Learning From Totems On Their Terms

I was meditating a bit a few evenings ago on the fights of butterflies.

See, I’d seen an image on Tumblr of two male Monarch butterflies scrapping over territory, and the caption said that they could get quite aggressive with each other. In fact, there’s a good chance many of you out there have seen butterflies engaged in battle, fluttering at each other in midair and even clutching and pushing at times. We’re inclined to see their struggle as “pretty”, and we may even mistake it as two butterflies happily dancing together.

Now think of two male elk battling it out over a patch of territory. We usually focus on the immense power in their bodies as they tussle, the sharp tines of branching antlers and the muscles in straining haunches. In fact, it is their physical strength that is one of the elk’s best-known traits.

Yet who is to say the elk is more fierce than the butterfly just because the insect is smaller and more delicate? We’re biased because of our size. If we happen upon a grizzly bear in the wilderness, we know we’re in immediate danger and we take action to save ourselves; the bear is seen as a dangerous animal. But if we meet a spider in the woods, at most we scream and squash it, even if the actual threat to us is miniscule or nonexistent. For the most part, though, most people don’t avoid the woods just because there are spiders prowling about, and other than phobias we don’t have much reason to fear for our lives.

However, in its own environment, the spider is a formidable predator. Ask a fly or a grasshopper or a beetle what it thinks of spiders, and the feeling would likely be similar to our feelings on lions, tigers, and bears. Ask a ladybug about the risk of raindrops, and it would probably be more concerned about the watery missiles than we are. On the other hand, while a drop from a three story building would be very bad for a human, an ant might get blown about by winds on its way down but would probably survive since it’s light enough to not reach a dangerous velocity.

These are all things that have been becoming more apparent to me over the years as I’ve continued my totemic work. We often miss some very important messages and opinions from some totems because of our human biases. During my meditation I checked in with several animal totems often seen as “gentle” or “beautiful”, to include European Rabbit (of Watership Down fame), Whitetail Deer (Disney’s version of Bambi), and the dragonfly totem Banded pennant. I talked to them about their feelings on being considered “safer” totems to work with, and to a one they disagreed. European Rabbit and Whitetail Deer both wanted me to know how fiercely they protect their young and territories, and how fiercely the males fight, and how both rabbits and deer have been known to injure or even kill their predators in self-defense; Whitetail Deer further reminded me that deer have been known to eat mice and baby birds out of the nest. Banded Pennant didn’t see itself as a “flying jewel”, but as a keenly-honed aerial predator, not at all to be trifled with. And others I spoke to–Monarch Butterfly, Galapagos Tortoise, European hedgehog, and others–all confirmed, too, that while they had their gentle traits, they were far from being helpless or sweet all the time.

If you think about it, all living beings are in a competition for resources and working each day to stay alive. Just because we’ve found some ways to give some humans easier access to these resources doesn’t mean we’re free of the cycles of nature. If anything, it’s crucial for us to remember that every species is, in the end, out for itself, and even symbiotic relationships are not formed purely altruistically. It doesn’t mean we should be selfish and cruel to each other, but it is a reminder that we are learning from beings who are not characters in a Disney movie, nor are they the savage beasts of some recent sensationalistic Discovery Channel “nature” show. They are, in the words of Henry Beston, “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”* And it behooves all of us for us humans to remember that the totems are representatives of their species, to be learned about and learned from on their own terms, not just whatever suits us best.

* Yes, I realize I just used this same quote in my last post. It’s one that’s been appropriate to a lot of the animal totem work I’ve been doing lately.

I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

The Natural Order of Things

I am an artist, deep in the center of my soul. I have many roles in this life, but I think perhaps more than any other, artwork is at the center of it. The medium may vary–hides and bones, words on the screen, ingredients in the kitchen, a carefully considered response to a counseling client’s thoughts–but at the heart of it all is a deep need for creativity and expression, arranging things just right. Most of my visual artwork for the past fifteen years has been with the dead critters, but I do like to branch out–I don’t want to be a one-trick pony, after all. One of my passions is art made from secondhand materials; this does describe some of my hides and bones, but I also want to reclaim some less biodegradable things as well. So I do like having a bunch of found objects to work with, things salvaged from thrift stores and free piles on the curb and so forth.

Because of my current counseling job, which keeps me busy 40+ hours a week, I don’t have as much time for art as I did before, and a lot of that time is spent on keeping customer favorites stocked in my Etsy shop. But sometimes I do manage to make time to really dig into more unusual projects, stretching my artistic muscles. Today I took out a couple of hours for this:

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

It’s called The Natural Order of Things, and it’s almost entirely made of recycled materials. The 6″ x 8″ canvas panel it’s based on was bought from a yard sale. The book clippings were from an old-but-not-rare, quite outdated textbook on animal anatomy that I bartered for. The foam cutouts came from a Goodwill on the Oregon coast. All I had to add was a few brushfuls of Mod Podge and a bit of cellophane tape.

It looks simple enough at first glance–brightly colored bits of foam on a stark black and white background. The tree of life branches out from the center, with an array of animals taking up their places as they should. But upon closer inspection, the animals are in no real order; rather than closely-related families being situated nearer each other, a fish is next to a bird, which sits just above a pig, and so on. Moreover, there’s only one invertebrate, a crab in one corner. The representatives of the animal kingdom are largely biased toward mammals, especially those we feel are important. And at the center of it all is humanity, represented by a god-like figure (Yahweh? Zeus?) standing on the sun. Humans are removed from the tree of life, only to be relocated at its center–“Man shall have dominion over the earth”. As if to comment on the misinterpretation of evolutionary theory that says “Humans are evolved from monkeys!”, a tiny monkey occupies the smallest and lowest branch on the tree, decidedly separated from its Homo sapiens cousin.

But what supports these animals and their tree? In the background the canvas is covered in pieces of pages from a textbook of biology. The foundation is the index, listing many animals in neat, alphabetical order–to include, along the bottom edge, “Man”. Over this are laid diagrams of the nervous systems of a rotifer and a polychaete worm, neither of which are particularly well-known animals, but which illustrate the type of simpler nervous systems from which those of vertebrates evolved. Several quotes add to the mix–one about the basic plan of the nervous system in all animals, one about how humans have often misapplied “instinct” to anything any animal does ever, and one, legible in full: “From protoplasmic irritability to cognition is a development that has required upwards of a billion years”. We extol the virtues of a select few noble animals, while we stand on the spineless backs of countless humbler creatures. Despite claims of religions worldwide and throughout time, we did not spring forth fully formed from a head or a thigh or our partner’s rib bone. We are built on billions of years of tiny changes.

The cartoonish, artificial figures in their disarray, arranged inaccurately around humanity as the reason for their existence, represent the biases we hold toward the natural world. We value what most closely resembles us–vertebrates, and especially our fellow mammals–and most of all, those who directly serve us. The man-as-god in the center is our tendency to elevate ourselves above all else, much to the detriment of all involved, humans included. One can only stand on the sun for so long before getting burned. In contrast, the neatly ordered, realistically rendered invertebrates speak of the care that has been taken to excise the secrets of evolution and other natural processes, sifting out the detritus of superstition and speculation. This brightly-colored Eden can dance all it wants, but those who wrote the stories of paradise could only do so after a parade of many generations of supposedly “lesser” beings.

But it’s also because of these pioneering beings that came before us, unknowingly contributing to the shift and change of genes and their expressions, that we can also have art. We can have religion, including beliefs that don’t match with evolution in any literal way but have their own beauty nonetheless. It’s because of them that we’re here to debate our origins today, to take strong opinions and fence with them, or to simply decide the argument’s not worth it and go play video games instead. I am grateful to them for this opportunity, and I dedicate this piece to all my ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life.

Why I (Sometimes) Wish I Was a Scientist

Note: This is my June offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Science” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations.

When I was young, all I wanted to be was a veterinarian so I could help animals. As I got older, I found out that being a vet wasn’t just about making animals better, but also tough things like euthanasia, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. In high school I got a partial scholarship to a school a few hours away from my hometown and thought I’d major in business management, since I enjoyed selling tchotchkes at a local antique store and had always been one of the most productive sellers of school popcorn and Girl Scout cookies. But then a trip to a wolf sanctuary convinced me that I wanted to get back to working with animals, and so I switched to biology and enrolled at the university in my home town. My hopes were utterly dashed when I barely scraped through remedial algebra, and realized there was no way I was going to make it through the more advanced math and math-heavy science classes the program required. So I switched to English, and figured I’d just write about wolves (which I did, among other things).

I never stopped regretting, just a little bit, not being able to enter into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Oh, sure, my Master’s is in counseling psychology and I passed my research methods and statistics classes alright, but my background even there is less about research and more about the person to person interactions of counseling itself. I’m not a scientist. At best, I’m an amateur naturalist. I read a ton about my bioregion, from the geology to the fauna and flora to the weather patterns and more. I apply that knowledge to my experiences outdoors, and thereby have a deeper understanding of what it is that I’m seeing, hearing, touching, and otherwise sensing around me, and my relationship to it. But I’m barred from doing any research myself unless I struggle past algebra and into calculus, fight my way through organic chemistry and how to balance equations, and other things that are apparently necessary to advance past where I am now professionally.

Mind you, I don’t wish that I was only a scientist of some sort–maybe a marine biologist, or a paleontologist (the five year old me would have loved that idea–and I still do today!)–and nothing more. I’m quite happy having a variety of professions and trainings. I love that I can draw on ecopsychology, a beautiful blend of psychology, natural history and art in my counseling practice. But I admit that I envy people who get to go to field work, who get to find out about neat new discoveries before everyone else does, who get to do research into animal behavior and botany and weather patterns. The most I can do is consume their findings from this end.

So why does it matter? The longer I’ve walked this path that I’ve detailed in this blog for so many years, the more I want to know about this world we share. I am full of awe and wonder at its intricate workings, the sheer joy of evolution and physics and the other processes by which it works. I’ve felt levels of spiritual connection more profound than just about anything I experienced when my focus was more on symbols and abstractions, where I still felt somehow separate from what it was that I honored. And so where some people may wish to dive more deeply into ancient texts or devote themselves more completely to their gods, I want to immerse myself in this unbelievable world I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of, even if only for a tiny blip in its long lifespan. I’m already doing everything I can to be a more active participant in it–and in its preservation. Perhaps, in a way, I see those immersed in the sciences as a sort of clergy, and fieldwork as ritual, and research as the study and interpretation of sacred doctrines. Not as infallible holy writ, mind you, or “scientism”, but as one more way to know this world in all its parts.

But then I realize that perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be a generalist, an amateur naturalist who can more easily draw from the layperson’s end of all the sciences. I don’t have to adhere only to astrophysics, or molecular biology, as my bailiwick. While I don’t have the competency of a trained specialist, I also don’t have to defend my stances in my specialty in the same way. In fact, I’m free to browse at various theoretical fields–a little zoology here, a dash of meteorology here–not as a way to try and “be right”, but simply to augment my understanding of the world and my place in it. I still rely on specialists to help me ward off bad information and interpret what’s good, but I’m not married (figuratively) to any of them.

So while I still feel some envy toward the people who get to work at the Oregon and Monterey Bay aquariums, or painstakingly scrape and scuff rock away from ancient fossilized bones, I know I’m in the best place I can be. If someday I figure out that math stuff I may take a stab at even more intense training, but until then, I’ll happily curl up with my books and my documentaries and my layperson’s understanding, soaking it up like a sponge.

Humans Are Not Either/Or Creatures

First, a quick hello from internet-land! I spent this past weekend down in Long Beach and surrounding areas for Ghostwriters Unite!; I was at the conference to help moderate panels and lend my small press experience to the general milieu, though I also got a lot of schmoozing in as well. I learned a lot about ghostwriting, to include that it’s much more complex a profession than one might think, and I met all sorts of fabulous people from a variety of backgrounds, and I wish we’d had more time together. A huge thank you to Tyger Ward for getting me connected to the conference in the first place! I ended up making a long weekend of it since I was down there on my own anyway, and on my off time I explored the Long Beach marina, went up to the La Brea Tar Pits, and even stomped around Griffith Park for a while, where I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild (probably a southern Pacific rattlesnake) and walked by the cages for the old Los Angeles zoo. All in all, it was a most excellent trip, and I plan to do it again.

tumblr_mmfz9sQzfu1qcrvgeo1_500I spent time today playing catch-up on email, messages, and the like. While I was taking a quick break on Tumblr, I ran across an image depicting two children, one using a smart phone, and one holding a small bird. Below these two images was the caption “Teach your children well”. I’m not entirely sure what the anonymous compiler’s intent was; perhaps they wanted to contrast the detachment of the one child, accessing the world through the virtual reality on the phone, with the direct experience of the other child interacting with the live bird in his hands. Or maybe they agreed with me when I said:

Yes. Teach your children that through the internet they can access more information about the world than ever, from places they may never see for themselves, from people they might never have known existed, about topics they never even knew existed. And then teach them that while this knowledge is well and good and valuable, it’s not a replacement for also going out in the world and experiencing it, and being out in it. Let these things complement each other. Let the internet be a way to fill in the blanks about the new type of bird you encountered while you were breathing in the fresh air out on a hike, moving your muscles and negotiating rocky terrain. Let the words of others who have recorded their experiences and shared them via technology enhance your understanding of what you see with your eyes, or hear with your ears, or touch with your fingers. Let the internet spread the word that a particular species of bird is highly endangered and should not be harmed, even for food, and let on the ground action and protection follow it up.

Both of these pictures are children learning well. Let them teach each other, too.

Of course, this also brings up the issue that there are many, many children (and adults) who don’t have access to the internet, and some whose access is restricted either through government censorship, or limited computer access, or illiteracy, or other barriers. All the internet connectivity in the world won’t help if you can’t get to it, or understand what’s there. It also doesn’t bring into account that more and more children in the US and elsewhere are being denied access to wild, open spaces in which they can roam and explore without helicopter parents hovering over their every move. By the time they’re old enough to make their own decisions on where they can go, the window for early fascination with nature has long since closed, and many simply don’t care.

Unfortunately, tech and nature are often set against each other in an either/or dichotomy. As we create increasingly complex technologies, they may distract us from the world around us, especially the outside world. Those who wish to preserve nature and the human relationship with it may sometimes claim moral superiority because they don’t have a tablet PC or smart phone. I’ve written before about how nature vs. technology is a false dichotomy, and I still hold with that. Both of these influences contributed invaluably to who I am today, from the antibiotics that saved my life a few years ago and the computer I use to communicate with you folks via this blog, to the small, sacred places that raised me and all the trails in the Columbia River Gorge I’ve explored as an adult.

Both unfettered nature and technology have their good and bad sides from a human bias. Unfortunately, we’ve lost our respect for both of them; we take and take of the good while pretending we’ve completely overcome the bad. The Black Plague may be a distant memory, but over a million people die from malaria worldwide every year. Cars get us from place to place with independence and speed, but oil spills are just one of the many costs the petroleum industry likes to sweep under the rug. Still, if people are able to live happier, healthier, longer lives, that can’t be all bad–especially if we can do so in sustainable manners that also leave plenty of room for all of our nonhuman neighbors on the planet.

We won’t learn to respect both sides if we demonize one or the other. This is why I am neither a Luddite nor a technophile, and why I enjoyed both the museum at the Tar Pits and the trails at Griffith Park. Everyone’s personal balance may be different, but I firmly believe that as a species if we are to survive and thrive we must respect both the uncontrolled, wild nature we came from and the technology that we tool-using apes have created.

In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

I have spent the better part of two weeks being sick with a gut bug. I’m almost recovered at this point but am still fatigued enough that it’s going to be a couple more days before I can reliably leave the apartment for more than a little while. It’s definitely going to be a bit longer before I get to go hiking again. But even going outside so far as to walk down the block has been a challenge. I went out Friday afternoon to walk an errand, and was overjoyed to get absolutely drenched in the rain, simply because it meant I wasn’t inside.

Now, my apartment is a pretty cozy place to be. I have just about everything I need here–my work, lots of books, my computer, company in the form of my partner, and so forth. So being restricted to this place isn’t the worst thing in the world. Even on the days when I was so tired I mostly just slept, I had a nice, warm, comfy bed to snooze and snuggle in. I even popped open the bedroom window during the day so I could see the cherry and maple trees outside, with the squirrels and scrub jays and crows busying themselves with autumn chores. So it sure beat being stuck in a hospital somewhere (not that I was anywhere near that sick this time around).

Still, it wasn’t outside. And due to being sick twice now in the past month, my outdoor time has been almost nil. To be quite honest, it’s been driving me up the wall. Once festival season settled out for the year and I was able to get out more, I got used to my weekly hikes and other sojourns. And now they’re sorely missed. I’ve felt so starved for outdoor time that even walking downstairs to the mailbox or the car has felt like a banquet of smells, sights, and sounds for my sensory enjoyment.

The entire experience been an immediate illustration of the human need for nature. I noticed a definite difference between the first time I was able to get in the car and have my partner drive me to the grocery store, and the first time I was able to walk a mile around my neighborhood on one of the last sunny days. Sure, the former was a change of scenery, and the source of much-needed provisions. But the latter….that fed my spirit. I often take for granted just how much the trees and the gardens and the small creatures in my urban neighborhood improve my overall well-being. That first walkabout was a strong reminder of what had been missing. I went from a small space of a few rooms and the endless distractions of the internet, to a full, living world brimming over with flora and fauna. I encountered thousands of living beings–the last remaining orb weaving spider, chrysanthemums, moss greening the rain-soaked pavement, my fellow humans jostling for space in a small market.

I vary from day to day how much I’m able to get out, but every moment under the sky is precious now. It was before, too, but never to such a conscious degree. And every day I direct my efforts in growing stronger and healthier with the goal of being well enough to hike, even if it’s just a small hike. That’s what has helped keep my sanity intact in these days of illness and fatigue and confinement. Between my walks outside, and the promise of more wilderness, I can keep myself calm while I heal.

I am not an indoor wolf. I never had the ability to fool myself into thinking that the city was enough, that the virtual reality of the internet and all its shining interruptions could replace the living world. I have uses for technology, of course, but they are no substitute. I am a living, breathing, evolved being, and like my ancestors before me, I need open landscapes to roam. We may have developed some incredible and even beneficial technologies over the past century, but we are still the mammalian animal, Homo sapiens, and evolution doesn’t work so quickly that tech replaces biology.

So I wait as patiently as I can for my body to complete its healing process from this damnable illness, letting my immune system work its magic, and taking in calories and rest as I need to to help it along. And then someday soon I’ll find myself strapping on my day pack and picking up my hiking stick, and I’ll be on the trail again before I know it.

Animal Heritage, Employment, and Being Wild

As I write this, I am taking a brief break from what I call an “artwork frenzy”. As a full-time self-employed artist and author, I spend a great deal of my time in creative pursuits. However, there are times when I am relatively free of immediate deadlines and scheduling static, where I am free to spend several days buried in a particular project or set of projects. I refer to these as artwork or writing frenzies. It’s during these times where, unfettered by the needs and expectations of others, I can write the bulk of a book manuscript in the space of a few weeks, or dance back and forth among several art projects adding a little paint here, checking a sealant there, giving my hands a break from yards of hand-braiding, and so on. It’s really where I do my best work.

I am preparing for an event I’ll be vending at this weekend; while I have more than enough artwork to fill my booth, I always like to have new offerings to debut. It gives me an excuse to show off, and often breaks me out of creative ruts. As I’m taking hides and antlers, paint and yarn, and creating a variety of ritual wear and tools and other such things, I have Netflix going with a steady stream of shows about history, prehistoric animals, geology, cosmology, and the origins of life itself. It takes me temporarily out of this moment and is the closest I can get to travelling and exploring somewhere new.

But it also gives me context for where we as a species are right now. Just a few thousand years ago there were only a small handful of humans scattered across the land, just one more species of wild animal amid the rest. So much time was spent by all creatures either procuring food, or avoiding becoming someone else’s meal. Jack London’s dour law of “eat or be eaten” that ruled his canine character Buck in The Call of the Wild may seem extreme to those of us who are used to buying food at a supermarket or convenience store, and who do not have to spend every waking moment looking over our shoulders in case some other being leaps upon us and tears us to pieces. But for most living beings that have graced this planet, today and before and beyond, life is full of unpredictability, and constantly at risk of being brutally brought to a close. We here enjoy a level of safety and security very rarely experienced by any beings throughout the planet’s history.

Similarly, in the half-year and change since I became fully self-employed, I’ve gotten the barest reminder of the aforementioned unpredictability. While overall I’ve been a success, I’ve also had to learn to weather the ebbs as well as the flows of the business. There’s only so much I can do on my end to bring in enough income to keep my household going. I can make a ton of art, I can promote it, and get out to events to vend. But at the end of it all, none of it works if there are no customers buying what I create. In the same way, the most powerful and crafty hunter, the most skilled scavenger, and the most resourceful grazer or browser, cannot eat if the food is not there. No matter how much they may roam, how many chases they may make, how many miles they tread in search of prey or carcasses or edible plants, there are still days where they go to sleep with empty stomachs.

This is unlike domestic animals, and people employed by others who receive a regular wage. They have more security in that someone else rations out the food–or money–they get on a regular basis. Sure, there’s the chance the farm may fold or the business may collapse; famine and downsizing are both dangers. But one of the amazing recent creations of humans are societies in which you can more or less know exactly how much of a given resource you’re going to have access to depending on the current arrangements you’ve made. If your job is secure and you get consistent pay and hours, you likely know when payday is and how much you’re getting. That’s pretty damned impressive in the grand scheme of things, and almost unprecedented in the Earth’s entire history.

I am not a wild animal. I am happily domesticated, for the most part. I’m happy in an apartment, where I have easy access to food and medicine and warmth and companionship–and, for that matter, where I’m unlikely to get eaten by a saber-toothed cat. But I do like to think a little about my wild heritage, and that of our species as a whole. See, I don’t think it’s the trappings of wildness that make us wild. I could run around Portland wearing my creations, and seek out ever more dangerous and untamed deities and spirits, and spend nights backpacking in the woods. But if I’m still coming back to the security of home, if I know I have that secure base to come back to, it really doesn’t make me any more of a feral human being than I was before. It would just make me a dilettante.

What I feel brings me just a shade closer to myself as a wild animal is the uncertainty I’ve taken on. This ebb and flow of income and resources is just a touch closer to what my distant ancestors went through their entire lives out of lack of any other option. Granted, even this slightly greater risk is still somewhat of an affectation. Even with Portland’s crappy economy, I have enough formal education and matching experience in multiple professional fields, and the ability to relocate if need be, that I have more than one potential fallback if I need it. (Specialization is for insects, as Heinlein said.) But in this moment, where the ability to pay for the food that comes onto the table is dependent on a much more variable income, I can appreciate what my ancestors, what many of my fellow human beings today, and what almost all other wild animals, experience on a daily basis–just a tiny bit, anyway. I can’t know what it’s like for sure to be any of these others, but it’s a bit of a wake-up call here in my privileged, comfortable urban lifestyle.

And most attempts on the part of my fellow domesticated humans to “be wild” are affectations to some degree. Going out to the woods to play overnight is not the same as having your home, your source of food, your security suddenly disappear. Those who are unwillingly homeless, or who otherwise fight every day to survive with no safety net, are closer to the wild than those of us secure in our homes and full pantries. No amount of fur and feathers, or fake hipster war paint, or trance-dancing at drum circles, or worshiping ancient deities of natural phenomena, brings us closer to wildness than having one’s life in more danger than before, even a bit. The more I know of the violent and dangerous track that life on Earth took to get to this moment, the more I appreciate that the wild is built on risk and threat, nowhere near as romantic as society would make it.

I don’t intend, of course, to give everything up and go live in a cabin in the woods and eat only what I can hunt and gather. And I don’t feel that being self-employed has somehow turned me into the Wild She-wolf of the Northwest. It’s just a tad bit riskier than having a day job, and I contemplate that risk, and greater risks, in this moment.