Category Archives: Animal Totems

Start With the Animals and the World Will Appear

Last weekend I presented my Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up workshop at FaerieWorlds. It’s one of my favorite topics, because I’m helping workshop participants connect with their bioregion through the animal, plant, fungus and other totems there. It’s also frustrating as there’s so much material to cover and we’re limited to 90 minutes, plus that particular crowd is especially enthusiastic.

But for the time I have I’m able to watch how other people get their roots into the ground and interact with the nonhuman world around them. Oftentimes it’s the first chance any of us have during a busy festival weekend to stop and notice our surroundings in detail. I’m there as the workshop leader, but I’m always humbled and delighted by the many ways in which the people who join me work–and play–toward that goal of connection.

What I’ve found over the years, both in teaching this particular workshop and others, is that pagans and other spiritual folks most often ally themselves with animals. It’s not surprising; we ourselves are the last remaining species of human ape, and it is easier for us to empathize with our own kingdom, particularly the vertebrate phylum, and especially the classes Mammalia (mammals) and Aves (birds). So we most often allow the animals into our circles and shrines first, and hear their voices over the others.

What I then ask of my participants (and readers) is to go beyond that initial connection. Animal totems do not exist in some void, floating over our heads like helium balloons. Rather they inhabit ecosystems that parallel our own (whether you see these as literal spirit realms, or metaphorical structures.) To travel into these spaces is to brush against the totems of plants and fungi in one’s path, and to tread across the realm of those of soil and stone, and breathe in those of the air. And as here, they all need each other in intricate webs of connection and mutual reliance, though we often typify that as competition.

If you’re at all familiar with my work, you’ll know that I abhor totem dictionaries as anything other than “this is this author’s personal experience with these beings, and your mileage may vary.” When all you do is read the entry in a dictionary and say “Well, that must be what this totem means and what I should learn from it, not only are you being disrespectful to a complex being, but you are also cutting yourself off from a wealth of knowledge and connection, as well as the opportunity to learn what you can give back to that totem. Moreover, you are denying yourself the possibility of working with other totems (animal and otherwise) associated with it and thereby deepening your practice.

A good example is Brown Bear. In more remote areas of the Pacific Northwest, brown bears rely on the salmon runs up the rivers each year for a large portion of the calories they need to get fat enough for hibernation. But the forests also need the salmon, for the bears often eat only the best parts and discard the rest among the trees to decay. This provides the forest with sea-sourced nitrogen and other nutrients that it otherwise wouldn’t have access to. There’s much to be learned just from this one seasonal cycle: brown bears feeding to prepare for winter, salmon swimming to spawn the next generation, river carrying fish to and fro, spruce and fir and cedar taking in the nutrients the salmon gathered from smaller fish in the wide open ocean for years, fungi in the soil breaking the rotting carcasses down so trees may more easily feed, insects and bacteria and other tiny beings feasting as well, both on the salmon remains and the bear dung.

What’s to be learned from that? Well, you could just go with the common totem dictionary keywords associated with Bear, like “strength” and “healing” and try to shoehorn these cycles into that shorthand. Or you could meditate upon the cycles yourself and see what observations you make, and what the relevant totems have to say. For example, Brown Bear and I have had conversations about the gratitude owed to salmon for the vital nutrients they provide, and the fragility of river ecosystems in an age of pollution and dams. We’ve talked about the desperation of bad salmon years, and how in those years every single calorie is needed, and so the trees may go hungry. These are conversations that cannot be pigeonholed into a few keywords.

If there are totems or other nature spirits in your life, have you ever tried asking them who they are most reliant on in their ecosystems? Have you asked them to introduce you to others? How much do you really know about both the physical and spiritual ecosystems they inhabit? It’s less about the individual totems, and more about their relationships and connections, and what physical behaviors and natural history are embodied in their archetypal selves. In the face of that, simple “meanings” seem trite, stereotyped, and limiting.

And it’s an excellent way to make your path both broader and deeper. I have been practicing a neopagan version of totemism for over two decades now, and in that time I have worked with hundreds of totems, from brief encounters to deep, many years-long spiritual relationships. Through them I have been inspired to understand my physical bioregion more deeply, and to visit others that I may delve into their depths. Moreover, I have been compelled to find more ways to give back to the totems and their kin, a necessary reciprocity at a time when even nature based spirituality is all too often human-centered and based on what we can gain. Most importantly, it has gotten me past an animal-centered path, and opened me up to the vibrant variety of beings that have evolved alongside us for millions of years, and the geological, hydrological and other natural phenomena that we all rely on. I’m looking forward to many more years of this practice.

If you’d care to join me and you do not yet have a preferred method of working with these beings, may I recommend trying guided meditation? It’s less intense than journeying, but I’ve used it successfully for many years to visit the totemic ecosystem. You can use the version I have at this old blog post of mine; you don’t always have to go in with a particular totem in mind, and sometimes it’s valuable just to explore this place and see who shows up. But it’s also a good place for totems you already work with to introduce you to others, and show you some of the natural cycles they engage in. You’re welcome to start with an animal or other totem you’re already comfortable with as your initial guide, but be willing to listen to others, even those you may not have initially considered like totems of slime molds or liverworts or archaea.

In addition to that, I strongly suggest studying up on your local bioregion, from the geology to biology to climate and more, all the way from the soil to the sky. Rua Lupa has created a wonderful bioregional quiz on her Ehoah site if you want to get an idea of some of the things you should be trying to find out more about. Nature spirituality needs to be grounded in physical nature itself, and there’s no better way to understand the above than by familiarizing yourself with the below.

Finally, be on the lookout for ways you can give back to the totems and their physical counterparts. Too often we make our nature spirituality about us, and to my mind one of the signs of an advanced practitioner is a deep desire for reciprocity. If you aren’t sure, ask the totems themselves, as their biggest priority is caring for their kin. You also can’t go wrong with improving the habitat around your area by removing litter and pollutants, planting native species, and educating others on the need for health, integral ecosystems.

And feel free to let me know how your work goes; I’m always excited when people start finding their own paths deeper into the totemic ecosystem!

If you liked this post, consider buying a copy of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up. It includes extensive exercises and supporting material for doing the sort of work that I talk about here. And you’ll make this self-employed author very happy 🙂

Why We Need the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

It’s festival season again, which means it’s time for one of my favorite pastimes: counting the number of illegal bird feathers I see on people’s hats, jewelry, and rear-view mirrors. Well, okay, to be fair there are plenty of other things I’d rather be doing, but being a naturalist my eye is automatically drawn to the ephemera of the wild. The feathers people tend to pick up most often are pretty easy to identify–usually the wing or tail feathers of assorted raptors and corvids, or more colorful songbird plumage. (I very rarely see the more drab garb of your average Little Brown Job.)

If the owner of said hat/jewelry/vehicle is nearby, I’ll usually follow up my observation  by surreptitiously mentioning to them that technically they’re not supposed to have that feather. Responses are usually along the lines of “Wow, I had NO IDEA! Let me take care of that!” with the occasional variant “Well, too bad–I found it and it’s mine, and no one can take it away from me because of religious reasons/finders keepers/etc.”

There’s not a lot I can do about the latter group of folks, but I always hope I’ve made a difference to the former. On the grand scale of wildlife violations, a molted blue jay feather is pretty far down anyone’s list of priorities, and it’s not highly likely that fish and wildlife officials are just going to be bumming around your average pagan or hippie festival. But there’s always that chance that someone is in the wrong place and wrong time with the wrong feather, and not knowing the law isn’t a good defense if an official decides to make an issue of it.

You Don’t Know What It’s Like, Breaking the Law

Law? Yes, that happens to be the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). The text of the law prohibits, within the United States, the “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

What’s a migratory bird? It includes almost every wild bird in the United States, from raptors and corvids to songbirds and waterfowl. About the only birds not protected are non-native species like pigeons (rock doves) and European starlings. There are hunting seasons on a few species, such as certain ducks and geese, and American crows. However, their remains are still strictly regulated; only the hunter who killed the birds (legally!), or someone that they give them directly to, may possess them, and they can’t be bought or sold.

What this all boils down to is that unless you have a scientific permit, you cannot legally possess the remains of any migratory bird, even naturally molted feathers. A common misconception is that Native Americans (federally enrolled or not) are exempt, but this isn’t the case. The only exception there is to a different law, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, and even then enrolled tribal members must be on a waiting list to get feathers and other remains from the National Eagle Repository.

The Birth of the MBTA

If you were to walk down the street in any American city in the late 1800s to early 1900s you would likely see an abundance of birds, dozens of species within just a few hundred yards of each other. The catch? They’d all be dead, resting on fancy women’s hats as individual feathers, wings, or even entire bird skins. From common songbirds like robins and cardinals to more remote species like sage grouse and goshawks, all would be on display for the sake of fashion.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with feathers as adornments. But at the time there was no regulation of how many feathers (or birds) could be taken in a season, which meant commercial hunters could kill millions of birds a year with no limits. This is the time period in which we lost the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, among other now-extinct species. And we almost lost many others along the way.

Probably the best example of the excesses of the time was the great egret. Egrets develop a particular sort of fine plume during breeding season, and maintain them while still nesting. (You can see a particularly lovely example on the cover of Faith No More’s album, Angel Dust.) By the time the birds naturally molt these feathers they’ve gotten ragged and dirty from months of nesting and other wear and tear, so they weren’t sufficient for the hat trade. Plume hunters therefore would go into the wetlands and kill one or both adult egrets, often while they were still incubating eggs or caring for young. For the sake of a few feathers, both parents and up to four young could die. Egret numbers plummeted.

Enter the MBTA

The early 1900s saw the passage of the first laws to protect wildlife and trade in their remains. The Lacey Act of 1900 made it a federal offense to transport illegally acquired or possessed species over state or national lines, but it was sometimes difficult to enforce. The Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 set hunting seasons for birds, to include prohibiting hunting in the spring during nesting season, but it was found to be unconstitutional.

The MBTA improved on what the Weeks-McLean Act was trying to accomplish. It laid out firmer and more widespread restrictions on the killing and possession of migratory bird species. The Act was based on treaties the U.S. made first with Great Britain (representing Canada), and then later Mexico, Japan and the then-Soviet Union. Its goal was to protect all species of wild native bird that migrated between the U.S. and any of those countries.

The feathered hat trade had slowed down significantly with the rise of World War I; the fancy excesses of the Victorian and Edwardian eras were replaced by more sober practicality as participating countries had to tighten their belts to pay for the materials of war. The millinery industry, market hunters and others dependent on the feather trade were already hurting financially, and the MBTA was a final nail in the coffin.

But the trade-off was worth it for the birds. The great egret and many other species rebounded to healthier population levels. Today songbirds are a common sight even in urban areas, and raptors glide over the landscape (helped along by the ban on DDT in the 1970s). Waterfowl are recovered enough to allow hunting seasons, though these are carefully regulated.

Sadly, the MBTA came too late for some species. The ivory-billed woodpecker may have lasted longer than the Carolina parakeet, but low numbers coupled with continuing habitat destruction led to the almost-certain demise of this bird. The story is the same for Bachman’s warbler, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse and the dusky seaside sparrow, as well as many Hawaiian native birds whose MBTA protection came only with Hawaii’s statehood in 1959.

Migratory Birds and the MBTA Today

Despite the successes of the MBTA, there are still good reasons for it to remains on the books in the 21st century. One third of North America’s migratory bird species are at serious risk of extinction. Habitat destruction, climate change and pollution events like oil spills have devastated both bird populations and their nesting and wintering sites. Predation by domestic and feral cats accounts for the deaths of  hundreds of millions of wild birds every year. Our birds aren’t out of the woods yet.

Still, some people question the strictness of the law, particularly in cases of building infrastructure for alternative energy and other human endeavors. Some of the questions I’ve heard everyone from taxidermists to festival attendees as are: Why should someone face fines and possible incarceration for picking up a crow feather? Why can’t there be some limited season on non-game birds, especially those that are common like gulls? And why on earth are Canada geese, which are considered pests in many areas, still protected?

I know it’s frustrating. There are plenty of times when I’ve had to pass by beautiful molted feathers on the ground, no matter how lovely they might be in my art or personal collection. (And those human-acclimated Canada geese can be MEAN!)

But ultimately, I’m on the side of the MBTA and the scientists who are in support of it. For one thing, it’s next to impossible to tell the difference between a naturally molted feather and one that was stripped from a poached carcass, so lifting the ban on found feathers would almost certainly have devastating consequences. Remember, too, that 1918 was just under 100 years ago, a blip in ecological time. Forests felled that year are still recovering, so why should we expect the forests’ inhabitants to be completely in the clear?

Most of all, I support the MBTA because it’s still having positive effects. Do we need to discuss situations like making exemptions for wind farms and the like? Of course. But wind farms are much more necessary than taxidermy mounts or feathered hats, and I feel that those of us who create non-essential (but pretty!) things out of feathers, hides and bones should leave the exemptions to the necessities. We have plenty of alternatives–just look at the beautiful variety of feathers available on heritage chicken breeds, for example!

And if your concerns are of a spiritual nature, I have found over many years of experience that the totems and spirits of endangered species appreciate the substitution of more common feathers and remains in lieu of their own. Really, what better offering can you give an endangered animal totem than protection of its physical counterparts? You don’t actually have to have a raven feather to connect with Common Raven; a dyed goose feather will do just as well (though be sure to thank Domestic Goose as well!)

You can find out more about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other relevant laws at my Animal Parts Laws Pages.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts, which includes discussions of legalities and ethics along with rites and practices for treating hides and bones with respect on a pagan path.

I Was on the Donna Seebo Radio Show!

Hey, all! So I just had a lovely interview this morning on the Donna Seebo radio show; we had a great conversation about my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems In Your Ecosystem. We talked about why it’s important to reconnect with the rest of nature, why accessibility matters, what happens when you don’t like your totems, and more.

To listen to the interview, take these steps:

1. Go to http://www.delphiinternational.com/vision-broadcasting/previous_shows.html and let the page load completely

2. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page

3. Click the box to the right of show #491, then click “Play Selected Files” just below the bottom of the list of shows

4. The show will download to your hard drive–click it to play in your media player!

“Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up” is Here!

GUESS WHAT! Amid all the craziness of running Curious Gallery, I completely missed that my first box of copies of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up arrived! But it’s here, and while a bunch of the copies will be going to people who preordered them, there are a few still up for grabs. I’ll be packing up orders to ship a little later this week, after I get a few more administrative errands taken care of from this weekend.

Want to know more about what’s inside these page? Here you go:

Deepen your spiritual connection to the earth and rejoin the community of nature. Nature Spirituality from the Ground Up invites you to explore not just symbols of nature, but to bury your hands in the earth and work with the real thing.

This isn’t just another list of totem “meanings” arranged in dictionary style. Instead, it empowers you to discover your totems and make them a part of your everyday life. And where most books just cover the animals, Nature Spirituality from the Ground Up introduces you to the totems of plants, fungi, minerals, waterways, landforms, and more. The table of contents tells you more of what to look forward to:

Chapter 1: The Importance of Reconnecting With Nature

Chapter 2: The Basics of Bioregionalism
Chapter 3: Introducing the Totems Themselves
Chapter 4: The Totemic Ecosystem
Chapter 5: Practices For the Totems and Yourself
Chapter 6: Totemism Every Day
Conclusion: Wonder and Awe at the World

Appendix A: Recommended Reading
Appendix B: Beneficial Nonprofit Organizations
Appendix C: Helpful Hints For Totemic Research
Appendix D: A Quick Guide to Guided Meditation

And here’s where you can order your copy from me, complete with autograph!

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

Over the years, my spirituality has shifted in the nature of its practice. For a long time I was a dedicated ritualist. I spent hours before my altar, altering my state of consciousness through chants and dance, and working myself into an endorphin-fueled high that helped me to break out of my own headspace. It was during those times that I felt most at one with the rest of the world, or at least some portion of it not bounded by my own skin. I had some pretty incredible experiences, and on occasion I’ll still indulge in more elaborate practices when the situation calls for it.

More recently I’ve become dissatisfied with ritual as my primary vehicle of connection. It can be time-consuming, it isn’t always practical, and it sometimes leaves the ordinary parts of life looking–well–ordinary. As the animal totems I’ve worked with have urged me deeper into their ecosystem, engaging with the totems of plants, fungi, waterways and others, it’s given me cause to rethink my approach to the world around me. The more I understood about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the less I felt I had to put myself into a special place and time to feel I was a part of something greater.

And so these days I quite easily slip into that sense of unity with the universe. I touch a leaf, or pick up a stone, or gaze at the wide blue skies over the Oregon sagebrush desert, and I know in that moment that I am anything but alone, isolated and detached. It is only human hubris that led me to believe anything else, the Catholic upbringing and consumerist setting that both told me “You are more than an animal; you are something special; you deserve to take whatever you want from nature”. That elevated status may sound like a place of power, but in reality the pedestal can be an incredibly isolating place to be.

1024px-Tiktaalik_roseaeWhat I understand now is that every living thing is my relative. Every piece of substance on this earth shares something in common with me, be it life, or elements, or merely the fact we are composed of atoms. There is nothing on this planet, nothing in this universe, that is truly alien to me. I am a part of a larger community; I always have been. Every being that has come before is my ancestor. I watched a video of David Attenborough examining the forelimb of a fossil of Tiktaalik, one of the first amphibians to walk on land. He pointed out how, like humans, this 375 million year old creature had a humerus, a radius and ulna, and a constellation of wrist bones. Even if Tiktaalik isn’t a direct ancestor by genes, it is of my family nonetheless.

Do you know what one of my favorite things to ponder is? Consider the trillions of cells that make up a human body. These cells are the direct descendants of independent, unicellular life forms that, billions of years ago, joined together and worked in harmony in order to meet the challenges life threw at them. This may have happened independently as many as four dozen times throughout the history of this planet, and each multicellular revolution resulted in a different sort of being. One begat the line that would become animals.

So we are really composed of trillions of tiny lives. They’re each so specialized and enmeshed as to be utterly dependent on the entire organism, and die without its support. We think of ourselves as more hardy than that–but don’t we, too, ultimately die without an ecosystem to support us? We just take longer to expire than a few skin cells scraped off on a jagged branch on the trail.

We don’t have definitive proof that the planet is a living organism in the sense we think of it, nor the galaxy, nor the universe. But we can take a certain symbolic, poetic stance in that regard. And I think it’s a valuable shift in mindset that melds romance and science. Not that science is without romance of its own. Most scientists are not cold, 100% rational people; they have emotions and biases, too. And many scientists I’ve met have been ridiculously passionate about the parts of the world that fascinate them–if not everything that exists, starting with their own specialty.

A_witch_holding_a_plant_in_one_hand_and_a_fan_Wellcome_V0025806ETScience is not the enemy just because it says there is no clear evidence of planet-as-organism. Science is a lens onto the mind-staggering intricacy we have found ourselves in the moment we are born into this world. If it does not indulge in speculation beyond ideas to be tested, that doesn’t make it lacking in imagination or wonder. Those who say there is no magic here because life isn’t like a fantasy novel haven’t been paying attention to the unfolding story of the world that the sciences are uncovering. Read enough books, watch enough documentaries, walk out into the world enough times and observe with curiosity, and you too will likely see things that are magical without being supernatural.

And really, life itself is the grandest immersive experience any of us will ever get. If I only considered the moments most soaked in endorphins to be where I was truly alive, think of how much I’d be missing out on! I got tired of chasing that connected feeling in fleeting moments of euphoria, and instead decided to seek it in every moment I live and breathe.

So, no. I no longer need rituals to fuel a connection to something bigger. Just taking a moment to consider where I am–where I really, truly am–in the grandest scheme of things is enough to shatter my relatively tiny, daily perception and pull me into the ever-spiraling dance of the cosmos in all its parts.

Some Thoughts on Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up

Last night I finished looking over the proofs for my next book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which will be coming out in January 2016. One of the things that struck me was how much of the book is spent simply showing readers how to connect with the land they live with. Most books on totemism and nature spirits give a bit of context, and then leap into the “how to find your guide” exercises. It’s not until the very last bit of the second chapter that we even start trying to contact totems. Even after that point, many of the exercises are intimately linked to the physical land, getting people outside and in direct contact where possible (though the material is still accessible to those who may be housebound).

Here in the U.S., most people are critically detached from the rest of nature, at least in their perception. This book is meant to help them reconnect, not just for self-help, but because we live in such an acutely anthropocentric world that we rarely consider the effects of our actions on the other beings in the world (to include other human beings). The problem seems immense: few of us give any thought to our environmental impact, either in part or in whole. When we are unwillingly confronted with it, it’s often in the most catastrophic manners–global climate change, mass deforestation, entire species disappearing overnight. We’ve learned to simply shut off the part that cares about nature any further than maybe sorting the recycling every week.

We’re afraid to care, because caring hurts. It’s hard to find hope in a world where the environmental news is largely bad. As far as I’m concerned, though, where there’s life, there’s hope. And I want to help people find that hope as a motivator to making the world–not just themselves–healthier and better. But because we’re used to seeing “THE ENVIRONMENT” as one big global problem, I reintroduce people to their local land–their bioregion–first in small steps, and then greater ones.

Some of that may be old hat to my nature pagan compatriots. After all, we’ve been hiking and wildcrafting and paying attention to the rest of nature for years. But this book isn’t only meant for the proverbial choir. There are plenty of people interested in non-indigenous totemism who wouldn’t describe themselves as “pagan”. Some of them are looking for self-improvement; others have some inkling that a being is trying to contact them, but they aren’t sure how to proceed. Still others want to feel connected to the greater world around them, but are too used to heavily structured spiritual paths that allow little room for personal experience.

That personal experience is absolutely crucial to my writing and the exercises I offer readers. If we’re going to reconnect with the rest of nature, we have to make it relevant to our own lives. Most of us in this country are used to being preached at, something the dominant religion is good at. But we quickly learn to tune it out, the same way we often tune out the messages about how horrible we are in our environmental practices.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about human psychology, it’s that most of us don’t do well when we’re being yelled at. There really is something to that whole “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” adage. Environmental scare headlines try to terrify people into reconnecting enough to take responsibility, but that approach can be counterproductive. By making reconnection a positive, constructive and appealing concept, I hope to get people interested not just in their own personal spirituality, but how that spirituality is set in a greater world context.

From the beginning, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up talks about the importance of totemism in relation to entire ecosystems, not just “me, me, me, what can I get out of having a totem?” Most of the books I’ve read on the topic are mostly about how the reader can connect with individual totems; there’s very little about the context all that happens in. And that goes right back into the anthropocentrism I’m trying to counteract,.

I’ve had the occasional reviewer complain that the material in my books isn’t “hardcore” enough because I rely primarily on guided meditations and accessible excursions into open areas, that I’m not telling people how to take hallucinogenic plants and soar off into the spirit world, or spend twenty days fasting in the wilderness. Well, of course not! That’s not the kind of thing that I think can be appropriately–or safely–conveyed through a book. Most people simply aren’t cut out for that much hardship and risk, and I don’t think they should be denied this sort of spirituality simply because their bodies or minds may not be able to handle ordeals, or because they lack the money to travel to remote locations in South America for entheogenic training.

As an author (and by extension a teacher) it’s my job to meet people where they’re at and help them explore someplace new. I am a product of my culture, and so is my writing. I am not part of a culture that lives close to the land and its harsh realities; mine is conveniently cushioned through technology and the idea that we are superior animals to the rest of the world. We don’t have a culture-wide system for intense rites of passage or life-changing altered states of consciousness. And I don’t have the qualifications to single-handedly create such a system, beyond what help with personal rites I can give as a Masters-level mental health counselor.

So are my practices gentler than traditional indigenous practices worldwide? Absolutely. That’s what most people in my culture can reasonably handle at this point. Trying to force them into something more intense would go over about as well as Captain Howdy’s rantings about “being awakened” in Strangeland. Sure, sudden and seemingly catastrophic experiences can cause a person to reach higher levels of inner strength and ability–but they can also cause severe physical and psychological trauma, or even kill. And, again, since we don’t have a culture in which everyone goes through an intense rite of passage at a certain age (such as adulthood), we can’t expect everyone to accept such a thing immediately.

Maybe that’s not what we need, anyway. Plenty of people engage in outdoor, nature-loving activities like backpacking, kayaking and rock climbing without the foremost notion being that they’re going into some intensely scary and dangerous place that could kill them in a moment. Most experienced outdoors people are fully aware of the risks and take necessary precautions, but their primary intent is connecting in a positive way with the rest of nature.

I think it’s okay for our nature spirituality to be the same way. I don’t think we always have to work things up as “BEWARE NATURE WILL KILL YOU AND YOU HAVE TO DO THINGS THAT COULD POSSIBLY KILL YOU IN ORDER TO FIND GUIDANCE”. I’ve spent almost twenty years gradually rediscovering my childhood love of the outdoors and its denizens, as well as developing a deeper appreciation for it. I’ve had plenty of transformative experiences without fasts or hallucinogens, and they’ve served to both improve myself as a person AND make me feel even more connected to and responsible for the rest of nature.

Does that mean there’s no place for ordeals? No; they have their place for the people who respond well to them. But they shouldn’t be held up as the one and only way to do nature spirit work. Again: meet people where they’re at, whether that’s on the couch or on the trail. You’ll reach more people, and create change on a broader scale as more people participate in the ways they’re able. And isn’t that change ultimately what we’re after, those of us who want to save the world?

Like this post? Please consider pre-ordering a copy of Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems In Your Ecosystem!

Preorders Open For My Next Book, “Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up”!

Nature Spirituality From Ground Up-600

Preorders for my next book are officially open! Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems In Your Ecosystem is due for release from Llewellyn Worldwide this January. If you’ve enjoyed my previous writings on (nonindigenous) bioregional totemism, you’ll love this book. It’s entirely dedicated to working with not just animals, but plants, fungi, minerals and more, all toward getting to know the land you live in better and rejoin the community of nature.

You can find out more about this book and preorder an autographed copy directly from me, to be shipped when I receive my first shipment of books in January, right here on my website. And here’s more information on all my current books!

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Totemism 201: Why Going Outside Matters

My apologies for the lack of posts as of late. February into March is generally a busy time for events in my vending and speaking schedule, and I’m just now entering a period where I’ll mostly be at home. I still have plenty of other things going on here in Portland, and the Tarot of Bones is still eating my life, but if all goes well there’ll be more blog posts. In my last post I said we were going to talk about a different topic. I’ve got one that’s really prominent in my head right now, though, so I’m going to cover it instead.

So in my travels over the last several weeks I’ve tried to get out into wilderness places at least a few times. I went hiking at Ed Levin County Park in San Jose while I was at PantheaCon, and on my way back home I stopped for a few hours to walk and drive around the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Just this past weekend I did a bit of a birding hike at Minnehaha Falls Regional Park while in Minneapolis for Paganicon. All of these were excellent opportunities to appreciate species of wildlife I don’t normally get to see in Portland, and especially to appreciate the spring migration of dozens of species of bird.

I learned a lot in those excursions, but an experience at home helped to solidify some thoughts I’ve had about why this is so important to my totemic path. This morning I woke up just around dawn; my sleep schedule’s been a bit out of whack with all the travel through time zones and whatnot. So I headed into the living room to start checking email, and to enjoy the morning drama at the bird feeders on my porch. I have both suet and seed feeders, and it’s normal for me to get a variety of tiny feathered dinosaurs ranging from scrub jays to pine siskins to Northern flickers coming by for breakfast.

I’ve also recently discovered eBird, a joint effort by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. It’s a website that allows you to record your bird sightings, and I’ve been registering my feeder visitors as they show up. One of the entry fields asks for the sex of the bird, if you have that information handy. Some are pretty easy to discern–a male dark-eyed junco in Oregon looks very different from the female, being darker in color. Others, like scrub jays, have little to no sexual dimorphism. I’ve had a few Northern flickers by yesterday and this morning. On first glance the male and female look very much the same–brown with black barring on the back, and a black “bib” and spots on the chest, with either yellow or red shading on the the tail and wings. I wanted to be able to discern whether I had males or females–or both–showing up, so with a quick bit of Google research I found that the males tend to have a red or black spot on their cheeks.

Why is this important to totemism? Because the presence of both sexes indicates the strong possibility of nesting nearby, which means I can also keep an eye out at area trees for nesting holes and, if I’m lucky, young peeking their heads out as they get a bit older. Sure, I can also look up videos and articles about flicker family dynamics, but there’s something about getting to see it in person that I think would make my understanding of Flicker as a totem more full and vibrant.

See, the “meanings” of animal totems (here’s why I don’t like that concept, by the way) are largely drawn from the animals’ behavior and natural history. Scrub Jay was the first totem to greet me as soon as I moved to Portland almost right years ago, and its bold, brash curiosity was infectious as I began exploring my new urban home. Moving is always a stressful experience, even when it’s for positive reasons, and I’d spent a year in Seattle becoming progressively more depressed and unhappy. Rather than sinking deeper into that because I had to start all over in a new place yet again, I found myself drawn out into the world by a brilliant blue and gray bird.

And over the past eight years I’ve made more of a study of the natural history of this area, both Portland and beyond, from geology to climate to the various sorts of flora, fauna and fungi found in each place I’ve explored (and some I’ve yet to set foot in). I’ve deepened my connection to the land that’s embraced me, and I’ve created more substantial relationships with some of the totems here as well. I feel invested in this place and everyone who lives here, and I give more of myself than ever before.

Many totemists, especially newer ones, rely on totem dictionaries and feedback from on-topic internet forums and groups to get their information on what a totem “means” or whether an animal sighting was a message in disguise. While these can be useful at the beginning, eventually you have to drop the training wheels and figure things out for yourself. I’ve long said that what a particular totem tells me may not be what it tells you, and so coming to me and asking “What does Brown bear mean?” or “I saw a blue jay today, what does that mean” is useless. All I’ll tell you is to ask the totem itself, because that’s a relationship between the two of you.

And a big part of developing that relationship involves going outside–or, for those unable to do so, at least watching/listening/etc. from the window. Hell, barring all else there are books and documentaries and websites on all sorts of natural topics. Nature spirituality is meant to be about our connection with everything else, not just the human-dominated portions of the world, and if you only immerse yourself in dictionaries and forums you’re going to miss out on a lot. Going to wilder areas where we’re less of an influence serves to illustrate just how much we’ve affected the world around us, and what we stand to lose if we keep up our destructive ways. You can look at photos and video, but there’s nothing to compare with seeing it with your own eyes if you’re able to. A picture of a clearcut is devastating, but it’s nothing next to actually going out and walking through a devastated landscape where a forest has been torn down, being completely surrounded by shattered trunks and earth scraped bare.

It’s that sort of experience that helped me move from a “all about me” approach to totemism to a more balanced give and take. Totemism isn’t just about us, as I’ve talked about already, and in my next post I’ll be talking about why giving back through offerings and otherwise is crucial to one’s totemic practice.

A master list of Totemism 201 posts may be found here.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider purchasing one or more of my books on totemism and related topics! They include more in-depth information on working with totems, to include topics not discussed in this essay series.

Announcing My Next Book – Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect with Totems in Your Ecosystem

[Note: I know I’ve been pretty quiet the past few weeks. I’ve been out of town a LOT–PantheaCon, Mythicworlds, a few out of town errands. I’m going to be gone again next week, where I’ll be at Paganicon in Minneapolis as a Guest of Honor (woohoo!), though in the meantime you can catch me at the Northwest Tarot Symposium this upcoming weekend in Portland. I should be able to get back to some writing later in the month, if all goes well! Also, head over to the Tarot of Bones website to see my progress on that particular giant project–and find out more about my very first IndieGoGo campaign coming soon! Thanks for your patience.]

I am pleased to announce that I have signed the contract for my third book with Llewellyn Worldwide, entitled Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems in Your Ecosystem! For those who really enjoyed the bioregional totemism chapters in New Paths to Animal Totems and Plant and Fungus Totems, this book is for you!

Within its pages I offer ways to connect with the land you live on through the the archetypal representatives of animals, plants, fungi, minerals, waterways, even gravity and other forces of nature. Written from a nonindigenous perspective, it offers tools, practices and meditations for those who seek a more meaningful relationship with the land than the consumer-driven destruction all too common worldwide. And it encourages viewing the world through a more eco-friendly lens and inviting others to do the same.

Most importantly, it’s my answer to our tendency to make nature spirituality all about us. Rather than being full of ways to get things from the totems, it’s about forming relationships with them and partnering with them to undo some of the damage we’ve done. While bettering yourself is a part of that, I avoid the all-too-common “Harness the power of your totem to get what you want!” attitude.

I don’t yet have an exact release date, but it’s due to be in the Llewellyn winter catalog, and I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, just a reminder–I have a perks package on my Patreon where if you pledge at the $25/month level ($35 for non-US folks) for seven months, you’ll get one of my current books or anthologies each month, and at the end of those seven months you’ll be automatically added to the preregistration list for Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up. Then when it comes out, I’ll send you a copy for absolutely free!

Totemism 201: It’s Not Just About Us, Either

Okay, back to Totemism 201! In my last post, I talked about how totemism extends well beyond animals into plants, fungi, and other non-animal beings. One of the main points I made is that we tend to gravitate toward animal totems because they’re closer to us–we are, after all, animals ourselves. I’ve covered the tendency toward anthropocentrism in spirituality before, but I’d like to tie it specifically to totemism in this post.

Pick up any book on totemism, or surf to a website on the topic, and more often than not you’re likely to run into language that suggests that by reading this material you’ll learn how to unlock the secrets of totemic power and get what you need in your life. I recognize a lot of that is due to marketing, because how better to sell a book than to claim it holds the answers to someone’s problems? Unfortunately it seriously limits the possibilities for relationships with the totems, and relegates them to being tools you take out of a bag only when you need them.

There are plenty of folks who manage to move beyond the “gimme” mindset. However, even they may perpetuate language that encourages others to see totems as means to a personal end. There’s nothing wrong with asking totems and other spiritual allies for aid when you need it, but I don’t feel it should be the sole basis for your relationships with them, especially because “I want I want I want” is a very anthropocentric way of going about things.

If you see totems as aspects of the human psyche given animal and other non-human forms, you may wonder what the problem with anthropocentrism is. After all, they’re all in your head, right? Remember that the totems represent their species, and you can still help their physical counterparts. Anthropocentrism has damaged the physical environment in numerous ways, so any effort to see the world in a less human-dominated fashion can help improve the world for everyone.

So how can you begin to remove the anthropocentrism from your totemism?

–Don’t treat totemism like it’s just a way for you to improve your life. Back when I was talking about the potential pitfalls of totem dictionaries, one of the points that I made is that the dictionary format tends to emphasize a quick fix for our problems. Relationship troubles? Take one dose of Lovebird and call me in the morning. Sure, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but it illustrates the problem effectively.

To break out of that mindset, consider how you view the totems you work with. Who are they besides “Solution A for Problem B”? What happens once you get past the stereotyped “what does this totem mean?” Do you see them as friends? Family? Allies? Beings to be worshipped, or admired, or emulated? (It’s okay if you don’t have an immediate answer; it might take a while for you to really conceptualize your relationships with your totems.)

–Be mindful of how you talk about totems, both the ones you work with and in general. Even if you see the totems as independent beings who have a lot more going on than figuring out how to help you get a new job, if you use language like “Totems are here to teach us things!” you’re still perpetuating a more limited view of them. Instead, try talking about the entirety of your relationship with a given totem (or as much as you’re comfortable talking about). When someone asks you what Gray Wolf means (as one example) you might talk about not just things Gray Wolf has shown you, but also what you’ve done for that totem in return, how close you are, how the relationship has evolved over time, other totems Gray Wolf has introduced you to and why, etc. (This all, of course, depends on how much time and space you have to answer in.)

Moreover, encourage discussions on totems that go beyond “What does this totem mean and what can it do for me?” If you part of an online forum or an in-person group about totems, try starting a new topic. If you teach about totemism, even casually, make a point of going into more depth. Ask others about their experiences. Get the words flowing.

–Another way to reduce an anthropocentric approach to totemism is to get out of your comfort zone. As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to gravitate toward animal totems (especially Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals) because they’re most familiar to us. Challenging that familiarity helps us and broaden our attention, and moves us beyond our own priorities of personal comfort.

Start one step outside of your comfort zone. If you’ve primarily only worked with mammal totems, try working with a bird or reptile totem. Then take another step, and head into fish territory. Another step may get you in touch with any of a number of invertebrates. Beyond that there are the totems of fungi, plants, bacteria, and numerous other non-animal beings.

The more you put yourself into the mindset of an unfamiliar sort of being, the more aware you become of their priorities. Anthropocentrism relies on human concerns being the most important; by making yourself aware of the concerns of other beings, you loosen the grip of a human-centered worldview.

Those are just a few of the ways in which you can unseat anthropocentrism and move your totemism from “what do I get” to “what can we give each other”. Note that I mention “we” in that last statement. Your goal is not to completely subsume your wants and needs in favor of those of a totem or any other being. The totems don’t need mindless followers, nor do they need people running around in hair shirts, castigating themselves for having any personal needs whatsoever.

Rather, the goal is to regain a mutually beneficial relationship with the totems and their children. We are just one of millions of species on the planet, and we’ve forgotten that. Totemism 201 is about remembering our place, not in a sense of being humbled and chastened and “put in our place”, but in being one among many brilliant, amazing beings in this world.

In my next post I’ll be discussing how Totemism 201 is about approaches rather than practices, and why there’s no secret ritual that will magically make you an advanced practitioner.

A master list of Totemism 201 posts may be found here.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider purchasing one or more of my books on totemism and related topics! They include more in-depth information on working with totems, to include topics not discussed in this essay series.