Sunfest 2013, and the First Big Group Ritual I’ve Led!

So for the past several years I’ve been attending Sunfest, a four-day summer solstice festival held here in Oregon. It’s organized by Other Worlds of Wonder, a local nonprofit formed for the purposes of acquiring and supporting pagan land. They’re partnered with Ffynnon, which is itself pagan-owned, and this was the first year Sunfest was held on pagan land, a landmark occasion!

Every year there’s been a different theme for Sunfest, though (not surprisingly) it has to have something to do with the sun. In the years I’ve been going to the festival, I’ve seen the themes range from Norse paganism to Alice in Wonderland, and every year the main ritual has been a great adventure of one sort of another. The OWOW folks had been asking me to be the ritual coordinator for one year for a while, and finally early last year I said I’d take on 2013.

Now, I’ve been in a few big group rituals beyond Sunfest before; I went through a remarkable walking pathworking at Heartland Pagan Festival a few years ago, and I also remember some pretty impressive workings at Four Quarters Farm. And I’ve done a lot of individual ritual work, plus the occasional small group rite. But this was the first time I took on an entire big group ritual myself.

Well, okay. I didn’t intend for it to be all by myself initially. Inspired, I wrote out this big, long walking pathworking that needed about thirty participants besides me, and with flexibility for a few less or a few more. Each person was to embody a different being in nature, all leading up to the sun, with a few extra folks to act as ritual guardians. Despite my best intentions, when I put out the call for participants, I had about half a dozen people show significant interest in being co-ritualists (though I did have a lot of people interested in being at the ritual as general participants). Since this was only a few months away from Sunfest (I waited until the OWOW folks finalized their decision to move the event to Ffynnon), I decided that rather than cut down on the meat of the ritual, I’d take on all the embodiments myself, and have the volunteers act as the guardians. (The way I described it in the planning meeting right before the ritual was that I was going to be hauling the world on a cart behind me, and I just needed people to use sticks to keep it from rolling off.)

I know, I know–not the sanest idea in the world. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and I could have just scrapped the entire thing and made a new ritual from scratch. But I really wanted to make this one happen, come hell or high water. Additionally, if there’s one sort of ritual work I’m really good at, it’s shapeshifting, and all that I needed to do was maintain my strength and focus (and voice) through the rapid-fire embodiment of over two dozen different beings that I’d already been working with to varying degrees in preparation for the ritual. So while I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I felt up for the task. Even though I was exhausted from a really rough week of work and fighting off some respiratory ick, I held firm anyway.

And you know what? It worked. I survived, and came out both exhausted and about as ritual-high as I’ve ever been. I led somewhere between 80 and 100 people down the winding forest path toward the ritual grove, stopping every so often as I embodied several animals, plants, and fungi, along with soils and the ocean and deep-sea beings and all the way to the Sun itself. I’d had a script written up that I kept in a handmade booklet, but by the time we got to the ritual grove and I called down the sun to join us, I was completely immersed in stream of consciousness and inspiration.

And I did exactly what I set out to do. I showed people how everything from animals to fungi to the ocean and even deep sea creatures far from light all rely on the sun. I took the sun out of abstract figures and symbols, and showed how that bright ball of flaming gases above us right then was responsible for our very existences. I helped to carry the energies of the better part of a hundred people through the woods and into the clearing where we sent them up to the sun itself, and I pulled down the burning energy of the sun and sent it to the people around me. Afterward, some people thanked me, and some told me how inspired they’d been. Some told me how they cried, and a few told me it was the best ritual they’d ever attended. I was absolutely wiped out at the end, but it was so worth it, and the joy of having offered myself in that way to everyone involved, human and nonhuman alike, buoyed me up and healed me. Even though I was so tired, I still had the energy to do some dancing in my wolf skin at the fire circle that night, the best dancing I’ve done since I moved to the Pacific Northwest.

Will I do more? Perhaps. There are other festivals in the area open to ritual suggestions, and maybe I’ll try and organize something myself on a smaller scale. But I feel like I did my job, what I was supposed to do, and what a lot of my work in recent years has been aiming toward. Let’s see where things go from here.

I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

Letting Go of Therianthropy For Good

Back in 2007, I published my second book through Immanion Press, A Field Guide to Otherkin. When I started the project in late 2005, I was feeling pretty confident with my first book due to be out soon, and I wanted to follow it up with something awesome. “Well, why don’t I take a shot at the book on Otherkin that everyone’s been threatening to write for years?” I thought. And so the challenge was set. Little did I know just how much I’d bitten off!

It took me over a hundred surveys, countless footnotes, and gods only know how many hours banging my head against the computer, and it was by far the most difficult book I’ve written due to the sheer amount of information I had to wrangle from scratch. But it happened, and as far as I know it’s still the only book wholly dedicated to Otherkin as a general topic (as opposed to an entire book on one specific type of Otherkin, or a book that mentioned Otherkin in the context of a different topic, etc.)

Which makes it tougher for me to make the decision to take A Field Guide to Otherkin out of print at the end of this month, because it is the only book out there. There are plenty of good websites and online resources available, but some people really like the format of a book (dead tree or ebook, your choice). And I know I’ve managed to fulfill most of my goals with it, primarily in offering a basic introductory guide to the subject matter at hand. I’ve gotten lots of emails and messages and in-person comments since it came out from people who have found it quite useful in exploring their own identities. Each one has shown me that, to an extent, I’m doing my job as a writer.

But please allow me to be selfish for a moment. Every book I write is a piece of artwork, every word infused with a bit of myself. And, like so many authors, my relationships with my books change over time. The books remain the same, but I am constantly moving and evolving. Even in the time between when a manuscript is turned in and when the book goes to press, I cease to be the exact person I was when I wrote it. Meanwhile, the book remains a snapshot of the time period in which it was written, a reflection of the knowledge base and headspace I brought to that project.

Some books age better than others. Unfortunately, Field Guide feels like it isn’t keeping up very well. A lot of this is because I feel it’s a flawed work. For all the effort put into it, and for all the help it’s done people, I could have done a better job.

I took on the project before I had proper research training, and so even as a qualitative review, it’s lacking. The 140+ surveys I got were a pretty meager representation of Otherkin as a whole. Even though there weren’t as many resources for Otherkin when I was writing it seven years ago as there are now, I might have been able to get a less biased sample to work with, since I spent more time on Livejournal than anywhere else at the time. And yes, I’m well aware of the many typos and other errors in the text. That’s one of the downsides of publishing with a small press; while Immanion is pretty damned good for what it is, human resources are stretched more thinly, and so it can be harder to find professionally trained editors and proofreaders to work on a part-time scale.

Not that the blame lies entirely on the publisher; far from it. I wasn’t as experienced a writer as I am today, and if I were writing it now, there are a lot of things I would do differently, and not just with more careful editing. Part of it is simply that the community and its ongoing  dialogue have changed and expanded over time, and I’d have a lot more to present to people as far as who and what Otherkin are, what their concerns and perspectives are, etc. And it’d be better written, too. The bulk of the writing happened in 2006, and I’ve had the better part of a decade since then to refine my craft, both with writing and with research in general. And, of course, I’ve grown and changed as a person, which always affects creativity; who here can say they’re the same person they were seven years ago? The Field Guide was written at one of the most challenging times in my life, and I think that affected its quality. Since it came out, I’ve moved several times, gotten divorced, changed careers entirely, and shifted my spiritual focus, all for the better; maybe a 2013 Field Guide would be a better book. It would certainly be different, just as I am different now.

Speaking of time, since it has been out since April of 2007, a lot of the information is out of date. Online resources come and go, and lot has happened in the Otherkin community in the past several years. So why don’t I just make a second updated edition? When I first wrote the book, I was sure I’d update it in a few years. I just needed a little time away from the whole Otherkin “thing”, to take a break after having been part of the community to some extent since the late 1990s. Problem is, I never really came back from that break. I got burned out, and while I still liked hanging out with my friends who happen to be ‘kin (and yes, I still want to come to the PCon meetup because you people are awesome!), I never got back into the community-at-large again.

So now here I am in 2013, and I have a confession to make: I no longer identify as a therianthrope, and I haven’t for quite some time. I’ve sat with that reality for a while, checking in with myself and making sure it wasn’t just a phase. But no, it just doesn’t fit any more; it’s not a framework that explains me. There’s still a piece of me that I feel resonates more with wolf than human, but at this point I don’t think it’s anything more than a bit of creative personal narrative, part of the ongoing myth I tell about myself. For me, the wolf is a metaphor, a piece of spirituality internalized. Sure, I’ve always leaned toward the personal mythology hypothesis of “what are Otherkin”, but the idea that I am fundamentally not human on some level just doesn’t fit. I am a human animal, 100%, just with a particular connection to the idea of “wolfness”. Call it an inner connection to my totem, or a super-charged “favorite animal”; either of those fit me better than “therian”, or “shifter”, or any of the other terms that set animal-people apart from humanity as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret exploring myself in the Otherkin framework. For the time, well over a decade, it was what fit best in explaining that resonance with “Wolf”. It was a fascinating interpretation of reality that allowed me an outlet for exploring imagination and flexible identity in a way that is usually reserved only for the play of children. Sure, there are those few who take it to the point of impaired functioning and enabling of some unhealthy mental patterns, but there are also plenty of people who have an Other identity and still manage to be quite well integrated into consensus reality, even if they aren’t quite happy about the current state of affairs. If nothing else, interpreting my wolfness as therianthropy was a fun way to take play seriously, if that makes sense.

But my head’s just not there any more, and my heart’s not in it, either. I can’t really force myself to write a second edition for the hell of it, either. It’s hard to write about something I’m not passionate about. You can look back at all the books and other writings I’ve created over the years, and you can see where my heart was at that time. And it’s gone in very different directions in the past few years.

Finally, to be quite honest: I’m tired of talking about Otherkin. Even before the book came out, it’s what most podcasters and other interviewers wanted to talk to me about, and even today it’s a frequent topic when people ask me about my writing and spiritual work. Never mind that for years I’ve been writing extensively on my work in neoshamanism, on animal and plant and fungus totems, on ecopsychology and bioregionalism and a whole bunch of other things that I am deeply fascinated by. Invariably, people want to talk about the Otherkin thing (though to be fair some of them wanted to talk about other things, even if Otherkin ended up being a dominant topic). It was fine when it was still something that I identified with and was actively working with, but I feel like my later work has been somewhat overshadowed by the topic of Otherkin simply because I “wrote the book” on it.

I don’t want to be the only person to have written a book on Otherkin, and it’s not just to get out of having to talk about it in interviews. I had hoped that once Field Guide was out, it would entice other writers to make their books happen. Just because there’s one book on Otherkin out doesn’t mean there can’t be others; and diversity of voices gives a topic more strength. (And I wanted more reading material, dammit!) Maybe with the book out of print, someone else will feel they can fill that niche now.

I know I’m taking away a resource by pulling the book out of print, even if it is imperfect. But it’s not the only resource out there. Even if there is a scattering of broken links here and there, Otherkin.net has always been one of my favorite resources. Otherkin Alliance has, for several years, offered a good collection of essays along with an active and well-moderated forum. Dreamhart.org is run by one of the most reliable long-time members of the Otherkin community, and features a relatively recent wiki that’s undergoing current expansion. And while O. Scribner hasn’t written a book per se, the excellent writings on this page are, in my opinion, essentially an ebook in several parts.

And there are plenty of other people besides these writing on Otherkin, on blogs and websites and the like. Hell, Otherkin are even being discussed in terms of social justice on Tumblr. I know for a fact you all can find lots to work with without my book being in print any more. The internet has the added benefit of being easy to update, unlike a dead tree book written by someone who’s already stretched pretty thinly.

To be honest, I think there are people out there who could do a better job at writing a book on Otherkin, even better than a carefully overhauled second edition of the Field Guide; for all the reasons I’ve stated above, I’m not that person. Even with the flaws I still like the book. But I think it’s run its course, and rather than try to patch up its imperfections and put forth something I’d still not be happy with, I’d like to see someone else take on that project.

Finally, please don’t take my moving on from therianthropy as a personal worldview as a wholesale denial of the entire concept. I am not the arbiter of anyone’s identity but my own. My path is taking my further and further away from “Lupa the therianthrope”, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow me. Nor should you use this as an excuse to tell other people who do still identify as Otherkin/therianthropes/etc. that they’re wrong. Let each person set their feet and their will wherever they choose.

As for me? I’ll keep exploring the world around me and finding my place in it with every hike I take. And I’m happy to keep talking about the work I’m doing today on a variety of levels. One door closes, another opens, and I’m taking that first step through.

(I mentioned A Field Guide to Otherkin is going out of print the first of May. I wanted to give people time to grab a copy while they were still available; I have a few left here, and the page also has links to other sites that may have a limited number left. Yes, there will be copies available a while after it officially goes out of print on May 1, since shops will need to sell off their remaining stock. Give it year and even used copies will be selling on Amazon for exorbitant prices, since only a few hundred copies exist in the world. So now’s your chance!)

The Human Body as a Bioregion

We humans like to think of ourselves as individual entities, moving autonomously through a world populated with other individual entities. We think of our skins as the boundaries between ourselves and everything that isn’t us. Symbiotic living is left to the like of the Portuguese man-of-war and lichens, colonies of group minds are for bees and ants. We might recognize consciously that we rely on other living beings for our food, oxygen, and the like, but we view ourselves as rugged individualists.

Or so we think.

Truth be told, our bodies aren’t entirely our own. Take bacteria, for example. We have plenty of human cells and the like, but for every cell in our bodies there are at least ten bacteria. As Anne Maczulak said, “Microbiologists are fond of pointing out that if all of a person’s DNA were mixed with the body’s entire bacterial DNA, that person would be genetically more bacterial than human” (1). Thousands of species of bacteria live in and on our bodies, creating films that coat pretty much every surface inside and out. Most of these live more or less in harmony with us, as we have co-evolved over time. For the most part, scary-sounding bacteria like Eschericia coli and Staphyllococcus aureus occur naturally in our bodies, and they are not the evil enemies that they’re often made out to be in the media. Problems predominantly arise when one sort of bacteria ends up in a place where it shouldn’t be (such as gut bacteria entering the abdominal cavity at large through an intestinal perforation) or overpopulating and causing infections (such as tooth decay caused by an overabundance of certain mouth flora).

Along with bacteria, we have various tiny fungi and protozoa throughout our systems. Many women know the hell that is a yeast infection, when Candida albicans and other fungi that normally inhabit the vagina along with a host of other living beings suddenly overpopulate and create a rather unpleasant result. We usually only think of amoebas as the little single-celled beings that often represent asexual reproduction in basic biology textbooks, or as the cause of amoebic dysentary (which in truth is solely due to an invasion of Entamoeba histolytica). Yet several non-pathogenic species of amoeba make up part of our internal communities; E. histolytica‘s cousins Entamoeba coli and Entamoeba dispar are rather benign. While eyelash mites (Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis) usually don’t cause a problem, their overpopulation can cause itching, swelling, redness, and other symptoms of the eye.

And these are just the welcome (or at least neutral) neighbors. We also host outright parasites. Tapeworms (several species in multiple genera) and hookworms (Ancylostoma duodenale and Necator americanus) are some of the better-known ones, along with the inaccurately-named fungus, ringworm. Some unfortunate people have had to deal with the joys of scabies mites (Sarcoptes scabiei), head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), and the bedbugs (Cimex lectularius and their kin) who only come calling for a late-night snack.

(How many of you are feeling itchy and squirmy right about now? Sorry about that.)

My point is that we are the setting for a variety of tiny ecosystems, each with its own daily drama of eat or be eaten. So are numerous other animals and plants. Like Russian nesting dolls, the world is made of ecosystems within ecosystems (it may be ecosystems all the way down!) In fact, we can potentially think of each part of our bodies as a small bioregion. Each one is defined by its unique physical features, and the common flora and fauna that inhabit it. There aren’t watersheds, per se, but there are flows of various necessary ingredient to life, particularly food. So you can think of your stomach as one unique bioregion with its own resident critters who feed on the food we eat in one stage of digestion, while the small intestine is another bioregion whose inhabitants wouldn’t survive in the stomach and couldn’t live on what’s in there so well. Even different areas of the skin have discrete populations of bacteria and the like; the armpits have a different set of tiny beings than, say, the sole of the foot, and in some ways the former place is a much easier living arrangement for the bacteria than the latter.

So what’s all this mean for bioregional totemism? For one thing, it’s a chance to expand your idea of what a bioregion is, as well as to remind yourself that you don’t just live in an ecosystem–you host them, too! It’s a different way to look at our place in the world and how we relate to other living beings. While we’ve caused some species to go extinct through our actions, our extinction would cause the extinction of other species of tiny being that can only survive in or on a human body. We may not mourn their loss in the same way we would regret the extinction of the giant panda or the Siberian tiger, but it’s a bit sobering to realize that there are entire species that would cease to exist without us.

It’s also an opportunity to connect with other beings, including their totems. I’ve had people over the years tell me “Oh, I can’t connect with the elements of Fire or Earth, I’m an Air and Water person!” Yet the easiest way to make a connection to all of these is through our bodies: the minerals of Earth, the water in our blood and elsewhere, the air in our breath and the gases in our blood, and the fire of metabolism. In the same way, if you can’t reach outward to totems, seek the ones inside of you. After all, every species of living thing, even protozoa and bacteria, has a totem watching over the connections between its species and everything else in the world.

How do you do that? As always, I’m a fan of meditation. Visualize your consciousness traveling deeper into your body, into a particular part of your form. Try going to your stomach and exploring the communities there. Or travel along your skin and see how the ecosystems change across distances, like a forest changing to a plain and then into a desert on a long road trip. Explore all the places, or make a detailed study of one. It’s entirely up to you. You may find that working with the tiny critters mixed among your cells and nestled in your organs have a rather different view on life than Gray Wolf, Box Turtle, or Dandelion. Bit I’ve found it’s worth it to at least check out the scenery.

It’s especially entertaining to do this when I’m sick with an infection. Even as miserable as I feel when I get a cold, I get a bit of a kick out of the idea that an invading virus is sacking my respiratory system, and that my resident immune system will come along like a line of defenders and rout the nasties, letting the local residents come back to their hamlets and farms in my nostrils. (I know, that’s a rather ridiculous thing to think about. But I have to do something to keep my spirits up when I’m sick!) I’ve tried asking them to quiet down and let me sleep, but it generally doesn’t work and I have to wait til my immune system does its job; mind over matter only goes so far.

And, as with any ecosystem, nothing goes to waste. The bacteria and other things living in and on my body mostly leave me well enough alone beyond whatever they need to survive. And yet when I die, who do you think is going to be the first to start turning my body into food? You guessed it–the resident microcritters. It’s not that they’re waiting around for me to kick the bucket; after all, once I’m dead their populations have a limited lifespan, too. But there’s a certain comfort in knowing that the tiny beings who have been with me my entire life–a sort of giant cadre of primary totems, if you will–will be the ones to start the process of returning my body back to the Earth. They greeted me when I was born, have been with me through thirty-four years of life so far, and they’ll be there to see me off, too. In this I tend to work with them more as a colonial totem than the many thousands of individuals, but they’re no less important.

(Apologies if you’re still feeling itchy.)

1. Maczulak, Anne (2011). Allies and Enemies: How the World Depends on Bacteria. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.

A Caution Against Pagan Fundamentalism

A caveat to start with: No matter how well a writer writes something, inevitably someone will misinterpret what they were trying to say. Such is the limitation of language. In that spirit, allow me to make one thing very, very clear before this essay even starts: I am not equating hard polytheism with religious fundamentalism. I am concerned that because of certain patterns I have seen among some, not all, hard polytheists, that this may, not necessarily will, in the future give rise to a form of pagan religious fundamentalism. Additionally, the “You’re wrong, I’m right” attitude that I’m observing is not limited to debates regarding polytheism, but other areas of paganism as well, and any of these could also give rise to a form of fundamentalism given the right circumstances. Polytheism happens to be the topic of the moment which finally gave me a chance to voice some concerns about fundamentalism in paganism that I’ve been chewing on a while. There. Now that I’ve said that, feel free to proceed.

I’ve been watching the recent discussion on several pagan blogs concerning hard polytheism, “bringing back the gods”, and so forth with some interest. I admit that the older I get, the more I am moving toward a more pantheistic viewpoint, with a good dash of humanism as well. It’s not that I discount the existence of the Divine, spirits, and so forth, but that my experiences with them simply haven’t led me to adopt a hard polytheistic view (and anyway, I tend more toward totems and nature spirits than gods).

So that obviously colors my perspective on all this. I don’t have a stake in the proven reality of deities as independent entities, but neither does it bother me that some people do. What concerns me is the possibility of the rise of pagan religious fundamentalism. (Yes, I know there are polytheists dropping the term “pagan” from their experience because they associate it with Things That We Aren’t, but for the purposes of my discussion, polytheists are still pagan, in part so I don’t have to keep writing pagans/polytheists over and over.) Fundamentalism as a concept was originally described in certain areas of Protestantism in the early 1900s. These people had a very strict and literal interpretation of their religion, and today “fundamentalism” is often used to describe any of a number of religious perspectives that hold similar, inflexible views on God(s) and the way humans are supposed to act.

There are a lot of pagans (and other people, but let’s stick to pagans for now) who have had bad experiences as a result of fundamentalism, usually of the Christian variety. The community is full of stories of people growing up in strictly religious households and being treated pretty poorly for the mistake of exploring new beliefs. These could range from having their pagan religious tools and effects taken from them and destroyed, to being assaulted or thrown out of the home. Adult pagans have lost jobs, homes, and children due to religious persecution. Pagan prisoners are routinely denied access to religious materials and clergy, and it’s rare for a pagan clergyperson to be asked to lead a prayer in a civic setting where such things still occur. While Christian fundamentalists proper were not always the opposition in these cases, the attitudes of fundamentalism tend to leak out into the wider cultural consciousness (I’ll talk more about that in a minute).

With these consequences of fundamentalism in mind, it seems strange to see echoes of them in paganism. Yes, of course there’s the fact that people often subconsciously emulate the behavior patterns they were raised around, but surely that can’t be the source of every single instance of “You’re wrong, I’m right!” in paganism. And while not every one of those “I’m right!” instances constitutes fundamentalism, the long-standing tendency for some pagans to tell others “You’re doing it wrong!” seems to be heading closer to fundamentalism to a troubling degree. And so while I don’t want to point at any single claim of “hard polytheism is the best and only way!” as fundamentalist, because of the general trend I do want to put forth a warning against the dangers of falling prey to fundamentalist stances. Allow me to present a few points for consideration.

Not all pagans are theistic, and paganism is not just about the gods.

I really like Christine Kraemer’s Venn diagram in this recent post. It’s a reminder that “paganism” isn’t ONLY about gods, or ONLY about nature, or any other single influence. I agree with her when she she says in her own words (and italics), “for some pagans, polytheism is not a main focus for practice or belief.” Her post was in response to this one by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus whom I should mention, for disclosure’s sake, is a friend of mine and someone I respect highly. He wrote a really good essay (even if I don’t quite agree with all of it) that sparked a lot of discussion, and one of the key ideas was the possibility that the emphasis on “nature-based” paganism is to make non-pagans feel more comfortable with us, and that those of us who don’t embrace polytheism are making that choice because we’re uncomfortable with polytheism.

I’m not uncomfortable with polytheism. I spent most of my pagan “career” that started in 1996 being a polytheist to one degree or another. The shift toward pantheism has been a more recent thing, ironically brought on by my attempts to deepen my practice (another thing I’ll touch on more later). Being more comfortable with pantheism does not automatically mean a discomfort with polytheism, any more than choosing to be pagan means a discomfort with any other religion. If I’m uncomfortable with anything it’s the growing resemblance to fundamentalism I see in some sectors of hard polytheism, but that’s not why I am not a polytheist any more.

As my spiritual practice becomes more entwined with my path of service to the environment and to other humans, I find myself more and more rooted in this world. And my increased engagement with the physical world brings me closer to being a naturalist, with a combination of armchair scientific study and feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt direct experience. So pantheism–seeing the Divine as directly manifest in the natural world that I interact with–makes more sense to me at this point. Truth be told, my involvement with most deities, other than Artemis, has never been particularly deep. I worked with the Animal Father as part of a personal pantheon early in my Therioshamanism work, but he eventually faded back into the wilderness from whence he came, and the energy I touched with him I see in every living animal, and I connect more strongly that way. As to Artemis? She’s always been an internal part of me much as my primary totem Gray Wolf is; it’s hard sometimes to tell where the boundaries fall between us. These days I’m simply not that concerned with proving once and for all whether my invisible friends are independent beings or manifestations of human consciousness and myth, and I’ve never had much note from any of the beings I work with that suggested they cared what I thought, either. What’s important to me and to them are the immediate and measurable manifestations of my practice, whether that’s a shamanic journey or a day spent cleaning up litter along the river.

The anger and debate seem to all be on the human side of things. When someone doesn’t perform a ritual properly, or refers to several goddesses as aspects of one Goddess, I haven’t seen divine bolts of lightning streak down and smite them. There are historical debates, of course, where we can argue the facts of what the people of such and such ancient and no longer extant culture did, but that doesn’t lead to proof of what a particular deity or spirit wants. It’s always the people arguing over whether a particular practice or belief is correct, sometimes to an absurd degree–I’ve seen people on Tumblr debate whether a store-bought strawberry tart was a fitting offering for Loki. Regardless, it always comes down to the “You’re wrong, I’m right” debate; it’s only the details that differ.

Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is characterized by people insisting that their way is correct and everyone else’s isn’t. It’s what keeps fundamentalism alive. As social creatures, we like having something sure to crowd around to unite us, and religion makes a great standard for rallying. Unfortunately, we also get this idea that the more right we are, the stronger we are, and so in order to increase our strength and security we have to prove our rightness. This fervor is part of how religion has very often been used as a tool for political and social machinations and power plays. The people involved are so focused on the surface message of “You’re wrong, we’re right” that they ignore the men behind the curtain. Look at the Crusades, for example; Pope Urban II called for them in part because the nobles in Europe were being rather rowdy, and he figured that sending them east under the guise of a holy war would at least get them out of the way for a while, as well as ingratiate him to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I who was being attacked by Muslim forces. Most people think it was just a matter of Christians versus Moslems in a grand melee for the Holy Land, but that was just the surface.

Religion in general plays on a lot of human behavioral tendencies, and while these can sometimes be beneficial, as in prayer and meditation to relieve stress and anxiety, and the benefits of a healthy community, fundamentalism has a poison to it. It’s divisive and exclusionary, and it builds identity not on connection but on isolation. And this isolation can be a very bad thing indeed.

Fundamentalism has a tendency to breed ignorance.

When you build your entire worldview on an idea, any opposing idea becomes a threat to that power base. There is absolutely no incontrovertible proof that any religious belief is more objectively and measurably true than any other, and the number of people who adhere to it does not increase its truth. Because we can’t prove a belief in the same way we can prove that gravity exists, or that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, or that a mammal’s fur retains heat, adherents of beliefs can sometimes become very insecure about what they believe.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strongly-held belief in and of itself, even if you can’t prove it. But one of the defenses against having your worldview shaken is willful ignorance. I would imagine that most, if not all, of my readers are aware that homosexuality isn’t dangerous, that gay people are not more likely to be sexual predators, and that if gays get married it won’t cause the collapse of civilization as we know it. Yet because the Bible happens to mention in a couple of places that homosexuality is a bad thing, there are people who latch onto that and who absolutely refuse to consider any other evidence to the contrary.

We live in a 21st century where for a lot of us (though certainly not everyone) we have an inconceivable amount of information at our disposal through the internet and other forms of media. Even a quarter of a century ago when I was in elementary school writing my first essays I had access to several different sets of encyclopedias, dozens of magazines, and thousands of books, just in my little school’s library. The information is there; ignorance is the choice to not access it. And, I suppose, for some people the idea that they might be wrong is a terrifying thing, so much so that they don’t step out of their safe sphere.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I might be wrong. There was a feeling of liberation a while back when I finally felt the tyranny of “I HAVE TO MAKE SURE I’M RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING” lift away from my shoulders, and I had the liberty to move through the world unencumbered by that obsession. And it allowed me to be even more curious about the world than I already was. A sure belief doesn’t have to extinguish curiosity, but my own experience has been that allowing myself ambiguity has freed me to focus more on exploration and learning for its own sake, come what may.

Ignorance is dangerous.

Again, having a strongly held belief isn’t automatically ignorance. But ignorance, when it happens, has its own dangers. When we tunnel-vision so tightly on a belief that we refuse to listen to anything else, it can hurt us and others. It’s been proven again and again that vaccinations have absolutely nothing to do with autism, and yet there are increasing numbers of parents in the United States who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the strongly-held (and incorrect) belief that autism is somehow transmitted through common shots. As a direct result, diseases we’d significantly reduced or even almost eradicated, like pertussis and measles, are on the rise, along with the highest rates of deaths from these diseases in decades. We can prove without a doubt, due to decades of statistics on vaccination effectiveness and illnesses and deaths from these diseases, that these people likely died as a direct result of lower vaccination rates. And it’s not just the people who chose not to allow vaccinations who suffer: the dead include unvaccinated children who could still be alive today had they been given routine childhood vaccines.

Sometimes ignorance is on a grander, even deadlier scale. People have slaughtered each other for millenia based on religious and political propaganda which very often doesn’t paint the whole picture (remember Mark Twain’s The War Prayer?) And while modern paganism has not birthed such theocratic efforts, perhaps it’s only due to a lack of numbers and chance, as well as the persistent tendency for pagans to eschew preaching and converting–at least toward non-pagans.

And, in and of itself, insisting that the gods are real, independent entities a la hard polytheism isn’t particularly dangerous. You can believe whatever you like and still not be a problem to others if you just leave it to yourself and those who agree with you. It’s the desire to make others agree with you that’s the problem. And that desire stems from insecurity in one’s own belief, with ignorance another common side-effect. Ignorance only allows a person to learn about other ways far enough to be able to rail about how they’re wrong, to have fodder for their fight. They can’t venture too far from those shaking beliefs they hold for fear they’ll fall and so, like a dog chained to a rickety old dog house, they bark and snarl at the world around them, only knowing of the things that come close enough to feel like a threat.

Maybe the surest counter to this dangerous ignorance is genuine curiosity, and an openness to the world. There’s a certain strength in being able to hold your beliefs even when you’re learning about others, not out of the desire to disprove them, but simply to know more about them. This isn’t just knowing the words of others’ beliefs, but opening yourself to why people hold them. A little immersion in this way won’t make a person a convert, and the potential for a change in one’s own worldview shouldn’t be reason to shut the rest of the world out.

Fundamentalism is contagious.

Most adherents of a religion are not fundamentalists. However, many adherents do have some beliefs they hold strongly, and their communities help them to bolster that faith. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s part of religious communities as vessels of social memetics. But as we can see throughout history, extremists of any sort tend to attract a crowd, and while some may discount them, others catch hold of their message. Sometimes that extreme eventually becomes the norm; look at how Christianity grew from a tiny little cult surrounded by other tiny little cults into one of the dominant religions on Earth. Unfortunately, sometimes the messages that are the most contagious are also the most negative.

I can tell you a story of this from personal experience. When I first started this blog in 2007, it was part of my quest for a deeper, more meaningful spiritual path. I had watched a number of people I knew in the pagan community engage in some truly beautiful devotional practices to deities and spirits, with wonderfully elaborate schedules of celebrations, and creative shrines and altars. While I had certainly had good experiences with the totems and other spirits I worked with over the years, I felt the need to have something similarly focused and devotional. You can look back at the first year or two of this blog to see where I was really trying to build that. Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I ended up finding my depth and meaning in a totally different direction, but that doesn’t invalidate the appreciation I still have for the devotions of others.

Unfortunately, one of the things I also picked up from a few–definitely not all–of the people who inspired me was a thread of one-true-way-ism. Usually this would be people who were trying to reconstruct a particular ancient polytheistic pagan faith, and who were so dead-set on doing it right that they openly criticized anyone doing things differently. I suppose, having seen that modeled, I latched onto core shamanism as my target of “You’re wrong!”, and again you can read through some of my earlier thoughts in this blog. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my path, while I still have personal disagreements with core shamanism (especially when it’s presented as “genuine ancient shamanism”), I no longer feel the need to attack it as a whole path. There are people for whom it works just fine; in fact, I’ve seen some people in the counseling field integrate elements of it to help their clients in very genuine ways. How can I argue with that effectiveness?

Honestly, I feel like an asshole for being that heavily critical. It did speak to a certain level of insecurity on my part, and I feel bad that I probably influenced other people to be critical to a similar degree. Granted, I am not responsible for what people choose to do based on their interpretations of my writings, any more than the people who I saw modeling hyper-critical behavior were responsible for my wholesale attacks on core shamanism. But it does demonstrate the tendency of people to copy those they wish to emulate, sometimes without considering what it is, exactly, they’re emulating.

If proper fundamentalism takes greater hold in paganism, I worry about what direction it may take the community as a whole. Maybe instead of polytheists dropping out because they don’t feel any connection to everyone else, it’ll be pluralists fleeing the damning whip of fundamentalist criticism and harassment as the “You’re wrong! I’m right” arguments go from small bickering online to greater pressure to conform to one party line.

We do not need fundamentalism to be legitimate.

I’ve seen the argument that if we pagans are going to be taken seriously, we have to present a more hard-line, united front of beliefs. Supposedly because we’re a group of people with a wide variety of paths and faiths, this means that there’s no way we can rank up there with well-defined single religions–never mind that they at least have denominations that may vary widely from one to the next.

And yet I’ve seen some really admirable interfaith efforts on the part of people representing paganism in general. Look at what Patrick McCollum has been doing over the years in criticizing the “dominant religion lens” of Christianity in the U.S. He hasn’t only been advocating for Wiccans, but for pagans in general, and in fact his work could very well benefit people of many other minority faiths. He’s just one of many examples of how paganism can be a legitimate religious presence in the cultural and social consciousness without having to resort to fundamentalism for strict definition.

Final Thoughts.

As it stands, we are not embroiled in a massive pagan fundamentalism movement. I have no problem with hard polytheists wanting to define themselves more as such–or anyone else taking the time to more clearly explain who they are and what they believe and why. I don’t even particularly care about the existence of the ongoing “You’re wrong! I’m right!” argument that’s manifested in everything from the “Only Brit-trad Wiccans are REAL Wiccans” debate to the current trends toward a more hardline polytheism. What worries me is the possibility of any of the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” debates to turn into genuine fundamentalism with all its problems and poisons. I feel it’s better to bring it up now, before it ever happens–if it even ever happens for that matter–than after the fact.

Because I don’t feel I’m being too cautious about potential fundamentalism. We don’t really know for sure what happens when you offend a god, but we sure as hell know what happens when someone is so very focused on keeping others from offending the gods that they’ll go to extreme, dangerous, and even lethal lengths to prevent or avenge that offense. Even if that’s not a real threat in paganism today, let’s start creating a setting now that will keep it from being a reality in the future.

Baker’s Yeast as Fungus Totem

As I’m spending more time indoors and getting back to cooking, I’ve been finding that the domestic totems are speaking up again. Last time I posted about my work with Tomato, and now as I do some baking work I’ve been getting back into the swing of things with the totem of Baker’s Yeast, technically known as Saccharomyces cerevisia. This fungus doesn’t just make bread rise, but also contributes to the creation of beer and wine, and when eaten provides B-complex vitamins and other nutrients. It is possibly one of the most important fungi to the human species, up there with Penicillium spp.(from which we derived Penicillin and the concept of fungal antibiotic sources).

I admit I feel bad every time I put dough in the oven to bake. Here all these little living beings have been eating and multiplying and making the bread rise, and I’m about to burn them to death. Even if they don’t recognize it in the way that a mammal would, it’s still a moment of sadness and appreciation, the same as I feel for a carrot I uproot in the garden, or a freshly-killed free range chicken I purchase at the farmer’s market.

Baker's yeast up close and personal (marks are 1 µM apart for scale). Photo by Bob Blaylock, http://bit.ly/ULp0ZO.

Baker’s yeast up close and personal (marks are 1 µM apart for scale). Photo by Bob Blaylock, http://bit.ly/ULp0ZO.

Like Tomato, Baker’s Yeast helps me to appreciate just how much we rely on other living beings to survive. We often think of fungi in negative terms—unpleasant infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, or black mold infections in our home and respiratory system. Outside of a few edible mushrooms, most people don’t really consider fungi in a positive light, or at all for that matter. Fungi even routinely get lumped into the “vegetable” category even though they’re closer to us as a kingdom* than plants. But from the fungi that occur naturally in our bodies to Penicillium and Baker’s Yeast we have received quite a bit from this often-ignored kingdom of beings.

I also find Baker’s Yeast to be a source of wonder. At some point someone left unbaked dough out too long and a yeast ended up taking up residence long enough to make it rise. Perhaps instead of throwing it out, the enterprising baker tossed it in the oven anyway, and a new tasty treat was created**. The process is so simple, too. Put a tablespoon of commercial yeast in some warm water, let it sit fifteen minutes or so, add it to the dough and presto—the little fungi start working on the leavening right away! I can even watch the dough rise if I so choose, although I’m sure it’s much more exciting for the yeast than it is for the observer. Still, sometimes I think all the works of the alchemists never could equal the awesomeness that is fresh-baked bread. (I certainly wouldn’t want to ingest most of what the alchemists were concocting.)

But Baker’s Yeast also reminds me of the ingenuity of humans, as well as the value of experimentation. Part of what has made us so successful as a species, from an evolutionary perspective among others, is the fact that we have been so curious about the world around us and willing to take risks. The history of both Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessors took place in environments that were often subject to great changes in relatively short periods of time, and the rate of change has accelerated over time.

Sliced bread. Photo by Can Atacan, http://bit.ly/YWP5Iw.

Sliced bread. Photo by Can Atacan, http://bit.ly/YWP5Iw.

Our omnivorous nature gave us an advantage over species with more specialized diets. And as starvation was a very real threat, even after the dawn of agriculture, our ancestors were willing to try all sorts of potential foods. While this sometimes resulted in unfortunate episodes of mushroom poisoning and the ill effects of scavenging dead sea creatures that had sat around too long, it also gave us the joys of lobster, cheese, and, of course, bread.

None of this could have happened without other living beings. While Baker’s Yeast didn’t emphasize that interconnection as much as Tomato did, I still can’t help but be appreciative for everything we’ve gotten from these little fungi. Yes, as with tomatoes and other domestics we do help propagate generation after generation of yeast, so they get something out of the bargain. And we could certainly live without bread. But the discoveries of leavening and fermentation revolutionized our culinary opportunities, and we can at least be grateful for greater options of preservation and tastiness.

Like Tomato, Baker’s Yeast is an important totem of the home and hearth, as well as certain industries. This winter is going to be a good time for me to work with yeast and its overarching Yeast-being, as the chill settles in and bread-baking becomes a more serious endeavor. Lately I’ve been wanting to improve our home; my partner and I have been in our current apartment for a year and a half, and while it’s somewhat put together there’s still some residual clutter in the closets and we want to rearrange a couple of the rooms. I think perhaps having some fresh-baked bread for us to nosh on while we work will help make this place feel even more like a good, cozy home, and perhaps I’ll dedicate a little spot of kitchen just to Baker’s Yeast while we’re at it.

*Yes, I totally admit that when I wrote this I immediately thought of the Mushroom Kingdom in Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers games. Princess Toadstool totally reigned before Peach ever stepped up to the throne.
** And now we have doughnuts. Thank you, Baker’s Yeast!

Domestic Tomato as Plant Totem

When I was a kid I couldn’t stand raw tomatoes. I thought they were too acidic and they bit my tongue. My family, on the other hand, loved them, and every summer when they put a garden in there would be ample numbers of tomato plants, mostly beefsteak and cherry. I didn’t really understand the appeal until I was older; my tastebuds had changed, and I had had a chance to try fresh garden tomatoes again. They still weren’t my favorite food ever, but I gained a certain appreciation for a “wolf peach” right off the vine.

In 2006 when I moved to Seattle for a year I planted a couple of lone tomato plants in our back yard, my first attempt at gardening. I had been told they were relatively easy to grow, and the young plants were cheap and readily available. The soil in our yard was hard and somewhat depleted from neglect and too much lawn, and the plants ended up being pretty stubby. But even with my inexperienced care they grew enough to produce a few ripe fruits. By the time I moved to Portland the following year, I wanted to do a better job.

Yellow Tomato Flowers by Glenda Green, http://bit.ly/U1ge6k

Yellow Tomato Flowers by Glenda Green, http://bit.ly/U1ge6k

In the years since, I’ve become a slightly less amateur gardener. I’ve learned how to use organic fertilizer (carefully and not too much or too often), and how to know when the garden needs watering (the tomatoes are usually the first to look wilted). I’ve managed to grow carrots, peas, beans, and the most enthusiastic broccoli I’ve ever seen. But my tomato plants are always my favorite, even if I do still have to plant with starts instead of seeds.

I’ve found that the totem Tomato (say that ten times fast!) is akin to Domestic Dog in nature—it likes humans and the attention they give its green children (as long as it’s not abusive), is pretty open to working with just about anyone, and tends to be very forgiving. When I managed to kill a few starts I tried growing from seeds, Tomato didn’t get angry, but rather assured me that a lot of them don’t make it, especially when taken out of their native soil, and that getting them from seed to healthy start can be a challenge. The effort was appreciated nonetheless and I was encouraged to try again at a point when I had better growing facilities.

Tomato-the-totem has been at the center not only of my gardening, but also my other domestic experiments such as cooking and canning foods. (I’ve been told I make a mean pizza sauce from fresh tomatoes!) Tomatoes themselves can add a lot of flavor to even a simple dish, and complement a variety of recipes and cuisines, making them a good beginner’s ingredient. They’re also a good first subject for canning; their acidity makes them less likely to grow moldy or otherwise go bad (though I tend to add a little extra lemon juice to every jar, just in case). And tomato’s children can be VERY prolific; many of us have had a neighbor foist some tomatoes off on us in the summer when they had too many to eat themselves, and have perhaps returned the favor! In this way, Tomato invites people to try new things with these fruits, being plentiful, tasty, and versatile whether fresh or cooked.

Of course, Tomato’s children benefit from these things. As I mentioned in my post Plants Need Animals, And Other Necessary Connections, the plants that win on an evolutionary level are those whose genetics are passed on the most frequently and successfully. Tomatoes and other domestic crops have persuaded us to spend a significant amount of time propagating their seeds and seedlings. While unlike other animals we may not necessarily spread the exact seeds we eat (except into the sewer or septic tank), our species still makes sure that the plants that feed us continue on genetically. In that respect we’ve got a good mutual relationship going on.

On the other hand, recently we haven’t been treating those plants so well. Some varieties of commercially available crops can’t survive without human intervention, making them completely reliant on us. And in conventional farming, the plants are often coated in pesticides, and their roots burned with chemical fertilizers that destroy the fungi that would normally help them take in more nutrients from the soil. Debate rages on about whether genetically modified tomatoes and other plants are safe to eat and strengthened through modern technology, or whether they’re “Frankenfoods” that may have more risks than benefits.

Tomato Still Life by Vince Mig, http://bit.ly/UsZ5E0

Tomato Still Life by Vince Mig, http://bit.ly/UsZ5E0

Tomato’s feelings on this, from my experience, are that we’re forgetting the importance of our relationship, that we’re taking tomatoes and other crops for granted. It’s fine that we want to eat and that we want to have more tomatoes in the future. But we’ve lost the appreciation for the careful balances that are involved in good farming and good eating. We don’t even necessarily have to change the way we produce food, except perhaps to make the processes more eco-friendly—fewer chemical fertilizers, more crop rotation, more sustainable shipping and packaging. What does need to change is our attitude toward plants only as commodities, where we assume they’ll always be available to us, and that we only use them without appreciation.

Just as we’ve started to see the animals, domestic and wild, as fellow creatures rather than put here for us to do with as we will, Tomato encourages us to also examine our relationships with the plants. Plants are not only valuable as food, or dried herbs for health and magic, or sources of wood and paper. They also indispensable parts of every ecosystem they reside in, and we literally couldn’t exist without them. It’s become somewhat of an environmentalist’s cliché to remind people that without plants (and plant-like cyanobacteria) we wouldn’t have oxygen to breathe, and the image of a protester chained to a tree they’re trying to save has become ho-hum. But Tomato gives us a way to start examining these relationships in a much more personal, immediate manner.

The call of the garden tomato may be a sillier idea than the romanticized howl of the wild wolf—wolves don’t just go “squish” when we step on them, after all. But perhaps it’s because Tomato has grown so close and familiar to us that it feels more comfortable speaking to us in this manner, about sustainability and preservation. We value the wolf and the tomato for very different reasons: the wolf symbolizes the wilderness that we wish to preserve, but the tomato represents the kitchen and the table of domestic serenity and creativity.

I didn’t get to plant a garden this past summer because I was too busy, and I definitely felt the absence of Tomato as a result. Yet Tomato kept the line open anyway—a single skinny little tomato plant, not even strong enough to hold a fruit, grew up from a seed that had fallen into the soil last year. This little plant gave me one more reason to go onto the balcony where my pots are and water the few remaining troopers from the previous season, and created a connection for me to hang onto. In that way Tomato has continued to be persistent and forgiving and ever patient, and I look forward to gardening next year.