Lessons of the land: Phoennix Conway

Phoennix Conway finds her spirituality through nature
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

Phoennix Conway has always felt a kinship with the earth. First, it was through navigating trails at church camp. Then in college, she found the faith that fit perfectly: paganism, an earth-based religion. Now she marks the seasons with rituals and makes it her mission to care for everything as one interconnected whole.

I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, which is actually an old farming tradition from Germany and it’s very similar to, say, the Amish and the Mennonites. They’re peace-oriented and service-oriented. And the main teachings are following in the footsteps of Jesus, in the sense of doing as he did and living simply and being stewards of God’s creation. Which makes sense, because it came from a farming tradition. And who has a closer relationship to the earth than a farmer?

As far back as I can remember, I was the kind of child that, just put me outside and I would not come home for days, really, if I could. I see kids today and they say, “I have to be outside for an hour?” But I was the opposite. I was, “I have to come in? Why?!” When I was really little, I remember one time, I don’t know how old I was, I would venture to guess 5 or younger, and we were driving down the street and the windows were open. It was summer and this huge truck was driving beside us, spewing black smoke. And I leaned out the window of the car and yelled, “You’re polluting! You’re gross.” And of course my mother was completely and utterly embarrassed.

I grew up in the ’70s, and one of the big campaigns that was going on was the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. And there was a commercial on TV that I will never, ever forget, and I wish they would bring it back. There was a Native American guy on a horse, and he came up to a river. And you would see him looking at this beautiful land all around, and he walked up to the stream where all the garbage was and he just had a tear running down his face. And it was just, to this day, I will never forget that because I remember feeling that.

I went to church camp in the summers, and my church camp was pretty rustic. All the peace songs — Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan — songs I learned at church camp. So I think that’s where I got into the backpacking and hiking. When I was growing up and I was Christian, I was constantly challenging: There were things about the faith I questioned a lot. I guess finally when I was in college — of course — (laughs) I met some people and heard about the whole pagan thing. I was like, “pagan, what’s that? You know, I have no idea what that is.” And it was really fortunate because the first person that explained it to me said it was an earth-based religion or spirituality. And I was like, “Oh, OK.” And I started learning more and more about it. I was reading about it and I was like, “Oh, OK. Oh, that’s what I am. Well, OK, I’ve always been that.” So I guess that’s where the switch happened. Only, it wasn’t really a whole lot of a switch.

Phoennix explains that the change of seasons is a traditional time for rituals in the pagan faith.

A typical ritual would be usually outside because that’s where you can get connected. For example, in spring you acknowledge fertility and birthing and rebirth, and growing and coming out of the ground and sprouting out. We would take that and apply it to our lives. Some people take it literally and are trying to start a family so they might literally call in the fertility of the season. One of the spring rituals that I went to, everybody got a bulb. And you held the bulb and said what you wanted to “call in” for the spring. And you put that into the bulb and took it home and planted it. I think it was a gladiola. You could plant it in a pot and set it on your altar at home. So every time you look at it growing, you remember, “Oh, I put that in there because I wanted to remember to be creative in my life.” Recently, we’ve been doing a lot for peace.

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