Animal signs

While keeping up my series of posts on divination at the time of the new moon, I’m going to mix things up today and write a little bit about a kind of divination that is not nearly as systematic as Tarot or runes or other methods. It’s less systematic, and in some ways more open to chance and to individual interpretation, because it relies on nature for its signs. Specifically, I’m going to share a few experiences I’ve had with observing the appearances and behavior of animals that have carried spiritual meaning for me. If you’ve had similar experiences, I’d like to hear about them, too!

There are formalized systems of animal divination, or at least collections of the suggested interpretations of particular animals and their appearances or behaviors, but I haven’t studied any of these. So far, my work with animal signs has been primarily an extension of connection with the landbase and finding the divine in the immanent all around us.

The most powerful signs for me have been the animal form of a deity making an appearance, such as when I encounter ravens and crows and sense the Morrigan at work. These signs are often a gentle reminder of her presence – sort of like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m here with you.” On the other hand, they can also be a reminder to consult with a deity or power that I haven’t interacted with in a while – sort of the equivalent of that “Hey, we haven’t talked in a while. How are you doing?”

This kind of interpretation is an area that relies heavily on intuition and one’s existing relationships with spirits and powers. It can also be significantly improved by a working awareness of one’s landbase and its other inhabitants. Anything out of place or unusual is more likely to be able to carry divinatory meaning. For example, seeing eagles at the zoo is probably not a sign from Zeus or Athena; seeing eagles in the wild is more likely to be.

In addition to deity forms, I also draw on the stories or qualities associated with specific animals to interpret signs. I once went to Teddy Roosevelt Island and saw turtles in two widely separated places. That day remains the only time I’ve seen turtles there. That was a strong message for me to endure and be patient but persistent, and it bore out.

Now, not every appearance is going to have divinatory meaning. Even behaviors that seem unusual can be perfectly natural, just unfamiliar to you. It’s always important, with this as with other forms of divination, to reflect on how and why you’re interpreting the message the way you are, and to think critically about whether the message is significant at all. On the other hand, a natural cause doesn’t rule out a symbolic meaning; one time that I observed a very active stag during the rutting season, I knew he was out and about because of the rut, but his appearance was also a meaningful message to me to remember the masculine divine and the way the urge for life continues even near Samhain.

Finally, don’t restrict yourself to the charismatic megafauna (the big interesting animals) only. Don’t be bummed out if your power animal or the animal forms of your deities don’t live in your local environment. Try paying attention to what is present in the world around you. Does that cheeky cardinal in your yard show up more often at times when you need to let your own colors shine?

If you have worked with this at all, share some wisdom: How do you work with signs and meanings from the animal world? How do you develop this kind of awareness?

Earth Day – Romancing the Landbase

In honor of Earth Day, Tuesday April 22nd, consider romancing your landbase.

Romancing? Well, yes. Deepen your relationship, or if you like, begin to develop your relationship with your landbase. If you would rather see yourself as a friend of your landbase, you can. Friendship is a wonderful, beautiful kind of relationship. But for me, the more I work with my landbase, the more I fall in love.

It’s easy to see Earth Day as an intellectual observance – the environment is important, so we should plant a tree or use less electricity or protest a pipeline. Yes, we should absolutely do all those things, to the best of our abilities. Tomorrow, I think, is a time to acknowledge those things but also to experience the ways I am drawn to live in relationship with my landbase which is not solely intellectual; this relationship is emotional and spiritual as well.

Developing a relationship with one’s landbase is a powerful part of recognizing and working with spirit as it exists in the physical world, and thus a fundamental part of my work as a Witch. “Landbase” is a word I use to describe the convocation of all the beings who participate in my physical environment, especially my local environment. It could be called my local ecology, my watershed, my bioregion, except that I am also including and invoking the spirits of place, the spirits of the land and water, plants and animals. All of these together, the physical and immanent, make up my landbase.

These are the ones I relate to. As in other relationships, I set aside special times to honor and enjoy that relationship; tomorrow is one of those times, and the anniversary of me moving to this place is another. Use the idea of relationship to shape what you do tomorrow. If you’re working on developing a relationship with your landbase, think of how you would develop a relationship with someone you’re just getting to know: enjoy a beverage, spend some time, talk with them. If you’re especially kind, you provide the beverage. So take some water out to your landbase, pour it out with intention, and spend time introducing yourself and listening to your land.

Making offerings is one of the simplest and most profound parts of relationship. It says: “I acknowledge you. You exist, and I value you.” If you are just beginning, this basic opening is a gentle and effective introduction that paves the way for deeper work. Whether it is with a deity or any other kind of spirit, making an offering is always a wise place to begin.

If you already have a deeper relationship with your landbase, then just as with an existing relationship, you might have some idea what the other party (and oh, isn’t the landbase a party at this time of year!) would enjoy as a gift. If you do, great; if you don’t, then it is still a truism that the value of a gift in a relationship has more to do with the attention and intention imbued in the gift and its giving than any physical value. We cannot put a price on quality time that deepens relationship with our human friends and lovers; in the same way, what the landbase desires above all is you.

Ourselves are a gift we always have available. The gift of our attention and awareness is one we can give on a regular basis, wherever we are, just as people who live in the same space acknowledge each other. A simple good morning to my partner is a tiny gift of myself and a vital piece of acknowledging, maintaining, and even deepening our relationship over time.

This ability to maintain relationship is one good reason to work with one’s landbase close to home. It is not as effective to find a gorgeous national park within your bioregion and visit it once a year to acknowledge the grandeur of “pristine” nature as it is to greet the tree outside your window in all seasons. It is incredibly difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship; thankfully, “nature,” in the landbase, is all around us (and within us), so that kind of effort is not necessary. Don’t spend time introducing yourself to a place you’ll only visit once a year; say hello to the plants you pass every day.

In this spirit, romance your landbase tomorrow. Give water, or corn meal, or whatever you are called to give, but above all, give yourself. If you can plant a tree, wonderful; if you can’t, but you can find time and energy to work on the relationship, you may find that the land answers you back, and that when it does, you are filled with more than you gave, as happens in the best relationships. When the land fills you, you will have more to give in turn: to give to yourself, to give to your loves, and to give to the land, especially in caring for the environment on all the days of the year.

Dupont Henge today

The Express had a little article on Friday saying that today at 12:30 the sun will shine directly down the tunnel of Dupont Circle’s south entrance. Anybody want to go see?

I should have kept a copy of the article, because now I can’t find it online. From what I recall, an attentive Metro rider noticed this phenomenon one day and then calculated when it would happen again – once on either side of the winter solstice, it turns out. He went to the occurrence in November to confirm his calculations, and it worked.

The article quoted him as saying a couple of interesting things about how observing natural phenomena like this has been linked with seasonal celebrations. For me, it was neat to see people discussing that kind of awareness of how we shape our relationship with the natural world in a non-Pagan context.

No unsacred place, or, I do not want to be the Poop Fairy

How would we behave differently if we believed that every place was sacred – if not to us, then to someone?

I have a special relationship with Theodore Roosevelt Island. It’s my “home” park, here in the urban hinterland. It’s sad that to get to a place where plants and wildlife are left relatively to their own devices and there are more than a handful of trees, I have to get in the car, but it’s the nature of my situation. TRI is deeply important to me as a place where I can go to breathe a little easier, nourish my soul with the rhythms of the Wheel of the Year playing out more exuberantly, and get in touch with the spirits of my landbase and watershed.

There’s nothing quite like it, walking around the trails, deeper into the woods to the very shore of the river where the rocks thrust up through the thin skin of the land to create a natural henge, feeling myself connect to the place and begin to ground and center in a much stronger way…only to be met with a cheerfully purple little plastic bag of dog poop.

On my last two visits to the island, over the space of just a few days, I have picked up no fewer than twelve bags of dog poop.

I used to think these were just accidents, that maybe an owner busy jogging with an active pet simply didn’t notice when the baggie slipped from her grip. But no: many of these are deliberately placed. Several were under the sign that greets visitors when they come onto the island. One had cute little pawprints printed on the bag in case I was confused about the source of the spoor. Others had been left by the end of the railings on the footbridge, which leads back to the parking lot and trash bins.

Two more were neatly bagged, tied, and placed prominently atop a fallen log directly beside the path, and there was the one in the midst of my little out-of-the-way spot. There’s no way these are accidents.

Think about that: on at least a dozen occasions, a dog owner deliberately decided that “picking up after their pet” meant merely containing the poop in a plastic bag and then leaving that bag there for someone else to clean up. They clearly thought ahead enough to bring bags, but not enough to plan to take those bags to a trash bin.

Do they think there’s a magical Poop Fairy who cleans up after them? Apparently so, and I’m getting damn tired of filling the role.

I realize that for most people, especially dog owners, TRI isn’t a sacred space. It’s just a convenient place for a good run and a chance to let their dogs experience something other than concrete and manicured grass. I get that, I really do. But even if that’s all it is, wouldn’t simple decency indicate that others ought to be able to enjoy it without having to literally clean up your shit? Apparently not.

This is something between a rant and a plea. It’s also a lesson I’m trying to take to heart. I believe, as the poet wrote, that there are no unsacred places. I know, though, that some places are more sacred than others to me. This is reminding me that although I may not see a certain place as sacred to me, it might be – probably is! – a sacred space to someone else. That’s a humbling idea, and one worth learning, so I’m trying to be grateful. But it’s hard, because I don’t want to be the Poop Fairy.

Now how do I go about communicating that to the dog owners who visit TRI?

Landbase begins at home

I’ve been quiet here the last few days because I’ve been busy with a number of things. One of those has been getting the carpet cleaned.

I was reading Hecate’s latest wonderful piece on landbase, and I was honored that she quoted me. But what really struck me was how as an urban Witch I’ve struggled with blaming myself for not being in “nature” enough. Never mind that I know perfectly well that “nature” (as in, places that seem like they’re not influenced by humans) is a constructed idea, and that nearly all spaces are heavily influenced by humans these days, certainly including all the spaces I have easy access to.

Now I have direct experience of how being in a setting that has more trees than buildings is different, and I fully agree that it’s extremely beneficial in lots of ways, especially spiritually for followers of earth-centered religions. But it’s not the only way of connecting with the earth. After all, that earth is also the stones of my city, even the concrete of the uglier buildings.

So part of my work with my landbase is to look for living things wherever I am. As I was thinking about this and about how good it felt to reorganize, clean, and restore my own little corner (high above ground level) of my landbase, I looked out at the traffic below me and simply laughed aloud. I’m surrounded by a living thing: the city herself.

Cities can be seen as superorganisms, the way that in biology sometimes it’s more reasonable to talk about an entire ant colony as a more-or-less unified organism that lives in many bodies. (Thank you, E O Wilson.) I’m not just looking for living things, I’m a small part of a great living thing.

For example, when I do traffic magic, I often visualize traffic as the breath or circulation of the city. Think about it: in the morning the city “breathes in” a great host of people who live outside her, and in the afternoon she exhales them back to where they came from. And traffic flows like water, too, and like blood it circulates to carry in the tremendous amounts of resources needed in a densely urban area, and to remove the resulting waste. That (annoying) delivery truck is like a red blood cell, but instead of bringing your little cell oxygen, it brings other things you need: food, mail, books, beer…the necessities of life.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, and that’s okay. But it’s poetically true enough for me to begin working with my city in a different way, especially when I need to focus on the life of my landbase and can’t get outside to be among the trees. Hecate wrote movingly about the importance of doing the work, building the relationships that are the necessary foundation (Granny Weatherwax might say “the soul and center”) of being a Witch as I understand it, and I see this as another way to help me do that work in the home where I live now.

I’m going to respect the ways I connect to the superorganism of the city as being a valid and true part of my practice and my work with my landbase. Maybe cleaning my home was a way for the city to “detox” some crap out of the one little corner I spend most of my time in. This densely urban place is where I live and work and do my magic. It too is suffused with life, and connecting with that is the work of a Witch.

Holy places

I visited the National Cathedral last week, and I was struck by how odd it seemed to me as a holy place.

Don’t get me wrong; the cathedral is beautiful and well worth seeing and can be a pleasant place to visit. I have been in churches that simply felt malevolent, or at least hostile, whether through their severity, triumphalism, exclusionary nature, or otherwise. None of that was present here. But nonetheless, it felt slightly wrong somehow.

This was an unusual reaction for me, one I didn’t expect. In an earlier part of my life, I had regular occasion to attend a beautiful neo-Gothic church of slightly smaller but comparable scale, and I very much enjoyed it. I have also enjoyed visiting churches and cathedrals with long histories overseas.

Perhaps that’s part of what seemed odd here; the cathedral is in some ways still under construction, most noticeably in terms of repairs necessitated by the earthquake last year. This cathedral uses very old forms but is in fact extremely young, not having been hallowed by the repeated use of decades. But the church that I loved so well earlier was of comparable youth; of course it made a difference that when I attended there I was Christian, and so felt uplifted and included by its awe-inspiring form.

The Cathedral was awe-inspiring, but it was also a huge statement of power, power in its most potent contemporary manifestation: money, or economic power. Now that I’m a member of a minority religion often confronted with the hegemony of Christianity and sometimes discriminated against as a result of that hegemony, that power no longer felt like a natural assumption that could be ignored. Yes, it is a form of these people’s devotion to their god, but it is also an extremely tangible symbol of that fact that so many people have been willing to put so many resources towards this one project over a sustained period of nearly a century. And work on the cathedral is still underway.

It’s a reasonable assumption that the magnitude of that undertaking means that the church could motivate those people to put their resources to work in other ways as well. Economic resources go hand-in-hand with social and political capital. Since this is the relatively liberal Episcopalian church we’re talking about, I don’t find that quite as terrifying as I would if it were a Christian Dominionist organization, but it’s still somewhat nervewracking. The Anglican Communion is still split over marriage equality, for example; I can’t imagine how a queer person who wanted to get married would feel seeing the inside of that building, but I don’t imagine it would be entirely positive.

As a Pagan, though, it also struck me how isolated this worship space was. A Gothic cathedral creates a miniature world all its own within its walls. Even the light of day or night is harnessed through stained glass; the images tell stories in pictoral form, often beautifully, but still separating the viewer from that light. I ended up wondering whether someone who went there regularly would be able to trace changes in the sun’s path over the course of a year. I know in the previous church I attended, I could see some differences based on season, just barely, but wouldn’t have been able to put them together into a regular pattern.

(Two asides: one of the lovely windows was all about Moses and depicted Moses wearing “Egyptian” garb. One person in the tour group commented on that as a surprising choice. The tour guide couldn’t come up with a detailed explanation but said something about how Moses was “basically Egyptian.” He was raised as an Egyptian prince. I was left, once again, wondering how many Christians actually read that book they talk about so much.

On the other hand, the Space Window with a piece of moon rock from the Apollo XI mission is amazing, especially when I think about finding the divine in all of nature, see below.)

But even more than the light, what struck me as odd about the cathedral was how unchanging it is. You can’t tell what season it is, or what the weather has been like lately, or what the near future is going to be like. There are no beings there besides human beings.

In fact, it reminded me a bit of some Christian conceptions of heaven. It’s just people, relating to their god, in an eternally unchanging way.

To me, that’s not about life. That’s something other than life; it might be the highest conception of joy for some, but it verges dangerously close to concentrating so much on the other world that the people involved might not be any use in this world. Now, the Anglicans do a lot of good in the world, and the Cathedral hosts a lot of programs, some of which I’ve enjoyed, so I’m not accusing them of that. But I think it might be why the architecture seemed so weird to me, especially for a holy place.

My understanding of Wicca is about connection. If you look at the roots of the word religion, one explanation is re-legio, reforming the bonds (like ligaments) between….what? Well, between everything: me, the trees, the earth and the Earth, other people, other beings, other animals…everything.

A dear friend said, quite accurately, that nature is my cathedral. It’s where I experience that reconnecting with everything that is. It’s the most awe-inspiring thing I can think of to see and feel and know, deep down, that I am part of this overarching web of being, ever changing and ever living, always different and always connected. Why would I want to shut myself away from that behind stone walls so thick I can’t tell what season it is and glass so colored I can’t see the sun and moon light?

 

Landbases and moving over time

I wanted to let that last post stand on its own, but also provide some background.

I’ve been spending some time, both earlier this winter/spring and just in the last few days, in the part of the country where I did most of my growing up. (We moved around a lot; this is the longest I lived in one place for the first 2-3 decades of my life.) It’s not “home” for me anymore, but I’ve realized that I do, actually, have a deep relationship to the landbase here.

Living in the area I do now and knowing that I’ll probably move again in the next few years can make it feel like I’m not allowed or not supposed to “put down roots” in the local landbase. This visit has made me realize that’s nonsense in a couple of different ways.

Roots are funny things – they grow when you’re not looking. I didn’t realize how much I had internalized of this area, so much that when I go on trance journeys, one of my favorite places to visit is a forest that looks like my idealization of the area across the street. And roots will sometimes hibernate – I can renew my relationship with this landbase easily.

In particular, I went outside to do devotions this morning, and I realized that a lot of my relationship with and awareness of this landbase was formed in those early morning hours of waiting for the school bus because that was one of the few times that I was outside, regularly, and being quiet and even, occasionally, observant. I didn’t know what I was doing, but in some ways, those times were when I first learned to meditate.

This gives me hope that the work I do with my current landbase will bear similar fruit: I will learn a bit more, grow a bit more, and will build a relationship that will never really leave me, even if I leave the land and mostly visit it internally. And it will help me learn how to build a relationship with whatever landbase I am in in the future.

I have to thank Hecate for putting into words the realization that pollen is the trees’ way of doing the Great Rite. (This can lead to some interesting and deeply bawdy reflections on pine cones that I will leave as an exercise for the reader.) Tis the season!

Waiting for the bus: A hymn to the landbase of my youth

This time of year, the pine trees do the Great Rite
so exuberantly that the streets are paved with gold
and my nose runs until I feel utterly zero desire
for anything besides a tissue, and I remember…

When I learned that DST means
I never have to wait for the bus
in complete darkness
and that regardless of the hour
dusk means driving carefully
when the Horned One is in his season.

This is the place where I
grudgingly
picked up pine cones and
gleefully
wore azaleas and dogwood in my hair
on Easter,

Where I learned how pine trees age
and new ones volunteer,
how pine cones open and close
with heat and rain
and why long-leaf pines
are dangerous in ice.

But it is mornings I remember most of all
waiting for the bus
outside with Talking Self so briefly still
in my first meditations.