Spring Cleanup on the Columbia

This past Monday I had a great time out on my adopted beach on Sauvie Island along the Columbia River. I’ve been going out there about once a month to pick up litter and get myself out of the city for a while, but this week’s trip also included my quarterly report. This includes feedback on the flora and fauna I noticed, the quality of the water, human activity, weather, and other such things. I had intended to spend most of my time making notes and taking photos for this report, and then do a little bit of cleanup before I headed home.

It was not meant to be that way. In addition to fishermen (who vary in their ability to clean up after themselves), my beach is frequented by people out to party. Unfortunately, such people have a tendency to get drunk off their asses and then leave gigantic messes for others to clean up. I usually find the remnants of a couple of these any time I come out, and I’m guessing other visitors to the beach take the time to do a little cleanup whenever I’m not around, too.

Broken glass is no fun for anyone. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Broken glass is no fun for anyone. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

However, when I arrived today, the road down to the parking lot, and the lot itself, were both swathed in a trail of garbage. One group of drunken partiers, not content with just leaving a pile of refuse along the river, decided to take an entire yard waste bag full of trash and “decorate” their way back out to the main road. An almost perfect circle of cans, used diapers, and broken glass adorned the lot, and more scattered its way down the road. This wasn’t just someone accidentally forgetting an open garbage bag in the bed of a truck; it was intentional vandalism. And to add the rotten cherry to this messy cake, someone took a glass wine jug and deliberately smashed it with a rock right in the middle of the road.

I didn’t get pictures of most of it because the beach was fairly busy with people fishing, and I wanted to get things cleaned up as soon as I could. I did get one picture of the broken glass with my phone before I scraped it into the bag, just because it was so unbelievable to me that someone would do something like that. By the time I was done, I had two large SOLV bags full of trash–and I hadn’t even made it down to the beach!

Having completed that onerous task, I decided to reward myself by getting out the camera and snapping some shots for my report. It gave me a chance to slow down, pay more attention to things that weren’t litter, and get to know my neighbors there a bit more. It was a really rewarding day in that respect. The snowy egrets have been returning from down south and were taking up residence in the marshes nearby, and while the snow geese had left for the season, their Canada cousins were still around. Juncos, robins, Steller’s jays, and other smaller birds flitted around the tops of the black cottonwood trees, singing out their assorted territorial and “hey, look at me, I’m fabulous!” songs. Along the beach, clamshells dotted the sand next to deer tracks and the pawprints of visiting dogs.

Juvenile bald eagle. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Juvenile bald eagle. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

The highlight of my day, though, was getting to take pictures of a juvenile bald eagle high up in a tree! I’d seen an adult earlier in the day, cruising over the wetlands. As I was cleaning along the beach, though, this earthy-colored young raptor settled into the branches of a cottonwood a little ahead of me. Thinking to myself “Oh, please don’t fly away!” I ran back to my car and got the camera, and then hurried back. Thankfully, the eagle was in no hurry to head off, and stuck around long enough for me to get a few photos. It didn’t even head off until I’d headed back to drop the camera off. Lucky me!

I’m not that great a wildlife photographer, since they don’t usually hold so still, but I fare somewhat better with plants and fungi. I had to add bull thistle and white clover to my list of invasives; while the clover is pretty innocuous as far as introduced species go, the thistle is painful in several different ways. This got added to the widespread plague of Himalayan blackberries and Scotch broom as “problematic”. On the other hand, the native plants were in abundance. Down among the cottonwoods, the snowberries were starting to put forth a few small green leaves amid the last of their white berries, and honey bees buzzed in the fresh flowers of Indian plum shrubs. Fuzzy-leafed mullein peeked out from around sword ferns and new growth of poison hemlock. Trees live and dead hosted lichens of all kinds, from reindeer moss to hammered shield and even some powdery-fine gold dust.

When I went back to pick up along the beach, I found that some of the day’s fishermen had left the usual mess of cigarette butts, cans, and fishing line strewn around. This even included the ones that had asked me what I was up to, and I told them I was taking pictures for an environmental report and then picking up litter. I have to wonder if they deliberately left their trash there because I was there, either because they assumed I’d just get it for them, or whether they deliberately wanted to make more work for me. This made me think about my last trip out to the beach, where I jumped right into cleanup and the first any of the people fishing saw of me was a small, skinny woman with a trash bag and a kitty litter scoop, sifting cigarettes and styrofoam out of the sand. That day people not only told me about how they cleaned up after others, too, but even offered to help me out.

Looking upriver. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Looking upriver. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

It confirmed something I’ve known for a while, and backed up by research in conservation psychology: modeling a behavior works better than telling it. I could have gone to each of those fishing parties, with cans in the sand and food wrappers by their chairs, and lectured them on how important it was for them to make sure they picked everything up before they left. I bet there would have been a lot of junk left behind after that. Yet by modeling the sort of behavior I wanted my fellow humans to emulate, I got better results. Last time, people saw me taking the time to clean up the beach, and followed suit. While a few of them may have been doing it out of a desire to not get in trouble, or some sense of guilt, I saw a number of them expressing genuine appreciation for the fact someone cared enough about that place to attend to it, and being inspired to pitch in themselves. I don’t think anything would have changed the behavior of those who left their detritus behind anyway, but I’m sure that telling them how horrible they were for making more work for me wouldn’t have been at all effective.

By the end of the day I was feeling pretty good. I’d collected an additional bag of trash that was now going to avoid going into the water. I’d taken some good photos and formulated ideas for my report to SOLV. I had shown my fellow human beings that someone did care enough to clean up after those less responsible. And, most importantly, I got to know my beach and its nonhuman denizens a little better than before. Volunteering is often promoted as a rewarding experience in and of itself. I have to say I agree; adopting this place, feeling responsible for it–it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Black Cottonwood as Plant Totem

By far the most common tree at the riverside beach I volunteered to keep clean is the black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), also known as the western poplar. A young-ish forest of these tall, lanky trees crowd up almost to the edge of the river, stopped only by the sandy beach itself. I’m used to hiking through forests of aged conifers, Douglas fir and Western hemlock and the like. The energy of these fast-growing poplars was almost frenetic in comparison (though certainly conifers can contend well in the upward race to the sun).

Photo by Lupa, 2012

Photo by Lupa, 2012

I spoke to the totem Black Cottonwood about this, and found that because these trees are relatively short-lived, they tend to be more “sped-up” than some others. It’s worked to their advantage in several ways, to include in competition with other plants. A stand of new cottonwoods can create a young canopy in less than decade, quickly (and literally) overshadowing smaller, slower-growing trees and shrubs.

This comes at a price, of course. Black cottonwoods are, as mentioned, short-lived, averaging a lifespan of 125 years or so. Not that this is an uncommon trend in nature, of course, but we so often think of trees as being potentially ancient that it’s a bit startling to realize a black cottonwood we plant when we’re young may not outlive us by much.

And it’s a reminder to look at the effects of competition. Beneath the canopy of black cottonwoods, the forest along the beach is filled with invasive Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom. From a self-centered perspective, these plants are doing great–they’ve edged out the competition in the undergrowth and settled themselves in firmly. Some humans are content to have a similar worldview, elbowing their way into a situation and shoving everyone else out no matter the cost. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, of course. It can be a good motivator to get people to create new and amazing things. But when it does damage to the overall system, whether an ecosystem or a human community, that’s cause to pause, reflect, and change the situation.

Finally, life isn’t just about racing to be the fastest or the best. I admit that I drive myself really, really hard. I have a lot of things that I’m working on and sometimes I feel overextended, stretched too thinly. I like what I create, but sometimes it can be exhausting. So I often need to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the scenery; even if I’m not as tall as a cottonwood tree, the view’s still pretty good from where I am and I oughtn’t miss it on my way up.

Black Cottonwood also pointed out that because her children grow so close to the water they’re directly affected by the pollutants therein. She told me that if I were to take root samples from the trees closest to the river, and then further away from the water, the closer ones would have absorbed more of the pollutants already found in the water. However, even the trees closer in to the island weren’t completely safe; agricultural runoff, and pollutants from the roads encircling the island also ended up in the soil and roots. She told me that in the same way it was important to monitor the toxins in my own self, physical and otherwise, and to be aware of what I take in. And, as I’ll be training later this year to test the water quality of the Columbia River along the beach, so do I need to be paying attention to what I’m absorbing.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

It made me think about what I can’t help but allow into my body. Because I live in an urban environment, I’m constantly breathing in all sorts of toxins from vehicles and other sources. Most of the time it’s hard for me to consciously pay attention to it, but all it takes is walking through one cloud of exhaust or cigarette smoke to realize my respiratory system is being constantly assaulted. Even in the wilderness I’m not safe, as air pollution knows no boundaries. I can have some more control over what I choose to eat, though unfortunately I’m not at a point where I can grow my own food or afford to only buy organic, free-range food all the time. Still, I can make changes where I’m able.

It’s not just physical toxins, either. Emotional and psychological toxins are everywhere. My anxiety is a pretty frequent internal source thereof, and I have to take a little time out here and there to check the outflow of stressful, anxious thoughts and get myself back to a healthier homeostasis. That doesn’t change the fact that other people can be pretty toxic, too. Sometimes it’s people being mean for the sake of being mean (or “for the lulz”, its own special brand of bullying). Other times it’s folks who have a good message to convey, but a rather ineffectively caustic manner of conveying it. These toxins, too, need to be monitored, and if possible their sources cut out of my life. Failing that, good coping skills and defenses are called for.

So it seems I have quite a bit in common with the black cottonwood trees, and much to learn from their totem. I’m curious to see where this goes as I continue making my visits to clean their habitat up on this island in the Columbia, but I’d say we’re off to a good start.

As a side note, as I was researching the black cottonwood I found out that it was the first tree to have its genome sequenced. It genome is described as “compact”, about 1/50 that of the size of a pine tree. Nothing’s jumped out at me totemically regarding that just yet, but hey–maybe something about new levels of usefulness to others, since the cottonwood is already used for lumber, fiber and the like. (Might there also be something about speaking out against being used, perhaps? We shall see.)

How To Introduce Yourself to a New Land

2012 has been a year of travel for me, both for business and pleasure; nothing out of the country, and mostly staying along the West Coast. But I’ve been all the way through California on I-5 and 101, in new portions of Oregon I haven’t visited before, and even to the Texas thornbush country.

Each of these places has its own distinct ecosystem, and resident land spirits/Genius Locii. And crossing their boundaries can be a more complicated experience than a simple road trip.

There are places I have gone into that have welcomed me immediately. The portion of the Columbia River Gorge around Multnomah and Wahkeena Falls took me in as soon as I set foot there, and I’ve had that repeated all throughout the Gorge. On the other hand, the deserts of Texas were a tough sell. Their spirits matched the prickly, thorny, dry landscape–my greeting when I first set foot on the dirt was a sharp, prickly burr in my shoe, and the land felt similarly offputting.

I grew to be more comfortable there, though, even though it was a short visit. And I’ve managed to integrate myself into other places even in brief periods of time. I spoke earlier in the year, over at No Unsacred Place, about the philosophy of my approach to this sort of Land work. Here, I want to get more into the practical side of it.

Just as a note, this may not be suitable for beginning practitioners. It involves opening yourself up to new energies and spirits, so this is recommended for those who feel confident in their ability to defend themselves and maintain their energetic integrity. In all my years of connecting to wild places I’ve not had a horribly bad experience that left me out of balance. The worst was living in Seattle for a year, and that was more just a matter of it being too big a city for my tastes–I still appreciate a visit now and then. Still, having the ability to not let a place “eat” you, as it were, is a must for this activity.

The first step, not surprisingly, is to be open to the Land. The manner in which we approach the spirits of a place can have a very strong influence on how we’re received. While I understand that there are people who find certain places to be very hostile, I do have to wonder how many times it’s because we expect, on some level, for it to be hostile in the first place. On certain levels, yes, a place can kill you. If you go into a deep wilderness unprepared, you may end up dead. And I don’t think that having a good relationship with the land spirits will automatically get you an easy out in an emergency; they may just be sadder if you die.

But before you even get out of the car or step off the plane or train, meditate about your biases about the place you’re going. Do you have any negative attitudes about it, either because of the natural ecosystem or the human society? If you just get “a bad feeling”, can you pinpoint why? Even if you do get that feeling, leave yourself open anyway (if a little more cautiously).

When you have the opportunity, spend some time connecting to the place. This is best done on foot rather than in a vehicle, and with enough time that you can go at your own pace. I’ve gone for hikes in new places, sat at the edge of the ocean, and even gone for a run through a farm-lined suburb. The important thing is to be able to make that physical connection and to not be too concerned about time limitations. Here’s the basic process I go through.

–First, go out into the place at a point where it’s relatively safe on a physical level, taking your outdoor skills into account. Know where you’ll be going and how to get back. If you want to take someone with you, make sure they know why you’re going out.

–Next, start your walk/hike/etc.–your introductory journey. As you go, open yourself spiritually to the place. Take in the ambient energy of the place, and start to shift your energy to match. This may not be an easy or quick process; it can take time to “shapeshift” in this manner, and you may feel some unease, especially if it’s a very unfamiliar territory. Give yourself time and patience to adjust. If at any point you feel too uncomfortable to continue, simply shift yourself back to your baseline state; if you’re having difficulty with that, turn back and try again another time.

–Once you feel your energy has shifted to match the place, start seeing if any of the local spirits seem interested in you. You may just be seen as a temporary inconvenience, or you may be a curiosity. I’ve rarely found anything that was openly hostile, especially after blending myself into the landscape. Interact as you both/all choose.

–If you wish to approach a particular spirit, make sure it notices you, then introduce yourself politely. Proceed (or not) based on its response.

–You may wish to let the Land itself, the Genius Locii of the place, know that you are there, and how long you will be there. You may also wish to discuss protocol for the next time you come through. Some places may not care one way or the other; others may wish for a small offering, or at least a heads-up upon your arrival. If a place is hostile toward you, it doesn’t mean you can never, ever, ever come back. It just may mean that you need to shield more heavily when you’re there, or try more diplomacy.

–If the Land accepts you, it may make an offering of a small gift to you, such as a small stone or stick. Assuming you’re in a place where it’s legal to take such things (many state and federal parks and other lands prohibit it), graciously accept the gift, and give it an honored place in your home. You can even create a place altar specifically for these connecting items.

–You may also wish to leave an offering to the Land. My preference is a small lock of hair, as it’s biodegradable and it infuses my energy into the place. Water also works as a gift, especially in deserts and other dry places. Make sure you don’t leave anything that could be toxic to the environment such as metals or nonbiodegradable chemicals. I also don’t recommend leaving food; many of the things we eat aren’t good for wildlife (such as giving bread to ducks and other birds) and it can encourage wildlife to associate humans with food, which almost always goes badly for the wildlife.

These are just some basic steps to connecting with a new place. Details for each place may arise as you spend more time in them. And don’t be surprised if your relationship with a place changes over time, especially if the place itself is changed. The second patch of woods I played in as a child used to be a happy, welcoming place. After it was mostly bulldozed for yet another new sprawling subdivision, the remains of it now push me away every time I visit, not wanting me to get hurt the way it did.

Keep in mind, too, that this is just the introduction. Anywhere you go, the Land is full of many beings, physical and spiritual. Some of them you may grow fond of; others you may learn to avoid. But always, always go in with respect and appreciation; these things will serve you well in your explorations.

And finally, just a quick bread-and-butter note–if you liked this post, I cover more ways to connect to the land, and especially the animal totems thereof, in the Bioregional Totemism chapter in my newest book, New Paths to Animal Totems, which just came out from Llewellyn Publications. I have copies on hand if you want one signed directly from me–details at the link above.

Powell Butte, 11-15-12

For the last sunny day we’ll be getting for a while, I decided to head out to Powell Butte. While a lot of my favorite hiking spots are way out in the middle of nowhere, Powell Butte is much closer in, a quick drive to Gresham. It’s the first place I saw a wild coyote in Oregon, my favorite outdoor running locale, and has one of my very favorite red cedar stands in the area. I’m trying to get myself back into condition after last month’s illness, and while I’m still comparatively slow and lacking in stamina, Powell Butte was just what I needed.

It was tougher to get settled in as there’s ongoing construction of a new water reservoir there, so there were trucks and backhoes and workers shouting and the like. But once I got over the crest of the butte and down into the woods, things quieted out a lot. That’s one of the challenges of urban wild places–if your aim is to get away from the noise and busy-ness of the city, you may find it follows you in spite of your efforts. Still, if the Savannah sparrows and the woolly-booger caterpillars can hack it day after day, I can deal with a little extra chaos in exchange for getting to wander this beautiful–if ever-changing–place.

Did I mention these were BIG leaf maples?

Like so many of the large hills in the Portland area, Powell Butte is an extinct cinder-cone volcano; it has a broad, flat top and the sides gently slope, so it’s not that challenging as far as hikes go, but it is a lovely one with a lot of local history. It still has an old orchard from when it was farmland. Supposedly the trees that remain are over 100 years old; sadly one of them had blown over in a recent storm. The rolling grasslands turn into a beautiful forest of old Western red cedar, big leaf maple, and Douglas fir, with nettles and mushrooms as part of the undergrowth. For being so close to houses–you can see them through the trees on the western edge, especially this time of year–it’s one of my favorite quiet spots. Striding across the grasslands makes me feel like an adventurer, but the forested area brings me into walking meditation.

I got there fairly late in the afternoon and had plans for the evening so I couldn’t stay as long as I might have liked, but I did get my wilderness fix for a bit. And I even got a poem out of it! Enjoy:

The trails are a muddy tangle;
Gallantly the maples lay lay down their cloaks,
Perhaps a little too well! The golden-brown patchwork
Covers us all.
Indignant mushrooms brush off the kind gesture
And get back to the business of growing:
Little round ghosts in the gloom.
I came to see the forest in its tattered Autumn best,
But I see the sun slung low
Across the land, and I must go.
But I will return (I promise),
I will return.

A Thousand Invisible Cords That Cannot Be Broken

I’m back in my art studio again, which means it’s documentary time! While I do very much love being outdoors (as we established in my last post), and nothing compares to the experience of being out in the wilderness, I do enjoy books and documentaries on various natural and scientific topics. The documentaries are a nice thing to have on while I’m working on artwork; I sometimes revisit old favorites, swapped up with new finds on Netflix and YouTube. I love re-watching the “Walking With” series about various dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters, even in spite of the factual errors here and there. I also found a neat BBC series on the evolution of plants, and I spent a while being completely fascinated by the history of the kings of Britain (a bit of latter-day human hierarchical behavior in action).

Most recently I watched The Secret of the Savannah, one of a four-part BBC series highlighting just a tiny bit of the intricate webbing of several complex ecosystems. In this episode the interconnection among the animals, plants, and even base chemical components of grasslands in the Americas, Africa, and Australia were explored, often with surprising results. For example, we know it’s critical to keep the white rhinoceros from going extinct. One of the many reasons is because it’s one of the very few animals that can live on nitrogen-poor “sour” grass. The rhino can process it enough that more nitrogen fixes and leads to “sweeter” grass, which allows other animals, such as antelope, to then live there and create an even more vibrant ecosystem. Similarly, maned wolves, ants, and a particular kind of fruit form a strong triangle of food and fertilizer, benefiting all three as well as others. And so on.

We have made a great career of ignoring these existing relationships that have developed over millions of years. We as a species have done more than our fair share of meddling with existing ecosystems. Few places have not lost native species or had invasives introduced by our hand. And until recently we hadn’t even thought of the effects of those changes. So selfishly we decided we needed the deer and elk more than the wolves and cougars did, and we even determined that the landscape wasn’t good enough without some Chinese pheasants for us to hunt. And just for good measure, we turned much of the land to agriculture (and some of it to Dust Bowl in the 1930s). So it was that much of the Great Plains, the United States’ great grasslands, changed to our whim.

And now natives like the prairie chicken hang on by a thread, and others move to take their place. Certainly the ring-necked pheasant from China isn’t nearly so competitive an invasive as some, and doesn’t have as much to do with the prairie chicken’s lowering numbers as loss of habitat to agriculture does. But if the chickens were all gone, would the pheasant be able to step into its niche? Likely not. While the documentary didn’t detail this particular bird, it did make it clear that we don’t know nearly all the ways in which the species of an ecosystem rely on each other. Given that the chicken evolved here and the pheasant didn’t, there would almost certainly be some “invisible cords” missing if the latter were to go away forever.

The “thousand invisible cords” in the title are a reference to John Muir’s original quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe” (Muir 1988, p. 110) These cords can be broken, but only by the eradication of a species at one end of it. The cords also cannot be transferred; new ones must be forged, and those forged hastily are rarely as strong or as neatly woven into the ecological pattern. The relationships that the prairie chicken has to the grasses and insects are unique, and the pheasant cannot expect to create the same. The very differences in physical biology of the two birds prevent it, never mind their individual behavior and how that affects their place in the ecosystem.

This is why I am heartened to see a shift to a more systemic approach to nature, instead of just focusing on a single or few charismatic animal species. Our tendency to tunnel-vision has contributed greatly to our ignoring the effects of our decisions, and if we can cultivate a wider way of approaching the world, perhaps we can make wiser, more informed decisions as we move forward. At the very least, if we’re going to be successful in reviving the ecosystems we’ve damaged, we need to have more of an understanding of the intricate ways in which they work. It’s not enough to slap some plants and animals and fungi together and call it good; we need the hows and whys of those beings all together.

This is also why I cultivate the totemic ecosystem. Nature spirituality is a popular way for those feeling disconnected from the natural world to try to access it again. The abstract symbolism and archetypes of totems create imagery that may be easier to grasp than the sometimes very alien world of the wilderness, especially for those who have forgotten their own wild heritage. Plus many of us have come into adulthood without those natural connections intact. The practice of ritual can not only get us in touch with the wild again, but also re-teach us the crucial element of play. Play is how young animals explore their world, and it’s one way we can engage in similar exploration.

But just as young animals don’t only make a study of one or two species in their ecosystem, so we need to expand beyond our individual totems and favorite animals. The spiritual world is not only made of wolves and eagles and bears, but also the totems of mychorrizal fungi and the politics of field mice and the spirits of storm clouds. If your totem is Cougar, then it is good to know as much about cougars as possible. But it’s also important to know who the cougar’s neighbors are, what it eats and why, and what happens when the cougar is taken away, even to the effects on the very soil itself. And the spirits and totems of these can be known as well. So it may not so much be that Cougar is your totem, as it is that Cougar’s Home is your totemic ecosystem.

Clearly there is much more to the study and practice of totemism than just the animals.

So. Think about your local ecosystem and all the intricate connections. Let the concepts percolate in your head, and then let them slowly begin to ooze up into your consciousness. See if your worldview then expands, pick up your stick and drum, and go explore.

Source:

Muir, John (1988). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinedere Mountain, 1 August 2012

[I am coming into the final stretch of the festival season; by mid-October I should hopefully be posting more often. In the meantime, here’s a bit of something to read.]

Earlier in the month I took my very first solo backpacking trip, heading up Chinedere Mountain southwest of Hood River, OR. I had done this hike before as a backpacking trip with a friend a couple of years ago, but needed to make it my own this time around. So I chose the night of the full moon for the best lighting for late-night bathroom breaks and whatnot, and with a pack roughly a third of my own body weight (I am a tiny thing, so even having an ultralight kit is a lot of weight for me!) I did the two mile hike up to the peak of Chinedere. It’s a relatively easy hike, with a nice gradual climb most of the way, and the scree at the top has been arranged to make roomy paths and some sheltering dugouts on the lee side of the peak to give tents a little extra wind protection. There’s an excellent view of Mt. hood’s north side, too, one of my favorite features of it. Since I was there in the middle of the week there was nobody else there, though I had plenty of phone reception in case of emergencies, and it’s not an area frequented by bears or cougars, so I was pretty safe.

The full moon is the one time during the month when the moon rises at the same time the sun is setting. Where I live in Portland there are too many trees and buildings for me to see either happen, so this was a really unique opportunity for me. I was inspired to a bit more poetry, and so here it is:

In talus nest I sit
Between the sunset and the moonrise,
He sunk as low as she is risen.
They have agreed I shall not be without light while I am here.
For before she beds again, up he will fly,
Over that ridge in the east,
On which she sits, a queen enthroned.
She takes up the tattered hems of his robes
And mends them over her shoulders
Brass into silver.
He draws up a well of ink
With which to clothe her hips,
One last gift to her before he sleeps.
For a moment, Hood blushes to see them
So intimate across the entire sky.
The sun climaxes in a flood of amber and rose;
The moon sings her love in blue and mauve.
Their tenderness rings the world around me,
Safe in my talus nest.

And here is what I woke to in the morning (you can click it to get a bigger version):

Photo by Lupa, 2012

Geological Totems

I think I may be too linear for my own good. See, I had this grand plan of expanding outward in my writing, from animal totems, to plant and fungi totems, to geological totems, and so forth. I’ve been working with all of these to varying degrees in my ongoing work with bioregional totemism in a multilayered form, but I’d planned to be more in-a-row with the writing. As is so often the case with spiritual beings, somebody didn’t like that–specifically, the geological totems. So to make them happy, allow me to introduce them.

First, I need to explain what I mean by geological totems. A geological totem is the presiding spirit of a given specific geological phenomenon. It is not defined solely by a specific type of stone, or a single landslide, but instead is more a conglomerate of forces coming together to create a particular phenomenon, like a canyon or a mountain or watershed. And they overlap quite a bit, too, to the point that, like sediments turning into sandstone, their identities can merge into one even as the individual grains are still perceptible.

Columbia River Gorge near Hood River, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

The Columbia River Gorge is a very good example. The oldest rocks are from volcanic activity 40-20 million years ago. The high walls of the Gorge are made of dozens of layers of basalt, which formed 15-10 millions of years ago from incredibly large lava flows. Volcanoes around what is now the border of Idaho and Oregon produced so much lava that eventually the basalt was over a mile thick in places. Even more volcanoes erupted to create the Cascade mountain range 2-1 million years ago; the Columbia River flows through these mountains. And as if all that volcanic activity weren’t enough, 16,000 – 14,000 years ago all that volcanic matter was carved and sliced and ground into the Gorge we know today–by massive flood of water. The enormous Glacial Lake Missoula, created by meltwater from glaciers at the time, would periodically flood, sending walls of water up to several hundred feet high down the course of the Columbia, deepening and widening its bed.

Each outpouring, whether from volcano or lake, added its spirit to the Gorge; the oldest volcanic matter from before the basalt floods, and the rocks carried from Glacial Lake Missoula, are equally a part of the totemic Gorge. When did the Gorge proper begin, though? Was it the same totem before the Missoula floods, when the land was more gently rolling and the river traveled a narrower path? Not only are geological totems layered in terms of composition but, it would appear, in time as well.

And each section of the Gorge has its own smaller place spirit as well. Some of them have territories that are very starkly defined; you can tell when you get from one part to another as the energy of the place changes–I’ve noticed, for example, a distinct shift as soon as the Gorge comes out of the Cascades on the eastern side. Other times the spirits flow together more gradually. The spirit of the Gorge near Multnomah Falls is different from that at the Bonneville Dam, but the shift between them happens over several miles. All of them come together, though to be the Gorge, and the Columbia River itself also maintains its unique identity even as it, too, becomes a part of the overall totem of the Gorge.

This brings up the idea that totemic identities are, to an extent, arbitrary. We can’t pinpoint when one species of animal evolves into another. At some point we say that Group A of a species has differentiated itself enough from Group B to be a new species, but you can’t look at a parent and young and say “this one is of Group A and this one of Group B”. What makes some geological totems unique is that they can sometimes have very marked beginnings and/or endings.

For our purposes, we can delineate a geological totem in part based on its current form and how it got to be that way. Some, like the Gorge, have a relatively quick birth (2,000 years of flooding is next to nothing in geological time);. The totem of that area was a very different being when the land was more sloping and gradual with a smaller river running through a narrow v-shaped canyon; it died (or, perhaps, was reborn?) when the floods carved out the Gorge itself and changed the landscape in other drastic ways. Others shift incredibly gradually, like the slow movement of tectonic plates and the rearranging of continents. There are places in the Midwest where I grew up that, other than some farming and mining by humans, have remained the same for millions of years. The totems of these places are ancient, with a long continuum of memory.

Perhaps trauma and sudden change mark the beginning and end of the “life” of a geological totem. Whether the totem itself dies and is replaced by another, or simply changes as drastically as its physical features, is unclear. I am working primarily with meditations and journeys to various places, to include visiting the memories of totems past in a sort of spiritual time-travel. I have not yet witnessed a place before and after such a great change, and most of these changes (mountain uplift, erosion, etc.) would take longer than my lifetime to complete. The best bet would be to visit a volcano that exploded itself into oblivion and then was replaced by a new volcano, but that would require a lot of luck and great timing (and also not being around when the explosion itself occurred!) I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has experienced such a thing.

To a lesser degree, humans do change a place. We have learned to destroy mountains and fill in rivers and wetlands, but these feel more like slow suffocations than rebirths. It’s like the workings of our hands and machines just aren’t enough to equal the cataclysmic rebirths of entire places. Again, visiting a place before and after a nuclear bombing might show a marked change, but if all goes well we’ll never have that happen again.

Geological totems also are defined more by what has formed them than by supposed inherent qualities of their materials. Those who work with crystals and stones on spiritual and magical bases may attribute certain qualities to a given mineral–healing for amethyst, protection for tiger’s eye, etc. But stones from a particular place are to the geological totem of that place what individual animals are to the totem of that species. Animals are mostly defined, roughly speaking, by a common set of physical and behavioral traits common across the entire species (even if it’s spread across several different locations. But stones and their totems work differently. In my experience, stones, crystals, and the like are not so much defined just by being “amethyst” or “granite”, as they are by the specific set of phenomena that created them, and the overarching totems of those phenomena and their aftermath.

Coastal basalt formation near Waldport, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

While basalt created in Hungary can have some similar qualities to that created in Oregon, and their origins in terrestrial basalt floods may give them a kinship different from basalt from other sources, each carries the spirit of the flood that created them, as well as the places they settled. I have on my place altar two pieces of basalt, one from Devil’s Rest just west of Multnomah Falls in the Gorge, and one from the Oregon coast near Waldport, OR. These are from the same sets of basalt floods that created much of Oregon’s bedrock, but they likely came from two different flows, and were sited over 100 miles apart. In the millions of years since they cooled from their lava state, they’ve become part of very different landscapes with their own individual stories, and have seen quite a bit. There’s a bit of resonance because they had similar sources and chemical compositions, but they are very different stones, and I would not say they had identical qualities.

So I don’t work with the totem of Basalt, though there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, I work with the totem of the Gorge, the lava flows and waters that created it, and the ongoing human influences of dams and roads and such. Every piece of natural history that comes out of a place carries the spirit of the place, but it is the geological totems that remember the most. The plants and animals may come and go as extinctions and evolutions occur, as climate changes and drives some away while attracting others. They are the bedrock on which a bioregion is formed, and the soil that feeds its fauna and flora; they are the courses of waterways as well (I’ll give water totems their own post soon, too). It’s a shame that stones and others are usually seen as only spell components and materials for tools, for the totems of the phenomena that created them are some of the oldest, most powerful, and most well-storied. They may not be truly permanent; every mountain erodes, streams dry up, and lava buries the land below it. But if you really want to get to know the bioregion you’re a part of, to include on a spiritual level, start talking to the geological totems, of floods and flows, scrapes and sediments.

White and Red Clover as Totems

I’ve been thinking again about my now-deceased little patch of woods from my hometown. I can’t have that place back ever again; even if the pharmacy that’s there now were to be torn down, the plants that would regrow wouldn’t be the same, and the geography’s been changed, flattened out. And so I mourn that loss. (As an aside, I’ve written even more about it recently at No Unsacred Place.)

In the process of mourning, White Clover and Red Clover came to me. These low-lying legumes were a big part of my childhood explorations; I spent many hours outdoors lying in patches of three-lobed leaves and fragrant white flowers, and eating the pink petals of the larger red species. Spring was always marked by the arrival of the first clover buds, and throughout the summer I would silently cheer any time the flowers got high enough to be made into necklaces before the lawn would get mowed again. My favorite hiding places were where the clover and other plants were allowed to grow high and thick, instead of being cultivated into submission as with most of the neighborhood.

As I grew older, and eventually moved to several places around the country, I always found clover–white more often than red, but both of them still made strong showings. And they were persistent. Even when I lived in paved-over old industrial areas of Pittsburgh where bricks and old run-down buildings were common, clover stubbornly populated open lots and little scrubby patches by the sidewalks. Here in Portland I see a lot of white clover, to include places where organic urban gardeners plant it as a cover crop. Red is more rare, but I’ve seen it on occasion, often on the edges of parking lots and other hardscrabble places.

And as I have mourned my loss, White and Red Clover reminded me of all the times I’ve seen them over the years and how that’s helped me to maintain the connection to my childhood wonder at the world. I realized that although I’ve lost a specific place dear to me, I never lost the connections that were formed there. I’ve taken these connections much further, too, out of suburban lawns and into empty lots in cities, and the wide open territory of the Columbia River Gorge. I’ve gone from a tiny little creek trickling through my second patch of woods, to the rivers the bridges in Portland cross over–and to the Pacific Ocean itself.

I am not lost. I am still here. Wherever there is clover, there is also the connection I grew up with. I do not need to feel connected only to the patches of clover in a yard I no longer have permission to enter, or in a field that no longer exists. I also have the clover in the neighbor’s yard that I walk by several times a week, and odd patches here and there throughout Portland. And just as I carry the lessons taught by family members many years deceased, so do I carry what I learned from White and Red Clover, and Periwinkle, and Black Poplar, and Eastern Red Cedar, and White Oak, and so many others through their physical counterparts as I went from a seedling to a sapling to a fine young tree myself. These still stand out to me, so many years later, as a collective of plants and their totems who were so incredibly influential. Some of their children are now dead, victims of the destruction of one place. But thankfully the species and the totems live on, and no one can take that from me.

And given that neither White nor Red Clover are native to the United States, their ubiquitous presence helps me to feel at home where I might otherwise feel rootless. Similarly to Douglas Fir, the Clovers have helped me to be as flexible and adaptable as they are in a new place, particularly as I was not even born on this soil. Part of that grounding does come from reminding me of my roots, and teaching me to set them down wherever I go. If they can bloom where they’re planted, so can I.

I find all this comforting. I have lost, but I am far from alone–or rootless. White and Red Clover showed me that.