There are a number of analogies to impress upon us how little time humans have inhabited the Earth. Some are based on a 24-hour day (in which we have only been here a few minutes) or a 60-minute hour (in which case our presence makes up only a few seconds). However you look at it, the amount of time that humans have occupied the Earth is infinitesimal compared to the age of the planet or the galaxy, and the great beings and spirits that existed before us. An analogy that I just recently ran across puts it this way: If the age of the Earth is the Eiffel Tower, the coat of paint on the top represents how long we have been here. Not very long. (I find this analogy particularly troublesome because paint flakes off.)

Throughout most of the planet’s history great ecological changes have taken place. Great earth-shaping forces have slipped the tectonic plates around, erupted in volcanoes and fierce storms, thrust up mountains and eroded others. In the course of all this, strange and marvelous forms of life were born, lived, died, and in many cases became extinct. Eventually we reach that layer of paint on the Eiffel Tower, and we humans appear. But even our ways of life have not survived. As poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder once put it, the great mammoth hunters went out of business.

Human beings have also been earth-shapers but not nearly on par with the great Earth-Shapers of myth and history. Most of the impact humans have had on the Earth has been miniscule compared to the giants, titans, and monstrous beings that tower over men and women and who have slipped into the mythology and folklore of many cultures. But whether or not they are believed to be “real” is immaterial. The work they have left behind is still with us. Their work is real. What we see today as our environment is the result of many millions of years in which earth-shaping spirits formed and reformed the elements that we call home. As we look around we see many of these “shapes” and have grown fond of them. They make up the lands that we love. We dread the day they will be reshaped or destroyed or disappear forever.

But we too have become dangerous earth-shapers through science and technology. Today we have the technical power to unshape and reshape almost any area of the planet that we choose. We have grown accustomed to living in environments that are our own shaping. We have come to love our way of life that hangs on our ability to radically control the forces of nature around us. And yet, at the present moment, we cannot control everything. When hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, avalanches, droughts, floods, and earthquakes occur, we are again reminded that somewhere there still reside those giants in their caves deep in the Earth itself or inter-galactic spirits coming to us from the galaxy that can stir and disrupt the physical features of our planet.

These great Earth-Shapers are also spirits of nature, although not the ones we usually call upon as our friends, teachers, or allies. They are not spirits of the gentle waterfall, the meadow of spring flowers, the stalks of corn at the harvest, or the mysterious mist that hangs on the hills at dawn. They are the fierce spirits of nature that can destroy us. In the Gaelic-speaking world they are called Fomorians — not evil beings, but disruptive ones and with such power that it becomes hard for us to imagine abiding together as friends or neighbors. And yet, I think, they areĀ our neighbors. We must live with them.

In a couple weeks the Society for Shamanic Practitioners will hold its third annual conference on Panther Mountain in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Three-hundred and seventy-five million years ago a meteor, seven miles in diameter, fell on this spot while it was still beneath the waters of a small sea. When the sea resided, and the land was thrust upward, like a high-rise table, the impact of the meteor was still present. As the table eroded and collapsed into numerous sink-holes, as happened all across the land that is now the Catskills, the entire area within the seven-mile diameter retained the round circular shape of the meteor. Today aerial photos of Panther Mountain show the dome-like structure of the land. Rivers and creeks flow in circles around it. It is known for having a strong negative-gravity anomaly. Like the Catskills themselves, the mountain contains eerie forces and unpredictable energies.

I recently journeyed to the spirit of that meteor and other Earth-Shaper spirits of the area to learn more about this. I was particularly interested in what role we humans now play since our technology and way of living has become capable of disrupting and reshaping great swathes of land and sea and atmosphere. In effect we have become partners with them. Whereas once they alone roamed the elements and elemental earth-places with only the prehistoric flora and fauna that have now disappeared, today they find us becoming their young apprentices, so to speak. We are gaining the power, either willingly or innocently, to wreck the same kind of damage on the life forms that currently exist. Like it or not, we are becoming Fomorians.

What this means for us as a species, I don’t know. I don’t claim to have very much knowledge or insight into this. I only know that we have now become part of them, joining our energies to theirs in many ways. And I guess it would be good for us to acknowledge this change. In fact, the spirits I met on Panther Mountain were touchingly appreciative that I journeyed there to meet with them. Like other spirits of nature, they want to be recognized and honored for the role they play in creation and in our lives. Now that we participate in that same role, I think it is prudent for us to acknowledge that and learn how to wield our earth-shaping powers wisely. If for no other reason, we may not know what we are doing or what we are creating or what we will become or where we will find ourselves. As in the old Gaelic tales, we might end up marrying Fomorians, hopefully producing the next type of human being that can look out over the newly shaped Earth and see it as beautiful.