Plague Beltane: To care is to grieve

My fingers crumbled the bannock on the mossy ground. In the earth-made cauldron between four trees, I set the caudle. Strange calls echo through the oak wood, near and far.

Unlike many Pagans, I don’t focus my Beltane rites on human fertility, but on the Earth herself and all her creatures. I pass through the fire’s smoke. I sing the Beltane blessing, calling on the protection of the Gods and Goddesses of our land, our home and all therein and thereabouts. I offer bread, porridge, flowers, incense, song.

The rite is thoroughly satisfying, and not about the heteronormative stereotypes you so often see on this holiday. I can appreciate those who find the Great Rite meaningful, but frankly, I think humanity could stand to do a little less reproduction of themselves and more protection of the natural world.

That being said, it’s all too easy to fall into the “humans are the virus” sort of thinking that has been so prevalent in some quarters with this pandemic. Ecofascism, alas, is a concept gaining in popularity, along with other forms of fascism: Some must die so the whole may live, and we choose to sacrifice the weak. It’s that latter part which is the arrow to its true nature: Fascists always seek to cull the weak from the herd, and they often identify “weakness” along racial, political or even religious lines. It’s patriarchal tribalism taken to its extreme endpoint.

My country, as with so many others around the world, has seen a resurgence of fascism that had largely gone underground after the second World War. In the United States, fascism is tied fundamentally to race and religion, and has been so since the establishment of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere. That development — chattel slavery — has poisoned the well of our culture since the very start, and has never been adequately rooted out.

Chattel slavery led to the concept of government as only safeguarding property — specifically the property of the wealthy, a concept preserved today in libertarianism. It had its roots in Southern Antebellum concepts of government. Slavery, you see, concentrates wealth in a small group of elites, leaving virtually nothing to even “free” people who can no longer make an adequate living.

This is not a new story; it happened in ancient Rome. Colonial expansion brought immense wealth to some Roman aristocrats, who used it to purchase slaves … and drove the average tradesman and farmer into poverty and starvation, since they couldn’t compete with slave labor. To survive, they joined the army or found themselves in chains themselves — either way, perpetuating an extractive, exploitative system.

This weakened the Roman state long-term, but the coup de grâce was plague — the same Black Death (yersinia) that later decimated Europe in the Middle Ages. I tend to avoid the term “Bubonic plague” because plague, while it starts with fleas on rats, eventually becomes airborne and spreads as a lung ailment, the pneumonic plague. That’s what kills so many people — not fleas, but airborne Yersinia. It still happens from time to time.

I find it an interesting scenario: Colonialism leads to the impoverishment not only of the colonized, but the common people among the colonizers. War and instability ensue as all wealth is transferred to a small group of aristocrats. Eventually, disease wipes out a large chunk of the weakened and overworked population.

Trees grow back. Animals return. The Earth heals until the cycle starts again. This is where we find ourselves.

I don’t celebrate this, even as I celebrate the healing Earth — because those who die don’t deserve it, for the most part. Those who work and struggle and starve don’t deserve their plights, either. Slaves don’t deserve their chains, even though we call them “essential workers” rather than “chattel” and pay them a pittance as they serve our needs, without respite or healthcare themselves.

We need to break that bitter wheel, and breaking involves caring and sharing our resources, no one taking more than their measure. Caring for each other, no matter our labels. Caring especially for the weakest among us — the frail, the sick, the old. Caring for the Earth and her creatures, her plants, her waters, her soil. Caring for the future we will not see as individuals, but which will spiral on endlessly, as the multiverse continues its tendriling trajectory.

We need to care.

The word “care” comes from chara in Old High German — meaning grief, lament. It’s connected to the Old Norse kǫr, “sickbed.”

Grieving, we learn to care. On our sickbeds, we are tutored in the importance of shared health and well-being, for we are fools who need to suffer an experience before we learn that the world exists outside our own desires and whims.

Forgive me for the inartful nature of this diatribe, the lack of poetry, the staccato of its sentences — a child’s simplicity, as if children never had anything important to say. (They do.)

I really do care. Don’t you?

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