Shady pine trees and rivers of light

About a fortnight ago, I attended a Witches Sabbat on unceded Algonquin land and territory in the Ottawa Valley. The purpose of the Sabbat was working with land spirits as well as with working with curses, a contentious topic in many circles of witchcraft in the west. This writing here consists of my personal experience at the Sabbat participating with the pine forests and the Bonnechere river, as well as the community of powerful witches assembled there that weekend.

The way that people stitch themselves together happens
Slow, slow, slow
—Meklit Hadero

The fire, the conifers, the constant chorus of cicadas, frogs, and toads. The pine needles that coat the forest floor, a soft tapestry soaked in cedrus deodara that protects and nourishes. I learned long ago that many conifers do indeed drop their needles (and sap), like many deciduous trees, and that this act is both aggressive, and protective. The needles soak the ground in pine essential oils, changing the acidity levels of the soil and killing harmful microbes and bacteria. Plants that cannot stand the pH of the pine needles will not grow here, and will be killed, but many other plants and creatures flourish here, protected by the pines that reach upwards and onwards for the sun.

The ecosystem of the pine forest at Raven’s Knoll becomes a metaphor for the workings of the Witches’ Sabbat. Our curses, our sorrows, our poisons, and our fury, are like those pine needles—but instead of poisoning us, or this place, we create soft earth under the soles of our weary feet, and for the forest to thrive on.

“To the Sabbath! To the Sabbath!’ they cried. ‘On to the Witches’ Sabbath!” Up and down that narrow hall they danced, the women on each side of him, to the wildest measure he had ever imagined, yet which he dimly, dreadfully remembered, till the lamp on the wall flickered and went out, and they were left in total darkness. And the devil woke in his heart with a thousand vile suggestions and made him afraid.

—Algernon Blackwood, The Complete John Silence Stories

Our workings seem demonic, haunted, haunting, and possessed when viewed from the outside. How can we work in the pitch black of night? From the outside, it may seem like our ceremonies are odious, strange and unsettling. Restraint is left at the fork in the path where the country highway becomes a country road. Here we scream. Here we shake. Here we weep, or cry, or laugh—is there anything more magical, more satisfying, more infuriating than a good, witchy, cackle? We keep ourselves on tight leashes outside this forest. The full might of who we are—queers, transgender people, indigenous people, elders, parents, millennials, witches—scares a lot of people. One just has to glance at the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, or even simply at current events, at the ongoing destruction of the earth and the colonization of all the beings within, to witness how ancient and far-reaching that fear is. We keep ourselves on guard, outside this forest, anxious and watchful, but here, amongst pine trees, as our screaming voices rise to the ceiling of the forest and erupt into the sky, we remember that to make these sounds, these promises, we must remember how to breathe fully and without reservations—to properly exhale, to properly sing, to properly speak, we must remember to breathe.

We must arrive as well-behaved guests, fresh and ready for whatever might happen. Much as we try to leave our baggage, emotional and otherwise, at the threshold of the forest, some baggage creeps and clings too strongly. In the mere weeks before arriving at Raven’s Knoll, I dealt with some of the darkest evils that spring up when least expected: cancers and tumours growing within family and loved ones who are simply far too young; the funeral of my beloved grandfather; the uncontainable sorrow and fears of mothers and sisters; and the ever-constant stresses of dealing with unending bureaucracies and hospitals, anxieties over failing to finish university by now, anxieties over writing rejections, anxieties over projects that never begin or end. That feeling, I’m sure you know the one, of years compressed into weeks and the lingering exhaustion that sits on your chest as you try to remember each deadline, each promise, and each failure without breaking into frightened sobs.

On my first morning in the forest, I woke up at four in the morning in order to finish working on an enormous research paper that I needed to have finished by the end of May, or else I would not graduate from my undergraduate degree. I’d been trying to finish it in the weeks before the Witches’ Sabbat, but finally, with mosquitos and flies buzzing in my ears, the noon sun dusting the trees above with light, I typed the last word of the essay and finished formatting every, last, bloody, citation. With a freedom I had not felt in weeks, I threw myself more or less fully-clothed into the sweet-watered Bonnechere river to celebrate. Gliding through the sunlit water was my first victory during a weekend full of treasures. As I swam into the slow, happy current, I felt unbearably glad, even after everything that had happened. I’d felt whittled-down for weeks, to my bare bones, and the Bonnechere—which was named from the French bonne chère, or good cheer— let me float in her light. I followed a few small, adventurous freshwater fish, and dug my feet in the soft river bed for a while.

I returned to the fire pit and to the workshops just in time to help discuss and create the curses we would be casting that night at dusk, the curses that we would design to protect the forest, its guests, and all the year-round residents within, from the dangers that visitors to the Knoll might bring with them. We banished abuse, neglect and cruelty. We banished assault and rape. We banished those that would harm the land, those that would litter and threaten the forest with fire or the river waters with pollution. We banished by cursing—a curse like those pine needles, a curse that would ultimately help heal the land from the trauma dealt to it by humans. Much of the forest at Raven’s Knoll had been clear-cut and the land used for monocultures before it had been acquired by its current caretakers.

Have you ever witnessed the disturbing reality of a clear-cut forest? Even now, as the trees grow again, you can tell that something is, well, off. I witnessed it last year during the Witches Sabbat at the heart of where the clear-cutting occurred not many years ago. Even just at the level of the ecosystem, it’s clear that something brutal and sad happened here, that large parts of this forest lacks the kind of biodiversity that usually accompanies new growth after a forest fire or when farmland is allowed to go a little wild, on its own, for a decade or more.

Sometimes, at Raven’s Knoll, if you shut up, listen, and watch carefully, you see the signs and scars of trauma. You hear in the evening wind through the trees that this isn’t your land. It’s a reminder, if not also a subtle threat, that we’re all temporary guests here, that the land will outlast us and our hubris, and we all have to make amends—especially us settlers—in order to heal.

A witch who cannot hex, cannot heal. A witch who cannot cut, cannot seal.

It felt right, in more ways than one, to work on that curse. Cursing is a contentious topic in witchcraft, but it has a long, long history. Before the twentieth century there were exceedingly rare, or perhaps no portrayals of witches as beings of sweetness and light. Witches tended to walk that liminal line between shadow and sun. Most medicines are also poisons: they wouldn’t be medicines if not for their poison. Yet cursing today is both frowned upon and cast aside. It’s seen as an invitation or encouragement of uncontrollable evil, harm, cruelty into the caster’s life and the lives of their loved ones. Cursing involves, sometimes quite literally, jumping into darkness, of naming what is not often explicitly named, of recognizing that one being’s poison (such as pine needles) is another being’s home. Cursing involves grappling with ethical dilemmas that have no morally preferable solution, as well as those situations that do. Cursing involves realizing that some relationships are too complex for straightforward, generalizable answers. Cursing involves realizing that cursing is a complicated endeavour to be treated with respect during the entire process. And there is no wiggle room for errors. Clarity, even while here in the bog and the mud, covered in sand and dirt, has to be maintained or else shit will hit the fan. Cursing is the dark side of the moon.

After the curse, my hands, feet, and thighs were red-raw from dancing, screaming, singing, clapping, and stomping. Lightheadedness and dehydration settles within, as the songs of toads, frogs, bugs and crows come to us from the forest and the shore of The Cauldron. In a few glorious hours as night fell, we poured all of our malice, might, hurt, and anger into a large poppet of sticks, clay, and cloth, and when we threw it into the fire, we screamed, sang, and cheered as we watched the fucker burn.

Get the fuck out of here, asshole. This is not your land.

Then, at midnight, we donned white shirts and scarves and masks, and we began a procession under the stars through the forest to The Cauldron, a freshwater spring from an aquifer deep underground. With songs and hushed whispers we arrived at her warm, sandy shores.

After one last shout and call to the spirits of land and place, the last magic working of the night started as honey and drink was passed around, witches spat wine all over our white clothes and in our faces, and water scented with flower petals was splashed and thrown over us. With one last hurrah we dived under the black waters of The Cauldron, whispering our prayers under our breath or giggling as we dared ourselves onwards and into inky waters in the middle of the night. I was reminded starkly of The Mabinogion, of the cauldrons of ancient goddesses such as Ceridwen, where from their sacred brew a few drops fell to impart great knowledge and wisdom, or where dead warriors were brought back from death and reborn.

Jumping into that fresh-water cauldron which snapping turtles and frogs call their home, after an evening and night of blasting and banishing, creates relief from grief. Cursing, I discover as I hold my breath in the dark water, is a little bit like grief. The act of cursing for such a powerful purpose reaches deep inside you and cuts out something, maybe something bad, maybe something good, but something that had become a part of you and that you now know you must learn to live without. It’s like a forest fire that blazes and destroys what you love, what you hate, what you need, what you want, what you have become: without that fire renewal would be impossible, change would be impossible, and, especially, healing would be impossible.

One last word: a special thank you to all the organizers and all witches and guests who helped make this year’s Witches’ Sabbat at Raven’s Knoll an extraordinary success. And thank you, thank you, thank you to the pine forest and the Bonnechere river.

Further Reading

Cover image is mine, a photo taken of the pine forest near the wetlands in Raven’s Knoll. This essay was originally posted at http://gersande.com/blog/shady-pine-trees-and-rivers-of-light-the-witches-sabbat-at-ravens-knoll-2016/


Gersande La Flèche

unnamed (1)Gersande La Flèche is a nonbinary transgender artist, writer, and programmer who lives in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), Québec, of Colombian, Breton, Italian, and Québecois-Irish ancestry. They are an animist particularly interested by the philosophical questions created by posthuman and nonhuman theory, and like to write about ecocritism and environmental ethics, as well as diving into subjects such as colonization, feminism, literature and video games at Gersande.com.

Magical arts and sacred geographies

A few weeks ago I read an article by Maranda Elizabeth called: How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma (read here). The article directly inspired the reflections below, as I want to highlight the importance of magical and artistic geographies when it comes to both magic and creativity.

Before I dive into the magic of geographies, I want to start with the importance of creating meaning, specifically with stories:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. —Ursula K. Le Guin

The aliveness of story is essential to me. Art creates life. Through the magic of stories I learned that, hidden in mundane and ubiquitous objects are infinitesimal possibilities of interpretation. The first time I read the fragments of Sappho, the Anne Carson If Not, Winter interpretation, revealed to me the power of even the most broken and lost relics of literary archeology and antiquity. Sappho, an ancient lyric poet and musician, lived on the isle of Lesbos around 630 B.C. Her fragments, all that remains of her music and poetry not lost to history, “are of two kinds: those preserved on papyrus and those derived from citation in ancient authors.” (Carson xi) Yet those fragments, some extremely brief, evoke powerful insights into the past, the present, and the lives of the poet and her poems’ subjects. No matter how ephemeral, Sappho’s work, translated and untranslated, fragmented and less fragmented, has a life and power that continues to mesmerize authors, historians, poets and readers today:

yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice (118)

messenger of spring
nightingale with a voice of longing (136)

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time (147)

Whether it’s music, writing, and even the most fragmented poetry, art creates powerful evocations, bringing the immaterial into existence through an experience with the material. It’s not only a process defined by reading, viewing, or experiencing the art as a “finished product”, the act of making art, the act of creation, is also infused with aliveness. We might learn to glimpse the making of art or magic in the landscapes around us, with or without obvious “authorship”. For instance, one could see magic in the delicacy of a lone wild iris, hidden away from sight, sheltered and nurtured by the shadows of a nondescript, graffiti-clad toolshed within an urban park.

doodling by Gersande La Flèche on 500px.com

The importance of landscapes to magic and creativity cannot be overstated, where the aliveness of stories meets the magic of place. As Tim Robinson wrote about his literary cartography:

These images I am offering you—the wild-goose chase of the alphabet in the sky, the waves whispering to each other under the currach, the donkey uttering seanchas from the well—are little myths, to tempt you to hear the language as if it were being spoken by the landscape. For me it was so from the beginning, as I shall explain. But is there any more defensible, objective truth in the idea of a deep connection between landscape and its language?

The names, languages and stories we use to describe landscapes around us are intrinsic to those landscapes, or at least our relationships with them. Maranda Elizabeth’s writing on magic as resistance and healing speaks emphatically of the magic of the city and the beings that inhabit them. When I use the word beings I mean those creatures, plants, objects, things, and locations— man-made or not— that end up forming the basis of the geography around us. An important such being in Maranda Elizabeth’s geography is their cane:

My first cane was black like tourmaline, a crystal used as an aid against jealousy, negative thoughts, destructive forces, and internal conflicts; I’d adorned it with Hello Kitty stickers. When I brought it home, I adjusted it to a comfortable height, anointed it with oils and prayers, and welcomed it into my life. It was a live creature come to help me out, lend me a hand, give me access to the spaces and activities that were slipping away. I used to walk for hours at a time, no destination in mind. I’m a city witch, I believe in city magic. I found signs of magic in plants growing through sidewalk cracks, symbols of encouragement in graffiti, charms and rocks found in alleyways, the sound of squirrels scurrying up old trees with fallen acorns, tiny free libraries on quiet streets. —Maranda Elizabeth

Through story, magic, and everyday use, the cane takes on a life of its own. The cane becomes a vehicle for artistic and magical expression. The cane transforms into a sword, a shield and a wand—in Maranda Elizabeth’s own words: a “magical object pressed to my palm, holding my body, giving me strength to move through the world when my bones and muscles are no longer enough.”

By creating stories and relationships, magical and artistic, with the cane, Maranda Elizabeth simultaneously creates or builds upon a relationship with their environment. Art and magic intertwine with place. Maranda Elizabeth’s article is full of magical and artistic cartography: naming and mapping their space and the myriad beings within.

The milk-crate furniture of my bachelor apartment contains jars filled with found objects from the city walks I can no longer take: petals and stones, pinecones, dried leaves. There’s a magic to these objects, too; they are reminders, tangible proof that I felt okay in the world for just a moment. —Maranda Elizabeth

The magical collection and curation that Maranda Elizabeth describes is not only a form of magical and artistic cartography, it’s also an artistic project that consists of creating art and meaning out of place and with place. This is a kind of magical artform that Anne Morris calls the expression of “a rare sacred geography that consists of a complex knowledge of place and sacred terrain”. (175) Maranda Elizabeth describe themselves as a city witch, and their love of city magic. This is extremely important to me, as I feel so many discussions about bioregional animism or relationships with the land prioritize those places that are described as rural or “natural”. The work of creating relationships with sacred geographies through art and magic should not be limited to the realms of the wild woods or faraway mountains, or even the dreamscape. These sacred geographies occur everywhere there is life and decay and being—especially in urban and domestic spaces. The material, mundane details of human life in the city influence art-making and storytelling. Though it is a landscape of a different kind, it’s no less powerful or significant, and comes with its own baggage, history, and terms of engagement.

The ecosystem, urban or rural, that we create relationships with not only directly shape our lives and art practices, but they also influence spiritual or magical workings, as Stuart Inman and Jane Sparks write about in their essay on Traditional Witchcraft: “A Gathering of Light and Shadows”, in the section “The Mythic Landscape”.

[T]he land becomes hallowed through working with it and new relationships, between the practitioner and the land, and its spirits, develops.

Choosing to consciously develop a working relationship with the environment that we inhabit can change our worldview in small but significant ways. We can reject misleading dialectics such as the opposition of “pristine” nature versus urban landscapes in order to hold more nuanced approaches and knowledge. Our artistic and magical practices, hopefully, become part of the landscape themselves and help us build towards more sustainable futures. The relationship-building between artist and earth, between magician and landscape, changes the way we view geography as something outside of ourselves and can bring us to accept that geography is a part of us, and we can accept that we are also a part of the environment we live in. As Becca Tarnas expressed recently with regards to environmental ethics: we are of this earth, and we are meant to be here. In creating relationships with spaces, land, and environments, we start thinking as creatures within an ecosystem rather than as higher-ups on a hierarchical chain of being. We also might, perhaps, move away from individualistic practices and seek to build community practices. It’s up to us, as the community as much as the individual, to find ways of healing, creating art, and practicing magic in a way that is constructive and coherent with the landscapes and geographies that surround us.


References & Further Reading

  • Anne Carson If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho 2002
  • Maranda Elizabeth How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma The Establishment 16 April 2016
  • Stuart Inman and Jane Sparks, “A Gathering of Light and Shadows” Serpent Songs 1 May 2013, 40-58
  • Isabelle Stengers “Reclaiming Animism” e-flux journal #36 July 2012
  • Anne Morris “But to Assist the Soul’s Interior Revolution” Serpent Songs 1 May 2013, 173-182
  • Tim Robinson “Listening to the Landscape” Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara & Other Writings 5 May 1997, 151-164
  • Becca Tarnas Talking Tolkien and Jung on Rune Soup 30 April 2016

Cover image is mine, a photograph of a shrine on a beach on Tancook Island taken in summer 2015.

This essay was originally posted at http://gersande.com/blog/magical-arts-and-sacred-geographies/.