Dusky Arion as Animal Totem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

On Green Urban Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short But Sweet Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return of the Garden! And an Important Lesson

Last year I missed out on gardening. I was busy trying to figure out how to balance my self-employed workload, and a life outside of work. Unfortunately, amid lots of vending events, custom work, and other obligations, I ended up not putting in a garden. I still took care of the few perennials that managed to survive the winter, but it was a pale shade of gardening that barely took any of my attention, and the empty pots were a depressing reminder of my inactivity there.

247649_10151641836983627_1881685848_nI promised myself this year I wouldn’t let that happen again, and while I had to delay planting a little longer than anticipated, early in May I was able to pick up some fresh seeds and starts and a brand new bag of potting soil. It took me a while to prepare the little porch that’s my only outdoor space, cleaning up leaves and dirt and bringing some of the pots up from the garage. But when I was done, there was a lot more space to work in (despite having less than 7′ x 4′ to work with).

Since my space was so limited, I had to plan out what I was going to plant. I wanted to rejuvenate the herb rack, since all I had left was my rosemary, and I wanted a few flowers to brighten up the window boxes along the edges as well. As always, though, most of the space would be dedicated to vegetables, especially tomatoes–my goal this year was to have enough to make homemade pizza sauce without having to go to the farmer’s market.

946386_10151641837343627_1314366_nIt’s rather amazing to me what I managed to fit in, then. I ended up with seven tomato plants, along with a window box each of lettuces and carrots. There are petunias, marigolds, and one red geranium, a few little pots of beans, and the herb rack now has sage, thyme, parsley, basil, and oregano. I was gifted a pair of strawberries, and a mullein that was going to end up on the weed pile in another garden. And my oldest plant, some flavor of succulent in the Sedum genus that was left behind by the previous tenants at my old apartment, was repotted and is already enjoying spreading out more.

I’m enjoying the extra space, too. I have just enough room on the porch that, on a nice day, I can sit out there amid my plants and relax, meditate, read, whatever suits me. I couldn’t do that two years ago since I’d just planted the garden when I had to move, and had to condense a larger garden into this tiny space. Perhaps that was a little bit of why I didn’t plant last year–I’d gotten the idea that the space I had was too cramped and tight.

253251_10151641838228627_890722024_nBut I’ve proven that wrong. I love my little garden, even if it’s the smallest one I’ve had. It’s a peaceful oasis, and it’s yet another small, sacred place, but one that I’ve created. Would I like a larger garden some day? Of course. But living in a small apartment with a small porch has given me the opportunity to practice self-care and nature skills even with limited resources.

And, to be honest, even if all I could have were a few houseplants in a window, I think I would have the same result. What’s important isn’t the size of the garden, but the connection I have to it. Just knowing I have these lovely, green growing things in my “yard”, that I can tend to them and watch them grow and sit among them–that’s enough. Knowing that I’m still working on my sustainability skills, even if there’s nothing more than a few salads in there, is also valuable.

It reminds me of a lesson I hold near and dear to my heart (even if I have to remind myself of it a lot): Bloom where you’re planted. I can make the most of what I have access to now, even if I do plan for bigger things in the future. Otherwise, I might be missing out on an important experience in the moment–and why deprive myself of that just because I may not have everything I could possibly want?

(I’m still hoping for pizza sauce.)

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