Category Archives: Fungus Totems

“Plant and Fungus Spirits” – Updated and Annotated Edition Now Available!

Hey, everyone! My book Plant and Fungus Totems, originally published via Llewellyn, went out of print earlier this year. I’ve since updated and annotated it and released a new edition as Plant and Fungus Spirits. In addition to adding bits of new information or making other small changes, I’ve also removed the term “totem” other than where it refers to certain indigenous beliefs and practices. This is keeping in line with my other older books that I’ve re-released as self-published editions.

You can purchase Plant and Fungus Spirits as a paperback or an ebook by clicking here.

Sometimes the best teachers are those we often overlook! Explore the world of plant spirits, green beings who thrive on sunlight. Delve into the depths of fungus spirits, permeating the very soil beneath our feet. This book offers three unique approaches to working with these spirits:

*The Bioregional Model invites you to deepen your relationship to the physical land around you through the spirits that live there.

*The Correspondences Model combines the symbols of your path into your work with nature spirits.

*The Archetypal Model allows your spirit guides to help you through the intricacies of your inner self so you can know yourself better.

Whether you choose one of these models, or a combination, Plant and Fungus Spirits offers you meditations, examples and other tools to invite these spirits into your life. An excellent book for the beginner and the experienced practitioner alike!

You can purchase Plant and Fungus Spirits as a paperback or an ebook by clicking here.

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 🙂

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!

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!

If you like this, please reblog/share–we authors appreciate when folks spread the word about our writing! And thank you 🙂

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.

Lupa At PantheaCon!

Hey, all! Once again I’ll be at PantheaCon in San Jose later this month for workshops, panels, book signings and more! Here’s my schedule for the weekend:

Llewellyn Publishing FAQ – Saturday 11am – noon – Llewellyn suite (room 1057)

I’ll be one of several authors answering questions on writing books, getting them published, the ever-important promotion, and more. This panel is a perennial favorite!

Animal Skulls as Ritual Partners – Sunday 9 – 10:30am – San Martin room

Here’s the only workshop I’m presenting alone this year–but they picked a good one! Here’s the official workshop description:

For thousands of years, animal skulls have been used in rituals and other spiritual practices around the world. In this presentation, we’ll explore how to legally and ethically obtain skulls, how to work with and care for the spirits within them, how they can be a connection to animal totems and evolutionary ancestors, and more! We’ll also meditate with well-cleaned animal skulls; a limited number will be provided for attendees to borrow, or bring your own! Door will be closed later in the presentation to allow for an uninterrupted meditation.

Godless Bless – Sunday 1:30 – 3pm – Pagan Scholars’ Den Suite room # TBA

As a naturalist pagan who works with totems and other spirits (which apparently makes me a nice middle ground between people who work with gods and people who don’t), I was asked to moderate this panel on atheism in paganism. I’ll be asking several panelists questions about their beliefs and non-beliefs, what composes their spiritual practices, how they came to where they are today theologically speaking, and more, followed by a general audience Q&A.

Plant & Fungus Totems – Monday, 7:30pm – East-West Bookstore, 324 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA

Just down the road a bit from the Doubletree (though you’ll need a car) this workshop is part of a special set of FREE! presentations by Llewellyn authors at East-West Bookstore the week of February 11-17. If you can’t make it to PantheaCon but you’re in the SJ area, come join me as I talk about what plant and fungus totems are, why you might want to work with them either on their own or in conjunction with animal totems, what makes working with them a unique experience, and more!

Totemism 201: It’s Not Just About the Animals

Alright, let’s try this again. I’ve been neglecting writing for a couple of weeks between running Curious Gallery, and recovering from running Curious Gallery (plus finally making some progress on the Tarot of Bones.) However, I haven’t forgotten about my blog readers, so here’s the next installment in Totemism 201!

Almost all of the material available on totemism concerns animal totems. Their plant, fungus and other counterparts are generally ignored; plants and fungi rarely get much attention beyond being used in herbalism and spells, and other than trees and hallucinogenic fungi few plant and fungus totems are addressed in specific. I’ve already addressed this topic before; here I’d like to talk more about what makes moving beyond the animals a Totemism 201 topic.

–Animals are the easiest for us to connect with.

We are animals, human apes. It’s generally easiest for us to connect with beings that we feel affinity toward, and so we can temporarily adopt the (perceived) mindset of a fellow animal more easily than that of, say, a dandelion or turkey tail fungus. If you look at the most common animal totems, you’ll notice that many of them are large mammals, easier for us to observe and interact with. The less like us we think an animal is, the less likely we are to work with its totem.

It’s even tougher for us to resonate with a non-human being. How do you think like a tree when trees don’t have brains? How do you learn life lessons from a fungus that live underground much of the time and, to our perception, doesn’t even move? Do bacteria and protists even have anything to teach us?

To be fair, it can be more challenging to communicate with a non-animal totem, even when we’re willing and interested. Their priorities for themselves and their physical counterparts are often different than what we might expect; my experiences with Black Cottonwood illustrated that as one good example. And they perceive the world in very different ways; many of them simply see us humans as one of a host of animals thundering our way across the landscape, here then gone in seconds. So they aren’t always as eager to open up to us as some animal totems.

So some people simply stick to what’s easiest and most familiar–animal totems, and more specifically Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals. For those who do venture into more seemingly alien territory, there are some potential benefits–read on.

–Non-animal totems encourage us to have a more systemic view of totemism

I’ve often talked about how many people seem to assume that totems simply float over our heads like parade balloons, waiting for us to notice them or call upon them for help. From my experience, they inhabit their own spiritual ecosystem (whether you feel that’s a figment of your psyche or an actual alternate dimension is up to you to decide.) And the plant and fungus totems aren’t just the set dressing for dramas involving the animal totems; rather as in our reality, the totems of all living beings interact with each other in a complex, multi-layered series of relationships.

This is why I’m skeptical when someone says they have only one totem, especially if they’ve been practicing totemism for a while. My experience has been that totems tend to introduce their people to fellow totems they have positive relationships with. Steller’s Jay, for example, introduced me to Douglas Fir, who also introduced me to Douglas Squirrel, Northern Flicker, and several other arboreal totems. Granted, my connection with Steller’s Jay is stronger than that with most of those others, but at least the introductions have been made and can develop organically from there.

Conversely, this also helps me to appreciate the totems as individuals, rather than one-dimensional stereotypes. Seeing how they interact together allows me to learn more about them both on their own and as a community. And it encourages me to value all the totems of an ecosystem, not just the animals.

–They also encourage us to respect living beings besides animals.

That value extends beyond the totems themselves to their physical counterparts. Animals are just one part of a series of complex and multi-layered ecosystems whose intricacies we don’t fully understand. With deeper connections to totems comes a greater sense of responsibility toward their physical counterparts, and many experienced totemists are also environmentalists of one sort or another. What we find as we become more engaged in environmental activism is that it’s tough to be effective when you’re a one-issue activist. Sure, lots of people want to protect gray wolves, but you can’t protect the wolves without protecting the animals they prey on, and you can’t protect the prey if the prey have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. So “save the wolves!” quickly turns into “save the elk”, “save the grasslands” and “save the migration routes.”

There’s a sort of chauvinism that encourages us to see non-animal beings as nothing more than set dressing for our own kind. But when we interact with their totems, and find that they’re every bit as spiritually adept and important as the animal totems, it makes us question that “plants are just scenery” viewpoint. But that’s good for us, really. Even if you strictly work with the animals, it behooves you to respect the plants, fungi and other living beings they rely on to survive and thrive. After all, we’re animals, and without the plants and fungi and bacteria, we wouldn’t be here either. So widen your view a bit, and appreciate your entire community, not just the ones closest to you in biology.

How do you get in touch with non-animal totems (if you aren’t already)? Well, a good start is to ask your animal totems to introduce you to some of the plant/fungus/etc. totems they associate with. Together, the totems can explain why they rely on each other and what sorts of spiritual implications that may have for you. You might also ask the animals which ones they don’t especially care for; there’s lessons to be learned from those more antagonistic relationships as well. (Just avoid calling on totems who don’t like each other in the same meditation/ritual/etc.)

You’re also welcome to simply go outside (in the physical world or in meditation) and see if any non-animal totems try to catch your attention. I’ve found that the plants and fungi, for example, have a tendency to be more subtle in their communications, and so we often miss when they’re doing the equivalent of yelling “HEY!” at us. Slow down, be more observant and receptive, and don’t necessarily look for the same signs you might with animal totems. Rather than seeing a particular plant, you might feel a gentle tug in a particular direction that brings you to that being and its totem. Or you might feel drawn to sit beneath a large tree whenever you go by it, not for the tree’s sake but for the fungus growing on its bark.

As you work more with non-animal totems you’ll learn more of their unique ways of communicating, their priorities, and the things that make them unique. Totemism really isn’t just an animal thiings, and in my next post I’ll talk about why totemism isn’t just about us humans, either.

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.