Lupa Goes to the Death Cafe

Yesterday I attended Portland’s first Death Cafe. No, this wasn’t a group of stereotypical goths moping over Poe and lovely cadavers. Instead, Death Cafes are a new phenomenon, local events in which people meet in a cafe to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss the realities of death. They’re often organized by people whose work revolves around death, such as end-of-life specialists, hospice nurses, and the like. Rather than being a showcase for local funeral services or an evangelizing platform for a particular way of approaching death, Death Cafes are opportunities for people to come together and talk about this rather taboo subject in a safe, confidential and nonjudgmental environment.

Here in the U.S., death isn’t something most people talk about, not unless it’s necessary. That leads to a lot of people feeling unprepared for dealing with it when it happens, and I include myself in that. For all that I surround myself with death–the remains of animals, plants and fungi, none of whose deaths I caused or witnessed myself–there’s still a lot that I don’t understand or accept about it. I haven’t experienced the sudden death of someone very close to me, for example, and though I know how heart-wrenching it can be, I’m not entirely sure how prepared I am for it. Rather than sit in dread, though, I’d rather find out from other people what their experiences have been, and what advice they might have for the day when I go through the same.

And that was one of the key benefits from yesterday’s event. A Death Cafe primarily centers on small group discussion, usually three or four people to a table, all of whom are strangers to one another. Today we started with the topic of what brought each of us to the event, which naturally flowed into other topics over the next hour. Once we all had an idea of where each of the others was coming from, it freed us up to ask about each others’ experiences quite frankly. So I got to ask both a 25-year hospice nurse, and a woman who had recently lost both parents, what they had done and how they had felt when people close to them died, and it gave me a little more perspective. This helped to clear up the mystery just a bit, and while I still don’t at all relish the thought of my loved ones dying, I’m slightly less scared of how to get through those inevitabilities.

I think what surprised me the most about the discussion at our table was the amount of positive conversation that we had. It wasn’t just “Wow, I miss so and so, death is terrible for taking them away” or “I’m really scared of dying”, though those were touched on from time to time. Rather, the theme of our table seemed to be how death is a transformation, not just for the person who dies, obviously, but also for those they leave behind. And it isn’t just a matter of negative transformation, either. I listened to stories of people who journeyed through their own personal underworld in the wake of their loved ones passing, and who came out stronger, even happier and more at peace. They were able to take some of the worst experiences of their lives, and turn them into personal rites of passage that helped them adapt and move on while even more deeply appreciating the memories of those they had lost.

That resilience is incredibly inspiring. I have been through my own challenges–over a decade of daily bullying as a child, divorce, illness, and other low points in my thirty-four years. Yet I’ve managed to come through all of those; I’m still here, and I haven’t given up. And if I got through those things, maybe I can get through others in the future, to include continuing to live and thrive even when someone close to me has died. Plus there are other people who have been there who can offer their perspectives and support. Knowing I wouldn’t be alone is also helpful, and I was grateful to my tablemates for being so open and sharing in this.

We talked mostly about confronting the deaths of others, not so much our own mortality. I spoke of how my own death doesn’t scare me so much any more. While the idea of no longer being here in this amazingly beautiful and complex world is sad and, yes, still scary, knowing that I’m just a tiny part of a big, ever-cycling universe makes it easier to deal with my inevitable death. Any hypotheses about afterlives aside, as far as I can tell I didn’t exist prior to Samhain 1978, and I will cease to exist at some point in the future when my body decides it’s just not going to give a damn any more. But I do know that the molecules that make up my body have been bouncing around this crazy universe of ours for billions of years, and once they cease to be a part of this temporary conglomerate known as “Lupa” they’ll continue on their merry way. I feel better knowing that these tiny things that I touched, however briefly, will be forever changed in their course by having been a part of my life.

Of course, I would wager that if I were to find myself facing a terminal illness I probably wouldn’t be so calm about it as I am now, and I have a certain naivete that those who have been more closely touched by death, or who face it themselves now, lack. But at least for now I don’t have to feel so anxious about someday dying, and I can focus more on being alive right now. And I feel that may be one of the most important things Death Cafes may offer participants. If we can alleviate our fears and anxieties about death, it frees us up to enjoy and appreciate life more fully. Nothing is guaranteed except for the moments we have here in this world; better to make the most of them than to squander them on worrying over what may or may not come next.

If you’re interested in attending a Death Cafe yourself, here’s a list of upcoming ones on the official site. And if there’s not one scheduled for where you are, here’s how you can organize one yourself. There will be more held in Portland and I intend to go back to them; the ongoing conversation is incredibly valuable, and I’d love to see how it evolves.

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A PSA, and Escape to the Desert

First, a quick public service announcement: I got a temporary full time job over the summer doing mental health counseling at my old internship site, and so I’ve closed my art commissions list for the time being. You can read more at the link, but in short, I’m really excited about the job. It’s been wonderful working more in service with the non-human end of my community, but this will reconnect me with serving my human community (in more capacity than making artwork and writing things for them). Actually, let’s make it a pair of PSAs, since I wrote earlier this month about ethics and consuming animals: here’s a Kickstarter for those who want to support a more ethical approach to omnivorism. Now, on to the main event!

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Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

So earlier this week my friend Emily and I escaped to the desert of Eastern Oregon to explore the John Day Fossil Beds. Neither of us had been there, and since my upcoming job will be keeping me in town during the week, I’m trying to get as much further-away travel done before it starts next month. We decided an overnight trip would be enough for this first excursion, and so she dragged me out of my apartment bright and early on Monday morning.

It would be impossible to describe to you every wonderful moment of this trip. We started our journey with a stopover at the Bridal Veil post office to give this ghost town survivor some much-needed business, and to stretch our photography muscles for the trip. Our journey through the Columbia River Gorge and then south into the desert was puncuated by windmills, abandoned houses, and many stops to marvel at vistas and break out the cameras. We managed to achieve the trifecta–we visited the Painted Hills, Clarno, and Sheep Rock units, and were able to explore each in some detail. We went to the Cant Ranch with its century-old house and rusted-out tractors, and we stayed the night in Dayville, Oregon in a little cabin guarded by two of the least threatening Golden Retrievers ever. We hiked in the Blue Basin surrounded by towers of azure-tinted tuff, and Emily watched as I scrambled down a river slope to investigate an elk skull a hunter had left behind. We thoroughly investigated the paleontology center, and each came out with a postcard adorned with fossil skulls. We came home on the 84 accompanied by a lengthy sunset in the Gorge and a half-moon surrounded by stars. In short, it was just about as perfect a trip as we could have hoped for.

People speak about the desert being lifeless. Those of us who have been there and who pay attention know better; it thrives, in clear and radiant defiance of the threat of scant water and harsh weather. We saw our first black-billed magpies and I snapped a picture of a Say’s phoebe. There were ravens and vultures and ospreys galore, robins and juncos and even a wayward Canada goose. I saw what might have been a pronghorn walking through the sagebrush in a dry creek bed. And the “alert” put into effect by the park–that we must be notified of the presence of wildflowers–served to introduce us to the local flora. Purple silky lupine and bright yellow balsamroot vied for attention among rabbitbrush and juniper berries, and as the days warmed up the piquant scent of the sage filled the air. Even a few hardy lichens flattened themselves against the rocks like dried crusts of paint daubed by an itinerant artist cleaning her brushes after completing the masterpiece of the Hills.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

And, of course, there’s the human life. Not much evidence remains of the original indigenous people who made a living in these exact spots, though we drove home through lands owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Picture Gorge is named for the pictographs left by some of the original inhabitants. The Cant Ranch exhibits, though mainly concerned with the primarily Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s, did allude some to the people they displaced. Both populations are impressive in their own way–the one for having created a way of life here for such a long and sustained time, and the other for managing to thrive even when dropped into the harshest environment many had ever experienced. I admit, though, that I felt a lot of frustration for the proliferation of fences along almost every road, warning off anyone of any descent from crossing over into “private property”. All these mesas and hills to be climbed and explored, and yet we were limited to the few trails in the Fossil Beds units. The human story, it would seem, is punctuated by barbed wire, even in its most open and rambling pages.

What struck me most about our trip, though, was just how evident the geological story is. The Fossil Beds are unique in that erosion has bared the layers of millions of years, sedimentation and lava flows and ash falls and flooding. You can look at a high peak like Sheep Rock and read the strata like a prehistory book. When you realize the highest crags of mesas near Picture Gorge are where the valley floor was seven million years ago, and everything has eroded since, you can imagine how high the ground would have been above your head now, and wonder at the immense span of time that it took to build up those landforms in the first place. All those millions of years alluded to in books and documentaries are set into stone here.

I and others have often referred to watersheds as the hearts of bioregions. This is true; however, the (literal) bedrock of the watershed is the geology. Everything else in a bioregion–where the rain goes once it falls and whether it collects anywhere, what the weather and climate patterns are like, what flora and fauna can live there, etc.–all these are determined in large part by the geology of the place. The landforms in and surrounding the bioregion are the canvas upon which everything else there is painted. So it is in the desert. Forty-four million years ago, the places we visited were a lush rain forest, and the fossils from that time reflect that. The uplifting of the Cascade mountains to the west created a rain shadow later that began the process of desertification, compounded by multiple and varied volcanic activities in the area over time. From rain forest, the land changed to deciduous hardwood forest, then grasslands, and finally to the sage-and-juniper-studded desert of today.

Most of the time, the layers of ages are buried far beneath our feet, accessible only through the occasional cave or road cutaway, or the fieldwork of geologists (when funding permits). We don’t think about anything but the top layer, the part we think is the main player in our lives. But each stripe of soil and rock rests on another; it’s terra all the way down. Isn’t that the way it is with us, too?

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

I hope the desert with all its layers, visible and hidden, survives us. I have never seen so much land with so few roads; even in the Midwest rural areas where I grew up the spaces between towns was netted by county roads all over. Here, there were thousands upon thousands of acres broken up mainly by the barbed wire, a few roads, and the occasional agricultural endeavor. I hope I never live to see the Fossil Beds surrounded by cookie-cutter houses and billboards advertising new subdivisions “for those wanting to escape the city!” Here there are more than just traces of wilderness, more than just a scant reminder of what the land looked like before humans exploded into seven billion. And yet even I fall prey to the shifting baseline problem–my baseline is of sagebrush scrublands cut with fences and two-lane highways, grazed by cattle and sheep, and encroached upon by cheatgrass and the invasive tumbleweed produced by prickly Russian thistle. Three hundred years ago, only the sagebrush was here; the rest were yet to come. What to me might seem like an impossible walk back in time would be, to others, not just preservation but restoration.

I leave you with a few more pictures (as with all of the, you can click them to get bigger versions); in another century will these represent something long-lost? Perhaps if most of us can visit the desert and then kiss it good-bye again, rather than insisting on cohabitation, there will be the chance of continued hospitality without being ungracious guests.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

The Say's phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put. Lupa, 2013.

The Say’s phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put for more than a few seconds at a time. Lupa, 2013.

Reflections at Sauvie

Yesterday was another cleanup day at Sauvie Island; as much time as I’ve been spending out in the Gorge, I love my little close-in stretch of the Columbia, too. I especially appreciated its convenience since today was a low-energy day, since I didn’t sleep so well as I might have liked last night. Still, I wanted the opportunity to get outside today, and the beach was due for a cleaning.

So it’s getting warmer, and more people are going to be showing up to fish, and also to party. Unfortunately, some of these people will be irresponsible enough to do things like smash glass bottles in the middle of the road and leave their garbage strewn across the sand. I tend to ready myself for anything any time I go out for cleanup. However, when I got there today, there was a woman walking across the parking lot with a paper grocery bag full of aluminum cans. She had taken the time to pick them all up out of the trees lining the beach. We chatted a moment, and I thanked her and went on my way. It’s always nice to see I’m not the only person cleaning up, and it did perk up my mood.

White-lined sphinx moth. Lupa, 2013.

White-lined sphinx moth. Lupa, 2013.

Of course, having someone else get most of the big, noticeable stuff meant that my afternoon was mostly spent with the little, fiddly things like cigarette butts and tiny pieces of plastic. So it was a slow progression down the beach with my trash bag and kitty litter scoop, sifting stuff out of the sand. I picked up enough cigarette refuse, in fact, that I’ve joined TerraCycle’s Cigarette Waste Brigade; I don’t smoke myself, but I figure if I can get a few more filters and the like out of the landfill, so much the better. It can get disheartening to come back every time and have the beach look just as bad as before, since I can’t be there every day, and there are a LOT of people leaving trash around. But when such thoughts begin to bring me down, I remind myself of the Starfish Story*; trash pickup isn’t as romantic as saving starfish, but the concept is the same: I can’t get to them all, but it matters to this one. And the next. And the next.

While the day was a bit cooler than it’s been, and overcast, the birds were still out in force. I saw a pair of bald eagles, robins, and an osprey, among others, and I could hear the alarm call of a Northern flicker and the song of a winter wren off in the trees. There were even fish jumping out of the river, though I was surprised there was no one fishing today. Amid the twigs and other refuse kicked up onto the beach by the river, I saw white-lined sphinx moth in its last moments, perhaps dying after having mated. I left it where it lay, and a few minutes later a large ship passing by kicked up the biggest wake I’ve seen yet at the beach. When I walked back a little later, the moth was gone, no doubt washed into the water to become food for a passing fish.

Speaking of the water, as I sat and rested at one point, I listened to the river splashing up against the bank of wet sand. I thought about how much quieter it would be here without the traffic on the ocean, and I-5 not too far away, and the planes overhead, and the various vehicles driving on the access road. I thought of how before all that noise, that splashing water might be one of the loudest things there if one were to sit and listen. And I reflected on how the sound of water on land is one of the very oldest sounds in the world, and wondered whether Mars, or any other planet, had had that sound as well.

Toy plane found on the beach. Lupa, 2013.

Toy plane found on the beach. Lupa, 2013.

It’s thoughts like that that make the work so much more worth it. Yes, it’s good to be out with my hands in the dirt making a small difference, keeping bits of plastic and foam from being eaten by fish or, ultimately, joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And that’s worthwhile. But even moreso are the moments I get to have when I connect with this place I help to take care of. It’s the only place where I get to be right by the river, the wide and deep and ever-flowing Columbia, the heart of my bioregion. So many things I’ve learned there, and so many things yet to be discovered–and my beach is a keeper of some of those secrets. One need look no further than the outdoors for a Mystery School beyond compare.

Of course, eventually we have to go back to chop wood, carry water, sift styrofoam. By the time my day was done, I had one large garbage bag full, mostly with little things, but also a couple of rusted chunks of metal and an old steel cable fragment. While most of what I find out there is refuse, occasionally I pick up something neat. Today it was an old toy plane, in pretty good condition other than one missing wheel. Usually when I find usable found objects I clean them up and donate them to SCRAP, but this one I’m hanging on to; it’ll go along with the circa 1920 milk glass jar and some other random things I’ve found during my volunteer time. Call it the Land’s “tip” for a job well done 😉

*Which was itself an adaptation of the often-unattributed “The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.

Eating, Wearing, and Hugging Animals; Or, Why Omnivores and Taxidermists Have Feelings

The other day on my Tumblr, I reblogged a set of images featuring “pet animals” on one side and “food animals” on the other, with the statement “Why love one but eat the other?” in the middle. They were from billboards that ran in Toronto a couple of years ago. The message, of course, is that we shouldn’t eat chickens, pigs, and cows because they’re animals just like puppies and kittens are; it’s an attempt to turn people to vegetarianism or veganism.

Care of BeVeg.ca

Care of BeVeg.ca

I don’t think I gave the desired response. For one thing, I have reasons for not going veg*n. I’m an obligate omnivore due to various quirks of my body and its metabolism; I even have it on doctor’s orders that I need a reasonable amount of meat protein because I tend to get sick otherwise, even on a well-balanced vegetarian diet. And I don’t respond well to attempted guilt trips masked as appeals to emotion, especially when they present only one true way for everyone to do something. So I decided to respond with some non-rhetorical reasons why we eat cows and not cats:

Because generally speaking herbivores taste better than carnivores. Also, we’ve spent centuries selectively breeding cows, pigs, and chickens to be meatier and tastier, while we haven’t done that with cats and dogs. And it’s easier to raise herbivores as food behaviorally, especially because we have bred them to be more docile.

And it’s also cultural. There have been and still are cultures in which dog and cat meat is acceptable; it’s just that in Western cultures, where this sort of ad campaign pops up, it’s not acceptable. If you talk to anyone raised on a farm, though, you know that farm kids are raised with the idea that some of the animals end up as food, and that you can be attached to them and care for them and still accept that fact. If they’re from a hunting family they often learn that the same deer they hunt are also beautiful animals that can be admired, and this doesn’t have to be a contradiction. On a farm, you’re closer to life and death than people who shop at the grocery store and have never raised their own meat or gone hunting. I didn’t grow up on a farm itself, but I grew up in a rural area with lots of farms, and with the reality that if I am going to eat, something has to die, whether animal, plant, or fungus.

I have had people ask me before, “How can you say you love animals when you have dead ones all over your home? How can you appreciate them when you support killing and eating them?” Simple: like those farm kids I went to school with, I understand that death is a reality and an inevitability, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that defines my relationships with other living beings. Just because my existence is going to directly lead to the deaths of certain animals doesn’t mean I can’t have empathy for them and want them to have the best lives and cleanest deaths possible. I support both strict regulations in the care of domestic animals in homes and farms, and strict penalties for animal cruelty. I also support the protection of wildlife; I follow regulations surrounding animal parts as carefully as I can, and beyond what I need to cover personal and business bills I’m able to donate some money to animal-based nonprofits.

And I appreciate all of these animals both in life and death. I am ever grateful for wildlife sightings, urban and rural; the birds outside my apartment make me incredibly happy, and on the occasions I’ve seen a coyote or Douglas squirrel when out hiking, it’s been a highlight of the trip. But I also enjoy the beauty of well-crafted taxidermy that captures the grace and form of the animal when it was alive, and I’m fortunate to know some incredibly skilled taxidermy artists who are similarly appreciative of the wildlife whose remains they’re preserving. In a similar vein, I love how intelligent pigs are, I know what good pets chickens can be, and I think Highland cattle are one of the most adorable species of critter known to this world. But I am also grateful that I have relatively easy access to beef, pork, and chicken and the protein therein that keeps me going. If anything, my appreciation for these beings when they’re alive makes me more mindful of their remains once they’re dead, as well as the processes by which they went from life to death.

Vintage silver fox fur stole

Vintage silver fox fur stole

Is it hypocritical that I do eat pigs and cows and not dogs and cats? Perhaps. But just about everyone has some discrimination as to what animals will be harmed and which will not in order for them to continue living, and making a living. There are dead critter artists who limit themselves to vintage furs, roadkilled bones, and other relatively cruelty-free remains, but who will still happily scarf down a steak made from an antibiotic-stuffed cow that lived in a crowded stockyard and died badly in a factory farm, and eggs from a battery hen in a tiny cage. There are vegans who refuse to eat or wear anything that came directly from an animal, but who wear petroleum-based synthetic fabrics whose manufacture led to the deaths of countless animals through oil spills and factory pollution. Are these bad people? I don’t think so. There are very few people (thankfully) who actively want animals to suffer, and a lot of the rest of us would prefer that animals, even those we kill, were well cared for in life and death. Continuing public awareness campaigns help people to be more informed, even if they aren’t currently in a place where they can, for example, buy only free-range meat or raise backyard chickens for eggs. There needs to be a variety of solutions to match a variety of personal situations.

Which brings me to the last part of my Tumblr response:

Does that mean you should give up veg*nism and eat all the animals? Of course not. Nor does it mean that we should try to change American and other cultures to make dog and cat meat more acceptable. What it does mean, though, is that the above questions do have different answers, and a lot has to do with a person’s background and experiences in life. It’s not a simple situation.

I know, I know–there will be people who see this and say “Yes, it IS simple–don’t kill animals, period!” To that, I am going to have to agree to disagree for a variety of reasons. It is almost impossible to live a life that does not end in the deaths of other living beings, animals included. If your aim in life is to reduce the number of animal deaths as much as possible, then I wish you the best in it, and I respect you for it. But there are those of us who do to one degree or another have to and/or choose to benefit from the deaths of non-human animals, and our solutions to ethical conundrums may be different. I do agree there are plenty of people who aren’t mindful of where their meat and leather come from, and maybe they’d go veg*n if they really thought about it.

However, the assumption that anyone who eats meat and other animal products, or who is a leatherworker or taxidermist or similar artist, or who otherwise uses animal products–the assumption that we obviously haven’t thought the issue through enough, that we lack compassion, that we love animals less than a veg*n? I don’t agree with that, and neither would many of my omnivorous/leathery/etc. companions. Just because someone’s stance on an issue isn’t as extreme as yours doesn’t mean they’re acting from a place of ignorance, and I feel this fallacious argument in general is a big error in the discourse surrounding a lot of controversial topics.

Really, what I’d love people to take away from this is the idea that each person has their own relationships with the non-human animals we share this world with, whether they’re members of Pheasants Forever or PETA. And those relationships can’t be minimized to single sound bites; each one is the product of a unique lifetime of experience and thought and emotion. I feel this is a crucial thing to remember if we’re going to do anything other than argue and throw up defenses against each other. Even if we don’t agree on everything, we still have the potential to learn from each other, and at the very least have a more civil discourse over a complex, sensitive issue that affects far more than ourselves.

Recent Hikes in the Gorge

The past few weeks I’ve been rekindling my love affair with the Columbia River Gorge. Sure, I’ll travel out to the coast with my partner every few months, and I’m planning an overnight trip with a friend to the East Oregon desert later this month. I love exploring new trails in the area, and I can’t wait until the snow’s melted enough around Mt. Hood that I can revisit some of my favorite places there. But the Gorge has always been my first love here, and it’s there that I continually return, year after year. I’m especially fond of the Oregon side, west of the Cascades. I never get tired of the basalt cliffs covered in Douglas fir and Western hemlock, the red-tinted ground bursting with wood sorrel and sword ferns, and the air filled with the spring sounds of Steller’s jays, winter wrens, and Northern flickers, among many others. Still, the eastern deserts, and all along the Washington side, I find more and more places to explore and appreciate.

Eagle Creek Trail, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

Eagle Creek Trail, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

I’ve been there three times in the past two weeks. First, I headed up the historical Eagle Creek trail, one of the earliest modern hiking trails in the Gorge. It’s one of the busiest trails in the area, and I must have seen close to twenty other hikers even though it was the middle of the week. I’m especially cautious as there are some narrow points; one stretch in particular overlooks a sheer drop, and there’s only a steel cable set into the rock on the inside of the trail to hang onto. I tend to only go on dry days; there have been deaths from people falling when the trail was slick with rain and ice. Still, if you can handle the vertigo it’s an absolutely stunning hike up into Eagle Creek’s canyon. This time I only went as far as Lower Punch Bowl Falls, where I watched a water ouzel splashing and diving in the water for a bit before turning back.

A lot of hikes I just spend stomping around, exploring the terrain and maybe taking a couple of cell phone pictures. However, this time I took my good camera with me, and got some nice shots here and there. The one I chose to share isn’t one of the best; it’s out of focus further back. But it was the only one I got with the sunlight streaming through the trees, and I was quite grateful for the change from winter’s rains. Apparently everyone else there was, too, since the birds were singing up a storm, and the trilliums were just opening their white and purple petals. I could still see snow in the upper parts of the mountains around me, but with sun and the temperature near 70, I could feel myself warming up and drying out.

Speaking of warm and dry, last week I headed out to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the river, starting to get into more dry, deserty terrain. This is the best time of year to go there, as the meadows are packed full of wildflowers, over 80 species thereof. My visits to Catherine Creek have historically been adventurous. The first time I had to run a couple of miles back to the car as one of the few thunderstorms I’ve seen in the Northwest came rolling in from the south. And then when I went with my partner the following week, we ended up getting horribly lost and had to bushwhack our way down the slope to get back to the parking lot, avoiding poison oak and thorns all the way.

Grass Widow, one of the iconic flowers of Catherine creek. Lupa, 2013.

Grass Widow, one of the iconic flowers of Catherine creek. Lupa, 2013.

This time was thankfully uneventful, at least in that regard. Once again I decided to be my amateur photographer self, trying to get better shots of the flowers than I had last year. So I didn’t make it more than a couple of miles in a loop, but I did have a lot of fun snapping shots of the flora (and occasional microfauna). Again, the birds were out in force–juncos, swallows, scrub jays going “VWEET! VWEET!”, and even a hairy woodpecker tapping away at a pine tree. The flowers might get all the attention here, but the little flying dinosaurs are nothing to sneeze at.

I will admit that I was a bit disappointed there were no storms this time. I used to be absolutely terrified of storms when I grew up in the Midwest because we were always told at school to watch out for tornadoes. Since I moved to the west side of the Cascades in 2006, though, I can count on one hand the number of wind and thunder storms I’ve gotten to see–two in the desert, and one on the coast. I always manage to be out of town when the rare storm hits Portland, too. Still, I was grateful for the warm and sun again, even if I did bring a plastic bag to stash the camera in if the rain managed to make it across the mountains.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon back in Oregon. When I’d gone to Eagle Creek, I noticed there was another trail across a suspension bridge while I walked from the parking lot to the Eagle Creek trailhead. I’d made note of it and decided to check back another time, and yesterday was the day! Turns out the bridge connects with Gorge Trail #400, which parallels (and in some places replaces pieces of) the historic Columbia River Highway, the first highway through the Gorge to Portland. The sign pointed to Tanner Creek three miles ahead, so I decided that’d be my turnaround point. I’d left the camera at home this time since I wanted to do some serious trail-stomping, but since it was already almost 2pm by the time I arrived, I figured six miles would be about right. (Admittedly I did take a few wildflower pictures with my phone, like the one to the left.)

Red-flowering currant along Gorge Trail 400. Lupa, 2013.

Red-flowering currant along Gorge Trail 400. Lupa, 2013.

This was a fairly relaxed hike; other than a few steep spots and switchbacks it was relatively level. The only downside was the noise–since the Columbia River Highway has been joined by Interstate 84, the traffic noise is much more significant. The only time I mostly couldn’t hear the noise was whenever I’d be right next to one stream or another, and even then the passing semis were loud enough to be heard. Still, the beauty of the trail more than made up for it, and it was surprisingly lonely out there. The only times I ran into other people were at trailheads–for other trails. Maybe people just don’t like the traffic, but I think I’ll be spending more time on 400 myself.

I did get some really good wildlife sightings. As I was sitting for a late lunch, a pair of juvenile bald eagles flew overhead low enough that I could hear the wind woosh through their feathers as they banked, and their appearance sparked alarms from wrens and a large pileated woodpecker above me. I got to see another ouzel bouncing along through Tanner Creek when I rested there before turning back, and there were robins fighting like crazy over little bits of territory. I think the highlight of my day, though, was when I was walking back in the late afternoon, almost to the trailhead again, and I stopped next to a slope of small moss-covered boulders to get a good view of the Columbia. As I did, I heard the call of a pika amid the rocks. I really love pikas. I think they’re adorable, like little furry squeak toys. I also get the sense that they’d be very indignant if they knew I thought about them that way.

Stomping around all those trails got me to doing some research on the area. I found out, much to my delight, that the Eagle Creek trail connects to Wahtum Lake, which is at the foot of Chinedere Mountain, one of my very favorite places (here’s a write-up I did of my last backpacking trip there this past August). It’s about 26 miles round-trip, so about a four-day time commitment since there are some steep spots, and it apparently has some fantastic waterfalls along the way. I’d love to spend the summer conditioning myself and then do a late summer backpacking trip (anyone interested in joining me?)

I think I may revisit Catherine Creek next week; there are some parts of the trails I haven’t been to yet, and it’s one of those places where the wildflower show up in stages so there’s always something new. And then, of course, out to the desert, where I’ll be in good company visiting the John Day Fossil Beds which I’ve been meaning to get to for AGES. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from the past couple of weeks (as with all the pictures on this blog, you can click them to make them bigger.)

Dead fir tree covered in lichens, Eagle Creek. Lupa, 2013.

Dead fir tree covered in lichens, Eagle Creek. Lupa, 2013.

Small shelf fungus of unknown species (suggestions?) Lupa, 2013

Small shelf fungus of unknown species, Eagle Creek, open to identification suggestions? Lupa, 2013

A not-particularly-good picture of the hairy woodpecker I saw, but I rarely get wildlife shots at all, so you get to see this one. Lupa, 2013.

A not-particularly-good picture of the hairy woodpecker I saw at Catherine Creek, but I rarely get wildlife shots at all, so you get to see this one. Lupa, 2013.

Ponderosa pine cone and needles. Lupa, 2013.

Ponderosa pine cone and needles, Catherine Creek. Lupa, 2013.

Letting Go of Therianthropy For Good

Back in 2007, I published my second book through Immanion Press, A Field Guide to Otherkin. When I started the project in late 2005, I was feeling pretty confident with my first book due to be out soon, and I wanted to follow it up with something awesome. “Well, why don’t I take a shot at the book on Otherkin that everyone’s been threatening to write for years?” I thought. And so the challenge was set. Little did I know just how much I’d bitten off!

It took me over a hundred surveys, countless footnotes, and gods only know how many hours banging my head against the computer, and it was by far the most difficult book I’ve written due to the sheer amount of information I had to wrangle from scratch. But it happened, and as far as I know it’s still the only book wholly dedicated to Otherkin as a general topic (as opposed to an entire book on one specific type of Otherkin, or a book that mentioned Otherkin in the context of a different topic, etc.)

Which makes it tougher for me to make the decision to take A Field Guide to Otherkin out of print at the end of this month, because it is the only book out there. There are plenty of good websites and online resources available, but some people really like the format of a book (dead tree or ebook, your choice). And I know I’ve managed to fulfill most of my goals with it, primarily in offering a basic introductory guide to the subject matter at hand. I’ve gotten lots of emails and messages and in-person comments since it came out from people who have found it quite useful in exploring their own identities. Each one has shown me that, to an extent, I’m doing my job as a writer.

But please allow me to be selfish for a moment. Every book I write is a piece of artwork, every word infused with a bit of myself. And, like so many authors, my relationships with my books change over time. The books remain the same, but I am constantly moving and evolving. Even in the time between when a manuscript is turned in and when the book goes to press, I cease to be the exact person I was when I wrote it. Meanwhile, the book remains a snapshot of the time period in which it was written, a reflection of the knowledge base and headspace I brought to that project.

Some books age better than others. Unfortunately, Field Guide feels like it isn’t keeping up very well. A lot of this is because I feel it’s a flawed work. For all the effort put into it, and for all the help it’s done people, I could have done a better job.

I took on the project before I had proper research training, and so even as a qualitative review, it’s lacking. The 140+ surveys I got were a pretty meager representation of Otherkin as a whole. Even though there weren’t as many resources for Otherkin when I was writing it seven years ago as there are now, I might have been able to get a less biased sample to work with, since I spent more time on Livejournal than anywhere else at the time. And yes, I’m well aware of the many typos and other errors in the text. That’s one of the downsides of publishing with a small press; while Immanion is pretty damned good for what it is, human resources are stretched more thinly, and so it can be harder to find professionally trained editors and proofreaders to work on a part-time scale.

Not that the blame lies entirely on the publisher; far from it. I wasn’t as experienced a writer as I am today, and if I were writing it now, there are a lot of things I would do differently, and not just with more careful editing. Part of it is simply that the community and its ongoing  dialogue have changed and expanded over time, and I’d have a lot more to present to people as far as who and what Otherkin are, what their concerns and perspectives are, etc. And it’d be better written, too. The bulk of the writing happened in 2006, and I’ve had the better part of a decade since then to refine my craft, both with writing and with research in general. And, of course, I’ve grown and changed as a person, which always affects creativity; who here can say they’re the same person they were seven years ago? The Field Guide was written at one of the most challenging times in my life, and I think that affected its quality. Since it came out, I’ve moved several times, gotten divorced, changed careers entirely, and shifted my spiritual focus, all for the better; maybe a 2013 Field Guide would be a better book. It would certainly be different, just as I am different now.

Speaking of time, since it has been out since April of 2007, a lot of the information is out of date. Online resources come and go, and lot has happened in the Otherkin community in the past several years. So why don’t I just make a second updated edition? When I first wrote the book, I was sure I’d update it in a few years. I just needed a little time away from the whole Otherkin “thing”, to take a break after having been part of the community to some extent since the late 1990s. Problem is, I never really came back from that break. I got burned out, and while I still liked hanging out with my friends who happen to be ‘kin (and yes, I still want to come to the PCon meetup because you people are awesome!), I never got back into the community-at-large again.

So now here I am in 2013, and I have a confession to make: I no longer identify as a therianthrope, and I haven’t for quite some time. I’ve sat with that reality for a while, checking in with myself and making sure it wasn’t just a phase. But no, it just doesn’t fit any more; it’s not a framework that explains me. There’s still a piece of me that I feel resonates more with wolf than human, but at this point I don’t think it’s anything more than a bit of creative personal narrative, part of the ongoing myth I tell about myself. For me, the wolf is a metaphor, a piece of spirituality internalized. Sure, I’ve always leaned toward the personal mythology hypothesis of “what are Otherkin”, but the idea that I am fundamentally not human on some level just doesn’t fit. I am a human animal, 100%, just with a particular connection to the idea of “wolfness”. Call it an inner connection to my totem, or a super-charged “favorite animal”; either of those fit me better than “therian”, or “shifter”, or any of the other terms that set animal-people apart from humanity as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret exploring myself in the Otherkin framework. For the time, well over a decade, it was what fit best in explaining that resonance with “Wolf”. It was a fascinating interpretation of reality that allowed me an outlet for exploring imagination and flexible identity in a way that is usually reserved only for the play of children. Sure, there are those few who take it to the point of impaired functioning and enabling of some unhealthy mental patterns, but there are also plenty of people who have an Other identity and still manage to be quite well integrated into consensus reality, even if they aren’t quite happy about the current state of affairs. If nothing else, interpreting my wolfness as therianthropy was a fun way to take play seriously, if that makes sense.

But my head’s just not there any more, and my heart’s not in it, either. I can’t really force myself to write a second edition for the hell of it, either. It’s hard to write about something I’m not passionate about. You can look back at all the books and other writings I’ve created over the years, and you can see where my heart was at that time. And it’s gone in very different directions in the past few years.

Finally, to be quite honest: I’m tired of talking about Otherkin. Even before the book came out, it’s what most podcasters and other interviewers wanted to talk to me about, and even today it’s a frequent topic when people ask me about my writing and spiritual work. Never mind that for years I’ve been writing extensively on my work in neoshamanism, on animal and plant and fungus totems, on ecopsychology and bioregionalism and a whole bunch of other things that I am deeply fascinated by. Invariably, people want to talk about the Otherkin thing (though to be fair some of them wanted to talk about other things, even if Otherkin ended up being a dominant topic). It was fine when it was still something that I identified with and was actively working with, but I feel like my later work has been somewhat overshadowed by the topic of Otherkin simply because I “wrote the book” on it.

I don’t want to be the only person to have written a book on Otherkin, and it’s not just to get out of having to talk about it in interviews. I had hoped that once Field Guide was out, it would entice other writers to make their books happen. Just because there’s one book on Otherkin out doesn’t mean there can’t be others; and diversity of voices gives a topic more strength. (And I wanted more reading material, dammit!) Maybe with the book out of print, someone else will feel they can fill that niche now.

I know I’m taking away a resource by pulling the book out of print, even if it is imperfect. But it’s not the only resource out there. Even if there is a scattering of broken links here and there, Otherkin.net has always been one of my favorite resources. Otherkin Alliance has, for several years, offered a good collection of essays along with an active and well-moderated forum. Dreamhart.org is run by one of the most reliable long-time members of the Otherkin community, and features a relatively recent wiki that’s undergoing current expansion. And while O. Scribner hasn’t written a book per se, the excellent writings on this page are, in my opinion, essentially an ebook in several parts.

And there are plenty of other people besides these writing on Otherkin, on blogs and websites and the like. Hell, Otherkin are even being discussed in terms of social justice on Tumblr. I know for a fact you all can find lots to work with without my book being in print any more. The internet has the added benefit of being easy to update, unlike a dead tree book written by someone who’s already stretched pretty thinly.

To be honest, I think there are people out there who could do a better job at writing a book on Otherkin, even better than a carefully overhauled second edition of the Field Guide; for all the reasons I’ve stated above, I’m not that person. Even with the flaws I still like the book. But I think it’s run its course, and rather than try to patch up its imperfections and put forth something I’d still not be happy with, I’d like to see someone else take on that project.

Finally, please don’t take my moving on from therianthropy as a personal worldview as a wholesale denial of the entire concept. I am not the arbiter of anyone’s identity but my own. My path is taking my further and further away from “Lupa the therianthrope”, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow me. Nor should you use this as an excuse to tell other people who do still identify as Otherkin/therianthropes/etc. that they’re wrong. Let each person set their feet and their will wherever they choose.

As for me? I’ll keep exploring the world around me and finding my place in it with every hike I take. And I’m happy to keep talking about the work I’m doing today on a variety of levels. One door closes, another opens, and I’m taking that first step through.

(I mentioned A Field Guide to Otherkin is going out of print the first of May. I wanted to give people time to grab a copy while they were still available; I have a few left here, and the page also has links to other sites that may have a limited number left. Yes, there will be copies available a while after it officially goes out of print on May 1, since shops will need to sell off their remaining stock. Give it year and even used copies will be selling on Amazon for exorbitant prices, since only a few hundred copies exist in the world. So now’s your chance!)

Coming Together in Our Sorrow

Note: This is my contribution to the April edition of the Animist Blog Carnival; this month’s theme is “Ceremony and Community”.

Back in February when I was at PantheaCon, one of the workshops I presented was on ecopsychology and its relevance to the neopagan community. There’s a good deal of overlap between the spirituality of nature-based paganism and the secularism of ecopsychology. Both focus on strengthening relationships with the world around us, particularly the nonhuman portions thereof. They each utilize the outdoors in meaning-making activities, to include personal rites of passage and other ceremonies. And both have an emphasis on a systemic view of the world, to include one’s own community (human and otherwise).

At one point I mentioned the works of Joanna Macy. An environmental activist, Buddhist, and author, Macy is considered one of the foundational writers on ecopsychology. It’s not just because she helps readers to appreciate the environment, though that’s certainly an integral part of her work. What she does that’s so unique, though, is that she actively creates spaces for people to express grief over the loss of places, species, and other natural phenomena. Through frank and gentle discussions of grief and our relationships with it, and rituals such as The Council of All Beings, she’s offered up a series of tools for us to begin opening up to feelings we may have long suppressed.

In this society we’re allowed to grieve if a person close to us or whom we admire deeply passes away and is lost to us. It’s even understandable, as far as many are concerned, to feel a deep sense of loss and sadness at the death of a pet. And few would fault us for feeling depressed after losing a job or a home. But there’s less room on a societal level to feel grief for a place that’s been taken away, or a species that has gone extinct. We might be allowed a “well, damn, that sucks” if we read about it in the paper. And perhaps we might get away with a sigh of remorse when we drive by an open field that’s being torn up for yet another suburb full of little boxes made of ticky-tacky (or big McMansions made of the same). But those who openly grieve for the loss of a place or species or river are seen as “overly sensitive hippies” at best, and perhaps mentally off beyond that. Why grieve over progress? Why, that new strip mall going in will provide badly-needed minimum wage retail jobs! And don’t cry over that butterfly that’s gone extinct; see, there are dozens more in the garden. What’s just one more gone, really? And who cares if you can’t eat the fish out of that river? That’s what the supermarket is for.

When I wrote last year about the death of the place that raised me, the complete destruction of the tiny field where I played and explored as a child, I got so much support from people here and elsewhere. I heard numerous stories from other people who had had similar experiences, who shared that grief with me in their own words. I heard the fear and worry of those whose special wild places still stood, but were threatened with development and other encroachments. For once, I felt as though I had been heard, and that there was nothing wrong with me for feeling so much loss for a bunch of cedar trees and garter snakes.

I wish I’d had that sort of support twenty years ago, the first time a wild place I’d grown to love was leveled. That time, as I got off the bus that brought me home from junior high, I saw the entire field and forest behind my home torn to pieces and a big, ugly bulldozer sitting amid splintered tree trunks and raw, open earth. I was utterly and completely devastated. I fell to pieces inside, not just because my woods were gone, but the thing that had given me so much stability as a badly bullied child had disappeared. I was re-traumatized when the only response I got was “Well, the developer in charge of the new subdivision that’s going in had her favorite woods torn down when they put the high school track in, so she knows how you feel” and “Well, that’s progress; they’re supposed to be building some nice houses in there. Maybe we’ll look at them once they’re ready to sell”. Nobody understood why I couldn’t get over that shock, and why it was such a big deal that a half an acre of weeds and trees had been torn down.

It has taken me two decades to recover from that early loss. I fell down deep into a pool of depression for much of my teens, doing my best to put on a happy face while feeling sorrow I had no words for, and no one to offers words to even if I’d had them. when I discovered paganism, I at last found people to whom nature was an important thing, but so often in abstracts and images and symbols rather than direct contact. It wasn’t really until my path took me closer and closer to the physical world, as “spirit” and “material” blended and lost their boundaries, that I finally healed the connection I had with wild, open, outdoor spaces as a child. I couldn’t have done it without the support of countless people over the years who listened and spoke and conversed–and yes, that includes you readers here on Therioshamanism.

And that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about these losses, not just with facts and figures and calls to action to protect places halfway around the world, but the more visceral, personal connections and losses thereof. We need to know that it’s okay to feel these things, and we need to know that there are others who support us and care for us in those times of need. More importantly, that support and story-sharing can help us move through that grief and sorrow. Even if we don’t engage in formal rituals, just the telling of the tale to a caring audience can be ritual enough in and of itself. Sometimes speaking or writing the words is enough to help us move through the pain, and transform ourselves in the process. Sometimes all we need to find safety in community with others is a quiet, listening presence, a safe space held by strong, gentle hands.