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Volcanic Breath an Interview with Devin Hess of Place Based Media

Devin Hess stopped by the Hex Factory earlier this year where we took this "selfie." He has Pennsylvania Dutch lineage through his father. Devin Hess’sapproach to geographical location reminds me of my own. I grew up close to the Blue Mts in northern Berks County in Pa. The high point there was a “mountain” called the Pinnacle, around 2000’ High, stuck way out from the Blue Mt ridge and created a corner or in Pa Dutch an Eck. It was the source of a local unspoken folk religious cult.

Now I live in southern Berks and I missed the Pinnacle which was always in view in my local travels. But last Walburgisnacht I got my ‘hot spot’ back in a very local ridge of piled up rocks called “The Devil’s Hump” complete with local folklore and legend. I can see it everywhere in my local travels. And it is the new center of my worldview. Devin’s trek to his, “Three Sisters,” volcanoes within his locality in Oregon and subsequent dialogue about it spawned this interview.

1.The Three Sisters has many connotations for me starting with the Three Sisters of Wyrd, The Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, and their corresponding colors, white, red and black. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth they appear and say, “Thrice to mine and Thrice to Thine, and Thrice again to make up nine” How are these particular volcanoes, “Three Sisters?”

Well, this is a wonderful and also complex question. And one that I’ve been asking myself for quite some time now. Like many complex things, I think it requires some level of understanding of one’s own cosmology and of the myths that make up our worldviews through time and how that shapes us. So, I personally approach the question through my own understanding of the myths of the Nornir as known by our indigenous mythologies and also by the correlation of like mythologies from different cultures. Also, there is a component of historical context that must be brought in as well. The reality is that these volcanoes were not originally named after the Nornir but from a deeper and subconscious identification with universal archetypes that have expressed themselves through many different cultures, the world over, for about as far back as we can trace. 

So how are these particular volcanoes, Three Sisters?

Firstly, we are aware that there are some old indigenous myths about the volcanoes of the Cascade mountains once existing literally as people. The story goes that Klikitat (mt. adams) and Wy’east (mt. hood) were going to fight over the beautiful maiden, Loowit (mt. st. helens). Along with Coyote, the other mountain people including the three Sisters began marching from the south to help settle the quarrel. As they made their way, they got very hot and tired and chose to lay down and rest. But Coyote kept on, determined to settle the dispute. He did indeed settle the dispute by wishing and making a bridge fall and at that point all the other mountain people just decided to stay where they were resting. And thus, they became the volcanoes where they stand. That’s the short and simple version of the story, but it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that such a tale is not only a literal retelling of observed geological events that took place, but, in some part, also an allegory representing the common quarrels amongst Men.

The second story is of the first European pioneers applying an aspect of their Christianized world view to the landscape in which they named the same three mountains as the Sisters Faith, Hope, and Charity and then also named the town that sits at the base of them as “Sisters”. And so although the narrative is of a Christian mythos, in the eyes of the practicing heathen, it could equally be argued that there was an undertone of dual-faith in the naming. All across this landscape are place names that reflect our more ancient roots, such as Odin Falls. The earlier Europeans to come here, and the vast majority that are drawn here still, have Norse/Germanic roots. But regardless, these are two examples of totally different cultures applying like mythological connotations to the same set of volcanic peaks.

Now, for me personally, I can also say that growing up I recognized these three peaks as representations of something significant and as something worthy of guiding my world view that was unique and unto my own experience. However, it wasn’t until discovering the roots of my Germanic heritage and the myths that accompany that heritage that I was able to comprehend and embrace the importance allowing the power of these timeless forces to speak through me.

So, what is taking place here in Central Oregon, is a ritual re-enactment of re-mythologizing life in real time and space. And I believe that can happen many different ways, but for me it has come through in the form of three volcanoes. But the Nornir, or the fates, are just the tip of the sword that we seek, so to speak.

To take this a bit further, and as well to keep it on the Nornir and how these concepts make their way into our psyche, we could look at that Macbeth quote. “Thrice to mine and Thrice to thine, and Thrice again to make up nine” As we know, there is much magick and significance associated with the number 3. I am sure you have more knowledge of this than myself. But for me, the obvious correlation we can make is that of the holy trinity, which in many cases is represented as a triangle. The world tree Yggdrasil has three roots at which each of the 3 Nornir sit. Thurs is the 3rd rune of the futhark which is also the combination of Isa (ice) and Kenaz (fire) and it also has associations with giants or jotuns. Thurs is also the shape of a triangle or thorn. Three is the square root of 9 which may be the most significant number of the Norse/Germanic worldview. The 9 nine realms, the 9 nights Odin hung on the world tree and numerous other references in the Eddas. Hagalaz is 9th rune which has been called the mother of all runes. And, of course, volcanoes and fire are as much a creative force as they are destructive ones.

Now I know I’ve said much already but perhaps one more important aspect would be the fact that two of our three sisters are older and inactive volcanoes while the other one is younger and classified as dormant, but still actively growing. Knowing this helps provides a heightened sense of looking to the past to inform our future. They are an obvious representation of the need to actively re-mythologize our lives, understanding that culture and mythos are always in motion, never stagnant. What ‘was’ must be destroyed in order for what ‘will’ be to emerge. Living embodiments of rapid cycles of death, rebirth, and new growth. Just as this landscape is still actively being formed, so are we. This helps aid our understanding of being a young culture, of Place writing its own story and seeing ourselves as characters within that greater process.

So, finding parallels between all of these components has helped lead me toward a deeper understanding of my own path. And I don’t think that is much different than what many people have also sought to understand through the ages, which is the question of fate, the quest for sovereignty and our ability to have agency over and shape the outcome of our lives. To achieve our destiny. That is a quest so prevalent through the ages and within mythology that it almost seems to transcend time itself. And the Nornir, as weavers of fate and representations of past, present and future, are the agents and the provocateurs of such a journey.

2.Tell us about Placed Based Media.

Place Based media is a project run by myself and my wife Mealla. It began back in 2010 when we became very disenfranchised with the dominant culture as we know it and began searching for an alternative narrative to follow. What we knew that we loved was the land and what we knew that we lacked was an authentic culture that had roots in honoring and paying homage to place that provide for us. And so we began our own quest of discovery into the reasons why society seemed so disconnected from the holy aspects of nature and ultimately what the path might look like to remedy the situation. The primary ethos behind being Place Based is the concept of Bioregionalism, which as a worldview is rooted in the philosophy of nature or natural law. It means listening to the land and developing our cultures and societies by the natural rhythm and flow of each unique ecoregion on the planet. This is opposite to the abstract constructs of modern day nation states and governments that have drawn arbitrary lines on maps as a means of organizing and controlling society. Or they use only numbers to correlate what they deem valuable or not within their life place.

Bioregionalism in a way is like a blueprint for how humans have organized since time immemorial. Our ancient mythos were deeply encoded and oriented around waterways and watersheds. This can be understood when we examine rivers being named after maidens and men ritually being married to the land. This aspect was forgotten however as we were forcefully unrooted from our lands. So ultimately, Place Based Media is storytelling and story making and It is a way for us to weave ourselves back into her story.

3.Your approach to geographical location reminds me of my own. Grew up close to the Blue Mts in northern Berks County in Pa. The high point there was a “Mt” called the Pinnacle, around 2000’ High, stuck way out from the Blue Mt ridge and created a corner or in Pa Dutch an Eyck. It was the source of a local unspoken folk religious cult. Now I live in southern Berks and I missed the Pinnacle which was always in view in my local travels. But last Walburgisnacht I got my ‘hot spot’ back in a very local ridge of piled up rocks called “The Devil’s Hump” complete with local folklore and legend. I can see it everywhere in my local travels. And it is the new center of my worldview. Can you tell us specifically about your “world view”

Great question. I would say that my world view is one of reverence for the local. And that no matter where we find ourselves within the world, local customs, traditions and relationships must take precedence over global ones. It is at the local level where the deepest and most intimate understandings of ourselves and our environments takes place. It is the only place where we can truly be held accountable for actions taken by our communities and also held accountable by the land for the consequences of all of our decisions. If people are rooted and care for their roots then they will consider these things in their decision-making processes. A global society in which unrooted people are willing or able to simply run away and move on when things go bad is a culture that lacks any bit of accountability. And we see that in the consequences.

One of my favorite quotes is by John Muir, he said “the clearest way to the universe is through a forest wilderness.” That always resonated with me when I read it. and from that quote an expression I like to use is that you can’t relate to the universe through universalism. And that goes back to how everything must start with our most intimately built relationships, which is always where our deepest roots are. But that doesn’t also mean that I don’t explore and attempt to understand global and universal concepts and cultures. It just means I always try to do so first from the origins of my own locality. Which is the center of my universe. Which is always local! How could it not be? It’s very hard to view anything in the world as sacred without also having an intimate relationship with it.

In many ways, on a basic level, this is all based on natural law and tribalism. Your reference of reconnecting with a local geographical landscape is a fine example of the spirit of the land speaking through you and to you. And not just from a geographical understanding, but from a mythological one as well. This understanding to me is the true nature of humans. That for every different landscape, there is a different story. And the folklore and customs of the people who inhabit those places will be unique unto the place and her people. Within all this we can also see that people and cultures develop and evolve very differently. Although we are very similar in many ways, such as believing that particular geological ‘hot spots’ have spiritual significance, we are also very different as our stories, traditions, customs and rituals become the living representation of the land speaking through us and thus, also guiding our world view. This can never look the same anywhere! This to me, is one of the most beautiful aspects of humanity. And I think that it’s important to honor these differences and also to embrace the conflicts that come into play as a result.

Some people might read this and think it’s an argument for multiculturalism, but it is nothing of the sorts. People forget that the unique aspects of different cultures and races exist because of their ability to live and evolve in place and in exclusivity for thousands of years. Globalization and the dominant culture is ultimately eliminating people’s capacities to live and thrive by their own means without the influence from on outside ‘dominant’ culture. To me, if a country wants to live in isolation they should be able to do that. People and cultures must have the ability to succeed or fail and determine what the best way is for them to live.

But, of course the moment the consequences of one culture’s decisions start affecting my culture negatively, that’s when we have a transgression. And people must always respond accordingly.

Like I said before, this is natural law and also bioregionalism. Borders exist naturally in the world in the form of mountain ranges, rivers, oceans and deserts. Any time one crosses over a boundary, they enter into a world unfamiliar to them. A world where they don’t have intimate understandings or rituals of how to interact with that land. There may be different customs and laws or there may be information required to survive that you don’t have. This is a good thing because it keeps people humble and not thinking that they are entitled to roam wherever they please without consequences. It instills a sense of respect and also guarantees a process of initiation -or- a rites of passage that must take place in order to make introductions. There is no guarantee of acceptance that will result in a mutually beneficial relationship. Ultimately this exposes those who may only be takers or those unwilling to humble themselves. We must always respect boundaries, whether human or non-human. This understanding can be known better through the Norse concepts of Innangard and Utangard. And also, perhaps seen in some of your hex signs in which you have many circles intersecting each other. I see each of us existing individually within our own autonomous circle as well as intrinsically tied to every other circle. and we must learn to navigate through life as our circles intersect and with all the others. I hope that all makes sense.

4.I grew up in the East and spent a great deal of time in the Appalachians. Traveled out West into the Colorado Rockies and it blew my head straight off. I have this need to measure myself against a landscape, specifically mountains, so I climbed the ridge of the mountain in SW Colorado called Mt Sneffels, 14,280 ‘. I found high points were like sitting in the very center of a compass rose, all directions converged. Upon descent the slightest deviation in direction at the top could turn into miles at the bottom. what are your thoughts on your high points?

This is great! Yes, the Rockies are an overwhelmingly powerful mountain range. The great divide as it is known. Aside from my three volcanoes, I have a few other high points that I frequent that offer a 360 degree view. Your analogy of the compass rose hits home hard as that is a symbol that my father identified strongly with and one that we had engraved on his headstone. I do believe that high points are of great significance. It is in the nature of European man, especially in the spirit of adventure and exploration that calls to us to climb to these high points. This is witnessed though the feats of climbing mountains and all the way to our quest to explore the stars. In some way or another it is symbolic of seeking direction for our lives. But it is also one of seeking an experience with the divine.

A 360 degree view allows us to feel the power of the four directions which is integral to finding and developing a “sense of place”. As well, the higher we rise, the closer we find ourselves to the heavens while simultaneously still being connected to the earth. And I also think even the process of climbing a high peak is a ritualistic expression and a tool for participating in our own personal mythological act of creation. It is a micro reflection of the greater Hero’s journey of our whole lives. And we do these things because it reminds us of our participation in the extraordinary act of creation in which we find ourselves. Which is in and of itself a sacred journey, if we allow it to be. This only makes sense to me after reflecting on my own desires through my life to seek out and climb steep cliffs and face my death or sit atop a mountain peak and meditate on life’s deep questions. Something I will do for the rest of my life.

5.Additionally, my “worldview” dilemma consists on being two places simultaneously, a chosen high point easily seen from all over my “backyard” or range of local travels and the view of that position from the high point. Any thoughts?

I think I can relate to what you’re saying. From one of my sacred high points that I frequent I can also see another distinct half-dozen or so high points that I know well. It’s all about direction, place and finding ourselves in a moment that shifts our perspective from the profane world into the sacred one. The more intimately we know our place the less disoriented we will feel when we tap into and merge our lucidity with the lucidity of the land. These moments have always been a divine experience for me.

I’m not sure if I answered your question clearly?

The aspect of their being a “dilemma” for you is an interesting one. It brings me back to understanding universal concepts or archetypes byway of the local. In other words, we must have a perspective that is scalable, so to speak. Meaning, you can understand yourself as part of the greater interconnected woven web of Wyrd, but we must never do so at the expense of denying how we came to be where we are. The more displaced or unrooted a culture is, the more complex their identity and thus the greater need there is to discover their sense of place as a means of re-mythologizing themselves in time and space. So as heathen-Americans, I guess we do this by sifting through the various layers that help us define our cosmology. Which is always in motion. I think the fylfot and the black sun are wonderful symbols for this. They are both sun signs, yes. But we can also imagine ourselves as being and existing within the center of them. The universe spirals out from us while it simultaneously is converging and collapsing onto us. The eternal creation and destruction by which all things are reflective microcosms of the universe. It’s quite dynamic.

6.Blood of the Folk and these “places of power” are the essence of self identity. Folk tales and myths are always “Place Based” What tales can you tell about your tribe?

I think building tribe is a challenging thing in this globalized world. We already spoke a little about the inundation from the dominant culture that is attempting to assimilate all peoples into one giant homogenous one. So any attempt to assert yourself tribally in your area means that your way of life is likely in conflict with and is going to be up against the pervading culture of our era. Which, as a culture and force, is one that obviously wants to keep us as subservient, indoctrinated consumers. So, there are obviously many challenges there.

But as an emerging tribe, I think first and foremost, we try to maintain that we are a product of the land itself. Our stories are of growing up together and experiencing the land with one another in any number of ways. Not all of us were born here and some of us have ancestors that were the first European settlers to establish homesteads here. As well, we have a friend whose ancestors were of the first indigenous peoples to the area dating back ten thousand years ago, at a minimum, or since time immemorial as they tell their story. So, like any emerging tribe in America we are a fairly mixed bag of backgrounds. And we are still very much in the beginning stages of developing our own customs and traditions that bind us together and give us all a deeper meaning and spirituality to navigate the world. It is always a work in progress, but I think we have the foundations of something real. We know where to find clean, un-piped water to drink, we all have various understandings of the local flora and fauna and as well, we all poses various skills to hunt and gather food. One of my mantras has been “Land commands the master plan”. I think if you start with what has been the natural and timeless expression of humans through the ages then the rest will fall into place. So, for us that just means communing with our place by means of eating the food that it grows and also enjoying it recreationally. It’s literally our own process of developing a creation myth for ourselves.

7.Your circumnavigation involved a physical trial by ordeal, Tell us about your “need” and your “will” in successfully completing this pilgrimage.

This is part of the hero’s journey that I spoke of earlier. I think any aspect of seeing yourself as a part of nature must ultimately include pilgrimages and trials that are a test of strength. The purpose of the hike was as a ritual act that would initiate us into a deeper part of ourselves in order to find out what we are capable of. As a tribe, especially as one that is developing itself out of the current culture of no culture, this is extremely important. Testing ourselves in this way individually as well as being there for each other as a tribe becomes a symbolic act that permeates into our world view and consciousness as a whole. I think that for us to instill tenets and virtues of strength, loyalty and overcoming hard times, are crucial components for any tribe that would hope to not just survive in the world, but to thrive as well.

So, in a very mundane way, it is needful just as any creature of this world needs its claws and instincts to stay alive. But it is also something spiritually needful as well. That which we seek is the cause of our seeking. It is recognized as inherent for our growth. By way of participating with our mountains in a 360 degree circumnavigation we tap into and intertwine Place with rituals of strength and loyalty. We have made the act of living in place as a participatory one. We must give back to it as it gives to us. And a big part of that is cultivating our Will as a reflection of the strength and power of the land, which is a sacred and holy process.

8.We met at the Hex Factory in Philadelphia last winter and you mentioned your father had the Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’ blood. Certainly, Hess is a very common last name in Berks County. What can you tell us about him?

My father is a great source of inspiration for me. He is with our ancestors now and since his passing I try and do what I can to honor the type of man that he was. He grew up in Manheim where he rests now with his parents who were Mennonite and Anabaptist farmers. He cared greatly for our family and our history and he also very much understood the importance of the traditions of the folk. And his deeds backed this up in many ways through his life. One thing he did in Lancaster, PA was he helped to restore and protect a cemetery that was the burial site of our first ancestors to America. As well, he did a lot of research to trace back and get to know some of our older ancestors in Switzerland and even went to visit the grounds where some of them were persecuted and martyred by the church. However, he never discovered any information of our pre-Christian heathen mythologies and religions. And it wasn’t until after he passed, that through finding your work as a Hexologist and others such as the Wolves of Vinland, that I was even exposed to the reality that many of our folk ways are very much alive. I recall on many occasions having conversations with him about the need for new mythologies and traditions to emerge in order to help guide the people through an age that lacked reverence and care for many of the concepts we speak of. I don’t think he would have expected it to look like it does, but I think he would be ecstatic to see some of the neo tribe/folk emerging and also take a strong interest in studying the Norse/Germanic myths. We used to have great conversations on philosophy and mythology. When I was 18 and left home, he sent me off with a copy of Hero with a Thousand Faces. He wrote messages and poems or offered me advice in all the books he ever gave to me. Suffice to say, I miss him very much, and I’m grateful for the time we had together on this earth. Like all my ancestors, I wouldn’t be who I am without him. Thank you for asking.

9.What can you share with us about Oregon’s High Desert? The Sonoran is my favorite desert and I am an avid cultivator of Peruvian cactus.

It’s actually somewhat of a misnomer that it is called a desert. Although we are semi-arid, we also receive a lot of snow fall annually. In realty, it is much more of a bunch grass prairie that merges with an old growth ponderosa ecozone before leading into mixed conifer and alpine forests. We sit in the rain shadow of the cascades. And we are up near the head waters of the Deschutes river, which was named by French fur trappers as a “river of the falls”. This river is a part of the larger Columbia and Snake River basins that have their source on the Western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Obviously, our entire area is volcanic. In fact, it almost seems that the entire upper Deschutes is sitting on one large volcano. Nearly every aspect of our ecology and geography is in some way or another shaped by and dependent on fire. Nearly everywhere you look, there is a recently burned landscape or lava flow that isn’t very old by most standards. Some of the volcanoes are definitely active although geologists say they are not much of a threat. Central Oregon has some of the youngest soils on the planet. The nature of fire affecting the landscape and the parallels of it being a force of creation and destruction are very apparent in the fiery nature of the people that choose to live here. Fire is a huge source of inspiration for me. I could probably go on for quite a while with this, but maybe one more thing to mention is, one of the fastest growing cities in America for some time now is Bend, and it sits on the borderland of the Great Basin bioregion, which is very arid and very unique in that none of the rivers or waterways make their way to the ocean.

10. Please tell us about volcanoes as high points and your relationship/identification with them

Well, we spoke of this a bit already. But first and foremost, I think all high points and also alters, or specific trees, are a representation where our mother, the earth, is in union with Father sky. Volcanoes represent this in an incredibly primal way because of their ability to completely destroy and alter the land and even the earth as a whole. Fire is the most primal element of all and the source of all of creation. And, of course, volcanic ash is also incredibly fertile. It lays ground for new and abundant growth, but only after the earth shakes, does it fall from the heavens. I think there is a lot of symbolism here obviously and many correlations that can be found within the origin stories of cultures the world over. As someone that has been shaped by a literal land of fire, I try to do my best to be a living reflection of that land itself in hopes that it will help inspire new mythologies to guide my community.

All photos Place Based Media, by permission

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