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Wild Gods

A community honoring Artemis, Pan, and Dionysus

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Nature

learning about plants

I am learning about plants.

I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 20 years. But it’s only in the last few that I started learning something about the place: the geology, the topography, the ecological communities. I’ve always liked hiking but until recently I experienced them as passages beneath evergreen trees that I didn’t even recognize as being different species, past undergrowth that I experienced as walls of green. Salmonberries and huckleberries were revelations; so were cattails and stinging nettle, western red cedar and Devil’s club.

There’s a thing that floats around Facebook from time to time, two sets of images presented side by side. One is silhouettes of leaves. The other is silhouettes of corporate logos. The point is that more people likely recognize the latter than the former. Interestingly, Facebook’s corporate logo isn’t one of those presented.

I spent this past weekend learning about plants: their taxonomies and biologies, but also the tactile reality of them, the difference in texture between mullein and foxglove, the tastes of wood sorrel and wall lettuce, how to turn Ponderosa pine needles and thread into a container. None of these things make me an expert. But now I can go for a walk in the woods and, instead of the wall of green, I am greeted by repeated moments of recognition.

When I came home I found people on a neighborhood message board complaining about crows and raccoons tearing up their lawns. A lawn in and of itself strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of one’s environment; in this case, there was an additional lack of understanding of what these urban scavengers were truly after (hint: neither eats grass).

The environment is not something that happens out there, away from where we live. It is where we live, and our incomprehension of this basic fact lies at the root of many of our problems.

If you want to live better in the world, you could do worse than start looking at trees.

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Agrotera Thysia

“But the goddess with a bold heart turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, then the huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow and goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoibos Apollon…” — Homeric Hymn 27 to Artemis

My hairdresser and I have an ongoing conversation about hunting. She hunts, I don’t. Accreted around this difference between us, not in itself a source of contention, are various disagreements that we have concerning laws and regulations, cougars and wolves, and how humans live in and move through the wild.

Today is the Agrotera Thysia, the Sacrifice to the Huntress, in honor of Artemis’s first hunt at Agrai on the Illisos. It is also the Kharisteria, a festival of gratitude to Artemis, Pan, and Ares for the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon. Hunting serves a different role in a culture so much closer to subsistence as ancient Greece was than our own; while I know people who refuse entirely to participate in our industrialized processes of meat production, eating only those animals they harvest themselves, this is very much the exception to the rule. Nor could our current population support its demand for meat through hunting.

Yet hunting changes one’s relationship with the surrounding environment. Last year I studied wildlife tracking as another means of gaining this intimacy: once you know, concretely, that other beings are sharing a place with you, going about their own business and probably avoiding you in the process, you see the natural world differently. It is not solely for us; we are a manifestation of a natural world far larger and more varied than most of us ever think about. To consciously identify and pursue another living being in this larger world causes you to move through it in different way, to recognize its natural cycles. A hunter interested in continuing to hunt in the same landscape will not kill off mothers with young, nor the young themselves. Considered in this way, Artemis’s associations with death on the one hand–for She is associated with war as well as hunting, at least by the Spartans–and birth on the other make sense. I often refer to Her as a goddess of stewardship, a broader mandate than hunting and one which requires existing in harmony with one’s environment in a very concrete and pragmatic sense. The way that most of us live in 21st century America obscures this reality; most of us who eat meat will never be present at the death of something being killed so that we might live. If you ever have the opportunity, I recommend it.

Tracking wildlife brings you into alignment with hunting in another sense. At least some of the animals you track will be predators; thus, coming across kill sites is not outside the realm of possibility. A couple of fellow students recalled trailing a coyote across the dunes on the Oregon coast, to the moment when it came across a mouse. They followed the hunt, written in the tracks in the sand before them, until suddenly there were no mouse tracks anymore. More viscerally, it’s possible to come across feathers radiating from the spot where a bird was killed, or the sawdust-like remnants of a ruminant’s stomach long after whatever killed it has consumed or hauled away the rest. It’s impossible to retain any romantic notions of the gentleness of nature at such moments. In the wild, birth and death are going on all the time, and Artemis is a facilitator of both. Like Hekate, She is the guardian at a liminal gate through which beings pass from one state of existence to another.

I once described my dedication to Artemis as something like a pursuit, a hunt in itself: not only for wilderness, but for understanding of what wilderness means. The ancient Greeks understood it as a dangerous and even uncanny place, and with good reason. Today, we might be the greater danger, in either loving it to death, using it up, or both.

On Being a Woman Alone in the Woods

Io Artemis:

“I’d tell him that being solo in the backcountry is one of the only times in my life that I’ve been able to exist as a body and a person without worrying about how other people might try to claim my body as their own. Crossing frozen rivers on my hands and knees, curling up in my sleeping bag, waking at dawn in a bed of dew—these are the moments when the shadow of that vulnerability fades, and the only thing that exists is the beautiful, indifferent landscape and my own strength and skills. Going alone into the wilderness is one of the ways I reclaim myself. It is an act of joy and an act of self-defense.”

read the rest in Outside Online

Elegy for Tahlequah’s Calf

In the Puget Sound region many of us have been heartbroken by the death of an orca calf that lived for only a half hour, the grieving mother carrying her baby through the water for seven days until researchers lost sight of her today. It’s an awful reminder that for all of this region’s natural beauty, it’s in just as much trouble as the rest of the world.

Seattle poet Paul Nelson brings us this elegy:

 

Tahlequah is daughter of Princess Angeline

brother of Moby, sister to Kiki, mother

to Notch. Her second offspring was not

born but born still and still un-named &

un-numbered. For five days Tahlequah

.

pushed her still-born calf around the

Salish Sea, perhaps a hope that she’d

not be a parent to bury a child, perhaps

a grief vigil, the un-named/un-numbered

calf riding dead on her rostrum five days.

 

Read the rest in Cascadia Magazine

A closer wilderness

I fractured my ankle this week. It’s beyond frustrating, not least because I had a lot of hiking and camping–some of it backpacking–in mind for this summer, and now none of that is happening for at least six weeks and probably closer to eight or even ten.

It’s not that getting outside with a mobility issue is impossible–the website Disabled Hikers is a resource dedicated to doing just that–but it changes the game significantly. Though we live in a time when more options are available than ever to assist with mobility issues, the outdoors isn’t exactly designed for it. Even those places that are designed for human activity, such as hiking trails, are created with certain assumptions in mind. So while I’m grateful that there are things like knee scooters now and I’m not stuck relying on the underarm crutches that were basically the only option when I was a kid, I’m having to revise my expectation of my own capabilities, temporarily at least.

One of my favorite parts of this Homeric Hymn to Artemis is its description of Artemis ending Her hunt and descending to the temple of Delphi to order and lead the dances in Apollo’s house. I have no idea if the ancient Greeks meant it this way, but to me it evokes the wild’s entrance into human spaces, however much we might try to keep it out: dandelions pushing through cracks in asphalt, tree roots heaving up sidewalks, critters making their way into our backyards and even our homes. Alan Weisman’s The World without Us imagines how quickly the planet would revert to utter wilderness if humans were to vanish. It would take less time than we might like to think.

We have a tendency, in modern-day America at least, to think of wilderness as something that happens “out there”, that we have to go and find. Where I live in the Northwest, outdoor recreation is more popular than ever, with some parks and hiking trails becoming so crowded that if your purpose in going outside–as mine often is–is to get away from people, you have to put forth a little extra effort. But as that example perhaps illustrates, the boundary is not so hard and fast. Wilderness is less distant, and less separate from us, than we think.

In order to fully understand this–because I do not yet fully understand it myself–I think we need to reconceptualize what wilderness actually is. There are very few places left on the planet that humankind hasn’t touched. If wilderness is something separated from us geographically, then there’s basically none of it left.

But if, instead, wilderness is something that embraces us, that we are part of to some degree even when going about daily lives in spaces we have constructed for our own safety, comfort, and convenience, then there’s plenty of it, and we need look no further than just beyond our own skins.

feet
Human feet and robin feet, separated by time.

spring deer

spring_deer_2018
A doe and two fawns, Port Townsend, WA

Bear was here

IMG_5124
Bear claw marks on a birch tree, Methow Valley, Washington

to Artemis

When I try to explain You, words fail me.

You are a steward, I say.

You are a protector.

Once I called You the ultimate forest ranger.

These are not sufficient.

I try to explain why You protect, and also kill.

Why You are a doula, and never give birth Yourself.

Why You are virgin, as though being a woman in this world were not sufficient explanation.

Perhaps the fault lies in attempting explanation in words.

The forests are explanation.

The mountains are explanation.

The burst of feathers where a quail was killed, the pile of bones where an elk was killed, the tracks of deer and wildcat and coyote and bear…

These are the explanation.

Follow the trail, and understand.

Tom Hirons, “Merrivale”

Speak to me in the language of
Stone and Moss: the brook and
Fox-den know well my mother-tongue.
Let us be clear:
This Moor-language sings sweeter
In my ear than all the songs
I ever heard from angels,
Clear and beautiful as they were.
I tell you no lie,
Not here.

read the rest

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