Death and the Animals’ Privilege

Note: This is my offering for the October edition of the Animist Blog Carnival, topic being “Death”.

When I first explored paganism way back in 1996, I almost immediately gravitated toward the animals. Like so many other totemists, I picked up a copy of Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak, and thereby began cutting my metaphorical teeth. For the following decade the animals were at the center of my practice, whether I was working with generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism or Chaos magic. I developed my own system for working with animal totems and spirits, and even created a lot of practices for working with hides, bones, and other animal remains.

After my arrival in Portland, I soon became immersed in the Land as a whole. I adopted a more bioregional approach not only to my spiritual path, but my life in general. This led me to connect not only with the local animals, but with the plants, fungi, stones, landforms, waterways, and many others. I grew to understand that the animal totems lived in their own wilderness and urban environments, just as their physical counterparts did, and this gave more form to my spiritual path, my neoshamanism and my role as an intermediary.

One of the effects of this shift in my worldview was that I became more sensitive to the great emphasis we place on animals over all other beings of nature, and especially vertebrates, and even more especially charismatic megafauna. We tend to value those beings that are most like us (but not too much like us). So (at least in the U.S.) a wolf is seen as more valuable than a salamander, a salamander moreso than a fruit fly. (Oddly enough monkeys and apes are often denigrated as silly beings because we think of them as “failed humans” of a sort; we see too much of ourselves in them and that perhaps scares us.)

Continuing on in that, we see animals as more valuable than plants, fungi, and the like. Someone who would never dream of killing an animal will happily uproot carrots and prune a bonsai tree into perpetual tininess. The usual justification is that since plants don’t have nervous systems like animals do, they don’t feel pain and therefore it’s okay to do whatever you want to them. This is even in spite of new research showing that plants can communicate with each other through sound, chemicals and even the mycelial mat of fungi connecting their roots.

Also, plants recover from injury differently than we do. If you cut off a vertebrate animal’s limb there’s a very good chance it will die, or at least be very significantly disabled for the rest of its life. Many invertebrates and a small number of vertebrates can regenerate lost bits, but few people would advocate for deliberately mutilating them just for the fun of it (and those who did would be looked at very suspiciously). On the other hand, you can lop off the branches of a tree, tear off a flowering plant’s reproductive organs, and cut grass down to a height of an inch or less once a week, and they’ll still keep growing. So we assume that this must be okay because they don’t die from it. Even if they do die, oh well–what’s another tree or shrub?

Finally, plants die differently than animals, or at least appear to. Even though both have evolved the same sort of programmed cell death, on a larger scale the point of death for an animal is a lot easier for us to determine–the brain activity stops, the heart no longer beats, the body becomes cold. Animal deaths can happen very quickly; a plant generally only dies quickly if caught in a fire (and even then some plants, like grasses, can survive the fire to regenerate). If you pick off a leaf from a lettuce still growing in the ground and eat it, that leaf is still alive. The top of a pineapple that you’ve peeled and cut up can be placed in water and then soil to grow a new pineapple plant. It doesn’t become dead just because you’ve separated it from the rest of the fruit. So this can contribute to why we don’t see plant deaths as being so traumatic, and therefore not as weighty.

Now, before we move on, let me say that I am certainly not supporting willful cruelty to animals just because we inflict similar activities on plants. However, I would question the attitude we have toward plants (and fungi, just for the record) that they are infinitely expendable, and that their deaths don’t matter. Rather than lowering the standards by which we gauge ethical care of animals, I suggest that we raise the standards we use to care for plants. And that includes being mindful of their deaths.

For fifteen years I’ve been working with hides, bones, and other animal remains in spirituality and art. I’ve developed unique rituals and practices surrounding this work as a way of honoring the spirits in these ways, as well as part of my meals (yes, I do eat meat). More recently, as my work has expanded, I’ve expanded that sacred approach to plant and fungus parts as well, which I call “leaves and caps” as shorthand*. As with the hides and bones, there are certain practices of purification that I do with everything I make from plants and fungi. But more importantly, these practices help to remind me at all times that these were once living beings, and in order for me to live (or create the art that I do), something had to die, or at least sacrifice a part of its physical form.

It’s especially important to me that I’m expanding this work of sacred approach to the plants and fungi as well as the animals. I’m not about to become a fruitarian. But I’m trying to reduce my bias toward animals, and elevate all living beings to a more meaningful and considerate level in my life. I’ll still eat them, and work with their remains, and consume other products made from them, since I need these to live. However, I’ll do so with more mindfulness, and a greater sense of responsibility toward them. I’ll be more careful about sustainable sources, and continuing to do my environmental volunteering for the betterment of all.

And that includes not taking the deaths of the plants and fungi for granted. They may not be the same as I am; they may not suffer or die in the same way as I. But I can still extend compassion to them, and hope that I benefit the world a little more thereby.

* If you’re interested in this part of my work, I have a chapter on working with plant and fungus parts in spirituality in my book Plant and Fungus Totems, which is due out from Llewellyn in May 2014.

Sunfest 2013, and the First Big Group Ritual I’ve Led!

So for the past several years I’ve been attending Sunfest, a four-day summer solstice festival held here in Oregon. It’s organized by Other Worlds of Wonder, a local nonprofit formed for the purposes of acquiring and supporting pagan land. They’re partnered with Ffynnon, which is itself pagan-owned, and this was the first year Sunfest was held on pagan land, a landmark occasion!

Every year there’s been a different theme for Sunfest, though (not surprisingly) it has to have something to do with the sun. In the years I’ve been going to the festival, I’ve seen the themes range from Norse paganism to Alice in Wonderland, and every year the main ritual has been a great adventure of one sort of another. The OWOW folks had been asking me to be the ritual coordinator for one year for a while, and finally early last year I said I’d take on 2013.

Now, I’ve been in a few big group rituals beyond Sunfest before; I went through a remarkable walking pathworking at Heartland Pagan Festival a few years ago, and I also remember some pretty impressive workings at Four Quarters Farm. And I’ve done a lot of individual ritual work, plus the occasional small group rite. But this was the first time I took on an entire big group ritual myself.

Well, okay. I didn’t intend for it to be all by myself initially. Inspired, I wrote out this big, long walking pathworking that needed about thirty participants besides me, and with flexibility for a few less or a few more. Each person was to embody a different being in nature, all leading up to the sun, with a few extra folks to act as ritual guardians. Despite my best intentions, when I put out the call for participants, I had about half a dozen people show significant interest in being co-ritualists (though I did have a lot of people interested in being at the ritual as general participants). Since this was only a few months away from Sunfest (I waited until the OWOW folks finalized their decision to move the event to Ffynnon), I decided that rather than cut down on the meat of the ritual, I’d take on all the embodiments myself, and have the volunteers act as the guardians. (The way I described it in the planning meeting right before the ritual was that I was going to be hauling the world on a cart behind me, and I just needed people to use sticks to keep it from rolling off.)

I know, I know–not the sanest idea in the world. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and I could have just scrapped the entire thing and made a new ritual from scratch. But I really wanted to make this one happen, come hell or high water. Additionally, if there’s one sort of ritual work I’m really good at, it’s shapeshifting, and all that I needed to do was maintain my strength and focus (and voice) through the rapid-fire embodiment of over two dozen different beings that I’d already been working with to varying degrees in preparation for the ritual. So while I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I felt up for the task. Even though I was exhausted from a really rough week of work and fighting off some respiratory ick, I held firm anyway.

And you know what? It worked. I survived, and came out both exhausted and about as ritual-high as I’ve ever been. I led somewhere between 80 and 100 people down the winding forest path toward the ritual grove, stopping every so often as I embodied several animals, plants, and fungi, along with soils and the ocean and deep-sea beings and all the way to the Sun itself. I’d had a script written up that I kept in a handmade booklet, but by the time we got to the ritual grove and I called down the sun to join us, I was completely immersed in stream of consciousness and inspiration.

And I did exactly what I set out to do. I showed people how everything from animals to fungi to the ocean and even deep sea creatures far from light all rely on the sun. I took the sun out of abstract figures and symbols, and showed how that bright ball of flaming gases above us right then was responsible for our very existences. I helped to carry the energies of the better part of a hundred people through the woods and into the clearing where we sent them up to the sun itself, and I pulled down the burning energy of the sun and sent it to the people around me. Afterward, some people thanked me, and some told me how inspired they’d been. Some told me how they cried, and a few told me it was the best ritual they’d ever attended. I was absolutely wiped out at the end, but it was so worth it, and the joy of having offered myself in that way to everyone involved, human and nonhuman alike, buoyed me up and healed me. Even though I was so tired, I still had the energy to do some dancing in my wolf skin at the fire circle that night, the best dancing I’ve done since I moved to the Pacific Northwest.

Will I do more? Perhaps. There are other festivals in the area open to ritual suggestions, and maybe I’ll try and organize something myself on a smaller scale. But I feel like I did my job, what I was supposed to do, and what a lot of my work in recent years has been aiming toward. Let’s see where things go from here.

Black Mold as Fungus Totem

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.

Thankfully not my home, but a stark reminder of how widespread mold can become. From

Thankfully not my home, but a stark reminder of how widespread mold can become. From

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.

Oak Moss Lichen as Totem

Lichens are a unique set of beings. Rather than being a kingdom of their own, lichens are a combination of plant (either algae or plant-like cyanobacteria) and fungus. While it is possible to separate the plant and fungal parts of a lichen in a laboratory, and some of these plant and fungus species also live independently, for all intents and purposes lichens are singular beings rather than colonies.

I’ve long paid attention to lichens when I’m outdoors. Part of this is because they’re really good indicators of how polluted the air in a given location is. Lichens are very sensitive to airborne pollutants as they gain some of their nutrients from the air, and the more lichens you see and the bigger they are, the healthier the air is. I also try to take care to not step on them, as they take a long time to grow back.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But from a spiritual standpoint they’re also fascinating! When I’ve worked with the totems of lichen species, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Sometimes the lichen totem itself shows up; other times, I work with the totems of the individual plant and fungus species that make up the lichen. I’ve even had meditations where the lichen switched back and forth between the forms. I haven’t noticed a pattern, such as older species of lichens preferring to stay singular. Each lichen totem has its own preference, and for the purposes of my writing I’m going to refer to each one in the singular from here on out.

One of the lichen totems that seems to like shapeshifting is Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri). As a singular lichen totem, Oak Moss is bold and rather extroverted, a rather intense totem to work with. Oak Moss are fairly opportunistic lichens; they’ve often been accused of killing trees because they tend to grow on trees that are already sick or dying. The totem is similarly intrepid, and has on occasion egged me on when I’ve come to a tough spot hiking and taken a moment to rest and check in with the spirits of the landscape. Oak Moss’ plant and fungus totems, on the other hand, are fairly shy and retiring; they often hide behind a sort of “veil”, and I find this is a common trend with the plant/fungus derivatives of lichen totems.

Oak Moss, though, often switches forms to demonstrate a point. For example, when I went to my beach along the Columbia River last week, I spent some time simply hanging out with the locals, as it were. I’d been thinking a lot about the complexity of human communications and relationships, and I got into a conversation with Oak Moss about this.

See, it’s really easy for people to turn each other into one-dimensional characters. Sometimes this is just out of sheer efficiency. I don’t need to know the entire life history of the person who rings up my purchase at the grocery store, though we may exchange a few pleasantries as we interact, and I may find out that they have three children and like mint chip ice cream at least as much as I do. It’s not really necessary to get to know them beyond that, and we can have a civil society based on such things.

Other times, it’s defensive. When we disagree strongly with other people on something we feel very deeply about, it’s a lot easier for us to turn them into the mustache-twirling villain of old silent films. We don’t have to think about them as well-rounded people with thoughts, feelings, families, and with whom we might share many other opinions in agreement. In fact, the very thought of considering our “enemies” as actual people can be threatening to our sense of moral stability. Empathy becomes anathema.

And so conflicts go round and round, from small disagreements among neighbors to international wars, fed by mutual pigeonholing.

I talked with Oak Moss about this, and the intense sadness I feel over the loss of potential communication. First, Oak Moss showed me how its children find it easier to grow on the aforementioned weakened trees. It isn’t because the trees are defenseless, but rather because the trees’ loss of leaves opens up their bark to the much-needed sunlight that plants and lichens both need. So the lichens take the opportunity to soak up some sun while their host tree slowly passes away. This is a normal part of nature; trees become food for other living beings, even before they die, and this process is absolutely crucial to the health of the forest.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But because we are often biased toward beautiful trees, and because we see the lichens living on the bark of trees that then die, we’ve sometimes demonized the lichens as the cause of the trees’ deaths. In actuality, the lichens were just doing what they could to survive and taking an opportunity in the very competitive race for sunlight. The trees would have died anyway; sometimes they become necessary nurse logs for lichens and mosses and ferns and others even before they’ve completely died and fallen. The decay created by fungi, lichens, and bacteria all releases nutrients back into the cycle of life and death. Nature hates waste.

And that reminded me, too, of my recycling of hides, bones, and other animal remains. I make use of the refuse from those who are hunters, farmers, and the like, as well as occasional roadkill remains. And I turn those remains into resources that not only keep me alive through paying my bills, but I can also donate a portion of the funds to nonprofit groups that benefit wildlife and their habitats. Like the lichens, I’m doing what I can to survive and converting resources that are available into benefits for others. Sometimes people look askance at both me and the lichens. But on we go.

Oak Moss then split into its plant and fungus parts. The fungus was robust, the heavy structure of the lichen that supports it. The algae, on the other hand, was the swift-moving photosynthesizer, the one who added shape to the lichen’s structure. If you split a lichen into its plant and fungus components, the fungus will grow into nothing but shapeless masses of hyphae, and the species of algae it is combined with determines how it’s shaped. Algae also is rather shapeless on its own, but continues its creation of food from sunlight regardless. So in a way we can think of the fungus as the heavy mover and lifter, and the algae as the artistic creator. Both are crucial to the existence and form of the lichen.

We, too, are complex beings with multiple roles in life. We all have times when we’re strong, and we all have times when we’re sensitive, and sometimes both. We wouldn’t be who we are without all these parts. As anyone in any form of relationship knows, it takes time to get to know a person in all their parts and pieces, as well as as a whole. It can take a great deal of patience and bravery, too, on the part of everyone involved. But empathy makes it easier to not hate someone, and to see them as a multi-layered person with whom we have agreements as well as disagreements. Sometimes it’s not safe to engage with someone who’s being actively hostile, and so it’s better to not directly interact with them. But even trying to imagine what it might be like to be that other person is better than that one-dimensional villainy.

And so Oak Moss reminded me to be patient with others–most especially those with whom I disagree. It’s more challenging to see certain people–homophobes, religious fundamentalists, corrupt politicians, as a few examples–as human beings, well-rounded people. But I feel it’s necessary to keep trying, if I’m to not perpetuate the same sort of hatred and lack of communication that is at the heart of so many problems. And it’s necessary to remind myself that I am a fully functioning human being as well, that I have my well-thought-out reasons for what I do and why. These can be difficult concepts to keep in mind, but I feel it’s crucial to do so.

And in this exchange, Oak Moss helped me to remember some of the most important ideals I live by. Some of them stem from childhood, but are just as relevant now. Just because I gave up Catholicism years ago doesn’t mean I didn’t learn important things from it. I do hold to heart two thoughts in particular:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Grant that I may not seek to be understood as to understand.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

The first is, of course, the Golden Rule, which can be found in cultures around the world. I know that I don’t care to be yelled at or insulted; it tends to be a real mood-killer when it comes to intelligent discourse; sometimes it’s better just to keep quiet than to continue arguments, fights, even wars. And so I tend to imagine that it’s the same way for other people, and I try to grant them the sort of patience and understanding I’d appreciate (even if I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be). And even though I sometimes get frustrated with other people, once I calm down I try to see thing from their perspective. Keep in mind that understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with it, and I think sometimes that’s what keeps people from trying to understand others’ perspectives. But if you hold true to your own opinions you won’t be so easily shaken as that, and if you do change your mind it will be an informed change, not one based on kneejerk reaction. Most importantly, it lets you keep sight of that other person’s personhood, which can go a long way in creating civil discourse.

So I left Oak Moss that day feeling lighter in my heart, and with more purpose and reason for being here. And from here on out, whenever I feel tempted to reduce someone to a single dimension, and especially if I only want to hang onto the worst possible picture of them I could have, I’m going to remember this conversation, and the image of Oak Moss splitting into two parts, very different from each other and yet both necessary to the whole. Life is full of complexities, lichens and humans among them. Better to focus on those complexities than to go to war over one-dimensional caricatures.

Why Plant and Fungus Totems Are Important to Animal Totem Work

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.

The Human Body as a Bioregion

We humans like to think of ourselves as individual entities, moving autonomously through a world populated with other individual entities. We think of our skins as the boundaries between ourselves and everything that isn’t us. Symbiotic living is left to the like of the Portuguese man-of-war and lichens, colonies of group minds are for bees and ants. We might recognize consciously that we rely on other living beings for our food, oxygen, and the like, but we view ourselves as rugged individualists.

Or so we think.

Truth be told, our bodies aren’t entirely our own. Take bacteria, for example. We have plenty of human cells and the like, but for every cell in our bodies there are at least ten bacteria. As Anne Maczulak said, “Microbiologists are fond of pointing out that if all of a person’s DNA were mixed with the body’s entire bacterial DNA, that person would be genetically more bacterial than human” (1). Thousands of species of bacteria live in and on our bodies, creating films that coat pretty much every surface inside and out. Most of these live more or less in harmony with us, as we have co-evolved over time. For the most part, scary-sounding bacteria like Eschericia coli and Staphyllococcus aureus occur naturally in our bodies, and they are not the evil enemies that they’re often made out to be in the media. Problems predominantly arise when one sort of bacteria ends up in a place where it shouldn’t be (such as gut bacteria entering the abdominal cavity at large through an intestinal perforation) or overpopulating and causing infections (such as tooth decay caused by an overabundance of certain mouth flora).

Along with bacteria, we have various tiny fungi and protozoa throughout our systems. Many women know the hell that is a yeast infection, when Candida albicans and other fungi that normally inhabit the vagina along with a host of other living beings suddenly overpopulate and create a rather unpleasant result. We usually only think of amoebas as the little single-celled beings that often represent asexual reproduction in basic biology textbooks, or as the cause of amoebic dysentary (which in truth is solely due to an invasion of Entamoeba histolytica). Yet several non-pathogenic species of amoeba make up part of our internal communities; E. histolytica‘s cousins Entamoeba coli and Entamoeba dispar are rather benign. While eyelash mites (Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis) usually don’t cause a problem, their overpopulation can cause itching, swelling, redness, and other symptoms of the eye.

And these are just the welcome (or at least neutral) neighbors. We also host outright parasites. Tapeworms (several species in multiple genera) and hookworms (Ancylostoma duodenale and Necator americanus) are some of the better-known ones, along with the inaccurately-named fungus, ringworm. Some unfortunate people have had to deal with the joys of scabies mites (Sarcoptes scabiei), head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), and the bedbugs (Cimex lectularius and their kin) who only come calling for a late-night snack.

(How many of you are feeling itchy and squirmy right about now? Sorry about that.)

My point is that we are the setting for a variety of tiny ecosystems, each with its own daily drama of eat or be eaten. So are numerous other animals and plants. Like Russian nesting dolls, the world is made of ecosystems within ecosystems (it may be ecosystems all the way down!) In fact, we can potentially think of each part of our bodies as a small bioregion. Each one is defined by its unique physical features, and the common flora and fauna that inhabit it. There aren’t watersheds, per se, but there are flows of various necessary ingredient to life, particularly food. So you can think of your stomach as one unique bioregion with its own resident critters who feed on the food we eat in one stage of digestion, while the small intestine is another bioregion whose inhabitants wouldn’t survive in the stomach and couldn’t live on what’s in there so well. Even different areas of the skin have discrete populations of bacteria and the like; the armpits have a different set of tiny beings than, say, the sole of the foot, and in some ways the former place is a much easier living arrangement for the bacteria than the latter.

So what’s all this mean for bioregional totemism? For one thing, it’s a chance to expand your idea of what a bioregion is, as well as to remind yourself that you don’t just live in an ecosystem–you host them, too! It’s a different way to look at our place in the world and how we relate to other living beings. While we’ve caused some species to go extinct through our actions, our extinction would cause the extinction of other species of tiny being that can only survive in or on a human body. We may not mourn their loss in the same way we would regret the extinction of the giant panda or the Siberian tiger, but it’s a bit sobering to realize that there are entire species that would cease to exist without us.

It’s also an opportunity to connect with other beings, including their totems. I’ve had people over the years tell me “Oh, I can’t connect with the elements of Fire or Earth, I’m an Air and Water person!” Yet the easiest way to make a connection to all of these is through our bodies: the minerals of Earth, the water in our blood and elsewhere, the air in our breath and the gases in our blood, and the fire of metabolism. In the same way, if you can’t reach outward to totems, seek the ones inside of you. After all, every species of living thing, even protozoa and bacteria, has a totem watching over the connections between its species and everything else in the world.

How do you do that? As always, I’m a fan of meditation. Visualize your consciousness traveling deeper into your body, into a particular part of your form. Try going to your stomach and exploring the communities there. Or travel along your skin and see how the ecosystems change across distances, like a forest changing to a plain and then into a desert on a long road trip. Explore all the places, or make a detailed study of one. It’s entirely up to you. You may find that working with the tiny critters mixed among your cells and nestled in your organs have a rather different view on life than Gray Wolf, Box Turtle, or Dandelion. Bit I’ve found it’s worth it to at least check out the scenery.

It’s especially entertaining to do this when I’m sick with an infection. Even as miserable as I feel when I get a cold, I get a bit of a kick out of the idea that an invading virus is sacking my respiratory system, and that my resident immune system will come along like a line of defenders and rout the nasties, letting the local residents come back to their hamlets and farms in my nostrils. (I know, that’s a rather ridiculous thing to think about. But I have to do something to keep my spirits up when I’m sick!) I’ve tried asking them to quiet down and let me sleep, but it generally doesn’t work and I have to wait til my immune system does its job; mind over matter only goes so far.

And, as with any ecosystem, nothing goes to waste. The bacteria and other things living in and on my body mostly leave me well enough alone beyond whatever they need to survive. And yet when I die, who do you think is going to be the first to start turning my body into food? You guessed it–the resident microcritters. It’s not that they’re waiting around for me to kick the bucket; after all, once I’m dead their populations have a limited lifespan, too. But there’s a certain comfort in knowing that the tiny beings who have been with me my entire life–a sort of giant cadre of primary totems, if you will–will be the ones to start the process of returning my body back to the Earth. They greeted me when I was born, have been with me through thirty-four years of life so far, and they’ll be there to see me off, too. In this I tend to work with them more as a colonial totem than the many thousands of individuals, but they’re no less important.

(Apologies if you’re still feeling itchy.)

1. Maczulak, Anne (2011). Allies and Enemies: How the World Depends on Bacteria. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.

Baker’s Yeast as Fungus Totem

As I’m spending more time indoors and getting back to cooking, I’ve been finding that the domestic totems are speaking up again. Last time I posted about my work with Tomato, and now as I do some baking work I’ve been getting back into the swing of things with the totem of Baker’s Yeast, technically known as Saccharomyces cerevisia. This fungus doesn’t just make bread rise, but also contributes to the creation of beer and wine, and when eaten provides B-complex vitamins and other nutrients. It is possibly one of the most important fungi to the human species, up there with Penicillium spp.(from which we derived Penicillin and the concept of fungal antibiotic sources).

I admit I feel bad every time I put dough in the oven to bake. Here all these little living beings have been eating and multiplying and making the bread rise, and I’m about to burn them to death. Even if they don’t recognize it in the way that a mammal would, it’s still a moment of sadness and appreciation, the same as I feel for a carrot I uproot in the garden, or a freshly-killed free range chicken I purchase at the farmer’s market.

Baker's yeast up close and personal (marks are 1 µM apart for scale). Photo by Bob Blaylock,

Baker’s yeast up close and personal (marks are 1 µM apart for scale). Photo by Bob Blaylock,

Like Tomato, Baker’s Yeast helps me to appreciate just how much we rely on other living beings to survive. We often think of fungi in negative terms—unpleasant infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, or black mold infections in our home and respiratory system. Outside of a few edible mushrooms, most people don’t really consider fungi in a positive light, or at all for that matter. Fungi even routinely get lumped into the “vegetable” category even though they’re closer to us as a kingdom* than plants. But from the fungi that occur naturally in our bodies to Penicillium and Baker’s Yeast we have received quite a bit from this often-ignored kingdom of beings.

I also find Baker’s Yeast to be a source of wonder. At some point someone left unbaked dough out too long and a yeast ended up taking up residence long enough to make it rise. Perhaps instead of throwing it out, the enterprising baker tossed it in the oven anyway, and a new tasty treat was created**. The process is so simple, too. Put a tablespoon of commercial yeast in some warm water, let it sit fifteen minutes or so, add it to the dough and presto—the little fungi start working on the leavening right away! I can even watch the dough rise if I so choose, although I’m sure it’s much more exciting for the yeast than it is for the observer. Still, sometimes I think all the works of the alchemists never could equal the awesomeness that is fresh-baked bread. (I certainly wouldn’t want to ingest most of what the alchemists were concocting.)

But Baker’s Yeast also reminds me of the ingenuity of humans, as well as the value of experimentation. Part of what has made us so successful as a species, from an evolutionary perspective among others, is the fact that we have been so curious about the world around us and willing to take risks. The history of both Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessors took place in environments that were often subject to great changes in relatively short periods of time, and the rate of change has accelerated over time.

Sliced bread. Photo by Can Atacan,

Sliced bread. Photo by Can Atacan,

Our omnivorous nature gave us an advantage over species with more specialized diets. And as starvation was a very real threat, even after the dawn of agriculture, our ancestors were willing to try all sorts of potential foods. While this sometimes resulted in unfortunate episodes of mushroom poisoning and the ill effects of scavenging dead sea creatures that had sat around too long, it also gave us the joys of lobster, cheese, and, of course, bread.

None of this could have happened without other living beings. While Baker’s Yeast didn’t emphasize that interconnection as much as Tomato did, I still can’t help but be appreciative for everything we’ve gotten from these little fungi. Yes, as with tomatoes and other domestics we do help propagate generation after generation of yeast, so they get something out of the bargain. And we could certainly live without bread. But the discoveries of leavening and fermentation revolutionized our culinary opportunities, and we can at least be grateful for greater options of preservation and tastiness.

Like Tomato, Baker’s Yeast is an important totem of the home and hearth, as well as certain industries. This winter is going to be a good time for me to work with yeast and its overarching Yeast-being, as the chill settles in and bread-baking becomes a more serious endeavor. Lately I’ve been wanting to improve our home; my partner and I have been in our current apartment for a year and a half, and while it’s somewhat put together there’s still some residual clutter in the closets and we want to rearrange a couple of the rooms. I think perhaps having some fresh-baked bread for us to nosh on while we work will help make this place feel even more like a good, cozy home, and perhaps I’ll dedicate a little spot of kitchen just to Baker’s Yeast while we’re at it.

*Yes, I totally admit that when I wrote this I immediately thought of the Mushroom Kingdom in Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers games. Princess Toadstool totally reigned before Peach ever stepped up to the throne.
** And now we have doughnuts. Thank you, Baker’s Yeast!