Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology: “Raven and the Meaning of Meaninglessness” by Glen Gordon
On the autumnal equinox of 2008, I took a random drive through the Clearwater Mountains of northern Idaho. Along the way, the firs gave way to lodge pole pine, and I could see patches of ground where trees have been cut and places where young saplings, planted to replenish wood supplies, struggled against the bright autumn sun. I rolled down the window. The crisp alpine breeze was the sound of the world calling my name. The sunlight bounced from the road, and I looked around to take in the world. As I drove along the ridge of the Clearwater Mountains, the world became surprisingly level, and I slowed down to observe. I pulled into a dirt turnabout at the head of a “T” intersection near an old dilapidated sign and got out of the car to check my roadmap. As I contemplated my choices, a raven perched on the sign a few yards away.
Raven cocked his head, looked at me with his black pebbled eyes, and ruffled his feathers. He looked down the road toward Pierce, and then up the road to Headquarters. He gave a string of calls as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and then unfolded his wings, lifting himself to the air to fly toward Headquarters. I folded my map and entered my car. I followed Raven. I drove through a small community of a few houses and a ranger station and came to a sportsman’s access sign for Deer Creek Reservoir. I slowed down and found Raven perched on top. He gave a shrill call and flew down the dirt road.
I turned onto the gravel pathway and watched the swirls of dust kick up behind my car. I turned a blind bend, and a young fawn pranced out of the trees and followed alongside me. The sun highlighted its white rump, and I watched its elegant dance in awe, its spindly legs bending and lifting its body into the air. It swerved back into the woods and I found myself entering the sportsman’s access. Two or three picnic tables rested on the side of a reservoir. A parked car was in front of one, and around the bend two young men unloaded a fishing boat from their truck.
The waters of the reservoir reflected shards of light from the sun. I felt free of the upcoming algebra test, the writing assignments, and the constant to-do list, caught in the moment like a leaf slowly falling from a tree. Berated and beaten by normality, I imagined myself St. Elmo fleeing to Mt. Lebanon, and this place a morsel of food, a gift of compassion from Raven to nourish me back to health.
I walked along a trail following the water’s edge, passing a lone fisherman who waved hello. A short distance and I found myself walking an old logging road, foliaged over from neglect. I crawled and ducked under fallen trees and found myself in a clearing where trees had been scorched by fire. Those not burnt and dead had been cut down leaving tree carcasses strewn about haphazardly like they had perished in a battle. I entertained the thought that Raven brought me here to see the destruction amidst the beauty. Like the hydroelectric damns clogging river ways and damaging the salmon population, the swaths of clear cut trees was the result of the mechanism of society providing power and lumber. I looked again, and between the dead trees and stumps, I could see the life of saplings growing and thriving. I knew with time they would be tall and strong.
I melted into the landscape, moved to sing. On these occasions, the song is not something recalled from childhood or in any language. It is sound for the sake of making sound. When I am suspended in a moment of mindfulness, I feel the need to make sound. I rarely remember the sounds and the song is never the same. It soothed me and moved me to action. I retrieved the pouch of rolling tobacco from within my jacket and moved from tree stump to tree stump leaving small piles of tobacco as offerings of gratefulness. I entered the old growth forest and I found a raven’s feather laying on a stump. I placed the feather between the cracks of the wood, letting it rest upright. I left one more tobacco pile as I finished the final notes of my nonsense song of mindfulness.
I walked deeper into the forest and away from the reservoir. The frustrations of moving to a new place surfaced. Like the river, paths in my life had been dammed. My funding for college as an out-of-state student in Colorado had came to an end and forced me to drop out. I drifted from squatting in an old house in Salt Lake City to living with a friend in San Antonio, but I could never find substantial work. The difficulty of being a stranger was like the reborn social awkwardness I felt as a child. I found it hard to accept that I was back in Idaho. I had run away many times, always being pulled back. When I live in Idaho, I become inert like reservoir water gathering in the basin between two mountains; I forget the serenity around me. I found solace in the fact that I was living in a part of the state I had never seen before. I arched my back to face the sky and I let the frustration escape my mouth in a roar. Then I stood in silence, listening to my anguish echo back at me.
I slumped on a fallen tree and listened to the birds chatter around me in their hidden perches among the evergreens. I heard a distant call of Raven and looked up to see him circling overhead. I raised my hands to my mouth to funnel my voice, and I talked back, “Kaw Ka-Kaw Kaw.” Raven responded, “Kaw, Ka-Kaw, Kaw.” He continued to circle above me. Beneath the sun, I could see his silhouette against the blaze of light.
I sat upon the fallen tree and responded again to Raven’s call, loosing myself in conversation. In that moment, time had no meaning to me. I listened intently to each response. I cannot say what was shared between us. It was not like the conversations I have with humans, constructed with thoughts molded into words. This was different, the simple sound released all the frustrations, tension, loneliness, isolation, uncertainties, and anxieties I felt. When Raven responded, these feelings where validated. The sky darkened with rain clouds, and Raven became bored with me. The birds in the trees had become silent, and I knew that was my cue to leave.
I often speculate that Raven was imparting important knowledge to me during our conversation on that autumnal equinox. If so, I have only grasped a fraction of its meaning. However, as Raven is prone to do, he could have been playing with me and singing nonsense. Maybe that nonsense has as much meaning as my own nonsense songs — a meaning outside of conventional thought and understanding and encoded in an intuitive language of the living world. After all, the world sprang from the waters of Chaos, and Raven was there.
Glen Gordon was introduced to Paganism by friends while living overseas in Europe during the late 90′s. He underwent both Wiccan and Neodruidic training during his formative years, but had not self-identified as a Pagan when his path diverged into land-centered spiritual naturalism ten years ago. His focus has been on cultivating beneficial relationships with the natural living world surrounding him wherever he lives. During this time, he discovered Unitarian Universalism and has been active in his local congregations for many years. Since 2007, he has worked on varied projects regarding BioRegional Animism, including this 5 minute video, the words of which came from a short UU sermon he gave. He has spoken on the topic of ecology and the land on a few occasions for his local congregation and facilitated a now-disbanded group of UU Pagans and spiritual naturalists. In the past, he maintained the blog, Postpagan, and is excited to share some of that material at HumanisticPaganism. Currently, you can find Glen writing occasionally for No Unsacred Places and helping achieve Green sanctuary status for his beloved UU community, where he helps create and lead ecological aware earth- and land- focused ceremonies for the solstices and equinoxes.