A local friend suggested I read “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” so that some of us could form a book discussion group about the ideas and vision of this novel. Although it took me awhile to get into the characters, I quickly saw why my friend has read this book three times and counting. It’s filled with permaculture principles, magick, natural healing, and the tension between totalitarian dystopia and a power-from-within ecotopia based upon respect, not control.
I found Starhawk’s text incredibly prophetic, even when I thought it was written in 2005. My admiration tripled when I noticed a publication date of 1993! In 2013, as we face nuclear and toxic poisoning of the Pacific Ocean, a no longer hidden Police State, genetic manipulation, a transhumanist agenda, biological warfare, and increasingly intense weather events –both natural and human-aggravated — the setting of this novel in 2048 feels rather optimistic.
Once I managed to get a handle on the characters, I found the book difficult to put down. As the narrative continued, I realized that the initial ambiguities and confusion about gender, age and physical markers, actually contribute to and underscore the tale. As readers, we quickly find ourselves overwhelmed in and by a post-collapse world, unsure exactly which collapse triggered which events, but gradually recognizing the effects of long-term trauma and difficult life. Things the 20th and early 21st centuries took for granted have not been available for at least a generation, and the ripple effects of such deprivations reach much further than minor or anticipated inconvenience.
At the same time, we find that some things in this future society function much more harmoniously than in our current one. In the absence of cars, trucks and planes, this culture has compensated for its isolation by cultivating the individual gifts of each member of the community — art, music, healing, science, cooking, dreaming and psychic defense. Everyone gardens and participates in seasonal rituals, and the society bases itself around the premise that the Four Sacred Things (fire, water, air, earth) are so sacred that they cannot be privately owned. “May you never hunger; may you never thirst” is a phrase used in real-life pagan gatherings, but in “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” this concept forms the basis of an entire political system! No one goes hungry, and no one goes without water.
As the plot rolls on, we see just how innovative and special this city’s solutions are. Contrast via epic journeys to the Southlands shows us that — despite the obvious challenges up North in 2048 — things could be (and are) much worse elsewhere. The characters face horrific trials that force them to question not only their own morals and philosophies, but also the very essence of what it means to be human. Readers with rigid ideas about sexuality, self-defense, magick, religion, medicine, technology, and the occult will likely find themselves extremely challenged as they journey with the characters. Author Starhawk practices the Reclaiming Tradition, which combines one’s spirituality with non-violent political activism. Throughout her novel, we witness the effectiveness of non-violent resistance, as well as its limitations. The characters’ reactions and struggles force us to evaluate our own fixed ideals, hypocrisy, privilege and irresponsibility. We see on every level how each small action affects the whole of Creation, often in dramatic and unforeseen ways.
I particularly enjoyed all the manifested visualizations, herbal and energetic healing, as well as the key roles played by bees and crystals. Since I have personally made a decision to use magickal self-defense rather than violence should the SHTF, I enjoyed reading about various techniques — many of which I recognized as real, not fiction. In the acknowledgments, Starhawk confirms how thoroughly she researched this book, including Native teachings, along with actual songs, chants, techniques and rituals.
If you’ve ever wondered, “What would I do if society collapsed on multiple levels at once? Does it need to be ‘every man for himself,’ or can (must) we find ways to work together in community? Would we really be stronger together than apart? What does magick have to do with a fully functioning human, and how do I access multi-generational healing?” then “The Fifth Sacred Thing” deserves a place on your bookshelf. You will want to read it again and again, tracking your own growth as you face its challenges. If, on the other hand, you prefer to rest in the hazy halls of denial and wish to cling to the patriarchal status quo, then drop this book like a hot potato! You cannot engage “The Fifth Sacred Thing” and remain unchanged.