Lllewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac – various

Llewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac: Herbs for Cooking and Crafts, Health and Beauty, Growing and Gathering, History, Myth and Lore
Various
Llewellyn Publications, 2007
312 pages

People often assume that because the Llewellyn almanacs are dated (and are called “almanacs”), that most of the information in them isn’t relevant beyond the year they’re published. The truth is to the contrary. While the 2008 Herbal Almanac does include a few pages of lunar information that can be used with herbal magic and growing, this is no Farmer’s Almanac. Instead, it’s an anthology of informational essays on a wide variety of topics related to herbs and plants, sure to be relevant for years to come.

The book is divided into sections: Growing and Gathering Herbs, Culinary Herbs, Herbs for Health, Herbs for Beauty, Herb Crafts, and Herb History, Myth and Lore. Each section contains anywhere from three to eight essays of a nice variety. While overall I enjoyed the quality of the writing and information in here (albeit as someone who does not work extensively with herbs beyond cooking), here are a few of my favorites:

Endangered Herbs by Patti Wigington: Because some of the most commonly used herbs in magic are often ubiquitous (and even weeds) it can be easy to forget that not everything that’s an herb is easy to procure, or has a healthy population overall. This essay details a few herbs that, while used frequently in magic, are endangered from habitat loss, overuse, and other reasons. The author offers some excellent alternatives, as well as tips on sustainable consumption (culinary and otherwise) of these plants.

Shadowplay: Herbs for the Shady Garden by Elizabeth Barrette: You don’t need full sunlight to be able to have a garden. This excellent essay details what may be planted in the shade, as well as some ideas for helping the herbs to grow.

Organic Gardening Practices by Lynne Smyth: Another one of the gardening essays, I liked this simply because it’s a good, basic introduction to ways to garden without chemicals, and in a sustainable manner. Those who claim to be close to the Earth would do well to adopt as many of these practices as possible.

Henna for Hair by AarTiana: I love henna, and have been using it for a few years to dye my hair red. This was a nice guide to using henna, and while I already knew a good bit of the information, I learned a few things (including the fact that Lucille Ball used henna!)

Paracelsus, Plants, and the Doctrine of Signatures by Mark Stavish: This was a little denser read than most of what was in this book, but still quite accessible. A good introduction to a hermetic/alchemical take on magical herbalism, and a more thorough explanation of why we use correspondences than most short writings offer.

Crafts for Kids Unfold Outdoors by Sally Cragin: I’m childfree, but I wholeheartedly support exposing children to nature as soon as possible. This lovely article not only promotes an Earth-friendly approach to using natural items in crafts, but includes a number of how-tos on some very simple creations that can be fun for kids and grown-ups alike!

Overall, this is a great collection. Some of the essays are more 101-level, so this would be an excellent choice for a newbie, but there are some interesting things for the more advanced as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

More Facing North Reviews

Here’s the latest pair of my exclusive reviews over at Facing North:

William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision by Marsha Keith Schuchard

Gaia Eros: Reconnecting to the Magic and Spirit of Nature by Jesse Wolf Hardin

The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer

The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth
John Michael Greer
Weiser Books, 2006
272 pages

Druidry is one of those pagan religions that I don’t know as much about as some others. However, getting to read the basics of one particular tradition of druidry has helped flesh out my perspectives somewhat, and so as a near-neophyte to the entire concept, I have to say this was a great introduction. I’ve read and reviewed The Druid Magic Handbook, also by Greer, but this offers more background to that text. (In other words, I suggest reading them both, but in the reverse order!)

The Druidry Handbook, while being the material for the First Degree in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (of which Greer is the Grand Archdruid), is also quite suitable for the individual interested in self-instruction. It’s impeccably organized (in sets of three, of course!) and Greer has a definite talent for explaining things thoroughly but without overcomplication. The book starts with an honest assessment of the history of druidry, including some of the more controversial (and occasionally fictitious) roots, though even the fiction is valued for its mythological if not historical qualities. Greer then presents the basic philosophy and practices of AODA druidry, along with some 101 material such as sacred days, correspondences, and a beginner’s introduction to ogam. This is followed by three paths of specialization that the reader may explore; the Earth Path deals largely with ecology as applied spirituality, the Sun Path with ritual practice, and the Moon Path with meditation. The wrap-up includes information for those wishing to utilize the book in a formalized practice, whether through the AODA or not.

Even those who aren’t specifically interested in druidry may want to take a good look at this book. The meditation section, for example, has a series of practices that are useful and effective regardless of one’s personal spiritual paradigm. The seasonal rituals, too, may be adapted for use outside of druidry, being well-structured and lyrical in their own right. In fact, many of the regular practices could be incorporated into a variety of paths.

There are so many good things to say beyond this. I do, however, want to especially point out the eco-friendly focus of the material. Many books on supposed “Earth-based religions” barely give lip service to actual hands-on ecological practice, preferring instead to write rehashes of moon rituals and so forth. Greer promotes everything from tree planting to spending extended periods of time getting to know the land you live in, and makes compelling arguments linking spirituality with physical practices and activities. This adds a nice context to the reasons behind the more abstract portions of ritual practice and so forth, and provides an additional layer of meaning.

My only quibbles are personal disagreements, and they’re pretty minor. For example, in talking about the druidic conception of reincarnation through different species, Greer writes “Someone who displays the vanity of a cat or the empty-headedness of a sheep clearly didn’t learn the lessons those forms teach, and must go back to relearn them” (p. 56). This is an anthropocentric view which judges nature of nonhuman species as biased by human opinions on what is considered to be valuable. (Perhaps life as a cat or sheep can show why it is that cats and sheep and others are the way they are, and why that’s valuable in and of itself without human judgement!) ETA: I’ve since learned that this is something specific to AODA material, not Greer’s personal perspective, just FTR.

But I’m being pedantic, really. Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I’ll be keeping it on my reference shelf. Even if I never practice druidry myself, there’s plenty of valuable information here.

Five paws full of oak leaves out of five

Want to buy this book?

New Batch of Facing North Reviews

Facing North, an ambitious repository of reviews of pagan books, recently posted some new reviews. While I crosspost some of my reviews from over here there, I do some exclusives for them. I linked to some here, and here are the newest ones as well:

The Good Cat Spell Book by Gillian Kemp
Rock Your World With the Divine Mother by Sondra Ray
Angel Animals by Allen and Linda Anderson
Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin (this, incidentally, is the book that started my path to graduate school)

Modern Shamanic Living by Evelyn C. Rysdyk

Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path
Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Weiser, 1999
110 pages

There are numerous introductory texts on neoshamanism out there; most have the usual material–what is shamanism, how to journey, what are the three worlds, how to find a power animal, etc. Evelyn Rysdyk offers up her own interpretation of these ideas in her book, Modern Shamanic Living. What sets her book apart from others of its vein is the archetype of the hunter/gatherer that she works with as part of her own shamanic work.

I’ll admit some discomfort with the hunter/gatherer archetype. While I understand that Rysdyk wants to encourage readers to get in better touch with Nature within and without, and to question the harmful effects of postindustrial society, I’m not sure that hyperromanticed conjectures about prehistoric living are the way to go. Rysdyk paints pre-agricultural life as idyllic, and her conception of Nature is similarly romanticized. Additionally, as she is coming from a core shamanic background, some of her conceptions of shamanism, and particularly journeying, are correspondingly New Age-ish. While she admits, for example, that there are harmful spirits (but only in the Middle World), she makes no mention of the possibility that even helper spirits may not always have our best interests in mind. She additionally treats the power animal as a spirit-of-all-worlds, telling people, for example, that they can invite the power animal into the upper world (when, in actuality, the power animal may not even have access to it).

That being said, she also brings up some really important material. I was particularly impressed with her chapter on connecting with the body, and how we’ve managed as a society to become so distanced from what our bodies are telling us. Additionally, she discusses some much-needed perspectives on ecology and sustainability. I wish the book were longer; she could have gone into much greater detail on these and other topics, and while I don’t agree with her on every point, I would have loved to see her ideas fleshed out more fully. She dedicated a significant portion of the small page count to personal anecdotes, and while these are important, I would have liked to have seen more personally applicable material.

If you’re looking for a basic book on neoshamanism, this is a decent choice. The basic techniques are there, and to her great credit, Rysdyk includes not only a bibliography, but footnotes, which I heartily approve of. Use this as a good starting point for neoshamanic practice, and utilize the resources she cites to take it further.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy by Chet Raymo

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist
Chet Raymo
Sorin Books, 2008
148 pages

This is another one of those “Why is this important to pagans, anyway?” books. At first glance, it would seem that a balancing act between Catholicism, agnosticism, and strict scientific interpretations of reality would have little interest to your average neopagan. This is exactly the kind of book that I like to bring to my readers’ attention, however. It’s full of interesting little surprises, and I got quite a bit out of it as far as brain food goes.

Raymo presents a series of arguments towards a materialistic interpretation of Nature as sacred. Nature is not sacred because it is filled with spirits, but rather because the very processes which science is uncovering are endlessly fascinating. With this perspective, he skewers dualistic worldviews which separate Sacred from Profane, and the idea that Earth is just a waystation to be used and abused before we go off to some afterlife. However, as a dedicated agnostic, he proceeds to toss the idea of a personal God, along with numerous religious trappings (emphasis on “trap”) out and instead explains the Divine as the ongoing “I Don’t Know”.

It is this emphasis on admitting that we don’t know everything (and that’s okay) which I think really makes this book worth reading. Neopaganism as a whole lacks a healthy dose of skepticism. What Raymo presents is a nice alternative to some of the more militant atheist voices at the table; healthy skepticism (as opposed to outright debunking) is paired with the admission that, removed from its fundamentalist, harmful roots, religion and spirituality can still serve healthy purposes in the evolution of humanity.

Do be aware that Raymo tends to shove animism, pantheism, polytheism, and other mainstays of (neo)paganism into the same category of useless superstition, while admitting aesthetic preferences for certain aspects of Catholicism. This bias may not have been intentional, but it is glaring. If you are easily offended, you’ll probably end up unhappy with this (of course, if you’re easily offended the entire book may come up with the same result). However, I still found his conception of Nature as sacred (in his own interpretation of the idea) to be one that I could resonate with on numerous levels, even if I believe in spirits and he doesn’t.

Despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m still not convinced that animism isn’t a good theological choice for me at this point, so his argument against it wasn’t as effective as he might have hoped. And, as with anything, take what you read with a grain of salt. This is a book for considering over time, not simply to read and discard after first impressions. If you find things that you disagree with (and if you’re like most neopagans, you will), don’t disregard the text in its entirety. Give it time to percolate in your mind, and see what you think after a second read a few months down the line.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Beef by Andrew Rimas

Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World
Andrew Rimas
William Morrow and Co., 2008
256 pages

You may very well be wondering why it is that I have a book on the history of the relationship between domestic cattle and humanity on a pagan book review blog. I already have reviews of other books that are about specific animals, such as Of Wolves and Men by Lopez and The Sacred Paw by Shepard and Sanders. However, while those are about wild creatures, Beef studies the relationship we have to a domestic creature–the cow. Underappreciated by many modern pagans as not being “impressive” enough, the cow and bull were nonetheless absolutely crucial to many paleopagan cultures, and I believe in promoting more than just the woo-woo aspect of sacred animals.

The book starts off with a modern discussion of beef as a foodstuff, the different cuts, etc. However, this is followed by an incredibly important section about cattle as sacred animals in various cultures. There’s also a good bit of research done on the actual history of the domestication of cattle, and why this was so important to humanity’s development.

However, even today we are still highly dependent on cattle in this world. Our health as a species through better nutrition, as well as certain areas of economy, have been largely due to cattle over the centuries, and continue to do so today. It’s rather sobering to read through some of the material the author presents.

The wrap-up includes a hard look at the beef and milk industries today. Animal abuse is brought up, along with the horrific conditions in stockyards. And, of course, the pollution caused by the demand for more cheap beef, as well as tropical deforestation, can’t be denied. While Rimas offers some potential alternatives, the main message seems to be “eat less beef”.

Any pagan who works within the context of a culture that reveres cattle, or who works with domestic totems and animal spirits, should pick up a copy of this book. Even if neither of these applies, it’s still a fascinating and educational read. The writing style is engaging, so it’s a quick read, and quite the eye-opener.

Five hoofprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Ecopsychology edited by Roszak, Gomes and Kanner

Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind
Edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner
Sierra Club Books, 1995
334 pages

So you might wonder why I’m reviewing a book on psychology here. It’s not just because there’s an essay on ecopsychology and shamanism in it (though that’s a definite talking point). Rather, it’s because (outside of neopaganism) ecopsychology is the closest thing to animism that the dominant culture in the U.S. has at this point. I found numerous parallels between this book and my own beliefs as a pagan and (neo)shaman, and I think that any pagan who has animistic beliefs and/or has a commitment to the world around them (environmental or otherwise) should take a good, long read of this book.

One of the editors, Theodore Roszak, coined the term “ecopsycholoy” in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth (which is on my want list). This anthology is a continuation of that current. It contains over twenty essays from therapists, ecologists, and other folks on the psychology of connection with the world around us–and seeing ourselves as a part of that world, not separate from it. I’m not going to go through every single essay; I will say that I enjoyed every single one–this is a very solid collection. I do want to highlight a few of the themes covered:

–Ecopsychology as a way to make the boundaries between Self and Other more permeable, but not to the point of the complete dissolution of Self. One of our biggest problems is that we’re too independent, to the point of ill health on numerous levels. Ecopsychology finds healthy balances that address both the needs of Self and of Other.

–Another theme, related to that, is ridding ourselves of our hangup on dualities–for example, not assuming that reducing the rigidity of one’s boundaries of Self will automatically result in a complete loss of Self. Instead, ecopsychology promotes a different way of looking at the world.

–Social issues are another theme. Ecopsychology is brought into conjunction with feminist theory in a few of the essays. The domination and controlling headspace of men enacted towards women is directly linked to the domination and control of the natural environment by humanity, particularly in the Western world. Additionally, there’s a brilliant essay on confronting racial issues in ecopsychology, as well as the concept of “deconstructing whiteness” and what that means for psychology and ecology.

–The current destruction of the natural environment is explored as being the result of pathologies, to include addiction and narcissistic personality disorder. These are some of the most powerful essays in the collection, and as they’re early on, they’re a hard-hitting opener.

There’s plenty more to this meaty text. For pagans, there’s plenty to chew on. Besides the parallels between ecopsychology and animism, and approaching the world as an interconnected whole populated by spirits, deities, and a living Earth, there’s also a neat essay about combining core shamanism and ecopsychological practice. And one of the essays delves deeply into indigenous shamanisms and what the author brought out of an experience halfway around the world from where he lived.

This is not an easy text to read, and not just for the writing style. It thoroughly challenges many of our assumptions about how the world is put together, and how we as humans (especially those of us in Western cultures) approach it. If you feel like it’ll be preaching to the choir, read it anyway. If you think it isn’t relevant to anything in your life, read it anyway. And if you think you’ll disagree with every bit of it–you got it, read it anyway. There aren’t that many books that I would consider absolute required reading for neopagan folk, but this is one of them.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
John Michael Greer
New Society Publishers, 2008
258 pages

This isn’t a strictly pagan book; however, the author is well-known in the pagan and occult communities. Additionally, the material in this book will be of interest to many pagans (and non-pagans as well!). Instead of speaking primarily from a place as a spiritual leader, in this book, Greer emphasizes his experiences as “a certified Master Conserver, organic gardener and scholar of ecological history” (as per his bio).

The Long Descent is an in-depth discussion of an often-ignored possibility for the future. Having studied the destruction of numerous civilizations throughout history, the trend that Greer observes the most is that of slow decay, often staggered, over a period of centuries–hence the title of the book. I can already see two groups of people who will be, at the very least, irritated about the holes that Greer pokes in the futuristic mythologies they tell. One will be those who believe that technology will save us all, and keeping industrial civilization going is only a matter of finding the right invention. The other will be fatalistic would-be anarchists (or Rapturists, or those waiting for the Veil to fall etc.) who anxiously await a sudden Apocalypse that will bring everything as we know it an end–either ushering in a new paradise, or a hellhole.

Either way, Greer offers a much more time-tested pattern of change. However, instead of leaving us with a pessimistic view of the future, in which we’re all victims of plagues and violence, he provides a good number of constructive solutions for making a smoother transition from industrial society to a more agrarian one. (He argues that the linear perspective of civilizations, that industrialism is automatically “higher” and “better” than agrarian ones, is unrealistic–similar to claiming that monotheism is an automatic improvement over polytheism in the grand, linear scheme of things). Surprisingly, he does not support having small, self-contained communities scattered everywhere, though he does strongly favor community interaction; the lone cabin of the survivalist is inferior to the remainders of cities, towns, etc.

He does realistically explore the down sides of this potential future; it’s not all sunshine and windmills. As health care degrades, people will succumb to illnesses and injuries that even a century ago were major threats. (One of his suggestions is to do as much DIY health care as possible.) However, overall this is a hopeful book, one that balances the very real possibility that a few generations from now there won’t be the internet, automobiles, and other luxuries we’ve come to expect–and realistic, accessible solutions for riding out the worst parts of the transition. Additionally, as he advocates acting now, rather than waiting until it’s too late, it’s a very much-needed reminder that simply thinking about the issues won’t change things.

There is an excellent chapter on spirituality and post-peak-oil that pagans should particularly take interest in. While he doesn’t promote one religion over another, he does take a good, hard look at how the reality of one’s living conditions can interplay with spiritual beliefs. He manages to blend it nicely into an otherwise primarily secular book.

Whether you’re pagan or not, whether you believe in progress, apocalypse, or some other potential future, and whether you’re a reader of Greer’s popular Archdruid Report blog, give this book a try. You may throw it against the wall, you may love it dearly, but I’m betting that you’ll have something to say about it once you’re through.

Five informed and empowered pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

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.

Want to buy this book?

« Older entries Newer entries »