Last week, Thiasos Bakkheios and a friend took a field trip to Cat’s Cradle, a shrine in the redwood forest above the UC Santa Cruz campus. The idea was to get our hands dirty with some practical, physical work for the spirits and powers.
Santa Cruz, California, is on the north end ot the Monterey Bay. The campus of UC Santa Cruz is on the seaward face of the Santa Cruz mountains, growing from the edge of the city up into the redwood forests on the mountainside. The campus is built to blend harmoniously with the landscape, so it’s less like most urban university campuses and more like an overdeveloped summer camp with its own bus system.
The redwoods are not old growth, as with the famous California parks where there are trees big enough to drive a car through, but it is also not logged or otherwise exploited (except when the university wants to clear space for a new building), leaving it feeling very natural. The woods are criss-crossed with bike paths and hiking trails, and occasionally the university has to warn people about mountain lions. Rumors of faery presence have long been told about the place, and it’s possible for even those who know the paths to get turned about in the most unexpected ways.
For those not familiar with redwood trees, they’re a type of conifer that grows very tall, very straight, with long, high branches weaving into a tight canopy. When a tree falls, and leaves good roots, new trunks will sprout from those roots and grow in a circle around the place where the original tree once stood. Students and locals have been building up these circles into dens for drum jams, quiet smoking, Pagan rituals, and you-got-redwood-duff-where sexual trysts for quite a long time.
Cat’s cradle is a pair of these circles, overlapping one another, with walls of fallen redwood branches woven between the trees for privacy. The smaller circle is the burial site, where a dozen cats, several rats, and at least one snake are interred. The larger circle is the shrine, decorated with cat statues, a grave marker with pictures of the five cats my family has buried there, and a journal in which folks are invited to share their thoughts and memories.
Next to Cat’s Cradle, in a clearing between the redwood circles, is Caer Ellilon, a ritual circle built by Dany’s (then) coven 25 years ago, about the same time as they started Cat’s Cradle with the burial of her cat, Anders. The clearing is bounded by a ring of redwood branches, with four stumps as altars in the cardinal directions, and a totem pole (an art installation from the 1960s, not an authentic Native artifact) rescued by the Elfland Liberation Front from destruction in a campus building expansion in the 1990s and deeper into the woods. The circle has been used by several, diverse Pagan groups over the decades.
My family goes up there once or twice a year to repair the circles, clean things up, freshen the paint on the totem pole, and do basic shrine maintenance. We put fresh journals in Cat’s Cradle when the old ones get full, and scan the old journals so that the stories won’t be lost if the journals are destroyed–as has happened when fire, rain, or campus police attack the shrine. One day relatively soon, we hope to make PDFs of those journals, and put them online for posterity.
Right about now you’re probably thinking, “that’s all good, but what has it got to do with Dionysos?
Well, not much, but then that wasn’t the point of the field trip. I took the Thiasos up there to show them the other side of active polytheism, the hands-on side. We’ve done the gather-drink-chant-drum part. We’ve acknowledged the spirits of the dead and the land in our prayers. On this trip, though, we worked with those spirits in a more visceral way. There was back-achey, hand-chafing work put into honoring the spirit of a place. There was grave tending and making offerings to the dead on their own turf. We sanctified the space, not only with intent, but with song and sweat and (thanks to a saw and the mosquitos) blood.
We sometimes need to remind ourselves that the ritual-mystic isn’t the only–much less the most important–aspect of Polytheism. We’re cultivating relationships with the powers of the real world, the world of dust and wood and bone. Being good hosts when we invite them into our spaces is just one end of the relationship. Being good guests when we go into their spaces is just as vital.
It’s all about reciprocity. Most people understand that, if you want your friends to help you clean up your space, you need to help them with theirs. If you want to keep our friends close, you have to remember and honor the history you have with each other. Why should our relationship with the gods and spirits be different in this?