Category Archives: Nature Spirituality

Book Review Roundup

I wish I had more time to read; sadly, at least until the Tarot of Bones is done my time is going to be pretty chewed up with work. I have managed to finish a few books, though, and I wanted to offer up a selection of mini-reviews for your enjoyment!

Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1
Hope Nicholson, editor
Alternate History Comics, 2015
176 pages

I was a backer of the Kickstarter that funded the publication of this incredible comics collection. Over two dozen indigenous writers and artists came together to share stories from their cultures; some are intensely personal, while others are community tales little told outside of their own people. Despite a wide variety of writing and artistic styles, the collection has a strong cohesion, and flows from mixed media poetry to science fiction to traditional storytelling like a well-worn riverbed. I highly recommend this collection to anyone seeking an excellent read, whether you’re normally a comics reader or not.

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
Robert Sullivan
Bloomsbury, 2004
252 pages

I borrowed this one from my sweetie, who recommended it highly. I’m a sucker for detailed looks at individual species, but tailored for the layperson so there’s more of a narrative to it. This exploration of New York City’s brown rats successfully blends natural and human history with anecdotes and humor, and is at least as much about the city itself as the critters hiding in its corners. It’s not always a nice book; there are descriptions of plague and death, extermination and suffering. Yet if you’ve felt that the intelligent, resourceful rat simply hasn’t gotten its proper due, this may be the book to wave at people who want nothing more than to see them all poisoned and trapped to extinction. I certainly came away with a greater appreciation for my quiet neighbors that I occasionally see when out on late-night walks.

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
688 pages

I’m not going to get into Dawkins’ views on religion here, so let’s just leave that aside. What I do admire is any attempt to make science accessible to laypeople without excessively dumbing it down, and despite being almost 700 pages long, The Ancestor’s Tale does just that. I have a serious love for evolutionary theory, and what this book does is present the long line of evolution that led specifically to us, starting with the very first spark of life on this planet. Better yet, Dawkins draws inspiration from the format of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and as each chapter introduces a new ancestor or very near relative in our past, we are given the image of an ever-growing pilgrimage to the dawn of life. I was absolutely fascinated by every page in this book, as I learned about everything from the first tetrapods to how sexual dimorphism developed, from evolutionary explosions and extinctions to the very first multicellular animals. And because we get to start with ourselves, everything is made more relevant to us, keeping our interest even more firmly invested in who we’ll meet next. A must for any of my fellow nature nerds out there.

Rituals of Celebration: Honoring the Seasons of Life Through the Wheel of the Year
Jane Meredith
Llewellyn Publications, 2013
336 pages

Some of us know exactly what we’re going to do when each Sabbat arises. Others…not so much. If you’ve been stuck trying to figure out how to make the next solstice more interesting, or you need some variety as you bring your children into family spiritual traditions, this is a book full of inspirations! Meredith takes the time to explain each Sabbat in more depth than many books do, and offers up anecdotes of her own sacred experiences. Rituals and activities flesh out the book in a more practical manner, offering readers concrete ways to incorporate the spirit of each Sabbat into their own celebrations. A fabulous book both for beginners, and those wanting to shake up their established practice in a good way.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Terry Tempest Williams
Vintage Books, 1991
336 pages

You would think that as much as I love nature writing I would have read one of Williams’ books before, but somehow she eluded me until recently. I should have caught up to her sooner. In Refuge, she weaves together the tumultuous existence of a wetland on the brink of extinction, her mother’s battle with cancer, and the intricate threads these events entangle into the lives of Williams and her family. Three is spirit, there is nature, there is history, and yet all these seem as though they cannot be separated from each other. Just as in an ecosystem, the part is little without the whole. If ever there was a doubt that we were still a part of the natural world, Williams puts that doubt to rest. Prepare to cry, and to reflect, but please–do read this book.

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

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.

1024px-Tiktaalik_roseaeWhat 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.

A_witch_holding_a_plant_in_one_hand_and_a_fan_Wellcome_V0025806ETScience 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.

Is Hunting Antithetical to Nature Spirituality?

I had someone over on Tumblr ask me whether I thought hunting could be compatible with a nature-based spirituality, in this case druidry. I wanted to share my answer to their inquiry, since it’s an awesome topic:

I don’t see it as being contradictory at all to be both a practitioner of nature spirituality (druidry or otherwise) and a hunter. People have this idea that if you kill animals it must make you not like nature. But these same people forget a few important points:

Nature is not just animals; nature is also plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, stones, waterways, weather patterns, even the spaces in between atoms. And all nature-lovers have to kill to survive, even if they’re killing plants, or fungi, or the bacteria residing on the makings of their fruitarian diet. What makes nature spirituality so awesome is that it encourages us to consciously embrace our place in the rest of nature, not as conqueror and superior, but as just one more ape among a whole host of vibrant and amazing beings.

As we are uniquely conscious (as far as we know, anyway) of the effects of our actions, we can feel sorrow at taking a life, even if it’s in the process of furthering our own existence. Nature spirituality offers us a framework to work through the emotions and thoughts associated with that reality, whether that’s grief at death, or the joy of dispelling hunger, or the gratitude at having another day to enjoy this amazing world we live in.

One of the misconceptions people have is that all hunters are callous when it comes to the rest of nature and the animals they kill. Sure, there are always going to be yahoos lacking in empathy who just want to see something die. But they’re the minority. Most hunters, at least in my experience, genuinely love being outdoors and respect the animals they hunt. You don’t get to know a species in the detail that’s required to successfully hunt it without having some appreciation of its strengths and characteristics. Again, nature spirituality offers ways to celebrate that life and the appreciation we have for the gift of meat that prolongs our lives.

Does that mean everyone following a nature-based spiritual path is going to agree on the issue of hunting? Of course not. It’s not a monolithic religion, but a general umbrella for both pagan and non-pagan paths that center on the sanctity of nature. Just as that tent includes hunters and omnivores, there are also vegetarians and vegans. And there are folks whose focus is more on agriculture than hunting, or who otherwise simply don’t account for the hunt as a part of their practice or philosophy.

IMO, what’s most important is respect, particularly for every being that dies to feed us, from the most powerful elk or bison (even those that are farm-raised) to the tiniest bacteria. Nature is composed of endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and we’re allowed the solemnity of death because we know what is lost and gained in that transition.

Like my writing on nature spirituality? Want to encourage me to keep writing? Then I invite you to preorder my next book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems in Your Ecosystem, due out from Llewellyn in January 2016! More details and preorder info here.