Sometimes It’s Hard to Admit I Need the Wild

I spent this past weekend at PantheaCon in San Jose, CA. It’s been one of the highlights of my year since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2006, and as always it was a wonderfully executed convention wherein my interaction with others was mainly in five and ten minute conversations in passing. I got to speak on plant and fungus totems (and got some preorders for my upcoming book on the topic) and still feel like an utter dumbass for missing the Llewellyn ancestors panel because I thought it was at 1:30pm instead of 11:00am.

But that mix-up was part of a personal theme for this year’s PCon. February’s been a challenging month for me; after the burst of positive energy that resulted in my event Curious Gallery, I found myself drooping and tired afterward, not at all surprising given that it was a LOT of work, and because I’m enough of an introvert to need some recharge time after big social events. The time that I thought I’d have to recover before PCon, though, was taken up instead by one of the freak snowstorms that Portland gets about every five years or so. It was only a few inches, but given that we have a dearth of plows and sand/cinders, only the highways were getting plowed for the first couple of days, and I was NOT about to go sliding around messy streets with a bunch of people not used to snow driving, chains or no chains. I more or less spent the better part of four days apartment-bound, minus a walk to the grocery store for rations. And once the snow melted, I had to start getting prepared to head south.

Sycamore bark, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. Lupa, 2014.

Sycamore bark, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. Lupa, 2014.

Which means that I haven’t gone hiking all month, and barely did last month due to Curious Gallery prep. Even before we hit the road, I was cranky and travel-anxious and generally out of sorts. Throughout the weekend I kept finding myself running short on energy and social tolerance, and while I very much enjoyed my time at the convention, I felt I wasn’t as present as I’ve been in previous years. I kept finding myself looking forward to getting outside at some point soon.

So because my Saturday schedule at PCon was almost entirely open, I decided to go hiking, and ended up at Alum Rock Park east of San Jose proper. It was an incredibly refreshing break, quiet other than occasional families with loudly excited children, and some amazing views from the South Rim Trail. I was surrounded by Steller’s jays, a lovely reminder of one of my “home” totems back in Oregon, and broad-shouldered sycamore trees, and uplifted ridges covered in scrub, with Penitencia Creek meandering throuugh it all in spite of drought. And then on our way home, my friend who I was traveling with and I stopped off at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It was just at dusk, so the birds and jackrabbits were out in force; I traded calls with great horned owls, and we enjoyed a lovely sunset on the water.

So I got my wild time and I felt much better for it. But I admit I felt some guilt. I’ve long been an advocate for green cities, partly as a way to free up more space for wildlife without humans interfering, and partly to make cities more habitable, especially for those who are unable to leave them. Granted, San Jose isn’t exactly overflowing with sustainability (though I’m sure it has more resources than meet the eye, mixed in the confluence of interstates and the airport and such). But I spend most of my time in Portland in a neighborhood with lots of green space and yards. Shouldn’t that tide me over?

South Rim Trail, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

South Rim Trail, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

It’s good for maintenance, to be sure. But I always need regular trips to wilderness areas, whether forest or desert or coastline. Nothing refreshes me quite like the quiet and soft fascination, and I don’t think it’s just my introversion. Something deep inside me needs those open areas to roam, perhaps even more than most people around me who may enjoy and benefit from it, but don’t necessarily have a deep, soul-sprung craving for wilderness.

I suppose the conundrum I’m left with is: does this need for wilderness negate the concept of green cities? Is a more sustainable metropolis only a temporary solution to a problem that can only be cured with the sort of setting we evolved in–open, untamed, populated by all the wild beings we grew up with? Maybe the sorts of people who reblog pictures of wilderness settings with sayings like Thoreau’s “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” and the anonymous “nature, not cities” are right.

But wait–that’s falling right into the false dilemma fallacy. Surely there’s some middle ground in between “stuck in a depressing, dirty city” and “a perfectly clean idyllic life deep in the wilderness, insulated from all other humans”. My need for wilderness on a regular basis is not proof that city life is wholly unsuitable for me. I can survive in a rural area much better than my urban-born partner could, and there are days I long for a life in a place with deer in the back yard and quiet, star-filled nights. But cities are where my work is, by and large, and they’re generally more friendly to those of us of alternative subcultures. There are benefits to Portland, to be sure.

Mineral spring grotto at Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

Mineral spring grotto at Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

When I feel that deep longing for wilderness, it’s not a sign that I need to abandon the city for good. In fact, at the end of my hike or camping trip, I feel energized and ready to return to the busy-ness of my everyday urban life. (Plus the traditional hot shower upon my return home is a definite perk.) I love the quiet of small towns, but right now I need the resources and opportunities and diversity of cities. Furthermore, there are plenty of restorative environments within Portland proper, the largest being Forest Park. There’s no need to abandon urban life; I just sometimes need to tilt the scale more toward “get out into the woods more and don’t work so hard!”

Like most potential answers to a complex problem, my solution is likely to be an ongoing balancing act comprised in part of reflection sessions like this one. And a challenge to a strongly-held conviction is not cause for worry; instead, as always, it’s an invitation to recalibrate that conviction. As my younger self would have said, “Stagnation is death!” (Some of the time, anyway.)

Animals, Activism, and Dialectics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dusky Arion as Animal Totem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Denning and Settling Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death and the Animals’ Privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breaking of the Wheel of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scrub and Steller’s Jays as Bioregional Totems

Note: This is my August offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Birds” as the theme.

I moved to Portland, OR in the summer of 2007. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this move would be the trigger that set off an entire series of major shifts in my life.

At the time, I’d only been in the Pacific Northwest for a year, and I was already disillusioned. I’d wanted to move up here because I loved the culture I’d seen in Seattle, and I loved the wilderness areas I’d visited, and I had the opportunity to get help from family to move anywhere I wanted. Unfortunately, it had been a decade since I’d last been to Seattle, and the shiny sparklies surrounding the city when I’d been there as a teenager had worn off, leaving the stark reality of being an adult trying to find work in a city with a high cost of living and an inadequate bus system. Furthermore, what I had intended to be a solo move, an adventure for one, ended up turning into a hasty engagement preceding a stressful cross-country trek with someone I’d committed to too quickly.

So after a year and change in Seattle, I was persuaded by friends to move down to Portland. So I dragged an unhappy and unhealthy marriage, an overweight cat, and a truckload of stuff and baggage down I-5 to Oregon. I have a tendency in general to romanticize any place I move to, and demonize the place I’m escaping, but I did have to admit that the old Craftsman house we moved into was a far sight better than the tiny little house we’d scraped by in up north. The neighborhood was a lot more walkable, the transit system far improved, and we had three great friends living right downstairs from us.

It must have been a day or two after we moved in that I met my first scrub jay. A few of these bold-spirited, blue and gray birds lived in the trees around my home, and I heard their raucous “VWEET! VWEEEEEET!” calls in the warm summer sunlight. The totem Scrub Jay then came to me and invited me to explore my neighborhood more, and so I’d walk around the area on foot, seeing what was in the area–a shop that sold handmade drums and supplies, a vintage clothing shop, a second-run independent movie theater, and more. That exploration extended further into the area, to parks and the downtown area and other neighborhoods with walkable streets and lovely houses, large and small.

Soon afterwards, I got my introduction to the Columbia River Gorge. My husband at the time and I headed out to Wahkeena Falls and did some hiking. I immediately fell in love with the cliffs on the Oregon side and their splashing waterfalls. The first wild creature I met there was a Steller’s jay, similar to the blue jays back east, but all of a deep, dark blue with a black head and crest. The staccato call was different from that of their cousins, though the boldness was familiar to me. The totem Steller’s Jay called to me and dared me to climb the switchback trail higher and higher to new places.

So it was that Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay invited me into their homes–the urban streets and colors of Portland, and the forests of the Gorge and Cascade range. Their kindness and the reception of the Land in general prompted me to find out more and more about this bioregion, from the basalt cliffs of the Gorge and flood-carved Willamette Valley, to the rain shadow cast by the Cascades that birthed the eastern desert, and all the flora and fauna and fungi that lived in this place. I grew to know Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, Johnson Creek and Mt. Tabor, and all sorts of other wonderful beings.

I found a place in the human community, too. Scrub Jay coaxed me out of my shell; I finally found the courage to get a divorce, which left me the freedom to further explore healthier relationships with others, including the beautiful and compassionate man that I live with today. The Land invited me to explore and create a shamanic path for myself–Therioshamanism–which led me to becoming a mental health counselor, as well as a working artist and a more dedicated writer and author. I connected with people about the local environment, and got involved in volunteering efforts for cleaning up litter, planting native species, and the like.

Through these efforts my spiritual path became less and less about formal rituals and journeying, and more about creating direct relationships with the beings–physical and spiritual–of the Land that has adopted me. In this, I found the freedom I’d lost since my childhood. I finally felt like myself again, after decades of loss and dead ends.

In short, the relationships I have forged with the beings and places in this area opened me up in ways I’ve never experienced before, and I can truly say that I have found the home I’ve been seeking for many years. And they still remind me of my place here; I have returned to the neighborhood where I first met the scrub jays, and there’s a pair nesting where I work, too. And it seems like almost every time I go into the forests of the Gorge or around mt. Hood, at least one Steller’s jay makes an appearance. Through their children, my first two bioregional totems tell me they’re glad I’m here, and I have to agree that I am, too.