Category Archives: Plant Totems

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.

Totemism 201: Why Species Are Important

In my last post, I mentioned that many totem animal dictionaries tend to categorize totems according to general groups of animals, not individual species. A good example is “Deer”; most of them probably mean “Whitetail Deer”, but there are plenty of other deer species as well with their respective totems. How, for example, might the totem Fallow Deer be different from Whitetail Deer? Or Indian Muntjac? Or Moose (the biggest deer of all!)? These are very rarely, if ever, explored in dictionary-style totem books and websites.

It’s even worse the further you get away from the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals. Last time I talked about how the totems of the thousands of species of spider are often shoved into one “Spider” entry in your standard totem dictionary. Never mind that the life of an orb-weaver like the golden garden spider is very different from that of a ground-hunting Carolina wolf spider, and their totems are quite different from each other as well. The Spider entry extols the virtues of a generic orb-weaving critter, and doesn’t invite a person to get to know the personalities and teachings of individual species’ totems.

About the only time most writers on totemism try to differentiate species is either when the totem is of some singular animal that is the only species in its genus, such as the cheetah, or when they wrongly assume an animal is a distinct species. If there were multiple species of cheetah alive today, no doubt totemic writers would shove all of them into one “Cheetah” category. However, they’d probably still insist on treating melanistic leopard and jaguars (or “black panthers”) as distinct from their spotted counterparts. In truth, the only thing that makes black panthers different from spotted leopards and jaguars is the amount of melanin in their fur; it’s a matter of a genetic mutation, nothing more. The totem Jaguar still watches over all jaguars, whether spotted, solid, leucistic or albino, and the same goes for Leopard and her children. Yet it’s our misinformed bias that makes us think that black leopards and jaguars are somehow more mysterious than the rest–we get stuck on the cover of the book, as it were, rather than diving into the pages themselves. If you think your totem is Black Panther, then figure out whether you’re actually talking with Leopard or Jaguar (or even an extinct species of panther), and go from there.

Why is it so important that we pay attention to species when working with totems, even the totems of similar animals?

–Even the totems of similar species may have very different things to tell you

When I was growing up in the Midwest, I was surrounded by blue jays, rather loud and raucous corvids that are well-nigh ubiquitous east of the Rockies. And while Blue Jay was never one of my main totems, I did have occasion to work with him now and then. He struck me as brash, rude, and sometimes intentionally obnoxious, though still likable. Fast forward to seven and a half years ago when I moved to Portland, and within the first month Steller’s Jay, Blue Jay’s cousin, had enticed me out into the wilderness areas around the city. Steller’s Jay, while also a rather extroverted and loquacious totem, was much friendlier and mellow in personality. Had I just lumped them both into the general category of “Jay”, I might have come up with a totem that was loud and bold, but missed out on the individual traits of Blue Jay and Steller’s Jay.

And that’s one of the primary dangers of shoving several totems into one category–you aren’t letting each totem fully express itself. Going back to the not-really-a-totem Black Panther, if you get stuck on the color of melanistic jaguars and leopards and don’t instead look at what makes each species unique, you may as well just make a study of the color black and ignore the animals altogether.  If you talked to Jaguar and Leopard as individuals, though, you might find that Jaguar (being a water-loving cat) wants you to focus on being comfortable in multiple settings, not just the ones that are easiest for you, while Leopard (who hates water) may urge you to play to your strengths, as just one example. Or you might find that it’s Jaguar who wants to work with you and keeps showing up in his melanistic form, while Leopard doesn’t have much to offer you.

–It encourages appreciation of biological diversity

Despite our attempts to exterminate massive numbers of species on this planet, Earth is still host to a mind-boggling array of animals, plants, fungi and other living beings. Only a scant few ever make it into totem dictionaries; many have never even been identified by science. By limiting our focus to general categories like “Bear” or “Pine”, we’re losing out on the ability to engage with what makes each species unique and how each contributes to its ecosystem(s).

Let’s look at foxes, for example. There are twenty-four species of fox, yet when most totem dictionaries talk about the totem Fox, they really mean Red Fox in particular. This doesn’t take into account Gray Fox, Swift Fox, and all the other foxes that range across habitats varying from sandy deserts to Arctic tundra, wide forests to tiny islands. I’ve worked with several of the Fox totems, and they’re an incredibly fascinating group. As with Blue Jay and Steller’s Jay, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate their individual natures if I’d just tried to work with “Fox”.

When we foster a greater appreciation of biological diversity, we often want to protect it. I am constantly amazed every time science discovers a new species, and the many ways in which life manifests are an unending source of joy and wonder for me. But I also know how threatened that diversity is, and so I act to try and protect it as best as I can. When we know exactly what we have to lose, we’re more motivated to keep it safe.

–It can help you connect more deeply to your local bioregion

This doesn’t just go for the diversity of species, either. Species exist in habitats and ecosystems, and living beings interact with landforms, climate and other natural features and forces in interrelated systems. A bioregion is a portion of land that has more or less the same sorts of living beings, geology, weather pattern and other features; it’s often defined by the watershed of the largest river in the area.

Now, it’s okay if you have a totem whose children are native to someplace you’ve never been. But when you work with totems native to your bioregion, there’s more potential both for learning from them and gaining a deeper connection to the land you live on. When I was growing up in Missouri, I was very close to the land; while I didn’t recognize totems per se, their influence was there nonetheless. I moved away after college, and it wasn’t until I moved to Portland that I developed a similarly strong connection to the land. This was facilitated in large part by the totems I worked with, first Steller’s Jay and Scrub Jay, and then an increasingly diverse host including Douglas Fir, Poison Oak, Black Morel, and many others. My totemism ceased to be solely about what sorts of changes I could make in my life and shifted into a more mutually beneficial set of relationships. These days I am an active environmentalist and advocate for nonhuman nature in the Northwest and elsewhere; I also work to reconnect my fellow humans with the rest of nature for the benefit of all involved, and a lot of that is due to my totemic work.

–It’s good practice to get better at totemism

When you rely on a totem dictionary to give you the answers, you’re taking the easy way out. All you have to do is look up the animal, plant or other totem in question, read whatever the author determined was important, and voila–instant gratification! Unfortunately, this really doesn’t prepare you for what happens when you run across a totem that isn’t in any book, or when a known totem starts talking to you about lessons and concepts that aren’t in any of the stereotyped meanings offered by the plethora of dictionaries out there. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen someone ask on a totem-related forum or group “I can’t find anything about Elephant Shrew/Miner’s Lettuce/Black Mold as a totem! Can anyone tell me what it means?” We expect to be spoon-fed enlightenment, and we cheat ourselves dearly in the process.

Working with the totems of individual species helps you break out of that 101 rut. For one thing, you have to be aware that there are several species, not just “Swan” or “Maple”. And you have to research which one you’re talking to. But then you can’t be sure if whatever dictionary entry you happen to find applies to the species-specific totem in question; the information on Crow may apply mostly to the American Crow, but what if your totem is Jungle Crow? You can’t just fall back on a generic “Crow” entry then, not without risking missing a lot of what Jungle Crow has to say. You have to do the work yourself.

And you’ll be better off for it, too. It requires you to be better at communicating directly with the totems, and not just the ones that come easily to you. You’ll figure out how to tell whether a totem is happy or upset to see you (even if it doesn’t say a word to you), or whether it’s even interested in you at all. Over time you’ll develop more ways to work with the totems, from formal rituals to daily practices, and you’ll get better at noticing when a new totem is trying to get your attention (and when it’s just wishful thinking and confirmation bias on your part.) Best of all, you won’t have to go through the process of asking some stranger on the internet “Hey, what does this totem mean?” because you’ll know how to find out for yourself–and that’s empowering.

–What about hybrids and subspecies?

There are plenty of animals that can hybridize with each other, and often do in nature. Blue jays and Steller’s jays largely keep to their own territories, but in a few places where the ranges meet they’ve been known to crossbreed. Horses and donkeys can produce both mules and hinnies (depending on who was the father and who was the mother.) And red wolves may be a long-established hybrid of the gray wolf and the coyote, while the brush wolf is a more recently recognized cross of the two species. Even within a recognized species there may be several subspecies; the Arctic wolf, dingo and domestic dog are all considered subspecies of the gray wolf.

So how do we deal with species-specific totems in these cases? Longevity has a lot to do with it. The red wolf has been a distinct enough being, genetically and phenotypically, that it’s considered its own species, and it has its own totem. While there have been wolf-coyote hybrids since the advent of the red wolf, these have largely been watched over by Gray Wolf and Coyote, and in my experience Brush Wolf has not yet materialized as a unique totem.

Subspecies are generally close enough to each other to not require their own totem; Gray Wolf does watch over eastern timber wolves and Arctic wolves alike. However, sometimes a subspecies takes on enough of a life of its own that a unique totem emerges from its energy; Dingo and Domestic Dog are both examples of cases where wolves were so significantly changed by their relationships with humans and their environment that they diverged widely from “wolf-ness”. The totems Gray Wolf, Dingo and Dog are all very close to this day, and will often work together in rituals and other activities.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is all based on my own experiences, and your mileage may vary. At any rate, I hope I’ve impressed upon you the importance of working with the totem of a species, not a generic group. In my next post I’ll be talking about why totemism isn’t just about animals, why you may wish to work with plant, fungus and other non-animal totems, and the importance of the totemic ecosystem.

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.

Totemism 201: Why Totem Dictionaries May Be Hazardous to Your Spiritual Growth

Those of you who have been following my writing for a while know that I’m biased against totem dictionaries. A totem dictionary is any of a number of books on totems (almost always animal totems) in which the bulk of the text is dedicated to dozens of dictionary-style entries on stereotyped meanings of various totems. The entries are often formatted thusly:

  • * The totem’s species (usually a large mammal or bird, less often a reptile, fish or invertebrate)
  • * Key words (the Cliff’s Notes version of the totem’s stereotyped meaning)
  • * Some random stuff like astrological signs, moon phases or other correspondences that supposedly match up with this totem
  • * A few paragraphs on mythology about the animal and what the animal symbolizes in various cultures (usually assorted Native American cultures, or the dreaded “the Native Americans believed…”)
  • * A bunch of writing of what the author thinks the totem means and/or whatever meanings they gleaned from other totem dictionaries, all presented as The One True Meaning of this totem

Seems pretty simple, right? All you have to do to get the answers you seek is open up the book to the animal you seek, read about it, and hey presto–you have your answers, all in a neat little package. So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, actually, you can criticize a few things:

–What the book says isn’t what may be

Totems are not one-dimensional characters; nor are they Pokemon. What they are, as far as I’ve been able to discern over the past couple of decades, is archetypal beings that embody the qualities of their given species, as well as the various relationships that species has with others, humans included. They have personalities, often more complex than we give them credit for, and they don’t act the same toward every single person who contacts them. Gray Wolf, for example, is not always “the teacher”, and is not always happy to see everyone who seeks him out. While my relationship with him has been pretty positive (he’s been with my much of my life), I know people that he’s been rather hostile to. And even with me it’s not just a matter of “Yay, this is my totem, he’s going to give me lots of awesome powers and do things for me!” There are times he’s been harsh with me and, quite honestly, times when I’ve had to work with other totems to help un-learn and balance out some of his less favorable traits.

So when someone asks “What does the totem Wolf mean?” and they get a bunch of books and websites giving them a bunch of stereotyped meanings, they’re likely to just stick with those and not go any further. That’s like someone who want to meet you asking a few of your friends and acquaintances for a one-word summary of who you are and then expecting you to only behave according to what you’ve been told. You can see how limiting that is!

I do understand that some people, especially newcomers to totemism, like reading what other people have experienced, especially with less common totems. But that should be only for comparison’s sake, not as holy writ. Otherwise you run the risk of closing yourself off from what a given totem really wants to talk to you about.

–No dictionary can include all totems

There are literally millions of animal species worldwide (not counting the ones we’ve driven extinct), including almost a million insect species alone. Add in all the many thousands of species of plant, fungus, bacteria, archaea, and other living beings out there, and there’s a LOT of biodiversity to take into account. Every single one of those species has a totem. So do all the extinct species that have ever graced this planet. We don’t even know the identity of most of them.

So it’s not at all surprising that you simply cannot fit every single totem into a dictionary. This means, of course, that totem dictionaries (and, by extension, totem divination decks) are severely limited in possibilities. Most of them tend toward what I call the BINABM (Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals), like Wolf and Elk and Eagle and Fox and Deer and Hawk and are you sensing a pattern here yet? Note, too, that few of them talk about the totems of individual species; every snake totem from North Pacific Rattlesnake to Reticulated Python ends up smushed into the general category of “Snake”, and “Spider” somehow is supposed to stand in for a diversity of arachnids ranging from Black Widow to the many sorts of Assassin Spider to the plethora of Tarantulas running around without woven webs. That’s akin to someone saying “Well, your last name is Smith and so that must mean you’re exactly like every other Smith out there, oh, and do you do blacksmithing because I really need a ritual knife made for our coven’s next sabbat.”

The totem dictionary discourages people from exploring outside of this slender, and rather inaccurate, set of definitions it sets out. Some of them admittedly do give you a few exercises to do with your totem, even if it’s not one that’s listed in the book. But I really think these authors would do better to spend more time giving people more material for working with their totems, rather than padding out the page count with dozens of dictionary entries.

As for the issue with not exploring the totems of individual species? I’ll be covering that in more depth in a separate post later on, so I’ll table it for the moment. (Just hold your horses–including Domestic Horse, and Przewalski’s Horse, and Grevy’s Zebra…)

–The dictionary format encourages intellectual laziness and spiritual selfishness

From what I’ve observed over the years, people who seek out totem dictionaries online or in books are usually looking for easy answers. They want someone to tell them “Well, Deer is the keeper of psychic powers, and Rabbit teaches gentleness, and Raven is the darkness in everyone’s soul” and so forth. And then once they’ve identified that tidbit of information, that’s as far as a lot of them go with the relationship. They look in their own lives for places where they can increase their intuition, or become gentler, or, uh, unleash a tide of darkness and woe upon their enemies. And now that they’ve found “their” totem, they may buy a bunch of books and t-shirts and cheaply-made-in-China statues of that being. But they don’t often take the totemic relationship any farther than that. Where’s the curiosity? Where’s the desire to learn more about the totem beyond what some book tells them? Where’s the reward in doing the work yourself? Vanished in a haze of instant gratification.

This is not to say that I am the only totemist who goes into more detail with my work than “Oh, here, read this book.” I know a good number of them, in part because I’ve tried to seek out folks of a like mind over the years and been generously rewarded for my efforts. But we’re still a minority amid the fast-food-spirituality crowd. And to an extent, while I am being rather harsh with the basics, I do admit that more advanced practice isn’t for everyone. Some people are content just knowing they aren’t alone. But when that’s all that’s presented to people, it gets a bit frustrating after a while.

Moreover, when someone asks “What does this totem mean?”, do you know what I hear? “What can this totem do for me?” And that’s the general theme of the overwhelming majority of totem dictionaries out there. Upon doing a casual search for books on “animal totems” and “spirit animals” on Amazon, some of the most common words that come up are “power”* and “messages”, both as bonuses you’re supposed to receive from your super-spiffy totem animal who will fix all your problems for you.

Spirituality is not just about “gimme gimme gimme.” Ideally it’s a set of relationships and connections that go both ways. We are not the totems’ biggest priority; they don’t exist primarily to endow us human apes with mystical wisdom and enlightenment. Their biggest concern is taking care of their own physical counterparts, and because humanity is currently waging war on the environment, by necessity they have to interact with us in an attempt to get us to stop killing everything. It’s not to say that some of them don’t genuinely enjoy working with us, to include in personal growth. But we kid ourselves when we talk about how we’re the golden children of the planet and everything revolves around our bipedal asses.

I can only really speak for myself, but as my relationships with various totems have deepened over the years, I haven’t found myself wanting to get even more stuff from them. Instead, the point at which I consider myself to have left basic totemism behind was the point when I began to be motivated by the desire to give back to them. Now, this isn’t in the manner of supplication and “Please don’t kill me” and “Well, I’m making offerings because my ancestors made offerings and that’s what I’m supposed to do, too.” No, I’m talking about caring so deeply for these beings and their physical children that I wanted to make things better for them, even if only a little. It’s like falling deeply in love with someone; you cease to only be attracted to their surface traits, and you instead genuinely want to make their life better as a whole person, joys and flaws and all.

It doesn’t mean I never ask for help, especially in tough times. But I’ve long since left behind the desire to “access power” through my totems; a more accurate phrase might be “connect with” or “create relationship with.”

One final note: you may have noticed that I’ve written some profiles of various totems here and for my Patreon patrons. These are NOT meant to be holy writ! I write them from a personal perspective because my readers tend to like seeing examples of the concepts I write about in action, and it can help illustrate totemic work a little better. But they’re always phrased as “My work with X totem is this”, not “if X totem comes into your life it means this.”

Alright, that’s it for now. In the next post I’ll go into more detail about why it’s important to know the species of the totem you’re working with. And in a later post I will talk about how you can connect with and learn more about a totem without relying on dictionary entries, so stay tuned!

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.

* I recognize that “power animal” is a specific concept in and of itself, and I’m not including that use of the term in this complaint. Rather, I’m talking about phrases like “access the POWER of your totem animal!” and “POWERFUL magic of totems!”, indicating that you, too, can access power by buying this book.

Totemism 201: Totems Are Not Pokémon

I’d like to start the meat of this essay series by criticizing a few of the limitations of non-indigenous totemism as it’s commonly practiced. And I’d like to start with the idea that everyone has a set number of totems, and that’s that.

In years of reading of other people’s work on totems, I frequently come across the idea that everyone has a set number of totems. Some say each of us has only one, and that one totem stays with us for life. Others claims we have two, one for each of our halves (as though we are composed of nothing but dichotomies.) Or they say we have four for each of the cardinal directions, or add in another for center. Countless people are convinced that “the Native Americans”* teach that everyone has nine totems thanks to Jamie Sams’ and David Carson’s book and deck set, The Medicine Cards.

I know exactly where it comes from, too: the insistence on some neat round number that signifies “Okay, you’ve finished the work, now you can relax and bask in the glory of your spiritual development!” I’ve seen people get so caught up in trying to figure out what the “missing” three or four totems in their set of nine are that they don’t actually work with the ones they’ve already identified. Moreover, if they reach that magic number nine (or four, or whatever), if yet another totem makes contact with them then they get all confounded and wonder whether they misidentified one of their totemic dream team.

Folks, this ain’t Pokémon, and you don’t have to catch ’em all. You aren’t prevented from progressing to the next level of your spiritual path if you don’t have a complete set. And you don’t need to look up your totem’s stats in a spiritual Pokédex (a.k.a. the Dread Totem Dictionary, which I’ll skewer in my next essay) before you start to work with them.

The Pokémon approach (“I must have X number of totems!”) is troublesome for a couple of reasons:

–It’s about making totems fit your preconceived map of correspondences and meanings, rather than letting those relationships develop organically. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to shove them into pigeonholes labeled things like “North” and “South” or “left side” and “right side.” This is especially pernicious because the sorts of non-indigenous authors and teachers who perpetuate this sort of pigeonholing apply specific definitions to each category. Picking on The Medicine Cards again, Sams and Carson say that the right side animal “protects your male side” and “your courage and warrior spirit”, while the left side totem “is the protectors of your female side” and teaches you about “relationships and mothering.” Not only is this incredibly sexist and heterocentric, but what if the totem you get for your left side in your super-spiffy card reading is Loggerhead Sea Turtle, who buries her eggs in the sand and then abandons the babies to their fates while she returns to the ocean to live a largely solitary life? Moreover, what if what she wants to teach you has absolutely nothing to do with relationships and mothering, and everything to do with, say, physical endurance and longevity? I suppose if you engaged your human pattern-recognition skills long enough you could make some connection there–but why bother trying to make Loggerhead fit into that tiny little definition when she could be teaching you the wisdom in learning how to swim, figuratively and literally (or whatever she feels like showing you?)

–It stays at the surface of things and entangles you in minutiae rather than allowing a more organic exploration of a deepening relationship with a totem. Like the totem dictionary, the Pokémon approach to totemism feeds you a bunch of structures you’re supposed to plug your totems into. You’re not really told what to do when things deviate outside of that neat but narrow little worldview. Sure, you can likely figure it out on your own, but there’s a surprising number of people who adhere to the stuff in these books as though they’re holy writ. Some of this is probably a result of many pagans, New Agers and the like having come from the sorts of religions that hand you a pile of dogma that outlines what you’re supposed to believe, think and do. While people in these religions can certainly have deep, meaningful relationships with their own Powers That Be, there are plenty of fundamentalists who stick to the letter rather than the spirit. And that same desire to have all the answers laid out nice and easy carries over into some totemists as well.

Now, since I don’t like to complain without offering at least one solution, allow me to offer up a workable alternative. And it starts with one very simple concept:

There is no single universal number of totems you’re supposed to have, and no universal structure with which to organize them.

Ditch that idea. Toss it out. Right now. Because when you do, you leave yourself available to whatever totems are willing and able to work with you over the course of the rest of your lifetime, whether that’s one or one hundred or any other number. Now you’re able to let them come to you at their own pace, and you can have your initial conversations with them without worrying whether they fit in the proper slot. It’s a very liberating feeling as far as I’m concerned.

How do you view your totems now that you no longer have a scaffolding to hang them in? Well, think of how you treat your friends. You likely don’t think in terms of “Bob is the friend I go to supper with every Thursday night, and Sally is the friend I go hiking with on Sundays, and when I want to go shopping I call Erica” and so forth. No, you let them be individuals and you appreciate them as such. You connect with them for different reasons, but you see them as whole people. And that’s a good way to approach your totems. Not all of them will be buddy-buddy with you, either; some of them might be quite aloof or even borderline hostile. But at least you can let those personalities and relationships grow at their own rate, and appreciate each totem on its own merits rather than whether it fits into your preconceived worldview. And you can decide what your end of the relationship will be like; if you have a totem you’re less comfortable with you can maintain a safe distance until you get more of a sense of why they showed up.

One more really important benefit: you’re able to see how the totems interact with each other. Because you’re not all caught up in “Wait, does Pigeon really fit the qualities of East?” you’re more likely to notice things like how Pigeon responds whenever you call on him and Common Raven in the same ritual. And if one totem introduces you to another, you can pay more attention to how they work together because you’re not busy figuring out where in your structure this newcomer fits. This sort of observation may very well lead to you being able to coordinate your work with several totems at once, combining efforts to achieve a common goal, allowing each participant to contribute as they see fit.

In the next essay, we’ll shake off more preconceived notions by picking apart the totem dictionary.

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.

* Any time someone says “the Native Americans believed…” look askance at them. “Native Americans” comprise thousands of individual cultures throughout the Americas, each of which has their own set of ever-evolving cultural and spiritual traditions, not all of which include totemism. Like many non-indigenous writers, Sams and Carson have nabbed little bits of lore and practice from an assortment of indigenous cultures, mish-mashed them together with New Age frippery like the lost continent Mu (from whence all the Native cultures supposedly originated), and then call it genuine Native American spirituality. Moreover, despite five hundred years of genocide, many Native American cultures still exist today, and it’s more accurate to say members of a given culture “believe” something rather than “believed.”

Totemism 201: An Introduction and Purpose (And Master List of Totemism 201 Posts)

As of this upcoming spring it will be nineteen years since I became pagan and began working with totems, among other spiritual beings. While my path has wended its way through a variety of areas of study and practice, the totems have been a constant presence throughout. While my initial work was exclusively with animal totems, since moving to Portland in 2007 I’ve expanded my work to include the totems of plants, fungi, landforms, and other manifestations of nature. From the beginning my relationships with the totems have been influenced by my status as a non-indigenous person trying to bond with the land I found myself on. I’ve been inspired by others authors’ writings on the subject, both historical and contemporary, but rather than following traditions from other cultures I have primarily worked with the totems to create my own path.

Unlike a fair number of non-indigenous practitioners, I’ve taken these relationships far beyond the basic “This totem has this meaning” level. While I’m far from the only advanced neopagan totemist out there, I’d like to see more people move their practices past stereotyped meanings and begging totems for help. I recognize I’m somewhat in the minority in this regard. Most folks who pick up a book or hunt for a website on totemism are just looking for quick and easy answers like “What does the (totem) Fox say?” and “What sort of spiritual message am I getting when a highly territorial bird like a red-tailed hawk keeps showing up in my yard, using the nearby telephone pole as a perch to hunt for delicious, delicious rodents?” I prefer writing about more complex ways of relating to these spirit beings of nature, and insist that my readers do the work themselves, even if it takes years. While I have a growing audience of folks who agree, I’m not very likely to topple Ted Andrews and his eternally-loved Animal-Speak* for “most popular totemism book ever.”

So why do I feel it’s so important to grow one’s totemic practice when so many insist on buying into an easy-answers format? Well, for one thing there’s a lot more to learn from an individual totem than whatever blurb that’s passed around from one totem dictionary to the next. Just like any other relationship, your connection with a totem grows and evolves over time, and what they have to show you may expand far beyond what you read in such and such book; Gray Wolf may say nothing whatsoever about being a teacher, and Red-tailed Hawk may never mention being a messenger, and so forth. It’s crucial to cultivate an open mind; I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve seen posting in forums about how a totem tried to teach them something that wasn’t in the book, and rather than simply going with it they worried they were doing something wrong. I find that rather sad; when faced with such a situation I prefer to promote a sense of enthusiastic exploration over one of self-doubt.

More importantly, the common totemic paradigm is incredibly selfish. Look at almost any book or website on animal totems (or spirit animals, etc.) and the emphasis is on what you can get from these beings, how they resonate with you, how they can enhance your life, and so forth. As far as I’m concerned, one of the first steps to becoming a more advanced totemic practitioner is the realization that it’s not about you, and that you (and humanity in general) are only a very tiny portion of the grand scheme of things. Beyond that it’s imperative to look at what you can give back to the totems, their physical counterparts and the habitats they live in. The New Age emphasis on non-indigenous totemism keeps saying “take, take, take, take!”; my own practice has grown to encompass “give, give, give, give!” more and more as the years have passed by. The balance of give and take may shift over time; sometimes I need to rely more heavily on my totems than others. But I have long since given up the solely “What’s in it for me?” approach so popular with the dictionary style of totemism.

I’d like to see that trend spread. Each totem is the guardian of its own species; they’re concerned with far more than us, something we all too often ignore in our quest for personal enlightenment. We humans already take so much from the rest of the beings on this planet, and we insist on taking a lot from their totems without giving back to them. I want to foster an approach to totemism that nurtures a sense of responsibility toward the totems and their children rather than this “I want all the answers and I want them now!” approach that’s so popular.

When I wrote my first book, Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, almost a decade ago, I wrote it because I was tired of totem dictionaries and wanted there to be more on totemism and animal magic than easy answers. My books and other writings have continued in that tradition, and you can consider this essay series the newest iteration thereof. You won’t find pre-scripted rituals here, and certainly not dictionary entries of what totems supposedly mean universally; I’m also not going to go into introductory material like how to find totems. It’s not an exhaustive how-to resource; that would be counter to its very intent. In part it’s a collection of essays punching holes in some (figurative) sacred cows of neopagan totemism. These writings are also meant to offer several potential starting points for expanding and growing your own practice in the directions you and your totems deem best. Let go of the idea that you have to grow your practice in a linear manner; instead, let it grow organically, and use the essays I write as seeds for that endeavor.

Master List of Totemism 201 Posts:

Totemism 201: Totems Are Not Pokémon
Totemism 201: Why Totem Dictionaries May Be Hazardous To Your Spiritual Growth
Totemism 201: Why Species Are Important
Totemism 201: It’s Not Just About the Animals
Totemism 201: It’s Not Just About Us, Either
Totemism 201: Why Going Outside is Important

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.

* No offense to the late Mr. Andrews; his book was admittedly my first book on the topic, and while much of it is the sort of dictionary I don’t care for, he did include a lot of useful exercises for bonding more deeply with one’s totems, and my signed copy that I’ve been toting around for almost twenty years is one of my prized possessions on my bookshelf.

Want a Free Copy of Plant and Fungus Totems? And Curious Gallery News

Hey, all! I’m giving away a copy of Plant and Fungus Totems over on Goodreads! You’ll need to have an account there to enter, but you have until Monday to do so. So if you want a chance to win my newest book for free, head on over here and sign up!

Also, we’re less than a month away from Curious Gallery, the two-day arts festival that I organize here in Portland. For those not already familiar with it, Curious Gallery celebrates cabinets of curiosity and their contents; this year it will be held on January 10-11, 2014 at the Portland Crowne Plaza hotel. We’ll have a beautiful and varied art show on the general theme of “cabinets of curiosity”, as well as a vendor hall, and three programming areas with a variety of presentations, demos and hands-on workshops. We’ve been busy putting up posters and postcards in Portland and further-flung areas in the Pacific Northwest; if you know anyone who may be interested in this wondrous event, send them over to the official event website! We’re also still accepting art show applications on the site, to include mailed in art, through January 5, and we have just a couple more slots available in the programming schedule so there’s an application on the site if you want to present as well.

So, Lupa, How *Do* We Make Nature Spirituality More About Nature?

Note: I fiddled around with settings on my site; you can now email-subscribe to my blog from any post, rather than on the front page of the blog itself. It’s a great way to keep up on my writing, news, and more–just plug your preferred email address into the box on the right sidebar of this (or any other) post!

In my previous post I made the assertion that a lot of what’s considered to be “nature-based spirituality” is really more about us than the rest of nature. Here I’d like to present some further food for thought, and invite other naturalist pagans and the like to reflect on where the balance between human and non-human nature may be in your own paths.

I’m going to add in my own thoughts on each of these questions, but please don’t take my responses as holy writ; I mainly offer them up in the spirit of “here, I’ll go first, since I proposed this whole thing to begin with”.

Why should we be concerned about the balance of human and non-human nature in nature spirituality?

Humanity, as a whole, is really, really self-centered. This isn’t surprising; favoring one’s own species has been a successful strategy for us and many other species for millions of years. However, one of the things we humans have evolved to face the challenges of everyday life is a big, complex, self-aware brain. This allows us to be more deliberately conscious of our choices and motivations, and to change them if we will. For example, we still have the genetic programming to gather as many food resources together as we can to feel secure; however, we also consciously recognize the devastating impact that our food consumption has on the rest of nature, and the unequal distribution of food within our own species. Therefore, we’re able to (ideally) adjust our behaviors to still get the food we need, but be less destructive in the process.

In the same vein, spirituality is one way we can make sense of the world around us and our place in it. But a lot of “nature” spirituality is really more about us than about the rest of nature. It’s about what special messages and teachings and other gifts we can get from the animals, plants and other beings around us, without having to give anything back. We might show some gratitude for things like a healthy harvest, but that’s still focusing on how nature benefits us. It’s more like “humans asking and thanking nature for stuff” spirituality. We keep inserting ourselves into the middle of things.

How does the emphasis on things like totem dictionaries, animal omens, and other “instant gratification” in nature spirituality mirror our consumption of physical resources?

Look at the shelves in pagan book stores, or the offerings from pagan publishers. They’re full of books on “the powers and meanings of animal totems” and “how to use herbs and crystals in spells” and other “get your answers right here, right now!” approaches. There’s not a lot on taking the time to create deeper, more personally meaningful relationships with other beings in nature, and even less on what we can do for our fellow beings (other than misguided advice to feed wildlife food offerings, and vague, generic “let’s send healing energy to the Earth” rituals, and so forth).

This is a direct corollary to our consumption of physical resources from nature, whether food or shelter or other tangibles. The vast majority of people, at least in the U.S., only care about nature as far as they can benefit from it. And they want their stuff now. They want to go to the store and get everything on their shopping list, whether that’s breakfast cereal and soda, or a new outfit, or cheap metal jewelry that will leave a green mark on the wearer’s skin but which makes an inexpensive gift for that relative you never know what to get for Christmas. Most people who go to national parks never venture more than a hundred yards from their cars; they oooh and ahhh at the highlights and maybe take some photos, but fewer make the connection between the preservation of these places and their own environmentally destructive actions at home.

And that’s the crux of the issue: fast-food nature spirituality continues this disconnect between our beliefs and our actions. We say we want to revere nature, but our actual interactions are brief and on the surface. Most of the people who claim Gray Wolf is their totem have never given money to an organization that works to protect wolves and the habitats they rely on to survive (though they may have bought t-shirts, statues, and other mass-produced, environmentally-unfriendly tchotchkes with wolves on them). We want something that will make us feel good and “more spiritual” in the moment, but it’s tougher to get us to engage with the deeper implications of finding the sacred in a nature that we too often damage in our reverence. The demand for totem dictionaries and other easy answers just perpetuates this trend.

How does the human-centric focus of some elements of nature spirituality reflect the human-centric focus of more mainstream religions?

Most religions start with us. Sometimes we are the chosen creation of some deity; other times one of our own achieves divine status. There might be some directive to “be nice to animals”, or in some cases refrain from eating some or all of them. But for the most part, the bigger religions are about us and our relationship to the divine, what we humans are supposed to do to earn a good afterlife, etc.

Most pagans were raised in such religions, which reflect the anthropocentrism of most existing human cultures. So it’s not surprising that when we move over to paganism for whatever reasons, we take this human-centric view with us. How do we please the gods? What sorts of nifty things can we get with spells and other magic? And, of course, what special messages does nature have for us human beings?

I, among many (though not all) other pagans, became pagan because the idea of a spiritual path that focused on nature was appealing to me, almost twenty years ago now. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was searching for wasn’t rituals and rules on how to be a good pagan; what I really wanted was to reconnect with nature, without intermediaries and without abstractions, the way I did when I was young and before life got complicated. And now that I’ve managed to rekindle that, I’m realizing just how much of purported nature-based spirituality in general really isn’t based in nature at all, except for human nature. And it just perpetuates the same human-centric patterns I was trying to move away from when I became pagan in the first place. Not all pagans are naturalist pagans, so for some a more human-based approach works. But those of us who do claim nature as the center of what is sacred may not be looking deeply enough into nature outside of ourselves.

How can we start shifting our focus away from ourselves and more toward the rest of nature?

Naturalist paganism and other forms of nature spirituality have the potential to break us out of that anthropocentric headspace, to remind us that we, the ape Homo sapiens sapiens, are just one species among thousands. For that to happen, we need to be paying more attention to the other species and parts of nature, and not just in manners that earn us freebies from the Universe.

We can start by becoming more aware of how often we ask the question “What do I get out of this?”, whether we use those words or not. This leads to an awareness of how much of our relationships to the rest of nature hinge on what we get from the deal. Sometimes it’s in the obvious places like assuming every animal sighting is a super-special message from nature, or focusing seasonal rituals only on the harvest of foods we’re able to eat and ignoring everything else happening in nature right then. But this self-centered approach can be more subtle, like using herbs in a spell but never once acknowledging the sacrifice the plants made and the resources they’d need to replace the leaves and other parts taken from them (assuming they weren’t just killed outright for their roots). By being aware of where we’re holding our hands out for gimmes, we can stop taking nature for granted so much.

Next, we can start incorporating the question “What can I give?” into our nature spirituality, again not necessarily using those words. What offerings do we make and to whom, and what actual benefit will they have to physical nature versus the harm? Part of why I emphasize donations and volunteering toward environmental causes as offerings is because they have an actual, measurable positive impact, much more than “I’m going to send some energy to endangered species by burning this petroleum-based candle made with toxic dyes”. If we take leaves from a plant for a spell, what do we give the plant in return? Is it something it can actually use, like water on a hot day, or something absolutely useless like sprinkling a few chips of quartz on the ground around its stem? Can we redirect our resources in more beneficial ways, like instead of buying a cheap wolf statue made in China we use the money (even a few dollars) to help fund the restoration of gray wolf habitat?

We can also start putting more emphasis on appreciating and honoring nature in its own right. A great way to do this is by simply learning more about biology, geology, and other natural sciences, and being able to appreciate the beings and forces of nature without having some spiritual or symbolic overlay involved. The fox that darts out into our path ceases to immediately be a portent of some important spiritual message, and instead becomes a remarkable creature borne out of billions of years of evolution and natural selection, whose strategies for surviving and adapting are equally effective as our own. And that’s all that creature has to be–amazing for itself regardless of some subjective “meaning” we glue to it.

Finally, we can realistically assess how much we’re walking our talk. I remember the very first big, public pagan gathering I went to; it was a picnic in a park, and all the food was on styrofoam plates with plastic utensils that all ended up in a big garbage bag destined for the landfill at the end of the day. It was incredibly disheartening since many of these pagans claimed to be nature-based in their own practices, and the ritual they performed even gave lip service to the “sacredness of nature”. Now, I understand that they probably didn’t want to wash a bunch of glass and ceramic dishes at the end of the day, and maybe didn’t want to spend the extra money for paper plates made from recycled paper, and perhaps they didn’t think to ask everyone to bring their own dishes to the event.

But this dissonance was important, because it gave me reason to assess my own actions and why I took them. It was the first in a long line of events that made me think “Wow, I want to do things differently”. Not “I’m a better pagan than they are”, but a realization that this thing bothered me and I wanted to make a different choice. And perhaps for those pagans, simply gathering outside on a sunny day was nature enough for them. But I wanted more, and I think naturalist paganism in particular would do well to include encouragement toward regularly assessing and improving one’s actions in relation to one’s beliefs when it comes to nature and the environment.

Here’s where a lot of people run into the sticky trap of dogma. I’m betting a lot of readers have, like me, run into that one variant of Wiccan who interprets “An if harm none” to mean “don’t eat animals!” and then insists that only vegetarians can truly be Wiccan. That’s just one example of where personal choice turns into an attempt to sic one’s dogma onto others. I don’t want to advocate that here. Just as each person’s spiritual path varies according to their needs and restrictions, so too are the actions associated with that path dictated by individual limitations and choices.

More importantly, it’s awareness, reflection, and conscious choice that are at play here. I am well aware that the car I drive, even if it does get pretty good mileage, still contributes to climate change and other results of pollution. However, I would not be able to vend my artwork at events, or take huge piles of packages to the post office, or run weekly errands associated with my business, if I didn’t have my car. Or at least it would eat a lot more into my time and lower my income more than what I currently pay for its maintenance and upkeep. But I try to balance that out by keeping it in good working order and not driving it more than I need to, and by walking or taking transit when I can. It’s that consideration and carefully-made choice that is more important than blindly adhering to the idea that if you have a car you don’t love nature enough.

And that brings me to the last question to ponder: What can I realistically change in my life right now to be more in line with my approach to nature spirituality? This is a question we can ask repeatedly–even every day, if that’s appropriate. The answer is likely to change quite a bit over time through growth and knowledge and experience. But that’s part of having a living, evolving spiritual path: you have to give it space to grow. The answers aren’t all set up in one concise book somewhere. They’re organic and they adapt to change much as we do. It’s a challenge sometimes to always be updating one’s path, to incorporate new information and reflections, and occasionally it may be tempting to just find a one-stop-shop for all the secrets of the universe.

But nature isn’t stagnant, and we only fool ourselves into thinking that only religion stands solid. If we are going to truly align ourselves with the currents and courses of the natural world, if we’re going to understand even a bit of what nature really is, then like the rest of nature we need to be prepared to adapt and explore. That means putting down the book of easy answers and “meanings”, and opening our senses to the world around us.

Sure, it’s scary sometimes, but exciting and full of curiosity, too. And I’m right here with you; you’re always welcome to comment or email me with your questions or thoughts as you walk your own path.

Why Do We Make “Nature” Based Spirituality All About Us?

A few times a month I get an email or other message from someone that goes something like this:

I saw such-and-such animal run across the road/fly into my yard/otherwise enter into my field of vision. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???!!!

My response is generally along these lines:

Chances are it was just going about its business and you happened to catch a glimpse of it. If you really, really think there was something spiritually significant about the event, try talking to the totem of that species to see whether it was anything of importance, or just coincidence. Otherwise, appreciate the fact that you got to observe a critter you don’t normally get to see.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the emphasis so many pagans and others place on animal omens and other supposed “messages from nature”. It’s as though we have to insert ourselves into every single sacred thing in (non-human) nature. We can’t just experience the wonder of a grove of old-growth trees, or the delightful surprise of a red fox racing across our path, or the split-second beauty of a meteorite flaring across a nighttime sky. No, we have to make it more meaningful to us in particular. We have to be the special centers of attention–“Nature noticed me! What a moving experience in which I was the special being chosen to have this amazing revelation given unto me by the spirits that have nothing better to do than place a well-aimed fox in my direction!”

I get that spirituality in general is, in part, a way for us to make sense of the universe and our place in it. And many of us were raised in religions and cultures that place humanity and our relationships at the center of everything. We want religion to give us all the answers and tell us what it all means for us. So it’s not surprising that when people enter into a version of paganism that’s expressly nature-centric, they still start with themselves and work outward. We want to honor nature (and, if applicable, the spirits and/or deities within it)–but we also expect to be paid attention to in return. We feel a bit cheated if nature doesn’t dignify our efforts to notice it with special signs and symbols meant just for us humans.

Yet every day, millions upon millions of animals, plants, fungi, weather patterns, geological processes, and other forces of nature go about their business whether we notice them or not, and it doesn’t change their experience much, if at all, just because we happened to be nearby. The fox only wants to get away from the potential threat we pose and continue on its merry way; the tree couldn’t care less whether we’re walking by so long as we don’t break off any branches; and the avalanche will come tumbling down by gravity’s pull regardless of how many hapless humans (and other living beings) are trapped in the way.

This isn’t to say there are never, ever any special moments in nature where we have that deeper connection, or where some spiritual being from the natural world makes contact with us. But it’s quite telling when the very first reaction someone has at seeing a bird in their yard is “What special message from the Universe does this bird bring to me? Why was I chosen to see this bird at this moment? Is it my spirit animal?” Not “Huh, I’ve never seen that species before; I wonder if they’re migratory?” Not “Wow, there’s a tiny dinosaur* flitting about my yard!” But “ME! ME! ME! MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

Okay, yes, that’s a bit hyperbolic. My point stands: we’ve been making nature-based spirituality more about us than about the rest of nature. Really, it’s an extension of humanity’s self-centered relationship to the rest of nature in general: for the most part, we only value it as far as we can get something out of it. We want stuff and things from the bounties of the Earth; we want our metals mined and our food harvested and our wood chopped down and we want it NOW. And our nature spirituality has gone in the same direction. We want a totem animal dictionary to tell us what a particular totem means for us. We use dried herbs and crystals in spells to make things better for us. We spend our Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations thanking nature for what it’s done for us. And we want those answers NOW.

It’s a long-ingrained habit, and I think we need to spend some time breaking ourselves out of that headspace. We don’t need to abandon personal meaning and messages entirely; they do have their value. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand one’s place in the Universe. Hell, I still write books that are largely about helping readers connect with totems and other spiritual nature-beings, to include for one’s own spiritual growth.

But my own practice has been steadily moving away from a human-centered nature spirituality. I have my totems and other guides, but the work I do with them is less about me, and more about them and their physical counterparts. When I am out hiking and I see a new species of bird I haven’t encountered before, I experience a great deal of wonder at the diversity of life around me; it’s an occasion to stop, count all the plants and fungi and animals and other things I see, and be amazed by it all. I don’t study spells or rituals any more; instead I read books and watch documentaries on biology and astronomy and physics and geology. I don’t celebrate the turning of the seasons with rituals about humans and our agricultural cycles, or projections of ourselves through anthropomorphic deities; instead, I go hiking and observe the shifts in nature, and I do volunteer work to clean up my adopted beach along the Columbia, and I ask my totems what more I can do for them and their physical counterparts. That’s why, more and more, my books have emphasized the two-way relationships with totems, what we can give back as well as what we can receive from them. As my practice goes, so goes my writing.

It is impossible to divorce spirituality experienced by humans from being at least somewhat human-focused; we are looking at the world through human eyes, after all. But if our nature-based paganism really is going to be about nature as a whole, and not just the celebration of humans in nature, then we need to be critical of how often we place ourselves squarely in the center of our nature spirituality. We need to stop asking what nature can give us and teach us, and instead focus more on what we can give to nature amid the constant pattern of take, take, take. Some pagans claim that paganism is a solution to more overbearing, dominating religions; yet if we’re going to truly and radically make naturalist paganism a path of relationship rather than dominance, I think we still have some work to do.

In my next post (scheduled for next Monday) I’m going to go into more detail as to what that work might look like. (Hint: there’s no one true way!)

*Okay, so technically birds aren’t dinosaurs–but they’re directly descended from theropod dinosaurs, so the eight-year-old in me likes to think they’re just Dinosaurs 2.0.

Monstera Obliqua/Swiss Cheese Vine as Plant Totem

Last summer, when I was working a day job in addition to keeping the Green Wolf as a business going (yes, it was a busy time) I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to work every day. Along my walk there was an office building where someone had some house plants they decided they no longer wanted to care for. So within my first week of work, I had adopted several new plants from the curb. All of them were dehydrated and in too-small containers, and most of them I wasn’t even sure what they were.

One in particular stood out to me. It looked something like a philodendron, but with odd natural holes in the leaves. With a little research, I discovered I had a specimen of Monstera obliqua, the Swiss cheese vine. It’s the little cousin of the better-known Swiss cheese plant, Monstera deliciosa; its proper Latin name is actually Monstera adansonii, but both I and the totem rather prefer Monstera obliqua between the two of us. The plant does grow like a philodendron, and like its lookalike it can be propagated with cuttings.

There weren’t going to be any cuttings off this sad little vine, though, at least not for a while. She had one single vine, barely six inches long, with just a few shriveled leaves on it, and was still potted in its original nursery planter, a tiny plastic box-like thing about three inches cubed, with bone-dry soil. I gave the poor thing some water as soon as I got to the office, and then carried her home with me that evening for repotting. After that, it was a waiting game to see if she and her companions would pull through.

I am pleased to say that not only did they make it, but they flourished! The Monstera has been the most successful; a year later, that one little vine is now the better part of ten feet long, and there are others of varying lengths. (I think of her as my tropical Rapunzel, albeit an inedible one!) I recently repotted her again, and had the chance to have a long conversation with her totem, Monstera Obliqua.

First, the totem thanked me for caring for its offspring and rescuing it that day. Then it asked me about my experience caring for the plant for the past year. I talked about how fulfilling and exciting it was to see her thrive and grow, rebounding from poor care. I had enjoyed learning more about how to take care of her and my other house plants, especially since my experience had mostly been with temperate vegetables, not tropical vines! And I appreciated the beauty of this unusual plant, brightening first my office, and then my home when my temporary summer job ended.

Then Monstera Obliqua said “In the wild, my offspring must climb the taller trees in order to get enough sunlight to live. They have to climb off the forest floor to keep from being trampled and destroyed. There is nothing wrong with relying on those around you for help. My children do not harm the trees they climb; there is no competition, only opportunity. The tree can get what it needs regardless; the vine simply benefits from its strength.

“In the same way, this little vine has relied on your strength. She is not in her home tropics, but in a place of more varied temperatures, at the mercy of whoever brings her water and food and soil. You have offered her somewhere to grow and be, and attended to her needs. The only thing she might hope for is a little more space to stretch her vines along, letting her instinct to climb be realized. But you see how she flourishes; she appreciates you and makes the most of what you give her.

“Can you say the same of those who give to you?”

And that gave me reason to pause. For many years now I’ve ended my day with a thank you prayer for all those who have given of themselves to keep me alive and well in this world, and I try my best to show my gratitude to those who help me each and every day. Sometimes I have to struggle a bit; even the toughest experiences are still lessons to be learned and stories to be made, and I do my best to live with no regrets, only perspective. But every moment I breathe is a gift, and I thought of all the times when I was the vine climbing a tree, and all the times I was a tree with vines climbing me for support. It wasn’t competition, just everyone doing what they needed to to survive.

And now I look at my not-so-little Monstera vine with a little more meaning and a little more understanding of the complex ecosystems and webs I am a part of. There’s no shame in needing others, and there’s no arrogance in being strong. Not every vine has to be a strangler fig, killing its host over time, and not every person who draws on one’s resources is going to take too much. A healthy balance is a good thing to aspire to, and the totem Monstera Obliqua reminded me of that.

If you liked this post, please consider purchasing a copy of my newest book, Plant and Fungus Totems: Connecting With Spirits of Field, Forest and Garden. Your support is greatly appreciated!

monstra1

Books, Blogs, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Lupa news round-up! Here’s what I’ve got for you dear readers:

–My newest book is out! Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect With Spirits of Field, Forest and Garden is a continuation of my spiritual explorations the past several years. In it I focus on what fungus and plant totems are and how they’re unique from their animal counterparts (and each other!), different ways of working with them, and how to give back to them and their ecosystems, among other topics of interest. As with all my books, this is no mere dictionary stuffed with page-fillers, but instead a versatile toolkit to apply to your practice. You can read more about it and buy a copy here.

–In a similar vein, I just today discovered that the shopping cart feature on my website has not been working since I switched it over in March. The back end showed that a few people tried to buy books, but I got absolutely no information other than a date and time, and no money was received here. If you were one of those people (or if you still want to order books from here instead of at my Etsy shop), I have reverted back to the old Buy Now buttons which, while not a pretty, are proven to be effective. My sincerest apologies for the inconvenience.

–If you’d like to sample even more of my writing for absolutely free, one of my co-writers at the now-defunct No Unsacred Place, Rua Lupa, has teamed up with me to offer you all a new blog at Patheos, Paths Through the Forests. We’ll be continuing our thoughts and conversations on nature, bioregionalism, spirituality, and more. While I’ll occasionally post a link round-up here, you can get more frequent updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. Rua Lupa’s already posted there, and my first official post is due out Thursday of this week.

–Finally, thanks to sales at Faire in the Grove this past weekend, I was able to make a donation to the Monterey Bay Aquarium! They are a world leader in research on marine biology and ocean health, as well as the developers of the Seafood Watch pamphlet, website feature and phone app, which allow you to look up which seafood choices are sustainable, and which to avoid. Plus they always have an amazing array of sea creatures on display at the aquarium itself, well-cared-for and healthy, and accompanied by plenty of information. You can find out more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their work at www.montereybayaquarium.org/