Scrub and Steller’s Jays as Bioregional Totems

Note: This is my August offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Birds” as the theme.

I moved to Portland, OR in the summer of 2007. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this move would be the trigger that set off an entire series of major shifts in my life.

At the time, I’d only been in the Pacific Northwest for a year, and I was already disillusioned. I’d wanted to move up here because I loved the culture I’d seen in Seattle, and I loved the wilderness areas I’d visited, and I had the opportunity to get help from family to move anywhere I wanted. Unfortunately, it had been a decade since I’d last been to Seattle, and the shiny sparklies surrounding the city when I’d been there as a teenager had worn off, leaving the stark reality of being an adult trying to find work in a city with a high cost of living and an inadequate bus system. Furthermore, what I had intended to be a solo move, an adventure for one, ended up turning into a hasty engagement preceding a stressful cross-country trek with someone I’d committed to too quickly.

So after a year and change in Seattle, I was persuaded by friends to move down to Portland. So I dragged an unhappy and unhealthy marriage, an overweight cat, and a truckload of stuff and baggage down I-5 to Oregon. I have a tendency in general to romanticize any place I move to, and demonize the place I’m escaping, but I did have to admit that the old Craftsman house we moved into was a far sight better than the tiny little house we’d scraped by in up north. The neighborhood was a lot more walkable, the transit system far improved, and we had three great friends living right downstairs from us.

It must have been a day or two after we moved in that I met my first scrub jay. A few of these bold-spirited, blue and gray birds lived in the trees around my home, and I heard their raucous “VWEET! VWEEEEEET!” calls in the warm summer sunlight. The totem Scrub Jay then came to me and invited me to explore my neighborhood more, and so I’d walk around the area on foot, seeing what was in the area–a shop that sold handmade drums and supplies, a vintage clothing shop, a second-run independent movie theater, and more. That exploration extended further into the area, to parks and the downtown area and other neighborhoods with walkable streets and lovely houses, large and small.

Soon afterwards, I got my introduction to the Columbia River Gorge. My husband at the time and I headed out to Wahkeena Falls and did some hiking. I immediately fell in love with the cliffs on the Oregon side and their splashing waterfalls. The first wild creature I met there was a Steller’s jay, similar to the blue jays back east, but all of a deep, dark blue with a black head and crest. The staccato call was different from that of their cousins, though the boldness was familiar to me. The totem Steller’s Jay called to me and dared me to climb the switchback trail higher and higher to new places.

So it was that Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay invited me into their homes–the urban streets and colors of Portland, and the forests of the Gorge and Cascade range. Their kindness and the reception of the Land in general prompted me to find out more and more about this bioregion, from the basalt cliffs of the Gorge and flood-carved Willamette Valley, to the rain shadow cast by the Cascades that birthed the eastern desert, and all the flora and fauna and fungi that lived in this place. I grew to know Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, Johnson Creek and Mt. Tabor, and all sorts of other wonderful beings.

I found a place in the human community, too. Scrub Jay coaxed me out of my shell; I finally found the courage to get a divorce, which left me the freedom to further explore healthier relationships with others, including the beautiful and compassionate man that I live with today. The Land invited me to explore and create a shamanic path for myself–Therioshamanism–which led me to becoming a mental health counselor, as well as a working artist and a more dedicated writer and author. I connected with people about the local environment, and got involved in volunteering efforts for cleaning up litter, planting native species, and the like.

Through these efforts my spiritual path became less and less about formal rituals and journeying, and more about creating direct relationships with the beings–physical and spiritual–of the Land that has adopted me. In this, I found the freedom I’d lost since my childhood. I finally felt like myself again, after decades of loss and dead ends.

In short, the relationships I have forged with the beings and places in this area opened me up in ways I’ve never experienced before, and I can truly say that I have found the home I’ve been seeking for many years. And they still remind me of my place here; I have returned to the neighborhood where I first met the scrub jays, and there’s a pair nesting where I work, too. And it seems like almost every time I go into the forests of the Gorge or around mt. Hood, at least one Steller’s jay makes an appearance. Through their children, my first two bioregional totems tell me they’re glad I’m here, and I have to agree that I am, too.

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A Short But Sweet Update

I have been utterly crazed as of late. I’m halfway through my temporary stint as a mental health counselor at my old internship site, and while it’s going quite well, I don’t have a lot of time for art and writing (comparatively speaking, anyway). The past few days have been especially busy; I’m vending at Faerieworlds again this year (and presenting a workshop on shapeshifting dance on Sunday) and so I’ve been busy trying to make enough stuff to fill my booth. I spent the weekend making artwork, though, and it was absolutely glorious being able to immerse myself in creativity again.

One of the costume pieces I've been working on for FaerieWorlds, featuring a real peacock tail and wings obtained from a taxidermist.

One of the costume pieces I’ve been working on for FaerieWorlds, featuring a real peacock tail and wings obtained from a taxidermist.

If you’ve been missing out on my writing lately, you may wish to check out my new spot over at PaganSquare. Since this blog has become fairly conceptual, I’ve made my PaganSquare venue into a how-to blog, and I’m starting with some basics before moving on to more specialized topics. Right now I’m in the middle of explaining the basics of how I work with spirits; feel free to go take a peek.

Also, I’ve been fortunate enough to score a spot at the community garden a few blocks from my home, after being waitlisted for three years. It was pretty badly overgrown with weeds when I inherited it, but I’ve managed to get most of them pulled and piled for compost, and am getting prepped for fall planting.

Finally, a bit of good news on the book front: Facing North gave a good review to New Paths to Animal Totems. As an aside, while buying a book directly from me gets me the most money for it, I also know plenty of folks are on a budget. Amazon currently has copies starting at $1.50 each, and hey, if you buy used it’s extra eco-friendly!

Also in the book realm, I’m working on the revision of Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect with Spirits of Field, Forest, and Garden (formerly New Paths to Plant and Fungus Totems), which should be out from Llewellyn next summer. I’m quite pleased to say that Christopher Penczak was gracious enough to write a beautiful foreword for it, and overall the editing process has been going well, too. So I feel pretty good about the book in general, and I’m looking forward to inflicting it upon my now-forewarned audience.

“Engaging the Spirit World: Shamanism, Totemism, and Other Animistic Practices” anthology now available!

engagingSo, five years ago when I was still an integral part of the staff at Immanion Press/Megalithica Books, I put out a call for an anthology on various animistic topics. At the time I was already spending dozens of hours a month editing and copy editing and doing layout on books for IP/MB, and I wasn’t relying on my artwork for my income, and so what was one more book project? (Famous last words.)

However, not long afterward I ended up starting graduate school, which ate a big chunk of my time. Then I got divorced, which further complicated things. And then I got done with grad school and instead of a nice 40 hour a week day job as a counselor, I found myself being fully self-employed, which took up about 70 hours a week on average. The anthology, unfortunately, kept getting put on the back burner in favor of projects that were more likely to contribute to paying the bills (as an editor I’d only get paid in a small number of royalties, and while I love IP/MB’s content, they’re a small press and sales are quite modest). So practicality won out, and it was only recently (and with help from IP/MB on the last chunk of layout) that Engaging the Spirit World was finally brought into completion.

Personally, I feel it’s worth the wait. There are some fantastic essayists in there, writing on all sorts of neat approaches to shamanism, totemism, and other animistic topics. Some of them are leaning more toward traditional topics, while others go in some really unusual directions–from Shinto to neurotransmitter spirit guides, sacred body work and ecopsychology, there’s a wonderful variety of thoughts and essays in the wide world of animism!

Want to find out more? Head on over here to my website where you can find a table of contents, ordering info, and more!

Sunfest 2013, and the First Big Group Ritual I’ve Led!

So for the past several years I’ve been attending Sunfest, a four-day summer solstice festival held here in Oregon. It’s organized by Other Worlds of Wonder, a local nonprofit formed for the purposes of acquiring and supporting pagan land. They’re partnered with Ffynnon, which is itself pagan-owned, and this was the first year Sunfest was held on pagan land, a landmark occasion!

Every year there’s been a different theme for Sunfest, though (not surprisingly) it has to have something to do with the sun. In the years I’ve been going to the festival, I’ve seen the themes range from Norse paganism to Alice in Wonderland, and every year the main ritual has been a great adventure of one sort of another. The OWOW folks had been asking me to be the ritual coordinator for one year for a while, and finally early last year I said I’d take on 2013.

Now, I’ve been in a few big group rituals beyond Sunfest before; I went through a remarkable walking pathworking at Heartland Pagan Festival a few years ago, and I also remember some pretty impressive workings at Four Quarters Farm. And I’ve done a lot of individual ritual work, plus the occasional small group rite. But this was the first time I took on an entire big group ritual myself.

Well, okay. I didn’t intend for it to be all by myself initially. Inspired, I wrote out this big, long walking pathworking that needed about thirty participants besides me, and with flexibility for a few less or a few more. Each person was to embody a different being in nature, all leading up to the sun, with a few extra folks to act as ritual guardians. Despite my best intentions, when I put out the call for participants, I had about half a dozen people show significant interest in being co-ritualists (though I did have a lot of people interested in being at the ritual as general participants). Since this was only a few months away from Sunfest (I waited until the OWOW folks finalized their decision to move the event to Ffynnon), I decided that rather than cut down on the meat of the ritual, I’d take on all the embodiments myself, and have the volunteers act as the guardians. (The way I described it in the planning meeting right before the ritual was that I was going to be hauling the world on a cart behind me, and I just needed people to use sticks to keep it from rolling off.)

I know, I know–not the sanest idea in the world. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and I could have just scrapped the entire thing and made a new ritual from scratch. But I really wanted to make this one happen, come hell or high water. Additionally, if there’s one sort of ritual work I’m really good at, it’s shapeshifting, and all that I needed to do was maintain my strength and focus (and voice) through the rapid-fire embodiment of over two dozen different beings that I’d already been working with to varying degrees in preparation for the ritual. So while I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I felt up for the task. Even though I was exhausted from a really rough week of work and fighting off some respiratory ick, I held firm anyway.

And you know what? It worked. I survived, and came out both exhausted and about as ritual-high as I’ve ever been. I led somewhere between 80 and 100 people down the winding forest path toward the ritual grove, stopping every so often as I embodied several animals, plants, and fungi, along with soils and the ocean and deep-sea beings and all the way to the Sun itself. I’d had a script written up that I kept in a handmade booklet, but by the time we got to the ritual grove and I called down the sun to join us, I was completely immersed in stream of consciousness and inspiration.

And I did exactly what I set out to do. I showed people how everything from animals to fungi to the ocean and even deep sea creatures far from light all rely on the sun. I took the sun out of abstract figures and symbols, and showed how that bright ball of flaming gases above us right then was responsible for our very existences. I helped to carry the energies of the better part of a hundred people through the woods and into the clearing where we sent them up to the sun itself, and I pulled down the burning energy of the sun and sent it to the people around me. Afterward, some people thanked me, and some told me how inspired they’d been. Some told me how they cried, and a few told me it was the best ritual they’d ever attended. I was absolutely wiped out at the end, but it was so worth it, and the joy of having offered myself in that way to everyone involved, human and nonhuman alike, buoyed me up and healed me. Even though I was so tired, I still had the energy to do some dancing in my wolf skin at the fire circle that night, the best dancing I’ve done since I moved to the Pacific Northwest.

Will I do more? Perhaps. There are other festivals in the area open to ritual suggestions, and maybe I’ll try and organize something myself on a smaller scale. But I feel like I did my job, what I was supposed to do, and what a lot of my work in recent years has been aiming toward. Let’s see where things go from here.

I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.