How To Introduce Yourself to a New Land

2012 has been a year of travel for me, both for business and pleasure; nothing out of the country, and mostly staying along the West Coast. But I’ve been all the way through California on I-5 and 101, in new portions of Oregon I haven’t visited before, and even to the Texas thornbush country.

Each of these places has its own distinct ecosystem, and resident land spirits/Genius Locii. And crossing their boundaries can be a more complicated experience than a simple road trip.

There are places I have gone into that have welcomed me immediately. The portion of the Columbia River Gorge around Multnomah and Wahkeena Falls took me in as soon as I set foot there, and I’ve had that repeated all throughout the Gorge. On the other hand, the deserts of Texas were a tough sell. Their spirits matched the prickly, thorny, dry landscape–my greeting when I first set foot on the dirt was a sharp, prickly burr in my shoe, and the land felt similarly offputting.

I grew to be more comfortable there, though, even though it was a short visit. And I’ve managed to integrate myself into other places even in brief periods of time. I spoke earlier in the year, over at No Unsacred Place, about the philosophy of my approach to this sort of Land work. Here, I want to get more into the practical side of it.

Just as a note, this may not be suitable for beginning practitioners. It involves opening yourself up to new energies and spirits, so this is recommended for those who feel confident in their ability to defend themselves and maintain their energetic integrity. In all my years of connecting to wild places I’ve not had a horribly bad experience that left me out of balance. The worst was living in Seattle for a year, and that was more just a matter of it being too big a city for my tastes–I still appreciate a visit now and then. Still, having the ability to not let a place “eat” you, as it were, is a must for this activity.

The first step, not surprisingly, is to be open to the Land. The manner in which we approach the spirits of a place can have a very strong influence on how we’re received. While I understand that there are people who find certain places to be very hostile, I do have to wonder how many times it’s because we expect, on some level, for it to be hostile in the first place. On certain levels, yes, a place can kill you. If you go into a deep wilderness unprepared, you may end up dead. And I don’t think that having a good relationship with the land spirits will automatically get you an easy out in an emergency; they may just be sadder if you die.

But before you even get out of the car or step off the plane or train, meditate about your biases about the place you’re going. Do you have any negative attitudes about it, either because of the natural ecosystem or the human society? If you just get “a bad feeling”, can you pinpoint why? Even if you do get that feeling, leave yourself open anyway (if a little more cautiously).

When you have the opportunity, spend some time connecting to the place. This is best done on foot rather than in a vehicle, and with enough time that you can go at your own pace. I’ve gone for hikes in new places, sat at the edge of the ocean, and even gone for a run through a farm-lined suburb. The important thing is to be able to make that physical connection and to not be too concerned about time limitations. Here’s the basic process I go through.

–First, go out into the place at a point where it’s relatively safe on a physical level, taking your outdoor skills into account. Know where you’ll be going and how to get back. If you want to take someone with you, make sure they know why you’re going out.

–Next, start your walk/hike/etc.–your introductory journey. As you go, open yourself spiritually to the place. Take in the ambient energy of the place, and start to shift your energy to match. This may not be an easy or quick process; it can take time to “shapeshift” in this manner, and you may feel some unease, especially if it’s a very unfamiliar territory. Give yourself time and patience to adjust. If at any point you feel too uncomfortable to continue, simply shift yourself back to your baseline state; if you’re having difficulty with that, turn back and try again another time.

–Once you feel your energy has shifted to match the place, start seeing if any of the local spirits seem interested in you. You may just be seen as a temporary inconvenience, or you may be a curiosity. I’ve rarely found anything that was openly hostile, especially after blending myself into the landscape. Interact as you both/all choose.

–If you wish to approach a particular spirit, make sure it notices you, then introduce yourself politely. Proceed (or not) based on its response.

–You may wish to let the Land itself, the Genius Locii of the place, know that you are there, and how long you will be there. You may also wish to discuss protocol for the next time you come through. Some places may not care one way or the other; others may wish for a small offering, or at least a heads-up upon your arrival. If a place is hostile toward you, it doesn’t mean you can never, ever, ever come back. It just may mean that you need to shield more heavily when you’re there, or try more diplomacy.

–If the Land accepts you, it may make an offering of a small gift to you, such as a small stone or stick. Assuming you’re in a place where it’s legal to take such things (many state and federal parks and other lands prohibit it), graciously accept the gift, and give it an honored place in your home. You can even create a place altar specifically for these connecting items.

–You may also wish to leave an offering to the Land. My preference is a small lock of hair, as it’s biodegradable and it infuses my energy into the place. Water also works as a gift, especially in deserts and other dry places. Make sure you don’t leave anything that could be toxic to the environment such as metals or nonbiodegradable chemicals. I also don’t recommend leaving food; many of the things we eat aren’t good for wildlife (such as giving bread to ducks and other birds) and it can encourage wildlife to associate humans with food, which almost always goes badly for the wildlife.

These are just some basic steps to connecting with a new place. Details for each place may arise as you spend more time in them. And don’t be surprised if your relationship with a place changes over time, especially if the place itself is changed. The second patch of woods I played in as a child used to be a happy, welcoming place. After it was mostly bulldozed for yet another new sprawling subdivision, the remains of it now push me away every time I visit, not wanting me to get hurt the way it did.

Keep in mind, too, that this is just the introduction. Anywhere you go, the Land is full of many beings, physical and spiritual. Some of them you may grow fond of; others you may learn to avoid. But always, always go in with respect and appreciation; these things will serve you well in your explorations.

And finally, just a quick bread-and-butter note–if you liked this post, I cover more ways to connect to the land, and especially the animal totems thereof, in the Bioregional Totemism chapter in my newest book, New Paths to Animal Totems, which just came out from Llewellyn Publications. I have copies on hand if you want one signed directly from me–details at the link above.

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.

Skin Spirits and Sacred Remains on Samhain

I haven’t celebrated the cross-quarters (Samhain, Beltane, etc.) in years, and I generally don’t do purely celebratory ritual unless I’m invited to it (such as Pagan Pride Day rites and so forth). Additionally, I’m two days out from vending at OryCon this weekend, and since I spent a large portion of October too sick to work (thank you, food poisoning), I’m working hard to create enough new things to make my booth a place of all sorts of furry and feathered and beaded creations to take home. That means today was predominantly a “hide in the art studio and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist” day.

Except I can’t forget the rest of the world exists. My apartment is festooned with bits and pieces of wood, stone, and other organic findings from hikes and explorations, reminders of where I’ve been and where I’ll visit again. I almost always have documentaries about nature, human history, modern technological advancements, and the like going on while I work. Even when I’m holed up in my apartment for days, I never forget that there’s so much more outside those walls.

Gray wolf mask by Lupa, 2012

And then there are the dead critters. One of the perks of my art is that I get to work with the remains of animals from all around the world. So I have these constant reminders of the diverse ecosystems that have developed over thousands of years. I’ll probably never get to pet a spotted hyena or a Geoffrey’s cat in the flesh, but I can at least touch and examine bits of their fur as I stitch them.

I am also constantly reminded that these were once living beings who met their deaths largely at human hands, one way or another. These deaths often are terrifying, even when they’re relatively quick. Yes, death is a constant threat in the wild, and many of the wild animals whose remains I work with might otherwise have had a much worse death than a quick bullet–starvation, disease, infected injuries, or death in the jaws of a predator. But that does not remove our responsibility to make the deaths we cause be as humane as possible.

No animal enjoys dying, and this reality must be remembered. Even the gentlest death is still a living being suddenly being permanently deprived of its ability to interact with this world. The afterlife is not a fact, only a speculation, and it is small comfort to say “perhaps its spirit still roams”, when the only life we know for sure exists has come to a close. Even as I work with the skin spirits in my art and practice, I know that there’s a good chance that these, and all other spirits, are simply emanations of the human imagination, and that this life is all we get. Even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact remains that a living being has lost its vehicle for interacting with this wild, amazing world we live in. This is a loss of which we can be absolutely sure, and it is no small thing.

This–this is the foundation of my work with animal parts. My work with the spirits for the past fifteen years, developed through trial and error and experience, self- and spirit-taught–this is the heart of my artwork. The aesthetics and the flow are important, and yes, the ability to pay my bills is convenient. But from the time I picked up my first fox faces and deerskin scraps so many years ago, the spirits I discovered in them, and the stories of their lives and their deaths, have been the reason I do this work.

Fox tooth necklace, Lupa 2012

Every piece of art I make with fur and bone, leather and feather, is a piece of funerary art. Even the simplest claw necklace or tail is a testament to the animals who once wore the remains, every bit as much as an elaborate bone ritual knife or whole-hide totem dance costume. I think sometimes I take for granted that people realize that. And yet it’s more often that people recognize it in the bigger, more obviously “sacred” ritual tools, and I have to remind them that every little bit, even the snippets and scraps I use as pillow stuffing, is just as sacred and special.

Skin spirits and sacred remains: the crafted archetypal memory, and the physical memorial. These are inextricably tangled together in my work and my practice. Hence the prayers and rituals that go along with the stitching and the painting. For me, it would be unthinkable to treat these remains as mere “materials” to be used. These beings once lived, and those lives deserve to be honored and celebrated through my art and ritual.

Working almost every day with the sacred remains, from initial preparation to the process of art creation and into the purification ritual, I appreciate not only the lives that these animals had, but also the preciousness of my own life. As I grow older I become more acutely aware of my own mortality, and how fortunate I am to have made it–today being my birthday–to thirty-four years of age. The skin spirits sit with me as I work on their remains, and they whisper in my ear: “Remember, thou art mortal!”

As I sit here on the cusp of Samhain Day*, once I finish my break and return to my work, I will continue with the ongoing, daily rites and practices that honor these beloved dead. And these rituals aren’t just to honor the dead, but to remind me to protect the living. My partner tells me his favorite part of my work is the alchemy of taking the remains of the dead and turning them into money I can give to protect the living and their habitats. It is not only my own mortality I have to remember, but that of every other living being sharing this planet with me.

Mastodont skeleton at Oregon Zoo; photo by Lupa, 2012

Therefore, please do not mistake the work with skin spirits and sacred remains as one focused merely on death. Death is only the most obvious element of this work. Through my art and spiritual practice I have gained a greater appreciation of the long parade of beings that have come and gone on this blue-green planet, and for the urgent need we have to preserve the balance that our species has endangered so greatly.

The spirits remind me of my mortality, but they also remind me I am still very much alive. Perhaps the greatest honor I can do these beloved dead is to make the most of this life, not just as an isolated individual, but as a part of the great, tangled, interconnected web of life, death, and rebirth that we all have had our time in.

*A lot of people celebrate Samhain on Oct. 31 because of Halloween. However, Oct. 31 is Samhain eve, and November 1 is Samhain day. Yes, that makes me a Samhain baby. Also, I know some folks celebrate it the full moon before/right after Nov. 1 to be *really* authentic about it; I’m going with the more popular May 1 Beltane/Nov. 1 Samhain configuration 🙂

“Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!

It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.

However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.

What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.

Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.

I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.

I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.

But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).

Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)

Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.

Black Morel as Fungus Totem

Pity the poor mushroom. Whether in spirit or in salads, this soft, squishy living being often gets lumped in with “plants”–at least if it’s edible or pretty. After all, a lot of people don’t want to think that the tasty portabella is of the same kingdom as ringworm (even if they’re only very distant relations).

Yet it is very important to remember that fungi are their own beings, without chlorophyll or flowers, and transmuting the nutrients of the soil in their own way. While they share some characteristics with plants, they are in fact more closely related to animals, believe it or not.

Still, for purposes of my work, I’ve been expanding my awareness of my bioregion not just to the plants, but to these other relatively quiet beings that attach themselves to a spot and stay there (generally) for life. They’re oddly compelling, with their almost alien appearances, and their ability to spring up quickly, sometimes literally overnight. I’ve seen colorful shelves on nurse trees in the forest, and carefully picked my way around little brown “umbrellas” on the dew-covered lawn early in the morning. In my home, too, they’ve made their presence known, whether in baking yeast or in the black mold that plagues many older Pacific Northwest buildings.

One fungus in particular made a recent appearance, not just in the flesh as it were, but on a totemic level. Every week I clean a set of buildings owned by my rental company in exchange for a rent reduction. In the back of one of the buildings is a strip of mulch between a sidewalk and a fenceline; no one really does much there other than go out to smoke, and it’s too far away from the landscaping to ever get any real care (to include chemicals). Several weeks ago, when Portland was still having its wonderfully rainy spring, I happened upon several rather wrinkly, golden-brown mushrooms in the mulch. A few had already been stepped on and the ground around them was littered with cigarette butts, so I was reasonably sure no one was particularly concerned about them (never mind actually knowing what they were).

I, on the other hand, was incredibly excited. After triple-checking their identity, I went back and collected the mature mushrooms, and a few weeks later gathered a smaller bunch before the rest were trampled. I ended up with about two pounds in total by the time all was said and done, a very good deal given that these can fetch a pretty high price!

See, morels are notoriously difficult to cultivate. You can spread spores on a log like other mushrooms, but this particular species is quite finicky compared to others. The wild spawning sites of morels are very closely guarded by those who know where to find them, and even then not every spot will have morels every year. Hence the high price these command at markets.

So it was no small thing that I managed to procure so many of these mushrooms at no cost other than my research and effort. In the process of carefully cleaning and preserving the morels, I worked with the totem Black Morel. Not surprisingly, this totem commended me on taking the rare opportunity I stumbled upon. Like the mushrooms themselves, I had a small window to act quickly, I made the most of it, and was rewarded for my efforts. I learned more for the future, too, both for that particular location and research for future morel hunts.

And this is a pattern that has resonated in other areas of my life. Part of what has helped me be successfully self-employed has been the ability to see a good opportunity when it presents itself, and being willing to go out and search for even more if need be. I’ve taken chances in relationships as well, and while I’ve had my fair share of upsets, I’ve generally come out ahead, with a long history of wonderful partners and lovers.

I’ve also learned caution. Just as a morel won’t come up if the ground is too dry, or conditions are otherwise unfavorable, I’ve also learned when to wait, and when to cut my losses. Not every time is the best to act, and timing choices right—whether in business, love, or culinary activities—is crucial to success. Caution in information is also a must-have. While morels are one of the easier mushrooms to positively identify, there are a few poisonous look-alikes, and even morels can be toxic if incorrectly prepared.

These are the places where Black Morel and I connected, and while we’ve only had a little time to work together since we first formally met, the combination of knowing when to take action and when to wait has been something we both value deeply. Black Morel has already helped me to be more resourceful in my everyday life, and has helped me hone my awareness of the opportunities around me. Not surprisingly, I’ve even had a few unexpected windfalls and offers come my way in the past several weeks.

In return, Black Morel has simply asked me to treat hir children well when I pick them, to leave some to spore for the next season, and to always prepare them with care and reverence. S/he seems to enjoy watching me and helping me with the ongoing balance of “act and wait”. As they say, I believe this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Some Observations on Plant Totems vs. Animal Totems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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