I’m pleased to announce that the new, updated and annotated edition of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up is now available as a paperback and ebook at https://thegreenwolf.com/books/nature-spirituality-from-the-ground-up/! Originally published in 2016 by Llewellyn, it went out of print earlier this year and I received the rights back. So I made a new, self-published edition with some updates and notes in the footnotes. I also removed the word “totem” from the text and swapped in more culturally neutral terms like “nature spirits” and “animism”. Working with nature spirits isn’t just about what we can get from them; it’s a reciprocal relationship that requires us to know the land itself. In this book I show you ways to create new connections with the nature around you, identify nature spirits who may facilitate that growth, and use rituals and other practices to deepen these bonds. Most importantly, you’ll learn ways to give back to the land and the spirits with offerings that make a real difference.Enter into an animistic ecosystem populated not just with the spirits of animals, plants, and fungi, but landforms, celestial bodies, and natural forces. Deepen your spiritual connection to the earth, and rejoin the community of nature! The table of contents offers more about what’s in this book:
Chapter 1: The Importance of Reconnecting With Nature
If you’ve been paying attention to my social media or my shop links at all, you may have noticed that I haven’t really been posting much in the way of new hide and bone art for the past year or so. It’s not that I’ve stopped; I still make some fun things for my Patrons on Patreon every month, and I make some bone, tooth and claw jewelry on Etsy to order. But ever since events dried up, I haven’t been regularly making new batches of costume pieces or other Vulture Culture art. My usual M.O. was to make all sorts of new things for an upcoming event, and then once the weekend was done and I was home, post whatever hadn’t sold on Etsy. And since there haven’t been events…well…I’ve just found myself doing other things.
Some of that is because I’ve had to scramble to make up for the lost income; events were a pretty big chunk of my “pay”, and losing them meant having to tighten the belt. I also lost several other income streams thanks to the pandemic making it unsafe to be around groups of people, which didn’t help. So I had to rely on what was left, along with adopting a few new sources of bits and bobs of cash here and there.
And, honestly, I’ve needed a bit of a break. I’ve been making hide and bone art for over two decades now, and while I love it, any artist eventually wants to explore different media for a while. Sure, I’ve stretched my Vulture wings in new directions, going from costume pieces and ritual tools to assemblages and the Tarot of Bones. But ever since the Tarot came out, I’ve been feeling….not really burned out, but a little creatively wrung out, at least. I’ve really appreciated my Patrons and Etsy customers who have helped me keep a hand in that particular medium, while also allowing me to head off in other directions, too.
Which is to say that if you have been paying attention to the aforementioned social media and shops, you may have also noticed that I’ve been increasing the number of customized Breyer model horses and other animals I’ve made over the past couple of years. This might seem like a heck of a departure from skulls, bones, and other dead things. But in a way it’s really me getting back to long-neglected roots.
See, I was a horse girl when I was a kid. Or, rather, I was a wannabe horse girl. I never got to lease or own a horse, and even now in my early 40s I’m still about the greenest rider you’ll find. (Seriously, I need one of those kid-proof horses that’s seen it all, done it all, and is probably more trail-smart than I am.) But I was obsessed with horses from a young age. It started with my very first My Little Pony that I got Christmas morning, 1983 (Applejack, if you must know), and then exploded further with a book on how to draw horses and my first Breyer model (Black Beauty 1991 on the Morganglanz mold) in my preteens. Horse actually took over for Gray Wolf for a few years as my primary animal spirit during my teens, so we have a very long history indeed.
And since I couldn’t have a real horse, I ended up collecting model horses, mostly Breyers with a few old Hartlands for variety. I had over 100 at the peak of my collecting, but I had to sell them all in my early twenties when I was between jobs. In hindsight it was probably for the best because having less stuff made it easier to get through the period of my life where I was moving about once a year, but I do miss that collection.
Back then I did my part to add to the artistic end of the model horse hobby, mostly with badly blended acrylic paint jobs and terrifying mohair manes and tails. But it made me happy, and that was the most important thing. Even though I only knew a couple other collectors in my little rural area, and my only real connection to the hobby was through the quarterly Just About Horses magazine Breyer put out, my collecting really made me happy in the same way that my first fur scraps and bones would catch my interest a few years later.
2020….well, it sucked. We all know that. Pandemic, political stress, financial roller coasters and more made it a really tough year for anyone who wasn’t wealthy enough to hide away and weather it all. And many of us found ourselves with more time at home, in need of distractions and solace. It ended up being a time where many people rediscovered their love of childhood hobbies. I’m one of those people. I’ve been slowly edging my way back in for the past few years, starting with repainting a few old Breyer models found at thrift stores, and then gaining momentum as I found that not only was I much better at customizing these models than I used to be, but I was having fun without the pressure to make a living off of it. (Yes, I love my hide and bone art, but when an art form is your bread and butter, it changes your relationship to it. But that’s a post for another time…)
So 2020 saw me really ramp up my customization efforts. I had to stop for a few months in summer and fall when I moved to a spifftacular new living space on the farm I’ve been working on the past few years (with, by the way, THE best studio space EVER!) but as the days shortened I found myself making more dedicated time to repainting and otherwise customizing models. I even started keeping a few of the models I’d bought to customize that were in better condition to create a small, but slowly growing original finish collection, and that really helped me feel like I was back in the (not actually a) saddle.*
That’s why a well-established artist of organic, pagan-influenced arts made from fur and leather and bone and feather suddenly started painting all these secondhand plastic ponies. It’s giving me that deep injection of childhood nostalgia balanced with adult skill and perspective, and it’s offered me a much-needed break from the exhausting schedule I’ve been living the past decade or so. Because suddenly, even with the time spent rearranging my income opportunities to make sure I could stay afloat, I found myself with a little time that hadn’t been scheduled to death, and when I thought about what I wanted to do with that time, I gravitated toward one of the few creative outlets in my life that was purely for fun.**
In a way having all my events canceled was one of the best things that happened to me, because it made me slow the fuck down. I no longer had several weekends a year where I had to spend weeks beforehand making art and otherwise preparing to be away from all my farm responsibilities for 4-7 days at a time, with all the packing and moving and setup and vending and teaching and teardown and going home and unpacking and exhaustion that goes with each event. I realized just how much each one was taking out of me, especially as I’ve gotten older. And I also recognized how much pressure I had been putting on myself to ALWAYS MAKE MORE STUFF FOR ETSY EVERY WEEK OR ELSE.
So the model horses are really sort of a symbol of the childhood joy I’ve managed to recapture, wresting time and energy back from my workaholic tendencies. I’ve even been thinking about what my professional life is going to look like once the pandemic eases up enough to allow events again, and whether I’ll put the same amount of time toward vending and and teaching at conventions and festivals as I used to. (There are a few favorites that I’m not going to miss for anything, so don’t worry about me dropping out entirely.) But for the first time in a very long time, I’m relearning to prioritize myself, and figuring out that maybe I don’t have to go hell-bent for leather every week, every year, in order to keep the bills paid and the critters fed.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s okay for this dead-critter-artist, pagan-nonfic-author, teacher-vendor-farmer, to indulge herself with something fun, and bet on the ponies to help her get through the tough times.
(P.S. Amid everything going on, I am back to working steadily on my next book, which I mentioned in this blog post almost a year ago. As a recap, its working title is Coyote’s Journey: Deeper Work With the Major Arcana, and it’s a deep dive into that section of the tarot using pathworkings with the animals I assigned to the major arcana of the Tarot of Bones. It’s not just a Tarot of Bones book, though; it’s a good way to get a new, nature-based angle on the majors in general, as well as hopefully gain a better understanding of yourself. My goal is to have it out later this year, self-pub of course, and at the rate I’m going it may end up being my longest book! Stay tuned, and if you want to get excerpts of the work-in-progress, become my Patron for as little as $1/month!)
*At the height of my “horse girl” phase, I had a really beat-up pony saddle I’d bought for ten bucks at a yard sale, and got a cheap saddle stand for it and put it in my room. And yes, I occasionally sat on it and pretended I was riding an actual horse. Hey, it made me happy at the time, and it was the closest I was ever going to get apart from a trail ride every few years.
**Yes, I do sell my customs. But I don’t make them on a schedule, I take commissions VERY sparingly, and I’m getting to stretch some new creative muscles, especially in the realms of sculpting and painting, so this is primarily for my enjoyment. The sales are just a side benefit.
I recently got an email from someone who was interested in Vulture Culture, but felt like they couldn’t actually be a participating member of this “fandom” unless they were tanning their own hides and cleaning their own bones and otherwise processing their own specimens. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this, either. It’s great that so many Vultures are learning these skills, and DIYing their way through their hobby! But it’s not absolutely necessary.
I mean, look at me. I’ve been working with hides and bones and other specimens in my art for over twenty years, and if you count my childhood collecting I’ve been part of what would become Vulture Culture for well over three decades, longer than some Vultures have been alive. And you know what? I’ve never tanned a hide, and only cleaned a couple of skulls. I can dry-preserve wings, but that’s really about it.*
And that doesn’t make me any less sincere or valid a member of Vulture Culture than all those awesome DIYers out there. There are plenty of reasons someone might not get into the messier aspects of the hobby:
–No place to process a bunch of smelly, fresh specimens (or long-dead smelly ones, either!)
–No money to buy supplies, even the cheapest options
–No time to go through the lengthy processes of bone cleaning or fur and leather tanning
–No interest in doing these things, preferring other ways to participate
And there are so many ways to participate, just like any other fandom! You can collect your favorite sorts of specimens (I’m partial to skulls, myself.) Looking for animal bones out in the wild is also a popular pursuit if you have access, but other found specimens can include (legal) feathers, dead insects, shed snake skins, and so forth. Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy making art from specimens already preserved, or using them as art references for traditional media. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just liking to see pictures of other people’s collections, even if you don’t have anything yourself.
My point is, not everyone has to DIY their hobby. You can appreciate others’ efforts without feeling like you’re not as genuine a Vulture because you’re not out there saving every bit of roadkill you can find. Ultimately it’s all about your enjoyment, and if you’re too worried about “doing it right”, you’re not going to have fun! So relax, participate with Vulture Culture in whatever ways you see fit and to whatever degree you prefer, and allow yourself the freedom to explore without pressure!
* Because I wanted to shared these skills but hadn’t developed them myself, I hired guest writers for the how-to tutorials for my book Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I felt that made it a much more complete book on the subculture, and it gave some other writers a chance to show off their chops. But it also allowed me to stick to the things I really enjoy doing, like writing!
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.
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.
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.
Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things has arrived! This is the first book about the subculture (fandom?) surrounding hides, bones, and other animal specimens. In it you’ll learn about who Vultures are, how to build your own collection, tutorials on bone cleaning, tanning and more, how to explain Vulture Culture to the general public, and much more. Whether you’re just getting involved or have been a Vulture for years, this is a great addition to your bookshelf–and it’s the perfect thing to hand to someone who may not understand your unusual interests, too!
Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2011-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!
The beauty of the wild is the long gesture of life in time. The beauty of skin and fur and feathers, the beauty of blood, the beauty of bones sinking into grass.
–John Daniel, from The Soul Unearthed
That is the quote I painted on a recent creation of mine, shown in the picture above. My canvas was a piece of rawhide left over from a drum kit. The visual punctuation of the entire piece included an eclectic mix: a rooster feather; a coyote toe bone; a sea urchin spine; and two pieces of deer hide, fur and leather.
I chose the quote deliberately for that piece. There is a certain ambiguity to the words, flowing from one end of the life-death cycle to the other. “Life in time” breathes and pounds its heart, while the “bones sinking into grass” create a vivid image of the core structure of the animal, all the rest borne away, disintegrating into nourishment for the flora. In between, the hides and the blood are left open; they may be alive and running yet, but the blood may also be sluiced upon the ground, and the skin stripped from muscle and tendon and prepared for preservation.
In much of the United States, people have a poor relationship with death, to include that of nonhuman animals. The idea of the “poor, dead animals” (particularly those that aren’t carved up on a dinner plate) is often enough of a shock that no one wants to think, let alone talk, about it. We eat beef and pork, not cow and pig, and very few of us ever eat anything that’s looking back at us; even the shrimp are conveniently decapitated for our culinary comfort. The most common discourse about dead animals seems to come from some animal rights activists who quite often use guilt, shame, and shock to try to convince unsuspecting leather-clad omnivores into changing their ways. When the choices are either silence or stigma, there doesn’t seem to be much room in between for more moderate discussions.
I choose what I perceive as one potential moderate path, tempered with much awareness. For over a decade I have been an artist of animal remains, part aesthetics and part spiritual work. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the lovely curve of bone and the lush texture of deerskin, the intricately veined colors of feathers, and the varied structures of the hairs of all sorts of furs. Beyond animal parts as an artistic medium, though, the core of my work is funereal. From the beginning my art has been about reclaiming these remains from being trophies or status symbols, and a significant portion of my “supplies” is made of old fur and leather coats, reclaimed taxidermy, and the like.(1) I guide these remains to a better “afterlife” with others, as has always been my role with them, and everything I make with animal parts gets a full ritual purification as part of my pagan practice.
Over the years I’ve gotten a wide variety of reactions to my work, from awe to indifference to outright hostility. Thankfully the responses have canted toward the more receptive, whether in person or online. I get the distinct feeling, though, that most people, regardless of their views, are highlighting certain individual facets of the work that, together, I tend to take as a whole.Most of the people who favor my work seem to primarily connect with it on an aesthetic level. They like having something pretty, whether as something to wear, or as a “powerful” ritual tool. They appreciate it as art, which is perfectly fine. At the other end of the spectrum are the occasional activists who come in swinging; they see the death and the remains, to the exclusion of anything else.
On some occasions, though, I will meet people who bring my art home both as art, and as sacred remains. They haven’t glossed over the fact that what they hold was once living, often combining the parts of animals that never would have met in life (such as the cow and the sea urchin in my wall hanging above). But they still see the beauty in those remains, and in the fact of their death. They can appreciate the loveliness of a long-dead deer’s ribcage seated in a field, and the arrangement of those same ribs into a totemic shrine. They know they carry lives in their hands.
I have not lost sight of the living end of the cycle, either. I have always donated a portion of the funds I make from selling my art to nonprofit groups that work to preserve both animals and their habitat, as well as informal donations to friends and acquaintances in need of help with emergency vet bills and the like. I think my partner, S., put it best when he told me that my most powerful alchemy was taking the remains of animals that had often died cruel and inhumane deaths, and turning them into funds to help those creatures still living and the environs that support them.
And I do my best to educate people about the sources of the remains; I maintain a database of international, federal and state laws on possessing and selling animals parts in the US to help them make educated decisions. Nor do I lie about those of my “materials” that are byproducts of the fur industry; I do not claim they’re roadkilled or “natural deaths”, or wild instead of farmed, to try to assuage people’s guilt or to make me look more ethical in their eyes. To do so would be an insult both to the people I speak with, and the animals themselves, never mind my artistic and spiritual work.
This work with the remains is another foundational part of my nature-based path, and as I write in this place over time, you may see me refer to the “skin spirits” as a collective term for the spirits of all the animals whose remains I work with, skin, bone and otherwise. My nature-based paganism is rooted in all of the life-death cycle, and this is how I seek the beauty in that which is all too often ignored, or so symbolized as to be almost entirely removed from the gritty reality.
(1) I have become so known for collecting dead critters in certain circles, in fact, that I have been over time gifted with a number of antiques that were inherited by people who had no idea what to do with them, and so decided I was a good next stop for Grandma’s fur coat, or Uncle Doug’s deer heads.
Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2012-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!
Last week I was taking a walk while in between appointments around the residential portion of the Hollywood District here in Portland. It was a glorious day, sunny and warm, and amid the sounds of lawnmowers and cars I could hear the voices of numerous birds in the trees and gardens around me. I walked beneath a male Anna’s hummingbird doing his distinctive dive bomb display with a chirp and a “tze-tze-tze” (that first sound being made by the bird’s tail feathers). And I passed by a pair of tiny gray bushtits in a flowering tree, hunting equally tiny insects for lunch. Numerous ferns and flowers burst forth in lush greenery, urged on by recent rain and immediate sunlight, and even a pair of domestic cats enjoyed their yard (thankfully from the safety of long leashes). It was, all told, quite a pleasant walk only cut short by a text that my next appointment was, in fact, in another neighborhood entirely.
Still, even those few minutes were enough to rejuvenate me through a busy day. Not that this is a new revelation; it’s been several years since I took my first graduate course in ecopsychology, and one of the first things we discussed were the restorative properties of exposure to nature. Research has quantified these positive effects, allowing a more structured understanding of why we seek outdoor places to refresh ourselves and find relaxation. It may almost seem redundant to some of us to have to study things we feel are common sense.
We are human mammals, Homo sapiens sapiens. As a species, we spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving in wide, open savannahs and scrub forests, and that experience was built on a much, much longer heritage of wild living. The few thousand years that we’ve been living in settled areas, with permanent shelters, is a much smaller period of time, and our current way of life is, at best, a century or so old, hardly long enough for us to properly adapt to it in depth. Our mammalian selves still look for open water and good vistas, and too much time spent indoors can lead to greater levels of stress, among other unpleasant effects.
So why is it so hard to get us outside sometimes? One of the prices we pay for our fast-paced, energy-hungry lifestyles is more of a dependence on controlled indoor environments. We learn from an early age that we’re supposed to do important things inside. Our very education is done indoors, for fear that being outside would lead us to distraction. And this trains us for the cubicle, the office, the checkout counter. Most of us don’t walk or bike to work or school, either, depriving us of even these daily encounters with the outdoors.
We also are concentrated more within cities and towns than ever before. It’s where the most job opportunities and other resources are located. However, other than neatly trimmed, rectangular parks with a few benches and trees, cities don’t always have green spaces. Most larger, wilder urban parks, like New York’s Central Park or Portland’s Forest Park, don’t have a lot of affordable housing nearby, and it can be quite a trek for some people to get to them, involving an investment of time and money that not all may have.Which is why it’s important to have nearby nature. What is nearby nature? By some definitions it’s the wild places just outside a city or town; however, I also use the term to refer to the nature within these populated areas. After all, we don’t entirely pave everything over. There are gardens with flowering plants and trees and other green growing things, and an assortment of birds that have adapted to new ecosystems, and even a few mammals like raccoons and possums that have taken advantage of a lack of natural predators. But it’s cultivated nature, too–gardens and landscaping and open green lawns (while I may hate grassy lawns and see them as a waste of space, they’re still better than asphalt).
Nearby nature allows us to connect with something other than ourselves; indeed, it connects us, ever so subtly, with something bigger than ourselves. When we’re inside, glued to a television set or a computer monitor or even a book, we can tune out everything that isn’t human-made. We’re lost in our own little world. But go outside, and we’re confronted with our neighbors, human and non-human alike. We have to remember, then, that we aren’t the only living beings on the planet.
This reconnection is beneficial all around. On the one hand, being outdoors in an environment where we feel safe helps to lower one’s blood pressure and relaxes the limbic system, and can reduce stress as well as symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses. We reconnect with our ancient selves, and give our senses the things they evolved to drink in. But it’s also beneficial for all the other beings, in that we–easily the single most destructive species on Earth–begin to feel more of a sense of responsibility for other living beings the more time we spend in their presence.
We shouldn’t have to go to wilderness areas to get that connection, though wilderness is certainly its own amazing experience. By infusing even our most urban areas and tallest buildings with reminders of nature, we’re giving ourselves day-to-day doses of nature’s beneficial properties. Like taking a daily multivitamin, we’re making sure that we’re getting the things we need to be healthy and connected on an ongoing basis.
Did you enjoy this post? My book,Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, is an excellent guide to connecting more with your nearby nature! Find out more about it and my other books at https://thegreenwolf.com/books
Recently I had someone contact me about a deer antler headband that I have in my Etsy shop. They asked whether the antlers had come from the same deer, given that one antler has two tines and one has three. I explained that yes, these were in fact from one animal, and I had cut them off the skullcap myself. In fact, most deer have antlers that aren’t exact mirror images of each other; even those with the same number of tines often have variations in shape and size.
Art forms ranging from nature illustrations to Disney movies would have us believe that nature is largely symmetrical and perfect (unless, of course, when portraying something allegorically flawed, in which case there is deformity.) And at first glance most living beings appear to be more or less even on both/all sides.
But look a little closer, and you find that there are subtle differences when comparing halves, or fifths, or whatever symmetry is being displayed. Perhaps one arm of a starfish is slightly longer than the other. Or the underside of a red-tailed hawk’s left wing has a little more color than the right. If you were to take a photo of your face, cut it exactly in half, copy the halves, flip them over and match like to like, you would find that there are quite a few appreciable differences between each of your facial hemispheres.
Imperfections aren’t just about symmetry, either. Leucism and albinism are conditions in which animals lack significant amount of melanin, making them much paler than their kin. A butterfly whose wings may be a bit ragged and worn around the edges can still fly, even if not quite as well. And a genetic quirk in a certain strain of wheat several thousand years ago led to grains that stuck to the stem instead of falling off easily to grow into new plants; the ease with which these could be harvested led to the dawn of human agriculture.
Yet to call these imperfections assumes that there is some standard called “perfect” to aspire to. Certainly there are forms in nature that we find more aesthetically pleasing, but even those are affected by subjective biases. However, nature is less about perfection and more about adequacy. Does a given trait help an organism to live long enough to pass on its genes, and do the genes then carry that trait forward? Then it’s adequate.
We often think of “adequate” as “not really good enough.” We’re told that we need to be exceptional, outstanding, the best. Who celebrates second place, anyway? Yet nature is full of beings that aren’t necessarily number one, but who manage to get along in the world just fine. As Henry van Dyke said, “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang here except those that sang best.”
People are a lot like that, too. If you look at any given trait, skill, competition, etc. there can only be one person who is the very best, and only a very few who can be considered elite. But that doesn’t mean everyone else has to pack up and go home. In high school I was basically the slowest runner on the track team thanks to undiagnosed asthma, but I got out there and gave it my best anyway. And now, at forty, I still get out to run when the weather’s good even though an eight minute mile is an impossibility for me. That still makes me a runner; I don’t doubt my status just because I’m not especially fast.
We also glorify pretty arbitrary standards of attractiveness, standards that shift and change according to culture and time. Most people aren’t models; most of us have little details like moles or blemishes or scars that keep us from being “perfect” (especially without cosmetics or Photoshop). Yet we’re still able to be a part of this world and make our contributions as we will, and most of us find relationships of some sort. We are each of us more or less adequate.
This isn’t a bad thing, not by far. So much is made about the (often arbitrary) best that often the rest feel like there’s no point in trying if someone else is better than we are. Which is sad, because something is still worth being or doing even if you haven’t specialized to the point of single focus. Adequacy also allows for a lot more variety. There’s not just one pinnacle to achieve, but a whole landscape of mountains, valleys, prairies and other unique places to explore. Each of these habitats is adequate for supporting the life forms that call it home.
I think we need to celebrate the adequate more. We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and on each other to only shoot for the highest goals or states of being. Not only is it unrealistic, but it’s setting a lot of people up for failure, as that goal of perfection is a pretty tiny target to aim for. Humans, being animals, are messy biological systems that evolved to adequacy, and any statements of hierarchical value beyond that are largely artificial and generally do more harm than good.
On that note, we also need to stop looking at our little asymmetries and other quirks as “imperfections”. All that does is reinforce the idea that these variances are somehow bad. If you saw a blue jay whose left cheek stripe was a little thicker than the right one, you’d just see it as an interesting field mark, assuming you even noticed it at all. In the same way we need to be accepting of the ways in which we are all different, without judgment or malice. And we really, really need to be more forgiving of ourselves, even when (and especially when) we’re told we aren’t “perfect” somehow.
So the next time you feel self-conscious, or flawed, or just not good enough, look to nature. Having five points instead of six didn’t stop that buck from growing big enough to have a decent set of antlers; so what if he was a little uneven? Judge yourself as I would judge that deer: a perfectly adequate representation of his kind, and every bit as lovely as the rest.