Tag Archives: Spirits

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!


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


Complex Gods & Spirits

Gods are not separate disembodied ideals, but are instead the emergent agencies from the vast networks of ancient entanglements within which we are embedded…” – Mathieu Thiem, from “Interanimism”

(Image from Here)

Hello again folks!

I am working on a lot of different facets of a deeper dive into my animism right now. I apologize if it seems like I am all over the place, but I swear there will be a cohesion to all of this when I am done. My recent manuscript on animism has really got me thinking, and I want to dive deeper into all of complexity and nuance of how I understand animism. Who knows, it all may be the foundation of another book. *shifty eyes*

So, let’s jump right in it today. Some time ago, I wrote about all the various social and scientific theories I bring into my animism. Systems theory, complex systems, cybernetics, actor-network theory, and agential realism. There is a lot there if you care to (re)visit it.

But today, I want to dive a little deeper into how all that informs my animistic views of the world, and especially gods and spirits. My animism is built on relationships among persons. This can be be human persons, as well as non-human persons. My worldview is more than big enough for the beings we call spirits as well as gods.

You see, my animism is a complex one that allows me to look at ecological systems in the same way I look at civilizations and technological systems. It allows for a nuanced, systemic, and holistic view that covers ever aspect of the human and non-human beings on this planet, and off into the great Cosmos. Yes, it even allows me to contemplate those beings we might call gods.

It starts with the idea that the world is made up of complex systems. These systems make up our own bodies, with atoms in molecules, molecules in cells, cells in organs, and eventually the emergence that is ourselves. Emergence is a real foundation to my understanding of gods and spirits. The idea being that once you get enough “parts” in a network, new properties and characteristics emerge. We are more than the sum of our cells, more than our DNA, and the gods are more than just stories on a page.

They are emergent agencies that result from complex systems. Now, those systems can take a variety of forms, ecological as well as cultural. I will be exploring that all more in a moment, but for now there is a few other things I want to set up before we dive deeper.

There are complex systems around us all the time, from cities, to the human brain, and to the universe as a whole. Our cells are nested within our bodies, and we as human beings emerge from the relationships of trillions of cells. In the same way, are we the “cells” of the gods and spirits. To put this another way, we are the “components” that make up their complex systems. We are the cells in their collective agencies.

Now agency is a pretty simple concept, as it is the capacity of an actor to to act in a given environment. Atoms are agents, cells are agents, we are agents, and the gods are transpersonal agents. We are the cells in their multicellular being.

On top of this, complex systems (such as planets, cities, gods), have a form of what we might call a memory. Like an archaeologist digging into the layers of the Earth, the history of past civilizations are recorded in the memory of the planet. Layer by layer, we can see the story of what is remembered. The same is true in our own bodies, as our DNA contains layers and layers, some from our deep mammalian past, and deeper into the origin of life on this planet. If you dig even deeper, the elements in our DNA connects us to the very beginnings of the universe. That is what a complex memory looks like. Just as importantly, it gives us a sense of time. Systems can contain the history of past arrangements, a past, a present, and eventually a future.

If it is not clearly spelled out, this can happen at a variety of levels, and scales of being. That is why I think the basic concept behind orders of magnitude is a useful way to organize my thoughts on this.

Orders of Magnitude

(Order of Magnitude Image from here. It’s a huge and oblong image, please click on it.)

The image above is a big one, with a lot going on. This is a scale that considers the Order of Magnitude of the whole universe. In short, it is looking at reality from different levels of scale, grouped in powers of ten based on size. At the 1 meter scale we find a human being, in this case a small one. That is because this is the “center point” for this scale, one meter, or about 3 1/3 feet.

In orders of magnitude above and below humanity, we increase or decrease in scale. If we jump up a power of ten, we get to the 10 meter scale, which here is represented by a dinosaur. If we jump down by a power of ten, we arrive at the 10mm scale, or about the size of a human fingerprint.

This scale is useful because it allows us to consider the entire cosmos at a variety of different scales, from the quantum to the cosmic. I just finished reading a book called The Zoomable Universe, that explores everything we know through different orders of magnitude. It has been fascinating to think about this through an animistic lens, and how I understand where I stand in relation to everything else.

For example, we can consider gods on a very similar type of scale. I think of gods as emergences, arising out of complex systems of relationships. Some of these are solidly grounded in ecological (non-human) systems, and some are grounded in cultural (human) systems. It is useful to think of the ecological and the cultural as two points on a spectrum, and not as a dichotomy. Here, we can set up a whole range of god-like beings, from mountains to those like Odin, and anything in between. There is plenty of room for overlap here, or human – non-human combined systems. Gods in this way, can fall anywhere on the spectrum. More “wild” cultural gods like Skadi might fall somewhere in the middle or towards the ecological ends, where gods of civilization would be skewed more cultural. In this case, let’s use a god like Odin, who as chief of the Norse gods, is a pretty fair canidate for a “cultural” god. He embodies many aspects of Old Norse culture.

Why is this useful? Because on the whole it is all about the scale of a given system of relationship. Gods are generally considered as beings that are “greater” than ourselves, greater in scale and scope. That is where Orders of Magnitude become useful. Gods exist on “higher” scale than humanity, just like we as humans exist on a greater scale then the cells in our body. That is the principle of emergence, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

So, if we jump up from humanity to the 10 meter scale, do we find gods here? This is the dinosaur level, and it might certainly be fair to consider dinosaurs as a type of gods. They are very dragon-esque, yes? That kind of scale comes with a certain kind of power.

At the same time, in a 10 meter space you can only fit a handful of (adult) humans. Maybe five to ten at the most, if they get cozy. Assuming around two meters of space per human, +/-. Yet, what might those ten humans do now that they have gotten cozy? Might they develop shared ideas and beliefs, common stories, and maybe even some sense of a small community? This is what a lot of pagans might consider a group spirit, which is fair to call a culture, even if a small one.

But what emerges from that tiny culture? Is the agential emergence of networked relationships of ten humans enough to make a god? Maybe, in the sense of egregores, a tiny one. The god of ten people in a complex system. A god at the scale of ten meters. Perhaps here, we can see the beginnings of what we would call apotheosis, in which a god is born. Obviously there is more complicated facets here, but let’s keep thing simple for now.

Cultural Gods & Spirits

(Social Network, from Wikipedia. Maybe our hypothetical village?)

Let’s go even bigger than that though. Let’s jump up another level, to the 1 kilometer level. How many humans can we fit in this kind of space? Well, if we figure two meters per adult human, we could probably fit up to five hundred people in this space. On the scale, this appears as the size of a meteor crater. Now, let’s assume a little bit less than five hundred people, so they have some space for things like houses and that kind of thing. So let’s halve the amount, and run with about 250 human people. A tribe shall we say?

Part of the reason I am using 250 is because this is the upper limit of Dunbar’s Number, which is the suggested cognitive limit of the number of stable relations a given human can maintain. In our little tribe, we are going to assume everyone knows everyone, and they get along reasonably well without being to factioned, and share a common set of beliefs and cultural ideas. They are, for our purposes, a fairly unified whole. Might be unrealistic, but stay with me.

Alright, so these people share a common culture; they have songs, stories, and dances. Shared works of art, and a common and language. They are also a pretty tight-knit community, and so they share meals together and sit around the fire at night weaving stories together. They also share rituals and ceremonies, and through all this they weave together the spirit of the village.

Or, shall we say a communal god at the scale of a kilometer? The god thus is the emergence of a complex series of networked relationships among the people of the village. Over time, this god changes and grows, and develops a history and set of stories associated with the people and their ancestors.

In even more time, those people continue to multiply and go on adventures to conquer new lands, or maybe even to convert people to the worship (and relational maintenance) of their god. In this way, we can scale this idea even further, to kingdoms, empires, and even nation-states. Yeah, I would suggest that things like cities as well as nations have collective spirits we might call gods.

Things like capitalism and socialism have communal god-spirits* of relationship too. The complex concepts might be considered incorporeal spirit-gods in their own right, as such ideas certainly have influence in our times.

Christianity for instance, has a billion people within it’s sphere. What kind of scale does God the Father, and Christ the son exist at in this context? It’s something certainly worth considering, and translates into a real social and cultural force. But that is well beyond the scope of this post. Let’s move on shall we?

Ecological Gods & Spirits

 

(Eco-cultural Island, my own design. Gods may be represented by the large colored circles. The small colored circles represent smaller scale beings in a network. Individual groves, water spirits, villages, that kind of thing.)

(Green = forest, Red = village, Blue = Water, Brown = Mountain. Notice the overlaps.)

As we jump up in scale, we come to the size of about 100km, or if we are following the scale about the size of a decent island. It is at this point that we have to consider all I have said in a wider animistic context. In previous sections, I talked about small groups of people, as well as a small village, but I confined myself to just human relationships.

As such, in an animistic worldview, I have left out a very important facet of the world; namely non-human persons. In the context of our small village, I have neglected the fact that these people are also in constant relationships with their environment; with the non-human and other-than-human world. They need food from the fields, timber from the forests, and waters from the river.

This expands greatly their web of relationships, and with the non-human persons of nature; plants, animals, rocks, waters, and air. These too, must be considered in an animistic context, because they are beings, spirits, and agencies in their own right. These persons, are also part of the same complex system and relational networks as the humans.

So while the god of the village is firmly planted in the cultural realm of the humans, the shaman of the village knows that other gods dwell just beyond the village as well. The shaman takes a deep trek into the woods, and here he finds the forest god. It emerges, just as the village god, from the complex networks of the forest. But this time, these are not human networks, but the complex ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, sun, air, water, trees, plants, and animals. This forest god, the shaman knows, is the god of an ecology.

Now, that may be an oversimplification on my part, but it sets up an example of the idea I have already discussed. That is, that some gods and spirits are the agencies of complex ecological systems and may well be distinct from cultural gods. Of course, there can be huge amounts of overlap. The idea of complex systems and animism more generally, is that we are connected to everything. At no point are ecological and cultural systems fully separated.

The reason I mention this is because it goes a long way towards explaining what in common parlance is often called Genius loci, or a spirit of place. Spirits are not necessarily dependent on the presence of humans to exist. They can be firmly grounded in ecosystems, whether or not humans are even in the area. Here we could further our distinction (as well as overlap) between ecological, and cultural god-spirits.

The collective, communal spirit of the tribe that lives on The Island is primarily a cultural god. It is the complex of human story telling, and human history. However, such a cultural god with also have strong overlaps with the ecology of The Island, and that too would become part of the spirit-system. Thereby we can see an enmeshed system at different scales, of human, ecological, and finally Island. At the scale of the Island, the Island spirit would thus include both the ecological as well as the cultural god-spirits at smaller scales. The whole, simply, is greater than the sum of the parts.

Global Gods & Spirits

Which means we can jump up another level, to the scale of 10,000 KM, which encompasses the scale of much of the planet. Here we are at the scale where all the ecological and cultural god-spirits start to blur together. While we can clearly see these beings at the scale of the village and even a bit at The Island, at the Planetary scale all ecological and cultural systems become part of the same whole. Which makes the Spirit of the Earth** something quite different in scale and scope.

It is fair I think to consider most pagan gods as cultural beings, and ones relatively small in scope. For example, when you consider that there are maybe a million or so pagans on the planet, and the Christian and Islamic gods alone can count a billion each towards their practice. Well, there is a noticeable difference in scale between Allah and Odin, if we consider worshippers as part of a given gods being/body/system. In this way, we are all part of the body of a god. We are all part of the complex community and system of worshippers that help to define those beings.

This is not to say that gods are “just” their worshippers, as they are greater than the sum of the parts. But just like in our own bodies, the parts matter, and contribute to the whole. That means, for say Odin, the complex mass of humans are part of that relationship. All the history, lore, UPG, SPG, and modern practices go into the “body” of Odin. The same is true of Christ and his Father.

In fact, with all the various traditions histories and (sometimes) conflicting narratives, we could ask the honest question of whether all Christs or Odins are the same, or if they are different beings with divergent systems? I mean, I have said before that I don’t think Comic Book Loki, MCU Hiddleston Loki, and Norse God Loki aren’t the same being, even if they share parts of a history and a name. Could there be a Baptist Christ, a Methodist Christ, and a Catholic Christ?

I don’t know, and that is well outside the scope of this piece. Less I get off on a tangent, I intend to stay on point. That point is, that Christ is probably bigger than Odin, as a measure of relative complexity and scale. At least when considered on human components of their being. Ecological non-human components would take a whole other essay.

But, in terms of collective complexity, the Planet exceeds them all, and indeed also contains them all within the complexity of the whole. Earth, as a god-spirit, is in this way “bigger” than all of our human gods, and bigger too than the forests, rivers, and oceans, that make it up. It is, in no small way, a whole organism.

Cosmic Gods & Spirits

But the scalability of complex systems does not end here. We can take it all the way up to the Cosmos as a whole. Such a being, made up of all cultures, all planets, all stars, and perhaps more than one universe, is similar in many ways to Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. Such a being would be so far beyond my comprehension, I don’t even care to speculate. Perhaps a Cosmic Spirit, Great Spirit, Star Maker, might warrant the label of capital “G” God, and certainly there are those that would argue that point. Me, I don’t know.

Because after a certain level of complexity, it is beyond our cognitive capacities as individual humans to comprehend. I cannot fully understand the complex system that is my local city, much less that of the entire planet, and certainly not that of the entire cosmos. As much as I might try (and I will), I don’t have the faculties. It would take a being far greater than myself to be able to understand that kind of Cosmic Complexity. Maybe nothing short of a Cosmic spirit can understand such a thing.

I know this was a long one, and I applaud you for grinding through it. As I said at the beginning, this is part of a larger somewhat related series of posts, that is going to range from future worlds, to animism, to left-of-center politics. I’m working towards a synthesis of my animistic beliefs, and the future I would like to live in.

Thanks for reading!

Notes:

*I have used god and spirit somewhat interchangeably through this whole piece. That is because I view gods as basically “big spirits”, or spiritual beings at a higher level of complexity than humanity. Spirits, when I use the term, tends to refer to those at an approximately equal or “lower” scale of complexity. Gods are “greater”, spirits and ancestors are “equal to/less than”. It’s a matter of relative scale for me. IE, the spirit of an island I will probably call “god”. An individual oak tree, probably “spirit.”

** I personally prefer not to gender the planet, though it is often common for pagans and others to refer to the planet as “Mother Earth” “Gaia” or “Terra”. Even the name of Earth is actually a Anglo-germanic name for a goddess. I have trouble relating these concepts to the planet as a whole, because it is bigger and more complex than human genders, and includes countless species that don’t confine to these norms. Where I do use pronouns for the planet, I tend towards “they/them” because it is a complex pronoun that can speak of the planet in a singular way, a plural way, and a neutral way.

Sources/References;

https://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/a-cybernetic-animism/

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor%E2%80%93network_theory

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

https://wovensong.com/2017/05/23/interanimism-on-the-mutual-inspiration-of-a-dreaming-earth/

https://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/the-spirit-networks-and-emergence/

https://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/the-spirit-networks-and-emergence-part-2/

https://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/the-spirit-networks-and-emergence-part-3/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(philosophy)

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

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


Tracking as a Way of Knowing: A Commentary

Tracking as a way of Knowing: A Commentary

There has been quite the flood of great material coming out lately, and to be frank I am having a hard time keeping up. Maybe I shouldn’t put the expectation upon myself that I will ever keep up, but at the same time it doesn’t really stress me out all that much. It is more exciting for me than stressful, knowing other people are exploring things along similar lines that I am.

Or at least, I am becoming more aware of that fact.

In addition, it doesn’t help when I feel like I have been dog piled with my own writing projects. As an advanced warning, this blog may go on (semi) hiatus in the near future. There is a longer project starting to poke on prod at me. I may decide to give that project my full attention, but that is up in the air at the moment.

Things have been pretty chaotic in my own life, and I don’t feel like I have had much time to breathe. In addition, the world on the whole has seemed pretty chaotic too. It has all left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. I’m dealing with that the best I can, and life goes on.

As such, I bring my commentary on a piece I came across lately, called “Tracking as a Way of Knowing” by Sophia Sinopoulous-Lloyd. This particular piece really spoke to both my spirituality, and my practical on the ground skills as a hunter. This is kind of a long commentary, which isn’t usually my habit. Some people just won’t read longer pieces, or don’t have the time to do so. For that, I apologize, but I didn’t want to break this up either.

As such, we start here with this quote from the author;

“One of the central themes in permaculture (as in ecology) is that living beings—both plant and animal—build alliances with each other and form natural communities characterized by certain highly efficient cycles of energy. Part of this efficiency owes to the fact that the structure of ecosystems is the opposite of mechanistic. Everything has multiple functions, and there is no such thing as waste. Naturalist knowledge not predicated on a neoclassical production-oriented view of the environment is critical to the skillful practice of permaculture farming. To this end, tracking seemed to promise a way of beginning to build relationships that lead beyond the boundaries of the homestead and private property, into the wild…”

There are several aspects of this quote that also apply to an animistic worldview. The most obvious of which is that living beings build alliances with each other and form natural communities. This is a foundational part of my own animism; being primarily concerned with people living in relationship with each other. In addition, I love the parallels between my spiritual practice and the patterns of natural ecosystems.

That is part of the reason I am animist to begin with. It runs parallel in many ways to many scientific disciplines, not least among them ecology. To me at least, the natural environment is a social environment, in which many non-human agents are in constant connection with each other, and forming self-organized networks and systems. These systems, whether they are deciduous forests, or wetlands, or watersheds, they tend to be self-organizing, self-regulating, and self-governing. I think there is a great deal to learn about society by studying natural systems.

More than that, as opposed to many mechanical production methods, as the author points out, almost nothing is wasted in an integrated natural ecosystem. Unlike many of our human productions methods, that run linearly from extraction —> production —> consumption —-> waste, natural systems tend to have a higher degree of multilinear networks that continuously cycle material as well as energy.

Lastly in the above quote, the author introduces the practice of tracking as a way to build relationships with the natural world. I cannot agree more, and my own experience tracking has highlighted a lot of the points the author makes. There will be more on that in a moment, but first we have to ask what is tracking? Here the author picks up the thread;

“Tracking is an umbrella term for discerning an animal’s endeavors from the marks it has left on the landscape. Its subdivisions include things like clear print identification, gait and track pattern analysis, trailing (where you follow a particular animal’s tracks to find out other things about it), and identifying other signs of behavior, like feeding or territorial marking. Tracking is not limited to uncovering the past of animals though. We can use the rings on an old tree stump to diagnose an ancient forest fire or a particularly hard winter, and we can examine the topography of the forest floor to discern the effects of a century-old ice storm. Such things leave their own sorts of tracks. Our ancestors didn’t only track things on the earth—they tracked the skies too, charting movement of constellations, the paths of planets, and the phases of the moon, giving us the basis for our understanding of time. “

There is so much more to tracking that simply following animals. There is a lot of knowledge and practical experience that goes into being able to do it well. It is so much bigger than the individual tracks themselves.

I was learning forestry from a very young age, rather or not I realized it at the time. My childhood home was heated with firewood in the winter. This means that I spent a lot of time learning from my dad not only how to cut and move wood, but also basic understandings of forests. How to identify trees, as yes how to read their rings. I have seen first hand evidence of burns, rot, disease, seasons that were wet, seasons that were dry and so on. You began to realize on a holistic scale, that you are part of an unfolding story. The trees, the animals, the plants, all it is part of a story that you are smack in the middle of.

You also realize, as the author points out, that your ancestors understood this too. When I hunt, when I track, when I spend time in the woods it brings me a little closer to their stories. I become entangled in the webs around me, in the unfolding story of the land, sea and sky.

As the author points out, this also included the stars and planets, the Cosmos on a much wider level. Tracking in this way becomes a means of connecting with the past, being in the present, and looking to the future.

That is what my animism is all about, building those connections across time and space. It is learning the stories that bind us to the past, telling the stories in the present, and wondering about the stories of the future. The telling of these stories shapes reality around us, and shapes our position in those stories. Tracking is just another way of learning a story, of what has gone before.

“Hunting especially in a survival situation requires a basic familiarity with tracking. Since then though I’ve put in dirt-time in service of a less particular goal: a glimpse of the unique and specific creatures that live around me. Getting familiar with my non-human neighbors is driven by an open-ended desire for relationship. My wish to track now doesn’t feel so different from my impulse to connect with the spirit-world. After all, the all-but-forgotten root of religion is in part the multifaceted need to relate to something both deeply “Other” and also deeply, invisibly, woven into our lives. The necessity of securing food and resources and the communion with the invisible and holy are not by definition distinct endeavors. In much of human history they have been complementary— they’ve even required each other. The first spirituality had to have been practical.”

As I have mentioned before on this blog, hunting is not something I just do as a practical endeavor. It is deeply interwoven with my spiritual practice, and I love that the author brings up this point; that the first spirituality had to have been practical. It had to work, and there was not a clear seperation between the mundane and the sacred.

Hunting is so much more than wanting to fill the freezer. It is how I connect with the spirits of nature around me, it is how I connect with my ancestors and the Huntress I work with. Hunting and tracking is kind of like following in the footsteps of the sacred, that also has the very practical aspect of putting food on the table (on occasion). It is a deeply connective and affirming practice that weaves me into the Greater around me.

It is, as the author states, a communion between past, present, and future.

It is more than that as well, because it also connects you with the greater cycles of life and death, of nature itself around you. I have followed the game trails, tracked my prey through the great mixed-Oak forests of my homeland, and I learned their habits, learned their stories, and in some cases even gave them names. After all this, after taking part as two dancers in the story of life, that is when I had to decide whether or not to take a life I had come to love.

This is something deeply spiritual, and hard for me to put into words. It is one of those deeper Mysteries of my practice that has to be experienced to really understand. In addition, the moment you decide to release that arrow (I’m a bowhunter), that is when the real work begins.

Suddenly, you are connected to the realms of the Dead. With your ancestors, who stand behind you, and with the ancestors of the prey, who stand before you. All will hold you accountable for what you have done, and that in my experience is where the real work begins. I am accountable for what I have done, and obliged to do everything I can to smooth the transition of Dead to the keeping of their ancestors, which return them into the cycle of life and death. I have to calm the confused spirits, and treat the remains with respect. I have to answer to Ancestors of the slain, and return their fallen kin to their keeping.

These webs go deep, and suffice to say that I am still trying to navigate my way through those entanglements.

To take a brief tangent, it is a common perception among non-hunters that hunters are just barbaric ruthless killers. I’m sympathetic enough to agree with that perception in some cases. By my own standards, and the deep animistic way I approach hunting, some hunters do qualify as barbaric under my view. When you frame hunting as a sport, as a game, as a means to rack up points in the “top predator game”, in my opinion you have missed the point.

Life and death is not a sport. Treating it that way has a noted lack of respect, and denies the deep spiritual practice that our ancestors knew some well. In some way, I think all hunters experience a little bit of that, but the degrees of difference between spirituality and sport are wide enough to float an armada through.

That break, that sundering is an important point in and of itself.

Which brings us back to the article;

“For some, following the tracks left behind by a game animal and courting the divine by following a trail of psycho-spiritual signs exist along the same spectrum of activity, both characterized by a sort of sympathetic allurement. Keeney comments later on how this practical spirituality has been largely lost on the modern world: “As we broke the bonds of relationship and interdependency with one another and disrupted our ecological matrix, our link to the divine mysteries became all but lost.” “

From the first time the “animism” as a concept entered our lexicon, it has been littered with this kind of ideology. Animism as a form of indigenous spirituality was immediately categorized as something “primitive” people did, and not something that had any place in “civilized” society. The entire concept is littered with the relics of imperialism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism.

But the ideology goes back even farther than that, at least as far back as biblical times if not further. The idea that mankind, and our “civilization” is somehow separate and dominant to all others. We have tried our best to sever our connection to nature, as “moderns”, and in the process we have sundered away connections that once defined us.

It is so important we rebuild those bridges, and see ourselves once again as part of nature, as part of a wider natural community. It is imperative think, if we are every going to heal those disrupted matrixes that were once so essential to our lives.

Returning again to the article;

“Tracks glow darkly in the snow like icons, triggering some ancient seeker in us, an invisible string pulling us forward. I often hear an astonished “I could do this for hours!” exclaimed by folks from a wide range of backgrounds who are just learning basic wildlife tracking techniques—confirming that it is far more than just the master trackers among us who are tugged by such strings. The metaphor of the invisible string is well known in some old tracking traditions. Keeney quotes a Bushman hunter explaining the metaphysics of spiritual ropes or strings in the context of tracking:

The ancestors and God can attach a rope to you. When that happens, they are able to pull you to where you need to go; that’s the secret behind our ability to track. A Bushman hunter feels something tapping on his arm when it is time to hunt. It is the ancestors pulling a rope that is attached to our arms. The other end is attached to the animal. We simply follow the pulling of the rope, and it takes us to a kudu, giraffe, eland, warthog, or gemsbok.”

There is an important metaphor here that made me want to jump out of my seat and go “yes!”. The metaphysics that I have talked about so many times here, the ideas of strings or “filaments” that connected everything in the Cosmos.

It is not unusual for me to call up my gods, ancestors and spirits when I hunt. It is really strange to think about how deep of a connection I am building in that moment, when I am tracking. I am creating bridges with the ancestors, the gods, and with the animal I am tracking. I am building relationships and connecting with the past in a deep and profound way, a spiritual way that is like going headfirst underwater. The world changes, and your perception shifts. It’s trance work, in a way, reading the trails and learning their stories…

As the article points out, tracking is way more than just following the physical prints;

“Tracking, it turns out, is nothing less than an epistemology: an ecological way of knowing, a green hermeneutics. It is not just a way of seeing “how things are connected,” it is a discipline that redefines and expands what connection and relationship even is. As such it seems to have something to add to nearly every realm of experience and knowledge—an interdisciplinary skill to the core. It blurs modern distinctions between art and science, because it is at once a contemplative practice and also an empirical and quantitative study. It blurs our distinctions between fact and myth because though it is a deterministic study in physical cause and effect, it inevitably lends itself to forming personal relationships with spectral creatures, telling stories about them, and dreaming dreams about them. Eventually, beings are “known” through their tracks, and archetypes emerge. These archetypes have great value to an ecosystem as ways of mapping the world so that a near infinite number of facts can be codified and passed on to future generations. Tracking is unequivocally poetry and it is also unequivocally ecology—at least as long as we humans are involved—and both dimensions are necessary, two halves of a whole. Tracking always leaves room for Mystery with a capital M—it’s impossible for it not to. Whereas in their most dogmatic guises religion protects Mystery sometimes too fiercely, and science perhaps does not defer to it enough, tracking stands innocuously in the middle as the symbiosis of mystery and knowledge.”

Tracking, as with hunting more generally, is a kind of Mystery that is hard to clearly articulate. It is a liminal practice, where art & science, the mythic & the mundane start to mix and swirl in a many unexpected ways. It is a space where stories are told, and where stories are heard. It is in that un-time, in that un-space that the forest and the world around you becomes alive. You are part of that story, apart of that liminal unfolding as you follow the paths that have been led for you.

Hunting in general has greatly influenced my spiritual practice for this very reason. Being in the woods has, being in that liminal place, that is where the real work can happen. We have tried too hard as “modern” people to seperate our “society” from the “natural”. We cut ourselves off from the sacred when we did that, and we lost a whole part of ourselves in the process. We failed to understand that we are part of that great natural community, and the moment we started to separate ourselves from that, it was like cutting away our senses and our limbs.

We are blind and floating in an empty world.

Returning to the article now;

“Ecologist Dennis Martinez points out that unlike the “biocentric” Euro-American model of conservation and land management, a model that can be drawn from Indigenous methods of land management is what he calls “kincentric”; it neither idolizes nor alienates humans, but cherishes and enshrines the alliances among and between humans, animals, plants, and the earth.”

This is both timely and curious that this idea would resurface here. I am working my way through a shamanic intensive, and I am currently in the classwork on Totemism. Now, as I have said before “totem” isn’t a concept I use much at all in my own practice, partly because it doesn’t feel relevant, and partly because I am wary of cultural appropriation. “Totem” is a corrupted version of an Ojibwa word, and I am frankly just not comfortable using it.

That said, in a grand sense the idea behind Totemism is of one’s “kinship group,” that is the close community of human and non-human nature with which we are surrounded. That is what we are talking about here, the realization that nature is part of ourselves, part of our community, and even part of our “kinship group.”

As I have said on this blog many times, we are related to every thing on this planet in some measure. As such building those relationships and alliances is vitally important not only to our spiritual lives, but also to the future of this planet. Reintegrating ourselves within and as part of nature is a vital change in spirit that is required to fully build a sustainable civilization.

If you want to think of it in a very wide sense, the Cosmos is our distant ancestor, the planet Earth is too. My home state of Michigan is an ancestor too in a very real sense. I was born here, the minerals and soil are in my bones. The plants and animals are part of my flesh, and the Great Waters that surround this state are part of my greater community, they are part of my spirit too.

We need to be giving back and being good members of that community.

I’m going to give the last words to the article;

“The words conservation and ecology, as we use them in the Western sense, don’t exactly fit what Indian people did or do with the land. It was their livelihood, which depended on reciprocity. Thus, the trees were not seen just as trees, they were also seen as relatives. The trees are relatives and other species are relatives and they watched you all the time.

In this view, feelings of solidarity, love, and belonging that traverse the boundaries of species and beyond are not luxuries or overly sentimentalized notions; they are functions of ecological interdependency and are integral to survival. Seeing as the majority of beings on our planet (as well as the rest of the universe) are non-human, we can expect a limited view of reality if we aren’t welcoming efforts to soulfully relate to them. Let us see beyond the jaded (and polarizing) caricature of the nature-hippie who escapes from civilization to the forest. If the intention is not to leave but to enter, not to hide but to belong, relationship with the non-human brings back deep value to human community and enriches culture. This is loud and clear in nature-based spiritualities, but it is also buried in our most dearly held stories…”

It is time to tell those stories once more.

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

http://writtenriver.com/tracking-as-a-way-of-knowing/