So, Lupa, How *Do* We Make Nature Spirituality More About Nature?

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In my previous post I made the assertion that a lot of what’s considered to be “nature-based spirituality” is really more about us than the rest of nature. Here I’d like to present some further food for thought, and invite other naturalist pagans and the like to reflect on where the balance between human and non-human nature may be in your own paths.

I’m going to add in my own thoughts on each of these questions, but please don’t take my responses as holy writ; I mainly offer them up in the spirit of “here, I’ll go first, since I proposed this whole thing to begin with”.

Why should we be concerned about the balance of human and non-human nature in nature spirituality?

Humanity, as a whole, is really, really self-centered. This isn’t surprising; favoring one’s own species has been a successful strategy for us and many other species for millions of years. However, one of the things we humans have evolved to face the challenges of everyday life is a big, complex, self-aware brain. This allows us to be more deliberately conscious of our choices and motivations, and to change them if we will. For example, we still have the genetic programming to gather as many food resources together as we can to feel secure; however, we also consciously recognize the devastating impact that our food consumption has on the rest of nature, and the unequal distribution of food within our own species. Therefore, we’re able to (ideally) adjust our behaviors to still get the food we need, but be less destructive in the process.

In the same vein, spirituality is one way we can make sense of the world around us and our place in it. But a lot of “nature” spirituality is really more about us than about the rest of nature. It’s about what special messages and teachings and other gifts we can get from the animals, plants and other beings around us, without having to give anything back. We might show some gratitude for things like a healthy harvest, but that’s still focusing on how nature benefits us. It’s more like “humans asking and thanking nature for stuff” spirituality. We keep inserting ourselves into the middle of things.

How does the emphasis on things like totem dictionaries, animal omens, and other “instant gratification” in nature spirituality mirror our consumption of physical resources?

Look at the shelves in pagan book stores, or the offerings from pagan publishers. They’re full of books on “the powers and meanings of animal totems” and “how to use herbs and crystals in spells” and other “get your answers right here, right now!” approaches. There’s not a lot on taking the time to create deeper, more personally meaningful relationships with other beings in nature, and even less on what we can do for our fellow beings (other than misguided advice to feed wildlife food offerings, and vague, generic “let’s send healing energy to the Earth” rituals, and so forth).

This is a direct corollary to our consumption of physical resources from nature, whether food or shelter or other tangibles. The vast majority of people, at least in the U.S., only care about nature as far as they can benefit from it. And they want their stuff now. They want to go to the store and get everything on their shopping list, whether that’s breakfast cereal and soda, or a new outfit, or cheap metal jewelry that will leave a green mark on the wearer’s skin but which makes an inexpensive gift for that relative you never know what to get for Christmas. Most people who go to national parks never venture more than a hundred yards from their cars; they oooh and ahhh at the highlights and maybe take some photos, but fewer make the connection between the preservation of these places and their own environmentally destructive actions at home.

And that’s the crux of the issue: fast-food nature spirituality continues this disconnect between our beliefs and our actions. We say we want to revere nature, but our actual interactions are brief and on the surface. Most of the people who claim Gray Wolf is their totem have never given money to an organization that works to protect wolves and the habitats they rely on to survive (though they may have bought t-shirts, statues, and other mass-produced, environmentally-unfriendly tchotchkes with wolves on them). We want something that will make us feel good and “more spiritual” in the moment, but it’s tougher to get us to engage with the deeper implications of finding the sacred in a nature that we too often damage in our reverence. The demand for totem dictionaries and other easy answers just perpetuates this trend.

How does the human-centric focus of some elements of nature spirituality reflect the human-centric focus of more mainstream religions?

Most religions start with us. Sometimes we are the chosen creation of some deity; other times one of our own achieves divine status. There might be some directive to “be nice to animals”, or in some cases refrain from eating some or all of them. But for the most part, the bigger religions are about us and our relationship to the divine, what we humans are supposed to do to earn a good afterlife, etc.

Most pagans were raised in such religions, which reflect the anthropocentrism of most existing human cultures. So it’s not surprising that when we move over to paganism for whatever reasons, we take this human-centric view with us. How do we please the gods? What sorts of nifty things can we get with spells and other magic? And, of course, what special messages does nature have for us human beings?

I, among many (though not all) other pagans, became pagan because the idea of a spiritual path that focused on nature was appealing to me, almost twenty years ago now. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was searching for wasn’t rituals and rules on how to be a good pagan; what I really wanted was to reconnect with nature, without intermediaries and without abstractions, the way I did when I was young and before life got complicated. And now that I’ve managed to rekindle that, I’m realizing just how much of purported nature-based spirituality in general really isn’t based in nature at all, except for human nature. And it just perpetuates the same human-centric patterns I was trying to move away from when I became pagan in the first place. Not all pagans are naturalist pagans, so for some a more human-based approach works. But those of us who do claim nature as the center of what is sacred may not be looking deeply enough into nature outside of ourselves.

How can we start shifting our focus away from ourselves and more toward the rest of nature?

Naturalist paganism and other forms of nature spirituality have the potential to break us out of that anthropocentric headspace, to remind us that we, the ape Homo sapiens sapiens, are just one species among thousands. For that to happen, we need to be paying more attention to the other species and parts of nature, and not just in manners that earn us freebies from the Universe.

We can start by becoming more aware of how often we ask the question “What do I get out of this?”, whether we use those words or not. This leads to an awareness of how much of our relationships to the rest of nature hinge on what we get from the deal. Sometimes it’s in the obvious places like assuming every animal sighting is a super-special message from nature, or focusing seasonal rituals only on the harvest of foods we’re able to eat and ignoring everything else happening in nature right then. But this self-centered approach can be more subtle, like using herbs in a spell but never once acknowledging the sacrifice the plants made and the resources they’d need to replace the leaves and other parts taken from them (assuming they weren’t just killed outright for their roots). By being aware of where we’re holding our hands out for gimmes, we can stop taking nature for granted so much.

Next, we can start incorporating the question “What can I give?” into our nature spirituality, again not necessarily using those words. What offerings do we make and to whom, and what actual benefit will they have to physical nature versus the harm? Part of why I emphasize donations and volunteering toward environmental causes as offerings is because they have an actual, measurable positive impact, much more than “I’m going to send some energy to endangered species by burning this petroleum-based candle made with toxic dyes”. If we take leaves from a plant for a spell, what do we give the plant in return? Is it something it can actually use, like water on a hot day, or something absolutely useless like sprinkling a few chips of quartz on the ground around its stem? Can we redirect our resources in more beneficial ways, like instead of buying a cheap wolf statue made in China we use the money (even a few dollars) to help fund the restoration of gray wolf habitat?

We can also start putting more emphasis on appreciating and honoring nature in its own right. A great way to do this is by simply learning more about biology, geology, and other natural sciences, and being able to appreciate the beings and forces of nature without having some spiritual or symbolic overlay involved. The fox that darts out into our path ceases to immediately be a portent of some important spiritual message, and instead becomes a remarkable creature borne out of billions of years of evolution and natural selection, whose strategies for surviving and adapting are equally effective as our own. And that’s all that creature has to be–amazing for itself regardless of some subjective “meaning” we glue to it.

Finally, we can realistically assess how much we’re walking our talk. I remember the very first big, public pagan gathering I went to; it was a picnic in a park, and all the food was on styrofoam plates with plastic utensils that all ended up in a big garbage bag destined for the landfill at the end of the day. It was incredibly disheartening since many of these pagans claimed to be nature-based in their own practices, and the ritual they performed even gave lip service to the “sacredness of nature”. Now, I understand that they probably didn’t want to wash a bunch of glass and ceramic dishes at the end of the day, and maybe didn’t want to spend the extra money for paper plates made from recycled paper, and perhaps they didn’t think to ask everyone to bring their own dishes to the event.

But this dissonance was important, because it gave me reason to assess my own actions and why I took them. It was the first in a long line of events that made me think “Wow, I want to do things differently”. Not “I’m a better pagan than they are”, but a realization that this thing bothered me and I wanted to make a different choice. And perhaps for those pagans, simply gathering outside on a sunny day was nature enough for them. But I wanted more, and I think naturalist paganism in particular would do well to include encouragement toward regularly assessing and improving one’s actions in relation to one’s beliefs when it comes to nature and the environment.

Here’s where a lot of people run into the sticky trap of dogma. I’m betting a lot of readers have, like me, run into that one variant of Wiccan who interprets “An if harm none” to mean “don’t eat animals!” and then insists that only vegetarians can truly be Wiccan. That’s just one example of where personal choice turns into an attempt to sic one’s dogma onto others. I don’t want to advocate that here. Just as each person’s spiritual path varies according to their needs and restrictions, so too are the actions associated with that path dictated by individual limitations and choices.

More importantly, it’s awareness, reflection, and conscious choice that are at play here. I am well aware that the car I drive, even if it does get pretty good mileage, still contributes to climate change and other results of pollution. However, I would not be able to vend my artwork at events, or take huge piles of packages to the post office, or run weekly errands associated with my business, if I didn’t have my car. Or at least it would eat a lot more into my time and lower my income more than what I currently pay for its maintenance and upkeep. But I try to balance that out by keeping it in good working order and not driving it more than I need to, and by walking or taking transit when I can. It’s that consideration and carefully-made choice that is more important than blindly adhering to the idea that if you have a car you don’t love nature enough.

And that brings me to the last question to ponder: What can I realistically change in my life right now to be more in line with my approach to nature spirituality? This is a question we can ask repeatedly–even every day, if that’s appropriate. The answer is likely to change quite a bit over time through growth and knowledge and experience. But that’s part of having a living, evolving spiritual path: you have to give it space to grow. The answers aren’t all set up in one concise book somewhere. They’re organic and they adapt to change much as we do. It’s a challenge sometimes to always be updating one’s path, to incorporate new information and reflections, and occasionally it may be tempting to just find a one-stop-shop for all the secrets of the universe.

But nature isn’t stagnant, and we only fool ourselves into thinking that only religion stands solid. If we are going to truly align ourselves with the currents and courses of the natural world, if we’re going to understand even a bit of what nature really is, then like the rest of nature we need to be prepared to adapt and explore. That means putting down the book of easy answers and “meanings”, and opening our senses to the world around us.

Sure, it’s scary sometimes, but exciting and full of curiosity, too. And I’m right here with you; you’re always welcome to comment or email me with your questions or thoughts as you walk your own path.

10 Comments.
  1. <3 This was fantastic. A very good overview of what challenges arise and how to go about making it more holistic. The disposable dishware is quite pervasive. I find a Bring Your Own Dishes & Utensils for events solves a lot of the logistical problems – just make sure your dishes and utensils are stored in a sealed container where you don't have to worry about making a mess and not have to worry about needing to clean them until you get home. Though I'd recommend labeling them so people don't make off with them, accidentally or otherwise. Sometimes its better to go with 'ugly' or garish ware to avoid that sort of problem – everyone will know its yours! Plus it can keep things really fun. I've also transitioned most of my emergency candles to pillar beeswax candles because of the petroleum manufacturing and toxic wicks – yuck. Its nice that I was able to find a beeswax candle maker in my own province. Their candles can get HUGE! Triple wick, 7" wide x 22" tall for $549 And it is supposed to last 9,000 – 10,000 Hrs! Just diving into this journey of sustainable interconnected living can bring about a lot of fun discoveries along the way.

    I often wonder though, when it comes to writing – what are naturalist pagans looking for in a blog? Solutions to these dilemmas? What particular topics garner the most interest? I could write about so much it'd be nice to know how to narrow it down.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I don’t do much in the way of pagan events any more, but I think I want to encourage the Bring Your Own practice at any I do in the future. And your philosophy toward dishware is like mine toward luggage–if it stands out like an ugly thing, I’m more likely to get it back!

      As to your thoughts on naturalist pagans, I’m really not sure. I feel like we’re sort of scattered about with no real organization–not surprising, since we tend to be independent critters. From what I’ve found on comments to my own writings, though, a lot of them are just looking for voices who are saying things they resonate with. maybe they don’t feel ready to speak themselves, but they like having things put into words that maybe they couldn’t quite frame just yet. So a lot of it is just showing up?

  2. It also seems like many people are only interested in ‘romantic’ animals and plants. Those are only a tiny slice of nature.

    • Preaching to the choir here. One of the most valuable lessons I picked up was from Black Mold, hardly anyone’s idea of “glamorous”.

  3. I’m not entirely sure what you all mean by “naturalist pagans,” but I’m definitely interested in reading more from people who have an animistic (or otherwise not-human-centric) approach to their practice – and I’ve found that animists seem to write as much about how awesome the physical world is as they do about the spiritual side of things. Which I also really enjoy, since I get so much from spending time observing and interacting with the non-human world myself, and find a lot of those experiences pretty deeply mystical regardless of whether I feel any kind of connection with any spirits. Most of the polytheist bloggers I follow do NOT talk about the non-human world (unless it is about deities, but most of that discussion ends up focused on human concerns), and since my spiritual practices/life are really focused on other-than-human Nature, I tend to feel isolated from what other polytheists are doing. So what I want is more to read where people are discussing both material-world ecology/environmental concerns in combination with the spiritual or esoteric.

    • Naturalist paganism isn’t really animist or theistic in and of itself; it’s more an approach that focuses on physical nature and a casually scientific approach (casual as in “layperson” rather than “academic/professional scientist”). Deities, spirits, myths and the like are more seen as abstractions or projections of natural phenomena, though there’s certainly value to them even if they aren’t necessarily taken literally. For example, I work extensively with totems; however, I don’t make the assumption that they exist anywhere outside of the heads of those who work with them, and I don’t care to try to “prove” otherwise; I can, however, quantify the positive effect working with them has for me and others, and that suffices for the objective end of the whole matter, if that makes sense?

  4. Linda

    Thank you Lupa, you have given me a lot to think about. I have realized lately that leaving my camera behind gives me a better experience in nature because when I take it I (not always, but sometimes) tend to “look for the amazing shot”, rather than simply immersing myself in the experience for the sake of the experience. I now make a conscious choice before I take off into the woods. Am I going to commune, share, or am I going to, as you talked about, “take something”? I enjoy sharing the beauty with others, and I feel that sharing is about my absolute love of and respect for the natural world so I don’t feel as if I’m being disrespectful by photographing the amazing things I see, but I have definitely started to take real notice of where my focus is and this blog has given me a nudge that I’m moving in the right direction. Also, I need to re-think my offerings. I do leave edibles for the animals, but in all honesty I hadn’t been thinking much about the plants. Again, thank you.

  5. I really enjoyed this post (came here via an Allergic Pagan post on Patheos). The point about the crockery etc at gatherings is one I’d very much concur with. However, for me you really nail it with the “useful offerings” thing. I’m a wolf fan (as you can probably tell LOL!) and have made several “offerings” to this charity http://www.wolvesandhumans.org/ out of desire to do something tangibly worthwhile for our wolf friends and other large carnivores. I also make offerings to Gods by giving to various charities as well, since I wanted to actually do something more than just leave food out on my Hearg/outdoor altar which would be of questionable value as you mention. As in Naturalist Paganism (not sure if I qualify as one or not – I’m a Neo-Heathen Deist, so perhaps I’m something in between), I see the Gods as natural forces, even those of the human arena, since we are also animals and part of nature in my view. I feel myself shifting further towards the Naturalist Pagan end of the community the more I read about it anyway, since I like the pragmatism.

    • I’m glad you liked it! I’m glad you’re finding good inspiration; it sounds like we’re on some similarities in our paths, even if there are also some differences in the details.

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