On October 8th, 2016, Seb Barnett passed away by choosing to end their own life. Seb was an acquaintance and inspiration to me from Wilderness Awareness School. Our paths crossed when I was an Anake with the 2012-13 class and they, an Anake alumni, were the outreach coordinator for the program. I did not know Seb quite as well as many who far more deeply now mourn them, particularly in this season of the ancestors, but I knew them well enough and with such positive memories that I was considerably shocked and in tears the night I got the news a few weeks ago.
Seb identified as genderqueer. Roughly speaking, it is a gender identity in which a person feels such affinity for the feminine and masculine energies that they prefer the pronouns they, their and them in place of his or her and so forth. I have known other genderqueer friends through Wilderness Awareness School and their friendship has been a great honor and spiritual inspiration to me and many. The news of Seb’s death hits particularly hard in our communities where naturalist rewilding education, earth-based spirituality, art and diverse gender expressions interconnect.
I remember Seb as a modern day Shaman, an artist, a teacher, a grief-worker, and a deeply soulful creature. Memories of sharing good conversation, wildcrafting plant dyes at kids’ summer camps under the Western Redcedar canopy, walking along the edges of wetland habitat together come back to me now. Their green hair, magical body adornments, and strong sense of the numinous stand out in my memory. The night I heard about their death, it was the only thing I could do to pour out my honor and sorrow for them into verse. I have the bardic energy in me, I know, and I hope that it will be an honor to Seb’s spirit.
Seb, our Shaman, our Ancestor.
Surely you now put on the cloak
of a new body, some beautiful free animal
unburdened by human pain. Now you live in
hooves and horns, have great or small wings
or glimmering fur. Bless the wild without end.
You go on speaking in sacredness.
We will look for you in the night rain of the forest,
in the talking bones of the creatures,
in electric green moss that climbs into light.
Watch over we who are here in the bodies of humans.
These human minds are too troubled by ghosts.
You put that behind you.
Into the gentle fierce
grave womb you have gone,
where the wild, soft mind is yours
without too much grief. Ancestor, tugging at the
tendon-cords of the raw harrowed heart,
leave all this grief now
to the mammoth dark Earth
who enshrouds and cradles
Here is a beautiful tribute at The Wild Hunt to Seb’s life and work. The Wild Hunt is a major news network of global Neo-Paganism, so I was furthermore honored to discover that I had the privilege of knowing someone so widely renowned in these communities. I wasn’t aware of quite how far and wide Seb was known and loved.
Seb’s website was Greenstag Spiritwork. “Hi, I’m Seb. I’m a Shaman. Ancient ecstatic wisdom for a modern world.” Damn, now I wish I had been their student while they were still alive. I grieve for the lost opportunity for us to learn from them, for Seb to teach from the heart and know they were loved and needed greatly. Now such wisdom as they brought is gone from our human day-to-day immediacy, taken away too sharply, too soon.
Here is a Vanguard Seattle interview with Seb on their art and experiences. “…words escape me. Flowers, plants, wild things are so expressed, and they become a translation for my own emotions. They are unapologetic in the way they exist, and to me that’s desirable.”
I want us all to remember we are loved and we matter, whether living or ancestor, whether we have seen each other lately or not. We do not leave the loving arms of creation, no matter our pain, or the way we lived or died.
As I wrote to a friend recently about Seb’s death, Seb has left this side of reality too abruptly. I want us all to completely love who we are and know we are needed here. Let’s only many decades from now follow Seb into the holy dark, at the end of our long and natural lives, and I pray not by our own hands. I, too, have struggled severely with thoughts of taking my own life. I’ve battled it on and off for many years, and with the grace of modern medication, compassionate counseling and strong spiritual self-work I am very well recovered from depression at this time in my life. It is a mystery why some of us get past depression and others succumb to it. I don’t know why, but I can empathize with why people are compelled to die by their own hand. For myself, it was a yearning to commit some strange act of total, desperate self-love, as if by killing myself I would be enfolding me in an all-consuming, comforting final love for myself I struggled to have in life. But when suicide really happens, when it’s not just a passing depressive fantasy but is completed bodily, it throws everything into sharp perspective. I am shaken by the thought I ever wished to kill me. I am glad I didn’t do it, so glad because I have learned to give myself that total love in the magic of daily life, not in death. Maybe because of this, I am lucky that daily life can never be boring for me, because the see the shimmer of God’s magic and nearness everywhere. Mother Death, good comforter and friend of God, waits for us all in the end, ready to rebirth us to new life, but we must not run to her too quickly. Even she is sad to come collect us when it is our time, wishing she could sit beside us longer, not yet the time for us to go. That is why Mother Death comes is her mourning cloaks of black, to cradle us gently in the womb of the earth, returning us all to tender love, wishing even she will see us again.
In sacredness, my fellow creatures.