I’m pleased to announce that the new, updated and annotated edition of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up is now available as a paperback and ebook at https://thegreenwolf.com/books/nature-spirituality-from-the-ground-up/! Originally published in 2016 by Llewellyn, it went out of print earlier this year and I received the rights back. So I made a new, self-published edition with some updates and notes in the footnotes. I also removed the word “totem” from the text and swapped in more culturally neutral terms like “nature spirits” and “animism”. Working with nature spirits isn’t just about what we can get from them; it’s a reciprocal relationship that requires us to know the land itself. In this book I show you ways to create new connections with the nature around you, identify nature spirits who may facilitate that growth, and use rituals and other practices to deepen these bonds. Most importantly, you’ll learn ways to give back to the land and the spirits with offerings that make a real difference.Enter into an animistic ecosystem populated not just with the spirits of animals, plants, and fungi, but landforms, celestial bodies, and natural forces. Deepen your spiritual connection to the earth, and rejoin the community of nature! The table of contents offers more about what’s in this book:
Chapter 1: The Importance of Reconnecting With Nature
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
I am not a huge fan of “nature” as being separate from humanity. The perceived divide of “natural” and “artificial” may seem like a way to emphasize the non-human nature that we often seem to ignore, but it still reinforces the idea that we are somehow divorced from natural processes and cycles, especially in cities. I do, however, favor the concept of “wilderness”. It evokes a place where humans have not had nearly as much of a dominant place in the ecosystem, and we can see more of what the rest of nature is like when we are just another critter in the woods (or fields, or desert, etc.).
Like many other Portland residents, while I live in the city proper, I do get out quite a bit to the wilderness areas that surround the metro region. Usually I’m off to hide somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge or spending a couple of days at the coast, but I’ve ranged further at times, depending on the situation.
This is a lifelong habit, this seeking less human-populated places for recharging and respite. When I enter the wilderness, I feel as though I am immersing myself in a rich, lush energy, though the nature of that energy changes from place to place. The treasures of the deserts of Eastern Oregon are of a distinct quality compared to the conifer forests of the Gorge. And the genii loci of these places are their own beings as well, though like the boundaries of the places, large and small, they shift and blend and overlap, less distinct than our linear minds might prefer.
As much as I might like to stay immersed in wilderness forever, I also recognize that I am an urban creature. I have wants and needs and obligations that require more connectivity of a human sort. And, admittedly, I like comfort. Snow hiking is much more fun when I know I have a warm home to go back to.
But I don’t want to forget these places I’ve been, nor the often deep spiritual experiences I have while in their embrace, whether tender or terrifying. And so I collect small, single souvenirs for each place—a small stone, a Douglas fir cone, a piece of driftwood, a pheasant feather. I even got an antique glass jar lid from a local wetland that had been cleaned up after years of garbage being dumped there. And for every thing I take with me, I leave a bit of myself: hair, energy, water for a plant if I’ve enough to share. They come home with me, and I mark them with the date and the place as their number has increased with each place I become acquainted with.
They used to have their own shelf, but eventually they migrated over to one of my two primary altars. You can see them scattered around the top of it here, amid the small stone animals I’ve used to signify directional totems for many years.The relocation of those stones and sticks and such is significant. For years I had a fairly typical generic Wicca-flavored neopagan altar, with the directional markers (animals, of course) plus the tools I used back then (athame, wand, etc.) and my image of Artemis, all from various places around the world and having more abstract than immediate symbolism. Once I began to embrace shamanism–and bioregionalism–more deeply, the tools I no longer used so often ended up on a second altar specifically for ritual implements old and new, and that’s when the gifts from the land spirits made their move.
It’s a beautiful weaving, actually. The centerpiece of the altar is a ceramic wolf-themed jug I made back in high school when I was first getting involved in paganism, and it represents me; it’s decorated with a pair of scrimshaw fossilized ivory necklaces that were instrumental in the processes that brought me to the Pacific Northwest. Immediately surrounding it are the four animal statues—Grey Wolf/North, Brown Bear/West, Red Fox/South, and Red-tailed Hawk/East—that survived the shift from my early neoshamanism and neopaganism, through my chaos magic explorations, and on into my more formal shamanic path. They represent the roots of my practice, like a volcanic core of basalt that has survived the erosion of softer stone surrounding it over time.
Radiating out from them, oriented toward the places they came from, are the reminders of the places I’ve been. They ground my practice more deeply in the place I am at. Not only have the spirits of place taken me in, but their other denizens have as well, and increasingly my altars are covered in gifts from other locals—the mule deer leg bone that is the handle of the beater for my drum, or the portrait that Steller’s Jay requested I get from the artist Ravenari in lieu of illegally possessing molted jay feathers.
Looking over these gifts, I can remember for a few moments—or longer, if I wish—what it was like to climb Dog Mountain in a November storm and nearly be blown off the summit; or the first time I met the Pacific Ocean; or the time I retreated to Bend, Oregon and found solace in the deserts there. I can remember the wildlife, and the plants, and the stones, and all the beings that come together in these places, just with these few small reminders.
And they’re all invitations to come back, to reconnect, whether physically or through journeying spiritually. Even the places that scared me weren’t out to get me; I simply wasn’t observing enough respect for them. Every visit is a chance to try again, to go in deeper, to give more of myself to the land spirits and see what happens next.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2012, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
The human brain is a fascinating thing. I had already learned a good deal about it just in personal reading, but when I went through my graduate program to get my counseling psych degree, I got a lot more up-to-date information. For example, I learned about the triune brain—the idea that we have the reptilian brain (the basal ganglia, the most primitive part of the brain), the paleomammalian brain (the limbic system) and the neomammalian brain (the neocortex). What I also learned is that this model is overly simplistic, that it doesn’t correspond as neatly to actual reptile and various mammal brains as is popularly assumed. Also, some non-mammalian species exhibit levels of intelligence and behavior that rival neocortical capacities, without an actual neocortex in the brain. And all mammals have some neocortical development, just not to the degree of humans. So, in short, the triune brain model has fallen out of favor due to its flaws.
Still, as very brief shorthand, the “reptile”, “old mammal” and “new mammal” models of the different sections of the human brain work if you keep its limitations in mind. It’s a good set of mnenomics to remember that the oldest portion of the brain (“reptile”) is that which is associated with primitive territorial and aggressive/defensive actions, the next part (“old mammal”) has diversified into more complex behaviors surrounding the care and feeding of young and other family as well as the first development of emotions, and the newest portion (“new mammal”) has even more complex social and communication skills, as well as planning and foresight.
My interest in it here is as a model for self-reflective meditation. Even as highly developed as we humans are, our brains often get the better of us, particularly the more primitive portions. We still can fall prey to uncontrolled and unexamined anger, territoriality (literal and symbolic), fear, and other such impulses. We fear the Shadow-self and often try to excise it. And the more primitive self sometimes manifests as unnecessary violence that too often gets justified in the name of religion and other ideologies. Wars are massive groups of “reptiles” in territorial conflict.
So much of spirituality and religion seems to be aimed at quelling or rising above what we perceive as the most animal parts of ourselves, whether that’s sex or violence or desire and need. Sometimes mortification of the body is used; other times, we receive punishment for exhibiting “base” behaviors”. Look at the concepts of sin and uncleanliness when applied to perfectly normal, harmless human behaviors like consensual sexuality. Or we try to escape the body and the physical needs through meditation and projection, and many of us are taught to idealize an afterlife where the gross weight of the body is left behind and we are made “perfect”. In any case, the animal self is all too often demonized and shunned.Yet the answer is not to further distance ourselves from these parts of who we are as human animals, but instead to reconnect with them. Our increasingly (perceived) detachment from ourselves as animals, the idea that we are “above” or “better than” animals, doesn’t take away the fact that we are animals still, including in our brains. No amount of rationalization or distancing will remove that, nor will any level of supposed transcendence. As long as we are human animals in human animal bodies, we are responsible for our human animal selves, motivations, and actions.
We don’t, of course, need to swing all the way in the other direction and let our ids go wild in order to “be animals”. Yes, we are attracted on a certain level to the idea of unfettered fighting and fucking and competing relentlessly for resources to maximize the likelihood our genes will be passed on. But let’s not break out the blood sacrifices and wild orgies just yet. If we are to give honor to the evolution that has brought us to where we are, let’s not forget the compassion and humane treatment of ourselves and others that we have developed to a high degree (though we are not the only species to possess them). After all, we have seen the atrocities that have occurred when people display little to no control over their more primitive instincts at all. That’s where we get war, assault, selfish hoarding of precious resources, etc.
I propose, instead, a middle ground, one that allows us to aspire to the best of the uniquely human traits we’ve developed as a species, and also the more primitive foundations that we are built on. The goal is to first be able to identify what parts of the brain/self are active at different points, particularly those seen as negative; and second, instead of pushing them away, observing and knowing the impulses and feelings for what they are and thereby letting them have a place while keeping them in check.
And we’re going to do this by looking to our ancestors and our much-extended family for their experience and wisdom. In the second part of this series, I’m going to show you a guided meditation that you can use to contact animal spirits that correspond with the various layers of your brain as a way to begin this reclaiming of yourself as a human animal.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
When I’m making artwork, I often enjoy having some music or video going on that I can listen to and watch while I work. The other day I finished up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which I’ve been watching segments of over the past couple of weeks. For those who haven’t seen it, it is an epic, thirteen-hour-long exploration of the Universe we live in, from the atomic level to the entirety of everything, ranging from the Big Bang itself all the way up to the present day. In each of the hour-long segments, Sagan touches on many diverse sciences, as well as history, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines. He puts into layperson’s terms the processes of evolution, the geologic history of the Earth, and the origin of life on this planet and even of the Universe itself.
What I found most invaluable, though, was how the series gives us perspective of where we fit into the grand scheme of things. Until not too long ago, most cultures had a very human-centric view of reality, where we were at the core, and everything revolved around us in importance. Cosmos is both beautiful and controversial because it shows us how very small we are, but also what amazingly intricate and long-lived processes we are an integrated part of. There were many times throughout the series where I was reminded of just how impossibly vast the Universe is, how very tiny the Earth is, and yet also how we ourselves, and everything else, are made of stars–and just how unlikely was the chance that we and everything else on Earth are here today. As humbling as it is to realize just how tiny our “pale blue dot” is, Cosmos also dedicates time to showing what does make us, as a species, so significant in our knowledge of the Universe. As Sagan said in the introduction to the series, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”.
This is simultaneously humbling and inspirational. Much of human religion and spirituality is so heavily anthropocentric our spiritual cosmologies are largely concerned with the interest the Universe and its denizens have in us, and most of our deities are created in our very human image. Many of us never get further than “Earth” and “Sky” as the primordial, “biggest” concept-deities, because that’s how our ancestors understood it to be.* The celestial bodies we most acknowledge are the Sun and the Moon and our closest planetary cousins, but even astrology primarily concerns itself with how the positions of the stars and planets are important to us humans. And yet the Earth, and the visible parts of the Sky, are minute compared to the immensity they, and we, are a part of. It’s humbling because we find more and more that humans are far from the most important collections of stardust, and also inspiring because with every new discovery in biology, in astrophysics, and in so many other disciplines, there’s so much more we can know and explore about Life, the Universe, and Everything, even as laypeople.
I have, over the years, heard pagans and other such folk complain that there’s no real magic in this world, simply because we can’t do things like shoot fireballs from our fingertips or physically shapeshift or heal life-threatening illnesses with a touch. And yet Cosmos is a perfect illustration of the magic that is inherent to this physical reality. Look at evolution, for example. It is not just the “survival of the fittest”, as many oversimplify it. Rather, it is a many-generations-long progression of tiny shifts and alterations, and somehow one ancestral being has offspring which, over millenia, branch off into many diverse creatures. The phylogenetic Tree of Life is full to overflowing with living and extinct beings that are fascinating, beautiful, and inspirational simply by being themselves, without layering on subjective meaning like totemic lore or other symbolism. Or, on a smaller scale, I like to think about photosynthesis. The chloroplasts in plant cells, which are likely derived from cyanobacteria that formed symbiotic relationships with primitive plant cells, take sunlight and turn it into food. All the food we eat is created from sunlight changed into sugars by photosynthesis–we are eating transformed light waves**. How are these things not magical and miraculous, especially the more we know about them?
Cosmos is a massive journey through many of these manners in which star-stuff has formed over billions of years, and I can’t but think of it as revealing why the physical reality I live in is sacred. “Sacred” means “to inspire awe or reverence”, and with each new piece of knowledge about the Universe I acquire, the more deeply I feel that sacredness. Mythos and folklore and divine inspiration are great and beautiful things in the sphere of human experience, but if we are to understand the roots of those experiences, we need to dig into the (sometimes literal) dirt where those roots are grounded.
I think, perhaps, Cosmos could be in and of itself a ritual tool. Thirteen hours is a long time, and while most pagan rituals last an hour at best, there’s also something to be said for an immersive experience. So here’s a suggestion, whether you’ve seen this series in its entirety already or not: Set aside an entire day where you can be undisturbed, either alone, or with other interested, curious and respectful parties. Get comfortable. And then watch Cosmos from beginning to end. (Take breaks for the bathroom and food as needed, of course, but keep them short.) It will be a lot of information, and you may wish to go back at a later time and watch it over again in smaller segments. But this time, simply open yourself to the flow of information, and see how it affects you and your understanding of the Universe.
It may seem odd, on this nature-spirituality-themed blog, to suggest such long immersion in media. Yet not all media is created equal, and this series is much more information about the Universe than what we can immediately observe on our own, condensed into a few hours. Sitting in front of a television won’t show you the spirit of the land where you live, but it can offer you so much more backstory on its geology and biology and ultimate origin than you could get by watching the denizens of the land interact. It’s a complement to direct experiences with nature, not a replacement, and I see it as inspiration to make more forays out of our homes and into the world around us–and, perhaps, to support more exploration beyond where we can currently go. To know about evolution is one thing, but even scientists best appreciate it when they are able to actually see the plants and animals that resulted. (In fact, some of the most glorious marvels written about nature have been penned by scientists, not about things going on in laboratory settings, but our fellow beings in their own habitats–or the habitats themselves.)
Whether you choose to immerse yourself in a thirteen-hour marathon, or take Cosmos in multiple smaller doses, I encourage you to take what you learn and apply it to your experiences in the world around you. I know for myself that having more of the story has enriched my hikes and rituals outdoors, and I hope this can be a valuable resource for you as well.
* Ancient mythos from various cultures worked with what the people of those cultures knew at the time, with great wisdom but without the benefit of high=powered telescopes and other very helpful technology. However, mythology is constantly changing with the times, and a really good example of a modern mythos in the grand tradition that makes use of 21st-century knowledge, I recommend NUP’s own Restorying the Sacred column, with some lovely modern nature myths written by Eli Effinger-Weintraub.
** We are still unable to shoot fireballs from our fingertips. But isn’t it cool that in a way, through photosynthesis, we can eat fire?
There are many purposes for shapeshifting—celebration, drawing on the power of the being you’re changing into, learning to change yourself, etc. There are also many techniques, some stationary, others involving dance and other movement. This version of shapeshifting is quieter, and is primarily for the purpose of creating connection with, and fostering awareness of, other beings. It’s a way to begin healing the rift we as a species have created between us and the rest of the beings we share this world with. It requires a certain level of intimacy; you can’t become a being without having some empathy for it, and the world could certainly do with more empathy all around.
Although you can theoretically shapeshift (non-physically, of course) into any being (and I use that term to refer to animals, plants, waterways, mountains, and more), I recommend choosing a being who is physically close to you, such as a particular tree or waterway near your home, or a species of animal that you see frequently. Even in my fairly urban Portland neighborhood, I still have a huge maple tree right outside my kitchen window. No matter the weather or my state of health, I can still check on “my” tree to see how it’s doing, how many leaves are left today, who’s perched in the branches, and so forth. And I have a good vantage point to watch the crows, fox and grey squirrels, and scrub jays that frequent the tree and surrounding high places.
You’ve already created something of a personal connection there, but let’s talk about taking it further. How much time do you spend every day observing this being? If it’s something relatively stationary like a stone or pond, try to make a daily visit in all weather, at least as much as you’re able. Or, with animals, see if there’s a place where you can fairly reliably see individuals of the species, if not daily then at least regularly. Take note of what you see each time. How does the being change with the time of day, the weather, even the seasons? How does it fit into its niche in the ecosystem, and are there any changes in that over time? What about human impact?
Balance out all this experience with some research as well. Read about the being online and in books; talk to others who have worked with it. Get the objective viewpoint to balance out your subjective observations and impressions, and allow them to complement each other.
This all can be an investment of years. That’s okay. We spend years getting to know other people; it works for other beings as well. Even after you’ve tried shapeshifting to this being, you can still keep up the daily observations, just as you may regularly check in on loved ones.
There’s no single, universal “right time” to make the step from observation to shapeshifting. A lot of it has to do with mutual trust; a being that doesn’t trust you won’t open up, and it’ll be harder for you to be receptive to a being you’re wary of. When you feel the time is right, go to the being. If the being is stationary, ask to sit on, against, or otherwise near it. For animals, sit where you’ve been able to observe them best (hopefully by now they’re used to your presence). If you are unable to be at the place itself, such as for health or safety reasons, find a place at home or otherwise where you can meditate for a while, undisturbed, and perhaps have some reminder of the being you’re connecting with at your side.
If you’ve already “spoken” with the being or a spiritual representation thereof, great! If you haven’t done such communication yet, you may wish to use a guided meditation to introduce yourself. Here’s a simple one:Close your eyes. Relax. Breathe. Be aware of where the being is in relation to you. Imagine a shining cord extending from your third eye to the being—not quite touching, but inviting the being to make that last step to complete the cord between you. Once the cord is complete, greet the being, and begin the conversation. When you feel the time is proper, ask the being for its help with shapeshifting, that you want to have a better understanding of it by becoming, even just a little, more like it. Allow it to answer as it will, and go from there.
If the being isn’t ready, respect that. Keep up your visits, and when you feel ready, try asking permission again (unless you have gotten a very firm “No, never, not at all” from the being).
Once you have gained permission, then it’s time to try the shapeshifting itself. Go back to the place where you can be with the being without disturbance. Close your eyes, breathe, and relax. Be very aware of your boundaries, physical and otherwise—where “you” end and the rest of the world begins. Now imagine those boundaries are becoming much more permeable.
Make physical contact with the being or its representation, and allow the boundaries between you and it to be more blurred. You may feel as though you are “melting” into each other, or you may feel your own form change and move to be more like that of the being. You may even feel you are being carried along by the being, a sort of “rider”; there may even be multiple representatives if you’re working with a very social animal such as schooling fish. Any way it manifests, allow this change to happen, and observe how your perceptions and thoughts change as well.
What is it like to be that being? How does it differ from being yourself? How do you feel? Is it fun? Scary? Do you feel curious? Are some things more important to you now than they were before, and are others less so? How comfortable are you in this form?
Is the being itself staying in contact with you while you shift? Try asking it questions, if you can, or share observations—after all, it’s the expert on being itself!
When you’re ready to come back, thank the being for its help. Then imagine what your body feels like normally, or state your name, your address, and other “human” things. Don’t rush it; allow yourself to ease back in, let the boundaries reform at their own pace. Once you’re awake, take some time to ground. Eat something protein-heavy, observe the way your hands move, recite the lyrics to one of your favorite songs. Do things that gently bring you back to being human.
After you’re done, think about how you feel about the being now. Do you have more empathy for its place in the world, and the challenges it may face? Do you feel differently about yourself and your own place here? What may you have learned from this experience that you didn’t know or understand before?
Do keep in mind that all of your impressions are still processed by your very human brain and mind, even in the depths of the shapeshift. You can’t entirely sever your connection to being human. It is a good idea to check your impressions against more objective information, and to have sensitivity toward whom you want to identify with. It may not cause much trouble for you to be convinced that mosquitoes really suck other animals’ blood because they want to steal their power. However, shapeshifting into American Mink, and then being convinced that you now have to free all the caged mink at fur farms, is a bad idea, no matter how deeply you may have connected with that spirit.
Done with care, shapeshifting can be a highly effective way to be more empathetic toward other beings, to raise our everyday awareness of their presence, and to foster greater consideration of them both individually, and as a society.
In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
There’s a recurring dream I have; it started when I was young. In it, I take my form as a white wolf. I’m in a forest, and the forest is burning. The tall pines and fir trees crackle and split in the flames around me, and I can hardly breathe for the stinging clutch of smoke at my throat. Hot embers scorch the pads of my paws. The tops of the trees begin to topple over, weakened by the flames, and the ground is suddenly made more hazardous with smoldering logs. If I could only find my way out…where is my pack?
I awaken suddenly, panting, startled, thrust back into my skin and flesh and bone all too quickly.
Human legend and lore is full of shapeshifters. Sometimes the changes are literal—physically transmuting the body into that of another animal, or even a plant or stone. Sometimes the person may become a breeze, or a waterway. Sometimes the change is conscious and consensual; other times…not so much.
There are other shapeshifters, too. They include those who take on many roles—Lugh Samhildánach (The Many-Skilled), who excelled at any task given, or polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci. Many people, from thespians to cosplayers, take on a new persona when they don particular clothing; we see this in the wearing of ritual regalia in many traditions as well.
Shapeshifting, for some, is only about taking on a role, wrapping a core self with a persona that may be worn or removed like clothing. But in a more ritualized, spiritual setting, shapeshifting is about becoming something other than ourselves.
The idea of stepping outside of the self and into another is often alarming to the Western post-industrial mindset. It brings up inaccurate images of mental illnesses, or at the very least identity confusion. We are taught that each person has only one identity, and while it may be tweaked a bit here and there depending on whether you’re talking to Aunt Mabel or your secret crush or a job interviewer, you’re still supposed to essentially be you.
Yet to be done fully, shapeshifting necessitates a very deep empathy with another being. Most of us don’t empathize beyond emotions; we allow ourselves to feel with another person’s pain, for example. But to really become another being, we have to open ourselves up beyond that, and set ourselves aside.
I am 23 years old, at my very first pagan gathering, a weekend celebration at Brushwood Folklore Center in New York. Night has long since fallen, and I am at the drum circle, with a fire burning brightly in the center. In my hands I hold my grey wolf skin that I have transformed into a dance costume with carefully tied leather straps. I have spent hours practicing dancing in it in my apartment for the better part of a year, but this is the first time I’ve been brave enough to dance in front of others.
I drape the hide over my head, slip my arms through the same holes that lupine muscle and bone once filled, and tie the hide to my head, wrists and ankles. I feel Wolf the totem, and wolf the spirit, slide over me with the hide, and I suddenly feel I am so much more than myself. I step into the lines of dancers circling around the fire again and again, and I—we, the wolves and I—begin to dance. And soon, it is just I, Wolf-I.
We require an Other place to shift into an Other self. It may be Other only in the sense that one’s physical setting has changed—going from work to home, for example. But the Other place may also be the land of dreams, or the spirit world of journeys, or a physical wilderness unlike one’s home territory—or a deliberate ritual setting.The dreamland is often the first place we experience shapeshifting of some sort, due to its universality in our experiences, as well as its mutable nature. The dreamland may alternately be described as the subconscious romping ground of our brains and the cumulative inner landscapes we have inherited from our many ancestors, or entry into an entire world apart from us where we might literally meet our ancestors, among other spirits.
As we grow older and become more integrated into relationships with other beings, human and otherwise, we develop the ability to make subtle changes in ourselves according to present company and setting. The shifts are largely unconscious, and we may only be peripherally aware that they’re happening most of the time. By comparing how we present ourselves in various situations, we can begin to better understand the processes by which we change.
Ritual is a deliberate shift. We put on special vestments, create ritual space, and utilize items that are unique to that setting. We may still remain ourselves, though yet a different part thereof. But some of us also become other beings entirely through invocation and similar rites. While our earlier experiences with shapeshifting may seem to be out of our hands—literally—practice does make perfect, or at least better.
Drumbeats carry me into the journeying state; I can still vaguely feel my left arm pounding the beater against the horsehide drum held by my right. However, it is an arm covered in white fur. The fingers are shorter, stubbier, ending in claws, and growing less and less human as I watch. Were I to return to my physical form, I would find myself just as human as ever. But here, in the spirit world, my human form melts away—wolf-form is easier to travel in, easier to protect myself in. And there are beings who will only speak to me in this form, too. Humans can be scarier than wolves, you know.
Consciously shapeshifting into another being, especially with the aid of a representative of that sort of being, can be one of the most powerful acts of magic. The effects may be wide-ranging.
On an individual level, we may go places we couldn’t otherwise, in spirit and in emotion and in mind. We can break out of personal ruts, learn valuable lessons from the beings we become that we can then bring back to our human lives, and strengthen our imaginations and other creative spiritual skills.
We also stand to learn more about the world around us, to be more aware of the importance of other beings and places. It is harder to disregard someone that you have been yourself, even for a short while. Indeed, for many people what is most sacred is that in which we are most able to immerse or surrender ourselves.
Those sacred things that allow us to temporarily blur or remove our boundaries vary from person to person. I have limited my anecdotes to my experiences with Wolf and wolf spirits—partly due to tradition, and also to show that it’s possible to work with the same energy/being in different forms of shapeshifting. But it is quite possible to connect with a variety of animals, plants, stones, waterways, places, and yes, even buildings and statues and parks, through shapeshifting. This holds true whether it’s on an individual scale, or something as potentially elaborate as Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings.
In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.
Through three straight semesters, I learned the basics of ecopsychology and who some of the key figures were; I also explored how to incorporate a client’s relationship to nature in their therapy, along with family history, spirituality, and other important parts of the client’s experience. I even spent four days out in the woods with other students learning hands-on wilderness therapy techniques. (I also gave a presentation on how Alan Moore’s run of the Swamp Thing comic book could be used in ecotherapy, but that’s a story for another time.)
Not surprisingly, I discovered much that enhanced my neopaganism. Furthermore, I saw a wealth of material that could be relevant to neopaganism in general, as well as elements of neopaganism and related paths that could enhance the development and practice of ecopsychology. I wasn’t the first person to make the connection of course; on the contrary, some of the very foundational concept of ecopsychology are quite relevant to nature-based paganisms.
Here are just a few of the salient points:
–Ecopsychology helps to explore and understand the development and maintenance of a nature-friendly mindset.
Why do we enjoy being out in the wilderness? What is it that makes us respond better to a tree than a live plasma-screen movie of the same tree?(1) What are the effects of disconnection of nature, both on an individual and systemic basis? Ecopsychologists seek to not only find answers to these questions, but to utilize the information in helping clients achieve better states of mental health. Many pagans are already familiar with the relaxation that can result from a weekend spent camping, or the difference between an indoor and outdoor ritual; ecopsychology provides additional insight as to why we may feel that way.–Ecopsychology sets the individual firmly within the context of the ecosystem they are a part of, human and otherwise.
One of the criticisms that ecopsychologists have of much of modern therapy is that while the average therapy intake form asks clients about their family members, significant others, home life past and present, and other human relationships, it doesn’t ask about the client’s relationship to nature. As psychology, particularly applied in counseling, takes an increasingly systemic view of people and their mental health, research and anecdotal evidence alike deny the (particularly American) ideal of the “rugged individualist”. Rather than an island, each person is part of an interconnected greater system, and the natural world is a part of that. Ecopsychology gently reminds us that our very minds and perceptions are inextricably linked to our environment, something that many neopagans have been living consciously for years.
–Ecopsychology meshes well with nature-based religion.
From its inception in the late 20th century, ecopsychology has always been closely entwined with spirituality, especially (though not exclusively) nature-based spiritual and religious paths. Even the anthology Ecopsychology, which came out in 1995 and is considered one of the foundational texts of the subject, included an essay by Leslie Gray entitled “Shamanic Counseling and Ecopsychology”. Whether theistic or not, spirituality is an intrinsic part of the right-brained tendencies of ecopsychology, and paths ranging from neopaganism to Catholicism(2) have been explored within ecopsychological writings.
–Ecopsychology lends itself well to ritual practices.
Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings rite, and Mary Gomes’ Altars of Extinction(3), are just two of many examples of how ecopsychology has delved into ritual as a way of healing and processing the profound level of grief many feel at the destruction of the environment. Ecopsychologists recognize ritual as a structured way for clients to process and work through life experiences past and present; additionally, as many neopagan rituals tend to be focused on the bright, celebratory side, an exploration of the processing of grief may be valuable to our spiritual communities.
As you can see, just in these few examples there are plenty of areas of overlap between ecopsychology and neopagan interests and practices. Our relationship to the world, to include that expressed in spirituality, depends heavily on our perceptions and cognitions; we cannot experience and interpret what is around us without the filters of our senses and our thoughts. Ecopsychology is a formal, though often quite organic, exploration of that relationship between personal microcosm and universal macrocosm.
2. During my first ecopsych course, one of the co-authors of the excellent text, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, spoke at one of the classes. Those readers with a particular interest in interfaith dialogue may be interested in the book, though it’s an enlightening read in general.
Recently I had someone contact me about a deer antler headband that I have in my Etsy shop. They asked whether the antlers had come from the same deer, given that one antler has two tines and one has three. I explained that yes, these were in fact from one animal, and I had cut them off the skullcap myself. In fact, most deer have antlers that aren’t exact mirror images of each other; even those with the same number of tines often have variations in shape and size.
Art forms ranging from nature illustrations to Disney movies would have us believe that nature is largely symmetrical and perfect (unless, of course, when portraying something allegorically flawed, in which case there is deformity.) And at first glance most living beings appear to be more or less even on both/all sides.
But look a little closer, and you find that there are subtle differences when comparing halves, or fifths, or whatever symmetry is being displayed. Perhaps one arm of a starfish is slightly longer than the other. Or the underside of a red-tailed hawk’s left wing has a little more color than the right. If you were to take a photo of your face, cut it exactly in half, copy the halves, flip them over and match like to like, you would find that there are quite a few appreciable differences between each of your facial hemispheres.
Imperfections aren’t just about symmetry, either. Leucism and albinism are conditions in which animals lack significant amount of melanin, making them much paler than their kin. A butterfly whose wings may be a bit ragged and worn around the edges can still fly, even if not quite as well. And a genetic quirk in a certain strain of wheat several thousand years ago led to grains that stuck to the stem instead of falling off easily to grow into new plants; the ease with which these could be harvested led to the dawn of human agriculture.
Yet to call these imperfections assumes that there is some standard called “perfect” to aspire to. Certainly there are forms in nature that we find more aesthetically pleasing, but even those are affected by subjective biases. However, nature is less about perfection and more about adequacy. Does a given trait help an organism to live long enough to pass on its genes, and do the genes then carry that trait forward? Then it’s adequate.
We often think of “adequate” as “not really good enough.” We’re told that we need to be exceptional, outstanding, the best. Who celebrates second place, anyway? Yet nature is full of beings that aren’t necessarily number one, but who manage to get along in the world just fine. As Henry van Dyke said, “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang here except those that sang best.”
People are a lot like that, too. If you look at any given trait, skill, competition, etc. there can only be one person who is the very best, and only a very few who can be considered elite. But that doesn’t mean everyone else has to pack up and go home. In high school I was basically the slowest runner on the track team thanks to undiagnosed asthma, but I got out there and gave it my best anyway. And now, at forty, I still get out to run when the weather’s good even though an eight minute mile is an impossibility for me. That still makes me a runner; I don’t doubt my status just because I’m not especially fast.
We also glorify pretty arbitrary standards of attractiveness, standards that shift and change according to culture and time. Most people aren’t models; most of us have little details like moles or blemishes or scars that keep us from being “perfect” (especially without cosmetics or Photoshop). Yet we’re still able to be a part of this world and make our contributions as we will, and most of us find relationships of some sort. We are each of us more or less adequate.
This isn’t a bad thing, not by far. So much is made about the (often arbitrary) best that often the rest feel like there’s no point in trying if someone else is better than we are. Which is sad, because something is still worth being or doing even if you haven’t specialized to the point of single focus. Adequacy also allows for a lot more variety. There’s not just one pinnacle to achieve, but a whole landscape of mountains, valleys, prairies and other unique places to explore. Each of these habitats is adequate for supporting the life forms that call it home.
I think we need to celebrate the adequate more. We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and on each other to only shoot for the highest goals or states of being. Not only is it unrealistic, but it’s setting a lot of people up for failure, as that goal of perfection is a pretty tiny target to aim for. Humans, being animals, are messy biological systems that evolved to adequacy, and any statements of hierarchical value beyond that are largely artificial and generally do more harm than good.
On that note, we also need to stop looking at our little asymmetries and other quirks as “imperfections”. All that does is reinforce the idea that these variances are somehow bad. If you saw a blue jay whose left cheek stripe was a little thicker than the right one, you’d just see it as an interesting field mark, assuming you even noticed it at all. In the same way we need to be accepting of the ways in which we are all different, without judgment or malice. And we really, really need to be more forgiving of ourselves, even when (and especially when) we’re told we aren’t “perfect” somehow.
So the next time you feel self-conscious, or flawed, or just not good enough, look to nature. Having five points instead of six didn’t stop that buck from growing big enough to have a decent set of antlers; so what if he was a little uneven? Judge yourself as I would judge that deer: a perfectly adequate representation of his kind, and every bit as lovely as the rest.
So last month the largest spinning ice disk recorded formed in the Presumpscot River in Maine. It’s a pretty rare phenomenon caused when a piece of ice breaks off a frozen river surface near a bend and is spun around like a record. This one, being so incredibly large, attracted a lot of attention.
Humans have spent thousands of years deciding that nature wasn’t good enough on its own, and that it needed our influence to be truly perfect. Much of that has been in the service of material exploitation, that a forest won’t maximize its potential until its wood has been made into houses and furniture, its minerals into coinage, and its water into an engine for electricity. There are all too many people who look at a wild place and only see dollar signs.
It’s almost more defensible than the actions of this person and others who decide that something awe-inspiring in nature must have their personal mark on it because somehow they’re important enough to make that statement. At least houses and energy have practical applications that can improve people’s lives in concrete ways. The same can’t be said for graffiti on natural features, even well-intended.
“What harm is there in breaking a big ice disk, or carving initials into a tree?” one might ask. Well, sure, there’s no price tag on the ice disk, and chances are the tree will survive, though there are plenty of cases where that sort of damage led the tree to die from disease through the breach in its bark. Painting on rock formations may be mostly obnoxious rather than harmful to the rock, though some of the paints can be toxic to the local ecosystem.
Part of the issue is the concept of intrinsic value. I value nature for itself, rather than just for what I can get out of it. The very fact that I am surrounded by a vibrant community of biological beings, inhabiting a planet ever-changing through geological, hydrological, and climatic forces, never ceases to fill me with awe and wonder. I don’t need to then overlay that with my biases to make it pretty.
This may seem odd coming from someone who routinely takes bits of nature and imposes personal meaning on them through art. After all, it would be easy to defend the peace sign on the ice disk as art. However, scale and permanence play a big part in things. If you make a snow sculpture in your backyard, no one’s likely to feel they missed out on the unmarred snowfall. But a lot of people who wanted to see the ice disk, whole and undamaged, had that ruined for them by one man’s actions. He destroyed the shared experience.
Moreover, he seems to have come at his project without really considering the intrinsic value of the disk, only valuing it as a canvas for his idea of art. Good art involving nature will show appreciation for that nature, rather than just using it as an object to display human biases on. It’s what I try to do with my own artwork, asking the hides and bones what they want to become and trying to focus on their beauty. I appreciate them as they are, and then do my best to do them some justice even as I impose my arrogance as an artist upon them.
Obviously we’re never not going to leave our mark on the world, until there are none of us left anyway. There are too many of us, and we’re too used to taking, taking, taking. Few of us in industrialized societies would want to move to a quality of life that involves strict subsistence. I just wish people would think more about something besides themselves, sometimes besides their own wants and needs and priorities.
I want people to be able to look at rare, amazing things in nature and not have their immediate thought be “I need to change that!” I want more people to be able to have the appreciation for nature’s intrinsic values that existed long before we ever did. I want us, just for a moment, to stop corralling nature in with our economic and religious beliefs, and just let it be its own thing, massive and terrifying and magnificently beautiful from the tiniest atom to the entire universe. Stop telling stories about how much money you can make off of it, or how it has all these supernatural properties that we can exploit, or any other ways in which nature supposedly revolves around us.
Just take a moment, and breathe in the reality that we live on an incredible planet that has giant disks made of frozen water, and long-limbed animals who thunder across grassy plains with hooves of keratin, and tiny bryophyte forests housing a myriad of springtails, worms, and bacteria aplenty. Appreciate the marvel that is your own body, created from molecules parted out from the food you have eaten over a lifetime and which is made from the many minerals and nutrients of a thousand soils. Touch the grass and realize that its family–Poaeceae–first sent forth blades in the last days of the dinosaurs.
Yes, we need values besides the intrinsic. But we do need the intrinsic, too.
So over the past couple of years, as I’ve been spending time on a farm on the coast where my art studio is, the level of manure I encounter on a daily basis has increased quite a bit. It started with a parrot, and then an appaloosa, and now here we are with three parrots, two horses, seven sheep, a llama, a quail, ten chickens, and one German shepherd. Most of these technically aren’t mine (except the chickens and the dog) but I get to take care of all of them on a daily basis.
While I get to do the fun things like feeding and exercising and letting the chickens out to play in the pasture, I also have to take care of the inevitable poop. Sometimes this is as simple as cleaning the newspaper out of a parrot cage. However, one of the messiest and most physically demanding tasks is mucking out the horse shelter, which generally involves taking a wheelbarrow or two of manure and old hay each day over to the orchard to be spread on the ground for the benefit of all the plants. Since there’s nothing new and fragile over there, and the grass is pretty hardy, it can age in situ and within a few months it’s a pretty decent fertilizer for the ground.
This makes it more efficient than hauling it to a composting area, and then spreading it out in the orchard. It also maximizes the amount of nutrients going to that particular land. See, since the farm is right on the coast, the soil is sandy. And in fact the orchard is on the berm of an old railroad that used to run all the way up the peninsula along what was the beach a century or so ago. When jetties were put in at the mouth of the river, they stopped the flow of sand along the coast, and it began to back up. This has since added several hundred yards of ground to the west side of the peninsula; pretty much everything west of the barn was covered in water not too long ago.
So the soil has barely had time to even think of a humus layer, let alone build an appreciable layer thereof. The native plants, like shore pine and common foxglove, have evolved to survive on poor soil, and are some of the first plants to move out onto new land once the grasses have had their say for a while. Putting manure on the ground, therefore, significantly speeds up the rate at which organic material accumulates; planting nitrogen-fixing plants like clover helps further.
You’d think I’d hate hauling manure; it’s literally a dirty job (but someone’s gotta do it) and this time of year when everything is soaked with rain the manure picked up out in the pasture is much heavier. But it’s nowhere near as smelly as you might imagine, and moving it around is good exercise. Moreover, I appreciate the effort I’m putting in to take this lovely compost-to-be that our horses have left behind–literally–and use it to improve the soil for cultivation purposes. Especially during winter, when temperatures are cooler, the manure can decay more slowly so that the nutrients aren’t all lost to rapid microbial activity.
The orchard, with fresh manure in the foreground and each row with an increasingly older layer. Notice how vigorously the grass is growing back the longer it’s been sitting there.
How is that not magic? It is literally creating food from waste! No human being could take a wand and wave it an accomplish the same. Yet like photosynthesis and the hydrological cycle, this complicated and necessary ritual goes unnoticed by the majority of people the majority of the time. No wonder I’ve run into so many pagans over the years who complain that the world lacks magic just because we can’t shoot fireballs out of our hands or physically shapeshift or stop a speeding bullet with our thoughts. I think they just aren’t looking hard enough.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve approached the concept of magic not as some supernatural force wherein we can make things happen beyond normal human abilities, but as the supremely complicated chemical reactions that are at the heart of how our precious, fragile, life-giving Earth functions at all levels. My world is absolutely full to bursting with magic, with the ancient solar-systemic forces that cause the Earth to rotate to this day, the transformation of sunlight into the sugars that fuel the entire food web via photosynthesis, and the replication of DNA in countless cells of a myriad of living creatures every moment.
If I were still the sort of pagan to put stock in spells and rites, I might make something of my daily efforts beyond this. And in fact sometimes I do think about things that are bothering me when I am scooping and cleaning the horses’ leavings; it’s a time when my mind wanders anyway. But I remember that time and effort transform all things, and so I can imagine that when I spread the muck over the ground and leave it to biodegrade, I also leave my worries there to be digested and turned into something more positive and fertile. This doesn’t actually remove the things I worry about from my life, and it doesn’t miraculously cure me of my anxiety. It’s a good mental exercise, and a reminder that in many cases I have the ability to bring forth good things out of an otherwise bad situation if I just put enough work and patience into it. But I don’t see it as some magical rite that changes anything outside my own head, though years ago I might have.
Today, there is magic enough in the manure itself, from the time that the horse’s intestines are drawing the last nutrients they can through their permeable membranes to feed hungry cells, to when flies lay the eggs carrying the next generation in the fresh piles, and finally when the whole mess is spread out by wheelbarrow and raked over sandy soil to be made into a buffet for all sorts of tiny creatures without whom the ecosystem would collapse. It is motion, and transformation, and the passing of life-force from one being to another.
Not only grass, but hawksbeard, trailing blackberry and other plants are already finding a place among what will nourish them for generations. The additional nutrients will also host a greater diversity of fungi, bacteria and other tiny beings, as well as insects and other small arthropods, plus the birds and other animals that eat them–and so on.
I am content with this sort of magic, natural and measurable and infinitely replicable–and not at all anthropocentric. Not that I’m entirely uninvolved; I find peace with the change I make in the world by moving nutrients from one place to another so that the second place may be more suitable for fruit and nut trees, and berry vines, and who knows what else? I experience awe and wonder at knowing, at least from a layperson’s view, how this cycle of decay and renewal works, and how it doesn’t even really need my participation to keep doing its thing twenty-four hours a day. I am bringing forth a more fertile micro-reality in accordance with my Will, though with the understanding that there are plenty of factors–weather, unhappy microbes, me having a cold and being unable to move manure that day–that could affect the outcome in spite of my best efforts.
And so, dear reader, there’s a good chance that while you finish this post, I am out on the land with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow, creating fertile magic with the help of microbes and manure.
Did you enjoy this blog post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up! It’s a guide to connecting with your bioregion on both spiritual and practical levels.