As many folks who have worked with animal and other totems know, not all totems are cuddly and friendly. Sometimes they’re what are popularly known as “shadow” totems, who challenge us through embodying some of our less pleasant aspects. Others represent animals or other living beings that we don’t care for, or maybe even have adverse relationships with.
This latter description fits my relationship with the totem of black mold pretty well. This is a common name for Stachybotrys chartarum, a fungus that commonly resides in drywall in houses and whose spores can cause illness (sometimes fatal) to a home’s inhabitants. Black mold has also been implicated in sick building syndrome, causing the same sort of havoc at work as well as at home.
Here in the Pacific Northwest (sometimes referred to as the Pacific Northwet), black mold is a particular concern. Because the climate is so humid, with lots of rain year-round, the fungus has ample opportunity to get a foothold, especially in many of the older buildings in the city. This can be especially problematic for renters; while some companies and landlords are very prompt about dealing with any mold issues, others are more lax. This disproportionately affects poorer people, who may rent from less careful companies or landlords, or who may own a home but not have the funds to deal with a more widespread mold infestation.I’ve been fortunate in that on the rare occasion mold has shown up in a place I’ve rented, the company I rented from was quick to get someone out to deal with it. Still, it’s been a learning experience. Until I moved to Portland, I’d been fortunate enough to never have to deal with this problem. Since I’ve been here, though, I’ve had my own experiences, and I’ve heard horror stories from others, up to and including people having to move to a new place due to severe mold and inattentive landlords.
You’d think this would make Black Mold a pretty unpopular totem, and to an extent you’d be right. It’s easier for many people to work with the totems of animals that can kill us, but which we feel still have redeeming qualities, like tigers, hippos, or venomous snakes. But what is there to like about Black Mold and its physical counterparts?
For one thing, they’re one of many species that have managed to capitalize on human success. While black mold can be found in soil, it’s managed to specialize in colonizing gypsum drywall, a common building material. We may not like this particular innovation, but I feel any species that manages to increase its population due to our influence, rather than becoming endangered or extinct, is at least noteworthy for its adaptability. Not that I feel endangered or extinct species aren’t good enough, or strong enough, or that their totems are weaker. Adaptability in the face of widespread, often destructive, changes is not the only positive trait a species can exhibit, and the spread of invasive or otherwise harmful species isn’t something to ignore.
The other reason I’ve tried working with Black Mold is because it’s taught me to be more adaptable myself. The first black mold colony I encountered got to sit around and grow for a few months because I didn’t recognize what it was. I had to learn that as soon as I saw that discoloration on the ceiling or wall, something needed to be done about it. Black Mold reminded me that procrastination can lead to being overwhelmed by a problem.
It showed me that taking care of a living space isn’t just about picking up the laundry and cleaning the dishes. It’s also about being mindful of the home’s physical microclimate. Black mold has always started in the bathrooms of the places I’ve lived, and always in the ones that were insufficiently ventilated, either with no fan, or no windows. The things we bring into a home–physical and otherwise–can have negative effects on that living space if we aren’t careful. And if we don’t keep what’s already in the home in balance, again problems can arise.
And just as black mold has been shaped by our effects on the planet, so it reminds me that we are still affected by the other beings we share that planet with. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we’ve defeated all the problems nature has to throw at us–disease, inadequate shelter, starvation, and so forth. And yet, even in the most comfortable home, Black Mold and its children can creep in, shattering that illusion. (Never mind that in many less comfortable homes, disease, exposure and starvation are very real problems.) Black Mold helps to keep me humble, and reminds me of the privileges I enjoy, however temporarily.
Finally, Black Mold is a somber reminder of that temporary condition. We cannot continue the current rate of resource consumption that has made our lives more comfortable. Either we have to reduce our consumption, or find more sustainable ways to maintain our current standard of living. So while black mold is mainly a threat to the drywall, I also find it to be an incentive to find more eco-friendly options for food, water, shelter, and other resources.
Black Mold is not my favorite totem I’ve ever worked with, fungus or otherwise. But it is a necessary one. And so (with a little tightness in my throat, imagining invisible airborne spores), I include it in my gathering of totems.