There’s a certain simplicity in dealing with an overgrowth of English ivy. It could more appropriately be called an infestation, even. Untouched, it is a quite pleasant plant to look at – rustic houses residing in a bucolic countryside, be-garlanded with a lattice of evergreen and woody vine-work which inexorably enshrouds the entirety of whatever structure it is anchored upon, in a green embrace.
It paints a quite pretty picture, although the reality is often something else entirely. If left unchecked, it proves to be quite the nuisance.
Removing such a tenacious and damnable plant is simply done – all one must do is do. Grab one’s gloves and begin, with liberal amounts of elbow grease. Shortcuts exist, of course: herbicides and animal controls are options. Those of a particular financial endowment may employ legions of gardeners who are able to coax and caress the plant into a facsimile of domesticity.
It is, however, only a facsimile. The plant longs to grow, ever upward and ever outwards. For those with no such inclinations, or desire, to dance to the Dionysian tune of such a voracious and expressive assemblage of greenery, English ivy can be a dogged, implacable interloper. In regions where it is not a welcome guest, but instead an invasive trespasser, one which was mistakenly planted by well meaning (yet ignorant) landscapers, it is a damnable menace – one which will fell trees and crowd out native life. His otherwise Victorian sensibilities aside, Thomas Hardy’s “being bark-bound, flagged, snapped, fell outright” is a concern, for such an ambitious plant has felled many a strong tree. By the way, I have a Siberian elm which is growing above my house, entirely encased in such a vine. And that species of tree is most certainly not a stable entity in its own right. Concerns for a later day.
But removal of ivy? Ultimately, it is a simple act – snipping the vine, peeling it bit by bit from the masonry and brick to which it clings, planting one’s knees in the loamy soil and digging until the roots give way from the foundation, until they are pulled free to such an extent that they cannot regrow.
At least that is the theory. We shall in the end see who is more tenacious.
It is a simple statement and a simple execution of action, but sometimes, those simplest acts are the hardest. In this case, it is a right bastard to do, consisting of aching wrists and forearms, of soiled clothes and mud-caked boots, strained back muscles of repeated and methodical extraction from the red loam that fills my yard. We won’t even speak about the “strategic reallocation of the soffit panels” underneath the overhang of my roof where the vines had previously grown under an earlier tenancy.
Those soffits were, of course, pried apart and are now hanging down as I pulled on the vines to try to dislodge them in an earlier investigation. The ivy is still there. For now.
The removal is a repetitive and rote. If the judging gaze of my cats staring at my actions through the windows is any indication, it is also an ignoble one. Rigby Cincinnatus, I’d like to see you out here doing this. You don’t even have thumbs.
Tools help, ideally. I started this with nothing more than my gloved hands, a single flat screwdriver that I had found while previously repairing a pair of burst pipes before the new year, a pair of garden shears (also left by the previous tenants), and a pair of pruning shears. My years of archaeologist experience had made me something of a menace with a tool like a screwdriver, but such a thing is very obviously not up to the task. On day two, I dug out my actual archaeologist’s trowel, as well as a hand saw I use for bushcrafting and camping purposes – some of those vine stumps are thick! By day three, pity was taken, and I was sent out to buy some “real” tools. I’ve been living in a yard-less apartment complex for the past five years, don’t blame me for not having any of these things.
I’m still in the ground with the trowel (the screwdriver has been retired), but at least I can move hunks of earth with some of the shovels which I purchased, and leverage stronger implements against the wall so I can pry tenacious root clusters free. It’s slow going – there’s lots of ivy – and this is just around the house, never mind the seven other infested sites on the very small property. I think fire will be an option in those cases.
While I’m lost in the dirty action of this extraction, my mind wanders and I find myself thinking of the practical actions of this going and doing. It moves beyond simple yard work, into the realm of theology and philosophy and religious action. There’s a similar level of practicality that must be established, expected even in the religious enactment of contemporary Western polytheisms like Heathenry. I’ve been around in the Online world of polytheistic space for a long time, from the days of LiveJournal (Hello, fourth decade barreling at me!) to serving as a member of the welcome committee on dedicated polytheist Discord servers or simply just being Very Online. I see all-too-common stumbling blocks consisting of inaction in the face of adopting these new religious traditions and practices and, despite repeated admonitions of go and do it always seems like there is reluctance to do such things.
This isn’t a criticism of modern action/inaction, either, for history is replete with admonitions of lecturers and teachers of all types. Erga ou logoi. “Deeds not words.” A seemingly very Heathen concept… from 5th Century Athens, where Socrates rails against Sophistry.
Perhaps it is the Stoic in me, the resultant practical philosophy of the later Imperial period which influences (dominates) the popular conceptual discourse on that intellectual disposition (versus more metaphysical or cosmological concerns), with the remnants of Arius Didymus echoing:
“It is not the person who eagerly listens to and makes notes of what is spoken by the philosophers who is ready for philosophizing, but the person who is ready to transfer the prescriptions of philosophy to his deeds and live in accord with them.” (Arius Didymus, 2.7.11k, trans. Pomeroy, c.f., John Sellars “Stoic Practical Philosophy in the Imperial Period”, pg. 2)
And the crotchety old teacher Epictetus, reportedly declaiming aneu tou prattein, mekhri tou legein, “without deeds, limited to words” as a criticism of those who zealously followed the pursuit of philosophy without applying them to the daily life. In fact, while all of ancient philosophy could be described (as Foucault does) as concerning itself with living well, the surviving statements that concern themselves with actions and living come from Stoic or Stoic-adjacent sources. So yeah, we’ll blame the Stoic in me for this.
We run across self-imposed or externally-imposed blocks to acting and doing. We are chained by fears. Fears of not knowing enough, not doing enough, not being enough in the eyes of the religious figures we are concerned about – colleagues, friends, whichever big name Pagan we want to emulate or impress, even the Gods and numinous divine themselves. We fear mistakes, of the idea of insulting the divine, of doing “it” wrong in the eyes of history, or in the eyes of some figure which professes sole knowledge and The One Right Way. They’re all shackles and impediments to action, and they have to be broken through, only, by action itself.
For many years I have said that I believe the tendency towards the creation of historiographies within reconstructionist polytheism is at once both a help, and a hindrance. It, on one hand, encourages the proficiency of the history of traditions in a chosen religious system, and it is absolutely a useful tool in the exploration of religious themes and how they relate to the individual or the group. On the other hand, it often serves as the focal point for a rigorous argument, a treatment of intellectual analysis in which one possesses the weight of historic fact and precedent in order to “be right”. It acts as an anchor, weighing down the lived enactment of religion, which might otherwise go and develop in unknown or otherwise uncomfortable (or uncritiquable) directions.
As the aggregate wealth of knowledge piles up, so too do the perceptions that we need to be more sure in our understanding, leading to more study, and a continued reluctance to engage in the material and in the enactment of the system being uncovered. Self reinforcing.
This criticism of mine isn’t new, either. Nor is it one which I am solely alone in. I often return to a piece written some years ago (where has the time gone?) by Sarenth, and you can be sure that I have thought of it lately while I was in the dirt with this ivy. It’s the same underlying principle behind Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid, something I liken towards my understanding of do ut des – that theory cannot sustain us, and that alternative structures are possible through doing the work, and that through only action will we find ourselves liberated.
Musonius Rufus said:
“Just as there is no use in medical study unless it leads to the health of the human body, so there is no use to a philosophical doctrine unless it leads to the virtue of the human soul.” (Musonius Rufus, lecture 3.7, trans. Cynthia King in Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, 2011, pg. 28)
I would add to it, that religious theories are of no use unless they lead to the cultivation of right action and a right relationship with the divine.
These tools do absolutely help, just like in extricating this damn ivy (that I am now going on 6 days pulling apart as I write this). The tools of philosophy and of history and of modern social sciences and comparative studies all help in the development and enactment of these religions.
But they must be used in order to build something lasting, and one cannot gain proficiency in a thing without taking what one has learned and summarily experimenting with it or applying it. Taking abstract theories and engaging with them, without simply regurgitating them (Epictetus would say “spewing” or “vomiting”), and learning what works and what does not. A flat-head screwdriver might not work very well at digging ivy out of the ground, but it does a very good job at prying the ivy vines from the side of a brick wall or wood fence.
“A builder doesn’t come and say, ‘Listen to me lecture on building,’ but he accepts payment, builds this house, and thereby shows his expertise as a builder.” (Epictetus, Discourses, book 3.21, trans. Robin Waterfield in The Complete Works: Handbook, Discourses, and Fragments, 2022, pg. 212)
It is simply not enough to know the principles of these religious actions or the mechanics of their enactments; they must be put into practice in some way, shape, or form. If we take the gifting cycle to be the underlying concept of most of Western polytheism, then that foundation is built on the relationship between person and divinity. Relationships are intrinsically and inherently actionable – they do not and cannot exist without effort or the expenditure of energy in maintaining and in cultivating them, even those that are renewed after a lapse in time are built on past actions.
Theory is preliminary to practice, but ultimately the action must be done. I can sit about all day, reading how English ivy is an invasive species for my region, and how damaging it can be to structures and the native plant life, but without taking that action to remove it, that knowledge does nothing to help me in cultivating a better relationship with my home and the land it is on. The theory lets me decide the best course of action is, in my case, to dig up the root nodules as best as I can and not simply clip the vines close to the ground, as that will require prolonged labor later (hopefully).
In classic Stoic style, the practical will incorporate the theoretical into an essential component of itself, supplementing it with training, exercises, or practices, and it will then translate into action. Otherwise it can be an impediment to the way in which we can act, or a token of vanity, with the collective accumulation of wealth acting as a treasure hoard being put on display. Some of the Stoics (Epictetus) had comments about people who sought to learn philosophy (which I extract to knowledge in general) simply to be good conversationalists, too, and they’re not very pleasant.
After all, theories and methods are (generally) easy to understand – easier to hoard – but translating those ideas into actions is difficult:
“And so the philosophers must first train us in theory, which is the easier task, and then lead us on to more difficult matters; for in theory, there is nothing to restrain us from drawing the consequences of what we have been taught, whereas in life there are many things that pull us off course.” (Epictetus, Discourses, book 1.26, trans. Robin Hard in Epictetus: Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, 2014, pg. 79)
Stoic philosophy was conceptualized as being supported by spiritual exercises that translates the theory and proofs of what is needed to live well into behavior – philosophical theories into philosophical actions. The parallel here, to me, is obvious, with the goal being related, but at the same time distinct. Instead of wholly cultivating ourselves and our own souls, we also religiously cultivate those relationships with the divine numinous through exercise, through repetition, through application of ritual and cosmological theory and knowledge and all of the weight of history that we are capable of sussing out and understanding.
Armed with the background knowledge and the theories of engaging within the polytheistic system of Heathenry or of other Western traditions, one simply has to take that step and go and do, and no be burdened by an excess of material or the fear of making a misstep.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a ladder.
Hard, Robin, Epictetus: Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford University Press. 2014.
King, Cynthia, Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings, CreateSpace.com. 2011.
Sellars, John, “Stoic Practical Philosophy in the Imperial Period”, Greek and Roman Philosophy, 100 BC-200 AD, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Suppl. 94/1 (2007). Academia.edu.
Sellars, John, The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, Second Edition, Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2009.
Waterfield, Robin, Epictetus: The Complete Works – Handbook, Discourses, and Fragments. University of Chicago Press. 2022.
Tagged: action, Heathen, Heathenry, Pagan, Paganism, Polytheism, Religious practice, Western Polytheism