Douglas Fir as a Plant Totem

Note: This is part of the Animist Blog Carnival issue TREES, hosted by naturebum.

Most of the totemic work people do is with animal totems, and admittedly I am biased in favor of them. It’s not that I haven’t done work with others, but I just think to talk about the critters more. That, and the plants tend to be more subtle in their communications. Animals–we’re loud, and impatient, and move around a lot. (Well, most of us. Sea anemones and sloths are on the low end of that curve.) Plants, on the other hand, are more deliberate and patient. And they often whisper. Volume didn’t really have to be much of a thing until there were beings that didn’t send their roots into the great, intertwined network under the surface.

And I’ve found plant totem work to be focused on different priorities than the animals’ ideas. Animal totems seem to want to be dynamic, bringing change and motion and growth. Plant totems, from my experience, tend more toward rooting the self deeper in the now, what you have to work with right this moment, maximizing the use of immediate resources before expending the self to find more. Not that this particularly surprises me; these preferences in focus mirror the very nature of the beings and their totems themselves.

Douglas Fir is one of the most prominent plant totems in my life right now, and as I’ve been working with it I’ve been reminded that I haven’t really written about this part of my spiritual experience. In a way I’ve treated the plant totem work like a long hike in which I ooooh and aaaah at the occasional sighting of an animal, but see the trees and other plants as merely the backdrop. (Which isn’t the case when I’m actually hiking; I take lots of pictures of flora that fascinate me.) I’d like to start changing that and talking more about the plant work I’ve been doing over time. So allow me to introduce you to Douglas Fir.

I am not a native of Oregon. I was a military brat, and did much of my growing up in the Midwest, not arriving in the Pacific Northwest until early 2006. And, beyond that, I am not even a native of this continent; my family primarily emigrated here in the second half of the 1800s, and I was born on an army base in Germany–technically US territory, but not of this continent.

Occasionally this non-native status rankles a bit. I am well aware of the impact that European immigration and invasion of this continent had on the peoples who were here before (and are still here, despite attempts to erase their presence and acknowledgement). And I have heard the complaints from native Oregonians about the influx of people from out of state flooding this area in the past couple of decades as it’s become more popular a place to move (even though right now the job market here is still pretty well tanked).

Yet I am acculturated to this place. I didn’t have a choice in my upbringing, and although there is certainly something to be said for being an ex-pat, it is easiest for me to simply stay in the country where I have citizenship. And I like it here, especially Oregon. The Midwest wasn’t nearly as nice a fit culturally (though the Land liked me a good deal, and I love when I get to go back to visit family as well as places).

This mixed relationship to the place and the people may be part of why one of the first plant totems I connected to out here was Douglas Fir. Douglas Fir is a native species, but the trees’ relationship to the Land here has changed dramatically since the arrival of Europeans. As people began to clear the forests more for agriculture and farming, the opportunistic firs replaced other trees in the succession of forest regrowth. And because the firs grow so quickly, they’re a common seedling chosen for replanting logged areas to maximize profit, making their presence much more pronounced than before.

Both of these factors have homogenized much of Oregon’s forest land to one degree or another. While other native conifers such as Western hemlock or red cedar do still grow here, in many places they’re out-competed by the fir. Even some oak savannahs, highly rare any more in this state, experience firs as an increasingly invasive species.

This, of course, was not solely the doing of Douglas Fir, even with the trees’ competitiveness for resources after forest fires and other nonhuman disasters. The intervention of humans has often resulted in much more dramatic effects on ecosystems. And in the same way, I did not choose the accident of my birth, though I have decisions as to where I live and how I act as an adult, to include attempting to integrate into a different culture (even if I can never completely lose the markings of the culture I was raised and socialized in).

So Douglas Fir has been helping me to not only adjust to living in this place that I have decided to make my long-term home, but also to explore the various ramifications of that decision. There’s a certain level of responsibility that I need to keep in mind as I am here, and what it means that I have consciously made this my home. Who have I affected in this decision? How can I be a part of the community without being obnoxious and even harmful? And, more abstractly, how can I combine my work with social justice with my spiritual path?

These are just some of the things that Douglas Fir and I have worked together on. Fir is more of a presence than an active guide, providing a steady energy to tap into and a quiet reminder of connectivity, but it’s all very grounding to my little animal mind.

And so you have just one example of how my totemic work has extended beyond my fellow critters. I’ll try and talk more about it as time goes on.

(P.S. My friend Paleo has done a bit of writing on more domestic plant totems over here.)

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20 thoughts on “Douglas Fir as a Plant Totem

  1. I love this! You know my totems are more plants than animals. My experience coincides with yours, regarding the focus of plants being a little different, in general, than animals.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. At the risk of being airy fairy, I swear I hear the trees screaming along this stretch of roadwork every time I pass by. It’s gotten quieter with time, but it still hurts to pass.

    I like trees and plants, though I’m not very good with them. I really appreciate and enjoy learning about the secret lives of plants. Especially their means of communication. I should probably work with them more, find a piece that calls to me to work with, but I need to do a lot more work with a lot of things… I went through a lot of real life stress lately and slacked off on my spiritual wellness.

    Anyway, I greatly enjoyed this article and hope to continue to see more posts from you about neglected and often overlooked totems. They help me at least to adjust my focus/perception.

  3. It seems to me that plants think purely chemically, rather than electrochemically like animals; and their reactions, like their habitual actions, involve growth and chemical production rather than moving about. This makes for a strange access to consciousness, slow and sedentary, alien by human standards. But they are very old, not a “lower” form of life, just a different one. Some scientists think that plants use dedicated quantum computing to optimize photosynthesis.

      • Plants “fight” each other and compete for resources, but as they are doing this by using growth and chemical production, it isn’t obvious. And there are plants that use fungal networks to intercommunicate chemically (last I heard, the largest known living thing was an underground fungal net, the runners-up being “groves” of trees that are actually sprouts from huge common root systems). Many people have attached electrodes and such to plants to investigate plant consciousness, but I think most of them misinterpreted their results. If you attach plant electrodes to a sound generator, and when you cut the plant the generator produces a scream-like sound, the sound may just mean that you’ve changed the plant’s electrical resistance slightly, even if the plant is indeed perceiving the cut and starting a healing response. It’s tricky, because on the one hand the internal structure of plants looks to us like uniform and inert blobs of stuff, their pressure, chemical, and light -sensing properties not at all obvious; and, on the other hand, when we do become aware, through those electrodes or through time-lapse photography, that the truth is more complex, we tend to interpret things in human terms. Anyway, you might find this article interesting: http://thesmartset.com/article/article11221101.aspx

      • I really have to wonder how much we’re cutting ourselves off from, knowledge-wise, by being so anthropocentric in our research. Granted, there are a lot of potential confounds in the above experiment, but we’re only really getting to know things like the extent of the intelligence of ravens; how long will it be before we really look at plants that way?

  4. Over a lifetime involvement with Coastal Redwoods as magical allies (I am reluctant to call them “totems,” although they may be), I have discovered that large trees that once dominated great swathes of land speak to us slowly. As is appropriate to their scale and long life spans.

    In my case, from the period of several years when Redwoods began to communicate with me until I, a human, realized that such communication was taking place took something longer than a decade. I needed all that time for guidance from the Redwoods to sink in, get processed, get translated into notions I could comprehend, and re-surface in my awareness.

    Let me add with some emphasis that this communication began with as an aspect of the coastal forest’s response to human activities like logging that had harmed and continued to disrupt the forest community, Obviously the Redwood trees, but the whole ecosystem, too.

    Redwoods have assuredly transformed me over the years, and I believe for the better.

  5. Wonderful post Lupa! I got much closer to the plant (and to some degree the fungi) kingdom(s) upon becoming an herbalist. The plants do seem unassuming until you pay attention. You may have to wait but once it opens, it opens! Their spirit is also more “collective” rather than individual, so if I were to communicate with a dandelion, it would be like ALL dandelions, not just the one flower. Trees do seem to have more individuality, but it is different than the way animals express it (and I cannot quite find the words to explain the difference). One thing is for sure – plants have been around MUCH longer than animals have, and even longer than people have! In many ways they are like our “elders” and yet their energies are often so loving that many really wish to help humans heal and live the best lives they can (and even the poisonous ones, if approached with respect, can be immensely educational). They have had lots of time and due to their “rootedness” (and not being able to run away from predators), they are the best chemists ever! No wonder most medicines we have are either plant-based or chemically modeled (crudely that is) after plants! I think Douglas Fir fits you at this time! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Wow. I feel much the same about my ally, eucalyptus.

    A lot of it was planted here in California after the redwoods were chopped down. It’s acclimated quite well to the land and local flora and hasn’t really taken over anything – mostly just filled in the gap left by other hardwoods. A bunch of assholes want to chop down the eucalyptus, even though it’s not causing any harm, because it’s not native.

    Hey, guys. How many of you were born here? LET’S KILL EVERYONE WHO’S NOT A NATIVE CALIFORNIAN!

    • Some people do want to try to return ecosystems to their older states, though how effective that is can vary. Some newcomers are pretty destructive, though, like holly and ivy here in Oregon. Oh, and Himalayan blackberries, even if the fruit *is* pretty tasty.

  7. Trees call to me more so than anything else, except perhaps the crows that walk about like they own the place (and they sort of do).
    When the wind blows in the trees, it moves me to tears, and the most spiritual revelations over the past two years have only spoken to me through the trees.
    I too have felt as though I could hear the trees crying and screaming as they get murdered.Their almost stoic nature and that of being rooted firmly, but dancing in the wind, taking in the poisons of the world… the ultimate living sacrifices, clothing us, feeding us, sheltering us… makes me feel often that they are the highest earthly evolution.

  8. Several years ago I walked to the store and passed through a Christmas tree lot. I noticed that I felt depressed, sad, angry, confused, and upset. I then walked over to a tree that was in a pot, still alive and growing. As I stood there I felt hopeful, more peaceful. and more alive. That was the year I insisted, against the wishes of my family, on getting a “permanent tree.” I have often wondered why I have so much trouble with Christmas. Besides the materialism, expectations, and Christian focus, there seemed to be some deeper reason for my antipathy about this holiday. Now maybe I understand. I have always been fascinated by the Douglas-fir. When my husband and I returned from a year on the Navajo reservation, I had him stop at the first available place so that I could hug and cry with my friend the douglas-fir. Also, I don’t really like cultivated flowers so much, but I love wild ones. The trillium is another plant I bond with.

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