Category Archives: Animals

Why Pagans Need Field Guides

I was talking to someone on Facebook today about how I’m a field guide nerd. I have an ever-growing collection of identification books on the fauna, flora and fungi of the Pacific Northwest, as well as its complicated geology, climate, and other natural features. I even collect vintage ones just for the fun of it. I’m also an avid iNaturalist user and spend a decent portion of my outdoor time taking photos of beings I meet along the way. And I love the challenge of trying to identify some critter or plant that I have never encountered before, just to put a name and a niche to it.

Now, I’ve spent the past couple of decades watching experienced pagans talk about how important history books are for pagans wishing to deepen their practice. They’re right, of course, at least if your path is in any way linked to historical cultures. But think of how many pagans invoke the elements without understanding anything about the earth, air, fire and water in their bioregion, or who call on deities of storm and forest and fertility with little comprehension of those natural forces. We can name entire pantheons of deities and list off magical correspondences for hours, and yet so many of us can’t identify more than a few native plant or bird species.  I’ve already asked why we can’t be as nerdy about nature as we are about history in a both/and rather than either/or manner. So consider this a continuation of that query.

Using Field Guides

First, what is a field guide? Simply put, it’s a book or website that lists a certain group of living beings found in an area. Bird guides are by far the most popular as birders are also generally pretty avid book fans, and when you’re trying to fill your Life List with positively identified new species it’s important to be very sure you know what you’re looking at through your binoculars. But field guides to flowers and other plants, mushrooms, wild mammals, and other beings abound. Some of these cover entire continents; others focus on a single state or region. The best have clear, full-color photos or high quality illustrations showing the field marks–distinguishing characteristics–of each species, along with pertinent info on behavior, habitat, and more.

The best way I’ve found to use one isn’t to cart it around with me all the time, but instead to take note of various beings I find in my day to day life. If I can get a picture, great! But sometimes that’s not possible, and so I need to either sketch or write down as many of the field marks I noticed as possible. For example, the first time I saw a varied thrush I noticed that it was a bird very much like a robin except it was yellow and black. When I got home I grabbed one of my Oregon bird guides and flipped through until I found a bird like the one I saw. The size, location and habits all matched up with what I observed, so it was a pretty safe bet that this was indeed a varied thrush.

I also read through my field guides, because there are many beings I have yet to see in the wild. There are several species which I had previously only seen in books and photos, and which I instantly recognized in person the first time because I was already aware of how they looked. Plus it’s fun to imagine what sorts of wildlife, plants and mushrooms I might find if I decide to go exploring somewhere new!

I’ve kept a journal of my nature sightings for several years, and I also have a pretty extensive collection on iNaturalist. Every time I find a new animal, plant or other being, I make note of it in the journal with what I saw, when and where. Then as I further research the ways in which my ecosystem is put together I can place this particular being into its niche and know how it’s a part of the greater whole. The varied thrush, for example, is food for hawks and other predators. As an insectivore it helps to keep insect populations in check. And like all birds its droppings are important fertilizer for plants and fungi, and because it eats berries it helps to distribute the seeds to new locations. I can appreciate the need to preserve forest habitats in particular since the numbers of this species have been declining due to habitat loss. And so now I think of those things whenever I see a varied thrush, rather than just saying “I see a bird. I wonder what it means?”

How Is This Useful to Pagans?

If you’re going to draw on nature in your path in any way, it’s a good idea to have at least a basic understanding of what it is you’re incorporating. Any introductory book on paganism will extol the virtues of getting to know the differences between various deities and spirits and the like so that you aren’t calling on Artemis in a men’s ritual or asking Dionysus to help with a safe ocean passage. In the same way, it’s important to be able to identify at least some of your non-human neighbors if you’re going to be asking them to join your rituals.

And I don’t mean just going with anthropocentric information. If I am going to learn about fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) I’m not just going to look at pictures of Smurf houses or try and pretend I’m a Siberian shaman by ingesting some of this hallucinogen. Instead I’m going to find out this fungi’s natural range, what sort of substrate its mycelium prefers, what sorts of trees it forms mycorrhizal relationships with, and whether there’s any animal that can safely eat it. All these tell me more about how it fits into the ecosystem I am also a part of, and gives me a greater appreciation for it as something other than “one of those mushrooms that can get you high.”

The more you get to know your community, human and otherwise, the more you come to value it. Just as knowing the names of your neighbors and store employees conveys a deeper sense of connectedness, so knowing the names of the animals, plants and other beings around you makes you more appreciative of them. And as you grow your awareness of how your human community works together in a web of inter-reliance, so your understanding of the complexity of your overall ecosystem shows you just how precious and important it is. And that, to me, is the center of truly nature-based paganism. Not how many Samhain decorations are on your altar or how many crystals you own, but how aware you are of just how entwined you are with everything around you and how much responsibility you have to it. If all you do is take, take, take and never give back, even in the simple act of knowing something’s name, then you are a parasite rather than a partner.

Field guides are a great way to begin this healthy and balanced relationship. Like a list of deities in a pantheon, they introduce you to who’s who. You don’t have to memorize every species in every book or website; just knowing which field guide to start with when researching a species is a great first step. And how much you explore is up to you. You may be content just knowing the data in the field guide entry for a given species so that you can name it the next time you see it. Or you may wish to get to know it better, along with the various other beings that it is inter-reliant with, so that you can place a few more pieces into the puzzle of your ecosystem and have a greater part of the whole picture.

How Do I Find Field Guides?

The easiest way I’ve found is to go online and search for “Oregon field guides” (you can substitute your state, region or country for Oregon.) Or go to Amazon and search for “field guides” and see what pops up, though I recommend actually buying your books from local independent bookstores. If you want to narrow it down, search for things like “Oregon plant field guides” or “books on birds of the Pacific Northwest.” If you’re more hands-on, go to your local bookstore and peruse their nature section. I’ve gotten almost all of my field guides from the gift shops at state and national parks and wildlife refuges as I like supporting them financially.

The same goes for websites. Let’s say I saw a salamander but didn’t know what it was. Searching for “Oregon salamanders” brings up several pages that showcase all the species of salamander found in this state. Some of these sites, like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wildlife viewing site, also include information on other sorts of animals, making them valuable for broader research. Here are a few more links to get you started (please notice some of these are US-based, though there are some non-US links as well):

Encyclopedia of Life’s list of online identification guides

Whatbird – the Search page allows you to narrow birds down by attributes like location, color, shape, etc.

Identify That Plant’s list of plant ID websites

MycoKey – the free online version only allows ID of some types of fungus. I haven’t been able to find a single good online reference for all fungi.

10+ Naturalist Resources for Identifying Wildlife – a few broken links but still a solid list

Does this post resonate with your idea of paganism? Then I bet you’ll enjoy my books! The titles from Llewellyn are particularly informed by my interest in natural history and include more details on how to connect more deeply with the nature around you. Check them out at https://thegreenwolf.com/books/

 

Commissions and a Brief Update!

Hi, all! Long time, no chat!

First, I wanted to let you know I’m open for commissions on something that’s not my usual hide and bone art. This month my $15 Patrons at http://www.patreon.com/lupagreenwolf got these awesome 3″ x 3″ mini wildlife paintings in the mail. I am now open for commissions if you’d like one of your own! Your choice of species (animal, plant or fungus) and background colors/pattern for $15 plus shipping anywhere in the world. Comment or email me at lupa.greenwolf(at)gmail(dot)com if interested! Here are a couple more detail shots:


Second, I just wanted to touch base with you about how things are going here. I know I haven’t been blogging a lot lately; most of my writing energy has gone toward putting the finishing touches on Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I’ve also still been creating artwork, but I’ve also been doing some volunteer and contracted work for a local conservation organization. So I’ve been super busy, just a lot of it has been behind the scenes.

I’m hoping to have some new posts here soon enough, so keep your eyes peeled 🙂

Call For Writers For Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things

Hey, everyone! So in case you haven’t heard, I am writing a book about Vulture Culture, the “fandom” that’s sprung up around the appreciation of hides, bones and other dead things in recent years. The working title is Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things, and I will be self-publishing it via CreateSpace; the projected date of publication is Summer 2018. Currently, the first draft of the book is done, and I am working on edits and revisions. There’s also an IndieGoGo campaign through March 23 at http://igg.me/at/vultureculture101 which has already met its initial goal and is working toward stretch goals.

While I have spent over twenty years making hide and bone art, I do not have extensive experience with tanning hides or cleaning bones or otherwise prepared raw specimens. However, no book on Vulture Culture would be complete without tutorials on some basic processes, which is why I’m seeking writers to contribute essays!

Each essayist will be compensated with $100 and 10 paperback copies of Vulture Culture 101 once it has been published. Thank you again to my IndieGoGo contributors for helping to make this happen!

I am seeking one essay each on the following topics:

  • Skinning a freshly dead or frozen and thawed animal and preparing the hide for tanning
  • Tanning a hair-on hide, starting with a raw hide (rabbit would be best as it’s a nice small hide that’s easy and inexpensive to acquire); while you may choose one method of tanning, such as alum, please briefly mention other tanning methods like egg tanning
  • Brain-tanning leather, starting with a hair-on hide (deer is most popular but I’m open to other easy to acquire suggestions like goat)
  • Cleaning bones through maceration, starting with a whole skinned carcass, though with a brief mention of dermestid beetles and nature cleaning as alternatives, and proceeding through degreasing and whitening
  • Wet specimens in jars, to include long-term care, how to change out old fluids, etc.
  • Very basic mouse or rat taxidermy, including how to prepare the hide, positioning, etc.
  • The basics of skeleton articulation; there’s not space to go through an entire skeletal articulation, but at least give people an idea of the tools and methods involved, and basic steps from skeleton acquisition to final display

Essays should have the following qualities:

  • Between 1500 and 2000 words (you may be able to go over that a bit if you need the space)
  • Written in easy to read English and suitable for a general audience
  • Thoroughly explain the topic in a step-by-step manner; steps should be numbered
  • Be accompanied by at least 4-6 print-quality photos showing different steps of the process (if you have to show different animals at different stages of the process, such as for longer processes like maceration, that’s fine, so long as all pertinent stages are covered clearly)
  • Should not be previously published, either in print or online. If you’ve written similar essays that’s fine, just write a unique one for this project

I will have already covered topics like where to get hides and bones, and legalities concerning them, so you don’t need to go over them again. Stick to the how-tos of your topic. I will be doing some basic editing and proofreading, but you should be sending me final drafts by the due date.

Please apply by contacting me at lupa.greenwolf(at)gmail(dot)com; you will be asked to provide the following information:

  • Your name, general location, email address and phone number
  • A brief description of your experience in working with hides and/or bones and/or other dead things
  • Which topic you would like to write about and what makes you qualified to write about it (you can apply for more than one topic; however, only one topic will be assigned to one writer unless there is a serious lack of suitable writers)
  • At least three samples of your writing, published or not; Vulture Culture topics and how-to articles are extra-awesome, but send the best of whatever you have. Please also send a few sample photos showing your photography skills. You can send them as links and/or attachments.
  • If you are under the age of 18, proof of permission by a parent or legal guardian

The deadline to apply is March 28, 2018. Selections will be made by April 7, 2018 at which point acceptance letters and contracts will be sent out. Completed final essays have a FIRM due date of June 7, 2018, so please make sure before you apply that you can dedicate the time to finishing your essay on time. You can also send me drafts in progress before that point if you’d like feedback.

Thank you!

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 🙂

Lupa’s Essential Books For Pagans

Hi, folks! Sorry for the radio silence; my head hasn’t been in pagan space much lately so I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block in that direction. I’m starting to come out of it a bit, though, and I have a few ideas, this being the first one.

Most essential reading lists for pagans tend to be pagan-specific books, or books that deal with related topics like the history of pre-Christian religions or herbalism. My list is perhaps a little more removed from blatant paganism than that, and might be better termed “Lupa’s Essential Books For Nature-Based Pagans”. Moreover, it’s a list that will likely change over time. But they’re texts I think all pagans would benefit from reading for one reason or another.

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

Many people, not just pagans, are attracted to nature. But why? In his follow-up to his award-winning Last Child in the Woods, Louv looks at not only why nature is good for us, but concrete ways in which we can reconnect with the natural world, even in urban areas, as a way to combat nature-deficit disorder. (See also Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix as a more up-to-date collection of nature-is-good-for-us research for laypeople.)

A Beginner’s Guide to the Scientific Method by Stephen S. Carey

Paganism often flirts heavily with pseudoscience, sometimes to dangerous degrees. Everyone should have a solid understanding of the scientific method, to include how a good experiment is put together (as well as how not to conduct research), and how to avoid pitfalls like confirmation bias. Not only will this help you to cut through some of the crap that gets presented as fact within paganism, but it will help you have a more critical eye toward sensational news headlines claiming new cures for cancer or demonizing vaccinations. If you can pick apart a study based on things like sample size and the validity of the results, you’re already way ahead of most of the population.

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

Okay, put the fact that it’s Dawkins aside; this is one of those texts where he’s focusing on communicating science instead of tearing religion apart, and he’s frankly at his best here. Now, evolution is up there with gravity and a round earth as far as things we know to be true, and hopefully you already have a basic understanding of how it works: It is not survival of the fittest so much as survival of those who fit into the ecosystem most effectively. What this book does is cleverly place us, Homo sapiens, in the context of the grand dance of evolution by tracing on possible path we may have taken all the way back to the last universal ancestor that all living beings on the planet share. Along the way we get to see the origins of everything from our big brains to our opposable thumbs and upright bipedal walking, showing us that we are not the most amazing and superior being that the gods ever created, but rather one among many incredible and diverse life forms that evolution has produced through natural selection and mutation. It is, in fact, the ultimate journey on this planet.

Also, the Walking With Dinosaurs/Beasts/Monsters/Cavemen BBC documentaries are fun, if a bit flawed and dated, ways to look at how evolution has shaped animals over millions of years.

Roadside Geology series by various authors

If you’re in the United States, there’s a Roadside Geology book for your state! You may not think much about the ground beneath your feet other than as a nice, solid base, but the various stones and formations, as well as hydrological phenomena like rivers and lakes, are all crucial to the sort of life that can thrive in a given place. The Roadside Geology books are a fun way to go look at your local geology in person and learn a little about the land you live on. You can then follow up by picking up some more in-depth reading material for the geology of your area.

Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

We often assume that plants are relatively sedentary beings with few motivations. Yet they are vibrant and active parts of their ecosystems in ways even we animals can’t touch. This book looks at the world of plants through the relationships four of them have with humans, how we have changed them–and how they have changed us. I also strongly recommend following this up with two documentaries: How to Grow a Planet by Iain Stewart (which also happens to be on Netflix as of this writing) and David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (which is also in book form.)

Trees, Truffles and Beasts: How Forests Function by Chris Maser, Andrew Claridge and James Trappe

In paganism we tend to look at animals, plants and other beings individually, as stand-alone guides—yet if we want inspiration for just how interconnected we are, there’s no better model than an ecosystem. This book explores how just a few of the animal, plant and fungus inhabitants of forests are inextricably bound together. Extrapolate that out to the entire ecosystem, and you begin to see how deeply entwined all beings are in a very real, even visceral sense. If you’ve only been working with animal or plant spirits, this book may just inspire you to reach out further.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart

Again in paganism people tend to be fairly short-sighted when it comes to animals. We often look at the most impressive mammals and birds, and then only at the most surface qualities, gleaning what we can for ourselves and our spiritual needs. In order to step out of this self-centered approach to nature spirituality, we need to really appreciate beings for themselves in all their complexity, and what better starting point than the amazing and completely indispensable earthworm? This is a really fun read, but you’ll learn a lot along the way, too–and maybe start treating the soil in your yard a little better, too!

There are lots of other books that explore individual species in depth, like Bernd Heinrich’s The Mind of the Raven and Of Wolves and Men by Barry Holstun Lopez, but I really recommend you start with the often-overlooked earthworms before moving on to stereotypically charismatic critters like ravens and wolves.

Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown Young

One of the disadvantages of pagans reading only books by pagans about paganism is that we miss out on other awesome and relevant works by people who aren’t expressly pagan. Joanna Macy is one of those authors that more pagans really need to know about, especially those who construct group rituals. This is an entire book full of rites for reconnecting to nature and to each other, as well as grieving for global losses and fostering gratitude and hope for a better future. If that doesn’t sound like something more pagans could get behind, I don’t know what does. Just because it doesn’t mention any deities doesn’t mean that it’s useless.

Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World by Bill Plotkin

This is another one of those “pagan but not” books. I’ve explored this book in more detail in the past, but my opinion still stands: it is a much better alternative to Maiden, Mother, Crone and Youth, Warrior, Sage. It’s based in a developmental approach to ecopsychology (or an ecopsychological approach to developmental psychology?) Growth is not based on your physical age or whether you’re capable of popping out babies; rather, Plotkin’s eight-stage Wheel looks at your journey as a person and your continuing relationship with your community and ecosystem to determine where you are developmentally. You can even be in more than one stage at once! It’s a much more well-rounded way to apply a label to yourself, if you must, and I recommend it for anyone who is sick of the gender-limiting stereotypes of MMC/YWS.

(Honorable mention to Lasara Firefox’s Jailbreaking the Goddess as another alternative to MMC for women.)

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

If you love nature and honor it and you really want to do something to make up for the damage we’ve done to the planet, there’s nothing much more effective than working to reverse climate change. I mean, really, it’s a much better offering to nature spirits than pouting food and drink on the ground, or sending a vague ball of energy to wrap around the planet to do….what? What’s even more noteworthy about this book is that it’s an excellent antidote to the hopelessness and fear that a lot of people feel about climate change. In it you’re going to read about people who are already boots on the ground making a difference, to include in the very industries that are causing the most problems. And it ranks the top 100 causes of climate change (you can see this on their website, too.) Pick one of these causes to start working on, with whatever time and other resources you reasonably have available, and not only are you giving something back to nature, but you’re also counteracting the paralysis that pessimism breeds.

So there you have it: my current essential reading list for pagans. Sorry I’m not handing you yet another rehash of the Wiccan Sabbats or a bunch of spells. Over the past few years my paganism has become much more firmly rooted in the physical, and my reading list reflects that. After all, what good is a nature-based path if you don’t know diddly about nature itself?

Robbing Fox to Save Rabbit

In yesterday’s post I talked about how our lack of nature literacy can be deadly to animals. It’s the latest in a series of posts I’ve made concerning anthropocentrism, or putting humans at the center of everything rather than as part of a vibrant global community. Coincidentally, not long after I made that post, I reblogged a post on Tumblr concerning the problem with “rescuing” baby animals that aren’t actually abandoned. I observed that many baby animals never survive their first year, and it’s nature’s way for them to become food for other animals that do end up surviving to adulthood. Considering that not all wildlife does well in rehabilitation centers, even when cared for by professionals, I consider it a better idea to leave young, injured or ill animals out in nature where they’ll feed others.

I know it sounds cruel, especially coming from someone who does very much appreciate the other species on this planet. When we’re faced with a tiny, fuzzy, cute little baby bunny, we often want to do everything in our power to save it. We want there to be a happy ending for this creature that has intersected with our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with having that sort of compassion for another living being; truth be told, compassion’s been a little thin on the ground.

But predators get short shrift. It starts from young childhood, where we’re fed stories and cartoons with predatory animals being the Bad Guys, and their hapless victims–who invariably come out on top–are prey animals, bunnies and ducks and pigs and mice. This bias can last a lifetime. In his seminal work, Of Wolves and Men, Barry Holstun Lopez examines in detail the reasons many human cultures, particularly European and American, have so badly persecuted gray wolves. It is impossible to boil down his invaluable observations in just a few sentences, but this quote, from page 140, says a lot:

The hatred [of wolves] has religious roots: the wolf was the Devil in disguise. And it has secular roots: wolves killed stock and made men poor. At a more general level it had to do, historically, with feelings about wilderness. What men said about the one, they generally meant about the other. To celebrate wilderness was to celebrate the wolf; to want an end to wilderness and all it stood for was to want the wolf’s head.

Look at the animals that we try to protect in our suburban lawns and urban gardens: baby bunnies, baby deer, baby birds. These are the animals who have wound their way around our human-dominated landscapes without doing too much trouble. Sure, they might get into the lettuce and dig up the carrots, but you don’t need to fear for your life if a few does are grazing in your yard early in the morning.

Contrast what happens if there’s an alleged mountain lion sighting on the fringes of a neighborhood that has recently chewed up wildlife habitat. People are frantic, telling their children not to leave the yard and keeping housepets indoors. Missives go out telling people how to protect themselves against cougar attacks. The local game officials get calls from people wanting the “threat exterminated”. And plans to reintroduce large predators from areas where they’ve been extirpated are met with similar resistance out of fear of what could possibly happen.

We don’t even consider the needs of smaller predators. Foxes, weasels, hawks and other smaller predatory critters are better able to adapt to human encroachment on wilderness than their larger counterparts like bears and lynx. But we humans manage to find all sorts of ways to interfere with their livelihoods, from removing hiding places and den sites, to poisoning their rat and mouse prey with anticoagulant poisons that kill the predator hapless enough to eat the poisoned prey. And we further cause problems when we take away injured, ill, or merely poorly hidden baby animals that represent an easy meal.

That “easy meal” is important, especially in spring. Rabbits and deer aren’t the only ones raising young. So are foxes, coyotes, hawks, bobcats and other hunters. And while the babies are too young to hunt for themselves, it’s up to the adults to feed not only themselves but their entire brood as well. The less energy and time a predator has to invest in finding food and bringing to back to the den or nest,  the more food they can collect, and the more likely it is that at least some of their young will survive to adulthood. Nests of baby rabbits in the grass, a fawn tucked away under a bush, a baby bird that’s fallen out of the nest–these all represent quick sources of nourishment with low risk and high return.

Moreover, not every baby animal taken in to a rehab facility will survive. My first job out of college was working at a veterinary clinic that treated both domestic and wild animals (with the necessary permits, of course.) While baby birds did fairly well, simply wanting someone to feed them every hour or so, baby rabbits fared much more poorly. Wild rabbits are very easily stressed out by humans, and even the process of feeding them with eyedroppers could be too much for them to handle. And if an animal dies in a rehab facility, its remains are likely to either be thrown out or buried; either way, out of reach of predators that could really use the calories.

So this spring, if you happen across a nest of baby bunnies or a fallen fledgling, I suggest leaving them exactly where they are. Either they’ll be rescued by their parents, figuring things out on their own if they’re old enough, or they’ll feed the next generation of foxes and other predatory critters. If you’re going to appreciate nature, appreciate ALL of it, not just the cute, fuzzy, human-friendly portions thereof. Nature’s cycles developed long before we began messing with them, and even our well-intended actions can cause more harm than good.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider picking up a copy of my book Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which weaves together natural history and pagan spirituality.

Our Deadly Lack of Nature Literacy

Note: This was originally posted on my Patheos blog in 2015; Patheos still has not taken down my content even though I have made formal requests for them to do so. So I am copying over some of my posts to my personal blog here, so that I and others can link to them without giving Patheos advertising revenue.
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My apologies for the light posting as of late; summer is festival season, which means I’m busy with vending and other activities, and it’s tough to find time and energy to write. However, this particular topic has been rolling around in my head, and I finally found the right words for it.

It all started a few weeks ago when birds–particularly crows–started fledging here in Portland. I began getting questions from people about scrawny, sick-looking birds that had others “dive-bombing” them as they sat on the ground. After seeing a few photos, it was pretty clear that people were seeing fledgling crows which, while ungainly-looking and still unsure of that “flying” thing, were in generally good health. The “dive-bombing” was parent crows feeding them, encouraging them, and otherwise staying close by in case danger threatened. Crows, after all, are highly intelligent and social; they understand what’s at stake during this vulnerable part of a young bird’s life.

I assured these folks that the crows were just fine and, with a little time and practice, would be up and off the ground with the rest. Thankfully no one decided to pick them up and put them into boxes in their garages, unsure what to do next. That’s just one example of how well-meaning humans think they need to interfere with nature’s ways and in the process make things worse. The instances in which human ignorance can be dangerous to human and non-human animals like are numerous; these are the ones that have cropped up on Facebook and elsewhere just in the past week or so:

“Brachylagus idahoensis NPS” by U.S. Government National Park Service. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

–Every spring and summer there’s a cavalcade of people who find baby birds on the ground or baby rabbits huddled in the grass. Baby birds do fall out of nests before they’re ready to fledge, and mother rabbits often leave their babies hidden (with varying degrees of success) for hours at a time. What people should be doing is putting the birds back in the nest if they can, or making a new nest by nailing an empty plastic tupper to a tree and putting grass and the bird in it (parent birds will often feed their young even in these unorthodox holdings.) For bunnies, they should leave well enough alone, unless they look obviously ill, injured or otherwise distressed. Putting a circle of flour around them shows whether the mother has come back to check on them (thereby disturbing the flour) or not. Instead, they take possession of these little critters and either try to raise them themselves, or take them to a veterinarian or rescue facility. Even with the best of care, the mortality rate for birds and rabbits is significant, and quite often well-meaning humans sentence these animals to death by not leaving them in the wild. Here’s a good resource on what actually to do when you find baby animals unattended by their parents.

–While we’re on the subject of rabbits, there are enough domestic rabbit owners who don’t understand rabbit behavior and health that someone had to write an article on why rabbit bath videos aren’t actually cute. If you don’t understand how to properly care for an animal, maybe you shouldn’t own one–or should at least do a lot more research on that species’ behavior and unique needs.

This video of someone feeding wild deer potato chips. Besides the fact that chips aren’t especially good food for anyone, least of all deer, these people are just encouraging the deer to lose their fear of humans. Why is this bad? Let me count the ways! Deer that aren’t afraid of humans are more likely to go wandering into people’s gardens and munch on the vegetables and flowers. They’re also at greater risk of getting hit by cars (bad for everyone involved) and they’re easier targets for hunters (the easier population control doesn’t justify the means.) The more you feed deer, the more the deer are able to reproduce and survive through hard winters that would normally thin their numbers. That means overpopulation leading to greater rates of starvation, disease and other unpleasantries.

This misinformed person who thinks a picture of a long-dead, probably roadkilled, doe is proof hunters are routinely shooting does out of season. Fawns are born in spring and can be independent as early as two months of age, well before hunting season starts in fall (usually the second half of November). Guys, Bambi was fiction. Yes, there are poachers out there, but they’re the minority and other hunters would like to see them stopped as much as anyone else. For now, an imbalance of apex predators means hunters are one of the main ways to keep deer from becoming even more overpopulated. (Yes, I am in full support of natural, native predator reintroduction.)

“Zwarte beren”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

People laughing at this black bear that drank three dozen beers. Never mind that, again, beer isn’t good for a wild animal’s system. Like deer, bears are increasingly encouraged to see humans as a source of food. It’s not just a matter of campers not knowing how to bear-proof their food and drink, either. Many people deliberately feed bears and other wildlife, to include in mighty Yellowstone, because they want the animals to entertain them. They’re not content simply letting them be themselves. Eventually you end up with bears attacking people to get to their food, which all too often ends up with the bear being euthanized.

–Speaking of Yellowstone, there’s been a rash of idiots getting seriously injured while trying to take selfies with bison. (Dishonorable mention to the guy who almost died trying to take a selfie with a rattlesnake. Seriously, I can’t make this shit up.) Despite the fact that it’s illegal to get close to the bison, and despite numerous warnings from park staff, people still somehow think bison are docile cattle, just a part of the scenery. (Cows are dangerous too, by the way.)

Apparently animal rights activists still think it’s a good idea to release farmed mink into the wild. What they think they’re doing is saving the mink from being skinned alive. (No, skinning animals alive is not a standard accepted practice in the fur industry.) Instead, they’re dooming most of those mink to slow, painful, cruel deaths by starvation or exposure because they come from generations of captive-bred animals. The ones that survive compete with native wildlife and cause many other animals to have slow, painful, cruel deaths by starvation because there’s not enough food to go around. Those mink can screw up ecosystems for decades as invasive species. So much for kindness to animals.

I could go on and on about our inability to treat other animals the way they need to be treated, and our own lack of skills for when we’re outside of a comfortably civilized setting. We learn in school how to determine the hypotenuse of a triangle, go over the Revolutionary War in excruciating detail every year in history class from fourth through twelfth grade, and our biology textbooks are distressingly generalized and sterile. With few exceptions, kids are kept corralled indoors except for recesses on blacktop playgrounds. We learn how to be good little worker ants in an industrial model, but we learn early how to ignore anything that isn’t human-centered. And we spend more time indoors than ever. We’re conditioned to see the outdoors largely as the place we have to traverse in order to get to the next indoor spot.

“American Crow and Fledgling” by Ingrid Taylar from San Francisco Bay Area – California, USA – American Crow and Fledgling. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These people who ask about fledgling crows–if they spent a year studying their local wildlife in detail, watching from a window every day, do you suppose they’d get some sense of the rhythm of non-human nature? Maybe they’d get to watch a mated pair of crows build a nest, raise and feed their young, and then integrate those young into the greater corvid community. Perhaps they’d see a mother rabbit leave and return to her young in their hiding place, or watch deer grow up, lose their spots, and start their own lives well before November.

Our utter lack of nature literacy and our disgraceful self-centeredness is leading us to destroy the entire planet, ourselves included. We need to know these things–we knew them once, but as we stopped living close to the land, we forgot them, ignored them entirely. We need to understand how delicately balanced an ecosystem is, the webs of relationships and balances that formed over thousands of years of fine-tuning and evolution. We need to know how much our actions can screw the entire system up, whether through introducing an invasive species or destroying habitat for one more golf course. We need to have our hands in the soil, watching the creek for the flash of a salamander’s belly, our eyes to the trees for the first sign of autumn’s flush of color. We need a personal relationship with non-human nature that doesn’t end with a perfectly manicured, chemical-treated lawn.

But we don’t all have to know the particulars of climate science or marine biology or organic agriculture to be attuned to our local environment. It all starts with the little things, the individual animals, plants and fungi. What if the proper response to finding baby bunnies was as well-known as when the new season of Orange is the New Black starts? What if we looked forward to the fledging of baby birds as much as the arrival of Memorial Day? What if we knew how to watch the clouds, and were able to predict how long before rain showed up, so we could decide whether or not to water the garden?

We need to return to an ancestral way in which nature is not an Other, but an Us. If we truly love nature, if we consider ourselves friends to the animals, then we need to know nature itself, through books and observations, through science and questioning. We need to know the rest of nature as well as we know ourselves.

We can no longer afford nature ignorance; it is time to embrace nature literacy.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider picking up a copy of my book Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which weaves together natural history and pagan spirituality.

Book Review: The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals, and Other Forgotten Skills
Tristan Gooley
The Experiment, LLC 2014
402 pages

I promise I actually still read books! I just read them more slowly these days, which is why it took me over a month to work my way through Tristan Gooley’s excellent The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. And I enjoyed it so much I wanted to be sure I shared it with you.

Have you ever had a book that you were really, really excited to read? This is one of those books for me. As soon as I saw it in a little bookstore in Ilwaco, WA, I knew I needed to not only buy it and read it but absorb it. As the title suggests, it’s a detailed look at how to use signs in the landscape to determine everything from where you’re headed to what the weather will do and what various living beings you may meet along the way. Most of the chapters are dedicated to specific areas of study, such as animal tracks or what you can tell from local flora, fungi and lichens. But they’re interspersed with a few chapters of the author’s anecdotes, which not only illustrate the concepts therein, but also demonstrate that even a master outdoorsperson can get lost!

Because the book is neatly divided into chapters, it makes a good workbook for improving your skills at noticing and interpreting these clues. Even better, the last chapter includes specific tips and exercises to hone your abilities in each chapter’s bailiwick. My intent, now that I’ve read the book through once, is to make use of it on my own travels, first working through it chapter by chapter, and then integrating everything together.

Even if you aren’t very active outdoors, it’s still an incredibly fascinating read with numerous “Wow, I had NO idea!” moments in store for you. Gooley very obviously loves nature and has spent countless hours reading its fine print with gusto. At a time when many people simply see “nature” as the unending scenery outside, he invites us to pay attention to the minute details and the stories they tell, and then wrap them all back up into great ecosystemic symphonies. This is a must-have for anyone whose path intersects with the natural world, whether practically, artistically, spiritually or otherwise.

You can buy the book directly from the publisher here. You can also get a taste of the sorts of skills in this book on the author’s website, well worth perusing.

A Few Important Notes on Changes to CITES and Animal Remains

As a hide and bone artist it’s part of my business to do my due diligence in knowing the laws governing possession and trade in animal remains. That’s why I’ve maintained the Animal Parts Laws Pages for a few years now–it’s a good resource for me, and one that I can share with others, too.

I wanted to point out some of the most relevant recent changes to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. CITES is an agreement among almost every country in the world to monitor and restrict trade in endangered species, both alive and dead, and last month they had their big annual meeting where they decide what animals will maintain protection, and which will get more or less protection than before. Because some of these animals have remains that are sometimes seen in the Vulture Culture, and because not everyone knows about the recent changes, I wanted to bring more attention to them. These are not the full summary of the CITES changes, of course; I haven’t yet been able to find notes from this year’s meeting (the most recent set on the CITES website are from 2013.) If anyone has an online version of these notes I’d greatly appreciate it.

So–on to my own summary!

–Elephants in most African countries are CITES I; however, those in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe are still CITES II. Attempts to uplist these to CITES I were blocked, which means those countries can still trade their ivory legally. (Keep in mind that the United States has banned almost all trade in ivory, so those of us stateside should not be trying to import CITES II ivory!)

–Pangolins, which are the most heavily trafficked endangered mammal, got overwhelming support for CITES I protection for all species. We really shouldn’t be encouraging trade in such a critically endangered critter anyway, but now it’s officially illegal. So just go get yourself a replica skull for your collection and donate some cash to an organization helping to protect these scaly anteaters.

–African lions already became illegal to trade in the United States (except for a very few exceptions) when they got added to the Endangered Species List earlier this year. CITES now bans the trade in all wild lion parts–but it is still legal for the bones, teeth and claws of captive-bred lions to be traded, and hunting trophies can still be exported. Considering the IUCN estimated the remaining wild lion population at 20,000 across the continent (the population was 450,000 in the 1940s, less than a century ago), things are looking dire for the biggest cat not given CITES I protections. My recommendation, even if you are in a country that allows lion parts to be traded, is avoid–it’s easy to lie and say that bones from wild lions actually came from captive ones, and this is one animal that really needs the pressure taken off of it.

–African gray parrots were given CITES I protection. Thanks to their popularity as pets (boosted by the now-deceased Alex, whose charisma often enticed unwitting people to take on pets they weren’t prepared for), African grays have been relentlessly hunted for the pet trade. Habitat loss is also a major factor in their decline. CITES I protection means that it’s now illegal to trade in the remains as well as live specimens of this specie; here’s hoping this intelligent little dinosaur will now have a better chance at recovery.

–Skulls of several species of hornbill are often legally traded in the Vulture Culture, but if you ever see someone offering the skull of a helmeted hornbill, watch out! This species has been declining in recent years as its solid bill became an alternative to elephant ivory for carving and other art. It already had CITES I protection, but this year the meeting emphasized the need to publicize that fact. So here I am, helping to publicize it!

I hope you find this helpful; again, you can research more about legalities related to animal remains at https://thegreenwolf.com/animal-parts-laws/ (and, as always, neither this post nor the resources I provide are intended to be legal advice. I am not a legal professional and have no legal training, I am just an artist doing layperson’s research.)

On Paganism and Sin

I’ve been pagan for twenty years now. I was raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic school for eight years, and I was even an acolyte well into high school. I discovered paganism in my latter teens; I was instantly intrigued by the notion that nature could be the source of the sacred, rather than just being a lower level of reality to be used and abused til Kingdom Come.

For the first few years after my conversion I would sometimes have this fear that really, the Catholics were right and anyone who wasn’t in the right religion would be condemned to an eternity of torture and flames. I think a lot of that worry, ironically, came because I was trying to plug pagan deities and practices into a fundamentally Catholic structure. I was supposed to be devoted and pious to my gods, and follow a schedule of rituals and observances throughout the year, and I wasn’t allowing myself to simply explore my path without worry I was “doing it wrong”. I was essentially swapping one dogma for another, fear of mistakes and all.

In Catholicism, fear of mistakes manifests itself as the fear of sin. To sin is to go against divine laws, however those are defined. The whole point of Christianity in general is this idea that humanity is by its very nature sinful and we need to be saved by God, through Jesus, or else we’ll suffer in hell forever, alongside murderers, and babies who died before they could be baptized.

And I realized that at this point in my life I simply don’t agree with that basic concept–that humans are inherently flawed. In my world, humans are just another sort of animal. We’re pretty amazing–we evolved these big, complex brains and opposable thumbs, upright walking and refined vocal apparatus, all as responses to the same challenges all animals face. But we’re not above other animals. We’re no more evolved than any other species that’s here with us today. We all got our same start 4.5 billion years ago, and each species of animal, plant, fungus, protist, etc. has a lineage that was equally successful in bringing it up to this very moment in time.

What we think makes us better than other animals is actually just our awareness of our choices and our ability to assign meaning to things. Sure, we’re really good at using these big brains. We have the ability to imagine what our actions are doing to another being. When a tiger attacks a deer it’s not thinking about how much its claws are hurting the prey, or how much fear the prey feels as it dies. But we can do that, with other humans and other beings. And because we have empathy, we create conceptions of “good” and “evil” that roughly correlate with “don’t hurt people” and “hurt people”.

The fact that we are capable of harming others doesn’t make us inherently evil or sinful, though. Every baby comes into this world a blank slate; each develops into an adult through a combination of genetic signals, and learned behaviors and social structures. We ALL have the ability to make decisions. There are mitigating factors–certain personality disorders and mental illnesses can have serious impacts on decision-making capabilities and risk awareness, for example. But even the best of us make some mistakes sometimes. We all lie, we cheat, we feel jealousy and envy, we hurt others either intentionally or accidentally. We also all feel love and care, we do kind things, we experience joy, we bring healing to others.

The concept of sin only looks at the errors, and if there’s even one tiny flaw you just aren’t good enough. I’m reminded of a Catholic school book I had that said sin was like contaminants in pure, white bottles of milk. A sinless person was pure and spotless, someone who had committed venial sin had some black splotches all throughout, and someone who had committed mortal sin was black all the way through. That image stuck with me for many years, and I hated myself for not being pure and spotless.

It took me a very, very long time to undo that unhealthy idea that if I made any sort of a mistake it made me a terrible person. I spent entirely too much of my life racked with guilt that I wasn’t perfect, and it made me hypersensitive to any sort of criticism. And yes, it made me miserable–I wasted a LOT of time being unhappy over my flaws. The other thing that this whole idea of sin did to me was it robbed me of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. When you’re trying really, really hard to avoid messing anything up because mistakes reflect on your character, you don’t allow yourself to dwell on your screw-ups any longer than is necessary, and so you don’t take the time to learn from them.

And that ability to learn from mistakes is part of what makes us human! In my martial arts class I learn more from my mistakes than from my successes, just like I’ve had to train myself to be okay with making mistakes in other areas of my life. Other animals learn from their mistakes, too. Young blue jays that eat monarch butterflies learn very quickly that bright orange and black butterflies will make them sick, and so they avoid them. Baby elephants that are still drinking their mother’s milk will still watch what plants she eats so when they, too, eat solid food they know what’s safe. Juvenile cheetahs have to chase many antelope before they catch one–and they have to catch several before they actually figure out how to kill one.

This concept of sin erases our animal heritage, where we learn from our experiences, good and bad. We’re not allowed to be dirty and aggressive and full of mistakes. We have to feel guilty about enjoying sex and must speak of it in hushed tones. We aren’t allowed to have conflicts which are just normal parts of any social species’ existence, and we aren’t allowed to learn from resolving those conflicts because they aren’t supposed to happen in the first place. We aren’t allowed to be of this world.

Look, I know that this world can be really harsh and difficult and full of pain. That’s just the way it’s been ever since life began in hot, lava-tinged oceans billions of years ago. And with more complexity in life comes more complexity in suffering. So yeah, it’s really tempting to daydream about a “perfect” other world where nothing ever goes wrong and everything is safe and comfortable. It’s tempting to want to push people toward your idea of “goodness” by threatening them with sin and hellfire.

But I have no evidence that any religion’s afterlife is actually going to come to pass–I’m waiting til I die before I form any opinions either way. I have a limited time here, and for all I know this may be all I get. I’m not going to waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity being miserable because I make mistakes, or worrying that I’m not doing what someone else in my religious community says I should be doing, or trying to make people believe the same things I do because I think they’re wrong and I’m right. I accept this world and every being I share it with as they are, neither inherently good nor evil, neither perfect nor flawed. There is no sin tying us down the moment we’re born, putting us at a disadvantage before we’ve even opened our eyes for the first time. There’s only a lifetime apiece: a lifetime of experiences, mistakes, and choices. Each moment is an opportunity to appreciate and absorb this world in all its parts, and if we so choose, to try to ease others’ suffering and to bring about joy.

Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

If, like me, you find your path in nature’s beauty, consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up!