The Natural Order of Things

I am an artist, deep in the center of my soul. I have many roles in this life, but I think perhaps more than any other, artwork is at the center of it. The medium may vary–hides and bones, words on the screen, ingredients in the kitchen, a carefully considered response to a counseling client’s thoughts–but at the heart of it all is a deep need for creativity and expression, arranging things just right. Most of my visual artwork for the past fifteen years has been with the dead critters, but I do like to branch out–I don’t want to be a one-trick pony, after all. One of my passions is art made from secondhand materials; this does describe some of my hides and bones, but I also want to reclaim some less biodegradable things as well. So I do like having a bunch of found objects to work with, things salvaged from thrift stores and free piles on the curb and so forth.

Because of my current counseling job, which keeps me busy 40+ hours a week, I don’t have as much time for art as I did before, and a lot of that time is spent on keeping customer favorites stocked in my Etsy shop. But sometimes I do manage to make time to really dig into more unusual projects, stretching my artistic muscles. Today I took out a couple of hours for this:

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

Click on this to get a bigger version of the image.

It’s called The Natural Order of Things, and it’s almost entirely made of recycled materials. The 6″ x 8″ canvas panel it’s based on was bought from a yard sale. The book clippings were from an old-but-not-rare, quite outdated textbook on animal anatomy that I bartered for. The foam cutouts came from a Goodwill on the Oregon coast. All I had to add was a few brushfuls of Mod Podge and a bit of cellophane tape.

It looks simple enough at first glance–brightly colored bits of foam on a stark black and white background. The tree of life branches out from the center, with an array of animals taking up their places as they should. But upon closer inspection, the animals are in no real order; rather than closely-related families being situated nearer each other, a fish is next to a bird, which sits just above a pig, and so on. Moreover, there’s only one invertebrate, a crab in one corner. The representatives of the animal kingdom are largely biased toward mammals, especially those we feel are important. And at the center of it all is humanity, represented by a god-like figure (Yahweh? Zeus?) standing on the sun. Humans are removed from the tree of life, only to be relocated at its center–“Man shall have dominion over the earth”. As if to comment on the misinterpretation of evolutionary theory that says “Humans are evolved from monkeys!”, a tiny monkey occupies the smallest and lowest branch on the tree, decidedly separated from its Homo sapiens cousin.

But what supports these animals and their tree? In the background the canvas is covered in pieces of pages from a textbook of biology. The foundation is the index, listing many animals in neat, alphabetical order–to include, along the bottom edge, “Man”. Over this are laid diagrams of the nervous systems of a rotifer and a polychaete worm, neither of which are particularly well-known animals, but which illustrate the type of simpler nervous systems from which those of vertebrates evolved. Several quotes add to the mix–one about the basic plan of the nervous system in all animals, one about how humans have often misapplied “instinct” to anything any animal does ever, and one, legible in full: “From protoplasmic irritability to cognition is a development that has required upwards of a billion years”. We extol the virtues of a select few noble animals, while we stand on the spineless backs of countless humbler creatures. Despite claims of religions worldwide and throughout time, we did not spring forth fully formed from a head or a thigh or our partner’s rib bone. We are built on billions of years of tiny changes.

The cartoonish, artificial figures in their disarray, arranged inaccurately around humanity as the reason for their existence, represent the biases we hold toward the natural world. We value what most closely resembles us–vertebrates, and especially our fellow mammals–and most of all, those who directly serve us. The man-as-god in the center is our tendency to elevate ourselves above all else, much to the detriment of all involved, humans included. One can only stand on the sun for so long before getting burned. In contrast, the neatly ordered, realistically rendered invertebrates speak of the care that has been taken to excise the secrets of evolution and other natural processes, sifting out the detritus of superstition and speculation. This brightly-colored Eden can dance all it wants, but those who wrote the stories of paradise could only do so after a parade of many generations of supposedly “lesser” beings.

But it’s also because of these pioneering beings that came before us, unknowingly contributing to the shift and change of genes and their expressions, that we can also have art. We can have religion, including beliefs that don’t match with evolution in any literal way but have their own beauty nonetheless. It’s because of them that we’re here to debate our origins today, to take strong opinions and fence with them, or to simply decide the argument’s not worth it and go play video games instead. I am grateful to them for this opportunity, and I dedicate this piece to all my ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life.

Black Mold as Fungus Totem

As many folks who have worked with animal and other totems know, not all totems are cuddly and friendly. Sometimes they’re what are popularly known as “shadow” totems, who challenge us through embodying some of our less pleasant aspects. Others represent animals or other living beings that we don’t care for, or maybe even have adverse relationships with.

This latter description fits my relationship with the totem of black mold pretty well. This is a common name for Stachybotrys chartarum, a fungus that commonly resides in drywall in houses and whose spores can cause illness (sometimes fatal) to a home’s inhabitants. Black mold has also been implicated in sick building syndrome, causing the same sort of havoc at work as well as at home.

Here in the Pacific Northwest (sometimes referred to as the Pacific Northwet), black mold is a particular concern. Because the climate is so humid, with lots of rain year-round, the fungus has ample opportunity to get a foothold, especially in many of the older buildings in the city. This can be especially problematic for renters; while some companies and landlords are very prompt about dealing with any mold issues, others are more lax. This disproportionately affects poorer people, who may rent from less careful companies or landlords, or who may own a home but not have the funds to deal with a more widespread mold infestation.

Thankfully not my home, but a stark reminder of how widespread mold can become. From http://bit.ly/194NYJ9.

Thankfully not my home, but a stark reminder of how widespread mold can become. From http://bit.ly/194NYJ9.

I’ve been fortunate in that on the rare occasion mold has shown up in a place I’ve rented, the company I rented from was quick to get someone out to deal with it. Still, it’s been a learning experience. Until I moved to Portland, I’d been fortunate enough to never have to deal with this problem. Since I’ve been here, though, I’ve had my own experiences, and I’ve heard horror stories from others, up to and including people having to move to a new place due to severe mold and inattentive landlords.

You’d think this would make Black Mold a pretty unpopular totem, and to an extent you’d be right. It’s easier for many people to work with the totems of animals that can kill us, but which we feel still have redeeming qualities, like tigers, hippos, or venomous snakes. But what is there to like about Black Mold and its physical counterparts?

For one thing, they’re one of many species that have managed to capitalize on human success. While black mold can be found in soil, it’s managed to specialize in colonizing gypsum drywall, a common building material. We may not like this particular innovation, but I feel any species that manages to increase its population due to our influence, rather than becoming endangered or extinct, is at least noteworthy for its adaptability. Not that I feel endangered or extinct species aren’t good enough, or strong enough, or that their totems are weaker. Adaptability in the face of widespread, often destructive, changes is not the only positive trait a species can exhibit, and the spread of invasive or otherwise harmful species isn’t something to ignore.

The other reason I’ve tried working with Black Mold is because it’s taught me to be more adaptable myself. The first black mold colony I encountered got to sit around and grow for a few months because I didn’t recognize what it was. I had to learn that as soon as I saw that discoloration on the ceiling or wall, something needed to be done about it. Black Mold reminded me that procrastination can lead to being overwhelmed by a problem.

It showed me that taking care of a living space isn’t just about picking up the laundry and cleaning the dishes. It’s also about being mindful of the home’s physical microclimate. Black mold has always started in the bathrooms of the places I’ve lived, and always in the ones that were insufficiently ventilated, either with no fan, or no windows. The things we bring into a home–physical and otherwise–can have negative effects on that living space if we aren’t careful. And if we don’t keep what’s already in the home in balance, again problems can arise.

And just as black mold has been shaped by our effects on the planet, so it reminds me that we are still affected by the other beings we share that planet with. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we’ve defeated all the problems nature has to throw at us–disease, inadequate shelter, starvation, and so forth. And yet, even in the most comfortable home, Black Mold and its children can creep in, shattering that illusion. (Never mind that in many less comfortable homes, disease, exposure and starvation are very real problems.) Black Mold helps to keep me humble, and reminds me of the privileges I enjoy, however temporarily.

Finally, Black Mold is a somber reminder of that temporary condition. We cannot continue the current rate of resource consumption that has made our lives more comfortable. Either we have to reduce our consumption, or find more sustainable ways to maintain our current standard of living. So while black mold is mainly a threat to the drywall, I also find it to be an incentive to find more eco-friendly options for food, water, shelter, and other resources.

Black Mold is not my favorite totem I’ve ever worked with, fungus or otherwise. But it is a necessary one. And so (with a little tightness in my throat, imagining invisible airborne spores), I include it in my gathering of totems.

Pagan Values Month: Service

(Note: This is my contribution for the Pagan Value Blog Project 2013.)

Last week, the Wild Hunt blog featured a piece on “Pagans Doing Good. It started with a critique of paganism, the common complaint that there are no pagan hospitals or homeless shelters or major nonprofit groups. The writer, Heather Greene, then highlighted two activists who also happen to be pagan (and there are more where they came from!)

My only critique of this is that “service” isn’t limited to those who are able to devote their entire lives to activism. Most of us have households to support or families to raise or debts and bills to pay or any of a number of other obligations that we can’t just toss to the wayside to go be full-time activists. We do need these people; I admire devotion and I do admit I envy them a bit. But that is far from the end of pagan manifestations of service.

I am not, however, speaking about service to gods or spirits or other incorporeal beings. There’s a time and a place for such things, if you choose to enact them, but they are no substitute for physical-world action. A lot of it is what the measurable, objective effect of the action is. I can’t walk down the street with my primary totem, Gray Wolf, and say “This is my first and most cherished animal totem; I would like others to make offerings to hir to make hir stronger and give hir the reverence s/he is due” and expect everyone to agree with me. Many will disagree, in fact, and that’s okay. How I interact with a world that may or may not actually exist outside of my own psyche is my own to decide, and same for everyone else.

However, I can feed a stray, hungry dog on the street, and I can invite others do to so; even if they don’t have dog food with them, I can give them a bit to feed the dog so they can have the experience of helping another living being, something that may stick with them. I can take the dog to a shelter and say “Here, do you have room for this dog?” and the people there can either take the dog in and bathe it and give it a place to stay until it gets adopted, or they can refer me to another shelter. Or, if I have the room and resources, I can adopt the dog myself and change its life permanently for the better.

To be honest, if I am going to be able to only give time, effort, or resources to either of these causes, I’m going to help the starving dog. One of the central tenets of my personal approach to paganism is to default to putting this world first, because it’s the one I know for sure exists and that I can have a positive effect on. For centuries, a portion of people of many faiths have fallen into the trap of neglecting the physical world entirely in the hopes that their actions on behalf of the spiritual will gain them something in the end. And it can be easy to get so tangled up in spiritual pursuits that, while one may not willfully damage the world, one may still treat it with benign neglect and apathy.

Do I think everyone who is deeply spiritual abuses this world? Of course not. I know plenty of people who adhere to varying faiths and have devoted practices who also work to make this world a better place with concrete actions. But just as I don’t think prayer is a substitute for medical care in the case of a sick child, I also don’t think that rituals honoring animal totems are a replacement for habitat restoration, fighting for more humane conditions for farm animals, or giving what money you can afford to give to nonprofits that work to protect critically endangered species through legislation and other actions. (In my experience, the totems appreciate the efforts to help their physical children enough that yes, these things can substitute for celebratory rituals, but YMMV.)

So what are we going to do as pagans if we choose service to the world as a virtue to incorporate into our personal pagan paths? Here are a few thoughts:

–First, decide what matters most to you. What group of beings do you feel most needs your help, or that you are best-poised to help? Is the natural environment your cause, or civil rights, or government transparency? If the answer is “more than one/all of them”, which few are the highest priority for you?

–Next, determine what you can reasonably offer in terms of time, money, and other resources. It’s okay if you can’t quit your day job to go ride around on the Sea Shepherd and intercept whaling ships. (I can’t either, for what it’s worth.) Can you put aside a small amount of your paycheck each week to give to a nonprofit that is doing the sort of work you admire? Can your employer match your donations, for that matter? Let’s say you’re broke, jobless, and not physically well enough to go stomping around in the woods pulling out invasive species of plant or travel to a developing country to educate poor children. Can you send a letter or an email, or make a phone call, to an elected official or other decision-maker to let them know your thoughts on an important issue? If you at least have the time and energy and access for social media, can you tell other people about these things?

–Now, educate yourself on specific issues to the best of your ability. Be aware that often there are multiple competing ideas for the the best possible solution is; for example, on the topic of farm animals raised for meat, some people think the conditions they’re raised and slaughtered under need to be completely overhauled for more humane options, while others will only eat meat they themselves raised or hunted, and still others think nobody should eat meat ever for any reason at all. You’ll need to decide where you stand on an issue; take your time, and don’t be afraid to consider the gray areas as well as the black and white extremes.

–Once you’re ready to take action, don’t feel you have to do everything at once! Try out different things, and see what works best for you and the given issue you’re working on. You might find that you’re not a fan of going to big public hearings on potential laws, but you’re fine with making some phone calls from the privacy of your own home. Or you may not feel steady enough on your feet to make an entire garden out of your yard, but a few pea vines in a pot on your porch will work.

And if you still want to back these things up with spiritual activities like rituals and spells and the like, go for it! It certainly can’t hurt. If the powers that be help things along, so much the better.

What embodies the value of service for me, personally, is my environmental volunteering and donations, coupled with my current work as a qualified mental health professional working with addicts in the criminal justice system, contacting elected officials on a variety of levels, and talking to others about issues to let them know what’s going on. Of course, this is all my take on service and its place in paganism. What say you, dear readers?

When Endangered Doesn’t Mean the Same Thing as Endangered

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Thought on Offerings

Taking a quick break here from working on the last couple of chapters of New Paths to Plant and Fungus Totems before I turn the manuscript in. I’m writing about treating the leaves and caps and such of physical plants and fungi as sacred remains, much in the same way that I work with animal parts as sacred remains.

I was writing about how some people leave offerings of food out for gods, spirits and the like, either to be eaten in ritual, or to be given to wildlife. In addition to not being good for the wildlife–making them lose their fear of humans by associating us with food, encouraging them to sneak around human habitations and trash cans in search of food, and potentially feeding them something that makes them sick–it’s not very respectful to the animals, plants, and fungi whose remains went into making that food. So what do we offer those spirits and beings? At what point do we stop taking things from one set of spirits to give to others, and simply give of ourselves?

This is why I prefer offerings of actions to things. If I volunteer my time or money to a cause sacred to that god, spirit, etc. then it’s me making the primary sacrifice. Yes, I am alive because I’ve eaten and otherwise consumed many other living beings, but that’s the way of the world. Offerings are above and beyond what’s necessary. What can we give of ourselves that isn’t necessary, but meaningful nonetheless?

Alright. Back to book-writing.

Why I (Sometimes) Wish I Was a Scientist

Note: This is my June offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Science” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations.

When I was young, all I wanted to be was a veterinarian so I could help animals. As I got older, I found out that being a vet wasn’t just about making animals better, but also tough things like euthanasia, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. In high school I got a partial scholarship to a school a few hours away from my hometown and thought I’d major in business management, since I enjoyed selling tchotchkes at a local antique store and had always been one of the most productive sellers of school popcorn and Girl Scout cookies. But then a trip to a wolf sanctuary convinced me that I wanted to get back to working with animals, and so I switched to biology and enrolled at the university in my home town. My hopes were utterly dashed when I barely scraped through remedial algebra, and realized there was no way I was going to make it through the more advanced math and math-heavy science classes the program required. So I switched to English, and figured I’d just write about wolves (which I did, among other things).

I never stopped regretting, just a little bit, not being able to enter into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Oh, sure, my Master’s is in counseling psychology and I passed my research methods and statistics classes alright, but my background even there is less about research and more about the person to person interactions of counseling itself. I’m not a scientist. At best, I’m an amateur naturalist. I read a ton about my bioregion, from the geology to the fauna and flora to the weather patterns and more. I apply that knowledge to my experiences outdoors, and thereby have a deeper understanding of what it is that I’m seeing, hearing, touching, and otherwise sensing around me, and my relationship to it. But I’m barred from doing any research myself unless I struggle past algebra and into calculus, fight my way through organic chemistry and how to balance equations, and other things that are apparently necessary to advance past where I am now professionally.

Mind you, I don’t wish that I was only a scientist of some sort–maybe a marine biologist, or a paleontologist (the five year old me would have loved that idea–and I still do today!)–and nothing more. I’m quite happy having a variety of professions and trainings. I love that I can draw on ecopsychology, a beautiful blend of psychology, natural history and art in my counseling practice. But I admit that I envy people who get to go to field work, who get to find out about neat new discoveries before everyone else does, who get to do research into animal behavior and botany and weather patterns. The most I can do is consume their findings from this end.

So why does it matter? The longer I’ve walked this path that I’ve detailed in this blog for so many years, the more I want to know about this world we share. I am full of awe and wonder at its intricate workings, the sheer joy of evolution and physics and the other processes by which it works. I’ve felt levels of spiritual connection more profound than just about anything I experienced when my focus was more on symbols and abstractions, where I still felt somehow separate from what it was that I honored. And so where some people may wish to dive more deeply into ancient texts or devote themselves more completely to their gods, I want to immerse myself in this unbelievable world I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of, even if only for a tiny blip in its long lifespan. I’m already doing everything I can to be a more active participant in it–and in its preservation. Perhaps, in a way, I see those immersed in the sciences as a sort of clergy, and fieldwork as ritual, and research as the study and interpretation of sacred doctrines. Not as infallible holy writ, mind you, or “scientism”, but as one more way to know this world in all its parts.

But then I realize that perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be a generalist, an amateur naturalist who can more easily draw from the layperson’s end of all the sciences. I don’t have to adhere only to astrophysics, or molecular biology, as my bailiwick. While I don’t have the competency of a trained specialist, I also don’t have to defend my stances in my specialty in the same way. In fact, I’m free to browse at various theoretical fields–a little zoology here, a dash of meteorology here–not as a way to try and “be right”, but simply to augment my understanding of the world and my place in it. I still rely on specialists to help me ward off bad information and interpret what’s good, but I’m not married (figuratively) to any of them.

So while I still feel some envy toward the people who get to work at the Oregon and Monterey Bay aquariums, or painstakingly scrape and scuff rock away from ancient fossilized bones, I know I’m in the best place I can be. If someday I figure out that math stuff I may take a stab at even more intense training, but until then, I’ll happily curl up with my books and my documentaries and my layperson’s understanding, soaking it up like a sponge.

The Return of the Garden! And an Important Lesson

Last year I missed out on gardening. I was busy trying to figure out how to balance my self-employed workload, and a life outside of work. Unfortunately, amid lots of vending events, custom work, and other obligations, I ended up not putting in a garden. I still took care of the few perennials that managed to survive the winter, but it was a pale shade of gardening that barely took any of my attention, and the empty pots were a depressing reminder of my inactivity there.

247649_10151641836983627_1881685848_nI promised myself this year I wouldn’t let that happen again, and while I had to delay planting a little longer than anticipated, early in May I was able to pick up some fresh seeds and starts and a brand new bag of potting soil. It took me a while to prepare the little porch that’s my only outdoor space, cleaning up leaves and dirt and bringing some of the pots up from the garage. But when I was done, there was a lot more space to work in (despite having less than 7′ x 4′ to work with).

Since my space was so limited, I had to plan out what I was going to plant. I wanted to rejuvenate the herb rack, since all I had left was my rosemary, and I wanted a few flowers to brighten up the window boxes along the edges as well. As always, though, most of the space would be dedicated to vegetables, especially tomatoes–my goal this year was to have enough to make homemade pizza sauce without having to go to the farmer’s market.

946386_10151641837343627_1314366_nIt’s rather amazing to me what I managed to fit in, then. I ended up with seven tomato plants, along with a window box each of lettuces and carrots. There are petunias, marigolds, and one red geranium, a few little pots of beans, and the herb rack now has sage, thyme, parsley, basil, and oregano. I was gifted a pair of strawberries, and a mullein that was going to end up on the weed pile in another garden. And my oldest plant, some flavor of succulent in the Sedum genus that was left behind by the previous tenants at my old apartment, was repotted and is already enjoying spreading out more.

I’m enjoying the extra space, too. I have just enough room on the porch that, on a nice day, I can sit out there amid my plants and relax, meditate, read, whatever suits me. I couldn’t do that two years ago since I’d just planted the garden when I had to move, and had to condense a larger garden into this tiny space. Perhaps that was a little bit of why I didn’t plant last year–I’d gotten the idea that the space I had was too cramped and tight.

253251_10151641838228627_890722024_nBut I’ve proven that wrong. I love my little garden, even if it’s the smallest one I’ve had. It’s a peaceful oasis, and it’s yet another small, sacred place, but one that I’ve created. Would I like a larger garden some day? Of course. But living in a small apartment with a small porch has given me the opportunity to practice self-care and nature skills even with limited resources.

And, to be honest, even if all I could have were a few houseplants in a window, I think I would have the same result. What’s important isn’t the size of the garden, but the connection I have to it. Just knowing I have these lovely, green growing things in my “yard”, that I can tend to them and watch them grow and sit among them–that’s enough. Knowing that I’m still working on my sustainability skills, even if there’s nothing more than a few salads in there, is also valuable.

It reminds me of a lesson I hold near and dear to my heart (even if I have to remind myself of it a lot): Bloom where you’re planted. I can make the most of what I have access to now, even if I do plan for bigger things in the future. Otherwise, I might be missing out on an important experience in the moment–and why deprive myself of that just because I may not have everything I could possibly want?

(I’m still hoping for pizza sauce.)

525385_10151641838168627_1517563867_n

A Call to My Fellow Bloggers: Show Me Your Small, Sacred Places

At the beginning of this month, I wrote about small, sacred places in my life. These were the not very large, not particularly wilderness-y, but incredibly important patches of woods and fields that I grew up with in my small town. Even if they were no more than an acre or less apiece, they taught me a great deal about the outdoor world and my various nonhuman neighbors.

Inspired by my writing about this, Chirotus Infinitum made a post over at Blacklight Metaphysics about his own small, sacred place from when he was younger. He even included a nice video tour of the place; I recommend taking a look. I’ll be honest—having someone open up that much about their own little spot made me cry. Not, of course, in the “everything’s bad!” sort of way, but incredibly grateful that someone took the time to share something that special.

missouriI feel that the small, sacred places need more attention. They often get overlooked because they aren’t great wildernesses or national parks or miles-long lengths of trail. They’re often the most vulnerable to development because who’s going to protect a half acre of grass and poison ivy in the middle of a suburb? Put a house or business there instead, or turn it into a carefully manicured park or community garden. While a home can give shelter and a garden can provide food, neither of these provide the same diversity of disorganized, beautifully independent life that the untamed scrub and trees can.

More importantly, they’re often the most accessible natural spots for children who are still developing their relationships with the nonhuman world. Most children can’t just go wandering into a state forest or desert trail, especially not on their own. But even with helicopter parents hovering and video games to distract, there are still kids who are allowed to roam their neighborhoods freely and without supervision. I often worry that, as a child of the 80s, I was of the last generation where kids stayed out all day and didn’t come home until dark, riding bikes and building forts and fishing in little meandering creeks. But there are still some who carry on that tradition, and the small, sacred places give them somewhere to go.

And those relationships formed so early carry on throughout a lifetime. It’s how so many of us who today fight to protect what wilderness remains got our start, our initial inspiration. The roots were sunk, for many, in those small, sacred places. Even for those who never followed an expressly nature-based spiritual path, the wonder and awe these places provoked was—and still is—nonetheless sacred.

So here’s what I’d ask of my fellow bloggers who are able, whether on WordPress or Blogger or Tumblr or Livejournal or wherever you blog: please, if you would, tell me (and your readership) about your own small, sacred places. Even if, like my small, sacred places, yours have long since been bulldozed and paved, write a memorial to them anyway. If it still hurts, let the writing be a place to release that pain. Write a post about any of the little fields and patches of woods, the tiny creeks and ponds full of minnows and crawdads, the often overlooked patches of nature that you grew up with. Tell us about the yard that you got to know so well, the grass and rocks and bugs. Don’t worry about that hike your family went on one year, or the brief visit to Yellowstone. Talk about the places you developed deep relationships with over time, whether as a child or later on. Illustrate with pictures, with videos, with whatever introduces the reader to these places the most.

Once you’ve shared these on your blog, please leave a link here. I’d like to collect them and then make a post later with links to all of them. And thank you for this; I’m looking forward to meeting your small, sacred places, and I hope others are as well.

A Much-Needed Overhaul

Back in 2007 when I started this blog, I wasn’t all that concerned about design. I wanted to write about all these neat ideas I had, and so I opened an account with WordPress.com, picked a theme that had a tree on it, and got down to the important business of writing.

And I still get so distracted by the writing that I don’t spend as much time on general blog upkeep. So I finally took the time to do a pretty significant overhaul of the appearance, pages, and other such things. I changed the theme, and finally took the time to figure out how to upload a custom header image. The image itself isn’t anything really snazzy, just a few of my favorite photos I’ve taken stitched together into the proper 276 x 1015 pixel format. I made sure the pages were updated, especially since the new theme features them more prominently. Oh, and I pulled the search box further up the page to make it easier to access. Basically it was everything I could do without A) spending the better part of $200 porting the blog over to WordPress.org or B) learning CSS from scratch to tweak this one more fully.

Also, I updated the links on the sidebar. I admit I’ve been putting off editing the blogroll; even though I mainly just deleted blogs that hadn’t updated in a good long while, adding more blogs is a nerve-wracking experience. I’ve spent the past two hours (amid various tasks) thinking “What if I forget someone important and obvious? What if there are all sorts of people who have been kind enough to link to Therioshamanism all this time and I should probably link back to them but I don’t know who they are or I lost the email where they requested reciprocal links? What if a blog or site just isn’t really a good fit and I have to try to explain this to the person who’s been putting their blood, sweat, and tears into it? WHAT IF SOMEONE HATES ME FOREVER BECAUSE I DIDN’T LINK TO THEM?” Okay, it didn’t get quite that dire. But there are a lot of really good blogs out there, definitely more than what I have listed. So if you have suggestions for good blogs and sites along a nature paganism or related theme, let me know. I won’t promise I’ll add all of them, but the worst I’ll say is “no thanks”.

Finally, you may have noticed that the quote under the blog’s title has changed. From the beginning, I had had John Muir’s quote “In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. A long while back, I wrote about why I felt the quote needed to be changed for something more appropriate, but it wasn’t until recently that I found a suitable replacement:

All spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, and nature is a window into that wonder. – Richard Louv

This is a much better fit for where my path is these days. Over time, as I’ve moved away from abstract symbols and more into direct contact with nature as the center of my practice, I’ve rediscovered the sense of wonder I have about the world–not just the wild parts, but the human-altered ones, too. My stock response to the complaint that the physical world is too mundane and boring is “Look at photosynthesis. That plant? It’s absorbing sunlight into its leaves, and making it into food, into measurable amounts of sugars. How is that not absolutely breathtaking, especially because we know more or less how it works?” But I feel that way about a lot of things; the amazing technology that launched rovers onto Mars so we could gather better data is nothing short of amazing to me. And my sense of wonder about these things and more presses me to know and learn and experience more; it drives me out into the world to explore it and my place within it, and entreats me to supplement with the observations of others through books and film and classes and more.

Note that Louv says that nature is a window, not the window. But for many of us, it’s not just a window but the door itself. For me, this wonder helped to bring me back to an entire home–whether in the city or the wilderness, I am home in the world.

Humans Are Not Either/Or Creatures

First, a quick hello from internet-land! I spent this past weekend down in Long Beach and surrounding areas for Ghostwriters Unite!; I was at the conference to help moderate panels and lend my small press experience to the general milieu, though I also got a lot of schmoozing in as well. I learned a lot about ghostwriting, to include that it’s much more complex a profession than one might think, and I met all sorts of fabulous people from a variety of backgrounds, and I wish we’d had more time together. A huge thank you to Tyger Ward for getting me connected to the conference in the first place! I ended up making a long weekend of it since I was down there on my own anyway, and on my off time I explored the Long Beach marina, went up to the La Brea Tar Pits, and even stomped around Griffith Park for a while, where I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild (probably a southern Pacific rattlesnake) and walked by the cages for the old Los Angeles zoo. All in all, it was a most excellent trip, and I plan to do it again.

tumblr_mmfz9sQzfu1qcrvgeo1_500I spent time today playing catch-up on email, messages, and the like. While I was taking a quick break on Tumblr, I ran across an image depicting two children, one using a smart phone, and one holding a small bird. Below these two images was the caption “Teach your children well”. I’m not entirely sure what the anonymous compiler’s intent was; perhaps they wanted to contrast the detachment of the one child, accessing the world through the virtual reality on the phone, with the direct experience of the other child interacting with the live bird in his hands. Or maybe they agreed with me when I said:

Yes. Teach your children that through the internet they can access more information about the world than ever, from places they may never see for themselves, from people they might never have known existed, about topics they never even knew existed. And then teach them that while this knowledge is well and good and valuable, it’s not a replacement for also going out in the world and experiencing it, and being out in it. Let these things complement each other. Let the internet be a way to fill in the blanks about the new type of bird you encountered while you were breathing in the fresh air out on a hike, moving your muscles and negotiating rocky terrain. Let the words of others who have recorded their experiences and shared them via technology enhance your understanding of what you see with your eyes, or hear with your ears, or touch with your fingers. Let the internet spread the word that a particular species of bird is highly endangered and should not be harmed, even for food, and let on the ground action and protection follow it up.

Both of these pictures are children learning well. Let them teach each other, too.

Of course, this also brings up the issue that there are many, many children (and adults) who don’t have access to the internet, and some whose access is restricted either through government censorship, or limited computer access, or illiteracy, or other barriers. All the internet connectivity in the world won’t help if you can’t get to it, or understand what’s there. It also doesn’t bring into account that more and more children in the US and elsewhere are being denied access to wild, open spaces in which they can roam and explore without helicopter parents hovering over their every move. By the time they’re old enough to make their own decisions on where they can go, the window for early fascination with nature has long since closed, and many simply don’t care.

Unfortunately, tech and nature are often set against each other in an either/or dichotomy. As we create increasingly complex technologies, they may distract us from the world around us, especially the outside world. Those who wish to preserve nature and the human relationship with it may sometimes claim moral superiority because they don’t have a tablet PC or smart phone. I’ve written before about how nature vs. technology is a false dichotomy, and I still hold with that. Both of these influences contributed invaluably to who I am today, from the antibiotics that saved my life a few years ago and the computer I use to communicate with you folks via this blog, to the small, sacred places that raised me and all the trails in the Columbia River Gorge I’ve explored as an adult.

Both unfettered nature and technology have their good and bad sides from a human bias. Unfortunately, we’ve lost our respect for both of them; we take and take of the good while pretending we’ve completely overcome the bad. The Black Plague may be a distant memory, but over a million people die from malaria worldwide every year. Cars get us from place to place with independence and speed, but oil spills are just one of the many costs the petroleum industry likes to sweep under the rug. Still, if people are able to live happier, healthier, longer lives, that can’t be all bad–especially if we can do so in sustainable manners that also leave plenty of room for all of our nonhuman neighbors on the planet.

We won’t learn to respect both sides if we demonize one or the other. This is why I am neither a Luddite nor a technophile, and why I enjoyed both the museum at the Tar Pits and the trails at Griffith Park. Everyone’s personal balance may be different, but I firmly believe that as a species if we are to survive and thrive we must respect both the uncontrolled, wild nature we came from and the technology that we tool-using apes have created.