A Quick Follow-up and Thank You

First, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s contributed to the outpouring of support the past couple of days regarding my last post. The kerfuffle ended up not amounting to more than a couple of snarky emails and one mildly suspicious reply to the blog post I wrote–no protesters or flyers at the event, no droves of animal rights activists descending upon Seattle, etc. Which is about what I expected. People are generally much braver online than in person, and of the sum total of two (maybe three?) people who contacted me this weekend with harsh criticisms, not a single one used an email address that showed anything when searched on Google or any other identifiable information.

More importantly, though, I was reminded over the past few days, both through this and through the many people who I did meet face to face at my booth at FaerieCon West, that there are a LOT of people who have my back. I got emails, I got blog responses, I got hugs and support in person, and every one of them was from someone who wanted to let me know that they appreciate my work, physically and spiritually. I always appreciate when people take the time to send me a nice note or give me a thank you for something I’ve done that’s helped them, but there was a small flood of that this weekend! For that I am incredibly grateful.

Moreover, you are always welcome to ask me questions about what I do and why. I normally don’t get frustrated with people just asking me “So where do you get your stuff?” This was an isolated case in which it seemed the anonymous person wasn’t actually interested in the answer for any reason other than protest fodder and had made a clear threat to act on it. I don’t want this situation to make people to feel they can’t ask me perfectly reasonable questions about my art, or my (neo)shamanism, or how to start an Etsy shop, or anything else I might be able to help with. I like questions, and I like helping others, and while it may take me a couple of days to respond depending on how busy I am, I do check emails and Tumblr inbox messages and deviantArt notes and Facebook PMs and blog comments and the like. I’m even okay with people asking me questions in person when I’m vending, presenting workshops, etc. I just ask that you be respectful about it, that’s all.

And if we end up at loggerheads over something and we simply don’t agree (assuming you haven’t been so utterly caustic in your delivery that I decide to delete the message instead of engage), the worst I’m likely to do is to agree to disagree and end the conversation. I’m not going to go to my Tumblr brigade and say “Go get ’em!” or talk about how horrible a person you are and try to make everyone else hate you. I don’t pull that sort of junior high dramatics. I can disagree with a person and still respect them otherwise. Truth be told, a lot of the people who disagree with me on certain details (the use of animal parts in my art, my choice to use the word “totem”, etc.) are people with whom I’d probably agree on most other things surrounding the more general topic.

Alright. Time for me to head on back down to Portland. I’ve stuff and things aplenty to accomplish!

A PSA About Dead Critters

I’m vending at an event this weekend and not getting a lot of sleep. Yesterday morning, I woke up to this email, which I assume is from someone who saw me setting up at the event and decided they needed to Take Action:

How are your fox pelts obtained? I cannot think of an ethical method. Plz respond, I intend to protest / flyer your booths.

I’m not proud of my initial brief, terse, and frankly snarly reply to this email, which was born of little rest and a short temper because of that fatigue. I get a lot of these sorts of messages, and they’re usually from people who don’t seem to do any research about who I am and what I do before they decide to take offense at my chosen medium. Still, “Turbowag” did ask a question, and I’m glad he(?)’s at least that curious.

The short answer is that my materials come from a network of suppliers and channels that I’ve cultivated over most of twenty years. Some of these are secondhand pelts recovered from old taxidermy, rugs, coats, museum specimen collections, and the like. Some of them come from subsistence hunters–people who live close to the land, eat what they kill (assuming it’s edible), and sell the furs to pay for essentials like heating fuel. Some are the remains of animals that had to be put down for legal/medical reasons, and some are from food animals.

The last category, and the one you’re probably the most concerned about, is the fur that comes from upholstery and garment discards. When an animal, like a fox, is killed to line a parka (or whatever), the whole hide is tanned, but only the torso is used. The paws, faces, and tails are landfilled or incinerated, unless someone like me reclaims those pieces. Whatever you think of fur farming, bear in mind that unhappy animals don’t have attractive pelts, and that I’ve spent most of twenty years vetting these people.

So why do I dirty my hands like this? Two main reasons: first, because if these animals are going to die, I’d like their deaths to stand for more than somebody’s fashion statement or mantlepiece ornament. My wearable art brings these animals’ existence into a more vivid reality for people who may otherwise tend to misunderstand and abstract them. If you purchase one of my coyote headdresses, for example, you have to embrace the fact that it’s not an disconnected, romanticized representation of “coyoteness” but the skin of an individual creature that felt cold, warmth, hunger, satisfaction, curiosity, and fear. The more people are confronted with these relics of the animals we share the planet with, the more (I hope) they consciously consider the responsibilities that come with our de facto stewardship of Earth’s biosphere*.

The other reason is more direct and personal: a significant portion of the money this art brings in, in excess of rent and bills and business expenses, gets donated to organizations that support wildlife and their habitats. I’ve been able to make frequent, somewhat substantial donations to organizations including but not limited to the Defenders of Wildlife, Wolf Haven International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other institutions doing meaningful work, because I retrieve the remains of dead animals from (sometimes literally) our culture’s dustbins and send them to a new “afterlife” where they are cherished and respected. In fact, just a couple of days ago I posted about my most recent donation to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I have been telling people at the event I am at this weekend that a portion of the funds I make will go to the Oregon Aquarium; both these organizations put in a significant amount of energy and time and money into the preservation of oceans and their inhabitants.

Now that I’ve addressed your questions, “Turbowag”, I’d like to explain why I was annoyed at your email when I was still groggy and cranky this morning, and why I’m still annoyed: because I’ve said all this before. I said it on the internet here, here, here, here, and here (and a whole bunch more times here). I said it in the artist statement that’s posted and distributed at the events where I show and vend. I said it two days in a row in this online workshop. I said it in workshops and panels at numerous pagan and related events over the years. I say it in many of my books, and it’s the central theme of my fourth book, Skin Spirits. Let me repeat that: I wrote an entire book explaining how and why I make the art I do, including how to ethically source reclaimed materials.

I’m annoyed because I keep having to answer this question despite bending over backwards to make the answers available to anyone who looks since 2006, and furthermore, I’m annoyed because I don’t think you’re asking because of an honest curiosity. I think you’re another one of the LEGION of bored internet trolls who is briefly making me your hobby, because I look like an easy target and you think you can turn the kneejerk outrage over OMG DEAD FOXES into however many reblogs and attaboys.

You are not a righteous crusader for the fuzzy critters, and I am not the face of careless wilderness exploitation. I make this art because I care about these creatures, and people pay for it because they care just as much. What’s more, they’ve learned, over years of patronizing my booth at events, buying my work online, consulting with me to do custom work for artistic, personal, and spiritual projects, and asking me for advice in working with their own hides, bones, and other remains, that they can trust my motives and my sources.

And that, “Turbowag”, is why you got me out of the wrong side of the bed this morning.

*As Frank Herbert said through Paul Muad’Dib in Dune, “He who can destroy a thing controls it”.

PNW Ritual Participants Wanted; Also, Free Workshops on YouTube!

Pacific Northwest pagans, listen up! I am facilitating the rituals at this year’s Sunfest (in Oregon, between Portland and the coast) in June; the theme is “Journey to the Sun”, and the main ritual this year will be a neoshamanic walking pathworking (think of the Alice in Wonderland ritual a few years back if you were there). I am looking for folks who want to be a part of this ritual through invocation and embodiment of the sacred nature beings attendees will be meeting along the way. This is the most elaborate group ritual I’ve ever facilitated, and I’d love to make it one of the best Sunfest has ever seen! Want to know more? Details at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/sunfest.html.

Additionally, I’ve done a few free video workshops on various pagan topics over the past several weeks. The initial workshops are held live via my Livestream account (two sessions of each, allowing for different time slots so people have more flexibility in choosing a time that works for them). They’re then archived on my YouTube channel. So far I’ve covered Introduction to Animal Totems, Skin Spirits (working with the skins in hides, bones, and the like), and an animal totem guided meditation, and I also made separate videos of just the meditations themselves for those who want to use them for totemic work. The next round of workshops will be about the pagan publishing industry; here are the pertinent links to the Livestreams:

Saturday, March 9, 7pm – 8:30pm Pacific Standard Time

Sunday, march 10, 11am – 12:30pm Pacific Standard Time

And if there are any topics you’d like to see me do a workshop on, just let me know! In the meantime, I’ve got a full roster at PantheaCon this weekend, and I’ll be presenting workshops AND vending at FaerieCon West the following weekend. (You can see other places I’ll be on my calendar.)

My Writing Process; Or, How Lupa Makes This Blog Happen

Over the years I’ve had people ask me about my writing process, since I’m fairly prolific and have a few books under my belt. I’m not a writing coach and this isn’t intended as advice, so just take this as my own personal experience presented for curiosity’s sake.

A little background: I grew up in a household of people with excellent English skills. Both my parents are incredibly intelligent, as is my sister, and conversation was a big thing in our home. We ate supper at the dining room table every night instead of in front of a television, so I got used to having a time of day to connect with everyone through words. And my extended family is that way, too; family gatherings were mostly hours and hours of people chatting and even debating over assorted and sundry topics.

Moreover, I got a good education in how to write, and it all started with reading. Back when I was still a toddler in a crib my parents would put books in there with me. Sure, at first I’d just tear the pages out because hey–it sounded cool! But they also read to me a lot, and pointed out each word as they said it. By the time I was in preschool I was a book ahead of everyone else in our language skills module. Later on, from first through eighth grade I was put in a small private Catholic school that focused more on a solid education than on indoctrinating religion (though there were certainly religion classes, and Mass on Fridays). There was a very big emphasis on reading and writing as core skills, and the small class sizes helped, too. Plus when I went home at night my parents would check my homework and point out errors and how to correct them. So I was very, very fortunate in that I got a pretty good head start in basic language skills, and I can’t overemphasize that fact.

So that’s the background I came out of. What about my process itself? Well, first of all, I percolate–a lot. I can sit with a general idea for weeks, months, or even years before I finally let it out onto the page. When I’m out walking, or working out, or curling up to sleep at night, I’m often thinking about things I want to create, to include writing projects. It varies, of course, as to how long it takes me to get to the point where I feel ready to write about something. On the one hand, my totem stories usually come to me as I’m working with particular art projects, and as soon as the seed for the story appears, I put down the project and sit and write the whole thing out. At the other end of the spectrum, my totemic work can take years to develop before I feel it’s ready to share. I started working with animal magic in the mid-1990s, but didn’t start writing Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone until late 2004. And while I’ve only been writing about the plant and fungus totems for a year and change, I’ve been working with them to one degree or another since I moved to Portland in 2007. Part of why I haven’t written about that work as much is because it tends to be more subtle, and like the plants in my environment I’ve sometimes taken it for granted. But it’s also because, like the animal totems, I needed a few years of work before I felt comfortable writing with any authority.

There’s no set amount of time, of course, between when I think of or observe something and when I’m ready to write about it. But I am really lucky in that all that percolation makes it easier to write when it does come time to pick up the keyboard. Some people write multiple drafts on paper and in word processors, and that’s how they make the words happen. For me, all that percolation may not necessarily give me a set of words ready to go, but it does give me a whole image of what I want to express–it’s as pretty right-brained way of preparing to write, really. I percolate over impressions and ideas, and I visualize things quite a bit. Even if I imagine trying to explain something to an audience, in my imagination I’m showing rather than telling. This all means that when I start writing, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to write, and at that point it’s mostly a matter of choosing specific words and organization.

One other thing I’m very, very grateful for is that when I do write something, I can usually get most of what I wanted onto the page on the first try. I don’t remember ever having removed entire pages from something I wrote, and if you were to compare a first draft of one of my books with the final product, you’d probably recognize a lot of that first draft in it. I generally only do one full revision/editing session before I turn in a manuscript (or post to the blog here), because I’m generally pretty happy with what I’ve written. I do admit that I’m not as Type-A about my blog posts as I am about my books; I rarely have someone else look over something I write here, partly because it’s more personal, informal writing, but also because it’s not going to go too far beyond here–and no one else’s job is involved with it. With a book going to a publisher, I’m more than happy to play catch with the manuscript with my editor, though even then my book manuscripts have historically not needed too much back and forth. A lot of that is having had really good editors who make a LOT of good suggestions the first time through, so by the time we’ve both gone over the manuscript thoroughly, once is usually enough for all but some small details. I know some writers feel really antagonistic toward editors because some writers tend to be very protective of their baby manuscripts, but a good editor is there to help make your writing better, and even as happy as I am with my initial drafts I’m always happier with the post-editing version.

Setting’s also important. It’s easier for me to write when it’s quiet, and I get really easily distracted if there’s a movie with dialogue going on in the background or if someone keeps interrupting me. On the other hand, I can be happy at a busy coffee shop where there are several different conversations going on at once, none of which involve me. I don’t need music or tea or aromatherapy, but I absolutely have to have a computer–ever since I got my first typewriter in the 1980s hand-writing just became too slow, and it’s easier to process my thoughts with a laptop now.

Finally, I have to time bigger writing projects carefully. If I’m on a roll I can type out a couple of good articles in an evening, but books are obviously more complicated than that. And when I do get into a longer writing project, I want to be able to focus all my spare time on it in one big block with as few distractions as possible. Because I’m self-employed my schedule has both more flexibility and more variability than it did when I had a regular 8-5 day job. But I also put in more time each week on “work” than I used to; 70 hour weeks aren’t uncommon for me, especially at the height of the festival season. And while I still love to write, my artwork is a big part of my income so I can only afford to take so much time away from it. So I basically have to orchestrate big blocks of time where I can get away without making art and focus only on the writing. (This also isn’t factoring in things like cooking, housework, errands, taking time off to keep from going crazier than I already am, etc.)

When I do make this time, though, I’m a marathon writer. It’s kind of an awesome thing to experience. You know the concept of Flow? It’s like that. Everything boils down to that project, and I can spend literally weeks tunnel-visioned on it. To be very honest, it’s one of those things that I live for, and when I get to have it, it’s one of the most blissful states I can achieve. I wake up in the morning with my ideas waiting to turn into words, and I go to bed that night knowing that I get to do it all over again the next day.

So there you have it–the amazing secrets of how I write! You’re welcome to ask me any questions; as I said, I’m not much of a writing coach so I don’t know how much I can help you with your writing, but I’m happy to share more about my process if you have questions.

Black Cottonwood as Plant Totem

By far the most common tree at the riverside beach I volunteered to keep clean is the black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), also known as the western poplar. A young-ish forest of these tall, lanky trees crowd up almost to the edge of the river, stopped only by the sandy beach itself. I’m used to hiking through forests of aged conifers, Douglas fir and Western hemlock and the like. The energy of these fast-growing poplars was almost frenetic in comparison (though certainly conifers can contend well in the upward race to the sun).

Photo by Lupa, 2012

Photo by Lupa, 2012

I spoke to the totem Black Cottonwood about this, and found that because these trees are relatively short-lived, they tend to be more “sped-up” than some others. It’s worked to their advantage in several ways, to include in competition with other plants. A stand of new cottonwoods can create a young canopy in less than decade, quickly (and literally) overshadowing smaller, slower-growing trees and shrubs.

This comes at a price, of course. Black cottonwoods are, as mentioned, short-lived, averaging a lifespan of 125 years or so. Not that this is an uncommon trend in nature, of course, but we so often think of trees as being potentially ancient that it’s a bit startling to realize a black cottonwood we plant when we’re young may not outlive us by much.

And it’s a reminder to look at the effects of competition. Beneath the canopy of black cottonwoods, the forest along the beach is filled with invasive Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom. From a self-centered perspective, these plants are doing great–they’ve edged out the competition in the undergrowth and settled themselves in firmly. Some humans are content to have a similar worldview, elbowing their way into a situation and shoving everyone else out no matter the cost. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, of course. It can be a good motivator to get people to create new and amazing things. But when it does damage to the overall system, whether an ecosystem or a human community, that’s cause to pause, reflect, and change the situation.

Finally, life isn’t just about racing to be the fastest or the best. I admit that I drive myself really, really hard. I have a lot of things that I’m working on and sometimes I feel overextended, stretched too thinly. I like what I create, but sometimes it can be exhausting. So I often need to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the scenery; even if I’m not as tall as a cottonwood tree, the view’s still pretty good from where I am and I oughtn’t miss it on my way up.

Black Cottonwood also pointed out that because her children grow so close to the water they’re directly affected by the pollutants therein. She told me that if I were to take root samples from the trees closest to the river, and then further away from the water, the closer ones would have absorbed more of the pollutants already found in the water. However, even the trees closer in to the island weren’t completely safe; agricultural runoff, and pollutants from the roads encircling the island also ended up in the soil and roots. She told me that in the same way it was important to monitor the toxins in my own self, physical and otherwise, and to be aware of what I take in. And, as I’ll be training later this year to test the water quality of the Columbia River along the beach, so do I need to be paying attention to what I’m absorbing.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

It made me think about what I can’t help but allow into my body. Because I live in an urban environment, I’m constantly breathing in all sorts of toxins from vehicles and other sources. Most of the time it’s hard for me to consciously pay attention to it, but all it takes is walking through one cloud of exhaust or cigarette smoke to realize my respiratory system is being constantly assaulted. Even in the wilderness I’m not safe, as air pollution knows no boundaries. I can have some more control over what I choose to eat, though unfortunately I’m not at a point where I can grow my own food or afford to only buy organic, free-range food all the time. Still, I can make changes where I’m able.

It’s not just physical toxins, either. Emotional and psychological toxins are everywhere. My anxiety is a pretty frequent internal source thereof, and I have to take a little time out here and there to check the outflow of stressful, anxious thoughts and get myself back to a healthier homeostasis. That doesn’t change the fact that other people can be pretty toxic, too. Sometimes it’s people being mean for the sake of being mean (or “for the lulz”, its own special brand of bullying). Other times it’s folks who have a good message to convey, but a rather ineffectively caustic manner of conveying it. These toxins, too, need to be monitored, and if possible their sources cut out of my life. Failing that, good coping skills and defenses are called for.

So it seems I have quite a bit in common with the black cottonwood trees, and much to learn from their totem. I’m curious to see where this goes as I continue making my visits to clean their habitat up on this island in the Columbia, but I’d say we’re off to a good start.

As a side note, as I was researching the black cottonwood I found out that it was the first tree to have its genome sequenced. It genome is described as “compact”, about 1/50 that of the size of a pine tree. Nothing’s jumped out at me totemically regarding that just yet, but hey–maybe something about new levels of usefulness to others, since the cottonwood is already used for lumber, fiber and the like. (Might there also be something about speaking out against being used, perhaps? We shall see.)

A Modern-Day Ordeal

If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll notice that one of the themes I keep coming back to is Therioshamanism as a (neo)shamanic creation based on my own social and cultural background. The dominant non-indigenous culture in the US doesn’t have a clear shamanic figure, though I feel there are professions and roles here that can be analogous. On the one hand, American (neo)shamans may face accusations and feelings of illegitimacy, as though our lack of roots makes anything we do insufficient. And yet at the same time, there’s a great opportunity for creativity and flow in making something that is new and suited for the setting we found ourselves born into. I feel it is a fine balance between acknowledging how other cultures have formed their own shamanisms and related practices over hundreds or thousands of years, and making something that is uniquely ours instead of just wholesale copying. There’s a lot of trial and error, to be sure, and at times I really respect my fellow practitioners who are similarly trying to create something with no single existing cultural framework.

One of the themes that comes up as a topic of discussion is that of the ordeal. I have met people who claim that you must have an ordeal in a traditional manner–either a life-threatening physical illness, or a severe mental illness/breakdown–and that it absolutely can’t be a positive or constructive experience whatsoever. Nor, they say, is it something that you can openly seek out; it has to crash down on your head and ruin everything. Supposedly all these things separate the wannabes from the hard-core practitioners. I have a gentler approach. Not every ordeal a person goes through is a shamanic one; as attributed to John Watson/Ian MacLaren, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle“. What I think distinguishes a shamanic ordeal, at least in part, is whether it directly contributes to one’s work as a (neo)shaman. It may still be a great challenge with a significant risk of failure, but it can be something you willingly choose to enter into as a furthering of your path and development. In this, it doesn’t always have to be the initiatory ordeal; ordeals can also be ongoing challenges.

Many of the things I have gone through weren’t ones that I chose. I would be lying if I said that over a decade of bullying leading to the development of an anxiety disorder was something I decided to experience. At the same time, while it did directly lead to my walking this path, I could potentially have chosen other ways to focus the aftermath of those feelings. I could have ended up an addict trying to drown out the anxiety attacks and traumatic memories. I could have ended up a Catholic nun in a cloister, seeking refuge in a holy sisterhood. In short, I don’t feel that my eventual walking of a (neo)shamanic path was something preordained. But it’s where I ended up, and that personal set of decisions and paths has to be factored in as well as the cultural milieu.

Because I live in such a highly individualistic society, I don’t find it surprising that so many (neo)shamans enter their paths in part due to personal benefit–not in the case of “making lots of money”, but in “finding a focus for things that hurt” or “a way to grow in a healthier manner”. Rather than being a wholly self-serving path, though, (neo)shamanism has the added benefit of reminding us that we are part of a community, and emphasizing the need to be an intermediary in that community. Individualism is not in and of itself a bad thing, but sometimes the dominant US culture errs a little (or a lot) too far to that end. All things in moderation, to include self-identity and group-identity.

That being said, I don’t think there’s any shame in a (neo)shaman actively pursuing an ordeal in part to better themselves as practitioners and as people. The more any practitioner of any art, science, etc. knows and experiences, the better they are to serve their communities. This entire post came up in my head in part because I recently acquired my Wilderness First Responder training and certification. It was very much a challenge; for 8 days straight I spent 8-9 hours a day in ongoing training, to include daily hands-on drills and practice, plus an additional 2+ hours of homework every night. I had to process an immense amount of information each day and demonstrate that I understood its applications, and I went home every night almost too exhausted to do my homework. For those 8 days, WFR training was all I did–and there was no guarantee I’d pass. It challenged me in many ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and when I came out of it with my certification, it took me a while to absorb the reality that I’d succeeded.

Just as with going to grad school for a counseling Master’s degree, this is something that I chose to enter into despite the challenges because I wanted to be better able to serve my community. I spend enough time outdoors, both alone and with others, that I wanted to be able to act in case of a medical emergency. And as I do sometimes lead workshops at pagan events, to include some that are outside in fairly remote areas, I want to be able to take care of the participants on multiple levels. (Even if I don’t hold sweat lodges, I certainly haven’t forgotten about James Arthur Ray.) And even outside of a backcountry context, having basic first aid training could come in handy some day.

These all tie into my ongoing development of a (neo)shamanic role in my culture. I’m still in the process of developing what the counseling end of all this will look like (and I’m continuing to take a few courses through my alma mater), but each experience I have pulls it into more cohesion. I’m okay with it taking a while to come together; I’m still able to help people through writing and workshops and one on one work together. And I think whatever I end up with, it’ll be something that I feel fills that void, to an extent, that we have in this culture through the lack of a single shamanic figure. It’ll most likely be an ongoing work in progress, too, which I’m okay with. No system is stagnant, and if I can leave something for others to build on in the future, so much the better.

In my vision of a (neo)shamanism for my culture, I don’t see ordeals as being these uniformly awful things to be avoided. Challenging, yes, but there’s already so much negativity and discouragement here that I don’t want to include that idea of “it’s not real unless you hate it” in what I’m developing. I want to be a constructive practitioner, offering support and compassion to a community that’s all too often cynical and jaded, and I want to continue excising these things from myself. It doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the problems in the world, or the fact that some ordeals and challenges are unwanted and destructive and we don’t always come out for the better. But the skills learned in constructive ordeals can come in quite handy when dealing with destructive experiences in general, and isn’t being able to weather the storms better a good thing in general?