What I Did on my Summer Vacation, Part One

I just spent the past four days in the woods out at Beacon Rock State Park for a wilderness therapy intensive for grad school. It was incredibly rejuvenating in some ways, and very challenging in others. However, I have a much clearer view of what wilderness therapy is, why it isn’t just “wilderness boot camps” like the media portrays (even though many of the teenage participants are there under duress, mainly because it’s a last resort to keep them out of jail/alive–which is a tough controversy we discussed), and how I as a therapist-to-be can incorporate elements of it into my practice as well as help clients figure out whether it may be a viable option for them or their children.

Where a boot camp mentality deals with strictly regimenting teenagers to challenge them through tough hierarchies, rigid scheduling, and pressure to conform to authority, what we learned about are ways to use the challenges that naturally come up during long-term hiking and camping as parallels to challenges the kids face in everyday life. It’s a matter of waiting until the individual participant hits a point where they need support, offering that support, and helping them to learn a better solution of how to deal with challenging situations than what they’ve been doing. They also learn the value of working with others, not through being ordered to do so, but because cooperation helps everyone involved.

We actually incorporated a few of the more common teambuilding techniques in our intensive experience. One of the most important ones for me was meal preparation. We were divided up into three teams of four (twelve students) and each team cooked one of the three meals each day. In order to get it done efficiently and with the limited gear we had, we had to work together–not as one leader telling the rest what to do, but as a quartet working together, adopting or delegating tasks as needed to get things done. There was no competition between the groups (well, other than a round of rock, paper, scissors to determine who did what meal), just shared appreciation for the work that went into the meals. There were other exercises, but this seemingly simple daily ritual really helped to demonstrate to me the difference between being ordered to do something, and doing it for mutual shared benefit and the pleasure that comes from it.

Anyway, there was a lot more to the formal educational portion of the experience, but I wanted to explore a few things that happened that are relevant to the spiritual aspects of what happened. This is one of two posts that will cover that.

This one deals with a drawing that I did as a bit of art therapy in one of our exercises. We were asked to draw the various influences–media, cultural, spiritual, experiential, etc.–that contributed to our understanding of the word “wilderness”. I ended up drawing an open book near the bottom of the page. Above it there were pictures of lots of wild animals, wolves, elk, foxes, etc., and lots of trees and ferns. Below the book, in a very small space, were the small animals I had encountered a lot in my childhood and beyond–songbirds, snakes, rodents, etc.

What this spoke to was my actual experiences with wilderness, which aren’t very many. I grew up in a family that didn’t hike or camp. And since I didn’t have much in the way of friends growing up, I didn’t really have anyone to take me out to the woods with their families. As for Girl Scouts? Forget it. My troop leaders’ idea of “camping” was having us all sleep in sleeping bags on the floor of an old commercial bakery, where the only wildlife was the cockroaches. So this led to a life completely devoid of camping until my twenties. Seriously.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has made me really self-conscious of this fact. A lot of people here are avid hikers and campers, and not just the kind that park a camper somewhere and walk down the paved road in the middle of the campground. We’re talking through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, and those who can take a single backpack into the woods and stay for a few days, no problem. I really envy them, though people have been really awesome about helping me get up to speed.

Anyway, one thing that I realized as I was making this drawing was that I got my early conception of the wilderness primarily from books. As a child, I must have read Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild countless times. London, of course, described the Arctic regions in very stark, manly-man, eat or be eaten terms. So that informed a lot of my understanding of wilderness growing up–which just made me even more attracted to it, especially since I mainly had yards and open lots as my substitute for wilderness (and which I still found endlessly fascinating).

And as I got older, and I continued to have really limited access to anything but generic suburbs, I found more and more that I formulated my understanding through books. In a lot of ways being a nerdy little bookworm helped me out a lot. However, I often substituted the map for the territory to the point that I often didn’t realize the difference. I ended up with a lot of abstracts based on not a lot of actual experience.

In some ways I wonder how much my spirituality is based more on the abstracts I’ve constructed. As I’ve finally been able to start fleshing out my experiences, it’s been sobering to see just how much I haven’t been in contact with the natural world. My increased exposure has changed my spirituality quite a bit. I’m finding more ways to ground my beliefs in my experiences, a good example of this is more work with local totems like Scrub Jay. And admittedly I’m pretty embarrassed about the fact that I’ve never seen my primary totem, Gray Wolf, in the wild, even if it’s mainly because I haven’t been in places where I’ve had that opportunity open to me.

I don’t think it’s a matter, though, of scrapping everything I’ve created. Even the abstract bits have helped give me a personal mythological structure to work with. Like my current Elk work. I haven’t met an elk in the wild, either, other than the two that nearly ran me over in a field back in June. But it’s helped immensely, as my next post (when I’ve time to write about it) will explain.

But I do think that I’m going to be spending more time grounding my spirituality in the Nature that it’s supposed to be based in. Neopaganism is full of abstractions, which just helped me to further distance myself from the source of my spirituality. (When you have people who worship deities of natural phenomena who claim they aren’t practicing a Nature-based religion, that should say something to someone, somewhere.) I think, perhaps, that therioshamanism has been in part a way for me to get that groundedness, even if I didn’t consciously realize it until recently. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and I’ve observed principles of my spirituality at work in it (and vice versa) but I think now I’m trying to make the distinction between the spiritual and the physical less…well…distinct.

More tomorrow.

Just a Thought on Offerings

I posted this over on my Livejournal, but wanted to share it here as well. It’s a paragraph from an essay I’m working on for an anthology:

Too often pagans have the tendency to take and take from the spirits and other beings who help us; too often we forget offerings. Or if we do make offerings, they’re rote and prescribed, and offer little practical aid to the spirits. While there’s nothing inherently wrong, for example, with leaving a place for the genius loci at the table at a feast to celebrate the harvest, this does nothing to relieve the actual soil that grew the food at that feast. We offer the spirits the “spiritual essence” of what we have benefited from, but we do nothing physical to help the physical phenomena that these spirits are attached to. In that, these sorts of offerings are somewhat of an empty gesture if we take both spiritually and physically, but only give back spiritually.*

* Yes, some people like to leave out food from the feast for wild animals as an “offering”. I fail to see how encouraging wild animals to do something mutually dangerous like associate humans with food is an offering, especially when it was the soil and not the animals that made the crops grow.

All Hail the Scavengers!

First off, before I get into the main topic of this post, I just wanted to give a brief squee of joy: I am not the only person to actively connect animism with bioregionalism! I got an appropriate comment on Bioregionalism and the Genius Locii with the above link, and having looked over the blog, I found it full of lots of good brain-foods (as well as some good ideas for further getting to know the bioregion I’ve chosen as my long-term home). Highly recommended.

So. Scavengers. A friend of mine over on Livejournal had remarked a few days ago that despite the importance vultures have had in various paleopagan religions and cultures, most notably Egyptian, neopagans really have a tendency to either ignore scavengers, or romanticize them as not-scavengers (think ravens as spirit guides–more on that in a bit). That really says a lot about the cultures that formed neopaganism; my experience is primarily with American neopaganism, so I’ll speak mainly to that.

In this culture, everything’s hygienic. Houses. Hospitals. Food production. Even the body-fluid-messy acts of sex and sexuality are presented as “glowing”. Because we are so far removed from our own bodily effluvia and that of other animals, we have the luxury of conveniently forgetting they’re there. So scavengers, animals that eat already-dead stuff that smells to high heaven, aren’t exactly the sexiest critters in the neopagan-totemic world. Well, okay–Raven’s pretty popular. But Raven’s also presented as intelligent, and with glossy black feathers, and associated with cool deities like the Morrigan. However, nobody wants to talk about the fact that ravens eat dead stuff–except for a few people who joke about ravens eating eyeballs. OTOH, ravens eating putrid, half-decayed intestines? Not so awesome. (Mmmm. I could go for some sausages right about now…)

(And let’s not get into glossy black feathers full of mites. Insects = NOT COOL according to a lot of modern totemists. Especially if they aren’t dragonflies or butterflies or other pretty bugs. And beyond that–tapeworms. Totemic tapeworms. Really.)

Ahem. I digress. But you get my point.

So yes. Nobody wants to play with the scavengers in the stinky dead stuff. Only a particular sense of humor would find this comic funny. (I laugh every time I read it–and the rest of the artist’s stuff is pretty good, if mostly more sanitary. /excuse for another parenthetical statement) Not surprising when you consider most people who eat meat have never killed or seen killed the animal they’re about to eat (except maybe crabs and lobsters, but those aren’t cute and furry and don’t count). And most of us here in the U.S. will never have to deal with what your average emergency room employee deals with, or clean up dead bodies–or, hell, see those bodies as anything other than the makeup-bedecked corpses in shiny coffins at funerals.

Lots of people don’t like human scavengers, either–again because we’re so removed from the processes involved with our basic needs. There’s a certain sense of entitlement on the part of some people in this culture. It’s the idea that because we can have access to food all the time, as well as medical care and utilities and other such things, that we’re not only allowed but encouraged to take them for granted. I see this every single time I see people leave a restaurant without taking substantial amounts of perfectly good leftovers home with them, instead leaving them to be thrown away (or, if you’re in Portland, at least they’ve a good chance of being composted). I saw it the time I was walking down a sidewalk behind a guy who was sorting out all the pennies in his pocket change and simply dropping them on the ground. I see it when people throw out perfectly good furniture and household items on trash day, instead of Freecycling it or having a local nonprofit thrift store come pick it up. Waste is a way of life here, because we think that we can get away with it.

So the dumpster divers and other people who take pains to salvage what others discard are seen as “strange” or “desperate”. I know of people who think that never buying anything used is a sign of success, and anyone who does otherwise is beneath them. Look at the trend of where our household appliances are going. Don’t worry about getting things repaired–just get a new one from the store! Anything else is seen as taking up too much time, and who’d be crazy enough to get a toaster repaired when Wal-Mart has a sale on them for ten bucks?

The thing is though…we do this because we do take what we have for granted. We assume that we’re always going to have access to food, water, shelter, safety, utilities, and other such things. We figure that the only way we can’t get a television at Best Buy is because they just had a huge clearance and everyone else beat us to it until they get the next shipment in–and even then, it was only on the one really fantastic new model that just came out. They still have televisions, but who wants those? Yet let there be one tiny hint of a shortage, and people panic. Remember what happened last year when it was reported that there was a shortage on rice? The stores couldn’t keep it in stock, partly because shoppers panicked and snapped up as much as they could. But we don’t actually have to worry about that happening for real, right?

Yet the scavengers say otherwise. They remind us of the uncomfortable truth that security is an illusion. They’re not afraid of that, though. They’re realistic. They make the most of the resources that are available. Most Americans are unfamiliar with just how precarious our situation is. Our economy is based on resources whose prices are artificially lowered thanks to government subsidies. Those resources drive our utilities that we take for granted, the things we assume will always be there that allow us to have the sort of lifestyle we have.

“How quickly you forget your history”, the scavengers say. I’ve heard people refer to the current recession as being as bad if not worse than the Great Depression. I don’t buy it. Yes, it sucks right now; I won’t deny that. But have you ever heard of a Hoover Hog? It’s a rabbit, a common, ordinary rabbit. During the Depression, numerous people, particularly in the southwest, ate rabbits because there was nothing else available. At least now we have the cheap hot dogs and burritos at the convenience store to fall back on. And if all else fails, there’s always ramen, staple food of poor college students everywhere!

And only a couple of generations ago, during WWII, we had rationing and Victory Gardens. Do you know how people would respond today if they had to ration? We’re still fighting multiple wars, and yet life goes on for most people because we don’t have any immediate reminders of the fact that there are hardships. There are still soldiers (and civilians) dying where these wars are happening–over 4,330 military personnel just in Iraq since the war began. And yet I guarantee that if rationing were imposed, you’d have more people out on the
street protesting that than were out with me and mine when the war first started. Priorities, what?

Scavengers are that reminder that we’re all gonna die. They’re the reminder that no matter how pretty a picture you paint of your life, nothing’s permanent. And it could all fall to pieces before you’re done with it. But, again, the scavengers aren’t afraid. They know what to do. They’re realistic, and prepared. And that’s their message that we so often ignore with our rose-colored glasses.

And the old pagans knew this, too. They didn’t have that luxury of being so removed from death and other unpleasantness. That’s why they didn’t just romanticize their view of nature to the point where it wasn’t real to them any more. We, on the other hand, have so removed ourselves from the reality of the way things are that we would prefer an imaginary stagnancy to the vibrant (and yes, sometimes subjectively unpleasant) variety and vigor of vida, vita, la vie!

Does this mean we should all walk around in sackcloth and ashes and bemoan our fates? Of course not. But what it does mean is (I can’t believe I’m about to use this cliched phrase) a shift in consciousness. We. Are. Privileged. The very fact that we can take basic things for granted that many, many people in other cultures–and yes, in America, too–have to scrabble for on a daily basis means that we have a metric fuckton of privilege. We shouldn’t let that be a reason to berate ourselves or, conversely, artificially inflate our importance. What we need to be doing is actively appreciating the technological and social advances that have made everything from indoor plumbing to antibiotics possible. It’s not just the basic actions we take–it’s the awareness guiding those actions that we need to start with. Many of the problems the human world faces today are due to taking things for granted and acting on some really shaky assumptions, as well as a big honking helping of deeeeeee-nial!

And we need to quit hating on the scavengers, human and otherwise. We need to stop glossing over the fact that yeah, Raven might be a trickster to some people, and a totem of a war goddess to others, and somehow a nocturnal (?) graveyard denizen to yet another, ah, demographic–but that Raven is also the totem over a species of birds that eat stinky dead corpses full of pus and other fluids, and that’s every bit as important as the mythos, if not moreso. Because whether we like it or not, they have important things to teach those of us who have our hands slapped firmly over our ears while we sing “La, la, la, la, I CAN’T HEAR YOUUUUU!!!!”

And if we can’t handle the very basic knowledge that death happens, decay happens, change happens, then how the hell are we going to be able to get anything out of the more esoteric lessons that the facilitators of those changes have to offer us in being more realistic and prepared for the things life may throw at us that we may not like, but need to deal with effectively anyway?

(Oh, and for the record, all you people with cool, impressive carnivorous totems like Wolf and Lion? Guess what? Your totems’ physical children eat carrion, too. Why go through the trouble and potential danger of injury of wandering across the land looking for animals to eat that may very well fight back, when hey–there’s a dead critter right there, ripe for the munching? It’s not just the scavengers who are practical, ya know. That’s why I don’t question whether I misidentified Wolf as my primary totem just because I love scavenging of numerous sorts–wolves aren’t going to turn their nose up at easy resources, no matter the origin.)

Elk’s Journey, Elk’s Gift

Today I did my first journey for a purpose other than exploration. I’ve been doing a lot of internal work lately, trying to work through the unhealthy conditioning and behavior patterns associated with depression and especially anxiety. They’re not a constant active influence in my life, but they do have a tendency to pop up with the right amount of stress in my life. I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and since I had an open invitation from Elk for help with emotional regulation, I decided to take hir up on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to develop a more formal ritual structure, but not based on the generic Wicca-flavored neopagan ritual structure I used to use. One of the challenges of essentially creating a practice from scratch is that there’s no authority telling me “Well, you need to do things this way or that”. I’m the one who decides, for the most part. The spirits will occasionally have a suggestion, but as far as they’re concerned, most of this is for my benefit and (eventually) the benefit of anyone I do this sort of work for. I have a desire for formality, though, so it’s up to me to create something appropriate that works.

Before my break over the past few months, when I journeyed I basically asked the drum and beater if they’d work with me, and then we’d drum together and I’d head off to where I needed to be. As I’m coming back, though, I’m finding myself being more deliberate about things. I still ask the drum and beater–and the horse, deer, and elk spirits in them–for permission. But then I warm the drum up with my hand, and then the beater; this is inspired by Ravenari’s method of doing so, and the spirits of the drum and beater really seem to appreciate it. It also helps me to ease out of my everyday headspace with all the concerns and stresses and distractions, and into the focus I need for any sort of ritual work.

I also asked the horse spirit in the drum to carry me to my starting point, instead of taking myself as I normally do. She agreed, and it made the trip a lot smoother, again partly because it helped with transitioning from one headspace to the next. I’m a little rusty, particularly in maintaining the visual aspect of journeying (I’ve always had trouble with consistent, unbroken visuals), but I had a good connection, and even when I let my “sight” relax, I was still definitely over in the spirit world.

So the drum-horse got me to the starting point, and I got onto the ground and turned into a wolf. I then worked to pick up the scent of Elk, and went to find hir. I found hir down in a valley not too far away; s/he’s been expecting me. I went to hir asked formally asked for hir help, turning back to a human being. I then held out a small elk antler tine I had brought with me as a symbol of what we were creating. Elk flinched a bit, and said “That smells like Death. Here, let’s go put it in that stream over there to cleanse it”. So we ran over there, and I placed it in the water, feeling the cool stream over my hand as I looked at the antler against the stones.

Then Elk turned into a human with an elk’s head, and so I turned into a human with a wolf’s head to match. We sat facing each other and spoke about the work we wanted to do together with helping me with emotional regulation. Elk brought up how soon the bull elk would be going into rut, and would be a lot more easily provoked, both by each other and other beings. Like the elk, I can be aggressive when I want something and can’t immediately get it or perceive something in my way. However, Elk pointed out that the bull elk don’t use any more force than necessary, even in rut, because injury is a serious thing when you’re a wild critter. Most confrontations between bull elk only end in one running away, and fights often don’t result in serious injury. (It’s still a lot of work for the bull who has a harem, who may barely eat during rutting season!)

Elk put antlers on my head and said the tine I brought was appropriate because while I can wield my own tines and harm others with them, I can also be injured by someone else’s antlers. Therefore it’s important that I’m doing this regulation work to avoid not only exhausting myself with unnecessary effort, but also injuring others or bringing injury to myself that wasn’t really needed.

Additionally, Elk talked about how there is a season to all things. There are times to be aggressive to get what I want, but that’s not all the time. I need to learn which time is which. With regards to depression and anxiety, these conditions are attempts to gain control–which is an illusion. I can’t control the world around me beyond a very limited scope, and the anxiety and depression are my way of trying to grasp at control in a situation where I feel like things are getting out of control. These are obviously maladaptive, and the better choice is to learn to adapt and roll with the punches that life throws–because nothing is ever going to be perfectly safe and secure, and that”s alright. So instead of facing the world with antlers lowered and ready, I need to learn to relax and only react when it’s actually warranted, and only to the degree that it needs to happen.

Then Elk had me retrieve the tine from the stream so I could take it back home with me, as a physical reminder of my commitment to healing myself with Elk’s help. I then offered Elk a set of three brass bells that I had brought with me as a gift for helping me. Elk laughed and said that s/he would have done this for me anyway, but that s/he appreciated the gift. S/he told me I could go; I stood, and waited to watch hir leave, but s/he just stood there waiting for me to go! Finally, s/he snorted and stomped, and I took off, with hir laughing in amusement as I did so.

I scrambled back up out of the valley to where the horse spirit was waiting. I climbed onto hir back, and s/he took me home. Soon as I came out of the journey and brought the drum back down again, I treated the drumskin to some mink oil; she’d been feeling dry and thirsty, and I’d promised her some treatment. Next, I drilled a hole in the elk tine, and put a piece of deerskin that Deer had donated to the cause. Here’s a pic:

As to the bells? Well, a while back, I believe it was Erynn who had suggested that I add bells to an elk antler that I didn’t know what to do with. So as my gift to Elk, I attached the bells to the ends of three of the tines and wrapped the rest of the antler in braided artificial sinew and waxed linen cord. The bells will later on be used in rituals as a way to help keep me oriented to where my body is so I can find my way back home. Here’s how it turned out:

So it was a successful journey overall, and I feel more confident in satisfying my need for structure. It’s all coming together, piece by piece.

On Totems and Categorizing

I’ve recently started working with Elk for help with emotional regulation. I’m working through some of the most deep-seated issues I have, and needless to say it’s been a real roller coaster–only not as much fun for me and those around me. Now, just out of curiosity, I did check a few totem animal dictionaries out of curiosity to see what Elk had taught other people, because s/he wasn’t who I would have expected to help me with this particular effort. I didn’t find anything specifically on healing psychological aches and pains, though I did find some emphasis on community involvement and intense emotions. This isn’t surprising, given the herd formation (particularly of females) and the aggression of bull elk during rutting season.

But then I found that I was really trying to come up with a label for Elk. Was Elk my emotional totem? My heart totem? My psychological health totem? My working through depression and anxiety totem? And I realized just how limiting a mindset that really is. Having been neopagan for over a decade, I can look at countless examples of books and other sources that treat not only totems but also deities and other beings as pigeonholed, categorized, and neatly shuffled into place, like so many correspondences. I even have heard plenty of pagans talking about which deity or totem or spirit to “use” for what purpose. Yes, different beings have their bailiwicks, but there’s almost no talk of the individuality and personal evolution of the spirits.

I decided I had to stop myself from doing was trying to put Elk into a category. I have the habit of thinking of Brown Bear as my healing totem, Whitetail Deer as my dream totem, and so forth, because those are the main ways they’ve interacted with me thus far. But I also know they’re not limited to these things, especially as I begin journeying again, and as my shamanic practice has deepened my relationships with them.

And that’s really one of my biggest complaints about the dictionaries–they unnecessarily limit our perception of what different totems can do, to the point where it almost becomes plug-and-play totemism. It’s a bad habit I need to get out of, myself. Totems are individuals; yes, they’re archetypal in nature, but archetypes continue to be shaped by the changes in what feeds and becomes them. For instance, our relationship as humans to elk as animals, as well as symbols, has changed over time, and from culture to culture. It doesn’t mean that older observations and relationships go away; they simply are joined by newer ones. And that all goes into the continuing evolution of Elk as totem. It’s that way for everything and everyone–we shape the world and the world shapes us, even if that shaping varies depending on the nature of the individual beings involved. Totems aren’t physical human beings or even physical animals, and to treat them as such is inaccurate.

At the same time, totems and other archetypal beings aren’t labels. Yes, it can be useful to have some shorthand ideas for casual discourse among totemists and others. But as I’ve maintained for years, what a particular totem tells me may not be what that totem tells someone else, and it’s ridiculous to expect that everyone will get the same message. Part of why I avoid going to dictionaries when I get a new totem or other animal spirit in my life is because I want to get to know them on our own terms, not bias myself by seeing what others had to say. Yes, I went and checked up on Elk in a couple of dictionaries, but that was after we’d already established some form of relationship, and I went in with curiosity, not seeking answers.

So I’m going to continue de-conditioning that tendency to say “Bear is the healer, Deer is the dreamkeeper” because it’s too limiting, both for them and for others–as well as myself. It’s a really bad habit, and I suggest my readers who work with totems in a neopagan/neoshamanic sense take a look at similar patterns in your own views of the totems and other spirits you work with.