Reflections on being an Urban Pagan
Reflections on being an Urban Pagan
Deciding to follow a nature-based religion if you live in the midst of a city can be a challenge. Druids who live on farms or in woods, or even in the midst of suburban greenery can often step outside and immediately be in contact with the Earth. But those of us who are surrounded by concrete and live shoulder to shoulder with neighbors must make a conscious effort to ignore the pressing humanity and feel the rhythms of the Great Mother pulsing through our days.
When I first began reading works by pagans about the path, I was drawn to works that focused on their relationships with nature. Books that advocated cordoning off a corner of a room for meditation, or working indoors with candles, mirrors or pendulums were of little interest to me, precisely because escape from my room was a fundamental attraction of paganism for me. It was the gulf I felt, between my daily life and the rhythms of the Mother Earth, that spurred me towards our religion. It is perhaps why I was drawn first to Druidism rather than Wicca or other goddess-based religious practices.
So I turned to books that taught me how sit beneath a tree, how to notice the habits of animals, and those that spoke of vision quests in the wilderness. Many of them suggested that I plant a grove of trees in my yard, or grow my own food, or take long walks through the woods. All of them assumed that I lived deep in the forest, had leisure to spend weeks out in nature, or, at the very least, possessed a fair sized yard that could handle these great works of horticulture that I was supposedly developing. But few of these suggestions are practical, or even practicable, if you live in the city. I've never been much of the church-only-on-Sunday type and my hopes of getting to the wilderness proper to practice my "new" spirituality on a regular basis were few and far between.
Despite living in one of Washington, DC's most urban neighborhoods, I am fortunate enough to live close to what I consider one of the District's most impressive "monuments": Rock Creek Park. From my door, you can walk 4 blocks into a small patch of trees known locally as Klingle Woods. It borders Piney Branch Creek, which cuts through an old Indian quartz quarry and runs directly into Rock Creek. While the Park Service has been kind enough to carve out and laboriously maintain an asphalt bike and jogging path along the banks of what was once a mighty creek, it is the numerous small dirt paths that first gave me the connection I needed to the Earth.
There are many things I have been able to do and learn in this "urban" park that I never would have thought possible inside a city. I've sat beneath an oak tree and used it to plot the path of the sun over the course of the year. I've wandered over the hills, finding vistas where one can see only an occasional house, and imagining how Washington was in the days when the land was owned by the wind and the rain. I've found a meadow that is made for sun-worshipping in the depths of December and I've clambered through Piney Branch in search of quartz and the hoped-for Indian relic. And I've seen animals: eagles, hawks, deer, raccoons, and —once— a red fox. I know the paths through the forest almost better than I do the streets surrounding my neighborhood. So I am more fortunate than many urbanites– I do have a private wilderness that I can find any summer evening or early morning before work.
Despite my bond with this particular piece of landscape, there are large swathes of my day in which my longing for a bit of wild earth makes me impatient of the manicured tree boxes and flower beds of downtown. It once depressed me utterly to think of the way in which nature has been trapped, stuffed, and mounted for urbanites to "enjoy." The flowers seem little more than an architectural extension of the buildings at whose feet they sit and the trees reach their lonely arms across concrete and asphalt in a vain attempt to touch one another. I would walk on my lunch hour and wonder how the Earth would ever survive the indignities our species hands to her.
One week, deep in the grey depths of winter, I created a visualization or meditation for myself that I first practiced on a tiny triangle of green, pinioned between K Street, I Street, and Vermont and 15th. It is a tiny park with large oak trees, a statue of some random war hero and plenty of winos and sleeping bums. In the summer the place is covered with squirrels stashing away the leavings of lunch patrons and the air is filled with car horns and the occasional bubbly laughs of secretaries who have shed their shoes and are wiggling their toes through the grass. In winter, it is given over to the bums and hurrying walkers on their way to and from work.
The visualization I tried that first day went something like this:
Ground yourself, feeling your roots reach down into the earth, down below the concrete, down through the earthworms and decaying matter, down until you feel your roots drawing up the energy of the Earth. Then reach out to the tree nearest you with those roots, feeling its roots reaching towards you as well. Feel these roots pushing up the concrete, reaching below the buildings, connecting with other roots of trees, flowers or other plants. Look at the landscape around you and feel the thin covering of concrete over the power of these roots. Imagine what the landscape will look like centuries from now, if humans have abandoned the site. See the way in which nature will reclaim the landscape. See the vines tugging at the bricks, the grasses pushing apart the sidewalks, the roads springing with great trees and flowers. Feel the march of the ants carrying away refuse, piece by infinitesimal piece. Then look in the air. Notice the birds and the bugs. Watch them alight from tree to tree, connecting downtown with park with suburb with wilderness. Feel the cleansing power of the wind, the scouring of the rain, the melting of the sun. Imagine them working slowly, inexorably, to erode the structures around you. Imagine the Earth as a vast body upon which the structures of humans sit as a thin crust that will vanish the moment we give up our vigilance.
I still often swing between fear for the Earth and joy in her strength. And there are times when I forget to notice life being lived, regardless of the works of humans. But I've found this picture of roots and crumbling structures to be one of the most powerful for connecting me to the Earth in almost any surrounding. I've begun to understand my city in a new way. Instead of seeing concrete and glass, I notice the weeds along the road. I look out of my window at work and see, not the skyscrapers of Arlington, but the marshy tides of the Potomac. I notice the sun and the clouds, the moon and the stars. It is the minute traces of nature that the urban druid must track to plot the pulse of the Earth. And though it has been far from easy, my struggle to see life through the eyes of the Earth Mother has, for me, transformed this city of concrete and steel into a lifecelebrating, sacred wilderness.
Ancient Mother, blessings and welcome.
This article originally appeared in "What's Brewing," Mugwort Grove's newsletter.