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Magic in the Great Outdoors

Pathworkings and Guided Visualisations are a very popular form of magic. But have you ever noticed how, when you’re being led along a path through a sacred wood that you never step in any cow-pats? That when you sit down next to a sacred spring to hear the wisdom of some inner-plane guide, you’re never plagued by ants or wasps? This is an example of what I feel to be the tendency to idealise Nature which can be discerned in elements of contemporary Paganism & Magic. It’s so insidious that we don’t tend to notice it. It seems to me that although there is much writing about elements, faeries, spirits and sacred places, we are often looking at Nature through rose-tinted spectacles - and the messy, awkward and occasionally downright dangerous aspects of Nature are omitted - or at least ignored. In some ways, this is understandable. Many of us live in urban centres and the desire to escape them and experience Nature more directly is very strong. Yet at the same time, it’s easy to underestimate the power of Nature. I grew up in a seaside town where the awesome power of the sea struck me forcibly at an early age. One memory which will never leave me is being taken to see a trawler which had been literally hurled up onto the sea-wall during a storm. I learned to swim in the sea, and thought I could handle it until I was nearly killed a couple of times, and it was not unusual for each holiday season to be punctuated by a couple of deaths of holidaymakers who did not realise how capricious the sea can be. And this, I feel is true every time we wander into the wilderness. A couple of years ago, a simple trek around the foothills of Snowdonia led by two experienced mountaineers suddenly became for me, a near-death experience. In the wild lands, anything might happen, and in my experience, does, particularly when you think you’re ‘safe’. Safety can itself be a complex issue, particularly when we do magic with other people and when we go outdoors. In my own experience, even doing guided visualisations set outdoors can have unpredictable results. In the mid-1980s I was training as an Occupational Therapist and working in a psychiatric hospital in York. I was sitting in on a group therapy session where the facilitator was using guided visualisation to help the group members explore their feelings about being with other people. Part of the journey involved the group wandering into a forest until they could not see each other for the trees. Suddenly, one of the participants jumped out of his chair and shot out of the room. I followed him in order to find out what the problem was. It turned out that the last time this person was in a forest, it was during the British retreat from France just prior to Dunkirk. He had become separated from his unit, but could hear their screams as they were hunted down and shot by the enemy. An extreme example perhaps, but something worth bearing in mind.

Coming back to magic, I’ve never been happy about doing ‘formal’ rituals outdoors. Rituals which feel okay within a temple, cellar or spare bedroom just seem to feel out of place in the middle of a woodland glade. All that stuff about casting a circle or ‘banishing’ - which is basically about establishing boundaries just feels plain wrong. I’ve often felt that there’s a tendency, particularly amongst modern magicians, to take an ‘indoors’ ritual and perform it outdoors without any awareness that being outdoors might require a different approach and some basic respect of the different space that one has moved into. At times this has led to some ludicrous situations. A few years ago, whilst I was doing a three-day seminar in Austria, I attended a session being led by another facilitator, wherein we were asked to visualise being in a forest. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but the venue we were at, an ex-Knights Templar castle, was surrounded by about 15 acres of prime forest! Another time, I was outdoors with a group and one of the rites which had been decided upon beforehand called for people to hide themselves behind trees and bushes - the problem being that where we were, there weren’t any. So instead of calling off the rite, it went ahead and I recall feeling somewhat bemused by it all. In retrospect, I see this as an example of a group imposing it’s preconceptions onto the outdoors space, rather than trying to work appropriately within it.

Some years back, a friend and I decided to go into the depths of one the larger parks in Leeds to see if we could establish contact with the local spirits of place - the genius loci, if you like. Rather than taking the established magical route - of doing some kind of ritual, we simply walked into the woods and found a spot by a stream and sat quietly, attempting to widen our perceptions in order to feel a brush of contact, no matter how faint. After a few hours, we both agreed on feeling a sense of something tentatively reaching out to us. Gradually, we began to discern a shape - huge, shaggy and mossy - not a water elemental or an earth elemental or even a tree spirit - (those are terms, after all, which we impose onto the world) - but something which was an encapsulation of the place where we were. The contact was fleeting, wary, but overwhelmingly one of sadness and yearning - something we both found difficult to put into words yet which touched us deeply. This for me was an important experience showing the value of ‘throwing away’ the rulebook, as it were, and learning to trust feelings in respect to contacts with ‘spirits’.

How we look at spirits is in itself a key issue. There is a great deal written about ‘nature spirits’ - elementals, devas, faeries, etc. but they are often made out to be nice or at least controllable or amenable to contact with us. There are two issues within this. One is that whilst modern pagans have accepted ‘Nature’ spirits, it seems to me that there is a block about accepting that there might be other kinds of spirits - such as the impish spirits which lurk around overloaded electrical sockets, the vindictive ones who hide your house keys or the spirits who flit around the underground late at night. We walk in the woods, yearning to meet dryads or faeries, but would we expect to encounter a troll in the backstreets of Birmingham? We are learning to get to grips with the genius loci of outdoor spaces but perhaps not giving enough attention to the ‘souls’ of the cities where we live, yet are equally deserving of our attention. The other issue is this whole ‘spirits are nice’ kick. In my own experience, many ‘Nature’ spirits are just plain angry. Angry at what humans have done to their places. Angry at our unthinking invasion of their spaces. Really pissed off about being patronised, ignored for so long, or even at times, ‘invited’ by pagans & magicians into spaces which they already regard as their domain, thank you very much. Just like us, some are okay, some aren’t, and will, if given the chance, let you know in no uncertain terms how they feel, one way or another.

Having ranted thus far, I find I don’t want to offer any prescriptions for how I feel one should take magic outdoors, except perhaps to say this. It comes down to respect. If, as pagans we say that we respect the land and its inhabitants, we have to act from that premise at every moment. This requires, for me, forgetting much of the book-received ‘knowledge’ about spirits, sacred places etc., I have accumulated over the years and experiencing Nature as it is, rather than perhaps how I’d like it to be. Recognising that whenever I go outdoors with magical intent in mind, that I’m moving into someone else’s territory where what I want to do isn’t necessarily important and being ready for being informed that they’d rather I did it someplace else. Of being aware that a place that felt welcoming during the day can be downright forbidding in the dead of night, and that whatever I think of myself as an ‘experienced’ or adept magician, this might count for nothing with them