Category Archives: Environmentalism

Paganism, Food, and the Element of Terroir

In case you didn’t know it, I am a minor-level foodie. I haven’t run around to every single pricey restaurant in Portland, but I am an unabashed locavore who loves to cook. And as an environmentalist I’m keenly aware of where my food comes from.

When I eat, I am not just consuming calories so I don’t die, or eating something I like so that it’s an enjoyable experience. I am consciously mindful of the fact that the animal, plant or fungus I am about to ingest was raised in a particular place and in a specific manner. It lived a life, perhaps a good one, perhaps a bad one, and that life now ends in its physical remains becoming a part of my own still-living body. I am made of molecules that came from around the world, though increasingly from my local region.

Connected to this sense of place is a concept known as terroir, which in French means “soil.” Most commonly encountered in the discussion of wine, terroir describes the qualities of the land and its tending that influence the taste of the food or drink it produces. Some of these factors are climate, weather, soil quality, fertilization and other soil treatments (or lack thereof), food given to animals, stress the living being experienced during life, and even how it was slaughtered or harvested. The reason that a wine expert can tell a wine grown from a particular valley in France is because of the terroir that affects the flavor of the grapes that created it.

I first became aware of terroir through the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini, a response to the growing influence of fast food and heavy processing in the global food market. Slow Food is about locally grown foods which are carefully prepared and then enjoyed consciously rather than simply inhaled for basic calories. Extra attention is paid to the source of each ingredient, where it was grown and how it was cared for, and even the people who attended to it from life to death. Terroir is how the unique taste of that ingredient reflects on the land it came from. Combine several local ingredients together in a recipe from regional cuisine, and you get a veritable symphony of terroir that may be absolutely unique in the world.

Let me give you a more concrete example. I don’t drink wine often, so I can’t really use that as a viable image, though those of you who are wine lovers may find some of this familiar. However, I use olive oil extensively in my cooking, not just for the health benefits but the flavor as well. Canola oil is just greasy compared to the body of a good olive oil. And I am fortunate in that CostCo carries relatively inexpensive olive oils that have Protected Designation of Origin, meaning that yes, this is pure olive oil of high quality that hasn’t been sitting around in a warehouse for years, and the label tells exactly where it came from.(1)

Most of the olive oil on the market is old or poor quality and has lost much of its flavor; some of it has even been cut with cheaper oils like sunflower. If you taste it and then taste real, fresh, extra virgin olive oil, the latter has a much more vibrant taste. It tastes like olives, rather than sunflower oil mixed with a bit of grass. Different PDO olive oils have their own unique notes, much like wine. That’s the terroir speaking, in which the soil and the sunlight and the care of harvest are all reflected in the final flavor. To me, a good olive oil tastes like the land it came from, and even if I’ve never been there I can still imagine it.

So why is this important to paganism? Well, if you ask a lot of pagans, our spirituality is about the land. Honestly, many pagans celebrate a more abstract conception of land rather than getting down and dirty with the soil they live on; if you’re chanting about Earth, Air, Fire, Water but you don’t know much about your local climate, geology or watershed, you have a lot of opportunities for expanding your nature-based practice.

We also make a lot of talk about harvest festivals in late summer and the first half of autumn, but our ritual feasts are often store-bought breads and imported produce rather than anything we grew or prepared ourselves.(2) If we’re really going to celebrate the harvest, doesn’t it behoove us to not only use local food and drink, but also to familiarize ourselves with when our actual growing and harvest times are, and what’s growing when?

Terroir is an excellent opportunity to root your paganism in the actual land you’re practicing on. You’re literally eating and drinking the land; the molecules in locally-produced food came from the same general area that you are honoring, and they will then be incorporated into your own physical form. By paying attention to the flavors that make this area’s flour unique, or its fish especially tasty, or its vegetables heartier, you are experiencing your land, and by consuming that food you are making the land a part of you. And when you utilize recipes and other elements of cuisine created by people who have lived on that land a while, that gives you even more relationship with place.(3)

In the United States, most ingredients in our food isn’t labeled. In our many processed foods ingredients from countless sources are all blended into one homogenous lump. You won’t know where the wheat, rice or oats in your breakfast cereal came from, or where the sugar cane grew. Meat is no longer labeled with what country it came from or where it was slaughtered. Produce may have a sticker saying what state or country it came from, but no more specific than that; if I buy a Washington or Oregon apple I couldn’t tell you what farm it was from unless I happen to buy it from the farm itself.

To counteract that, I offer this little introduction to terroir. To start, pick a single food item that is produced locally. It can be something straight out of the ground, like a vegetable or fruit, or which requires a little more preparation like meat or cheese. Get some of that local food, and also a few examples of the same food that were produced in other identifiable places but further away–for example, an apple from a local orchard in Washington, and then another from California, and another from Mexico. Or pick something that has a reputation for its terroir–get a piece of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma, and then a “Parmesan” made somewhere in the United States, and maybe some of that powdered stuff in a can. Have a bit of a tasting, where you eat a bit of each one at a time, and pay attention to the differences in flavor and texture with each bite.

Be more mindful of the origin of all your food to the best of your ability. Think about the land it came from, and how it got from there to where you are now.(4) When you celebrate holidays with food, choose those that are made locally or that you create yourself from local ingredients, to the best of your ability and budget, and especially for harvest festivals. When you eat, consider it a communion with the land, not just something tasty. Remember that you carry around bits and pieces of every place that has fed you, and this gives you a deeply intimate and physical connection to those locations. In this way you can deepen your relationship to nature beyond the symbols and rites, and into the core of your very being.

1. Not all of the olive oil that CostCo carries is PDO certified. Generally the big plastic jugs aren’t; look for glass bottles, and especially look for a PDO label and the country of origin somewhere on the label.
2. I totally get that not everyone has the space, money or ability to garden. But if you’re going to pour a bit of money into a seasonal ritual, set some aside to get a locally baked loaf of bread or some apples from a local farmer, or whatever your regional farms are producing.
3. Here in the Pacific Northwest there are a few different local cuisines going on. There are the foodways of indigenous people, some of which have been shared with others. There are the cuisines of the various waves of immigrants over the past couple of centuries which meld local ingredients and far-away traditions. And there is a more self-conscious “modern” Pacific Northwest cuisine which is an attempt to combine all of these to one degree or another, again with a strong emphasis on local ingredients. Please understand that where you are, the local cuisine may not be open to all, especially where indigenous people have been subjected to abuse and oppression and therefore aren’t willing to also open their foodways to the perpetrators thereof.
4. To be brutally honest, the way food often gets to us is fraught with both human and environmental abuses; but that’s a whole other post for another time.

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A Clarification On My Last Post

Regarding my last post where I speak of my grief, anger, and frustration over the fires in the Columbia River Gorge, first of all I want to thank everyone who read, shared and commented on the post, helping to get that information out there. As of right now the fires are still burning over 30,000 acres and have spread over to the Washington side of the Columbia, but no one has died and the firefighters have done a remarkable job in spite of ongoing heat, wind and lack of rain.

Most people have been able to understand my frustration with all the calls for prayers and rites at a time when these things feel like a band-aid on a bullet wound. I know I took a big risk in writing from a place of deep pain, grief and anger and that doubtless there would be people who, instead of paying attention to the bigger takeaway–do something concrete about the fires and the events leading up to them–got tangled up in my harsh words on prayers and rites.

What I should have clarified was that I am specifically frustrated with those who pray for rain, but then do nothing else helpful to follow it up. I’ve been pagan for twenty-one years. I have seen countless pagans who do “send energy to X” rituals and spells, and then do nothing else to follow it up. We tell people that if you’re going to do a job spell, you can’t then not send out resumes or apply for jobs. In the same way, all the “stop the fire” spells seem to fall flat when what we need even more urgently is everything from funding for firefighting and fire prevention to boots on the ground when the fire stops and the damage is assessed. Even if all you can do is pass on crucial information about evacuations and how to stop this happening in the future, you’re helping.

I know that even though I no longer practice magic of any sort, that it is a big part of paganism for a lot of people. And I know a lot of the people who do workings are also following them up with concrete physical actions. And I really, really appreciate all of those efforts. Even if the rituals only ended up having a purely psychological effect, bringing people together and boosting moods to keep going, that’s valuable.

I wrote my post when I was at an incredibly low point, physically alone and re-traumatized and in deep despair and just about ready to give up. I channeled that into drawing together resources to show people how they could help, both immediately and long-term, and that was part of what started helping me out of that dark place.

So I hope you’ll understand if my post wasn’t the nicest, sweetest, most diplomatic thing I’ve ever written. Yes, I could have been clearer about who, exactly, my frustration was with. But I have no apology for being angry with the hypocrisy of those who do a spell and then do nothing to follow it up when it comes to something this big, destructive, and deeply rooted in long-term human error.

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 🙂

Leave the Witchy Kitsch At the Store, Please

Note: This article was first posted over at my now-defunct Patheos blog. Due to contractual disagreements, which included them refusing to remove my posts from their site after repeated requests, I am moving some of my writing over here. Please link to this version of the article rather than the Patheos one. Thank you!

Ah, mid-August, how I love thee. It’s the height of summer here in the U.S., with barbecues and campouts and calling the air conditioning repair company because the HVAC is down again. My garden is overflowing with fresh produce and I have no idea how we’re going to eat all this kale, but I’m going to make it work. And all the kiddies are trying to squeeze the last remnants of summer vacation out before having to go back to school. Even the stores are getting in on the act, with shelves and displays full of backpacks and pencils and all that other stuff on the school supply list that just arrived in the mail.

Of course, the back to school displays have been up since the fifth of July. But soon enough (probably just after Labor Day) it’ll be time shopping for Halloween, or so the chain stores say. (Sure, it’s a little early to be talking about this, but I have to beat the stores to the punch!) You can expect endless lines of green-faced witches, styrofoam tombstones, little plastic cauldrons, and strings of Christmas-style lights with translucent smiling skulls and ghosts. Right on cue, the feeds on my social media profiles–Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter–will be full of squealing pagans all excited about “Look at all this Halloween stuff I got from Michael’s for just twenty bucks! They had a sale!” and “I got this cute gargoyle statue with red LED eyes at Wal-mart!” (In fact, I’ve already seen a few posts–apparently Michael’s already has their Halloween stuff out. Yikes.)

Most of the time I just hold my tongue and cringe. The very same pagans who have been reblogging and sharing calls to action about fracking in Canada and human rights abuses in Gaza are proudly displaying cheap, chintzy tchotchkes that are the products of environmental degradation and slave labor. It’s a peculiar sort of cognitive dissonance driven by materialism and rampant consumerism without reflection. It would be one thing if there were no alternative options, or if it were over something necessary to life like access to food or water, or even something educational like books. No, these cheap, mass-produced items (only slightly different from the ones offered last year) are purely luxuries, and not even luxuries in the traditional sense of actually being worth something.

Check out this festive oil spill!

And they come out of a well of toxicity. Those cute plastic window decals are derived from the petroleum industry, which severely damages the environment throughout the entire process of harvesting, processing, and using oil. Fossil fuels are also implicated in a whole host of human rights abuses. That cheap metal candle holder with the flying witch cut out? It was made from metals that were probably unsustainably mined, producing countless toxins and destroying nearby waterways and habitats.

These materials are then turned into purely decorative items, usually by poorly paid and abused slave labor in China and elsewhere. In 2012, an Oregon woman bought a set of Halloween decorations from K-Mart. Inside it was a letter written by one of the workers, detailing the horrible conditions at the factory. It is almost certain that this year’s shiny new decorations from Michael’s and the like are made by similarly abused workers.

And what’s it take to get all these trinkets from China to the United States? Generally they’re sent by giant freight ships across the Pacific Ocean, ships which create a massive amount of pollution and devastate wildlife and marine plantsthe noise from these ships also interferes with whales’ ability to communicate with each other, particularly as the sound is often on the same frequency that the whales use.

How else can these big box chain stores sell you their tacky items at low, low prices except through abuses to the environment and our fellow human beings? When you get to pay $5.99 for a packet of paper plates with smiling black cats on them, or get a buy one get one free pair of resin skeleton candle holders, you’re not paying the full price for these things. Other living beings are your coupons, and future generations of humans and other living beings will be paying the price for your purchase for decades, if not centuries, to come.

The sad thing is, there are plenty of alternatives to the crap you’ll find on the big box shelves, and yet millions of people convince themselves they just have to have these useless, toxic items, to include people who claim they venerate nature and believe all people should be treated equally and humanely. It would be one thing if we were talking about something necessary to human existence, like food or water access, or if these were carefully hand-crafted pieces bought directly from the artist. But we’re compromising the environment and each other over things nobody actually needs, and which can be easily replaced by better options.

Want to break the cycle of damaging consumerism? Make your own decorations and costumes using recycled and reclaimed materials, and invite your friends and family to get in on it. Here’s one set of tutorials, and here’s another, and some more over here, and those are just three of the first links that popped up when I Googled “how to make Halloween decorations with recycled materials”. If you want to get really artsy about it, try sculpting your own scary skeletons and witches out of recycled paper mache instead of buying the resin ones from the chain stores.

If you don’t feel you’re artistic enough, consider going through Etsy* or other avenues to patronize artists who make holiday wares. You can ask them about where their materials come from, request custom work, and you’ll be giving money to an individual person, not a nameless corporation. Chances are whatever they make will be better constructed than the cheaply made offerings at the stores, and so will last much longer. It may be more of a financial investment in the beginning, but it pays off in the long run.

Remember, too, that Halloween (Samhain) was originally a harvest festival, and many pagans still celebrate it as such today. This means that edibles like squash, sugar pumpkins and apples all make great decorations. You may also be able to find corn stalks from local farmers, and fall leaves are always abundant wherever deciduous trees grow. Once Halloween is over, you can eat the vegetables and fruit, and compost the rest.

If you absolutely must decorate your home in poor-quality, mass-produced Halloween kitsch, consider checking out Goodwill and other thrift stores in your area. Plenty of people offload their old holiday decorations when they move or clean house, and every year I see aisles full of perfectly serviceable secondhand Halloween items available for cheap. A lot of it will end up thrown out because there’s just too much to go around, and too many people insist on heading to Target to buy brand new costumes and decor (most of which will probably end up tossed, or donated and then tossed, in a few years). If for whatever reason you’d be horrified if your friends knew you went thrift shopping *gasp*, you don’t have to tell them the truth of where that inflatable vampire came from. Just tell them you bought it at the Halloween Superstore a few years ago.

Halloween can still be full of fun decorations and playful costumes, and those of you so inclined can still make your home look like October year-round. But with a little care and consideration, we can make this year’s Halloween better for the entire planet, and take some power away from the truly scary monsters that we face in our world today.

* Please be aware that Etsy now allows mass-produced items. You may have to be a little careful in shopping there. Generally speaking, if it’s cheap, it’s probably mass produced.

Did you enjoy this read? Consider supporting this self-employed author and artist by buying my books, or checking out my Etsy shop, or purchasing the Tarot of Bones! You can also get exclusive content, art in the mail, and more by being my Patron on Patreon!

Lupa’s Essential Books For Pagans

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

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

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

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

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

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

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

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

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

Roadside Geology series by various authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robbing Fox to Save Rabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Deadly Lack of Nature Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Imbolc Beach Cleanup

Ever since I moved my studio out to the Long beach peninsula in Washington and started splitting my time between there and Portland, I’ve had to give up some of my responsibilities and take on others as I’ve adjusted to the change. One of the things I gave up was my adopted stretch of the Columbia River near Sauvie Island. I just didn’t have the time any more to keep up on it, especially with the increased time away. Now that I’m more settled in I’m planning to get some more volunteer time this year.

These little bits of plastic are all over the beach, especially at the lines where the tides are highest each day.

I was able to kick off that effort with the first official beach-cleaning of 2017, conveniently on the weekend after Imbolc. A few times a year people on the peninsula get together on the beach and pick up garbage, some of it kicked up by the waves, and some of it (especially during summer) left by beachgoers. The past few times I’ve always had out of town obligations, so I was excited to finally get to be a part of this past Saturday’s efforts. I pick up litter when I’m on the beach anyway, but there’s something about being part of a concerted effort, you know?

Since it’s not yet tourist season, the beach didn’t have a ton of large, fresh debris like beer cans and the like. I found some half-buried plastic bottles and bags, a couple pieces of larger plastic bins and other items broken off and tossed on the waves–and lots and lots of tiny plastic and styrofoam fragments. It’s these latter ones that concern me; that’s the sort of thing that makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And they’re tough to clean up. I was out there with a cat litter scoop sifting them out of the sand, and many of them were still small enough to slip through.

Eventually I just lightly scraped the top layer of the sand to catch the little bits of plastic there, and scooped the whole thing into my bag.

Still, I managed to collect a few bags of garbage, most of which were picked up by volunteers driving by (yes, this is one of the few beaches you can drive on–not that I’m happy about it.) I got a picture of my last partly-filled bag, and a chunk of what looks like a yellow recycling tub.

On the one hand I feel discouraged because I know I barely made a dent in the plastic litter on the beach. There are SO MANY tiny fragments on the beach just from the last couple of storms; I had to stop focusing on them because I knew I had other stuff to pick up and I needed to focus my efforts on getting a larger volume of plastic out of there. It would be impossible for me to sift them all out of the sand. And yet, all I can think about is how they may eventually make their way back out to the ocean to join the great, deadly gyre of plastic debris in the middle of the Pacific.

There’s still plenty of work to do, but at least I’m not the only one trying to clean up the mess.

But I can’t let myself despair. People ARE out there trying to get this stuff cleaned up before it makes its way into the ocean. And there’s growing awareness that the best way to keep the Patch from getting bigger is to reduce the manufacture and consumption of plastic in the first place–hence why I work primarily with natural materials instead of plastics like fake fur and pleather. Hell, there are even people making new inroads into non-petroleum-based plastics that actually biodegrade!

So I’ll keep doing cleanup when and as I’m able to, and reduce my own consumption as much as I can. I may not be able to win this battle by myself, but I can at least make my contribution, one bag of plastic bits at a time.