The World is a Forest, Not a High Rise

This essay is on ontology, and anyone who’s spent five minutes talking with me knows that I don’t really care for that much. I find it, at best, irrelevant, and at worst actively pernicious, backing people into corners that they must then act from. Trying to figure out where something comes from, if it’s a constant, is much less useful than figuring out how to interact with it and how we tend to think of it.

However, this post is, as I said, just that. It’s not that I don’t have ideas about the spiritual ontology of the world, I just don’t prioritize them so much. This is more common than you might think: anthropologists have recorded some indigenous groups saying that they do technically have a creator god somewhere, but they’re not usually prayed to — to the point that many won’t know the god’s name. Now, please, keep in mind that’s some studies of some groups, not a blanket statement about all indigneous peoples. I’m just pointing it out to demonstrate that while I may be a crazy person, I’m not that crazy.

Basically, the problem for me with many contemporary religious, magical, and Hermetic conceptions of the source of all things, the capital g God. The Big Boss, is that, well, it’s a god, a Big Boss. This isn’t exactly rare. In fact, it’s fairly common. So when I say to you that I don’t find it satisfying, I’m not exactly criticizing anyone who does. This essay probably won’t change anybody’s mind. But all magicians should practice thinking with multiple world views when they get the chance, right?

The Primum Mobile

As I said, the idea that the source of things is a god is widespread. Apart from your day to day monotheisms, you’ve got Platonism, hermeticism, and even some forms of things like druidry or general esoterica. I presumably know very little that these groups, traditions, and organizations didn’t already consider, so let’s just assume I’m aware of how far afield I may be wandering.

Here’s a simple version of what I learned in school when we discussed this issue: it’s reasonable to assume a prime mover for things. If stuff came from somewhere, there has to be a somewhere from which it came. Now, spoiler, I don’t buy the prime mover argument. But it’s an important part of the reasoning behind the Big Boss.

You reach a point, eventually where you have to stop the chain. Despite what Bertrand Russell learned from the lady in his audience, it can’t be elephants all the way down. So, if you already live in a society that believes things are caused by an agency similar to the human, you say there’s a prime mover, and that it’s a Big Boss, an architect, who designed everything with a greater or a lesser degree of specificity (some Christians will say God knows when birds will fall, whereas some Hermetic texts say God delegated most of creation to various spirits).

What I’m saying is that that image has never sat right with me. Why is it a Big Boss? I genuinely do not understand how a person looks around at the world and says "some spirit designed all this, and they’re just like the guy who designed the local school with all the bathrooms at one end and no ramps at the entrances."

That’s glib, but I really do mean it: I don’t look around and think that this world must have been designed by a master intelligence. In fact, I look around and see that it could not have come into being that way.

Please note that doesn’t mean I’m denying the existence of "Source," or that said Source is enspirited. It’s like a river, that’s all.

We Live in the River

Now, I want to be clear that I know many magicians and occultists don’t think that the Source or the One is a spirit in the traditional way of thinking of things. I get that. But there is still a lot of descriptions of the world being made as though it’s constructed and I do not believe that is the right model. The world was grown, not made. More specifically, it has come to be the way we see it today through interlocking systems influencing one another.

Think of it like this: in a river we will find carp and catfish and bass and gar. Carp and bass fill similar niches, eating the same things — mostly bugs, but algae and so forth. Catfish are bottom feeders, so they eat everything from bugs to dead fish decaying on the river bottom. Gar are predators who eat other fish.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: the presence of those four fish in the river does not imply a fifth fish, an ur-fish, a Big Bass who made them all. It implies the river.

Now we have a chance to investigate something really interesting: a spirit responsible for the lives within it that did not design them, did not make them. The river is most assuredly enspirited, trust me on this. I’m thinking of a particular river, and so of course can recall its many moods. But all rivers are enspirited. So we can still generalize. The fish live within the demesne of the river, who, itself, lives within the demesne of the local geography: mountains and valleys, sometimes shaped in tandem with the river itself, shape the river’s course.

The river flows by certain soil deposits and washes some away. The river bottom, as well as its banks, become fertile. Trees and bushes grow along the river, shading it and providing nesting grounds for birds. Standing water, becalmed by the tree roots extending into the river, provide places for insects to lay eggs. The eggs and the insects provide food for fish. The fish keep the insect populations controlled, so they don’t overcompete for food and starve. The catfish keep the water and the soil from putrefying.

Now, look, I understand that a great many people are going to read that and say it must be by design. But no, it doesn’t have to be. Simple rules of growth governed it all. Lives lived in tandem led to mutual flourishing.

If you want an ethical lesson from this essay, by the way, that’s it: modeling the world as a constructed hierarchy can lead to certain thinking patterns about how to improve things. It’s not inevitable, but just possible. If it’s a mutual flourishing, a network of lives propping up other lives simultaneously, a kind of card trick that never ends, then you don’t make anything. You simply support something, and it will go on to do the same.

If the world, the world-soul, is like the river, then it didn’t make things, it simply supported all things as they made themselves — as a group effort, mind you, not some sort of nihilistic bootstrapping nonsense.


It’s finally time to talk about rhizomes. A rhizome, at its simplest, is a root structure in certain plants, from which shoots could grow at any point. The root system works in nodes, essentially. So if you cut the plant off and remove the shoots, new shoots will appear. If you dig up the roots but leave a single node somewhere, new roots, and then new shoots, will appear.

And there are even cooler things out there. Whole forests have joined together at the level of their roots, creating a network. Trees can and do send nutrients to other trees that are suffering. Information appears to be carried through these dendritic networks, too. My point is, I suppose, obvious enough that I shouldn’t belabor it too much: this is the way the world works. The world is a network of life, a mutually flourishing system made of smaller systems. I not only see no evidence to assume the spiritual world is different, I see overt evidence that the spiritual world must work this way. Everything from the spread of ideas as thought forms, egregores, memes, superheroes… to the effects of magic itself, which almost always seems to act through a route we didn’t expect, a connection we didn’t consider. It’s good practice, before any spell, to consider the routes by which the asked-for boon could arrive to you. The more, the better. So the more nodes in your network, the more avenues the magic has to act on your behalf.

If there were a Big Bass atop a big pyramid, then the avenues through which magic acted wouldn’t be as significant. Like an order from a CEO, the boon would just arrive, wouldn’t it?

Notes on closing

First, most obviously, this essay is almost certainly not going to change anyone’s mind. And as I said in the beginning, I don’t really care that much about ontology, so I don’t need it to. But a magician should always have many maps of the world, many models of things. This is another one, and I do believe it will be beneficial to you to have this model in your head even if you don’t refer to it all that often.

Second, the brief mention of rhizomes is inspired by the philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari, who use the rhizome as an image to push back against the generally hierarchical metaphysics of western philosophy. I say "inspired by" because I’m not really delving deeply into their work for this essay, though if you find it interesting, you should certainly do so.

Third, yes, the essay’s title is a Le Guin joke.

Fourth, you might wonder if there’s any practical upshot to this, and I think there have been a few. Technically, buried in the initiation ceremony that I performed when I joined OBOD, there is a reference to something that looks a lot like a prime mover. I ignore that, and hilariously, so do all the other rituals, though they’re written in such a way as to give you freedom to be praying to whatever entity you wish.

I was recently in the midst of a ritual that was very overtly Hermetic, with references to the Prime Mover, "whom nature hath not formed," and unbidden, my mind began to feed me new prayers, referring to the "Wholeness." The words "wholeness" and "holiness" are etymologically linked, and so I had already drawn that connection in my mind. But I hadn’t revised anything based on that idea. I am cautiously beginning to now. The world is a Whole, and no part can be removed from it without affecting anything else.

It’s rare for the common understanding of a poem to peg its core meaning, I think, but with this famous John Donne poem we managed it:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were:
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

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