Over at No Unsacred Place, I talk about green burial as a “best last gift”, endangered vultures in Asia, and how you can build houses out of cemeteries. From the post:
“I am decidedly agnostic when it comes to the idea of an afterlife of any sort. If there is one, great! The adventure continues. If there isn’t, though, then I would spend my last moment of awareness horrified if I felt I hadn’t made the most of this life. This includes the responsible disposition of my remains once I’m gone. I have no guarantee that there’s any life other than this one, but I know for sure that what I do in this moment can have reverberations in this world well beyond my own departure. I am not motivated by fear of a horrible punishment after I die. I am motivated by the care of the beings I share this life with right now. And I feel that the best last act I can do for this world is to responsibly return the resources I used to build my body back to their source once I’m done walking around in the flesh.”
So, I recently preordered this book; while I am not a hunter myself (not yet, anyway), I still really want to read it, since a lot of the hides and bones I work with in my art and spirituality are from hunted animals, and because I’m very interested in showing people there’s a lot of room between NEVER KILL ANIMALS EVER and KILL ALL THE ANIMALS ALWAYS. Here’s the back cover blurb to entice you further:
The act of harvesting wild meat directly from the land demands that one enter a world of awareness, wildness, life and death that as a culture we have lost our connection to.
The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook is a guide for those that come to the act of hunting with pure intentions, motivated by a desire for healthy food that comes directly and humanely from the earth where they live. This practical guide suggests that hunting is not a ‘sport’ and the animals whose lives are taken are not ‘game’. It combines a deep, honest exploration of the ethics of killing with detailed practical instructions geared toward the beginning hunter, including:
Understanding your prey;
Tools, techniques and preparation;
The act of the hunt;
From forest to table – processing, preserving and preparing your kill.
A unique and comprehensive, fully-illustrated guide to the complexity, ethics, and spirit of the hunt, The Compassionate Hunter is a must-read for beginning and experienced hunters alike. It will appeal to anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into the complex, humbling and ultimately profound reality of our relationship with the food that nourishes us.
If you want to preorder your own copy from the author, here’s the relevant page. It’s also on Amazon and Powell’s for preorder, but I strongly recommend supporting authors as much as possible, and ordering from his site will get him the biggest percentage of the cover price.
There will, of course, be a review in the future once it’s out and I have my copy in my hot little hands.
It’s been years and years since I last did any sort of formal rituals for the Wheel of the Year; I was never Wiccan, but the eight celebrations have been adopted by a wide range of pagans. For years I tried to use them as well, and it never really stuck. While I definitely appreciate the role of seasonal celebrations for individuals and communities, in my own practice I could never quite get over the feeling that doing a special ritual every six weeks was a bit contrived. It’s convenient for a group because it’s a set bunch of times for everyone to plan to get together for a shared ritual experience, and for some solitary pagans, too, it’s an opportunity to break out of the everyday routine and re-connect with the sacred in a deeper way.
Maybe if I was part of a working or ritual group I’d be more inclined to have these special touchstones throughout the year, and there is a part of me that feels a bit wistful about them. But on my own, I have the freedom to acknowledge special moments with nature whenever they arise, and have those as my sacred times. There’s no scheduling necessary, no potluck to cook for. Instead, it’s moments like “picking the first ripe tomatoes of the summer”, and “hey, the maple tree finally started growing leaves again” (and even “thank the gods the noisy-ass starlings finally raised their last brood in my apartment’s ceiling”.) This is not necessarily a superior way of connecting compared to the Wheel, but it’s one that’s fit me better over time.
I think part of the problem with the Wheel is that until the past few years I had little context for it. It was just something a lot of pagans did as part of the pagan package, written by Cunningham and others and used as an excuse for everything from Pagan Pride to pagan coffee klatches. But “old harvest rituals” don’t mean the same to a farmer, as to a city dweller whose food comes from the store and who doesn’t even have a window box of flowers. That was me for a number of years, first due to lack of transportation and money, and then a period of depression and inactivity in general. When I moved to Portland, almost immediately the Land embraced me, and my reconnection with it, and myself, and everything else, became so easy, and a lot of what I’d done as “what’s expected” made more sense.
This included renewed interest and activity in gardening, and for the first time I got a taste of what those old harvest rites were for. It’s one thing to watch a tree grow and shed leaves each year outside the window. It’s another thing entirely to plant a seed, watch it grow, coax it through drought and flood and disease, pick its fruits and seeds, and then bury it in the compost heap at the end of the season. Only then did the excitement over spring, the flourishing of summer, the harvesting of autumn, and the sleep of winter, begin to fall into place just a bit more.
And so it was that I spent my autumn equinox with my hands in the dirt. My community garden plot was in sore need of some work, and so I spent a great deal of the weekend weeding, putting down mulch, fertilizing the soil, and planting the fall crops of kale, spinach, radishes and more. In those hours I felt more connected to the Land than I ever had when standing in a circle with my athame and special ritual dress. The scent of the earth and rain spoke more than my chanted words, and every seed I dropped into the furrows carried more hope for the coming Winter than the candles lit in my ritual room.
Seeds in autumn, indeed! I’m not the first person to point out that using religious directives created in the U.K. in other areas can be pretty limiting. Yet I’m fortunate enough to live in a planting zone where the winter is mild enough that even the autumn is a sowing time, and deep winter and early spring the harvest. Here in Portland, the planting and harvesting cycles blend and flow together, not so much a strict progression as an ever-shifting dance where the participants step in and bow out at different times throughout the year.
Some people claim they feel the presence of death and the ancestors more around Samhain. Not so for me. I sense it all the time. Every day, every moment, something is passing away, and something else is benefiting from that death. Trees fall in the woods, and fungi and lichens flourish on the dying bark. Bears may hibernate in the winter, but bacteria continue to be fruitful and multiply in its gut and on its skin. I myself was born on Samhain Day, November 1, proof that spring does not have the monopoly on new babies. And it’s like that for the other spokes on the Wheel; everything we celebrate at one point of the year can easily resonate throughout the rest, if you know where to look.
The Wheel is broken. It doesn’t roll right here. Sure, it stumbles along the path, but it doesn’t fit the ruts worn down by other, more local vehicles. It ill-fits the conveyance of this place, which is far more than the planting and harvesting of wheat and corn, and the birthing of cattle and sheep. This land–and perhaps all lands–are places of constant, daily births and deaths and rebirths, of sowings and harvests. Here the sun never goes away entirely; though we tilt away from it a bit more, it still rises every morning and greets us, even behind a shroud of clouds.
The stories we tell–the Oak King and the Holly King, the god who is born of the goddess and who dies again only to be reborn–they oversimplify the many-layered cycles of the Land. Nature is not only that which we can easily see or which most benefits us. It is the midwinter birth and the spring harvest, the many hermaphroditic beings that far outnumber the sexually dimorphic ones by individual count if not species, the odd warm day in January or the snow in June.
Of course, if you still prefer the Wheel of the Year, the Oak and Holly King’s drama, and the idea that the Divine looks like us humans (and not our gut flora who are much more plentiful on this earth than we), there’s nothing wrong with that. My dissatisfaction with these things does not extend beyond myself. Still, just as others have pointed out that the Wheel doesn’t match the Southern hemisphere, and West is not always where the water is in every place, so I think it’s good to examine the reasons to celebrate throughout the year where you are, if you like. Think about being more specific–celebrate the time when the kale is harvested and the time when the hummingbirds build nests, mark the passing of an old tree that fell on the third of May and the birth of a kitten on Valentine’s Day.
These things are more important to me than standing in someone’s living room wearing robes, burning candles, and reciting words written for an ideal based on a land I’ve never been to. Let me eat not cakes and ale from the store, but lettuce and carrots from my garden; let me serve the meal I prepared on the table I painted with the flora and fauna of my Land. Let everything I do be a breath I share with this place that has given me a home. In a world where my computer is made with parts from China, where my winter apples come from Brazil, and my ancestors largely hail from Europe, let me ground myself more deeply in the place I am now, to appreciate it and its gifts and its limitations. Surrounded by global interdependence and diversity, let me also grow local roots. Let me learn the mysteries and teachings of what’s north, east, south and west of here, what is embedded in the earth and what breathes in the sky I see every day. Let it be these things and places and secrets that I celebrate, those which have the most meaning for me in this here and now.
This month I’m hosting the Animist Blog Carnival (a couple of days late, I’m afraid–life got REALLY busy in the past few weeks!) The theme I chose was “Bioregion”. Why? Well, in part because it’s a concept I’m very interested in for a variety of reasons, practical and spiritual. The bioregion I live in here in Oregon was the first place to really get me out of my animal-centric perspective and show me that the other parts of the bioregion aren’t just a backdrop for critters. And I wanted to see what other people had to say about their bioregions, near and far. So, let’s get started!
[Earth] is suffused with life, and that life is diverse as a result of the different environments this planet holds. Yet, even with all this diversity none of these life forms would exist without the intricate interconnections of a vast network of life-sustaining processes. This larger system is, itself, composed of many smaller networks of life – each local system is a vital part of the whole.
What do you know of your local environment?
Don’t worry–she’s added some tips for your epxlorations as well, so if you don’t know your local growing season or how geology shaped the local land, you have some good starting points.
When and what are the major yearly bioregional events and how can you celebrate them?
One major one is maple sugaring. Both Paganaidd and I have spoken with the maples about this and received the same answer, which was one I would not have expected. As the keystone tree, the sugar maples are pillars of society. They are modest divas. They like the attention. Be it the sugaring or the tourist leaf-peepers stunned by their beautiful colors in the fall, they dig it. Also they have deep relationships with all the other species in the forest. I get the vibe that they are like my grandparents’ generation, the Great Generation of WW2, with the same 1950s values of being respectable and respected on committees.
Come closer, all of you. Put your faces against this ancient Ponderosa Pine, breathe in her amazing vanilla fragrance, feel the puzzle piece texture of her bark and notice the deep green of her needles. Now look around at the smaller plants growing in her shade, at the Oregon Grape Root trailing down the hillside beneath her and the mushrooms crowded around her base. See these beautiful little lavender flowers? They grow only where the Ponderosas grow and nowhere else. Oh, do you hear that chattering? That’s a tassel eared squirrel, it’s dependent on the Ponderosas as well, harvesting pine nuts and the underground truffles that grow among the tree’s roots. And in turn, the Ponderosa needs the squirrel, as it helps to propagate the trees, spreading their seeds through the forest. The Ponderosa forest is a small ecosystem within the larger ecosystem of the Gila, within the Intermountain Southwest within the American West. One inside the other, like concentric rings, with some species completely endemic to just the Ponderosa Forest, like the tassel eared squirrel, and some expanding out to the whole American West, such as the Western Mugwort.
The Gatekeeper is not an imposing presence. The Gatekeeper is not a beautiful tree; well, yes it is, it is perfectly imperfect. Each scar, each sheared off limb, blackened piece of trunk, borer riddled root is testament to past challenges, lessons learnt, survival, life wisdom. The Gatekeeper is a revered Elder of the Reserve.
Who can but guess at how many persons The Gatekeeper has been there for, helped, (and for those so able to perceive, inspired) but it would be thousands and thousands, as they commence their journey along the track.
In one section of the trunk, the rough, ancient looking bark has been smoothed over by human touch.
What an incredible starting point to one’s journey through what must be a truly magical place! Be sure to check the links to other relevant articles at the bottom of that post, too.
But the personality of a place shifts over time, in part because of migrations of people who shift the balance toward one aspect or another. Often this shift is just a matter of reinforcing something that is already there, taking an aspect that is already established and making it iconic of the region.
A good reminder of some of the human elements of a bioregion.
Our first week at camp, we took a sunset canoe ride out to the island and back. I saw our camp sitting tiny on the shore and teared up, realizing that this is my father’s legacy. He has worked hard to keep this home in the family, so that myself and my siblings are able to experience the same magic that he did as a kid. On the way back, as we reached the middle of the lake, suddenly it seemed that we were going neither forward nor back, but had always been in this place, paddling, sights set on shore. I was myself, and I was all ancestors, those who have already passed and those who will in the future. As the lights of life faded out behind, suddenly arising in the mist was this little house in the woods, and all would be, will be silent, except the water lapping at the prow, except the far off cry of a loon.
No wonder the place is full of ghosts, since I too, hope that it will be these shores that welcome me home for all time.
An incredible introduction to a place we may never ourselves visit, but which we may know just a tiny bit better now that we’ve read this.
For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset. We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.
It is not just quantity, but quality, of connection that speaks in these words.
Fuji’s religious role stems from the country’s animist tradition of mountain worship, prompted not only by its dominating presence but by its volcanic activity. Since 781 there have been 17 recorded eruptions (the last being in 1707), and to appease the mountain deity Sengen shrines were built around the base.
Animism does arise from the land and our interactions with it; we are not mere passive observers, but active participants together.
Water is a sculptor.
As Ice, it can hold its shape long enough for us to notice & appreciate, if we look.
When Water-as-Ice plays with Air, together they fashion breathtaking & sometimes familiar figures.
When Water-as-Ice plays with Light — the gleam of our Sun or Moon — they style a lively, stationary dance.
There is a Life to this Water, unlike that of any other creature.
I want to know it.
Perhaps not the easiest partner to dance with, but worthwhile just the same.
Which brings me back to foraging. Animism is a not a lifeway for those who deny death. All that lives will die and all that lives will kill. On the macro level of modern animism’s monism, all is one so it’s just transformations of that All. On the micro level where we are all persons it’s often very scary and shameful. That’s why I say we have to get it right with food first.
The bioregion is an interconnected network of lives and deaths, and food truly is the most immediate reminder we have of that every single day.
Finally, Pit River elder Dr. Darryl Babe Wilson shares a very old story of the creation of the San Francisco Bay in this wonderful video:
Even when we’ve surrounded a place with cityscape, the bioregion still breathes.
I moved to Portland, OR in the summer of 2007. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this move would be the trigger that set off an entire series of major shifts in my life.
At the time, I’d only been in the Pacific Northwest for a year, and I was already disillusioned. I’d wanted to move up here because I loved the culture I’d seen in Seattle, and I loved the wilderness areas I’d visited, and I had the opportunity to get help from family to move anywhere I wanted. Unfortunately, it had been a decade since I’d last been to Seattle, and the shiny sparklies surrounding the city when I’d been there as a teenager had worn off, leaving the stark reality of being an adult trying to find work in a city with a high cost of living and an inadequate bus system. Furthermore, what I had intended to be a solo move, an adventure for one, ended up turning into a hasty engagement preceding a stressful cross-country trek with someone I’d committed to too quickly.
So after a year and change in Seattle, I was persuaded by friends to move down to Portland. So I dragged an unhappy and unhealthy marriage, an overweight cat, and a truckload of stuff and baggage down I-5 to Oregon. I have a tendency in general to romanticize any place I move to, and demonize the place I’m escaping, but I did have to admit that the old Craftsman house we moved into was a far sight better than the tiny little house we’d scraped by in up north. The neighborhood was a lot more walkable, the transit system far improved, and we had three great friends living right downstairs from us.
It must have been a day or two after we moved in that I met my first scrub jay. A few of these bold-spirited, blue and gray birds lived in the trees around my home, and I heard their raucous “VWEET! VWEEEEEET!” calls in the warm summer sunlight. The totem Scrub Jay then came to me and invited me to explore my neighborhood more, and so I’d walk around the area on foot, seeing what was in the area–a shop that sold handmade drums and supplies, a vintage clothing shop, a second-run independent movie theater, and more. That exploration extended further into the area, to parks and the downtown area and other neighborhoods with walkable streets and lovely houses, large and small.
Soon afterwards, I got my introduction to the Columbia River Gorge. My husband at the time and I headed out to Wahkeena Falls and did some hiking. I immediately fell in love with the cliffs on the Oregon side and their splashing waterfalls. The first wild creature I met there was a Steller’s jay, similar to the blue jays back east, but all of a deep, dark blue with a black head and crest. The staccato call was different from that of their cousins, though the boldness was familiar to me. The totem Steller’s Jay called to me and dared me to climb the switchback trail higher and higher to new places.
So it was that Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay invited me into their homes–the urban streets and colors of Portland, and the forests of the Gorge and Cascade range. Their kindness and the reception of the Land in general prompted me to find out more and more about this bioregion, from the basalt cliffs of the Gorge and flood-carved Willamette Valley, to the rain shadow cast by the Cascades that birthed the eastern desert, and all the flora and fauna and fungi that lived in this place. I grew to know Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, Johnson Creek and Mt. Tabor, and all sorts of other wonderful beings.
I found a place in the human community, too. Scrub Jay coaxed me out of my shell; I finally found the courage to get a divorce, which left me the freedom to further explore healthier relationships with others, including the beautiful and compassionate man that I live with today. The Land invited me to explore and create a shamanic path for myself–Therioshamanism–which led me to becoming a mental health counselor, as well as a working artist and a more dedicated writer and author. I connected with people about the local environment, and got involved in volunteering efforts for cleaning up litter, planting native species, and the like.
Through these efforts my spiritual path became less and less about formal rituals and journeying, and more about creating direct relationships with the beings–physical and spiritual–of the Land that has adopted me. In this, I found the freedom I’d lost since my childhood. I finally felt like myself again, after decades of loss and dead ends.
In short, the relationships I have forged with the beings and places in this area opened me up in ways I’ve never experienced before, and I can truly say that I have found the home I’ve been seeking for many years. And they still remind me of my place here; I have returned to the neighborhood where I first met the scrub jays, and there’s a pair nesting where I work, too. And it seems like almost every time I go into the forests of the Gorge or around mt. Hood, at least one Steller’s jay makes an appearance. Through their children, my first two bioregional totems tell me they’re glad I’m here, and I have to agree that I am, too.
At the beginning of this month, I wrote about small, sacred places in my life. These were the not very large, not particularly wilderness-y, but incredibly important patches of woods and fields that I grew up with in my small town. Even if they were no more than an acre or less apiece, they taught me a great deal about the outdoor world and my various nonhuman neighbors.
I feel that the small, sacred places need more attention. They often get overlooked because they aren’t great wildernesses or national parks or miles-long lengths of trail. They’re often the most vulnerable to development because who’s going to protect a half acre of grass and poison ivy in the middle of a suburb? Put a house or business there instead, or turn it into a carefully manicured park or community garden. While a home can give shelter and a garden can provide food, neither of these provide the same diversity of disorganized, beautifully independent life that the untamed scrub and trees can.
More importantly, they’re often the most accessible natural spots for children who are still developing their relationships with the nonhuman world. Most children can’t just go wandering into a state forest or desert trail, especially not on their own. But even with helicopter parents hovering and video games to distract, there are still kids who are allowed to roam their neighborhoods freely and without supervision. I often worry that, as a child of the 80s, I was of the last generation where kids stayed out all day and didn’t come home until dark, riding bikes and building forts and fishing in little meandering creeks. But there are still some who carry on that tradition, and the small, sacred places give them somewhere to go.
And those relationships formed so early carry on throughout a lifetime. It’s how so many of us who today fight to protect what wilderness remains got our start, our initial inspiration. The roots were sunk, for many, in those small, sacred places. Even for those who never followed an expressly nature-based spiritual path, the wonder and awe these places provoked was—and still is—nonetheless sacred.
So here’s what I’d ask of my fellow bloggers who are able, whether on WordPress or Blogger or Tumblr or Livejournal or wherever you blog: please, if you would, tell me (and your readership) about your own small, sacred places. Even if, like my small, sacred places, yours have long since been bulldozed and paved, write a memorial to them anyway. If it still hurts, let the writing be a place to release that pain. Write a post about any of the little fields and patches of woods, the tiny creeks and ponds full of minnows and crawdads, the often overlooked patches of nature that you grew up with. Tell us about the yard that you got to know so well, the grass and rocks and bugs. Don’t worry about that hike your family went on one year, or the brief visit to Yellowstone. Talk about the places you developed deep relationships with over time, whether as a child or later on. Illustrate with pictures, with videos, with whatever introduces the reader to these places the most.
Once you’ve shared these on your blog, please leave a link here. I’d like to collect them and then make a post later with links to all of them. And thank you for this; I’m looking forward to meeting your small, sacred places, and I hope others are as well.
Note: This is my contribution for the May edition of the Animist Blog Carnival. This month’s theme is Place Magic.
I’ve talked before about some of the places that raised me, and how badly their loss affected me. Other people in response told me about their own small, sacred places that they clung to when they were young, some of which had also been destroyed as they got older.
When we talk about “nature”, the first thing a lot of people picture is a wilderness setting with little to no overt human influence. These are certainly a significant part of nature, but they are not the sum total of nature itself. Most of us didn’t grow up right next to vast forests, fields and deserts, and even if we had we wouldn’t have been allowed to ramble across them unfettered. Instead, what many of us had were small open lots, parks, yards (our own or neighbors’) and the like. Because these may have been all we had, they became the definition of “nature” for us, and that imprint can last a lifetime.
For myself, when I was in my own small places, my fields and little patches of woods, for that time I was free and autonomous. I could explore those scant half-acres with impunity, and as a young child they seemed so vast and inviting that I didn’t want for more space. Instead of hiking for miles, I was exploring every inch of the land, every stone and stump and tree and pathway. I can even still remember the smells of sun on stone and cedar branches. That attention to detail is something I’m still learning to recapture as an adult recovering from the trauma of losing those places to destruction.
But it is coming back, and so is the sense of adventure and exploration that I had growing up. When I find myself deeper in the wilderness, away from the familiar roads and highways, that giddy excitement floods through my veins and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail. The world is all of a sudden new and shiny and even more beautiful than it was a moment before, and I feel so fortunate to be here in Oregon, the land that has embraced me.
As I get older, I spend less time in formal ritual. These days, a hike is a better way for me to connect with Something Bigger Than Myself, hence part of why I’ve been blogging about those hikes more. And I think it’s because I’ve stopped thinking of nature in terms of abstract concepts and symbols, and approach it directly, body and mind and heart and soul. A place, to me, isn’t sacred because of what rituals occurred there or what spirits call it home. Every place is inhabited by spirits, and every place is touched by the daily rituals of the turning of the Earth and the currents of the winds. As I simplify and streamline and integrate my path, I feel that pulling away the extraneous symbolism is like cutting away choking, invasive blackberries, opening up the ground so that the original inhabitants–snowberries and osoberry and others–can revive themselves. Some of the earth is open and wounded still, but now that the thorny canes have been removed, I’m eager to see what will grow in their place.
The places that raised me, small though they were, and dead though they may be today, are still sacred. It wasn’t about being a young pagan thing running around in the woods; I was still quite Catholic at the time. It was about forging that deep connection to the cosmos, to the wilderness, to the nonhuman beings that I share this world with. Most importantly, it was the early upwelling of wonder and awe at the world, that thing that has fueled my spirituality ever since. Because those places were the wellsprings of this feeling, they are the most sacred of all, even if only in memory.
The small, sacred places are sadly some of the most threatened. None of the environmental groups will work to protect a half an acre of scrubland in a small town. They’re vulnerable to development, yet another poorly-made cookie cutter house in an encroaching suburb. Few people will mourn their passing in the name of “progress”, and the children who move into that home will never know the wonders of the garter snakes and cedar trees that once lived where fertilized lawns now grow. For those of you who have lost your small, sacred places, I share your pain and your loss. For those who have the opportunity to preserve such places, whether for yourself or someone else, I commend you.
Here’s to all the small, sacred places that raised us, and that may still support us yet today.
Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.
So earlier this week my friend Emily and I escaped to the desert of Eastern Oregon to explore the John Day Fossil Beds. Neither of us had been there, and since my upcoming job will be keeping me in town during the week, I’m trying to get as much further-away travel done before it starts next month. We decided an overnight trip would be enough for this first excursion, and so she dragged me out of my apartment bright and early on Monday morning.
It would be impossible to describe to you every wonderful moment of this trip. We started our journey with a stopover at the Bridal Veil post office to give this ghost town survivor some much-needed business, and to stretch our photography muscles for the trip. Our journey through the Columbia River Gorge and then south into the desert was puncuated by windmills, abandoned houses, and many stops to marvel at vistas and break out the cameras. We managed to achieve the trifecta–we visited the Painted Hills, Clarno, and Sheep Rock units, and were able to explore each in some detail. We went to the Cant Ranch with its century-old house and rusted-out tractors, and we stayed the night in Dayville, Oregon in a little cabin guarded by two of the least threatening Golden Retrievers ever. We hiked in the Blue Basin surrounded by towers of azure-tinted tuff, and Emily watched as I scrambled down a river slope to investigate an elk skull a hunter had left behind. We thoroughly investigated the paleontology center, and each came out with a postcard adorned with fossil skulls. We came home on the 84 accompanied by a lengthy sunset in the Gorge and a half-moon surrounded by stars. In short, it was just about as perfect a trip as we could have hoped for.
People speak about the desert being lifeless. Those of us who have been there and who pay attention know better; it thrives, in clear and radiant defiance of the threat of scant water and harsh weather. We saw our first black-billed magpies and I snapped a picture of a Say’s phoebe. There were ravens and vultures and ospreys galore, robins and juncos and even a wayward Canada goose. I saw what might have been a pronghorn walking through the sagebrush in a dry creek bed. And the “alert” put into effect by the park–that we must be notified of the presence of wildflowers–served to introduce us to the local flora. Purple silky lupine and bright yellow balsamroot vied for attention among rabbitbrush and juniper berries, and as the days warmed up the piquant scent of the sage filled the air. Even a few hardy lichens flattened themselves against the rocks like dried crusts of paint daubed by an itinerant artist cleaning her brushes after completing the masterpiece of the Hills.
Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.
And, of course, there’s the human life. Not much evidence remains of the original indigenous people who made a living in these exact spots, though we drove home through lands owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Picture Gorge is named for the pictographs left by some of the original inhabitants. The Cant Ranch exhibits, though mainly concerned with the primarily Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s, did allude some to the people they displaced. Both populations are impressive in their own way–the one for having created a way of life here for such a long and sustained time, and the other for managing to thrive even when dropped into the harshest environment many had ever experienced. I admit, though, that I felt a lot of frustration for the proliferation of fences along almost every road, warning off anyone of any descent from crossing over into “private property”. All these mesas and hills to be climbed and explored, and yet we were limited to the few trails in the Fossil Beds units. The human story, it would seem, is punctuated by barbed wire, even in its most open and rambling pages.
What struck me most about our trip, though, was just how evident the geological story is. The Fossil Beds are unique in that erosion has bared the layers of millions of years, sedimentation and lava flows and ash falls and flooding. You can look at a high peak like Sheep Rock and read the strata like a prehistory book. When you realize the highest crags of mesas near Picture Gorge are where the valley floor was seven million years ago, and everything has eroded since, you can imagine how high the ground would have been above your head now, and wonder at the immense span of time that it took to build up those landforms in the first place. All those millions of years alluded to in books and documentaries are set into stone here.
I and others have often referred to watersheds as the hearts of bioregions. This is true; however, the (literal) bedrock of the watershed is the geology. Everything else in a bioregion–where the rain goes once it falls and whether it collects anywhere, what the weather and climate patterns are like, what flora and fauna can live there, etc.–all these are determined in large part by the geology of the place. The landforms in and surrounding the bioregion are the canvas upon which everything else there is painted. So it is in the desert. Forty-four million years ago, the places we visited were a lush rain forest, and the fossils from that time reflect that. The uplifting of the Cascade mountains to the west created a rain shadow later that began the process of desertification, compounded by multiple and varied volcanic activities in the area over time. From rain forest, the land changed to deciduous hardwood forest, then grasslands, and finally to the sage-and-juniper-studded desert of today.
Most of the time, the layers of ages are buried far beneath our feet, accessible only through the occasional cave or road cutaway, or the fieldwork of geologists (when funding permits). We don’t think about anything but the top layer, the part we think is the main player in our lives. But each stripe of soil and rock rests on another; it’s terra all the way down. Isn’t that the way it is with us, too?
Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.
I hope the desert with all its layers, visible and hidden, survives us. I have never seen so much land with so few roads; even in the Midwest rural areas where I grew up the spaces between towns was netted by county roads all over. Here, there were thousands upon thousands of acres broken up mainly by the barbed wire, a few roads, and the occasional agricultural endeavor. I hope I never live to see the Fossil Beds surrounded by cookie-cutter houses and billboards advertising new subdivisions “for those wanting to escape the city!” Here there are more than just traces of wilderness, more than just a scant reminder of what the land looked like before humans exploded into seven billion. And yet even I fall prey to the shifting baseline problem–my baseline is of sagebrush scrublands cut with fences and two-lane highways, grazed by cattle and sheep, and encroached upon by cheatgrass and the invasive tumbleweed produced by prickly Russian thistle. Three hundred years ago, only the sagebrush was here; the rest were yet to come. What to me might seem like an impossible walk back in time would be, to others, not just preservation but restoration.
I leave you with a few more pictures (as with all of the, you can click them to get bigger versions); in another century will these represent something long-lost? Perhaps if most of us can visit the desert and then kiss it good-bye again, rather than insisting on cohabitation, there will be the chance of continued hospitality without being ungracious guests.
Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.
One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.
Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.
This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.
And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.
The Say’s phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put for more than a few seconds at a time. Lupa, 2013.
Yesterday was another cleanup day at Sauvie Island; as much time as I’ve been spending out in the Gorge, I love my little close-in stretch of the Columbia, too. I especially appreciated its convenience since today was a low-energy day, since I didn’t sleep so well as I might have liked last night. Still, I wanted the opportunity to get outside today, and the beach was due for a cleaning.
So it’s getting warmer, and more people are going to be showing up to fish, and also to party. Unfortunately, some of these people will be irresponsible enough to do things like smash glass bottles in the middle of the road and leave their garbage strewn across the sand. I tend to ready myself for anything any time I go out for cleanup. However, when I got there today, there was a woman walking across the parking lot with a paper grocery bag full of aluminum cans. She had taken the time to pick them all up out of the trees lining the beach. We chatted a moment, and I thanked her and went on my way. It’s always nice to see I’m not the only person cleaning up, and it did perk up my mood.
White-lined sphinx moth. Lupa, 2013.
Of course, having someone else get most of the big, noticeable stuff meant that my afternoon was mostly spent with the little, fiddly things like cigarette butts and tiny pieces of plastic. So it was a slow progression down the beach with my trash bag and kitty litter scoop, sifting stuff out of the sand. I picked up enough cigarette refuse, in fact, that I’ve joined TerraCycle’s Cigarette Waste Brigade; I don’t smoke myself, but I figure if I can get a few more filters and the like out of the landfill, so much the better. It can get disheartening to come back every time and have the beach look just as bad as before, since I can’t be there every day, and there are a LOT of people leaving trash around. But when such thoughts begin to bring me down, I remind myself of the Starfish Story*; trash pickup isn’t as romantic as saving starfish, but the concept is the same: I can’t get to them all, but it matters to this one. And the next. And the next.
While the day was a bit cooler than it’s been, and overcast, the birds were still out in force. I saw a pair of bald eagles, robins, and an osprey, among others, and I could hear the alarm call of a Northern flicker and the song of a winter wren off in the trees. There were even fish jumping out of the river, though I was surprised there was no one fishing today. Amid the twigs and other refuse kicked up onto the beach by the river, I saw white-lined sphinx moth in its last moments, perhaps dying after having mated. I left it where it lay, and a few minutes later a large ship passing by kicked up the biggest wake I’ve seen yet at the beach. When I walked back a little later, the moth was gone, no doubt washed into the water to become food for a passing fish.
Speaking of the water, as I sat and rested at one point, I listened to the river splashing up against the bank of wet sand. I thought about how much quieter it would be here without the traffic on the ocean, and I-5 not too far away, and the planes overhead, and the various vehicles driving on the access road. I thought of how before all that noise, that splashing water might be one of the loudest things there if one were to sit and listen. And I reflected on how the sound of water on land is one of the very oldest sounds in the world, and wondered whether Mars, or any other planet, had had that sound as well.
Toy plane found on the beach. Lupa, 2013.
It’s thoughts like that that make the work so much more worth it. Yes, it’s good to be out with my hands in the dirt making a small difference, keeping bits of plastic and foam from being eaten by fish or, ultimately, joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And that’s worthwhile. But even moreso are the moments I get to have when I connect with this place I help to take care of. It’s the only place where I get to be right by the river, the wide and deep and ever-flowing Columbia, the heart of my bioregion. So many things I’ve learned there, and so many things yet to be discovered–and my beach is a keeper of some of those secrets. One need look no further than the outdoors for a Mystery School beyond compare.
Of course, eventually we have to go back to chop wood, carry water, sift styrofoam. By the time my day was done, I had one large garbage bag full, mostly with little things, but also a couple of rusted chunks of metal and an old steel cable fragment. While most of what I find out there is refuse, occasionally I pick up something neat. Today it was an old toy plane, in pretty good condition other than one missing wheel. Usually when I find usable found objects I clean them up and donate them to SCRAP, but this one I’m hanging on to; it’ll go along with the circa 1920 milk glass jar and some other random things I’ve found during my volunteer time. Call it the Land’s “tip” for a job well done 😉
Note: This is my contribution to the April edition of the Animist Blog Carnival; this month’s theme is “Ceremony and Community”.
Back in February when I was at PantheaCon, one of the workshops I presented was on ecopsychology and its relevance to the neopagan community. There’s a good deal of overlap between the spirituality of nature-based paganism and the secularism of ecopsychology. Both focus on strengthening relationships with the world around us, particularly the nonhuman portions thereof. They each utilize the outdoors in meaning-making activities, to include personal rites of passage and other ceremonies. And both have an emphasis on a systemic view of the world, to include one’s own community (human and otherwise).
At one point I mentioned the works of Joanna Macy. An environmental activist, Buddhist, and author, Macy is considered one of the foundational writers on ecopsychology. It’s not just because she helps readers to appreciate the environment, though that’s certainly an integral part of her work. What she does that’s so unique, though, is that she actively creates spaces for people to express grief over the loss of places, species, and other natural phenomena. Through frank and gentle discussions of grief and our relationships with it, and rituals such as The Council of All Beings, she’s offered up a series of tools for us to begin opening up to feelings we may have long suppressed.
In this society we’re allowed to grieve if a person close to us or whom we admire deeply passes away and is lost to us. It’s even understandable, as far as many are concerned, to feel a deep sense of loss and sadness at the death of a pet. And few would fault us for feeling depressed after losing a job or a home. But there’s less room on a societal level to feel grief for a place that’s been taken away, or a species that has gone extinct. We might be allowed a “well, damn, that sucks” if we read about it in the paper. And perhaps we might get away with a sigh of remorse when we drive by an open field that’s being torn up for yet another suburb full of little boxes made of ticky-tacky (or big McMansions made of the same). But those who openly grieve for the loss of a place or species or river are seen as “overly sensitive hippies” at best, and perhaps mentally off beyond that. Why grieve over progress? Why, that new strip mall going in will provide badly-needed minimum wage retail jobs! And don’t cry over that butterfly that’s gone extinct; see, there are dozens more in the garden. What’s just one more gone, really? And who cares if you can’t eat the fish out of that river? That’s what the supermarket is for.
When I wrote last year about the death of the place that raised me, the complete destruction of the tiny field where I played and explored as a child, I got so much support from people here and elsewhere. I heard numerous stories from other people who had had similar experiences, who shared that grief with me in their own words. I heard the fear and worry of those whose special wild places still stood, but were threatened with development and other encroachments. For once, I felt as though I had been heard, and that there was nothing wrong with me for feeling so much loss for a bunch of cedar trees and garter snakes.
I wish I’d had that sort of support twenty years ago, the first time a wild place I’d grown to love was leveled. That time, as I got off the bus that brought me home from junior high, I saw the entire field and forest behind my home torn to pieces and a big, ugly bulldozer sitting amid splintered tree trunks and raw, open earth. I was utterly and completely devastated. I fell to pieces inside, not just because my woods were gone, but the thing that had given me so much stability as a badly bullied child had disappeared. I was re-traumatized when the only response I got was “Well, the developer in charge of the new subdivision that’s going in had her favorite woods torn down when they put the high school track in, so she knows how you feel” and “Well, that’s progress; they’re supposed to be building some nice houses in there. Maybe we’ll look at them once they’re ready to sell”. Nobody understood why I couldn’t get over that shock, and why it was such a big deal that a half an acre of weeds and trees had been torn down.
It has taken me two decades to recover from that early loss. I fell down deep into a pool of depression for much of my teens, doing my best to put on a happy face while feeling sorrow I had no words for, and no one to offers words to even if I’d had them. when I discovered paganism, I at last found people to whom nature was an important thing, but so often in abstracts and images and symbols rather than direct contact. It wasn’t really until my path took me closer and closer to the physical world, as “spirit” and “material” blended and lost their boundaries, that I finally healed the connection I had with wild, open, outdoor spaces as a child. I couldn’t have done it without the support of countless people over the years who listened and spoke and conversed–and yes, that includes you readers here on Therioshamanism.
And that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about these losses, not just with facts and figures and calls to action to protect places halfway around the world, but the more visceral, personal connections and losses thereof. We need to know that it’s okay to feel these things, and we need to know that there are others who support us and care for us in those times of need. More importantly, that support and story-sharing can help us move through that grief and sorrow. Even if we don’t engage in formal rituals, just the telling of the tale to a caring audience can be ritual enough in and of itself. Sometimes speaking or writing the words is enough to help us move through the pain, and transform ourselves in the process. Sometimes all we need to find safety in community with others is a quiet, listening presence, a safe space held by strong, gentle hands.
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