Category Archives: Great Lakes Region/Midwest

Community Resilience (Week 7)

Hello again everyone!

This is another post in the ongoing Deepening Resilience project, so be sure to check out the link and consider contributing to the conversation! Today I am going to to tackle the next question in the prompts. Here is the question for this week.

What does your community need to do to prepare for climate change? How could your community ensure all people (especially the poor, elderly, disabled, and other marginalized people) are taken care of?

I have a lot of thoughts on this one, but I will try to keep this post as short as possible. First, I need to start with a little explanation of what I think of when I think of “my community”. I’ve been very honest about the fact that I am an animist, which means I believe the world is full of people. Many of these people are non-human, so community to me becomes not only the humans around me, but the non-humans as well.

“Community” becomes community as expressed within an ecological perspective: the relationships of all biotic and abiotic elements within a given area. Community implies the plants and animals in my yard, and also the rivers, lakes, and soils of my home locality. More than that, it also includes the more human aspects, such as cities and (human) people. Thus community for me is wide eco-social concept that spans the ecological and the cultural.

With that explanation out of the way, I can frame a better response to the question. One that I am passionate about, and that strikes close to home for me. In order to address what I think my local community needs to do to prepare for climate, I first want to briefly outline what climate change actually means for my community.

Threats

What kind of threats face my local community? By looking at the recent National Climate Assessment, we can see many of threats that my area will face. I live in the Great Lakes region, so one of the most prominent aspects of our climate is water.

The Great Lakes that surround me are crucial defining factors for this environment. Fluctuations in lake temperature can alter both wind and precipitation patterns. A warming world will bring warming Great Lakes, and with that comes stronger storms, shorter winters, and more precipitation. Floods and crop failures will be real risks.

With rising temperatures heat waves and droughts may become more common in our scorching summer sun. If you’ve ever lived in the Great Lakes region, you know exactly what I am talking about. Our climate comes with humidity, which can brutal when combined with high temperatures. High temperatures put elderly and other vulnerable people at risk, and also put strains on our energy systems (air conditioning.) Longer summers bring with them the risk of drought, which along with flooding, bring greater odds of crop failure.

Water quality in general could be degraded, as higher temperatures will also bring increased evaporation and the growth of toxic diseases and algal blooms. This could affect up to 1/5 of the world’s fresh water supply that is housed in the Great Lakes region. Warmer temperatures too could bring more disease carrying insects such as mosquitoes as well. Our long winters help to keep such insects away, but a warming world changes that dynamic.

In addition to these environmental threats, there are also more social consequences. Michigan could become a prime destination for climate refugees that leave sinking cities on the coasts. The Great Lakes region is often called the US “third coast”, because our expansive lake shores. People looking for higher ground may well come here, and so communities can and should prepare for that possibility. Especially since the Great Lakes is high enough above sea level that we are at minimal risk from rising oceans.

With all these pressures on my local communities and systems, things like social breakdown also becomes a possibility. With failing crops, flood waters, droughts, climate refugees… It is an open question of whether or not local and state governments and communities could bring the resources needed to handle all these problems. Governments and cities could go under, unemployment could go through the roof… There are dozens of factors that could put our social systems into breakdown or worse.

The threats that climate change brings to my communities and regions is immense, and with all that outlined the question becomes how to prepare for what the climate crisis may bring?

Maslow’s Hierarchy

You might be wondering why I posted Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at the start of this section. There is a lot to be criticized about Maslow’s work, that much has to be admitted. However, I think it is a useful guide for being able to talk about community resilience.

With all the pressures and threats facing us that I outlined above, it is now possible to circle back to the original question that appeared at the beginning of this post? How can we prepare our communities for climate change, especially for those people that are most vulnerable? I will use Maslow’s Hierarchy as a guideline, especially the first two steps on the pyramid.

How could our communities meet the basic needs of our people? Thing such as food, water, shelter, as well as financial, emotional, and overall health and well being? In addition, and looking at the whole process through an animistic lens, other aspects of contemporary life can be added as well. Energy is one, and environmental well being is another. As I have already pointed out, in an animism worldview, social and environmental health are deeply interconnected. One is related to the other, and I don’t think we can have a healthy, resilient, society without a health environment. Community includes everyone, human and non-human.

As such, I want to take a little bit of space talking about each of these things briefly;

Energy, and especially electricity, is one of those basic needs of contemporary life. Whether heating is electric or natural gas, this is essential to keep people alive, especially in winter. As such, community resilience implies a reliable and resilient energy system. Distributed systems of renewable, clean energy and heating would be my recommendation here. Especially with programs and sliding pricing involves that can help vulnerable people keep service on. Municipal and/or community ownership would be nice too, so that the people that use the service are managing it. Not some far away for-profit operation.

At the most basic levels, all humans need food and water. Any kind of resilience must account for this fact. Again, much of this can be handled at the local scale; through things like food cooperatives, farmer markets, urban farms, and conservation oriented water polices. Local programs could also be further supplemented by regional networks, that build additional contingencies into the system. Such contingency could protect against local crop failures, or other crises. Healthy food and clean water should be something no person goes without.

In addition to energy and food/water, shelter and warmth come in next. Any person, especially the most vulnerable, shouldn’t ever go without a warm place to sleep and adequate clothing. Homelessness under our capitalist system is a crime against humanity in my opinion, especially when we have the means and resources to make sure no person goes without. This could range from anything from basic income (more in a moment), tiny houses, or any kind of community shelters. Homelessness and poverty should not be things that are criminalized or marginalized, and I think both our communities and our cities can do a lot more to provide this basic need.

Health and well being across all facets is deeply important. Healthy food and water, physical health, but also emotional, mental, and even spiritual health too. This one is a bit trickier, and it goes without saying that the US health system is a disaster. There is so much more we could improve, especially by following the examples of most other Western nations that already have socialized health care systems. We can do more here on the local and regional level too; such as community and municipal funded/owned clinics and hospitals. Local systems could be integrated at the regional level too, to offer more resources and specific specialized care. Also, universal health care is a must. Something like Medicare for All would be indispensable to community resilience. Of course, this includes mental, dental, and emotional health as well.

Financial stability is another aspect that I think falls within basic needs. If people have to purchase food at a market, finances come into play. Let’s be honest, there are always bills coming in from somewhere. Something like Universal Basic Income of some form could be directly connected to the facets above; food, water, shelter, and energy. It would guarantee a basic level of living for every human without condition. Regardless of employment, race, gender, age or anything else, a person would be guaranteed a basic level of existence. That could provide financial stability for communities, especially those that will be hit hardest by the climate crisis. This again, is something communities could do through a form of mutual aid, or at larger levels of scale for greater effect (such as state or national programs.)

Something else that I think falls into basic needs of contemporary society is education, and the need for meaningful work. There is so much work we need to do to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, and that will require a skilled and educated populace and labor. Like health care and basic income, education and vocational are things I think should be available to everyone. In the same way many European countries do, education and work training should be something everyone can pursue. Universal Education would go a long way towards community resilience, and also well beyond just labor needs. Education I think is one of that many paths towards the “Self Actualization” part of the pyramid above. Education, like health care, is a public good, and something we all benefit from. That should not be denied to anyone.*

As we move up the pyramid from basic needs, we start to run into things like love, belonging, and esteem needs. These to me are the essence of community, of being part of a social species. Once we meet our basic needs, that is where we really start building communities and resilience. Not that this doesn’t happen at the lowers levels, but it becomes more possible once we move beyond individual scarcity. Once all our needs can be met, we have more time and freedom to build meaningful and sustaining relationships beyond ourselves. Community, real community, becomes possible.

Which plays directly into the needs of the environment. We cannot thrive without a thriving environment, and all I have said about basic needs applies to our natural communities as well. Health and well being extends to the non-human aspects of our communities. Resilience to me implies UBI as much as it implies conservation, restoration, and ‘rewilding’ our cities and communities. Clean air, food, and water means nature is healthy too. Trees in cities help to reduce heat, and also the needs for energy. Forests and green spaces help to clean the air too. Healthy wetlands can help to remove pollution, as well as provide resistance to flooding. Renewable energy and electric transportation (especially public), helps to reduce our impact on the environment overall. Environmental health is as essential as social and community health.

All the ideas I have mentioned here can help to increase community resilience, especially for the most vulnerable. Also, none of these ideas exist in isolation; they are all parts of a great interrelated whole. These ideas are holistic and systemic, and they help to create feedback loops that build on one another. Healthier and local food options reduce needs for fuel, transportation, and health care costs. Renewable energy reduces CO2, creates cleaner air, and reduces our impact on the planet. All of these things feed back into one another, and make the whole more resilient.

Thanks for reading!

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Space Engineers

This looks like a good place for adventure. (Me, playing Space Engineers)

Hello again everyone!

This is kind of a ‘just for fun” post, but something I think is important to talk about all the same. It should come as no surprise to anyone here that aside from being a fiction writer, I’m also a gamer. I like games, and I make no apologies for that. Oregon Trail, Super Mario Brothers, SimCity, Minecraft… All of it. I have been gaming for a long time (and this includes tabletop). Games aren’t real life, but it has always struck me how informative games can be when it comes to thinking about real life. There are important lessons to be learned from games.

Games are designed to simulate some aspects of real life, and so can help us think about all sorts of issues. I really like sandbox, exploration, and building games; so games like Starmade, Minecraft, and Simcity have a lot to teach us about building, crafting, and even urban design and energy policy. It’s the last I really want to focus on today, through the lens of a game called Space Engineers.

I really enjoy Space Engineers, because it is a game built around creativity and exploration, using technology inspired by the real world, in a near future scenario. We see a lot of energy technology that we have at our disposal right now, such as wind turbines, solar panels, hydrogen engines, and even nuclear reactors. There are no fossil fuels in the game, so it is a really useful lens for thinking about energy policy, and the current state of our energy systems.

Michigan

As games and fiction are can be useful for imaging the future, I want to take you on a bit of thought experiment today. We are going to use my home state of Michigan as an example, with Space Engineers as a lens on our energy policy. So here is our current energy mix for electricity generation;

(From here and here.)

Alright, so we can from the chart above that Michigan has four main electrical power sources; coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable energy (wind, solar, and hydro; primarily.) By contrast, Space Engineers uses all clean sources (though not necessarily renewable) sources of power as I have already pointed out. So can we use Space Engineers to rebuild Michigan’s energy system? Release the army of engineers!

They took the scenic route in their solar/hydrogen powered vehicle.

According to the recent IPCC report, we have to drastically reduce our usage of fossil fuels, and they need to be zero by about 2050 if we are going to have any chance to mitigate climate change. So on the above pie chart, that means that coal and natural gas have to go, so we will start there.

Coal & Natural Gas

Coal and natural gas in Michigan make up about 63% of our total electrical energy supply. As such, well over half our energy system comes from fossil fuels, and would have to be phased out by 2050. Coal is definitely the worst of the two offenders, as natural gas is slightly ‘cleaner’, but in the long run it should go too.

Starting with coal then, and utilizing our full army of Space Engineers, we have to replace 37% of our energy sources. The most obvious sources (leaving nuclear aside for now) are renewable energy, especially wind and solar. Michigan has tremendous wind and solar resources, so our limited factor is energy storage more than production capacity. However, with increasing efficient battery technology, and local Michigan pumped hydro storage, our engineers have no problem replacing coal with renewable energy by 2050.

Which brings our renewable energy percentage up to 45%. Drawdown lists on-shore wind, solar farms, and rooftop solar in the top ten solutions to combat climate change. I don’t see 45% as an unreasonable number, as it may be technically possible to run Michigan on 100% renewables.

Unleash the wind and solar! (Yes, I’m flying. Big whoop.)

The next kicker in our energy mix is natural gas. Like coal, natural gas energy is a form of combustion. Basically, burning a fuel to turn a turbine, which creates electrical energy. There are a lot of variations and methods of this, so I’m not going to go into the technical details all that much. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, produced primarily from oil wells. And while it is ‘cleaner’ than coal, it still produces quite a bit of carbon. Methane is it’s chief component, which is carbon with four hydrogen atoms. So how do we get natural gas out of the mix?

Well, our engineers are good at what they do, so we could just expand more renewables and bring our mix up to 71% renewable. That is possible too, and again the IPCC report says 70-80% renewable energy is about where we’d need to be. So that is one option. We will call that scenario one.

But our Space Engineers also give us another option. One of the big sources of energy in the game is hydrogen; which is used for everything from jetpacks, to rocket engines, to hydrogen engines. So this gives us another option, the hydrogen economy. By using clean renewable energy (as opposed to current techniques), for electrolysis, we could produce abundant amounts of hydrogen from water. If we built up the infrastructure for safe transport and storage of hydrogen gas  (which is quite volatile), we could use hydrogen in everything from transportation to gas turbines. In short, it may be pretty easy to convert natural gas power plants to use hydrogen. If we use pure oxygen in addition to the hydrogen, the only waste would be water vapor. So 26% of our energy could also come from hydrogen plants. We will call that scenario two.

Now this is only a hypothetical situation, as there are several aspects of hydrogen and renewable energy that aren’t quite there yet. The only way to make hydrogen viable would be clean, renewable primary energy. That isn’t the case, as we still are mostly using coal and natural gas. Also, the infrastructure isn’t in place yet, though it is growing.

Nuclear

Moving on, the next big energy source in Space Engineers are nuclear reactors. I have used these in the game for a lot of different applications, from factory power to starship reactors. There are some things in the game that require quite a bit of power, and nuclear works nicely for this. In addition, in the real world Michigan gets 30% of it’s energy from nuclear power plants. We have three plants in total.

Drawdown ranks nuclear as #20 on it’s list. This power source has the potential to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, but it comes with a whole bunch of risks and drawbacks. Drawdown lists nuclear as a regrets solution, and has this to say on the topic;

“At Project Drawdown, we consider nuclear a regrets solution. It has potential to avoid emissions, but there are many reasons for concern: deadly meltdowns, tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, radioactive waste, illicit plutonium trafficking, and thefts of missile material, among them.”

However, Drawdown goes to say that plausibly; “we assume its share of global electricity generation will grow to 13.6 percent by 2030, but slowly decline to 12 percent by 2050. ” It is important to note that this is global generation, and regional generation can vary a bit. For example, right now global energy production from nuclear is about 11%, whereas Michigan’s percentage is 29%.

With nuclear being both and option in the game, and in real life Michigan, I am going to assume our engineers use the resources we have, and upgrade them to newer, safer reactors. Maybe they even deploy some of those generation IV reactors we hear so much about? (Most reactors in existence are second generation, built in the 70-80’s)

The Scenarios 

Alright, so our army of engineers have scoured the state of Michigan, and made huge improvements and refinements to our energy system. They also changed out our transportation system, which works mostly now on electricity and/or hydrogen. So where does all this leave us in our game inspired fantasy? With two unique scenarios for a possible sustainable energy future.

Scenario 1: 29% nuclear, 71% renewable.

Scenario 2: 29% nuclear, 45% renewable, 26% hydrogen

I like scenario 1 a little better, because it makes a few less assumptions and relies more on technology we know to work today. The hydrogen economy is a little more of a stretch, because there are a lot of technical details and infrastructure that just doesn’t exist right now. But this imagined scenario is 2050, so our wonderful engineers may have worked that out. It is also technically possible, that the grant us a third scenario that eliminates the nuclear.

Scenario 3: 100% renewable energy, or 100% hydrogen/renewable.

Could the last be possible? I think so, and our engineers are a brilliant sort. It would be the ideal scenario for sure, but engineers are also very pragmatic. That leaves nuclear an open question.

Even though Space Engineers is a game, again, I think it is a great tool to help us think about the future. A future where space travel is real, and our civilization is sustainable. So I leave you with this thought and image. A ship powered by hydrogen and electric thrusters, with energy supplied by a mix of solar, hydrogen and nuclear.

It’s my ship, and thanks for reading!


Deepening Resilience; Week 1

Hello everyone!

As of today I am happy to announce my participation in a new project. Deepening Resilience, Earth-Based Responses to Climate Change. It is a community blog project, initiated by Syren Nagakyrie and a platform for conversations on climate change in the weeks leading up to Earth Day. Every other week will be the focus of a different question and topic, and I will be typing out my responses to those topics here. Definitely check it out, and consider contributing to the conversation!

So let’s begin!

(A conceptual drawing of my own local city, from here)

Question 1, What does ecological resilience look or feel like?

Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” – Wikipedia “Ecological Resilience”

I approach animism and ecology through a systemic point of view. I like to look at the emergent, complex whole, at the big picture. As such, when I think of resilience, I think of the capacity of a given system to withstand and adapt to change, while still remaining functional.

This is true whether I am talking about ecological systems or social systems, and honestly there is a great deal of overlap between the two. Our cities and communities are not somehow apart from nature, but a part of the ecosystems in which they are grounded. The growth of our cities has certainly had a impact on those very same ecosystems, this is true, and not always for the better.

Still, when I think about ecological resilience, humanity is included in that discussion, as part of the entire planetary biosphere, as an extension of the planet and nature. This is important when we talk about climate change, because it affects way more than just humanity, it affects our planet’s ecosystems too. The other-than-human world.

To me, that is at the heart of ecological resilience. The changing climate affects the whole of the planet, human and non-human alike. So when we are talking about resilience, we are talking about everyone, because we are all part of the same planetary system. As such, the question becomes what can we do to help build that kind of systemic resilience in a changing world?

There have been a lot of reports lately, many of which I have discussed on this blog, that are starting to model what a climate changed world looks like. Fires, floods, and crop failures, but also melting ice caps and a growing number of extinctions. This is a whole lot bigger than just the impact on human communities, but also on non-human ones too.

The development of our human civilization has done a fair bit of damage to the ecosystems of our planet, from deforestation, to the decrease of wetlands, and to unsustainable forms of industrialized farming. And these aren’t just far away problems, issues that are “out there”. These affect my own local environment too, from PFAs contamination to toxic algal blooms.

So I think the first part of ecological resilience is doing what we can to restore our relationship as part of nature to some kind of balance. The truth is, ecosystems are self organizing, and really don’t need us to help them build resilience, as forests and wetlands kind of do that on their own. That is, if they have the space they need to do that. Building subdivisions on former wetlands is not the kind of space they need.

This covers a whole host of ecological restoration ideas. From hands off approaches like letting fallow fields go through the succession process, to more active approaches such as building new forests, restoring current forests, and protecting wetlands. It can also look like aiding communities on the frontlines of climate change, such as indigenous people

(From Wikipedia)

There is a whole host of conservation and restoration oriented projects, many at the local level, that are in need of resources and volunteers. That is something we can all help with, if we have the means and will to do so. We know that forests can help sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and that wetlands are the front line when it comes to managing floods and excess water runoff.

But the story of climate change also impacts human communities, and the resilience of our ecosystems is also tied intimately to the resilience of our cities and communities. Community in this way takes on a much broader context, that includes both human and nature. That is animism in a nutshell, and it means we must work with natural ecosystems, and learn from them, because they are active partners in our approach to climate change.

Take for example the relationship between urban design and wetlands. Wetlands are vitally important for a whole host of reasons, from filtering out some toxins and pollutants, to managing flooding and drainage. Climate change is going to bring more frequent and heavier precipitation to my region, and that water has to go somewhere. Floods are devastating natural disasters, and climate change is going to bring larger floods, more frequently. How do we build resilient communities to that kind of damage? Wetland restoration could be one answer;

Wetlands may not be as obvious a solution to managing flood risk as engineered investments such as dams, levees, floodwalls and drainage systems. But experiences from around the world — recently, but also dating back a century — show that wetlands should be part of the mix of solutions as cities confront this challenge. Within cities, urban wetlands are part of a mix of investments — including rooftop gardens and permeable pavements — that can intercept and absorb rainfall, so that more water sinks slowly into soils and groundwater and less becomes rapid runoff that submerges streets and
overwhelms storm drainage systems. “

In my local area, we had another great example of room for resilience planning. In recent months, we had a polar vortex move through Michigan, and temperatures plummeted as a result. It go cold, really, really cold. We were colder than Mars in some parts, and broke several cold weather records. This strained our natural gas (for heating) infrastructure, which resulted in a fire and a subsequent natural gas shortage and rationing. It was a bit of crisis, in the midst of the coldest weather my home region has to offer.

While the crisis was handled well on many levels, it is notable that it only took the failure of a single compressor facility to put millions of people at risk from the cold. That is a critical weak point in our infrastructure, and redundancy and contingency planning could go a long way towards making that entire system more resilient.

In short, that is exactly the kind of thing we need to be thinking about, regardless of the scale. Whether it is our households, our communities, our regions, or the whole damn planet; climate change brings with it the threat that fires, floods, and weather will get quite a bit worse. How to we prepare for that? How do we keep the lights on? The water flowing and clean? How do we feed ourselves? Our most vulnerable out of the cold, or the heat?

These are questions that have to be addressed, and that we have plenty of ideas and tools to tackle them. I cannot detail all those here, (but this is a great start) but the point is that technical prowess or scientific knowledge is not the problem. It’s a question of willpower, of political and social will. It involves big changes, in our thinking, as well as our approach. A resilience oriented mindset will take us at least part of the way towards a better future.

If we start say, thinking like a forest, or the planet, we can see the networks of systems that are all around us. We can see more clearly how wetlands adapt to flooding, or how forests connect with one another to increase the odds of survival through fungal networks. When we start thinking in a more systemic, holistic, and networked ways, we can build more resilient and adaptable systems. By learning from nature, we can build resilience in a changing and uncertain world.

Because, at the end of the day, the Earth, our home, is one damn big system. And it’s changing, and so we need to learn how to adapt and mitigate those changes. That process, that’s what building resilience looks like to me. Personally, I think pagans were tailor made for this kind of work.

Thanks for reading!


Random Roundup 2/8/19

(A hand picked random meme from Facebook for this roundup)

Hello again folks!

I am busy working around on a few different projects, so I wasn’t able to get anything of length ready for publication just yet. So today, I am bringing you another roundup of ideas and news that I think are good ones.

First, something local (for me);

“Consumers Energy says it plans to dramatically increase its reliance on solar energy in the next few decades.

Battery storage can save some of the energy that solar panels produce during the day, so it can be used at night.”

It’s no secret that I’m a big proponent of solar energy, and so it warms my heart to see more and more local projects being installed. I think we need to ambitiously address the problems of the climate crisis, and solar panels are energy storage are a good start.

Second, something that is a great step in the right direction;

“The plan to eliminate coal-burning plants as well as nuclear means that Germany will be counting on renewable energy to provide 65% to 80% of the country’s power by 2040. Last year, renewables overtook coal as the leading source and now account for 41% of the country’s electricity.”

Germany is commiting itself to ambitious goals to combat the climate crisis. The 2018 IPCC report is very clear that we need to drastically reduce emissions and fossil fuel use in the next twelve years, and we are in need of models to show how that change could happen. Germany is offering one such model, and I think the world would be wise to pay attention.

Last, the Green New Deal;

“In very broad strokes, the Green New Deal legislation laid out by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey sets goals for some drastic measures to cut carbon emissions across the economy, from electricity generation to transportation to agriculture. In the process, it aims to create jobs and boost the economy.

In that vein, the proposal stresses that it aims to meet its ambitious goals while paying special attention to groups like the poor, disabled and minority communities that might be disproportionately affected by massive economic transitions like those the Green New Deal calls for.”

The IPCC 2018 report and others are very clear about the need to mobilize on a massive scale if we are to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. Local and regional governments can certainly take up that charge, but frankly, we need all the resources we can get. I for one would love to see the United States step up to the plate here, and I think a form of the Green New Deal is a great start to figuring out what that looks like.

I hope to have more stuff for you in the next week or so.

Thanks for reading!


Spirits of the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirits of the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiisi

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!


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