Sustainable Smudging

It’s a popular thing among some New Agers and neo-Pagans to use aromatic plant material in purification rituals. Lighting up a bundle of dried sage and waving it around the house to cleanse away bad energy, etc. But I never knew this had become so popular that it’s actually depleting the sage plants to an unsustainable degree. Same with Palo Santo, a resiny aromatic wood from Central and South America that’s become popular in the USA and other countries outside its place of origin.

I can see why people love these aromatic materials from nature. I myself have used them in rituals and enjoyed them. A friend gave me a couple small sticks of Palo Santo about 20 years ago, and I still haven’t used them up; a little goes a long way. (Not long ago I was taken aback to see thick bundles of Palo Santo sticks for sale at a new-age/Pagan shop. I hadn’t known it was even available commercially, let alone in such large quantities. When I read recently — in the article linked below — that it had become endangered, I was not surprised.)

I’m more of one to burn aromatic materials for the smell than as a cleansing ritual per se. Either way, in recent times I’ve been using locally gathered materials for this purpose. Resinous aromatic twigs from cedar or pine trees, bundles of local sweet-smelling dried grass, that kind of thing. Of course they don’t smell the same as sage or Palo Santo, but I get two advantages: 1) I stop putting undue pressure on ecosystems; and 2) I avoid cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is something I’ve tried to become more sensitive about. The respectful thing to do regarding other cultures is to enjoy and appreciate them without stealing from them. The cultural dimension is as important an aspect of sustainability as the eco dimension.

Besides using local materials gathered in small quantities, another suggestion I have is: Draw on your own ancestry for rituals, and ritual materials. If you’re of Eastern European descent, for example (that’s half of my ancestry), you could research what, if anything, people in that part of the world did/do in terms of using aromatic plant materials for ritual or enjoyment.

If you choose to purchase materials, the article below from Anti-Racism Daily offers some good tips for ethically doing so. And it’s an eye-opening read about the harms caused by cultural appropriation.

Further Exploration:

• “While the practice of smudging began with Native ceremonies and traditions passed down from generation to generation, companies are now using the practice as a way to spread ideas of yoga and wellness. Back in 2018, fragrance brand, Pinrose pulled back their ‘Starter Witch Kit’ from Sephora after receiving backlash from activists about the appropriation of Indigenous medicinal practice in commerce. Urban Outfitters sold smudge sticks and marketed the product on social media with the caption ‘cleansing your Insta of negativity’. These instances of major retailers profiting off of smudging perfectly demonstrate the definition of cultural appropriation. And, while some Indigenous people believe that selling smudging products is fine, they’re still concerned about whether mainstream consumption will erase its significance. … The demand for white sage and Palo Santo also contributes to a growing environmental issue. As beauty and wellness brands continue to gentrify the practice, these endangered plants are being overharvested.” (“Preserve Palo Santo and White Sage”; Isiah Magsino in Anti-Racism Daily.)