Category Archives: Folklore

Frozen II – Thoughts

Hello again folks!

This is one of those pieces that I didn’t really plan to write. Not because it is bad or anything, but that sometimes there are things that really inspire you to write that you never see coming. Such was the case with the recent movie Frozen II. Now, I watch my share of movies, but when Frozen II was originally announced I wasn’t in any hurry to run out an see it. I’ll get to why that changed in a moment.

The fact is, I’m a Disney fan. Yes, I’ve watched the vast majority of the animated movies, and well into the digital Pixar variety as well. Yes, I also know many of the songs by heart. There is no shame in that from where I am sitting, and that is a big part of my childhood memories. There are worse things in the worlds than Disney movies.

I enjoyed the first Frozen, it was a good movie. A good modern retelling of older bits of Hans Christian Andersen tales. It is a fun little story, with some good lessons in it. But I’m not here to talk about the first movie in any depth. It must be said that before I get into that, that this piece contains MAJOR SPOILERS. Seriously, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!, so if you haven’t seen the movie and want to, come back to this piece after you have. I don’t want to ruin it for you.

So what drove me to want to see the second movie? At first I wasn’t really inclined to go out an see it, but then I heard that there was a group of people in the movie called the Northuldra, and they were built with the help of indigenous Sami consultation. That is what changed my mind. Regular readers of my work will realize instantly that I am a strong advocate of indigenous consultation and rights. The Sami are really interesting to me, as are the Norse and Finnish. When I found out that the Sami were involved in the shaping of the story, I knew I wanted to watch it. I think that Disney did a good job with indigenous consultation in Moana, and I wanted to see a story that was a little closer to my own ancestry and spiritual path.

I’m really glad I did, because there are huge intersections with many of the things I talk about on this blog. Animism for sure, but also indigenous rights, nature, complex systems, and even environmental sustainability. There are a lot of layers to the story, and I want to spend some time unpacking them. They added a lot of subtle richness to the storytelling, and I want to dig into that a little more.

It makes sense that we would start with the animism. As I have said many times before, animism is founded on relationships, to each other, and to nature. There was SO MUCH of this present throughout the film. From the Relationships between Arrendelle and the Northuldra, to the Northuldran (inspired by the Sami) connection to nature. Much of the magic in the movie, included Elsa’s own, is based on a relationship to nature. It is tied into the health of the forest and the waters, and many of the supporting characters are in fact nature spirits. There is Gale, a wind spirit. The Water Horse, which has many corollaries in Celtic (kelpie) and Scandinavian (nykk) folklore. There are also the earth giants, and of course, Bruni the fire salamander.

The ‘four elements’; earth, air, water, fire, are present in some form in a lot of worldviews and indigenous religions. There are also aspects of modern strains of paganism and even my own animistic practice. Salamanders such as Bruni are commonly associated with fire, and I found it to be a good nod towards that bit of folklore. In many ways, the animism presented throughout the movie had a lot of Last Airbender feel to it, about bringing balance back to the world, between humans and nature. It was in fact, central to the plot.

Just as central to that same plot was the Northuldra people themselves, which are based on many Sami traditions. The shape of their houses are inspired by traditional Sami forms, the magic in the story by forms of Sami animism and shamanism. And then there are the reindeer….

(Sven)

Reindeer husbandry and hunting is a traditional Sami occupation that continues right down to this day. Because the Sami like many other indigneous groups are living, contemporary people. They have had encounters with others cultures (sometimes with disastrous consequences), and have many issues with colonial governments that are still very real and present. Even some of that is presented in the movie, which I will come back to in a bit.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie was the presence of Water, as both a supporting character as the Water Horse, and as an essential aspect of magic and the livelihood of the Northuldra. Theirs land and way of life were put at risk because of the presence of the dam, because the ‘waters of life’ were blocked. The symbolism of all this cannot be ignored, nor can the connection between Standing Rock and the slogan that Water is Life. Water rights issues are common among many indigenous groups, and the dam itself cannot be ignored. In fact, dam building is often a threat to indigenous peoples, even to the Sami, which have resisted many dam projects proposed by Scandinavian governments.

(Hoover Dam, from Wikipedia)

I found the dam, and it’s final fate, as imposing as the actual structure. But there was another aspect of Water that I found just as powerful. The idea that water has memories is strong throughout the movie, as well as that water is life. The Water Horse stands in just as easily as guardian as well as guide. Also, Olaf’s existence and ultimate resurrection is chalked up to the idea that water has memories. This is not just a convenient story telling device, but a trait of complex systems, including water systems. Rivers ‘remember’ previous routes in riverbeds, as well as changes over time. The same is true of lakes and oceans, and even things like bacteria and chemicals in rain. Complex systems such as water cycles keep ‘records’ of their past, and memories of land and ecosystems are not just symbolic in this sense. This idea is deeply interwoven throughout the plot.

Another idea deeply interwoven all through the story in Frozen II is the idea of ancestry. Elsa is driven by the need to know about the source of her magic, and the mysterious singing voice she keeps hearing. This drive takes her and Anna to the lands of the Northuldra, and eventually the revelation that her mom was in fact Northuldran. This explains the source of her magic, as it literally, runs in the family. It also comes with the revelation that the sisters’ own grandfather was the one who betrayed the Northuldra, and also built the dam that denied them their power.

The ancestral part of the story deeply resonated with me, because Anna and Elsa are children of two worlds through their ancestry. Both of them are Northuldran, as well as Arrendelleian. This actually plays out in the story, as Anna goes back to Arrendelle, while Elsa remains in Northuldra. The connection to shamanism is important here, as through the sister’s two worlds are bridged once again. Both facilitated this in their own way, Elsa, by reclaiming her connection to her ancestry, and Anna, by her role as eco-warrior in the destruction of the dam.

The plot in this way is also a story deeply interconnected with the ideas of colonization, Arrendelle building the dam and denying the Northuldra their power and connection to nature. It also presents a bit of decolonization story, as dam breaks and the old system of oppression comes down. But at the end, through the bridging of the two ‘worlds’, and the re-connection to nature, I think most of Frozen II is a story of healing.

Anna, through her descent through grief and loneliness, and finally to her own ascension as water-protector and eventually one half of the bridge between worlds. Elsa as the other half, in her process through making a bit of peace with her own ancestry, and her place as a balance and proverbial ‘fifth element’. And of course the Northuldra, who teach us about healing the land and our relationship to it, and our relationships between people, especially indigenous people and healing the transgressions of our own past.

Thanks for reading!


The Spirits of Stars

I think one of the things that I love most about working through Finnish folklore is that the animism is really naturalistic. By this I mean that the experiences of spirits are tied closely to natural phenomena and the land. There is a real interconnection between the practical everyday experience of living and the spirits. This is one of the things I love most about being an animist, is that the mundane is also simultaneously the spiritual. There is no separation of the experience.

For me, it also allows a bridge between science and storytelling. Speaking of my own experiences allows me to speak multi-vocally, with more than one voice at the same time. When I write or speak about land spirits, I am talking about both the physical land in a very real scientific sense, as well as my spiritual experience of the same land. Sometimes spirits are metaphors or allegory, sometimes just story telling devices, but more often than not for me they are phenomenal experience of the place. A deer spirit could be a real living Whitetail, as well a symbolic device that is how I relate to the deer. It is almost never either/or, but rather a both/and way of relating to the world.

That’s why I enjoy väki as a concept so much. It is simultaneous both; both the matter and energies of something, as well as the spiritual “folk” of the same. This applies to the lands, forests, rivers, as well as the moon, Sun, and stars. As I’m sure you’ve guessed based on the title of this post, I will be writing about the later. I have loved the stars every since I was a small child. I’ve watched them for years, and I love how the stories they tell shift and move across the sky. Much like they did, and still do, for ancient and indigenous peoples across the world.

In Finnish, the Star People are referred to as the Tähti Väki (Star people) or the Tähtetär (Star spirits). Our own Sun, Sol, is also considered to be part of the star people, but it also has a name of their own. In modern Finnish, the Sun is usually called aurinko, but the Kalevala also gives the Sun another name, Päivä.

Päivä is the sun, and the Päivä väki (or Päivätär) are the spirits of the Sun, which is just one star our of billions. But Päivä is the most important star to those of us here on Earth. It is the source of the heat deep within our own planet, it is the source of life and the elements that make up all life on this planet. Like all stars, the Sun is a creator and a life giver, as well as a burning plasma ball of fusion.

Stars are the celestial forges that shaped every element in creation. Generations worth of stars living, dying, and especially exploding. These are the processes that seeded the cosmos with the heavier elements necessary for you and I to be here now. It is thought, that our Sun is at least a third generation star, as it contains heavier elements that could not have been created by the Sun.

(Stellar Element Table from Earthsky.org)

In addition, Earth as our home planet, is the result of stellar accretion, the process by which the Sun and all the planets were formed in the Solar System. As much as we are Children of the Earth, the Earth is a child of the Sun. We can draw a line of celestial ancestry back through our planet, through the stars, to the very Beginning of our universe. That is wild to contemplate through an animistic lens. Ultimately, as Carl Sagan once said, we are all star stuff. The Stars, the Tähti Väki are our literal and spiritual ancestors.

Old Väinämöinen said: “Good friend, craftsman Ilmarinen,

Let us set out to look, let us go to learn

What kind of fire that fire is, what kind of strange flame dropped

From heavens above to the Earth beneath

If it might be the disk of the moon, or the sphere of the Sun?

  • Kalevala, Poem 47 “Origin of Fire”

But our relationship with the Tähti Väki doesn’t stop there. I want you to consider that moonlight is just reflected sunlight, though I do feel it has it’s own particular ‘flavor’. I want you to consider as well, that all living beings on Earth depend on sunlight for their survival. Plants directly turn sunlight into food, and animals eat those plants. You and I, we eat the plants and animals (and fungi, and other things) to keep our bodies energized and healthy. None of us would bee here if not for the light and heat from the Sun. Stars are creators and life givers in a very real sense, and we just wouldn’t be here without them.

As such, it should come as no surprise that stars and the Sun are a huge part of so many belief systems, as they are in my own. It’s winter now, so we don’t see the Sun as much as I’d like right now. Still, I think it is important to think about the Sun even when it is behind the clouds, because it is so vitally important to our existence. If I were to look for some kind of Creator, I would look to the Sun and Stars.

In a way, Stars are energy in the very real sense of the word. They are the capacity to do work, and in some way or the other, our entire civilization depends on that work. Fossil fuels are stored sunlight in the form of decayed matter. Solar panels and winds both work on the Sun and the spin of the Earth. Water currents flow in the oceans as a result of unequal heating and cooling, and the Sun drives part of that process. In the words of Adam Frank, planets are the engines that turn sunlight into something interesting. The Earth is very good at that, with our robust biosphere. Heck, even as I’ve already mentioned, the heat of the Earth deep in the core is basically just trapped star-heat. (And radioactive decay.)

This is why I leave little shrines around to the sun and stars. All these relationships are things I consider when I am out for a walk, or under the night sky. I like to think that fire (as a weak plasma, though a different reaction), is a distant relative of the Sun and Stars. It produces heat and light, and we carry it with us whenever we go. In some Finnish folkore, fire is the (grand)son of the Sun.

Tuli kulta aurinkoinen, aurinkoisen pojanpoika, auringottaren tekemä.

Fire golden made of sunshine, grandson of the sun, born from his mistress.

– Finnish Folklore Atlas

Maybe the Stars are just campfires in the Sky, of which the Star People sit around. Really, really, hot plasma camp fires. And there, they create the elements that make the Cosmos possible.

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

Sarmela, Matti. Finnish Folklore Atlas.

The Kalevala

https://www.universetoday.com/117607/how-many-stars-did-it-take-to-make-us/


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


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!


A Spirited Campus

Hello again everyone!

I do hope you have all enjoyed my recent writings. I put a lot of time and effort into them, and they may serve as springboards to later discussions. If you did not like them, well then rejoice in the fact that I want to move on! There have been other projects stirring around in my head, and I have been wanting to devout some time to those ideas.

What kind of ideas? I am sure this is what you are wondering (or maybe about lunch?), so I want to briefly introduce you to what I want to talk about for the near future. I’ve been thinking about stories, especially spiritual stories. These are the kinds of stories that circle around us, and in many ways give structure to our lives. At the same time, they are informed by our own experiences and history.

Those are what I want to talk about for the next few posts. I have always been fascinated by folklore and mythology. In a way, folklore is the spiritual stories of everyday folks. Mythology, at least most Indo-European mythologies, tend to focus more on gods, kings, and heroes. Basically, people that have some status or standing in society. People that aren’t peasant farmers, for the most part. Or mill workers, miners, or other everyday working folk. Hey, that’s why it’s called folklore.

In no small way, this is how we encounter the spirits each and every day; in whatever ways they present themselves. Maybe it is the story of the spirit we met in the woods, or the spirit in the lake? Or, as with what I want to talk about today, the spirits we meet on campus.

Back in October my wife and I attended my alma mater, Michigan State University, for their annual event Apparitions and Archaeology. In short, this event is collaboration between the Campus Archaeology Program, and the MSU Paranormal Society. It gave me a lot to think about, and I want to tell you about that now. So, without further ado, I present some of the spirits of MSU.

Introduction

As way of a short introduction, I want to present some of the history of MSU. Surely, more can be found here. 

(Fancy Map Image, from our tour)

MSU was founded in 1855, as the first agricultural college in the US, and a pioneer land grant college. The first buildings on the campus were primarily built by students, from local as well as imported materials. Few of these original buildings still stand, as most either fell over or burnt down. (Built by students, mostly heated by wood fires and steam boilers.)

The tour included several stops at historic sites around campus, and so it was a fun kind of scavenger hunt. I do not have the space to detail all the locations, so I encourage you to visit the links provided at the bottom of this post. But before I get there, I want to talk briefly about how I will be framing this discussion.

The intersection of archaeology and animism is a fascinating way to look at the spirits on MSU. Not only are the spirits themselves possessed of agency, but they are also a very real part of the memory of the land. Each of the sites have very real material remains buried beneath the ground, as part of the earth memory. Like human memories, these are fragmented and incomplete. But at the same time, they speak to us. The past speaks, through archaeology, and through the folklore that lives on to this day.

The Spirits of MSU, are the spirits of a place, as well as the memories of the land. They are as much science as they are folklore. So let’s look a little closer, shall we?

Beaumont Tower/College Hall

(Picture Today/Southeast corner of Beaumont Tower, 1928. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections. )

Prior to Beaumont Tower, College Hall, the first building on campus, was located at this spot. It was erected in 1856 and was the first structure in America that was dedicated to the instruction of scientific agriculture.

The tower itself was constructed where the northeast corner of College Hall once stood. Some of the foundation walls for the original building still exist underneath the sidewalks.” – CAP

I’ve decided to use quotes from the Campus Archaeology blog, because it gives you a brief history, and frees me up to talk about other aspects of this site. I was part of the Campus Archaeology program back in 2011. Part of College Hall collapsed in 1918, and if memory serves, part of its construction actually involved a stump under one of the load bearing walls. The early students didn’t have stump grinders, and really made due with what they had. That is at least part of the reason it came down.

But more than this, Campus Archaeology excavated part of the site around Beaumont Tower, and found numerous artifacts from College Hall, the very memory of the building that once stood. The foundations were still there, as well as cinder pathways. A blueprint of a memory, the spectre of a building that has long passed. The bones of a now buried construct.

Folklore tells of couples in 19th century dress walking around the tower, holding hands. Also, several sightings have been reported of a man with coattails in a stovepipe hat wandering around the Tower.

You see, the land below our feet is the ultimate complex system, which can have memories. It keeps the remains of old buildings like memories. And those buildings, may well keep some memories of the people that once inhabited the area. The spirits of people are remembered, and what is remembered lives.

Saint’s Rest

(Students outside Saints’ Rest ca. 1857. Image from MSU Archives. )

Just like college hall, Saint’s Rest was one of the earliest buildings on campus. It was originally built in 1857. Like so many other buildings, it was not long for this world, burning to the ground in 1876.

Campus Archaeology got to investigate part of the site, and made numerous discoveries. In addition to foundations and the basement, the team also uncovered a privy. That is, an outhouse, which was a source for a wealth of artifacts.

Why? Because if you drop something into an outhouse, very few people I know are likely to go after it. Which lead the CAP team to the discovery of Mabel, a porcelain doll that is believed to possess an ominous spirit. She is said to throw things from time to time.

(Mabel)

Besides Mabel, the MSU Paranormal Society has recorded several other incidents in the area;

For years, students dressed in 19th-century clothing have been seen wandering through the area east of the MSU Museum—where Saints’ Rest once stood. Another ghostly figure wearing overalls and work boots has been spotted, suggesting the spirit of a maintenance worker lingers nearby.” – Spartan Spirits

The ghosts of a remembered past, still looking for what was lost? Or something to fix?

Mary Mayo Hall

(Image from here)

The most infamous story is that of Mary Mayo herself, who can be seen wandering the hallways and playing the piano in the “Red Room,” rumored to have been used for satanic rituals and where a young woman may have died. The entire floor is now closed, but unexplained lights and figures often are seen through the windows of the 4th floor.” – Spartan Spirits

Mayo Mary Hall, unlike College Hall and Saints’ Rest, is one of the buildings that is still standing on campus today. Mary Mayo herself was a strong advocate for a women’s curriculum, and the women’s dormitory that bears her names was originally constructed in 1931.

Excavations in the area uncovered lots of early construction material, such as wooden plumbing and locally made bricks from the clay of the Red Cedar river.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve only touched upon some of the sites found on our tour through campus, and again I encourage you to visit some of the websites below for other pictures and additional information.

In closing, I spent most of the tour thinking about the intersection of folklore, archaeology, and animism. You see, there are many unseen agencies in our environment. Some of these are right below our feet, the actual physical memories of things that once were. Artifacts, old building materials, porcelain dolls that mysteriously have fallen into privies. These are the very real ghosts of our past, memories of the earth beneath us.

Yet, animism, says that the world is full of persons, many of which are other-than-human. Stories that have gained meaning over time, folk tales that may contain actual truth, or even the agencies of fanciful tales spun for the sake of an eager audience.

In my animism, those stories have a power all their own, their own special kind of agency. Whether they are spirits of the unseen, spirits of the spoken word, they have power. Power to shape our reality, to make us think about what once was. A story is the spirit of a memory, the spirit of a place.

Because reality is more than just what we can touch and feel, sometimes it is far less corporeal. Sometimes it is the memories of a place, and how we relate to those stories.

Thanks for reading!

Further Readings/Sources

Spartan Spirits

https://msu.edu/spartan-spirits/?fbclid=IwAR1fTxUBdRfgw-RrxF2RB84pVbSJlEj99jDHXDF_f2YXeqUopPNkwOSavyI#home

Campus Archaeology

http://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=6728&fbclid=IwAR1RxEoifv6_Xj2SXv6lgVn6XC8Y9MklK7gwJFR7gUHKRd4LyL5zGljWl1Y


Towards an Animistic World

Hello again folks!

This is going to be the last post in my most recent series. We have come to the end, at least for the time being. It is time for me to move on to other projects, which you will certainly get to read about here!

This has been a big project, but the question becomes what does it leave us with? In no small words, we are definiately now in a time of transition, where all of our choices matter. We are up against the existential challenge of climate change, and up against a system that seems hell bent on making things so much worse for the sake of a buck. Not only do things need to change, but they have to. We have a few choices open to us, but it is vital we make the right ones, right now.

I have heard some call this a bottleneck, a transition, even an evolutionary precipice. The planet is warming, and a big part of that is our creation of a global energy intensive civilization. That part wasn’t entirely our fault, and might be a bottleneck any energy intensive civilization has to go through. However, doing nothing about it is our choice, and that choice may well be between decline, sustainability, and extinction. Without serious work on our part right now, we could go the way of the Dodo. That is truly an evolutionary precipice, and we are now finding out if we, as Homo sapiens, have what it takes to navigate this crucial time.

But that’s been the point of this whole series. What tools do we have at our disposal? What would it take to create a more sustainable, networked, democraticand planetary civilization?

Well, after all my explorations throughout this series, I can start to shape for you a vision of what that future might look like. The work I have done here is a synthesis of a lot of different sources, in order to create a vision, a speculation, of what our future could be. I can create a time line now, as a kind of road map. I probably will get it wrong in the long run, but it’s a start. After all, civilization is hardly the work of one man.

Near Future; 2020-2030’s

I think that the next couple of decades are going to be vital to mitigation. We have a lot of work to do across the board. This includes heavy deployment of renewable energy, creating sustainable cities, and creating democratic networks to share resources and work together. We also need to work towards the elimination of fossil fuels in our transportation and energy mix.

One of the big tools at our disposal are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These are expansive goals that allow us to reduce global carbon emissions, as well as create a more just and sustainable world. They cover everything from universal contraception coverage to universal healthcare, to renewable energy, and conservation of land and water resources.

But in a way, the SDGs are not enough, and do not go far enough. Those targets should definitely be met by the 2030s, but there is an aspect of the SDGs that is very “business as usual”. In that the SDGs do not tackle one of the biggest obstacles to creating a sustainable world; capitalism.

We will have to undermine and rebuild our current way of doing business. I don’t think this means we have to get rid of markets, trade, or industry. However, we definitely need to redistribute resources and wealth, and move towards more democratic and cooperative forms of economics. The Nordic Model of social democracy would be a good start for sure, but that’s still capitalism. We can go even further, and build networks of worker and community owned cooperatives. Over a billion people already belong to at least one co-op, so we are off to good start.

Our future could look more like this

The fact is, we are going to have to work together to face the challenges ahead. Competition might have some perks, sure, but if we have to build wind turbines, community resilience, and shelter climate refugees… It is better that we do these things together.

Mid Century; 2030-2050’s

While the SDGs have the 2030’s as their timeline, Drawdown bases it predictions on mid century. Drawdown gives us 100 solutions to combat climate change. Those solutions are everything from renewable energy, to forest conservation, to food systems, to women’s and indigenous peoples rights. We should deploy them to the greatest extent we can by 2050. Drawdown gives us three major trajectories;

Plausible Scenario: the case in which solutions on the Drawdown list are adopted at a realistically vigorous rate over the time period under investigation, adjusting for estimated economic and population growth.

Drawdown Scenario: the case in which the adoption of solutions is optimized to achieve drawdown by 2050.

Optimum Scenario: the case in which solutions achieve their maximum potential, fully replacing conventional technologies and practices within a limited, competitive market.

Drawdown is the point where our carbon emissions actually start to decrease. Being the optimist, I say shoot for the Optimum scenario. But even if we don’t make that, plausible solutions are better than none at all.

Aside from Drawdown, we also need to recreate our political, social, and economic systems. Technology alone will never be enough without other changes. Also, individual actions are necessary, but not sufficient without systemic and cultural change as well. A change in spirit, of who we are as a species.

Because the truth of the matter is, that our current systems cannot do what we need them to do. There is a good possibility that Nations will become less relevant. Our system of Nations is likely one of the least efficient ways to manage a planet, and that networks of cities, regions, and other organizations might be able to do this better.

The US system especially is ungovernable, and hierarchy overall is likely to breakdown and give rise to more networked and distributed means of governance. Ideally, these are cooperative and democratic networks, that give us the flexibility we need to adapt to a changing climate and world.

Renewable energy, Drawdown, SDGs, all give us means to create a less hierarchical, distributed and cooperative world. Local and regional powers can take the lead, and eventually build a new global system and planetary civilization.

Late Century; 2050’s – 2100

Alright, at this point I have to state that I will be in my mid 60’s by 2050, so anything too much beyond that is in all likelihood beyond my lifetime. But it will be in the lifetime of the next generation, and the one after that. It is definitely important to think beyond ourselves, and at least a couple of generations down the road.

Provided we have done what we must, and lain the foundations for a sustainable future, mitigated climate change as best we are able, and not blown ourselves up, the coming century could be really exciting for the future of our species.

It bears repeating that we are in a very crucial time right now. How that future looks depends on what we do right now. We don’t know the future. Whether we succeed or fail through the coming transition all hinges on what we do (and don’t do) in the next decade or two. But provided we manage to get through all that, we could be looking at a fully networked, democratic, and planetary civilization.

A world where there is fusion power, space elevators, and our growth as a space faring civilization. I find that really exciting, even if I won’t see it. To me, that is the foundation of a a truly animistic world.

An Animistic Vision

Because in all honesty, that is what we are facing right now. Not only an ecological crisis, but a spiritual one as well. My vision, my ideas for the future, are animistic at the core. As I’ve said so many times, my animism is a worldview as much a spiritual practice. It is how I relate to the world, to other humans, to nature, to civilization, and the planet.

The world I envision takes on the aspects of mutually beneficial relationships, of sharing, cooperation, and reciprocity. Democratic and cooperative economics are the outflow of this, as well as renewable energy and sustainability. We need to do the best we can for all peoples on Earth, human or non-human.

My vision is a world powered by wind turbines and solar panels; with little shrines to the Sun and winds at their base. Tiny little spirit houses at the entrances to great forests and mighty trees. Cities that look and function more like real jungles, not concrete ones. A world where worker-owned shops build our star ships. Small little altars could sit on those control panels, while astronauts pray that the Void doesn’t eat them.

The interaction of Science and Story, Matter and Meaning. That is my animistic world.

Thanks for reading!