Animism and Earth Reconnection FAQ

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Cultural Respect & Earth-Honoring Traditions

Can you speak to cultural appropriation a bit? More context: Recently it has gotten to the point where I feel guilty if I am doing simple things like burning sage, and question whether there is any way I can practice elements of indigenous traditions without it somehow upholding aspects of white supremacy and colonization. Over the years I have developed genuine relationships with plants (such as sage) or practices that connect me to the natural world, but then wonder if I am still crossing a line that I shouldn’t be. This is coming up kind of intensely right now because I just saw that a Shipibo elder was murdered in Peru, and for many years I drank medicine with an elder from that tradition without thinking of all of the plants being killed to satisfy Westerners, the strain that puts on indigenous communities and healers, the lack of attention on indigenous rights, and just wonder if there is any way to do any of this the right way. As I am typing this, I am realizing the importance of getting right with my own ancestors and their traditions, and I know a lot of this relates to that work.

Big and important questions. The dialogue around cultural appropriation has gotten a bit hijacked by young rigid white America activists not actually steeped in Indigenous ritual themselves, so let’s start by asking: What can help me to embody deep cultural respect and mindfulness in any given situation? Are there some guiding principles here?

Notice I say ‘in any given situation’. Because the protocol from one place to the next is different. Some cultures are open about sharing their ways with people not of their ancestry (e.g., Yoruba traditions) and others not so much. I’ve had white America activists offer to explain to my Yoruba teachers why they should not share their traditions with non-Yoruba people, and I’m just like, Are you serious right now? So…there is a need to bring nuance and an ethic of relationship and listening to this overall topic of cultural respect. Put another way: if you bring a colonialist mindset to the topic of cultural respect, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot.

Yes, getting to know and love your own ancestors is a big part of this, it truly helps. It doesn’t mean you must practice their traditions but it’s good to have their backing for whatever you decide to do.

You will never make everyone happy about the cultural appropriation topic. If you want to, for example, burn aromatic plants like California white sage. Most important, get to know that plant and the cultural information around it. Sure you could write a letter to the Chumash Nation asking them if they care if you burn sage but I think they have other things to worry about right now. You’re not presuming to represent those tribal ways at all and you’re not launching a website Is it ideal to seek aromatic plants from your own bioregion and/or your own ancestors’ traditions or traditions you practice to use in ritual? Yes, sure, that’s a good move. And most importantly respect the plants themselves, be in relationship with them.

This is a big layered topic, it’s one I’m sensitive to and have done a good deal of reflection on as well as lived experience. Seek the heart-centered middle road on these topics and listen closer to the elders of any given tradition who have standing to talk about it than people not of that tradition. There is a great essay in lesson three included in the resources, so that’s coming. Here is a talk on the subject in the meantime, a lot of what I might say here I also name there (July 2017):

Eating Plant & Animal People

I think that it is the (perceived) higher degree of suffering that animals experience when they are raised and slaughtered vs. a plant being farmed and harvested (killed). I realize that I have no idea what a plant is feeling or if they experience pain and suffering… obviously factory farms and their brutality are huge issue all on their own, but I am curious if any of the traditions you have studied speak to suffering and how that is experienced between different non-human people? And should that really even be a factor in the way that we view this?

These are good and important questions. I do think seeking to not indulgently contribute to suffering is very important and also it’s good to have a very systemic/not individual and informed view on what constitutes suffering. For example, I’ve visited Alaska and eating meat from a moose who dies a quick death by rifle or even a salmon who has a chaotic last few minutes of life likely brings about less suffering than importing really tasty guacamole grown in an area of land cleared for this purpose a thousand plus miles away with pesticides and petroleum to transport the guac, etc. So the first layer is to see all the hidden killing/suffering/etc involved in our food choices to have a more objective measure of a thing and not be reacting only in the moment.

A second layer is to do a sustained inquiry (rather than assume) with the plant people on at least three fronts, all important: 1)How is your experience of being killed/eaten by humans with respect to the suffering piece? 2)What is your group-level experience of domestication by humans (of course different plant kin have had different journeys with this)? and 3)When eaten do you also have an experience of the human eating you? If so, what’s that like? Of course we can also ask these questions of the animals. Big point here: because we can actually communicate don’t assume anything about their experience but be willing to ask.

About the suffering, both a good life and a quick/clean/mindful kill are both important. Fear hormones aside, I’d rather eat and animal or plant that was loved well and had a good life and then killed in a clumsy way than an efficiently killed plant or animal that had a factory farmed or monocropped life. And in reality, I’m pragmatic and will eat fast food when I’m traveling and cookies and french fries. And they are also sacred, so this isn’t about being a purist. The Earth also eats grouchy and unhealthy humans.

What I’m most interested in is suggesting that plants are also smart, sentient, relational, ‘people’ as it were and from that stance, grappling with the reality that we kill and eat them. And removing the shame around this because that confuses the intimacy of it. In general from what I’ve studied people see the taking/killing/eating we do as creating a kind of natural and unavoidable indebtedness (thinking of Martin Prechtel’s work) and affirming our connectedness with the others and a responsibility to not waste our precious life. This is not a bad thing. It’s not shameful to eat but we kill to eat, so this requires a fresh look at what it means to kill as a conscious person. Those are a few echoes from your question. And mostly ask the plants and animals in your home/diet about it. They’ll tell you directly, and probably appreciate actually being asked.

Grieving with the Times

Can you speak to the encounter with grief of the burgeoning animist, and give any advice for we who imprison, for we who use, for we who take, and for we who also love and cry and howl for cause of that imprisoning and using and taking?

Yes. This is a prominent theme in Part One: Lesson Six and also Part Two: Lesson Four, so we’ll be expanding into this and of course there’s so much to say but perhaps a few principles here can get things started…

Implicit in your question is one: The price of entry for returning to more conscious relationship is to be touched by the horror of our times and the powerlessness and the loss, all of it. To be willing to feel this, full stop. And also to not collapse into ‘human = horror only’ or to fail to also see the resilience and joy and daffodils that survive the early spring frost. Holding contradictions and not getting glued to one story, that’s one skill in the terrain.

Another is settling in for the long haul, like if you’re approaching the grief of the world in a way that isn’t sustainable for your nervous system then good to readjust. The Earth needs humans who can overhaul the problematic structures (in 1,001 ways) so to not idealize a state of overwhelm at the state of affairs (not suggesting you’re doing this in your question). Wangiri Maathai (very inspiring human) has good words on this point. There’s a lot to be said for learning your window of tolerance, not grieving so hard, so often that you’re really paining your nervous system, to find way to interrupt that (when possible) while still being in your full authenticity.

A third is to learn to grieve with, to track for the feeling of being companioned in our grief. This is explicit in the future lessons too, but to not add an additional layer of “I’m also alone in this”. Especially if folks had a miserable childhood it can be easy for grieving to get colored by this other story/experience/pain. So, notice at least the other-than-humans present with you when grieving. Grieve with. This is especially important in the context of our course as so many look only to living humans and if none are skillfully present, to default into an experience of alone-grieving.

A fourth for the moment, and it’s not the usual thing I say but it’s what is occurring here, is to love specifically and in doing so to grieve specifically too. Maybe not always but also some. Meaning it’s the very specific people, human and otherwise, whose suffering we come to realize as our own. In allowing for this, we also come into existence. Through the experience of the stones in the asphalt and the metals of the car and the dandelions in the yard, they experience not just Human but specifically you or I. Something about the specificity is so important in our grieving less we become only the shape of things and sever from our full inhabitation. Walk into and be consumed by form, by the world. This is one part of the story of being the times.

And keep asking, keep speaking up. We’ll be sinking into all this more formally as the course unfolds.

Others are Humans, Humans are Others

Do you think anthropomorphism is a danger to avoid? Or a helpful tool for relating? Or something else? I’m thinking about how to have relationships with other than humans, and I don’t want to assume that talking with them as I would with humans is a way of relating that even makes sense to them. But at this stage… I don’t really know where else to start, in these relationships. I don’t even really know how to ask this question. Is spoken English language an appropriate way to communicate with a tree? Or are the specific words more for my own benefit (establishing my own intentions, for example), while the communication happens on a nonverbal level?

There are many good questions here, so let me engage with a few. Anthropomorphism isn’t a term I use much but let’s assume it means projecting human qualities onto the other-than-humans. I think this usually is a way in Western academic circles to call out a perceived confusion of attributing human qualities to others. First thought = not all bad. Yes, of course we don’t want to assume that all of the others are going to relate like us. Their communication styles may be different, personalities, needs, etc. And also I guess I’d say there is a language beneath language which also doesn’t rule out language. If Nettle comes in the dreamtime and is like, ‘hey you should come see me at the river this week’ does it mean Nettle speaks English? Yes and no.

Consider it this way. If Crow wants to get your attention is it problematic for them to engage in corvidomorphism to try to reach the human people in their area? Meaning, is it problematic to assume humans can engage with the same level of complexity as crows? Not really, it’s the starting point for a dialogue and we find our way with it.

One animist angle is that there are many kinds of people and all people have culture. So Mole and Nettle and Reishi all have their homes, their language, their families, their protocol and ways of doing things; their respective cultures. To the mole people there are other-than-mole people (including us) and some among the mole people may be skillful at bridging into dialogue between Mole and Nettle or between Mole and Human, for example.

If we’re going to say our cat, for example, is human-like as a way of really saying we legitimize them as a person then cats may also think that upstanding humans are honorary cats. The problem happens when we assume that all people are human. Or when cats see Cat as the pinnacle of personhood and start acting like shits toward us because they believe no humans can be honorary cats (a.k.a. full people).

So consider an approach something like this: the other-than-humans are also people. I know some things about what help interpersonal relationships to go well among living humans, let’s see what happens if I bring these same values to interpersonal relationships with people who are other-than-human. As for the how of it, bring your open heart and spend about half the time listening and half communicating and trust your instincts and often that’s enough to get things rolling.

Can you speak on the difference between speaking to another in a diminutive way versus as a respectful other? For example, many, many people talk to their companion animals, but I feel like that often takes the form of baby talk–it feels useful as a starting point, but it’s different from the way I’m trying to talk with other beings, now. A friend spent the weekend with me and we discussed this… she made a request of my cat that he not wake her up in the middle of the night, and she commented on how different that felt from how she had ever communicated with a cat before.

Great question and yes to this distinction. In general, approach other-than-humans with the same respect and curiosity that you would bring to a respected human you are just introduced to. You don’t know the depth of that person or their story or how the connection will unfold. You stay responsive to what the dance will be. You listen and feel for what supports connection and what diminishes that connection. I think of the recent film Arrival (worth it if you haven’t seen it) and the challenge of communicating with off-planet visitors. We need to feel our way through the exchange.

So yeah, notice what assumptions we bring to the connection. If we met someone at a party and were like (in baby voice), “Oh look at you, how cute, you dressed up so nice and you’re able to hold your drink without spilling it and you even combed your hair, that’s so grown up of you”…yeah, pretty sure that would be a relational fail. But do we do it with young children (don’t worry they’re not full people yet) or other-than-humans? All the time. And it says more about us than those we’re speaking to. And hey, hope the cat listened. And if not, don’t assume he didn’t understand just because he didn’t listen :-)