I’m pleased to announce that the new, updated and annotated edition of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up is now available as a paperback and ebook at https://thegreenwolf.com/books/nature-spirituality-from-the-ground-up/! Originally published in 2016 by Llewellyn, it went out of print earlier this year and I received the rights back. So I made a new, self-published edition with some updates and notes in the footnotes. I also removed the word “totem” from the text and swapped in more culturally neutral terms like “nature spirits” and “animism”. Working with nature spirits isn’t just about what we can get from them; it’s a reciprocal relationship that requires us to know the land itself. In this book I show you ways to create new connections with the nature around you, identify nature spirits who may facilitate that growth, and use rituals and other practices to deepen these bonds. Most importantly, you’ll learn ways to give back to the land and the spirits with offerings that make a real difference.Enter into an animistic ecosystem populated not just with the spirits of animals, plants, and fungi, but landforms, celestial bodies, and natural forces. Deepen your spiritual connection to the earth, and rejoin the community of nature! The table of contents offers more about what’s in this book:
Chapter 1: The Importance of Reconnecting With Nature
If you’ve been paying attention to my social media or my shop links at all, you may have noticed that I haven’t really been posting much in the way of new hide and bone art for the past year or so. It’s not that I’ve stopped; I still make some fun things for my Patrons on Patreon every month, and I make some bone, tooth and claw jewelry on Etsy to order. But ever since events dried up, I haven’t been regularly making new batches of costume pieces or other Vulture Culture art. My usual M.O. was to make all sorts of new things for an upcoming event, and then once the weekend was done and I was home, post whatever hadn’t sold on Etsy. And since there haven’t been events…well…I’ve just found myself doing other things.
Some of that is because I’ve had to scramble to make up for the lost income; events were a pretty big chunk of my “pay”, and losing them meant having to tighten the belt. I also lost several other income streams thanks to the pandemic making it unsafe to be around groups of people, which didn’t help. So I had to rely on what was left, along with adopting a few new sources of bits and bobs of cash here and there.
And, honestly, I’ve needed a bit of a break. I’ve been making hide and bone art for over two decades now, and while I love it, any artist eventually wants to explore different media for a while. Sure, I’ve stretched my Vulture wings in new directions, going from costume pieces and ritual tools to assemblages and the Tarot of Bones. But ever since the Tarot came out, I’ve been feeling….not really burned out, but a little creatively wrung out, at least. I’ve really appreciated my Patrons and Etsy customers who have helped me keep a hand in that particular medium, while also allowing me to head off in other directions, too.
Which is to say that if you have been paying attention to the aforementioned social media and shops, you may have also noticed that I’ve been increasing the number of customized Breyer model horses and other animals I’ve made over the past couple of years. This might seem like a heck of a departure from skulls, bones, and other dead things. But in a way it’s really me getting back to long-neglected roots.
See, I was a horse girl when I was a kid. Or, rather, I was a wannabe horse girl. I never got to lease or own a horse, and even now in my early 40s I’m still about the greenest rider you’ll find. (Seriously, I need one of those kid-proof horses that’s seen it all, done it all, and is probably more trail-smart than I am.) But I was obsessed with horses from a young age. It started with my very first My Little Pony that I got Christmas morning, 1983 (Applejack, if you must know), and then exploded further with a book on how to draw horses and my first Breyer model (Black Beauty 1991 on the Morganglanz mold) in my preteens. Horse actually took over for Gray Wolf for a few years as my primary animal spirit during my teens, so we have a very long history indeed.
And since I couldn’t have a real horse, I ended up collecting model horses, mostly Breyers with a few old Hartlands for variety. I had over 100 at the peak of my collecting, but I had to sell them all in my early twenties when I was between jobs. In hindsight it was probably for the best because having less stuff made it easier to get through the period of my life where I was moving about once a year, but I do miss that collection.
Back then I did my part to add to the artistic end of the model horse hobby, mostly with badly blended acrylic paint jobs and terrifying mohair manes and tails. But it made me happy, and that was the most important thing. Even though I only knew a couple other collectors in my little rural area, and my only real connection to the hobby was through the quarterly Just About Horses magazine Breyer put out, my collecting really made me happy in the same way that my first fur scraps and bones would catch my interest a few years later.
2020….well, it sucked. We all know that. Pandemic, political stress, financial roller coasters and more made it a really tough year for anyone who wasn’t wealthy enough to hide away and weather it all. And many of us found ourselves with more time at home, in need of distractions and solace. It ended up being a time where many people rediscovered their love of childhood hobbies. I’m one of those people. I’ve been slowly edging my way back in for the past few years, starting with repainting a few old Breyer models found at thrift stores, and then gaining momentum as I found that not only was I much better at customizing these models than I used to be, but I was having fun without the pressure to make a living off of it. (Yes, I love my hide and bone art, but when an art form is your bread and butter, it changes your relationship to it. But that’s a post for another time…)
So 2020 saw me really ramp up my customization efforts. I had to stop for a few months in summer and fall when I moved to a spifftacular new living space on the farm I’ve been working on the past few years (with, by the way, THE best studio space EVER!) but as the days shortened I found myself making more dedicated time to repainting and otherwise customizing models. I even started keeping a few of the models I’d bought to customize that were in better condition to create a small, but slowly growing original finish collection, and that really helped me feel like I was back in the (not actually a) saddle.*
That’s why a well-established artist of organic, pagan-influenced arts made from fur and leather and bone and feather suddenly started painting all these secondhand plastic ponies. It’s giving me that deep injection of childhood nostalgia balanced with adult skill and perspective, and it’s offered me a much-needed break from the exhausting schedule I’ve been living the past decade or so. Because suddenly, even with the time spent rearranging my income opportunities to make sure I could stay afloat, I found myself with a little time that hadn’t been scheduled to death, and when I thought about what I wanted to do with that time, I gravitated toward one of the few creative outlets in my life that was purely for fun.**
In a way having all my events canceled was one of the best things that happened to me, because it made me slow the fuck down. I no longer had several weekends a year where I had to spend weeks beforehand making art and otherwise preparing to be away from all my farm responsibilities for 4-7 days at a time, with all the packing and moving and setup and vending and teaching and teardown and going home and unpacking and exhaustion that goes with each event. I realized just how much each one was taking out of me, especially as I’ve gotten older. And I also recognized how much pressure I had been putting on myself to ALWAYS MAKE MORE STUFF FOR ETSY EVERY WEEK OR ELSE.
So the model horses are really sort of a symbol of the childhood joy I’ve managed to recapture, wresting time and energy back from my workaholic tendencies. I’ve even been thinking about what my professional life is going to look like once the pandemic eases up enough to allow events again, and whether I’ll put the same amount of time toward vending and and teaching at conventions and festivals as I used to. (There are a few favorites that I’m not going to miss for anything, so don’t worry about me dropping out entirely.) But for the first time in a very long time, I’m relearning to prioritize myself, and figuring out that maybe I don’t have to go hell-bent for leather every week, every year, in order to keep the bills paid and the critters fed.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s okay for this dead-critter-artist, pagan-nonfic-author, teacher-vendor-farmer, to indulge herself with something fun, and bet on the ponies to help her get through the tough times.
(P.S. Amid everything going on, I am back to working steadily on my next book, which I mentioned in this blog post almost a year ago. As a recap, its working title is Coyote’s Journey: Deeper Work With the Major Arcana, and it’s a deep dive into that section of the tarot using pathworkings with the animals I assigned to the major arcana of the Tarot of Bones. It’s not just a Tarot of Bones book, though; it’s a good way to get a new, nature-based angle on the majors in general, as well as hopefully gain a better understanding of yourself. My goal is to have it out later this year, self-pub of course, and at the rate I’m going it may end up being my longest book! Stay tuned, and if you want to get excerpts of the work-in-progress, become my Patron for as little as $1/month!)
*At the height of my “horse girl” phase, I had a really beat-up pony saddle I’d bought for ten bucks at a yard sale, and got a cheap saddle stand for it and put it in my room. And yes, I occasionally sat on it and pretended I was riding an actual horse. Hey, it made me happy at the time, and it was the closest I was ever going to get apart from a trail ride every few years.
**Yes, I do sell my customs. But I don’t make them on a schedule, I take commissions VERY sparingly, and I’m getting to stretch some new creative muscles, especially in the realms of sculpting and painting, so this is primarily for my enjoyment. The sales are just a side benefit.
Hey, everyone! My book Plant and Fungus Totems, originally published via Llewellyn, went out of print earlier this year. I’ve since updated and annotated it and released a new edition as Plant and Fungus Spirits. In addition to adding bits of new information or making other small changes, I’ve also removed the term “totem” other than where it refers to certain indigenous beliefs and practices. This is keeping in line with my other older books that I’ve re-released as self-published editions.
Sometimes the best teachers are those we often overlook! Explore the world of plant spirits, green beings who thrive on sunlight. Delve into the depths of fungus spirits, permeating the very soil beneath our feet. This book offers three unique approaches to working with these spirits:
*The Bioregional Model invites you to deepen your relationship to the physical land around you through the spirits that live there.
*The Correspondences Model combines the symbols of your path into your work with nature spirits.
*The Archetypal Model allows your spirit guides to help you through the intricacies of your inner self so you can know yourself better.
Whether you choose one of these models, or a combination, Plant and Fungus Spirits offers you meditations, examples and other tools to invite these spirits into your life. An excellent book for the beginner and the experienced practitioner alike!
Want to learn how to identify edible mushrooms? I’m offering a two-hour beginner-friendly class via Zoom! You have two options for time slots:
Sunday, October 18 from 2:00pm – 4:00pm PST
Tuesday, October 20 from 5:30pm – 7:30pm PST
You’ll learn about how to find and identify these tasty fungi, as well as some of the more common edible and poisonous mushrooms you’ll find in the United States, and resources to help you hone your identification skills. I have spent several years foraging for and teaching about edible mushrooms and plants, and I want to share what I’ve learned with you! Register at http://thegreenwolf.com/classes/ or contact me at lupa.greenwolf(at)gmail(dot)com if you have questions.
Also, if there are topics you’d like to see me present classes on, let me know!
I recently got an email from someone who was interested in Vulture Culture, but felt like they couldn’t actually be a participating member of this “fandom” unless they were tanning their own hides and cleaning their own bones and otherwise processing their own specimens. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this, either. It’s great that so many Vultures are learning these skills, and DIYing their way through their hobby! But it’s not absolutely necessary.
I mean, look at me. I’ve been working with hides and bones and other specimens in my art for over twenty years, and if you count my childhood collecting I’ve been part of what would become Vulture Culture for well over three decades, longer than some Vultures have been alive. And you know what? I’ve never tanned a hide, and only cleaned a couple of skulls. I can dry-preserve wings, but that’s really about it.*
And that doesn’t make me any less sincere or valid a member of Vulture Culture than all those awesome DIYers out there. There are plenty of reasons someone might not get into the messier aspects of the hobby:
–No place to process a bunch of smelly, fresh specimens (or long-dead smelly ones, either!)
–No money to buy supplies, even the cheapest options
–No time to go through the lengthy processes of bone cleaning or fur and leather tanning
–No interest in doing these things, preferring other ways to participate
And there are so many ways to participate, just like any other fandom! You can collect your favorite sorts of specimens (I’m partial to skulls, myself.) Looking for animal bones out in the wild is also a popular pursuit if you have access, but other found specimens can include (legal) feathers, dead insects, shed snake skins, and so forth. Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy making art from specimens already preserved, or using them as art references for traditional media. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just liking to see pictures of other people’s collections, even if you don’t have anything yourself.
My point is, not everyone has to DIY their hobby. You can appreciate others’ efforts without feeling like you’re not as genuine a Vulture because you’re not out there saving every bit of roadkill you can find. Ultimately it’s all about your enjoyment, and if you’re too worried about “doing it right”, you’re not going to have fun! So relax, participate with Vulture Culture in whatever ways you see fit and to whatever degree you prefer, and allow yourself the freedom to explore without pressure!
* Because I wanted to shared these skills but hadn’t developed them myself, I hired guest writers for the how-to tutorials for my book Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I felt that made it a much more complete book on the subculture, and it gave some other writers a chance to show off their chops. But it also allowed me to stick to the things I really enjoy doing, like writing!
I am pleased to announce that I have released updated and annotated editions of my three earliest books: Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone; DIY Animism (formerly DIY Totemism); and Skin Spirits! These were originally published between 2006 and 2009 by Megalithica Books, an imprint of Immanion Press. My parting with them is on good terms, and I highly, highly recommend them for anyone wishing to go the small press route for either sci fi and fantasy fiction, or pagan and occult nonfiction. I’ve just been moving more toward self publishing for the bulk of my works in recent years and was given back the rights to these earlier works. (Both the anthologies I did for IP/MB, Talking About the Elephant and Engaging the Spirit World are now permanently out of print.)
I’ve completely redone the interior layout and covers of the books; the interiors are more compact to cut down on paper usage, and the covers feature my own photos and design. My material is much the same, though I’ve added updates where information has been outdated. I’ve also changed quite a bit as a practitioner, and I’ve annotated the texts to note where I either don’t use a practice any more, or wanted to clarify things that I felt needed a little expansion.
You’ll also notice that I’ve ceased using the terms “totem” and “shamanism”. I’ve chosen to do this as these terms were appropriated from the Ojiwbe and the Evenk, respectively, and while they have been used more generally in both anthropological and spiritual settings, I’ve decided to switch to more culturally neutral terms like animal spirit and animism. I’ve done my best to update the language in these early books to use different terminology while making the text still make sense, and keeping totem and shamanism only where I discuss indigenous practices.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
I am not a huge fan of “nature” as being separate from humanity. The perceived divide of “natural” and “artificial” may seem like a way to emphasize the non-human nature that we often seem to ignore, but it still reinforces the idea that we are somehow divorced from natural processes and cycles, especially in cities. I do, however, favor the concept of “wilderness”. It evokes a place where humans have not had nearly as much of a dominant place in the ecosystem, and we can see more of what the rest of nature is like when we are just another critter in the woods (or fields, or desert, etc.).
Like many other Portland residents, while I live in the city proper, I do get out quite a bit to the wilderness areas that surround the metro region. Usually I’m off to hide somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge or spending a couple of days at the coast, but I’ve ranged further at times, depending on the situation.
This is a lifelong habit, this seeking less human-populated places for recharging and respite. When I enter the wilderness, I feel as though I am immersing myself in a rich, lush energy, though the nature of that energy changes from place to place. The treasures of the deserts of Eastern Oregon are of a distinct quality compared to the conifer forests of the Gorge. And the genii loci of these places are their own beings as well, though like the boundaries of the places, large and small, they shift and blend and overlap, less distinct than our linear minds might prefer.
As much as I might like to stay immersed in wilderness forever, I also recognize that I am an urban creature. I have wants and needs and obligations that require more connectivity of a human sort. And, admittedly, I like comfort. Snow hiking is much more fun when I know I have a warm home to go back to.
But I don’t want to forget these places I’ve been, nor the often deep spiritual experiences I have while in their embrace, whether tender or terrifying. And so I collect small, single souvenirs for each place—a small stone, a Douglas fir cone, a piece of driftwood, a pheasant feather. I even got an antique glass jar lid from a local wetland that had been cleaned up after years of garbage being dumped there. And for every thing I take with me, I leave a bit of myself: hair, energy, water for a plant if I’ve enough to share. They come home with me, and I mark them with the date and the place as their number has increased with each place I become acquainted with.
They used to have their own shelf, but eventually they migrated over to one of my two primary altars. You can see them scattered around the top of it here, amid the small stone animals I’ve used to signify directional totems for many years.The relocation of those stones and sticks and such is significant. For years I had a fairly typical generic Wicca-flavored neopagan altar, with the directional markers (animals, of course) plus the tools I used back then (athame, wand, etc.) and my image of Artemis, all from various places around the world and having more abstract than immediate symbolism. Once I began to embrace shamanism–and bioregionalism–more deeply, the tools I no longer used so often ended up on a second altar specifically for ritual implements old and new, and that’s when the gifts from the land spirits made their move.
It’s a beautiful weaving, actually. The centerpiece of the altar is a ceramic wolf-themed jug I made back in high school when I was first getting involved in paganism, and it represents me; it’s decorated with a pair of scrimshaw fossilized ivory necklaces that were instrumental in the processes that brought me to the Pacific Northwest. Immediately surrounding it are the four animal statues—Grey Wolf/North, Brown Bear/West, Red Fox/South, and Red-tailed Hawk/East—that survived the shift from my early neoshamanism and neopaganism, through my chaos magic explorations, and on into my more formal shamanic path. They represent the roots of my practice, like a volcanic core of basalt that has survived the erosion of softer stone surrounding it over time.
Radiating out from them, oriented toward the places they came from, are the reminders of the places I’ve been. They ground my practice more deeply in the place I am at. Not only have the spirits of place taken me in, but their other denizens have as well, and increasingly my altars are covered in gifts from other locals—the mule deer leg bone that is the handle of the beater for my drum, or the portrait that Steller’s Jay requested I get from the artist Ravenari in lieu of illegally possessing molted jay feathers.
Looking over these gifts, I can remember for a few moments—or longer, if I wish—what it was like to climb Dog Mountain in a November storm and nearly be blown off the summit; or the first time I met the Pacific Ocean; or the time I retreated to Bend, Oregon and found solace in the deserts there. I can remember the wildlife, and the plants, and the stones, and all the beings that come together in these places, just with these few small reminders.
And they’re all invitations to come back, to reconnect, whether physically or through journeying spiritually. Even the places that scared me weren’t out to get me; I simply wasn’t observing enough respect for them. Every visit is a chance to try again, to go in deeper, to give more of myself to the land spirits and see what happens next.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2012, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
The human brain is a fascinating thing. I had already learned a good deal about it just in personal reading, but when I went through my graduate program to get my counseling psych degree, I got a lot more up-to-date information. For example, I learned about the triune brain—the idea that we have the reptilian brain (the basal ganglia, the most primitive part of the brain), the paleomammalian brain (the limbic system) and the neomammalian brain (the neocortex). What I also learned is that this model is overly simplistic, that it doesn’t correspond as neatly to actual reptile and various mammal brains as is popularly assumed. Also, some non-mammalian species exhibit levels of intelligence and behavior that rival neocortical capacities, without an actual neocortex in the brain. And all mammals have some neocortical development, just not to the degree of humans. So, in short, the triune brain model has fallen out of favor due to its flaws.
Still, as very brief shorthand, the “reptile”, “old mammal” and “new mammal” models of the different sections of the human brain work if you keep its limitations in mind. It’s a good set of mnenomics to remember that the oldest portion of the brain (“reptile”) is that which is associated with primitive territorial and aggressive/defensive actions, the next part (“old mammal”) has diversified into more complex behaviors surrounding the care and feeding of young and other family as well as the first development of emotions, and the newest portion (“new mammal”) has even more complex social and communication skills, as well as planning and foresight.
My interest in it here is as a model for self-reflective meditation. Even as highly developed as we humans are, our brains often get the better of us, particularly the more primitive portions. We still can fall prey to uncontrolled and unexamined anger, territoriality (literal and symbolic), fear, and other such impulses. We fear the Shadow-self and often try to excise it. And the more primitive self sometimes manifests as unnecessary violence that too often gets justified in the name of religion and other ideologies. Wars are massive groups of “reptiles” in territorial conflict.
So much of spirituality and religion seems to be aimed at quelling or rising above what we perceive as the most animal parts of ourselves, whether that’s sex or violence or desire and need. Sometimes mortification of the body is used; other times, we receive punishment for exhibiting “base” behaviors”. Look at the concepts of sin and uncleanliness when applied to perfectly normal, harmless human behaviors like consensual sexuality. Or we try to escape the body and the physical needs through meditation and projection, and many of us are taught to idealize an afterlife where the gross weight of the body is left behind and we are made “perfect”. In any case, the animal self is all too often demonized and shunned.Yet the answer is not to further distance ourselves from these parts of who we are as human animals, but instead to reconnect with them. Our increasingly (perceived) detachment from ourselves as animals, the idea that we are “above” or “better than” animals, doesn’t take away the fact that we are animals still, including in our brains. No amount of rationalization or distancing will remove that, nor will any level of supposed transcendence. As long as we are human animals in human animal bodies, we are responsible for our human animal selves, motivations, and actions.
We don’t, of course, need to swing all the way in the other direction and let our ids go wild in order to “be animals”. Yes, we are attracted on a certain level to the idea of unfettered fighting and fucking and competing relentlessly for resources to maximize the likelihood our genes will be passed on. But let’s not break out the blood sacrifices and wild orgies just yet. If we are to give honor to the evolution that has brought us to where we are, let’s not forget the compassion and humane treatment of ourselves and others that we have developed to a high degree (though we are not the only species to possess them). After all, we have seen the atrocities that have occurred when people display little to no control over their more primitive instincts at all. That’s where we get war, assault, selfish hoarding of precious resources, etc.
I propose, instead, a middle ground, one that allows us to aspire to the best of the uniquely human traits we’ve developed as a species, and also the more primitive foundations that we are built on. The goal is to first be able to identify what parts of the brain/self are active at different points, particularly those seen as negative; and second, instead of pushing them away, observing and knowing the impulses and feelings for what they are and thereby letting them have a place while keeping them in check.
And we’re going to do this by looking to our ancestors and our much-extended family for their experience and wisdom. In the second part of this series, I’m going to show you a guided meditation that you can use to contact animal spirits that correspond with the various layers of your brain as a way to begin this reclaiming of yourself as a human animal.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
When I’m making artwork, I often enjoy having some music or video going on that I can listen to and watch while I work. The other day I finished up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which I’ve been watching segments of over the past couple of weeks. For those who haven’t seen it, it is an epic, thirteen-hour-long exploration of the Universe we live in, from the atomic level to the entirety of everything, ranging from the Big Bang itself all the way up to the present day. In each of the hour-long segments, Sagan touches on many diverse sciences, as well as history, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines. He puts into layperson’s terms the processes of evolution, the geologic history of the Earth, and the origin of life on this planet and even of the Universe itself.
What I found most invaluable, though, was how the series gives us perspective of where we fit into the grand scheme of things. Until not too long ago, most cultures had a very human-centric view of reality, where we were at the core, and everything revolved around us in importance. Cosmos is both beautiful and controversial because it shows us how very small we are, but also what amazingly intricate and long-lived processes we are an integrated part of. There were many times throughout the series where I was reminded of just how impossibly vast the Universe is, how very tiny the Earth is, and yet also how we ourselves, and everything else, are made of stars–and just how unlikely was the chance that we and everything else on Earth are here today. As humbling as it is to realize just how tiny our “pale blue dot” is, Cosmos also dedicates time to showing what does make us, as a species, so significant in our knowledge of the Universe. As Sagan said in the introduction to the series, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”.
This is simultaneously humbling and inspirational. Much of human religion and spirituality is so heavily anthropocentric our spiritual cosmologies are largely concerned with the interest the Universe and its denizens have in us, and most of our deities are created in our very human image. Many of us never get further than “Earth” and “Sky” as the primordial, “biggest” concept-deities, because that’s how our ancestors understood it to be.* The celestial bodies we most acknowledge are the Sun and the Moon and our closest planetary cousins, but even astrology primarily concerns itself with how the positions of the stars and planets are important to us humans. And yet the Earth, and the visible parts of the Sky, are minute compared to the immensity they, and we, are a part of. It’s humbling because we find more and more that humans are far from the most important collections of stardust, and also inspiring because with every new discovery in biology, in astrophysics, and in so many other disciplines, there’s so much more we can know and explore about Life, the Universe, and Everything, even as laypeople.
I have, over the years, heard pagans and other such folk complain that there’s no real magic in this world, simply because we can’t do things like shoot fireballs from our fingertips or physically shapeshift or heal life-threatening illnesses with a touch. And yet Cosmos is a perfect illustration of the magic that is inherent to this physical reality. Look at evolution, for example. It is not just the “survival of the fittest”, as many oversimplify it. Rather, it is a many-generations-long progression of tiny shifts and alterations, and somehow one ancestral being has offspring which, over millenia, branch off into many diverse creatures. The phylogenetic Tree of Life is full to overflowing with living and extinct beings that are fascinating, beautiful, and inspirational simply by being themselves, without layering on subjective meaning like totemic lore or other symbolism. Or, on a smaller scale, I like to think about photosynthesis. The chloroplasts in plant cells, which are likely derived from cyanobacteria that formed symbiotic relationships with primitive plant cells, take sunlight and turn it into food. All the food we eat is created from sunlight changed into sugars by photosynthesis–we are eating transformed light waves**. How are these things not magical and miraculous, especially the more we know about them?
Cosmos is a massive journey through many of these manners in which star-stuff has formed over billions of years, and I can’t but think of it as revealing why the physical reality I live in is sacred. “Sacred” means “to inspire awe or reverence”, and with each new piece of knowledge about the Universe I acquire, the more deeply I feel that sacredness. Mythos and folklore and divine inspiration are great and beautiful things in the sphere of human experience, but if we are to understand the roots of those experiences, we need to dig into the (sometimes literal) dirt where those roots are grounded.
I think, perhaps, Cosmos could be in and of itself a ritual tool. Thirteen hours is a long time, and while most pagan rituals last an hour at best, there’s also something to be said for an immersive experience. So here’s a suggestion, whether you’ve seen this series in its entirety already or not: Set aside an entire day where you can be undisturbed, either alone, or with other interested, curious and respectful parties. Get comfortable. And then watch Cosmos from beginning to end. (Take breaks for the bathroom and food as needed, of course, but keep them short.) It will be a lot of information, and you may wish to go back at a later time and watch it over again in smaller segments. But this time, simply open yourself to the flow of information, and see how it affects you and your understanding of the Universe.
It may seem odd, on this nature-spirituality-themed blog, to suggest such long immersion in media. Yet not all media is created equal, and this series is much more information about the Universe than what we can immediately observe on our own, condensed into a few hours. Sitting in front of a television won’t show you the spirit of the land where you live, but it can offer you so much more backstory on its geology and biology and ultimate origin than you could get by watching the denizens of the land interact. It’s a complement to direct experiences with nature, not a replacement, and I see it as inspiration to make more forays out of our homes and into the world around us–and, perhaps, to support more exploration beyond where we can currently go. To know about evolution is one thing, but even scientists best appreciate it when they are able to actually see the plants and animals that resulted. (In fact, some of the most glorious marvels written about nature have been penned by scientists, not about things going on in laboratory settings, but our fellow beings in their own habitats–or the habitats themselves.)
Whether you choose to immerse yourself in a thirteen-hour marathon, or take Cosmos in multiple smaller doses, I encourage you to take what you learn and apply it to your experiences in the world around you. I know for myself that having more of the story has enriched my hikes and rituals outdoors, and I hope this can be a valuable resource for you as well.
* Ancient mythos from various cultures worked with what the people of those cultures knew at the time, with great wisdom but without the benefit of high=powered telescopes and other very helpful technology. However, mythology is constantly changing with the times, and a really good example of a modern mythos in the grand tradition that makes use of 21st-century knowledge, I recommend NUP’s own Restorying the Sacred column, with some lovely modern nature myths written by Eli Effinger-Weintraub.
** We are still unable to shoot fireballs from our fingertips. But isn’t it cool that in a way, through photosynthesis, we can eat fire?
There are many purposes for shapeshifting—celebration, drawing on the power of the being you’re changing into, learning to change yourself, etc. There are also many techniques, some stationary, others involving dance and other movement. This version of shapeshifting is quieter, and is primarily for the purpose of creating connection with, and fostering awareness of, other beings. It’s a way to begin healing the rift we as a species have created between us and the rest of the beings we share this world with. It requires a certain level of intimacy; you can’t become a being without having some empathy for it, and the world could certainly do with more empathy all around.
Although you can theoretically shapeshift (non-physically, of course) into any being (and I use that term to refer to animals, plants, waterways, mountains, and more), I recommend choosing a being who is physically close to you, such as a particular tree or waterway near your home, or a species of animal that you see frequently. Even in my fairly urban Portland neighborhood, I still have a huge maple tree right outside my kitchen window. No matter the weather or my state of health, I can still check on “my” tree to see how it’s doing, how many leaves are left today, who’s perched in the branches, and so forth. And I have a good vantage point to watch the crows, fox and grey squirrels, and scrub jays that frequent the tree and surrounding high places.
You’ve already created something of a personal connection there, but let’s talk about taking it further. How much time do you spend every day observing this being? If it’s something relatively stationary like a stone or pond, try to make a daily visit in all weather, at least as much as you’re able. Or, with animals, see if there’s a place where you can fairly reliably see individuals of the species, if not daily then at least regularly. Take note of what you see each time. How does the being change with the time of day, the weather, even the seasons? How does it fit into its niche in the ecosystem, and are there any changes in that over time? What about human impact?
Balance out all this experience with some research as well. Read about the being online and in books; talk to others who have worked with it. Get the objective viewpoint to balance out your subjective observations and impressions, and allow them to complement each other.
This all can be an investment of years. That’s okay. We spend years getting to know other people; it works for other beings as well. Even after you’ve tried shapeshifting to this being, you can still keep up the daily observations, just as you may regularly check in on loved ones.
There’s no single, universal “right time” to make the step from observation to shapeshifting. A lot of it has to do with mutual trust; a being that doesn’t trust you won’t open up, and it’ll be harder for you to be receptive to a being you’re wary of. When you feel the time is right, go to the being. If the being is stationary, ask to sit on, against, or otherwise near it. For animals, sit where you’ve been able to observe them best (hopefully by now they’re used to your presence). If you are unable to be at the place itself, such as for health or safety reasons, find a place at home or otherwise where you can meditate for a while, undisturbed, and perhaps have some reminder of the being you’re connecting with at your side.
If you’ve already “spoken” with the being or a spiritual representation thereof, great! If you haven’t done such communication yet, you may wish to use a guided meditation to introduce yourself. Here’s a simple one:Close your eyes. Relax. Breathe. Be aware of where the being is in relation to you. Imagine a shining cord extending from your third eye to the being—not quite touching, but inviting the being to make that last step to complete the cord between you. Once the cord is complete, greet the being, and begin the conversation. When you feel the time is proper, ask the being for its help with shapeshifting, that you want to have a better understanding of it by becoming, even just a little, more like it. Allow it to answer as it will, and go from there.
If the being isn’t ready, respect that. Keep up your visits, and when you feel ready, try asking permission again (unless you have gotten a very firm “No, never, not at all” from the being).
Once you have gained permission, then it’s time to try the shapeshifting itself. Go back to the place where you can be with the being without disturbance. Close your eyes, breathe, and relax. Be very aware of your boundaries, physical and otherwise—where “you” end and the rest of the world begins. Now imagine those boundaries are becoming much more permeable.
Make physical contact with the being or its representation, and allow the boundaries between you and it to be more blurred. You may feel as though you are “melting” into each other, or you may feel your own form change and move to be more like that of the being. You may even feel you are being carried along by the being, a sort of “rider”; there may even be multiple representatives if you’re working with a very social animal such as schooling fish. Any way it manifests, allow this change to happen, and observe how your perceptions and thoughts change as well.
What is it like to be that being? How does it differ from being yourself? How do you feel? Is it fun? Scary? Do you feel curious? Are some things more important to you now than they were before, and are others less so? How comfortable are you in this form?
Is the being itself staying in contact with you while you shift? Try asking it questions, if you can, or share observations—after all, it’s the expert on being itself!
When you’re ready to come back, thank the being for its help. Then imagine what your body feels like normally, or state your name, your address, and other “human” things. Don’t rush it; allow yourself to ease back in, let the boundaries reform at their own pace. Once you’re awake, take some time to ground. Eat something protein-heavy, observe the way your hands move, recite the lyrics to one of your favorite songs. Do things that gently bring you back to being human.
After you’re done, think about how you feel about the being now. Do you have more empathy for its place in the world, and the challenges it may face? Do you feel differently about yourself and your own place here? What may you have learned from this experience that you didn’t know or understand before?
Do keep in mind that all of your impressions are still processed by your very human brain and mind, even in the depths of the shapeshift. You can’t entirely sever your connection to being human. It is a good idea to check your impressions against more objective information, and to have sensitivity toward whom you want to identify with. It may not cause much trouble for you to be convinced that mosquitoes really suck other animals’ blood because they want to steal their power. However, shapeshifting into American Mink, and then being convinced that you now have to free all the caged mink at fur farms, is a bad idea, no matter how deeply you may have connected with that spirit.
Done with care, shapeshifting can be a highly effective way to be more empathetic toward other beings, to raise our everyday awareness of their presence, and to foster greater consideration of them both individually, and as a society.
In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.