ideas about magic in general and eco-magic in particular have evolved
over the last ten years and in some ways the shift in my perspective has
been quite radical. This conference offers the ideal opportunity to share
my ideas, and my concerns, about eco-magic as I understand it.
The definition of eco-magic remains fluid but has been usefully described as ‘using magic and ritual to stop environmental destruction and channel positive energy to those who protect the land’. I’m going to explore a little way beyond that description and try to tease out the principles that make eco-magic more than just ‘results magic for the Planet.’
When I first started in magic I was drawn very much to the ‘power of the will’ school of thought. The principle here is that if you will something hard enough and in the right frame of mind, it’ll happen. This was a very appealing notion. I had lots of wants and could be as wilful as the next guy!
But my perspective has changed. This tradition of Western magic evolved out of a worldview that was obsessed with dominating the natural world and controlling human emotion. The Ritual magic of the Renaissance and the Kabbalah, which are hugely influential on modern Paganism, aim to strengthen the magician's rational mind and willpower.
Most spiritual traditions recognise that the ego is an illusion at best and an impediment at worst. So why is it that much of Western Magic is so focused on the egoic self?
Despite its apparent differences from mainstream thought, Traditional Western magic remains rooted in a philosophical tradition that goes back beyond Aristotle. This tradition is profoundly cerebral and is founded on the notion that we are separate entities defined by individual egos. Instinct and nature become defined as a treataining ‘otherness’ which must be tamed.
It’s no coincidence that modern science evolved from this essentially rationalistic magical worldview: The science of magic is concerned with which causes will bring which results, and the very existence of formal spells reveals a belief in a conformity to given rules. One definition of magic from within this tradition is "control over meaning:" It's an evocative phrase that encapsulates a whole history of analytic magic philosophy.
But from the perspective of eco-magic there are problems with these foundations. Western magical technique enhances the will of the magician and generally strenthens the ego, which tends to emphasise the distinction between the self and the cosmos. In the process the magician can become increasingly alienated from nature and less able to sense the flow of Spirit.
Ego-magic is about imposing the will of the magician on a malleable world. Eco-magic is about discovering how our human consciousness can work in harmony with nature to alleviate ecological imbalance.
Can we build a new world using tools that help create the old one?
It's a question of ends and means: If our methods have dubious origins, does that matter if they work? Many might argue that the means justifies the ends. This might be true in a different context, but in the realm of magic ideas are bound tightly to manifestation and all things are connected. We cannot separate our means from our ends.
Eco-magic requires an entirely new set of conceptual tools.
I have argued elsewhere that there is a way of being which respects our instinctual gut feelings, the knowing of the body:
"The knowledge memories & wisdom held within our muscles, flowing with our hormones, and sparking through our nerves…that moves beyond the cerebral to bring us to a direct experience of a wholeness rooted in the body." (Sacred Ecology, 1994).
What I call 'Somatic Knowing' is grounded in the body. It’s beyond ego and brings an awareness of the unity of all things. My eco-magic emerges from this other way of knowing. I believe it's time to ask awkward questions of our Western tradition and to ground our magic elsewhere: Truly radical magic must be rooted in a more ancient earth.
Enough theory: Let's look at some practical examples.
Most magicians work in circle. Why? My training taught that the magical circle was like a mixing bowl: It serves to keep out what you don’t want and to keep in what you do. That’s very valid, and I usually work in circle. But what about the history of the magic circle? In Ceremonial Magic the circle is cast to protect the magician from the spirits he will summon and command. We may not always use it in the same way today, but spirits have a very long memory, so be clear in you intent when casting a circle.
In British tradition the Fair Folk have an intense dislike for iron tools, especially edged weapons. It's no coincidence that magic often uses a sword or knife as symbol of the rational mind, the evolutionary and divisive force of the warrior. The knife represents the sharp faculties of our will that cuts the veil of illusion. Unsurprisingly, Nature Spirits fear this energy which is entirely alien to them and has long been a weapon of their oppression.
The traditional invocation of the Elementals is drawn from the same roots. I can well remember my early invocations when I would make great effort to sound imposing and dramatic as I called out ‘I Summon, Stir and Call Ye Up!"
To be honest I was so busy trying to sound impressive that I didn’t really think exactly what I was saying. But some of those who work most closely with the Folk claim that this traditional invocation not only calls the Elemental Spirits, but binds them as well. It’s not an invitation to join the circle and work co-operatively with the magician, but a demand to attend and assist.
Today I am very clear in my work with spirits: I welcome those of good intent, and invite them to join with me in the circle. I am less concerned with sounding impressive than with engaging with the energy of the spirits on their own terms. In practice this usually means disengaging the ego somewhat and using sound and physical movement rather than rote learned blank verse.
Many Pagans today have adopted the practice of ‘checking the site’ to see if the beings who exist there are agreeable to the working taking place. Not to do so is a little like turning up unannounced in someone's front room and declaring you’re going to have a party there! These are not empty spaces, and asking permission to work outdoors should be basic ritual practice. So we ask. We ask if it’s appropriate to weave our magic in this place. And then we listen. We listen carefully, and honesty. This is quite a bit harder than it sounds. I can recall that in my early magical practice, the genius loci was always most accommodating. Whatever branch I wanted to cut, or wherever I choose to work my magic, the answer was always a resounding ‘Yes’!
Well, at least that’s what I heard....
In general nature spirits want to work with us: they can
get as much from the relationship as we can as long as it’s one of mutual
respect. But if you never get turned down, then either you are remarkably
popular with nature spirits, or your ‘listening’ to the wrong reply!
My own eco-magic work has shown me a few other pitfalls that the eco-magician is prone to.
First off is ‘Healing the land’. There are obviously parts of this planet which have been severely abused by humankind, and it’s entirely appropriate for us to try and restore the balance that has been disrupted. But we need to be clear about our perception of the energy of a place. Elemental energy can be a very raw force, and not all nature spirits are ‘human friendly’. They aren’t necessarily going to harm you, but they may have an energy we don't feel comfortable with.
! was on a Coven holiday in Cornwall a few years ago and we came across a bay that had a particularly unpleasant feel. Our first assumption was that it was haunted or in some way out of balance, and that we should help. Fortunately we spend some time trying to communicate with the genius loci to find out what we could do, and discovered that the place itself was just fine – it just had an energy that humans found uncomfortable.
We need to be very careful not to project our own perspective onto the natural world – that after all is what has caused so many of the problems we are trying to address.
At the heart of eco-magic is the intention to work with nature. Before you grab your wand and start intoning words of power, check that you’re aware of what needs to be done.
Conventional magic can be a bit like conventional medicine; a ‘Doctor knows best, poison and cut' strategy that attacks the symptoms from a very objective perspective. Alternative healing is based on the principle that the body knows best, and enabling self-healing is better than intrusion. I think that's very much the philosophy of eco-magic. The Earth can heal given time, and our role is to assist that process.
Numerous pitfalls await if we are not aware of the ‘ecology of magic'. Every magical working shifts the cosmic balance and may have knock-on effects beyond what we intend.
During the M11 Link Road campaign of the 1990’s I came up with the idea of inviting Gremlins to come and ‘infest’ the bulldozers that were flattening trees. We discussed the possibility of creating a ‘Gremlin Talisman’ that would attract Gremlins to whatever the talisman was attached to, and a few imaginative sigils were suggested.
The project was going pretty well, and I could hardly wait to unleash hoards of gremlins on the unsuspecting road builders.
At this point Reg, who has worked with Dragon from the Oxleas days, reminded me of what happened when some bright spark introduced rabbits to Australia as a cheap food source. The rabbits inevitably escaped into the wild and ecological havoc ensured. Did I seriously think that any Gremlin worth the name would tamely stick to the particular vehicle we’d allocated to it?
The ‘Gremlin Project’ was quietly shelved, and the concept of the ‘ecology of magic’ became a personal principle.
What else have I learnt from 10 years of eco-magic? Can eco-magic save the world? That depends on what we mean!
The modern concept of the Natural World is a very artificial one. It suggests a division between us and the rest of the world that if both false and potentially damaging.
My conception of the ‘environment’ includes the city as well as the countryside. In this country at least, the green and pleasant land around us is just as much moulded by human culture as our more recent brick and mortar creations. Where does Nature end and Culture begin? A magical worldview blurs the distinction between the two. When we say that the Earth is Sacred, perhaps what we actually mean is that our relationship with the Earth is Sacred.
My personal eco-magic is focused on our relationship to the Sacred, as I believe that is where true global healing lies. My Paganism has moved away from a practice grounded in an agricultural worldview, and towards something more fluid and more personal. It has become less a set of beliefs and more a way of relating to the world.
In his book ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, Robert Heinlein uses the word ‘grokking’, to refer to a deep conceptual understanding that lies somewhere between the human notions of "to love", "to know", "to understand", and "to bond with". To me, Paganism is grokking the Sacred.
A Dragon eco-magic style evolved over the last decade that is strongly influenced by Starhawk and contemporary shamanic practice. But our eco-magic is in flux: It is more an attitude than a set of practices, and is constantly challenged by the input of myriad magical traditions.
What remains at the core is what works: Eco-magic that co-operates with local spirits; minimal hierarchy and simple intuitive ritual that is inclusive and accessible.
At it’s best, the style of Dragon reflects exactly the magical attitude I am promoting: It’s not about ego, nor about preconceived principles. It is about openness and flexibility.
If there is one thing that I feel is crucial to eco-magic, it’s the ability to listen. So, perhaps it’s time for me to stop talking, and with openness, just listen.
Sacred Ecology (Harris, 1994). Published in 'Paganism Today',
ed. Harvey and Hardman, Harper Collins.