Since the rumoured American election, we've had the opportunity to watch CNN anchors comment with parentally proud fascination on how galvanized the religious right has become. But Bush's shotgun-toting Jesus wasn't the only higher power being conjured during the campaign.
Author, activist and priestess in the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca Starhawk was busy calling on the ancient spirits of the heavens, earth and seas to get U.S. soldiers out of Iraq - and has done jail time to help the process along, most recently during a mass street ritual in New York's Herald Square during the Republican Convention protest.
She's now touring her recently released 10th book, The Earth Path, and her doc on goddess-tracing archeologist Marija Gimbutas, both of which bring her to Toronto this weekend.
Much of her work concerns the history of earth-based spirituality, its rebirth in the neo-pagan movement and its brutal destruction in ancient Europe by ministers, crusaders and witch-burners.
But on the phone, she doesn't broadcast haughtily, as one might expect a high priestess and celebrated chronicler of fiery times to do. Rather, she is soft-spoken, striking me simply as an ordinary person who has seen some un-ordinary things.
Starhawk's books speak frequently of magic - processes for transforming the self or energy within groups of people (that seem to draw as heavily on Jungian psychology as on ancient traditions). I wonder aloud if mass communication outlets engage in a similar endeavour.
"My definition for magic is the art of changing consciousness at will," she responds. "That's something the media engage in, and they have more opportunity to do it."
Perhaps the most effective way the media do this is not by pounding thoughts into heads but by making certain thoughts unthinkable. "It's not so much the content of what you're saying," she muses, "as the overarching frame of what you're saying that affects consciousness."
The right wing, she says, by way of an example, "uses the frame of tax relief. As long as you accept that frame, taxes are a burden. When leftists say, 'We can do tax relief better,' they've already lost. The only way to counter is to talk about taxes differently, as investment in the future. We need to know what our frame is. That's also a core magical principle."
While I've always had a certain amount of respect for Starhawk and her commitment to ritual and street-theatre civil disobedience (and a certain amount of toleration for my friends who are in covens), I could never quite put my finger on the whole magic thing. But thinking in frameworks makes it easier for an overly rational type like myself.
If people are thinking in a context of an assumed sacred earth, there could be revelations, understandings, maybe even direct communications that would otherwise be kept out by the blinders of what we've decided is possible in a mechanistic world.
In The Earth Path, Starhawk invokes, without irony, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famous 2002 "unknown" speech in which he stated, "We know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know." However unwittingly, Rumsfeld may have been on to something.
This gives me an idea for an experiment, and I invite you to try it along with me. In fact, it relies on as many of you doing so as possible. Try thinking outside of the frame.
We all, on some level, assume that things like newscasts and advertising and small talk must make sense. How could they not, when they're everywhere? For a while, don't give billboards, logos or news flashes the automatic reverence of a sacred text. Pretend they're gibberish. Now try lending that automatic credulity to things like leaves and raccoons. Assume that they have something to say and that it's valuable. Let the natural world be your billboard.
If raccoon chatter doesn't say anything to you, even changing physical contexts can have enlightening possibilities. "Activists are good at saying no," says Starhawk in her typically understated way, "but we need to be clear on what we're saying yes to. We've combined protests with chances to put energy into local community gardens or create gardens in the streets." A garden in a street could definitely open up new frames for thought.
"If we're talking about an earth-based spirituality, then we actually have to get our hands in the earth," she explains. "It's not just psychological. It's about real leaves falling on real ground and real micro-organisms. It's about letting the land speak to you, which is how all indigenous cultures developed their rituals. I like to get people to meditate on mycorrhizal fungi."
This isn't just Be One With The Root Fungus. "There are remarkable processes for transformation in nature, and we can learn from them to bring about transformation we need."
While consulting my botany dictionary on mycorrhizae, I also gleaned that the term "ecosystem" has only been in use since 1935. In other words, we've only had a coinable term for the rather obvious idea that everything within a biome is connected for 69 years.
What we see is that what most people view as history is but a small portion of the human story. This is supported by the work of Gimbutas, subject of Signs Out Of Time, the film Starhawk made with Donna Read that will be showing this weekend. She will also invoke the peaceful designs of some of those ancient societies in a public ritual.
Gimbutas studied the goddess-worshipping cultures of stone-age Europe. "She found evidence of cultures that actually celebrated nurturing leaders," Starhawk explains. "These societies' great artworks were about plants, and they saw strength in empathy."
She believes this is still an urgent message, even among activists. "A lot of people on the left still accept the dominant framework that the world is cruel, about competition and struggle. But there's wonder in a street demonstration - there's nothing more mysterious. What really moves people, how does change really occur? These are questions that we need to grapple with, yet you have fundamentalist activists just like you have fundamentalist Christians."
It seems like these days we have fundamentalist everythings. After the election results, a friend remarked that the world of Starhawk's novel The Fifth Sacred Thing may yet come true. In her imagined universe, large portions of North America have been rendered toxic, and what's left is split into factions of warlike religious zealots and peaceful permaculturists, each trying to survive on what little there is.
I ask the author if she thinks the book will end up more prophetic than intended. She doesn't seem prepared to entertain the possibility. "It's only too late if we give up."