Geological Totems

I think I may be too linear for my own good. See, I had this grand plan of expanding outward in my writing, from animal totems, to plant and fungi totems, to geological totems, and so forth. I’ve been working with all of these to varying degrees in my ongoing work with bioregional totemism in a multilayered form, but I’d planned to be more in-a-row with the writing. As is so often the case with spiritual beings, somebody didn’t like that–specifically, the geological totems. So to make them happy, allow me to introduce them.

First, I need to explain what I mean by geological totems. A geological totem is the presiding spirit of a given specific geological phenomenon. It is not defined solely by a specific type of stone, or a single landslide, but instead is more a conglomerate of forces coming together to create a particular phenomenon, like a canyon or a mountain or watershed. And they overlap quite a bit, too, to the point that, like sediments turning into sandstone, their identities can merge into one even as the individual grains are still perceptible.

Columbia River Gorge near Hood River, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

The Columbia River Gorge is a very good example. The oldest rocks are from volcanic activity 40-20 million years ago. The high walls of the Gorge are made of dozens of layers of basalt, which formed 15-10 millions of years ago from incredibly large lava flows. Volcanoes around what is now the border of Idaho and Oregon produced so much lava that eventually the basalt was over a mile thick in places. Even more volcanoes erupted to create the Cascade mountain range 2-1 million years ago; the Columbia River flows through these mountains. And as if all that volcanic activity weren’t enough, 16,000 – 14,000 years ago all that volcanic matter was carved and sliced and ground into the Gorge we know today–by massive flood of water. The enormous Glacial Lake Missoula, created by meltwater from glaciers at the time, would periodically flood, sending walls of water up to several hundred feet high down the course of the Columbia, deepening and widening its bed.

Each outpouring, whether from volcano or lake, added its spirit to the Gorge; the oldest volcanic matter from before the basalt floods, and the rocks carried from Glacial Lake Missoula, are equally a part of the totemic Gorge. When did the Gorge proper begin, though? Was it the same totem before the Missoula floods, when the land was more gently rolling and the river traveled a narrower path? Not only are geological totems layered in terms of composition but, it would appear, in time as well.

And each section of the Gorge has its own smaller place spirit as well. Some of them have territories that are very starkly defined; you can tell when you get from one part to another as the energy of the place changes–I’ve noticed, for example, a distinct shift as soon as the Gorge comes out of the Cascades on the eastern side. Other times the spirits flow together more gradually. The spirit of the Gorge near Multnomah Falls is different from that at the Bonneville Dam, but the shift between them happens over several miles. All of them come together, though to be the Gorge, and the Columbia River itself also maintains its unique identity even as it, too, becomes a part of the overall totem of the Gorge.

This brings up the idea that totemic identities are, to an extent, arbitrary. We can’t pinpoint when one species of animal evolves into another. At some point we say that Group A of a species has differentiated itself enough from Group B to be a new species, but you can’t look at a parent and young and say “this one is of Group A and this one of Group B”. What makes some geological totems unique is that they can sometimes have very marked beginnings and/or endings.

For our purposes, we can delineate a geological totem in part based on its current form and how it got to be that way. Some, like the Gorge, have a relatively quick birth (2,000 years of flooding is next to nothing in geological time);. The totem of that area was a very different being when the land was more sloping and gradual with a smaller river running through a narrow v-shaped canyon; it died (or, perhaps, was reborn?) when the floods carved out the Gorge itself and changed the landscape in other drastic ways. Others shift incredibly gradually, like the slow movement of tectonic plates and the rearranging of continents. There are places in the Midwest where I grew up that, other than some farming and mining by humans, have remained the same for millions of years. The totems of these places are ancient, with a long continuum of memory.

Perhaps trauma and sudden change mark the beginning and end of the “life” of a geological totem. Whether the totem itself dies and is replaced by another, or simply changes as drastically as its physical features, is unclear. I am working primarily with meditations and journeys to various places, to include visiting the memories of totems past in a sort of spiritual time-travel. I have not yet witnessed a place before and after such a great change, and most of these changes (mountain uplift, erosion, etc.) would take longer than my lifetime to complete. The best bet would be to visit a volcano that exploded itself into oblivion and then was replaced by a new volcano, but that would require a lot of luck and great timing (and also not being around when the explosion itself occurred!) I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has experienced such a thing.

To a lesser degree, humans do change a place. We have learned to destroy mountains and fill in rivers and wetlands, but these feel more like slow suffocations than rebirths. It’s like the workings of our hands and machines just aren’t enough to equal the cataclysmic rebirths of entire places. Again, visiting a place before and after a nuclear bombing might show a marked change, but if all goes well we’ll never have that happen again.

Geological totems also are defined more by what has formed them than by supposed inherent qualities of their materials. Those who work with crystals and stones on spiritual and magical bases may attribute certain qualities to a given mineral–healing for amethyst, protection for tiger’s eye, etc. But stones from a particular place are to the geological totem of that place what individual animals are to the totem of that species. Animals are mostly defined, roughly speaking, by a common set of physical and behavioral traits common across the entire species (even if it’s spread across several different locations. But stones and their totems work differently. In my experience, stones, crystals, and the like are not so much defined just by being “amethyst” or “granite”, as they are by the specific set of phenomena that created them, and the overarching totems of those phenomena and their aftermath.

Coastal basalt formation near Waldport, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

While basalt created in Hungary can have some similar qualities to that created in Oregon, and their origins in terrestrial basalt floods may give them a kinship different from basalt from other sources, each carries the spirit of the flood that created them, as well as the places they settled. I have on my place altar two pieces of basalt, one from Devil’s Rest just west of Multnomah Falls in the Gorge, and one from the Oregon coast near Waldport, OR. These are from the same sets of basalt floods that created much of Oregon’s bedrock, but they likely came from two different flows, and were sited over 100 miles apart. In the millions of years since they cooled from their lava state, they’ve become part of very different landscapes with their own individual stories, and have seen quite a bit. There’s a bit of resonance because they had similar sources and chemical compositions, but they are very different stones, and I would not say they had identical qualities.

So I don’t work with the totem of Basalt, though there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, I work with the totem of the Gorge, the lava flows and waters that created it, and the ongoing human influences of dams and roads and such. Every piece of natural history that comes out of a place carries the spirit of the place, but it is the geological totems that remember the most. The plants and animals may come and go as extinctions and evolutions occur, as climate changes and drives some away while attracting others. They are the bedrock on which a bioregion is formed, and the soil that feeds its fauna and flora; they are the courses of waterways as well (I’ll give water totems their own post soon, too). It’s a shame that stones and others are usually seen as only spell components and materials for tools, for the totems of the phenomena that created them are some of the oldest, most powerful, and most well-storied. They may not be truly permanent; every mountain erodes, streams dry up, and lava buries the land below it. But if you really want to get to know the bioregion you’re a part of, to include on a spiritual level, start talking to the geological totems, of floods and flows, scrapes and sediments.

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13 thoughts on “Geological Totems

  1. This is a very interesting perspective about the land. My own experiences in working with the land definitely has a similar feel. A couple questions came to mind as I read this.

    1. What is the difference between a totem and an elemental? This question comes to mind because I\’d probably use the term elemental to describe what you term as a totem. It might be a semantic difference, but it might not.

    2. Do you feel that the name given to a place, such as multnomah gorge effects the geological totem? In other words the multnomah gorge has its own spirit, and the Bonneville dam has its own spirit, but its part of that derived from naming the locales? Would I notice a difference if the locales weren\’t named by people?

    Thanks for posting this!

    • 1. I tend to think of elementals more as individual spirits rather than overarching totems. So I’d think of the spirit of a single stone as an elemental, but the Gorge it came from would be more totemic. A lot of it is scale, and it reflects the more ambiguous and subjective boundaries in classifying these.

      2. Just as with animal totems, geological totems are partly composed by the relationships they have with humans, as well as other species. I don’t think it’s so much the name that matters as the activities. The dam has shifted the energy of that stretch of the River and Gorge quite a bit since its creation, and that does have an effect on the overall totem of the Gorge from start to finish. From my meditations, it seems that the section of river where the dam is really wasn’t distinct from the surrounding ones until the dam was put in.

      And thank you for the good questions!

  2. It’s fascinating reading about your relationships with your Land out on the other side of the continent. I live in Ohio where the glaciers came down and met the Appalachian mountains. Layers of various geological activities, but none of it volcanic, violent or sudden. I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say on water totems, since rivers and lakes are the most prominent spirits in the area.

    • Thank you! this is truly one of the most geologically interesting areas in the world, and I’m very lucky to be here. The waters are very deep, spiritually speaking, as well, with many stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to sharing them.

  3. What an interesting post. That sounds like faint praise, but I mean it; I’m really interested now in learning about the geological history of my locality. I know the land, but I don’t know that aspect of it and learning about it would definitely deepen my relationship with it within the shamanic/hedgewitchy/animism context, and it gives me lot to think about now.

  4. Wonderful post Lupa! This seems a broadening of the definition of what I have heard others (be they Druid, Pagan, Shaman or otherwise) as “Spirit of Place” – when I envisioned what they spoke of, it seems a smaller area, whereas your definition I believe could encompass quite a large area, providing it is the same bioregion/ecosystem – very interesting! Didn’t think of these as totems until you mentioned it! 🙂 Thanks!

  5. Amongst Romans, the geography became Gods – the River Tiber is a God. I address all the rivers in my area by Father and their name. To me they are male. There are also Goddesses of hills. I have a relationship of the local Hill Goddesses. I do not think of Them as totems as much as Lars (spirits) and Gods. You might want to see what ancient peoples addressed geography in your work.

  6. When you first broached spiritual geography in “The Death of the Place That Raised Me” it brought to mind Kaldera & Schwartzstein’s “The Urban Primitive”, the first source I had seen addressing the issue of spirituality in The Concrete Jungle that validated much of what I had experienced. Your continued work with regional energies is so fundamental for the shaman, urban as well as country, and I really appreciate that you share you thoughts about totems one can’t buy on eBay, so might be more difficult for the average traveler to understand. Your essays are revealing, poignant and much needed.

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