Dusky Arion as Animal Totem

“Dusky Arion” sounds like a pretty name, right? Maybe even the moniker of a character in a sci-fi or fantasy story, or a particularly inventive stripper. In actuality, the dusky arion is neither an imaginary being nor a sensual dancer–it is a slug, and here in the U.S. an invasive one at that.

I know Slug totems in general are among the “undesirables”, the ones that people fear getting in their meditations and card readings and whatnot because they aren’t cool or physically imposing. But I’m rather pleased to count Dusky Arion as one of the totems I’ve been privileged to work with. It’s been a mutually beneficial experience, and I’ve been learning quite a bit from it as well as being able to improve my relationship with its physical counterparts.

I admit I’ve learned to be biased against slugs as I’ve gotten older. Growing up, I watched my mom fight against the leopard slugs (also invasive here) in her garden, though at the time I found them to be very cool-looking critters with their vivid spotted pattern and prominent keel (that hump over the “shoulders”). It wasn’t until I began gardening a few years ago that slugs began to invite my ire as they treated my own plants as an all-night salad buffet. I would painstakingly pick them off the stems and leaves of my vegetables and place them in the next field over, and then leave beer traps for the stragglers who remained. Even now I have a number of young turnips whose leaves resemble green lace doilies, and I’ve harvested radishes with telltale lines of white in the red skin from where the tops poked out enough for the slugs to get at them. Now, I do understand that slugs have to eat, too, and critters eating the veggies are a normal part of organic gardening. Still, it’s enough to make me want to stomp my feet, whine, and plead in vain for the slugs to only eat weeds.

Photo by Erik Veldhuis via http://bit.ly/1aEEENN

Photo by Erik Veldhuis via http://bit.ly/1aEEENN

So there’s a certain irony in the fact that this year Dusky Arion (and to a lesser degree other slug totems) has been trying to make friends with me. We’ve been having words over the slugs in the gardens for a while now, but for several months it’s been making extra effort to get my attention outside of the garden. For example, at the spring equinox I found myself the owner of a handmade stuffed toy slug from a vendor at a pagan event I attended. Okay, so it was cute and would be a nice addition to the stuffed animals I keep for counseling clients to hold or hug in session. But then I started looking at the slugs on my container garden, and realizing they were pretty neat little critters, moving with a slow grace along the edges of pots and up the fence around the porch, even upside-down!

This tapped into my childhood fascination with all creatures, regardless of whether they were seen as “pests” or not. It’s a timely rediscovery, given that this year’s theme seems to have been reclaiming the connection to nonhuman nature that I forged so early in life. Dusky Arion’s been helping me pick out my blind spots, showing me where I’ve been still attaching value judgments to animals and other beings based on human biases, instead of simply letting them be themselves. It’s easy to let human needs and desires become the first priority in all things; while it’s understandable to put ourselves first in some situations, we’ve so often erred on the side of “yay, us!” that we’ve put other species in great peril for no real need. Nowhere has that been more personal for me than my gardens, where the slugs are not merely fellow beings trying to make a living, but have been painted as enemies, thieves of my food to be tossed into the next yard or drowned in skunky cheap beer. My childhood self would have been appalled.

So in working with Dusky Arion, I’ve been rediscovering my younger, more neutral stance; as Henry Beston said of nonhuman animals, “they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” It doesn’t mean I won’t defend my garden; slugs understand as much as anyone the need to survive. But there’s been more picking and careful removing, and less beer-drowning. And I’ve been greeting the slugs, too, as they move through the garden, appreciating a little encounter with little wildlife. I like their slender eyestalks that gently move about to take in the world and retract at the first sign of danger–a good lesson to protect what is most crucial! I’ve added a bronze slug ring to my jewelry box, and my partner gifted me with a couple of rubber stick-on toy slugs that are now part of the bathroom mirror decor in our apartment (and a reminder that all nature is pretty in its own way).

Who knows? Maybe I’ll start (carefully) turning over rocks and logsa again like I did when I was a kid, looking to see what other creepy-crawlies I can discover.

On Denning and Settling Down

Greetings, fair readers and fine! October was a really, really, really busy month, where I was out of town far more often than I might have liked, but shared great adventures and joy and it was all worth it. If you missed my writing, I did write up a piece on urban greening at No Unsacred Place.

So I turned 35 this past Friday; being halfway to 40 gave me pause to think about where I am. I’ve been going through a strong “denning” urge as of late–think nesting, but for the more lupine-inclined. I’ve been not just doing my usual “clean ALL the things!” frenzy that I get a few times a year when I do extra organizing and stuff-culling and such in my home, but I’ve been experiencing a strong need to decorate in a more meaningful, directive fashion than “Oh, hey, look, there’s a space on the wall to hang this picture!” I think part of it is because my best friend just bought her first house out in southeast Portland, one of those gorgeous early-1900s wooden deals with an attic and a basement and a cute little yard, and I’m feeling a little positive envy for her. But I think it’s also that I’m finally in a good place to settle down.

I moved out of my parents’ home in 2001, after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. In the 12 1/2 years since then, I didn’t do the usual “get married, buy a house, have kids” deal that’s often set up as the usual way of things. I lived a life that was more mutable and mobile. I never had children, mostly because I wasn’t particularly interested in that endeavor (and I didn’t have the means to raise them properly anyway), so I didn’t have to worry about caring for a helpless little human being or three. I didn’t settle into a single career because no job held my interest long enough to be more than a year or so of employment, and it was really just a means to keep a roof over my head, my computer, and my art supplies. I did try marriage for a few years, but we jumped in too quickly and it ended with a whimper and some divorce papers.

And I never bought a house, for which I’m grateful when I look back at it. Sure, I spent the better part of five years in Pittsburgh, but I wasn’t tied down. Rent was cheap, and I even got to escape to South Dakota for a span of three months at one point when my environmental canvassing job gave me the opportunity. And when I decided to relocate to the Pacific Northwest, there was no hassle in selling a house–I got to get up and go when I wanted. I was able to escape Seattle after one depressing year there, and a couple of years later when the divorce happened, there was no argument over who got the house. I simply moved back to the part of Portland I loved the most and started over again. I needed to have that flexibility in my life. I needed to be able to turn on a dime, pick up everything and make for an escape route as needed. Life was much too interesting to turn down great opportunities just because I moved too slowly.

But now, after a few years of being able to settle into a place that I love, to cultivate a primary relationship with a solid and loving partner at a healthier pace, and to ease my way into not one but three vibrant and positively challenging careers, I feel a deeper need than the need to dash off yet again. I’ve been in Portland longer than I’ve been in any other place since I moved out on my own, and I like it here quite a bit. And this place has embraced me like no other. I am home in a way I haven’t been ever before.

What I’m creating now is stability, at least as much as anyone can in this day and age. I’m not yet in a place where I can buy a house; like getting a dog, I want to make very sure that I have the resources necessary in case of an emergency, as well as proper day to day care. Where I used to leap into new situations, now I’m trying to slow myself down and be more careful about big decisions. It’s teaching me patience in a way I haven’t gotten it before, and while at times my younger ways grate against the waiting and the planning, this is all standing me in good stead.

But I give myself gratification now, too. We have a small apartment, the two of us. And for the first two and a half years it was mostly a place to store our stuff and work on our projects and snuggle together at night (or whenever the need to snuggle occurred!) But more recently this place has begun to transform into a home, a shared home with an identity. Maybe it’s been happening longer than I noticed; my partner seemed surprised when I made the observation that we were just now beginning to “den”, while he thought it had started much earlier. Either way, I’ve gotten to that point where I’m ready to settle down and make that den. We’ve spent the past few days cleaning and overhauling the apartment, rearranging the living room so it can be both its usual work space and a place to relax, and I’ve even started trying my hand at a little bit of interior decoration. (And no, it’s not all just some bones and hides thrown around, either!)

As for the rest? The house and the dog and the happily-ever-after? That can happen in time. For now, we’re working with what we have, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve left behind the semi-nomadic life of my twenties, the residue of a marriage that didn’t fit, and the frenzied dash from job to job. I’ve plugged the leaks in my energy these things created, and am focusing it here and now, seeing how it accumulates now that it’s not all just trickling away.

What happens when a Lupa makes her den? I don’t know either, but I’m eager to see.