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NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
More Than Animals: The Totemic Ecosystem
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: August 19th. 2012
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When I was a pagan newbie back in the 1990s, one of the very first things I gravitated toward was animal totemism. Like so many aspiring totemists, I picked up a copy of Ted Andrews' Animal-Speak and went from there. Over the years I developed my own unique system for working with the animal totems, from what they were to how I could help them as much as they helped me. I have worked with countless totems in a variety of relationships, and it's been an incredible experience.
One thing I noticed, though, was that the animal totems were often portrayed as being independent of any sort of environment other than occasional mentions of where they lived. The impression I got from a lot of books, exercises, and the like was that animal totems floated around in a vague “spirit world” where any plants and other beings were backdrops.
This reflects a similar bias in nature spirituality, where animal totems and spirits get a lot more attention than plant and other totems. There are plenty of books on animal totems and other spirits, very few on plants other than as herbs to be used as inanimate ingredients. Even plant devas are often anthropomorphized as fairy-like beings, rather than spirits inherent in plants or in plant form. And as far as I can tell, I'm one of very few people talking about fungus totems (outside of a few people tripping on psilocybin mushrooms, who usually see the mushrooms as tools for their own self-centered purposes, not as beings with spirits of their own) . When it comes down to it, we focus more on our own kind—animals, and especially the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals.
My Own Path
I moved to Oregon five years ago, and that move revolutionized my spiritual practice. Here in the Northwest, there is a greater focus overall on being local—locavorism, local businesses, local communities, etc. And the Land here, more than any other I've been in, grabbed me and adopted me for itself. (It's a very friendly Land, from my experience.) This place didn't just want to introduce me to all its animal inhabitants, but the plants, fungi, rocks, waterways, and pretty much everyone else here. It felt like being at a very large party, where the host introduced me to every single person there and was quite intent that no one got missed.
Spiritually, I found out very quickly that the plants and landforms that my animal totems and I moved past in our work in the spirit world were far from just being the backdrop to our adventures. I finally stopped for a moment and talked to the spirits of the trees and the ferns and the grasses. And when I went for hikes and camping trips, I was much more aware of the non-animal beings there as well. The overarching totems made their presences known as well, great and ancient beings with deep roots in the spirit realm.
It's been a pretty intense bit of work since then. Because my work had been primarily with animal totems for so long, I didn't feel comfortable writing about my work with the plants and other totems until I felt I had a similarly solid grounding, but over on my own blog, Therioshamanism.com, I've been detailing my work with some of them, and my general impressions.
The Totemic Ecosystem
Animal totems do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they live in ecosystems every bit as varied as those of their physical counterparts, if not more so as these spiritual ecosystems overlap in time and space. Beings that are extinct in this world still exist there, and relationships forged among species that have died out physically continue to develop on the other side.
Just as animals rely on plants, waters, landscapes, and other phenomena to survive, so do their totems need each other for context and support. I can speak with Douglas Fir to learn more about what it is that that species is, but I can also learn how Fir supports the totems of other species, such as Douglas Squirrel and Steller's Jay, Common Raven and Turkey Vulture, and how these totemic relationships affect the physical animals and fir trees here, to name just a few.
Totemic wisdom stems ultimately from our understanding of how and why various beings are, in their very existence. We did not just decide one day that Brown Bear is the healer, and Gray Wolf the teacher. Instead, we humans observed bears digging up roots that we later discovered are medicinal, and we watched wolves raising their pups and learned how to teach our own young. It took directly observing our physical animal neighbors to be able to tap into the wisdom of their respective totems.
But it doesn't stop there. Among others, many wolves rely on whitetail deer as food, and the deer rely on countless plants. The deer have formed relationships with many plants—some they can safely eat, and even spread the plants' seeds through their droppings. Others are poisonous, and the deer know to leave them be. To ignore that process of learning is to ignore a great deal of knowledge that the deer, as well the totem Whitetail Deer, have to offer, and the plants are necessary to that knowledge.
So in order to know more about animal totems, we also have to know about plant totems. We also have to learn about the totems of fungi, of waterways, of geological formations and processes. All of these have shaped the animal totems, just as the physical plants and such have made the physical animals who and what we are. Knowing all these others helps us to put the animals and their totems in context.
Human Animals in Context
Finally, we cannot remove ourselves as human animals from the equation. No matter how much we alter our immediate environments, we are still mammals. We still need food and water, air and weather and sunlight. I dislike the idea that we are somehow “unnatural”. We are much more elaborate in our nestbuilding and alterations to the world around us, but if we continue to remove ourselves from our concept of “ecosystem”, then in a way we forget just how much of an effect we have on the ecosystems we are a part of. River still run through cities, and water is shed from rooftops into those rivers. Wildlife, from birds and raccoons and rabbits, to even bigger animals like deer and coyotes, still live among us, if sometimes more quietly. We still exist in watersheds and in the shadows of mountains and in microclimates, no matter how high our skyscrapers.
The totemic ecosystem is a way to remind ourselves of the interconnection that still exists among all things, ourselves included. If we can start seeing ourselves within the fold of “nature”, even as urban dwellers, then we can also be more aware of the responsibility we still have as natural beings. No longer are we spiritual human beings working with animal totems floating above our heads. Instead we are aware of both the physical and spiritual environments of which we are an integral and indivisible part.
If it's easiest for us to start with the animals, that's okay. We resonate most clearly with those whom we most resemble, and as animals, and mammals, the totems of those species are often the entryway into knowing the rest of nonhuman nature. But we can't stop there; there are entire totemic ecosystems to explore, and we stand to gain much from knowing these better.
Note: If you're interested in reading more thoughts along these lines, please feel free to go to my blog at http://therioshamanism.com - the Plant Totems, Fungus Totems and Geological Totems categories on the left sidebar may be of particular interest. I've also touched on these topics in some of my writings in my Earthly Rites column at No Unsacred Place at http://nature.pagannewswirecollective.com
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Location: Portland, Oregon
Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE
Bio: Lupa is a (neo) shaman, author, and ritual tool/costumery artist in Portland, Oregon. When she isn't making things out of hides and bones, or writing books on animistic topics, she may be found hiding out in the Columbia River Gorge. Her next book, "New Paths to Animal Totems", is due from Llewellyn Publications in December 2012. She may be found online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com, http://therioshamanism.com and http://thegreenwolf.etsy.com
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