Some Observations on Plant Totems vs. Animal Totems

If you’re at all familiar with my writing, you’ll know I’ve been writing about animal totems for years. Animal totemism has been a foundation of my practice pretty much from the beginning, way back in the 90’s. I’ve always had some connection to plant totems as well, but they’ve had more of a background presence in my life. A lot of that is due in part, no doubt, to the fact that I am an animal, and therefore I resonate more easily with other species of animal. So it’s been harder for the plants to get through to me; sadly I’ve seen them more as scenery in my journeys and other works than as active participants.

White trillium near Triple Falls, Oregon. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

Over the past few years, though, and especially as I’ve been spending more time in deeper wilderness, I’ve been more aware of the bioregional nature of the spirit realm. Animal totems don’t just exist as disembodied spirits in a void somewhere, but in spiritual ecosystems with the totems of plants, fungi, stones, and various other spiritual beings. What I’ve become aware of is that there were deep connections with plant totems all along, and I just wasn’t appreciating them for what they were. For a while now I’ve been spending more time meditating on those relationships and really getting a feel for them, and now I feel ready to share my thoughts.*

Some of this is due to the way in which the plant totems have tended to relate to me. Animal totems are very active and pro-active. Like their physical counterparts, they’re frequently on the move, going from place to place, and they’re used to making the first contact with a person. They view the world often as a series of tasks, challenges, and things to do. And we humans follow suit. Plant totems, on the other hand, have a much different perspective. They are often acted upon (though certainly there are examples of plants acting on animals, and definitely on other plants). While a plant totem can make itself known to me, it’s usually after I’ve made the first contact. In my last post here I talked about how White and Red Clovers came to me and talked to me about some of our early experiences together, but it was only after I thought about them and gave them that opening.

So we often take for granted that a totem being will come to us if there’s something important to know. I wonder, though, how many plant totems have messages and conversations ready for us that go unheard because we don’t pay attention? And what sort of attention should we pay, anyway? Most of the things I have learned from plants and their totems have been through a sort of experiential osmosis–absorbed in my senses and pores without consciously realizing them, inhaled and digested as a matter of daily goings-on, rather than being actively sought and observed with animals. Yet these can be incredibly powerful and moving lessons, and I am amazed at just how much I didn’t realize I have gained from plant totems over the years.

Another consideration is that a plant is rooted in one place, something that is alien to most animals (especially terrestrial ones). Other than a few house plants that get repotted, plants generally stay in the same place their entire lives. Even widespread plant colonies that expand their boundaries through growth still have limited “travel” by our standards; most of us couldn’t think of living our entire lives on a single acre, never mind being rooted in the same place for life. Not that plants know nothing of the world; part of my unverified personal gnosis is that plants (or, at least, their spirits) communicate through their intricate root systems. Plants do move. They grow, they shed, they expand, they move with the wind. A plant is not a still being. We can’t see it with the naked eye, but plants breathe, and they convert sunlight to food. Like the depth of understanding, plants know how to make the most of the spot they’ve taken root. Forests, for example, are a living race upward, each plant jockeying for the best spots to get sunlight.

Photo of Douglas fir forest on Mt. Hood near Barlow Pass, Oregon. Photo by Lupa, 2011.

And the plant totems, being connected to every individual of their species, can often have a very deep understanding of many places and what goes on there. Tree totems in particular can be very significant wells of knowledge of places. That’s another thing that can throw us humans off about plant totems. Animals have comparative breadth of knowledge about a place; they can know their territory intimately, but it’s still limited primarily to the surface (or water, or tunnels, or whatever their primary habitat is), and they can be easily removed from their territory by rivals, by a lack of food, by humans, and so forth. Plants, on the other hand, know one place very deeply, investing an entire lifetime in one spot, one view. A plant can be uprooted and moved if young enough, of course, but left to its own devices it will concentrate on the one place it’s rooted until it dies. And so we don’t always understand the “depth” observation that plants take versus our “breadth” animal understanding.

When the Clovers were talking to me about how I still carry the lessons I learned early on, even though one of the places I learned them has been destroyed and others are off-limits, that was a testament to the plant totems’ patient, long-distance way of perceiving. Like a tree rooted in a forest, some of the features and beings around me and my life would change, but I remained. (And, likewise, I may someday be one of those features in someone else’s life that goes away, while they themselves remain.) I really had to stop and think about what they were seeing in me, and more importantly how they were seeing me. Where I was caught up in a piece of my lateral landscape that had changed forever, they were taking a longitudinal assessment of me as a constant factor.

There’s a lot of value in the alternative style of perception and understanding that plant totems have. It can be difficult to engage sometimes because I’m not used to it. But the more I consciously engage with what the plant totems have been sharing with me without me realizing it, the more grateful I am to them for it, and for the patient, ongoing contributions of their physical counterparts.

* Incidentally, I’m also working on exploring my experiences with fungi totems, stone totems, spirits of places, and other not-animal, not-plant beings as a greater exploration of the spiritual ecosystem, and I intend for my writing to unfold and reveal these explorations over time, traveling deeper into the foundations of the ecosystem. But for now–you gt my thoughts on plants, because I’m just linear that way. Plus it’s a lot easier for many people to start wit what’s familiar and progressively move outward, and I figure it’ll be better for everyone if I take this progression from “more like me” to “less like me”.

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6 thoughts on “Some Observations on Plant Totems vs. Animal Totems

  1. Thank you for this. I recently had the chance to experience, for awhile, the perspective of a tree, during a class at the Tracker school (that teaches spiritual and physical wilderness skills). The exercise we did was “planting” ourselves in a hole a couple feet deep, and spend some time energetically being a tree. A form of shapeshifting, really.

    I’ve found that the physical and spiritual are fundamentally the same thing, in the sense that doing certain things in the physical world serve to enlighten us spiritually – more deeply than psychological contemplation, or even spiritual journeying. And those physical activities don’t have to be as dramatic as the one I just mentioned – even simple acts like spending some time on our belly in the forest, seeing from the perspective of a mouse, or surrendering to our sense of smell and following an unknown scent trail to its source, can vastly expand our experience of the world. As your post points to, the key is simple: “vary your vision”.

  2. This has a definite ring of familiarity. Since I’ve started working with herbs, and also exploring hedge work more, I am definitely picking up plants as spirit allies and relating to them as such.

  3. Amongst Roman Pagans, there is the genus Loci or the spirit of the place as well. I have communed with hills and other entities. Yes, it is different than with animals, but the spirits of each have much to say.

    I first became acquainted with plants when an oak tree decided to crash into my condo and die. It was a traumatic experience for me, not so much for the oak, who was in the process of dying. While the condo association had to spend time trying to figure out how to get the oak out etc, the oak and my family spend considerable time together. Since then, the other oaks have extended themselves to us. I later learned that since grey squirrel is one of my animal “totems”, they have a deep relation with white and red oaks. The oak that crashed was a white oak. So I begun to see oaks in relation to squirrels, as equal partners, since both need each other to exist.

    Robert Simmons of Heaven and Earth comp and author of “The Big Book of Stones” talks about stone spirits. He is definitely New Age, but his stuff is a good jumping off point for exploring stone spirits. I have had good relations with various stones, and listening to them does take time and much patience.

  4. Scenario: Your home backs up to the foothills of your local mountain range, covered in plenty of brush. One summer you have a forest fire and, despite best efforts, the fire passes over your home. You barely manage to get away, and your home is gone. Do you feel an element of the natural world (fire) has been trying to communicate with you? Or are you just angry, feeling at a loss, and wishing to put your “normal” life back on track?

    I bring this up because plants may perceive us in much the same transient way we perceive fire. We rush into an established environment, tear up it (whether camping, construction, farming, etc.) and then–as individuals–die. We are, generally speaking, quite devastating and we exist for a short amount of time, compared to our photosynthesizing neighbors. Perhaps the lack of communication from plants is because they see little point is establishing a relationship with a single representative of a destructive race who’s own life is so short. Perhaps they perceive us in the same way we would look at a hillside fire that has upset the balance of our own lives.

    I really look forward to reading any future books you might decide to write concerning these new explorations of yours. Cheers!

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