New Paths to Animal Spirits is Now Available!

I am pleased to announce the newest offering in my self-publishing endeavors! To be clear, New Paths to Animal Spirits is NOT the brand new book I alluded to in yesterday’s post; that one’s still being written. Instead, it is the new, self-published edition of my now out of print Llewellyn book, New Paths to Animal Totems. As the title suggests, I updated the language to be more culturally neutral; however, the content is basically the same, so if you already have the first edition, don’t bother buying this one unless you happen to be a completionist or something like that!

However, if you don’t have this book, it’s actually one of my favorites that I’ve written ! I was reminded of this as I was doing the interior layout for this edition, re-reading the text as I went along. Like all my books, it’s a toolkit that you can pick and choose form, rather than a monolithic chunk of holy writ. I like recommending it to newbies because it breaks my practices with animal spirits down into systems, but it also offers more experienced practitioners some ideas, too, as I basically dissected my practice into the three main approaches I take.

You can read more about this book, and preorder a copy at http://thegreenwolf.com/books/new-paths-to-animal-spirits/ (you can also get instant gratification and order an ebook there, too!) I just got the approval over on Amazon/Kindle, and I’ll place an order for my first batch of paperbacks at the end of the week; your copy will come out of that first batch. I expect to have the box o’ books in hand by the second week in April, and will prioritize getting those out to everyone who preorders now.

I have a few more books that I’ll be converting to self-published status in the weeks to come, so keep your eyes peeled for those new editions!

State of the Lupa Address

It’s been over a year since I wrote a brand new blog post with anything other than a bit of promotion. Truth be told, I needed a break. I started my first blog in 2007, I think? Earlier if you count Livejournal as a blog. For a few years I even had multiple blogs going at once, and that just got exhausting.

But it gave me time to work on other things. As you may remember, four years ago I moved my art studio out to the coast to a farm owned by a friend of mine. I gradually moved my entire life out here, and I’m now a full-time resident. I’m still self-employed, with my art and writing joined by a small contract doing a bit of environmental education locally, and selling eggs from my chickens.

Yes, I have chickens! Twenty of them! And a tank of guppies and platies, and a dog. And there are other animals I get to take care of here, too, so that keeps me pretty busy. I also spend what little bits of free time I have outside, whether I’m hiking, taking the dog for a walk, or fussing around on iNaturalist.

Like so many other people, my life has been shaken down to the core the past few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I already live a pretty isolated life (but not in a bad way) I’m at fairly low risk of contracting the disease, though I’m still careful. However, all of my streams of income have either been severely cut or evaporated entirely within the past month, which has meant I’ve had to adapt quickly. It’s going to be a lean year for sure.

On the one hand, there’s the stress of not knowing what my future will hold (no matter how good I am at divination!) On the other, the shifting around of responsibilities and priorities, and so many things now being put on hold, has left me the opportunity to move some projects up the to-do list. For instance, I have a few books that are either out of print or just about to be that I’m moving over into my self-publishing efforts; hopefully the first of those will be available later this week (and yes, I will post here.) This involves doing an entirely new interior layout and cover for each manuscript, plus whatever minor edits are needed. I don’t like to rewrite my older works entirely, partly because the information is still good, and partly because I’m in a very different place in my life now.

But that also means I have room to write new books, too! I mean, I have other things going on right now, but I’m making time to work on a manuscript that I actually started a couple of years ago, and then had to back-burner due to life happening (and needing to get Vulture Culture 101 out the door.) The working title is Coyote’s Journey: Deeper Work With the Major Arcana, and while it will be based on the animals of the Majors of the Tarot of Bones, it will be useful for anyone studying Tarot in depth regardless of what decks they use. Each chapter will explore some of the messages and concepts associated with each card in detail, followed by exercises and meditation ideas, all written within the story of Coyote (the Fool) going to meet each of the animals associated with the other cards.

I have no idea what the timeline is for publication. A lot depends on how well I’m able to keep paying the bills on an even thinner shoestring over the next several months, and what other side gigs I manage to scrape up to keep things afloat here. But for now, once I get my OOP/almost OOP titles squared away I intend to put a lot more focus on Coyote’s Journey, and hopefully do a little blogging on the side, too.

On that note, I’d just like to remind you dear readers that art and books are still the backbone of my income, and while I have always appreciated every single sale (seriously, I still sometimes squee when I get notification of a sale in my inbox), they matter even more now. If you’d like to help support my work, here’s how:

You can find my books on my website here!

You can find my artwork on Etsy here and some non-Etsy artwork on Storenvy here! I’m still making plenty of hide and bone ritual tools and other art, but I’m also customizing Breyer model horses, too.

You can be my Patron and get art, books, and sneak peeks every month here!

Or you can just tip me on my Ko-Fi account here!

Many thanks, and it’s nice to be back. Be well, and I’ll check back in soon.

Green Tomatoes Are the Reason For the Season

Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2012-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!

Late Autumn is a very special time for me. Yes, Samhain has come and gone, and the air gets colder, and it’s time to toss extra blankets on the bed. But what really gets me excited is green tomato soup.

I am an urban gardener. Sadly, I am not fortunate enough to be able to rent, let alone own, a house here in the middle of Portland. But I don’t need to in order to grow things. Since I moved here, I have put in a small vegetable garden every year, no matter where I’ve lived. This year was the most challenging, since all I had was a small porch, about thirty inches by six feet. But I stuffed it with containers of herbs and carrots—and tomatoes.

Tomatoes are the ultimate example to me of locavorism and why it’s important. Like most Americans, I grew up with grocery stores that had all kinds of produce year-round, even in the dead of a Midwestern winter. I didn’t really have a sense of seasons; I just knew that there were some parts of the year where the watermelons didn’t taste quite as good.

It wasn’t until I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life that it really hit me that food wasn’t always available all the time. I mean, I knew on some level, but when you grow up in a nation where you can get bananas any time of year, you’re in great danger of forgetting where food comes from. This problem is compounded even further when more and more families, due to finances, time restrictions, and even basic accessibility, favor pre-packaged, overly processed “food products” over fresh fruits and veggies and other base ingredients. Farmers may as well as be an alien species for all that many people here are concerned.

And it’s getting worse. I am 33 years old; I grew up in a small Midwestern town, in a household where good food was thankfully abundant. My grandmother and mother both gardened, and salads were common fare. I also grew up around a lot of farms, so I was aware of what cows, pigs and other livestock looked like.

Contrast that with this video from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, where school children from just a year or so ago have trouble identifying tomatoes, among others. (Okay, I would have had trouble with eggplant, too, but tomatoes?)

So I suppose that as I got older and got involved in more sustainability geekery, I saw myself as trying to turn the tide, and maybe balance out some of that lack of understanding and exposure. I started my own garden in every apartment I moved into once I hit the Pacific Northwest in 2006. I learned to use a pressure canner. I tried more recipes from scratch. And I always had tomatoes.

Which is rather odd, since I used to HATE them. Some of it was age, since our tastes literally can shift over time. But until, as an adult, I tried a fresh tomato straight out of my garden after years of only having access to mealy, watery things in the store and restaurants, I was hooked. I’d planted the vines so I could make pizza sauce from scratch, but fresh tomatoes became a favorite snack. And once the weather got too cold and the sun too far south for the tomatoes to ripen (I never got the paper bag and banana trick to work), I made green tomato soup from the last survivors on the vines.This year, there was only one small pot of soup since my little balcony garden didn’t produce very much. But my partner, S., and I had been looking forward to it for the entire year before. The idea for this post came as we were supping on that one single meal, enjoying a rare treat.

That one pot of soup was extra special this year for its scarcity, and each step of creating it was sacred. From the moment I picked the last tomatoes from the vines I’d tended since March, to slicing them up and adding them to the mix, and then taking them into my body to become a part of me–the entire process was a ritual in and of itself, even if no spirits were formally invoked. For that time, I felt myself to be immersed in cycles that I all too often still ignore, an altered state of awareness that, to our species, was not so long ago the norm.

For now, tomatoes are the main reminder to me of the seasonal nature of foods. I’m still admittedly pretty spoiled for choices, and I don’t buy in season as much as I really ought to. I get really busy with work and such, and when it comes time to go to the store I just want to get through there as quickly as I can so I can get back home to whatever writing or art project I’m working on. And it’s really telling, when even someone who’s conscientious of her actions and choices can still slide into these old behaviors.

As an urban pagan, I face the challenges of observing a nature-based and cyclical spiritual path in an environment that often promotes being numbed to those influences. If we are going to make nature-based spirituality relevant to city dwellers as well as more rural people, then we need to not only utilize the tools of agrarian people from long ago, but to accept that we need solutions for a variety of human-created environments and societies and cultures.

As we slide toward Thanksgiving, a lot of my food-based thoughts are on how to maximize things like leftovers to help my household get through the winter. But I am going to do more research to remind myself of what truly is in season right now, and start to alter my grocery habits to reflect that more as much as I’m able. And perhaps more food will become sacred rituals cycling throughout the year, a reminder of the reasons for the seasons.

Did you like this post? Help me keep writing by buying one of my books, some of my artwork, or becoming my Patron on Patreon!

Vulture Culture 101 is Here!

Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things has arrived! This is the first book about the subculture (fandom?) surrounding hides, bones, and other animal specimens. In it you’ll learn about who Vultures are, how to build your own collection, tutorials on bone cleaning, tanning and more, how to explain Vulture Culture to the general public, and much more. Whether you’re just getting involved or have been a Vulture for years, this is a great addition to your bookshelf–and it’s the perfect thing to hand to someone who may not understand your unusual interests, too!

Get the book here: http://www.vultureculture101.com/buy-the-book/

SHINY NEW PRODUCT!!!!!

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DO YOU LIKE FUN?

DO YOU LIKE WEARING FUN SKULLS????!!!!

Try my SHINY NEW PRODUCT, DEELY BOBBERS WITH REAL ANIMAL SKULLS! After two decades of making stuff with dead stuff, and working really, really hard to come up with new ideas, I am pleased to announce that this greatest of inventions is now ready for YOU to BUY!!!!

LOTS of animals skulls for you to choose from, except all I have right now are muskrats but they’re really cool muskrats. I’ll have more soon, I promise! And you get a leather-wrapped headband so that you don’t have to think about how the plastic inside of it will someday end up in the ocean and kill a progressively smaller array of animals who mistake it for food and eat it and then die!!

if YOU want to be the life of the party!!!! then you need an ANIMAL SKULL DEELY BOBBER! Just $39.95 plus shipping anywhere that’s the United States!!!! And for a really great deal, buy TWO for just $79.90 plus shipping!!!!

“HOW DO I BUY THIS AMAZING NEW PRODUCT??” you ask? Comment below if you want information on how to wire money to me via a secure Western Union transaction!!!

Or better yet, check today’s date, skip the silly deely bobber entirely, and click on this text right here preorder my next book, Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things!

Bella Morte

Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2011-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!

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The beauty of the wild is the long gesture of life in time. The beauty of skin and fur and feathers, the beauty of blood, the beauty of bones sinking into grass.

–John Daniel, from The Soul Unearthed

That is the quote I painted on a recent creation of mine, shown in the picture above. My canvas was a piece of rawhide left over from a drum kit. The visual punctuation of the entire piece included an eclectic mix: a rooster feather; a coyote toe bone; a sea urchin spine; and two pieces of deer hide, fur and leather.

I chose the quote deliberately for that piece. There is a certain ambiguity to the words, flowing from one end of the life-death cycle to the other. “Life in time” breathes and pounds its heart, while the “bones sinking into grass” create a vivid image of the core structure of the animal, all the rest borne away, disintegrating into nourishment for the flora. In between, the hides and the blood are left open; they may be alive and running yet, but the blood may also be sluiced upon the ground, and the skin stripped from muscle and tendon and prepared for preservation.

In much of the United States, people have a poor relationship with death, to include that of nonhuman animals. The idea of the “poor, dead animals” (particularly those that aren’t carved up on a dinner plate) is often enough of a shock that no one wants to think, let alone talk, about it. We eat beef and pork, not cow and pig, and very few of us ever eat anything that’s looking back at us; even the shrimp are conveniently decapitated for our culinary comfort. The most common discourse about dead animals seems to come from some animal rights activists who quite often use guilt, shame, and shock to try to convince unsuspecting leather-clad omnivores into changing their ways. When the choices are either silence or stigma, there doesn’t seem to be much room in between for more moderate discussions.

“Skin Spirits” book cover photo by Lupa, 2009

I choose what I perceive as one potential moderate path, tempered with much awareness. For over a decade I have been an artist of animal remains, part aesthetics and part spiritual work. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the lovely curve of bone and the lush texture of deerskin, the intricately veined colors of feathers, and the varied structures of the hairs of all sorts of furs. Beyond animal parts as an artistic medium, though, the core of my work is funereal. From the beginning my art has been about reclaiming these remains from being trophies or status symbols, and a significant portion of my “supplies” is made of old fur and leather coats, reclaimed taxidermy, and the like.(1) I guide these remains to a better “afterlife” with others, as has always been my role with them, and everything I make with animal parts gets a full ritual purification as part of my pagan practice.

Over the years I’ve gotten a wide variety of reactions to my work, from awe to indifference to outright hostility. Thankfully the responses have canted toward the more receptive, whether in person or online. I get the distinct feeling, though, that most people, regardless of their views, are highlighting certain individual facets of the work that, together, I tend to take as a whole.Most of the people who favor my work seem to primarily connect with it on an aesthetic level. They like having something pretty, whether as something to wear, or as a “powerful” ritual tool. They appreciate it as art, which is perfectly fine. At the other end of the spectrum are the occasional activists who come in swinging; they see the death and the remains, to the exclusion of anything else.

On some occasions, though, I will meet people who bring my art home both as art, and as sacred remains. They haven’t glossed over the fact that what they hold was once living, often combining the parts of animals that never would have met in life (such as the cow and the sea urchin in my wall hanging above). But they still see the beauty in those remains, and in the fact of their death. They can appreciate the loveliness of a long-dead deer’s ribcage seated in a field, and the arrangement of those same ribs into a totemic shrine. They know they carry lives in their hands.

I have not lost sight of the living end of the cycle, either. I have always donated a portion of the funds I make from selling my art to nonprofit groups that work to preserve both animals and their habitat, as well as informal donations to friends and acquaintances in need of help with emergency vet bills and the like. I think my partner, S., put it best when he told me that my most powerful alchemy was taking the remains of animals that had often died cruel and inhumane deaths, and turning them into funds to help those creatures still living and the environs that support them.

And I do my best to educate people about the sources of the remains; I maintain a database of international, federal and state laws on possessing and selling animals parts in the US to help them make educated decisions. Nor do I lie about those of my “materials” that are byproducts of the fur industry; I do not claim they’re roadkilled or “natural deaths”, or wild instead of farmed, to try to assuage people’s guilt or to make me look more ethical in their eyes. To do so would be an insult both to the people I speak with, and the animals themselves, never mind my artistic and spiritual work.

Coyote totem headdress by Lupa, 2011

This work with the remains is another foundational part of my nature-based path, and as I write in this place over time, you may see me refer to the “skin spirits” as a collective term for the spirits of all the animals whose remains I work with, skin, bone and otherwise. My nature-based paganism is rooted in all of the life-death cycle, and this is how I seek the beauty in that which is all too often ignored, or so symbolized as to be almost entirely removed from the gritty reality.

(1) I have become so known for collecting dead critters in certain circles, in fact, that I have been over time gifted with a number of antiques that were inherited by people who had no idea what to do with them, and so decided I was a good next stop for Grandma’s fur coat, or Uncle Doug’s deer heads.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Consider picking up a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts, or The Tarot of Bones, or my other books (some of which also have dead things in them!) Or you can check out my artwork made with hides, bones and other natural and found items. And I have a forthcoming book about Vulture Culture, the subculture that has formed in recent years around the appreciation of taxidermy and other dead things.

The Importance of Nearby Nature

Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2012-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!

Last week I was taking a walk while in between appointments around the residential portion of the Hollywood District here in Portland. It was a glorious day, sunny and warm, and amid the sounds of lawnmowers and cars I could hear the voices of numerous birds in the trees and gardens around me. I walked beneath a male Anna’s hummingbird doing his distinctive dive bomb display with a chirp and a “tze-tze-tze” (that first sound being made by the bird’s tail feathers). And I passed by a pair of tiny gray bushtits in a flowering tree, hunting equally tiny insects for lunch. Numerous ferns and flowers burst forth in lush greenery, urged on by recent rain and immediate sunlight, and even a pair of domestic cats enjoyed their yard (thankfully from the safety of long leashes). It was, all told, quite a pleasant walk only cut short by a text that my next appointment was, in fact, in another neighborhood entirely.

Still, even those few minutes were enough to rejuvenate me through a busy day. Not that this is a new revelation; it’s been several years since I took my first graduate course in ecopsychology, and one of the first things we discussed were the restorative properties of exposure to nature. Research has quantified these positive effects, allowing a more structured understanding of why we seek outdoor places to refresh ourselves and find relaxation. It may almost seem redundant to some of us to have to study things we feel are common sense.

Attribution: Christopher T Cooper
 Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

We are human mammals, Homo sapiens sapiens. As a species, we spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving in wide, open savannahs and scrub forests, and that experience was built on a much, much longer heritage of wild living. The few thousand years that we’ve been living in settled areas, with permanent shelters, is a much smaller period of time, and our current way of life is, at best, a century or so old, hardly long enough for us to properly adapt to it in depth. Our mammalian selves still look for open water and good vistas, and too much time spent indoors can lead to greater levels of stress, among other unpleasant effects.

So why is it so hard to get us outside sometimes? One of the prices we pay for our fast-paced, energy-hungry lifestyles is more of a dependence on controlled indoor environments. We learn from an early age that we’re supposed to do important things inside. Our very education is done indoors, for fear that being outside would lead us to distraction. And this trains us for the cubicle, the office, the checkout counter. Most of us don’t walk or bike to work or school, either, depriving us of even these daily encounters with the outdoors.

We also are concentrated more within cities and towns than ever before. It’s where the most job opportunities and other resources are located. However, other than neatly trimmed, rectangular parks with a few benches and trees, cities don’t always have green spaces. Most larger, wilder urban parks, like New York’s Central Park or Portland’s Forest Park, don’t have a lot of affordable housing nearby, and it can be quite a trek for some people to get to them, involving an investment of time and money that not all may have.Which is why it’s important to have nearby nature. What is nearby nature?  By some definitions it’s the wild places just outside a city or town; however, I also use the term to refer to the nature within these populated areas. After all, we don’t entirely pave everything over. There are gardens with flowering plants and trees and other green growing things, and an assortment of birds that have adapted to new ecosystems, and even a few mammals like raccoons and possums that have taken advantage of a lack of natural predators.  But it’s cultivated nature, too–gardens and landscaping and open green lawns (while I may hate grassy lawns and see them as a waste of space, they’re still better than asphalt).

Attribution: Steve F
 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Nearby nature allows us to connect with something other than ourselves; indeed, it connects us, ever so subtly, with something bigger than ourselves. When we’re inside, glued to a television set or a computer monitor or even a book, we can tune out everything that isn’t human-made. We’re lost in our own little world. But go outside, and we’re confronted with our neighbors, human and non-human alike. We have to remember, then, that we aren’t the only living beings on the planet.

This reconnection is beneficial all around. On the one hand, being outdoors in an environment where we feel safe helps to lower one’s blood pressure and relaxes the limbic system, and can reduce stress as well as symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses. We reconnect with our ancient selves, and give our senses the things they evolved to drink in. But it’s also beneficial for all the other beings, in that we–easily the single most destructive species on Earth–begin to feel more of a sense of responsibility for other living beings the more time we spend in their presence.

We shouldn’t have to go to wilderness areas to get that connection, though wilderness is certainly its own amazing experience. By infusing even our most urban areas and tallest buildings with reminders of nature, we’re giving ourselves day-to-day doses of nature’s beneficial properties. Like taking a daily multivitamin, we’re making sure that we’re getting the things we need to be healthy and connected on an ongoing basis.

Did you enjoy this post? My book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, is an excellent guide to connecting more with your nearby nature! Find out more about it and my other books at https://thegreenwolf.com/books

A Couple of Upcoming Events of Note

Hi, all! I have a couple of upcoming events of note that I wanted to share with you:

Northwest Tarot Symposium Free Psychic Fair and Vendor Hall: March 2-3, 2019, Portland (Clackamas), OR

As part of the NWTS in Portland, OR at the Monarch Hotel, the event’s psychic fair and vendor room will be open to the public, free of charge, from 9am – 5pm both March 2 and 3, 2019. I’ll be vending there and will also have some of the Tarot of Bones original assemblages in the art show. I’ll also be signing books and tarot decks from 12pm – 1pm on Saturday (though you can come by the booth for them any time during the event.) There’s a lot more to NWTS, though; find out about full registration and all it offers at the official NWTS website.

Pocket Osteomancy Bone Divination Class: March 17, 2pm – 4pm, Portland (Sellwood), OR

Divination with bones doesn’t have to be complicated! Pocket Osteomancy: A Simple Bone Divination Set is a simple but effective system for using animal bones to focus your intuition and explore possibilities in your present and future. It is based loosely on the Minor Arcana of the Tarot of Bones. It’s great for both beginners who may feel intimidated by more complex systems, and also provides a basic structure for more experienced practitioners to build on and explore.

In this class you’ll learn about Pocket Osteomancy and how to use it, and get to create your own set with real deerskin and bones! You’ll also have a chance to try using your new set for divination, and ask the creator (that’s me, Lupa!) questions. The registration fee is $50/person and includes all materials for creating your set as well as a copy of the Pocket Osteomancy book. To register, please call the Raven’s Wing Magical Co. at (503) 946-8951. Official Facebook Event Page here.

Nature’s Lovely Imperfections

Recently I had someone contact me about a deer antler headband that I have in my Etsy shop. They asked whether the antlers had come from the same deer, given that one antler has two tines and one has three. I explained that yes, these were in fact from one animal, and I had cut them off the skullcap myself. In fact, most deer have antlers that aren’t exact mirror images of each other; even those with the same number of tines often have variations in shape and size.

Art forms ranging from nature illustrations to Disney movies would have us believe that nature is largely symmetrical and perfect (unless, of course, when portraying something allegorically flawed, in which case there is deformity.) And at first glance most living beings appear to be more or less even on both/all sides.

But look a little closer, and you find that there are subtle differences when comparing halves, or fifths, or whatever symmetry is being displayed. Perhaps one arm of a starfish is slightly longer than the other. Or the underside of a red-tailed hawk’s left wing has a little more color than the right. If you were to take a photo of your face, cut it exactly in half, copy the halves, flip them over and match like to like, you would find that there are quite a few appreciable differences between each of your facial hemispheres.

Imperfections aren’t just about symmetry, either. Leucism and albinism are conditions in which animals lack significant amount of melanin, making them much paler than their kin. A butterfly whose wings may be a bit ragged and worn around the edges can still fly, even if not quite as well. And a genetic quirk in a certain strain of wheat several thousand years ago led to grains that stuck to the stem instead of falling off easily to grow into new plants; the ease with which these could be harvested led to the dawn of human agriculture.

Yet to call these imperfections assumes that there is some standard called “perfect” to aspire to. Certainly there are forms in nature that we find more aesthetically pleasing, but even those are affected by subjective biases. However, nature is less about perfection and more about adequacy. Does a given trait help an organism to live long enough to pass on its genes, and do the genes then carry that trait forward? Then it’s adequate.

We often think of “adequate” as “not really good enough.” We’re told that we need to be exceptional, outstanding, the best. Who celebrates second place, anyway? Yet nature is full of beings that aren’t necessarily number one, but who manage to get along in the world just fine. As Henry van Dyke said, “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang here except those that sang best.”

People are a lot like that, too. If you look at any given trait, skill, competition, etc. there can only be one person who is the very best, and only a very few who can be considered elite. But that doesn’t mean everyone else has to pack up and go home. In high school I was basically the slowest runner on the track team thanks to undiagnosed asthma, but I got out there and gave it my best anyway. And now, at forty, I still get out to run when the weather’s good even though an eight minute mile is an impossibility for me. That still makes me a runner; I don’t doubt my status just because I’m not especially fast.

We also glorify pretty arbitrary standards of attractiveness, standards that shift and change according to culture and time. Most people aren’t models; most of us have little details like moles or blemishes or scars that keep us from being “perfect” (especially without cosmetics or Photoshop). Yet we’re still able to be a part of this world and make our contributions as we will, and most of us find relationships of some sort. We are each of us more or less adequate.

This isn’t a bad thing, not by far. So much is made about the (often arbitrary) best that often the rest feel like there’s no point in trying if someone else is better than we are. Which is sad, because something is still worth being or doing even if you haven’t specialized to the point of single focus. Adequacy also allows for a lot more variety. There’s not just one pinnacle to achieve, but a whole landscape of mountains, valleys, prairies and other unique places to explore. Each of these habitats is adequate for supporting the life forms that call it home.

I think we need to celebrate the adequate more. We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and on each other to only shoot for the highest goals or states of being. Not only is it unrealistic, but it’s setting a lot of people up for failure, as that goal of perfection is a pretty tiny target to aim for. Humans, being animals, are messy biological systems that evolved to adequacy, and any statements of hierarchical value beyond that are largely artificial and generally do more harm than good.

On that note, we also need to stop looking at our little asymmetries and other quirks as “imperfections”. All that does is reinforce the idea that these variances are somehow bad. If you saw a blue jay whose left cheek stripe was a little thicker than the right one, you’d just see it as an interesting field mark, assuming you even noticed it at all. In the same way we need to be accepting of the ways in which we are all different, without judgment or malice. And we really, really need to be more forgiving of ourselves, even when (and especially when) we’re told we aren’t “perfect” somehow.

So the next time you feel self-conscious, or flawed, or just not good enough, look to nature. Having five points instead of six didn’t stop that buck from growing big enough to have a decent set of antlers; so what if he was a little uneven? Judge yourself as I would judge that deer: a perfectly adequate representation of his kind, and every bit as lovely as the rest.

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Nature Sacred As It Is

So last month the largest spinning ice disk recorded formed in the Presumpscot River in Maine. It’s a pretty rare phenomenon caused when a piece of ice breaks off a frozen river surface near a bend and is spun around like a record. This one, being so incredibly large, attracted a lot of attention.

Unfortunately, not everyone could just appreciate it for the natural wonder it was–and I use “was” deliberately. Some dude decided that the ice disk wasn’t magnificent enough by itself, and that it needed a peace sign carved into it. Spoiler–he broke it. Now I can get behind his idea that peace is a good thing, but there are better ways to advertise this much-needed concept than to spoil a very uncommon and ephemeral natural feature.

Humans have spent thousands of years deciding that nature wasn’t good enough on its own, and that it needed our influence to be truly perfect. Much of that has been in the service of material exploitation, that a forest won’t maximize its potential until its wood has been made into houses and furniture, its minerals into coinage, and its water into an engine for electricity. There are all too many people who look at a wild place and only see dollar signs.

It’s almost more defensible than the actions of this person and others who decide that something awe-inspiring in nature must have their personal mark on it because somehow they’re important enough to make that statement. At least houses and energy have practical applications that can improve people’s lives in concrete ways. The same can’t be said for graffiti on natural features, even well-intended.

“What harm is there in breaking a big ice disk, or carving initials into a tree?” one might ask. Well, sure, there’s no price tag on the ice disk, and chances are the tree will survive, though there are plenty of cases where that sort of damage led the tree to die from disease through the breach in its bark. Painting on rock formations may be mostly obnoxious rather than harmful to the rock, though some of the paints can be toxic to the local ecosystem.

Part of the issue is the concept of intrinsic value. I value nature for itself, rather than just for what I can get out of it. The very fact that I am surrounded by a vibrant community of biological beings, inhabiting a planet ever-changing through geological, hydrological, and climatic forces, never ceases to fill me with awe and wonder. I don’t need to then overlay that with my biases to make it pretty.

This may seem odd coming from someone who routinely takes bits of nature and imposes personal meaning on them through art. After all, it would be easy to defend the peace sign on the ice disk as art. However, scale and permanence play a big part in things. If you make a snow sculpture in your backyard, no one’s likely to feel they missed out on the unmarred snowfall. But a lot of people who wanted to see the ice disk, whole and undamaged, had that ruined for them by one man’s actions. He destroyed the shared experience.

Moreover, he seems to have come at his project without really considering the intrinsic value of the disk, only valuing it as a canvas for his idea of art. Good art involving nature will show appreciation for that nature, rather than just using it as an object to display human biases on. It’s what I try to do with my own artwork, asking the hides and bones what they want to become and trying to focus on their beauty. I appreciate them as they are, and then do my best to do them some justice even as I impose my arrogance as an artist upon them.

Obviously we’re never not going to leave our mark on the world, until there are none of us left anyway. There are too many of us, and we’re too used to taking, taking, taking. Few of us in industrialized societies would want to move to a quality of life that involves strict subsistence. I just wish people would think more about something besides themselves, sometimes besides their own wants and needs and priorities.

I want people to be able to look at rare, amazing things in nature and not have their immediate thought be “I need to change that!” I want more people to be able to have the appreciation for nature’s intrinsic values that existed long before we ever did. I want us, just for a moment, to stop corralling nature in with our economic and religious beliefs, and just let it be its own thing, massive and terrifying and magnificently beautiful from the tiniest atom to the entire universe. Stop telling stories about how much money you can make off of it, or how it has all these supernatural properties that we can exploit, or any other ways in which nature supposedly revolves around us.

Just take a moment, and breathe in the reality that we live on an incredible planet that has giant disks made of frozen water, and long-limbed animals who thunder across grassy plains with hooves of keratin, and tiny bryophyte forests housing a myriad of springtails, worms, and bacteria aplenty. Appreciate the marvel that is your own body, created from molecules parted out from the food you have eaten over a lifetime and which is made from the many minerals and nutrients of a thousand soils. Touch the grass and realize that its family–Poaeceae–first sent forth blades in the last days of the dinosaurs.

Yes, we need values besides the intrinsic. But we do need the intrinsic, too.

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