Learning From Totems On Their Terms

I was meditating a bit a few evenings ago on the fights of butterflies.

See, I’d seen an image on Tumblr of two male Monarch butterflies scrapping over territory, and the caption said that they could get quite aggressive with each other. In fact, there’s a good chance many of you out there have seen butterflies engaged in battle, fluttering at each other in midair and even clutching and pushing at times. We’re inclined to see their struggle as “pretty”, and we may even mistake it as two butterflies happily dancing together.

Now think of two male elk battling it out over a patch of territory. We usually focus on the immense power in their bodies as they tussle, the sharp tines of branching antlers and the muscles in straining haunches. In fact, it is their physical strength that is one of the elk’s best-known traits.

Yet who is to say the elk is more fierce than the butterfly just because the insect is smaller and more delicate? We’re biased because of our size. If we happen upon a grizzly bear in the wilderness, we know we’re in immediate danger and we take action to save ourselves; the bear is seen as a dangerous animal. But if we meet a spider in the woods, at most we scream and squash it, even if the actual threat to us is miniscule or nonexistent. For the most part, though, most people don’t avoid the woods just because there are spiders prowling about, and other than phobias we don’t have much reason to fear for our lives.

However, in its own environment, the spider is a formidable predator. Ask a fly or a grasshopper or a beetle what it thinks of spiders, and the feeling would likely be similar to our feelings on lions, tigers, and bears. Ask a ladybug about the risk of raindrops, and it would probably be more concerned about the watery missiles than we are. On the other hand, while a drop from a three story building would be very bad for a human, an ant might get blown about by winds on its way down but would probably survive since it’s light enough to not reach a dangerous velocity.

These are all things that have been becoming more apparent to me over the years as I’ve continued my totemic work. We often miss some very important messages and opinions from some totems because of our human biases. During my meditation I checked in with several animal totems often seen as “gentle” or “beautiful”, to include European Rabbit (of Watership Down fame), Whitetail Deer (Disney’s version of Bambi), and the dragonfly totem Banded pennant. I talked to them about their feelings on being considered “safer” totems to work with, and to a one they disagreed. European Rabbit and Whitetail Deer both wanted me to know how fiercely they protect their young and territories, and how fiercely the males fight, and how both rabbits and deer have been known to injure or even kill their predators in self-defense; Whitetail Deer further reminded me that deer have been known to eat mice and baby birds out of the nest. Banded Pennant didn’t see itself as a “flying jewel”, but as a keenly-honed aerial predator, not at all to be trifled with. And others I spoke to–Monarch Butterfly, Galapagos Tortoise, European hedgehog, and others–all confirmed, too, that while they had their gentle traits, they were far from being helpless or sweet all the time.

If you think about it, all living beings are in a competition for resources and working each day to stay alive. Just because we’ve found some ways to give some humans easier access to these resources doesn’t mean we’re free of the cycles of nature. If anything, it’s crucial for us to remember that every species is, in the end, out for itself, and even symbiotic relationships are not formed purely altruistically. It doesn’t mean we should be selfish and cruel to each other, but it is a reminder that we are learning from beings who are not characters in a Disney movie, nor are they the savage beasts of some recent sensationalistic Discovery Channel “nature” show. They are, in the words of Henry Beston, “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”* And it behooves all of us for us humans to remember that the totems are representatives of their species, to be learned about and learned from on their own terms, not just whatever suits us best.

* Yes, I realize I just used this same quote in my last post. It’s one that’s been appropriate to a lot of the animal totem work I’ve been doing lately.

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8 thoughts on “Learning From Totems On Their Terms

  1. I always rather marvel at folks who effuse over the constant birdsong in my yard. They go happily on about the “sweetly singing” birds….not realizing they are hearing the birdy equal of shouting “MINE! Get OUT!” or “I got here first, buzz OFF, You!” I get a lot of birds since I feed constantly to make up for so much lost habitat around my area. I see chickadees at war with nuthatches and local hummingbirds defending a syrup feeder from migrating species.

    And I always thought the beautiful dragonflies looked like insectile warcraft…Nature’s very own Apache helicopters! And although I long since ceased being Catholic or Christian, I often think of the reputation of St. Francis — his tenderness to the natural world, and yes, it reminds me daily to share the splendor and do what I can to reduce the travail of my fellow “prisoners.”

  2. Where I am, I see white-tailed deer a bit on the way to work or school (last month, I took photos of one decomposing until the road workers removed it; just this morning, I spotted three on the way to work, lying down, staring at me) and one of the “scary” moments for me was when I was in the woods and suddenly found myself 4 ft from two male deer and realizing that they are big! I never thought of them as “tiny” but usually they’re far away and I’m in a car (or they’re meat on a plate, or a head on a wall, or a skin). But suddenly I was very aware of all the muscle and the power in the animal and it was a very wonderful, awe-inspiring thing, to really face the deer and realize that they’re very real with danger (and not danger) to them. That they’re not “just Bambi.” I’m used to horses (the only ungulate I “mess with”) and yea, the deer are smaller than horses, but deer could still kick and bite and they had horns–something made for injuring. I stayed with them until they left me and it was rather, well, an irreplaceable experience–to SMELL the deer and to fear it, as well to realize that it also feared me (one was rather shy, the other was very uncaring about me).

    I think it can be easy to “forget” the animal when we sometimes talk about the totem animals or the Spirits, which is why I’m rather adamant about people seeing the animal (when possible) and studying and watching it in person.

    • Exactly. The symbolic nature of totemism has its values, but it’s worth a lot less once divorced from its natural roots. Hence making a study of the beings themselves, and not just their totemic counterparts.

      • I think one of the most fascinating things, to me, now, is taking the time to really study each being (animal, plant, insect, etc) as much as possible, rather than going off just what I read. I guess it’s “easier” for me, because I have a few zoologist friends who love to discuss various living things in as much depth as possible–particularly through a more science mind. (Admittedly, throwing in science into my practice, I feel, has made my practice so much stronger.)

        One of the things I’m currently intrigued by are cockroaches. In a way, it feels so awkward to say, because even outside totemism and animism, cockroaches are looked at as so disgusting, but where I grew up, they didn’t invade they home (if we got them, we got American cockroaches, which usually wandered their way in and aren’t really looking to stay, so we usually released them outside and were never bothered again). At my apartment now, we have brown-banded ones (which are invasive) and because I have a phobia of squishing insects (which is probably the most backwards phobia I can think of), I catch them. I’ve taken to studying them more and they’re really interesting insects. (I’ve always had a love for hissing cockroaches, anyways, because I think they make cute noises and are rather social/societal ‘roaches, but they’re sort of abnormal.)

        Stopping and studying them is actually rather broadening, even outside a religious path. One of the most interesting things was when I found one on the wall and realized that it was there because when baking one day, a splatter flicked to it and I never noticed. The cockroach was just there to eat, and really, in the process, was technically cleaning my kitchen. It’s sort of hard to loathe it when all it was doing was what all other creatures do (eat) and in that process, it was beneficial. I don’t like them in my -food- but then, they’re no longer being beneficial when they do that (plus probably not the safest, especially considering that my apartment complex uses roach poison–something I’m finding rather disturbing/sick, as I’ve now found several insects poisoned by the traps).

        I’m getting more interested in working with Cockroach, now, because of observing them for so long. I’m still not extremely a large fan of the brown-banded (being an invasive species), but at the same time, they’re not evil, horrible creatures. Of all the life out there, they’re the most “in my own daily life.” They certainly not as glamorous as, well, eagles and wolves and things, but they’re also quite important.

  3. I have been thinking a lot about the idea of Boar recently and all the things I feel *frightened* about with this animal actually turns into something quite beautiful and powerful when I see past the initial preconceived ideas society has drawn up for me and look at its true essence. I see a wild boar sometimes with a small bird on its head and often wonder who is the fiercest of the two and who would stick it out till the end in a fight.

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