Back to Nature? Not likely. Thoughts on a sensible modern Paganism

What does an Earth-based religion look like in the 21st century? If you ask my Pinterest feed, a certain brand of rustic fantasy emerges. There is a lot of bark. There is a lot of artfully arrayed moss. There are corsets and loincloths and tools of antler and clay. You can only deduce that Paganism is something one does outdoors, away from modern conveniences, and preferably while looking fabulously disheveled.

Campfires, misty groves, stones and bones--these images speak to us and inspire us. A yearning for natural surroundings (and for the distant past) is one of the common threads that connect diverse Pagan paths. When witches and Pagans gather outdoors, there is a palpable sense of joy. Indeed, some of them say it’s the only time they feel like they can really be themselves.

I approach these “back to Nature” moments with mixed feelings. Like most Pagans, I also experience a deep longing for the natural world and for Other worlds. Sometimes it feels strange to live in a modern city with millions of humans. Sometimes it even feels like an exile.

And yet, I choose to live in a big city, and marvel at the diversity and creativity it sustains. It makes me happy, as I approach my 30th birthday, that I still have all my teeth and don’t have to forage or fight for dinner. I understand that my current “where” and “when” allows me more wealth and opportunity than would have been possible at any other point in history.

Also, while I love Nature, I really don’t care much for the outdoors. Mosquito bites practically cripple me, and I’ve never yet been moved to tears by the sight of the Texas scrub prairie. Visiting with friends around a revel fire, I once ventured that we hold next year’s Samhain gathering at the Marriott Courtyard—a suggestion that was immediately met with playful boos and jeers.

All joking aside, the sentimental idea of a return to Nature hurts modern Paganism. It’s naïve, historically inaccurate, spiritually and socially regressive—not to mention impossible.

Misty-eyed Pagans love to spin yarns of a bygone society, usually matriarchal, that was egalitarian and Nature-based. Too bad historical anthropology doesn’t corroborate any of these ideas. The archaeological evidence we do have indicates that prehistoric people were massive poachers and litterbugs, far more concerned with their own immediate survival than the long-term health of Earth and Her creatures.

Even if such a Pagan paradise did exist in the past, it’s too late to reconstruct it. The time has long gone when Earth’s population can “live off the land” in hunter-gatherer fashion—abolishing mass agriculture would result in the starvation of the vast majority of human beings. Our communities are too large and complex to be led by a seer or shaman (the way us “seer/shaman” types might wish for). We are riding in a time machine, and it only moves forward.

I’m not suggesting that any Pagan diminish their affection for Nature. Earth is our home and our source of life. Without Her, we have neither. The point is to expand our understanding of what Nature encompasses—including our amazing ingenuity in making our homes on this little blue ball.

Even urban Pagans can retain a deep reverence for the movements of the Sun and Moon, the Earth’s seasons, and the four directions. Though they’re ironically associated with wishy-washy, airy-fairy beliefs, these phenomena are about the closest thing to objective reality. Gaia’s beautiful habits are a worthy lodestar on which to center one’s faith. In bumper sticker terms: “I worship Nature. Don’t laugh—I can prove it exists.”

Industrialism, militarism, and all their associated evils have scarred so many lives and done such dire harm to the planet that it’s no wonder that people wish to retreat—literally or metaphorically—into a cozy primeval cave. Given the terrifying realities of modern life, it’s certainly not wrong to indulge in a little backwards-thinking fantasy now and then. The myth of a lost green utopia stirs something in us, and these feelings ought to be recognized--but it’s not a model for a Pagan practice moving forward.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy so many Pagans are challenging the destruction and exploitation of natural environments. I love to see people teaching, exploring, and worshiping outdoors. Preserving and enjoying the Earth is one of our roles as Pagan souls, but I think that more is possible—required, actually.

Simply put, I believe that our Gods, ancestors, Fae—whoever you feel cares about the fate of our planet and species—have a very special and very difficult mission for us. We are being asked to co-create a Nature-based spiritual awareness--one that is compatible with our ever-advancing global populations and technology. We must integrate these changes, because reversing them isn’t feasible and denying them is folly.

Many Pagans alive today are old souls, but we can spin that trait into an asset rather than a liability. I don’t think we need to resign ourselves to being Luddites, village eccentrics, or hopeless nostalgics. But we need to have the courage to face facts, and to work for change outside of our comfortable, insular communities. The experiences we have around the bonfire matter, but it’s what we do when we return to civilization that will define our future.

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