Domestic Tomato as Plant Totem

When I was a kid I couldn’t stand raw tomatoes. I thought they were too acidic and they bit my tongue. My family, on the other hand, loved them, and every summer when they put a garden in there would be ample numbers of tomato plants, mostly beefsteak and cherry. I didn’t really understand the appeal until I was older; my tastebuds had changed, and I had had a chance to try fresh garden tomatoes again. They still weren’t my favorite food ever, but I gained a certain appreciation for a “wolf peach” right off the vine.

In 2006 when I moved to Seattle for a year I planted a couple of lone tomato plants in our back yard, my first attempt at gardening. I had been told they were relatively easy to grow, and the young plants were cheap and readily available. The soil in our yard was hard and somewhat depleted from neglect and too much lawn, and the plants ended up being pretty stubby. But even with my inexperienced care they grew enough to produce a few ripe fruits. By the time I moved to Portland the following year, I wanted to do a better job.

Yellow Tomato Flowers by Glenda Green, http://bit.ly/U1ge6k

Yellow Tomato Flowers by Glenda Green, http://bit.ly/U1ge6k

In the years since, I’ve become a slightly less amateur gardener. I’ve learned how to use organic fertilizer (carefully and not too much or too often), and how to know when the garden needs watering (the tomatoes are usually the first to look wilted). I’ve managed to grow carrots, peas, beans, and the most enthusiastic broccoli I’ve ever seen. But my tomato plants are always my favorite, even if I do still have to plant with starts instead of seeds.

I’ve found that the totem Tomato (say that ten times fast!) is akin to Domestic Dog in nature—it likes humans and the attention they give its green children (as long as it’s not abusive), is pretty open to working with just about anyone, and tends to be very forgiving. When I managed to kill a few starts I tried growing from seeds, Tomato didn’t get angry, but rather assured me that a lot of them don’t make it, especially when taken out of their native soil, and that getting them from seed to healthy start can be a challenge. The effort was appreciated nonetheless and I was encouraged to try again at a point when I had better growing facilities.

Tomato-the-totem has been at the center not only of my gardening, but also my other domestic experiments such as cooking and canning foods. (I’ve been told I make a mean pizza sauce from fresh tomatoes!) Tomatoes themselves can add a lot of flavor to even a simple dish, and complement a variety of recipes and cuisines, making them a good beginner’s ingredient. They’re also a good first subject for canning; their acidity makes them less likely to grow moldy or otherwise go bad (though I tend to add a little extra lemon juice to every jar, just in case). And tomato’s children can be VERY prolific; many of us have had a neighbor foist some tomatoes off on us in the summer when they had too many to eat themselves, and have perhaps returned the favor! In this way, Tomato invites people to try new things with these fruits, being plentiful, tasty, and versatile whether fresh or cooked.

Of course, Tomato’s children benefit from these things. As I mentioned in my post Plants Need Animals, And Other Necessary Connections, the plants that win on an evolutionary level are those whose genetics are passed on the most frequently and successfully. Tomatoes and other domestic crops have persuaded us to spend a significant amount of time propagating their seeds and seedlings. While unlike other animals we may not necessarily spread the exact seeds we eat (except into the sewer or septic tank), our species still makes sure that the plants that feed us continue on genetically. In that respect we’ve got a good mutual relationship going on.

On the other hand, recently we haven’t been treating those plants so well. Some varieties of commercially available crops can’t survive without human intervention, making them completely reliant on us. And in conventional farming, the plants are often coated in pesticides, and their roots burned with chemical fertilizers that destroy the fungi that would normally help them take in more nutrients from the soil. Debate rages on about whether genetically modified tomatoes and other plants are safe to eat and strengthened through modern technology, or whether they’re “Frankenfoods” that may have more risks than benefits.

Tomato Still Life by Vince Mig, http://bit.ly/UsZ5E0

Tomato Still Life by Vince Mig, http://bit.ly/UsZ5E0

Tomato’s feelings on this, from my experience, are that we’re forgetting the importance of our relationship, that we’re taking tomatoes and other crops for granted. It’s fine that we want to eat and that we want to have more tomatoes in the future. But we’ve lost the appreciation for the careful balances that are involved in good farming and good eating. We don’t even necessarily have to change the way we produce food, except perhaps to make the processes more eco-friendly—fewer chemical fertilizers, more crop rotation, more sustainable shipping and packaging. What does need to change is our attitude toward plants only as commodities, where we assume they’ll always be available to us, and that we only use them without appreciation.

Just as we’ve started to see the animals, domestic and wild, as fellow creatures rather than put here for us to do with as we will, Tomato encourages us to also examine our relationships with the plants. Plants are not only valuable as food, or dried herbs for health and magic, or sources of wood and paper. They also indispensable parts of every ecosystem they reside in, and we literally couldn’t exist without them. It’s become somewhat of an environmentalist’s cliché to remind people that without plants (and plant-like cyanobacteria) we wouldn’t have oxygen to breathe, and the image of a protester chained to a tree they’re trying to save has become ho-hum. But Tomato gives us a way to start examining these relationships in a much more personal, immediate manner.

The call of the garden tomato may be a sillier idea than the romanticized howl of the wild wolf—wolves don’t just go “squish” when we step on them, after all. But perhaps it’s because Tomato has grown so close and familiar to us that it feels more comfortable speaking to us in this manner, about sustainability and preservation. We value the wolf and the tomato for very different reasons: the wolf symbolizes the wilderness that we wish to preserve, but the tomato represents the kitchen and the table of domestic serenity and creativity.

I didn’t get to plant a garden this past summer because I was too busy, and I definitely felt the absence of Tomato as a result. Yet Tomato kept the line open anyway—a single skinny little tomato plant, not even strong enough to hold a fruit, grew up from a seed that had fallen into the soil last year. This little plant gave me one more reason to go onto the balcony where my pots are and water the few remaining troopers from the previous season, and created a connection for me to hang onto. In that way Tomato has continued to be persistent and forgiving and ever patient, and I look forward to gardening next year.

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.

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.