Dismantling Toxic “Respect” to Forge Deep Relationships with the Land & its Spirits
Regardless of the trappings and labels we may latch onto and tie into our crafts, one thing lays at the heart of witchcraft that binds us all. This is our connection with the land and its spirits (conjointly called the Land). Our connection with the Land and the effort we put into our relationships with these spirits, the genius loci, touches all aspects of our practices. We see this in the tools we use—herbs, stones, a lovely shell from the river, a pinch of dirt from a place of power—as well as in the simple focus of our magick. While other systems seek to transcend the everyday or to even attain godhead, witchcraft seeks to improve our everyday lives and to help us live more honestly: to see the world more fully for what it truly is and to embrace the wonder and beauty of being physically incarnate.
The Land and our connection to it shapes the way we see the world. Animism, to know the land for what it is—alive and full of spirits. This is the worldview of the witch, informing our actions and making the difference between magick done for the sake of curiosity or a sense of obligation and magick done that touches us deeply, changing us at our core and, thus, changing our lives. This worldview sets us apart and defines us among magick workers. To see the land thrumming and alive; to see plants, stones, and unseen beings and the conversations and relationships just waiting to be had with them… This is the reality of the witch.
Identifying the Disconnect
Yet, too often in our community we see that this is little more than an idea to which lip service is paid.
We see that common actions and attitudes don’t fit professed values and far too often undermine them in a way that hinders us in our witchcraft—disallowing us to fully experience what is there to be experienced, to be touched as deeply by our crafts as we could be, and to wield power as fully and as strongly as we are capable. However, this isn’t something that is easily seen because we’re acting from the stance and worldview with which we were brought up, one that talks about the land in terms of resources to be taken and exploited. And this attitude is reinforced at every level of our society.
On the surface, it’s easy to agree that this is a problem. But we don’t see the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways that we, personally, act out this very same problematic worldview. We don’t see how we place ourselves between us and the Land, preventing deep relationships because we’re standing in our own way. Simple yet common actions betray our intentions (because intention is never enough) and show just how out of touch with our local land we truly are.
For example, consider how common it is to harvest plants from the wild without asking not just the plant but the guardian spirits of that location for permission to take from the plant in the first place (never mind not following ethical wildcrafting guidelines…) Or how frequently it is advised to leave “offerings” of food, “crystals,” or money in wild paces in exchange for taking something or just being there. Or how you might not even give second thought to walking through a forest and touching every tree without introducing yourself to the spirit of that tree first, or, worse yet, forcing yourself on a tree and projecting energy into it so you can ground. These are actions that don’t seem like much but, as spirit work quickly teaches us, seeming is not being.
These actions dismiss the very real spirits within these plants, these trees, and that walk the land and call that area home because they embody an attitude of entitlement and superiority. From the perspective of these spirits of place, we have come into their home, stolen items, left garbage, rummaged about, and touched everyone in the household—some in forcibly intimate ways. We would never treat any human so disrespectfully. Yet we treat the Land this way and too often encourage our fellow witches to do so, too.
As pervasive as this attitude of entitlement is, even shaping the language we use to talk about the Land (such as how everything in nature is a “gift,” something given to us without need of reciprocation), there are concrete actions we can take to reclaim the sacredness of our connection with the land and to begin forging relationships with the genius loci. We can choose to be done with the tourist witchcraft that sees the land as a spiritual resource to take from as we so desire, that dismisses actual spirits in favor of impersonal archetypes that lack the ability to touch us personally and, thus, demand change from us. We can actively reclaim our right to be humble and to see the world with eyes unclouded.
The desire for intense experience can be unshakable at times. It convinces us that the experiences that we are consistently having aren’t enough, the results we get from our actions aren’t sufficient. It feeds restlessness and doubt within us and creates expectations of how witchcraft is “supposed” to be: what we’re supposed to experience, what doing magick is supposed to feel and look like, how spirits are supposed to communicate with us, and what living the life of a witch is supposed to be like, along with so many other “you’re doing it wrong” based ideas.
Rather than helping us attain the desired intensity, however, these expectations do little more than place restrictions upon us. They limit what we are capable of experiencing in the first place because they prime our mind to only look for and anticipate results that fit those narrow parameters. So when we experience something that doesn’t fit the expectations, it gets ignored or even dismissed because “that’s not how it’s supposed to be.” And so we can miss out on the very experiences we were seeking because we weren’t expecting the subtlety in which witchcraft so frequently shrouds itself.
But when we let go of expectations, we open ourselves to unlimited possibilities. We open ourselves up to experiencing all that is there to be experienced and as intensely as we are capable of experiencing it. In releasing expectations, we open ourselves to meeting the Land with an honesty that we cannot attain if we hold to ideas that the land and its spirits can only respond in certain specific ways. And, in so doing, we crush bullshit ideas regurgitated throughout our community that superficiality is the best that can be achieved in a relationship with the Land. This is how we begin to step out of our way and to approach the Land on its terms.
Putting it into Practice: Activity #1
When we release expectations, we open ourselves up to interacting with the land and the genius loci in more subtle ways. But this subtlety places demands upon us, requiring not just that we actively hone the skills we use to interpret spiritual forces (i.e., psychic skills) but that we learn to stop, to slow down, to just be. One of the most radical things you can do in a society that demands you always be busy, be active, be consuming products and information, is to move slowly and deliberately.
In consciously slowing down, we slow down our thought as much as we slow down our bodies. We relax our breathing, release the tension from our shoulders, and allow our minds the peace of being free from demands, at least for a few moments. And in releasing those demands and expectations from our minds, for just a precious few moments, we afford ourselves the opportunity to exist in the world around us more fully, to become aware of soft gentle details that we would have otherwise overlooked. This is how we open ourselves up to the whispers of the genius loci, whether they be the spirits of the trees, plants, stones, and hills or the watching, guarding spirits that folklore still speaks of in hushed tones.
One of the most radical things you can do in a society that demands you always be busy, be active, be consuming products and information, is to move slowly and deliberately.
One of the ways that we can train ourselves to more easily release expectations that hamper our ability to connect with the Land is through breath work. Unsurprisingly, and in stride with the rough and dirty nature of practicing land-based witchcraft, breath work is deceptively simple. On the surface, it is a means of consciously altering one’s breathing pattern. But the value to us as witches comes in how effectively energy can be moved by breath alone.
Please note that deliberately altering the pattern of your breathing, such as through breath work, can create complications for individuals with certain chronic illnesses and/or who are taking certain medications. Be aware of your body and ensure that you are in a safe position if you should pass out. You may find it necessary to work with your medication schedule or to alter your position in order to safely do any breath work. Work with what you've got and if the exercise just won't work, don’t worry about it. Your health and safety are far more important than religiously sticking to an outlined activity.
Sit comfortably but tall, your back as straight as your body allows. Close your eyes and breathe low for the count of four, engaging your diaphragm. Your belly should visibly extend as you inhale. Now exhale for the count of five; your belly should visibly move inward.
Focus on your breath. When you catch your mind wandering, pull your attention back to your breath, returning your mind to a blank space where only the sound of your breathing can be heard. Your thoughts will wander. Do not get frustrated or upset with yourself, just inhale and pull your attention back to your breathing.
Allowing yourself to become frustrated only creates emotions that you will then need to release. Just experience what is happening (your mind wandered while you were supposed to be focused on your breath) and then move on. Do not become tangled up in your emotions nor the thoughts that will surface. Just catch yourself and move on. Let it go and breathe it out.
As it is consistent repetition that makes this exercise valuable, aim to do this exercise for at least 5 minutes, 3-5 times a week. It can be helpful to employ prayer beads as part of your breath work, allowing one inhalation and exhalation per each bead. The tactile stimulation may make it easier to remain focused on your breathing. The beads passing between your fingers provides a reminder that can cut through wandering thoughts. With practice, you will be able to allow your thoughts to fall away and your mind to remain open and observant. This is a valuable state of mind that you can employ to release expectations when outside and trying to forge a stronger connection with the Land as well as within spirit work and spellcraft.
Intention Doesn’t Cut it
Releasing expectations so we can have a more authentic and honest experience is the first step in dismantling toxic ideas of respect in regards to the natural world. This is how we stop forcing our ideas of what we think the Land is upon it. We take this further now through action because intention is never enough.
We are each defined by what we do and we are held accountable for the consequences of those actions, regardless of our intent. Thoughts and intentions don’t cut it. They don’t create change to the extent that produces measurable results in our lives nor the lives of others. And when it comes to land spirits—who witness humans disrespecting their home on a daily basis—those intentions really don’t count for shit.
Yes, we can change our actions through our thoughts (e.g., I decide I’m going to stop eating processed foods and then I do so) but we more effectively change ingrained attitudes and ideas by adopting actions that support the values and worldview we want to more strongly embrace.* In this way, by focusing on actions vs thoughts, we disallow ourselves the chance to overthink or complicate the matter, and we undermine doubt that could otherwise keep us from doing anything. And in changing our actions, every time we get the results we seek from those actions, we reinforce the behavior and indirectly alter our thoughts and emotions. In other words, through changing our behavior to be more congruent with our values, every time we successfully embody those values, we show ourselves that the behavior is effective and we become more inclined to repeat it, which further shapes our thoughts and seats those values deeper within us.
This is how we infuse our practices with greater integrity: by walking our talk and allowing our values to be more fully present in our lives. And this is how we begin to allow the Land to show us what it is so we can approach it on its terms and begin forging those life changing relationships.
Focus on Having an Experience
One of the simplest ways to build upon our previous activity is by using that open and receptive state to go outside and just have an experience. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to make a trip outdoors productive. We all do it. Spare time is sparse to nonexistent so when we finally have a day free to do whatever we want and we choose to do something spiritual with it, we tend to try to squeeze in too much. And then we get disappointed when we don’t manage to accomplish everything on the list.
Having big goals is really useful for our practices, however. They provide us direction and identify milestones to work toward as part of meeting those goals, such as wanting to more fully embrace the role of healer so we work toward learning to manipulate energy with our hands and toward developing a magickal hygiene practice that supports that role. These big goals and smaller milestones keep us motivated. But they also take time and effort. We can only do so much at a time. And when it comes to a free day to lay about in the woods and do a little witchcraft, goals we set for the day can serve as little more than restrictive expectations that limit what we can achieve with our time.
We can’t have a relationship with the Land when we’re too busy being in a relationship with ourselves.
Ultimately, though, witchcraft is not about what we accomplish. It’s about what we are doing. It is active to the point that it infuses us and we become the embodiment of witchcraft. This becoming… it can’t be forced. And neither can a deep connection with the land beneath our feet nor any sort of relationship with land spirits. Sure, we can decide we’re going to take a day off, head out to the woods, and seek out the genius loci to know them better. But those expectations can set us up for failure. The land spirits already know we are there. But we aren’t entitled to meet them. We take from the land enough, all sustaining aspects of our lives are pulled from the land. The land spirits owe us nothing.
The expectations created by these goals feed entitlement which perpetuates distance between us and the Land. We can’t have a relationship with the Land when we’re too busy being in a relationship with ourselves. So to further release those expectations in order to meet the Land on its terms, we frame our interactions with the Land in the hope of having an experience, of being open and aware of our surroundings so that we can experience whatever is there to be experienced, nothing more.
Putting it into Practice: Activity #2
Choose a location that you are able to visit frequently and with general ease. After all, if you don’t have to go out of your way to visit an area to build a deeper relationship with it, you’ll be more likely to visit it often. We frequently romanticize the land, objectifying it and approaching it on a grand scale. We read “land” and think “Earth,” but that isn’t useful to us. It doesn’t make it personal and it doesn’t ask anything of us. If your spiritual practice isn’t making demands of you, that’s a sign that it might be time to have an honest discussion with yourself and look for areas where you’ve become complacent. So choose somewhere near to where you live. It can be your backyard, a local park, or even a vacant lot that’s been reclaimed by the land and is slowly going wild.
Activate your witch sense. This is a receptive state, where you allow yourself to see what is there to be seen, to hear what is there to be heard, to feel what is there to be felt. This is not a state of seeking; it is passive and open. When you have activated your witch sense, you see the world differently. Your focus is softer and details become fuzzier. It is easier to see energetic traces and movements. If there are other people with whom you do this exercise, you may very well notice a physical change in each other’s expressions. The eyes will be half-closed, the muscles of the face relaxed.
If your spiritual practice isn’t making demands of you, that’s a sign that it might be time to have an honest discussion with yourself and look for areas where you’ve become complacent.
To activate your witch sense is to enter an altered state of consciousness, where you let slip your hold on the physical world to better perceive the spirit world about you. It is a light trance, but it is very easy to achieve. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, focus on how you are making that shift to be more aware, exhale, and open your eyes. There are no formal steps necessary in this. While the Gods may care that you perform certain actions in certain ways, when it comes to the inherently secular practice of witchcraft it is only important that you do rather than do not, and that what you do is effective toward what you are trying to achieve.
Walk about the land taking note of what you see and feel. Go with no intention but to be open to having an experience. Hold an open awareness of your surroundings, a noticing without giving an overt indication of noticing, acknowledging without intention. It’s a manner of expressing receptivity without expectation. Expectation is your downfall. The spirits owe you nothing.
In this altered state, you will be receptive to the spirit world as much as you are to the physical world. Don’t reach or feel for anything, allow what comes to come. Don’t try to force an experience or to influence your surroundings. Be present. Be aware. Keep your energy contained and see what touches you. In this way, you are better able to encounter the spirits of place than if you went deliberately looking for them.
Record your experience. Repeat often.
Seeing Beyond Ourselves
One of the complications of embracing the animist worldview of witchcraft can be found in the commonplace attitude of approaching spirits as archetypes alone. Paired with Western society’s extreme emphasis on the individual (vs community and relationships), we face the task of learning to see the world in a wholly new way, one without precedent in our lives. Fortunately or not, as witchcraft can be a harsh teacher, our practices provide us ample opportunities to see just how much more there is to the world than what we’ve been told our entire lives.
When we speak of spirits, there are many beings that fall beneath this term but each is unique and autonomous. The term spirit embodies a spectrum of beings, including the spirit bodies of living plants, animals, and humans; the clear spirits of inanimate objects (who may talk as much as any human); the spirits of deceased plants, animals, and humans; energetic entities that have never been physically incarnate (ranging from mechanical in their actions to highly intelligent); as well as divine beings and deities.
When we speak of the spirits of place (the genius loci), it is the inherent spirit within every plant, stone, waterway, hill, mountain, and other features of the natural landscape to which are being referred, as well as noncorporeal spirits that are attached to the land. These spirits may have never experienced physicality, being entirely energetic, or they may be spirits of deceased humans, animals, and plants that linger. These lingering spirits are surprisingly common, though their spirit bodies may barely resemble what they once were. So, too, does the term spirit of place refer to the animating force residing in that specific location, a spirit that is vast and is the manifesting energy, personality, guardian, and voice of the full collection of spirits who reside there.
Regardless of any arbitrary category, these spirits are people, just like you and me. They have their own thoughts and motives, their own predispositions and predilections. To approach the land and its spirits with the respect owed to them by virtue of our craft that springs forth from them, our efforts must take into account that we are dealing with very real people—people who have every right to be generally angry with and distrustful of humans.
If we hope to know them, we must learn to step back and forego attempts to control our interactions with them. We can’t force a relationship with a spirit if it does not consent to such—same as with any human. Neither can we force our “help” upon the Land out of the problematic concepts of stewardship and reverence. Both concepts depersonalize the land and ignore the reality of the spirits of place, further encouraging us not to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions and to remain distant from and superior to the land. This superiority when mixed with good but misplaced intentions to do better, can present itself as a need to swoop in and offer help without asking if that help was wanted—or needed—in the first place. Spirits are people. Witches are mediators between the physical world and spirit world, who are we to assume we know better than the people we claim to respect? Who are we to not seek consent?
Relationships are Two-Way or They’re just Pretend
Each location holds distinct individual spirits. The land spirits that are found in the area with which you’re forging a deeper connection are not the same spirits that inhabit the land where I am—they’re not even the same spirits that inhabit the land twenty miles away from where you live. Each location is home to very distinct spirits, with differing attitudes, preferences, and responses. You will never be able to forge a relationship with every spirit that inhabits that place. Not only are there far too many, but some of these spirits will want nothing to do with you regardless of what actions you might take.
Spirits owe us nothing.
Spirits are not obligated to help us let alone even be nice to us. Some spirits may not want anything to do with us. They may refuse to speak with us, may flat out ignore us, or may respond harshly. The spirit world does not exist solely to offer guidance and aid to anyone with a tricked out spice rack and crystal collection. Any perceived sense of entitlement only ensures that we’ll be doing little more than hanging out in the forest alone, talking to ourselves. And, at worst, those spirits may even react hostilely. There’s a reason why land spirits are frequently the most dangerous spirits one may encounter in folk lore.
But there are steps that we can take to further build upon our efforts to see the Land for what it is and to increase our chances of being in right relationship with our local land spirits.
While we can’t force a relationship with any spirit, it is easy to tell when we have fabricated one in our minds. These one-sided relationships are focused only upon us and what the Land has to offer us. These relationships see every feather that falls across our path as a gift, every breeze as “Spirit” conveying approval of our actions, every wild animal encountered an omen or message (never mind how common it is for some animal species to be both territorial and mate for life or live in family units, i.e., there is nothing of spiritual significance that you see a group of crows everyday at work. They just live in the area).
These one-sided relationships are entirely superficial and lack the ability to touch us deeply and, thus, encourage change within us, encourage us to do better, to become better people. They can still be inspiring and still move us to tears but they are inherently impersonal. And when real spirits see us ignore them in favor of fabricated versions of them, how well are we acting upon the respect we claim in which to hold them?
Benefits of Doing the Work
Working through the ways in which we are complicit in toxic “respect” is an ongoing process. Seeing the world alive with spirits and acting upon that knowledge stands in direct contradiction to the ways that our society encourages us to live. But if we truly respect the land and the genius loci, if the potential for relationships with them truly matters to us, we can’t not allow knowledge of them to change us and to change our everyday lives.
Our efforts to be respectful, to reclaim our right to be part of the land, and to see ourselves as one among many beings—human and nonhuman alike—who call the land home are humble and challenging. They require us to look closely at our lives and see where we aren’t meeting our own standards, where we aren’t upholding our values. Our efforts require us to change and grow but in doing so we find ourselves transformed. Our spirit bodies are brought into greater congruence with the natural energy currents of the land. We find allies and even friendship with beings with greater reach and power than our own. And we remember ourselves to naturally be creatures of power and strength, too.
These ongoing efforts to be done with entitlement and to be done with tourist witchcraft all serve to entangle us more deeply within the land, to sink us into the natural world and further dissolve the perceived boundary between magick and the mundane, to place us more fully in that liminal place between the physical and spirit worlds that we are privileged to hold as witches.
In acting off the knowledge that our witchcraft is dependent upon the land, we empower ourselves with greater ability to create real and lasting change within our lives and within the world around us. This is where the deep work starts, where the path beneath our feet becomes just a little bit clearer, and where we meet the claws of witchcraft only to find that we ourselves are just as sharp of tooth and claw.
*Hopko, D. R., Ryba, M. M., McIndoo, C., & File, A. (2015). 14 Behavioral Activation. The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, 229
Originally published 10/25/19, in Stone, Root, & Bone: Issue 1.
To Count the Land as Friend and Ally…
The natural world lays at the heart of witchcraft, inescapable and beckoning. It is woven through the force and flow of our magick and evident within the materials we use. While other systems of magick may place the source of their power elsewhere, for the witch, our power lays within our connection to the land and to the very real spirits that inhabit it. Yet so many of us have grown deaf to its call, unable to place a name to the whispers that scratch so insistently at the back of our minds.
Throughout this six-week course, you will explore that inextricable bond by restoring your connection with the Land. This requires a broadening of perspective and learning to see the Land and your place within it in a way that you may remember only from when you were very young. You will explore the practical side of animism, the worldview which permeates witchcraft no matter the religious prescription of the witch. Through embracing this worldview and implementing it within your life, you will learn to see a world alive with spirits and to recognize the relationships that exist amongst the physical and spiritual worlds.
Throwing the Bones
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