Last fall, my family took a vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I grew up. As a child, one of my favorite places to visit was Brookgreen Gardens, a wildlife preserve that was once the winter home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. Anna was a prominent sculptor of the early twentieth century, and decided that part of the property should be sculpture gardens open to the public.
When they purchased the property, many of the trails were lined with live oak trees; Spanish moss still drips like thick honey off twisted and gnarled branches that drape over bricked pathways. As a child in the Low Country, live oaks always symbolized timelessness. They felt eternal and otherworldly, and my memories of visiting the Angel Oak near Charleston on school field trips – of throwing my legs over her lower branches, bark scratching up my scrawny legs – these are memories I still carry with me when I look to what was beautiful about my childhood.
And the stunning live oaks at Brookgreen Gardens? They were a favorite. Walking into the gardens last fall with my family, upon seeing Live Oak Allée I knelt down, hands pressed against ridged bark as I caught my breath. It was powerful and I was overwhelmed by the beauty. It was only later as we toured the farm areas that I learned that the live oaks were planted only a few hundred years ago, after the removal and destruction of 2000-year-old cypress forests.
Like much of the American South (indeed like the land on which the Angel Oak grows), this land had at one point been plantations, and the plantation owners had ordered the cypress forests removed, farm and paddy land cleared, and the living areas landscaped with live oaks. That enslaved Africans were forced to tear up cypress forests that had been growing for millennia (forests that at one time had been home to and were eventually stolen from indigenous people) to make way for white European economic dominance – this could serve as the impetus for its own critical assessment. Learning this sickened me while we were on our walking tour, and brought about the kind of grief born out of the flawed and horrific histories we’ve inherited.
Less important in the greater scheme of injustice but still pinching my heart was the realization that my trees – my breathtaking, “natural,” inspiring live oaks – weren’t part of the ancient beauty of this stunning landscape, but rather were substitutes for that ancient beauty, stand-ins chosen for their aesthetic splendor after the complete destruction of what had been. As someone whose path is at least partly Pagan, this provided a parallel for some of my own experiences within the Pagan and Goddess spirituality movements.
My introduction to nature-based religions came from the local metaphysical shop when I was in high school, and my early education came from pop-witchy books offering new ways of viewing the world and our relationship to it. I devoured texts and began a simple solitary path, and over the next few years of on-and-off practice, I fell in love with specific elements and archetypes, but mostly the deep respect for the earth and the feminine divine. Many of these early sources billed themselves as offering authentic “Celtic” spirituality or presented their teachings as “ancient.”
Years of study later, I came to a similar realization I’d had about my live oaks. Much of what I’d thought to be ancient and deeply historical was modern or recent tradition – some of it inspired by medieval lore or the lush spirit of inquiry of the nineteenth century, but not ancient. Much of what had been presented as Celtic had no basis in Celtic cultures, literature, or history.
This challenge has not resolved itself entirely in the years since, though I’ve consciously worked to find historically sound and culturally sensitive sources for Pagan theory and practice. Even among scholars and clergy whose work I respect, there are different standards of evidence for different aspects of our traditions, and different ways we use language to describe our beliefs and experiences.
I feel uncomfortable among live oak traditions that present themselves as the cypress forest, even when I find the live oaks stunning. I understand that modern Neopagans weren’t, themselves, the ones who chose to disrupt, uproot, and destroy ancient traditions, and I have immense respect for those who work tirelessly, seek gnosis, and scour what evidence we have – flawed and imperialist though some of it is – for clues about what mysteries those cypress forests might have held. Like the work of excavating women’s lore out from underneath the massive weight of patriarchal history, the work of uncovering Pagan Europe’s ancient traditions requires looking closely at the spaces between what is written and re-interpreting dominant and frequently dismissive narratives under the guidance of our own research and insight.
This generative function does not make live oak traditions less meaningful as models of spiritual growth and religious community. The most vibrant religious traditions have been adaptable, imaginative, and creatively brilliant in their appeal to human appreciation of mystery. They change and grow, and even had the cypress traditions survived destruction, they might have evolved into something largely unlike what they were in their pre-Christian expressions. As someone who is not affiliated with any one path, reconstructionist or otherwise, my goal isn’t abandoning our inspired gnosis (personal and shared). It’s learning to embrace and honor it even if it isn’t authentically ancient or historically verified, as long as it resonates with what I experience as real, just, and compassionate.
I no longer feel pressured to preserve an unsupported claim to ancient historicity our teachings don’t possess in order to present them as meaningful. I also no longer dismiss inspired modern teachings simply because they aren’t explicitly supported by historical evidence. I want to be clear, however, about what I’m practicing when I do it, for the sake of my own integrity and authenticity. I’ll continue to love the graceful beauty of live oaks, even as I mourn the loss of the cypress forests and seek their remnants, insights, and wisdom.
Also see: Can Good Theology Change the World?
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a BA in Religious Studies from The University of South Florida and is currently a graduate student at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, priestess, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.