Behaving As if the God in All Life Mattered – Machaelle Small Wright

Behaving As if the God in All Life Mattered
Machaelle Small Wright
Perelandra, Ltd., 1997
270 pages

I think what I was expecting in this book was an exploration of animism and consideration of living beings other than our own–but more in the format of When Elephants Weep. Instead, this book is part biography, part New Age animistic philosophy text. It’s not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway.

Much of the book is about Wright’s life history–her rough start after her parents divorced and indicated that neither one really wanted her, her eventual ensconcement into a Catholic girl’s high school in which social politics were the name of the game, and how she managed to find a good relationship nonetheless that eventually helped bring her to Perelandra, an eight acre piece of land that became the setting of her work with Devas, the spirits of nature. While I normally am not a big fan of biographic storytelling as a primary teaching device, I found that I really got into her background story. I also found that her transmissions of lessons from the Devas were well-interspersed with the story.

Her conception of Devas is very similar to my conception of totems–archetypal beings that watch over an entire species, and are independent beings rather than figments of the imagination. While her experiences are positive, and she seems to believe that one’s experiences with Devas should never be negative, overall, I found I agreed with a lot of what she was saying. I sometimes looked askance at some of her claims about the actions of the Devas–for example, there were a few anecdotes where garden pests were wreaking havoc, but after she talked to their respective Devas they’d miraculously disappear or move off to somewhere else (within hours).

If you don’t have a lot of tolerance for New Age-flavored writing, this may be a bit saccharine for you at times. However, it’s a great story, and inspiring in a lot of ways.

Four pawprints out of five.

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I Am of This Land – Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow

I Am of This Land (Wetes pe m’e wes): Wildlife of the Hanford Site (A Nez Perce Nature Guide)
Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow (compilers)
Nez Perce Tribe Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Department

This is a neat book I found secondhand. It’s a combination of natural history of various animals at the Hanford site in Washington state, and stories about the animals from Nez Perce mythology. The two areas are well blended for a wonderful look at the wild creatures that the Hanford nuclear site features.

The first section of the book is a summary of Nez Perce culture, to give context for the rest of the material. There’s also a good reminder of the history of the tribe in relation to the United States government, including land grabs and other abuses by the latter. Considering the book is produced by the tribe itself, one can most likely trust to its accuracy.

The rest of the book includes brief explanations of the various animals–mammals, birds, and more–found at the Hanford site, as well as a special section on harmful animals such as poisonous spiders. The information for each animal is not particularly long–usually a sentence or two, if that. So don’t take this as your only field guide. However, there’s good (if a bit dated) information on the status of each species (endangered, threatened, etc.) as well as how commonly it’s found on site. Myths are interspersed throughout the text.

Overall, it’s a neat little compilation. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Nez Perce culture and myth, as well as anyone who like critters of any sort.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Reason For Hope – Jane Goodall

Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey
Jane Goodall
Warner Books, 1999
282 pages

Biologist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall has authored a number of informative and approachable books. This one combines a summary of her life with her spiritual insights. Often ecospiritual in nature rather than “Worship God!”, the book allows the reader a sensitive look into Goodall’s personal thoughts on her experiences of the past few decades, as well as her thoughts on contemporary issues in animal welfare and environmentalism.

Reason For Hope is divided into chapters that each focus on a particular theme, such as solitude, war, evil and healing. While the material that Goodall covers is often familiar to people who have read her other works, there are some new writings as well. A variety of photos allows more depth to the text, putting faces to names. The book ends on a positive note, extolling the virtues of–and need for–hope. Instead of feeling as though there’s nothing we can do, instead Goodall explains the problems we face, and through her patient and courageous example, inspires us to continue the good fight.

Even though Goodall is a self-described Christian, there is much in here to interest pagans, particular those of an ecospiritual persuasion. You won’t find preaching and proselytization. Instead, Goodall glories in the wonders of this world and the potential for human depth and growth in harmony with the rest of the world. It’s an inspiring read, and one I intend to return to.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Seasonal Dance – Broch and MacLer – July BBBR

Seasonal Dance: How to Celebrate the Pagan Year
Janice Broch and Veronica MacLer
Weiser, 1993
172 pages

I’m admittedly kind of jaded about books on celebrating sabbats and esbats. How many times do we need to know that we can associate bread with Lammas, have pumpkin soup at Samhain, and rut like bunnies at Beltane? Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find a good deal of practical information in this book that’s a decade and a half old now.

The first chapter, “Creating Ritual”, is exceptionally important all on its own. The authors give a detailed process for structuring and writing a good ritual. While it doesn’t have every single answer you may need, it’s a wonderful resource if you’re just learning how to write a ritual, especially one with other people involved. The appendices are also quite useful, especially the ones on song and dance and games (though the appendices of correspondences aren’t too much different from what you’d find elsewhere).

The chapters on individual sabbats do have precrafted rituals, though the authors do advise that if you use one of them (or any other publicly available, widespread ritual), someone else may recognize them–which may or may not be embarrassing. While they offer sample rituals, they do encourage the reader to write their own. They’re fairly generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, but they are nice and the background information in the first chapter gives added depth to understanding the components of the rituals–much better than just giving people a book of spells and rites and telling them to go to it.

This would be a lovely book to give to a beginner, especially someone who may be in an informal group with other relative newbies. While it certainly shouldn’t be the only resource made available, it is a wonderful addition to a 101 bookshelf.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Book of the Vision Quest – Steven Foster

The Book of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness
Steven Foster with Meredith Little
Bear Tribe Publishing, 1983
170 pages

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand there’s some really useful information in it. On the other, it smacks of wannabe Indianism. Let me elaborate on each.

The Good: The book is a good guide to what we’ll call vision questing, for simplicity’s sake. The second chapter of the book in particular is basically a handbook that seems designed for people that the author would guide out into the desert for their experiences. It has good practical information, though it should not be taken as your only source for this material. The bulk of the book involves anecdotes from various peoples’ experiences, used to illustrate different aspects of the quest. It’s well-written, and with a good balance of voices.

The Bad: It basically reads like “white people trying to be Indians”. Indigenous people are spoken of in the past tense, and in romanticized terms. While I understand that there are plenty of people trying to reconnect with the land, with each other, with themselves, too often people try to copy from other cultures without taking their own cultural contexts into account. There’s no real distinction made between the context of a society for whom vision questing is an integrated part of one’s life cycle, and a society for whom it is an alien experience. While the detachment of mainstream Americans is made clear, the manners in which we may experience our quests differently are not made so clear. Additionally, the use of the term “vision quest” may lead people to believe that the book is indigenous in origin.

I do see what the author was trying to do, and I think it’s a noble effort to try to get people reconnected. I just wish it weren’t in such a romanticized manner.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Herbs – Amy “Moonlady” Martin

Spirit Herbs: Simple Recipes for Hibachi Herbal Magic & Sacred Space
Amy “Moonlady” Martin
Moonlady Media
eBook (approximately 70 pages printed out)

Lots of pagans use smudge wands at the beginning of a ritual to purify participants and the ritual space. However, there’s much, much more you can do than the usual sage bundle. In this creative text, Martin offers a whole new level of smudging with herbs of all sorts–and all you need is a garden (or barbecue) variety hibachi.

Although the subtitle of the book mentioned recipes, there’s more to it than that. Martin offers a wealth of practical information to get you started. From the virtues of different sorts of tools for burning herbs, to what part of the plant has what sort of energy, to why trying to burn a pound of resins at once is a bad idea, she gives us everything we’ll need to safely and effectively use the herbs. While she thankfully avoids stuffing the book with a bunch of spells and rituals, she does offer up some of her favorite herbal blends and gives information for what they’re best used for. She also includes a helpful dictionary of a good diversity of herbs.

I love the author’s writing voice. While she conveys the information clearly and concisely, she simultaneously slips in a good bit of humor. Neither condescending nor airy-fairy, she’s sensible without boring her readers senseless.

This is exactly the kind of book that I want to see more of–not rehashes of the same old stuff, a bunch of reworked Culpeper and Cunningham. In this book, we get an innovative collection of ideas with enough information to effectively put them into practice, but without a bunch of fluff and filler. In short–this is an awesome book, and I can’t recommend it enough. I know I’ll be keeping it for my own use.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Eyes of Crow – Jeri Smith-Ready

Eyes of Crow
Jeri Smith-Ready
Luna Books, 2006
474 pages

I was first introduced to Jeri Smith-Ready’s Wicked Game, one of the most original vampire novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Unbeknownst to me at the time, her earlier publications included a series of novels based around a fantasy world where people bond with their totems in very dramatic and magical ways. Eyes of Crow is the first in the trilogy.

A community of people live by the abilities bestowed upon them by their totem creatures. Some are common, others less so. Rhia, our main character, fears that she may be the first Crow woman in a generation, Crow being the harbringer of death. Amid this set of growing pains, she must also navigate love, a potential war, and the loss of those around her.

While I was a little worried that this would end up being a long, dragging novel that I couldn’t wait to have over with, it was actually quite a fast and enjoyable read for its size. Smith-Ready is a talented writer who has a firm grasp of both worldbuilding and character development. Both the descriptive parts and the dialogue flow smoothly, and they’re well balanced.

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a new fantasy series to read. I would also highly suggest that anyone interested in animal totems pick it up, since she does a good job of creating a fictional totemic system.

Five pawprints out of five.

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