Category Archives: Cosmology

Spirits in the Kitchen: Honoring the Remains of Our Food

[Main photo: rice and cheese stuffed crimini mushrooms, roasted acorn squash and red onion, and sauteed vegetables and mushrooms]

The older I get, the more important food has become to me. For the first quarter century of my life, I couldn’t have cared less about domestic duties. In fact, in my misguided desire to break out of traditional female gender roles, I eschewed anything associated with the household for many years. I remember a friend coming over to visit, and being shocked at how scarce kitchenware was in my home. I was basically living like a stereotypical bachelor(ette).

Then I ended up living with someone who insisted on taking over all the domestic duties as a way of “taking care” of me. Unfortunately, their cooking skills were…less than advertised. After entirely too many pans of cheap chicken thighs or pork chops covered in cream of mushroom soup and then dried to the consistency of shoe leather in the oven, I finally decided to learn to cook in self-defense. I started with my mom’s chili recipe, a piece of comfort food from home. And I found that I loved cooking–the flavors, the alchemy, the transformation of a pile of ingredients and a recipe into something artistic as well as edible.

While I am in no way a professional level cook, and in some ways am still barely competent in the kitchen, I’ve acquired a decent collection of cookbooks and flavor manuals, and I have a much better set of utensils. After years of gardening and foraging and preserving plants, and even raising and slaughtering my own meat, I also have gained a much deeper appreciation for the quality of the ingredients I use. I can’t always afford the pasture-raised meat, but I try to have a bottle of genuine olive oil no matter the recipe. (Costco has become one of my greatest resources.)

One thing that has always been central to my cuisine, even from the start, was respect for the animals, plants and fungi I was about to consume. We literally are what we eat. The vast majority of the molecules in my body came from something I ate or drank, and every time I sit down to a meal or a snack I am aware that part of what I am about to enjoy is going to become a long-term part of my body. After all, I’m only borrowing it temporarily before it gets returned to the ecosystem, so I should be appreciative of those recently deceased whose remains are actively being recycled by my digestive system.

Why is this awareness important?

–Connection with nature on a spiritual level: My paganism has always been nature-based, even if the exact interpretation thereof has evolved over time. As a naturalist pagan, I don’t invest myself in supernatural concepts–even the idea of spirits, to me, is something that I don’t actively try to prove literally. Instead, my path is firmly rooted in the idea that I am a part of something deeper and greater than myself, the concentric rings of community, ecosystem, planet and universe. By being mindful of the living beings whose now-dead remains are about to nourish me and keep me alive another day, I am reminding myself that I am part of that greater cycle, and that I am just one tiny part of the great community of nature. Even when the being who is feeding me–a fruit or nut tree, for example–is technically still alive, I still want to honor the sacrifice of their energy-made-matter and their potential offspring.

Some of my chickens enjoying kitchen scraps that they will later turn into eggs

–Consideration of the welfare of other beings: I know there are people who will argue that anyone who isn’t a strict vegan can’t possibly be acting for the welfare of animals, at least, and that plants and fungi don’t count since they don’t have animal nervous systems. I’m not going to get into that debate because that’s at least three more blog posts, so leave it be. As someone who is an obligate omnivore, I’ve found the best solution for both my health and the planet is Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants. I am not currently in a place where I am able to grow or raise all of my food, but the farm my art studio is on has a nice garden going, with plans for improvement in subsequent years. I also have access to several farmers’ markets in the summer, though I’ve yet to find a good local CSA. And starting this past year I began raising chickens for both eggs and meat (though they’ve ended up being pets as well.) The more I can control the source of my own food and how it was grown and raised, the better I will feel about my role as a consumer of food.

–Mindful eating: This is a way to slow down your consumption of food and to be more aware of the experience of eating. It serves to not only reconnect you with something that can be quite enjoyable, but slowing down the act of eating can help reduce indigestion and other problems. Moreover, I feel it gives meals more meaning. As someone who eats alone 95% of the time, it can be easy for me to just zone about and shovel food into my mouth while I wander around online or read a book. Mindful eating makes me appreciate what I’m eating more, which has encouraged my already active interest in home cooking. And it helps me to remember again that everything I’m eating was once alive, as I am now alive, and that is something to respect.

I don’t really do special rituals or magic with my food; instead, having mindfulness infuse the very acts of cooking and eating is ritual in and of itself. That being said, you’re certainly welcome to toss a little kitchen witchery into the process if that’s your practice. Here are a few ideas:

–When preparing your work area, consider lighting candles or incense, or cleansing the area with a wash of salt- or herb-infused water. You can also put out crystals nearby that represent your intent. Some pagans like to have an apron or other adornment they only wear when preparing sacred meals (though I consider every meal to be sacred.) Consider it a way of making sacred space for the beings you are about to prepare into food, welcoming them into your home.

–Say a prayer over the ingredients for the meal you are about to prepare, thanking them for being there and asking that you be able to treat them with respect as you turn them into nourishment for you and whoever else you’re feeding

–Bless the herbs and spices you add to your meals. You can even look up magical correspondences for them, and add ones that match the intent of the meal. For example, cashews are often associated with financial success, so a meal of cashew chicken might be a good thing to have just before an interview or important business deal. Ask the spirits of the plants and minerals to help you with your goal.

–Create magical art with your food. This is especially easy with baking, and plenty of magical groups have celebrated rituals with cookies or cakes decorated with pentacles and other symbols. Try baking a layer cake where each layer is dyed with food coloring in shades that reflect intent–green for fertility and growth, pink for youth and joy, yellow for sunshine and health, and so on. Ask the wheat (or oats, or rice) in the flour, as well as the eggs, milk or other ingredients, to carry that intent for you.

Cream of asparagus soup with homemade whole wheat bread and Tillamook butter

–Decorate your table with reminders of the animals, plants and fungi you are consuming. You might have plates that have chickens on them, or add leaves of lettuce and fresh mushrooms as an edible centerpiece. Let the meal be a celebration of these beings and their gifts to you.

–If eating with others, take time to discuss the sources of your food and why you chose them. Even if the answer is “This is what I could afford and what I had access to,” that’s valid. Talk about where you think the plants were grown and the animals raised, and if you want to be able to change your sources–even if you can’t do it now–brainstorm ways in which that can happen at some point.

–Let nothing go to waste. Leftovers are love, as far as I’m concerned, not the least reason of which being they save me a night of having to cook again. Should you have chickens, pigs or other omnivorous animals, give them your kitchen scraps. Other pets can have limited types of scraps; dogs and cats love meat bits, various small critters love vegetables and fruit, and rats and some parrots will eat just about anything you give them. As for the rest, if you’re able to compost outside, tend your compost pile with care. Apartment dwellers may look into vermicomposting–composting with worms–which can be done indoors with few problems. Just don’t leave food scraps where wild mammals can easily get to them; this encourages them to lose their fear of humans and makes them dependent on us for food, which rarely turns out good for anyone involved. If you garden, let your compost be a gift to your plants (and fungi, if you grow dirt-loving mushrooms.)

Even if you don’t take the idea of spirits literally, these practices can still help you maintain awareness of where your food comes from and how you are connected to everything in a greater webwork of relationships. At a time when more people than ever are divorced from the sources of their nourishment, and take for granted the soil and the beings that it supports, it is crucial for us to regain that appreciation for our food. We are already destroying the land, the water and the air, and we need these if we are to continue having food available to us. If we start with changing our awareness, then that awareness translates into actions for the better. Let it start in your kitchen, and move out from there into the world.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider a copy of my book Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which includes even more practices to connect with your bioregion and the beings within it! More info on my books can be found at https://thegreenwolf.com/books

Fight Fire With Fire, Not Prayers and Rituals

In case you aren’t aware, the Columbia River Gorge is on fire. Over the weekend, a group of teenagers setting off fireworks in the Eagle Creek canyon set dry brush ablaze, and as I write this over 20,000 acres are now burning, to include precariously close to well-loved landmarks like Multnomah Falls. Over 150 hikers had to be rescued by the Hood River Search and Rescue Team (who could really use donations, by the way.) The easternmost edges of the Portland metro area are under evacuation warnings, and over forty miles of Interstate 84 are closed in both directions.

What I want to tell you is about how broken I feel at this moment, how powerless and weak. I was thirteen when the woods that were my solace were bulldozed flat to the ground, an event that was legitimately traumatic for me and contributed to both my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and to my deep drive to learn about and protect non-human nature. I want to tell you about how I am suddenly back in that moment of despair, anger and helplessness, and fighting to not fall into the deep pain and disconnection that swallowed me for years afterward. I want to tell you about how the red clay of the earth torn up by machinery a quarter century ago is reflected in the flames in photos of my beloved Gorge, the first place that welcomed me with open arms when I moved to Portland a decade ago, and which is permanently tattooed on my left arm in gratitude. I want to tell you how difficult is it for me to keep to my daily schedule and list of tasks while I know that places where I have set foot for many years are burning to the ground, and all I want to do is curl up in my bed and cry.

Instead, what I am going to tell you is what led to this devastation, and how to respond in ways that actually have a concrete, measurable effect. Perhaps it is my grief and pain that make me more sensitive and cynical, but all the calls to “send energy to the firefighters” and rituals to try to make it rain just seem like wasted effort. Normally I shrug and let people do whatever their path says is right in this situation, but I am raw and angry and fed up as my sacred places burn. We don’t need prayers for rain. We need to stop the processes that are preventing the rain in the first place.

What is happening now is the culmination of centuries of human stupidity and greed. Our climate IS changing because of our industrial activities and the pollutants they create, as well as the destruction of mitigating natural factors like the oceans and forests that are supposed to absorb atmospheric carbon. This is leading to drier, hotter summers in the Northwest; this August was the hottest on record in Portland, and the rest of the area isn’t far behind. The entire area is a tinderbox of dead plants.

Add in many decades of fire suppression led by timber companies not wanting to lose their cash trees, and budget cuts that keep forestry services from engaging in prescribed burns. See, fire is natural in forests; some plants even need fire to properly germinate their seeds. But because fire also damages timber and threatens tourism, any natural lightning-strike fires have been quickly put out, and Smokey Bear reminds us that “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” But this all resulted in the understory of the forest–ferns, rhododendrons, salal, and more–growing much thicker than is natural, and many smaller trees getting a roothold where before fire would have thinned them out. This creates what is called ladder fuel, which allows fire to climb higher into the older trees who, in a normal intensity fire, be protected by their height and thick bark. When fire is allowed to occur naturally, it burns out the understory long before it gets too thick, and the big trees survive, and the seeds in the ground replenish the land. But we humans stopped that, and now all that built up tinder has exploded.

Add in one small group of ill-educated teenagers with illegal fireworks dropping them over a cliff into a pile of brush. Yes, the human brain doesn’t full develop until the mid-twenties, and the part that manages impulse control is still under construction in a fifteen-year-old. And here is where our lack of nature literacy become a problem: if children are raised from a very young age to constantly understand the risks of fire, it become a matter of course to act with respect. There are just certain things you don’t do, because you’ve been brought up with the knowledge of why and what happens when you don’t listen. Yet these entitled little scumsuckers apparently didn’t get the memo, because they were giggling like their act was a big adventure.

So: what to do? Here’s the game plan:

Educate yourself on the role of fire in forest ecosystems. This goes doubly so if you claim to be a nature-based pagan, or if you somehow think you have an affinity for the element of fire, because you’d damned well better know the actual nature of fire, and not just its mythos and romanticism. Educate yourself on how climate change is leading directly to bigger, hotter, worse fires. And once you’ve educated yourself, educate others, especially anyone who intends to spend any time outdoors.

Educate your elected officials on all levels about the need for prescribed burns and other forest management practices that will help undo the damage from fire suppression and hopefully mitigate the effects of climate change. Tell them to fund forestry and natural resources services on all levels of government instead of using those funds for really stupid ideas like building a giant wall at the south end of the country. And while you’re at it, make sure you tell them about the connection between climate change and the more devastating fires we’re having, especially if your elected officials are in the minority that happen to still be pretending human-caused climate change isn’t a scientifically-validated reality.

Urge the stakeholders in the land in the Gorge, both public and private to replant with a wide diversity of trees, not just Douglas firs. Logging companies like the Doug firs because they grow quickly and are valuable on the market, but when you have a landscape that has nothing but the same species, it becomes much more vulnerable to disease and parasites which lead to more dead trees–and more fire fodder. Moreover, they plant the trees more close together than they would be naturally, and as the trees are all the same age there isn’t as much chance for bigger, older trees to shade out smaller ones and thin the herd, as it were. A healthy forest has many trees of different species and ages for a reason, and monocrops of Douglas firs contributed to the fires we now see. Or, better yet, let the forest recover on its own and at its own pace. Here, educate yourself on forest succession and how a forest can come back all on its own.

Donate money to those who are actively fighting the fires and help people evacuate. I don’t care if all you can give is a single dollar–it HELPS. There will no doubt be local environmental and conservation organizations working to restore the natural and historical features of the Gorge in the aftermath of this, so be on the lookout for their calls for funding.

–And when those organizations call for volunteers, if you’re close enough and can do so, step up. Even a few hours helps. Right now if you want to volunteer call the Hood River Sheriff’s Department at 541-387-7035. And there will be ongoing work. I have spent the past couple of years volunteering for Cascade Pika Watch, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do a post-fire survey this fall to see how many places still have pikas afterward. The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge  and Columbia Riverkeeper are also highly active in this beautiful area’s ecosystem restoration, so no doubt they’ll be involved in whatever work is ahead.

–Work to fight climate change, the biggest factor contributing to greater forest fires, as well as the more violent hurricanes that have been bludgeoning the Southeast. Don’t know where to start with such an admittedly tall order? Here. The Drawdown website lists the 100 biggest causes of climate change and how to fix them. The book goes into even more detail. Pick just one of those causes and put effort toward it, whether it involves making changes in your own life, or pressuring corporations and/or governments to change themselves.That’s how you get started, and you can take that as far as you’re willing. Then pick another cause, and work on it. And so on.

–Most importantly, educate yourself on nature and how it works. We’ve spent centuries trying to distance ourselves from the rest of nature, and it’s been terrible for everyone and everything involved. Maybe if we pagans were as picky about how our paths line up with science as we do with history, we would be a greater force for the planet. Try starting your education with this bioregion quiz from the Ehoah website.

Finally, I know I was pretty harsh on those of you who are praying for rain and trying to send energy to the firefighters and all that. Even if all your rites do is give you some solace in a tough time, that’s constructive enough; just please also focus some on the efforts that are absolutely proven to have a more direct effect on the fires and what caused them. Let your rites inspire you to take more physical action, rather than replacing it. We can’t wave our wands and chant our chants and expect the fire to go out, but we can put our money where our mouth is when it comes to claiming to be practitioners of nature-based spirituality, especially when we need to undo the damage we’ve done to nature more than ever.

ETA: A brief clarification on this post may be found here, specifically addressing people’s concerns that I was too critical of the prayers, spells and the like.

Start With the Animals and the World Will Appear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupa’s Essential Books For Pagans

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

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

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

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

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

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

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

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

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

Roadside Geology series by various authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming My Adventure

In 2006, I made a terrible mistake. I got married.

Now, marriage itself isn’t a bad idea. But it is when you get married a year after you met the person while on the rebound, and after they pressured you into first taking you with them on what was supposed to be your solo cross-country move and then pressured you into getting married so damned fast. Needless to say, my emotional boundaries used to be a lot mushier than they are now.

And like so many people who made bad decisions, I also got a tattoo on my chest on our honeymoon. Well, we both did. And we hadn’t really thought too much about the designs, other than choosing small symbols that were personally meaningful but didn’t say a whole lot about the relationship. In hindsight, my tattoo of a dragon’s claw tightly clutching a pearl marked with my then-husband’s personal sigil was all too prophetic.

Predictably, the marriage was a slow-burn disaster. I won’t bore you with the details of its three and a half year span. Needless to say, when I finally asked for a divorce it was far later than it ought to have been. It ended amicably enough, and over time we drifted apart; that part certainly could have been a lot worse.

When I moved into my own apartment, I was stuck with the task of trying to figure out where the hell my life was going after that derailment. I’d had dreams of adventure when I moved to the Pacific Northwest twelve years ago, dreams that had been born a decade earlier when I’d first visited family in Seattle. After spending my life in the Midwest, I was ready for oceans, markets, and grand conifer rain forests. And I managed to eke out some of that during my first few married years there, though I was also entangled in career changes and relationship woes.

Now, back in glorious solitude, I could think quietly. And so I spent the next seven years taking adventures. I went to Bend, OR for the first time and introduced myself to Oregon’s desert side. I hiked Dog Mountain in a wind storm, and Elk Mountain in the snow. I got to know the coast better, both on my own and with my now-partner. I went on my first backpacking trip with the help of a friend, and then later did my first solo excursion.

That adventurousness carried over into my creative life, too. Now in full control of my finances again, I was free to make investments in my art without someone else’s worries holding me back. I got a contract with a bigger publisher. I started an annual arts festival. I created and produced a tarot deck and book. I moved my studio to the coast.

Most of all, I flourished emotionally. For the first time since I moved to the Northwest, I felt in control of my life. I could come home and be comfortable in cozy, warm sweats that did nothing for my figure but plenty for my well-being, and not feel guilty about how much time I put toward my creative work. I felt free to explore my spirituality and to discard the last vestiges of supernatural belief that were keeping me from direct immersion in what I found most sacred: nature itself, unfiltered by human mythos and superstition.

And so, seven years after my ill-fated marriage ended, I finally felt that I could cover up the last reminder of it. After much thought, I decided on one of the trees I’ve become most attached to since I moved here: Western red cedar. I seem to have a thing for cedars that aren’t actually cedars; Eastern red cedar, which was one of my childhood loves, is a juniper. Its western counterpart is no cedar, but a cypress.

Through two sessions with Chaz Vitale of Ritual Arts Tattoo, whose natural history-inspired art was a perfect fit, I watched that old ink disappear under a flourish of greens and browns. A sprig of cedar stretched its healing needles and fertile cones across my heart. By the time it was done, I could only see what had been there before if I looked too hard.

I can’t erase my past; no one can. I know that the old tattoo is still under there. But like the rest of my life, I’ve overwritten that patch of skin. It took me seven years* to regenerate the majority of the cells in my body, and it took me seven years to regenerate myself. Now I feel like I am the person I was supposed to become when I first arrived here; my adventure continues as though nothing had disrupted it.

And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

*Yes, I realize that the seven years to regenerate all your cells is a myth. I’m using it poetically. So there.

Announcing NaturalPagans.com!

Happy Monday, all!

I wanted to let you know about a new endeavor I’m a part of. Naturalpagans.com is officially launching today; it’s a blog aggregation site bringing together posts from a variety of naturalist pagan writers.

What is a naturalist pagan? Whereas many pagans believe in the supernatural, we look to strictly natural explanations for the wonders of this world. We celebrate nature and its cycles and value the contributions of science to our understanding of the world. The magic in our world consists of amazing phenomena like photosynthesis and plate tectonics, evolution and the hydrologic cycle. Our nature religion begins with the very physical soil and stone and the air all around us.

I invite you to check out NaturalPagans.com! And if you happen to be a naturalist pagan blogger, we’re always looking for new folks to join us–email b at rox dot com to find out more.

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.

Offerings For a Nature-Based Path

Note: This post was originally published at my old Patheos blog. It is unfortunately still there despite my resignation and request that they delete all my content. I had a request from another writer to link to this post, though they didn’t want to use the Patheos link (thank you!) So I am republishing the content here, and will likely do that with a selection of my other Patheos posts. Enjoy!

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When someone gives something to us, it’s natural for us to want to return the favor. Reciprocity is part of being a complex social creature and part of the underpinnings of successful civilization. It’s no different in our spiritual paths. When the spirits, gods, nature gift us with knowledge, empowerment or even a good meal, we want to be able to say thank you in a formal manner.

This balance more important now than ever. For centuries we have done a lot of taking from nature and relatively little giving back. Of course, some things are hard to replace. We can’t exactly put oil back in the ground or easily remove the pollutants caused by its processing and burning. But it’s only been recently that we’ve made conscious efforts to replace at least some of what we take. In Oregon, for example, it’s been a law since 1972 that any landowner who cuts down trees for timber must plant more to replace them.

Still, the balance is far from equal. We still take far more than we give back, and what we do give is often tainted. Take food offerings, for example. It may seem pretty innocuous to make an extra plate of food after a ritual and leave it out “for the wildlife”. Some of what we eat is very bad for other species, though, and it doesn’t have to be the hyper-processed snack foods we favor. Onions are toxic for dogs and cats, and so any wandering domestic or feral animal would get sick if the dish you prepared contains even cooked onion. (Coyotes might also not fare so well.) Moreover, leaving food out teaches wild mammals to stop fearing humans and to become more aggressive in trying to get food from us. Predictably this leads to more animals having to be killed as nuisances or dangerous.

The source of the offering may also be suspect. Let’s say you want to leave a small quartz crystal next to a plant that you harvested leaves from for medicine. Where did the crystal come from, and how was it mined? What quality of life did the miner have and how much did they make for it? How many thousands of miles was the crystal shipped using fossil fuels? What offering did you make to the land the crystal was torn out of to say “thanks for the shiny rock”? And, finally, how exactly is the plant supposed to use a piece of quartz crystal when what it really needs is water and healthy soil?

We need to rethink the concept of offerings, and what we’re actually giving versus receiving. Are we giving back anything of actual value, or just contributing to more problems at home and abroad?

I’d like to offer some potential alternatives for those of us on a nature-based path. These are offerings that are more conscious of environmental impact and have a real, measurable effect on the land. (In my experience they also make the spirits of the land happier!)

–Take the time to really get to know the land you live on: How much do you know about your bioregion? What’s the geology that forms its foundation, and how does it affect the climate and weather? What animals, plants, fungi and other living beings share space with you there? What did it look like before large numbers of humans arrived? What did it look like 10,000 years ago? 100,000? 100 million?

Knowing these things helps you understand the intricacies of your bioregion and what it needs in order to be healthy. You may think that your area has a diversity of wildlife because you know a few species of bird in the area, but it may lack the necessary habitat to support more elusive animals. What happened to drive these other species away?

You may not be able to do anything about these bigger situations, but just being aware of and sensitive to them can be a great offering in and of itself. It shows you respect the land and the beings you share it with, and it helps push you out of the heavily anthropocentric mindset most humans have been running around with for too long.

–Offer your time: If you have the time and physical ability to do so, spend some time trying to improve the land around you. If there are local environmental or conservation groups working to remove invasive species and replace them with native ones, or monitor water and air quality, or other efforts toward habitat restoration and preservation, see what sorts of volunteer opportunities they have. Check the Citizen Science Alliance website to see if there are any nearby nature research projects you can help with. You can even do some self-directed projects, like keeping a particular park or stretch of stream litter-free.

Even if you don’t have the ability to do that sort of intensive outdoor work, consider contacting your elected officials about environmental issues in your area. The more you educate yourself about these issues, the more effective you can make your letters. You can even extend this communication to local business owners, encouraging them to implement sustainability efforts or transparency about pollutants in manufacturing activities.

Some of you may even have the opportunity to make your career more centered on nature. Degree programs in biology and other natural sciences offer the ability to do field research (though there can be competition for jobs and research opportunities!) Should you happen to be interested in law school, environmental law is a great way to utilize the legal system to hold polluters and other problematic entities accountable.

–Offer your money: You don’t have to tithe 10% of your income to your spiritual path, but even if you have just a few dollars extra, consider donating the funds to an environmental nonprofit that you trust. Local organizations are always looking for ways to pay for their projects, and this may be the best option if you’re trying to help your immediate bioregion. On the other hand, bigger organizations do a lot of valuable work ranging from buying up and protecting fragile ecosystems, to lobbying elected officials and convincing them to vote in favor of the environment.

Some utility companies are beginning to offer clean energy buy-in options to their customers, albeit at a little higher monthly rate. Instead of getting your electricity from coal, for example, you might be able to switch some or all of your electricity to wind or hydroelectric power. While these are not without their own problems, they’re an attempt to try to cut down on the reliance on fossil fuels. And the more people who demand cleaner energy, the more incentive there will be for companies to work out the flaws with wind, hydro, and other energy alternatives.

–Teach others: Social media has become a pretty significant powerhouse for activists of all sorts. You don’t have to be organizing marches against pollution, but you can use your social media network to share links about environmental issues. Don’t worry about making your contributions all news all the time, either. Even just passing on a few links in the middle of your usual roster of cat pictures, gripes about work, or “What I did this weekend” posts can make a big difference.

Looking back at the volunteering option for a moment, you might see if local organizations or national/state parks have opportunities for volunteer interpreters. These help visitors to parks and other wild places to learn more about the flora, fauna and other features of the land, and it’s a great way to inspire others to fall in love with your bioregion!

–Live more lightly on the planet: Look at your everyday life and see if there are ways you can live a greener life. This might involve spending a little more money to buy a couple of extra organic or pasture-raised food items, or toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper. Or it may mean switching over to public transit for your commute (which, by the way, makes for great reading time!) When you take a shower, catch the “warm-up” water in a bucket, and then use that to refill the toilet tank next time you flush. Use a 50-50 vinegar-water solution and some Bon Ami for house cleaning instead of harmful chemicals like bleach. Really, it all depends on what your financial and schedule situations are like, what resources are available to you, and what you can afford to change. Even if you just make one change a month, over time that all adds up.

And these offering ideas are just a few potential options. What else might you do to make effective offerings in a nature-based path?

Did you enjoy this post? Consider buying a copy of my book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which has more ideas and practices for getting closer to nature through your spiritual path!

Dear Pagans: Can We Be As Picky About Science As We Are About History?

[I know this is a long one, and potentially controversial. Do me a favor, please and read all the way to the end, and pay especial attention to the italicized bits? Thank you!]

Celtic Wicca. Samhain, the God of the Dead. Witches’ covens that extend back in an unbroken line thousands of years. These are just a few examples of the really bad history that’s been passed around the pagan community, and which has rightfully been skewered by those who have done better research. I came to paganism in the mid-1990s when Wicca was all the rage, and everything was plastered with Celtic knotwork. The Craft, Charmed and other media helped bolster support for aesthetic paganism that was more about looks than substance. A glut of books hit the market, many of which were full of historical inaccuracies from the mildly off to the blatantly awful.

Pagans with a decent background in history began to tear apart the inaccurate material, some of which had been floating around for decades (I’m looking at you, Margaret Murray!) We encouraged each other to go beyond strictly pagan books and explore historical texts, both those written for laypeople and more academic texts. We cited our sources more. And so now, twenty years later, while paganism still has its share of bad history, we have a lot more accurate information to apply to our paths, whether we’re hardcore reconstructionists or not. And we have space for things that aren’t necessarily historically accurate, but which we find personally relevant, like Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG (which you can read more about here.)

All this came out of a lot of discussions, along with debates and arguments. Post bad history in a busy pagan listserve circa 2000, and you were bound to get dozens of responses correcting you and offering good research material. And today wrong historical information is still swiftly corrected. What boggles my mind is that a lot of the same people who will throw down over historical inaccuracies won’t bat an eye when someone horribly misuses science. Woe be unto anyone who tries to say that Artemis and Freya are just different faces of the same Great Goddess, but sure, we can say that quantum entanglement proves magick is real without a doubt. Whatevs, it’s your belief, right?

In Defense of Facts

Ah, Gérôme’s “Truth Coming Out of Her Well”. How appropriate for this section.

Wrong. Just as history deals in facts, so does science. Yes, there’s room for errors (accidental and deliberate) and updated research, but that doesn’t negate the general tendency of both of these fields of study and practice to deal in the most accurate information we have available to us. We’ve gotten good at pointing out where pagans are over-reaching historically through speculation and UPG. We suck at doing so for those speculating beyond what science has demonstrated to be true or impossible. It’s the same error at play: when history or science don’t have a clear answer–or the answer that you want–you don’t get to just make up whatever you want and say that it’s equally real.

Lots of anecdotes do not equal “anecdata”. No matter how much you really, really, really want to believe that you can make streetlights turn off just by walking under them, the evidence we do have is pointing toward it just being an occasionally blinking streetlight and good timing. It’s also confirmation bias in that you’re seeing what you want to see and that affects your “results”. No one has yet created a substantial, well-crafted study that even remotely suggests a person can affect the electrical flow to a light bulb (other than by physically tampering with the wires, unscrewing the bulb or turning off the power.) A group of people walking back and forth under a streetlight does not a solid experiment make.

Yet paganism is full to the brim with people claiming they can do similarly supernatural things. Look at the proliferation of spells that claim to be able to aid in healing, take away curses, or even affect political outcomes. That’s saying that “If I burn this candle or bury this herbal sachet or say these words over here, that thing or person or situation wayyyy over there will be directly affected in the way I want it to.” Sure, your process was more elaborate than just walking in proximity of your target, but you have no more evidence of causation than that other guy. And look at how many pagans claim that a simple spell is every bit as effective as a complicated one. Doesn’t it follow, then, that the simplest spell–walking under the light with the intent of making it blink off–has every bit the chance of working as something more complex?

Why We Treat Science Differently

But that’s getting away from the point. I think we don’t want to be sticklers for science in the same way that we’re sticklers for history because we don’t want our sacred cows slaughtered. Our beliefs can still hold up when we question historical inaccuracies because many modern pagan beliefs are based in history, and better history means better justification for our beliefs because “our ancestors believed it!”

But many of our beliefs are also based in pseudoscience, as well as bad interpretations of good science (like the misapplication of quantum anything to trying to prove magick is objectively real). When we start picking apart the scientific inaccuracies in our paths, it feels threatening and uncomfortable. If you feel a sense of control because you literally believe that a spell you cast will change a situation you’re anxious about, then you don’t want to question the efficacy of that act because you feel you’ve lost control again. If your connection to nature is primarily through thinking the local animals show up in your yard because you have special animal-attracting energy, the fact that they’re more likely just looking for food, shelter, and other normal animal things makes you feel less inherently connected. So instead of focusing on aligning our paths more closely with scientific research as well as historical research, we instead cling tightly to justifications.

The Rewards of Accuracy

Plus we pagan bibliophiles have more excuses to spend time with beautiful old books!

I think that pressing for more historical accuracy has made paganism stronger as a whole, both as individuals and as a community. We’ve spent decades working to be taken more seriously as a religious group, sometimes to gain big steps forward like equal recognition for our deceased military pagans, other times to just be able to mention our religion without being laughed at. Those who want to emphasize to non-pagans that our paths have historical precedent and long-time relevance have more resources to do so. There are other benefits: Those who want to emulate the ways of pre-Christian religions have more material to work with. And history offers more depth to explore; your interest in a particular ancient spiritual path can extend out into knowing more about the culture, people and landscape that that path developed in. If you’re creating a new path for the 21st century, you have more inspiration to work with when you see what’s worked for pagan religions in both the distant and recent past.

Science has a lot to offer us as well. As a naturalist pagan–and a pagan naturalist–my path is deepened, and I find greater meaning, the more I learn about and experience the non-human natural world. I don’t need to believe the blacktail deer outside my studio are there because they have some special message for me. It’s enough that I can observe them quietly from the window as they go about their lives, our paths intersecting by proximity. I do not need to drink water from their hoofprints to attempt to gain shapeshifting powers; I can imagine a bit of what it is to be them when I follow their trails through the pines and see the places that are important to them. And that makes me even more invested in protecting their fragile ecosystem; my path urges me to give back to nature.

When pagans step out of the narrow confines of symbolism, and act as though nature is sacred because we know how threatened it is through the science of ecology, not only do we deepen our connections to nature, but we also show the rest of the world that we walk our talk. It’s just one way in which we demonstrate that, as with our historical accuracy, we’re also interested in scientific accuracy, rather than denying or ignoring facts in favor of our own spiritual self-satisfaction. And rather than getting entangled in self-centered interpretations of nature that elevate us as the special beings deserving of nature’s messages, a more scientific approach to paganism humbles us and reminds us that we are just one tiny part of a vast, beautiful, unimaginably complex world full of natural wonders that science can help us better explore and understand.

Conclusion

As always, I’m not saying don’t have beliefs. Beliefs have plenty of good effects, from strengthening social bonds to bringing us comfort when things go haywire to helping us make some subjective sense of the world through storytelling and mythos. UPG can be a really valuable tool in giving us a place to put the things we believe that don’t fit into known historical research, and I think we need to extend it to hold beliefs that go outside known scientific evidence, too. So keep working your spells and your rituals, and keep working with the deities and spirits that you hold dear. If you derive personal meaning by feeling that the crows are nearby because of some spiritually significant reason and it improves your life, don’t let go of that, so long as you also accept that the crows are just crows doing crow things.

Examining your beliefs in fine detail doesn’t even require a microscope!

But we also need to be able to make use of critical thinking skills and suss out areas where we’re factually wrong, no matter how we may personally feel about the matter. That way, as with history, we’re able to clearly say “This is the portion of my belief system that matches up with known facts, and this part over here is more personal.” We’ve learned to be skeptical of the claims of people who say that historians are wrong and they have the REAL history; we should be able to do the same for those who claim to know better than thousands of scientists.

What I am also asking you to do is really question your beliefs, their foundations, and where they intersect with and diverge from science (and history, while we’re at it.) If you have a belief that runs directly counter to known facts and you feel it has to be every bit as real as science or history, ask yourself why. What would happen if you allowed that belief to be UPG, or personal mythology? What would happen if you let it go entirely? What would you have left, and what value does it have?

I can’t say where this process of questioning will take you, whether you’ll let go of your beliefs, or recategorize their place in your life, or just cling to them more tightly. Every person’s path winds in its own direction. But just as we have questioned our historical inaccuracies and come out the better for it, I think that as individuals and as a community we can benefit from really questioning scientific inaccuracies in the same way. Won’t you join me in this effort?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider picking up a copy of one of my books, which blend a naturalist’s approach to the world with pagan meaning and mythology–Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up is especially relevant!