Art, storytelling, and shamanism my path

I have some half-formed thoughts about the recent integration of storytelling with my artwork, as well as the very deep, significant spiritual elements of the acts of creation. Yes, the coyote and wolverine are the most recent and obvious syntheses, given that each has a “new” myth to talk about its origin. But Anput was also a spiritual story, albeit one in which I featured as a main character, and which was not just a story that I created in my mind, but something that happened to me in working with that Goddess. Even Lady Red Riding Hood was story, rewriting the tale to better fit modern parameters, though maintaining its “once upon a time” feel.

I’ve long been a spirit-worker, evoking and invoking totems, animal spirits, deities and others. And the spirits have often spoken through my art, and not just the skin spirits that are in the remains themselves. I’ve even created numerous ritual tools and costumery over the years that could mesh with certain beings or energies in ritual.

However, this feels bigger. I feel like I’m adding to mythology, if that makes sense. The process of creation is simply the vehicle thereof. Perhaps it’s hubristic to say so, but it feels as though I am *adding to* these beings, with their consent and even invitation. Along with transforming the animal remains and their spirits, I feel I am also making a bigger transformation than before to the bigger beings, the totems and deities. If a totem, for example, is “made of” the natural history of the physical animal, its relationships with all other species, and the human observations as translated into legend, lore, and mythology, then I feel like I am making a bigger contribution to the ongoing, ever-developing mythology.

Like when I make a small pouch out of recycled rabbit fur, I am transforming the fur into something new, and I am rejuvenating the spirit with a new purpose–or releasing it from its container if it so wishes. But Domestic Rabbit stays largely the same; the pouch may be used to connect to Rabbit, but the change is only on this end. However, I look at my experiences creating the Anput headdress, and it definitely feels *bigger*. If you give me the generous allowance that my UPG is more than just something in my head, then I have been shown an element of this Goddess that may have been previously unknown, perhaps by even the ancient Egyptians. I don’t feel I’ve so much added something that wasn’t a part of her before, so much as I helped to shed light on it.

I’m not the only person to do this sort of thing; Ravenari has long been creating these inspired works. Her As Totems series largely comes from the individual totems pressing her into making portraits for them, or asking others to commission her (as with me and Steller’s Jay). She also learns more about the totems in the process of creating these works, hence her creating about the only totem animal dictionary I give any credence to. I give it more weight because I am aware of her process as well as her general familiarity with the animals and her shamanic skills, and I know how much effort goes into the contact with each. Whether she changes the totems, adds to them, or simply enhances the focus on certain parts, I can’t say. But it is very impressive to watch.

And it’s incredibly fascinating to be going through this process; the exchange of energy and ideas that I’m sharing with the deities and totems and spirits in this is beyond what I’ve done before. Whether you see me as connecting with independent beings, or being able to better access these archetypes and channel them through my work, I would appreciate your constructive feedback on what I’m trying to describe here. Anyone else been here?

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How Wolverine Devoured the Sun

Wolverine was the fiercest animal in the forest. Even great Grizzly Bear ran away when Wolverine was angry. Wolverine was also the hungriest animal in the forest. He ate everything he could find that wouldn’t bite him back, and even most of the ones that would. All the animals of the forest told their young to stay away from Wolverine, lest he gobble them up for breakfast.

After a while, everyone learned to stay far away, and he found it harder and harder to find food to eat. One day, there was an enormous rumbling in his stomach, and he knew that if he did not eat soon his stomach might just try to eat him! So he left his den to go out and see whether some animal or another might be close enough for at least a snack.

Yet the snow covered the land so thickly that not even the tiny field mice with their enormous families could be found. And because all the animals had hidden away while it snowed, there were no tracks to be found anywhere.

Wolverine looked all around him. There was only snow, that melted in his stomach and did no good. And there were trees and rocks, but even his formidable stomach would reject them. Finally he looked up, and saw the Sun in the sky.

And he thought to himself, “All life comes from the Sun. She feeds the plants, who feed the animals, who feed me. So if I eat the Sun, then I’ll never be hungry again!”

Sunburst, Lupa, 2011

Just then, the Sun was approaching the top of the highest mountain peak. So Wolverine ran as fast as he could, climbing the mountain with his sharp claws gouging gashes in the rocks, and shredding the boulders into rock slides. He destroyed the mountainside homes of the pikas, who to this day will still complain loudly and shrilly about it to anyone who comes near.

Right when the Sun was crossing over the tip of the mountain, Wolverine reached the summit. With a running leap, he opened his jaws just as wide as they would go—and he swallowed the Sun! The world was thrown into complete darkness, since the Moon was still slumbering on the other side of the world, and the Stars were too surprised to shine.

Down in the forest, the startled animals panicked, shoving their way through the cold and snow to see if their neighbors, too, had experienced this sudden nightfall. Some were lost in snowdrifts; others tripped over rocks or fell off cliffs or stumbled into rivers. The trees and other plants shook and wailed as their only source of food had disappeared. “We are lost!” they exclaimed.

Meanwhile, Wolverine attempted to pick his way down the mountain with a very round, very full, and very uncomfortable stomach. He was so busy trying to not roll down the mountain that he didn’t even stop to consider whether he was even hungry any more. And he certainly didn’t notice that he had, in his haste, swallowed the Sun quite alive.

For her part, the Sun had shaken off the indignity and inconvenience of having been eaten whole, and she began to look for a way out. First she looked up Wolverine’s throat, but she only saw his sharp teeth, and having avoided them once she did not wish to try her luck again. She then looked toward his tail, but she only saw his long, long tangle of intestines, and she did not wish to find herself lost in that maze. She even tapped at his ribs, but found the bones to make all too effective a cage.

Wolverine totem headdress, Lupa, 2011

So finally she decided she would stay right where she was and look for any possible way out. She began to roll around, testing every surface she touched for any sign of an opening. As the Sun pressed up against Wolverine’s insides, she burned him terribly. Wolverine, even so strong and stoic as he was, could not help but cry, and the pain was so great that he began to shed tears of blood that flowed down his body.

Finally, the Sun found a weak spot at the back of his belly. And she pushed, and she pushed, and Wolverine clawed the ground trying to keep her in, and his howls of fury and pain were so great that all the other creatures ran far away.

And then with a great tearing and rending, the Sun burst through Wolverine’s back. She scorched his fur as she escaped, and left an impression of her beams radiating out from the hole she created. She flew back up into the sky and brought the day to the land again.

As she looked down upon Wolverine, who lay dead upon the ground, she took pity on him. And lifting him up into the sky, she breathed life back into him, and knit together his torn form. And Wolverine stood up, as healthy—and hungry—as ever. But as he looked back to see whether the hole still remained in his back, he saw a ring of pale sunbeams on his fur.

“These are to remind you of the consequences of your gluttony,” the Sun said. “You were only so very hungry, my fearsome child, but you are a creature of the earth, not the sky, and there are many things for you to eat where you came from.” And so she placed him back down right by his den.

And from that day forward, no matter how hungry Wolverine was, and no matter how far he had to travel to find food even in the middle of Winter, he had only to look at the Sun’s touch upon his back to remind him of the folly of his past.

Wolverine Fur, Lupa, 2011

How Coyote Lost His Hearing

Coyote Fool Mask by Lupa, 2011

Now Coyote was a fine young man, if a little rough around the edges. And there came a day when he decided he was going to go courting, because no one had married him yet, and that was a rather sad state of affairs if he said so himself! So he went on down to the river, jumped in and swam around a while, came back out and shook himself dry in the sunshine. Then he put on his finest clothes, which were rather threadbare and shabby and a bit out of style, puffed his chest out, and went to go find someone to court.

Soon he ran into Rabbit, who was grazing in some clover at the edge of a buffalo wallow. “Look, there’s Rabbit! She’s not married, but she has a lot of children. I bet she’ll want to marry me!”

So Coyote sidled on up to Rabbit. “Why hallo there,” he said. “How might you be this lovely day?”

“I’m doing quite well, thank you! Would you care to join me for lunch? The clover here’s so luscious!” Rabbit replied. “This little patch right here is especially nice,” she said with a wink. So Coyote settled down next to Rabbit and began to mouth the clover, just to make Rabbit feel better and hopefully like him a little more.

But soon all that pretend eating made him hungry for real food. And Rabbit was looking mighty tasty. Of course, Rabbit had seen that look in Coyote’s eyes before. So before he could snap his teeth at her, she up and ran as fast as she could away from him. She even kicked a cloud of dust all over Coyote and his finery.

While he was sitting there in the dust, with his finest clothes filthy and his stomach growling, along came Scrub Jay. “What seems to be the problem?” Scrub Jay asked.

“I tried to court Rabbit so she’d think to marry me, but instead she ran away from me and left me here in the dirt!” Coyote complained.

Scrub Jay looked very grave. “Well, I see the problem here. You just don’t look enough like a rabbit. Now, we can’t very well shorten your tail, and we can’t round your nose off no matter how much you wiggle it, but we could make your ears fluffier, like hers are. Here, get some of this dandelion fluff and stuff it in your ears, just like so.” So Coyote tucked his ears full of fluff, and then went off in pursuit of Rabbit.

He never found where Rabbit went, but he soon ran into Crow, who was building her nest. “Well,” he thought to himself, “I don’t think Crow’s married either, and I think she’s just as nice as Rabbit, even if she is a gossip. I’ll court her instead!”

Coyote headed up to the tree where Crow was building her nest. “Good day!” he called to her, a little loudly since he was having a bit of trouble hearing himself, but everybody had that problem from time to time, didn’t they?

“Why, look, it’s Coyote—wait, what on earth do you have stuck in your ears?” Crow cawed.

“Oh, you won’t convince me of the worth of lucky hares—their feet never did me any good at cards anyway!” Coyote replied. “So, have you found any good carrion lately?”

Crow cocked her head to one side at him. “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, you silly creature! I need to eat, and I don’t want you stealing my food!”

Coyote cocked his head right back at her, hoping maybe mimicking her would make her like him a little more, though he was also more than a little confused. “But my feet are just fine! Why do you think they had peeling grooves? Those cracks in the pads are natural-born, baby!”

“No! Not FEET! EAAAAAAAT!” Crow cawed as loud as she could. She flew down from her nest and flapped her wings in his face. “EAT! EAT! You fool, I said EAT! As in FOOD!”

Leather corvid wall hanging by Lupa, 2009

Coyote backed away from this mad black whirlwind, then turned tail and ran, feathers coating his dusty finery, leaving a trail of fluff in his wake. He eventually shook Crow off, and soon found himself in a panting heap right where he’d left Scrub Jay.

“How’s it going, Casanova?” Scrub Jay said. “You panting because Crow was just too much for you?”

“You could say that,” Coyote grumbled. “But she didn’t like the fluff! And I don’t think she’s going to marry me any time soon, either.”

“That’s because she doesn’t care about fluff, silly dog. She’s right in the middle of building a nest—and believe me, I know nests,” Scrub Jay bragged. “What you want to court her with is something pretty that she can decorate her nest with! In fact, I know just the thing! Follow me.”

So Scrub Jay and Coyote went east, and they went west, and maybe just a little north—but never south, not when courting. And they came to a place where humans lived, a little hut with fences all around it. By the door of the hut was a basket, and in the basket were many balls of brightly colored yarn.

“See that?’ Scrub Jay pointed to the basket. “That’s exactly what you need, right there! Crow would love that in her nest! Now, here’s what you do. You want her to definitely notice that you have yarn for her, even from a mile away, and maybe especially so since she’s all spooked now. So tuck some of that yarn into your ears so she can see it, and go find her! But you’d better put this fluff back in, too, because you might run into Rabbit instead, and then your problem will still be solved! I’ll just sit right here and keep an eye out for the humans.”

So Coyote stuffed the fluff back in his ears, then sneaked over to the house, grabbed some yarn, and went and hid in the back field by the pond while he tucked that in his ears, too. Just as he was finishing up, something big shoved him over onto his head! He turned around, and saw Cow, all black and white and surprised, looking down at him.

“Ohhhhhhh, my! What are you doing here? And what is that in your ears? Is that the new fashion, then?” she said.

“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!!!” Coyote shouted at the top of his lungs.

“Ohhhhhhh, dear, now my husband will have heard you, and he’ll come and chase you away! You’d better run now, or else!” Cow looked around nervously.

Coyote was confused. “I STILL CAN’T HEAR A THING YOU’RE SAYING! WHAT WAS THAT AGAIN?”

Cow said again, “Ohhhhhhhh, goodness! My husband is coming! You’d better run away or he’ll get you!”

“I GIVE UP! YOU TALK TOO SOFTLY! I’M NOT COURTING YOU!” Coyote was about to turn and head home, when the ground began to shake, and Cow’s husband came barreling to a stop over him.

“WHO WERE YOU GOING TO COURT, LITTLE DOG?” Cow’s husband bellowed.

“WHO ARE YOU, AND WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU ALL SAYING?” Coyote shouted right in Cow’s husband’s face.

“I SAID YOU’RE IN MY FIELD, TRYING TO COURT MY WIFE, AND I DON’T CARE FOR THAT, NOT AT ALL!”

“NO, I’M NOT THAT TALL, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH CARROTS, AND BORING YOUR EYES, AND THE COLOR TEAL?”

At which Cow’s husband snorted, caught Coyote and his finery and his fluff and his yarn and his dust and his feathers, and tossed it all into the pond with a mighty splash!

“Well, at least you’re clean again!” Scrub Jay shouted to poor Coyote, who still couldn’t hear anything anyone was saying as he dragged his muddy self to dry land.

And Scrub Jay flew away, laughing “Vweeeeet! Vweeeeet! Vweeeeet!”

Scrub Jay painted by Lupa, 2010

The Goddess Anput

While I’ve been creating ritual costumery and other tools out of hides, bones and the like for over a decade, more recently I’ve been getting into more elaborate projects. One of my most recent endeavors was a ritual costume in which I had a surprise spiritual experience–well, unexpected, but not entirely surprising. Here’s what I wrote about the experience at the time, just about a month ago:

Tonight, a Goddess found me.

For many years, I have acknowledged Anubis–Anpu–Yinepu–as the God of dead things, related to my art with the remains of animals. And he has watched over my work in the background, quietly, only occasionally coming forth to speak if he feels the need to add a bit of guidance. But still…so distant.

Then the day came when the hide of a black coyote came into my possession. Even having lived and died a half a world away and thousands of years past the jackals of Egypt that gave their form to the God, this coyote carried that energy, inexplicably and completely.

Almost.

Except this coyote was female, and held onto that beyond death almost defiantly. And through that skin spirit, Anput made Herself known to me. Where Anpu had been distant, though not uncaring, Anput settled Herself down in front of me, and in the same way Artemis had done so long ago when I was younger, She looked at me and said “Doesn’t something look familiar?”

Familiar? How could I even know what to look for, when I knew not Whom I beheld? I knew scant little of her, as did anyone today–the feminine aspect–some said wife–of the better-known Anpu, had had little surviving lore and few adherents today. “Goddess of the 17th nome of Egypt, with the standard of the jackal” told me little.

And so I returned to Her, perplexed. And before I could say a word, She saw my confusion, and She spoke. “I am the Goddess of funerary arts. When the stones were carved into the faces of pharaohs long-dead, My hand guided the chisel. When each set of canopic jars was formed, I shaped each detail and applied every stroke of the brush. And now, when you weave hide and bone into sacred art, My hands wrap around yours, and I see the work through your eyes”.

The black coyote then wrapped around my shoulders, wishing that I would prepare her to move on to the next person in her afterlife, for, as for so many, I am only a threshold, a transitional point. And so we enmeshed ourselves, for three days and nights, in the sacred preparation and creation of what would carry a piece of each of us.

And at the end of the three days and three nights, I wore a cloak upon my shoulders, with the sacred mantle and hood as the Goddess directed me and as the black coyote concurred and as I created. Khepri stretched his wings wide, and the name and standard of Anpu—Input—cascaded in hieroglyphs.

This, then, was our inauguration, the Goddess and I. The black coyote would go forth as Her emissary while I would remain here and continue the sacred work as I always had, only with the consciousness of She who guided me.

***************

This headdress is dedicated to Anput, the female counterpart to Anubis. It is in no way meant to be an authentic replication of any traditional Egyptian creations, but is instead a hybrid of my own style mixed with elements inspired by a very general Egyptian aesthetic, guided by sacred inspiration (and many pictures of old statues and paintings from various dynasties!).

This headdress is based around a black (melanistic) coyote hide; this is a rare, but naturally occurring mutation in this species. This particular hide came from a small female, black with a white blaze on her chest. She is complete with all four paws and claws; the only piece missing is her lower jaw, which was removed for the purpose of this project. Her ears and face have been reshaped to a more natural appearance; they were originally rather flat and misshapen, as many hides are after tanning. Her face has been given painted details, to include hold around the eyes, and gold accents on her nose. I inserted gold and black leather in her ears to mimic the striping often found in the ears of depictions of Anubis.

The leather is one whole tanned lambskin hide, dyed black, and then with an overlay of gold on one side. It forms the side panels of the hood, again striped, as homage to the Nemes headdress that Anubis and other deities were commonly depicted wearing; there are very few images of Anput Herself that remain, and as I was working on this inspired piece this is what She indicated She wanted.

The mantle over the shoulders was the most difficult portion of this. I drew out the scarab and wings with a black fine tipped paint pen, and then colored it in with acrylic and oil paint pens in two shades of blue, green, and red, and detailed in gold. I tested all these on a scrap of the same leather to be sure of the colorfastness. The hieroglyphs descending from the mantle read “Input”, an alternate of Anput’s name, and below that is the standard of 17th nome (district) of Egypt, over which She reigned.

The beaded accents on these leather pieces are a combination of new (reproduction) faience scarabs, and genuine old Egyptian faience beads (exact dynasty unknown). Each one of these dangles is about 1 1/8” long.

The headdress ties on with straps under the chin, and the forelegs also are tied together with more leather strappage. It is one size fits most; for scale, I am 5’4” and 115 pounds.

This project did take me the better part of three days and nights with only small breaks. It is by far one of the most ambitious pieces I have done, and represents a shift to more elaborate and involved crafted artwork.

***************************

In the weeks since I created this headdress, Anput has been a quiet but strong presence in my workspace, and she has actually brought Anpu Himself forward more as well, not that I should be surprised. The feeling I get is that they are aspects of each other, rather than spouses, though perhaps the distinction isn’t so strict. Sometimes I work with them both, sometimes Her alone.

And as I work with the Divine in my art, I am beginning to feel the inklings of others who wish to have creations in their honor. I have long done this work with totems; every piece I create has been a tribute to the species’ totem as well as the individual animal spirit, whether a full dance costume, or a simple leather pouch. But there are other beings stepping forward now, adding yet another layer to what I am creating.

And I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this will take us all.

******************

Just as a side note, the Anput headdress is not meant to stay with me, nor are the rest of the creations I will be making. The Anput headdress may be found here on Etsy. If you are interested in giving this work a home, or in commissioning your own art, please feel free to contact me.

Why Basic Research Methodology Is Important To Magical Knowledge

Quick note–a couple of days after I wrote this but before it was scheduled to go live, I was interviewed regarding Otherkin on the Pagan Musings podcast with KaliSara and RevKess, as well as guest “Arthur”. It was a really good discussion; I jumped in about 45 minutes into the show as the special “surprise” guest. Take a listen if you’re interested; we get into what basics of what Otherkin are, but also some of the spiritual/religious and psychological elements of the phenomenon as well.

So. On to the intended post.

Recently on Livejournal I wrote a response to a post someone else wrote about proposed experiments to try to “prove” the objective existence of Otherkin. These experiments ranged from Kirlian photography to try to get pictures of phantom limbs, to using EEG to measure any neurological abnormalities in Otherkin compared to the general population. I feel it applies not only to proving Otherkin as something other than collective imagination, but also proving the objective existence of magic. Here’s what I wrote (with a couple of minor edits and some helpful links added):

With regards to experiments, most of the proposed quantitative experiments over time have been horribly flawed and have not been designed with solid research methodology. Here are a few particular potential flaws:

–Poor research design: A good piece of research starts with good design. What is the experiment meant to measure? How is it measured? Is it using any existing instruments, or is one created specifically for the purpose of that experiment? Is the instrument you’re using reliable–does it measure consistently? Is it valid–does it measure what you actually are trying to measure? Finally, the simpler, the better, especially in new territory such as this. Keep it to one independent variable and one dependent variable, if possible–and know which is which.
Confirmation bias: This is a BIG problem with anecdotal “evidence” of Otherkin, magic, etc. Confimation bias basically means seeing what you want to see, and excluding anything that doesn’t support your desired results. This is often done unconsciously. Example: I keep seeing signs that Tiger is my totem. I want Tiger to be my totem, so I give greater attention and value to things that support Tiger being my totem than not, even though, if the evidence is taken by the numbers, the evidence points toward Tiger not being my totem.
Sampling bias: This was a notable reason for why my surveys for the Field Guide were NOT formal research, and a big potential issue with trying to do any experimentation with Otherkin in general. Your sample is most likely going to be biased toward people who A) are willing to be identified in some manner as Otherkin and are not so paranoid as to assume even anonymous research may be used against them personally, and B) more often than not WANT for Otherkin/magic/etc. to be proven. It’s a small population to begin with, too, so you’re most likely going to have a small sample, which can heavily affect whether the research is even solid.
Confounds and Correlation vs. Causation: related to some of the earlier things I talked about, confounding variables are variables other than the identified dependent and independent variables that come into play and affect the results. Another, very closely related concept is “correlation does not equal causation”. Just because two variables seem to affect each other in one’s results does not mean that they automatically are causal to each other. There may be a confound or third variable that is the actual vehicle of causation, or the correlation may be coincidence. This is why multiple experiments need to be run, and the results thoroughly analyzed, before making any theoretical conclusions.
–Applying more significance to results than the statistics show: Statistics are how you analyse your results in various and sundry ways. They allow for a certain level of variation (such as standard deviations from the mean, or identifying outliers) and the statement thereof, and they also help you to rule out whether your results occurred by chance or not (whether your results are statistically significant or not). Through statistics you can use the hard data to determine whether or not you proved your hypothesis (or disproved the null hypothesis).

Because most “evidence” of Otherkin/magic/etc. is anecdotal, and experiments “proving” it often manipulate or inflate the significance of the results, and the best research so far has not supported the objective existence of magic and other spiritual things, any research done to try to “prove” Otherkin/magic/etc. on an objective level needs to be of the highest quality and avoid the above and other pitfalls.

I added one last postscript to my initial response:

(Or, tl;dr – a small handful of people who say “This happens when we do that” does not constitute proper research methodology and does not hold water when trying to prove anything objectively.)

Observing “Well, every time I do this, this happens” is fine if all you want to do is self-confirm a subjective experience. But if you’re trying to prove that magic really works as an independent, objective force (rather than your results being from your own psychological biases, or other external factors that are not “magic”), then you need more rigorous testing then just a handful of people doing the same spell, ritual, or meditation once or twice and comparing their results over coffee. Just because you claim you can replicate your results doesn’t mean that you can prove that your independent variable and your dependent variable are causative as well as correlated. Are you constructing your experiments with a large enough sample to make a statistical difference? Are you doing your best to rule out confounds and confirmation bias? Would your results hold up to heavy statistical analysis?

Every shoddily constructed experiment and instrument, every poorly interpreted or deliberately manipulated set of results, every anecdote held up as firm “evidence” across the board–all these things do absolutely nothing to further your cause, and in fact do much to harm it. This is one example of what happens when people push bad research into the general consciousness. (And before you say “Well, bad magical research never killed anybody!”, here’s a sizable collection of recorded instances of people being injured or killed by the misapplication of everything from faith healing to dream interpretation (and, apparently, also GPS systems.)

And before anyone tries to start a science vs. magic debate, or argue that there’s no such thing as objective reality, both derailments of which are going to get killed before they get on their feet because I do control the comments here*–my point that I am making is that if you are going to claim that magic can be proven through experimentation, then your methodology needs to not be half-assed. If you are going to claim that you have any authority on anything that involves proving something exists objectively, then you need to be literate in the methods used in proving something exists objectively. Finally, understanding the basics of research methodology is an incredibly valuable part of critical thinking skills, skills that are woefully under-represented in magic and spirituality, and really are a necessary part of being human.**

That last paragraph that I just wrote right up there? THAT’S the intended take-away. You want to prove magic (or any other similar force or concept) exists in an objective, consistently measurable manner? Then have the correct tools, and be willing to be wrong, if that’s where the evidence and statistics end up taking your research.

* I’m not avoiding them because I don’t think they’re good topics of debate, but I want to keep things focused on the actual topic I’m discussing here, rather than getting derailed. Thank you for respecting that.

** Even people who have never, and will never, run a formal experiment still benefit from knowing the basics of research methodology so that they can have a better idea of what the people who do those experiments tell the general public through their published results (and why that’s important to everyday life). Yes, people who are experts in their field and have access to knowledge and training the rest of us don’t do have an advantage and authority. But knowing the basic processes by which they acquire their knowledge, to include research methodology, can help those of us on the general level of “consumer” of information and products to have a better understanding of why, for example, “studies show Brand X is the best!” or parse out whether a news story on “This food/medication/material COULD KILL YOU” is worth paying attention to.

Douglas Fir as a Plant Totem

Note: This is part of the Animist Blog Carnival issue TREES, hosted by naturebum.

Most of the totemic work people do is with animal totems, and admittedly I am biased in favor of them. It’s not that I haven’t done work with others, but I just think to talk about the critters more. That, and the plants tend to be more subtle in their communications. Animals–we’re loud, and impatient, and move around a lot. (Well, most of us. Sea anemones and sloths are on the low end of that curve.) Plants, on the other hand, are more deliberate and patient. And they often whisper. Volume didn’t really have to be much of a thing until there were beings that didn’t send their roots into the great, intertwined network under the surface.

And I’ve found plant totem work to be focused on different priorities than the animals’ ideas. Animal totems seem to want to be dynamic, bringing change and motion and growth. Plant totems, from my experience, tend more toward rooting the self deeper in the now, what you have to work with right this moment, maximizing the use of immediate resources before expending the self to find more. Not that this particularly surprises me; these preferences in focus mirror the very nature of the beings and their totems themselves.

Douglas Fir is one of the most prominent plant totems in my life right now, and as I’ve been working with it I’ve been reminded that I haven’t really written about this part of my spiritual experience. In a way I’ve treated the plant totem work like a long hike in which I ooooh and aaaah at the occasional sighting of an animal, but see the trees and other plants as merely the backdrop. (Which isn’t the case when I’m actually hiking; I take lots of pictures of flora that fascinate me.) I’d like to start changing that and talking more about the plant work I’ve been doing over time. So allow me to introduce you to Douglas Fir.

I am not a native of Oregon. I was a military brat, and did much of my growing up in the Midwest, not arriving in the Pacific Northwest until early 2006. And, beyond that, I am not even a native of this continent; my family primarily emigrated here in the second half of the 1800s, and I was born on an army base in Germany–technically US territory, but not of this continent.

Occasionally this non-native status rankles a bit. I am well aware of the impact that European immigration and invasion of this continent had on the peoples who were here before (and are still here, despite attempts to erase their presence and acknowledgement). And I have heard the complaints from native Oregonians about the influx of people from out of state flooding this area in the past couple of decades as it’s become more popular a place to move (even though right now the job market here is still pretty well tanked).

Yet I am acculturated to this place. I didn’t have a choice in my upbringing, and although there is certainly something to be said for being an ex-pat, it is easiest for me to simply stay in the country where I have citizenship. And I like it here, especially Oregon. The Midwest wasn’t nearly as nice a fit culturally (though the Land liked me a good deal, and I love when I get to go back to visit family as well as places).

This mixed relationship to the place and the people may be part of why one of the first plant totems I connected to out here was Douglas Fir. Douglas Fir is a native species, but the trees’ relationship to the Land here has changed dramatically since the arrival of Europeans. As people began to clear the forests more for agriculture and farming, the opportunistic firs replaced other trees in the succession of forest regrowth. And because the firs grow so quickly, they’re a common seedling chosen for replanting logged areas to maximize profit, making their presence much more pronounced than before.

Both of these factors have homogenized much of Oregon’s forest land to one degree or another. While other native conifers such as Western hemlock or red cedar do still grow here, in many places they’re out-competed by the fir. Even some oak savannahs, highly rare any more in this state, experience firs as an increasingly invasive species.

This, of course, was not solely the doing of Douglas Fir, even with the trees’ competitiveness for resources after forest fires and other nonhuman disasters. The intervention of humans has often resulted in much more dramatic effects on ecosystems. And in the same way, I did not choose the accident of my birth, though I have decisions as to where I live and how I act as an adult, to include attempting to integrate into a different culture (even if I can never completely lose the markings of the culture I was raised and socialized in).

So Douglas Fir has been helping me to not only adjust to living in this place that I have decided to make my long-term home, but also to explore the various ramifications of that decision. There’s a certain level of responsibility that I need to keep in mind as I am here, and what it means that I have consciously made this my home. Who have I affected in this decision? How can I be a part of the community without being obnoxious and even harmful? And, more abstractly, how can I combine my work with social justice with my spiritual path?

These are just some of the things that Douglas Fir and I have worked together on. Fir is more of a presence than an active guide, providing a steady energy to tap into and a quiet reminder of connectivity, but it’s all very grounding to my little animal mind.

And so you have just one example of how my totemic work has extended beyond my fellow critters. I’ll try and talk more about it as time goes on.

(P.S. My friend Paleo has done a bit of writing on more domestic plant totems over here.)