Small, Sacred Places

Note: This is my contribution for the May edition of the Animist Blog Carnival. This month’s theme is Place Magic.

I’ve talked before about some of the places that raised me, and how badly their loss affected me. Other people in response told me about their own small, sacred places that they clung to when they were young, some of which had also been destroyed as they got older.

When we talk about “nature”, the first thing a lot of people picture is a wilderness setting with little to no overt human influence. These are certainly a significant part of nature, but they are not the sum total of nature itself. Most of us didn’t grow up right next to vast forests, fields and deserts, and even if we had we wouldn’t have been allowed to ramble across them unfettered. Instead, what many of us had were small open lots, parks, yards (our own or neighbors’) and the like. Because these may have been all we had, they became the definition of “nature” for us, and that imprint can last a lifetime.

For myself, when I was in my own small places, my fields and little patches of woods, for that time I was free and autonomous. I could explore those scant half-acres with impunity, and as a young child they seemed so vast and inviting that I didn’t want for more space. Instead of hiking for miles, I was exploring every inch of the land, every stone and stump and tree and pathway. I can even still remember the smells of sun on stone and cedar branches. That attention to detail is something I’m still learning to recapture as an adult recovering from the trauma of losing those places to destruction.

But it is coming back, and so is the sense of adventure and exploration that I had growing up. When I find myself deeper in the wilderness, away from the familiar roads and highways, that giddy excitement floods through my veins and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail. The world is all of a sudden new and shiny and even more beautiful than it was a moment before, and I feel so fortunate to be here in Oregon, the land that has embraced me.

As I get older, I spend less time in formal ritual. These days, a hike is a better way for me to connect with Something Bigger Than Myself, hence part of why I’ve been blogging about those hikes more. And I think it’s because I’ve stopped thinking of nature in terms of abstract concepts and symbols, and approach it directly, body and mind and heart and soul. A place, to me, isn’t sacred because of what rituals occurred there or what spirits call it home. Every place is inhabited by spirits, and every place is touched by the daily rituals of the turning of the Earth and the currents of the winds. As I simplify and streamline and integrate my path, I feel that pulling away the extraneous symbolism is like cutting away choking, invasive blackberries, opening up the ground so that the original inhabitants–snowberries and osoberry and others–can revive themselves. Some of the earth is open and wounded still, but now that the thorny canes have been removed, I’m eager to see what will grow in their place.

The places that raised me, small though they were, and dead though they may be today, are still sacred. It wasn’t about being a young pagan thing running around in the woods; I was still quite Catholic at the time. It was about forging that deep connection to the cosmos, to the wilderness, to the nonhuman beings that I share this world with. Most importantly, it was the early upwelling of wonder and awe at the world, that thing that has fueled my spirituality ever since. Because those places were the wellsprings of this feeling, they are the most sacred of all, even if only in memory.

The small, sacred places are sadly some of the most threatened. None of the environmental groups will work to protect a half an acre of scrubland in a small town. They’re vulnerable to development, yet another poorly-made cookie cutter house in an encroaching suburb. Few people will mourn their passing in the name of “progress”, and the children who move into that home will never know the wonders of the garter snakes and cedar trees that once lived where fertilized lawns now grow. For those of you who have lost your small, sacred places, I share your pain and your loss. For those who have the opportunity to preserve such places, whether for yourself or someone else, I commend you.

Here’s to all the small, sacred places that raised us, and that may still support us yet today.

Lupa Goes to the Death Cafe

Yesterday I attended Portland’s first Death Cafe. No, this wasn’t a group of stereotypical goths moping over Poe and lovely cadavers. Instead, Death Cafes are a new phenomenon, local events in which people meet in a cafe to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss the realities of death. They’re often organized by people whose work revolves around death, such as end-of-life specialists, hospice nurses, and the like. Rather than being a showcase for local funeral services or an evangelizing platform for a particular way of approaching death, Death Cafes are opportunities for people to come together and talk about this rather taboo subject in a safe, confidential and nonjudgmental environment.

Here in the U.S., death isn’t something most people talk about, not unless it’s necessary. That leads to a lot of people feeling unprepared for dealing with it when it happens, and I include myself in that. For all that I surround myself with death–the remains of animals, plants and fungi, none of whose deaths I caused or witnessed myself–there’s still a lot that I don’t understand or accept about it. I haven’t experienced the sudden death of someone very close to me, for example, and though I know how heart-wrenching it can be, I’m not entirely sure how prepared I am for it. Rather than sit in dread, though, I’d rather find out from other people what their experiences have been, and what advice they might have for the day when I go through the same.

And that was one of the key benefits from yesterday’s event. A Death Cafe primarily centers on small group discussion, usually three or four people to a table, all of whom are strangers to one another. Today we started with the topic of what brought each of us to the event, which naturally flowed into other topics over the next hour. Once we all had an idea of where each of the others was coming from, it freed us up to ask about each others’ experiences quite frankly. So I got to ask both a 25-year hospice nurse, and a woman who had recently lost both parents, what they had done and how they had felt when people close to them died, and it gave me a little more perspective. This helped to clear up the mystery just a bit, and while I still don’t at all relish the thought of my loved ones dying, I’m slightly less scared of how to get through those inevitabilities.

I think what surprised me the most about the discussion at our table was the amount of positive conversation that we had. It wasn’t just “Wow, I miss so and so, death is terrible for taking them away” or “I’m really scared of dying”, though those were touched on from time to time. Rather, the theme of our table seemed to be how death is a transformation, not just for the person who dies, obviously, but also for those they leave behind. And it isn’t just a matter of negative transformation, either. I listened to stories of people who journeyed through their own personal underworld in the wake of their loved ones passing, and who came out stronger, even happier and more at peace. They were able to take some of the worst experiences of their lives, and turn them into personal rites of passage that helped them adapt and move on while even more deeply appreciating the memories of those they had lost.

That resilience is incredibly inspiring. I have been through my own challenges–over a decade of daily bullying as a child, divorce, illness, and other low points in my thirty-four years. Yet I’ve managed to come through all of those; I’m still here, and I haven’t given up. And if I got through those things, maybe I can get through others in the future, to include continuing to live and thrive even when someone close to me has died. Plus there are other people who have been there who can offer their perspectives and support. Knowing I wouldn’t be alone is also helpful, and I was grateful to my tablemates for being so open and sharing in this.

We talked mostly about confronting the deaths of others, not so much our own mortality. I spoke of how my own death doesn’t scare me so much any more. While the idea of no longer being here in this amazingly beautiful and complex world is sad and, yes, still scary, knowing that I’m just a tiny part of a big, ever-cycling universe makes it easier to deal with my inevitable death. Any hypotheses about afterlives aside, as far as I can tell I didn’t exist prior to Samhain 1978, and I will cease to exist at some point in the future when my body decides it’s just not going to give a damn any more. But I do know that the molecules that make up my body have been bouncing around this crazy universe of ours for billions of years, and once they cease to be a part of this temporary conglomerate known as “Lupa” they’ll continue on their merry way. I feel better knowing that these tiny things that I touched, however briefly, will be forever changed in their course by having been a part of my life.

Of course, I would wager that if I were to find myself facing a terminal illness I probably wouldn’t be so calm about it as I am now, and I have a certain naivete that those who have been more closely touched by death, or who face it themselves now, lack. But at least for now I don’t have to feel so anxious about someday dying, and I can focus more on being alive right now. And I feel that may be one of the most important things Death Cafes may offer participants. If we can alleviate our fears and anxieties about death, it frees us up to enjoy and appreciate life more fully. Nothing is guaranteed except for the moments we have here in this world; better to make the most of them than to squander them on worrying over what may or may not come next.

If you’re interested in attending a Death Cafe yourself, here’s a list of upcoming ones on the official site. And if there’s not one scheduled for where you are, here’s how you can organize one yourself. There will be more held in Portland and I intend to go back to them; the ongoing conversation is incredibly valuable, and I’d love to see how it evolves.

Letting Go of Therianthropy For Good

Back in 2007, I published my second book through Immanion Press, A Field Guide to Otherkin. When I started the project in late 2005, I was feeling pretty confident with my first book due to be out soon, and I wanted to follow it up with something awesome. “Well, why don’t I take a shot at the book on Otherkin that everyone’s been threatening to write for years?” I thought. And so the challenge was set. Little did I know just how much I’d bitten off!

It took me over a hundred surveys, countless footnotes, and gods only know how many hours banging my head against the computer, and it was by far the most difficult book I’ve written due to the sheer amount of information I had to wrangle from scratch. But it happened, and as far as I know it’s still the only book wholly dedicated to Otherkin as a general topic (as opposed to an entire book on one specific type of Otherkin, or a book that mentioned Otherkin in the context of a different topic, etc.)

Which makes it tougher for me to make the decision to take A Field Guide to Otherkin out of print at the end of this month, because it is the only book out there. There are plenty of good websites and online resources available, but some people really like the format of a book (dead tree or ebook, your choice). And I know I’ve managed to fulfill most of my goals with it, primarily in offering a basic introductory guide to the subject matter at hand. I’ve gotten lots of emails and messages and in-person comments since it came out from people who have found it quite useful in exploring their own identities. Each one has shown me that, to an extent, I’m doing my job as a writer.

But please allow me to be selfish for a moment. Every book I write is a piece of artwork, every word infused with a bit of myself. And, like so many authors, my relationships with my books change over time. The books remain the same, but I am constantly moving and evolving. Even in the time between when a manuscript is turned in and when the book goes to press, I cease to be the exact person I was when I wrote it. Meanwhile, the book remains a snapshot of the time period in which it was written, a reflection of the knowledge base and headspace I brought to that project.

Some books age better than others. Unfortunately, Field Guide feels like it isn’t keeping up very well. A lot of this is because I feel it’s a flawed work. For all the effort put into it, and for all the help it’s done people, I could have done a better job.

I took on the project before I had proper research training, and so even as a qualitative review, it’s lacking. The 140+ surveys I got were a pretty meager representation of Otherkin as a whole. Even though there weren’t as many resources for Otherkin when I was writing it seven years ago as there are now, I might have been able to get a less biased sample to work with, since I spent more time on Livejournal than anywhere else at the time. And yes, I’m well aware of the many typos and other errors in the text. That’s one of the downsides of publishing with a small press; while Immanion is pretty damned good for what it is, human resources are stretched more thinly, and so it can be harder to find professionally trained editors and proofreaders to work on a part-time scale.

Not that the blame lies entirely on the publisher; far from it. I wasn’t as experienced a writer as I am today, and if I were writing it now, there are a lot of things I would do differently, and not just with more careful editing. Part of it is simply that the community and its ongoing  dialogue have changed and expanded over time, and I’d have a lot more to present to people as far as who and what Otherkin are, what their concerns and perspectives are, etc. And it’d be better written, too. The bulk of the writing happened in 2006, and I’ve had the better part of a decade since then to refine my craft, both with writing and with research in general. And, of course, I’ve grown and changed as a person, which always affects creativity; who here can say they’re the same person they were seven years ago? The Field Guide was written at one of the most challenging times in my life, and I think that affected its quality. Since it came out, I’ve moved several times, gotten divorced, changed careers entirely, and shifted my spiritual focus, all for the better; maybe a 2013 Field Guide would be a better book. It would certainly be different, just as I am different now.

Speaking of time, since it has been out since April of 2007, a lot of the information is out of date. Online resources come and go, and lot has happened in the Otherkin community in the past several years. So why don’t I just make a second updated edition? When I first wrote the book, I was sure I’d update it in a few years. I just needed a little time away from the whole Otherkin “thing”, to take a break after having been part of the community to some extent since the late 1990s. Problem is, I never really came back from that break. I got burned out, and while I still liked hanging out with my friends who happen to be ‘kin (and yes, I still want to come to the PCon meetup because you people are awesome!), I never got back into the community-at-large again.

So now here I am in 2013, and I have a confession to make: I no longer identify as a therianthrope, and I haven’t for quite some time. I’ve sat with that reality for a while, checking in with myself and making sure it wasn’t just a phase. But no, it just doesn’t fit any more; it’s not a framework that explains me. There’s still a piece of me that I feel resonates more with wolf than human, but at this point I don’t think it’s anything more than a bit of creative personal narrative, part of the ongoing myth I tell about myself. For me, the wolf is a metaphor, a piece of spirituality internalized. Sure, I’ve always leaned toward the personal mythology hypothesis of “what are Otherkin”, but the idea that I am fundamentally not human on some level just doesn’t fit. I am a human animal, 100%, just with a particular connection to the idea of “wolfness”. Call it an inner connection to my totem, or a super-charged “favorite animal”; either of those fit me better than “therian”, or “shifter”, or any of the other terms that set animal-people apart from humanity as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret exploring myself in the Otherkin framework. For the time, well over a decade, it was what fit best in explaining that resonance with “Wolf”. It was a fascinating interpretation of reality that allowed me an outlet for exploring imagination and flexible identity in a way that is usually reserved only for the play of children. Sure, there are those few who take it to the point of impaired functioning and enabling of some unhealthy mental patterns, but there are also plenty of people who have an Other identity and still manage to be quite well integrated into consensus reality, even if they aren’t quite happy about the current state of affairs. If nothing else, interpreting my wolfness as therianthropy was a fun way to take play seriously, if that makes sense.

But my head’s just not there any more, and my heart’s not in it, either. I can’t really force myself to write a second edition for the hell of it, either. It’s hard to write about something I’m not passionate about. You can look back at all the books and other writings I’ve created over the years, and you can see where my heart was at that time. And it’s gone in very different directions in the past few years.

Finally, to be quite honest: I’m tired of talking about Otherkin. Even before the book came out, it’s what most podcasters and other interviewers wanted to talk to me about, and even today it’s a frequent topic when people ask me about my writing and spiritual work. Never mind that for years I’ve been writing extensively on my work in neoshamanism, on animal and plant and fungus totems, on ecopsychology and bioregionalism and a whole bunch of other things that I am deeply fascinated by. Invariably, people want to talk about the Otherkin thing (though to be fair some of them wanted to talk about other things, even if Otherkin ended up being a dominant topic). It was fine when it was still something that I identified with and was actively working with, but I feel like my later work has been somewhat overshadowed by the topic of Otherkin simply because I “wrote the book” on it.

I don’t want to be the only person to have written a book on Otherkin, and it’s not just to get out of having to talk about it in interviews. I had hoped that once Field Guide was out, it would entice other writers to make their books happen. Just because there’s one book on Otherkin out doesn’t mean there can’t be others; and diversity of voices gives a topic more strength. (And I wanted more reading material, dammit!) Maybe with the book out of print, someone else will feel they can fill that niche now.

I know I’m taking away a resource by pulling the book out of print, even if it is imperfect. But it’s not the only resource out there. Even if there is a scattering of broken links here and there, Otherkin.net has always been one of my favorite resources. Otherkin Alliance has, for several years, offered a good collection of essays along with an active and well-moderated forum. Dreamhart.org is run by one of the most reliable long-time members of the Otherkin community, and features a relatively recent wiki that’s undergoing current expansion. And while O. Scribner hasn’t written a book per se, the excellent writings on this page are, in my opinion, essentially an ebook in several parts.

And there are plenty of other people besides these writing on Otherkin, on blogs and websites and the like. Hell, Otherkin are even being discussed in terms of social justice on Tumblr. I know for a fact you all can find lots to work with without my book being in print any more. The internet has the added benefit of being easy to update, unlike a dead tree book written by someone who’s already stretched pretty thinly.

To be honest, I think there are people out there who could do a better job at writing a book on Otherkin, even better than a carefully overhauled second edition of the Field Guide; for all the reasons I’ve stated above, I’m not that person. Even with the flaws I still like the book. But I think it’s run its course, and rather than try to patch up its imperfections and put forth something I’d still not be happy with, I’d like to see someone else take on that project.

Finally, please don’t take my moving on from therianthropy as a personal worldview as a wholesale denial of the entire concept. I am not the arbiter of anyone’s identity but my own. My path is taking my further and further away from “Lupa the therianthrope”, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow me. Nor should you use this as an excuse to tell other people who do still identify as Otherkin/therianthropes/etc. that they’re wrong. Let each person set their feet and their will wherever they choose.

As for me? I’ll keep exploring the world around me and finding my place in it with every hike I take. And I’m happy to keep talking about the work I’m doing today on a variety of levels. One door closes, another opens, and I’m taking that first step through.

(I mentioned A Field Guide to Otherkin is going out of print the first of May. I wanted to give people time to grab a copy while they were still available; I have a few left here, and the page also has links to other sites that may have a limited number left. Yes, there will be copies available a while after it officially goes out of print on May 1, since shops will need to sell off their remaining stock. Give it year and even used copies will be selling on Amazon for exorbitant prices, since only a few hundred copies exist in the world. So now’s your chance!)

Coming Together in Our Sorrow

Note: This is my contribution to the April edition of the Animist Blog Carnival; this month’s theme is “Ceremony and Community”.

Back in February when I was at PantheaCon, one of the workshops I presented was on ecopsychology and its relevance to the neopagan community. There’s a good deal of overlap between the spirituality of nature-based paganism and the secularism of ecopsychology. Both focus on strengthening relationships with the world around us, particularly the nonhuman portions thereof. They each utilize the outdoors in meaning-making activities, to include personal rites of passage and other ceremonies. And both have an emphasis on a systemic view of the world, to include one’s own community (human and otherwise).

At one point I mentioned the works of Joanna Macy. An environmental activist, Buddhist, and author, Macy is considered one of the foundational writers on ecopsychology. It’s not just because she helps readers to appreciate the environment, though that’s certainly an integral part of her work. What she does that’s so unique, though, is that she actively creates spaces for people to express grief over the loss of places, species, and other natural phenomena. Through frank and gentle discussions of grief and our relationships with it, and rituals such as The Council of All Beings, she’s offered up a series of tools for us to begin opening up to feelings we may have long suppressed.

In this society we’re allowed to grieve if a person close to us or whom we admire deeply passes away and is lost to us. It’s even understandable, as far as many are concerned, to feel a deep sense of loss and sadness at the death of a pet. And few would fault us for feeling depressed after losing a job or a home. But there’s less room on a societal level to feel grief for a place that’s been taken away, or a species that has gone extinct. We might be allowed a “well, damn, that sucks” if we read about it in the paper. And perhaps we might get away with a sigh of remorse when we drive by an open field that’s being torn up for yet another suburb full of little boxes made of ticky-tacky (or big McMansions made of the same). But those who openly grieve for the loss of a place or species or river are seen as “overly sensitive hippies” at best, and perhaps mentally off beyond that. Why grieve over progress? Why, that new strip mall going in will provide badly-needed minimum wage retail jobs! And don’t cry over that butterfly that’s gone extinct; see, there are dozens more in the garden. What’s just one more gone, really? And who cares if you can’t eat the fish out of that river? That’s what the supermarket is for.

When I wrote last year about the death of the place that raised me, the complete destruction of the tiny field where I played and explored as a child, I got so much support from people here and elsewhere. I heard numerous stories from other people who had had similar experiences, who shared that grief with me in their own words. I heard the fear and worry of those whose special wild places still stood, but were threatened with development and other encroachments. For once, I felt as though I had been heard, and that there was nothing wrong with me for feeling so much loss for a bunch of cedar trees and garter snakes.

I wish I’d had that sort of support twenty years ago, the first time a wild place I’d grown to love was leveled. That time, as I got off the bus that brought me home from junior high, I saw the entire field and forest behind my home torn to pieces and a big, ugly bulldozer sitting amid splintered tree trunks and raw, open earth. I was utterly and completely devastated. I fell to pieces inside, not just because my woods were gone, but the thing that had given me so much stability as a badly bullied child had disappeared. I was re-traumatized when the only response I got was “Well, the developer in charge of the new subdivision that’s going in had her favorite woods torn down when they put the high school track in, so she knows how you feel” and “Well, that’s progress; they’re supposed to be building some nice houses in there. Maybe we’ll look at them once they’re ready to sell”. Nobody understood why I couldn’t get over that shock, and why it was such a big deal that a half an acre of weeds and trees had been torn down.

It has taken me two decades to recover from that early loss. I fell down deep into a pool of depression for much of my teens, doing my best to put on a happy face while feeling sorrow I had no words for, and no one to offers words to even if I’d had them. when I discovered paganism, I at last found people to whom nature was an important thing, but so often in abstracts and images and symbols rather than direct contact. It wasn’t really until my path took me closer and closer to the physical world, as “spirit” and “material” blended and lost their boundaries, that I finally healed the connection I had with wild, open, outdoor spaces as a child. I couldn’t have done it without the support of countless people over the years who listened and spoke and conversed–and yes, that includes you readers here on Therioshamanism.

And that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about these losses, not just with facts and figures and calls to action to protect places halfway around the world, but the more visceral, personal connections and losses thereof. We need to know that it’s okay to feel these things, and we need to know that there are others who support us and care for us in those times of need. More importantly, that support and story-sharing can help us move through that grief and sorrow. Even if we don’t engage in formal rituals, just the telling of the tale to a caring audience can be ritual enough in and of itself. Sometimes speaking or writing the words is enough to help us move through the pain, and transform ourselves in the process. Sometimes all we need to find safety in community with others is a quiet, listening presence, a safe space held by strong, gentle hands.

Oak Moss Lichen as Totem

Lichens are a unique set of beings. Rather than being a kingdom of their own, lichens are a combination of plant (either algae or plant-like cyanobacteria) and fungus. While it is possible to separate the plant and fungal parts of a lichen in a laboratory, and some of these plant and fungus species also live independently, for all intents and purposes lichens are singular beings rather than colonies.

I’ve long paid attention to lichens when I’m outdoors. Part of this is because they’re really good indicators of how polluted the air in a given location is. Lichens are very sensitive to airborne pollutants as they gain some of their nutrients from the air, and the more lichens you see and the bigger they are, the healthier the air is. I also try to take care to not step on them, as they take a long time to grow back.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But from a spiritual standpoint they’re also fascinating! When I’ve worked with the totems of lichen species, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Sometimes the lichen totem itself shows up; other times, I work with the totems of the individual plant and fungus species that make up the lichen. I’ve even had meditations where the lichen switched back and forth between the forms. I haven’t noticed a pattern, such as older species of lichens preferring to stay singular. Each lichen totem has its own preference, and for the purposes of my writing I’m going to refer to each one in the singular from here on out.

One of the lichen totems that seems to like shapeshifting is Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri). As a singular lichen totem, Oak Moss is bold and rather extroverted, a rather intense totem to work with. Oak Moss are fairly opportunistic lichens; they’ve often been accused of killing trees because they tend to grow on trees that are already sick or dying. The totem is similarly intrepid, and has on occasion egged me on when I’ve come to a tough spot hiking and taken a moment to rest and check in with the spirits of the landscape. Oak Moss’ plant and fungus totems, on the other hand, are fairly shy and retiring; they often hide behind a sort of “veil”, and I find this is a common trend with the plant/fungus derivatives of lichen totems.

Oak Moss, though, often switches forms to demonstrate a point. For example, when I went to my beach along the Columbia River last week, I spent some time simply hanging out with the locals, as it were. I’d been thinking a lot about the complexity of human communications and relationships, and I got into a conversation with Oak Moss about this.

See, it’s really easy for people to turn each other into one-dimensional characters. Sometimes this is just out of sheer efficiency. I don’t need to know the entire life history of the person who rings up my purchase at the grocery store, though we may exchange a few pleasantries as we interact, and I may find out that they have three children and like mint chip ice cream at least as much as I do. It’s not really necessary to get to know them beyond that, and we can have a civil society based on such things.

Other times, it’s defensive. When we disagree strongly with other people on something we feel very deeply about, it’s a lot easier for us to turn them into the mustache-twirling villain of old silent films. We don’t have to think about them as well-rounded people with thoughts, feelings, families, and with whom we might share many other opinions in agreement. In fact, the very thought of considering our “enemies” as actual people can be threatening to our sense of moral stability. Empathy becomes anathema.

And so conflicts go round and round, from small disagreements among neighbors to international wars, fed by mutual pigeonholing.

I talked with Oak Moss about this, and the intense sadness I feel over the loss of potential communication. First, Oak Moss showed me how its children find it easier to grow on the aforementioned weakened trees. It isn’t because the trees are defenseless, but rather because the trees’ loss of leaves opens up their bark to the much-needed sunlight that plants and lichens both need. So the lichens take the opportunity to soak up some sun while their host tree slowly passes away. This is a normal part of nature; trees become food for other living beings, even before they die, and this process is absolutely crucial to the health of the forest.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But because we are often biased toward beautiful trees, and because we see the lichens living on the bark of trees that then die, we’ve sometimes demonized the lichens as the cause of the trees’ deaths. In actuality, the lichens were just doing what they could to survive and taking an opportunity in the very competitive race for sunlight. The trees would have died anyway; sometimes they become necessary nurse logs for lichens and mosses and ferns and others even before they’ve completely died and fallen. The decay created by fungi, lichens, and bacteria all releases nutrients back into the cycle of life and death. Nature hates waste.

And that reminded me, too, of my recycling of hides, bones, and other animal remains. I make use of the refuse from those who are hunters, farmers, and the like, as well as occasional roadkill remains. And I turn those remains into resources that not only keep me alive through paying my bills, but I can also donate a portion of the funds to nonprofit groups that benefit wildlife and their habitats. Like the lichens, I’m doing what I can to survive and converting resources that are available into benefits for others. Sometimes people look askance at both me and the lichens. But on we go.

Oak Moss then split into its plant and fungus parts. The fungus was robust, the heavy structure of the lichen that supports it. The algae, on the other hand, was the swift-moving photosynthesizer, the one who added shape to the lichen’s structure. If you split a lichen into its plant and fungus components, the fungus will grow into nothing but shapeless masses of hyphae, and the species of algae it is combined with determines how it’s shaped. Algae also is rather shapeless on its own, but continues its creation of food from sunlight regardless. So in a way we can think of the fungus as the heavy mover and lifter, and the algae as the artistic creator. Both are crucial to the existence and form of the lichen.

We, too, are complex beings with multiple roles in life. We all have times when we’re strong, and we all have times when we’re sensitive, and sometimes both. We wouldn’t be who we are without all these parts. As anyone in any form of relationship knows, it takes time to get to know a person in all their parts and pieces, as well as as a whole. It can take a great deal of patience and bravery, too, on the part of everyone involved. But empathy makes it easier to not hate someone, and to see them as a multi-layered person with whom we have agreements as well as disagreements. Sometimes it’s not safe to engage with someone who’s being actively hostile, and so it’s better to not directly interact with them. But even trying to imagine what it might be like to be that other person is better than that one-dimensional villainy.

And so Oak Moss reminded me to be patient with others–most especially those with whom I disagree. It’s more challenging to see certain people–homophobes, religious fundamentalists, corrupt politicians, as a few examples–as human beings, well-rounded people. But I feel it’s necessary to keep trying, if I’m to not perpetuate the same sort of hatred and lack of communication that is at the heart of so many problems. And it’s necessary to remind myself that I am a fully functioning human being as well, that I have my well-thought-out reasons for what I do and why. These can be difficult concepts to keep in mind, but I feel it’s crucial to do so.

And in this exchange, Oak Moss helped me to remember some of the most important ideals I live by. Some of them stem from childhood, but are just as relevant now. Just because I gave up Catholicism years ago doesn’t mean I didn’t learn important things from it. I do hold to heart two thoughts in particular:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Grant that I may not seek to be understood as to understand.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

The first is, of course, the Golden Rule, which can be found in cultures around the world. I know that I don’t care to be yelled at or insulted; it tends to be a real mood-killer when it comes to intelligent discourse; sometimes it’s better just to keep quiet than to continue arguments, fights, even wars. And so I tend to imagine that it’s the same way for other people, and I try to grant them the sort of patience and understanding I’d appreciate (even if I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be). And even though I sometimes get frustrated with other people, once I calm down I try to see thing from their perspective. Keep in mind that understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with it, and I think sometimes that’s what keeps people from trying to understand others’ perspectives. But if you hold true to your own opinions you won’t be so easily shaken as that, and if you do change your mind it will be an informed change, not one based on kneejerk reaction. Most importantly, it lets you keep sight of that other person’s personhood, which can go a long way in creating civil discourse.

So I left Oak Moss that day feeling lighter in my heart, and with more purpose and reason for being here. And from here on out, whenever I feel tempted to reduce someone to a single dimension, and especially if I only want to hang onto the worst possible picture of them I could have, I’m going to remember this conversation, and the image of Oak Moss splitting into two parts, very different from each other and yet both necessary to the whole. Life is full of complexities, lichens and humans among them. Better to focus on those complexities than to go to war over one-dimensional caricatures.

The Grand Dance of the Cosmos

I’m a little bit late to the Animist Blog Carnival, but better late than never, yes?

This month’s theme is Time. I have a strange relationship with time. One of the things that brings me such wonder is the sheer vastness of the Universe we live in, to include its fourth dimension. I suppose it’s in part because, as I’ve grown older, it’s taken larger amounts of time to impress me. When I was young, the idea that I was seven whole years old was a Big Deal! I couldn’t even conceive of my parents being in their thirties; it was just a bigger number with no context. In my late teens and twenties, as I started contemplating my mortality, the average lifespan of seventy-two years was a bit of an obsession. “Wow, I’m a quarter of the way to there!” was a sobering thought at eighteen. But I made peace with that, and the possibility that I might end up not even seeing seventy-two, and so I had to move on to other numbers to be bewildered by.

Which that brings me to now, in my mid-thirties. I am a huge fan of history documentaries. Ancient petroglyphs here in the United States, stone circles in England that are thousands of years old, the march of humanity out of (and back into, and sometimes out again) Africa and across the globe–these things entangle my mind and make me wish for a time machine so that I could observe more closely these people who were just as alive and real then as I am now. And extending beyond that, the evolution of species of animals, fungi, plants, and more over millions upon millions of years. And then the planet itself, how I wish I had a piece of the oldest rocks known on the Earth, thinking of how Earth’s sister planet Theia might crashed into it so long ago and two became one, how once all of this was star-stuff and cosmic dust and before that one very big bang. To these, seventy-two years doesn’t even register.

They say that one of the purposes of spirituality is to inspire awe and wonder and reverence, connection to something greater than yourself. This bigger-picture approach to time is one of the things that’s helped me to move toward a more naturalistic spirituality, one very embedded in the physical world and the wonders thereof. The lines between spirits, and what those spirits are supposed to represent, have become much more blurred, and I feel as much reverence and joy in observing a scrub jay on the power line outside my home as I do for the totem Scrub Jay. It’s made being in this world a much more joyful place, and more than ever I strongly disagree with those who claim there is no magic in this world.

Additionally, this cosmic dance has given me peace over the fact that I have just a tiny blip in the grand scheme of things. The very fact that I was honored with a place in this dance, even for a brief time, is in and of itself a privilege and a blessing. I will continually be frustrated that I can neither peer backward into what came before me, nor will I be able to see how the story continues to unfold once I am gone. I may not even leave a mark that lasts much beyond my passing. But in the end it is enough that I was here, that a little piece of time unfolded just for me, as it has for all of us–pill bugs, Cooksonia, stromatolites, the continental shield of North America, and every single human being that has ever and will ever breathe the air.

The small things count, too. Every moment that I live and breathe and exist is important. I blink, I exhale, I turn my head. A word is spoken, a thought flickers and is brought into the open, a goal is completed. Each is stitched to the next by the passing of time, but not one can be taken away without the whole thing collapsing. Every moment is important both in and of itself, and as part of the overall continuation.

So even the worst moments in my life have meaning. They may not have happened for some extraordinary cosmic reason; I don’t need to make sense of them in the manner of “Well, you’re working off bad karma” or “it was meant to be”. But I don’t have to add extra meaning to these just to justify their existence. The fact that each moment exists is justification enough. Each one is a stepping stone from one to the next, and I couldn’t have just jumped from the best thing that happened to me last week to the great event I’ll get to experience in a few days. That’s why I can realize, even at my darkest moments when my anxiety has me convinced the worst is here and everything is horrible, that it’s just a temporary condition. I may not be very good at being in the moment and being okay with that when life falls apart, but I’m getting better at remembering that the bad moments are stitched to the good ones and sometimes I just need to be patient and let time continue to unfold apace. Eventually I come to a place of respite and safety again.

I’m not at all alone in this experience. I have moments that are knitted into years and an ever-expanding network of lifetimes, mine and others’, and we in turn are woven into the very latest threads of a much greater cloth, billions of years old and countless strands large. Time weaves no holes, only ever-expanding patterns. It doesn’t even matter whether there’s a conscious weaver behind it all or not. Just being here in time’s continual unfolding–that’ll evoke more than enough wonder, awe, and reverence for the remainder of my lifetime, I think.

Black Cottonwood as Plant Totem

By far the most common tree at the riverside beach I volunteered to keep clean is the black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), also known as the western poplar. A young-ish forest of these tall, lanky trees crowd up almost to the edge of the river, stopped only by the sandy beach itself. I’m used to hiking through forests of aged conifers, Douglas fir and Western hemlock and the like. The energy of these fast-growing poplars was almost frenetic in comparison (though certainly conifers can contend well in the upward race to the sun).

Photo by Lupa, 2012

Photo by Lupa, 2012

I spoke to the totem Black Cottonwood about this, and found that because these trees are relatively short-lived, they tend to be more “sped-up” than some others. It’s worked to their advantage in several ways, to include in competition with other plants. A stand of new cottonwoods can create a young canopy in less than decade, quickly (and literally) overshadowing smaller, slower-growing trees and shrubs.

This comes at a price, of course. Black cottonwoods are, as mentioned, short-lived, averaging a lifespan of 125 years or so. Not that this is an uncommon trend in nature, of course, but we so often think of trees as being potentially ancient that it’s a bit startling to realize a black cottonwood we plant when we’re young may not outlive us by much.

And it’s a reminder to look at the effects of competition. Beneath the canopy of black cottonwoods, the forest along the beach is filled with invasive Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom. From a self-centered perspective, these plants are doing great–they’ve edged out the competition in the undergrowth and settled themselves in firmly. Some humans are content to have a similar worldview, elbowing their way into a situation and shoving everyone else out no matter the cost. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, of course. It can be a good motivator to get people to create new and amazing things. But when it does damage to the overall system, whether an ecosystem or a human community, that’s cause to pause, reflect, and change the situation.

Finally, life isn’t just about racing to be the fastest or the best. I admit that I drive myself really, really hard. I have a lot of things that I’m working on and sometimes I feel overextended, stretched too thinly. I like what I create, but sometimes it can be exhausting. So I often need to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the scenery; even if I’m not as tall as a cottonwood tree, the view’s still pretty good from where I am and I oughtn’t miss it on my way up.

Black Cottonwood also pointed out that because her children grow so close to the water they’re directly affected by the pollutants therein. She told me that if I were to take root samples from the trees closest to the river, and then further away from the water, the closer ones would have absorbed more of the pollutants already found in the water. However, even the trees closer in to the island weren’t completely safe; agricultural runoff, and pollutants from the roads encircling the island also ended up in the soil and roots. She told me that in the same way it was important to monitor the toxins in my own self, physical and otherwise, and to be aware of what I take in. And, as I’ll be training later this year to test the water quality of the Columbia River along the beach, so do I need to be paying attention to what I’m absorbing.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

It made me think about what I can’t help but allow into my body. Because I live in an urban environment, I’m constantly breathing in all sorts of toxins from vehicles and other sources. Most of the time it’s hard for me to consciously pay attention to it, but all it takes is walking through one cloud of exhaust or cigarette smoke to realize my respiratory system is being constantly assaulted. Even in the wilderness I’m not safe, as air pollution knows no boundaries. I can have some more control over what I choose to eat, though unfortunately I’m not at a point where I can grow my own food or afford to only buy organic, free-range food all the time. Still, I can make changes where I’m able.

It’s not just physical toxins, either. Emotional and psychological toxins are everywhere. My anxiety is a pretty frequent internal source thereof, and I have to take a little time out here and there to check the outflow of stressful, anxious thoughts and get myself back to a healthier homeostasis. That doesn’t change the fact that other people can be pretty toxic, too. Sometimes it’s people being mean for the sake of being mean (or “for the lulz”, its own special brand of bullying). Other times it’s folks who have a good message to convey, but a rather ineffectively caustic manner of conveying it. These toxins, too, need to be monitored, and if possible their sources cut out of my life. Failing that, good coping skills and defenses are called for.

So it seems I have quite a bit in common with the black cottonwood trees, and much to learn from their totem. I’m curious to see where this goes as I continue making my visits to clean their habitat up on this island in the Columbia, but I’d say we’re off to a good start.

As a side note, as I was researching the black cottonwood I found out that it was the first tree to have its genome sequenced. It genome is described as “compact”, about 1/50 that of the size of a pine tree. Nothing’s jumped out at me totemically regarding that just yet, but hey–maybe something about new levels of usefulness to others, since the cottonwood is already used for lumber, fiber and the like. (Might there also be something about speaking out against being used, perhaps? We shall see.)

A Modern-Day Ordeal

If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll notice that one of the themes I keep coming back to is Therioshamanism as a (neo)shamanic creation based on my own social and cultural background. The dominant non-indigenous culture in the US doesn’t have a clear shamanic figure, though I feel there are professions and roles here that can be analogous. On the one hand, American (neo)shamans may face accusations and feelings of illegitimacy, as though our lack of roots makes anything we do insufficient. And yet at the same time, there’s a great opportunity for creativity and flow in making something that is new and suited for the setting we found ourselves born into. I feel it is a fine balance between acknowledging how other cultures have formed their own shamanisms and related practices over hundreds or thousands of years, and making something that is uniquely ours instead of just wholesale copying. There’s a lot of trial and error, to be sure, and at times I really respect my fellow practitioners who are similarly trying to create something with no single existing cultural framework.

One of the themes that comes up as a topic of discussion is that of the ordeal. I have met people who claim that you must have an ordeal in a traditional manner–either a life-threatening physical illness, or a severe mental illness/breakdown–and that it absolutely can’t be a positive or constructive experience whatsoever. Nor, they say, is it something that you can openly seek out; it has to crash down on your head and ruin everything. Supposedly all these things separate the wannabes from the hard-core practitioners. I have a gentler approach. Not every ordeal a person goes through is a shamanic one; as attributed to John Watson/Ian MacLaren, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle“. What I think distinguishes a shamanic ordeal, at least in part, is whether it directly contributes to one’s work as a (neo)shaman. It may still be a great challenge with a significant risk of failure, but it can be something you willingly choose to enter into as a furthering of your path and development. In this, it doesn’t always have to be the initiatory ordeal; ordeals can also be ongoing challenges.

Many of the things I have gone through weren’t ones that I chose. I would be lying if I said that over a decade of bullying leading to the development of an anxiety disorder was something I decided to experience. At the same time, while it did directly lead to my walking this path, I could potentially have chosen other ways to focus the aftermath of those feelings. I could have ended up an addict trying to drown out the anxiety attacks and traumatic memories. I could have ended up a Catholic nun in a cloister, seeking refuge in a holy sisterhood. In short, I don’t feel that my eventual walking of a (neo)shamanic path was something preordained. But it’s where I ended up, and that personal set of decisions and paths has to be factored in as well as the cultural milieu.

Because I live in such a highly individualistic society, I don’t find it surprising that so many (neo)shamans enter their paths in part due to personal benefit–not in the case of “making lots of money”, but in “finding a focus for things that hurt” or “a way to grow in a healthier manner”. Rather than being a wholly self-serving path, though, (neo)shamanism has the added benefit of reminding us that we are part of a community, and emphasizing the need to be an intermediary in that community. Individualism is not in and of itself a bad thing, but sometimes the dominant US culture errs a little (or a lot) too far to that end. All things in moderation, to include self-identity and group-identity.

That being said, I don’t think there’s any shame in a (neo)shaman actively pursuing an ordeal in part to better themselves as practitioners and as people. The more any practitioner of any art, science, etc. knows and experiences, the better they are to serve their communities. This entire post came up in my head in part because I recently acquired my Wilderness First Responder training and certification. It was very much a challenge; for 8 days straight I spent 8-9 hours a day in ongoing training, to include daily hands-on drills and practice, plus an additional 2+ hours of homework every night. I had to process an immense amount of information each day and demonstrate that I understood its applications, and I went home every night almost too exhausted to do my homework. For those 8 days, WFR training was all I did–and there was no guarantee I’d pass. It challenged me in many ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and when I came out of it with my certification, it took me a while to absorb the reality that I’d succeeded.

Just as with going to grad school for a counseling Master’s degree, this is something that I chose to enter into despite the challenges because I wanted to be better able to serve my community. I spend enough time outdoors, both alone and with others, that I wanted to be able to act in case of a medical emergency. And as I do sometimes lead workshops at pagan events, to include some that are outside in fairly remote areas, I want to be able to take care of the participants on multiple levels. (Even if I don’t hold sweat lodges, I certainly haven’t forgotten about James Arthur Ray.) And even outside of a backcountry context, having basic first aid training could come in handy some day.

These all tie into my ongoing development of a (neo)shamanic role in my culture. I’m still in the process of developing what the counseling end of all this will look like (and I’m continuing to take a few courses through my alma mater), but each experience I have pulls it into more cohesion. I’m okay with it taking a while to come together; I’m still able to help people through writing and workshops and one on one work together. And I think whatever I end up with, it’ll be something that I feel fills that void, to an extent, that we have in this culture through the lack of a single shamanic figure. It’ll most likely be an ongoing work in progress, too, which I’m okay with. No system is stagnant, and if I can leave something for others to build on in the future, so much the better.

In my vision of a (neo)shamanism for my culture, I don’t see ordeals as being these uniformly awful things to be avoided. Challenging, yes, but there’s already so much negativity and discouragement here that I don’t want to include that idea of “it’s not real unless you hate it” in what I’m developing. I want to be a constructive practitioner, offering support and compassion to a community that’s all too often cynical and jaded, and I want to continue excising these things from myself. It doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the problems in the world, or the fact that some ordeals and challenges are unwanted and destructive and we don’t always come out for the better. But the skills learned in constructive ordeals can come in quite handy when dealing with destructive experiences in general, and isn’t being able to weather the storms better a good thing in general?

A Caution Against Pagan Fundamentalism

A caveat to start with: No matter how well a writer writes something, inevitably someone will misinterpret what they were trying to say. Such is the limitation of language. In that spirit, allow me to make one thing very, very clear before this essay even starts: I am not equating hard polytheism with religious fundamentalism. I am concerned that because of certain patterns I have seen among some, not all, hard polytheists, that this may, not necessarily will, in the future give rise to a form of pagan religious fundamentalism. Additionally, the “You’re wrong, I’m right” attitude that I’m observing is not limited to debates regarding polytheism, but other areas of paganism as well, and any of these could also give rise to a form of fundamentalism given the right circumstances. Polytheism happens to be the topic of the moment which finally gave me a chance to voice some concerns about fundamentalism in paganism that I’ve been chewing on a while. There. Now that I’ve said that, feel free to proceed.

I’ve been watching the recent discussion on several pagan blogs concerning hard polytheism, “bringing back the gods”, and so forth with some interest. I admit that the older I get, the more I am moving toward a more pantheistic viewpoint, with a good dash of humanism as well. It’s not that I discount the existence of the Divine, spirits, and so forth, but that my experiences with them simply haven’t led me to adopt a hard polytheistic view (and anyway, I tend more toward totems and nature spirits than gods).

So that obviously colors my perspective on all this. I don’t have a stake in the proven reality of deities as independent entities, but neither does it bother me that some people do. What concerns me is the possibility of the rise of pagan religious fundamentalism. (Yes, I know there are polytheists dropping the term “pagan” from their experience because they associate it with Things That We Aren’t, but for the purposes of my discussion, polytheists are still pagan, in part so I don’t have to keep writing pagans/polytheists over and over.) Fundamentalism as a concept was originally described in certain areas of Protestantism in the early 1900s. These people had a very strict and literal interpretation of their religion, and today “fundamentalism” is often used to describe any of a number of religious perspectives that hold similar, inflexible views on God(s) and the way humans are supposed to act.

There are a lot of pagans (and other people, but let’s stick to pagans for now) who have had bad experiences as a result of fundamentalism, usually of the Christian variety. The community is full of stories of people growing up in strictly religious households and being treated pretty poorly for the mistake of exploring new beliefs. These could range from having their pagan religious tools and effects taken from them and destroyed, to being assaulted or thrown out of the home. Adult pagans have lost jobs, homes, and children due to religious persecution. Pagan prisoners are routinely denied access to religious materials and clergy, and it’s rare for a pagan clergyperson to be asked to lead a prayer in a civic setting where such things still occur. While Christian fundamentalists proper were not always the opposition in these cases, the attitudes of fundamentalism tend to leak out into the wider cultural consciousness (I’ll talk more about that in a minute).

With these consequences of fundamentalism in mind, it seems strange to see echoes of them in paganism. Yes, of course there’s the fact that people often subconsciously emulate the behavior patterns they were raised around, but surely that can’t be the source of every single instance of “You’re wrong, I’m right!” in paganism. And while not every one of those “I’m right!” instances constitutes fundamentalism, the long-standing tendency for some pagans to tell others “You’re doing it wrong!” seems to be heading closer to fundamentalism to a troubling degree. And so while I don’t want to point at any single claim of “hard polytheism is the best and only way!” as fundamentalist, because of the general trend I do want to put forth a warning against the dangers of falling prey to fundamentalist stances. Allow me to present a few points for consideration.

Not all pagans are theistic, and paganism is not just about the gods.

I really like Christine Kraemer’s Venn diagram in this recent post. It’s a reminder that “paganism” isn’t ONLY about gods, or ONLY about nature, or any other single influence. I agree with her when she she says in her own words (and italics), “for some pagans, polytheism is not a main focus for practice or belief.” Her post was in response to this one by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus whom I should mention, for disclosure’s sake, is a friend of mine and someone I respect highly. He wrote a really good essay (even if I don’t quite agree with all of it) that sparked a lot of discussion, and one of the key ideas was the possibility that the emphasis on “nature-based” paganism is to make non-pagans feel more comfortable with us, and that those of us who don’t embrace polytheism are making that choice because we’re uncomfortable with polytheism.

I’m not uncomfortable with polytheism. I spent most of my pagan “career” that started in 1996 being a polytheist to one degree or another. The shift toward pantheism has been a more recent thing, ironically brought on by my attempts to deepen my practice (another thing I’ll touch on more later). Being more comfortable with pantheism does not automatically mean a discomfort with polytheism, any more than choosing to be pagan means a discomfort with any other religion. If I’m uncomfortable with anything it’s the growing resemblance to fundamentalism I see in some sectors of hard polytheism, but that’s not why I am not a polytheist any more.

As my spiritual practice becomes more entwined with my path of service to the environment and to other humans, I find myself more and more rooted in this world. And my increased engagement with the physical world brings me closer to being a naturalist, with a combination of armchair scientific study and feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt direct experience. So pantheism–seeing the Divine as directly manifest in the natural world that I interact with–makes more sense to me at this point. Truth be told, my involvement with most deities, other than Artemis, has never been particularly deep. I worked with the Animal Father as part of a personal pantheon early in my Therioshamanism work, but he eventually faded back into the wilderness from whence he came, and the energy I touched with him I see in every living animal, and I connect more strongly that way. As to Artemis? She’s always been an internal part of me much as my primary totem Gray Wolf is; it’s hard sometimes to tell where the boundaries fall between us. These days I’m simply not that concerned with proving once and for all whether my invisible friends are independent beings or manifestations of human consciousness and myth, and I’ve never had much note from any of the beings I work with that suggested they cared what I thought, either. What’s important to me and to them are the immediate and measurable manifestations of my practice, whether that’s a shamanic journey or a day spent cleaning up litter along the river.

The anger and debate seem to all be on the human side of things. When someone doesn’t perform a ritual properly, or refers to several goddesses as aspects of one Goddess, I haven’t seen divine bolts of lightning streak down and smite them. There are historical debates, of course, where we can argue the facts of what the people of such and such ancient and no longer extant culture did, but that doesn’t lead to proof of what a particular deity or spirit wants. It’s always the people arguing over whether a particular practice or belief is correct, sometimes to an absurd degree–I’ve seen people on Tumblr debate whether a store-bought strawberry tart was a fitting offering for Loki. Regardless, it always comes down to the “You’re wrong, I’m right” debate; it’s only the details that differ.

Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is characterized by people insisting that their way is correct and everyone else’s isn’t. It’s what keeps fundamentalism alive. As social creatures, we like having something sure to crowd around to unite us, and religion makes a great standard for rallying. Unfortunately, we also get this idea that the more right we are, the stronger we are, and so in order to increase our strength and security we have to prove our rightness. This fervor is part of how religion has very often been used as a tool for political and social machinations and power plays. The people involved are so focused on the surface message of “You’re wrong, we’re right” that they ignore the men behind the curtain. Look at the Crusades, for example; Pope Urban II called for them in part because the nobles in Europe were being rather rowdy, and he figured that sending them east under the guise of a holy war would at least get them out of the way for a while, as well as ingratiate him to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I who was being attacked by Muslim forces. Most people think it was just a matter of Christians versus Moslems in a grand melee for the Holy Land, but that was just the surface.

Religion in general plays on a lot of human behavioral tendencies, and while these can sometimes be beneficial, as in prayer and meditation to relieve stress and anxiety, and the benefits of a healthy community, fundamentalism has a poison to it. It’s divisive and exclusionary, and it builds identity not on connection but on isolation. And this isolation can be a very bad thing indeed.

Fundamentalism has a tendency to breed ignorance.

When you build your entire worldview on an idea, any opposing idea becomes a threat to that power base. There is absolutely no incontrovertible proof that any religious belief is more objectively and measurably true than any other, and the number of people who adhere to it does not increase its truth. Because we can’t prove a belief in the same way we can prove that gravity exists, or that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, or that a mammal’s fur retains heat, adherents of beliefs can sometimes become very insecure about what they believe.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strongly-held belief in and of itself, even if you can’t prove it. But one of the defenses against having your worldview shaken is willful ignorance. I would imagine that most, if not all, of my readers are aware that homosexuality isn’t dangerous, that gay people are not more likely to be sexual predators, and that if gays get married it won’t cause the collapse of civilization as we know it. Yet because the Bible happens to mention in a couple of places that homosexuality is a bad thing, there are people who latch onto that and who absolutely refuse to consider any other evidence to the contrary.

We live in a 21st century where for a lot of us (though certainly not everyone) we have an inconceivable amount of information at our disposal through the internet and other forms of media. Even a quarter of a century ago when I was in elementary school writing my first essays I had access to several different sets of encyclopedias, dozens of magazines, and thousands of books, just in my little school’s library. The information is there; ignorance is the choice to not access it. And, I suppose, for some people the idea that they might be wrong is a terrifying thing, so much so that they don’t step out of their safe sphere.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I might be wrong. There was a feeling of liberation a while back when I finally felt the tyranny of “I HAVE TO MAKE SURE I’M RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING” lift away from my shoulders, and I had the liberty to move through the world unencumbered by that obsession. And it allowed me to be even more curious about the world than I already was. A sure belief doesn’t have to extinguish curiosity, but my own experience has been that allowing myself ambiguity has freed me to focus more on exploration and learning for its own sake, come what may.

Ignorance is dangerous.

Again, having a strongly held belief isn’t automatically ignorance. But ignorance, when it happens, has its own dangers. When we tunnel-vision so tightly on a belief that we refuse to listen to anything else, it can hurt us and others. It’s been proven again and again that vaccinations have absolutely nothing to do with autism, and yet there are increasing numbers of parents in the United States who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the strongly-held (and incorrect) belief that autism is somehow transmitted through common shots. As a direct result, diseases we’d significantly reduced or even almost eradicated, like pertussis and measles, are on the rise, along with the highest rates of deaths from these diseases in decades. We can prove without a doubt, due to decades of statistics on vaccination effectiveness and illnesses and deaths from these diseases, that these people likely died as a direct result of lower vaccination rates. And it’s not just the people who chose not to allow vaccinations who suffer: the dead include unvaccinated children who could still be alive today had they been given routine childhood vaccines.

Sometimes ignorance is on a grander, even deadlier scale. People have slaughtered each other for millenia based on religious and political propaganda which very often doesn’t paint the whole picture (remember Mark Twain’s The War Prayer?) And while modern paganism has not birthed such theocratic efforts, perhaps it’s only due to a lack of numbers and chance, as well as the persistent tendency for pagans to eschew preaching and converting–at least toward non-pagans.

And, in and of itself, insisting that the gods are real, independent entities a la hard polytheism isn’t particularly dangerous. You can believe whatever you like and still not be a problem to others if you just leave it to yourself and those who agree with you. It’s the desire to make others agree with you that’s the problem. And that desire stems from insecurity in one’s own belief, with ignorance another common side-effect. Ignorance only allows a person to learn about other ways far enough to be able to rail about how they’re wrong, to have fodder for their fight. They can’t venture too far from those shaking beliefs they hold for fear they’ll fall and so, like a dog chained to a rickety old dog house, they bark and snarl at the world around them, only knowing of the things that come close enough to feel like a threat.

Maybe the surest counter to this dangerous ignorance is genuine curiosity, and an openness to the world. There’s a certain strength in being able to hold your beliefs even when you’re learning about others, not out of the desire to disprove them, but simply to know more about them. This isn’t just knowing the words of others’ beliefs, but opening yourself to why people hold them. A little immersion in this way won’t make a person a convert, and the potential for a change in one’s own worldview shouldn’t be reason to shut the rest of the world out.

Fundamentalism is contagious.

Most adherents of a religion are not fundamentalists. However, many adherents do have some beliefs they hold strongly, and their communities help them to bolster that faith. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s part of religious communities as vessels of social memetics. But as we can see throughout history, extremists of any sort tend to attract a crowd, and while some may discount them, others catch hold of their message. Sometimes that extreme eventually becomes the norm; look at how Christianity grew from a tiny little cult surrounded by other tiny little cults into one of the dominant religions on Earth. Unfortunately, sometimes the messages that are the most contagious are also the most negative.

I can tell you a story of this from personal experience. When I first started this blog in 2007, it was part of my quest for a deeper, more meaningful spiritual path. I had watched a number of people I knew in the pagan community engage in some truly beautiful devotional practices to deities and spirits, with wonderfully elaborate schedules of celebrations, and creative shrines and altars. While I had certainly had good experiences with the totems and other spirits I worked with over the years, I felt the need to have something similarly focused and devotional. You can look back at the first year or two of this blog to see where I was really trying to build that. Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I ended up finding my depth and meaning in a totally different direction, but that doesn’t invalidate the appreciation I still have for the devotions of others.

Unfortunately, one of the things I also picked up from a few–definitely not all–of the people who inspired me was a thread of one-true-way-ism. Usually this would be people who were trying to reconstruct a particular ancient polytheistic pagan faith, and who were so dead-set on doing it right that they openly criticized anyone doing things differently. I suppose, having seen that modeled, I latched onto core shamanism as my target of “You’re wrong!”, and again you can read through some of my earlier thoughts in this blog. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my path, while I still have personal disagreements with core shamanism (especially when it’s presented as “genuine ancient shamanism”), I no longer feel the need to attack it as a whole path. There are people for whom it works just fine; in fact, I’ve seen some people in the counseling field integrate elements of it to help their clients in very genuine ways. How can I argue with that effectiveness?

Honestly, I feel like an asshole for being that heavily critical. It did speak to a certain level of insecurity on my part, and I feel bad that I probably influenced other people to be critical to a similar degree. Granted, I am not responsible for what people choose to do based on their interpretations of my writings, any more than the people who I saw modeling hyper-critical behavior were responsible for my wholesale attacks on core shamanism. But it does demonstrate the tendency of people to copy those they wish to emulate, sometimes without considering what it is, exactly, they’re emulating.

If proper fundamentalism takes greater hold in paganism, I worry about what direction it may take the community as a whole. Maybe instead of polytheists dropping out because they don’t feel any connection to everyone else, it’ll be pluralists fleeing the damning whip of fundamentalist criticism and harassment as the “You’re wrong! I’m right” arguments go from small bickering online to greater pressure to conform to one party line.

We do not need fundamentalism to be legitimate.

I’ve seen the argument that if we pagans are going to be taken seriously, we have to present a more hard-line, united front of beliefs. Supposedly because we’re a group of people with a wide variety of paths and faiths, this means that there’s no way we can rank up there with well-defined single religions–never mind that they at least have denominations that may vary widely from one to the next.

And yet I’ve seen some really admirable interfaith efforts on the part of people representing paganism in general. Look at what Patrick McCollum has been doing over the years in criticizing the “dominant religion lens” of Christianity in the U.S. He hasn’t only been advocating for Wiccans, but for pagans in general, and in fact his work could very well benefit people of many other minority faiths. He’s just one of many examples of how paganism can be a legitimate religious presence in the cultural and social consciousness without having to resort to fundamentalism for strict definition.

Final Thoughts.

As it stands, we are not embroiled in a massive pagan fundamentalism movement. I have no problem with hard polytheists wanting to define themselves more as such–or anyone else taking the time to more clearly explain who they are and what they believe and why. I don’t even particularly care about the existence of the ongoing “You’re wrong! I’m right!” argument that’s manifested in everything from the “Only Brit-trad Wiccans are REAL Wiccans” debate to the current trends toward a more hardline polytheism. What worries me is the possibility of any of the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” debates to turn into genuine fundamentalism with all its problems and poisons. I feel it’s better to bring it up now, before it ever happens–if it even ever happens for that matter–than after the fact.

Because I don’t feel I’m being too cautious about potential fundamentalism. We don’t really know for sure what happens when you offend a god, but we sure as hell know what happens when someone is so very focused on keeping others from offending the gods that they’ll go to extreme, dangerous, and even lethal lengths to prevent or avenge that offense. Even if that’s not a real threat in paganism today, let’s start creating a setting now that will keep it from being a reality in the future.

“Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!

It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.

However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.

What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.

Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.

I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.

I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.

But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).

Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)

Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.