Taking the Plants and Fungi for Granted

I was sharing around the link to my last post about working with Black Morel as a totem. While choosing tags for it on my Tumblr, I had a bit of a chuckle thinking of how disappointed some people might be when searching for “mushrooms” and “totem”, and getting thoughts on a rather choosy, wrinkled edible rather than stories of far-out psilocybin trips.

It got me thinking about our biases as humans and spiritual practitioners engaging with the world around us. With animal totems we have a tendency to privilege those wild beings that we consider most charismatic and “powerful”–Gray Wolf and Bald Eagle and American Elk and so forth—though I and other totemists have worked to expand awareness and spiritual work to the totems of other species. People still don’t work with the totems of “mundane” domestic animals much, other than sometimes Dog or Cat, probably in part because we don’t feel they’re “special” enough.

By Lupa, 2012.

With plants and fungi, most of the spiritual writings and work seems to be with those that benefit us the most, physically or emotionally. The majority of books on plants and fungi in spirituality are herbals that tell how to use the physical plants, some druidic and other writings on trees (which are big and charismatic), and a handful of texts on connecting with the spirits of psychedelic plants (because they can get us high, man!). We value them according to their uses and attractiveness, not necessarily their spirits. So again our biases are showing.

A lot of that is most likely due to our tendency to work with what’s most immediate and familiar. We’re getting more used to connecting with unusual animals, even at a distance, because it’s relatively easy to recognize something of ourselves in them. And thanks to biologists, environmentalists, animal rights activists, and the like, we know that animals are not just dumb automatons with no feeling, but are intelligent and adaptable—and we know we are animals ourselves. So it doesn’t take that much imagination to be able to spiritually connect with the totem of an animal that lives on the other side of the planet.

Plants and fungi are a different story. We’re conditioned to see them as background and landscape, not active participants in our animal-dominated view of the world. The plants that do break into our conscious awareness are usually those we get some use out of, or appreciate aesthetically.

Take mushrooms, for example, since they’re a recent topic here. Googling “mushroom spirit” primarily brought up a bunch of writings about working with psilocybin, amanita muscaria, and other mind-altering “shrooms”. Often the fungi themselves were only spoken of physically, while the “spirit” was limited to the abstract concepts the tripper experienced while under the influence, the mushrooms themselves only mentioned as the vehicle for something bigger–something to be used. Even my writing on Black Morel was precipitated by me finding edible morels near my home, and the other examples of fungi I thought of were largely those I had encountered in person.

It is not a bad thing to connect with what is around us. Everyone needs a good starting point. Even my plant and fungus totem work started with those I know best. But I feel it’s time to step away from privileging utility and human chauvinism with plant and fungi totems, just as we have been learning to do with animal totems. We need to stop approaching the plants and fungi as “what can they give us?”, and add in more “how can we work together?”

Black wolf headdress by Lupa, 2012

And we need to look at why we feel so free to use plant and fungus parts in our spirituality as well as our mundane lives without the care we tend to give animal parts. Most animal spirituality practitioners don’t have their primary connection to the spirits and totems through hides, bones, claws and such, and some are appalled by such things. Those who do work with animal parts very commonly engage in care for the spirits of the remains, and see the remains themselves as sacred and not to be wasted. Yet both fresh and dried leaves, flowers, roots and other parts are commonly utilized in everything from incense to sachets to ritual food, without the same care we see given to animal parts. But just because a life was not lost in the procuring of herbal leaves does not mean a sacrifice wasn’t made. Plants still need to use energy and resources to regenerate what was taken, and the wounds can still become infected and kill the plant long after we have taken what we wanted.

We still take the plants and their totems for granted by thinking of them as ingredients in a way most of us would not think of animal remains. Yes, there are magical practitioners who engage the spirits of the plants, and their totems, with the same level of care and reverence, and gardeners often feel as strongly for their plants as they would for animal pets. There are those who give a thanks and offering, not just to “the Earth”, but to the plant itself, when collecting leaves, berries, etc. But there are still plenty of people who throw dried herbs into a sachet only thinking of “magical properties” that can benefit them, not where those leaves came from.

We need to treat plants, their spirits, and their totems with more regard and reverence than we have. We need to stop only approaching them with the mindset of usefulness and consumption, and confront our biases and human chauvinism. We need fewer herbals that treat plants and fungi as our personal medicine cabinet, and more thought toward dried herbs as sacred remains.

We’ve been doing well overall, we totemists and neoshamans and animists, with being less anthropocentric in our work with animal totems and spirits. Let’s start extending that more to the plants and fungi in our world as well.

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Black Morel as Fungus Totem

Pity the poor mushroom. Whether in spirit or in salads, this soft, squishy living being often gets lumped in with “plants”–at least if it’s edible or pretty. After all, a lot of people don’t want to think that the tasty portabella is of the same kingdom as ringworm (even if they’re only very distant relations).

Yet it is very important to remember that fungi are their own beings, without chlorophyll or flowers, and transmuting the nutrients of the soil in their own way. While they share some characteristics with plants, they are in fact more closely related to animals, believe it or not.

Still, for purposes of my work, I’ve been expanding my awareness of my bioregion not just to the plants, but to these other relatively quiet beings that attach themselves to a spot and stay there (generally) for life. They’re oddly compelling, with their almost alien appearances, and their ability to spring up quickly, sometimes literally overnight. I’ve seen colorful shelves on nurse trees in the forest, and carefully picked my way around little brown “umbrellas” on the dew-covered lawn early in the morning. In my home, too, they’ve made their presence known, whether in baking yeast or in the black mold that plagues many older Pacific Northwest buildings.

One fungus in particular made a recent appearance, not just in the flesh as it were, but on a totemic level. Every week I clean a set of buildings owned by my rental company in exchange for a rent reduction. In the back of one of the buildings is a strip of mulch between a sidewalk and a fenceline; no one really does much there other than go out to smoke, and it’s too far away from the landscaping to ever get any real care (to include chemicals). Several weeks ago, when Portland was still having its wonderfully rainy spring, I happened upon several rather wrinkly, golden-brown mushrooms in the mulch. A few had already been stepped on and the ground around them was littered with cigarette butts, so I was reasonably sure no one was particularly concerned about them (never mind actually knowing what they were).

I, on the other hand, was incredibly excited. After triple-checking their identity, I went back and collected the mature mushrooms, and a few weeks later gathered a smaller bunch before the rest were trampled. I ended up with about two pounds in total by the time all was said and done, a very good deal given that these can fetch a pretty high price!

See, morels are notoriously difficult to cultivate. You can spread spores on a log like other mushrooms, but this particular species is quite finicky compared to others. The wild spawning sites of morels are very closely guarded by those who know where to find them, and even then not every spot will have morels every year. Hence the high price these command at markets.

So it was no small thing that I managed to procure so many of these mushrooms at no cost other than my research and effort. In the process of carefully cleaning and preserving the morels, I worked with the totem Black Morel. Not surprisingly, this totem commended me on taking the rare opportunity I stumbled upon. Like the mushrooms themselves, I had a small window to act quickly, I made the most of it, and was rewarded for my efforts. I learned more for the future, too, both for that particular location and research for future morel hunts.

And this is a pattern that has resonated in other areas of my life. Part of what has helped me be successfully self-employed has been the ability to see a good opportunity when it presents itself, and being willing to go out and search for even more if need be. I’ve taken chances in relationships as well, and while I’ve had my fair share of upsets, I’ve generally come out ahead, with a long history of wonderful partners and lovers.

I’ve also learned caution. Just as a morel won’t come up if the ground is too dry, or conditions are otherwise unfavorable, I’ve also learned when to wait, and when to cut my losses. Not every time is the best to act, and timing choices right—whether in business, love, or culinary activities—is crucial to success. Caution in information is also a must-have. While morels are one of the easier mushrooms to positively identify, there are a few poisonous look-alikes, and even morels can be toxic if incorrectly prepared.

These are the places where Black Morel and I connected, and while we’ve only had a little time to work together since we first formally met, the combination of knowing when to take action and when to wait has been something we both value deeply. Black Morel has already helped me to be more resourceful in my everyday life, and has helped me hone my awareness of the opportunities around me. Not surprisingly, I’ve even had a few unexpected windfalls and offers come my way in the past several weeks.

In return, Black Morel has simply asked me to treat hir children well when I pick them, to leave some to spore for the next season, and to always prepare them with care and reverence. S/he seems to enjoy watching me and helping me with the ongoing balance of “act and wait”. As they say, I believe this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.