Category Archives: Rituals

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.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up! It’s a guide to connecting with your bioregion on both spiritual and practical levels.

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.

Spirits in the Kitchen: Honoring the Remains of Our Food

[Main photo: rice and cheese stuffed crimini mushrooms, roasted acorn squash and red onion, and sauteed vegetables and mushrooms]

The older I get, the more important food has become to me. For the first quarter century of my life, I couldn’t have cared less about domestic duties. In fact, in my misguided desire to break out of traditional female gender roles, I eschewed anything associated with the household for many years. I remember a friend coming over to visit, and being shocked at how scarce kitchenware was in my home. I was basically living like a stereotypical bachelor(ette).

Then I ended up living with someone who insisted on taking over all the domestic duties as a way of “taking care” of me. Unfortunately, their cooking skills were…less than advertised. After entirely too many pans of cheap chicken thighs or pork chops covered in cream of mushroom soup and then dried to the consistency of shoe leather in the oven, I finally decided to learn to cook in self-defense. I started with my mom’s chili recipe, a piece of comfort food from home. And I found that I loved cooking–the flavors, the alchemy, the transformation of a pile of ingredients and a recipe into something artistic as well as edible.

While I am in no way a professional level cook, and in some ways am still barely competent in the kitchen, I’ve acquired a decent collection of cookbooks and flavor manuals, and I have a much better set of utensils. After years of gardening and foraging and preserving plants, and even raising and slaughtering my own meat, I also have gained a much deeper appreciation for the quality of the ingredients I use. I can’t always afford the pasture-raised meat, but I try to have a bottle of genuine olive oil no matter the recipe. (Costco has become one of my greatest resources.)

One thing that has always been central to my cuisine, even from the start, was respect for the animals, plants and fungi I was about to consume. We literally are what we eat. The vast majority of the molecules in my body came from something I ate or drank, and every time I sit down to a meal or a snack I am aware that part of what I am about to enjoy is going to become a long-term part of my body. After all, I’m only borrowing it temporarily before it gets returned to the ecosystem, so I should be appreciative of those recently deceased whose remains are actively being recycled by my digestive system.

Why is this awareness important?

–Connection with nature on a spiritual level: My paganism has always been nature-based, even if the exact interpretation thereof has evolved over time. As a naturalist pagan, I don’t invest myself in supernatural concepts–even the idea of spirits, to me, is something that I don’t actively try to prove literally. Instead, my path is firmly rooted in the idea that I am a part of something deeper and greater than myself, the concentric rings of community, ecosystem, planet and universe. By being mindful of the living beings whose now-dead remains are about to nourish me and keep me alive another day, I am reminding myself that I am part of that greater cycle, and that I am just one tiny part of the great community of nature. Even when the being who is feeding me–a fruit or nut tree, for example–is technically still alive, I still want to honor the sacrifice of their energy-made-matter and their potential offspring.

Some of my chickens enjoying kitchen scraps that they will later turn into eggs

–Consideration of the welfare of other beings: I know there are people who will argue that anyone who isn’t a strict vegan can’t possibly be acting for the welfare of animals, at least, and that plants and fungi don’t count since they don’t have animal nervous systems. I’m not going to get into that debate because that’s at least three more blog posts, so leave it be. As someone who is an obligate omnivore, I’ve found the best solution for both my health and the planet is Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants. I am not currently in a place where I am able to grow or raise all of my food, but the farm my art studio is on has a nice garden going, with plans for improvement in subsequent years. I also have access to several farmers’ markets in the summer, though I’ve yet to find a good local CSA. And starting this past year I began raising chickens for both eggs and meat (though they’ve ended up being pets as well.) The more I can control the source of my own food and how it was grown and raised, the better I will feel about my role as a consumer of food.

–Mindful eating: This is a way to slow down your consumption of food and to be more aware of the experience of eating. It serves to not only reconnect you with something that can be quite enjoyable, but slowing down the act of eating can help reduce indigestion and other problems. Moreover, I feel it gives meals more meaning. As someone who eats alone 95% of the time, it can be easy for me to just zone about and shovel food into my mouth while I wander around online or read a book. Mindful eating makes me appreciate what I’m eating more, which has encouraged my already active interest in home cooking. And it helps me to remember again that everything I’m eating was once alive, as I am now alive, and that is something to respect.

I don’t really do special rituals or magic with my food; instead, having mindfulness infuse the very acts of cooking and eating is ritual in and of itself. That being said, you’re certainly welcome to toss a little kitchen witchery into the process if that’s your practice. Here are a few ideas:

–When preparing your work area, consider lighting candles or incense, or cleansing the area with a wash of salt- or herb-infused water. You can also put out crystals nearby that represent your intent. Some pagans like to have an apron or other adornment they only wear when preparing sacred meals (though I consider every meal to be sacred.) Consider it a way of making sacred space for the beings you are about to prepare into food, welcoming them into your home.

–Say a prayer over the ingredients for the meal you are about to prepare, thanking them for being there and asking that you be able to treat them with respect as you turn them into nourishment for you and whoever else you’re feeding

–Bless the herbs and spices you add to your meals. You can even look up magical correspondences for them, and add ones that match the intent of the meal. For example, cashews are often associated with financial success, so a meal of cashew chicken might be a good thing to have just before an interview or important business deal. Ask the spirits of the plants and minerals to help you with your goal.

–Create magical art with your food. This is especially easy with baking, and plenty of magical groups have celebrated rituals with cookies or cakes decorated with pentacles and other symbols. Try baking a layer cake where each layer is dyed with food coloring in shades that reflect intent–green for fertility and growth, pink for youth and joy, yellow for sunshine and health, and so on. Ask the wheat (or oats, or rice) in the flour, as well as the eggs, milk or other ingredients, to carry that intent for you.

Cream of asparagus soup with homemade whole wheat bread and Tillamook butter

–Decorate your table with reminders of the animals, plants and fungi you are consuming. You might have plates that have chickens on them, or add leaves of lettuce and fresh mushrooms as an edible centerpiece. Let the meal be a celebration of these beings and their gifts to you.

–If eating with others, take time to discuss the sources of your food and why you chose them. Even if the answer is “This is what I could afford and what I had access to,” that’s valid. Talk about where you think the plants were grown and the animals raised, and if you want to be able to change your sources–even if you can’t do it now–brainstorm ways in which that can happen at some point.

–Let nothing go to waste. Leftovers are love, as far as I’m concerned, not the least reason of which being they save me a night of having to cook again. Should you have chickens, pigs or other omnivorous animals, give them your kitchen scraps. Other pets can have limited types of scraps; dogs and cats love meat bits, various small critters love vegetables and fruit, and rats and some parrots will eat just about anything you give them. As for the rest, if you’re able to compost outside, tend your compost pile with care. Apartment dwellers may look into vermicomposting–composting with worms–which can be done indoors with few problems. Just don’t leave food scraps where wild mammals can easily get to them; this encourages them to lose their fear of humans and makes them dependent on us for food, which rarely turns out good for anyone involved. If you garden, let your compost be a gift to your plants (and fungi, if you grow dirt-loving mushrooms.)

Even if you don’t take the idea of spirits literally, these practices can still help you maintain awareness of where your food comes from and how you are connected to everything in a greater webwork of relationships. At a time when more people than ever are divorced from the sources of their nourishment, and take for granted the soil and the beings that it supports, it is crucial for us to regain that appreciation for our food. We are already destroying the land, the water and the air, and we need these if we are to continue having food available to us. If we start with changing our awareness, then that awareness translates into actions for the better. Let it start in your kitchen, and move out from there into the world.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider a copy of my book Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which includes even more practices to connect with your bioregion and the beings within it! More info on my books can be found at https://thegreenwolf.com/books

A Clarification On My Last Post

Regarding my last post where I speak of my grief, anger, and frustration over the fires in the Columbia River Gorge, first of all I want to thank everyone who read, shared and commented on the post, helping to get that information out there. As of right now the fires are still burning over 30,000 acres and have spread over to the Washington side of the Columbia, but no one has died and the firefighters have done a remarkable job in spite of ongoing heat, wind and lack of rain.

Most people have been able to understand my frustration with all the calls for prayers and rites at a time when these things feel like a band-aid on a bullet wound. I know I took a big risk in writing from a place of deep pain, grief and anger and that doubtless there would be people who, instead of paying attention to the bigger takeaway–do something concrete about the fires and the events leading up to them–got tangled up in my harsh words on prayers and rites.

What I should have clarified was that I am specifically frustrated with those who pray for rain, but then do nothing else helpful to follow it up. I’ve been pagan for twenty-one years. I have seen countless pagans who do “send energy to X” rituals and spells, and then do nothing else to follow it up. We tell people that if you’re going to do a job spell, you can’t then not send out resumes or apply for jobs. In the same way, all the “stop the fire” spells seem to fall flat when what we need even more urgently is everything from funding for firefighting and fire prevention to boots on the ground when the fire stops and the damage is assessed. Even if all you can do is pass on crucial information about evacuations and how to stop this happening in the future, you’re helping.

I know that even though I no longer practice magic of any sort, that it is a big part of paganism for a lot of people. And I know a lot of the people who do workings are also following them up with concrete physical actions. And I really, really appreciate all of those efforts. Even if the rituals only ended up having a purely psychological effect, bringing people together and boosting moods to keep going, that’s valuable.

I wrote my post when I was at an incredibly low point, physically alone and re-traumatized and in deep despair and just about ready to give up. I channeled that into drawing together resources to show people how they could help, both immediately and long-term, and that was part of what started helping me out of that dark place.

So I hope you’ll understand if my post wasn’t the nicest, sweetest, most diplomatic thing I’ve ever written. Yes, I could have been clearer about who, exactly, my frustration was with. But I have no apology for being angry with the hypocrisy of those who do a spell and then do nothing to follow it up when it comes to something this big, destructive, and deeply rooted in long-term human error.

Fight Fire With Fire, Not Prayers and Rituals

In case you aren’t aware, the Columbia River Gorge is on fire. Over the weekend, a group of teenagers setting off fireworks in the Eagle Creek canyon set dry brush ablaze, and as I write this over 20,000 acres are now burning, to include precariously close to well-loved landmarks like Multnomah Falls. Over 150 hikers had to be rescued by the Hood River Search and Rescue Team (who could really use donations, by the way.) The easternmost edges of the Portland metro area are under evacuation warnings, and over forty miles of Interstate 84 are closed in both directions.

What I want to tell you is about how broken I feel at this moment, how powerless and weak. I was thirteen when the woods that were my solace were bulldozed flat to the ground, an event that was legitimately traumatic for me and contributed to both my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and to my deep drive to learn about and protect non-human nature. I want to tell you about how I am suddenly back in that moment of despair, anger and helplessness, and fighting to not fall into the deep pain and disconnection that swallowed me for years afterward. I want to tell you about how the red clay of the earth torn up by machinery a quarter century ago is reflected in the flames in photos of my beloved Gorge, the first place that welcomed me with open arms when I moved to Portland a decade ago, and which is permanently tattooed on my left arm in gratitude. I want to tell you how difficult is it for me to keep to my daily schedule and list of tasks while I know that places where I have set foot for many years are burning to the ground, and all I want to do is curl up in my bed and cry.

Instead, what I am going to tell you is what led to this devastation, and how to respond in ways that actually have a concrete, measurable effect. Perhaps it is my grief and pain that make me more sensitive and cynical, but all the calls to “send energy to the firefighters” and rituals to try to make it rain just seem like wasted effort. Normally I shrug and let people do whatever their path says is right in this situation, but I am raw and angry and fed up as my sacred places burn. We don’t need prayers for rain. We need to stop the processes that are preventing the rain in the first place.

What is happening now is the culmination of centuries of human stupidity and greed. Our climate IS changing because of our industrial activities and the pollutants they create, as well as the destruction of mitigating natural factors like the oceans and forests that are supposed to absorb atmospheric carbon. This is leading to drier, hotter summers in the Northwest; this August was the hottest on record in Portland, and the rest of the area isn’t far behind. The entire area is a tinderbox of dead plants.

Add in many decades of fire suppression led by timber companies not wanting to lose their cash trees, and budget cuts that keep forestry services from engaging in prescribed burns. See, fire is natural in forests; some plants even need fire to properly germinate their seeds. But because fire also damages timber and threatens tourism, any natural lightning-strike fires have been quickly put out, and Smokey Bear reminds us that “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” But this all resulted in the understory of the forest–ferns, rhododendrons, salal, and more–growing much thicker than is natural, and many smaller trees getting a roothold where before fire would have thinned them out. This creates what is called ladder fuel, which allows fire to climb higher into the older trees who, in a normal intensity fire, be protected by their height and thick bark. When fire is allowed to occur naturally, it burns out the understory long before it gets too thick, and the big trees survive, and the seeds in the ground replenish the land. But we humans stopped that, and now all that built up tinder has exploded.

Add in one small group of ill-educated teenagers with illegal fireworks dropping them over a cliff into a pile of brush. Yes, the human brain doesn’t full develop until the mid-twenties, and the part that manages impulse control is still under construction in a fifteen-year-old. And here is where our lack of nature literacy become a problem: if children are raised from a very young age to constantly understand the risks of fire, it become a matter of course to act with respect. There are just certain things you don’t do, because you’ve been brought up with the knowledge of why and what happens when you don’t listen. Yet these entitled little scumsuckers apparently didn’t get the memo, because they were giggling like their act was a big adventure.

So: what to do? Here’s the game plan:

Educate yourself on the role of fire in forest ecosystems. This goes doubly so if you claim to be a nature-based pagan, or if you somehow think you have an affinity for the element of fire, because you’d damned well better know the actual nature of fire, and not just its mythos and romanticism. Educate yourself on how climate change is leading directly to bigger, hotter, worse fires. And once you’ve educated yourself, educate others, especially anyone who intends to spend any time outdoors.

Educate your elected officials on all levels about the need for prescribed burns and other forest management practices that will help undo the damage from fire suppression and hopefully mitigate the effects of climate change. Tell them to fund forestry and natural resources services on all levels of government instead of using those funds for really stupid ideas like building a giant wall at the south end of the country. And while you’re at it, make sure you tell them about the connection between climate change and the more devastating fires we’re having, especially if your elected officials are in the minority that happen to still be pretending human-caused climate change isn’t a scientifically-validated reality.

Urge the stakeholders in the land in the Gorge, both public and private to replant with a wide diversity of trees, not just Douglas firs. Logging companies like the Doug firs because they grow quickly and are valuable on the market, but when you have a landscape that has nothing but the same species, it becomes much more vulnerable to disease and parasites which lead to more dead trees–and more fire fodder. Moreover, they plant the trees more close together than they would be naturally, and as the trees are all the same age there isn’t as much chance for bigger, older trees to shade out smaller ones and thin the herd, as it were. A healthy forest has many trees of different species and ages for a reason, and monocrops of Douglas firs contributed to the fires we now see. Or, better yet, let the forest recover on its own and at its own pace. Here, educate yourself on forest succession and how a forest can come back all on its own.

Donate money to those who are actively fighting the fires and help people evacuate. I don’t care if all you can give is a single dollar–it HELPS. There will no doubt be local environmental and conservation organizations working to restore the natural and historical features of the Gorge in the aftermath of this, so be on the lookout for their calls for funding.

–And when those organizations call for volunteers, if you’re close enough and can do so, step up. Even a few hours helps. Right now if you want to volunteer call the Hood River Sheriff’s Department at 541-387-7035. And there will be ongoing work. I have spent the past couple of years volunteering for Cascade Pika Watch, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do a post-fire survey this fall to see how many places still have pikas afterward. The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge  and Columbia Riverkeeper are also highly active in this beautiful area’s ecosystem restoration, so no doubt they’ll be involved in whatever work is ahead.

–Work to fight climate change, the biggest factor contributing to greater forest fires, as well as the more violent hurricanes that have been bludgeoning the Southeast. Don’t know where to start with such an admittedly tall order? Here. The Drawdown website lists the 100 biggest causes of climate change and how to fix them. The book goes into even more detail. Pick just one of those causes and put effort toward it, whether it involves making changes in your own life, or pressuring corporations and/or governments to change themselves.That’s how you get started, and you can take that as far as you’re willing. Then pick another cause, and work on it. And so on.

–Most importantly, educate yourself on nature and how it works. We’ve spent centuries trying to distance ourselves from the rest of nature, and it’s been terrible for everyone and everything involved. Maybe if we pagans were as picky about how our paths line up with science as we do with history, we would be a greater force for the planet. Try starting your education with this bioregion quiz from the Ehoah website.

Finally, I know I was pretty harsh on those of you who are praying for rain and trying to send energy to the firefighters and all that. Even if all your rites do is give you some solace in a tough time, that’s constructive enough; just please also focus some on the efforts that are absolutely proven to have a more direct effect on the fires and what caused them. Let your rites inspire you to take more physical action, rather than replacing it. We can’t wave our wands and chant our chants and expect the fire to go out, but we can put our money where our mouth is when it comes to claiming to be practitioners of nature-based spirituality, especially when we need to undo the damage we’ve done to nature more than ever.

ETA: A brief clarification on this post may be found here, specifically addressing people’s concerns that I was too critical of the prayers, spells and the like.

Lupa’s Essential Books For Pagans

Hi, folks! Sorry for the radio silence; my head hasn’t been in pagan space much lately so I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block in that direction. I’m starting to come out of it a bit, though, and I have a few ideas, this being the first one.

Most essential reading lists for pagans tend to be pagan-specific books, or books that deal with related topics like the history of pre-Christian religions or herbalism. My list is perhaps a little more removed from blatant paganism than that, and might be better termed “Lupa’s Essential Books For Nature-Based Pagans”. Moreover, it’s a list that will likely change over time. But they’re texts I think all pagans would benefit from reading for one reason or another.

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

Many people, not just pagans, are attracted to nature. But why? In his follow-up to his award-winning Last Child in the Woods, Louv looks at not only why nature is good for us, but concrete ways in which we can reconnect with the natural world, even in urban areas, as a way to combat nature-deficit disorder. (See also Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix as a more up-to-date collection of nature-is-good-for-us research for laypeople.)

A Beginner’s Guide to the Scientific Method by Stephen S. Carey

Paganism often flirts heavily with pseudoscience, sometimes to dangerous degrees. Everyone should have a solid understanding of the scientific method, to include how a good experiment is put together (as well as how not to conduct research), and how to avoid pitfalls like confirmation bias. Not only will this help you to cut through some of the crap that gets presented as fact within paganism, but it will help you have a more critical eye toward sensational news headlines claiming new cures for cancer or demonizing vaccinations. If you can pick apart a study based on things like sample size and the validity of the results, you’re already way ahead of most of the population.

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

Okay, put the fact that it’s Dawkins aside; this is one of those texts where he’s focusing on communicating science instead of tearing religion apart, and he’s frankly at his best here. Now, evolution is up there with gravity and a round earth as far as things we know to be true, and hopefully you already have a basic understanding of how it works: It is not survival of the fittest so much as survival of those who fit into the ecosystem most effectively. What this book does is cleverly place us, Homo sapiens, in the context of the grand dance of evolution by tracing on possible path we may have taken all the way back to the last universal ancestor that all living beings on the planet share. Along the way we get to see the origins of everything from our big brains to our opposable thumbs and upright bipedal walking, showing us that we are not the most amazing and superior being that the gods ever created, but rather one among many incredible and diverse life forms that evolution has produced through natural selection and mutation. It is, in fact, the ultimate journey on this planet.

Also, the Walking With Dinosaurs/Beasts/Monsters/Cavemen BBC documentaries are fun, if a bit flawed and dated, ways to look at how evolution has shaped animals over millions of years.

Roadside Geology series by various authors

If you’re in the United States, there’s a Roadside Geology book for your state! You may not think much about the ground beneath your feet other than as a nice, solid base, but the various stones and formations, as well as hydrological phenomena like rivers and lakes, are all crucial to the sort of life that can thrive in a given place. The Roadside Geology books are a fun way to go look at your local geology in person and learn a little about the land you live on. You can then follow up by picking up some more in-depth reading material for the geology of your area.

Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

We often assume that plants are relatively sedentary beings with few motivations. Yet they are vibrant and active parts of their ecosystems in ways even we animals can’t touch. This book looks at the world of plants through the relationships four of them have with humans, how we have changed them–and how they have changed us. I also strongly recommend following this up with two documentaries: How to Grow a Planet by Iain Stewart (which also happens to be on Netflix as of this writing) and David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (which is also in book form.)

Trees, Truffles and Beasts: How Forests Function by Chris Maser, Andrew Claridge and James Trappe

In paganism we tend to look at animals, plants and other beings individually, as stand-alone guides—yet if we want inspiration for just how interconnected we are, there’s no better model than an ecosystem. This book explores how just a few of the animal, plant and fungus inhabitants of forests are inextricably bound together. Extrapolate that out to the entire ecosystem, and you begin to see how deeply entwined all beings are in a very real, even visceral sense. If you’ve only been working with animal or plant spirits, this book may just inspire you to reach out further.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart

Again in paganism people tend to be fairly short-sighted when it comes to animals. We often look at the most impressive mammals and birds, and then only at the most surface qualities, gleaning what we can for ourselves and our spiritual needs. In order to step out of this self-centered approach to nature spirituality, we need to really appreciate beings for themselves in all their complexity, and what better starting point than the amazing and completely indispensable earthworm? This is a really fun read, but you’ll learn a lot along the way, too–and maybe start treating the soil in your yard a little better, too!

There are lots of other books that explore individual species in depth, like Bernd Heinrich’s The Mind of the Raven and Of Wolves and Men by Barry Holstun Lopez, but I really recommend you start with the often-overlooked earthworms before moving on to stereotypically charismatic critters like ravens and wolves.

Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown Young

One of the disadvantages of pagans reading only books by pagans about paganism is that we miss out on other awesome and relevant works by people who aren’t expressly pagan. Joanna Macy is one of those authors that more pagans really need to know about, especially those who construct group rituals. This is an entire book full of rites for reconnecting to nature and to each other, as well as grieving for global losses and fostering gratitude and hope for a better future. If that doesn’t sound like something more pagans could get behind, I don’t know what does. Just because it doesn’t mention any deities doesn’t mean that it’s useless.

Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World by Bill Plotkin

This is another one of those “pagan but not” books. I’ve explored this book in more detail in the past, but my opinion still stands: it is a much better alternative to Maiden, Mother, Crone and Youth, Warrior, Sage. It’s based in a developmental approach to ecopsychology (or an ecopsychological approach to developmental psychology?) Growth is not based on your physical age or whether you’re capable of popping out babies; rather, Plotkin’s eight-stage Wheel looks at your journey as a person and your continuing relationship with your community and ecosystem to determine where you are developmentally. You can even be in more than one stage at once! It’s a much more well-rounded way to apply a label to yourself, if you must, and I recommend it for anyone who is sick of the gender-limiting stereotypes of MMC/YWS.

(Honorable mention to Lasara Firefox’s Jailbreaking the Goddess as another alternative to MMC for women.)

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

If you love nature and honor it and you really want to do something to make up for the damage we’ve done to the planet, there’s nothing much more effective than working to reverse climate change. I mean, really, it’s a much better offering to nature spirits than pouting food and drink on the ground, or sending a vague ball of energy to wrap around the planet to do….what? What’s even more noteworthy about this book is that it’s an excellent antidote to the hopelessness and fear that a lot of people feel about climate change. In it you’re going to read about people who are already boots on the ground making a difference, to include in the very industries that are causing the most problems. And it ranks the top 100 causes of climate change (you can see this on their website, too.) Pick one of these causes to start working on, with whatever time and other resources you reasonably have available, and not only are you giving something back to nature, but you’re also counteracting the paralysis that pessimism breeds.

So there you have it: my current essential reading list for pagans. Sorry I’m not handing you yet another rehash of the Wiccan Sabbats or a bunch of spells. Over the past few years my paganism has become much more firmly rooted in the physical, and my reading list reflects that. After all, what good is a nature-based path if you don’t know diddly about nature itself?

Offerings For a Nature-Based Path

Note: This post was originally published at my old Patheos blog. It is unfortunately still there despite my resignation and request that they delete all my content. I had a request from another writer to link to this post, though they didn’t want to use the Patheos link (thank you!) So I am republishing the content here, and will likely do that with a selection of my other Patheos posts. Enjoy!

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When someone gives something to us, it’s natural for us to want to return the favor. Reciprocity is part of being a complex social creature and part of the underpinnings of successful civilization. It’s no different in our spiritual paths. When the spirits, gods, nature gift us with knowledge, empowerment or even a good meal, we want to be able to say thank you in a formal manner.

This balance more important now than ever. For centuries we have done a lot of taking from nature and relatively little giving back. Of course, some things are hard to replace. We can’t exactly put oil back in the ground or easily remove the pollutants caused by its processing and burning. But it’s only been recently that we’ve made conscious efforts to replace at least some of what we take. In Oregon, for example, it’s been a law since 1972 that any landowner who cuts down trees for timber must plant more to replace them.

Still, the balance is far from equal. We still take far more than we give back, and what we do give is often tainted. Take food offerings, for example. It may seem pretty innocuous to make an extra plate of food after a ritual and leave it out “for the wildlife”. Some of what we eat is very bad for other species, though, and it doesn’t have to be the hyper-processed snack foods we favor. Onions are toxic for dogs and cats, and so any wandering domestic or feral animal would get sick if the dish you prepared contains even cooked onion. (Coyotes might also not fare so well.) Moreover, leaving food out teaches wild mammals to stop fearing humans and to become more aggressive in trying to get food from us. Predictably this leads to more animals having to be killed as nuisances or dangerous.

The source of the offering may also be suspect. Let’s say you want to leave a small quartz crystal next to a plant that you harvested leaves from for medicine. Where did the crystal come from, and how was it mined? What quality of life did the miner have and how much did they make for it? How many thousands of miles was the crystal shipped using fossil fuels? What offering did you make to the land the crystal was torn out of to say “thanks for the shiny rock”? And, finally, how exactly is the plant supposed to use a piece of quartz crystal when what it really needs is water and healthy soil?

We need to rethink the concept of offerings, and what we’re actually giving versus receiving. Are we giving back anything of actual value, or just contributing to more problems at home and abroad?

I’d like to offer some potential alternatives for those of us on a nature-based path. These are offerings that are more conscious of environmental impact and have a real, measurable effect on the land. (In my experience they also make the spirits of the land happier!)

–Take the time to really get to know the land you live on: How much do you know about your bioregion? What’s the geology that forms its foundation, and how does it affect the climate and weather? What animals, plants, fungi and other living beings share space with you there? What did it look like before large numbers of humans arrived? What did it look like 10,000 years ago? 100,000? 100 million?

Knowing these things helps you understand the intricacies of your bioregion and what it needs in order to be healthy. You may think that your area has a diversity of wildlife because you know a few species of bird in the area, but it may lack the necessary habitat to support more elusive animals. What happened to drive these other species away?

You may not be able to do anything about these bigger situations, but just being aware of and sensitive to them can be a great offering in and of itself. It shows you respect the land and the beings you share it with, and it helps push you out of the heavily anthropocentric mindset most humans have been running around with for too long.

–Offer your time: If you have the time and physical ability to do so, spend some time trying to improve the land around you. If there are local environmental or conservation groups working to remove invasive species and replace them with native ones, or monitor water and air quality, or other efforts toward habitat restoration and preservation, see what sorts of volunteer opportunities they have. Check the Citizen Science Alliance website to see if there are any nearby nature research projects you can help with. You can even do some self-directed projects, like keeping a particular park or stretch of stream litter-free.

Even if you don’t have the ability to do that sort of intensive outdoor work, consider contacting your elected officials about environmental issues in your area. The more you educate yourself about these issues, the more effective you can make your letters. You can even extend this communication to local business owners, encouraging them to implement sustainability efforts or transparency about pollutants in manufacturing activities.

Some of you may even have the opportunity to make your career more centered on nature. Degree programs in biology and other natural sciences offer the ability to do field research (though there can be competition for jobs and research opportunities!) Should you happen to be interested in law school, environmental law is a great way to utilize the legal system to hold polluters and other problematic entities accountable.

–Offer your money: You don’t have to tithe 10% of your income to your spiritual path, but even if you have just a few dollars extra, consider donating the funds to an environmental nonprofit that you trust. Local organizations are always looking for ways to pay for their projects, and this may be the best option if you’re trying to help your immediate bioregion. On the other hand, bigger organizations do a lot of valuable work ranging from buying up and protecting fragile ecosystems, to lobbying elected officials and convincing them to vote in favor of the environment.

Some utility companies are beginning to offer clean energy buy-in options to their customers, albeit at a little higher monthly rate. Instead of getting your electricity from coal, for example, you might be able to switch some or all of your electricity to wind or hydroelectric power. While these are not without their own problems, they’re an attempt to try to cut down on the reliance on fossil fuels. And the more people who demand cleaner energy, the more incentive there will be for companies to work out the flaws with wind, hydro, and other energy alternatives.

–Teach others: Social media has become a pretty significant powerhouse for activists of all sorts. You don’t have to be organizing marches against pollution, but you can use your social media network to share links about environmental issues. Don’t worry about making your contributions all news all the time, either. Even just passing on a few links in the middle of your usual roster of cat pictures, gripes about work, or “What I did this weekend” posts can make a big difference.

Looking back at the volunteering option for a moment, you might see if local organizations or national/state parks have opportunities for volunteer interpreters. These help visitors to parks and other wild places to learn more about the flora, fauna and other features of the land, and it’s a great way to inspire others to fall in love with your bioregion!

–Live more lightly on the planet: Look at your everyday life and see if there are ways you can live a greener life. This might involve spending a little more money to buy a couple of extra organic or pasture-raised food items, or toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper. Or it may mean switching over to public transit for your commute (which, by the way, makes for great reading time!) When you take a shower, catch the “warm-up” water in a bucket, and then use that to refill the toilet tank next time you flush. Use a 50-50 vinegar-water solution and some Bon Ami for house cleaning instead of harmful chemicals like bleach. Really, it all depends on what your financial and schedule situations are like, what resources are available to you, and what you can afford to change. Even if you just make one change a month, over time that all adds up.

And these offering ideas are just a few potential options. What else might you do to make effective offerings in a nature-based path?

Did you enjoy this post? Consider buying a copy of my book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which has more ideas and practices for getting closer to nature through your spiritual path!

Self-Care as a Pagan Virtue

The past few weeks have been a rough ride for a lot of people between the election and the start of the holiday season. Tensions are running high, and with all the busy-ness of the season it can be difficult to find time to recuperate.

One of the things I’ve been trying to remind people is that self-care is a thing, and it’s even more crucial to practice it now. Self-care looks different for different people. For some, it’s spending time with friends or other group activities. For others it’s having some alone time, or being with that one person you can sit next to while you both read books in perfect silence. Going outdoors is a popular choice, whether you’re sitting in a quiet park or base jumping off a mountainside. Eating good food, making love, dancing like there’s no tomorrow, playing video games, even turning the thermostat up another degree or two in winter to be a little more cozy–all these and more are valid forms of self-care meant to help decrease stress and restore one’s psychological and physical resiliency.

Yet self-care is one of the most neglected parts of many people’s lives. We get so many messages, at least in the U.S., about “toughing it out”, and “don’t be selfish”. And the underlying streak of quasi-Puritanical asceticism further urges people to feel guilty about indulging the self in any way. I mean, we live in a society where it’s considered a luxury to have more than a week’s worth of paid time off and three sick days in a year. Is it any wonder that the pressure’s on us to avoid anything that could potentially be considered laziness?

And then when we do let loose and unwind, it’s often done to excess. Binge drinking, overeating, buying really expensive things you can’t actually afford–all these end up being more destructive than restorative. We aren’t allowed to have regular outlets in our daily lives. No wonder, then, that so many people end up blowing all their free time on overdoing fun things rather than spreading them out in more manageable quantities. Instead of being able to take some time to chat at the water cooler at work, our need to be social and not be working EVERYSINGLEMINUTE ends up exploding in getting drunk on Friday night. There needs to be some acceptable middle ground between nose-to-grindstone, and weekend bender (complete with hangover.)

Something I really appreciate about the pagan community is that we tend to not only be more skeptical of the Protestant work ethic that pervades American society, but we also know more about how to care for ourselves (even if we aren’t all perfect at it.) Take meditation, for example, one of the basic practices that you find in a lot of pagan paths. Sure, it’s a way to enhance one’s ability to focus on rituals and the like. But it’s also really good for you on a variety of levels. Moreover, it’s an investment in yourself and your well-being. A lot of pagans came to paganism as a way of improving their lives, and putting time toward your spiritual path can increase your happiness and make life feel like it has more meaning.

Sometimes when we engage in self care it feels like we’re stealing time from things that are considered more important like work or school or social obligations, and so we feel guilty for having a little “me time.” A lot of us have spent years deprogramming the tendency toward guilt that many Americans have. Guilt is a nasty thing in the wrong hands; it makes you feel like a bad person for wanting things that are perfectly normal to want–good food, good sex, and–dare I say it?–FUN. No matter what you do to care for yourself, there’s always some killjoy there to tell you there’s something wrong with you because of it. You’re eating an extra cookie? Don’t let anyone see you, because they might judge you for your lack of self control! You’re an adult having mutually consensual sex that doesn’t exactly match “for purposes of procreation within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage”? You’re tearing apart the moral fabric of America! You took three minutes to check Facebook in the middle of the work day? You must be costing the company several cents per year in productivity losses! And so it goes on and on, with any indulgence being immediately suspect and open for criticism. There’s no gray area, either–dare to indulge a little, and you’re met with horror stories of people who ate themselves into an early grave, who were sex addicts who cheated on their significant others, or who were such lazy layabouts at work that they got themselves fired.

Look at all of this guilt that is thrust upon us just for trying to make our lives a little nicer! But when you shake off that guilt, it means that you can be more open in your self-care–and the reasons you need it. Pagans are pretty open and honest, as a general rule, about mental health issues and other chronic issues that can contribute to stress and increase the need for self-care. While our community certainly isn’t immune to discrimination against people with mental illnesses or various disabilities, I’ve found a lot of pockets of pagans in the past twenty years who are more willing to talk about these realities than I’ve found in the population at large. And as a community we’re getting better at addressing areas where we need to improve.

One of the ways we can facilitate this growth as a community is by making self-care a more prominent part of our dialogue. There are a number of ways we can do that, and I’d like to share a few suggestions:

–Be mindful of your own self-care. I know it can be tough to make time for yourself when you’re super-busy, when you’re tired, when you may be wiped out by a chronic illness or other limitations. A lot of self-care suggestions involve spending money, which may not always be possible. Start, instead, by thinking of the little things in life that make you smile and lift your heart a bit. While yes, I love going hiking and spending time hiding in the woods, I also enjoy looking at cute animal videos on YouTube and re-reading favorite books that I’ve had for years. It’s important to put yourself first in this regard; it’s a lot harder to help others if you are not in decent condition. Once you’re feeling more on an even keel, then you can…

–Help others be mindful of their self-care. Post something on Facebook or other social media asking others to do something nice for themselves today–or, for that matter, doing something nice for someone else. Share your own self-care activities with others; we are social apes, and we like to imitate each other, so set a good example. If you’re able, invite others along–yoga in the park, for example, or a weekly potluck. If you know someone who seems like they’re struggling or overburdened and you feel comfortable doing so, check in on them, see if they’ve been able to take time out for themselves at all, and ask if they would like a little help, even if it’s just time to chat about what’s eating them. (Don’t press the issue if they’d rather not speak with you about it, and don’t offer up more assistance than you’re reasonably able to give.)

–Look for the self-care practices that are already woven into various pagan paths and emphasize how they’re good for those practicing them. Rituals (solo and group), meditation, connection with nature or deities or some other Something Bigger Than the Self, “all acts of love and pleasure are mine”, gaining a sense of control through magical workings, creating routine and structure through daily spiritual practices–all these and more can be powerful forms of self-care. If you come out of it feeling better than you did going in, chances are it’s self-care!

–Help dispel the guilt surrounding self-care. If you feel yourself feeling bad about taking a little time to attend to yourself, tell that little voice in your head to go jump in a lake, or fly a kite, or something less polite. If someone else expresses guilt over being kind to themselves, reassure them they’ve done nothing wrong. If someone tries to discourage self-care by bringing up the worst example of excess, remind them that life is not black and white and that most people are capable of moderating their activities.

–Keep questioning the structures that tell us that we need to work harder, deny ourselves more, avoid anything that could even remotely be considered “selfish”. Remember that scale and proportion are important factors, that there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing–but also too little of a good thing, too. Find your balance, and encourage others to do the same.

–Encourage a culture that is accepting not only of self-care, but of being “imperfect.” Support a pagan community in which it’s okay to have a mental illness or other chronic illness that needs to be cared for, and where it’s okay to talk about your experiences (including, and especially, the negative ones) without judgement. Make it okay to talk about being super-stressed even if you’re otherwise in good health, and where there’s no shame in admitting you’ve hit your limit on what you can tolerate physically, psychologically and otherwise. Encourage compassion and active listening rather than judgement and denial. Support the choice to ask for help and to be vulnerable; it should not be shameful to admit that you can’t handle something yourself.

–Share resources when you have the opportunity and when it’s appropriate, even if they’re not resources you personally need. If you know of a pagan-friendly therapist, for example, keep their information on hand in case someone asks for help of that sort. Let people know that you don’t think any less of them for needing these resources, and that you offer the resources up with the hope that they will help them feel better.

–Be honest about your boundaries. You may not be capable of helping someone who’s experiencing acute mental distress, or who needs a great deal of caregiving for a chronic illness. It’s better to say no than to promise support you aren’t capable of giving. It’s not just about not having the training, either. If you’re super-stressed, or having mental health issues yourself, you may not feel able to even be around someone else going through similarly serious experiences. Likewise, if you have a chronic illness that reduces your mobility or energy levels, don’t feel bad for not being able to care for someone who needs constant attention.

–Above all, dispel the myth that self-care is overly indulgent, or that being kind to yourself (or others) is too “white light.” Just because you might follow a deity who is inhumanly strong, it doesn’t mean you have to be inhumanly strong yourself. The world will not fall apart if you take a half an hour to yourself each day to breathe, to read, to draw, to daydream, to eat a tasty snack that you’ve been looking forward to all day, or to do whatever other self-care you choose. You are not a horrible person if you aren’t focused on the Bad, Serious Problems of the World 24/7. It doesn’t make you awful if you take some time to improve your situation instead of always trying to make things better for someone else, especially if it’s at the expense of your own happiness. Again–you’ll be more effective in helping others if you yourself are in a better condition. A strong, well-rested and well-fed person can pull more people out of a pit with a rope than a person who is exhausted and starving and about to fall into that pit themselves.

May I make one more request? Think of one thing you can do each day for self care. It doesn’t have to be the same thing each day. And if you don’t get around to doing it every single day, it’s not the end of the world. Just start with thinking about self-care every day, and if you can follow up with action, so much the better. When you make self-care a part of your awareness, you’re more likely to remember it when you find yourself with an unexpected windfall of time (or just a few minutes to yourself.) Keep a list of self-care activities, too, so if you have the opportunity to engage in self-care but you just can’t think of what to do, you already have some ideas ready to go.

And just remember: You don’t need an excuse to be kind.

Maiden/Mother/Crone, Youth/Warrior/Sage, and Strict/Gender/Roles

I got to go to my very first Pagan Spirit Gathering earlier this year; between it and my second-ever Heartland Pagan Festival, I was strongly reminded of why I love Midwestern festivals. Both events had an appreciable roster of rituals throughout their time, but I was particularly impressed by the number of rites of passage at PSG. This isn’t surprising; after 36 years, the Circle Sanctuary organizers have had plenty of time to create a crucible for people to step from one stage of life to the next. There were rites for young people just entering their teens, and others for elders. Most of the rites of passage weregendered towards women or men (based on identity, not genes), though the Wild Hunt was an ordeal open to people of all ages and sexes (by necessity participants were chosen from a hat full of names since there wasn’t enough room for everyone who’d want to participate.)

While I was pretty busy with guest of honor activities, I did look into what would have been available to me if I’d had the time. I’m a woman in my mid-thirties, and my choices were:

–Motherhood Blessingway: a blessing for all women who were pregnant or had become mothers (to include through marriage or adoption) in the past two years. Nope, no kids here and no intention to have them, so that doesn’t fit.

397px-thumbnail–Daughters of the Dark Moon: “a group of women past the Motherhood stage of life but who do not yet identify with the Crone stage of life”. Well, that’s only open to members of a particular online group that have been putting a lot of preparation into this ritual for the past year. No gate-crashing this time!

–A Circle for She Who is More than a Maiden but Not Yet a Mother: for women who have “left childhood far behind, but don’t yet have the responsibility of motherhood (literal or metaphoric)”, with some non-reproductive alternatives to Mother offered up for consideration. I really, really wanted to see what this one was all about, because I spoke briefly with people involved in it and it actually sounded awesome, but I had a workshop I had to teach at the same time.

MMCYWS as Limiting Factor

I am in no way faulting PSG for making some use of MMC imagery. Again, their attempt to have something for just about everyone was really impressive, and I know a lot of people who participated in the rites got a lot out of them. In fact, I think they should be a good model to other groups and events wanting to offer similar rites of passage.

But a LOT of pagans are still using what I consider to be a very limited and outdated model of human development: Maiden/Mother/Crone and Youth/Warrior/Sage* (which I will from here on out abbreviate as MMCYWS.) MMCYWS started out in Wicca as a way of viewing the Wiccan Goddess and her Consort in their various phases, but worked its way into the greater pagan community as a way to answer the lack of rites of passage for human beings in the United States and elsewhere. We celebrate things like getting your driver’s license or reaching legal drinking age, but it’s not usually a big community affair where you’re formally brought into a new stage of life by others who have already been there, done that, and who explain the responsibility not just as an individual but as part of the community. (Usually the meaning of these two rites is limited to “Wheee, now you can give your car-less friends rides!” and “CHUG CHUG CHUG!!!!!”)

The problem is that people are a lot more complicated than three phases and their rites of passage can account for. As you can tell from my personal experience, it’s not always easy to pigeonhole someone into one particular archetype. And we all have major shifts in our lives that have nothing to do with our age–for example, the ordination of new Circle Sanctuary ministers that is held at PSG each year. But MMCYWS is convenient for a general audience, isn’t it?

MELLIN(1850)_p1.156_ODENWell, convenient, yes, but accurate? Not necessarily. Maiden/Mother/Crone is the older of the two triads; Youth/Warrior/Sage was added on later to have an analogue for men. These go back to the idea of the Goddess as the keeper of the Earth and plants and being receptively feminine, while the God is the lord of wild animals and hunting and virile masculinity. And MMC is dreadfully uterus-based, not surprising when you consider Wicca is a fertility religion, but still unacceptable when dealing with diverse, flesh and blood women who may not even have uteruses. Moreover, look at Youth/Warrior/Sage: those aren’t based on whether the guy had sex and made babies or not. They’re about roles within the community. MMC, on the other hand, is all about reproductive powers. “Maiden” either refers to a woman who has not has sex yet, or one who is unmarried. “Mother”, of course, is a woman who has children. A “Crone” is a woman who can no longer bear children because she’s hit menopause.

My development as a person has had only tangential relationship to my physical body, particularly after my late teens/early twenties when my brain and body finished growing and developing. I remember my menarche, and I honestly felt it had less to do with my development as a person at the time than my confirmation as a Catholic a couple of years later. Everyone in eighth grade at my Catholic school was confirmed and brought more fully into the community of the church. It wasn’t about whether I could make babies or not, but how much I’d learned about the faith I was raised in. Sure, you could argue that because no one made a big deal out of my menarche of course I wasn’t going to see it as a rite of passage. But even back then when I was told “Well, now you can get pregnant”, I didn’t particularly care because motherhood just wasn’t something I ever wanted. And menarche celebrations are still just ways to say “You’re an adult now because of your reproductive powers.” They’re specifically tied to that one change in the physical body, no matter how else you dress it up.

And that’s my biggest gripe with MMC in particular: it still follows the dominant societal script for women of “You grow up, you get married, you have babies.” We’re surrounded by that message from a young age. I never had role models in my life who deliberately chose not to have children (but still had relationships), and there were no female characters in stories and shows who didn’t have children because that was what they wanted. (But there were plenty of male characters running around who didn’t have the “burden” of a wife and kids, and a few who had off-stage families who didn’t interfere in their adventures.) Most female characters were mothers or grandmothers, or were too young but were some guy’s love interest, or in a few cases were heartless shrews that no one would want to reproduce with in the first place. The few times childlessness was ever addressed it was through infertility, not choice.

And so as a childfree woman who has no intentions of changing that lifestyle, the Mother part of MMC is particularly frustrating, as even my spiritual community isn’t free of the ideal of women-as-baby-makers. I know that most women do end up having children, and I have no problem with them having blessingways and other rites–being a parent is a BIG change in one’s life, and it should be treated as a big deal. But why should the men have their middle phase be “Warrior” instead of “Father”, while women are universally stuck with “Mother”?

Possible Solutions?

There have been attempts to try to shoehorn every woman into the MMC model, particularly that persnickety Mother stage. “Oh, Motherhood isn’t just giving physical birth! It can mean nurturing other people’s children! Or nurturing creative projects, or careers!” Nurture, nurture, nurture! That’s what women do! But men aren’t said to be “nurturing” anything–they’re warriors. The message is clear: women nurture, men protect, even if they’re working on the same damned things. And that’s the issue: you’re still trying to work with a model that is based on outdated gender dichotomies that place women in gentle, passive, nurturing roles, and men in active, assertive, protective roles. That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts to make rites of passage for women that include our more active, protective qualities, or rites for men that remind them that they, too, can be nurturing and gentle. But as long as we keep trying to uphold MMCYWS as the gold standard for pagan rites of passage, we’re going to keep running into the stark limitations that this model has.

That means I also don’t support the idea of turning the men’s triad into Youth/Father/Sage. Making BOTH triads dependent on one’s parenthood status doesn’t fix the problem. Instead, I want to see more community-based rites of passage that do away with MMCYWS entirely. I don’t mean get rid of gender-specific rites entirely (though they need to be open to everyone who identifies as that particular gender, not just women’s rituals for women with fully functioning uteruses as one example.) There’s something to be said for being able to explore how you feel as a person of your sex/gender and where your place is in the greater community, especially because we are gaining more freedom from the strict gender dichotomies of the dominant culture. But we need to stop trying to shove women into Maiden/Mother/Crone. And we need to stop trying to create a similar limiting analogue for men.

Marble_statuette_of_Hecate_depicted_as_a_triple_goddess_surrounded_by_dancers,_from_the_Mithraeum_at_Sidon_(Colonia_Aurelia_Pia,_Syria),_Louvre_Museum_(9362315337)So what do we do instead? Well, you can have rites of passage based on gender and/or age, but don’t limit them to MMCYWS. In fact, drop the archetypes entirely, and let the participants themselves inform what they feel they are growing into. Why does everything have to be shoved into labels anyway? I’ve seen people try to come up with alternative roles for the middle stage of MMC–Queen or Warrioress instead of Mother–but there’s still the uterus-based movement of Maiden into Middle Stage, and then Middle Stage into Crone.

And question what you feel you can teach boys and men that you can’t teach girls and women, especially for the boys and girls. Puberty is really when the different treatment of girls and boys gets into full swing, and girls often get the short stick when it comes to things like practical skills. My Girl Scout troop honestly sucked pondwater, because our meetings were mostly sitting in a basement singing songs and making woven potholders, while Boy Scouts my age were getting to go camping and learning how to build fires. (I even had a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine for a number of years because I just wasn’t getting to learn enough in my scouting “adventures”.) And while I’ve met a few women whose Girl Scout experiences were more active and adventurous, a lot of women had experiences similar to mine, because girls were supposed to do domestic things and not get dirty or do anything dangerous.

If your rites for boys and girls are different–WHY? What can you possibly teach boys that you can’t teach girls, other than how to approach the societal expectations that our dominant culture tries to shove on each group? And if your rites for grown men and women are different–WHY? If the men get to go off into the woods to have solitary vision quests, but the women are expected to stay in a circle and talk, why? Is it just a matter of different organizers with different ideas for rites in general, or is there gender-based bias going on? Even crones and sages–are the crones just talking about how much hot flashes suck, or is there a reason that all these elders aren’t celebrating their coming into elderhood together? I’m not saying don’t have gender division in these rites–but I AM saying to question the reasons why. Furthermore, question whether they’re necessary, and whether you’re bringing assumptions about the supposed differences between men and women into play. Having a group of crones-to-be talking about how society views older women and how to change that is one thing; treating the crones as geriatrics who might break a hip while letting the sages have one more adventure before settling down is another.

Beyond that, consider rites of passage that have nothing to do with one’s gender or sex. A few years ago I wrote about Bill Plotkin’s Wheel of Life as an ecopsychological alternative to MMCYWS. You’ll need to read his book Nature and the Human Soul to get the whole effect, but the short version is that it’s a gender-neutral eight-stage cycle of growth that is based less on physical changes, and more on psychological growth, and one’s relationship to both community and environment. There’s a lot of potential fodder for rite of passage inspiration.

And for pity’s sake, there are LOTS of pagan ritualists out there who have created some really amazing celebrations and transformations. Surely that wellspring of creativity can come up with something that doesn’t use MMCYWS. We’ve created incredible handfasting/wedding rites, funerary rites, baptisms, and other celebrations. I bet we can come up with other ways to mark important thresholds that don’t involve trying to pigeonhole human beings into limited gender roles.

To that end, I’d love to hear any experiences people have had with working beyond MMCYWS in rites of passage, particularly gender-based ones. I know you all are out there–I invite you to share in the comments!

* To be clear, PSG didn’t use the Youth and Warrior terms for the men’s rite of passage, nor the Maiden term for the young women’s rite. But Youth/Warrior/Sage still has a pretty strong influence on the pagan community, with Warrior/Father/Sage being a less common interpretation.

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

Over the years, my spirituality has shifted in the nature of its practice. For a long time I was a dedicated ritualist. I spent hours before my altar, altering my state of consciousness through chants and dance, and working myself into an endorphin-fueled high that helped me to break out of my own headspace. It was during those times that I felt most at one with the rest of the world, or at least some portion of it not bounded by my own skin. I had some pretty incredible experiences, and on occasion I’ll still indulge in more elaborate practices when the situation calls for it.

More recently I’ve become dissatisfied with ritual as my primary vehicle of connection. It can be time-consuming, it isn’t always practical, and it sometimes leaves the ordinary parts of life looking–well–ordinary. As the animal totems I’ve worked with have urged me deeper into their ecosystem, engaging with the totems of plants, fungi, waterways and others, it’s given me cause to rethink my approach to the world around me. The more I understood about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the less I felt I had to put myself into a special place and time to feel I was a part of something greater.

And so these days I quite easily slip into that sense of unity with the universe. I touch a leaf, or pick up a stone, or gaze at the wide blue skies over the Oregon sagebrush desert, and I know in that moment that I am anything but alone, isolated and detached. It is only human hubris that led me to believe anything else, the Catholic upbringing and consumerist setting that both told me “You are more than an animal; you are something special; you deserve to take whatever you want from nature”. That elevated status may sound like a place of power, but in reality the pedestal can be an incredibly isolating place to be.

1024px-Tiktaalik_roseaeWhat I understand now is that every living thing is my relative. Every piece of substance on this earth shares something in common with me, be it life, or elements, or merely the fact we are composed of atoms. There is nothing on this planet, nothing in this universe, that is truly alien to me. I am a part of a larger community; I always have been. Every being that has come before is my ancestor. I watched a video of David Attenborough examining the forelimb of a fossil of Tiktaalik, one of the first amphibians to walk on land. He pointed out how, like humans, this 375 million year old creature had a humerus, a radius and ulna, and a constellation of wrist bones. Even if Tiktaalik isn’t a direct ancestor by genes, it is of my family nonetheless.

Do you know what one of my favorite things to ponder is? Consider the trillions of cells that make up a human body. These cells are the direct descendants of independent, unicellular life forms that, billions of years ago, joined together and worked in harmony in order to meet the challenges life threw at them. This may have happened independently as many as four dozen times throughout the history of this planet, and each multicellular revolution resulted in a different sort of being. One begat the line that would become animals.

So we are really composed of trillions of tiny lives. They’re each so specialized and enmeshed as to be utterly dependent on the entire organism, and die without its support. We think of ourselves as more hardy than that–but don’t we, too, ultimately die without an ecosystem to support us? We just take longer to expire than a few skin cells scraped off on a jagged branch on the trail.

We don’t have definitive proof that the planet is a living organism in the sense we think of it, nor the galaxy, nor the universe. But we can take a certain symbolic, poetic stance in that regard. And I think it’s a valuable shift in mindset that melds romance and science. Not that science is without romance of its own. Most scientists are not cold, 100% rational people; they have emotions and biases, too. And many scientists I’ve met have been ridiculously passionate about the parts of the world that fascinate them–if not everything that exists, starting with their own specialty.

A_witch_holding_a_plant_in_one_hand_and_a_fan_Wellcome_V0025806ETScience is not the enemy just because it says there is no clear evidence of planet-as-organism. Science is a lens onto the mind-staggering intricacy we have found ourselves in the moment we are born into this world. If it does not indulge in speculation beyond ideas to be tested, that doesn’t make it lacking in imagination or wonder. Those who say there is no magic here because life isn’t like a fantasy novel haven’t been paying attention to the unfolding story of the world that the sciences are uncovering. Read enough books, watch enough documentaries, walk out into the world enough times and observe with curiosity, and you too will likely see things that are magical without being supernatural.

And really, life itself is the grandest immersive experience any of us will ever get. If I only considered the moments most soaked in endorphins to be where I was truly alive, think of how much I’d be missing out on! I got tired of chasing that connected feeling in fleeting moments of euphoria, and instead decided to seek it in every moment I live and breathe.

So, no. I no longer need rituals to fuel a connection to something bigger. Just taking a moment to consider where I am–where I really, truly am–in the grandest scheme of things is enough to shatter my relatively tiny, daily perception and pull me into the ever-spiraling dance of the cosmos in all its parts.