Selena Fox is one of the leaders of Circle Sanctuary, 200 acres in southwestern Wisconsin, which is both a nature preserve and a nature spirituality center.
This weekend the center, near Mount Horeb, Wis., will celebrate Beltane, one of eight festivals marking “the wheel of the year” by a variety of nature-based religions.
Circle Sanctuary, in its 20th year, is multicultural and multi-religious — those within the community may be Pagans (“with a capital P,” Fox said) to Wicca practitioners, many of whom also profess Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism or other faiths, she said.
Because the word “Pagan” comes so loaded with stereotyped baggage, Fox prefers the term “nature spirituality.” Nature spirituality constantly struggles in the public perception with “the ‘W’ word,” she said, meaning “witch.”
“We don’t serve Satan,” Fox said. Wicca’s motto, she said, is “harm none.”
That baggage is why those in the Bismarck-Mandan area who identify with neo-Pagan, Wiccan or other nature religions have been so far unwilling to talk about it publicly — too much potential for bad reaction from the community, they say.
Circle Sanctuary is known throughout the U.S. as a clearinghouse for information on nature spirituality in general, including Wicca and Druidism, contemporary Paganism and ecospirituality, Fox said.
Part of the growth in interest in earth-centered spirituality is a hunger for spirituality that’s environmentally responsible, tapping deep archetypal patterns that date back to our ancestors, she said.
“Honoring that interconnection, the Great Spirit, God-Goddess, whatever the name, is the heart of Pagan religious ritual,” she said.
Beltane is the celebration of the high point of spring, the flowering of life, the yearly festival most connected with fertility, Fox said.
By the time Beltane comes around in Wisconsin, the snow is typically gone, the serviceberry is starting to bloom, lilacs are starting to bud and pansies and violets are flowering, she said.
The three-day event includes traditions such as dancing around the Maypole. Circle Sanctuary has a permanent Maypole, made of oak that is 30 feet high above ground, she said. Teams of dancers take turns weaving the ribbons around the pole, Fox said.
People traditionally wear flowers and colorful clothing, celebrate the greening of the earth and “jumping the fire,” an old Celtic tradition of cleansing and purification, she said.
A Morris dance group from Madison, Wis., comes there to “dance in the May,” tapping the earth with sticks, ceremonially awakening it, a very old English tradition, she said. Poppyseed cakes or cookies, connected with fertility, are traditionally served.
“The primary roots for nature religions go back to pre-Christian Europe,” she said. “Beltane as a holiday, a fire festival, is specifically connected with the Celtic peoples of old Europe.
“Having people come together, standing in a circle, keeping silence together, moving together, singing together, is pleasurable,” she said, “but also helps people keep alive old traditions, and feel themselves connected with community of humankind and the greater web of life.”
Beltane is one of eight nature festivals spaced evenly through the year. The eight include the summer and winter solstices, marking the longest and shortest days of the year, and the spring and fall equinoxes, when day and night are equal in length. The other four are Imbolc on Feb. 2, Beltane on April 30, Lughnassah on Aug. 2 and Samhain on Oct. 31.
“Rooted in Europe’s old customs, lore and philosophy, (these events) are part of how we celebrate and connect with the spiritual dimension,” Fox said.
“We’re not replicating something old, but drawing on pre-Christian folkways of old Europe,” she said. “We honor the divine as a grand unity in multiple forms.”