Category Archives: Animals

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!

Why We Need the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of the MBTA

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

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

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

Enter the MBTA

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

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

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

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

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

Migratory Birds and the MBTA Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science

Okay. I’m putting on the Cranky Pagan Hat. You have been warned.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be some sort of STEM major, whether it was veterinarian or biologist. Unfortunately, my terrible math skills barred me from anything but the humanities. Even my psychology degree is more geared towards counseling practice than scientific research; in grad school, my research methods and statistics classes were specifically for not-math people, just enough to be able to understand the latest studies in counseling-related psychology.

But it was enough. Many of us in the United States get a cursory look at the scientific method in public school, but most of us forget it after we’re done. This is a damned shame, because it’s one of the most important processes in our world today. It is meant to allow us as close to an objective look at phenomena as we can get, in spite of our human biases. Revisiting research methods in my early thirties reminded me that there are reasons we know the things we do, and it’s not just a matter of “feelings”.

It also helped me shake off the last vestiges of “woo” in my spirituality. I’m theologically an I-don’t-care-ist; I don’t especially care whether the spirits and such exist outside of my own psyche or not. What’s important to me is that my spiritual path is both personally fulfilling, AND encourages me to give back to the world that I am a part of through service and love. When I can find wonder in the process of photosynthesis, or the delicate trail of a doe through the tall grass, or the perfect spiral of a lancetooth’s empty shell, what need have I of anything beyond that? The stars are themselves fonts of the numinous, without having to be gods on top of it.

I also don’t especially care about the details of what others believe. You’re welcome to believe whatever you like; I have friends whose theological perspectives range from monotheist to polytheist to atheist, and I think they’re all awesome. One of the things I love about the pagan community is the diversity, and I think we need to keep encouraging that.

However, what I do strongly disagree with are the utterly wrong interpretations of science within paganism (and, by extension, the New Age and the like). I’ve collected countless examples over the years; the following are just a few of the most egregious.

Pagans and others claiming that quantum physics proves magic exists

Okay, look. I know physicists have been coming up with some really cool stuff as of late; particle physics leaped into the limelight a few years ago with the Large Hadron Collider’s role in confirming the existence of the Higgs boson particle. However, even physicists don’t always know exactly what the hell they’re working with, never mind the greater implications of their research. So when quantum physics is translated into laypeople’s terms for the media and popular books, there will be a lot of details left out. We’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version at best, which is okay because for the most part we non-physicists don’t need to know the implications of the Higgs boson on our understanding of the vacuum energy density of the universe.

But we need to stop trying to cherry-pick quantum physics for things we think explain magic and other supernatural occurrences. A great example is quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which two or more particles that are nowhere near each other still affect each other. I have seen more than one pagan try to claim that magic works because if subatomic particles can be connected at a distance, that must be the mechanism by which burning a green candle makes money come into your life.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that that’s what’s happening. Observing one particle mirroring another far away does not equal a force that makes twenty dollar bills mysteriously appear where they weren’t a moment before. People are making these HUGE assumptions about the implications of a quantum phenomenon that even the experts barely understand. And that is not how science works, nor should we be trying to justify a belief in magic thereby.

Claims that piezoelectricity explains the healing power of crystals (and energy in a broader sense)

So I ran into this post over on Tumblr claiming piezoelectricity is the energy that emanates from crystals at all times and which supposedly has qualities like healing, protection, etc. I had never heard of piezoelectricity, but it took me about two minutes of Googling to get enough information from academic-level sources that showed the original post writer had a very incorrect understanding of the phenomenon. You can read my complete teardown of the “theory” at that link, but the short version is that piezoelectricity is the transfer of energy from a physical stimulus like pressure, to an electrical charge, or vice versa, and only certain natural and synthetic materials can do this. You can squeeze a quartz crystal and the pressure will cause the crystal to release a very small bit of electricity–nowhere near enough for us to detect with our own skins, and definitely not enough to have any actual effect on our bodies. A quartz watch works in the opposite direction: the battery in the watch releases electrical charges at one-second intervals; each charge causes the quartz to vibrate, and this makes the watch tick.

Note that this is NOT the same as “this piece of rose quartz is full of love and healing energy! Carry it for good vibes!” Piezoelectricity is not an ambient force that’s there all the time, and it does not come in flavors like “amethyst” and “malachite”. It is a very specific response to a particular stimulus. Electricity leads to vibration, and vice versa, but on such a small and limited scale that it’s certainly not going to have any effect on our health and well-being–beyond knowing what time it is, anyway.

This goes for all other sorts of energy, too, ranging from the heat we put off through metabolism to the radiation exuded by everything from living beings to bricks to quartz crystals. Familiarize yourself with how these energies work–but don’t then say “That must be how crystals work!” Scientists have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with various and sundry energies, and if the minute amount of radiation put off by granite* had undeniably been found to shrink tumors as effectively as chemotherapy, cancer patients would be carrying rocks in their pockets instead of being subjected to a remedy that’s often worse than the disease.

Groups of practitioners (usually a small number) who all do the same spell or ritual and then compare “results”

Picture a coven of thirteen witches sitting in a circle in the priestess’s living room. Last time they met they decided they were each going to do the same spell, at the same time, on the same night, using leaves from the same plant, etc. Now they’re discussing their results. Each person tells their experience in turn. Some of them sound remarkably like each other, especially as more stories come out. The consensus is that the spell was a success and they’ve proven magic works with their experiment.

A few years ago I wrote a detailed post on all the various problems with the design of this experiment (if it can be called that), ranging from confirmation bias to a sample size that is laughably small. Let’s say the spell in question was a money spell, and everyone got some amount of money after they did it, whether it was expected (a birthday card with a check) or unexpected (a ten dollar bill on the ground). There’s no control group to compare the coven to–and no, “everyone else in the world” is NOT how you create a control group. No one is factoring in confounds like “this person was more likely to get money because they overpaid their phone bill three months ago and the phone company finally noticed and sent a check”. No one is comparing the rate of “finding money on the ground” between people who did a spell beforehand, and people who didn’t.

And there’s our old friend confirmation bias, in which people look for the results they want, even if not consciously. If everyone in the group secretly wants the spell to work because they want money and to prove magic works, they’re more likely to look for any possible proof, no matter how slim. And as the coven members take turns reporting their results, there may be increasing pressure on the later reporters to make sure their results match with the group’s so they aren’t the lone naysayer. If a medical trial were set up with as shoddy a structure as this “experiment”, the researchers would be out of a career.

We can say one thing about all three examples…

NONE OF THESE ARE SCIENCE

Here is how science ideally works. Let’s say we have a hypothesis, which we will call A. We test A with a rigorously designed experiment (or in some cases multiple iterations of the same experiment), with a solid control group, dependent and independent variables, accounting for confounds, etc. In those experiments we get a consistent result, which we will call B. So we can go from point A to point B through a path which can be repeated again and again by different researchers.

What too many people are doing is saying “Okay, so A leads to B–that MUST mean that B leads to C, and therefore A proves C!” C is usually something like magic or energy or the irrefutable existence of ghosts, or some other thing that scientists have tested for but not gotten conclusive evidence of, not in the same way we know antibiotics kill bacteria or plants convert sunlight into sugars. I used to work in a microbiology lab plating specimens. If I put the urine of someone with a urinary tract infection onto a petri dish and kept it at about 98.6 degrees, within a few days there would be colonies of the offending bacteria on the plate, which proves that A (I bet there’s bacteria in this pee) leads to B (yep, just look at all them little suckers in the dish.) It does not then follow that C (I am the life-giving god of these bacteria who shall build tiny bacteria churches in my honor until they overpopulate and eat up all the agar and illustrate the end result of overpopulation of a species).

Yes, that last result is hyperbolic, but it illustrates the grand leaps in logic people try to make when attempting to use science to prove spiritual matters. Which begs the next question…

Why Is This So Darn Important?

Two words: scientific literacy. American culture in particular is woefully prone to pseudoscience and science denialism already, and our clinging to bad science doesn’t help. When we replace scientific literacy with non-scientific explanations for things in this world, we are making it easier for people to spread and utilize misinformation. We also make it harder to disprove their claims and to get people to stop supporting them. We increase the societal view that scientific literacy isn’t important for anyone except scientists. And that leads to some really bad things.

It’s relatively harmless to believe that seeing a hawk is good luck. But a lack of scientific literacy can also have more dangerous outcomes for those supposedly sacred animals. Poor scientific literacy also contributes to everything from faith healing deaths to support of subjecting QUILTBAG** people to so-called conversion therapy to people with albinism being murdered because their remains supposedly have magical powers. People are voting for elected officials who make big, important decisions to include on matters ranging from climate change to medical care. The widespread lack of scientific literacy leads to both voters and politicians not fully understanding the ramifications of their choices–and often voting with their religious and/or emotional biases, not their logic and reason. This then leads to choices detrimental both to us and the world we live in.

Science isn’t perfect, and I’ll be the first to state that. After all, it’s run by humans, who are full of mistakes and biases and sleep deprivation. But if there are mistakes that deviate from the scientific process of inquiry, the answer is not to even more deliberately deviate from it with wishful thinking and “this just feels right”. Pharmaceutical companies missing an important side effect of a medication and having to take it off the market does not mean that it is somehow okay to start ingesting essential oils to medicate yourself instead just because you think essential oils are “natural and good”. Two wrongs do not make a scientific breakthrough.

Am I a meanie who hates religion? Of course not. I have a deep spiritual path that gives me a structure for personal meaning and creating a place for myself in this world. But my work with totems does not overwrite my understanding of the physical animals, plants and other beings out there in the world. If anything, it is natural history that informs my deeper connection with the spirits I work with, because I know where they’re rooted.

Whether you’re a polytheist or a humanist or a duotheist or an animist, I encourage you to (re)familiarize yourself with the scientific method and with the basics of research design and statistics. I encourage you to look at the ways in which sloppy, bad science has affected everything from the environment to human rights, historically and now in the 21st century. I encourage you to look at ways in which good science can support our spirituality–how spirituality can lead to a healthier, more positive outlook on life, for example. And I encourage you to consider being both a spiritual person, and a scientist (even if you’re a citizen scientist like me, rather than a full-time professional scientist!) In doing these things, we can set a good example by being a spiritual community with a firm grasp on the differing bailiwicks of science and spirit.

*The soil in your yard emits more radiation than your granite countertop. Neither of these have been found to either cause, or cure, tumors.

**QUILTBAG – A delightful acronym that stands for Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up my latest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, a natural history-informed approach to pagan practice!

A Prayer of Gratitude

I don’t do a lot of praying; I tend to do more acting, being and observing. But occasionally I want to take a moment to appreciate something that I have, so I send out a prayer of gratitude. There’s one that I wrote years ago that I say every night before I go to sleep:

Thank you to all of those who have given me this day,
All those who have given of themselves
To feed me
Clothe me
Shelter me
Protect me
Teach me
And heal me.
May I learn to be as generous as you.

When I wrote it as a newbie pagan, I felt that I’d mostly covered the bases on what others (human and otherwise) gave to me so I could go on living each day. Now that I’m older I could think of other actions in addition to feeding or teaching, but I love the flow of this prayer as it is. It’s like an old story–Italian, I think?–in which a man comes across a group of little fey ladies coming out of a hill, singing “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”. The man then sings out “and Tuesday!” and the ladies curse him because he ruined the cadence of their song. Sure, I could add another line or two, but it’s currently perfect in its rhythm and timing for getting me back into touch with all those who have contributed to me getting another day on this Earth.

I’m less naive than when I first wrote it, though. Take the line “To feed me”, for example. Back then I was thinking of the people who helped bring food to my table, from farmers to grocers to my own family. As I got older, I not only thought more about the plants, animals, fungi and other living beings involved in the complex food creation and distribution systems, but also the people who were more behind the scenes and often neglected: migrant farm workers, slaughterhouse employees, late-night cardboard box factory employees. And I thought of those ecosystems that were polluted by industrial fertilizers or torn down to make room for one more monocropped wheat field (even if it was organically grown).

So the whole prayer is a reminder to me that I am part of an incredibly complex web of connections, most of which I will never personally observe, but which I have an effect on in my everyday life. And it’s why the last line is bittersweet. I can never be as generous as a pig killed in a slaughterhouse for pork chops, and I will never know the experience of working fourteen hour days in a strawberry field under the hot summer sun, underpaid and worried about deportation. But I can at least give back in awareness, education, and trying to make better choices–like growing my own food when I’m able to, supporting fair trade practices and organic farming where I can afford it, and reminding others–even through this simple prayer–that nothing is as simple as “thank you”.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which encourages the reader to be more aware of their bioregion and all the beings they share it with.

How to Reconcile Tarot and Non-Human Nature

I’m taking a bit of a break from working on the last few assemblages for the Tarot of Bones, and I had some thoughts regarding working non-human animals into the very anthropocentric symbolism of the tarot. See, my deck has no humans in it whatsoever; it’s all made from the bones of other species of vertebrate, and draws heavily from natural history in design and meaning. This is very different from the majority of decks out there; most are based in one way or another on the Rider-Waite Smith deck, itself derived from even older decks.

With the exception of the Seven of Wands and the Three of Swords, all of the RWS cards include a human, humanoid figure, the Moon’s human face, or in the case of the Aces a disembodied hand popping out of a cloud. Where there are non-human animals, they are largely symbolic of human interests and biases; the Knights ride horses as is appropriate, the depths of the psyche are symbolized by a crab or lobster in the Moon card, and Strength shows the taming of a lion. Even some animal-themed tarot decks are essentially the RWS in fur, feather and fin. We reign supreme, and the other animals are merely bit players in our archetypal dramas.

This is, of course, to be expected. While tarot readings for pets and other animals certainly exist, for the most part we’re pretty self-centered, wanting to know what’s going to happen with us and our fellow human beings. Unfortunately this anthropocentrism has contributed heavily to our current environmental crisis; whether through necessity, malice or apathy, we have all contributed to one degree or another to the poisoning of the land, water, sky and their inhabitants.

One of my goals as a pagan, author and artist is to help people break out of that self-centered perspective. The Tarot of Bones is one tool I’m using to that end. While I, too, have drawn on the RWS deck for inspiration, I also rely quite a bit on the behaviors and other traits of the animals whose bones I’ve worked into the assemblages for the card art. This is especially true for the Court Cards and Major Arcana, all of which utilize the skulls of species specifically chosen for each card.

But this isn’t just a “this animal means this, that animal means that” deck. I’m trying to show the parallels in our behavior. I want us to internalize the ways of other animals so that we recognize them as kin. We may not want to acknowledge our inner sloth, but my Hanged Man draws on how that animal has used its slower lifestyle to survive and thrive over thousands of years–and how we can learn to do the same. And anyone who thinks we’re the only ones who fall in love have never seen two red foxes playfully courting each other! (Okay, so we’re less likely to run around peeing on our territory in the process, but you get the idea.)

The thing is, a lot of the lessons in the tarot are universal, not just for us alone. Every male ungulate has had to fight to the top of the mountain and hold his place like the Seven of Wands, and eventually even the King of the Mountain must fall, a la the Five of Swords. There is the feasting time of the Three of Cups, and the famine of the Five of Pentacles. Some cards may seem a little too abstract for our non-human kin, like the Magician. Consider that that card’s figure relies on making use of the resources available to him at any time, though, and we quickly see how every other creature survives doing the same.

In the end, there’s really not a whole lot that we humans can claim as our own without exception. Our technological skills are just a result of tool-making instincts coupled with a ridiculously large and complicated brain; our wars are no more than territorial squabbles writ large, and our peace is the baseline sought by every creature (except, perhaps, curmudgeons like the sarcastic fringehead).

So for you tarot enthusiasts out there, the next time you break out a deck for a reading, consider how the outcome might affect a coyote, or a monarch butterfly, or a giant squid. How might you read for the other creatures of the world?