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.

Some Observations on Plant Totems vs. Animal Totems

If you’re at all familiar with my writing, you’ll know I’ve been writing about animal totems for years. Animal totemism has been a foundation of my practice pretty much from the beginning, way back in the 90’s. I’ve always had some connection to plant totems as well, but they’ve had more of a background presence in my life. A lot of that is due in part, no doubt, to the fact that I am an animal, and therefore I resonate more easily with other species of animal. So it’s been harder for the plants to get through to me; sadly I’ve seen them more as scenery in my journeys and other works than as active participants.

White trillium near Triple Falls, Oregon. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

Over the past few years, though, and especially as I’ve been spending more time in deeper wilderness, I’ve been more aware of the bioregional nature of the spirit realm. Animal totems don’t just exist as disembodied spirits in a void somewhere, but in spiritual ecosystems with the totems of plants, fungi, stones, and various other spiritual beings. What I’ve become aware of is that there were deep connections with plant totems all along, and I just wasn’t appreciating them for what they were. For a while now I’ve been spending more time meditating on those relationships and really getting a feel for them, and now I feel ready to share my thoughts.*

Some of this is due to the way in which the plant totems have tended to relate to me. Animal totems are very active and pro-active. Like their physical counterparts, they’re frequently on the move, going from place to place, and they’re used to making the first contact with a person. They view the world often as a series of tasks, challenges, and things to do. And we humans follow suit. Plant totems, on the other hand, have a much different perspective. They are often acted upon (though certainly there are examples of plants acting on animals, and definitely on other plants). While a plant totem can make itself known to me, it’s usually after I’ve made the first contact. In my last post here I talked about how White and Red Clovers came to me and talked to me about some of our early experiences together, but it was only after I thought about them and gave them that opening.

So we often take for granted that a totem being will come to us if there’s something important to know. I wonder, though, how many plant totems have messages and conversations ready for us that go unheard because we don’t pay attention? And what sort of attention should we pay, anyway? Most of the things I have learned from plants and their totems have been through a sort of experiential osmosis–absorbed in my senses and pores without consciously realizing them, inhaled and digested as a matter of daily goings-on, rather than being actively sought and observed with animals. Yet these can be incredibly powerful and moving lessons, and I am amazed at just how much I didn’t realize I have gained from plant totems over the years.

Another consideration is that a plant is rooted in one place, something that is alien to most animals (especially terrestrial ones). Other than a few house plants that get repotted, plants generally stay in the same place their entire lives. Even widespread plant colonies that expand their boundaries through growth still have limited “travel” by our standards; most of us couldn’t think of living our entire lives on a single acre, never mind being rooted in the same place for life. Not that plants know nothing of the world; part of my unverified personal gnosis is that plants (or, at least, their spirits) communicate through their intricate root systems. Plants do move. They grow, they shed, they expand, they move with the wind. A plant is not a still being. We can’t see it with the naked eye, but plants breathe, and they convert sunlight to food. Like the depth of understanding, plants know how to make the most of the spot they’ve taken root. Forests, for example, are a living race upward, each plant jockeying for the best spots to get sunlight.

Photo of Douglas fir forest on Mt. Hood near Barlow Pass, Oregon. Photo by Lupa, 2011.

And the plant totems, being connected to every individual of their species, can often have a very deep understanding of many places and what goes on there. Tree totems in particular can be very significant wells of knowledge of places. That’s another thing that can throw us humans off about plant totems. Animals have comparative breadth of knowledge about a place; they can know their territory intimately, but it’s still limited primarily to the surface (or water, or tunnels, or whatever their primary habitat is), and they can be easily removed from their territory by rivals, by a lack of food, by humans, and so forth. Plants, on the other hand, know one place very deeply, investing an entire lifetime in one spot, one view. A plant can be uprooted and moved if young enough, of course, but left to its own devices it will concentrate on the one place it’s rooted until it dies. And so we don’t always understand the “depth” observation that plants take versus our “breadth” animal understanding.

When the Clovers were talking to me about how I still carry the lessons I learned early on, even though one of the places I learned them has been destroyed and others are off-limits, that was a testament to the plant totems’ patient, long-distance way of perceiving. Like a tree rooted in a forest, some of the features and beings around me and my life would change, but I remained. (And, likewise, I may someday be one of those features in someone else’s life that goes away, while they themselves remain.) I really had to stop and think about what they were seeing in me, and more importantly how they were seeing me. Where I was caught up in a piece of my lateral landscape that had changed forever, they were taking a longitudinal assessment of me as a constant factor.

There’s a lot of value in the alternative style of perception and understanding that plant totems have. It can be difficult to engage sometimes because I’m not used to it. But the more I consciously engage with what the plant totems have been sharing with me without me realizing it, the more grateful I am to them for it, and for the patient, ongoing contributions of their physical counterparts.

* Incidentally, I’m also working on exploring my experiences with fungi totems, stone totems, spirits of places, and other not-animal, not-plant beings as a greater exploration of the spiritual ecosystem, and I intend for my writing to unfold and reveal these explorations over time, traveling deeper into the foundations of the ecosystem. But for now–you gt my thoughts on plants, because I’m just linear that way. Plus it’s a lot easier for many people to start wit what’s familiar and progressively move outward, and I figure it’ll be better for everyone if I take this progression from “more like me” to “less like me”.

White and Red Clover as Totems

I’ve been thinking again about my now-deceased little patch of woods from my hometown. I can’t have that place back ever again; even if the pharmacy that’s there now were to be torn down, the plants that would regrow wouldn’t be the same, and the geography’s been changed, flattened out. And so I mourn that loss. (As an aside, I’ve written even more about it recently at No Unsacred Place.)

In the process of mourning, White Clover and Red Clover came to me. These low-lying legumes were a big part of my childhood explorations; I spent many hours outdoors lying in patches of three-lobed leaves and fragrant white flowers, and eating the pink petals of the larger red species. Spring was always marked by the arrival of the first clover buds, and throughout the summer I would silently cheer any time the flowers got high enough to be made into necklaces before the lawn would get mowed again. My favorite hiding places were where the clover and other plants were allowed to grow high and thick, instead of being cultivated into submission as with most of the neighborhood.

As I grew older, and eventually moved to several places around the country, I always found clover–white more often than red, but both of them still made strong showings. And they were persistent. Even when I lived in paved-over old industrial areas of Pittsburgh where bricks and old run-down buildings were common, clover stubbornly populated open lots and little scrubby patches by the sidewalks. Here in Portland I see a lot of white clover, to include places where organic urban gardeners plant it as a cover crop. Red is more rare, but I’ve seen it on occasion, often on the edges of parking lots and other hardscrabble places.

And as I have mourned my loss, White and Red Clover reminded me of all the times I’ve seen them over the years and how that’s helped me to maintain the connection to my childhood wonder at the world. I realized that although I’ve lost a specific place dear to me, I never lost the connections that were formed there. I’ve taken these connections much further, too, out of suburban lawns and into empty lots in cities, and the wide open territory of the Columbia River Gorge. I’ve gone from a tiny little creek trickling through my second patch of woods, to the rivers the bridges in Portland cross over–and to the Pacific Ocean itself.

I am not lost. I am still here. Wherever there is clover, there is also the connection I grew up with. I do not need to feel connected only to the patches of clover in a yard I no longer have permission to enter, or in a field that no longer exists. I also have the clover in the neighbor’s yard that I walk by several times a week, and odd patches here and there throughout Portland. And just as I carry the lessons taught by family members many years deceased, so do I carry what I learned from White and Red Clover, and Periwinkle, and Black Poplar, and Eastern Red Cedar, and White Oak, and so many others through their physical counterparts as I went from a seedling to a sapling to a fine young tree myself. These still stand out to me, so many years later, as a collective of plants and their totems who were so incredibly influential. Some of their children are now dead, victims of the destruction of one place. But thankfully the species and the totems live on, and no one can take that from me.

And given that neither White nor Red Clover are native to the United States, their ubiquitous presence helps me to feel at home where I might otherwise feel rootless. Similarly to Douglas Fir, the Clovers have helped me to be as flexible and adaptable as they are in a new place, particularly as I was not even born on this soil. Part of that grounding does come from reminding me of my roots, and teaching me to set them down wherever I go. If they can bloom where they’re planted, so can I.

I find all this comforting. I have lost, but I am far from alone–or rootless. White and Red Clover showed me that.

Poison Oak as Totem

A comment on my last post at No Unsacred Place brought up the itchy, urushiol-soaked leaves of poison ivy and poison oak. I am quite sensitive to all of the plants that exude this compound, and admittedly all they’ve inspired in me has been much cursing and complaint on the occasions we’ve had too close an encounter.

Elinox, the commenter who brought these plants up in the first place, mentioned the idea of a shadow totem. A “shadow totem” is a newer concept that seems to be an odd extrapolation of Jung’s Shadow archetype; a shadow totem represents or embodies something that we fear or are otherwise uneasy with. It’s not a concept I work with myself as I find it a little too much of a pigeonhole, but I agree with the general idea that sometimes we have to face some really difficult things in our paths.

So I meditated some with Poison Oak today to consider our relationship–such as it is. Like thorns and other obstacles, Poison Oak and her kin developed urushiol as a way to avoid being eaten by animals. It does mean, of course, that poison oak is not an especially cuddly plant, and the totem was correspondingly strict about personal space, though pleasant otherwise. She’s actually quite friendly; she just maintains very firm boundaries.

And that’s a very important lesson for me, especially as a woman in a culture where women are still often treated as though our boundaries don’t exist. If we object to catcalling, or sexual harassment, or any of a number of other nonphysical boundary violations, we’re told that we’re “bitchy” or “making too big a deal about it”. If we’re assaulted or raped, there are people ready to question what we did to deserve it–were we drunk, or scantily clad, or walking alone at night, or hanging out with the “wrong people”? In the same way, simply for defending her boundaries with integrity and creating a consequence for violation, Poison Oak is vilified. How much do you hear about this plant for any reason other than “this is what it looks like–DON’T TOUCH IT!”?

This goes beyond women, too. There are so many situations every day where people are expected to yield to those who are more powerful, who have no respect for their needs or integrity or safety. The abuse of power is rampant on all levels of American society and beyond. It’s no wonder, then, that so many put up fierce defenses, even against those who mean them no harm. And it can be easy, if a person doesn’t let us in as far as we want, to vilify them for not giving us what we demand.

Poison Oak also told me to examine my own boundaries. I sometimes feel a lot of guilt for maintaining the boundaries that I do. The older I’ve gotten, the more of an introvert I’ve become, and I’ve sometimes gotten criticism for that. More extroverted people don’t always understand that introverts’ quiet and solitude isn’t about them.

There will always be people who feel entitled to my personal space–strangers who don’t understand that it’s a problem if they suddenly come up to me and start flirting, or those who feel entitled to fill an entire residential block with the loud, bass-heavy thumping from their stereo system. These people tend to complain if someone challenges them, and it can be hard to stay true to my own boundaries when they’re trying to paint ME as the bad guy for standing my ground and insisting on my comfort.

And there’s only so far I should allow others to make comment on my spiritual practices. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to defend myself against people who criticize me for being an American of European descent trying to put together an animistic practice, and from people who are uncomfortable with or even incensed by my work with animal parts in art and spirit. While being aware of what others are saying, and my own power and privilege, is a good practice to cultivate, there is a point past which I need to maintain my own integrity and preserve the roots I have set down to give myself more balance.

However, I also need to be mindful of the negative effects that my own “urushiol” can have; sometimes boundaries can be too tight. I sometimes have to make a real effort to get out and be social, not out of any fear of socialization, but simply because I am so comfortable in my personal space that I simply neglect to come out of it at all. Over time, others feel they simply can’t approach me, and so sometimes I need to demonstrate that yes, I can be sociable!

And in some ways I grew up with a certain level of entitlement that’s been hard to shake even at this point of my adult life. I was raised in a town where people were very prickly to each other, where being bullied taught me that everything is a personal offense, and where people always looked for someone to blame for whatever went wrong, even something as small as a delay in traffic. Poison Oak’s “passive” defense isn’t an open attack, and she doesn’t go out of her way to cause trouble. It’s something to keep in mind as I continue unraveling this unwanted part of my past conditioning.

By the end of the conversation, I saw a good deal of myself in Poison Oak, and vice versa. While I’m sure I’ll be unhappy the next time I end up with an itchy red rash from brushing up against her progeny’s leaves, I won’t blame them at all. Urushiol is only the protection that Poison Oak has developed over time, and it’s really rather effective. If I can’t touch or pick poison oak like I can clover or dandelions, it doesn’t mean the itchy plant is a bad one. It just means I need to respect that plant’s boundaries as much as my own.

No Unsacred Place posts

Here’s a roundup of more posts I’ve done over at No Unsacred Place:

A Few Thoughts on Plant Totems

I Greet the Land with Love

We Do Not Return to Nature. We Are Already There. and Further Thoughts on Nature, Wilderness, and Urban Sustainability, two essays in which I explore what “nature” really is and how we, even in the deepest parts of cities, are still a part of nature.

Souvenir

So in case you missed it, last week I got home from a road trip involving heading down to San Jose for PantheaCon, then heading back up the Pacific coast by way of highways 1 and 101. My partner and I ended up doing some inexpensive (read: free) touristy things. We also spent a good deal of time poking around antique shops and flea markets for inexpensive art supplies and other goodies. I didn’t have a huge budget, but I did find a few really nice things, particularly in the realm of beads.

So last night I made some time to just sit and make jewelry, since I’ve been itching to play with the new beads I got since we got home. The first necklace I made was one that I had been planning in my head as I was collecting beads and findings from here and there, and as it came together its spirit wrapped around me, cuddled up close, and refused to let go. Each bead I put on the wire told a bit more of the story of our trip, and when I was done, I had the perfect souvenir of our adventures together.

See, we started down in San Jose itself, once the convention was over. And when we escaped the urban areas and got into the wilderness, we were greeted by the beauty of redwoods, one of several new experiences for me. The same day I left PantheaCon as it closed was the first day I got to see redwood groves in Muir Woods. Later in the week we drove down the Avenue of the Gods, further north along the coastline once we had reached 1/101. And it was there that we stopped at a little independently-owned gift shop. Most of what they had were either out of my price range ($80 bowls made from redwood burls, totally worth the price for their craft) or not particularly useful to me (yet ANOTHER sweatshirt?) But I found a string of polished beads made from redwood scrap, and three little clusters of redwood needles coated in 24K gold, sitting forlornly on the clearance rack.

So those carried the energy of new experiences–the redwoods, the California coastline, my first coastal storm, and the seemingly endless road trip.

Later that day, we traveled along to Ferndale, a small town a little outside of Eureka. My partner wanted to check out all the restored Victorian homes and business buildings, and was not disappointed. There were gingerbread manses galore, and the downtown district was full to overbrimming with historic locations and 19th century construction that had survived storms and fires and neglect. We visited an artist who had made the town his home for many decades, who opened a studio not to sell his art, but to share it for free, and to teach people his crafts. We took pictures of lovingly cared-for houses and churches. And we explored a little general store of nouveau-vintage items, knickknacks, and an extensive display of period antiques for all to see. At this place I found several strands of glass beads, as well as some dyed freshwater pearls.

A few of these pearls, dyed green-gold, flank the redwood beads. The pearls represent the best of human contributions–creativity, conservation, and art–which were evident not only in Ferndale, but in various communities throughout our trip.

Across the Oregon border, not too far from home, we ended up in Waldport, one of a string of little coastal towns. While my partner chatted up the owner of a local knife and sword shop, I wandered over to a flea market across the street. I poked through various antiques and tchotchkes, and came across a veritable treasure trove of little wood beads of the sort that I use frequently in my jewelry. The seller wanted naught but a song for them, and I knew they’d get used, so they went home with me as well. And as I stepped back out onto the street with my little purchase, looked at the little rows of shops that characterize so many Oregon coast towns along 101, and breathed the salt-tinged air, I knew I was back home.

And these little brown beads–those ground the necklace. They’re not the most flashy ones, but they connect the islands of shiny redwood and pearl together.

And in the same way, home is what makes the moments of exploration and adventure stand out even more. It’s not that home is a bad thing; quite the contrary. My partner and I have created a cozy living situation together, and Portland is a good place to be right now. Home is a safe place to return to when the adventures are through for the time being. And the adventures are all the better when I know I have that anchor if I need it, if I start feeling overwhelmed by all the new things, or tired from driving. The shine and sparkle of new places helps me appreciate home more, and without my good home I couldn’t enjoy travel nearly so often on the occasions it happens.

The necklace I’ve created, then, isn’t just some shiny thing–indeed, I very rarely wear jewelry other than my usual wolf chain. So for me to keep something like this that I would normally release into the wild, as it were, is an occasion to be noted. Right now, as I am easing back into the routines and challenges of everyday life, I am wearing this necklace to remind me of those beautiful adventures and the healing they gave me. I carry with me the redwoods, and the gingerbread, and the crashing waves on bluffs. And I smile, and continue on with my day here at home.

Douglas Fir as a Plant Totem

Note: This is part of the Animist Blog Carnival issue TREES, hosted by naturebum.

Most of the totemic work people do is with animal totems, and admittedly I am biased in favor of them. It’s not that I haven’t done work with others, but I just think to talk about the critters more. That, and the plants tend to be more subtle in their communications. Animals–we’re loud, and impatient, and move around a lot. (Well, most of us. Sea anemones and sloths are on the low end of that curve.) Plants, on the other hand, are more deliberate and patient. And they often whisper. Volume didn’t really have to be much of a thing until there were beings that didn’t send their roots into the great, intertwined network under the surface.

And I’ve found plant totem work to be focused on different priorities than the animals’ ideas. Animal totems seem to want to be dynamic, bringing change and motion and growth. Plant totems, from my experience, tend more toward rooting the self deeper in the now, what you have to work with right this moment, maximizing the use of immediate resources before expending the self to find more. Not that this particularly surprises me; these preferences in focus mirror the very nature of the beings and their totems themselves.

Douglas Fir is one of the most prominent plant totems in my life right now, and as I’ve been working with it I’ve been reminded that I haven’t really written about this part of my spiritual experience. In a way I’ve treated the plant totem work like a long hike in which I ooooh and aaaah at the occasional sighting of an animal, but see the trees and other plants as merely the backdrop. (Which isn’t the case when I’m actually hiking; I take lots of pictures of flora that fascinate me.) I’d like to start changing that and talking more about the plant work I’ve been doing over time. So allow me to introduce you to Douglas Fir.

I am not a native of Oregon. I was a military brat, and did much of my growing up in the Midwest, not arriving in the Pacific Northwest until early 2006. And, beyond that, I am not even a native of this continent; my family primarily emigrated here in the second half of the 1800s, and I was born on an army base in Germany–technically US territory, but not of this continent.

Occasionally this non-native status rankles a bit. I am well aware of the impact that European immigration and invasion of this continent had on the peoples who were here before (and are still here, despite attempts to erase their presence and acknowledgement). And I have heard the complaints from native Oregonians about the influx of people from out of state flooding this area in the past couple of decades as it’s become more popular a place to move (even though right now the job market here is still pretty well tanked).

Yet I am acculturated to this place. I didn’t have a choice in my upbringing, and although there is certainly something to be said for being an ex-pat, it is easiest for me to simply stay in the country where I have citizenship. And I like it here, especially Oregon. The Midwest wasn’t nearly as nice a fit culturally (though the Land liked me a good deal, and I love when I get to go back to visit family as well as places).

This mixed relationship to the place and the people may be part of why one of the first plant totems I connected to out here was Douglas Fir. Douglas Fir is a native species, but the trees’ relationship to the Land here has changed dramatically since the arrival of Europeans. As people began to clear the forests more for agriculture and farming, the opportunistic firs replaced other trees in the succession of forest regrowth. And because the firs grow so quickly, they’re a common seedling chosen for replanting logged areas to maximize profit, making their presence much more pronounced than before.

Both of these factors have homogenized much of Oregon’s forest land to one degree or another. While other native conifers such as Western hemlock or red cedar do still grow here, in many places they’re out-competed by the fir. Even some oak savannahs, highly rare any more in this state, experience firs as an increasingly invasive species.

This, of course, was not solely the doing of Douglas Fir, even with the trees’ competitiveness for resources after forest fires and other nonhuman disasters. The intervention of humans has often resulted in much more dramatic effects on ecosystems. And in the same way, I did not choose the accident of my birth, though I have decisions as to where I live and how I act as an adult, to include attempting to integrate into a different culture (even if I can never completely lose the markings of the culture I was raised and socialized in).

So Douglas Fir has been helping me to not only adjust to living in this place that I have decided to make my long-term home, but also to explore the various ramifications of that decision. There’s a certain level of responsibility that I need to keep in mind as I am here, and what it means that I have consciously made this my home. Who have I affected in this decision? How can I be a part of the community without being obnoxious and even harmful? And, more abstractly, how can I combine my work with social justice with my spiritual path?

These are just some of the things that Douglas Fir and I have worked together on. Fir is more of a presence than an active guide, providing a steady energy to tap into and a quiet reminder of connectivity, but it’s all very grounding to my little animal mind.

And so you have just one example of how my totemic work has extended beyond my fellow critters. I’ll try and talk more about it as time goes on.

(P.S. My friend Paleo has done a bit of writing on more domestic plant totems over here.)