Oak Moss Lichen as Totem

Lichens are a unique set of beings. Rather than being a kingdom of their own, lichens are a combination of plant (either algae or plant-like cyanobacteria) and fungus. While it is possible to separate the plant and fungal parts of a lichen in a laboratory, and some of these plant and fungus species also live independently, for all intents and purposes lichens are singular beings rather than colonies.

I’ve long paid attention to lichens when I’m outdoors. Part of this is because they’re really good indicators of how polluted the air in a given location is. Lichens are very sensitive to airborne pollutants as they gain some of their nutrients from the air, and the more lichens you see and the bigger they are, the healthier the air is. I also try to take care to not step on them, as they take a long time to grow back.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But from a spiritual standpoint they’re also fascinating! When I’ve worked with the totems of lichen species, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Sometimes the lichen totem itself shows up; other times, I work with the totems of the individual plant and fungus species that make up the lichen. I’ve even had meditations where the lichen switched back and forth between the forms. I haven’t noticed a pattern, such as older species of lichens preferring to stay singular. Each lichen totem has its own preference, and for the purposes of my writing I’m going to refer to each one in the singular from here on out.

One of the lichen totems that seems to like shapeshifting is Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri). As a singular lichen totem, Oak Moss is bold and rather extroverted, a rather intense totem to work with. Oak Moss are fairly opportunistic lichens; they’ve often been accused of killing trees because they tend to grow on trees that are already sick or dying. The totem is similarly intrepid, and has on occasion egged me on when I’ve come to a tough spot hiking and taken a moment to rest and check in with the spirits of the landscape. Oak Moss’ plant and fungus totems, on the other hand, are fairly shy and retiring; they often hide behind a sort of “veil”, and I find this is a common trend with the plant/fungus derivatives of lichen totems.

Oak Moss, though, often switches forms to demonstrate a point. For example, when I went to my beach along the Columbia River last week, I spent some time simply hanging out with the locals, as it were. I’d been thinking a lot about the complexity of human communications and relationships, and I got into a conversation with Oak Moss about this.

See, it’s really easy for people to turn each other into one-dimensional characters. Sometimes this is just out of sheer efficiency. I don’t need to know the entire life history of the person who rings up my purchase at the grocery store, though we may exchange a few pleasantries as we interact, and I may find out that they have three children and like mint chip ice cream at least as much as I do. It’s not really necessary to get to know them beyond that, and we can have a civil society based on such things.

Other times, it’s defensive. When we disagree strongly with other people on something we feel very deeply about, it’s a lot easier for us to turn them into the mustache-twirling villain of old silent films. We don’t have to think about them as well-rounded people with thoughts, feelings, families, and with whom we might share many other opinions in agreement. In fact, the very thought of considering our “enemies” as actual people can be threatening to our sense of moral stability. Empathy becomes anathema.

And so conflicts go round and round, from small disagreements among neighbors to international wars, fed by mutual pigeonholing.

I talked with Oak Moss about this, and the intense sadness I feel over the loss of potential communication. First, Oak Moss showed me how its children find it easier to grow on the aforementioned weakened trees. It isn’t because the trees are defenseless, but rather because the trees’ loss of leaves opens up their bark to the much-needed sunlight that plants and lichens both need. So the lichens take the opportunity to soak up some sun while their host tree slowly passes away. This is a normal part of nature; trees become food for other living beings, even before they die, and this process is absolutely crucial to the health of the forest.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But because we are often biased toward beautiful trees, and because we see the lichens living on the bark of trees that then die, we’ve sometimes demonized the lichens as the cause of the trees’ deaths. In actuality, the lichens were just doing what they could to survive and taking an opportunity in the very competitive race for sunlight. The trees would have died anyway; sometimes they become necessary nurse logs for lichens and mosses and ferns and others even before they’ve completely died and fallen. The decay created by fungi, lichens, and bacteria all releases nutrients back into the cycle of life and death. Nature hates waste.

And that reminded me, too, of my recycling of hides, bones, and other animal remains. I make use of the refuse from those who are hunters, farmers, and the like, as well as occasional roadkill remains. And I turn those remains into resources that not only keep me alive through paying my bills, but I can also donate a portion of the funds to nonprofit groups that benefit wildlife and their habitats. Like the lichens, I’m doing what I can to survive and converting resources that are available into benefits for others. Sometimes people look askance at both me and the lichens. But on we go.

Oak Moss then split into its plant and fungus parts. The fungus was robust, the heavy structure of the lichen that supports it. The algae, on the other hand, was the swift-moving photosynthesizer, the one who added shape to the lichen’s structure. If you split a lichen into its plant and fungus components, the fungus will grow into nothing but shapeless masses of hyphae, and the species of algae it is combined with determines how it’s shaped. Algae also is rather shapeless on its own, but continues its creation of food from sunlight regardless. So in a way we can think of the fungus as the heavy mover and lifter, and the algae as the artistic creator. Both are crucial to the existence and form of the lichen.

We, too, are complex beings with multiple roles in life. We all have times when we’re strong, and we all have times when we’re sensitive, and sometimes both. We wouldn’t be who we are without all these parts. As anyone in any form of relationship knows, it takes time to get to know a person in all their parts and pieces, as well as as a whole. It can take a great deal of patience and bravery, too, on the part of everyone involved. But empathy makes it easier to not hate someone, and to see them as a multi-layered person with whom we have agreements as well as disagreements. Sometimes it’s not safe to engage with someone who’s being actively hostile, and so it’s better to not directly interact with them. But even trying to imagine what it might be like to be that other person is better than that one-dimensional villainy.

And so Oak Moss reminded me to be patient with others–most especially those with whom I disagree. It’s more challenging to see certain people–homophobes, religious fundamentalists, corrupt politicians, as a few examples–as human beings, well-rounded people. But I feel it’s necessary to keep trying, if I’m to not perpetuate the same sort of hatred and lack of communication that is at the heart of so many problems. And it’s necessary to remind myself that I am a fully functioning human being as well, that I have my well-thought-out reasons for what I do and why. These can be difficult concepts to keep in mind, but I feel it’s crucial to do so.

And in this exchange, Oak Moss helped me to remember some of the most important ideals I live by. Some of them stem from childhood, but are just as relevant now. Just because I gave up Catholicism years ago doesn’t mean I didn’t learn important things from it. I do hold to heart two thoughts in particular:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Grant that I may not seek to be understood as to understand.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

The first is, of course, the Golden Rule, which can be found in cultures around the world. I know that I don’t care to be yelled at or insulted; it tends to be a real mood-killer when it comes to intelligent discourse; sometimes it’s better just to keep quiet than to continue arguments, fights, even wars. And so I tend to imagine that it’s the same way for other people, and I try to grant them the sort of patience and understanding I’d appreciate (even if I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be). And even though I sometimes get frustrated with other people, once I calm down I try to see thing from their perspective. Keep in mind that understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with it, and I think sometimes that’s what keeps people from trying to understand others’ perspectives. But if you hold true to your own opinions you won’t be so easily shaken as that, and if you do change your mind it will be an informed change, not one based on kneejerk reaction. Most importantly, it lets you keep sight of that other person’s personhood, which can go a long way in creating civil discourse.

So I left Oak Moss that day feeling lighter in my heart, and with more purpose and reason for being here. And from here on out, whenever I feel tempted to reduce someone to a single dimension, and especially if I only want to hang onto the worst possible picture of them I could have, I’m going to remember this conversation, and the image of Oak Moss splitting into two parts, very different from each other and yet both necessary to the whole. Life is full of complexities, lichens and humans among them. Better to focus on those complexities than to go to war over one-dimensional caricatures.

Advertisements

Spring Cleanup on the Columbia

This past Monday I had a great time out on my adopted beach on Sauvie Island along the Columbia River. I’ve been going out there about once a month to pick up litter and get myself out of the city for a while, but this week’s trip also included my quarterly report. This includes feedback on the flora and fauna I noticed, the quality of the water, human activity, weather, and other such things. I had intended to spend most of my time making notes and taking photos for this report, and then do a little bit of cleanup before I headed home.

It was not meant to be that way. In addition to fishermen (who vary in their ability to clean up after themselves), my beach is frequented by people out to party. Unfortunately, such people have a tendency to get drunk off their asses and then leave gigantic messes for others to clean up. I usually find the remnants of a couple of these any time I come out, and I’m guessing other visitors to the beach take the time to do a little cleanup whenever I’m not around, too.

Broken glass is no fun for anyone. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Broken glass is no fun for anyone. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

However, when I arrived today, the road down to the parking lot, and the lot itself, were both swathed in a trail of garbage. One group of drunken partiers, not content with just leaving a pile of refuse along the river, decided to take an entire yard waste bag full of trash and “decorate” their way back out to the main road. An almost perfect circle of cans, used diapers, and broken glass adorned the lot, and more scattered its way down the road. This wasn’t just someone accidentally forgetting an open garbage bag in the bed of a truck; it was intentional vandalism. And to add the rotten cherry to this messy cake, someone took a glass wine jug and deliberately smashed it with a rock right in the middle of the road.

I didn’t get pictures of most of it because the beach was fairly busy with people fishing, and I wanted to get things cleaned up as soon as I could. I did get one picture of the broken glass with my phone before I scraped it into the bag, just because it was so unbelievable to me that someone would do something like that. By the time I was done, I had two large SOLV bags full of trash–and I hadn’t even made it down to the beach!

Having completed that onerous task, I decided to reward myself by getting out the camera and snapping some shots for my report. It gave me a chance to slow down, pay more attention to things that weren’t litter, and get to know my neighbors there a bit more. It was a really rewarding day in that respect. The snowy egrets have been returning from down south and were taking up residence in the marshes nearby, and while the snow geese had left for the season, their Canada cousins were still around. Juncos, robins, Steller’s jays, and other smaller birds flitted around the tops of the black cottonwood trees, singing out their assorted territorial and “hey, look at me, I’m fabulous!” songs. Along the beach, clamshells dotted the sand next to deer tracks and the pawprints of visiting dogs.

Juvenile bald eagle. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Juvenile bald eagle. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

The highlight of my day, though, was getting to take pictures of a juvenile bald eagle high up in a tree! I’d seen an adult earlier in the day, cruising over the wetlands. As I was cleaning along the beach, though, this earthy-colored young raptor settled into the branches of a cottonwood a little ahead of me. Thinking to myself “Oh, please don’t fly away!” I ran back to my car and got the camera, and then hurried back. Thankfully, the eagle was in no hurry to head off, and stuck around long enough for me to get a few photos. It didn’t even head off until I’d headed back to drop the camera off. Lucky me!

I’m not that great a wildlife photographer, since they don’t usually hold so still, but I fare somewhat better with plants and fungi. I had to add bull thistle and white clover to my list of invasives; while the clover is pretty innocuous as far as introduced species go, the thistle is painful in several different ways. This got added to the widespread plague of Himalayan blackberries and Scotch broom as “problematic”. On the other hand, the native plants were in abundance. Down among the cottonwoods, the snowberries were starting to put forth a few small green leaves amid the last of their white berries, and honey bees buzzed in the fresh flowers of Indian plum shrubs. Fuzzy-leafed mullein peeked out from around sword ferns and new growth of poison hemlock. Trees live and dead hosted lichens of all kinds, from reindeer moss to hammered shield and even some powdery-fine gold dust.

When I went back to pick up along the beach, I found that some of the day’s fishermen had left the usual mess of cigarette butts, cans, and fishing line strewn around. This even included the ones that had asked me what I was up to, and I told them I was taking pictures for an environmental report and then picking up litter. I have to wonder if they deliberately left their trash there because I was there, either because they assumed I’d just get it for them, or whether they deliberately wanted to make more work for me. This made me think about my last trip out to the beach, where I jumped right into cleanup and the first any of the people fishing saw of me was a small, skinny woman with a trash bag and a kitty litter scoop, sifting cigarettes and styrofoam out of the sand. That day people not only told me about how they cleaned up after others, too, but even offered to help me out.

Looking upriver. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Looking upriver. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

It confirmed something I’ve known for a while, and backed up by research in conservation psychology: modeling a behavior works better than telling it. I could have gone to each of those fishing parties, with cans in the sand and food wrappers by their chairs, and lectured them on how important it was for them to make sure they picked everything up before they left. I bet there would have been a lot of junk left behind after that. Yet by modeling the sort of behavior I wanted my fellow humans to emulate, I got better results. Last time, people saw me taking the time to clean up the beach, and followed suit. While a few of them may have been doing it out of a desire to not get in trouble, or some sense of guilt, I saw a number of them expressing genuine appreciation for the fact someone cared enough about that place to attend to it, and being inspired to pitch in themselves. I don’t think anything would have changed the behavior of those who left their detritus behind anyway, but I’m sure that telling them how horrible they were for making more work for me wouldn’t have been at all effective.

By the end of the day I was feeling pretty good. I’d collected an additional bag of trash that was now going to avoid going into the water. I’d taken some good photos and formulated ideas for my report to SOLV. I had shown my fellow human beings that someone did care enough to clean up after those less responsible. And, most importantly, I got to know my beach and its nonhuman denizens a little better than before. Volunteering is often promoted as a rewarding experience in and of itself. I have to say I agree; adopting this place, feeling responsible for it–it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Why Plant and Fungus Totems Are Important to Animal Totem Work

In every spiritual system there are specialists and there are generalists. I’ve been turning more into a generalist over the years, as I’ve gone from just working with the animal totems to expanding my work throughout the totemic ecosystem. It doesn’t make my work less important to me, but as a fan of systems theory I’m finding that understanding the complex relationships among the various components of a system is just as important as knowing those parts in and of themselves.

And so it is with animal totems. There are plenty of practitioners who prefer to specialize in animal-based spirituality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, one of the most important ways to learn about an animal totem is to observe its physical counterparts’ relationships with the plants and fungi in their environment as well. For omnivores and herbivores the reasons are pretty obvious; plants and fungi are food, and if the food no longer grows, the animals must move on, adapt, or starve. But the plants and fungi affect all animals in other ways, too. The presence or lack of trees, for example, can affect the weather patterns and overall climate of a place. Sometimes the relationship between an animal and a plant is so intricate that the species cannot live without each other. Some populations of sycamore fig rely completely on one species of parasitic wasp for pollination, and numerous other animal species need the fig tree to survive as well. Plants and fungi can present physical obstacles (as in a rabbit ducking into a thicket to escape a fox). If algae overgrow a pond, they can choke out animal life (sometimes literally, as in algae blocking the gills of fish); some algae are also sources of toxins that can harm or kill aquatic life.

These are all important things to note, because they shape the natural history and behavior of animal species and thereby their totems. How an animal develops physically, mentally, and otherwise is due in part to its environment and the plants, fungi, and other animals in that environment. So it is important that if you’re going to get more than a cursory understanding of a particular animal totem, it’s a good idea to get to know the plant and/or fungus totems also associated with them, even just a bit.

The first thing to do, of course, is to observe. You may be fortunate enough to be able to watch an animal totem’s physical counterparts in their natural habitat. Pay attention to how they respond to the plants and fungi around them, and see if any in particular stick out to you. If that’s not an option, you can always fall back on the observations of others, through books, documentaries, websites, and the like. The key is to have a good understanding of these natural relationships.

Just observing and knowing these things may already have given you some insights. However, you can also use guided meditation to get to know the plants and fungi important to the animal totem as well. In your meditation, ask the animal to introduce you to the plant and fungus totems it’s most connected with, and then ask all of them why they rely on each other, what each gets out of it, and what else they might like you to know about their work together. And if you like, you can go back and just visit with the plant/fungus totems on their own, if that’s something you wish to pursue.

Again, you don’t have to abandon your animal totem work in favor of a broader practice. Even if your goal is just to find out more about an animal totem, even brief visits with the connected plant and fungus totems can be incredibly valuable.

I Don’t Get To Say This Enough To You People Out There…

To my dear readers,

Being as open a person as I am about my art, spirituality, and the like, it’s inevitable that I take flak from haters (as the kids are calling it these days) now and then. I know it happens to a lot of you, whether you’re a fellow artist/collector of hides and bones and the like, or a member of a minority religion, or just someone who had the misfortune to be targeted by a pack of bullies feeling their actions are justified by their ideals. If you’ve ever had to deal with that, I’m incredibly sorry; it’s not something I’d wish on anyone, even someone I disagree with.

Do you know how we can counter this? Kindness. As Ian Maclaren said, “A thought to help us through these difficult times: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

And that brings me to what I want to say to you folks out there: thank you for being kind to me.

Thank you for every kind word, every compliment about my art or writing or anything else I share with you.

Thank you for every time you’ve thanked me when I’ve been able to help you, and along with that thank you for extending me the opportunity to be of assistance.

Thank you for giving up a few moments of your time to express appreciation and to brighten my day a little more.

Because it really does help. I know human beings are more likely to speak up (loudly!) when we’re upset about something. It’s more of a challenge to say something kind, not because the act is difficult in and of itself, or because we’re bad people, but because we tend to be complacent when things are going well. It just doesn’t occur to us to say anything then.

But it does make a huge impact on the person you say it to. We do get really used to only hearing from others when things are wrong, so when we do say kind things to each other, that one small moment can have a lot of power. I know there have been times when I’ve been pulled out of some really dark places in my life simply because somebody took the time to say something nice. When I’m having a tough time of things, I do go back and look at some of those appreciative emails, comments, messages and the like that you all have sent me over time.

So please do keep that in mind. If you know somebody who’s in a bad place, consider taking a few moments to show them some kindness and appreciation. You never know just how much a couple of sentences at the right time can help a person out.

Yours truly,

Lupa

The Human Body as a Bioregion

We humans like to think of ourselves as individual entities, moving autonomously through a world populated with other individual entities. We think of our skins as the boundaries between ourselves and everything that isn’t us. Symbiotic living is left to the like of the Portuguese man-of-war and lichens, colonies of group minds are for bees and ants. We might recognize consciously that we rely on other living beings for our food, oxygen, and the like, but we view ourselves as rugged individualists.

Or so we think.

Truth be told, our bodies aren’t entirely our own. Take bacteria, for example. We have plenty of human cells and the like, but for every cell in our bodies there are at least ten bacteria. As Anne Maczulak said, “Microbiologists are fond of pointing out that if all of a person’s DNA were mixed with the body’s entire bacterial DNA, that person would be genetically more bacterial than human” (1). Thousands of species of bacteria live in and on our bodies, creating films that coat pretty much every surface inside and out. Most of these live more or less in harmony with us, as we have co-evolved over time. For the most part, scary-sounding bacteria like Eschericia coli and Staphyllococcus aureus occur naturally in our bodies, and they are not the evil enemies that they’re often made out to be in the media. Problems predominantly arise when one sort of bacteria ends up in a place where it shouldn’t be (such as gut bacteria entering the abdominal cavity at large through an intestinal perforation) or overpopulating and causing infections (such as tooth decay caused by an overabundance of certain mouth flora).

Along with bacteria, we have various tiny fungi and protozoa throughout our systems. Many women know the hell that is a yeast infection, when Candida albicans and other fungi that normally inhabit the vagina along with a host of other living beings suddenly overpopulate and create a rather unpleasant result. We usually only think of amoebas as the little single-celled beings that often represent asexual reproduction in basic biology textbooks, or as the cause of amoebic dysentary (which in truth is solely due to an invasion of Entamoeba histolytica). Yet several non-pathogenic species of amoeba make up part of our internal communities; E. histolytica‘s cousins Entamoeba coli and Entamoeba dispar are rather benign. While eyelash mites (Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis) usually don’t cause a problem, their overpopulation can cause itching, swelling, redness, and other symptoms of the eye.

And these are just the welcome (or at least neutral) neighbors. We also host outright parasites. Tapeworms (several species in multiple genera) and hookworms (Ancylostoma duodenale and Necator americanus) are some of the better-known ones, along with the inaccurately-named fungus, ringworm. Some unfortunate people have had to deal with the joys of scabies mites (Sarcoptes scabiei), head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), and the bedbugs (Cimex lectularius and their kin) who only come calling for a late-night snack.

(How many of you are feeling itchy and squirmy right about now? Sorry about that.)

My point is that we are the setting for a variety of tiny ecosystems, each with its own daily drama of eat or be eaten. So are numerous other animals and plants. Like Russian nesting dolls, the world is made of ecosystems within ecosystems (it may be ecosystems all the way down!) In fact, we can potentially think of each part of our bodies as a small bioregion. Each one is defined by its unique physical features, and the common flora and fauna that inhabit it. There aren’t watersheds, per se, but there are flows of various necessary ingredient to life, particularly food. So you can think of your stomach as one unique bioregion with its own resident critters who feed on the food we eat in one stage of digestion, while the small intestine is another bioregion whose inhabitants wouldn’t survive in the stomach and couldn’t live on what’s in there so well. Even different areas of the skin have discrete populations of bacteria and the like; the armpits have a different set of tiny beings than, say, the sole of the foot, and in some ways the former place is a much easier living arrangement for the bacteria than the latter.

So what’s all this mean for bioregional totemism? For one thing, it’s a chance to expand your idea of what a bioregion is, as well as to remind yourself that you don’t just live in an ecosystem–you host them, too! It’s a different way to look at our place in the world and how we relate to other living beings. While we’ve caused some species to go extinct through our actions, our extinction would cause the extinction of other species of tiny being that can only survive in or on a human body. We may not mourn their loss in the same way we would regret the extinction of the giant panda or the Siberian tiger, but it’s a bit sobering to realize that there are entire species that would cease to exist without us.

It’s also an opportunity to connect with other beings, including their totems. I’ve had people over the years tell me “Oh, I can’t connect with the elements of Fire or Earth, I’m an Air and Water person!” Yet the easiest way to make a connection to all of these is through our bodies: the minerals of Earth, the water in our blood and elsewhere, the air in our breath and the gases in our blood, and the fire of metabolism. In the same way, if you can’t reach outward to totems, seek the ones inside of you. After all, every species of living thing, even protozoa and bacteria, has a totem watching over the connections between its species and everything else in the world.

How do you do that? As always, I’m a fan of meditation. Visualize your consciousness traveling deeper into your body, into a particular part of your form. Try going to your stomach and exploring the communities there. Or travel along your skin and see how the ecosystems change across distances, like a forest changing to a plain and then into a desert on a long road trip. Explore all the places, or make a detailed study of one. It’s entirely up to you. You may find that working with the tiny critters mixed among your cells and nestled in your organs have a rather different view on life than Gray Wolf, Box Turtle, or Dandelion. Bit I’ve found it’s worth it to at least check out the scenery.

It’s especially entertaining to do this when I’m sick with an infection. Even as miserable as I feel when I get a cold, I get a bit of a kick out of the idea that an invading virus is sacking my respiratory system, and that my resident immune system will come along like a line of defenders and rout the nasties, letting the local residents come back to their hamlets and farms in my nostrils. (I know, that’s a rather ridiculous thing to think about. But I have to do something to keep my spirits up when I’m sick!) I’ve tried asking them to quiet down and let me sleep, but it generally doesn’t work and I have to wait til my immune system does its job; mind over matter only goes so far.

And, as with any ecosystem, nothing goes to waste. The bacteria and other things living in and on my body mostly leave me well enough alone beyond whatever they need to survive. And yet when I die, who do you think is going to be the first to start turning my body into food? You guessed it–the resident microcritters. It’s not that they’re waiting around for me to kick the bucket; after all, once I’m dead their populations have a limited lifespan, too. But there’s a certain comfort in knowing that the tiny beings who have been with me my entire life–a sort of giant cadre of primary totems, if you will–will be the ones to start the process of returning my body back to the Earth. They greeted me when I was born, have been with me through thirty-four years of life so far, and they’ll be there to see me off, too. In this I tend to work with them more as a colonial totem than the many thousands of individuals, but they’re no less important.

(Apologies if you’re still feeling itchy.)

1. Maczulak, Anne (2011). Allies and Enemies: How the World Depends on Bacteria. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.

The Grand Dance of the Cosmos

I’m a little bit late to the Animist Blog Carnival, but better late than never, yes?

This month’s theme is Time. I have a strange relationship with time. One of the things that brings me such wonder is the sheer vastness of the Universe we live in, to include its fourth dimension. I suppose it’s in part because, as I’ve grown older, it’s taken larger amounts of time to impress me. When I was young, the idea that I was seven whole years old was a Big Deal! I couldn’t even conceive of my parents being in their thirties; it was just a bigger number with no context. In my late teens and twenties, as I started contemplating my mortality, the average lifespan of seventy-two years was a bit of an obsession. “Wow, I’m a quarter of the way to there!” was a sobering thought at eighteen. But I made peace with that, and the possibility that I might end up not even seeing seventy-two, and so I had to move on to other numbers to be bewildered by.

Which that brings me to now, in my mid-thirties. I am a huge fan of history documentaries. Ancient petroglyphs here in the United States, stone circles in England that are thousands of years old, the march of humanity out of (and back into, and sometimes out again) Africa and across the globe–these things entangle my mind and make me wish for a time machine so that I could observe more closely these people who were just as alive and real then as I am now. And extending beyond that, the evolution of species of animals, fungi, plants, and more over millions upon millions of years. And then the planet itself, how I wish I had a piece of the oldest rocks known on the Earth, thinking of how Earth’s sister planet Theia might crashed into it so long ago and two became one, how once all of this was star-stuff and cosmic dust and before that one very big bang. To these, seventy-two years doesn’t even register.

They say that one of the purposes of spirituality is to inspire awe and wonder and reverence, connection to something greater than yourself. This bigger-picture approach to time is one of the things that’s helped me to move toward a more naturalistic spirituality, one very embedded in the physical world and the wonders thereof. The lines between spirits, and what those spirits are supposed to represent, have become much more blurred, and I feel as much reverence and joy in observing a scrub jay on the power line outside my home as I do for the totem Scrub Jay. It’s made being in this world a much more joyful place, and more than ever I strongly disagree with those who claim there is no magic in this world.

Additionally, this cosmic dance has given me peace over the fact that I have just a tiny blip in the grand scheme of things. The very fact that I was honored with a place in this dance, even for a brief time, is in and of itself a privilege and a blessing. I will continually be frustrated that I can neither peer backward into what came before me, nor will I be able to see how the story continues to unfold once I am gone. I may not even leave a mark that lasts much beyond my passing. But in the end it is enough that I was here, that a little piece of time unfolded just for me, as it has for all of us–pill bugs, Cooksonia, stromatolites, the continental shield of North America, and every single human being that has ever and will ever breathe the air.

The small things count, too. Every moment that I live and breathe and exist is important. I blink, I exhale, I turn my head. A word is spoken, a thought flickers and is brought into the open, a goal is completed. Each is stitched to the next by the passing of time, but not one can be taken away without the whole thing collapsing. Every moment is important both in and of itself, and as part of the overall continuation.

So even the worst moments in my life have meaning. They may not have happened for some extraordinary cosmic reason; I don’t need to make sense of them in the manner of “Well, you’re working off bad karma” or “it was meant to be”. But I don’t have to add extra meaning to these just to justify their existence. The fact that each moment exists is justification enough. Each one is a stepping stone from one to the next, and I couldn’t have just jumped from the best thing that happened to me last week to the great event I’ll get to experience in a few days. That’s why I can realize, even at my darkest moments when my anxiety has me convinced the worst is here and everything is horrible, that it’s just a temporary condition. I may not be very good at being in the moment and being okay with that when life falls apart, but I’m getting better at remembering that the bad moments are stitched to the good ones and sometimes I just need to be patient and let time continue to unfold apace. Eventually I come to a place of respite and safety again.

I’m not at all alone in this experience. I have moments that are knitted into years and an ever-expanding network of lifetimes, mine and others’, and we in turn are woven into the very latest threads of a much greater cloth, billions of years old and countless strands large. Time weaves no holes, only ever-expanding patterns. It doesn’t even matter whether there’s a conscious weaver behind it all or not. Just being here in time’s continual unfolding–that’ll evoke more than enough wonder, awe, and reverence for the remainder of my lifetime, I think.