A group I work with occasionally had planned a weekend campout and ritual at a local Pagan-friendly retreat, but unfortunately the trip was canceled due to a forecast of low temperatures, rain, and sleet. Far be it for me to question the fortitude of my friends for deciding against a little cold-weather camping, but by gods if my ancestors could survive the Ice Age, I could last a few nights in the cold. I had been looking forward to the trip and was admittedly disappointed at its cancellation. Beyond that, something bothered me about the decision to abort the trip — aside from the money I had already spent on supplies.
One of the defining traits of Neo-Pagan religions is an awareness of — and theoretically, the attunement to — the forces of nature, so it struck me as ironic that a group of Neo-Pagans would, for lack of a better term, be afraid to experience nature for the sake of a little discomfort. Shouldn’t a religious system that seeks to transcend the contemporary mindset of subduing and controlling nature compel people to at least occasionally engage nature on its terms?
The ability to interact with — and even manipulate and direct — the incomprehensibly powerful forces of nature is a key element of Neo-Pagan religious and magical understanding, which is why the gods that represent and control those forces are objects of worship. If a Neo-Pagan is theoretically able to humble himself before a divine manifestation of a natural force, why would he be reluctant to humble himself before the physical manifestation of the same force? Would a devotee abandon a patron god who was in a bad mood, or who took a mythic action that was mean-spirited? If so, fine — that is a whole other issue — but if not, then why would that same devotee alter a mode of worship because of a little (or even a lot) of bad weather? Is it possible to respect and revere the gods and all they stand for, yet avoid a particular manifestation because it’s a little unpleasant?
What seemed apparent to me is that many Neo-Pagans only engage nature according to their own convenience and comfort, tending to do so because they have idealistic and romantic notions of what nature consists. Ignoring the darker aspects of nature such as severe weather, natural disasters, and the predatory nature of many animals — humans among them — allows for a sense of nature expressed in terms which are more pleasant to deal with. This romanticized conception of nature tends to posit a natural system that is good, calm, and balanced, and which is opposed by human civilization and technology, the modern forms of which are typically viewed as an unbalancing and morally corrupting. 
Notions of predation and consumption often violate this romanticized ideal of nature. A friend of mine told me of a discussion he had been involved with, which contrasted human consumption to that of natural predators. A woman he was talking with stated that humans are the only animals that do not strike a natural balance with their environment, but keep expanding and consuming resources without end (an idea popularized by the movie The Matrix). Her evidence was the example of the coyote/snowshoe hare cycle, in which the predator population decreases if the prey population decreases beyond a certain point. She asserted that the coyotes, apparently aware of the impact of their predation on the snowshoe hare population, either stopped hunting or reduced their reproduction to decrease the burden on their prey. My friend correctly observed that the coyotes made no such distinction, and simply hunted the hares until they were so few that the coyote population decreased due to starvation. This, of course eventually led to an increase in the number of hares, which would then support a larger coyote population. His observation that any animal will consume all available resources until it is stopped by a limiting factor was met with hostility, as it went against the romantic ideal of nature in which everything is in perfect, elegant balance, with every creature instinctively aware of and maintaining that balance.
Extreme weather patterns also violate this romantic concept of nature. Studies which indicate that recent fluctuations in the El Nino/La Nina cycle and an increase in hurricane generation may be a result of natural solar cycles, and not the direct result of global warming, are met with open hostility and deemed not worthwhile to consider.  A generation of environmentally conscious Neo-Pagans which has been exposed to movies such as The Day After Tomorrow is often reluctant to accept that such atmospheric violence and instability may have a natural cause. While human activity may indeed have a significant impact on weather patterns, it is foolhardy to attribute all weather anomalies to those actions without significant investigation and corroborating evidence. Weather and climate are chaotic, and one cannot ignore that simply because it is unpleasant to contemplate living in an unpredictable environment.
Obviously, nature can be very calming, relaxing, and sustaining, both spiritually and physically. The beauty and awe of nature can be very inspiring, especially to those who regularly interact and commune with it, and the gods that represent those natural forces can offer guidance and comfort on one’s spiritual path. These aspects of nature, however, must be tempered by its more violent aspects, which include many examples of death and destruction. Even the most compassionate, light-hearted gods have their darker sides, and even the most violent catastrophes can bring about positive change. This is doubly important for anyone who seeks to harness natural forces for magical ends to keep in mind.
Experiencing the harsher elements of nature can be uncomfortable, and I’m not suggesting that it is necessary to subject yourself to hardship in order to succeed on your spiritual path. (Obviously, that depends on your particular path.) However, it is possible to become too reluctant to engage the more negative aspects of nature (and life in general), which can lead to an imbalanced understanding of how natural chaotic systems function. It may prove easier to cope with the deadlier expressions of the strength and power of nature, if you’ve acknowledged those forces and incorporated them into your understanding of nature. Knowing that you can withstand a minor trial such as a cold-weather campout can make a difference when you’re forced to endure an earthquake, a hurricane, or any other catastrophe. Understanding the character and power of natural forces can also make it easier to comprehend the fragility of human life in the face of such events.
Sacrificing comfort to connect to nature on its own terms can be a very humbling and satisfying experience, and while it may not me for everyone, it certainly serves as a reminder that we are just a minor component in a larger, uncontrollable world. A cold night in a tent may seem harsh, but it certainly puts the tornado that rips through town later that week into better perspective. One would be advised to enjoy and respect nature, but to keep in mind the corollary to Murphy’s Law, which states plainly that “Mother Nature is a bitch.”
 It is also not uncommon to encounter the belief that it is Christianity and Christian society that is responsible for this imbalance with nature, which usually leads to the belief that the job of the Neo-Pagan to somehow correct this imbalance. This, however, is a topic best given full attention at another time.
� 2006 Chirotus Infinitum
First posted on The Witches’ Voice April 2006