I was talking about wine the other night, and spirits of the land, and the many different ways of rooting oneself in an awareness of all the indwelling spirits of the places in which we live and move and I remembered something I learned a very long time ago.
I’m a bit of a wine snob. I was taught by my adopted mother, for whom wine was one of life’s sweetest pleasures. She had a very discerning palate, and with her training, i developed a palate that, had I chosen to pursue it, would have enabled me to take a sommelier’s training. This was one of the grace-notes of Midgard, a pleasure we both shared.
Until she came into my life I’d never liked wine. I hadn’t been exposed to much and didn’t realize that a palate is something that must be cultivated, and that as it was cultivated it would expand and perception would deepen and a whole new world of taste and flavor, aroma, and insight would open up. When I asked my mom to teach me about wine, she took to the task with a vengeance. Over the years that we were together, she gleefully exposed me to some of the best wines in the world. It was, at first, an uphill battle! I have a sweet tooth and at first, that carried over to a dismaying degree into my choice of wines. I found anything not cloyingly sweet too bitter. So she solved this by starting with the best dessert wine she knew and very slowly and very, very patiently, moving my palate away from the sweet. My taste for reds and whites opened up at different times. The latter came first and took about a year to develop. I can still remember with vivid clarity that day, many years ago, when my palate burst open to white wine. I was sitting in Tour D’Argent, overlooking Paris and drinking a glorious, absolutely glorious 1999 Puligny Montrachet. All of a sudden my taste buds were flooded with multiple notes of flavor. I remember losing myself in a complex, multi-layered smokiness that seduced the tongue and nose, unlike anything i’d ever tasted before. To this day my favorite white wines are still the ones that are rich and smoky. It took another year and a half or so for my palate to open to red wines. That was less dramatic and while I know I was in Italy (probably Rome), drinking a lot of Amarone, I can’t name the exact time or place of that particular epiphany. With the opening of my palate came a growing sense of the spirit of the vine as well and I began to develop an alliance with him. My explorations of wine were grounded not only in deep and deeply sensual delight but also immense respect.
So my mom took me to Switzerland once, wanting to show me all the places that had formed the warp and weft of her world, all the places she loved. We were traveling through a small village near Montreux and stopped for lunch. The restaurant wherein we were eating offered only local wines, grown within a few miles of where we sat. these wines are, for the most part, not distributed broadly and are sold only in the immediate areas. Before I could venture an opinion, my mom cautioned me against turning up my nose up at local varietals. She told me that the spirit, wisdom, and medicine of the land upon which we stood was contained in those wines. It was a distillation of the “ashe” of the land spirit itself, and contained trace memories of everything that had ever happened in those places. It’s a connection, on a very deep level, to the power of the land itself, a very particular plot of soil. It’s a means, a very sacred and holy means of absorbing the power of that land spirit –freely given–into oneself. To taste the wine was to taste the land upon which it was grown. (She also had much to say about why a wine tastes better in its native locale than after it’s been loaded with sulfites, agitated, and shipped to the US, but that’s another tale in and of itself).
She was right of course and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this holds true for every bite of food or drop of drink we put into our mouths. For this reason if no other, homage should be given to the spirits of the land, the soil, the tilled earth, the mulch, the water table, and the entire ecosystem in which our nourishment was born. As the land is nourished so are we.
think about that: as the land is nourished, so are we. Truly grasping that one simple truism changes everything. I know for me, it transformed to a great degree the way in which I interact with the earth. I became much more conscious of what i put into my mouth, where my food comes from, how my local farmers are treated, and the megalithic horror of Monsanto and all the destruction it brings (and not in the name of science either. Hubris maybe, but not science). I found myself radicalizing on fronts that I had heretofore ignored as someone else’s fight. Well it’s not “someone else’s fight,” not unless I suddenly no longer require food to live.
It’s not enough to say “i honor the earth.” Tell me how. What exactly do you do? How does it translate into your everyday Midgard life? Because words are not enough.
My mother taught me that, a bird-boned firebrand, a small, delicate woman with an elegant Swiss accent, a streak of blue in her hair (for Loki–and, according to her, so no one would look at her and think she was without her edges) and a will that would put the mountains themselves to shame. She was a radical: in her devotion, in loving the Gods, and in the way that she adored the earth. That is my inheritance.
At my bone blog, I just posted an article about visiting the grave of a local hero (for those of you who wonder what I do on my days off lol). I had a great time and I learned about a truly remarkable and courageous young girl. Check it out.
Some friends were having a discussion with Sannion last night and as I was passing through (swamped with preparations for my upcoming trip), he mentioned one of the things they were discussing and it just blew me away. This is so spot on, so powerful, so incredibly profound that I, half way upstairs, stopped dead in my tracks and asked everyone’s permission to write about it here. (Obviously they graciously allowed me to do so, or I wouldn’t be posting this!).
The latest issue of Walking the Worlds discusses the importance of regional cultus to the restoration of our polytheisms. We talk about regional cultus a lot but I don’t think many of us (myself included) ever really stop to parse it out or to figure out how all of the various parts of our praxis are organically (no pun intended, I swear!) connected. Part of regional cultus is venerating the land spirits, what a Norse practitioner might call vaettir. Hand in hand with this goes a certain reverence for the land and the spaces in which we practice, which support our practice, be they cities or forests or anything in between. This is good. I think honoring the land is the third part of a very powerful trine of Gods, ancestors, and land that is foundational to polytheism as a whole. But I don’t think many of us take this any farther. My friends did and I’m still just blown away.
Essentially when you are honoring the land, over and above any individual spirits you may be engaging with, when we just talk about the soil itself, you’re honoring the dead. You cannot engage in regional cultus, you cannot really honor any piece of land, without also recognizing and honoring the dead. Why? This is basic to the way both geology and ancestor practice works. The dead are always with us, underpinning everything we are and everything we do. The Yoruba have a powerful maxim: “we stand on the shoulders of our dead,” or sometimes “we stand on the bones of our dead.” Well, we do. Literally.
What is soil but eons of dead matter? Many of us in the Northern Tradition praise the forces of decay because without decay and rot, without this process of transmutation what would our world be? With the grace of the gods and spirits of decay and rot, we have soil, soil made up of dead bodies, dead animals, dead plants, going all the way back to the beginning. We quite literally walk and live upon the remains of our dead and we are nourished by it physically just as ancestor work nourishes us spiritually. There is nowhere we can walk where the dead are not. There is nothing we can consume, that has not partaken of this blessing of death and decay (unless it is solely processed in a lab and then I don’t want to be consuming it!). All that grows in the soil and everything that devours that which grows in the soil, and all who devour those things…we are all physically nourished by our dead and in time our corporeal matter will fade into the blackness of the soil to nourish those who come after us in turn. I have said before that there is more life in a teaspoon of soil than in the greatest metropolis on earth and that is true, but in the soil itself, there is also more death. The two cannot be sifted apart.
We as polytheists and animists know that we are not apart from the natural world. We are in harmony with it (or strive to be). We are connected to all things that were and are and will be. The detritus of a small dead plant is as much part and parcel of our tapestry of being as those buried in a cemetery to whom we might be related by blood. We are literally made up of the dead. The soil is the stuff of our blood and bone. It’s all interconnected.