I’m an old man now and I’m looking back on changes during my life. It’s odd how people can lead similar lives but make different choices based on their life lessons. I’ve been thinking about the other men and women I knew as children who had nearly identical childhoods to mine. Yet I headed toward a pagan life and they, as far as I know, didn’t.
Growing up poor in Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s meant two things – hard work and a lot of time outdoors. Most of my childhood we never had a television and we had few toys. Our play time was mostly outside, and we usually made what toys we did have. Or we did the best we could with sticks and rocks and our imaginations. Even kids who didn’t live on farms did a lot of work outdoors because almost everyone had at least one cow or goat and a few chickens. Being inside was for meals and bitterly cold weather.
Spending most of my time outside, I noticed things. I got to where I could identify calls of birds and other animals in the woods. Now at that time for many people where I lived, you hunted to survive, that’s just the way it was. But I didn’t just learn about the animals, I felt I came to know them. I would notice the same squirrels or the same bobcat and I would start seeing their personalities. Once I started knowing them as individuals I couldn’t hunt anymore. I’m still not sure what it was in me that made that connection in my brain and my heart that made me see them as distinct personalities with feelings. I’m also not sure why my friends didn’t see it that way.
Remember this was Arkansas in the 50s and 60s, and there would have been no end to the teasing if I’d told my friends and family that I didn’t want to hunt because the animals were my friends. So I found ways to cover it up. I made myself busy doing carpentry, tending to the farm animals, plowing and planting, chopping wood, and gathering herbs. Now, gathering herbs was mostly considered a woman’s job, but if I happened upon something while traipsing the woods I could just happen to pick it and bring it back home. This later led to another deception when I went to college. I told everyone I was going to study plants, which I knew would lead to the assumption that I was studying agriculture and farming. Really I had become so interested in plants I studied in the woods that I was going to study botany. I wanted to learn more about these plants and I wanted to travel and see exotic plants all around the world. Well, I never quite made it around the world, but my botany studies did get me a lot of knowledge that’s been useful over the years.
I often wonder how someone surrounded by nature doesn’t end up feeling so much a part of that web of life. As I grew I tried to be part of the land and part of my environment. Humans seem more and more to be trying to get away from the land, and this is one of the great downfalls of mankind. We can’t escape being part of everything on Earth; we’re born into it and we live and die in it as well. I think people are lured in by promises and glamour, and they soon forget the joy that came in childhood while sleeping under the stars and swimming in the creeks. I knew so many kids who you could hardly get to come inside. We all loved the freedom and the fun of outdoors. As we grew, and as technology became more prominent, they became obsessed with getting more money for more things, and they forgot the joys of a simple life.
So why do I claim to be pagan, and not just a nature lover? For years I didn’t know there was such a thing these days as being pagan. I knew the churches I grew up with were not for me. How could I feel anything indoors that even approached what I felt in the woods? I saw how moved some of the people in church were, and I saw that I felt that way when I was sitting in a tree, breathing, listening, and enjoying the life that moved around me. I felt part of something bigger than myself when I was close to nature. I never spoke of it to anyone. I knew my parents wouldn’t understand. I suspected my friends wouldn’t either. So inside I was the real me, the kid who felt spirituality all around in the stars and leaves and water. Years later I met people who talked about not just enjoying nature, but about feeling part of it as if it were a huge organism and we were just a small cell. They called themselves pagan, and I had finally found a name for what I was.
I go back to visit the old home sometimes, and I am still amazed that some people still live in the most beautiful wild country in the world, but they don’t appreciate it. They don’t feel any spiritual connection, and many of them sit staring at their TVs when the most beautiful show is going on outside. It’s always a sad visit to see old trees cut down, creeks dry and polluted, animals hunted so much that you hardly see them anymore. I remember going through the woods as a kid and seeing all kinds of animals. These days you don’t see much besides birds and squirrels. I haven’t seen a bobcat or cougar in the wild in decades. No one seems very concerned. I’m afraid one of these days the wild places of the Ozarks will be gone, and we’ll only have old pictures and memories. The sad thing is, I’m not sure anyone will really notice.
My childhood was in many ways the greatest blessing of my life. I try to give my kids and grandkids something similar on the land I have now. Just being out there in nature is one of the best gifts anyone could be given. I’m proud that I learned what I did as a kid, and proud to call myself Pagan. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I felt I was hiding myself, and not being completely honest with my family. It helped to get out in the world and find like-minded individuals, but it still hurts a little to think that the people I was raised with just wouldn’t quite accept how I feel about things. I’m thankful every day that I had an opportunity to grow up outdoors, which is something that not a lot of people get these days. As I get older my joy in nature never diminishes.