Hey, everyone! My book Plant and Fungus Totems, originally published via Llewellyn, went out of print earlier this year. I’ve since updated and annotated it and released a new edition as Plant and Fungus Spirits. In addition to adding bits of new information or making other small changes, I’ve also removed the term “totem” other than where it refers to certain indigenous beliefs and practices. This is keeping in line with my other older books that I’ve re-released as self-published editions.
Sometimes the best teachers are those we often overlook! Explore the world of plant spirits, green beings who thrive on sunlight. Delve into the depths of fungus spirits, permeating the very soil beneath our feet. This book offers three unique approaches to working with these spirits:
*The Bioregional Model invites you to deepen your relationship to the physical land around you through the spirits that live there.
*The Correspondences Model combines the symbols of your path into your work with nature spirits.
*The Archetypal Model allows your spirit guides to help you through the intricacies of your inner self so you can know yourself better.
Whether you choose one of these models, or a combination, Plant and Fungus Spirits offers you meditations, examples and other tools to invite these spirits into your life. An excellent book for the beginner and the experienced practitioner alike!
So over the past couple of years, as I’ve been spending time on a farm on the coast where my art studio is, the level of manure I encounter on a daily basis has increased quite a bit. It started with a parrot, and then an appaloosa, and now here we are with three parrots, two horses, seven sheep, a llama, a quail, ten chickens, and one German shepherd. Most of these technically aren’t mine (except the chickens and the dog) but I get to take care of all of them on a daily basis.
While I get to do the fun things like feeding and exercising and letting the chickens out to play in the pasture, I also have to take care of the inevitable poop. Sometimes this is as simple as cleaning the newspaper out of a parrot cage. However, one of the messiest and most physically demanding tasks is mucking out the horse shelter, which generally involves taking a wheelbarrow or two of manure and old hay each day over to the orchard to be spread on the ground for the benefit of all the plants. Since there’s nothing new and fragile over there, and the grass is pretty hardy, it can age in situ and within a few months it’s a pretty decent fertilizer for the ground.
This makes it more efficient than hauling it to a composting area, and then spreading it out in the orchard. It also maximizes the amount of nutrients going to that particular land. See, since the farm is right on the coast, the soil is sandy. And in fact the orchard is on the berm of an old railroad that used to run all the way up the peninsula along what was the beach a century or so ago. When jetties were put in at the mouth of the river, they stopped the flow of sand along the coast, and it began to back up. This has since added several hundred yards of ground to the west side of the peninsula; pretty much everything west of the barn was covered in water not too long ago.
So the soil has barely had time to even think of a humus layer, let alone build an appreciable layer thereof. The native plants, like shore pine and common foxglove, have evolved to survive on poor soil, and are some of the first plants to move out onto new land once the grasses have had their say for a while. Putting manure on the ground, therefore, significantly speeds up the rate at which organic material accumulates; planting nitrogen-fixing plants like clover helps further.
You’d think I’d hate hauling manure; it’s literally a dirty job (but someone’s gotta do it) and this time of year when everything is soaked with rain the manure picked up out in the pasture is much heavier. But it’s nowhere near as smelly as you might imagine, and moving it around is good exercise. Moreover, I appreciate the effort I’m putting in to take this lovely compost-to-be that our horses have left behind–literally–and use it to improve the soil for cultivation purposes. Especially during winter, when temperatures are cooler, the manure can decay more slowly so that the nutrients aren’t all lost to rapid microbial activity.
The orchard, with fresh manure in the foreground and each row with an increasingly older layer. Notice how vigorously the grass is growing back the longer it’s been sitting there.
How is that not magic? It is literally creating food from waste! No human being could take a wand and wave it an accomplish the same. Yet like photosynthesis and the hydrological cycle, this complicated and necessary ritual goes unnoticed by the majority of people the majority of the time. No wonder I’ve run into so many pagans over the years who complain that the world lacks magic just because we can’t shoot fireballs out of our hands or physically shapeshift or stop a speeding bullet with our thoughts. I think they just aren’t looking hard enough.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve approached the concept of magic not as some supernatural force wherein we can make things happen beyond normal human abilities, but as the supremely complicated chemical reactions that are at the heart of how our precious, fragile, life-giving Earth functions at all levels. My world is absolutely full to bursting with magic, with the ancient solar-systemic forces that cause the Earth to rotate to this day, the transformation of sunlight into the sugars that fuel the entire food web via photosynthesis, and the replication of DNA in countless cells of a myriad of living creatures every moment.
If I were still the sort of pagan to put stock in spells and rites, I might make something of my daily efforts beyond this. And in fact sometimes I do think about things that are bothering me when I am scooping and cleaning the horses’ leavings; it’s a time when my mind wanders anyway. But I remember that time and effort transform all things, and so I can imagine that when I spread the muck over the ground and leave it to biodegrade, I also leave my worries there to be digested and turned into something more positive and fertile. This doesn’t actually remove the things I worry about from my life, and it doesn’t miraculously cure me of my anxiety. It’s a good mental exercise, and a reminder that in many cases I have the ability to bring forth good things out of an otherwise bad situation if I just put enough work and patience into it. But I don’t see it as some magical rite that changes anything outside my own head, though years ago I might have.
Today, there is magic enough in the manure itself, from the time that the horse’s intestines are drawing the last nutrients they can through their permeable membranes to feed hungry cells, to when flies lay the eggs carrying the next generation in the fresh piles, and finally when the whole mess is spread out by wheelbarrow and raked over sandy soil to be made into a buffet for all sorts of tiny creatures without whom the ecosystem would collapse. It is motion, and transformation, and the passing of life-force from one being to another.
Not only grass, but hawksbeard, trailing blackberry and other plants are already finding a place among what will nourish them for generations. The additional nutrients will also host a greater diversity of fungi, bacteria and other tiny beings, as well as insects and other small arthropods, plus the birds and other animals that eat them–and so on.
I am content with this sort of magic, natural and measurable and infinitely replicable–and not at all anthropocentric. Not that I’m entirely uninvolved; I find peace with the change I make in the world by moving nutrients from one place to another so that the second place may be more suitable for fruit and nut trees, and berry vines, and who knows what else? I experience awe and wonder at knowing, at least from a layperson’s view, how this cycle of decay and renewal works, and how it doesn’t even really need my participation to keep doing its thing twenty-four hours a day. I am bringing forth a more fertile micro-reality in accordance with my Will, though with the understanding that there are plenty of factors–weather, unhappy microbes, me having a cold and being unable to move manure that day–that could affect the outcome in spite of my best efforts.
And so, dear reader, there’s a good chance that while you finish this post, I am out on the land with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow, creating fertile magic with the help of microbes and manure.
Did you enjoy this blog post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up! It’s a guide to connecting with your bioregion on both spiritual and practical levels.
[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
I was talking to someone on Facebook today about how I’m a field guide nerd. I have an ever-growing collection of identification books on the fauna, flora and fungi of the Pacific Northwest, as well as its complicated geology, climate, and other natural features. I even collect vintage ones just for the fun of it. I’m also an avid iNaturalist user and spend a decent portion of my outdoor time taking photos of beings I meet along the way. And I love the challenge of trying to identify some critter or plant that I have never encountered before, just to put a name and a niche to it.
Now, I’ve spent the past couple of decades watching experienced pagans talk about how important history books are for pagans wishing to deepen their practice. They’re right, of course, at least if your path is in any way linked to historical cultures. But think of how many pagans invoke the elements without understanding anything about the earth, air, fire and water in their bioregion, or who call on deities of storm and forest and fertility with little comprehension of those natural forces. We can name entire pantheons of deities and list off magical correspondences for hours, and yet so many of us can’t identify more than a few native plant or bird species. I’ve already asked why we can’t be as nerdy about nature as we are about history in a both/and rather than either/or manner. So consider this a continuation of that query.
Using Field Guides
First, what is a field guide? Simply put, it’s a book or website that lists a certain group of living beings found in an area. Bird guides are by far the most popular as birders are also generally pretty avid book fans, and when you’re trying to fill your Life List with positively identified new species it’s important to be very sure you know what you’re looking at through your binoculars. But field guides to flowers and other plants, mushrooms, wild mammals, and other beings abound. Some of these cover entire continents; others focus on a single state or region. The best have clear, full-color photos or high quality illustrations showing the field marks–distinguishing characteristics–of each species, along with pertinent info on behavior, habitat, and more.
The best way I’ve found to use one isn’t to cart it around with me all the time, but instead to take note of various beings I find in my day to day life. If I can get a picture, great! But sometimes that’s not possible, and so I need to either sketch or write down as many of the field marks I noticed as possible. For example, the first time I saw a varied thrush I noticed that it was a bird very much like a robin except it was yellow and black. When I got home I grabbed one of my Oregon bird guides and flipped through until I found a bird like the one I saw. The size, location and habits all matched up with what I observed, so it was a pretty safe bet that this was indeed a varied thrush.
I also read through my field guides, because there are many beings I have yet to see in the wild. There are several species which I had previously only seen in books and photos, and which I instantly recognized in person the first time because I was already aware of how they looked. Plus it’s fun to imagine what sorts of wildlife, plants and mushrooms I might find if I decide to go exploring somewhere new!
I’ve kept a journal of my nature sightings for several years, and I also have a pretty extensive collection on iNaturalist. Every time I find a new animal, plant or other being, I make note of it in the journal with what I saw, when and where. Then as I further research the ways in which my ecosystem is put together I can place this particular being into its niche and know how it’s a part of the greater whole. The varied thrush, for example, is food for hawks and other predators. As an insectivore it helps to keep insect populations in check. And like all birds its droppings are important fertilizer for plants and fungi, and because it eats berries it helps to distribute the seeds to new locations. I can appreciate the need to preserve forest habitats in particular since the numbers of this species have been declining due to habitat loss. And so now I think of those things whenever I see a varied thrush, rather than just saying “I see a bird. I wonder what it means?”
How Is This Useful to Pagans?
If you’re going to draw on nature in your path in any way, it’s a good idea to have at least a basic understanding of what it is you’re incorporating. Any introductory book on paganism will extol the virtues of getting to know the differences between various deities and spirits and the like so that you aren’t calling on Artemis in a men’s ritual or asking Dionysus to help with a safe ocean passage. In the same way, it’s important to be able to identify at least some of your non-human neighbors if you’re going to be asking them to join your rituals.
And I don’t mean just going with anthropocentric information. If I am going to learn about fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) I’m not just going to look at pictures of Smurf houses or try and pretend I’m a Siberian shaman by ingesting some of this hallucinogen. Instead I’m going to find out this fungi’s natural range, what sort of substrate its mycelium prefers, what sorts of trees it forms mycorrhizal relationships with, and whether there’s any animal that can safely eat it. All these tell me more about how it fits into the ecosystem I am also a part of, and gives me a greater appreciation for it as something other than “one of those mushrooms that can get you high.”
The more you get to know your community, human and otherwise, the more you come to value it. Just as knowing the names of your neighbors and store employees conveys a deeper sense of connectedness, so knowing the names of the animals, plants and other beings around you makes you more appreciative of them. And as you grow your awareness of how your human community works together in a web of inter-reliance, so your understanding of the complexity of your overall ecosystem shows you just how precious and important it is. And that, to me, is the center of truly nature-based paganism. Not how many Samhain decorations are on your altar or how many crystals you own, but how aware you are of just how entwined you are with everything around you and how much responsibility you have to it. If all you do is take, take, take and never give back, even in the simple act of knowing something’s name, then you are a parasite rather than a partner.
Field guides are a great way to begin this healthy and balanced relationship. Like a list of deities in a pantheon, they introduce you to who’s who. You don’t have to memorize every species in every book or website; just knowing which field guide to start with when researching a species is a great first step. And how much you explore is up to you. You may be content just knowing the data in the field guide entry for a given species so that you can name it the next time you see it. Or you may wish to get to know it better, along with the various other beings that it is inter-reliant with, so that you can place a few more pieces into the puzzle of your ecosystem and have a greater part of the whole picture.
How Do I Find Field Guides?
The easiest way I’ve found is to go online and search for “Oregon field guides” (you can substitute your state, region or country for Oregon.) Or go to Amazon and search for “field guides” and see what pops up, though I recommend actually buying your books from local independent bookstores. If you want to narrow it down, search for things like “Oregon plant field guides” or “books on birds of the Pacific Northwest.” If you’re more hands-on, go to your local bookstore and peruse their nature section. I’ve gotten almost all of my field guides from the gift shops at state and national parks and wildlife refuges as I like supporting them financially.
The same goes for websites. Let’s say I saw a salamander but didn’t know what it was. Searching for “Oregon salamanders” brings up several pages that showcase all the species of salamander found in this state. Some of these sites, like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wildlife viewing site, also include information on other sorts of animals, making them valuable for broader research. Here are a few more links to get you started (please notice some of these are US-based, though there are some non-US links as well):
Does this post resonate with your idea of paganism? Then I bet you’ll enjoy my books! The titles from Llewellyn are particularly informed by my interest in natural history and include more details on how to connect more deeply with the nature around you. Check them out at https://thegreenwolf.com/books/
First, I wanted to let you know I’m open for commissions on something that’s not my usual hide and bone art. This month my $15 Patrons at http://www.patreon.com/lupagreenwolf got these awesome 3″ x 3″ mini wildlife paintings in the mail. I am now open for commissions if you’d like one of your own! Your choice of species (animal, plant or fungus) and background colors/pattern for $15 plus shipping anywhere in the world. Comment or email me at lupa.greenwolf(at)gmail(dot)com if interested! Here are a couple more detail shots:
Second, I just wanted to touch base with you about how things are going here. I know I haven’t been blogging a lot lately; most of my writing energy has gone toward putting the finishing touches on Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I’ve also still been creating artwork, but I’ve also been doing some volunteer and contracted work for a local conservation organization. So I’ve been super busy, just a lot of it has been behind the scenes.
I’m hoping to have some new posts here soon enough, so keep your eyes peeled 🙂
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?
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.
The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals, and Other Forgotten Skills
The Experiment, LLC 2014
I promise I actually still read books! I just read them more slowly these days, which is why it took me over a month to work my way through Tristan Gooley’s excellent The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. And I enjoyed it so much I wanted to be sure I shared it with you.
Have you ever had a book that you were really, really excited to read? This is one of those books for me. As soon as I saw it in a little bookstore in Ilwaco, WA, I knew I needed to not only buy it and read it but absorb it. As the title suggests, it’s a detailed look at how to use signs in the landscape to determine everything from where you’re headed to what the weather will do and what various living beings you may meet along the way. Most of the chapters are dedicated to specific areas of study, such as animal tracks or what you can tell from local flora, fungi and lichens. But they’re interspersed with a few chapters of the author’s anecdotes, which not only illustrate the concepts therein, but also demonstrate that even a master outdoorsperson can get lost!
Because the book is neatly divided into chapters, it makes a good workbook for improving your skills at noticing and interpreting these clues. Even better, the last chapter includes specific tips and exercises to hone your abilities in each chapter’s bailiwick. My intent, now that I’ve read the book through once, is to make use of it on my own travels, first working through it chapter by chapter, and then integrating everything together.
Even if you aren’t very active outdoors, it’s still an incredibly fascinating read with numerous “Wow, I had NO idea!” moments in store for you. Gooley very obviously loves nature and has spent countless hours reading its fine print with gusto. At a time when many people simply see “nature” as the unending scenery outside, he invites us to pay attention to the minute details and the stories they tell, and then wrap them all back up into great ecosystemic symphonies. This is a must-have for anyone whose path intersects with the natural world, whether practically, artistically, spiritually or otherwise.
I don’t do a lot of praying; I tend to do more acting, being and observing. But occasionally I want to take a moment to appreciate something that I have, so I send out a prayer of gratitude. There’s one that I wrote years ago that I say every night before I go to sleep:
Thank you to all of those who have given me this day,
All those who have given of themselves
To feed me
And heal me.
May I learn to be as generous as you.
When I wrote it as a newbie pagan, I felt that I’d mostly covered the bases on what others (human and otherwise) gave to me so I could go on living each day. Now that I’m older I could think of other actions in addition to feeding or teaching, but I love the flow of this prayer as it is. It’s like an old story–Italian, I think?–in which a man comes across a group of little fey ladies coming out of a hill, singing “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”. The man then sings out “and Tuesday!” and the ladies curse him because he ruined the cadence of their song. Sure, I could add another line or two, but it’s currently perfect in its rhythm and timing for getting me back into touch with all those who have contributed to me getting another day on this Earth.
I’m less naive than when I first wrote it, though. Take the line “To feed me”, for example. Back then I was thinking of the people who helped bring food to my table, from farmers to grocers to my own family. As I got older, I not only thought more about the plants, animals, fungi and other living beings involved in the complex food creation and distribution systems, but also the people who were more behind the scenes and often neglected: migrant farm workers, slaughterhouse employees, late-night cardboard box factory employees. And I thought of those ecosystems that were polluted by industrial fertilizers or torn down to make room for one more monocropped wheat field (even if it was organically grown).
So the whole prayer is a reminder to me that I am part of an incredibly complex web of connections, most of which I will never personally observe, but which I have an effect on in my everyday life. And it’s why the last line is bittersweet. I can never be as generous as a pig killed in a slaughterhouse for pork chops, and I will never know the experience of working fourteen hour days in a strawberry field under the hot summer sun, underpaid and worried about deportation. But I can at least give back in awareness, education, and trying to make better choices–like growing my own food when I’m able to, supporting fair trade practices and organic farming where I can afford it, and reminding others–even through this simple prayer–that nothing is as simple as “thank you”.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which encourages the reader to be more aware of their bioregion and all the beings they share it with.
Over the years, my spirituality has shifted in the nature of its practice. For a long time I was a dedicated ritualist. I spent hours before my altar, altering my state of consciousness through chants and dance, and working myself into an endorphin-fueled high that helped me to break out of my own headspace. It was during those times that I felt most at one with the rest of the world, or at least some portion of it not bounded by my own skin. I had some pretty incredible experiences, and on occasion I’ll still indulge in more elaborate practices when the situation calls for it.
More recently I’ve become dissatisfied with ritual as my primary vehicle of connection. It can be time-consuming, it isn’t always practical, and it sometimes leaves the ordinary parts of life looking–well–ordinary. As the animal totems I’ve worked with have urged me deeper into their ecosystem, engaging with the totems of plants, fungi, waterways and others, it’s given me cause to rethink my approach to the world around me. The more I understood about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the less I felt I had to put myself into a special place and time to feel I was a part of something greater.
And so these days I quite easily slip into that sense of unity with the universe. I touch a leaf, or pick up a stone, or gaze at the wide blue skies over the Oregon sagebrush desert, and I know in that moment that I am anything but alone, isolated and detached. It is only human hubris that led me to believe anything else, the Catholic upbringing and consumerist setting that both told me “You are more than an animal; you are something special; you deserve to take whatever you want from nature”. That elevated status may sound like a place of power, but in reality the pedestal can be an incredibly isolating place to be.
What I understand now is that every living thing is my relative. Every piece of substance on this earth shares something in common with me, be it life, or elements, or merely the fact we are composed of atoms. There is nothing on this planet, nothing in this universe, that is truly alien to me. I am a part of a larger community; I always have been. Every being that has come before is my ancestor. I watched a video of David Attenborough examining the forelimb of a fossil of Tiktaalik, one of the first amphibians to walk on land. He pointed out how, like humans, this 375 million year old creature had a humerus, a radius and ulna, and a constellation of wrist bones. Even if Tiktaalik isn’t a direct ancestor by genes, it is of my family nonetheless.
Do you know what one of my favorite things to ponder is? Consider the trillions of cells that make up a human body. These cells are the direct descendants of independent, unicellular life forms that, billions of years ago, joined together and worked in harmony in order to meet the challenges life threw at them. This may have happened independently as many as four dozen times throughout the history of this planet, and each multicellular revolution resulted in a different sort of being. One begat the line that would become animals.
So we are really composed of trillions of tiny lives. They’re each so specialized and enmeshed as to be utterly dependent on the entire organism, and die without its support. We think of ourselves as more hardy than that–but don’t we, too, ultimately die without an ecosystem to support us? We just take longer to expire than a few skin cells scraped off on a jagged branch on the trail.
We don’t have definitive proof that the planet is a living organism in the sense we think of it, nor the galaxy, nor the universe. But we can take a certain symbolic, poetic stance in that regard. And I think it’s a valuable shift in mindset that melds romance and science. Not that science is without romance of its own. Most scientists are not cold, 100% rational people; they have emotions and biases, too. And many scientists I’ve met have been ridiculously passionate about the parts of the world that fascinate them–if not everything that exists, starting with their own specialty.
Science is not the enemy just because it says there is no clear evidence of planet-as-organism. Science is a lens onto the mind-staggering intricacy we have found ourselves in the moment we are born into this world. If it does not indulge in speculation beyond ideas to be tested, that doesn’t make it lacking in imagination or wonder. Those who say there is no magic here because life isn’t like a fantasy novel haven’t been paying attention to the unfolding story of the world that the sciences are uncovering. Read enough books, watch enough documentaries, walk out into the world enough times and observe with curiosity, and you too will likely see things that are magical without being supernatural.
And really, life itself is the grandest immersive experience any of us will ever get. If I only considered the moments most soaked in endorphins to be where I was truly alive, think of how much I’d be missing out on! I got tired of chasing that connected feeling in fleeting moments of euphoria, and instead decided to seek it in every moment I live and breathe.
So, no. I no longer need rituals to fuel a connection to something bigger. Just taking a moment to consider where I am–where I really, truly am–in the grandest scheme of things is enough to shatter my relatively tiny, daily perception and pull me into the ever-spiraling dance of the cosmos in all its parts.