We live in world that is alive and breathing. That is what the whole concept of Gaia is about–the recognition that Earth herself is a living entity, her rivers and brooks the flow of her blood, her lands and seas are her body, her wind her breath and her subterranean depths her bones. One of the things I find most extraordinary about the entire concept of Gaia is its implications–the very stones and wind and falling rain, even a shooting star–it’s all part of a grand living magic. Life is varied and comes in every shape, size and form. Indeed, life pushes the bounds we ordinarily recognize (that of plant and animal) and comes as spirit, too.
I have always been aware of the more elusive spirit side of life. I grew up in the bayous of Louisiana and the Cajuns always believed their world was full of ghosts, goblins and spirits. Every boy and girl was warned to be cautious of the little candle flicker beings called feux follets who would pursue wanderers in the meadows and woodlands with unknown intent. We all learned to be cautious of the pere malfait, something like an elemental of mud and moss that sought to drag persons into the watery depths of the bayous. We all knew ghosts haunted the misty meadows and the deep places of the forest. And every rural family expected to have to make peace with their land’s ghosts or mischievous spirits.
Since coming to Nova Scotia, with its Acadian culture (the northern parallel of the Cajun people) and its even more predominant Gaelic culture which derives of Scotland, living with spirits has become an even more central element of our lives. The faerie faith still lives in Nova Scotia, and some old folk have told me tales of their parents leaving out little offerings to the faeries and warning their children not to step within fairy rings sequestered in the forest. Indeed, everywhere I have travelled and spoken with peoples who maintain traditional lifeways, the folk know the land is alive with spirits. And when I think of that, it fills me with joy. The universe is full of all manner of life, and it is a beautiful mystery.
Living well with life in all its manifestations, from the biological to the spirit, is the root wisdom of the shaman, witch, druid, animist, pagan . . . and what have you. We have always sought to create of our homestead, Twa Corbies Hollow, a place where all life is lived with well. To that end, we respect the animals and plants that share the land with us, and we follow many of the Old World practices for getting along with the spirits. These might take the form of setting out faerie plates with bits of bread and cheese, or putting up corn dolls toward the end of harvest to honor the goddess Taitliu who sees to the bounty of the land. We might leave the last of the corn on the stalks for John Barleycorn, the legendary spirit of growing grain. We might go into the forest and ask the spirits to send the passing coyotes around our meadows so that we need never come to odds with them over the safety of the livestock. Ultimately, we commune with the spirits in many ways, a process of mutual give-and-take so that we all might live together well. And it works! Our gardens always yield well. Our goats are always safe and give wonderful milk. The land flourishes, and the spirits and my family are friends.
In shamanism and traditional witchcraft (there really is no difference between the two) there is a simple tradition of giving back to the spirits for the goodness they share. When the witch goes to the fields to collect herbs for magical-spiritual working, she recognizes that the spirits tied to that plant are giving up something valuable. So the witch gives something back. Not out of fear of retribution but just because share-and-share-alike is a good honest rule to live by. Wolf Dieter-Storl, the famous German herbalist and shaman, has a video in which he harvests a herb and pours out, in a very matter-of-fact manner, a little beer to the spirits at the spot. There are no sacred words spoken, nor is there complex ritual. It’s all very simple and straightforward. <<In thanks for this I give you that.>> This honest, down-to-Earth way of mutual sharing and respect is, I believe, one of the best ways to live with spirits. I have even found that the spirits, in return, will let a person who is honest with them catch glimpses of their reality.
So, go gently, walk kindly and be considerate of life from the herb to the very spirit of the land and watch as magic springs up around you.