Walking the New Neighborhood

Taylor and I recently moved to a new neighborhood here in Portland. The old Craftsman house our old apartment was in was going up for sale, and we decided to be proactive and look for new digs before we got a thirty-day termination notice. Fortunately, half a duplex came up for rent, and friends of ours who live in the other half notified us. Long story short, we are now settling into the new place. I’ll admit I was sorry to leave Laurelhurst Park and the surrounding area, though it’s still easily accessible by bus. However, now that the move is over (as is Snowpocalypse 2008), I’m finally finding some time to go out and get to know my new neighborhood.

I’m still in the city, though there’s a lovely patch of greenspace that’s being replanted with native species and allowed to go feral, right across the street from where I live. I haven’t yet had a chance to get more than a cursory visit to it, due to the huge amount of snow we’ve had, and the fact that it gets dark before I have time to myself here. However, tonight I took two walks in the streets immediately surrounding my home and bordering the greenspace. This allowed me A) to get a good view of the physical characteristics, and B) to get a taste of the Land here.

It’s a nice, quiet neighborhood. It’s more blue-collar; the houses aren’t as big and ostentatious as the Victorians and Craftsman structures where I moved from. However, they’re all very well kept-up, and it’s obvious people take pride in their homes. I’m guessing the percentage of homeowners in the area is pretty decent. I didn’t notice any vacant buildings, and nothing that looked problematic. Some of the roads are under county jurisdiction and therefore are gravel rather than paved, but that’s about as “bad” as it gets. I haven’t run into too many people, though the ones I have met have been quick to smile and nod in a genuine manner.

The Land, however…that’s a different story. I think I got kind of spoiled by Laurelhurst and Multnomah/Wahkeena. Both of these places almost immediately opened up to me with a hearty welcome. This place, on the other hand, hasn’t been quite so eager. I haven’t gotten any sense of hostility or rejection; I still feel safe here. The approach, however, will have to be different. I think I got kind of used to being able to walk into a place and have it connect with me. Here, on the other hand, I’m going to have to put in more effort to show who I am, perhaps some formality.

I don’t think it’s a matter of the place having been abused–that’s not the feel I get from what little I’ve received. I think it more has to do with the personality of the place. It may just be a more reserved Land than others. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I do need to learn a new approach.

I’m looking forward to getting to know this new place.

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Totemic Therianthropy

A little over a year ago, I posted A Totemic Perspective on Spiritual Therianthropy, and a bit before that, A Mythological Perspective on Therianthropy. A few months later, I kicked around some ideas on therianthropy, Otherkin, identity, and hermeticism, among other things. These were some of the first written manifestations of thoughts and understandings I’ve been testing out to one degree or another for the past few years.

So I’ve finally come to a conclusion from all this testing of ideas. My therianthropy–the structure on which I examine why it is that I feel that on some (nonphysical) level I am wolf in nature–is directly related to and caused by totemism. It’s something that was given to me by Wolf, my primary totem, who has been with me my entire life. It is still something that permeates my being at all times, not something I can simply take off and put back on at will, and not something that is separate from me. I am wolf on some level, as I am also human on other levels (the physical included).

This isn’t something that’s easy to say. There are a lot of kneejerk reactions to mentioning therianthropy and totemism in the same sentence. There’s been a good deal of effort put towards making the differences between therianthropy and totemism very clear, particularly because there has been a lot of confusion (especially among newbies to the concept of therianthropy). What commonly happens is you’ll get someone who has recently (or not) discovered hir totem, whether s/he knows what it is or not, and because s/he feels a strong draw towards this animal, s/he assumes s/he IS the animal. Additionally, while most of the furries I know know the difference, there also seems to be some confusion among totemism, therianthropy, and the fursona. Often newbies will leap to conclusions without having done much research or self-searching and introspection, and try to speak as authoritatively as someone who’s actually done the work over time. Granted, this happens with newbies in any group–but I digress.

This results in a tendency to try to keep the lines between totemism and therianthropy as sharply delineated as possible. Unfortunately, this can occasionally mean situations in which the combination of the two in any way is discouraged, particularly if the nice, safe lines get blurred. I’ll freely admit that I avoided exploring this possibility for a while specifically because I’d seen so much negative press about it, and wanted to make sure I was “doing things right”. However, as my need for external validation diminished, and my ability to validate my own beliefs and experiences became stronger, I said “Fuck that noise” and decided to explore it anyway. I’m glad that it did, because it’s been the most fertile exploration related to my therianthropy I’ve ever had.

However, I didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or lightly. As I mentioned, I’ve been working with these ideas for the past few years, and have been working them out in writing (one of my best forms of processing) for over a year. Some of the material on personal mythology in A Field Guide to Otherkin, which came out in 2007, was a precursor to some of the ideas woven in to my current theory. But it wasn’t until I started developing my therioshamanic practice that I really reached a greater understanding.

While I’ve been an actively practicing totemist since the mid-1990s, and have had Wolf as a presence for my entire life (and became aware of it at a very young age), my relationships with the totems deepened significantly after I started practicing shamanism. Shamanism, by necessity, is built on relationships with the spirits. It isn’t about techniques, or shiny objects. First and foremost, it is communication with spirits and travelling to their realms (or in a few cultures, mediumship). The techniques and trappings stem from and support that communication and those relationships.

As I got to know Wolf better, s/he began telling me more about myself-as-wolf, as s/he felt I was ready for it. S/he told me the significance of our first meeting, when I first remembered realizing there was something wolfish in me–and that it never stopped being there, ever, no matter how much I sometimes tried to get rid of it. Most of the details are private, but I can definitely say that that which is wolf in me, was a direct gift from hir, and is part of the ongoing relationship that’s developed over this lifetime. It’s something that I did question a number of times, just to be sure I wasn’t making it up. S/he confirmed each time.

So, what of my personal experience is therianthropy, and what is totemism?

Therianthropy: I am wolf on some (nonphysical) level. This is not a wolf spirit carried within me, or any other being independent of me. It is not me carrying Wolf hirself in me, though I see what is wolf in me as having originated with hir. This is me. I don’t believe reincarnation factors in. The part of me that is wolf is something that, as far as I understand, is part of this life.

Totemism: Wolf is a totem, an archetypal being who embodies all that is to be known about wolves. Specifically I work with Timber (Gray) Wolf, who protects all the subspecies of that species. Wolf is an external being who gave me a piece of hirself that was integrated into who I am from the beginning. Just having a totem does not make me a therianthrope; it is the specific part of myself that Wolf gave me that is important. None of my other totems have given me something like that, and therefore I am not, for example, a fox therian, or a badger therian.

So, yes, I can definitely say that at this point the best way to explain my own therianthropy, myself-as-wolf, is through my relationship with Wolf the totem. I am wolf in and of myself, but it is something that was given to me by Wolf. I’m still going to continue exploring and working to better understand myself in parts and in whole, but this is the closest I’ve come to an explanation of myself-as-wolf.

Shamanically speaking, this gives me even more understanding as to how my therianthropy can be incorporated into my shamanic practice. It explains more of why Wolf has been around the whole time, and it also offers up some intriguing possibilities for forging stronger, potentially permanent connections with other totems. I’ve often wondered if, assuming they were willing, other totems could give me (or other people) similar pieces of themselves. Though it also may be something that is not easily given, or given at all. We shall see.

One final thing I want to make absolutely clear–this is something that is unique to my experience. While I know a very small number of people (count on one hand) with similar experiences, the vast majority of therianthropes who also practice totemism don’t (to my knowledge, anyway) have the same relationship with their totems that I do with Wolf, in that their therianthropy isn’t directly related. I do think it’s possible that this happens more often than I realize, but the thing I want to emphasize is that I came to this conclusion after nearly three decades of being aware, on some level, that there was something about me wolfish, after over a decade of active totemic work, and after a few years specifically spent on exploring the connection between my personal therianthropy, and my personal rel,ationships with my totems, including the intensity of shamanic practice. While I don’t want to discourage people from considering a similar possibility for themselves, I also want to make sure it’s understood that it’s not to be considered lightly–but then again, when is any of this to be decided through hasty processes?

What We (Don’t) Take Into Account

Taylor, his mom (who is visiting for the holidays) and I went to the Portland Art Museum. We didn’t get to go as long as we would have liked, since the snow and ice caused an early shutdown of the museum. However, we did go in long enough to see the Wild Beauty exhibit, a collection of over 200 photos of the Columbia River Gorge from the 19th and 20th centuries.

At first glance, the photos are indeed lovely. I spent a lot of time looking at Carleton Watkins’ work from the 1860s. However, as I got into more recent photos, it was clear how much “progress” had been made, and how the landscape was being changed. I’m not the only one who noted the loss of Celilo Falls, one of the most notable natural phenomena destroyed by the damming of the Columbia River. While sonar images show that the falls technically still exist, I would be skeptical if someone told me that removing the dams would reveal the same Celilo Falls structure that was there prior to the flooding. Certainly the ecosystem wouldn’t be anywhere near the same.

This got me into a line of thought that’s been nibbling at the edges of my consciousness for a while now. Looking at what some of my favorite places looked like 150 years ago, and realizing just how much has changed since then, got me thinking about shifting baseline syndrome. People often think of environmental issues in terms of returning things maybe to the way they were when the environmentalists were children, or perhaps maybe the time of their parents. Yet they have no idea.

This (from CarletonWatkins.org) is what Multnomah Falls looked like when Watkins took a photo of it in the 1860s:

This (photo by Marc Chamberlain) is what it looks like today:

Big difference. According to the exhibit literature, Watkins’ picture was the first one to get that exact angle of both parts of the Falls, because the forest around it was so dense–he actually had to cut down a small tree to get a better shot. Now there are tourists everywhere, and I don’t think I’d drink the water, either. One could point to the fact that modern technology has made it possible for people, like me, and like the tourists, have access to such a beautiful place. But what have we lost in the process?

Multnomah Falls is about thirty miles east of Portland. I-84 cuts right along the Columbia River, and the old Columbia River Highway parallels it and goes straight to the Falls. How many places had to be disrupted or destroyed for these two highways to go in, and for all the communities that sprang up around them to grow into the near-countless acreages of pavement and subdivisions that used to be forests and plains? What did we lose in order to be able to get to the Falls? If we still had those places, would we have to trek thirty miles or more to get to the wilderness?

Now, I am not a complete and total neo-Luddite. As I sit here, typing away on my laptop, in a nice warm home securely insulated from the freezing cold and snow outside, I am quite grateful for many of the creations of the human mind. Same goes for my car, and the public transit system, and the boots that I stomp around in the snow in. I admit it–I like my comfort.

However, I can’t help but think of the price of this comfort. It’s not the fact that we have these things–it’s the mindset that guided us through making them happen in the first place, and the attitudes with which we made them manifest. Specifically, I look at how completely anthropocentric and arrogant humanity has been in its lack of regard for other living beings since the rise of agriculture. The vast majority of technological advances have been made without taking into account the potential negative effects on other living beings and the ecosystem as a whole. We have only very recently in our history even begun to understand what a mistake that has been.

When humans come up with an idea for a new innovation, the only concerns taken into account are those of humans. Often it’s not even all of humanity. Look at sweat shops, for example–the needs of the humans who are stuck working there aren’t taken into account, not to the extent they should be. And that’s not even including the resources and pollution involved in making that pair of Nikes.

It’s been that way for thousands of years. Our technology has either been actively antagonistic towards Nature (things to kill dangerous predators, things to poison vermin, etc.) or passively antagonistic (pollution, disruptions of migration routes, etc.). We’ve never, until recently, considered the price other living beings, human and otherwise, have had to pay for our conveniences. We haven’t thought about extinctions due to massive habitat loss, or how killing off the top-level predators in an ecosystem can throw it out of balance to a serious degree, or how our effluvia can make the water undrinkable for the people downstream. We’ve simply let our excitement over the newest shiny object blind us to any killjoys.

I don’t want us to not have technology. I want us to rethink technology, and how we make it happen. The fact that our first awkward steps towards green energy, despite all their flaws, have gained at least some success show that if we applied ourselves to that as much as we did to fossil fuels, there’s a good chance we’d end up with much cleaner options. The same goes for more efficient distribution channels for various goods, better building methods, the publishing industry, and just about any other form of technology you can think of. There are (or can be, if we apply ourselves) better ways to do things, ways that do take our impact into account–but we’re not used to implementing them. We say “Yes, we’ll work to make the next line greener”. Why didn’t we take the time to do it with this one? Or the previous? Or the one before that? And here we see the pattern that’s been replicated for thousands of years–putting profit and convenience first, and then allowing them to blind us to anything else, regardless of promises and lip service to the contrary.

If this means that we have to work harder and longer to perfect something that in the long run can be affordable, effective, and as low-impact as possible, so be it. We’ve seen what doing a half-assed job of something results in. It’s not just sloppy–it’s unethical. As Stan Lee originally wrote, “With great power there must also come great responsibility”. I don’t want us, as a species, to be powerless; I want us to continue to develop that power. But I do want us to take full responsibility for our power, and use that going forward. And that includes all the effects of our actions, not just the ones we find it convenient to note, or only the ones that affect our own species, or our own nation or other in-group–or, most selfishly, only ourselves.

We are not isolated beings.

We are part of a system. We are part of many systems, interconnected and interdependent. Let’s take each action with that in hand.

Look! A Post! A Long Post, Even!

I apologize for those on the LJ feed for this blog; there’s no way I can LJ-cut this post to make it shorter. Bear with me–I’m just trying to catch up after so long! Graci 🙂

I know I’ve been exceptionally quiet here (and elsewhere) lately. It’s been over a month since I posted, and over two months since I last journeyed. There’s been good reason for this. As I mentioned earlier this year, I was accepted into the counseling psychology program at a local graduate school, and am working on my Master’s degree. I don’t think I quite realized just how much of my life grad school would consume, and as my first semester progressed I found myself working harder to try to maintain equilibrium with the increasing demands on my time. It’s all been worth it, but it does mean that my active practice sort of fell to the wayside.

Fortunately, the spirits have been understanding. While grad school isn’t something that’s strictly shamanic, it does tie in with my practice on a number of levels, and so I am putting effort towards my shamanism even if it doesn’t involve drums and totems and so forth (most of the time, anyway…). In fact, I’ve been learning a lot of things that are highly applicable to my practice.

The most obvious is ecopsychology. Ecopsych involves the psychology of our relationship to the natural environment. An ecopsychologist may be concerned with the psychology associated with how people approach the environment, whether in positive or negative manners. Additionally, wilderness therapy and other practices focus on using the environment for therapeutic purposes. Ecopsychology is about as close to animism as you get in the Western mindset; it uses the language of psychology rather than religion, though there are some very strong spiritual themes within ecopsych.

I’ve been very interested in narrative therapy as well, which isn’t surprising given my background in English. Narrative therapy can refer to the use of storytelling–whether through writing, visual aids (artwork), or other creative means–to aid a client in being more open in talking about what s/he needs to work on. Additionally, the use of narratives can help a client find meaning in hir life, particularly when s/he may feel there is little connection between various events and entities that s/he encounters.

And I’ve also had some curiosity about Gestalt therapy. Some people primarily think of some of the more dramatic techniques, such as the empty chair. (I remember in high school seeing a film of a session where the client became angry enough to begin kicking the chair across the room!) “Gestalt” literally means “shape”, and like the Kanizsa triangle, Gestalt therapy demonstrates the whole of something, not just what is obviously “there”. It takes where the client is at the time and explores the context of the situation in detail–the people, places, and other influences that affect the client’s situation, as well as the manners in which the client acts upon the situation.

I’ll also admit that I found some bits of systems theory interesting. However, I’m still trying to wrap my head about Bradford Keeney’s Aesthetics of Change, which was by far my most challenging textbook this past semester. I’ll need to get a firmer grasp on it through Keeney and others before I can say for sure how much I want to incorporate it into my therapeutic practice in the future.

All of these areas of therapeutic practice focus on interconnection, something that is central to my shamanic practice. In the dominant cultural paradigm of the United States, we are encouraged to be isolated beings; we have the hyperromanticized “rugged individualist”. Yet we are part of numerous systems, whether we want to admit it or not. Everything that we do has an effect on something besides ourselves, and while many of these exchanges may seen to be insignificant, they can add up to create quite a change. (Or series of changes, really.)

Therioshamanism is much the same way. While a lot of my work focuses specifically on animals, I do not consider them to be separate from the rest of the world, and I do acknowledge the connections to everything else. Part of what I do is to act as an intermediary between the spirits and the human community. This need not always be direct things, such as journeying on behalf of another person. It can include passing along something that the spirits would like to have manifest in a way that is understandable to people I interact with. Often this happens simply through leading by example.

Take the gardening, for instance. Gardening promotes sustainable living, which eases the pressure on the environment in numerous ways–which is an effort that I’ve found is appreciated by the spirits I work with. Simply by geeking out about my garden on my personal blog, I managed to inspire a few other folks to start their own gardening projects this year. (It’s going to get worse this year–I have a yard now, and I still have room for all my containers. There shall be much growing of green vegetable-type things, and the blogging thereof!)

Of course, there’s a fine line between creating the world you want to see, and pushing an agenda on others. I learned a lot about boundaries in my ethics class this semester. While the boundaries are nowhere near as strict with something like shamanism (which isn’t regulated by any governing bodies or associations), it still gave me some good food for thought. And my primary focus as a therapist (and, for that matter, as a shaman, once I start actively working on others’ behalf) will be on aiding my client, not on making people see things my way. On the other hand, happier, healthier people are a part of the world I want to create, so hey–maybe part of my “agenda” will end up manifesting anyway!

Okay, so enough about graduate school. I’ve had a small group of students I’ve been passing along the basics of my practice to for the past couple of months. Weather, illnesses, scheduling conflicts, and other issues have given things a bit of a rocky start, but I’m pleased overall with how folks are doing. For privacy’s sake, I’m not going to talk much about the classes; needless to say, it’s a good group of folks that I look forward to working with for some time.

There are definitely challenges to trying to arrange even monthly meetings, as opposed to one-shot workshops or limited workshop series. While it’s been worth it so far with this group, I’m not 100% sure I’m going to make this sort of thing a regular occurrence. Some of it’s time issues; however, some of it’s also that so much of this stuff works best when self-directed, as it was created. I’m certainly not going to abandon my current group of students, but I may just eventually end up doing what I do best–write a book about it and let the readers take it from there.

Teaching students has been my main activity associated with therioshamanism. As I mentioned, I haven’t journeyed in a couple of months. However, now that I’m on break, I have more time for such things. Unfortunately, since Taylor and I just moved to a new place, most of my stuff is still packed up. My plan for this weekend is to try and get it unpacked; I need to be journeying again. I’ve missed it, and I have some things I need to do.

I don’t think I realized just how grounding my practice has been for me. It helps to promote deeper connections with the world around me; instead of journeying, I’ve been going for a lot of walks, and otherwise engaging in a lot of little, everyday activities that remind me of that connection. I’m going to try to reach a better balance this coming semester so that I can have more time for my practice, even if it’s not as often as I’d like. Yes, the grad school stuff works into it, but the journeying in specific is irreplacable.

One last thing, speaking of connections. Back in November, I had some tattoo work done. When we first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I got my second wolf tattoo, this one on my left arm, not long after the move:

It symbolized the beginning of my relationship to the Land here. At the time I was in Seattle, where I ended up having less of a connection than I expected. Too big, too crowded, just didn’t sit well with me. However, it got me started, and a year later we moved to Portland–a much better fit for us.

So as part of an ongoing day-to-day ritual of connection, I had more work done to my left arm:

This is partly a portrait of Multnomah Falls (I had the artist take out the bridge; the Falls themselves will be added in later). It’s one of those places that I really connected with, and it was a fitting representative of the Land out here. The work isn’t done yet; this was about two and a half hours in the chair, after which I simply couldn’t take any more, even with the topical anesthetic. So I have an appointment come May to get it finished up. (If you’re interested, by the way, Alice Kendall over at Infinity Tattoo in North Portland is the artist; I highly, highly recommend here.)

While I was getting inked, I did do some journeying (so I suppose I can’t say I haven’t done any in the past couple months–just no drum journeying). I started off at my usual starting point, and travelled all around the general area, both Portland metro and the surrounding areas. I spoke with the Land about my relationship to it, as well as the various entities–human, other animals, plants, etc.–that I could help through the things I am developing. I don’t want to go into any more detail, but needless to say it was confirmation of a number of things. It was, to say the least, an incredible rite of passage–and it won’t be done til May.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I should be able to do some drum journeying in the next few days, to get back into practice.