The spiritual and physical are not separate but indivisible, the one a reflection of the other. Our gods and goddesses represent the diversity of the natural world, indwelling divinity present in all things, a life force that suffuses the whole of nature. When you stand in your garden, you stand on the body of Mother Earth, not a commodity, but a sentient being who sustains us and nourishes us.
Thinking this way is alien to modern Western materialistic society, but it is nothing new; it has been how humankind has thought and behaved throughout much of its history, and how indigenous cultures still think and behave. Nature spirits have had a variety of names in different times and places, but they have been acknowledged in every part of the world at one time or another. They are the spirits who inhabit and protect the natural world, causing plants to grow and flocks to multiply. The ancient Greeks, for example, had nymphs who were believed to live in and care for rivers (potamids), running water and streams (naiads), lakes, meadows, mountains (orestiads or oreads), oak trees (dryads and hamadryads), ash trees (meliads), flower nymphs (anthousai) and the sea (nereids or oceanides), to name just a few. The belief that everything has spirit is called animism.
In these times of ecological crisis, we need to listen to indigenous ways of relating to nature, as we begin to recognise the interconnectedness of all life we need to work with nature, in balance, rather than against it. Acknowledging the sacred within everything means that we must treat all space as sacred space, and all beings as equal.
It is important to build up a relationship with the place that you work, and the spirits that inhabit it, over time. It will gradually become more and more powerful, and you will gain the trust of its spirits.
As we humans moved away from our close connection to the Earth, we lost our link with nature spirits. We forgot how to see them, how to contact them, and how to treat them. Stories of them persisted, but they lost their awesome status; we diminished them, in our imaginations, into the cute Tinkerbell-type fairies of nursery tales. But make no mistake; those fictional creatures that appear in storybooks and cartoons, the tiny, tutu-skirted, gossamer-winged beings of Victorian fable are far from the truth – real nature spirits are natural energies, primal expressions of the life force of the Cosmos.
It was once the custom to honour these guardian spirits with offerings and seasonal rituals. As long as this happened, the spirits would remain friendly and beneficent. If they were neglected or offended, they might take their revenge. Sometimes, neglected spirits drift away, and when this happens the land becomes spiritually (and sometimes physically) barren.
In order to gain the friendship of your garden spirits you must take certain steps. You must treat them with respect and prove that you are worthy to have a relationship with them. However, you cannot make them obey you at will. They are not there to teach you as you demand, and certainly not to serve you and grant your wishes. They simply exist and have their own objectives and schedules. They appreciate being treated with consideration. To form a bond with them means to participate in an equal exchange. You can achieve this reciprocity by protecting the environment of your garden, not poisoning it with toxins, leaving the last apples on the tree for them and fallen leaves on the ground. There are ancient ways of making offerings to the spirits that surround us; though in practice, the food and drink we leave is often eaten by the wild animals, it is understood that the spirits first take nourishment from it. It is best to leave a small uncultivated area in the garden for the free ranging of the Nature Spirits. If you can make this private, it is a good place to mediate and to contact them.
The Anima Loci
The garden has its own soul, or Anima Loci (‘soul of place’), its essential personality. I believe this evolves from the matrix all that has lived there, the people, animals, plants, and spirits, and events that have happened there. It is not fixed but continues to grow. When the Anima Loci is recognised and acknowledged, its power awakens.
Choose a quiet place in the garden and open your heart to its soul. Speak quietly and ask for its help to make the most of your garden as a place of beauty that humans, plants, animals and spirits can share. When you are planning changes in the garden, when you are planting, weeding and pruning, ask it to oversee the work.
Gods of the Garden
The Gods are present everywhere, and there are some that take a special interest in gardening. As well as having a shrine to the archetypal Lord and Lady, depending on what path you follow, you might like to have a special shrine to the Green Man as the spirit of vegetation. Many Pagans have sculptures and masks that represent him, a face surrounded by leaves, and in the mediaeval period in England they were often an architectural feature on buildings, including churches. Many mythologies have a vegetation spirit, a god who represents growth in spring. I put out my Green Man masks in the garden every spring to call the spirit of vegetation back to the land and ask for his blessing.
Shrines in the Garden
To remind us of the sacred in the garden, it is good to have some small shrines to its deities and spirits. I have a God and Goddess statue in the garden, a representation of a water nymph by the pond, and a place to make offerings to the Anima Loci. I put out Green Man masks, to represent the spirit of vegetation, in the spring. Shrines become places to make offerings, connect with the gods, work magic and meditate.
Condensed from © Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Garden Herbal, forthcoming, Llewellyn, 2023