Author Starhawk is a spiritual leader for Bay Area witches

EARTH MOTHER

She calls herself a practicing Witch, with a capital “W.” She calls herself a pagan, a goddess, a peace activist, an eco-feminist. She calls herself Starhawk, a name that came to her in a dream.

“When people think of a witch and someone named Starhawk, they think of someone in 87 different robes and pentacles, dripping with occult jewelry,” Starhawk said during an interview in an exotically decorated attic she calls her Ritual Room. “I’m not much of a dress-up sort of witch. I’ll go to an event where I’m the guest speaker and walk up to the door and they’ll say, ‘Where’s your ticket?’ ”

In her bold and peculiar way, Starhawk is a Bay Area institution. She and other like-minded witches have dug deep roots across Northern California and beyond.

“The people I work with tend to be a bit quirky,” said Starhawk’s publicist, Adrienne Biggs, whose office in downtown San Rafael is filled with provocative books and magic potions. “Starhawk is amazing. She’s one of these people who have an incredible network. She’s just beloved. She’s on the fringe, but very highly regarded. … She’s a deity. She’s a modern-day sage. She doesn’t look like a witch. She looks like someone who’d work at an organic bakery.

“You walk in and think, ‘Is Starhawk going to put a spell on me?’ But then you listen to her, and she changes the way you look at the world. She’s a motivator in her gentle, sweet, wise way. … She’s not a 30-second sound bite. She’s a deep and influential thinker.”

Witchcraft/Wicca

Witchcraft, or Wicca, is a form of neo-Paganism. It is officially recognized as a religion by the U.S. government.

This is a diverse movement that knows no central authority. Practitioners do not all have the same views, beliefs and practices.

While all witches are pagans, not all pagans are witches. Likewise, while all Wiccans are witches, not all witches are Wiccans.

Starhawk is the author of 10 books on paganism, witchcraft, politics and saving the planet (including two novels). Her latest is “The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature” (HarperSan Francisco, $19.95).

For the witches among us, Halloween is not just the time for costumes and trick or treat. It’s the Witches’ New Year, or what is called Samhain, when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is like a black lace curtain. Witches gather to remember and honor their ancestors and all those who have crossed over. They mourn the losses and pain suffered by their Mother, the Earth. They also celebrate the Goddess — life’s sacred cycles of birth, growth, death and regeneration.

Spiral dances and circles of remembrance for thousands of witches and wannabes will be held this weekend in San Francisco, Sebastopol, Palo Alto, Santa Cruz and other Bay Area locales. At a spiral dance, friends and strangers join hands and lose some — but not all — of their inhibitions. They cast a circle to create a sacred space — invoking the elements of air, fire, water and earth. There’s ecstatic drumming, singing, laughter and play.

Why do witches wear black?

“It’s slenderizing and doesn’t show dirt,” Starhawk said. “Black is the dark of the moon, and a good time for magic. It’s quieter. There’s less external stimulation. You can focus more on the messages and energies that are subtle.”

Why do witches dance naked under the moon?

“The body is sacred. The human body is an embodiment of the sacred quality of life,” she said. “You don’t have to cover it up, hide it, or be ashamed of it. And when you’re naked and outside, your skin is in contact with the elements. There’s nothing separating you from the natural world.”

Witchcraft’s ranks include lawyers, doctors, secretaries, taxi drivers, video store clerks and auto mechanics. There’s no dress code for today’s witches. Many are college-educated women; some are men. And some couples take their kids to summer witch camps, such as Witchlets in the Woods, a camp for pagan families and their children in Mendocino County.

But witches have long been the victims of prejudice. Thousands of their ancestors were burned at the stake. Societies’ preconceived notions of witchcraft include ugly hags with evil intentions and supernatural powers. Children’s stories tell of witches who cast hexes and fly on broomsticks.

Modern witches say they are cautious about casting spells.

“We have a saying: Anything you send out magically returns to you three times over,” Starhawk said. “When I was younger, I certainly experimented by doing a lot of love spells. Eventually, it worked. But there were times when the Goddess seemed to be sending me anyone.”

Christian fundamentalists still tend to believe that witches do the work of the devil. Liberals often dismiss witchcraft as a frivolous endeavor. Witches view the teachings and traditions of Wicca as a religion, with its roots in indigenous cultures of Western Europe, including the Celtic Faeries. Witches are pagans (believers in earth-based spirituality), but not all pagans are witches.

Private coven meetings are rarely open to outsiders. Good witches don’t believe in Satan. Nor do they offer human or animal sacrifices.

Some witches still dress up, jump the broom and carve jack-o-lanterns in the folk tradition. Besom brigades don pointy hats and ride their brooms in Berkeley’s annual Interfaith Pagan Pride Parade and other events. But most witches content themselves with chanting, dancing and participating in rituals.

Starhawk is a founding member of the Reclaiming Collective (www.reclaiming.org), a San Francisco community of witches known for its political activism.

More than anything, Starhawk yearns to make a difference. “We do have the chance to transform society to one that would be in balance with nature,” she said. “We have the technology and the overriding need. If we don’t, we’re headed toward ecological and social catastrophe.

“What we learn from nature is how to heal the damage. How to design systems that work like nature does, where every component contributes to the whole, and where there’s no waste as we know it. … We can learn to create abundance in ways that restore the health of the system, rather than mining it or destroying it.”

Starhawk lives part-time in a solar-powered cabin in the remote Cazadero hills of western Sonoma County, near the 485-acre Black Mountain Preserve. It’s more than a two-hour drive along some of the North Coast’s most wicked roads, the kind that snake through the hills in endless spirals.

She also lives in a townhouse (a collective called the Black Cats) on a busy street in San Francisco’s Mission District with her husband, David Miller, and a half dozen housemates, including a schoolgirl who’s learning about magic.

The witch is flying around the country on a national book tour, so there’s no chance of tromping up to her backwoods cabin. Starhawk agrees to be interviewed when she returns to her roost in San Francisco. The interview takes place in the Ritual Room, a garret with a painted ceiling, a trapeze, drums, masks and candles.

Starhawk, 53, was born under the name of Miriam Simos. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley, playing handball in the parking garage of her apartment building. Her mom, a widow, raised her daughter to be Jewish.

Simos studied art, film and psychology at UCLA, where she won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for an unpublished novel she had written. She was later trained as a psychotherapist at former Antioch West University, but abandoned that field to devote herself to teaching and writing.

“It’s a tradition when you’re initiated as a witch that you change your name,” said Starhawk, who used her witch name at first when she taught workshops, and then as a published author.

A practitioner of “the Craft” for three decades, Starhawk has become one of the leading voices in the Earth-based spirituality movement. Her classic text on witchcraft, “The Spiral Dance,” has sold more than 285,000 copies and has been translated into German and Danish. Some of her books are used in college curricula.

Starhawk also collaborated with filmmaker Donna Read on “Signs Out of Time,” an hourlong documentary on the life of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who discovered ancient remains in Greece and the Balkans of what she concluded were peaceful, Goddess-worshipping civilizations.

Something else that sets Starhawk apart from ordinary witches is her passion for protest. She’s participated in countless demonstrations, ranging from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, in 2001 and the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003. She’s held vigils at Vandenberg Air Force Base and protested against Israeli troops in the West Bank. She’s been arrested more than two dozen times.

Louis Vitale, a Roman Catholic priest and political activist, first met Starhawk at the military’s Nevada Test Site about 25 years ago.

“She’s always there, wherever there’s a struggle going on,” Vitale said. “We come from different religious foundations, but I believe in her spiritual depth. And I’m impressed with her ability to speak to the young people. … She’s charismatic.”

Starhawk wrote a daily blog from outside last month’s Republican National Convention in New York, where she demonstrated and was arrested with nearly 2, 000 other protesters.

“She’s not an armchair philosopher,” said David Hartsough, executive director of Peacekeepers, a San Francisco political action organization. “Over the last 25 years-plus, she has been out there participating and helping to organize nonviolent movements. …

“She’s tireless. She’s not one to be scared off or intimidated. We could use thousands more Starhawks,” he said. “It’s not ideological. I think she can communicate with people from a broad range of political perspectives, and people respect her. There’s a very strong core there.”

Starhawk is a harsh critic of the Monsanto Company and the biotechnology industry’s efforts to produce genetically modified food products. She is a practitioner of permaculture: a system of ecological design for sustainable gardens, agriculture, housing, industry and cities.

She conducts workshops for protesters planning to participate in nonviolent demonstrations. Her husband, a former lawyer who drives a taxi, is also a peace activist. He served two years in federal prison for burning his draft card to protest the Vietnam War.

Starhawk talks about global warming, the melting of polar ice caps, the collapse of the North Sea ecosystem, and the Earth’s fast-rising temperatures.

“Nature is what sustains us. Too often, we don’t pay attention to that,” she said. “We think we’re independent from the natural world, that somehow we’re above and beyond it. The Earth is what we live on and live from. And because we don’t pay attention to nature, I think we’re in a situation where the health of the natural world is critically challenged. … But we seem unable to pay attention to that as a society.”

People in Starhawk’s inner circle call her Star. Her assistant and former apprentice, Mary DeDanan, is called Mer. She describes one slice of Starhawk’s mission as taking witchcraft “from the realm of wacky to some sort of intellectual respectability.”

“It’s a serious religion, not a get-rich scheme,” said DeDanan, who books Starhawk’s crowded calendar of personal appearances. “Modern witches are modern people, and they don’t have instant knowledge and wisdom. It’s a learning continuum.”

Starhawk shuns most New Age conferences, where witchcraft is often linked with winning the lottery and other ways to make a fast buck. She chooses instead to speak at universities and to teach workshops, including Earth Activist Training sessions (www.earthactivisttraining.org), that weave permaculture, political activism, spirituality and nature awareness.

Starhawk’s latest book is filled with stories about her observations on nature, political philosophy and protests as well as examples of chants, rituals and exercises. She provides numerous suggestions of what readers can do to live in harmony with nature, regardless of whether they’re living in the city or a rural area.

One of Starhawk’s central themes is that we are part of nature, not removed from it. She encourages people to get their hands in the dirt. Another lesson is to slow down and observe nature. The Earth, she writes, is constantly speaking. “We believe that the Earth is alive and everything on Earth has a state of consciousness and communicates,” she said. “And when you’re in the right state of mind and awareness, you can hear that communication.”

So, it’s possible to learn the language of trees, plants and birds. It’s the kind of kinesthetic skill that helps Starhawk prune a tree. “I think you’ll find a lot of people who don’t consider themselves witches,” she said, “who still have some of their deepest spiritual connections when they’re in nature.”

Starhawk has a broad definition of magic: “the art of changing consciousness at will … choosing which state you want to be in. …

“Magic teaches how the mind works,” she said. “If you want something to happen, you have to have an image of what you want, not just what you don’t want.”

Starhawk’s 40-acre farm is on a ridgetop, overlooking thickly forested redwoods and oak savannah. There are olive trees, apple orchards, a greenhouse and extensive beds of fruits and vegetables.

Here, the author puts her words into practice. She drives a truck that runs on biodiesel. A devotee of composting organic waste, she knows all about the regenerative benefits of worms, worm casings and fungi.

Starhawk doesn’t exude an angelic spirituality. Some witches give her guff for eating meat. They say she’s even-tempered but at times a demon behind the wheel. In her spare time, she reads mystery novels, putters in her garden.

“People are surprised at how many things I do,” she said. “I can my own fruit, and when we have a good year, I make great pies.”

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