Where Books Start

Guest blog by Autumn Barlow

I sorted out my books this weekend. We’d added ranks of shelves to the alcove by the fire, and were able to finally give homes to about 300 books that had been teetering in piles since I moved in with my husband two years ago.
I was struck by how many pagan and alternative books I had, and how many of those I had forgotten about. The number I have read must double the number I own; books borrowed and books given away.

I was seventeen when I bought my very first book that could be considered “pagan.” I had read an article with a witch in a magazine and wanted to know more; the book suggested in the “further reading” panel was “The Complete Magic Primer” by David Conway. I was nervous as I ordered it in my local bookshop, and that nervousness was compounded when I gave my name to the bookshop owner and he stopped me before I gave my address: “it’s okay. I know where you live.”


After that, I went through Rae Beth’s “Hedgewitch” and Marian Green’s “A Witch Alone: 13 Moons to Master Natural Magic.” At university in Wales, I was distracted by other things and thought I lost my way.

Hindsight shows me I found my way. I became immersed in folk tales, culture, stories, myths and nature. But none of that involved circles and candles and spells so it “didn’t really count.”

The interest in magic matters reared up from time to time. Feeling lost and spiritually empty, I’d scour second hand bookshops and gobble up everything from Ly de Angeles to Caitlin Matthews. Alone in a cottage by a canal in the Midlands, I’d spend evenings on the internet, reading blogs that tended towards purple text on black backgrounds. The irony was lost on me. All I needed to do was step outside.
But it was cold outside.

I became an oral storyteller and I continued to grow herbs because my attempts at vegetables and flowers always failed miserably. I attended some moots in pubs and houses. I encountered a rather ill chaos magician and wandered into some online forums where everyone was a guru of their own universe and I was no wiser as to me, my place, or my point.
So I gave up. I stopped calling myself a pagan. I didn’t follow any of these books’ rules and I didn’t subscribe to any group and I didn’t have a membership card or anything. I clearly was one of those “dabblers” that are looked down upon so snootily. I had no path and no teacher and I didn’t even observe the Wheel of the Year with a homemade altar. I was just one of those “wannabees.”

Where Words End

As I moved around the country, I found solace in attending Quaker meetings. Here, the group sits in patient silence. Sometimes, someone might be moved to speak. Their words may, or may not, have resonance for others. Words are recognised as tricky things. Labels identify and deliminate – if “this” is good then “that” is bad. “This” is “here” and “you” are “there.” Marking the boundaries of our own experience with utterances that only really mean any truth to our own ears restricts our growth and our potential for connection.
“But it’s all we have to communicate,” I am told, “so we must make do with imperfect tools.”

I used to agree with that, and grow sad. The authors of all these books are struggling with all they have to share their visions and must be commended. It’s not their fault if we, the unwise reader, takes their words as – well, gospel, God’s spell – and follows them to the letter. They write with assurance but it doesn’t mean it’s true and what we take from them is our own business, right?

What nonsense. Of course we communicate without words and we have all had this, and it can be a truer experience than any poem or song or 500-page book. That glance. That shared sunset. That tear and that breathless panic. You don’t need words when you just know and this opens all communication up with everything.

No one can tell you how to communicate with a tree because firstly, it’s using words to describe wordlessness, like using cheese to make the sound of a trumpet. Secondly, no one can tell you how to communicate with a heartbroken child either.
You feel helpless, in either situation – tree or child – but you find a way. Somehow. Critical in both is pushing your own ego aside.

Behind Words

So I’ve put all those books up on the top shelf. There are nuggets in them; I’m not dismissing them. But I remember how I rushed from book to book, from author to author, searching for the one secret, the key, the wave of the wand that would reveal everything and make my life all wonderful and easy. It seemed easier to read than to do.

Nothing worth doing is easy.

The books on the lower shelf are far more useful. Fiction and non-fiction, here are the how-to books with not a word of confident instruction in them. Yeats and Charles de Lint, Angela Carter and Marina Warner, Alan Garner and the most prolific author of them all: Anonymous, who, through the centuries, has gathered stories and fables, recipes and remedies, in collections and reprints.

I still don’t go to moots. I still don’t label myself with any one path or grade or level. I read, I walk, I dream, I sing wordlessly, I listen, I dream a bit more, I work hard, I ride, I sometimes think a bit. If anyone asks me what I am, I fluster and change the subject – usually to the topic of bicycles.
My scepticism about words prompts my finger to hover over “delete” even now.

But look. This is just my way. Your mileage… as always… may vary.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

16 responses to “Where Books Start

  • locksley2010

    That was amazing! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    • autumnbarlow

      Thank you! It was good to write because the act of setting down the words helped to clarify some of my own ambivalence… which in itself is ironic, I suppose!

      • locksley2010

        No problem, I’m just sorry to hear your experience with paganism was a disappointing one. I think the best spiritual path you can follow is your own, as long as you’re not hurting anyone you can gain insight, and see the beauty of being. You are absolutely right btw, the old stories DON’T say anything about drawing circles or lighting candles… but those lights certainly add atmosphere. 🙂

  • Ffraid

    Thank you indeed. It is so easy to become obsessed with fitting in, getting it right. Our paths are unique and personal, and sometimes in the attempt to fit the path becomes lonelier for it. Then one does indeed grow beyond that-and the path becomes ever deeper and richer.

  • kelitomlin

    Wonderful 🙂 Thank you for speaking so much sense in such an unassuming way. I feel a similar skepticism about words, especially my own; just knowing I’m not alone in that opens my heart x

    • autumnbarlow

      You are not alone! It can feel that way when everyone around seems to be able to say, with such confidence, “I am a…whatever.” I suppose the label “eclectic” does for folks like us but I don’t want to have ANY label, not even “unlabelled.” 🙂 Contrary, me?

  • Kimberly

    Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling in my head and in my community because I didn’t have or want a label. I felt, like I was less or a dabbler because I could not pinpoint with words what others wanted to hear.

    • Nimue Brown

      “Own Path” can be a good label to pick up. It does not define your beliefs at all, but at the same time can be a very clear expression of being serious and involved, and that the absence of conformity is not an absence of dedication.

  • literaryvittles

    this is so beautifully written! And a resounding thesis on the power of tales, stories, and non-pedantic fiction. Not everything that exists can be clearly explained with words, and I feel like this leads to all sorts of problems in a very literal society such as the United States. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it’s what my mind jumped to.

  • liam in toronto

    I concur – an excellent piece! While I agree that we all have our unique path to follow, it’s a certainty that many run parallel. My experiences have mirrored yours and I take great comfort in that. When you are a solitary practitioner, even one of a very independent bent, it’s easy to imagine that you are the odd man out and everyone else “gets” it. It’s so affirming to read of others who have grappled with the same issues and emerged all the stronger for it. Thanks for that!

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  • Sara

    I’m glad you didn’t hit delete. 🙂

  • lornasmithers

    Thanks for sharing this. Autumn’s experiences sound very familiar. I’ve also found that it’s possible to access far more wisdom in a few lines of poetry, or a on a daily walk than from a whole ‘how to’ book.

    I’m lucky that my local pagan society, who although the majority are Heathen are an openminded bunch who club together to put together some interesting and often eclectic rites. For example at Samhain we had a mixture of ancestral prayers, stories about the Wild Hunt from Heathen and Brythonic perspectives then a journeying to connect with ancestors from our bloodline and personal paths led by a Brazilian shaman.

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