Like My Writing? Then Give This a Listen!

So on Sunday I was a guest on the Pagan Musings Podcast. The initial topic was animism and my anthology, Engaging the Spirit World. We did start off in that direction—but then we wandered far off-trail into topics ranging from ecopsychology and environmental activism, to humanistic/naturalistic pantheism and other theologies, to my work with skin spirits and animal remains, to how we can best communicate about the things we feel strongly about. It essentially went from “interview” to “rambling, lovely conversation”, and we went for three hours!

Please do feel free to take a listen; I cover some things I haven’t really had the chance to talk about, and my gracious hosts helped this become a wonderful spoken creation, IMO.

Click here to hear the show!

May I Have a Moment of your Time and Attention?

Hey, all! I wanted to bring to your attention a couple of new projects of mine that I really want more people to know about. I would love it if you’d take a peek at these, and I’d be especially honored if you’d pass one or both links on to folks you feel may be interested. (And my thanks to you for that!)

First, the BIG one–on February 1-2, 2014, right here in Portland, OR, I am running Curious Gallery PDX, a weekend-long convention dedicated to the appreciation and creation of taxidermy and other natural history specimens, artifacts old and new, and other things you might find in a well-stocked cabinet of curiosities. From the official website:

Long before public museums became a feature of many cities, private citizens in Europe and elsewhere formed their own extensive collections of scientific specimens and cultural artifacts meant to educate and inspire their beholders. A longtime collector of natural history specimens, Portland artist and author Lupa wanted to increase awareness and appreciation of wunderkammern (“wonder cabinets”), or cabinets of curiosity, and their eclectic contents. Curious Gallery is the result, a weekend of exhibits, presentations, hands-on workshops, and special programming for lovers of taxidermy, natural wonders, and strange treasures old & new.

I’ve been planning this for a while and the time was finally right to make it happen! It’ll be two days of workshops, panels and other programming, an art show and fashion show, exhibitors of all types, and other goodies related to taxidermy and other natural history, ancient and modern artifacts, and anything else to be found in a cabinet of curiosities.

If you want to keep up on news, updates and special deals, here are the Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Google Plus page for the event. Early bird ticket rates are available now on the main site.

So, that’s one. The other is that I started a new art blog. But it’s not just any art blog! Lupa Makes Stuff is sort of similar to Therioshamanism, in that it’s a record of my explorations. However, this time it’s me exploring new artistic media and techniques, showing you what I did and how I did it, and even rating the eco-friendliness of each project! If you have a Tumblr account feel free to follow me.

I’ve already explained how I woven pouches on nothing more than an old board and some tacks, and the process of giving a rocking horse a makeover. And I have so much more planned!

Death and the Animals’ Privilege

Note: This is my offering for the October edition of the Animist Blog Carnival, topic being “Death”.

When I first explored paganism way back in 1996, I almost immediately gravitated toward the animals. Like so many other totemists, I picked up a copy of Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak, and thereby began cutting my metaphorical teeth. For the following decade the animals were at the center of my practice, whether I was working with generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism or Chaos magic. I developed my own system for working with animal totems and spirits, and even created a lot of practices for working with hides, bones, and other animal remains.

After my arrival in Portland, I soon became immersed in the Land as a whole. I adopted a more bioregional approach not only to my spiritual path, but my life in general. This led me to connect not only with the local animals, but with the plants, fungi, stones, landforms, waterways, and many others. I grew to understand that the animal totems lived in their own wilderness and urban environments, just as their physical counterparts did, and this gave more form to my spiritual path, my neoshamanism and my role as an intermediary.

One of the effects of this shift in my worldview was that I became more sensitive to the great emphasis we place on animals over all other beings of nature, and especially vertebrates, and even more especially charismatic megafauna. We tend to value those beings that are most like us (but not too much like us). So (at least in the U.S.) a wolf is seen as more valuable than a salamander, a salamander moreso than a fruit fly. (Oddly enough monkeys and apes are often denigrated as silly beings because we think of them as “failed humans” of a sort; we see too much of ourselves in them and that perhaps scares us.)

Continuing on in that, we see animals as more valuable than plants, fungi, and the like. Someone who would never dream of killing an animal will happily uproot carrots and prune a bonsai tree into perpetual tininess. The usual justification is that since plants don’t have nervous systems like animals do, they don’t feel pain and therefore it’s okay to do whatever you want to them. This is even in spite of new research showing that plants can communicate with each other through sound, chemicals and even the mycelial mat of fungi connecting their roots.

Also, plants recover from injury differently than we do. If you cut off a vertebrate animal’s limb there’s a very good chance it will die, or at least be very significantly disabled for the rest of its life. Many invertebrates and a small number of vertebrates can regenerate lost bits, but few people would advocate for deliberately mutilating them just for the fun of it (and those who did would be looked at very suspiciously). On the other hand, you can lop off the branches of a tree, tear off a flowering plant’s reproductive organs, and cut grass down to a height of an inch or less once a week, and they’ll still keep growing. So we assume that this must be okay because they don’t die from it. Even if they do die, oh well–what’s another tree or shrub?

Finally, plants die differently than animals, or at least appear to. Even though both have evolved the same sort of programmed cell death, on a larger scale the point of death for an animal is a lot easier for us to determine–the brain activity stops, the heart no longer beats, the body becomes cold. Animal deaths can happen very quickly; a plant generally only dies quickly if caught in a fire (and even then some plants, like grasses, can survive the fire to regenerate). If you pick off a leaf from a lettuce still growing in the ground and eat it, that leaf is still alive. The top of a pineapple that you’ve peeled and cut up can be placed in water and then soil to grow a new pineapple plant. It doesn’t become dead just because you’ve separated it from the rest of the fruit. So this can contribute to why we don’t see plant deaths as being so traumatic, and therefore not as weighty.

Now, before we move on, let me say that I am certainly not supporting willful cruelty to animals just because we inflict similar activities on plants. However, I would question the attitude we have toward plants (and fungi, just for the record) that they are infinitely expendable, and that their deaths don’t matter. Rather than lowering the standards by which we gauge ethical care of animals, I suggest that we raise the standards we use to care for plants. And that includes being mindful of their deaths.

For fifteen years I’ve been working with hides, bones, and other animal remains in spirituality and art. I’ve developed unique rituals and practices surrounding this work as a way of honoring the spirits in these ways, as well as part of my meals (yes, I do eat meat). More recently, as my work has expanded, I’ve expanded that sacred approach to plant and fungus parts as well, which I call “leaves and caps” as shorthand*. As with the hides and bones, there are certain practices of purification that I do with everything I make from plants and fungi. But more importantly, these practices help to remind me at all times that these were once living beings, and in order for me to live (or create the art that I do), something had to die, or at least sacrifice a part of its physical form.

It’s especially important to me that I’m expanding this work of sacred approach to the plants and fungi as well as the animals. I’m not about to become a fruitarian. But I’m trying to reduce my bias toward animals, and elevate all living beings to a more meaningful and considerate level in my life. I’ll still eat them, and work with their remains, and consume other products made from them, since I need these to live. However, I’ll do so with more mindfulness, and a greater sense of responsibility toward them. I’ll be more careful about sustainable sources, and continuing to do my environmental volunteering for the betterment of all.

And that includes not taking the deaths of the plants and fungi for granted. They may not be the same as I am; they may not suffer or die in the same way as I. But I can still extend compassion to them, and hope that I benefit the world a little more thereby.

* If you’re interested in this part of my work, I have a chapter on working with plant and fungus parts in spirituality in my book Plant and Fungus Totems, which is due out from Llewellyn in May 2014.

When Endangered Doesn’t Mean the Same Thing as Endangered

Okay. I’ve had a couple of people tell me about an online petition to have “endangered species” parts removed from Etsy. The petition cites vintage leopard fur from a coat that was listed by an antiques dealer on the site, and noted that while eBay has specific items they don’t allow, Etsy just says “no illegal animal parts”.

That’s all fine and good. I’m fine with Etsy defining that further, and for myself I both restrict myself to things I know are legal, and take the time to contact people I see selling vintage leopard fur or blue jay feathers in the US to let them know what they have isn’t legal. But then the petition writer goes on to talk about “endangered species” in a general way, and tries to say that any animal listed in CITES isn’t allowed. Additionally, the writer also states that any interstate trade of any endangered species parts is illegal.

The twofold problem here is that A) these are inaccurate interpretations of the laws in places, and B) there are different levels of “endangered”. Like CITES-listed animals, for example. CITES has three appendices. Appendix I includes animals like leopards, tigers, rhinos, and other extremely endangered animals. In the US it’s illegal to trade in CITES I animal parts, even pre-CITES ones, except for pre-CITES parts within your own state. However, Appendix II, which includes gray wolves, some species of zebra, and lions, allows for limited hunting and trade of these animals. And Appendix III involves animals threatened in one country, where other countries are asked to help protect these species.

Leopards and wolves are both “endangered species”. But what that entails for the trade in their parts is different in each case. Look at wolves in more detail. In Canada and Alaska, the populations are quite healthy, and a certain amount of hunting is allowed. In the lower 48 states, on the other hand, wolves are often still trying to gain a foothold. I don’t personally agree with the impending delisting of lower-48 wolves from the Endangered Species Act, because I don’t feel that states like Montana are going to do a good job of management, at least not beyond what makes ranchers and hunters happy. That’s why I only use hides and bones from Alaskan and Canadian wolves, and prefer to get them secondhand when possible.

If you think all wolves should be protected, that’s another argument for another time. My main point is that “endangered species” doesn’t automatically mean “can’t be hunted and their parts are illegal to buy or sell”. It’s a lot more complicated than that. You have to look at the individual species, and the various places it lives and how the populations are recovering.

Unfortunately, things like this petition just muddy the waters and spread false information. I admit that I haven’t updated it in over a year, so there are some broken links, but you can still get some idea of the nuances of legalities at my collection of animal parts laws-related links. That’s going to be more useful than one more misinformed petition screaming about “endangered species”.

A Quick Follow-up and Thank You

First, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s contributed to the outpouring of support the past couple of days regarding my last post. The kerfuffle ended up not amounting to more than a couple of snarky emails and one mildly suspicious reply to the blog post I wrote–no protesters or flyers at the event, no droves of animal rights activists descending upon Seattle, etc. Which is about what I expected. People are generally much braver online than in person, and of the sum total of two (maybe three?) people who contacted me this weekend with harsh criticisms, not a single one used an email address that showed anything when searched on Google or any other identifiable information.

More importantly, though, I was reminded over the past few days, both through this and through the many people who I did meet face to face at my booth at FaerieCon West, that there are a LOT of people who have my back. I got emails, I got blog responses, I got hugs and support in person, and every one of them was from someone who wanted to let me know that they appreciate my work, physically and spiritually. I always appreciate when people take the time to send me a nice note or give me a thank you for something I’ve done that’s helped them, but there was a small flood of that this weekend! For that I am incredibly grateful.

Moreover, you are always welcome to ask me questions about what I do and why. I normally don’t get frustrated with people just asking me “So where do you get your stuff?” This was an isolated case in which it seemed the anonymous person wasn’t actually interested in the answer for any reason other than protest fodder and had made a clear threat to act on it. I don’t want this situation to make people to feel they can’t ask me perfectly reasonable questions about my art, or my (neo)shamanism, or how to start an Etsy shop, or anything else I might be able to help with. I like questions, and I like helping others, and while it may take me a couple of days to respond depending on how busy I am, I do check emails and Tumblr inbox messages and deviantArt notes and Facebook PMs and blog comments and the like. I’m even okay with people asking me questions in person when I’m vending, presenting workshops, etc. I just ask that you be respectful about it, that’s all.

And if we end up at loggerheads over something and we simply don’t agree (assuming you haven’t been so utterly caustic in your delivery that I decide to delete the message instead of engage), the worst I’m likely to do is to agree to disagree and end the conversation. I’m not going to go to my Tumblr brigade and say “Go get ’em!” or talk about how horrible a person you are and try to make everyone else hate you. I don’t pull that sort of junior high dramatics. I can disagree with a person and still respect them otherwise. Truth be told, a lot of the people who disagree with me on certain details (the use of animal parts in my art, my choice to use the word “totem”, etc.) are people with whom I’d probably agree on most other things surrounding the more general topic.

Alright. Time for me to head on back down to Portland. I’ve stuff and things aplenty to accomplish!

A PSA About Dead Critters

I’m vending at an event this weekend and not getting a lot of sleep. Yesterday morning, I woke up to this email, which I assume is from someone who saw me setting up at the event and decided they needed to Take Action:

How are your fox pelts obtained? I cannot think of an ethical method. Plz respond, I intend to protest / flyer your booths.

I’m not proud of my initial brief, terse, and frankly snarly reply to this email, which was born of little rest and a short temper because of that fatigue. I get a lot of these sorts of messages, and they’re usually from people who don’t seem to do any research about who I am and what I do before they decide to take offense at my chosen medium. Still, “Turbowag” did ask a question, and I’m glad he(?)’s at least that curious.

The short answer is that my materials come from a network of suppliers and channels that I’ve cultivated over most of twenty years. Some of these are secondhand pelts recovered from old taxidermy, rugs, coats, museum specimen collections, and the like. Some of them come from subsistence hunters–people who live close to the land, eat what they kill (assuming it’s edible), and sell the furs to pay for essentials like heating fuel. Some are the remains of animals that had to be put down for legal/medical reasons, and some are from food animals.

The last category, and the one you’re probably the most concerned about, is the fur that comes from upholstery and garment discards. When an animal, like a fox, is killed to line a parka (or whatever), the whole hide is tanned, but only the torso is used. The paws, faces, and tails are landfilled or incinerated, unless someone like me reclaims those pieces. Whatever you think of fur farming, bear in mind that unhappy animals don’t have attractive pelts, and that I’ve spent most of twenty years vetting these people.

So why do I dirty my hands like this? Two main reasons: first, because if these animals are going to die, I’d like their deaths to stand for more than somebody’s fashion statement or mantlepiece ornament. My wearable art brings these animals’ existence into a more vivid reality for people who may otherwise tend to misunderstand and abstract them. If you purchase one of my coyote headdresses, for example, you have to embrace the fact that it’s not an disconnected, romanticized representation of “coyoteness” but the skin of an individual creature that felt cold, warmth, hunger, satisfaction, curiosity, and fear. The more people are confronted with these relics of the animals we share the planet with, the more (I hope) they consciously consider the responsibilities that come with our de facto stewardship of Earth’s biosphere*.

The other reason is more direct and personal: a significant portion of the money this art brings in, in excess of rent and bills and business expenses, gets donated to organizations that support wildlife and their habitats. I’ve been able to make frequent, somewhat substantial donations to organizations including but not limited to the Defenders of Wildlife, Wolf Haven International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other institutions doing meaningful work, because I retrieve the remains of dead animals from (sometimes literally) our culture’s dustbins and send them to a new “afterlife” where they are cherished and respected. In fact, just a couple of days ago I posted about my most recent donation to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I have been telling people at the event I am at this weekend that a portion of the funds I make will go to the Oregon Aquarium; both these organizations put in a significant amount of energy and time and money into the preservation of oceans and their inhabitants.

Now that I’ve addressed your questions, “Turbowag”, I’d like to explain why I was annoyed at your email when I was still groggy and cranky this morning, and why I’m still annoyed: because I’ve said all this before. I said it on the internet here, here, here, here, and here (and a whole bunch more times here). I said it in the artist statement that’s posted and distributed at the events where I show and vend. I said it two days in a row in this online workshop. I said it in workshops and panels at numerous pagan and related events over the years. I say it in many of my books, and it’s the central theme of my fourth book, Skin Spirits. Let me repeat that: I wrote an entire book explaining how and why I make the art I do, including how to ethically source reclaimed materials.

I’m annoyed because I keep having to answer this question despite bending over backwards to make the answers available to anyone who looks since 2006, and furthermore, I’m annoyed because I don’t think you’re asking because of an honest curiosity. I think you’re another one of the LEGION of bored internet trolls who is briefly making me your hobby, because I look like an easy target and you think you can turn the kneejerk outrage over OMG DEAD FOXES into however many reblogs and attaboys.

You are not a righteous crusader for the fuzzy critters, and I am not the face of careless wilderness exploitation. I make this art because I care about these creatures, and people pay for it because they care just as much. What’s more, they’ve learned, over years of patronizing my booth at events, buying my work online, consulting with me to do custom work for artistic, personal, and spiritual projects, and asking me for advice in working with their own hides, bones, and other remains, that they can trust my motives and my sources.

And that, “Turbowag”, is why you got me out of the wrong side of the bed this morning.

*As Frank Herbert said through Paul Muad’Dib in Dune, “He who can destroy a thing controls it”.

Masks in Ritual Work

I’ve had a few people ask me specifically about this topic as of late, so for the curious, here you go–a late Solstice present!

Some of you dear readers are already acquainted with the purpose of ritual garments and the like. For those who are not, the short version is that rituals are special occasions. It can be powerful to have a set of clothing that is reserved solely for spiritual practices. Just putting them on signals to your subconscious mind that it’s time to do special things you don’t normally get to. To an extent, it appeals to that part of us that likes to play dress-up with costumes and fancy clothes and the like–it touches on Homo ludens, the part of us that learns and develops through play. (Of course, as grownups we often feel we have to come up with some “serious” reason to dress up in funny clothes any time besides Halloween–though there are those of us who will come up with any reason to don a costume of some sort, hence steampunks and cosplayers and SCAdians and…)

At any rate, most religious traditions have some form of ritual garments that are worn by the officiant(s), and sometimes for the laypeople as well. Even churches are full of congregants in their Sunday best. These clothes and other wearables are also often a form of identifying people of a similar tradition–if you see someone with a kippah you can pretty well bet they’re Jewish, while someone wearing a cross is likely to be Christian of some denomination or another. In paganism, there’s no single set of garb that will denote “that person is pagan!”, though flowing robes, historical clothing, and a variety of symbolic jewelry (far from limited to the pentacle) will be in abundance at many pagan events. (There will also be a cranky minority grumbling about how we all need to dress like normal civilized people, not Harry Potter or our long-lost Viking ancestors.)

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Masks are a particularly specialized form of ritual wear. We most commonly focus on a person’s face when identifying them and communicating with them. (I’ve yet to meet someone who could tell who was approaching by carefully examining their elbows.) A mask covers up the face, and thereby the person’s identity. A person putting on a mask also temporarily puts on a different persona. Even someone trying on a rubber werewolf mask will briefly “get into it” by making claws out of their fingers and going “RAWR!”

We like to imitate other people and other beings. It’s a skill that we’ve evolved over millions of years as social beings. We like things we can relate to; it’s safer than being different. So we developed the tendency to imitate others in our social group (whether that’s goths or Young Republicans). And, by extension, we enjoy imitating other animals. Our ancestors may have done so in part to teach the young how to recognize threatening behavior on the part of other species, but these days we mainly do it–you guessed it–to play.

The masks help with that. Most of us could imitate a Tyrannosaurus Rex without any costumery–just stomp around with your arms pulled up close to your chest and roar! But put a T-Rex mask on, and you may very well find yourself hamming it up in order to make yourself even more convincing as a giant scaly lizard with big, sharp teeth and teeny arms.

We can channel that into ritual purposes as well. Instead of just pretending to be an eagle flying in the sky, flapping our arms while running around an open field for the fun of it, we can instead use that imitation to draw on the energy that is Eagle. By creating a mask that looks like an eagle, we get into that aquiline mindset even more deeply. The same goes for wearing masks for other totems, for deities, for spirits, and so forth. The mask allows us to set aside our own identity temporarily, and take on another.

Some people even feel this invites the spiritual being itself into us, through the process of evocation. In this way, the mask is a channel for that being to enter into the ritualist. When the mask is removed, the connection is severed. That’s part of why the process of removing the mask and other costumery should be done with as much care as the preparation of putting it on.

The construction of the mask adds another layer to consider. Using natural materials such as paper, grasses and other malleable plant material, wood, leather, fur, and other such things can help a person connect to the type of being that provided said materials. For example, when I wear a wolf mask, I am connecting to both the totemic, archetypal Wolf, and the spirit of the wolf who once wore the skin (which, incidentally, is one of the main reasons I work with these sacred remains and skin spirits in my art and spirituality).

The process by which the mask is made also contributes to its purpose. A mask may be mass-manufactured and still be effective, but a handmade mask may be created with the specific intent of embodying a particular being or spirit. When I make wolf masks, for example, I am intentionally working in the energy of both the wolf spirit and Wolf the totem. Creating masks and other ritual wear may be a ceremony in and of itself, depending on the artist, and some work only within a strict spiritual setting.

If you have a mask you would like to work with, here’s one possible way to connect with it:

–First, find a safe space where you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour, and preferably where you can move around unencumbered. Turn off phones and other distractions, and prepare the space for ritual however you see fit.

–Sit with the mask in your lap. Look at it, touch it, and otherwise examine it. What impressions do you get? How does it “feel” to you? What emotions does it evoke in you? Do you get the sense that it has a spirit or personality, or is it connected to some being already in existence such as a deity or totem? If it’s from natural materials, do you get a sense of the living beings they came from?

–If you feel comfortable, put the mask on. Don’t get up yet; just sit and wear the mask. How do you feel now? Do you feel your sense of self shifting at all? Do you feel closer to the mask and the energies it embodies?

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

–Again, if you feel comfortable, get up and move around a bit. Don’t rush it; if you don’t feel like dancing, walking is perfectly acceptable. See how that changes your perception of yourself and the mask. Do you still feel that you’re yourself? Do you feel different? How does it feel to wear the mask?

–Spend as much time wearing the mask as you like. If you feel scared or otherwise uncomfortable, sit back down and carefully take it off, then set it on the ground in front of you. Once you have taken the mask off for any reason, spend a few minutes grounding, without physical contact with it; breathe deeply and slowly, and come back to yourself. (If you feel really disconnected from yourself, recite your name, address, and phone number over and over again.) Reflect on your experiences with the mask, and write them down or otherwise record them if you wish.

This is just an introductory exercise. If you feel comfortable continuing to work with the mask, feel free to try it again, and perhaps elaborate on it. You can even create rituals specifically for the mask; for example, you can do a ritual to celebrate the spirit, totem, or deity it’s connected to, or incorporate it into Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations as appropriate. (If you choose to do so in a group setting, check in with the other group members first, and especially the ritual coordinator(s).)

On the other hand, if the mask makes you uncomfortable, spend some time trying to figure out why. Is there something about the physical mask you dislike? Or did the energy just feel too intense? Was it weird shifting out of your “normal” mindset? Give yourself a couple of days to sit with these feelings and examine them. One bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to get rid of the mask. If you like, try just sitting with it again, and perhaps striking up a conversation. Often the beings who scare us have valuable lessons through that fear, and many times aren’t as threatening as we first felt.

I do recommend sticking to one mask per ritual. It can be exceptionally difficult to shift mindsets mid-stream, as it were. One exception would be a deliberate transformation ritual, for example a rite of passage in which you start off wearing a mask that represents your old self, and then change to one that represents your new self.

Finally, what to do with masks that just don’t fit you in some capacity? I am a firm believer in “waste not, want not”. You can give the mask away to someone for whom it’s better suited. Or if you want to dispel the energy it carries, do a purification ritual to cleanse it; you may even wish to disassemble it and find new uses for the materials. You may also just wish to let it sit on a shelf a while, and perhaps later on you’ll feel better about it.

This, of course, is just the beginning! There are some good resources out there on further mask work; one of my favorite texts is Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, which came out a few years ago but still possesses a wealth of information, ideas, and rituals. And, as always, I’m happy to field questions as well!