Witchful Thinking: The “Wheel,” Change, and the Climate Crisis
I’ve been doing this blog for more than a year and a day now, and in pagan circles, that means something. It means that I’ve gone completely through one cycle of seasons, one full turn of “The Wheel.”
So what is this “Wheel” anyway?
The Wheel of the Year in pagan parlance is how we describe our holidays, also called Sabbats. There are eight of them, each about six weeks apart: Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Midsummer, Lughnassah (sometimes called Lammas), and Mabon. Around and around they go, cycling one after the other, each marking a particular time of the year, a change that is both seasonal and spiritual. As I have said before, the Wheel’s most critical feature is that it turns.
The Wheel marks the seasons, marks points in the life cycle of the Earth, and the cycle of the harvest. It marks when seeds are planted, how they are tended, what they ripen into, how they are harvested, and what happens as the land lies fallow. But the purpose of that cycle isn’t to merely trace the continuing cycle of death and rebirth. While the Wheel does in fact turn, cycling through the same holidays each year, this turning is not entirely repetitive. The Wheel is meant to be a spiral, and with each consecutive turn, we’re supposed to use the repeating cycle of seasons to grow in away that elevates us. Each time we return to a point on the Wheel, if we’re doing it right, we’re coming back to it having reached a new level of understanding and growth. We are in the same place, but we are not.
Because turning is its essential quality, the Wheel is a great tool for making change. While the old adage that “the only thing that you can count on is that things will change” may feel a little shopworn, it is still truth. Those who resist change are in for a rough ride, because no one can successfully stop the Wheel from turning. You either figure a way to dance on the Wheel, or end up being ground up in its gears.
Change, however, is scary to humans. We like what we know. The familiar is comforting. And when things are threatening to change, and change fast and hard, we resist. We like to know who we are and where we are and what’s going to happen next. We want to believe that the future will look like the past.
And these days, the threat we feel from change seems to be accelerating. We live in an age where our news cycle moves faster than most of us can keep up with, and we have a President in the White House who is determined to do whatever he can to both stay in that news cycle and distract from his latest atrocity, and so he drives this fast paced news cycle to its very limit, keeping all of us discombobulated. With so much change being hurled at us all at once, we’re all a little fed up with it.
Then add to that the lurking spectre of climate change, which is already bringing rapid and frightening alteration to our planet in the form of increased frequency and severity of storms, more and bigger wildfires covering more acres, ripping through entire neighborhoods. Flooding in the Midwest that typically would only occur once a century is now happening more than once in a decade. Despite the fact that so many people know it’s happening and are concerned about it, we are stymied by a government that is too mired in gridlock and partisanship to act.
The thought of such radical and irrevocable change coming to the planet is so scary that not birthing kids into such a precarious world is an actual trend. And that might not be so unreasonable — kids are increasingly reporting having anxiety about the burgeoning climate crisis. Greta Thunberg, in chastising world leaders that the world’s youth will never forgive them if they fail to address the crisis, is not out of line in suggesting she speaks for her generation. “Climate grief” is a legit thing that the American Psychological Association is actually issuing reports on.
It’s overwhelming. Humans can get nervous at even minor changes. The whipsaw pace and frightening magnitude of the changes we’re facing as a nation and a planet feel as if they are beyond what our human psyche can bear.
But this is where pagan pathways may be especially well-suited to meet the challenges we’re facing. As a people, pagans have committed to a practice built around following the rhythms of the natural world. However the climate changes those rhythms, we as pagans and witches will feel those changes on a spiritual level in addition to the physical one. While in some ways this will make us feel things more deeply, it also gives us a framework in which to deal with what we’re feeling.
This framework, which is the Wheel, is not just about following a natural harvest cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth, its about understanding that despite the existence of natural cycles, the future ultimately will not look like the past. Each turn of the Wheel brings new changes, new challenges, and, if we do our work on the Wheel, new wisdom. Each year the Wheel yields a harvest that is not merely another crop of fungible items, but learnings that we take with us into the new cycle, a flywheel powering our evolution, our becoming better versions of ourselves.
And that’s the point really. For the Wheel to work for us, we must work it. We cannot just passively let the Sabbats roll by each in their turn, marking them with ceremony but without truly doing the internal work that they require. Each point on the Wheel has its task, its contribution to the creation, and ultimate reaping of each turn’s harvest. Each point on the Wheel has lessons to teach us, journeys we need to take, and opportunities we must take advantage of. The Wheel is not a passive ride. It demands the active participation of those who would take up its call.
A lot of the trepidation we have right now about the world in America is because in our hubris we thought that we had successfully made the natural rhythms of the world irrelevant to our well being. With central air conditioning, snow tires, modern building construction and the Internet, we lulled ourselves into a false sense of security, and from that grew a sense of entitlement. And now we wake up in the 21st Century to discover that nature still has the power to destroy, especially when humans in their ignorance and selfishness dump ton after ton of carbon filth into the atmosphere for decades, altering those natural cycles in dangerous ways, and even changing the very chemistry of the ocean. It turns out that when we fall asleep at the Wheel, we find ourselves quickly racing towards disaster.
This should be no surprise. The harvest cycle in times past was not just a prosaic thing that only applied to farmers. It governed nearly everything we did as humans, because we simply didn’t have the technology to insulate ourselves from nature’s rhythms that we have today. It affected what food we ate, whether we could travel from place to place, where we lived, and how we built social structures. Whether enough work had been done to bring in the harvest each year was a critical thing for communities, because if the crops were thin one year, you could count on people not making it through the winter alive. Working the Wheel wasn’t a nice idea for spiritual evolution. It was literally how one survived from year to year.
It’s no secret that modern paganism isn’t a true and exact replication of the pre-Christian religions. We sometimes call what we do “keeping the Old Ways” but that is less true than we like to admit, except in this one thing — we have not forgotten the importance of respecting the turning of the seasons and the natural cycles of the planet. The Wheel has kept us aware that we cannot ignore its changes, kept us conscious that we either learn how to grow and change with each turn of the Wheel, or we will find ourselves spinning at its mercy. We know instinctively that meeting the challenge of the turning of the seasons requires doing the hard work of the harvest.
And that’s the thing that in the end, we must use to keep us hopeful, even when faced with a seemingly endless loop of waking up, turning on the news to some new awful thing our President has said or done and one more catastrophe that marks the worsening of the climate crisis. The Wheel is turning. And we can’t stop it. But we are not helpless. If we work the wheel instead of helplessly strapping ourselves to it, not only will we live to survive to the next cycle, we could even, if we make enough of the right kind of effort, get to a better place. It may not be much in the way of hope, but as we move into the dark time of the year, and some of us muse on the darker prospects for our future, even small glimmers are significant. Perhaps even necessary.