–In a similar vein, I just today discovered that the shopping cart feature on my website has not been working since I switched it over in March. The back end showed that a few people tried to buy books, but I got absolutely no information other than a date and time, and no money was received here. If you were one of those people (or if you still want to order books from here instead of at my Etsy shop), I have reverted back to the old Buy Now buttons which, while not a pretty, are proven to be effective. My sincerest apologies for the inconvenience.
–If you’d like to sample even more of my writing for absolutely free, one of my co-writers at the now-defunct No Unsacred Place, Rua Lupa, has teamed up with me to offer you all a new blog at Patheos, Paths Through the Forests. We’ll be continuing our thoughts and conversations on nature, bioregionalism, spirituality, and more. While I’ll occasionally post a link round-up here, you can get more frequent updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. Rua Lupa’s already posted there, and my first official post is due out Thursday of this week.
–Finally, thanks to sales at Faire in the Grove this past weekend, I was able to make a donation to the Monterey Bay Aquarium! They are a world leader in research on marine biology and ocean health, as well as the developers of the Seafood Watch pamphlet, website feature and phone app, which allow you to look up which seafood choices are sustainable, and which to avoid. Plus they always have an amazing array of sea creatures on display at the aquarium itself, well-cared-for and healthy, and accompanied by plenty of information. You can find out more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their work at www.montereybayaquarium.org/
Now, let me preface this by saying I am not a hunter, have never hunted (though I have fished), and don’t intend to take up hunting any time soon. I am, however, an omnivore who occasionally is able to indulge in some wild game meat when others see fit to gift me with some, and who otherwise is concerned with where her meat comes from. Furthermore, I feel that one of the great failures of this society is that we have become so detached from the processes by which our food–animal and otherwise–is produced. It’s allowed us to enact a great deal of abuses upon ecosystems and their inhabitants, and I believe strongly that we should be educating ourselves about our food’s origins so we can make better decisions going forward. It’s in that spirit that I bought this book. Even though I do not hunt, I wanted to know more about the actual process of hunting and the aftermath thereof, with the added bonus of an author whose ethics seemed to be pretty well in line with my own.
Suffice it to say, I was not at all disappointed. Within these pages is a step-by-step guide of how to prepare for a hunt, how to find game, how to get a clean kill, and what to do once you’ve made that kill. Olson is concise but thorough, and I was impressed by how much information he was able to pack into less than two hundred pages. While I’m sure there are other hunting manuals with more information on things like how to attract deer, or how to sneak up on game birds, for a basic point-A-to-point-B overview of the hunt, this is a good one, accessible to the layperson as well as the seasoned hunter.
If you don’t think you can get anything practical out of this book because you don’t hunt, think again. Killing your deer (or pheasant, or rabbit) is just the first step. A large portion of the book is dedicated to explaining how to butcher the animal (with multiple options), ageing and preserving the meat, and even some recipes thrown in for fun (try the deerskin gelatin!) Probably the most valuable chapter in that regard is the one in which he virtually dissects an animal for you, explaining each part and how it may be used in alphabetical order, from the adrenal glands to the windpipe. This doesn’t just hold true for wild game, either–buy a whole free-range pig or cow or chicken, and you can apply the same basic concepts. This goes well beyond making stock out of a chicken carcass; he really does explain how to use every part of the animal!
Most of all, though, I appreciate the spirit in which he writes this book. Throughout the entire thing you can sense his regard and compassion for the animals he hunts. Using all of the animal isn’t merely a practical tactic–it’s almost a sacrament of sorts, meant to honor the life taken to sustain another. Like me, he decries the tendency in this culture to take the animals, plants and fungi that we kill to live for granted, and invites us to have a more mindful approach. In speaking of how hunting is one activity that brings us to face face with the reality of these deaths, Olson writes:
…when the hunter eats the animal they have killed, it becomes part of them. A death becomes a life; the predator and prey become one and the body of the dead, in a sense, lives on. This gets to something else that can be shaken through connecting with our food: our separation from the living world. When you kill and eat a creature [Lupa’s note: or plant, or fungus], you are very literally integrating its body into yours. You are also integrating the land which that creature came from into your body, since their body was entirely a manifestation of that land. This is amazing, a dynamic that I think lies at the very heart of most people’s desire to connect to the land, whether it be through gardening, hiking, foraging, crafting or hunting: shattering the boundary between self and other, human and nature; piercing the illusion that in many ways defines our culture. (p. 16)
We don’t just eat because we’re hungry, or to stay alive. We eat to incorporate the tissues of another living being into our own. We are descendants of the earliest microscopic beings that first evolved to engulf others rather than subsist on sunlight and fragments, and we’ve been eating our fellow beings ever since. The thing that struck me the most in the above quote was the assertion that we’re really eating the land our food grew up on; for a deer it may have been open fields and forests, while for a factory farmed cow it could have been a grassy pasture for the first several months of its life, followed by a crowded feedlot in which everyone was given corn grown hundreds of miles away. That, to me, illustrates how utterly broken our food system has become. We can no longer identify the land we’re eating through our food.
We can all learn from Olson and his compassionate hunting, even if we don’t hunt ourselves. By considering the sources of what we eat, we can start to pick apart the unseen industries that bring us our food, and assess the real impact on the animals, plants, and ecosystems affected by them. We can learn to have more compassion for all the living beings that die for us to live, animal and otherwise. We can be more conscientious in not wasting our food, and making the most of every scrap, even down to tiny bits of meat and vegetable for soup stock. And we can make more responsible choices in our diets while still respecting our personal health and dietary needs, time and financial restrictions. It is perhaps a shorter book than, say, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it is just as elegant, and even more primal, a look at the same challenges that all too many of us blithely ignore at every meal.
If you would like your own copy of The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook, you can order it directly from Olson’s website here; it is also available through Amazon and Powell’s, and you can ask your local independent bookstore to order it if they don’t have it in stock.
One final postscript: I am rather excited that I won a copy of Olson’s other book, UNLEARN, REWILD: Earth skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive at the recent fundraising event held by Rewild Portland. I’ll get a review of it up here once I’m done with it, though at the very least I want to finish up the gigantic book of prehistoric life I’ve been chewing my way through for a few weeks now.
It’s Earth Day, and while my blog tends to be pretty eco-centric year-round, I wanted to write today about a particular topic that comes up a lot in paganism, particularly among newcomers: ritual tools. Now, it’s been said many times by many people that you don’t actually need tools to be a pagan. I do agree that you can perform rituals open-handed, with nothing but yourself and the spirits/gods/energy you’re working with to make things happen. However, some people just like having the tools themselves; they help heighten the ability to suspend disbelief. And some people feel their tools have spirits of their own, thus making them allies in ritual.
A lot of new pagans, especially young ones, look for inexpensive ritual tools since money’s tight. However, a lot of the suggestions I see made are things that are distinctly not eco-friendly. The most common one is some variant of “Just go to Wal-mart/Dollar Tree/other chain store and get your candles, candle holders, bowls and other tools there!” Sure, you could get a four-pack of taper candles for a buck, but what’s the real cost? Here are the likely reasons your candles are so cheap:
–The wax is probably petroleum-based, which means it benefits from fossil fuel subsidies from federal and state governments. The chemical company that developed the dye might also have gotten subsidies as well. This means that these companies are getting money for free, out of people’s taxes, and therefore can sell their products more cheaply. These companies are also usually not required to pay for the effects of the pollution that’s a byproduct of their processes.
–The candles were likely to have been made by underpaid, sometimes abused workers in a factory in China or another East Asian country, with inadequate protection against the chemicals and machinery being used. There’s a good chance that any chemical byproducts of the process are not properly disposed of, and may just be dumped directly into the nearest river, saving them the cost of paying for safer options.
–They were shipped en masse on a boat from their country of manufacture to wherever you are, again using subsidized fossil fuels. The shipping company doesn’t have to pay for the pollution their boats cause to the ocean and the air, so they can keep their costs down.
We don’t have a solid number on the real cost of pollution from the manufacture of these candles, but suffice it to say you’re getting your candles cheaply in part because the entities who made them and their components are passing some of the cost on to the environment. And we add to that, too, any time we burn candles made with noxious chemicals that add to air pollution in our homes and elsewhere. We speak with our dollars when we buy these cheap things–we say “We don’t care, so long as we save a few bucks in the name of practicing a nature religion*”.
So what’s a pagan to do when money’s thin on the ground? Here are some options.
Use What You’ve Got
You may already have the things you need for your ritual right at home. In generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, common tools include an athame or other sacred knife, a bowl for salt or water, a wand, an incense burner, and something to put it on. A common kitchen knife may not be the most flashy thing in the world, but it will work, and you can decorate it if you want to dedicate it just to ritual work. If you have a favorite bowl in your kitchen, you can reserve that for your sacred work as well. Any stick or rod will work as a wand–I’ve even heard of using a ruler for one! You can easily make an incense burner out of aluminum foil; just make it into a bowl with a few layers, put some sand or dirt in it, and place the incense on that. Then put the burner on a hotpad or trivet, or even a very flat rock or thick ceramic dish, and you’re good to go. You can decorate the dish/hotpad/etc. if you like, though it’s not necessary (and make sure that anything flammable is kept well away from the burning incense!)
These are just a few ideas based on one particular set of ritual tools; you can get pretty creative depending on your needs, so treat it like a grand scavenger hunt! (Just make sure that you’re using only your stuff, or that you ask permission to use anything that belongs to someone else.)
Yet there’s this unfortunate superstition floating around paganism that somehow you can’t cleanse secondhand items, that the histories they have will linger with them and will always taint them as ritual items–but of course, all a brand-new item needs is a quick cleansing! I call bollocks on that one. If you can purify a new glass bowl that’s been made in a sweatshop soaked in human suffering and death, created from materials that cause great devastation to the natural environment, and conveyed to your town while leaving a trail of fossil fuel pollution behind it, you can damned well purify the energy of a similar, secondhand glass bowl that sat on someone’s grandmother’s dining room table with wax fruit in it for thirty years. Most of my ritual tools over the years were secondhand, to include items that other practitioners used in their own rites, and I never had a problem making them ready for my work.
So get over that superstition, and start thrifting! You never know what kind of cool stuff you may find. (My only caution is that it’s really easy to come home with a cart full of secondhand tchotchkes for cheap, which may put shelf space in your home at a premium.)
Foraging At Its Finest
Many nature pagans like having sticks, stones and other natural items in their homes to remind them of what they feel is sacred. In fact, you can make your entire array of ritual tools from things you found outside. If you work with the four cardinal directions and elements, for example, you might have a stone in the north, a feather or bit of dandelion fluff in the east, dried wood or moss as firestarter in the south, and a vial of rain water in the west. The best part of all this is that, other than some containers for things like water, it’s all free.
Do keep in mind there are certain legal and other restrictions. Federal and state parks in the U.S., for example, prohibit the collection of any natural items found within the park without a permit (some cities do this as well). You’ll need to ask permission when foraging on private property. And some items, such as some animal parts, are illegal to possess regardless of how you got them; most wild bird feathers in the U.S. cannot be possessed, even if they were naturally molted, as one example. (You can access my database of animal parts laws here.)
Grow or Make Your Own
DIY is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get to cut costs, but you get to gain skills, too! For example, some folks like to use herbs in their spells and other magic, and luckily a lot of these herbs can be easily grown, even in a pot by the window. If you worry about having a black thumb, there’s plenty of information on the internet about how best to care for a particular kind of plant; the most common ways to kill your herbs is through too much or too little water and sunlight, the wrong sort of soil or not enough fertilizer, and disease or parasites. If you notice a plant isn’t thriving, you can research online or in books at the library what the possible causes may be, and you can ask garden shops or people on gardening forums for advice.
Other tools can be homemade, too. If you want to have a permanently decorated altar, maybe with a scene depicting your patron deities or symbols of the four cardinal directions, you can paint a secondhand table with acrylic paints**, or carve or burn the designs if the table’s wood. A well-worn broom can be decorated with dried flowers and ribbon, and even re-bristled with straw and other plant materials. A particularly sturdy branch may make a nice wand as-is, or you can choose to decorate it to your preferences.
Support Local Artisans
It’s okay if you don’t want to make your own tools. Maybe you don’t have the time, or you don’t feel your work is quite up to your own standards***. In this case, you may wish to consider supporting a local artisan. Of course, this may not necessarily be the cheapest option; an individual artist has to pay a lot more for their materials per piece than a factory, and puts a lot more time and effort into the creation, too. However, many artists will have items along a wide range of prices. Some may even have some items on sale or clearance, things they’ve had sitting around a good long while. And some artists are open to barter as well.
You’re always welcome to ask an artisan about their materials. I talked earlier about cheap, petroleum-based candles from the dollar store; however, there are candle-makers who specialize in eco-friendly alternatives like beeswax and natural dyes, and who avoid candle wicking with lead in it. And the same goes for everything from ceramics to woodworking to paintings; usually there’s somebody who specializes in greener materials out there.
I hope now that you see that buying ritual tools on a budget doesn’t have to feed into environmentally harmful processes and practices. In fact, taking care in one’s shopping choices can be an act of spiritual devotion in and of itself. If you feel nature is sacred, then let that speak not just through your rituals and special moments, but in your everyday actions as well.
* With the understanding, of course, that not every person who identifies as a pagan focuses their paganism on nature, and there are some pagans for whom the gods, for example, are central.
** While not without their pollutants, acrylic paints are some of the safest paints that are easily obtained commercially. There are more eco-friendly recipes for homemade paints out there, but acrylics are best if you don’t want to go quite that far in your DIY-dom.
*** The effectiveness of a tool, by the way, is not in how pretty it is or how perfectly crafted. Even if you don’t think you’re an artist, it’s the intent behind the creation that matters. So don’t let that get in the way of making your own tools if you’re so inclined.
My partner and I are both omnivores. It’s what works best for our health and, quite honestly, we both like meat, seafood, eggs and dairy quite a bit. But we’re also aware of the environmental impact of meat, ranging from commercial slaughterhouses and their manure lagoons, to the fossil fuels and water in agriculture in general, and the vast amount of habitat lost to wildlife so cattle have places to graze. So we’ve been trying to reduce our meat intake some, and buying more free range meat (of the sort that I know grew up outside, not in a barn), plus we use the Seafood Watch app religiously when shopping for fish and such.
One of our recent purchases was a whole free-range chicken from the local farmer’s market. Now, the heritage breed roasting chickens there are a lot more expensive than at the store–what would cost about $5 at a standard chain grocery store here in Portland was priced at $20, though I’ve toured the place they’re raised and it’s worth it, since they are raised in outdoor pens on the grass. Being on a budget and wanting to buy a few other things, I ended up buying a little stew chicken instead, about half the size of your average roasting hen, possibly an old laying hen. Still, it was good meat, and so I took it home, popped it in a roasting pan with some seasonings, and it cooked up just fine. Of course, it had less meat, but there were enough leftovers on the carcass that the next night I made a good soup, too.
I never see chickens this small at the regular supermarkets, though I remember seeing them twenty-five years ago when I was a child. Occasionally I’ll see them at a Mexican or Chinese market, but never at Fred Meyer or Safeway or WinCo. I imagine it’s because a lot of people who shop there don’t often make their own soups from scratch, what with all the pre-packaged options available, so there’s not so much demand for soup chickens. And continuing from my discussion about scavengers vs. hunters last week, culturally there’s also a tendency among many (though certainly not all) Americans, particularly middle class and up, to demonstrate that they can have the best food, not just the scrawny little leftover chickens. We’ve gone from the Depression-era “a chicken in every pot” as a standard of success, to today’s consumerist “bigger, meatier, sooner, cheaper”.
Funnily enough, chickens weren’t always seen as the commonplace cheap meat they are today. 100 years ago, due to limitations in farming practices, year-round production of chickens for food wasn’t really possible, and so chicken was more a special occasion meat. It wasn’t until industry changes were put into place, like utilizing Vitamin D to increase egg-laying and streamlining the connections between hatcheries, farms and meat processors, that year-round production of meat chickens was possible. And this ready availability made the chicken more of a common commodity than a luxury.
Which means that we demanded the best of the chickens that were available. No longer did we have to settle for whatever was available, big or small or missing a leg or not enough white meat. Now if one store didn’t carry plump roasters, we could go to the next that did, and that demand edged out the demand for smaller soup chickens, especially as cooking from scratch diminished in necessity. Hell, these days you can even go to most chain grocery stores in the U.S. and buy a pre-roasted chicken in a bag, ready to take home and eat, no cooking necessary. And that chicken is almost always one killed in the flush of its youth at six or seven weeks, carefully bred for a maximum of flesh and sometimes so heavy it couldn’t even walk properly.
What happened to all those smaller chickens? Some may have ended up in processed food products for people, while others may have been reduced to pet food, fertilizer and the like. Out of sight, out of mind–why even consider things that are thought to be second-rate? And yet, just as our meat comes to us bled out, eviscerated, scrubbed clean and wrapped in plastic and styrofoam to hide its origins as the remains of living beings, so the small, the old, the imperfect are all tucked away behind the scenes, not to reappear until drastically remade into forms considered acceptable to our aesthetics.
And that ties into the tendency–if you’re well-off enough–to only value what’s best and turn your nose up at anything else. Granted, lots of animals will do the same, but only when food is very plentiful, and there’s always another animal around to take up the leftovers. Trouble is, in order to get the best chickens to meet the demand for “only the best”, we have to raise more birds overall and discard some in the process, and we can’t really afford to be as picky as we are about the matter. We use a tremendous amount of resources in factory farming in particular, and we’ve already caused immense environmental damage because of it through habitat loss, pollution and more.
Imagine if every American household that bought a chicken got twice as many meals out of it by making soup with the bones. That could cut consumer-direct demand for meat chickens pretty significantly, plus help people save on their grocery bills. Sure, there would still be demand for chickens from other industries like pre-packaged foods and pet food and the like, but it’s a start. And if people made use of every bit of the chicken, feeding the last tiny scraps of meat to pets as a treat, and turning the bones into fertilizer for the garden, we could even cut down on that demand, too.
But it takes a shift in mindset, away from the consumer throw-away culture where the animal is only a commodity, and toward a culture where every resource is used and appreciated, not just for its value to us, but because in order for us to have it, another being had to give it up. That goes for the bones of chickens, and deer habitat turned to wheat fields, alike. This is not to feel guilty for the sheer act of existing, but simply to be more appreciative of and careful with what we do have.
And we need to be okay with not only having “the best”, but making use of everything available to us, whether our favorite or not. The little chickens are just as useful as the big ones, and they carry some good lessons, too. After all, there’s no shame in having a little more cooking experience and learning how best to use a carcass for soup and other leftovers. And while even my favorite free-range farm removes the giblets, feet and other “icky” parts of the hens before packaging them to sell, it’s worth it to also know how to use a truly whole chicken, end to end.
So I’m going to keep buying the little chickens, and the whole fish that need cleaning, and the carrots that still have their tops, and the other things not so convenient or perfectly presented, and make the most of them that I can. I’m going to learn how to do more with the resources I have, and share with others what I find. I don’t deserve “only the best”. I am fortunate enough to have access to a wide variety of healthy food, easily and affordably, and I’m going to do my best to appreciate that.