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Lea Wood, Witch Activist

Interview by Lilith Ravenroot

Lea Wood, 83, is a poet, environmentalist and Witch-activist who lives with her daughter in the rural mountains of Vermont. A practicing Pagan, she is an avid participant of Vermont Witchcamp and of the Burlington Women's Open Circle. She has been an inspiration to crones and aspiring crones for many years.

Lea, tell me about your life, about how you found your Pagan path.

I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 6, 1916, my parents' first child. My father moved us around a lot, so I ended up mostly in Ohio. I grew up near Lake Erie in a suburb of Cleveland.

When I was a child, I had access to nature at all times, so most of my play was in nature. When I was 16, I began looking for a religion, looking for churches. But my religion was really in nature. Standing by a lake or a tree in all kinds of weather and feeling that, like Emily Dickinson, that's where my church really was. I didn't find anything like it anywhere, except in the Unitarians, where you could be whatever you needed to be. So I was a Unitarian from the age of about 21.

It wasn't until I was about 73 or 74 that I discovered the Pagans, and this was in the Unitarian group. We had a Witch — the first Witch I ever met — and she started a little group doing Pagan rituals in the Unitarian fellowship in California, where I lived most of my life.

The Unitarians were my community, but they were not my religion. They were a stepping stone to other religions, and I like them for that. People would say, "Oh, Lea must be on a hike," when I didn't show up for services. But that's where my religion was, in nature. So when I found out that there were actually Pagans and nature's cycles were a part of it, I thought, this is where I belong. All my life, I didn't know this existed.

Then I found out that (Wicca has) its roots in England, where my ancestors came from long, long ago. They came to this country in the 1600s. That just seemed to fit very well.

I lived in California for 42 years and moved to Vermont because my daughter thought I should be closer to her in my declining years. So, now I live in Underhill out in the country where I am surrounded with nature.

I wondered if I was going to find a Pagan group here. I did, fairly soon. I found it in a Unitarian fellowship. A woman named Evergreen came up to me. She was wearing a pentacle. I became a member of a women's circle here, and (attended) the Vermont Witchcamp. I was lucky to go to that when it began six summers ago. That's how I got into being a Pagan.

Tell us about your Pagan practice.

One of the most important aspects of Paganism is belonging to Reclaiming and reclaiming meaning. We are reclaiming the words that have been lost and for centuries had improper, wrong, and sinister meanings — like Witch, Pagan, heathen — and redeeming those words to their former and original meanings. That's important to me.

As far as my daily ritual is concerned, I learned a Seneca move that's like a Tai Chi move in which you greet the four directions. There weren't any words to it. I learned it in Witchcamp from one of the teachers, but I put my own words to the meanings of the different directions and I've added the Center to it. I kind of made it my own. With that, I start every day along with thanks for all the blessings that are in my life, including, of course, being alive.

The idea of gratitude comes from the Native American custom of giving thanks whenever people gather together for any purpose. I love the idea of being grateful to life, to things in one's life. I remember people in my life, in every way, including people whose books I read or people whose names I don't even know, but they have made my life better in some small way. So, I think having gratitude toward life is important. I don't find that in the regular religions.

One of the things about Pagan religion is that we can worship any time, any day, any hour of the day, whereas Christianity is sort of tied to Sunday morning. If you don't do it Sunday morning, in a certain place, preferably a church, somehow it isn't as good. With us, it's good anywhere. Anytime, we can have our ceremony. I think that's wonderful.

The other part of it is we are not sitting there listening to the guru, but we are participating and we are doing it for ourselves. We have a participatory role, everyone does in a ceremony. I especially like ours because people volunteer to do different parts of it. That's really important to me, we are all equals.

What is the most exciting time for you in the course of a Pagan year?

The most exciting thing in my Pagan practice is the yearly week at (Vermont) Witchcamp, at Farm and Wilderness down at Plymouth. That is the most rejuvenating week of my whole year. The rituals are outdoors, under the big sky with the mountains around us and 130 people around a fire. It is incredibly wonderful. Not only the culmination of the ritual each night on top of the hill, but everything about it: The (learning) paths we choose to take on which we spend our mornings, the community that you feel because you see the same people coming back each year. You may see these people only once a year, but they are very special people to you and you try to remember to bring in the new people, too.

Concerning the paths, the first few years, they were a direction. You took Earth, Air, Fire, or Water and all the teachings and activities were made around that element. Last year, we did a pentacle, the Iron Pentacle and the Pearl Pentacle and that was kind of interesting. This year was more eclectic. There was one we called colloquially the Nature Path. There was also one that was the Challenge of the Goddess. It was a more individual way of doing it. There was also a Healing Path, and a Death and Dying Path.

It's being together in a place that is also ecologically very sound. The food is organic and is grown on that land. The Kybos are composted toilets, which is quite terrific. You can sit there and look at the forest while you are...! You can even have company if you wish, but you don't have to. The culture of the Kybo! (See RQ#73 for more on Kybos!)

Sleeping in the cabins that are open to the air is wonderful, too. I usually sleep one night on top of the hill, but at the edge where the trees are so that I don't get soaked in dew. It's an absolute joy. I did years of backpacking, which I loved.

What led you to become an activist?

Mainly the Sierra Club, although I did a few little things like push for a science building instead of a sports arena when I was in college. But I really didn't do much until I was in the Sierra Club and going backpacking.

I have such an incredible love of nature that I wanted to protect it, so my activism really started with protecting forests, protecting wilderness, and also being very angry with people because they didn't.

I was angry with people a lot and that wasn't too good. I think I got over that from the Pagans. It gave me a deeper insight into nature, and I understood that people are simply misguided. I got the example of other people who are concerned about nature, but they don't take it out on people so much. Especially Julia Butterfly Hill and her dialogs with the lumber horribles when she was up in the Luna Tree, the redwood tree that was going to be cut down.

So, it began with forests, but it's extended to a lot of other things. I am particularly concerned with the nuclear rain (fallout from nuclear testing) in the atmosphere. And nuclear weapons, and now genetically-modified foods and factory farms. There are so many issues. I wish I could put all of my energies in one. But they are calling to me and I can't stop doing something even if it's mostly nothing more than writing a letter to somebody.

I also believe in the eloquence of words, spoken words, written words — these have the power to move people if we choose words that can somehow hit somebody in the right way at the right time. One of the things I am doing now is working to help Lori Berenson become free. There she is in a prison (in Peru — see end of article) now for almost five years, but what comes from her is that silence is acquiescence, and she won't (be silent). Every time I get a message from her parents, it has in there her quotation: "You must speak out; you must not be silent! Silence is acquiescence to evil."

So, the motivation I have for speaking out is that if I don't speak out, that is just as bad as agreeing to it in a sense, see? I very firmly believe that we receive gifts from other people and it's our responsibility to give back to our people. That also comes from Native American lore, where a rite of passage is to go out on a vision quest, a fasting of four days alone on a mountaintop (preferably), and thinking about that, or praying about that, or whatever you do about it. When you come back, you are to come back with whatever gifts you have for your people. It's not something just for you. You need to take it in and have your own growth because of it but then you have to give it back.

What advice would you give to other women entering their cronehood?

I am a hag, by the way. I thought the name was pretty terrible, but that's another one that has to be reclaimed. It really means "as related to wisdom" and who can argue with that, right? A crone has wisdom, too, but I guess the wisdom of a hag is a step up. It must be a question of age, because they said I wasn't a crone anymore. Since I'm 83 now, maybe "hag" begins in the 70s. Most of the people who go through their crone ceremonies are in their 50s or 60s.

There was a time I was extremely shy. To talk in public would be hard. I had to make myself, and I would stand on trembling knees and someone else would say something and shoot me down, and I would say, "Oh, boy...". One nice thing about being a crone or a hag is that you don't have to worry about that anymore. It doesn't matter what people think of you. What really matters is that you speak from the heart, that you are speaking your own genuine truth, you are not putting on any kind of face.

And that's another thing I like about Pagans. It's that when we do meet, more than (with) any other group, each person there is herself or himself, the true self, not a society façade. That makes it easier to speak.

To be motivated by something beyond yourself makes it even easier to speak. I can speak for Lori Berenson* or I can speak for a forest much more easily than I can speak for myself or for something I might want. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Not only that, but when you hear yourself speaking out, it's a wonderful feeling of power. This is not power-over. This is power from within, and this is pretty neat.

If I have one word of wisdom for other women entering cronehood, it's this: Say It, Sister.

* Lori Berenson is a 30-year-old journalist who was arrested in Peru over five years ago. She was planning to write a story about the impoverishment of the people when she was dragged off a bus in downtown Lima and arrested. She was tried by a hooded judge and convicted of being a leader of a rebel group, the MRTA.

Amnesty International has been actively involved in her case. Lori's life sentence was nullified by the military tribunal in August 2000. Her civil trial began in March 2001, and in June she was convicted of collaboration with terrorists and sentenced to 20 years (minus the five she has already served).

Since then, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has declared the conviction illegal and said that Peru must release her. Peru has filed an appeal with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It may take two years or more for the Court to make a decision.

For more information, contact Lea, (802) 899-1237.

A version of this article first appeared in "Green Mountain Circle Works," a Pagan newsletter of record for Vermont published by the Burlington UU Circle chapter of CUUPS. Subscriptions are $6/year to: Circle Works, POB 221, Burlington, VT 05402.

Interviewer Lilith Ravenroot is an avid student of The Crone.