“Natural” vs. Artificial”

One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.

I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.

Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.

So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.

So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.

Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.

But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)

Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–“In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.

And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.

But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.

Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?

If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.

Who is Wolf?

The stock definition of totemism that I give, as I experience it, is “a totem is an archetypal being that embodies all of the traits of a given species”. But what does that entail?

Let’s look at Grey Wolf, my primary totem (and probably the most popular one in neopagan totemism).

Wolf is made of the ever-evolving river-flow of genetic code of Canis lupus, which includes a number of subspecies with individual genotypical and phenotypical traits.

Wolf is all of the variety of behaviors, both instinctual and learned, that are exhibited by any and all members of that species throughout its history.

Wolf is the niche that wolves have sculpted into the complex ecosystems they are integral to, reflective of the mutual refinement between environment and inhabitor.

Wolf includes the relationships that wolves have to other species, the dance of death with prey, the standoff with other predators over a kill.

Wolf embodies the relationship that we humans as a species and as individuals have to wolves in the wild and captivity.

Wolf is all the stories we have told, from Lupa the mother of Rome, to the Big Bad Wolf menacing little girls in red and barnyard critters, to personal interpretations of authors of totem animal dictionaries, and the archetypal weavings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Wolf is every piece of art depicting hir children, from cave paintings to natural history illustrations to the fanciful creations (and criticisms) of wolfaboos over on DeviantArt.

Every time a person forges a connection with Wolf, Wolf changes. This is why it is important when working with Wolf (or any other totem) to make a personal relationship, rather than just going to whatever totem dictionary is handy and assuming that’s the answer.

Because Wolf is bigger than that. There’s so much there that narrowing Wolf down to a few paragraphs in an ephemeral paperback is futile. And the only person who can navigate through that collective of information and ideas on your behalf, is you.

It’s Spring. There is food.

I am very nearly through with my degree work in graduate school, currently in the middle of my internship. Come September, I ought to be done and out on my own. This is a rather shaky proposition in some ways. The job market here in Portland is particularly bad, and since I am stubborn and refuse to leave this place that I love so dearly, I’m not about to go chasing jobs elsewhere. However, I’m happier when I’m self-directed anyway, and so the prospect of being completely self-employed, while financially risky, is at least more appealing on an emotional level. It’s quite within my grasp, too. The Green Wolf isn’t enough in and of itself to cover all my bills, but it’s a decent part-time job at this point.

I’m guessing you aren’t here to read about the mundane details of my life. And yet, these things are exceptionally important. While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is far from a perfect model of how all humans prioritize needs ranging from food to self-actualization (you can find self-actualization among the hungry, and self-blindness among the well-fed), it’s a good reminder that we human animals are embedded in multiple levels of being.

The physical gets a bad rap in spirituality a good bit of the time. In fact, “spirituality” implies “spirit, which is antithetical to flesh”. Okay, yes, that’s a rather simplistic definition. There are plenty of spiritual practices that involve the body in a very conscious manner. However, all too often within neopaganism in general, and even in neoshamanism in specific (though this is less common than in some other neopagan paths) the body is seen as a vehicle to transcendence. Being in the body is not seen as a transcendent experience in and of itself.

And I feel that’s a great shame, because the very act of living is an amazing thing in and of itself. Let’s take eating as an example. Many of us, especially in high-paced Western societies, have a tendency to rush through food. I mean, really–it’s called fast food for a reason! The center of the grocery store is full of prepackaged, processed, quick-to-prepare meals for the entire day. Now, admittedly, I partake of these a good deal, especially in the busiest part of my week when I have both classes and internship obligations to attend to. Sometimes it’s tough to find the motivation to make a meal from scratch.

And yet, the experience of making the food from scratch is, in and of itself, an act of self-care for me. I discovered a few years ago that I enjoyed cooking in part because it is its own alchemy. The proportions of seasonings and other ingredients have everything to do with the end result. And everyone likes good food better than mediocre or even bad food (though what falls under each category is wholly subjective, with the exception of spoilage/etc.).

Even if you don’t make your own food from scratch, and even if the food isn’t the greatest, you can still gain a good deal out of the very experience of eating. There is a concept known as Mindful Eating. This is the art of slowing down the process of eating, being more aware and immersed in that experience, and allowing food to BE the experience. It also makes us aware of the values and habits we attach to food. In this day and age, when so many of us are facing numerous health problems associated with unhealthy relationships to food and the body (I can point to a chronic case of acid reflux, for example), awareness of how these relationships manifest, as they are manifesting, is crucial to improving them.

And eating mindfully is spiritual. It creates a lot of the same states that many people seek in their spirituality. There is a transcendence of the ordinary, and an altered state of consciousness. There is great connection to something greater than the self–in this case, food can be the gateway to connection to not only the Land that grew it, but all the other living organisms that touched it along the way, human and otherwise.

But eating mindfully also grounds us in that most important microcosm–our body. It is the physical vehicle in which we can interact with this world we live in; the physical brain is the seat of the mind that we use to navigate nonphysical realities. Being present includes being embedded in the body. (Or as they say, “Be HERE now”.)

So much of our health overall depends on the health of our bodies. I know that my emotions and psychological health can be adversely affected by a lack of sleep or by low blood sugar or otherwise just feeling off physically. Since these things are indispensable to the process of experiencing, comprehending and processing spiritual activities, then it behooves me to take care of my body as best as I can. And since food is my body’s fuel, then I’d better be aware of what I’m putting into myself!

A lot of where my spirituality has gone as I’ve been largely “underground” for most of a year has been in approaching spirituality in the everyday. And I am amazed at what I find. There is no alchemy more important to a human being than the processes by which the body takes in air, water and food and uses the molecules to keep itself going. (Those with, say, food allergies are required even more than others to be aware of the delicate balance of introducing molecules to their systems.)

We don’t need to look to arcane processes to be able to find magic. We overlook the everyday, and yet we do this to our own detriment. Not that there’s no value to the more esoteric things, but really, if what you’re seeking is magic, then realize that it exists everywhere, and yes, is often the very same things that are explained in scientific terms–without the need for further elaboration.

Science and Spirituality

Recently I got into a conversation online with one of the many people who are convinced that at some point in the future, either something specific like December 21, 2012, or a more vague “When the Veils between the worlds fall”, “magic” will overcome “science”, and instead of having technology to guide us and lengthen our lifespans, we’ll all be able to shoot fireballs, heal instantly by touch, and ride dragons. Or similar things that are impossible in the current state of physics.

I’ve seen this entirely too many times in my decade and change in the pagan and Otherkin communities. Not only does it show an escapist form of wishful thinking that completely ignores the wonders and miracles inherent in the material world (I mean, come on–photosynthesis? Is totally cool.), but the argument also shows an ignorance of what science actually is.

Science does not dictate the nature of reality. No matter how much we know about, say, how physics works, we cannot change the laws of physics (as Scotty liked to remind us). We can change what we are able to do within the parameters of material reality through the understanding of that reality that science gives us. But science does not change the basic parameters of material reality.

Of course, when these people I speak of try to contrast magic and science, their general understanding of what “pure magic” is would violate the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and just about every other science out there–if it could actually do what they claim it can do. They point to situations where magical practice has apparently done the impossible, by creating changes in physical reality that aren’t supposed to happen. Confirmation bias aside, I’m guessing that all of these can be explained ultimately through science. The explanations may not be to the satisfaction of the imaginations (and wishful thinking) of some folks, but IMO, that doesn’t make those explanations any less important for being explained through “boring” science. After all, if you get the result you wanted, what does it matter?

I know the argument would then go that belief shapes reality, and the more people believe in science, the more science changes and shapes reality. Yet that’s a fallacious argument that again shows a complete ignorance of what science is. Science is compiling information about material reality based on controlled, empirical observations of that reality. In short, it is not manipulating reality, but merely observing it and recording what is observed. If that observation changed reality every time it happened, then the observations recorded would be nowhere near as consistent as they are, even after making allowances for human error. Yes, we change things within objective reality though our technology, but the technology does not change the nature of the objective reality itself.

And this is why I think that spirituality should not be placed in opposition to science. Spirituality that defines itself as completely unattached to science is in denial of the parameters we realistically work within every moment of our lives–to include the parameters in which we practice spirituality and magic. The splitting of science and spirit into two completely separate camps has done nothing beneficial for spirituality; all it has done is turned it into a tool for denialism and ignorance. Most of the observable effects are less drastic than the tragic cases of, say, children who die because their parents think prayer is a better cure for chronic illnesses than western medicine. But when we take science entirely out of our spirituality, we are in grave danger of imperiling ourselves on multiple levels–physical, psychological, and otherwise.

This is not to say that there is no room for suspension of disbelief. Science, for example, has not been able to prove the existence of souls, or an Otherworld, other than as psychological constructs. But when I journey, I journey with the mindset that I am going to an objectively real place where there are spirits, and where I am a temporarily disembodied spirit myself wandering through talking to animals. I realize that this is empirically unprovable, and you’re going to just have to trust me when I say I experienced it. But for me, in that moment, it is every bit as real as the physical world we all share.

However, when I come back out of the spirit world and regain my body, I become consciously aware again that there is a decided psychological angle to what I just did. It doesn’t in the least bit diminish my experience. Instead, it adds an additional layer of understanding to it, and enriches it by giving me even more language to communicate what I did. (While psychology is a soft science at best, it still contains more empirical evidence than most spiritual practices.)

And that’s the thing: science augments my spirituality. Knowing how photosynthesis works just makes knowing plant spirits that much better. Being aware of how stress affects physiological processes of the body adds value to meditation. Understanding the natural history of physical animals helps me know their totems even better.

I have more to say, but I am tired, and my words aren’t working as well as when I started this essay. Expect more in the future.