Giving Back to the Totems

Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect with Spirits of Field, Forest, and Garden - Lupa 2014

Giving Back to the Totems

One of the very best things you can do to honor a totem is to take care of its physical counterparts and their habitat. Totems put their children first and foremost, and so caring for them is a strong gesture of honor and respect. In New Paths to Animal Totems, I focused mainly on the “giving back” aspect of totemism in the Bioregional chapter, and even then I didn’t devote too much space to the topic. However, because we tend to take plants, fungi, and their totems for granted so much, and because I feel it’s a subject that can’t be overemphasized, I decided that in this book I’d give it its own chapter.

It’s fine, and even encouraged, to make an offering to a being that has helped you. But offerings are a tricky subject in plant and fungus totemism. We’re used to giving material things as offerings to gods, spirits, and the like—food, artwork, devotional items, and so forth. But as I mentioned in the last chapter, giving plants and fungi (and animals) as offerings reduces them to objects, rather than living (or once living) beings with spirits and some level of agency in the world. So what can we do instead? How can we give of ourselves instead of robbing Peter to make offerings to Paul? This chapter includes a few ideas that can work for plant and fungus totems (as well as other beings).

Adopting and Supporting

Sustainable Practices

As humanity has grown and developed ever more elaborate and sophisticated technology, we’ve managed to solve many of the fundamental challenges facing our species. We’ve cured illnesses that historically would decimate populations, we’ve been able to live in more comfortable homes, and we’ve vastly expanded the foods available to our omnivorous bodies (to include developing effective specialized diets like vegetarian or gluten-free).

But this has all come at a cost. Our technological developments over the past couple of centuries have ridden largely on the back of cheap, readily available fossil fuel energy. This has had well-known negative effects on the air, land, and water, as well as everything that lives in and on them. And as more countries have been catching up and demanding these conveniences, the strain on the environment has gotten worse.

Sustainable living attempts to strike a balance. It acknowledges that we have made some good advances with our technology, from health to information to leisure activities. But it also tries to find ways to accomplish these things that aren’t reliant on the limited amount of fossil fuels left and don’t use up all the renewable resources faster than they can be replenished. In short, we look for ways to support our technology that can be sustained for many generations to come.

This is done to benefit more than just ourselves. Part of why sustainable living is a good offering to totems is that it’s a genuine, concrete effort to make the ecosystems their physical counterparts rely on healthier. Let’s say you work with the totem of the African oil palm tree, from which a lot of commercial palm oil is derived. Palm oil is used in a lot of products, mostly food, but unfortunately most of it comes from unsustainable plantations that destroy endangered rain forests and displaced critically threatened species like orangutans and clouded leopards. One way to give back to African Oil Palm is to only buy products made with sustainably grown and harvested palm oil. If a company whose product you would normally buy doesn’t use this green alternative, you can contact them and request that as their customer, you’d prefer they switch to a more eco-friendly source. (More about that in a minute.)

Keep in mind, though, that there are many suggested, and often conflicting, ways to “live sustainably,” and there may come a time where you find that something you thought you were doing to be eco-friendly was actually more harmful than you thought. The “living greener” arena has become much more complex than just “reduce, reuse, recycle.” How do we know that a particular “green” product is actually eco-friendly, and when is it just a case of green-washing? What happens if the greener option is out of our price range? At what point do we decide to do without something entirely, rather than trying to find a greener alternative that still has a negative environmental impact?

It is more difficult than it initially seems, but it can be done. The trick is to know what you’re capable of, and to keep yourself informed of the options you have in each decision and the costs and benefits of each option. For example, if you’re in a situation where you need to have a car, you may not be able to afford to buy a brand-new hybrid vehicle that gets seventy miles to the gallon. But if you already own a car, you can do your best to keep it in good running order so that it stays more fuel-efficient and doesn’t leak harmful chemicals. If your area has an eco-friendly garage, you can take it there for repairs. You can reduce your use of it and share it with others who drive—it is possible to be a one-car household. And when the time comes to replace it, you can choose to buy a used vehicle that’s already out on the market rather than creating more demand for a new one.

It can feel like all the eco-friendly products are more expensive, but sometimes the greener option is actually more affordable. Instead of expensive cleaning chemicals, most household cleaning can be done with diluted vinegar, baking soda, and steel wool. Secondhand books are almost always cheaper than new ones; the same goes for clothing. And if you garden, a compost pile not only reduces the amount of garbage you have to throw out, but provides you with organic fertilizer that barely costs you anything.

You’ll run up against the “is it green enough?” quandary on a daily basis. Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly; if you accidentally buy something that you end up not needing or that wasn’t the greenest option, it’s not the end of the world. Just do your best in each situation.

Daryn lives on her family farm, where crops have been grown for several generations. She sees herself as a modern-day Pagan, honoring the spirits of the land she works, and celebrating every harvest with gratitude. Her parents had chosen a more mainstream farming method to raise crops, with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and with fields worked every year with no time to rest. By the time she inherited the farm, the soil was in poor condition indeed. She thinks of all the decades that the physical counterparts of the totems Wheat, Corn, Apple, and others had supported her family, and she feels that this depleted land is a sad thank-you. So instead of making the usual purchase of fertilizers and pesticides, she brings in truckloads of compost and manure and tills them into the soil. In the fields where annual crops grew, she decides to plant cover crops for a few years, while she focuses on increasing the health of her trees through soil improvement and increasing the diversity of apple varieties in the orchard. When she begins to plant again a few years later, instead of planting only one crop in each field, she makes each a patchwork. One field, for example, supports several breeds of corn, planted alongside a few types of squash, and beans growing up the corn stalks. As her crops grow into fruition, she feels the land, its inhabitants, and the totems that watch over them are all pleased by the results.

Volunteering and Donations,

Letters and Petitions

There are numerous nonprofit environmental and conservation groups working around the world to protect ecosystems and their inhabitants. Some of them, like the Nature Conservancy, have international reach. Others focus on very local areas, such as a particular watershed or forest. Many have volunteer opportunities, and almost all need donations to stay afloat.

This is one of my favorite ways to give back. I do a fair bit of volunteering in my area. I have a stretch of the Columbia River, the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest, whose beach I keep clean and where I test the water for pollutants. I try to visit it at least once a month for cleanup, and I test the water a few times a year. But I also do other one-time volunteer events hosted by local organizations like tree planting or invasive species removal. And I pick up trash when I go hiking—not official volunteering, but helpful nonetheless. If you choose to volunteer, you can decide how focused you want it to be. Do you want to help anywhere you possibly can? Or do you want to focus on the habitat of a particular species whose totem you’re working with?

If you don’t have the time to volunteer, but you have a few bucks extra, you can help support those who do have the time with a donation. For well over a decade I’ve donated a portion of the money I make from my artwork to various nonprofits that benefit wild habitats. While my artwork incorporates hides and bones more than leaves and caps, it’s good to support the entire ecosystem. I give some to bigger organizations that do lobbying and major awareness campaigns, but I also give to the smaller, local ones who have their boots on the ground in the watersheds and other habitats in the area. Both sorts of nonprofit are necessary for the ongoing protection of the environment, and so I feel the need to support both. You may have a particular organization that you really want to support, but feel free to look into others as well. Appendix B includes some suggested organizations that I like, but you’re definitely not limited to those.

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to give time or money or both—and how much of either to give. Don’t feel that you have to bankrupt yourself or give up all your free time to be “spiritually correct.” And there’s another option that costs hardly anything—writing!

Some nonprofit organizations collect signatures for petitions to be given to key figures in an environmental issue, such as elected officials, or companies that are devastating an ecosystem with their practices. You can find plenty of these to sign online (though be aware that you may end up getting emails from whatever organization hosted them). These are quick and easy ways to act because all you need to do is fill in your information; most already have the request to not clearcut trees or to stop killing whales already written in, though you can sometimes add your own comment.

However, if you just want to skip the activist middleman, you can also do email and letter writing directly. Email does get the attention of elected officials or at least their staff, and it’s more tree-friendly. There are times, though, when I feel the need to go all-out and write a letter by hand, just to make an extra physical impact. And sometimes phone calls are warranted too. Email can be deleted, letters can be recycled, but a phone call that goes through can’t be ignored. I’ve called politicians’ offices, corporate customer service departments, and other relevant entities to let them know my thoughts on something they have the ability to make a decision about.

What would you be making comments about? Well, you can start by educating yourself about local environmental issues, to include those that threaten the habitats of fungi and plants in your area, so that you know whom to talk to and what to ask them to do.


Education can take many forms. There are books to be read and documentaries to be watched. Websites and blogs offer a plethora of views and information, including distillations of academic articles that may not be available to the layperson. Many nonprofit environmental organizations offer free or inexpensive workshops and presentations on issues they’re raising awareness about, and there are plenty of environmental-based classes and degree programs at colleges and universities around the world.

But the practice of education starts with us as individuals. The more you know about something, the more power you have to do something about it. By learning as much as you can about your local habitats and what threatens them, you are more empowered to take action because you know at least some of what needs to be done. But it’s also beneficial to be aware of more global problems; even if you can’t do much in person to help people on the other side of the planet who are trying to save their own natural habitats, you may be able to help through donations and other such support, or by writing to the officials who can help their efforts.

However, education can extend to other people as well. This can include volunteering as an educator through a local environmental nonprofit, going to school classrooms and talking to the students there, spending time at a table at a public event and handing out brochures, or being an interpreter at a nature preserve. Either way, you’re there to offer people information on current events and what they can do about them.

The rise of the Internet has made it easier to educate people in more casual ways. Most people don’t spend time with their friends and family talking about the destruction of rain forests or why it’s important to reduce our reliance on petroleum. But it’s incredibly easy to share articles on these things on Facebook and other social media. Sure, readers can scroll past, but sometimes the headlines and photos catch a person’s attention, so they decide to read further. And if there are already a few comments on your post, you can expect that some people may be drawn into the debate just as a matter of course, especially if it looks like there’s an argument brewing. Sometimes this may end up in hurt feelings, but sometimes it leads to someone changing their mind now that they have more information to work with. And then they get to decide where to go from there (you are, of course, welcome to make suggestions if they seem receptive to them).

There are even options beyond that, like becoming an environmental blogger, or starting a website, and so forth. If you want to go all-out, you can get a degree in a field that allows you to make discoveries, do research, and share the results with the world, like environmental engineering or marine biology. That way you get to find out more for yourself, and benefit others with more knowledge as well. But what’s it all for?

Knowledge is power, and the more we know, the more consciously we can make our choices. We can only choose for ourselves, though. All we can do for others is make resources available; it’s up to them to decide how to use these resources. But people tend to act on the information they have, and the more people we have making educated decisions, especially people making big, world-changing decisions, the better.

We have had more of an effect on this planet and its inhabitants than any other known species in recent times. We can give back to our nonhuman neighbors and our totems by making the best-informed decisions we can. A totem may ask us to find out more about its physical children and the place they live in so that we know more about how to help them. Or we may ask totems for support as we work our way through a challenging degree program, or find a job opportunity in our field, or reach out to others on a crucial issue. A more eco-conscious humanity is better for everyone, and our efforts in that regard are a wonderful gift we can offer to the totems.

Kelley has been a part of a Pagan ritual group for a few years. While the various members all come from a variety of backgrounds, spiritual and otherwise, they come together every few weeks to celebrate the cycles of the seasons and to share ideas and practices. Kelley has spent most of her time listening to others, feeling that she’s still a little too new to teach anyone much of anything. One evening, one of the other group members mentions being interested in plant magic, but not really knowing much about the plants themselves. Kelley, as it turns out, is two years into a four-year botany degree program, with a special focus on local plants and fungi. She mentions this, and other group members ask her if she’d be willing to tell them more. Over time, she brings her expertise to the table, sharing more as she learns more. The group members also take some time to research plant and fungus based spiritual practice, to include totemism, herbalism, and others. They celebrate this new knowledge by planting a garden to attract native butterflies and other wildlife in the back yard of the group host’s home, and they ask a few of the totems of the species they plant to watch over their group as they learn and grow together.

When in Doubt, Ask

If you aren’t sure whether a particular offering will work for a given totem, just ask. Sometimes the totems have very specific ideas of what they want as an offering. Domestic Tomato, for example, has requested that any year I garden I should plant at least two tomato plants. Douglas Fir wants me to help educate people about the forests around Portland. Black Morel is one of the totems that specifically requested I make sure this book was written so that others could know about fungus and plant totems. And so forth.

If a totem doesn’t have any initial suggestions, try running some ideas by it. This can be really helpful when you’re first getting to know it, because totems have likes and dislikes, too. If you ask a particular tree totem whether only buying products made from sustainably harvested wood is acceptable, it may respond by requesting that you not buy anything from that species at all. Or the totem of a species of wildflower may turn down your suggestion of cultivating it in your garden, but appreciate it if you keep the plants’ wild habitat clean. This discussion can even bring up some new suggestions that neither you nor the totem had considered before.

If you’re really stuck and the totem’s not making any suggestions, it’s hard to go wrong with caring for the totem’s physical children as a way of giving back, but you’ll have to research the individual species to find out what’s best for it. The totems of domestic species are pretty happy just to have us propagating them, though organic farming is an added bonus since it won’t hurt their children in the long run. With wild ones, it depends more on the species and its habitat. A species that is pretty widespread in its native range doesn’t need much beyond preservation of wild places. A more endangered species may require more intensive and personalized care and even rehabilitation. This may include habitat restoration, pollution reduction, and invasive species removal.

Which brings me to the topic: what happens if your totem is of an invasive species in your area (and isn’t at all threatened in its native range)? The totem may very well ask you to spread its physical counterparts more, because that might have been its preference all along, hence with the uncontrolled growth and opportunism. However, others may understand that the overabundance of their children threatens the ecosystem as a whole, and so support their removal from where they’re unwanted. Either way, please do not contribute to the spread of invasive fungi and plants; if you have to turn the totem down, offer it something else.

These are just a few of the alternatives to material offerings that I’ve come up with. Don’t feel you have to adopt them all to do things right, and don’t feel bad if something that seems like an appropriate offering is beyond your current means. Sometimes it is the thought that counts, and if you hang onto that thought until your circumstances improve, a delayed offering can be a good thing, too.

And you don’t have to entirely abandon material offerings. Some totems like artistic depictions of their physical counterparts because it helps raise awareness of them. Petunia may want you to place your little teak wood statue of a cat right in your petunia patch, and you’ll just have to figure out what you can give Teak in exchange for it.