Back to the Roots

You may have noticed (unless you’ve forgotten about me) that I haven’t posted here since late April. That’s because I really haven’t been doing much shamanic work for the past few months. Instead, I’ve been out in the woods and the desert and by the ocean. This year I’ve spent more time out in the wilderness, and outdoors in general, than I have in years. And it’s been nothing short of revolutionary for me.

Let me tell you a story. When I was a child, starting from a very young age, I was always fascinated by the outdoors. I lived in a semi-rural area for most of my childhood, and I always had access to some patch of open land, where I would explore for hours (even when I wasn’t supposed to). Ironically enough, I was never taken camping or hiking or anything of the sort. I was the only one in my family so taken by the outdoors, and I didn’t really have friends, so I didn’t have other people’s families to take me out to the wilderness instead. I was in Girl Scouts, but that was an utter joke. Their idea of “camping” was to have us stay the night in sleeping bags on the floor of an old industrial bakery where the only wildlife consisted of large cockroaches. Beyond that it was making potholders and singing songs (you have no idea how much I envied the Cub and Boy scouts at school, who actually got to do neat things).

I got picked on horribly as a child, pretty much from second grade through the end of high school. It was awful. Adults often downplay bullying as “just what kids do”. But it’s not just that simple. Bullying is traumatic. It’s psychological–and in some cases physical–abuse. And the effects can last long beyond graduation. The people who downplay it often either don’t want to take responsibility for their children (or, if they were bullies themselves, their own actions), or they simply didn’t know what to do about it and hoped it would just work itself out. Just because something has “always” happened doesn’t excuse it.

Anyway. Enough of that. The point is that I escaped into the outdoors as much as I could. That’s where I went to get away from people. The grass and the trees and the insects–they didn’t care that I didn’t wear the right clothing, or do stuff with my hair, or wear makeup, or any of the other girly things I was supposed to do but didn’t. They didn’t care that I was smart and didn’t hide it. They didn’t tell me that I should just try harder to make friends, even though just about everyone I could have been friends with was participating in the bullying to one extent or another. They were simply there, and learning about them made me feel safe from the distress I was experiencing on a daily basis from my peers.

I never realized how much I relied on the outdoors and my little wild places for solace and safety until I had that taken from me. When I was in 9th grade, fourteen years old, I came home one day in spring. I got off the bus, and saw that the little acre patch of woods behind my house had been completely bulldozed. Only a single large tree remained; the rest was a ruin.

I don’t remember my exact reaction, or what transpired. All I remember is that I have never, ever felt that devastated. I can’t even describe it beyond feeling like the most important thing had been taken from me. And no one understood. I remember being told that the developer who had had the woods bulldozed to make way for a subdivision had had her own woods destroyed to make way for the middle school decades ago–how was that supposed to make things any better? And I suppose it was just expected that I’d get over it.

But I didn’t.

There is little support in this culture for dealing with grief, and even less so if the focus of your grief is not a human being to whom you are supposed to be close. One of the reasons I have gravitated toward ecopsychology is that it not only acknowledges but supports and works with strong emotional and psychological connections to Nature. To be deeply affected by the loss of a natural place that you have become attached to, especially when you feel powerless to do anything about the chaos that its destruction has wrought–this is not only acceptable but given space to have voice in ecopsychology.

I wish, I so wish, that I had had someone that I felt understood how deeply this affected me back then. I felt like I was the only person I knew who even felt close to Nature, never mind feeling this loss. After this event, everything changed. I stopped being interested in Nature, for the most part, because thinking about it hurt so much. I started trying to conform more, even though I didn’t want to. I started looking for more outlets for connection–a few people in school who tolerated me, a few boyfriends who I dated because they were the only ones who would have me. Not that it really helped. I was in a small town, and because I had been going to school with the same bullies since first grade, any time I ended up in the next level of school, my reputation was set for me by the end of the first week of class. And because it was such a small group of people, there really wasn’t anyone for me to connect with.

Toward the end of high school I finally connected with some people who had similar interests, though they went to school in a different town. They were geeky, which meant I finally had someone else to talk to about things like sci fi and fantasy novels, and was introduced to the internet. And they were pagan–finally, someone who understood the importance of Nature!

Well, sort of. This wasn’t the direct connection to Nature. It was filtered through abstract concepts like rituals and magic and so forth. You didn’t connect to Nature as physical entities, but as spirits and gods and the Wheel of the Year. Fine. I’d try that. Maybe it was more grown-up. After all, I’d gotten disillusioned with the Catholicism I’d been raised with long before, and here I’d finally found someone willing to talk about something different, to include something that had more meaning to me than what I’d been told was the connection to God.

And I spent the next thirteen years becoming more and more pagan. I went through the initial “Wheee, this is cooooool!” phase, then did a bunch of practicing and exploring, and then did the book author thing, and then most recently was developing my own neoshamanic path. I made a lot of friends, and found some partners, too, and really learned a lot of the social skills that I had totally missed back when I was being told by my peers how wrong I was for existing. There were a lot of good things that came out of that community for me, even though I also became quite acquainted with the drama and the ridiculousness. It was still worth it.

And yet….and yet….there was always this little thing in the back of my head, something that felt empty. Something was missing. I touched on it a couple of times over the years, but always ignored it because I was so wrapped up in what I was doing. And it was this: that paganism, “nature religion” as it were, was my attempt to try to reforge that deep connection with Nature that had been severed when I was fourteen. See, even as a pagan, I didn’t spend as much time in the wilderness as I had before, especially when I moved to a city and the nearest large park was a half an hour drive away on a good day.

Looking back, the worst times of my adult life were times when I had spent the least time in the outdoors. Yet I did better when I had a lot of outdoor time. When I worked as a utility meter reader, hunting down gas meters in rural areas, that reminded me of what I was missing, and I managed to survive what was a pretty crappy, low-paying job because it had me out in the woods and fields five to six days a week. Practicing rituals in my living room just didn’t have the same effect, even though it was supposed to “connect me to nature” in an urban setting.

Don’t get me wrong. Nature is everywhere. It’s in the pigeons and container gardens and grass in the sidewalk cracks. It’s in the gastrointestinal flora and respiration and sex. But it’s easy to overlook those things, even when you know their meaning. In pagan spirituality, our rituals are supposed to bring us to heightened states of awareness of the sacred. In the same way, being out in wilderness areas heightens awareness of Nature.

Once I moved to Portland three years ago, I found myself immersed in Nature in a way I hadn’t ever been. Sure, I had direct access as a child, but those were to small places, and I had no way to get to bigger places except by the power of other people who generally didn’t have that same interest. Here, as an adult, I was able to pick up and go out to the Columbia River Gorge, or the Pacific Ocean, or any of a number of other places. And I was surrounded by people who supported awareness of Nature in an urban setting–this place is rife with gardens and environmental action and locavorism and all sorts of other reminders of our direct connection to the physical Earth and Sky and their denizens.

And when I found myself in this place where I could, at will, immerse myself deep in the wilderness, in temperate rain forest mountain ranges, or the largest ocean in the world, or sagebrush desert, I could no longer deny that emptiness I had been trying to pretend wasn’t there. So I allowed Nature in. And it flooded me, and filled me, and for the first time in almost two decades, I feel whole in a way I haven’t in so long. Yes, I have more pain and scars that life has doled out in that time; it hasn’t been an instant fix for all my troubles. But I have what I lost, that fundamental basis to my feeling of safety and stability that being outdoors provided, the thing that helped me the most in surviving the pain of my childhood. Sure, my problems as an adult are bigger now, and more numerous. But I feel more capable of handling them because I have this again.

This isn’t religion or even spirituality, at least not in a theistic sense and these things have never offered the support that this has. This is direct connection with physical Nature. It’s natural history. It’s direct, uninhibited sensory experience. And the meaning that I place on it is all mine. There’s no justifying invisible beings to other people. There’s aesthetics, to be sure; not everyone sees beauty in a vulture, or enjoys sleeping on a tent set up on a rocky mountain top. Yes, I would like others to see the beauty I find, but not as a way of converting to a religion; rather, I just want to make sure that people work to preserve what we have here, the life support system we all rely on. You don’t have to think the rain forests are gorgeous, but I’d love it if you saw how vital–and I choose that word deliberately–they are to our very existence.

The semiotics and abstractions of religion and spirituality got in the way of that for me. I was so busy focusing on creating a “better” map with my books and my shamanic path and everything else that I lost sight of the territory. Why did I need to journey to meet with Raven or Juniper when all I had to do was go out into the wilderness to find them? If I wanted to connect to the wild places near my home, why did I spend time writing about them instead of being in them? Sitting with my drum in my apartment just wasn’t the same as going to these places–and these were the places, and their denizens, that I most wanted to connect with anyway. The map is not the territory–and I’ve been trying to use the map to find that territory so long that I forgot that nothing is any good until my feet move me where I’m supposed to be.

…and I’ll admit some disillusionment with the worst neopaganism has to offer. People having pissing matches over invisible “truths”. People ignoring hard evidence and adopting things like homeopathy, or lighting a single candle and thinking that will wrap the entire Earth in “good energy” and that’s just as good as making a donation or volunteering time or even writing letters to the right decision-makers. People for whom “sacred group ritual” means “get sloppy-ass drunk and loud and rude and fuck openly around a fire, never mind the comfort level of other people in attendance”. And mistaking the map for the territory to the point of denying any connection between worshipping a deity/spirit of the Earth/its denizens (take your pick, there are plenty) and having awareness of the actual physical effect we have on the environment.

This has been a year of paring down and streamlining. I got divorced this past spring, and moved into my own apartment for the first time in almost five years this past June. I ended up in the hospital with a potentially lethal abdominal infection back in May, and that made me chew on a lot of existential questions and problems. I’m starting my internship in the fall, where I get to put the theories I’ve been learning in grad school the past two years into actual practice, which has brought up additional food for thought with regards to functionality and pragmatism.

So I’m going back to my very basics. I’m not reading books about magic and ritual and spirits. I’m not performing rituals I’ve constructed according to what I’ve argued shamanism “should” be. I’m not trying to construct ever more elaborate systems of semiotics and correspondences. Instead, I’m going to the Deschutes River and the Pacific Ocean and Chinidere Mountain and Multnomah Falls. I’m reading more about science and natural history and nature writing–and, of course, ecopsychology, the psychology of how we connect with the natural world. I’m digging around in my container garden and buying food from the farmer’s market and visiting the ranch where I get my free-range meat from. I’m hiking and walking to the store and running 5k three times a week.

And I’m taking solace in that direct contact. Even as I’ve been hit with so many things this year, and even as the responsibilities of being a grown adult weigh heavy on me at times, knowing that I have so many amazing places to visit, and so many wild beings to learn about, including many that are new to me, helps give me more to look forward to.

I’m not not a pagan. I’m not even not necessarily a shaman. I’m not hanging up those hats just yet. But for the time being, I’ve set aside the extrapolations and abstractions and the map, and am taking time to just be a part of the territory. I don’t know where that will take me–and I’m okay with that.