On the Trail of the Nature Mystics or How Is Your Spiritual Life?
In the earliest days of working with my spiritual teacher, each group session started with the same question, 'How is your Spiritual Life?' Each person would answer in turn. Some would share what they had been reading or learning that week, and some would describe events at work. Some, like me, would recount what they had been creating that week. I was starting to spend most of my spare time crafting; making natural soaps and bath products, semi-precious jewellery, or rediscovering old hobbies like baking bread, candle making, or blending incense. The work I did in those early days led to me writing my first novel.
An indelible link was forged between spending time in nature, observing the wheel of the year, and expressing those feelings through my creativity. My spiritual life, if you like, nestles in with my creative life. Remove one element, and the whole starts to crumble, the centre cannot hold. Having grown up in a remote part of Dartmoor, I was used to being surrounded by nature, or immersing myself in literature, and the two things seemed perfectly at ease with one another. As an adult, discovering a spiritual path within Modern Paganism, I was not so much seeing the world through new eyes, but learning to value the eyes I had grown up with, and to see the full circle.
To imagine that I was the first writer to link spirituality and creativity would have been foolish. English literature is full of the signs and portents that point the way to Modern Paganism. It is no wonder that I had stumbled onto this path when all of my influences of the past were pointing this way. For instance, Mary Webb (who I fell in love with in my teenage years) is dripping with pagan themes. Even though she was published thirty years before modern Wicca emerged, blinking into the light of the post war decades. Her most famous novel, Precious Bane, contains over 200 references to folklore, and the plot turns on the curse of a cunning man. Added to this, the main character, Prue Sarn, is mistaken for a shape-shifting witch who turns into a hare by moonlight, and she is also a Nature Mystic. In other words, she connects to the divine and has mystical experiences in. I had found my kindred spirit, albeit a fictional one.
Fast forwarding a decade or two later, I began researching Mary Webb for a PHD, and very quickly ran into difficulties. Not only did my supervisor despair that I seem to write about fictional characters as if they are real, but I was also struggling to place Webb within the canon of English Literature. She did not 'fit' within any of the boxes usually associated with writers of her time. Within the framework of my literary knowledge, I was floundering, but through my pagan eyes, things started to make sense again. Re-reading Hutton's Triumph of the Moon, I came across his assertion that Modern Paganism emerged from a number of late Victorian and early twentieth century influences; the rise of the Folklore Society, Freemasonry, a background history of Cunning Folk, and also literary influences. Hutton lists a number of writers as contributing to the cultural environment from which Modern Paganism emerged following the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. There were some old favourites in there; Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Kenneth Grahame, to name but three, and I knew there had to be more. So I started to identify proto-pagan writers, and nature mystics. Webb was most popular posthumously, in the 1930's and 1940's, so I knew she was key. But what about others? Which writers were most loved by pagans? Which did we grow up reading, and who do we read now? I re-read Tolkien and Lawrence in a new light, and started to discover bestselling women writers who had vanished from our contemporary cannon. The connections started to form and give clarity. Sylvia Townsend Warner emerged from the mists of time with her book about witches meeting for their sabbath in an ordinary rural village, and Mary Butts with her connections to Aleister Crowley. Edith Nesbit and William Butler Yeats revealed their connections to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and a whole series of firecrackers started to go off in my head.
Just like the ouroborous serpent that swallows its own tail, Modern Paganism has emerged from literary influences, but also in turn influences the creation of more literature and art. Pagan writers of fiction and non-fiction, artists, actors, and craftspeople around the globe are busy creating new paintings, new novels, new plays, new games and new jewellery which in turn influences the formation of pagan lore going forward. In an endless cycle of inspiration and creativity, one starts to question which came first, the 'fictional' created world or the 'real' world?