Lupa is a pagan author, artist, eco-psychologist and amateur naturalist living in Portland, OR. She has spent her life being utterly captivated by the natural world around her, a fascination that led her to earth-based spiritual paths. She is the author of several books on nature spirituality, including “New Paths to Animal Totems: Three Alternative Approaches to Creating Your Own Totemism” (Llewellyn, 2012) and “Plant and Fungus Totems: Connecting With Spirits of Field, Forest and Garden” (Llewellyn 2014).
Paganicon 5 will be Friday, March 13, – Sunday, March 15, 2015 and registration is still available at the door.
I interviewed Lupa by phone recently.
Nels: Is this the first time you’ve come to the Midwest ?
Lupa: I am very excited to attend! I grew up in the Midwest, but this is only my second time visiting Minneapolis.
Where did you grow up?
Lupa: I grew up in rural Missouri. Then I lived for two years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which some people consider the Eastern edges of the Midwest.
What is bio-regional totemism, the subject of one of your workshops?
Lupa: A bio-region is a particular area of land that has the same basic types of animals, plants, and fungi. The same geology and the same climate. For example I live in the watershed of the Willamette River and for the most part the living beings that you find here, the types of geological formation are similar throughout the area. This is one particular bio-region I spend time in. Bio-regional totemism is a way to connect with the land that you live on. Similar to the totems of the beings that also live there. Using the bio-region as a way defining that space of land.
Will an animal present as a different kind of a totem in a different bio-region?
Lupa: No, not in my experience. I have worked with animals indifferent bio-regions, for example a red tailed hawk I’ve worked with both in the Midwest and out here in the Pacific Northwest. It is still a red tailed hawk in both locations. The setting that we meet in during my meditation is a little different. It is still the same being, it just may have different things to say about a particular piece of land as I’m living on it.
Are you using your own personal gnosis and meditation in your spirit work, or where does this information come from?
Lupa: I am self taught as far are my knowledge and work goes. I am a white girl from the Midwest. While I have known a few folks who practice indigenous paths I am not a part of those cultures and also not part of the cultures of my ancestors, Czech and German and so forth. I grew up primarily here in the US and that is the cultural background that I came from. I grew up in a Catholic household and didn’t have an animistic tradition to are draw on already, I had to create one from scratch based on my own experiences and trading notes with other practitioners .
When did you first realize critters could talk to you?
Lupa: When I was a small child I spent a lot of time outdoors. Starting at about age 6 or seven I was able to wander around a lot more in my neighborhood. As I got older and discover little bits of woods and field in the neighborhood that had not been already covered over with houses yet. I spent a bunch of time exploring those places. I spent time in our yard turning over the rocks around the garden to see what was underneath that. Especially at night when I was playing outside in our yard I would feel like there was something more to it than just a beautiful summer night with stars and fireflies. It felt more important than that. I didn’t have words for it at that age, but as I got older and discovered paganism, and in particular nature based forms of paganism these early experiences made more sense.
Do you hear or see nature differently now than you did 20 years ago?
Lupa: It is not so much hearing things or seeing things as more feeling things. Having that gut instinct, that intuition that says this is a special place, or pay for attention to this particular plant or animal, or be especially aware in the moment. This is the best way to explain it. I had that from an early age and just didn’t know what to call it. Now it is the foundation of my entire practice, that sense of awareness and being connected to the world I am a part of, and being able to read it. I don’t necessarily assume that it is anything out of the ordinary. I don’t really feel that some kind of supernatural sense that science has not explained yet. I figure it isjust the same kind of intuition that has helped us survive as a species for thousands and thousands of years. It is just from a place with a little bit different purpose than say for example making sure that we’ll not get eaten by saber tooth cat or run over by a woolly rhino. It is that with that same sort of micro-focus and awareness that we have of our environment except since I am not in immediate danger from my environment I can use that for more spiritual purposes.
How do you define a totem?
Lupa: I see a totem as an archetypal being that embodies all the qualities of a given species. For example the totem of gray wolf is made up of all the experiences and behaviors of all gray wolves that have ever lived, along with all the relationships that those wolves had with their environments, with the other beings in their environment, and human. That includes the stories and myths that we tell about them. The Gray wolf is made up of the story of every hunt it has gone on, through Aesop’s fables about wolves and even werewolf mythology, all bundled up in one great being. I am not invested in trying to prove that totems exist outside of our storytelling and our collective consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. If they do great, if they don’t great. What is important to me is the relationships that I have with him.
Did the the development of relationships with plants and fungus grow out of your experience with animals or is it something that you’ve carried with from childhood as well?
Lupa: I was always connected to the animals first, and then when I moved to Portland and 2007 I land hear really, really liked me and really embraced me. So did the totems associated with it and the ones that I have worked with so far. The animal totems decided to introduce me to some of the plant and fungus counterparts. I had never really paid that much attention to them before. There is a concept called plant blindness. When we look at plants out in nature we see them as part of the scenery. When a hawk flies across the sky we say. “oh woow. Look at that hawk. When we see a fern we note it but we take it for granted. I realize I had been doing the same thing. My animal totems I was working with started introducing me to the plant and fungus, and different ways to engage with them, and what makes them different than animals. They are a lot more subtle about things, they are a lot quieter. We have to put out more effort to get in touch with them, simply because their way of communicating is a lot more quiet and subtle.
Are you intellectually active researching plants and animals, or more hands on?
Lupa: For me it is a combination of both. My formal training is primarily in the humanities, mainly because I’m terrible at math. I started in college trying to get a biology degree, but almost failed out of remedial algebra and realized there was no way I would get through the harder math. I have a very deep love of learning about nature, to include learning through books and documentaries. I was a kid who would come home with a huge stack of books from the library and read through them in a day, and then go back for more. Early on it I picked up that love of learning but also coupled that with spending many, many hours outside seeing if I could identify the plants and animals and stuff that I read about my books. I still do that today. I do that in part because I absolutely love this place where I am, and I want to get to know about it as deeply and thoroughly as I possibly can, from a lay persons experience. I am going to have any kind of the degree in any of the hard sciences, but I can still be something of an amateur naturalist. This is where my interest lies and I combine that book learning with the applied knowledge and quiet experience of actually going out hiking and camping and being out in the wilderness.
Are you are you a ritualist? Do you design ceremonies engaging the spirits of the land, plants, and animals?
Lupa: I used to do more ritual, but have really stopped doing it in the last two years because I don’t feel the need for it any more. I came to Paganism because in my teens I had a really traumatic experience where my favorite patch of woods was bulldozed for a housing development. I ended up retreating into myself for a number of years. Paganism, especially nature-based Paganism gave me some hope that I could maybe regain that. I got really caught up in the symbols and the practices, and the abstraction that is nature. It was not until a few years ago that I realized that what I actually wanted was to see nature itself and having that direct experiential contact with the natural world. I began seeing that as a sacred act in and of itself. I no longer really do ritual except on rare occasions. For me hiking and camping and backpacking and other outdoor activities, those are my sacrament, my sacred acts.
How did you learn to do your artwork?
Lupa: I picked up most of my own art technique figuring things out for myself, making artwork with hides and bones and other natural material since 1998. I originally did bead work and the shop where I got beads often has leather and fur scraps. I picked a few of them up and tried playing with them a bit. Between a couple of pouch kits from Tandy leather and a lot of trial and error, I learned the basic things like cutting and stitching leather. How to put things together in one piece. Beyond that it’s been years and years of experimentation and trying out new techniques. Occasionally looking online for things like painting tutorials.
How do you procure your animal parts?
Lupa: Primarily that is a spiritual practice. I started working with hides and bones not just for artistic purposes but also because I wanted to give them a little bit better “after life” , rather than being a trophy or hanging on someones wall. As I was working with them I discovered that even though the main spirit of the animal had long departed there was a little bit of it left behind, kind of a haunt. I started working with these spirits to get an idea of what they wanted to do and what they want to be made into, and to what purpose they want to have going forward. My artwork is a conversation between these spirits and me.
Do you scrounge or use road kills?
Lupa: These days it is mostly purchasing. Back when I lived in Missouri I had more access to wild land and could walk around and find bones and things. These days I am in Portland and I live in a tiny little apartment with no yard. So I can’t really do things like bone cleaning or hide tanning. That being said I have a pretty broad network of suppliers and taxidermists an individual artists that I buy and sell with as far as getting supplies goes. That’s for new things. I also do a lot of thrift store shopping so I have piles and piles of old fur things and leather coats. Pieces of old taxidermy and little odds and ends I find when I’m out doing secondhand shopping.
It will be great to meet you!
Lupa: My visit is going to be all too brief, I am only to be there for Paganicon itself. I was in Minneapolis for about a week back in 2002 on business did not get to see nearly enough of it. I am really excited to be revisiting it. I am excited to get to meet people that I have only talked to online. I want to meet people who have created something that, from what I hear, is a wonderful convention and group experience in the upper Midwest. I have been watching the growth of Paganicon since it started up and everything I’ve heard has been really good. I am thrilled and honored to be going to this event, and am hoping to meet a lot of people who both enjoy it, help to make it happen, and create a larger community in the area.
Visit the Paganicon website for program information and event schedule.