Some Totemic and Related (Rambling) Thoughts While Writing

I have a few comments on other posts that I haven’t yet approved and replied to; it will happen, and thank you for your patience. In the meantime, I have put the better part of 10,000 words into a chapter on bioregional totemism for my next book, Neopagan Totemism. I had some random thought-tangents that I jotted down here as an aside.

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I haven’t talked a lot about my work with bioregional totemism, but I should. It’s been a crucial part of my work especially since moving to the Pacific Northwest, and especially Oregon.

Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay are good examples. They’re the two local totems I connected with first. Scrub Jay made a bunch of noise as soon as I landed safely in the inner northeast neighborhood of Portland that I call home. Sitting in my apartment in an old Craftsman house, I was quickly introduced to the “VWEEEEET! VWEEEEET!” of this cocky asshole of a bird. Since then, he’s helped me to become a part of Portland, both in navigating the human territory (hey, somebody’s gotta speak out against the epidemic of passive-aggressiveness here, and who better than Scrub Jay?), and in reminding me that even deep in the city I am surrounded by, and a part of, nature. Every time I start perceiving myself as detached from nature, along comes Scrub Jay to smack me out of that notion.

And then there’s Steller’s Jay. Not quite so pushy, and more prone to showing up in the forests and mountains, this totem is to the wilderness here what Scrub Jay is to the urban areas–a reminder of the balance of humanity and the rest of nature. Unlike many animals, Steller’s Jay isn’t so shy of humans that she won’t make an appearance on the trails, and her beautiful coloring easily catches the attention and acts as a portal to just how amazing her home really is. I even had art of her commissioned a while back (and at some point when I have some spare funding I need to get a companion piece of Scrub Jay).

I’ve connected to others since then, but these two were the first to welcome me here.

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We need to give ourselves more credit as a species. I see a lot of kowtowing to deities and other spirits only because they’re supposedly more powerful than we are. And yes, in their own bailiwicks, they can be pretty impressive. I stand in awe of Mt. Hood every time I see it, and all it’s apparently doing to the average eye is sitting there, being this massive mountain in the landscape. However, just because we don’t have the sort of magic that shoot fireballs from our fingertips doesn’t mean that we aren’t impressive. I think between the ubiquity of technology, our general understanding of how it works (as opposed to the mystery of magic), and the tendency to see technology as “evil” because some of it has had negative side effects (or intended effects), we really downplay what power we do have.

Technology, art of all kinds, spirituality–these and more really are testaments to our ingenuity and adaptability. We are apes with huge brains and opposable thumbs that we evolved as a response to environmental pressures, and we’ve utilized these developments to unprecedented levels. And yet we have myths of technology and art as our downfall. Icarus fell into the ocean and drowned because he tried to fly too high with his wings. Ariadne was turned into a spider because she wove better than a goddess. These and more discourage us from climbing higher.

Yes, we need to be very aware of the effects of our works. Climate change is, perhaps, one of the greatest examples. But look at our everyday lives. We don’t have to spend all winter in chilly homes where we huddle around a fire or temporarily warm warming pan for bits and pieces of comfort. We can heat an entire home to seventy-five or eighty degrees if we like, even if outdoors it’s below zero. The methods we use to do this need to be reengineered to not destroy the environment, but for fuck’s sake–I can walk around naked in my bedroom at three in the morning when it’s twenty degrees outside, while communicating on the computer with people around the world I’ve never met face to face, about stopping human rights violations in another place none of us have ever been to. I am alive because of good nutrition, and if it weren’t for antibiotics I would be dead multiple times over.

If that’s not power, I don’t know what is. And to only look at the negative effects is to disempower us, as much as the idea that our power is lesser because we know where it comes from. There may be deities of different sorts of technology and other creation, but it’s human hands that made it happen. We can be both powerful and responsible, but part of that is owning our power without shame, because shame makes us want to hide things, and hiding things is what leads to the sorts of problems we face today. By reclaiming our power responsibly and transparently, without shame or degradation, we can take a more honest assessment of the baby and the bathwater of the human condition.

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If having wildlife not run away upon your approach means you’re somehow spiritually advanced, then being swarmed by mosquitoes or rabid raccoons must be a sign of Bodhisattva status. Mosquitoes in particular are the messengers of the gods, carrying precious droplets of blood and malaria to the heavens. Every itch is a deity’s whisper of thanks, and the sacred scratching we respond with only serves to open our veins with further offerings of life.

Or something like that.

But seriously: Snow White is not a role model. This is not a Disney cartoon. I want the animals to run away. It means they’re healthy, and they don’t see me as a source of food. (Especially grizzly bears. And mountain lions. And mosquito swarms.) I am a lazy ape. If they’re doing the part of running away, it saves me the effort.

(Also, my tendency toward multiple instances of almost being run over by startled elk does not mean I am an Elk Shaman. Probably.)

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9 thoughts on “Some Totemic and Related (Rambling) Thoughts While Writing

  1. (Also, my tendency toward multiple instances of almost being run over by startled elk does not mean I am an Elk Shaman. Probably.)

    It just means Elg wants you to pay attention. 😉

  2. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes to all of this…

    I’m reminded, in your last section above, of the story from Zen master Dogen about “beating the deer”–one shouldn’t coo to a dear and come up to feed it, one should scare it away, because if one doesn’t do so, they may become too accustomed to humans, and end up easier prey for a hunter or some other ne’er-do-well that has nothing to do with us and our cervine-positive ways. Or, words to that effect.

  3. Huh. I also feel that we need to reclaim our power as a human animal – our wild, feral nature (which is probably why I always been so intrigued by the mythology of vampires). We have great natural abilities – as you say, our greatest talent as a species is our cleverness and ability to create and use tools. In this respect we have even surpassed our mythological teachers, the raven and coyote.

    However, one of my biggest critiques of modern technology is how it has weakened us and taken away our power. This is something I have thought about a lot – how modern “comforts” actually harm us. The list is endless: modern footwear, artificial flat surfaces everywhere, modern toilets, climate-controlled environments, chairs & couches, “cleanliness” (the war on dirt) – not to mention the big ones like the modern diet, modern medical practices, chemicals in everything, etc. Each one of those things weakens the body, either by placing it in unnatural (i.e. not what we evolved for; not what we have experienced for 99.99% of the human existence) positions, or preventing us from experiencing the very things that keep our body strong (exposure to varied temperatures, for example).

    And I think living in a technology bubble also weakens us spiritually and mentally. When everything around us is created by us, we spend zero time relating with the other beings that populate the world. Our lives are completely devoid of ANY communication, negotiation, reciprocity, etc with those other beings, creating a totally self-centered, narcissistic way of life. No wonder so many modern humans are sociopathic, lacking empathy and basic respect for others. And this weakens our minds too, since no human-created environment or experience can come close to providing the vastly rich complexity of the real world, and therefore our human senses and awareness grow stunted from an unnatural lack of stimulation (akin to the difference between a 2-dimensional photograph and a 3-dimensional, living, moving, interrelating world).

    Yes, modern culture creates vastly powerful technologies. But I don’t think that makes us, as individuals, powerful at all. Most people don’t know how most technologies work, even the ones we use every day. And even if we did know, could an individual create any of them? Of course not, since they aren’t made by individuals, but machines in factories. I think modern technologies are in fact very alienating, taking away our human power to create by separating us from the experience of making the tools we use in life. And knowledge-wise modern humans may know a hell of a lot about a few specific things, but that knowledge is almost always abstract and totally irrelevant to the experience of daily life. The average “primitive”-living indigenous 5 year old knows more about how to survive in the world, how to provide for their own needs, than the average “educated” civilized person with all their technology. Who would you say has more power?

    And there are so many other examples of technology being used to take away our power. Everywhere I look I see infantilising technologies, like walk/don’t walk signs on street corners (diminishing our ability to determine for ourselves when we can walk safely). Again its the same principle – if there’s no challenge, no need to use an ability, then we don’t use it, and it withers away. Comfort and ease are very enjoyable to experience, but over time they weaken us; likewise, challenges are unpleasant, but they are what strengthens us. Another great example is advertising and the media constantly telling us what to think, and our society’s underlying enculturation toward obedience (the result of extreme hierarchy). If we never have to think for ourselves, then we become, in a word, stupid.

    I think that if we truly want to reclaim our power, our human birthright, we NEED to step outside of our technological box and experience (and learn about, and relate with) the real world. That is where our human talents developed, and our power lies there still, waiting for us to reclaim it.

    • Everything has pros and cons, which is why moderation is best. There are plenty of examples where we have allowed not only our technology, but our complex societies, to get the best of us and disempower us. At the same time, I don’t feel that the sort of collective knowledge we have, which is reliant on the individual inputs of countless people, are not empowering in some way. That’s part of the beauty of it–we can have a greater diversity of specialized roles if we so choose because we don’t have to do things like make our own clothes and grow our own food. It’s a baby and bathwater situation, and I don’t feel it’s as simple as pitting technology and not-technology against eachother in a simplistic dichotomy.

  4. Merry meet, [Elk] Shaman! I really appreciated how you embraced the shadow side of our modern society in this recent post. Yes, we have our negatives when it comes to technology, just as we have our negatives when it comes to politics, economics, religion, mating rituals, etc. but we still have so much positive out of it, because it’s who we are and we’re not a race of “demons”, all bad. We have our moments. By acknowledging both sides of the coin of our species rather than demonizing it, we’d have an easier time finding solutions rather than discovering new targets for blame. I think as neo-pagans we are in a unique position, psychologically, to better embrace that duality of our own natures and do just that than many people from other spiritual/religious paths, though we are certainly not alone in this.

    • We do tend to straddle multiple worlds in a lot of ways, and I feel that’s an asset as well as a risk. It’s easy to end up being criticized for “fence-sitting”, but at the same time being able to engage in multiple directions adds a lot of flexibility.

  5. therioshamanism, and Wormwood Crow, I find it interesting that you are describing us as having a two-fold nature – a feral aspect and a tecnological aspect, I presume. I actually think that they don’t have be separate and opposed, but in a healthy human would be made one and the same.

    Imagine a “wild” human roaming the landscape, making simple tools necessary for survival out of what is found on the land (or in the city, scavenged from wherever). In actual practice, they would be utilizing our powerfully creative, inventive, technological ability far more than the typical modern (civilized) human as they go throughout their day. I know that I have just about never in my life looked around the room and thought about what kind of cutting tool I could make with what’s lying around (for example), or what I could use for cordage to tie something together – much less actually experimented with doing those things. So far, the one and only time I have actually spent time doing that has been at a wilderness/survival school, which teaches how to live “wild” on the landscape – using only our own knowledge, cleverness, and creativity to survive. To me, living as a feral human is totally technological, just in a wise, kind way, not a foolish, unbalanced, and destructive way.

    • I do agree that technology is a multi-layered thing, and isn’t always the shiniest manifestations. After all, a wheel is technology.

      We do tend to romanticize that sort of survival tactic, using what is around us. Unfortunately, most of us have no idea how to do such a thing in real life. What would you build a shelter out of? How would you get food? How would you defend yourself?

      • Hmm. I actually haven’t seen any of the romanticizing you mention, unless it’s my sister’s and other friends’ enthusiasm for learning the skills that would keep us alive without the umbilical cord of civilization (especially with the knowledge that said umbilical cord is going to be cut soon, whether we like it or not, due to empire collapse).

        I have actually been spending the last 6 months intensively learning exactly those skills – how to survive on the land with “nothing” other than what I can do with what the land provides. It is not esoteric knowledge, but in fact nothing other than what constitutes daily life for many cultures around the world, including all the cultures of our ancestors.

        The fact that the vast majority of modern humans don’t know any of these skills is, frankly, insane. Throughout human history, they were the most basic skills that children learned growing up, usually by about the time they were 3 or 4 years old.

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