Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nature, Spirituality, and Masquerade - An Origin Story

I recently completed a set of natural birch bark masks. It was a lovely experience to make them, and it really took me back to the very first mask I ever made. So I thought I would share a bit on how this whole thing got started. This is a long post, be prepared!

I'm a Pagan in a pretty loose sense of the word. I have trouble nailing a label to myself or putting myself in a box. I don't believe in a specific pantheon or practice, nor do I take my time setting up and following through with complicated rituals. What I can easily say in all honesty though, is that I believe in nature. I believe that nature is powerful and wild, tempered and kind, inexplicable and amazing. Nature is everything! I am passionate about science, and what is science but the study of nature? I've been asked before how I reconcile my scientific views and my spiritual ones; I guess the answer is that they're so interconnected that there is no conflict. Yes, there's things that science tries to prove or disprove, and yes, some people feel it takes the magic out of things. I'd say yes and no to that. Nature is still amazing, no matter how far we break down DNA, no matter how many theories and discoveries we make. Nature will always throw something new at us.

Most of all, nothing beats the spiritual feeling I get when I walk in nature. Nothing compares to the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair, the sound of the rolling ocean and the sand between my toes, or the sound of birds in the forest and tree branches scratching at my arms, ferns at my feet; the sight of a mountain or a rock formation or an endless beach or a tree so tall I can't even see the top.

When I started my crafting business ages ago, it was all based on a strange idea. I wanted to make masks. I have always loved masquerade balls, and my wedding reception was masquerade themed. I wanted to take that idea and put a natural spin on it. I wanted to take tree bark, leaves, and feathers, and make masks. My husband and I went up to his father's Northern Wisconsin property and collected all sorts of bark and natural materials, all things that had already fallen to the ground. I wouldn't let him peel any bark off the trees. I wanted it naturally shed, to cause no harm to the trees.

We took our materials home and were excited to get to work. However, we quickly realized our mistake. The bark that we had was moist, as it had recently rained; it crumbled under our hands and was generally useless. However, the single birch bark piece I had was bendy and easy to work with. With a little bit of work, I created my first birch bark mask.

I was so excited when I put it up on Etsy, which at the time was under the username Crysiira, a screen name I've been using since high school. Up until then I just had a few paintings listed but no sales. The birch bark mask was my first sale, to a fellow Pagan Team member. I was thrilled to pieces!

I wanted to create more and more, but I didn't have another birch tree handy and I couldn't always get to the property up north for more. I really wanted to make an entire mask of leaves, but worried about how to preserve it. I made the decision to switch from natural to synthetic materials, and my signature leaf masks were born.

From masks spawned the idea for matching accessories, so I started making leafy hair clips and headbands. This soon turned to feathers, since feathers are both natural and very in style. I changed my business name to Natura Pluma, Latin for Nature and Feather, to reflect my new niche. The synthetic material withstood the durability test, and the popularity test, and I was so consumed with making them that it was a very long time before I turned back to natural materials for another birch bark mask.

Whenever I need inspiration, I take a walk through nature. Even if there aren't any hiking trails or nature paths available, a walk through the park or the cemetery or any neighborhood with a lot of trees will do. I just need that time with nature to clear my head and fill it with peace and new ideas. In fact, my good old friend Science backs this up, showing that being outside in nature for just 20 minutes a day does wonders to boost energy and vitality. I don't always get the requisite 20 minutes a day, but I try to make up for it by overloading and taking an hour or two at a time at least once a week.

In my new home, I'm closer to nature than ever. My town is quite small, and surrounded by fruit and nut orchards on all sides. In fact, not three blocks from my house is a road that has an orchard on either side, and connects to a longer country road with never-ending trees. Granted, it is February, and there are no leaves on the trees; but the weather is warmish and sunny, and the birds are active and noisy, and taking a walk down that orchard road is something I try to do at least a few times a week. There are no birch trees here, but when I was packing up my craft things to move, I realized that I had an entire drawer of natural materials, including some very nice pieces of bark awaiting my hands. So when I was looking for a project to keep my mind off the distance between my friends and family and I, I dived into that drawer of nature.

I took walks down the orchard road. I watched movies that inspire me like My Neighbor Totoro (an anime kid's movie about two girls who move into a new home and discover that the woods they live next to is filled with earth spirits), Mirrormask (a movie based on a Neil Gaiman story about a girl who enters a world in which every single person always wears a mask), and Pan's Labyrinth (a not-for-kids fairytale about Spain's civil war in 1944 and a girl who must complete tasks set to her by a faun to become a princess of a faerie world). And I listened to music by Qntal, a band that effortlessly combines medieval style music with modern electronica. In fact, they have a wonderful video with art by Brian Froud (Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, lots more awesomeness) that has always been insanely inspirational to me.

So that's the story behind my birch bark masks. I like to make them because it reminds me of my roots; because the natural materials coming together under my hands feels like magic; because if you must hide yourself behind a mask, what better mask than nature?

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