Oak Moss Lichen as Totem

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

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

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Plant and Fungus Totems Are Important to Animal Totem Work

In every spiritual system there are specialists and there are generalists. I’ve been turning more into a generalist over the years, as I’ve gone from just working with the animal totems to expanding my work throughout the totemic ecosystem. It doesn’t make my work less important to me, but as a fan of systems theory I’m finding that understanding the complex relationships among the various components of a system is just as important as knowing those parts in and of themselves.

And so it is with animal totems. There are plenty of practitioners who prefer to specialize in animal-based spirituality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, one of the most important ways to learn about an animal totem is to observe its physical counterparts’ relationships with the plants and fungi in their environment as well. For omnivores and herbivores the reasons are pretty obvious; plants and fungi are food, and if the food no longer grows, the animals must move on, adapt, or starve. But the plants and fungi affect all animals in other ways, too. The presence or lack of trees, for example, can affect the weather patterns and overall climate of a place. Sometimes the relationship between an animal and a plant is so intricate that the species cannot live without each other. Some populations of sycamore fig rely completely on one species of parasitic wasp for pollination, and numerous other animal species need the fig tree to survive as well. Plants and fungi can present physical obstacles (as in a rabbit ducking into a thicket to escape a fox). If algae overgrow a pond, they can choke out animal life (sometimes literally, as in algae blocking the gills of fish); some algae are also sources of toxins that can harm or kill aquatic life.

These are all important things to note, because they shape the natural history and behavior of animal species and thereby their totems. How an animal develops physically, mentally, and otherwise is due in part to its environment and the plants, fungi, and other animals in that environment. So it is important that if you’re going to get more than a cursory understanding of a particular animal totem, it’s a good idea to get to know the plant and/or fungus totems also associated with them, even just a bit.

The first thing to do, of course, is to observe. You may be fortunate enough to be able to watch an animal totem’s physical counterparts in their natural habitat. Pay attention to how they respond to the plants and fungi around them, and see if any in particular stick out to you. If that’s not an option, you can always fall back on the observations of others, through books, documentaries, websites, and the like. The key is to have a good understanding of these natural relationships.

Just observing and knowing these things may already have given you some insights. However, you can also use guided meditation to get to know the plants and fungi important to the animal totem as well. In your meditation, ask the animal to introduce you to the plant and fungus totems it’s most connected with, and then ask all of them why they rely on each other, what each gets out of it, and what else they might like you to know about their work together. And if you like, you can go back and just visit with the plant/fungus totems on their own, if that’s something you wish to pursue.

Again, you don’t have to abandon your animal totem work in favor of a broader practice. Even if your goal is just to find out more about an animal totem, even brief visits with the connected plant and fungus totems can be incredibly valuable.

The Human Body as a Bioregion

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

Or so we think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Apologies if you’re still feeling itchy.)

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

Free Introduction to Animal Totems Online Workshops Jan 4 & 5

Hey, folks!

I am hosting two FREE sessions of my Introduction to Animal Totemism workshop in January! The workshops will be held on Livestream, where you can participate either via video or chat. Here are the relevant dates and times (the links also have more relevant information):

Friday, January 4, 2013, 7pm PST
Saturday, January 5, 2013, 11am PST

You can sign up for either time slot; if you aren’t sure what time it’ll be where you are, here’s a good time conversion tool. I deliberately am offering two different times in the hopes this will allow some of the folks outside of the US to join in!

Here’s more info about what I’ll be covering:

What’s my totem?

How do I find my totem?

Can any animal be a totem?

These are just a few of the questions people have asked me about animal totemism over the years. In this free workshop, I’ll provide my answers to those and more as I discuss the basics of animal totemism, including their nature, how to find and work with them, how to integrate them into your daily life, challenges and troubleshooting, and much more!

In addition, I’ll be discussing new material I haven’t covered in workshops before, to include some information from my newest book, New Paths to Animal Totemism. There’ll be ample time for questions as well, and you can ask either via livestream or chat. I’ve been practicing my own totemic path since the mid-1990s, and I’ve worked with a wide variety of animal totems over the years. Don’t miss this chance to not only hear me speak on this subject that’s near and dear to my heart, but ask me questions, too!

And, again, I’m offering this workshop free of charge! If you’d like to support my work financially, feel free to check out my books at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/books.html or my ritual tools and other artwork at http://thegreenwolf.etsy.com Thank you!

Masks in Ritual Work

I’ve had a few people ask me specifically about this topic as of late, so for the curious, here you go–a late Solstice present!

Some of you dear readers are already acquainted with the purpose of ritual garments and the like. For those who are not, the short version is that rituals are special occasions. It can be powerful to have a set of clothing that is reserved solely for spiritual practices. Just putting them on signals to your subconscious mind that it’s time to do special things you don’t normally get to. To an extent, it appeals to that part of us that likes to play dress-up with costumes and fancy clothes and the like–it touches on Homo ludens, the part of us that learns and develops through play. (Of course, as grownups we often feel we have to come up with some “serious” reason to dress up in funny clothes any time besides Halloween–though there are those of us who will come up with any reason to don a costume of some sort, hence steampunks and cosplayers and SCAdians and…)

At any rate, most religious traditions have some form of ritual garments that are worn by the officiant(s), and sometimes for the laypeople as well. Even churches are full of congregants in their Sunday best. These clothes and other wearables are also often a form of identifying people of a similar tradition–if you see someone with a kippah you can pretty well bet they’re Jewish, while someone wearing a cross is likely to be Christian of some denomination or another. In paganism, there’s no single set of garb that will denote “that person is pagan!”, though flowing robes, historical clothing, and a variety of symbolic jewelry (far from limited to the pentacle) will be in abundance at many pagan events. (There will also be a cranky minority grumbling about how we all need to dress like normal civilized people, not Harry Potter or our long-lost Viking ancestors.)

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Masks are a particularly specialized form of ritual wear. We most commonly focus on a person’s face when identifying them and communicating with them. (I’ve yet to meet someone who could tell who was approaching by carefully examining their elbows.) A mask covers up the face, and thereby the person’s identity. A person putting on a mask also temporarily puts on a different persona. Even someone trying on a rubber werewolf mask will briefly “get into it” by making claws out of their fingers and going “RAWR!”

We like to imitate other people and other beings. It’s a skill that we’ve evolved over millions of years as social beings. We like things we can relate to; it’s safer than being different. So we developed the tendency to imitate others in our social group (whether that’s goths or Young Republicans). And, by extension, we enjoy imitating other animals. Our ancestors may have done so in part to teach the young how to recognize threatening behavior on the part of other species, but these days we mainly do it–you guessed it–to play.

The masks help with that. Most of us could imitate a Tyrannosaurus Rex without any costumery–just stomp around with your arms pulled up close to your chest and roar! But put a T-Rex mask on, and you may very well find yourself hamming it up in order to make yourself even more convincing as a giant scaly lizard with big, sharp teeth and teeny arms.

We can channel that into ritual purposes as well. Instead of just pretending to be an eagle flying in the sky, flapping our arms while running around an open field for the fun of it, we can instead use that imitation to draw on the energy that is Eagle. By creating a mask that looks like an eagle, we get into that aquiline mindset even more deeply. The same goes for wearing masks for other totems, for deities, for spirits, and so forth. The mask allows us to set aside our own identity temporarily, and take on another.

Some people even feel this invites the spiritual being itself into us, through the process of evocation. In this way, the mask is a channel for that being to enter into the ritualist. When the mask is removed, the connection is severed. That’s part of why the process of removing the mask and other costumery should be done with as much care as the preparation of putting it on.

The construction of the mask adds another layer to consider. Using natural materials such as paper, grasses and other malleable plant material, wood, leather, fur, and other such things can help a person connect to the type of being that provided said materials. For example, when I wear a wolf mask, I am connecting to both the totemic, archetypal Wolf, and the spirit of the wolf who once wore the skin (which, incidentally, is one of the main reasons I work with these sacred remains and skin spirits in my art and spirituality).

The process by which the mask is made also contributes to its purpose. A mask may be mass-manufactured and still be effective, but a handmade mask may be created with the specific intent of embodying a particular being or spirit. When I make wolf masks, for example, I am intentionally working in the energy of both the wolf spirit and Wolf the totem. Creating masks and other ritual wear may be a ceremony in and of itself, depending on the artist, and some work only within a strict spiritual setting.

If you have a mask you would like to work with, here’s one possible way to connect with it:

–First, find a safe space where you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour, and preferably where you can move around unencumbered. Turn off phones and other distractions, and prepare the space for ritual however you see fit.

–Sit with the mask in your lap. Look at it, touch it, and otherwise examine it. What impressions do you get? How does it “feel” to you? What emotions does it evoke in you? Do you get the sense that it has a spirit or personality, or is it connected to some being already in existence such as a deity or totem? If it’s from natural materials, do you get a sense of the living beings they came from?

–If you feel comfortable, put the mask on. Don’t get up yet; just sit and wear the mask. How do you feel now? Do you feel your sense of self shifting at all? Do you feel closer to the mask and the energies it embodies?

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

–Again, if you feel comfortable, get up and move around a bit. Don’t rush it; if you don’t feel like dancing, walking is perfectly acceptable. See how that changes your perception of yourself and the mask. Do you still feel that you’re yourself? Do you feel different? How does it feel to wear the mask?

–Spend as much time wearing the mask as you like. If you feel scared or otherwise uncomfortable, sit back down and carefully take it off, then set it on the ground in front of you. Once you have taken the mask off for any reason, spend a few minutes grounding, without physical contact with it; breathe deeply and slowly, and come back to yourself. (If you feel really disconnected from yourself, recite your name, address, and phone number over and over again.) Reflect on your experiences with the mask, and write them down or otherwise record them if you wish.

This is just an introductory exercise. If you feel comfortable continuing to work with the mask, feel free to try it again, and perhaps elaborate on it. You can even create rituals specifically for the mask; for example, you can do a ritual to celebrate the spirit, totem, or deity it’s connected to, or incorporate it into Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations as appropriate. (If you choose to do so in a group setting, check in with the other group members first, and especially the ritual coordinator(s).)

On the other hand, if the mask makes you uncomfortable, spend some time trying to figure out why. Is there something about the physical mask you dislike? Or did the energy just feel too intense? Was it weird shifting out of your “normal” mindset? Give yourself a couple of days to sit with these feelings and examine them. One bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to get rid of the mask. If you like, try just sitting with it again, and perhaps striking up a conversation. Often the beings who scare us have valuable lessons through that fear, and many times aren’t as threatening as we first felt.

I do recommend sticking to one mask per ritual. It can be exceptionally difficult to shift mindsets mid-stream, as it were. One exception would be a deliberate transformation ritual, for example a rite of passage in which you start off wearing a mask that represents your old self, and then change to one that represents your new self.

Finally, what to do with masks that just don’t fit you in some capacity? I am a firm believer in “waste not, want not”. You can give the mask away to someone for whom it’s better suited. Or if you want to dispel the energy it carries, do a purification ritual to cleanse it; you may even wish to disassemble it and find new uses for the materials. You may also just wish to let it sit on a shelf a while, and perhaps later on you’ll feel better about it.

This, of course, is just the beginning! There are some good resources out there on further mask work; one of my favorite texts is Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, which came out a few years ago but still possesses a wealth of information, ideas, and rituals. And, as always, I’m happy to field questions as well!

How Bobcat Got Married

Now Bobcat, she was always a tough one. She knew her own mind, and she wasn’t about to let anyone change it—not without her permission, anyway. Her range wasn’t the biggest, not like her cousin Lynx’s, but she defended it fiercely. And she knew it well. Nobody stepped onto Bobcat’s doorstep without her knowing about it. Not much escaped her when it came to prey, either. She was sleek, well-fed, and came out of every Winter with a shiny coat and a smile on her lips.

She never hurt for suitors, and why should she? Why, a fine huntress like Bobcat would be an admirable mate, and the beauty of her spotted coat and well-tended whiskers didn’t go unnoticed, either.

paintingdetailBut she chose not a single one of them. Not Coyote, with whom she had hunted on more than one occasion, and who told her he’d never seen such sharp, deadly claws on any creature smaller than a bear. Not Wolf, either, who invited her into her family pack despite Bobcat’s solitary nature. Nor did she choose River Otter, though her playful antics amused the feline huntress on more than one occasion. She even refused the attentions of mighty Grizzly Bear, himself a rather blustery and forceful sort, but good-natured when well-fed.

And yet they continued to visit her, and one day the four of them arrived at the same river where Bobcat preferred to drink, all at once. They soon began to fight for who would gain Bobcat’s love first. It started first as a friendly rivalry, but then Coyote said something quite rude about Bear’s hunting prowess, which then turned into Otter making a snide remark about Coyote’s other talents, and Wolf declaring that the lot of them were all off in their heads if they thought Bobcat would choose such contentious suitors. The commotion they raised in Bobcat’s back yard was so great that they woke the cat from her nap, and she silently stalked to the river to see what the fuss was all about.

When she arrived the four suitors were taking turns tearing into one another, until finally Bobcat had to hiss and growl to get their attention. Coyote flicked his torn ear, Wolf licked at a scratch on her leg, Otter pawed at a bump on her nose, and Bear grumped about the bite that someone had unceremoniously delivered to his short little tail. But they all sat at attention when Bobcat approached.

“Why do you bring this noise, this arguing, into my very home? Whatever did I do to you to deserve this cacophony? Do you think this will attract me? Is this how the fine folk of the forest propose love to their intended?” Her eyes glowed bright amber, and the tips of her whiskers trembled furiously. She sat and groomed herself into calm again.

“Dear Bobcat,” Wolf said, “we only wished to each come to you with our intentions”. “Yes,” continued Coyote, “we had not planned to all be here at once”. Otter added, “We would each want to have our time with you, without the rest here”. “Is there anything we can do to make it up to you, anything at all?” Bear implored.

Then they set about begging and pleading with her to allow them to do something to make up for their trespass that she finally cried out “Enough! All of you, that’s well enough! If you must do something, then bring me the following: the hide of a deer, the feathers of a pheasant, the bones of a buffalo, and the clay from the river that flows at the southernmost edge of our forest.” And then to keep them from fighting about that, she told Wolf to bring her the deer hide, Coyote the pheasant feathers, Bear the bones, and Otter the clay.

bobcat2It took the suitors three days and three nights, but on the fourth morning they each returned with their offerings. They laid them before her so that she could not refuse them without being impolite, and immediately began to quarrel over whose gift was the finest, and which one Bobcat had wanted the most, and to whom she would give her love. To escape their fighting, but so as to not make the arguing worse, she carefully took up the gifts, and silently ran away to the deepest part of her range.

It took three days for the suitors to stop fighting and notice she was gone. It took another three days for them to find her in the tangled underbrush of her range. And on the morning of the seventh day, she came forth from her hiding place.

She had taken the deer hides and created a veil and belt which she wore. She had decorated them with the feathers and the bones, and with the clay she had painted both images of her suitors’ follies, and her own victories. She walked toward them, while they looked upon her power and beauty in awe.

“You fight over me as though I am a prize to be won and owned. You gave me these gifts as recompense for that insult, and then the giving became yet another argument of ownership. So I took the fruits of your conflict, and I created something beautiful.

“And today I am to be married—but not to you. I am marrying myself, with my sharp claws and my solitary home, my laughter and my hunting prowess. For no matter who I am with, I am always with myself, at the beginning and the end, and today I honor that love.”

“Shall we no longer be able to court you?” the suitors asked. “We apologize for fighting so much. We were so busy arguing we forgot about you. Will we never be able to visit you again?”

Bobcat sat in her veil and her belt, and she thought. Then she went up to each of them and touched their noses with hers. “You each wish to marry me for your own reasons. Coyote admires my success in hunting, and Otter loves to make me laugh. Wolf wishes to make me part of her family, and Bear wants to share food with me. These are no small things, but they are not all that I am. If you so desire, you may join me as you will to learn of all that I am. Perhaps I will someday marry one of you, or even all of you. But today, I marry myself, and you are welcome to join in that celebration.”

And so they did celebrate Bobcat’s wedding, all together in the forest. And then each of them, Coyote and Bear, Otter and Wolf, visited Bobcat in her range, and no longer did they fight. Perhaps they were married after all; only the forest knows for sure, and the forest keeps its secrets well.

paws

Baker’s Yeast as Fungus Totem

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

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

Baker's yeast up close and personal (marks are 1 µM apart for scale). Photo by Bob Blaylock, http://bit.ly/ULp0ZO.

Baker’s yeast up close and personal (marks are 1 µM apart for scale). Photo by Bob Blaylock, http://bit.ly/ULp0ZO.

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

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

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

Sliced bread. Photo by Can Atacan, http://bit.ly/YWP5Iw.

Sliced bread. Photo by Can Atacan, http://bit.ly/YWP5Iw.

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

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

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

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