Magic and Ecology

Io’s article on the Evolution Aesthetic, as opposed to the Apocalyptic Aesthetic in magic, has really gotten under my skin a bit.  I keep thinking about this article, and about how he suggests that the methodology of the weed or the parasite — very much rooted in the present environment and moment, but with an eye on some future state of being — is the aesthetic which maybe magicians should add to their conversation a bit more.

Civilizations fall.  That much is obvious to this teacher of history — who no longer teaches history, actually, because there’s an uncomfortable reality at work when you put a world and ancient history teacher like me, who deals in stories of the rise and fall of societies and why they rise and fall, to work teaching American history which deals out the myth of progress with stunning regularity and casual disregard of its likely soporific effects.  I possibly spent too much time unpacking the myth, and not enough time selling it.

The imagery from the Baltimore riots over the last couple of weeks is typical Apocalypse Aesthetic.  It’s all fires and riot police, black skin and black night, half-masked faces and burning cars.  It’s not to say this isn’t the reality, or that it is the reality.  I DO NOT KNOW.  I do know that news is manufactured — and that we are as likely to see images Venezuelan riots with the label of “Baltimore” at the bottom of the screen or to hear protestors labeled as “thugs”, as to find out what the genuine grievances are. There’s a reason I’ve owned no television since 1992. And we should recognize apocalypse aesthetic when it’s offered to us; I’m looking forward to seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I assume that if there’s rubble involved and city-smashing with high technology, that it’s more Apocalypse Aesthetic.

But I’ve been wondering what Evolution Aesthetic looks like.  And I’ve been having a hard time coming up with examples in the last few days while Io’s column got under my skin.  And then I went to the grocery store the other day, instead of coming home first.  As I did so, I drove past one of the small local state parks, and I saw the Evolution Aesthetic at work.Garlic Mustard There it was. Garlic mustard.

I do not love this plant.  My understanding is that it’s an invasive species, whose roots spread toxins into the soil that kill mycorrhiza — the helpful, symbiotic fungi in the soil that act as the immune systems of the hardwood species that make up the New England forests.  Garlic Mustard, Alliaraia petiolata, is a noxious weed in this state, for this reason — it threatens the long-term survival of our forests, and suggests that we live in scrubland or even open fields instead, sometime in the next two hundred years.

Wherever the ground or the forest canopy is disturbed, there you will find Garlic Mustard.  It will make its home along roadsides at first, and then penetrate deeply into the woods nearby over the next three or four years, until it becomes impossible to get rid of. Why impossible?  Because the plant goes from a single taproot to dozens of daughter plants each with their own tap root. And because if the taproot is left in the ground, the plant will reproduce either this year, or in any of the next four years, as if by chance and right growing conditions.

It is everywhere.

If you look at this second photograph carefully, you can see the white blossoms all the way down the roadside, as far as the curve in the distance.  The plant has taken over roadsides all along the ways I travel to and from work; once I saw it here, I saw it everywhere.  Like some plants, it thrives when cut back — it apparently reproduces from large-enough fragments that get scattered by mechanical cutters like weed-whackers.  It pops off its seeds in a wide dispersal mechanism, too, and it uses cyanide compounds to poison the plants around it, to clear space for itself.  It came to the United States as a popular culinary herb in the 1860s, and now — it’s considered a noxious weed.

Once upon a time, I found a clump of it at my old school.  I recruited some kids, and we began working to pull it up as I confirmed my identification of it.  The school maintenance crew saw me, and their chief mentioned it to their boss, who mentioned it to mine — I was doing their work, they said, and using kid labor to do it — and I should stop. I said, “Ok, but this is a highly noxious and invasive plant, and you should get rid of it.  And you can’t do it with chemicals or with weed-whackers, because that spreads it.”  And I left it to them.

Sure enough, the next few days the maintenance crews were out there with their weed-whackers, cheerfully shredding the stuff and spreading the seeds and fragments around, and leaving the taproots in the ground.  A few years later there was twice as much of it, maybe four times as much.  The maintenance crew got more aggressive in attacking it, and it spread.  I have to say, all the trees along the edges of the school’s fields started to look a little less healthy.

 That was nine years ago.

Judging by the plant’s appearance in the roadsides now, I’d say that huge numbers of other people have tried the weed whacker thing. And they’ve failed to eliminate this plant from their yards, from their woods, from their verges.  It’s taken over everywhere.

And I suspect that this takeover is born at least as much from ignorance as from knowledge.  People aren’t deliberately trying to spread this plant around; they simply don’t know how to stop it, or even if it should be stopped.  By which I mean, most people probably don’t even know that it’s an invasive species.

As Io points out, you can’t have a forest of only oaks, or even of only trees.  You need mycorrhizae and understory shrubs, and seedlings of other plants. You need chipmunks and butterflies and moths and frogs. You need mayflies and red-winged blackbirds and robins.

And apparently, you need Garlic mustard. At least, around here you do.

Coming back to the Apocalypse Aesthetic for a moment… I saw in this plant the death of my beloved forest.  It’s not a good thing for my forests, I grant you.  It represents a hideous change coming to the New England landscape, as far as I’m concerned.  And it’s not one that I’m looking forward to, personally. Yet seeing in this plant the monstrous destruction of the landscape — much as I do with the Asian Longhorned Beetle and an apocalypse rather than simply change — means that I’m not genuinely sensitive to what’s going on here.  I’m reading the landscape with a pair of apocalypse goggles firmly fixed over my eyes, rather than seeing the Evolution Aesthetic that’s actually at work.

I’ve not talked about magic much in this post yet, even though it comes first in the title.  But I hope that the wise will take my meaning, which is that even the arrival of damaging plants and insects which have serious impacts upon the landscape and local ecology, doesn’t mean apocalypse.  It means change.  It means that we do not live in a stable, steady-state world, but in one which has dynamics and systems relationships in it… and those systems dynamics mean that the conditions which persisted for a long time are now in flux, and unlikely to remain steady or stable.

In that context, fighting the Asian Longhorned Beetle or preventing the spread of Garlic Mustard is probably a lost cause (except that the words “lost cause” are themselves indicative of the Apocalypse Aesthetic at work). Rather, these plants are indicative of the ‘new normal.’

Except that they’re not the New Normal.  And I think that this is one of the things that an Evolution Aesthetic offers to modern magic; these events are going to happen, will=we or nil-we.  Garlic Mustard is a herald of what is coming to New England: a world with fewer hardwood trees, different bugs, a lot fewer pine trees, different soil.  The same rocks will be here, the same mountains.  We’ll likely call the towns by the same names, and likely get up to the same ecstasies and mischiefs as human beings do.

Garlic Mustard
Garlic Mustard in the Dark

But the Evolution Aesthetic is rooted in the recognition that the world is changing regardless of whether we attend to it or not.  Over the last nine years, I’ve gone from “oh, what’s this plant” to “this plant is my enemy” to “I must make peace with this plant because it’s taking over the landscape.”  I don’t intend to abandon my relationship with the forest, for now; I simply intend to make space for a member of the community who wasn’t there before — not because I want it there, but because it has shown me how tenacious she is, and that she is a more powerful fighter than I am, more eager to stay and more eager to hold tenaciously to the Land hereabouts.  The energy and the will and the knowledge to uproot her and cast her out simply doesn’t exist.

The Evolution Aesthetic involves learning what this plant is for, rather than seeking to banish it.  It turns out that it’s healthy to eat in small quantities.  As a young herb, it’s sweet to eat though it gets bitter later in the season.  You can make a dye out of it, which turns plant and animal fibers a beautiful yellow or pale green when mordanted with alum.  It also functions as well as a medicine which (allegedly) has heart and circulatory system benefits (owing to its heart-shaped leaves), and a tonic effect of “expelling heaviness.”

Io’s point that the world still needs doctors should be well-taken, though.  The Evolution Aesthetic says “work with what’s available” not “live in a fantasy world.” If I need heart medicine, I shouldn’t be replacing my doctor-prescribed prescriptions with an herbal formula cultivated in my oven and my alchemical crucible. This is not an adequate substitute.  But learning to work with the natural plants of my area — particularly the invasives — as part of my work with yarn, wool, and string and fabric, is totally in my wheelhouse.

I keep drifting away from the subject of magic.  Have you noticed? Even after nearly 1800 words, it’s hard to return to that theme.

Yet if magic is the art or science of changing consciousness in accordance with will, then the Evolution Aesthetic is already in play, isn’t it?  Evolution means the changing of traits over successive generations; magic means the changing of traits relatively immediately.  And when magic is well-done, it means making immediate changes that have long-lasting, sometimes generational effects.  Part of the reason this plant is spreading so far and so wide is that we do not understand our own role in managing it. We destroy it rather than treating it as food, as medicine, and as dye — the key reasons why we brought it here to the Americas.  We don’t treat it that way, because we’ve decided to eat from gardens thousands of miles away, rather than from our own.  We buy cloth made elsewhere, and accept the patterns and prints that others have decided for us, rather than using the plants of our native ground (plus imports and invasives), and we accept medicine in pills made under mysterious circumstances in faraway manufactories, rather than the tinctures and tisanes of our own home ground.

We ceased doing these things — treating our own plants and backyards as food and medicine and dyestuff — because we had other options. For a while.  And now, maybe, this is less convenient than it used to be. Maybe, in a few generations, impossible. Magic, therefore, is useful for helping us become aware of our options.

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