Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Humanities: problematic. Process philosophy & systems ecology: Awesome.

The following is an example of the sort of stuff I write for school. Thus it's marching to a bit of a different drum than the mad-science-poetics elsewhere on the blog - but there's a lot of thematic overlap, so I thought I'd share.

This is a formatted-for-blog excerpt from an essay in response to the question "can evolution explain religion?" I figured some of y'all fractal-loving types would dig it, and maybe throw some dirt at me... or something. Obviously the essay question is necessarily problematic... it wouldn't be academia if it weren't! lol. I began by stating the need to define "evolution" and "religion" for the purposes of answering the question. Religion is pretty much taken to mean religious behavior - and in particular group behavior. Next, it is clear to me that 'evolution' as a concept should not be treated as an irreducible unit with static semantic value. Evolution is an popular abstraction shaped in part by consensus in the evolutionary sciences, and also by bulldada (the media). Mmm.. mission-oriented science mixed with propaganda...delish!

Dictionary: [evolution is] the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.

So. It's a process. That we know. Eeeeeexcellent!

It is the nature and nuances of this process which continues to be parsed and redefined by scientific research. We must keep in mind that science is not only a body of knowledge (and a relatively open-source one at that), but a method. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine, wrote "Science is the structuring of knowledge...most importantly, science is the method whereby knowledge is structured so that it can be structured further." In the evolutionary sciences, we seek to identify algorithms, reconcile patterns, find the units and currencies that code for form and function - essentially, to articulate a biological cybernetics. Since Darwin set the bar over a century ago, there has been an investigation into what units and forces are driving the evolutionary process. The way we conceptualize this process is often honed by how science articulates causation, and how much is attributed to certain causes. The "scientific story" of genes and heredity has taken the floor as a conceptual engine for evolution, and perhaps invited a degree of focus on the individual, isolated organism that has occluded attention to group and system-level selection. More recently, epigenetics has gained attention as a field exploring ontogenic phenotypic differentiation that is not necessarily coded by DNA as such. So evolution is a process, and our articulation of that process is dynamic and ongoing. Then, bearing in mind that we shouldn't consider 'evolution' to be a static, irreducible concept, what we must ask here is can evolutionary science explain religious behavior?

Implicit in this question there is the question of whether evolutionary science can currently explain religious behavior, and then there is the question of whether science can ever explain religious behavior. Ummm...let us turn to the former, because I'm a simple creature. Can evolution explain any behavior? Well, yes, it can certainly point us to the reasons for transmission of individual behaviors, like courtship rituals, for example, or the development of spoken language. And it can most certainly explain the emergence of physiological structures that enable certain behaviors. However, I think the explanatory scope of evolutionary science is limited partially because it can really only sufficiently explain process. Perhaps then evolutionary science can help refocus questions in many academic fields by illuminating certain edges of knowledge, perhaps at least reserving an autonomy (= temporary autonomous zone) for uncertainty in complex systems. Such a project need not be restrictive to the academic community. Indeed, development and quality of knowledge should be emphasized over quantitative accumulation. Concepts that we are learning from studying evolution and ecology like emergence, uncertainty, and complexity in nature could have transdisciplinary application, and also help to check a tendency toward reductionist analysis. Let us briefly survey some of these concepts as they are relevant to evolutionary ecology. Like the insights granted by refocusing the Darwinian lens from the individual to the group and discovering how group-level activity may occur, applying evolutionary concepts on the systems-levels promises to stretch the mind even further to conceptualize how systems made up of multiple plants and animals achieve "functionality". By functionality I mean generally providing conditions suitable for the perpetuation of more life. So uncertainty, for example, is a statistical concept used to illustrate that in a given process or situation, possible outcomes are known, but not the probabilities of those outcomes. Thus we may have an idea of potential futures, but we have no basis for calculating the likelihood of them happening. Uncertainty can also refer to situations where we don't know anything about the possible outcomes or the probabilities. This concept, whether it is formally acknowledged or not, abounds in ecosystem analysis (and de facto economic analysis) because of the simple fact that our scientific knowledge of how ecosystems work is limited. A large reason for this is that we do not have the data to account for webs of cause and effect operative in ecosystems, and moreover we haven't fully grasped the extent and shape of those webs. I can't resist giving the example of the recent research on mycelium, which are potentially vast underground networks of fungal filaments, of which mushrooms are the fruiting bodies. It has been found that mycelium plays a huge role in forest ecology - as far as scientists can tell it is able to function as a communication system between trees - a veritable "nervous system". It is thought to have a role in synchronizing budding in the springtime among a stand of trees as well as even being able to allocate nutrients to nutrient-deficient trees. I won't digress any further, but I'll simply say that this sort of awareness about the 'cybernetics' of ecosystems completely challenges our ability to sufficiently study anything living in isolation. (I had to sort of "rein it in" since this is being read by hoomanities professorz. Please forgive me, punks. I got mycelium some play, and for that I am thankful.) Back to our discussion about uncertainty. Risk is a related measure referring to a situation where we know possible outcomes and can calculate the probabilities of attaining those outcomes - a classic example would be the case of a dice roll, where we know all the ways a die could land and can also calculate probability because the geometrical shape of the die gives equal opportunity to each possible outcome. Often people colloquially use the word "risk" when they really mean uncertainty. Next, the concepts of complexity and emergence are related. Complexity here can describe the state of complex systems, where a large number of elements interact in fairly simply ways, and these localized relationships aggregate to form larger-scale patterns. These elements could be plants, animals, or even molecules - or some combination thereof. They could have a higher degree of agency, in the case of bees in a hive, or simply be plants performing physiological functions that affect surrounding organisms - like releasing chemicals from their roots or respirating. I think complexity, particularly complex adaptive systems, like forests or ant colonies, are interesting in a study of evolution because they represent levels of organization that are enabled by the physiological characteristics of the flora and fauna that comprise them - and in particular the sorts of relationship that these characteristics permit. Low-level behavior and interaction is able to be optimized because of an organism's physical and in some cases cognitive architecture, which has been honed by the process of natural selection. Emergence refers to the phenomenon wherein such systems develop irreducible properties that are dependent on network interaction, or relational order. This is where reductionist approaches really start to fall apart, because emergent properties are brought about through relationship and interconnectivity, and cannot be predicted or explained based on examining an element or 'node' in the network. For example, a classmate of mine was talking about research in neuroscience and said "they (scientists) have opened up the brain countless times and have yet to find the mind". In a theory of emergence, the mind (intelligence, awareness, etc.) emerges from connections between neurons, and not from the neurons themselves. Neurons do not contain "intelligence". Thus if one was able to put someone's brain in suspended animation, or make all neurons stop firing, would consciousness happen? I dare say it wouldn't, and neither life, for that matter! I think the paradigm-shifting potential of complexity and emergence (particularly with respect to biological life) lays in the fact that we need to bring scientific attention to process, not just components and mechanics. We are here because of dynamism and complexity. If intelligence is an emergent property, and social networks (or groups, which are vessels for meme transmission, thus consensus) can produce unpredictable patterns and activities, are they not an instance of emergence from emergence? Most importantly, by studying these systems we can hope to peer in on the evolution of relationship, and gain a better, if humbled, understanding of its power in nature. In Breaking the Galilean Spell, Stuart Kauffman waxes rather poetic about the pedagogical (and it seems, implicitly spiritual) virtues of emergence. He writes that "[e]mergence says...while no laws of physics are violated, life in the biosphere, the evolution of the biosphere, the fullness of our human historicity, and our practical everyday worlds are also real, are not reducible to physics nor explicable from it..." and he emphasizes that "[s]cience cannot foretell the evolution of the biosphere, of human technologies, or of human culture of history."

I wonder, what is the necessary data for us to have for something to be "explained"? I'd venture to say that explanation is a culturally contextual thing, which in the Western scientific worldview is achieved by largely reductionist methods. As mentioned before, such methods consist in describing complex phenomena solely in terms of constituent lower-level phenomena. As we discover new methods of information transmission in biological and cultural systems, we must acknowledge that when we identify units, agents and forces of transmission (like genes) we risk engaging in reductionism by granting them more causative power than they actually have. It seems like in the history of science there are such cycles of 'over-attribution' immediately following new discoveries.
Furthermore, it seems that scholars from different fields have different ideas of what constitutes explanation when it comes to religion. Those steeped in economic theory have devised rational-choice theory as an explanatory tool, whereas cognitive scientists feel that the stacking of cognitive modules like theory of mind, agent detection and minimally counterintuitive representations can 'explain' religion. Then we have the sociobiologists, who explain how group organization occasions and transmits religious behavior. When Anne Clark (a UVM professor and unequivocally my mentor!) came as a guest-speaker to our seminar she emphasized the extent to which a given scholar of religion's intention will dictate to what extent they will be able to use knowledge and methods from evolutionary science to answer their research questions. It is necessary to consider what, in the vast body of scientific knowledge, is helpful to scholars of religion. Considering evolutionary time, which encompasses the progression of biological life on this planet, may not be particularly useful for, say, an historian of medieval religion. It is also useful for me to consider if when we say evolution we can or should include cultural evolution. Indeed, there is debate about to what extent cultural evolution (the transmission of ideas and technologies) is predicated on patterns and orders of biological evolution. It is evident that the rate of cultural or "memetic" transmission is a bit higher than the rate of biological evolution, which is at least in a genetic dimension temporally staggered by the procession of generations. The history of human civilization as we know it presents us with a panorama of events that may not necessarily need the language of evolutionary biology to explain their cause and effect. To paraphrase Professor Sugarman, we must ascertain the correct distance from which to view something; if we stand with our eyeball an inch away from a large painting, we may not really succeed at seeing the painting, although we may be seeing something (and perhaps look rather special while doing it...). We can say with certainty that biological evolution, through the development of animal brains (since, as we've reviewed, humans aren't the only animals that have "culture"), has truly occasioned cultural evolution. William Irons wrote "[religion] is largely a cultural institution which rests on a psychological foundation." Two fields within evolutionary science that seem to be properly "sized" for use as hermeneutic tools for studying "religion" are cognitive science and sociobiology. For a scholar of religion to be optimally informed by the 'fruits' of Darwinian thinking, tools from cognitive science can be useful when parsing universal features of religious behavior. However, cognitive science seems to encourage us to consider individual brains, and to properly study religion we need to consider the aggregate effects of groups of brains in relational networks. As mentioned earlier, the universality of individual religiosity ("belief") is questionable - much more arguable is the universality of group religiosity. This points back to process; "religion" is something that arises from relationship! Although we may be able to argue how individual brains are optimized for religion (which is what cognitive science attempts to explain), I don't think we can locate religion in the individual any more than we can locate the mind in the brain. Perhaps we can locate aspects of religion, like we can study religious behaviors in an individual and examine how cognitive modules perhaps create feedback loops of reinforcement that motivate those behaviors... but these behaviors are naturally orientations toward things outside of oneself. I want to emphasize that these things to or from which religious behaviors are oriented - beside sometimes being supernatural agents - are other people - other members of the species homo sapiens! This is truly where sociobiologists can offer insight. As we've learned from our reading of David Sloan Wilson's work, group-level behavior historically presents cases where individual interests are checked and modulated by some sort of ethical system, often a religious one. One of Wilson's key arguments for the adaptive value of religion is that it has modulated group solidarity and provided mechanisms by which groups can enforce certain regulations that check individual behavior that may be exploitative to other group members or their shared habitat. Thus he has provided a strong case for natural selection operating at the group level, and religion often being a proximate factor in that selection historically. Humans have evolved to be social primates and indeed, and our history has literally been written by warfare, kingship and religion; essentially groups of humans interacting with other groups.

To reiterate, in effect "religion" consists of relational networks of behaviors that represent not just 'social circuitry', but 'ecological circuitry' as well. An organism is not a closed system, and neither is a group of organisms! The curious thing about religion is that it does dozens of other things beyond just the world-construction (mapping) function that we discussed earlier (this cited part was snipped for reasons of length, feel free to contact me). !Attention eco-design punks: Religion is an emergent characteristic of human culture that performs many functions and is supported by many elements. This is why, in the light of evolutionary science, it seems problematic to divide human culture up into categories like religion, art, science, music, language, etc. The universal acid of Darwin's idea - as Dennett characterizes it - seems to want to eat through the boundaries we've set up between these categories. When we try to extract religion from our social ecosystem to throw it under the microscope, we may find ourselves having to sever connective tissue that we didn't know existed. This occasions what I believe is a strikingly isomorphic comparison - that of human cultures to ecosystems. Let us envision "culture" as a social ecosystem that contains these various aforementioned aspects; music, art, technology, religion, etc. If we compared a human culture to a forest ecosystem, we could compare these "cultural functions" to various ecosystem functions like nutrient cycles, waste absorption, and climate maintenance, to name a few. Ecosystem functions are one of the more elusive things to define by the current scientific paradigms, but they can be best described as the aggregate effect of the complex interactions between ecosystem components. An example is the function a rainforest provides of maintaining climate patterns through the cumulative effect of so many trees alternatively absorbing and transpiring moisture. Moreover, many ecosystem functions grow out of each other or form feedback loops between each other. Ecosystem functions can't be deduced by their constituent low level interactions, and moreover their net effect is as far as we know non-linear; it isn't reached by a linear chain of cause and effect. Because of this we really have no idea to what extent we will disturb an ecosystem if we extract certain quantities of natural resources from it. Moreover, if we "extracted" one of these ecosystem functions, the entire system would be thrown into relative disequilibrium -- well, actually, it would completely fall apart. Similarly in human culture, there is interconnectivity and feedback between cultural functions that we seem to want to separate - for example between religious behavior and musical, artistic or gastronomic behavior.

[[insert open-source conclusion here]]

Personal Meaning and Cultural Relativism Aren't at Odds

...Or, Dismantling the Existential Anxiety in Contemporary American Socio-Political Drama that's Getting Really Old By Now.

Coastal wolves in the Pacific Northwest who live off of fish and seaweed and seal carcasses aren't real wolves, they're like, wimpy wolves. REAL wolves are Arctic and Gray wolves and they live off of muskoxen and caribou and elk. So, Coastal wolves should actually hunt in packs and kill big game so that they can be true to what real wolves are.

The above paragraph is clearly psychobabble, yes? Well that's what it sounds like to me when I hear the idea that one denomination or sect of a religion is right and another is wrong, or even when I hear similar squabbling between atheists and theists. Within Christianity or Islam, it's about who is a real Christian or Muslim and who isn't. Within the wider arena of atheism versus theism, it seems surreptitiously about who is the more humanistic (or humanitarian) or who is more true to the original ideals of philosophy and ethics. Because of the ecological diversity of earth, nature requires diverse adaptation of its creatures that seek to survive and thrive. Culture is, somewhere in place and time, bound to the earth; a reflection of earth's geological, biological, and topographical diversity and the uniqueness of place. Homogeneity does not lend itself to adaptation to life on such an earth. If difference is bad and there’s only one truth, I guess the whole earth should go to hell, then? If this is the ultimate conclusion of a particular theology, the benefit of that theology to humanity becomes quite suspect, to say the least. 

 Some fundamentalist interpretations of religion are ideological forms of ecocide because they fail to acknowledge that non-human systems much more broad and encompassing than our individual selves and communities are what give rise, ultimately, to difference. Difference is not something we necessarily choose through rational self-interest or some concept that Ayn Rand wrote about. To some degree difference is chosen for us by systems larger than ourselves, and it is manifested and built upon in various ways throughout our lives. 

Some secular atheist ideologies, at least the positivist and science-obsessed ones, are ultimately ecocidal and just as un-compassionate as what they purport to decry because they, also, cannot acknowledge the ecological component of cultural relativism. It’s not just some “fundamentalist extremists” that have dangerous, dominating views about nature, but it’s also privileged sectors of secular neo-liberal society that do not know how to acknowledge the effect that “nature” has on people because they grew up sheltered from “nature,” or perhaps only experiencing the light, transcendental, wind-chimey side of nature and not the darker, grittier sides. Nature is much more than the context for a spiritual (or, for the secularists out there, extreme) experience.

My hope is not that we can all agree. My hope is that we can work toward ways, within our cultures and worldviews, to acknowledge the “seams” where culture is knit to nature, and honor them (which can look many different ways). And maybe acknowledge that they aren’t really seams after all, but merely transition zones...

I feel like lately I’ve been hearing so much of this extreme caricaturing of “postmodern/cultural relativism” (neo-liberal/progressive caricature) versus “taking a moral stand” (more conservative or libertarian or radical caricature) as if we have to pick one. Well, we don’t, and I don’t, and I don’t get why we can’t be a little more nuanced in our thinking. Acknowledging ecological-cultural diversity doesn’t mean we all have to passively accept, say, when genocide is occurring in another society. You can still take a moral stand, born from compassion and loving protectiveness, and also acknowledge the ecological and resource-based contingency of cultures. Just because diversity, difference, and multivocality are real doesn’t mean personal meaning isn’t. The problem some of us 'moderns' seem to have is that we seem to think that non-action (in terms of foreign policy) equates to not taking a moral stand. Obviously some of us need to read the Tao-Te-Ching, for a little perspective if nothing else. Cultures tend to dictate normative, "right" or "best" ways to enact one's agency, yet it is possible to care, to "take a moral stand," without following the script thrust in your face (just don't expect to be acknowledged for it). If you always need to mark the external world with the track of your values, you will overlook the important skill of remaining true to yourself regardless of external circumstances. People are clearly terrified of the sort of non-action (really inaction) that comes from existential perplexity or overwhelm. They are terrified of the part of themselves that can empathize with the experience of inaction, and eager to smugly crucify those who seem immobilized by it, while what the latter most need instead is likely compassion and empathy since they have at least taken the bold step of beginning to process the grief and trauma suggested by much of post-modern and post-colonial analysis.

The indecision that comes from overwhelm and that often can evolve into apathy indicates that one has been unable to set proper psychic and emotional boundaries. Personal boundaries have long been transgressed and there is potentially repressed anger there that needs to be channeled in a healthy and meaningful way. In this case it is not just personal boundaries that are transgressed, but the boundaries of the heart and soul of the world that some feel called to protect, which have been transgressed by the countless acts of silencing, rape, murder, and dehumanization that one learns about and empathizes with when they begin to see outside one singular story of history. We falsely believe that the solution to this apathy and repressed frustration is an act of heroism or sacrifice, a sort of redemption or insurance policy protecting us from more apathy. But we are being played by the old savior complex. That complex is very entitled and can be a colonizing force that does unpredictable harm. What about a middle road, a hard road that involves learning how to grieve (as Martin Prechtel suggests in Grief and Praise?)  If we have to pick between (selfish) expression and repression, we will never learn this middle path. Grieving is a lost ceremonial art, an endangered ancestral skill along with basketmaking and starting a fire with sticks.

This is all coming up because of how we're relating to ISIS and militant Islam, and it's forcing the West to have something of an identity crisis as it tries collectively to reconcile the disparate results of some of its cultural ideals and still maintain a stable identity. I.e. Western cultural ideals produced the liberal-academic intelligentsia with its views on cultural relativism, but those same ideals also produced ideas about what a free society looks like that seem at odds with the former. Well, Good. I'm all in favor of initiation. All the hallmarks of it are present.
"And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand."
  • Mark 3:25. Good comment on the necessary death that initiation (of communities, of cultures, of individuals) requires.

I am guilty of having conjured up the caricature of the abstract postmodern hipster-philosopher who doubts any claims to truth or meaning. Let's start holding ourselves accountable for this polemical caricaturing. For me, this critique is at its root directed at inner aspects of myself (perhaps my past self or a possible self that I can identify with) as well as external examples. The thought that we can 'so easily' slip down a rabbit hole of meaninglessness and despair (and out of what were initially good intentions too) is pretty scary and threatening... We need as scholars, educators, and visionaries, to track our own inner journeys of grappling with the complexities of analysis and methodology and pay attention to how they affect our perspectives, otherwise we'll always be caught in these cycles of differentiating ourselves from others who trigger us. Perhaps that kind of discursive identity formation is somewhat inevitable but that doesn't mean it should go unacknowledged.

Unfortunately some theoretical lenses get taken to an extreme a lot. That's what happens with potent ideas. They run; they even fly. It’s unfortunate that this reflects a lot of people's experience in academia (including mine to some extent, though I think that often when we encounter examples of people who take certain methods of analysis to extremes within our academic community, we disproportionately remember them because the experience is emotionally upsetting. Well, it should be...We've gotta get jolted into 'speaking our truth' somehow. We need to stop shying away from meaningful confrontation and writing it off as oppressive "conflict.") I've learned so much from poststructuralist, post-colonial, and derridean criticism, but to me they are merely tools in a toolbox... I don't identify with them. To paraphrase something the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan wrote, an extreme postmodernist analysis can ultimately (emotionally) destroy the subject doing the analyzing. Is it truly a surprise to any of us that that sort of ironic methodologically-driven apathy and inertia has been generated? It's as predictable as the weather if you read the last 100 years of Western history with an attunement to the trauma that has occurred, and the subsequent attempts at recovery and healing. In that vein, there is a great article by the medievalist and historiographer Gabrielle Spiegel that would by all accounts be considered high theory, but it discusses the theory of Derridean deconstruction as emerging from the context of the trauma of the holocaust. Yet the article's methodology is not Jungian or the like as one might expect, but thoroughly (in my view) post-structuralist and "post-modern" and in fact an exemplar of the amazing abilities of these theoretical lenses, because it turns the theory back in on itself--it uses the theory to hold the theory-makers accountable. It remains one of my favorite academic articles of all time. Does that make me a postmodernist-or-whatever? Ah, I don't know or really care. Getting caught up in labels belies the unsettling reality that groups that need to distinguish themselves from each other are, in the scheme of things, really quite similar, and perhaps share a lot of common resources and territory (ecological, cultural, or both).

That is to say, our culture is pretty entrenched in cycles of trauma, addiction, and escapism. I think certain theoretical lenses can absolutely be commandeered to serve 'escapist' needs, rather like how some spiritual philosophies can be utilized by people to escape from suffering in ultimately immature and irresponsible ways. There was a great book written recently on the latter phenomenon called "Spiritual Bypassing" by Robert Augustus Masters, and I think some of his critique could of course also be applied to philosophy. To me the main points of the postmodern theoretical lenses are cultural relativism and the situatedness of meaning. I myself have grappled with the concerns that this brings up--namely, how do we achieve things like liberation, initiation, community resilience, etc., in light of some of the ramifications of postmodern thought? At this point I feel that it is only ourselves we have to blame if we cannot acknowledge both meaninglessness and the relativity of meaning along with the deep personal meanings in our own lives. To me postmodern thought shouldn't have to  suggest that there is no ultimate meaning, it just suggests that meaning and truth is ecologically situated—in other words it changes the definition of what "ultimate meaning" is (a nice trick!) This doesn't invalidate meaning or truth, but actually highlights it in a way. But a lot of that theory is incomplete because it threw out the importance of myth. In my view I hope these theories come around to a new understanding of myth, meaning, and symbol, otherwise it'll remain a half-truth. At this point I'm as tired of the endless rhetorical crucifixions of Joseph Campbell and Eliade as I am of the dismissal of pomo thought.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Story of Queer Nature Connection

Just had a long-form post published on the Women's Wilderness Institute's blog. Women's Wilderness is a sponsor of Queer Nature, a new exciting project I've been working on over the last year or so with my spouse and some of our friends. Cross-posted below!

A Story of Queer Nature-Connection

I am who I am today in part because of programs like the ones run by Women’s Wilderness. 
Queer Nature, the program I co-facilitate at WW, which teaches survival skills and natural crafts to the LGBTQ+ community, would also probably not exist if it hadn’t been for my initiation into nature-connection at a pivotal age. 

When I had just turned 16, I embarked on a summer-long backpacking intensive (comparable to Outward Bound’sprograms) in Northern California. It gave me an experience like none I’d had before. We built a community through a collective journey of intense physical challenge, multi-day wilderness immersion, and the wonderful, silly, and raw human bonds that eventually permeate a group experiencing those things together. We were a small group of only six youths led by two older counselors. Our biggest achievement that summer was summiting Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, in the course of an eleven day out-and-back backpacking trip.
Mt. Whitney at sunrise Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and Alabama Hills, California, USA
Mt. Whitney at sunrise, California, USA
Like any 16 year-old girl, I had a lot going on. I had just started dating my first girlfriend — which amounted to a de-facto “coming out” to my parents and friends — had cut my long hair extremely short, and was also struggling with my relationship to my body and to food. Some might say that backpacking for seven weeks is not a good idea for a teen struggling in that way. But actually, it was the most formative adventure of my youth and set my relationship to my body and food on a healthier track at a moment when it surely would have gotten worse. 

Risk, or at least the psychological element of risk that happens naturally when you go on your first week-long backcountry trip, was actually an essential part of me becoming a more self-regulating, and therefore more healthy and aware person (something that is corroborated by anthropologists and modern rites-of-passage advocates who study initiation rituals in different human cultures). Some element of uncertainty or risk seems necessary for us, as young people, to understand the terms of human life on earth, and therefore engage with it more deeply and authentically.
My vision of myself changed that summer. 
Experiencing my body as a means for adventure was essential for me to have a healthy relationship with it, and gave me a degree of self-sufficiency previously unknown. On a level beyond the self, I also experienced myself in a new way as a necessary member of a group who had to stick together to thrive in a remote setting. In order to accomplish our daily mileage goals, our life together had to be highly structured; camp had to be set up and taken down in circadian rhythms, meals cooked and prepped, and maps scouted. And obviously, we all had to share the great nightly responsibility of ensuring that funny jokes and stories were shared before bed. Each of us needed to take on certain roles in order for every day to flow smoothly.
Queer Nature Tracking
Raccoon Tracks in the Mud
Through this I was able to re-envision my body as a vital tool capable of amazing things, and add an important layer to my social identity built around the importance of whatever my role in the team was at the time. I did not identify with mainstream cultural definitions of femininity and, that summer, I was able to experience what seemed like a kind of gender-utopia, where we existed in a small little tribe and our duties and responsibilities to ourselves and each other didn’t really vary much with gender. We all put one foot in front of the other; we all walked the same number of miles; we all had to eat and we all had to dig a hole nearly once a day, too.
That summer got me hooked on long-distance backpacking and right after I finished high school, I hiked the Long Trail in my home state of Vermont. I also did some week-long hikes on sections of the Appalachian Trail throughout the northeast.
Appalachian Trail Queer Nature
Vermont’s Green Mountains from the Long Trail

I fit easily into trail culture, a culture that drew eccentric and contemplative people who seemed to walk on an edge between civilization and wildness, people who seemed to take the norms and machinations of society with a grain of salt, with a trickster’s wink and a sage’s amused smile. For a young queer and gender non-conforming person like myself, trail culture was like the nature-based alternative to the rural punk culture that I had somewhat reluctantly participated in in high school because it had been the only ‘alternative’ thing around. But there was something hopeful and curious about the culture of the trail that enchanted me. Punk culture didn’t have that, although it left its own subversive imprints on me in the form of many tattoos and an enduring mohawk that I’d sport through most of my twenties.

As life took me through college, grad school, and the inevitable world of “adulting,” it became harder and harder to indulge my love for long distance backpacking due to the time, expense, and necessary gear upkeep required. Even now, despite some seasonal wilderness guiding that gets me out into the backcountry a couple times a year, it is difficult to only have that sort of connection once in a while.
This is where my journey with naturalism and earth-based skills enters the picture, which have given me tools for connecting deeply and meaningfully with the natural world on a much more regular and low-tech basis. These skills completely hinge on an incredibly resilient set of gear: namely, the human mind, body, and the raw materials of the natural world. 

In my mid twenties while still living in my home state of Vermont, I signed up for a nine-month course on wilderness survival skills. This course met for one weekend intensive per month and focused on the fundamental skills to apply in emergency survival situations — shelter-building, making fire without matches or lighters, boiling and purifying water, and eventually, foraging, hunting, and trapping food.
Camouflage Queer Nature
So in Full-Face Camouflage

At the end of nine months of learning and pushing past what before seemed like insurmountable feats, my class of seven walked into Vermont’s northern hardwood forests for four nights with nothing except the clothes on our backs. 

We were immediately welcomed by a summer downpour that continued through the entire first day of our journey. Our group shelter went up in the rain, and as soon as we had enough of the roof built to cover our fire pit, we began using scavenged wood to create fire-by-friction. A few hours after dark had set in, a tiny orange ember emerged from the wet, womblike darkness. We had fire, and it would transform into a constant living presence that would become the center of our universe for the rest of the trip. 

The next day, we carefully peeled sections of bark from young white pine trees, folding them into origami-like containers to boil and hold our water. Most of the next four days were spent in constant cycles of gathering firewood, tending fires, heating rocks to boil new water, and resting. Food ended up being last on the priority list, which is common in survival situations. Still, we were able to treat ourselves to wild leeks, oyster mushrooms, and some roasted bullfrog legs.
Primitive Fire Queer Nature
So and Pinar (So’s Spouse) Making a Primitive Fire Using the Bow-Drill Method
Although the survival trip was the most concise and perhaps iconic adventure of the year, in the course of preparing for it I was initiated even more deeply both into my relationship to nature and what it meant to be to be queer.
I began to learn plant and tree identification, wildlife tracking, and the enigmatic language of birds, studies that last a lifetime and bear a slow-growing fruit that is best described as the fruit of belonging. Slow and tedious relationship building within the natural world paid off, I learned, because it meant that nearly everywhere I went I would have a primal context for relating to the place I was, and to the non-human beings within it. I have never felt that this is guaranteed to me in the human world. There is an incredible, quiet kind of power in that. The non-human world is one of my greatest allies. 
As the accessories and conveniences of modern life were systematically pared away in that initial nine-month training, I put in many hours of study and practice outdoors that had little to do with the social world, or at least the human one I’d known. I found that the non-human world was social too, just in a vastly different definition of the word. 

Although more traditional conservation-based environmentalism tells humans we are only “visitors” in wild places, and must “leave no trace.” Learning the ecological literacy necessary to (even barely) survive without civilization taught me that we do, indeed, leave a trace. I’m not talking about visible traces per se, nor am I condoning leaving human artifacts behind in the outdoors. I’m speaking more of an energetic or perceptual trace, the way we affect bird song with our movements or the way that we broadcast scents that testify to our presence for creatures with superior senses of smell, even the sound-patterns we make while walking on dry leaves. 

The truth is, from the perspective of the non-human world, that we definitely do create a trace, so the question then becomes: what trace will we create? 

The tools to answer this question are those cultivated by tribal, land-based peoples the world over: profound situational awareness, ecological literacy and pattern recognition, and the physical and mental arts of stealth and concealment. Slowing down and tuning in to the impact they have in the world is vital for wild animals that earn their living from a dynamic and uncertain landscape. When I began to learn how to do it, too, it vastly expanded (not impaired) my paradigm for environmental stewardship. It was very empowering because anyone could learn these things, regardless of their gender, their sexuality, or other social status. The natural world was there, ready as an unbiased teacher.
I had always been attracted to so-called ‘survival skills,’ but for a constellation of reasons the typical avenues of learning those things weren’t available to me. There were no sportsmen in my family and as far as I knew no one close to me really had an interest in hunting. Obviously Boy Scouts was out, and I couldn’t join the military because I was very openly queer and my androgynous appearance easily stood out (DADT has since been repealed).

Growing up in a small town with no one to talk to about my burgeoning identities, and few (if any) roadmaps in popular culture for a path to queer adulthood, I had to learn the arts of emotional survival by myself. It just made sense that when the time came, I would be inclined to learn about physical survival too, about how to make do when civilization with all its comforts and attainments didn’t come through for me. In a twist of fate, failing to be fully met by culture triggered a deep desire to create new culture.
The concept of nature-based queer culture does not come naturally to everyone. 
After all, gay, lesbian, and trans people have historically been represented as ‘unnatural’ in our society, primarily in the authoritative dimensions of psychology and medicine. For many queers, especially the gender non-conforming among us, the specter of gay bashing hovers over rural and remote areas, making us wary of being alone and questioning our self-reliance in those places.

Furthermore, queer culture in America has more or less formed in urban spaces, where formerly isolated LGBTQ people migrate from rural towns in order to find others like them, or they simply find themselves there working in single-gender environments, which is what happened in postwar America. 

When I was growing up in rural New England, the options for queer socializing were mostly having to do with urban nightlife—clubs, bars, and partying— none of which very interesting or accessible to me. That said, I don’t want to diminish the vital work done by urban queers that made many of my civil rights possible. Urban queer communities and safe spaces were not born easily; they were fought for and ardently defended, as a chilling history of police raids on queer bars and clubs attests. The work I do now is only able to happen because I stand on the shoulders of the queer ancestors and elders who got arrested at bars for so-called ‘cross-dressing’ and rioted against police at Stonewall. 

For people whose cultural identity has largely been formed and shaped around a narrative of not belonging, being unnatural, or being tokenized, there’s something incredibly radical and healing about learning how to engage with the natural world in a co-creative way. When you learn how to create fire without matches—that eternal symbol of home and community—or when you learn to decipher a story in a set of animal tracks, there is no denying that you are part of the natural world, and you do belong.

Queer Nature Course Connection
So holding the skull of a coyote.
Sophia (“So”) Sinopoulos-Lloyd is a queer Greek-American who likes to think, write, and track at the interfaces of human and non-human culture. So’s fascination with the connections between ecology, human identity, and notions of the sacred and transpersonal fueled the completion of an MA in Religious Studies from Claremont Graduate University and has inspired So’s immersive studies in bushcraft and earth-based living skills. So currently works as a nature educator and wilderness guide in Colorado with their spouse and specializes in programming for the LGBTQ community. So has had their writing published in Written River and The Wayfarer.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Tracking as a Way of Knowing -- Published!

I'm excited to share with you all that an essay I wrote about wildlife tracking, epistemology, and spirituality, called "Tracking as a Way of Knowing" has been published in the tenth issue of Written River, a literary journal of eco-poetics.

The essay can be read online here. I would repost it, but the Written River website is so darn attractive, it's worth a visit! Most essays and poems published in the journal are made freely available online, though if you feel like supporting a small press with great values, the hard copy is beautiful, too.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Putting together the PhD Puzzle

During the years since finishing my master's degree at Claremont Graduate University, I have struggled with visualizing what my entry to a PhD program might look like despite the fact that I can't imagine my vision(s) reaching their full potential without a scholarly community. Therefore, I have felt somewhat stalled with respect to my academic career—but there is indeed a silver lining in it since my stewing in whatever it is I'm stewing in has produced two published essays, both some strange offshoot of "nature writing" that pull in semiotics, ecological identity, and cultural history. For a while, it seemed that these scribal projects were taking me further away from my context as a religious studies scholar, and therefore left me more confused as to where my academic "people," are. I've also spent that time getting married to a person equally geeky about ecological consciousness (yay!) and cutting my teeth as a nature educator and wilderness guide. I've gotten the feeling lately that I've passed a zenith (or nadir?) and am on some sort of return, a drift to inevitable community—scholarly and otherwise.

So then it seems to be an issue of "which discipline" shall I land in, since a central struggle for me has been how to reconcile my work in nature education and ancestral earth-based skills with the highly literary/theoretical world of the humanities as I've experienced them. My field thus far, religious studies, is already a multi-disciplinary field, yet I've still been hard pressed to find departments in which the combination of scientific and literary analysis is an acceptable approach to analysis of human relationships with the transpersonal and sacred. (A big part of this is the methodological and ethical impasses many claim between the cognitive and evolutionary sciences and postmodern/poststructuralist approaches to cultural studies. I, for one, believe that they can be reconciled as long as we keep working to redefine and expand our definitions of "cognition" as well as "culture," which are, respectively the things that each approach takes as their universal referent)

I see these realms of thought and practice--the study of what humans consider sacred and the (often participatory) study of ecology, that is, not only naturalism/nature observation but ecology as a sort of practice and mode of being-- as interconnected. One way they are interconnected is in my experience of the ways that human-animal, human-landscape, and human-other relationships inform identity and personhood, for myself and others. Growing up, I was ripe for a paradigm shift around identity since I was queer and gender non-conforming in a small New England town, and so had to look into the virtual, beyond the human, and beyond the Western for representations of personhood that could provide me with a sense of belonging in the world. (Hence my fascination with animals as well as hacker and cyberpunk culture.) But that curiosity opened a door to a whole other world—more precisely a multiplicity of worlds—where definitions and standards of knowledge, ways of knowing, personhood, and agency were radically different from those of the modern Western culture I had known. Such perspectives come most blatantly from animistic and shamanistic world-views, but treatment of the cosmos as alive, inter-subjective, and reciprocal can also be traced in my own ancestral Greek history, even in modern Greek religion's iconographic tradition. For all this theory there has been a fair share of practice. For example, when engaging in earth-based living skills like tracking and hunting, the intersubjectivity in the natural world--the phenomenon of being seen, noticed, and apprehended by the non-human world--has become for me an unavoidable fact.

There have been inklings of my fate in encounters with some of my intellectual heroes, like Donna Haraway, Stuart Kauffman, Barbara J. King or Ellen Dissanayake, who did and do really important and relevant interdisciplinary work in the vein that I imagine, in the intersection of ecology, semiotics, and religion/spirituality. But now the literary and scientific trend toward animal intelligence and language (thus semiosis, meaning-making, in the non-human world, in my estimation one of the worthier literary trends coming out of environmentalist culture) is getting too big to ignore and it's inviting, in some sectors, a reframing of both science and the humanities. It's also manifesting in the form of recognizing indigenous ways of knowing as legitimate means of tempering and de-centering some of the more limiting hermeneutics of western science. 

When I began this blog back in 2008, my rallying call (still visible above) was that "natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems," which, though I wouldn't stumble upon biosemiotics until years later in grad school, was my attempt to gesture at the perhaps not-fully-awakened ability of ecology to reframe our ideas about information, computation, and cognition. Many of the themes that I have tracked under this rubric now are really able to be put in conversation (and recognized as something integral) via what some are calling "posthumanities" which some describe as being characterized by the "non-human turn" in the humanities (and in the philosophy of science). This is very exciting! 

Philosophy and learning I think is so much like tracking (following and interpreting a trail of signs made by an animal which can provide novel information and encounters). Cognitively, tracking I think provides a framework, even a theory, for semiosis (meaning making) and this explains why when I was studying history and tracking in separate context, I started to see historiography as a form of tracking and tracking as a form of historiography. I elucidate this idea in an essay forthcoming in the eco-poetic journal Written River, "Tracking as a Way of Knowing," which I look forward to sharing here.

I only see a piece of this. Looking at the generation younger than me, (at least the kids I work with at Feet on the Earth, which are admittedly a very specific demographic) I can already tell that as they come of age they are going to blow this sh*t up. I want to respect my own dreams, so they can dream as big as possible.

I think it's time to pull out my old notes on PhD programs...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Self-Initiated Ceremony: Beyond Belief and Non-belief

Note: This is a post I just wrote for The River's Path about the utility of self-initiated ceremony and ritual. It's a small, incomplete sliver of why I, an agnostic/non-theistic person, think ceremonial consciousness matters, even (and especially?) in a secular context. It's not for everyone, nor does it have to be, but these 'psycho-spiritual technologies' really help some people in profound ways that at least to me, beg curiosity and respect.
As wilderness guides who do not promote either belief or non-belief in divine beings, it might be difficult to understand why we include self-initiated ceremony and ritual as an optional therapeutic modality in our work—particularly on our river-based wilderness fasts. What follows is a tiny sliver of why I think ceremonial consciousness matters, even in a secular context.
A ritual is defined here as a series of intentional acts (usually physical acts, but they could be mental also) that a person engages in in a specific way. In this definition a ritual has an intended purpose or outcome (though this doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome is totally predictable or known). Rituals are different from habits because they tend to have a sort of a transpersonal or symbolic meaning to the person performing the ritual. Rituals can have the effect of marking something, like an emotion, a certain time of day, or a certain food or drink about to be consumed; they can serve to help someone feel safe and grounded in a time of uncertainty; they can also be connected to interacting with elements of one’s religion, like making the sign of the cross (for Catholic and Orthodox Christians) or performing the Salah (the traditional Mulsim prayer).
The words “ceremony” and “ritual” are somewhat interchangeable. Generally though a ceremony is typically a special type of ritual, often one that marks important religious, social, or political events within a community. “Ceremony” generally has more of a social connotation.
Ceremony and ritual aren’t just for people who are religious in the traditional sense though. They are for anyone who thrives from creating order, beauty, or symbolic meaning in (and with) their environment. These universal human impulses are a deep part of spirituality to begin with.
Some examples of rituals and ceremonies that are found across many cultures include making altars, putting on special clothes that symbolize a sacred identity or role, cutting one’s hair to mark change or signify grieving, performing a dance of celebration, getting in a particular posture to signify prayer or surrender, receiving a tattoo or other type of mark, wearing masks or painting one’s face, fasting, being silent for a set period of time, bathing or cleansing parts of the body with water, burying objects, anointing and rubbing the body with oil, and eating special foods.

Even without a particular religious framework in mind, as I read each item in the list above, I get a powerful image and feel a connected emotion. Do you? For example, I cannot help but feel a tinge of coyness and trickery when I consider a mask-wearing or face-painting ritual, and I cannot help but sense deep devotion when I picture someone with their head touched to the earth in surrender—no matter who or what they might be praying to. When I imagine ritual bathing, I can’t help but think of new, fresh beginnings, and when I think of ritualistically anointing the body with oil, I can’t help but be moved by the power of reverence for human life. Though this list of rituals might seem generic, when we relate to many of them our emotional responses are anything but generic!
Perhaps an act in this list stood out to you—something you’ve done or something you’ve longed to do. Or maybe, something that triggers and repulses you because of an experience you’ve had with it in a certain cultural context. All that is valid and speaks to the somatic and emotional potency of performing symbolic acts, and thus it points the way to how we might re-claim this ancient psycho-spiritual technology.
Whether we believe that our reactions and associations to these ritual acts are cultural programming, mirror neurons, or both, either way it is clear that these acts have huge capacity for symbolism, for signification. They can hold meaning in a distinct way that perhaps can’t be achieved otherwise. And religious or not, humans are narrative beings—we are storytellers and story-seekers by nature. We are also puzzle-solvers and game-makers who like to encode, encrypt, and decrypt things— We like to uncover secrets and bury others, making new secrets. Ceremonies and rituals are ways of speaking, ways of telling a story, but they are also distinct from the sort of speech we are used to because they are about embodiment—they are about not just telling a story or passively receiving one, they are truly about being a story.
Why do we tell stories, see stories, guard secrets, and glimpse our fate? It is perhaps because meaning, even fiction, in the proper doses, helps us thrive. Just as with epic myths that have fed the hearts and dreams of cultures since prehistory, rituals and ceremonies both thrive off and feed the life-giving gift of human imagination. Thus, what I see in ceremony and ritual is a huge store of potential that exists at the heart of the human story. To access this potential, it is imperative that the technologies of ceremony and ritual not be used to squash life and creativity, and instead be mobilized for dreaming into being the future that most needs to be born.
The most comprehensive—and ecumenical—way I’ve found to describe ceremony/ritual is that it is a kind of speech without words. It is a speech perhaps ‘greater-than-words,’ that you make with your whole being. You may be speaking to yourself, your soul, nature, God, your ancestors, a dearly beloved one, or something else entirely. And whoever—or whatever—you’re talking to might not talk back, at least not in a language that can be immediately and readily understood. Thus practicing this grander, more epic way of “speaking” can re-calibrate your awareness, specifically the ways in which you “hear an answer” to whatever you have “said” in ceremony with the earth. You might become open to symbols, signals, and signs that would otherwise go unnoticed. Some might worry that this approach encourages people to read too much into things. Indeed, balance and discernment is called for in the art of ceremony. But the best possible outcome is that by practicing more-than-human ways of speaking, we might more fully inhabit some of the great human gifts, like the ability to see and tell profoundly meaningful stories, and the ability to feel and demonstrate devotion to the world around us.
One of my favorite metaphors for intuitive ceremony in the context of transformational work is this. Picture a young person, maybe 20 or 21 years old, who has never met one of their grandfathers because he lives in a different country. There was a rupture in the family and the young person’s parents stopped speaking to the grandfather when the child was young. When the young person is confident enough to travel by themselves, they travel to this faraway country to finally meet their grandfather. The young person has an old picture of the grandfather, and the grandfather doesn’t even know what the young person looks like now, as a young adult. When the young person gets off the plane and arrives at the airport, they scan a sea of faces at the meeting area. The grandfather also waits, watching eagerly as passengers exit the gate. When the two finally spot each other, there is instant recognition. But they do not speak the same language—how will they communicate? They communicate in smiles, in bright eyes, in gestures. They pull out old pictures and point at them, and then at each other. Smiling ear to ear, they nod, and then embrace. They might speak to each other, but since neither knows the other’s language, this speech is merely a way of sharing presence, of connecting with the heart, and not with the specifics of the mind.
This is what I have found nature-based ceremony and ritual to be like. It’s a way of conversing with beloved relatives—the earth, the ancestors, spirits, or God if you are religious. Our human spoken language is naturally limited, and there is so very much we might want to communicate to these various beings! So how do we hope to communicate what is in our hearts? I think that as with the story of the youth and their grandfather who didn’t speak the same language but yet felt so drawn to meeting each other, we do know intuitively how to express things that we need to express—deep-seated things like grief, praise, regret, hope, and love. These emotions are the currency of the soul. Finding creative ways to express them when we are alone with the natural world (without fear of being seen and judged by other people) is a worthy pursuit, and the reward can be a deeper relationship with yourself, nature, and whatever other realities might be important to you.
In wilderness settings, many feel they have more direct, unmediated access to elemental forces and transpersonal dimensions of existence. This makes emotional and psychological sense because of the sheer complexity, depth, and power of wild landscapes, and the many contrasts we “modern” people often feel when immersed in these landscapes. For these reasons, engaging in self-initiated ceremony can be especially potent in wilderness settings within groups that are holding a strong and safe psychological container. Today, many of us are searching for a more visceral and authentic spirituality that we might not have grown up with. Or, some of us are searching for ways to re-invent things that we did grow up with, to make them feel more right for us and to re-claim them in a sense. We strongly encourage participants on our river-based visionary trips to go into their solos with their heart and mind open to the possibility of a ritual or ceremony they might create for themselves out on the Land. What they do out on the land might be (will probably be) deeply personal and we do not expect that all, or even most of it, will be shared. But the beauty of ceremony is that it does not necessarily have to be shared or spoken about to be powerful and significant. It just has to be witnessed by you and whatever else is out there with you on the Land…
Wild (and civilized!) Blessings,
The Faun
at Petrified Forest National Park
at Petrified Forest National Park

Monday, March 7, 2016

Emotional Relationships With Nature

Note: I'm cross-posting this from the blog at my friend's website The River's Path, where I'm a new contributor.
If you are reading this, you might be familiar with the fruits of a personal connection to nature —nourished by the memory of a tree or a river from your childhood, or the birds or deer that regularly pass through your backyard. Even if you move or travel frequently, perhaps there is some omnipresent element of the natural world that can ground you wherever you are—for me it is the feeling of the sun on my face, or a view of the vast stellar clockwork of the night sky turning around the still  point of the North Star. These encounters remind me that wherever I go I am held by ever-greater concentric circles of being. Being “friends” with particular plants or hills or rivers, or with sunshine or starlight, by which I mean loving them and on some level needing them, have been part of my experience of “home.” And when I haven’t felt at home, at least my experience of the home of my body.
The emotional and spiritual value of the natural world is hard for our culture to quantify, hard to monetize and market, but that doesn’t mean that it is superfluous. Actually, it is often an unacknowledged facet of what we consider sacred, special, safe, novel, or memorable. Personal relationships to elements of the natural world are much more emotional—characterized by affection, awe, or nostalgia—than they are abstract or intellectual. They are friendships, kinships. There was a time when I might have thought that these sorts of relationships were restricted to childhood. But today I am more and more convinced that they are also the domain of adulthood—at least, the kind of adulthood I want to inhabit.
A beloved white birch at my grandparents' former home in Vermont's Green Mountains
A beloved white birch at my grandparents’ former home in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

My time as both student and instructor in the fields of nature education and nature-connection has begun to teach me many useful things—how to make fire-by-friction, how to identify edible and medicinal plants, or how to track and trail wild animals. But the most important (and humbling) lesson impressed upon me has not been something new, not a skill or a bit of information, but a reminder of something old: the validation of the emotional richness of my experiences in the outdoors and with animals—experiences that never seemed to fit comfortably in any readily accessible interpretation of the world.

The feel of the northern hardwood forests of Vermont where I grew up, the smell of my family’s orange tabby cat, or the sight of a herd of sheep grazing in a field, are fundamental to my personhood in ways that seem to upend and subvert what I’ve been taught about being a person. Perhaps it is because these things are fundamental not just to ‘who’ I am, but ‘what’ I am. In an era brimming with political and social identities, certain labels, though powerful in their own right, still can only take me so far in such a quest. Indeed, such affiliations help answer who I am within the human world, but not what I am by virtue of my relationships to the non-human world. By these latter measures I am an acquaintance of maple trees, a creature that cuddles with cats, a guardian of sheep, and sometimes more, sometimes less. In this realm, one communicates simply by being, by moving, by looking. In this realm, one is simply a friend of things, or an eater of things, or, occasionally, food for things. One is a creature.
Gray Jays, one of the north country's most charming solicitors of treats, visiting my spouse and me in Algonquin Provincial Park.
Gray Jays—one of the north country’s most charming solicitors of treats—visiting my spouse and me in Algonquin Provincial Park.
I have found that I cannot know this creature-hood merely by relating with other humans. I can only know it by also relating with non-humans—with landscapes, animals, tracks, fire, with bone and wood—as well as with humans. It is balanced on this edge, where relationships with both human society and non-human society can be mutually cultivated, where I have felt a deep kind of belonging take root in my heart—an enigmatic feeling of being hugged by two very different parent-worlds that nonetheless are fated to intertwine through me. I want ardently for this medicine to be available to anyone whom it might help, which is one reason I work as a nature educator and guide. Teaching wilderness survival skills is an awesome perk for me, but I also am an advocate for a more surreptitious survival skill: cultivating relationship with as many parts of one’s surrounding ecology as possible in as many ways as possible. Even if we don’t need these “survival skills” for our bodies, we might need them for our souls.

There are many ways to relate to a tree, for example—you might sit in its shade with your back against its trunk, or climb it to look at something far away. How is its wood for carving? For fire? Is any part of it edible—its leaves or its inner bark? How might you find out such a thing? Could you make clothing or medicine from it? Maybe! What animals use this tree for food or shelter? What birds does it attract? On a slightly different note, what does this tree mean to you? Maybe you built a fort in this tree, buried your family pet under this tree, or cut your wedding cake under this tree. Maybe this tree has witnessed something monumental.

Do trees in general symbolize anything to you, and why? And what might this tree—or trees in general—signify to your ancestors, within their mythology or their livelihood? What about to the people who are indigenous to this land? What if the people indigenous to this land say that their ancestors were actually born from this tree? If this is a common tree in this area chances are it was (and is) very sacred, very useful, to someone—certainly an animal, but also a human, even maybe an entire culture. This is indeed an unwritten rule of human ecology. Is there a way you could honor this tree or thank it? If the last question seems to be getting into cryptic or far-fetched territory, I get it. But believe me, if you learn all the other things about the tree, you might actually really want to thank it.
A physical ode to the white birch, ethereal denizens of our northern forests. From top left: Chaga, a medicinal fungus that grows inside birch trees, highly prized by northern latitude peoples; a utensil carved from birch wood; birch bark baskets made at Roots School in VT; the beginning of a friction-fire bow drill kit made with white birch.
My ode to the white birch, ethereal denizens of our northern forests. From top left: Chaga, a medicinal fungus that grows inside birch trees, highly prized by northern latitude peoples; a utensil carved from birch wood; birch bark baskets made at Roots School in VT; the beginning of a bow drill fire kit made with white birch.
One could call such multifaceted connections—ones that inspire praise and thanksgiving—spiritual. I do, though this term may not work for everybody. Whether you choose to look at them as spiritual, emotional, or both, there is an undoubtedly numinous nature to such relationships, as there is to any close human bond. There is a feeling of empathy, of togetherness and community, yet at the same time a mystery, something coy and esoteric—the allurement of undeniable difference. There lies the magic, the potency, and the deeply transformative nature of relationship and our human capacity to relate. If we can recognize (and name) that we have the ability to relate to plants, animals, and landscapes in a more interpersonal way—the way we relate to a beloved family member, a pet, or a dream—we can shift our center of gravity in remarkable ways. We can, perhaps, feel even more at home in the world than we thought possible.

As this shift takes place it is imperative for us to humble ourselves with the fact that relating to nature in emotional and social ways wasn’t invented yesterday—this is the well-trodden territory of shamanistic and animistic cultures the world over. It would be much more accurate to say that relating to nature in these ways ‘invented us.’ Certainly, we are alive today because our ancestors intimately knew the natural world, both in a utilitarian sense and in a spiritual sense. Those things, I think, used to be intertwined…it is only some modern cultures that parse them out and see them as different, for better or worse.

It is no coincidence that many nature-based cultures consider their environment populated with legions of spirits and forces that are stewards and shepherds of nature, of the elements, of the turning of the earth and the movement of the clouds, or that they consider non-human animals or trees as persons—as beings with a soul. Relationships with these beings became personal, intimate, emotional, and social—not because someone thought it was a hip idea or because it made theoretical sense, but because of the demands of living in a world that was both ever shifting yet in certain aspects stayed the same. In a subsistence life where so much is uncertain, one does well to get to know one’s neighbors, and to duly honor them. Some day—or maybe even most days—our lives might depend on them.
Some natural objects that decorate my living room, reminding me of the beings that silently support us.
Some natural objects that decorate my living room, reminding me of just a few of the beings that silently support us.