Earth Activism: My Personal Journey
Spring 2008 article for the Reclaiming Quarterly
A few years ago, I spent a month in Scotland helping to design and build an ecovillage encampment for the protests against the G8. As part of that work, we had to present our plans for graywater installations and composting toilets to the relevant local authorities, including members of the town council of Stirling, the small city that had given us land to camp on.
I went before the committee with plans, drawings, graphs and photographs, and introduced myself. One of the members smiled and nodded.
“Ah, Starhawk,” he said. “I know your work.”
That was gratifying, and our plans were approved with no difficulties. At the end, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed.
“As I said, I’ve read a number of your books. I understand why you’d be involved in the political aspects of this. But what I don’t understand is, why the compost toilets?”
From trancing with the faeries to shoveling shit—that sort of describes the trajectory of my life and work over the last few years. Why, indeed, would anyone take that path?
For me, it’s a direct outgrowth of my deepest understanding of the Goddess—that she is life itself, and that connection with the Goddess means embracing the sacredness of all of life. Moreover, that this world itself is the terrain of our spiritual journey, the place where our growth and development is enacted, where our challenges are faced and our truths are lived.
From that point of view, taking responsibility for our own shit, on every level, is a spiritual necessity. There is no myth more fascinating, no realm of spirit or faerie more strange, exotic and entrancing, than the amazing creatures of the microbial world whose birth, growth, death and decay makes compost out of waste. For gardeners, soil builders and earth healers, there is no greater treasure than compost, with its recycled nutrients and complex colonies of microbial life.
My original attraction to the Goddess, as a young woman, was to her femaleness, to images of what Carol Christ calls ‘beneficent female power’ that were so lacking in the world I grew up in. My actual encounters with the Goddess, with that deep sense of interconnection, awe and wonder and love that infuse the universe, were always in nature. Throughout the eighties and nineties, as I became more and more aware of the grave ecological crises we face, I began to feel a deep pull to do more than chant and sing about healing the earth, but to learn some practical techniques for doing it. “Grow food,” I was told in trance. “Teach people to grow food.”
I first heard about permaculture when I was writing early drafts of The Fifth Sacred Thing, from a friend who had taken a design course. I began reading about it, talking to practitioners, and learning, but it wasn’t until 1996 that I was able to take a course myself, with my friend Penny Livingstone-Stark.
Permaculture is a system of ecological design, a set of ethics and principles that guide us in developing human systems that can meet our needs while regenerating the natural environment around us. While food growing systems are probably its primary application, it can also be applied to social systems, living systems, urban planning—pretty much every human endeavor. I found it a helpful framework for learning the practical skills of earth healing and for developing and implementing real solutions to our environmental problems.
I’ve always been an activist—for me, the understanding that the Goddess is immanent in nature and human beings means you can’t just sit back and let idiots destroy her without trying to do something about it. After the successful blockade of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, I dove into a period of frenetic activism as the global justice movement grew—in part because I had lived long enough to know that movements are like waves, you have to catch them when they are rolling in, and know that they don’t last forever.
In the mobilizations against the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the G8, I met thousands of activists, many of them young and on fire with fervor for social justice. But many of them, I found, did not know what the solutions were. In permaculture and related movements, I knew hundreds of skilled designers, gardeners, builders and inventors who had amazing solutions, but often didn’t seem to recognize the vested interests and power structures that were keeping them from being put into place.
So in May of 2001, Penny and I began teaching a new kind of permaculture course, one which would have its grounding in earth-based spirituality and would also incorporate training in organizing, political strategy and direct action. We called the course Earth Activist Training.
We’ve been teaching them ever since—and in fact now, more of my time goes into EAT courses than Witch Camps—in part because around the same time I pulled back from teaching most of the camps in order to leave space for others to step forward into leadership.
EAT courses are two weeks long, and while we begin and end every day with ritual and weave magic into much of our teaching and work, we spend less time in intense ritual than in a typical Witch camp, and more time learning practical skills and the science and theory behind them. A typical day would involve a morning circle where we create sacred space and learn a magical skill, a longer morning session devoted to some aspect of earth healing—water harvesting, natural methods for cleansing soil and water from toxins, sustainable forestry, etc. and an afternoon session where we put that skill into practice. In the evening, we might have a slideshow, a ritual, a guest speaker or an interactive session. It’s intense, but I find the balance of theory, magic and hands-on is also renewing, and not exhausting in quite the same way as spending a week doing three times a day trance as in Witch Camp.
Out of the EAT courses have emerged an approach to activism that applies the magical principle that we are stronger when we work for what we want, and not just against what we don’t want. EAT students created a Green Bloc to bring permaculture techniques into mobilizations—both teaching workshops and also providing infrastructure for encampments. They’ve locked down in community gardens to protect them or carried plants into the streets to protest genetic engineering. They’ve enticed some of the thousands who come to mobilizations to put energy into local community gardens. They’ve even built a mobile, bicycle-driven composting toilet to provide relief for those long blockades.
That was how I ended up in that council meeting in Scotland, building compost toilets for the encampment to protest the G8. But it was later that same year, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, that we felt a call to take the work to yet another level.
As New Orleans lay in ruins, torn by the elements and abandoned by the federal government, a group called Common Ground Relief formed and put out a call for activists to come down and help resist attempts by the military to forcibly evacuate those who had managed to remain in the city, and also to offer services which FEMA, the Red Cross and the National Guard were utterly failing to provide. The Pagan Cluster, our group of Reclaiming-inspired magical activists, organized ourselves to go down and help out.
I went because for my whole life I had always had a sense that our present system is unsustainable and would ultimately crash and fall apart. Katrina, a hurricane intensified by the warm seas of global warming, seemed like the harbinger of things to come. I wanted to see what the world looked like when everything had fallen apart, and whether or not our skills, organizing methods and magic had anything to offer.
What I found was a place devastated beyond imagining, almost surreal in its zones of complete destruction and its other areas that were physically intact but emptied of people. It was a place where every large-scale system, from the government to the Red Cross, was virtually nonfunctional, and where the most effective work was being done by small scale, self-organized grassroots groups like Common Ground Relief. We picked up garbage, helped distribute supplies. Some Pagan Cluster members volunteered at the clinic, others helped in the main organizing—some ended up spending months and years in New Orleans. I found that we did indeed have valuable skills and methods to offer—and I also found that we did not have the ability to employ them at the scale that was needed. I’m still digesting that insight.
A small group of us—myself, Juniper, Lisa, Scotty from the Rhizome Collective in Austin–began a bioremediation project, to bring to the community some of the low-tech methods of healing soil from toxins. We worked with some of the local permaculturalists and were given use of a community garden. We brewed up actively aerated compost teas to break down biofuels and planted Indian mustard greens and sunflowers to uptake heavy metals. We tested soil and seeded selected areas with mushroom mycelium to transform toxins to compost.
I learned a tremendous amount from the project—in no small part, about our own limitations. And the experience left me with a great sense of urgency, in preparing for and attempting to mitigate the disasters to come.
There’s a Native American proverb that goes, “If we don’t change our direction, we’re going to end up where we’re headed.” Where we’re headed, without a major, fast, global shift in our technology, our means of food production, our economics and our values, is a world of multiple Katrinas, intensified storms, rising seas, drowned coastal cities, drought, famine and the wars that come in their wake.
We still have a small window of time to avoid that fate, and we have the knowledge we need to do it. I believe we bear a special responsibility, those of us who love the Goddess, who honor the sacredness of life, who draw our sense of renewal and our vitality from contact with the elements and the natural world. We belong in the forefront of the movement to heal our damaged earth, to learn the skills and tools for doing so, and to agitate for the public policies to put those skills to work. There’s no more vital work we can do at this moment in history.
How do we begin? There are, of course, changes we can make individually, from changing your lightbulbs to driving less and walking more. But the big changes we need to make are at larger than individual levels. The first step is to educate ourselves. Read, take courses, learn what the policies are that we should advocate for. My latest book, The Earth Path, is full of helpful suggestions, and there is no lack of information around us now.
Many people in our extended community have these skills to offer. Midwest Witchcamp, where I’ll be teaching this year at Diana’s Grove, has a theme of Priestessing Gaia, and Feral and I will offer a path on the microcosm, where we’ll look through the microscope at the world of tiny life around us, and explore it with all our magical tools. Other paths will focus on nature awareness, and within the Reclaiming community are many gifted teachers offering ways to open up more deeply to the natural world. You can come take an Earth Activist Training course, or find other courses in your area. I’d like to see Reclaiming develop a new core course—an Elements course that focuses on the practical earth-healing aspects of each of the elements. Ecoliteracy can become a core part of our magical and spiritual teaching.
Then organize. Change your lightbulbs—and get your workplace to change all of theirs. Grow a garden—and get your kids’ school to start one and to teach more of their lessons in the garden and fewer indoors. Re-use your graywater, and get your town or county to legalize graywater re-use, train people how to do it safely, and understand its connection to climate change. (Huge amounts of fossil fuel energy are used to pump water. Conserving water means reducing that carbon load.)
Take your magical and spiritual practice outdoors. Keep on with your inward focused meditations—but also step outside and practice being present with all your senses, observing the natural world. Bring your magical awareness into the everyday acts we do to take responsibility for our impact on the planet. Making compost is a profoundly sacred act. When we become conscious of what we do with our wastes, when we learn to transform them into fertility, we also heal ourselves.
Plant trees. Build soil. Grow food. Express your love of the Goddess with head and heart, but also with your hands. Put them into the dirt, and let them become her healing hands, transforming waste to food, regenerating life.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Starhawk. All rights reserved. This copyright protects Starhawk’s right to future publication of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this essay (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission.