Thoughts on art and ecology

bowie

It isn’t that more people died during 2016-early 2017. Well, actually, probably more people did die, because there are more people to die, and there are quite a number of nasty little wars going on, murder technology that is extremely efficient, and a high degree of wealth inequality ensuring lots of people die from treatable diseases and starvation.

But here in the Empire of the West I submit that we’ve all been very sad about the proportionately rather large number of artists* who died last year. Now a lot of these people weren’t exactly young, many of them were rode hard and put away wet for years, and they had to shuffle off the mortal coil sometime. We all know Keith Richards has been living on borrowed time for decades. But I suggest what makes these deaths hard is that they make it clear how little art there has been in pop/monoculture for a long time–long enough for the last celebrity artists to get old.

And as it stands, I think it will be a very long time before we see any more celebrity artists, because we are a monoculture that excels at entertainment, but sucks at art.

Lots of people are artists, humans being a creative lot, and many of them are even very talented and/or skilled, but I have this idea that what makes an artist or a work of art “great” is that they make us see from new perspectives. If they have a big enough audience, that can change culture and society. Even with a small audience they can cause a trophic cascade to borrow a term not originally from Gordon White, but I’m applying it in a parallel way. Obviously there will be dispute about who and what is “great” because individuals will inevitably be differently affected. For one thing, there’s an aesthetic barrier to be jumped right out of the gate, since if people don’t find the artist’s work pleasing enough they may not experience it enough to be changed by it. On the flip side, just because something is avant garde or not aesthetically pleasing does not make it great art. I don’t know, your mileage may vary, but putting a picture of Jesus in a jar of pee not only does nothing to change my perspective, it’s just lazy. Art is inevitably controversial but just because something is controversial doesn’t make it great art.

Some chalk artistic “greatness” up to genius. I don’t think genius is an intrinsic quality that some humans have–I think it’s a collaborative thing whereby certain individuals have something to express and a mode of expression that act like a key that fits the lock of the Zeitgeist or egregore or some such. The same key wouldn’t fit in a different lock. Sometimes a key comes along that fits no lock until after the artist has died. That’s probably the case more often than not (thinking of Colin Wilson’s outsiders here). It doesn’t matter if your great artist is not so great for me, and vice versa; it doesn’t matter that there are different schools of art and different followings for different artists. What matters, or rather, my point, is that the putative “genius” must be in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing in the right way, just as a seed has to fall on fertile ground and get the right amount of water and sun in order to germinate. Art and genius are, in short, ecological. And just like any other ecology, they involve spirits. Indeed if folklore is to be believed, spirits are all over art like white on rice.

But at the moment we are in an ecosystem that’s not particularly friendly to art or artists. Anything that changes perspectives is going to make people uncomfortable–some people uncomfortable all the time, a lot of people uncomfortable some of the time–and what makes people uncomfortable can’t really be mass-marketed. Seeds that fall on such barren ground have little chance to flourish, and that’s what I mean when I say that today, artists are seldom celebrities and vice versa.

The stereo in my car is broken so my options when driving to work are NPR or the pop music station. I often end up listening to the pop station just because it’s energetic. (For man cannot live by bread alone–yea, sometimes he needs a funky beat.) But at the risk of sounding like a hipster here, today’s pop music is highly repetitive dreck.

Because when it comes to selling stuff, you want to manipulate people’s emotions, and the easiest, lowest-common-denominator way to do that is through sex or fear. The plethora of sub-mediocre, copycat sex songs in American pop music is a sure sign that you are being sold. It’s not that you can’t have great songs about sex (blues music is full of them) but if you haven’t been listening to today’s pop music, you cannot imagine just how stupid and crass the current crop of songs is.

Yes, artists are still making art. Some of it is great. But you’re more likely to stumble upon it in a weird series of synchronicities than you are to hear it on the radio or recommended by your coworker, because the monoculture ensures that most of these people labor in relative obscurity. We are lucky that technology enables us to discover art from outside our own communities and times. Indeed, for my money, there is some tremendous music being made at the moment, and I am particularly pleased to see a resurgence of a hippy/Romantic, poetic, occasionally overtly animist, folk aesthetic being melded with modern instrumentation in fabulously unique ways. It’s exciting for me not only aesthetically but because of what it suggests about the values and visions of the people involved. They are visions that I want to see propagated as widely (but as faithfully) as possible. But sadly you’ve got to slog through a lot of Arianna Grandes and Thomas Kinkades to find them.

The role of spirits and of mediumship in art is something I want to know more about. Until college I was an artist (not a great one by any stretch of the imagination), and then something happened that switched off my connection. Connection is what it was, because I was not so much expressing something in myself as I was compulsively trying to birth something that moved through me. I felt almost commanded to draw and paint; the images had their own agency and controlled the process much more than I ever did. I don’t know how or why the connection was shut down but I am doing my best to reopen it. Sorry, I don’t have any answers to this question yet. But if you’re interested, check out Chris Knowles’ series on Elizabeth Fraser and the Siren archetype (Part I, Part II, Part III) and also watch her perform. I don’t know if Knowles is right but there is something weird going on there. Incidentally, this isn’t to diminish the agency, talent, or skill of Fraser or any other particular artist, merely to acknowledge that in this sphere of human activity as in all the others (perhaps more than in some others), there are more influences than we usual credit, and some of them just happen not to be humans.

*I know this is a controversial topic with room for disagreement but I’m not really interested in a discussion of “what is art?” at this time because

Advertisements

In which I attempt to articulate my worldview

The thoughts that follow are provisional and tentative: I think of them as operating assumptions and working models undergoing beta testing. They’re based on my personal engagement with and experience of the world, my UPG, and are not meant to be anyone else’s model. I have a great interest in the work of philosophy (I take the Ph in my degree seriously) but I don’t claim to be trained in the academic discipline. If I sound like I’m parroting some specific philosopher but don’t attribute it, it’s probably because I didn’t know that person said it first. At the same time, I’m not claiming to be the first to think these things. None came from a vacuum. Some of this, such as the metaphor of Indra’s Net, I already outlined in my post on karma. I’m assured that my worldview, by conventional standards, is “weird,” “crazy,” and “stupid,” and some have found it quite alarming, so I guess that means it’s pretty challenging to the ontological status quo. It feels only obvious to me, which makes it difficult to express; but I’ll do my best. I reserve the right to change my mind…indeed, I think that’s the whole point.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Painting by Leonora Carrington

1 – Dreamworlds with no access to objectivity

We’re not able to get out of our own “heads” to observe whatever objective, independent reality might exist. By that I mean, everything we know comes to us through some sense or own mind and there’s simply no way for us to gauge whether those senses are in any way accurate. We are, as it were, trapped in a totally subjective dreamworld which I suspect is co-created by all conscious beings. I think all sentient/conscious beings have a spirit or soul (perhaps more than one, some perhaps shared), which is not the same as the ego/self. The ego/self is conditional and ever-changing according to stimuli filtered through the physical senses and the mind and memory. Thus each individual self lives within a particular iteration of the co-created dreamworld, and while hypothetically we might captain our own dream-ship, in reality most of us are not lucid dreamers. We are absorbed by and largely passive within the dream, and our ego/selves are at least as much a product of the dreamworld as it is of us.  I would agree with the Buddhists that our ego/selves are, in that sense, illusory. The spirit or soul(s) is something which I imagine to be essential and permanent, but what it is exactly and how it relates to the ego/self I am not sure.

For some reason, our dreamworlds seem to be filled with suffering. If you buy the metaphor of Indra’s Net for the sake of argument, once suffering first got started it inevitably spread through the whole web. But why it is there in the first place I don’t know. In the New Thought/New Age, it’s believed to simply be a mistake, a delusion, limited to our dreamworlds but not a part of ultimate reality. But that doesn’t explain how and why it exists in the first place.

The fact that our dreamworlds are subjective and illusory does not justify people’s horrid behavior. You can’t simply say, no matter, it’s not really real, because it is real as long as you are dreaming. (As real as anything else, anyway.)

2- Intersubjectivity

Our relationships with other sentient/conscious beings are nexus points where our private worlds link up to and reflect each other, Indra’s-Net-style, and we get a glimpse of others’ worlds. Based on these glimpses we modify (and are further modified by) our own dreamworlds. Our subjectivity is thus an intersubjectivity. Maybe our spirit-selves transcend this dreamworld, or maybe they move into a different dreamworld (like the bardo?) when our physical bodies die. Maybe we are in the bardo now, that has certainly been suggested. The dreamworlds seem to be able to take virtually infinite forms, just like the ordinary dreams of sleep (dreams within dreams), as evidenced by some of the Bosch– or Carrington-like surreality one can experience during shamanic-type journeys. The forms are clearly not bound by earthly physics or biological evolution. As far as I can tell, the laws of physics and biology only obtain within certain dreamworlds. I guess this could be considered a form of idealism, but a better fit are the concepts of maya as used in Advaita Vedanta and sunyata as used in certain schools of Buddhism. I see this as a form of Skepticism (in the Classical sense) as well.

EDIT: I guess this could also be considered a soft form of subjective idealism, in that I’m not stating that the non-mental doesn’t exist, only that we have no means of knowing whether it exists. And you could say, well in that case, it might as well not exist as that is a purely academic distinction. But I think the distinction is meaningful. 

If they aren’t completely solipsistic, our dreamworlds do overlap. We just can’t be sure how much or in exactly what ways. We are interacting with other sentient beings at all times, but (1) we may or not be aware of that, (2) we may or may not be able to perceive them within our dream, and (3) we just don’t have an objective rubric by which to determine how much they are filtered through our dream. It’s sort of like when you’re sleeping and the telephone rings, so you dream that you answer the phone. In this metaphor, an external phone exists, but the one you answer is only in your mind.

3 – Gnosis

Gnosis is something like waking up from our private dream, possibly into a bigger more widely shared dream, possibly into some kind of objective, independent, transcendent reality (if such exists). While we are embodied, at least, it seems to be exceedingly rare for a person to be able to stay in this state of enlightenment all the time, but with dedication we can learn ways to visit it and to stay there longer. Cultural opinions vary on the best means and ends (there are more than one of each).

ANOTHER EDIT: I often hear idealism bashed as mere navel gazing and a pointless waste of time because ultimately you get to a point of having to say “who knows?” and apparently, not generating a conclusive answer is a failure. I would counter that nothing (that I can think of) that we ever experience has a conclusive answer. Everything that enters our consciousness is so inextricably bound into our intersubjective dreamworld that any “thing” is inevitably many “things” and no “thing.” I would also point out that adopting a “who knows?” attitude can be a great boon to mental health, the foundation of establishing truly compassionate and non-judgmental relations with other beings, and–this is important in terms of praxis–a radical opening to gnosis.

On a personal note, I find it very interesting that when I have tried discussing these ideas with Americans and I couch it as a discussion of, say, Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Yogacara or Madhyamaka), my interlocutor will often receive it with a certain amount of respect and curiosity, if not agreement. But if I made the same arguments but described them as my own opinions, the reaction is generally a mix of derision and worry about my sanity. 

4 – Magic

Magic, in my humble opinion (actually humble for once), is pert night useless if it doesn’t help us at least understand that our private reality is a kind of dreamworld among many dreamworlds (“jailbreak your mind”). I see magic as akin to lucid dreaming in the sense that it lets us change the rules, manipulate the architecture, of our dreamworlds as well as peek into other dreamworlds and achieve or receive gnosis. In this sense I think Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “a change in consciousness in accordance with will” is quite accurate. The New Age notion of “creation of reality” is thus both true and untrue–yes, we are co-creating it, but so is everyone else. No one has full control over or clear perception of their own dreamworld, let alone anyone else’s. You have to be a boss wizard to even put your hands on the steering wheel. Yet knowing it’s a dream gets you that much closer to waking up. The more cognizant you become that it’s a dream, the more dreamlike your dreamworld starts to behave, with time getting more wibbley-wobbley and timey-wimey and non-linear and synchronicities multiplying and strangely allegorical and symbolic events happening. Stuff gets weird. At the same time, this is why magic actually does work. Magic is simply how dreams work.

One implication of this is that we don’t actually need any ritual trappings or spells, and I suspect that is true, but perhaps you have to get way more lucid to do it reliably without the props.

5 – A singular, panpsychic, fractal-ish universe (monism)

I find the notion of a multiverse entirely unpersuasive. I mean, there’s not even any proof of it (nor can there be, as I understand it) within physics–it’s purely a hypothetical thought experiment designed to try and wiggle out of the otherwise-inexplicable. “Universe” by definition means all things, so if we found another one, we’d have to subsume both of those in a greater universe, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, I am a monist and non-dualist. This could be considered a form of pantheism, but I guess that depends on how you define a theos. However, I suppose there might be other dreamworlds in which you have other egos/selves. That would be cool. I’ll have to think more about that.

I like the idea that the Monad possesses, or better yet is, some form of consciousness (panpsychism in the broad sense, not the ridiculous version some materialists are trying to palm off on us). I find the concept of lila in Indian philosophies to be a very appealing way of modeling creation and existence (a sort of outflowing of pure divine bliss). My experiences of gnosis so far have been blissful, but ultimately I guess I don’t have any way to know.

It could be argued that, insofar as I’m in a dream, I can’t really know who is actually sentient/conscious and whom I merely dream to be so. I have to concede it. Skepticism (in the Classical sense) ultimately leads on to solipsism, and there’s really no way to argue your way out of that. I believe others to be real because if I am real, it only makes sense that others are too; however, it’s possible that I only ever interact with/relate to my dream-versions of others. Regardless, I think the best operating assumption is that everything else is as much a sentient, agentic, in/spirited entity as I am and that we are all part of a Monad/Universe which I would prefer to believe is conscious. I mean why not? Consciousness exists, it has to come from somewhere. If it exists somewhere, it is at the very least part of the Monad/Universe. Does this mean that we are one and the same as the Monad, or are we derivative yet within it? Damned if I know. How would you even divide a monad, isn’t that an oxymoron? I think it might just be a question of your scale of analysis, fractal-like. It’s turtles all the way down.

In my dreamworld, I have had experience with sentient/conscious non-embodied beings just as I have with embodied ones. So from my experience, at least in my dreamworld, consciousness is not consubstantial with nor confined to physical matter. And I have felt/sensed what seemed to be consciousness or maybe something like mana in ostensibly inanimate “things” such as stones, water, and so on. Of course, though we may identify these as single entities, like us they are full of smaller beings–bacteria, fungi, moss, algae, etc. Their consciousness may be manifold, and so might ours. Again, it is fractal and a matter of scale. As above, so below. In “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (Current Anthropology 40:S1, 1999), Bird-David proposes the concept of the “dividual.” Unlike an individual, the dividual is not atomistic but constituted within and by his/her relationships. This is one reason why ego/selves are contingent and illusory and not bounded or permanent.

If spirits can be without physical bodies, I suppose one could make the argument that there could be physical bodies without spirits and without consciousness (i.e., inanimate things), but as I said I think best practice is to treat “everybody” as “somebody.” Just in case. I can’t see any a priori reason to assume that a rock, say, or a tree, or the entire Earth, or the Sun, etc. etc. don’t have sentience/consciousness. In order to make such a claim, I feel I’d have to fully understand all the possible dimensions and manifestations of consciousness, which I don’t. Not even within my own particular dreamworld. Perhaps all consciousness is just a fractal iteration of the Monad? If that’s true “we” (the Monad) would be effectively looking in a mirror whenever we perceive or interact with “other” consciousnesses.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Another one by Carrington

6 – A few practical implications

As I said, I think best practice is to err on the side of compassion and treat all the “others” in our dreamworlds as objectively real, conscious/sentient, and intertwined with ourselves. Dreamworlds are best viewed as interpenetrating. I honestly believe that’s as good an approximation of reality as my brain is likely to ever get to, but I also think it’s a major part of just not being a jerk. To paraphrase Uncle Al, Love is the Law–or might as well be. Everyone else is suffering already, let’s make an effort to not add to it and even to alleviate some of it.

In my view, given the nature of karma as previously described, every time a being realizes the impermanence, illusion (maya), and emptiness (sunyata) of their dreamworld it benefits every other being. Waking up is a legitimate way to help alleviate the suffering of all.

Speaking of which, this seems like a good point to correct what I think is a misapprehension of Buddhist philosophy, with the inevitable caveat that there are many schools of Buddhism. It’s a big, big tent. But all the schools I know anything about are united in this: Buddhism is not about resigning yourself to your place within the status quo and learning to be happy with it. Like Gnosticism, Buddhism is a set of techniques for lucid dreaming and ultimately awakening. It was, and remains, radical because it doesn’t require gods, gurus, lineages, monasteries or temples, marriage or celibacy, poverty or wealth–but it also doesn’t preclude them. It doesn’t even require that you accept a single article of faith except for the possibility that if you try the techniques, they might reduce your suffering. Reducing pain is just the entry point, though. Now like every religion, or set of techniques that evolved into a religion, Buddhism as we know it has all those lineages and temples and hierarchies and so on that its own teachings emphasize you don’t need. I don’t think that invalidates the teachings. (I would say the same of Christianity.)

Seeing this all spelled out in writing, I ask myself (yet again), why magic? Honestly, I go back and forth with magic. We have an on-again, off-again relationship. Magic is a lot of work, much of it dull as dirt, for very unpredictable, strange results. It’s rarely the shortest or simplest method to get from Point A to Point B. I would argue that the reason magic has the weird results it does is because that is how dreams work. Dreams are a mysterious combination of the inappropriately and inconsistently logical leading to the totally absurd, coupled with liberal symbolism, allegory, and analogy. Magic makes connections bizarrely in the same way our minds make connections bizarrely.

However, if you’re only using magic to manipulate the dream, without realizing that it is a dream, I would respectfully ask why you bother. For example, in my dreamworld, you have to have money to eat, and I like to eat, so I need to acquire and use money. I don’t see any reason not to use magic to hack the dream so that becomes easier, and lord knows it is more interesting than the drudgery that is known as “earning” a living. If magic reduces that drudgery and adds a little color, that’s reason enough. But only because I also am learning to dream lucidly and even awaken entirely, if that is indeed possible. Of the two, I put the greater emphasis on the latter set of methods, because otherwise I would just be magically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Returning to the topic of animism, I think the metaphor of Indra’s Net, taken to its logical conclusion, presupposes animism (sensu lato) because literally nothing exists which is not in the net and no one jewel on the net is ultimately different in nature from the others. Therefore if any one is animate, all are. And in this sense, I can call myself an animist–but I’m no longer sure if that is the most useful descriptor.

Let’s make a better animism

Let's Make a Better Animism | Otherwise

I started identifying as an animist when I was probably about 10 or 11. I was spiritually inclined, but Christianity wasn’t doing it for me, and I said as much to my dad. My dad opined that we (modern Western society) were evolving away from monotheistic scripture-based religions and toward something more animistic. What is animism? I asked. He explained, very anthropologically and agnostically as is his wont, that it is the belief that everything is alive and aware. Well that sounded like something I already knew to be true, truer at least than scripture. I mean, when I was a kid I would agonize about walking on grass, and hug and thank my pillows and towels for being so nice and soft, and empathize with Christmas trees. Don’t even get me started on toy stuffed animals.

It looks like his prediction may be coming true, as I’m seeing more and more talk of animism among internet occultists. (Here’s an example, here’s another, here’s another.)

But as I complained in my last post about Gnosticism, we are in desperate need of a better animism, especially if we want it to get a seat at the philosophical and academic Big Table. It is not enough to say that everything has a spirit or soul or sentience. (And I do mean “we” here because I am as guilty as anyone else of using the term without sufficient reflection or explication.)

First of all, the term was coined by anthropologists as a way of distinguishing the so-called animistic (primitive, brown) cultures from their own scientistic-materialist belief that most things in the universe are inanimate and sentient. So the term is etic and generalist, and when you ask for the emic perspectives of the “animists,” you’ll find a lot of diversity. I don’t think being etic or general (even reductionist) necessarily invalidates the term, but from the perspective of those sitting at the Big Table, we will have to bring something more rigorous and well-argued. But more importantly, perhaps, do it for yourself. I think it will only benefit us to do this kind of reflection, and indeed, we can only do it for ourselves because as I said, there are many, many animisms. Trying to do this has been revelatory for me anyway.

Second, beyond merely articulating our worldviews, what are the implications of pan-animacy? Technically animism means that everything is ensouled/inspirited (i.e., has anima), but I get the impression that most of the time, what we mean is that everything is conscious and has agency. Which is perhaps not quite the same thing. How does animism differ from other philosophical/religious models of conscious-everything or ensouled-everything, from panpsychism to pantheism to panentheism? You could probably spend a lifetime just exploring the Indian philosophical takes on this question.

If we are talking about everything being conscious and/or ensouled, what do we mean by “everything”? Are we talking about a single monolithic everything, all-that-is, a Universe or Monad, whose consciousness pervades all? Are we talking about multitudinous independent consciousnesses? Perhaps some combination of both, like mini-souls within a greater soul? Do we view the other beings in an animist universe as bounded, autonomous individuals, or something more blurry? What are the relationships among us? Where are the nexus points where they touch and communicate and how does that happen? What is the place of humans and spirits within this ontology, what are our moral and ethical obligations, what epistemologies does this make possible or foreclose? What is the relationship between consciousness, sentience, anima, soul, and/or spirit to matter? For example, does consciousness arise from matter, or vice versa, or does matter even exist and if so how?

Quoth Gordon:

“Animism needs to get itself a Richard Dawkins and a seat at this Big Table because, of all the options, it better models psi effects, NDEs, spirit communication, unexplained biological effects like morphic fields… as well as UFOs and conspiratainment theories… as well as providing as good an explanation as any of the others (better than Materialism’s) for the creation and purpose of the universe.”

Jeez, I hope animism gets better than a Dawkins. (I know what Gordon means here, a popular proselytizer, but Dawkins is shit at what he actually claims to be, a scientist, and we all deserve better.) I think animism could become a better model for all these things than anything we’ve got currently, but at things stand I don’t think it is. At present I think it’s a catch-all for a bunch of different more-or-less-spiritist ontologies. And diversity of opinion is not a bad thing but it still wants deeper exploration. As it currently stands, animism is just a description, not an explanation. For example, I don’t see how animism necessarily provides any explanation for the creation and purpose of the universe, let alone a better one. If we’re talking about any one specific animist cosmogony, then chances are good I will find it much more appealing than the reductionist-materialist one, but that is a very low bar to jump, and (much as I may wish otherwise) my personal aesthetics aren’t widely recognized as a metric for accuracy.

None of this is to say there aren’t people working to articulate a better animism. I can’t claim to have read all the recent works of/about animism, though I’m working on it. (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall-Kimmerer is highly recommended as a series of personal reflections born of a deeply held animistic worldview which give a sense of the potential moral obligations that entails. Meanwhile in my opinion Tim Ingold is one of the best anthropologist-philosophers of animism, among other things, though he’s not usually considered a philosopher. His work is also a good source for learning about specific permutations of animism. And here is a useful post articulating what the term “bioregional animism” was, and wasn’t, meant to describe.) My point here is not to say that no one is thinking about this, but that we should be too. We, as esotericists, occultists, armchair philosophers, and assorted magical folk, need to engage with this more fully and explicitly. We owe it to ourselves to define animism(s) that are more than just a reactionary stance against materialism, especially if we want them to be explanatory.

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t attempt to articulate my own beliefs more clearly, so in the next post I shall do so.

What scares me

scared egg

There are a lot of things that scare me: heights, water (especially when I can’t see to the bottom), having a job, not having a job, bankruptcy, homelessness, rape, relationships, commitment, having my teeth knocked out, losing my hair, rejection, being buried alive, making people unhappy, causing a car accident, choking to death alone…basically I am a chickenshit. I manage to soldier through in spite of myself, but I always worry the next time will be the time I lose it and just can’t go on. Ironically people often perceive me as strong and then lean on me, which causes me to buckle under the strain–or more often, freak out and run away before I can buckle, and, well, that’s probably a big part of why relationships are on that list. I barely have enough backbone for myself, let alone two people. But I digress.

But lately what fills me with existential dread is the idea of trying to get to know this inspirited landscape in which I live from scratch, without the benefit of myths, folklore, names, or pre-fab religion.* Our ancestors did it, sure, but we don’t have the same cognitive faculties they did. Our fundamental neurological wiring is probably the same, but the effects of environment and upbringing are quite different. It’s often been repeated that in brain studies of Tibetan monks or other experienced meditators, their brains work differently from the general population. I remember one study in which the researchers made some loud noise next to (I think it was) Matthieu Ricard while he meditated, and his brain–even the limbic lizard brain–didn’t register any startle reaction. It has also been remarked that different cultures perceive, e.g., distance very differently. The below explanation by John Michael Greer sums that up neatly:

“The example I have in mind is borrowed from Oswald Spengler, and it has the immense advantage of absolute simplicity: the representation of distance. In Western painting from the Renaissance straight through to the present, art that attempts to look like what it portrays—realist art—represents depth by way of linear perspective. The shapes of what’s being portrayed are canted and slanted, angled and foreshortened to fit our way of representing space; lines converge on one, two, or more vanishing points that represent infinite distance. Learning how to draw those lines and fit images to them is an important part of becoming a realist artist in our society, because to us, an image that doesn’t follow the rules of perspective doesn’t look real—that is, it doesn’t represent reality the way we do.

This all seems very straightforward until you notice that no other civilization in all of human history has used linear perspective in its visual art. The traditional painting styles of China, Japan, and other east Asian societies use a different kind of perspective—atmospheric perspective, which works by fading out colors of distant objects—and so get a different sense of depth, one that people from Western societies find exotic. Most other traditions of visual art don’t use any kind of perspective at all, and many of them—the art of ancient Egypt is a good example—avoid the experience of depth entirely…

The Egyptians had the geometrical chops necessary to lay out a scheme of linear perspective, and they certainly had the artistic skill to do it. That’s just as true for the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and all the other cultures around the world who developed rich, realistic, highly capable traditions of painting but never saw any reason to use our kind of perspective. Art historians by and large flounder when they try to explain why it is that something that’s so obvious to us eluded the eyes and imaginations of so many other people for all those millennia, but the reason’s quite simple, really: people in these other times and cultures didn’t see distance the way we do, because the representations they created in their minds didn’t look like ours.”

Practice also influences the acuity of your senses, as for example when a blind person develops acute hearing and smell because they rely more on those senses in the absence of vision. The point is that your mental/cognitive capacities are shaped by the uses you put them to. If we had all grown up in a culture where animism was the dominant philosophical paradigm (rather than materialism), we would be much better able to perceive the life and the spirits active in the world around us.

For some reason, this concept seems to cause extreme cognitive dissonance for some people. It’s a bit mystifying to me because I think it’s self-evident–there’s more than one way to construct a world, and they all work to varying degrees. The variability in their efficacy seems to have a lot to do with how adaptable they are, because the ecological conditions of which they are a part are constantly changing. If your worldview, say, drives you to destroy your home planet’s atmosphere, we could say that it is less than efficacious. (We might also speculate, then, that such a worldview will either adapt or die; but that’s a topic for another post.) But I guess having holes punched in your worldview is the fastest way to get on the 8th-9th house rollercoaster, and to be fair, it is a scary ride.

I’m aware of changes in my mind that started when I went to college and became concretized over a dozen or so years of postsecondary education. Prior to that time, I was an avid artist: I drew and painted in every free moment. I doodled through all my classes and doodled through my lunch break; doodled when I got home from school until I went to bed. I had a burning need to express myself through visual art, and when I was interrupted or prevented from doing it I got very irritable. (Artistic temperament + teenager = no fun for anybody.) The subject matter of most of these drawings and paintings were characters from myths and folktales, and each one was a portrait of a distinct individual. I never knew in advance what they would look like; their appearance unfolded as I drew. I used to say they drew themselves.

From my very first year in college I suddenly found myself unable to draw. Or rather, if you had given me an assignment to draw something, I could do it rather competently (I drew many stone tools, artifacts, and bones in my archaeology classes, for example), but I had no inspiration, no passion. I have never regained that artistic inspiration. Occasionally I get an idea to draw something, but when I can even talk myself into starting–my skill is not up to the task, and knowing the finished product will never live up to my vision, I usually can’t bear to begin–I end up abandoning the project before I finish, when it becomes obvious that it has failed to live up to my hopes. When I was a teenager, art wasn’t about how well the finished product matched the original vision, it was that I couldn’t not do it. Often there wasn’t much of a vision at all–it was more like hand-eye channeling.

After spending a dozen years (about 25 if you count my whole educational career) engaged primarily in non-fiction reading and writing, I’ve gotten pretty good at that, but in retrospect I don’t think the cost of my art-channeling was worth it. In addition I’ve developed some personality traits/habitual thought patterns that are annoying: in particular, I became very defensive. I had bulleted mental lists of anticipated counter-arguments to my ideas, and bulleted mental lists of counter-counter-arguments. One also tends to become an increasingly dogmatic and conservative thinker. Academia is extremely hierarchical and tradition-bound; you have to follow the rules to get ahead (although there’s enough of an element of favoritism, backstabbing, and sudden shifts in intellectual fashion to keep things unpredictable). You know your every idea will be attacked just as a matter of course, and that you must always be prepared to give supporting evidence. Now I believe everyone should be able to articulate the reasons for their opinions–if only because it makes for better conversation–but being that defensive is frankly sick. And it makes you kind of an asshole. (My housemate/best friend, a professor and scientist, does this to me all the time and sometimes it makes me want to gut punch her.) I think I’ve gotten over that, for the most part, but it takes conscious effort and intent.

My longwinded point is that through specific patterns of use, I’ve gained certain mental abilities (e.g., logical analysis, science writing) and lost certain mental abilities (everything else). I am now dedicated to regaining some of those lost capacities, but one of my greatest terrors is that I’ll never be able to. I’m no spring chicken, and my mind’s not as elastic as it once was. Huge tracts of brain appear to now be permanently dedicated to ’80s song lyrics. Even if I live another quarter century I’m scared that it won’t be long enough to unlearn all the bullshit.

As I argued previously, I feel that we North Americans of European descent have to start from scratch in getting to know Turtle Island and its denizens, but we can’t even do that without first retraining our brains. (Africans seem to have adapted much better to life in the Americas, and I imagine it was at least partly due to the fact that they arrived without Age-of-“Enlightenment” mental baggage. They already had spirit-recognition skills, and that plus dire necessity forged some incredibly vital and powerful spiritual and magical traditions. I would be curious to learn more about the experiences of Asian-Americans in this regard.) I am as convinced as I possibly can be that our minds are not the same thing as our brains, yet our minds have to use our brains to operate our meatsuits, so there is some kind of feedback loop there. Even if I’m wrong about that, my own experience says that minds have to be trained just as much as brains do.

I realize this is why a lot of people use entheogens. I’m not arguing against entheogen use, and I’m aware they are used even by societies that don’t suffer from our particular set of cognitive limitations; but I don’t think they are a substitute for liberating your mind from the Black Iron Prison that is Western scientist-nihilist-capitalist-materialism and the inculcation of obedient-little-worker values. They are a useful tool but not sufficient unto themselves.

Damn. I meant for this to be a short post. I guess I had more to confess than I realized.

 

*I am trying to research the Native lore of this region, but there doesn’t seem to be very much, at least not that is accessible to white folk. It seems the colonists did an extra thorough job of wiping out the people here.

Who are the sycamores?

 

big sycamore
Too bad about the terrible picture quality; my cell phone camera leaves much to be desired. Still a beautiful tree though.

Might sound like a weird question, but I guess I have a thing about sycamores–that is, the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. (All the pictures in this post are of American sycamores.)

When I lived, for my sins, in southern California, the pitiful, stunted little sycamores there used to break my heart and make me apoplectic by turns. But I got a few bitter laughs from the irony too: In southern California, all parking lots are studded with trees. It’s hotter than hell in the summer (and increasingly other seasons too) and you need all the shade you can get. But what trees do they plant for shade? Platanus occidentalis, which never seems to get above 15 feet high and constantly drops its crispy brown leaves because it needs lots of water. In southern California, it’s just about the worst shade tree you can plant, after palms. And this is in spite of the fact that there is a variety of sycamore native to southern California, P. racemosa, which looks extremely similar, grows to majestic heights, and provides plenty of shade, without needing much water. I am so, so curious what goes on in the minds of the people who plant P. occidentalis in the desert. Do they pick them up on clearance? Are they all from the east coast, and did they so deeply internalize the idea that P. occidentalis = shade that they can’t see sense? Are they secretly looking for shriveled trees to drop their dead leaves on people’s cars? What?

As another wilting transplant, I really identified with those poor trees. I could actually feel their distress whenever I was near them.

Now here in southeast Ohio, sycamores are in their natural environment and they are magnificent. I think they really come into their own in winter when the trees are bare, towering above their neighbors (frequently alder, willow, and cottonwood), with their white bark and twisted branches stark against the surrounding sea of brown. It seems to me that these are the sort of trees that tend to accrue folktales and myths as their relationship with us humans unfolds. I believe Americans need to forge stronger, more reciprocal relationships with our floral and faunal neighbors and the spiritual powers inherent in the land, and there are people doing just that. (Thank you for your work.) But each of us is in the formidable, if exciting, position of having to do it all from scratch, without the benefit of ancient traditions at our back. And I’m just getting started.

As usual I take a two-pronged approach: (1) Observe nature. (2) Book (and internet) learnin’. Sadly, I’ve found only one site that speaks, briefly and vaguely, about American sycamore lore (oh, and one other that shamelessly plagiarizes from the first–tsk tsk). The task is complicated by the fact that “sycamore” is the common name for a number of often quite unrelated species all over the English-speaking world. This page is a perfect example of what can result, in that the author identifies sycamores in Scotland as Platanus, referencing their sacred role in acient Egypt–where “sycamores” are actually Ficus sycamorus–and then describes the seed pods of her local trees as helicopters, which means she is actually describing Acer pseudoplatanus. (Only maples have helicopter seeds; Platanus seeds are contained in prickly spheres, and Ficus sycamorus makes round, fig-like fruit.) Superficially, it’s an understandable conflation; but at a deeper level I think this speaks to a certain polyvalence in sycamores, less confusion and more semiotic shift. All the various trees, whether from the fig family or the maple, Genus Acer or Genus Platanus, Californian or Ohioan, would seem to share in some kind of elusive sycamoreness.

sycamore leaves and fruits

 

 

So what might that sycamoreness be? Or should I say, who are the sycamores?

I look first to natural history. All these different sycamores provide abundant shade with their wide-spreading crowns. One thing I learned in southern California is that not all trees are equal when it comes to shade production. For good shade you need a tall tree with a dense canopy and big leaves.

The sycamores all indicate the presence of water. Even in the eastern US where rainfall is generally plentiful, left to its own devices P. occidentalis primarily grows along rivers and streams. It has drinkable sap that can even, with much effort, be rendered into syrup. In dry places like southern California and Egypt, sycamores only grow where there is a stream or an unusually high water table. Shade and water are welcome on a hot day, of course, but the presence of water also means the presence of food, if not from the sycamore itself then from nearby trees, plants, or animals. And when it comes to plants, water is a necessary (though not sufficient) component of fertility.

In dry landscapes, sycamores’ need for water means that sometimes they grow alone, yet being long-lived they can reach massive size, which makes them truly striking–and that brings me to the third characteristic I’ve observed. Sycamores, whether of the desert or the woods, are nothing if not dramatic within their landscapes.

 

American sycamore

Looking to cultural history next, it seems that ancient Egypt’s sycamore was associated with the goddesses Isis, Hathor, and Nuit. Royal coffins were (at least sometimes) built from sycamore wood, and the wood used in tombs, various parts used for medicine, and in the Duat, sycamores provided nourishment for the ba of the deceased. The tree was referred to as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Love. During their flight to Egypt, Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were said to have taken shelter under a sycamore that supposedly still lives, near modern Cairo. An Egyptian poem states:

“The sycamore tree moves her mouth and speaks to me:
The drops of sap in her mouth are like the honey of bees.
She is a beauty, her leaves lovely, flourishing
And verdant, laden with fruit, both ripe and green.”

The creation story of the Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) of Kenya states that the creator, Ngai, directed the first man down from the summit of Mt. Kenya to a grove of sycamores at its base, where he met the first woman. These original humans were directed to make contact with the creator by sacrificing goats under the sycamores, and white body paint was made from sycamore ashes mixed with fat. Indeed, the name Gikuyu means “a huge fig [sycamore] tree.” So the Gikuyu are, in effect, the People of the Sycamore.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates was said to have taught beneath a sycamore, while the philosophers of the Athenian Academy gathered in a sacred grove of sycamores. (It’s nice to teach in the shade if you’re going to be outdoors.) Though Pliny claims the tree was introduced to Greece purely for its shade, he goes on to list some 25 medicinal applications.

In northern India, sycamores were planted in association with temples to Bhavani, a demon-slaying goddess embodying the qualities of both ferocity and mercy.

Sycamores receive some mention in the Bible, but only in passing, quotidian references. Sometimes sycamores are contrasted with cedars, with the implication being that sycamores were ordinary orchard trees while the cedars were more prestigious.

I have been unable to find any information on Native American culture history of sycamores, except the claim (cited above) that they were called “ghosts of the forest” by some group, somewhere. University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Native ethnobotany catalogue gives a number of medicinal uses, especially among the Delaware (search for Platanus as I can’t link directly to the search results). Though I don’t know the reason it was deemed so important, Tongva leaders reportedly traveled great distances to meet under a large sycamore where Los Angeles now stands.

When and how, I wonder, did the Greek name sycomorus (literally “fig-mulberry”) come to be applied to the plane (Platanus) and the very similar looking but only distantly related great maple (Acer pseudoplatanus). The Greeks did not conflate the species, for which they had different names. Possibly the name sycamore was applied to Platanus because the broad leaves and round “fruits” (technically they are indeed fruits, but not of the edible-for-humans kind) were thought to resemble those of F. sycomorus, but I’m not convinced. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t one of those historical-linguistic “accidents” that maybe aren’t really accidents. In a weird little synchronicity, the page I just cited also contains this:

“Greeks also call the [Platanus] tree Daphne, a strange little word. Depending upon the accent in Greek it can be the tree and an area of Athens [Ohio] that once had an insane asylum, and where we get the word ‘daffy’ in English.”

That asylum, popularly known as The Ridges, still exists, it’s just not used for the insane anymore–though by all accounts, many of them are still hanging around. My family used to live pretty much across the street from it. But daphne in Greek means laurel, and neither that nor The Ridges is where we get the word “daffy” from. It’s peculiar that the author of that page, who lives in Florida and is not, as far as I know, from Athens, would think to mention it in a post about sycamores. Another non-accident?

sycamore at Butts Run

From my own direct experience of them, the first word that comes when I call sycamores to mind is grace. Not only in the sense of physical beauty but also graciousness and generosity. I frequently find myself returning to the words power and majesty, and sometimes haunting (especially in winter). Within this landscape, they remind me a little of Japanese hinoki cypresses within theirs. Hinoki couldn’t look more different, but they are often considered shinboku (divine trees). The large sycamore that grows by the run (stream) back of the house is one of the beings around here that seems to resonate with extra magic. I just noticed last night when looking at a map that the sycamore, a little cluster of honey locusts on the side of the hill, and a group of trees in front of the house whose species I have not yet been able to identify are all magical spots and form a nearly-straight WSW-ENE line across the property. If I drew a line from the sycamore to the unknown trees, which I swear are full of gnomes or trolls or something, it would pass directly through this house (the honey locusts are a little out of line to the north). If you extended the line it would connect the ridge to the west of us with the river to the east. I don’t know what to make of that yet, but I’m filing it away for future reference.

The sweetest holiday

beehives 14th century

Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?

In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.

Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.

St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.

A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.

bees on clover

Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.

This year I will be:

  • Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
  • Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
  • I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
  • I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.

What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:

  • Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
  • Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Meditate on bees.
  • Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
  • Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
  • Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
  • Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
  • Give your ancestors some honey.
  • Do some food magic with honey.
  • Launch a “swarm” of sigils.

Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.

Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).

Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.

Bees Attend Keeper's Funeral

For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems.  In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:

“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”

I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.

The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.

 

*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.

**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.

Spirits of place and becoming indigenous

Can members of a diasporic community become indigenous to their adopted land? What if they are the descendants/inheritors of brutal colonization? Is indigeneity something to aspire to (is it even a word?), and if so, how does one get there?

 

American_Medicinal_Plants-Pawpaw
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a native plant I don’t know yet.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just weird (I mean, weirder than the average weirdo who is into the kinds of metaphysical and magical stuff I’m into). Maybe it’s just something about my personal neurology. Maybe it’s because I’m still a magical newbie. But for whatever reason, all my experiences of big powers–I hesitate, more and more, to use the term “god/dess”–have been very localized. I’ve tried to take them with me when I moved, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Either I have limited experience with non-place-specific beings, or I am only able to really connect in certain places.

A while back I drew on Shinto as a model for a polytheism full of spirits-of-place. And just recently I became aware that there is a growing internet presence of Westerners who consider themselves Shinto or Shinto-Pagan hybrid believers/practitioners, for example here and here. It makes me happy to see that I’m not alone. I shouldn’t feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, but with the constant kerfuffle about cultural appropriation I feel like I do: Japanophilia among Westerners is not a new thing, and I don’t know what influence that might be having in the adoption of Shinto outside Japan. When I was doing archaeological research on/in Japan, other Americans would often accuse me of being a Japanophile (and yes, it was definitely an accusation). Sometimes that would then be followed by bafflingly irrelevant comments on how “weird” the Japanese are or bad things they did during the early- to mid-20th century colonization of Korea, “Rape of Nanking,” etc., not to mention assumptions that I am into manga, anime, and cosplay (which as it happens could not be further from the truth, though I have been known to enjoy certain Japanese variety shows). In other words, in the West you can find equal parts Japanophilia and Japanophobia.

I think about this a lot because Shinto is not like the “world” religions we tend to be most familiar with in the West–it’s not about what you believe, there’s no conversion necessary, and because it’s so intimately bound up with Japanese geography and ethnicity there has never been much effort to export it. Here in the US we do have Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington (State), a branch of a parent shrine in Japan, and St. Paul, Minnesota has Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora, which curiously enshrines (alongside conventional Shinto kami) Baba Yaga. The priests? proprietors? maintainers? of Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora identify it as an expression of Minzoku NEO-Shinto, which is defined thus:

“What is minzoku NEO-shintô? The technical answer is, ‘A universalist approach to existential Japanese folk religion practices.’ But what does that mean? To break it down, universalist means it’s open to anyone who’s sincerely interested, it’s not just for people of Japanese ancestory. Existential means it’s based on personal experience, not on scripture or dogma. Folk religion means it’s religion as practiced by the commons – the everyday people – and on a local basis; it’s not religion as taught in the seminaries, universities, or on a national or international basis.”

I am so down with that.

Shinto is a religion in the old sense of the word, but not as commonly understood in the West today–it’s not a “faith.” It is, more than anything else, a practice and a worldview. In Shinto terms, the “congregation” of a shrine is made up of ujiko–people born and living in the surrounding precinct, and usually descended through generations there; and sûkeisha–non-local people who for their own reasons feel committed to that shrine. A non-Japanese can become a sûkeisha, but never ujiko. I think for most Westerners, it’s more likely they would feel dedicated to a kami (spirit/god) than to a particular shrine, as most of us have had close to 2000 years enculturation within monotheistic, universalizing religions. Anyway, you don’t have too many road-to-Damascus-style conversions to Shinto, or rather if you do, it doesn’t matter much because in Shinto your personal beliefs are pretty much irrelevant as long as they’re not getting in the way of practice. Like all of Japanese culture, Shinto practice is a complex web of mutual obligations, consideration, and gift-giving. It’s amenable to evolution and to hybridization, as evidenced through its history. I sort of fell into Shinto while I was in Japan because I was already an animist philosophically, and my friends took me to shrines and showed me how to participate.

But I didn’t try to bring it back to America with me, though I thought about it and heartily wished we had something similar here. (By “we” I mean diasporic Americans and “mainstream” American culture.*) I have weird feelings about trying to translate Shinto to another continent, because while it’s eminently doable, is it right? Most of the Shinto kami are not universal–they are landform-specific. An American Shinto could honor the few universal kami, with certain modifications**, but it would also need to make room for many new kami, those that are specific to locales on this continent. Then you have to ask, do you need Shinto, or do you really need something entirely new? At some point you may end up where I am at, which is a completely individual animism with forms inspired by Shinto practice.

In the comments on John Michael Greer’s most recent post on his occult/magical blog, someone said something along the lines that they wished more American herbalists and magical types would learn to use their local North American plants rather than European ones. I agree on more than one level: First, every ecosystem has plants with purifying, cleansing, uplifting properties–usually more than one. Not only does using a non-local plant place a burden on that plant and its original community, it also arguably doesn’t work as well as a plant that belongs to the local ecosystem. There are probably exceptions to this but I think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Second, think of the hidden costs that are incurred in the transportation of the non-local plant to you. Not exactly eco-friendly. Third, I think everyone should be forming relationships with their local plants anyway (and not merely for their own benefit, ahem).

Consider: Have you ever thought about why white sage (Salvia apiana) is the favored herb for smudging nowadays? Because it grows around Hollywood. Seriously, that’s it: It has a very small natural distribution in the coastal sage scrub zone of Southern California. At some point white folk found out that Native Americans used it for purification, then Hollywood, the publicity capital of the world, got hold of the idea and bam, an industry was born. Now you have people in Europe thinking they need white sage to cleanse their haunted castles. Do you really want Hollywood to be the source of your sacred spiritual texts and traditions?

There were people on this continent before our diasporic ancestors arrived, who had already built up such relationships. Leaving aside the question of appropriation (which is becoming a major red herring anyway), it comes down to this: You can’t just use Native American ethnobotany as a cheat sheet to get around having to form those relationships your own damn self. They won’t tell you everything anyway, probably. Be respectful of existing traditions, of course, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut in this Work.

The same thing goes for the spirits and bigger powers here. The thing is, this is hard Work. We can’t just rely on tradition to tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how, because those traditions were built in and for other ecosystems. That means we also can’t rely on tradition for authority, justification, or legitimization. We’re on our own here. Had history gone a different way, had our ancestors made different choices, been subject to different forces, had there been no genocide, forced assimilation, and ecological destruction, we might have been able to harmoniously integrate our ways with the indigenous ones. We might have had partners in this Work. And I should note that some diasporic Americans did choose a more harmonious route, notably African Americans. But the European American ancestors opted to follow other traditions instead, so this is where we find ourselves. No matter what your race or ethnicity or cultural identity, you’re caught in this situation because it was/is the European Americans who hold the hegemony.

I started thinking about this while reading Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s (highly recommended) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She suggests that diasporic Americans won’t really have a sense of commitment and caretaking toward this land, its flora and fauna, until they/we become indigenous. Perhaps we haven’t earned that right yet. But if/when we do, how will we become indigenous? What would it take for us to rewrite our creation narratives?

In his response to my comment on his post taking up this issue, Greer wrote:

“I suspect that in the long run, the thing that’s going to make Americans of European ancestry turn to the native resources of this continent is when they have no other choice — when that’s the only source of medicine and magic they’ve got. Certainly African-American conjure magic embraced quite a bit of North American herbal lore through exactly that process — and I’ve long suspected that the white population of this continent will only become, in a deep sense, native here, once they have gone through experiences of the kind they inflicted on the First Nations and the enslaved nations of Africa.

(My emphasis.) That’s a sobering thought.

As regards Shinto as a model for functional polytheistic animism(s) outside Japan, I would suggest that rather than try to import it wholecloth, we might be inspired by it to foster the organic growth of something indigenous, working with the local spirits and powers–or kami if you will–heaven knows we could use a better vocabulary for these experiences–of our bioregions. I suspect that, like so many paths that seem simple, it will make up for its lack of superficial complexity with sheer cussedness. It’s also a lonely path. I’m a solitary person by nature, so I rarely get lonely, but the one thing that is guaranteed to have my crying in my beer is the feeling that I am alone in this and maybe I’m doing it wrong. (Oh Gods, am I doing it all wrong?) It makes me feel like even more of a magical impostor newbie than I am. I sometimes have fantasies about immigrating to one of the countries my ancestors came from and finally just getting to relax into some pre-fab pantheon. But then I’m reminded:

“At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.”

(My emphasis.) When I was a kid my family used to laugh at me for being a stubborn little idiot, proudly insisting on doing something the wrong way just because I would be damned if I’d let anyone tell me how to do it. I remember my aunt saying, “You always have to do everything the hard way. You always have to reinvent the wheel.” So chances are, no matter where I found myself, I’d be banging the drum for us all to start from scratch. I guess I belong where I am–when I am, how I am–doing it the hard way.

*I would hate to think this little ol’ blog’s readership was limited to white Americans. I’m speaking from my own experience, and I happen to be a white American. I assume some of my readers are too. If at any point it seems like I am privileging that viewpoint, please say so. That is to say, I welcome perspectives coming from other perspectives.

**For example, Inari, the god of rice plants, becomes a god of the more abstract principles “food” and “abundance,” because Americans aren’t culturally co-evolved with rice the way the Japanese are.