“Natural” vs. Artificial”

One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.

I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.

Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.

So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.

So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.

Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.

But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)

Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–“In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.

And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.

But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.

Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?

If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.

Still Not Dead

Though you might not know it from how seldom I post here. I’m still spending more time in the outdoors than anything else as far as my spirituality goes–that and still working with the skins and bones.

The thing is, for the past six months I’ve been going through that tear-down and rebuild process yet again, except it’s even more drastic and bare-bones than when I did it a little over three years ago when I started this blog. I had thought I had stripped my spiritual self naked back then. How little I suspected how much I had left to tear away.

I’m not entirely sure what things will look like for me in another six months, or another twelve. I don’t know how much my practice will resemble what I left off in the spring when this need to tear apart and rebuild came upon me so strongly that I had to act on it. My worldview has shifted so immensely, and yet I’m just nowhere near ready to talk about it yet. Not much, anyway. This is sort of my first attempt, maybe a pre-attempt.

So. I’ve still been hiking a lot, and going out to the coast, and taking my lover out into the Gorge. I’m still running a few times a week, which gets me out under the sky even when I’m too busy to do so otherwise. While ecopsychology isn’t as much of a part of my practice in my practicum as I thought it might be, it still has its own burner. I’m painting a bit more, too. Especially plants. For some reason, the flora of the Pacific Northwest have captured my imagination in my art, particularly my personal, private art. “I am a creature of conifers, ferns, and thick, green moss” indeed.

I’m almost afraid to write this, for fear it will become crystallized and stagnant by being placed into words. But the first thing that really seems to have coalesced into a statement of meaning is the phrase “In relation to”. On Halloween/Samhain, the day before my birthday, I went out to hike Drift Creek Falls. It’s my third year, but my first year going solo. Along with being an opportunity for a rite of passage leaving behind the last vestiges of what used to be married life, and back into a stronger singledom, it also ended up providing a valuable experience in getting to the core of meaning for me.

One of the problems I have–well, sometimes it’s a problem–is that it’s hard to get my mind to shut up. I’ve never been good with “sit down and be quiet” forms of meditation. I can do them, but I don’t like them, and I normally don’t get a lot out of them. However, I was getting frustrated on my hike because I so often found myself spacing out and missing the place I was in while my mind was floating off in a dozen different directions. “How often did I get to come to this place?” I thought. “I shouldn’t waste my time here thinking about things that concern me back in Portland!”

So I decided to just shut the thoughts off. It took a little effort, but it wasn’t more than a few moments before I was able to clear my mind. The result was both startling and telling. My physical spatial awareness snapped into sharp focus. I became very aware of where I was with respect to every tree, stone and animal I could perceive within my vision, and I had a sudden sense of space that put me firmly within my environment. Things that I normally screened out, such as the subtle movement of my visual field as I walked, became more apparent. I became present in a way I very rarely get to experience.

I realized that this feeling I was having through conscious effort of clearing my mind in this specific environment was the same feeling I got when struck with wonder by a particularly beautiful wild place. Only instead of having to be smacked over the head by the experience to actually pay attention, I was allowing it in. And I felt that sense of connection with everything else that is at the core of so much that I think and do. I don’t go throughout my day with a constant sense of that connection, but I remember enough of the times that I have experienced it that the memory is enough to motivate my actions and decisions. My choice to buy recycled paper products, for example, is directly a result of feeling connected to trees that could be cut down for pulp, even if I am not feeling that connection at the very moment I am purchasing toilet paper made from 100% recycled office paper content.

And that sense of connection has always been at the heart of meaning and wonder for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so purely, though, without the trappings of religion and paganism and shamanism and spirituality. All those things? All those are abstractions of that feeling. This is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with emanations and symbols.

But one thing I have had many conversations with my lover about is how often people mistake the map for the territory. Therioshamanism, my forays into chaos magic, my extensive explorations with animal totemism–all of these are maps. The maps are meant to help describe the territory of the experience with the world around me, particularly but certainly not exclusively those wild places that are such pure wellsprings of meaning for me.

And I think that’s perhaps where I…well, I won’t say I went wrong, because I don’t believe there are wrong things in spiritual exploration, only meandering and detours and “this is where you happen to be right now”. But I think three years ago I was also searching for the territory without having the map in the way, and I just didn’t quite get as much of the map out of my perception. And now I’m much closer to experiencing the territory for itself.

Hiking in the forest, with my awareness of that place and my place within that place–that is the purest spiritual experience I have had. More than Otherworld journeying that takes me out of an important layer of myself. More than rituals that are supposedly in “a world between worlds”. More than gods of the forest, spirits of the forest, I connected with the forest.

“In relation to.” That is the key phrase. I am just rediscovering where I am in relation to everything else. I am going without my expectations that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden, and without anything other than my own perceptions. Let me see what I perceive there, without what I’ve been told by years of pagan books and festivals and rituals and networkings what should be there.

Let me make my own map in relation to the territory, and let me not mistake the map for the territory.

An Ecopsychological Alternative to “Maiden, Mother and Crone”

I’ve always had issues with the “Maiden, Mother and Crone” triad (which shall be referred to as MMC from here on out) in neopaganism. It stems from Robert Graves filtered through Wicca, but seems to have bled over into generic neopagan lore. While originally it was intended to describe certain supposed trinities of goddesses, it has since been applied erroneously to human women as well. Neither deities nor humans seem to do so well when shoved into archetypal pigeonholes–while I may see totems as archetypal in nature, it’s as representations of all qualities and associations of their given species, not as “Brown Bear is the healer, Grey Wolf is the Teacher”, etc.

It’s the humans in specific I’d like to talk about here. As someone who is deliberately childfree, I already have reason to dislike the MMC’s focus on the uterus and its functions as defining characteristics of what it means to be female. I used to subscribe to that whole concept that “fertility” could be symbolic as well, dealing in creative endeavors like artwork as one’s “children”. But that still limits women to “creative”, “fertile” and “nurturing” roles–as I mentioned to someone on my Twitter account, what about “Little Hellion”, “Hostile Corporate Takeover Organizer” and “Crazy Cat Lady With Attack Bengals” as archetypes? These are pretty limiting, too.

And then there are the awkward attempts to shoehorn men into similar categorizations, like “Youth, Warrior, Sage”, which at least have a little less dependence on the functionality of one’s reproductive organs, but are still unnecessarily limiting.

And this led me into irritation and annoyance with the whole gender binary thing and the Western adherence to strict dualities which seems to be especially pronounced in the States.

And then I got pissy about people mistaking the map for the territory.

And then I decided to finally write this damned essay, which has been bouncing around in my head half-formed for gods know how long.

See, I was changed a few years ago when I read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. It’s not as well-known or appreciated as its predecessor Soulcraft, but it was a really formative book for me. That’s where I first learned about the concept of ecopsychology, which isn’t so much a specific school of psychological thought as it is an approach to both theroetical and applied psychology that automatically factors in the human relationship to nature along with relationships to the self, other humans, etc. It ties in beautifully with animistic beliefs and practices and gives additional structure to these concepts. In fact, a number of ecopsychologists employ core shamanic techniques in their clinical practices. And this was the book that led me to research local graduate school programs to find whoever had ecopsych classes available, which in turn completely changed my life on a lot of levels.

Anyway, what makes this book pertinent here is that Plotkin has designed what’s essentially an ecopsychological developmental theory. The book focuses on what he has labeled “The Wheel of Life”. It’s modeled on Erikson’s eight stages of human development. However, where Erikson’s stages are largely tied to one’s neurological development and, to a lesser degree, chronological age, and also are weighted more heavily toward children and adolescents as developing human beings, Plotkin’s eight stages are not so strictly scheduled, and in fact a person may not necessarily go through all eight even in a natural lifespan. While the stages do correspond to Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Elderhood (as Plotkin terms them), these are more based on psychological maturity than physical age. A person may be well into physical adulthood, but still be somewhere in one of the two Adolescent stages in Plotkin’s model.

Additionally, the tasks that Plotkin proposes for each of the eight stages are much different from the tasks Erikson described in his model. Where the latter is based primarily in self-development focusing on life as part of human society, Plotkin creates a connection between the internal and external environments, as well as the human and nonhuman components thereof. There’s also a strong element of the Hero’s Journey, albeit without Campbell’s gendered interpretation thereof, in the development of the human being in the Wheel of Life. In fact, it’s entirely gender-neutral, which I thoroughly appreciate.

It’s a wonderfully pagan developmental model, though it’s not at all religious. I tend to recommend ecopsychology as a resource for nature-based pagans because it synthesizes psychology with mythology, spirituality (without specific religious trappings) and, of course, ecology. Again, it doesn’t espouse a specific school of thought; one culture’s mythology is not seen as superior to another’s. Rather, the function of mythology (and the other elements of ecopsychology) is what is explored and applied–similar to how I work with the function of shamanism in my culture rather than any prescribed, specific type of shamanism.

I would like to propose the Wheel of Life as an alternative human developmental model in neopaganism, replacing the constricted, outdated, and ultimately historically inaccurate MMC triad. This goes for any and all derivatives, which are necessarily based on a flawed system. I haven’t used it nearly as much as I would like, but it’s something that I have integrated into my personal, private view of myself for a while now. Nature and the Human Soul is still in print, and I can’t recommend it enough, whether as an alternative to the MMC, or simply as an effective structure for greater understanding of the self.

The Quandary of the Other

As I was poking around in my garden today, pulling weeds, turning soil and traumatizing earthworms in preparation for early spring planting, I was thinking about some of the “why” of what it is I’m doing here with this whole shamanic experiment. Because it really is an experiment. I’m testing a whole bunch of concepts, most of which have been tried in varying combinations by other people, but not, to my knowledge, in quite the way I am.

What I was thinking about was an extension of my thoughts in my last column in Rending the Veil, In Defense of the BINABM. Many neopagans and others criticize the fact that Americans (and other Westerners) have a tendency to gravitate toward the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) like Grey Wolf and Brown Bear and Bald Eagle. And even I’ve done the same; hell, a lot of why I wrote DIY Totemism was to help people break out of the idea that those were the only totems with any power.

But I keep finding myself working with these BINABM in my shamanic work, and a large reason is because those are the animals most commonly in our cultural consciousness as being “properly totemic”. Rationally, some of us can realize that other animals have a lot of intense and amazing qualities we can learn from. And we can also realize that we downplay the importance of animals we have domesticated, partly out of guilt, and also out of familiarity. So we don’t really romanticize Domestic Dog, Cow or Pigeon in the same way.

Instead, we look to the totems of animals that many of us will never meet outside of a zoo or sanctuary, and maybe even not then. I mean, I’m a great example. I was only about two or three when my relationship (obsession?) with Grey Wolf began–way before I was cognitively capable of any sort of reasoning or belief. There had to be at least something cultural in there, from all the books (and, to a lesser extent in my case, television) and other media I had been exposed to even at that young an age. There’s something there, and it’s valuable in the practice of meeting people where they are.

See, all those BINABM? They’re one representation of the Other. Generally speaking, in American culture*, the only one I can really speak of with any authority, there’s a pretty severe tendency toward strict duality. We create dichotomies that are sometimes violently opposed to each other, and it’s tough to get people to consider the model of a continuum instead. This leads to a lot of really pointless arguing about everything from men vs. women to science vs. religion to my academic theory vs. your academic theory, in which people throw away the chance for a deeper, more integral understanding of reality in favor of planting a flag somewhere. Anything less than 100% dedication to your cause is seen as weak, untrustworthy.

I do believe there is a place for the concept of the Other, but it isn’t this either/or model. It’s the both/and. Just because I do not see myself as violently opposed to people of other races, cultures, sexes, genders, etc. does not mean I see myself as being the same as them, or being able to speak for them. Far from it. But neither do I see allowing their influence into my understanding of the world as a threat. And it’s the same way with “nature”. I consider myself ultimately to be a natural being; I eat, sleep, breathe, fuck, shit, and do a whole host of other things that require me to be connected to everything else. The fact that there is a city in the middle of my bioregion does not make the bioregion cease to exist. I do have to consider the things that make me different from other denizens of nature, like my frontal lobes, and the adaptations that frontal lobes have helped humans to create. Nature is still an Other, but not one which is entirely untouchable.

These are things I work with in my shamanism, deliberately, for myself and for those I offer my services to. These are the dualities I want to turn into continuums. Spirituality is seen as opposed to materialism. The body is seen as opposed to the mind/spirit/etc. And, drawing on both spirituality and ecopsychology, humanity is seen as opposed to nature. This insistence on either/or perspectives, as opposed to both/and, creates a very harshly delineated “Other”, one which must remain separate at all times lest we taint ourselves. And that includes the “Other” human beings.

At its most extreme, the “Other” manifests in things like deliberate and institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But sometimes it’s not that intentional. A really good example is in the tendency in both American nonindigenous shamanisms and neopaganisms, and in ecopsychology, toward tunnel visioning on dominant, largely white, culture as a basis. It’s not that white shamans and pagans and ecopsychologists are deliberately trying to exclude people of color. But let’s face it–all of these movements are largely perpetuated by white people, and that’s something we need to be aware of, not in the sense of “well, that’s just who’s interested”, but also what we may be doing that makes these movements seem less welcoming to people of color. It may just be that there’s not enough dialogue about issues of race and culture in shamanism and ecopsychology.

Or maybe we’re uncomfortable bringing up these controversial issues amid our pretty rituals and romantic wilderness idylls. I think Carl Anthony, in his interview with Theodore Roszak in Ecopsychology, really summed up this problem succinctly:

“Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and not be able to think like people of color?” (Anthony, in Roszak 1992, p. 273)

He’s referring to the well-known essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the granddaddys of environmentalism and its various derivatives in America. The phrase “Thinking Like a Mountain” has become bandied about pretty commonly among environmentalists and ecopsychologists as a way of reminding us to embrace the Other. Yet we feel it’s safer to deal with an Other that’s more distant–and, perhaps, one that can’t talk back to us so easily. After all, many Native Americans feel patronized and otherwise pissed off when white people claim to have had past lives as Indians, and let’s not get into the horror that is the “guided meditation” to “get in touch with your Native self” (yes, I’ve seen this and variations of it). Clearly we can get away with things like Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings in which we speak for beings we assume can’t speak for themselves–like mountains and nonhuman animals. Imagine, though, if we did a Council of All Races, in which a bunch of white people made masks to be like various people of color.

And that’s where we really need to be careful when we’re working with the concept of the Other, and more importantly, our relationship to it. Yes, it’s safer for me to work with abstract totems of various nonhuman animals who can’t complain if I misrepresent them, at least not in the same way other human beings can. But I’m also very aware of the limitations that my ritual work has in working with people outside of my cultural familiarity. As a shamanic practitioner, I know that the whole concept of “culturally neutral” is bullshit. Core shamanism, for example, isn’t culturally neutral. It’s white, middle-class, college-educated shamanism, even if all its practitioners don’t fit all of those parameters. And I know that’s what my shamanism is, too, because I’m the creator, and that’s the cultural background I have.

Here’s the thing. I grew up in a small town in the midwest that was almost entirely white. Then I moved to cities, but still gravitated toward subcultures that again were largely white. So my experience is almost entirely working with other white people, within a culture largely created by white people. Same thing goes for middle class and college-educated. These aren’t bad things, but my experiences are pretty damned limited, considering how diverse the population here is. So I have a lot of Others, as it were.

That’s why I’m training to become a licensed practicing counselor. Especially if I end up in an agency setting, I’m going to be working with clients from a much broader variety of cultural and other backgrounds than what I’ve previously been exposed to. My program is heavily engaged in issues of social justice, which has just helped to make me even more aware of my experiential limitations. It’s not that I’m flogging myself over being a guilty white person. It’s that I realize that my own limitations in dealing with people also limit my potential for helping other people. Becoming a trained counselor won’t automatically give me awesome multicultural skills, but my curriculum has included a lot of information and discussion about how to work with clients with significantly different backgrounds in a way that respects them as well as ourselves. This hasn’t always been a comfortable thing for me, because I have become aware of just how limited my experiences have been and how much I don’t know, but rather than drown myself in white-girl guilt, I’ve instead cultivated a curiosity of “If this becomes an issue, how can I broach discussion with my client of the best way to resolve it?”

And that is also part of my work with the Other. The Other isn’t just the exotic, the nebulous–it’s the immediate and very real. Some people may need to start with more abstract, removed Others, like animals and mountains. That’s okay–it’s where I got my start. But it’s why my shamanism isn’t just the formal rituals and the romanticization of other beings–it’s also a profession that brings me into contact with a whole host of people who can’t just be understood through a simple guided meditation or masked ritual.

* Or, more correctly, predominantly white “mainstream” culture.

Sustainable Urban Pagan Life

One of the things that neopaganism and ecopsychology have in common is the tendency to idealize rural living and emphasize the unhealthy aspects of cities. At the most extreme, cities are cancerous pustules on the flesh of the living Earth, full of filth and pollution and psychic assault at every turn. Conversely, the wilderness is presented as pristine, a paradise and the pinnacle of healthy living environments.

With paganism in specific this often manifests as the desire on the part of numerous pagan folk to buy up some land and create a wild sanctuary where other pagan folk can come visit and be in the healing wilderness. I’m not the first one to point out that if everyone bought up some wilderness, there’d soon be no wilderness left. See, even the presence of a few humans affects the wildlife in an area. With some species, that effect, so small as it is, still has a significant impact.

I used to be one of those pagans. In fact, as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to buy up land and have it preserved forever and ever. But I also wanted to live there. Now that I’m older and (one would hope) wiser than my ten-year-old self, I’m aware that such a plan has many complications, the impact on the wildlife being only one.

I’ve also been living in cities–Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Portland–for the past not-quite-decade. And I like it quite a bit. The small town I grew up in was seriously lacking in the cultural and subcultural input that I take for granted these days. I love 24-hour Wifi/coffee shops; I love goth/industrial dance nights; I love the abundance of pagan, occultish, and otherwise alternative folk. I love that, especially in Portland, I’m in a place where it seems everybody has tattoos, even high up in corporations and in the health care field and, well, just about everywhere else. I couldn’t get these things in the place I grew up in. I did get a lot of closed-minded douchebaggery, and daily psychological abuse on the part of my peers, and a dearth of exposure to anything outside of country, oldies, and soft rock music. While not every small town is this way, and not every city is as progressive as Portland; I’ve had better luck being myself in urban areas. So for that and many, many other reasons, I’m quite happy being a city girl.

Back to the sustainability angle, though. There are just way too many people to be able to let everyone enjoy rural living while allowing the wilderness to have enough room to be itself without any human intervention. Not only would it require too much of what wilderness remains, but there would have to be a drastic, fundamental shift in the way that Americans (and most other industrialized humans) approach land use.

The problem isn’t cities in and of themselves. It’s how they’re built and managed. For example, most people have absolutely no conception of how a city changes the nature of the bioregion it’s in, from the climate to the soil and waterways. This isn’t just within the actual perimeters of the city, but a large area surrounding it–everything’s connected.

Reading books like Green Metropolis has given me a better appreciation for the city as a vehicle of sustainable living. After all, if one can live sustainably on under an acre of land, and when people can be concentrated into a smaller area, leaving more untouched places for the wilderness to recover, why not? Less time spent traveling, easier access to resources, greater human cultural diversity in a given area–what’s not to love?

Yes, there are numerous studies in ecopsych/environmental psych and other disciplines showing the negative health effects of cities. This, again, goes back to how cities are designed and run. Psychological stress from urban life often comes from the wear and tear of commuting, unpleasant physical environments lacking greenspace and other amenities, economic depression, and a lack of physical safety. These things are not limited to cities, though; it’s just that because the people are more concentrated, so are the problems.

The solution is not to dissolve cities and push the more sensitive wildlife even further into the corners of the wilderness as we create happy rural communes. The solution is to make cities better places to live. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Apart from the sheer logistics (and arguments thereof) of greening a city, there are considerations of class such as gentrification; cultural factors, to include immigration and spirituality; what to do with the open spaces that remain, as well as how to continue feeding larger groups of people with omnivorous options, and how much of the open space should go to that; and so forth. And, of course, not everyone is going to want to live in a city no matter how nice. Lots to think about.

I still want to interact with the wilderness, but as a visitor, not a resident. Like the spirit world, I want to try to leave the wilderness to its native inhabitants, and only go in as necessary.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part 2

Eeep. So this was a little later than “tomorrow”. But better late than never.

So I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the big OMGSPIRITUALEXPERIENCE I had when I was out on the wilderness therapy (WT) retreat. One of the tools used in WT is the “solo”, which is basically the really short, really watered-down version of what non-indigenous people assume to be a “vision quest”, though the WT people I was with were well aware of the cultural issues, etc. Anyway, a solo happens late in a WT experience (which generally will take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, depending on the program). It’s long enough for the individual person to have had a lot of experience not only with practical wilderness skills and teambuilding, but also to reflect on the problems encountered both in the backcountry, and in the setting that person left behind. The solo itself is where the person gets left in a particular spot for a matter of a few hours to a few days to have that time to hirself for reflection. After, there’s a period of time for reintegration back into the WT group, followed by transition back to the life left behind.

My solo was only a few hours, appropriate for a four-day retreat. We hiked up West Hardy Ridge, going about three and a half miles one way, with roughly 2,000 feet elevation, at a pace of about 3mph average. It’s rough, rocky terrain, especially higher up on the ridge, so it wasn’t easy going. In fact, it’s the toughest hike I’ve done to date; we didn’t stop for breaks, and my pack was about a fifth of my body weight since I took a lot of water to account for the 90+ degree heat.

Honestly, there were a few times where I seriously considered just sitting down on the trail and not going any further. I’m in good physical condition, but the many factors wearing at me combined to create a really tough challenge. I have a tendency to get frustrated when things go beyond a certain level of difficulty. But I did recognize that I was getting frustrated, and I was able to take a step back and observe myself in that frustration–and I was able to tell myself that it would pass, and that I had a goal worth going for. So I worked through the frustration, while acknowledging that I felt it, something nearly unprecedented for me (and also an important step in my Elk work).

We made it to the top of the ridge, and we were then escorted to our individual spots. I ended up getting a really choice one, a rock slide overlooking the Columbia River, surrounded by small conifers and underbrush. Granted, the rocks were all small, to the point where I really had nowhere comfortable to sit, and I had to secure my gear to keep it from sliding down the ridge. But other than that? Excellent place.

I took a little time to settle in, getting some water and food, and letting myself rest. Then I took in my surroundings in brief, just to get some orientation for where I was. My clearing was about fifteen feet wide, and the slide itself was roughly fifty feet long from the top of the ridge to where the brush began again.

Then I started thinking about how I should spend my time there. Should I do work with Bear, who had been wanting my time and attention? I’d brought my drum, after all, since it’s not heavy at all and hooks onto my pack nicely. Should I meditate? Should I try talking to the Land? I tried for the lattermost option, opening myself up and expecting a dialogue. Instead, the Land simply kept telling me to look at the plants. So I did. Though I didn’t know most of them, I took the time to study them in detail, how they grew together in layers from the ground up, and how I was surprised by how many deciduous trees there were mixed in there. Then I looked at the stones around me, and the fallen logs. And then I noted the animals, who are normally the ones I notice first.

First came the flies–not biting flies, thankfully, but sort of housefly-types. At first I shooed them away when they landed on my skin, and they persisted. But then I saw that what they wanted was my sweat–there wasn’t any water nearby, so moisture must have come at a premium on that hot day. So, exercising patience again, I let them land on me and drink their fill, even though it tickled, and there was part of me conditioned to feel revulsion at having “dirty” flies touching me. But once they were done, they left me alone for the rest of the time.

Much of my company was flies, a few spiders and other arthropods. However, I ended up with an awesome spot for birdwatching. I startled a scrub jay who was about to come in for a landing on a tree next to me, but then thought better of it after seeing me. There were some swallows (not sure of the exact species) flying overhead, and of course I heard the occasional raven. Later on, a quartet of turkey vultures came flying overhead, harried by a peregrine falcon (the falcons nest nearby on Beacon Rock). And then at one point I heard the “keeeeeer” of a bald eagle, and was fortunate to stand up quickly enough see a mature adult cruising parallel with the river, fifty feet away at the most!

What I realized in all this is that I saw so many things I would have missed if I hadn’t sat down to be patient. I have a tendency to be an impatient person, hence my common frustration. Being out in the woods like that, settling down quietly for a space of hours, showed me one of the many rewards of patience. In fact, this was a really good trip for Elk work in that vein. I had ample opportunities to experience the natural challenges associated with being in the wilderness and to face my own behavior patterns that came up as a result. And I came away with some good lessons.

I also actually got to do my first sort of “official” shamanic work on behalf of others. I know the human-based portion of my shamanic work has largely focused on myself and making myself a better vessel for this sort of thing, but I’m starting (finally!) to get to the point where I can do work for other people. It wasn’t anything too elaborate; one of the instructors for the course asked me to drum as part of the preparatory ceremony before we started out on our hike. (Ecopsychology doesn’t equal animism, but ecopsychologists do strongly draw on animistic practices in a secular context, such as the role of ritual.) So I very briefly explained the importance of my drum and what I was about to do, and told people that I would be calling on Horse, Deer and Elk, and that they were welcome to ask any/all of them for their guidance and protection on our “journey”, such as it was. And then I drummed while one of the instructors smudged all the participants with sage picked in eastern Oregon before we got going.

I’ve done some work since then, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet. Needless to say, things seem to be evolving more as I’m coming back to my practice more actively. But my wilderness therapy excursion was a definite turning point.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation, Part One

I just spent the past four days in the woods out at Beacon Rock State Park for a wilderness therapy intensive for grad school. It was incredibly rejuvenating in some ways, and very challenging in others. However, I have a much clearer view of what wilderness therapy is, why it isn’t just “wilderness boot camps” like the media portrays (even though many of the teenage participants are there under duress, mainly because it’s a last resort to keep them out of jail/alive–which is a tough controversy we discussed), and how I as a therapist-to-be can incorporate elements of it into my practice as well as help clients figure out whether it may be a viable option for them or their children.

Where a boot camp mentality deals with strictly regimenting teenagers to challenge them through tough hierarchies, rigid scheduling, and pressure to conform to authority, what we learned about are ways to use the challenges that naturally come up during long-term hiking and camping as parallels to challenges the kids face in everyday life. It’s a matter of waiting until the individual participant hits a point where they need support, offering that support, and helping them to learn a better solution of how to deal with challenging situations than what they’ve been doing. They also learn the value of working with others, not through being ordered to do so, but because cooperation helps everyone involved.

We actually incorporated a few of the more common teambuilding techniques in our intensive experience. One of the most important ones for me was meal preparation. We were divided up into three teams of four (twelve students) and each team cooked one of the three meals each day. In order to get it done efficiently and with the limited gear we had, we had to work together–not as one leader telling the rest what to do, but as a quartet working together, adopting or delegating tasks as needed to get things done. There was no competition between the groups (well, other than a round of rock, paper, scissors to determine who did what meal), just shared appreciation for the work that went into the meals. There were other exercises, but this seemingly simple daily ritual really helped to demonstrate to me the difference between being ordered to do something, and doing it for mutual shared benefit and the pleasure that comes from it.

Anyway, there was a lot more to the formal educational portion of the experience, but I wanted to explore a few things that happened that are relevant to the spiritual aspects of what happened. This is one of two posts that will cover that.

This one deals with a drawing that I did as a bit of art therapy in one of our exercises. We were asked to draw the various influences–media, cultural, spiritual, experiential, etc.–that contributed to our understanding of the word “wilderness”. I ended up drawing an open book near the bottom of the page. Above it there were pictures of lots of wild animals, wolves, elk, foxes, etc., and lots of trees and ferns. Below the book, in a very small space, were the small animals I had encountered a lot in my childhood and beyond–songbirds, snakes, rodents, etc.

What this spoke to was my actual experiences with wilderness, which aren’t very many. I grew up in a family that didn’t hike or camp. And since I didn’t have much in the way of friends growing up, I didn’t really have anyone to take me out to the woods with their families. As for Girl Scouts? Forget it. My troop leaders’ idea of “camping” was having us all sleep in sleeping bags on the floor of an old commercial bakery, where the only wildlife was the cockroaches. So this led to a life completely devoid of camping until my twenties. Seriously.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has made me really self-conscious of this fact. A lot of people here are avid hikers and campers, and not just the kind that park a camper somewhere and walk down the paved road in the middle of the campground. We’re talking through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, and those who can take a single backpack into the woods and stay for a few days, no problem. I really envy them, though people have been really awesome about helping me get up to speed.

Anyway, one thing that I realized as I was making this drawing was that I got my early conception of the wilderness primarily from books. As a child, I must have read Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild countless times. London, of course, described the Arctic regions in very stark, manly-man, eat or be eaten terms. So that informed a lot of my understanding of wilderness growing up–which just made me even more attracted to it, especially since I mainly had yards and open lots as my substitute for wilderness (and which I still found endlessly fascinating).

And as I got older, and I continued to have really limited access to anything but generic suburbs, I found more and more that I formulated my understanding through books. In a lot of ways being a nerdy little bookworm helped me out a lot. However, I often substituted the map for the territory to the point that I often didn’t realize the difference. I ended up with a lot of abstracts based on not a lot of actual experience.

In some ways I wonder how much my spirituality is based more on the abstracts I’ve constructed. As I’ve finally been able to start fleshing out my experiences, it’s been sobering to see just how much I haven’t been in contact with the natural world. My increased exposure has changed my spirituality quite a bit. I’m finding more ways to ground my beliefs in my experiences, a good example of this is more work with local totems like Scrub Jay. And admittedly I’m pretty embarrassed about the fact that I’ve never seen my primary totem, Gray Wolf, in the wild, even if it’s mainly because I haven’t been in places where I’ve had that opportunity open to me.

I don’t think it’s a matter, though, of scrapping everything I’ve created. Even the abstract bits have helped give me a personal mythological structure to work with. Like my current Elk work. I haven’t met an elk in the wild, either, other than the two that nearly ran me over in a field back in June. But it’s helped immensely, as my next post (when I’ve time to write about it) will explain.

But I do think that I’m going to be spending more time grounding my spirituality in the Nature that it’s supposed to be based in. Neopaganism is full of abstractions, which just helped me to further distance myself from the source of my spirituality. (When you have people who worship deities of natural phenomena who claim they aren’t practicing a Nature-based religion, that should say something to someone, somewhere.) I think, perhaps, that therioshamanism has been in part a way for me to get that groundedness, even if I didn’t consciously realize it until recently. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and I’ve observed principles of my spirituality at work in it (and vice versa) but I think now I’m trying to make the distinction between the spiritual and the physical less…well…distinct.

More tomorrow.

Self-Applied Ecotherapy

Taylor and I went out to the coast today. Our main destination was the trail to Drift Creek Falls, near Lincoln City. It was a lovely hike, and we made sure to detour up the North Loop to the old growth forest there.

Most of the forest, though, is newer growth, recovering from clearcutting in the timber industry. It was very easy to tell when we segued from the new growth to old growth. The most obvious sign, of course, was that the trees were much bigger, and spaced further apart. However, the underbrush, with multiple species of ferns, younger hemlock trees, salmonberry, and other smaller plants, was more varied than in the newer growth. The entire forest had a more completed look to it, more balanced to the eye. Conversely, the new growth had a bunch of trees mostly of the same age (no more than a few decades), a mix of hemlock and birch, and the undergrowth was mostly thick with ferns and other low-growing plants, and didn’t have a very well-developed middle layer with small trees.

On our trip down, I’d had a pretty rough day emotionally. I’ve been starting to wrestle with one of the deepest-seated pieces of bad conditioning in my head: perfectionism. The very short version of this is that I am incredibly hard on myself and push myself to reach impossible standards as a defense mechanism against criticism. I grew up with a lot of abuse from peers, and have continued to encounter people in my adulthood for whom it’s perfectly acceptable to emotionally abuse another person under the guise of being rightfully angry for some wrong that was done–even unintentionally. (It’s a pattern I’ve fallen into myself, but that’s a story for another time…) Anyway, what’s happened is that I learned to try and avoid this abuse of power through self-criticism, essentially trying to make an offering of emotional self-abuse in an attempt to placate anyone who might have been affected by a mistake I made, even one that was accidental. I just assumed that it was acceptable for others to react violently and aggressively when angry, disappointed, or frustrated, never mind the effect it had on me. Shouldn’t I be hurt, since I was the one who fucked up? Don’t we already live in a punitive society anyway, and doesn’t this fit that?

It’s only been recently that I’ve been coming to accept just how unhealthy this is all around, not just the coping mechanism I’ve adapted, but the abusive behavior in people in general. In the former, it’s a matter of harming the self emotionally for unnecessary reasons; my partner S. made the point that instead of tearing myself up, I need to be my best ally, since I have the most invested in my well-being. Therefore, I need to not be so mean to myself. And with the latter, the punitive behavior in others, just because a particular behavior is common doesn’t make it healthy. If I’m screwed up due to others’ revenge-seeking, and using others’ mistakes as an opportunity to blow off unrelated steam, or to otherwise ignore the effects their “righteous” anger has, I can’t be the only one with such scars.

And I was thinking about all this as I was hiking through that forest today, starting with the young growth, and then looping back into the old growth. I identified with the forest as I walked; here are the parallels:

–My emotional health and well-being is like the trees and other plants in the forest. They can be damaged, but the healing takes time, and more damage takes more time to heal. The most substantial parts of the forest, the trees, take the longest to recover.

–The demand for wood products, beyond what can be healthily supplied, is analogous to the demands of other people for emotional response from me beyond what is healthy for me to give. Forests are resources that can be sustainably drawn upon; so are emotions. Take too much, and you cause imbalance.

–Therefore, clearcutting the trees to maximize the immediate profit at the expense of long-term forest health is analogous to my tearing myself apart emotionally to procure a seemingly acceptable offering in the moment at the expense of my long-term emotional health.

–The young growth forest is analogous to the part that grows back to an extent, but historically has periodically been clearcut over and over again to make offerings to meet external demands. The old growth forest is the core that reminds me of what it was like to be emotionally healthy, and what I can be again, given enough time.

I can put the emotional clearcutting to a stop. But it will take time beyond that to allow the forest inside to regain old growth status. I looked at the young part of the forest today, and I saw that it was just beginning to really remember what how to be a forest; hopefully it’s protected now, since it’s a popular place to hike. The old part of the forest contained enough seeds of pioneer species to recolonize the land that had been ravaged by the timber industry and help the growth start anew. And I have, at the core of my being, memory of what it is to be healthy and whole. The pioneer species may not be as sturdy or long-lasting as trees, but they pave the way. As long as I respect my emotional space and give it the time it needs to recover, I can move beyond that disruptive, harmful pattern of emotional clearcutting.

Okay, I’ll Play Along…

The pagan blogosphere seems to have latched onto this nifty declaration of International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It’s given me a good excuse to put down some thoughts that I’ve been having trouble putting into words as of late.

The biggest problem with trying to define “pagan values” is that, as others have noted both in this blogathon and before, is that “neopaganism” doesn’t describe just one religion–it describes a plethora of them. As Sannion pointed out, a lot of the time “pagan” often ends up being interpreted (not overtly, generally) as “Wicca, or Wicca-flavored”. Not surprising, since so many of us cut our teeth on books by folks like Scott Cunningham, and many pagans never really define themselves beyond “generic Wicca-flavored pagan”. From my experience in the communities I’ve participated in (both in person and online), and in going to a wide variety of festivals the past few years, “generic Wicca-flavored pagans” outnumber any other single group of pagans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means that there’s no simple set of pagan values when you have that much variety.

The other issue is that values are ultimately subjective. Even among members of the same pagan religion, you may have a wide variety of values that individual people adhere to, whether due to the tenets of their faith, or other factors informing their everyday choices. And I do mean that last bit–values do not only have to come from religious sources, though the two may inform each other to the extent that they may seem inseparable.

One of the things I’ve been kicking around in my head as of late is the idea that we (not just pagans) create religion (and, by extension in many cases, values) out of whatever comforts us. We may not consciously realize we’re creating religion, and as most people view religions primarily in a literal sense, some may be offended by the idea that their experiences are anything other than direct contact with the Divine/spirits/other intermediaries. Still, people seem to match their religious beliefs pretty well; the structures within which they interact with the Powers That Be connect to things that give them some form of comfort and security. (And I’ll most likely write about this more later when I’ve brought together my thoughts on it more cohesively.)

I know exactly where my comfort in Nature comes from. I was a weird kid growing up. While all the other girls in my small town Catholic grade school class were playing with Barbies and putting on kiddie makeup and starting to get interested in clothes, I was grubbing around in the woods catching garter snakes. I didn’t really have friends, for the most part, and got picked on a lot. My family loved me like nobody’s business, but I think sometimes they just didn’t know what to make of me. My only sibling was significantly older than I was, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone.

Living in a small town, I was able to run around our yard, the neighbors’ yard, and the Big Hill across the street where the retirement home was. I even repeatedly sneaked off to the semi-wooded lot on the other side of the hill, even though I was supposed to. (After all, that’s where the best place to find garter snakes was!) So I spent long days in cool shade on mats of moss and grass and clover, under poplar trees and juniper bushes, watching Monarch butterflies come out of their chrysales, chasing (but never catching) cottontail rabbits. When I was indoors, I was reading voraciously, getting every book on animals from the library that I could lay hands on.

Nature was comforting to me. When people were confusing, or mean, or simply didn’t get that no, I wasn’t interested in doing things their way, I knew I could turn to the natural world and find a place where I wasn’t judged. Sure, the animals ran away when I came stomping through the woods, but they did that to every human, and even to each other to an extent. That’s just the way they were. They weren’t out with an agenda beyond day to day survival, and they didn’t single me out. And in turn, if I was quiet (and lucky) enough, I got to observe the denizens of the wild and witness their goings-on with wonder (though this was easier with plants, which tended to just stay put regardless of how much I looked at them). And yes, I did tell stories to myself about Nature; there was more to it than just what the books said. I never told anyone about these personal myths, but they sowed the seeds for meaning-making.

This continued well into my mid-teens. When my parents and I moved to a new home in the very early 1990s, there was one of the last farms to survive the sprawling of my town right behind our home, and I had a few acres of woods that weren’t immediately fenced in to explore. I grew very attached very quickly, especially because it was bigger, with a creek running through it (I’ve always been attracted to running water), and more variety in inhabitants and geography. Even as I entered into the awkwardness of junior high, I continued to find the most solace in those woods.

And then, one day…I came home on the school bus to find that my woods had been completely bulldozed to make way for a new housing subdivision. To say I was devastated, crushed, would come nowhere near describing how I felt. I honestly think that’s what touched off the depression I fought with for years afterward. I had lost my anchor, the place I went to when people simply didn’t understand. worse, I had lost a piece of my soul.

When I discovered paganism at the age of 17, a few years later, I immediately latched onto the nature-based aspects of it, especially animal magic and totemism. Neopaganism gave me a structure to try to rebuild the rapport I had had with Nature that had been so shockingly destroyed. In the few years between the destruction of “my” woods and discovering paganism, I had reacted so badly to the trauma that I distanced myself from nature as much as I could, and lost that innocent connection I’d had for so long. Even now I find myself having to fight seeing Nature in too many abstractions, trying to keep from mistaking the map for the territory. And yet, the older I get and the more of that initial connection I rebuild, the more comforted I am, and the more depth my relationship to Nature gains. Granted, I have a much healthier social life than I did when I was younger, but that hasn’t caused my comfort in Nature to cease.

So what’s the point to this long, rambly narrative? Where do values come in? First, I wanted to illustrate how our values–including those that are formed through religious experience–may very well be tightly linked to what comforts us. But second, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to show where my own values come from. Because, as I mentioned, I can’t blog about “pagan values”. They simply can’t exist in a universal form, not even those based on the assumption that pagan = reveres Nature. While I can argue up and down, for example, that you can’t separate an Earth or Harvest deity from the actual, physical Earth, there are numerous pagans who will deny that their paganism is Nature-based, instead saying that their religion is “based on the worship of the Gods” (never mind that their gods are personifications of natural phenomena), or some other explanation. (My rant about the artificial dichotomy of “natural” vs. “not natural” will have to wait.) It’s not that there aren’t other pagans whose values resemble mine; it’s that these values cannot be universally described as “pagan values”. But I can confidently extrapolate on my own!

If you look through the posts in this blog, it’s pretty easy to see where my values are. While I may not always be capable of acting in the most harmonious ways when it comes to valuing being a part of an interconnected set of natural systems involving numerous beings on all levels of existence and evolution, my values most definitely do direct the decisions I make–even if that means keeping certain ones in mind for later when they’re more feasible. Now, I am not a philosopher; while I’ve done a little reading up on the differences between values, ethics and morals in order to prepare for this post, the differences are still kind of fuzzy for me. So here are the essentials, and I apologize if these aren’t properly explained as “values”:

–Nature is sacred. Not just in an abstracted, symbolic, archetypal way, but in its very immediate physical reality, from the rich dirt that I work composted cow manure into every year before gardening, to the Columbia River Gorge where some of my favorite wild places are, to the countless microflora in my body, living in symbiosis with me (most of the time). It is sacred not only for its meaning, but for the very fact that without it, I die.

–The above assertion is not antithetical to scientific knowledge. When I say my prayers in the morning and evening and honor the Earth, the Sky, the Sun, the Moon, and others, I am not only saying these things to anthropomorphized symbols. I am saying them to the Earth that is the basis of my life-support system, and the Sky that contains the necessary atmosphere to create climates and weather patterns. When I journey and speak with totems and other spiritual beings, I am not only speaking to spirits, but to embodiments of entire species and natural phenomena that exist in a very physical way.

–The assertion directly above this one is not antithetical to the existence of a meaning-making system composed of my personal mythology, as well as the elements of greater cultural mythologies that interweave with it. When I say my prayers, I do not only say them to the physical manifestations of natural phenomena. I am saying them to the archetypal energies that have been built up around them through countless years of human attention and belief, as well as through the strength of my own connection and the meaning-making activities I have partaken in my entire life. When I journey to the totems and others, I do not only limit my knowledge of them to natural history, but also interact with totems-as-archetypes, vastly complex symbols that resonate with my psyche on multiple levels.

I endeavor to live in such a way as to honor all the above assertions equally. However, I do this with the understanding that ideals and reality may not always mesh well, particularly in the physical realm. For instance, I would love to be able to have a greywater system, and a yarden (yes, an entire yard converted to veggies and fruit!), and a number of other things that require me to not be a renter. Unfortunately, we’re still several years off from being able to buy a house. While I know that going vegetarian is better for the environment, I simply do not thrive well without meat (and yes, I’m currently going through medical professionals to see about this, just to see what’s up).

But there are decisions I can make, and have made, that are in line with my values. I am in grad school to get a degree in counseling psychology, and my emphasis (though not exclusively) is on ecopsychology, as well as narrative therapy and other tools for aiding others in meaning-making activities (and, of course, better mental health!). While I’m not yet a subsistence gardener, I’m doing my best to learn better skills as I go along. A lot of my day-to-day purchases have environmental impact in mind; I’m a frequent shopper at Goodwill and other thrift stores, and haven’t bought anything from a mall or a Wal-mart in years. These things are as much a part of my values, and really, my spirituality as a pagan, as any rituals, journeying, and other activities I do.

Paganism, for me, is not limited to the overtly spiritual practices, and neither are the values I associate with my paganism. If I do not do my best to integrate what I believe into what I do to the extent that is currently possible, then why do I believe it?

An Update!

So obviously my posting frequency here has gone down significantly since I started school. My initial reaction when I realized I hadn’t posted in a while was to try and justify my absence. However, that also brought up a recent spiritual experience that I had. I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about really slacking off on journeying and other more “officially” spiritual practices and rituals. I’ve been making my usual observations of the world around me and everyday meaning-making exercises, as well as my usual awareness of my decisions and their impact–and, of course, continuing with school. However, I haven’t really drummed in months. And so my usual pattern was “Feel guilty about not journeying/etc. –> Tell myself that I’ll do it soon –> Not address the underlying barriers keeping me from accomplishing my goal –> Feel even more guilty” (wash, rinse, repeat).

So a few weeks back I was hiking on Mount Hood with Taylor, and had a bit of a discussion with the Animal Father about this whole situation while there. I went in bemoaning the fact that I’d been a slacker, and essentially poured forth all the diatribes I’d been heaping on myself because of it. And when I was done, this is what he told me: “Adjustment is going to be a constant state for you”. This startled me, because he’s been one of the biggest proponents of me journeying on a regular basis. And while the last time I went a few months without journeying he told me he didn’t want it to happen again, he explained that it was pretty apparent that as things stood right then, that just wasn’t going to happen–and that it wasn’t the end of the world.

That made me feel a lot better. I think part of what was keeping me from journeying was fear that the spirits would be displeased at my long absence. Since that conversation, though, I’ve checked in at a few crucial points, and while there’s a desire to connect, there’s also patience with my current situation, and understanding that it won’t always be this way–and that adjustment will indeed always be something that’s a reality in my exceptionally busy life.

This goes along with a greater effort on my part to change the way I approach doing things. I am a recovering workaholic, and my time management involves me pushing myself as hard as I can until I either reach the point of short-term burnout, or someone (usually, though not always Taylor) pokes me and says “Hey, this needs to stop–it’s causing problems”. This isn’t as productive as it sounds.

The thing is, though, it wasn’t until I stopped the guilt cycle that I started making actual change. Pushing myself less and pacing myself more realistically has been a process, rather than an event, and while it’s been slow, I have noticed changes. I’m better at reminding myself when I begin to feel stressed about my ever-present to-do list that “Things will happen in their own time”. And I’ve finally, finally, finally been able to find effective strategies for cutting down on useless internet time and creating more time to actually do things away from the computer.

So there will continue to be a smaller flow of posts than there was a year ago–and there’s nothing wrong with that.

ETA: Just wanted to add in this link to some thoughts over on my LJ that touch on some relevant topics here.

In other news, Scrub Jay and Stellar’s Jay have stepped (flapped?) forward to offer their aid in helping me connect with the Land and learn more about it. Scrub Jay seems to be more of a help with urban areas, whereas Stellar’s primarily aids with wilderness, though these are not hard and fast divisions. These are the settings where I see them the most, respectively. They help me in that whenever I see one of their children, it’s a reminder to me to be aware of the Land–not just in that moment, but as much as possible. It has helped; I finally remembered to pick up a couple of field guides for local plant life from PaperBackSwap.

I’ve been gardening again this year. Unlike last year, where it was containers only, I have a big planter box and a few extra patches of dirt, along with all the containers and a few extras. I also have slugs. And ants. And other critters vying for space and food. Plus the weeds. So this year’s gardening has been an object lesson in the balance between my own needs, and understanding that if I’m going to respect Nature, I have to respect it when it’s eating my garden. I still pull up the weeds, and I have beer traps out for the slugs until I can get my hands on enough copper wire/coffee grounds/egg shells to act as a deterrent, but I’m also aware that these are not just beings to take for granted as I do so.

I’ve also just begun to read Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind, an anthology edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist. While I’ve got a pretty good handle on ecopsychology in theory, I want more on the practical applications thereof, and while my ecotherapy class last semester was excellent, there’s only so much you can fit into a couple of weekends. Also, here’s an article on ecopsychology in the local paper, and here’s the very first peer-reviewed journal of ecopsychology, first issue available for free online.


Speaking of that, Chas Clifton posted a bit on ecopsychology, including a link to my last post on bioregionalism and the genius locii. Specifically, he observes that “But as an overarching concept…ecopsychology does not seem to have caught fire except in a low-level therapeutic way: ‘Gardening makes you feel better’.” Since my response is longer than my average reply, and it’s something that I thought would make a good topic for here anyway, I decided I’d write out my thoughts in this post.

Ecopsychology, not quite two decades from its initial inception as a cohesive concept as per Roszak et. al., is still quite a niche topic. I’ve had a good deal of exposure to it, but I also go to one of the most liberal schools in one of the most liberal American cities. I’m still finding out that not all psych grad programs are based in client-centered practices (which sometimes causes something akin to culture shock on my part), so I’m not surprised to consider that it’s very likely that something so nontraditional isn’t widespread in less liberal areas/schools/practices/etc.

One of the reasons I’m glad I got the ecotherapy anthology mentioned above is that we do need more practical applications of ecopsychology. What’s most commonly seen are either wilderness therapy retreats, or as was mentioned, therapists telling their patients to get outside more. What needs to happen, I think, is discussion of more ways to integrate ecopsychology into an actual clinical practice.

During the ecotherapy class, we discussed including questions about the environment in intake questionnaires; for example, “Are there any natural places that you feel close to?” or “Do you ever feel anxious about environmental issues?” Sadly, issues like these often don’t get brought up in more conventional therapy because it’s assumed that people don’t really feel emotions like grief for the environment, either on a small or large scale. One of the sadly ironic jokes that gets passed around is:

Client: I feel so upset about the environment; it makes me want to cry. I think I might be depressed because I’m worried about global warming, and species extinction, and just how big the problem is!
Therapist: So, tell me about your mother…

Another area where I see potential for more work is in addressing how environmentalists (and others)communicate information about issues. My instructor does a good bit of work with local activists; one of the points he (and other ecopsychologists) make is that guilt doesn’t work–and yet this is the tactic that activists have been using for decades. Guilt turns most people away, and often leads to counterproductive reactions (such as this new creation by Mike Judge, pointed out on Clifton’s blog–ouch!). While environmentalists may not intend to come across as holier-than-thou, because the messages we’re given to pass on are so often guilt-laden, it can be hard to avoid being otherwise.

In order to do this, we need to learn better forms of conveying our concerns. And this is where ecopsychology’s flexibility supports the relevance of numerous topics. One of my classes this semester is Communicating With Compassion; the textbook we’re using is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I just finished reading it today, and the class will be this weekend. Needless to say, I’ve picked up a lot of skills that are perfectly suited for not only being a better communicator on environmental issues myself, but that I can potentially use to help clients and others get away from the guilt-speak.

Ecopsychology isn’t a single model of therapy in the same way that, say, cognitive behavioral or client-centered therapies are. It’s more a way to approach all of these therapies, in that along with the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels of one’s psyche, there’s also the layer that resonates and responds to the environment one is in. This has often been seen in very narrow contexts, such as “home environment”, “work environment”, etc. (and can be studied in that respect in the field of environmental psychology). And because ecopsychology is a fairly amorphous field, not having tightened up into a rigid set of definitions, there are a number of things that could be considered “ecopsychology” that may not have that label on them, but which fit in anyway.

So I think ecopsychology, while it is still a niche, is a more powerful force than it may seem outside of that circle of folks who are immediately developing and utilizing it. Part of the solution to its low profile is defining more clearly what ecopsychology is or isn’t (and not cutting ourselves off from valuable resources in the process). Additionally, we need to be able to show even more that it has practical relevance, especially when managed care and other such forces continue to make CBT and other results-oriented, short-term therapies practically mandatory in some contexts where they may not be the most appropriate tools. I believe these will go a long way in helping to make it a more widespread and viable part of discourse and practice on psychology and therapy.