Category Archives: Plants

So, Lupa, How *Do* We Make Nature Spirituality More About Nature?

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In my previous post I made the assertion that a lot of what’s considered to be “nature-based spirituality” is really more about us than the rest of nature. Here I’d like to present some further food for thought, and invite other naturalist pagans and the like to reflect on where the balance between human and non-human nature may be in your own paths.

I’m going to add in my own thoughts on each of these questions, but please don’t take my responses as holy writ; I mainly offer them up in the spirit of “here, I’ll go first, since I proposed this whole thing to begin with”.

Why should we be concerned about the balance of human and non-human nature in nature spirituality?

Humanity, as a whole, is really, really self-centered. This isn’t surprising; favoring one’s own species has been a successful strategy for us and many other species for millions of years. However, one of the things we humans have evolved to face the challenges of everyday life is a big, complex, self-aware brain. This allows us to be more deliberately conscious of our choices and motivations, and to change them if we will. For example, we still have the genetic programming to gather as many food resources together as we can to feel secure; however, we also consciously recognize the devastating impact that our food consumption has on the rest of nature, and the unequal distribution of food within our own species. Therefore, we’re able to (ideally) adjust our behaviors to still get the food we need, but be less destructive in the process.

In the same vein, spirituality is one way we can make sense of the world around us and our place in it. But a lot of “nature” spirituality is really more about us than about the rest of nature. It’s about what special messages and teachings and other gifts we can get from the animals, plants and other beings around us, without having to give anything back. We might show some gratitude for things like a healthy harvest, but that’s still focusing on how nature benefits us. It’s more like “humans asking and thanking nature for stuff” spirituality. We keep inserting ourselves into the middle of things.

How does the emphasis on things like totem dictionaries, animal omens, and other “instant gratification” in nature spirituality mirror our consumption of physical resources?

Look at the shelves in pagan book stores, or the offerings from pagan publishers. They’re full of books on “the powers and meanings of animal totems” and “how to use herbs and crystals in spells” and other “get your answers right here, right now!” approaches. There’s not a lot on taking the time to create deeper, more personally meaningful relationships with other beings in nature, and even less on what we can do for our fellow beings (other than misguided advice to feed wildlife food offerings, and vague, generic “let’s send healing energy to the Earth” rituals, and so forth).

This is a direct corollary to our consumption of physical resources from nature, whether food or shelter or other tangibles. The vast majority of people, at least in the U.S., only care about nature as far as they can benefit from it. And they want their stuff now. They want to go to the store and get everything on their shopping list, whether that’s breakfast cereal and soda, or a new outfit, or cheap metal jewelry that will leave a green mark on the wearer’s skin but which makes an inexpensive gift for that relative you never know what to get for Christmas. Most people who go to national parks never venture more than a hundred yards from their cars; they oooh and ahhh at the highlights and maybe take some photos, but fewer make the connection between the preservation of these places and their own environmentally destructive actions at home.

And that’s the crux of the issue: fast-food nature spirituality continues this disconnect between our beliefs and our actions. We say we want to revere nature, but our actual interactions are brief and on the surface. Most of the people who claim Gray Wolf is their totem have never given money to an organization that works to protect wolves and the habitats they rely on to survive (though they may have bought t-shirts, statues, and other mass-produced, environmentally-unfriendly tchotchkes with wolves on them). We want something that will make us feel good and “more spiritual” in the moment, but it’s tougher to get us to engage with the deeper implications of finding the sacred in a nature that we too often damage in our reverence. The demand for totem dictionaries and other easy answers just perpetuates this trend.

How does the human-centric focus of some elements of nature spirituality reflect the human-centric focus of more mainstream religions?

Most religions start with us. Sometimes we are the chosen creation of some deity; other times one of our own achieves divine status. There might be some directive to “be nice to animals”, or in some cases refrain from eating some or all of them. But for the most part, the bigger religions are about us and our relationship to the divine, what we humans are supposed to do to earn a good afterlife, etc.

Most pagans were raised in such religions, which reflect the anthropocentrism of most existing human cultures. So it’s not surprising that when we move over to paganism for whatever reasons, we take this human-centric view with us. How do we please the gods? What sorts of nifty things can we get with spells and other magic? And, of course, what special messages does nature have for us human beings?

I, among many (though not all) other pagans, became pagan because the idea of a spiritual path that focused on nature was appealing to me, almost twenty years ago now. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was searching for wasn’t rituals and rules on how to be a good pagan; what I really wanted was to reconnect with nature, without intermediaries and without abstractions, the way I did when I was young and before life got complicated. And now that I’ve managed to rekindle that, I’m realizing just how much of purported nature-based spirituality in general really isn’t based in nature at all, except for human nature. And it just perpetuates the same human-centric patterns I was trying to move away from when I became pagan in the first place. Not all pagans are naturalist pagans, so for some a more human-based approach works. But those of us who do claim nature as the center of what is sacred may not be looking deeply enough into nature outside of ourselves.

How can we start shifting our focus away from ourselves and more toward the rest of nature?

Naturalist paganism and other forms of nature spirituality have the potential to break us out of that anthropocentric headspace, to remind us that we, the ape Homo sapiens sapiens, are just one species among thousands. For that to happen, we need to be paying more attention to the other species and parts of nature, and not just in manners that earn us freebies from the Universe.

We can start by becoming more aware of how often we ask the question “What do I get out of this?”, whether we use those words or not. This leads to an awareness of how much of our relationships to the rest of nature hinge on what we get from the deal. Sometimes it’s in the obvious places like assuming every animal sighting is a super-special message from nature, or focusing seasonal rituals only on the harvest of foods we’re able to eat and ignoring everything else happening in nature right then. But this self-centered approach can be more subtle, like using herbs in a spell but never once acknowledging the sacrifice the plants made and the resources they’d need to replace the leaves and other parts taken from them (assuming they weren’t just killed outright for their roots). By being aware of where we’re holding our hands out for gimmes, we can stop taking nature for granted so much.

Next, we can start incorporating the question “What can I give?” into our nature spirituality, again not necessarily using those words. What offerings do we make and to whom, and what actual benefit will they have to physical nature versus the harm? Part of why I emphasize donations and volunteering toward environmental causes as offerings is because they have an actual, measurable positive impact, much more than “I’m going to send some energy to endangered species by burning this petroleum-based candle made with toxic dyes”. If we take leaves from a plant for a spell, what do we give the plant in return? Is it something it can actually use, like water on a hot day, or something absolutely useless like sprinkling a few chips of quartz on the ground around its stem? Can we redirect our resources in more beneficial ways, like instead of buying a cheap wolf statue made in China we use the money (even a few dollars) to help fund the restoration of gray wolf habitat?

We can also start putting more emphasis on appreciating and honoring nature in its own right. A great way to do this is by simply learning more about biology, geology, and other natural sciences, and being able to appreciate the beings and forces of nature without having some spiritual or symbolic overlay involved. The fox that darts out into our path ceases to immediately be a portent of some important spiritual message, and instead becomes a remarkable creature borne out of billions of years of evolution and natural selection, whose strategies for surviving and adapting are equally effective as our own. And that’s all that creature has to be–amazing for itself regardless of some subjective “meaning” we glue to it.

Finally, we can realistically assess how much we’re walking our talk. I remember the very first big, public pagan gathering I went to; it was a picnic in a park, and all the food was on styrofoam plates with plastic utensils that all ended up in a big garbage bag destined for the landfill at the end of the day. It was incredibly disheartening since many of these pagans claimed to be nature-based in their own practices, and the ritual they performed even gave lip service to the “sacredness of nature”. Now, I understand that they probably didn’t want to wash a bunch of glass and ceramic dishes at the end of the day, and maybe didn’t want to spend the extra money for paper plates made from recycled paper, and perhaps they didn’t think to ask everyone to bring their own dishes to the event.

But this dissonance was important, because it gave me reason to assess my own actions and why I took them. It was the first in a long line of events that made me think “Wow, I want to do things differently”. Not “I’m a better pagan than they are”, but a realization that this thing bothered me and I wanted to make a different choice. And perhaps for those pagans, simply gathering outside on a sunny day was nature enough for them. But I wanted more, and I think naturalist paganism in particular would do well to include encouragement toward regularly assessing and improving one’s actions in relation to one’s beliefs when it comes to nature and the environment.

Here’s where a lot of people run into the sticky trap of dogma. I’m betting a lot of readers have, like me, run into that one variant of Wiccan who interprets “An if harm none” to mean “don’t eat animals!” and then insists that only vegetarians can truly be Wiccan. That’s just one example of where personal choice turns into an attempt to sic one’s dogma onto others. I don’t want to advocate that here. Just as each person’s spiritual path varies according to their needs and restrictions, so too are the actions associated with that path dictated by individual limitations and choices.

More importantly, it’s awareness, reflection, and conscious choice that are at play here. I am well aware that the car I drive, even if it does get pretty good mileage, still contributes to climate change and other results of pollution. However, I would not be able to vend my artwork at events, or take huge piles of packages to the post office, or run weekly errands associated with my business, if I didn’t have my car. Or at least it would eat a lot more into my time and lower my income more than what I currently pay for its maintenance and upkeep. But I try to balance that out by keeping it in good working order and not driving it more than I need to, and by walking or taking transit when I can. It’s that consideration and carefully-made choice that is more important than blindly adhering to the idea that if you have a car you don’t love nature enough.

And that brings me to the last question to ponder: What can I realistically change in my life right now to be more in line with my approach to nature spirituality? This is a question we can ask repeatedly–even every day, if that’s appropriate. The answer is likely to change quite a bit over time through growth and knowledge and experience. But that’s part of having a living, evolving spiritual path: you have to give it space to grow. The answers aren’t all set up in one concise book somewhere. They’re organic and they adapt to change much as we do. It’s a challenge sometimes to always be updating one’s path, to incorporate new information and reflections, and occasionally it may be tempting to just find a one-stop-shop for all the secrets of the universe.

But nature isn’t stagnant, and we only fool ourselves into thinking that only religion stands solid. If we are going to truly align ourselves with the currents and courses of the natural world, if we’re going to understand even a bit of what nature really is, then like the rest of nature we need to be prepared to adapt and explore. That means putting down the book of easy answers and “meanings”, and opening our senses to the world around us.

Sure, it’s scary sometimes, but exciting and full of curiosity, too. And I’m right here with you; you’re always welcome to comment or email me with your questions or thoughts as you walk your own path.

Why Do We Make “Nature” Based Spirituality All About Us?

A few times a month I get an email or other message from someone that goes something like this:

I saw such-and-such animal run across the road/fly into my yard/otherwise enter into my field of vision. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???!!!

My response is generally along these lines:

Chances are it was just going about its business and you happened to catch a glimpse of it. If you really, really think there was something spiritually significant about the event, try talking to the totem of that species to see whether it was anything of importance, or just coincidence. Otherwise, appreciate the fact that you got to observe a critter you don’t normally get to see.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the emphasis so many pagans and others place on animal omens and other supposed “messages from nature”. It’s as though we have to insert ourselves into every single sacred thing in (non-human) nature. We can’t just experience the wonder of a grove of old-growth trees, or the delightful surprise of a red fox racing across our path, or the split-second beauty of a meteorite flaring across a nighttime sky. No, we have to make it more meaningful to us in particular. We have to be the special centers of attention–“Nature noticed me! What a moving experience in which I was the special being chosen to have this amazing revelation given unto me by the spirits that have nothing better to do than place a well-aimed fox in my direction!”

I get that spirituality in general is, in part, a way for us to make sense of the universe and our place in it. And many of us were raised in religions and cultures that place humanity and our relationships at the center of everything. We want religion to give us all the answers and tell us what it all means for us. So it’s not surprising that when people enter into a version of paganism that’s expressly nature-centric, they still start with themselves and work outward. We want to honor nature (and, if applicable, the spirits and/or deities within it)–but we also expect to be paid attention to in return. We feel a bit cheated if nature doesn’t dignify our efforts to notice it with special signs and symbols meant just for us humans.

Yet every day, millions upon millions of animals, plants, fungi, weather patterns, geological processes, and other forces of nature go about their business whether we notice them or not, and it doesn’t change their experience much, if at all, just because we happened to be nearby. The fox only wants to get away from the potential threat we pose and continue on its merry way; the tree couldn’t care less whether we’re walking by so long as we don’t break off any branches; and the avalanche will come tumbling down by gravity’s pull regardless of how many hapless humans (and other living beings) are trapped in the way.

This isn’t to say there are never, ever any special moments in nature where we have that deeper connection, or where some spiritual being from the natural world makes contact with us. But it’s quite telling when the very first reaction someone has at seeing a bird in their yard is “What special message from the Universe does this bird bring to me? Why was I chosen to see this bird at this moment? Is it my spirit animal?” Not “Huh, I’ve never seen that species before; I wonder if they’re migratory?” Not “Wow, there’s a tiny dinosaur* flitting about my yard!” But “ME! ME! ME! MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

Okay, yes, that’s a bit hyperbolic. My point stands: we’ve been making nature-based spirituality more about us than about the rest of nature. Really, it’s an extension of humanity’s self-centered relationship to the rest of nature in general: for the most part, we only value it as far as we can get something out of it. We want stuff and things from the bounties of the Earth; we want our metals mined and our food harvested and our wood chopped down and we want it NOW. And our nature spirituality has gone in the same direction. We want a totem animal dictionary to tell us what a particular totem means for us. We use dried herbs and crystals in spells to make things better for us. We spend our Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations thanking nature for what it’s done for us. And we want those answers NOW.

It’s a long-ingrained habit, and I think we need to spend some time breaking ourselves out of that headspace. We don’t need to abandon personal meaning and messages entirely; they do have their value. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand one’s place in the Universe. Hell, I still write books that are largely about helping readers connect with totems and other spiritual nature-beings, to include for one’s own spiritual growth.

But my own practice has been steadily moving away from a human-centered nature spirituality. I have my totems and other guides, but the work I do with them is less about me, and more about them and their physical counterparts. When I am out hiking and I see a new species of bird I haven’t encountered before, I experience a great deal of wonder at the diversity of life around me; it’s an occasion to stop, count all the plants and fungi and animals and other things I see, and be amazed by it all. I don’t study spells or rituals any more; instead I read books and watch documentaries on biology and astronomy and physics and geology. I don’t celebrate the turning of the seasons with rituals about humans and our agricultural cycles, or projections of ourselves through anthropomorphic deities; instead, I go hiking and observe the shifts in nature, and I do volunteer work to clean up my adopted beach along the Columbia, and I ask my totems what more I can do for them and their physical counterparts. That’s why, more and more, my books have emphasized the two-way relationships with totems, what we can give back as well as what we can receive from them. As my practice goes, so goes my writing.

It is impossible to divorce spirituality experienced by humans from being at least somewhat human-focused; we are looking at the world through human eyes, after all. But if our nature-based paganism really is going to be about nature as a whole, and not just the celebration of humans in nature, then we need to be critical of how often we place ourselves squarely in the center of our nature spirituality. We need to stop asking what nature can give us and teach us, and instead focus more on what we can give to nature amid the constant pattern of take, take, take. Some pagans claim that paganism is a solution to more overbearing, dominating religions; yet if we’re going to truly and radically make naturalist paganism a path of relationship rather than dominance, I think we still have some work to do.

In my next post (scheduled for next Monday) I’m going to go into more detail as to what that work might look like. (Hint: there’s no one true way!)

*Okay, so technically birds aren’t dinosaurs–but they’re directly descended from theropod dinosaurs, so the eight-year-old in me likes to think they’re just Dinosaurs 2.0.

Water Testing at Sauvie

Autumn is beginning to reacquaint itself with Oregon; the light doesn’t last so long as it did a month ago, and the evenings are beginning to cool. The water temperatures haven’t been as warm, and when I waded out into the Columbia River when I visited Sauvie Island earlier this week, my skin was rather less tolerant of the chill. Still, I was able to take the necessary samples and readings for my final water testing of the year for Columbia Riverkeeper. While I’ve been taking care of this beach since December 2012 for SOLVE, this is the first summer I was able to test the waters monthly, measuring temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen, among others. These readings help to determine whether there have been any significant changes to the water quality, which can lead to an investigation of the source of the changes if need be.

equipmentI do enjoy going out to test. I feel rather like a mad scientist, lugging a big chemistry set out onto the beach, pouring various substances into water samples that make them change color, carrying arcane instruments into the river itself. Sometimes people ask me what I’m doing, and it gives me a chance to do some outreach, but for the most part folks leave me to my devices–literally.

Since it’s September, it was also time for me to do a quarterly report on the fauna, flora, fungi and other natural features of this place. It’s still late summer, and there was quite a bit of activity–robins and song sparrows chipped in the underbrush and cottonwood trees, and yellowjackets, attracted by fermenting Himalayan blackberries, buzzed me with some interest. While the deer were safely tucked away further in the woods, their tracks crisscrossed the landscape.

waterweedBecause so much of my time was spent with the water testing, and I had to get the equipment back on time, I didn’t get to explore the landscape as much as I would have liked. But I still took note of a few plants I hadn’t had a chance to identify before; with a little help from Facebook, I could now label them as Bermuda grass, cat’s ear, and European watermilfoil (probably), all three invasives. They went up on my list with Himalayan blackberry and Russian thistle as evidence of how disturbed the ecology here is. Still, the cottonwood and broadleaf maples dominated the forest, and the osoberry and snowberry managed to hold their ground underneath.

Next month when I visit again, I’ll have more time to simply sit with this place, maybe wander along the trails back in the woods, and pick up more of the detritus from a summer of people fishing, swimming and partying on the beach. And then, this December, I can celebrate two years of volunteering here. Maybe I’ll do something a little special for the occasion. We’ll see.

broadleafmaple

Monstera Obliqua/Swiss Cheese Vine as Plant Totem

Last summer, when I was working a day job in addition to keeping the Green Wolf as a business going (yes, it was a busy time) I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to work every day. Along my walk there was an office building where someone had some house plants they decided they no longer wanted to care for. So within my first week of work, I had adopted several new plants from the curb. All of them were dehydrated and in too-small containers, and most of them I wasn’t even sure what they were.

One in particular stood out to me. It looked something like a philodendron, but with odd natural holes in the leaves. With a little research, I discovered I had a specimen of Monstera obliqua, the Swiss cheese vine. It’s the little cousin of the better-known Swiss cheese plant, Monstera deliciosa; its proper Latin name is actually Monstera adansonii, but both I and the totem rather prefer Monstera obliqua between the two of us. The plant does grow like a philodendron, and like its lookalike it can be propagated with cuttings.

There weren’t going to be any cuttings off this sad little vine, though, at least not for a while. She had one single vine, barely six inches long, with just a few shriveled leaves on it, and was still potted in its original nursery planter, a tiny plastic box-like thing about three inches cubed, with bone-dry soil. I gave the poor thing some water as soon as I got to the office, and then carried her home with me that evening for repotting. After that, it was a waiting game to see if she and her companions would pull through.

I am pleased to say that not only did they make it, but they flourished! The Monstera has been the most successful; a year later, that one little vine is now the better part of ten feet long, and there are others of varying lengths. (I think of her as my tropical Rapunzel, albeit an inedible one!) I recently repotted her again, and had the chance to have a long conversation with her totem, Monstera Obliqua.

First, the totem thanked me for caring for its offspring and rescuing it that day. Then it asked me about my experience caring for the plant for the past year. I talked about how fulfilling and exciting it was to see her thrive and grow, rebounding from poor care. I had enjoyed learning more about how to take care of her and my other house plants, especially since my experience had mostly been with temperate vegetables, not tropical vines! And I appreciated the beauty of this unusual plant, brightening first my office, and then my home when my temporary summer job ended.

Then Monstera Obliqua said “In the wild, my offspring must climb the taller trees in order to get enough sunlight to live. They have to climb off the forest floor to keep from being trampled and destroyed. There is nothing wrong with relying on those around you for help. My children do not harm the trees they climb; there is no competition, only opportunity. The tree can get what it needs regardless; the vine simply benefits from its strength.

“In the same way, this little vine has relied on your strength. She is not in her home tropics, but in a place of more varied temperatures, at the mercy of whoever brings her water and food and soil. You have offered her somewhere to grow and be, and attended to her needs. The only thing she might hope for is a little more space to stretch her vines along, letting her instinct to climb be realized. But you see how she flourishes; she appreciates you and makes the most of what you give her.

“Can you say the same of those who give to you?”

And that gave me reason to pause. For many years now I’ve ended my day with a thank you prayer for all those who have given of themselves to keep me alive and well in this world, and I try my best to show my gratitude to those who help me each and every day. Sometimes I have to struggle a bit; even the toughest experiences are still lessons to be learned and stories to be made, and I do my best to live with no regrets, only perspective. But every moment I breathe is a gift, and I thought of all the times when I was the vine climbing a tree, and all the times I was a tree with vines climbing me for support. It wasn’t competition, just everyone doing what they needed to to survive.

And now I look at my not-so-little Monstera vine with a little more meaning and a little more understanding of the complex ecosystems and webs I am a part of. There’s no shame in needing others, and there’s no arrogance in being strong. Not every vine has to be a strangler fig, killing its host over time, and not every person who draws on one’s resources is going to take too much. A healthy balance is a good thing to aspire to, and the totem Monstera Obliqua reminded me of that.

If you liked this post, please consider purchasing a copy of my newest book, Plant and Fungus Totems: Connecting With Spirits of Field, Forest and Garden. Your support is greatly appreciated!

monstra1

It’s Okay To Be a (Pagan) Omnivore

Recently I’ve run across a few online discussions and blog posts asserting that vegetarianism and veganism (abbreviated as “veg*nism” from here on out) are the proper dietary choices for pagans and other spiritual people. The arguments for this have ranged from “meat is icky and does icky things to your energy” to “such and such culture is/was primarily veg*n so we should be too” and, of course, “no TRUE pagan (Scottish or otherwise) would ever bring harm to another living being” (forgetting, of course, that animals are only one of several kingdoms of living being). I’m not going to link to any of these discussions because I don’t want people to go start arguments there; I think that sort of brigading is a form of harassment and an ineffective way of getting one’s point across.

On that note, before we go any further, I want to speak to the sometimes thoroughly aggressive and unnecessarily hateful speech and behavior that I’ve seen a small portion of people use in these debates over the years. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay for someone to scream at you that you’re a murderer because you eat meat. It is not okay for someone to say “Ewwwwww, you eat meat/drink milk/eat eggs? That’s so gross it makes me want to vomit!” or “You’re an evil bitch/bastard who’s going to burn in hell for hurting poor little animals!” It is not okay for someone to tell you they wish someone would kill you and cut up your body and cook it, or that they hope you die of a heart attack from eating meat. It is not okay for someone to call together a bunch of their friends to leave hateful messages on your Facebook profile or fill up your inbox with the same in a harassment brigade. That shit’s just not okay.

If you ask me, this tofu dish looks pretty tasty. http://bit.ly/T0NKzp
If you ask me, this tofu dish looks pretty tasty. http://bit.ly/T0NKzp
At the same time, I also don’t think it’s okay to antagonize veg*ns for their dietary restrictions. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay to deliberately annoy veg*ns with stupid jokes about meat. It is not okay to tell a veg*n that they just need to eat more bacon, or that they can’t possibly be in good health, or being all “Oh, yuck, tofu? How can you EAT that?” It is not okay for you to question a male veg*n’s manhood just because he doesn’t eat meat. And it is most certainly not okay to sneak meat into a veg*n’s food, whether or not you then tell them you did it. That shit’s also just not okay.

Now that we’ve established some ground rules, I want to address some reasons why it’s okay for you to be an omnivore if that’s your choice. These are talking points you can draw on if someone ever comes in swinging at you for your diet; they’re not meant as bludgeoning objects to try and convince someone that their veg*nism is wrong for them.

Your Body, Your Diet

Bodily autonomy is a basic human right. Regardless of how you may feel about the autonomy of other living beings, almost all of us can agree that each human being’s right to their own body should be inviolate, and the violation of bodily autonomy is at the root of some of the most serious crimes and human rights crises. That means that you get to choose what you eat (finances and availability allowing, of course), no matter what anyone else says.

It also means you have the right to look out for what’s best for your body. Some of us simply don’t thrive well on even a well-balanced veg*n diet, and if that’s the case for you you don’t have to run around sick and malnourished because someone else yelled at you for not eating the way they think you should. That being said, it’s also a good idea to be aware of what you’re eating and the effects it may be having on your body. My partner and I have both been eating less meat (especially not-fish meat) because we both have familial health risks that could be aggravated by too much meat consumption, and we both love good salads anyway. It’s still your prerogative if you want to live on Denny’s ham and cheese omelets and soda (even when other things are readily available to you and within your means), and part of respecting bodily autonomy means accepting that people are going to eat what they will no matter what anyone else thinks.

Spirituality and Subjective Projection

From a more particularly pagan angle, I’ve seen numerous claims that a veg*n diet is better for spiritual practices. The reasons include everything from the claim meat is harder to digest, requiring more bloodflow to the stomach and therefore less to the brain, to the concept that meat clutters up your energy/aura/etc. The part about digestion is true–cooking meat, marinating it (particularly in an acidic marinade) and even pureeing it can make it easier to digest, but it still take more effort than, say, cherries or lettuce. If you’re an omnivore and want to amp up the bloodflow to your brain for the purposes of a particular meditation or retreat, then a temporary veg*n diet can help.

http://bit.ly/1pyviey
http://bit.ly/1pyviey
What about the other assertion, that meat makes your aura more icky because you ate dead animal flesh (just this side of cannibalism, according to some)? Well, quite honestly, there’s no way to prove this. A veg*n who claims they felt better and more spiritually active and clean once they kicked their meat habit may be telling the truth about their experience, but it doesn’t mean that meat was necessarily the direct cause. Instead, it may have been the relief they felt in their conscience, which is also a valid feeling. But there are plenty of us who feel just fine spiritually after eating meat. And for those of us who really are obligate omnivores, few things ruin a good spiritual experience like not having given our bodies what they need to function properly.

Given the choice between spirit and science, I’m choosing science every time; spirituality is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical care. That means that since my doctor, who has seen me for years and has been tracking my health with her years of experience and her knowledge of the most up to date research, suggests I stick to omnivorism, that’s going to trump someone without credentials telling me that they think my aura looks muddy because I had bacon this morning.

Just Because We Don’t Have Catchy Slogans Doesn’t Mean We’re Wrong

One of the most frustrating things for me is when slogans like “MEAT IS MURDER!” and “EAT BEANS, NOT BEINGS” are bandied about as though having a catch phrase is all it takes to make you right. Like a sports team’s traditional cheer, these sound bites serve to bind together activists in a common cause with a quick, easy to remember distillation of their message. Unfortunately, just like sports fanatics who stalwartly stick by their team no matter what, the people chanting these things sometimes don’t consider the possibility someone else could have a perfectly valid disagreement. Moreover, these slogans also provide activists with a way to shut down any possible conversation. An omnivore could say “Hey, I choose to eat free-range meat because…” and all the other person has to do is scream “IT’S STILL MURDER, YOU MURDERER! MURDER!”

Here on the omnivore end of the spectrum, we don’t really have slogans, beyond those created by marketing boards. I mean, “PORK! THE OTHER WHITE MEAT!” isn’t really an inspiring rallying cry. And sometimes we don’t really know what to say when someone comes at us, ready to beat us into the ground with a guilt trip. It takes a lot longer to explain why The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook spoke to you than it does for someone else to say “YOU KILLED BAMBI!” There’s very little room there for critical thinking.

Why is critical thinking important? Because there’s bad information on both sides of the debate, and critical thinking is a good opportunity to question and double-check this information. One of the discussions I mentioned in the very first paragraph stated that over half of greenhouse gas production is specifically from agriculture; however, the EPA reports that only 10% are from all combined agriculture, livestock and otherwise. Conversely, there are people who honestly think non-human mammals aren’t able to feel pain–yes, there are still those who subscribe to Descartes’ concept of mechanistic physiology in which animals only respond to stimuli because they’re meaty machines, never mind all the modern research to the contrary. And when someone questions either of these assertions, the people who hold to them are likely to just latch on more tightly.

Critical thinking is scary because it can show the flaws and cracks in one’s own beliefs and posits the idea that maybe the other person does have a point. Slogans, on the other hand, often present something as universally desirable for everyone, a much safer but more inaccurate proposition. Even I can see the severe limitations of “Milk: It Does a Body Good”, starting with the significant number of lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic people out there. This brings me to my final talking point…

We Face Very Complex Problems With More Than One Potential Solution

Conventional agriculture's version of friendly fire. http://bit.ly/1wh0Wz7
Conventional agriculture’s version of friendly fire. http://bit.ly/1wh0Wz7
I am an omnivore in part because I care about the environment. I study (from a layperson’s view, anyway) the entirety of our food system, which is a complicated thing. I am aware of the horrific conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses and the overfishing of the ocean. I also know how the pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals that are sprayed on conventional crops kill countless animals through poisoning all the way through the food web. They also wash into the ocean to harm animals there and create anoxic dead zones. That goes for crops fed both to livestock and to humans, omnivores and veg*ns alike. And I’m aware that a lot of the food in the stores, regardless of what it is, got from its source to the shelf (often by way of lots of processing and packaging) with an immense amount of fossil fuels, water, and other resources. I’ve watched wild lands around my hometown and elsewhere being chewed up for agricultural fields all planted with one single crop, unable to support the diversity of life they once did, and I know that habitat loss is the number one cause of species endangerment and extinction.

For some people, the answer to this is veg*nism–fewer animals die, less grain is required for animal feed, and so forth. It’s a good answer for many. But it’s not the answer that works for me, not just because of my body’s need for animal proteins, but also because I choose to focus my efforts at a greener life a little differently. I buy most of my meat from a free-range ranch a few hours outside of Portland; they have a booth at nearby farmer’s market every weekend. I’ve toured their ranch, too; the animals are entirely pasture-fed, with no grain finish. Those pastures also support a diversity of wildlife and plants, and the soil is nourished by the manure of buffalo, heritage turkeys, and other livestock. I have my plot at the community garden and my collection of pots on my tiny balcony; it’s not enough to feed both me and my partner, but it’s a very good supplement, and we can make up the difference with organic produce (especially during the summer when the farmer’s markets are full to overflowing with choices). And there are fishmongers at the same markets who drove just a couple of hours from the coast–or, in the case of salmon, nearby rivers–with small-scale, sustainable seafood. All these things came locally, cutting down on carbon pollution compared to conventional alternatives that were flown in from out of the country. And the meat I buy is a damned sight better in my mind than a Morningstar Farms veggie burger, produced by Kellogg’s from non-organic soy and other ingredients.

But this is my solution, as someone who is an obligate omnivore, who happens to live in a very food-friendly city, and who has the financial means to pay a little more for organic at the store and the time to tend to a small garden. I would never dream of presenting it as the One True Solution to carbon pollution, factory farming, and dead zones in the ocean. When I write about my adventures in gardening, or share recipes on Tumblr, I’m not doing it to tell people that they should do things my way. Instead, I’m leaving my experiences out there as examples for others to consider along with other information, and to encourage those who have been thinking about trying out the things I’m doing. That’s as far as it goes.

And you know what? I’m fine with being an omnivore. I don’t run around wearing an “OMNIVORE PRIDE!” shirt, because I don’t think diet is something to particularly be proud of or ashamed of either way. But I have carefully considered my options with research and critical thinking and found a solution that both works for my needs, and sits well within my eco-conscious conscience. I’ll always question it, too, as new information comes out and as new options arise, because fundamentalism of any sort sucks. (You can insert your own end comment here about omnivory and sacred cows.)

How I Spent My Summer Solstice

(Honey bee on mullein flower, community garden, Portland, OR. Image by Lupa, 2014.)

Ever since I moved to Portland in 2007, I’ve spent every summer solstice at Sunfest, a local pagan festival west of Portland. I’ve collected many fond memories of the event, and last year I led the opening, closing, and main rituals, an incredible experience with an incredible group of people on beautiful land. This year, though, I opted to stay home, not because I don’t look forward to Sunfest, but because every so often it’s good to take a break, and I intend to go back next year refreshed and rejuvenated. (I heard people had a great time, there, too!)

So what did I do instead? Well, I’d been out of town the previous week, and while I was away it rained much of the time. This meant that upon my arrival back home, my community garden spot had a healthy crop of weeds popping up amid the more intentional plants. So a good bit of my weekend was spent with my hands in the dirt, digging up crabgrass and Russian thistles and a host of other unwanted invaders. I ended up with scraped fingers and sore shoulders, but by the time I was done things were looking a lot better (if not perfect).

I also took the time to plant out my little balcony container garden, which I admit I’ve been neglecting some as I’ve wrangled with the weeds down the street at the larger plot. But my herbs were all doing just fine, and the volunteer marigolds and petunias that sprouted from last year’s dropped seeds all ended up gathered together in one long planter box. Soil was freshened up, fluffed, and fertilized, and I planted out beans and arugula and other seeds. I also made my yearly pilgrimage to Fred Meyer’s clearance aisles in the garden section, where I brought home eight tomatoes and two unlabeled squash in sad condition which I’ll be attempting to resurrect with some TLC. Along with these I bought a very marked-down hanging pot of petunias; I thought the hummingbirds might like it.

Still little. Still lovely. My balcony garden <3 Still little. Still lovely. My balcony garden <3[/caption]Wait. Hummingbirds? Okay. For those of you familiar with my work, you may have noticed that I've historically been against feeding wildlife, birds included. Putting out food where raccoons and possums can get it, for example, encourages them to be less afraid of humans and causes them to be more of a nuisance (we see this writ large in the black bears at Yellowstone). However, I was researching something on the Audubon Society website, and discovered that some of the things I had learned about feeding birds, to include the risk of interrupting migration and causing them to neglect natural food sources, were actually incorrect. I figure if the Audubon Society says it’s okay to feed birds, then there’s probably something to it. So I’ve had a bird feeder on the porch for the past couple of weeks and have entertained several scrub jays, crows, and house sparrows at it. (I figure two native species out of three isn’t bad, especially in this urban a setting.) It’s located where I can look right out at it while I’m working at my computer, and it’s been beneficial for both me and the birds. They get food with minimal effort and no threat of predation, and I get to watch their daily tiny-dinosaur dramas play out at the feeders (will the sparrows get a full meal before the scrub jays chase them off? Can the crows cope with the fierce competition for sunflower seeds?)

This, then, was my ritual. I haven’t formally celebrated the Sabbats in years, but if I were to call this summer solstice anything, it would be a harvest festival. I’d been picking beet greens all month for salads and pulled up and stored my spinach, which was threatening to bolt, just before I left town. But this weekend’s haul was even better–a nice big handful of bush peas, ten nice-sized (but not too big) red beets, and a bright bouquet of calendula for both eating and prettying up the apartment a bit. This is my first year really getting to use my garden, and I don’t think I could have envisioned how lovely the harvest would be back in February when I first sowed the seeds. (The beet roots roasted beautifully, by the way, and the leaves and the rest went into a glorious salad.)

All in all, it was a good time to renew my bond with the land through this direct contact. I try to spend at least a little time with my garden almost every day, but the timing worked out that a lot of effort needed to be put into it right now, and instead of being a chore all the weeding and harvesting and replanting was a celebration of gratitude. I’m grateful for my little gardens and the life they support, including my own. I’m grateful that I have the time and schedule flexibility to be able to devote to them. I’m grateful I can invest a bit of money in seeds, starts and other short-term needs in order to get a long-term payout. I’m grateful the weather has cooperated (mostly), and that my plants have survived spring hailstorms and hot days to thrive. Most importantly, I’m grateful for the lessons my gardens have taught me, not just about necessary care and potentials for change and growth, but about what draws me so near to the land here. We give to each other, and I vow once again to be a good caretaker of my tiny corner of the world.

Review of The Third Plate: Field Notes From the Future of Food

Last week I promised you a book review that would complement my post about not taking food for granted, to include in a (nature) spiritual sense. I have to admit that that post was strongly influenced by having just completed my rather eager reading of Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes From the Future of Food. It’s a dangerous book in the best way possible–it got me to thinking.

See, as I’ve gotten older I’ve become something of an aspiring amateur foodie, with a particular emphasis on sustainability. I’m much too cash-strapped to afford any restaurant that has a constellation of Michelin stars, and my partner and I are more likely to shop at CostCo and the farmer’s market than Whole Foods. But we have our community garden plot and a few pots on our tiny apartment balcony, and these help me feel a little more connected to the terrifyingly complex systems that bring food to most Americans’ plates.

Truth be told, I’m probably more aware of these systems and their impacts than the majority of people in this country, which is why The Third Plate has been added to my short list of books I think everyone ought to read. There’s a severe lack of food literacy in the U.S., and in recent years several authors ranging from Michael Pollan to Jane Goodall have offered up their written reasonings on why we need to be paying more attention. We can be a tough audience, though; five decades of being told the environment’s going to hell, life-giving soil included, has served to overstimulate and then numb us to the problems we face. Apathy may very well be our downfall, if we aren’t careful.

But this is why I absolutely loved The Third Plate. It’s a delightfully inviting read, where Barber brings us all along on his journey from his own farm on the skirts of New York City, to an inventive seed facility in the Skagit Valley in Washington, and even far across the Atlantic to coastal Spain where pigs and geese alike root through acorn-studded fields. Each stop brings us face to face with some creative individual working to stop the corporate-harnessed juggernaut that is the American food system, whether through resurrecting old resources, or mindfully inventing new ones (or, quite often, some combination thereof).

This is no dry agriculture textbook, though; instead, the true-life stories of farmers, chefs and other innovators illustrate each chapter as Barber discusses how soil, land, sea and seed all come together to feed us. Right off the bat, we enter into the world of Klaas Martens, a wheat farmer who started with being poisoned by his own chemicals, and embarks on a journey that leads him to perennial wheat with roots as long as Rapunzel’s hair. There’s Veta la Palma, an aquaculture facility (read: fish farm) that defies the stereotype of environmental degradation and instead has become a prime spot for migrating birds (even if they do pick off fish with some frequency). Fans of Southern cooking may be surprised to find that what’s being offered to them is a lie, and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills is determined to shine light on the truth. And far in the Northwest farmlands, Steve Jones works to bolster the available variety of seeds with something old and something new (but nothing GMO), further insuring us against the collapse of a mainstream agriculture that is all too reliant on monocultures and a tiny seed catalog.

These and other key movers and shakers in the grassroots “let’s eat better, more sustainable food” movement share their stories and their motivations through Barber’s words. Not everything goes smoothly; a key critic of overfishing is served a piece of bluefin tuna, and not even the ancient manner in which it was fished can mollify him. And Barber’s own attempts to recreate the “field gras”, a more humane way to grow tasty goose liver, takes some serious trial and error to even get out of the gate (spoiler: opening the gate solves the problem).

But in the end, we’re left with a glowing sense of optimism, even with its realistic tempering. The real beauty of The Third Plate is in its ability to inspire and motivate the reader. Barber (like Pollan, Goodall, and their ilk) presents both the problems inherent to our current food system, and a variety of real-world solutions. Where he really shines, though, is in showing how people more deeply involved in the relevant industries than the average consumer are making real changes. We here on the eating end of things all too often feel like our ability to create change is limited to our buying power (such as it is). Barber shines light on a handful of the growing number of people who are doing extraordinary things in restaurant kitchens, in fields and estuaries, on farms and in research facilities, all aimed at a more sustainable–and flavorful–future of food. By showing where each of these innovators started, what their root problems were, and then sharing the sometimes long and winding paths they took to their current and ongoing solutions, he breaks down the process of changing the world into more accessible portions. And in doing so he reveals that every one of them is just an ordinary person doing their best right along with the rest of us.

I find that to be incredibly inspiring, particularly as a person of rather limited means and resources. Even before I was finished with the first section of the book on soil, I was already researching options for getting the soil in my little 10′ x 20′ community garden plot tested, and wondering if I should try to plant a winter crop of emmer wheat next to my red clover cover to help the soil this autumn. This is a book for creating dreams, even if they’re a little over the top. Because it’s that willingness to break out of established parameters and be a little crazy that has given the people in this book–and Barber himself–the power and impetus to make change happen. I’ll be doing more reading and research into organic farming beyond “no chemicals”, but I’ll also return to The Third Plate whenever I feel my enthusiasm flagging.

As to who should read this book? Like I said in the beginning: everyone. Even if you don’t garden, even if you’ve never even been on a farm, no matter what your dietary choices and restrictions may be–if you eat food, this is a must-read. And don’t be scared by the almost 500 pages contained between the covers; it’s a fast, compelling read that has the power to keep you up well past bedtime.

More information on the book, as well as ordering options, may be found here on the book’s official website.