A Quick Pun Break

So this past Saturday I vended at the Mississippi Street Fair here in Portland. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, though since I was vending solo most of the day I didn’t really get to escape much. I did make a couple excursions for food, and on the way I passed the booth for Lonely Dinosaur, a local independent (made in the basement!) t-shirt company specializing in entertaining puns and other humor. One of their new ones caught my eye, and given my recent writings, I figured it was appropriate. So it became mine!

Forgive the wrinkles–I had to carry it home in a knapsack; I swear it was nice and neat when I got it! If you want one of your own, here you go! I highly recommend checking out the rest of their selection as well; very good quality shirts, and you get to support independent artists, too!

Geological Totems

I think I may be too linear for my own good. See, I had this grand plan of expanding outward in my writing, from animal totems, to plant and fungi totems, to geological totems, and so forth. I’ve been working with all of these to varying degrees in my ongoing work with bioregional totemism in a multilayered form, but I’d planned to be more in-a-row with the writing. As is so often the case with spiritual beings, somebody didn’t like that–specifically, the geological totems. So to make them happy, allow me to introduce them.

First, I need to explain what I mean by geological totems. A geological totem is the presiding spirit of a given specific geological phenomenon. It is not defined solely by a specific type of stone, or a single landslide, but instead is more a conglomerate of forces coming together to create a particular phenomenon, like a canyon or a mountain or watershed. And they overlap quite a bit, too, to the point that, like sediments turning into sandstone, their identities can merge into one even as the individual grains are still perceptible.

Columbia River Gorge near Hood River, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

The Columbia River Gorge is a very good example. The oldest rocks are from volcanic activity 40-20 million years ago. The high walls of the Gorge are made of dozens of layers of basalt, which formed 15-10 millions of years ago from incredibly large lava flows. Volcanoes around what is now the border of Idaho and Oregon produced so much lava that eventually the basalt was over a mile thick in places. Even more volcanoes erupted to create the Cascade mountain range 2-1 million years ago; the Columbia River flows through these mountains. And as if all that volcanic activity weren’t enough, 16,000 – 14,000 years ago all that volcanic matter was carved and sliced and ground into the Gorge we know today–by massive flood of water. The enormous Glacial Lake Missoula, created by meltwater from glaciers at the time, would periodically flood, sending walls of water up to several hundred feet high down the course of the Columbia, deepening and widening its bed.

Each outpouring, whether from volcano or lake, added its spirit to the Gorge; the oldest volcanic matter from before the basalt floods, and the rocks carried from Glacial Lake Missoula, are equally a part of the totemic Gorge. When did the Gorge proper begin, though? Was it the same totem before the Missoula floods, when the land was more gently rolling and the river traveled a narrower path? Not only are geological totems layered in terms of composition but, it would appear, in time as well.

And each section of the Gorge has its own smaller place spirit as well. Some of them have territories that are very starkly defined; you can tell when you get from one part to another as the energy of the place changes–I’ve noticed, for example, a distinct shift as soon as the Gorge comes out of the Cascades on the eastern side. Other times the spirits flow together more gradually. The spirit of the Gorge near Multnomah Falls is different from that at the Bonneville Dam, but the shift between them happens over several miles. All of them come together, though to be the Gorge, and the Columbia River itself also maintains its unique identity even as it, too, becomes a part of the overall totem of the Gorge.

This brings up the idea that totemic identities are, to an extent, arbitrary. We can’t pinpoint when one species of animal evolves into another. At some point we say that Group A of a species has differentiated itself enough from Group B to be a new species, but you can’t look at a parent and young and say “this one is of Group A and this one of Group B”. What makes some geological totems unique is that they can sometimes have very marked beginnings and/or endings.

For our purposes, we can delineate a geological totem in part based on its current form and how it got to be that way. Some, like the Gorge, have a relatively quick birth (2,000 years of flooding is next to nothing in geological time);. The totem of that area was a very different being when the land was more sloping and gradual with a smaller river running through a narrow v-shaped canyon; it died (or, perhaps, was reborn?) when the floods carved out the Gorge itself and changed the landscape in other drastic ways. Others shift incredibly gradually, like the slow movement of tectonic plates and the rearranging of continents. There are places in the Midwest where I grew up that, other than some farming and mining by humans, have remained the same for millions of years. The totems of these places are ancient, with a long continuum of memory.

Perhaps trauma and sudden change mark the beginning and end of the “life” of a geological totem. Whether the totem itself dies and is replaced by another, or simply changes as drastically as its physical features, is unclear. I am working primarily with meditations and journeys to various places, to include visiting the memories of totems past in a sort of spiritual time-travel. I have not yet witnessed a place before and after such a great change, and most of these changes (mountain uplift, erosion, etc.) would take longer than my lifetime to complete. The best bet would be to visit a volcano that exploded itself into oblivion and then was replaced by a new volcano, but that would require a lot of luck and great timing (and also not being around when the explosion itself occurred!) I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has experienced such a thing.

To a lesser degree, humans do change a place. We have learned to destroy mountains and fill in rivers and wetlands, but these feel more like slow suffocations than rebirths. It’s like the workings of our hands and machines just aren’t enough to equal the cataclysmic rebirths of entire places. Again, visiting a place before and after a nuclear bombing might show a marked change, but if all goes well we’ll never have that happen again.

Geological totems also are defined more by what has formed them than by supposed inherent qualities of their materials. Those who work with crystals and stones on spiritual and magical bases may attribute certain qualities to a given mineral–healing for amethyst, protection for tiger’s eye, etc. But stones from a particular place are to the geological totem of that place what individual animals are to the totem of that species. Animals are mostly defined, roughly speaking, by a common set of physical and behavioral traits common across the entire species (even if it’s spread across several different locations. But stones and their totems work differently. In my experience, stones, crystals, and the like are not so much defined just by being “amethyst” or “granite”, as they are by the specific set of phenomena that created them, and the overarching totems of those phenomena and their aftermath.

Coastal basalt formation near Waldport, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

While basalt created in Hungary can have some similar qualities to that created in Oregon, and their origins in terrestrial basalt floods may give them a kinship different from basalt from other sources, each carries the spirit of the flood that created them, as well as the places they settled. I have on my place altar two pieces of basalt, one from Devil’s Rest just west of Multnomah Falls in the Gorge, and one from the Oregon coast near Waldport, OR. These are from the same sets of basalt floods that created much of Oregon’s bedrock, but they likely came from two different flows, and were sited over 100 miles apart. In the millions of years since they cooled from their lava state, they’ve become part of very different landscapes with their own individual stories, and have seen quite a bit. There’s a bit of resonance because they had similar sources and chemical compositions, but they are very different stones, and I would not say they had identical qualities.

So I don’t work with the totem of Basalt, though there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, I work with the totem of the Gorge, the lava flows and waters that created it, and the ongoing human influences of dams and roads and such. Every piece of natural history that comes out of a place carries the spirit of the place, but it is the geological totems that remember the most. The plants and animals may come and go as extinctions and evolutions occur, as climate changes and drives some away while attracting others. They are the bedrock on which a bioregion is formed, and the soil that feeds its fauna and flora; they are the courses of waterways as well (I’ll give water totems their own post soon, too). It’s a shame that stones and others are usually seen as only spell components and materials for tools, for the totems of the phenomena that created them are some of the oldest, most powerful, and most well-storied. They may not be truly permanent; every mountain erodes, streams dry up, and lava buries the land below it. But if you really want to get to know the bioregion you’re a part of, to include on a spiritual level, start talking to the geological totems, of floods and flows, scrapes and sediments.

An Introduction to Drum Journeying

I realized, after having someone recently ask me about basic shamanic techniques, that I really haven’t written much about the foundational nuts and bolts of what I do. I suppose it’s another case of me assuming that readers already have the basics of (neo)shamanism under their belts; it’s actually more of a challenge for me to write something on that most basic and bare-bones level because I have to think hard about things I normally take for granted. So I’m going to take a shot at explaining the basics of how I do drum journeying, and some starter points for readers as well.

Why drumming?

I’ve enjoyed dancing at drum circles for many years now. Dancing and drumming are effective forms of trancework for me, but trying to keep an eye on other dancers can be distracting, never mind dodging the occasional drunk person with poor boundaries. So I’ve learned to drum solo for my own personal shamanic work. It took some work, since I hadn’t really been a drummer before, but with practice I learned to go into trance while dancing (or sitting) and drumming, and now the action of drumming is closely interwoven with the trance state. The rhythm of my body beating the drum helps to lull me into the initial trance, and helps carry me deeper with physical cues as I drum faster or slower, louder or softer.

Drumming is one of the most common forms of trancework in shamanic practice; most (though not all) shamanic traditions worldwide incorporate drumming. Sometimes the drum is only a tool; other times it’s a vehicle to the otherworld; and still other drums are the map to get there. While shamanic drumming does rely some on keeping at least a very basic “heartbeat” rhythm, you don’t have to be a virtuoso. Also, it’s wonderfully universal experience; while their perception of the percussion may differ somewhat from hearing peoples’, those who are deaf can also make use of drums, shamanically and otherwise.

You may already have some experience with trancing while drumming. If not, the first thing you’ll want to do is to practice altering your state of consciousness to the sound of drums. There are lots of drumming CDs out there, and you can also find some free videos by searching for “shamanic drumming” on YouTube. If you’re lucky enough to have a drum circle near you, you can even listen in person; a lot of them won’t have a problem if you don’t drum yourself, so long as you aren’t disruptive. You can, of course, drum as well, but the main thing is to practice “sinking into” the drum beats regardless of whether you yourself drum or not.

Deerskin drum and beater by Lupa, 2012.

You will also want to practice drumming itself. Play with your drum; try out different beats, and see how each part of the head sounds–the tone near the edges may be very different from that in the center. Really listen to the drum’s voice and get to know it as an individual. Don’t worry about being technically proficient; don’t even necessarily worry about keeping a perfect beat, either. Just play with it and see what happens.

Once you feel comfortable enough with both skills, try bringing them together. You can drum at the drum circle, or drum by yourself and ride the rhythm you create. And most of all, practice, practice, practice. Nothing replaces that. You may find that you dip a bit into the spirit world as you’re practicing. That’s okay. Generally you’re not going to go in deep enough at this point to get in any trouble. If you have trouble “coming back out” again, ground yourself by getting up and walking around a bit (with company if you feel a bit wobbly) and eat something protein-heavy to settle your body down again.

What sort of drum do I use?

My personal choice has always been natural hide drums. My first one was a goathide bodhran, but my current journeying drum is a horse hide frame drum that I got after completing my first year of intensive Therioshamanic work. Horse has long been a totem of travel and protection for me, so it was fitting that the horse hide drum was the one who chose to work with me. Not only do I work with the physical drum, but also the spirits of the horse and yellow cedar whose physical remains create the drum, and the deer whose leg bone is the beater. She has a deeper voice, but varied, and I’ve gotten to know her voice well enough that I can play her without even looking at her and still know exactly where to strike to get the right pitch.

The spirit of the horse hide is also the ones who carries me to the spirit world. It’s safer to have a guide to take me there, and she has been known to rescue me when things got a little (or a lot!) too risky. She can move much more quickly there than I can, and can sometimes gain entry to places that I can’t go by myself. Plus it takes effort to move around, even in the spirit realm, so having someone to take the first leg of effort allows me to reserve my strength for once I arrive. There have even been times I was so tired afterward that she was the only thing getting me back home safely.

There’s a wide variety of drums out there; each with its own voice and playing style. A djembe is going to have a different personality than a bodhran, and they’re played differently, too. If you’ve spent some time at a drum circle you may already know what type of drum you prefer. However, if you’re still unsure, go to a drum circle or shop and check out how each is played. If you don’t have access to a drum circle there are videos of some on YouTube, though it may be tough to figure out which drum has which voice. And the same if you need to order your drum online–you can search for each type of drum and generally find lots of videos of people playing them.

One other consideration: despite my love of hide drums, I have occasionally regretted not having a synthetic drum as a backup. Hide drums don’t like moisture, and if I’m at an outdoor festival where it’s raining, my horse hide drum is going to sound flatter than a dead tire. Some people dislike synthetic drums because they’re, well, synthetic. However, you can imbue a synthetic drum with spirit in much the same way as vegan skindancing.

Whether you buy or make a natural or synthetic drum, or even make one out of common household products, the important thing is that you have a good connection with it. You may find that it takes you a couple of tries to get the right drum. Just make sure that your old drum goes someplace where it’ll be appreciated. Consider making it a gift to a friend, or donating it to a music program for children.

(And, as a bit of shameless self-promotion, I make and sell hide drums as well.)

How do I warm the drum up?

If you’ll forgive the slightly risque comparison, even drums need a little foreplay. Some of this is to get an idea of what the drum needs–is it too humid? Too warm?–as well as to tone up head and your arm! More importantly, it’s a greeting to the spirit, who may be sleeping. And it’s just plain polite.

I first warm my drum up by rubbing my hand over it in clockwise circles, starting at the outer edges and spiraling inward. As I do so, I quietly call to the spirit of the drum, and ask her to wake up and join me. Once she’s ready, I pick up the beater and run it over the drum in the same pattern–not hitting the drum, just moving the head of the beater over it.

I also cool down my drum in the same way; once I have finished drumming, I run the beater over the head, only counterclockwise and moving out in spirals from the center. I then do the same thing with my hand, and if need be put the spirit back to sleep.

If your drum is one that needs tuning, now’s a good time to check. You can also look for damage and other maintenance issues. I like to treat my horsehide drum with mink oil to keep the hide hydrated and conditioned, and to help waterproof it a bit.

What sorts of drumbeats do I use?

Honestly, I’m a fan of single beats. The tempo and timing may vary, but I’m happier with a drum that I just hit with one beater, rather than something like a djembe that is elaborately played with two hands. I like starting out with a “heartbeat”–a single beat rhythm that matches my own heartbeat. The heartbeat in the drum does connect to my own heart, which is useful for keeping me from completely losing the connection to my body while I journey. Once the horse spirit is ready, I start drumming along with her hoofbeats instead, for as long as I am riding her in the journey. After that, the drumbeats often follow either my heartbeat or my footsteps (or pawsteps if I’ve shifted in the journey).

Again, play with the beats. I usually recommend the heartbeat when starting out and finishing, since it’s simple and easy to find. You may find that the beat naturally changes depending on what’s going on in your journey. You may also wish to create special drumbeats, such as for the beginning or ending of a journey, when a particular spirit arrives or departs, when you need to call on a spirit helper, etc. Many of these may develop organically, but if you have a specific idea in mind, try it out and see what happens. (If it’s for calling on a specific spirit, try it BEFORE you find yourself needing help in a serious journey!)

What happens when I drum journey?

As mentioned earlier, I always start with the horse spirit of my drum arriving to carry me to the spirit world. My “starting place”, where I begin every journey, is one specific spot out in the Columbia River Gorge. So the horse will carry my spirit over the land to get to that place, and then drop me off there. From there I can choose to go down a number of paths, or even directly into the forest (though the paths are safer).

As I am drumming, I can still feel my arms holding and playing the drum; the drum acts as an anchor to keep me from getting lost. And yes, sometimes my arms do get tired; I can feel it as I go through the spirit world, too, though I find if I rub my arms spiritually, it’ll help my physical arms, too. If I’m shapeshifted into a wolf or other animal in my journey, I can still feel the drum, though it feels sort of like a double exposure photo–both layers of “Lupa” are there, but they don’t quite match.

As mentioned, the drumbeats often change to match what’s going on. Many times this isn’t conscious, except when I am deliberately using the drumbeat to call a helper, to get an emergency ride from Horse, to honor a being, etc. Occasionally I’ll need to stop drumming entirely, if I m in a place in the spirit world where I need to be quiet. I still hang onto the drum, and as mentioned the basic heartbeat that I start and close every journey with allows my physical heart to beat in lieu of the drum as needed. I still resume drumming as soon as I can, though, as it helps keep me focused on the journey.

How do I care for my drum?

I mentioned earlier that I use mink oil to condition the hide. I also keep the drum out of damp places, and if it gets wet I air-dry it as quickly as I can. Unfortunately, I’ve had situations where a cup of water got dumped on a hide drum, and the entire thing had to be redone, so be careful around water!

Spiritually, sometimes I play the drum just for the sake of playing it. It’s a good bonding activity, and keeps us both in practice. she hangs out under my Bear altar, and while i don’t give her any special offerings (she just wants good basic care) you’re welcome to make offerings to you drum above and beyond keeping it in good condition. Some people like to purify their drums before and after a journey, and if the spirit of your drum is injured during a journey, make sure you tend to it before the journey is done.

What if I need to change the drum’s head?

Limited repair may be done to a drum head. Very small (pinhole sized) holes can be filled with a good epoxy; let it dry at least 24 hours before testing the playability. Be aware that this may not stop further damage to the hide once the stress of playing starts again.

Beyond that, you’ll almost certainly have to replace the head. Even with the best of care, eventually everything wears out, even good quality hide drums. If your drum’s head wears out or is irreparably damaged consider it not just a swap of materials, but a changing of the guard.

First, consider what worked well with the drum head you had, physically and spiritually. Do you want a similar one, or do you want to try something entirely different–a new hide, or even a synthetic? Do you feel you can change the drum head yourself, or do you want someone else to do it?

If you’re changing it yourself, treat the old head with reverence. The spirit’s not gone or dead; the form is just too damaged for its present purpose. Thank the spirit for its service and help and ask it what it would like to do next. Some may like a nice retirement, while others may wish to be incorporated into other projects. If the drum head is big enough and the damage is close enough to one edge or another, you may even be able to put the undamaged part on a smaller frame.

Make sure that the spirits of your frame and the new head are introduced before you put them together. You may even wish to let them sit next to each other for a few days before prepping the head to be stretched on. You may also wish to have the old head there as well, so it can pass on its experiences to the new one.

When you put the new head on, have a conversation with it about what you do and how it can help. See if you can identify the nature of the spirit in it. Ask it if it would like any particular offerings or other special care. Once the new head is completely dry, take the drum out for a “test run”. Play it just to get to know it as you did with the old head, learning the voice and feel of it, then proceed from there.


So there you have it: my attempt at explaining Drum Journeying 101. How’d I do? Anything else you may want to know about that I didn’t mention? (And, as always, thank you for reading!)