“Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. “Magic kills industry” “ – from Caliban and the Witch
This past fall I moved to the un-ceded traditional territory of the Sinixt people, in the west Kootenays of so-called BC. I moved here after having had grown up in the un-ceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples – otherwise known as Vancouver, BC. I came up in Vancouver – as a witch, an urban queer, a white settler with a dense and complicit colonial legacy and as an increasingly radical activist, agitator and community organizer.
When I left the city I was in the process of transitioning away from teaching yoga. I published a blog entitled “Why I Stopped Teaching Yoga – My journey into spiritual, political accountability”. The blog explained my process of coming to understand cultural appropriation and how it changed my perspective on teaching and practicing yoga. The piece received a wide range of responses, ranging from supportive to downright trolling. There was one response however, that really stuck with me. Another yoga blogger wrote this about my piece in her year end wrap up:
“It’s an important post. But I have to admit I was disappointed, that it feels like she gave up, that things became messy, so she quit and took off to the woods to grow kale and build cabins or whatever”. – emphasis added.
This criticism really stuck with me. I felt like it highlighted, quite publicly, a tension I have felt since leaving the city. I think many people hold the view that certain kinds of activism are more valid than others. Often this activism is more accessible and/or appealing to white, cis-gendered, male, enabled-bodied, financially stable urban folks with citizenship. Marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, banner drops, occupations, political lobbying, direct actions etc.
These are all tactics I’ve taken part in. I think they have an important role to play in political and social change. My argument is not meant to suggest that these tactics are somehow not valid, useful or historically significant. Nor is it meant to suggest that only highly privileged folks take part in these tactics. Rather I’m hoping we can reflect on how privilege impacts our understanding of what is “valid” activism. And further, that we can expand our notion of a diversity of tactics to include magical and homesteading skills.
Before I delve into this I want to establish that this is not a new idea. Pushing back against a conventional (or even sometimes a “radical”) notion of what “counts” as activism, is work that has been done by women of colour, indigenous women, trans-folks and disability justice activists for a long time. Some sources to look at for guidance and learning on these topics would be Black Girl Dangerous by Mia Mckenzie, Brown Star Girl by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinh, Leaving Evidence by Mia Mingus, Leanne Simpson, Fat Panic, Amanda Lickers and the Icarus Project. And that’s just a start.
The perspective I’m hoping to bring to this discussion arises both from my experience as an rural, queer, settler witch and as a former student of Rain Crowe’s class The Burning Times Never Ended, which features the text book Caliban and the Witch.
I live in a place where we heat our house with a wood stove. We are raising pigs, rabbits and chickens in our back yard who later this year we will slaughter and gather eggs from. We wake up to the snow capped forest at winter solstice and swim in a turquoise river, with the juice of berries smeared across our hands, at summer solstice. Some may say we are spoilt, privileged escapists – in fact many have. And it’s not to say that there isn’t some thread of truth in that statement. At the same time, what I think a lot of people miss in their understanding of rural living, is the deeply radical anti-capitalist potential of homesteading and magic. Never in my life have I relied less on capitalist production for my subsistence and nourishment. And each day that I live here, each person I meet, each meal that I eat, I am reminded of how much more learning I have ahead of me.
The land we live on is, we believe, fully capable of sustaining us. This relationship to land is deeply spiritually powerful and politically meaningful, not only because it allows us to turn away from relying on capitalism to meet our needs, but also because it gives us a sense of security that folks without a relationship to land will find much harder (if not impossible) to achieve. The power and security derived from this relationship is a large part of why enclosures happened in Europe, where communally held land was fenced and sold off as private property.
Federici explains an aspect of this process in Caliban and the Witch when she writes, “as soon as they lost access to the land all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen their working day.” She goes on to say, “as soon as access to land came to an end wages began to be viewed as instruments of enslavement”
The power derived from access to land is also why nations of people indigenous to North America were removed from their land base and violently forced onto reserves. It’s also related to why today indigenous land is being claimed and damaged by large scale industrial projects such as the Keystone XL, TransMountain and Enbridge Gateway pipelines, as well as various LNG, mining and hydro projects. The people with access to land dictate who has power and how that power is distributed.
I think it’s important to note that as a settler, I have a particular perspective, experience and set of privileges which I carry with me to any land base I live on. I don’t have space to expand on this as deeply as it deserves in this article. Rather I will refer you to Witches Union Hall and their work on cultural appropriation, which has provided deeply inspirational guidance for me and many other witches. Suffice to say, I think part of any land based magic practice must include an awareness and as much as possible, an active and supportive relationship of solidarity with the nations upon whose land we are living. This relationship should be one of free prior and informed consent, a revolutionary protocol that I was exposed to during my time at the Unistoten Camp.
One thing that is common across cultures and throughout history is that if you go back far enough, we all have ancestral traditions which rely on our relationship to land as our source of spiritual guidance and connection. Federici echoes this sentiment when she writes “It can be said that all pre-capitalist societies have believed in them and, in recent times we have witnessed a revaluation of practices that, at the time we would refer to, would have been condemned as witch craft.” For me, witch craft and magic is in part about going back through my ancestral family lines and discovering the practices, foods, music, herbal lore, mythology and wisdom of the people whose blood runs through my veins. It is also, equally as fundamentally, about being in relationship with the natural world where I am, which is not the traditional home land of my family lineage.
On my father’s side, the lines trace back to Northern Scotland, the land of the Picts. Pictish magical practical is primarily solitary and is grounded most fundamentally in every-day choices and how they reflect and impact our relationship to the earth. Living where I do I am more equipped than I ever have been to make these spiritual practices a corner stone of my life. Further I feel these practices are easily and necessarily politicized. For example if I am considering the impact of my actions on the land and earth in all my choices, I am more likely to choose to spend time in support of an indigenous blockade, than working a job at which I am under appreciated, under paid and over worked. That said, I recognize that for many people either choice may be a necessity and my framework for understanding these choices is reflective of my privilege as well as my political conviction.
On my mother’s side, who were primarily German Mennonites, there is a strong lineage of agriculture and a humble lifestyle which does not rely on consumerism for spiritual or physical sustenance. In Canada, where land that was stolen was given to Mennonite people to farm, Mennonites were also known to trade vegetables with indigenous communities for meat and fish those communities had caught and processed. It’s understood and remembered that these practices allowed both communities to sustain themselves through daunting economic times, such as the great depression.
It’s becoming increasingly impossible to deny that we are facing or already in another round of potentially devastating (and liberating?) economic and ecological insecurity. This is a reality that I see on my news feed daily and more pressingly, this is a reality I can feel in my bones, nervous system, mind’s eye and constantly tense muscles. What I know in my heart is that we need all kinds of skills, community and resistance strategies to weather all the violence and oppression we are facing. When people leave urban spaces to pursue lives that allow them access to the time, place, land and community needed for them to practice witchcraft and homesteading as part of their daily lives, this is something we should celebrate as one more irreplaceable, fundamentally important part of a robust and resilient diversity of tactics.
We need activists, healers, artists and change makers of all stripes. Divide and conquer is a strategy of capitalist colonial acquisition. Working together and in relationship to the earth are terrifying to the people in power for a reason. Which is exactly why we need to keep doing it.