Click here to read reviewer Marie D. Jones' take on The Earth Path.
In between her writing ventures, I seem to forget why and how much I admire Starhawk’s work. Then her next book or essay is released, and I am reminded all over again of the reasons her philosophy grounds me in the profoundly sane dream of a better future.
Her most recent book, The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), serves as a guide to developing awareness of the most basic (and, as such, perhaps most elusive) elements of the natural world. Retreating somewhat from the frenetic pace of the streets in Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising (New Society Publishers, 2002), The Earth Path takes us to Starhawk’s home in the Cazadero Hills and through a journey of observing earth, air, fire, water, and spirit – the elements that sustain all life.
The opening chapter uses the fairy tale of the Isle of Birds to illustrate the author’s desired outcome for this journey. In the story, a king sends his beloved son to learn the language of birds. After twenty-one years, the prince learns to hear, to understand, and to respond. For some inexplicable reason, this angers the king (perhaps he expected his son to learn marksmanship?), but the moral of the tale (and subsequently the entire book) is the importance of deep awareness and the simple fact that such awareness requires time and attention.
In addition to the author’s stated intentions, The Earth Path serves as a wakeup call to Pagans that our spirituality involves a tangible and intimate relationship with nature, not just a theoretical acknowledgment of it. The book gently chastises Pagans who have allowed their relationship with the earth to slip into the abstract – perhaps for fear of getting cold, dirtying ritual garb, encountering insects, or simply because our culture places very little value on activities that foster deep awareness. As a result, few Pagans have "time spent talking to trees" penciled into our day planners. A tragedy for us as well as the trees! Indeed, Starhawk takes the whole culture to task perhaps more for keeping us so ignorant of the ecological processes on which our lives depend. As she notes, it’s entirely possible (even common) to be educated all the way to a doctorate level with no more than a fourth-grade understanding of photosynthesis and often no education at all as to how our local ecologies sustain themselves nor how our communities can sustain themselves without interrupting this ecological self-regulation.
Readers who have followed Starhawk since she first published her best-known work, The Spiral Dance (Harper and Row, 1979), will delight in watching her evolve in her spirituality and its application. Throughout what has become a veritable canon, we watch her grow from an idealistic girl to a mature woman whose strength and wisdom has only aggregated over the years. The Earth Path will not disappoint her fans and students. It remains as accessible and unpretentious as her previous writing, with the honesty and emotional vulnerability that has always left her readers feeling we know her. Of course, it also includes the insightful, ironic, and sometimes piercing wit for which she is known and loved. Do not ever pick up a Starhawk book if you expect to come away smugly comforted in your personal righteousness! While her ideas indeed comfort and ground, they do not bolster an I’m-ok-you’re-ok placidity. She relentlessly challenges our imaginations to stretch upward and outward.
In fact, her latest book contends that constriction of the imagination shapes our perception and awareness. For illustration, Starhawk tells the story of the 2003 Sacramento protests against biotech and industrial agriculture when police confiscated buckets of seedballs, believing them to be projectile weapons. The irony of the situation is both humorous and sad, but well exemplifies the principle that what a person is able to imagine creates categories for making sense of the world – the broader one’s imagination grows, the greater variety of things that will make sense. In the rigidly-controlling hierarchies of our culture (such as law enforcement), where constriction of the imagination facilitates predictability of behavior and uniformity of obedience to command, a greater number of things become nonsense and likely to engender fear before understanding.
One key to expanding the imagination is, according to Starhawk, is ceasing to care what others think, creating a space with the freedom to think about anything at all. As Pagans, we are in a privileged position to do this since we already exist on the fringes of the "respectable" institutions of Western society, such as academia.
I found myself both disagreeing and feeling challenged by this idea. On the one hand, many Pagans have worked hard to bring earth-based religion under the umbrella of "respectability" – establishing Pagan traditions as legally-recognized churches, securing seats on various ecumenical councils, organizing Pagans in military and police ranks, educating the courts, employers, and general public as to the relatively "normal" lives of most Pagans, right down to changing the dictionary definition of the word "witch". Cultural behemoths, like academia, are, indeed, slow to change. But they do change, and I don’t believe we’re as far removed from academic respectability as Starhawk suggests, especially considering that many of today’s Pagan leaders are highly educated. I see academia as similar to the places Starhawk talks about where two ecosystems meet and their diversity creates a mutual benefit and richness for both.
On the other hand, this question of respectability is a good reminder not to compromise what sets us apart from our predominantly alienating and exploitative culture. Religious movements tend to start out loosely organized, culturally marginalized, and socially radical. As they gain numbers, prominence, and respectability, a vicious circle of compromise to gain acceptance is set into motion (usually with a hard lurch to the political right; the Mormons are America’s most recent example of this phenomenon). Starhawk’s words challenge us not to compromise our values or who we are for public acceptance.
Overall, The Earth Path gives us a practical ethos of questioning how any given action will impact the whole, using deep attention to each element as a guide. Interwoven with this ethical paradigm are some treats new to Starhawk’s readers. The text includes the clearest explanation of grounding and anchoring I’ve ever heard. The author’s courage in defending meat-eating (is there a hotter topic anywhere in Pagandom?) is testament to her honest and principled character – the reader may not agree with her, but after taking such a risk, it’s impossible not to trust her. Each chapter tackling an element provides useful metaphors for translating that element’s nature into principles that guide our lives. For example, Air can teach us how to transform force rather than wall it off or be blown about by it. Fire is a metaphor for manifesting will from a small group of enthusiasts all the way up to the transformation of larger structures. Each chapter includes delightful lessons in permaculture that tantalize the reader to learn more. Starhawk’s theory of Gaian Evolution, outlined in Chapter Four, has the potential to change our existing paradigms with the same explosive force as Charles Darwin.
At times, the book’s intended audience is a bit unclear. Much of the language and ideas seem aimed for the Pagan community. Even as early as The Spiral Dance and Truth or Dare (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), Starhawk was moving beyond the boilerplate, Paganism 101 fare of much of Pagan literature, filling a void for Pagans who had long ago learned to cast circles and needed weightier ideas to sink their teeth into. However, at other times, the text slips into explanations of the simplest Pagan history and theology. I found the history of the witch burnings a bit incongruent and a subject that has simply been done to death, with conflicting data, in practically every Pagan book ever published. Similarly, the basic explanation of the Sabbats is probably redundant for most readers and, for anyone needing that basic information, the rest of the book will likely be confusing.
In the end though, such minutiae is inconsequential. This is easily the best nonfiction I’ve read in 2004, and I encourage readers to find their favorite outdoor spot to curl up with The Earth Path and allow it to open their attention to the life cycle around us that is so important and so pervasive that it is too easily forgotten. For those returning to Starhawk’s work, The Earth Path will be a welcome addition to their collection. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, I encourage you to run, not walk, to introduce yourselves to the challenging work of one of the most important philosophers of our time.