Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things has arrived! This is the first book about the subculture (fandom?) surrounding hides, bones, and other animal specimens. In it you’ll learn about who Vultures are, how to build your own collection, tutorials on bone cleaning, tanning and more, how to explain Vulture Culture to the general public, and much more. Whether you’re just getting involved or have been a Vulture for years, this is a great addition to your bookshelf–and it’s the perfect thing to hand to someone who may not understand your unusual interests, too!
Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2011-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!
The beauty of the wild is the long gesture of life in time. The beauty of skin and fur and feathers, the beauty of blood, the beauty of bones sinking into grass.
–John Daniel, from The Soul Unearthed
That is the quote I painted on a recent creation of mine, shown in the picture above. My canvas was a piece of rawhide left over from a drum kit. The visual punctuation of the entire piece included an eclectic mix: a rooster feather; a coyote toe bone; a sea urchin spine; and two pieces of deer hide, fur and leather.
I chose the quote deliberately for that piece. There is a certain ambiguity to the words, flowing from one end of the life-death cycle to the other. “Life in time” breathes and pounds its heart, while the “bones sinking into grass” create a vivid image of the core structure of the animal, all the rest borne away, disintegrating into nourishment for the flora. In between, the hides and the blood are left open; they may be alive and running yet, but the blood may also be sluiced upon the ground, and the skin stripped from muscle and tendon and prepared for preservation.
In much of the United States, people have a poor relationship with death, to include that of nonhuman animals. The idea of the “poor, dead animals” (particularly those that aren’t carved up on a dinner plate) is often enough of a shock that no one wants to think, let alone talk, about it. We eat beef and pork, not cow and pig, and very few of us ever eat anything that’s looking back at us; even the shrimp are conveniently decapitated for our culinary comfort. The most common discourse about dead animals seems to come from some animal rights activists who quite often use guilt, shame, and shock to try to convince unsuspecting leather-clad omnivores into changing their ways. When the choices are either silence or stigma, there doesn’t seem to be much room in between for more moderate discussions.
I choose what I perceive as one potential moderate path, tempered with much awareness. For over a decade I have been an artist of animal remains, part aesthetics and part spiritual work. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the lovely curve of bone and the lush texture of deerskin, the intricately veined colors of feathers, and the varied structures of the hairs of all sorts of furs. Beyond animal parts as an artistic medium, though, the core of my work is funereal. From the beginning my art has been about reclaiming these remains from being trophies or status symbols, and a significant portion of my “supplies” is made of old fur and leather coats, reclaimed taxidermy, and the like.(1) I guide these remains to a better “afterlife” with others, as has always been my role with them, and everything I make with animal parts gets a full ritual purification as part of my pagan practice.
Over the years I’ve gotten a wide variety of reactions to my work, from awe to indifference to outright hostility. Thankfully the responses have canted toward the more receptive, whether in person or online. I get the distinct feeling, though, that most people, regardless of their views, are highlighting certain individual facets of the work that, together, I tend to take as a whole.Most of the people who favor my work seem to primarily connect with it on an aesthetic level. They like having something pretty, whether as something to wear, or as a “powerful” ritual tool. They appreciate it as art, which is perfectly fine. At the other end of the spectrum are the occasional activists who come in swinging; they see the death and the remains, to the exclusion of anything else.
On some occasions, though, I will meet people who bring my art home both as art, and as sacred remains. They haven’t glossed over the fact that what they hold was once living, often combining the parts of animals that never would have met in life (such as the cow and the sea urchin in my wall hanging above). But they still see the beauty in those remains, and in the fact of their death. They can appreciate the loveliness of a long-dead deer’s ribcage seated in a field, and the arrangement of those same ribs into a totemic shrine. They know they carry lives in their hands.
I have not lost sight of the living end of the cycle, either. I have always donated a portion of the funds I make from selling my art to nonprofit groups that work to preserve both animals and their habitat, as well as informal donations to friends and acquaintances in need of help with emergency vet bills and the like. I think my partner, S., put it best when he told me that my most powerful alchemy was taking the remains of animals that had often died cruel and inhumane deaths, and turning them into funds to help those creatures still living and the environs that support them.
And I do my best to educate people about the sources of the remains; I maintain a database of international, federal and state laws on possessing and selling animals parts in the US to help them make educated decisions. Nor do I lie about those of my “materials” that are byproducts of the fur industry; I do not claim they’re roadkilled or “natural deaths”, or wild instead of farmed, to try to assuage people’s guilt or to make me look more ethical in their eyes. To do so would be an insult both to the people I speak with, and the animals themselves, never mind my artistic and spiritual work.
This work with the remains is another foundational part of my nature-based path, and as I write in this place over time, you may see me refer to the “skin spirits” as a collective term for the spirits of all the animals whose remains I work with, skin, bone and otherwise. My nature-based paganism is rooted in all of the life-death cycle, and this is how I seek the beauty in that which is all too often ignored, or so symbolized as to be almost entirely removed from the gritty reality.
(1) I have become so known for collecting dead critters in certain circles, in fact, that I have been over time gifted with a number of antiques that were inherited by people who had no idea what to do with them, and so decided I was a good next stop for Grandma’s fur coat, or Uncle Doug’s deer heads.
Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2012-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!
Last week I was taking a walk while in between appointments around the residential portion of the Hollywood District here in Portland. It was a glorious day, sunny and warm, and amid the sounds of lawnmowers and cars I could hear the voices of numerous birds in the trees and gardens around me. I walked beneath a male Anna’s hummingbird doing his distinctive dive bomb display with a chirp and a “tze-tze-tze” (that first sound being made by the bird’s tail feathers). And I passed by a pair of tiny gray bushtits in a flowering tree, hunting equally tiny insects for lunch. Numerous ferns and flowers burst forth in lush greenery, urged on by recent rain and immediate sunlight, and even a pair of domestic cats enjoyed their yard (thankfully from the safety of long leashes). It was, all told, quite a pleasant walk only cut short by a text that my next appointment was, in fact, in another neighborhood entirely.
Still, even those few minutes were enough to rejuvenate me through a busy day. Not that this is a new revelation; it’s been several years since I took my first graduate course in ecopsychology, and one of the first things we discussed were the restorative properties of exposure to nature. Research has quantified these positive effects, allowing a more structured understanding of why we seek outdoor places to refresh ourselves and find relaxation. It may almost seem redundant to some of us to have to study things we feel are common sense.
We are human mammals, Homo sapiens sapiens. As a species, we spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving in wide, open savannahs and scrub forests, and that experience was built on a much, much longer heritage of wild living. The few thousand years that we’ve been living in settled areas, with permanent shelters, is a much smaller period of time, and our current way of life is, at best, a century or so old, hardly long enough for us to properly adapt to it in depth. Our mammalian selves still look for open water and good vistas, and too much time spent indoors can lead to greater levels of stress, among other unpleasant effects.
So why is it so hard to get us outside sometimes? One of the prices we pay for our fast-paced, energy-hungry lifestyles is more of a dependence on controlled indoor environments. We learn from an early age that we’re supposed to do important things inside. Our very education is done indoors, for fear that being outside would lead us to distraction. And this trains us for the cubicle, the office, the checkout counter. Most of us don’t walk or bike to work or school, either, depriving us of even these daily encounters with the outdoors.
We also are concentrated more within cities and towns than ever before. It’s where the most job opportunities and other resources are located. However, other than neatly trimmed, rectangular parks with a few benches and trees, cities don’t always have green spaces. Most larger, wilder urban parks, like New York’s Central Park or Portland’s Forest Park, don’t have a lot of affordable housing nearby, and it can be quite a trek for some people to get to them, involving an investment of time and money that not all may have.Which is why it’s important to have nearby nature. What is nearby nature? By some definitions it’s the wild places just outside a city or town; however, I also use the term to refer to the nature within these populated areas. After all, we don’t entirely pave everything over. There are gardens with flowering plants and trees and other green growing things, and an assortment of birds that have adapted to new ecosystems, and even a few mammals like raccoons and possums that have taken advantage of a lack of natural predators. But it’s cultivated nature, too–gardens and landscaping and open green lawns (while I may hate grassy lawns and see them as a waste of space, they’re still better than asphalt).
Nearby nature allows us to connect with something other than ourselves; indeed, it connects us, ever so subtly, with something bigger than ourselves. When we’re inside, glued to a television set or a computer monitor or even a book, we can tune out everything that isn’t human-made. We’re lost in our own little world. But go outside, and we’re confronted with our neighbors, human and non-human alike. We have to remember, then, that we aren’t the only living beings on the planet.
This reconnection is beneficial all around. On the one hand, being outdoors in an environment where we feel safe helps to lower one’s blood pressure and relaxes the limbic system, and can reduce stress as well as symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses. We reconnect with our ancient selves, and give our senses the things they evolved to drink in. But it’s also beneficial for all the other beings, in that we–easily the single most destructive species on Earth–begin to feel more of a sense of responsibility for other living beings the more time we spend in their presence.
We shouldn’t have to go to wilderness areas to get that connection, though wilderness is certainly its own amazing experience. By infusing even our most urban areas and tallest buildings with reminders of nature, we’re giving ourselves day-to-day doses of nature’s beneficial properties. Like taking a daily multivitamin, we’re making sure that we’re getting the things we need to be healthy and connected on an ongoing basis.
Did you enjoy this post? My book,Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, is an excellent guide to connecting more with your nearby nature! Find out more about it and my other books at https://thegreenwolf.com/books
Recently I had someone contact me about a deer antler headband that I have in my Etsy shop. They asked whether the antlers had come from the same deer, given that one antler has two tines and one has three. I explained that yes, these were in fact from one animal, and I had cut them off the skullcap myself. In fact, most deer have antlers that aren’t exact mirror images of each other; even those with the same number of tines often have variations in shape and size.
Art forms ranging from nature illustrations to Disney movies would have us believe that nature is largely symmetrical and perfect (unless, of course, when portraying something allegorically flawed, in which case there is deformity.) And at first glance most living beings appear to be more or less even on both/all sides.
But look a little closer, and you find that there are subtle differences when comparing halves, or fifths, or whatever symmetry is being displayed. Perhaps one arm of a starfish is slightly longer than the other. Or the underside of a red-tailed hawk’s left wing has a little more color than the right. If you were to take a photo of your face, cut it exactly in half, copy the halves, flip them over and match like to like, you would find that there are quite a few appreciable differences between each of your facial hemispheres.
Imperfections aren’t just about symmetry, either. Leucism and albinism are conditions in which animals lack significant amount of melanin, making them much paler than their kin. A butterfly whose wings may be a bit ragged and worn around the edges can still fly, even if not quite as well. And a genetic quirk in a certain strain of wheat several thousand years ago led to grains that stuck to the stem instead of falling off easily to grow into new plants; the ease with which these could be harvested led to the dawn of human agriculture.
Yet to call these imperfections assumes that there is some standard called “perfect” to aspire to. Certainly there are forms in nature that we find more aesthetically pleasing, but even those are affected by subjective biases. However, nature is less about perfection and more about adequacy. Does a given trait help an organism to live long enough to pass on its genes, and do the genes then carry that trait forward? Then it’s adequate.
We often think of “adequate” as “not really good enough.” We’re told that we need to be exceptional, outstanding, the best. Who celebrates second place, anyway? Yet nature is full of beings that aren’t necessarily number one, but who manage to get along in the world just fine. As Henry van Dyke said, “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang here except those that sang best.”
People are a lot like that, too. If you look at any given trait, skill, competition, etc. there can only be one person who is the very best, and only a very few who can be considered elite. But that doesn’t mean everyone else has to pack up and go home. In high school I was basically the slowest runner on the track team thanks to undiagnosed asthma, but I got out there and gave it my best anyway. And now, at forty, I still get out to run when the weather’s good even though an eight minute mile is an impossibility for me. That still makes me a runner; I don’t doubt my status just because I’m not especially fast.
We also glorify pretty arbitrary standards of attractiveness, standards that shift and change according to culture and time. Most people aren’t models; most of us have little details like moles or blemishes or scars that keep us from being “perfect” (especially without cosmetics or Photoshop). Yet we’re still able to be a part of this world and make our contributions as we will, and most of us find relationships of some sort. We are each of us more or less adequate.
This isn’t a bad thing, not by far. So much is made about the (often arbitrary) best that often the rest feel like there’s no point in trying if someone else is better than we are. Which is sad, because something is still worth being or doing even if you haven’t specialized to the point of single focus. Adequacy also allows for a lot more variety. There’s not just one pinnacle to achieve, but a whole landscape of mountains, valleys, prairies and other unique places to explore. Each of these habitats is adequate for supporting the life forms that call it home.
I think we need to celebrate the adequate more. We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and on each other to only shoot for the highest goals or states of being. Not only is it unrealistic, but it’s setting a lot of people up for failure, as that goal of perfection is a pretty tiny target to aim for. Humans, being animals, are messy biological systems that evolved to adequacy, and any statements of hierarchical value beyond that are largely artificial and generally do more harm than good.
On that note, we also need to stop looking at our little asymmetries and other quirks as “imperfections”. All that does is reinforce the idea that these variances are somehow bad. If you saw a blue jay whose left cheek stripe was a little thicker than the right one, you’d just see it as an interesting field mark, assuming you even noticed it at all. In the same way we need to be accepting of the ways in which we are all different, without judgment or malice. And we really, really need to be more forgiving of ourselves, even when (and especially when) we’re told we aren’t “perfect” somehow.
So the next time you feel self-conscious, or flawed, or just not good enough, look to nature. Having five points instead of six didn’t stop that buck from growing big enough to have a decent set of antlers; so what if he was a little uneven? Judge yourself as I would judge that deer: a perfectly adequate representation of his kind, and every bit as lovely as the rest.
So last month the largest spinning ice disk recorded formed in the Presumpscot River in Maine. It’s a pretty rare phenomenon caused when a piece of ice breaks off a frozen river surface near a bend and is spun around like a record. This one, being so incredibly large, attracted a lot of attention.
Humans have spent thousands of years deciding that nature wasn’t good enough on its own, and that it needed our influence to be truly perfect. Much of that has been in the service of material exploitation, that a forest won’t maximize its potential until its wood has been made into houses and furniture, its minerals into coinage, and its water into an engine for electricity. There are all too many people who look at a wild place and only see dollar signs.
It’s almost more defensible than the actions of this person and others who decide that something awe-inspiring in nature must have their personal mark on it because somehow they’re important enough to make that statement. At least houses and energy have practical applications that can improve people’s lives in concrete ways. The same can’t be said for graffiti on natural features, even well-intended.
“What harm is there in breaking a big ice disk, or carving initials into a tree?” one might ask. Well, sure, there’s no price tag on the ice disk, and chances are the tree will survive, though there are plenty of cases where that sort of damage led the tree to die from disease through the breach in its bark. Painting on rock formations may be mostly obnoxious rather than harmful to the rock, though some of the paints can be toxic to the local ecosystem.
Part of the issue is the concept of intrinsic value. I value nature for itself, rather than just for what I can get out of it. The very fact that I am surrounded by a vibrant community of biological beings, inhabiting a planet ever-changing through geological, hydrological, and climatic forces, never ceases to fill me with awe and wonder. I don’t need to then overlay that with my biases to make it pretty.
This may seem odd coming from someone who routinely takes bits of nature and imposes personal meaning on them through art. After all, it would be easy to defend the peace sign on the ice disk as art. However, scale and permanence play a big part in things. If you make a snow sculpture in your backyard, no one’s likely to feel they missed out on the unmarred snowfall. But a lot of people who wanted to see the ice disk, whole and undamaged, had that ruined for them by one man’s actions. He destroyed the shared experience.
Moreover, he seems to have come at his project without really considering the intrinsic value of the disk, only valuing it as a canvas for his idea of art. Good art involving nature will show appreciation for that nature, rather than just using it as an object to display human biases on. It’s what I try to do with my own artwork, asking the hides and bones what they want to become and trying to focus on their beauty. I appreciate them as they are, and then do my best to do them some justice even as I impose my arrogance as an artist upon them.
Obviously we’re never not going to leave our mark on the world, until there are none of us left anyway. There are too many of us, and we’re too used to taking, taking, taking. Few of us in industrialized societies would want to move to a quality of life that involves strict subsistence. I just wish people would think more about something besides themselves, sometimes besides their own wants and needs and priorities.
I want people to be able to look at rare, amazing things in nature and not have their immediate thought be “I need to change that!” I want more people to be able to have the appreciation for nature’s intrinsic values that existed long before we ever did. I want us, just for a moment, to stop corralling nature in with our economic and religious beliefs, and just let it be its own thing, massive and terrifying and magnificently beautiful from the tiniest atom to the entire universe. Stop telling stories about how much money you can make off of it, or how it has all these supernatural properties that we can exploit, or any other ways in which nature supposedly revolves around us.
Just take a moment, and breathe in the reality that we live on an incredible planet that has giant disks made of frozen water, and long-limbed animals who thunder across grassy plains with hooves of keratin, and tiny bryophyte forests housing a myriad of springtails, worms, and bacteria aplenty. Appreciate the marvel that is your own body, created from molecules parted out from the food you have eaten over a lifetime and which is made from the many minerals and nutrients of a thousand soils. Touch the grass and realize that its family–Poaeceae–first sent forth blades in the last days of the dinosaurs.
Yes, we need values besides the intrinsic. But we do need the intrinsic, too.
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.
I feel like not enough people knew of Mary Oliver, who passed away on Friday at the age of 83.
I myself, not being a huge fan of poetry, never heard of her work until just a few years ago. Somehow in my enjoyment of nature writing I had overlooked her work. While the poet herself is gone, her legacy is immortalized in an incredible body of work spanning several decades.
Like so many people, my introduction to Oliver’s work was her poem Wild Geese. I was working on my ecopsychology certificate in graduate school, and encountered her words in a reading. Initially my attraction to it centered on the imagery of nature, the painting in my head of the movement of pebbles and sun and geese over the land. For years I came back to it just for this picture as a source of solace and joy.
But over time it gained a deeper meaning for me. Having been raised Catholic, I was soaked from an early age in the idea of original sin and the idea that humanity is inherently flawed. This, of course, also bred in me a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy, as well as contributing to the anxiety disorder I still deal with today. When I shot forth from these confines as a teenager and landed in the lap of neopaganism, I thought the main thing I wanted was a religion that was centered on nature, rather than seeing it as a set of materials to be exploited.
I got that, of course, but what I also got was a lot of fellow pagans carrying a lot of Christian baggage. (1) The need for a higher power to have control of things and to be petitioned for aid; a tendency to divide things into dichotomies like “light” and “dark” or “white magic” and “black magic”; a desire for some authority (often scriptural) to offer clear lines of What To Do and What Not To Do. And with the crossover of paganism with environmentalism, I often ran into sentiments dripping with the idea of sin, guilt, and flawed humanity, like “humans are just cancer on the earth”, and “Gaea is going to make us all pay for what we’ve done to Her”.
I carried much of my Catholic baggage with me. I especially yearned for structure and ritual and orthopraxy and definitive methods of pleasing the powers that be, or at least that’s what I told myself I needed in order to be a Really Good Pagan. The crescendo of that particular adventure was the few years I tried putting together a formalized path using various bits and pieces of things I had learned and developed over the years. The harder I tried to make that work, though, the more I found myself rebelling all over again.
I went back and re-read Wild Geese. I read the opening lines:
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
In that, I broke open. Catholic tirades about how we are all tainted with original sin even from birth, pagan moralizing over how the Threefold Law is gonna get ya or preaching Gaea’s ecological smackdown–these all came flowing out as though from a deep wound lanced. “Love what it loves” wasn’t a call to crass, reactionary hedonism or indifferent amorality, but instead trusting our instincts and deeply-ingrained social bonds that our ancestors evolved over millions of years to thrive together.(2)
And that was the key: the idea that humans are not inherently flawed, that we are just another species of animal in a highly complex world full of many ecosystems. Our actions have evolutionary roots, even if we’ve taken them in some beautiful, strange, or even terrible directions. Our large-scale destruction of the planet has largely coincided with increasing beliefs that we are separate from nature; after all, it’s easier to destroy something you don’t see any responsibility toward. Yet here was a call to return to our place in the natural order of things, where we are one among many.
From that point, the rest of the poem is a joyful invitation to return home. And I suppose that there is a bit of that shared concept of forgiveness in the idea that no matter how badly we’ve screwed up our lives and the planet–if we stop and do our best to turn things around, nature will still be waiting for us.(3) But it’s not a forgiveness gained through penance and punishment, nor is it dangled over our heads as the one and only alternative to an eternity in hellfire and brimstone. There’s no mention of any specific religion one must adhere to in order to be saved, no threat of damnation. We aren’t required to do rituals A, B and C in order to avoid angering the gods.
All it says is that the rest of nature has been there all along, waiting patiently for us to come back into the rhythm of the dance of raindrops and rivers. It will continue on in some form with or without us, but wouldn’t it be glorious if it were with us? There’s a grand, amazing world out there full of wonder and awe. Nature does not dole out sinfulness and punishment, but only natural consequences to actions, which are inherently neutral and not steeped in human ideas about morality.
Since that time, my paganism has evolved into something more naturalistic, and anything but structured and formalized. Instead it pervades every element of my life organically and without pretension. I feel constantly connected to something bigger than myself–the entire Universe–which is a key goal of spirituality anyway. Rituals feel redundant, unless you think of my daily farm chores and my meals and my sleep as rituals, all of which celebrate the world I live in in various ways. And I don’t see myself as being part of some cosmic hierarchy; I am not inherently better or worse than any other being here.
I am still working on returning to the rest of nature, but it is only because I am unpracticed, not because I feel unworthy. I can be concerned about the environmental destruction I am contributing to by my very existence and lifestyle without letting that concern translate into a guilt that continues to keep me separate as something dirty, foul, not deserving of nature’s touch. And the more I feel close to nature, the more responsibility I feel toward it, and vice versa. Nature may not be an entity that can love me; it’s pretty indifferent as a whole. But I can make up for that with the utter joy and astonishment I experience every moment I am aware of my place in nature and what amazement surrounds me.
It’s a cliche to say that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I never told Ms. Oliver how much her work meant to me, and of course now I will never have that opportunity. But I don’t think I realized myself the importance of Wild Geese in particular until the evening after she passed, when I began writing this post. And I sent out my gratitude in these words–too little, too late–but hopefully enough to share that meaning with those who remain.
What is remembered, lives.
1. Obviously, yes, #NotAllPagans. But after over two decades in this community, I’ve seen these and other leftover Christian patterns frequently. These phenomena do also occur in other religions, and arguably in some pre-Christian paganisms. But it was clear in the instances I saw that the patterns were most closely replicating those many of us were raised with in Christianity, with a thin pagan veneer pulled over them.
2. I recognize this is a pretty romanticized view of “instincts”, and that hunting and other violent things are also instinctual to a degree. That’s not what this is about, though. Leave those aside for the moment.
3. Of course, with climate change being what it is, it may not be able to wait for us much longer, at least not in a form that allows us to survive as a species. But leave the doomsaying for some other time and place. All it does is make people less likely to try to improve things, and more likely to just give up, and that is antithetical to what this entire post is about.
[Main photo: rice and cheese stuffed crimini mushrooms, roasted acorn squash and red onion, and sauteed vegetables and mushrooms]
The older I get, the more important food has become to me. For the first quarter century of my life, I couldn’t have cared less about domestic duties. In fact, in my misguided desire to break out of traditional female gender roles, I eschewed anything associated with the household for many years. I remember a friend coming over to visit, and being shocked at how scarce kitchenware was in my home. I was basically living like a stereotypical bachelor(ette).
Then I ended up living with someone who insisted on taking over all the domestic duties as a way of “taking care” of me. Unfortunately, their cooking skills were…less than advertised. After entirely too many pans of cheap chicken thighs or pork chops covered in cream of mushroom soup and then dried to the consistency of shoe leather in the oven, I finally decided to learn to cook in self-defense. I started with my mom’s chili recipe, a piece of comfort food from home. And I found that I loved cooking–the flavors, the alchemy, the transformation of a pile of ingredients and a recipe into something artistic as well as edible.
While I am in no way a professional level cook, and in some ways am still barely competent in the kitchen, I’ve acquired a decent collection of cookbooks and flavor manuals, and I have a much better set of utensils. After years of gardening and foraging and preserving plants, and even raising and slaughtering my own meat, I also have gained a much deeper appreciation for the quality of the ingredients I use. I can’t always afford the pasture-raised meat, but I try to have a bottle of genuine olive oil no matter the recipe. (Costco has become one of my greatest resources.)
One thing that has always been central to my cuisine, even from the start, was respect for the animals, plants and fungi I was about to consume. We literally are what we eat. The vast majority of the molecules in my body came from something I ate or drank, and every time I sit down to a meal or a snack I am aware that part of what I am about to enjoy is going to become a long-term part of my body. After all, I’m only borrowing it temporarily before it gets returned to the ecosystem, so I should be appreciative of those recently deceased whose remains are actively being recycled by my digestive system.
Why is this awareness important?
–Connection with nature on a spiritual level: My paganism has always been nature-based, even if the exact interpretation thereof has evolved over time. As a naturalist pagan, I don’t invest myself in supernatural concepts–even the idea of spirits, to me, is something that I don’t actively try to prove literally. Instead, my path is firmly rooted in the idea that I am a part of something deeper and greater than myself, the concentric rings of community, ecosystem, planet and universe. By being mindful of the living beings whose now-dead remains are about to nourish me and keep me alive another day, I am reminding myself that I am part of that greater cycle, and that I am just one tiny part of the great community of nature. Even when the being who is feeding me–a fruit or nut tree, for example–is technically still alive, I still want to honor the sacrifice of their energy-made-matter and their potential offspring.
–Consideration of the welfare of other beings: I know there are people who will argue that anyone who isn’t a strict vegan can’t possibly be acting for the welfare of animals, at least, and that plants and fungi don’t count since they don’t have animal nervous systems. I’m not going to get into that debate because that’s at least three more blog posts, so leave it be. As someone who is an obligate omnivore, I’ve found the best solution for both my health and the planet is Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants. I am not currently in a place where I am able to grow or raise all of my food, but the farm my art studio is on has a nice garden going, with plans for improvement in subsequent years. I also have access to several farmers’ markets in the summer, though I’ve yet to find a good local CSA. And starting this past year I began raising chickens for both eggs and meat (though they’ve ended up being pets as well.) The more I can control the source of my own food and how it was grown and raised, the better I will feel about my role as a consumer of food.
–Mindful eating: This is a way to slow down your consumption of food and to be more aware of the experience of eating. It serves to not only reconnect you with something that can be quite enjoyable, but slowing down the act of eating can help reduce indigestion and other problems. Moreover, I feel it gives meals more meaning. As someone who eats alone 95% of the time, it can be easy for me to just zone about and shovel food into my mouth while I wander around online or read a book. Mindful eating makes me appreciate what I’m eating more, which has encouraged my already active interest in home cooking. And it helps me to remember again that everything I’m eating was once alive, as I am now alive, and that is something to respect.
I don’t really do special rituals or magic with my food; instead, having mindfulness infuse the very acts of cooking and eating is ritual in and of itself. That being said, you’re certainly welcome to toss a little kitchen witchery into the process if that’s your practice. Here are a few ideas:
–When preparing your work area, consider lighting candles or incense, or cleansing the area with a wash of salt- or herb-infused water. You can also put out crystals nearby that represent your intent. Some pagans like to have an apron or other adornment they only wear when preparing sacred meals (though I consider every meal to be sacred.) Consider it a way of making sacred space for the beings you are about to prepare into food, welcoming them into your home.
–Say a prayer over the ingredients for the meal you are about to prepare, thanking them for being there and asking that you be able to treat them with respect as you turn them into nourishment for you and whoever else you’re feeding
–Bless the herbs and spices you add to your meals. You can even look up magical correspondences for them, and add ones that match the intent of the meal. For example, cashews are often associated with financial success, so a meal of cashew chicken might be a good thing to have just before an interview or important business deal. Ask the spirits of the plants and minerals to help you with your goal.
–Create magical art with your food. This is especially easy with baking, and plenty of magical groups have celebrated rituals with cookies or cakes decorated with pentacles and other symbols. Try baking a layer cake where each layer is dyed with food coloring in shades that reflect intent–green for fertility and growth, pink for youth and joy, yellow for sunshine and health, and so on. Ask the wheat (or oats, or rice) in the flour, as well as the eggs, milk or other ingredients, to carry that intent for you.
–Decorate your table with reminders of the animals, plants and fungi you are consuming. You might have plates that have chickens on them, or add leaves of lettuce and fresh mushrooms as an edible centerpiece. Let the meal be a celebration of these beings and their gifts to you.
–If eating with others, take time to discuss the sources of your food and why you chose them. Even if the answer is “This is what I could afford and what I had access to,” that’s valid. Talk about where you think the plants were grown and the animals raised, and if you want to be able to change your sources–even if you can’t do it now–brainstorm ways in which that can happen at some point.
–Let nothing go to waste. Leftovers are love, as far as I’m concerned, not the least reason of which being they save me a night of having to cook again. Should you have chickens, pigs or other omnivorous animals, give them your kitchen scraps. Other pets can have limited types of scraps; dogs and cats love meat bits, various small critters love vegetables and fruit, and rats and some parrots will eat just about anything you give them. As for the rest, if you’re able to compost outside, tend your compost pile with care. Apartment dwellers may look into vermicomposting–composting with worms–which can be done indoors with few problems. Just don’t leave food scraps where wild mammals can easily get to them; this encourages them to lose their fear of humans and makes them dependent on us for food, which rarely turns out good for anyone involved. If you garden, let your compost be a gift to your plants (and fungi, if you grow dirt-loving mushrooms.)
Even if you don’t take the idea of spirits literally, these practices can still help you maintain awareness of where your food comes from and how you are connected to everything in a greater webwork of relationships. At a time when more people than ever are divorced from the sources of their nourishment, and take for granted the soil and the beings that it supports, it is crucial for us to regain that appreciation for our food. We are already destroying the land, the water and the air, and we need these if we are to continue having food available to us. If we start with changing our awareness, then that awareness translates into actions for the better. Let it start in your kitchen, and move out from there into the world.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider a copy of my book Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which includes even more practices to connect with your bioregion and the beings within it! More info on my books can be found at https://thegreenwolf.com/books
Surprise! I have a new book! Well, booklet, anyway. And there’s a nifty handmade divination set with it, too!
Pocket Osteomancy is a bone divination system that I created based loosely on the Minor Arcana of the Tarot of Bones. It’s a bone casting method using a casting cloth divided into four quadrants. I first released it to some of my Patrons on Patreon last year so that they could try it out, but they only had a single instruction sheet to work with. Now I’ve fleshed that out into a 24-page booklet available as a paperback or ebook, and you can purchase the casting cloth and bones as well!
Divination with bones doesn’t have to be complicated! Pocket Osteomancy: A Simple Bone Divination Set is a simple but effective system for using animal bones to focus your intuition and explore possibilities in your present and future. It’s great for both beginners who may feel intimidated by more complex systems, and also provides a basic structure for more experienced practitioners to build on and explore.
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/