In Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up I talk about the concept of Land Totems. Most people associate totems with biological beings like animals, plant and fungi. However, in my own (nonindigenous) path, a totem is an archetypal embodiment of a particular force of nature, of which a species is just one example. So I not only work with Gray Wolf, Sword Fern and Fly Agaric, but also Gravity, Hail, and Tide, among others.
My aversion to stereotyped meanings carries over, too. Just as I don’t believe in saying “Well, Deer means this, and Bear means that, and if you see a starling this is what it means”, I also don’t think other beings of nature can be easily boiled down to one-dimensional keywords and supposedly universal messages. To me, that sort of thing is a severe shortcut in spiritual work. Instead of taking the time to get to know a given totem, which can take years, you’re basically doing the equivalent of reading a Wikipedia page and thinking you’re an expert.
Do I think there’s value in trading notes? Sure. Sometimes it’s fun to see what another person has learned from the same totem as you. But just as teachers teach students different things, or different emphases on the same material, so totems aren’t going to just blab out the same rote messages to everyone. Keep in mind that a totem is born from the natural history of the species or other force it embodies, and a lot of what non-indigenous practitioners rely on is their own personal relationship with that being and its physical representation. You’re putting a lot of yourself and your biases into that relationship and the interpretation thereof, which is why it’s short-sighted to characterize it as a universal meaning.
So. Back to land totems, specifically stones. There are scads of books that talk about the spiritual properties of crystals and other mineral specimens. I’m not entirely sure where all the information comes from, for example why amethyst is often associated with healing, while citrine, which is just a different color of quartz from amethyst, is associated with prosperity. Maybe it’s just color? But then purple fluorite is often associated with psychic powers. As far as I’ve seen, it’s just books passing down information from slightly older books, and I’m not sure where the original source is.
In my experience, what I’ve learned from biological totems has a lot to do with the physical beings’ behavior and natural history. This carries over into land totems as well. Consider a finger-sized piece of basalt in the Columbia River Gorge. On first sight it’s not doing a whole hell of a lot but sitting there on a trail. But that single stone connects me to a wealth of totems:
–First, there’s Basalt itself, the totem that watches over all basalt, from great formations to tiny pebbles.
–There’s also the totems of various minerals basalt is made of, like Feldspar and Pyroxene.
–Basalt is made of cooled lava flows, which adds in Volcano and Lava (some people may wish to work with the totems of specific sorts of lava.)
–The Columbia River Gorge was first shaped by glaciers, though the Gorge itself was carved out by massive glacial floods originated near what is today Missoula, Montana. So this piece of basalt also connects me to Glacier and Flood.
–And finally, this little stone is being steadily worn away by rain, so I can also speak with the totem Erosion through it.
This is a lot more complicated than “basalt is good for grounding”. And that’s not even getting into all the stuff you might learn from all the totems associated with that little bit of stone.
This is why nature-based paganism and bioregional totemism can be a lifelong pursuit. It doesn’t stop at using natural resources as spell components. Instead, it invites you to really get to know nature in depth, and find meaning in that connection. I’ve been at it for twenty years, and I only in the past couple of years feel like I’ve hit something resembling an advanced level of experience.
So I invite you to start exploring the depths of your own path. If you like working with a particular sort of stone, start tracing its natural history. See what totems are associated with the stone, its mineral content, and how it came to be in the first place. Think of totems as being in their own spiritual ecosystem, as vibrant and complex as the ecosystems in physical reality.
Most of all, be willing to take your time, and don’t just focus on the “witchy” aspects of what you’re doing. Just as pagans often draw on history, anthropology and other “mundane” studies to bolster their path, so I encourage you to explore geology, ecology and other natural sciences as an extension of your path.
And you can start with one single stone.
Did you enjoy this blog post? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, where I get into a lot more of this sort of bioregional totemism!