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.
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.
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.
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.)