Category Archives: Science

Psych Meds, Self-Care and Paganism

Recently my attention was brought to an image making the rounds online. Divided into two halves, the top half shows a forest and the caption “This is an antidepressant.” The bottom half is a stock photo of a bunch of random, unidentified pills and says “This is shit.” The implication is that people with mental illnesses don’t need psychiatric medications; they just need to go outside and play. It wasn’t just completely woo-woo New Agers passing this around with solemn nods, either. Some of my fellow pagans–who really ought to know better–were also sharing it unironically.

Look–as a Masters-level ecopsychologist, I am the first to bang the drum of “Nature is good for you! Look, here’s research saying so! There are tons of people with self-reported improvements!” Here’s a study, and here’s a study, and here’s another study, and oh, hey, look at this whole peer-reviewed journal! You really don’t need to convince me of the healing powers of nature.

The Mental Health Toolkit

Back when I was actively counseling I frequently suggested to my clients (the ones who were able to) to go outside on a regular basis. Here’s the thing, though: going outside was not meant to be a grand cure-all, and it certainly wasn’t meant to replace the psych meds that a lot of my clients were on. This was an inpatient addictions treatment clinic, and many clients were self-medicating with methamphetamine, heroin, alcohol and other street drugs as a way to cope with everything from depression and anxiety disorders to Borderline Personality Disorder, along with frequent trauma histories. These were not clients whose problems could be easily solved with a walk in the park.

So our in-house psychiatrists would work with the clients to find effective combinations of pharmaceuticals (for those who needed them). I and the other counselors would do both group and individual therapy with our clients, and I wove ecopsychology into my treatment a fair bit. The outdoor time clients got during daily walks and weekly field trips helped reduce symptoms and build coping skills to replace the drugs they were abusing, and the medications they took helped them to rebalance their brain chemistry so they were more able to approach and work through what drove them to self-medicate with drugs in the first place. Each client responded to the various parts of treatment–medications (if needed), individual therapy, group therapy, mindfulness work, ecotherapy, etc.–differently. There was no one size fits all treatment regimen.

When a person is dealing with a mental illness–or, hell, just a great amount of stress–they have to find the unique combination of mental health care that’s going to help them improve. There’s a whole suite of things to choose from; the following are just a few examples:

–Individual or group therapy (acute treatment/crisis intervention, coping skill coaching, talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc.)

–Medications (over the counter or prescribed)

–Physical self-care (exercise, better food, plenty of sleep and water)

–Mental self-care (good quality self-help books, mindfulness, meditation, “taking a break”)

–Spiritual self-care (engaging in one’s spiritual path, finding meaning in the self and/or the world around you)

–Social self-care (being around people you like and who like you, connecting with a support system online or in person)

As a therapist, I want to have a diverse toolkit available to help my clients. And as someone with a diagnosed mental illness–Generalized Anxiety Disorder–I also personally benefit from that diverse toolkit.

My GAD is not severe enough to where I need to be on medications. I’ve had the better part of three decades (and three years of graduate-level training) to figure out how to manage it day to day. I’ve learned its tricks pretty well, and I’m getting better every day at seeing through them. Being self-employed is one important piece of my mental health care, as the ability to sleep in most days, and the flexible schedule, both help me to stay relaxed and feel in control of my everyday life. I exercise fairly intensively almost every day; I run, I lift weights, I hike, and more recently I’ve joined a local dojo where I train in combat hapkido and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I really like food, and cooking food, so having tasty nourishing meals is something that both helps me manage my brain chemistry and makes me happy. And yes, I get a lot of outdoor time, even moreso now that I spend part of my time each month on the Washington coast, and just being able to look out the window onto wide, open spaces has made major improvements on my mental health.

But I would never in a million years say that what I am doing is better than SSRIs or other medications for someone who uses those as part of their treatment. Sure, maybe if they were in my position and had access to the valuable resources that I do they might respond as well as I have. But maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they’d need those SSRIs for the rest of their life to help them manage anxiety, or depression, or whatever they were being treated for, and that’s okay.

Mental Health and the Pagan Community

And I want to make damned sure my fellow pagans know it’s okay. As a whole, we’re more aware of mental illness than many others parts of the population. I don’t think we’re necessarily more prone to mental illnesses, but as a community we tend to be more open about taboo things.

Which is not to say we’re without ignorance. Ed Fitch’s “So You Want to Be a Gardnerian” condemns anyone “currently in psychological therapy.” I remember a number of years ago seeing a website from the Coven of the Wild Rose; the website no longer exists, but this writer captured one of their cringe-worthy comments on anyone in therapy or taking psych meds: “if you cannot function as a fully responsible adult individual in the mundane reality then you cannot function effectively in the magical/mystical realities and should not even attempt to do so until you have all your oars in the water and they are working all in proper tandem”. Ugh. Just…..ugh.

Even more recently the backlash against pagans managing their mental illnesses persists. Except the attacks are sneakily leveled at the medications some pagans take rather than the pagans themselves. See? We’re not discriminating against you, we just think you’re being poisoned by Big Pharma! Except it is discriminatory, and ignorant, and patronizing to assume that a person on SSRIs or other medications must just be the pawn of a massive corporate agenda. It’s also a big, glaring example of anti-science attitudes that still plague paganism. The people espousing these attitudes quite frequently have poor understanding of how these medicines work and show a broad mistrust of all pharmaceuticals based on misinformation and deliberate fearmongering. In doing so, they feed the harmful stigmas that are faced by people who use psych meds as part of their treatment and make it more likely that people who could really benefit from them won’t consider them an option because they’re afraid of being seen as a “sell out”, “a pawn to Big Pharma”, or just plain “crazy.”

Of the people I know who do take psych meds, overwhelmingly the thing they say is that these medications are crucial to helping them be able to function more effectively from day to day. Just like someone who takes medications for diabetes or lupus or other predominantly physical chronic illnesses, so someone with more significant depression or anxiety disorders may find medications are effective in alleviating symptoms. It’s not about weakness, and it’s not about being “broken”. It’s about making use of the diverse mental health toolkit that’s available to you.

“But they can’t possibly do spiritual work when they’re on drugs!” Phooey, and double phooey. Never mind shamans and other indigenous practitioners from cultures worldwide who use mind-altering substances as a matter of course. There’s a huge difference between showing up to circle three sheets to the wind, and remembering to take your Lexapro on time. To me, someone who is taking medications that reduce their illness’s symptoms is someone who is more likely to be able to engage in spiritual work. They’re more likely to be able to focus because they’re not as distracted, and they’re showing initiative in caring for themselves on all levels. And even if they’re struggling with symptom management, they shouldn’t be shut out from practicing their spirituality. Maybe they need to avoid active group work for a while until they get themselves settled, and do more intensive personal spiritual work as a part of that–but some pagans find that their spiritual group is able to help them more effectively manage their mental health. Again, case by case situation.

“But I took SSRIs and I was miserable on them and then I stopped taking them and I spent more time in nature and my illness went away!” Good! I’m glad you found something that worked for you and that you’re feeling better! And these other people are finding what works for them, too. Some people having bad experiences with psych meds doesn’t mean those meds are universally bad. Maybe you had the wrong combination of drugs; some people can take years to fine-tune their medication. Or maybe you just don’t do well on them and you found other things that work.

“But you don’t take drugs!” No, I don’t. I’ve been able to make enough lifestyle changes to keep myself on a relatively even keel, and, for pity’s sake, don’t forget I have a graduate-level degree in this stuff! There IS truth to the idea that psych students get into psychology because we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with ourselves! Don’t hold me up as the gold standard. I’m just one of millions of people dealing with an anxiety disorder; I was just lucky enough to find a combination of tactics that works pretty well, and meds don’t happen to be a part of that.

Both/And, Not Either/Or

You’ll notice that in the graphic at the top of this post I made my own modifications to the original meme. I state that both nature and psych meds are “one of many tools for managing mental illness.” When it comes to living with an illness–any illness–I believe it’s important to make as many options available as possible. That means that I see the nature/meds situation as a both/and one, not either/or.

Come on, pagans. We’ve had experience with both/and. Many of us came out of heavily Christian backgrounds where we were told you were either a member of your church, or you were going to hell. And we figured out that no, it’s a both/and situation–there can be Christians and pagans and the world won’t come to a screeching halt. We’ve even found ways to include many different pagan paths in the same events–even the same rituals–and we made it work.

So we can make this both/and thing work when it comes to supporting pagans with mental illnesses in our community, and in treating our own illnesses (for those who have them.) We don’t need to shame pagans who use psych meds to make their day to day life easier to walk through. And we shouldn’t be ostracizing pagans who, even with meds and other treatment, still show symptoms of their illness. Just as it’s a really shitty thing to exclude pagans with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, it’s also wrong to not make a place for those with long-term mental health issues.

After all, paganism can be a really effective way to get people more engaged with the healing qualities of nature. And isn’t that what you were trying to get them to do in the first place?

Did you enjoy this post? Help me maintain my self-care through self-employment and consider taking one of my books home!

“Is Anyone Else Getting Weird Vibes?”: On Confirmation Bias and Emotional States

“Has anyone else been feeling weird vibes lately?”

“Am I the only one feeling the energy shifting here?”

“Three other people I know have gotten bad news in the past week. It must be a sign!”

“The full moon must be making everyone crazy.”

“Flat tire? Opossum attack? Breakup? Collapsed souffle? Must be Mercury retrograde again.”

“Man, I’ve just been feeling so worn out lately. Anyone else feel like the energy is being sucked out of you?”

“I don’t know, I just got a bad feeling and have been sad ever since, it must be because the energy is really weird!”

It’s time to pick up the thread I started earlier this year with my post Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science. In it I skewered a few patterns I’ve seen in paganism (and the New Age, etc.) like trying to prove magic exists with shoddily-designed experiments. One of the tools I use to critically think about my spirituality is the concept of confirmation bias, which is when people look for evidence that supports their claim while ignoring anything that doesn’t, even if they aren’t conscious of the fact they’re doing it.

Confirmation bias is at the heart of a phenomenon I’ve seen a LOT in my twenty years of paganism. What typically happens is one person will say something that boils down to “Hey, has anyone else been getting weird/negative/etc. vibes in the energy lately?” And then a bunch of other people chime in and say “Yeah, the energy has been really off the past few days/weeks/month.” Sometimes there’ll be an excuse given like Mercury retrograde or the full moon, or something more nebulous like veils thinning or energy shifting.

My response is generally: Well, yes–of course if you ask a big group of people if they’ve been feeling particularly sad, or angry, or happy lately, you’re going to get a bunch of them saying yes. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet. There will always be millions upon millions of people who are experiencing basically the same thing you are right this moment. Even in your own city/town/county you can likely find hundreds if not thousands of people who just happen to be in a similar emotional state as you. And this is true all of the time.

Moreover, I’m willing to bet you dollars to doughnuts that there are as many miscommunications and other unfortunate events going on when Mercury is direct as when it’s retrograde. We just expect Mercury retrograde to bring problems, and so we actively seek them out (if not consciously) because of our old friend confirmation bias. As to that old idea about the full moon having negative effects on behavior? There is absolutely no solid evidence that there’s any truth to it (remember, anecdotes don’t count because they’re rife with conformation bias, even if they come from emergency room workers and the like.) (For what it’s worth, there’s no solid evidence linking menstruation to lunar cycles, either, even in people who live away from artificial light.)

“But–but–lots of pagans I asked are feeling weird stuff right now!” Okay, so did you also ask how many weren’t feeling anything weird? How many didn’t say anything because they felt they didn’t have anything to add? Did you ask people who aren’t pagans? A bunch of anecdotes do not add up to anecdata, your sample size is too small and self-selected, you lack a control group, and I guarantee that if you repeat your “experiment” over and over again, you’re always going to get about the same number of people saying “yeah, I also feel sad/happy/angry” at the same time, no matter the circumstances or what you think the energy is up to, because there are always people in your vicinity/social circle/etc. who feel the same way you do at any given time.

Look, yes, zeitgeist is a thing; it’s a natural occurrence when you have thousands or millions of humans in contact with each other all trading social memes and other communications. Certain patterns of behavior and belief and other markers of culture are bound to come up again and again. And yes, I know that the primary source on synchronicity, Jung, was a highly respected individual in the field of psychology, which supposedly lends his theory of acausal connections some weight.

But neither of these is a reason to skip the search for a more mundane causality for what you yourself are feeling on a more personal, immediate scale, especially if it’s something like feeling good one minute and then all of a sudden feeling down. Why not respond to unexpected emotional changes by considering much more likely mundane explanations? “Hmmm, I feel kind of blah. When’s the last time I ate? Did I get enough sleep? Has someone I live with been kind of pissy lately and stressed the entire household out? Maybe I just have some kind of weird temporary hormonal shift that’s affecting my mood?” (By the way, people of all sexes and genders have hormonal cycles that can and do affect emotions.)

It’s okay to want to not feel alone in your thoughts and feelings. But remember that we humans share a lot of common experiences. We share joy, and sorrow, and anger, and fatigue. We share weird blips in our neurochemistry that can bring on what feel like unexpected mood swings. When we are hit by a daily barrage of negative news media and other exhausting input, then yes–it’s normal for our systems to get overloaded, even if we aren’t conscious of it happening at the time. And it’s natural for us to feel empathy for others in the same situation we’re in: welcome to being a social species of ape. We evolved this connection to each other over millions of years, and we share it with lots of other species, too.

If you want to adhere to a principle created by a famous white guy from Europe, set aside Jung’s synchronicity and take a look at Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation for a situation or phenomenon is the most likely. The more direct evidence you have and the fewer assumptions and leaps of faith you have to make, the better. And when you find the actual source of the problem you can then do something about it. Talking to a bunch of people online about how you all feel sad today can help you feel better in that you don’t feel so alone and you get a chance to talk about what you feel, but it won’t necessarily get rid of the original cause of your sadness. If you still feel off, you might be a little depressed or tired, your hormones might be a bit wonky–or you might just need a sandwich and some water. Either way, know that no matter what you’re going through, there are other people facing the same challenges right this moment, and that what you’re going through is likely normal and okay.

On Paganism and Sin

I’ve been pagan for twenty years now. I was raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic school for eight years, and I was even an acolyte well into high school. I discovered paganism in my latter teens; I was instantly intrigued by the notion that nature could be the source of the sacred, rather than just being a lower level of reality to be used and abused til Kingdom Come.

For the first few years after my conversion I would sometimes have this fear that really, the Catholics were right and anyone who wasn’t in the right religion would be condemned to an eternity of torture and flames. I think a lot of that worry, ironically, came because I was trying to plug pagan deities and practices into a fundamentally Catholic structure. I was supposed to be devoted and pious to my gods, and follow a schedule of rituals and observances throughout the year, and I wasn’t allowing myself to simply explore my path without worry I was “doing it wrong”. I was essentially swapping one dogma for another, fear of mistakes and all.

In Catholicism, fear of mistakes manifests itself as the fear of sin. To sin is to go against divine laws, however those are defined. The whole point of Christianity in general is this idea that humanity is by its very nature sinful and we need to be saved by God, through Jesus, or else we’ll suffer in hell forever, alongside murderers, and babies who died before they could be baptized.

And I realized that at this point in my life I simply don’t agree with that basic concept–that humans are inherently flawed. In my world, humans are just another sort of animal. We’re pretty amazing–we evolved these big, complex brains and opposable thumbs, upright walking and refined vocal apparatus, all as responses to the same challenges all animals face. But we’re not above other animals. We’re no more evolved than any other species that’s here with us today. We all got our same start 4.5 billion years ago, and each species of animal, plant, fungus, protist, etc. has a lineage that was equally successful in bringing it up to this very moment in time.

What we think makes us better than other animals is actually just our awareness of our choices and our ability to assign meaning to things. Sure, we’re really good at using these big brains. We have the ability to imagine what our actions are doing to another being. When a tiger attacks a deer it’s not thinking about how much its claws are hurting the prey, or how much fear the prey feels as it dies. But we can do that, with other humans and other beings. And because we have empathy, we create conceptions of “good” and “evil” that roughly correlate with “don’t hurt people” and “hurt people”.

The fact that we are capable of harming others doesn’t make us inherently evil or sinful, though. Every baby comes into this world a blank slate; each develops into an adult through a combination of genetic signals, and learned behaviors and social structures. We ALL have the ability to make decisions. There are mitigating factors–certain personality disorders and mental illnesses can have serious impacts on decision-making capabilities and risk awareness, for example. But even the best of us make some mistakes sometimes. We all lie, we cheat, we feel jealousy and envy, we hurt others either intentionally or accidentally. We also all feel love and care, we do kind things, we experience joy, we bring healing to others.

The concept of sin only looks at the errors, and if there’s even one tiny flaw you just aren’t good enough. I’m reminded of a Catholic school book I had that said sin was like contaminants in pure, white bottles of milk. A sinless person was pure and spotless, someone who had committed venial sin had some black splotches all throughout, and someone who had committed mortal sin was black all the way through. That image stuck with me for many years, and I hated myself for not being pure and spotless.

It took me a very, very long time to undo that unhealthy idea that if I made any sort of a mistake it made me a terrible person. I spent entirely too much of my life racked with guilt that I wasn’t perfect, and it made me hypersensitive to any sort of criticism. And yes, it made me miserable–I wasted a LOT of time being unhappy over my flaws. The other thing that this whole idea of sin did to me was it robbed me of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. When you’re trying really, really hard to avoid messing anything up because mistakes reflect on your character, you don’t allow yourself to dwell on your screw-ups any longer than is necessary, and so you don’t take the time to learn from them.

And that ability to learn from mistakes is part of what makes us human! In my martial arts class I learn more from my mistakes than from my successes, just like I’ve had to train myself to be okay with making mistakes in other areas of my life. Other animals learn from their mistakes, too. Young blue jays that eat monarch butterflies learn very quickly that bright orange and black butterflies will make them sick, and so they avoid them. Baby elephants that are still drinking their mother’s milk will still watch what plants she eats so when they, too, eat solid food they know what’s safe. Juvenile cheetahs have to chase many antelope before they catch one–and they have to catch several before they actually figure out how to kill one.

This concept of sin erases our animal heritage, where we learn from our experiences, good and bad. We’re not allowed to be dirty and aggressive and full of mistakes. We have to feel guilty about enjoying sex and must speak of it in hushed tones. We aren’t allowed to have conflicts which are just normal parts of any social species’ existence, and we aren’t allowed to learn from resolving those conflicts because they aren’t supposed to happen in the first place. We aren’t allowed to be of this world.

Look, I know that this world can be really harsh and difficult and full of pain. That’s just the way it’s been ever since life began in hot, lava-tinged oceans billions of years ago. And with more complexity in life comes more complexity in suffering. So yeah, it’s really tempting to daydream about a “perfect” other world where nothing ever goes wrong and everything is safe and comfortable. It’s tempting to want to push people toward your idea of “goodness” by threatening them with sin and hellfire.

But I have no evidence that any religion’s afterlife is actually going to come to pass–I’m waiting til I die before I form any opinions either way. I have a limited time here, and for all I know this may be all I get. I’m not going to waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity being miserable because I make mistakes, or worrying that I’m not doing what someone else in my religious community says I should be doing, or trying to make people believe the same things I do because I think they’re wrong and I’m right. I accept this world and every being I share it with as they are, neither inherently good nor evil, neither perfect nor flawed. There is no sin tying us down the moment we’re born, putting us at a disadvantage before we’ve even opened our eyes for the first time. There’s only a lifetime apiece: a lifetime of experiences, mistakes, and choices. Each moment is an opportunity to appreciate and absorb this world in all its parts, and if we so choose, to try to ease others’ suffering and to bring about joy.

Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

If, like me, you find your path in nature’s beauty, consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up!

Why We Need the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

It’s festival season again, which means it’s time for one of my favorite pastimes: counting the number of illegal bird feathers I see on people’s hats, jewelry, and rear-view mirrors. Well, okay, to be fair there are plenty of other things I’d rather be doing, but being a naturalist my eye is automatically drawn to the ephemera of the wild. The feathers people tend to pick up most often are pretty easy to identify–usually the wing or tail feathers of assorted raptors and corvids, or more colorful songbird plumage. (I very rarely see the more drab garb of your average Little Brown Job.)

If the owner of said hat/jewelry/vehicle is nearby, I’ll usually follow up my observation  by surreptitiously mentioning to them that technically they’re not supposed to have that feather. Responses are usually along the lines of “Wow, I had NO IDEA! Let me take care of that!” with the occasional variant “Well, too bad–I found it and it’s mine, and no one can take it away from me because of religious reasons/finders keepers/etc.”

There’s not a lot I can do about the latter group of folks, but I always hope I’ve made a difference to the former. On the grand scale of wildlife violations, a molted blue jay feather is pretty far down anyone’s list of priorities, and it’s not highly likely that fish and wildlife officials are just going to be bumming around your average pagan or hippie festival. But there’s always that chance that someone is in the wrong place and wrong time with the wrong feather, and not knowing the law isn’t a good defense if an official decides to make an issue of it.

You Don’t Know What It’s Like, Breaking the Law

Law? Yes, that happens to be the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). The text of the law prohibits, within the United States, the “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

What’s a migratory bird? It includes almost every wild bird in the United States, from raptors and corvids to songbirds and waterfowl. About the only birds not protected are non-native species like pigeons (rock doves) and European starlings. There are hunting seasons on a few species, such as certain ducks and geese, and American crows. However, their remains are still strictly regulated; only the hunter who killed the birds (legally!), or someone that they give them directly to, may possess them, and they can’t be bought or sold.

What this all boils down to is that unless you have a scientific permit, you cannot legally possess the remains of any migratory bird, even naturally molted feathers. A common misconception is that Native Americans (federally enrolled or not) are exempt, but this isn’t the case. The only exception there is to a different law, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, and even then enrolled tribal members must be on a waiting list to get feathers and other remains from the National Eagle Repository.

The Birth of the MBTA

If you were to walk down the street in any American city in the late 1800s to early 1900s you would likely see an abundance of birds, dozens of species within just a few hundred yards of each other. The catch? They’d all be dead, resting on fancy women’s hats as individual feathers, wings, or even entire bird skins. From common songbirds like robins and cardinals to more remote species like sage grouse and goshawks, all would be on display for the sake of fashion.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with feathers as adornments. But at the time there was no regulation of how many feathers (or birds) could be taken in a season, which meant commercial hunters could kill millions of birds a year with no limits. This is the time period in which we lost the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, among other now-extinct species. And we almost lost many others along the way.

Probably the best example of the excesses of the time was the great egret. Egrets develop a particular sort of fine plume during breeding season, and maintain them while still nesting. (You can see a particularly lovely example on the cover of Faith No More’s album, Angel Dust.) By the time the birds naturally molt these feathers they’ve gotten ragged and dirty from months of nesting and other wear and tear, so they weren’t sufficient for the hat trade. Plume hunters therefore would go into the wetlands and kill one or both adult egrets, often while they were still incubating eggs or caring for young. For the sake of a few feathers, both parents and up to four young could die. Egret numbers plummeted.

Enter the MBTA

The early 1900s saw the passage of the first laws to protect wildlife and trade in their remains. The Lacey Act of 1900 made it a federal offense to transport illegally acquired or possessed species over state or national lines, but it was sometimes difficult to enforce. The Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 set hunting seasons for birds, to include prohibiting hunting in the spring during nesting season, but it was found to be unconstitutional.

The MBTA improved on what the Weeks-McLean Act was trying to accomplish. It laid out firmer and more widespread restrictions on the killing and possession of migratory bird species. The Act was based on treaties the U.S. made first with Great Britain (representing Canada), and then later Mexico, Japan and the then-Soviet Union. Its goal was to protect all species of wild native bird that migrated between the U.S. and any of those countries.

The feathered hat trade had slowed down significantly with the rise of World War I; the fancy excesses of the Victorian and Edwardian eras were replaced by more sober practicality as participating countries had to tighten their belts to pay for the materials of war. The millinery industry, market hunters and others dependent on the feather trade were already hurting financially, and the MBTA was a final nail in the coffin.

But the trade-off was worth it for the birds. The great egret and many other species rebounded to healthier population levels. Today songbirds are a common sight even in urban areas, and raptors glide over the landscape (helped along by the ban on DDT in the 1970s). Waterfowl are recovered enough to allow hunting seasons, though these are carefully regulated.

Sadly, the MBTA came too late for some species. The ivory-billed woodpecker may have lasted longer than the Carolina parakeet, but low numbers coupled with continuing habitat destruction led to the almost-certain demise of this bird. The story is the same for Bachman’s warbler, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse and the dusky seaside sparrow, as well as many Hawaiian native birds whose MBTA protection came only with Hawaii’s statehood in 1959.

Migratory Birds and the MBTA Today

Despite the successes of the MBTA, there are still good reasons for it to remains on the books in the 21st century. One third of North America’s migratory bird species are at serious risk of extinction. Habitat destruction, climate change and pollution events like oil spills have devastated both bird populations and their nesting and wintering sites. Predation by domestic and feral cats accounts for the deaths of  hundreds of millions of wild birds every year. Our birds aren’t out of the woods yet.

Still, some people question the strictness of the law, particularly in cases of building infrastructure for alternative energy and other human endeavors. Some of the questions I’ve heard everyone from taxidermists to festival attendees as are: Why should someone face fines and possible incarceration for picking up a crow feather? Why can’t there be some limited season on non-game birds, especially those that are common like gulls? And why on earth are Canada geese, which are considered pests in many areas, still protected?

I know it’s frustrating. There are plenty of times when I’ve had to pass by beautiful molted feathers on the ground, no matter how lovely they might be in my art or personal collection. (And those human-acclimated Canada geese can be MEAN!)

But ultimately, I’m on the side of the MBTA and the scientists who are in support of it. For one thing, it’s next to impossible to tell the difference between a naturally molted feather and one that was stripped from a poached carcass, so lifting the ban on found feathers would almost certainly have devastating consequences. Remember, too, that 1918 was just under 100 years ago, a blip in ecological time. Forests felled that year are still recovering, so why should we expect the forests’ inhabitants to be completely in the clear?

Most of all, I support the MBTA because it’s still having positive effects. Do we need to discuss situations like making exemptions for wind farms and the like? Of course. But wind farms are much more necessary than taxidermy mounts or feathered hats, and I feel that those of us who create non-essential (but pretty!) things out of feathers, hides and bones should leave the exemptions to the necessities. We have plenty of alternatives–just look at the beautiful variety of feathers available on heritage chicken breeds, for example!

And if your concerns are of a spiritual nature, I have found over many years of experience that the totems and spirits of endangered species appreciate the substitution of more common feathers and remains in lieu of their own. Really, what better offering can you give an endangered animal totem than protection of its physical counterparts? You don’t actually have to have a raven feather to connect with Common Raven; a dyed goose feather will do just as well (though be sure to thank Domestic Goose as well!)

You can find out more about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other relevant laws at my Animal Parts Laws Pages.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts, which includes discussions of legalities and ethics along with rites and practices for treating hides and bones with respect on a pagan path.

Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science

Okay. I’m putting on the Cranky Pagan Hat. You have been warned.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be some sort of STEM major, whether it was veterinarian or biologist. Unfortunately, my terrible math skills barred me from anything but the humanities. Even my psychology degree is more geared towards counseling practice than scientific research; in grad school, my research methods and statistics classes were specifically for not-math people, just enough to be able to understand the latest studies in counseling-related psychology.

But it was enough. Many of us in the United States get a cursory look at the scientific method in public school, but most of us forget it after we’re done. This is a damned shame, because it’s one of the most important processes in our world today. It is meant to allow us as close to an objective look at phenomena as we can get, in spite of our human biases. Revisiting research methods in my early thirties reminded me that there are reasons we know the things we do, and it’s not just a matter of “feelings”.

It also helped me shake off the last vestiges of “woo” in my spirituality. I’m theologically an I-don’t-care-ist; I don’t especially care whether the spirits and such exist outside of my own psyche or not. What’s important to me is that my spiritual path is both personally fulfilling, AND encourages me to give back to the world that I am a part of through service and love. When I can find wonder in the process of photosynthesis, or the delicate trail of a doe through the tall grass, or the perfect spiral of a lancetooth’s empty shell, what need have I of anything beyond that? The stars are themselves fonts of the numinous, without having to be gods on top of it.

I also don’t especially care about the details of what others believe. You’re welcome to believe whatever you like; I have friends whose theological perspectives range from monotheist to polytheist to atheist, and I think they’re all awesome. One of the things I love about the pagan community is the diversity, and I think we need to keep encouraging that.

However, what I do strongly disagree with are the utterly wrong interpretations of science within paganism (and, by extension, the New Age and the like). I’ve collected countless examples over the years; the following are just a few of the most egregious.

Pagans and others claiming that quantum physics proves magic exists

Okay, look. I know physicists have been coming up with some really cool stuff as of late; particle physics leaped into the limelight a few years ago with the Large Hadron Collider’s role in confirming the existence of the Higgs boson particle. However, even physicists don’t always know exactly what the hell they’re working with, never mind the greater implications of their research. So when quantum physics is translated into laypeople’s terms for the media and popular books, there will be a lot of details left out. We’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version at best, which is okay because for the most part we non-physicists don’t need to know the implications of the Higgs boson on our understanding of the vacuum energy density of the universe.

But we need to stop trying to cherry-pick quantum physics for things we think explain magic and other supernatural occurrences. A great example is quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which two or more particles that are nowhere near each other still affect each other. I have seen more than one pagan try to claim that magic works because if subatomic particles can be connected at a distance, that must be the mechanism by which burning a green candle makes money come into your life.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that that’s what’s happening. Observing one particle mirroring another far away does not equal a force that makes twenty dollar bills mysteriously appear where they weren’t a moment before. People are making these HUGE assumptions about the implications of a quantum phenomenon that even the experts barely understand. And that is not how science works, nor should we be trying to justify a belief in magic thereby.

Claims that piezoelectricity explains the healing power of crystals (and energy in a broader sense)

So I ran into this post over on Tumblr claiming piezoelectricity is the energy that emanates from crystals at all times and which supposedly has qualities like healing, protection, etc. I had never heard of piezoelectricity, but it took me about two minutes of Googling to get enough information from academic-level sources that showed the original post writer had a very incorrect understanding of the phenomenon. You can read my complete teardown of the “theory” at that link, but the short version is that piezoelectricity is the transfer of energy from a physical stimulus like pressure, to an electrical charge, or vice versa, and only certain natural and synthetic materials can do this. You can squeeze a quartz crystal and the pressure will cause the crystal to release a very small bit of electricity–nowhere near enough for us to detect with our own skins, and definitely not enough to have any actual effect on our bodies. A quartz watch works in the opposite direction: the battery in the watch releases electrical charges at one-second intervals; each charge causes the quartz to vibrate, and this makes the watch tick.

Note that this is NOT the same as “this piece of rose quartz is full of love and healing energy! Carry it for good vibes!” Piezoelectricity is not an ambient force that’s there all the time, and it does not come in flavors like “amethyst” and “malachite”. It is a very specific response to a particular stimulus. Electricity leads to vibration, and vice versa, but on such a small and limited scale that it’s certainly not going to have any effect on our health and well-being–beyond knowing what time it is, anyway.

This goes for all other sorts of energy, too, ranging from the heat we put off through metabolism to the radiation exuded by everything from living beings to bricks to quartz crystals. Familiarize yourself with how these energies work–but don’t then say “That must be how crystals work!” Scientists have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with various and sundry energies, and if the minute amount of radiation put off by granite* had undeniably been found to shrink tumors as effectively as chemotherapy, cancer patients would be carrying rocks in their pockets instead of being subjected to a remedy that’s often worse than the disease.

Groups of practitioners (usually a small number) who all do the same spell or ritual and then compare “results”

Picture a coven of thirteen witches sitting in a circle in the priestess’s living room. Last time they met they decided they were each going to do the same spell, at the same time, on the same night, using leaves from the same plant, etc. Now they’re discussing their results. Each person tells their experience in turn. Some of them sound remarkably like each other, especially as more stories come out. The consensus is that the spell was a success and they’ve proven magic works with their experiment.

A few years ago I wrote a detailed post on all the various problems with the design of this experiment (if it can be called that), ranging from confirmation bias to a sample size that is laughably small. Let’s say the spell in question was a money spell, and everyone got some amount of money after they did it, whether it was expected (a birthday card with a check) or unexpected (a ten dollar bill on the ground). There’s no control group to compare the coven to–and no, “everyone else in the world” is NOT how you create a control group. No one is factoring in confounds like “this person was more likely to get money because they overpaid their phone bill three months ago and the phone company finally noticed and sent a check”. No one is comparing the rate of “finding money on the ground” between people who did a spell beforehand, and people who didn’t.

And there’s our old friend confirmation bias, in which people look for the results they want, even if not consciously. If everyone in the group secretly wants the spell to work because they want money and to prove magic works, they’re more likely to look for any possible proof, no matter how slim. And as the coven members take turns reporting their results, there may be increasing pressure on the later reporters to make sure their results match with the group’s so they aren’t the lone naysayer. If a medical trial were set up with as shoddy a structure as this “experiment”, the researchers would be out of a career.

We can say one thing about all three examples…

NONE OF THESE ARE SCIENCE

Here is how science ideally works. Let’s say we have a hypothesis, which we will call A. We test A with a rigorously designed experiment (or in some cases multiple iterations of the same experiment), with a solid control group, dependent and independent variables, accounting for confounds, etc. In those experiments we get a consistent result, which we will call B. So we can go from point A to point B through a path which can be repeated again and again by different researchers.

What too many people are doing is saying “Okay, so A leads to B–that MUST mean that B leads to C, and therefore A proves C!” C is usually something like magic or energy or the irrefutable existence of ghosts, or some other thing that scientists have tested for but not gotten conclusive evidence of, not in the same way we know antibiotics kill bacteria or plants convert sunlight into sugars. I used to work in a microbiology lab plating specimens. If I put the urine of someone with a urinary tract infection onto a petri dish and kept it at about 98.6 degrees, within a few days there would be colonies of the offending bacteria on the plate, which proves that A (I bet there’s bacteria in this pee) leads to B (yep, just look at all them little suckers in the dish.) It does not then follow that C (I am the life-giving god of these bacteria who shall build tiny bacteria churches in my honor until they overpopulate and eat up all the agar and illustrate the end result of overpopulation of a species).

Yes, that last result is hyperbolic, but it illustrates the grand leaps in logic people try to make when attempting to use science to prove spiritual matters. Which begs the next question…

Why Is This So Darn Important?

Two words: scientific literacy. American culture in particular is woefully prone to pseudoscience and science denialism already, and our clinging to bad science doesn’t help. When we replace scientific literacy with non-scientific explanations for things in this world, we are making it easier for people to spread and utilize misinformation. We also make it harder to disprove their claims and to get people to stop supporting them. We increase the societal view that scientific literacy isn’t important for anyone except scientists. And that leads to some really bad things.

It’s relatively harmless to believe that seeing a hawk is good luck. But a lack of scientific literacy can also have more dangerous outcomes for those supposedly sacred animals. Poor scientific literacy also contributes to everything from faith healing deaths to support of subjecting QUILTBAG** people to so-called conversion therapy to people with albinism being murdered because their remains supposedly have magical powers. People are voting for elected officials who make big, important decisions to include on matters ranging from climate change to medical care. The widespread lack of scientific literacy leads to both voters and politicians not fully understanding the ramifications of their choices–and often voting with their religious and/or emotional biases, not their logic and reason. This then leads to choices detrimental both to us and the world we live in.

Science isn’t perfect, and I’ll be the first to state that. After all, it’s run by humans, who are full of mistakes and biases and sleep deprivation. But if there are mistakes that deviate from the scientific process of inquiry, the answer is not to even more deliberately deviate from it with wishful thinking and “this just feels right”. Pharmaceutical companies missing an important side effect of a medication and having to take it off the market does not mean that it is somehow okay to start ingesting essential oils to medicate yourself instead just because you think essential oils are “natural and good”. Two wrongs do not make a scientific breakthrough.

Am I a meanie who hates religion? Of course not. I have a deep spiritual path that gives me a structure for personal meaning and creating a place for myself in this world. But my work with totems does not overwrite my understanding of the physical animals, plants and other beings out there in the world. If anything, it is natural history that informs my deeper connection with the spirits I work with, because I know where they’re rooted.

Whether you’re a polytheist or a humanist or a duotheist or an animist, I encourage you to (re)familiarize yourself with the scientific method and with the basics of research design and statistics. I encourage you to look at the ways in which sloppy, bad science has affected everything from the environment to human rights, historically and now in the 21st century. I encourage you to look at ways in which good science can support our spirituality–how spirituality can lead to a healthier, more positive outlook on life, for example. And I encourage you to consider being both a spiritual person, and a scientist (even if you’re a citizen scientist like me, rather than a full-time professional scientist!) In doing these things, we can set a good example by being a spiritual community with a firm grasp on the differing bailiwicks of science and spirit.

*The soil in your yard emits more radiation than your granite countertop. Neither of these have been found to either cause, or cure, tumors.

**QUILTBAG – A delightful acronym that stands for Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up my latest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, a natural history-informed approach to pagan practice!

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part III: Movement

onthetrailsmall
Over the years I’ve learned that most of the time when someone in the pagan/New Age/etc. world says something about “honoring the sacred body” or something similar it’s a euphemism for sex. I consider myself to be a sex-positive person, but I also believe it’s important to be able to recognize the sacredness of one’s physical form even at times when you aren’t getting it on with someone else (or someones, or yourself…) In fact, the hyper-focus on sex and sexuality as the only connection between body and spirituality often leads to abuses and toxicity.

Let me focus on one particular exploiter of this narrow view of sacred physical: the Sensitive New-Age Guy, or SNAG. Some variations of this creature are relatively benign and passive–nothing wrong with a pacifist! However, I’m sure many of you have run into the more toxic sort, the one who’s using the nice and gentle image of pagan/New Age/etc. communities to get laid. Some of them do end up in true abuser territory, but a lot more that I’ve run into are more just fairly clueless misogynists with no ill intentions (some of them even buy into their own hype!)

This is the guy who wants you to know that he’s better than all those other guys, but instead of peacocking around like some pickup bro, he uses the language of “I’m focused on a woman’s pleasure”. He may have books upon books about everything from erotic massage to the female orgasm. SNAGS particularly like exploiting neo-Tantric perspectives (in the mouth of a SNAG, “Tantra” is a HUGE catch-phrase for “I want to get laid using spirituality as a veneer”). But when you get him into bed, he’s more focused on looking good and getting praise from you than actually paying attention to whether you enjoyed yourself or not. And once you get past the bedroom, you may find that as a person he is controlling and unpleasant, especially if you don’t respond to his pleas for ego-strokes quickly enough. (You can read more about this flavor of gent here.)

The toxic breed of SNAG is just one example of where body and spirit end up melding in unhealthy ways that only provide a surface look at both, though he’s a pernicious one. But he’s just symptomatic of the broken relationships so many of us have with our bodies. The SNAG is able to find victims because there are so many people (not just women) who are so starved for positive attention to their bodies that they swallow his bait without a second thought.

And this is why I feel strongly that our approach to our bodies as spiritual things needs to include but also move outward from sex and sexuality. I choose that word deliberately: movement is one of the most important manifestations of the sacred physical as far as I’m concerned. A body is made for movement–in strict evolutionary terms, the body is the vehicle for DNA to replicate, both within itself (mitosis) and for purposes of combining with another (meiosis). More broadly, a body is always in motion of some sort; even when you are concentrating on keeping yourself completely still during meditation, your heart still beats, blood flows, cells divide, chemicals move throughout the entire system. Upon death, your body continues to move; the molecules fall away more quickly as decay sets in, and everything that was once your physical form dissipates into the world to be recreated as other living beings.

But that’s getting a bit ahead of things, isn’t it? I want to look more at sacred movement outside of the bedroom. Take a moment to look back at the vignettes from my first post in this series. Specifically, read the first one where I’m carefully making my way over a precarious landslide on a narrow mountain trail. It is a pared-down conversation between me and my body, where every muscle fiber and inner sense of balance counts. It is literally breathtaking, and life-saving. That moment woke me up to the sacred processes of my body in ways no sexual act ever did. And it was because I was keenly aware of my movement.

More recently as I’ve returned to the gym for treadmills and weightlifting, my body’s movement has become even more paramount. While I do pay attention to things like weight and shape–and, yes, potential sexiness–I’m more interested in the ways my body moves. How good is my form when I pick up a barbell for arm curls or squats? What does my body look like when I pull against a stationary object to stretch my back and curve myself to increase the effects? What happens if I increase my protein intake for a couple of weeks? How am I affected if I indulge in sweets a bit more? Where are these nutrients moving to, and when I burn them where are they leaving from? These are everyday occurrences, and yet I approach them with a great reverence and awareness.

I see movement as a sacrament now. It is how I act upon the world, and upon myself. Whether it’s the rush of neurotransmitters in my brain and body, or the stretch and contraction of muscles, or the flutter of oxygen molecules into pockets in my lungs, movement is what states “I am here, and I am a force to be reckoned with”. And when I am dead, the molecules of my body will continue to move throughout the universe, tying me to the future as well as the past. What better immortality is there than that?

And once I recognized the power of my body’s movement, it gave me a sense of agency in more immediate ways. I am more aware of my ability to make decisions, even when the possible outcomes are limited. I have become more conscious and deliberate in my choices, drawing on that urgency on the side of the mountain and infusing my entire life with it. I am a more complete being, body, mind and spirit.

See what we miss when we only explore the surface? See what occurs when we limit our sense of sacred physical to sex and sexuality alone? There’s so much context missing from that experience. And movement is just one piece of the puzzle, along with sensation and communication, stress (both positive and negative) and feedback loops, the place of a person’s body in the greater ecosystem and the ecosystem of bodily flora and bacteria that outnumber our very cells.

We are made of starstuff, yes, and natural processes that when we consider them seem almost miraculous. The sacred physical is what invites us to stop taking them for granted and appreciate them in all their simplicity and grandeur. It is the antidote to the SNAG and the puritan, two sides of the same limited coin. And it is a way to appreciate our bodies not as prisons for beings fallen to earth from higher realms, but as the sacred vehicles through which we experience completely unique lifetimes, never to be repeated.

Let us move, then, into the sacred physical more fully. In doing so we ease yearning for something unattainable, and instead make the most of what we know we have for sure–this holy moment, right here, right now.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part II: Body Image

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part II: Body Image

skinny1

In my previous post, I shared a few vignettes from my life, focusing in particular on the bodily sensations and experiences I remember from each one. Now I’d like to explore the concept of paganism as being a body-focused spirituality in more detail. I want to add in the caveat that I am generally pretty able-bodied and in good condition (other than asthma and creaky knees that like to remind me I’m nearing 40), and that I have a pretty positive body image and generally fit the mainstream idea of “attractive” (read: thin). So these things are going to make it easier for me to feel good about melding my body and my spirit. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Religion in general, at least in more recent centuries, has sought goals above and beyond the physical world. That’s an understandable response to the many challenges of being a mammal in this place, where pain, suffering and hardship are a fact of life for many. Religion is often forged in these difficult times, with beliefs serving as a way to keep people motivated and hopeful even when things are worst. It can be easier to weather difficulties in this life if you believe that there’s a better, perfect life waiting for you after death. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to people trying so hard to distance themselves from anything earthly that they create a good-evil dichotomy between the spiritual and physical (I’m looking at you, more stringent flavors of Christianity!)

One of the things I’ve appreciated about paganism is that there is an interweaving of physical and spirit, regardless of your thoughts on the afterlife (a topic I’m just going to leave alone for now). One of my favorite generic pagan chants is the unattributed “Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit”. It symbolizes a one-ness with the rest of the world that’s lacking in many other faiths. However, as with many other elements of belief, taking the concept of the sacred physical and putting it into everyday use can be challenging. After all, we’re trying to counteract thousands of advertisements screaming “Feel bad about your body! Buy this product to make it better!”; many of us have also received negative body messages from people more close and personal with us. And many of us are our own worst critics, buying into everything we hear despite our best efforts otherwise. All this means that the sanctity of the flesh often only gets lip service, and once ritual is done we go back to our usual pit of “I don’t like my body”.

A big part of the problem is that we’re focusing heavily on appearance, which is literally just the surface of the matter. Because we’re conditioned to value ourselves and others for our looks so much, we tend to forget that looks really aren’t everything. So we miss out on all the other potentially amazing things our body can show us. We take our bodies for granted; we forget that they are our personal vessels for navigating this great big world we live on. And, discussions of reincarnation aside, there’s a good chance it’s a one-shot deal. Why would we want to miss a single moment in sulking over whether someone else thinks we’re pretty or not?

Well, okay, there are several reasons. Some would argue it’s harder to exist in one’s own body, never mind explore its movement, when that body is plagued by constant pain, fatigue, illness or significant disability. And there are deeply ingrained biological and social reasons for wanting someone else to find us attractive, so sure, most of us end up spending at least a little time sulking about not being pretty enough. But let’s assume for the purposes of the rest of this post that you do want to be more in touch with your body in a more positive way, even with its limitations.

Start looking at your body as a series of processes; some of them may work better than others, but all of them ideally have a purpose. Some nourish; some remove toxins; some rebuild and heal. These processes are carried out by bodily systems. Certain pieces can be removed if they malfunction; others are irreplaceable. But as a whole, they create the body that you have in this lifetime.

Other than the reproductive system and, to an extent, the nervous system, none of these systems especially depends on whether the outer layer is deemed attractive or not. Think about that a moment: your digestive system really doesn’t care whether some jackass in a pickup truck catcalled you or not, but it definitely cares if you stop eating as a way to quickly lose weight. Your body’s ideal systems are designed to keep you alive at all costs, and it is only in the case of malfunctions in DNA or other accidents where they become a danger to you. So your digestive system is trying to make sure you have enough nourishment, your circulatory system is running around like a bevy of border collies herding oxygen and other important packets from place to place, and your nervous system is busily processing all the sensory information inside and outside of the body proper to make sure all’s running well.

It’s really quite remarkable if you think about it long enough. I’ve found that by taking that figurative step back from my own body and getting a more objective look at what it’s doing I can appreciate it a lot more than if I were just looking glumly in the mirror wishing my nose was smaller or that my hair would grow longer or that I could get rid of the last few pounds on my waistline. My focus instead shifts to making those processes work even better–fueling them with better food when possible, exercising to keep them more carefully honed and in practice, getting enough rest so my beloved body can recuperate from all I put it through in a day.

And then when I step back into my body fully, I am in love with it and all it does for me. I’m more able to overlook the limitations my asthma puts on me, and the fact that my knees slow me down, and that I’m still many months away from doing an unassisted pull-up. More importantly I recognize the sacred in it. This is no flawed pile of refuse to be traded in for heavenly grace upon death. It is the product of billions of years of evolution, and if I’m still alive it’s doing at least some things correctly. The molecules in my body have been in numerous places–perhaps Irish elk and dinosaurs and tiny green Cooksonia, all the way back to the first colonies of single-cells organisms in the primordial sea. I am composed of what was once stone and lava, ocean and cloud. Further back, Sagan is vindicated: I am made of starstuff. I carry the history of universe in my flesh and bones.

That is the sort of sacredness I want to move toward–and what I want to look at next is movement.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

Book Review Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupa Goes Places: PSU’S Museum of Natural History and OMS’s Fall Mushroom Show

Despite my busy studio and writing schedule, I do get out of the apartment sometimes! Honest! And recently I got to get my nature nerd on by going to a couple of really delightful local natural history events.

On Saturday, October 24, Portland State University’s Department of Biology held their first Museum of Natural History Open House. This consisted of the department throwing open the doors of classrooms (stuffed full of all sorts of gorgeous specimens) to the public, and students from the graduate program showing off presentations on their favorite topics, ranging from beetles to lichens to a diversity of pollinators. Since Portland currently lacks a decent natural history museum, this was something I wasn’t going to miss!

I took a LOT of photos, more than I can reasonably fit here, but I wanted to share a few of my favorites:

woodpeckers

I love old bird study skins, and I also really think woodpeckers are awesome. So this little display of study skins from native woodpecker species was right up my alley. From left: downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, northern flicker, and red-breasted sapsucker. Of these, the sapsucker’s the only one I’ve yet to spot in the wild–but it’s on the list to look for! Also, notice the red stripe on the cheek of the flicker? That’s how you know it’s a male (the “moustache” stripe can also be black in some populations).

hippos

There were, of course, a LOT of skulls and articulated skeletons. I was really excited to see adult and baby hippo skulls in person for the first time. Look at the gnarly tusks on the adult–those are several very good reasons the hippo kills more people every year than crocodiles! Don’t let their lazy appearance fool you, either; a hippo can easily outrun a person any day of the week.

molly

Molly Radany, who tipped me off about the event in the first place (thank you!) put together this awesome harvest-themed info display about Pacific Northwest pollinators. Lest you think it’s only the honey bees we need to be saving, her work shows that there are literally dozens of insects responsible for making sure native plants and crops get pollinated and come to fruition.

jars

The same lab that housed Molly’s pollinator display also had shelves full of jars upon jars of wet preserved specimens, of which these are just a tiny portion. They’re not everyone’s cup o’ formaldehyde, but they’re incredibly valuable for helping students study the anatomy of different species without having to go through the time-consuming process of taxidermy. And for a lot of these smaller amphibian, reptile and fish specimens, wet preservation is a much better option than dry taxidermy anyway.

orca

This orca skeleton seems absolutely delighted with the balloon it was given for the festivities. The entire room was full of marine mammal skeletons and skulls and was one of my favorite spots in the entire event. I wish I’d had more time there; we got to that room just as the event was wrapping up.

snehk

Not every critter in the place was deceased. Several displays included live animals, including one dedicated to the study of the hibernation of Canadian garter snakes. The researching professor brings back a few every year for study, and returns them in fall in time for hibernation. This little noodle was poking its head out of the substrate at just the right moment.

silliness

Yes, I was inspired to run with the caribou. Seriously, though, I really enjoyed the Museum of Natural History event, and I truly hope it ends up being repeated.

mushrooms1

Then this past Sunday (my birthday!) we ended up at the Oregon Mycological Society’s Fall Mushroom Show at the Forestry Center. This photo doesn’t really show the scale of the event or just how many people were there. It was pretty darn busy, and it was tough to get in at any of the info tables–which is good, because it shows a lot of interest! I made it to part of the myco-remediation talk (there were several talks I would have liked to attend). Since the lights were out I didn’t feel right taking pictures; needless to say, the talks definitely added to the event.

mushrooms2

Here’s a different angle, showing one of the many beautiful fungus displays OMS put together for the event. Seriously, there were hundreds of species represented, all put together in these amazing life arrangements.

mushrooms3

Unsurprisingly, the identification table was one of the most popular, always packed every time I went by. Here you can see just a few of the field guides an ambitious mycologist might have in their arsenal, and in the background one of the microscopes showing spores under high magnification. I wish I’d had more time at this particular table–maybe if I show up earlier next year.

mushrooms4

This table of Amanita and Agaricus specimens was  especially pretty.

mushrooms5

And of course my favorite table of all–the books!!! My sweetie got me a copy of Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest as a birthday gift. I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the many sorts of fungi we have here, particularly since so many of them look really similar and can only be told apart by tiny details like spore prints and microscopes. Still, it’s a good basic guide to have with me out in the field.

All these events have helped me to be more motivated to get my own natural history-inspired event, Curious Gallery, ready for its third year. It’ll be held January 9-10, 2016 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Portland, OR. If you’d like to display your cabinet of curiosities-themed art in our fine art exhibition, or present a talk, workshop or performance on topics concerning nature, culture, and/or art, or simply join us for a weekend of curiosity, education and beauty, all of the relevant information may be found at the official Curious Gallery website.