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A Pagan EDC: Everyday Elemental Tools

I have written before that for me, paganism is a way of living rather than a theology or a specific belief system. At the core of my practice is an awareness of being in relationship with Nature. Despite the many infrastructures of 21st century civilization that we live in, we are fundamentally organisms existing on a particular planet, in a particular ecosystem. We are beings being, in Nature. One way I like to think about being in Nature is to be ready to work with all the elements no matter where we may find ourselves.

Ironically, I have found that I have a lot to learn about being outdoors in Nature, from people who usually do not identify as pagans, but who live in ways that seem much more pagan to me. For the past few years I have tried to learn how to be outside more easily, without feeling like an interloper when I am in Nature. In return, I have tried to bring my spiritual awareness to my time in Nature. One example of this is in my EDC strategy.

EDC, or Every-Day Carry, is simply a specific strategy one uses to have a particular set of tools or supplies always ready-to-hand, usually carried in a bag or a pouch of some sort. Whether one thinks in terms of a strategy like this or not, most of us employ it. How many of us leave the house without our keys, our cellphone, and our wallet? These simple items are part of our every-day carry.

I am convinced our ancestors viewed the elemental hallows, or tools, as useful items to have with you when you are in Nature; they were more than mere symbols. As such, I try  to represent all the Elements in my own EDC strategy. This is a picture of a small pouch that I carry with me every time I leave the house:

My EDC (everyday carry) pouch, containing tools from all the elements.

My EDC (everyday carry) pouch, containing useful tools representing all the elements.

From right to left I have a knife (Air), an eating tool (Earth), a stack of 3×5 index cards and a small pen for recording my thoughts (Ether), a ferro rod for firestarting and a small flashlight (Fire), and finally a corkscrew (Water) — I go to a lot of gatherings with mead and need a convenient way to open the bottles! When I leave the house I nearly always carry a glass water bottle filled with spring water to complete my EDC for Water. The remainder of this article will take a closer look at these items and the elements they represent.

Air

The relationship between a knife and the element of Air might be the most abstract of all these tools, so a bit of analysis is in order. This traditional Air Hallow is often called an athame, particularly in Wiccan traditions. I remember early on in my pagan path reading that the athame

“isn’t used for cutting purposes in Wicca, but to direct the energy raised during rites and spells…. The knife is often dull, usually double-edged with a black or dark handle. Black absorbs power. When the knife is used in ritual to direct energy, some of this power is absorbed into the handle — only a tiny amount — which can be called upon later.” (Cunningham, Wicca: A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner, p. 30).

These days, Cunningham’s approach seems a bit abstract to me. Though I have great respect for Cunningham’s legacy in the pagan community, thinking of a knife in this way, with the dulled edge, used only as a sort of “energy” conduit misses the point for a regular practice of a person being in Nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors certainly carried the best edges they could — whether forged metal or flintknapped stone — but the edges carried by our ancestors were meant to be used, very practically, with an immediacy far beyond the abstraction of an energy conduit. For our ancestors, their knives were tools that allowed them to survive, to exist in a deeper, more effective relationship with their ecosystems.

In my view, the defining characteristic of a knife is the intelligence and knowledge required to create, use, and maintain it. A knife — at least not a modern metal knife — does not spontaneously appear. It requires wit and insight, specific construction techniques that were discovered over eons of time. Furthermore, a knife is the fundamental tool of bushcrafters: it is the tool that allows one to create other tools. In this sense, I think of a knife as a meta-tool. In this way it represents the “airiness” of intellect, of imagination, and the skill that accompanies both of those. We can imagine a tool that we need, and with the technique we know with a good blade at our service, it allows us to create these tools. Tools made with knives can be anything from a bow-drill set to start a fire, to a spoon to eat with, to lashed-together saplings for a shelter, to batoning through wood to make it more suitable for burning, to a weapon, snare, or trap for hunting. This tool is in service to our imagination, to our intellect, and to our skill.

My EDC blade is a folding knife that is big enough to fit in my hand, yet small enough to fit into my EDC pouch that I use. This goes with me everywhere. In my bag I keep any one of several larger knives that I think will best serve me in the circumstances I expect to encounter.

Fire

To me, humanity’s relationship with Fire in the 21st century may be the most out-of-balance of all the elements. Very few of us can start a fire without the aid of convenient fossil fuels, yet nearly all of us stare into glowing screens for a good chunk of each day. Apart from this, fossil fuels burn in nearly every home and vehicle.

Learning to start a fire without fossil fuels has been a very rewarding exercise for me. I can sometimes succeed with primitive technologies such as a bow drill or a hand drill (which I can make in the woods with my knife and access to the proper materials and conditions), but to save time I carry the ferro rod with me. This ferrocerium rod, when scraped against steel, produces small sparks that are thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, and can easily start a fire when one has an adequate tinder bundle (ie, a small grouping of dry, flammable materials, such as birch bark, small wood shavings, fatwood, etc).

In my bag (which often comes with me when I leave the house), I also carry a very small portable stove and tinder that will allow me to create a small fire for any reason, including warmth and cooking.

In addition to the ferro rod, I carry a small flashlight that is an astonishing piece of technology. It is a small LED flashlight, powered by a single AAA battery, that produces enough light to illuminate an entire yard. If I need photons, I can easily generate plenty of them using this tool. When I use it with a rechargeable AAA battery, it is also an extremely efficient use of electricity.

Water

I’m a bit of a fanatic about water. Most of the water I drink is water I have gathered myself from a spring a short drive from my house. Going to the spring is like going to church for me, and keeps me in tune with this most important element. It is a peaceful place in the western mountains of Maine, where the best water I’ve ever tasted comes naturally up from the aquifer deep inside the Earth to the top of the mountain, where I collect it 20 gallons at a time in glass containers.

When I leave the house, I always have a water bottle with me. Usually it is a recycled, 1.5 liter glass wine jug, but sometimes it is a smaller 24oz bottle. The corkscrew in my EDC pouch is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that I often bring my homebrewed mead to various gatherings I attend, and a way to open the corked bottles is quite useful. Between these two, the element of Water is quite well represented.

Apart from having a way to boil (ie, purify) wild water, I am considering getting a water filter, something like the Lifestraw personal water filter, to keep in my larger bag. But because water is is so essential to our survival — it is said we can survive for 3 minutes without Air, 3 hours without shelter (ie, Earth, at least in adverse conditions), 3 days without Water, and 3 weeks without food — I usually carry my own water with me everywhere I go. Staying hydrated is very important to me; I typically drink about a gallon and a half of water per day.

Earth

Earth symbols are perhaps the least abstract of all the elements. Shelter. Food. Shoes. Eating utensils. We are, after all, earthly creatures, existing on this specific planet, and we are inseparable from it. In some ways it is difficult to think about the element of Earth in terms of surviving in Nature, because these are the most common concepts in survivalism. Everything we put into our body is of the Earth.

For my pocket EDC kit, the Earth tool is a small eating tool/spork that sometimes comes in handy. In my bag I also carry a small pot that I can use to cook in, quite compatible with my portable stove. Other symbols that go in my larger bag are two stones: first is a small sharpening stone to maintain an edge on my knives in the field. Second is a stone that I use as a bearing block when attempting primitive fire with a bow drill.

Lastly, there is cordage to consider. I keep cordage in my larger back, a small roll of jute twine which I use whenever I can because it is a natural material. Additionally, I also keep a few hundred feet of “paracord,” also called 550 cord. This artificial material is small, light, and thin, and is rated to support weights of up to 550 pounds. Very useful stuff for many tasks, including shelter building (ie, lashing two supports together to build a primitive shelter).

Ether/Quintessence

In some ways, Ether is the most difficult to implement because it doesn’t really have a common, traditional tool. By definition, it is somewhat vaporous and abstract, and it both underlies and flows through the other four elements. One of the strategies I employ as a guideline is to maximize the flow of quintessence, as it manifests in the other elements. For instance, in Earth I will try to eat the best quality, most vibrant, locally grown or harvested food. For Water I try to drink the cleanest, most vibrant water I can. I feel that Fire started with primitive tools have more quintessence — a different vibe — than fires started with fossil fuel or electricity. And air that I breathe in outside — preferably on a beach, on a mountaintop, or in the woods — has a higher vibe (and at least 90% less pollution) than indoor air.

So my tool for Ether might be the most abstract, and kind of a “reach” in a sense, which in a way is fitting for this element. It is simply a pen and something to write on. For my EDC kit, I use a Fisher Space Pen which is very durable and can write even in adverse conditions. My “paper” is a stack of 3×5 index cards held together with a small binder clip, which is also more durable than regular paper. With these simple tools, if I manage to pull a thought from the ether, I can at least record it while out and about.

 

On Pagan Politics: Weaving Together Our Communities, Lifestyles, and History

Here in the US, we are nearing election day. Many of my friends in the Maine Pagan community are working tirelessly in various campaigns they believe in – some are supporting the “Gay Marriage” initiative on the ballot, others are supporting candidates they believe have the best chance to give them the future they envision, and a few are even running for office themselves.

But this is not the “pagan politics” I wish to address in this article. Rather, I wish to begin with an image. It comes from an extraordinary gathering, a recent event called The Weaving, which was to be a visioning for the Maine Pagan community, in how we come together as a tribe.

Photo by Aracos, www.bardtographer.com

This photo shows the fire from the event, and will serve as a metaphor for this discussion. By the time this photo had been taken, it had been burning for hours and hadn’t required anyone to tend it. This style of self-feeding fire is called an upside-down fire (I’ve also heard it called a pyramid fire and a council fire). Once it is built with the proper structure and the tinder is ignited, the fire will burn unattended for several hours. In an upside-down fire, the largest logs are at the bottom, with the next largest logs laid perpendicular on top of the bottom layer, and so on, all the way to the top which contains twigs of kindling and then the tinder bundle at the very top. The key to an upside-down fire is structure; the logs must come together in the right way, leaning on one another. When this structure is accomplished, and with a good tinder bundle to get the fire going, the fire becomes self-sustaining and will burn for a long time – several hours – without requiring maintenance.

I beg your indulgence at this clumsy extended metaphor – but I see the pagan community in the same light. If we come together with the right structure where we lean on one another, the smallest spark of inspiration will ignite the community and allow it to provide warmth and light with very little additional labor.

How a society is structured – even a disparate, “herding cats” society such as the Maine pagans – is the most fundamental question of politics. But I shall take this a step further and say that “paganism” is inherently political; indeed the very name “pagan” was created, and came into widespread use, as a result of politics.

I take great delight in the phrase: “Pagan” is Latin for “Redneck.” The humor in this expression is both a resonant, truthful image, and a great icebreaker for those “oh, so you’re a pagan… what’s that?” conversations. The Latin paganus means “country-dweller” – the term was created and came into widespread use during the Roman Empire, to describe those alienated from civilization and the great city of Rome. “Country-dweller” means more than just one who lives in the country. It also involves “dwelling,” which is a certain way-of-being, an attentiveness-to and attunement-with one’s natural environment; the meaning is much deeper than just where your primary shelter happens to be. There is a connection between one’s daily existence and the location; the land, with all its rhythms and cycles, becomes a sacred place within which to dwell. In urban environments, attunement-with the land and its natural rhythms is the most fundamentally pagan way-of-being to disappear. Nature began to be systematically abstracted within the new urban Rome. The term “pagan” began to describe other people, who had either already been, or would be conquered next.1

For more than a thousand years, use of the term grew, laying the groundwork for systemic oppression for the pagans, the witches, and the savages. We became Other, and suspicion and fear of pagans was rewarded in the dominant monoculture.

Labeling and persecuting those connected to Nature culminated in The Burning Times, which were also a monumental time of transition at the very birth of present-day Western culture:

In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.2

The Witch hunts. Wholesale slaughter of entire populations, mostly women, put to horrible deaths and suffering. Why? What was behind the witch hunts? Why was it so important for the Establishment power structures to cultivate a deep, cultural, and popular fear of the witch—much like the “terrorist” of today? At the same time that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values we hold so dear today—the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the rise of capitalism—there were also some of the most brutal examples of oppression and genocide ever witnessed, a fact that remains the paradox of our age.

In addition, the witch hunts were one of the first examples of a globalized assertion of power greater than the nation-state, as they occurred all over Europe in a time of great national division and antipathy:

“both Catholic and Protestant nations, at war against each other in every other respect, joined arms and shared arguments to persecute witches. Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim that the witch-hunt was the first unifying terrain in the politics of the new European nation-states, the first example, after the schism brought about by the Reformation, of a European unification. For, crossing all boundaries, the witch-hunt spread from France and Italy to Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Sweden.”3

Together, these shifts in thinking, along with the accompanying violence and oppression justified by the new thinking, banished the pagans from their sacred lands, and forced them into urban domesticity and wageslavery. Since the witch hunts, to be pagan is, by definition, to be political, in the sense that we have resisted – and must continue to resist – the centuries-old history of genocide, oppression, torture, displacement, enclosure, slavery, and coercion that has been imposed by force. The smell of smoke lingers even today from this extraordinary turning point in our history.

It was not the theology or the “faith” of the pagans that were targeted in these systematic repressions. Indeed, evidence of pagan traditions and beliefs are too numerously extant for this to be the case, from Easter-egg hunts to Christmas trees to Yule logs to maypole dancing to Halloween to Groundhog’s Day. No, the target of these attacks were the very structure of society, the pagan values and ethos that people had lived under for centuries. Most of the countless “witches” burned at the stake4 were single women, who owned land and practiced the old ways of healing, spiritual mentorship, public counsel, in competition with the clergy of the church and the aristocracy. After their burning, with the acrid smoke fresh in the air, their lands and property were seized, and over time their practices were wiped out as allopathic medicine and capitalist modes of production became dominant.

In 2012, we pagans are more than ever a conquered people. Our “paganism” has been reduced to a pale reflection of the old ways in the form of rituals, most of which were re-imagined in the 20th century, with a handful of competing claims of unbroken lineages of pagan groups or families. For many of us, once the romantic appeal of these forgotten rites wore off, we began to see that they have a certain air of antiquatedness to them. It’s not that the rites are not historically valid (I will leave it to others to continue this debate), but today we live in a very different context than did our ancestors, the pagans of old. Nearly all modern pagans are domesticated urbanites, who would struggle to survive without the conveniences of civilization. The old ways are, for us, an abstraction, something we must apply our skills of imagination and visualization to bear on if we wish to engage them. Yet when we manage to listen to our inner voices and relate authentically with our ecosystem, we hear the same consistent, steady whisper: get closer to nature. Something is wrong. You have forgotten something very important. Not only do the power structures of civilization dominate all facets of our being, but they are destroying the planet to sustain themselves.

The fact that relationship-with-Nature is fundamental to our metaphysics, ethics, and theologies demands that we “dirty our hands” with politics, even if we ignore our history and reject the understanding that we as pagans are a conquered people. We pagans have known for centuries that the dominant paradigm is not sustainable, is irreverent and careless with the gifts of nature, seeing her as something to exploit rather than to be in relationship-with.

Political dialogue and practice in America is broken, at least to the extent that it all-too-quickly decays into partisan bickering and name-calling. While politicians on the Left and the Right blame one another, the system marches on, and 200 more species on the planet go extinct each day.5 Paganism offers a bottom-up politic that will, if we lead the way, offer a path forward to restore the pagan values that have been lost and suppressed for 500 years, stop the assault on our planet so that our ecosystems can begin to heal, and have a prayer of restoring balance to the world.

Whatever forms pagan ways-of-being will take in 2012 and beyond, they must begin and end with relationship. The existing top-down political system does not serve us, and will not be there for us as things continue to deteriorate. We pagans will need each other, and this need will only be foregrounded as more and more people are left with fewer answers and less support from the infrastructures of civilization. We pagans are suited toward bottom-up community building, and this sort of Pagan politics, where people lean on one another to sustain themselves like a long-burning fire, can be a beacon of hope to the wider world.

Notes

1   I am acutely aware of the complex relationship between modern pagans – especially white pagans who are part of the dominant culture – and indigenous people. In many ways, I don’t differentiate much between the two groups, because despite the history of brutal oppression the indigenous people have suffered, I believe our goals now are complementary at the very least. My broad conception of paganism – those who seek honorable relationship with nature – welcomes anyone for whom this is the case, no matter their racial heritage, personal history, etc. I will leave deeper analysis to others; it is beyond the scope of this article.

2   Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.

3   Federici, 169.

4   Burning at the stake was both an unimaginably horrible way to die as well as a public spectacle, designed to incite fear about what happened to people who practiced the old ways.

5   This theme of mass extinction is explored in detail in Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, & Derrick Jensen, Deep Green Resistance (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011).