Holy Wild, News & Announcements, Theology

Mystery of the Many: In Silence and Song » Nature’s Path

meditation_altarThe second installment of my UU-Pagan series, The Mystery of the Many: In Silence and Song, goes live today over on the Patheos CUUPS blog! In it, I tackle a topic I’ve long been pondering, how polytheistic mysticism differs from the ways we usually talk about the divine mystery and the purpose of spiritual community in a mostly-monotheistic Western culture:

One thing that is not explicitly listed as a UU Principle, however, is ambivalence — though from what I’ve seen of our quirky community so far, it probably should be. For me, sacred ambivalence, the holiness of liminality, is a principle that pulls me into its orbit again and again. I can’t escape the drag of uncertainty, the uneasy knowledge that whole-hearted, uncritical commitment to even the most well-intentioned values can sometimes lead us astray. While the Seventh Principle encourages UUs to respect the interdependent web of all existence and to value the diversity of that web — a beautifully polytheistic attitude, you might think, which should warm the cockles of any Pagan’s heart — in some ways this diversity is still often framed as just so much quantum foam floating on the surface of a vast unifying silence that transcends and subsumes all things. Call it God, or Spirit, or Mystery, or whatever you like. Scratch a Universalist, and usually you’ll find they bleed just like a monotheist.

For centuries, the search for a God that is utterly transcendent and wholly other has inspired spiritual seekers to head out into the wilderness. The silence of the mountain peak, the emptiness of the desert, and the darkness of the cloud of unknowing, have all been recurring images of Mystery at the heart of a contemplative Christian life.

But I have been to the desert, and it is not empty. Even in the absence of other humans — perhaps especially in their absence — the desert comes alive with even the slightest fall of rain, and its diversity is revealed. At dusk, the weird and wondrous creatures hidden beneath the sands all day to escape the heat of the relentless sun finally come out to explore. I have been to a handful of mountaintops, and every time their height only serves to reveal sweeping vistas of landscape unfolding around me in all directions: valleys and forests lush with variety, oceans murmuring in an always-shifting soup of life in which dwell the largest living things on earth as well as the microscopic organisms on which they feed. Even in the depths of winter, the darkness does not have its final say, but snowfall illuminates the shadows with reflected starlight.

My lived experience of progressive values leads me to the conclusion that it is not a unity of agreement that we are seeking, but the freedom to disagree in a multitude of astounding and beautiful ways, each seeking our own paths.

How do we cultivate spiritual community in the face of this diversity? I think UU offers some surprising alternative approaches….

You can read the full article here. And look for Part 3 coming in February…

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity

In the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, a young man of the !Xõ people bends towards the earth, examining in detail an impression in the sand the shape of an upside-down heart. Nearby, his fellow hunters make their way quietly through the underbrush, moving with caution so that they might not come upon their prey too suddenly and startle it. The gemsbok is quick; they must be quicker.

Gemsbok_Yathin

One of the hunters, an older man with years of experience and many successful kills to his name, gestures to the others, indicating a bit of scat drying in the midday sun — a sign that the beast has passed this way hours ago, likely on its way to a popular watering hole over the next ridge. They should move on. With speed and stealth, they should be able to overtake the animal and bring the hunt to an end by evening. One of the other men challenges him, and a whispered debate ensues — is this scat from the same animal? how long ago was it left? Wind direction and temperature are considered. The interpretation of scat is a tricky and inexact business. In the end, though, the older hunter’s interpretation prevails and the group agrees to move on.

Yet the boy lingers by the heart-shaped impression in the dirt. Is it a hoofprint? If it is, it’s facing the wrong direction, leading back along the trail they’ve been following all morning. In the shifting sand, the impression is vague and already partly obscured by the breeze. It could be almost anything. But something about it calls to the young hunter, arresting his attention. As he considers it, strange physical sensations arise in his body — a weight on his shoulders, a palpitation in his chest, a feeling like warm, wet blood trickling down his back. On the very edge of his perception, it’s as if he can feel the lingering presence of the gemsbok in this place, its fawn-gray flanks quivering in the slight breeze as it raises its majestically-horned head, the grasses rustling around its legs — a rustling he feels now, too, around his own bare calves. In that moment, he is the animal, tasting the breeze for predators, looping back on his own trail seeking a protected place downwind to settle for an afternoon rest.

The young man turns to the other hunters in his group and, nervously, makes his case. The older men are skeptical. This youth has very little experience to go on, and he is far from a charismatic or convincing speaker. But something in his eyes, his conviction, sways them to trust his instincts. The group loops back, following a trail now entirely held within the mind and imagination of the boy as he feels his way through the brush with a body not quite his own. Before long, his vision is rewarded: among the underbrush, they spot the form of the animal half-asleep in the shade.

The Evolution of Reason

What does this story of the young hunter have to do with philosophy?

According to anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Louis Liebenberg: a great deal. In his book, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, Liebenberg takes a close look at the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa in order to explore what he believes to be the origins of homo sapien’s capacity for scientific reasoning. Tracing the evolution of hunting and tracking throughout human prehistory — from the simple to the systematic to the speculative — he argues that tracking represents science in its most basic form.

Like modern scientists, early hunter-gatherers developed detailed knowledge of the world around them based on careful observation of their environment. Possessing an accurate understanding of animal behavior was a matter of life and death, as they navigated an ecosystem full of elusive prey and potentially deadly predators (who were also competitors for food resources). In some places, a wide variety of environmental conditions challenged early humans to develop increasingly sophisticated tracking techniques. Simple tracking in snow and desert sand was relatively easy, though it required good eyesight, physical prowess, stealth and speed. But in areas of rocky ground or thick underbrush where footprints might be scarce or completely absent, a more systematic approach to tracking required not only greater skill but also a keener intelligence as hunters relied on a broad understanding of ecological relationships in order to piece together the subtler signs of an animal’s presence. With the advent of systematic tracking, Liebenberg argues, human beings first developed the capacity for inductive-deductive reasoning: gathering data from direct observation in order to formulate generalizations about the world, and then reasoning from the general to the specific based on the empirical evidence at hand.

Yet the most successful hunters not only possessed a vast knowledge of their surroundings, but an intuitive connection with the animals they hunted. At some point in the prehistory of our species, the homo sapien mind made the revolutionary step from systematic tracking to speculative tracking — from inductive-deductive reasoning, to what Liebenberg calls hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Speculative tacking required creative thinking and imagination, a willingness to listen to intuition as well as utilizing careful reasoning based on direct observation. The speculative tracker did not just follow the evidence before him — he learned to anticipate an animal’s behavior based on a sympathetic understanding of the creature’s own desires, motivations and unique personality. He imagined the world from the animal’s perspective, opening himself to experiences and sensations that did not always draw from direct observation but could nevertheless lead him to correct conclusions. Forming a predictive hypothesis about an animal’s likely movements, the speculative tracker tested and refined his theories through the “experiment” of the hunt itself, in cooperation with fellow hunters who offered feedback, critique and alternative explanations. Whereas systematic tracking once restricted hunters to the slow, detailed process of collecting and interpreting only the empirical evidence immediately at hand, speculative tracking now allowed them to anticipate patterns and look for further evidence where they expected to find it, revising their theories as they went and responding more effectively to new or unexpected information in difficult terrain.

Grottes de Lascaux II, by David Martin

Both of these types of reasoning are still evident in the sciences today — in fact, like the most successful trackers, scientists usually employ a combination of the two, for both have their advantages and disadvantages. A systematic approach to the scientific method utilizes trial-and-error and detailed observation to collect vast amounts of data, allowing patterns to naturally emerge from a careful analysis of the evidence. A good example of this technique can be found in how citizen science is being used today to measure the impact of global warming around the world: ordinary people contribute their observations of local phenological phenomena (like the timing of bird migrations or the budding and flowering of plants) to a global database, allowing scientists to develop statistical models that illustrate the wide-scale effects that changes in temperature and weather patterns have on these species. The method requires the patience and precision to collect large amounts of reliable data in a number of different locations over several years, but almost anyone can contribute to the work without needing in-depth knowledge of the theories behind the research or creative insights into what that research means.

On the other hand, some of the greatest scientific minds in history have used speculative reasoning to formulate new hypotheses about the world and to create experiments with which to test them. Albert Einstein is probably the best known example of a scientist using such an approach: his famous thought-experiment, in which he imagined what it would be like to chase a beam of light, played an important role in developing his theory of special relativity. Today, most work in theoretical physics relies heavily on speculative reasoning, as scientists propose theories that cannot yet be tested by physical experiment or confirmed by direct observation. While systematic science values patience and precision, speculative science celebrates intuition, imagination and the courage to take bold risks for the sake of discovering new frontiers of knowledge.

Both systematic and speculative reasoning play a vital role in philosophy as well (as I’ll explore more later in this post). Philosophers routinely grapple with questions about the nature of existence, the self and the soul that are grounded in and influenced by observations of the world around us, and yet can reach far beyond what we might directly observe in our everyday lives. We can see both kinds of reasoning in the earliest writings of the ancient Greeks, but as Liebenberg points out, these traditions of philosophical thought stretch back much farther into prehistory, preserved in the mythologies and religions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The Reasoning Animist

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrIt might seem odd to preface a review of Emma Restall Orr’s book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature in such a roundabout way. But Liebenberg’s insights into the intelligence and capacity for both systematic and speculative reasoning in our earliest prehistoric ancestors holds special relevance when considering the question of whether or not animism can be considered a viable philosophical position today.

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. She acknowledges this difficulty with admirable forthrightness, saying:

To someone looking at animist ideas from outside, such beliefs may seem close to the immature response of a little child still wondering how the world around him might respond. […] It is religious metaphysics drawn with fat, colorful crayons.

Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” Many Western philosophers and scientists alike attribute animistic belief to the superstitious anthropomorphization of non-human entities and objects, attributing them human-like feelings and characteristics (this is known in some philosophical circles as the “pathetic fallacy,” a term that comes from the Greek pathos meaning “emotion, feeling,” but which also expresses a clear tone of disdain for such a worldview). A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths — the vibrant, minded presence of beings like the gemsbok (and its relative, the Arabian oryx), whose spiraling, rapier-like horns originally gave rise to ancient tales of unicorns in the first place.

In this hunt for the modern animist’s worldview, Liebenberg could prove a valuable ally. Unlike previous anthropologists such as Edward Tylor, who have generally viewed animism as merely a primitive precursor to more civilized and respectable philosophies such as monotheism and materialism, Liebenberg portrays the animistic imagination and active intuition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors as a positive development in the evolution of human reason. Rather than presenting the indigenous animistic worldview as childish or underdeveloped, he places it on par with modern scientific and philosophical thought:

The modern scientist may know much more than the tracker, but he/she does not necessarily understand nature any better than the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. What the expert tracker lacks in quantity of knowledge (compared to the modern scientist), he/she may well make up for in subtlety and re­finement. The intelligent hunter-gatherer may be just as rational in his/her understanding of nature as the intelligent modern scientist. [emphasis added]

But if The Wakeful World is a hunt for the modern animistic worldview, what kind of “tracking” — that is, what kind of reasoning, systematic or speculative — does Orr employ? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at how systematic and speculative reasoning have played a role in the Western philosophical tradition, and to locate Orr’s arguments within that contemporary context.

Speculation in the Age of Reason

Since the 19th and 20th centuries, Western philosophy has seen a split between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy that roughly echoes many of the differences between systematic and speculative reasoning. Seeing themselves as allied more closely with the natural sciences, analytic philosophers emphasize empiricism, objectivity, thoroughness, precision and attention to detail each within their own specialized fields of study, seeing their work as contributing to the cummulative knowledge of the larger community. On the other hand, continental philosophers see themselves as taking up the project of formulating broad worldviews which can be applied to a wide range of related fields — from aesthetics to ethics to politics — while emphasizing the contextual and ultimately subjective nature of all knowledge. Unlike analytic philosophers, continental philosophers do not necessarily see knowledge as cummulative, but instead as progressing in leaps and bounds thanks to bold new insights by key figures.

As American philosopher Graham Harman quipped during a recent lecture:

People talk as though the difference between these two kinds of philosophy is scandalous. Two kinds of philosophy! Even though there are 24,500 species of fish, somehow having two kinds of philosophy is supposed to be this horrible intellectual scandal that we need to eliminate immediately.

Harman’s solution is not to seek to bring these two kinds of philosophy together but instead to revel in their differences, exploring and even intentionally heightening the tension between the two. If Liebenberg is correct in his theory of how the human mind evolved the capacity for complex reasoning through evolutionary pressures to improve tracking and hunting techniques, then we can safely assume that not only have these different kinds of philosophy existed almost as long as our species itself has roamed the planet, but that these approaches to reasoning — the systematic and the speculative — are each both useful and necessary in their own ways. Liebenberg notes, for instance, that while systematic reasoning is a better approach for gradually accumulating and retaining knowledge, speculative reasoning is more adept at recovering lost knowledge, discovering new knowledge and adapting to change.

Given these differences in application, we might expect Orr to rely primarily on speculative reasoning in The Wakeful World, as she sets out to tackle the twofold task of reclaiming an indigenous animistic worldview drawn from her ancestors (recovering lost knowledge) while challenging rationalist and materialist assumptions embedded deep in the contemporary Western philosophical tradition (discovering new knowledge). In her previous books, Orr has become well-known for her incorporation of poetic language and stories of personal experience to illustrate her ideas, inviting readers to step into a creative exploration of alternative human and non-human perspectives that she evokes through her prose. Such writing can be understood as a kind of speculative reasoning, embracing intuition and imagination alongside logical argument and careful observation, offering bold theories that push at the boundaries of currently accepted knowledge and which must be tested against each reader’s own experiences of the world, to be confirmed or refuted through practice and experimentation.

At first glance, this speculative approach seems to be at the heart of The Wakeful World as well. Framing her project in “Chapter One: The Enquiry,” Orr begins by building on the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant, progenitor and arguably still one of the most influential voices of continental philosophy over the past two centuries. In particular, Kant’s insights into the inherent subjectivity of human perception and knowledge is one of the defining features of continental philosophy in contrast to analytic philosophy’s emphasis on objectivity and empiricism, and it provides a rational foundation for valuing and interpreting subjective experience in the context of modern society’s growing scientific understanding of the natural world.

Never Say Kant

And yet, in the end, The Wakeful World seems to be a departure from much of Orr’s earlier work — in style, if not always in substance. Her analysis of concepts such as the self, matter, spirit and mind are much more cautious and systematic than bold and speculative. She spends a great deal of time carefully recounting the endless debates that have grown up around these terms, even when those debates are only tangentially related to her own ideas. In the meantime, readers must wait nearly 200 pages before Orr offers even a basic description of the animistic worldview in any detail. In the hunt for modern animism, readers might feel that they are forever losing ground to the elusive beast as Orr stops to examine every bent blade of grass and loosened pebble along the trail.

Ancient Rock Painting, by Carol Mitchell

The result is a text that is dense with ideas and can at times feel sluggish. Orr comes across as somewhat embarrassed by her occasional departures from the more familiar ground of Western philosophical tradition, rather than embracing such risks boldly as she has done in previous books. When she does allow her language to return to the speculative and the poetic (especially in later chapters), her words still shine with evocative power…. And yet her turn towards “the poetry of animism” occasionally seems almost apologetic, and her bracketing of these passages seems to imply that the imaginative writing of such moments should be considered a departure from the process of careful reasoning, rather than as an essential and natural aspect of it.

Part of Orr’s choice to take a more systematic approach no doubt stems from her desire to present her ideas in a way that will be convincing to skeptics and detractors of animism, or at least to speak in a language that can dismantle unfair assumptions and penetrate potential bias. It is impressive to see a writer with the flexibility to use both systematic and speculative writing as different circumstances warrant, and Orr puts to rest any doubt that she can hold her own against academics who have felt the need in the past to “mansplain” away the real importance of her ideas. For those who have found it difficult to keep up with some of her more provocative work, The Wakeful World slows the conversation to a more ruminative — if sometimes ponderous — pace.

Unfortunately, some readers may feel Orr cedes far too much to her critics in her decision to take a more systematic tack, missing a valuable opportunity in the process. Rather than rising to a vigorous defense of the “fat, colorful” worldview of modern animism in a way that rejects the notion that such ideas are automatically superstitious or immature, she seems to agree with that assessment and to feel a pressure to reimagine modern animism as simply a variation on Kantian idealism (or Whitehead’s process philosophy, minus the math). This is particularly frustrating for readers who are already familiar enough with Kantian philosophy to know that much of his work is built on anthropocentric assumptions that may ultimately undermine an animistic worldview that values the intersubjectivity of a minded, more-than-human world. Although Orr does her best to reason her way out of this pitfall, personally I found myself constantly anticipating a more direct rejection of Kant’s anthropocentrism that never quite came.

Ultimately, I believe Orr does move beyond the anthropocentric foundations of much of continental philosophy. But she does so in such an indirect and protracted way that readers spend much of the book feeling as if they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, inexperienced “trackers” less familiar with the terrain of Western philosophy might entirely miss some of the more subtle footprints left behind by this metaphorical shoe that Orr’s animism seems to be dragging behind it for much of the text.

Back to the Future

But at the risk of losing the trail on our hunt for a more wakeful world, let’s return to the young man at the beginning of our story.

It’s easy to see this boy as a paragon of the animistic worldview, embracing a creative relationship that values the more-than-human world as a community of richly-minded beings, each in their own right capable of reaching out to the human through moments of intuition and connection. But this is not to say that animism is a worldview concerned primarily with the sentimentality or romanticism of the merely personal, imaginative experience. As Liebenberg points out, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not merely accept such experiences at face value: they were keenly aware of the distinction between direct observations and creative or intuitive insights, constantly testing their intuitions against the facts of the real world. Where they accepted the reality of non-human intelligences, consciousness and subjectivity in other beings, these beliefs were confirmed by on-going experiences and practical demonstrations of the explanatory power of such theories. Indeed, it is this very willingness to entertain a skeptical viewpoint and to continually refine one’s theories through attentive observation that is the hallmark of the speculative approach.

Oryx running, by Benjamin Hollis

It is this same skepticism that now challenges us to question some of the lingering biases that we have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition. Liebenberg expands on his initial observations about the intelligence of hunter-gatherers by adding:

Conversely, the intelligent modern scientist may be just as irrational as the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. One of the paradoxes of progress is that, contrary to expectation, the growth of our knowledge about nature has not made it easier to reach rational decisions. [emphasis added]

The future of modern animism depends upon this insight: that the prevalence of anthropocentrism in modern science and philosophy is not necessarily an indication of its correctness. One reason Liebenberg suggests that indigenous hunter-gatherers may possess a knowledge of the natural world that is more subtle, refined and responsive than that of the modern scientist is precisely because the modern scientist’s access to huge quantities of data threatens to mire him in dogmatism:

While the scientist may have access to a large amount of information, accepting the validity of the information requires to a certain degree an act of faith in others. This has the inherent danger that well-established knowledge may become dogmatic, which may result in irrational beliefs becoming entrenched in science. […] The tracker, by contrast, is in direct contact with nature. Ideas and interpretations are continuously tested in nature itself.

This places Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World in a slightly different light: as a challenge to the anthropocentrism of Western philosophy which, although perhaps it never quite succeeds in catching up to the unicorn, contributes meaningfully to the modern animist community in ways that continue to encourage skepticism and critical reasoning skills. In the end, animism is a worldview that must be grounded in and responsive to individual experience even as it seeks to reach beyond it. In the same way that a !Xõ tracker cannot simply be told how to hunt but must learn for himself — cultivating a creative way of thinking that allows him to “continually acquire new knowledge and solve unique problems in a never-ending process of discovery” — the animist who expects to learn everything from her elders will have “a head that is only half full.”

For this reason alone, aside from its other merits, Orr’s book is well worth reading, and re-reading: for it introduces the thoughtful animist to a challenging intellectual terrain against which to hone her skills.


Coming soon: Even more thoughts on anthropocentrism and subjectivity…


This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month right here on Holy Wild. For details on how to join, click here.


Photo Credits:

• “Gemsbok or Gemsbuck (Oryx gazella),” by Yathin (CC) [source]
• “Grottes de Lascaux II,” by David Martin (CC) [source]
• “Ancient Rock Paintings,” by Carol Mitchell (CC) [source]
• “Oryx running,” by Benjamin Hollis (CC) [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Featured, Holy Wild

The Familiar

longcat

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]T[/dropcap]his is Cu Gwyn, my black cat.

Last month, Jeff was away for two weeks traveling for work, and Cu Gwyn kept me company. He keeps me company most days when I’m working from home. If I’m at my desk, he’ll fold himself onto the windowsill to watch the birds in the neighbor’s trees. If I’m working on my laptop, he’ll curl up next to me on the futon on his favorite pillow.

cu2

The first day Jeff was traveling, he did the whole texting-you-during-my-layover-to-say-my-plane-didn’t-crash thing. And I sent him back the usual saying-I-love-you-in-case-you-die-a-tragic-fiery-death. I took a quick picture of Cu, who was watching me from the comfy chair, and sent it along with the caption “Your reason to come home again.”

cu3

That’s how it started. The next day, when we checked in with each other (me from the futon, Jeff from his hotel room), I took another picture of the cat to send to him. “Remember, Cu Gwyn misses you, so you have to stay safe and come home soon.” After that, it became a kind of tradition. Each day while he was away, I sent Jeff a picture of the cat.

cu1

Because I’m a perfectionist (and a slightly strange person), things quickly spun out of control. I became somewhat obsessed with taking adorable cat pictures to send to my adoring husband. To mix things up a bit, I began stalking the cat around the house looking for moments when he was doing something especially precious.

Dinner time was particularly good for getting him to hold still.

cu4

cu5

Catching him in the window was a bit more difficult. When he’s intent on birdwatching, he doesn’t like to be disturbed. When he’s bored, lazily looking for something to entertain him, he’s much more nosey about why I’m hovering around with a clicky-noise-maker-box pointed in his direction.

cu6

The more pictures I took, the more I found myself entranced with the little details.

cu7

The way his tail curved.

cu8

The way his nose glistened.

cu9

The way sunlight illuminated the fur of his paws.

cu10

cu11

The way he could drape himself almost anywhere.

cu12

cu13

cu14

cu15

cu16

The way his black form defined the space around it, a kind of dark gravity that drew forward shapes and contours and textures, playing havoc with foreground and background.

cu19

I especially liked when he curled up next to me on the futon, like an inkblot spilled across a canvas.

cu17

cu18

In case you’re wondering if this post is going anywhere, the simple answer is: no.

This post is about small things. It’s about moments that we take for granted.

cu21

It’s about the simple companionship of ordinary objects and creatures and beings, and the way their presence shapes our lives even when we think we’re not paying attention.

A part of us is always paying attention. There is always something within us that is attending to the textures and contours of things, that responds to the way that light falls or a curtain moves near an open window.

cu20

There is no big revelation here. I took a bunch of pictures of my cat and put them on the internet. I write this post in defiance of the expectation that only big revelations matter. I write this post in homage to the repetition of small rituals, in honor of grounding and connecting and self-care. I write this post because our life is overwhelmingly composed of background — light, texture, shape, movement, quiet, stillness — and background makes all the difference.

cu22

In a dream I had last May, I am driving along winding, bumpy backroads in a large station wagon with an older woman next to me. In the backseat, there are a lot of suitcases all piled up, and a black cat and a little girl. In my journal, I wrote:

“The cat is like an anchor, blinking impassively, like a black hole or a stitch of thread that penetrates all time and holds my mind together.”

Maybe this is what familiar really means to a witch.

cu23

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

The Nature of Fog

It’s a quiet, foggy morning here in Seattle, and I’m thinking about ontology — the philosophical study of the nature of existence.

woods_in_fogFor a few reasons. First, there are passages from Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World playing in my mind against passages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, both of which have been my nightly reading recently. Then there is this post by John Halstead from the Humanistic Paganism blog, exploring “tropical rainforest ontology” as an alternative to materialist reductionism. Unfortunately, the alternative that Halstead offers is all too familiar: an ontological hierarchy, with human beings at its apex. Although in naturalistic philosophy hierarchy no longer needs the divine sanction of a god to justify it, the supremacy of human culture and human consciousness remains unchallenged, the assumed pinnacle of evolution, with the masses of quarks, quasars, oak trees and elephants relegated to the same old mindlessness of mere objects, only so much stuff.

I admit to being disappointed. There is something deeply dissatisfying about our only choice being between reductionism and hierarchy, for both seem to me equally wrong. Here in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, there exists a messy, thriving tangle of lifeforms coalescing into communities of meaning and mindfulness on every ecological level. As I go stumbling along on my hikes through the forested mountains, clunky boots thumping heavily on the moist earth with every step, I can almost hear the chorus of beings laughing good-naturedly at the very idea of such neat, clean hierarchies and my species’ claim to supremacy.

But rather than go into any more detailed analysis of these dense and sometimes unwieldy philosophies, instead I want to talk a little bit about fog.

In early autumn, the rains have only just returned to Seattle after the annual summer drought. For a few months every year, the landscape here in the rainshadow of the great Olympic mountains becomes dry and brittle. Even the ubiquitous carpet of moss and lichens crunches slightly underfoot. When the rain returns again in the fall, the ground itself seems to drink gratefully of the refreshing waters. Small creeks swell that had only weeks before been reduced to mere muddy trickles, the moss plumps up again lush and soft, intricate spiderwebs suddenly seem to be everywhere shimmering with morning dew, and the banana slugs venture out from the damp, dark protection of the leaf litter to brave the exposure of wooded paths in the city parks. Most mornings this time of year begin in fog.

I sometimes think that, like the proverbial Eskimo words for snow, we should have far more words for fog. There are a few near-synonyms in English: mist, with its connotations of cool, damp breezes; haze and steam, clinging to the landscape with sticky heat; the unappetizing murk and the polluted hybrid smog; even the obscure, poetic brume, a dark, chilling thing that stalks through the coldest winter months. But when I look out my window this morning, what I see outside is not quite any of these. It is undeniably, simply: fog.

It is the kind of fog that arises from the earth itself, exhaled slowly into the still morning air, dense and quiet and lingering. It is the kind of fog that transforms the landscape into a soft, gray canvas on which distant trees are painted in watercolor greens, sketched in with a few thin strokes of graphite. This is a fog that you can only see by looking down the road aways. It doesn’t curl around your feet like an affectionate cat — it keeps its distance, withdrawing as you approach, always just out of reach.

As you walk down the road, houses, fences, gardens and stop signs emerge from the light-infused obscurity to arrest your attention. In such a fog, nearby objects seem to put themselves forward to be examined minutely in their singular beauty. The diffuse light reveals an interplay of texture, color and form that a harsher light of stark contrasts might obliterate.

If you keep walking west, eventually you will reach the shore of Puget Sound. Standing on the beach on a clear day, you would be able to see the craggy peaks of the Olympics on the horizon across the water, their heights a dappling of light and shadow, snow and stone.

But in this fog, from your place on the shore, the world seems to expand around you only a few hundred feet before disappearing altogether into anonymous silence. You stand at the heart of clarity and light, so that your own body is a landscape of creases, joints and goosebumped skin that appear infinitely more complex to you than your muted surroundings.

In such a fog, it’s all too easy to forget the mountains, to forget the trees and the houses — to imagine only the gently rocking waters of the sound extending forever in every direction in a smooth, unbroken simplicity.

You are completely alone in the universe.

Except that every now and then a solitary gull sweeps into view, its wedged form coalescing out of light, water and sky, with a cry that sounds like the sea.

gull6_mmarcotte51


Photo Credit: “gull6,” by Mike Marcotte (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Theology

Back to Basics

Goddess of SpringWhat is it that I believe? This question has troubled me on and off ever since I left my childhood Catholicism and began wandering in the wildness and wilderness that is modern Paganism.

When I was a Catholic, the question of belief didn’t trouble me all that much. Not because I had been told what to think and believe unquestioningly, but because I had two thousand years of theologians, mystics, philosophers and saints who’d explored these questions before me and come up with myriad ways of answering them, more than imaginable. Choosing what to believe was like a hunt for buried treasure among a rich tradition nourished and nurtured by elders and wise men for generations. And it was a hunt I was encouraged to go on, an invitation to adventure and not a threat of “getting it right” or facing some awful punishment (at least this was true in the liberal, intellectually curious Catholicism that I was raised in, a kind of Catholicism that seems to be rapidly disappearing these days). After a long hunt, I discovered that the treasure I’d uncovered — that “pearl of great price” — did not belong exclusively to Christianity, and in fact had a great deal more in common with the ancient, pagan traditions that knelt close to the earth, sinking loving fingers into the soil and dancing down the rain. It was a treasure born of the natural world, the poetry of my Celtic ancestors, the music of the World Song singing in the roots of the trees and the stones of the burial mounds and the caressing waves of the ocean lapping against the shore.

So I left Catholicism behind and began wandering in the wilderness. Druidry was the path I took, one that resonated with me deeply for many reasons. But as with most young traditions, I quickly discovered that modern Druidry, and much of modern Paganism in general, had only shallow roots that ran up far too quickly against the bedrock of lost heritage, oppression, disruption, colonialism and the uncertainty of intervening millennia. What were the traditions of the ancients that I hoped to rediscover, and even if I did manage to find them or piece them together from the few clues left, how could I be sure that they would be relevant and meaningful to me as a woman in the (post-)postmodern world?

The search for answers to my theological questions took on a new anxiety. Where once I could sift through the opinions of philosophers and mystics for the truths that resonated with me on a personal level, now I found myself striving to become an Expert In All Things Pagan, trying to build a whole new tradition for myself on the uncertain foundation of the ashes and dust and old bones of the beloved dead and the competing interests and egos of contemporary Pagan leaders, some of whom were (let’s be honest) not always very kind to newbies and neophytes (or even people they’d only just met who, for lack of a reputation, they merely assumed were newbies). As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Without a larger, well-established religious community to offer support and acceptance, without the tether of discernment and long-cultivated wisdom that allowed me to safely wander far into the depths of the unknown along my own spiritual path — I found myself incredibly anxious about straying too far from the herd. I tried for years to be a “good polytheist” with an anxiety and uneasy eagerness to prove myself that I’d never felt as a monotheist. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to profess a belief in my gods; I also had to prove that my knowledge of them was founded in solid, up-to-date research by only the best scholars. I had to pronounce names in unfamiliar languages with perfect accuracy during rituals, I had to demonstrate my knowledge of exactly how the Irish Manannan mac Lir differed from the Welsh Manawydan fab Llyr, I had to strive to believe in a “hard” polytheism that took for granted deity identity much less fluid than even the identities of my fellow human beings, I had to guard against eclecticism and syncretism as naughty words, or even the whiff of these that might waft off of sources and authors who weren’t considered approved reading. Personal experiences that fell beyond the carefully constructed box of modern polytheistic practice was tactfully labeled “UPG” and left to shiver out in the cold of solitary practice where it was easy to wonder if maybe I was just crazy after all.

Much of this was my own personality. I’ve always wanted to do well at whatever work I take on, in love with the challenge that learning, exploration and skillful mastery can provide. I hate doing things half-assed, and as a Gemini, you might say that I have two whole asses to worry about putting on the line. I fling myself into all kinds of work with a passion, and that includes spiritual work, the Great Work. But sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I don’t spend enough time paying attention to whose standards I’m striving to measure myself against. I do value scholarship and academic rigor, and I appreciate nuance and intellectual subtlety as much as poetry, art and damn good ritual — and so it took me a long time to realize that the anxiety I was feeling about my spiritual life as a Pagan was not the healthy passion to explore, but the sinking feeling of dread at being laughed off as crazy, wrong or — gods forbid — just perpetually silly and “noob”-ish.

I’m beginning to think that this is a pretty common experience for Pagans. Some of my favorite fellow Pagans have a deep ambivalence about the community and the label itself, sometimes feeling boxed in or trapped by it, unable to relate to others who use that term or the communities they represent. I have been lucky in finding some strong, supportive Druid communities who help to keep me firmly tether to a process of discernment and honest exploration — but among the greater Pagan community, the anxiety persists. In recent months, I’ve realized that the anxiety has grown so great that there are times when I’m not even sure what it is that I do believe anymore, so long have I been paying more attention to the delicate dance of group opinions than to my own personal convictions.

So what exactly do I believe? To answer that question, I have to go back to basics. And in going back to basics, I have to face my fear of being forever shrugged off as a newbie fluff bunny who can’t be taken seriously. It’s easy to say, “So what? What do you care if people take you seriously?” But as a member of a scattered, small community, a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture, it can feel pretty devastating to be shrugged off or shuffled aside even by those you thought would welcome you with open arms. But that’s the risk you have to face if you want to cultivate an open and free relationship with spirit and the sacred world. The world is far stranger and wilder than the books and experts would have you believe.

So what, at the most basic and deepest level, do I believe?

  • I believe in the Song of the World, a harmony of interweaving melodies woven from the chorus of atoms and earthquakes, of wind and fire, of sun and starlight, of misty woods at dusk, of the butterfly’s dance and the call of the heron, of rainstorms and rivers, of ocean tides and cresting floods, of blood and gore spilled red upon the white purity of snow and the black of the raven’s wing, of rosebuds and the smell of summer grass, of the gods in their myriad forms, of the beloved dead, of the spirits of the land. I believe this World Song is what the Taoists call “The Way of Things” — both the deep, resonating essential nature of all that is, and the guide of natural harmony that shapes the world and the land around us and within us.
  • I believe in fire and water, the sacred duality that dances at the creative heart of existence, born of that numinous unity which moves through the melody of the Song of the World. Fire and water move. They are the complimentary opposites that give rise each to the other, fire licking upwards, water trickling down, one bright and one dark, one hot and one cool, one active and one receptive, yet both liminal still, embodied best in movement not in form, consuming and all-permeating, the first spinning of unity into expression but still not yet manifest. I find that my guides to understanding this sacred duality are my primary gods: Brighid, goddess of fire, sun and stars; and Manannan, god of mist, storm and sea.
  • I believe in the Three Realms of land, sea and sky, and the three Druidic elements of nwyfre, gwyar and calas (wind, water, stone; breath, blood, bone; force, flow and form). These triplicities are the dynamic manifestations of the marriage of fire and water, day and night, above and below, and all such sacred dualities. But they are not static, nor forced into a stable, permanent form — they move and turn, each arising from the others. Above, below and center. Transcendent, immanent and manifest. The in-breath, the exhalation, and the moment of stillness between. Like a three-legged stool, the stablest of all, these triplicities embody a dynamic, ever-changing stability of the natural world. And as three points define a plane, the Three Realms define the sacred space in which we live and move and have our being, while the three Druidic elements describe the processes of that life, that movement, that being-becoming dance of existence.
  • I believe that the gods (however we conceive of them), the ancestors (however we remember them) and the spirits of the land (however we experience them) all play active, meaningful roles in shaping our lives and our selves. I believe that we in turn can cultivate meaningful, mutual relationships of love and respect with them through ritual, prayer, meditation and contemplative attention, and that these relationships offer us connection and opportunities to seek to live in harmony with the World Song through intention and free will even in the face of forces that are so much bigger than we can even imagine.
  • I believe that all things are manifestations of Spirit, the Song of the World, and that all things also have spirit, unique selves which embody the myriad ways in which the world experiences and is conscious of itself. Rocks and whirlwinds possess a consciousness just as humans and house cats do, not to mention oak trees and gods and computer circuitry. This belief is generally called animism, or sometimes pantheism (though usually pantheism is a kind of non-theism that does not include a belief in individual deities). Either way, it celebrates the raven-ness of ravens and the mollusk-ness of mollusks, the utter tree-ness of a tree and the stone-ness of a stone as sacred expressions of the numinous, each with its own gift of awareness and experience to give back to the World Song.
  • I believe that living rightly and mindfully in the world requires us to cultivate an integrity of balance and harmony with all these other beings that share the world with us, and that this naturally leads us to desire lives of sustainability and ecological awareness, as well as a reverence for nature. This reverence for nature is not only a love of the wildness and wilderness of landscapes and sacred places untamed and untrammeled by the controlling machinations of humans, but also a sacred acceptance and gratitude for the essential nature of reality itself, the Way of Things, the Song of the World. This reverence for nature leads us to see that nature is, indeed, everywhere, and cannot be otherwise but everywhere, for it is the essential, inalienable quality of the world itself. And realizing this, we no longer seek to exert control over nature, but to understand it and live according to nature in all its manifestations, including our own deepest, truest natures as human animals, members of this planet Earth.
  • I believe that ritual, like poetry and art, can open us to more authentic relationship with the nature of things, the Song of the World, and all of the beings who share the world with us by engaging us in the sacred play of creativity, imagination and creation. Through ritual, we experience space and time in new ways, and discover the diversity of experience embodied in the myriad beings of the world. Through ritual, prayer, worshipful devotion and meditation, we cultivate our ability to attend to new perspectives and to connect to the beauty inherent in all things, including the beauty and meaning within ourselves.

I believe in a great many more things, but these beliefs are at the very foundation of my Druidic practice and my spiritual life.


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012.
Why not join in?

Muse in Brief

The Speed of Blood » No Unsacred Place


In my latest post over on No Unsacred Place, an illness that leads to a hospital visit has me reflecting on questions about the relationship between health, healing, body and spirit and how we experience moments of transcendence even in the midst of danger:

If it weren’t for these strange experiences of transcendence, I might be a pure animist. When I feel the wind caress my skin and it seems to me to be living and animate, filled with purpose and awareness — I cannot divide that sense of Presence from the wind itself. I can’t separate the presence of the ocean from the reality of its waves, salted and slamming against the rocks, or the spirit of fire or sunlight from the physical heat and shifting illumination and shadows they create. Sometimes, the ocean’s presence seems to follow me into dream when I am home again in my landlocked state. Sometimes the sunlight lingers in memory even during long winter nights. But it seems to me that it is not the spirit of these things at all, not in the way we commonly think of spirit or soul as something that just happens to be living here for the moment.

When I feel this Presence of ocean miles from its shore, what is it I feel? A familiar memory belonging to and arising in my own material form, I think, the knowledge that my body has within itself of the concrete, sensory details of the world. My body remembers. And because my body remembers, it reaches out for connection with these things even when they are absent. If there is a Presence, a god or goddess of the sea, it arises from the body of the ocean as my sense of self and spirit arises from my own body.

How do we understand these experiences of transcendence or heightened awareness when faced with danger and disease? How does modern Western medicine handle (or mishandle) illness and its emotional, psychological and spiritual impact?

You can read the full article here.

Holy Wild, Theology

Gods and Spirit

That word for god — the breath, the gleaming — the shining days like great columns bearing up the sky, buttresses, rafters. Beams that in their falling, hold.

I say the names of my deities, I feel the drop of each sound into silence. They gather on the long, bent grasses in the meadow and the field, *dewos-, the many that glisten in the coming dark. Amulets of sky, jewels of the daylight, coalescing in the movement of my breath, the lingering touch of the wind. They draw themselves, wavering, into the weight and gravity of form.

I open the door, and the gods enter the dark interior of my being. The gust, the call, tracing themselves in the dust of the rafters, the shift that shivers down in drifts of gentle gray and grit, mingling particulates stirring in every corner of the sunlight. What is so small and intimate and strange — numen, spirare — the dancing footsteps of spirit in the air, the vital stir of fear, the silent thrill, calling me to courage in the deep spaces of my birth and dying, the liminal between. I am on the threshold, pouring out my breath in quick libations. I am pouring out my soul-song to mingle on the doorsill with the soft noise of their presence.

And She is rising up again, and rising up, she is the exalted queen and lady of all that rises up — the purifying fire and the wellspring of healing waters, the bright, clean sun at daybreak, the serpent stirring in the mound, all thoughts of justice and beautiful compassion aching towards the perfect, the spark and steam of smithcraft in the forge. She rises up, drawing gravity along in ecstatic going-out to meet the inspired act of making, dragging the anchor of my mind into the light and breath of Spirit. The gulf of the sky widens from heaven to horizon, an archway of blue and exhalation, and I am beneath it and within it, I am spiraling and lifted, small and intimate and strange.

And He is circling and moving, a realm and waste that gives his name and takes it back again — the ebb and flow along the shoreline, the horizon and the deep, the mist, the movement of the winds and storm, the heron gliding on long, still wings through the midnight of the newborn sun. He turns his murmuring immensity to touch my listening, gentle and insistent. He wears away the boundaries of my skin, seeping in to claim me for the flux of Spirit, moving in me with the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I am surrounded and within it, I am spiraling and sailing on the mingling waters on the threshold of my being.

And She is resting in fecundity and promise, the mother of all our naming — she is wealth and self-giving, the firm body of our dancing, the bristling flowers of spring and the high harvest of the fall, the rolling curve of the lands always unfurling, the dark cavern of our tombs grown over with pale, delicate lashes of green. She names the earth and world, the sounds of her children coalescing on her lips like drops of dew, all eddies in the mud and rocks and bones and growing things. All verdant and gold, she stirs in me every corner of Spirit with the weight of praise and gravidity, she makes my heavy form and holds it close, and I am made and move within it, I am spiraling and born in the darkness of my body.

I open the door, and the gods enter. The gods enter with their whispering and multiplicity, each one an opening into Spirit, a shining, an embrace. I settle down into my work like someone opening a window, and the breeze comes winding, finding its way into the center of my grasping and obscurity. A breeze that smells of sunlight and summer days across the field, a breeze that languishes heavy with dew in the gloom of the new morning, a breeze that sings the world’s together-song into the waiting silence. I do the work, I pour libations, I pray and wait and let the Spirit come when it will.

The door is like an eye. It grows wide and hungry in the dark.


This post is part of the 30 Days of Druidry creative writing project.