In every spiritual system there are specialists and there are generalists. I’ve been turning more into a generalist over the years, as I’ve gone from just working with the animal totems to expanding my work throughout the totemic ecosystem. It doesn’t make my work less important to me, but as a fan of systems theory I’m finding that understanding the complex relationships among the various components of a system is just as important as knowing those parts in and of themselves.
And so it is with animal totems. There are plenty of practitioners who prefer to specialize in animal-based spirituality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, one of the most important ways to learn about an animal totem is to observe its physical counterparts’ relationships with the plants and fungi in their environment as well. For omnivores and herbivores the reasons are pretty obvious; plants and fungi are food, and if the food no longer grows, the animals must move on, adapt, or starve. But the plants and fungi affect all animals in other ways, too. The presence or lack of trees, for example, can affect the weather patterns and overall climate of a place. Sometimes the relationship between an animal and a plant is so intricate that the species cannot live without each other. Some populations of sycamore fig rely completely on one species of parasitic wasp for pollination, and numerous other animal species need the fig tree to survive as well. Plants and fungi can present physical obstacles (as in a rabbit ducking into a thicket to escape a fox). If algae overgrow a pond, they can choke out animal life (sometimes literally, as in algae blocking the gills of fish); some algae are also sources of toxins that can harm or kill aquatic life.
These are all important things to note, because they shape the natural history and behavior of animal species and thereby their totems. How an animal develops physically, mentally, and otherwise is due in part to its environment and the plants, fungi, and other animals in that environment. So it is important that if you’re going to get more than a cursory understanding of a particular animal totem, it’s a good idea to get to know the plant and/or fungus totems also associated with them, even just a bit.
The first thing to do, of course, is to observe. You may be fortunate enough to be able to watch an animal totem’s physical counterparts in their natural habitat. Pay attention to how they respond to the plants and fungi around them, and see if any in particular stick out to you. If that’s not an option, you can always fall back on the observations of others, through books, documentaries, websites, and the like. The key is to have a good understanding of these natural relationships.
Just observing and knowing these things may already have given you some insights. However, you can also use guided meditation to get to know the plants and fungi important to the animal totem as well. In your meditation, ask the animal to introduce you to the plant and fungus totems it’s most connected with, and then ask all of them why they rely on each other, what each gets out of it, and what else they might like you to know about their work together. And if you like, you can go back and just visit with the plant/fungus totems on their own, if that’s something you wish to pursue.
Again, you don’t have to abandon your animal totem work in favor of a broader practice. Even if your goal is just to find out more about an animal totem, even brief visits with the connected plant and fungus totems can be incredibly valuable.