Category Archives: Spirits

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!


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


Spiritual Community, Ecologic Community (Week 9)

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

Hello again folks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Artist credit, AJ-Illustrated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!


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