Category Archives: Plants

A Prayer of Gratitude

I don’t do a lot of praying; I tend to do more acting, being and observing. But occasionally I want to take a moment to appreciate something that I have, so I send out a prayer of gratitude. There’s one that I wrote years ago that I say every night before I go to sleep:

Thank you to all of those who have given me this day,
All those who have given of themselves
To feed me
Clothe me
Shelter me
Protect me
Teach me
And heal me.
May I learn to be as generous as you.

When I wrote it as a newbie pagan, I felt that I’d mostly covered the bases on what others (human and otherwise) gave to me so I could go on living each day. Now that I’m older I could think of other actions in addition to feeding or teaching, but I love the flow of this prayer as it is. It’s like an old story–Italian, I think?–in which a man comes across a group of little fey ladies coming out of a hill, singing “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”. The man then sings out “and Tuesday!” and the ladies curse him because he ruined the cadence of their song. Sure, I could add another line or two, but it’s currently perfect in its rhythm and timing for getting me back into touch with all those who have contributed to me getting another day on this Earth.

I’m less naive than when I first wrote it, though. Take the line “To feed me”, for example. Back then I was thinking of the people who helped bring food to my table, from farmers to grocers to my own family. As I got older, I not only thought more about the plants, animals, fungi and other living beings involved in the complex food creation and distribution systems, but also the people who were more behind the scenes and often neglected: migrant farm workers, slaughterhouse employees, late-night cardboard box factory employees. And I thought of those ecosystems that were polluted by industrial fertilizers or torn down to make room for one more monocropped wheat field (even if it was organically grown).

So the whole prayer is a reminder to me that I am part of an incredibly complex web of connections, most of which I will never personally observe, but which I have an effect on in my everyday life. And it’s why the last line is bittersweet. I can never be as generous as a pig killed in a slaughterhouse for pork chops, and I will never know the experience of working fourteen hour days in a strawberry field under the hot summer sun, underpaid and worried about deportation. But I can at least give back in awareness, education, and trying to make better choices–like growing my own food when I’m able to, supporting fair trade practices and organic farming where I can afford it, and reminding others–even through this simple prayer–that nothing is as simple as “thank you”.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which encourages the reader to be more aware of their bioregion and all the beings they share it with.

Of Course My Priority is a Garden

This past weekend I headed up to the coast house with my partner and our roommate for an overnight. The plan was to take measurements in my studio-to-be so I could figure out what I was taking in the way of furniture. I also wanted to get the old garden behind the garage covered over with tarps to kill off the weeds and other plants that had taken residence over several years of neglect. My goal is to be able to start planting in there by the start of June, but if that’s going to happen I’d need to get started on overhauling the space now.

beforeWhat I seem to have forgotten in the week between the two visits to the house is that the garden had been unattended long enough that several small trees were growing there. So it wouldn’t be a matter of just throwing down tarps and calling it good. No, we’d have to go in and remove the trees, as well as tamp down other plants so they could be covered, along with uprooting a bit of English ivy that had somehow managed to take root in one corner (it’s nasty, pernicious stuff that will take over if you aren’t careful).

I see the killing of plants as a weighty matter in the same way I view the killing of animals. In either case I am taking away a being’s place in this world. And because we’ve been conditioned to see trees as extra-special (compared to, say, dandelions) it somehow feels more difficult to fell a tree than pull out invasive ivy. So before my partners in gardening came down from the house to help, I said my apologies to every one of the plants in that space. I think I said an extra apology to the trees, though.

duringHowever, the land isn’t hurting for trees, not in the least. In fact, they need thinning, particularly where they’ve intruded onto the dunes, and where a lack of fire and old growth has made the forest grow thicker than is healthy. And in the long run what I’m doing will be more beneficial to the world in other ways. By growing even more of my own food (I’m also keeping the community garden plot in Portland and my roommate has signed on as a co-gardener) I can cut down on reliance on monocropped produce from the stores, particularly since I can’t always afford the organic option. It’s a good reminder of why I need to be close to the land. And it’s great exercise.

We were all reminded of that last bit as we started in on the preparation of the plot behind the garage. I chopped down seven young fir trees and an alder that was threatening to take down the fence using a pair of clippers and a hand axe. S., my partner (and ever the historical swordsman) helped with the alder using a reproduction Civil War-era Bowie knife (more of a small sword than a pocket knife). J., our roommate, went after the overflow of grass with much gusto, and by the time all was said and done we were tired and sweaty, but the tarps were down and weighted with whatever heavy items we could find (to include, perhaps macabrely, the fir trees I had cut down).

afterI figure I’ll leave the tarps for a month or so, then rake up whatever’s underneath into a compost pile, turn the soil and remove whatever roots I find. The tree stumps will be a bit more of a challenge but I can work around them if need be. I want to send in a soil sample, too, to see what condition it’s in–obviously it’s been supporting a variety of life, so it’s not sterile. But I’m curious, particularly since the garden is a raised bed and the soil was likely brought in by truck.

I’ll be moving my studio out to the house next week, but I already feel a little more at home knowing I have a garden in the works.

Want to help my garden grow–and help me survive a crazy month full of moving, taxes and other expenditures? Consider buying one of my books, or purchasing artwork from my Etsy shop, or even request a totem card reading!

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupa Goes Places: PSU’S Museum of Natural History and OMS’s Fall Mushroom Show

Despite my busy studio and writing schedule, I do get out of the apartment sometimes! Honest! And recently I got to get my nature nerd on by going to a couple of really delightful local natural history events.

On Saturday, October 24, Portland State University’s Department of Biology held their first Museum of Natural History Open House. This consisted of the department throwing open the doors of classrooms (stuffed full of all sorts of gorgeous specimens) to the public, and students from the graduate program showing off presentations on their favorite topics, ranging from beetles to lichens to a diversity of pollinators. Since Portland currently lacks a decent natural history museum, this was something I wasn’t going to miss!

I took a LOT of photos, more than I can reasonably fit here, but I wanted to share a few of my favorites:

woodpeckers

I love old bird study skins, and I also really think woodpeckers are awesome. So this little display of study skins from native woodpecker species was right up my alley. From left: downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, northern flicker, and red-breasted sapsucker. Of these, the sapsucker’s the only one I’ve yet to spot in the wild–but it’s on the list to look for! Also, notice the red stripe on the cheek of the flicker? That’s how you know it’s a male (the “moustache” stripe can also be black in some populations).

hippos

There were, of course, a LOT of skulls and articulated skeletons. I was really excited to see adult and baby hippo skulls in person for the first time. Look at the gnarly tusks on the adult–those are several very good reasons the hippo kills more people every year than crocodiles! Don’t let their lazy appearance fool you, either; a hippo can easily outrun a person any day of the week.

molly

Molly Radany, who tipped me off about the event in the first place (thank you!) put together this awesome harvest-themed info display about Pacific Northwest pollinators. Lest you think it’s only the honey bees we need to be saving, her work shows that there are literally dozens of insects responsible for making sure native plants and crops get pollinated and come to fruition.

jars

The same lab that housed Molly’s pollinator display also had shelves full of jars upon jars of wet preserved specimens, of which these are just a tiny portion. They’re not everyone’s cup o’ formaldehyde, but they’re incredibly valuable for helping students study the anatomy of different species without having to go through the time-consuming process of taxidermy. And for a lot of these smaller amphibian, reptile and fish specimens, wet preservation is a much better option than dry taxidermy anyway.

orca

This orca skeleton seems absolutely delighted with the balloon it was given for the festivities. The entire room was full of marine mammal skeletons and skulls and was one of my favorite spots in the entire event. I wish I’d had more time there; we got to that room just as the event was wrapping up.

snehk

Not every critter in the place was deceased. Several displays included live animals, including one dedicated to the study of the hibernation of Canadian garter snakes. The researching professor brings back a few every year for study, and returns them in fall in time for hibernation. This little noodle was poking its head out of the substrate at just the right moment.

silliness

Yes, I was inspired to run with the caribou. Seriously, though, I really enjoyed the Museum of Natural History event, and I truly hope it ends up being repeated.

mushrooms1

Then this past Sunday (my birthday!) we ended up at the Oregon Mycological Society’s Fall Mushroom Show at the Forestry Center. This photo doesn’t really show the scale of the event or just how many people were there. It was pretty darn busy, and it was tough to get in at any of the info tables–which is good, because it shows a lot of interest! I made it to part of the myco-remediation talk (there were several talks I would have liked to attend). Since the lights were out I didn’t feel right taking pictures; needless to say, the talks definitely added to the event.

mushrooms2

Here’s a different angle, showing one of the many beautiful fungus displays OMS put together for the event. Seriously, there were hundreds of species represented, all put together in these amazing life arrangements.

mushrooms3

Unsurprisingly, the identification table was one of the most popular, always packed every time I went by. Here you can see just a few of the field guides an ambitious mycologist might have in their arsenal, and in the background one of the microscopes showing spores under high magnification. I wish I’d had more time at this particular table–maybe if I show up earlier next year.

mushrooms4

This table of Amanita and Agaricus specimens was  especially pretty.

mushrooms5

And of course my favorite table of all–the books!!! My sweetie got me a copy of Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest as a birthday gift. I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the many sorts of fungi we have here, particularly since so many of them look really similar and can only be told apart by tiny details like spore prints and microscopes. Still, it’s a good basic guide to have with me out in the field.

All these events have helped me to be more motivated to get my own natural history-inspired event, Curious Gallery, ready for its third year. It’ll be held January 9-10, 2016 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Portland, OR. If you’d like to display your cabinet of curiosities-themed art in our fine art exhibition, or present a talk, workshop or performance on topics concerning nature, culture, and/or art, or simply join us for a weekend of curiosity, education and beauty, all of the relevant information may be found at the official Curious Gallery website.

Is Hunting Antithetical to Nature Spirituality?

I had someone over on Tumblr ask me whether I thought hunting could be compatible with a nature-based spirituality, in this case druidry. I wanted to share my answer to their inquiry, since it’s an awesome topic:

I don’t see it as being contradictory at all to be both a practitioner of nature spirituality (druidry or otherwise) and a hunter. People have this idea that if you kill animals it must make you not like nature. But these same people forget a few important points:

Nature is not just animals; nature is also plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, stones, waterways, weather patterns, even the spaces in between atoms. And all nature-lovers have to kill to survive, even if they’re killing plants, or fungi, or the bacteria residing on the makings of their fruitarian diet. What makes nature spirituality so awesome is that it encourages us to consciously embrace our place in the rest of nature, not as conqueror and superior, but as just one more ape among a whole host of vibrant and amazing beings.

As we are uniquely conscious (as far as we know, anyway) of the effects of our actions, we can feel sorrow at taking a life, even if it’s in the process of furthering our own existence. Nature spirituality offers us a framework to work through the emotions and thoughts associated with that reality, whether that’s grief at death, or the joy of dispelling hunger, or the gratitude at having another day to enjoy this amazing world we live in.

One of the misconceptions people have is that all hunters are callous when it comes to the rest of nature and the animals they kill. Sure, there are always going to be yahoos lacking in empathy who just want to see something die. But they’re the minority. Most hunters, at least in my experience, genuinely love being outdoors and respect the animals they hunt. You don’t get to know a species in the detail that’s required to successfully hunt it without having some appreciation of its strengths and characteristics. Again, nature spirituality offers ways to celebrate that life and the appreciation we have for the gift of meat that prolongs our lives.

Does that mean everyone following a nature-based spiritual path is going to agree on the issue of hunting? Of course not. It’s not a monolithic religion, but a general umbrella for both pagan and non-pagan paths that center on the sanctity of nature. Just as that tent includes hunters and omnivores, there are also vegetarians and vegans. And there are folks whose focus is more on agriculture than hunting, or who otherwise simply don’t account for the hunt as a part of their practice or philosophy.

IMO, what’s most important is respect, particularly for every being that dies to feed us, from the most powerful elk or bison (even those that are farm-raised) to the tiniest bacteria. Nature is composed of endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and we’re allowed the solemnity of death because we know what is lost and gained in that transition.

Like my writing on nature spirituality? Want to encourage me to keep writing? Then I invite you to preorder my next book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems in Your Ecosystem, due out from Llewellyn in January 2016! More details and preorder info here.

The Litany of Nature; Or, Time For a New Journal

Townsend’s chipmunk.
Bleeding heart.
Chicken of the woods.

Earlier this month I experienced an important milestone: I filled up my hiking journal.

Most hikes I’ve gone on in the past seven and a half years, I’ve toted along an increasingly battered, well-loved spiral-bound blank book that was a gift from my aunt who has always indulged my love of journals. The covers are decorated with art by biologist and artist Heather A. Wallis-Murphy, rendered in lovely watercolors. (I highly recommend her journals, cards and the like on her website; you’ll need to order via snail mail, but it’s totally worth it.) And the pages are nice quality paper, perfect for jotting down notes and sketches.

Old man’s beard.
Sword fern.
Douglas squirrel.

I first started writing in this journal in September of 2007, a few months after I moved to Portland and began exploring the wilderness areas in the Columbia River Gorge. I was just getting into neoshamanism at the time (that’s about when I started blogging at Therioshamanism, the predecessor to this blog). So my excursions into wild places were punctuated by spiritual impressions and beings and meanings, and my journaling reflected that. There were rituals, and meditations, and other things besides simply hiking. There were reflective essays on how I’d developed since the last hike, complete with “Here’s where I am now, Journal!” walls of text. I did record the animals and plants I recognized; only a few at first, but more over time.  Still, those took a backseat to the longer-form writings.

As the years went on, the content of my entries changed. They were less about “me, me, me!”; instead, the focus shifted to more observations on the world around me. In my previous relationship which I’d been embroiled in at the start of the journal, I’d gotten into the bad habit of navel-gazing so hard that I ended up processing in circles. The same problems kept coming up over and over again, but ultimately were never solved (hence the end of that relationship). I began doubting the effectiveness of all these abstract symbols of the wilderness, and thinking maybe–like the constant “internal work”–they were distracting me from what was really important.

Fly agaric.
Lobaria pulmonaria.
Mountain chickadee.

It took years to finally get to the point where I felt I could admit that what I really needed wasn’t what I had been striving for–a more structured neoshamanic path. Instead, I yearned for a falling away of abstractions and symbols and other things that distanced me from the purest manifestation of nature. I required nothing less than immediate and direct contact with the physical world, not in myths or superstitions, but in soil and species and the ever-shifting clouds overhead. I wanted only the deepest, least cluttered connection I’d had as a child, when the sacredness of nature first became known to me. And so I lost my religion, and in doing so gained the world.

My journal entries shifted as well. I stopped trying to wax eloquent on theology and the dramas of my everyday life. Instead, I began to do more listing. Animals. Plants. Fungi. Even geological formations. Everything I noticed and could identify, I made note of. Even if I didn’t know the exact species, I took note of field marks and looked it up later when I was home with a reliable internet connection. It didn’t matter that no one else could read my horrible chicken scratch scribbled handwriting. What was on those pages was the blossoming of a curious mind that had been entangled for decades.

Red elderberry.
Common raven.
Black morel.
Sandhill crane.
Red admiral.
Hemlock.
Maidenhair fern.
Cooper’s hawk.
Miner’s lettuce.
Evernia prunastria.
Steller’s jay.
Skunk cabbage.
Mule deer.
And more.
So many more.

journals2In the years since that shift, my time in the woods has been better, more productive, more calming. I no longer care whether that bird I saw was really a spiritual messenger and I shouldn’t offend it. It is enough that my path crossed with that of another living being, one I might not get to see in my everyday sphere of existence. I no longer try to map out the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds. I content myself with vast, interrelated ecosystems, more full of wonder and magic than I had remembered from childhood.

And in my journal, I could trace that growth. My lists of beings I could identify was no longer a small handful, but dozens, and with many more to be learned and known and understood. Animals were no longer the main focus; I beheld entire systems, of which the wildlife was only one part. I recorded my excitement at seeing a new-to-me species or a behavior I hadn’t witnessed before. And I became hungry for even more.

My new journal is another Wild Tales creation, this time with eagles as the theme. It is pristine, but for the first few pages. These carry the memories and lists of my Oregon desert adventures, transcribed over from temporary paper while the journal arrived in the mail. Already the corners are a little bent from being shoved into my day pack in my subsequent hikes; my name and number adorn the cover, just in case I lose it somewhere. I suspect I’ll fill it up a lot quicker than the last one. I’m hiking more often, and I have a lot more to record. There’s the litany of nature to record, after all.

Yellow-headed blackbird.
Sagebrush.
Sunburst lichen…

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 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.

A Naturalist Pagan Approach to Gratitude

Supposedly Thanksgiving is about gratitude, a rather pagan-friendly appreciation of the harvest that will help us get through the hard winter ahead. In my experience, it’s primarily been a time to get together with family and/or friends, eat lots of food (and for some people get tipsy or drunk on whatever booze is available), and not have to go to work. Other than a prayer before the meal, I’ve observed very little overt gratitude being given amid the festivities. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of time with good people and plenty to eat, and I definitely disapprove of the growing trend of nonessential personnel having to work on Thanksgiving proper. But the original meaning of the holiday seems to have been rather lost in practice.

Perhaps this is in part because deliberate harvest festivals have been a part of my spirituality for the better part of two decades. Because I came to paganism after being raised Catholic, and I didn’t have a coven or other group to indoctrinate me formally with a predetermined set of spiritual parameters, I had to really consider what beliefs and practices I was adhering to and why. So I learned about the three harvest Sabbats–Lammas, Fall Equinox, and Samhain–and their historical counterparts in various European cultures. As I spent more time gardening, I was able to put theoretical practices to the test, exercising a new layer of gratitude as I watched seeds I planted sprout, grow, and come to fruition. The older I got and the more my path developed, the less I took my spirituality for granted.

These days, gratitude is deeply ingrained in my path because I know too much now to sustain ignorance. My roots are firmly embedded in urban sustainability and environmental awareness, and so I am acutely aware of where my food comes from and the cost it exacts on the land. “Harvest” isn’t just something to be celebrated in autumn; I’m able to get all sorts of food year-round, and that means there’s a harvest going on somewhere every day. As much as I try to stay local and seasonal, it’s not always within my budget (financial or temporal), and so I sometimes find myself buying out of season produce flown in from far away and processed foods whose ingredients were harvested weeks ago, moreso in the winter.

This means that each meal is infused with awareness and appreciation for the origins of each of the ingredients, whether I grew them myself or not. I can’t help but be grateful to those who made sure I was able to eat, whether that’s the animals, plants and fungi that died (or were at least trimmed back) to feed me, or the people who took care of them throughout their lives, or those who harvested and prepared them. I also have gratitude for the land that supported the food as it grew, particularly those places where chemical pesticides, fertilizers and other “enhancements” have destroyed the health of the soil. And I think, too, of the air, water, and land polluted by the fossil fuels used to grow, process and transport the food to me, and the other wastes that result from the sometimes convoluted path from farm to table.

All of this is summed up in a short prayer I’ve said before meals–quietly or out loud–for many years:

Thank you to all those who have given of themselves to feed me, whether directly or indirectly.
May I learn to be as generous as you.

Notice there’s two parts to that prayer–the acknowledgement of what others have given to me, and a hope that I can be as giving myself. Considering how much some beings sacrifice in order for me to eat, it’s impossible for me to give back exactly as much, at least until I die and my body is buried in the ground to be recycled into nutrients for others. But I can try to give back through more sustainable food choices, and attending to the tiny patch of land in my community garden, and donating food to charity. I can support efforts to gain better rights and working conditions for the migrant workers who pick the produce I eat and the underpaid employees of food processing plants. I can work to educate others about the problems inherent in our food systems and what we can do about them. All these are a far cry from being as generous as a being that died to feed me, but they’re a start.

My gratitude drives me to do what I can each day, not only to appreciate what I’m given but to care for those who have given it to me. The more I know about where my food comes from, the more driven I am to be a responsible part of this unimaginably large network of supply and demand, resource and consumption. Being grateful isn’t just about taking things with a “Yes, thank you”. It’s also the desire to give back, to demonstrate appreciation. The prayer at the beginning of the meal is only the barest glimmer of that urge, and it means little if it’s not followed up by action.

And so this Thanksgiving, as I am surrounded by others and as we prepare to eat turkey and stuffing and green beans and the canned cranberry sauce that retains its cylindrical shape all by itself, it’ll just be another day in which I am grateful and in which I try to enact as well as voice that gratitude. It’s also a good day to renew my commitment to that thankfulness and all it entails, in thought and deed alike. I may never achieve perfection; there are always more thanks to be given. But let this time of year be the rejuvenation of my efforts nonetheless.