When I say every species has a totem, I mean it! This includes the species that have long since ceased to exist on this physical plane. They often have a different view on this world and our concerns because they no longer have physical counterparts here, but I find them fascinating to work with.
One of my favorite plant totems in this regard is the totem of the ancient species we know as Cooksonia caledonica*. This plant and the rest of its genus (at least the species we’re aware of) is the oldest plant known to have the beginnings of a vascular system. This makes it a bridge between the bryophytes like mosses and liverworts, and more advanced vascular plants like the various flowering plants, trees, and so forth. It’s also one of the earliest land plants, and the vascular tissue in its stem was an important evolutionary step that helped plants further colonize dry land.
My relationship with Cooksonia is one of shared curiosity. Most of our interactions involve us sitting back and observing the world today, with its diversity of plant life, and being astonished at how far the plant kingdom has come in the past 400 million or so years. Cooksonia really had no idea at the time how far that one little adaptation would go, and the fact that we have redwoods and sequoias that built on the same basic system that Cooksonia evolved delights this good-natured totem. It also doesn’t seem particularly bitter about the extinction of its species; part of this is due to the great amount of time since the extinction, but it’s also that Cooksonia sees a bit of its children in their descendants today.
More than most totems, Cooksonia enjoys interacting with modern physical plants and their totems. You know how grandparents and great-grandparents admire and dote on their (great) grandchildren? it’s much like that, only with many, many more generations involved. All the Cooksonia totems have a tendency to cluster together like the old “aunties” of the family. I talk about the totem Cooksonia Caledonica in singular here, but very often it’s just the most outspoken of the group who join me in watching the world go by for a while–Cooksonia Pertoni, Cooksonia Banksii,** and the rest. They love going hiking with me and sometimes they’ll spend a great deal of time convincing me to stop and look at this particular leaf, or the shape of that trunk there.
Really, if there’s any totem that embodies my sense of awe and wonder at the world, it’s Cooksonia. I certainly haven’t had the long view on things that any of the plants have, but I can borrow their perspective for a while, and Cooksonia Caledonica is more than happy to share.
* Due to some physical structures, some scientists have assigned this plant a new genus, making it Aberlemnia caledonica instead. The totem seems to like its older name better, so I generally stick to that in working with it, but I thought it was important for readers to know the different opinions on the nomenclature for this species.
** For those not familiar with my personal formatting conventions: when talking about a physical species, I use the proper scientific nomenclature in italics and the species name starting with a lowercase letter (Cooksonia caledonica); when talking about the totem, I treat it like a proper name without italics and both the genus and species names beginning with a capital letter (Cooksonia Caledonica).
Riding on the momentum of my last post, I’d like to trot out one of my pet peeves: the notion that this world doesn’t have any magic.
It’s a sentiment that I’ve heard here and there over the years among pagans and others. It generally starts with a discussion about how we can’t actually fly without support or shoot fireballs or change the color of our eyes with a spell, and complaints that there aren’t any dragons or unicorns or telepathic horses running around. This sometimes devolves into speculation that, as in some urban fantasy novel or White Wolf RPG, this world once had magic but somehow lost it when technology took over. Of course, no one ever provides any compelling evidence that this was the case in the past, and the speculation is usually defended with “Well, you can’t prove it wasn’t that way, so I believe it was!” This is then postulated as being as real a reality as that explored by science over the centuries, and no one can dissuade the speaker that there isn’t some huge government conspiracy to hide magic from the commoners.
Now, I like a good fantasy novel as much as anyone, and I exercise a healthy imagination thereby. And while over the years I’ve become more skeptical of the idea that ritual magic is anything more than elaborate confirmation bias, I can still see its value when couched in personal or cultural beliefs, or when used to focus particularly strong emotions and desires. In either case, magic is a manifestation of the desire to have more avenues of possibility and action than are normally assumed. For example, if I am looking for a new job or contract or other income opportunity, I’ll do a ritual with the totems American Badger and River Otter. Badger is grounded and very tenacious, and understands the need to preserve one’s den (even if badgers don’t pay rent). But Otter reminds me to look for work that I can enjoy on some level, and to not forget to make time for self-care and having fun on a regular basis. By asking them for help, it may be that I am employing spiritual beings that help nudge the possibility of finding the right kind of work, and soon, more in my favor. Or I could just be revving myself up for the hunt, boosting my confidence and energy, and making me more aware of opportunities when they arise. Whether I’ve tapped into something external or internal (or both), I’ve made use of a resource others may not have, and which are not just the usual “send out the CV, write an inquiry letter, feature a new piece of artwork, etc.” that anyone can do.
But what I don’t do is discount the everyday actions associated with finding work. I could whine that because owls on the wing aren’t bringing me job offers from an office of magical arts and that I have to hit the pavement like everyone else, the world has fallen from a former height and sunk into a morass of banality. Or I could just appreciate that it’s a fact of life that, generally speaking, you get out of life what you put into it, and the door to a world of applications and interviews is right over yonder. It’s still no guarantee of a job, especially in the current economic climate, but I can put forth as much effort as I possibly can under my current circumstances and work within the restrictions my reality presents. Not as much fun as a teaching position at Hogwarts, but much more likely.
So what does this have to do with dragons and other mythical beasties that supposedly once roamed this land? Well, while the fossil record is far from complete, there’s yet to be any evidence of any creature that violates the laws of physics in the way Smaug and his winged, fire-breathing dragon counterparts would. The biggest flying reptile that we have evidence for, the Cretaceous-era pterosaur Hatzegopteryx, had a maximum wingspan that topped out at just under 40 feet, and it probably didn’t hoard gems, breathe fire, or speak any human language. And no animal has ever evolved that, other than the occasional genetic mutant, had one single true horn in the middle of its forehead (the tusk of a narwhal is a modified tooth, not a horn). The closest thing we have is a rhinoceros, and probably no one would mistake that for a horse or deer-like creature in the 21st century.
But rhinos are pretty awesome in their own right. Like the other African megafauna, they’re a relic of paleolithic times when giant mammals roamed many continents. While their northern woolly cousins passed into extinction thousands of years ago, the five species still living have survived changes in climate and the rise of humanity as a dominant force on earth. And they’re absolutely necessary to the African savannah where our species came about: In areas where the white rhinoceros has been removed from its historical territory, for example, the entire landscape changes, from the soil on up. White rhinos add crucial nitrogen to the soil through their droppings, which sustains the vast grasslands in the savannah. Take away the rhinos, and the whole ecosystem suffers.* You know the story of how a European unicorn could purify poisoned water with a touch of its horn so that all the animals could drink it? The backside of a rhino may be less romantic, but it has a similarly positive effect for all the creatures and other living beings in its homeland.
So that’s the unicorn. But what of dragons? Well, there’s the Komodo dragon, of course, the biggest of the monitor lizards, reaching up to eight and a half feet long. It doesn’t breathe fire, but it does have a nasty bite that’s both loaded with bacteria and venom for a double dose of awful. The females are capable of parthenogenesis, or reproduction without sperm involved, a pretty rare accomplishment that some human women may wish they could repeat! On the topic of dragons, I’d also like to introduce you to Draco volans, the flying dragon. It’s a small lizard from South Asia that has membranes attached to elongated ribs that allow it to glide from tree to tree. It’s the closest thing we have to a winged reptile, and it’s pretty cool-looking if you ask me. It’s a lot smaller than fictional dragons, too, at less than a foot in length. And you can apparently have them as pets, though the usual caveats about pet reptiles, to include making sure they were domestic-bred rather than wild-captured, and being very aware of the animal’s unique care and needs, apply particularly strongly here.
If mythical beasties aren’t your thing, what about a dash of alchemy? The ancient alchemists sought a way to transmute base metals into gold, as well as perform other internal and external transformations. But we don’t need gold to live; what we do need is energy, and we have the Philosopher’s Stone for that right in our front yards. I tend to go on and on about how awesome photosynthesis is, and for good reason–it turns sunlight into food, to explain it very, very simply. A more complex explanation is that plants have organelles called chloroplasts; these take the energy from sunlight and use it to turn the carbon from the carbon dioxide the plant breathes into a type of sugar, a simple carbohydrate. And if you think this is nothing special, consider that our experiments with artificial photosynthesis are comparatively crude and inefficient compared to the streamlined process that the plants have evolved over millions of years. We have yet to be able to successfully transform a base element (carbon) into the absolutely crucial “gold” carbohydrates we need to live, yet plants have the process perfectly streamlined. In fact, every bit of energy you get from your food started out as the product of photosynthesis, whether you ate the plants directly or the animals and fungi that ate the plants. In this regard, the green kingdom has better alchemists than we ever could dream of.
Why do I make such a big fuss about this? Partly because I feel that people who are overly fixated on fantastic escapism are potentially missing out on the wonders of this world and what they have to offer. It seems like such a sad viewpoint to see this world as utterly devoid of any magic, beauty, or wonder. I recognize that this can come about from a variety of valid causes, from depression to deep cynicism, things that all my perky “yay, nature!” cheerleading can’t negate. And sometimes fantasy and other fiction can be a nice temporary vacation from the cares of this world. However, all things in moderation: it’s not healthy to completely cut one’s self off from this world, and nature can be one way to be enticed back to the things that are good about the Earth**. You don’t only have to obsess about environmental issues, either; it’s okay to just sit in nature and absorb its restorative benefits.
But that does bring up an even more widespread reason to see the magic inherent in the everyday world: all the living beings here, humans included, are at great risk of extinction if Homo sapiens continues in its overuse of resources. Part of how we’ve been able to do this with impunity has been ignoring the effects we have on the planet and its denizens, and turning a blind eye or deaf ear when problems are discussed. We take for granted what we are privileged to have. We may be the only planet in the universe on which life has developed, and I don’t feel we consider how incredible that is nearly as much as we could. It’s not just for the purposes of meditation, either. As I mentioned in my last post, when people feel wonder and awe for something, they generally feel more compelled to preserve and protect it. At a time when both human and non-human nature are taken for granted and endangered, I feel we could use a refresher on the magic inherent in what we have right here. What a shame it would be if the last rhinoceros was slaughtered for its horn because too many people were chasing after unicorns instead of addressing the very real problem of poaching.
This, of course, is not to say that one’s life should be all activism, all the time. Everyone needs to make their own decisions as to how much to involve themselves in environmental movements (and whether they think a given movement is even valid). But if you’re going to complain that “this mundane world has no magic!” then I’m going to vehemently disagree with you. Just as you have to learn how to sense the magic inherent in things like spells, so you can also learn to see and feel and otherwise sense the magic that permeates every atom in this physical world–right down to the invisible force that holds the atom together. And sometimes perception, experience, and understanding are the best magical tools of all.
* There’s a fantastic BBC documentary series, “Secrets of Our Living Planet”, which addresses this and many other intricate relationships in nature.
** There are other ways to find wonder in the world besides nature, too. Human technology is a big one for some people; even I think it’s amazing that we can now print human tissue and organs! And the cultures of people past and present are another wellspring of curiosity and exploration, even if you can’t travel. And the arts, and exercise, and more–all of these have the potential for meditation, for creating change above and beyond our everyday lives, and for carrying spiritual inspiration through wonder and awe.
I have wild love affairs with much of nature these days. I deeply adore the way that water careens down from clouds in the sky, finds the easiest route to the nearest rivulet or storm sewer, and appreciate its brief layover in the pipes and spouts and drains of my home. I caress stones and soil with the reverence of a penitent clutching a holy relic promising salvation. I share intimate breaths with stomata, and I pull leaves and flesh and fruiting bodies into the literal core of my physical form.
These daily sacraments are a source and focus of my wonder and awe at this world I love. But my first love will always be the animals. They were the ones to first escort me into the broader world beyond humans cares and parameters, making me a fan of what we generally call “nature”. And while I marvel at the ways and processes of plants and fungi, stones and water and weather, inside I’m still that seven year old who ran around rattling off the latest facts about animals I’d discovered amid blades of grass and pages of books.
But should I? After all, these defenses of animals are still working toward a human bias–to see other animals as wondrous, worthy beings who deserve a place on this planet. In reviewing my responses in these posts, I see an effort to convince other people that animals are incredible beings (or, as my seven year old self would say, “really, really COOL!”). Ultimately, my efforts are an exercise in applying perceived value to creatures that, for the most part, don’t particularly care whether humans exist or not. (Domestic dogs would, for the most part, be a vocal exception to this, ferals notwithstanding.) Sure, it’s better than only valuing the animals that most benefit us, but even a positive bias is still a bias. Perhaps this wonder at animals is a selfish evaluation that only benefits me through making me feel better. In this moment I find myself considering whether it wouldn’t be better to try and simply accept that animals are here, without judgement in either direction, the deepest expression of “live and let live”. Not “wolves are vicious predators” or “crocodilians are amazing for having survived so many millions of years unchanged”, but instead “Frogs are. Deer are. Sponges are.” and so forth.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, to be sure, and worth trying if for no other reason than an increase in mindfulness. But, as in all things, the best response to a question is rarely the most extreme answer. One of the things I love about humanity is our ability to consider and evaluate and, yes, even judge ourselves and the world we live in. It’s part of how we make sense of it all. And like any tool, it can be used for harm or for benefit. We’ve spent centuries deciding that certain species aren’t useful enough to us to be preserved, and have even systematically eradicated some just because we don’t want them around. My effort, conversely, is to find what makes each species unique, to determine what solutions it evolved to answer the same basic life-challenges we all must overcome to survive, and, most importantly, to experience wonder and awe at these things.
It turns out that those wondrous experiences aren’t just for my own benefit, either. To be sure, the positive psychological effects that I get from them are considerable, and mean a great deal to me personally. But they also perpetually renew my sense of responsibility toward the world and its inhabitants, a responsibility that I then act on to the best of my ability. So what starts internally, with my thoughts and feelings, moves outside of me through my actions. Such is the way of things.
And as social creatures, we’re able to influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others. Certainly there’s the crucial element of free will and the fact that people respond uniquely to different methods of persuasion (which brings up adages about flies and vinegar and honey). But both through empirical evidence and personal experience I think that modeling (human see, human do!) is one of the best ways to propagate positive and constructive thoughts and actions. Which means that my habit of extolling the virtues of my fellow inhabitants of Earth, human and otherwise, can be beneficial to everyone involved!
See, whenever I talk about how awesome it is that clownfish can live in the tentacles of a sea anemone and not get stung, or that plants turn sunlight into food through photosynthesis, I almost always get good comments as a result. Often it’s people who already knew those things agreeing that yes, these are really, really neat things and aren’t we glad we know them? But there are also occasions where someone gets to learn something new, not only making them happier, but also fueling that same feeling of connection with and responsibility toward the world around them. Because if you realize there are amazing things in the world, and then you find out that these amazing things are threatened with extinction, you just may be more motivated to protect them.
In a perfect world, perhaps, we wouldn’t need that personal touch to get people to be more environmentally aware; it would just be a given. But the reality is that too few people have that awareness and act upon it, and any constructive tool we can use to change things for the better, even if it has some self-centered components, is okay by me. If the proverbial donkey isn’t moving already, a carrot might be just the right solution.
Plus when it comes to my love affair with the world, I’m more than happy to share–the more, the merrier! So I’ll just keep right on “defending” the bunnies and grubs, the molds and bryophytes, erosion and uplift. If they can use it, so much the better, and even if not, I’ve made my own little world a little brighter.