many others have, found the epilogue annoying at best, and wish that Atwood had simply let the book end when it did. First of all, it didn’t wrap up any of the things that were left up in the air. Some things we will never know for sure. Second, I don’t feel it added anything at all that I didn’t already know. I did not feel that the nature of the Gilead Regime or who, exactly, some of the characters were required any further explanation than was already given. Fictional lectures to give perspective to science fiction stories have been tropes since Robert Lewis Stevenson first delved there in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

That epilogue has also annoyed feminist critics. But maybe that was the point. The (male) professor giving the lecture on “The Handmaid’s Tale” pooh-pooh’s Offred’s style and level of education. He remarks that it’s clear that Offred was an educated woman (“as educated as anyone can be in 20th century America”,) which the class chuckles at, and then he goes on to say that since she was so educated, how much more valuable this document would have been if there had been some information about the nature and structure of the powers-that-be in Gilead, if she had included dates, wars, important commanders, that kind of thing.

I say that maybe this was the point, however, because in the first place, it points out how quick we are to sneer at our ancestors, and how much more advanced we always believe ourselves to be, even when we’re not; and perhaps she was also critiquing how our white privilege and militant Anglo culture is always so much concerned with who is important rather than the suffering and experience of ordinary people. Is this a commentary on the way we teach academic history?

Despite my quibbles and its flaws, however, this suspenseful, subversive, emotional and beautifully-written novel is perhaps more relevant in our time than ever before. Everyone should read it at least once, and sit with the things that it forces us to think about. I am inspired once again to band together, defend the rights of the underdog, and seek out the company of other women.

View all my reviews

A Prayer to Athena for Canadian Democracy

So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

O Grey-Eyed One,

She of the Steel Gaze;

In nine days my country goes to cast ballots

In the ancient ritual You taught to Your city.

Our system is broken.

Hateful betrayers of Your sacred trust hold power,

As they have for many years now.

We elected them because we trusted them,

But they have betrayed our trust.

They have prorogued our Parliament,

Ignored Parliamentary rulings,

Accepted bribes,

Corrupted our electoral system,

Gerrymandered democratic ridings,

Taken the rights of our expatriates,

Denied voting access to the disabled, the young, and the poor,

And told people to vote in the wrong place

So as to spoil ballots.

They have lied continually to us,

Stolen our money and our future,

Denied basic rights to our citizens,

Reduced the rights of women

And of people of non-conforming gender,

Oppressed our poor and disenfranchised,

Oppressed our First Peoples,

Abandoned our ancestors and our veterans,

Broken the unity of our labourers,

Spit upon the sanctity and sovereignty of the earth,

And deprived us of the right to speak against them;

All to better serve their Corporate Masters.

Lady of Wisdom, You see more clearly than I do,

But I see all that You stand for being suborned.

I implore You; give us back our nation!

Strike these betrayers down!

Cast them from the lofty seat they have stolen!

Make our voices count!

Give us back the gift that You gave us

That we may once again govern ourselves,

Instead of being ruled over by Corporatist lackeys.

May Your steel gaze fall upon these corruptors with wrath!

May You look upon us with favour!

Help us to take back what was stolen

Without the shedding of innocent blood.

Send Your Owl to give Sight and Wisdom

To our people, who have been denied it.

Call upon any friends You have

Among the Sacred Spirits of our First Peoples

To ask them to take part in the ritual,

If only this once.

Draw Your Aegis over us!

Give us back our Canada!

I shall cast my ballot in honour of You.

I shall ask all who know me to do the same.

Praise be to the Lady of Wisdom!

Praise be to the Grey-Eyed One!

What Is Magic For?

Last fall I had the privilege of returning to the Berkshires for a weekend of community, celebration, ritual, and discovery. An annual event for over 20 years, it was a weekend of working together to support our individual journeys in preparation for the coming months of darkness, a prime time for deep inner spiritual work. I’ve participated in this gathering on four occasions, and each has been a rich experience: some more enjoyable than others, some more effective than others. I’ve had my buttons pushed in good ways and bad. I’ve had realizations about myself and what it means to connect to community. I’ve felt frustrated and deeply grateful, ecstatically connected to all beings of the Earth, and at times, profoundly alone. I’ve complained about and filled with pride at belonging to such a community of diverse people and practices. Every year I leave with a bit of this and a touch of that tucked inside, waiting to be unpacked upon my return home.

Each year the weekend culminates in a ritual designed to reach into the hearts of the participants and pull out some insight to help determine the needed spiritual work for the coming dark season. Previous years’ themes include the abundance found in knowing that you are enough, dissolving the ego and reintegrating into the  web of life, and the trap created by the belief that you know what the pattern is. This year’s ritual was different: instead of focusing on the individual self, it centered on the needs of our dying Earth and encouraged a personal, magical, spiritual response.

Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The ritual was long. It was physically demanding, it was at times very cold and uncomfortable and it was difficult. It had been orchestrated with the intent to reach deep, to the part inside each person that is vitally concerned with the future of our species, of all species, of our home on this planet. As a Pagan, a Goddess worshipper, a nature worshipper living day-to-day, it is very difficult to forget the evidence of that harm, even as my own life is livable, and enjoyably so. In ritual space, wide open to the spirits and the energies of the Divine in all things, it was impossible to ignore the reality of our planet, of those who call Her their home, of the suffering caused by the still-somehow-functioning machine that drives our global culture of consumption.

I was not alone in this ritual. Besides the dozens of unseen hands responsible for building and holding the container, many more walked before me, behind me, and a few beside me. I do not know what occurred in those hearts when faced with the strenuous and often-provocative points along the path. I only know what outward behavior I witnessed from many: bantering, silly comments and inane chatter during the moments when we were invited to sit and connect with the trees on the sacred mountain under the cold stars and half moon; the deterioration of sacred space into a mundane autumn bonfire despite the sincere efforts of the magic workers to maintain the ritual atmosphere; people snarking and laughing in the face of the deep work we were given the opportunity to do. I kept searching for a quiet place or for others who felt the weight of the work, who understood the solemn intent of the ritual and who were seeking to connect with the energy of the Earth. I’m sure there were others like me, but they must have been lost, too.

Some of those beside me were likely new to ritual, and on some level they cannot be held to the standard of understanding and behavior a seasoned practitioner would be; perhaps they were afraid or ill-prepared to handle such heavy, deep work. Some were experienced practitioners who are simply ego-driven and likely disappointed that the ritual was not the self-focused working typically offered at this annual gathering. And some were people who I’d thought would know better than to turn away from the answerless questions that the ritual, the magic, the Mother Earth asked us to consider on that lovely starlit night.

And so, fellow Witches, Pagans, energy workers, magic makers, I ask you: what is magic for? Is it simply a means to attain what personal desires drive us? A currency to exchange for goods? Must we receive personal benefit from our magical efforts? At what point do we look at ourselves and our practices, and acknowledge that our personal spiritual work will not heal the damaged ecosystem? When do we get smart enough, or scared enough, to use our will and our energy to work to stem the tide of destruction that is taking place right now, under our noses, in our names? If not in the context of an amazingly well-constructed ritual container, the product of dozens of hands and minds and hearts, where will we find the ability to connect to the very real needs of our Mother Earth?

I came down from the mountain grateful for the comfort of my soft bed, for my family pressing close to welcome me home, for the connection I feel to my bit of urban landscape. And, I came back afraid for the future of our planet and for our species, for if the magic worker cannot be trusted to act in the face of the evidence before us, if we cannot be called, then who can? Who will?

This is thankless work, and not everyone is prepared for it; not everyone is mature enough for it; not everyone wants to do it. And yet, it must be done. If not by us, then by who? What will it take to encourage action, if not the love of the beauty of the green Earth, the white Moon among the stars, the mysteries of the waters? We are being called to arise and to go unto Her, to be strong, agile, wise, courageous, and compassionate in whatever capacity we are able. We are being called to act in community, on behalf of the community of innocents who have no voice.

I came down from the mountain with a question pressing on my heart: What is magic for? The only answer I can find is to commit to this work: to connecting to the Earth beneath me, to listening to what She asks of me, and to taking action in Her name. By the Earth that is Her body, I sincerely hope that the seed planted in ritual months ago takes root in those who walked with me in sacred space and that we all can grow in community, for the good of all.