I have noticed, in heathenry, particularly among the more strict reconstructionists, a tendency to tell newbies asking about gods to look first to the land spirits and the ancestors because they are closer, more easily accessible, perhaps less busy.
I find it a little irritating, mostly because I think people should approach the three major groups of our worship (those being ancestors, landwights, and gods) in whatever order or proportion makes the most sense to them. I, for one, would never have found heathenry were it not for the gods who came calling. Through them, I have found a wonderful connection with the land and am finding some kind of peace and reverence for my own ancestors.
Not everyone comes to heathenry in the same manner as I did. Many come to it seeking a connection to their ancestors first, and find the land and the gods after. Or they come to it for the land and then find the gods and the ancestors. I can’t think of anyone from the last category though, except for the vast numbers of us who came to heathenry via Wicca and it’s earth-based philosophy.
However you cut it, the landwights seemingly tend to be the last found and least discussed of the major spirit groups. And that tendency, for me at least, to forget the landwights came with a problem of expectations.
I find that expectations are dangerous in religious experience. I have found that when I go into ritual or meditation or trance with an expectation of what I am to achieve or see, I am always disappointed. My expectations color what I see, keeping me from seeing what is really there. Either my visions are clouded, or my dance doesn’t feel as fulfilling. Or I will meet a spirit expecting a different one and come out confused.
This was my problem with the landwights. I was, for some reason, expecting to go outside and commune with the landwights and see, at least in my inner vision, some kind of gnome-like vaguely anthropomorphic being. This never happened, and so for the longest time, I thought I wasn’t meeting the landwights. That I couldn’t see them.
That’s not the issue. Perhaps it’s just me, but the landwights don’t look anthropomorphic. They don’t even look like spirits. They are there, right before us in the land, unhidden. They are the beetles and the squirrels. The birds. The tree bark and the grass. The sunset. The houses and buildings and mountains and the culture of the people who live there. Which is not to say that the purely spirit kind don’t exist either. But I found that spirit by looking at the land just as it is before me.
I found myself expecting everything in religion to be esoteric, to be the realm of the unseen, and I was missing the fundamentals of earth-worship. That I am worshiping the Earth in her natural, real, tangible glory.
I have lived in three places since I converted to heathenry nearly three years ago (I was a college student. I moved a lot). I’m going to talk a little about the wights of each of these places and how the land has affected my religious experiences.
Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding countryside
In many ways, Birmingham is my childhood home. We moved there when I was 11 and I lived there full-time until I was 18, after which I went home for some summers and Christmases. Birmingham is in the foothills of the Appalachians, the mountain range that is home to me in a way that no other thing is.
My experiences with the landwights there were less at my parents home in the suburbs and more out in the country. Gent lives out in the country on forty acres with his parents, who inherited it from his grandparents. We fell in love on that land, and the spirits there have called to us, to let us know that our home is there, our ancestral property. We expect that one far-off day we will inherit that land and finally be home.
There are three lakes there, and two houses—a new built by Gent’s parents out of cedar from the property, and the old house where his father lived as a child.
The trees there are mostly pines and cedars. There are weeds, but also agriculture. There is a little garden, and the neighbors run a you-pick farm. This is the only place I have lived (lived is probably too strong of a word. I didn’t live there physically, but my soul has lived on that land) that has fed its inhabitants. There is something very strong about that that I have been missing everywhere else. When I go over there, we sit by the fire and eat dinner and have tea after and talk about spiritual things.
Once, when the landwights were most strongly calling to Gent and I, to let us know that this was our home, that we were to be in love and live there, we were sitting on a hillside that used to house a town, watching the sunset. Any time we tried to kiss, his dogs would run up to steal them. And then we heard a splashing in the pond, where we discovered a beaver flapping his tail.
That land is the only place I have seen a beaver. Or a hummingbird. Or a porch covered in ladybugs. You can see the ridges of Birmingham and the Appalachians in the distance, the broad fields and the forests. The people with their thick southern accents.
When I live in Birmingham, I want nothing more than to live on the land. I want to move out to Gent’s house and farm. I want to rebuild the broken down barn and make a dance studio so that I can dance to the land, to return to it the joy it has given me.
The Hudson Valley
I went to college in the Hudson Valley, and it is where I converted to heathenry. It was the first place I felt passionate about home. In Birmingham, I feel like slow home, like things should be the same for ever and ever, the land has an expansiveness through time about it.
The Hudson Valley is a bit different. The land there buzzes with earthly vitality. With passion and color and joy. The Hudson Valley does every season passionately. It has the most beautiful autumn—so beautiful that people travel to the towns surrounding my college in the autumns to see the beautiful leaves. The colors of autumn shine like jewels on the Catskills, and the river glitters in the sun. Winter has soft snows perfect for snowmen. But it also has fierce ice storms. I almost didn’t get to have my senior project show because an ice storm wiped out power in five counties. The springs are full of daffodils, and the summers explode with the vibrancy of thunderstorms and sunflowers.
The land is passionate about everything it is. The gods are easy to find there. All I had to do was step outside and feel the power of the earth, to see the cycles of life and death, to watch the joy in flowers and squirrels jumping and birds flying.
The spirit of the land is strong, and its wights want to be known. They press themselves into the consciousness of everyone who goes looking.
A favorite memory of the land there was how I learned about death and decay. I would take walks in the woods and look at the fallen trees in various stages of decomposition, watch the new plants take hold of life in their splintery dust. One day, I stood watching flies eat a dead squirrel for forty-five minutes, seeing them lay their eggs and feast on the death. I saw the birds flying over my head, and thought of how the birds would eat the flies and then the squirrel would be flying. And how, when I die, I too will be eaten by worms or flies or bacteria that will be eaten by other animals in the great life cycle, and I, too, will fuel a bird’s flight. I, too, will allow a bird to fly through the great blue expanses of the air, looking down at the vibrant autumn colors and the glittering land.
I haven’t lived in Philadelphia as long as I have these other places—I’ve been here just under a year. But I have begun to know the land here, and am finding ways to adjust my religious expression to account for it.
The hardest transition for me has been from the country to a city and away from the mountains I love so dearly. I miss walking out my door to fields of grass and huge oak trees. For a long time, I could not find my way and lost my gods.
But they are here, just in a different way. Birmingham is a slow place, the Hudson Valley is passionate and vibrant, and Philadelphia is practical.
The whole city has a sort of patron ancestor in Benjamin Franklin. His visage is in statues and buildings and radio stations all over the city. No one appreciates practicality more than Ben Franklin, and that practicality is evident here.
It is evident in the huge numbers of Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch who live in the surrounding countryside and who sell their food at the downtown market. It is evident in that the vast majority of the architecture is useful rather than beautiful. It is evident in the people here and their way of making do. It is evident even in the artists, who have a sort of practical style of finding work. In the amount of art here that is made with found objects or reconstituted pieces. It is evident in the sort of hidden pride of the people here and the city’s place in America’s history. And it is evident in some of the ways that the city bands together as a community.
Philadelphia is a community more than anywhere else I have lived. Yes, there are crime problems and major racism problems. Yes, there is a huge amount of poverty and neighborhoods I go through regularly that make most people want to run away screaming. And yes, there are some people living here who wish that it was New York and think it’s boring because it’s not.
But there are so many people here whose families have been here for generations, who have been fans of the Phillies or the Flyers their entire lives, and who would give anything for the city. There is the respect for the land and the city that other places don’t seem to have—despite litter problems (the city really needs to put out more trash cans), we have the largest public park system of any city in America. We have the Mural Arts Program that fills the city with beautiful art. We just finished the most beautiful chunk of Spring I have ever seen in my life. The flowering trees were like the city was laughing in its own joy at delicious water ice and cheesesteaks, at the rowhouses the city is famous for, for the beginning of baseball season.
I have become much more practical since moving here. My passion for my gods has dulled a little, to my chagrin. I feared, at first, that it meant the death of my religious tendencies as long as I lived here. But it hasn’t been true. It has just lead to a different manner of expressing them. Rather than running out in the fields, laughing at hawks or crying for squirrels, I am eating barley and switching from sugar to Lancaster County honey. Rather than being surrounded by friends who fill me with so much love I am left feeling like exploding, I am settling down with my sister, cementing our bonds as family.
There is a neighborhood I will be moving to soon. It’s currently in the early stages of gentrification. Walking down the streets in this neighborhood, I feel like I am coming home. The streets are filled with artists, hippies, hipsters. The neighborhood is lined with rowhouses and the occasional deli or coffee shop. There is a street of art galleries. There are children playing, and there are the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades who wear frayed denim jackets and have bleach-blonde hair and too-long fingernails. There are houses that are marked for destruction, and new, energy-efficient, mod-style houses being built in their place. There is a farm. In this neighborhood, I have found the cycles of life and death that I had found in the animals and plants of the Hudson Valley. I have found the steady, slowness of life of Birmingham, and the artistic passion I had in college. Watching old buildings come down and new building erected reminds me that nothing is eternal, that life and existence is a constant state of recreation, and that I can have a home in the middle of it all. Philadelphia has taught me that I can create a Revolution in my own life—that I can live in a city and still see the life and death of nature. That I can have my dream of being a professional dancer. And I can find my gods, myself, my dance again, even while the land, fatigued by human inhabitance, litter, and corruption is spreading out its tendrils of joy, reaching toward the sun and a renewing beauty.