Leaves and Caps—The Sacred Remains of Plants and Fungi
Note: Please be aware some of the material in this chapter may not be safe to do with all physical plants and fungi due to their inherent toxins. For example, avoid physical contact with toxic plants or fungi, or the parts of those that have some safe parts (like the leaves and stems of tomatoes, whose fruit is safe to eat). Additionally, do not burn these toxic fungi and plants, whether in incense, candles, or otherwise. And definitely do not eat any fungus or plant that you are not 100 percent sure is safe. You are solely responsible for your safety in using the material in this chapter. Use your common sense, and ask an expert if you aren’t sure. I don’t want to hear any stories about how you tried to serve up a salad made of things you found in the wild and everyone ended up eating poison ivy garnished with destroying angel mushrooms.
Much of this book has been aimed at steering people away from a purely functional approach to fungi and plants in spirituality and magic. You can, however, incorporate these practices in a respectful manner that honors the spirits of the living plants and fungi, as well as their totems. While totemism isn’t herbalism, for example, the parts of plants and fungi can be used to connect with their totems, whether in medicine, food, or spells. And there are approaches to gathering some of these things, such as rewilding and sustainable gardening, which are mindful of the impact our use of “resources” can have on the environment and its inhabitants.
Plants and Fungus Parts
as Sacred Remains
The first piece of this is how we view the fungi and plants that we consume in varying ways. There are plenty of people who restrict their consumption of animal products like meat, cheese, and eggs, but few think of a salad or wheat crackers as “the remains of dead and dying plants.” Many will argue that since non-animals don’t have nervous systems and don’t feel pain in the same way that we do, it means we don’t need to be mindful of how we treat them.
But this is a purely functional perspective, and this book is far from that sort of reductionism. Totemism supposes that there are nonphysical beings—whether literal or metaphorical—that watch over their respective species. Even if you only see them as creations of our mind, it’s okay to have some reverence for them and their children. Totemism is, in part, about meaning-making, and if we assign importance to something it doesn’t hurt us to act as though that importance counts for more than our own gratification.
Furthermore, even if you only really care about the suffering of animals, keep in mind that healthy fungi and plants contribute to healthy animals. Many of the ways in which we grow, harvest, process, and consume plants and fungi are harmful to animals, directly or indirectly. Look at farming, for example. The soil we need to grow crops is increasingly sickened by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and so are the animals that live in and on it. Those same chemicals go into the ocean, where they create algae blooms that kill countless ocean animals. The fields themselves are full of monocultures, only one species of plant for many acres, displacing the wildlife that lived there before. And harvesting equipment routinely kills millions upon millions of rodents, insects, and other small animals every season. Organic farming methods can help alleviate some of these, at least.
Beyond the sheer practicalities, let’s look at the fungi and plants themselves. I believe that each has its own spirit. Like totems, I don’t have a firm opinion as to whether these spirits exist outside of my imagination or not, but I acknowledge them either way. And so I treat their leaves and caps and seeds and spores as sacred remains. It’s a reminder that spirit or not, something had to be damaged or die in order for me to keep living, or to clothe myself, or so I could put together a little sachet of herbs.
A lot of the way in which I work with plant and fungus parts is mirrored in how I work with animal parts, and you can easily adapt them for non-animal use. (In this case, instead of “hides and bones” for short, I’ll refer to the remains as “leaves and caps,” even if there are also roots, stems, and the like involved, too.) I posted links to some online writings on this topic on my deviantArt journal (source: http://bit.ly/ZdJF6x), and there’s even more information in my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts. However, I’ll provide a few starting points here.
First, be aware of how you handle the remains—and think of them as remains, too. We usually just pick up bundles of vegetables and paper bags of mushrooms at the store, toss them into our shopping cart, and then take them home to the kitchen. Or we yank bean pods and berries off living plants without even a “How do you do?” A moment of gratitude, and being mindful of the fact that you’re handling a once-living being’s remains, can go a long way. This also holds true for making things with cotton fabric, wood boards, and just about any other plant- or fungus-based product. Whether you’re sewing or wearing clothes, buying furniture, or filling a vehicle with ethanol, have a bit of respect for the living beings that are in these things you consume.
Next, if you want to speak with the spirits in the leaves and caps and such, you can either talk to the living plant or fungus itself before taking what you need, or you can touch the leaves and caps with your hands to make that physical connection. Clear your mind, and see if any sensations, thoughts, emotions, or mental images come up for you. You may find these spirits connect with you in the same way as any others you’ve worked with, or they may have unique ways of communicating with you. Take the time to have conversations with them and thank them for what they’ve given up for you (even if they would have preferred otherwise). If you’re speaking with the spirit of a living fungus or plant, ask if there is a preferred way for you to take the leaves, caps, etc., from them. You might also call on the corresponding totems for their input as well.
Some people also prefer to “put the spirits to sleep” while harvesting, cutting, cooking, and otherwise breaking down the physical parts. This isn’t so much because it “hurts” the spirits in any physical way, as it is a gesture of respect so that they don’t have to witness the damaging of their remains. The simplest way to do this is to visualize carefully placing the spirits in a cave in the ground to sleep, and then bringing them back up when you’re finished.
You’re welcome to make offerings. Sometimes the spirits have their own ideas of what they might like as part of this. Offerings can also include giving back to the land that grew them, which I’ll talk about more in the next chapter.
Keep in mind that, as an example, a meal may include a dozen or more different plant or fungus species, including produce, spices and seasonings, processed foods, and the like. Plus there may be trace fungi on some of the ingredients that you can’t see with the naked eye. So you may wish to add a thank-you to any that you may have missed, just to be safe.
Of course, you might wish to streamline this process a bit. Rather than going through an hour-long ritual every time you make a salad, you may wish to have simpler practices like a prayer said when bringing home the groceries. Also, if a spirit says that it doesn’t want the lettuce leaves you already brought home and washed in the salad you’re making, rather than fulfilling that request, you may have to console it afterward so the leaves don’t go to waste. Unlike preserved animal parts, fresh plant and fungus remains decay quickly; most of us can’t afford to waste food.
One final note: some people like to leave food as offerings to gods, spirits, and the like. Sometimes the food is eaten, but other times it’s left out. Besides being bad for wildlife (which can lose their fear of humans and become dependent on us by associating us with food, and which can get sick from eating some of our food), this also isn’t particularly respectful to the plants and fungi (and animals) whose physical remains went into that food. You can offer their remains to other beings, but what will you offer them for the sacrifice of those remains? (Granted, this could all turn into one big mess of offerings and compensations, but eventually it all has to come back to what you will give of yourself.)
So how do we work with the remains of varying groups of fungi and plants? Let’s look at a few salient groups.
Ferals and Wilds, Urban and Rural
Our first relationships with fungi and plants were in the wild, before we figured out agriculture on even a small scale. These relationships continue to this day. Even in the deepest parts of urban areas, scrubby grasses and weeds grow as a reminder that we are a part of nature. And feral plants—the descendants of those we domesticated and then forgot—have entered back into wild ecosystems, sometimes to the detriment of native species.
Unfortunately, all too often we see the wild and feral beings as inconveniences to be pushed out of the way in the name of “progress.” I’ll talk more about their restoration in the next chapter, but here I just want to talk a bit about how to responsibly work with their remains.
It may be tempting to romanticize these wild and feral beings by describing how we humans may blithely wander across the landscape, picking flowers and mushrooms and digging roots like our long-ago hunter-gatherer ancestors. But this makes the plants and fungi into nothing more than a glorified grocery store, ripe for the taking. These are not “earth’s gifts” to us any more than a mouse or elephant is. For that matter, the fungi and plants aren’t gifts to the mice and elephants either. They’re their own beings in strong kingdoms separate from our own.
Keep that in mind if you decide to collect these leaves and caps. Ask the spirits and totems of these beings before taking their remains in part or in whole. Make offerings of water or litter removal, or whatever the spirits and totems request. Most of all, collect sustainably. Don’t take endangered species, and don’t take from state and national parks or other places where collecting is forbidden. Sure, maybe other people do it, but often they’re interfering with efforts to restore wild lands. An alternate possibility is to find ways to use predominantly invasive species; that way you’re only taking away from fungi and plants that don’t belong there, and you’re contributing to the overall health of the place. And when you do take something, do as little damage to the fungus or plant itself and its surrounding habitat as possible.
If you like, you may wish to consider cultivating some of these plants and fungi as a way to reduce the strain on wild and feral populations. On that note, let’s talk about gardening.
Gardening with Purpose
Most of us don’t do any sort of farming on a small or large scale, but some of us do garden. These smaller, more personalized cultivated areas are easier for us to handle even with other obligations like a day job, family, and so forth. While you can certainly work with the spirits of whatever plants and fungi you choose to grow for practical reasons, you can also plant with a more spiritual purpose.
One way is to choose the fungi and plants whose totems you work with or wish to invite into your life. This can be descendants of wilds or ferals that you’d like to have closer to home, or it can be the physical counterparts of totems you’ve worked with and want to have a closer connection to.
Keep in mind, of course, that you’ll have limitations based on the climate, geography, and amount of space where you live. You may have a lot of trouble growing delicate plants in the desert heat, and if all you can do is grow a few things in containers on your porch, you probably don’t want to try and plant a redwood tree (unless you have a place to transplant it!). If you can make space or substitutions, great. But I suggest avoiding growing anything you have to trim excessively or that can overtake the rest of the garden (which leaves out bonsai trees and English ivy, respectively).
Many of these problems can be overcome simply by focusing on the totems of your bioregion. Here in Portland I see a lot of people growing Oregon grape, rhododendrons, and an assortment of ferns, all native to this area. While I can’t grow a Douglas fir on my porch, there are a few growing in some of the nearby parks I can visit instead. In fact, if you have room you might even create a map of your bioregion using some of the most prominent native plants from each part of it.
Finally, avoid introducing invasive species. Your need to connect with totems through gardening is not greater than the greater good of the local habitat. Even if you live in an urban area, seeds and spores can be spread far and wide, and even cities shouldn’t be subjected to invasive nuisances. So, as much as you may want to invite Kudzu into your life, if you’re currently living in California, don’t have your friend from Georgia send you a few starts. (You can settle for a few dried leaves just fine with that one.)
Sam recently got into gardening after he lost his job. He wanted to continue supporting his household, and decided that growing food would be a good contribution he could make. However, he’s very interested in wildcrafting as well, focusing on the plants native to his area. So he researches which fungi and plants were (and still are to an extent today) most commonly used as food by indigenous people. He picks a selection that includes some that mature very quickly, as well as some perennials that are more long-term sources of food. As his garden grows, he feels closer to the land that supports it, and he thinks that perhaps the plants and fungi are happier growing there than the introduced species his neighbors struggle to grow in the poor soil.
Into the Kitchen and the Pantry
Plants and fungi show up most overtly in our lives as food. Even in the far north, where people eat a largely meat-based diet, when berries and other plant material are available they are eaten. And the meat we eat depends on the fungi and plants the animals feed on. The ubiquity of these edible leaves and caps makes it all too easy to take them for granted.
Remember that part of everything you eat remains in your body as parts of your flesh, blood, bone, and other components. You literally are what you eat. So while you may eliminate the bulk as waste, there will always be some molecules that stayed behind and left the signature of the fungus or plant within you. Treat them well.
One of the simplest ways to honor the spirits of these beings and their totems is to not waste food. Yes, it’ll eventually get eaten by bacteria and fungi and the like, but we as a species already put a terrible strain on the planet and its ecosystems while trying to feed seven billion people. By throwing away unconsumed food, we are increasing the demand for new food, and add more strain. Plus that food is made of the bodies of once-living beings; we can take the time for a little reverence. Accidental spoilage happens to the best of us, of course, but putting forth the effort to minimize it pays off in many ways.
You can also try to choose fungi and plants that were grown organically. Admittedly, some people simply can’t afford the premium prices of organics, and even some farmer’s markets charge premium prices for food. But even if you can dedicate only one meal a month to these more eco-friendly options, it’s a way to demonstrate care for the environment and its inhabitants. And, just like free-range meat and eggs, organic produce makes for (relatively) happier spirits.
If you want to get really elaborate about things, you can develop culinary rituals in the kitchen. For example, handle all the ingredients from fungus and plant sources with great care as you prepare them; actively think of where they came from as you prepare them. You can even say small prayers of gratitude during this process. And every now and then, you might break out your best dishes, cloth napkins, maybe even a table runner and candles, and make an extra special celebration of supper. My usual prayer of thanks at meals is “Thank you to all of those who have given of themselves to feed me, both directly and indirectly. May I learn to be as generous as you,” but you’re welcome to use whatever words seem to fit the best.
Finally, you can take it one step further and create harvest festivals. These are traditionally held in late summer and autumn; in Wicca and Wicca-flavored Neopaganism (in the northern hemisphere), the three big ones are Lammas on August 1, the autumn equinox, and Samhain on October 31/November 1. However, if your garden starts maturing at a different time, you’re welcome to use that opportunity. Or you can create a ritual anytime your CSA delivers, or you make your weekly grocery trip, or whenever seems appropriate. The point is to spend an hour, an evening, or even an entire day in gratitude for the food you have to eat and the beings that provided it.
When you’re creating these rituals small and large, make sure you involve the spirits and totems of the fungi and plants you’re eating. Ask them if they’d like anything in particular included in the celebration, or if they have a specific ritual they’d like you to do just for them. Invite them into the ritual space when you’re getting started, and perhaps even have a special place set up for those spirits and totems. At the end, thank them for their presence and let them know they are welcome to return.
There are two sorts of herbalism, “herbs” referring to both plants and fungi. One is strictly medicinal, using the chemicals in certain plants to effect a change in the body or environment. We are far from the only species that uses plants and fungi found in nature for remedies. For example, certain sparrows and finches use cigarette butts in their nests because the nicotine keeps away mites, and fruit flies lay their eggs in food with higher concentrations of ethanol to prevent predation by parasitic wasps. Some species also intentionally ingest certain plants or fungi for curative purposes; chimpanzees, for example, will chew on Aspilia leaves to rid themselves of internal parasites, while baboons do the same with Balanites aegyptica.15
But we’ve taken it to a much greater level of complexity than any other species. Many of our modern medicines are derived from medicinal herbalism, though pharmaceuticals synthesize and sometimes concentrate the active compounds. For decades, Western medicine generally eschewed these herbs in their natural form, preferring the stronger pharmaceutical doses. However, in recent years, complementary medicine has become more popular, even in mainstream hospitals. Medicinal herbalism is much less regulated, and therefore it can be risky, especially in the hands of an unskilled or under-educated practitioner. Additionally, there’s not as much research on side effects, longterm usage, and so forth. And just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it harmless; besides allergic anaphylaxis and other immune responses, some herbs can interfere with prescription medicines or aggravate medical conditions—hence why you should consult a trained medical expert even when trying herbal supplements.
However, there’s also the magical end to herbalism. This tends to involve taking dried herbs and putting them into a sachet for aromatherapy or an addition to a soak in the tub, or spells meant to create change in one’s life. Rather than relying on the physical qualities of the herbs, the magical practices instead draw on their energies, which are purported to have certain effects in a nonphysical way.
For example, someone who wanted to invite love into their life might pick some rose petals. They may add a bit of borage as well, for the courage it supposedly imparts, to help them be bolder when talking to someone they find interesting. A few marigold petals could impart the symbolism of the sun and bright days ahead. Then they’d wrap these together into a little bundle of fabric, and carry it with them to help attract opportunities to find someone to love.
What makes both forms of herbalism alike is that they both rely on taking the physical parts of plants and fungi for our own use. If you choose to practice herbalism, you may wish to have a little more care and respect for the living beings you’re taking from. As with gathering food directly, ask the plants and fungi before taking from them, and when you do, be as careful not to cause unnecessary damage as you can. Some people have special tools they only use for collecting herbs, such as a special small knife or a handwoven basket. Other people will only collect with their bare hands. Whatever you choose as tools for collecting herbs, use them with reverence.
And keep that up even when you’re carrying them around, or “disposing of them.” For example, some spells involve allowing herbs to soak up negative energies. Sometimes the spell then calls for them to be burned, or scattered over the wind, earth, or water. I’d personally recommend the latter, since it still allows the nutrients and other good things in the physical herbs to go back into the ecosystem; as they break down, the bad energy disperses. Nature is a very efficient recycler and converter.
There is a system of practice and belief that blends elements of both styles of herbalism. Plant spirit medicine, rather than using the parts of the physical fungus or plant for healing, instead calls on the spirits of the living beings for aid in healing. Some practitioners do make use of the physical parts in a symbolic manner, but the emphasis is primarily on the spirits themselves, and the leaves and caps aren’t absolutely necessary. So if you’re looking for a middle ground that doesn’t unnecessarily exploit the living beings, this may be an option for you.
Dorothea is a longtime herbalist. She’s used plants and fungi for healing and other physical purposes for many years, and in the past thought nothing of simply ripping away the leaves or twigs of a plant, or uprooting an entire mushroom for her supplies. More recently, she’s been reading scientific articles describing how plants and fungi may communicate through chemical and other signals, material published in long-established academic journals. She wonders whether it harms a plant when she takes the leaves, even though the plant is alive. And she thinks about how the fungi in the ground may send signals to each other to let the other plants know danger is close by. She decides to treat the fungi and plants with a greater level of care and compassion, taking already fallen leaves and other parts when she can, and being as careful with the living organisms as possible. She begins to tell her clientele about these practices, and even if it’s just psychological, they say that gently gathered herbs make them feel even better.
Other Plant Products
I’ve been focusing mostly on edibles, but what else do we use plants and fungi for? Plants get a lot more use, from clothing to furniture to plastics and even fuel. But fungi are beginning to find more industrial uses; a greener alternative to Styrofoam, for example, has been developed using fungus and organic growing substrates (like those at http://www
However, because the materials are even more removed from their plant and fungus sources than food products, we often forget there were living beings involved at all. Cotton fabric doesn’t look much like a cotton boll, and corn ethanol hardly resembles its parent plant. Wood is one of the few plant products that at least somewhat resembles the tree it came from, but that’s if you don’t paint over or otherwise cover the natural grain.
Pagans and other people frequently use ritual garments and tools made from plant and fungus sources—cotton ritual robes, wooden offering bowls, and straw brooms are just a few examples. But how often are these consumed with little thought put toward their origins? Some of the same people who treat animal hides with great reverence, or who eschew those hides entirely due to concerns of exploitation, don’t consider the effects of their non-animal product consumption in their spiritual regalia.
And, just to drive the point home, the book you hold in your hands (assuming you bought the paperback) is made from fibers that were once trees.
So what do we do about this? Well, for one, we can be more conscious consumers. Do you really need that altar cloth made from non-organically grown cotton and dyed with harsh chemicals, to drape over an endangered teak wood altar that was made from the trees of a crucially endangered old growth rain forest in Burma? Or can you at least find secondhand alternatives? The same goes for clothing, household objects, and the like; can you go with gently used items to reduce the demand for new ones and the resulting resource and environmental strain?
Second, we can try to keep from wasting these items. Worn-out clothing can be cut up into reusable cleaning rags. Broken furniture can be repaired or repurposed. There are plenty of secondhand book stores, thrift shops, and other venues that will redistribute old books; libraries even accept donations to sell to raise funds for their facilities, programs, and new stock. And never underestimate the ability of artists to turn anything into a creation; an old wooden table top makes a great canvas for a portable mural, while the broken legs can be carved into decorative candle holders.
But what about the spiritual end of things? One of the advantages that clothing and household items have over food and other consumables is that they last longer. This means you can incorporate them into long-term spiritual work. If you have a particular garment made from cotton or another plant fiber that you like using for spiritual workings, over time it will absorb the energies from these rituals and practices. However, you can also deliberately infuse it with the energy of the totem whose physical counterparts went into making it. Hemp twine may be incorporated into knot magics, but you can also call on the totem Hemp to help the magic along.
As with animal parts and totems, if you’re working with a particular fungus or plant totem, you may want to bring home some object made from its physical form. I’ve even had totems introduce themselves to me through household items; Oregon Myrtle is an occasional plant totem of mine, and I met it through a single, secondhand plate made from myrtle wood that I got for ritual purposes. Just be respectful of the totem’s wishes; the totems of more endangered species may wish you to spare their children.
and Caps into Totemism
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the leaves and caps, the physical remains of plants and fungi. This is partly as an answer to the plethora of books that talk about exploiting the living beings without giving anything back, but also to augment your work with plant and fungus totems. So how can these be added into your practice? Here are a few ideas:
· Create a cabinet of curiosities, centered particularly on your totems. You can include branches and twigs, leaves and stems, caps and spore prints and other such natural items, all of the same species as your totems. You may choose to only include those found in the wild, or only things left in their natural state. However, you might also include oddities made from the leaves and caps and such, like little antique wood carvings or framed samples of lichens. Then let this cabinet be the center of your totemic work, both in storing representations of the totems, and even being the altar for your spiritual work and focus for your meditations.
· Carry a bit of your totem’s physical parts with you. This might be wooden beads, a pouch with dried leaves in it, or a small sliver of dried mushroom cap and resin. You may wish to carry or wear them every day, or only at specific times when you feel you need their energies the most.
· Plan a meal that centers on the species’ edible parts. Gratitude should be a big part of this, and depending on the totem you can also add in other reasons and intents. Apple, for example, is perfectly fine with us eating its fruit, since it means the trees will continue to be grown. So a meal centering on apples—apples garnishing meat, along with a Waldorf salad, and apple pie—could be a way to invite Apple’s energy into your life. If you equate Apple with success, it may be a good meal to eat just before a big endeavor.
· Create devotional art using the relevant sticks, leaves, stems, spore prints, etc. These may be purely decorative, or they might have specific meanings to you. For example, let’s say you were fortunate enough to find a few white matsutake mushrooms, an unusual prize in the Pacific Northwest. Before preparing them for a special meal, you decide to take a spore print of one of the caps. You then use this print in a collage centered on bringing good luck and prosperity into your life, asking the totem White Matsutake to add its energy to your creation and your intent. Other options include making incense out of fragrant leaves and flower petals, adding dried fungus and plant parts to the wax when making candles or to the pulp when making paper, a necklace of seeds, and so forth.
· If you’re taking medicinal herbs, ask the relevant totems to add their energy to each dose and to help you heal. Or if you work with magical herbs, invite the totems of the species you’re incorporating to join you as you collect and use the herbs, and to assist however they see fit.
· When you buy something nonedible made from plant or fungus parts, take a little time to get to know their totems, as well as the spirits of the fungi and plants whose remains you just purchased. That white pine wood cabinet may end up being in your home for many years; why not talk to the spirits of the trees that grew that wood and the totem White Pine about them becoming more a part of your home than just a functional piece of furniture?
· A lot of these are consumer-based. However, you may wish to place a taboo on yourself (or the totem may request it), vowing not to consume the parts of species whose totems you work with, nor to harm the living beings. This may be less challenging if you’re working with, say, the totem of the highly toxic mushroom Death Cap; you simply need to not kick the mushrooms over or otherwise damage them. On the other hand, if they start to take over your yard, and you have children or pets that may eat them, this taboo may need to be modified for practical purposes.
A Quick Note on
Legal and Ethical Concerns
It’s no secret that there are many endangered plants and some fungi as well. Every choice we make in consuming them affects the species as a whole. While there are few plants or fungi that are illegal to possess or sell, at least in the United States, there are several in which trade is restricted, particularly
internationally. (To find out the status of a particular plant or fungus, you may wish to contact U. S. Customs or the Department of Agriculture, or the corresponding government bodies in your country.)
However, even when harvest and trade is allowed, it’s up to us to make responsible choices. If you’re getting something cheap, chances are good it wasn’t sustainably produced somewhere along the line, whether from poorly managed farms or plantations, or produced by underpaid, exploited workers. The transport of some plant and fungus parts and products is also often harmful; hothouse flowers are energy-intensive to grow, and their transport around the world in a short period of time carries a big carbon footprint. And, of course, you can cause harm even when money’s not involved; I don’t think I need to elaborate on what’s wrong with picking one of the last of a very rare flower that only grows in a single meadow, just because it’s pretty.
We have the ability to research, especially with the Internet as an increasingly ubiquitous entity worldwide. We also have the ability to say no to a bad purchase. By making informed choices, we can support more sustainable, earth-friendly ways to work with physical plants and fungi. This is just one of the ways we can give back to the plants, the fungi, and their totems. The following chapter details even more ways to do so.
15 de Roode, Lefèvre, and Hunter, 2013.