How To Introduce Yourself to a New Land

2012 has been a year of travel for me, both for business and pleasure; nothing out of the country, and mostly staying along the West Coast. But I’ve been all the way through California on I-5 and 101, in new portions of Oregon I haven’t visited before, and even to the Texas thornbush country.

Each of these places has its own distinct ecosystem, and resident land spirits/Genius Locii. And crossing their boundaries can be a more complicated experience than a simple road trip.

There are places I have gone into that have welcomed me immediately. The portion of the Columbia River Gorge around Multnomah and Wahkeena Falls took me in as soon as I set foot there, and I’ve had that repeated all throughout the Gorge. On the other hand, the deserts of Texas were a tough sell. Their spirits matched the prickly, thorny, dry landscape–my greeting when I first set foot on the dirt was a sharp, prickly burr in my shoe, and the land felt similarly offputting.

I grew to be more comfortable there, though, even though it was a short visit. And I’ve managed to integrate myself into other places even in brief periods of time. I spoke earlier in the year, over at No Unsacred Place, about the philosophy of my approach to this sort of Land work. Here, I want to get more into the practical side of it.

Just as a note, this may not be suitable for beginning practitioners. It involves opening yourself up to new energies and spirits, so this is recommended for those who feel confident in their ability to defend themselves and maintain their energetic integrity. In all my years of connecting to wild places I’ve not had a horribly bad experience that left me out of balance. The worst was living in Seattle for a year, and that was more just a matter of it being too big a city for my tastes–I still appreciate a visit now and then. Still, having the ability to not let a place “eat” you, as it were, is a must for this activity.

The first step, not surprisingly, is to be open to the Land. The manner in which we approach the spirits of a place can have a very strong influence on how we’re received. While I understand that there are people who find certain places to be very hostile, I do have to wonder how many times it’s because we expect, on some level, for it to be hostile in the first place. On certain levels, yes, a place can kill you. If you go into a deep wilderness unprepared, you may end up dead. And I don’t think that having a good relationship with the land spirits will automatically get you an easy out in an emergency; they may just be sadder if you die.

But before you even get out of the car or step off the plane or train, meditate about your biases about the place you’re going. Do you have any negative attitudes about it, either because of the natural ecosystem or the human society? If you just get “a bad feeling”, can you pinpoint why? Even if you do get that feeling, leave yourself open anyway (if a little more cautiously).

When you have the opportunity, spend some time connecting to the place. This is best done on foot rather than in a vehicle, and with enough time that you can go at your own pace. I’ve gone for hikes in new places, sat at the edge of the ocean, and even gone for a run through a farm-lined suburb. The important thing is to be able to make that physical connection and to not be too concerned about time limitations. Here’s the basic process I go through.

–First, go out into the place at a point where it’s relatively safe on a physical level, taking your outdoor skills into account. Know where you’ll be going and how to get back. If you want to take someone with you, make sure they know why you’re going out.

–Next, start your walk/hike/etc.–your introductory journey. As you go, open yourself spiritually to the place. Take in the ambient energy of the place, and start to shift your energy to match. This may not be an easy or quick process; it can take time to “shapeshift” in this manner, and you may feel some unease, especially if it’s a very unfamiliar territory. Give yourself time and patience to adjust. If at any point you feel too uncomfortable to continue, simply shift yourself back to your baseline state; if you’re having difficulty with that, turn back and try again another time.

–Once you feel your energy has shifted to match the place, start seeing if any of the local spirits seem interested in you. You may just be seen as a temporary inconvenience, or you may be a curiosity. I’ve rarely found anything that was openly hostile, especially after blending myself into the landscape. Interact as you both/all choose.

–If you wish to approach a particular spirit, make sure it notices you, then introduce yourself politely. Proceed (or not) based on its response.

–You may wish to let the Land itself, the Genius Locii of the place, know that you are there, and how long you will be there. You may also wish to discuss protocol for the next time you come through. Some places may not care one way or the other; others may wish for a small offering, or at least a heads-up upon your arrival. If a place is hostile toward you, it doesn’t mean you can never, ever, ever come back. It just may mean that you need to shield more heavily when you’re there, or try more diplomacy.

–If the Land accepts you, it may make an offering of a small gift to you, such as a small stone or stick. Assuming you’re in a place where it’s legal to take such things (many state and federal parks and other lands prohibit it), graciously accept the gift, and give it an honored place in your home. You can even create a place altar specifically for these connecting items.

–You may also wish to leave an offering to the Land. My preference is a small lock of hair, as it’s biodegradable and it infuses my energy into the place. Water also works as a gift, especially in deserts and other dry places. Make sure you don’t leave anything that could be toxic to the environment such as metals or nonbiodegradable chemicals. I also don’t recommend leaving food; many of the things we eat aren’t good for wildlife (such as giving bread to ducks and other birds) and it can encourage wildlife to associate humans with food, which almost always goes badly for the wildlife.

These are just some basic steps to connecting with a new place. Details for each place may arise as you spend more time in them. And don’t be surprised if your relationship with a place changes over time, especially if the place itself is changed. The second patch of woods I played in as a child used to be a happy, welcoming place. After it was mostly bulldozed for yet another new sprawling subdivision, the remains of it now push me away every time I visit, not wanting me to get hurt the way it did.

Keep in mind, too, that this is just the introduction. Anywhere you go, the Land is full of many beings, physical and spiritual. Some of them you may grow fond of; others you may learn to avoid. But always, always go in with respect and appreciation; these things will serve you well in your explorations.

And finally, just a quick bread-and-butter note–if you liked this post, I cover more ways to connect to the land, and especially the animal totems thereof, in the Bioregional Totemism chapter in my newest book, New Paths to Animal Totems, which just came out from Llewellyn Publications. I have copies on hand if you want one signed directly from me–details at the link above.

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Plants Need Animals, And Other Necessary Connections

Heh. Volunteering with tree planting and cleaning up garbage from watersheds has given me plenty to write about.

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, from Wikipedia

One of the things I’ve been chewing on is the earthworms. Okay, not literally chewing on earthworms. But the soil southeast of Portland where I’ve been planting trees is healthy enough to have a really nice population of them (no Oregon giant earthworms this time). Every shovel full of dirt had several of the little pink critters squirming around in it, and I had to be really careful to dig around them as best as I could.

I also thought about Jason Woodrue, also known in DC Comics as the Floronic Man. This botanist went so far as to transform himself into a human/plant hybrid, and was perhaps even more tightly tied to the plant world than his better-known counterpart, Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy. During Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing in the 1980s, Woodrue tried to kill off humanity–and all animals–by making all the plants in the world increase their oxygen production to an excessive degree (there can be too much of a good thing). The Swamp Thing pointed out that, instead of creating a perfect plant planet, this would lead to the death of all plants because there would be no more animals to create carbon dioxide.

It’s not the only reason plants rely on worms–and other animals–to survive. These creatures aerate the soil, their castings fertilize, and their bodies become further food. Many plants need insects and other animals to pollinate them; some, like one species of fig tree, are so intricately tied to their animal pollinators that if one went extinct so would the other. From a purely evolutionary perspective, wheat and other domesticated plants are the most successful because they’ve convinced the entire species of humanity to deliberately propagate their genes.

And it’s not just the animals. We assume that plants were the first living beings on the land, but in fact fungi may very well have been much earlier. I am not an expert, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the intricate relationships between plants and fungi developed not long after both took to land. Today we still see that interconnection with mycorrhizal fungi, as well as the wide variety of fungi that help break down dead animals and plants into nutrients that plants can absorb.

In an alternate reality, perhaps plants would have evolved into completely self-sufficient beings. Maybe all the kingdoms of living beings would have. But in this world that we live in, all the kingdoms rely on each other so intimately that there’s no way to extract one completely from any ecosystem (except perhaps the realms of extremophile bacteria who essentially reign alone in their little pockets).

As I’m working more with both animal and non-animal totems, I’m noticing these tightly-knit relationships as well. For example, while Douglas Squirrel isn’t a totem I really work with, whenever I work with Douglas Fir and the totems of other Pacific Northwest conifers, there’s a “shadow” of Douglas Squirrel present. And it’s not alone; there are similar shadows of totems of other animal species that live in and around these trees. More, perhaps, than even the animals, the plant and fungi totems bring their homes with them into their work with me.

I suppose it makes sense. I’ve always met the animal totems in spiritual settings full of plants and waterways and such, but until relatively recently I only occasionally paid attention to anyone besides the animals. It didn’t mean they were any less there.

So many of us fall prey to what Richard Louv, in The Nature Principle, refers to as “plant blindness”, the biased perception that plants and fungi are just scenery and not active parts of the natural environment. Yet you’ll always see more plants than animals when outdoors, and even fungi are easier to observe. So consciously turning my attention to them on both physical and spiritual levels has emphasized their importance in my perception, though the plants were bringing their animal shadows from the beginning.

So continues my work with the totemic ecosystem.

No Unsacred Place Posts–and A Bit of News!

In case you haven’t heard, I am the new admin/editor for No Unsacred Place, the nature spirituality branch of the Pagan Newswire Collective. The founding editor, Alison Leigh Lilly, stepped down earlier this year, and through various events I became the new administrator. We’ve since brought on a few new writers, and I’ve been spending some of my free time updating and tweaking the site. I have, of course, continued to write. Here’s what you may have missed in recent weeks:

The Risks and Benefits of Nature – nature isn’t always safe–and that’s okay.

Remember That We Are Among the Most Privileged Beings to Live on This Planet – a bit of reflection on the impact our technological and other advances have on the planet and its inhabitants.

Wolf packs in Oregon successfully interbreeding – a piece of good news from the Pacific Northwest!

By the way, if you’re on Facebook there’s a fan page for No Unsacred Place here. And I have one for updates on my art, writing, and other news here.

Powell Butte, 11-15-12

For the last sunny day we’ll be getting for a while, I decided to head out to Powell Butte. While a lot of my favorite hiking spots are way out in the middle of nowhere, Powell Butte is much closer in, a quick drive to Gresham. It’s the first place I saw a wild coyote in Oregon, my favorite outdoor running locale, and has one of my very favorite red cedar stands in the area. I’m trying to get myself back into condition after last month’s illness, and while I’m still comparatively slow and lacking in stamina, Powell Butte was just what I needed.

It was tougher to get settled in as there’s ongoing construction of a new water reservoir there, so there were trucks and backhoes and workers shouting and the like. But once I got over the crest of the butte and down into the woods, things quieted out a lot. That’s one of the challenges of urban wild places–if your aim is to get away from the noise and busy-ness of the city, you may find it follows you in spite of your efforts. Still, if the Savannah sparrows and the woolly-booger caterpillars can hack it day after day, I can deal with a little extra chaos in exchange for getting to wander this beautiful–if ever-changing–place.

Did I mention these were BIG leaf maples?

Like so many of the large hills in the Portland area, Powell Butte is an extinct cinder-cone volcano; it has a broad, flat top and the sides gently slope, so it’s not that challenging as far as hikes go, but it is a lovely one with a lot of local history. It still has an old orchard from when it was farmland. Supposedly the trees that remain are over 100 years old; sadly one of them had blown over in a recent storm. The rolling grasslands turn into a beautiful forest of old Western red cedar, big leaf maple, and Douglas fir, with nettles and mushrooms as part of the undergrowth. For being so close to houses–you can see them through the trees on the western edge, especially this time of year–it’s one of my favorite quiet spots. Striding across the grasslands makes me feel like an adventurer, but the forested area brings me into walking meditation.

I got there fairly late in the afternoon and had plans for the evening so I couldn’t stay as long as I might have liked, but I did get my wilderness fix for a bit. And I even got a poem out of it! Enjoy:

The trails are a muddy tangle;
Gallantly the maples lay lay down their cloaks,
Perhaps a little too well! The golden-brown patchwork
Covers us all.
Indignant mushrooms brush off the kind gesture
And get back to the business of growing:
Little round ghosts in the gloom.
I came to see the forest in its tattered Autumn best,
But I see the sun slung low
Across the land, and I must go.
But I will return (I promise),
I will return.

Skin Spirits and Sacred Remains on Samhain

I haven’t celebrated the cross-quarters (Samhain, Beltane, etc.) in years, and I generally don’t do purely celebratory ritual unless I’m invited to it (such as Pagan Pride Day rites and so forth). Additionally, I’m two days out from vending at OryCon this weekend, and since I spent a large portion of October too sick to work (thank you, food poisoning), I’m working hard to create enough new things to make my booth a place of all sorts of furry and feathered and beaded creations to take home. That means today was predominantly a “hide in the art studio and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist” day.

Except I can’t forget the rest of the world exists. My apartment is festooned with bits and pieces of wood, stone, and other organic findings from hikes and explorations, reminders of where I’ve been and where I’ll visit again. I almost always have documentaries about nature, human history, modern technological advancements, and the like going on while I work. Even when I’m holed up in my apartment for days, I never forget that there’s so much more outside those walls.

Gray wolf mask by Lupa, 2012

And then there are the dead critters. One of the perks of my art is that I get to work with the remains of animals from all around the world. So I have these constant reminders of the diverse ecosystems that have developed over thousands of years. I’ll probably never get to pet a spotted hyena or a Geoffrey’s cat in the flesh, but I can at least touch and examine bits of their fur as I stitch them.

I am also constantly reminded that these were once living beings who met their deaths largely at human hands, one way or another. These deaths often are terrifying, even when they’re relatively quick. Yes, death is a constant threat in the wild, and many of the wild animals whose remains I work with might otherwise have had a much worse death than a quick bullet–starvation, disease, infected injuries, or death in the jaws of a predator. But that does not remove our responsibility to make the deaths we cause be as humane as possible.

No animal enjoys dying, and this reality must be remembered. Even the gentlest death is still a living being suddenly being permanently deprived of its ability to interact with this world. The afterlife is not a fact, only a speculation, and it is small comfort to say “perhaps its spirit still roams”, when the only life we know for sure exists has come to a close. Even as I work with the skin spirits in my art and practice, I know that there’s a good chance that these, and all other spirits, are simply emanations of the human imagination, and that this life is all we get. Even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact remains that a living being has lost its vehicle for interacting with this wild, amazing world we live in. This is a loss of which we can be absolutely sure, and it is no small thing.

This–this is the foundation of my work with animal parts. My work with the spirits for the past fifteen years, developed through trial and error and experience, self- and spirit-taught–this is the heart of my artwork. The aesthetics and the flow are important, and yes, the ability to pay my bills is convenient. But from the time I picked up my first fox faces and deerskin scraps so many years ago, the spirits I discovered in them, and the stories of their lives and their deaths, have been the reason I do this work.

Fox tooth necklace, Lupa 2012

Every piece of art I make with fur and bone, leather and feather, is a piece of funerary art. Even the simplest claw necklace or tail is a testament to the animals who once wore the remains, every bit as much as an elaborate bone ritual knife or whole-hide totem dance costume. I think sometimes I take for granted that people realize that. And yet it’s more often that people recognize it in the bigger, more obviously “sacred” ritual tools, and I have to remind them that every little bit, even the snippets and scraps I use as pillow stuffing, is just as sacred and special.

Skin spirits and sacred remains: the crafted archetypal memory, and the physical memorial. These are inextricably tangled together in my work and my practice. Hence the prayers and rituals that go along with the stitching and the painting. For me, it would be unthinkable to treat these remains as mere “materials” to be used. These beings once lived, and those lives deserve to be honored and celebrated through my art and ritual.

Working almost every day with the sacred remains, from initial preparation to the process of art creation and into the purification ritual, I appreciate not only the lives that these animals had, but also the preciousness of my own life. As I grow older I become more acutely aware of my own mortality, and how fortunate I am to have made it–today being my birthday–to thirty-four years of age. The skin spirits sit with me as I work on their remains, and they whisper in my ear: “Remember, thou art mortal!”

As I sit here on the cusp of Samhain Day*, once I finish my break and return to my work, I will continue with the ongoing, daily rites and practices that honor these beloved dead. And these rituals aren’t just to honor the dead, but to remind me to protect the living. My partner tells me his favorite part of my work is the alchemy of taking the remains of the dead and turning them into money I can give to protect the living and their habitats. It is not only my own mortality I have to remember, but that of every other living being sharing this planet with me.

Mastodont skeleton at Oregon Zoo; photo by Lupa, 2012

Therefore, please do not mistake the work with skin spirits and sacred remains as one focused merely on death. Death is only the most obvious element of this work. Through my art and spiritual practice I have gained a greater appreciation of the long parade of beings that have come and gone on this blue-green planet, and for the urgent need we have to preserve the balance that our species has endangered so greatly.

The spirits remind me of my mortality, but they also remind me I am still very much alive. Perhaps the greatest honor I can do these beloved dead is to make the most of this life, not just as an isolated individual, but as a part of the great, tangled, interconnected web of life, death, and rebirth that we all have had our time in.

*A lot of people celebrate Samhain on Oct. 31 because of Halloween. However, Oct. 31 is Samhain eve, and November 1 is Samhain day. Yes, that makes me a Samhain baby. Also, I know some folks celebrate it the full moon before/right after Nov. 1 to be *really* authentic about it; I’m going with the more popular May 1 Beltane/Nov. 1 Samhain configuration 🙂