How Coyote Imitated Snake

Coyote was loping through the grass one day when she heard a voice off in the distance. “Ah, me!” it said. “Ah, me!” Being a curious sort, Coyote decided it was her duty to investigate this voice on the wind. So she trotted off toward it.

Soon she came to a tiny clearing in the grass, barely round enough for her to plant all four paws. In the center of this clearing she saw Snake. Snake was not looking well; she was pale and coated in dust, her eyes were cloudy, and she writhed about as though she had lost all control of herself. She wound around the bunches of grass and scattered stones, all the while calling out “Ah, me!”

whiteyote4Coyote was taken aback by this sight, and she moved to help Snake. But Snake struck out at her with her sharp fangs, and Coyote skittered back into the grass to save herself a snout full of venom. Still, she couldn’t quell her curiosity, and so she cautiously peeked back out into the clearing, where Snake was continuing her strange rolling and twisting struggle.

Just when Coyote was prepared to brave Snake’s fangs once again to either give aid or claim a midday snack, Snake let out a particularly loud cry. As she did so, the skin on her back split wide open, all the way from her head to her tail. The skin fell away and beneath it Snake was covered in the most beautiful shining scales in a thousand colors, from the red of sandstone cliffs to the turquoise of the perfect sky. She shone so much Coyote thought the Sun might strike her down in envy.

Snake curled up in her new skin, and she spied Coyote watching. Before Coyote could run away, Snake wound herself around Coyote’s leg as fast as lightning. She raised her head and the twin forks of her tongue pointed at her visitor. “Did you wish to devour me, Coyote? Is that why I had to break my dance in order to show you my fangs? Know that you have witnessed something very few are privileged enough to observe. I should strike you down now for it.”

Coyote thought for a moment, but then decided that such a magical creature must know the truth. “For a moment I did think to eat you, but now that I gaze upon your beauty after having come to life again, I now know I must have been mistaken.” Snake preened at Coyote’s words, and twitched the end of her tail in excitement. But still she held on to Coyote’s leg.

For another day and night Coyote told Snake how lovely she was, how many colors were in her scales, and every beautiful thing each scale reminded her of. She praised Snake’s ability to be reborn, and said her powers must be great indeed.

At the next sunrise, Snake finally spoke again. “You have lavished many kind words upon me, and you have suspected my great power over death. Therefore I will share a piece of it with you. You have watched my dance and heard my cry. You have seen me split my skin and come forth from it. I do these things to renew myself. Once every three moons this happens, and I cast off my old self. I discover who I will be these next three moons. If I ever miss this dance, I will die.”

“Forgive me, Snake, but I cannot split my skin, for I know I would die then. What do I do?” Snake replied, “In order to create yourself anew, you must first have something to shed. You must have your offering to death ready before you cheat it.” Before Coyote could speak again, Snake unwound herself and glided wordlessly into the grass, not to be found again.

whiteyote2Coyote felt even more confusion than before, and wished just a little that Snake had bitten her to relieve her of her not-knowing. But looking at Snake’s old skin in the dust, she came upon a grand idea. She ran across the grassland and into the forest and up into the hills until she came to her den. She ran inside and sniffed around until she found a pile of old clothing she had meant to throw out. She put it on, and remembered all the things she had done while wearing it, and who she had been at those times.

Then she ran back to the clearing where Snake had been. She began to writhe and tumble as Snake had done, but something wasn’t quite right. Where Snake’s skin had crackled dry and crinkly, the clothing merely swooshed and flopped. So Coyote grabbed some of the dry grass and stuck it in her clothing and it crackled and crinkled just like Snake’s old skin.

So Coyote danced like Snake. She wrapped herself around the bunches of grass and she bruised herself on the stones. She rolled in the dust until her coat was as pale as the moonlight. And she cried out “Ah, me!” every time she hit the ground, or whenever the mood to cry out took her. She danced and stretched and crawled until the old clothing tore apart into strips that hung about her like moss. She had grass in her toes and burrs on her tail. She was rather a shambles. And she still had no idea what Snake had been up to at all.

Frustrated, she howled at the sky, teeth bared and tongue red. The Sun, who just happened to be passing by then, looked down and asked “What on Earth are you wailing about, Coyote? Is it your matted pelt that’s more wounded than your pride?”

Coyote glared at the Sun, though only for a moment (even Coyote has the sense to not stare at the Sun). “Surely you have seen Snake rebirth herself. Surely you know the power she has over death. She almost killed me, and that made me want to not die. So I tried to dance like her, and it did nothing. I even started off by thinking about who I used to be, and who I am now, and I made my own skin and everything! What did I do wrong?”

“Silly dog,” the Sun said. “I watch Snake and her kin do this dance all the time. They die, too, after a while. Snake was just telling you stories, like you know she does. Snake sheds death with her skin no more than you shed it with your fur every spring. She needs to grow bigger, and you need to be cool for the summer. There’s no magic in it, just the normal things you animals do each year.”

Coyote sat for a full quarter hour silently, something she almost never did. Then, as the Sun looked on, she shook off the old fabric and the grass and the dust. She left them in a pile around the old snake skin. Then she said, “Well, I know one thing about myself, and that is that I am not Snake. And I know another thing about myself and that is that I am less foolish than I was yesterday. And if that older, more foolish self has passed away, then that is enough death for me today”.

And with that, Coyote shook herself one more time and bounded out into the sunny grass toward home.

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Like My Writing? Then Give This a Listen!

So on Sunday I was a guest on the Pagan Musings Podcast. The initial topic was animism and my anthology, Engaging the Spirit World. We did start off in that direction—but then we wandered far off-trail into topics ranging from ecopsychology and environmental activism, to humanistic/naturalistic pantheism and other theologies, to my work with skin spirits and animal remains, to how we can best communicate about the things we feel strongly about. It essentially went from “interview” to “rambling, lovely conversation”, and we went for three hours!

Please do feel free to take a listen; I cover some things I haven’t really had the chance to talk about, and my gracious hosts helped this become a wonderful spoken creation, IMO.

Click here to hear the show!

Animals, Activism, and Dialectics

Having worked with hides, bones, and other animal parts in my art and spirituality for 15+ years, I’ve had my fair share of people questioning me about what I do (or being even more high-volume in their responses and reactions). I understand it can be a pretty emotional subject for a lot of people; death is a difficult thing for a lot of people in this culture, and unnecessary death even moreso. But there’s this thing that the occasional dissenter does that drives me a bit batty. Somehow in their mind “you make things out of animal parts” turns into “you can’t possibly like animals because you eat/wear/make things out of dead ones!” It’s an accusation tossed out at other people, like hunters, taxidermists, omnivores, and so forth. And it’s completely based in a logical fallacy, with such varied names as “excluded middle”, “either/or fallacy”, “false dilemma”, and so forth. (You can find out more about this little cognitive blip here.)

First, such a statement narrows the potential options down to two, based in the idea that “you’re either with me or against me in this argument”. There’s no gray area between “If you love animals you’ll do everything I do” and “If you don’t agree with me it means you don’t love animals”. Furthermore, it completely invalidates my actual feelings on the matter. I do love animals. I’ve had many pets through the years that I cared for dearly and took good care of. I admire the beauty and diversity of other beings, and I appreciate the lives of the animals whose remains I now work with in my art and spirituality. I have always put aside some of the money from my art and book sales to donate to nonprofits that support wildlife and their habitats, not because I want to keep having hides and bones to work with, but because I want there to keep being a great diversity of life independent of any subjective (and especially material) value humans may place on it. I know my own heart and why it carries what it does.

Speaking of my heart, let’s look a little more at that idea that I don’t care as much as they do about animals (or at all). First of all, there’s not an empirical tool for measuring “caring”, or “love”, or “attachment”. And second, the idea that omnivores, taxidermists and the like “don’t care about animals” is a complete falsehood (and something I touched on earlier this year.) I can give you plenty of examples of people who eat, wear, and even kill animals who also love animals, which invalidates that “you don’t REALLY love animals” argument. I grew up in a small town with a significant farming community. I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, but I went to school with a lot of kids who did. I grew up around people who named baby calves and pigs, took good care of them, spoiled them rotten, and then took them to the FFA show or the county fair or the livestock auction and sold them to someone who would slaughter the animals for meat. Or their family would do the killing themselves, and they’d eat the meat of the same animal they cared for all year. This wasn’t seen as a contradiction. It was just the way livestock farming is; you care for animals, and some of them you kill later so your family (or another family) has food to eat. Sure, some of those farm kids grew up to be vegetarian because they didn’t agree with what they were raised with. But others kept that life/death balance, and they’re not more or less right than the ones who changed their minds.

It’s the same with hunters. Some of the most passionate nature-lovers I know are hunters. It’s not, as some animal rights people like to say, “go out and admire nature’s beauty and then kill it”. Hunters in cultures around the world, indigenous and otherwise, honor the very same animals they kill. So do many farmers, and other people involved in killing animals for human consumption, food and otherwise. In fact, it’s a sentiment that I think needs to be more widespread in the more corporate, overgrown areas of agriculture where the animals are just seen as a commodity. Seeing them as beings deserving care and respect does not mean that they are not also a source of sustenance. I do feel that as a culture we could honor the animals we depend on much more than we do, and that this could lead to changes in how we raise and kill them, and treat their remains afterward. But this requires the ability to accept both the life and the death of the animal and our involvement in both.

And that’s where we run into what I see as a big deficiency in this culture–a lot of people have trouble with dialectics. They don’t seem capable or willing to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in their mind at the same time; it has to be either/or for them. We really aren’t prepared for the gray areas. Look at our two-party-dominated political system, and look at how they tear into each other during campaign season. Look at how often religious beliefs are framed in us vs. them terms. Same thing with sex and gender, race, and other group affiliations. We have the chorus of “right vs. wrong” drilled into our heads from an early age, and no one really prepares us for the possibility that things may be more complicated than that. I think sometimes when there comes a depiction of gray areas, there are those who shun them, and those who latch onto them; look at the strong positive response to Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke/Mononoke Hime. One of the reasons it’s so beloved by its fans is because it’s not a simple good buy/bad guy picture; here’s a wonderful short comic that illustrates something profound that Miyazaki said about good vs. evil. I think we need more of that here. We need more challenges to this black and white way of viewing a complicated, sometimes messy world.

How do we learn to be more comfortable with dialectics? By being willing to face the uncomfortable reality that there will always be someone who disagrees with us vehemently. By accepting that people will have different solutions to complicated problems, and that our way is not the right way for everyone. By knowing that what may seem like a contradiction to one person may make complete sense to someone else, and that they may put every bit as much consideration into their viewpoint as the first person has (or perhaps more!) By being willing to try and understand the other person’s perspective, and remembering that “understand” is not synonymous with “agree with”. And, finally, by not seeing a dialectic as an excuse to attack or try to force the other person to choose between two black and white ways of seeing the issue.

Finally, I invite you to question how you approach those you disagree with, to include on really difficult, emotionally laden subjects, because you may not be completely at odds. Consider that I may agree with you on Opinion A, B, and C, all the way, but I may disagree with you on X and Y, and feel that Q and K are better options for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t still agree with you on A, B, and C, and I may even join forces with you on those. For example, I’m not a supporter of banning hunting, but I am a supporter of humane treatment of animals killed for meat, to include the quickest and most humane death possible. I don’t agree with trophy hunting or killing just for the sake of killing, but I’m okay with preserving the beauty of an already dead (natural death or not) animal for education, for a museum, or even for artistic expression. If you and I both think that bees and other pollinators need to be protected, my aesthetic appreciation of taxidermy doesn’t change that. But you may need to accept that I have different relationships with the bees and the deer, that lots of people relate to different beings and situations in varying ways, and that this sort of complexity is normal in this world.

Being able to understand and accept this complexity and the conflicts it may bring is, as far as I’m concerned, a more productive way of dealing with disagreements than hurling logical fallacies and invalidation at someone else. Instead of saying “I can’t see how you could possibly see things that way (and I refuse to even try)!”, try saying “Can you explain why you see things that way?” If what they say doesn’t mesh with your own opinions and you accept that disagreement instead of trying to force them to your way of thinking, at least you haven’t wasted your time with a pointless argument no one’s going to win and everyone’s going to resent. And you may still be able to find common ground on another issue that you can then join forces to work on. I’d rather have people approach me with that attempt at cooperation than accusations and fallacies; it’s a better use of scarce time and resources.

(One final note: as with many things, just because I can articulate things I think need to be improved doesn’t mean I don’t make the very mistakes I cite. If anything, this issue is closer to my mind right now in part because I can see where I screw up in this regard, to include recently. These posts are at least as much a reminder for myself as an invitation to others.)

Here’s What You Can Get Me For the Holidays

I’m a pagan. And pagans tend to like tchotchkes. I’ve cut down quite a bit over the years, but there are still times when I’ll see a wrought-iron candle holder and think “Hey, that’d be great on my altar!”

These days, my knickknack and curio shelves are mostly full of natural history specimens, little stone animal statues, and house plants, and I try to not add much to the collection (since, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m in a tiny apartment). These days I usually only add to my collection with secondhand thrift store finds or handmade creations, and even then sparingly. But I know plenty of my fellow pagan folk are still in the market for these sorts of goodies, whether for gifts and offerings, specialized altar pieces, or simple home adornment.

Many of these items are representative of nature–animals, plants, landscape photos, and the like. And while I don’t want to discourage creative home decor, especially that which reminds us we aren’t the only important beings in the world, I do wonder how much money we put toward them each year? And how does that compare to the amount of money we give to efforts to protect these beings of nature we value so much? If we spend even a quarter of the money that we spend on specialty gifts on donations to nonprofits instead, how much of a difference could we make?

So as you’re pulling together holidays gifts this year, or simply shopping around for yourself, consider the next nature-themed item you’re tempted to buy, whether that’s a piece of clothing or statue or picture (or even a piece of my own artwork, for that matter!) And then think about whether you could put that money instead toward the animal or plant or other denizen of nature it represents. Instead of buying that shirt with a tiger on it, why not send the $20 to Panthera or the World Wildlife Federation to help them protect real tigers in the wild? Or, rather than creating a new altar with an endangered teak wood table from Pier 1, consider pitching the $50 for it to Rainforest Relief, the Rainforest Conservation Fund, or another organization helping to prevent the further destruction of the Asian and African forests the teak calls home. You may even be considering buying a cute stuffed wolf from the Defenders of Wildlife, but you’d be better off just giving them the entire amount of money, rather than making them pay for one more Chinese-made plush toy.

This isn’t a call to stop buying trinkets altogether. It is, however, a reminder that the nature you glorify through these items is often highly threatened by our actions, including through the manufacture of the items themselves. Rather than perpetuating the problem, consider turning at least some of your gift budget this year toward donations in the names of those you’re buying for, for the benefit of the natural world we all need to live. In addition to the organizations above, see if there are any local nonprofits working to protect the ecosystems you’re in or near, or organizations that work with habitats or species you’re fond of. Or check out this list of a few of my favorite organizations:

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
628 NE Broadway St #200
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 232-6639
http://www.xerces.org

This organization works primarily on pollinators and other invertebrates. Often overlooked because they’re “just bugs”, the invertebrates are an absolutely critical part of every ecosystem.

The Nature Conservancy
4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100
Arlington, VA 22203-1606
(800) 628-6860
http://www.nature.org

Focuses on protecting habitats around the world, and educating people about the importance of healthy ecosystems. This includes direct protection of individual habitats in conjunction with local communities.

The Ocean Conservancy
1300 19th Street, NW
8th Floor
Washington, DC 2003
800-519-1541
http://www.oceanconservancy.org
Works to protect the world’s oceans and to create awareness of how crucial the oceans and their inhabitants are to the planet’s health as a whole.

The Sierra Club
85 Second Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: 415-977-5500
http://www.sierraclub.org

One of the oldest and largest environmental nonprofits, combines government lobbying with grassroots organization for a variety of ecological causes.

Natural Resources Defense Council
40 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
USA
(212) 727-2700
http://www.nrdc.org
Lobbies for the protection of both wild species and their environments, and is also instrumental in helping communities become more sustainable.

The Wilderness Society
1615 M St., NW
Washington, D.C 20036
1-800-THE-WILD
http://www.wilderness.org
Many plants and fungi that face extinction are vulnerable due to habitat loss; this group works to preserve wilderness areas, to include crucial habitat.

Learning From Totems On Their Terms

I was meditating a bit a few evenings ago on the fights of butterflies.

See, I’d seen an image on Tumblr of two male Monarch butterflies scrapping over territory, and the caption said that they could get quite aggressive with each other. In fact, there’s a good chance many of you out there have seen butterflies engaged in battle, fluttering at each other in midair and even clutching and pushing at times. We’re inclined to see their struggle as “pretty”, and we may even mistake it as two butterflies happily dancing together.

Now think of two male elk battling it out over a patch of territory. We usually focus on the immense power in their bodies as they tussle, the sharp tines of branching antlers and the muscles in straining haunches. In fact, it is their physical strength that is one of the elk’s best-known traits.

Yet who is to say the elk is more fierce than the butterfly just because the insect is smaller and more delicate? We’re biased because of our size. If we happen upon a grizzly bear in the wilderness, we know we’re in immediate danger and we take action to save ourselves; the bear is seen as a dangerous animal. But if we meet a spider in the woods, at most we scream and squash it, even if the actual threat to us is miniscule or nonexistent. For the most part, though, most people don’t avoid the woods just because there are spiders prowling about, and other than phobias we don’t have much reason to fear for our lives.

However, in its own environment, the spider is a formidable predator. Ask a fly or a grasshopper or a beetle what it thinks of spiders, and the feeling would likely be similar to our feelings on lions, tigers, and bears. Ask a ladybug about the risk of raindrops, and it would probably be more concerned about the watery missiles than we are. On the other hand, while a drop from a three story building would be very bad for a human, an ant might get blown about by winds on its way down but would probably survive since it’s light enough to not reach a dangerous velocity.

These are all things that have been becoming more apparent to me over the years as I’ve continued my totemic work. We often miss some very important messages and opinions from some totems because of our human biases. During my meditation I checked in with several animal totems often seen as “gentle” or “beautiful”, to include European Rabbit (of Watership Down fame), Whitetail Deer (Disney’s version of Bambi), and the dragonfly totem Banded pennant. I talked to them about their feelings on being considered “safer” totems to work with, and to a one they disagreed. European Rabbit and Whitetail Deer both wanted me to know how fiercely they protect their young and territories, and how fiercely the males fight, and how both rabbits and deer have been known to injure or even kill their predators in self-defense; Whitetail Deer further reminded me that deer have been known to eat mice and baby birds out of the nest. Banded Pennant didn’t see itself as a “flying jewel”, but as a keenly-honed aerial predator, not at all to be trifled with. And others I spoke to–Monarch Butterfly, Galapagos Tortoise, European hedgehog, and others–all confirmed, too, that while they had their gentle traits, they were far from being helpless or sweet all the time.

If you think about it, all living beings are in a competition for resources and working each day to stay alive. Just because we’ve found some ways to give some humans easier access to these resources doesn’t mean we’re free of the cycles of nature. If anything, it’s crucial for us to remember that every species is, in the end, out for itself, and even symbiotic relationships are not formed purely altruistically. It doesn’t mean we should be selfish and cruel to each other, but it is a reminder that we are learning from beings who are not characters in a Disney movie, nor are they the savage beasts of some recent sensationalistic Discovery Channel “nature” show. They are, in the words of Henry Beston, “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”* And it behooves all of us for us humans to remember that the totems are representatives of their species, to be learned about and learned from on their own terms, not just whatever suits us best.

* Yes, I realize I just used this same quote in my last post. It’s one that’s been appropriate to a lot of the animal totem work I’ve been doing lately.

Death and the Animals’ Privilege

Note: This is my offering for the October edition of the Animist Blog Carnival, topic being “Death”.

When I first explored paganism way back in 1996, I almost immediately gravitated toward the animals. Like so many other totemists, I picked up a copy of Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak, and thereby began cutting my metaphorical teeth. For the following decade the animals were at the center of my practice, whether I was working with generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism or Chaos magic. I developed my own system for working with animal totems and spirits, and even created a lot of practices for working with hides, bones, and other animal remains.

After my arrival in Portland, I soon became immersed in the Land as a whole. I adopted a more bioregional approach not only to my spiritual path, but my life in general. This led me to connect not only with the local animals, but with the plants, fungi, stones, landforms, waterways, and many others. I grew to understand that the animal totems lived in their own wilderness and urban environments, just as their physical counterparts did, and this gave more form to my spiritual path, my neoshamanism and my role as an intermediary.

One of the effects of this shift in my worldview was that I became more sensitive to the great emphasis we place on animals over all other beings of nature, and especially vertebrates, and even more especially charismatic megafauna. We tend to value those beings that are most like us (but not too much like us). So (at least in the U.S.) a wolf is seen as more valuable than a salamander, a salamander moreso than a fruit fly. (Oddly enough monkeys and apes are often denigrated as silly beings because we think of them as “failed humans” of a sort; we see too much of ourselves in them and that perhaps scares us.)

Continuing on in that, we see animals as more valuable than plants, fungi, and the like. Someone who would never dream of killing an animal will happily uproot carrots and prune a bonsai tree into perpetual tininess. The usual justification is that since plants don’t have nervous systems like animals do, they don’t feel pain and therefore it’s okay to do whatever you want to them. This is even in spite of new research showing that plants can communicate with each other through sound, chemicals and even the mycelial mat of fungi connecting their roots.

Also, plants recover from injury differently than we do. If you cut off a vertebrate animal’s limb there’s a very good chance it will die, or at least be very significantly disabled for the rest of its life. Many invertebrates and a small number of vertebrates can regenerate lost bits, but few people would advocate for deliberately mutilating them just for the fun of it (and those who did would be looked at very suspiciously). On the other hand, you can lop off the branches of a tree, tear off a flowering plant’s reproductive organs, and cut grass down to a height of an inch or less once a week, and they’ll still keep growing. So we assume that this must be okay because they don’t die from it. Even if they do die, oh well–what’s another tree or shrub?

Finally, plants die differently than animals, or at least appear to. Even though both have evolved the same sort of programmed cell death, on a larger scale the point of death for an animal is a lot easier for us to determine–the brain activity stops, the heart no longer beats, the body becomes cold. Animal deaths can happen very quickly; a plant generally only dies quickly if caught in a fire (and even then some plants, like grasses, can survive the fire to regenerate). If you pick off a leaf from a lettuce still growing in the ground and eat it, that leaf is still alive. The top of a pineapple that you’ve peeled and cut up can be placed in water and then soil to grow a new pineapple plant. It doesn’t become dead just because you’ve separated it from the rest of the fruit. So this can contribute to why we don’t see plant deaths as being so traumatic, and therefore not as weighty.

Now, before we move on, let me say that I am certainly not supporting willful cruelty to animals just because we inflict similar activities on plants. However, I would question the attitude we have toward plants (and fungi, just for the record) that they are infinitely expendable, and that their deaths don’t matter. Rather than lowering the standards by which we gauge ethical care of animals, I suggest that we raise the standards we use to care for plants. And that includes being mindful of their deaths.

For fifteen years I’ve been working with hides, bones, and other animal remains in spirituality and art. I’ve developed unique rituals and practices surrounding this work as a way of honoring the spirits in these ways, as well as part of my meals (yes, I do eat meat). More recently, as my work has expanded, I’ve expanded that sacred approach to plant and fungus parts as well, which I call “leaves and caps” as shorthand*. As with the hides and bones, there are certain practices of purification that I do with everything I make from plants and fungi. But more importantly, these practices help to remind me at all times that these were once living beings, and in order for me to live (or create the art that I do), something had to die, or at least sacrifice a part of its physical form.

It’s especially important to me that I’m expanding this work of sacred approach to the plants and fungi as well as the animals. I’m not about to become a fruitarian. But I’m trying to reduce my bias toward animals, and elevate all living beings to a more meaningful and considerate level in my life. I’ll still eat them, and work with their remains, and consume other products made from them, since I need these to live. However, I’ll do so with more mindfulness, and a greater sense of responsibility toward them. I’ll be more careful about sustainable sources, and continuing to do my environmental volunteering for the betterment of all.

And that includes not taking the deaths of the plants and fungi for granted. They may not be the same as I am; they may not suffer or die in the same way as I. But I can still extend compassion to them, and hope that I benefit the world a little more thereby.

* If you’re interested in this part of my work, I have a chapter on working with plant and fungus parts in spirituality in my book Plant and Fungus Totems, which is due out from Llewellyn in May 2014.

The Breaking of the Wheel of the Year

It’s been years and years since I last did any sort of formal rituals for the Wheel of the Year; I was never Wiccan, but the eight celebrations have been adopted by a wide range of pagans. For years I tried to use them as well, and it never really stuck. While I definitely appreciate the role of seasonal celebrations for individuals and communities, in my own practice I could never quite get over the feeling that doing a special ritual every six weeks was a bit contrived. It’s convenient for a group because it’s a set bunch of times for everyone to plan to get together for a shared ritual experience, and for some solitary pagans, too, it’s an opportunity to break out of the everyday routine and re-connect with the sacred in a deeper way.

Maybe if I was part of a working or ritual group I’d be more inclined to have these special touchstones throughout the year, and there is a part of me that feels a bit wistful about them. But on my own, I have the freedom to acknowledge special moments with nature whenever they arise, and have those as my sacred times. There’s no scheduling necessary, no potluck to cook for. Instead, it’s moments like “picking the first ripe tomatoes of the summer”, and “hey, the maple tree finally started growing leaves again” (and even “thank the gods the noisy-ass starlings finally raised their last brood in my apartment’s ceiling”.) This is not necessarily a superior way of connecting compared to the Wheel, but it’s one that’s fit me better over time.

I think part of the problem with the Wheel is that until the past few years I had little context for it. It was just something a lot of pagans did as part of the pagan package, written by Cunningham and others and used as an excuse for everything from Pagan Pride to pagan coffee klatches. But “old harvest rituals” don’t mean the same to a farmer, as to a city dweller whose food comes from the store and who doesn’t even have a window box of flowers. That was me for a number of years, first due to lack of transportation and money, and then a period of depression and inactivity in general. When I moved to Portland, almost immediately the Land embraced me, and my reconnection with it, and myself, and everything else, became so easy, and a lot of what I’d done as “what’s expected” made more sense.

This included renewed interest and activity in gardening, and for the first time I got a taste of what those old harvest rites were for. It’s one thing to watch a tree grow and shed leaves each year outside the window. It’s another thing entirely to plant a seed, watch it grow, coax it through drought and flood and disease, pick its fruits and seeds, and then bury it in the compost heap at the end of the season. Only then did the excitement over spring, the flourishing of summer, the harvesting of autumn, and the sleep of winter, begin to fall into place just a bit more.

And so it was that I spent my autumn equinox with my hands in the dirt. My community garden plot was in sore need of some work, and so I spent a great deal of the weekend weeding, putting down mulch, fertilizing the soil, and planting the fall crops of kale, spinach, radishes and more. In those hours I felt more connected to the Land than I ever had when standing in a circle with my athame and special ritual dress. The scent of the earth and rain spoke more than my chanted words, and every seed I dropped into the furrows carried more hope for the coming Winter than the candles lit in my ritual room.

Seeds in autumn, indeed! I’m not the first person to point out that using religious directives created in the U.K. in other areas can be pretty limiting. Yet I’m fortunate enough to live in a planting zone where the winter is mild enough that even the autumn is a sowing time, and deep winter and early spring the harvest. Here in Portland, the planting and harvesting cycles blend and flow together, not so much a strict progression as an ever-shifting dance where the participants step in and bow out at different times throughout the year.

Some people claim they feel the presence of death and the ancestors more around Samhain. Not so for me. I sense it all the time. Every day, every moment, something is passing away, and something else is benefiting from that death. Trees fall in the woods, and fungi and lichens flourish on the dying bark. Bears may hibernate in the winter, but bacteria continue to be fruitful and multiply in its gut and on its skin. I myself was born on Samhain Day, November 1, proof that spring does not have the monopoly on new babies. And it’s like that for the other spokes on the Wheel; everything we celebrate at one point of the year can easily resonate throughout the rest, if you know where to look.

The Wheel is broken. It doesn’t roll right here. Sure, it stumbles along the path, but it doesn’t fit the ruts worn down by other, more local vehicles. It ill-fits the conveyance of this place, which is far more than the planting and harvesting of wheat and corn, and the birthing of cattle and sheep. This land–and perhaps all lands–are places of constant, daily births and deaths and rebirths, of sowings and harvests. Here the sun never goes away entirely; though we tilt away from it a bit more, it still rises every morning and greets us, even behind a shroud of clouds.

The stories we tell–the Oak King and the Holly King, the god who is born of the goddess and who dies again only to be reborn–they oversimplify the many-layered cycles of the Land. Nature is not only that which we can easily see or which most benefits us. It is the midwinter birth and the spring harvest, the many hermaphroditic beings that far outnumber the sexually dimorphic ones by individual count if not species, the odd warm day in January or the snow in June.

Of course, if you still prefer the Wheel of the Year, the Oak and Holly King’s drama, and the idea that the Divine looks like us humans (and not our gut flora who are much more plentiful on this earth than we), there’s nothing wrong with that. My dissatisfaction with these things does not extend beyond myself. Still, just as others have pointed out that the Wheel doesn’t match the Southern hemisphere, and West is not always where the water is in every place, so I think it’s good to examine the reasons to celebrate throughout the year where you are, if you like. Think about being more specific–celebrate the time when the kale is harvested and the time when the hummingbirds build nests, mark the passing of an old tree that fell on the third of May and the birth of a kitten on Valentine’s Day.

These things are more important to me than standing in someone’s living room wearing robes, burning candles, and reciting words written for an ideal based on a land I’ve never been to. Let me eat not cakes and ale from the store, but lettuce and carrots from my garden; let me serve the meal I prepared on the table I painted with the flora and fauna of my Land. Let everything I do be a breath I share with this place that has given me a home. In a world where my computer is made with parts from China, where my winter apples come from Brazil, and my ancestors largely hail from Europe, let me ground myself more deeply in the place I am now, to appreciate it and its gifts and its limitations. Surrounded by global interdependence and diversity, let me also grow local roots. Let me learn the mysteries and teachings of what’s north, east, south and west of here, what is embedded in the earth and what breathes in the sky I see every day. Let it be these things and places and secrets that I celebrate, those which have the most meaning for me in this here and now.