[This issue, we sit down with Dianna Rhyan. Here, she discusses her personal spiritual practices; her new book on myth and the land, Staff of Laurel, Staff of Ash; and her upcoming projects.]

ev0ke: How do you describe your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name or is it more intuitive and eclectic?

Dianna Rhyan: I resonate with your words: intuitive and eclectic are great descriptions of my spiritual practice. Beyond that, I would add … tree-stone-water inspired, listening for faint primordial echoes, always outdoors.

ev0ke: Which Deities, spirits, or other powers do you honor in your practice?

DR: The powers to me are the ones humans have been naming since the dawn of writing, organic powers who always slip away and escape their names. The spirits range from cave nymphs to oaks to ancient goddesses, faces for the life that moves in everything that has ever existed.

ev0ke: You just released Staff of Laurel, Staff of Ash: Sacred Landscape in Ancient Nature Myth through Moon Books. First, congratulations! Second, why Moon Books? Did you approach them with the idea, or did they come to you?

DR: Thanks! Moon Books has done a magnificent job seeing the book through publication and release. I approached editor Trevor Greenfield with the idea for Staff of Laurel, Staff of Ash because I had read Moon Book authors I greatly admire. The mission statement of Moon Books, which I read as a label-free invitation to explore pagan/polytheistic ideas, spoke to me too.

ev0ke: Why a book on sacred landscapes and myth? How did the book come about? What drew you to this topic?

DR: A lifetime in the forest. And a lifetime studying ancient languages & myth. They entwine for me, and I wanted to weave them together for readers to encounter too. I wouldn’t say I wrote the book as much as I allowed it to speak through — a kind of deep remembering.

ev0ke: What sort of research went into Staff of Laurel, Staff of Ash? Big piles of books? Long discussions with other practitioners and scholars?

DR: Yes, all of that! I’ve been fascinated with deciphering ancient languages all my life and spent my childhood outdoors. My studies have included a PhD in Greek and Latin, and thirty years of teaching ancient languages and mythology at the college level. Reading, teaching, hiking, camping, sharing, co-facilitating … pretty much any way to walk further into the places where wild nature and the human imagination breathe together. As for research, there really were piles and piles of ancient texts, memorable library expeditions, combing through to find answers, figuring out how to translate something freshly, and not get in the way of what a sacred place wanted to say. The book was entirely written on hikes, by the way. I would go encounter beloved forest places then come home to write the encounter down as best I could.

ev0ke: You describe Staff of Laurel, Staff of Ash as “part memoir of fertile forest floor, part mythic library found in fragments.” And later “If we will view a beloved, imperiled place through the eyes of an ancient, fading story, we will see both place and myth together more profoundly.” This is a powerful and moving insight. Can you give us an example of how this “seeing” can be done? And the impact that it’s had on you and others?

DR: I think the sacred landscape that surrounds us is communicating all the time, with compassion and insight. The relationship is there for us if we will open our perception. In the sense that a long-ago scribe wrote a now-ragged fragment of papyrus, or incised a now-shattered tablet of clay, the forest floor is like a long-lost and buried archaic library. Even the most minute piece of the life lived there is telling its story, whether it be a beetle track or the vein of a leaf. It is up to us to be humble enough, quiet enough, reverent enough, to encounter it. Apparent brokenness is the way in. 

ev0ke: What is one of your favorite myth-in-landscape/landscape-in-myth stories? And why?

DR: One of my favorites is Sophocles’ play Antigone, where the action looks to the wilderness beyond the city, and questions whether in our aggression toward nature, human achievements mean anything at all. The antagonist sees wilderness as empty, threatening wasteland to be brought under control, while the heroine Antigone, in an entirely different vision, sees borderland as a sacred place of possibility: for ritual, remembrance, liberation, and love. The play is her tragedy because she acts and speaks out as a passionate proponent of natural law and divine justice, vital forces — or goddesses — that can never be contained by intellect or custom. Antigone’s myth reminds us that we can talk about featureless land or fertile Gaia. The same goes for reproduction or the primordial force Eros. Justice or the goddess Dike. Natural law or the goddess Themis. Sophocles knew there was/is no more profound choice to make than believing in an inanimate cosmos, or an animate one.

ev0ke: Which other resources (books, sites, et. cetera) would you recommend to those interested in studying the connection between landscape and myth, and how this can change our attitude towards the world?

DR: Some of my favorite books that connect landscape with myth are Sara Maitland’s From the Forest, Carolyn Merchant’s Reinventing Eden, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, and Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees. Robert Holdstock’s classic Mythago Wood cycle plumbs the connection from a fantasy perspective. That said, I filled my book’s bibliography with great translations of ancient resources on landscape and myth — the original thoughts where the modern ideas were born. It really is striking to pick up, for example, Danny Jackson’s edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh or Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Kramer’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth and see environmental issues and sacred landscapes paramount in people’s minds from the very beginning.

ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events do you hope to attend in the foreseeable future?

DR: I don’t have anything specific in mind now, but I hope to attend events that gather and support people who are growing their spiritual relationship with nature.

ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?

DR: I’ve got a second title in the works with Moon Books, called Mestra the Shapeshifter: Heroine of the Ancient Grove. It’s about a mortal-born female shapeshifter who is little known today, who survives only in oblique stories and fragments from ancient Greece and Rome. To restore her lost voice, I’m assembling all the evidence I can find for her and weaving it together to tell her story.

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