In Florida we have an adversarial relationship to nature. We are constantly at odds with a deadly sun, shifting weather, and the ongoing threat of hurricanes. Everything wants to eat you here. Our forests team with boars, bears, and panthers. Our waters have snakes and gators. We have fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, and snowbirds (the worst). Recently we had a string of ecological disasters that have been filled with misinformation. Red tide and blue-green algae blooms in particular are very misrepresented in our news.
As Floridians we accept the realities of where we live in terms of things like Hurricanes and boars, and many Floridians are fighting to change things like the blue-green algae blooms. As a bioregional animist however there is a depth of relationship in need of exploration. We literally cannot be animists if we do not acknowledge the spirits that destroy because they are intimately tied to the experience of this land. How we approach these spirits can be very different. Hurricanes can be beseeched and appeased, or they can be attacked and torn apart. Intimately related to this subject is another one to be addressed, the Otherness of being a witch. Being in a position of power witches do not have to be nice to spirits, we can attack them as easily as they can attack us. It is up to the individual how to broach this.
An invasive species is an organism introduced to an area that outcompetes native organisms. Florida has many examples of this including apple snails, boars, melaleuca, and of course white people. These organisms should not be confused with exotic or naturalized species, who come from outside the bioregion but do not outcompete native species. I have always had an adversarial relationship with invasive species in terms of magical work, but recently I’ve come around to working with them in a different light.
Some invasive, while damaging to the area, are medicine and can be healing. Removing these plants, roots and all, can help an area while also providing you with medicine to work with. However as a bioregional animist the most clear use for almost any invasive is curse-work. Invasive's destroy the bioregion, and can be used to destroy others. Melaleuca is a tree with paper-like bark that dries up swamps and wetlands that are crucial to Florida environments. Taking that bark and writing the name of an enemy on it can function as a curse to drain that person of energy and resources.
Addressing invasive on a spiritual level can be strange. They want to stay, despite the harm they cause, and there is virtually nothing you can do that will change that. Using banishing work on the organism is one route, another would be blessing work for native species. Blessing research being conducted on the animals or blessing work on the native predators in the area.
Invasive animals sometimes have special hunting licenses or incentives for locals to kill or capture the animal, others may be protected despite being invasive. Iguanas, pythons, and boars are all invasive animals that hunters and scientists go after in order to prevent major ecological damage. This isn’t something I would recommend for anyone untrained (I certainly don’t have the skill to humanely do that) but it is the reality of invasive's.
The rangers at the local slough here asks all guests to stay on the boardwalk and touch nothing, with the exception of invasive apple snail egg sacks. These egg sacks are a bright pink, they look like chewed up bubble gum, and can easily be knocked off whatever surface they adhere to. These apple snails outcompete native apple snails. Native snails are smaller and have weaker shells, which snail kites will eat. The invasive snails are much larger, eat much more than the native snails, and their shells are so think that they cannot be broken by the snail kites. Dealing with invasive's depends on your spiritual approach as well as what local science has to say on the matter, and it isn’t pretty work. The work here is intimately tied with death and it’s not fun happy-go-lucky magic either.
It is possible that the spirit I have the most adversarial relationship to in my entire practice is the Sun. As a Celtic Reconstructinist I always feel I should have this deep seated affection for the Sun and its movements. However as a Floridian the Sun has killed my plants, given my family members heat stroke, and sun-bleached damn near everything I own. And just so y’all know, sun bleaching isn’t just “making colors fade” the sun can literally destroy things from repeated exposure- just look at our cars down here.
My favorite series of poem I ever wrote were titled “Light is a Steady Killer” and were directly related to how the Sun kills things. Yes, the Sun is basically the only reason we can live on this planet to begin with, but depending on where you live it makes it very difficult to do so. Working outdoors in the Florida summer is a death wish that for most of us in unavoidable. I don’t have any particularly insightful or practical ways to work around this, my main point in including the sun on a list of deadly natural phenomena as it relates to animists is as a counterpoint to the massive focus that paganism has on the Sun.
Most animists that come out of the pagan community will be familiar with this concept that the Sun is a great bringer of life and joy- which very likely works well for the majority of the people out there. However context is important, especially in bioregional animism, which is kind of my deal. Down here the Sun is not a source of joy most of the year. It is a threat. To my pasty skin, to my garden plants, to basically everything down here. A lot of what I do as a witch depends greatly on the sun and when I can avoid it. I don’t just do witchcraft under the cover of night to be spooky and secretive, I do it at night because it’s the only time I won’t get my ass burned off.
Context is important, and where you practice changes your perspective on what is deadly vs what is healing. For me cold weather is a blessing, up north blizzards destroy lives and people die from the cold all the time. And if you’re still looking for a practical relationship with the sun in Florida-specific context: curse someone by placing their picture in direct sunlight and tell them to fuck off.
Many witches on social media have noted that we anthropomorphize hurricanes more than almost anything in nature. We name them, give them personality traits, yell at them, curse them, and so on. As a witch there is nothing more powerful than a hurricane, when it’s coming I know there is destruction coming. That power and personalization can give us an edge in surviving these things however. Depending on the kind of practitioner you are you can make appeasement to a hurricane to pass quickly, weather witch it to keep moving while diminishing in power, witch it to change course or dissipate over water.
However the relationship between hurricanes and the land involves many factors than just wind and witch. In Florida we have natural barriers that protect us from the worst of a hurricane. The Everglades slow the wind speeds of hurricanes and can petter out the force while not changing wether or not the hurricane continues moving. Mangroves protect our shores and carrier the brunt of the assault. Coral reefs aid in the reduction of flood danger. All of these forces protect us and as animists these are factors to take in to consideration. These natural barriers are also at high risk of environmental damage and are constantly threatened not just from climate change but from development. While you can take a spiritual and reverential approach to thanking these spirits, you can also advocate for political change and legal protections of these places. Sure you can go green and do all that, but going green won’t prevent developers from encroaching on land that feeds into the Everglades.
Taking political action to preserve the land is an act of animistic devotion that must take place.
Throughout most of this I’ve taken a bit of an adversarial time towards destructive natural forces. That’s my personal bias, not all animists will feel this way, and even I don’t feel adversarial towards all destructive forces.
The animals of this land, who could easily kill any of us one-on-one, however are not (in my bias) adversarial to us. Florida is well known to be deadly (as if that point hasn’t sunk in yet) in large part because of our gators, panthers, snakes, bears, and boars. These animals are powerful and often only come into contact with humans because we continue to encroach on their territory. Witches have a great love for predators and we often find ourselves in a spiritual love affair with deadly creatures. For any self-respecting swamp witch the gator is the first animal that comes to mind.
Gators are tied directly into the lives of Floridians as threats, clothing, and food. We make talismans from their teeth and paws, we (when legal) wear clothing from their hides, and we eat their tales (which if you haven’t had you’re missing out). Although some folks may find it “backwards” there are also some communities throughout Florida where gator wrestling is a kind of rite of passage.
I’ve met more than one witch in Florida who has said that major spirits have shown themselves in the shape of a Gator. Land spirits, gods, familiars, even the Devil Himself show themselves as toothy grinned gators. Their hallow teeth are packed with herbs and curios to make protective or empowering talismans. Their paws are kept in the home or carried to protect from danger and to sympathetically embody some of the animals power.
When face to face in the wild however, most of us keep a healthy distance. We know that if a gator goes for you, run in a straight line for as long as you can because they are sprinters not long distance runners. That zig-zag thing is bullshit, it’ll only slow you down. However gators typically don’t care about humans outside of the water. As vicious as they can be I’ve heard from many animal behaviorists that they can be affectionate in their own way. They know their own names, can be taught, and they recognize different people who frequently interact with them.
The gator is just one example of the deep relationship that animists can have with deadly animals. There is a great reverence for the Florida Panther, although many of us have never seen one in the wild. As stated earlier animism doesn’t just boil down to reverence for the spirits of the land, but includes action to prevent major harm from coming to the land. There are small actions that can help keep panthers safe. Currently the major killer of all Florida Panthers is speeding through wildlife corridors. Go the speed limit and you can save a panthers life. It’s that easy. Additionally there are wildlife organizations based in Florida that can help keep these animals alive and potentially increase the population. Unlike gators no part of a Florida Panther should ever be apart of your practice. Use painting, photographs, sculpture, or fiber arts to create images of the panther. Use resin to make a reconstruction of panther claws. Protect the actual animal with everything you have.
The Most Dangerous Spirit
Animism is dangerous because life is dangerous. Living in Florida makes you inherently familiar with how deadly everything is, even the Sun itself. You cannot be an animist and not acknowledge the death and destruction inherent to nature. You can embody this destruction and take it for yourself, you can appease it, you can run from it- but it will be there regardless. Building a relationship with destructive forces is unforgiving. If you are a witch, you have a lot to learn from these forces. We are wild things, changed by the land we work on. You breath the winds of a hurricane, you have eaten the gator and taken on some of its form, you have watched the Panther and mimicked its power. In turn we have to acknowledge how other natural forces protect us. Coral reefs, swamps, and mangroves are our guardians even when we fail them.
There is action involved with being an animist. It is an active practice changing everyday. Being an animist involves a lot of honestly with yourself about how you effect the land around you. Speaking specifically those of us who do not come from animistic cultures, but who are trying to build an animism that out ancestors once had, we all negatively contribute to the land. The biggest destructive forces in animism are humans. We are also spirits interacting with the land and we have a lot of unlearning to do in the process.
Development poses the biggest risk to the Everglades and Panther populations. Residential fertilizer (meaning your pretty green lawn) is one of the biggest contributors to the blue-green algae disaster effecting Southwest Florida. Our constant drive to ignore science has everyone convinced the solution is to “send it south” into the Everglades, ignoring the countless human lives that would destroy. We contribute to the destruction of the bioregion in many ways, and if we want to undo this damage we need to acknowledge it and better inform ourselves. It’s not enough to put up pictures of animals and pray to them. We have to take action, deconstruct ourselves, and find ways to lessen major impacts to the best of our ability.
Photo taken by Aaron Oberon. All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.