Monthly Archives: May 2016

More Reflections on the FFA

Recently, a few of my posts on the Finnish Folklore Atlas have been getting some attention. I myself have also been revisiting my posts as well as the source itself. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I have been in “exploration” mode for a few months now as far as my spirituality is concerned.

I have spent time studying a lot of different traditions and paths, and along the way I have picked up many different “pieces” of my spiritual path. But at the same time, I don’t belong to any one “tradition” or even one path. My way has been long and winding. And at each with each step, I have learned something new.

What matters to me is that what I learn and discover, works. It has to work, and what works for me may not work for everyone. That is one of my core criteria in most of my spiritual explorations. Does it work? If not, I move on.

In addition to this, in many of the traditions I have explored, I have been lead there by my ancestors. When my Celtic ancestors said “look at this”, I looked. I took what worked and moved on. When my Norse ancestors said “look at this”, again I looked. I found many things that worked, and moved on. Same too with my Finnish ancestors.

Which is what lead me in many ways to things like the Kalevala, and the Finnish Folklore Atlas. And there too I found a great many things that worked. Which is what I would like to revisit for a moment if I may.

Let’s start with part 7 of my series about the Finnish Folklore Atlas. In this part of the series, I talked about haltias, or haltia spirits. Here is a brief recap from the FFA;

“Haltias are supernatural inhabitants of a certain place and guardians of living creatures, living in an invisible environment but capable of showing themselves to humans and appearing in the world on this side. In Finnish interpretations, the haltia has been the supranormal original inhabitant or guardian of a place, albeit also the female progenitor, the eldest of the species or the first representative of some species of animal. A haltia may also be a human being after death, one who was the first to inhabit a place and was buried in his dwelling-place; on the other hand, a person can also have his own haltia, a guardian.” – Sarmela

I have been sitting with this since I first wrote that piece, and I find that this really resonates with me and my animism, as well as intersecting with ideas of totemism and polytheism as well. For example of something that may be totemic, a haltia can be “ the eldest of the species or the first representative of some species of animal”. In some of my interactions I have found this to be the case. I work with individual spirits on a fairly regular basis.

As my relations with these spirits have developed, I have come to understand that no spirit stands in isolation, just as no man is an island. We are all embedded in webs of connections of relationship to one another. So just as I work with individual wolf spirits at home, they too share in connection with representatives of their species, and possibly even the first ancestor of their species. Those that might be considered the “totemic” Wolf, considered from an animistic perspective in this case.

This has important implications for my work with my spirits, as well as a hunter. Here is another quote from Part 7;

“Haltia belief is closely related to belief in ancestors and earth folk, inhabitants of an inverse world. However, the supernatural guardian of a place is always a solitary being who guards its domain, its natural environment and peace. A supernatural guardian of animals has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered animals back to life on earth. Haltias are in their own sphere and among their own kind guardians of the invisible boundaries between man and nature, with human survival and prosperity also dependent on their benevolence.” – Sarmela

I do not think this can be understated. The deer I hunt might be under the care of representatives or some ancestral “Deer.” I have had to create connections with this Deer, because those I hunt are under its (singular or plural) care. So too is Deer in this case; “in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered animals back to life on earth.”

The last part is important to keep in mind as well, and is at the core of conservation and ecological concerns; “ Haltias are in their own sphere and among their own kind guardians of the invisible boundaries between man and nature, with human survival and prosperity also dependent on their benevolence”

As is the case with Deer, or Lettuce, or Cow, or any of the assorted things that we eat, we are dependent on the lives of others for survival. At the heart of this is being on good terms with our food, because at the end of the day they are much more than food. They are people that gave their lives so we could eat.

I mentioned earlier, this also overlaps with my understanding of polytheism. Consider for a moment what was said above about haltias being “the eldest of the species or the first representative of some species of animal.” I think too applies to humans, and offers more of the overlap with ancestor reverence and polytheism. Humans too have haltia-spirits, and maybe this conceptual understanding might apply to the gods as well. Perhaps a form of revered ancestors or spiritual guardians of humanity.

I have to admit I have always had a problem with the “Creator” concept. Taking the Norse Creation myth for a moment, I doubt there is any “literal” truth to humanity being formed from some driftwood. Metaphoric truth maybe, but hardly literal. I think the case for evolution is strong and that kind of goes in the face of the whole “man and woman formed from driftwood” context.

Yet, the gods as a kind of ancestral guardian invested in The gods as a “guardian of humanity has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered humans back to life on earth” and ““the eldest of the species or the first representative of humanity.”

There is something there that resonates with me.

Now I want to turn the attention to Part 4 of my series on the Finnish Folklore Atlas, because I have been incorporating parts of some of what I have read into my practice. In the piece, I quoted this from the FFA;

” The religion of Iron Age hunter-cultivators and Savo-Karelian swidden culture consisted of the ancestral cult and sorcery. In the emerging agrarian communities of the Gulf of Finland coastal circle, the dead were buried in hiisi woods near dwellings or on stony islets in the middle of field clearings. The deceased guarded their living environment even after death, and their cult sites gave his surviving family the right to cultivated land; the land belonged to the ancestors. The oldest marks of cultivated land possession are perhaps cup stones; hiisi woods were probably followed by the village burial grounds of Karelia and the sacrificial trees of Lutheran eastern Finland.” – Sarmela

I went on to detail how all kinds of things were associated with both the ancestors as well as the hatlias of a place

“Maps show the locations of cup stones, stone altars, and sacred trees that in some way or another were all associated with ancestor worship. The finds of stone cups include both single cups, as well as clusters of cups. They have been found near houses, near field clearings, and near burial sites. Sarmela suggests the cups were built as needed for the ancestors.

Like the cups, finds also included stone altars, which were natural rocks and boulders. These sites were used as offering places for ancestors, but also for the supernatural guardian of the place, that may or not be an ancestor. The sacred trees filled a similar function, and would serve as locations for offerings, either for the ancestors, or for the guardian of the place” – Me

Trees, stones, stone altars, the amount of animism here is staggering. But that is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk how I have been applying some of this knowledge into my own practice. I find that it clicks very nicely with me, and the results have been good so far.


This is a picture of a stone altar I have put up in our yard. There is a second in the works. You may noticed I cheated and used a plastic cup. It is just a stand in for now until I find something more stoney and permanent. I for one have qualms about using plastic as a form of spirit worship, but sometimes you have to work with what you have. So far the spirits have not complained too much, as long as it doesn’t stay too long. We put this one in in front of our new berry patch, which we just planted this year.

I currently have plans to set up a second one, as there is a small pond insert in our yard we are hoping to find a pump for this year. I think a place with some water will be a fantastic place for another stone altar.

On the topic of hiisi woods, my family has had several acres of land for many years. I have hunted, camped and generally spent a fair bit of time out there. Part of it use to belong to my paternal grandmother, who just recently passed away. Now all of the family land belongs to my father and my uncle. There are several non-human family members buried in the family woods, and from what I understand grandma’s ashes will be spread out there as well. The family woods have become in many ways our “ancestor’s woods”, our hiisi woods. I hope to set up some stone altars to trees as well as to ancestors out there as soon as I can.

And yet, it makes me wonder. Those woods have belonged to three generations of my family now, and yet I have to wonder whose ancestors once called those woods home? It is true of all immigrants, that the bones of the dead have been here a lot longer than I have.

Well, that is all I have at the moment.

As always, thank you for reading!


Finnish Folklore Atlas, By Matti Sarmela


Walking with the Ancestors Part 4-B

Usti strode along the bank of the ancient river, known from the earliest times as the home to his people. Here, for ages long past, and far beyond the memory of the living, his ancestors and their ancestors had made their camps.

He looked around, and pulled his furs tighter around him. He knew well that the cold winds would be coming soon, and the snows of winter. He walked up river, towards the source of the waters, because that was the way that would lead him back home, and to his mate and children.

As he rounded a bend in the river, the camp came into sight. Several of his friends and relatives were busy working on their homes. The nearest of these was erected from the bones of a mammoth, which had been taken during the last hunt. The large, heavy bones made up the walls, and the woman of the house was busy lacing together reindeer antlers, which would be used as part of the roof. Their son was helping too, busy pulling new furs and hides over their home. Everyone in his village knew the cold would be coming soon.

Smoke rose from several of the houses, but he was heading towards the one he shared with his family. He passed by several other houses as he walked, and many people greeted him from around their outdoor fires. As he passed by another house, a man with a shirt of wolf skin caught his eye. Usti nodded, because the man was one of great honor. He was the one who Spoke with the People.

The two men held their gaze for a moment, and then the Old Wolf came over to Usti.

“Have you been walking the river again?” The Old Wolf asked.

Usti nodded.

“I watched the fish as they swam down the river. I came upon a group of deer farther down, and they ran once they saw me.” Usti said. The Old Wolf nodded.

“That is the way of these things. Is your mate well?” The Old Wolf said, and Usti saw something in his eyes. He knew that look well, and he knew that the Old Wolf had knowledge that Usti did not.

“She was well when I set out this morning. She is heavy with child, and has trouble walking.” Usti said, with a laugh. The Old Wolf nodded.

“She will be having a girl.” The Old Wolf said. Usti felt the smile cross his face.

“A girl?! It will be my first daughter!” Usti exclaimed.

“It will be. And she will be a fine hunter, among the finest.” The Old Wolf said.

“The People have told you this?” Usti said. The shaman nodded.

Usti could barely contain the joy that he felt. He would have a daughter, and she would be a fine hunter. He filled with pride, but still he saw the look that lingered in the Old Wolf’s eyes.

“Is there more?” Usti asked.

“Would you walk with me?” The Old Wolf said.

Usti nodded, and the two of them set out of the village towards the west. He walked in silence by the old man, because he knew it was rude to break the silence just for the sake of talking. The Old Wolf was wise beyond any man, and when he spoke others listened. The Old Wolf was not the kind to speak of trivial things, and he was also the kind that kept much knowledge to himself. Usti had only spoken with the man a handful of times.

“There are things you should know, because my time among our people is short.” The Old Wolf said.

“You have many winters ahead of you.” Usti said. The Old Wolf shook his head.

“No, that is not what the People have in store for me. I fear the People may call to me before the coming one has ended. Or maybe the one after next, if they are willing.” The Old Wolf said.

“Why do you tell me these things?” Usti said.

“Because they must be said before I am called away. It is about your daughter.” The Old Wolf said.

“You said she will be a great hunter. What more could a father want?” Usti said.

“She will be more than a great hunter, Usti. In time, she will grow to be much more than that.” The Old Wolf said, as he started to undue the lacing of the old black wolf who kept watch over his shoulder.

“What are you doing?!” Usti exclaimed. The Old Wolf slowly folded the black fur, and muttered to himself all the while. Usti stood staring at him speechless.

At last, the old man held out the fur to Usti. Usti stepped back several paces.

“I can not take this…” Usti said.

“It is not for you. In time it will be for your daughter.” The Old Wolf said.

Usti felt like he was going to faint.

“You will have to give it to her, because I fear I will not linger long enough to give it to her myself.” The old man said.

The Old Wolf pushed the black wolf skin into Usti’s hands, making it clear that he had no choice but to take it.


This one is a little bit shorter. I worried about it getting too long if I kept it going. Admittedly, I had to take some liberties with this one. Give or take 10,00 years worth of liberties. This is because that all we have of the Ust Ishim man is a femur, and while the genome it has given us is nothing short of amazing; there is still a lot we do not know about the time when the Ust Ishim (uncreatively called Usti here) lived.

His femur was not found in the context of a village, and as far as I know, not even in the context of other bones. Aside from the genome sequence from the bone itself, it has little else to tell us about archaeologically. As such, I used inspiration from other similar sites scattered across the Upper Paleolithic. The inspiration for village was from the Malta-Buret Culture, which will appear again in this series. Other inspirations include several years worth of research and study, and I cannot detail them all here.

Join me next time as I take the next step in this journey.

And as always, thank you for reading!

Sources, References;

Malta-Buret Culture

Wikipedia – Upper Paleolithic

Walking with the Spirits Part 1-A

This series has taken a little longer to get going than I wanted, mostly because I was waiting for a book to arrive. That book is Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey. It is going to be a core book throughout this series, because this time around we will be talking about ideology as much as archaeology.

Which is where this series begins, not such much at the beginning of the universe, but with the history of an idea. With the history of this thing we call animism. What does it mean to be an animist, and how has the idea changed over time?

So let’s start with the first question. What does it mean to be an animist, to recognize animism as one worldview. Well, as a starting discussion to these things, the dictionary is a good first step. The Oxford Dictionary defines animism as “1) the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, and/or 2) the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.”

I think one should exercise caution with basing ones definitions solely from the dictionary alone. Not only do dictionary definitions lack a great deal of nuance, they also are generally what might be called “common usage” of terminology. For instance, even as a self identified animist, I am not sure I wholly agree with the definition given above. It is simplistic in the most vague way, and honestly isn’t really reflective of what I do or what I believe. To put this another way, I do not think that the dictionary definition in this case has much to say about what I do or how I view the world.

Which is why I am going to be using Harvey’s book for a core definition, which I will be discussing an exploring in a lot more depth as this series goes forward. He starts out by saying this right in the preface;

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.”1

I was first exposed to Harvey’s book several years ago when I was in college, and I devoured it. I would check it out several more times over the years, and now finally have a copy of my own. I do not know why it took me so long, because this book has been a core foundation on the path I walk today.

Unlike the dictionary definition of animism, Harvey’s speaks to the very core of how I view the world. It is full of persons, and I would say most of which are not human. There was actually an article recently that said they might be trillions of species on the planet. Trillions of species, composed up of countless individual persons. That is very difficult for me to even conceive.

The second part is foundational as well to me, because it acknowledges that we live in a social environment, instead of just a material one. We do not just live alongside trees and deer, but alongside tree-people and deer-people. Our relationships with other people define ourselves, as much as they define our place in the world. We are part of a vast web of social connections.

But before we get too deep into that, it is important we pause here2 and look at the second question I raised. How has this idea changed over time? To put this another way, how did we get here? To answer this question will require a short recap of the history of an idea. The history of the idea of animism. For this, again we turn to Harvey.

Harvey devotes nearly a hundred pages to the history of the idea of animism, and I will not be able to recap that all here. To do so might be considered beating a dead horse, as Harvey has already covered this territory. As such, I will only be offering the briefest of surveys.

Old Animism”3

The ideas that would contribute to the development to animism were present as early as the early 17th century. In 1708 George Stahl proposed that it was anima” that was that stuff that animated living things.

David Hume, without using the term “animism”, laid out nearly in entirety the concepts of Old Animism in his book A Natural History of Religion. Here is a small excerpt quoted in Harvey’s book;

“… Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power…”

It is important to note here the mention of the “ignorant vulgar” which here means any backward, primitive or “unevolved” person that hasn’t grasped the heights of European civilization at the time. The earliest of theories on animism were laced with the Myth of Progress, the idea that the “primitive” was somehow backwards and ignorant compared with those that wrote about them. There is also healthy doses of colonialism, and imperial power all throughout the early writings. The idea being, that being an animist or subscribing to an animistic worldview, was more or an insult and derogatory term.

Such ideas are the basis of old animism, and we will explore this more going forward.

Which brings us to the “father” of old animism, Edward Tylor. Tylor is considered by many to one of the founder’s of modern anthropology, and as such I have been subject to many lectures and discussions on Tylor in my college days. And even these days, Tylor continues to come up as his influence on the field as well as the study of animism in nothing short of prominent. Harvey devotes a good five pages to Tylor, even when most other thinkers are given an paragraph or two.

That being said, Tylor was a big proponent of his time of the idea we call today The Myth of Progress, and it applied to Tylor’s animism as well. In Tylor’s view, animism “identifies a ‘primitive’ but ubiquitious category error, namely ‘ the belief in souls or spirits’ “ 4

To put this another way, Tylor felt that modern (to his time) religions had “evolved” from lesser, primitive and savage states, and ideas such as animism were in fact the error of “lesser” minds. Such conclusions reeked of Eurocentrism, and in no small part intesect with the spheres of colonialism and imperliamism; In Tylor’s own words;

“It is a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and mark these out for destruction.” 5 Tylor felt that “higher” forms of religion had evolved from “lesser” forms, of which animism was the “origin” of religion.

I could talk at length about the flaws and problems with Tylor’s thinking, but to do so would certainly make this post a long one. So, for the time being I would like to leave Tylor and his thinking behind, because he represents only the beginning of the history of the idea of animism.

Several other thinkers and anthropologists would follow in Tylor’s footsteps, and contribute in some way or another to the literature on animism and other related religious topics. Many of these would be plagued by the same problems of colonialism, imperialism, and the Myth of Progress; all of which would lead later scholar’s to reject earlier thinkers writing, and with it many concepts such as animism.

New Animism”

It is an unpleasant truth that many disciplines have their origin in the past, times when things such as the Myth of Progress were thought of to be self evident. It is obvious, the thinking went, that those “primitive” people are backwards in their thinking and would be much better being “raised” to a higher form of religion and culture.

I cannot begin to describe what this kind of thinking did to non-Christian and native peoples the world over. Hell, the things this kind of thinking is still doing. But less I get off on a tangent.

So as fields like Anthropology tried to distance themselves from the flaws of our own past (and thinkers like Tylor), animism as a concept was relegated to dusty old shelves of the past as an useless and antiquated term. Indeed, many scholars past and present still question whether it was a useful concept at all.

Which brings us to Irving Hallowell, who did his fieldwork among the Ojibwe. His writing would redefine animism, and bring with it the “new animism.” Here Harvey is quoted;

“Consideration of the ‘new animism’ neccesarily begins with what Irving Hallowell learnt from the dialogue with Ojibwe hosts in southern central Canada in the early to mid-twentieth century. According to the Ojibwe, the world is full of people, only some of whom are human.” 6

Which brings us through a short history of animism, as many other thinkers would pick up the threads Hallowell put down, and it is here too that I take my own definition of animism. It is a concept laced in the prejudices of the past, which had very real repercussions for countless. To those like Tylor, it was the (mistaken, and erroneous) “belief in souls or spirits.”

But as questionable as its past might be, the “new animism” I find to be a useful way of conceptualizing the world.

As one full of persons.

Thank you for reading!


1Harvey, pg xi

2As there will be plenty of words dedicated to deeper explorations.

3Harvey, pgs 3 – 5

4Harvey pg 7

5Harvey, pg 8, quoting Tylor’s “Primitive Culture.”

6Harvey pgs 17 – 18


Oxford Dictionary

“Animism: Respecting the Living World” by Graham Harvey

New Release! Of Fury and Machines!

It has been over a year since I have released a new book, as I have been working on updating the old ones. But here it is folks!




“The journey is not over… Niel now suffers from chronic headaches, bleeding, and blackouts. Whatever was transferred into his head on Skog is killing him. Slowly. Now, Niel and his companions must travel to Forandre, a world of fire and illegal genetic experimentation. On this world, Niel will have to face new challenges in order to unlock the secrets that are trapped in his mind.”

This is the third book in my Elder Blood Saga, and I am really happy how it turned out! It is available on Amazon for $11.99 for the paperback, or $4.99 for the Kindle!

Go check it out, maybe even buy it, yeah? If you are feeling really ambitious, you might even enjoy it enough to leave a review. Because, we author’s thrive on this thing called feedback…

You can find it here!

Walking with the Ancestors Part 4-A

In the last chapter of this series I discussed some of the finds around in the Altai Mountains in modern day Siberia, dated between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. The oldest of these two finds was a neanderthal woman, who lived some 50 kya. The other find was a little girl, a Denisovan, who had lived sometime around 30 kya. Between the two of them, we see a continuity among my ancestors, who were in the area for at least twenty thousand years. As I pointed out in the comments of Chapter 3C, there was also the remains of a dog found in a nearby cave.

For this chapter I want to continue our journey, but before I do I think it is important to recap a little bit about how the world looked around 50 kya. First off, as was evident from the last chapter in this series, our H.Sapiens ancestors migrated out of Africa and into a world already inhabited by other homins. The most prominent of these was the Neanderthals, who had a range that stretched from western and northern Europe, down through the Middle East and into East Asia.


Approximated Neanderthal Range, from Wikipedia Commons

In addition to the Neanderthals, there were others species/sub-species of homin in the area as well. The Denisovans are a notable examples of course, but there may have been others as well. It is important to note that these debates are ongoing within anthropological and archaeological disciplines. In short, the jury is still out.


The spread of Denisovans, Neanderthals and Modern Humans, from Wikipedia Commons


The extent of the Weishselian glaciation (Europe), from Wikipedia Commons

The world was filled with homins as Modern Humans spread out from Africa over the millenia. More than this though, the world was also covered in ice. The Weishselian glaciation, which lasted from 115,000 BP to about 10,000 BP. For over a hundred thousand years, while the Neanderthals roamed southern Europe and our ancestors came out to meet them, most of the northern parts of the globe were covered in an untold amount of ice and snow. This is the world our ancestors lived in.

From about 50 kya years ago down to about 10 kya years the world was in the time period known as the Upper Paleolithic, and it was a time of a flourishing of art and artifacts across the world. Modern humans spread across the globe, leaving behind them a host of rock art, cave paintings, and tools of all sorts, made of bone and flint in an increasing variety and sophistication.

Which brings us to the next part of our journey, around 45,000 years ago. Here I match with a male in Ust-Ishim, in modern day Siberia. This find is a bit to the west of the Altai Mountains.



In 2008 the Russian artist Nikolai V. Peristov was searching for ivory to make carvings out of along the river banks of Irtysh near the town Ust’-Ishim in Siberia.

Instead of ancient ivory he discovered something even more magnificent: a 45.000 year old male thigh-bone, a femur.” From Science Nordic

This was how the story of the Ust Ishim man began, and after a few hand offs find made its way into the hands of the experts at the Max Plank Institute, and one man who is one of the leading experts in the field of ancient DNA, a Swedish man by the name of Svante Pääbo. If you recall, he was also one of the leading experts behind the sequencing of the neanderthal DNA at Denisova.

The Ust Ishim man was a spectacular find, because it only added to the work that Dr. Pääbo had already done;

Pääbo’s team of scientists have previously mapped the genome of our closest relatives, the Neanderthal, from 50,000 year old bones. Their studies have shown that our ancestors had children with the Neanderthals during their migration to Europe. This means that all people outside Africa today carry about 2 percent Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

It has been estimated that this intimate meeting took place between 37,000 and 86,000 years ago, but with the new information from the Siberian man from Ust’-Ishim, this has been narrowed down to 50.000-60.000 years ago.

The scientists found that the Ust’-Ishim mans genome contained Neanderthal segments that are 2-4 times longer than in us today. This allowed them to calculate that the Neanderthal DNA was introduced between 232 and 430 generations earlier.” From Science Nordic

The reasons that DNA varies so much over time is because that it is constantly being reshuffled each time a new generation is conceived. As the New York Times puts it, it is kind of like the shuffling of a deck of cards;

During the development of eggs and sperm, each pair of chromosomes swaps pieces of their DNA. Over the generations, long stretches of DNA get broken into smaller ones, like a deck of cards repeatedly shuffled. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthal DNA became more fragmented.

Dr. Paabo and his colleagues predicted, however, that Neanderthal DNA in the Ust’-Ishim man’s genome would form longer stretches. And that’s exactly what they found. “It was very satisfying to see that,” Dr. Paabo said.” From New York Times

So, unlike myself, the Ust Ishim Man had traces and much longer of segments of neanderthal DNA in him. Whereas the Neanderthal DNA has been reshuffled in me countless times, the Ust Ishim man was a lot less removed from the events of interbreeding.

That being said, I have a lot more in common with the Ust Ishim man than I do with the neanderthals…

Ust Ishim Man: 31.5% Match

And with that is where I will leave off with this post. I am trying to dig up more research about what life might had been like around 50 – 40 kya in this region, but so far I have not come up with much. Of course I will keep on digging.

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources, References;

Wikipedia (Neanderthals)

Wikipedia (Denisovans)

Wikipedia (Weishselian glaciation)

Wikipedia (Ust-Ishim Man)

Wikipedia (Upper Paleolithic)

New York Times

Science Nordic

Some Thoughts on the Long Descent

Because of a dear friend, I now have a copy of the Long Descent by John Michael Greer. I have finished up my first read through, but I want to spend some more time with this book and really chew my way through it. Nom nom nom.

Overall, I want to say that is a very good book. It is obvious that plenty of research and thought went into the shaping of this book. While I have found plenty that I agree with, I also found plenty that I want to quibble with. Or at very least, record a few thoughts on the matter before I dig deeper.

Premise 1 Peak Oil; There is so much to say here, so really in so many ways I am only going to scratch the surface here. Basically, due to the fact’s of the Hubbert Curve, and the work of many subsequent scholars, it is a fact that sooner or later we will run into peak oil. Peak oil, being the point at which the overall production of oil ceases to continue to grow. After that, there will be an ever diminishing amount of oil that we can pump from the ground. Estimates, both within the book and without, put this peak somewhere between the 1990’s and early 2000’s. It is not clear whether or not we have hit this peak or not yet. Estimates vary widely, mostly because estimating how much oil is left in the ground is not an exact science. These days, most estimate are between the year 2000 and the year 2030, give or take.

As such, while whether or not we have hit peak oil is up for some debate, the fact is that sooner or later we will be up against that reality. And, as our civilization is based on the premise of cheap and abundant fossils fuels, and decline in one is a decline in the other.

Premise 2 The Decline of Civilization; The fact is that no civilization can grow infinitely. As I have written on this blog before, there are limits to growth. The Long Descent reaffirms this fact, primarily in the area that our production and dependence on oil and fossil fuels cannot continue indefinitely. Plain and simply, you cannot have infinite growth when faced with finite resources. This is both the problem with an oil dependent civilization, and a general problem of capitalism in general. Once peak oil begins to set in, and oil production starts to stagnate and eventually decrease, an oil dependent civilization will have to diminish and start to contract as well.

I think this much is pretty on the mark, as premise one follows pretty neatly from two. The way I see things, we are at the end of an age. We cannot base our current model of civilization on petroleum, or any fossils fuels, going into the future. Such a model is unsustainable. If we have already passed peak oil, the future of our civilization will be one of non-existence. However, as Greer points out, it will not be a sudden apocalypse, but a long, slow, decline.

It is no secret that I studied archaeology and anthropology in school, and this has given me a solid foundation to understand these things. Let’s be honest, the whole field of archaeology is based upon the idea that peoples and civilizations of the past are not around any more, and that we can understand them by what they left behind. There is a great deal of precedent for the rise and fall of civilizations, and I do not have the space to talk about it all here. I have heard from many people that we are already in a state of decline. I cannot say I agree with them wholesale, but there are signs to be sure. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and its seems like the maintenance on many things are going by the wayside. Now, I cannot say whether this is a normal oscillation, or some harbinger of things to come. It is hard for me as a single person to say. Greer points out several civilizations that have fell in the past. However, it needs to be said that even a healthy civilization will have periods of growth and contraction. The history of a civilization is not a bell curve, even a stepped one of slight recovery and further decline as Greer details in the book.

This is not a denial however, and nor should it be taken as such. Sooner or later we will have to deal with some measure of decline, and such a decline would be spanned over human lifetimes. Most of us really wouldn’t notice.

Premise 3 Replacing Oil is more costly than viable; Greer throughout the book provide a good general overview of many of the so called “alternative” energies. Many of which fail the net energy test, that is they take more energy to produce than they create. He first takes on other fossil fuels, natural gas, coal, and other finite resources such as uranium. I am generally in agreement here, that these cannot solve the problems caused by the decline in oil production. At best they are temporary bandaids, even though coal is by far the most abundant of the fossil fuels, as Greer rightly points out, it is limited and very dirty. In addition, none of these are as efficient as oil in terms of energy output.

Naturally, his discussion moves towards other alternatives, such as solar, wind and biofuels. This is the part where I start to quibble a little bit. In my opinion Greer spends far too little space in the book weighing the merits of these alternatives. In addition, this is also where the book starts to show a little bit of its age. While it is generally true that ever the most “efficient” alternatives do not have the same energy yield as oil, I think Greer misses the mark a little when it comes to dismisses these options as not enough.

The Long Descent was published in 2008, and the alternative fuel industries have made huge innovations in regards to efficiency. PV cells and solar plants produce quite a bit more energy now than they did even a year ago. Wind turbines have followed the same course. And, one area where I think Greer really falls short is his focus on ethanol production from corn alone. Even wood waste has a higher yield of ethanol than corn, and in fact corn is one of the least efficient ways of producing ethanol. While I agree it is true that ethanol does not have as high energy yield as oil or gasoline, it is one of the few viable options to keep our current modern combustion engines running, without having to convert our entire transportation sectors over to electricity, which is a better long term solution.

This is not to say that ethanol is the end all be all. There are certainly land use issues, and all kinds of problems of infrastructures. What I am really talking about here is what Greer mentions many time throughout the book, the ability to “cushion” any kind of decline.

Another criticism that Greer levels at renewable is the fact that they cost so much to mine, create and process. Whereas he says about oil, “…today the world gets most of its energy supply almost free of charge by drilling a hole in the ground and piping the results somewhere.” Pg 18. This is very incorrect, as there are huge invests in mining the metal to build wells and derricks, building the pipelines, as well as the refineries. “Light sweet crude” as Greer often calls it is hardly usable in its base form, and has to be piped, shipped, trained and trucked to refineries. Refineries for any one who has not seen one are typically MASSIVE in scale, scope, and resources intensive. In addition, the process of refining crude into say gasoline, is insanely energy intensive. Oil is hardly any less resource intensive than any process needed to create renewables. The difference of course is what Greer rightly points out, that oil yields more energy per unit, and secondly that it is much more profitable in our current economy.

Premise 4; The end of the oil age is a Predicament, not a Problem.

“Plenty of pundits and ordinary people alike insist that there must still be some constructive way out of the current situation. First in line are those that insist that replacing the rascals in power with some other set more to their liking would solve the problems facing industrial civilization. Next come those who argue that if the right technological fix gets put in place, business as usual can continue….” Pg 20. Greer goes on to highlight other manners of thinking such as more radical versions of “burn it all and build something better” and building some form of sustainable lifeboat communities to weather the coming storm.

The problem with all these lines of thought, Greer points out, is that they handle Peak Oil as a problem to be solved, not a predicament which has no solution. In other words, the realities of peak oil are inevitable, and something we will have to face and that there are no solutions. I am inclined to only partially agree. Not that I disagree with most of the points he has made so far. There are limits to the growth of any civilization. Our current civilization is built on the foundation of cheap, usable oil, and sooner or later that will run out. That is a severe limit to our growth, and nothing can grow indefinitely with a finite amount of resources available. However, I disagree that there is nothing we can really do about it. Climate Change is a predicament, but I don’t think peak oil is. It is more than a problem with a single solution to be sure, in fact it is a whole mess of complex intertwined problems. I agree generally with the ideological camps that Greer has laid out, but I think any solutions lie in some form of “all of the above”, and not in any individually posited solution.

A change in politics, a change in society, and a change in technology.

While it is true that none of the alternatives have quite the same net energy yield as oil, I do think there are viable alternatives and viable means to weather or “cushion” the effects of peak oil. Entire countries are on track to be mostly free of fossil fuels within a decade or two;



In addition, just this year many nations of the world signed on to the Paris Climate Agreements. While I have plenty of quibbles with the agreements, the fact is that they are historic and unprecedented in range and scope. And while they are primarily targeted towards limiting climate change, a big part of that is cutting emissions. I.E, reducing our use and dependence on fossil fuels.

Add to this that huge renewable projects are coming online, or pledging to do so;

Some of the largest cities;

The Largest Solar Plant

Solar Planes

Electric Cars

And this is just a taste…

Now let’s be realistic for a moment. None of these solutions individually will be enough. It will take a concentrated, holistic effort at every conceivable level, from the individual up through global. That is why I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris Agreements, because it implies that world leaders as well as individuals and local communities are aware of realities ahead, and have made the pledge to do something about it. That is huge in my opinion.

Premise 5; History and archaeology show how civilizations collapse;

I have plenty of quibbles here, and I am not going to detail them all here. Some of my points were made above, but one of my biggest problems with this section is two fold. First, Greer is pretty selective about the ancient civilizations he uses to make his case. While it is generally true that all civilizations from the past had vanished, the devil is really in the details. His book points to the Maya, the Roman Empire, Mycenae and Minoan Greece, as well as others to make his case for both the nature as well as the time frame for collapse. But this might be a case of making the evidence fit the theory. Once again, it is generally true that civilizations take human lifetimes to collapse. Centuries. However, it should be noted that no one civilization follows the exact course of another. For instance, the Egyptians did not collapse per se, but were absorbed into other conquering empires. Same too with the Aztecs, and many others that had the unfortunate fate of meeting with conquering powers. The point being that change is a constant when it comes to civilizations. They are constantly rising, falling, growing and contracting. They are also changing form, from empire to a diverse collections of smaller “civilizations”.

There is a great book by Wenke and Olsewski called “Patterns in Prehistory” that covers the archaeological data from many past societies. I think at least one passages from the Wenke/Olsewski is worth quoting;

“It would be gratifying if we could extract from our review of world prehistory some important predictions about the future of humankind, but, as we have noted, archaeology should not be considered a predictive science. It is not that we cannot look at the past and extrapolate trends we see into the future. It is that there is no necessity to these trends. Evolutionary histories are what happened, not what had to happen or what has to happen, and they are unique.” Pg 606

Which is a good segway into my next problem with some of Greer’s conclusions. Modern industrial, especially Western, civilizations really have not historic or archaeological precedent. No civilization from the past had such scale and scope as our increasingly globalized world. Even the colonizers from the Age of Exploration did not have the same access to technology and transportation that have come into being in the last century. They did not have the same level of integration. This is not to say our civilization is immune of course, but only unique in another way.

Admittedly, these are mostly fossil fuel driven, but the fact that we face peak oil does not make these technologies and developments obsolete. Quite the contrary, it may serve a a drive to adapt not only our technologies, but our societies as well. Even Wenke/Olsewski have this to add on this line of thought;

“While major droughts were likely an important the demise of the Classic Maya should be seen as a period when people began to restructure their society and culture to meet various challenges, such as failures of rulership, increasing populations, and warfare, as well as major droughts.” pg 515.

So, while peak oil may be a major challenge that lies ahead, the collapse of a complex society and civilization in turn has to have a complex set of causes, and no one factor can be pointed to as the root cause. More than the fact of peak oil, or even our dependency on it, it will be a full set of complex factors that will determine the success or failure of our society. So unlike what is claimed in Greer’s book, agricultural collapse was not the central cause of the collapse of the Classic Maya, but one factor in a “perfect storm” of factor’s that led to the disintegration of their society.

Conclusions; The Long Descent.

Warfare, ineffective leadership, increasing populations, and ecological decay, combined with the reality of peak oil, may well prove to be the “perfect storm” of factors that leads to what Greer calls the Long Descent. And it is difficult to deal with that reality without a certain sense of trepidation and anxiety, even it it will be our descendants, not ourselves, that will live through that reality.

And yet, one can agree, more or less, with the premises, and still find the conclusion wanting, or downright inaccurate. It could be considered a version of the fallacy of the White Raven.

Premise 1: This bird is white.

Premise 2: This bird is a raven.

Conclusion: Therefore, all ravens must be white.

The logic of the premises can be sound, and yet the conclusion is not. Now, I am not saying that is the case here. In general principal, I think the premises are sound, and the conclusion is not necessarily faulty. Peak oil is coming, civilizations collapse, and the coming of peak oil may have bad results for our industrial civilizations.

And as Greer concludes; therefore we must prepare for the long gradual descent that follows, so that we can build the next civilization.

This is not a bad conclusion given the premises, and certainly a possible future. However, this is where I diverge a little bit, because I think the next civilization is already waiting for us to embrace it. While I do think we will face a contraction in the future, especially once peak oil sets in, for all the lower net energy outputs that Greer says make renewable energies undesirable, as I pointed out earlier there are in fact entire nations within the Western sphere are near to achieving a nearly fossil fuel free status. Industrial nations. These are the kinds of models we need to be following, and we need to take steps, as Greer puts it, to “cushion” the fall, and minimize the chance of catabolic collapse.

Some of these, as is the case with the Maya, might be things like ending warfare and supporting effective leadership. Greer’s catabolic collapse is predicated on inadequate resources, especially for maintenance. Endless wars in the Middle East (some over oil) could certainly reroute necessary resources, as well as having leaders that can actually balance a budget. Living within our means, and all that.

As Greer says, in his chapter on the Myth of Progress and the Myth of Utopia (neither of which do I subscribe to. They are among the first to go studying anthropology, because so many of the field’s early thinkers were plagued and blinded by such narratives), that there are serious flaws with only having one (or a small selection) cultural narrative. So I ask, why should the Long Descent be the only cultural narrative we put our faith it? While it is founded on a good model and reasonable premises, it is not inevitable, nor is it the only option.

The thing that has often struck me as a science fiction writer, and practiced speculator, is that we are often if not always wrong with our predictions of the future. Even founded on good logic and modeling, the Long Descent may well turn out to be wrong. Dead, flat, and wrong in every way.

So while some of the prescriptions for enduring the Long Descent are solid, we should be building local communities, and practicing old crafts. We should be developing organic and local food productions, and sustainable communities as a whole. Those are all a good start, but not a final destination. Things like climate change are nothing short of global problems, and will need global solutions as well. Local solutions to global problems will not be enough. While our individual spheres of influence may be limited to the local, we need more than that. We need integrated communities, allied communities, as regional as well as global networks of interconnection. We need holistic solutions top-down and bottom-up. No one community, state, nation will be enough. We are all in this together, for better or worse.

Which is where I diverge. I do not see industrial society as a chief social ill, but it is still imperfect as all things thus far created by human hands. It may be dependent on oil, but that is something that we need to change. Our current technology makes ethanol a viable (however imperfect) transitional fuel, that we can use in flex fuel and hybrid vehicles to lower our demand of oil. As many countries are doing, we need to convert our energy production to renewables, and continue the decline of fossil fuel demand. During the same process, we can continue to convert our vehicles to full electric, making a clean energy and transportation infrastructure. This is not merely a technological solution, but one that requires a rework in social, cultural and political spheres as well. It should be said of course that there is no silver bullet, one single “one size fits all” solution. Some areas may have ethanol, others abundant solor and/or wind resources. A diversity of approaches, but a collective result.

The question is one of time.

Because let’s be frank, there may well be a period of decline ahead of us. Just like the British Empire before us, the time of the America Empire may be waning. That means we do face a period of contraction, but how far is an open question. If we follow Greer’s model, the Hubbert curve takes us right back to the 18/19th century.

But I for one am not quite ready to resign myself to that just yet. There is too much at stake, too much to loose that we as a species have worked so hard for. Not just science and technology, but literature, learning and law as well. Letting our society decay means things like civil rights and our human rights go out the window too. Also basic protections such as fire and police. Lawlessness is not something I find attractive. While these are certainly not perfect, I am not quite ready to throw away lives because of things like gender, skin color, or whether or not one has access to medication or guns.

In my defense of the big machines, as an animist, I think they are people of a different sort. Our cars and industrial tech are not simply tools or technologies, but helpers and allies as well. And they have the same unhealthy relationships with fossil fuels that we do. They need our help to adapt, and we need their help as well.

I think we should take some of Greer’s suggestions, even if I do not accept his conclusions wholesale. If his abstract model of slow decline (with periods of crisis and recovery) shows the future of our current civilization, then an inverse model of slow growth (with periods of faltering and regression) represents the next civilization, which is already in the works. As Greer himself pointed out, the oil crisis of the 70’s was met with an equal response of calls for renewables and sustainability, which regressed as oil supplies stabilized. When oil prices (and electrical costs with it) spiked a few years back, so did the number of people investing in household renewables or buying smaller cars.

It is logical to prepare for multiple options, so let’s take Greer’s suggestions and do what we can to prepare for the worst. But in the mean time, let’s keep pushing towards electric vehicles and industry, and putting up solar panels on our houses and connecting to the grid, and pushing for legislation that let’s us build a more sustainable society. Let’s keep building the large solar plants and wind farms, but  we can build these things on a household level as well and contribute our part, and the lights don’t have to go out when the oil stops.

A common metaphor for these times, found in Greer’s and Beckett’s writing, is that we are on a train headed towards the Long Descent. Those in charge keep calling for more speed, and we can see the tracks ahead leading down a long slope of decline. Following that track may be desirable for those in charge, or those that think a 19th century or medieval lifestyle might be fun.

But I would add to this metaphor that there is another track, parallel to ours, that leads off in another direction, over the river and through the woods. Those of us who look out the window can see there is a train on this track, though it is well behind us. It is the train to the next civilization, powered by more renewable energy and more sustainable communities. It is gaining speed and starting to close the gap, all the while those in charge of the current train throw more coal in the engine and oil on the tracks.

And I pray that the green train gets up to speed fast enough so I don’t have to go off the rails of this crazy train.

Sources, references;

Wenke/Olsewski “Patterns in Prehistory”

Greer, John Michael “The Long Descent”

Walking with the Spirits – Foreword

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was working an a manuscript about animism. Well I was, but that kind of fell apart. The reason being that I realized it was not a separate project per se. The more I worked on the “Walking with the Ancestors” project, the more and more I realized that the two projects were one and the same, not two separate ones.

They were only different in that the focus was not the same. While the “Ancestors” project is focused on my genetic heritage, I came to realize that the animism project was focused more on my spiritual heritage. Both of which draw on similar material, and in some ways are more supplements or compliments to one another then they are separate projects.

As such, I present you with the foreword to the Walking with the Spirits! Though frankly, there is not a lot more to say about this project than I said in the foreword to the Ancestors project. These two series I am hoping will development more as supplements than as two independent projects. As such, the format of this one will be more or less the same as its companion. Each “set” of posts will be organized into chapters, parts A, B, C ect and so on. Part A of each chapter will be a lot of the science, and basically the logic for the following parts. Part B and so on, will be more creative in essence, being a fictional story that came from the logic of Part A.

As I said, I am hoping these two projects with co-evolve together, and you my dear readers get to watch it evolve here in real time.

However, this one will focus more on the spiritual side of things, where as is Ancestors will be following more of a genetic arc. I will still be drawing on archaeology and anthropology heavily just as in Ancestors. In fact, I will likely be using many of the sites and finds presented in the Ancestors project as jumping points.

In short, this project will present not only an expanded commentary, but also an expanded story as well. I will probably be cross referencing the two series as I go. I originally planned for this part to be a book in its own right. But now I present it free of charge and open access, in a very informal manner. Who knows, maybe I will use “Spirits” and “Ancestors” as the outline for an larger, expanded book. (Foreshadowing anyone? )

So, as always thank you for reading!

And thank you for joining me on this journey…