Category Archives: Nature Writing

Yes, You Can Be Part of Vulture Culture!

I recently got an email from someone who was interested in Vulture Culture, but felt like they couldn’t actually be a participating member of this “fandom” unless they were tanning their own hides and cleaning their own bones and otherwise processing their own specimens. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this, either. It’s great that so many Vultures are learning these skills, and DIYing their way through their hobby! But it’s not absolutely necessary.

I mean, look at me. I’ve been working with hides and bones and other specimens in my art for over twenty years, and if you count my childhood collecting I’ve been part of what would become Vulture Culture for well over three decades, longer than some Vultures have been alive. And you know what? I’ve never tanned a hide, and only cleaned a couple of skulls. I can dry-preserve wings, but that’s really about it.*

And that doesn’t make me any less sincere or valid a member of Vulture Culture than all those awesome DIYers out there. There are plenty of reasons someone might not get into the messier aspects of the hobby:

–No place to process a bunch of smelly, fresh specimens (or long-dead smelly ones, either!)

–No money to buy supplies, even the cheapest options

–No time to go through the lengthy processes of bone cleaning or fur and leather tanning

–No interest in doing these things, preferring other ways to participate

And there are so many ways to participate, just like any other fandom! You can collect your favorite sorts of specimens (I’m partial to skulls, myself.) Looking for animal bones out in the wild is also a popular pursuit if you have access, but other found specimens can include (legal) feathers, dead insects, shed snake skins, and so forth. Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy making art from specimens already preserved, or using them as art references for traditional media. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just liking to see pictures of other people’s collections, even if you don’t have anything yourself.

My point is, not everyone has to DIY their hobby. You can appreciate others’ efforts without feeling like you’re not as genuine a Vulture because you’re not out there saving every bit of roadkill you can find. Ultimately it’s all about your enjoyment, and if you’re too worried about “doing it right”, you’re not going to have fun! So relax, participate with Vulture Culture in whatever ways you see fit and to whatever degree you prefer, and allow yourself the freedom to explore without pressure!

* Because I wanted to shared these skills but hadn’t developed them myself, I hired guest writers for the how-to tutorials for my book Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I felt that made it a much more complete book on the subculture, and it gave some other writers a chance to show off their chops. But it also allowed me to stick to the things I really enjoy doing, like writing!

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Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”: A Pagan Perspective

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

When I’m making artwork, I often enjoy having some music or video going on that I can listen to and watch while I work. The other day I finished up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which I’ve been watching segments of over the past couple of weeks. For those who haven’t seen it, it is an epic, thirteen-hour-long exploration of the Universe we live in, from the atomic level to the entirety of everything, ranging from the Big Bang itself all the way up to the present day. In each of the hour-long segments, Sagan touches on many diverse sciences, as well as history, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines. He puts into layperson’s terms the processes of evolution, the geologic history of the Earth, and the origin of life on this planet and even of the Universe itself.

What I found most invaluable, though, was how the series gives us perspective of where we fit into the grand scheme of things. Until not too long ago, most cultures had a very human-centric view of reality, where we were at the core, and everything revolved around us in importance. Cosmos is both beautiful and controversial because it shows us how very small we are, but also what amazingly intricate and long-lived processes we are an integrated part of. There were many times throughout the series where I was reminded of just how impossibly vast the Universe is, how very tiny the Earth is, and yet also how we ourselves, and everything else, are made of stars–and just how unlikely was the chance that we and everything else on Earth are here today. As humbling as it is to realize just how tiny our “pale blue dot” is, Cosmos also dedicates time to showing what does make us, as a species, so significant in our knowledge of the Universe. As Sagan said in the introduction to the series, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”.

This is simultaneously humbling and inspirational. Much of human religion and spirituality is so heavily anthropocentric our spiritual cosmologies are largely concerned with the interest the Universe and its denizens have in us, and most of our deities are created in our very human image. Many of us never get further than “Earth” and “Sky” as the primordial, “biggest” concept-deities, because that’s how our ancestors understood it to be.* The celestial bodies we most acknowledge are the Sun and the Moon and our closest planetary cousins, but even astrology primarily concerns itself with how the positions of the stars and planets are important to us humans. And yet the Earth, and the visible parts of the Sky, are minute compared to the immensity they, and we, are a part of. It’s humbling because we find more and more that humans are far from the most important collections of stardust, and also inspiring because with every new discovery in biology, in astrophysics, and in so many other disciplines, there’s so much more we can know and explore about Life, the Universe, and Everything, even as laypeople.

I have, over the years, heard pagans and other such folk complain that there’s no real magic in this world, simply because we can’t do things like shoot fireballs from our fingertips or physically shapeshift or heal life-threatening illnesses with a touch. And yet Cosmos is a perfect illustration of the magic that is inherent to this physical reality. Look at evolution, for example. It is not just the “survival of the fittest”, as many oversimplify it. Rather, it is a many-generations-long progression of tiny shifts and alterations, and somehow one ancestral being has offspring which, over millenia, branch off into many diverse creatures. The phylogenetic Tree of Life is full to overflowing with living and extinct beings that are fascinating, beautiful, and inspirational simply by being themselves, without layering on subjective meaning like totemic lore or other symbolism. Or, on a smaller scale, I like to think about photosynthesis. The chloroplasts in plant cells, which are likely derived from cyanobacteria that formed symbiotic relationships with primitive plant cells, take sunlight and turn it into food. All the food we eat is created from sunlight changed into sugars by photosynthesis–we are eating transformed light waves**. How are these things not magical and miraculous, especially the more we know about them?

Cosmos is a massive journey through many of these manners in which star-stuff has formed over billions of years, and I can’t but think of it as revealing why the physical reality I live in is sacred. “Sacred” means “to inspire awe or reverence”, and with each new piece of knowledge about the Universe I acquire, the more deeply I feel that sacredness. Mythos and folklore and divine inspiration are great and beautiful things in the sphere of human experience, but if we are to understand the roots of those experiences, we need to dig into the (sometimes literal) dirt where those roots are grounded.

I think, perhaps, Cosmos could be in and of itself a ritual tool. Thirteen hours is a long time, and while most pagan rituals last an hour at best, there’s also something to be said for an immersive experience. So here’s a suggestion, whether you’ve seen this series in its entirety already or not: Set aside an entire day where you can be undisturbed, either alone, or with other interested, curious and respectful parties. Get comfortable. And then watch Cosmos from beginning to end. (Take breaks for the bathroom and food as needed, of course, but keep them short.) It will be a lot of information, and you may wish to go back at a later time and watch it over again in smaller segments. But this time, simply open yourself to the flow of information, and see how it affects you and your understanding of the Universe.

It may seem odd, on this nature-spirituality-themed blog, to suggest such long immersion in media. Yet not all media is created equal, and this series is much more information about the Universe than what we can immediately observe on our own, condensed into a few hours. Sitting in front of a television won’t show you the spirit of the land where you live, but it can offer you so much more backstory on its geology and biology and ultimate origin than you could get by watching the denizens of the land interact. It’s a complement to direct experiences with nature, not a replacement, and I see it as inspiration to make more forays out of our homes and into the world around us–and, perhaps, to support more exploration beyond where we can currently go. To know about evolution is one thing, but even scientists best appreciate it when they are able to actually see the plants and animals that resulted. (In fact, some of the most glorious marvels written about nature have been penned by scientists, not about things going on in laboratory settings, but our fellow beings in their own habitats–or the habitats themselves.)

Whether you choose to immerse yourself in a thirteen-hour marathon, or take Cosmos in multiple smaller doses, I encourage you to take what you learn and apply it to your experiences in the world around you. I know for myself that having more of the story has enriched my hikes and rituals outdoors, and I hope this can be a valuable resource for you as well.

* Ancient mythos from various cultures worked with what the people of those cultures knew at the time, with great wisdom but without the benefit of high=powered telescopes and other very helpful technology. However, mythology is constantly changing with the times, and a really good example of a modern mythos in the grand tradition that makes use of 21st-century knowledge, I recommend NUP’s own Restorying the Sacred column, with some lovely modern nature myths written by Eli Effinger-Weintraub.

** We are still unable to shoot fireballs from our fingertips. But isn’t it cool that in a way, through photosynthesis, we can eat fire?

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Ecopsychology and Neopagan Relevance

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

Ecopsychology: the psychology of how we relate to the natural environment, and the therapeutic application of the restorative qualities of nature.

When I enrolled in a counseling psychology Master’s degree program in 2008, the single biggest magnet for me was the series of three ecopsychology courses that were offered. I had read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, which explained human psychological development in part through one’s relationship with nature.

Through three straight semesters, I learned the basics of ecopsychology and who some of the key figures were; I also explored how to incorporate a client’s relationship to nature in their therapy, along with family history, spirituality, and other important parts of the client’s experience. I even spent four days out in the woods with other students learning hands-on wilderness therapy techniques. (I also gave a presentation on how Alan Moore’s run of the Swamp Thing comic book could be used in ecotherapy, but that’s a story for another time.)

Not surprisingly, I discovered much that enhanced my neopaganism. Furthermore, I saw a wealth of material that could be relevant to neopaganism in general, as well as elements of neopaganism and related paths that could enhance the development and practice of ecopsychology. I wasn’t the first person to make the connection of course; on the contrary, some of the very foundational concept of ecopsychology are quite relevant to nature-based paganisms.

Here are just a few of the salient points:

Ecopsychology helps to explore and understand the development and maintenance of a nature-friendly mindset.

Why do we enjoy being out in the wilderness? What is it that makes us respond better to a tree than a live plasma-screen movie of the same tree?(1) What are the effects of disconnection of nature, both on an individual and systemic basis? Ecopsychologists seek to not only find answers to these questions, but to utilize the information in helping clients achieve better states of mental health. Many pagans are already familiar with the relaxation that can result from a weekend spent camping, or the difference between an indoor and outdoor ritual; ecopsychology provides additional insight as to why we may feel that way.–Ecopsychology sets the individual firmly within the context of the ecosystem they are a part of, human and otherwise.

One of the criticisms that ecopsychologists have of much of modern therapy is that while the average therapy intake form asks clients about their family members, significant others, home life past and present, and other human relationships, it doesn’t ask about the client’s relationship to nature. As psychology, particularly applied in counseling, takes an increasingly systemic view of people and their mental health, research and anecdotal evidence alike deny the (particularly American) ideal of the “rugged individualist”. Rather than an island, each person is part of an interconnected greater system, and the natural world is a part of that. Ecopsychology gently reminds us that our very minds and perceptions are inextricably linked to our environment, something that many neopagans have been living consciously for years.

Ecopsychology meshes well with nature-based religion.

From its inception in the late 20th century, ecopsychology has always been closely entwined with spirituality, especially (though not exclusively) nature-based spiritual and religious paths. Even the anthology Ecopsychology, which came out in 1995 and is considered one of the foundational texts of the subject, included an essay by Leslie Gray entitled “Shamanic Counseling and Ecopsychology”. Whether theistic or not, spirituality is an intrinsic part of the right-brained tendencies of ecopsychology, and paths ranging from neopaganism to Catholicism(2) have been explored within ecopsychological writings.

Ecopsychology lends itself well to ritual practices.

Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings rite, and Mary Gomes’ Altars of Extinction(3), are just two of many examples of how ecopsychology has delved into ritual as a way of healing and processing the profound level of grief many feel at the destruction of the environment. Ecopsychologists recognize ritual as a structured way for clients to process and work through life experiences past and present; additionally, as many neopagan rituals tend to be focused on the bright, celebratory side, an exploration of the processing of grief may be valuable to our spiritual communities.

As you can see, just in these few examples there are plenty of areas of overlap between ecopsychology and neopagan interests and practices. Our relationship to the world, to include that expressed in spirituality, depends heavily on our perceptions and cognitions; we cannot experience and interpret what is around us without the filters of our senses and our thoughts. Ecopsychology is a formal, though often quite organic, exploration of that relationship between personal microcosm and universal macrocosm.

1. There’s a great study done a few years ago that demonstrated just that; you can read the paper that resulted at http://faculty.washington.edu/pkahn/articles/520_kahn.pdf

2. During my first ecopsych course, one of the co-authors of the excellent text, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, spoke at one of the classes. Those readers with a particular interest in interfaith dialogue may be interested in the book, though it’s an enlightening read in general.

3. The Altars of Extinction project was featured in issue #96 of Reclaiming Quarterly: http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/96/96-altarextinct.html

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Incoming Storm

The last few weeks I’ve felt like I was preparing for a storm.

Here on the coast, we get winter storms that come in off the ocean with a salty chill; they whip raindrops and sleet through the air like birdshot. From October until May I keep a radar map open in my browser so I can track them as they approach, and I get emails telling me when particularly bad storms are on their way (1). I go through the same preparations each time, too: make sure I have water saved up, make sure I have enough food, make sure the car has gas if I need to use it as a backup source for charging phones, check the animals’ shelters to be sure they’re securely tucked away. Check, check, check the boxes.

And then when everything is buttoned up, I return to the house, change into warm, dry clothing, and I wait. Sometimes I curl up under the covers, and hide, listening to the wind as it pushes at the windows and flings rain on the roof. Often my dog joins me, curled up on her bed on the floor, feeling secure in my company.

Most of the time the power stays on. Our local utility district is good at stormproofing the infrastructure. But I always have to be prepared in case it goes out, making sure there’s enough firewood for the wood stove, and candles, and oil for the lamp.

Chores have to be done, too. Animals need to be fed and watered, eggs need to be collected, loose tarps and other items need to be tied down. I gear up in layers and a raincoat and wait for a lull, however slight, then get through the work and come back home. Sometimes I have to duck into the barn when a particularly bad squall hits, and shelter for a few minutes as it blows itself out.

Eventually the storm passes, though some may last for a day or more. I check for downed trees and other damage; we’ve been lucky on that account. I take a moment to appreciate the rain that the ecosystem here needs so much, and that I have safe shelter to hide in.

The last few weeks, though, feel like I’ve been going through these preparations all over again, even though the storm season is more or less done. The first weekend in March, when the advisory was “no group activities over 500 people”, I vended at the under-500 Northwest Tarot Symposium, my first–and possibly last–event of the year. I wore a mask because I managed to catch a cold right at the start of it, and even though that particular coronavirus isn’t as terrible as COVID-19, it’s still not something I’d like to share with people.

And I was grateful for the income, because I didn’t know when such a thing would happen again, and because it allowed me to prepare. Food for me and the dog and the chickens, gas in the car, toilet paper because somehow that was becoming a scarce commodity and I was down to my last couple of rolls anyway. Check, check, check the boxes again.

That was two weeks ago. The storm is rolling over, dark clouds unfurling to blot out the stars. This time, though, there is no radar. Nothing tells me for sure when it will end, and the moon will shine her silver light down again. No one can say how bad the damage will be, what the cost of cleanup will come to, and how badly we will pay for the delay in preparation.

And now, I wait. I stay safe and warm and dry in my wing of the house, isolated from my landmates. I eat good food, and I create, and I rest. I watch my fish in their aquarium, flitting through the leaves of the plants and playing in the aerator bubbles. The trails are all closed, so I only go out for food or medicine. On nice days I can still take my dog for a walk on the empty beach by the house, reveling in the sun that brings a sparkle to the water and a gleam to the dampened sand. It is a much-needed respite, but I know that I always must return to the safety of home, especially if dark clouds loom on the horizon.

No one knows how long this will last. And so, each day, I prepare.

  1. I use https://emergencyemail.org/Default.asp; the site’s appearance is a little dated, but the email alerts are solid.

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Green Tomatoes Are the Reason For the Season

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!

Late Autumn is a very special time for me. Yes, Samhain has come and gone, and the air gets colder, and it’s time to toss extra blankets on the bed. But what really gets me excited is green tomato soup.

I am an urban gardener. Sadly, I am not fortunate enough to be able to rent, let alone own, a house here in the middle of Portland. But I don’t need to in order to grow things. Since I moved here, I have put in a small vegetable garden every year, no matter where I’ve lived. This year was the most challenging, since all I had was a small porch, about thirty inches by six feet. But I stuffed it with containers of herbs and carrots—and tomatoes.

Tomatoes are the ultimate example to me of locavorism and why it’s important. Like most Americans, I grew up with grocery stores that had all kinds of produce year-round, even in the dead of a Midwestern winter. I didn’t really have a sense of seasons; I just knew that there were some parts of the year where the watermelons didn’t taste quite as good.

It wasn’t until I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life that it really hit me that food wasn’t always available all the time. I mean, I knew on some level, but when you grow up in a nation where you can get bananas any time of year, you’re in great danger of forgetting where food comes from. This problem is compounded even further when more and more families, due to finances, time restrictions, and even basic accessibility, favor pre-packaged, overly processed “food products” over fresh fruits and veggies and other base ingredients. Farmers may as well as be an alien species for all that many people here are concerned.

And it’s getting worse. I am 33 years old; I grew up in a small Midwestern town, in a household where good food was thankfully abundant. My grandmother and mother both gardened, and salads were common fare. I also grew up around a lot of farms, so I was aware of what cows, pigs and other livestock looked like.

Contrast that with this video from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, where school children from just a year or so ago have trouble identifying tomatoes, among others. (Okay, I would have had trouble with eggplant, too, but tomatoes?)

So I suppose that as I got older and got involved in more sustainability geekery, I saw myself as trying to turn the tide, and maybe balance out some of that lack of understanding and exposure. I started my own garden in every apartment I moved into once I hit the Pacific Northwest in 2006. I learned to use a pressure canner. I tried more recipes from scratch. And I always had tomatoes.

Which is rather odd, since I used to HATE them. Some of it was age, since our tastes literally can shift over time. But until, as an adult, I tried a fresh tomato straight out of my garden after years of only having access to mealy, watery things in the store and restaurants, I was hooked. I’d planted the vines so I could make pizza sauce from scratch, but fresh tomatoes became a favorite snack. And once the weather got too cold and the sun too far south for the tomatoes to ripen (I never got the paper bag and banana trick to work), I made green tomato soup from the last survivors on the vines.This year, there was only one small pot of soup since my little balcony garden didn’t produce very much. But my partner, S., and I had been looking forward to it for the entire year before. The idea for this post came as we were supping on that one single meal, enjoying a rare treat.

That one pot of soup was extra special this year for its scarcity, and each step of creating it was sacred. From the moment I picked the last tomatoes from the vines I’d tended since March, to slicing them up and adding them to the mix, and then taking them into my body to become a part of me–the entire process was a ritual in and of itself, even if no spirits were formally invoked. For that time, I felt myself to be immersed in cycles that I all too often still ignore, an altered state of awareness that, to our species, was not so long ago the norm.

For now, tomatoes are the main reminder to me of the seasonal nature of foods. I’m still admittedly pretty spoiled for choices, and I don’t buy in season as much as I really ought to. I get really busy with work and such, and when it comes time to go to the store I just want to get through there as quickly as I can so I can get back home to whatever writing or art project I’m working on. And it’s really telling, when even someone who’s conscientious of her actions and choices can still slide into these old behaviors.

As an urban pagan, I face the challenges of observing a nature-based and cyclical spiritual path in an environment that often promotes being numbed to those influences. If we are going to make nature-based spirituality relevant to city dwellers as well as more rural people, then we need to not only utilize the tools of agrarian people from long ago, but to accept that we need solutions for a variety of human-created environments and societies and cultures.

As we slide toward Thanksgiving, a lot of my food-based thoughts are on how to maximize things like leftovers to help my household get through the winter. But I am going to do more research to remind myself of what truly is in season right now, and start to alter my grocery habits to reflect that more as much as I’m able. And perhaps more food will become sacred rituals cycling throughout the year, a reminder of the reasons for the seasons.

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The Importance of Nearby Nature

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.

Attribution: Christopher T Cooper
 Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

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).

Attribution: Steve F
 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

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

Nature’s Lovely Imperfections

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.

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Nature Sacred As It Is

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.

Unfortunately, not everyone could just appreciate it for the natural wonder it was–and I use “was” deliberately. Some dude decided that the ice disk wasn’t magnificent enough by itself, and that it needed a peace sign carved into it. Spoiler–he broke it. Now I can get behind his idea that peace is a good thing, but there are better ways to advertise this much-needed concept than to spoil a very uncommon and ephemeral natural feature.

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.

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The Magic of Manure

How’s that for a title?

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.

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The Invitation of Wild Geese

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. 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. 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. 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.