What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Applied Ecotherapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking Near Mt. Hood

Today Tay and I went hiking out near Mt. Hood, on Barlow Trail. This was a new-to-us trail, and one that was recommended as light traffic and not too difficult in 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland. Actually, half our hike was on Barlow, and the other half was a detour towards Upper Twin Lake. We really, thoroughly, and truly enjoyed this hike. Despite it being one of the busiest hiking days of the year, and despite the fact that Mirror Lake, just a few miles away, was packed to the gills, we ran into less than a dozen people the entire time we were out there.

It was a six mile hike, three in and three out, and we averaged two miles an hour (though that was including the times we stopped to rest). The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and upper 70s. The trails were actually pretty level a good bit of the way, and the inclines were easy, no scary, steep switchbacks. While there were occasional rocks and roots in the trail, and a few fallen logs, it was smooth hiking otherwise.

We encountered a pretty decent variety of wildlife. We saw a number of small toads, some greyish-brown, one reddish-brown, and one a lovely leaf-green. I was a bit surprised as we weren’t near any source of water, but I suppose the condensation at night is enough to keep them happy, and toads aren’t as water-dependent as frogs. We also saw a tiny little baby snake, dark dusty brown with lighter brown stripes down the sides and a rounded, non-poisonous head–no more than six inches long! We heard and saw several ravens; I forget just how big they get. No one who has ever seen a raven will ever mistake a crow for one again, that’s for sure. We also startled a lone elk; we both heard it bounding down the mountainside, and Tay caught a glimpse before it disappeared into the trees. There was a single Douglas squirrel on our way out, and a nesting osprey on the Columbia River on our drive home. And, of course, there were numerous blackflies and mosquitoes, who greeted me with “Mmmm, you’re the best thing I’ve seen all day!”

I really need to go through the stack of field guides I was given recently to try and identify some of the plants I saw, too. I know I saw lots and lots of wild strawberries; they were just blooming, and if I were to show up in a few weeks no doubt there’d be fruit (or empty stems, depending on how popular they were!). I know a conifer when I see one, and I’m pretty sure I know which one is Western hemlock, but I couldn’t point out a Douglas fir from a lineup. Clearly I’m not enough of a Northwesterner yet. I can identify cinquefoils, though (five petals!). And I knew that the puffball-looking mushroom near the destroying angels was probably not a safe bet to eat.

As I was walking, I saw numerous hoofprints from horses, the U-shaped imprints from the steel shoes embedded in the dry earth. I imagined the sound of the hooves striking the hard-packed dirt, and while my own feet were too soft, I could thump the ground with my walking stick and pretend. On our way out, not three minutes after I remarked to Tay that we hadn’t seen anyone on the Twin Lakes trail, three riders passed us. The first two were on large brown mules; the third was on a skittish, stocky, short-legged red bay mare who looked to have some pre-Thoroughbred Quarter Horse in her. Tay and I stood to the side of the trail and let them pass.

We really enjoyed the hike, and we intend to go back again at least a few times this year. If we hadn’t been getting chewed to pieces by the bugs (having unwisely not worn any repellent) by the time we hit Upper Twin Lake, we could have added another few miles to the hike, looped down around Lower Twin Lake, and then come back around to Twin Lakes Trail and back down Barlow. So we’ll be doing that another time. Plus there are numerous other trails that branched off from Barlow and Twin Lakes, and plenty of exploring to do. (And maybe next time I’ll remember the camera so I can get some pictures!)

While right now we’re day hikers, eventually I want to collect the right equipment for packing-in camping. Barlow Trail is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which attracts a lot of hardcore hikers who will walk it for weeks at a time. I’m nowhere near that point, but I want this year to at least be one where I get more experience with camping. Even if we don’t do the pack-in thing this year, I do want to spend more nights outdoors.

An Update!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So It’s Been About a Year…

This week marks a year since I started developing therioshamanism. I made the first posts here on September 20, but the idea was percolating for a few days beforehand, along with a few experiences that pushed me in this direction. I look back at those first posts, and holy cripes–there’s been a lot of change in the past year on many levels. For one thing, my practice is a lot less neopagan-y, and while I still value the input of books, I’m much more aware of just how important practice is in comparison. Books can give ideas, but unless I put those ideas to work, what am I really doing at all?

My first six months saw a lot of restructuring and cosmology-building, as well as figuring out what from my past practices was really useful, and what I could leave behind. After that things got a lot less linearly organized, and as I’ve evolved into actual practice beyond meditation, with activities ranging from writing songs for my guides to taking some exploratory journeys, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t about “Your first year should mean the accomplishment of this, and then the second year will bring that”. There aren’t degrees, and I’ve evolved at the rate I needed to. I think the structure of the first six months was exceptionally helpful in getting me started, but it fell away afterwards, and I think things went better for that.

I look back, and I see a lot of time spent working on figuring things out for myself. I see a lot of useful comments that helped me when I was trying to bounce ideas off others for feedback, and I see times when the spirits I work with nudged things into place just at the right time. I see some times of frustration, of doubt, and of insecurity, but I also see times of learning and victory and states of flow. I see where I fell flat on my face (usually due to my own actions), and I see where my spirituality contributed to my going back to graduate school. I’ve been to numerous places, physically and otherwise, and I’ve learned so much–not the least of which being the knowledge that I still have so much left to learn.

It’s been a good year overall. There’s so much potential before me, and while I’m not under the misapprehension that everything will be a cakewalk, there’s a lot of potential to create good things out of this.

So how did I celebrate? By hiking, of course. This was something more instigated by me and my need to mark the occasion, than by the spirits, who are working more along a “Okay, the time is right for this” “schedule”. I wanted to do a bit of a dedication ceremony for my new drum, and also wanted to make offerings to a few particular local guides associated with my sacred place in the Gorge (which is mirrored as my starting place when I journey in the spirit world).

So, having prepared the offerings, basic hiking supplies, and also having strapped my drum to the back of my pack, I hiked on up the mountain. I had just gone hiking with Taylor a few days before, so I was still a bit tired, and the temperature was in the nineties. I ended up taking a lot of short breaks on the way up. But I made it with no major complications.

A couple of auspicious occurrences happened on the way up. First, I found a deer leg bone. This is unprecedented, as I have never found anything more than a few stray feathers at this place, let alone bones. However, there was a slightly dirty but intact deer bone right in the middle of the trail in front of me. “Pick me up!” its spirit said. I did, and got an instant mental image of the bone as the handle for a drum beater. Now, the beater that I got with my new drum was well-made, but the stick that was the handle just didn’t really connect with me. So I resolved that once I got to the top of the mountain and to my place that I’d do a quick replacement.

The other occurrence traces back to some of my recent journeying. There’s a particular place I haven’t been able to get past due to certain spirits blocking it. I know I need to get up there, and I never have a problem getting up there in the physical world. As I sat resting near this place, Stellar’s Jay came swooping across, shrieking loudly as if to say “Clear the way!” I decided that next time I journeying I’d ask for Stellar’s Jay to help me get past these spirits.

Once at my sacred place, specifically the location that is the home of the Animal Father, I rested and refreshed myself. I then went around and placed the offerings in their proper places; these were not food, but rather small shiny objects that I made over the weekend. One was for the Land itself, and contained some of my hair. The others were for local guides: Stellar’s Jay, whose presence in the wilderness resembles (but isn’t identical to) Scrub Jay in the city; Northern Harrier Hawk, who is the raptor closest to me in this area, replacing Redtail back east; Great Horned Owl, who is a particular guardian of this place, and for whom the offering was less about me and more about the place; Raven, whose quorks have often accompanied me here; Douglas Squirrel, bold and brash, but with caution when it’s necessary; and Red Fox, who is rarely ever seen, but is a silent shadow here, and wanted to make hir presence known to me.

After the offerings were made, I redid the drum beater with the deer leg. Then I did my first journey with the new drum. I warmed the drum up with my hand, raising the energy of it and waking it up. Then I drummed slowly, gradually speeding up in a pattern that I’ve found to be effective for me. I saw the horse spirit in the drum, and learned her name (though I’ll refer to her from here on out as Small Horse, as with other skin spirits I work with). Then I began the formal journey.

Every time I’ve journeyed so far, I’ve found myself in the form of a white wolf, and this time was no exception. The Animal Father approached, as numerous spirits of the Land surrounded us. He led me down a trail, then into the woods. He showed me an opening in the trees that he told me was the entrance to the Upper World. While he could go there, he couldn’t take me with him, and told me I’d have to find a guide to help me with that.

Next he took me to a small trickling stream across the path I had walked. He told me to start following the River Dragon down the mountain, starting at that stream. I bounded down along the stream as it joined others and got larger, until the River Dragon finally arrived at a specific point where s/he could go to the Lower World, but I couldn’t, same as with the Upper World. S/he suggested that I try talking to some of the fish about getting help.

Before I could do more, though, I heard a Douglas squirrel making an alarm call in the physical world, and was told I needed to go. The Animal Father told me as I began to head back that Douglas Squirrel would always tell me if I needed to go back, or if there was a threat. In this case it was good that I left when I did. While the place I was at is pretty secluded, and populated only by more serious hikers, there was relatively heavy traffic today. I managed to not be bothered during the journey, but after packing up and heading out, I ran into a pair of women not 100 yards away from where I’d been.

All in all, it was a good day. And it’s been a good year, too. I have accomplished more, spiritually and magically, this year than any other. It’s been intense, but overall positive. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.

What I’ve Been Up To

I’ve been rather quiet lately, haven’t I? Here’s a bit of what’s been going on:

–I’ve been continuing with creating songs for the skin spirits and totems I work with. Small Badger and Badger now each have their own songs; Badger’s was particularly difficult, and s/he wouldn’t let me move on to the next until I had it just right. Took me longer than the others, but I got it. I’m now working on Small Deer’s drum beat; I haven’t yet created a song for it.

–Taylor and I went hiking on Mt. Hood last weekend. It still wants some proof of commitment beyond the average hiker, but is quite patient and willing to wait. Mt. Hood doesn’t seem to be as prone to quick attachment as Multnomah-Wahkeena was. But we now have a parking pass from the forest service and can park anywhere on the lots around the mountain at the trailheads.

–I’ve been chewing on the whole issue of Death as of late. Along with still having my own hang-ups and issues regarding Death, I also have the interplay between me and the skin spirits, which often experienced their own bad deaths. So a lot of their energy and their communication with me has been triggering my issues, and forcing me to start dealing with them more. This isn’t a terrible thing, of course. Better to deal with them now than if I were called upon for whatever reason to act the role of psychopomp in an intense journey setting. I have received the useful advice that I should probably try focusing more on life-affirming things as balance, such as my gardening and hiking and volunteering and whatnot. The skins spirits for my artwork have been particularly insistent about my attention lately, and I need to make sure to not let their needs overwhelm me.

–Tonight I took a little time out to create a community on Livejournal that I’ve been meaning to for a while, Totemists. A totemist is a person for whom totemism (usually, though not always, from a neopagan/neoshamanic perspective) is more than just “I know my totem, and occasionally ask for protection”. Rather, totemism is a significant part of the person’s spiritual/magical practice. The community is specifically NOT for questions like “What’s my totem? What does this totem mean?” and other 101 level material. I’m hoping for some good conversations.

I am absolutely amazed at myself for sticking with this for more than a couple of months. Coming up in September it’ll have been a year since I started a specifically shamanic path. Less than three months–pretty amazing to me. Of course, I’m settling down in other ways, so that’s not all that surprising. I’ve learned a hell of a lot, and I feel a lot more connected to the Land, the various spirits I’ve been building relationships with, other people, etc. I feel like a small seed slowly putting out roots and shoots to fill a particular niche I’ve landed in.

So that’s pretty much it–mostly, at this point, my practice is revolving around the drumming and singing, the upcoming totemic drum and dance ritual I’m hosting here in Portland, and continuing to interact with the Land and its denizens on a daily basis. Is there anything else anyone might be curious about hearing more about?

This is What It’s All About

Note: I apologize for those inconvenienced by the images; I don’t intend to do this very often, but I wanted to share these to give a better idea of why I do what I do…

I am a creature of conifers, ferns and thick, green moss

Where the red bones of trees stain the Earth like ochre

Where they stand like sentinels, and the ravens quork

Teasing the Sun with beaks and eyes

Where the river dragons leap down the mountainside

Laughing and splashing and leaving Life in their wake.

–By Lupa

Today’s Hike

This past Saturday Taylor and I went with our friends innowen and Kender to Mt. Hood, where they showed us a couple of trails we hadn’t yet been introduced to. While one was still remarkably covered in about 5-6 feet of snow(!), the other was mostly clear, at least up the first half mile or so. If people and places can have relationships, then I think I seriously have a crush on Mt. Hood. There was some reciprocal interest, though that mountain strikes me as rather aloof at first encounter. S/he’d like me to get to know hir better, physically (rough terrain, more remote) and spiritually, before I try anything even remotely shamanic there. Which is fine by me; while I won’t go out there as often since it’s a decent drive out, an hour and change, I do want to spend more time getting to know Mt. Hood, who may end up being a good place to go when I want to get away from people and into more secluded areas.

The trip to Mt. Hood got me craving a solo hike, something that I’d been feeling a subtle pull towards for the past few weeks, ever since Taylor and I went out to the Multnomah/Wahkeena trails for the first time since last November. Now that’s a place that I have formed a good relationship with; we’ve adopted each other, as it were. Today was a great day for a visit–perfect weather, and though there were more people than I would have expected on a week day, once I hiked past Multnomah Falls themselves, it was pretty quiet traffic-wise. I saw all sorts of critters–ravens, shiny black millipedes with yellow spots down the sides, tons of butterflies, robins, and a hummingbird, among others. The plants are going crazy, too–it’s green as can be, and everything’s rebounding from winter just fine, other than a patch of conifers that seem to have been hit by some sort of disease.

I spent a good deal of the hike in an ongoing, mostly nonverbal conversation with the Land there at Multnomah/Wahkeena. While they feel like two separate places–I can tell a decided shift in energy on the trail connecting the two–they’re very close, so I usually just refer to them as one. I also spoke a good bit with the Water as s/he sang and danced down the mountainside; s/he gave me a blessing, telling me to cool myself off by splashing myself with cold icemelt on this warm day.

At first, I found myself getting cranky with the tourists there, especially since I’d been expecting fewer people. However, I remember the lessons I learned the last time I was there, with Taylor and worked on accepting that everyone else had as much right as I did to be there, and that they weren’t automatically going to go uprooting plants and stomping on bugs.

Then three things happened, all within the space of a mile:

–A group of four people, a few years younger than I, were coming down the trail above me on a set of switchbacks. One of them threw a rock down the mountainside and nearly hit me by accident, because they hadn’t seen me. They apologized when we met. Instead of getting angry, I just told them “Yeah, it’s a really bad idea to throw rocks here, because it’s really hard to see people on the trail”. They seemed to have learned their lesson pretty well, so I went on in good spirits, trusting that they wouldn’t do anything else foolish.

–Another guy, about the same age, had been following me for a ways. I let him pass me, and was a bit annoyed by him, particularly his shirt which said “Don’t like my attitude? Then stop talking to me”. (I tend to think that the trend in “cute and fashionable rudeness”, typified by such things as Happy Bunny and the aforementioned t-shirt is not something we really need to be encouraging in this culture. But maybe I’m just an old fogie or something–most of the people I see sporting such things are in their teens to early twenties, and I’m *gasp* pushing thirty…but I digress.) Not too much later, he came back down the trail as I was heading further on, and very politely asked me if I’d seen the party he’d been separated from. I told him everyone I’d seen matching their description had been going the way he was going, and asked him if he had their cell phone numbers. He didn’t, so I told him his best plan of action would be to head all the way back down to the parking lot and wait at the car. He thanked me, and also incidentally apologized for mistaking me for male, as I was wearing relatively gender-neutral clothing with my hair pulled back and my hat on, and I am not the most curvy XX-chromosome person in the world. I assured him that it was in no way an insult, and continued on my merry way.

–Maybe five minutes later, I rounded a bend and greeted a couple of middle-aged folks who were enjoying the day. They stopped me and asked if I had any food. Just their luck, I happened to have a couple of extra granola bars I wasn’t going to need. I tried to just give them to them, but they insisted on paying me, and the man pressed five ones into my hand despite my protestations. Normally I’d think $2.50 was pretty damned steep for a granola bar, but having been in a similar, very hungry situation, in their place I’d have been that grateful, too! I checked to make sure they knew where they were going, and that they had enough water, and we parted ways with a smile.

I didn’t really think about the first incident in any meaningful way. However, when the second one happened, I started to make the connection between my lessons of tolerance from that Land, and what had been happening. The third incident was just the clue-by-four whapping me in the head. so I asked the Land what was up. S/he told me that s/he wanted me to help her help the people. We’d already established that s/he didn’t mind people being there, and made it hir task to educate them as much as possible about the need to preserve wild places like hir. S/he told me that I wasn’t particularly special, and that she talked to everybody there–I just happened to be one of the folks who noticed it on a conscious level. However, as our relationship has deepened, there’s been a greater need for me to make more of a commitment to hir, and s/he finally was able to get through to me what s/he needs me to do.

Today was an object lesson in some of the basics of what I can do for Multnomah/Wahkeena–pick up trash along the trail as usual, bring along some extra food and water, give people directions, offer a cell phone in case of need, bring a first aid kit, etc. In addition, I think I’m going to go ahead and go through first aid and CPR training as I’ve been meaning to for a while. And I picked up some volunteering information for the Multnomah Falls trail system in general; they need some help with general maintenance as well as information, so I may add that into my volunteering (along with my unofficial guide/guardian/etc. work that has been initiated today).

To finish up my hike, I went down the western part of loop around Wahkeena, my favorite part of that trail. And I got a few more affirmations that I was on the right path, figuratively and literally! First, at the crossroads where the connecting trail meets the Wahkeena loop, where I always sit and take a break, the Animal Father poked me and told me that next time I came alone, he wanted me to hike up to the place further up the mountain where I’d met him back last fall and where I’d heard him speaking through the owl’s hoot last time I visited with Taylor, and that he wanted me to bring my drum.

Then the very next people I met as I came down the mountain had a very friendly German shepherd, my favorite kind of dog, who came right up and said “Hi!” with a big slurp across my face (I don’t mind dog “kisses” at all–cleaner mouths than people, and I can always go and wash my face afterwards). After that I gave a few more people directions, and also showed another couple of folks where a Stellar’s Jay was hopping through the tree branches.

So overall it was a really inspiring day. I feel like I’ve made a major step forward in my shamanic path, since one thing I’ve known I’ve needed to do is care for the Land and maintain a good relationship with hir. I feel like I’ve been given a certain amount of responsibility that I’ve never been given before by the spirits, and I want to honor and respect that. I know there’s room for me to be, well, me, with all my mistakes and so forth, but I’m very much honored by what happened today.

Ever a Student…

Sunday afternoon, my husband Taylor and I went for a seven mile hike out at Multnomah Falls. It was the first time I’d been out there since last November, and I really had missed it there (it missed me too, apparently!) We went on a trail I hadn’t walked before, though Taylor had been there on his own. The weather was perfect, and I felt rested and energized–I didn’t really feel tired at all until the last mile. Of course, such a long hike called for a post-hike trip to Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest’s regional chain of sustainably produced, not-full-of-ick-and-grease, burger joint.

But I digress.

It being the first really nice weather we’d had in a while, and being a Sunday, people were out in force; Multnomah Falls is a popular place, and you have to do some hiking to get past the touristy areas. It took longer than I expected, and I started to get grouchy. For me, hiking is a way to get away from most people, not hang out with them. I started getting snarly after a while.

At one point I complained “I wish these people weren’t here. The sad thing is, they’re probably mostly just going to go back home and keep living their usual lives, never thinking about the connection between the pristine condition of this place, and their environmentally unfriendly actions every day”. To which Taylor (who is used to my rantiness on the occasions where my temper still gets the best of me despite my efforts to the contrary) replied, “So how do you know that’s what they’re going to do?” I think I sputtered something about the litter on the ground, and other such things. I tend to be territorial about places I like, even when I have absolutely no claim to them whatsoever (yes, it’s silly of me).

Tay then said, “You don’t know what these people will do. Maybe they are learning and gaining an appreciation for this place. And after all, if your role as a shaman means teaching people to appreciate the wilderness, maybe you need to remember that people need to have this opportunity. Maybe, like me, they’ll get it figured out in time”, and he had a point. When I met him, he wasn’t all that interested in environmentalism, though he wasn’t against it, either. However, I’ve had a pretty solid impact on him in our relationship, and he’s adopted a lot of the same practices and mindfulness I have. We’ve had some good discussions about it, and that’s gotten us both to think.

Then I decided to talk to the Land. I went on a side trail down to the river we were walking along, and opened myself to the Land. What s/he said supported what Taylor had told me. S/he said that hir role at this point was to teach people to appreciate what was still relatively clean, though a bit of pollution had taken its toll in recent years. S/he told me to bring people to hir and to help teach them that appreciation and to make that connection with their everyday lives, that places just like hir had been destroyed or were in danger from our everyday practices.

S/he talked to me further about the concept of teaching, and basically explained that I did not (as I had been concerned in the past) have to take on full time students at this time. Instead, I mainly need to be teaching various lessons through various means as I learn and become comfortable with them. So, for example, my Three Seeds workshop that I held a couple of weeks ago, wherein I brought paganism, environmentalism, and community building all together in the process of gardening, counts as one way of fulfilling this need. Another is a proposed series of animal magic classes I may be teaching later this year in Portland. I can start with relatively short-term, low-commitment things like this, and then work up to more intensive things as I go along. This is a huge relief, believe me!

So that was a good reminder to me, that if I am going to help other people to understand that the Land and all hir denizens are sacred, then I have to accept that they all have equal access, and that some of them unfortunately will still do dumbass things like litter, and break down saplings for no reason, and so forth–but others won’t. It’s a good reminder of one teaching of Wolf’s that really rings true to my experience–Wolf connects with all to connect with a few. One would hope, though, that more than a few would “get it”!

It is good to also be reminded that lessons come in many ways and many forms. (Another one of this basic things that is good to remember no matter how long you’ve been practicing!) Just another good reason to keep one’s ears and eyes open (and, sometimes, one’s mouth shut as well).

Later on, as we stopped at our usual crosstrails to rest before descending the mountain, I heard an owl hooting slowly and quietly maybe 200 or so yards away in the woods. at the same time, I felt the presence of the Animal Father. No, I don’t think it was a disembodied voice–I’d lay money down that there was a physical owl there. However, I firmly believe that deities, spirits, and other such beings may use physical phenomena to make themselves known. I do not think it’s nearly as common as people might think–just because a squirrel runs across your path, it doesn’t automatically mean that Squirrel is your totem. What separated this event from any other encounter with critters that day (including a chipmunk, a hummingbird, and a bunch of white butterflies) was that I definitely felt the Animal Father’s presence. He was pleased that I was there, out in the wilderness again. He likes being in contact with me there more than other places, and he simply dropped by to say so.

Since I’ve started my new telecommuting job, I’ve started my day with meditation. Wolf has made it clear that s/he wants me to start working with hir more intensely, so tonight I’ll go up and start working on a drumbeat and song for hir. I’ve been taking it easy because of all the changes recently, but the spirits are letting me know it’s time to get back to business, as it were.

I’ll Take “Potpourri” For a Thousand, Alex

First off, I would like to thank all of you who have made constructive comments on this blog. It helps to get feedback, and some of the comments have given me some excellent alternate perspectives. Even those that give a bit of moral support or “Yeah, I’ve been there” are appreciated. So just wanted to say thank you 🙂

As for the potpourri, I’ve had a lot of random thoughts since my last post. Rather than bombarding you with a bunch of single paragraphs, I’ll condense and conserve.

I was thinking more about my earlier observation that healing has never been one of my fortes as far as magic goes. And I realized that maybe it doesn’t have to be. It’s not unprecedented for a shaman to be a specialist. While a lot of the traditional roles of shamans have been taken over by specialists in this culture–doctors, priests, psychologists, and grocers (the latter of which are involved in finding food)–that doesn’t mean that all shamans must be generalists. While I see healing as part of the “general curriculum” of shamans, this doesn’t mean that my primary focus has to be on healing arts. If I were to shove myself into a role, I’d say that what it seems like I’m getting nudged towards is a modern approximation of the hunting shaman–the one who contacts the Animal Master/totems/etc. about releasing a few animals for the tribe to eat. Now, granted, there are still people in the U.S. who hunt for food. However, I’m an urban kinda person at this point, so I deal more with grocery stores and farmer’s markets (stalking the wily Cherry Garcia!). So I see that role manifested as a person who deals with the “food totems” and asks them how I may help heal the damage done to them through abuse of their physical children. I also extend it to other species, wildlife that are extremely endangered, to see what I can do to help them. I may not be combing the wounded sea-goddess’ hair in the Arctic, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a task or three for me to do.

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I’ve been exploring the physical air some, observing its qualities. Now I realize even more why the element of Air is so associated with communication. It’s not just breath that counts, or wind–air is integral to our perception of light. While light can certainly pass through empty space with no problem, air often affects how we perceive it, whether through particles in the air, or air moving or otherwise affecting the objects that light bounces off of/illuminates to create our perception of colors. To give a negative view of this, it’s not just light pollution that makes it tougher to see the stars at night, but also air pollution.

Sound is also connected to Air. It travels upon the air, and once again the quality and temperature of that air can affect how we perceive it. The breath, of course, is the most easily observed example. However, humidity, temperature and speed of air can affect how quickly sound travels through it.

We swim through an ocean of air (I think Starhawk actually put it that way in The Earth Path). It is the medium, the matrix, through which we move. Maybe we can’t float (without help, anyway) but it carries so much to us. If I were to characterize just one of the elements as connecting us all, it would be air. The air I breathe as I write this has traveled through the lungs (or stomata, in the case of plants) of my ancestors and neighbors. It has traveled through numerous bodies, and will continue to do so (assuming, of course, that we don’t go and wipe out life on this planet thanks to our environmentally destructive foibles). Air truly is the element of communication for me, though I’d imagine if I were a fish, Water might be more important in that regard.

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One of the issues with being a self-taught neoshaman, as opposed to a traditionally trained shaman, is that there isn’t a previously crafted cosmology presented to me by someone else. This means that it’s up to me to figure all that out, which involves essentially learning both from my experiences and observations, and what the spirits tell me. In one way it’s good because it offers me a lot more flexibility. Part of the reason I’ve never been big on learning under someone else is that I’d have to take on their cosmology to some extent. While I respect that people have different understandings of The Way Things Work, I want to work within my own understanding thereof. However, this also means that along with learning shamanizing, I’m also building a cosomology from scratch, albeit scratch that I’ve collected for over a decade.

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One element of my cosmology that’s recently fallen into place involves the Animal Father. He’s been rather quiet lately; he even sent Stag as his representative for my Autumn Equinox ritual. The only time I spend any significant time with him is when I’m hiking. I finally figured out that he simply does not like “civilized” areas. He stems (if my UPG is accurate) from a time when humans were ensconced in Nature, and his occasional forays into more paved-over areas have not been good. So he prefers to meet with me when I hike, though a park is acceptable if there are no other alternatives. This would explain why I was told to try to get out to hike at least once a month, and why he was quiet for the five weeks when I didn’t go hiking in October and November.

Right now it’s too late in the year to go out to the mountains; the trails were already icy last weekend. But there’s a large park on the west side of Portland that may work well for my purposes until the weather improves again. I just can’t get him to show up for more than a brief moment, even in my ritual room. Therefore, he sends emissaries in the forms of certain totems that are his own; particularly those I celebrate at the solstices and equinoxes–Red Stag, Dire Wolf, Cave Bear, and European Lion.

I may see about seeking out that park this weekend, if the weather doesn’t get too bad. If I can take public transit out there, so much the better.