Animist Blog Carnival, Part 2! Bioregion Revisited

I have so many posts sent my way for this month’s Animist Blog Carnival that I unwittingly left a couple out!

Bryan Russellson over at Black Mountain Waincraft shares this beautiful introduction to the southern Appalachian abode he calls home:

Like the comfrey and mugwort that fills the small garden bed just outside my window, we are transplants. Yet we have done much to integrate ourselves with this place. We are literally made of the land and that which fills it…of deer and bear and rabbit, raspberry and ramp, wood nettle and morel. Our shit fertilizes the garden beds nestled throughout the forest and the water flowing across the edge of our property sustains all. In time, I too shall fertilize this place as circumstance or age draws the breath from my body.

A wonderful written picture (with lovely photos as well!) of this amazing place.

Brian Taylor, at Animist Jottings, presents an alternative view of invasive species as part of a bioregion:

So, we have an un-necessarily polarised debate, not least because the ecological-forestry discourse of woodland management (adopted uncritically by local green groups?) appears to be privileging ‘evidence based science’ at the expense of the (often well informed) feelings of local people. Personally I’d like to see them take a leaf out of the Woodland Trust’s book, and register notable trees; trees that are culturally important, or ‘of personal significance‘. In the context of advancing Ash Die Back, Richard Mabey makes a case for valuing Sycamore (‘the weed of the woods’) as a replacement for Ash trees. Now, more than ever, conservationists should be ‘welcoming outsiders’ rather than ruling non-native species out of court.

A good reason to pause and think.

And let’s revisit an older post of mine from over at No Unsacred Place, about the spirit of a place and the beings that embody it:

Arguably the more charismatic animals, plants, and places are often seen as the most irreplaceable, when in fact all are important and often it’s the tiny ones on whose backs and stems the rest of the ecosystem rests. But if we look instead at the greater concept of the numenon as Leopold uses it, rather than just the individual species chosen for it, it’s a great deal like the Genius Loci, the spirit of a place. And all of the above are representatives of what gives a place its unique qualities, the je ne sais quoi, even if we can’t put a label to those qualities themselves. These are not quantifiable in the way that bird counts and the momentum of a waterfall are. They’re exceptionally subjective; it’s arguable that those of us who value a place for what it is create its spirit, while we cannot make a land developer or oil baron see beyond the cash value of the physical natural resources. It’s an aesthetic judgement, but no less crucial for that.

My sincerest apologies to both Bryan and Brian for not getting you in on the first round; here’s to readers getting a fresh look at these!

Animist Blog Carnival: Bioregion

ETA: There were so many posts that I ended up missing a few; you can see the rest of these offerings here.

This month I’m hosting the Animist Blog Carnival (a couple of days late, I’m afraid–life got REALLY busy in the past few weeks!) The theme I chose was “Bioregion”. Why? Well, in part because it’s a concept I’m very interested in for a variety of reasons, practical and spiritual. The bioregion I live in here in Oregon was the first place to really get me out of my animal-centric perspective and show me that the other parts of the bioregion aren’t just a backdrop for critters. And I wanted to see what other people had to say about their bioregions, near and far. So, let’s get started!

First, to introduce you to your bioregion, Rua Lupa has a great post at No Unsacred Place with a series of questions and explorations about the area you live in:

[Earth] is suffused with life, and that life is diverse as a result of the different environments this planet holds. Yet, even with all this diversity none of these life forms would exist without the intricate interconnections of a vast network of life-sustaining processes. This larger system is, itself, composed of many smaller networks of life – each local system is a vital part of the whole.

What do you know of your local environment?

Don’t worry–she’s added some tips for your epxlorations as well, so if you don’t know your local growing season or how geology shaped the local land, you have some good starting points.

Heather Awen at Eaarth Animist offers her answers to a similar bioregional quiz:

When and what are the major yearly bioregional events and how can you celebrate them?

One major one is maple sugaring. Both Paganaidd and I have spoken with the maples about this and received the same answer, which was one I would not have expected. As the keystone tree, the sugar maples are pillars of society. They are modest divas. They like the attention. Be it the sugaring or the tourist leaf-peepers stunned by their beautiful colors in the fall, they dig it. Also they have deep relationships with all the other species in the forest. I get the vibe that they are like my grandparents’ generation, the Great Generation of WW2, with the same 1950s values of being respectable and respected on committees.

Showing again that it is not just theory but also practice that is important, Kiva Rose at Bear Medicine Herbals reminds us we need to connect with the plants (and other beings) themselves, not just our conceptions of them:

Come closer, all of you. Put your faces against this ancient Ponderosa Pine, breathe in her amazing vanilla fragrance, feel the puzzle piece texture of her bark and notice the deep green of her needles. Now look around at the smaller plants growing in her shade, at the Oregon Grape Root trailing down the hillside beneath her and the mushrooms crowded around her base. See these beautiful little lavender flowers? They grow only where the Ponderosas grow and nowhere else. Oh, do you hear that chattering? That’s a tassel eared squirrel, it’s dependent on the Ponderosas as well, harvesting pine nuts and the underground truffles that grow among the tree’s roots. And in turn, the Ponderosa needs the squirrel, as it helps to propagate the trees, spreading their seeds through the forest. The Ponderosa forest is a small ecosystem within the larger ecosystem of the Gila, within the Intermountain Southwest within the American West. One inside the other, like concentric rings, with some species completely endemic to just the Ponderosa Forest, like the tassel eared squirrel, and some expanding out to the whole American West, such as the Western Mugwort.

Jay over at Naturebum introduces us to the Gatekeeper, an incredible old Sawtooth Banksia tree that is the guardian of its domain:

The Gatekeeper is not an imposing presence. The Gatekeeper is not a beautiful tree; well, yes it is, it is perfectly imperfect. Each scar, each sheared off limb, blackened piece of trunk, borer riddled root is testament to past challenges, lessons learnt, survival, life wisdom. The Gatekeeper is a revered Elder of the Reserve.
Who can but guess at how many persons The Gatekeeper has been there for, helped, (and for those so able to perceive, inspired) but it would be thousands and thousands, as they commence their journey along the track.
In one section of the trunk, the rough, ancient looking bark has been smoothed over by human touch.

What an incredible starting point to one’s journey through what must be a truly magical place! Be sure to check the links to other relevant articles at the bottom of that post, too.

Sterling writes a piece on people and place for A Sense of Place:

But the personality of a place shifts over time, in part because of migrations of people who shift the balance toward one aspect or another. Often this shift is just a matter of reinforcing something that is already there, taking an aspect that is already established and making it iconic of the region.

A good reminder of some of the human elements of a bioregion.

Continuing in that human-nature theme, Mary Good at Terralectualism presents and in-depth look at an ancestral home:

Our first week at camp, we took a sunset canoe ride out to the island and back. I saw our camp sitting tiny on the shore and teared up, realizing that this is my father’s legacy. He has worked hard to keep this home in the family, so that myself and my siblings are able to experience the same magic that he did as a kid. On the way back, as we reached the middle of the lake, suddenly it seemed that we were going neither forward nor back, but had always been in this place, paddling, sights set on shore. I was myself, and I was all ancestors, those who have already passed and those who will in the future. As the lights of life faded out behind, suddenly arising in the mist was this little house in the woods, and all would be, will be silent, except the water lapping at the prow, except the far off cry of a loon.

No wonder the place is full of ghosts, since I too, hope that it will be these shores that welcome me home for all time.

An incredible introduction to a place we may never ourselves visit, but which we may know just a tiny bit better now that we’ve read this.

Red Griffith-Hayes takes a pilgrimage, and in doing so connects to a venerable bioregion:

For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset. We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.

It is not just quantity, but quality, of connection that speaks in these words.

For a little different animistic perspective, John D. at Green Shinto presents a little about Mount Fuji’s spiritual importance:

Fuji’s religious role stems from the country’s animist tradition of mountain worship, prompted not only by its dominating presence but by its volcanic activity. Since 781 there have been 17 recorded eruptions (the last being in 1707), and to appease the mountain deity Sengen shrines were built around the base.

Animism does arise from the land and our interactions with it; we are not mere passive observers, but active participants together.

Breaking a bit from the line of prose, Kiva Rose at Anima weaves a poem of incredible beauty and imagery:

everything worth having
is within walking distance –
dirt under my toes,
leaves and bark
brushing my face,
and my love’s fingers
reaching out in sleep to
curl against my calf

A lovely piece to meditate on even if you’ve never been to that river before.

Ice may not be everyone’s first choice of dance partners, but over at Pray to the Moon, Moma Fauna shows just a bit of what Water can teach in this form:

Water is a sculptor.
As Ice, it can hold its shape long enough for us to notice & appreciate, if we look.
When Water-as-Ice plays with Air, together they fashion breathtaking & sometimes familiar figures.
When Water-as-Ice plays with Light — the gleam of our Sun or Moon — they style a lively, stationary dance.
There is a Life to this Water, unlike that of any other creature.
I want to know it.

Perhaps not the easiest partner to dance with, but worthwhile just the same.

Heather Awen, at Eaarth Animist, turns foraging into a bioregional practice:

Which brings me back to foraging. Animism is a not a lifeway for those who deny death. All that lives will die and all that lives will kill. On the macro level of modern animism’s monism, all is one so it’s just transformations of that All. On the micro level where we are all persons it’s often very scary and shameful. That’s why I say we have to get it right with food first.

The bioregion is an interconnected network of lives and deaths, and food truly is the most immediate reminder we have of that every single day.

Finally, Pit River elder Dr. Darryl Babe Wilson shares a very old story of the creation of the San Francisco Bay in this wonderful video:

Even when we’ve surrounded a place with cityscape, the bioregion still breathes.

Green Cities Addendum, and $5 Ebooks

Thing the First: On the heels of my post yesterday about the ecological advantages of city living, here’s a great article about a former Chicago meatpacking plant that’s being converted into a huge vertical farm. This is exactly the kind of change I want to see in making our cities greener. So often our cities are expected to expand outward, not upward (unless it’s fancy-schmancy skyscrapers). However, we can make better use of the space we’re taking up if we do build higher, and especially if we repurpose the usable infrastructure already in place. I wish the folks behind this vertical farm the best, and hope for more success stories to come. (Here’s where you can follow their progress on Facebook, by the way.)

skinspiritsThing the Second: For those who have asked, yes, most of my books are available as ebooks. Almost all of my titles from Immanion Press/Megalithica Books are available on Smashwords (scroll down as mine are mixed in the list) in a variety of formats for $5 each. Additionally, most are also on Kindle (though New Paths to Animal Totems, which is published by Llewellyn, costs a bit more via Kindle). You can, of course, get dead tree versions, but for those who have e-readers or who are on a tighter budget, the ebooks may be a particularly good option. (On the other hand, I can’t sign an ebook, so you’re always welcome to buy signed paperbacks from me, which I always appreciate since I get to keep more of the cash to pay bills!) Finally, continuing in the budget discussion, while my IP/MB published books tend to not cost much less used than new, New Paths to Animal Totems is selling for under $3 for used paperbacks on Amazon.

On Green Urban Living

A few years ago I wrote about sustainable urban living. Three and a half years later, it’s still a pretty big ideal of mine. There are countless people, pagan and otherwise, who dream of going to live out in the middle of nowhere, a handful of people per square mile. Some even consider intentional communities, or at least extended families, on farms and fields and forests.

I used to be that way. However, after over a decade of city living, I’ve found I can handle urban life pretty well, and I enjoy it quite a bit. I still like having quick access to a variety of grocery stores, antique shops, and more types of cuisine than I had imagined. Admittedly, I do still occasionally miss the small town life I grew up with. I live in a place that doesn’t have a particularly good view of the sunset, though I can catch a gorgeous sunrise if I wake up early enough–or stay up late enough. I miss seeing stars at night, and deer in the back yard. And for my sanity I need regular trips out into more wilderness areas, in the Gorge and elsewhere.

And yes, cities have gotten a bad reputation among environmentalists and others. Cities are seen as sources of crime, pollution, hectic lifestyles, and the like. And, to be fair, many of them are. Even in Portland, which is a fairly laid-back city, we have our crime and our drugs and our traffic and pollution. But a lot of that is a matter of design. Cities could be re-designed to be more efficient and eco-friendly, to be more aesthetically pleasing and psychologically supportive. It would take a lot of work, from better infrastructure to better social services. The people and the environment both need more resources to achieve “healthy” status than they’re currently getting. I have faith in us, though, as a species. I have hope that we can figure it out before it’s too late, and there are already plenty of efforts to find better alternatives to the unhealthy ways our cities have evolved over the past several decades.

So why bother with all that work? Why don’t we nature-lovers just run out to the middle of nowhere, have our acreage and our farms and our permaculture and our peace and quiet and starry skies and all the other things we can’t have in the city? Well, you’re welcome to do so. And yes, there’s a part of me that would be happy picking up and moving to a more rural area. I can live a quieter life, and it has its benefits. But it would come at a pretty serious cost, and I’m choosing to not take that route. Having that pagan commune or earthy intentional community seems like the greener option, but is it really?

Let’s look at transportation for example. If I remember anything from growing up small-town, it’s that things are more spread apart. The next town over might be a dozen miles away–or more. And there’s no bus service; the closest thing to public transit is the taxi cab, or riding into town with a friend. Not particularly efficient, and not particularly green. So just getting myself from place to place has a strike against it, and that’s not taking into consideration getting other resources like gas, food, and the like trucked in from here, there, and everywhere. The more remotely you live, the more fossil fuels you rely on to get to and from anywhere that isn’t home, and to get even your most basic needs met.

Furthermore, for every acre we humans take up in wilder, more rural areas, that’s another acre that we’re pressuring more sensitive wildlife away from. Sure, deer and coyotes are pretty adaptable, but what about the elk and wolves that were pushed further out, or the cougars and pronghorn antelope? Some species simply will not live close to us, and our presence affects them deeply. Our roads and fences interfere with migration routes that are thousands of years old. Our farms and yards destroy habitats that provide food and shelter, and which grow endangered species of plant and fungus. Our cattle and other livestock out-compete wild grazers and browsers. Our cars and other vehicles create noise and smells and pollution that interfere with the ecology in numerous ways. Our septic tanks leak, and we cannot live lightly on the land.

And we keep spreading out, taking available land or suburbs and golf courses, for turning small towns like the one I grew up in into wannabe metropolises. We turn more and more land to farming and ranching every year. And every person who leaves the city for rural living just increases the strain on the wilderness, hems it in a little bit more. Your “getting away from it all” takes more space and resources from beings that absolutely cannot live in a city. There’s no sign of us reversing that trend, either, with more people fleeing urban areas every year.

But I have to try bucking the trend and modeling a greener way to be an urbanite. I am more committed than ever to the idea and the reality of eco-friendly, sustainable cities. While someday, yes, I’d love to own a house somewhere in Portland, right now I’m content in my apartment. The shared walls mean less energy usage for heating and cooling, and my partner and I take up less space than we would if we lived in a house together. The location my building is in is one that’s been paved over for well over a century, so no new ground has been broken here in my lifetime. I’m right in the middle of a hub of public transportation, which means I can catch a bus to anywhere in the area. And I live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city, which means I can get my groceries and other goodies on foot. I have a little porch on which I garden, and earlier this summer I got a spot at the community garden down the road from me (after three years on the waiting list!)

This is just as good a canvas for painting a green life as a farm. I can’t grow all my own food, but I can support movements for urban farming (like my community garden and more). I do have to deal with more pollution, but I can contribute to efforts to clean up the sources of said pollution and find better alternatives. I sometimes still have trouble with the noise, but so much of that is from traffic, and by promoting public transit I can hopefully help urge people toward cutting down on the number of unnecessary cars on the road. I know very well that even “safe” neighborhoods have crime, and some people are living in parts of the city where their lives are on the line every time they step outside the door. But I can advocate for better services to address poverty, public health, and social injustices that are the basis of high crime rates.

Cities don’t have to be places of pollution and ill health and crime. I see a better future, where humans are more concentrated in healthy urban areas, and the wild beings of the world have more land and space to roam, including places we’re given back to them. I’m committed to helping bring that to life, and it all starts right here, for me, in Portland.

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.

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.

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.