As the bride in her gleaming white dress poured kerosene from her drip torch onto a pile of grass and lit it on fire, I wondered if this ritual was a first for an American wedding. I was standing just a few feet away in my black suit, trying to move as little as possible in the humid ninety-degree Wisconsin heat. I imagined myself being subject to a threat level assessment by a fantastical Department of Homeland Perspiration, and tried to limit my sweating at “significant” to avoid an “obscenely profuse” designation. I wasn’t the groom or the best man, but the officiant. The honor to preside over the ceremony had been bestowed upon me by the bride and groom, two close friends of mine. My only credentials were that they thought I would do a good job, and that I took sixty seconds to enter my name and e-mail address and click a button that essentially said “Ordain Me!” on the website for the Universal Life Church. I could have furthered my authority by purchasing a Wallet Credential for $13.99, a Dr. of Metaphysics Certificate for $32.99, or if I was really serious, a Ministry-in-a-Box package for $139.99, but decided against the cost. My anxiety that I would be marrying my friends illegally (without even a shiny new Wallet Credential) led me to scour the Wisconsin marriage statutes and contact the county clerk’s office. I was assured that freedom of religion was paramount in Wisconsin, and they wouldn’t investigate the sincerity of my religious practice. The county clerk did send me a letter from the attorney general, however, warning that “The use of ‘none,’ ‘not applicable’ or fictitious Officiant titles such as Jedi Knight, etc. cannot be accepted.” I vowed that day not to wear my Yoda costume to the wedding.
I also vowed that day to do the best possible job I could of helping my friends Ann and Brandon have a meaningful and joyous ceremony. Neither of them had grown up in a traditional organized religion but rather in a mishmash of vague Protestantism and secular humanism. Like many middle-class white Americans, including myself, they’d spent their lives in what sociologist Wade Clark Roof calls the “spiritual marketplace,” searching for personal meaning and a community of people who shared their values.1 They had each found a great deal of meaning dedicating their lives to environmental conservation. When they began planning their wedding, they knew they wanted to incorporate the deep connection to land and the environmental values so central to their lives but it wasn’t clear how to do that. They realized they needed to create some sort of ceremony or ritual, and invited me to help. This invitation got me wondering: how does one design a new ritual? What makes rituals meaningful? Do rituals and environmental values even make sense together? The three of us started experimenting, and I began looking for scholars and writers who might help answer these questions.
Since Ann and Brandon didn’t belong to a traditional religious community, the primary models for designing a new ritual were other people’s weddings. For those of us who have been to several American weddings, there’s a lot of chaff to sort through when trying to find something meaningful, in large part because of the influence of the wedding industry. Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day helped me understand just how pervasive the wedding industry is: since the turn of the twentieth century a plethora of wedding planners, bridal magazines, dress manufacturers, caterers, photographers, and other eager businesses worth $161 billion have transformed weddings from rites of passage that celebrate arrival into a new communal phase of life with family and friends into rites that cement a lifestyle of consumerism. I also learned from this book about entrepreneurs such as Joyce Gioia, a “freelance wedding minister” who designs custom ceremonies in the New York metropolitan area for a thousand dollars a pop by assembling a smorgasbord of religious readings and rituals, sometimes “unzipping” and re-zipping the “aura” of participants. She’s also conducted baseball-themed ceremonies where she was dressed as an umpire and the guests sang “Take Me Out the Ball Game.”2
I wasn’t interested in emulating Gioia’s quirky and unsettling capitalization of wedding ritual, but I was interested in helping my friends in their ritual innovation. We didn’t want something that felt contrived, nor did we want to construct a bastardized version of some rite poached from another culture. Ann and Brandon wanted to create something that felt meaningful for them but would also make sense to their friends and family who might be expecting something more traditional. They wanted a ritual that would perform their values but that would also be interwoven in the social, spiritual, and ecological fabric of their lives. I would later learn from reading religious studies scholarship that these challenges weren’t unique to us. One such scholar, Catherine Bell, has noted that the very idea of ritual innovation is a kind of paradox: “part of the dilemma of ritual change lies in the simple fact that rituals tend to present themselves as the unchanging, time-honored customs of an enduring community.”3 Yet as I learned from Ronald Grimes, another expert on ritual, weddings are one important event for many Americans where ritual innovation has become legitimized. He warns, however, that creating meaningful rituals that aren’t hackneyed or appropriated from other cultures is difficult. Doing so requires considerable reflection, self-awareness, and willingness to wrestle with the broader social and spiritual context of ritual—what he calls “attentive observation, imaginative improvisation, and honest evaluation.”4
Through reading and reflection, I realized that designing or participating in a ritual asks us to consider not just how it helps us make meaning in our own lives, but also how it engages larger moral and political implications.5 While Ann and Brandon were pondering what would be meaningful for their wedding, I started thinking about what other sorts of “environmental” rituals already existed and how they worked in broader social contexts: hikers placing cairns at the top of mountain trails, eaters saying a blessing before a meal, or even the practice of recycling. Recycling in particular, a practice in which I participate and support, seems meaningful because it manifests one’s sense of responsibility to limit waste. But it also can be a way of enacting power, taking on a darker moralistic flavor through which the recycler is distinguished as morally superior to the non-recycler, sometimes in ridiculous ways.
A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to northern India and decided to go on a guided tour through Ranthambore National Park. While sitting in a jeep just outside the park with a handful of other privileged white tourists, we were approached by some local people hoping to sell us food, hats, and t-shirts. One of the vendors opened a package of food, stuck the food in his mouth, and dropped the package on the ground. A middle-aged tourist in our jeep immediately started berating the vendor, telling him he should be recycling such packages or at least dropping them in a waste bin. She was disgusted that he was defiling the national park with such trash. The fellow gave her an astonished look—there wasn’t a waste or recycling bin in sight, nor as far as I could tell any of the infrastructure in the area required to deal with waste in such a way. Recycling for this woman was clearly a profound ritual act of moral responsibility, but it was a ritual out of place in this context, disconnected from the everyday lives of people living near the park.
I came to understand these complexities of ritual well after Ann and Brandon’s wedding, but this has helped me make sense of why the fire ritual they created was particularly meaningful and relevant for the time and place. Ann and Brandon decided to hold their wedding in the small Wisconsin town where they’ve made their home, on a lawn sheltered by large oak trees that connoted the long history of managed oak savannas and prairie burning in the region. For the fire ritual, a circular steel platform made by Ann’s brother was placed on the ground. The mothers of the bride and groom collected dried prairie grasses from those in attendance, symbolizing the role of family and friends in the ongoing process of renewal in the marriage, and placed them on the platform. Before Ann and Brandon took up their drip torches and lit the assembled grass, I narrated the next piece of the ceremony: “The grass will quickly turn into ash. The water, carbon, nitrogen, and other elements united in these grasses by sunlight will be released, making them available for new life. The ashes will be spread underneath the bur oak before us so that the oak can turn them into new wood, new leaf, and new acorns—the seeds of a new generation in the cycle.” The sight of Ann in her white dress and Brandon in his suit was quite striking, both holding rugged fire crew gear against the backdrop of a raging fire. I wasn’t sure what their families thought of all this, but was gratified when several people I had just met came up to me and remarked how wonderful a ceremony it was. I learned that Brandon’s mom had joked during the fire ritual, while baking in the sun: “Oh great, just what we need, more heat!” but that she also agreed it was a beautiful ceremony.
But what exactly made it so meaningful? Ronald Grimes is again helpful for answering this question. He says that the magic of ritual only works when there is, well, work behind it.6 Fire has been central to Ann and Brandon’s relationship from the beginning: they met in rural Arkansas working on a fire crew for The Nature Conservancy. As Ann tells it with a characteristic, wry sense of humor, their love blossomed on a cold, soggy September night in ill-named Hollywood, Arkansas, which was nothing but a “race car shop, a prescribed fire crew, two churches, and three old ladies.” They’ve been lighting and managing fires through their work in environmental conservation ever since, and they’ve found an amenable place for this vocation in Wisconsin. Attentiveness to place and ecological relationships has also been crucial in their lives. Walking in Wisconsin woods with them is always an education: their ability to identify essentially every plant species we encounter and to surmise plausible narratives for how the ecological community has changed over time based on evidence of prior fires, agricultural use, climate, elevation, and other factors is astonishing. The magic of the fire ritual, then, was its deep connection to Ann and Brandon’s everyday lives and their active moral and political commitments to both human and non-human communities. While their fire ritual was a special and singular event, it was contextualized within their everyday lived geography.
The experience of crafting, participating in, and reflecting upon this wedding ceremony convinced me that those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and caring about the environmental should be paying more attention to ritual. Some may be uneasy with ritual’s religious connotations. On that front, the environmental historian Thomas Dunlap and religious studies scholar Bron Taylor have argued that environmentalist practices and worldviews that blend morality, science, and a sense of something sacred do constitute religions.7 But whether we want to think of ritual within the context of “religion” or not, examining ritual can help us gain new insights about how ritualized practices like recycling are part of complex patterns of meaning and power, and engaging in the creation of ritual can help those in various environmental movements make values tangible and connect the special to the everyday.
Featured image: Wedding fire ritual. Photo by Katie DeBoer with permission, September 2013, http://www.kdeboerphotography.com.
Andy Davey is a PhD student in the Geography Department at UW-Madison. He is currently studying how and why different models of environmental ethics and education, such as Catholic stewardship, evangelical creation care, and secular environmentalism have developed at American liberal arts colleges. He is also working with community groups in the city of Madison to help facilitate place-based storytelling about food, gardening, and racial justice. Contact. Website.
Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers And The Remaking Of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.) ↩
Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling Of The American Wedding (New York: Penguin, 2008), 126-131. ↩
Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 210. ↩
Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply Into The Bone: Re-Inventing Rites Of Passage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 85. ↩
For more on the intersection of ritual and power, see Talal Asad, Genealogies Of Religion: Discipline And Reasons Of Power In Christianity And Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993.) ↩
Grimes, Deeply, 323. ↩
Thomas Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004); Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality And The Planetary Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.) ↩