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Photography Shae Detar

Potions and protest: Eco witches and how magick might save the planet

A new generation of women interested in craft are using their power in the name of climate change

Welcome to Witch Week, a campaign dedicated to exploring how witchcraft, magick and beauty intersect. Discover photo stories shot featuring real witches in NYC, a modern reimagining of the witch, and one witch’s mission to get a tan, as well as in-depth features exploring herbology, science and alchemy, and male witches. Elsewhere, we’ve created four special covers to celebrate the campaign and our one year anniversary – something wicked this way comes.

40 years ago, a young Bay Area witch named Starhawk published The Spiral Dance, a how-to of “earth-based spirituality and eco-feminism”. Four decades and various anniversary re-prints on, Starhawk’s best selling text is considered a cornerstone of modern witchcraft, its wisdom regularly quoted by the #WitchesOfInstagram. It also provides a blueprint – or rather, a green print – for today’s eco-conscious witches, figures who are increasingly active within the ever-expanding climate justice movement.  

The overlap between witchcraft and conservation is innate, says Alice Tarbuck, an Edinburgh-based witch who studies Starhawk’s work at an academic level. “Witchcraft invites us to think deeply about both the planet and our place on it. It invites a more spiritual relationship with land.” For many of us, nature is not only an aspect of our spirituality but central to it, from the herbs, plants and crops we cultivate – for spell work, medicine, food – and the wildlife we revere, to the seasonal calendar – the Wheel of The Year – that we follow. When nature is sacred to us, advocating for its protection is not a moral duty, but a spiritual one.  

“To me, witchcraft necessarily carries an element of service. We have an ethical imperative to look after the land we inhabit and the materials we use,” says Charlotte Haigh, a London-based priestess and shamanic practitioner, who also acknowledges the link between earth-based spirituality and environmental obligation. “Titles such as ‘priestess’ come with responsibility. This includes a responsibility to look after people, animals and the planet. I don't see any of this stuff as separate,” she continues. Haigh is a member of the non-violent direct action movement Extinction Rebellion and takes part in both large-scale protests and smaller, local campaigns in Kingston, where she is based. “It's really important to get people involved at a grassroots level,” she says. 

Earlier in the month, as part of XR’s October Rebellion, Haigh hosted a ‘Red Tent’ women’s circle, a space where women can “listen, share and connect with a sense of the sacred” within a context of climate justice. Outside of her work with XR, Haigh also runs full moon circles, Goddess-inspired workshops and ‘death cafes’ – informal, taboo-busting spaces where grief can be unpacked and explored. “While these things may not seem directly connected to eco-activism, they are very much part of it,” she tells us. “Anything that helps people open their hearts, get in touch with their spirituality, connect with their community and find compassion from each other will help support them to look after our beautiful world.” 

Gabriella Tavini, a Manchester-born poet and writer, is another witch-slash-eco activist. Since moving to London, Tavini has taken an active role in craft, mainstream politics, and direct action. “I’m a solitary witch and a member of the Green Party. I’ve also taken part in various Extinction Rebellion protests, including their recent summer uprising, Project Mushroom. Going forward, I’m hoping to do a course on permaculture,” Tavini explains.  

Permaculture and other, related skills are prized among eco witches. As well as attending eco-justice demonstrations and local clean-up efforts, Tarbuck teaches ethical foraging via a course she co-runs with author Claire Askew: Toil and Trouble: Towards a Responsible Witchcraft. “I’m passionate about ethical foraging and the development of a close relationship with place in witchcraft. In particular, I like to look at the relationship between performing magic in a place and caring for that place. Whenever I am out in nature, whether for leisure or foraging or spells, I try to leave the place better than I found it.”

Eco-activism isn’t just a moral pursuit for today’s witches, but also, increasingly, a magical one. “I incorporate spells for the planet in my solitary work,” says Tarbuck. “I have also taken part in mass spells for the climate, and really enjoyed them. Often these will tie-in with climate marches, as a way of taking part remotely. Usually, the call is something straightforward: Lighting a candle, meditating, sending energy in a certain direction. As a solo practitioner, I enjoy these beautiful moments of remote mass coming-together.”

Even today, centuries on from the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, stigma around witchcraft persists. This means that the environment-focused spellwork done by activists and their covens is often private rather than public, undertaken in living rooms, offices, and secret forest clearings. “I am visible as a witch in my eco-activism because of the course I teach,” says Tarbuck. “But I'm not usually so visible as a witch at demos. I feel, still, a little self-conscious about it.” Hidden magic – placards charged with invisible sigils, charms for change that double as everyday objects and, in Tavini’s case, small, pocket-sized crystals to keep her “grounded and safe” while attending protests – is far more common. 

As urgency around climate destruction accelerates, this is likely to change. With the growing number of witches involved in eco-activism, public rituals for the resistance may well become more common. There is precedent for this: in 1978, Starhawk led a 3000-strong crowd as part of a feminist ‘Take Back the Night’ march that culminated in Washington Square Park. Counterculture group The Yippies staged a series of spells in Washington D.C to protest the Vietnam war in 1968. The following year, socialist feminist group W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) morphed into existence, taking to the streets on Halloween to hex the heart of American patriarchy’s power: Wall Street. 

Half a century on, new incarnations of W.I.T.C.H have sprung up around the global North, black-clad activists dedicated to fighting ills such as white supremacy; transphobia and environmental destruction. As a figure, the witch is perfectly poised to lead us to liberation. She’s a powerful icon, a fearsome agent of change. Through magic, she disrupts, transforms, and heals. And what are protests, if not mass spells for change, a super-sized coven coming together to chant, raise power and direct energy towards a desired, communal goal? As Starhawk points out: “Political actions could be more effective if they were consciously understood to be energy workings.”  

One thing is clear: in 2019, we can no longer afford to be silent or cowed in our opposition to climate destruction. Witchcraft offers us courage, hope, and community resources that we’ll need plenty of in the coming months. “Huge change is coming one way or another,” concludes Haigh. “All we can do is advocate as hard as we can for each other and the planet. A thousand green shoots. Less consumption. A goodbye to air travel as we have known it. None of it looks comfortable, but all of it looks necessary.”