366 Day 1 – Earth-centred spirituality

On New Year’s Eve I started working my way through Timothy Roderick’s Wicca: A Year And a Day. I wasn’t actually expecting to – I didn’t decide ‘and on New Year’s Eve I’m going to start my 366 project’, it was more of a ‘it’s still daylight and not raining, sod it let’s go outside and do this’. I’d been planning on starting my 366 project sometime soon anyway, as the flat is nearly finished aside from painting the spare room, hall, and en-suite, and it actually feels like home now. I didn’t have a specific date in mind, although ‘at some point in January’ was the goal I set myself.

I started by reading the introduction to Day 1, in which Roderick talks about how back when humanity was still wandering round with stone tools hunter-gathering and later when humans started farming, there wasn’t any organized religion as we would conceive of it today. No hierarchies of priests, no complex dogma, possibly even no priests or idea of ‘religion’ at all as a seperate concept – just the changing seasons, the migration patterns of the animals, the clues about what the weather held, and how that would affect the lives and livelihoods of those tiny communities of people.

As Melissa Zupan puts it in her post on Day 1:

Once the frippery of religion is deconstructed, all you’re really left with is man, his environment, and his continuing struggle to understand his place within it … so I agree with Roderick when he points to the birthplace of spirituality being “in the dirt, in the soil, in the struggles and triumphs of everyday life,” and I whole-heartedly agree with him when he says that “getting started in this path requires you to settle down into the metaphorical dirt–the experiences of the world itself–and get your hands and feet muddy.” Spirituality requires an anchor, no matter what the system actually is, and there is no better anchor than the world and our experiences on and in it.

And while I agree with her assesment, I would slightly disagree with Melissa when she says that ‘the wonder and despair that currently inclines us to religious thoughts would be focused instead towards an appreciation of [nature’s] awe-ful strengths, to the connections between her, us, and all the other creatures on the planet’, because that would have been their religion. The cave pantings that early humans left behind suggest a form of sympathetic magic closely tied up with the community’s everyday life and survival – you need a successful hunt to stave off starvation, so you paint one on the walls and then go hunting, you need the aurochs to migrate in their usual pattern so you carve one into the walls and paint it. In the same way that during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, for the vast majority of people everyday life and religion were inextricably linked. People were born into the Church, they lived their lives by the Church’s laws, and when they died they were buried using the Christian funeral service, in consecrated ground, and prayers were said for their souls for years afterwards – if you lived outside the Church you lived outside society.

I also disagree with Roderick when he opens with ‘in Europe’s Neolithic past’, as the ‘earth-centered spiritual practices’ he describes had appeared much earlier. What could be termed religious behaviour first appears in the archaeological record during the Middle Palaeolithic, from around 300,000 years BP (Before Present), with Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis engaging in the intentional burial of their dead with grave goods and the use of red ochre. Evidence of religion itself, as opposed to evidence merely of funerary practices, emerges during the Upper Palaeolithic from about 50,000 yBP, with cave and rock art, decorated bones, and sculptures such as the Venus figurines, with the Neolithic period starting only 9,000 yBP. And while the Venus figures were probably used as symbols of fertility, in the same way the cave paintings were connected to the hunt, I don’t believe that they depicted a prehistoric Mother Goddess. I think it much more likely that they started out as fertility-related self-portraits of (possibly pregnant) women, as when viewed from above a lot of the Venus figurines’ proportions match that of what a woman sees when she looks straight down at her own body.

But I’m a historian and archaeologist, and I digress.

Because where I live in is built around a courtyard, I have ready-made access to grass, trees, plants, and water, so I didn’t have to go far to do this exercise. However, because it was bloody cold and windy, I went around the side of the building to where there’s a patch of lawn with a couple of trees growing out of it. There was slightly less wind, but it’s also more secluded, as although there are still a lot of windows overlooking that area there’s no foot traffic through it, so I could be sure of fewer or no interruptions.

I sat down with my back against one of the trees, shut my eyes and concentrated on roots growing down from the base of my spine and connecting me to everything on the earth. Unfortunately, this didn’t really work for me. The visuallising roots bit was fine, they started out as white like bone, then as they spread through the earth with my exhales (what I saw as a speeded-up version of what Granny Weatherwax describes in Wyrd Sisters as the heartbeat of a forest that happens once a year – ‘the brighter sun and longer days that would pump a million gallons of sap several hundred feet into the sky in one systolic thump too big and loud to be heard’) the roots became darker, as the soil stained them the same colour as the skeletons I’ve excavated, but with the growing ends of the roots still living-bone-white. Then I tried to get these roots to reach out and connect with ‘the great All‘, and failed miserably. I could get the tips of my roots to touch other things, but not connect to them in any way. So I tried a different approach – instead of having my roots spread out accross the globe in a web connecting everything, as the exercise asks us to do, I imagined my roots blending with the tree’s roots that I leaned against and essentially using them to jump-start my own roots with much more success. I could ‘see’ the roots spreading out from where I sat, joining up with the roots of the bush ten yards away, the grass, the trees across the drive, digging into the foundations of my building and the surrounding wall, and continuing to spread under the surface of the ground.

However, I hit a snag when it came to moving beyond the UK. I live on an island, and there are no roots I could follow under the English Channel to the Continent, let alone across the Altantic to the Americas. So I left my web of roots in place and returned to the base of my spine, where I sent out a taproot that ran straight down towards the core of the earth, far deeper than the roots of anything natural goes, aside from mountains, until I hit the mantle – that layer of molten rock under the earth’s crust. I did try and push my roots through the crust itself to get past the seas, but in my imagination this felt like hard work and led to blockages when I hit the edges of the tectonic plates, which is why I decided to move them through the magma underneath. I then visualised roots growing from this taproot of mine and spreading out until there was a network just under the earth’s crust, which I could then send roots upwards from and connect with those of plants on other continents.

While I was able to hold the mental image of all these root systems in my mind in one go, I found it impossible to imagine this network connected to all the ‘humans, animals, plants, objects’ in the world at the same time. So I visualised little vignettes – connecting to trees and ferns in the rainforests of the Amazonian basin, to the redwood forests in the US, the trees growing in the oases of the Sahara, the plants of the Siberian tundra, and up through the volcanoes in Iceland to the hardy mountain plants. I also found that I couldn’t just use my spine to send down roots and connect to the ground. I felt unbalanced and not really grounded at all, so I used my hands as well with fingertips spread out and touching the ground on either side of me, with visualised roots growing out from them into the ground and linking up to the roots from my spine and the tree. Much better.

I’m not sure how long I spent like this, although I’m guessing it proabaly wasn’t as long as the ten minutes the exercise asks for because it was bloody cold and my arse was damp as I’d brought nothing to sit on, but I eventually opened my eyes, jotted down some answers to the questions Roderick asks us to consider, and hurried back inside to change and get warm. Here are my answers to the questions Roderick asks:

In what way was the connection strong?
I felt strongly connected to trees and less strongly to other types of plant such as bushes and ferns. I also felt a reasonably strong connection to the earth itself, to rocks and the soil, as well as birds on trees.

What do you suspect is the reason for any strong connections?
I think the reason for this is because plants have roots that go down into the earth which is not only what I had visualised myself having, but also because I was connecting to things via these roots along with piggybacking on the tree roots underneath me. As for the birds, they were standing barefoot on branches and so had an immediate connection to what I had the strongest feeling of connectivity with.

In what way was the connection weak?
I found it next to impossible imagining connections to animals and humans unless they were sitting or lying down on the ground when it became merely very difficult, although I found animals easier overall.

What do you suspect is the reason for any weak connections?
I think this is due to the fact that humans and animals move around a lot – their physical connection to the earth isn’t static and they have no roots that I could connect to with my own imagined roots. Part of this was probably down to the way I was approaching this mental exercise, but I think part of it is because I spent the vast majority of my working life dealing with mud, rocks, and plant material (mostly timber) as opposed to with a large group of people or the public. It felt more comfortable.

What actions can you take that may strengthen any weak connections?
I wrote in my notebook that I should ‘try and remember that everyone walks barefoot at some point’, by which I meant that everyone (as well as animals) has had a direct connection with the earth through this universal experience – I don’t believe that there is a person alive who hasn’t had their skin touching earth at at least one point in their lives, and the same applies to everyone who has ever lived. To a greater or lesser extend we all rely on animals to survive, and despite our many differences there are some things that unite all humans, even if it’s at the most basic level, and it is through these connections that we can feel a part of ‘the great All‘ that Roderick describes.

I was supposed to then ‘spend the rest of the day acting in accord with [my] heightened awareness to people and things around [me]’, which I took as trying to connect more with people than inanimate objects. Which on New Year’s Eve was actually very easy, as I was going to a party that evening hosted by two of my friends where everyone else attending was a stranger to me – I had to reach out and find conections between myself and the other people there, otherwise my conversations would have been very limited and dull.

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