While we were watching the weather and news channels the morning after tornadoes ripped through the southern states, the mail arrived with a copy of Nan Moss and David Corbin’s excellent new book Weather Shamanism (Bear and Company). The cover is awesome: a photo of five indigenous shaman-dancers in silhouette beneath an ominous red sky with electric lightning strokes flashing above their heads. They hold rattles and prayer sticks and wear powerful-looking head-dresses with horns and feathers. It’s the kind of image that makes those of us who practice shamanism remember that when everything “works”– that is, humans, spirits, elements, and the gods are cooperating–the world feels right and good.
Nan and David’s book has that feeling also. Things can work. It’s a wonderful account of weather shamanism and more. It also presents ancestral wisdom with many ethnographic examples, the latest thinking of modern scientists that aligns with ancient mysticism, and the authors’ own clear, understandable, and intelligent discussion of what it means to be practitioners of shamanism in the modern world. Plus, you learn a lot about the weather. I heartily recommend this book for everyone who wants to “harmonize their connection with the elements” (as the subtitle says) and learn how to live cooperatively and intelligently with middle world weather spirits.
Yes, the world can feel right and good when certain forces come into alignment. But I don’t intend this to be solely a feel-good article. In spite of receiving Weather Shamanism, my worries that morning were about old friends in Memphis were I lived in the 1970s. Had they survived? (They had.) Fearing the loss of friends and environments I love has been an almost constant concern in recent years.
And adding to this concern is the time I’ve spent recently pondering Deena Metzger’s chilling essay that appears on her website (deenametzger.com) proposing critical questions that confront us. To summarize: How do we deal with escalating violence and evil, weapons of mass destruction, the alarming increase in psychopathic and sociopathic behavior worldwide, environmental damage and the illnesses that come from it, and the affect these may have on the gene pool?
She says, “There is no evidence that anyone on the planet knows how to deal with this situation, globally or locally. . . There is no clear practical reliable wisdom on the subject and there is no global consensus of how to protect and save (ourselves, our traditions, and the planet) . . The best and most undistracted minds have not been able to solve these dilemmas. . . The humbling premise (is ) that we are all without direction in this time.” (My emphasis)
I remember hearing years ago in a college anthropology course that the current anxiety that nuclear explosions or bombs could wipe out all life on the planet was a recent fear that had ancient echoes. In primal times when tribal people lived in small communities, it was literally possible that crop failures, animal deaths, storms, severe winters, plagues, and so forth could destroy all human life as they knew it. Of course, “as they knew it” means the valley or region in which they and perhaps a few other small communities lived. We know that life in those days would not have been wiped out across the whole planet, but for these early people the whole world consisted of those few individuals who knew each other in closely contained environments. They knew little or nothing beyond narrow borders. Life for them was circumscribed and fragile.
Then as societies grew, this fear that all life could be destroyed faded. Humans learned how big the world was, and how many people are alive in other areas, and if there is a local disaster, help could conceivably come from more distant neighbors or even strangers. Even if one group of people died off, others would survive. People stopped worrying about the total destruction of the earth, except for the occasional religious doomsayers announcing that “the end is near.” But those predictions fizzled, and most people not following those prophets of doom went about their daily business unafraid.
This, then, was the belief up until the middle of the twentieth century. At that point, we developed nuclear power, atomic bombs, tremendously toxic substances, increased capabilities to spew out carbon dioxide, massive amounts of waste materials, and all the dangers that these developments represent. And lo and behold, the old primal fear of total destruction reappeared!! Most of us alive today have never known the in-between centuries when mass destruction on a global scale was considered impossible. We have always lived with the possibility that it could happen.
So after a half century of living with these dangers and these fears, where are we? Is Deena Metzger’s perspective accurate? If even the “best and most undistracted minds” on the planet have no clue as to what to do, where does that leave the rest of us?
I have this recurring vision of ancient tribal elders sitting in council around a fire, pondering their current situations which for all I know centered around the fear of mass destruction of their people, animals, lands, and sacred places. Did their best and most undistracted minds know what to do? Or did they muddle along as we do, applying stone-age band aids to their stone-age troubles? There is a tendency to want to think that their wisdom was more connected to the Source of Life in whatever terms they expressed that, and that the advice given by those elders saved the day because they lived in closer harmony with that Source. But not all those tribes survived. There is plenty of evidence of communities that disappeared, and even today no one knows what happened to them.
Which brings us back to the shamans dancing beneath lightning bolts against a firey red sky. Which brings us back to David and Nan’s book. Which brings us back to our own council meetings of practitioners hoping to learn how to respond to the world’s troubles. We may not have all the details for survival, but I imagine most of us have learned some basic principles, a major one being that the world is made up of relationships. Even scientists tell us that. We know that no matter what happens, it is incumbent upon us to have the right relationship with the world around us, including the pieces of that world: plants, animals, minerals, resources, wild lands, urban areas, technology, and the people who live here. All are interconnected like the parts of a tornado.
So here is what Weather Shamanism says, in part, about tornadoes:
A tornado . . . . is an awesome and, to many, dreadful manifestation of a storm. More than simply whirling winds of extreme power, a tornado is composed of relationships between unstable air, temperature differentials, moisture, suitable terrain, a storm cell, and a front to go with it –to name just a few particulars. And there is more. The life of a tornado is a dramatic embodiment of principles of creativity at work. It is a primal dance of chaos and order, filled with the power of the middle world as it unleashes change wherever it goes.
The middle world is a miracle in itself, say the authors, filled with portals into the vast Wholeness of our universe. A tornado is a portal into that Wholeness. And I suppose as we sit in our councils, it serves us well to remember that the creativity at work in our world both includes and excludes us. We are part of the Whole, and we create change; and yet the Whole at times goes about its ways of dancing with chaos and order irrespective of us. It brings about change that may have no room for us. Perhaps, bearing in mind the humility that Deena Metzger encourages us to embrace, we need to join the dance, humbly, acknowledging that the music, timing, steps, and so forth are not always of our calling. We ourselves may be without direction. Someone else is calling this dance. We follow.