A 23-year-old witch named Kitha sells bundles of rosemary, cedar and black sage in an online shop. Not sold, however, is white sage.
“I started my shop because I was always raised [with] Indigenous values, and one of those values is that, like, we don’t own Earth,” said Kitha to The Washington Post. “I cannot profit off of something, I cannot financially benefit from something that is meant to be a gift.” Kitha’s father is Indigenous to Puerto Rico.
Burning white sage is meant to cleanse a person or space. It has become trendy in recent years, with sage bundles appearing in starter witch kits and available for sale in luxury grocery stores. Often, it is attached to wellness routines, with religious practices removed.
Now, concerns are being raised about cultural appropriation, since white sage is considered sacred in many Indigenous cultures. For the Blackfeet Indians, for example, burning sage, or “smudging,” is a form of purification that takes place before interacting with the divine, says Rosalyn LaPier, an ethnobotanist who is an who is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis. It’s not meant to be used for “house cleaning,” LaPier says. “It’s something deeper than that.”
Overharvesting is a problem as well. White sage is mostly collected in the wild, rather than farmed. LaPier points to reports that white sage has been overharvested to meet demand in the southwestern United States, California and northern Mexico.
Kitha won’t sell white sage because it is meant to be shared. “At this point in time, we deserve to be able to heal and reclaim what’s ours,” said Kitha, believing that the commercial sale of white sage is making it hard for Indigenous people to access their spiritual practices. For practitioners of Indigenous religions. white sage needs to have a sustainable future.
Encountering a witch
In my novel Windows of the Heavens, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden encountered a witch named Kelly Westbrook in a park in Occoquan, Virginia. She was stretching before going for a run.
“So how are you doing?” she asked him. “After the flood?” Harley had noticed her piercings and her pale white skin on their first meeting, but he now saw how really lovely she was. There didn’t seem to be any grim Prince of Darkness in her. She had bright green eye and sharp angles in her face that revealed a very fine bone structure.
“I’m okay,” he replied. “My house is fine, and the church will recover. Water in the social and a broken steeple.”
“Yes,” she said. “I saw that the cross came down.” He thought he saw the hint of a smile as she said that.
“We’ll fix it,” Harley added. “Steeple rot.”
At that, she broke into full grin. “Steeple rot?” she said. “I like that.”
“How about you?”
“Our apartment building is fine, and so are we.”
Then she said, “I’m guessing that you are wondering about me. And my religion.”
How did she know that? “Yes, I am.”
Seeking harmony with the Earth
“We believe in balance,” she said, standing even straighter and pulling back her shoulders. God, she’s beautiful. “Balance in everything. Darkness and light. Earth and heaven. Good and evil.” She turned her face toward the churning river and said, “We try to live in harmony with the world around us. Birds. Fish. Snakes. Deer. We don’t kill, except for food. And unlike Christians, we accept the insights of science.”
Harley bristled and said, “Well, unlike some Christians.” He had to take a stand if he wasn’t going to lose all control. “We Methodists are not anti-science.”
“We will not attack someone unless we are attacked,” she said. “Have you ever heard of Patrick Stewart?”
“The actor?” asked Harley, confused.
“No, the serviceman who was killed in Afghanistan. He was the first witch to die in combat. His helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, back in 2006.”
“That’s too bad.”
“He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Witches will serve their country and will attack if they are attacked. We will curse someone, but only if we are cursed.” Kelly stared at him with her deep green eyes, giving him a long, probing look. “Unfortunately,” she said, “we are being attacked and cursed.”
“I don’t support that,” said Harley, wondering who or what she was referencing.
“We will restore the balance,” Kelly said with determination. “We have the power. You can share that with all of your Christian friends.” Then she put her hands on her hips and did a swiveling stretching motion, causing the muscles in her legs to ripple. “And now, pastor,” she said, “I need to get started on my run. Enjoy this beautiful afternoon.”
Harley was left wondering: What does it mean to live in harmony with the Earth? He knew that some kind of balance was the key to a sustainable future. But for him, witchcraft was not the path.