Some will be afraid of this knowledge, witchcraft should be liberated by it, liberated from petty concerns to pursue lives of beauty, liberated from the sleepwalking into death that our culture has made for us and our children. So I counsel, confront death. For witchcraft to be anything other than the empty escapism of the socially dysfunctional it needs to feel the shape of its skull, venerate the dead and the sacred art of living and dying with meaning. We are all on the fierce path now.
Confront death, not by pretending that you have cut a deal with the Elder Vampire Gods invented for you by some internet Dark Witch fantasist. Confront death, not by pretending that a beautiful Beltane ritual and a blue sky means everything will stay the same. Confront death, not by practicing the magic of ploughmen and wortcunners in your urban basement believing that it makes you more authentic than any given Wiccan. We need to stop making those closest to us our sworn enemies. The game has changed. I have no interest in telling people how to practice their witchcraft, a term which covers a multitude of sins, but what I can offer is the principles that will make it work for them in these difficult circumstances. Readers of my Apocalyptic Witchcraft will recognise these ideas: orientation, presence, imperative. We are not simply losing it all, it is being stripped from us as surely as those accused of being witches were by their inquisitors in the torture cell. Our enemies are not our sisters and brothers in the craft, they are the named individuals and corporations and their governments who are tearing out our living flesh. Witchcraft has never been about turning the other cheek to this. The witch has been created by the land to act for it.
If you prefer reassurances you can ask the New Agers about their Global Awakening product or believe the green wash of the Venture Capitalists who will seek to cash in on the death of the biosphere with equally implausible schemes and vapourware tech-fixes. The governments and scientists will continue to lie to you to prevent the panic that disrupts shopping as usual however; the cracks in the official narrative are beginning to show. Most will choose to keep mainlining what Dmitri Orlov calls ‘hopium’ from the sock puppets squawking out of the idiot box. However, I predict the next generation are going to be angrier and their witchcraft more radical than you or I could dream. They will realise that there is nothing to lose, rather than this generation which seems only concerned about the size of their pension pots not the fact that they have cost us all the earth.
We need to offer the death rites in a culture that pretends that death can be cheated by buying the latest i-gadget or hooking ourselves up to plasma bags of young blood. These technological responses do not account for the wider environment which we do not control but which now seeks to redress the killing balance and is doing so with storm surge and wildfire and tornado and flood and drought regardless of what is playing on your headphones or how high the gates are to your compound. I welcome this storm.
I had spoken to a friend about a time when a spirit came through to us and just cried. He wanted to know if the spirit world was aware and reacting to all this. To us they are. Our allies in the wild are making their last stand and we must stand with them. We are not ayahuasca tourists, we are embedded in this other world and it must speak through us.
Extinction is a difficult realisation. After you have worked through the denial, you are going to need to cry in order that you can offer up the sacred lament. The five steps of the grieving process are well known, delineated by psychiatrist Kübler-Ross, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Everyone in this room will be somewhere on this scale and this is important for you to understanding the process as you come to terms with these facts.
American environmentalists now talk about us being in hospice that is, transitioning to death in a calm supportive place. Witchcraft is more active than that, we are performing rites for those who society despises. If you are engaged in witchcraft I suggest that you work on the lament on your death rites and your eschatology and on your spirit body. There are the examples to emulate of those sensitively lifting roadkill from the asphalt for burial or reanimation, tending the graves of their neglected local cemetery, lighting candles for their ancestors. We should also be able to offer ministry to those who are being broken on the wheel of modern life and for whom the self-harm and SSRIs cannot numb the pain. Our relationship to the living world of spirit means that we should also offer our support to those who are actively seeking to destroy industrial civilisation by direct action against its infrastructure. These people are not terrorists, they are the conscience of the body of the world. We must defend what is left. As practitioners we must also begin to transfer our allegiance to the other world, for if there is to be any survival that is where it can be found. This does not mean that we do not abscond from our responsibilities in the world as it is.
With climate collapse and infrastructure failure in what now seems not a slow but a jagged descent, a shift to the local and a disengagement from power structures are necessary steps. Find the others has become an imperative. Our personal eschatology, the inevitability of our physical deaths is now being played out on a planetary scale. Form your covens, your working groups for there is no time to lose. Make your ritual actions count. Be present in every action and exchange. Love one another.
Witchcraft has never been passive in the face of power. Our witchcraft will not be silenced at a time such as this, it will not be polite. Witchcraft cannot retreat to the wilderness, because there is no exterior wilderness left, instead we need to exteriorise our inner wild. We need to wake up the animal in our bodies, this is witchcraft as contagion, as living flame. We witches must however reluctantly return the curse that has been laid upon us all.
Our elders have failed us, they have not provided leadership, they have not provided counsel, they have been silent and compliant in the face of power. They have said nothing on fracking, climate collapse, the extinction crisis and done even less. The old have, for the most part, betrayed the youth. This is as true of witchcraft as it is of our wider culture. It is therefore down to us as individuals to take our lead from the only source of initiation, living spirit, and through it embody the new witchcraft. We must become a witchcraft with a renewed sense of meaning and purpose, of responsibility to the land which is in crisis, or we are simply consumers of the earth which will all too soon eat of us.
Those who do not feel the imperative to act on this information demonstrate that they are not orientated, that is, they have no connection to the land and its denizens. Their magic is simply a cerebral construct and without being embodied is meaningless. Witchcraft is profoundly animist, and that means we have responsibilities to fulfil. There is no hierarchy of actions, no purity test as to how practitioners use this knowledge, each will find their own innate response that is generated from their own circumstances and the needs of their community of spirits.
But to conclude, I have an answer of a kind. We are an ecstatic cult and our ritual of ecstasy is the sabbat. All flesh is one flesh in the sabbat. We are these species. We are partaking of this beautiful erotic dance of unbecoming and yes, horror. Take off your clothes witchcraft, your human faces and find your skins. devour the intimacy of your other bodies, welcome them into you as they possess you. Our wine is to be found in this bloody cup, pressed out of our own beating hearts in stamping steps.
Here is the rose, dance here.
It began with a trail of little black ants marching across my kitchen counter in the middle of the night — marching, in fact, right under the half-screwed-on lid of one of my honey jars. This was honey I’d harvested myself from hives I keep in my yard. How dare those ants!
In a fury I sprayed countertop cleaner across the ant trail, decimating their formation, then sponged the lot of them down the sink. The honey was a lost cause. The jar was full of ants drowning themselves in sweetness. It was only later, lying in bed, that it occurred to me: The ants were only doing what I’d done — stealing honey.
Next morning the ants were back, their numbers doubled. I sprayed again, this time over a wider range, and scrubbed and sponged with as much vigor as I could muster. Still, the ants were winning. They had made their way across the floor to my cat’s bowl of dried food and were swarming through her kibble. My cat refused to eat from a bowl writhing with ants.
I scrubbed the entire kitchen again. Put out a fresh bowl of cat food then went outside for a break. Glancing to the back of the yard I spotted trouble: a line of those same black ants filing up from the ground into a crack in one of my hive boxes. I opened the box, a homemade top-bar hive that had only recently teemed with enough bees to withstand ant attack. Now the combs inside were full of honey, but there were no bees. None at all.
Experienced beekeepers tell me that what my bees did is called “absconding.” An entire hive, including the queen, simply flies away. There are many reasons bees find a hive box unsatisfactory (the smell of the wood, the hive’s placement). My bees may have simply wanted to pick their own home instead of being placed in an artificial one by an amateur bee enthusiast looking to expand her honey supply and feel more connected to nature.
What bewilderment I found myself in as I stood there staring down into that empty hive. I’d spent the morning trying to rid myself of one insect, and now I felt abandoned by another. That night the ants were back in my kitchen, marching across the counter and up into a bag of corn chips. I got out my spray bottle and played Siva, destroyer of worlds, but with far less enthusiasm than before.
The problem, I think, with ants and humans is that we both want the same thing: everything. In fact the score is tied: The biomass of humans is roughly equal to the biomass of ants on our planet. We may build roads and skyscrapers, but there are surely ants marching through all we erect.
Honeybees, I think, couldn’t care less about humans or ants. It is a piece of strange luck that what honeybees want ends up pleasing us as well. There has been much outcry about the colony collapse disorder (C.C.D.) currently afflicting honeybees. You have probably heard of the doomsday that awaits us if they disappear. Let’s be clear though: The world won’t end if honeybees die out, but it will stop being the world as we want it to be.
C.C.D. has killed a lot of honeybees, but there are still far more in the world than there ever would have been without human intervention. Commercial farming in the United States is dependent on honeybees’ pollinating a lot of crops (almonds and avocados, for example). About one-third of our food comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. Native bees (the many indigenous bees of North America) aren’t as easily coerced into doing the work that honeybees readily take to.
It’s actually amazing to me that honeybees can live the way we ask them to. The hives we propagate to do our farm work are so populated that they must be fed sugar water to stay alive. The bees are trucked from farm to farm throughout a growing season and at each new farm they’re released into an identical grid of crops. These hives are kept in close quarters, and disease spreads easily. The crops the bees fly through are often covered in pesticides. No one knows the exact cause of C.C.D. Maybe we simply ask too much of our honeybees.
One thing I know for sure: Neither humans nor honeybees can claim to be indigenous to North America when you compare them with how long the ants have been here. Ant fossils have been found in New Jersey that are almost 100 million years old. Traces of humanlike species more than two million years old can’t be found anywhere on our planet, and no traces of humans can be found in North America that are older than 40,000 years. We are newcomers in ant territory, no matter how you consider it.
Evidence of our ancient love for honeybees can be found in Europe in prehistoric cave paintings depicting men climbing up toward buzzing hives. Honeybees were probably first brought to North America by English and Spanish colonists and were referred to by natives as “white man’s flies.”
Still, I’m not willing to give North America back to the ants or do without almonds and broccoli, citrus fruit and cranberries. I’m not even willing to share my kitchen with ants.
Little black ants are just as insistent in what they want. They are such lovers of sweets that they will fight off ladybugs and lacewings to protect their favorite pet — sap-sucking aphids. Aphids drink leaf sap, then excrete droplets of sugary liquid from their rear ends that the ants readily drink. Is this any stranger than a human stealing honey from a box of bees in her yard?
After spraying the kitchen with vinegar, then with hot sauce, to no avail, I finally called an exterminator. She laid out baits filled with a poisoned sweet-syrup (it looked a lot like honey!) and also sprayed my kitchen and yard.
“Be careful,” I pleaded as she spread her poison. “Don’t hurt my bees!”
Yes, it’s a selfish and hungry world we live in, but unlikely friendships are forged (ant and aphid, human and bee). I saved a spider last night by carrying it out of the house in a jar and tossing it in the bushes. The next day I saw it hadn’t survived the relocation.
Alas, none of us travel more than briefly through this beautiful yard we call Earth. Regardless of how separate we may feel from other living creatures, we are all here together. I suspect there will always be more things alive in my kitchen than I care to see.
Rennie Sparks is the lyricist and banjo player for the folk duo the Handsome Family, and the author of “Wilderness,” a collection of essays and art.