The Delicate Dance of Balance
No matter what harmonic epithet might resonate with our soul, Shaman, Priest/ess or Witch, I have found that the craft holds no hope of perfection without intimate knowledge of our Earth’s mysteries. Therein lies true magic, a gift from the Mother of Creation and handled deftly by the most ancient of mankind.
What we call geology was not an armchair feature in the ancient world. Soil was born out of volcanic or oceanic events. Tectonic plates created mountains, gorges, seismic eruptions and rogue waves. Wind and water sculpted ravines and breathtaking formations, moving both seed and soil. Trickles cut paths that led to rushing rivers carving out extraordinary canyons. Those that lived harmoniously in the natural world had an inherent understanding of the continual, cyclical forces of Creation and destruction. Ritual intent demonstrated love and respect for those forces. There was no attempt to change or control them, only sacrificial appeasement and honor shown to the awesomeness. If the ocean grew fierce, for example, it was better to simply move away allowing it the freedom and privacy to have its own rituals or fulfill its own mystical purposes.
Our planet is the very seat on the sacred elements of earth, water, wind, and fire, the heart and soul of our Mother’s Creation. The bones of our ancestors were put to rest at Her breast. They became particles of soil and lived on in the trees that took root in their ancient bodies. The dust of our ancestral beginnings was carried by the wind, washed into global waters, or lifted into the air as great, fiery ashes. The Ancient Ones understood the beauty of these mysteries and the extraordinary magic that emerged from that knowledge.
I realized that before I could appropriately handle any given species of plant, whether as smoke or steam, prayer bundle or medicine bag, I had to know in my own bones the sacrosanct world in which that species grew. I began to understand that each lived outs it life a midst a wide range of companion plants unique to the habitat in which they could be found. Understanding their relationship to each other and the specialized environment in which they thrived struck me as the ultimate form of sympathetic or companion magic.
When I began my quest for knowledge I was convinced that every ecosystem in which a people evolved or settled was complete for their needs of food, clothing, shelter, medicine and spirituality; even the least diverse, the acidic habitats didn’t disappoint me. I have since established all of my study of plants by the guidelines of specific ecological habitats.
Not all forests are found in mountains or are all mountains forested, especially above the snowline where only alpine species can be found. Acidic woods and mountains can also contain areas of wet bogs and moors or drier areas of heathland. Distinctions can be drawn between all three although all can be found in acidic woods and mountains. Soil found in these forests is composed primarily of old, decomposed rock such as granite (pH 3.5 or less). Pronounced drainage and poor nutrient quality limits the species tolerant of this range but some familiar favorites can be found there such as oak (Quercus), holly (Ilex), hawthorn (Crataegus), birch (Betula), pine (Pinus) and dogwood (Cornus), among many others.
Bogs are exceedingly wet and generally waterlogged. Moors can be thought of as raised drier areas within bogs. Waterlogged material does not readily decompose because of the lack of oxygen and single-celled organisms needed for that process. The accumulation of material eventually becomes sphagnum.
Heathland is composed of dry, highly acidic soil, primarily peat. Sweetgale (Myrica), violet (Viola), buckthorn (Rhamnus), and woodruff (Gallium) are at home in boggy areas. The Heathland is home to familiars such as gorse (Ulex), ragwort (Senecio) and yarrow (Achillea).
The lime-rich soil (about pH 7) of alkaline woods and mountains is extremely nutritious and affords tremendous diversity. It can also contain areas of chalk grasslands as well as fens and marshy meadows. The alkaline forest is home to ash (Fraxinus), alder (Alnus), blackthorn (Prunus) and yew (Taxus) among countless others.
We can find columbine (Aquilegia), angelica (Angelica), speedwell (Veronica) and sweetgrass (Catabrosa) in fens and marshy meadows, the wet areas of the alkaline range. Fens like bogs are constantly wet. However, marshy meadows might only be seasonally wet because of spring thaws and rainy seasons. Grasslands are the great, sweeping meadows of the alkaline range and home to amazing species such as thistle (Onopordum), boarweed (Heracleum), mayweed (Matricaria) and wormwood (Artemisia).
The coast is composed of several systems within the larger ecology simply referred to as the coast. One can find grasslands as well as salt marshes there. Beaches can lay down sand or scree. Different species grow in each. The division of systems is based on the amount of time each day an area is submerged and the consequent determination of the species that can be found in each. Tidal rivers dump into bays and oceans. The banks and deltas of these where salt and fresh water mingle daily afford additional unique habitats. The coast is home to varieties such as goldenrod (Solidago), rose (Rosa), nightshade (Solanum), marshmallow (Althaea) and countless others.
Each species handled in ritual magic comes from a highly specific habitat and brings the secrets of that world to ceremonies, whether we realize it or not. That is my belief and why I have spent decades studying the idiosyncrasies of these secret worlds in order grasp the true nature of the mystery being invoked.
Every spiritual practice from Paleo-Paganism through Neo-Paganism already holds in its hands the keys to living harmoniously within life on our Earth. Those keys are love and acceptance of an older, more complete and perfect world. But that world can no longer be understood without the help of science if we want to re-discover the magic with which our ancestor’s lives was saturated. We recognize the sacredness of sites such as Stonehenge but we forget to factor in the extraordinance of the landscape around it as the source of mystery that compelled the ancients to choose the spot in which it was erected. They knew that environment better than their own souls, every plant, particle of soil, rock and ley line of it. Every feature of ancient life was tied to encyclopedic knowledge of the Earth, out of which emerged ritual magic. If we are to reconstruct Paganism we must begin with knowledge of the Earth, our Mother where all mystery and magic waits for us.