I recently got an email from someone who was interested in Vulture Culture, but felt like they couldn’t actually be a participating member of this “fandom” unless they were tanning their own hides and cleaning their own bones and otherwise processing their own specimens. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this, either. It’s great that so many Vultures are learning these skills, and DIYing their way through their hobby! But it’s not absolutely necessary.
I mean, look at me. I’ve been working with hides and bones and other specimens in my art for over twenty years, and if you count my childhood collecting I’ve been part of what would become Vulture Culture for well over three decades, longer than some Vultures have been alive. And you know what? I’ve never tanned a hide, and only cleaned a couple of skulls. I can dry-preserve wings, but that’s really about it.*
And that doesn’t make me any less sincere or valid a member of Vulture Culture than all those awesome DIYers out there. There are plenty of reasons someone might not get into the messier aspects of the hobby:
–No place to process a bunch of smelly, fresh specimens (or long-dead smelly ones, either!)
–No money to buy supplies, even the cheapest options
–No time to go through the lengthy processes of bone cleaning or fur and leather tanning
–No interest in doing these things, preferring other ways to participate
And there are so many ways to participate, just like any other fandom! You can collect your favorite sorts of specimens (I’m partial to skulls, myself.) Looking for animal bones out in the wild is also a popular pursuit if you have access, but other found specimens can include (legal) feathers, dead insects, shed snake skins, and so forth. Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy making art from specimens already preserved, or using them as art references for traditional media. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just liking to see pictures of other people’s collections, even if you don’t have anything yourself.
My point is, not everyone has to DIY their hobby. You can appreciate others’ efforts without feeling like you’re not as genuine a Vulture because you’re not out there saving every bit of roadkill you can find. Ultimately it’s all about your enjoyment, and if you’re too worried about “doing it right”, you’re not going to have fun! So relax, participate with Vulture Culture in whatever ways you see fit and to whatever degree you prefer, and allow yourself the freedom to explore without pressure!
* Because I wanted to shared these skills but hadn’t developed them myself, I hired guest writers for the how-to tutorials for my book Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I felt that made it a much more complete book on the subculture, and it gave some other writers a chance to show off their chops. But it also allowed me to stick to the things I really enjoy doing, like writing!
I feel like not enough people knew of Mary Oliver, who passed away on Friday at the age of 83.
I myself, not being a huge fan of poetry, never heard of her work until just a few years ago. Somehow in my enjoyment of nature writing I had overlooked her work. While the poet herself is gone, her legacy is immortalized in an incredible body of work spanning several decades.
Like so many people, my introduction to Oliver’s work was her poem Wild Geese. I was working on my ecopsychology certificate in graduate school, and encountered her words in a reading. Initially my attraction to it centered on the imagery of nature, the painting in my head of the movement of pebbles and sun and geese over the land. For years I came back to it just for this picture as a source of solace and joy.
But over time it gained a deeper meaning for me. Having been raised Catholic, I was soaked from an early age in the idea of original sin and the idea that humanity is inherently flawed. This, of course, also bred in me a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy, as well as contributing to the anxiety disorder I still deal with today. When I shot forth from these confines as a teenager and landed in the lap of neopaganism, I thought the main thing I wanted was a religion that was centered on nature, rather than seeing it as a set of materials to be exploited.
I got that, of course, but what I also got was a lot of fellow pagans carrying a lot of Christian baggage. (1) The need for a higher power to have control of things and to be petitioned for aid; a tendency to divide things into dichotomies like “light” and “dark” or “white magic” and “black magic”; a desire for some authority (often scriptural) to offer clear lines of What To Do and What Not To Do. And with the crossover of paganism with environmentalism, I often ran into sentiments dripping with the idea of sin, guilt, and flawed humanity, like “humans are just cancer on the earth”, and “Gaea is going to make us all pay for what we’ve done to Her”.
I carried much of my Catholic baggage with me. I especially yearned for structure and ritual and orthopraxy and definitive methods of pleasing the powers that be, or at least that’s what I told myself I needed in order to be a Really Good Pagan. The crescendo of that particular adventure was the few years I tried putting together a formalized path using various bits and pieces of things I had learned and developed over the years. The harder I tried to make that work, though, the more I found myself rebelling all over again.
I went back and re-read Wild Geese. I read the opening lines:
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
In that, I broke open. Catholic tirades about how we are all tainted with original sin even from birth, pagan moralizing over how the Threefold Law is gonna get ya or preaching Gaea’s ecological smackdown–these all came flowing out as though from a deep wound lanced. “Love what it loves” wasn’t a call to crass, reactionary hedonism or indifferent amorality, but instead trusting our instincts and deeply-ingrained social bonds that our ancestors evolved over millions of years to thrive together.(2)
And that was the key: the idea that humans are not inherently flawed, that we are just another species of animal in a highly complex world full of many ecosystems. Our actions have evolutionary roots, even if we’ve taken them in some beautiful, strange, or even terrible directions. Our large-scale destruction of the planet has largely coincided with increasing beliefs that we are separate from nature; after all, it’s easier to destroy something you don’t see any responsibility toward. Yet here was a call to return to our place in the natural order of things, where we are one among many.
From that point, the rest of the poem is a joyful invitation to return home. And I suppose that there is a bit of that shared concept of forgiveness in the idea that no matter how badly we’ve screwed up our lives and the planet–if we stop and do our best to turn things around, nature will still be waiting for us.(3) But it’s not a forgiveness gained through penance and punishment, nor is it dangled over our heads as the one and only alternative to an eternity in hellfire and brimstone. There’s no mention of any specific religion one must adhere to in order to be saved, no threat of damnation. We aren’t required to do rituals A, B and C in order to avoid angering the gods.
All it says is that the rest of nature has been there all along, waiting patiently for us to come back into the rhythm of the dance of raindrops and rivers. It will continue on in some form with or without us, but wouldn’t it be glorious if it were with us? There’s a grand, amazing world out there full of wonder and awe. Nature does not dole out sinfulness and punishment, but only natural consequences to actions, which are inherently neutral and not steeped in human ideas about morality.
Since that time, my paganism has evolved into something more naturalistic, and anything but structured and formalized. Instead it pervades every element of my life organically and without pretension. I feel constantly connected to something bigger than myself–the entire Universe–which is a key goal of spirituality anyway. Rituals feel redundant, unless you think of my daily farm chores and my meals and my sleep as rituals, all of which celebrate the world I live in in various ways. And I don’t see myself as being part of some cosmic hierarchy; I am not inherently better or worse than any other being here.
I am still working on returning to the rest of nature, but it is only because I am unpracticed, not because I feel unworthy. I can be concerned about the environmental destruction I am contributing to by my very existence and lifestyle without letting that concern translate into a guilt that continues to keep me separate as something dirty, foul, not deserving of nature’s touch. And the more I feel close to nature, the more responsibility I feel toward it, and vice versa. Nature may not be an entity that can love me; it’s pretty indifferent as a whole. But I can make up for that with the utter joy and astonishment I experience every moment I am aware of my place in nature and what amazement surrounds me.
It’s a cliche to say that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I never told Ms. Oliver how much her work meant to me, and of course now I will never have that opportunity. But I don’t think I realized myself the importance of Wild Geese in particular until the evening after she passed, when I began writing this post. And I sent out my gratitude in these words–too little, too late–but hopefully enough to share that meaning with those who remain.
What is remembered, lives.
1. Obviously, yes, #NotAllPagans. But after over two decades in this community, I’ve seen these and other leftover Christian patterns frequently. These phenomena do also occur in other religions, and arguably in some pre-Christian paganisms. But it was clear in the instances I saw that the patterns were most closely replicating those many of us were raised with in Christianity, with a thin pagan veneer pulled over them.
2. I recognize this is a pretty romanticized view of “instincts”, and that hunting and other violent things are also instinctual to a degree. That’s not what this is about, though. Leave those aside for the moment.
3. Of course, with climate change being what it is, it may not be able to wait for us much longer, at least not in a form that allows us to survive as a species. But leave the doomsaying for some other time and place. All it does is make people less likely to try to improve things, and more likely to just give up, and that is antithetical to what this entire post is about.
[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.
–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.
–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
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.
—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.
–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.
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.
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.
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:
–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.
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.
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.
I am an organ donor. Or at least a potential one, in the event of my death. I’ve been signed up for over a decade through my various state driver’s licenses. I’m also on the bone marrow donor registry at Be the Match. I haven’t yet been a match for anyone, but I’m there for the call if they need me. (For what it’s worth, they really need people of color to increase potential donors for non-white patients, since white people like me are less likely to be a match for non-white donors thanks to tissue typing. But I encourage anyone who can join to do so, regardless of your race.)
I consider it an important part of my spiritual path to be a potential donor. I’m not especially invested in any particular idea about the afterlife, if there even is one. All I have guaranteed is the here and now, and what I have here and now is a body that I borrowed from the Earth. Every atom in my body came from food I consumed, water I drank, air I breathed. And when I die, I’m going to have to give it all back; I’m a huge proponent of green burial, by the way, and I’d like a spot at Herland Forest.
But not all of me may end up in that ground. If, when I die, my organs are still in good enough condition, I’d like them to go to people who need them. After all, I’m certainly not going to need them. I’ll be dead, and the worms and bacteria and other little critters won’t care that there’s no liver, or I’m missing an eyeball or two. I could selfishly say that since I am against embalming I refuse to allow any part of my body to be embalmed, and therefore refuse to be a donor on the grounds that it’s likely when the recipients die they’ll end up full of embalming fluids–to include my old spare parts. But as I said, that’s selfish, and I’ll sacrifice a few pieces if it means someone else gets to enjoy this world a little longer.
I’m not at all worried about not making it into some possible afterlife because my body wasn’t complete. Do soldiers who lose body parts in combat not get to go to the next life? What about tradespeople who end up losing a finger to machinery, or someone who had their original teeth knocked out in an auto accident? Hell, what about pagans who donate blood and plasma? I mean, really, we’re shedding hair and skin cells all the damned time, and we aren’t able to vacuum them up again, store them in bags and then take them with us to the grave. (Ewww. No, really, ewwww.)
Loss is normal. Other animals run around in the wilderness all the time with missing toes, shortened tails, cropped ears from fights, accidents, frostbite. Our medical technology just allows us to save more damaged bits and parts. The idea that only someone with a “whole” body gets to go to the afterlife just seems antithetical to reality. I mean, I had a large lipoma removed from my hip when I was seventeen. I’m sure it got sent to an incinerator (if it wasn’t plopped into a jar of preservative as a study specimen for students). It left a pretty big scar (which, quite honestly, I think looks really damned cool.) I also had my wisdom teeth removed a few years later. Am I automatically denied an afterlife, if such a thing even exists? Better to bank on what I know I have for sure–this life, and this world–than gamble valuable resources on the idea that there’s something after death and that somehow the integrity of my borrowed, physical body matters there.
I’ve heard arguments that organ donation is against environmental ethics. I am keenly aware of the fact that we have 7 billion humans and counting on this planet; it’s one of the biggest reasons I chose not to have children. Some of the population rise is because people are living longer overall. Organ donation helps facilitate that, though it’s hardly the biggest factor. I don’t think helping organ recipients live a few years longer (or even decades, as we improve post-transplant medicine) is that big an impact compared to how poorly people use natural resources. We could be a lot wiser with our consumption, make birth control and information on how to use it universally available to lower the birth rate, and make room for a few successful organ recipients while we’re at it.
I’ve also seen it said that organ donors are “cheating death”. Well, so what? I cheated death several years ago. I had a nasty case of diverticulitis that turned into peritonitis that put me on 48 hours of IV antibiotics, and I likely would have died had I not gotten that medical attention. Should I have just let nature take its course and died at the age of 31? Taken a chance on some herbs maybe working quickly enough to kill the fast-moving infection in time? Would you prefer I wasn’t here? And would you like to tell organ recipients that they should have died instead? Because that is what I hear people say when they say organ recipients cheat death.
Finally, I feel a responsibility toward other humans to make what resources I am no longer using available to them. It’s a little more complicated than dropping unwanted clothing off at a shelter or taking excess art supplies to SCRAP, but the concept is the same to me. Some people refuse to donate because they think their organs will be wasted on those who in their mind don’t “deserve” them, or who won’t survive long post-transplant. Sure, my heart may go to someone who end up dying six months later because it just didn’t “take”. But it might also go to someone who gets to live another decade, in which they may finish that book they were writing, plant trees for future generations to enjoy, or simply bask in a few more glorious sunsets. My corneas may end up with someone who dies in an auto accident three years later–but then given that over 90% of cornea transplants are successful, they got three years of sight they wouldn’t have had otherwise. No one knows for sure who will get my spare parts, and as I’d be dead I’d have no control over it. But isn’t death the ultimate act of losing control anyway?
As a naturalist pagan, my primary loyalty is to this world and the beings I share it with. And it’s because I feel so deeply for all of this that I want to make the best use of what I have to offer, down to my very mortal remains. You may have very valid reasons for not being a donor, and I respect your reasons, and if applicable your disagreement. But for me, organ donation is just one more part of my spiritual path, one that will continue my journey beyond death itself–even if I’m not around to see it happen.
In my previous post, I shared a few vignettes from my life, focusing in particular on the bodily sensations and experiences I remember from each one. Now I’d like to explore the concept of paganism as being a body-focused spirituality in more detail. I want to add in the caveat that I am generally pretty able-bodied and in good condition (other than asthma and creaky knees that like to remind me I’m nearing 40), and that I have a pretty positive body image and generally fit the mainstream idea of “attractive” (read: thin). So these things are going to make it easier for me to feel good about melding my body and my spirit. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
Religion in general, at least in more recent centuries, has sought goals above and beyond the physical world. That’s an understandable response to the many challenges of being a mammal in this place, where pain, suffering and hardship are a fact of life for many. Religion is often forged in these difficult times, with beliefs serving as a way to keep people motivated and hopeful even when things are worst. It can be easier to weather difficulties in this life if you believe that there’s a better, perfect life waiting for you after death. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to people trying so hard to distance themselves from anything earthly that they create a good-evil dichotomy between the spiritual and physical (I’m looking at you, more stringent flavors of Christianity!)
One of the things I’ve appreciated about paganism is that there is an interweaving of physical and spirit, regardless of your thoughts on the afterlife (a topic I’m just going to leave alone for now). One of my favorite generic pagan chants is the unattributed “Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit”. It symbolizes a one-ness with the rest of the world that’s lacking in many other faiths. However, as with many other elements of belief, taking the concept of the sacred physical and putting it into everyday use can be challenging. After all, we’re trying to counteract thousands of advertisements screaming “Feel bad about your body! Buy this product to make it better!”; many of us have also received negative body messages from people more close and personal with us. And many of us are our own worst critics, buying into everything we hear despite our best efforts otherwise. All this means that the sanctity of the flesh often only gets lip service, and once ritual is done we go back to our usual pit of “I don’t like my body”.
A big part of the problem is that we’re focusing heavily on appearance, which is literally just the surface of the matter. Because we’re conditioned to value ourselves and others for our looks so much, we tend to forget that looks really aren’t everything. So we miss out on all the other potentially amazing things our body can show us. We take our bodies for granted; we forget that they are our personal vessels for navigating this great big world we live on. And, discussions of reincarnation aside, there’s a good chance it’s a one-shot deal. Why would we want to miss a single moment in sulking over whether someone else thinks we’re pretty or not?
Well, okay, there are several reasons. Some would argue it’s harder to exist in one’s own body, never mind explore its movement, when that body is plagued by constant pain, fatigue, illness or significant disability. And there are deeply ingrained biological and social reasons for wanting someone else to find us attractive, so sure, most of us end up spending at least a little time sulking about not being pretty enough. But let’s assume for the purposes of the rest of this post that you do want to be more in touch with your body in a more positive way, even with its limitations.
Start looking at your body as a series of processes; some of them may work better than others, but all of them ideally have a purpose. Some nourish; some remove toxins; some rebuild and heal. These processes are carried out by bodily systems. Certain pieces can be removed if they malfunction; others are irreplaceable. But as a whole, they create the body that you have in this lifetime.
Other than the reproductive system and, to an extent, the nervous system, none of these systems especially depends on whether the outer layer is deemed attractive or not. Think about that a moment: your digestive system really doesn’t care whether some jackass in a pickup truck catcalled you or not, but it definitely cares if you stop eating as a way to quickly lose weight. Your body’s ideal systems are designed to keep you alive at all costs, and it is only in the case of malfunctions in DNA or other accidents where they become a danger to you. So your digestive system is trying to make sure you have enough nourishment, your circulatory system is running around like a bevy of border collies herding oxygen and other important packets from place to place, and your nervous system is busily processing all the sensory information inside and outside of the body proper to make sure all’s running well.
It’s really quite remarkable if you think about it long enough. I’ve found that by taking that figurative step back from my own body and getting a more objective look at what it’s doing I can appreciate it a lot more than if I were just looking glumly in the mirror wishing my nose was smaller or that my hair would grow longer or that I could get rid of the last few pounds on my waistline. My focus instead shifts to making those processes work even better–fueling them with better food when possible, exercising to keep them more carefully honed and in practice, getting enough rest so my beloved body can recuperate from all I put it through in a day.
And then when I step back into my body fully, I am in love with it and all it does for me. I’m more able to overlook the limitations my asthma puts on me, and the fact that my knees slow me down, and that I’m still many months away from doing an unassisted pull-up. More importantly I recognize the sacred in it. This is no flawed pile of refuse to be traded in for heavenly grace upon death. It is the product of billions of years of evolution, and if I’m still alive it’s doing at least some things correctly. The molecules in my body have been in numerous places–perhaps Irish elk and dinosaurs and tiny green Cooksonia, all the way back to the first colonies of single-cells organisms in the primordial sea. I am composed of what was once stone and lava, ocean and cloud. Further back, Sagan is vindicated: I am made of starstuff. I carry the history of universe in my flesh and bones.
That is the sort of sacredness I want to move toward–and what I want to look at next is movement.
I wish I had more time to read; sadly, at least until the Tarot of Bones is done my time is going to be pretty chewed up with work. I have managed to finish a few books, though, and I wanted to offer up a selection of mini-reviews for your enjoyment!
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1
Hope Nicholson, editor
Alternate History Comics, 2015
I was a backer of the Kickstarter that funded the publication of this incredible comics collection. Over two dozen indigenous writers and artists came together to share stories from their cultures; some are intensely personal, while others are community tales little told outside of their own people. Despite a wide variety of writing and artistic styles, the collection has a strong cohesion, and flows from mixed media poetry to science fiction to traditional storytelling like a well-worn riverbed. I highly recommend this collection to anyone seeking an excellent read, whether you’re normally a comics reader or not.
Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
I borrowed this one from my sweetie, who recommended it highly. I’m a sucker for detailed looks at individual species, but tailored for the layperson so there’s more of a narrative to it. This exploration of New York City’s brown rats successfully blends natural and human history with anecdotes and humor, and is at least as much about the city itself as the critters hiding in its corners. It’s not always a nice book; there are descriptions of plague and death, extermination and suffering. Yet if you’ve felt that the intelligent, resourceful rat simply hasn’t gotten its proper due, this may be the book to wave at people who want nothing more than to see them all poisoned and trapped to extinction. I certainly came away with a greater appreciation for my quiet neighbors that I occasionally see when out on late-night walks.
The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
I’m not going to get into Dawkins’ views on religion here, so let’s just leave that aside. What I do admire is any attempt to make science accessible to laypeople without excessively dumbing it down, and despite being almost 700 pages long, The Ancestor’s Tale does just that. I have a serious love for evolutionary theory, and what this book does is present the long line of evolution that led specifically to us, starting with the very first spark of life on this planet. Better yet, Dawkins draws inspiration from the format of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and as each chapter introduces a new ancestor or very near relative in our past, we are given the image of an ever-growing pilgrimage to the dawn of life. I was absolutely fascinated by every page in this book, as I learned about everything from the first tetrapods to how sexual dimorphism developed, from evolutionary explosions and extinctions to the very first multicellular animals. And because we get to start with ourselves, everything is made more relevant to us, keeping our interest even more firmly invested in who we’ll meet next. A must for any of my fellow nature nerds out there.
Rituals of Celebration: Honoring the Seasons of Life Through the Wheel of the Year
Llewellyn Publications, 2013
Some of us know exactly what we’re going to do when each Sabbat arises. Others…not so much. If you’ve been stuck trying to figure out how to make the next solstice more interesting, or you need some variety as you bring your children into family spiritual traditions, this is a book full of inspirations! Meredith takes the time to explain each Sabbat in more depth than many books do, and offers up anecdotes of her own sacred experiences. Rituals and activities flesh out the book in a more practical manner, offering readers concrete ways to incorporate the spirit of each Sabbat into their own celebrations. A fabulous book both for beginners, and those wanting to shake up their established practice in a good way.
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Terry Tempest Williams
Vintage Books, 1991
You would think that as much as I love nature writing I would have read one of Williams’ books before, but somehow she eluded me until recently. I should have caught up to her sooner. In Refuge, she weaves together the tumultuous existence of a wetland on the brink of extinction, her mother’s battle with cancer, and the intricate threads these events entangle into the lives of Williams and her family. Three is spirit, there is nature, there is history, and yet all these seem as though they cannot be separated from each other. Just as in an ecosystem, the part is little without the whole. If ever there was a doubt that we were still a part of the natural world, Williams puts that doubt to rest. Prepare to cry, and to reflect, but please–do read this book.
I don’t see it as being contradictory at all to be both a practitioner of nature spirituality (druidry or otherwise) and a hunter. People have this idea that if you kill animals it must make you not like nature. But these same people forget a few important points:
Nature is not just animals; nature is also plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, stones, waterways, weather patterns, even the spaces in between atoms. And all nature-lovers have to kill to survive, even if they’re killing plants, or fungi, or the bacteria residing on the makings of their fruitarian diet. What makes nature spirituality so awesome is that it encourages us to consciously embrace our place in the rest of nature, not as conqueror and superior, but as just one more ape among a whole host of vibrant and amazing beings.
As we are uniquely conscious (as far as we know, anyway) of the effects of our actions, we can feel sorrow at taking a life, even if it’s in the process of furthering our own existence. Nature spirituality offers us a framework to work through the emotions and thoughts associated with that reality, whether that’s grief at death, or the joy of dispelling hunger, or the gratitude at having another day to enjoy this amazing world we live in.
One of the misconceptions people have is that all hunters are callous when it comes to the rest of nature and the animals they kill. Sure, there are always going to be yahoos lacking in empathy who just want to see something die. But they’re the minority. Most hunters, at least in my experience, genuinely love being outdoors and respect the animals they hunt. You don’t get to know a species in the detail that’s required to successfully hunt it without having some appreciation of its strengths and characteristics. Again, nature spirituality offers ways to celebrate that life and the appreciation we have for the gift of meat that prolongs our lives.
Does that mean everyone following a nature-based spiritual path is going to agree on the issue of hunting? Of course not. It’s not a monolithic religion, but a general umbrella for both pagan and non-pagan paths that center on the sanctity of nature. Just as that tent includes hunters and omnivores, there are also vegetarians and vegans. And there are folks whose focus is more on agriculture than hunting, or who otherwise simply don’t account for the hunt as a part of their practice or philosophy.
IMO, what’s most important is respect, particularly for every being that dies to feed us, from the most powerful elk or bison (even those that are farm-raised) to the tiniest bacteria. Nature is composed of endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and we’re allowed the solemnity of death because we know what is lost and gained in that transition.
I love my fellow vultures, we fans of taxidermy and hides and bones and other such specimens. But I don’t always agree with them. Case in point: I recently read someone writing about how they thought they were obliged to pick up roadkill and salvage the hide and bones because otherwise it would be “a waste”.
On the one hand, I can see a good point in favor of that attitude. Roads aren’t “natural”, if by “natural” you mean “anything dating after humans discovered fire”. We see a deer accidentally hit by a car as a tragedy, but a rabbit accidentally trampled by a stampeding deer is “natural”. It’s only human intervention that seems to be “unnatural”. So if that’s your perspective, then yes, roadkill seems like a huge waste of life.
Furthermore, the argument is made that since the carcass is already there, we vultures should process it into tanned fur and cleaned bones and other specimens. It means one more set of animal remains funneled into the growing demands for taxidermy and curiosity cabinets, but without the deliberate killing of hunting (which for some people is worse than an accidental death by roadkill).
Both of these are valid reasons for making use of a roadkilled animal, and not letting a good opportunity go to waste. However, I would also argue that leaving the carcass there is not a waste. We may dislike seeing it on the side of the road, perhaps because it’s unsightly, often because we feel it’s disrespectful to the animal.
But what actually happens to roadkill when it’s simply rolled off the side of the road and into the ditch beside it? I had the unique opportunity a number of years ago to witness this in detail. I lived in a rural area close to Pittsburgh, PA. A whitetail doe got hit by a car right in front of the house, and her body ended up falling partway down a drainage ditch at the edge of our yard. This was mid-July, so it was hot, and flies showed up almost immediately. In the space of a week, a complete carcass was stripped almost completely of flesh by a growing army of maggots and bacteria, and likely was also nibbled on by local foxes, raccoons and other critters.
We do not see this process ourselves very often. Most people only see the remains of the deceased as bodies in funeral homes, meat in grocery stores, and fleeting glimpses of roadkill on the side of the highway. Few observe the stages of decomposition, and so we forget it is the most natural thing in the world. That roadkilled doe did not go to waste. She fed thousands of insects, countless bacteria, and even the fungi and plants beneath her. Even remains that “simply rot” feed something. There is no waste in nature.
But what about my work with preserved hides and bones? After all, I did collect the doe’s bones once the meat was all gone, and I did purification rites over them. Yes, I create my art and do my skin spirits rites because I feel I am honoring the animals that once wore these remains. But I also recognize that these are purely human conceptualizations of “honor”. The older I get, the more I think we do these rituals more for ourselves and our own sense of what is morally correct than what nature considers “honorable”. Wolves do not pray over dead elk. Elk do not pray over tree leaves. Leaves do not pray over nutrients in the soil that were only recently seeped from decaying salmon dropped there by grizzly bears. We are likely not the only animals to mourn lost loved ones, but we, and we alone, conduct elaborate rituals specifically because we feel the remains themselves–and not just the life that once wore them–should be so honored.
This is not to say I think roadkill collection is wrong, or that we should stop. After all, an opportunity is an opportunity, and besides, respect is a good thing to practice in general. But I think we need to stop justifying roadkill collection by saying it’s “waste” otherwise. That’s a very human-centric view of things; just because we won’t use it doesn’t mean nobody else will.