Local Witch Embraces Pagan New Year
The outspoken high priest of a Santa Cruz coven is on a campaign to bust the myths about witchcraft
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by Georgia Perry on Oct 30, 2012
Birch at the Sacred Grove Shop (Photo by Chip Scheuer)
It’s 3am on a Saturday morning, and I’m on the roof of my house screaming bloody hell. It is a scream as big and wild as a tornado. One that comes from the darkest, twistiest knot of terror at the core of me. It is the scream of death.
I am wailing at my friend, the one who gave me this funny mixture of herbs to smoke, and who is now holding me in his arms, soothing me as if I were a toddler.
In American culture, there’s no situation we are more uncomfortable thinking about—and therefore more ruefully unprepared for—than death. Now here I am, on a roof, simulating death with my friend, the accidental shaman.
The next afternoon I run into my next-door neighbors in the driveway. They ask me if everything is okay. I awkwardly laugh and apologize profusely, extending my hand. The wife takes it, but the husband turns his baby away from me, and nods stiffly.
“My neighbors,” I tell my friend later, “think I’m a witch.”
The Dark Half
Real witches, I later learn, aren’t so scared of death. In fact, they celebrate it, especially around Halloween.
“Traditionally it’s the season of death. It’s the dark half of the year starting,” says Birch, owner of the Sacred Grove witchcraft shop in Seabright. Sahmain (pron. Sow-an, like the Danzig band) is their New Years Eve, as it marks the beginning of winter and the end of summer. Witches believe that the veil between our world and the spirit world is thinnest around Sahmain, making it easier to contact spirits and ancestors who have died.
“It’s all about death rituals and our ancestors and psychic readings and divination,” he says. “All that stuff’s kinda dark and spooky to people.”
Born Michael Correll, Birch isn’t all that offended by mainstream society’s perception of witches— in fact, he goes with it, wearing more black this time of year. As far as reporters who, um, only want to talk to him at Halloween, he’s understanding: “It is our spooky time of year, and it’s when people think about witches.”
Slice of Life
Birch, 47, normally wears a uniform of a black fedora, a black t-shirt and three silver necklaces: a pentagram, “some Italian horn,” and a Cimaruta—an Italian protective charm in the shape of a rue plant. When I go into Sacred Grove to meet him, I’m relieved to see he is drinking a large coffee and his coworker is eating a slice of pizza. There’s already so much emphasis on being impeccably organic here in Santa Cruz, I could only imagine what the followers of a nature-based religion ate for lunch. Turns out, this witch is pretty laid back.
The High Priest of a Santa Cruz coven, Birch also leads a monthly full moon ritual at Seabright Beach and teaches the basics of witchcraft on YouTube through Sacred Grove’s online “WitchSkewl.”
I ask him how he became a witch, and he says it happened about the time he was 9 years old, when he was bedridden for several days with a really bad flu and high fever.
“Something happened,” he says, “And I understood things way beyond my measure.” He tried to relay what he’d realized to his Catholic parents—something along the lines of, “I am God, you are God, we are all manifestations of God who came to Earth to have the flesh experience.” It didn’t go so well.
“I basically got to say, ‘I am God’ and then they slapped me.”
That was the end of that—until he was 13, and he stumbled into a witch shop called Eye of the Cat in his hometown of Long Beach. For years before that, he had spent most of his free mental energy developing his own religion in his head, based on the epiphanies he encountered during his flu. At Eye of the Cat, he was surprised to find that the thing he thought up on his own was actually already a religion: Witchcraft.
By 14, Birch was teaching witchcraft to his “little punk rock friends.” Eventually, he made his way to Santa Cruz, which he says is a spillway of the huge San Francisco witchcraft and pagan scene, itself home to at least a few thousand witches, according to Glenn Turner, owner of Ancient Ways Pagan Emporium in Oakland.
“Other than Salem, the Bay Area has been where witches come to from other parts of the country while fleeing persecution,” Birch says. “We don’t tend to have much of that [persecution] here.” He knocks on a wood coffee table.
But when they do encounter haters, there is one functional rule of thumb all witches learn at one point or another, according to Birch: “What we learn is to shut the hell up. Don’t talk to them. They’re not going to get it,” he says.
Witchcraft is not to be confused with Wicca, which Birch calls “the PR campaign of Witchcraft”—to him, it’s a watered-down version of an ancient religion, bent on appeasing the general public and their many misconceptions and fears. On the other hand, Witchcraft is associated with Paganism, which is used as an umbrella term for any nature-based religion. Ancient Witchcraft is as complex as any religion, but is generally recognizable to the outside public by its believers’ use of magick (spelled that way to distinguish it from sleight-of-hand entertainments).
I ask Birch to describe a practical spell relevant to our life in Santa Cruz: A person is in need of a house. With Santa Cruz’s vice-tight rental market, what’s a witch to do? A Christian would likely respond by praying for help from God or, if the situation was dire, asking the congregation to pray in his behalf. A witch might take matters into his own hands, and risk a trespassing violation to do so.
“A spell to get housing would involve making incense and burning a brown candle. Then using a lode stone with three drops of your blood on it and burying it in the yard of the house you are aiming for,” he says.
A “life-affirming nature religion,” according to Birch, Witchcraft focuses on the changes of the seasons and operates under the belief that when humans attune themselves to the natural cycles of nature, they can harness that natural energy to make things happen. Hence, magick, which Birch describes as “causing change in accordance of will.”
When I told my rooftop shaman friend I was writing a story about witchcraft he asked, “Don't witches only do bad things?”
“That’s like saying Christians only do good things,” says Birch.
There is black magic, which is probably what my friend was thinking of—doing a spell to bring harm to someone else, or even make someone love you against his will. When people come into Sacred Grove with those sorts of ideas, Birch and his staff try to steer them in a more productive direction. For example, rather than a spell to cause harm on an enemy, it’s better to cast a protection spell for yourself.
But the basic elements are the same. “You can hex with the same stuff you use to heal,” says Birch. “The energy used in magic is similar to electricity—it can be used to light and heat your house, or it can be used to strap somebody to a chair and end their life.”
Birch uses YouTube videos, of which he’s made over 100, as a way to both stick up for witchcraft and take digs at some other, more conventionally accepted ways of viewing the world. For example, one Christmas he donned antlers (Pagan religions like Witchcraft recognize a horned hunter God) pointed a cigar at the camera, and addressed Jesus directly: “You were one of us, not one of them…It seems obvious to me that you were trying to teach us how to do magick, rather than beg our father for magic…Happy alleged birthday, zombie Jesus! May you die and rise from the grave and bring us presents, Easter eggs, something, God. I’m confused about that.”
Of the Bible, he says, “There’s a lot there if you read it metaphorically so that all the people can be looked at as planets and celestial bodies.” For example, the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection, he believes, is lifted from the way the sun settles in the same spot for three days on the stars of the Southern Cross at the winter solstice—a time of year pagans recognize as the death of the sun god, who dies and is reborn every year.
Some of his statements are definitely meant to provoke a response, and have a tone of animosity. Birch even claims it’s historically documented that witches, who “hexed Hitler,” are the true winners of World War II: “Russia likes to say they beat Hitler. The Allies like to say they beat Hitler. The historic fact is winter beat Hitler. We see that as a direct answer from our Goddess.”
Birch says the misconceptions about his religion, and the persecution his people have faced for generations, is immense. A couple misconceptions that he believes it’s important to clear up are that the ingredients in spells, such as “eye of newt” and “ear of lamb” were just folk names for plants—witches never used actual newt and lamp body parts. By the same token, “Blood sacrifice” more often meant three drops of your own blood. Virgin sacrifice meant sacrificing someone’s virginity.
Birch says witchcraft as a tradition emphasizes equality between all living things. “We don’t sacrifice animals,” he says. “Or humans, for that matter.”
Under the Moon
I went to Sacred Grove’s monthly full moon ritual at the end of September. Held on Seabright Beach just after sunset, it’s where local witches and pagans gather to sing, recite sacred words, and ask the full moon for the things they need.
About 25 of us stood in a large circle, and Birch walked into the middle of the group. He greeted everyone, then took out his guitar and began to strum. For those of us who were attending the ritual for the first time, he offered this sage advice: “Don’t look like a cult, but just do what everyone else is doing.” A woman with long, curly hair and a shawl crouched on the ground and blew a conch shell skyward with gusto. Birch began to walk around the circle and sing, and at each verse the group turned to face a different direction.
When the song ended we all sat, and Birch proclaimed, “Now it is time for sacred bullshit.”
“When you have need of anything, once a month it best of be when the moon is full, we shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me,” Birch said. In pagan religions, he later explained to me, the moon is representative of the goddess Diana. As legend has it in Europe in the 1300’s, witches were being persecuted by the Catholic church and would gather in small groups, led by Diana’s daughter Aradia, who “arrived on a beam of light from the heavens,” to ask the moon for protection.
Birch has us walk down to where the tide breaks and draw a visual representation of a problem we’d like the moon to unburden us of in the wet, claylike sand. He tells us to draw it, then briskly walk away and let the moon-soaked ocean wash away our pain.
Probably it was a placebo effect, but I felt lighter afterwards. Sometimes if you put a strong enough intention into anything, you can get what you want. For the rest of the ritual we drank wine from paper cups, ate store-bought leaf cookies and talked. Santa Cruz has about the nicest witches you could ask for.
After the ritual and back in my daily life, there s one thing Birch told me that sticks out. Fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear that my neighbors will call County Mental Health on me and I’ll be shipped away to an institution without even figuring out somebody to watch my cat while I m gone—these things invade my consciousness all too often. But Birch told me the reason we’re here is to have the flesh experience. So I figure: hey, I have flesh. I guess I’m qualified.
The Sacred Grove will offer beginners witchcraft classes at the shop beginning in December.