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!

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.

Geological Totems

I think I may be too linear for my own good. See, I had this grand plan of expanding outward in my writing, from animal totems, to plant and fungi totems, to geological totems, and so forth. I’ve been working with all of these to varying degrees in my ongoing work with bioregional totemism in a multilayered form, but I’d planned to be more in-a-row with the writing. As is so often the case with spiritual beings, somebody didn’t like that–specifically, the geological totems. So to make them happy, allow me to introduce them.

First, I need to explain what I mean by geological totems. A geological totem is the presiding spirit of a given specific geological phenomenon. It is not defined solely by a specific type of stone, or a single landslide, but instead is more a conglomerate of forces coming together to create a particular phenomenon, like a canyon or a mountain or watershed. And they overlap quite a bit, too, to the point that, like sediments turning into sandstone, their identities can merge into one even as the individual grains are still perceptible.

Columbia River Gorge near Hood River, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

The Columbia River Gorge is a very good example. The oldest rocks are from volcanic activity 40-20 million years ago. The high walls of the Gorge are made of dozens of layers of basalt, which formed 15-10 millions of years ago from incredibly large lava flows. Volcanoes around what is now the border of Idaho and Oregon produced so much lava that eventually the basalt was over a mile thick in places. Even more volcanoes erupted to create the Cascade mountain range 2-1 million years ago; the Columbia River flows through these mountains. And as if all that volcanic activity weren’t enough, 16,000 – 14,000 years ago all that volcanic matter was carved and sliced and ground into the Gorge we know today–by massive flood of water. The enormous Glacial Lake Missoula, created by meltwater from glaciers at the time, would periodically flood, sending walls of water up to several hundred feet high down the course of the Columbia, deepening and widening its bed.

Each outpouring, whether from volcano or lake, added its spirit to the Gorge; the oldest volcanic matter from before the basalt floods, and the rocks carried from Glacial Lake Missoula, are equally a part of the totemic Gorge. When did the Gorge proper begin, though? Was it the same totem before the Missoula floods, when the land was more gently rolling and the river traveled a narrower path? Not only are geological totems layered in terms of composition but, it would appear, in time as well.

And each section of the Gorge has its own smaller place spirit as well. Some of them have territories that are very starkly defined; you can tell when you get from one part to another as the energy of the place changes–I’ve noticed, for example, a distinct shift as soon as the Gorge comes out of the Cascades on the eastern side. Other times the spirits flow together more gradually. The spirit of the Gorge near Multnomah Falls is different from that at the Bonneville Dam, but the shift between them happens over several miles. All of them come together, though to be the Gorge, and the Columbia River itself also maintains its unique identity even as it, too, becomes a part of the overall totem of the Gorge.

This brings up the idea that totemic identities are, to an extent, arbitrary. We can’t pinpoint when one species of animal evolves into another. At some point we say that Group A of a species has differentiated itself enough from Group B to be a new species, but you can’t look at a parent and young and say “this one is of Group A and this one of Group B”. What makes some geological totems unique is that they can sometimes have very marked beginnings and/or endings.

For our purposes, we can delineate a geological totem in part based on its current form and how it got to be that way. Some, like the Gorge, have a relatively quick birth (2,000 years of flooding is next to nothing in geological time);. The totem of that area was a very different being when the land was more sloping and gradual with a smaller river running through a narrow v-shaped canyon; it died (or, perhaps, was reborn?) when the floods carved out the Gorge itself and changed the landscape in other drastic ways. Others shift incredibly gradually, like the slow movement of tectonic plates and the rearranging of continents. There are places in the Midwest where I grew up that, other than some farming and mining by humans, have remained the same for millions of years. The totems of these places are ancient, with a long continuum of memory.

Perhaps trauma and sudden change mark the beginning and end of the “life” of a geological totem. Whether the totem itself dies and is replaced by another, or simply changes as drastically as its physical features, is unclear. I am working primarily with meditations and journeys to various places, to include visiting the memories of totems past in a sort of spiritual time-travel. I have not yet witnessed a place before and after such a great change, and most of these changes (mountain uplift, erosion, etc.) would take longer than my lifetime to complete. The best bet would be to visit a volcano that exploded itself into oblivion and then was replaced by a new volcano, but that would require a lot of luck and great timing (and also not being around when the explosion itself occurred!) I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has experienced such a thing.

To a lesser degree, humans do change a place. We have learned to destroy mountains and fill in rivers and wetlands, but these feel more like slow suffocations than rebirths. It’s like the workings of our hands and machines just aren’t enough to equal the cataclysmic rebirths of entire places. Again, visiting a place before and after a nuclear bombing might show a marked change, but if all goes well we’ll never have that happen again.

Geological totems also are defined more by what has formed them than by supposed inherent qualities of their materials. Those who work with crystals and stones on spiritual and magical bases may attribute certain qualities to a given mineral–healing for amethyst, protection for tiger’s eye, etc. But stones from a particular place are to the geological totem of that place what individual animals are to the totem of that species. Animals are mostly defined, roughly speaking, by a common set of physical and behavioral traits common across the entire species (even if it’s spread across several different locations. But stones and their totems work differently. In my experience, stones, crystals, and the like are not so much defined just by being “amethyst” or “granite”, as they are by the specific set of phenomena that created them, and the overarching totems of those phenomena and their aftermath.

Coastal basalt formation near Waldport, OR. Photo by Lupa, 2012.

While basalt created in Hungary can have some similar qualities to that created in Oregon, and their origins in terrestrial basalt floods may give them a kinship different from basalt from other sources, each carries the spirit of the flood that created them, as well as the places they settled. I have on my place altar two pieces of basalt, one from Devil’s Rest just west of Multnomah Falls in the Gorge, and one from the Oregon coast near Waldport, OR. These are from the same sets of basalt floods that created much of Oregon’s bedrock, but they likely came from two different flows, and were sited over 100 miles apart. In the millions of years since they cooled from their lava state, they’ve become part of very different landscapes with their own individual stories, and have seen quite a bit. There’s a bit of resonance because they had similar sources and chemical compositions, but they are very different stones, and I would not say they had identical qualities.

So I don’t work with the totem of Basalt, though there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, I work with the totem of the Gorge, the lava flows and waters that created it, and the ongoing human influences of dams and roads and such. Every piece of natural history that comes out of a place carries the spirit of the place, but it is the geological totems that remember the most. The plants and animals may come and go as extinctions and evolutions occur, as climate changes and drives some away while attracting others. They are the bedrock on which a bioregion is formed, and the soil that feeds its fauna and flora; they are the courses of waterways as well (I’ll give water totems their own post soon, too). It’s a shame that stones and others are usually seen as only spell components and materials for tools, for the totems of the phenomena that created them are some of the oldest, most powerful, and most well-storied. They may not be truly permanent; every mountain erodes, streams dry up, and lava buries the land below it. But if you really want to get to know the bioregion you’re a part of, to include on a spiritual level, start talking to the geological totems, of floods and flows, scrapes and sediments.

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.

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”.