Category Archives: Naturalist Paganism

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 plants; the 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.

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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?

Announcing NaturalPagans.com!

Happy Monday, all!

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

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

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