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What Does Transformation Look Like: A Dialogue with Starhawk

Join Starhawk at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in NYC on Dec. 9 for “Goddesses for the End Times,” a talk on how ancient goddesses of Europe and the Middle East can help us transform consciousness in this time of social crisis and environmental meltdown. Learn more here. Learn more here.
Go behind the scenes of two friends: One a famous writer, and the other a film/tv producer and environmental activist.  Starhawk collaborates with Maya Lilly, who is a producer on the film and TV versions of Starhawk’s acclaimed urban-fantasy, The Fifth Sacred Thing, which Maya also narrates.
The beloved book has been a touchstone for activists and social change-makers for over 23 years. It’s the book Julia Butterfly Hill read in the branches of the redwoods during her two-year tree sit, that WTO protestors carried in their backpacks, and that Occupiers passed around their libraries. It is enjoying a renewed popularity among Millennials, especially those hungry for hope. Starhawk is also the author of The Spiral Dance, the classic book on modern witchcraft, spiritual feminism, the Goddess movement, and ecofeminism. 
Here is their conversation on the arduous process of making the new audiobook version of The Fifth Sacred Thing 25 years later, which is receiving much acclaim already, as well as the political climate for feminists, urban permaculture, and the process of writing a book.


Maya Lilly: We really ran a marathon by creating an audiobook from The Fifth Sacred Thing, which came out almost 25 years ago! How do you feel about having a new audiobook of an older story of yours?

Starhawk: It’s really exciting to me to hear the story in a whole new form, and it’s not just because I’m talking to you! I say this all the time: you did a fantastic job reading it and bringing the characters alive!

What do you think about audiobooks in general as compared to books? Are they something you enjoy yourself?

I love audiobooks! I listen to them all the time. They’re a great companion when I’m on a long drive, when I’m out putting the drip system in, or planting lavender like I was yesterday, or canning. Any of those things where you’re doing things where your mind is free.  It’s really wonderful to be able to have somebody telling you a story while you’re out there slogging the compost around.

Have you heard from friends that have known the story for the last 25 years? Do they envision the characters in the same way as when they first read it, or do you think they’re seeing them fresh in their mind with the audiobook?

Pretty much everybody has told me how much they like the audiobook, and what a wonderful job you did on the voices and bringing them alive. There are always differences between the way you hear it in your head, and the way it comes out when you hear it through your ears. I listen to some of the classics like Great Expectations (Dickens) or Moby Dick, and a good reader brings all the accents alive. If I’m reading that with my eyes, I honestly can’t hear what an English country working-class accent sounds like, but a good reader can create it, and that’s part of the joy of it.

You threw me quite a bit of a challenge when we first talked about how each character should sound. I was so excited to do a British accent, and a Southern accent, and an Indian accent, and then you were like: No, they’ve been separated from the rest of the world so a lot of these people have a general California accent.  I thought: “Oh my god, How am I going to differentiate them?”

I had to find characters in our world with a general American accent that sounded close to who I was being. Like HiJohn: my reference for him was Harrison Ford, who has this very deep, gravely voice out of my register. 

And some of them have accents that are general California but with a slight Latino flavor. How do you project what a sort of hiphop slang accent 30 years from now is going to be…?

Which you do so well in the sequel, City of Refuge. The time you spent crafting the language of the soldiers is really admirable.

When I first read the book in ‘94, I thought: this is how we’re going to start building community, how we’re going to use permaculture principles and environmental ethics. Did you have a sense when you were writing it that it was something meant to happen? How do you deal with the disappointment with it not being a reality on a large scale?

This moment, I’m dealing more with the terror that we may get the other aspect of it on a large scale. The Southlands in the book are the area that have gone the direction of racism, sexism, brutality, and militarism.

I see a lot of the aspects that the book talks about coming to pass maybe in small ways, maybe in underground ways. For example, the urban farming gardening movement, which really didn’t even exist when I wrote the book 20 years ago. I was thinking: How do we survive when the systems we currently have collapse? One of the ways we do it is by growing food, and growing food in and around where we live.  

We’ve seen happen in Cuba, actually, right around the time the book came out. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cubans lost their source of oil, their exports. They say the average Cuban lost 1/3rd of their body weight in that following year! They began growing food in and around their cities. They shifted toward organic agriculture, and they found ways to feed the population. It’s a strong movement of people who want the kind of world that I envisioned in Califia, in the north of The Fifth Sacred Thing. We want a world of justice, where we value diversity; where women have power and agency; where we come back into balance with the natural world. And I see so many people every day working to bring that into being in different ways, whether it’s teaching permaculture (which I do a lot of), creating art or music, or standing up against the pipeline like the wonderful folks at Standing Rock. All of that is happening.

At the same time, we see this tide of discrimination and hatred, and this world of Trump supporters that are trying to normalize repression and misogyny. Even people on the left. I find it really disturbing the level of venom and vitriol that gets directed against Hillary Clinton, which goes into some deep places we have within us about our relationship with women, and our fear and hatred of powerful women.

I recently wrote a post about why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.  It got more views on Facebook than anything I’ve ever posted.And more comments! Probably 80% of them now hate me.  What I really support is this great transformation of consciousness, and mind, and systems, and the way that we live together. But I’ve also been supporting that for all of my adult life.

In the meantime, we have to live in THIS world. It’s really vital that we don’t allow Trump’s politics of hate to become normalized, which is exactly what will happen if by any chance he wins. It’s like giving a mandate to hatred and discrimination.

Everyone thinks they know what transformation should look like. I think transformation is never easy, and we never know what it’s going to look like. People think it’s going to look all fuzzy and shiny. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter who will now vote for Hillary Clinton gracefully and easily. The time we live in is a time of lifting the veil. So much of what’s happening is turning that kitchen light on and the cockroaches are in the middle. And that is not a pretty transformation.

A basic example with Black Lives Matter and the shooting of black people: That’s been going on forever. All of my relatives, as a woman of color, have known this and have told me about this for years. I’ve always been cautious with police. And now, everybody knows it. That transformation had to happen that way first, and then maybe we’ll get more fluffy clouds and pretty details. We don’t know how it’s going to look. Do you agree?

There’s a lot about Clinton’s politics and track record I don’t like. But there’s a level of venom directed at her that is very much undeserved. It’s lovely to vote for Jill Stein, but I’ve been supporting the Greens for 40 years, and they are always somewhere under 5% in the national polls. At this point, Clinton is our best chance for creating a situation and platform that will allow us to continue to work to create that transformation.

I know that there are a lot of younger voters that are disappointed, discouraged, furious, who really wanted to vote for Sanders. I voted for Sanders in the primary, and am a big supporter of him. He’s done a phenomenal job of raising the issues and pushing the whole party and whole dialogue over to a more progressive side. But even Sanders is supporting Clinton right now. If Clinton wins, we can continue to build on that. We can continue to push and press the democratic party to take more progressive positions. We’ll have Supreme Court justices who at least are sane, rational. We won’t be back in the trenches fighting the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. We’ll be able to continue to move on into other directions.

I really do urge people to get out there and vote. Also, there are so many other issues on the ballot, from legalizing marijuana to who’s going to be in the Senate and House. It’s a really vital election, and not a moment to throw away your power.

People always want to feel frustrated that voting gives us such little power, but you don’t gain more power by throwing away the power that you do have.

I love that. That’s my quote of the week. And I did that in the Bush/Gore election. It was the first I was old enough to vote in, and I voted for Nader. And not only did I vote for Nader, who I love still, I voted for him in FLORIDA, not even two hundred miles from where the hanging chads happened. It ended up being about 300 votes, and I can easily say I knew about 300 college friends who voted for Nader. I was irrevocably scarred by that situation. I realized that I should have been working to create a situation where he could have won, and because I didn’t do the groundwork, I threw away my vote. It took me a long time to recover from that. Younger generations who didn’t have that experience are having the same first time experience.

I remember back in 1980, my husband at the time and I had a furious fight. He was voting for Carter, and I hate Carter… he was far too centrist for me. I was going to vote for somebody else on the Greens. He said if I did, and Reagan won, he’d divorce me.  I ended up voting for Carter, Reagan won anyway, and we got divorced.

(Big laugh)

There you go. Transformation. You never know what it will look like.

Let’s just get someone in there who is sane and rational, and actually knows what she’s doing. Give her a chance. Push her to be do the right things on the progressive side, to not get us deeply embroiled in war on the foreign side, and carry on making a transformative world that we all know is possible.

What have you learned working in communities over the years?

I’ve learned a lot, both about the power of community, and also the challenges of working in community. The power of community is that you can do so many things that you could never do alone. You have networks of support, and friends, and people to turn to when times get tough. If you have a creative project, you’ve got lots of hands, and lots of minds, and lots of visions to work with.

The challenges of Community are that you have lots of hands, lots of minds, and lots of challenging visions that don’t agree with your vision. And we have to learn how to deal with that effectively.

That’s one of the things I’ve always admired so much about The Fifth Sacred Thing: You weren’t painting this rosy Utopian picture of how things get done. The Council scenes where everybody’s trying to figure out what approach to take against an incoming army are absolutely fascinating, realistic, and true to life in the sense that people are on all sides. You paint such a real picture of it.

For people who don’t know the story, Northern California has become a beautiful ecotopian society after social and environmental meltdowns. They value air, fire, water, and earth; they value the elements; nature; human diversity. How do you defend that peaceful society when Invaders come in from the Southlands who’ve gone in that other direction, and have become brutal and racist?  How do you fight violence without becoming what you’re fighting against? That for me was the core theme of the book. And the main characters each represent a different take on it.

There’s Maya. Maya is the old witch. She’s the one who pioneered some of this transformation of Consciousness over nearly a century she’s been alive. At the same time, she’s very cynical and funny about all of it. She’s a reluctant believer in nonviolence.  She started her life as being a part of a radical group way back in the 60s, something like the Weather Underground, but has come to stand for non-violence, and believes it’s a great experiment.

Lily is more the true believer. She asks: How do you fight when you’re overpowered, in terms of weapons? She says we have to fight on the train of Consciousness — that’s where we can win. She also says Consciousness is the most stubborn thing in the universe, and yet it can change in a minute. A song can change it, or a scent on the wind.

There’s Bird, who’s Maya’s grandson. He’s been a fighter down in the Southlands, has been imprisoned, and comes back to warn people about the invasion. He’s a musician, and that’s his real love, and yet he’s giving that up in order to fight. A lot of the book is around his struggle to reconcile these different kinds of Power. Where does he put his faith: in the power of the gun, or the power of the song? And how can you possibly believe that the power of the song can stand up to the power of the gun?

There’s Madrone, who’s the Healer. She can channel these incredible forces, spiritual and psychic healing, as well as being a medical doctor. Her battle is often: How do I do this without completely losing myself? Where do I draw those boundaries?

I also love how, when Lily is speaking about Consciousness, she says that when two beings get in close proximity to each other, they become more alike than different. And you’ve written it so beautifully: When the soldiers are first in the Northland and they see the running water and fruit hanging from trees, even just the act of being in close proximity to this community has very subtly shifted them.  Likewise, when Bird is with the soldiers being held captive, they are shifting by being in close proximity to him as well.

Do you believe in the Hundredth Monkey idea? That there are a certain amount of people needed for a tipping point? That life always points towards evolution in the highest Good?

I think that Mass Consciousness does influence Mass Consciousness, but not necessarily always for the highest Good. I think that’s one of the issues around Trump’s candidacy: the incredible negativity of what he’s putting out seems to be influencing everybody. The level of venom and vitriol — the whole campaign is just over the top. It’s infecting people on more than a political level — it’s affecting us on a personal level. And I think it takes a lot of personal discipline, energy, and practice to resist being swept into that wave of negativity.

It’s not just him, it’s something that’s been building for 20 years in everything, from right-wing talk show hosts to reality TV: this pervasive vapor of resentment. The cheap thrill of deciding that you are okay because you can put somebody else down, and put yourself up by virtue of sneering, disrespecting, threatening, and bullying other people.

Just because everybody is doing something doesn’t make it right. It takes the Visionaries to see how that extends to society. Just because society has been set up in a certain way, doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be or it should be.

I had that lesson in college when I met a dancer at Juilliard. I was talking about somebody else in his program, and he turned to me and said:   “I know you don’t know me very well, but I want you to know that I don’t gossip.” And I said: What do you mean? And he replied: “I make the choice not to gossip. And so I’m happy to talk with you about anything in this moment, but I don’t talk about people who are not here.”

It was mind blowing for me because I found myself completely changed by his simple statement, and being in proximity to him!  

My book The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups is a nonfiction book that looks at how cooperative groups work together. I ask: What are the patterns, what are the ways that we can structure and design our groups, and what are some of the norms and ground rules that make for nurturing and creative environments instead of destructive environments? And toxic gossip, where you don’t confront someone to their face but say mean things about them behind their back, is one of the patterns that really destroys groups. It’s very easy to fall into. A huge amount of our social media and mainstream media seems to be devoted to a kind of toxic gossip!

What is the best thing that communities can do to empower each other?

Have honest conversations about how we want to give and receive feedback. Set up structures for giving feedback so we can hold each other accountable. Understand that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict is drama: There is no excitement without it and there’s no group that’s really creative without it, because it means that we have different ideas and visions. If we can see that as something creative, then we can turn those visions into something stronger than they would be if it was just my idea alone. A lot of conflicts in collaborative group are not really Good versus Evil; they are Good versus Good. They are between two things that represent values we both hold, but maybe we are weighing them differently. Maybe we both hold the value that our event should be accessible to large numbers of people, even people who don’t have money. And maybe we also believe that they should be sustainable, and that we should be able to pay the people who are working for us generously, rewarding them for their time and commitment. Those aren’t always easy values to reconcile. If we can see that we need both those values, and we find some dynamic balance between them, then we can often come up with a creative solution.

So often we get in these very black and white ideas of this is right, this is wrong, andd mainstream media doesn’t help with that. Our world is so consumed with TV and media, and nobody would watch it if there were no conflict!

We watch Frodo having a hell of a time trying to get that damn ring into the fire of the worst possible enemy of all time. Nobody would watch it if he’s sitting with his friends meditating, and they’re like: This ring is so pretty!

The reason it rings so true, no pun intended, is because the people who do form around Frodo do it against great odds. We are captivated by that story. That’s also what you’ve done so well with Fifth Sacred, and with City of Refuge, which is incredible and some say even better than the first. You’re showing the conflict that goes with community, and creating community and a vision of another life within a world that may not be quite ready for it.

In City of Refuge, some of the questions are more nuanced, centered on a slightly different question. I was wrestling with how we create the new world when people are so deeply damaged by the old. And what is the cost of violence when people have to resort to it?

There’s also another question that keeps emerging in the books. We live in a world where science has defined the world as being devoid of consciousness. If you talk to scientists, they will tell you that you can measure things, you can quantify things, you can even develop something such as the Gaia Hypothesis, which says that the Earth functions like a living organism. But you can’t attribute Consciousness to that organism. When I was writing an earlier book, The Earth Path, I sent it to a friend who’s an evolutionary biologist. And he kept hammering home:  You can talk about Gaia but you can’t talk about Consciousness. I finally said: “Look, I’m not a scientist … I’m a witch! I can talk about consciousness!” What would the world or science be like if we didn’t have Consciousness? How would it be different?

In the North in Califia, their whole computer network runs on intelligent crystals that people actually communicate with, and they communicate back! In City of Refuge, I had a lot of fun imagining what a techie trip would look like when Techies go into trance to invade the communications network of the Southland. What would that look and feel like if you could actually go in and talk to your computer? I think a lot of us to talk to our computers!  There’s many a time I’ve prayed over it: Please computer, don’t crash on me now. Just open up one more time. So I can back you up like I haven’t done in a month.

I’m hoping that science catches up with spirituality with the search for the God Particle. My boyfriend back in college was a Quantum Physicist, and he blew my mind one day when he walked into the dorm room and he said: “You know, you can’t really study atoms that easily, because if you start watching atoms, they’ll change what they’re doing. They are aware of you in the room and they shift what they’re doing simply by your presence.”

Shifting gears… As someone who’s very city-bound, permaculture always seems like something I’ll do in 20 years when I have a plot of land. And you’ve mentioned how Fifth Sacred was, prior to Urban Permaculture, becoming more of a reality. Would you speak to that?

Permaculture, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a whole system of ecological design that says if we observe and mimic nature, we can actually create systems to meet our human needs that function like natural systems, that provide for their own fertility, and provide for their own health and protection. We can regenerate the environment around us instead of destroying it. A lot of people think of permaculture as being broad-acre farms or ranches, and there is that part of it, but there’s also a very big movement towards urban permaculture: Growing food in and around the cities, rebuilding our urban soils, capturing water and rainwater in an urban environment and recharging our groundwater,  and looking at cities themselves as ecosystems that are both social and environmental and economic. A living city is like an organism. Another definition of permaculture comes from Patrick Whitefield, who said that permaculture is the art of designing beneficial relationships.  We need to create design in and around our cities to further beneficial relationships, instead of destruction and crime and violence.

Are there physical aspects of the city that generate safety? Jane Jacobs, a wonderful economist writing back in the 1970s, said yes!  There are certain physical aspects in the city that actually make streets more safe: the right density of people on the street at all times of day; a mix of businesses and houses; expensive/inexpensive housing and rentals/office, so you have new enterprises and old successful ones can stay; short city blocks so people take different routes. All these things help encourage more eyes on the street and more safety, rather than more police, which, as we’ve seen, doesn’t really increase our safety.

How do we create an economy in a city? The amount of wealth and abundance in a city isn’t determined by how many dollars are flowing; it’s determined by how many times each dollar changes hands before it flows out again. If you have a city where all the businesses are Walmart, big chains, money flows in and it flows immediately out again. Not much of it sticks around.

But if you have a city where lots of the businesses are local, small businesses, then those dollars circulate more and generate more true wealth for people. Permaculture looks at things like local currencies, to encourage people to buy and sell locally. Networks of sharing of time and barter help get off the money economy and create things of real value that don’t have to always be monetized. Creating networks of care for one another, and growing things in and around cities, things that we really need. Eating locally, farmers markets and CSAs where people make an agreement with a farmer and get a certain amount of food each week or each month. All of those things are aspects of urban permaculture.

How do we train our youth? How do we train the people in the city who historically had the least amount of resources? How can we create jobs and opportunities for people in a regenerative economy so that we can break these cycles of poverty?

Beautifully said.  To close, I’m going to ask you 4 random questions off the top of my head.

Starhawk, where’s your happy place?

My happy place is when I can be in my cabin out in nature, where I can wake up in the morning and be in the middle of a long project like writing a book. And then go take a long walk in the afternoon.

What is your best habit?

My best habit is probably that when I need to get something done, I create time to do it. I wake up in the morning, I meditate, and I do it. And I do it partly because I don’t actually have the time to procrastinate and say I’ll do it some other day.

Why were you born?

I presume you’re looking for something other than what my mother and father got themselves up to! If you’re asking what I think is the focus or purpose of my life, I’ve always thought it’s around telling the stories that can help create the change and the transformation. And teaching the tools and skills that can let people make it real.

Who do you think is wiser: Mushrooms or Redwoods?

I think you can’t separate the two, because redwoods actually grow in association with mushrooms, with great nets of mycorrhizal fungi and mycelium linking them root to root across the forest. We might see a redwood way up high, or we might see a mushroom down below. Actually, in some sense, we’re seeing different aspects of the same, integrated organism.

What do you do right before bed?

I always do some yoga and stretching exercises right before bed. I find that helps me settle and relax and be ready for a good night’s sleep, and also has made of difference to how I feel in my body by having a regular routine.


Starhawk teaches permaculture design, the practical aspect of understanding that nature is sacred. She teaches with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism. She will also be on the East coast in December 2016; has a course coming up in January 2017; and social permaculture courses in California in April 2017. She is starting a sacred Earth apprenticeship in April, where people can come and learn both some of the practical Hands-On skills, and also some of the more magical skills of creating ceremony and rituals.


To find out more, visit Starhawk’s website at and

Maya Lilly is a film and tv producer and audiobook narrator, reachable at

You can also buy the *new* The Fifth Sacred Thing audiobook on Amazon, iTunes, and Audible.

We regularly give away free audiobooks both on our social media and at Stay connected with us… because we love community.


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