“Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!

It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.

However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.

What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.

Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.

I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.

I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.

But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).

Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)

Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.

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A Thousand Invisible Cords That Cannot Be Broken

I’m back in my art studio again, which means it’s documentary time! While I do very much love being outdoors (as we established in my last post), and nothing compares to the experience of being out in the wilderness, I do enjoy books and documentaries on various natural and scientific topics. The documentaries are a nice thing to have on while I’m working on artwork; I sometimes revisit old favorites, swapped up with new finds on Netflix and YouTube. I love re-watching the “Walking With” series about various dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters, even in spite of the factual errors here and there. I also found a neat BBC series on the evolution of plants, and I spent a while being completely fascinated by the history of the kings of Britain (a bit of latter-day human hierarchical behavior in action).

Most recently I watched The Secret of the Savannah, one of a four-part BBC series highlighting just a tiny bit of the intricate webbing of several complex ecosystems. In this episode the interconnection among the animals, plants, and even base chemical components of grasslands in the Americas, Africa, and Australia were explored, often with surprising results. For example, we know it’s critical to keep the white rhinoceros from going extinct. One of the many reasons is because it’s one of the very few animals that can live on nitrogen-poor “sour” grass. The rhino can process it enough that more nitrogen fixes and leads to “sweeter” grass, which allows other animals, such as antelope, to then live there and create an even more vibrant ecosystem. Similarly, maned wolves, ants, and a particular kind of fruit form a strong triangle of food and fertilizer, benefiting all three as well as others. And so on.

We have made a great career of ignoring these existing relationships that have developed over millions of years. We as a species have done more than our fair share of meddling with existing ecosystems. Few places have not lost native species or had invasives introduced by our hand. And until recently we hadn’t even thought of the effects of those changes. So selfishly we decided we needed the deer and elk more than the wolves and cougars did, and we even determined that the landscape wasn’t good enough without some Chinese pheasants for us to hunt. And just for good measure, we turned much of the land to agriculture (and some of it to Dust Bowl in the 1930s). So it was that much of the Great Plains, the United States’ great grasslands, changed to our whim.

And now natives like the prairie chicken hang on by a thread, and others move to take their place. Certainly the ring-necked pheasant from China isn’t nearly so competitive an invasive as some, and doesn’t have as much to do with the prairie chicken’s lowering numbers as loss of habitat to agriculture does. But if the chickens were all gone, would the pheasant be able to step into its niche? Likely not. While the documentary didn’t detail this particular bird, it did make it clear that we don’t know nearly all the ways in which the species of an ecosystem rely on each other. Given that the chicken evolved here and the pheasant didn’t, there would almost certainly be some “invisible cords” missing if the latter were to go away forever.

The “thousand invisible cords” in the title are a reference to John Muir’s original quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe” (Muir 1988, p. 110) These cords can be broken, but only by the eradication of a species at one end of it. The cords also cannot be transferred; new ones must be forged, and those forged hastily are rarely as strong or as neatly woven into the ecological pattern. The relationships that the prairie chicken has to the grasses and insects are unique, and the pheasant cannot expect to create the same. The very differences in physical biology of the two birds prevent it, never mind their individual behavior and how that affects their place in the ecosystem.

This is why I am heartened to see a shift to a more systemic approach to nature, instead of just focusing on a single or few charismatic animal species. Our tendency to tunnel-vision has contributed greatly to our ignoring the effects of our decisions, and if we can cultivate a wider way of approaching the world, perhaps we can make wiser, more informed decisions as we move forward. At the very least, if we’re going to be successful in reviving the ecosystems we’ve damaged, we need to have more of an understanding of the intricate ways in which they work. It’s not enough to slap some plants and animals and fungi together and call it good; we need the hows and whys of those beings all together.

This is also why I cultivate the totemic ecosystem. Nature spirituality is a popular way for those feeling disconnected from the natural world to try to access it again. The abstract symbolism and archetypes of totems create imagery that may be easier to grasp than the sometimes very alien world of the wilderness, especially for those who have forgotten their own wild heritage. Plus many of us have come into adulthood without those natural connections intact. The practice of ritual can not only get us in touch with the wild again, but also re-teach us the crucial element of play. Play is how young animals explore their world, and it’s one way we can engage in similar exploration.

But just as young animals don’t only make a study of one or two species in their ecosystem, so we need to expand beyond our individual totems and favorite animals. The spiritual world is not only made of wolves and eagles and bears, but also the totems of mychorrizal fungi and the politics of field mice and the spirits of storm clouds. If your totem is Cougar, then it is good to know as much about cougars as possible. But it’s also important to know who the cougar’s neighbors are, what it eats and why, and what happens when the cougar is taken away, even to the effects on the very soil itself. And the spirits and totems of these can be known as well. So it may not so much be that Cougar is your totem, as it is that Cougar’s Home is your totemic ecosystem.

Clearly there is much more to the study and practice of totemism than just the animals.

So. Think about your local ecosystem and all the intricate connections. Let the concepts percolate in your head, and then let them slowly begin to ooze up into your consciousness. See if your worldview then expands, pick up your stick and drum, and go explore.

Source:

Muir, John (1988). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

I have spent the better part of two weeks being sick with a gut bug. I’m almost recovered at this point but am still fatigued enough that it’s going to be a couple more days before I can reliably leave the apartment for more than a little while. It’s definitely going to be a bit longer before I get to go hiking again. But even going outside so far as to walk down the block has been a challenge. I went out Friday afternoon to walk an errand, and was overjoyed to get absolutely drenched in the rain, simply because it meant I wasn’t inside.

Now, my apartment is a pretty cozy place to be. I have just about everything I need here–my work, lots of books, my computer, company in the form of my partner, and so forth. So being restricted to this place isn’t the worst thing in the world. Even on the days when I was so tired I mostly just slept, I had a nice, warm, comfy bed to snooze and snuggle in. I even popped open the bedroom window during the day so I could see the cherry and maple trees outside, with the squirrels and scrub jays and crows busying themselves with autumn chores. So it sure beat being stuck in a hospital somewhere (not that I was anywhere near that sick this time around).

Still, it wasn’t outside. And due to being sick twice now in the past month, my outdoor time has been almost nil. To be quite honest, it’s been driving me up the wall. Once festival season settled out for the year and I was able to get out more, I got used to my weekly hikes and other sojourns. And now they’re sorely missed. I’ve felt so starved for outdoor time that even walking downstairs to the mailbox or the car has felt like a banquet of smells, sights, and sounds for my sensory enjoyment.

The entire experience been an immediate illustration of the human need for nature. I noticed a definite difference between the first time I was able to get in the car and have my partner drive me to the grocery store, and the first time I was able to walk a mile around my neighborhood on one of the last sunny days. Sure, the former was a change of scenery, and the source of much-needed provisions. But the latter….that fed my spirit. I often take for granted just how much the trees and the gardens and the small creatures in my urban neighborhood improve my overall well-being. That first walkabout was a strong reminder of what had been missing. I went from a small space of a few rooms and the endless distractions of the internet, to a full, living world brimming over with flora and fauna. I encountered thousands of living beings–the last remaining orb weaving spider, chrysanthemums, moss greening the rain-soaked pavement, my fellow humans jostling for space in a small market.

I vary from day to day how much I’m able to get out, but every moment under the sky is precious now. It was before, too, but never to such a conscious degree. And every day I direct my efforts in growing stronger and healthier with the goal of being well enough to hike, even if it’s just a small hike. That’s what has helped keep my sanity intact in these days of illness and fatigue and confinement. Between my walks outside, and the promise of more wilderness, I can keep myself calm while I heal.

I am not an indoor wolf. I never had the ability to fool myself into thinking that the city was enough, that the virtual reality of the internet and all its shining interruptions could replace the living world. I have uses for technology, of course, but they are no substitute. I am a living, breathing, evolved being, and like my ancestors before me, I need open landscapes to roam. We may have developed some incredible and even beneficial technologies over the past century, but we are still the mammalian animal, Homo sapiens, and evolution doesn’t work so quickly that tech replaces biology.

So I wait as patiently as I can for my body to complete its healing process from this damnable illness, letting my immune system work its magic, and taking in calories and rest as I need to to help it along. And then someday soon I’ll find myself strapping on my day pack and picking up my hiking stick, and I’ll be on the trail again before I know it.