Other Books by Lupa Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic (Megalithica Books, 2006) DIY Totemism: Your Personal Guide to Animal Totems (Megalithica Books, 2008) Talking about the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation (editor, Megalithica Books, 2009) Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts (Megalithica Books, 2010) New Paths to Animal Totems: Three Alternative Approaches to Creating Your Own Totemism (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2012) Engaging the Spirit World: Shamanism, Totemism, and Animism (editor, Megalithica Books, 2013)
Plant and Fungus Totems
About the Author Lupa is a neoshaman, artist, and sustainability geek living in Portland, Oregon. She has been working with naturebased spirituality in various forms since the mid-1990s, and while her path has wended through various experiences over the years, she has spent most of her recent time developing Therioshamanism, a self-created and spirit-directed neoshamanic path with a strong bioregional focus. She possesses a masterâ€™s degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis on ecopsychology, as well as her Wilderness First Responder certification, and integrates elements of this education into her practice and writing. She has several publications on shamanism and related topics under her proverbial belt, such as 2012â€™s New Paths to Animal Totems, and various writings all over the Internet. When not breaking keyboards with her furious typing, Lupa is most likely hiding in the Columbia River Gorge, making ritual tools and other art out of hides, bones, and other such things, and finding ways to make her apartment greener without making the rental company look askance. She may be found online at http://www.thegreen wolf.com and http://therioshamanism.com.
Plant and Fungus Totems Connect with Spirits of Field, Forest, and Garden
Llewellyn Publications Woodbury, Minnesota
Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect with Spirits of Field, Forest, and Garden © 2014 by Lupa. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Llewellyn Publications, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. First Edition First Printing, 2014 Book design by Bob Gaul Cover art: iStockphoto.com/16368212/Jeja iStockphoto.com/26447776/imv iStockphoto.com/25412165/Risto0 iStockphoto.com/3181161/anilakduygu iStockphoto.com/4117463/portishead1 iStockphoto.com/3933690/JodiJacobson Cover design by Kevin R. Brown Editing by Laura Graves Llewellyn Publications is a registered trademark of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data (Pending) 978-0-7387-4039-3 Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. does not participate in, endorse, or have any authority or responsibility concerning private business transactions between our authors and the public. All mail addressed to the author is forwarded, but the publisher cannot, unless specifically instructed by the author, give out an address or phone number. Any Internet references contained in this work are current at publication time, but the publisher cannot guarantee that a specific location will continue to be maintained. Please refer to the publisher’s website for links to authors’ websites and other sources. Llewellyn Publications A Division of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. 2143 Wooddale Drive Woodbury, MN 55125-2989 www.llewellyn.com Printed in the United States of America
This book is dedicated to all of those who helped me to connect to the land here in Oregon. To Scrub Jay and Stellerâ€™s Jay, Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, Beargrass and Sword Fern, Black Morel and Black Mold, the mighty Columbia River and Mount Hood, and all the meandering trails that led me to discovery and adventure. To all the people who work to protect this place from overzealous development, and to those displaced by such. And to those who weave the magic of wonder that still wends its way through the world we live in, and share it with our fellow beings. And to my beloved S., for teaching me greater compassion for myself and others, for being able to reframe even the worst of my faults in a positive light, and for being more adorably hirsute than any muse has any business being.
Acknowledgments | xi Foreword by Christopher Penczak | xiii A Note to Readers | xix Introduction | 1
One: What Are Plant and Fungus Totems? | 11 Two: What Makes Plant and Fungus Totems Different from Animals? | 59 Three: The Bioregional Model | 89 Four: The Correspondences Model | 131
x | Contents
Five: The Archetypal Model | 165 Six: Combining the Three Models | 199 Seven: Leaves and Caps— The Sacred Remains of Plants and Fungi | 217 Eight: Giving Back to the Totems | 241 Conclusion | 255 Appendix A: Plant and Fungus Totem Guided Meditation | 259 Appendix B: Beneficial Nonprofit Organizations | 265 Appendix C: A Bit of Recommended Reading | 269 Glossary | 273 Bibliography | 279 Index | 285
To Elysia Gallo, for walking me through the process of making yet another book happen, and dealing with surprise deadlines with enviable grace. Thank you again to Laura Graves for once more attending to the details of proofreading and related maddening minutiae. To Christopher Penczak, for responding to my tugging on his sleeve at PantheaCon by writing a foreword of such beauty that it almost needs to have its own introduction. To the many and sundry and awesome Pagans and festival folk and fey beings in Portland and beyond who have been cheering me on as I maintain a careful balance among three and a half careers. And to you, the reader, who has chosen to give this book a try, for whatever may come of it. xi
By Christopher Penczak
Imagine someone guiding you through the dark trails gently cut through deep green forests of fir and hemlock in the Pacific Northwest. She points out the flora, fauna, and even fungi. She shows you what is edible and poisonous, and hopefully, the tracks of a four-legged friend will cross your path along the way. While she’s a wellspring of knowledge involving habitat and history, she will also surprise you playfully running down the path, jumping over a log, and making some animal calls or bird noises to more deeply connect and hopefully inspire a visitor—or to just have fun. And she’s encouraging you to do the same. Don’t just observe nature, but experience it! Don’t be so serious! xiii
xiv | Foreword
Now imagine that same tour guide, taking you through a university library, pointing out the books and resources that should not be missed on your quest to understand yourself, and your connection to nature. Her choices include biology, ecology, ancient archeology, philosophy, metaphysics, and psychology, and each seems to lead effortlessly into the next, helping you forget these are all separate disciplines. She speaks about them in a way that indicates a classical education but doesn’t talk over your head. Unlike those overly immersed in academia, she defines her terms along the way and speaks with a style that empowers you, rather than pointing out all that you don’t know. After the tour of the library she takes you out to a coffee shop that is decidedly not a chain, but locally owned and operated with a commitment to the environment, sustainability, and community, to tell you about her own personal experiences in the woods and with the wildlife, and to ask you about yours. She shares about herself and her own world, her experiences, friends, and students without getting lost in it. She doesn’t try to re-create her own experiences for you or say they are the only way to experience, but urges you to use her stories to inspire your own. Later she comes over dressed in her ritual regalia of fur and feathers and bones, just when you need her most, beating a drum and guiding you into a magickal space for communion with the spirits who guide you. She intuits the proper time and place, the right words to guide you,
Foreword | xv
and creates a space to hold your experience and bring you deeper. She is not afraid of the unsafe places of the spirit world, but makes you aware of the dangers and responsibilities before you embark. She helps you return safely and provides a context for understanding the experience. I feel safe in saying that if you are holding this book, you are not imagining any of these four scenarios—you have them in your hands, though you might not know it yet. You have a multifaceted guide on the path of selfknowledge through nature. Her name is Lupa. While there might be limits to what an author can and cannot do through the medium of a book, the essence of her teaching and her path shines through beautifully in Plant and Fungus Totems. Here you have someone who walks her talk. She does not shy away from scientific knowledge, but she lets it enhance and frame, rather than impede, her personal gnosis. She’s not just writing about it from the safety of her desk; she goes out and lives what she writes first, and reports back to you the things that worked best, weaving her own stories and those of others into her account, creating a richer tapestry of instruction for you. Branching out from her previous work New Paths to Animal Totems, this is not simply a rehash pulling out animal entries and filling in the blanks with plants and mushrooms. Lupa creates something that both complements her previous book, and also stands alone from it for those just interested in the work of plants and fungi. Her
xvi | Foreword
threefold approach to totems, be it animal or plant, is farreaching. Looking at totems from a bioregional stance, a correspondence approach, or an archetypal approach helps engage the vast majority of seekers looking into naturebased spirituality. For those approaching from a more environmental and ecological stance, the region in which you are rooted, and the life there, is the primary link to the world of totems. Understanding the interconnectivity of everything and what is close at hand is far more important than any old myths or folklore. For the old occultists, the witches, magicians, and shamans of my own particular strain of totemism, she looks at the systems of magickal correspondences. It’s a timehonored tradition of looking at the spiritual powers and virtues of plants, animals, and minerals, corresponding them to the elements, planets, and astrological signs. Yet she urges us not to get trapped in the cookbook recipe formulas of the popular magick books, but instead to really immerse ourselves in the spirit of the totem. It’s easy to get lost in the formulas and lose the heart. Like a good spirit worker, we are urged to be introduced and build relationships before asking for help. It’s only polite. And lastly, for those approaching things from the lens of modern psychology, she provides a framework of understanding totems as archetypes, yet does so in a way that does not invalidate the other approaches as being merely
Foreword | xvii
psychological. She shares her own experiences and some of her beliefs, but mainly focuses on the ideas and techniques, and lets you use them as you see fit within a context provided in the book. The recommendations for the various combination of the three approaches is powerfully thought-provoking, showing us we don’t have to just pick one way to interface with the world of nature. We have multiple options and can change over time. Just as the plants go through their own cycles in each season, ushering in new stages of development, we too can change in the seasons of our lives. When many of us begin on the spiritual path, we are likely to have a teacher who embodies one of these approaches. One teacher might emphasize getting outside, but never recommends books or history. Another is all about academia, but in the end, you don’t really have a spiritual experience. Some teachers are all about their own spiritual experiences, but can’t detach enough to encourage you to have your own. It’s rare to get someone who can teach from a place of both experience and education, deftly weaving in concepts like Nature Deficit Disorder and historic facts of the ancient human settlement of Göbekli Tepe, but with the conversational style and the sense of humor of a friend who does realize that talking to plants and fungi is all a bit out there to the average person. But who wants to be average? I know I don’t. Most importantly, like any true magician of spirit, Lupa gives
xviii | Foreword
you real world actions to take—from the meditative and shamanic, to ecological encouragement for green living. You can’t change your life simply by reading a book, but reading a book and putting it into action can change your life, so get started!
A Note to Readers
“Lupa, I thought you wrote about animals! What’s with this whole plants thing? And fungi? Really?” All right; I know this is quite different from my previous books, which have almost exclusively focused on animal spirituality and related topics. So why this departure from the land of vertebrates and invertebrates into the kingdoms of chlorophyll and cellulose, mycorrhizae and mycelia? What’s so interesting about these living beings that don’t seem to move around much, not even when threatened with a weed whacker or hay thresher? Well, it does start with the animals. Specifically, it starts with a couple of my bioregional animal totems, Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay. These weren’t just individual bird spirits, but overarching deity-like beings that watched over their xix
xx | A Note to Readers
entire species, embodying everything there was to know about scrub jays and Steller’s jays, respectively. When I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2007, within a week of my arrival these two totems introduced themselves to me and did their level best to help me get settled into my new home. Scrub Jay showed me around the city of Portland, helping me begin to locate important resources, from libraries to potential employers and even the best places to get a slice of pizza.1 Steller’s Jay went with me on my first forays out into the Columbia River Gorge, and initiated a fascination with the wildlands of Oregon and southern Washington that hasn’t abated since. Ever since then, my time here has been spent putting down roots (if you’ll forgive the pun). I’ve lived in several places over the years, but not since my childhood home in the Midwest had I found a place I was so connected to. I knew from the beginning I was where I needed to be, 1 A quick note on formatting: Because I work with totems according to their individual species, I will use the entire name instead of shorthand; for example, no matter how many times I talk about Amanita Muscaria, I won’t shorten it to just “Amanita,” because there are several other species in the genus Amanita and they all have totems, too. Additionally, you may see me swap back and forth on capitalization and italics when it comes to scientific names for fungi, plants, and their totems. When the name is not italicized and starts with capital letters (like Amanita Muscaria) I’m referring to the totem. On the other hand, if I use italics and only start the genus name with a capital letter it means I’m referring to the species as a whole, as in Amanita muscaria. In short, I use it as a “proper name” when working with totems, and according to proper scientific form when speaking of the species. I hope this makes sense; if not, you’re welcome to email your confusion to me.
A Note to Readers | xxi
and the land embraced me from the beginning with its two totemic emissaries. While I may not stay in Portland proper forever, this piece of the Pacific Northwest feels like Home with a capital H. The thing about being so strongly connected to a place is that it makes me want to know even more about it. I don’t just want to have my daily experiences here. I want to know it from the ground up, from the stones of its foundation to the various living beings that have made their homes here over time, and the experiences of human communities past and present. I’ve studied everything from the geology of the land to the weather patterns in the sky, in both books and explorations on foot. All this taught me to not be so prone to tunnel vision when I’m exploring something that interests me. For many years on my spiritual path I primarily worked with animal totems and spirits, and not all that much else. While it gave me a great deal of depth in that area of knowledge and practice, there’s a lot I was missing out on to include the context in which these beings exist. As I’m fond of pointing out when talking about bioregional totemism, animal totems don’t just float around our heads; they have their own spiritual ecosystems they inhabit. Which brings me to the plant and fungus totems discussed in this book. They aren’t just the backdrop for the adventures of animal totems in the spirit realm. Instead, they are their own beings, with every bit as much influence and
xxii | A Note to Readers
standing in their home as their animal neighbors. We’re just so used to being biased toward animals that we often forget the critters are only part of the story. I’ve found that fungus and plant totems are a lot more subtle and quiet in their work than animals. Even as Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, and other local animal totems actively helped me to become more a part of the land here, I was also receiving help and lessons from Douglas Fir, White and Red Clovers, Black Morel, and many others. Trouble is, I wasn’t listening to them as hard as I could at first. But when I did finally notice they were such strong presences in my life, it opened me up to an entirely new realm of spiritual practice. Suddenly the relationships among various animal totems made more sense, as their physical children relied on the living plants and fungi for their very survival; even the carnivores couldn’t live without them. These non-animal beings placed significant pressures on the animals, whether they were defending themselves from being an herbivore’s meal, creating a supply-and-demand chain for tasty, seed-bearing fruits, or manipulating insects into facilitating their pollination. In the same way, the relationships among animal, plant, and fungus totems are intricately woven together. Brown Bear is often considered to be a healing totem because brown bears (among others) dig for roots, mushrooms, and the like, some of which are medicinal. While humans have long learned from other animals what’s good to eat, bears
A Note to Readers | xxiii
would sometimes uproot things that also had healing properties, and so Brown Bear became associated with medicines, as well as some of the most powerful shamanisms in various cultures. Yet what are these fungi and plants the bears feast upon? Some are primarily valued for being edible, like fireweed and acorns, with no major medicinal applications. Others, like juniper berries and the hen of the woods mushroom, have additional qualities beneficial to human health. Can we explore their importance, not just in their physical manifestations, but through their totems? What can the totems Juniper and Hen of the Woods tell us about working with Brown Bear, and vice versa? It’s questions like these that got me thinking more about accentuating my work with plant and fungus totems for their own sake as well as their integration with animal totems. Much of the work was already done for me, as the animal totems often led me to notice the plants and fungi they relied upon. It was then up to me to pay better attention. And that’s where this book comes from: a guide to being more aware of plant and fungus totems. There’s very little out there on these totems, and I want to help my readers get to know them better. If, like many people, you’re new to fungus and plant totemism—or totemism in general—I hope you find what I write here to be an accessible introduction with many potential paths for further exploration. If working with fungi and plants is old hat for you, hopefully
xxiv | A Note to Readers
you will find some new ideas and perspectives to add to your tool kit. As for those of you already familiar with my writing, my intent is to use my usual “here are some ideas, now go play with them!” style to show you a different area of my practice and what I’ve learned over time. No matter where you’re coming from, I do hope this book conveys at least a little of the wonder and joy I’ve experienced in working more deeply with the beings of fields, forests, gardens, and other biomes. I felt the need to share it with you; may your explorations be at least as fruitful as mine!
Upon hearing the word “totem,” many people think of animal totems, those archetypal spirits that embody all the qualities of their respective species. What fewer people realize is that plants and fungi also have totems that watch over us and moderate our relationships with other beings in the world. These totems are rarely touched on when people in Pagan and other earth-based spiritualities speak of “herbs” and the like. More often the spirituality and magic associated with plants deal with dried leaves, roots, and flowers, and the only fungi that ever get any attention are a handful
2 | Introduction
of common psychoactive mushrooms.2 Individual plant and fungus spirits may be mentioned from time to time, but the overarching totems of fungus and plant species get comparatively little attention. I find this to be a shame; just like the complex places in this world, the totemic ecosystem offers many fascinating things to explore, and animal totems are but one part of that. Human nature may explain part of why many people never get farther than working with the animals in the totemic ecosystem. People most often feel comfortable connecting with animal totems because we ourselves are animals. While we’ve evolved in some very different ways from other animal species, we are still mammals, vertebrates, made of flesh and blood and bone. So we resonate most easily with that which is most familiar; totems of big, impressive mammals are some of the most common totems people work with. This leaves us with only part of the story. As I said in New Paths to Animal Totems, “animal totems don’t inhabit a vacuum—they are the spiritual manifestations of animals that live as interwoven parts of complex ecosystems.” (144) This book, while it can stand alone, also serves as a companion 2 For various reasons, I won’t be covering psychoactive mushrooms in this book, not the least reason of which being the fact that I don’t use them and can’t speak to that experience. If you want a surprising starting point, here’s a page maintained by the U. S. Forest Service on the historical and cultural role of these fungi around the world: http:// www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/mindandspirit/fungi.shtml. Other pages linked to it include other ethnobotanical information that may be of interest as well.
Introduction | 3
volume to my previous text. I began working with animal totems on their own in the mid-1990s, and over time the animals led me to their other neighbors in their habitat, the plants and fungi, and the waterways and mountains among others. Plant and Fungus Totems, then, is the next step in a progression through the totemic ecosystem. It’s not just New Paths to Animal Totems with fungi and plants plugged in, though. As I’ll discuss in chapter two, there are some fundamental ways in which fungus and plant totems differ greatly from their animal counterparts. They see the world differently than animal totems do, and some of their concerns for their physical counterparts don’t always make immediate sense to us animal sorts. Part of what I’ll be doing in this book is helping you adjust to working with these more unusual totems. Also, while I will touch on more common topics like herbalism and working with individual plant spirits, this book predominantly concerns the totemic representatives of entire plant and fungus species. It’s meant to be a set of tools you can either use as is for plant and fungus totem work, or that you can adapt to your own practice as you see fit. There’s a dearth of information on this topic, and this is merely my contribution to its small (but hopefully growing) body of text. Not surprisingly, I’m starting with the basics: what are fungus and plant totems, and how do I work with them? That pretty much summarizes the first two chapters, though it’s more complicated than inserting Plant Totem A into
4 | Introduction
Meditation B. In order to understand what makes plant and fungus totems unique, we’ll be exploring some elements of their evolutionary paths and natural histories. Lesson one: despite their stuck-to-the-ground nature, fungi are not plants, which is why I’m not just calling this Plant Totems. One thing I am bringing back from New Paths to Animal Totems is the series of three models of totemism: Bioregional, Correspondences, and Archetypal. This is because the most basic ways in which I work with animal totems mirror the most basic ways in which I work with plant totems. When I decided to write a book on animal totems that would appeal to both beginners and more experienced spiritual practitioners, I had to find a way to extrapolate my own practice into a form that would be more accessible and useful than saying “Well, I do this, and I do that, and sometimes I include these ideas over here, and occasionally there are sloths involved … ” So I developed three models that explained how I work with animal totems. The Archetypal model delves deeply into your psyche to connect the totems to some of the deepest, most ancient human experiences and ways of being. The Bioregional model brings the focus back out into the natural world around us, whether the elk in deep wilderness areas or the ants walking on blades of grass in the cracks of urban sidewalks. The Correspondences model uses symbolism to bridge the gap between inner self and outer environment, allowing for personal interpretation along the way, as well
Introduction | 5
as the integration of other spiritual systems like runes or Qabalah. It turns out that these models work pretty well for explaining the roots of my work with plant totems, too, and they’ll be making up the next three chapters. In the interest of avoiding redundancy I’m not going to be spending as much time in this book on the fundamental concepts behind these models, such as “Who was Jung and how did he come up with archetypes?” or “You mean there are directions besides north, south, east, and west?” You’re certainly welcome to read New Paths to Animal Totems to get this information if you like, but you can also use this book and the models therein as well. In fact, there are some exercises in that other book that you may be able to adapt to your work in this one, and conversely some of what’s discussed here may work just as well with animal totems. I did try to make these books complementary to each other. For the benefit of those who have not read my earlier book, I covered the basics again in brief at the start of each chapter. I completely rewrote and in some cases updated the material, rather than copying and pasting! It’ll make it more interesting for those of you in need of a review. There’s also a chapter on combining the models, two or all three at a time. While each model can be used on its own, keep in mind that all three of them were derived from my own practice, and so the ideas and concepts were originally developed as one single integrated system. There’s no one
6 | Introduction
right way to combine them, of course, and if what you create doesn’t resemble the way I practice totemism, that’s okay, so long as it works for you. And if you want to add in work with animal totems, too, I’ll be talking about that as well. After that will be some supplementary material you can incorporate into any of the models and elsewhere. I’ll spend some time talking about adding physical plant parts into your totemic work as well as multilayered practices that bring in both the totems and individual plant spirits. This won’t just be limited to wild places, either; gardens of vegetables, mushrooms and flowers, kitchen herb stocks, and even that stubborn dandelion growing on the side of an inner-city building are all potential partners in plant and fungus totem work. Don’t forget to check the appendices in the back, too; there are some important odds and ends that didn’t fit elsewhere but shouldn’t be missed. What you won’t find here is a totem dictionary. Even though I spend time extolling particular virtues of some fungus and plant totems, please do not view these as anything more than personal examples—they are just some of the things I have learned while working with these totems. While there are a few authors who have written their own dictionary-style books with their own meanings and keywords for different plant and fungus totems, the definitions are far from universally true. Your experiences may be very different, and I encourage you to make your own relationships with these beings.
Introduction | 7
As with all my books, there is value in reading this one in order. I have a particular rhyme and reason for organizing the book the way that I do, a story of how I work with the totems. Don’t feel that you have to stick to that format, though. If there’s a chapter that really looks interesting, start with that. You can always go back and read the rest for context. You also don’t have to use everything in the book, either; if something just doesn’t work for you, that’s okay! There are numerous exercises throughout this book, just as there were in my last book. I recommend reading the entire book before trying the exercises; this is mainly so that you have more understanding of why I include these practices, and how and why they work. Some of the exercises are meant to be done in order because the skills and observations from an earlier one may contribute significantly to a later one, so make sure you read through each one before trying them out, especially if you intend to skip any. I always encourage you to experiment. If one of the exercises or concepts in this book sparks an idea of something you’d like to try, give it a shot! You might try out each of the models in turn and then get some good ideas for a model of totemism all your own. Just for the sake of thoroughness, try to give each model a try for at least a month. This gives you time to get used to that model, and also allows you to understand it enough through practice that you may feel more comfortable taking it in new directions.
8 | Introduction
I suggest keeping a journal to record your results from the exercises you try and other thoughts as you work through the book. This way, you can keep track of your progress and discoveries, and if you decide to try a particular exercise a second time, you can compare the old and new results. Plus you can use your notes to reflect on what worked best for you, and help you come up with ideas for future work. Even people with very good memories may appreciate having written down minute details that slipped out of their minds over time. Please don’t feel you’re on a particular timetable as you work through this book. You don’t have to have a complete system of fungus and plant totemism within a week of reading it. Consider my work a starting point, a cache of ideas to play with. Take one day of exploration at a time, and remember that there’s no single correct endpoint to all of this. (That’s why it’s not The One True Path to Plant and Fungus Totems!) As always, I’m open to constructive feedback. There’s contact information in my bio, though you can always just send me an email at email@example.com. And if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you’re welcome to come chat with me at events I attend; my calendar is at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/calendar.html. Finally, I will be discussing herbalism and related practices in a few places in this book, though mainly in a theoretical manner. Just in case it needs to be said, nothing in this book is provided as medical advice, nor is it meant to replace instructions given to you by your chosen medical professionals.
Introduction | 9
In other words, just because I mention in chapter one that dandelions are supposed to have certain medicinal value including diuretic properties, it doesn’t mean you should toss out your prescription diuretic medication and start eating dandelions! Additionally, if a particular plant or fungus isn’t legal to possess or grow in your area, please do not break the law by cultivating or collecting it anyway; there are ways to connect with plant and fungus totems besides their physical counterparts. And if you know you’re allergic to a particular fungus or plant, pollen in general, or if you are susceptible to fungal respiratory illnesses brought on by breathing spores, do your best to avoid the problematic species. Spiritual practices do not offer a license to forgo common sense and critical thinking.
What Are Plant and Fungus Totems? Let’s start with a brief discussion of what totems are. The basic answer is that a totem is a spiritual being that embodies the qualities of a given species of animal, plant, fungus, etc. I may refer to a totem’s “physical counterparts” or “children,” meaning the living, breathing animals, plants, and fungi in this world with us. But the totem is a being of spirit, meaning, and connection that watches over those physical beings of its species. There are wild daffodils, but they are watched over by the totem Wild Daffodil. 11
12 | One
I tend to work with totems of individual species, too, so rather than just working with Oak Tree, I might instead work with White Oak or Post Oak as individual totems. Sometimes the totems of closely related species may be very similar to each other in personality and bailiwick, but there’s always something setting them apart from each other, even if it’s just unique perspectives from evolving in different types of environments or adapting differently to the same environment. We can interact with totems for a variety of reasons: to ask them for help or guidance, to learn more about their species and how to help them, to connect more deeply with their ecosystem-at-large, and so forth. For example, you might ask the totem Teddy-Bear Cholla Cactus for help with maintaining your defenses even when you may seem vulnerable and “soft” at first glance. Or if you’ve moved to the Oregon coast, you might ask Sugar Kelp to introduce you to the ecosystem along the water and help you become integrated to your new home. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should walk into the ocean and find a strand of kelp to talk to. The physical plants lack vocal cords and ears, so this conversation probably won’t get too far. The totem Sugar Kelp is a non-physical representative of that species, and that’s who you want to talk to. You can use that leaf of seaweed to help you contact Sugar Kelp, as well as the spirit of the individual kelp plant; just keep in mind it’s a different sort of communication than what you use when having conversations with your fellow human beings. (I’ll talk more about that later in the chapter.)
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Opinions differ as to whether totems are individual spirits that are particularly powerful among their kind, or larger, archetypal beings akin to deities, or elements of our own psyche—or combinations thereof. Authors such as Pam Montgomery and Eliot Cowan tend to emphasize honoring the spirit of an individual plant in magical work (which I feel is a definite improvement over just tossing some dried herbs in a spell pouch and calling it done!). Thea Summer Deer is one of a number of writers referring to these spirits as devas, hearkening to the nineteenth-century Theosophists who used the term to describe any nature spirit. On the other hand, the conception of a deva used in the Findhorn intentional community is an overarching being that moderates the activities of individual spirits of a particular species. Like the Findhorn residents, my work with totems has revealed them to be archetypal beings that embody the qualities of their given species, as well as the myriad relationships they have with other species of plant, fungus, animal, and their environments in general. I also consider them to have a dual existence; totems are their own autonomous beings outside of our minds and imaginations, but they also have deep roots within our psyches that also significantly affect who and what they are. You are welcome to disagree with me on the fundamental nature of totems; just adapt the practical material in this book to suit your worldview. Totems, in my experience, aren’t just singular spirits. They’re “made of ” a whole host of influences, including the
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natural history and other physical characteristics of their species, the relationships that they have with other species of plant, fungus, animal, etc., and the many and varied relationships they have with our human species. This includes the mythology and folklore we tell about them and their children, as well as what we learn from personal experience. All these things go into “creating” a totem, and it’s part of why I like working with them; just as they have a bit of humanity in them, so they can also help us understand the bit of nothumanity they can offer us through our shared experiences. It gives us a common ground to work with. Cultures throughout history and around the world have had totemic systems of one sort or another, some including plants and fungi as well as animals. Often, though not always, these would be more group and community-based; you might have a totem that watches over your family, and another your greater tribal community. These totemic relationships and systems were formed over many generations of people who had direct and constant contact with the land around them, and it’s worth it to study these totemisms and what they reveal about the cultures in which they developed. I refer to my practices as “Neopagan totemism” to differentiate them from these traditional systems. As a nonindigenous American in the twenty-first century, I do not come from a culture that has an existing totemic system, nor am I trying to revive the totemism of any of the European cultures of my ancestors. Instead, I am forging a path that
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reflects my experiences as the descendant of immigrants, part of a cultural milieu that is more about diversity than a single cohesive identity. People like me have been creating our own relationships with and understandings of totems for decades, and each one of us brings our own experiences and preferences to the table when we share what we’ve learned and made from scratch. So I collect our varied paths under the umbrella of Neopagan totemism to remind us that what we do is a separate and new set of traditions in the making. It’s also so that people don’t mistake what I and other nonindigenous people are doing for “ancient Native American totemism.” There are too many nonindigenous people misrepresenting (sometimes deliberately) their totemism as “genuine Native spirituality,” which makes it harder for people to find traditions that actually do stem from American and other indigenous cultures. Additionally, I don’t agree with the idea that nonindigenous people must find indigenous cultures to insinuate themselves into just to learn their spiritual practices and beliefs. If you are fortunate enough to be invited into an indigenous community, whether they share their religious traditions with you or not, then enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. But please don’t feel that you have to try and convince a Native tribe to adopt you so you can work with totems and other spirits. I mentioned above that traditional totemisms tend to be more group-oriented. As part of a more individualistic culture, I tend to think more in terms of “my totem” than
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“our totem,” and I confess that I’ve been almost exclusively solitary in my practice of over fifteen years. So most of the material in this book will be focused on an individualistic approach to totemism; you are, of course, welcome to adapt it to a more group-based framework if you so choose.
Why Work with Plant and Fungus Totems? I’ve already mentioned one good reason: to help you expand on your work with animal totems. Plant, fungus, and animal totems exist in a common spiritual ecosystem, and knowing about one group of totems provides context for working with others. Even if you continue to primarily focus on the animals, understanding their relationships to the fungi and plants can help you make more sense of why a particular animal totem relates to the world around it as it does. All totems act as intermediaries between their species and all others, humans included, and plants and fungi are no exception. In a world where we’ve created such change to almost every environment, totems are necessary bridges as animals, plants, fungi, and other living beings adjust to our increasing presence. Part of our work as totemic practitioners is to listen to the totems, find out what it is their children need and how we can help. If we only listen to the animals, we only get a partial idea of what needs to be done. So we listen to the plant and fungus totems as well. But because they’re from completely different kingdoms of
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being, they can have very different perspectives on life, the universe, and everything. We generally find it pretty easy to empathize with other animals; it’s a bit easier for us to understand Gray Wolf, as a general rule, than the sponge totem Venus’ Flower Basket. And we sometimes apply an animal bias to that empathy. What stands out most obviously to us about plants is that they are rooted in place, and so as moving-around beings we think (and rightly so) that we can learn more about patience and groundedness from them. But not all plants are rooted in soil. Many aquatic plants are anchored to rock or float freely, and some algae even grow on animals like sea turtles. Some bromeliads, also known as “air plants,” can grow on another plant’s leaf, or on power lines and other human-made objects. But what all of these need is sunlight. Plants are sometimes uniformly relegated to the elemental realm of Earth as a whole, and yet they’re closer to being sun worshipers than earth worshipers. Because we take in our sunlight indirectly through the food chain and can even survive long periods without exposure to the sun, we don’t always appreciate that the sun—not the soil—is the universal need of all plants. That need affects the priorities of their totems, too. As one example, I adopted a stretch of the Columbia River, picking up litter, monitoring the water quality, and observing the native fauna and flora. The dominant tree in the forest there is the black cottonwood, a fast-growing, tall deciduous tree. Every time I visited, I talked with the
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totem Black Cottonwood to get its perspective on the place and what it needed most. Not surprisingly, it was quite concerned with the oil and other pollutants from the river being absorbed by the roots of the trees. It also saw the choking thickets of invasive Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry as a decided threat to the native shrubbery that the trees had coevolved with. While the animals of the area were also affected by these significant changes to their habitats, the plants were more immediately sensitive to them. They were less concerned with the solid litter I was picking up, the styrofoam, cigarette butts, and beer cans. While these things were important to me because animals could eat the smaller bits and pieces and get sick or die, I realized that the more hidden liquid pollutants were of higher priority to the plants and their totems. This is a fairly simple example of listening to a plant totem’s priorities and realizing they may be different from those of an animal totem. I’ve found that even when I have made contact with a plant or fungus totem, it can be tougher to get them to work with me. Some of them see animals, humans included, as primarily troublemakers at best, minus a few pollinators and seed and spore spreaders. After all, there are lots of animals that eat plants, and not just the parts they want us to eat, like fruit. And it doesn’t help a fungus to have its mushrooms eaten, or for a lichen to be unceremoniously pulled from its dead tree bed. While plants and fungi may sometimes be in competition with each other and conflict
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even within their own kingdoms, they’ve had to put forth a lot of effort to keep us animals from trampling all over them—literally and figuratively! Fungus and plant totems sometimes need more coaxing and patience to get them to open up. I find acknowledging that I probably need them more than they need me to be a good starting point, as well as making pretty early overtures of helping them and their physical counterparts. But a lot of it is simply visiting again and again, letting them know that I stand out from the crowd and that my intentions aren’t just to take from them what I can. This all may seem like more work than it’s worth, but there are benefits. In the next chapter I’ll go into more detail about what characterizes work with fungi and plants and how it can be more challenging. For the moment, though, consider this: the more you’re able to flex your mind and empathize with beings less like you, the more you may be able to overcome the human-centric mindset that has caused so many environmental problems over time. Thinking outside the human skull can contribute to more creative (and necessary) solutions to these problems. Adding work with plant and fungus totems to your practice encourages this sort of systemic thinking. The more perspectives and priorities we weave together, the more complete a picture we have. This doesn’t just hold true for the big things, like environmental degradation, but also for smaller, more personal challenges.
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Harold has been experiencing increasing digestive problems over the past month. They started while he was recovering from a virus he caught at work, and he feels like he just can’t seem to get back to normal. A few days before an appointment with his doctor, he meditates with his primary animal totem, Domestic Cat, to see if she has any perspectives on his health. In the meditation, she introduces him to the grass totem Zoysia Matrella, whose children are commonly grown in lawns. Zoysia asks Harold, “What happens when Cat eats my blades?” “Well,” Harold responds, “she gets sick, doesn’t she? She’s not meant to eat grass; her digestive system doesn’t like it.” Cat then says, “Do you think perhaps you may be getting sick for the same reason I do?” Harold comes out of the meditation and begins to research digestive issues. While doing so he discovers celiac disease, which can be caused by viral infections and which includes a sensitivity to gluten found in wheat and other grains. He decides he will ask his doctor about being tested for celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities. Accessibility is another reason to work with plant and fungus totems. Like their physical counterparts, animal totems are at times prone to running away. Sometimes it’s for good reason; they might feel they’re not ready to meet us—or vice versa. Other times they’re playing with us, or otherwise intentionally making it more challenging to find them. Plant and fungus totems, on the other hand, tend to
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be fairly stationary, even in the spirit world. Some of them may project a humanoid figure that can move around; this seems to be particularly popular among hallucinogens. But I’ve found in my own meditations and journeys that for the most part the plant and fungus totems can be found wherever their children grow, physically or spiritually. 3 If I’m journeying in the spirit world and pass by a western hemlock tree, in addition to talking to its individual spirit, I can also ask where I might find the totem Western Hemlock growing. Of course, just because the tree can’t run away doesn’t mean that it has to acquiesce to my request. Bark is a perfectly serviceable spiritual armor as much as a physical one, and if the tree spirit decides it doesn’t feel like interacting, the shields go up and it’s time to move on. Still, it’s an easier initial attempt than chasing a barn owl spirit 3 Throughout my writings you’ll see me differentiate between a meditation and a journey. In my experience, a guided meditation takes a person into a neutral zone between this world and the spirit world; it may or may not follow a particular script (as in “you go down this path, you meet this spirit, the spirit says such-and-such, etc.”). It’s easier and quicker to prepare for and perform, generally won’t last more than an hour at the most, and usually the worst troubleshooting you’ll have to do is learning to keep yourself focused long enough to get all the way through it. Journeys, on the other hand, are much more intense affairs. They take you deep into the spirit world, which is why they’re usually only done by shamanic practitioners. They can be quite dangerous to one’s spirit and psyche, and people have ended up with deep spiritual wounds when attacked in the spirit realm. They usually require more time and preparation beforehand, and some journeys can last for hours or even days. Generally I will only offer guided meditations as exercises since they’re more suitable for a broader range of practitioners from beginners on up.
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through the trees or coaxing Water Shrew out of his den long enough for a chat. For some people, just being able to see a totem or its representative is an accomplishment in and of itself, and plant and fungus totems (and spirits) are good starting points for learning basic observation while meditating or journeying. Just as some people enjoy working with the plants in their gardens, so are there those who prefer the quiet, calming presence of fungus and plant totems. In my experience they tend to not talk a lot, preferring instead to communicate through energy and impressions that I can soak up through a sort of spiritual osmosis. In some ways this is a much more low-stress form of communication than interpreting the movements and sounds of animal totems and translating them into words I can understand. (Though for what it’s worth, animals that are largely stationary, such as sponges and corals, often tend to communicate with me in much the same way, so it’s not a strict animal/not-animal divide.) Even though I may describe a plant or fungus totem as saying something to me, it’s more accurate to say that I took the impression it gave me and translated it into English. So if there are ever totems that I feel I can simply sit and commune with, it’s the plants and fungi I work with. These beings make a lifelong study of one particular spot in the earth. And we can make a long-term study of one particular plant or fungus, physically or spiritually, because we know where to go back and find it. They can in turn be
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reliable points of contact with their totems; a field of dandelions makes a good place to call on the totem Dandelion. As for fungi, it’s easier for us to find them when their fruiting bodies—mushrooms—pop up out of the ground or decaying wood (though the fungi’s mycelia may still be there, year-round). Some, like morels, don’t always sprout fruiting bodies in the same spot every year, and their totems can be equally elusive. So if you choose to work with fungus totems, you may need to be a little more on your toes. But with time you can find the patterns common even to the most tricksy totem. This sort of consistency can be inspiring to those of us who often feel we’re constantly on the move. Of course, you have a lot of plants and fungi to choose from, and they vary greatly, to include in how long they live. The short lifespan of an annual like a petunia is a far cry from the centuries a sequoia may live. This is why it’s good to be able to work with multiple species and their totems. The worldview of a being that only lasts a couple of seasons will be different from that of one that has outlived every human; the former may feel more urgency to live life as fully as possible in the little time available, while the latter may take a slower, big-picture approach. What they need from us in return may also depend on whether those needs are immediate or long-term. Exposure to fungi and plants (as well as their animal counterparts) is also good for us. There’s a recent unofficial psychological diagnosis known as Nature Deficit Disorder.
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Originally conceptualized by journalist Richard Louv, it’s the idea that people (especially children) in the United States and other countries are suffering psychologically due to a decrease in exposure to nature. The effects of Nature Deficit Disorder range from an inability to focus to mood disorders, as well as a lowered respect and consideration for the natural world and the impact we have on it. Nature provides us with a setting that physically and psychologically relaxes and rejuvenates us, and as habitat destruction, increased indoor lifestyles, and fear of letting children roam in the outdoors have cut both kids and adults off from nature, so we’re seeing an overall decrease in these benefits. To be fair, it is possible to work with totems without ever leaving your home. And there are people who, for various reasons, are unable to go out into the wilderness, or even the local park. But just having these natural influences in your life can be beneficial. You can still have a small house plant or pet to care for or fill your walls with images of natural beings. In meditations, the totems can take you to wildernesses you might never see in waking life. And for those who are able to get out more, the plant and fungus totems often invite us to go see their children in the great outdoors, enticing us out of our homes and into a world vibrant with life. Plus they’re just fascinating beings! All too often we’re taught in school that humans are the apex of evolution, that animals are higher forms of life than plants and fungi,
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and other such linear things. Yet we’re only a few hundred thousand years old as a species; plenty of plant and fungi species have lived millions of years relatively unchanged. And they’ve developed their own effective strategies in meeting the same sorts of challenges we face. Plants can change sunlight into food, and almost have the monopoly on the practice. There are two animals, a sea slug and a salamander, that have plants living symbiotically inside their bodies and which benefit from the plants’ photosynthetic capabilities. And there’s a species of aphid that performs a function similar to a plant’s photosynthesis, but involving different chemicals and mechanisms. So photosynthesis is largely the domain of plants. Some fungi can absorb toxins that would kill other living beings, and transform them into less harmful substances. Fungi and plants even made it permanently onto dry land before animals did. Lest I bore you with further arguments in favor of appreciating our leafy and squishy neighbors, I’ll just leave you with a recommendation to watch David Attenborough’s BBC documentary The Private Life of Plants, and pick up a copy of Paul Stamets’ s Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.
Special Notes on Fungi and Their Totems I want to take a moment to focus on fungi. In pretty much every other book on plant totems/magic/etc., any fungi that
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are mentioned are just lumped in with the plants. I’ve yet to see anyone talk about anything other than mushrooms, and often “mushrooms” are presented as one monolithic group as opposed to a vibrant array of species. And, as mentioned earlier, the only fungi that get any special treatment are a few of those with psychoactive properties which glamorize them in our eyes because of what they can do for us. These usually include mushrooms of various sorts, and on rare occasion Claviceps purpurea, the fungus that causes hallucinogenic ergot poisoning. Let’s face it: fungi aren’t sexy.They’re fleshy in the wrong sort of way, they sometimes smell weird, some of them can make you sick or dead (even if you don’t eat them), and the moldier ones like the sorts of damp, dark corners we tend to avoid on principle. It may seem like other than those few vaunted edible and psychoactive mushrooms, fungi just aren’t very attractive, especially when compared to majestic trees and beautiful flowers. Try to think of a fungus that isn’t a mushroom; chances are the first thing you think of is mold on food or athlete’s foot, a fungal infection. But fungi are more closely related to us than to plants. And they’re absolutely essential to life on earth. “Wait, take a step back!” you might be thinking. “Fungi are more like us than plants are? Are you off your rocker?” Believe it or not, it is likely that fungi and animals evolved from the same common ancestor, a protist closely resembling
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today’s choanoflagellates.4 And a close comparison of fungi with plants and animals at various levels of examination reveals that physically they resemble us more than the vast array of trees and grasses do.5 In fact, their metabolisms are so close to our own that antifungal medicines used by humans and other animals have to be carefully designed so as to not damage the patients being treated! What makes fungus totems unique from plant totems? For one thing, they don’t have the reliance on the sun that plants do. Plants are almost universally engaged in a race for sunlight. Either they’re growing as high or wide as possible to drink in as much of the sun’s rays as they can, or they’re adapting to lower levels of sun and making the most of what they can get. Not so with fungi. For a fungus, the key word is “decomposition.” Where plants transform sunlight into sugars, and supplement with minerals and other nutrients from the soil, fungi take raw, earthy materials and break them down to get what nutrition they need. Other beings, including plants, rely on this crucial decaying process. Fungi break down the contents of dead animals, plants, and other fungi, and release the nutrients therein into the soil and therefore the food system. This sort of rotting may not seem like such a big deal, but when trees first developed in the Carboniferous period, it took about fifty million years for fungi to evolve to the 4 Sogin, 1993. 5 Melnikova, 1997.
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point where they could digest the fibers in wood, in the Late Devonian Period. Until then dead trees simply piled up, and their nutrients stayed locked inside the wood. This even caused climate change on a global scale; because so much carbon was also lodged in the dead trees that its absence in the atmosphere caused an ice age. So you see, fungi have a bigger impact through their ability to decompose than you might think! Plants rely on the mycorrhizal fungi on their roots to help them process these nutrients. Part of why fields that have been treated with chemical fertilizers for many years take so long to recover is because these chemicals kill the natural fungi in the soil. This starts a nasty cycle where the fertilizers are the only things that keep the plants alive; most farmers can’t afford to allow a field to lie fallow long enough for the soil to recover, including letting the fungi fully regenerate. And when that fungal network is damaged, it even interferes with the plants’ ability to communicate with each other, such as during an attack by aphids or other pests.6 The totems of fungi are quite earthy and well-grounded, even compared to plants. While we may visualize the roots of a tree or other plant while grounding ourselves energetically, compared to fungus totems plant totems have their heads in the sky, constantly worrying over the amount of sunlight their children receive. 6 BBC, 2013.
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And fungus totems are even more opportunistic, too. Fungi can grow in complete darkness, they can transform toxins ranging from petroleum to heavy metals, and their fruiting bodies can spring up within a matter of days, even hours. They are a crucial part of how forests contain carbon that could otherwise contribute to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.7 Fungus totems are also good allies to call on when seeking not only opportunities but the ability to make use of them as effectively and efficiently as possible. While there are numerous plant totems associated with healing because of how the physical plants may be used medicinally, the healing capabilities of fungi are largely overlooked. Mycoremediation is the process of restoring an environment through the transformative actions of fungi. As mentioned above, this can include both breaking down harmful toxins and releasing nutrients into the soil. In these ways and more, fungi are the restorers of balance in an environment. Fungus totems can also help us to achieve balance in our lives as well as remind us how important it is to restore and preserve the habitats and places we’ve done so much damage to as a species. Much of this is due to the mycelial mat, the structure by which fungi are able to filter toxins and other things out of the soil. While the fruiting bodies are what we see of fungi above ground, it is the mat that is the most persistent part 7 Mongabay.com, 2013.
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of the organism. The mycelial mat is a network of fungi intertwined with the roots of plants, and it helps those plants absorb nutrients from the soil. Even though each individual member of this fungal colony is tiny, the collective power of the mycelial mat is not to be underestimated. Fungus totems are also a reminder of how nature isn’t always our best friend. Like psychoactives, poisonous plants have sometimes been glamorized despite their deadly traits. Not so the fungi; I’ve yet to see anyone extol the virtues of black mold or Tinea pedis, the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.8 We can explain away the carnivorous nature of the wolf by focusing on its familial behavior, and we romanticize poisonous belladonna as the Western European witch’s ritual hallucinogen. We have de-fanged nature in those ways, forgotten it can injure, sicken, or kill us. But fungi don’t let us forget that. While fungus totems are no more dangerous to work with than animal or plant totems as a general rule, those whose physical counterparts can cause us harm can sometimes have an unsettling presence when we work with them. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t form strong positive connections with them, but it may take more work and a lot of respect for them beyond “you’re dangerous!”
8 I did end up writing a blog post about Black Mold as a fungus totem and what I learned from it. You can read it at http://therioshamanism. com/2013/06/12/black-mold-as-fungus-totem/.