- Beliefs – Place
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Day Six: Place
Continuing from some of the threads I left hanging in that last post, I’m going to talk about the importance of Place to me. I’ve already mentioned how some of my most memorable spiritual experiences have been the result of encounters with different place-spirits. Now I want to give some thoughts to the place I call Home.
Last year I left the state where I’ve lived my whole life to move to upstate New York and live with my long-distance girlfriend. It was a very important experience for me, not just for my relationship (which is awesome), but also for getting a much-needed perspective on how I view the world, and Place.
New York is a whole different country. I was living in the Finger Lakes, ice age relics carved out of the earth by glaciers. I made an offering at a gorge in Ithaca, surrounded by shale, not the clay and limestone that characterizes the earth back home. The winter was cold, unforgiving, and steady. It was hard (and amazing) to see how severely the angle of the sun changes with the seasons at this higher latitude. I did not feel entirely at home. I didn’t really feel welcome there. Not by the people I was staying with, who are wonderful people, all of them, but by the land itself. I was in attitude and composition a foreigner, and though I enjoyed my travels and definitely made some great strides in my spiritual journey, those strides were made because I was feeling out of place and needed someone to turn to.
I first encountered Liminal God in New York, perhaps because I was a stranger in a strange land. My new awareness of the Sun in the north gave me a deeper understanding of the solar deity I seek to honor with my life and my work.
Now I have returned back home, to live and to work and to make money (you know what sucks, being employed in a place you can’t call home) and to figure out where my journey goes next.
I want to tell a story about a tree.
When I was a toddler, I remember being outside with my mom and dad one spring or summer day while they were cleaning and weeding in the front yard. Peeking up through the ivy was a little baby plant. It was a tree, and maybe I was being a soft-hearted child but I didn’t want them to just uproot the baby tree and let it die. Or maybe my mom and dad thought it would look nice along the fence, helping to block the view from our annoying neighbor who likes working on his antique junk cars at all hours of the day. In any case, the tree was taken out of the ivy and re-planted in the backyard, and it grew up along with me. I’ve always thought of it as my tree, my little juniper that’s now taller than me and wild and uncontrollable and often covered in vines. When I was exploring neo-Wicca I took a small branch from an autumn pruning and made a wand out of it. I didn’t want the traditional athame (black-handled knife) for spellwork, it felt too violent and cold and dangerous. I wanted a wand, something with life in it that I had a connection to. It still sits in a drawer of pagan sundries, even though I don’t use it anymore. I never knew what kind of a tree it was, only that my dad said it was a juniper and we left it at that.
I now know that the tree I grew up with is, specifically, an Eastern Red Cedar, which is the same species used by the Mississippian culture across the river at Cahokia to build the Woodhenge there. It’s not a true cedar, but a juniper, and the red color of the heartwood is reminiscent of blood and therefore gives it enhanced religious significance. It’s one of the only conifers native to the region. The Eastern Red Cedar is the sacred tree of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: it is their axis mundi, or World Tree, the thing that is the center of the worlds and a place of power for spiritual journeys.
All these years I’ve been interested in liminality and journeying and spirits and how the concept of the axis mundi exists across a LOT of unrelated religions and I have the World Tree for this place growing in my backyard, quietly carrying on since I was a baby. I cannot help but find that meaningful.
The archaeologists at Cahokia rebuilt Woodhenge the year I was born, placing red cedar posts to mark the sunrise throughout the year, showing how the Mississippians laid out their ceremonial grounds. My best friend and I try to go to Cahokia on the solstices and equinoxes to see the sunrise (all attempts so far have been on overcast days), and listen to a talk by one of the docents about the history of the place and the mounds and th people who lived there. Pagan-type celebrations are not allowed at Woodhenge, both for concerns about the integrity of the archeological site and, I assume, cultural appropriation, but when I visit the place or hike up Monk’s Mound, I feel at home in the landscape, and in my own private way I recognize this Place, this environment as one of the factors that has shaped the person I am today, and for that I’m grateful.
I cannot live entirely in the past, though. There are other environmental factors that shape me. The Mississippi River is a huge presence. I remember 1993, the year of the great flood, and being worried about our house, and making sandbags with my girl scout troop, and feeling awed at the smallness and powerlessness of people in the face of this angry brown god. I owe it respect. It gives me the water I drink (no other water tastes right) and the soil I stand on. Also, the presence of the river is essential to the development of my city, the way it was founded and grew and then eventually declined (gosh THANKS railroads and planes) and now we’re at a different Place, with a different feeling, surely, than the commerical hub it once was. It feels like the city is asleep, in a way, stretching out west as people move away.
That came out sounding a little sad. Wow. In any case, this is the place in which I grew up and it’s had a powerful effect on me. I don’t think I could live in a place without a body of water nearby. It just makes things seem...more connected, in a way, to the earth, and it keeps me aware of my place in the world.