Monthly Archives: January 2019

Spirits of the Forest

“In ancient times, the land lay covered lay covered in forests. Where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony. But as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed…” — Princess Mononoke

Some have wondered where they Great Lakes came from… Long ago, there were Great Spirits of ice and snow. They were so old, and so powerful, that their very bodies lay upon the surface of the land. There was no land in those days, only the endless bodies of the Ice People.

Over long spans of time, the land slowly warmed. The Ice People hated the warmth, and started to migrate towards the north. But in anger of being displaced, they dug up the land, digging great furoughs in the land. But they stayed too long, and the warmth got to them. The Ice People that remained melted away, and the water from their bodies and tears filled the Great Lakes.

Okay, so that is my best attempt at some kind of glacier-inspired folklore for my homelands of Michigan. It’s a little bit science and a little bit animism, and tries to retell the history of how the Great Lakes came to be. The short answer, they were dug out by glaciers. Obviously.

In my last post, I made brief allusions to the fact that in Finnish folklore the spirits of the dead and the spirits of the land are deeply intertwined. This makes sense, from both a practical as well as a spiritual perspective. In the words of Mufasa, when we die our bodies become the grass. The vast majority of humans, animals, plants, and every other being on this planet return to the Earth when we die. We become part of the land, whether we are buried or burned.

The spirits and inhabitants of the land are often referred to as Mann haltija literally land spirits. The land itself and the spirits of the land are the oldest beings, and have been here long before humanity first crawled out of the evolutionary past.. The plants and animals have millions of generations of dead. In Finnish folklore, these spirits are often the protectors of the land. The dead are protectors of the living, and the forests were here before the people. In this way, ancestors, the dead, and the haltija in general is deeply connected to the land, and the Earth.

For example, we can still find the fossil remains of the first forms of life that appeared on Earth billions of years ago. The memory of the Earth is deep, and those dead are still remembered by the land beneath our feet. According to the folklore, those dead spirits can also watch over their living descendants, and the species that came from them. The First Oak, would be the haltija that watched over and guarded its kin, and helped to maintain the cycles of life and death for the species.

That is why the spirits of the dead and the land are deeply intertwined. My homeland of Michigan has a deep forested history, and even today the state is over 50% forests. This is interesting to consider when you figure that the Native Americans have been here for generations, and that the Forests were here long before them. And the lakes and waters before that, and the glaciers before that. That all that ecological history, is still with us. Still below our feet. Still part of Michigan’s animistic and physical being.

Spirits of dead wolves still watch over their living kin, along with spirits of birds, and trees and forests. These are the spirits of the forest, and of the land. The mann haltijas, and also the Spirits of the Forest.

The Spirits of the Forest

The metsän väki serve as guides and mentors to us all. Their roots go deep into the ground, to the waters of the dead, drinking of the wisdom and memory of the Earth and our ancestors. Their trunks exist upon the land, in our own world of humans, animals, and plants. Their branches stretch towards the heavens, towards the stars, the spirits, and the heavens.

In Finnish, the metsän väki are the people of the forest, the spirits of the place, and also the inherent ‘power’ of the place. The spirits, and the Spirit, of the Forest. They are the living beings of the forest; all the different species of trees, of animals, plants, fungus, bacteria, and all the others. They are also the ecology of the forest, the complex system that involves not just the biology, but also the air, water, and earth of the physical landform. The metsän väki are the cycles of matter and energy that maintain and regulate the entire system. From the acorn to the rotting trunk, these are the metsän väki.

Finland, like my own country of Michigan, is also a heavily forested land. It is no surprise at all that the forest played heavily into their folklore and their spiritual beliefs. However, in my own home, there is a deeply disturbing past when it comes to the forests. Historically, after the arrival of Europeans, Michigan was basically the source of lumber for a growing America.

The vast majority of our old growth trees were logged and taken away in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a great podcast series by Michigan Radio, if you care to listen that covers a lot of this history. Still, that history weighs on my mind. Those trees and habits were displaced, and in no small way our forests have not been the same since. Those old forests would have been something to see!

Yet, there is a deeper, more animistic connection here too. In the same way that the destruction of habitats can destabilize ecosystems, a similar idea is present in the Finnish concept of väki. Displaced spirits can become angry, or ‘insane’ if they are not treated properly. The dead can become enraged, just as in Princess Mononoke. They can make people sick, or become ill themselves. There is a real ecological and spiritual connection between the health of the metsän väki, and the physical health of the forest.

If you want to read more about my experience with forests spirits, you could start here.

Not only does that leave room for further investigation, but it also makes me deeply uncomfortable. Again, perhaps Jigo in Princess Mononoke said it best;

Hiisi

In goes another layer deeper as well, the connection between the dead, the living, and the land. In Finnish folk beliefs, there is also the concept of the hiisi. These were also spirits, or ghosts, that could help (or hinder) the living. Spirits of the dead were often honored in forest groves, natural land formations, and stones and rocks.

A forest where the spirit of the dead was honor was called a Hiisi forest, a spirit forest. A place where the spirits and ancestors dwell. By sacred trees, in sacred groves, or upon stone altars Finnish people would leave offerings, sacrifices, and honors for the dead. I’ve talked more about what that looks like here Reflections on the FFA. 

However, as Christianity swept into Finland, hiisi and the concepts around it actually became a profane idea. Hiisi were no longer spirits or ancestors, but devils and evil demons. As a result, it’s fallen from use; in the same way that a lot of old sacred sites were cut down, or had churches built over them. Still, I think the spirits still linger in those places, just as they still linger in the forests of Michigan.

Which is a great place to stop for the moment. There is a lot more that could be said, but I will save that for future posts. As always;

Thanks for reading!


Random Roundup, 1/11/19

Random Roundup 1/11/19

Hello everyone!

This is a new thing I’m going to try for a bit. I’m calling it “Random Roundups”, and the goal is to share some random articles or media with you that I found interesting throughout the week. In part, it helps me publish short content, but also helps me keep track of articles I tend to forget about…

I need an image for this thing…

So here is this weeks Random Roundup!

Environmental Story Telling Can Help Spread Big Ideas for Saving the Planet*

Research increasingly suggests that trying to promote behavioral change through fear can be counterproductive, leading to anxiety or depression that results in an issue being avoided, denied or met with a sense of helplessness. However, in education, news and fiction, stories with positive role models and which focus on the positive outcomes of solutions are much more likely to inspire action to solve it. “

Story telling is vital to how we shape our place and experiences in the world. The narratives we hold to can drastically shape how we confront the crises ahead. In short, I think we need more stories of a better future, and less dystopian ones.

There is no Planet B

“If, however, we change our technologies and our economic system to better match the physical and biological realities of life on Earth, the resulting history could be quite amazing, what some are calling “a good Anthropocene.” That future would, in effect, be the story of humanity devoting itself to nurturing the health of the biosphere and creating a sustainable prosperity for all the living creatures on this planet. While not exactly utopia, that future could be called optopia—the “optimal place,” the best possible outcome given the current conditions.”

On the topic of environmental story telling, Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite contemporary authors. So when he speaks about threat of Climate Change we all face, I tend to listen. It’s well worth the read!

And last, but simply not least. If positive story telling can help us each take action to help mitigate climate change, then perhaps it is best to end with a positive story!

This old coal plant is now a solar farm, thanks to pressure from local activists

For more than half a century, a coal plant in the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts spewed pollution into the air. Now, the plant is closed, and 17,000 solar panels and a battery storage system–the largest in the state–send clean power to the grid. “

Shutting down all coal plants is going to be essential to building a sustainable future for our planet. So will be the installation of renewable energy. Why not do both at once?

I hope you enjoyed this roundup, and feel free to leave me feedback if you did! I will continue to work on other pieces for my next post, but I feel this was a nice change of pace.

Thanks for reading!

*I don’t agree with any article 100%, so I might have my quibbles with any article, but I still think there is value in each.


Spirits of the Dead

 

I once asked the woods what the afterlife looks like.

A rotting skeleton nearby, 
Fluids leaking out into the earth
Water to be absorbed by the roots
To grow new leaves in spring
To fall as dead leaves in autumn
Dead leaves for the worms
For the roots
Minerals for new seeds in summer
And naked saplings in the snow
Death comes after life
And new life after death

Hope you all had a good holiday season, and Happy New Years!

I am excited to be starting a new project here on the blog. In many ways, this project will be more folklore/fieldwork based. It will be both an attempt to “flesh” out some details of my own cosmology, as well as an opportunity to share more of my spiritual thoughts and ideas.

In many ways, I’m very much a contemporary animist. Sure, I take inspiration and ideas from the past and from my ancestors, but the animism I practice is very much grounded in the here and now. It’s about where I stand right now, and not the places where my ancestors once stood, but the living land and spirits around me in the present time and space.

This brings a lot of baggage with it to be sure. That’s one of the reasons I like to call myself an animist. It makes me look square at the historical colonialism, imperialism, and genocide that brought my ancestors to the shores of the US. It has elements of both the past, and the present. It gives me roots in the past, and the ancestral baggage I have inherited. But it also has a root in the present, and the acknowledgment that I know longer live in the world my ancestors knew, nor any of my ancestral lands. There is a distance, in time and space, from the world they knew.

Yet, all this talk about ancestors and the past, inevitably leads to conversations about the dead. In fact, I was part of one recently at a local gathering. We got into topics about death and burial, and what that would look like in a pagan context. It was one of those topics where it is difficult to explain burial without an understanding of where I am coming from. In other words, my ideas of burial are hard to discuss without exploring my spiritual understanding of the nature of the dead.

So, that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

There are two important concepts that I draw from Finnish folklore that are going to be important going forward. These concepts are the haltijas (spirits), and väki, which is the Finnish concept of both people/folk, and of energy/power of a place. It has a great deal of overlap with my conception of animism, in which the world is filled with persons (most of which are non-human), and that life is lived in relation to others. Väki and haltijas give me the means to work with a full enpeopled natural world. The deer in forest are haltijas, deer people. They belong to the deer väki, and also the greater väki of the forest. This means more than just the physical living components of the forest, but also the dead, the trees, the rocks, and the Earth eventually as a totality.

Obviously the dead are where I am going to focus today. The phrase for these spirits in Finnish is kalman väki, the dead folk. The spirits of the dead.

I’ll say more on the other topics in future posts. What about the dead? What is, for lack of better questions, the nature of the dead in my animistic practice? Well, through the lens of complex systems, the Earth is the most influential complex system that we belong to. Yes, I could extend this to the solar system at large, but that might be too big of view for what I want to talk about. The Sun of course matters to all life on Earth, but ultimately the Earth is our home. It is where all humans living today were born, and were most of us will die. (Excepting people like James Doohan). The Earth is the complex system we are closest too, and has the most influence over our lives. Our relationship to the Earth is the most intimate.

In this way, the Earth is THE complex system that defines our lives, and ultimately our deaths. The spirit of the Earth is our ancestor, and the mind and memory in which the history of the Earth resides. This goes deep into astronomy, and the planet’s origins from the Sun, as well as deep geology and ecology. Also archaeology, because all these sciences are ways of learning about the memories of the Earth spirit. Through archaeology especially, we are literally digging into the memories of the Earth and the land.

Ultimately, this is where the dead and the ancestors come to rest. Whether the ashes are cast into the ocean, or buried on the family farm, ultimately all dead come to rest as part of the Planetary Earth System. The dead are kept, in this sense, as part of the memory of the Earth and the land. This can be framed in a global sense, as the planet is all one system, or in a very local sense; ie, the dead are buried in a specific place at a specific time, in some cases.

An example of this could be a cemetery plot in which many dead are buried. In many ways, they are very local spirits, and memories of the land in that particular place. The spirits of the dead are spirits of place in that example. But they are also still part of the Earth system, and part of the memory of the planet.

This is also true of the non-human dead. The forest floor is littered with the dead of past seasons, whether plant, animals, or something else entirely. The bones of the dead animals rest upon the forest floor, along with the fallen leaves, and in time are reclaimed as part of the forest. The soil itself, is the memory of generations of dead spirits.

Digging Deeper

If you dug a hole into the forest floor, or most any landform, you’d be digging into layers of physical and spiritual memory of the forest itself. The spirit, mind, and memory of the forest.

The same can also be said of human cities, and human burials. Some of the oldest cities on the planet are over 7,000 years old. Digging under these cities is digging into the mind and memory of the cities, and the dead that are remembered (and forgotten), there in the mind of the earth.

So what about ghosts, spirits, and other strange haunting that are so often called paranormal? To me, such ghosts would be the memories of the land and place. Like memories, ghosts can be incomplete. They can be fragmented over time, or sometimes forgotten completely. While the memories of the land and the Earth are much greater and deeper than any human memory, the Earth’s memory is not perfect. Like archaeology, sometimes the remains of the dead and the buried are fragmented, and incomplete.

Ghosts are the memories of those that were once living, in the way that the land remembers them. They might have inhabited buildings that no longer exist, or places long since past. But yet, the memories remain in that place. Sometimes archaeologists find them, and sometimes spiritual people. The memories of the place can still exist, even if those that had those memories no longer do. The dead are the memories in the mind (systems) of the land.

The Dead as Land Spirits

But more than this, I also think the spirits of the dead are still with us as more than memories. Death is not the end of life, but a kind of breaking. A fragmenting. As part of the land, the dead continue to live on as the agents of a place. The very real cycles of matter and energy that move through ecosystems and the planet as a whole. That is why väki is such a useful concept. It is the people (human and non-human) of place, but also the energy of a place. The real physical part of a complex ecosystem.

I got to thinking about this as I was standing on the land around my house. I started to wonder, what dead might lie beneath my feet? What would I find if I just started digging, even if in only a hypothetical sense. (Digging deep holes without heavy equipment sucks.)

At the top layer, I;d find my recently deceased dog Mia. She passed away this year. Her bones are pretty near the top. I’d also find some recently discarded trash, and other debris that has found it’s way into my yard. Future archaeologists might find the same bits of plastic in a few thousands years. That is a troubling thought.

Going deeper, I might find the remains of the Native people that my ancestors displaced. I was part of the team that found a Native American firepit on the campus of MSU, so it’s not impossible. That would mean coming face to face with my colonial-settler past. I was born in Michigan, but I’m not Native American. In my area, that would most likely be the Pottawatomie, and perhaps the Ottawa and Ojibwe too.

There might be Native bones under my feet, and I would literally be standing upon the dead of displaced and colonized people. Like the political and social systems the ‘founders’ of the US set up, the Native people would physically ‘beneath me’, just like the social structure I benefit from. That too, is troubling.

What might I find deeper than Native dead? Deeper still would be the memories and spirits of the land of Michigan, the biologic and geologic history. The history of glaciers, mammoths, and eventually the first forms of life that formed billions of years ago. The remains of the dead that evolved into the whole of life on the planet. The soil itself in that way, is the remains of the dead. As well as the nourishment for the living.

We’ve come full circle, starting with the the Earth, and ending with the Earth. Ultimately, that is the cycle of the living and the dead. Until we start inhabiting other planets, the planet is the end and the beginning. This asks us to really reevaluate our relationships to the spirits of the dead. Our relationships to fossil fuels, to Native peoples, to the land, to our own ancestors, and to the Earth.

Thanks for reading!