A PSA, and Escape to the Desert

First, a quick public service announcement: I got a temporary full time job over the summer doing mental health counseling at my old internship site, and so I’ve closed my art commissions list for the time being. You can read more at the link, but in short, I’m really excited about the job. It’s been wonderful working more in service with the non-human end of my community, but this will reconnect me with serving my human community (in more capacity than making artwork and writing things for them). Actually, let’s make it a pair of PSAs, since I wrote earlier this month about ethics and consuming animals: here’s a Kickstarter for those who want to support a more ethical approach to omnivorism. Now, on to the main event!

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Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

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.

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.

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.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. 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. 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.

Reflections at Sauvie

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.

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.

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 😉

*Which was itself an adaptation of the often-unattributed “The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.

Coming Together in Our Sorrow

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.

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.