Here’s What You Can Get Me For the Holidays

I’m a pagan. And pagans tend to like tchotchkes. I’ve cut down quite a bit over the years, but there are still times when I’ll see a wrought-iron candle holder and think “Hey, that’d be great on my altar!”

These days, my knickknack and curio shelves are mostly full of natural history specimens, little stone animal statues, and house plants, and I try to not add much to the collection (since, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m in a tiny apartment). These days I usually only add to my collection with secondhand thrift store finds or handmade creations, and even then sparingly. But I know plenty of my fellow pagan folk are still in the market for these sorts of goodies, whether for gifts and offerings, specialized altar pieces, or simple home adornment.

Many of these items are representative of nature–animals, plants, landscape photos, and the like. And while I don’t want to discourage creative home decor, especially that which reminds us we aren’t the only important beings in the world, I do wonder how much money we put toward them each year? And how does that compare to the amount of money we give to efforts to protect these beings of nature we value so much? If we spend even a quarter of the money that we spend on specialty gifts on donations to nonprofits instead, how much of a difference could we make?

So as you’re pulling together holidays gifts this year, or simply shopping around for yourself, consider the next nature-themed item you’re tempted to buy, whether that’s a piece of clothing or statue or picture (or even a piece of my own artwork, for that matter!) And then think about whether you could put that money instead toward the animal or plant or other denizen of nature it represents. Instead of buying that shirt with a tiger on it, why not send the $20 to Panthera or the World Wildlife Federation to help them protect real tigers in the wild? Or, rather than creating a new altar with an endangered teak wood table from Pier 1, consider pitching the $50 for it to Rainforest Relief, the Rainforest Conservation Fund, or another organization helping to prevent the further destruction of the Asian and African forests the teak calls home. You may even be considering buying a cute stuffed wolf from the Defenders of Wildlife, but you’d be better off just giving them the entire amount of money, rather than making them pay for one more Chinese-made plush toy.

This isn’t a call to stop buying trinkets altogether. It is, however, a reminder that the nature you glorify through these items is often highly threatened by our actions, including through the manufacture of the items themselves. Rather than perpetuating the problem, consider turning at least some of your gift budget this year toward donations in the names of those you’re buying for, for the benefit of the natural world we all need to live. In addition to the organizations above, see if there are any local nonprofits working to protect the ecosystems you’re in or near, or organizations that work with habitats or species you’re fond of. Or check out this list of a few of my favorite organizations:

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
628 NE Broadway St #200
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 232-6639

This organization works primarily on pollinators and other invertebrates. Often overlooked because they’re “just bugs”, the invertebrates are an absolutely critical part of every ecosystem.

The Nature Conservancy
4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100
Arlington, VA 22203-1606
(800) 628-6860

Focuses on protecting habitats around the world, and educating people about the importance of healthy ecosystems. This includes direct protection of individual habitats in conjunction with local communities.

The Ocean Conservancy
1300 19th Street, NW
8th Floor
Washington, DC 2003
Works to protect the world’s oceans and to create awareness of how crucial the oceans and their inhabitants are to the planet’s health as a whole.

The Sierra Club
85 Second Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: 415-977-5500

One of the oldest and largest environmental nonprofits, combines government lobbying with grassroots organization for a variety of ecological causes.

Natural Resources Defense Council
40 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 727-2700
Lobbies for the protection of both wild species and their environments, and is also instrumental in helping communities become more sustainable.

The Wilderness Society
1615 M St., NW
Washington, D.C 20036
Many plants and fungi that face extinction are vulnerable due to habitat loss; this group works to preserve wilderness areas, to include crucial habitat.

The Death of the Place That Raised Me

I am in a small town in Missouri, the place that I grew up in. It’s been a trip of many revived memories, as my mom dug a whole bunch of my childhood belongings out of a storage space in my old room, and I’ve been going through the bittersweet process of sorting through everything, deciding what mementos to keep, and which to let go of as resources to send back into the cycle. So I’m already in a mindset deeply tied into my life as it was over twenty years ago.

Which meant that when I drove to the little patch of woods by my old house that I explored so much when I was still in my single digits, finding that it had been entirely leveled and replaced with a brand new building was an arrow to my heart.

I am still in shock, and so disbelieving. I feel I’ve lost a long-time friend, perhaps one that I lost touch with as I moved away, but never forgot entirely and visited when I could. And I never got to say a proper goodbye. I had no idea that the last time I visited would be the very last.

I know, I know. I get that the fact that this place stayed “undeveloped” as long as it did, in a podunk little town pretending it’s a big city, was pretty impressive. It’s actually the second place that I’ve seen destroyed. The woods behind the house we lived in next, and that I am visiting now, was almost entirely removed for a housing development. The spirit there still lives; much-diminished, and much more jaded, it still lives in the remnants of the woods that flank the artificially widened creek that sluggishly meanders through as best as it can.

And that destruction happened over fifteen years ago, when I’d only had a couple of years to connect with the spirit there. That experience, coming home on the school bus one day to find all the trees save for a few down and shattered–that was a horrible introduction to adulthood, and it really was where my childhood came to an end. Today, even those old wounds pulsed achingly.

I am still angry. I haven’t “gotten used to it” or “grown out of it”. And I feel isolated as I sit in a place where most people wouldn’t understand why I’m so deeply hurt by this loss. I’ve already been told “Oh, but the pharmacy people are so nice!” and given the attitude of “development happens, get over it”. Invalidation after invalidation. And it hurts, it just hurts so much.

That place? It taught me the joy of the outdoors, the fascination with other species, and my place as a human animal. It was my refuge when I began to experience bullying at the age of eight. It was my first minor rebellion, as technically I wasn’t supposed to be over on that side of the hill. But mostly it was a place where I could allow myself to explore, both the physical landscape, and my imagination. I wasn’t just a little girl in a pink coat wandering through the brambles and trying to avoid poison ivy. I was a wilderness seeker, living in a little cabin in the woods. I was a wolf, hunting rabbits in the tall grass. I was a snake basking on a big rock. I was so many things, each time I sneaked through the narrow pathway in the poplars and into the trails around the cedars.

I spent so much time in that place, that little maybe-half-acre of scrub woods, and now–now I can never walk there again. All I can do is hope that the few pictures I took on my last visit, two years ago, are still on my old laptop, that I can have a little more visual aid to help strengthen my memories in the wake of seeing this horrible shift.

Underneath the foundations of that building are the remnants of root systems from scraggly cedar and poplar trees that I hid among when I was young. There, too, are the nesting sites of Monarch butterflies, quite possibly relatives of the one that I watched in its chrysalis every day for two weeks until it emerged one spring day. And there lie the bones of the garter snakes and box turtles that were descendants of the ones I would catch, observe briefly, and release. There are stones that I stood on, lifted up to explore the life hiding underneath–snakes, crickets, centipedes, and more.

I won’t go back this trip. I won’t go back to try and find any last remnants of my place. I can’t bear it. I know I shouldn’t hold it against the new spirit of this place that is just being born. All places have spirits, including built-on ones. And I’m sure the pharmacy building now there will develop its own spirit over time.

But it’s not my place. The spirit of the place I knew is dead. Gone. Living only in my memories, and maybe in the remnant memories of a few other people who saw it as more than just an open lot.

All I have left is one single pine cone. I was going to go back at this trip and collect a few more mementos. I’m glad I have the one that’s left. It’s on my place altar. I hope it can stay safe there. It’s my last physical connection to the place that had so much meaning for me.

When I get home, when I can get back to that pine cone on my altar, I’ll spend some time looking for the pictures on my computer, and put together a mourning ritual to help me grieve. I’ll wait until I get back to a place where I know my anger and my sadness will be respected for what they are, instead of having them minimized and invalidated. I’ll go to where I can be safely held in my hurt, and remember the place that held me when I hurt so many years ago.

Until then, it’s not “just a place”. I’m not just “making a big deal out of nothing”. I have to remember that. I can’t let my grief be derailed by others’ expectations of how I should feel or what should be important to me. I spent too much time living up to the expectations of others, and I’ll be damned if I deny my hurt any longer for a place that formed me in ways no human being ever did.

PantheaCon and the Bear Performance Ritual

So at this year’s PantheaCon in San Jose, CA, I officially did my first big public group ritual. Ever. Really.

See, I’ve been feeling things converging toward taking my practice more public as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing, and when I’ve checked with both the spirits and human peers, I’ve generally been supported in this. So when the time came to submit workshops and other activities for this year’s PantheaCon, back in the fall, I decided to take the chance of doing a shamanic ritual there. I figured if it got accepted, then it would be a chance for me to really put what I’m doing to the test.

The more I actually practice my shamanism, the more I really find I dislike the one-on-one model of practice, where you just have the shaman and client in isolation, and it’s fairly streamlined, with a little drumming, but not much in the way of pageantry. And I’m really fond of the concept of sacred play and ritual theater as facilitating suspension of disbelief and magical states of consciousness. This is important to my practice because I work with the self as a series of systems–physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. I find it easiest to approach magical work from the psychological angle, but with the understanding that I’m affecting the whole shebang. And play is a great way to engage the psyche.

I also am of the opinion that shaman circles aren’t the way for me to go. I dislike being in a group where it’s basically (please forgive the saying) too many chiefs, not enough indians. Not only does the process have to be watered down to accommodate everyone, but personally, I don’t want, as the presider over the ritual, to be responsible for the safety of a bunch of people in the Otherworld. I do not agree with the common (though not universal) core shamanism assertion that journeying is safer than dreaming (and I don’t even think dreaming is always safe). Just because the place where, for example, Brown Bear lives is close to my starting point and is a relatively safe place for me, doesn’t mean that that place will extend the same courtesy to other people.

Therefore, my conception of a “group ritual” in my shamanic practice isn’t “we’re all gonna journey together and be this raucous drumming party romping through the Otherworld in search of soul fragments and cheap beer”. Instead, I’m fond of the model in which there is a presiding shaman who is the relative expert, and the rest of the community, whether it’s a long-standing one, or part of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, helps to create the space within which the shaman works. That’s where I’ve been trying to go with this concept of shamanic performance ritual.

Other than the Grey Wolf and Brown Bear rituals I’ve done in my home, I haven’t really been able to put this to the test in an actual group setting. I’ve practiced various elements in private in preparation, but nothing is the same as actually doing the work. So the PantheaCon ritual was a way for me to try out, with a larger group and in a different setting, these things that I’d been mostly developing in theory. And it was the first time I’d done work with an in-person client, which I’ll write about more in a bit. (My client had been very aware of this from the beginning and was more than happy to be my guinea pig.)

Because of the experimental nature of this ritual, I made it very, very clear both in the preparation workshop prior to the ritual, and right before the ritual itself, that if anyone did not feel comfortable participating in something that was still basically a work in progress, they were more than welcome to leave before I got started. Also, I specifically chose a ritual with Brown Bear because s/he is the totem I have had the most experience with in spiritual and magical practice; s/he has always been the first to step up when I wanted to try a new practice, and s/he has been my greatest guide in my shamanic work, even more than Grey Wolf. And we negotiated the parameters prior to the ritual itself, so that the ritual was mainly (though not entirely) a formality to enact what we had agreed. So there were a lot of factors in place to minimize potential disasters.

I also made it very, very clear that I did not want anyone following me into the Otherworld while I journeyed. Trancing during the drumming was fine, just so long as the people remained here, and I had (human) helpers keeping an eye on the participants to make sure everyone was okay while I was occupied with my work. I explained in great detail when everyone else would get to drum/chant/etc. along with me as part of helping to maintain that collective space, but I wanted to make the boundaries clear. To be honest, I was a bit worried since neopagans in general are used to a high degree of participation, and the shamanic circle is pretty common in and of itself, so I was worried that people might be bored, or not get what I was trying for. However, the orientation workshop served pretty well to make my points clear to folks what was happening, and why, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks.

So what, exactly, happened? Along with the above points, I spent the orientation workshop giving background on my practice over the past decade and change, how I was weaving various disparate threads of practice into a cohesive neoshamanism, and why. I answered questions and addressed concerns, and we all had a really good rapport together.

And then there was the ritual itself. There weren’t as many people as I thought would be there, fewer than twenty, but it was also eleven at night and we were scheduled opposite a drum circle (stiff competition when you’re dealing with a crowd used to being heavy participants). Still, it was a great group, and I was able to get right down to business.

My setup was pretty simple. I had brought my brown bear skin, from a very old rug, and laid her out on the floor with my various tools and offerings to Brown Bear on her. My drum was there, too, and my client had laid out his coat to lay on during the ritual. I also had a bottle of water and a bag of jerky, just in case my weird-ass metabolic issues decided to act up, or if I needed to bring edibles into the Otherworld with me (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

I started off with a warmup. I believe very much in the power of humor to break people out of their defenses, and so I started off with a few jokes, some banter, and a dirty political limerick, all of which went over quite nicely. It got people to pay attention to me and relax and laugh–and focus.

After this, I greeted the land spirits. I don’t do a circle casting, but I do like to greet the more prominent genii locii, and the four directions make convenient delineations. So I greeted local spirits like the Guadalupe river (who I went to visit shortly before the ritual) and both sets of mountain ranges, as well as evoking my connection to Oregon and the Columbia River, among others. I shook my Black Bear rattle and had everyone else drum, clap, etc. along with me. I ended each evocation with a yell, “HA!”, and by the time I was done everyone was yelling with me–which was great fun. I’m definitely keeping that.

Then it was time for the journey itself. I think this was the toughest part of the performance part of the ritual, because I had anticipated there being more drums than there were and therefore didn’t bother preparing myself to narrate during my journey, which takes more concentration. So people mostly were there watching me sit and drum, and make noise along with me, to help act as a heartbeat to help me find my way back. I need to either figure out how to deal with narration when there may be a lot of noise, or some other way to keep the other people occupied with something besides boring old me sitting and beating on a drum while my spirit’s off elsewhere. The risk of dramatic narration is that if I get too focused on telling people “back home” what’s going on, I find myself slipping back to my body before I’m done with my work. On the bright side, I found that having the heartbeat that people were creating helped me orient back to my body, which was a concern since this was the first big journey I had done from a relatively unfamiliar location.

Brown Bear was sleeping, of course, but s/he woke up long enough to tell me what I needed to do with the offerings to hir and the gift to my client. S/he said s/he wouldn’t come hirself, but that s/he’d send a part of hirself with me to help with the ritual. So I did what s/he told me to, and came back to do the work in this world.

Once I returned, I explained briefly what was going to happen. Then I draped the bear skin over me, and tapped out a basic beat for people to follow. I danced until I felt the spirit of the bear skin, and that tendril of Brown Bear’s energy connect in me, and I became a bear myself. I went to my client and sought out ill areas, and he told me later that the first place I homed in on was a place that had been hurting. I went to these places on his body, and I yanked out, for lack of a better word, buildups of “bad energy”. It wasn’t a full-cure–these are chronic conditions–but it was a way to clear out the crap that had built up on an energetic/spiritual level at the sites of these conditions and bring temporary relief. I then breathed in Bear/bear energy/power/whatever you want to call it into the voids left by these things I removed, snuffling and whuffing like a bear, and tearing out the bad with teeth and claws while putting in the good with breath.

I then gave the client a small gift, and told him what to do with it. Were he local to me, I would see about arranging this to be a regular thing, not as a cure-all, but simply as maintenance. Such as it was, he actually reported immediate, measurable physical improvements in his symptoms–whether you want to call this the placebo effect isn’t as important as the fact that the ritual did what it was supposed to do.

I danced Bear/bear back out, and then did another acknowledgement of the land spirits (again with that fun yell at the end!) I had checked on the other participants at a couple of breaks in the ritual itself, just to be sure everyone was alright, and then again at the end once everything was cleared out and I knew my client was okay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do such a great job of making sure I was okay. I spent most of the rest of the weekend pretty fragged and fatigued, partly due to not grounding properly, but also because I’ve found that shamanic work takes more out of me, physically and otherwise, than any other spiritual and magical work I’ve ever done–and that includes the crazy-ass chaos magic experimentation I did a number of years ago. I now have a much better idea of why people talk about the sacrifices associated with shamanic practice, and why my instincts were screaming at me to dig my heels in when the spirits were still unsuccessfully trying to convince me to do this stuff in the first place. Granted, I already had insomnia and metabolic issues, but they and the shamanic work like to play into each other post-ritual, and I’m still learning to find a good balance of self-care with this sort of work.

My client, and other people, really seemed to appreciate the ritual itself for a variety of reasons. And I learned quite a bit from it about how to proceed in the future, what worked, and what needs more adjustment. Most importantly, though, it reaffirmed for me that yes, this is what I need to be doing. More on that later. For now, I’m going to continue recovering, and assessing the results of my work.

All Hail the Scavengers!

First off, before I get into the main topic of this post, I just wanted to give a brief squee of joy: I am not the only person to actively connect animism with bioregionalism! I got an appropriate comment on Bioregionalism and the Genius Locii with the above link, and having looked over the blog, I found it full of lots of good brain-foods (as well as some good ideas for further getting to know the bioregion I’ve chosen as my long-term home). Highly recommended.

So. Scavengers. A friend of mine over on Livejournal had remarked a few days ago that despite the importance vultures have had in various paleopagan religions and cultures, most notably Egyptian, neopagans really have a tendency to either ignore scavengers, or romanticize them as not-scavengers (think ravens as spirit guides–more on that in a bit). That really says a lot about the cultures that formed neopaganism; my experience is primarily with American neopaganism, so I’ll speak mainly to that.

In this culture, everything’s hygienic. Houses. Hospitals. Food production. Even the body-fluid-messy acts of sex and sexuality are presented as “glowing”. Because we are so far removed from our own bodily effluvia and that of other animals, we have the luxury of conveniently forgetting they’re there. So scavengers, animals that eat already-dead stuff that smells to high heaven, aren’t exactly the sexiest critters in the neopagan-totemic world. Well, okay–Raven’s pretty popular. But Raven’s also presented as intelligent, and with glossy black feathers, and associated with cool deities like the Morrigan. However, nobody wants to talk about the fact that ravens eat dead stuff–except for a few people who joke about ravens eating eyeballs. OTOH, ravens eating putrid, half-decayed intestines? Not so awesome. (Mmmm. I could go for some sausages right about now…)

(And let’s not get into glossy black feathers full of mites. Insects = NOT COOL according to a lot of modern totemists. Especially if they aren’t dragonflies or butterflies or other pretty bugs. And beyond that–tapeworms. Totemic tapeworms. Really.)

Ahem. I digress. But you get my point.

So yes. Nobody wants to play with the scavengers in the stinky dead stuff. Only a particular sense of humor would find this comic funny. (I laugh every time I read it–and the rest of the artist’s stuff is pretty good, if mostly more sanitary. /excuse for another parenthetical statement) Not surprising when you consider most people who eat meat have never killed or seen killed the animal they’re about to eat (except maybe crabs and lobsters, but those aren’t cute and furry and don’t count). And most of us here in the U.S. will never have to deal with what your average emergency room employee deals with, or clean up dead bodies–or, hell, see those bodies as anything other than the makeup-bedecked corpses in shiny coffins at funerals.

Lots of people don’t like human scavengers, either–again because we’re so removed from the processes involved with our basic needs. There’s a certain sense of entitlement on the part of some people in this culture. It’s the idea that because we can have access to food all the time, as well as medical care and utilities and other such things, that we’re not only allowed but encouraged to take them for granted. I see this every single time I see people leave a restaurant without taking substantial amounts of perfectly good leftovers home with them, instead leaving them to be thrown away (or, if you’re in Portland, at least they’ve a good chance of being composted). I saw it the time I was walking down a sidewalk behind a guy who was sorting out all the pennies in his pocket change and simply dropping them on the ground. I see it when people throw out perfectly good furniture and household items on trash day, instead of Freecycling it or having a local nonprofit thrift store come pick it up. Waste is a way of life here, because we think that we can get away with it.

So the dumpster divers and other people who take pains to salvage what others discard are seen as “strange” or “desperate”. I know of people who think that never buying anything used is a sign of success, and anyone who does otherwise is beneath them. Look at the trend of where our household appliances are going. Don’t worry about getting things repaired–just get a new one from the store! Anything else is seen as taking up too much time, and who’d be crazy enough to get a toaster repaired when Wal-Mart has a sale on them for ten bucks?

The thing is though…we do this because we do take what we have for granted. We assume that we’re always going to have access to food, water, shelter, safety, utilities, and other such things. We figure that the only way we can’t get a television at Best Buy is because they just had a huge clearance and everyone else beat us to it until they get the next shipment in–and even then, it was only on the one really fantastic new model that just came out. They still have televisions, but who wants those? Yet let there be one tiny hint of a shortage, and people panic. Remember what happened last year when it was reported that there was a shortage on rice? The stores couldn’t keep it in stock, partly because shoppers panicked and snapped up as much as they could. But we don’t actually have to worry about that happening for real, right?

Yet the scavengers say otherwise. They remind us of the uncomfortable truth that security is an illusion. They’re not afraid of that, though. They’re realistic. They make the most of the resources that are available. Most Americans are unfamiliar with just how precarious our situation is. Our economy is based on resources whose prices are artificially lowered thanks to government subsidies. Those resources drive our utilities that we take for granted, the things we assume will always be there that allow us to have the sort of lifestyle we have.

“How quickly you forget your history”, the scavengers say. I’ve heard people refer to the current recession as being as bad if not worse than the Great Depression. I don’t buy it. Yes, it sucks right now; I won’t deny that. But have you ever heard of a Hoover Hog? It’s a rabbit, a common, ordinary rabbit. During the Depression, numerous people, particularly in the southwest, ate rabbits because there was nothing else available. At least now we have the cheap hot dogs and burritos at the convenience store to fall back on. And if all else fails, there’s always ramen, staple food of poor college students everywhere!

And only a couple of generations ago, during WWII, we had rationing and Victory Gardens. Do you know how people would respond today if they had to ration? We’re still fighting multiple wars, and yet life goes on for most people because we don’t have any immediate reminders of the fact that there are hardships. There are still soldiers (and civilians) dying where these wars are happening–over 4,330 military personnel just in Iraq since the war began. And yet I guarantee that if rationing were imposed, you’d have more people out on the
street protesting that than were out with me and mine when the war first started. Priorities, what?

Scavengers are that reminder that we’re all gonna die. They’re the reminder that no matter how pretty a picture you paint of your life, nothing’s permanent. And it could all fall to pieces before you’re done with it. But, again, the scavengers aren’t afraid. They know what to do. They’re realistic, and prepared. And that’s their message that we so often ignore with our rose-colored glasses.

And the old pagans knew this, too. They didn’t have that luxury of being so removed from death and other unpleasantness. That’s why they didn’t just romanticize their view of nature to the point where it wasn’t real to them any more. We, on the other hand, have so removed ourselves from the reality of the way things are that we would prefer an imaginary stagnancy to the vibrant (and yes, sometimes subjectively unpleasant) variety and vigor of vida, vita, la vie!

Does this mean we should all walk around in sackcloth and ashes and bemoan our fates? Of course not. But what it does mean is (I can’t believe I’m about to use this cliched phrase) a shift in consciousness. We. Are. Privileged. The very fact that we can take basic things for granted that many, many people in other cultures–and yes, in America, too–have to scrabble for on a daily basis means that we have a metric fuckton of privilege. We shouldn’t let that be a reason to berate ourselves or, conversely, artificially inflate our importance. What we need to be doing is actively appreciating the technological and social advances that have made everything from indoor plumbing to antibiotics possible. It’s not just the basic actions we take–it’s the awareness guiding those actions that we need to start with. Many of the problems the human world faces today are due to taking things for granted and acting on some really shaky assumptions, as well as a big honking helping of deeeeeee-nial!

And we need to quit hating on the scavengers, human and otherwise. We need to stop glossing over the fact that yeah, Raven might be a trickster to some people, and a totem of a war goddess to others, and somehow a nocturnal (?) graveyard denizen to yet another, ah, demographic–but that Raven is also the totem over a species of birds that eat stinky dead corpses full of pus and other fluids, and that’s every bit as important as the mythos, if not moreso. Because whether we like it or not, they have important things to teach those of us who have our hands slapped firmly over our ears while we sing “La, la, la, la, I CAN’T HEAR YOUUUUU!!!!”

And if we can’t handle the very basic knowledge that death happens, decay happens, change happens, then how the hell are we going to be able to get anything out of the more esoteric lessons that the facilitators of those changes have to offer us in being more realistic and prepared for the things life may throw at us that we may not like, but need to deal with effectively anyway?

(Oh, and for the record, all you people with cool, impressive carnivorous totems like Wolf and Lion? Guess what? Your totems’ physical children eat carrion, too. Why go through the trouble and potential danger of injury of wandering across the land looking for animals to eat that may very well fight back, when hey–there’s a dead critter right there, ripe for the munching? It’s not just the scavengers who are practical, ya know. That’s why I don’t question whether I misidentified Wolf as my primary totem just because I love scavenging of numerous sorts–wolves aren’t going to turn their nose up at easy resources, no matter the origin.)

Quick Semantic Clarification

Something that someone brought up in a locked post on my LJ where I linked to last night’s post on sacrifice was the concept that we make sacrifices every day–we sacrifice our health and the health of other beings in order to have faster, more convenient lives through fast food, cars, and other hazards.

I understand that this is a common definition of the term “sacrifice”, one that I’ve used myself. But the comment made me realize that spiritually I am working with a very different definition. In this context, “sacrifice” is something that is done consciously for a specific purpose, even if that purpose may sometimes be layered under symbols and rituals. When we supposedly “sacrifice” our health in order to eat faster food stuffed full of chemicals, hormones, and other nasty things, who does that sacrifice benefit? To my mind, cutting corners for convenience isn’t really a sacrifice.

To my mind, a true sacrifice is something that is meant to ultimately be beneficial, preferably mutually so. It is something that is done in full consciousness of both the intent and effects, or at least as much as is possible at the time. The problem with so-called sacrifices that negatively affect our health and well-being, is that:

A) In almost no case do we consciously consider the intent of this “sacrifice”–we just do it
B) In almost no case is there someone who is supposed to truly benefit, beyond our own perceived gain through convenience
C) In almost no case do we consider the negative outcomes of the supposed “sacrifice”.

Alternatively, what I would consider to be a true sacrifice:

A) Involves conscious planning and weighing of the options
B) Involves a specific beneficiary, and often (though not always) an added benefit for the self
C) Involves an understanding of what the intended outcome is, as well as potential pitfalls.

Needless to say, the comment gave me some good food for thought. Any commentary on my definitions above?

Hmmm. This may end up being the basis for my own essay for Digging Up the Ostrich’s Head…..

Thoughts in Autumn

Our back yard has a huge grape vine that covers an entire carport-sized frame, and has been taking over the neighbors’ shrubbery and fences. In anticipation of the landlords coming in and trimming back the vines, I’ve been picking and freezing many little zipped bags of grapes. They’re these wonderful white slipskin grapes with seeds, very sweet, though the first batch I picked a week ago was just on the nice side of still being tart. I’ve invited friends over to pick, too, and even took an overflowing brown paper grocery bag full down to the local homeless shelter last weekend–and there’s still a lot of grapes left.

I’ve been watching the local urban wildlife going crazy over the windfall. I’ve seen scrub jays and squirrels both feasting, and the latter were burying grapes around the lawn as well–though doubtless these will rot before they end up being unearthed. We may even end up with a bunch of little vinelets where the seeds sprouted. The other night I saw a pair of big, fat raccoons climbing up to get their share as well. It’s not just the local Lupa who enjoys the grape harvest!

As I was putting grapes on a tray to stick in the freezer this evening, I was thinking about how all the preservation I’ve been doing with extra food lately is a rarity in this culture. Along with my grapes, I have a couple of jars of pizza sauce that I made from extra tomatoes I saved up, a few containers of vegetable stock made from odds and ends of veggies that were cut off from salad fixings, and a few more of poultry stock made from bones and carcasses left over from meals, since we buy our chicken bone-in. I’ve also been searching the Recipe Finder (such a wonderful things!) for recipes that utilize green tomatoes, since in a few weeks there won’t be enough sun to ripen what we have, and the plants have been prolific. If I’d done more planning, I could have gone scavenging for blackberries, but didn’t make the time to go somewhere that hadn’t already been picked over.

For most Americans, this would be a waste of time. Why boil down a few tomatoes to make a jar and a half of pizza sauce when you can go to the store and get a package with two Boboli pizza crusts and a packet of sauce, all ready to go? This is what many Americans think of as making pizza from scratch! And there’s no reason to freeze grapes if you can go to the produce section and get various sorts of fruit fresh year-round–after all, it’s warm enough in the tropics for winter produce.

And yet….and yet….the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized just how much we do take our food for granted. I grew up in a comfortably middle class household. We never, ever wanted for food, good, healthy food. I was raised with fresh produce year round, fresh meat, fresh bread, and was raised by two parents who could most definitely cook. Nor did I ever have to deal with the “You’d better eat that!” lecture, either. There was a new meal every night; leftovers would end up being somebody’s lunch the next day.

I don’t think I even realized how lucky I was growing up even when I was living alone in Pittsburgh, not eating enough because I wasn’t managing my money and convinced myself that I was too poor to eat better than Campbell’s soup. When I worked as a utility meter reader, a very physically demanding job, I came to recognize the importance of food as a necessity to keep me going, but even then it didn’t really hit me. Things began to shift more when I met my husband, who taught me better health and financial skills, and I began to eat what he could cook instead of whatever I popped into the microwave.

But the importance of food didn’t really hit me until this year, when I grew my first real garden, and had been spending months focusing on the cycles of Nature. Only when I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be to grow your own food, and how much you have to grow just to get a decent-sized salad for supper for three nights in a row, did I realize how precarious our food situation really is. Dealing with squirrels raiding the strawberries, caterpillars ravaging the broccoli’s leaves, and the heat of summer drying out seedlings, showed me that growing food isn’t as easy as dropping some seeds in the dirt, giving it water, and waiting for things to grow.

I did have to balance out my needs with the reality of the urban wildlife. Whenever there’s a story of wild animals preying on livestock, I’m one of the first to say, “Well, they were there first, and you put easy to kill prey animals in their reach, and hunted their natural prey–what do you expect?” However, being on the other end was eye-opening. I had to really struggle with my anger at having the results of my hard work stolen from me, but also recognizing that my garden was being raided by animals that had adapted to human encroachment on their habitat. I could have spread poison or used other lethal methods to try to deal with the squirrels, but I ended up relying primarily on chicken wire and twine cages to keep them away from the plants they were interested in. And I’m perfectly happy to share the surplus grapes with them.

But back to the reality of food. Because Americans (and others) have access to almost any sort of food right down the street at the grocery store, thanks to long distance transport supported by fossil fuels, and we live in a place that is sufficiently wealthy to be able to support these distribution channels, most of us don’t think twice about access to food. I have three grocery stores within easy walking distance of where I live, and several more within a twenty minute driving distance. And I can find anything I need somewhere in them, usually in almost all of them.

Remember back in April when there was supposedly a global rice shortage? Americans panicked because for a couple of weeks rice was more expensive than usual, and occasionally stores didn’t have it in stock for a few days. (At least that was the reality here in Portland.) Yet there are places around the world, here in the 21st century, where longer, more drastic shortages are very common. And it doesn’t take much for shortages to happen–a drought, too much rain, too many pests, too much use of the arable land, thieves and vandals, wild predators preying on livestock. If you take the risks and returns involved in my garden and blow them up on a global scale, it’s quite a gamble, especially with 6-7 billion hungry mouths to feed.

Having access to all sorts of food at all times isn’t a necessity. It’s a luxury. We have taken something that is a luxury, and turned it into what we would insist is a necessity. “I must be assured that I can go to the 24-hour grocery store and get a package of Chips Ahoy! and a gallon of milk that won’t expire for three weeks–at three in the morning, any day of the week!” And we feel entitled to that.

Yet we wear down the soil with our constant demands for more food. We don’t rotate crops, and we don’t let fields lie fallow. Instead we douse them with layers of chemical fertilizers that destroy the microorganisms that are necessary to soil health, and very likely to the health and growth of the plants as well. We overgraze animals, or we feed them things they shouldn’t ever have to eat, and keep them in inhumane forms of confinement that additionally lead to pollution on a massive scale.

We take, and we take, and we give very little back, comparatively speaking. Let’s look, just for a single example, at my garden. Even though I started with potting soil, I had to add steer manure to make sure there was enough food for the plants to eat, and I continued to fertilize every month. Now that Autumn is here and plants are beginning to die off, what should I do with the remains? What do I do with the odds and ends after I make the soup stock? Things that are dead and used up still contain nutrition that needs to be returned to the Earth, so that it can support life in later years. Hence my compost bin, which will, after a time, start to yield compost suitable for replacing the manure in the garden.

Of all the stages of the life and death cycle, death and decomposition are the ones we’re the most uncomfortable with in this culture. We flush our piss and shit and dead aquarium fish away because we don’t want to deal with them. We concoct all sorts of schemes and plans to try to circumvent the fact that our bodies will eventually wear out, and the components will go back to the Earth, because we don’t want to deal with it. And we garden happily, but once we get past the “Yay, food!” part of it, we don’t really consider the importance of the following steps that involve returning what’s left of the plants to the Earth to become fertilizer later on.

Decay and decomposition is a sacrifice. It is a giving back. We can’t give every single bit back–we need materials for our bodies, and shelters, and clothes, and other items. But we don’t give back nearly enough. We keep a lot of stuff for ourselves, often stuff we don’t actually need. And when we do get rid of something, what do we do? Toss it into the landfill, where it ends up sealed away, separated from the Earth by impermeable plastic for decades, if not centuries, and not decaying at all. Do you realize how much of the land’s nutrients are locked away for an indeterminate time in landfills? Do you realize how much healthier the soil would be if we had been putting all those nutrients back like we were supposed to, and finding ways to reuse most of the relatively small amount of stuff we can’t put directly back? Yet because we don’t think of sacrifices of time and effort in return for what we have received, all this is locked away.

The efforts that we put into doing things “the slow way”, by hand, is also a sacrifice. We’ve gotten used to a lot of leisure time in this culture–and yet we manage to overwork ourselves anyway. It’s because we don’t think about what we’re doing. When you engage in any sort of manual activity, whether it’s farming or repair work or knitting or washing clothes by hand, you are a lot more engaged in what you’re doing than when you go to the grocery store or the laundromat. It’s this sacrifice of time and energy that makes what we get worth it. When we think about what we’re getting and what we’re giving in return, we’re less likely to take too much, and we’re more likely to be aware of what we have throughout its own “life” cycle. People who know the value of something are more likely to find ways to get as much use out of it before it needs to be returned to the Earth in some manner.

Sacrifice gets a bad rap in this culture of entitlement and selfishness. It’s supposed to be this terribly inconvenient, horrific thing that we should avoid at all costs. Those who sacrifice–and it’s always assumed to be under duress or other extreme circumstances–are looked upon as martyrs, fools, or both. We’re supposed to above such things, with our shiny luxuries and technologies. We could argue that our forty hours a week are more than enough to justify our shiny objects. However, a paycheck isn’t really a sacrifice; there’s no meaning to it, and most Americans go to jobs because they have to, not because they particularly want to. Composting the leftovers from the end of the garden may not seem like such a great sacrifice, since you didn’t really want those dead plants. However, the time and care you take to put together the compost bin and fill it with your dead plants and veggie odds and ends is time and effort that you have given that you didn’t really have to.

Now, since I mentioned shiny technology in a negative light, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want us to give up everything. I think antibiotics are pretty nifty, though the overuse and improper use of them that has hastened the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria isn’t so great. And I’ll admit that I like dead tree books better than ebooks, plus my art supplies take up an entire walk-in closet (though admittedly a lot of it is bulky things like secondhand fur coats and deer antlers and whatnot).

However, I make myself aware of where these things came from, and I am conscious of my shopping habits. I endeavor to buy used as much as I can so as to reduce the demand for new materials. I’m getting much better about not buying things I don’t actually need. And I’m also better about repairing or repurposing broken things as well before taking the option to recycle or toss them.

These efforts, small and everyday, do add up. They require a good deal of my time, effort, and attention–making pizza sauce from true scratch requires more of me than buying prepackaged sauce. I give of these parts of myself, and in return not only do I receive physical fulfillment, but I also receive lessons in how to be more present in the world and in my life. And in being more present, I find more ways to give back and further the ongoing exchange to the benefit of all. We, humanity, have stopped making sacrifices in many cases, and we’re bogging down the cycle. I want to find ways to clear out our end of it, while retaining the best of what we have created.

So this Autumn I’m thinking about sacrifice, and giving back. I want to think about growth, too, and sustainability, but right now, as the plants and insects begin to die around me, and the animals prepare for a Winter where they, too, could give up their physical forms, I’m thinking about death, and decay, and returning, and sacrifice.

ETA: A clarification on my definition of sacrifice as used in this post can be found here.