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.

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11 thoughts on “Back to the Roots

  1. This is very interesting stuff, and quite important, and is a GREAT reminder to us all that if we really do value “the physical” in paganism/polytheism/animism/etc. as much as we say we do, then we should, you know, actually VALUE the physical in all these ways and more.

    We had a nice forest with paths behind my house for the majority of my youth; then in the 11th grade, they cut it down. Only one person–my American Lit teacher, who I didn’t like very much then–understood why that was a problem. One of our themes in his class was “sense of place,” and on a particular day, someone was giving me a hard time (as they often did), and he said “Lay off him–he’s having ‘sense of place’ problems that no one can do anything about.” And while he was half-joking, it was extremely insightful of him to say so.

    I have a question for you, which I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few years. Candles are this practically “essential” ritual item for most pagans/polytheists; and yet, I’m rather uneasy about using them. Conspicuous consumption is the name-of-the-game with so much religious activity (and so much of what “spiritual things” cost is somewhat justified in those terms–“shouldn’t you want to spend that much on your gods?”); but, in an environmentally-aware state like many of us think we are, can we ignore that burning a bunch of tea-lights–while it may not have as big an impact as driving a car 300 miles a week–does create some impact, and perhaps other alternatives should be explored. (This also gets me about Shinto practice–rather than recycling the amulet materials after a year, they’re all burned…eeesh!) Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, if you have any.

  2. I’m with you about spending time out in nature. I mean yeah, I spend a lot of time cooped up in my apartment, but I also understand the utter necessity of getting outside and just being there, whether it’s sunny or rainy or the wind is blowing or it’s snowing or whatnot. Like you, I spent a great deal of time in my childhood out in the woods and using that as a shelter from all the chaos around me. Nature was, quite frankly, far more predictable and safe to me than other human beings ever were.

    The longer I’ve been a part of the Pagan communities, the more I realize that it’s not a “nature religion” in the sense people claim. While some Pagans certainly get out into it, the vast majority would have no idea what to do on a camping trip, or what local plants are edible and won’t poison them, or know how to deal with hypothermia. I find it sad and disheartening, particularly considering the importance of that kind of knowledge as technological civilization slowly circles the drain.

    Yet we do exist, Pagans who feel that deep and visceral connection with the world in its physical manifestations. It’s something I keep having to try to explain to other Pagans — the three realms are not abstract concepts, they’re right here right now. They’re everything we see and eat and breathe. You can’t invoke or dismiss them, they simply are. Very frustrating, that sort of thing.

    *huge hugs*

  3. Frankly, what you’re doing, spending time out in the woods, is the one of most vital, essential acts of a shaman, as far as I’m concerned. The neo-shamanisms out there generally play to the ideas (or the spirits of ideas, if you’ve read my blog) and not to the realities. But you’ve seen the realities, and you know that those relationships are important.

    How can you NOT spend time among your other friends, actually physically among all those Other People, the non-human ones, and still have a sense of serving community as a shaman. In my mind, you can’t, unless you lie to yourself, and you don’t strike me as that sort of person.

    So, if anyone else gives you shit about not being all ceremonial-ly and stuff, know that there’s at least one other person (and it looks like aediculaantinoi amd Erynn would agree with me) that think you’re doing it the right way.

  4. I’ve been getting outdoors more lately too, and loving it. For me, it doesn’t need to be either/or, because I bring all the religion right along with me, for that’s what being a spiritworker is about to me. I go to those places, I meet the spirits that live there, and I honor them with offerings and songs and attention and gratitude (and often, also honor the gods that can be found there as well, even though I also have shrines to them in my home). And I honor the physical beings (plants, animals) of nature as well, not only when I go out in the woods, but all the time, by working to lessen my impact on the environment (which really should be more common in paganism, but sadly is not).

    I definitely think that all pagans need to get out of their houses more and experience the reality of what we spend so much time talking about. Then, when we *do* hold ritual and contact spirits and make offerings, we’re doing it from a place of real connection.

  5. I submit that this is a case of “animism as she is spoke”. A lot of paganism (both paleo and neo) seems to be a formalization of what was originally a more organic and ad hoc set of relations with entities and environments that surrounded us. You’re just returning to that original set, I think. Kind of the “empty hand magic” thing that sorcerous types say long-time practice leads to. Kudos. Seems like it’ll work a lot better for you.

  6. Lupa, this really moved me.

    It has also tapped into the reasons I label myself an atheist. My past experiences with “spiritual” people have been awful – wishy-washy flower children who couldn’t see the beauty of a moth or a patch of ragwort, and who hide behind ritual and woo woo.

    That’s not me. My spirituality comes from my volunteer work and my time out in the world (be that the woods, the coast or the city).

    Of course atheism isn’t right either.

    Neo-paganism is so far removed from the land and hir inhabitants, it does make me sad. Thankfully you are out there shaking us by the shoulders!

  7. good luck Lupa.

    I think there are at least a few of us that need to find ourselves again, to reconnect with something we have somehow grown distant from. I’m not sure where I am heading myself, but I think I’m ready for it.

    It feels like how a captain must feel when he has been away from the sea for too long.

  8. You have to follow your path as you need it. I would no sooner deny you that than air or water. I think giving yourself the time without the labels is healthy, and giving yourself time to get yourself situated even more so. If that’s what you need, it’s what you need.

  9. Hanging out with nature is always calming, and wonderful for the soul.

    I got bullied a bit too, till my anger issues took over and I ended up breaking all of a girl’s fingers with a chair. They backed off a bit after that.

    MOVING ON;

    I can kind of imagine the feel of losing something so important. There is an area near where I live, kind of like a rather small “canyon”, about one and a half miles long and a mile wide, but very much full of nature. Unfortunately, it’s on top of limestone, and water runs through it frequently. And, as anyone who took geology probably knows (or knew and forgot) those are the perfect ingredients for terrible erosion and a rather large sinkhole.

    In short, one day it will be gone, and that day will probably come soon.

    But in this city, built around a river that produces some of the worst floods in Texan history, such things are normal. You can’t fully expect that your house is going to be safe when the rain starts to get heavy, you might wake up at three in the morning because there’s water inside the house. I’ve watched someone’s house float down the river like it was a boat, before it hit a bridge and sank.

    I guess I’m better prepared for the loss because of that mentality. I know it’s not permanent. That won’t stop me from missing it, but eh.

    Anyways, it sounds like the changes in your life are actually rather good. You’re healthy, physically fit, re-learning the basics and learning more about other fields, and you’ve found a great way to relax.

    It’s all good. 🙂

  10. and for those of us that are still trapped in the city’s with no job or money, darn California. I suffered a childhood similar to yours, to tired to explain it. But even the small plants that grew around a dirt mound comforted me, I never had a forest in my backyard, just more houses. Remember to look at the small things too. Nice post, totally understand. Have fun, and one day i too can spend time with the original beings. But there is always more then just physical, all those skins and skulls you have, have a vibration, feel it, embrace it because even though it is sitting in your apartment, it has valuable power.

    What you are doing sounds a bit similar to a vision quest. That is if your willing to dig yourself a hole in the forest and sleep there for the night haha. Good job, share your experiences if you can! :]

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