I was meditating a bit a few evenings ago on the fights of butterflies.
See, I’d seen an image on Tumblr of two male Monarch butterflies scrapping over territory, and the caption said that they could get quite aggressive with each other. In fact, there’s a good chance many of you out there have seen butterflies engaged in battle, fluttering at each other in midair and even clutching and pushing at times. We’re inclined to see their struggle as “pretty”, and we may even mistake it as two butterflies happily dancing together.
Now think of two male elk battling it out over a patch of territory. We usually focus on the immense power in their bodies as they tussle, the sharp tines of branching antlers and the muscles in straining haunches. In fact, it is their physical strength that is one of the elk’s best-known traits.
Yet who is to say the elk is more fierce than the butterfly just because the insect is smaller and more delicate? We’re biased because of our size. If we happen upon a grizzly bear in the wilderness, we know we’re in immediate danger and we take action to save ourselves; the bear is seen as a dangerous animal. But if we meet a spider in the woods, at most we scream and squash it, even if the actual threat to us is miniscule or nonexistent. For the most part, though, most people don’t avoid the woods just because there are spiders prowling about, and other than phobias we don’t have much reason to fear for our lives.
However, in its own environment, the spider is a formidable predator. Ask a fly or a grasshopper or a beetle what it thinks of spiders, and the feeling would likely be similar to our feelings on lions, tigers, and bears. Ask a ladybug about the risk of raindrops, and it would probably be more concerned about the watery missiles than we are. On the other hand, while a drop from a three story building would be very bad for a human, an ant might get blown about by winds on its way down but would probably survive since it’s light enough to not reach a dangerous velocity.
These are all things that have been becoming more apparent to me over the years as I’ve continued my totemic work. We often miss some very important messages and opinions from some totems because of our human biases. During my meditation I checked in with several animal totems often seen as “gentle” or “beautiful”, to include European Rabbit (of Watership Down fame), Whitetail Deer (Disney’s version of Bambi), and the dragonfly totem Banded pennant. I talked to them about their feelings on being considered “safer” totems to work with, and to a one they disagreed. European Rabbit and Whitetail Deer both wanted me to know how fiercely they protect their young and territories, and how fiercely the males fight, and how both rabbits and deer have been known to injure or even kill their predators in self-defense; Whitetail Deer further reminded me that deer have been known to eat mice and baby birds out of the nest. Banded Pennant didn’t see itself as a “flying jewel”, but as a keenly-honed aerial predator, not at all to be trifled with. And others I spoke to–Monarch Butterfly, Galapagos Tortoise, European hedgehog, and others–all confirmed, too, that while they had their gentle traits, they were far from being helpless or sweet all the time.
If you think about it, all living beings are in a competition for resources and working each day to stay alive. Just because we’ve found some ways to give some humans easier access to these resources doesn’t mean we’re free of the cycles of nature. If anything, it’s crucial for us to remember that every species is, in the end, out for itself, and even symbiotic relationships are not formed purely altruistically. It doesn’t mean we should be selfish and cruel to each other, but it is a reminder that we are learning from beings who are not characters in a Disney movie, nor are they the savage beasts of some recent sensationalistic Discovery Channel “nature” show. They are, in the words of Henry Beston, “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”* And it behooves all of us for us humans to remember that the totems are representatives of their species, to be learned about and learned from on their own terms, not just whatever suits us best.
* Yes, I realize I just used this same quote in my last post. It’s one that’s been appropriate to a lot of the animal totem work I’ve been doing lately.