Vegan Skindancing

So I’m in the process of writing a new book; it’ll be on totemism, but it’s going to be something of an experiment–and that’s all I’m going to say right this moment 😉 Also, in case you missed it, I have an article on animal parts and paganism on Witchvox this week.

Anyway, I was paging through my previous books about totemism and animal magic in preparation for working on the new book, and I read over the part in Skin Spirits where I talked about vegan alternatives to using actual animal parts. It seems a little odd to sandwich that into a book all about using dead animal remains for magical and spiritual purposes, but really, the basic principles in the book apply even if you don’t have actual animal parts to work with. Since not everybody has rushed out to buy the book (not that I would complain if you did!), and since I still really like this concept, I thought I’d share it here.

See, it’s all about the spirits in the remains. The main spirit/soul of the animal departs on death, but what is left is a sort of spiritual “residue”, a haunt or memory if you will. It’s that which I work with when I do skindancing, or make artwork, or anything else involving animal parts. The actual work described in Skin Spirits, though, can really be applied to any animal spirit.

Let’s take skindancing, for example. I started dancing in a wolf skin at Brushwood Folklore Center way back in 2002, and while the Pacific Northwest hasn’t yielded very many opportunities for dancing*, I still try to get out to dance when I can. (Sunfest next month will be my next known opportunity, and I’ve always loved dancing there!) Now, I’ve always danced in an actual skin; my first one has been retired, and I’m on my second, who hasn’t gotten nearly enough time out at the drum circles. The basic concept is the same regardless of what skin I wear, though: I am connected with the spirit in the skin, and with the more overarching totem, Grey Wolf in this case. The spirit in the skin helps to serve as a conduit for the totem, being closer in nature to that totem. (In my practice, I conceptualize totems as archetypal beings that embody everything about a given species, to include individual animal spirits.) So not only is the spirit getting a body to wear for an amount of time, but the dancer gets to experience a bit of what it is to be a wolf, or a deer, or a bear, or whatever animal is being danced.

You don’t, however, need an actual dead animal for this, though. Vegan costumery can also work just as well. After all, look at the various animal masks made of wood and other plant materials in indigenous cultures worldwide. Are those going to be less effective in connecting to the totem or other animal being than fur or feathers? Perhaps there may need to be a certain amount of work to add to the plant materials what comes naturally in animal materials, but this can be done. Some would observe that the very act of creating the mask or other costumery in the image of the animal creates the connection with the animal; however, you can even go a step further and make the costume into a spirit house.

Basically, you’re inviting an animal spirit that does not currently have any physical form to come and live in the costume you create. You can do this prior to creating it, during the process, or after; it all depends on how you want to make the invitation. Some people find that contacting the spirit beforehand and having its guidance during the creation process works well. Others may find that having a completed house ready is a better option, especially those who prefer to buy other people’s creations. How you invite the spirit in is up to you; while the actual trappings of the ritual may vary from person to person, the intent is to either invite a specific spirit in, or set a sort of “open house” sign up to invite a spirit of the appropriate species to take up residence. You can even talk to the relevant totem and see if s/he can connect you with an individual animal spirit to work with.

There’s also the potential for “created” spirits. If you put enough energy into something, it can literally take on a life of its own, even if you didn’t intend it that way. (This resembles the concepts of servitors and egregores in Chaos magic, by the way, among other parallels.) If you’re going to deliberately go this route, talking to the totem can be very helpful in getting feedback on determining what qualities of the species to infuse into the costume as you create it or begin working with it.

As to the actual materials? I’m a big fan of using secondhand things, so stuff like old faux fur coats works great. There are also manufacturers of fake animal teeth, claws and bones; the Bone Room has particularly high quality reproductions of a lot of different animal skulls. And if you’re artistic, creating your own out of various media is most definitely an option.

What you want is to have something that you can wear while dancing or otherwise invoking the spirit and the totem, and something that the spirit can feel comfortable living in, a sort of movable shrine. Whether this is made of real animal parts or not, may you find it to be a highly effective connection to the beings you’re working with!

* For some reason, at every pagan festival I’ve been to here in the Pacific Northwest, instead of dancing in a moving circle around the fire like everyplace else I’ve been, people just stand in a circle and dance in place. It confused the hell out of me at first. Some places have been wonderfully accommodating, and the people who have gotten to know me well have been awesome enough to share space with me so we can each dance our own way. Others…well…not so much. FWIW, I am always looking for opportunities for wolf dancing at drum circles! (Hint, hint!)

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Thunderstorms and Wildflowers

(Apologies to those with feeds for the number of pictures lengthening this post.)

Earlier this week, I decreed Wednesday to be “Take a Fucking Hike Already!” day. I haven’t been out as much as I would like as of late, and so in an effort to get more outdoor time as well as make myself some schedule self-care time, I decided to take one afternoon every week for extensive hiking or similar outdoor endeavors. I headed out to Washington to Catherine Creek, which I had heard has absolutely beautiful wildflowers this time of year (or so said the author of the Portland edition of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles). I also recently replaced my old, dying camera with a refurbished Lumix care of Woot.com, and though it’s proven its worth in photographing my artwork, I wanted to see how it did with nature photography.

So I jumped in my car Wednesday morning and headed out into the Gorge. Even in the middle of the week, the parking lot at the trailhead was almost entirely full, though it has capacity for about fifteen cars before you start parking on the grass. The day was absolutely brilliant–sunny, upper 60’s, some breeze from the west. I got my gear (such as it was) situated, and headed on up the trail.

Now, I had had the intention of hiking the entire 4.1 mile loop. However, my progress ended up being significantly slower than I had intended because I kept finding really pretty things to take pictures of. Before I even got to the trailhead, in fact, I had already pulled over to the side of the road to take pictures of some poppies:

And then there were mossy carpets spiked with bitterroot:

Plus some verdant young oak leaves:

And pine trees, both live…

…and long dead…

Never mind the tadpoles.

And the turkey vultures.

As I proceeded up the ridge, I had a great vantage point to see a massive array of dark clouds coming up over the mountains to the southeast. At first I figured they would most likely pass by to the north and east of where I was. However, the wind shifted, and I began to worry as they started my way.

It wasn’t until I heard thunder, though, that I decided that being up on an exposed ridge was a great way to become a headline; “Hiker killed by lightning strike”, while it sounds less dramatic than it probably would be, is not what I’d like my last word in this world to be.

So I made my retreat back down the trail, only having made it a little over a mile up in the first place. The rain started to fall just as I got to my car, and so I headed back west toward Portland and sunnier skies.

This hike really exemplified postindustrial humanity’s relationship with nature in a very basic nutshell. Human being goes out with shiny technology to take a particular slice of nature back with her. Bigger, scarier and much more uncontrollable slice of nature thwarts nicely planned activities. Retreat ensues. Unlike many people, though, I didn’t see it as a waste of time or a reason to curse the storm. I was grateful for the time I got out on the ridge, and was rather philosophical about not having any control whatsoever about the storm coming in and changing anything. If anything, I felt fortunate that I had enough time to get off the ridge and to my car safely, and that I got to see a phenomenon that’s pretty rare on my side of the Cascades (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard thunder in Portland, which is entirely different from my experiences growing up in the Midwest!).

And I did get a poem out of it, too:

Catherine Creek, 5/18/2011 – by Lupa

Stem-threads bow their heads;
The ladies hold their hats against the wind.
The sun yields to massive paws
Of a bear rumbling across the ridge.
Only the birds are defiant:
Ravens pick at wet, grey fur;
Vultures ride the warm breath;
Swallows look no further than their brush.

A Brief Quote

As an addendum to the discussion on “Natural” vs. “Artificial”, I was reminded of this quote that says what I was trying to get at:

It’s dangerous to think of ourselves as loathsome creatures or as perversions in the natural world. We need to see ourselves as having a rightful place. We take pictures of all kinds of natural scenes and often we try to avoid having a human being in them…In our society, we force ourselves into a greater and greater distance from the natural world by creating parks and wilderness areas where our only role is to go in and look…We lavish tremendous concern and care on scenery but we ignore the ravaging of environments from which our lives are drawn.” –Richard Nelson, as meta-quoted in The Sacred Earth, edited by Jason Gardner

This reminds me of Richard Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder, the byproduct of children no longer having access to wild, open areas to simply explore in and play, but instead being increasingly hemmed in and protected.

In order to connect, we have to allow ourselves to be connected.

Wolf and Environment

For a number of years now, the grey wolf has been the primary North American charismatic megafauna to be associated with the environmental movement, particularly that involving preserving wilderness habitats. Beyond the environmental movement, wolves capture imaginations (and cliches) like no other animal in the American consciousness, from werewolves (both scary and…uh…well, not quite sparkly) to truck stop t-shirts, and then some. Unfortunately, attraction in the symbolic value of wolves doesn’t always translate to care for the actual physical animals; I’m willing to lay odds people spend more money on wolf statues and shirts and other tchotchkes than they do donating time and/or money to nonprofits that work to preserve wilderness, or contacting their elected officials about wilderness and wildlife protections.

And because Wolf is such a popular totem, s/he’s often taken for granted. It’s gotten to the point where some people are reluctant to admit that Grey Wolf is their totem because so many others essentially choose Wolf because s/he’s “cool” (to borrow an idea from this excellent essay by Ravenari). And, bringing things back to the environmental movement, I’ve heard environmentalists stereotyped by more conservative factions as “just people who think wolves are puppies and trees need hugging”. Which can make it tough sometimes to admit either being an environmentalist or liking wolves/Wolf the totem/etc.

To be fair, there are reasons for the sparkly stereotypes. There are environmentalists who think that all you need to do is recycle your old newspapers, or who are convinced that everyone needs to get off the grid and be vegans. And there are people who claim Wolf as a totem who never go any farther than that claim, and maybe reading the entry for Wolf in Animal-Speak (not no actual books about wolves). Sometimes people grow out of it and get more critical thinking skills or depth of understanding; others simply stay put. Either way, Wolf often becomes a mere mascot for surface interpretations of pretty complex topics. But that doesn’t mean that there is no value to the Wolf = environment connection.

For example, I was reading about how wolves are not only hunters but skilled scavengers as well. Hunting is dangerous, especially when it comes to going after big game. The payoff is better in the amount of meat, but the risk of severe injury or death is significantly different between hunting a rabbit, and hunting an elk. And carrion is even less dangerous, as long as it isn’t too old and moldy. So what wolf, needing to eat out in the wild to survive, would turn down an easy meal? Yet scavenging isn’t seen as sexy in American culture, other than in certain subcultures where the DIY (do it yourself) ethic is valued. Wolves, in mainstream culture, are usually depicted as ferocious hunters taking down large game, sometimes even supposedly as lone hunters. (Anyone remember that scene in Wolf where Jack-Nicholson-the-werewolf takes down a full-grown deer all by himself–in human form?*) In popular media, scavenging is largely left to the much-maligned vultures (this maligning is largely undeserved, as I explain here).

Human scavengers get a bad rap, too. There’s a lot of pressure in this culture to buy the newest, most bestest material goods EVER. If you buy secondhand, or get things repaired, it’s assumed that it’s because you simply can’t afford anything else, poor you (literally). Yet a lot of the people who apply the Reuse portion of Reuse-Reduce-Recycle to their everyday lives are perfectly capable of buying new–but choose not to. Of course, you have people who have to go that route, whether it’s only being able to buy clothing at Goodwill, or spending a lot of time dumpster diving out of sheer necessity.

So we can metaphorically equate the scavenging efforts of wolves to those of humans, as well as the attitudes toward scavenging–it’s supposed to be invisible in the powerful. At the same time, hunting, and particularly solitary hunting, is seen as the epitome of skill and worth, and so people who primarily make their living at a well-paying day job and throw their money around are seen by many as more successful or important than someone who lives more modestly within their means. The pursuit of the individual paycheck, and the hunt for the big game, is seen as superior to making use of what the “successful” have discarded.

Yet Wolf is an important symbol in all this. Wolf does both, and finds both to be nourishing. Having the skills to be able to both hunt and scavenge means more opportunities than in specializing in only one of those. In addition, scavenging carcasses is a necessary way to prevent the spread of disease, and other effects of leaving dead bodies around too long, as well as requiring fewer deaths overall; it’s good for the environment. Similarly, though for some different reasons, human scavenging and getting the most use out of secondhand resources is also good for the environment by creating less demand for new materials and reducing waste.

So there’s a good bit to be learned from Wolf in all this. Versatility, and not being afraid to do what needs to be done, regardless of what that is, are key points here. Wolf is both Hunter and Scavenger, and perhaps Wolf’s human counterparts may be able to take this lesson and apply it to real-world change.

* Okay, admittedly, Jack Nicholson made an awesome werewolf as far as I’m concerned. However, his awesomeness should not be taken as natural history by any stretch of the means.

So You Want to Be an American Shaman…

A recent comment brought up a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. There was a request for more specific examples of how one can incorporate shamanism into general American culture (with the caveat, of course, that different subgroups in the U.S. and even individual people will react differently).

My personal favorite way is to find established roles in American culture that are more or less analogous to the shaman. There’s no single clear “shaman” role here, but elements of it may be found in several professions/callings.

The key in finding these roles is to look at the function of the shaman or similar figure in the cultures in which they are found, and then find roles in this culture that function similarly on some level. This is not a particularly animistic culture, and most people think the concept of spirits is either evil or insanity. Therefore there is only a relatively small slice of Americans who would be willing to consult a “shaman”. However, it’s still possible to fulfill the functions of a shaman while in a profession more commonly accepted here.

So what are the functions of a shaman? A lot depends on the culture, so please don’t take these as anything more than generalizations, but commonly:

–The shaman is a bridge between two worlds, whether between the community and a neighboring community, or the humans and spirits, or humans and non-human nature, etc. This can facilitate cooperation, but can also be integral to aggression, such as shamans working malevolent magic toward rival communities in times of war.

–The shaman is a healer, using physical and/or spiritual medicines and methods to cure ailments of the body, mind and spirit.

–The shaman is a mediator and may be called on to help with conflicts in the community.

–The shaman may or may not be an integrated part of the community, depending on culture. In some cases, the shaman functions as somewhat of a social scapegoat or outcast upon which the ills of the community are cast.

–The shaman is the keeper of rituals and lore, the applied mythology that creates meaning and facilitates passages in the community.

These are just some examples of functions of the shaman. So where are these found in American culture?

–Counselor/therapist: This, of course, was the path I chose. To my mind, one of the foundational functions of the shaman is as the mediator between worlds, and in addition to external relationships, this includes intrapsychic communication among different levels of the self. As a counselor, I will be helping people gain better insight into themselves and how their minds work, which can also be applied to clients’ relationships, life choices, and other external circumstances. While often shamans may go on journeys alone, in some cases they take the client with them into the journey. In the same way, a counselor may take a more directive approach in giving the client advice and prescribing treatment, or may be more collaborative and integrate the client in the decisions surrounding therapy–how much direction depends on a variety of factors including the client, what’s being treated, the “energy” of the individual session, and so on. In most cases the journey is into the psyche, not the Otherworld (though some would argue there’s no difference other than semantics), though some therapists, such as those incorporating narrative therapy, may help clients create and carry out personal rites of passage, sometimes even including friends, family and other relevant people.

–Doctors and other medical professions: A friend of mine became am EMT as part of her shamanism. Like it or not, the Western medical system is the dominant paradigm of healing in the U.S. This paradigm, however, is not as monolithically pharmaceutical as it once was, however. Preventive medicine is a bigger concern, and doctors are carefully integrating complementary medicines which are shown to be effective. When treating my acid reflux, my doctor, for example, is a well-established internist, but she consults her hospital’s database of treatments which includes both omeprazole and probiotics. Given that things like antibiotics and heart surgery are the reason that the average lifespan in the U.S. is in the upper 70s/lower 80s, any “healer” would be highly unethical to dismiss Western medicine entirely. In fact, a shaman should recommend whatever is most effective, not whatever is most trendy. This means that some shamans may want to get training in Western medicine, whether that’s first aid training, or medical school, or any point in between.

–Clergy: While the term “clergy” often brings up Christianity in most Americans’ minds, clergy as a function transcends religious trappings. A clergyperson is someone who is a spiritual leader in their community, who holds the rituals and mythos of the religion, and offers guidance within the structure of that path. Pagan clergy most often resonate with the role of shaman, but really, there’s nothing keeping a clergyperson of any other religion from also applying that function to themselves, other than personally perceived boundaries.

–Artist/writer/musician: The right-brained wellspring of creativity found in all arts is a wonderful tool for journeying and other practices of shamanism. A shamanic performance ritual, for example, relies a great deal on the suspension of disbelief to help the audience “know” that the shaman whose body is in front of them is also flying in another realm, perhaps even having turned into another animal or other being. Creative works, whether visual, auditory, etc. can all be portals to other levels of consciousness/planes of reality, and art may consciously be used to facilitate the same sorts of tasks that a shaman in another culture–who may also be an artist–may perform. The art does not have to be “shamanic” in nature; we do not have to take the methods of indigenous people instead of, say, acrylics and oil paints, scrap metal mixed media, DJing, spoken word, etc. What’s most important is the inspiration to shift one’s consciousness for a particular purpose.

–Scientist: One of the things that frustrates me to no end is the anti-science threads through spirituality in general, and neopaganism in particular. “Science” is seen as “cold”, “unfeeling”, lacking in imagination, etc. just because it doesn’t prove the objective experience of spirits and magic. Yet, to me, science is a source of great wonder and awe at the world around me. The Otherworld is an amazing place, and I don’t particularly care whether it’s all in my own head/collective consciousness or not, with no objective reality beyond the human psyche. But I do not try to put it in the same place in my cosmology as the world of atoms, or astrophysics, or the natural history of nonhuman animals, or photosynthesis. And to me, the things that scientists are discovering and exploring are every bit as important and inspiring as any journey I’ve had. The scientist doing research into new and uncharted territory goes into places where most people could never fathom and brings back information and knowledge to aid the populace. If that’s not shamanism, I don’t know what is.

These are just a few examples of analogous roles to the shaman in this culture. I’m sure my readership could think of more, and I’m certainly open to suggestions! So–whaddya think?

“Natural” vs. Artificial”

One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.

I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.

Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.

So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.

So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.

Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.

But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)

Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–“In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.

And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.

But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.

Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?

If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.