Plants Need Animals, And Other Necessary Connections

Heh. Volunteering with tree planting and cleaning up garbage from watersheds has given me plenty to write about.

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, from Wikipedia

One of the things I’ve been chewing on is the earthworms. Okay, not literally chewing on earthworms. But the soil southeast of Portland where I’ve been planting trees is healthy enough to have a really nice population of them (no Oregon giant earthworms this time). Every shovel full of dirt had several of the little pink critters squirming around in it, and I had to be really careful to dig around them as best as I could.

I also thought about Jason Woodrue, also known in DC Comics as the Floronic Man. This botanist went so far as to transform himself into a human/plant hybrid, and was perhaps even more tightly tied to the plant world than his better-known counterpart, Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy. During Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing in the 1980s, Woodrue tried to kill off humanity–and all animals–by making all the plants in the world increase their oxygen production to an excessive degree (there can be too much of a good thing). The Swamp Thing pointed out that, instead of creating a perfect plant planet, this would lead to the death of all plants because there would be no more animals to create carbon dioxide.

It’s not the only reason plants rely on worms–and other animals–to survive. These creatures aerate the soil, their castings fertilize, and their bodies become further food. Many plants need insects and other animals to pollinate them; some, like one species of fig tree, are so intricately tied to their animal pollinators that if one went extinct so would the other. From a purely evolutionary perspective, wheat and other domesticated plants are the most successful because they’ve convinced the entire species of humanity to deliberately propagate their genes.

And it’s not just the animals. We assume that plants were the first living beings on the land, but in fact fungi may very well have been much earlier. I am not an expert, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the intricate relationships between plants and fungi developed not long after both took to land. Today we still see that interconnection with mycorrhizal fungi, as well as the wide variety of fungi that help break down dead animals and plants into nutrients that plants can absorb.

In an alternate reality, perhaps plants would have evolved into completely self-sufficient beings. Maybe all the kingdoms of living beings would have. But in this world that we live in, all the kingdoms rely on each other so intimately that there’s no way to extract one completely from any ecosystem (except perhaps the realms of extremophile bacteria who essentially reign alone in their little pockets).

As I’m working more with both animal and non-animal totems, I’m noticing these tightly-knit relationships as well. For example, while Douglas Squirrel isn’t a totem I really work with, whenever I work with Douglas Fir and the totems of other Pacific Northwest conifers, there’s a “shadow” of Douglas Squirrel present. And it’s not alone; there are similar shadows of totems of other animal species that live in and around these trees. More, perhaps, than even the animals, the plant and fungi totems bring their homes with them into their work with me.

I suppose it makes sense. I’ve always met the animal totems in spiritual settings full of plants and waterways and such, but until relatively recently I only occasionally paid attention to anyone besides the animals. It didn’t mean they were any less there.

So many of us fall prey to what Richard Louv, in The Nature Principle, refers to as “plant blindness”, the biased perception that plants and fungi are just scenery and not active parts of the natural environment. Yet you’ll always see more plants than animals when outdoors, and even fungi are easier to observe. So consciously turning my attention to them on both physical and spiritual levels has emphasized their importance in my perception, though the plants were bringing their animal shadows from the beginning.

So continues my work with the totemic ecosystem.

A Thousand Invisible Cords That Cannot Be Broken

I’m back in my art studio again, which means it’s documentary time! While I do very much love being outdoors (as we established in my last post), and nothing compares to the experience of being out in the wilderness, I do enjoy books and documentaries on various natural and scientific topics. The documentaries are a nice thing to have on while I’m working on artwork; I sometimes revisit old favorites, swapped up with new finds on Netflix and YouTube. I love re-watching the “Walking With” series about various dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters, even in spite of the factual errors here and there. I also found a neat BBC series on the evolution of plants, and I spent a while being completely fascinated by the history of the kings of Britain (a bit of latter-day human hierarchical behavior in action).

Most recently I watched The Secret of the Savannah, one of a four-part BBC series highlighting just a tiny bit of the intricate webbing of several complex ecosystems. In this episode the interconnection among the animals, plants, and even base chemical components of grasslands in the Americas, Africa, and Australia were explored, often with surprising results. For example, we know it’s critical to keep the white rhinoceros from going extinct. One of the many reasons is because it’s one of the very few animals that can live on nitrogen-poor “sour” grass. The rhino can process it enough that more nitrogen fixes and leads to “sweeter” grass, which allows other animals, such as antelope, to then live there and create an even more vibrant ecosystem. Similarly, maned wolves, ants, and a particular kind of fruit form a strong triangle of food and fertilizer, benefiting all three as well as others. And so on.

We have made a great career of ignoring these existing relationships that have developed over millions of years. We as a species have done more than our fair share of meddling with existing ecosystems. Few places have not lost native species or had invasives introduced by our hand. And until recently we hadn’t even thought of the effects of those changes. So selfishly we decided we needed the deer and elk more than the wolves and cougars did, and we even determined that the landscape wasn’t good enough without some Chinese pheasants for us to hunt. And just for good measure, we turned much of the land to agriculture (and some of it to Dust Bowl in the 1930s). So it was that much of the Great Plains, the United States’ great grasslands, changed to our whim.

And now natives like the prairie chicken hang on by a thread, and others move to take their place. Certainly the ring-necked pheasant from China isn’t nearly so competitive an invasive as some, and doesn’t have as much to do with the prairie chicken’s lowering numbers as loss of habitat to agriculture does. But if the chickens were all gone, would the pheasant be able to step into its niche? Likely not. While the documentary didn’t detail this particular bird, it did make it clear that we don’t know nearly all the ways in which the species of an ecosystem rely on each other. Given that the chicken evolved here and the pheasant didn’t, there would almost certainly be some “invisible cords” missing if the latter were to go away forever.

The “thousand invisible cords” in the title are a reference to John Muir’s original quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe” (Muir 1988, p. 110) These cords can be broken, but only by the eradication of a species at one end of it. The cords also cannot be transferred; new ones must be forged, and those forged hastily are rarely as strong or as neatly woven into the ecological pattern. The relationships that the prairie chicken has to the grasses and insects are unique, and the pheasant cannot expect to create the same. The very differences in physical biology of the two birds prevent it, never mind their individual behavior and how that affects their place in the ecosystem.

This is why I am heartened to see a shift to a more systemic approach to nature, instead of just focusing on a single or few charismatic animal species. Our tendency to tunnel-vision has contributed greatly to our ignoring the effects of our decisions, and if we can cultivate a wider way of approaching the world, perhaps we can make wiser, more informed decisions as we move forward. At the very least, if we’re going to be successful in reviving the ecosystems we’ve damaged, we need to have more of an understanding of the intricate ways in which they work. It’s not enough to slap some plants and animals and fungi together and call it good; we need the hows and whys of those beings all together.

This is also why I cultivate the totemic ecosystem. Nature spirituality is a popular way for those feeling disconnected from the natural world to try to access it again. The abstract symbolism and archetypes of totems create imagery that may be easier to grasp than the sometimes very alien world of the wilderness, especially for those who have forgotten their own wild heritage. Plus many of us have come into adulthood without those natural connections intact. The practice of ritual can not only get us in touch with the wild again, but also re-teach us the crucial element of play. Play is how young animals explore their world, and it’s one way we can engage in similar exploration.

But just as young animals don’t only make a study of one or two species in their ecosystem, so we need to expand beyond our individual totems and favorite animals. The spiritual world is not only made of wolves and eagles and bears, but also the totems of mychorrizal fungi and the politics of field mice and the spirits of storm clouds. If your totem is Cougar, then it is good to know as much about cougars as possible. But it’s also important to know who the cougar’s neighbors are, what it eats and why, and what happens when the cougar is taken away, even to the effects on the very soil itself. And the spirits and totems of these can be known as well. So it may not so much be that Cougar is your totem, as it is that Cougar’s Home is your totemic ecosystem.

Clearly there is much more to the study and practice of totemism than just the animals.

So. Think about your local ecosystem and all the intricate connections. Let the concepts percolate in your head, and then let them slowly begin to ooze up into your consciousness. See if your worldview then expands, pick up your stick and drum, and go explore.

Source:

Muir, John (1988). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Working With Black Morel Again

I’m currently working my way through Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets, in an attempt to learn more about fungi in ways I can’t just by looking at wild mushrooms through layperson’s eyes. I’m only a few chapters in, but already the author has made it quite clear just how intricately entwined fungi are in the very workings of life on Earth itself. It’s not just the fruiting mushrooms that we can see above ground; more important, perhaps, are the vast networks of mycelia, the thread-like filaments of fungal being that may produce the mushrooms themselves. Mushrooms are a temporary state; mycelia are the permanent self of the fungi; or, to use an analogy, mushrooms are to apples as mycelia are to the apple tree.

One of the most fascinating roles of fungi, in my opinion, is that of mycoremediation–the healing and restoration of damaged landscapes. Fungi are the processors of the Land’s “body”; they digest things, and convert them into usable forms for themselves and other beings. They are alchemists. So when a place is damaged, whether through fire or deforestation or disease (often caused by parasitic fungi), it is the native fungi of a place that are often the first to recover. They break down the dead organic material to create healthy soil, and are often the forerunners of the recovery of the place. Stamets says of morels:

These fast-growing and quick-to-decompose mushrooms emerge where seemingly no life could survive. As these succulent mushrooms nature and release spores, they also release fragrances that attract insects and mammals…Flies deposit larvae in morels, and as the larvae mature they attract birds and other maggot lovers. Birds and mammals coming to eat morels defecate seeds of plants far from the fire zone…Each mushroom-seeking organism imports hitchhiking species from afar with every visit, essentially carrying its own universe of organisms, an ecological footprint of flora and fauna. Then, with every mushroom encounter, each animal is dusted with sores, leaving an invisible trail of them as they wander on. As animals crisscross the barren terrain, the layering of ecological footprints creates interlacing biological pathways. Morel mushrooms…are pioneers for biodiversity, first steering animate vessels of genomic complexity into an otherwise near-lifeless landscape. (Stamets, 2005, 55-6)

This matches my previous experiences with Black Morel as totem. Morel struck me as a very opportunistic totem; not that it’s alone in that, but that’s where we connected first. So I talked to Morel more about what I read, and the habits of morels in a place scorched by fire or cleared by loggers.

Morel pointed out that sometimes opportunism has more than just a personal benefit. When morels spread out into a scorched landscape, there’s absolutely no competition, but plenty to eat in the form of charred plant and animal material. Morels make the most of that, along with other fungal opportunists. However, as Stamets eloquently described, the morels are far from the only benefactors of this pioneering and experimental nature.

This connected with a recent experience of mine where I was interviewed about my participation in the pagan community as a leader. My place there is through my writing; in neopaganism, if you write enough apparently it gives you some authority (moreso if you write well and people get something out of it!) One thing that I pointed out was that I write primarily for myself. My writing is a record of my spiritual path; that’s what this blog is. You can look over the past five years of posts here and see my progress in this path, and the many places I’ve explored as a result.

Long-neck morel. Photo by MrGreenBean from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LongNek1.JPG

However, I deliberately shared it so others could benefit from what I found as well. While this was more conscious than the activities of the little wrinkled mushrooms, the pattern is the same–a few pioneering beings move into new territory, and leave a trail for others to follow, and soon an ecosystem is created. While Therioshamanism is still a relatively new phenomenon (and generally still my own personal path rather than a shamanic tradition per se), I have found people drawing on my experiences and integrating them into their own paths.

And going forward, Morel reminded me of the importance of remembering how my explorations can be helpful to others. It’s still perfectly acceptable to act in my own self-interest. But if, in the process of doing so, I make things better for others, so much the better. Morels also thrive in complex ecosystems, not just scorched earth, and there’s a lesson in that to be sure.

Source:

Stamets, Paul (2005). Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

A Quick Pun Break

So this past Saturday I vended at the Mississippi Street Fair here in Portland. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, though since I was vending solo most of the day I didn’t really get to escape much. I did make a couple excursions for food, and on the way I passed the booth for Lonely Dinosaur, a local independent (made in the basement!) t-shirt company specializing in entertaining puns and other humor. One of their new ones caught my eye, and given my recent writings, I figured it was appropriate. So it became mine!

Forgive the wrinkles–I had to carry it home in a knapsack; I swear it was nice and neat when I got it! If you want one of your own, here you go! I highly recommend checking out the rest of their selection as well; very good quality shirts, and you get to support independent artists, too!

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.

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.