Gods and River Monsters

I like it when I see polytheism and animism sneaking into places where you don’t expect, and especially when those beliefs are treated with respect. It reminds people that Christianity or monotheism aren’t the only options out there.

And sometimes I run across an author, television personality, or other celebrity and think, “You would make a good pagan.”

Jeremy Wade, the host of River Monsters, is one of those people.

River Monsters is one of the few shows left on Animal Planet that’s actually about animals (I knew when that tagline, “Surprising Human,” came out it was a bad sign). Basically it’s about a biologist trying to catch large, dangerous freshwater fish, but it’s also a show about the people who live with these fish, and treats indigenous, animistic, and polytheistic beliefs with a lot of respect. Coming from a western society where those sorts of beliefs are usually derided as primitive and superstitious, Jeremy takes them surprisingly seriously.

When I’ve mentioned this before to people, they’ve said, “Oh, it just makes good television” to have Jeremy talking to shamans and medicine men and taking part in rituals, but even so, he could have that “Oh, these savages are so silly!” type of attitude I would expect from most westerners.

But he doesn’t, and I think that if treating indigenous people and their beliefs with respect gets him better ratings than treating them like superstitious savages, then that’s a good sign for our society.

I think it was in the first season when he tried to catch a large catfish in India that was eating partially cremated remains people would throw into the river. The fish was seen as being an agent of the gods who would carry the person’s soul to the afterlife. A guru warned Jeremy not to try to catch this fish, but he ignored the advice and tried anyway.

After trying for weeks to catch the fish, he got one of the catfish on his line, almost reeled it in, and then the line broke. It was one of the few fish he never successfully caught.

In a later episode Jeremy went to Mongolia to try to catch a giant species of trout that lives in the rivers there. It’s also taboo for the Mongolians to catch that fish. They say it belongs to the river god. Jeremy learned his lesson from what happened in India, and got a shaman to talk to the river god and ask permission to catch the fish.

That was one of my favorite episodes. In Mongolia, like in pre-Christian Scandinavia, being a shaman is a woman’s job. The shaman became possessed by the river god and talked to Jeremy directly with this deep voice, and then gave him permission to catch the fish as long as the fish is not harmed. It was amazing to watch.

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

In another episode he’s trying to catch another giant catfish in the Zambezi River, which is ruled by the god Nyaminyami. Fisherman wear amulets that look like a cross between a fish and a snake as a sign of respect to the god, though they all know it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t still pull them to their deaths one day. Jeremy got one of those amulets to wear, and once Jeremy caught the catfish, he remarks that it looks very similar to the amulet, but is Nyaminyami really just a giant catfish the silly natives have mistaken for a god? Jeremy doesn’t quite say that, like I expected him to. It’s left up to interpretation.

I think the last episode I saw was in Canada or maybe the northern United States. Jeremy was trying to catch a giant pike called a “muskie” and was having no luck. He gave an offering of tobacco to a rock that the Native Americans of the area thought was sacred, and then switched to light gear to try to catch some small fish to boost his confidence. He immediately got a muskie on the line.

Jeremy keeps saying that he’s a scientist and he has to think “rationally” about all this, but he also says that “all fishermen are superstitious”. So he’ll do the ritual, he’ll give the offerings, he’ll put on the amulets, and maybe it’s all a coincidence that he catches the fish when he does those things and doesn’t catch anything when he doesn’t, but that’s how it goes in episode after episode.

It’s a tension that I can relate to all too well. I think anybody who works out in nature has that feeling that you’re interacting with things that are beyond your control. It’s easy to start to think that something like whether or not a fish bites your hook depends on the whims of a river god.

And maybe you think that because there actually is a river god.

I just appreciate that the show leaves the possibility open. This show could have easily been about “debunking” these myths about water monsters, and showing how they’re really just giant fish the silly natives have mistaken for water monsters, but it doesn’t have that kind of tone at all. It’s about looking at how there are still wild places in the world where giant freshwater fish lurk that are capable of killing a person (and how maybe, just maybe, some of them are agents of the gods). It shows that there are still places in the world where human beings aren’t in total control.

And even if you look at this in a completely “rational” way, Jeremy still draws attention to the fact that a lot of the large fish are becoming rare and endangered and even extinct, and losing them would be a huge shame. What’s going to happen when creatures like these no longer exist?

If only more shows on Animal Planet were like this.

The Hot Time of Year

Late July through August is the hottest time of year here. After the rainy season in May and June, a high pressure system usually parks itself right over Texas, things dry out, and temperatures soar above 100 degrees every day. We don’t get any relief until a hurricane hits the Gulf of Mexico just right, or we get our first cold front in late September, usually right around the Autumn Equinox.

Lammas was August 1, and I admit I pretty much skipped it this year. I know, bad pagan. This is the holiday I’ve had the most trouble adapting to my climate. It’s usually celebrated as a harvest festival. Some Heathens consider it a holiday for Frey. In Medieval England it was the first grain harvest and time to bake bread, which also fits with Frey. I like Frey.

Problem is that baking bread is often the last thing I feel like doing in early August.

My lawn is crunchy when you walk on it. The only things left alive in my garden are the sweet potatoes, pumpkins, hot peppers, blackeyed peas, and okra. And they’re only alive because they are especially heat-tolerant plants, I have them well mulched with straw, and I still have to turn their drip irrigation on at least once a week to get them through.

At night temperatures dip down into the high 70’s at best. I’ve been skipping my evening walk with my husband lately, which is bad for me to do, but even after it gets dark there’s waves of heat coming off the pavement, and by the time we get home I’m soaked in sweat.

At least this year we got an El Nino, and finally an end to the terrible drought we’ve been in for several years, and we got a good rainy season in May and June (along with some terrible floods that killed some people). But we’re still having a normal August, which means it’s really hot.

I feel like I shouldn’t just skip this holiday. I think it’s significant that it’s the hottest time of year, and that should be acknowledged with some kind of observance. Perhaps it should be a more solemn one, to prepare for the celebration that comes in September and October when it’s finally not hot anymore.

I took another look at John Beckett’s post about adapting the Wheel of the Year to Texas. He lives in North Texas, and I live in South Texas, so we’re close but not exactly the same. He says he has the most trouble with September 21, but that one is easy for me because it usually is really close to when we get our first cold front, and temperatures go from 102 degrees to a “refreshing” 92 degrees. I’m only joking a little.

We do sometimes get rain from hurricanes in September, but that only happens if the hurricane hits the Gulf in just the right spot and doesn’t end up in Mexico or Louisiana or Florida instead. It’s unreliable enough that I don’t think I could make it a regular observance. The first cold front of the year is a bit more reliable. We get the biggest storms when both those things happen at the same time, so the cool air from the north hits the hot tropical air from the south.

But I digress, back to August.

John calls August “The Corn Harvest.” Now that you mention it, you might be onto something there. There are some cornfields a few miles from where I live. Something weird that my husband and I recently discovered since living out here is that when they harvest corn with their huge machines, it blows a bunch of big corn leaves high enough up into the air that they can get caught by wind currents up there and travel for miles. Then they land in the most unexpected places, like my backyard. A couple of weeks ago a great big corn leaf just plopped right down on my back porch and scared my cat. On our evening walks we found several more in some of our neighbors’ front yards.

The corn they’re growing out there is probably some kind of industrial grade stuff for animal feed or ethanol, but meanwhile at the grocery store, they have sweet corn on the cob on sale 6 for $1, so it must be the season for all corn, not just the stuff no one wants to eat.

I haven’t attempted to grow corn in my garden yet. I think I tried once when I was a kid and didn’t have much luck. The ears were undersized, weren’t completely pollinated, and had corn earworms. Corn is tricky to grow because it’s a heavy feeder and you need to plant a large block of it for adequate pollination.

But now that I have a pretty big garden, and have been doing a lot of work adding manure and compost to it, maybe I can try again.

I’ve been meaning to try corn again anyway. Even if I don’t get a big harvest, corn is a sacred plant. It’s the native grain of the Americas. It deserves respect and reverence. Instead of growing a super sweet hybrid corn like I attempted when I was a kid, I should order an heirloom corn variety that’s adapted to my climate and try that instead. It’ll probably do better.

Another good thing about corn is you don’t have to bake it into bread. The wheat harvest is all about baking bread, which is something I only like doing in the winter. But I love grilled corn on the cob, and I do a lot of grilling in the summer. Even cornbread is quicker and easier to make than wheat bread and better for eating in the summer. A lot of heirloom corn varieties are dual-purpose. You can eat them at the “green corn” stage or let them mature for cornmeal. They’re not as sweet as sweet corn used only for fresh eating, but they have a lot more flavor.

OK, that’s it. It’s settled. When I order seeds this winter I’m getting some maize from Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is one of my favorite places to get seeds, since they specialize in Native American varieties of the Southwest. Then next year I’m going to try celebrating August 1 as the Corn Harvest. Even if I don’t get my own harvest, I can still buy some at the grocery store. Growing my own is much better though.

The main thing I’d have to grapple with is which gods and spirits to involve. I’d still want to honor Frey, because he’s my harvest god, but the spirit of corn is a Native American goddess called Corn Mother (it’s unclear to me whether there is one Corn Mother known to many corn-growing tribes, or many Corn Mothers). It really wouldn’t feel right to me to not acknowledge the Native American character of maize in a ritual featuring it.

Oh no! Eclecticism! Cultural appropriation! I know, I know. I have a whole year to think about it, but it seems more like appropriation to just shove maize into a totally Germanic-style ritual as if it were wheat or barley. It’s not wheat or barley; it’s maize. That’s the whole point. I’d do it from the point of view as a respectful guest on their land, not a fake Indian wannabe. “Hey, Corn Mothers, thanks for this corn that is so much easier to grow here than wheat. It’s delicious!”

Nothing growing in my garden right now is European. The pumpkins, hot peppers, and sweet potatoes are American, and the okra and blackeyed peas are African. I grow European stuff like carrots and turnips in the winter when it’s cool enough for them to grow. And since I’m an animist, I have to acknowledge that those plants have spirits, and the spirits aren’t European either, and I shouldn’t treat them like they are. The pumpkins, peppers, and sweet potatoes were first domesticated by Native Americans and then adopted by European colonists. The okra and blackeyed peas were brought from Africa along with slaves. They’re what feel at home in this climate, not the plants of my European ancestors.

Maybe that’s why August 1 is such a difficult holiday. It’s the time of year when Texas is most unlike Germany or England or Scandinavia. I can either ignore that or embrace it.

Do you have to be a freak to be a Pagan?

This is an old post, in internet-time at least, and I intended to comment on it sooner, but then decided not to, but then I keep thinking about it.

One of the first posts on the Gods and Radicals blog was “Respectability Politics: Act Like The System so that The System Will Listen?” That spawned a lot of “Yeah! Let your freak flag fly! We don’t need to be respectable!” type responses.

This is a problem that I’ve run into before in Pagan circles, so I’m sure it will come up again.

Shucks, it’s a problem I ran into in middle school! In my middle school, the “cool kids” were the freaks. They did drugs, rode skateboards, dressed like Kurt Cobain, listened to grunge music (though some of them were “goths” instead and listened Korn and Marilyn Manson), had tattoos and piercings, had sex, made bad grades, and got in trouble at school a lot.

I didn’t fit in with them because I made straight A’s and was in honors and AP classes, and never got in trouble at school.

I also didn’t fit in with any of the kids in my honors classes because I dressed like Kurt Cobain and listened to grunge music and wasn’t a Christian. That last one was especially important. I remember getting into a debate in my AP Government class where I was the only one in the whole class who thought it was wrong to have prayer in school. So forget about making friends with any of those people.

In middle and high school I literally didn’t have any friends. I was the only kid in the entire cafeteria to eat lunch alone in the back. I couldn’t sit at any of the tables because I didn’t fit in with any of the cliques. I was too freaky to be respectable and too respectable to be freaky.

I thought that adults grew out of that middle school mentality, but sometimes when I see what goes on in the Pagan Community, it looks like a lot of people don’t. Being Pagan now is rolled into the whole package of being one of the freaky, rebellious, “cool kids”. If you have a college degree (in something other than a liberal art) and a “respectable” career and own a home in the suburbs and are married, you’re a sellout just like those kids in middle school who made straight A’s and never got in trouble.

One thing that really bothers me is when people conflate “freak” and “Pagan” so much that it seems like being a freak is more important than believing in and worshiping the gods. I know a lot of people who go to Burning Man, and they seem to think that’s some kind of Pagan event. Yes, there’s overlap between the communities, but going to Burning Man doesn’t make you pagan. Being polyamorous doesn’t make you pagan. Being an artist doesn’t make you pagan. Having a bunch of tattoos doesn’t make you pagan. I’m not saying it disqualifies you either, but most of the freaks I know aren’t pagans in any sense of the word, besides being freaks.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a freak. I just think that being a freak and being a pagan are two different things that don’t necessarily always have to go together.

It seems like a similar thing goes on in the gay community. When gay marriage became legal, my Facebook was filled with people angry that people are happy about it, because marriage itself is an oppressive institution, and gay people shouldn’t try to be “respectable” now and get married. Now there are legal battles going on about whether gay people can adopt children, and I’m sure the same thing will happen, because parenting is too mainstream as well.

You know, not all gay men look like Mr. Slave or Big Gay Al from South Park. My husband’s brother is gay, and has been with his husband for something like 20 years, and when they re-legalized gay marriage in California where they live, they got legally married. My husband and I went to the courthouse with them when they got married along with several other same-sex couples. It was nice. Lots of happy people around.

You would never be able to tell either of my brother-in-laws are gay just by looking at them. They just look like normal, middle-aged men. Does that make them any less gay? You’d think that two men living together and having sex with each would be Gay Enough.

I guess what really strikes me as ironic is that when you’re already a member of a marginalized community, the community itself gets all upset if you don’t conform to the stereotype that mainstream society has about your community. That doesn’t seem helpful to me. That post from Gods and Radicals has a picture of the cover of The Truth about Witchcraft Today with a picture of a woman in a business suit on the cover. The purpose of that cover is to show that even a woman who wears a business suit can be a witch. What’s the problem with that? Do Wiccans really need to wear goth makeup and crystals all the time?

I’ve already been an outsider my whole life. Unlike most pagans, I was never a Christian to begin with. I could always feel the gods and spirits around, even before I knew what they were. I already feel like I’m enough of a weirdo without forcing myself to do things I’m not interested in doing just because that’s stereotype that pagans are supposed to conform to.

When I discovered paganism in college, I thought at last I have found a community I can belong to, but so often it turns out to be just like trying to sit with the “cool kids” at lunch who looked down on me for taking honors classes instead of skipping school, even if the kids in honors classes also hated me for being in league with Satan.

And now I’m afraid that if I get any comments on this, it will probably be from people who are angry at me for saying that pagans can’t be freaks and should be more respectable. That’s not what I mean. I don’t think pagans have to be “respectable” either. Jason was totally right that mainstream society is never going to respect us no matter what we do. I’ve known that since second or third grade.

What I wonder about is if pagans will ever get to the point where we respect each other and quit with the constant, “Are you pagan enough?” bickering.

It doesn’t help that paganism is often defined by what it’s not rather than what it is, so the question of “Are you pagan enough?” is difficult when “pagan” doesn’t have a precise definition. To a lot of people it seems to mean “Not Christian.” Maybe since Christianity is conflated with conservative, traditional, hetero-normative values, that anyone who doesn’t fit into that mold is pushed into Paganism. So then being pagan is conflated with being everything that Christianity is not, so if you’re not freaky enough, then you’re not pagan enough.

You know, Jesus wasn’t exactly a conservative, mainstream kind of guy and probably wouldn’t get along well with a lot of the people calling themselves Christians now. Meanwhile, pagan pantheons have gods like Zeus and Tyr right alongside gods like Dionysus and Loki.

Oh well, by now I’m pretty used to eating lunch by myself.

The God of Satire

One of the fights that never seems to go away in American Heathenry is the fight over whether it’s OK to worship Loki or not. It puts me in a weird position since Loki’s just not a god I ever really clicked with, which puts him in the same category as Tyr, Heimdall, Skadhi, and many other gods that I think are perfectly respectable. That he gets singled out as a god that’s especially problematic seems really odd to me as an Odin’s woman. In a lot of ways he seems nicer than Odin, but Odin is universally seen as a god that’s OK to worship.

Even though I don’t know Loki very well, certainly not as well as someone who considers him their main patron god, there is one area in my life where I think I “get” Loki, or at least one aspect of him. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and its spinoffs, and I think Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jon Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and the rest of them are doing Loki’s work in the world. Yes, I know that Jon Stewart is Jewish and Stephen Colbert is Catholic, but I still think of them as honorary Lokeans. Hey, if people can consider Jim Morrison and other rock stars as being avatars of Dionysus, then why not satirists as avatars of Loki?

I don’t know what I’m going to do now that The Colbert Report is over and Jon Stewart has left The Daily Show. I know that Stephen Colbert is taking over for Letterman, but I just don’t know if it will be the same. The Late Show is a completely different kind of show. I know they’ve got a new guy that’s taking over The Daily Show, but he won’t be the same as Jon Stewart.


I had trouble keeping my eyes dry watching Jon Stewart’s last episode Thursday night. That show has been on almost half my life. It helped get me through the long nightmare that was the Bush Administration. While Bush was in office I could hardly bring myself to watch any other news show besides The Daily Show, because at least The Daily Show made me laugh. Watching the “real” news was just too depressing to handle. And I’m sure my experience is not unique among those of us who came of age during the post-9/11 era and were at the start of our careers during the 2008 financial crisis. Shucks, the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election was the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in, and immediately I learned that my vote doesn’t matter, and that the Supreme Court can just appoint the president regardless of who got the most votes. That was also when The Daily Show first rose to prominence, and when I first started watching it.

Lokeans say that Loki does have a compassionate side, and maybe that’s part of it. He can use laughter to help people deal with the horrible things in the world. I’ve also noticed that Loki seems to be more popular with marginalized communities, like LBGT folks and people with mental health issues and disabilities. To me, that makes a lot of sense. A good satirist should always “punch up” after all. Loki is going to be a lot more comforting to the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy than those on top.

I associate Loki with political satire mainly because of Lokasenna. People say that shows how awful he is because he insulted the gods. To me, it looks a lot like what Stephen Colbert did to George W. Bush during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006, which I thought was one of Stephen’s finest moments.

People call Loki “The Father of Lies.” The irony is that, as far as I know, Loki never lies. Everything he accused the gods of in Lokasenna was true. They didn’t dispute any of it, even though it was embarrassing. Jon Stewart was also known to be very truthful. Most of his show, besides the interviews, was just him showing clips of what politicians actually said. He said it was because making stuff up isn’t as funny as being truthful, but of course powerful people hate that, since they rely on people forgetting what they said years ago (or maybe even weeks ago).

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Loki is controversial and banned from Heathen groups. Maybe being an outsider is just part of Loki’s job. People like it when people they don’t like are laughed at, but once the joke is on you, then they don’t think it’s funny. Loki is not quite a god but not quite a giant either. You can’t really tell which side he’s on. And people don’t like that. No one was safe from Jon Stewart. If you said something stupid, he would catch you at it, no matter where you fell on the political spectrum. Some people were just better sports about it than others.

I think it’s necessary to have someone like that, and that’s why I think that Loki deserves worship. He plays a very important role. He keeps the other gods on their toes, and they’re better off in the long run having him around. Maybe that’s why Odin made him his blood-brother. Odin knows that we need him.

Ugh, what am I going to do without Jon Stewart? What about the next presidential election? What if we end up with President Trump? Oh man, we’re so screwed.

Maybe I should start including Loki in my spiritual practice a bit more. The first thing I will do is pour him a shot of tequila and ask him to watch over Jon Stewart and bless him in whatever he chooses to do next. I should probably also put in a good word for Stephen Colbert taking over The Late Show and Trevor Noah taking over The Daily Show. Maybe it won’t be so bad. And I still have Larry Wilmore an John Oliver. Thank Loki for all of them!

Happy Midsummer!

See the curtains hangin’ in the window
In the evenin’ on a Friday night
Little light is shinin’ through the window
Lets me know everything’s alright

Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind
Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind

See the paper layin’ on the sidewalk
A little music from the house next door
So I walked on up to the doorstep
Through the screen and across the floor

Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind
Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind

Sweet days of summer, the jasmine’s in bloom
July is dressed up and playing her tune
And I come home from a hard day’s work
And you’re waiting there, not a care in the world

See the smile awaitin’ in the kitchen
Food cookin’ in the plates for two
Feel the arms that reach out to hold me
In the evening when the day is through

Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind
Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind

Ancestry Matters

By now you can probably guess I’m not a big fan of Stephen McNallen or the AFA, but one of the things he likes to say is “ancestry matters.” I have to agree with him on that, but I don’t think it matters in the way he thinks it does.

Ancestor worship/veneration is a component of many traditional cultures all around the world, so that would suggest that it has some value to it, or at least should be looked into as a possible source of spiritual guidance. And even if you don’t believe in gods, everyone has ancestors, and its hard to deny that their actions affect you today. You wouldn’t even exist without them.

But I think about ancestry a lot differently than folkish Heathens do. For one thing, coming from a biology background, I tend to think about ancestry going much, much further back than 1,000 years or so. I just did the lecture on human evolution in my class the other day. Looking at these long expanses of time always puts things in perspective.

But another problem I have some ancestors, going not very far back, that were some pretty bad people. And I’ve never really seen a good answer to that dilemma in any Heathen books or websites when they talk about how important it is to honor your ancestors.

Trying not to get into too much detail, but my maternal grandfather was a really, really horrible person. He mentally and emotionally scarred my mom for life. He’s been dead for years and my family is still dealing with the damage of what he did. My mom didn’t abuse me as badly as she was abused by her own parents, but there’s a reason why I see a therapist every week.

So what if you have a really horrible ancestor like that? I read about these rituals to honor the dead and call up their spirits, and I just don’t want to do them because I’m afraid if I open that door, HE will come through. And that terrifies me. What if he decides to try to hurt us some more? From the way my mom and other relatives have described him to me, he sounds like he was a sociopath.

It’s more of a problem around Samhain time, but I guess I’m thinking about it right now because of all this recent racial violence that’s been happening in this country. It’s kind of a similar thing but on a greater scale. We have these awful things that were done in our collective past, as Americans, and the damage is still here today, and we just plain don’t know how to deal with it.

The past does matter. It’s how Wyrd works. The threads of the past affect the future. You can’t ignore them.

Even if none of my ancestors personally owned slaves or lynched black people, that past still affects my life as a white person in America, even if I don’t always notice it because of white privilege. It seems to me like a lot of white people want to ignore it. I have heard many say that slavery was such a long time ago, “black people just need to get over it.” But… getting back to the abuse thing… that’s like telling a victim of child abuse to “just get over it” and pretend nothing is wrong. That doesn’t work. Believe me, back when I was really suffering with depression badly, I tried to just get over it and pull myself together. And then when I failed, it just meant I wasn’t good enough or something and made me more depressed.

But you also can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself. Some white people do that, with the “white guilt” thing. Some black people might do it too, though perhaps not at the rate that some white people claim. It’s true you can’t change the past, but some people just throw up their hands and go, “oh well, life sucks,” and end up not doing anything either.

You can’t change the past, but you can look at how the past affects things now. That can be hard to do. You have to face these really horrible things that happened in the past. When Heathens talk about honoring the ancestors, I get annoyed that they seem to idealize “the ancestors” so much and never seem to deal with the bad ones. I have child abuse running in my family, but other Heathens might be directly descended from Nazis, slave owners, or people whose job it was to send Native Americans to reservations or Japanese Americans to internment camps. What do you do with the shameful ancestors? Ignore what they did and pretend they were wonderful? Pretend what they did wasn’t wrong and stick a Confederate bumper sticker on your car?

You have to look at the sort of damage this stuff in the past has caused in the here and now. This isn’t easy. Denial is really tempting. It took me a LOT of therapy before it really sunk in that my family is dysfunctional and messed up, and this is probably why I’m popping antidepressants. (I’ve been off them for 6 years now though.)

And as a whole country, we also have this dysfunctional, abusive past. And this is why we’re having these problems today.

And then when that really sinks in, what do you do? I guess this is the hard part. You have to figure out what you can do to steer things in a better direction. When I have a kid, I have to be really, really careful not to pass my own emotional scars on to my kid. That’s why I’m in therapy. My mom had hardly any therapy. It’s too painful for her to even acknowledge anything less than perfection in herself, so if a therapist ever tells her anything she doesn’t want to hear, she quits. I can’t remember a single time in my entire life she ever genuinely apologized to me for anything.

As a whole country, we need to look at how we can address this problem of racism. You can’t just go, “I don’t see race,” and otherwise ignore the problem. Yes, it’s painful to realize, “Wow, that was some horrible shit that white Americans did in the past,” but you have to do it. If you ignore the problem, you just keep perpetuating it. But fixing it does take a lot of work. It’s not a “just get over it” kind of thing.

Maybe we should look at some other countries who had similar problems in the past. How did Germany deal with the Nazis? What did South Africa do after Apartheid? Have any of them handled this better? Or maybe they’re worse? I don’t know! I never learned about other countries in school.

South Carolina is still flying the Confederate flag over their state capitol. They didn’t even lower it after the church shooting. Someone on my Facebook posted a picture of that and said, “In Germany, do they still fly Nazi flags?”

I don’t think they do.

It just seems to me that as a Heathen, if you know that your ancestors, whether they be direct-blood ancestors or cultural or spiritual ancestors, did some horrible shit, the best way for you to deal with that is to finally BREAK that thread of Wyrd. Don’t keep it going, and don’t pretend that it doesn’t matter. You have to actively, painfully, purposefully CUT that bad thread out and start weaving a new, better one.

Remember, when Christians die, they are judged by their god. When Heathens die, they are judged by their descendants.

(By the way, I just remembered, right after posting this, that today is Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day that Texas found out that slavery had been abolished.)

Why I Call Myself a Heathen But Maybe Shouldn’t

Look through my backlog of unread blog posts here on my week off before summer session starts, I found these:

Why I Am Not a Heathen (Though I Kind of Wish That I Could Be) and Why I Am Not A Heathen 2: What Can You Do?

This is an issue I struggle with a lot myself too. I’ve taken the, “I’ll just call myself a Heathen anyway” approach right now, but I may change my mind in the future. Let me look at some of the points Pagan Church Lady brings up:

Using the Havamal as a basis of your morality

I think the Havamal is cool. Hey, I’m an Odin’s woman, so I have to, right? But I do think that people that use the Havamal as some kind of scripture are doing that because of Christian baggage. Just like the various book of the Bible, the Poetic Edda, including the Havamal, need to be taken in the proper context. The Havamal is a poem written in a particular time period from a particular point of view. We need to remember that we don’t live in the Viking Age anymore. We also need to remember our gods, unlike the Christian God, never claimed to be perfect, and that includes Odin, and we don’t actually have to obey or listen to every single thing he says.

I know some folks might disagree with me on that last point, but I really think there’s nothing wrong with thinking a god is wrong about some things. Assuming the gods are perfect and mindlessly obeying them is a monotheistic thing. If there are some misogynist things in the Havamal, keep in mind that this was written down by a misogynist culture, and hopefully either the humans writing it down misunderstood what Odin meant, or Odin himself has changed his mind since then.

Lore vs. UPG

I think “The Lore” is just the “UPG” of people who lived a long time ago. It’s useful to know about, but if you assume that the gods are real, then it would make sense that people would learn more about them over time. It’s also possible that the gods themselves change over time, and therefore we need to update our knowledge of them (see above about Odin and misogyny). Most Heathens I’ve met seem OK with some ideas that have become basically modern lore, like how Thor likes coffee or Freya likes chocolate, offerings they would never have received back in Viking times. They just want to make sure people know what is modern and what is ancient.

“UPG” does have some problems. It especially troubles me when various people’s UPG’s directly contradict each other (maybe that’s a leftover from my atheist days). But without UPG all we have is a religion from a thousand years ago frozen in amber like that mosquito from Jurassic Park.

Hating on the Wiccans

This seems to not be as bad as it used to be. Around these parts, Heathens have a big presence at Pagan Pride Day and at pagan festivals. There seem to be more and more Heathens who really don’t mind being included under the neopagan umbrella, and I haven’t heard “Wiccatru” thrown around as an insult for a long time.

Modern Heathens ARE Neopagans under Issac Bonewits’s definition, and I think it’s a good definition. I like words to have precise definitions. You can’t say you’re not a neopagan just because you don’t like some things that some neopagans do.

It kind of reminds me of those Christians who love to hate on Muslims, even though as far as I can tell, Christianity and Islam are extremely close. They’re probably closer to each other than they are to any other religions. That seems to just make them hate each other more.

Is this a Religion or a Getting Drunk and Dressing Up Like Vikings Party?

Oh my gosh, I could write a whole rant about this! I have met a bunch of Viking wannabes at various events, and it does really annoy me. SCA is not a religion. Hitting your friends with styrofoam swords is not a religion. It’s so silly, and is why a lot of outsiders don’t take us seriously.

It’s the Heathen version of Wiccans who think Wicca is all about dressing up in goth clothes and pretending to be spooky Halloween witches. I think people who do things like this will eventually get bored and go on to the next hobby, and hopefully leave us serious people behind.

You Need a Community

It’s totally unrealistic to expect all Heathens to be a member of a kindred to be legit Heathens. There just aren’t enough communities around for all Heathens to find one they click well with. And some people are just more social than others. But I’ve never heard anyone saying you can’t be a solitary Heathen, just that isn’t not as good as being in a community. And that may be true. I have no idea since I’ve never been in a kindred before, and don’t see that happening any time in the near future either.

I know for sure I’d rather be a solitary than be in a kindred that I don’t fit in well with.

Racist Bullshit

I’ve already written whole posts about this, where I compared Folkish Heathenry to Young Earth Creationism. I still think it’s a very good comparison. Both are folks basing their religion around a scientifically falsified idea. That’s just never a good thing to do.

Now I’m going to add a couple of other things Pagan Church Lady didn’t mention that also bother me:

You have to be a Republican (or at least a Libertarian) to be a Heathen

I still run into this a lot. I started on this path when the Iraq War started those many, many years ago, and was told if you are a Heathen, and especially if you follow Odin, you have to be in favor of going to war with Iraq. I thought the war was a terrible idea from the beginning, and the idea that Odin was in favor of such a terrible idea made me try to get away from him.

Now that pretty much everyone knows that I WAS RIGHT TOLD YOU SO, being a Libertarian has come into fashion, so now they can be against the war (but were silent back when I TRIED TO WARN YOU PEOPLE), but still be against social security, medicare, environmental regulations, SNAP and WIC, the Civil Rights Act, public schools, etc. And then of course in order to be a good Heathen, you have to agree with that. That’s the part that bothers me.

I still don’t understand why I’m disqualified as being a Heathen if I vote Democrat. Just look at the politics of Sweden or Norway. Democrats are conservative by their standards. (They are by my standards too, but they’re kind of the best we’ve got here.)

These folks are the Heathen version of the “if you are Christian, then you have to be against gay marriage and abortion,” folks. Lots of Christians are OK with gay marriage and abortion, and now I know how they feel.

We Aren’t a Nature-Based Religion

I named my blog “Heathen Naturalist” to piss these people off. I’ve already written a post about how I think that viewing nature as sacred and being a polytheist go hand-in-hand, and how I think “worshiping the gods and NOT nature” is a monotheistic thing. I don’t think our ancestors had that sharp division, and I think the main reason Heathens go on and on about this is because they want to distance themselves from those icky Wiccan hippies.

I know a lot more about nature than most Wiccans do. Our pre-Christian ancestors lived completely immersed in Nature, and I think a lot of our modern problems have come from us trying to separate ourselves from Nature. Part of that separation is from the monotheistic idea that God gave us dominion over Nature. I don’t know of anything in Heathen lore that says humans are the most important thing in the universe like it says in Judeo-Christian lore.

So Am I A Heathen Or Not?

I think I have more spiritual beliefs in common with Native Americans, the African Diaspora, and Shinto than I do with Southern Baptists, which makes the racial thing tricky since I’m white and a cultural outsider to those communities. What is a white animist and polytheist supposed to do? The most sensible thing to do seemed to be to worship deities from pre-Christian Europe.

However, a lot of Heathens I’ve met seem to be Southern Baptists who just substituted Odin for Jesus and the Poetic Edda for the Bible. It’s especially noticeable to me since I was never a Christian to begin with. Christian-like thought patterns like a huge emphasis on scripture and a separation of the divine from nature just don’t make sense to me.

There are plenty of Christians who aren’t Southern Baptists (or Quiverful, or Young Earth Creationists, or Dominionists), and they probably feel a similar way as I do. Some of them quit calling themselves Christians entirely and go be quasi-Christian Unitarian Universalists or Quakers or something like that. Others keep calling themselves Christians and just try to be an example of how Not All Christians Are Like That. That’s basically the situation I’m in with Heathenry.

Well anyways, that’s my little rant about that. I’ve been struggling with this question for the entire time I’ve even known that Heathenry existed, so I doubt it will go away soon. Sometimes I really do think I should just give up the Heathen thing entirely, when it seems like I’m the only Heathen in the world who does it the way I do it.

Politicizing disaster


Good points made here, and in the original article linked to. I’d like to add a couple of things.

One really frustrating thing for me is that the general public doesn’t understand how statistics and probability works. It is absolutely true that we can not link *this one particular flood* directly to climate change. It’s possible it could have happened without it.

But climate change is probably making extreme weather events (both droughts and floods) more frequent and more likely. A few years ago in New Braunfels they had a “100 year flood” that wiped out several homes. They rebuilt the homes, and 3 years later they had another 100 year flood that wiped them out again. After that, the city didn’t let them build any more homes in that area and turned it into parkland.

A “100 year flood” means that, on average, the river should flood that badly every 100 years. It doesn’t mean that on the dot, like clockwork, it floods there exactly every 100 years. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible to have two 100 year floods only 3 years apart without climate change. But the odds of that happening should be low. Low enough for you to go “hmm, that’s weird.”

The thing is a lot of these weird, unlikely events have been happening lately. If this was a casino, you’d start to think things are rigged. Too many unlikely events are happening all at once. We just had our worst drought in modern history. When the interstate highway system was built, I’m sure they got a lot of scientists and engineers to look at the records for the Blanco River and build the bridge over it (where the interstate links two of the major cities of Texas) high enough to make sure it would never flood. But on May 24, 2015, the bridge was underwater. That’s weird. It’s probably why some of my fellow scientists like to call it “global weirdening.”

Besides, even if this stuff wasn’t caused by global warming, reducing our use of fossil fuels is a good idea anyway for all kinds of other reasons. It’s like a comic I once saw: “What if we all did the right thing when we didn’t really have to?” That’s what the global warming deniers sound like to me. Anything to defend the current status quo of trying to suck as much fossil fuel out of the ground and burn it up as fast as possible.

Originally posted on Rebalancing Acts:

A lot of very good points made in Here’s why we need to politicize disasters, over on Grist (which begins with a brief summary of the immense flooding Texas, and nearby areas, has experienced recently):

Unsurprisingly, not everyone has responded well to the attempts to link the floods to climate change. At a press conference this week, Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has a long history of casting aspersions on climate change science, said, “At a time of tragedy, I think it’s wrong to try to politicize a natural disaster. And so there’s plenty of time to talk about other issues. I think the focus now is on caring for those who have lost their lives and lost their homes.”

According to Cruz, there’s a time and a place for people to talk about climate change and disasters, but that is sometime in…

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The Power of Water

Saturday, May 23 was when I got back to San Antonio from Alpine after spending a week there for a workshop for science educators hosted by Sul Ross State University. It was raining pretty hard when we unloaded our luggage out of the bus we took to Alpine and into our cars to get home. Driving north on the interstate, I noticed the warning signs that usually warn of car accidents said something very strange: flooding had caused the interstate to be closed up ahead. Fortunately it was north of where I had to exit to get home, so I didn’t get caught in the growing traffic jam.

It turned out that the normally placid Blanco River had been hit by some very heavy rain up in the Hill Country by Wimberley and had flooded a record 40 feet, spilling over the interstate, washing away homes, trees, and cars, and killing several people. It made not only national but international news. By Sunday I had received several calls from people asking if my husband and I were OK. Fortunately our house is on high ground.

This is how droughts end in Texas: with floods. When my dad died, he left me his canoe, and the first time by husband and I took it out was on the Blanco River in Wimberley near a weekend cabin my sister-in-law has on its banks. We had to drag the canoe for quite a ways before we found water deep enough to float it. Last weekend the flood waters made it all the way up to the back deck of my sister-in-law’s cabin, and she was one of fortunate ones. Some of the other ones in the area were washed away or at least badly damaged. She also wasn’t out there at the time, which was good because the bridges that lead out there were washed away, and some stranded people had to be rescued by helicopter.

This is what the Element of Water can do when you have enough of it. Try thinking about that the next time you are at a Wiccan style ritual and turn to the West. There’s a good reason why cities and civilizations are built on rivers, but rivers giveth and rivers taketh away.

Sunday my husband and I went out to the shores of the Blanco River to look at the damage. I was amazed at the size of the trees the flood was able to uproot and wash away. Huge cypress trees ripped out of the banks of the river, stripped of bark and leaves, and thrust onto bridges 30 feet in the air, or smashed into any man-made structures in the way. Others walked around gawking, searching for treasures the flood might have washed up, and taking pictures. I wish I had brought my camera, and I don’t have a smartphone. I didn’t know what to expect when we decided to go out there to look at what had happened. I thought maybe the media was exaggerating, but I had never seen anything like that in my life.

I saw places where harvester ant nests had been washed out, the underground tunnels now exposed, with worker ants busy trying to repair the damage. They didn’t seem much different from the humans scurrying around the scene, except the ants were more focused on rebuilding rather than gaping in awe at the destruction. Ants don’t think about how small they are, and when their infrastructure is destroyed, they just start rebuilding right away. Humans forget how small we are, so when Nature reminds us we are just like the ants, and can be washed away so easily, we are stunned and surprised.

I’ll try go out there later this weekend and take some pictures to show you what I’m talking about, but the news has already been full of similar images you might have seen already. It’s just different actually standing there, next to a tree maybe four or five feet in diameter that the flood waters had picked up, dragged across a soccer field (leaving a deep gouge in the muddy ground for several yards) and smashed into a bench, pulverizing the concrete and limestone blocks it was made of. You can’t take a picture of the smell of wet wood and mashed vegetation and water and mud in the air. I’m sure the city hasn’t started cleaning up yet, since we’ve had flood warnings almost every day since then. No use in trying to repair the damage when we could get another flood any day now. But now it’s starting to look like things are calming down. The chance of rain is only 20% for the next several days, and at my house at least, the sun is out again.

I can tell we’re going to be talking about “The Memorial Day Flood” around these parts for a long time to come. Last I hear they’ve found six bodies, ranging in age from 6 to 74. Six more are still missing, ranging in age from 4 to 81, and at this point it’s unlikely they’ll be found alive, though I guess there’s always some hope until the actual bodies are found. May those who were swept away by the River be received well by their ancestors.

Big Bend National Park: A Holy Place

When American pagans think of sacred places, they usually think of somewhere like Stonehenge or ruins of Greek temples, but you really shouldn’t ignore the places closer to home. Some worry that it would be cultural appropriation about Native American culture, because they were here first and first regarded these places as sacred sites. However, I think the Native Americans were just the first human beings to recognize them (unless of course it’s a site they built themselves), and we should respect them for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these places belong to them. They were here for millions of years before our species even existed. I think they’re sacred in their own right, independent of any human observer, and should be recognized as such by anyone who believes that the natural world has sacred power.

I’m going to tell the story of my relationship with a place near and dear to my heart: Big Bend National Park.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande left there by kindred spirits from long ago.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande. Left there by kindred spirits from long ago?

Getting to Big Bend from here requires a day of driving west. I’ve heard people say the long, “boring” drive is a reason why they don’t go, and to those people I say, “Good!” If you think it’s not worth the drive, then you don’t belong there. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that’s one of its great advantages. I’ve never been there on Thanksgiving, but I’ve heard that’s their only “busy time”. If you go there during summer, like I usually do, there’s hardly anybody there. You certainly won’t get caught in a crowd like you might at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, which is on the eastern edge of the Edward Plateau ecoregion. Driving to Big Bend, I first have to pass through the rest of the Edwards Plateau, with its familiar oak-juniper woodlands, herds of goats, and peach orchards. Going west, the climate gets drier and drier. The woodlands open up into grasslands, and finally, after several hours of driving, you reach the Chihuahuan Desert. The vegetation changes to agaves, cactus, and the majestic ocotillos standing tall among rocky hillsides.

It’s really not a bad drive at all.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

The last bit of “civilization” is Alpine, the largest city in the Trans-Pecos, with about 6,000 people. That’s big enough to have a supermarket, shopping center, and fast food restaurants. Stock up here, because after this, there are only gas station convenience stores in little towns. The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University campus is also worth a visit to stock up on some knowledge about the history of the place if you have never been here before.

From Alpine, Big Bend is straight south, into that “bend” in the Rio Grande that gave the region its name. Things are so “big” out here, that after you reach the borders of the park, you still have a long drive before you get to the headquarters at Panther Junction.

The first time I went to Big Bend I had just moved to Austin for college. I also just joined the Pagan Student Alliance, and that Beltane I went to my first pagan festival. My new friends, knowing I was majoring in biology, introduced me to a lady who worked for Bat Conservation International, and she started talking to me about an opportunity to have something to add to my resume. It was so strange “talking business” at a pagan festival with a lady who was wearing nothing but a sarong around her waist, but at the end of the conversation I had agreed to go with them on a trip in June to Big Bend National Park to study endangered Mexican long-nosed bats. My job was to be the camp cook, errand-runner, and laundry-doer for the scientists, who would be on a nocturnal schedule just like the bats.

I gave one of the other scientists a ride out there. Neither of us had been there before. When we arrived at Panther Junction and got out of the car, I was hit with the most wonderful fragrance. I asked my companion what it was, and she didn’t know. I laughed and said maybe it was fresh air. It wasn’t until later I found out that I was smelling creosote bush, which is known as “the smell of desert rain”. June is the rainy season out there, and when it rains, creosote bush gives out a scent that I think is invigorating.

A field of creosote bush.

A field of creosote bush.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park. Out in the middle of this harsh desert, these mountains rise up, creating an island of lush forest. There are several legends about the mountains being “enchanted” or “haunted,” which means people long before me recognized their spiritual power. Imagine being among the first human beings to make it out here, after crossing miles and miles of desert to find mountains with lush forests of Douglas fir, aspen, and madrone growing on top. There’s a winding road that takes visitors into “the Basin” where you’re surrounded by the mountains. On my first trip there, it had rained, and there were waterfalls cascading over the rock faces. The Basin is also a good place to camp in the summer, since it’s much cooler up in the mountains than the desert below.

The Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains

To study the bats, we had to hike up the Emory Peak trail, higher into the mountains, to where the bats roosted, stay there all night catching bats in a net and attaching radio transmitters to them, and then hike back down in the morning. That night I went with the scientists so they could show me how it was done, but I had to go back earlier than everyone else so I could get up the next morning to cook. I was freezing up there because it had rained, and I had gotten sweaty on the hike up, so I ended up leaving at about 3 am. The problem was that now I was hiking down a mountain trail I was unfamiliar with, alone, in pitch darkness (with only a small, fading flashlight), with thoughts of mountain lions stalking me running through my mind.

When you’re in that situation, your mind starts playing tricks with you. I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me, but when I stopped walking, the sound stopped. It took a long time before I figured out it was my canteen knocking against my backpack when I walked. I walked as fast as I could, and ended up startling some large animal just off the trail in the blackness outside the narrow beam of light coming from my flashlight. All I heard was a snort and crashing through the brush as it ran away from me, and I ran away from it. To this day I have no idea if it was a deer, a javalina, or a bear that I disturbed.

Later on, I lost the trail somehow. I must have gone down a deer trail, and slowly it faded out until I found myself standing in the middle of a patch of lechuguilla with no sign of any trail at all. I looked all around, and everything looked the same. I started to panic, and then I remembered what they told me to do if I had trouble, which was “curl up like a bear on the trail and wait until we come down and find you in the morning.” Yeah right! I wasn’t on the main trail, and I had no idea how far off I had wandered. I ended up finding a rock to sit on, turned off my flashlight, and just sat there a while. This turned out to be a good idea, because the adrenaline started to fade, my eyes adjusted to the starlight, and I calmed down as I looked at the black silhouettes of the mountains against the spectacularly starry sky. That was the first time I was anywhere that was dark enough at night to see the Milky Way.

After a while my eyes had adjusted to the point where I could actually see a small metal sign several yards away. I walked towards it and found the trail. I thanked the mountain spirits for not killing me this time, and managed to make it all the way back to the parking lot, to my car, and then safely back to the research station out in the desert where I was staying.

Sunset over the mountains.

Sunset over the mountains.

Modern pagans (and modern people in general), seem to either idealize Nature or hate it. They’ll say nature is good, and go camping at pagan festivals, until they get stuck with a thorn and then they want to go home back to air conditioning and soft beds. I think if you really want “nature-based spirituality”, then you have to embrace the fact that Nature is amazingly beautiful and healing to the spirit, and can also kill you. I probably wasn’t really in any danger as I hiked down the mountain that night, but it sure felt like it to me when that primitive part of my brain kicked in, and I was reminded that out there I’m not at the top of the food chain. And really, you’re not supposed to hike on those trails alone at night like that. If a mountain lion wanted to eat me that would have been her opportunity to do so. A few days after that, as I was running an errand in Study Butte, I bought a walking stick made of a sotol stalk. It’s become sort of a magic staff for me (I later burned my name in runes on it), but I also carry it on hikes to make any predators think twice about pouncing. (Though it’s more of a psychological thing. If a lion really set her mind to it, the staff probably wouldn’t help that much.)


Terlingua, an old mining “ghost town” turned quirky tourist spot next to Study Butte.

Since I was there during the rainy season in June, every morning there was a thunderstorm. Huge claps of thunder would blast through the desert, and out there nothing obstructed my view of the towering clouds and flashes of lightning. The desert plants soaked up the water and burst into bloom. After that, the sun would come out, and rainbows arched across the blue sky. Then the desert heated up, and by mid-afternoon it was baking hot until the sun went down, and nocturnal creatures like rabbits, coyotes, and kangaroo rats came out of their burrows as the temperature rapidly cooled. The next day the cycle would start over again. Fortunately the fridge at the research station was well stocked with beer, and I managed to sneak out into the desert to pour offerings for Thor and Heimdall and the desert spirits at sunset a couple of times.

That was my first trip to Big Bend.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A couple of years passed. I neared completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UT. When I graduated, it felt like my entire life fell apart. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before I walked across the stage, several of my friends moved to other states, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I had no job, and I was just starting to find out a Bachelor’s degree in biology is worthless, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle graduate school. None of my family or friends was in the sciences, so they couldn’t give me any advice. My relationship with that boyfriend was very unhealthy. I spent months putting a huge amount of emotional energy into trying to make the relationship work out, and then he dumped me right before my graduation. I felt worthless in just about every way.

I moved in with some friends after I had spent most of college living alone in an efficiency apartment. Living with supportive friends helped, but I still slipped into a deep depression. It felt like I had spent the last few years working so hard but everything I worked for had been worth nothing.

So I started planning another trip to Big Bend. This time I would go all by myself, and I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going. I told myself it was so that they couldn’t stop me, but part of me also wondered if anyone would notice I was gone. I needed to get out there and away from my pathetic little life.  I was also aware it was a bit dangerous taking a trip like this by myself, but I was at that point where you’re not quite suicidal, but you don’t really care if you just so happen to die somehow, you know? The thought of dying in Big Bend had a certain appeal.


You are so small out here.

That morning I got up early and was loading the camping gear into my car, and of course one of my roommates caught me. I instantly realized the whole sneaking away idea was one of those stupid things that the fog of Depression comes up with, and my roommates would have noticed and would have called the police to report me missing. She made me promise I wasn’t going to kill myself and would be careful, and then she told me she’d let my other friends know not to worry, and she wouldn’t worry about me until I was gone for more than a week. Then she thought it was an awesome idea for me to take this pilgrimage.

I spent a week in Big Bend by myself. Since it was summer, I camped in the Basin where it was cool. I had only been there a little while before the depression was swept away. Since this was the first time I wasn’t there “on business” I got to leisurely hike lots of trails I hadn’t before, like the Lost Mine Trail. The rangers advised not hiking on any of the desert trails in the summer because of the potentially deadly heat, so I didn’t. I did take some of the scenic drives through the park, and at one point became overwhelmed by the mountains. It was when I was looking at an interpretive panel explaining how some rock formations in front of me were built, and I saw the tiny road I had been on an hour or so before off there in the distance, with a tiny little car driving along it, and realized how tiny I am, and how huge these mountains were that took millions of years to form. Some of the rocks in the park are billions of years old. It actually wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. I get a similar feeling when looking up at stars. “Feeling small” isn’t a strong enough description for those moments, but I still think that’s a good thing to experience. If more people really knew how small they are, they might change their priorities a bit.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

When I got back, I enrolled in graduate school. That turned out to be another really, really difficult time in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting into. My thesis didn’t work out. I thought I would have to quit and had wasted all that time and money for nothing, and I still wouldn’t be able to find a job. Thankfully, the department chair, when I thought he was about to kick me out, suggested I change my degree plan. It freed me up to take classes I was much more interested in, like Ornithology, Mammology, and Field Botany. For those classes, we had field trips where we traveled all over Texas learning about the different ecosystems, and I ended up going back to Big Bend two more times. It reminded me of why I got into this career field to begin with.

After I abandoned my thesis and started taking those classes, I finally learned what I wanted to learn this whole time. I learned bird calls, and animal tracks, and how to identify plants, all knowledge my previous thesis advisor thought was useless trivia, while real scientists program ecological models on computers or run electrophoresis gels in a lab all day.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

I took my husband to Big Bend in the summer of 2013. He had never been before. I told him about all my past history with the place, and now that I was happy, done with graduate school and with a job I liked and a nice husband, I wanted to share it with him. We went to Davis Mountains State Park for a couple of days first. Neither of us had been there before. We stayed at the beautiful Indian Lodge. That was so nice, he said maybe we should stay here the whole time, but I told him Big Bend was even better, so we went there next, and he said I was right. All the pictures in this post are from that trip.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

While we were there, I bought a book at the gift shop called Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent and read it on the drive home. It was interesting reading about these now-familiar places in the park and how they turned on some people. There are several tales of people who died of heat and thirst. I always give offerings of water to the land spirits for that reason. When people have actually died out there from not having enough water, giving some away to the spirits is a huge sacrifice. There are also stories of people freezing to death, getting hit by lightning, and even suicides and murders, but no one eaten by a mountain lion.

I really related to some of the people’s stories, like the old man in the first story who hiked the Outer Mountain Loop without enough water (and possibly suffering from the early stages of dementia) and died of thirst. He left a journal of the whole thing. He had been going to Big Bend for years, sometimes taking his kids with him. I got the sense that he felt a similar love for Big Bend that I do, and when he figured out he was going to die there, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

My husband and I didn’t bring enough water hiking the Window Trail. One bad thing about that hike is you go downhill first when you’re fresh, and then have to go uphill to get back when you’re tired. We ran out of water about halfway back up, and were feeling pretty bad by the time we got to our vehicle. It’s a popular trail, so I’m sure if we really got into trouble we would have been found soon enough, but you never know. One story in the book was of a man who died hiking Grapevine Hills, which is a short, 2 mile trail in the desert right next to the road. He didn’t bring any water, got disoriented, wandered off the trail, and his body was found in an arroyo.

Looking out The Window.

Looking out The Window.

The Window was worth it though, because at the end you can look out over the desert for miles. As my husband was looking out, and I was getting a drink of water in the shade, we heard this strange bird call I’d never heard before. My husband yelled at me to come look, and a golden eagle swooped past. Of course I didn’t get a picture of it, and when I talked to a ranger later, they said they didn’t know of any golden eagle nests down there. But we’re absolutely sure it was a golden eagle after looking up its call on the internet when we got home. That was the first and only wild eagle I’ve seen.

I know a lot of people are afraid of the wild because of the dangers, though I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on my way to work than anything else. There’s just something humbling about being somewhere like that where human beings aren’t in control. For most of us it’s rare to be in a place that hasn’t been altered and tamed to for your comfort, a place where there’s no air conditioning and all the plants have thorns and there are animals there that look at you as a food source. And I think that makes it even more important to visit these places sometimes and get reminded of what that’s like.

One of the things I look forward to about having a kid one day is bringing her (or him) to Big Bend as soon as she’s old enough. I thought about that a lot when I was there with my husband. I want to pass on my love and reverence for that place to another generation.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This May I’m going to Sul Ross University in Alpine for a week-long workshop for STEM educators. I just got the itinerary, and most of the week will be spent taking classes on things like scanning electron microscopy and GIS, but it looks like at least on Friday we’ll be going to Big Bend for a Field Geology workshop, and then to the Davis Mountains that evening for a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory. I hope I get time to sneak a quick hello to the mountain spirits, the rivers spirits, and the desert spirits. It’s not quite the same going there “on business” as going there when I can do what I like, but at least it’s a free trip to Big Bend. All my expenses are being paid by the university, including room and board, and I’m getting a stipend.

I haven’t been to many other national parks, and I haven’t been to any other national parks more than once. I haven’t gotten to travel much in my life in general. But I think even if there are more impressive parks out there that I may see some day, Big Bend will still seem special to me.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.