Author Archives: Nicholas Haney

About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology.

Intensive Reflections

(From Wikipedia)

I have come to the end of my two and a half years of Kelley Harrell’s Spirited Path Intensive, through Soul Intent Arts. This intensive covered various topics in coursework and experiential teaching, all of which revolved around animism and an animistic worldview. I have to admit it has been a heck of a ride, and it has given me the opportunity to really flesh out my own ideals and beliefs. It has been a great experience, and Kelley has been an exceptional mentor.

But now I have reached the point where I need to sit with and reflect on not only what I have done, but also what comes next. That is the purpose behind this post. A little bit of reflection on my part. As this is a pretty personal post, it may jump around a bit. I’m just going to go with wherever the flow takes me.

I wrote this at the time I started with the Intensive, and it really speaks to where my journey into animism began.

“Somewhere along the line, I became an animist and that was when everything really took off. It was around the time I read Graham Harvey’s book, Animism: Respecting the Living World. How he defined animism in that book really clicked for me; “The world is full of people, most of which are non-human, and life is lived in relations to others.” That became the foundation for my practice, and all kinds of things started to fall into place. For me, the understanding that I wasn’t just dealing with rocks, or trees, or energies, but with people; that really hit home for me. So I started focusing on those relationships, and somewhere along the way started to bridge that divide between animism and shamanism. That I wasn’t just living in a world full of people, but that I was actively mediating between them, between our worlds and theirs.”

That kicked off the long series of events that eventually lead me to the Intensive, and the subsequent work that followed. It covered a lot of territory, and I want to just talk about some of that here.

Cosmology

(From NASA)

I think one of my favorite portions of the classwork was getting to really sit with and experiment with how cosmology looks from an animistic worldview. I got to draw in a lot of inspiration from science and from old myths and folklore to really establish a cosmology. For me, that cosmology is rich in stars and trees, because of course it is! We all come from the stars, and several cultures throughout history thought the same. Through generations of stars forming and dying, the elements of our very existence were built up. It is what made the planet Earth possible, what made biology and our very being possible. In addition, even before the Intensive work, trees were central to how I related to the world around me. I lived my childhood in the forest, and that has continued well into adulthood. I love trees, and forests. So I was drawn to old ideas such as Yggdrasil, and other forms of the World Tree such as the Shaman’s Tree. While I don’t adhere strictly to a Three-Tiered cosmsos (as reality is messy), I do enjoy the Tree as a metaphor, and the connections between Land, Water, and Sky (and Stars).

If anything, the cosmology I shaped for myself became a bit of a “map to the territory”, which bridges the physical world with the spiritual world, and with the narratives that surround all that. It gives me a “you are here” way to look at myself in relationship to the Cosmos, and my place within it. This isn’t dogma, but hopefully something that can shift with time as my life experiences come to inform it in new and different ways. In no small way, the writings I have been doing lately about the väki, the spirit folk, have been a reflection of that cosmology. A way to inform and frame my here and now, and my relationships with the natural world. With the Trees and Stars, and everything in between!

Practicality

To me at least, animism and practicality are inseparable. Going back to the very dawn of our species, many indigenous cultures have spiritual worldviews that speak to a deep function and day to day knowledge. Where does the food come from? Where shall we find game? What plants are good to eat? How do we maintain fertility for those plants and animals? That is what I love about animism, because at the end of the day it has to WORK. In the words of one of my other mentors, “does this make the corn grow?”. It doesn’t help that I have what is often called an “engineers” personality, that really lives practical things and applied science. This creates for me an animism where daily rituals help to water plants, and bring nutrients to soil, and live a more sustainable and less impactful like. That animism looks like small clay shrines in a family forest, or small shrines under solar panels. That is what my animism looks like, and Kelley’s Spirited Path really helped me to flesh that out, as a way of relating to the living Earth.

Naturalistic

(Me, kayaking)

Which is a great bridge to the next aspect I refined and shaped for myself over the course of the intensive. I have found and revisited that I am more naturalistically, more nature oriented in my belief and practice. I am a science fiction writer, so it comes as no surprise that I love science, and how it helps to understand and relate to the world. It gives me inspiration for stories, and things like ecology gives me reasons to have rituals and other acts that help to preserve and conserve the natural world. That can be a real act of service, such as volunteering to take care of trails and nature areas. I love working with land, biking, hiking in forests, kayaking, and all those fun outdoorsy things. My animism looks to nature, and to ancestors as foundations of my practice. This does not mean my animism is atheistic, in fact it certainly has room for polytheisms. Moreover, it just means I like looking for forest gods and river spirits, more than devotional practices. Or put another way, the old cliché of the forest is my church, and being outdoors is my devotion. Whether you call it ecology, animism, Gaia Hypothesis, or Planetary Systems Science, I like to think we are talking about the same thing. Again, the intensive helped me to refine and shape that view.

Values and Ethics

One of the biggest things I got out of the intensive was the ability to articulate my ethics and values in a very clear way. In short, animism brings to me the understanding that on the widest scale, we have to understand our impacts and relationships. There is no such thing as no impact, every step, every breath has an impact. The fact of the matter is, our relationships are making life impossible on the planet. This means that we have an obligation to do the best the we can for not only ourselves, but for biosphere and the living planet. This brings with it a value for life, and an ethical duty to the well being of others. We have the ability, and with that comes the responsibility, to create a system that does the best it came for everyone. This implies taking Anthropogenic Climate Change head on, and doing the work it takes to create something like that. We have to ask ourselves the question of what that looks like, and start to make the huge transformations of the world system that need to happen.

I ended the Intensive having to do a kind of purpose statement, that really defined my skills and how I am going to approach my work going forward. Now, I have to say that I am still figuring out what that work will actually look like going forward, but I still wanted to share the statement I came up with at the end of the Intensive. Below is an edited and shorter version, to be more appropriate to this post.

Statement

My work revolves around the intersection of animism and ecology, at the crossroads where science, storytelling and spirituality meet. I offer a wide range of services, most of which are involved in shaping stories and the creation of artifacts. I am a fiction writer, author, crafter, metalsmith and outdoorsman. I provide a wide range of arts and crafts that have practical as well as spiritual purposes.

I work with a wide range of materials, from wood, clay, steel, to the written word on the page. All of this is pursued with respect for ecology, justice, and sustainability as a foundation; working in the least impactful ways for people and the planet. Animism is about relationships, and maintaining healthy relationships with the communities and the planet is a core value of what I do.

My work is centered around my local ecology, around the Great Lakes region, and the land known as Michigan. I am an avid hiker, hunter, bicyclist, and kayaker of the lands and waters. Sustainable relationships with that bioregion is the core of my work, and the center of my spirituality, which is a virulent mix of animism, science, folklore, and skill.

Closing Thoughts

I find it appropriate that this post would begin with some of my first thoughts entering the Spirited Path, and would end with some of the last. It’s an odd feeling, to be at the end of this, well at least the nominal end. This work doesn’t stop, not this in this lifetime. Because animism is a worldview, a way of relating to the world. That doesn’t stop, even as one page turns and another chapter begins.

I admit, I look forward to the coming days with a mixed sense of trepidation and purpose. I’m not sure what all that looks like just yet, but there is still plenty to explore, so that is exciting. All the same, I feel like I stand on firmer ground now, a foundation on which to build.

For that, I am immensely grateful.

As always, thanks for reading!


Hiatus

Hello all!

Long time, no write! Seriously, I haven’t really posted anything since the end of August. It is now November, and I’m not sure what happened to the last few months! Well, as you can guess, this blog has been on hiatus in that time, and will likely remain such through the end of the year.

Summer went by in a blur, but we got a lot of work done around the house and garden. I got out bicycling again, which is the first time in about four years. So that is nice. That and my day job has been insane, and also my schedule has changed. Not that I am trying to make excuses, but writing has been hard lately. I just haven’t had much time or energy. I think I may have burnt out a little, but most of that was probably the day job.

Honestly, I have had plenty of other work in the pipeline, but no real time to develop it. Which leaves you all hanging, and I feel really bad about it. That said, I hope I have some new work coming out soon. I want to continue the folklore series I have been working on, as there is more I want to say there. I have also just come to the end of a nearly three year animistic intensive, which I have some reflections on.

I don’t know what the timelines on those will be right now, and I am thinking about starting another novel over the winter too, so I don’t want to make any promises.

But I did want you all to know I haven’t forgotten about you! My stats show a lot of new people have been finding this work and sharing it, so that’s great! That makes me happy, at least you folks haven’t forgotten me! That really means a lot to me, and that is why I originally started blogging.

You are all wonderful, and I hope your lives are going well.

As always, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading!


Spirits of Michigan

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. “ Sarah Anne Lawless

Hello again folks!

I hope the above quote gives you an idea of what I want to talk about today. The fact that this post is titled “The Spirits of Michigan” is no accident. I want to take some of the previous posts I’ve made and tie them together in a more expansive way. In other words, I want to write a little more about things I have already touched upon.

In no small way, being a Michiganian is complicated, because Michigan is the land, but it is also more than just the land. It is the ecology, the biology, and the history. As the above quote points out, it is the unique complex whole that is my home. It’s cultural and geographical, as much as it is spiritual. My love of Michigan runs deep, as deep as the rivers that define the Great Lakes Basin.

(The green Mitten is me!)

Michigan is as much the land as it is the people, and the spirits that dwell here. It covers countless generations in time and space, from the glaciers that first carved the lakes, down to my own time. I am the youngest in a long, long line of bioregional animism. I was born to this land, the minerals and waters my very being. But, my ancestors are not from here. I’m a colonist, a settler. I don’t know this land the way the Anishanaabe did. It’s not part of my culture, nor is the culture of my ancestors. An orphan of two lands, but not entirely separate.

That’s a big can of worms to open, and as such I’m going to set it aside for now. That’s because, it’s a bit of side track. It’s not what I want to focus on right now. What I want to focus on are the overlaps, between what my ancestors once knew, what the Anishanaabe still know, and what I hope to relearn. I want to talk about the Mishiväki *, a word I just entirely made up. A hybrid of Ojibwe misha, meaning large, (mishigamaa, the name of Michigan meaning ‘large water’) and väki, a term from Finnish meaning basically ‘spiritual people/energies’. Large spirit people. Big spirit energy. Ha! It’s kind of fitting. The Spirits of Michigan.

(First People, The Anishanaabe)

(All these Germans and Finnish folks… )

Michigan’s prehistory and history is long and dense, and I’m not going to be able to cover it all here. Yet, I understand deeply why the Anishanaabe dwelt here, and why my ancestors moved in. It’s curious too, that the major demographics of Michigan also reflect in no small way the cultures I draw a lot of inspiration from, mainly Germanic (Nordic), and Finnish. Yes, there are other cultures in the mix too, and again I don’t have the space to go into all that.

At the same time, it’s not that surprising. Michigan in climate, flora, and fauna, has a lot in common with Finland, Germany, and the Nordic countries. Similar temperature ranges, and of course the Great Lakes themselves. Scandinavia and Finland are notable as peninsulas, surrounded on three sides by ocean and seas. Michigan has the Great Lakes, and the same connection to water. By the lakes, the bioregion of Michigan is defined. We have natural boundaries in almost every direction, and as the graphic above illustrates, that defines our watershed too.

Those are the veden väki, the spirits of water.

(Great Lakes, from a Ojibwe perspective from here.)

In addition to this, I’ve noted before how as much as the waters, Michigan is defined by the forests. Our history is full of old growth hardwoods and rich mixed boreal forests as you moved farther to the north. So too, is our history full of exploitative logging and lumber industries. Forests are our greatest treasure, and also our greatest loss. Those old forests are not around anymore, but thankfully they are not all lost. Planting trees and regrowing forests is a vital step to tackling the climate crisis. Those are the metsän väki.

Michigan is more than the ecology and the waters too. It is the people, and here I specifically mean the humans.** Civilization, the creations of human hands, are part of Michigan too. Our cities, our villages, the roads and bridges, all of it. These are part of the Mishiväki. The indigenous people, as well are myself, we are part of that as much as the forests and rivers.

I think that is why I like the more Celtic flavored concept of the three realms; Land, Sea, and Sky. Or in Michigan, more accurately, the Land, Lakes, and Sky. I also find the concept of the World Tree useful, and the rough correspondences to the three worlds; Middle, Lower, and Upper. This is an old shamanic conception, and shamanism in many was is the compliment to animism. It works great for relating to the bioregion of Michigan. As a way of framing spiritual relationships, as well as drawing on a deep cultural memory of trees and forests. As things should be.

Yet, in addition to all of this, we also have the spirits of our own industrial heritage and contemporary cities. The tulen väki are the spirits of fire, which has been essential for human society for a looong time. Fire, is also essential for smelting and metallurgy, and as the home of the US auto industry, also valuable to internal combustion engines. Fire is intimately tied to the raudan väki, the spirits of iron, and the gruvrået*** spirits of the mine.

(Big John Iron Mine, Iron Mountain, Michigan.)

There will be a lot more about those in future posts, but I want to say that civilization is more than heavy industry and automobiles. It is also farms, cities, and especially houses. In Finnish, the spirit of the house is usually referred to as the tonttu, which is closely related to the nisse and tomte of Norse folklore. These spirits dwelt upon the farm, in the house and in the barn, and often acted as protectors of the land. They are said to possess immense strength. There is also a strong ancestral connection, because some of the tonttu, were the original inhabitants of the land, often the first farmer to clear the field or light a fire on the property.

As the Great Lakes is home to a large shipping industry, it is also notable that tonttu spirits could also take ships as their home, these spirits are known as skeppstomte or skibsnisse. In Norwegian, the yard spirit could be called the gårdsrå. In modern times, I think it is safe to presume planes, trains, and automobiles would have their own kinds of spirits too. Car-väki. (whomp whomp) Okay, maybe not that last one…

(SS Arthur M. Anderson, a Great Lakes freighter.)

As I am coming up on the end of this piece, it might be fair to ask what the point of all this is? Well, that is a much bigger project than a simply blog post. Long story short, this kind of work provides the basis for me to do further field work. It is also me working my way through a kind of contemporary animism. Animism isn’t just about what was, but where we are standing right now. My home in Michigan is well removed from my ancestral lands, and in the same way I am far removed from those cultures. I’m not Finnish, or Nordic, and only look to them for inspiration. Still, that inspiration (means ‘in-spirited’, ha!) gives me a foundation in which to shape my own practice in current times. It gives me the means to shape for myself a very Michigan based kind of animism. A new way of rooting myself to the land, forests, lakes, and people I call home. It gives me the ability to shape new stories and bits of folklore that are rooted in our modern scientific and technology world and the ecology around me.

That is the whole point of bioregional animism after all!

Thanks for reading!

Notes/Sources;

*I like the symmetry of it too, that grammatically, the Anishanaabe root-word comes first (as the indigenious people did), and the ancestral root-word comes second. That’s weird grammar chronology.

** ‘People’ is a pretty wide concept in animism.

*** The Rå are Scandianvian/Swedish folklore spirits, with a lot of overlap with the Finnish concepts of väki and haltijas (spirits), as well as vaettir in Norse.

http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/paleo-indian.html

https://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/2019/08/01/spirits-of-the-waters/

https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/the-great-lakes-in-ojibwe-v2/

http://ironmountainironmine.wixsite.com/ironmine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A5

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nisse_(folklore)


Spirits of the Waters

(Me, kayaking on a local river)

Hello again folks!

I am sorry that it took so long to get another post out to you all. Truth be told, I have been struggling with the writing a little bit. It’s not a lack of interest or a lack of material, but a lack of energy and free time. My day job has been really stressful, and that has taken a lot out of me. It makes extraneous tasks a bit harder. More than that, it’s summer, so I have been spending more time outdoors. I have also been spending my time reading on nice days. For what it is worth, the Expanse series of novels is really good. I’m on number four now.

All that aside, today I wanted to continue my series on the spirits. You can find the previous posts about forests here , and about the dead here. It was also inspired by the last fall’s trip to Michigan State University, which you can find here.

I’ll like to add another post to that series today, but before I do I wanted to make a few quick notes. You might be wondering what the point is to all of this? If I may make a statement of intent, the recent series of posts on spirits is for me to hash out some of the details of my own cosmology. I draw a lot of inspiration from my ancestral cultures, especially Finnish and Nordic, but also with some Irish/Scottish/Celtic/English thrown in. That said, it’s been a long time since my family has been immigrants, at least seven generations of my family has been born in North America. As such, while my ancestors inspire me, my animism and spiritual practice is very much grounded in the contemporary here and now. It is one part inspiration, and one part bioregionalism. I’ll talk a lot more about this in the next post, as a kind of ‘hybrid’ form of spirituality.

But I don’t want to go too far down that past just yet. So instead let’s talk about the spirit of the water. In Finnish folklore, these spirits are called the veden väki, the people/energies of the water. I love the Finnish concept of väki, because it has two simultaneous meanings. It means the energies of a place, in a very real physical sense. The cycles of energy and matter in an ecosystem, including the plants, animals, air, and the earth in that system. It is the constant flow of energy that often goes unseen and unremarked. The second sense, is that the väki are the folk of a location, the people; the spirits of a place. Again, this can be in a very physical way. The fish, the water plants, the bugs, the water fowl, all of them. It can also include the more spiritual ‘unseen’, whether metaphors, meaning narratives, or other more metaphysical methods.

(Ludington Pumped Hydro Storage, literal energy)

Why water spirits? Well, first and foremost, water is essential to all life on Earth. The hydrological cycle from ocean to rain, river to lake, is absolutely vital to everything we know. Water is life, essentially and fundamentally. 70% of our planet is covered in water, and approximately the same percentage in our own bodies. That is why the veden väki are often present in healing and sustenance folklore. Water is vitality, vital for healing as well as longevity.

More than this, my home state of Michigan is defined by water and the spirits of water. The very name of the state comes from Ojibwe, mishigamaa, which means “large water” or “large lake.”

(Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan)

The picture of me kayaking above is on a local tributary of the Grand River, whose Native American name is O-wash-ta-nong, meaning “Far-away-water'” thought to refer to the length of the river. The Grand River is the longest river in the state, at 406 kilometers (252 miles) from Hillsdale County to where it meets Lake Michigan in Grand Haven. Through it’s local tributary (and with a surplus of vacation time) I could kayak from my house all the way to Lake Michigan.

In addition, Michigan is bounded by four of the five Great Lakes, which make up 1/5 of the world’s total fresh water.

The state has 11,037 inland lakes and 38,575 square miles (99,909 km2) of Great Lakes waters and rivers in addition to 1,305 square miles (3,380 km2) of inland water. No point in Michigan is more than 6 miles (9.7 km) from an inland lake or more than 85 miles (137 km) from one of the Great Lakes. – From Wikipedia

Aside from Alaska, Michigan has the longest shoreline of any other state, at about 3,288 miles not including islands. This is the same approximate length of the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida. There is a reason the Great Lakes region is often referred to as the “Third Coast”.

(The Great Lakes Basin)

It would be easy to cite facts all day, but that is not what I want to do. My homeland is amazing in a lot of different ways, not the least of which that I can bike and kayak so many major waterways without going far from home. Plus the state is like 51% forest, and that surely pleases my Finnish ancestors. This state, this land, is as much the land as it is the waters. Together, the two aspects of Michigan are what make it home for me. It is an essential part of my spiritual practice, as much as it is an essential part of the land that practice is rooted in.

My childhood was spent in the rivers, lakes, streams, and forests of Michigan. The forests defined me, and the waters shaped me. The väki of metsän and veden are part of me, literally and figuratively. They are the spirits of my home, and of Michigan. Finland seems far away, but also very close to home.

Thanks for reading!

Notes/Sources;

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Michigan

https://www.consumersenergy.com/company/what-we-do/electric-generation/pumped-storage-hydro-electricity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haltija

Scandinavian Folk Belief & Legend, ed. by Henning K. Sehmsdorf and Reimund Kvideland

Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela

Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot translated by Francis Magoun

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_River_(Michigan)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes_Basin


Random Roundup, 7/1/19

 

(My milkshake brings all the views to the blog…)

Hello again folks!

It’s been a while since my last update. Work has been crazy busy, and the weather is finally starting to get nice, so I have been spending more time outside than over the past few months. That means the writing has slowed down a bit. Also, if I’m being really honest, I have not known what to write about recently. Writing has been… hard. I’m starting to ease back into it, and I hope to have something soon. I’ll probably be returning to the recent folklore posts I have been working on. Still plenty of ground to cover there.

That said, today I just wanted to do a random roundup for you all, as basically an update/place holder. There has been a lot of great articles lately, and I think a few of them deserve some attention.

First, Animism Does Not Conflict with Science

This should come to a surprise to almost non-one that is a regular reader of this blog. I am a huge supporter of the fusion of animism as a worldview, and Western science. This is a practical, observation based approach that can firmly ground us in the here and now. Both are a way of knowing and relating to the world, and together, they could be something wonderful.

Another example of how animism and science can be remarkably effective together is in the area of climate change and environmental protection. Science has been telling us that the way we treat our planet is a huge problem for a long time, and they’re right. But an emotional and personal experience of the natural world and our relationship to it is so much more compelling than a graph or statistic; when you can experience how interdependent you are with your land and natural world, the concerns about sustainability become unforced; not just intellectual exercises.”

Second, The Price of Renewable Energy is Plummeting

Again, no surprise, that I am a huge proponent of converting our energy systems to renewable energy. I have actually been thinking a lot about energy lately, and what this means for our future. I don’t think we can have infinite growth on an finite planet, and we must do everything in our power to reduce our impact on the planet. Using less energy (efficiency), and moving to renewable sources are two important steps in that direction.

“Renewable power is the backbone of any development that aims to be sustainable… We must do everything we can to accelerate renewables if we are to meet the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement.”

Thirdly; We can design healthier cities

Cities are the heart of our civilization, and by consequence, they are also where we use the most energy and materials. Our consumption, production, and living habits are among many factors contributing to the climate crisis, and taking a fresh look at how we live, especially in cities, can go a long way towards a more sustainable future.

By some estimates, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy, and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions: a figure sure to increase as the global migration from rural to urban areas continues. In the pursuit of exploring new models for how healthy cities could more effectively sustain these demands, Dutch design and research studio FABRICations has investigated how cities of the Netherlands can reduce carbon emissions through new design-led approaches.”

Last, but certainly not least, we need sustainable visions of the future

Imagination is a wonderful tool, and it takes big visions to change the world. Those visions can be turned into strategies, and those strategies into goals. By using visions to create goals, we can then start building a better future for all; one step, one checkbox at a time. The linked article is another vision in a growing collection of visions for a sustainable future, and I for one believe the more the better. No one vision will accurately predict the future, but that’s not the point. The point is to a give us a range of options, tools in the toolbox, so that every community can find out what works best for themselves. That way, a more ecological and sustainable future has the rich soil it needs to evolve and grow organically.

In three years of research and interviews, what emerged were solutions that improve health, income inequality, security and communities with the bonus of drastically reducing emissions and regenerating ecosystems. These solutions include decentralised solar micro-grids in remote villages that allow the buying and selling of energy between homes and keep money in the local economy. They include regenerative agriculture practices which takes carbon from the atmosphere and returns it to the soil with the cascading benefits of water retention and nutrient-dense food…

But perhaps the most poignant solution I came across was the wide-reaching impact the education and empowerment of girls and women would have.

It is clear we have everything we need right now to create a better 2040.”

The last line is worth repeating; we have everything we need right now. The trick is making it work for everyone.

As always, thanks for reading! I hope to have something new for you in the next couple of weeks!


Built Resilience (Week 11)

(Image from Here)

This is my last post in the Deepening Resilience Project organized by Syren Nagakyrie, at least for the time being.

Today I want to jump right into it, and explore the question posed for this week’s (okay, I’m several weeks behind) prompt;

How do we engage with the built and cultivated environments (e.g., urban areas, domesticated plants, gardens) as we address climate change and build resilience?

Like so many of the questions in this project, this one is a big one that requires a great deal of nuance to tease out. As an individual, I won’t be able to cover everything, as there have been volumes written about this very topic. Even the briefest summary of the body of work would be well outside of this one blog post.

At the core of this question is the question of civilization. Ten thousand years ago humans started to build the first cities, as agriculture allow the creation of permanent settlements. This was a big change from the hunter-gatherer existence that preceded it. Agriculture and civilization brought about changes in diet, in culture, and even in the human physique. Some of those cities succeeded, such as Athens and Damascus, which have been continually occupied for thousands of years, even to the current day. Others failed, overtaxing their environments and eventually turning to dust.

This gets to the heart of the fact that our built environments, our cities, are complex creations. The ability of people to congregate into urban environments brought with it an increase in complexity, for good and for ill. Complexity allowed for more human energy to be channeled into the creation of great monumental works, and also allowed for specialization. As not every person had to be directly involved in food production, it opened up tasks like priest work, astronomy, and the invention of writing. It also allowed for a class of crafters and artisans as well as merchants. People that could focus full time on creating art, as long as they were able to trade their own goods for food from farmers.

But this specialization came with a dark side, in the form of stratification. Some specializations were considered to be ‘better’ that others, and so the creation of civilization also brought with it hierarchy, stratification, and inequality. In many ways, civilization brought with it the creation of a cultural elite, an entire class of people that set themselves apart from the rest and considered themselves ‘better’ than the average folk. Sedentary existence, in a way that hadn’t existed before, also allowed these elites to hoard huge surpluses of food and wealth. Inequality was almost a feature of civilization, not a side effect.

More than this, even in modern times, cities are huge pits for resources and energy. Almost half of the world population now lives in cities, and this requires importations of material as well as energy. Urban centers often are far away from required minerals and ores, and often don’t have the land space to create their own food, which urban areas then have to rely on rural areas for.

This has lead some thinkers to suggest that civilization is by it’s nature inherently unsustainable. If a city has to rely on the import of outside materials, it cannot be sustained, at least that is how the argument goes. But I don’t think that is true. If cities like Athens and Damascus have been around for thousands of years, through wars, famines, the rise and fall of empires, then I have to question what such arguments mean by ‘sustainable’. If thousands of years worth of continuous existence through the worst calamities nature and humanity has to offer isn’t sustainable, then I want to know what the hell is?

But this is not to deny the fact that urban living has a large environmental impact and ecological footprint. As much as we have examples such as Athens and Damascus, we also have examples such as Sumer and Easter Island. Civilizations that exceeding the carrying capacity of their environments.

What makes the difference? Why does one civilization manage to survive thousands of years, while another collapses into dust? That is another big question, which probably doesn’t have an easy answer. Still, it goes without saying that I think some measure of resilience is at the heart of it. Cities that have the ability to weather and adapt to rapidly changing conditions, such as war, drought, or famine, are probably off to a good start.

In many ways, I think cities are at the heart for the mitigating the climate crisis. Unlike Nations, which can frequently get paralyzed on climate issues (looking at you, United States), cities can respond on the ground with ideas and projects that directly affect the resilience of the communities around them.

(Image from Here)

For example, cities can pursue renewable energy and community microgrids. This can eliminate to constant need to import coal, natural gas, or uranium for power plants. Cities can also create policies that encourage energy conservation and efficiency. Also, cities can pursue methods for self reliance, such as building with renewable materials such as wood, bamboo, or even hemp. Cities by their nature can effect everything from transportation to energy.

In addition, with the introduction of urban agriculture, and massive green spaces cities can start to produce more of what they need locally. Add in things like walkable cities, public transportation, and many other things cities can directly effect; and it is clear cities can be at the heart of the creation of an ecological and sustainable existence for our species.

I just recently joined my local city’s environmental commission, which is tasked with making policy recommendations to the city council. We have already started to work on reviewing other townships and cities environmental plans, in order to find models that could possibly work for our own city and community. There are countless examples of what sustainability and resilience could look like in cities, and all of this creates feedbacks. In the ‘social laboratory’, if one community has a good idea that works well, other communities can copy it and make it their own. One sustainable city can snowball into thousands. Individually, one city can’t mitigate the worst of the climate crises. But as one part in a network of thousands, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

There is no shortage of thing we can do in our built environments to improve resilience and sustainability. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, the ideas well exceed this one single post. There are ideas at the global level, national ideas, and especially local/municipal ideas. Just look at some examples such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Singapore.

Everything we do, from living to building cities has an impact on the environment. There is no such thing as a free lunch. That said, we can select for policies in our cities and communities that have the lowest impact we can come up with. We can select for materials that are less carbon-intensive, and the same is true for energy, resource, and even food systems. We can start to bring nature and the ‘rural’ back into our cities. Our cities should look at act more like natural ecosystems, powered by the sun, wind, and water, and producing and consuming materials in a circle with as little waste as possible. In other words, we need to realize that human cities are ecosystems in their own right, and are not removed from the greater biosphere of the planet. We, as humans and as a civilization building species, are part of the planet, not separate from it.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream or a flight of fantasy, but something that is happening right now. Another world is possible, and I think we have the means and ability to make that ecological and sustainable world a reality. A built environment that is almost indistinguishable from its natural environment, and a world created to last the next thousand years.

As always, thanks for reading.


Spiritual Community, Ecologic Community (Week 9)

(Image by Jessica Perlstein, as concept art for Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing, curiosly a widely cited book in both paganism and solarpunk 🙂 )

Hello again folks!

This post is another prompt by the ongoing Deepening Resilience Project organized by Syren Nagakyrie. I’m a little bit behind, so I hope you will forgive me on the delay for this one. Some genius around here decided to take on a solarpunk novella project that is due June 1st. Yes, that ‘genius’ is me, and yes that was sarcasm. It would seem I am glutton for writing-based punishment.

All the same, I think the question today is an important one, and I certainly have a lot to say on this topic!

How can we work with the spirits of land, deities, and ancestors as we address climate change and build resilience?

I would like to jump right into the deep end with this one, so first I want to start with a basic understanding of how I relate to the concepts of spirits, deities, and ancestors. For starters, I would probably best describe my spirituality as a kind of naturalistic animism; the intersection of science, spirituality, and big ‘s’ Story. It is a path grounded firmly in physical reality, but with plenty of room for awe, inspiration, and reverence. It is a relational path that asks us to consider ourselves as agents in a much bigger, much more complex, cosmic system.

I don’t default to supernatural explanations for my spiritual understanding of that complexity. There is no ‘Otherworld’, or ‘outside’ beings in my cosmology. There is the here and now, the physical beneath our feet, and the wonderful, complex, and marvelous universe we happen to inhabit. Spirits, ancestors and deities are here for me, not beyond some mysterious spiritual veil, nor residing in some spirit-only “spiritual plane”. There is no Veil, except maybe the one we pulled over our own eyes. If the spirits are hidden from us, it’s because we’ve become infected by self-inflected blindness. We have simply refused to see them, and that is our own fault, and perhaps of the very monotheistic worldview we have been raised in.

That means that how I relate to spirits is very much grounded in practical knowledge and experience. I am a hunter, a hiker, and all around person of the outdoors. I like to swim, to walk, and to kayak. I love archery, as well as anthropology and archaeology. I have one foot in the past, one in the present, and an unaccounted for third foot in the future.

I see the world as something intrinsically filled with creativity, with life, and with agency. The basic drive of the universe is to create, to make new and mysterious forms with basic parts formed in the hearts of long dead stars. To take those parts, and to create planets which like the Earth, eventually have life emerge from them. This is not a linear process, nor one dictated by some almighty outside god. It has starts and stops, failures, and restarts. I have no idea if it has any kind of ultimate goal, but that doesn’t take away from the deeply spiritual nature of that experience. To be the result of billions of years of creativity is a hell of a spiritual experience. I’m scavenged parts from a dead star, a bit of the cosmos, having a very Earthly and human experience. That’s wild and wonderful.

Earth is a planet that was born in fires of Sol, our local star. A planet of countless cultural names, orbiting of star with just as many names. My cosmology is rooted in complexity, and complex systems. Systems like forests that have a life and spirit all their own. Rivers, who are far more than just fish poo and water. Entire complex networks of deer, dirt, and other denizens that in totality starts to look a lot like a living, breathing, being. This extends to me for to the whole Earth, the only planet we know of with a robust biosphere, and an intelligent civilization building species.

Ancestors are still with me, deep in my own DNA, and buried into the collective memory the Earth as a living being. A living planet, the child of the Sun, which is another link in the ancestral tree that goes back to beginning of Creation, of our Universe, as a whole. Even grounded solidly in nature, my spiritual path is full of ancestors, forest and river gods, and spirits from the Whitetail Deer to Hydrogen Atoms, and everything within and beyond that.

As such, working with spirits, deities, and ancestors is as much a practice of science and ecology as it is practice of spirituality. With my gods existing in forests and rivers, my ancestors in my blood and bones, as well the earth around me, and the spirits I work with being in part, the totality of a living biosphere; climate change is a crisis for all of them. For all of us, as it is for the whole living, breathing being of the planet. Gods, ancestors, and spirits; are all part of this process. The climate crisis threatens millions of species of organisms, as well as ourselves.

The Climate Crisis is a Global Crises, and no one, not even our spirits and ancestors, get a pass on this one.

A loss of a habit is the loss of innumerable spirits; the death of forest and river gods. Logging, industrial waste, plastics in our oceans, that is Threat to them as much as it is to me. For me, that has resulted in deeply painful experiences that run the gamut of human emotions, and non-human emotions that I can translate. The gods of the forest are just as angry as we are, just as scared. Others are angry, and blame us for where we are now. I don’t blame them for that, as we fuel up the bulldozers for another oil pipeline.

One of the big problems associated with the climate crisis are climate refugees. People displaced by raging fires and rising seas. But most of rhetoric on the crisis only includes human refugees. From an animistic perspective, is has been happening for a longtime. How many non-human persons have been displaced? How many fish, how many birds, how many trees? How many megatons of earth have we scrapped clean of deep buried memories? How many ancestors have been dug up and taken away into colonial museums?

Human and non-human communities are already being displaced, already being forced into extinction by human-driven climate change. Habitat loss is spiritual loss, and that breaks down communities and the relationships that joins them together. There is deep trauma there, and deep grief. Not only for ourselves, but for the planet as well. I don’t think any of us get out of this clean, without scarring.

But climate refugees, broken habitats, and broken communities is not where this ends. As a bit of an optimist to a fault, being aware of the problem is only the first step. Looking with eyes unclouded at all we have done and articulating the raw scale and scope of the problem is only the first step. Once we’ve framed the problem, and gods is it planetary, then we can start to see what needs to be done. That is the Work that we all have to do.

From an animistic perspective, we start to realize that the scope of this problem is big, really big. It is a crisis of communities, in the widest and broadest sense of the word. The destruction of non-human communities, ecological communities, to fulfill our own needs is what brought us here. The Work that needs to be done is taking a step back away from that precipice.

(Artist credit, AJ-Illustrated)

We can start by epicly scaling up the rebuilding of communities. Not only for human communities but for non-human ones as well. Maybe by making half the planet into a nature preserve. That would certainly go a long way towards giving non-human communities the space they need to rebuild as they see fit. Ecosystems are amazing like that. If we give them the space, the forests and rivers will come back. Maybe not the same as they were before, but they will rebuild.

Yet, the crisis is also a lot bigger than that. The scale of transformations we need to make cut across our own communities as well. The science is clear at this point, and we need to change our political, economic, and social systems to have a chance at navigating our way through the climate hell storm. There are countless numbers of technical, economic, and social ideas on the table. Wind turbines, carbon pricing, ‘rights of nature’, hydrogen fuel cells… There is no silver bullet, but a lot that can and needs to be done.

In addition to giving space for natural communities to do their own thing, we can also embark on large public works project; such as habitat restoration. Creating new forests and wetlands, rehabilitation of old mining sites, and wide reaching preservation of the biomes across the planet. More than this, we can also embark on the great Work of building a truly ecological and sustainable civilization.

Our cities and communities are spirits in their own right, the gods inhabit our cities if you prefer. They are also huge systems of matter and energy, human-created ecosystems. Cities especially really start to look a lot like living beings from an animistic perspective. Adaptation is part of evolution, and it is time for our cities to evolve. A big first step would be inviting non-humans back into our cities. Urban gardens, green roofs, urban agroforestry, and expansive green infrastructure in place of the gray of parking lots.

By producing more of what we need within our cities, as well as using natural solutions to clean air and water, we can reduce the impact of our own communities. Growing food within cities means less in fuel and pollution to import food. Growing materials such as wood, hemp, and bamboo, we have to produce and import less concrete and steel. By creating decentralized and localized systems of renewable energy, we can create more resilient cities in a less certain future. Wide scale grid failures would become a thing of the past with networks of decentralized and distributed community scale microgrids.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say there is a lot that can and should be done. Spirits are in our ecosystems and in our communities. Gods can be found in our cities and forests. Ancestors are within ourselves as well as part of the deep memory of the Earth. The Work that must be done includes everyone. A large part of that of that work is rebuilding relationships with each other, and rebuilding communities whether they are human, animal, or plant. In short, working with the spirits, deities, and ancestors, is the act of creating a sustainable planetary community for everyone.

Thanks for reading!