February 12, 2024 | By:

Jack Loeffler’s A Pagan Polemic: Reflections on Nature, Consciousness, and Anarchism

A Pagan Polemic - book cover

Jack Loeffler, A Pagan Polemic: Reflections on Nature, Consciousness, and Anarchism. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2023.

Imagine you have been pondering relationships between nature and culture since, in the 1950s, you watched the explosion of an atomic bomb while you were standing by an army band at the Nevada Test Site playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Or, that you happened to rub shoulders and minds with Gary Snyder, Stewart Udall, Estella Leopold, and Ed Abbey as you thought deeply about consciousness, graced by nature as you were to be conscious, and wondering what responsibilities having it required of you. That you also became a skilled listener, traveling among cultures, listening to Indigenous people, recording their songs and worldviews, pondering how consciousness plays out in their worlds. And, on top of that, for nearly seventy years you lived in and loved the American Southwest and fought to save it from the ravages of “growthmania” and consequent degradation, recording its many voices from canyon wrens to golden eagles. You have developed a deep sense of place both culturally and ecologically. Imagine you are Jack Loeffler.

Jack has published nine books, including A Pagan Polemic. At the age of 87 (or only 85 when he wrote the most recent essays in this book), his body may be slowing down some, but his mind is working as fast as ever. At his recent book launch in Santa Fe, fellow writer and friend Bill DuBuys asked Jack if he had regrets about anything in his life. His quick reply, “Not yet!” got a good laugh, not least from Jack himself. But while Jack is a funny guy, he is also a deep and serious thinker. In this small book of essays, he shares some of his thoughts about nature, consciousness, and anarchism, and as he usually does in his written work, he includes the thoughts of some of the important people he has interviewed and recorded over the years. He bounces his thoughts off theirs, and what we get is a rich mix of ideas.

Jack gave considerable thought to his title. A polemic, as I understand it, is an argument against positions or principles held by others. Sometimes this can be aggressive, but that is not Jack’s style — he is reasoned and writes from the heart. For instance, in the Southwest water is the staff of life, scarce and sacred in long-established cultures, but it is also a commodity to be sold as in agriculture or to power the casinos of Las Vegas. He is against the commodification of nature, and especially of the scarce and sacred water of a desert river. In the longest essay in this book, Jack provides an overview the Colorado River in the 21st century, how it got to its current condition, and what that condition is today — a growing population depending on a diminishing supply of water in the Colorado watershed. His succinct summary is, “The common pot grows larger as the water diminishes here in the Southwest.” As a polemicist he argues against “growthmania,” separation of culture from the “flow of nature,” literally in the case of the Colorado River; against technology as ends rather than as means to ends of justice and sustainability; against anthropocentrism; against cultural domination that has deprived us of the wisdom and insights of Indigenous people who might help us out of our mess; against wastage of the gift of consciousness on trivial, self-centered matters. Jack writes that “As I grow older, I find myself ever more polemical in my environmentalism.” Good for him.

As for the paganism Jack admits to, he explains that he has studied many of the world’s axial religions, but in the end emerges as a “naturist.” He writes that “for myself, I’ve long since taken my cue from the flow of nature.” He continues, “I’ve always loved being ‘out in it,’ watching, sensing, listening, intuiting, registering Nature’s great revelations. Thus, although I’ve largely avoided labeling myself, I’ve come to think of myself simply as a ‘naturist,’ an expansive term used earlier in reference to nudists.” He can’t help himself, loving words as he does, and a little crack at himself like this creeps in now and then. I can hear his cackle as he cited this line to his audience in Santa Fe recently. The nature of his paganism, or naturism, emerges for us as we read the diverse essays in this collection. He writes that “The flow of nature runs deep through our species if we would but listen to its song.” What a listener he has been, and he urges all of us to follow him in this.

As a polemicist he argues against principles and practices, but this book is also full of advocacy. The idea of consciousness permeates many essays, though Jack does not offer a simple definition of it. When he saw that bomb detonate in the Nevada desert he literally and metaphorically experienced a flash of consciousness. Not that he had been unconscious until that moment, but suddenly he understood many things about human power and responsibility that had not previously come to mind. His consciousness was expanded and has been growing ever since. He has become ever more aware of the responsibilities and opportunities that expanded consciousness entails and has come to believe that in such lies the salvation of the human community and the Earth it depends on. Consciousness is not an abstraction for him as he makes clear in many of his essays in this collection. Gary Snyder, Ed Abbey, Black Mesa, the Colorado River, peyote, John Wesley Powell, Indigenous leaders like Rina Swentzell, Sarah Natani, and Armando Torres, among others — all have contributed to the expansion of Jack Loeffler’s consciousness. He closes his chapter on the Colorado River and its seemingly insuperable problems with this:

HEGEMONY, OLIGARCHY, PLUTOCRACY – the prevailing aristocracy that has long dominated so much of human cultural perspective through the millennia. Yet to me, the only true aristocracy is one of consciousness.

In consciousness we trust . . .

What else does he advocate? I made a list from his essays as I read along, and then came to this paragraph late in the book.

Advice is dangerous, but so is extinction of species, including our own. So, I say, use your imagination, listen to your homeland, hearken back to the utterances of those traditional people Indigenous to this continent, and react. Look at legislation that runs counter to the flow of Nature and counteract it. Practice civil disobedience to the extent that your personal system of ethics allows. Organize watershed by watershed, as defined by John Wesley Powell, and disavow the geopolitical boundaries imposed by federal government. Invigorate grassroots governance and polycentric governance as espoused by Elinor Ostrom. Look up the meaning of polycentric governance if you don’t already know what it means. Rethink economics with ecological perspective as dominant cultural characteristic and oust the “money kings” from political power. Contribute to the reshaping of collective cultural attitude that is in harmony with the natural world. Remember that the planet is a commons available to all species, the extinction of any of which lessens the commons. And come to understand that we all participate in the commons of human consciousness and that each of us is responsible for what we allow to prevail in our own minds. De-secularize habitat and re-sacralize homeland.

There is no way to cut down this long quotation for it is a summary of what Jack Loeffler has tried to do in his own long life. It is a large order, of course, but the stakes, as he says, could not be greater.

A Pagan Polemic is a collection of mostly short essays that are wide-ranging in topic, many of which Jack published over the years in Green Fire Times, a regional publication here in New Mexico. Followers of his work will find familiar themes and enjoy his smooth writing and personal style along with his humor and storytelling. Jack Loeffler has listened intently and recorded the wisdom of elders for more than a half-century, and I hope people listen intently to what he as an elder has to say today. In a way, this small book serves as a primer of his thinking expressed in his previous eight books and countless radio programs. The long paragraph quoted above encapsulates what his work has revealed that must be done, none of it easy, to assure prosperous futures for ecological communities, including humans. The main insight to be learned from Jack’s writing is that we humans are not the exceptional beings we wish we were but are in and of the natural world like everything else. Conscious awareness and acceptance of this is essential to our futures.

Get your own copy of the book here: A Pagan Polemic: Reflections on Nature, Consciousness, and Anarchism.

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