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Everything You Need to Know About Animism

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness, Folk Magic, Spirit Work | 23 Comments

“There is no environment ‘out there’ separate from us. The environment is embedded in us. We are as much a part of our surroundings as as the trees and birds and fish, the sky, water and rocks.” ~ David Suzuki

What is Animism?

The Latin animus means “the rational soul, intelligence, consciousness, and mental powers” and the feminine anima means “soul, living being, mind, and breath”. If you collect all the words for soul from all the languages around the world, almost all of their roots simply mean “breath”, insinuating that the soul and spirits in general are invisible and intangible. In the 1670s, the term anima mundi, meaning “soul of the world”, was used to describe the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato who believed the world and the universe itself was infused with an animate soul. In 1866, English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Taylor popularized the already existing term animism from the Latin anima combined with the suffix -ism (attached to words associated with practices, beliefs, doctrines, worship, etc).  He defined animism as the “theory of the universal animation of nature.” Animism became the go-to term for anthropologists to describe and define the beliefs of non-Christian and prehistoric indigenous peoples.

Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and a consciousness, a soul, from the tiniest microorganism on earth to the great planets in the heavens to the whole of the universe itself. Animistic faiths usually contain a belief in rebirth & reincarnation either as another human, or an animal, tree, or star. Anything or one can be an ancestor and in a way this is true as even scientists will tell you every single thing in the universe is created from the same space dust — all matter gets recycled and reused. Spirits of place (genus loci) are thought to be either the actual soul of the land or a soul who has come to reside in a hill, stream, or grove as its guardian and benefactor.  Animism is usually viewed as more primitive with polytheism being seen as more advanced (think Stone Age vs. the Roman Empire), but as many modern religious scholars have discovered there is more natural harmony and more earthly wisdom within animism than almost any world religion.

You can try to have one without the other, however, in most cultures the two go hand in hand. The Norse had their pantheon of deities as well as strong beliefs in nature spirits, ancestors, elves, giants, and trolls. The ancient Greeks had a strong underlying current of animism from personifying everything in existence as a spirit or deity and worshipping spirits of springs, rivers, hills, and forests at the same level of devotion if not moreso than their pantheon of deities with sacrifices, offerings and festivals. Anthropologists call these divisions the “low cult” (animism) and the “high cult” (polytheism), but in truth they were not divided at all. You’d be hard pressed to find a pre-Christian religion without a fully integrated combination of deities, fairy-like beings, and an ancestor cult. You’d also find it hard to find a major world religion today without traces of animism still clinging to it. Animism was never wiped out or replaced, it has been here the whole time within the persisting belief in fairies and the otherworld, the Catholic worship of saints, the reverence and superstition surrounding trees, and our cultural folk songs and folk tales. The initial instinct of early folklorists and modern Pagans was to label it all as Paganism, but it was the survival of animism all along.

The synonym for animism we’ve been looking for within the Pagan worldview is the fairy-faith and the explanation for the fairy-faith the academic world has been seeking can be found in the animistic cults of ancestor worship and nature spirit worship throughout the world and human history.

If a religion has an ancestor cult within it or a belief in fairy-like beings, it’s a strong sign it evolved from an earlier animistic version of itself. Gods are often apotheosized celestial bodies, land spirits, animal spirits, forces of nature, and ancestors (kings, heroes, healers, and miracle workers). Deities are not separate from animism, they are born from it. The documented remnants of the fairy-faith in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe reveal the presence of ancient-rooted animism which was still practiced after the conversion to Christianity as is evidenced by all the many laws forbidding any practices or rites involving fairies, land spirits, and the worship of sacred stones, water, and trees. Animism is still very prevalent in African, South American, and Asiatic belief systems and folk religions today. For example, Buddhists worship the Buddha and the many bodhisattvas alongside a strong familial ancestor cult. Though the population of those practicing the recognized animistic Ainu religion is very small today, the Japanese still heavily practice Shintoism and have a seemingly irremovable belief in the yokai, or supernatural spirits, demons, and ghosts. Find an indigenous tribe in South America or Africa not yet converted to Christianity and they may not have heard of the term animism, but you can be sure their spiritual practices are intrinsically animistic with an ancestor cult.

“No religion lies in utter isolation from the rest, and the thoughts and principles of modern Christianity are attached to intellectual clues which run back through far pre-Christian ages to the very origin of human civilization, perhaps even human existence.”

E.B. Taylor, Primitive Culture

Animism is not a separate faith standing on its own, it is not a capitalized “Tradition” as defined within the Pagan and witchcraft communities, and it is not a clearly defined spiritual path. Instead, animism is the seed of all religion and infiltrates all religions even in present day. Animism doesn’t exist outside of individual practice and the collective beliefs and practices of an indigenous community. Trying to define it and grasp it in a physical form (like the big name religions or smaller pagan traditions), is like trying to catch moonlight with your bare hands. I will try the best I can to attempt it, but it will only ever be my own definition, experience, and research. Animism will always shape-shift person to person, tribe to tribe, region to region.

Animism is a philosophy backed up by practice, it is a way of life and a way of thought. Animism is your personal relationship with nature and with the inhuman spirits who inhabit and compose nature. It is a relationship of respect and value for all things and all beings, visible and invisible. All life is sacred and sentient, even those outside of your current definition of life and even those regarded as malevolent. Within a balanced ecosystem, all life serves a purpose– even those who may seem like the villain at first glance. Animism is the hands-on spirit work of building an awareness of and relationship with the spirits of plants, trees, fungi, animals, insects, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and the spirits of the dead buried under your feet. When you live within nature you realize you are a part of it, not separate from it. It becomes important to know as much about your surroundings as possible because your survival depends on your knowledge of and respectful treatment of the land, plants, and animals around you.

The Beliefs of Animism

Within the philosophy of animism there is no distinction between magic and mundane– all is magical and all is mundane simultaneously. Consider this for a minute: every act is an act of magic. Animism lacks pretentiousness and superfluousness – if an action or item serves no real purpose then it is disregarded. In my opinion, based in research and experience, this is why the same set of rituals are found in animistic practice throughout the world. Animism is made up of shared beliefs, but moreso it is a series of practices and rituals based on these beliefs.

Common beliefs found within animism include fetishism, totemism, the belief in the soul (or multi-faceted soul) and life force, the belief in the existence of noncorporeal or supernatural spirits who can affect human lives, the belief in a spirit realm or multiple other worlds, the reverence and worship of the dead, the existence and practice of ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’ (magic used by the layperson to gain influence over or protection from spirits), and the existence of some form of shaman (witch doctor, medicine man, fairy doctor, etc) with supernatural powers and the ability to travel between realms who acts as healer and mediator between humans and spirits.

Fetishism in the anthropological sense means the belief that something seemingly inanimate can be the embodiment of a powerful supernatural spirit (anything from a statue to a tree or a mountain), or that an object can be intentionally inhabited by a spirit (a fetish like a small stone, a pocket carving, a ritual tool, a skull). Some fetishes can be very personal and never shown to another person, where only the owner or family members can look upon it and seek help or powers from the spirit within it (such as root alrauns). Other fetishes belong to the community with standing stones, Slavic god-poles, and ancient Greek crossroad herms being fitting examples.

Totemism is an ancient belief and evidence for it is most easily found in cultural folk tales of creation. Totemism is the belief in an animal, tree, river, supernatural spirit, or other animate being as the original ancestor, creator god, or teacher/benefactor of a clan or tribe and used as its symbol. This belief may be most familiar within North American Native tribes who identify as various clans or houses of the raven, eagle, wolf, etc. The indigenous Ainu in Japan and Siberia were largely a bear cult. For the animistic Hmong people of China, it is an ancient warrior ancestor named Chiyou who is revered as the founder of their tribe, but their creator god Nplooj Lwg is a frog. Each tribe has its own history, stories, songs, symbolism, and physical representations of their totem (i.e. idols, masks, and ceremonial costumes). The belief in totemism is spread further than we may realize. For example, one of my familial Scottish clans once believed they were children of the Yew tree and it has been used as their totem and symbol for longer than there is written record of. You won’t find it on the coat of arms (a modern invention), but the curious belief persisted into modern day.

Shamanism is not animism. Shamanism is a practice found within cultures with animistic belief systems. Shamans are the leaders, healers, and spirit intermediaries of their animist tribe. They have supernatural abilities that allow them to work with spirits, work against spirits, heal relationships with spirits, heal physical damage or illness caused by spirits, and the ability to travel between our physical world and the dream world, the spirit world, the world of the dead and safely back again.

Ancestor worship is another universal commonality between animistic peoples and involves the belief in the existence of the soul after death which leads to an entire cult of ancestor reverence and worship within each culture. Where ancestor veneration is found, there is also a heavy importance and reverence placed on family, tribe, and elders. Ancestor worship is tenacious and survives conversion to other religions. Catholics still have an active ancestor cult through the worship of saints and the celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Buddhism and Shintoism both have a heavy focus on ancestor reverence and Japanese and Chinese Christians still actively practice ancestor veneration and maintain family ancestor shrines. It fascinates me that animism seems to always be bedfellows with ancestor worship. It makes sense to honour the spirits of the dead when following a practice so deeply rooted in working with spirits. It isn’t even debated in indigenous cultures, the ancestor cult is simply there alongside the people’s animism. The perfect example from Europe being the fairy-faith prevalent throughout many localities which is the combined belief in inhuman nature spirits and the spirits of the dead. Where you find the fairy-faith you find animism, and where you find animism you find ancestor worship.

The Rituals of Animism

The belief in a world full of spirits within animism leads to very specific sets of rituals with similar formulas followed across cultures. There will always be cultural differences in details and etiquette, but the ritual formulas usually contain similar steps. Before anything is done within an animist community, a ceremony is performed to ask permission of a specific set of spirits and to see if the results of the action will be favourable.

Whether you want to go hunting and foraging in the forest, fishing in a river, cut down a tree, build a new house, or ask approval of the ancestors to marry, you would first perform these steps:

  • Go to where the spirit(s) live (they can’t hear you if you’re not nearby).
  • Declare your intent aloud and request permission from the ruling spirit(s) of said place.
  • Submit a suitable and respectful offering to said spirit(s) and hope it is accepted.
  • Flatter the hell out of the spirit(s) with sweet words and songs (this can be the offering).
  • Ask for a specific and realistic sign of approval (the calls of animals, rain, or perform divination).
  • If you don’t receive the sign or something goes wrong, don’t do the thing.
  • If you receive the sign and everything seems sunshine and roses, go do the thing.
  • When you return from doing the thing successfully, thank the spirit(s) and leave a bigger offering.

Another step sometimes included is to threaten the spirit(s) which is mostly unheard of in modern Pagan and magical traditions, but very common in folk religions and animistic indigenous cultures. It has to be a good threat though and you have to know which spirits you can get away with threatening and which ones it would be incredibly disrespectful to threaten. Common threats include the withholding of offerings until a petition is granted or that you will tattle on the spirit to a fearsome boogeyman or the equivalent of the spirit’s mom or boss.

Purification & Blessing

Other common ceremonies are of purification and blessing and they will often go hand in hand with the formula above. Purification of the body and soul being performed before approaching spirits so one goes to them physically and spiritually clean as a sign of respect and also to remove any negative influences that may interfere with the petitioner’s intent. A ceremony of blessing is performed before any action is taken to help influence the best possible outcome whether the action is a journey, a marriage, a new baby, building a new house, or as simple as weaving cloth, going fishing, or cooking a meal. The Carmina Gadelica, a collection of oral incantations from Scotland from the late 1800s, is full of such rites of blessing covering everything from churning butter and blessing new livestock to waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Despite some Catholic imagery and wording, most of the incantations are sung or recited in the hope that fairies will stay away and not mess up people’s work or daily life.

Alignment

There is no real technical term for this belief and its rites. Alignment is the practice of attempting to more closely align yourself with a spirit whether it is an animal, plant, or ancestor. This can be achieved by ingesting or smoking a plant (or rubbing on a flying ointment) during ceremony to better connect to that plant or to a greater forest spirit, crafting a fetish from an animal claw or tooth to wear to imbue oneself with the powers of said animal, or even the ancient practice of cannibalizing the dead to re-absorb their soul and power into the community. Traditional indigenous ceremonies involving costumes and masks depicting sacred animals and supernatural spirits which involve dancing and mimicking the animals and spirits are also a form of alignment which a modern Wiccan would recognize as being similar in intent to drawing down the Moon.

The philosophy is simply: the closer you are to the intended spirit and the more you work with it, the more you take on attributes and powers associated with it. The more you work with the dead and are around death, the easier it will be to commune with the dead. The more you actively work with an animal spirit, the more you will take on its positive attributes and be able to call it to your aid. Alignment also shows respect as you are consciously seeking out a relationship with spirit through actions and offerings which will likely result in reciprocation from the spirit until it becomes a familiar, ally, or helper.

The Evil Eye

Rituals that involve deflecting or counteracting the evil eye also stem from animism and its belief in the existence of intentional and unintentional sorcery by both common people or supernatural means. The belief in the evil eye is found world wide and across cultures and it can be inflicted by humans, the dead, spirits, and deities. It can be an envious neighbour sending you hateful vibes over how awesome your milking cow is or a case of elfshot caused by an angry svartálfr. The belief in the evil eye can be so prevalent and strong that an entire community will base its ethics and etiquette around avoiding the evil eye by practicing humility and the deflection of praise. It was once very common in Ireland and Scotland to shout a warning and an apology simultaneously whenever emptying the dirty washing bucket or chamber pot outside so any nearby spirits had a chance to get out of the way rather than getting splashed with filth and cursing you for being disrespectful.

Protection

It is not a common belief of animistic peoples that spirits are generally benevolent and mean us well, it is in fact the opposite. Spirits are to be appeased to prevent harm, spirits are to be kept at a safe distance, and spirits are to be protected against by any means necessary. Spirits are considered benevolent, malevolent, chaotic, or neutral with the benevolent being the rarest and usually birthed from beneficial long-term relationships between humans and spirits. The pervasiveness and endless variety of protective charms and talismans found throughout time and different cultures demonstrates how much emphasis humankind has put on the need to be protected from harm, illness, spirits, demons, ghosts, and fairies.

Protection can be in the form of a ceremony or in the form of a consecrated talisman one is meant to wear or hang in one’s home. It is painting your face white before travelling to the underworld, wrapping yourself in an animal hide before visiting the spirit world, wearing a mask or making loud, offensive noises to scare away evil spirits, the burning of bonfires on dark liminal nights, the creation of spirit traps, the burning of special herbs, or the wearing of multi-coloured clothing or mirrored clothing to deflect spirits. Animistic rites of protection can be anything from a holy person blessing someone with powers of protection in a ceremony, a talisman being crafted and consecrated to protect a person, a family or a home, to an entire community dressing up as demons and processing through the town to scare away spirits and monsters for the coming year (yes, the seasonal Krampus parades in Europe!).

A big part of protection is prevention. Animistic cultures tend to try to keep spirits away from human homes, human settlements, agricultural areas, livestock, holy places, and roads and paths. Protections are put up to keep spirits out, spirits are verbally told they are not welcome, and more respectfully, places are designated for unwanted spirits to have for themselves and have offerings left to appease them (much like how outdwellers are treated in modern Druidry). I think we can all learn about having firm boundaries from animistic practices. You don’t invite the dark fairy to Sleeping Beauty’s baby blessing, but you better make sure to send her a nice gift basket for your rudeness! Only the spirits that you trust and are known to mean you well are invited into one’s home and to a community’s ceremonies. These welcome spirits are usually restricted to the family or tribe’s totems and ancestors and even then they have very specific names they are called by to make sure the right spirits show up an no harm is caused and specific etiquette is followed so these spirits feel respected and willing to be present and bestow blessings to the people.

Comparing Animism Within Paganism & Mainstream Cultures

“Animism is a monist metaphysical stance, based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances but an integrated reality, rooted in nature.”

Emma Restall Orr

Is animism Paganism? Considering that members of the Pagan community can barely agree on a definition of Pagan/ism for themselves this is not a simple question to tackle. So, instead of looking at the Pagan definition of Pagan, let’s look at the world’s definition of Pagan, which, across most dictionaries and encyclopedias, is “a follower or community practicing a polytheistic religion”. Under this definition, no, animism is not synonymous with Paganism because animism is not polytheism. It does, however, include the belief in many worlds and many spirits, but not necessarily the prescribed worship of them. Sometimes the spirits may be organized into categories (such as water, earth, sky, as well as mundane and supernatural spirits), but there are no set pantheons as a Pagan would recognize. Every cult of animism is different as one tribe would most highly revere the bear as it’s main “deity” and another may most intensely focus their beliefs and rituals around one type of tree. In all honesty, a lot of traditional animistic practices involve avoiding and appeasing spirits rather than seeking them out or worshipping them. Animism is more about respect for spirits and the appeasement of spirits to prevent harm or their involvement in human affairs.

The better questions to ask are: “does Paganism stem from animism?” and “does Paganism contain elements of animism?”. The answer is yes to both. The issue we come across in attempting to cross-compare religions with animism is that most cultures in history who practiced animism had no name for it and no definition for it. It is simply the original and enduring spirituality of humankind. It’s something you do, not something you write down. Despite how ancient its beliefs and practices are, animism is a modern term derived from Latin and coming from academia. People within the Pagan and witchcraft communities have only recently started to adopt it and discuss it. Sometimes it takes us a while to find the right word to describe what we believe and do. The traditional witches and new agers all swarmed to shamanism before many figured out that it’s a hard and not so common thing to be a shaman and what they were actually doing was animism. Many contemporary or ‘core’ shamans use the term shamanism as well when many of them really mean animism. Animism is an ideal word. It is an inoffensive term, it isn’t appropriated from another culture, it doesn’t have specific dogma behind it, and anyone can use it whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Heathen, Shintoist, Wiccan, or even atheist.

Animism is not a religion. Animism is the primal foundation of all religion.

Why is there no set definition of animism in the Pagan community and why does animism feel like a newcomer when, in fact, it contains the most ancient spiritual beliefs of humankind? Because animism is not a religion and does not sit at the same table as the big theisms of monotheism, polytheism, panentheism and their kin. There are no holy books, no churches, no doctrines or dogma, and only a handful of books and articles directed to would-be practitioners coming only from a subculture niche-market within the Pagan community. The entire bulk of information on animistic belief comes from the academic study of indigenous cultures (anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, and ethnobotany), academic studies of plants and animals (botany and zoology), and mainstream culture. A good chunk of these studies pre-2000 comes from the outdated boy’s club of anthropology who did not paint indigenous cultures in a flattering light, often drawing the conclusion that animism is for the primitive, savage, less intelligent, and less knowledgeable people. They were so very wrong and animism is currently undergoing a massive mainstream resurgence with the potential to render eco-centered NeoPaganism obsolete. Modern science it leading us as a whole back to animism. The irony is perfectly glorious.

It is the tendency of the Pagan community to denigrate the mainstream and separate themselves from it. We should stop doing that. We are a part of the whole too. Whether you like it or not, you are part of the mainstream (the dictionary definition, not the negative Urban Dictionary definition). Animism is currently taking a much bigger foothold in the mind of the ordinary person than it ever has to Pagans. Somewhere along the line, Pagans became sidetracked and self-absorbed with the aesthetic trappings of our community and its practices and forgot about why we ended up in Paganism in the first place. Wasn’t it to find an alternative spiritual belief? One that honours the earth, nature, and our connection to spirit? When did the eco-centredness of the Paganism of the 60s and 70s dissipate? Probably at the same time the mainstream became tired with hearing the same messages about saving the earth over and over again in media and film. Why does every day Joe and every non-Pagan herbalist I’ve ever met have a better grasp of animism than the Pagan community (many of whom are unconsciously animists)? Well, when did we stop looking up from our own fantasy world to see what was going on around us? Animistic belief and philosophy is currently being fed through mainstream media to every Dick and Jane. It’s time for us to pay attention too. Animism is here, spilling over and soaking into everything and everyone like the massive spring floods inundating my county right now.

It is a good thing. This could be so important to our survival and the preservation of the earth! It’s time to stop looking solely within our tiny niche subculture and step out to look at the big picture. Never forget history is being made as we live and breathe. The changes in spiritual movements and philosophical beliefs happening right now will affect our long-term future. This is potentially a very big deal.

Animism in the Media

If you don’t believe that animism is becoming household philosophy and infiltrating mass media with absolutely no direct relation to the Pagan movement, let’s take a brief look at the news shall we? This is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg when it comes to animism in the news. Seriously, I can’t even count how many articles I found on the sentience and intelligence of plants, trees, fungi, insects, and animals, the belief in spirits, as well as the practice of ancestor worship.

BBC News: Do we underestimate the power of plants and trees?

“We are convinced that plants are cognitive and intelligent, so we use techniques and methods normally used to study cognitive animals.”

Business Insider: Researchers Have Found Plants Know They Are Being Eaten

“A new study from the University of Missouri shows plants can sense when they are being eaten and send out defense mechanisms to try to stop it from happening.”

Orion Magazine: The Axis and the Sycamore

“This is what we do, we humans. We came down from the trees and now we destroy them. The older I get, the harder it is to take this; the harder it is even to look at it. It is long overdue that we start the restitution.”

Psychology Today: Are Plants Entering the Realm of the Sentient?

“When plants seem to be behaving like animals, we must reconsider whether intelligence truly is an exclusively animal trait.”

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: Are Trees Sentient Beings?

“Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world’s forests we must first recognize that trees are ‘wonderful beings’ with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.”

New York Magazine: Our Behavior Toward Animals Hasn’t Caught Up to the Science

“Not only must we seriously address sources of human-induced suffering, but we must also work to create a world in which animals are free to live their own lives and make their own choices. After all, humans aren’t the only intelligent beings on Earth.”

Quartz: People who talk to pets, plants, and cars are actually totally normal according to science

“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown. I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity.”

Quartz: Insects may be able to feel fear, anger, and empathy after all

“To be strictly honest, we still can’t say to what degree insects experience emotions yet, although these early experiments are certainly setting the foundations for a future where we recognize that all animals have emotions of some sort.”

The Independent: Fish are sentient animals who form friendships and experience positive emotions

“What this study shows is certainly they change the way they perceive their environment when others are present, which suggests they might be cognitively more complex than we originally thought. Maybe because of that people will become more aware of their needs and welfare issues. I think if it helps, it’s great.”

Huffington Post: Law of Mother Earth: A Vision from Bolivia

“Mother Earth has the following rights: to life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living. And it further outlines the obligations of the State and the people to these principles and rights as a binding societal duty.”

Mother Nature Network: Can human rights save Mother Nature?

“Our current legal system is anthropocentric, extremely human-centered, believing that all of nature exists purely to serve human needs. Contrast this with a holistic framework of law that puts our existence on this planet within its ecological context. Ecosystems and other species would have legal personality, like corporations, with the right to exist, to thrive, to regenerate, and to play their role in the web of life.”

The Guardian: Now rivers have the same legal status as humans, we must uphold their rights

“What does it mean for a river to have the rights of a person? If the most fundamental human right is the right to life, does it mean the river should be able to flow free, unfettered by obstructions such as dams? Does the right extend to all creatures in the river system?”

Time Magazine: Tribes appease spirits after tourists strip naked on Malaysia’s sacred mountain

“Did a group of foreigners who took their clothes off at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu cause an earthquake? It’s up to the spirits to decide, according to the Lotud tribe of Sabah state.”

Resonate: Why Thailand Shrines Offer Strawberry Fanta to Ghosts

“The dark spirits won’t go so far as to kill you but if Thai people have accidents, people say it’s because they didn’t give offerings to the spirits. You don’t take care of them? They won’t take care of you. You’ll start arguing with your family. Stuff will go missing. You’ll fall ill…”

Sixth Tone: Why Bans on Paper Money Will Anger China’s Ghosts

“Several provinces have proposed eliminating the practice of burning paper money during ancestor worship. Some local governments have even banned its burning and manufacture outright, while also taking steps to discourage feudal superstitions such as burning paper idols made to resemble people, horses, or cattle. This is a foolish move, in my opinion, as it strikes a heavy blow to the roots of deep-seated traditional belief systems.”

Morocco World News: Timeless Belief in Saints and Spirits in Morocco

“Despite Morocco’s increasing modernization and industrialization, saints are still celebrated, and spirits continue to be an influence in everyday cultural practices. The Moroccan people continue to celebrate saints and spirits by preserving holy places, holding festivals, and observing practices to avoid the wrath of spirits.”

BBC Magazine: Living with the Dead

“To outsiders, the idea of keeping a dead man’s body on show at home feels quite alien. Yet for more than a million people from this part of the world – the Toraja region of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia – it’s a tradition dating back centuries. Here, animist beliefs blur the line between this world and the next, making the dead very much present in the world of the living.”

Animism in Mainstream Publishing

Now let’s take a look at some mainstream and best-selling books with heavy themes of animism and its role in anthropology and ecology. The titles may not always include the term animism, but the contents are specifically animistic. I left out non-Pagan books on ancestor worship as that would require a whole post on its own just to list them! I also left out academic anthropology books as again that would require it’s own reading list.

Academic

Animals

Okay, there were a lot more than this, but let’s keep it to these three well-recommended ones.

Plants, Trees & Fungi

Animism, Rewilding & Ecology

Animism in Pagan Publishing

Lastly, let’s take a look at books published by the Pagan community intended to focus on animism:

Glennie Kindred (who I love) almost gets us there, almost. There are also the works of Lupa Greenwolf, a main proponent and organizer of the Otherkin movement which she’s since distanced herself from (think Pagan furries but with dragons and fairies too). She mainly focuses on writing about totemism and animal familiars.

I’ve obviously left out the truly terrible books on communing with angels, fairies, and nature spirits (I just couldn’t give them free advertising). Notice only one of these books actually has “animism” in the title… well, subtitle. If you want more than that, then you have to get into fairy territory which can get very woo woo and away from the reality of animism very fast if you aren’t careful. Or, you need to look at books written by the druidic and contemporary shamanic communities — which again do not directly mention or describe animism, but do talk about working with nature and spirits in a very animistic way. I didn’t have much luck finding serious Pagan books on the actual practice of ancestor veneration, but instead have found a lot of goth-esque books on necromancy, sigh. You guys are stuck with The Pagan Book of Living & Dying for now.

Pretty sad when you compare the list of mainstream books to Pagan ones, hey?  It’s like the Pagan community dances around animism because many of us have never heard the term and none of us are exactly sure what it even is or if we’re doing it… If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to define animism to a member of the Pagan, witchcraft, and shamanic communities, I would be significantly richer. It’s just another “ism” under the umbrella of Paganism, isn’t it? It’s just another word for shamanism, isn’t it? Alas, no. It is the “ism” all religions were birthed from. We Pagans have a tendency to label anything with magical potency that is outside of the Judeo-Christian realm as “pagan” whether it is or not. It’s just not the right term though, especially coming from academic or mainstream standpoints.

It’s time to open ourselves up to the fact that a lot of spiritual practitioners we really want to define as pagan aren’t actually pagan, don’t want to be ‘capital P’ Pagans, don’t want or need to be considered under the umbrella term of Paganism, and don’t want to be a part of the modern Pagan community (this includes many cultural traditions such as rootwork and Vodou along with non-Pagan polytheistic religions like Hinduism). More and more people want their spirituality without the velvet robes, festival garb, mystical accessories, foreign lexicons, magical names, and woo-woo-ness in general. Animism is the simple path away from this to a place of common ground. It requires nothing but yourself and what already exists in a traditional culture, in nature, and in the ethereal realms.

Animism doesn’t require proselytization, it appeals to a mass audience without lifting a finger or even being directly named.

Once upon a time I introduced a group of my friends from the Pagan/Wiccan community to local shamanic community who were very animistic in nature and, lo and behold, many of them converted within a year with more following in consecutive years. Why? They had never known those alternate beliefs and practices were even an option. No one had told them, they didn’t come across other options from their teachers and elders, and none of the Pagan literature really talked about alternatives. The living practice of animism filled a void they didn’t even know existed in their Pagan practice. Some members of the local Pagan community were not happy. In trying to build a bridge between the two communities I had lessened their numbers. We can too often be crabs in the bucket desperately trying to pull each other back in, but instead we should let people be free to open their minds to new ways of thought and different ways of defining their spirituality and how it relates to the everyday world. Stop trying to collect every spiritual belief under the umbrella of Paganism to increase our numbers and fall into the trap of validating that ours is the one true way. Allow a massive diversity to flourish. Beauty is found in diversity. Maybe it’s time to apply some principles of permaculture to our views of spiritual beliefs and see faiths as ecosystems with each one playing an important role to a community and the whole of humanity.

Let’s have another example. Remember that time I was forcibly removed as keynote speaker for a polytheism conference because I said I was an animist in a podcast interview… even though beforehand I had told the conference board members (who requested me to be the speaker in the first place) that I was not a polytheist but an animist just like my website said and “were they sure they wanted me to be the keynote?” There was no opportunity for me to speak for myself, I was simply informed I was removed and didn’t get a chance to explain that one could believe in the existence of deities without feeling the need to worship them and, alternately, one could be an animist and work with deity simultaneously. It was a fun PR disaster and a learning opportunity.

Animism and polytheism are seldom found separated in history. Our lack of understanding and ability to define animism and its relation to polytheism is going to continually get us into trouble. We are already at the point where the ‘layperson’ gets it and we don’t. It is time to educate ourselves and each other to prevent future misunderstandings and to prevent us from getting left behind in animism’s wake across the world.

On that note, here is my personal Pagan-friendly recommended reading list in alphabetical order by title. As always, I also encourage you to seek out books on the animism and fairy and folk tales of your own cultural heritage too. Go forth, read, and share!

The Animism Reader

Related Articles by Sarah Anne Lawless

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Awake from the Dream to the Nightmare of Reality

By | Ecological Consciousness | 23 Comments

“We are pitted against an industrial industry which fabricates our dreams for us and insinuates them through our culture and our language.

These dreams dreamt for us are destroying the very fabric of the planet. They are the projection of a civilization in utter crisis. In a terrifying circle we are being forced into deeper dream to cope with this. As witches we must dare to confront this rather than seek comfort.

We must look at our world as it is, and it is a desperate and painful ordeal to undergo. Yet the pain of the world is what we are masking by accepting the false dreams of our fallen empire whose jaws still devour even in its death throes.”

~ Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft p.42

I have grown tired of sitting silently watching the world burn.  I was quiet through the abuse of two narcissistic ex common law partners who were accepted members of my spiritual community. I didn’t want to hurt their lives, burn bridges, or come off as a bitter harpy my community would write off as crazy so I bit my tongue when I should have screamed to others how they were hurting me and would continue hurting others.  How I had left one abuser and, after a couple years of healing, ended up with another who was even worse. I felt weak and stupid, like it was my fault. But they lie so well, it could happen to anyone. I have only spoken out recently to my friends about what I went through, the years of verbal and emotional abuse, the genuine fear that next time he wouldn’t punch the wall or a stranger, but me. How both men told me I was the crazy one, it was all in my head… they weren’t doing anything wrong. I am a strong woman and it crushed my soul to be fooled twice. It is not fair to have to be so strong, to have to stand up to your abuser, to stand up for your own sanity on a daily basis. I still live in fear that it will happen to me again.

And now I sit here in the middle of nowhere in the apocalyptic, snow-covered landscape of rural Canada and watch it happen to entire nations of people. I weep as I realize humanity is the sociopathic narcissist spouse and the Earth is our abused victim. I weep as I realize our governments and the big corporations who fund them are the sociopathic narcissistic spouse to we, the common people. Nature screams for help, for an end to its repeated torture, and the oppressed people cry out for their plight to be heard. But the screams fall on deaf ears devoid of empathy for even we, the people of the Earth, have become so disconnected from Nature and from each another that we have become accomplices to monsters.

The Nightmares of Nature

I’ve seen the photos of the horrifying tar sands of Alberta. I watched our former Canadian prime minister remove environmental protections on national parks and conservation areas so they can be mined for resources and have pipelines built through them. I’ve watched oil pipelines continuously be signed off on by federal governments without the approval of local governments or the First Nations whose lands the lines will be built through. I’ve watched entire towns and Native reserves be paid off so they would be forced to agree to pipelines because they are too poor to say no to the bribe. It wasn’t a distant reality for me, it happened to my beloved sacred Burnaby Mountain where I lived. Despite its status as a conservation area, trees were cut, helicopter landing pads were built, samples were taken, and a pipeline will be built right through the heart of the mountain out to the sea inlet on the other side so tankers can ship oil to China.

Protesters came in droves, local residents fought back, First Nations set up a camp, and even the city mayor and other local officials protested and took legal action against it despite the risk of their going to prison. The police showed up in riot gear and the protester camp was dismantled. People did go to prison. None of it mattered, the pipeline was just approved by our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This pipeline will go right through densely populated residential areas, elementary and high schools, a major university, and an environmental conservation area with a natural aquifer that feeds salmon habitats. We have all heard of the movement protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and while it is the biggest protest against pipeline construction, it is by far not the only one. This is happening throughout North America, as are spills and explosions from existing pipelines, some of which have been covered up so they would not affect other pipeline projects undergoing the approval process. What is the local consensus? “Tell those hippies to stop whining and let the pipeline construction start.” Because apparently only “hippies” care about clean water, clean soil, keeping our protected green spaces green and protected, and not having schools full of children burn to the ground.

We focus on the pipelines, but our environment is under attack from more than big oil and the horrors of fracking. Mountains are being leveled for coal, the earth is being mined to depletion, pollution is not being addressed or reduced – not nearly enough to save us. More animal and plant species are becoming extinct every day than we could ever save, than we have ever had record of happening in history. Entire habitats and ecosystems are being destroyed. Dead animals fall from the sky and dead animals wash up on shorelines en masse. Animals starve to death and people starve to death. The earth, sea, and sky are all contaminated with the refuse of our greed and industrialization. The EPA has been gagged and scientists have been gagged – not just in the USA, but also in China and elsewhere. Our addictions to capitalism, progress, growth, and technology will destroy our world and inevitably ourselves.

The Nightmares of Civilization

I watched the UK vote in favour of Brexit based on an anti-immigration platform with a forthcoming repeal of the Human Rights Act. I’ve watched the “migrant crisis” in Europe lead to extreme xenophobia, racial tensions, and violence against immigrants. It foreshadowed the escalation of racist and anti-immigrant views in the USA which were a big factor in Donald Trump winning the presidency.  I’ve watched the Black Lives Matter movement with hope in my heart despite the ensuing violence and bigoted responses. I watched the women march worldwide for their rights in numbers that no protest has ever amassed in history and felt great hope despite even women telling them to stop whining and go home… and then I watched Trump take away American women’s reproductive rights and every American’s right to affordable healthcare only days later.

I am sick of hearing what new horrors against civil rights and human rights Trump’s regime has committed on a daily basis. I’m sick of seeing what rights the state governments decide to take away from their people while Trump is in power. The recent Muslim ban in the US may have been very poorly executed and enforced, but it still happened despite people’s disbelief. I am appalled that the prejudice and violence is bleeding into my own beloved Canada, one of the most peaceful countries in the world. Who will be the next target? All immigrants? First Nations? All non-whites? The LGBTQ community? Journalists? More scientists and academics? The disabled and developmentally challenged? Anyone of a non-Christian religion? No one has the luxury of feeling safe.

It is all so terrible and yet we’ve all been focusing so heavily on what is going on in the USA, Europe, and the UK that we aren’t looking closely enough at Russia’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine and elsewhere, the devastating economic crisis in Venezuela, and the frightening chaos the Middle East which has led to the waves of refugees and anti-immigrant stances and violence in the West. Not to mention we’ve already forgotten the recent revolutions in Libya and Egypt, recent horrific natural disasters that have devastated entire countries, and the ongoing major financial crises worldwide.

Awake and Rise Up

Things are not okay people. We are not going to be okay. The apocalypse isn’t a myth or a possible future, we are living it in the here and now. We have gone too far, we are too many, and we have caused too much harm. This time it won’t just be the fall of an empire mimicking the fall of Rome. It will be the fall of humanity and the destruction of the Earth. All of civilization and all of nature is at risk.

It makes me physically sick to see people who watch it all happening and stay silent and think it’s not their problem. It makes me ill to see people agree with the oppressors and their vile beliefs and actions promoting racism, xenophobia, social injustice, and harm to the environment. It breaks my heart to see people protest injustice in great numbers only to go back to their normal lives of satellite tv, starbucks coffee, yoga, and mindless phone scrolling the day after as if one protest would solve the problem and their work was done; someone else will do the rest. Have we become so numb, so insensitive that we can ignore the pain of other people and the cruelty we enact on Nature? Have we become so dumb or so numb that we cannot see through obvious lies and propaganda?

Don’t you dare sit on your hands and pretend it was enough. Don’t you see this is only the beginning and there is much worse to come? If you don’t remove the comfort of illusion for yourself, it will be violently stripped from you in the short-term future when it is too late for you to act. You are human and you should care what happens to everyone on this planet, not just what happens within your proximity or what you think will affect you. We can’t afford to be selfish and self-centered anymore. We can’t afford to naysay those who stand up to fight oppression and tell them “it’s not what Paganism is about” or “stop it, you’re making us look bad”.  In doing so you are feeding and encouraging the cycle of abuse. You are abusing your privilege and essentially telling queers, women, first nations, people of colour, and immigrants that their cause doesn’t matter, that their rights don’t matter, that their lives don’t matter. You are telling environmentalists and stewards that all life on earth doesn’t matter. You are telling the spirits of nature that you care not if they all perish.

Don’t look away, don’t cover your ears. Force yourself to see the hate and evil swirling through the world like a deadly north wind. Look at the pain, feel the pain.  Be thankful you have empathy. Be vigilant and when evil words become evil actions, speak out, act out. Do not remain silent, do not cast your eyes down. Humanity is all one, we are all brothers and sisters, we all share the same ancestors – all of us. You protect and fight for your family. Don’t you dare be apathetic or you are doing as much harm as the evil doers. Shout and scream, point your witch’s finger at the evil doers and name them for all to see. Don’t you ever stop fighting, don’t you ever lay down, don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you are crazy to fight injustice, that it’s all in your head and you should shut up and go home.

Something is very wrong with our world today, with humanity today. Your heart knows for it is breaking, your body knows for your stomach churns with vomit, your spirit knows for it is screaming, and your mind knows even if you try to ignore it. Do not let the words of others sway you from the truth. To be open, to care… it will hurt so much, you will just want it to be over, you will want to give up, you will want to die. If you give in, if too many of us give in, then the evil doers win. Fight your fear and fight the pain. Fear is the mindkiller, fear is the little death. Let it pass over and through you… Become the thing evil fears instead.

Feed the Mind to Fire the Soul

This is not about politics this is about LIFE. This is about human rights, this is about Nature’s rights. Educate yourself. Find the voices who are speaking up, speaking out, and demanding action. Read Apocalyptic Witchcraft, read Rewilding Witchcraft, read Aradia, read The Dark Mountain Manifesto, read the works of Gods & Radicals (like this one: “Beyond Resistance“), follow the #WeAreAradia hashtag on facebook and twitter, follow T. Thorn Coyle, and fuck, read some Starhawk. Let yourself become incensed, your blood boiling with rage at injustice.  When you are armed with knowledge, act. Do not fear, they should fear you, fear us, and what we might do. The evil doers depend on our goodness and kindness to result in inaction, in peace. When the enemy has no empathy, nothing can stir their hearts to guilt or compassion. You do not fight battles with kind words and hugs. You cut the head off the snake and put it on a pike on public display so the other snakes slither away back into their dark holes. There must be consequences for evil or evil will prevail, spreading across the earth like a plague.

“And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all in the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul with power;
And when ye find a peasant who is rich,
Then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil, how
To ruin all his crops with tempests dire,
With lightning and with terrible thunder,
And the hail and wind…”

~ Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches of Italy

Remind yourself. Read science fiction, watch science fiction — those that focus on the worst outcomes and the best. Read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, read The Hunger Games, read 1984, fuck, read Harry Potter again. Watch V for Vendetta, District 9, Avatar, and The Matrix and then watch Star Trek to cheer yourself up and give you hope for humanity.

Band together, stop infighting, stop the pettiness. No one really cares what tradition you’re from, what you’re lineage or pedigree is, who your teachers were, or if you think you’re better than others because of it.  It doesn’t matter when we all wear a target. In this world of horrors it only matters what you can do with what you’ve learned. Your actions speak worlds louder than empty arguments about who is more legitimate or powerful, who has a better origin story.

We need poets, we need artists, we need musicians, we need writers, we need activists, we need warriors, and we most definitely need witches. Use your talents to resist, to fight in any way you can.

What world do you want for your children, for the descendants of humanity? Do we say “sorry descendents, we could’ve fought back but we were afraid or in denial and now you have to live with this nightmare we allowed –another Hitler, another atrocity to human rights, and another environmental disaster for the history books.” Or, do we rise up and fight back, scream at the top of our lungs at injustice, protect Mother Earth with every fibre of our being, and create a better world? A world where greed, power, money, and fear have no place. A free world where we treat each other fairly and compassionately. A world where the rich don’t rule over the poor. A world where our borders are as open as our hearts. A world where Nature has rights just as we humans have rights.

We are many, we are strong. Globalization and the internet have connected us all, we should use it to our advantage before it too is restricted or taken from us. We need a worldwide revolution. If we band together all races, all religions, and stand up against tyranny, we will win by numbers alone. We outnumber the rich, we outnumber the powerful. The only weapon they have against us is our fear of them and our belief in their evil propaganda. Rise up.

Magical Actions

Read the first two chapters of Aradia, or the Gospel of Witches and perform the sabbat ritual from the second chapter every full moon to the best of your or your group’s ability. It was designed to call upon the great goddess to free the poor and oppressed and do away with their oppressors. As the ritual proscribes not to reward the goddess with offerings and celebration aside from the lunar cakes of meal, salt, honey, wine, and water outlined in the rite until the goal is reached, hold off on the last instructions for celebration, but perform the rite every full moon.  Then have the sabbat party of a lifetime when your group’s goal is reached. It’s a bit like calling your local representative once every month with the same demand until they give in.

Perform The Witches’ Reel and summon the oncoming storm… just remember exacting specificity of your target is very important.

Curse. Whatever your tradition, whatever your comfort level. Again, specificity is key.

Take Sable Aradia’s advice from the end of her article: “The Magical Battle of Britain“.

Perform rituals of protection: protection for those in danger of harm, protection for your group/coven, protection for your family and friends, and personal protection for you. Consecrate protective talismans for your home, vehicle, and to carry on your body.

Purify all the things with incense, smudge, florida water, and other herbs or tools in your witch’s arsenal. Make your home your sanctuary — a place of peace and safety. Cleanse yourself after negative altercations with people who support prejudice, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and harm to the environment. A bath or shower followed with a prayer is definitely good enough.

Practical Actions

Pace yourself, don’t burn out. Try not to spend too much time each day reading all the terrible news articles, quotes, and memes. It’s okay to unplug from the internet, turn off your phone, and watch a stupid comedy or stay in bed all day with books, snacks, and tea. Remember to practice self-care. You can’t help others if you yourself are not functional and spiralling downward into anxiety and depression from sensory overload. Britton from Archaic Honey has some great ideas for looking after yourself in her “A Witches Resistance & Action List“.

Create art, poetry, words, and music that fight back and reveal wrongdoings or alternately spread a message of love, compassion, and understanding to unite us in our differences.

Plant trees. Plant them properly. Research first. Don’t plant aggressive trees over water or sewer lines. Don’t plant shallow rooted trees in public spaces near walkways or streets. Space them properly away from each other and away from buildings – trees get huge and their root systems are much larger than what you can see of the tree above the earth. For the tree to survive the planting and become established it must be watered and cared for at least 3-5 years after it is planted.

Learn how to cook, learn herbalism, learn how to grow and preserve your own food, and learn about edible and medicinal native plants. Learn basic survival skills from books, websites, and your local wilderness schools. Pack a bug-out bag and have an escape plan ready in case disaster strikes. Learn how to take care of yourself and your loved ones.

Beware the false hope of online petitions. To petition one’s government, hundred of thousands of signatures are needed before they’ll even put it on the pile of petitions to be debated and even if you have millions of signatures, it is still destined to fail. You need to consider who it is that approves the petitions. If the local government is against your cause, it’s likely going to be outright denied and tossed in the trash. Even if your petition does attain enough signatures to be debated by your government, the statistics still show it will likely be denied no matter how many signatures there are and no matter how important the cause is. If you insist on signing petitions, consider anyone can start a petition and there will be many duplicates with the same intent spread around the internet. Find the one that has the most shares, the most signatures, and the most potential to actually be successful before you put your name on it.

Support women’s rights, First Nations rights, religious rights, immigrant rights, racial equality, LGBTQ rights, environmental stewardship, etc. Donate, volunteer, protest, or harass your local government officials through legal means.

Take away your support. Follow the money and stop supporting the businesses and corporations that support hurting people’s civil and human rights or actions which harm the environment (Monsanto and Dupont anyone?). Americans have boycotted banks for funding the Dakota Access Pipeline and started the #GrabYourWallet hashtag for listing companies that line Trump’s pockets. Take your money away from where it counts most. When there are as many of us as there are, voting with your dollar can often count more and hurt more than with a ballot.

Speak out and act out when you see injustice happening in front of you – in your covens, your meetup groups, your online forums and facebook groups, and outside of your spiritual community too. Help those being harassed in public, by peers, in your school, in your workplace. Same thing when you see someone causing harm to the environment. Say something, report it, tell human resources, tell the police, tell a journalist… Educate the ignorant by calling them out on their harmful behaviour and showing them there are consequences.

Go to protests if you feel the call, but don’t go uneducated. Don’t be incited to violence or destruction of property. Have a back up plan, bring a cellphone, and tell friends and family where you are going. Consider the fact you may be arrested, arrange bail, and know your legal rights and how to deal with the police before you even leave the house.

Don’t give up.

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Rewilding Realities in Small Towns

By | Ecological Consciousness, Featured | 21 Comments

shroom-n-toad

Here there is a constant chorus of tree frogs, crickets, and birdsong that never stops, even in the darkness when the bats fly over the creek  to hunt mosquitoes. I see the black and white flash of a skunk ducking into a hollow, a fat black and yellow garter snake hunting frogs and field mice, scores of tiny brown and black toads leaping away from my feet as I walk, and blue jays, woodpeckers, robins, and grackles zip over my head without fear.  A red fox runs through the brush, a mother deer and her two fawns munch on tender greens in a meadow, porcupines scrabble up trees, startled wild rabbits dart out in front of you, and gaggles of wild turkeys roam freely.

I am not in the wild, I am not in a nature conserve or a provincial park. I am in a small town of 600 people in rural Ontario with a house and garage on a 1/3 of an acre. I can walk to every  shop in 2 minutes that people have to drive to in the city. Other times I am at my parents’ 83 acre farm which is only ten minutes away and surrounded by other farms. This place is called Killaloe, after the small town of Killaloe in Ireland. Founded by Irish settlers in the 1800s, it now hosts a mixture of people with Irish, German, and Polish backgrounds. Hippies moved in the 1960s and started farming. Thanks to them, people are pretty open minded and liberal here. There is a local accent and a required local attitude of friendliness and hospitality (my neighbour admitted he gives the finger to people who don’t wave hello back to him because it’s such a great offense). The town and surrounding farms are filled with pockets of wildness. The people here didn’t see fit to “civilize” every inch of town or even their farms, especially since most are hunters who understand they need the wilderness to be healthy homes for turkeys and deer to hunt to take home for food over the winter. Just look at the view below. I am standing on the footbridge in the middle of town, I can see my house across the creek, but it is so very green and full of trees it doesn’t look like I’m in a town at all.

I can see my house from here

It amuses me to no end that I now live in “cottage country”. This is where the people of Ottawa and Toronto come every summer to escape the city and enjoy nature. When they do come, the town’s population triples (okay, it’s more the number of cars in town that triple). You can tell a cottager apart from a local because the city-dwelling cottager won’t return your wave hello, but instead ducks their head and runs. It took a bit for it to sink in, that I will live year round where people go to vacation. Sometimes I wonder if they ever think of moving here permanently?  A handful of retirees do, but most only come in the summer after black fly season.

Why am I here? To be close to family for one. What a difference to be 10 minutes away from my parents, instead of thousands of miles when you have a child –especially a little boy who loves his grampa and gramma so dearly. I am two hours away from my father’s parents and his brothers and their wives and their children and their children who all live in the huge capital city of Ottawa. I am four hours from Maxville, an early Scottish settlement where my mother’s father is from, I am six hours from Montreal where both my parents are from and where I lived for a time in my early 20s (I’ve lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Barrie, and on Lake Simcoe too), and I am six hours from Toronto where my sister and my mom’s siblings live.

Scenes from Killaloe

Tearful Lament of the City Dweller

If you love the city, the art, the culture, the food, the events –I am happy for you and for my good friends who feel the same. This piece is not for you. This piece is for those who, like me, long to live near nature and experience a healthy ecosystem on a daily basis instead of seeing a once contained city eat up every nearby town, and crawl up every mountain until everything is a suburb and there is no space left between. It scares me a bit that it can take hours just to drive out of a city to reach nature.

I am here because I could not live in the wilderness in my beloved British Columbia. I couldn’t take the city anymore or the rudeness of the people and the extreme overcrowding. Any cool event I tried to go to was ruined by the thousands of people trying to fit into a space meant for 200. It’s my own theory that when you get millions of people living elbow to elbow in a city, they stop thinking of and treating other people as humans. We can only remember a few hundred faces, and we were only ever meant to live in social groups that large. Take public transit for a week in a large city and find out how considerate people are. I didn’t think it was quite that bad (okay, Toronto was) until I was pregnant and had a baby in a stroller while taking public transit. I was never given a seat and people actually tried to kick and push over the stroller on multiple occasions with me screaming “what’s wrong with you?!” and no one intervening, but instead looking away or pretending they were asleep. The last time I took public transit in Vancouver before I moved it was so bad I broke down crying before I even reached my destination and just went home.

Mayne Island - Gulf Islands

Wood cob house on Mayne Island

Mayne Island is so lovely, I really wanted to move there…

After months of researching and scouring listings, I realized I could never afford to buy property where I wanted to live. After I wiped away the tears shared by many of my generation who realize they can never afford a home and land of their own, I looked into renting where I wanted to live instead. I was immediately stopped by the ‘vacation rental’ roadblock. It seemed like everyone renting out houses in the rural small towns and islands outside of the Lowermainland was trying to make big money from tourists instead of looking for long term renters. I did not like the idea of having to move once or twice a year because a landlord kicked me out to rent the property to tourists for three times the price instead.

Maybe there were some more tears. Then I moved on to Plan C (a girl’s got to have multiple back up plans). Move back to my beloved Burnaby Mountain and live in co-operative housing near friends and lots of local pagan and shamanic events. I would technically still be in the city, but my son would grow up surrounded by woodland and a huge nature conservation area that I love dearly. It was not to be. Along came Kinder-Morgan and a federal government who removed the protections on the nature conserve so they could build an oil pipeline through the mountain to fill tankers in the inlet on the other side to send to China. Because nothing says “build an underground oil pipeline here” like a wild mountain that is a massive natural aquifer and wild salmon habitat. Yes there was a great uprising of locals and environmentalists protesting, but the overall attitude of the city dwellers was “put those hippies in jail and build the pipeline already.” It was heartbreaking, there were more tears.

The Farm

The Farm

This spring I was in Killaloe visiting my parents at the farm for a month, trying to catch up on writing while getting a much needed break. My father took my son and I on a walk around the farm. He took me to see his chair. Of course it wasn’t a chair –this is the man who regularly beats his bounds as if his old Irish soul is performing ancient magics he doesn’t realize. In the centre of his property on a hedge of  stone and trees between two fields, on top of a massive granite stone, he had build a wood platform. I laughed, it was Odin’s high seat and it was the high seat of the kings of ancient Ireland. He climbed up, I handed him the baby, and I climbed up. You could see the entirety of his property. The fields, the forests, the pond, the marshes, and the rolling hills in the distance. It was beautiful. “I like to drink my coffee here in the morning and look at my land. One day this will all be yours, your sister’s, and your son’s.”

As I climbed back down into the field it hit me like a ton of bricks: why was I looking for land out West when my family already owned land in Ontario? Why had I been stubbornly insisting on staying in British Columbia for so many years? My father had been trying to convince me to move to town since he bought the farm a decade ago when he retired. I looked at my son and I wanted him to have the croaking frogs, the fireflies, the hooting owls, the deer, the incredible swathes of green space, and the creek to go fishing in. I wanted him to have all those things now dead and forgotten in the cities. Sometimes there are bits of nature, but we tell our children to look and not touch. I realized I could transport my animism and bioregionalism to this place. I could pull up my roots and transplant them to a new home. As we walked back to the house I half-jokingly said to my father and mother “if you find me a house with air conditioning, I will move here.”

The New House

The New House

Well, they obviously took me quite seriously because here I am. A friend of my mother’s from church had died in March. She was elderly and it was sudden. Her children put the house up for sale themselves. My mother remembered one time when we were driving through town and we stopped to see the house. I took one look at the land and fell in love. The price helped too. My monthly mortgage payment is half what I paid for rent in the city for a tiny low-ceiling basement suite. The same German family had lived in the house for the past 50-60 years. The two sons and the daughter were so happy to sell it to a family. There was only one beautiful hydrangea in the yard planted for beauty alone, everything else was edible or medicinal. My yard is full of pear, apple, crabapple, and wild plum fruit trees. There are rose and currant bushes and wild violets everywhere. There is a huge raspberry patch, two giant garden plots, and a big compost. Birch, linden, maple, cedar and fir trees were strategically planted around the house for shade. The trees do their job so well we’ve only had to use the air conditioner twice since moving in this summer. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly this summer. Suddenly I had a house and land and was out of the city.

The view from my kitchen windows

The view from my kitchen table

The house needed fixing up, but mostly just cosmetic since it was built in the late 1950s. Some putty, some paint, some new flooring in a couple rooms, and it looks just lovely now. There’s a great big oak kitchen with a wood cookstove and a beautiful view of the yard from the table. There’s a big livingroom, a big bathroom, and smaller bedrooms upstairs. Downstairs is your typical dark and scary basement – it even has a dirt floor root cellar. It will just be used for food storage and for overwintering cold sensitive plants. It’s pretty typical for the houses in town, though they range from being built in the 1800s to the 2000s. I think it’s amazing that it’s completely normal here to have a wood cook stove and/or a wood stove in your house.

My house has its own well, which is also pretty typical in town. My water smells and tastes like cold, clean, deep dark earth –no chlorine in sight. I can’t wait to brew mead and beer with it. The house is also set up to collect rain water, and I can pump water from the creek to water the gardens. I have a back up generator as the power goes out in both summer and winter due to storms. The garage has space for one car, but the rest is a huge functional wood shop. The bandsaw, scrollsaw, edge planer, and flat planer all came with the house. The garage attic has a solid wood floor and a metal roof. It is so warm in the summer that it is perfect for hanging herbs and foods to dry.

Renovating the new house

Renovating the new house

I have the vintage wood cook stove as well as the electric and its been set up to partially heat the house while you cook. I can wild harvest in my own yard. Let me say that again: in my own yard. Or, I can step across the creek using the quaint covered footbridge and I’m right in a section of wild forest. I can see that footbridge from my front porch and have watched the laughing children swim under it where its dammed up and deep. The children are all nut brown here from playing outside all day. I saw a fourteen year old girl beg her father to go fishing. Packs of children roam the town and play until after sunset. They are part wild here and it is so beautiful to see. Yes, it is so ideal and green and lush in Killaloe and yet I live behind the town’s grocery store and the post office is a two minute walk away.

The lovely creek

Realistic Rewilding

Rewilding isn’t just about living off grid, camping off grid, living in a yurt or  a tree house. Rewilding can be realistic and attainable. Yes cities are unsustainable and their constant growth and construction is incredibly damaging to wild ecosystems, but rewilding would not be sustainable either if every city dweller suddenly decided to leave their life behind and move to the wilderness. Yes, I just said that rewilding would be unethical if everyone did it. Suddenly the forests would start to resemble suburbs. The same would happen if every city dweller decided to hunt or forage for food. Rewilding yourself is not as easy as picking berries and feeling connected to Mother Earth, there are just too many of us to make the mainstreaming of foraging for food viable or ethical. There are simply too many of us. We are locusts; fine in small numbers, devastating en masse. You know what there are also too many of? Small rural towns who are forgotten, abandoned, or in danger of being so due to dwindling populations. I hear the same story over and over from the old folks in town: “Everyone moved to the city, no one comes back. My children don’t want to farm, my children don’t want to take over the business, my children couldn’t wait to move away…”

I would make this a pub

If you are serious about rewilding yourself and your family, but do not have the skills, knowledge, or desire to live hard core off grid (or it’s stupidly illegal in your state), why not move to a small town instead? They are already established with homes and infrastructure. They have already claimed the land from nature. There is no need to buy “empty” plots of land in the wilderness and intrude on the wildlife by building there. If you want to build your own house, there are many affordable opportunities in Canada’s small towns: 9 Canadian towns giving away free land. The United States sure has its fair share of dwindling and empty hamlets due to outsourcing and the mortgage crisis that caused a massive recession from 2007-2009. There is also the much bigger example of Detroit. Who’s to say your city isn’t next?

When young people, families, and retirees move to small towns, they add tax revenue to those towns, they add services, they add beauty and life. When you move to a small town it isn’t just good for you, it’s good for the town –whether it has a population of 20 or 2,000. So many are in need of rejuvenation, even just a few families moving in can make all the difference. There are empty homes and empty commercial buildings waiting for you and a town council who doesn’t know how to get you to move there, but who may be willing to give you a break if you do. The kind of growth that happens is the healthy kind, a town becomes a functioning community with a sustainable population. Sometimes they even become great stewards of the land creating eco-villages and farming collectives. For a good example listen to this CBC radio piece about the rejuvenation of Palmer, Saskatchewan by young people from Ontario.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Let’s be honest though, the main reason stopping people from leaving the cities for small towns is work. People are terrified they won’t be able to make money because they are so used to it costing so much money just to live in a city. My friends seldom had time for each other in the city because they were all too busy breaking their backs trying to earn enough money to live in the city. Everything costs less where I live: houses, rent, taxes, groceries, liquor, gas, and even commercial properties. Research first, find the town you can afford to live in. If your cost of living drops significantly, your need for income does too. You could support a family with a part-time job where I am. If you have a lot of savings and credit to work with you could buy a business or multiple business, or buy up real estate and make your income that way. It can seem impossible to get a job in a small town, but moving to one is still a more realistic form of rewilding, it just requires thinking outside the box and maybe being willing to work outside of your chosen field. If you are self-employed, a tradesperson, work online, or have the ability to open your own viable business in a town, you are set. Small towns are always in need of a business or service that disappeared. I work online as a herbal retailer, but I can also take my products to the local farmer’s markets and craft fairs. I know I am lucky. If I need other ways to make an income they are available. Thanks to the size and fertility of my land I am going to grow herbs and produce to sell next year.

I also have a background as a professional cook and this town is in dire need of a restaurant, cafe, or pub as they’ve all closed down for various reasons (though mainly due to retirement and having no one to take over). Some of the seniors in town found out I was a cook and have been trying to talk me into at least opening a breakfast cafe. I didn’t think I’d be able to afford to, but one day while I was admiring an old empty storefront in town for its stamped tin ceilings, an old hippie drove by and said the whole building could be mine for the low price of $35,000 and that I could rent out the top floor as it’s a big apartment. Well… it’s a dream to keep in mind once I’m more settled here and can rebuild my savings.

Empty shopfront I covet in town

The lesson to take from my experience so far: your money will go so much farther and your dreams are so much more attainable in a small town as long as you are willing to do the work. Here is my last reality check: in Canada you can buy a crappy run down house in Toronto or Vancouver for a million dollars, or you can buy an entire abandoned small town. You don’t need a million though; did you know there are small towns in rural Canada selling plots of land for $10 just to get people to move there? There is even land being given away for free in the Yukon. For those of us who don’t already live there, leave the wilderness alone, let it stay wild, visit its beauty, but live right next door to it in a space already set up for the needs of humans. Small towns aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you find one that is the right fit, happiness will abound.

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The Witch and the Wild

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness, Storytelling, Witchcraft & Magic | 15 Comments

If you have not yet done so, please go and read Peter Grey’s life-altering essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” before continuing with my piece. The co-owner of Scarlet Imprint has much to say that desperately needs to be heard by the magical community. I will sit here and wait and sip my tea while you do so. Then come back and I’ll pour a mug for you and we’ll talk.

we are doomed. The earth and nature are not doomed. We are doomed, we humans. If we want to be honest with ourselves about the future of life on earth then we must be on the side of nature and not on the side of humanity. We have made the earth uninhabitable for ourselves, but nature will survive and notice our decline and demise as much as a the ocean notices one boat sinking into its depths. Green vines will swallow our cities of concrete and metal, trees will uproot parking lots and highways, animals will nest in our abandoned houses, the roofs of our temples will collapse letting in sunlight and starlight… and nature will not care, nature will not laugh, nature will not cry.

Our witchcraft, nay, our very being must become more wild, more intuitive, and more accepting of nature’s amorality and our inevitable demise if we are to make any difference at all. If we are to preserve what we’ve left behind of the earth in our destructive wake, and if we are to survive in any number as a species, we must rewild ourselves and learn how to live outside of civilization. We must lose our faiths, our religions, our meaningless attachment to nitpicketity details only we as individuals and not a whole care about. We who are importers of foreign magics and alien gods. We must become a different kind of witch. Something that needs no definitions, no boundaries, and no expectations. Something more primal and raw than our current incarnation. Something small, something just outside your door…

Local food, local beer, local products… the locavore movement invades the Pacific Northwest like an organic cotton-wearing hippie invades a farmer’s market with the best of intentions, but whose naïveté fails to see that paying more for something local will make absolutely no difference on the environment or the decline of our civilization (this is coming from someone who shops at farmer’s markets and buys local). What we need instead is local knowledge, local medicine, and local witchcraft. What do your local spirits care about you and your family’s survival? You who have never spoken to them or left them an offering? You who doesn’t know their names, powers, or dwelling places. They have no vested interest in you. They will dwell in the trees growing over our mass grave one day and not weep for us… after all, wasn’t it our ancestors who clear cut the forests that were their homes when we came to this land? Wasn’t it our ancestors who polluted their rivers and oceans and fished all their food until it couldn’t be renewed? Why would these spirits teach us their magic and medicine? One would have to put in a lot of hard work to simply get their attention, and years of it for them to start trusting and helping one local spirit worker, let alone all of us.

What did the ancient  magicians, shamans, sorcerers, and witches do to gain the favour of the spirits? The literally went wild. Off they would go into the uncivilized world of nature without any comforts, without any companions. They would learn to hunt and forage for food, how to clothe themselves only with what nature provided, how to make tools, how to follow the migrations of animals, and learn how to predict the weather and the seasons. So wild they would become that speech, manners, and morals would be forgotten. When they would return home five to ten years later, they would be unrecognizable: feral, dangerous, mad. Accounts in Ireland even speak rumours of cannibalism. It would take a long time to bring them back to civilization and they were never fully comfortable in it again, living on the outskirts of town. But their people believed their madness was worth it for the knowledge they brought back; for these wild men, these woodwoses, were now encyclopedias and intermediaries of the genius loci – the local spirits of nature. And they were invaluable to the people’s survival.

What is the ancient purpose of a witch or shaman? To be an intermediary between the spirits and humanity. To be translator, negotiator, salve, and warrior if need be. In rewilding witchcraft, this is what we must learn, this is what we must become. We must be able to commune with the spirits of nature; of animals, insects, plants, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and also with the dead. In order to commune with the spirits we must become them, we must live with them, we must speak to them even if they do not answer back for years whether due to our untrained ears or their chosen silence. Wherever you live, you must allow yourself to be absorbed into the very land itself, immersed in the genius loci until their secrets and wisdom pour into you. We must become village witches, regional witches, shamans who speak for the spirits where we live.

I live in the Pacific Northwest. I live between ocean and mountain. My corner of the world is full of spirits both benevolent and malevolent, great and small, named and unnamed. Some have no equal anywhere else in the world, some uncannily resemble foreign spirits or spirits found in too many cultures to count. In Russia, Old Woman is Baba Yaga. In the highlands and islands of Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur. In the Pacific Northwest she is Asin, Monster-Woman-of-the-Woods, or Basket Woman. They are all very different, and yet they are the same. They protect the forest,  they are wild, they are the land, and though they eat people (especially children) they are also initiators of spirit workers who are brave or foolish enough to seek them out. The world of spirits is often a paradox and linear thinking is of little use. I have said it many times. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you must go into the wild unknown over and over and over if you want to learn how to speak to spirits and learn their magics. The same goes if you live elsewhere.

Let us journey into the wild…

Hear the rain softly falling on the leaves and the louder drops rolling down the branches to drip onto the ground. Smell the air as each drop falls releasing the musky, earthy scent of centuries upon centuries of a humus composed of decaying cedar trees and plant leaves.  See the thick mosses carpeting the forest floor and the bark of wizened old hazel and maple trees. See the fungi covering dead stumps, climbing up vast tree trunks and spreading its invisible mycelium network beneath their roots. See their colours ranging from purple and pink to brightest yellow and orange, to unassuming browns and the nefarious red-capped toadstools with white spots.

Tilt your head back and look up into the canopy of trees: Cedar, Fir, Alder, Poplar, and Big Leaf Maples so tall you cannot see where their branches end. They must touch the roof of the sky itself. See in their branches the dark shapes of crows cawing their messages and prophecies in a cacophonous symphony. Be silent and you may hear the croak of a raven,the cry of an eagle, the hoot of an owl, the rustling of a black bear through the deep woods. Be still and you may see a wild hare, a white-tailed deer, or a serpent slithering back to its hole in the earth.

Climb a hill or a tree and see the vast mountain ranges around you with their summer snow-dusted peaks and you will know the world when it was young. Look below the saw-toothed mountains and you will see the raging rivers, the snaking fingers of streams and waterfalls running down mountain sides, and the outlines of inlets – waters reaching inland from the great pouring sea. Follow the rivers and inlets back to the source where all water flows: the Pacific Ocean. Here its vastness is dotted with lush green islands of solitary hills and mountains hidden by mists and fog. They are an otherworld all of their own.

What do you see in the waters between the chains of these wild hilly islands? A massive grey whale and closer still, orcas, their skin shining black and white with proud upright fins cutting through the salt water. Deeper still the ocean conceals its mysteries: giant squid that would crush your bones as easily as the frame of a wooden boat, neon jellyfish full of stings and fire, and colourful red and green salmon fattening in the sea before their homeward journeys back to the rivers of their births. You travel back to the sea shore and find it covered with barnacles, mussels, clams, crawling crabs, and the odd stranded purple starfish. On the rocks nearby you see a family of black-eyed seals sunbathing on a rock, furry body upon furry body, happy and fat after a feast of fish.

You stand on the shore and remember you drank from the mountain springs, you ate the forbidden berries bursting with tart juices, you sucked the flavour out of roots, you filled your mouth with catkins and bitter green leaves, and you stuffed the flesh of fish, hare, and bird with mushrooms and tender fir tips and roasted them over a fire on lonely hungry nights under the stars. You ate and ate until your skin turned green with leaves and moss, your blood turned to sap, flowers spilled out of your mouth, roots sprouted from the soles of your feet, fur grew down your back and feathers from your finger tips.  You are what you eat and you ate the wild — shape-shifted into it.

You look up and see you are in a sacred places where land, sea, and vast sky are all present. You have unknowingly stepped into the spirit world and into the ancient past. You touch your head and waist and find them wreathed in delicately needled hemlock branches. You touch your face and find it painted. You touch your shoulders and find them cloaked in familiar feathers. You touch your neck and find it draped in necklaces of teeth, claws, bones, and magical roots of native species.

Dig a small hole in the wet sand with your hands, feel its coolness and leave an offering; small stones and spring water from the mountains, wild flowers from a meadow, a sprig of cedar, a bundle of feathers, a perfect clam shell, and berries you foraged along your journey. You stand over your offering and drum and sing, calling the spirits and the act being an offering in and of itself. When you are spent you thank the spirits for all they have revealed to you; how the land is connected and interdependent, how powerful and important each feature, element, and creature is. Then you start the long journey home knowing you are wild again.


WANT MORE?

Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram

Journey into Bioregional Herbalism by Kiva Rose

The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson

Wild Earth, Wild Soul by Bill Pfeiffer

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The Song of the Land: Bioregional Animism

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness | 7 Comments

Agreenmantle covers the black earth. Green of different shades and different sizes, the tiniest plant to the tallest tree. The green is full of life; flowers, berries, seeds and the animals and insects who eat them and call them home. The blue sky is filled with life, with feathered birds, winged insects, floating seeds, and invisible pollen floating in the invisible wind. The greenmantle breathes the sky in and out, the world’s largest air purifier. Beneath the greenmantle of frenzied orgiastic life lies the bones of the dead: bones of animals and humans, husks of dead insects, rotting trees from long-dead forests, and season upon season of dead plants layered into rich, fertile humus which feeds the green above.

Within this dark mass of death is the roots of the living, of trees and plants and fungi, connected like a massive nervous system forming the brain and consciousness of the land. Beneath the dead and the roots are minerals and stones. Beneath the stones are fresh waters, deep, dark and intrinsic to the health of the life far above. Snow runs down mountains, melting into streams, the streams connecting into lakes and rivers, the rivers flowing out to the sea. Everything flows together, everything is important and necessary —  creating the perfect song of the land — an ecosystem in beautiful harmony. Bioregional animism is the discovery of where humans fit into this song so the harmony continues unhindered by our untrained voices and our hands that have forgotten how to play the notes.

Defining a Bioregion

A bioregion is a landmass that has continuously similar geography, flora, fauna, and human culture, usually centered around a shared watershed. Bioregions are unique in that their boundaries are not marked by national, provincial, or state borders, but instead by the land itself, the native plants and animals, and the people who live there. A bioregion is where geography, wildlife biology, ethnobotany, and anthropology meet — where science, nature, and folklore are one. My bioregion is the Pacific Northwest, sometimes referred to as Cascadia, which can encompass Alaska, British Columbia, southern Alberta, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, northern California, Nevada, and Wyoming depending on who (or which government) you are talking to.

Bioregions can also be nested within each other and so this large expanse of land can be broken down into smaller areas of which my home turf is the “megaregion” of southern British Columbia, Washington state, and northern Oregon — essentially Vancouver, BC to Portland, OR. My home province of British Columbia is massive and contains many nested bioregions within itself: the coastal islands, the lush temperate rainforest of the coast and south, the shrub-steppe of the Okanagan Desert, the mountains, the north… I would even argue that a bioregion could be one mountain, one small island, a city, a neighbourhood, and so on. I highly recommend getting to know your local area and treating it as a distinct bioregion, even if its an urban corner of city and all you think you will find is weeds and raccoons. You never know what you will find. Maybe the land your house is on used to be a wetland or a seasonal breeding ground for crows.

Bioregionalism as Philosophy & Practice

The problem with becoming aware of a bioregion is that one also becomes aware of how much humans have damaged it, sometimes irreparably. This is often why bioregionalism is considered a movement that promotes sustainability, ecological rehabilitation, the use of local resources over imported, and the growing and eating of local foods. The goal of bioregionalism is self-sufficiency and sustainability within a bioregion – of both people and nature. Bioregionalism differs from environmentalism in that it seeks to have humans and nature living together in harmony, with humans as active stewards of nature, rather than seeing humans as harmful and needing to be removed from the equation.

Instead of protesting, you’ll often find a bioregionalist removing invasive plants from a forest, cleaning up polluted rivers and streams, teaching about edible and medicinal native plants, or working in wildlife rehabilitation. They are the ones who shop at the farmer’s market rather than the supermarket, who forage and/or garden as part of their diet, and who prefer their meat from a local farmer or to hunt it themselves.

Within bioregionalism is the belief that the most important thing to learn when you move to a new bioregion, or are born into one, is to learn everything you can about it. What plants are edible? What can be used as medicine? What is in season, where and when? What animals make good eating and where are the best seasonal hunting and fishing grounds? What natural resources are there? Where’s the best drinking water and the best agricultural land? Is there anything in the culture and folklore of the locals that can help you thrive here?

Such knowledge used to be intrinsic to basic human survival, but today you will seldom find a person in a city or town who can even list the names of five native trees. How can we be self-sufficient without knowledge of the resources around us and how to use them? How can we be good stewards of the land we live upon if we know nothing about it? How can we fix what we humans broke without first knowing what the local ecosystem looked like when healthy? Through awareness, through knowledge, through hard work, and through truly caring about the land under our feet and all who live upon, under, and above it.

Where Does Animism Fit In?

“The animistic perspective is so fundamental, mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted that most animistic indigenous people do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to ‘animism’.” (source)

Animism is a term that belongs to anthropologists, not indigenous peoples and not modern spiritual practitioners. It is a word to describe the intangible, undefined, ancient fundamental beliefs of the human race that have existed since before we even had a word for and concept of “religion”. And yet… what other word do we have to use today that fits so perfectly without appropriating traditional terms from indigenous peoples who we do not share blood ties or cultural rites with?

Within the perspective of animism everything is sacred and alive, even the profane and the ordinary. Everything is holy. Every action is holy, no matter how seemingly mundane: gardening, berry-picking, fishing, spinning, weaving, cooking, house-cleaning… Every plant, animal, river, mountain, rock, moonrise and sunset is holy. Every living thing is a conscious spirit, a little god, with its own powers, knowledge, and purpose in the web of life. Every living thing is treated as one human should treat another; with respect, with awareness of existence and individual rights, and with honest communication. The land is asked for permission to hunt, travel, forage, or build structures and is propitiated to gain favour. The river is politely asked for its fish, the tree for its wood, the deer for its meat, the bush for its berries, the clover for its roots… and all are given thanks and offering in return.

 “For Native peoples, living in balance with particular landscapes has been the fruit of hard work as well as a product of worldview, a matter of ethical living in worlds where non human life has moral standing and disciplined attention to ritual protocol. Still, even though certain places on landscapes have been sacred in the customary sense of being wholly distinct from the profane and its activity, many places sacred to Native peoples have been sources of material as well as spiritual sustenance. As with sacred places, so too with many sacred practices of living on landscapes. In the reckoning of Native peoples, pursuits like harvesting wild rice, spearing fish or hunting certain animals can be at once religious and economic in ways that have been difficult for Western courts to acknowledge.” (source)

These beliefs are not the sole domain of Native Americans, they are cross-cultural, they are the beliefs and practices of our ancestors, of all peoples around the world. So permeated into our being they are, that they have never really left. I flip through the thick, aged pages of the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish previously undocumented oral incantations from the late 1800s, and I see supplications to plant spirits to be spoken before harvesting, blessings to be spoken to honour the new moon, songs to be sung when treating wounds, and incantations for protecting and blessing animals. I look within the beautiful prose of the Finnish Kalevala and read of a hunter asking the spirit of the forest for permission to hunt for food. I stumble across a Lithuanian prayer from the 1930s, but know its origin is much older, its words soaked in animism and tree worship:

“That I may not fell a single tree without holy need;
that I may not step on a blooming field;
that I may always plant trees.
The gods look with grace
upon those who plant trees along roads,
in homesteads, at holy places,
at crossroads, and by houses.
If you wed, plant a tree.
If a child is born, plant a tree.
If someone dies plant a tree for their soul.
At all festivals, during important events, visit trees.
Prayers will attain holiness through trees of thanks.
So may it be!”

Putting Bioregional Animism into Practice

So far bioregional animism may seem more of a practical way of life than a spiritual one, but again we must remember the line between the sacred and the mundane is invisible. Bioregional animism is not a spiritual path, it is not a denomination or a tradition, it is the way you choose to live your life every day and the conscious choice to interact ethically with nature. It is a lifetime commitment requiring every day action and practice. You will never stop learning as there is so much knowledge to attain and to put into practical use. I see this as a beautiful thing – striving for perfection and complete knowledge all the while knowing you can never achieve it.

Go Outside

It is hard to care deeply about something without any personal knowledge of it. Walking this road can start as simply as purchasing a regional field guide and going for a lot of walks with it, photographing and recording what you find. It can be as fun as taking an identification and foraging course with knowledgeable locals who will teach you ethics and proper stewardship as well to make sure you don’t damage or destroy the natural resources you’re learning to identify and use. Go camping, go travelling, go exploring, go on adventures in your bioregion. Walk the trails, canoe the lakes, explore the beach, climb the trees…

When you’re surrounded by nature, sit still, watch and listen. See the wildlife with your own eyes; the black bear snacking on huckleberries high in the mountains or fishing for salmon along a coastal river flowing into the Pacific Ocean. See, smell, touch and taste nature; eat a juicy golden salmonberry in early spring, munch on tasty spruce tips, dig up wild onions, and forage for salty mussels along the sea shore when the tide goes out.

Research

When submersing yourself into such wildness, do not forget about the human element as well. What happened to the land when it was colonized? Was it clear cut, mined, and stripped of all resources without regard? Has the land healed or is it still raw and angry like an open wound? What peoples lived in the bioregion before it was colonized? What happened to them? Are they still there? How angry are they? How assimilated are they? How much of their traditional knowledge have they maintained? Are there any records of their animal and plant folklore, medicinal preparations, uses of natural resources, or seasonal migratory habits? What were their rites and ceremonies regarding the land and its denizens – physical and supernatural? What spirits did they believe in? How did they communicate with them and what offerings were given?

Do not attempt to follow and steal their culture as you will fail and offend. A classically trained French chef doesn’t take the wild foods of the Pacific Northwest and try to cook as the Natives once did, but instead he will use those local ingredients and the knowledge of how they were once prepared to cook in the style he was trained in, creating something new. Using this example, focus on the relevant lore that can help you be more respectful to the land spirits, the genius loci, of the bioregion where you live without trying to copy the “religion” of its indigenous people. Were lakes asked permission before one slipped a boat in the waters to cross them or fish them? Which plants or trees were considered the most powerful, were treated with the most respect and awe, and whose harvesting for food, medicine, or magic was the most highly ritualized? Which spirits were believed to be friendly and which were dangerous and to be avoided? What spirits were asked for permission before hunting or foraging? What offerings were considered perfect, acceptable, or paltry? What offerings were considered offensive and should be avoided?

Learning such things can help you to avoid pissing off powerful spirits of plants, animals, ancestors, land features, and the region itself. It is a common belief in many animistic cultures that offending a spirit can lead to being cursed with illness, bad luck, loss, haunting, and other unpleasant things with the worst usually being death. The ancient Greeks believed that if you cut down trees without permission or regard, the dryads would curse you with never-ending hunger – a curse of insatiability leading to obesity.

Get Your Hands Dirty

A wise man once told me that knowledge is attaining information, but wisdom is knowing how to apply it. Wisdom will only come with rolling up your sleeves and diving in. This is the part where you forage plants for food, medicine or magic, take them home, process and preserve them, and then turn your harvest into usable finished products. Talk to animals, plants, trees, rocks, streams, rivers, lakes, and the land as if they can hear you and will respond. If you cultivate a relationship with them over a long period of time, eventually they may react to you. Don’t expect them to speak English or even words, instead try to learn their own tongues. What does a happy and friendly tree look and act like as opposed to an unhappy hostile one? Learn how to appease unhappy spirits with proper offerings. They may still hate other people, but they will warm up to you and then you can put in a good word for others.

“O most powerful spirit
of the bush with the fragrant leaves
we are here again to seek wisdom.
Give us tranquility and guidance
to understand the mysteries of the forest,
the knowledge of our ancestors.”

— Invocation of Manuel Córdova-Rios, 1979

Look, listen, feel. What is the land trying to tell you? Is it thirsty and unhappy, is it drenched and fertile? Did frost come too late in the spring and kill all the flowers resulting in a fruitless year? If you pay attention to your surroundings day to day, week to week, month to month, season to season, eventually you will flow harmoniously with the nature around you. You will simply “know” things without having to look in a book or perform a Google search. You’ll have become familiar with your bioregion, it’s changes, seasons, wildlife migrations, and weather patters and in turn, it will come to know you. Maybe it will speak to you in dreams showing you that poplar buds are ready to collect now, the first nettles are popping up from the thawing earth, or  where a tree fell so you can harvest the wood and bark. Perhaps the animals will come to you in your dreams too and teach you their wisdom, sharing their power and their medicine.

In Conclusion

The philosophy and practices of bioregional animism are a step towards healing the relationship between humans and nature. We must become healers and start the hard work of relearning the song of the land under our feet so we can play our part in harmony instead of harm. We have been ignorant, careless, and disrespectful for a long time and now it is our duty to repair the damage and teach our children the error of our ways and how to undo what we have done. If we don’t take action ourselves and we don’t teach our children how to heal the land, there will be nothing left for the future generations of humans and there will be nothing “natural” left of nature. It is time for us to sing new songs and tell new stories, to write ourselves into the future as wise stewards and healers of the land. Where will you begin?

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