Category Archives: Activism

Review of The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook

Earlier this year, I preordered a copy of Miles Olson’s new book, The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook: Hunting From the Heart. I promised you all back on Therioshamanism that I’d review it once it arrived, and so it has as of last Friday (it was a quick read), and so I now shall proceed.

Now, let me preface this by saying I am not a hunter, have never hunted (though I have fished), and don’t intend to take up hunting any time soon. I am, however, an omnivore who occasionally is able to indulge in some wild game meat when others see fit to gift me with some, and who otherwise is concerned with where her meat comes from. Furthermore, I feel that one of the great failures of this society is that we have become so detached from the processes by which our food–animal and otherwise–is produced. It’s allowed us to enact a great deal of abuses upon ecosystems and their inhabitants, and I believe strongly that we should be educating ourselves about our food’s origins so we can make better decisions going forward. It’s in that spirit that I bought this book. Even though I do not hunt, I wanted to know more about the actual process of hunting and the aftermath thereof, with the added bonus of an author whose ethics seemed to be pretty well in line with my own.

Suffice it to say, I was not at all disappointed. Within these pages is a step-by-step guide of how to prepare for a hunt, how to find game, how to get a clean kill, and what to do once you’ve made that kill. Olson is concise but thorough, and I was impressed by how much information he was able to pack into less than two hundred pages. While I’m sure there are other hunting manuals with more information on things like how to attract deer, or how to sneak up on game birds, for a basic point-A-to-point-B overview of the hunt, this is a good one, accessible to the layperson as well as the seasoned hunter.

If you don’t think you can get anything practical out of this book because you don’t hunt, think again. Killing your deer (or pheasant, or rabbit) is just the first step. A large portion of the book is dedicated to explaining how to butcher the animal (with multiple options), ageing and preserving the meat, and even some recipes thrown in for fun (try the deerskin gelatin!) Probably the most valuable chapter in that regard is the one in which he virtually dissects an animal for you, explaining each part and how it may be used in alphabetical order, from the adrenal glands to the windpipe. This doesn’t just hold true for wild game, either–buy a whole free-range pig or cow or chicken, and you can apply the same basic concepts. This goes well beyond making stock out of a chicken carcass; he really does explain how to use every part of the animal!

Most of all, though, I appreciate the spirit in which he writes this book. Throughout the entire thing you can sense his regard and compassion for the animals he hunts. Using all of the animal isn’t merely a practical tactic–it’s almost a sacrament of sorts, meant to honor the life taken to sustain another. Like me, he decries the tendency in this culture to take the animals, plants and fungi that we kill to live for granted, and invites us to have a more mindful approach. In speaking of how hunting is one activity that brings us to face face with the reality of these deaths, Olson writes:

…when the hunter eats the animal they have killed, it becomes part of them. A death becomes a life; the predator and prey become one and the body of the dead, in a sense, lives on. This gets to something else that can be shaken through connecting with our food: our separation from the living world. When you kill and eat a creature [Lupa’s note: or plant, or fungus], you are very literally integrating its body into yours. You are also integrating the land which that creature came from into your body, since their body was entirely a manifestation of that land. This is amazing, a dynamic that I think lies at the very heart of most people’s desire to connect to the land, whether it be through gardening, hiking, foraging, crafting or hunting: shattering the boundary between self and other, human and nature; piercing the illusion that in many ways defines our culture. (p. 16)

We don’t just eat because we’re hungry, or to stay alive. We eat to incorporate the tissues of another living being into our own. We are descendants of the earliest microscopic beings that first evolved to engulf others rather than subsist on sunlight and fragments, and we’ve been eating our fellow beings ever since. The thing that struck me the most in the above quote was the assertion that we’re really eating the land our food grew up on; for a deer it may have been open fields and forests, while for a factory farmed cow it could have been a grassy pasture for the first several months of its life, followed by a crowded feedlot in which everyone was given corn grown hundreds of miles away. That, to me, illustrates how utterly broken our food system has become. We can no longer identify the land we’re eating through our food.

We can all learn from Olson and his compassionate hunting, even if we don’t hunt ourselves. By considering the sources of what we eat, we can start to pick apart the unseen industries that bring us our food, and assess the real impact on the animals, plants, and ecosystems affected by them. We can learn to have more compassion for all the living beings that die for us to live, animal and otherwise. We can be more conscientious in not wasting our food, and making the most of every scrap, even down to tiny bits of meat and vegetable for soup stock. And we can make more responsible choices in our diets while still respecting our personal health and dietary needs, time and financial restrictions. It is perhaps a shorter book than, say, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it is just as elegant, and even more primal, a look at the same challenges that all too many of us blithely ignore at every meal.

If you would like your own copy of The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook, you can order it directly from Olson’s website here; it is also available through Amazon and Powell’s, and you can ask your local independent bookstore to order it if they don’t have it in stock.

One final postscript: I am rather excited that I won a copy of Olson’s other book, UNLEARN, REWILD: Earth skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive at the recent fundraising event held by Rewild Portland. I’ll get a review of it up here once I’m done with it, though at the very least I want to finish up the gigantic book of prehistoric life I’ve been chewing my way through for a few weeks now.

The Tragic Treatise of the Teacup Tauntaun: Part 2

Note: This is a piece of fan fiction I wrote for a booklet accompanying my Star Wars-themed altered taxidermy piece, the Teacup Tauntaun. You can see more pictures of this piece and find out more about its construction here. Part one of this written piece

Also, a quick shout-out to Cory Doctorow BoingBoing for sharing this critter in a post–many thanks!

A Victim of Its Own Success

Vordon was never particularly good at promotion, and although he sent a few dispatches out regarding the availability of new litters of Teacup Tauntaun, few visitors came to see his stock, and no one made a purchase. It is said by those who survived the experience that the normally noxious scent of the Tauntaun was concentrated even more greatly in this smaller version, which led to suspicions that Vordon had a particularly poor sense of smell, even for a Hutt.
Irrationally and desperately hoping that supply would create demand, Vordon continued breeding Teacup Tauntauns irresponsibly and only with an eye toward what he thought would be fashionable, with frequent inbreeding and little care for the animals’ health. He purchased more caves in which to keep his animals, and redoubled his meager promotional efforts, all to no avail.

By 68 ABY, even Vordon had to admit that things were not looking good for his scheme. The very traits that he had selected had become so exaggerated as to become harmful—sometimes even lethal—to newer litters of Teacup Tauntauns. The large pair of horns, meant now to be more ornamental than practical, had grown so long that they often extended far beyond the muzzle of mature animals, making it impossible for them to eat without assistance. Even the smaller horn buds had become hazardous; as the average size of a Teacup Tauntaun’s skull shrunk with each generation, the horn buds became more crowded, until one pair was routinely located so as to interfere with the animal’s ability to move its ears properly.

Sometimes this skull shrinkage would outpace the downsizing of the brains of Teacup Tauntauns. After several generations, some unfortunate animals would be born with skulls too small for their brains, leading to sometimes severe and painful neurological problems that eventually proved fatal. Others had such badly malformed hip joints that they were unable to walk properly. The list of health problems goes on and on: spinal deformities, missing teeth, and a disease that progressively robbed the animal of the ability to absorb nutrition from its food, leading it to slowly starve to death—or die from a burst stomach from overeating in desperation. The normally social Tauntauns at times would resort to killing their own suffering offspring to end their pain, displaying more compassion and intelligence than their breeder apparently showed.

Worse, a famine struck the region of Hoth where Vordon’s operations were located after the lichens that composed an important link of the ecosystem were stricken by a periodic bout of lichen blight. Wild stocks of Common and Glacial Tauntauns died of starvation, and the Teacup Tauntauns in their relatively flimsy pens became repeated targets for hungry Wampas. In the space of a year, the number of Teacup Tauntauns dropped to less than a dozen.

And Then There Was One

In 90 ABY, less than seventy standard years after Vordon began his ambitious project, the last Teacup Tauntaun passed away from a combination of congenital defects. Due to her stench, which was caused by the waste system of a Common Tauntaun being concentrated into the smaller body of a Teacup Tauntaun, and which as a result was repulsive enough to cause even the last two male Teacup Tauntauns to avoid her, she never reproduced. With her death, her species came to an ignominious end. Shortly before the animal—nicknamed “Yipo the Fluffy”—passed away, your beloved author was able to examine her and make a deal with Vordon to purchase her carcass once she had died of natural causes. It was the only Teacup Tauntaun Vordon ever sold.

Her head is mounted on a board decorated with idyllic scenery that belies the harshness of Hoth, her ancestors’ home planet, and reflects the romanticized imagery Vordon used in his sales pitches. She has been preserved with traditional Krish taxidermy techniques to best approximate her appearance in life, and with care this rare piece of history should last for a long, long time. Further, she should be seen as a reminder of our responsibility to our fellow creatures. When most species go extinct it is a tragedy; in the case of the Teacup Tauntaun, extinction was the final mercy.

About the Author

Haali Dendrac grew up in the floating city of Avtuu on her ancestral planet Ithor. From a young age, she knew she wanted to join the Ithorian nature priesthood, and voraciously questioned anyone she could about the flora, fauna and fungi that resided “in the arms of Mother Jungle”. When she came of age, she was made an acolyte of the priesthood and was allowed to accompany them on her first journey to the surface of Ithor, and nothing was ever the same. After the destruction of Ithor, she became one of the strongest proponents for the restoration of the planet’s ecology and continues to act as a consultant in the early efforts toward that end. Her youthful curiosity about the diversity of life on her home planet led her to further explore life on other planets, and she has dedicated her life to documenting her findings for the enjoyment of all. The Tragic Treatise of the Teacup Tauntaun is her fourth publication.

Artist’s Note

This piece is meant as a parody concerning the overbreeding of certain breeds of show dog in our world. While I am not against purebred dogs as a general concept, I find that many breeders, especially of popular breeds, put profits before puppies. There are few pure breeds today that do not have a slew of congenital defects. I have chosen to draw on a few of them in my discussion of the fictional Teacup Tauntaun. For example, it is estimated that over half of all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a condition known as syringomyelia, in which the skull is too small for the brain, which is pressed out the back of the skull cavity and causes both seizures and immense amounts of pain. And my own favorite breed, the German Shepherd, is frequently plagued by hip and elbow dysplasia, along with spinal myelopathy, a degeneration of the myelin sheath on the spinal cord which leads to a progressive numbing and eventual failure of the back half of the dog.

It is my hope that this piece will help raise awareness of the problems with inbreeding and indiscriminate breeding without care for these inherited health problems in pure breed dogs. Additionally, a portion of the funds from the sale of this piece will be donated to Multnomah County Animal Services to help them take better care of the animals waiting for forever homes there. MCAS is often overlooked in lieu of “sexier” shelters like the Oregon Humane Society, but when the time comes when I can finally get a dog of my own again, MCAS will be my first choice. I hope you’ll consider them the next time you wish you adopt a dog or cat, too.

Also, if you’d like to see the Teacup Tauntaun itself in person, it will be on display at Good: A Gallery here in Portland, OR for the month of May. The group show officially opens this Friday, May 2, from 7pm – 10pm; here’s more information.

Eco-Friendly Pagan Ritual Tools–On the Cheap

It’s Earth Day, and while my blog tends to be pretty eco-centric year-round, I wanted to write today about a particular topic that comes up a lot in paganism, particularly among newcomers: ritual tools. Now, it’s been said many times by many people that you don’t actually need tools to be a pagan. I do agree that you can perform rituals open-handed, with nothing but yourself and the spirits/gods/energy you’re working with to make things happen. However, some people just like having the tools themselves; they help heighten the ability to suspend disbelief. And some people feel their tools have spirits of their own, thus making them allies in ritual.

Mass-produced tealights and their holders are frequently sold at chain stores. Photo by Tracy at
Mass-produced tealights and their holders are frequently sold at chain stores. Photo by Tracy at
A lot of new pagans, especially young ones, look for inexpensive ritual tools since money’s tight. However, a lot of the suggestions I see made are things that are distinctly not eco-friendly. The most common one is some variant of “Just go to Wal-mart/Dollar Tree/other chain store and get your candles, candle holders, bowls and other tools there!” Sure, you could get a four-pack of taper candles for a buck, but what’s the real cost? Here are the likely reasons your candles are so cheap:

–The wax is probably petroleum-based, which means it benefits from fossil fuel subsidies from federal and state governments. The chemical company that developed the dye might also have gotten subsidies as well. This means that these companies are getting money for free, out of people’s taxes, and therefore can sell their products more cheaply. These companies are also usually not required to pay for the effects of the pollution that’s a byproduct of their processes.

–The candles were likely to have been made by underpaid, sometimes abused workers in a factory in China or another East Asian country, with inadequate protection against the chemicals and machinery being used. There’s a good chance that any chemical byproducts of the process are not properly disposed of, and may just be dumped directly into the nearest river, saving them the cost of paying for safer options.

–They were shipped en masse on a boat from their country of manufacture to wherever you are, again using subsidized fossil fuels. The shipping company doesn’t have to pay for the pollution their boats cause to the ocean and the air, so they can keep their costs down.

We don’t have a solid number on the real cost of pollution from the manufacture of these candles, but suffice it to say you’re getting your candles cheaply in part because the entities who made them and their components are passing some of the cost on to the environment. And we add to that, too, any time we burn candles made with noxious chemicals that add to air pollution in our homes and elsewhere. We speak with our dollars when we buy these cheap things–we say “We don’t care, so long as we save a few bucks in the name of practicing a nature religion*”.

So what’s a pagan to do when money’s thin on the ground? Here are some options.

Use What You’ve Got

By Frank C. Müller. From
By Frank C. Müller. From
You may already have the things you need for your ritual right at home. In generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, common tools include an athame or other sacred knife, a bowl for salt or water, a wand, an incense burner, and something to put it on. A common kitchen knife may not be the most flashy thing in the world, but it will work, and you can decorate it if you want to dedicate it just to ritual work. If you have a favorite bowl in your kitchen, you can reserve that for your sacred work as well. Any stick or rod will work as a wand–I’ve even heard of using a ruler for one! You can easily make an incense burner out of aluminum foil; just make it into a bowl with a few layers, put some sand or dirt in it, and place the incense on that. Then put the burner on a hotpad or trivet, or even a very flat rock or thick ceramic dish, and you’re good to go. You can decorate the dish/hotpad/etc. if you like, though it’s not necessary (and make sure that anything flammable is kept well away from the burning incense!)

These are just a few ideas based on one particular set of ritual tools; you can get pretty creative depending on your needs, so treat it like a grand scavenger hunt! (Just make sure that you’re using only your stuff, or that you ask permission to use anything that belongs to someone else.)

Secondhand First

I am a huge fan of thrift stores and other secondhand shops. Sadly, here in the U.S. there’s a lot of consumerism, with much more stuff being produced for our demands than is absolutely necessary. I wrote a few years ago about the immense amount of clothing, housewares and other discarded stuff I found at just one Goodwill outlet store in just one city, and wondered how much more goes to waste every day. A lot of it is perfectly serviceable, too. I could easily build a dozen altars with the items found in one thrift store.

Yet there’s this unfortunate superstition floating around paganism that somehow you can’t cleanse secondhand items, that the histories they have will linger with them and will always taint them as ritual items–but of course, all a brand-new item needs is a quick cleansing! I call bollocks on that one. If you can purify a new glass bowl that’s been made in a sweatshop soaked in human suffering and death, created from materials that cause great devastation to the natural environment, and conveyed to your town while leaving a trail of fossil fuel pollution behind it, you can damned well purify the energy of a similar, secondhand glass bowl that sat on someone’s grandmother’s dining room table with wax fruit in it for thirty years. Most of my ritual tools over the years were secondhand, to include items that other practitioners used in their own rites, and I never had a problem making them ready for my work.

So get over that superstition, and start thrifting! You never know what kind of cool stuff you may find. (My only caution is that it’s really easy to come home with a cart full of secondhand tchotchkes for cheap, which may put shelf space in your home at a premium.)

Foraging At Its Finest

Great_sand_stonesMany nature pagans like having sticks, stones and other natural items in their homes to remind them of what they feel is sacred. In fact, you can make your entire array of ritual tools from things you found outside. If you work with the four cardinal directions and elements, for example, you might have a stone in the north, a feather or bit of dandelion fluff in the east, dried wood or moss as firestarter in the south, and a vial of rain water in the west. The best part of all this is that, other than some containers for things like water, it’s all free.

Do keep in mind there are certain legal and other restrictions. Federal and state parks in the U.S., for example, prohibit the collection of any natural items found within the park without a permit (some cities do this as well). You’ll need to ask permission when foraging on private property. And some items, such as some animal parts, are illegal to possess regardless of how you got them; most wild bird feathers in the U.S. cannot be possessed, even if they were naturally molted, as one example. (You can access my database of animal parts laws here.)

Grow or Make Your Own

DIY is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get to cut costs, but you get to gain skills, too! For example, some folks like to use herbs in their spells and other magic, and luckily a lot of these herbs can be easily grown, even in a pot by the window. If you worry about having a black thumb, there’s plenty of information on the internet about how best to care for a particular kind of plant; the most common ways to kill your herbs is through too much or too little water and sunlight, the wrong sort of soil or not enough fertilizer, and disease or parasites. If you notice a plant isn’t thriving, you can research online or in books at the library what the possible causes may be, and you can ask garden shops or people on gardening forums for advice.

Other tools can be homemade, too. If you want to have a permanently decorated altar, maybe with a scene depicting your patron deities or symbols of the four cardinal directions, you can paint a secondhand table with acrylic paints**, or carve or burn the designs if the table’s wood. A well-worn broom can be decorated with dried flowers and ribbon, and even re-bristled with straw and other plant materials. A particularly sturdy branch may make a nice wand as-is, or you can choose to decorate it to your preferences.

Support Local Artisans

Fox skull rattle by Lupa. From
Fox skull rattle by Lupa. From
It’s okay if you don’t want to make your own tools. Maybe you don’t have the time, or you don’t feel your work is quite up to your own standards***. In this case, you may wish to consider supporting a local artisan. Of course, this may not necessarily be the cheapest option; an individual artist has to pay a lot more for their materials per piece than a factory, and puts a lot more time and effort into the creation, too. However, many artists will have items along a wide range of prices. Some may even have some items on sale or clearance, things they’ve had sitting around a good long while. And some artists are open to barter as well.

You’re always welcome to ask an artisan about their materials. I talked earlier about cheap, petroleum-based candles from the dollar store; however, there are candle-makers who specialize in eco-friendly alternatives like beeswax and natural dyes, and who avoid candle wicking with lead in it. And the same goes for everything from ceramics to woodworking to paintings; usually there’s somebody who specializes in greener materials out there.

(Shameless plug for my own recycled hide and bone and other natural materials art here, though there are many artisans within the pagan community and elsewhere whose works would be lovely ritual items. Try Etsy, Artfire, and Storenvy for some possibilities.)


I hope now that you see that buying ritual tools on a budget doesn’t have to feed into environmentally harmful processes and practices. In fact, taking care in one’s shopping choices can be an act of spiritual devotion in and of itself. If you feel nature is sacred, then let that speak not just through your rituals and special moments, but in your everyday actions as well.

* With the understanding, of course, that not every person who identifies as a pagan focuses their paganism on nature, and there are some pagans for whom the gods, for example, are central.

** While not without their pollutants, acrylic paints are some of the safest paints that are easily obtained commercially. There are more eco-friendly recipes for homemade paints out there, but acrylics are best if you don’t want to go quite that far in your DIY-dom.

*** The effectiveness of a tool, by the way, is not in how pretty it is or how perfectly crafted. Even if you don’t think you’re an artist, it’s the intent behind the creation that matters. So don’t let that get in the way of making your own tools if you’re so inclined.

Will You Be a Hyena With Me?

American culture (at least the portions I’m most familiar with) has this weird thing about power and hunting. If you’ve ever seen The Lion King, you’ll notice that (despite never actually hunting a prey animal in the movie), the lions are the noble hunting animals, while the hyenas are merely skulking scavengers. And indeed it’s often assumed that hyenas only take the food other have killed, while lions do all the hard work. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. While all hyenas scavenge, spotted hyenas are some of the most successful hunters in the animal kingdom, both as individuals and groups. And while lions can certainly bring down their own game, they’re not above chasing other predators, like cheetahs or leopards–or, indeed, hyenas–off their kills.

Yet in popular culture, Lion the Hunter and Hyena the Scavenger continue to be presented as a good guy/bad guy dichotomy. Why? Chalk it up in part to our culture’s obsession with rugged individualism and independence. Freeloaders aren’t welcome, and if you benefit from the efforts of another, there’s something wrong with you, or so they say. You’re supposed to do for yourself, and then success will be yours.

But just like the myth of the lone wolf, this whole hunter/scavenger split doesn’t really reflect nature as it is. The truth is that the majority of predatory animals won’t turn their noses up at a carcass someone else killed if it’s fresh enough for their tastes and abilities. After all, hunting is a dangerous activity that can lead to injury or even death for the hunter, and can be energy-wasting too if a kill isn’t made. It wouldn’t make sense for a meat-eater to turn their noses up at a free and easy meal, and it’s thought likely that humans started off as scavengers before we were more active hunters.

Nature isn’t fussy, and it doesn’t waste a thing. Even when a predator doesn’t eat its entire kill, many other beings will benefit from the leftovers, from insects and other smaller animals to bacteria to fungi and even plants. In fact, entire ecosystems may benefit from the kills of one species; for example, when grizzly bears in North America hunt salmon during spawning season, in a good year they may only eat the most nutritious parts; the remains are left in the forest, sometimes quite some distance from the river, where the younger, smaller bears brought their fish to be eaten without being bothered by their bigger counterparts. The nutrients from the rotting salmon then go into enriching the soil that the forest ecosystem depends on, and in years where the salmon run isn’t as healthy, you can see the effects on the various other beings in the forest because fewer nutrients are being added to the system.

Does this mean that the rats and the trees and the fungi and burying beetles and other living beings that benefit from the bears’ leftovers are lesser beings simply because they scavenge what they didn’t kill? Of course not. Every being in an ecosystem is important, and its absence would be detrimental to the whole. We often glorify bears because they’re charismatic megafauna, big and impressive and so forth, but the burying beetles are just as amazing a bunch of critters, and every bit as necessary, regardless of our biases about them.

American burying beetle. From
American burying beetle. From
And we could stand to learn a lot from the burying beetles and others. We spend too much time feeling entitled to the very best the world has to offer. I’ve seen too many people not pack up their leftovers at a restaurant, and leave another meal’s worth of food behind–too many times for it to only be out-of-towners without access to fridges. There are those who brag they’ve never bought any clothing secondhand and look down on those of us who have. Some folks refuse to buy anything but a new car, not for reliability but for status. And it all ties into the same wasteful, prideful attitude that makes us think that hunting is better and more noble than scavenging.

But there’s a reason nature doesn’t waste–it can’t afford to. It’s most efficient to recycle and reuse anything possible, and waste is too expensive for such a massive and intricate system. Nature doesn’t draw on resources without returning them, yet somehow we think we can do the same and somehow defy one of the basic realities of life: nothing lasts forever. So we scoff at scavengers, our own and others’, and think that the ideal is to be the best hunter of fresh, new resources possible, whether that’s new clothing at the mall or a new site to frack for oil.

It’s only been in the past century or so that the U.S. has become such a resource-hogging behemoth. It’s been even less time since our culture shifted, in times of crisis, from responding by tightening the belt to responding by pretending nothing’s wrong. People in my grandparents’ generation went through the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, when the government said “You can sacrifice a bit for your country!” Today, when we face some of the greatest environmental challenges our species has ever encountered, we’re told to keep spending, keep buying oil, and turn a blind eye to the evidence that says anything’s wrong. We’re spoiled; we don’t want to give anything up.

And we don’t want to be scavengers. We don’t want to dirty our hands with the leftovers. Yet any predator that turns up the chance at leftovers is less likely to succeed in the long run. How have we forgotten that in our pride?

I say it’s time we get back to our roots. We got as far as we have as a species through great resourcefulness and adaptability. But we’re throwing away a big part of that, the ability to get the most use out of resources before they’re completely used up. Let’s be creative scavengers and hunters and foragers again. Let’s make “reuse, reduce, recycle” not the niche domain of dedicated environmentalists, but something that belongs to everyone again. Let’s reduce new mining and logging efforts, and see what we can do with the resources we’ve already taken that are just waiting to be made into something new. Let’s make the creativity and resourcefulness of scavenging a point of pride, not just of hides and bones and scraps of meat, but steel and paper pulp and silicon.

Because we are human apes, and we’re in good company with hyenas and lions, vultures and eagles, wolves and foxes and coyotes, all of whom will hunt and scavenge as the opportunities and needs arise. These are all noble, resourceful beings; let’s remember that we are, too.

Will you be a hyena with me?


I Supported the Great Apes!

Thanks to my booth sales at Pagan Faire last weekend, I was able to make a donation to the Center For Great Apes! This nonprofit organization gives shelter to orangutans and chimpanzees that have been rescued from the entertainment industry, roadside “zoos”, and former pet owners who had no idea what they were getting into. Regular zoos rarely take apes that have been raised (poorly) by humans, so many of these chimps and orangutans had nowhere to go except research facilities, the aforementioned roadside “zoos”, or were simply killed when they got too big.

The Center shelters dozens of apes; these include some you may have seen in movies and other media when they were younger and more manageable:

—Bam Bam, who was an orangutan “nurse” on the soap opera Passions

—Sammy, who, among other roles, played the title character in Dunston Checks In (Sammy sadly died in 2010).

—Bella the chimp, who was used in a number of advertisements, including one of’s infamous chimpanzee Super Bowl ads

—Bubbles, a chimp who used to belong to Michael Jackson

—Jonah, a chimp who was cast as Pericles in the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes and was also in some of the Trunk Monkey commercials

—The orangutan Popi was in Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can as the “girlfriend” of the orangutan Clyde, who was beaten to death during the making of the second film. She was also one of the apes in Going Ape!

And these are just some of the examples of chimps and orangutans being used in the entertainment industry or as pets while young, and then being discarded when they’re too old. The Center For Great Apes fills a much-needed role, giving them a place to go that’s humane and comfortable.

If you’re looking for a good organization to support with a few extra dollars, this is an excellent choice!

Ecology Discussion on the Pagan Musings Podcast

Over the weekend I was one of several guests on the Pagan Musings Podcast; I’ve been on the show a couple of times before, and it’s always been a positive experience (the last time ended up being a really good, long conversation indeed!). This past Sunday, though, I was part of a group of pagan folk discussing ecology, environmentalism, and related topics. We went into topics ranging from the real cost of food (not including subsidies and the like) to optimistic views of the future in which the environment is seen as something to preserve and align with, not use and destroy. We even coined a couple of new technical terms that we’re sure will become part of the everyday lexicon 😉

If you’d like to hear a recording of the podcast, and peruse some relevant links, click here.

My Little Planet: Nature is Magic

Riding on the momentum of my last post, I’d like to trot out one of my pet peeves: the notion that this world doesn’t have any magic.

It’s a sentiment that I’ve heard here and there over the years among pagans and others. It generally starts with a discussion about how we can’t actually fly without support or shoot fireballs or change the color of our eyes with a spell, and complaints that there aren’t any dragons or unicorns or telepathic horses running around. This sometimes devolves into speculation that, as in some urban fantasy novel or White Wolf RPG, this world once had magic but somehow lost it when technology took over. Of course, no one ever provides any compelling evidence that this was the case in the past, and the speculation is usually defended with “Well, you can’t prove it wasn’t that way, so I believe it was!” This is then postulated as being as real a reality as that explored by science over the centuries, and no one can dissuade the speaker that there isn’t some huge government conspiracy to hide magic from the commoners.

Public domain book plate, 1890s.
Public domain book plate, 1890s.
Now, I like a good fantasy novel as much as anyone, and I exercise a healthy imagination thereby. And while over the years I’ve become more skeptical of the idea that ritual magic is anything more than elaborate confirmation bias, I can still see its value when couched in personal or cultural beliefs, or when used to focus particularly strong emotions and desires. In either case, magic is a manifestation of the desire to have more avenues of possibility and action than are normally assumed. For example, if I am looking for a new job or contract or other income opportunity, I’ll do a ritual with the totems American Badger and River Otter. Badger is grounded and very tenacious, and understands the need to preserve one’s den (even if badgers don’t pay rent). But Otter reminds me to look for work that I can enjoy on some level, and to not forget to make time for self-care and having fun on a regular basis. By asking them for help, it may be that I am employing spiritual beings that help nudge the possibility of finding the right kind of work, and soon, more in my favor. Or I could just be revving myself up for the hunt, boosting my confidence and energy, and making me more aware of opportunities when they arise. Whether I’ve tapped into something external or internal (or both), I’ve made use of a resource others may not have, and which are not just the usual “send out the CV, write an inquiry letter, feature a new piece of artwork, etc.” that anyone can do.

But what I don’t do is discount the everyday actions associated with finding work. I could whine that because owls on the wing aren’t bringing me job offers from an office of magical arts and that I have to hit the pavement like everyone else, the world has fallen from a former height and sunk into a morass of banality. Or I could just appreciate that it’s a fact of life that, generally speaking, you get out of life what you put into it, and the door to a world of applications and interviews is right over yonder. It’s still no guarantee of a job, especially in the current economic climate, but I can put forth as much effort as I possibly can under my current circumstances and work within the restrictions my reality presents. Not as much fun as a teaching position at Hogwarts, but much more likely.

So what does this have to do with dragons and other mythical beasties that supposedly once roamed this land? Well, while the fossil record is far from complete, there’s yet to be any evidence of any creature that violates the laws of physics in the way Smaug and his winged, fire-breathing dragon counterparts would. The biggest flying reptile that we have evidence for, the Cretaceous-era pterosaur Hatzegopteryx, had a maximum wingspan that topped out at just under 40 feet, and it probably didn’t hoard gems, breathe fire, or speak any human language. And no animal has ever evolved that, other than the occasional genetic mutant, had one single true horn in the middle of its forehead (the tusk of a narwhal is a modified tooth, not a horn). The closest thing we have is a rhinoceros, and probably no one would mistake that for a horse or deer-like creature in the 21st century.

But rhinos are pretty awesome in their own right. Like the other African megafauna, they’re a relic of paleolithic times when giant mammals roamed many continents. While their northern woolly cousins passed into extinction thousands of years ago, the five species still living have survived changes in climate and the rise of humanity as a dominant force on earth. And they’re absolutely necessary to the African savannah where our species came about: In areas where the white rhinoceros has been removed from its historical territory, for example, the entire landscape changes, from the soil on up. White rhinos add crucial nitrogen to the soil through their droppings, which sustains the vast grasslands in the savannah. Take away the rhinos, and the whole ecosystem suffers.* You know the story of how a European unicorn could purify poisoned water with a touch of its horn so that all the animals could drink it? The backside of a rhino may be less romantic, but it has a similarly positive effect for all the creatures and other living beings in its homeland.

Draco volans. Public domain by Alfeus Liman
Public domain by Alfeus Liman
So that’s the unicorn. But what of dragons? Well, there’s the Komodo dragon, of course, the biggest of the monitor lizards, reaching up to eight and a half feet long. It doesn’t breathe fire, but it does have a nasty bite that’s both loaded with bacteria and venom for a double dose of awful. The females are capable of parthenogenesis, or reproduction without sperm involved, a pretty rare accomplishment that some human women may wish they could repeat! On the topic of dragons, I’d also like to introduce you to Draco volans, the flying dragon. It’s a small lizard from South Asia that has membranes attached to elongated ribs that allow it to glide from tree to tree. It’s the closest thing we have to a winged reptile, and it’s pretty cool-looking if you ask me. It’s a lot smaller than fictional dragons, too, at less than a foot in length. And you can apparently have them as pets, though the usual caveats about pet reptiles, to include making sure they were domestic-bred rather than wild-captured, and being very aware of the animal’s unique care and needs, apply particularly strongly here.

If mythical beasties aren’t your thing, what about a dash of alchemy? The ancient alchemists sought a way to transmute base metals into gold, as well as perform other internal and external transformations. But we don’t need gold to live; what we do need is energy, and we have the Philosopher’s Stone for that right in our front yards. I tend to go on and on about how awesome photosynthesis is, and for good reason–it turns sunlight into food, to explain it very, very simply. A more complex explanation is that plants have organelles called chloroplasts; these take the energy from sunlight and use it to turn the carbon from the carbon dioxide the plant breathes into a type of sugar, a simple carbohydrate. And if you think this is nothing special, consider that our experiments with artificial photosynthesis are comparatively crude and inefficient compared to the streamlined process that the plants have evolved over millions of years. We have yet to be able to successfully transform a base element (carbon) into the absolutely crucial “gold” carbohydrates we need to live, yet plants have the process perfectly streamlined. In fact, every bit of energy you get from your food started out as the product of photosynthesis, whether you ate the plants directly or the animals and fungi that ate the plants. In this regard, the green kingdom has better alchemists than we ever could dream of.

Why do I make such a big fuss about this? Partly because I feel that people who are overly fixated on fantastic escapism are potentially missing out on the wonders of this world and what they have to offer. It seems like such a sad viewpoint to see this world as utterly devoid of any magic, beauty, or wonder. I recognize that this can come about from a variety of valid causes, from depression to deep cynicism, things that all my perky “yay, nature!” cheerleading can’t negate. And sometimes fantasy and other fiction can be a nice temporary vacation from the cares of this world. However, all things in moderation: it’s not healthy to completely cut one’s self off from this world, and nature can be one way to be enticed back to the things that are good about the Earth**. You don’t only have to obsess about environmental issues, either; it’s okay to just sit in nature and absorb its restorative benefits.

From a Aja'ibu-l-makhlukat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini.  18th century or later, public domain.
From a Aja’ibu-l-makhlukat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini. 18th century or later, public domain.
But that does bring up an even more widespread reason to see the magic inherent in the everyday world: all the living beings here, humans included, are at great risk of extinction if Homo sapiens continues in its overuse of resources. Part of how we’ve been able to do this with impunity has been ignoring the effects we have on the planet and its denizens, and turning a blind eye or deaf ear when problems are discussed. We take for granted what we are privileged to have. We may be the only planet in the universe on which life has developed, and I don’t feel we consider how incredible that is nearly as much as we could. It’s not just for the purposes of meditation, either. As I mentioned in my last post, when people feel wonder and awe for something, they generally feel more compelled to preserve and protect it. At a time when both human and non-human nature are taken for granted and endangered, I feel we could use a refresher on the magic inherent in what we have right here. What a shame it would be if the last rhinoceros was slaughtered for its horn because too many people were chasing after unicorns instead of addressing the very real problem of poaching.

This, of course, is not to say that one’s life should be all activism, all the time. Everyone needs to make their own decisions as to how much to involve themselves in environmental movements (and whether they think a given movement is even valid). But if you’re going to complain that “this mundane world has no magic!” then I’m going to vehemently disagree with you. Just as you have to learn how to sense the magic inherent in things like spells, so you can also learn to see and feel and otherwise sense the magic that permeates every atom in this physical world–right down to the invisible force that holds the atom together. And sometimes perception, experience, and understanding are the best magical tools of all.

* There’s a fantastic BBC documentary series, “Secrets of Our Living Planet”, which addresses this and many other intricate relationships in nature.
** There are other ways to find wonder in the world besides nature, too. Human technology is a big one for some people; even I think it’s amazing that we can now print human tissue and organs! And the cultures of people past and present are another wellspring of curiosity and exploration, even if you can’t travel. And the arts, and exercise, and more–all of these have the potential for meditation, for creating change above and beyond our everyday lives, and for carrying spiritual inspiration through wonder and awe.

Why Must I Defend the Animals?

I have wild love affairs with much of nature these days. I deeply adore the way that water careens down from clouds in the sky, finds the easiest route to the nearest rivulet or storm sewer, and appreciate its brief layover in the pipes and spouts and drains of my home. I caress stones and soil with the reverence of a penitent clutching a holy relic promising salvation. I share intimate breaths with stomata, and I pull leaves and flesh and fruiting bodies into the literal core of my physical form.

These daily sacraments are a source and focus of my wonder and awe at this world I love. But my first love will always be the animals. They were the ones to first escort me into the broader world beyond humans cares and parameters, making me a fan of what we generally call “nature”. And while I marvel at the ways and processes of plants and fungi, stones and water and weather, inside I’m still that seven year old who ran around rattling off the latest facts about animals I’d discovered amid blades of grass and pages of books.

So I think perhaps I take it a little more personally than I might when someone writes off an entire species, genus, even family of animals with a few words. Twice recently on Tumblr I found myself defending the honor of maligned or ignored species, once when rabbits were declared “useless” simply because they sometimes fall prey to predators smaller than they, and once to bring the lowly maggot out from under the shadow of the often-romanticized wolf. I consider the rabbit’s evolutionary path to swiftness and a strong kick to be quite admirable traits, and more than one wounded soldier down the years could thank maggots for their life-saving feasts upon necrotizing, infected flesh.

But should I? After all, these defenses of animals are still working toward a human bias–to see other animals as wondrous, worthy beings who deserve a place on this planet. In reviewing my responses in these posts, I see an effort to convince other people that animals are incredible beings (or, as my seven year old self would say, “really, really COOL!”). Ultimately, my efforts are an exercise in applying perceived value to creatures that, for the most part, don’t particularly care whether humans exist or not. (Domestic dogs would, for the most part, be a vocal exception to this, ferals notwithstanding.) Sure, it’s better than only valuing the animals that most benefit us, but even a positive bias is still a bias. Perhaps this wonder at animals is a selfish evaluation that only benefits me through making me feel better. In this moment I find myself considering whether it wouldn’t be better to try and simply accept that animals are here, without judgement in either direction, the deepest expression of “live and let live”. Not “wolves are vicious predators” or “crocodilians are amazing for having survived so many millions of years unchanged”, but instead “Frogs are. Deer are. Sponges are.” and so forth.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, to be sure, and worth trying if for no other reason than an increase in mindfulness. But, as in all things, the best response to a question is rarely the most extreme answer. One of the things I love about humanity is our ability to consider and evaluate and, yes, even judge ourselves and the world we live in. It’s part of how we make sense of it all. And like any tool, it can be used for harm or for benefit. We’ve spent centuries deciding that certain species aren’t useful enough to us to be preserved, and have even systematically eradicated some just because we don’t want them around. My effort, conversely, is to find what makes each species unique, to determine what solutions it evolved to answer the same basic life-challenges we all must overcome to survive, and, most importantly, to experience wonder and awe at these things.

It turns out that those wondrous experiences aren’t just for my own benefit, either. To be sure, the positive psychological effects that I get from them are considerable, and mean a great deal to me personally. But they also perpetually renew my sense of responsibility toward the world and its inhabitants, a responsibility that I then act on to the best of my ability. So what starts internally, with my thoughts and feelings, moves outside of me through my actions. Such is the way of things.

And as social creatures, we’re able to influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others. Certainly there’s the crucial element of free will and the fact that people respond uniquely to different methods of persuasion (which brings up adages about flies and vinegar and honey). But both through empirical evidence and personal experience I think that modeling (human see, human do!) is one of the best ways to propagate positive and constructive thoughts and actions. Which means that my habit of extolling the virtues of my fellow inhabitants of Earth, human and otherwise, can be beneficial to everyone involved!

See, whenever I talk about how awesome it is that clownfish can live in the tentacles of a sea anemone and not get stung, or that plants turn sunlight into food through photosynthesis, I almost always get good comments as a result. Often it’s people who already knew those things agreeing that yes, these are really, really neat things and aren’t we glad we know them? But there are also occasions where someone gets to learn something new, not only making them happier, but also fueling that same feeling of connection with and responsibility toward the world around them. Because if you realize there are amazing things in the world, and then you find out that these amazing things are threatened with extinction, you just may be more motivated to protect them.

In a perfect world, perhaps, we wouldn’t need that personal touch to get people to be more environmentally aware; it would just be a given. But the reality is that too few people have that awareness and act upon it, and any constructive tool we can use to change things for the better, even if it has some self-centered components, is okay by me. If the proverbial donkey isn’t moving already, a carrot might be just the right solution.

Plus when it comes to my love affair with the world, I’m more than happy to share–the more, the merrier! So I’ll just keep right on “defending” the bunnies and grubs, the molds and bryophytes, erosion and uplift. If they can use it, so much the better, and even if not, I’ve made my own little world a little brighter.