The ritual begins: She sits within a circle of her favorite crystals; amethyst, quartz, tigers eye. She lights her sage bundle and allows it to smolder before bathing in its cleansing smoke, beneath it holding all the while an abalone shell, ceremoniously catching the ash. She prays to the spirits for protection as she casts her circle to begin her magic...
So many books paving the way for so many of us into paganism, new-age mindfulness or mysticism begin the same: Here are the tools, symbols and techniques, make sure to practice, don't be too hard on yourself and reference the list of stones, herbs, animals, symbols and their associations in the back of the book when preparing for your work. Is it just me, or is the redundancy department of redundancy at work again? Not only are all the books seemingly the same (just pick your flavor; celtic, wiccan, druid, re-constructionist, new-age, etc.), their lists of tools, objects and their associations seem to be highly derivative.
Let's hold right here for a moment: I've not read all the books out there, and I've not scoured their information for copyrighted consistencies and nuanced variations. I'm speaking in very broad generalities. I'm not saying crystals are bad and that we should all stop using sage, but are these commonalities hindering our spiritual progress and/or incongruent with [many or our] beliefs of ecological conservation and equitable human rights around the globe?
Although I've not surveyed all the new-age and pagan shops in America to find out where they get their crystals, herbs and ingredients, I think I'm safe in claiming that many of those items are not endemic to our country; in many cases not found on our continent and certainly not found in our backyards or even local green spaces. Much of the amethyst comes from mines in Brazil, labradorite from Madagascar and diamonds from Africa. Sage, both Salvia apiana and Artemisia tridentata are endemic to the American south-west and west of the continental divide respectively. Dragon's Blood, a popular incense-resin for protection and cleansing, comes from Dracaena trees in Africa and Daemonorops from India & China. Were they sustainably harvested? Does our demand for these products create poor working conditions a sub-living wages for people we share the planet with?
I'm not trying to point fingers or even attempt to make a claim that the common tools/ingredients in American pagan culture are bad or good, I just want to ask if we know where they come from... Do we really have a solid understanding of what it took to get that incense burner carved, that sage bundled, or that rock polished and delivered to your door? Are we making the best decisions for the planet, humanity and ourselves? If we continue to use sage exclusively for cleansing, and cleansing exclusively with sage, are we maybe missing something?
My proposal is that we begin to look around ourselves and ask what tools, stones, herbs and ingredients we have available to us. What's endemic to the space I call home? Where I live there are some [geologically relatively] new lava formations; perhaps there are some stones right here whose spirits have something to offer my own growth. Is it possible that working with the spirits of native plants could be more potent and rewarding than with those that grew on the other side of the planet, dug up with who knows what respect or lack thereof, and shipped? Have we asked that question in prayer/meditation? How much more fitting would it be to use tools made by locals (or yourself) specifically for, and with the intention/mutual arrangement of serving your purpose, whatever that may be for that particular tool?
I'm not saying we shouldn't be using them. When I lived in the south-west, I was lucky enough to have white sage everywhere and would pick my own. I almost never bought any. The same for some of the other herbs I'd use. I also lived within a day-trips distance to some great rock-hounding areas where I could pick up jasper, agate and even opal if you knew where to look. I've never been a huge crystal person, but would occasionally find something that just seemed to want to come home and be incorporated into some meditation or ritual. Now I've moved and everything is new: The southwest is arid and the flora/fauna is much different than the woodlands of the northwest, and I'm always discovering new and amazing plants/animals. I still love white sage and not sure what I'll do when my stash runs out. A compelling argument can be made that we are a world-species and that we all have a little of this or that from either/or country and that on some level, our own spirits resonate with the spirits of the plants/animals there. But unless you live in Africa with the Dracaena trees, how much will Dragon's blood really help your spiritual work?
I feel that I'm personally much more enriched when I work with the spirits of where I call home; where we both coexist is where we can best understand and really know each other. That amethyst that was ripped from the ground in Brazil by a villager looking to make a quick $0.01 just doesn't have a whole lot in common with me. And I feel like I'm holding everyone to a higher standard of caring for the planet by not supporting that type of 'plundering.' I also believe that I'm holding myself to a higher standard spiritually by not taking 12 different authors' word that I need sage and quartz crystals for cleansing and protection, and looking around myself to seek and discover the hidden 'mysteries' of the spirits that I spend my life around. The inconspicuous piece of lava rock I find while hiking in the cascades region that burns in my hand and soul when I pick it up is going to be vastly more useful. It really forces me to take the time to stop and smell (and talk to) the proverbial - and sometimes literal - roses. And it opens doors for me to exercise being in the moment, knowing myself and being at peace with my surroundings.
All that being said, I must admit I love plants from around the world; I collect orchids and other beautiful houseplants. I've created spaces where they can come together in a sort of metropolis of life. Most, if not all have been greenhouse-propagated, but they still cary the spirit of their origins in tropical jungles, cloud forests and arid, outback summers. When I grow them well, their reward is transporting me in dreamtime to their inner and outer worlds of jungles and mountains. It has been a rich experience and I am truly blessed to know them.
I wish I'd read the book about discovering local plant, mineral and animal spirits and their benefits for myself when I first began my path into paganism. To their credit, many authors do mention this, but I feel a disproportionate amount of information, especially marketed to new pagans, is regurgitated and stifling in the long run. I will also acknowledge the benefits of beginning somewhere; if that's sage and quartz crystals, I only hope they are eventually led to something profoundly personal and grounding in their own peace. If your flavor of paganism is earth-based, and/or you consider yourself a champion of bio-conservation, I hope these thoughts have already entered your mind and that you have taken steps to balance your practice as well. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter...
Peace be with you,