The Wild and the City

My friend Theo recently posted on Facebook:

“It is often said that when humans built cities the wild retreated. That the spirits and gods and peoples who were there were destroyed, or that they left. But what if they didn’t? What if, like us, they just adapted?”


The writer is a city witch, and in a sense, so am I. Initially, I felt the appeal of this sentiment. Humans are part of Nature, right? I want to think there’s a possibility that I can be an integrated part of the natural and spiritual world around me, that I can connect to the Earth, to the elements, to the forces of Nature. But I have to wonder, what is the “wild”? And what I come up with is a kind of negative description. The wild is what is not planned or created by human intervention, and this can come in many different degrees.

I have lived my entire life in cities, but I have been an observer of what is “wild” in my environment, although I wish that when I was young I had paid more attention, particularly to local plants. I would love to be an expert urban forager, but my knowledge is sadly lacking.

My mother loved songbirds, and we always had bird feeders in our yard. We saw robins, finches, sparrows, cardinals, grackles, blue jays, crows, and even the occasional small hawk. Where I live now is a bit denser and more paved over than where I grew up, but we still have pigeons and gulls, as well as the familiar robins and sparrows. Canada geese and ducks show up during certain seasons in nearby parks.

Some creatures do quite well in urban settings. Rats, of course, and pigeons, numerous insects and spiders. We have rabbits and squirrels around all the time where I live, as well as the occasional skunk. A little further into a suburban area, it’s easy to find deer, chipmunks and raccoons.

And of course, there are the weeds. Native and invasive plants show up unbidden in any unattended place. Many of these are beautiful and useful plants, even though there is a cultural imperative to destroy them in favor of even green grass lawns and carefully manicured flowers.


So yes – to some extent, the wild adapts and lives with us, persisting in spite of human efforts to sterilize the ground with tar and asphalt, spray pesticides to get rid of those unwanted residents and visitors.

I think of the spiritual version of the wild as very much like this. Some parts of it may adapt to places dominated by humans. Some parts seem almost tame to us, and we will happily bring them into our lives. Some parts of it can easily live alongside humans and our desire to control the environment. Some can feed off what we throw away. Some are so persistent that they will push up through the cracks in our spiritual pavement to assert themselves in spite of our efforts.


But there is a difference between noticing that the wild is never fully eradicated and embracing and/or cultivating the wild in our world and within ourselves. And neither one of those is the same as leaving a wild place (relatively) undisturbed and left to its own way. If a forested plot that’s full of woodland creatures and spirits is cut down for a new subdivision of “McMansions” with manicured lawns, why would we think that the wildlife or the spirits who lived there would want to adapt to the bland and non-nourishing changes that humans imposed on that environment for their own profit? If a wetland that harbored hundreds of kinds of plants, insects, amphibians, and spirits gets filled in and covered with a parking lot, why would we think that either the wildlife or the spiritual life would stay around to hang out with the parked cars?


Have we, as humans, adapted to our environment, or have we done our best to force our environment to adhere to our desires? We create our interior micro-climates, safe from wind and rain, with temperature and humidity controlled. We keep out the bugs and the mice. We shuttle ourselves between these protected spaces in our air-conditioned cars on road surfaces made unnaturally flat and even. I am guilty of this, too. I may not be able to control the wind and the snow of a Chicago winter, but I can ride it out with minimal outdoor trips, watching Netflix streaming and ordering dinner from GrubHub. This may be a comfortable, unchallenging way for me to live, but does that mean I “adapted”.


To a large extent, I think this is how we avoid, rather than how we adapt.  We shut out the weather, we shut out the pests, we open a small window for those poor others who labor away to grow and then deliver our food – but only long enough to grab their products and throw our money at them. And yes – I think that when we shut out the wildness, the natural forces, we also shut out the spiritual forces that exist outside of our human-built controls.

Will most of the spirits of this land, the gods of the Pottawatomi people who were here before us, the ancient presences who lived in the trees and swamps will just sit down on the couch and watch “Stranger Things” and eat Pad Thai with us? I don’t think their goal is to tune out real life, like modern humans do. So much American life has its primary goal to tune out of reality – TV, movies, drinking, drugs, video games, amusement parks, cat videos on social media – these are all escapes, ways to tune out.

If we wish to, we may be able to connect with those spirits if we find some remnants of wild and neglected places in parks, forgotten corners, and vacant lots that nature begins to reclaim. Or we can unplug from our distractions and get away from all of our current built environment to find some of those wild spirits that live outside.

Manifesting the Elder – Brotherhood of the Phoenix

A feature of the public rituals of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix is when one of the Brothers manifests one of the eight faces of the Queer God. Earlier this month, for the first time, I was the one who took this role. It was a big step for me, and one that only came after training and preparation. Eight months ago, I said it was something that scared me – both in terms of having the God speak through me and being the center of attention in that context. As it turned out, the former was a great help with the latter, since the presentation was not entirely “me”. I felt suffused with the calm energy of the Elder, which guided me through it.

The whole thing went surprisingly well and the message was well received by those who attended. I wrote up some of the presentation, which is now shared on the Brotherhood’s website.

Reflections of the Elder

Taking in Summer Solstice Energy

Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, Midsummer, the longest day of the year. This time of year the sun shines until quite late in the evening. The trees are fully green and leafy. A few of the early crops are even showing up at the farmers markets – greens, berries, radishes.  The summer festivals have started around here and there are free concerts in the parks. There’s the association with the childhood summers with few obligations and lots of time to explore the world. Our long, bitter winter is just a distant memory now.

It should be time to celebrate, right? Yes and, because I am who I am, no.

I don’t appreciate the heat, the baking sun or the oppressive humidity that we have in the summertime. I burn easily, so if I’m out in the sun, I have to slather myself with sunblock, which always feels greasy and often makes me break out. Those street festivals often revolve around an unshaded street and include a large crowd. Neither of these things is good for my mental well-being. I used to go to a couple each year. Now, I’m not too interested.

I don’t have a place for a garden where I live now, so I can’t enjoy the first-hand process of helping plants grow. This is something I really want as a part of my life, but it’s blocked for me at the moment

The warmer weather brings a spike unpleasant activity to my neighborhood, too. Gang activity, street fights, noise (blasting car stereos that can be heard for blocks) and vandalism always increase in the warm weather.  There are a lot of idle young people around, unfortunately. The economic and political climate mean that there’s a lack of summer jobs for inexperienced young people as well as cuts to various programs that provide activities for teens

I am going to try to set those complaints aside, though.

For the first time, I celebrated the Summer Solstice with a group of Pagans, specifically The Brotherhood of the Phoenix’s event called Terra Sol. We had workshops, a ritual and potluck. I was looking forward to a bonfire (a rare thing for this city-dweller), but unfortunately a torrential rainstorm came and drenched that area before I could hang out by the fire. We had fire in a cauldron at the (indoor) ritual, though.

It was a wonderful experience to be there with a group of creative and nurturing people. I went to workshops on Fairy Tales, defense against the Dark Arts and using the voice and breath for spiritual work. They were all interesting and I wanted to dive more deeply into all the topics than time allowed.

For the voice workshop by my friend Matthew Ellenwood, I really realized how much I have blocked my own voice. I used to sing frequently. I was even Choir President in high school, but I rarely sing anymore. I almost never speak publicly. I have spent most of my adulthood shutting off my voice. It has been a somewhat conscious decision. There’s so much cacophony in our world and I don’t want to add to that. I do believe in the power of listening, and opening the mouth often closes the ears. I also don’t feel that I have much power to change things in the world through my voice

The ritual revolved around the turning of the seasons and with using the fire of the Sun to burn away what holds us back. These are powerful themes for me, and the idea of burning away the negative is especially timely for me at the moment. There was drumming and chanting and it transformed my state of mind, as the best rituals do. The stresses and dull anger that I’ve felt lately went into the fire. I came away feeling cleansed and freer to act.

I need to try to hold onto that as this season proceeds. I need to hold this version of Summer in my heart – the dancing, clean, happier version of summer that burns with creativity and love.