San Francisco (The Fifth Sacred Thing)

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At the start of Starhawk's novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, ninety-eight year-old Maya looks out at the anarchist-run city of San Francisco in the year 2048. Maya sees walkways and gardens where there used to be streets, bicycles and electric carts instead of cars, wind turbines instead of power plants:

The city was a mosaic of jewel-like colors set in green, veined by streams and dotted with gleaming ponds and pools. Seen from above, blocks of old row houses defined streets that no longer existed. Instead, bicycles and electric carts and the occasional horse moved through a labyrinth of narrow walkways that snaked and twined through the green. Above the rooftops, gondolas like gaily painted buckets swung from cables, skimming from hilltop to hilltop, moving between high towers where windspinners turned.[1]

The residents are pagans who practice a form of witchcraft. They have built a feminist and ecologically-oriented society and try to defend it from onslaught by totalitarian neighbours.


The residents follow a pagan religion that incorporates elements of Buddhist, African, Celtic, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions.[2] The city has shrines to the four sacred things--earth, air, fire, and water--that the community considers to be commons that must be protected and that cannot be bought or sold.[3] The "fifth sacred thing," the novel's titular concept, refers to spirit.

Residents speak English as a first language and either Mandarin or Spanish as a second language, depending on where they live in the city.[4] Polyamory is common in San Francisco, as are all sorts of queer relationships. In the character Bird's words, "I'm not saying nobody ever gets jealous. But we work it out."[5]


At the local level, people make decisions in Neighborhood Councils.[6] The Neighborhood Council and Work Collectives each send rotating spokes to the City Council, which meets daily and makes decisions by consensus. The council passes around a Talking Stick and has rotating facilitators.[7]


Work collectives include a Healers' Council, a Carpenter's Guild, a Teacher's Guild, a Water Council, a Toxics Council, and a Transportation Collective, among others. At City Council meetings, the Work Collectives and Neighborhood Collectives coordinate the distribution of goods.[8]


Trees line San Francisco's walkways, brimming with fruit for anyone to pick.[9] The city has become a zero-waste society where people have "learned how not to waste, how to use and reuse every drop, how to feed chickens on weeds and ducks on snails and let worms eat the garbage."[10] There are no power plants, and electricity is wind- and solar-powered.[11]

During each Central Council meeting, four people wear masks representing the Voices of the four sacred things. The Water's Voice wears a Salmon mask, the Air's Voice wears a Hawk mask, the Earth's Voice wears a White Deer mask, and the Fire's Voice wars a Coyote mask. The Voices do not get to vote, but they sometimes whisper announcements to the Speaker of the Voices, played by someone dressed in another gender than the one with which they identify. The Speaker then shares the announcement with the rest of the Council.[12]


In 2028, following a drought and social collapse, the ruling Stewards canceled elections, declaring martial law. On 1 August, four elderly women began tearing up the streets with pickaxes and planting seeds. Many more people joined them and went on to blockade streets and take food out of warehouses. The Stewards evacuated, trying to starve out the residents, but the San Franciscans ended up surviving by forming anarchist organizations.[13]

Neighboring Societies

The plot of the novel revolves around the community's attempts to defend itself from the highly authoritarian forces including the Millennialist Creed. Since the uprising, San Francisco has abandoned weapons in order to concentrate on rebuilding the society. There is a Defence Council, and only elderly women are allowed to join it. One member explains, "All of us on the Defense Council are old, and we're all women--for that very reason. So that we'll be less likely to be led astray by our hormones and our paranoias."[14]

It helps that the residents' pagan spirituality allows them to practice a form of witchcraft that includes certain defensive spells as well as many spells and charms related to healing. Early in the novel, Bird, a San Francisco witch captured by the Millenialists, uses witchcraft to remove electronic control devices that had been put on him and the other prisoners.[15]

  1. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 1.
  2. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 11.
  3. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 2.
  4. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 13.
  5. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 87.
  6. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 72.
  7. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 19, 45, 52.
  8. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 45, 47, 49.
  9. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 111.
  10. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 2.
  11. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 104.
  12. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 45, 50.
  13. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 17-18.
  14. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 52.
  15. Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, 64.