The Shaman Brings the Wisdom Back Home

This world is truly fucked up in a lot of ways.

There. I said it. Even with my optimism about the world, and human potential, and the resiliency of nature in general, there are still some things in this place that are heart-rendingly, disgustingly, infuriatingly screwed all beyond belief. I think we all have different opinions about what falls under that heading, but we can mostly agree on things like war and people dying needlessly, children being abused and then in turn abusing animals and later on other humans (including their own children), the extinction of species that didn’t have to die, and possibly the overuse of the Papyrus font in everything pagan. (Okay, maybe that last offense is in a league of its own.)

And I know that this fucked-upedness makes it tempting to run away and never come back. People want to live off the grid, not just to be eco friendly (even though a well-planned city can be more sustainable) but to get away from other humans except for a select few they deem “okay”. I’ve heard people talk about how humans as a species should just die out and the world would be better without us, emphasizing only the worst our species has done, and contemplating drowning the baby in the bathwater. This includes some deeply spiritual people I know who are quite connected to the nonhuman natural world. I’m constantly amazed by how many ways people can justify misanthropy.

I feel that frustration, too. I have days where I just get sick of statistics on how much rain forest has been cut down today and yet another person telling me that the addicts I counsel in my day job are “irredeemable” and should just be locked in prison for life. I don’t need another talking head telling me that somehow letting gay people marry will lead to terrible things that have no actual correlation to gay marriage, let alone any causative factors. Believe me, there’s enough stuff to make me so pissed off sometimes that I make Hothead Paisan look like a Disney Princess in comparison.

And I do take breaks from this crazy-ass world now and then. That’s why I go hiking and escape to the coast every few months. It’s why I hang out with people I love and who accept me in all my weirdness. It’s the reason for good novels and bad movies and hours of vegging on the internet. Self-care is a damned important thing for everyone, me included.

But I have to come back sometime. Part of my job as a (neo)shaman is to stay in the thick of things, as much as my health will allow. When a shaman journeys to the spirit world, or hides out in the woods, they don’t stay there permanently. There’s a community to be served, and knowledge and wisdom and information to be delivered unto them. Going on the journey, whether it’s through drumming and trance, or backpacking, or your escape of choice, is just part of the trip. It’s not just for your benefit. It’s for the people and other beings you serve, too. And that means climbing back out of whatever comfy hidey-hole you’ve discovered in the woods, whatever font of wisdom you’ve happened upon in the spirit world. No matter how not-fun it is, you gotta come back.

Why? Because in your head and your heart and your hands you carry things that can help lots of folks, and you have the ability to convey it. If you keep it to yourself, you’re not doing your job. “To keep silent” isn’t applicable here. Maybe you have to choose carefully how you convey what you have, and who your audience is, to make sure it has the best chance of making a constructive impact. (Pro tip: preaching, browbeating, insulting, and “my way or the highway” approaches don’t work too well on that count.)

In short: escapism isn’t shamanism. If you want to make people come to you, that’s fine; just make sure the way’s still clear, and the hurdles are not so high that most people are too discouraged to even try. We don’t just get the community we want to serve. We get the one we need to serve, which means sometimes working with the difficult, the obstinate, the downright offensive. Abandonment isn’t a part of it. Setting boundaries, sure. Knowing your own limits, of course. But writing off people entirely just so you can go hide in your little slice of paradise away from the hoi polloi? That’s taking the easy way out.

Go out and explore. Go play in the woods. Go take a break. But make damned sure you come back and keep up the good work. The world needs you, and me, and all of us, if we have a chance at getting through the current crises intact.

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The Natural Order of Things

I am an artist, deep in the center of my soul. I have many roles in this life, but I think perhaps more than any other, artwork is at the center of it. The medium may vary–hides and bones, words on the screen, ingredients in the kitchen, a carefully considered response to a counseling client’s thoughts–but at the heart of it all is a deep need for creativity and expression, arranging things just right. Most of my visual artwork for the past fifteen years has been with the dead critters, but I do like to branch out–I don’t want to be a one-trick pony, after all. One of my passions is art made from secondhand materials; this does describe some of my hides and bones, but I also want to reclaim some less biodegradable things as well. So I do like having a bunch of found objects to work with, things salvaged from thrift stores and free piles on the curb and so forth.

Because of my current counseling job, which keeps me busy 40+ hours a week, I don’t have as much time for art as I did before, and a lot of that time is spent on keeping customer favorites stocked in my Etsy shop. But sometimes I do manage to make time to really dig into more unusual projects, stretching my artistic muscles. Today I took out a couple of hours for this:

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

It’s called The Natural Order of Things, and it’s almost entirely made of recycled materials. The 6″ x 8″ canvas panel it’s based on was bought from a yard sale. The book clippings were from an old-but-not-rare, quite outdated textbook on animal anatomy that I bartered for. The foam cutouts came from a Goodwill on the Oregon coast. All I had to add was a few brushfuls of Mod Podge and a bit of cellophane tape.

It looks simple enough at first glance–brightly colored bits of foam on a stark black and white background. The tree of life branches out from the center, with an array of animals taking up their places as they should. But upon closer inspection, the animals are in no real order; rather than closely-related families being situated nearer each other, a fish is next to a bird, which sits just above a pig, and so on. Moreover, there’s only one invertebrate, a crab in one corner. The representatives of the animal kingdom are largely biased toward mammals, especially those we feel are important. And at the center of it all is humanity, represented by a god-like figure (Yahweh? Zeus?) standing on the sun. Humans are removed from the tree of life, only to be relocated at its center–“Man shall have dominion over the earth”. As if to comment on the misinterpretation of evolutionary theory that says “Humans are evolved from monkeys!”, a tiny monkey occupies the smallest and lowest branch on the tree, decidedly separated from its Homo sapiens cousin.

But what supports these animals and their tree? In the background the canvas is covered in pieces of pages from a textbook of biology. The foundation is the index, listing many animals in neat, alphabetical order–to include, along the bottom edge, “Man”. Over this are laid diagrams of the nervous systems of a rotifer and a polychaete worm, neither of which are particularly well-known animals, but which illustrate the type of simpler nervous systems from which those of vertebrates evolved. Several quotes add to the mix–one about the basic plan of the nervous system in all animals, one about how humans have often misapplied “instinct” to anything any animal does ever, and one, legible in full: “From protoplasmic irritability to cognition is a development that has required upwards of a billion years”. We extol the virtues of a select few noble animals, while we stand on the spineless backs of countless humbler creatures. Despite claims of religions worldwide and throughout time, we did not spring forth fully formed from a head or a thigh or our partner’s rib bone. We are built on billions of years of tiny changes.

The cartoonish, artificial figures in their disarray, arranged inaccurately around humanity as the reason for their existence, represent the biases we hold toward the natural world. We value what most closely resembles us–vertebrates, and especially our fellow mammals–and most of all, those who directly serve us. The man-as-god in the center is our tendency to elevate ourselves above all else, much to the detriment of all involved, humans included. One can only stand on the sun for so long before getting burned. In contrast, the neatly ordered, realistically rendered invertebrates speak of the care that has been taken to excise the secrets of evolution and other natural processes, sifting out the detritus of superstition and speculation. This brightly-colored Eden can dance all it wants, but those who wrote the stories of paradise could only do so after a parade of many generations of supposedly “lesser” beings.

But it’s also because of these pioneering beings that came before us, unknowingly contributing to the shift and change of genes and their expressions, that we can also have art. We can have religion, including beliefs that don’t match with evolution in any literal way but have their own beauty nonetheless. It’s because of them that we’re here to debate our origins today, to take strong opinions and fence with them, or to simply decide the argument’s not worth it and go play video games instead. I am grateful to them for this opportunity, and I dedicate this piece to all my ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life.

Black Mold as Fungus Totem

As many folks who have worked with animal and other totems know, not all totems are cuddly and friendly. Sometimes they’re what are popularly known as “shadow” totems, who challenge us through embodying some of our less pleasant aspects. Others represent animals or other living beings that we don’t care for, or maybe even have adverse relationships with.

This latter description fits my relationship with the totem of black mold pretty well. This is a common name for Stachybotrys chartarum, a fungus that commonly resides in drywall in houses and whose spores can cause illness (sometimes fatal) to a home’s inhabitants. Black mold has also been implicated in sick building syndrome, causing the same sort of havoc at work as well as at home.

Here in the Pacific Northwest (sometimes referred to as the Pacific Northwet), black mold is a particular concern. Because the climate is so humid, with lots of rain year-round, the fungus has ample opportunity to get a foothold, especially in many of the older buildings in the city. This can be especially problematic for renters; while some companies and landlords are very prompt about dealing with any mold issues, others are more lax. This disproportionately affects poorer people, who may rent from less careful companies or landlords, or who may own a home but not have the funds to deal with a more widespread mold infestation.

Thankfully not my home, but a stark reminder of how widespread mold can become. From http://bit.ly/194NYJ9.

Thankfully not my home, but a stark reminder of how widespread mold can become. From http://bit.ly/194NYJ9.

I’ve been fortunate in that on the rare occasion mold has shown up in a place I’ve rented, the company I rented from was quick to get someone out to deal with it. Still, it’s been a learning experience. Until I moved to Portland, I’d been fortunate enough to never have to deal with this problem. Since I’ve been here, though, I’ve had my own experiences, and I’ve heard horror stories from others, up to and including people having to move to a new place due to severe mold and inattentive landlords.

You’d think this would make Black Mold a pretty unpopular totem, and to an extent you’d be right. It’s easier for many people to work with the totems of animals that can kill us, but which we feel still have redeeming qualities, like tigers, hippos, or venomous snakes. But what is there to like about Black Mold and its physical counterparts?

For one thing, they’re one of many species that have managed to capitalize on human success. While black mold can be found in soil, it’s managed to specialize in colonizing gypsum drywall, a common building material. We may not like this particular innovation, but I feel any species that manages to increase its population due to our influence, rather than becoming endangered or extinct, is at least noteworthy for its adaptability. Not that I feel endangered or extinct species aren’t good enough, or strong enough, or that their totems are weaker. Adaptability in the face of widespread, often destructive, changes is not the only positive trait a species can exhibit, and the spread of invasive or otherwise harmful species isn’t something to ignore.

The other reason I’ve tried working with Black Mold is because it’s taught me to be more adaptable myself. The first black mold colony I encountered got to sit around and grow for a few months because I didn’t recognize what it was. I had to learn that as soon as I saw that discoloration on the ceiling or wall, something needed to be done about it. Black Mold reminded me that procrastination can lead to being overwhelmed by a problem.

It showed me that taking care of a living space isn’t just about picking up the laundry and cleaning the dishes. It’s also about being mindful of the home’s physical microclimate. Black mold has always started in the bathrooms of the places I’ve lived, and always in the ones that were insufficiently ventilated, either with no fan, or no windows. The things we bring into a home–physical and otherwise–can have negative effects on that living space if we aren’t careful. And if we don’t keep what’s already in the home in balance, again problems can arise.

And just as black mold has been shaped by our effects on the planet, so it reminds me that we are still affected by the other beings we share that planet with. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we’ve defeated all the problems nature has to throw at us–disease, inadequate shelter, starvation, and so forth. And yet, even in the most comfortable home, Black Mold and its children can creep in, shattering that illusion. (Never mind that in many less comfortable homes, disease, exposure and starvation are very real problems.) Black Mold helps to keep me humble, and reminds me of the privileges I enjoy, however temporarily.

Finally, Black Mold is a somber reminder of that temporary condition. We cannot continue the current rate of resource consumption that has made our lives more comfortable. Either we have to reduce our consumption, or find more sustainable ways to maintain our current standard of living. So while black mold is mainly a threat to the drywall, I also find it to be an incentive to find more eco-friendly options for food, water, shelter, and other resources.

Black Mold is not my favorite totem I’ve ever worked with, fungus or otherwise. But it is a necessary one. And so (with a little tightness in my throat, imagining invisible airborne spores), I include it in my gathering of totems.

Pagan Values Month: Service

(Note: This is my contribution for the Pagan Value Blog Project 2013.)

Last week, the Wild Hunt blog featured a piece on “Pagans Doing Good. It started with a critique of paganism, the common complaint that there are no pagan hospitals or homeless shelters or major nonprofit groups. The writer, Heather Greene, then highlighted two activists who also happen to be pagan (and there are more where they came from!)

My only critique of this is that “service” isn’t limited to those who are able to devote their entire lives to activism. Most of us have households to support or families to raise or debts and bills to pay or any of a number of other obligations that we can’t just toss to the wayside to go be full-time activists. We do need these people; I admire devotion and I do admit I envy them a bit. But that is far from the end of pagan manifestations of service.

I am not, however, speaking about service to gods or spirits or other incorporeal beings. There’s a time and a place for such things, if you choose to enact them, but they are no substitute for physical-world action. A lot of it is what the measurable, objective effect of the action is. I can’t walk down the street with my primary totem, Gray Wolf, and say “This is my first and most cherished animal totem; I would like others to make offerings to hir to make hir stronger and give hir the reverence s/he is due” and expect everyone to agree with me. Many will disagree, in fact, and that’s okay. How I interact with a world that may or may not actually exist outside of my own psyche is my own to decide, and same for everyone else.

However, I can feed a stray, hungry dog on the street, and I can invite others do to so; even if they don’t have dog food with them, I can give them a bit to feed the dog so they can have the experience of helping another living being, something that may stick with them. I can take the dog to a shelter and say “Here, do you have room for this dog?” and the people there can either take the dog in and bathe it and give it a place to stay until it gets adopted, or they can refer me to another shelter. Or, if I have the room and resources, I can adopt the dog myself and change its life permanently for the better.

To be honest, if I am going to be able to only give time, effort, or resources to either of these causes, I’m going to help the starving dog. One of the central tenets of my personal approach to paganism is to default to putting this world first, because it’s the one I know for sure exists and that I can have a positive effect on. For centuries, a portion of people of many faiths have fallen into the trap of neglecting the physical world entirely in the hopes that their actions on behalf of the spiritual will gain them something in the end. And it can be easy to get so tangled up in spiritual pursuits that, while one may not willfully damage the world, one may still treat it with benign neglect and apathy.

Do I think everyone who is deeply spiritual abuses this world? Of course not. I know plenty of people who adhere to varying faiths and have devoted practices who also work to make this world a better place with concrete actions. But just as I don’t think prayer is a substitute for medical care in the case of a sick child, I also don’t think that rituals honoring animal totems are a replacement for habitat restoration, fighting for more humane conditions for farm animals, or giving what money you can afford to give to nonprofits that work to protect critically endangered species through legislation and other actions. (In my experience, the totems appreciate the efforts to help their physical children enough that yes, these things can substitute for celebratory rituals, but YMMV.)

So what are we going to do as pagans if we choose service to the world as a virtue to incorporate into our personal pagan paths? Here are a few thoughts:

–First, decide what matters most to you. What group of beings do you feel most needs your help, or that you are best-poised to help? Is the natural environment your cause, or civil rights, or government transparency? If the answer is “more than one/all of them”, which few are the highest priority for you?

–Next, determine what you can reasonably offer in terms of time, money, and other resources. It’s okay if you can’t quit your day job to go ride around on the Sea Shepherd and intercept whaling ships. (I can’t either, for what it’s worth.) Can you put aside a small amount of your paycheck each week to give to a nonprofit that is doing the sort of work you admire? Can your employer match your donations, for that matter? Let’s say you’re broke, jobless, and not physically well enough to go stomping around in the woods pulling out invasive species of plant or travel to a developing country to educate poor children. Can you send a letter or an email, or make a phone call, to an elected official or other decision-maker to let them know your thoughts on an important issue? If you at least have the time and energy and access for social media, can you tell other people about these things?

–Now, educate yourself on specific issues to the best of your ability. Be aware that often there are multiple competing ideas for the the best possible solution is; for example, on the topic of farm animals raised for meat, some people think the conditions they’re raised and slaughtered under need to be completely overhauled for more humane options, while others will only eat meat they themselves raised or hunted, and still others think nobody should eat meat ever for any reason at all. You’ll need to decide where you stand on an issue; take your time, and don’t be afraid to consider the gray areas as well as the black and white extremes.

–Once you’re ready to take action, don’t feel you have to do everything at once! Try out different things, and see what works best for you and the given issue you’re working on. You might find that you’re not a fan of going to big public hearings on potential laws, but you’re fine with making some phone calls from the privacy of your own home. Or you may not feel steady enough on your feet to make an entire garden out of your yard, but a few pea vines in a pot on your porch will work.

And if you still want to back these things up with spiritual activities like rituals and spells and the like, go for it! It certainly can’t hurt. If the powers that be help things along, so much the better.

What embodies the value of service for me, personally, is my environmental volunteering and donations, coupled with my current work as a qualified mental health professional working with addicts in the criminal justice system, contacting elected officials on a variety of levels, and talking to others about issues to let them know what’s going on. Of course, this is all my take on service and its place in paganism. What say you, dear readers?

When Endangered Doesn’t Mean the Same Thing as Endangered

Okay. I’ve had a couple of people tell me about an online petition to have “endangered species” parts removed from Etsy. The petition cites vintage leopard fur from a coat that was listed by an antiques dealer on the site, and noted that while eBay has specific items they don’t allow, Etsy just says “no illegal animal parts”.

That’s all fine and good. I’m fine with Etsy defining that further, and for myself I both restrict myself to things I know are legal, and take the time to contact people I see selling vintage leopard fur or blue jay feathers in the US to let them know what they have isn’t legal. But then the petition writer goes on to talk about “endangered species” in a general way, and tries to say that any animal listed in CITES isn’t allowed. Additionally, the writer also states that any interstate trade of any endangered species parts is illegal.

The twofold problem here is that A) these are inaccurate interpretations of the laws in places, and B) there are different levels of “endangered”. Like CITES-listed animals, for example. CITES has three appendices. Appendix I includes animals like leopards, tigers, rhinos, and other extremely endangered animals. In the US it’s illegal to trade in CITES I animal parts, even pre-CITES ones, except for pre-CITES parts within your own state. However, Appendix II, which includes gray wolves, some species of zebra, and lions, allows for limited hunting and trade of these animals. And Appendix III involves animals threatened in one country, where other countries are asked to help protect these species.

Leopards and wolves are both “endangered species”. But what that entails for the trade in their parts is different in each case. Look at wolves in more detail. In Canada and Alaska, the populations are quite healthy, and a certain amount of hunting is allowed. In the lower 48 states, on the other hand, wolves are often still trying to gain a foothold. I don’t personally agree with the impending delisting of lower-48 wolves from the Endangered Species Act, because I don’t feel that states like Montana are going to do a good job of management, at least not beyond what makes ranchers and hunters happy. That’s why I only use hides and bones from Alaskan and Canadian wolves, and prefer to get them secondhand when possible.

If you think all wolves should be protected, that’s another argument for another time. My main point is that “endangered species” doesn’t automatically mean “can’t be hunted and their parts are illegal to buy or sell”. It’s a lot more complicated than that. You have to look at the individual species, and the various places it lives and how the populations are recovering.

Unfortunately, things like this petition just muddy the waters and spread false information. I admit that I haven’t updated it in over a year, so there are some broken links, but you can still get some idea of the nuances of legalities at my collection of animal parts laws-related links. That’s going to be more useful than one more misinformed petition screaming about “endangered species”.

A Brief Thought on Offerings

Taking a quick break here from working on the last couple of chapters of New Paths to Plant and Fungus Totems before I turn the manuscript in. I’m writing about treating the leaves and caps and such of physical plants and fungi as sacred remains, much in the same way that I work with animal parts as sacred remains.

I was writing about how some people leave offerings of food out for gods, spirits and the like, either to be eaten in ritual, or to be given to wildlife. In addition to not being good for the wildlife–making them lose their fear of humans by associating us with food, encouraging them to sneak around human habitations and trash cans in search of food, and potentially feeding them something that makes them sick–it’s not very respectful to the animals, plants, and fungi whose remains went into making that food. So what do we offer those spirits and beings? At what point do we stop taking things from one set of spirits to give to others, and simply give of ourselves?

This is why I prefer offerings of actions to things. If I volunteer my time or money to a cause sacred to that god, spirit, etc. then it’s me making the primary sacrifice. Yes, I am alive because I’ve eaten and otherwise consumed many other living beings, but that’s the way of the world. Offerings are above and beyond what’s necessary. What can we give of ourselves that isn’t necessary, but meaningful nonetheless?

Alright. Back to book-writing.