An Interview with the Permaculturist and “Alchemist” Willi Paul, with Ross Wolfe (from April 4th, 2011)

Ross Wolfe: First things first: an introduction. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about yourself. What kind of work do you do? Could you sketch out, briefly, some of your principal concerns and misgivings regarding modernity?

Willi Paul: My work is to publish and teach thru my network that includes Planetshifter.com Magazine, openmythsource.com – and a new site called sacredpermaculture.net – to support a post crash transition and to help the build a healthy planet for all life on future Earth. I am almost finished with my first two tools for a sacred permaculture: a new symbolic language for the coming tribes and a second myth generator.

Modernity is not a word I use these days but my reaction to the present slate of war making, materialism, greed and lack for human respect is as follows:

Technology will not save us.
Big business really only cares about their profits. The environment is either a greenwash advert or a cost of making profits.
The environment is only here to serve our material needs.
The lack of a common definition and actionizing around the sacred will be our downfall.
All of the traditional religions – west and the east – have failed us and need to be replaced by a global, Nature-base spirituality.

RW: You have mentioned in a comment on my blog that “[a] dire lack of the sacred is the real crisis.” In Rudolf Otto’s 1920 work, The Idea of the Holy, he described the holy or the sacred as that which is numinous, as that which stood under the aspect of the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans. For him, the experience of the sacred included elements of awefulness (literally “filled with awe”), overpoweringness (majestas), and dire urgency. Not only that, but that the feeling was also “wholly other,” as that which feels completely otherworldly, beyond description. At the same time, however, the sacred fascinates the subject who experiences it as well.

Otto diagnosed that the modern age suffered from an acute lack of this feeling of the holy, the sacred, as if the world had been desacralized. So it would seem that your belief that the crisis of our age is its universal profanity has some precedent. In light of Otto’s description, how exactly would you define “the sacred”? How does one experience the sacred? Finally, how does the sacred manifest itself in the world? In objects, practices, or flights of fancy?

WP: My own understanding and practice of the sacred has evolved from my 300+ interviews with thought leaders on PlanetShifter.com Magazine. I seem to be working around the edges of a new definition – please see my model of the sacred:

The best that I can offer today is that the way to the sacred is an integration between new myths, permaculture and several new types of alchemy. To be honest, I am seeking a new sacred, without the dogma, brain-dead ritual or money-centered traditions of traditional religions.

I feel something sacred coming now, perhaps through the soil, the stars or our empowered hearts. We need to work the new sacred and be open to a new consciousness that comes with it. Think Nature as sacred for now.

RW: You have said, furthermore, that “a new alchemy/mythology for a sacred in permaculture has my heart,” that this is one of your primary motivations. Let us begin with the subject of alchemy. What is your definition of “alchemy”? What is its relation to the long alchemical tradition of past ages?

For example, would you agree with the one of the greatest authorities on all things alchemy, the famous alchemist Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, pseudonym Paracelsus, that “[a]lchemy can render poison salubrious”?

Would you furthermore agree with him that the alchemist “understands nature itself as the bearer of a macrocosmic stomach or archeus”?

WP: My leap into things alchemic started with a life changing interview with internationally renowned author, lecturer and alchemist Dennis William Hauck for PlanetShifter.com Magazine.

As my instinct and innovation on this subject evolved, including many sound scape / alchemy experiments, I am now touting the following types of alchemy to support the global leap in consciousness now under way:

Imaginative : This alchemy excites and creates our ideas, conflicts and even prayers in our brains.

Eco : Seeds, soil, plants and animals living, birthing and dying in a inter-related system pulsed by eco alchemy.

Shamanic : This is alchemy transmutates healing through ceremonies and rituals lead by a trained spiritual leader.

Sound or Sonic : The ancient alchemic power of song from cave rants to classical music and rock’n’roll.

Digital : Electronic learning and feeling working with computers including chat text, email and documents.

Community : People working with people: transforming attitudes, sharing ideas and making plans.

Earth : Planetary consciousness building and human evolution on a universal scale.

I would hasten to add here that most of the “stone to gold alchemy” of the past has no interest to me now. Alchemy is transmutation on many levels, a process and not the end result. To me alchemy is a new glue for the revolution.

RW: Moving on to the other element of your statement, let us address the topic of mythology. It was the three Tübingen seminary roommates Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin who first called for the establishment of a new mythology to replace the old, now that the Scientific Revolution had disenchanted nature. They drew up drafts of an early philosophy of mythology. Only Schelling ended up seeing it through, thirty years later.

In Weber’s use of the term, “[I]ncreasing intellectualization and rationalization does not mean increasing general knowledge of the conditions under which we live our lives…It means the knowledge or belief that if we only wanted to we could learn at any time that there are, in principle, no mysterious unpredictable forces in play, but that all things — in principle — can be controlled through calculation. This, however, means the disenchantment of the world. No longer, like the savage, who believed that such forces existed, do we have to resort to magical means to gain control over or pray to the spirits.”

Though capitalism has its metaphysical and fetishistic character in the form of commodities, it has generally led to a further disenchantment of the world. Nothing is sacred to it. Is this why you propose, as many have before, a new mythology? What would this new mythology look like? A potpourri of deities picked and chose from past mythologies, or the invention of entirely new deities? Does it require a story, or mythos?

WP: You can read my six new myths and call me to the carpet for a debate! Children can now write the new myths, using digital and other alchemy. There is no intelligentsia in my mythic vision. The old classic myths are withered and are at best examples of story structure and other authoring principles. Clearly Joseph Campbell’s mythic tools are still as vibrant as ever – initiation, journey and the hero.

As my model clearly shows, new myth + permaculture (a primarily source for new symbols, songs, stories, heros, etc.) + the new alchemies produce the new sacred.

RW: Your work seems to draw heavily upon Bill Mollison’s Gaia Manifesto, as well as a book he authored on permaculture. As you yourself have written, “To me, permaculture is more than design principles like those in sun angles, crop selection, drainage patterns or roof top grasses, and must include a spiritual connection so I journeyed to discover how the Mollison’s ideas juxtapose with the my work in the new alchemy, new Nature-based myths and the search for the sacred.”

Why do you think that some permaculturalists engage in their work without this inchoate feeling of the sacred, without a spiritual dimension? Do you believe that they can ever truly practice permaculture without these components? Would you encourage them to explore the more spiritual side of permaculture, in terms of myth-making and alchemical experimentation?

WP: My new relationship and recent video conversation with Permaculture Editor Maddy Harland has revealed an interesting controversy in the permaculture movement. It seems that many permaculturists in the UK want to stay away from the spiritual aspect of the field due to a concern with the conservative land use laws and government zoning process. I also understand that some do not wish to be seen as Burning Man types.

My position on the sacred in permaculture and the long-term security of the plant have been address already here.

RW: You have furthermore claimed that “[m]agic and mystery remain as dynamic and positive a force for many moving forward.” What do you mean by magic and the mysterious properties of things? How exactly are they registered as a force? Are they demonstrably magical and mysterious? And do they not admit of scientific explanation, which would thereby demystify and disenchant them?

WP: Any “force” that gets us to an sacred, beyond the idiocy in politics, the greed in war making, and the crap on TV is worth considering, yes? It is true that my sacred comes with new beliefs (not science) about environmental protection, imagination (i.e. magic) and the rest of the new consciousness. Humans have much to experience – in a hurry!

RW: You yourself have posed the following questions: “Isn’t Nature inherently sacred to many? Is sacred in Nature a lens that we use to protect her? Obviously Nature is not sacred at all in many traditional religions – she is just a collection of raw materials to use up before the planet blows up and God call some of us to go to Heaven!”

How do you account for those religions that treat Nature as just a source of raw materials to be utilized by mankind? How must the alchemical permaculturalist orient himself (or herself) to these religions? As false? As blasphemous?

WP: We need to get on the same page, forgive the sins of our Fathers and get on with the task of building a new, post-crash future. We need everybody to make this happen. I hope that the hard-core permies will soon be traveling to the backyards of the world to turn over the sod and educate us on the soil alchemies.

We are running out of time.

RW: To what extent do you believe that nature is a thing-in-itself that inherently remands our “respect”? Inversely, to what extent do you believe nature can be fundamentally transformed by the will and technologies of men, who have gained such mastery over the natural world?

WP: I keep hearing me thinking this these days: Nature will survive the crash but it’s the human that will be extinct soon with some practical and global process to a new sacred.

Men + technology = profit + environmental destruction. Period.

RW: Is the central problem of our age spiritual, or does it have to do with the structure of our society? Might the spiritual crisis you detect not be an ideological representation of an underlying problem in our socioeconomic substructure?

WP: Well, to be redundant, profit is the over-arching problem here. I can’t wait to see the rich folks in Hillsborough bartering their processions in the post-crash economy!

RW: Closing now, would you like to add a few words in light of our discussion and interview thus far? What is the overall message you would like to convey to our readers about man’s relationship to nature?

WP: Many in my circle view the current smoldering meanderings from the old myths as in dire need of a refreshed power center – free from the burden of the withering storylines in old plots, online game slaughters, and our twittering kindergardens. My quick scan of mythic sites includes the home page of the Institute for Cultural Change (formerly the Foundation for Mythological Studies), which does mention sustainability, as well as MYTHOS for Creatives, working a global culture-based view. And, of course, Joseph Campbell Foundation is still blessed with the Hero’s Journey and Initiation from Mr. Campbell. But myth needs a new spiritual search engine to go with the Internet. This new story base and vision map is permaculture and the new alchemy and sense of the sacred that comes with it.

— from the April 2011 Joseph Campbell Foundation web site (jcf.org) posting: “Mother, Sun, and the Compost Pile: Integrating Permaculture with the New Alchemy, New Mythologies, and the Sacred” by Willi Paul, Associate

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