Kelley Harrell runs a soul-tending practice, focussing on deathwalking. She is also the author of several books. I interviewed her about her work, her writing and her changing views on life:
Q: You describe yourself as an animist and deathwalker. Can you explain what that means?
A: As an animist, I hold an awareness that the world is full of human and non-human persons, and I’m in relationship with all of them in some way. How I move among them in my life affects those relationships. I was taught that everything was alive by my grandfather, though I’m sure he’d never heard the word ‘animism.’ It was through him that I understood there were many different relationships overlapping in our backyard, and we had to respect them all. It’s a way of being that’s pretty humbling and sometimes frustrating, because American settler culture isn’t based in awareness of how we affect each other. It doesn’t honor human-Nature connection, so I feel a continual challenge to align what I feel is spiritually appropriate for me, alongside systems that don’t support me in doing that and in some cases actively try to disrupt what I need to do. Animism is also a very inspired path. I’m never alone. I’m always supported, and I always am reminded to give back.
Deathwalking is reconciling the unquiet dead, so that they are functionally moved out of the earthly realm and positioned so that they can move on to whatever is next for them. I realized as a young child that I was being visited by the dead, and as a teenager began searching for ways to respond to them. Deathwalking is a core component of my soul tending work now. It spans everything from clearing trauma from land and structures, to helping terminally ill folx die well, assisting the unquiet dead who are bothersome to the living, and tending Ancestors who didn’t get the opportunity to release their trauma in their lifetimes. I also teach others how to hold that space. Deathwalking is foundational to my path of soul work, and I’m really grateful that it’s part of my life. Even though it scared the crap out of me as a kid.
Q: I understand that you serve your community in North Carolina through a soul-tending practice. Can you tell me more about that and what it entails?
A: I realized in my early 20s that the trauma I’d experienced as a child wasn’t resolving with conventional methods. Medical, therapeutic, mindfulness practices all had some benefit, but they didn’t touch the core of where I still felt traumatized. I went to a local woman who was a shaman, and I did several soul healing sessions with her. Six months after that my spirit allies were saying I needed to give that back, that the fundamentals of soul healing were what I was meant to bring in my life. After calling bullshit quite a lot, I committed to learning how I was needed in the arena of soul work. The result almost 30 years later is that I help folx navigate the broken path. For those of us who are not indigenous to a lineage tradition of soul work, we have to find our way back into that ancestral space in a way that is true to who and where we are now, true to our calling, without harming living indigenous traditions. That is a huge focus of my work with others and my own continued education. I help folx live in a more animistic way and cope with the challenges that c and ome with that way of being in a world that rejects Nature. I teach others how to locate soul healing in their own cosmologies and draw it out into their lives in a respectful way. I stand in a lot of difficult spaces to do deathwork. I advocate that we all become good elders so that we die well to be good Ancestors.
Q: You’ve written a book called Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism and contributed to Shaman Pathways – What is Shamanism? and iPagan. Can you tell me more about those books and that aspect of your craft?
A: Well, honestly, my work has changed a lot since those books came out, and I don’t move in my work the same way that I did then. I’ve talked about this a bit in my podcast What in the Wyrd https://soul-intent-arts.mykajabi.com/podcasts/what-in-the-wyrd-2/episodes/2147743415, specifically regarding Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism.
For the most part, the word ‘shaman’ doesn’t describe what I do, yet it is the word most people understand in the realm of soul work. I never felt at ease with it, but I didn’t have the confidence to take that stand early in my writing, and I didn’t know how to have the conversation around shamanism a different way. And some of that discomfort is noted in those works. Now, I center that discomfort in my writing, and am comfortable engaging in dialogue about soul work in the context that I can speak to, and appreciate just listening when I cannot.
For the most part those books and essays delve into what it means to live the life of someone who walks between worlds. They are less about how to do what, and more about how you cope with the way that work changes your life. It’s very demanding. It changes how you show up in the world, which can mean a lot of discomfort in relationships and communities. I have long-sought to dispel the romanticization of the shamanic path and to root it into the actual lived experience. Likewise, those works also speak to shamanism less as a healing tool that we bring out when we need it and more as a way of being and moving in the world.
Q: What advice would you offer someone who wanted to learn about shamanism or follow a shamanic-style path?
I would say tread carefully, be really clear why they want to learn it, and what they plan to bring to it. It’s a hard path. It’s easy to just fall in with what Prof. Google has to say about the ins and outs, without taking the time to work with a mentor. It’s a path of reciprocity, and so often folx approach it because they want to learn techniques. Doing so without a plan for how that impacts their life takes a toll. The first thing I have all of my mentees and students do is list their Dream Team. Make a list of their go-to resources for every aspect of support they can think of, and be detailed: medical doctor, acupuncturist, therapist, clergy, nutritionist… It’s very hard to suss out micro details when in crisis, and the phrase ‘shamanic initiation’ isn’t a misnomer.
Also, tread respectfully on behalf of intact cultures. Honor the boundaries of other cultures. Understand the broken path. Honor the boundaries of their Ancestors and spirits of place. Be on pointe with personal cosmology and the rituals required to access it.
As a personal practice, I began working with the Elder Futhark when I was 17. I work with them as a calendar, which situates them in a seasonal progression. This roots them into spirits of place in a way that’s applicable no matter where you live. What that gives me personally is discipline that isn’t inherent in soul work. The runes situate in my lineage and bring in ancestral aspects that have otherwise been difficult to connect with.
In my practice, I have worked really hard to hold space for their cultural context and make them relevant now. The 80s-90s version of paganism was either academic or experiential. There weren’t models for how it can be both. The runes are a place where I embrace both and encourage others to. I teach the runes in their Old Norse context while applying their animistic relationships to how we live now. In fact, the new series of my podcast What in the Wyrd features working with the runes as verbs. The focus isn’t what we know, but how we’re in relationship with it.
Q: What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?
I have been working on my next book, Eldering Well, which discusses how the lack of animistic elders in settler culture has created the broken path between humans and Nature. Elders are the wisdom keepers of our animacy. Without them, we have lost magickal traditions, knowledge of sacred rituals, connection to ancestral lands (thus generational spirits of place), living connection to our well Ancestors, and in many ways our understanding of what it means to be the custodians of the planet. This book suggests some of the healing required to create new paths, into Nature, so that we learn to be good elders, and create the way of being that fosters what our Descendants need.
You can find Kelley Harrell on the internet in these places:
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