When we think of urbanity what figures come to mind? Perhaps the flaneur, the dandy, the aristocrat, the business person, lawyers, bankers, the city is peopled with those who help maintain it’s operation. Nature, outside of parks and at times some innovative urban planning, is not usually coincident with city life.
I live in Chicago and more often than not I thin of mausoleums and the Egyptian necropolis rather than earthy grandeur as I’m wandering the city streets. So how does urban life coincide with pagan beliefs? How do folks attuned to a more raw belief come to terms with a world awash in carbon monoxide and artificial light? Daniel Anderson recently moved from Tucson, Arizona to bustling San Fransisco, and in the following article originally posted on his site, Wandering Heathen, he reflects on the issues that arise when a natural faith meets an artificial environment. – David Metcalfe
Awhile ago I posted on Twitter that I was considering what it meant to be an urban pagan. Since moving to San Francisco, a dense town of closely contained parks, steel, glass, and concrete, I’ve come to gradually wrestle with the nature of place. The nature of place has been on my mind a lot especially since I’ve moved into a new flat in a shared living space and, with all the moving of furniture and normal settling in, also made an effort to be sensitive to spaces and the memories they retain. Chiefly, my space. Knowing that my occupation is mentally taxing and that I needed a safe and rejuvenating area, I set about making sure that my home, while confined to one lofted room, would no doubt be a place of safety and subtle, regenerative power.
It has been slow going. Furniture is in transition, not everything is settled—, and I overextended myself a little in cleansing it from its last state in terms of both memory (via general intention and some sage) and physicality. I redid the hardwood floors, painted almost all the walls, and repainted the loft. The space impacts you immediately when you walk in, and I hope it can be as much a rest for me as it can be for any guest I invite in. Still, transitioning is hard.
Being an urban pagan is also an interesting identity choice, and not necessarily one I choose to take for myself, at least in name. Neopaganism is deeply earth-based and rightly so, but how does one structure their spirituality in the world of concrete? Technologicism, or techno-paganism, I feel is a romance that can be tacked on without understanding the full ramifications of meshing machine (a singular identity and style of consciousness in itself) with organic gray matter. Writing poems/incantations/verses in ASCII doesn’t cut it. I don’t think the term “pagan”, even in loose usage, really works here. Paganism runs away from the concrete, steel, and glass, and looks for the Earth-mother. Structured religion is the religion of the city even dating to medieval times. The city’s center was always the cathedral. To be a “Heathen” in the first place means, literally, to be dwelling among plants, or the country. You do not share the religion of those who live in civilization’s walls: the city.
So what do I do here in terms of my spiritual identity?
San Francisco, like most big cities, attracts people because it is a place to carve out your dreams. My occupation is only an occupation—I’ve come here to be with my girlfriend, to practice art, and to write and tell stories. San Francisco is a great venue for that, but in its activity and opportunity—not in terms of its energy. It is not a regenerative place. People get burnt out here very easily and often without knowing it. If I am to be a “pagan” in this city—or, put it this way—one who retains the power of their self and, in my case, the Muse which often possesses me, then it means I must be more intentional than ever about who I am, what my practices are, and how I practice them. I must at once be able to express and absorb without ever becoming either too full or too empty. Money is only one concern—the more important a concern is how you keep your soul.
For me, nature will always have its place. Even as a teenager I saw wisdom in the trees in the backyard, and trees in the wild have a distinct kind of hum to them—a whisper that is so low you can only hear it if you sink to their level and, perhaps, see the world through their eyes. It’s hard to listen to any tree in the city over the noise of the cars—or even the concrete (consider what kind of noise concrete sidewalks have). So it will be good to retreat from the city, and both me and Natasha will probably do so whenever we have the chance.
But as for urban paganism, the question becomes how you create that space for yourself when so many others rise and fall—and do quickly, sometimes without it. Maybe you could describe it in the terms of their own personal space: chiefly, it collapsed. There’s the academic argument whether humans were made for the city (or vice versa) in the first place, and while I may take up that debate eventually, for me it’s not practical. I have to deal with the city as it is, and find myself who can at once harness and be submissive to the powers of nature while being in a world that is mostly artificial. For now, it may be a struggle, but I think, as with many things, it may be a challenge of balance. At least, that will be part of it.