Category Archives: Writing

Book Review: Wyldsight by Satyros Phil Brucato

Wyldsight: Tales of Primal Fantasy
Satyros Phil Brucato
Quiet Thunder Productions, 2013
70 pages

I confess I don’t read a lot of fiction. Crazy, I know–I used to devour fantasy novels in the late 90’s and 2000s, to the point where I would sometimes bring my bank account down to almost nothing in college. But as I got older, I learned I could fill in some of the gaps in my education myself, and so I became a dedicated nonfiction reader. These days I don’t get nearly as much time to read as I would like, and I’m mostly researching topics relevant to my work. So when I get to dig into a piece of good fiction, it’s a rare treat.

I’ve known the author of this little book of short stories for a few years now; I picked it up from him this past February at HowlCon, Portland’s wolf and werewolf convention (yes, we have one of those!) And yes, I did get it signed, because that’s one of the perks of buying direct from the author. Once I got home, the book sat for a few weeks while I finished up a much thicker tome, and was quite ready for lighter fare by the time I was done.

I say “lighter” to a limited degree. Brucato’s writing may be easy on the eyes, but the imagery bursts into full blossom the moment it hits the brain. Each one of these stories focuses on a wild woman, not the sort you find drunk and covered in Mardi Gras beads even in the middle of August, but the sort who lives in the true wilderness with wolves and dragons as her companions. You may be thinking of overdone tropes, but hear me out: this author has managed to pare away schlock and self-conscious moodiness to leave nothing but an excellent set of tales. Stories are everywhere; myths are ancient. But tales–those are for the telling.

And tell he does. There’s a revision of Little Red Riding Hood that blows away any other retelling I’ve found, and I’ve read a lot of them. There’s a feral re-imagining of the princess and the dragon with bare feet on warm stones and laughter in the dark. There’s a werewolf who wars within herself and finds a bit of truth on a littered beach. These and more hide in the pages of this book, and even the briefest story may leave the reader yearning to follow the protagonist deeper into the wild. Beyond the tales are backstories, more about how these pearls were created and what makes each one shine so brightly. And there’s a bit of a surprise at the very end…

Though what the end of the book left me with is the hope that someday he’ll write a novel in the same spirit, because I want to see more into the worlds that are born in his mind.

You may purchase this book in paperback or ebook form here.

Important Addition to My Patreon Account!

Hey, all! By request I’ve added another level of patronage over at my Patreon! Some of my $15 art Patrons requested an intermediate level between that and the deluxe $60 level. So there’s now a $35 level, which allows me to make something extra-spiffy and get it shipped to you each month. Head to https://www.patreon.com/lupagreenwolf to sign up for the patronage package of your choice, whether that’s books or art or curiosities, or simply the opportunity to get sneak peeks of my works in progress!

So Here’s What I Think of Patreon Seven Months In

I’ve had several people ask me how Patreon’s been working out for me, so I decided I’d just write out a post for general consumption. I started my account back in July 2014, and as of this writing I have 35 Patrons and a total of $531 in monthly pledges, which is pretty damned good, all told. Overall it’s been a worthwhile effort, but here’s a more detailed breakdown.

Benefits:

–It’s a fun way to connect with people who like my work and treat them to exclusive stuff.

I love connecting with fans of my work. If I can create something that makes someone else happy, then I’ve done a good job. Patreon is essentially a regular feed of my writing and art, both online and via snail mail. Patreon offers two different ways to get paid for your work, either a pledge per individual project or a flat pledge per month. I am a very frequent poster; in seven months I’ve posted almost 250 projects, or about 35/month. A lot of these are work in progress shots that are only visible to my Patrons, though the completed works are there, too. (I use the “activity” tab for updates and check-ins with my Patrons.)

So this means that every week my Patrons get an eclectic mix of work in progress shots, final projects, sneak peeks of blog posts that haven’t gone live, and whatever other fun things I decide to post. And then once a month I get to send out the monthly rewards. For those pledging $5 or more, that’s the profile I post of a different animal, plant or fungus totem each month. Starting at $15, I start mailing out actual physical goodies, ranging from art to books to the makings of a cabinet of curiosities. I really get a kick out of mailing these little “care packages” to folks, and I hope they look forward to them at least as much as I look forward to sending them.

–It’s a fairly steady amount of money each month.

The first of the month is always a challenge financially. Not only is rent due, but so are several other decent-sized bills. So it’s a real boon to get an extra chunk of change in the bank account right about then. Patreon usually starts charging Patrons the first of the month, though there have been one or two times where they were delayed for a couple of days. However, they’ve gotten faster about processing since I signed up, and the money generally shows up in my account within 24-48 hours after I initiate a transfer.

–It’s a great way to try out crowdfunding without a big risk.

If you’re thinking about crowdfunding but you’re unsure whether you’d get a project fully funded, Patreon is a good training ground. I’m planning an IndieGoGo (or similar) campaign this April to help fund the Tarot of Bones; it’ll be my first time-limited, single-project crowdfunding effort. Patreon has been a good way to gauge interest in my work, and to help me brush up on my promotional skills, and I feel more prepared for the spring fundraiser than I probably would have without Patreon.

Drawbacks:

–It’s not a 100% predictable amount of income.

People can sign up as your Patron at any time, but they can also end their Patronage at any time, too. And while Patreon emails you whenever someone signs up or changes the amount of their pledge, they don’t let you know when someone drops off, so it can be a little disappointing to go to your profile and see your pledge level has dropped unexpectedly. I have had former Patrons message me when they dropped their pledge to let me know why, which is always appreciated. But it’s best to see Patreon as a supplement unless you’re one of those rare folks who has hundreds of Patrons giving thousands of dollars a month.

–You don’t get to keep all the money that’s pledged to you.

Patreon takes a BIG chunk of money out. From their FAQ:

Patreon takes 5% and the creators cover the credit card transaction fees which are generally 4% across the site. Also remember that some pledges will fail due to declined credit cards. We’re happy if a creator sees around $0.90 of every dollar!

As as an example, of that $531 in pledges that I had at the beginning of February, after Patreon’s fees and two declined cards I received $463.88. It’s still a nice bit of money and I’m grateful for it, but I feel it’s important for readers to know that what it says I get per month on my profile won’t necessarily be what ends up in my bank account.

Additionally, I spend a fair bit of each month’s pledges in shipping costs. Granted, they’re factored into the pledges, but I routinely spend between $3 and $9 to ship an item to a Patron. This month my shipping charges were well over $100 because I promised if I hit $500/month in pledges I’d send all the Patrons who helped me achieve that goal a little natural history specimen as a gift, and so I had to send out over 30 packages, including a few international ones. Had this been a normal month I would have sent out seventeen packages, but the shipping would still have been in the $60 range.

–It’s a LOT of work.

When I started my Patreon account in July, I didn’t automatically have $500 worth of pledges flood in. I did hit the $100/month milestone within the first few days, which honestly blew my mind. And in January I managed to go from $401 to $531 in a matter of something like two days because I did a bunch of “Woohoo! Help me hit $500!” social media posts.

But in between $100 and $401 was a ton of work. As a self-employed creative person I have had to perfect the art of self-promotion–or at least work toward perfecting it. I mention it multiple times a week on Facebook, Tumblr and elsewhere. I talk it up when I vend in person. I let my online customers know about it. In short, I do my damnedest to let everyone know that “Hey! I have a Patreon and you can get all kinds of cool stuff that no one else gets if you sign up!

This means you have to be absolutely tireless in your promotion to make it work. I mean, if you already have a platform of tens of thousands of people ready to throw money at you then your Patreon should fill up quickly. But for the rest of us, it’s a hell of a slog, and I am absolutely grateful for every one of my Patrons, past and present. (And would-be–I know there are folks out there who’d love to pledge except they can’t afford even $1/month right now. Totally understandable.)

Platform-specific Complaints:

–No way to browse individual artists (“Creators”) as opposed to projects.

If you go to Patreon’s homepage, there are only a few ways to find Creators.  Below the initial “Hey, we’re Patreon!” video you can see five featured projects. And if you click on “Featured” on the bar at the top of the homepage you get a couple dozen more features projects. That “Featured” page also has a left menu of categories, but again it it only takes you to individual projects, not Creators. The only way you can find individual Creators who take pledges on a monthly basis rather than a project-by-project basis is if you search for their name or keywords in the search bar at the top of the site, so it’s well-nigh impossible to be discovered by a potential Patron who didn’t already know who you are.

I’ve contacted Patreon about this, and they claim they’re working on a solution, but I’ll believe it when I see it. As it is, I have to rely a lot more on my own promotion and the word of mouth of others than Creators who pledge per project.

–Back-end navigation is a little counterintuitive and disorganized.

You would think that if I wanted to edit my profile (which shows what I’m offering the world) AND my Patreon Manager (which tells me who’s pledging what) I would go to one central location, right? Nope. To get to the former there’s a dropdown menu accessible from the upper right-hand corner of the screen, marked by my logo. To access the latter, I have to click on “Home” (not “Patreon”), and then click on the little button that says “Patron Manager”.

And it just gets more unwieldy from there. Each month’s record of Patrons has its own individual page, meaning a lot of clicking through and having to compare each month from its own tab. I’m sure they’ll keep upgrading it, but for now it’s kind of a pain in the ass to navigate.

Conclusion:

Gripes aside, I see Patreon as a way to get guaranteed custom work each month. I have a group of people that I know I’ll be making art for, and I have people I know I’ll be sending books to, and I have folks who will be enjoying little exclusive treats in my feed throughout the month. I’m quite used to having to work hard promoting my stuff, so this is just one more thing for me to offer.

Speaking of that–if you want to be my Patron, here’s my account again! You can become my Patron for as little as $1/month, and help me keep writing posts like this one. And thank you!

Want a Free Copy of Plant and Fungus Totems? And Curious Gallery News

Hey, all! I’m giving away a copy of Plant and Fungus Totems over on Goodreads! You’ll need to have an account there to enter, but you have until Monday to do so. So if you want a chance to win my newest book for free, head on over here and sign up!

Also, we’re less than a month away from Curious Gallery, the two-day arts festival that I organize here in Portland. For those not already familiar with it, Curious Gallery celebrates cabinets of curiosity and their contents; this year it will be held on January 10-11, 2014 at the Portland Crowne Plaza hotel. We’ll have a beautiful and varied art show on the general theme of “cabinets of curiosity”, as well as a vendor hall, and three programming areas with a variety of presentations, demos and hands-on workshops. We’ve been busy putting up posters and postcards in Portland and further-flung areas in the Pacific Northwest; if you know anyone who may be interested in this wondrous event, send them over to the official event website! We’re also still accepting art show applications on the site, to include mailed in art, through January 5, and we have just a couple more slots available in the programming schedule so there’s an application on the site if you want to present as well.

Art is Work

My friend and fellow creative person, Liv Rainey-Smith, shared a fantastic article by Sarah Manning over Facebook earlier this week. Entitled The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can’t Survive as Saints and Martyrs, it neatly skewers the idea that artists (and writers, and other creatives) shouldn’t seek financial recompense for our work, and that artists who place money as a priority are automatically sellouts. There’s a quote I particularly like:

It’s a dangerous, impossible standard that is repressing self-expression and killing culture…The American artist is expected to be both a saint and a martyr. Operate outside the capitalist system and we’ll praise you for your creations, call your poverty a quaint kind of martyrdom that has nothing to do with us, and at the same time resent you for being holier than thou. Try to operate within the capitalist system and we’ll call you out as an imposter.

With my own work, I find this attitude complicated further by the spiritual dimensions of my art and writing. Within the pagan, New Age and related communities, there’s a deep vein of mistrust of money and materialism, to the point where any sort of material comfort is seen as a dangerous seduction into evil. (There’s a great rebuttal by Jake Diebolt in this week’s guest post at my other blog, Paths Through the Forests.) Those seen as leaders (or who at least manage to publish at least one on-topic nonfiction book) are held to especial levels of scrutiny; spiritual enlightenment supposedly makes one immune to the needs of the physical world; achieve a certain amount of transcendence and you no longer need to pay rent, or so the theory seems to go.

Well, the only level of “transcendence” I know of in which a person no longer needs shelter is death, and I’m not there yet. Moreover, I intend to keep it that way as long as I can. And since I just got done talking about how we artists never seem to run out of ideas for projects, I think I can safely assume that most of my fellow creative types would like long lives full of opportunities to make neat things happen.

Peixe010eueThis means we need to have a place to live, food to eat, access to health care, and all the other things everyone else requires. And somehow this comes as a shock to certain people who appear to be under the misapprehension that, like a goldfish in a bowl, artists will happily subsist in the most minimal of living conditions simply for the joy of making art. What people often don’t realize about both goldfish and artists is that these minimal settings are inadequate. Goldfish are a type of carp which can grow quite large, and a plain bowl of water without regular filtration can quickly accumulate toxins, leading to either an unhealthy or dead goldfish. And while a human being can ostensibly live in an overcrowded slum apartment with bad food and alcohol taking the place of medical attention, over time such a lifestyle takes a serious physical and psychological toll.

So it should come as no surprise when an artist finds a way to crawl out of that level of destitution, we take it. That’s when the real fun begins. We’ve ceased to be the romantic notion of the artist nobly starving for their art, putting the creative process and the spiritual efforts far above any material wants or needs. Instead we now demand the same realistic treatment as everyone else.

Most artists have day jobs; most of those who don’t have a spouse or other person taking care of their basic financial needs. That rarest of creatures, the creative person who subsists entirely on income from their work, is held up as the magical “someday goal” for those artists still chugging away as a barista or retail clerk or warehouse worker. “Maybe someday I’ll be a good/popular/prolific enough artist to get to that point!” they think. That dream carries them through the drudgery of what actually pays their bills. But it’s not all dreaming and scheming; when the toil of a job they hate becomes too much, they may lash out at their self-employed counterparts with a flail of envy. And that is part of what feeds into the “Artists shouldn’t make money from their art!” attitude. It’s spoiled dreams and sour grapes all the way.

Not every artist with a day job is so embittered. Some are quite content with what pays their bills; art has remained a hobby for them, a nice diversion at the end of the day to blow off some steam. They may give away everything they create to friends and family, buying more supplies with the surplus from their paychecks. Or they sell their wares for next to nothing, undercutting everyone else’s prices on Etsy or at the craft fair. There is no desperation there, no drive to draw a profit. Nothing wrong with that approach in and of itself. But it begs the question: why don’t more artists just go get day jobs in their field?

American_crow_From_The_Crossley_ID_Guide_Eastern_BirdsFor many artists a steady gig, even if it is making art for someone else’s specs, is the ideal balance between paying the bills and expressing one’s creativity. Unfortunately, even freelance work is scarce, and the competition is vicious. Most of the jobs are for graphic artists, so anyone working in other media is likely to find slim pickings at best. And a full-time permanent position with benefits? You may as well toss a handful of chocolates into a throng of starving crows and watch the murder commence.

And yet, this is what’s held up to us as the solution to our problem. Go draw a steady paycheck like everyone else. Stop charging more than pocket change for your own work. Keep your art marginalized and low-paid so we can keep living down to that image of starvation and conformity. Be the shining example of uncorrupted creativity, untouched by filthy lucre.

Yes, what about that notion of corruption? Don’t sellout artists end up churning out crap because they’re more concerned with money than art? No more than anyone else. Everyone does what they need to to stay fed and sheltered; for some people that’s wrangling numbers in an accountant’s office, for others it’s detangling spaghetti code, and for still others it’s creating whatever commercial art an advertising studio wants. Sometimes artists do end up pandering to popular trends because that’s what pays the bills. it doesn’t mean they no longer put their creativity into the process, nor do they stop making more experimental art on their own time (and dime.)

Personally, I’ve found that an artist with the bills paid will make better art. When I have time to myself, when my commission list is empty and I don’t have any upcoming vending events, when I’ve made enough cash to cover rent and bills and other expenses, that’s when I really shine. Those are the golden moments when the stress of deadlines no longer holds me back, and I can make whatever the hell I want. I can try out new techniques; I can explore projects that may sit around unsold for years simply because they’re fun to make; I can try writing in a new genre I haven’t played with before. I couldn’t do these things if I wasn’t able to literally buy myself the breathing room to do so.

I want you to notice something very important: taking commissions and selling simpler, more popular pieces to pay the bills doesn’t take away my creativity. These “bread and butter” art sales are my equivalent to a day job; they enhance my ability to create the more experimental pieces I do on my own time. And unlike someone working a desk job, I am constantly using my artistic skills and keeping them honed; there’s no transition from work headspace to art headspace. It’s only a matter of what project I’m focused on at any given moment. I love every piece I create, too, from the simplest little pouch to the most elaborate headdress, and all points in between. But I also love having a roof over my head, and so I deliberately apportion time to different sorts of project so that I make sure I still have a place in which to work and materials to create with.

This is the reality of artists today: We are not your romantic notions, your symbols of the sylph-like elevated creative; our art is not automatically enhanced by hardship, nor should you enforce our hardship just to make us make art that you consider to be more “genuine.” We are people with real needs and problems, and we have to eat, too. We work every bit as hard as you do for each and every dollar, often for longer hours and less security.

And that’s the thing this culture needs to come to accept: art is work, and it’s okay to pay us for it, dammit.

Do you enjoy my writing and art? Want to make sure I can keep making cool stuff? Consider being my patron on Patreon, purchasing a piece of my art, or giving one of my books a home! And don’t forget to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, too.

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Spoiled For Choice

Oh gods. It’s happened again.

I’ve found myself in between projects. There’s paint drying on one piece, and I just finished up the thing I was doing while waiting for each coat to dry. Suddenly, I’m off my rhythm. It’s no longer “dab some gold trim on this, then get back to stitching that.” Now it’s “just a little more burnt umber here….and now what?”

I look to my work table. There are a couple of project ideas sitting there, but nothing really inspires me. Hmm, I can’t work on that one until tomorrow since the downstairs neighbors wouldn’t appreciate me running the Dremel at this hour. And that other one there just hasn’t come together in my head yet. One of these days, but not now.

Alright. Back to the back bedroom where I keep the bulk of my supplies. Jinxed again! When I’m busy cleaning this place up, I’m rife with ideas for things to create with my little treasure trove. Not now, though. I pick up a metal lid with a decorative pattern that I’d thought to put into an assemblage piece–but then there’s a hide I’ve been meaning to make into a bag–and over there is a pile of secondhand necklaces I haven’t yet disassembled and salvaged for beads.

Worse yet, it’s after ten at night and I have a limited shelf life before I need to sleep, caffeine or no. And I have a busy few days, so anything I start now will likely have to be shelved til the weekend. Oh, the frustration of it all!

*********************

If you’re a creative sort, the above dilemma likely sounds familiar. When we artists (by which I mean all sorts, not just visual artists) have the freedom to start any new project we want, the choices can feel overwhelming to the point where we end up stuck. This isn’t quite the same as the usual understanding of writers’ block or similar woes. That’s the opposite issue–there are no ideas, no inspirations, nothing but dull emptiness where creativity usually resides.

No, this is an overwhelming flood of possibilities, each one clamoring for attention as loudly as the next. There’s almost a sense of guilt in picking one out, as though the others will feel left out and unloved. How can I create all my projects at the same time!

But that’s one of the greatest fuels for the artist’s fire: the fact that no matter how long we live we will never, ever run out of projects. I have no doubt that on my deathbed I will still have a long list of things I wanted to create, and I only hope my joy at all the things I did manifest will outweigh the regret of the never-weres.

And art can be patient, too. The project waits for the artist until both are ready to dance. Right now, a lot of my creative effort–and, quite frankly, time and energy–is going into making my yearly arts festival, Curious Gallery, come together next month. I just finished a book manuscript up last month, and I’m itching to start on one of the two dozen ideas on my ever-growing books-to-write list, plus a pretty massive art project I’ve been planning for some time. However, those will have to wait. I can only really tackle one Big Project at a time, with other more routine, small art and writing projects tucked in around the edges. But I know these Big Projects will still be waiting for me after the middle of January, when Curious Gallery is done for another year.

But that’s then. This is tonight, with a scant bit of time before I go to bed. The paint’s dried, and I find myself most of the way through writing this post. How did I get here? I chose, looking at a few factors as I did:

–Time: I realistically only had a couple hours at most before fatigue set in. And I didn’t want to get into anything too involved, just something to do in the bit of time I had. A blog post would suffice.

–Need: It’s been a few days since I last posted here. I didn’t have the time or energy for a really deep, involved, or emotionally taxing post, so I decided to keep it light and on the topic of the moment.

–Energy: Creative pursuits are fun, but they can be really exhausting (which is why it can be infuriating when people treat all art as a hobby, not actual work.) Since it was late, I didn’t really have it in me to start on some elaborate thing that would require a dozen different materials or a proper opening topic sentence, though I tried to offer some substance, at least.

–Demand: You, my audience, are a fairly easy crowd to please. Yet I feel the need to switch up my publicly consumable creations. If I let the blog lie fallow for too long, interest wanes, and some of you are mostly here for my writing. However, my more art-inclined fans like having a fresh infusion of hide-and-bone-and-stuff goodness, and I don’t want you neglected, either. And there are those of you who are creative omnivores, and I like giving you a balanced diet of works. So since I’ve been a bit heavy on the art lately, I thought a blog post would be a nice thing to wake up to.

–Attention: All of the above is fairly logical and planned out. However, there’s intuition to it as well. I just can’t get into a project if it doesn’t capture my attention, and you artists know how it is trying to force yourself to complete a project you have to do but don’t really want to do right this moment. So even if all the other factors come together for a particular project, if my heart’s not in it I’m not gonna do it.

Mind you, this isn’t a perfect recipe for artistic success every time. I very nearly spent the previous hour and a half scrolling through Tumblr, Wikipedia, and other places where I can let my brain relax a bit before bed, and there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve crawled into the sack at 2am thinking “How the hell did I just spend two hours doing nothing?” Sometimes it’s good for me to do nothing for a while. For those times where I absolutely must be productive, though, giving myself the opportunity to settle on one of many projects tends to stand me in good stead.

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

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

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

My response is generally along these lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PNBA Trade Show Signing This Weekend

I am pleased to be representing one of my publishers, Llewellyn, at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Association Fall Trade Show this weekend in Tacoma, WA. I will be signing copies of my newest book, Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect With Spirits of Field, Forest and Garden, at 2:30pm on Saturday. Many thanks to Kat Sanborn, my publicist at Llewellyn, for helping to arrange this opportunity!

Totem Profile: Gray Wolf

(Photo source.)

One of the features I’m offering some of my patrons on Patreon is a monthly totem profile, featuring a different animal, plant or fungus totem each month. I’m still not a big fan of totem dictionaries for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being what a particular totem teaches me may not be what it has to say to you–if anything. So rather than offering up the usual “This totem means this, that totem means that” dictionary entry, my goal is to offer up fuel for your own explorations. It’s a little more specific than the exercises and ideas I offer in my books on working with totems in general; these monthly profiles provide some inspiration for connecting with a particular totem. However, they should NOT be seen as “Lupa says this is what the totem means, so you can just stop trying now”, and you should always keep yourself open to the possibility that the totem has bailiwicks that aren’t mentioned in the profile. And, as always, these profiles are from the perspective of non-indigenous, neopagan totemism, and are colored heavily by my own experiences and interpretations.

If you would like to receive access to these profiles, become my patron at Patreon at a level of $5/month or more. In addition to the profiles you’ll also get access to other patron-only content like work in progress shots of art projects, sneak peeks of completed blog posts before they go public, nature photos that I don’t post elsewhere, and other exclusive goodies.

This Gray Wolf profile is just a sample; I’ll be posting an additional profile on another totem for my patrons for August.

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Name: Gray Wolf
Scientific Classification: Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Canidae Caninae Canini Canis lupus
Range: Almost all of the Northern Hemisphere historically, now reduced to less human-populated wilderness areas of Europe, Asia and North America

Physical Characteristics: The largest existing wild canine, the gray wolf is a lean, powerfully built hunter made for long-distance chases and ranging over cast territories. Wolves are typically about twenty-six to thirty-four inches high at the shoulder and may be up to six feet in length. Average weight for wolves is seventy to eighty pounds, with females being slightly smaller. Wolves in northern areas are generally larger than their southern cousins. The wolf’s double-layered pelt can be a variety of colors ranging from silvery-gray to brown, red, yellow, and even pure white; black wolves, which often have paler gray hairs mixed in, are derived from lineages that crossbred with domestic dogs in the distant past. In the wild, the wolf’s average lifespan is six to eight years, though wild wolves have been known to survive up to thirteen years, and captive wolves a few years beyond that. Wolves are primarily carnivores, and will hunt prey ranging from field mice to moose and other deer depending on availability. However, they may also consume a smaller portion of high-calorie vegetable matter such as berries and fruit.

Evolutionary History: Some of the earliest known ancestors of today’s wolf were the creodonts, Cretaceous-era carnivorous mammals that were dwarfed by their dinosaur neighbors over 100 million years ago. About fifty million years later one branch of creodonts became the carnassials, which had evolved better jaws for meat-eating and began to resemble today’s canines. Miacis is the specific member of this group that we think gave rise to canines and related modern carnivores like bears and weasels. Miacis gave rise to Cynodictis around 35 million years ago, which then later evolved into Tomarctus at about 20 million years ago. We don’t start seeing truly wolf-like creatures until about three million years ago, and the gray wolf proper first appeared about a million years ago in what is now Eurasia, later moving into North America. Today around forty subspecies of wolf (including a few now extinct) are recognized, including the domestic dog and the Australian dingo.

Behavior: Gray wolves are among the most social of canines, living in packs generally composed of a mating pair and their pups from previous years; a litter averages four to eight pups. This social lifestyle offers the wolves the opportunity to hunt larger prey as a group than they would as individuals. Wolves hunt their prey by chasing it down, first getting as close as they can to the prey, then running after it to separate it from its herd and tire it out. Wolves have been known to chase prey in shifts, with new wolves replacing those that are tired out, much like passing a baton in a relay race. A wolf can eat up to twenty pounds of meat or more at one sitting, after which a long nap is generally warranted. Hunting is only a small part of a wolf’s life, though. They are quite playful creatures, both with their pups and with fellow adult packmates. They enthusiastically greet each other when they reunite after separation, and use a variety of sounds to communicate both close by and at a distance. The pack is highly territorial and will defend their territory from other packs with some ferocity. While most pack disputes are settled without violence, on occasions fights may occur, leading to injury or even death. Contrary to popular myth, wolves are generally shy creatures when it comes to humans, and usually take great pains to avoid us. It is only a very starved or very sick wolf that will attempt to attack a human being, though wolves close to human settlements have been known to hunt loose dogs and cats and, on occasion, livestock.

Cultural Impact: The gray wolf is one of the most recognizable wild animals in the Northern Hemisphere, and has had a significant contribution to the symbolism of various cultures throughout the land. The wolf’s ferocity in hunting and defending its territory have earned it a reputation as a powerful being, sometimes revered and sometimes feared–and often both. The Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales is just one of several iterations of the wolf as a terrifying monster, and is derived in part from the villainous wolf of Aesop’s fables and the Brothers Grimm. The Navajo in the southwest United States tell of the yee naldlooshi (popularly known as a skinwalker), a human witch who transforms into a wolf (or other animal) to attack and terrorize people. And Fenrir (or Fenris), a monstrous wolf of Norse mythology, is said to be the killer of the god Odin when the end of the world, Ragnarok, arrives. But the wolf is often seen in a positive light as well. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were said to have been raised by a female wolf, and a similar lupine kinship has been adopted by cultures worldwide, from the Chechen people of Eastern Europe to the Mongols of Asia to several Native American cultures. The strength of wolves also makes them a common symbol of warriors and warrior culture, and their prowess in hunting has been emulated by humans for millenia. Today, the wolf is a common representative of the wilderness and the need to protect it, and several environmental groups use it as their emblem.

Totemic Inspiration: It is difficult for me to write about Gray Wolf sometimes because he has been such a significant part of my life from a very early age and has taught me so much of who I am today–persistence, drive, the ability to connect, but also a sharp tooth and not always at the appropriate times. Gray Wolf’s cosmopolitan children and high cultural profile makes her one of the most popular totems and almost sort of a “gateway totem”. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as he is often associated with teaching and guidance in neopagan totemism, and in my experience tends to be pretty patient (think of a wolf being gently mauled by a litter of playful pups!) Because wolves are persistent long-distance hunters, Gray Wolf may be called upon for help with staying the course in long-term projects and endeavors, though with an eye toward adapting one’s tactics to be more effective, much as a wolf must change course when prey darts off in another direction, or when a new prey animal becomes evident in chasing a herd. This adaptability is reflected in the wolf’s incredibly large range and ability to live in habitats ranging from deserts to tundra to forests, and for myself I’ve learned quite a bit about making the most of the resources available to me from Gray Wolf. Wolf is not without her shortcomings, though; while territoriality can be helpful when resources are limited and need to be protected fiercely, humanity in general has a lot to learn about generosity, particularly in cultures where there are many resources, but those resources are treated as though they are scarce. It’s not that wolves can’t be cooperative or benefit other beings; they frequently partner with ravens in finding food and in play, and a wolf’s kill can feed dozens of other animals. But Gray Wolf’s loyalty is to his own first and foremost, and this may need to be offset with a conscious reminder that as humans we do not need to restrict our intentional loyalty only to our nearest and dearest. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Gray Wolf and her children have become emblematic of ecological protection efforts because of the wolf’s place as a keystone species, and my co-blogger Rua Lupa and I discussed this earlier this year over at Paths Through the Forests. Please note that these are my interpretations of my experiences with Gray Wolf, and they should not be seen as “totem meanings”. Your mileage with Gray Wolf may vary quite a bit, so get to know him on your own terms if she’d like to work with you.

Sources/Further Reading:

River of No Return: Gray Wolf Fact Sheet
Wild Earth Guardians: Livestock Losses
Basic Facts About Gray Wolves
What Makes a Wolf a Wolf?
Wolf Origins
Lopez, Barry Holstun (1979). Of Wolves and Men. Scribner, 320 pages.

A Very Special Announcement For My Readers, Fans, and the Like

I have been making my art since 1998. My first article was published in Sagewoman in 2004. 2006 saw the publication of my first book and the creation of my first serious blog. Over the years I’ve explored many different avenues for getting my work out there, from writing for countless publications in pixels and paper, to expanding my vending setup to make it easier to meet you all in person, to stepping just a teensy bit into the gallery scene, among other ventures both successful and ill-conceived.

All along the way I’ve had the support of so many people. You’ve cheered me on, given me constructive feedback, shared your own experiences and questions with me, and introduced others to my art and writing. And, certainly not of the least importance, you’ve supported my work financially, buying my art and books, attending paid workshops, purchasing totem readings, and otherwise compensating me for my time and effort and creations. In short, you’ve given me a part of yourselves so that I can continue to have a roof over my head (and more art supplies under that roof!) All of that tells me that you like my work and want to keep seeing me create things.

woodknife1Your support has helped me become more productive; I’ve been completely self-employed since 2011, which, of course, means that I get to art and write full-time. (More than full-time, really–eighty hour weeks are not uncommon here.) One of the challenges of this otherwise awesome situation is that there’s no steady paycheck. I could have a week where I pull in a four figure sum, and then the next week I make just enough to get some quarters for the laundry. While it’s a challenge I’m up to, I want to make this a more sustainable venture.

Which is why I’d like to introduce you to my Patreon profile. Patreon is a platform that allows artists to share content (including exclusive works) with modern-day artistic patrons who make a monthly financial contribution to the artist’s efforts. You don’t have to give a whole lot, either. For just one dollar a month, you get access to patron-only content–sneak peeks of blog posts days before they go public, work in progress pictures of art, and other things that patrons alone will be the first–or only–to see. And there are other monthly perks depending on level of patronage, including but not limited to:

–Monthly profiles of animal, plant, fungus and other totems, viewable only to my patrons and not to be posted to this blog
–A “book of the month club” where I’ll send you one of my currently available books every month until you have the entire set
–Several art subscription opportunities, where each month I send you something I made, from jewelry to ritual tools to elaborate costumes
–Three different cabinet of curiosities subscriptions, where each month I send you a selection of curiosities I’ve made or curated, and at the end of six months you have a complete collection, including a booklet that I’ve written to explain the theme of the collection and what makes each piece in it awesome

booksPlus there are even MORE perks for you if the total amount given by all my current patrons reaches certain milestones. The first time it hits $100 per month, every patron gets a hand-drawn thank you card from me. On the other hand, if I somehow accumulate enough patrons giving enough money that I’m making $2,500 per month, I’m going to write you a full-length book. (No, seriously. I will write a book, minimum 45,000 words, on some topic of nature spirituality, and self-publish it in both ebook and paperback format, and my patrons will get a free copy, and no one else will have access to it for at least a year. I would LOVE to write you a book, just sayin’.)

What do I get out of this? Not just money. I get stability and more of an ability to budget from month to month. And that’s a huge benefit. Knowing that I am guaranteed to get a certain amount of money coming in from my patrons, regardless of whatever other sales and income I get, helps reduce the stress of chasing after dollars.

Moreover, it tells me that those who choose to become my patrons really want to see me keep making creative things. I love making art and writing for myself, don’t get me wrong, but it takes other people loving my art and writing enough to compensate me for it that allows me to keep creating at the rate that I do. And at the end of the day, it feels really, really good that enough people like what I do to enable me to be a full-time creative sort. It’s a great motivator to keep making cool things happen.

So. Sound like a good opportunity to you, too? Then head on over to my Patreon profile, and see what patronage level works best for you!

(And thank you. Again and again and again.)

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