Category Archives: Animal Totems

Updated Editions of Early Books Now Available!

I am pleased to announce that I have released updated and annotated editions of my three earliest books: Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone; DIY Animism (formerly DIY Totemism); and Skin Spirits! These were originally published between 2006 and 2009 by Megalithica Books, an imprint of Immanion Press. My parting with them is on good terms, and I highly, highly recommend them for anyone wishing to go the small press route for either sci fi and fantasy fiction, or pagan and occult nonfiction. I’ve just been moving more toward self publishing for the bulk of my works in recent years and was given back the rights to these earlier works. (Both the anthologies I did for IP/MB, Talking About the Elephant and Engaging the Spirit World are now permanently out of print.)

I’ve completely redone the interior layout and covers of the books; the interiors are more compact to cut down on paper usage, and the covers feature my own photos and design. My material is much the same, though I’ve added updates where information has been outdated. I’ve also changed quite a bit as a practitioner, and I’ve annotated the texts to note where I either don’t use a practice any more, or wanted to clarify things that I felt needed a little expansion.

You’ll also notice that I’ve ceased using the terms “totem” and “shamanism”. I’ve chosen to do this as these terms were appropriated from the Ojiwbe and the Evenk, respectively, and while they have been used more generally in both anthropological and spiritual settings, I’ve decided to switch to more culturally neutral terms like animal spirit and animism. I’ve done my best to update the language in these early books to use different terminology while making the text still make sense, and keeping totem and shamanism only where I discuss indigenous practices.

All three books are now available as both paperbacks and ebooks through my website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/books. Thank you!

Deep Ancestral Animal Spirits, Part One

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2012, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

The human brain is a fascinating thing. I had already learned a good deal about it just in personal reading, but when I went through my graduate program to get my counseling psych degree, I got a lot more up-to-date information. For example, I learned about the triune brain—the idea that we have the reptilian brain (the basal ganglia, the most primitive part of the brain), the paleomammalian brain (the limbic system) and the neomammalian brain (the neocortex). What I also learned is that this model is overly simplistic, that it doesn’t correspond as neatly to actual reptile and various mammal brains as is popularly assumed. Also, some non-mammalian species exhibit levels of intelligence and behavior that rival neocortical capacities, without an actual neocortex in the brain. And all mammals have some neocortical development, just not to the degree of humans. So, in short, the triune brain model has fallen out of favor due to its flaws.

Still, as very brief shorthand, the “reptile”, “old mammal” and “new mammal” models of the different sections of the human brain work if you keep its limitations in mind. It’s a good set of mnenomics to remember that the oldest portion of the brain (“reptile”) is that which is associated with primitive territorial and aggressive/defensive actions, the next part (“old mammal”) has diversified into more complex behaviors surrounding the care and feeding of young and other family as well as the first development of emotions, and the newest portion (“new mammal”) has even more complex social and communication skills, as well as planning and foresight.

My interest in it here is as a model for self-reflective meditation. Even as highly developed as we humans are, our brains often get the better of us, particularly the more primitive portions. We still can fall prey to uncontrolled and unexamined anger, territoriality (literal and symbolic), fear, and other such impulses. We fear the Shadow-self and often try to excise it. And the more primitive self sometimes manifests as unnecessary violence that too often gets justified in the name of religion and other ideologies. Wars are massive groups of “reptiles” in territorial conflict.

So much of spirituality and religion seems to be aimed at quelling or rising above what we perceive as the most animal parts of ourselves, whether that’s sex or violence or desire and need. Sometimes mortification of the body is used; other times, we receive punishment for exhibiting “base” behaviors”. Look at the concepts of sin and uncleanliness when applied to perfectly normal, harmless human behaviors like consensual sexuality. Or we try to escape the body and the physical needs through meditation and projection, and many of us are taught to idealize an afterlife where the gross weight of the body is left behind and we are made “perfect”. In any case, the animal self is all too often demonized and shunned.Yet the answer is not to further distance ourselves from these parts of who we are as human animals, but instead to reconnect with them. Our increasingly (perceived) detachment from ourselves as animals, the idea that we are “above” or “better than” animals, doesn’t take away the fact that we are animals still, including in our brains. No amount of rationalization or distancing will remove that, nor will any level of supposed transcendence. As long as we are human animals in human animal bodies, we are responsible for our human animal selves, motivations, and actions.

We don’t, of course, need to swing all the way in the other direction and let our ids go wild in order to “be animals”. Yes, we are attracted on a certain level to the idea of unfettered fighting and fucking and competing relentlessly for resources to maximize the likelihood our genes will be passed on. But let’s not break out the blood sacrifices and wild orgies just yet. If we are to give honor to the evolution that has brought us to where we are, let’s not forget the compassion and humane treatment of ourselves and others that we have developed to a high degree (though we are not the only species to possess them). After all, we have seen the atrocities that have occurred when people display little to no control over their more primitive instincts at all. That’s where we get war, assault, selfish hoarding of precious resources, etc.

I propose, instead, a middle ground, one that allows us to aspire to the best of the uniquely human traits we’ve developed as a species, and also the more primitive foundations that we are built on. The goal is to first be able to identify what parts of the brain/self are active at different points, particularly those seen as negative; and second, instead of pushing them away, observing and knowing the impulses and feelings for what they are and thereby letting them have a place while keeping them in check.

And we’re going to do this by looking to our ancestors and our much-extended family for their experience and wisdom. In the second part of this series, I’m going to show you a guided meditation that you can use to contact animal spirits that correspond with the various layers of your brain as a way to begin this reclaiming of yourself as a human animal.

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Shapeshifting Into Kin: Part Two

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

This is part two of a two-part series; you may read part one here.

There are many purposes for shapeshifting—celebration, drawing on the power of the being you’re changing into, learning to change yourself, etc. There are also many techniques, some stationary, others involving dance and other movement. This version of shapeshifting is quieter, and is primarily for the purpose of creating connection with, and fostering awareness of, other beings. It’s a way to begin healing the rift we as a species have created between us and the rest of the beings we share this world with. It requires a certain level of intimacy; you can’t become a being without having some empathy for it, and the world could certainly do with more empathy all around.

Although you can theoretically shapeshift (non-physically, of course) into any being (and I use that term to refer to animals, plants, waterways, mountains, and more), I recommend choosing a being who is physically close to you, such as a particular tree or waterway near your home, or a species of animal that you see frequently. Even in my fairly urban Portland neighborhood, I still have a huge maple tree right outside my kitchen window. No matter the weather or my state of health, I can still check on “my” tree to see how it’s doing, how many leaves are left today, who’s perched in the branches, and so forth. And I have a good vantage point to watch the crows, fox and grey squirrels, and scrub jays that frequent the tree and surrounding high places.

You’ve already created something of a personal connection there, but let’s talk about taking it further. How much time do you spend every day observing this being? If it’s something relatively stationary like a stone or pond, try to make a daily visit in all weather, at least as much as you’re able. Or, with animals, see if there’s a place where you can fairly reliably see individuals of the species, if not daily then at least regularly. Take note of what you see each time. How does the being change with the time of day, the weather, even the seasons? How does it fit into its niche in the ecosystem, and are there any changes in that over time? What about human impact?

Balance out all this experience with some research as well. Read about the being online and in books; talk to others who have worked with it. Get the objective viewpoint to balance out your subjective observations and impressions, and allow them to complement each other.

This all can be an investment of years. That’s okay. We spend years getting to know other people; it works for other beings as well. Even after you’ve tried shapeshifting to this being, you can still keep up the daily observations, just as you may regularly check in on loved ones.

There’s no single, universal “right time” to make the step from observation to shapeshifting. A lot of it has to do with mutual trust; a being that doesn’t trust you won’t open up, and it’ll be harder for you to be receptive to a being you’re wary of. When you feel the time is right, go to the being. If the being is stationary, ask to sit on, against, or otherwise near it. For animals, sit where you’ve been able to observe them best (hopefully by now they’re used to your presence). If you are unable to be at the place itself, such as for health or safety reasons, find a place at home or otherwise where you can meditate for a while, undisturbed, and perhaps have some reminder of the being you’re connecting with at your side.

If you’ve already “spoken” with the being or a spiritual representation thereof, great! If you haven’t done such communication yet, you may wish to use a guided meditation to introduce yourself. Here’s a simple one:Close your eyes. Relax. Breathe. Be aware of where the being is in relation to you. Imagine a shining cord extending from your third eye to the being—not quite touching, but inviting the being to make that last step to complete the cord between you. Once the cord is complete, greet the being, and begin the conversation. When you feel the time is proper, ask the being for its help with shapeshifting, that you want to have a better understanding of it by becoming, even just a little, more like it. Allow it to answer as it will, and go from there.

If the being isn’t ready, respect that. Keep up your visits, and when you feel ready, try asking permission again (unless you have gotten a very firm “No, never, not at all” from the being).

Once you have gained permission, then it’s time to try the shapeshifting itself. Go back to the place where you can be with the being without disturbance. Close your eyes, breathe, and relax. Be very aware of your boundaries, physical and otherwise—where “you” end and the rest of the world begins. Now imagine those boundaries are becoming much more permeable.

Make physical contact with the being or its representation, and allow the boundaries between you and it to be more blurred. You may feel as though you are “melting” into each other, or you may feel your own form change and move to be more like that of the being. You may even feel you are being carried along by the being, a sort of “rider”; there may even be multiple representatives if you’re working with a very social animal such as schooling fish. Any way it manifests, allow this change to happen, and observe how your perceptions and thoughts change as well.

What is it like to be that being? How does it differ from being yourself? How do you feel? Is it fun? Scary? Do you feel curious? Are some things more important to you now than they were before, and are others less so? How comfortable are you in this form?

Is the being itself staying in contact with you while you shift? Try asking it questions, if you can, or share observations—after all, it’s the expert on being itself!

When you’re ready to come back, thank the being for its help. Then imagine what your body feels like normally, or state your name, your address, and other “human” things. Don’t rush it; allow yourself to ease back in, let the boundaries reform at their own pace. Once you’re awake, take some time to ground. Eat something protein-heavy, observe the way your hands move, recite the lyrics to one of your favorite songs. Do things that gently bring you back to being human.

After you’re done, think about how you feel about the being now. Do you have more empathy for its place in the world, and the challenges it may face? Do you feel differently about yourself and your own place here? What may you have learned from this experience that you didn’t know or understand before?

Do keep in mind that all of your impressions are still processed by your very human brain and mind, even in the depths of the shapeshift. You can’t entirely sever your connection to being human. It is a good idea to check your impressions against more objective information, and to have sensitivity toward whom you want to identify with. It may not cause much trouble for you to be convinced that mosquitoes really suck other animals’ blood because they want to steal their power. However, shapeshifting into American Mink, and then being convinced that you now have to free all the caged mink at fur farms, is a bad idea, no matter how deeply you may have connected with that spirit.

Done with care, shapeshifting can be a highly effective way to be more empathetic toward other beings, to raise our everyday awareness of their presence, and to foster greater consideration of them both individually, and as a society.

In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting my work on Patreon, buying my art and books on Etsy, or tipping me at Ko-fi!

Shapeshifting into Kin: Part One

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

There’s a recurring dream I have; it started when I was young. In it, I take my form as a white wolf. I’m in a forest, and the forest is burning. The tall pines and fir trees crackle and split in the flames around me, and I can hardly breathe for the stinging clutch of smoke at my throat. Hot embers scorch the pads of my paws. The tops of the trees begin to topple over, weakened by the flames, and the ground is suddenly made more hazardous with smoldering logs. If I could only find my way out…where is my pack?

I awaken suddenly, panting, startled, thrust back into my skin and flesh and bone all too quickly.

Human legend and lore is full of shapeshifters. Sometimes the changes are literal—physically transmuting the body into that of another animal, or even a plant or stone. Sometimes the person may become a breeze, or a waterway. Sometimes the change is conscious and consensual; other times…not so much.

There are other shapeshifters, too. They include those who take on many roles—Lugh Samhildánach (The Many-Skilled), who excelled at any task given, or polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci. Many people, from thespians to cosplayers, take on a new persona when they don particular clothing; we see this in the wearing of ritual regalia in many traditions as well.

Shapeshifting, for some, is only about taking on a role, wrapping a core self with a persona that may be worn or removed like clothing. But in a more ritualized, spiritual setting, shapeshifting is about becoming something other than ourselves.

The idea of stepping outside of the self and into another is often alarming to the Western post-industrial mindset. It brings up inaccurate images of mental illnesses, or at the very least identity confusion. We are taught that each person has only one identity, and while it may be tweaked a bit here and there depending on whether you’re talking to Aunt Mabel or your secret crush or a job interviewer, you’re still supposed to essentially be you.

Yet to be done fully, shapeshifting necessitates a very deep empathy with another being. Most of us don’t empathize beyond emotions; we allow ourselves to feel with another person’s pain, for example. But to really become another being, we have to open ourselves up beyond that, and set ourselves aside.

I am 23 years old, at my very first pagan gathering, a weekend celebration at Brushwood Folklore Center in New York. Night has long since fallen, and I am at the drum circle, with a fire burning brightly in the center. In my hands I hold my grey wolf skin that I have transformed into a dance costume with carefully tied leather straps. I have spent hours practicing dancing in it in my apartment for the better part of a year, but this is the first time I’ve been brave enough to dance in front of others.

I drape the hide over my head, slip my arms through the same holes that lupine muscle and bone once filled, and tie the hide to my head, wrists and ankles. I feel Wolf the totem, and wolf the spirit, slide over me with the hide, and I suddenly feel I am so much more than myself. I step into the lines of dancers circling around the fire again and again, and I—we, the wolves and I—begin to dance. And soon, it is just I, Wolf-I.

We require an Other place to shift into an Other self. It may be Other only in the sense that one’s physical setting has changed—going from work to home, for example. But the Other place may also be the land of dreams, or the spirit world of journeys, or a physical wilderness unlike one’s home territory—or a deliberate ritual setting.The dreamland is often the first place we experience shapeshifting of some sort, due to its universality in our experiences, as well as its mutable nature. The dreamland may alternately be described as the subconscious romping ground of our brains and the cumulative inner landscapes we have inherited from our many ancestors, or entry into an entire world apart from us where we might literally meet our ancestors, among other spirits.

As we grow older and become more integrated into relationships with other beings, human and otherwise, we develop the ability to make subtle changes in ourselves according to present company and setting. The shifts are largely unconscious, and we may only be peripherally aware that they’re happening most of the time. By comparing how we present ourselves in various situations, we can begin to better understand the processes by which we change.

Ritual is a deliberate shift. We put on special vestments, create ritual space, and utilize items that are unique to that setting. We may still remain ourselves, though yet a different part thereof. But some of us also become other beings entirely through invocation and similar rites. While our earlier experiences with shapeshifting may seem to be out of our hands—literally—practice does make perfect, or at least better.

Drumbeats carry me into the journeying state; I can still vaguely feel my left arm pounding the beater against the horsehide drum held by my right. However, it is an arm covered in white fur. The fingers are shorter, stubbier, ending in claws, and growing less and less human as I watch. Were I to return to my physical form, I would find myself just as human as ever. But here, in the spirit world, my human form melts away—wolf-form is easier to travel in, easier to protect myself in. And there are beings who will only speak to me in this form, too. Humans can be scarier than wolves, you know.

Consciously shapeshifting into another being, especially with the aid of a representative of that sort of being, can be one of the most powerful acts of magic. The effects may be wide-ranging.

On an individual level, we may go places we couldn’t otherwise, in spirit and in emotion and in mind. We can break out of personal ruts, learn valuable lessons from the beings we become that we can then bring back to our human lives, and strengthen our imaginations and other creative spiritual skills.

We also stand to learn more about the world around us, to be more aware of the importance of other beings and places. It is harder to disregard someone that you have been yourself, even for a short while. Indeed, for many people what is most sacred is that in which we are most able to immerse or surrender ourselves.

Those sacred things that allow us to temporarily blur or remove our boundaries vary from person to person. I have limited my anecdotes to my experiences with Wolf and wolf spirits—partly due to tradition, and also to show that it’s possible to work with the same energy/being in different forms of shapeshifting. But it is quite possible to connect with a variety of animals, plants, stones, waterways, places, and yes, even buildings and statues and parks, through shapeshifting. This holds true whether it’s on an individual scale, or something as potentially elaborate as Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings.

In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting my work on Patreon, buying my art and books on Etsy, or tipping me at Ko-fi!

Start With the Animals and the World Will Appear

Last weekend I presented my Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up workshop at FaerieWorlds. It’s one of my favorite topics, because I’m helping workshop participants connect with their bioregion through the animal, plant, fungus and other totems there. It’s also frustrating as there’s so much material to cover and we’re limited to 90 minutes, plus that particular crowd is especially enthusiastic.

But for the time I have I’m able to watch how other people get their roots into the ground and interact with the nonhuman world around them. Oftentimes it’s the first chance any of us have during a busy festival weekend to stop and notice our surroundings in detail. I’m there as the workshop leader, but I’m always humbled and delighted by the many ways in which the people who join me work–and play–toward that goal of connection.

What I’ve found over the years, both in teaching this particular workshop and others, is that pagans and other spiritual folks most often ally themselves with animals. It’s not surprising; we ourselves are the last remaining species of human ape, and it is easier for us to empathize with our own kingdom, particularly the vertebrate phylum, and especially the classes Mammalia (mammals) and Aves (birds). So we most often allow the animals into our circles and shrines first, and hear their voices over the others.

What I then ask of my participants (and readers) is to go beyond that initial connection. Animal totems do not exist in some void, floating over our heads like helium balloons. Rather they inhabit ecosystems that parallel our own (whether you see these as literal spirit realms, or metaphorical structures.) To travel into these spaces is to brush against the totems of plants and fungi in one’s path, and to tread across the realm of those of soil and stone, and breathe in those of the air. And as here, they all need each other in intricate webs of connection and mutual reliance, though we often typify that as competition.

If you’re at all familiar with my work, you’ll know that I abhor totem dictionaries as anything other than “this is this author’s personal experience with these beings, and your mileage may vary.” When all you do is read the entry in a dictionary and say “Well, that must be what this totem means and what I should learn from it, not only are you being disrespectful to a complex being, but you are also cutting yourself off from a wealth of knowledge and connection, as well as the opportunity to learn what you can give back to that totem. Moreover, you are denying yourself the possibility of working with other totems (animal and otherwise) associated with it and thereby deepening your practice.

A good example is Brown Bear. In more remote areas of the Pacific Northwest, brown bears rely on the salmon runs up the rivers each year for a large portion of the calories they need to get fat enough for hibernation. But the forests also need the salmon, for the bears often eat only the best parts and discard the rest among the trees to decay. This provides the forest with sea-sourced nitrogen and other nutrients that it otherwise wouldn’t have access to. There’s much to be learned just from this one seasonal cycle: brown bears feeding to prepare for winter, salmon swimming to spawn the next generation, river carrying fish to and fro, spruce and fir and cedar taking in the nutrients the salmon gathered from smaller fish in the wide open ocean for years, fungi in the soil breaking the rotting carcasses down so trees may more easily feed, insects and bacteria and other tiny beings feasting as well, both on the salmon remains and the bear dung.

What’s to be learned from that? Well, you could just go with the common totem dictionary keywords associated with Bear, like “strength” and “healing” and try to shoehorn these cycles into that shorthand. Or you could meditate upon the cycles yourself and see what observations you make, and what the relevant totems have to say. For example, Brown Bear and I have had conversations about the gratitude owed to salmon for the vital nutrients they provide, and the fragility of river ecosystems in an age of pollution and dams. We’ve talked about the desperation of bad salmon years, and how in those years every single calorie is needed, and so the trees may go hungry. These are conversations that cannot be pigeonholed into a few keywords.

If there are totems or other nature spirits in your life, have you ever tried asking them who they are most reliant on in their ecosystems? Have you asked them to introduce you to others? How much do you really know about both the physical and spiritual ecosystems they inhabit? It’s less about the individual totems, and more about their relationships and connections, and what physical behaviors and natural history are embodied in their archetypal selves. In the face of that, simple “meanings” seem trite, stereotyped, and limiting.

And it’s an excellent way to make your path both broader and deeper. I have been practicing a neopagan version of totemism for over two decades now, and in that time I have worked with hundreds of totems, from brief encounters to deep, many years-long spiritual relationships. Through them I have been inspired to understand my physical bioregion more deeply, and to visit others that I may delve into their depths. Moreover, I have been compelled to find more ways to give back to the totems and their kin, a necessary reciprocity at a time when even nature based spirituality is all too often human-centered and based on what we can gain. Most importantly, it has gotten me past an animal-centered path, and opened me up to the vibrant variety of beings that have evolved alongside us for millions of years, and the geological, hydrological and other natural phenomena that we all rely on. I’m looking forward to many more years of this practice.

If you’d care to join me and you do not yet have a preferred method of working with these beings, may I recommend trying guided meditation? It’s less intense than journeying, but I’ve used it successfully for many years to visit the totemic ecosystem. You can use the version I have at this old blog post of mine; you don’t always have to go in with a particular totem in mind, and sometimes it’s valuable just to explore this place and see who shows up. But it’s also a good place for totems you already work with to introduce you to others, and show you some of the natural cycles they engage in. You’re welcome to start with an animal or other totem you’re already comfortable with as your initial guide, but be willing to listen to others, even those you may not have initially considered like totems of slime molds or liverworts or archaea.

In addition to that, I strongly suggest studying up on your local bioregion, from the geology to biology to climate and more, all the way from the soil to the sky. Rua Lupa has created a wonderful bioregional quiz on her Ehoah site if you want to get an idea of some of the things you should be trying to find out more about. Nature spirituality needs to be grounded in physical nature itself, and there’s no better way to understand the above than by familiarizing yourself with the below.

Finally, be on the lookout for ways you can give back to the totems and their physical counterparts. Too often we make our nature spirituality about us, and to my mind one of the signs of an advanced practitioner is a deep desire for reciprocity. If you aren’t sure, ask the totems themselves, as their biggest priority is caring for their kin. You also can’t go wrong with improving the habitat around your area by removing litter and pollutants, planting native species, and educating others on the need for health, integral ecosystems.

And feel free to let me know how your work goes; I’m always excited when people start finding their own paths deeper into the totemic ecosystem!

If you liked this post, consider buying a copy of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up. It includes extensive exercises and supporting material for doing the sort of work that I talk about here. And you’ll make this self-employed author very happy 🙂

Why We Need the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

It’s festival season again, which means it’s time for one of my favorite pastimes: counting the number of illegal bird feathers I see on people’s hats, jewelry, and rear-view mirrors. Well, okay, to be fair there are plenty of other things I’d rather be doing, but being a naturalist my eye is automatically drawn to the ephemera of the wild. The feathers people tend to pick up most often are pretty easy to identify–usually the wing or tail feathers of assorted raptors and corvids, or more colorful songbird plumage. (I very rarely see the more drab garb of your average Little Brown Job.)

If the owner of said hat/jewelry/vehicle is nearby, I’ll usually follow up my observation  by surreptitiously mentioning to them that technically they’re not supposed to have that feather. Responses are usually along the lines of “Wow, I had NO IDEA! Let me take care of that!” with the occasional variant “Well, too bad–I found it and it’s mine, and no one can take it away from me because of religious reasons/finders keepers/etc.”

There’s not a lot I can do about the latter group of folks, but I always hope I’ve made a difference to the former. On the grand scale of wildlife violations, a molted blue jay feather is pretty far down anyone’s list of priorities, and it’s not highly likely that fish and wildlife officials are just going to be bumming around your average pagan or hippie festival. But there’s always that chance that someone is in the wrong place and wrong time with the wrong feather, and not knowing the law isn’t a good defense if an official decides to make an issue of it.

You Don’t Know What It’s Like, Breaking the Law

Law? Yes, that happens to be the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). The text of the law prohibits, within the United States, the “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

What’s a migratory bird? It includes almost every wild bird in the United States, from raptors and corvids to songbirds and waterfowl. About the only birds not protected are non-native species like pigeons (rock doves) and European starlings. There are hunting seasons on a few species, such as certain ducks and geese, and American crows. However, their remains are still strictly regulated; only the hunter who killed the birds (legally!), or someone that they give them directly to, may possess them, and they can’t be bought or sold.

What this all boils down to is that unless you have a scientific permit, you cannot legally possess the remains of any migratory bird, even naturally molted feathers. A common misconception is that Native Americans (federally enrolled or not) are exempt, but this isn’t the case. The only exception there is to a different law, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, and even then enrolled tribal members must be on a waiting list to get feathers and other remains from the National Eagle Repository.

The Birth of the MBTA

If you were to walk down the street in any American city in the late 1800s to early 1900s you would likely see an abundance of birds, dozens of species within just a few hundred yards of each other. The catch? They’d all be dead, resting on fancy women’s hats as individual feathers, wings, or even entire bird skins. From common songbirds like robins and cardinals to more remote species like sage grouse and goshawks, all would be on display for the sake of fashion.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with feathers as adornments. But at the time there was no regulation of how many feathers (or birds) could be taken in a season, which meant commercial hunters could kill millions of birds a year with no limits. This is the time period in which we lost the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, among other now-extinct species. And we almost lost many others along the way.

Probably the best example of the excesses of the time was the great egret. Egrets develop a particular sort of fine plume during breeding season, and maintain them while still nesting. (You can see a particularly lovely example on the cover of Faith No More’s album, Angel Dust.) By the time the birds naturally molt these feathers they’ve gotten ragged and dirty from months of nesting and other wear and tear, so they weren’t sufficient for the hat trade. Plume hunters therefore would go into the wetlands and kill one or both adult egrets, often while they were still incubating eggs or caring for young. For the sake of a few feathers, both parents and up to four young could die. Egret numbers plummeted.

Enter the MBTA

The early 1900s saw the passage of the first laws to protect wildlife and trade in their remains. The Lacey Act of 1900 made it a federal offense to transport illegally acquired or possessed species over state or national lines, but it was sometimes difficult to enforce. The Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 set hunting seasons for birds, to include prohibiting hunting in the spring during nesting season, but it was found to be unconstitutional.

The MBTA improved on what the Weeks-McLean Act was trying to accomplish. It laid out firmer and more widespread restrictions on the killing and possession of migratory bird species. The Act was based on treaties the U.S. made first with Great Britain (representing Canada), and then later Mexico, Japan and the then-Soviet Union. Its goal was to protect all species of wild native bird that migrated between the U.S. and any of those countries.

The feathered hat trade had slowed down significantly with the rise of World War I; the fancy excesses of the Victorian and Edwardian eras were replaced by more sober practicality as participating countries had to tighten their belts to pay for the materials of war. The millinery industry, market hunters and others dependent on the feather trade were already hurting financially, and the MBTA was a final nail in the coffin.

But the trade-off was worth it for the birds. The great egret and many other species rebounded to healthier population levels. Today songbirds are a common sight even in urban areas, and raptors glide over the landscape (helped along by the ban on DDT in the 1970s). Waterfowl are recovered enough to allow hunting seasons, though these are carefully regulated.

Sadly, the MBTA came too late for some species. The ivory-billed woodpecker may have lasted longer than the Carolina parakeet, but low numbers coupled with continuing habitat destruction led to the almost-certain demise of this bird. The story is the same for Bachman’s warbler, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse and the dusky seaside sparrow, as well as many Hawaiian native birds whose MBTA protection came only with Hawaii’s statehood in 1959.

Migratory Birds and the MBTA Today

Despite the successes of the MBTA, there are still good reasons for it to remains on the books in the 21st century. One third of North America’s migratory bird species are at serious risk of extinction. Habitat destruction, climate change and pollution events like oil spills have devastated both bird populations and their nesting and wintering sites. Predation by domestic and feral cats accounts for the deaths of  hundreds of millions of wild birds every year. Our birds aren’t out of the woods yet.

Still, some people question the strictness of the law, particularly in cases of building infrastructure for alternative energy and other human endeavors. Some of the questions I’ve heard everyone from taxidermists to festival attendees as are: Why should someone face fines and possible incarceration for picking up a crow feather? Why can’t there be some limited season on non-game birds, especially those that are common like gulls? And why on earth are Canada geese, which are considered pests in many areas, still protected?

I know it’s frustrating. There are plenty of times when I’ve had to pass by beautiful molted feathers on the ground, no matter how lovely they might be in my art or personal collection. (And those human-acclimated Canada geese can be MEAN!)

But ultimately, I’m on the side of the MBTA and the scientists who are in support of it. For one thing, it’s next to impossible to tell the difference between a naturally molted feather and one that was stripped from a poached carcass, so lifting the ban on found feathers would almost certainly have devastating consequences. Remember, too, that 1918 was just under 100 years ago, a blip in ecological time. Forests felled that year are still recovering, so why should we expect the forests’ inhabitants to be completely in the clear?

Most of all, I support the MBTA because it’s still having positive effects. Do we need to discuss situations like making exemptions for wind farms and the like? Of course. But wind farms are much more necessary than taxidermy mounts or feathered hats, and I feel that those of us who create non-essential (but pretty!) things out of feathers, hides and bones should leave the exemptions to the necessities. We have plenty of alternatives–just look at the beautiful variety of feathers available on heritage chicken breeds, for example!

And if your concerns are of a spiritual nature, I have found over many years of experience that the totems and spirits of endangered species appreciate the substitution of more common feathers and remains in lieu of their own. Really, what better offering can you give an endangered animal totem than protection of its physical counterparts? You don’t actually have to have a raven feather to connect with Common Raven; a dyed goose feather will do just as well (though be sure to thank Domestic Goose as well!)

You can find out more about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other relevant laws at my Animal Parts Laws Pages.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts, which includes discussions of legalities and ethics along with rites and practices for treating hides and bones with respect on a pagan path.

I Was on the Donna Seebo Radio Show!

Hey, all! So I just had a lovely interview this morning on the Donna Seebo radio show; we had a great conversation about my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems In Your Ecosystem. We talked about why it’s important to reconnect with the rest of nature, why accessibility matters, what happens when you don’t like your totems, and more.

To listen to the interview, take these steps:

1. Go to http://www.delphiinternational.com/vision-broadcasting/previous_shows.html and let the page load completely

2. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page

3. Click the box to the right of show #491, then click “Play Selected Files” just below the bottom of the list of shows

4. The show will download to your hard drive–click it to play in your media player!

“Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up” is Here!

GUESS WHAT! Amid all the craziness of running Curious Gallery, I completely missed that my first box of copies of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up arrived! But it’s here, and while a bunch of the copies will be going to people who preordered them, there are a few still up for grabs. I’ll be packing up orders to ship a little later this week, after I get a few more administrative errands taken care of from this weekend.

Want to know more about what’s inside these page? Here you go:

Deepen your spiritual connection to the earth and rejoin the community of nature. Nature Spirituality from the Ground Up invites you to explore not just symbols of nature, but to bury your hands in the earth and work with the real thing.

This isn’t just another list of totem “meanings” arranged in dictionary style. Instead, it empowers you to discover your totems and make them a part of your everyday life. And where most books just cover the animals, Nature Spirituality from the Ground Up introduces you to the totems of plants, fungi, minerals, waterways, landforms, and more. The table of contents tells you more of what to look forward to:

Chapter 1: The Importance of Reconnecting With Nature

Chapter 2: The Basics of Bioregionalism
Chapter 3: Introducing the Totems Themselves
Chapter 4: The Totemic Ecosystem
Chapter 5: Practices For the Totems and Yourself
Chapter 6: Totemism Every Day
Conclusion: Wonder and Awe at the World

Appendix A: Recommended Reading
Appendix B: Beneficial Nonprofit Organizations
Appendix C: Helpful Hints For Totemic Research
Appendix D: A Quick Guide to Guided Meditation

And here’s where you can order your copy from me, complete with autograph!

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

Over the years, my spirituality has shifted in the nature of its practice. For a long time I was a dedicated ritualist. I spent hours before my altar, altering my state of consciousness through chants and dance, and working myself into an endorphin-fueled high that helped me to break out of my own headspace. It was during those times that I felt most at one with the rest of the world, or at least some portion of it not bounded by my own skin. I had some pretty incredible experiences, and on occasion I’ll still indulge in more elaborate practices when the situation calls for it.

More recently I’ve become dissatisfied with ritual as my primary vehicle of connection. It can be time-consuming, it isn’t always practical, and it sometimes leaves the ordinary parts of life looking–well–ordinary. As the animal totems I’ve worked with have urged me deeper into their ecosystem, engaging with the totems of plants, fungi, waterways and others, it’s given me cause to rethink my approach to the world around me. The more I understood about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the less I felt I had to put myself into a special place and time to feel I was a part of something greater.

And so these days I quite easily slip into that sense of unity with the universe. I touch a leaf, or pick up a stone, or gaze at the wide blue skies over the Oregon sagebrush desert, and I know in that moment that I am anything but alone, isolated and detached. It is only human hubris that led me to believe anything else, the Catholic upbringing and consumerist setting that both told me “You are more than an animal; you are something special; you deserve to take whatever you want from nature”. That elevated status may sound like a place of power, but in reality the pedestal can be an incredibly isolating place to be.

1024px-Tiktaalik_roseaeWhat I understand now is that every living thing is my relative. Every piece of substance on this earth shares something in common with me, be it life, or elements, or merely the fact we are composed of atoms. There is nothing on this planet, nothing in this universe, that is truly alien to me. I am a part of a larger community; I always have been. Every being that has come before is my ancestor. I watched a video of David Attenborough examining the forelimb of a fossil of Tiktaalik, one of the first amphibians to walk on land. He pointed out how, like humans, this 375 million year old creature had a humerus, a radius and ulna, and a constellation of wrist bones. Even if Tiktaalik isn’t a direct ancestor by genes, it is of my family nonetheless.

Do you know what one of my favorite things to ponder is? Consider the trillions of cells that make up a human body. These cells are the direct descendants of independent, unicellular life forms that, billions of years ago, joined together and worked in harmony in order to meet the challenges life threw at them. This may have happened independently as many as four dozen times throughout the history of this planet, and each multicellular revolution resulted in a different sort of being. One begat the line that would become animals.

So we are really composed of trillions of tiny lives. They’re each so specialized and enmeshed as to be utterly dependent on the entire organism, and die without its support. We think of ourselves as more hardy than that–but don’t we, too, ultimately die without an ecosystem to support us? We just take longer to expire than a few skin cells scraped off on a jagged branch on the trail.

We don’t have definitive proof that the planet is a living organism in the sense we think of it, nor the galaxy, nor the universe. But we can take a certain symbolic, poetic stance in that regard. And I think it’s a valuable shift in mindset that melds romance and science. Not that science is without romance of its own. Most scientists are not cold, 100% rational people; they have emotions and biases, too. And many scientists I’ve met have been ridiculously passionate about the parts of the world that fascinate them–if not everything that exists, starting with their own specialty.

A_witch_holding_a_plant_in_one_hand_and_a_fan_Wellcome_V0025806ETScience is not the enemy just because it says there is no clear evidence of planet-as-organism. Science is a lens onto the mind-staggering intricacy we have found ourselves in the moment we are born into this world. If it does not indulge in speculation beyond ideas to be tested, that doesn’t make it lacking in imagination or wonder. Those who say there is no magic here because life isn’t like a fantasy novel haven’t been paying attention to the unfolding story of the world that the sciences are uncovering. Read enough books, watch enough documentaries, walk out into the world enough times and observe with curiosity, and you too will likely see things that are magical without being supernatural.

And really, life itself is the grandest immersive experience any of us will ever get. If I only considered the moments most soaked in endorphins to be where I was truly alive, think of how much I’d be missing out on! I got tired of chasing that connected feeling in fleeting moments of euphoria, and instead decided to seek it in every moment I live and breathe.

So, no. I no longer need rituals to fuel a connection to something bigger. Just taking a moment to consider where I am–where I really, truly am–in the grandest scheme of things is enough to shatter my relatively tiny, daily perception and pull me into the ever-spiraling dance of the cosmos in all its parts.

Some Thoughts on Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up

Last night I finished looking over the proofs for my next book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which will be coming out in January 2016. One of the things that struck me was how much of the book is spent simply showing readers how to connect with the land they live with. Most books on totemism and nature spirits give a bit of context, and then leap into the “how to find your guide” exercises. It’s not until the very last bit of the second chapter that we even start trying to contact totems. Even after that point, many of the exercises are intimately linked to the physical land, getting people outside and in direct contact where possible (though the material is still accessible to those who may be housebound).

Here in the U.S., most people are critically detached from the rest of nature, at least in their perception. This book is meant to help them reconnect, not just for self-help, but because we live in such an acutely anthropocentric world that we rarely consider the effects of our actions on the other beings in the world (to include other human beings). The problem seems immense: few of us give any thought to our environmental impact, either in part or in whole. When we are unwillingly confronted with it, it’s often in the most catastrophic manners–global climate change, mass deforestation, entire species disappearing overnight. We’ve learned to simply shut off the part that cares about nature any further than maybe sorting the recycling every week.

We’re afraid to care, because caring hurts. It’s hard to find hope in a world where the environmental news is largely bad. As far as I’m concerned, though, where there’s life, there’s hope. And I want to help people find that hope as a motivator to making the world–not just themselves–healthier and better. But because we’re used to seeing “THE ENVIRONMENT” as one big global problem, I reintroduce people to their local land–their bioregion–first in small steps, and then greater ones.

Some of that may be old hat to my nature pagan compatriots. After all, we’ve been hiking and wildcrafting and paying attention to the rest of nature for years. But this book isn’t only meant for the proverbial choir. There are plenty of people interested in non-indigenous totemism who wouldn’t describe themselves as “pagan”. Some of them are looking for self-improvement; others have some inkling that a being is trying to contact them, but they aren’t sure how to proceed. Still others want to feel connected to the greater world around them, but are too used to heavily structured spiritual paths that allow little room for personal experience.

That personal experience is absolutely crucial to my writing and the exercises I offer readers. If we’re going to reconnect with the rest of nature, we have to make it relevant to our own lives. Most of us in this country are used to being preached at, something the dominant religion is good at. But we quickly learn to tune it out, the same way we often tune out the messages about how horrible we are in our environmental practices.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about human psychology, it’s that most of us don’t do well when we’re being yelled at. There really is something to that whole “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” adage. Environmental scare headlines try to terrify people into reconnecting enough to take responsibility, but that approach can be counterproductive. By making reconnection a positive, constructive and appealing concept, I hope to get people interested not just in their own personal spirituality, but how that spirituality is set in a greater world context.

From the beginning, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up talks about the importance of totemism in relation to entire ecosystems, not just “me, me, me, what can I get out of having a totem?” Most of the books I’ve read on the topic are mostly about how the reader can connect with individual totems; there’s very little about the context all that happens in. And that goes right back into the anthropocentrism I’m trying to counteract,.

I’ve had the occasional reviewer complain that the material in my books isn’t “hardcore” enough because I rely primarily on guided meditations and accessible excursions into open areas, that I’m not telling people how to take hallucinogenic plants and soar off into the spirit world, or spend twenty days fasting in the wilderness. Well, of course not! That’s not the kind of thing that I think can be appropriately–or safely–conveyed through a book. Most people simply aren’t cut out for that much hardship and risk, and I don’t think they should be denied this sort of spirituality simply because their bodies or minds may not be able to handle ordeals, or because they lack the money to travel to remote locations in South America for entheogenic training.

As an author (and by extension a teacher) it’s my job to meet people where they’re at and help them explore someplace new. I am a product of my culture, and so is my writing. I am not part of a culture that lives close to the land and its harsh realities; mine is conveniently cushioned through technology and the idea that we are superior animals to the rest of the world. We don’t have a culture-wide system for intense rites of passage or life-changing altered states of consciousness. And I don’t have the qualifications to single-handedly create such a system, beyond what help with personal rites I can give as a Masters-level mental health counselor.

So are my practices gentler than traditional indigenous practices worldwide? Absolutely. That’s what most people in my culture can reasonably handle at this point. Trying to force them into something more intense would go over about as well as Captain Howdy’s rantings about “being awakened” in Strangeland. Sure, sudden and seemingly catastrophic experiences can cause a person to reach higher levels of inner strength and ability–but they can also cause severe physical and psychological trauma, or even kill. And, again, since we don’t have a culture in which everyone goes through an intense rite of passage at a certain age (such as adulthood), we can’t expect everyone to accept such a thing immediately.

Maybe that’s not what we need, anyway. Plenty of people engage in outdoor, nature-loving activities like backpacking, kayaking and rock climbing without the foremost notion being that they’re going into some intensely scary and dangerous place that could kill them in a moment. Most experienced outdoors people are fully aware of the risks and take necessary precautions, but their primary intent is connecting in a positive way with the rest of nature.

I think it’s okay for our nature spirituality to be the same way. I don’t think we always have to work things up as “BEWARE NATURE WILL KILL YOU AND YOU HAVE TO DO THINGS THAT COULD POSSIBLY KILL YOU IN ORDER TO FIND GUIDANCE”. I’ve spent almost twenty years gradually rediscovering my childhood love of the outdoors and its denizens, as well as developing a deeper appreciation for it. I’ve had plenty of transformative experiences without fasts or hallucinogens, and they’ve served to both improve myself as a person AND make me feel even more connected to and responsible for the rest of nature.

Does that mean there’s no place for ordeals? No; they have their place for the people who respond well to them. But they shouldn’t be held up as the one and only way to do nature spirit work. Again: meet people where they’re at, whether that’s on the couch or on the trail. You’ll reach more people, and create change on a broader scale as more people participate in the ways they’re able. And isn’t that change ultimately what we’re after, those of us who want to save the world?

Like this post? Please consider pre-ordering a copy of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems In Your Ecosystem!