Why I (Sometimes) Wish I Was a Scientist

Note: This is my June offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Science” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations.

When I was young, all I wanted to be was a veterinarian so I could help animals. As I got older, I found out that being a vet wasn’t just about making animals better, but also tough things like euthanasia, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. In high school I got a partial scholarship to a school a few hours away from my hometown and thought I’d major in business management, since I enjoyed selling tchotchkes at a local antique store and had always been one of the most productive sellers of school popcorn and Girl Scout cookies. But then a trip to a wolf sanctuary convinced me that I wanted to get back to working with animals, and so I switched to biology and enrolled at the university in my home town. My hopes were utterly dashed when I barely scraped through remedial algebra, and realized there was no way I was going to make it through the more advanced math and math-heavy science classes the program required. So I switched to English, and figured I’d just write about wolves (which I did, among other things).

I never stopped regretting, just a little bit, not being able to enter into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Oh, sure, my Master’s is in counseling psychology and I passed my research methods and statistics classes alright, but my background even there is less about research and more about the person to person interactions of counseling itself. I’m not a scientist. At best, I’m an amateur naturalist. I read a ton about my bioregion, from the geology to the fauna and flora to the weather patterns and more. I apply that knowledge to my experiences outdoors, and thereby have a deeper understanding of what it is that I’m seeing, hearing, touching, and otherwise sensing around me, and my relationship to it. But I’m barred from doing any research myself unless I struggle past algebra and into calculus, fight my way through organic chemistry and how to balance equations, and other things that are apparently necessary to advance past where I am now professionally.

Mind you, I don’t wish that I was only a scientist of some sort–maybe a marine biologist, or a paleontologist (the five year old me would have loved that idea–and I still do today!)–and nothing more. I’m quite happy having a variety of professions and trainings. I love that I can draw on ecopsychology, a beautiful blend of psychology, natural history and art in my counseling practice. But I admit that I envy people who get to go to field work, who get to find out about neat new discoveries before everyone else does, who get to do research into animal behavior and botany and weather patterns. The most I can do is consume their findings from this end.

So why does it matter? The longer I’ve walked this path that I’ve detailed in this blog for so many years, the more I want to know about this world we share. I am full of awe and wonder at its intricate workings, the sheer joy of evolution and physics and the other processes by which it works. I’ve felt levels of spiritual connection more profound than just about anything I experienced when my focus was more on symbols and abstractions, where I still felt somehow separate from what it was that I honored. And so where some people may wish to dive more deeply into ancient texts or devote themselves more completely to their gods, I want to immerse myself in this unbelievable world I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of, even if only for a tiny blip in its long lifespan. I’m already doing everything I can to be a more active participant in it–and in its preservation. Perhaps, in a way, I see those immersed in the sciences as a sort of clergy, and fieldwork as ritual, and research as the study and interpretation of sacred doctrines. Not as infallible holy writ, mind you, or “scientism”, but as one more way to know this world in all its parts.

But then I realize that perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be a generalist, an amateur naturalist who can more easily draw from the layperson’s end of all the sciences. I don’t have to adhere only to astrophysics, or molecular biology, as my bailiwick. While I don’t have the competency of a trained specialist, I also don’t have to defend my stances in my specialty in the same way. In fact, I’m free to browse at various theoretical fields–a little zoology here, a dash of meteorology here–not as a way to try and “be right”, but simply to augment my understanding of the world and my place in it. I still rely on specialists to help me ward off bad information and interpret what’s good, but I’m not married (figuratively) to any of them.

So while I still feel some envy toward the people who get to work at the Oregon and Monterey Bay aquariums, or painstakingly scrape and scuff rock away from ancient fossilized bones, I know I’m in the best place I can be. If someday I figure out that math stuff I may take a stab at even more intense training, but until then, I’ll happily curl up with my books and my documentaries and my layperson’s understanding, soaking it up like a sponge.

The Return of the Garden! And an Important Lesson

Last year I missed out on gardening. I was busy trying to figure out how to balance my self-employed workload, and a life outside of work. Unfortunately, amid lots of vending events, custom work, and other obligations, I ended up not putting in a garden. I still took care of the few perennials that managed to survive the winter, but it was a pale shade of gardening that barely took any of my attention, and the empty pots were a depressing reminder of my inactivity there.

247649_10151641836983627_1881685848_nI promised myself this year I wouldn’t let that happen again, and while I had to delay planting a little longer than anticipated, early in May I was able to pick up some fresh seeds and starts and a brand new bag of potting soil. It took me a while to prepare the little porch that’s my only outdoor space, cleaning up leaves and dirt and bringing some of the pots up from the garage. But when I was done, there was a lot more space to work in (despite having less than 7′ x 4′ to work with).

Since my space was so limited, I had to plan out what I was going to plant. I wanted to rejuvenate the herb rack, since all I had left was my rosemary, and I wanted a few flowers to brighten up the window boxes along the edges as well. As always, though, most of the space would be dedicated to vegetables, especially tomatoes–my goal this year was to have enough to make homemade pizza sauce without having to go to the farmer’s market.

946386_10151641837343627_1314366_nIt’s rather amazing to me what I managed to fit in, then. I ended up with seven tomato plants, along with a window box each of lettuces and carrots. There are petunias, marigolds, and one red geranium, a few little pots of beans, and the herb rack now has sage, thyme, parsley, basil, and oregano. I was gifted a pair of strawberries, and a mullein that was going to end up on the weed pile in another garden. And my oldest plant, some flavor of succulent in the Sedum genus that was left behind by the previous tenants at my old apartment, was repotted and is already enjoying spreading out more.

I’m enjoying the extra space, too. I have just enough room on the porch that, on a nice day, I can sit out there amid my plants and relax, meditate, read, whatever suits me. I couldn’t do that two years ago since I’d just planted the garden when I had to move, and had to condense a larger garden into this tiny space. Perhaps that was a little bit of why I didn’t plant last year–I’d gotten the idea that the space I had was too cramped and tight.

253251_10151641838228627_890722024_nBut I’ve proven that wrong. I love my little garden, even if it’s the smallest one I’ve had. It’s a peaceful oasis, and it’s yet another small, sacred place, but one that I’ve created. Would I like a larger garden some day? Of course. But living in a small apartment with a small porch has given me the opportunity to practice self-care and nature skills even with limited resources.

And, to be honest, even if all I could have were a few houseplants in a window, I think I would have the same result. What’s important isn’t the size of the garden, but the connection I have to it. Just knowing I have these lovely, green growing things in my “yard”, that I can tend to them and watch them grow and sit among them–that’s enough. Knowing that I’m still working on my sustainability skills, even if there’s nothing more than a few salads in there, is also valuable.

It reminds me of a lesson I hold near and dear to my heart (even if I have to remind myself of it a lot): Bloom where you’re planted. I can make the most of what I have access to now, even if I do plan for bigger things in the future. Otherwise, I might be missing out on an important experience in the moment–and why deprive myself of that just because I may not have everything I could possibly want?

(I’m still hoping for pizza sauce.)


A Call to My Fellow Bloggers: Show Me Your Small, Sacred Places

At the beginning of this month, I wrote about small, sacred places in my life. These were the not very large, not particularly wilderness-y, but incredibly important patches of woods and fields that I grew up with in my small town. Even if they were no more than an acre or less apiece, they taught me a great deal about the outdoor world and my various nonhuman neighbors.

Inspired by my writing about this, Chirotus Infinitum made a post over at Blacklight Metaphysics about his own small, sacred place from when he was younger. He even included a nice video tour of the place; I recommend taking a look. I’ll be honest—having someone open up that much about their own little spot made me cry. Not, of course, in the “everything’s bad!” sort of way, but incredibly grateful that someone took the time to share something that special.

missouriI feel that the small, sacred places need more attention. They often get overlooked because they aren’t great wildernesses or national parks or miles-long lengths of trail. They’re often the most vulnerable to development because who’s going to protect a half acre of grass and poison ivy in the middle of a suburb? Put a house or business there instead, or turn it into a carefully manicured park or community garden. While a home can give shelter and a garden can provide food, neither of these provide the same diversity of disorganized, beautifully independent life that the untamed scrub and trees can.

More importantly, they’re often the most accessible natural spots for children who are still developing their relationships with the nonhuman world. Most children can’t just go wandering into a state forest or desert trail, especially not on their own. But even with helicopter parents hovering and video games to distract, there are still kids who are allowed to roam their neighborhoods freely and without supervision. I often worry that, as a child of the 80s, I was of the last generation where kids stayed out all day and didn’t come home until dark, riding bikes and building forts and fishing in little meandering creeks. But there are still some who carry on that tradition, and the small, sacred places give them somewhere to go.

And those relationships formed so early carry on throughout a lifetime. It’s how so many of us who today fight to protect what wilderness remains got our start, our initial inspiration. The roots were sunk, for many, in those small, sacred places. Even for those who never followed an expressly nature-based spiritual path, the wonder and awe these places provoked was—and still is—nonetheless sacred.

So here’s what I’d ask of my fellow bloggers who are able, whether on WordPress or Blogger or Tumblr or Livejournal or wherever you blog: please, if you would, tell me (and your readership) about your own small, sacred places. Even if, like my small, sacred places, yours have long since been bulldozed and paved, write a memorial to them anyway. If it still hurts, let the writing be a place to release that pain. Write a post about any of the little fields and patches of woods, the tiny creeks and ponds full of minnows and crawdads, the often overlooked patches of nature that you grew up with. Tell us about the yard that you got to know so well, the grass and rocks and bugs. Don’t worry about that hike your family went on one year, or the brief visit to Yellowstone. Talk about the places you developed deep relationships with over time, whether as a child or later on. Illustrate with pictures, with videos, with whatever introduces the reader to these places the most.

Once you’ve shared these on your blog, please leave a link here. I’d like to collect them and then make a post later with links to all of them. And thank you for this; I’m looking forward to meeting your small, sacred places, and I hope others are as well.

A Much-Needed Overhaul

Back in 2007 when I started this blog, I wasn’t all that concerned about design. I wanted to write about all these neat ideas I had, and so I opened an account with WordPress.com, picked a theme that had a tree on it, and got down to the important business of writing.

And I still get so distracted by the writing that I don’t spend as much time on general blog upkeep. So I finally took the time to do a pretty significant overhaul of the appearance, pages, and other such things. I changed the theme, and finally took the time to figure out how to upload a custom header image. The image itself isn’t anything really snazzy, just a few of my favorite photos I’ve taken stitched together into the proper 276 x 1015 pixel format. I made sure the pages were updated, especially since the new theme features them more prominently. Oh, and I pulled the search box further up the page to make it easier to access. Basically it was everything I could do without A) spending the better part of $200 porting the blog over to WordPress.org or B) learning CSS from scratch to tweak this one more fully.

Also, I updated the links on the sidebar. I admit I’ve been putting off editing the blogroll; even though I mainly just deleted blogs that hadn’t updated in a good long while, adding more blogs is a nerve-wracking experience. I’ve spent the past two hours (amid various tasks) thinking “What if I forget someone important and obvious? What if there are all sorts of people who have been kind enough to link to Therioshamanism all this time and I should probably link back to them but I don’t know who they are or I lost the email where they requested reciprocal links? What if a blog or site just isn’t really a good fit and I have to try to explain this to the person who’s been putting their blood, sweat, and tears into it? WHAT IF SOMEONE HATES ME FOREVER BECAUSE I DIDN’T LINK TO THEM?” Okay, it didn’t get quite that dire. But there are a lot of really good blogs out there, definitely more than what I have listed. So if you have suggestions for good blogs and sites along a nature paganism or related theme, let me know. I won’t promise I’ll add all of them, but the worst I’ll say is “no thanks”.

Finally, you may have noticed that the quote under the blog’s title has changed. From the beginning, I had had John Muir’s quote “In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. A long while back, I wrote about why I felt the quote needed to be changed for something more appropriate, but it wasn’t until recently that I found a suitable replacement:

All spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, and nature is a window into that wonder. – Richard Louv

This is a much better fit for where my path is these days. Over time, as I’ve moved away from abstract symbols and more into direct contact with nature as the center of my practice, I’ve rediscovered the sense of wonder I have about the world–not just the wild parts, but the human-altered ones, too. My stock response to the complaint that the physical world is too mundane and boring is “Look at photosynthesis. That plant? It’s absorbing sunlight into its leaves, and making it into food, into measurable amounts of sugars. How is that not absolutely breathtaking, especially because we know more or less how it works?” But I feel that way about a lot of things; the amazing technology that launched rovers onto Mars so we could gather better data is nothing short of amazing to me. And my sense of wonder about these things and more presses me to know and learn and experience more; it drives me out into the world to explore it and my place within it, and entreats me to supplement with the observations of others through books and film and classes and more.

Note that Louv says that nature is a window, not the window. But for many of us, it’s not just a window but the door itself. For me, this wonder helped to bring me back to an entire home–whether in the city or the wilderness, I am home in the world.

Humans Are Not Either/Or Creatures

First, a quick hello from internet-land! I spent this past weekend down in Long Beach and surrounding areas for Ghostwriters Unite!; I was at the conference to help moderate panels and lend my small press experience to the general milieu, though I also got a lot of schmoozing in as well. I learned a lot about ghostwriting, to include that it’s much more complex a profession than one might think, and I met all sorts of fabulous people from a variety of backgrounds, and I wish we’d had more time together. A huge thank you to Tyger Ward for getting me connected to the conference in the first place! I ended up making a long weekend of it since I was down there on my own anyway, and on my off time I explored the Long Beach marina, went up to the La Brea Tar Pits, and even stomped around Griffith Park for a while, where I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild (probably a southern Pacific rattlesnake) and walked by the cages for the old Los Angeles zoo. All in all, it was a most excellent trip, and I plan to do it again.

tumblr_mmfz9sQzfu1qcrvgeo1_500I spent time today playing catch-up on email, messages, and the like. While I was taking a quick break on Tumblr, I ran across an image depicting two children, one using a smart phone, and one holding a small bird. Below these two images was the caption “Teach your children well”. I’m not entirely sure what the anonymous compiler’s intent was; perhaps they wanted to contrast the detachment of the one child, accessing the world through the virtual reality on the phone, with the direct experience of the other child interacting with the live bird in his hands. Or maybe they agreed with me when I said:

Yes. Teach your children that through the internet they can access more information about the world than ever, from places they may never see for themselves, from people they might never have known existed, about topics they never even knew existed. And then teach them that while this knowledge is well and good and valuable, it’s not a replacement for also going out in the world and experiencing it, and being out in it. Let these things complement each other. Let the internet be a way to fill in the blanks about the new type of bird you encountered while you were breathing in the fresh air out on a hike, moving your muscles and negotiating rocky terrain. Let the words of others who have recorded their experiences and shared them via technology enhance your understanding of what you see with your eyes, or hear with your ears, or touch with your fingers. Let the internet spread the word that a particular species of bird is highly endangered and should not be harmed, even for food, and let on the ground action and protection follow it up.

Both of these pictures are children learning well. Let them teach each other, too.

Of course, this also brings up the issue that there are many, many children (and adults) who don’t have access to the internet, and some whose access is restricted either through government censorship, or limited computer access, or illiteracy, or other barriers. All the internet connectivity in the world won’t help if you can’t get to it, or understand what’s there. It also doesn’t bring into account that more and more children in the US and elsewhere are being denied access to wild, open spaces in which they can roam and explore without helicopter parents hovering over their every move. By the time they’re old enough to make their own decisions on where they can go, the window for early fascination with nature has long since closed, and many simply don’t care.

Unfortunately, tech and nature are often set against each other in an either/or dichotomy. As we create increasingly complex technologies, they may distract us from the world around us, especially the outside world. Those who wish to preserve nature and the human relationship with it may sometimes claim moral superiority because they don’t have a tablet PC or smart phone. I’ve written before about how nature vs. technology is a false dichotomy, and I still hold with that. Both of these influences contributed invaluably to who I am today, from the antibiotics that saved my life a few years ago and the computer I use to communicate with you folks via this blog, to the small, sacred places that raised me and all the trails in the Columbia River Gorge I’ve explored as an adult.

Both unfettered nature and technology have their good and bad sides from a human bias. Unfortunately, we’ve lost our respect for both of them; we take and take of the good while pretending we’ve completely overcome the bad. The Black Plague may be a distant memory, but over a million people die from malaria worldwide every year. Cars get us from place to place with independence and speed, but oil spills are just one of the many costs the petroleum industry likes to sweep under the rug. Still, if people are able to live happier, healthier, longer lives, that can’t be all bad–especially if we can do so in sustainable manners that also leave plenty of room for all of our nonhuman neighbors on the planet.

We won’t learn to respect both sides if we demonize one or the other. This is why I am neither a Luddite nor a technophile, and why I enjoyed both the museum at the Tar Pits and the trails at Griffith Park. Everyone’s personal balance may be different, but I firmly believe that as a species if we are to survive and thrive we must respect both the uncontrolled, wild nature we came from and the technology that we tool-using apes have created.

NUP Posts, and Some Notes About This Blog and Its Author

First, it’s been about half a year since I last linked to any of my posts over at No Unsacred Place–here’s what I’ve written since then:

Thoughts on Tree Planting
Challenges Face the Columbia River
Grounding Through Land Stewardship
Lupa’s Favorite Three-Item Geren Shopping List
Religion, Spirituality, and Earth Stewardship
Screaming Scrub Jays!
Updates on Coal and the Columbia

Also, I have completely overhauled the About page for this blog for the first time in years. I would greatly appreciate it if you all would head on over and take a peek; it’s much shorter and more concise than before, and what it contains is quite different than in its previous incarnations.

Finally, I’ll be taking a little solo trip down to SoCal this weekend for Ghost Writers Unite! They asked me to come down and add in my expertise on small press publishing and the like, and so I’ll be moderating a couple of panels and doing an author reading, in addition to checking out all sorts of other workshops and the like. Plus while I’m down there I’m taking a couple of days extra to do things like visit the La Brea Tar Pit Museum and maybe do a bit of hiking in the Santa Monica mountains. I’ll still be checking in online, of course, but I’m looking forward to my first just-me trip in a while.

Small, Sacred Places

Note: This is my contribution for the May edition of the Animist Blog Carnival. This month’s theme is Place Magic.

I’ve talked before about some of the places that raised me, and how badly their loss affected me. Other people in response told me about their own small, sacred places that they clung to when they were young, some of which had also been destroyed as they got older.

When we talk about “nature”, the first thing a lot of people picture is a wilderness setting with little to no overt human influence. These are certainly a significant part of nature, but they are not the sum total of nature itself. Most of us didn’t grow up right next to vast forests, fields and deserts, and even if we had we wouldn’t have been allowed to ramble across them unfettered. Instead, what many of us had were small open lots, parks, yards (our own or neighbors’) and the like. Because these may have been all we had, they became the definition of “nature” for us, and that imprint can last a lifetime.

For myself, when I was in my own small places, my fields and little patches of woods, for that time I was free and autonomous. I could explore those scant half-acres with impunity, and as a young child they seemed so vast and inviting that I didn’t want for more space. Instead of hiking for miles, I was exploring every inch of the land, every stone and stump and tree and pathway. I can even still remember the smells of sun on stone and cedar branches. That attention to detail is something I’m still learning to recapture as an adult recovering from the trauma of losing those places to destruction.

But it is coming back, and so is the sense of adventure and exploration that I had growing up. When I find myself deeper in the wilderness, away from the familiar roads and highways, that giddy excitement floods through my veins and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail. The world is all of a sudden new and shiny and even more beautiful than it was a moment before, and I feel so fortunate to be here in Oregon, the land that has embraced me.

As I get older, I spend less time in formal ritual. These days, a hike is a better way for me to connect with Something Bigger Than Myself, hence part of why I’ve been blogging about those hikes more. And I think it’s because I’ve stopped thinking of nature in terms of abstract concepts and symbols, and approach it directly, body and mind and heart and soul. A place, to me, isn’t sacred because of what rituals occurred there or what spirits call it home. Every place is inhabited by spirits, and every place is touched by the daily rituals of the turning of the Earth and the currents of the winds. As I simplify and streamline and integrate my path, I feel that pulling away the extraneous symbolism is like cutting away choking, invasive blackberries, opening up the ground so that the original inhabitants–snowberries and osoberry and others–can revive themselves. Some of the earth is open and wounded still, but now that the thorny canes have been removed, I’m eager to see what will grow in their place.

The places that raised me, small though they were, and dead though they may be today, are still sacred. It wasn’t about being a young pagan thing running around in the woods; I was still quite Catholic at the time. It was about forging that deep connection to the cosmos, to the wilderness, to the nonhuman beings that I share this world with. Most importantly, it was the early upwelling of wonder and awe at the world, that thing that has fueled my spirituality ever since. Because those places were the wellsprings of this feeling, they are the most sacred of all, even if only in memory.

The small, sacred places are sadly some of the most threatened. None of the environmental groups will work to protect a half an acre of scrubland in a small town. They’re vulnerable to development, yet another poorly-made cookie cutter house in an encroaching suburb. Few people will mourn their passing in the name of “progress”, and the children who move into that home will never know the wonders of the garter snakes and cedar trees that once lived where fertilized lawns now grow. For those of you who have lost your small, sacred places, I share your pain and your loss. For those who have the opportunity to preserve such places, whether for yourself or someone else, I commend you.

Here’s to all the small, sacred places that raised us, and that may still support us yet today.