FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS:
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
There is a complex and in some ways troubling piece of cloth blowing in the winds of change in this 21st Century America, a simple cotton or poly flag of patriotism which has sadly come to symbolize some of the worst and most lamentable traits of human kind. While once an icon of liberation, independence, and self-rule, it has since been appropriated by people who give lip service to freedom while forcing their ideas on individuals and cultures that they consider inferior. Its most dominant color is red, appropriately the color of blood, since in the name of this flag all kinds of evil acts take place including wholesale murder and the oppression of entire parts of our population who have largely been too misled or are afraid to speak up against its ever more perverted principles. How sad, that this flag of individual liberty, once carried by brave men and women willing to risk their lives for a principle, should over the years become something that many folks all over the world now associate with arrogance, power plays, targeted assassinations, and the worst kind of hypocrisy.
That said, I do not support the removal of this flag from the poles where it hangs. Instead, I believe it is something we should be reclaiming not only as a piece of our history but as an emblem for a more just future. Why should we allow hateful people and dishonorable politicians take this once cherished piece of cloth as their own? It is up to us to be the kind of compassionate and open minded folks who welcome diversity, welcome other ways of being and thinking, stand up for justice, and truly act as defenders of human freedom in the face of those groups and governments who now threaten it. Instead of banning it from courthouses and relegating it to historical museums, let us change the culture of dominance that it has sadly come to represent.
Yes, my friends, and perhaps you guessed it… it is high time to reposition and reclaim not the ever controversial Confederate banner, but our vauled American flag – from the racists, the xenophobes, and ecology-destroying drone-wielding despots: Old Glory, the good ol’ red, white, and blue.
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Following The Light of Our Interests, Passions, Obsessions, & Beckoning Opportunities
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
I have been thinking lately about a certain quality– that whenever absent, proves a major factor in our disinterest, dissatisfaction, loss of motivation or lack of progress. And a quality that, when blessedly present, can catch our drifting attention and stir our curiosity, awaken us to deep significance and previously unrecognized beauty. It can affirm our focus and course, or even our most individual purpose or special role. It can alert us to all those small and great things best able to excite and engage us, lifting themselves and us above the deadening norm and into an experience of wonder and revelation. The excitement, reconsideration and insight it brings can lead to action and movement, adventure and growth, the means for our greatest satisfaction. It is what I call the “shimmer,” since it seems to light up and animate only those things certain to have the most meaning in our particular, personal lives. Things which shimmer, are those which seem to us to glisten against a dull background, those imbued with an intensity of color making them stand out from a seemingly monochromatic field and context. They seem to have an almost otherworldly clarity about them, a translucence in balance with remarkable form and palpable substance. When we are children, before a certain age, nearly all things may shimmer for us, each apparently calling for our attention, communicating something we know could be important to our development and well-being. Which things shimmer is different for each person, and this is how you can recognize when a signal, a light, an insight, is for you.
There is something in faery mythology called “glamour,” a spell of illusion casting an aura of preciousness on the ordinary, a gilding that can make a plain rock glint like gold, and make that which we’d find worthless appear valuable and desirable. The shimmer is just the opposite. Rather than being an illusion that beguiles, that which shimmers for us is a truth and treasure revealed. The relationships that serve our spirits, hearts and purposes best, will not be those which are most normal, expected or predetermined, but instead, it is those relatively few relationships that shimmer and refract for us, complex, enlivened, opalescent, and utterly incomparable. Your true mate or “significant others” will shimmer. The friends which will fan your flames and ally with your missions will be those that even next to the nicest of other people will be shimmering in ways impossible for you to discount or ignore.
Likewise, you might “like” where you live, and you may even have a practiced script describing all the entirely practical reasons you have for making what you call a “workable compromise”… but deep down you likely either remember or else can imagine a place, a village, a community, a mountain or valley or oceanside landscape that shimmers like nowhere else for you. This is what brings about the level of personalized bonding that we call “sense of place,” a blissful commitment to community and loyalty to land, a physical reality most conducive to our manifestations and growth.
Not all of us can be sure of earning an income from doing the things we love most. Nevertheless, it would be unhelpful and unhealthful to resign ourselves to a lifetime of working at a job that has no meaning for us, that serves no satisfying purpose beyond a paycheck, that we find uninteresting and that brings us no great enjoyment. Life is too short, I believe, to get stuck in a shimmerless career. Many folks, including artists, musicians, and herbalists, give themselves wholly only to that which they have the greatest love and passion for, and in such cases what shimmers is not what we have so much as what we do.
I am so grateful to have found shimmering love, against a historic backdrop of my failed or unremarkable pairings. So happy that this river canyon sanctuary still shimmers like magic even after years of intimate familiarity. So thankful that a cause and purpose shimmers for me, the awakening, healing, and bettering of the world I feel so integrally and ecstatically bound to. So glad to be able walk my path even at its darkest, proceeding from one beckoning shimmer to the next.
Indeed, much like our own private North Star, that which shimmers for us provides a beacon to follow if we choose, the light of our interests, propensities, and perhaps destinies, showing us a way to turn at the important forks on our personal life-trails. We never need worry about which way is best for us to go, if we are always as much as possible moving away from that which disinterests, disempowers or dispirits us, and towards what most piques, excites, catalyzes, uplifts, enlightens, thrills, fuels, and propels us personally. Don’t feel judgmental for discerning, distinguishing, and choosing between things – you are not putting other things down when you look past them to what shimmers for you individually… remember that they may glow for someone else. Consider this metaphor: Many if not all plants have some kind of medicinal action when consumed, but the exact species that can help a particular person with a certain condition is often one that surprises them in its unveiling and effects, shimmering most for those who most need its healing powers. We do not simply pick out what shimmers, what shimmers equally selects us.
Pursuing gloss and glamour, wealth or recognition, can only lead to distraction and dissatisfaction, far from your spirit and heart, far from what the world really needs from you, and far from your heart’s desires. Or optionally, follow the shimmers, and you are following your heart. If what you do is truly a “calling,” it will shimmer for you, and if ever it stops shimmering it will be a sign for you to look beyond and move on. Find and give yourself to that special place and tribe that shimmers, regardless of how hard the search. Give your greatest love to the lover that shimmers, no matter how difficult, no matter who does or doesn’t approve. Give your greatest attention to your shimmering hopes, your shimmering needs and desires, your purpose or mission, your increasingly shimmering life.
www.PlantHealer.org – www.AnimaCenter.org/blog
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THE VITAL FORCE
New Science, Vitalism, & Healing
by Guido Masé
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist, herbal educator, garden steward specializing in holistic Western herbalism, valued columnist for Plant Healer Magazine, and esteemed teacher at the upcoming Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference atop New Mexico’s Sky Island (click on: www.PlantHealer.org/intro.html). Guido’s teaching style is a good fit for Plant Healer publications and events, focusing as it does on conveying the interconnections within the human organism and between the organism and its surrounding ecology, with a constant eye to the amazing beauty such study reveals: at any level, and in many different “languages”, herbs mirror people, the plant and animal kingdoms grew up together as complements. Such a relational awareness provides meaning and context, critical elements to understanding and also to healing. Learn more about his work and the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism school programs at: http://www.vtherbcenter.org
The following essay is excerpted from the Summer issue of Plant Healer Magazine, available by subscription. To read an excerpt of an in-depth interview with Guido in an upcoming issue of Herbaria Newsletter, subscribe for free by entering your name and email at: www.PlantHealer.org
When I get to the top of a hill, or to a rocky outcrop in the forest, I like to take a moment and put my hands on the raw stone. It can feel hot, if it is exposed in the middle of a summer day; or cool, if it is deep in the shade of the forest. From here, if I slow down a bit, I can get a sense of the roots of the mountain, deep and rocky, cracked and trickling with water, deeper and deeper until it almost feels like I am in touch with a kind of consciousness. But are rocks conscious? Are they alive? Perhaps not in the traditional sense. Although without these rocky bones, the water would not flow the way it does. Streams and swamps would be different, soil would build up in different places. Different trees would grow, different birds would alight on different branches, we would walk different trails and build our homes in different ways. In short, without these rocks, everything would be different. Scoured by glaciers long ago, these stones are a vibrant, essential part of this valley. If the valley is alive, then the rocks must share a piece of its consciousness. Stones, plants, fungi and beasts co-evolved.
What does this mean? Can life forms be really simple – as simple as a pebble in the streambed? Can all the pieces of an ecosystem hold a kind of consciousness, maybe not exactly like ours, but still alive and perceptive? If you speak with healers from many different traditions, your answer will most often be affirmative. There is a vitality that courses through all of the world, from the waters of the ocean to the rocks of the highest mountains. There is vital force – and it may actually predate matter. It is pattern-organizing, it possesses understandable features, it is self-similar at many levels. Or so the story goes.
But this vital force, the élan vital, has been a discredited concept for over two hundred years in the Western system of thought. Those of us who talk about vitalism, about nourishing this power in our gardens, our forests, our bodies and spirits, are ostensibly barking up the wrong tree: a tree that withered and died long ago. So it becomes very difficult, in academic circles, in writing, or even at family gatherings, to have conversations about vitalism, energetics, or other models that speak of qi, unseen forces, humors and balance in our physiologies. Energy systems are an archaic way of thinking. If there is an “energy” coursing through the universe, it is the dissipative force: everything is fading into a slow, homogenous dust. Entropy rules. Vitalism is dead.
Or is it? The Taoist masters talk about a “way” that generates all things, but also grinds them into dust. All around us, we see life increasing in richness. How can we reconcile the homogenizing force of entropy with the “clumping” and complexity everywhere? Many argue that this “clumping” is a rarity – and that may be the case – but it seems that, out of an initial clumpy distribution of energy in the universe, matter and life have exploded into greater and greater diversity in those rare places of high energy concentration. Why is this? Why did the dust surrounding our proto-star clump into planets? Why did the crust of our planet become so complex, when it was once mostly molten silicates? It all makes little sense, because concentrating matter into planets is the exact opposite of diffusion (and diffusion is a clear outcome of the entropic drive).
It turns out that built right in to the concept of entropy is a tendency to generate more and more complex structures. Jeremy England, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spends his days analyzing dissipative structures: systems that take in energy and efficiently distribute it over a wide area. The systems in question are exposed to an energy source and are suspended in a bath of some kind: water, air, plasma. A matrix. What the England lab has discovered is that a system of atoms or particles, when caught between an energy source and a matrix, will continually rearrange itself, increasing in complexity and reproducing its structure.
In so doing it dissipates energy into the matrix more and more efficiently. In other words, life arises to better fulfill the goals of entropy. Birth and death are the same thing. Yang flows into yin, harnesses substance, and generates the ten thousand things.
While this may help explain how life and a drive to complexity may exist hand-in-glove with the entropic drive of the second law of thermodynamics, it still doesn’t explain why people use concepts like the four elements, five phases, humors, ama and agni, or any other energetic descriptions. An animating, vital tendency may exist in all matter as it attempts to dissipate the energy of the universe, but why describe it in such broad, metaphorical strokes? Isn’t this outdated language?
One of recent history’s most prolific mathematical geniuses, Stephen Wolfram has spent years developing more and more sophisticated models of computation. He uses computers to simulate reality – and provide answers for engineers, weather forecasters, and scientists in a wide range of disciplines. But what makes his work unique is his approach to creating models. Take, for example, the problem of determining how a block of concrete will break under stress. What does the crack look like? Where does it go? This a very difficult process to predict accurately. Historically, it involved massive tangles of equations. Inputs including vector forces, the structure and density of the materials, temperature, pressure, and many, many more fed into these equations and a computer attempted to give a “best guess” as to the outcome. This approach attempts to predict outcomes by reducing the system to its components and their relationships. Wolfram’s approach is different: instead of trying to identify and catalog all of the complexity of a living system, he looks for a simple system that behaves just like the complex one. He has hit on a just such a simple mathematical tool that generates endless complexity: the cellular automaton(.
Through these constructs, he has created models that predict concrete shear much more accurately than any reductionist system ever has. So much so, in fact, that engineers now use a cellular-automaton-based system much more often: not just for concrete fracturing(4), but for urban flood planning, evacuation protocols(6), even the stock market – among many others. Two interesting insights follow from this development: first, many processes in the universe seem to follow this simple model, from seashell patterning, to concrete shear, to wood snapping, to spirals forming, to fractals nesting. Second – and this is crucial – it is impossible to actually predict what the next step, the outcome of the system, will be without actually watching it move. That is to say, we can’t predict the future by taking a snapshot of the present, even if we know all the relationships and laws of the universe. This had been the dream of the Newtonian “clockwork” universe: the idea that we would
discover a master equation to predict all outcomes from a given set of conditions. Wolfram has proved that this is impossible for cellular automata, and calls it “the principle of computational irreducibility”. In the common tongue, it means we can’t get to understanding through reductionism. We have to watch the process flow. Ecologists are beginning to understand this inescapable fact.
Taking these two insights into the discipline of medicine, we can make some interesting observations. Prognosis – the art of understanding how a disease will progress, and also how a medicine or treatment will affect the progression – is very tricky business. There are many variables involved. We have attempted biomedical models, based on receptor structure, genetic expression, and so much more. These predictive models work fairly well, but there is still a lot of uncertainty, especially in the more subtle and complex situations. Take, for example, the use of antidepressants. Many physicians like to use SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), but often cycle through many different ones, starting with Prozac, then maybe trying Paxil, and finally settling on Celexa (for example). They are all SSRIs, but some work in certain people, while others don’t. I have even heard physician speak in strange ways about them. “I’ve found Paxil is better for a skinnier, anxious person,” they say. Huh?
So perhaps we can inform prognosis, and perhaps diagnosis too, by applying the idea that a given set of conditions (patient, disease and intervention) can’t really ever give a consistently accurate prediction through an equation or algorithm. Even our most detailed understanding of the body, even a complete map of the whole genome, the whole proteome, microbiome and interactome, cannot yield the predictive power we are looking for. Computational irreducibility proves this. So what are we left with? Useful approximations, for one – and medicine has been relying on these for the last century. But more importantly, faced with the fact that reductionist approaches will always be approximate, to deepen our practice and improve our results we would do well to follow Wolfram’s lead: if we don’t want to watch the disease process unfold in order to see what the future holds (because the future could include death!), perhaps we should watch a simpler model. After all, simple models are able to predict a range of different phenomena incredibly accurately, much better than reductionist approximations. Can this apply to medicine?
The cellular automaton models seem to apply at many levels of reality – from weather patterns to chemical reactions. The patterns they weave hold within them spirals, self-similar cracks, repeaters, reproducing sequences. This presents powerful mathematical evidence, beyond such well-known constants such as φ (phi), that broad self-similarity exists at all levels of reality, and that the same models are equally applicable at all levels. What if the processes we observe in medicine (disease, pharmacodynamics, healing) draw on these models, too? If this were the case, then by observing processes at one level, we could gain relevant insight into medicine and healing. Perhaps the way the weather moves, the way ice cracks and flows into water, the way summer clouds gather into storms on the updrafts of July, all can tell us something about the human body. Perhaps the way fire warms your soup, or wind dries your skin, can give insight into medicine and healing. The current cutting edge of science is telling us that an animating drive towards complexity, adaptation, and reproduction exists at the most basic levels of matter. It affirms that it is impossible to predict outcomes by reducing the current situation to components and running those components through an equation. And it encourages us to seek out patterns we can observe to understand how health and disease work, because reality, though complex, is based on simple patterns and is largely self-similar, with simple models underlying all behavior. Does this sound familiar?
What remains to be seen is whether these energetic, vitalist ideas actually have any bearing in medicine and applied pharmacology. While we have not yet fully built this bridge, the basic infrastructure does exist: network pharmacology, which uses concepts from systems and network graph theories, attempts to understand how medicine works by focusing on structures that are echoed at many levels of reality. Concepts like “hubs” and connectors, which are absent from “random” networks, are found easily in everything from ecologies to the interaction of molecules with the protein networks in human physiology. They can be used to predict how drugs will work in a living system, and how a disease will progress. Since we understand how networks work (by observing them at many different levels of reality), academic researchers are starting to apply these ideas to how medicinal plants help with disease, and how different people with the same “condition” might respond differently to the same herb. This is powerful stuff, and it won’t be long now before traditional concepts of energetics will become a source of wisdom to understand how medicine works. Herbalists will be ready.
So next time you feel the cool stone beneath your fingers, deep in an old-growth grove, your harvest basket full of summer’s wild harvest, think about the vital force that brought this all into being. Remember how it courses through all things, invisible but understandable, with clear patterns that are both simple and incredibly powerful. Patterns that are encoded into energetic concepts. Energies that are brought to bear in healing human suffering. Vitalism is alive and well – you just need a new language if you want to talk about it with physicists and physicians. I prefer the poetry of weather, the whispers of spirits. But physics and math weave amazing stories, too. And herbalists have always been equal-opportunity storytellers.
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The Care-Taking Mission & The Search For Home
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
It has been a busy Spring here in the wilds, connected as we are to the larger world through the magic of internet and at the behest of a calling – in the past month putting together another free Herbaria Newsletter plus the next 280 pages-long Plant Healer Magazine, producing a new color book on the history of herbalism and medicine called The Traveling Medicine Show, working on the upcoming Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, and writing posts for several blogs. The advantage of affecting culture and human kind from the “comforts” of a remote wilderness sanctuary, is tempered by the awareness that the walls of these crudely built cabins are in need of caulk and waterproofing or paint, that Elka could use help keeping the firewood split that heats our homes and food, and that I have not been able to break away long enough to run the water pump to move precious water from our rain barrels to our storage tanks before this coming weekend’s expected storm. I have missed the raw experience of daily close contact with the elements and fundamentals of real existence, the ritual chores of connection, the scent and heft of wood and water. This led me to pondering again in the middle of the night, as to what kinds of folks might work best to share our incredible land and necessary responsibilities with. It’s intensely wonderful here in such a wildly natural place, but most would say it has too many drawbacks being remote, in a county with a few hundred libertarian country folk, hard to make money, and anything but hipster. The result of such midnight thoughts was my writing my latest post for the Mother Earth News blog. While most often we post about herbs and healing, this time I cover the subject of “Caretaking in Paradise” – not an appeal for assistance and involvement at Anima Sanctuary so much as encouragement and a primer for folks who cannot afford to buy remote property but wish for a way to live out in nature somewhere nonetheless. I include in the post a list of practical tips for finding and arranging for caretaker positions in the rural and wilderness parts of this country. It brought to mind the times before I arrived in our river canyon, when this impoverished young dreamer was searching out places where I might be useful, healthful, and welcome: “For nearly 15 years, I learned to reinhabit the mountains of the rural West by caretaking a number of places: A wild turkey refuge on a creek 23 miles of dirt road into the forest from the small village of Pecos, New Mexico, planting oats for the birds and keeping the pipes thawed between the spring box and the log cabin provided. A ramshackle cattle ranch west the ghost town of Chloride. An A-frame near the art colony of Taos, that I repaired and painted instead of paying rent.”
The search of course, led me here, and probably could have led me nowhere else. This enchanted land, its shining examples and difficult challenges, have in combination informed my thinking and teaching, and largely shaped the person that I am. It inspired my lifelong commitments to its care and restoration, though that ended up meaning being along here for over a decade. The folks who at one time or another were pledged to live here or who helped pay for the sanctuary all drifted away, except for one who fortunately helps ensure its legal protection from afar, and my family who tend its needs are few indeed, but it nonetheless remains true that a primitive homestead lifestyle and our important duties are meant to be the work of a clan if not village, community, tribe. To thrive, rural, farm, and wilderness land needs to be free from the crowds and concrete of so-called “civilization,” and yet if can benefit from small groups who guard, restore, and celebrate it. Finally, as I wrote for the M.E.N. blog:
“…remember that caretaking means literally “taking care” – tending, maintaining, nurturing, and ultimately benefitting a home and ecosystem that you deeply care about! It works best not as an experiment but as commitment, committing as fully to a place and purpose as we would to a spouse, a child, or a cause. …Whether we end up a lifetime caretaker or making years of payments, we each have the option and opportunity to live our wildest dreams – including a dream of living close to the land and the elements, inspired by its beauty, fulfilled by our earthen role and worthy tasks.”
To write us, email: mail(at)AnimaCenter(dot)org – And to read the entire Mother Earth News blog post, click on: Caretaking in Paradise
A Healthy Look at Anger
Hospital-Caused Deaths, Twitter Indicators, Heart Attack & Prevention
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
The second greatest cause of deaths in this country are factors associated with conventional hospital care, from misdiagnosis to resistant infection and drug side effects, as my partner Kiva and I regularly lament. Recently our esteemed herbalist friend Paul Bergner alerted us to a report in a 2013 edition of The Journal of Patient Safety, discussing extensive research indicating there are an estimated 400,000 deaths per year directly related to drug-based modern medicine and hospital care. These statistics, you must admit, are downright alarming. More than that, they flat-out piss me off… as they likely anger a good number of our Plant Healer readers as well!
But be careful how angry you get when you stop to think about this regrettable fact, with anger looking more and more like a primary preventable trigger of the numero uno cause of death: the approximately 600,000 women and men succumbing each year to a fatal heart attack. That anger triggers HCV symptoms and gall bladder pain, I can personally attest. But some curious researching of twitter messaging habits makes me think about the ol’ ticker as well.
Social Media data is increasingly being analyzed by healthcare researchers for a better understanding of disease patterns and causes. According to a January 14th, 2015 science report on National Public Radio, the internet platform Twitter has provided some very telling statistics. Of particular interest to this discussion, it was found that those places where the greatest number of angry “tweets” issue from, strongly correlated with those areas reporting the greatest number of deaths from heart attack. As NPR science reporter Shankar Vedantam explained:
“There’s new work now that connects Twitter with heart disease, because it turns out that you can trace many tweets to the location from which they were sent. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools traced these tweets and then they analyzed the language in the tweets to see if they were expressing anger, or love, or boredom. And they find, in an analysis of more than 1,300 counties, that the amount of anger expressed on Twitter is a very powerful predictor of heart disease in those counties. And in fact, anger, hostility and aggression on Twitter is better able to predict patterns of heart disease than 10 other leading health indicators, including smoking, obesity and hypertension.”
Bergner points reminds us that correlation is at best indication, and does not equal causation: “Sometimes two things that seem causally correlated are both caused by something else. What if living in a high crime expensive polluted city causes heart attacks, and also causes people to be angry? With obesity and heart attacks, the correlation disappears when you remove insulin resistance, the insulin resistance causes the obesity and it causes the heart attacks.”
Yet, even if a direct causative relationship between anger and heart attacks remains unproven, it would seem to be their mutual causes that need to be determinedly addressed.
There is much to be upset about, and crucial for a healer of any kind – herbalist, nurse, nurturer, culture-shifter – empathize with, hurt over, take exception to, and try to address, confront, transform, or otherwise heal. Dwelling in our pain and anger, however, is likely to do more damage to our health than bring justice to the world. Instead, acting on our feelings can vent dangerous pent-up frustration, releasing tension through direct action and purposeful effort regardless of how successful such efforts and acts are. I am angry over the persecution of herbalists and marginalizing of herbalism, and the threat posed by pharmaceuticals. I’m ticked-off about the lying and manipulative politicians of both parties who continue destroying the environment and supporting corporatism and war, riled at the disappearance of wild habitat for plants and animals and free spirited people, upset with onerous regulation and oppressive laws, disgusted with bioengineered foods and proprietary seeds. And thus, my preventative treatments for possible future heart attacks include helping to gather, store and promote wild seed varieties, protesting against or working to change unjust laws, purchasing and restoring a riparian ecosystem and encouraging its plant and wildlife, refusing to vote for what we imagine to be the “lesser of two evils”… and supporting the herbal resurgence against all odds, in every ways possible. With every strenuous effort I make, I can feel the anger resolve into calm deliberate purpose, feel the tension dissolving in my weight bearing shoulders, my busy head, and my still beating chest.
Most official and unofficial websites discussing heart failure give us the same, not always correct recommendations. According to the MNT Knowledge Center, for example, the steps to preventing heart attack are:
1. Follow instructions on medications usage (!)
2. Make sure diet is low in salt, fat, and cholesterol (even though nutritional cholesterol has been proven to have no significant effect on the levels of harmful cholesterol in the blood!)
3. Exercise in the form of a 10-minute walk…
4. Quit smoking, and
5. Avoid drinking alcohol.
Hell’s-bells, as my Papa used to say! No mention of herbs, of course. Not a single word about not bottling-up our emotions, or making changes in where and how we live. Maybe we should add a fifth recommendation:
5. Don’t get angry, get even! (in other words, take charge of our own health, and work to change the dominant system!)
With that calmly considered amendment, I think I’ll ask our partner Kiva – the blender of genuinely remarkable Margaritas – if she’ll kindly fix me a drink.
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THE MEDICINE BUNDLE:
Magic, Commitment, & Song
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
I was in my seeking twenties when some of the most magical, incredible events of my life transpired, casting light on my purpose and some of what that purpose entails.
Truly, all the world is nothing less than amazing, and we all experience many instances of bizarre timing inexplicable coincidences and unexpected fortunes… and yet, apart from spiritual visions or hallucinatory trips on sacred mushrooms or peyote, extreme occurrences outside the realm of reason are rare. We have reason to pay attention, and to try to comprehend their significance. And all the more so, when they also come with an intimation or proclamation, a message or directive. It is problematic if we read something into an event that doesn’t really exist, project on it our own fantasies or fears, but it is all the more worrisome if we fail to heed the revelatory patterns unfolding around us and for us, patterns that – like speech – have the potential to communicate something to us.
I’d lived in the wilderness river canyon we now call Anima Sanctuary for less than five years at the point of my discovery, having given up an art gallery in Taos and sold everything including my vehicles for a down payment on this inspirited wilderness inholding. I was still, having a very hard time making the semi-annual land payments, and being a writer/artist with no marketable skills, I was always in danger of losing it back to the seller. Trips away to make money were heartbreaking, always missing my home when gone, and often suffering the pain of environmental destruction that my work was devoted to opposing. I could not understand how my calling to pledge myself to this wildlands sanctuary, could possibly fit with a calling to help effect and heal the larger world and errant human society. Much had happened to demonstrate the limits to even my most determined efforts. I was closer than ever to dropping my Quixotic quest, ceasing my trips and activism, cloistering in the canyon and laboring locally only enough to make the payments and fill my belly. And it was exactly in this moment of reassessment and self doubt that it started happening.
Climbing a section of the mountain here that I had climbed many times before, I first laid eyes on a fiber sandal sole, protected from the rain, rot, and the harsh New Mexico sun by the an overhanging boulder. Tears flowed as I though about what it meant to “fill the shoes” of those who came before, especially those who up until a thousand years ago were the guardians of this land and its animate spirits. Holding it up to my own bare foot, the sole seemed a perfect fit, and I was overcome with the feeling of needing to continue – however clumsily – walking the path of committed caretakership. From the site of the sandal, I followed an ancient trail leading upwards to a narrow cave penetrating the mountain heart. I held tightly as I dared to the crumbling cliff side, since a single slip could mean a terrible fall, and eased my way out of the sun glint and into the dark. Once my eyes began to adjust, strange objects began to take shape before me: A design painted in red ochre on the wall, of what appeared to be a red wolf mother with teats. Pieces of pottery painted with geometric designs. And most portentous of all, a medicine bundle that to this day I don’t feel privileged to describe.
Upon its discovery, I began making inquiries of the medicine elders I knew in the various New Mexico pueblos, along with my spiritually-connected friend David Hopper (actor Dennis Hopper’s brother) in Taos. Keep the bundle where it is, I was told, do not sell it or put it at risk for any reason. It was one of four bundles secreted by the elders before the last migration, and the fate of human kind could in part rest on the dutiful protection and consecration of such bundles.
I have treasured the role and duty, however unqualified and unprepared I might be. Every Spring Equinox, I did as instructed, holding the bundle out to each of the four directions as the morning sun first falls on the cave face. Rawn, a witness to some of the magic, has faithfully attended over fifteen years in a row, as Elka stands close to the river and sings her special wordless song.
Does it really matter if anyone watches or anyone hears the song, or if any conscious spirit or God values the ceremony of connection and promise? Would the world really be in danger, or even noticeably different, if the bundle were left hidden in its earthen safe, or sold to a museum, or somehow damaged? Is its significance as large as the planet, or only as big as I, David, Rawn, and the tribal elders make it out to be?
These days, I continue to give thought to what my most effective role is, and what the most effective mediums (art? music? nonfiction books? graphic novels? activism?) might be. I have a million projects I’d like to do, all to help better the world and none meant simply to provide an income. But which, for which communities, and when? What besides guarding this canyon legacy and helping restore this ecosystem is a worthy expenditure of my finite mortal time? How can I do my very best, and give the very most?
The only clear answer I get, is to keep doing all that I can. I have to figure out the specifics, of course, but the general answer is the same whether the perfect fit of the sandal prophetically means “the shoe/role fits, so wear it!,” or if it is simply a sign that I and a certain prehistoric inhabitant of this canyon share a common foot size. Dance your dance. Fulfill your commitments, whether there are witnesses or not. Keep on honoring what is honorable, in whatever ceremonies feel right to you. Acknowledge and put to use the real magic that exists, in contrast to society’s brilliant illusions and slight-of-hand tricks. Do whatever ceremonies give power to your purpose and meaning to your life. Sing your own special song, even if no one hears.
Spring Equinox Blessings to you all….
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Killers, Meat-Eating, & Rights vs Considerations
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
It hasn’t been easy being someone active in environmental and social issues often championed by the left wing, while writing about western history and antique firearms for an often right leaning audience. Not easy to be a free thinking libertarian in a society that largely surrenders its independence for the illusion of safety and a semblance of comfort, or someone with a low income who is bent on making things hotter for the elite 1%. Or a lover of peace who practices self-defense moves. Or a guardian of nature who hunts animals, at a time when most nature advocates are against all hunting.
The following thoughtful email from Jeff, an urban activist, asks questions about the latter, seeming contradiction – and I hope you find my response underneath it to be thought provoking. Let’s begin with the premise that nothing is ever black and white, all bad or all good. I suspect this email dialogue could be cause for a heated argument or two, but this could have its beneficial side. Such passions are known to increase excitement, speed up the pulse, and promote action… each a fair measure, you’ll note, of how alive we are…. -Wolf
Hello Jesse Wolf,
I’ve always had a deep appreciation of wilderness and wildlife. I’ve also read quite a bit on Deep Ecology, Conservation vs. Preservation, Environmental Ethics , American Indian ecology and spiritualism, and animal welfare and animal rights . But I have been perplexed always by one question, to which you seem the ideal person to ask (I remember seeing a younger you interviewed in the documentary “Redwood Summer”). As one who has shared very much your thoughts and feelings about other life forms and their natural communities, I was flabbergasted in seeing you holding a rifle and other weapons of destruction. Which leads me to the question I ask to you, and have to many others, but with no satisfactory explanation:
You have great kinship with life and I assume fall under being a biocentric egalitarian, yet you are a KILLER of Life. Please do not be taken aback by what I have said, for I have said this to myself before writing it to you. Then I said to myself, but the most spiritual people in this hemisphere, American Indians, killed animals daily. Is this your mentality when shooting animals? Or do you shoot them for recreation too, perhaps to close the bond between real man and real nature. I say this not with ill will to you, only to elicit finally a satisfactory answer which I myself have struggled with for years.
I love the environmental philosophy of Deep Ecology, sacred and whole earth, and the spirit of all beings and things. But, damn, there’s another side to me that tells me compassion. If I were living in the Pleistocene again, or under similar circumstances now (nuclear winter, meteor strike like 65 million ago, etc.), then I’d have no problem spearing, blasting or trapping an animal for food. But, and I live in New York City, I now have other food choices to avoid killing. Many of my friends are now vegans, and swear by PETA. So, how can one exhilarate the glory of the earth and its life, while at the same time killing that life. Would not Thoreau, Schweitzer and Ghandi condemn this hypocrisy. Is not the short and cruel life of the chicken, pig or calf in a factory farm worth as much as any wild animal, be it wolf or grizzly?
To answer no, is to become Lord Man again. What exactly are the “rights of nature”; is it only the “rights of species”? That’s the paradox I’ve felt for quite a long time, I’m like a hybrid. Radically for the environment, and radically for the beings who inhabit it. Can’t seem to have a land ethic without a life ethic, and vice versa. People working all their lives to put circuses, zoos, puppy mills, kill-shelters, fur farms, etc. out of business, and then people working to put lumber and oil companies, ranches and Big Agriculture out of business. I’m going crazy being a member of Humane Society and PETA, while also the Wilderness Society and WildEarth Guardians.
Can you maybe help me out on this? I’d appreciate your own thoughts on this, especially the role of animal rights in today’s society living along side a healthy environmental movement. Thanks very much for your time, and do answer at your convenience.
Sincerely, Jeff (an activist)
to which I replied:
Greetings To You Jeffrey:
I seldom have time for correspondence, caught up as I still am with the somewhat Quixotic but evermore urgent and time consuming mission of helping awaken and heal people and planet. I cannot, however, ignore such a well considered letter of inquiry, from such a clearly caring young person. Relatively young, I surmise, since traits like introspection, the questioning of assumptions, empowerment and even enthusiasm all too often decline with the passing years and the imposition of harsh realities, blinding comforts, or insipid compromise.
An appreciation for wilderness and wildlife such as yours, or dare I say, a physical, emotional and spiritual or “magical” connection to the wild natural world and to one’s one own true wild nature, is not only laudable but essential – crucial to knowing one’s self, their place in the world, and membership in the chain of life and death and purposeful coevolution. It is thus, that if you are willing to commit to critical thinking as well as deep feeling, I can commit this time to explanation.
Before getting to the “meat” of the matter, let us please dispense with the notion of “animal rights.” There are no rights in nature, only each being’s claim to existence and survival, and a balancing of individual, community and ecosystem needs. Rights are liberties or protections assigned by a figure of authority, be it religious (God) or secular (Government). Animals don’t have any intrinsic or inalienable rights, but then – no matter what the U.S. Constitution says –neither do we. As we’ve seen since the attacks on the World Trade Center, any government-given rights are temporary and conditional at best, and can be taken away whenever “security” or “order” are deemed threatened. In a world of no rights, it becomes all the more important that we ourselves do right… and that we actively intercede whenever and wherever we see wrongs and injustices being committed. In a world of no rights, things require considerations: thoughtful, careful and caring evaluation, relationship and interaction. We don’t really have the right to unimpeded free speech in this country, as numerous news stories have recently borne out, therefore we consider it essential to speak our minds. Other species are often at our mercy, their lives and deaths hinging on us, and thus we must consider their needs for territory and sustenance, postured against our perceived needs for ever increasing population, new housing, or a certain flavor of roast. We should consider and care for animals, not because it is their right, but because it is right to do so.
I certainly understand your discomfort with “killing,” and you would be correct to think no one is more appalled by or driven to action than I by the sight of ancient old growth forests being killed… at times processed by beguiled mill workers whose timber and jobs were all being shipped overseas. As their advocate, I was assaulted, imprisoned, maced. I have fought to oppose the killing of large predators, whose deaths do nothing to ensure healthy herds of elk and deer. I am disgusted by the visiting “horn hunters” who kill elk here in this NM county, remove their coveted antlers and then leave the hundreds of pounds of life-giving meat rotting on the ground. Commercial meat production facilities are abhorrent in every way. Killing people for any reason but immediate self defense is what I would call indefensible, whether it is a murder committed by a thug or a policeman, by a pissed off Jihadi warrior or the Democran/Republicrat president’s horridly impersonal drones.
That said, all of life is responsible for the giving of death. You cannot rinse with mouthwash without wiping out innumerable bacteria, including those known to be beneficial. You cannot walk without ever stepping on bug. In addition, if you eat any plant matter besides fruits, legumes and nuts, you are likely responsible for the killing of plants. It would be the height of anthropocentric hubris to imagine plants are happy to be whacked for our salads, or to think they experience nothing akin to pain! We can only escape the “killer consumer” label if we convince ourselves that plants aren’t alive, or that their lives are somehow less precious and individuated than the lives of our cousin animals. And none of us can be said to have no blood on our hands, who live in cities that were once wildlands full of wandering critters and their native hunters and celebrants. If you live on tofu, your domestic investment in the soy industry is resulting in the death and displacement of vast numbers of indigenous plant life and native animals. If you use manmade instead of leather products, you have helped make possible the poisoning of animals through the manufacture, off-gassing and then dissolving of polymers. And I hate to say it, but if you have ever paid taxes, you have done your part to fund roads being built into wilderness, giant dams that bring about the death of endangered salmon, medical research that sometimes tortures its animal subjects, and missiles that vaporize goats and wildlife and innocent children as well as convoys of targeted “militants.”
Indeed, no one is blameless when it comes to death and killing, and all of us bear some responsibility for the results of our choices as well as actions, but neither blame nor responsibility fully address your quandary. What we need is to understand that life subsists on life, in an act of eating and being eaten that is not evil even when it feels lamentable, life animated and propelled through an exchange of nutrients as well as energy and influence. While made up of a diverse number of interactive life forms from micro to macro, all things of this Earth also exist and function as one mega organism, molecules of soil and microbe and person and bear that are never truly separate from one another. The vegetables we eat, sprouted from the fertile detritus that is the bodies of “perished” (deconstructed) fauna and flora. It is through the process of being eaten, that they transform into man and woman, mother, father, soldier, social activist, or healer. We become a little more like the foods we eat, and those foods re-manifest as us. When life is consumed, whether grazed or butchered, it changes form. For that reason, the ethical challenge becomes for us to be at least as real and whole, as enlivened, as sentient – and as much of a gift – as those plants and animals we eat. The primary ethical question becomes not whether or not to “take,” but rather, how best to give back!
To the extent that Native Americans or any other indigenous people ever seem more “spiritual,” as you say, it is not due to ethnicity but a culture of belonging to this terrifying, inspiring, always changing, natural world… a result of being part of a “gifting cycle,” of direct, practiced, personal relationship to the living earth that we are all an integral part of. Even there where you are in NYC, vitality and wisdom depends not on good thoughts or ideals so much as the exact point where feet touch the soil, where hands tend gardens or indoor plants, and where ideas are put into visible and effective action. No amount of pavement and concrete between us and the ground can make us into aliens, but we can and do alienate ourselves through imagined separation from the processes and intentions of the living whole. Our bodies will inevitably be reunited with the elements of the very real world, but until then, we humans have the option of infinite distractions and debilitating self delusions… scientifically or religiously parsing, without the conscious membership and immersion that make us more native and knowing, more relevant and helpful, more healthful and alive.
Beyond that, yes, I am a “killer” of life as you said, just as surely as I am life’s defender and proponent. I am an occasional hunter, aware that I have an omnivore’s body that developed over millions of years to thrive on a diet that includes a percentage of animal protein, and this body likewise developed the physical appendages and natural abilities to effectively obtain it. I respect the quarry I hunt, adore and learn from them, and it feels nothing but right that we should love and mourn and then celebrate that which we bring death to, and that we are able to admire the plants and animals that contribute to the foods we eat. It hurts my heart to bring them down and still their breaths, or even to make soup of a domestic rooster or pull an edible plant out of the soil by its roots… and this conscious awareness and pain of connection and caring is itself a gift to me, a gift that’s as nourishing to my being and to my humanness as any broth. Everyone who eats their veggies, should spend time planting a seed, watering and tending the new shoots, breathing into it and allowing it to breath into them, in order to honor the preciousness of their life and the significance of their death. And I think that any who eat flesh from a package, should at least once raise and love an animal, before painfully taking its life and accepting its life-perpetuating gift.
While I can support actions against puppy mills and fur farms, I do worry about the ways in which well meaning practices like radical veganism and animal rights ideology contribute to our imagined separation from and superiority over the rest of the natural world. We were neither assigned to be nor evolved to become the all knowing managers of a passive planet, but instead, we are born to be active participants in the natural and purposeful ebb and flux, growth and rest, life and death cycles of a planet in perpetual and magnificent flux. Can the planet support endless numbers of hunters, or even chicken and beef eaters? Of course not, but neither can it survive the effects of an ever expanding number of vegetarians… or hysterical PETA orators, or nonviolent Buddhists, or even of socially and environmentally conscious young folks like you. Until an epidemic, nuclear exchange or bioengineering fiasco brings about a drastic reduction in our numbers, living a conscionable and ecofriendly existence will be an important but difficult quest, and slowing the destruction and denaturing of the world will be our nearly impossible but wholly essential mission.
Should you or anyone else be eating meat? That is for you to decide, based on your awareness of your body’s requirements, and your relationship with your chosen foods. Of course you should weigh the environmental effects, of vegetable and grain production as well as meat production. Measure the indirect and long term consequences. My best counsel is to not only listen to your heart, but also study and compare actual research. Know where your foods come from, how they were grown and how they treated, how far they were shipped, what nutrients they contain as well as any noxious chemicals that may have been added. Consume foods produced as locally as you are able, usually from the same state if not the same county you live in. Are they truly free range? From small farms or corporate? I’d add, never waste anything. And when you are at the table, set aside those feelings of guilt. At this point, the best way to honor the deaths of those plants and animals we choose eat is to intensely taste, savor, appreciate, celebrate, and praise them!
I advise that you don’t look for universal answers or one-size-fits-all-solutions, for moral righteousness or ideological purity, and that you increase your awareness as well as compassion to measure all ideas and acts. Equip yourself with the tools of discernment, not with self assuring dogmas. It is as vital to dissect and evaluate, each and every moment, even as we choose, commit and do. Hopefully your questions will never end, with each discovery and realization leading to further chains and channels of inquiry. Is the warehousing of impounded dogs and unwanted cats always better for them than dying? Are pets and domestic animals more important issues of concern than the well being and continued existence of wild species? Are bacteria, which are being found to help orchestrate so much of our bodily design and function, less important or worthy of consideration than poodles? Are the actions of a woman of man hunting his meal, or even of a person raising sheep for their meat and wool, really more onerous than the burning of forests or banishment of indigenous tribes for palm oil or the extirpation of wild plants and animals for the makings for our tofu? And most urgently, what are the actual effects and indirect consequences of every single choice you make – of everything you either choose, or fail, to do?
There is, however, really nothing to choose between social activism and environmental action, between care for individuals and whole species, between treating farm animals well and protecting wild ecosystems. When I coined the word “ReWilding” over three decades ago, I didn’t just mean establishing wildlife migration corridors, I meant the rewilding of our own natural beings as well as of this oppressed world and its life forms. Liberate the timid human mind. Free the children. Free ourselves. We need to address it all, at once. The hard thing is focusing on each long enough to make a difference! In this effort, I send all my encouragement and support.
I hope I’ve been of some help. In a natural and balanced world, there would be more wild critters than people, and you and I would likely hunt for the opportunity to embody their spirits and extraordinary powers as well as for the strength their flesh can give. We would be just as sensitive to the pain of the plants we take for healing and food, praise them in song and spread their seeds. I wouldn’t have a slew of cage-rattling books to sit at a computer and write, and I would therefore have plenty of time to point out some of the medicinal and edible plants we pass as I taught you at least a thing or two about tracking those fellow creatures you had once emailed me about.
Adventure and savor,
Jesse Wolf Hardin
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My 35th Anniversary: Precious Place & Unfailing Commitment
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
The start of a New Year is always as good a time as any to look back at what we’ve been doing, to get a feel of the direction our road ahead leads us. January, 2015, provides additional motivation, marking as it does the anniversary of my marriage to this wild land.
It was 35 years ago that I closed the odd Taos art gallery that I was a youthful partner in, and gave up the work of awing (whether inspiring or unsettling) the mostly wealthy Texan buyers in exchange for an artful life in a true New Mexico wilderness. Situated in the far north of the state, eclectic Taos community and culture provided a special milieu for the development of this artist/author/activist, yet I was unable to resist the call from the spectral mountain ranges of the Gila, far to the south and near to Old Mexico.
So great was the beckoning, the intoxication, that I would crazily move away from the source of my artist’s income, away from an aesthetic and alternative community, to a place with far more elk than people, and with those people mostly being ranchers and renegades with little use for an artist’s talent.
At first I imagined it was all about me, my needs, and the path I was on. I had certainly come for my own salvation and empowerment, for the ways of the ancients and the new sources of inspiration that my spirit and work craved, and it in these ways this move served me well. It was not long, however, before I began to realize the degree to which I, instead, had been called to serve the land.
The price I paid to come here, and stay here, was certainly high enough, including: The sale of my vehicles, and even the engine out of the school bus home I lived in, in order to cover the down payment, and then years with no way to get to the nearest town and store except to walk. Fifteen years of burdensome land payments that I had a hell of a time making enough money to cover, having to be away from home months at a time working not as an artist or teacher but as an adobe brick maker, a bodyguard, a hunting guide, and a traveling rock n’ roll drummer. The loss of the family I arrived with, and being tucked so far away from the children I made. I doubt I could have persevered in this canyon if it had only been for the sake of my personal refuge, adventure, enjoyment, or inspiration. But for the chance to fulfill a calling, for the opportunity to protect and nourish and restore such a special wild place, no price is too high, no terrible cost too great for me to bear.
So often, the sale of property marks the moment its natural landscape is flattened for building sites, its native fauna and flora replaced with manicured pets and manicured lawns, but in this case it proved to be private ownership that made possible a halting of the harm it was suffering, made possible the reintroduction of a native plant species and return of its diverse wildlife.
For over a decade, I regularly left this sanctuary as part of a mission to promote nature awareness and environmental ethos and activism, combining informational and motivational talks with live music and dance, supporting local campaigns to protect forest or fauna, participating in essential protest and sometimes civil disobedience.
Thousands of hours of campaign work and outreach, public demonstrations and blockades, times of getting abused by corporate thugs, handcuffed and maced, and yet few of our activist successes proved as long lasting as – or any more significant than – the preservation and rewilding of Anima Sanctuary and the river canyon it guards the gates of. Ancient redwood trees I risked my freedom to save were subsequently cut, but the sanctuary still stands, more whole than ever, more vital, enlivened, thriving. One of the most valuable thing I have done with my life, and it required staying put, learning to be native to the land, protecting it against trespass and damage, giving as much or more as one is given, and refusing to give up. My final tour was close to 70 shows and 35 protests in 1991, choosing to affect the world through the then “new” internet technology while closely tending the sanctuary.
For ten years, I tried bring folks here to the canyon to experience what it and I could offer, spurring transitions, and inspiring transitions. Elka (then called Loba) arrived and hosted annual Wild Women’s Gatherings. Then another transition of my own, joining with partner Kiva in supporting the folk herbal movement with the help of our Plant Healer Magazine. This blog evolved from a record of student responses and anima lessons, to a place us to post the articles that fit nowhere else, and recount the tales of our dedicated lives and this canyon we are dedicated to. As a result, hundreds of people can attest to the significance of the sanctuary and its lessons about finding and pledging to home, including:all those who came for counsel, quests or retreats, to contemplate their purposes and inspire them to change their lives. The participants of the Wild Foods Weekends and Women’s events. The volunteers, interns, and homestead helpers who helped to plant the native seeds, deal with invasive species, and tend the cattle proof fencing. Our nearest rancher neighbors, who went from feeling threatened by my presence to appreciating my role in helping save this part of the Old West from the often inglorious and unlovely mechanisms of the modern age. And my dear family that eventually came and stayed, each promising themselves to the land just as I had myself. All can speak to the crucial value of unbridled nature, of inspirited place, of passionate caring and pledges to be kept… not just the importance of healthy change, but the value of what lasts.
It is not just the actual supporters of and visitors to the Anima Sanctuary who can speak to its significance and impact, of course, and it is especially satisfying to think of all of you for whom the mythos, trials and joys of the “Canyon” has felt somehow personal. You have both recoiled and rallied to help when it was threatened by onrushing wildfire, and been inspired by our encounters with floods to mine the blessings and lessons that come with extremes.
You have joined us in celebrating the growth of trees where there once were none remaining, the medicine plants that have reappeared and helped to keep us healthy, and the coming of each Spring’s green sprouting.
Our tales of becoming familiar with and learning to care for this land, have encouraged many of you to pay closer attention to where you live, to tend it and delight in it. Others of you have felt inspired to seek out a new place to live that does more to feed your spirit and purpose. You’ve told me that my stories about tilting my head to spit the berries on the wild mulberry tree here, has encouraged you to adjust your perspective on the world around you. Some of you have said that the emphasis on growing roots here, has you looking to your feet and to the ground beneath them.
And that’s just perfect, whether you are living in the city or the countryside, for we all need to plant our roots if we are to grown and strengthen. If we are not yet ready to root and settle, it is still to the ground at our feet that we must look – not to distant ethers – in order to find and define our path.
It is to all of you, then, that I invite to join me in celebration of this 35th Anniversary. Do something for and with the place you live. Feel free to imbibe the intoxicant of your choice. And raise a toast, if you please, to all things worth an unfailing commitment.
My gratitude to Rhiannon, Elka, Kiva, every supporter and sponsor we have ever had, to our students, apprentices and allies past and present, to everyone who has stuck with me through the years, the challenges, the discoveries and joys. We and the Sanctuary are with you too, in all you face and do. A wondrous New Year to you, Compañeros y Compañeras de la Tierra.
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Getting Too Big For Our Britches
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
There are a number of expressions people use to let a young boy or girl know they are out of line, and need to cut back on their shine. It may be that they are getting so confident as to be careless, seemingly endangering themselves and others, or else so sure of themselves that it begins to sound cocky and grate on the folks around them. Other times, all that’s required is for the kid or teen to express an opinion in the midst of a conversation by adults…. adults who imagine their age means that they always know better. They say things like “you’re too full of yourself,” as if it would somehow be healthier to be filled by a sense or notion outside of our selves. And “You’re getting too big for your britches,” meaning that one’s abilities haven’t caught up with their growing sense of prowess.
It’s an expression I heard a lot when I was growing up, even though by the 1960s almost no one in the cities used the word “britches” anymore when they referred to a pair of pants. And even though, in reality, any “britches” I owned were nearly always at least two sizes too large for my bod. This somewhat problematic fact had to do with the fact that my mother was the one to purchase my clothes when I was a child, and continued to help keep me in threads long after I became a runaway living in “crash pads” and enjoying a raggedy outlaw look out on the streets. Many is the time I opened up a Christmas present of denim bluejeans in my desired color black, or slid a pair of six-pocket khaki shorts out of a proffered shopping bag, only to hold them up and find they were some four inches too long, of sufficient girth to hold more than one of me in its roomy hold. The length was easily remedied by rolling about 3 to 4″ of the legs, not like the goofy cuffs on fictional Tom Sawyer’s trademark Levis, but rolled under and inside the legs like my Mama showed me, so as not to show. A greater challenge was the substantial waist, and a seat that encompassed far more than my admittedly insubstantial little ass. I loved my collection of leather belts, but cinching one up would cause the waists to fold and pleat, and the rest to blouse out like clown pants or the chinos on a homeboy.
This went on for a number of years before I, at around age 20, finally asked her the reason. Was she being thrifty, thinking it more economical for me to grown into them instead of quickly growing out of them? “No,” she told me, she simply misjudged my actual size, repeatedly, in spite of all evidence that she was leaning a little on the “my largo” side when making her selections each time. “It just always seems like you are bigger than you are. As soon as I get out of sight, I picture a son that’s apparently larger than you really are.” And why would that be, I asked. “Maybe it’s your stage presence,” she replied. From the time I was a pushy and precocious toddler, she was evidently dressing a larger than life persona. “You were just so full of yourself,” she, too, told me. And I avoided asking what else I would be better filled with, not wishing to perplex her any further.
One trait that marked my mom, was that unlike other elders in my life, she made no appeal for me to reduce my presence or be an less intensely myself, to keep my opinions quiet, shrink away, or even to really behave. She did all she could to reinforce my self confidence, and usually found my teenage cockiness more notable and entertaining than aggravating. She acted as if anything I ever might want to do or be, was a role I could be sure to grow into.
Other adults were less accepting and encouraging, continually pissing me off by laughing at or trivializing my ideas, dismissing the thoughts and feelings of their own children, talking about putting the “willful young” in their “place,” showing them who is smartest. But c’mon! If kids were so much smarter than the young, we wouldn’t make fun of magic and obey unjust rules. We wouldn’t be voting for Democratic and Republican candidates who are indistinguishable in their drive to control our every act and thought, imagining a “liberal” half black president would really protect our individual rights, or that the past few right wing presidents were truly free-market thinkers. We would be tending the planet and standing up for human rights instead of letting our desire for money and security destroy our ecosystems and our freedoms. We wouldn’t be working jobs where we have to wear poly suits and too tight of ties, or put working a boring job ahead of adventure or play time. We’d be less obedient and more critically thinking. We’d minimize our unhealthy habits and maximize our enjoyment. We’d risk everything to live our dreams, and “play hooky” whenever necessary to avoid meaningless activities and a boring existence.
Instead of acting like the young have no idea what they are talking about, it might be better to listen to their concerns, address their fears and hopes, and learn from their examples when they question dogma and authority, challenge the status quo, and turn the bass beat music up loud enough to rock the proverbial boat. They – and we – are not too big for our britches, sometimes we just need to upsize.
We should take a a hint from my bodacious, pants-buying Mama, and get past any self-doubting bullshit… because no matter how large a vessel or need might be in our future, we can still grow into it.
Author Jesse Wolf Hardin empowers the downtrodden and confounds the paradigm, writing from his wilderness sanctuary about values, politics, rural attitudes, homestead skills, antique firearms and western history (see: www.OldWestScribe.com) as well as about herbalism, natural healing, rewilding, and sense of place (see: www.PlantHealer.org/bookstore).
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Everyone here at Anima Sanctuary is themselves a writer, with Rhiannon, Elka, Kiva and I all dedicated to putting into words the experiences, insights, lessons and tales that might help enliven and inspire others. Our Plant Healer Magazine and many of our books consist of essays written by each of us, gathered into a purposeful collection. It is rare, however, that we try to co-write anything besides website text and announcements. The following comprises the only exception, an exercise by Kiva and myself, resulting in an article on a topic that can very much benefit from the perspectives of both a man and a woman: gender. It’s been a decade since this was first printed in a regional periodical, we hope you”ll still find it a valuable contribution to this ongoing and important conversation. –Wolf
by Jesse Wolf Hardin & Kiva Rose
While exclusively neither male nor female, the living planet – the natural world – embodies, contains, expresses, agitates and unleashes the qualities and characteristics of both. We’re each integral, inseparable components of that living whole. As such, we too are a collection of traits, abilities, tendencies and potentials that in consort, constitute our authentic selves. These neither define, nor are defined by gender. Unlike some of the other life-forms, we humans can assume roles according to our individual desires, characteristics and callings. And unlike most of our fellow creatures, we have the option of creating or co-creating our roles in life, not just suffering, accepting or acquiring them. Together we explore a shared path to balance, personal, sexual and global… in the still distinctive voices of woman and man.
Wolf: There’s a certain igneous cliff face near our home, with instructive rock art thousands of years old. The tribe of Mogollon Indians who lived here, the Sweet Medicine People, moved out of their underground houses and down into the valley below over 900 years before my arrival. The cliffs were made not by some gentle erosion or the overlapping of tectonic plates, but rather by the force of liquid earth erupting in a display of shifting color and uncompromised heat. Near the top of one, sheltered by a sloping overhang, is the sacred spiral painted next to phallic rhyolite spires and vaginal sandstone clefts. We often climb them, proceeding at a pace that is deliberately and meticulously slow. We’ll finger every sinuous earthen contour, press our bodies into magenta folds, pull ourselves up by the distinctively phallic projections.
In nature, male and female principals intersect and interact, without absorbing or overpowering each other, just as the brilliant colors of the cliffs mingle and vibrate against one another rather than dissolving into a common indifferentiable grey. Nature is a balance of diverse expressions — rock, tree, hawk, man, woman — that touch, mingle, and exchange with one another without sacrificing either the aesthetic value of contrast or the kinesis fueled by their dissimilarities.
Kiva: When I was a child, my well-meaning grandmother routinely tried to stuff me into frilly pink dresses, all of which were unceremoniously removed as soon as I was out of her sight. Back in the woods, I would slip happily into my favorite pair of blue jeans, the ones with both the knees worn through from all my tree climbing and underbrush adventures. It wasn’t that I thought the dresses ugly, and in fact I kept most all of them in order to admire the pretty colors and lacy fabrics. Nor did it have anything to do with not liking them, as much as that they didn’t suit my propensity to crawl through muddy swampland or collect wildflowers from spiny thickets. They simply weren’t an accurate expression of who I was. My family kept telling me, and each other, that I’d soon grow out of my “tomboy” phase. Yet at 15 I was still requesting Swiss army pocketknives for Christmas, and still receiving sewing kits instead.
As my teen years progressed, my grandparents suggested I think about becoming a stewardess. My mother, being slightly more liberal, thought I’d be better off becoming a teacher than the architect or artist that I intended to be. Just like the dress, both suggestions were rejected immediately and adamantly. I wanted no part in what I saw as boring and potentially oppressive roles simply because I happened to be born female.
Wolf: I am a man. There is no way around it. I could shave off my ample facial hair, conceal my musculature in loose-fitting garments, temper my at times arrogant posturing, resist making proud eye contact, and still I am incontrovertibly male. I am engaged in my maleness. I rise up from the depths of my maleness as the first creatures rose from the primordial seas. I am buffeted and driven by uniquely male hormones, a mortal sail filled with the masculine instincts of countless generations.
Long before both man and woman codeveloped language and culture, long before patriarchal civilization overtook the minds of the populace, there existed male energy inseparable from the flesh and intent of Mother Earth. It fueled and colored the lives of our male ancestors, from the first “Y” chromosome through reptilian and primate paramours, from my early Celt and Norse predecessors to my known relatives. I am of the planet. I am animal. I am mammal. I am man. Together these aspects of my identity form the context of my being. These are the “givens,” the corpus animus, the terrestrial/contextual/experiential basis and body from which I must work. There is nothing I can do that cannot be done by a woman, but I do it with a man’s body, out of the needs and calling of a man’s heart. I can make no apologies for my being, only for inappropriate or unjust actions.
Some consider men in general to be inherently dictatorial, insensitive and war loving. To the contrary, I believe the problem is not with the nature of masculinity, but men’s disenfranchisement from our natural maleness — a maleness that is as compassionate and protective as competitive and aggressive. As with all social and environmental disease, the cure likely lies in the reclamation of our essential beings, instead of in the suppression of intrinsic instincts, tendencies and urges. The solution for both genders would seem to be becoming ever more ourselves, not less so.
Kiva: Throughout my adolescence, I searched for a role model or an archetype to which I could relate. My search led me through the teen traps of anorexic pop divas and shallow cultural icons that left me with a feeling of lonely otherness. Just as my body refused to conform to artificial standards of size and shape, my personality resisted being reduced to a cliché — whether bad girl, romantic, sporty or city chic. Being a woman seemed to mean paring down or altering who I really was at the core.
The older I got, the more I realized how often we sell ourselves short by expressing only fragments of our authentic nature. This was especially evident in my mother, as she tried desperately to pretend she was only a mother and no longer the brilliant artist and musician. I saw her grow more bitter the longer she suppressed her passions and dreams, sure that being a mother somehow implied that she would be neglecting her womanly duty if she pursued her gifts while raising her children. I also watched my best friend turn off her heart and her feelings in order to further her career. She thought if she just worked a little harder, was promoted a few more times, she’d finally find the self-worth she’d been so urgently seeking — that she’d finally be equal to the men with whom she was competing tooth and nail. I remember her tearfully admitting to me that she deeply missed her husband, but that depending on a man was a form of weakness she could not allow herself. I promised myself that no single part or aspect of who I really am would ever overshadow or subsume the other.
What neither my mother nor my friend could see was that women are multifaceted whole beings, not one-dimensional paper dolls of mother, wife or career woman. I realized that I was not unfeminine in my adventurousness and tenacity, nor was I too feminine in my sentimentality and emotional nature — not unnatural but utterly natural, a unique expression of woman. I came to understand that all the roles and aspects I expressed were equally me, not disparate contending parts. Wearing a knife atop a lacy dress. Cuddling and playing with my infant daughter, while ready to fiercely defend myself and my loved ones. Nurturing delicate flowers from seed to blossom, yet capable of taking a life to provide our dinner. We are each strands and elements of the infinite expression of what it means to be woman and, at the same time, an alliance of many beautiful pieces coming together to make us who we really are, to make us most whole.
Wolf: There is an alternative male archetype to the Marlboro man, the stoic provider, the commander in chief willing to sacrifice any number of “his boys” to do what he thinks is right. That alternate is the ancient Green Man, forever linking men back to the raw, connective, vegetative, regenerative processes of nature. The Green Man is connected at the root to the source itself, tapping the rich nocturnal loam of a fermentive earthen heart. This icon of the masculine draws power from the maternity and mortality of Mother Earth, in cyclic reciprocity and carnal interpenetration. Simultaneously born of and lover of the Goddess/Earth, his distinctive maleness works in consort with essentially feminine forces.
The Green Man romped through Paleolithic imaginations long before being adapted to the role as a minor god of agriculture, the innocuous carved corners of church architecture serving as a subtle reminder of our pre-Christian pantheism. He evolved to become Bacchus in ancient Rome, Osiris in Egypt, Shiva in India and Dionysus in classical Greece. Along with his duties as spreader of seeds and guarantor of crops, he was the god of divine rapture, charged with the promulgation and sanctification of human ecstasy. He not only inseminated the wafting rows of plants but turned the grapes into wine, encouraging revelry to counter the increasing reticence and restraint of expanding civilization. In Mayan and Aztecan cultures he was called “the prince of flowers,” Xochipilli, instrumental in their initiation into the realms of embodied spirit, the leafen, vine-entwined corridors leading to their own wild and glorious beings.
With the Green Man we find a seminal and assertive, prolific and playful maleness. A natural maleness in balance with, in contract with, in coitus with the fermentive feminine, the archetypal Mother Earth from which it arose, and to which all returns. A male empowerment that complements and contributes to the expression of female power.
Kiva: In the haphazard sprawl of dandelion and the clinging beauty of ivy, I saw the face of the Green Woman. Just as the Green Man is the alternative to male cultural limitations and stereotypes, so the lesser-known Green Woman provides an empowering choice for women. As the feminine face of nature, she is best known as Sheela-Na-Gig, her delighted face and spread legs still adorning the stonework of many ancient churches in England and France. She can also be found crafted as a distinctly female body emerging from a tangle of vines and foliage. The image of the Green Woman and the history of the goddesses that embody her were my first glimpse at a powerful femaleness I could look to for inspiration in my quest for identity and place.
I found her everywhere I looked, not just in the wild places I hitched to and hiked in, but in the weeds erupting from sidewalk and roadside, in botanical gardens and city parks. I saw her when I gathered wild greens for my salad from abandoned ghetto lots and reveled in her beauty from under the oaks lining suburban streets. Part of the power of the Green Woman is in the way she adapts and thrives in even the most unlikely places, teaching us how to best remain our own essential selves, even when we feel out of place or oppressed by pressure to conform to what passes for “normalcy”.
The Green Woman is fecund creation, the inspirited source and conduit of life, but she is also the disruptive force of the hurricane. She is not just one aspect of destruction or creativity but many, sometimes embodying seeming contradictions in a single place and moment in the same way that dying, decaying plant matter is also new life in the form of vibrantly healthy soil.
The Green Woman’s complex and constantly evolving nature provides us with a positive and flexible way of seeing ourselves beyond the destructive or self-limiting perceptions we may have taken on over the years. Beyond the institutionalized virgin/whore syndrome, where every woman is either a devoted housewife and mother or else a home-wrecking rebel. Beyond even the more modern stereotypes of cold-blooded corporate-ladder climber or angry feminist. Past labels and into who we really are at our cores: the intrinsic magical beings that cannot be defined by personality quizzes, marital status or societal pigeonholes.
The Green Woman is as constantly changing as the seasons and as steady as the turning of the planet on its axis. She fosters delight and deep grief, fierce protection and unsurpassed tenderness. We, as women, embody all these aspects, in varying proportions through a myriad of expressions, as seen in classic goddess archetypes such as Artemis, an unclaimed woman and midwife; in the Norse hearth goddess Frigga’s deep devotion to home and children, with an unmatched wisdom that allowed her to guide family and followers; and in the Finnish bear goddess Mielikki, who roamed the far northern woodlands as a wild creature, fiercely loyal to both mate and home.
Wolf: Especially in the face of prevailing political and cultural trends, it’s important that men nourish the qualities of creativity, sensitivity, emotionality, gentleness and intuition ascribed to the “feminine side.” However, the very fact that they exist as aspects of a male body means they are as much masculine as they are feminine. Crying over sad songs, nuzzling small animals, tending to the needs of children, writing poetry or learning to make love ever so sweetly and slowly, doesn’t mean a man is getting in touch with his “inner woman”. Nor is a woman tapping any latent reservoirs of male energy when she exhibits the strength, confidence, purposefulness or drive regularly attributed to men. We all contain both male and female energies, but none of these are elements of gender so much as of character.
A man can and should feel comfortable staying home and caring for his children while his wife works to pay the bills, if it serves and satisfies him as well as benefits his family. Or making a living designing and sewing clothes, if he has the talent. And women have long proved they can both enjoy and excel at every career or task ever considered to be “men’s work.”
What we need to do, however, isn’t just to escape restrictive stereotypical gender roles, but to consciously and purposefully assume or even design and then manifest our roles in life. Those roles that best express, fulfill and satisfy our authentic selves: our talents, desires, gifts, hopes and dreams. And those that best help us contribute to, serve, nourish, heal or make more beautiful the world of which we’re an integral and dynamic part.
A Tewa prayer seems to say it all: Within and around the Earth, within and around the hills, within and around the mountain, your authority returns to you.
The authority to be yourself!
Kiva: These days I share responsibility for both our Plant Healer publications and our Anima Wilderness Sanctuary, deep in New Mexico’s Gila. I serve as both teacher and healer, two roles often thought of as predominately feminine in our culture. I became a teacher, however, not because I succumbed to familial pressure or societal standards but because I discovered through experimentation and study that this was the path that best suits me, that I feel most whole in pursuing. Embracing femininity in any traditional sense took time for me to accept. I needed to separate myself from the dictates of society and the uniforms my family had thrust me into in order to know what it was to follow my heart.
We possess in our authentic selves the power to re-create our roles. We do this by creating new stories of self, weaving from the web of the world a new way of being and seeing — stretching past imagined limitations of self and gender into primal womanhood. This power is rooted not in disempowering or opposing men, but in our intrinsic uniqueness, the moon cycles of our body, and the dance of emotion and creation birthed from the first mother, our Earth. Gender is neither our cage nor husk. It can express the reality of who we choose to be, in whatever forms we choose, providing roles true to our genuine natures.
The first of the year is the time of quickly transitioning days, when the sap of the willows is drawn deep into their centers, ready to burst forth as new leaves in the spring. Here in the canyon where we live, it means quiet hours close to home, joining our other partner in preparing new lessons and curricula for the coming summer events at this sanctuary and teaching center. We find in the cycles of stillness and activity, assertiveness and vulnerability — in our loving relationship with each other and within our complex individual selves — an enlivening equipoise, a vital partnership and correspondence. The bloom, and the balance.
If I could tell you what it all means,
there would be no point in dancing it.
— Isadora Duncan
The following are some practical suggestions for re-envisioning our roles, then making our visions real in our lives:
• Be aware of when you are embodying your culture’s limited definition of masculinity or femininity, acting out old patterns or movie roles. There is nothing male about being unavailable, unemotional, domineering or violent. Nor is it specifically female to be sensitive, nurturing or obedient.
• Men can be more aware of when they’re suppressing their nature, strength or passion in order to appear less macho, and not be so afraid of being stereotyped that they become malleable when they need to be substantial and definitive, or submissive when the situation calls for assertiveness. Women can pay attention to when they are acting out societal preferences and fantasies, as well as when they are eschewing cooking or downplaying their femininity to avoid being negatively typecast as the helper or the helpless.
• Roles are relational commitments we make, needs we satisfy, purposes and missions we gladly fulfill, not uniforms we select and wear, obligations with which we’re saddled, or what we do at our jobs. Our “work” may be secretarial, our “role” cheering up the bored clerks or providing advice on personal matters.
• Redefine all your roles in terms of who you are and what your gift is, not which gender you happen to be. Wear the clothes, assignments, jobs that feel most like you. Then, to excel at your roles is to excel at being wholly, proactively yourself.
• You have only a finite number of waking hours in your mortal life. Reassess your priorities and chosen roles monthly, weekly or even daily.
• Pay attention to when something is a role and when it’s merely rote. One accomplishes something either way. The difference is our degree of awareness, our intention, how wholly we are utilized and stretched, how much meaning we invest, and the amount of satisfaction it brings us.
• If we are totally conscious and response-able, every moment will be a decisive moment for us, every act intentional and deliberate. And it is those deliberate acts that will then define our roles, instead of the other way around.
Whether female, male, or any of the infinite possible variations and combinations – be your genuine selves in life, filling your genuine purpose. Nothing else is fully living.
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